Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Every Time A Pastor Says "Um", He Makes God Cry

Presentation trainer Olivia Mitchell's post How Obama could eliminate his ums (and so could you) voices a more open mind to the 'filler' conundrum than most communication trainers I meet. You should read it.

Yes, the problem of public speaking coaches tallying people's non-words like "um" is widespread, but the problem is not with the people giving the speeches - it is with the coaches.

This coaching is misguided because it focuses on just a technical aspect of language. When we over-coach this way, we allow linguistics to strangle meaning and intent. I think we do it because it's an easy thing to hear, and it is concrete. And it annoys some listeners because they have a personal filter from which they hear and are aggravated by certain words.

Anyone who has trained people in presentation and delivery has heard fellow trainers - maybe even ourselves at times - ruthlessly target "um". But when did this become The 11th Commandment of public discourse? Did the disciples nail Jesus for using fillers when he spoke to crowds on a hill? ("Well, sure the idea is good and all - do unto others and whatnot - but he just really didn't sound credible when he sort of sighed and said 'erm' before he started talking. Let's go listen to some other speakers who are more successful.")

Undue attention has been given to Obama for his non-words in moments where he is off-script. The pundits cry, "Oh, he's really not that good at public speaking if you listen - you can hear all kinds of 'ums' and 'ahs'. He's unsure! He's not confident! He's... a democrat."

Well, apparently saying "um" did not make a difference for scoring the job of President of the United States. (Although, let's be fair, it is just a temp job).

Quick Quiz: who is the overall most famous professional speaker in the US over the past 30 years? Yes, Anthony Robbins. Regardless of your personal opinions on him, he is massively popular, and I bet for the most part he could care less about the occasional use of non-words. In the first five seconds of his TED speech he says "uh".

Back to a point I've made before - nearly everybody occasionally commits this travesty of speech where we allow ourselves to actually be in the moment and think while in front of people. And I for one am thankful that public speaking is not always rehearsed.

If it is important to you to stop using non-words, or you want to coach others, the vital first ingredient of learning is awareness. What are the situations that motivate us to inadvertently utter 'non-words'?

  1. We are processing at a deeper level than surface thoughts or well-rehearsed phrases, while at the same time we feel the expectations of people around us to speak.
  2. We were asked a question and feel social pressure to start speaking quickly or we will look dumb.
  3. We are running out of allotted time and feel pressure.
  4. We pressure ourselves to sound like what we think an expert should sound like.
  5. We don't want someone else to start speaking yet.

The result of these circumstances is often a short, unplanned auditory sound to fill the space. Non-words are behavior we learn from the moment we begin to learn language, hearing adults think out loud as they answer one of our questions about where babies come from.

These sounds are an unconscious device to fulfill the purpose of cueing people that we intend to deliver a message, that we have more to say. Yes, some artful speakers such as comedians more fully understand the value of these words as sounds, transitional devices, and timing tools, but generally, trying to kill all non-words can actually hinder the goals of public communication.

People who speak professionally like Laura Bergells tell of clients being weirded out by 'perfect' speech patterns of no "ums". Their point is important: If you are meant to be in a conversation and want to be natural with us, please don't lose the 'human' in you.

And yes, before we all go off and start being far too easy on our language patterns, I must be clear that I do strongly believe there are many times when non-words should be eliminated. Always keep key phrases that are intended to ring, resonate, and resound, spotlessly clean.

"I have a...uh...dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where, um, they will not be judged by the color of their skin but, erm, by the content of their character. OK?"

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Low Frequency x Short Duration = Intense Listening

I just read about a company, Seriosity, that built an e-mail system where every employee is given 100 virtual tokens a week that they can attach to e-mail they write.

If you want someone to read your message immediately, you attach more tokens, and your message ends up higher in their inbox. The idea is to encourage people to send less e-mail - those who are frugal will have a large reserve of tokens, so when they have an important e-mail message, they can load it up with tokens to ensure it is read.

It worked. When IBM tried it out, messages with 20 tokens attached were 52 percent more likely to be quickly opened than normal. E-mail overload ceased to be a problem.

I think these tokens exist in not only email, but in conversation and public speaking dynamics.

Communication trainer Michael Grinder talks about speaking "tickets". Basically the theory says that everyone in a group has a set number of tickets, and every time you choose to speak up, you spend a ticket. Run out of tickets, and people get annoyed with you for hogging time.

And regarding how long we talk when we spend a ticket/token, I believe that in most conversational circumstances, people who speak in short bursts of 30-60 seconds are more actively listened to. After that point, listener comprehension decreases significantly because they have things they want to say, too, and because of the basic laws of auditory attention.

Basically, the theme is:

Speak less and people will listen to you more.

I find the idea of tokens, tickets, and short-burst speaking to hold water in both conversations and in parts of formal speaking dynamics.

But how are some people able to spend more tickets and get more fans when they spend them? What are these scalpers doing that puts their tickets in higher demand and allows them to play by a different set of rules?
  1. They have high respect. You get workplace respect by being the boss, subject matter respect from established expertise, and human respect from people in general by having proven, consistent moral character and treating others nicely.
  2. They have high communication ability. Your tokens are more abundant and enduring when you have sweet timing, understand group dynamics, are funny, interesting, move well, are good looking, and smell nice. (Yes, looks and hygiene are a part of communication ability.) Some things are inborn gifts, but almost everything can be improved with coaching.
  3. They have a big stick and are threatening you. (This one tends to have only short term success.)
If you don't have enough respect or communication ability, a group may still be silent when you are talking, but this does not mean they respect you, just that they are respectful.

This silent act of non-listening is called paying 'ear service', and through self-conditioning, some people even learn to give it to themselves.

We call those people hypocrites.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Distract... ed?

I am reading In Defense Of Distraction. Only on page 2 of 8, but the interviewer just asked, "Are we living through a crisis of attention?"

Expert on multitasking and the brain, David Meyer, responded:

“Yes,” he says. “And I think it’s going to get a lot worse than people expect.” He sees our distraction as a full-blown epidemic—a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought. He compares it, in fact, to smoking. “People aren’t aware what’s happening to their mental processes,” he says, “in the same way that people years ago couldn’t look into their lungs and see the residual deposits.”
What an incredible analogy. It has me questioning how I use all the modern tools I do - Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blog, Delicious, flikr, iLike, Myspace, comment discussions all over the web, and my phone thrown into the mix. What is the best way to use them? Do some people have higher ability to use more and get value? What are the brains "attention rules" that need to be followed in order to learn most effectively?

OK, back to reading...

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Business Is Not A Family

What's on my mind today is why so many businesses insist on referring to themselves as a "family".

In twenty working years, I have worked at a number of companies, from small education businesses to giants of retail. To varying degrees, all of them speak about the value of relationships.

Yes, relationships are good. I understand this. But can you really improve relationships by examining them? I think going metacognitive on relationships worsens them.

Some businesses say, "But we actually work on relationship here; we do something about it, not just talk about it."

I think the problem with this lies in perceptions.

When relationship building is done wrong, it reeks of ulterior motive - easily interpreted thusly when done at the work place. I have actually been around leaders who say they build relationship with employees so they can get them on their side - to do what the leader wants. You can argue these leaders' results, but one thing you cannot argue is that I fear them and do my best to keep them out of my life. I would guess there are others who share my sentiment.

Besides the perception of a shady motive, when a business leader strives to build relationship amongst employees, it is awkward because (1) there is a necessary degree of compatibility between people for relationship to develop, and (2) people skills are mostly not skills at all, but inherent talents.

Imagine trying to teach someone conversational timing - a vital tool in coming across graceful and comfortable around others, and a sound relationship-building ingredient. Like learning a musical instrument, your brain has to have a certain understanding of rhythm, a "knack", or you will never pick up on complex rhythmic nuances. That knack is a talent, and not everybody has it. I believe relationship building works the same way.

Have you noticed that the people who are the biggest proponents for workplace relationships are often the ones with whom you would never want to eat lunch? I would bet that the people who have good relationships don't spend much time talking about them or even consciously focusing on them. People skills - and the ability to cultivate good relationships - are hired, not built on company time.

Sometimes leaders are out of touch with their employees, and they try to 'lead' their staff into better relationships with speeches, books, and workplace activities.

But it's surface level. What a relationship actually needs to develop are commonalities and the initiative to get to know someone on our own time or on unstructured time. There is a huge difference in this versus relationship building in structured time. And it does not help that leaders are often scared reach out to employees on a personal level. Many leaders are great at administrative skills, strategizing, and running meetings, but are weak with their relational ability, or worse, feel employees should come to them, since they are the leader, after all. (Like a dad demanding that that child should the one to initiate relationship with him... "Junior needs to prove himself to me!")

What are some honest and intelligent businesses out there that put the focus on hiring and developing intelligence over relationship? I've found that those businesses that hire right - that hire based on intelligence for the role and good relational ability already in place - have very happy and high performing employees. Fortune's "Best Companies To Work For" is a fun read.

Oh, and can we stop the "we're one big family" talk at work? A family does not fire its children.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Customized Life

I am sure this is not a new idea - I have not checked. I was thinking about the five eras of the social web by Jeremiah Owyang, specifically in our reading materials.

What if when you read a book/magazine/periodical in a digital format (like online or downloaded for a Kindle) the book changed based on your profile? I am 99% sure someone must have already begun work on this, but bear with me.

Let's say I buy a mystery novel for reading on my browser or iPhone. When I buy it, it accesses my profile info information. Then before and while I read, the content would actually morph so that the story's city was in my city (the weather, current news in my area, etc.), the love interest's traits would change to my personal preferences in a love interest, the style of music played by the protagonist matched my favorites while the villain listened to Rush Limbaugh.

When I read the world news it would use my job, hobbies, and family makeup to make its story content connect to my personal life and present/future situation, and use my past experiences to make stories relatable to me by using familiar schema I would understand.

My individual preferences would be stored in some sort of hyper-detailed personal online profile that I would update like I do my auto fill information in a Google toolbar. Of course, there are many people who would be scared of volunteering such personal information into the cloud, but there are constantly more and more people who will volunteer this information, and it is already happening more on social media sites.

I'd probably do it. It would be so cool to see a protagonist have the same circumstances as me - a completely relatable read. Weaving the reader's details into their pre-written work would be a technical and artistic challenge of syntax finesse from this new breed of authors. Maybe the reader/user could select the level of 'match' that the story would make with one's personal life. Is the story in your very neighborhood or just somewhere in your state? Is someone you know kidnapped or just vaguely familiar to a past friend? That would all be a part of the fun.

I wonder what it will do the the lines of reality and virtual. "Last night, that dream I had, was it based on something that happened in my real life or in the story I was reading? Both? Wait... am I supposed to call someone or was that just...?"

Yeah, I'd definitely do it.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Backchannels and Surface Levels

The level of conversational depth with which we engage each other is on my mind today.

First backchannels. In case you are not familiar with them, they are a chat room where audience members at a seminar can chat and interact with each other while the speaker/panel is presenting. Jennifer Wagner has a post and comments here that I like.

My initial impression after being in several backchannels was that it was really neat. I could talk and participate with people who were interested in the same topic I was. It was exactly like being able to turn to the person next to me and talk about what I was seeing in a movie or TV show.

But then I thought, "Wait, I almost NEVER do that with my actual live voice during a movie, play, or TV show." I consider it respectful to the creators/presenters of the content to wait until afterwards to have that conversation. Furthermore, I hate it when people start talking to each other when I am trying to watch a show or listen to a speaker. So what was I doing in these backchannels? Were they just a way to disengage from being a listener to a degree, to tune out of the presentation so I could tune into a place where I could talk?

In 2009 versus 1999, there are more available outlets to be a talker. Blogs, video blogs, podcasts, profile pages, and all sorts of social media give us ways to broadcast our messages, our personalities, and our thoughts into the public setting, even if the public never hears it. Nobody has the time to read 99.999999% of the world's content. Most blogs (like this one) get zero comments per post. Some people may read it, but why take the time to comment when there are so many other things to go read? The onslaught of Information Overload is more prevalent now than ever, and most people talking will not be heard most of the time.

What does it all mean? I don't think this Rise Of The Talker is all-in-all a bad thing. I, like many, enjoy having more options available to me to hone in on specific authors, musicians, and content generators than ever before. But in this long tail, I see more people getting left to speak to nobody, versus listening to somebody.

Are long-form presentations and speeches are in decline in favor of more immediately conversational dynamics (e.g. chat and social media versus e-mail)? Are verbal listening attention spans shortening? Are youth learning how to communicate points faster, in shorter-form than what I grew up able to do? or are they just in a more manic communication landscape where deeper meanings are present but not as often learned due to social influences?

Monday, May 4, 2009


Some speakers can spontaneously create and respond with lightning cleverness. When improvisation is happening at its best, the audience is often laughing, always attentive. Valuable skill to have, right?

At a foundational level, improv engages us because the we like the stakes - we like to see some guy out on a limb, in the breeze, with no pants on. That harsh immediacy of being in the present moment, able to fail, where only your cleverness and humor can save you... if that does not get your heart pumping, you might be my dead grandpa.

So how do you get better at it? Is it even something that can be worked on or are there certain inborn talents that you need to improv well?

Before we talk tips, let's set some context. Readdressing a theme in this blog, practicing communication happens all the time - not just when you are up in front doing a presentation. In our context of public speaking (versus the context of MacGyver), improv is communication. And improv can happen for a one-minute impromptu speech or in moments and chunks throughout a longer, planned presentation.
  1. Listen. Listen more carefully than you think is necessary. People (e.g. the audience) drop clues on what to say and set rhythms for you to follow in their vocal ti... ming.
  2. Speak. Be an active speaker, not just a great listener. Don't dominate people by hogging more than your fair share of the conversation, but be a willing participant in the twisted and occasionally intimidating nether of mutual conversation.
  3. Study. Instead of getting swept into the passive state of waiting until something said affects you, the next time you are watching a show like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, consider what you would say or do in a certain moment. Even better: join an improv class.
And if you ever get frustrated about how you just can't come up with the right words fast enough and just need a punch to get you going, watch this. It just might work.