Tips From Our Newsletter
Advice to My Younger Me
Through her podcast series, "Advice to My Younger Me," host Sara Holtz’s goal is to help younger women think about and mindfully craft successful careers. In each episode, she and an expert guest share advice they wish they’d been given earlier in their careers.
In episode 41, Cara Hale Alter discusses some of the tenets of her life's work, The Credibility Code, and the advice she'd give her younger self. You’ll hear about
- specific behaviors that will increase your confidence and credibility
- how you can tame the adrenaline you feel in challenging situations
- why it's important to convey authority and approachability simultaneously
- how you can practice your skills on a daily basis without devoting too much of your day
- why it's worth "flexing your courage muscle" early.
Tune-up Your Skills
Bottom line: communication skills are critical to your success, whether you’re talking about developing collegiality within your department or preparing yourself for the next step up the corporate ladder. This CIO.com article, although geared toward executives, offers good advice for tuning up your skills no matter what your level or focus.
Included in the writer’s top six tips is one we promote in our live trainings and encourage all our clients to do: put yourself on tape! Videotaping yourself in action gives you the opportunity to self-assess what’s coming across in your communication style and identify what skills you need to practice in order to project the best image of yourself.
Explore the article for in-depth detail on these top-six tips for expertly tuning your communication:
- Drop the jargon. Learn the lingo of other departments and practice speaking their language
- Learn what your audience values.
- Consider how you say what you say (i.e. tone, pacing, etc).
- Know your audience and keep your message simple.
- Go beyond listening; ask questions and follow up.
- Rehearse important messages and put yourself on tape so you can evaluate your own communication skills.
The Power of the Pause
Workshop participants regularly bring up their uneasiness with pausing. “I feel uncomfortable pausing,” one said. “I’m worried I’ll come across as less prepared and less intelligent if I pause too often or too long. Is this all in my head?”
Our short answer: Yes.
The long answer is more interesting. In the BBC article, “The Subtle Power of Uncomfortable Silences,” writer Lennox Morrison presents thoughts on pauses that may have you looking at them in a new way and—in keeping with SpeechSkills’ training—practicing how to use a pause to your advantage.
Pausing: When and Why
Different cultures react to silence with varying degrees of comfort; native English speakers in particular find long pauses hard to handle. “Silence is the hardest technique to learn,” Katie Donovan, founder of U.S.-based consultancy Equal Pay Negotiations, agrees in Morrison’s article. “It’s against our instincts. We want to fill in the blanks.”
But as many cultures outside of ours have discovered, how speakers use pauses can be powerful. Some of the big takeaways from Morrison’s exploration include:
- Silence can be positive and effective.
- Silence can serve as a moment of reflection or observation.
- Silence can serve as a focal point for greater understanding.
How to Practice?
At SpeechSkills, we recommend that you practice pausing by playing a game we call Snap Two.
Here’s how it works:
Give yourself an impromptu speaking topic. Each time you reach the end of a sentence, pause and snap your fingers twice before moving on to the next sentence. As you get comfortable with this rhythm, you can progress to silently snapping in your head.Then try adding pauses at other natural segue points, such as between clauses or when you want to pause for effect. Eventually this relaxed pace will feel natural and comfortable.
We all know words are important; but silence, you’ll discover, can be an equally important tool.
Nailing The Pitch
In the Harvard Business Review article, “How Venture Capitalists Really Assess a Pitch,” researcher Lakshmi Balachandr sheds light on why an individual’s presence matters even more than his or her business acumen. Balachandr offers four insights into what qualities and behaviors lead to statistically more successful presentations:
- Calm trumps passion: Competition judges and potential investors respond to presenters who project a calm demeanor; connected studies show that “people equate calmness with leadership strength.”
- Trustworthiness beats competency: An investor’s decision to fund the entrepreneur depends far more on the entrepreneur’s perceived level of trustworthiness than his/her level of competency.
- Coachability/active listening skills matter: Balachandr notes that many investors yearn to be seen as more than cash flow. They want to be seen as mentors who can offer advice and expertise. Therefore, investors evaluate entrepreneurs’ listening skills and determine whether or not they have the desire/ability to be coached.
- Authority outranks approachability: Balachandr’s work shows that although gender alone does not influence success, people with a high degree of stereotypically male behavior (such as forcefulness, dominance, aggressiveness, and assertiveness) are more likely to be successful than those with a high degree of stereotypically female behavior (such as warmth, sensitivity, expressiveness, and emotionality).
The article underlines what we at SpeechSkills hold to be true: It’s important to be informed, it’s crucial to be prepared, but the ability to get your message across and have others invest in your ideas requires strong communication skills above all else.
SpeechSkills Can Start at Home
In our workshops, we often hear “I wish my kids were learning these skills in school.” We couldn’t agree more. We love bringing SpeechSkills training to young people and we see the impact strong communication skills have on their potential to succeed in the real world.
School 21, a remarkable public school in London, has made “oracy” a primary focus of everything they do. Teachers support students in finding their voices, expressing differing opinions politely, and challenging one another’s thinking.
If you want to jumpstart these skills at home, try applying some of School 21’s communication principles to conversations between you and your kids:
- Invite everyone to contribute to the conversation. At School 21, teachers believe that “a silent classroom means untapped voices.” The same can be said about a silent dinner table!
- Give proof of listening to whoever is speaking. In other words, demonstrate that you are listening to your child by keeping your body language engaged and attentive.
- Come to a shared agreement. Even if your child has a differing opinion than you, try to communicate your common ground. What do you agree on in the face of disagreement?
Interrupting the Interruptions
“What is the best way to handle interruptions?” That’s a question our workshop participants often ask.
At SpeechSkills, we encourage people to first check in with the nonverbal signals they’re sending while in speaker mode. If your body language lacks energy or doesn’t fully convey that you are in command of the conversation, people are a lot more likely to interrupt you. Make sure to keep your energy up, your posture strong, and your eye contact connected (even when you’re pausing to gather your next thought). These nonverbal signals will help convey a clear message that you still have more to say and are not inviting others to jump in.
This article from the Harvard Business Review has some thoughts on the topic too. Not only does author Francesca Gino explore the reasons why interruptions are so common, she also offers these three ways to handle the issue:
- Preview what you plan to cover and make it clear at what point you’ll be inviting feedback or questions
- Address communication norms with your whole group to set ground rules
- Talk with the interrupter privately if it’s a consistent problem
Dress for Success
One question that often comes up in our workshops is, “Does how I dress matter?”
Our answer is “Yes.” How you dress is one of many signals that can influence how people respond to you. However, it’s not so much the style of dress that matters; it’s the apparent qualities that your choices convey, such as attention to detail, awareness of company culture, and the ability to represent yourself well.
While there is no one way to dress for success, we encourage our clients to consider the following tips when selecting their wardrobes:
- Dress for the job you want. If you see yourself at the executive level, dress that way.
- Dress for the best day on that job. Going into a meeting but unsure of the dress code? Imagine the high end of what people might wear in that environment and “follow suit.”
- Give at least as much thought to what you are wearing as your colleagues and/or clients have. From “business” to “casual” attire, every situation has guidelines; give thought to the environment you’re going into.
Additionally, how you dress can affect how you feel about yourself. When you are confident in your personal look, you are likely to be more engaged and exhibit more courage!
If you’re looking for assistance to find the right look for you, we highly recommend personal stylist, Jill DeWan of Flair Shopping. Like SpeechSkills, Jill places a high value on authenticity. Her goal is to “help people love their wardrobe and always feel confident leaving the house, no matter where they are going.” Jill successfully helps her clients create a look that inspires genuine confidence on the inside, so that they can more easily reflect that on the outside.
Practicing Bravery as a Tool for Growth
So much of what we do at SpeechSkills is about personal growth. We actively challenge you to break out of habits that undercut your credibility and to “flex your courage muscle." After all, bravery isn’t only required for heroic actions, like taking control of an airplane when a pilot becomes incapacitated or beating off a shark to save a child, it's also necessary for speaking in front of an audience with confidence, engaging a stranger at a party, or asking your boss for a raise. Seemingly ordinary acts often call us to be extraordinarily brave.
Caroline Paul’s TED Talk on raising brave girls and encouraging adventure, resonates with us at SpeechSkills for several reasons. We share Caroline's passion for empowering women to cultivate confidence and take on more leadership roles. We also firmly believe in the power of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to build resilience and learn to trust yourself. And finally, Caroline points out something we say at all of our workshops: "fear and exhilaration feel very similar" — the shaky hands, the racing heart, the nervous tension-- if you start to frame your symptoms of nervousness as symptoms of excitement, you slowly but surely begin welcoming these kinds of experiences instead of resisting them. Caroline calls this type of behavior practicing your bravery-- turning your fear into a dare and going for it.
Check out Caroline's video and then ask yourself, how will you practice being brave today?
How To Get Better At The Things You Care About
Most of us go through life trying our best. Could this attitude be holding us back?
In his illuminating Ted Talk, Eduardo Briceño explains how the most effective people deliberately alternate between two zones: the Learning Zone and the Performance Zone.
In the Learning Zone, our goal is to improve — we expect to make mistakes, knowing we will learn from them. In the Performance Zone, our goal is to execute at our best, working hard to minimize mistakes. The Learning Zone maximizes our growth while the Performance Zone maximizes our immediate performance. However, in competitive business and educational environments, we are often required to spend our time in chronic high-stake high-performance mode which hinders our growth, and ironically, over the longterm, also our performance.
The solution, Briceño suggests, is to find “low-stakes islands in an otherwise high-stakes sea.”
At SpeechSkills, we emphasize the importance of practicing communication skills in very low-risk settings – like chatting with the barista at the coffee bar, or having lunch with friends, or interacting with the vendor at the farmer’s market. By practicing in these low-stakes environments, your skills become habits that follow you in the door for your high-stakes conversations.
Communication: What You May Be Doing Wrong Without Even Realizing
At SpeechSkills, we believe that we are all trying our best, so if we aren’t communicating effectively, it is almost certainly unintentional.
In this article, "Communication: What You May Be Doing Wrong Without Even Realizing," Meghan M. Biro (CEO of TalentCulture), discusses some "communication pitfalls" to watch out for.
First on the list: “Over-communicating." Sending out multiple reminders is a waste of your time and can be construed as an insult to your colleagues' ability to remember information. Whenever you send out communication on an ongoing subject, make sure it offers added information and is not merely a reiteration of the material you already shared.
Also, make sure not to rely too heavily on one channel (or the wrong channel) of communication. Many people suffer from email “in-box overload.” If you aren’t getting the response you want, consider a different medium for your message such as live announcements or stand up meetings.
We at SpeechSkills encourage you to consider: What communication pitfalls can you turn into professional advantages this year?
Use Subtle Cues to Encourage Better Meetings
In any collaborative work environment, the meeting is the main component of office life. However, it can also be the source of company-wide complaints. So how can can you help ensure that meetings are more productive and less of a waste of time?
This HBR article by Jordan Cohen, suggests that you should start by collecting data. Have your colleagues anonymously rate the efficacy of each meeting on a scale from 1-5 after it’s over.
Use the data to diagnose the problem: was there an agenda? was the objective clear? was there adequate preparation? did it start on time? was it too long? were the right attendees present?
Next, design an intervention. Rather than telling employees what to do, try a more subtle approach – a slight behavioral cue that needs no explanation.
For example, at the Weight Watchers Headquarters in NYC, Cohen chose to install a preformatted whiteboard in each conference room with the word “Agenda” at the top. Underneath were three columns: “Agenda Topic”, “Desired Outcome” and “Time.” The Agenda Whiteboard not only suggested that people in the conference room should have an agenda, but that there should be a clearly desired outcome and a certain amount of meeting time allocated to discussion.
As a result of this test, meeting dissatisfaction dropped from 44% to 16%.
We at SpeechSkills urge you to consider: what subtle behavioral cue can you use to increase the efficacy of meetings at your office?
Hacks To Help You Survive A Networking Event
Hearing the words “I need you to attend this networking event tonight on our behalf” can trigger a series of extreme reactions in an otherwise rational person. In this Huffington Post ARTICLE, Susan O'Brien discusses how networking is a skill set that can be learned without having to get an MBA or attend Swiss finishing school. It starts with knowing how to introduce yourself.
At SpeechSkills, while we feel strongly that speaking from bulleted talking points creates a more engaging style than reciting a memorized script, there is one situation where practicing your text verbatim can be helpful — your professional introduction or “elevator pitch.”
Knowing exactly what to say in the first few moments of meeting someone will not only help you to feel more comfortable, you will likely be viewed as more self-assured and credible.
Public Speaking? Woof!
When it comes to setting aside practice time for an upcoming speaking engagement or presentation, most people tend to avoid or procrastinate. Even though they know that practice is beneficial and inevitably improves performance, people will come up with all sorts of excuses to ditch their practice plan.
In this VIDEO posted by NYTimes.com, students at American University’s Kogod School of Business learn to hone their public speaking skills, while putting in their practice time in front of nonjudgmental “audience dogs.”
Rehearsing in front of dogs will not only incentive you to practice (because of the inherent friendly environment they create), but it will also help you create a positive, light-hearted association with practice time, as opposed to a feeling of anxiety. So instead of dreading your upcoming presentation, schedule a practice session with your dog and bone up on your speech skills!
Trick Yourself Into Breaking A Bad Habit
A recent study conducted by Harvard Business Review (HBR) revealed that if you want to remove the career-limiting habits standing between you and your success, the best thing to do is to "take control of the things that control [you]."
In this article,"Trick Yourself Into Breaking A Bad Habit," HBR points out that the people who take control of the tempting factors influencing their bad habits, are much more likely to eliminate their bad habits altogether.
For example, if you want to eat less junk food, keep junk food out of the house. By manipulating the distance between you and the source of your bad habit, you will inevitably change your behavior.
If you want to develop a more positive attitude about significant changes in your company, spend more time with those "leading the charge" and less time with those "forming the opposition." By surrounding yourself with people who support a good behavior and distancing yourself from those who reinforce a bad one, you are more likely to cultivate the mindset you desire.
If you know you need to run through a speech or presentation before your big moment, schedule practice time into your calendar as you would any other mandatory work commitment. By making practice time a default plan, you will eliminate the choice standing between you and the better prepared version of yourself.
Lastly, we tend to think of our ineffective behavior as the result of not trying to change our ways, rather than the result of not knowing how to change our ways. This is problematic thinking because we are less inclined to change our behavior when we feel less competent at doing so. HBR points out that you can't simply "psyche yourself into changing; rather, coach yourself into it." Schedule incremental, structured practice sessions so that you can improve your competence and eventually become more authentically motivated. The better you become at the behavior you are trying to change, the more engaged you will become with that transformation. And this makes sense because the more clearly you can see the vista ahead as you're climbing up a mountain, the more likely you are to keep climbing so that you can see the full view.
At SpeechSkills, we agree wholeheartedly with these strategies for shedding bad habits and acquiring new skills. By removing tempting distractions, surrounding yourself with positive people, scheduling in default practice time, and seeing your road to change as a process of "systematic skill acquisition," you are much more likely to stay motivated in your quest to become the most effective version of yourself.
The Power Of Your Voice
In the article “The Science of Sounding Smart,” Harvard Business Review compared the perception of intelligence with written and vocal versions of the same message. The study revealed that if you want to come across as intelligent, the sound of your voice can help.
HBR recorded Harvard MBA students delivering hiring pitches to job recruiters. They then asked other recruiters to either read a transcription of the student’s pitch or listen to a video or audio recording of the same message. On average, the recruiters perceived the students in the video/audio recordings to be smarter than those from the written transcripts. The study stated, “Evaluators who heard (or heard and saw) MBA students’ job pitches were more impressed than those who merely read transcripts of the same pitches.”
So why should this matter to you?
HBR’s findings are important because they point out how influential the speaking voice can be. According to the article, “Your voice is a tool that has been honed over the course of human evolution to communicate what’s on your mind to others. Without even thinking about it, you naturally flood your listener with cues to your thinking through subtle modulations in tone, pace, volume, and pitch. The listener, attuned to those modulations, naturally decodes these cues. That’s why if you claim to be passionate about your prospective job, for example, hearing your passion may be more convincing than reading your passion. Written text may not convey the same impression as your voice, because it lacks a critical feature: the sound of intellect.”
So when asking for a raise, looking for a new job, selling your products and/or services, or simply communicating something important, consider picking up the phone or meeting in person. The sound of your voice can give you a measurable advantage!
Stanford Researchers Test the Impact of Body Language
Researchers at Stanford University recently studied nonverbal cues by utilizing motion capture cameras to measure the exact movements of participants' bodies, limbs and heads. Working with a hundred subjects and recording at 30 frames per second, they tried to objectively identify patterns that might sneak past the human eye.
They then applied the technique to an experiment that could reveal the role body language plays in how effectively one person can teach another. In the experiment, a "teacher" learned several principles of water efficiency and then had five minutes to teach the lesson to a "student." The student then took an exam to show how much of the lesson he/she had absorbed.
The scientists repeated this scenario 50 times, and entered the camera data and test scores into their model to identify the behaviors that correlated with poor test scores.
One result showed that large, irregular movements of the teacher's head and torso correlated to - and could predict - poor test scores.
"When I teach (at Stanford), I pace the entire time," the lead researcher admitted. "This data is showing that this is probably not a great strategy."
This correlates well with the codes of conduct outlined in The Credibility Code. To project confidence and authority, keep your head level and spine straight, balance your weight equally over both feet, and hold your head still while speaking.
To read the full article and watch video coverage, go to Stanford News.
The Jerry Maguire Effect or "You had me at hello"
In a recent study, 64 men and women read a paragraph that contained the word "hello." Phil McAleer, of the University of Glasgow, extracted the hellos and asked 320 participants to listen to the voices and rate them on trustworthiness, aggressiveness, confidence, dominance and warmth. When listening to the voices, "what we find is that they all seem to perceive that one voice is the most trustworthy and another voice is the least trustworthy," he says, "and the same is true of all the other personality traits that were tested."
Understanding what behaviors send what messages is fundamental to effective communication. Read the NPR article to learn about the study, and read The Credibility Code to learn about the non-verbal behaviors that are under our control.
Stand Out In A Crowd
Trade shows, conferences, and job fairs are great places to work on your skill set. Even farmers' markets and festivals can provide low-risk practice opportunities - any place with people in booths and exhibits.
In these environments, it's customary to step up to strangers and start chatting. At each booth, you can focus on a different skill. Start by exhibiting strong posture, a strong voice, and strong eye contact. Avoid any kind of fidgeting, even when you're listening. Use a strong declarative inflection when introducing who you are and what your do. Try to eliminate extraneous fillers such as "uh," "you know," "sort of," "actually," and "like."
Sometimes these events can be career-building opportunities. If you are the candidate at a job fair, each person you meet could have the potential to influence your future. If you are the exhibitor at a trade show, who knows what business prospects might walk up to you. At the bigger trade shows, top executives are often mingling with the crowd, giving you rare access to introduce yourself. Focusing on your communication skills in these settings will not only help you build good habits, you'll show up strong if a serendipitous opportunity comes your way.
Behaviors to Help Soften Your Image
As a wardrobe consultant, I'm working with a client who is desperate to soften her image. I can help with clothing and hair, but it looks like some behavioral changes are also in order.
She is a lawyer who's been told she comes across as very aggressive. Although this perception can be helpful in the courtroom, she is sure that it is costing her a great deal when it comes to building relationships with clients, colleagues, and friends outside of work. Unlike so many women I work with, she seems to show TOO much confidence. Any advice I can pass on? - Carol F.
The problem you describe is quite common. Like a pendulum swing, many women fear being seen as lightweight so they unconsciously develop a style that leans too far toward authority or strength. For women in leadership roles, however, it's vital to balance authority with approachability.
From the inside it can be hard to identify which behaviors may sending the wrong messages, so I suggest she capture a few minutes of herself on-camera, either in her office or living room.
While everyone has their own unique style, after leading thousands of on-camera coaching workshops, I've seen very consistent patterns emerge. If the participant has been told he or she is perceived as too aggressive, stern, or unapproachable, the problem is often one or more of the following:
- Emphatic gesturing
- Lack of vocal variety
- Over articulation or "punching" of words
- Lack of facial animation (poker face or fake smile)
- Lack of eye contact (or strong eye contact with no facial animation)
If any of these behaviors are derailing your client's image, here's some advice you can pass along:
- Avoid gestures that chop downward. Instead, literally reach out to your listener. Use open palmed, back and forth movements (as if to say "this is between you and me").
- Work toward demonstrating more vocal expression. Extend your pitch range. Avoid punching words too sharply. Create a smoother melody with your voice. You don't need to sound like a kindergarten teacher, but do note that when we talk to children we automatically speak in a more melodic, non-threatening tone.
- Make sure to keep your face relaxed and interactive. While a locked-in smile is not a good idea, it doesn't hurt to demonstrate that you are friendly every now and then by smiling, raising your eyebrows, or nodding.
- Finally, be sure to hold eye contact with the person you are speaking with. (Studies show that people who are perceived as aggressive often hold eye contact longer when they are speaking and shorter when they are listening.) However, when listening or speaking, be sure to keep your face active -- avoid the appearance of a "cold, hard stare" by changing expressions every now and then.
The bottom line is that the more interactive your body language, voice, and eye contact, the more approachable you will appear.
Good luck! - Cara
Learning to Embrace the Thrill
In the Sunday, July 21st Parade magazine, I was intrigued by an interview with Bill Hader, costar of Saturday Night Live for eight seasons. He was especially frank about his feelings of nervousness when the interviewer asked him if he was relieved to no longer be taping the live show:
"Yes! There was never one time I wasn't shaking before the show and thinking, 'What have I gotten myself into?' I was always nervous. But the minute it would end, I'd think, 'I want to do that again.'"
In workshops, I often compare the experience of nervousness to riding a roller coaster. It's interesting how perfectly Bill Hader's words correlate to that analogy. Imagine how empowering it might be if, when faced with an adrenalin-inducing moment, you could frame that nervous feeling as thrilling anticipation rather than fearful anxiety. A simple word change might make all the difference. In the future, try switching your internal dialogue from "I'm so nervous" to "I'm so excited!"
Additionally, it's important to remember that your level of nervousness doesn't need to dictate your level of performance. Many people at the very top of their industries - Oscar winners, Olympic medalists, Fortune 500 CEOs - have confessed to feeling nervousness in their defining moments. Keep in mind, nervousness is less a commentary on your expertise, and more a natural, hard-wired reaction to being in the spotlight. Embrace the thrill.
It's Just Like Riding A Bike
Do you find it difficult to ride a bike?
Your answer depends on whether you've ever taken the time to learn. Riding a bike is easy. Learning to ride a bike is hard. However, once you acquire the skill, doing it is almost effortless.
Like riding a bike, the skills taught in our workshops - keep your head level, hold eye contact for three to five seconds, speak at optimal volume, and so on - require focused effort to master. However, once they become subroutines, they are effortless to perform. And luckily for you, each individual skill in The Credibility Code is significantly easier to learn than riding a bike. Less than two hours of focused practice can cement any one of these skills into a subroutine.
However, for the busy professional, resources like time and energy can be in short supply. If this is true for you, try practicing more often but in short increments. If you spent 10 minutes a day of quality attention on eye contact, for example, you might be amazed how easily you acquire the habit.
How Hand Gestures Can Speak Volumes
Cara was interviewed by Anayat Durrani of PlaintiffMagazine.com to comment on a verdict that was overturned because of a hand gesture.
"In June 2012, a judge ordered a new trial for a case that produced a $212 million verdict against a Botox manufacturer due to hand gestures used by the plaintiff 's lawyer in closing arguments. The lawyer, having agreed not to make reference to an official FDA 'black box warning' regarding the dangers of Botox side effects, however, used his hands to demonstrate a box as he explained to the jury the need for a voluntary warning."
Gestures fall into two categories - natural (reaching out, opening the palms, motioning back and forth) and descriptive (giving a thumbs up, or drawing a circle in the air while saying "around"). Clearly, the lesson in this case is for attorneys to be mindful of their descriptive gestures. These gestures are, in fact, language. However, the mistake would be to restrict all gestures. Natural gestures help the attorney to create a relationship with the jury. Get a PDF of the full article.
When you feel self-conscious, it's easy to overreact to your every mistake. If you trip over a word, you might apologize ("Sorry!"), make a joke ("No more coffee for me"), or resort to nonverbal reflexes like shaking your head or shrugging your shoulders. The problem with this "self-commenting" is your external preoccupation with your internal criticism. Mistakes happen; simply correct them without comment and move on.
Fast Tip: Fictionary is a game where players compose fake definitions of obscure words taken from the dictionary. Play it with your friends or family as a fun way to learn to ignore your inner critic.
Authority vs Aggression
Workshop participants are sometimes reluctant to demonstrate more authority in their style because they fear they might be viewed as too aggressive. However, the non-verbal signals that lead to an assessment of aggression are very different from those of authority. Leaning forward when speaking, punctuating words with emphatic gestures, strong eye contact while maintaining a poker face or plastering on a phony smile are all examples of aggressive behaviors.
True authoritative signals look very different: a level head, relaxed gestures, and a direct gaze. It's helpful not to confuse authority and aggression because the two qualities often get the exact opposite result. The general population tends to respect people who are authoritative and resist people who are aggressive.
Turn Your Dinner Party Into A Practice Session
Gather a group of friends together for a dinner party with the intention of focusing on your eye contact. Your friends don't need to know this is your objective, but what a perfect low-risk situation to give this skill some attention.
A group of four to six is the perfect size: large enough to practice, but small enough so people won't pair up into smaller conversations. If possible, arrange to sit at a round table so everyone can easily look at everyone else. During the meal, try to work in a story or two about your day or some adventure you've taken, all the while keeping your eyes on their eyes. Even when listening, focus your eyes on whoever is speaking.
By the way, you don't have to wait for a special event. If you typically have meals with family or colleagues, you already have practice opportunities built into your regular routine.
Can You Spot the 300-pound Gorilla?
Perhaps you’ve seen this video of the invisible gorilla by Daniel Simons. If not, click the link now, watch the video and then read on. Six people wearing black or white shirts are tossing basketballs. The viewer is asked to count how many times the white-shirted players pass the ball. When the video stops, the viewer is asked a startling question: Did you see the gorilla? It’s amazing, but only about half of all viewers typically notice the man in the gorilla suit.
When communicating face to face, most people have lots of little gorillas wandering through their conversations in the form of extraneous filler words or excessive fidgeting. If your listeners are intently focused on your message, they may not notice these distractions. But if the listeners’ attention is drawn to them, these seemingly small behaviors can become the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room. That’s why I call these distractions “derailers.”
When it comes to derailers, there’s simply no substitute for the video camera. Try to capture a ten-minute clip of yourself in a typical business setting. Then, with the eye of a social scientist, examine the extraneous signals in your communication. The speaker who can eliminate the extra distractions from the conversation will automatically sound clearer, more focused, and better spoken.
Making a Connection by Eliciting a Response
Thanksgiving dinner, reunions, and birthday parties… We set these times aside to visit and catch up on what’s happening in each other’s lives. They are also great times to practice your communication skills. When it’s your turn to tell what you’ve been doing, keep your attention on your listeners by actively trying to elicit a response. Choose a story from your professional or personal life that’s detailed enough to keep you talking for a couple of minutes. While you’re speaking, do everything you can to get their heads to nod, as if to say, “Hum, that’s interesting. I’m listening.” How? Start by really looking at them. Then, play up the interactive gestures: reach out, change your expressions, raise your eyebrows, nod your head. In short, ask them with your body language, “Is this coming across? Are you with me?” Secretly count how many times people nod back at you if you nod toward them.
If you actively raise the level of your communication, your listener will respond by being more involved. Don’t wait for a special occasion to test this exercise. Try it tonight at dinner.
Play Ball! - Pitching your message so it lands in their seats
Imagine you and I are playing catch, but I consistently throw the ball just two feet short of reaching you. With each toss you’ll need extra effort to retrieve the ball. At some point you’d probably find this tedious and search out something more interesting to do, right?
The most common communication mistake I see people make, no matter the profession or organization, is the failure to put enough effort into speaking. They simply don’t throw the ball hard enough to “land” their message directly in the listener’s lap. Sometimes playing an actual game of catch can help develop the skill of projection.
Stand about ten feet away from a partner and, for a few rounds, throw the ball just a foot or two shy of the catcher. Then start tossing the ball accurately. Gradually get farther away from each other and notice the level of effort it takes to land the ball on target. Next, try saying short statements while you throw the ball. “Spring is my favorite season” or “I’d like to live in Paris.” Again, notice how much effort it takes to land your message effectively.
For the rest of the day, wherever you go, try to calibrate the optimal level of energy you need to land your message perfectly.
Develop Attentive Listening
We often use the “True or False” exercise in our workshops to help people develop the skill of attentive listening. Students are divided into groups of four at separate tables. Each person must tell two stories about themselves, one true and the other untrue. Listeners must guess which story is true and which is made up.
After all the stories are shared, I tell them the real purpose of the exercise. It was purely to get them to pay attention to each other. Typically, when people take turns telling stories, they don’t really listen. They spend most of their time rehearsing in their heads the story they plan to tell.
But when participants are tasked with telling fact from fiction, suddenly they focus on every word that’s said. They notice every gesture and nuance. The lesson, of course, is to use this same level of attentiveness in all of your communication interactions.
Posture and Hormones
A study by psychologists at Columbia and Harvard found that changing your posture alters your hormone levels. When measuring hormone levels, research showed that volunteers who took on dominant postures had increased testosterone and lower cortisol levels. In contrast, volunteers who took on low status postures had lower testosterone and increased cortisol levels.
According to the study, "by simply changing physical posture, an individual prepares his or her mental and physiological systems to endure difficult and stressful situations, and perhaps to actually improve confidence and performance in situations such as interviewing for jobs, speaking in public, disagreeing with a boss, or taking potentially profitable risks. These findings suggest that, in some situations requiring power, people have the ability to 'fake it 'til they make it.' "
The Opening Hook
A good presentation begins with a strong opening hook. A masterful hook not only entices the listener to pay attention, but is deeply relevant to the content of the presentation. Check out the link below for an example of an excellent hook by William Ury, co-author of Getting to Yes, as he delves into the topic of difficult negotiations. When there seem to be only 2 sides to an argument, and both sides are deeply opposed, Ury is dedicated to finding the third way. He illustrates this with an enlightening anecdote about 3 brothers and 17 camels.
One of the biggest obstacles to developing new habits is simply remembering to practice. We may have every intention of developing stronger posture, optimal volume, or better eye contact, but when we become immersed in our everyday business, we forget to focus on these things. The MotivAider can help. This small device about the size of a pager is worn on your belt or in your pocket. Periodically, it will emit a 2-second vibration to remind you to focus on whatever habit you are trying to develop. You can set it to go off at standard intervals or randomly. For example, if you are working on posture, you can set it to go off every 10 minutes to remind you to straighten your spine. Many of my clients have used it with great success. Check it out at Tools for Wellness.
Praise for Ted Talks
If you're looking for examples of how to give fascinating presentations, you'll find consistently rich material on Ted Talks. Experts from extremely diverse fields offer their best ideas in talks ranging from two to twenty minutes. Visit ted.com to take a look. One of our favorites is Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education. This is a truly inspiring presentation.
Shake up Your Presentation with Prezi
This month’s tip is a double bonus. Check out the link below for a wonderful presentation on how metaphor enriches and defines our thinking AND see a great example of how the new web-based service Prezi can help you deliver slides in a stunning new way. With Prezi, instead of a sequence of slides, you get a camera that pans across a sheet of images and text, zooming in and out as required. If you’d like to “shake things up” in your presentations, you’ll want to see this.
To hear James Geary discuss the power of metaphor, go to: James Geary on Ted Talks
To learn more about Prezi, go to: www.prezi.com
Your Summer Workout
One reason good posture sends a message of strength is that it actually takes strength! So take a field trip to the gym and develop your personal power through weight training, yoga, or Pilates. The time you invest will be well worth the effort. In the animal world, the strongest, healthiest specimens lead the pack.
Overcoming Speech Anxiety
I have trouble in client meetings when we go around the room to introduce ourselves. I feel a lot of anxiety waiting for my turn, and when it finally arrives, I'm so nervous that I bumble through it. I end up frustrated with myself because I know I can do better. Any suggestions would be welcome. Y.B.
Believe it or not, your problem is very common. There are probably several people around the same table who are nervous about those introductions, even your clients. One of the first things to keep in mind is that 90% of the symptoms of nervousness are not visible from the outside -- the racing heart, the adrenalin, the sweaty palms, the clouded thinking. As uncomfortable as it is, it's a personal experience and not a public one.
However, here are a few things that might help you to feel more comfortable:
-- Breathe. Actively breathe into your belly area as the introductions get closer to you. When adrenalin hits, we go from relaxed abdominal breathing to thoracic breathing, or ribcage breathing. Your body is preparing you to fight or flee. You need to actively get your breathing back into the belly area to send a signal to your body that you are not under threat.
-- Keep your focus on the other speakers. The more you focus on yourself, the more self-conscious you become. Actively listen to the speakers before you.
-- Practice your elevator pitch. Why should introducing yourself be an impromptu moment? Create a two-sentence introduction that describes who you are and your role in your company. Practice it so that you can easily deliver it with a strong voice, eyes up, and free of uhs or ums.
-- Go to a few networking meetings so that you can practice introducing yourself. Just walking around and shaking hands will help, but often networking groups have everyone stand and introduce themselves in front of the whole group. This will certainly desensitize you to the more intimate client meetings.
Practice with Post-it® Notes
Part of developing effective eye contact is learning the choreography of looking around the room and holding eye contact for 3-5 seconds. To practice, try this drill. You can do this exercise standing or seated.
Put Post-it® notes on the walls of your office or living room, give yourself an impromptu question and hold your eyes on each note for 3-5 seconds while answering. Try not to follow a pattern. Practice engaging the entire room. Once you've mastered this exercise, it's still helpful to use it when preparing for an upcoming high-stakes presentation.
If you do this exercise while practicing your material, you're much more likely to keep your energy focused outward when the big day arrives.
Train Your Ideas to Come When You Call
My 9-month old Labradoodle was a star student in obedience training. In my living room she can sit, stay, come, lie down, take it, leave it and drop it. However, when I take her to the dog park, she becomes so excited by the other dogs that she goes completely deaf. She doesn’t even know her name.
This experience happens to humans, as well. Sitting at our desks, or in the comfort of our personal space, we are experts in our subject matter and can easily articulate the nuances of our field. But, lead us to the boardroom, or the podium, and we can’t manage to form a simple sentence.
My dog trainer will tell me that my dog doesn’t own those skills until she is reliable in all circumstances. I need to train her with distractions.
It’s so easy for us to convince ourselves that we “own” our skills when we can do them so easily under the perfect conditions. Then, we berate ourselves if we under perform when it counts.
Part of being at your best every time, is to raise the bar on your training. You need to be so comfortable, so habitual that even distractions won’t pull you off your game.
Self Confidence and Posture
Excerpted from: The Science of Will Power blog
A study in the European Journal of Social Psychology (Brion, Petty, & Wagner 2009) looked at how posture influences self-confidence. Participants were asked to hold one of two postures: slumped sitting or sitting up straight. While holding the posture, they completed a mock job application, listing their own strengths and weaknesses that would be relevant for the job. They then rated the degree to which they believed themselves to be a good candidate for the job market, a good interviewee for a new position, a good performer on-the-job, and a satisfied future employee.
The researchers found that posture had a significant effect on these ratings. Sitting slumped over was associated with lower work-related self-confidence than sitting straight up.
It's an interesting example of how the body can influence the mind.
So the next time you're feeling stressed or need a boost of confidence, consider changing your body to change your mind. And the next time you're at a job interview (or first date), listen to your mother's wisdom, and sit up straight!
Strengthen Your Voice!
It’s a brand new year. If you’re like most people, you’ve made a resolution to get a little more exercise. May I suggest that you focus some of that exercise on your diaphragm.
The diaphragm is a muscle that sits right under your lungs. It’s the engine that is responsible for volume and breath support – so, the stronger your diaphragm, the stronger your voice.
To identify what it feels like to engage your diaphragm, say “shuuuuuush.” Now, say it loudly, as if you are trying to get the attention of someone in the next room. If you felt the muscle under your ribcage contract, you just engaged your diaphragm. To give your diaphragm a little exercise, try to sustain the “shuuuuuush” as long as you can. Do this several times a day, trying to increase the duration of the “shush” with each practice session.
Another great exercise is to recite a list, all in one breath. Be sure to emphasize the final word in each list to keep your diaphragm engaged all the way to the end. Try reciting:
- The days of the week
- The months of the year
- 1-10 in another language
- The alphabet
- I went to the store and bought some eggs.
- I went to the store and bought some eggs and milk.
- I went to the store and bought some eggs, milk and cheese.
- I went to the store and bought some eggs, milk, cheese and butter.
Bringing more strength to your voice is one of the easiest ways to increase your appearance of confidence and personal power. Good luck!
PowerPoint at its Best!
We highly recommend that you check out SlideShare's annual "World's Best Presentation" contest. Our friend Dan Roam won this year's top spot!
There are two common themes that you'll find with all the top winners.
1) They keep the text concise. We suggest that you follow the advice of Albert Einstein: "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."
2) They use images. More than 60% of your brain is used for visual processing. Images that support your message are retained. Take advantage of this fact.
For more info on how to use images, check out Dan Roam's book, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures.
Finding Your Comfort Zone
Most people will tell me that they can focus more on their posture, voice, and eye contact when they know their message well. I absolutely agree. However, it is unrealistic to expect to be well-prepared for all of your interactions.
I'd like to turn that thinking around. Imagine if you were so habitual about good posture, strong voice and optimal eye contact that the ONLY thing you had to think about was your message. That's the comfort zone.
Your message may change in every conversation. However, if you put in the practice time, your optimal speaking skills will become habits your can rely upon in every interaction.
3 Steps for organizing your ideas quickly
Surprise! You’ve been elected to give a presentation on your area of expertise, but you have very little time to prepare. Here are three quick steps for organizing your ideas when time is short.
1) Identify your core message. Come up with a 15-second sound-bite that defines your key point. It’s vital that you start with your bottom line.
2) Brainstorm the questions on their minds. Rather than brainstorming what you want to tell them, ask yourself, “what do they want to know?” This will keep you from needlessly giving background that no one cares about, or missing a crucial point that’s obvious to you but new to them.
3) Organize the above questions into a logical progression. Most people find it easier to answer a series of questions than to launch into a speech. If you are short on time, just organize the questions. Trust yourself, you know the answers.
Don't Get Stranded Behind the Podium
Whenever possible get out from behind the podium. The podium distances you from your audience by restricting your body language signals and holding you in one static spot. Feel free to leave your notes on the podium, but step to the side to answer questions and wear a wireless lavaliere mic so that you can move about the stage. If there's simply no way to avoid the podium, here are some best practices.
- Step back a few inches from the podium. Even though it sounds counter intuitive, stepping back keeps you from holding onto the sides of the podium or leaning in toward the microphone. You will look more comfortable if you have a little bubble of space in front of you.
- Engage your gestures. The minute your mouth begins talking, your body language needs to start talking, too.
- Speak up. Even though you are likely to have a microphone, do not let it do all of the work. Your expression, animation and energy will also be more engaging if you are putting more effort into your volume.
Use Networking Events as Practice Sessions
Every time I attend a networking meeting, we mingle for 20 minutes or so before the meeting gets rolling. What a great place to practice my elevator pitch! At some of the meetings, we take turns standing up and introducing ourselves to the rest of the group. It’s the perfect low-risk public speaking opportunity.
Whether you are working on specific skills (eye contact, optimal volume, being more expressive) or trying to find the perfect words to describe what you do, you’ll have plenty of chances to practice at a networking event. You may even find a new client!
Drill of the Month: Eliminating Fillers
The first step to getting the "uh" and "ums" out of your conversation is to become aware of when they pop up. Then, train yourself to leave a pause instead of interjecting the filler sound. One of the most effective drills for this is "The Flag Game."
Working with a practice partner, take turns talking for 2 minutes each. The listener should listen intently for “uhs” and “ums” and flag them by raising his or her hand. As the speaker, try not to react to the flag. Just notice it in the back of your mind and keep going. The immediate feedback of your partner’s flag will keep you dedicated to eliminating the “uhs” and “ums” in the next sentence. When you can easily get through 2 minutes without a single flag, you have enough awareness to practice on your own.
The Star Key
Most corporate voicemail systems will allow you to play back your message and, if necessary, re-record it by hitting the star key. The next time you leave a voicemail message, play it back to evaluate the strength of your voice, your pace and articulation. Is your message concise and free of filler words? Is this a message that represents you well? This is a great way to get immediate feedback on your skills and correct a voicemail that may not be up to par.
The One-Word Mantra
When your moment in the spotlight comes (high-stakes proposal, important interview, big presentation) it's important to be intentional about using your best communication skills. But over-thinking it can cause self-consciousness and brainfreeze. What's the happy medium? The One-Word Mantra. Instead of giving yourself a list of things to concentrate on, choose a single word that sums up what you want to accomplish ("Relax" "Connect" "Energize").
The February/March 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind, quotes studies that show that athletes who give themselves detailed instructions ("keep ski tips high" and "keep body streamlined" for a ski jumper, for example) are more likely to choke under pressure than those athletes who rely on a single word (such as "smooth").
So, while it's a mistake to give NO attention to your communication style, don't burden yourself with too many instructions. "Simplify."
No Time to Practice? Use Your Lunch Hour!
Choose one of the 3 fundamentals - strong posture, strong voice, or strong eye contact - and give it some intentional focus during your lunch break. When you are standing in line to order your sandwich, balance your weight and elongate your spine. When you speak to the cashier, use optimal volume. When you are sitting at the table chatting with friends and colleagues, focus on the duration of your eye contact.
It doesn't matter if the setting is formal or informal, improvement happens when you practice on purpose!
What People Are Saying“Rather than teaching the same cookie-cutter answers for everyone, SpeechSkills provides a personalized learning environment to develop the skills that work best for each person.”
– George Mattathil
Chief Executive Officer
Strategic Advisory Group
Chief Executive Officer
Strategic Advisory Group
"In my field, communicating effectively with diverse audiences is key. SpeechSkills has provided me with invaluable tools to maximize my effectiveness."
– F.C. Fee
President, F.C. Fee International Inc.
President, F.C. Fee International Inc.