Friday, January 29, 2010

Words Fail Me

Easily the most common technical mistake I am still apt to make while verbally communicating is to drive at a point, re-drive at the point in different words, and then ensure the death of the point with even more driving and rewording.

'Words + Words • Time' is a great recipe if you want to inspire boredom.

This 'Death of Words by Speaking' situation occurs for various reasons. We may like hearing our own voice and think we have a big bowl of important things to say. We may believe if we constantly fill the silence we will look confident and certain. And some of us think we are supposed to talk all the time when we have a listener.

Still, words lose meaning very fast when there are a lot of them. Some listeners can hang with us longer, but we all have listening limits, and the limits of listening to talk are short. Even the greatest actors in the world are ineffective at holding attention if the narrative is uninteresting.

Speaking needs constant variety to keep audience engagement, and therefore comprehension.

Variety can be achieved in many ways, from facilitated choices like orchestrating purposeful audience movement, topic-based partner or group sharing, or the use of visuals. Variety can also be heightened with presentational choices, including how we use our verbals.

Here are a few strategies that have worked for me in most situations:

  1. Prepare specific phrases for certain points. I tend to dislike scripted talks, but a few prepared phrases work well to nail a point and cue me to move on.
  2. Use periods. Many phrases are more effective when followed by a pause, resounding more loudly without a bunch of 'noise words' after them. 
  3. Allow acuity to affect delivery. It is damaging to sell people on a point when they are already sold, need a different dynamic to understand, or just need more time to consider what you are saying. Constantly see and hear your audience; are they with you or do you need to change your pattern?
  4. Appreciate that words are musical. Musical climaxes cease to be impactive when they have a bunch more music at the same volume after a peak - climaxes just become plateaus. Monitor your rhythms, paces, and volumes, and accept that every group has limits on how long they can listen to one person talk. 

Perhaps I've said too much already.

    Tuesday, January 26, 2010

    Goal Setting Is Personal

    I have a little secret that I rarely talk about, except with friends, because it is so apt to be misinterpreted:

    I dislike setting goals.

    There, I said it.

    But sometimes I teach concrete goal setting models to youth. Is that hypocritical?

    For me, I am fine teaching things that hold potential value for others, even if the thing does not work for me. Teaching from a place of "Let's explore this and see if it works for you" is a delightful place to live and gets good results, in my experience.

    I want to be clear that I am not unproductive. I consider myself efficient and happy with my efforts the majority of the time. I just don't feel a connection to writing down specific accomplishments in a concrete way; it has not worked for me in any sustainable fashion. Benchmark thinking has always felt false for how I interpret the world.

    I'm not saying that goal setting does not work for many people, but to throw concrete goal-setting and "writing it down" at people as an answer to leading a productive and lovely, successful life of achievement? Barf-o-rama.

    For me, personal efficacy entails:
    1. What is my direction? (in my work, relationships, endeavor 'x')
    2. What values do I want to embody? 
    3. What is my moral code? 
    I apply these qualities to my interests and have been very happy with the results. It is a less concrete, more open-ended formula (if I can call it a formula at all) that matches my thinking styles to my approach. The most meaningful things in my life have been ongoing processes or personal growth, and I haven't thought of those experiences in terms of achievements, but rather emotions of satisfaction and meaningfulness.

    All I can do is give my best effort. Where I end up is not always up to me.

    It would surprise me if there were not others who shared similar ideas about goal setting, but I have only met one person who has expressed this to me. Honestly, I don't go around sharing this model too often, so I haven't opened many doors for conversation on the matter. Perhaps this is because my way of goal-thinking can feel more nebulous, or I have not found the right way to explain it effectively.

    Maybe I'll set a goal to figure out how to do that.

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010

    Pocket Hands

    A friend of mine pointed me to this blog post by a woman named Shamelle, "12 Words and Phrases that Automatically Kill Your Self Image". On a side note, the author offers a class called "Title Writing: Save the Drama for Your Mama so You Don't Perish in Flames and Lose Your Family to Wild Dogs". It's pretty good.

    Besides laughing out loud at one poster's comment about how his son says the F--- word more since working at a Chevy dealership, the article reminds me of a time when I had just finished an hour of coaching public speaking at a Wyoming school principals conference.

    After my hour, I was approached by a professional speaker who told me that he had some advice for me. He said that I made the mistake of speaking in front of a group while having either of my hands in my pockets, and that I did so twice.

    It was true. I did have my hands in my pockets a couple of times. In this case, I was aware that I was doing it, and it was purposeful to the extent that although it was not planned, it was a posture that matched the message I was conveying.

    It is fine for a presenter to have their (own) hands in their pockets as long as:
    1. the posture matches the occurring auditory 'track' (i.e. pocket-hands is sometimes an unconscious move when I am deeply listening to someone)
    2. the presenter is in a more conversational, less formal moment
    3. the presenter is in a personally vulnerable moment
    4. the presenter is consciously matching a hostile audience's emotional state with his/her body
    5. the presenter is playing a character
    To me, effective public communication is not so much about being professional as being real. There are almost always norms and procedures we need to follow in every presentational dynamic, but in my world of public speaking, "genuine" almost always achieves more than "rules".

    The challenge is learning how to be genuine in the midst of craft.

    And finally, be wary of people promoting sound bites or 'easy fix' communication tips like "never put your hands in your pocket" or "always speak without 'um'". Audience style, speaker style, and event dynamics are all valid considerations that should influence our behaviors.

    There are very few pervasive, simplistic communication keys. While there are a great number of easily understood strategies, most of them have unexplored room for the creative communicator to grow.

    Tuesday, January 12, 2010

    How Do I Move to Hold Attention?

    Clint Eastwood, speaking about how to act on camera said, "Don't just do something - stand there."

    Eddie Murphy told Chris Rock to pace the stage like a stalking cat during his standup routines.

    Regarding how we move our body in front of an audience, how are we supposed to know which advice to follow?

    My personal take is that although purposeful walking/pacing back-and-forth can work as a gimmick or for short segments of frenetic energy, stillness holds up better with time. It's more natural and less presentational.