Well-said, in Congress no less!

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, former Democratic Majority Leader, gave a speech today in the US Congress marking the passage in the House (but ultimate defeat in the Senate) of a Republican-backed proposal to defund Planned Parenthood as part of the “Continuing Resolution” to fund the US government for another six months.  This drama capped a tense few weeks of three-way political jockeying among the Republicans, Democrats, and the President.

I’m posting the link to the You Tube video of her 5 minute speech because effective communicating is the subject of this blog, and this, dear reader, is an example of a good speech — in content, in form, and in delivery.  I also happen to agree with her arguments, but that is not really the point. I concede that I probably would not have posted an equally well-crafted speech by a Congressman or Congresswoman with the opposing view, had there been one, regardless of its brilliance, but that too is beside the point. I reserve the right to be biased in favor of my own views, as you surely would be on your own blog.

Ms. Pelosi’s speech — its content, its delivery, and her body language — was simply a first-rate package.  But most of all, here is what I think also commends it: What she does not do:

1) She does not use rhetorical flourishes

2) She does not wildly gesture

3) She does not use $10 words

4) Neither does she dumb it down.

5) She doesn’t swing for the fences with bold attacks on others.

She opens with a bang — a great little anecdote — and steadily builds a cohesive argument, and ends up talking about “respect” — which loops back to the opening and is totally relevant to the topic. 

Here’s another takeaway for us, in everyday communicating … Because the speech and her delivery is reserved, calm, controlled, yet well-paced, we, as communicators, should consider using this particularly versatile style on those occasions and settings where high drama is not the best way to go, when the power of the speech lies in crafting good arguments, giving strong examples, and quietly exuding confidence.   



Speaking that works like magic!

I heard a speaker at an event who was so compelling, so on top of her game, that I jotted down some impressions. I wanted to grasp, examine and remember how she worked her magic on the room so I could bottle that pixie-dust and sprinkle some of it over my own speechwriting and speechmaking.

Now it’s months after I heard that speech and I no longer recall the content of what she said, but I do have my sparse notes. Here’s what I jotted down about her style and technique:

“Animated,” “Direct and firm,” “She asks questions, then answers them herself,” “Folksy,” “Never reads from her notes,” “Phrasing and pacing very good — pauses are effective,” “Uses the expression ‘between you and me’.”

I especially want you to note the “asks questions” part.  That is very effective.   A Question … An Answer, about four of them in all. The speaker allows listeners a moment to anticipate and a chance to digest the ideas in an organized way. “Between you and me” is brilliant — it’s sharing a confidence, it brings the listener close to the speaker. But you can only use it once per speech.

 That’s the pixie-dust in a nutshell! Of course the content was great, but the speaking style is what I remember.  A great speaker can have the audience in the palm of her hand, on her side, thinking “yes, yes, yes” to all that they hear. We all want to be that speaker.

My Takeaways about Public Speaking from “The King’s Speech” (film)

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I loved “The King’s Speech,” the film that has received heaps of award nominations. The historical (but not always literally true) film tells the story of the accidental King of England, George VI (from 1937 to 1952) and his quest to overcome a severe stutter, a malady brought on, we discover in the film, by his cold, bullying family and the strictures of being a Prince. The movie’s villains, are, ironically, people at the apex of society but ultimately small in stature — his shallow bully of a brother and the brother’s conniving mistress, his cold, disapproving royal parents, and the “establishment” in the persons of the Cardinal and the Palace functionaries.

But, thanks to his decent character, his loving wife and his good friend, the speech therapist , he has some tools to help him break the chains of those oppressors, and none too soon, as the story’s timeline begins with the emergence of new media (the radio) and ends with the onset of England entering the war against The Third Reich. His fate and the fate of his country are thus intertwined. We are ultimately rewarded with his win on all counts. The 44-year old King comes of age, finds his true voice, and provides his country with inspiring leadership, as the bombs begin to fall on London.

Days after seeing the movie and hearing about it in the media accounts of the Golden Globe awards and Oscar nominations, I mulled over lessons this movie might hold about public speaking: Why is public speaking so hard for many? Which of the tricks the King’s tutor employed to help him can be adapted to help any speaker in the throes of stage fright? What did the King ultimately learn to do that anyone can emulate?

1. The King learns to step outside of himself; he learns that in public speaking you are an actor, a performer. He must project his “brand” even if he must resort to some petty trickery to do so. (He delivers his critical speech at the outset of war from a little booth where his coach provides hand signals and encouragement, but later poses for the “official” photograph for the media showing him reading the speech from behind his Palace desk.) THE LESSON: Use any props you need for confidence, become your “brand”, prepare as a stage actor would, by shedding negative self-talk and fully embracing into your role.

2.Towards the end of his preparations, the therapist (Lionel Logue) scolds him with words to the effect: “You are not that scared five-year-old any longer.” THE LESSON: Even if you are dissatisfied with your past public speaking, you can start anew. All that matters is who you project yourself to be and how you deliver NOW; no one cares about yesterday’s gaffes.

3. The people in their homes gathered around the radio to hear the King, as well as all the leaders of England and the free world, are all rooting for him. They yearn for him to deliver what they need – a confident call to be strong, hopeful and steadfast. THE LESSON: Your live audience, whether they are five people around a conference table waiting for your presentation, or hundreds in an auditorium, or thousands if you have a media interview, all are rooting for you to deliver an engaging, clear and coherent message. They are all on your side from the get-go, and if you start off strong, they will become even more on your side. They are on your team and want you to succeed. So even if you think you have detractors in your audience, pretend otherwise: speak as though you are only speaking to those who are in your corner.

4. The King delivers his 5 minute speech beautifully, albeit his speech is at times very slow and halting. His coach cheers him afterwards, saying that slow speech with pauses indicates gravity, self-confidence, and draws further attention to the words. THE LESSON: Slow down! Rushed speech comes off as lacking importance, lacking the confidence of the speaker. Of course, the pauses should be well placed. Place symbols into your written speech or notes to remind you where to pause. Modulate your volume, tone and pace so that you build anticipation at some points and deliver the climactic focus where it belongs.

See the YouTube clip of the climactic speech in the movie, delivered by the King (as played by actor Colin Firth). (Uncertain copyright status for this clip.)

Below, the YouTube speech as delivered by King George VI (the real one, not the actor) in September 1939 – 5 ½ minutes.

Customer Service That Is Anything But!

In this blog I’ve been dissecting the good, the bad and the ugly of how business people communicate in everyday situations.  Today, let’s talk about the bad and the ugly parts of customer service via phone. The abuses listed here are almost always practiced by large businesses, and the most egregious of all are on the part of those who face the least competition (utilities and the cable companies).

As I see it, here are some of the top time-wasting miseries endured by people on the receiving end of really bad customer service. Good customer service is about communicating without wasting time, with respect for the customer, with the aim of solving a problem and building good will — but too many large companies do the opposite, on all counts.  Please comment by adding more ugly examples that I may have overlooked.

1) So that we may serve you better, this conversation may be recorded.  Give me a break, you have several motives that have nothing to do with service.

2) To get immediate service, you may hang up now and go to our website (following by a really long website string). If I fill out a web form for service I may get an answer in 2 days … or a week. Sometimes I need to resolve an issue NOW and I want a real time interaction.

3) We are pitching a high priced ancillary service today, so you must listen to our 5-minute sales spiel before we even place you in the queue for reaching a representative.  Why are you torturing me when I just want to get you to listen to and resolve my issue?  If I must listen to this pitch, could you at least put me in the queue first, and then run your pitch while I’m biding time waiting my turn?

4) At the end of this call, we’d like you to answer a customer satisfaction survey so that we may improve our service: Press 1 if you agree to participate …   If you want me to waste more of my valuable time, then PAY ME for participating!

5) Options without end, which circle back on themselves.  We all have been victims of endless strings of options (as many as 9) and sub-options which then loop back to the beginning.  The option to get a live human is hidden or comes after a long pause at the end.  Sometimes the options just don’t fit my situation, or I may have overlapping needs.

6) Press #1 if you are a new customer, Press #2 if you are an existing customer.  I know that if I press  #2 I will wait five times longer than a new customer. Why would you want to abuse a good repeat customer like me? Why don’t I get the same treatment that a new customer would get?

Small business owners often have mastered the art of communicating directly and efficiently with both new and existing customers. They rarely are guilty of any of the above abuses of customers in the name of “service”. Large businesses could learn a thing or two by studying the best practices of the small business owner. Actually, one I can think of has done exactly that — Zappos, and they’ve reached the top of their niche by getting customer service just right.

Communicating badly (the Mayor and the NYC Snowstorm)

The writer on Huffpost (see below for link to the post) is right on target: Mayor Bloomberg was downright awful at a press conference on Dec 28th where he addressed New Yorkers suffering from a snowfall that left them holed up at home in Queens or Brooklyn (some died waiting for ambulances). He reassured everyone that “the City was functioning” — the tourists were even able to get to their Broadway shows! 

Empathy, putting yourself in the other guy’s shoes, getting out of your self-referential world … it’s not just good politics, it’s about being a real human being.

This reminds me of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Anderson Cooper was in New Orleans, reporting for CNN on the devastation.  President Bush had just praised his FEMA Commissioner, “Brownie is doing a helluva job.” Cooper, with genuine passion, said something to the effect of “how dare they sit there praising each other from their armchairs; don’t they know what’s going on here?”

The President and the Mayor both failed the same way: 1) They didn’t try to get the facts, or had the facts and dismissed them. 2) They didn’t see past the bureaucracy they ran to think of the people they were responsible for serving. They couldn’t empathize with distant strangers, only seeing the subordinates in their immediate orbit. 3) The little details they were hearing from those subordinates were burying the big picture of what really mattered.

Sometimes you don’t have to be brilliant, you don’t have to be a politician, you just have to be human to know what to do and then do it right.

And finally, explain what you did and why in plain words, with a dollop of humility.


Let’s Go Around the Table and Introduce Ourselves

I recently attended a business seminar. Thirty attendees seated in horseshoe formation were asked to introduce themselves, briefly. They were all business professionals who have been to many networking events, seminars, workshops, discussions and so forth, and have had ample experience with the obligatory introductions. 

 The interpretation of the word “briefly” varied widely that morning, as did style and effectiveness. Of course it took too long – 15 minutes, though it could have been, and too often has been, even more painfully prolonged.  The pattern at many such events usually goes like this: Speaker One and Two follow instructions, and just state their names, companies, job functions; Speaker Three adds an embellishment – perhaps her being thrilled about her last job promotion; Speaker Four takes that as a license to expound on his being Salesman of the Year or about a product launch … and so it goes.  Mercifully, Speaker Nine plays the hero who says, “I’ll keep this short” and then he does …. or doesn’t.

 What’s the lesson here? There are several. 

Rule #1: The larger the group, the shorter the intros should be. The leader should set the example by introducing herself and ask everyone to follow her model. Playfully, a timekeeper might be appointed, who will raise a hand when the 15 second mark has been reached. In fact, a lot of information can be crammed into 15 seconds; (make that a 10 second limit for a room of 30 people).  If there are more than 20 people, there usually should be no introductions at all. If the attendees are known in advance, the leader might print a roster, along with contact information, and pass out the sheets.

All the other rules are for you, the attendee. 

#2. Don’t lead off with your name. If you don’t get everyone’s attention first, they will often miss  hearing it or hear it incorrectly. First cue them to listen to you by prefacing your name with a word or two – even “Hi” or “Good to be here”.

#3. Ramp your enthusiasm up a notch. If your personality is a bit laid back or your voice is soft, commit to putting energy into your voice, get a bit louder, but also slow down – that makes the volume easier on the ears. Another strategy: make sure you sound different from the speaker before you. If she was bubbly and a bit hyper, tone it down a notch – don’t try to outdo the last speaker. Do it your own way.

#4. Be funny, if that’s your style, but make sure  it is organic (not the joke of the day) and very fleeting.

#5. If your functional title is ambiguous, don’t describe it by giving a laundry list of your duiies – reinvent your title or choose one aspect to highlight: “They call me a Service Manager; I spend my day getting 7 departments to talk to one another.”  In other words, say something memorable.

#6. Instead of using your 10 seconds to state your job function, try something else sometimes, such as telling them what you hope to get from the event  – in 10 words or less of course.

#7. Get people to seek you out later by making a request: “I just moved to this town and would appreciate tips about good restaurants  … or plumbers.” Or make an offer: “I’m leaving this great little premium from my company on the back table;  grab one on the way out.” No one will begrudge you breaking with the format, as long as you beat the stopwatch.

#8. Next time, see how many of the 20 or 30 attendees who have just introduced themselves you can remember an hour later! Probably just five – the most vivid speakers of course.

You’ve been asked to introduce the keynote speaker: It’s only 2 minutes – will you ace it or flop?

TOPIC:  Have you been asked to introduce someone who is the speaker or honoree at an event? What are the do’s and don’ts you should follow to come across as a pro and enhance your image?

If you have a sizable professional-social network, sooner or later you’ll be asked to come up to the podium at an business, association or personal event – possibly as a speaker, or perhaps as the person who introduces the speaker. Option #2 is the one we’ll address.

Seems simple enough: just say a few kind words about the keynote speaker or the honorees.  Not so fast! This honor you’ve received can be trickier than first meets the eye. On the one hand, you have the opportunity to put your best foot forward, to get face time and name-in-the-dinner-program exposure to a valuable assemblage of influential people. On the other hand, you may join the graveyard of discarded speakers who have fumbled, muttered, overstepped, made a joke-too-far, or run out the clock.

Getting Started:  You’ve got to know the lay of the land and your audience. If you received the request second-hand and received scant information, as you respond to accept the offer, ask the chairperson of the event (but never the “honorary chair”) or someone on the event committee to fill you in. Ask the honoree directly if it is someone you are quite close to. What is the event’s purpose? How does this speaker/honoree fit that, why was he/she chosen? Who will be there? What venue? Is it a public event or closed invitation list? Formal or informal attire? Is the person you are to introduce a keynote speaker or a secondary speaker, the main honoree or one honoree among five? Given those answers, would a one minute or a five minute introduction be better? Let those answers also guide the tone of your remarks and emotional pitch.

Make sure to get the invitation, and ask for an advance copy of the printed dinner program if possible. (Will there be a bio in the printed program describing the speakers/honorees?)

Get the individual’s official biography from an assistant or company website or LinkedIn profile. Make sure it’s not a stale bio; (what if you mention his wife, only to learn that they were divorced last year?) Do you know the person you’re introducing very well or just casually, from a distance? Is the person a peer or higher than you in status?

 If it’s someone who is close to you and not much higher in status, you have a bit more license to be casual in tone. It’s okay to introduce your own personality – just a little, to be warm and somewhat personal.  But in all cases, don’t risk giving offense; your remarks should be respectful.

The DON’T’S:

DON’T  tell a joke that could make some people in the audience squirm. If you want to say something funny at the start, make it about yourself or something in the news that’s tied in, but very rarely should you joke about the honoree.  Do not bring up the honoree’s foibles, failures (unless he made a comeback and is proud of it) or old romances. (If you have a funny remark that you think does work, run it by a friend for another take on whether it’s appropriate.)

DON’T start with a negative vibe. This is not supposed to be a painful assignment! Be yourself. Be conversational. If you hate to write and as a result your remarks come off sounding like a school essay, then don’t write it. Record your remarks into a tape recorder and then transcribe it.  Revisit it another day to make sure it’s just right.

DON’T repeat the honoree’s official biography that you received. Don’t repeat the profile printed in the program (if there is one).  No one wants to hear you list her last five positions and three universities attended. Be selective; what really matters to this audience?

Once at the podium, DON’T just read the remarks you’ve prepared. Memorize at least a few lines so you’re  reading only parts of it.. (Use extra-large font sizes.) When you come to the part that really bonds the audience to this person, stop reading, pause and focus your attention on someone out there in the audience.

Now the DO’S

DO, if you know the speaker/honoree well or were chosen to make the introduction for a particular reason, let everyone know (unless the emcee already has relayed that to the audience.)

DO keep it short. Better to sit down before people glance at their watches. After all, they didn’t come to hear you.

DO, as you prepare your remarks, choose a few salient facts from the honoree’s bio. Then add value to it. You may want to call the honoree’s assistant or business partner …. to dig a little deeper, in an appropriate way. Find the story line for this person: what is moving about that story? what illuminates his character? Put the dry facts that you need to state in the beginning or middle; end on a strong, even emotional note.

DO remember that your job is not really to supply a list of the speaker’s or honoree’s achievements, but to prepare the audience to receive the speaker warmly, attentively, and approvingly.  Your remarks should infuse the facts of the person’s life with meaning for the audience.

DO, if you are not yet a polished speaker, practice! Time your remarks. Read them aloud or to a colleague or family member. Put a little symbol into the print copy of your remarks to show you where to pause for effect.  Modulate your tone and vary your pace. Slowing your delivery for key lines have the most impact. Rushing all your words sends the message that you lack confidence. And don’t ruin everything by failing to speak into the mike (after adjusting it to your height).

DO, if you have a personal anecdote to tell that reflects well on the honoree, use it – does it illuminate an interesting quality? But if you heard or read it second hand – verify first! If it’s a story that 80% of the audience probably heard before, look for something new.

DO be flexible. If the last three speakers went on for too long and people are yawning, be prepared to cut something out of your remarks (figure out in advance where that might be) – everyone will love you for it.

DO make sure the emcee who introduces YOU has the facts straight about how to pronounce your name, your position, etc.  Back when you contacted the event chair or someone involved in the event, did you offer to send your bio or a link to inform them? Especially if your name is unpronounceable, be sure to introduce yourself to the emcee/master of ceremonies before the program gets underway.

DO, wait at the podium until the speaker whom you have introduced steps up, then exit quickly.

No doubt, I’ve left out a few good pointers. Please do chime in if you have more Do’s and Don’ts’s to add, or a good or awful experience to share on this topic.

Post #1, a new blog about Communicating

Whether or not the world needs another blogger, I hope to offer some tips and tools, opinions and insights, about the written and spoken word.  Let’s banish flabby communications and put some muscle into our speech and writing. Let’s get our message out positively, professionally, convincingly.  Wherever you are in your career and life, you probably haven’t used some of those messaging muscles and you can probably exercise them more vigorously, starting now. 

The funny thing about those language and communications muscles is that, unlike the muscles you exercise in sports, they don’t peak in any particular decade of life. They can strengthen and lengthen and add layers as long as you live, if you keep on using them.

Perhaps I’ll digress in some of these posts, to comment on the fascinating messages I’m hearing from others — because there are some brilliant communicators who I’m following too and I’m learning something new all the time.

I hope to post once a week and will be back soon.

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