January 13th, 2011
In case you missed the BCS Championship Game on Monday night, or you don’t follow college football, or any sports for that matter, but you do take an interest in performance under pressure, please watch Mr. Cam Newton in action.
I had never seen him play before last night, when I watched the National Championship game. From the first snap, I was mesmerized.
Football is a game of high energy and high tension, yet there was Newton, taking the shotgun snap from center with a remarkable sense of ease.
He wasn’t just relaxed. He lacked all tension. His body language was languorous, slow and fluid; he seemed at home in the pocket, as though here were stone cold sober while his rowdy friends were running amuck at a beer bash.
He lacked anxiety, urgency, even concern. He moved slowly and deliberately, handing the ball off to his running backs with careful attention, or whipping a pass to a receiver with a quick flick of his wrist.
Don’t misunderstand. When he had to be, he was quick like a lizard in a thicket. But most of the time, when he was back in his office, he worked with deliberate care.
He was the calm eye in the middle of the hurricane, the still point in the rowdy room, the pole in the middle of the tent. His body language alone communicated confidence, ease, and a sense of pre-ordained victory.
Let us all walk out on our stages with such body language. Better yet, let us all find that sense of confidence and mastery that would allow us to show up in the world the way Cam Newton showed up last night.
Sims Wyeth is an executive speech coach in Montclair, NJ specializing in presentation skills and public speaking training in order to give accomplished people the knowledge and skill they need to become accomplished speakers. Learn more public speaking tips at www.SimsWyeth.com.
July 12th, 2010
I was steered to a web video the other day by an e-mail from a friend, and found myself in a garden of presentation skills coaches (also on video), many of whom quoted research done by Dr. Albert Mehrabian of Stanford University.
I have spoken to Dr. Mehrabian, who is now retired and dealing in antique musical instruments. He is powerless to do anything about this misunderstanding of the findings of his research.
As a professor at Stanford, his research investigated how human beings communicate emotion. His data do not suggest that the fine distinctions needed for strategic plans, legal arguments or scientific presentations are communicated predominately by voice tone and body language.
His data do suggest that humans communicate emotion primarily through tone of voice and body language, which confirms intuition and/or common sense. They do not suggest that the entire meaning of your careful and thoroughly prepared presentation is carried by your voice and body.
How you feel about your content is important, but it’s not the whole story. Of course your delivery is important, but it is in service to ideas made of words that delivery earns its value.
Sims Wyeth is an executive speech coach in Montclair, NJ specializing in presentation skills and public speaking training in order to give accomplished people the knowledge and skill they need to become accomplished speakers. Learn more public speaking tips at www.SimsWyeth.com.
May 7th, 2010
Presence is like pornography: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it, or in the case of speech, see and hear it.
Presence is a powerful commodity, one that leaders, entertainers, and influencers of all types would like to have. In fact, anyone who wants to be persuasive on the job or in social settings covets it.
Three questions. First, admitting that it’s hard to define, can we sketch in its elements? Second, can we cultivate it? And if so, how?
What are the elements of presence?
Let’s start with what it’s not. It’s not beauty or physical attractiveness. There are lots of Barbies and Kens who look perfect and lack presence.
It’s not intelligence. The socially inept genius is a cliché.
It’s not talent, because some creative people are dull in person but vivid and electric in their work.
So what is it? Here’s my attempt to describe it. Presence is confidence, composure, and responsiveness. It is the capacity to communicate with others in an emotional, intellectual, and expressive manner.
Can presence be cultivated?
I believe it can be developed through deliberate practice, which is a term that has emerged over the last few years to describe how average people achieve extraordinary results.
Actors, singers, dancers, figure skaters and speakers all try to cultivate it. It’s part of their job. For some, it’s a performance, for others it comes naturally.
Presence could include posture and a self-possessed quality of movement. It could include an appealing voice, a sense of humor, the capacity for intimacy, and the ability to respond to the signals you pick up from others.
Presence can also derive from the perception that you don’t care whether people like you or not. Since we are deeply social creatures, a person willing to walk away from the herd tends to get attention.
How can we cultivate presence?
Be curious. Endlessly curious. Be a good listener. Ask a lot of questions. Sit up straight. Be expressive when listening. Acknowledge what the other person has said so that they feel heard and recognized.
Explain your point of view knowing what history and science have to say about organizing your thoughts for maximum persuasiveness. Take such an interest in your audience that you care more about their understanding than you do about the outcomes.
This is an important point. If you have an objective you want to achieve, others sense it, and feel that you are talking at them, not with them or to them. You have to start where they are, and lead them from that spot toward the spot on which you would like them to stand.
In other words, you must be highly empathetic, highly assertive and highly expressive. None of us bats 1000 on all three, but presence is a journey not a destination.
It will come and go depending on the circumstances. For some of us who are shy, or young, and surrounded by those with more power and experience, we will have to fake it ‘til we make it.
But the best way to change behavior is to practice changing behavior. We can behave in a manner that is outside our comfort zone for short periods of time, and when we repeat those short periods for lengthier periods, we begin to find a new way of being.
And that can serve us well.
Sims Wyeth is a speech coach in Montclair, NJ specializing in presentation skills andpublic speaking training in order to give accomplished people the knowledge and skill they need to become accomplished speakers. Learn more public speaking tips at www.SimsWyeth.com.
April 28th, 2010
You may be familiar with the prayer-like song that Bob Dylan wrote in which he wishes that someone, or all of us, can “stay forever young.”
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
And may you stay…
It turns out that, while a youthful spirit can enrich our lives, young doesn’t always cut it in the world of big business.
Granted, there are places in corporate America where youth is valued—in sales, customer service, and perhaps in research.
But at the senior decision-making level, executives tend to see new recruits as just so many puppies. Smart puppies. Eager puppies. Maybe even successor-puppies. But puppies nonetheless, inexperienced, naïve, and unfamiliar with the sharp-elbowed realities of business culture and global capitalism.
A degree from a prestigious university can help a puppy win a job, but it doesn’t guarantee that she will quickly earn the trust of an older, more experienced boss or client.
What does it take, aside from years of experience, for a young professional to overcome this bias?
One answer? Five languages!
The first language to master is the language of the industry you’re in. If you’re a consultant, you have to learn multiple languages. Mastery of language implies mastery of the thinking beneath the language.
Within industry, there are functions—finance, marketing, R&D—all of which speak their own dialect.
Then there is the language of your own company, and the language of your client companies. Again, if you are customer-facing, you must hold your own in substantive discussions conducted in the language of the client.
The second language is the language of your own vocal presence—the signals you send through the pitch, volume, speed, and resonance of your speaking voice.
Many young people speak quickly, have less chest resonance in their sound, enunciate poorly, use filler words such as, “Like, you know, I mean,” and demonstrate tentativeness in their pitch patterns—for instance, using a rising intonation at the end of a declarative sentence.
To senior people, all of these vocal characteristics signal immaturity and naiveté, and while they can be overcome with exceptional intelligence and sterling qualities of character, they represent another strike against the young.
The third language is what you say by listening. Few of us, at any age, are highly effective listeners, but to excel at this under-rated behavior is to enjoy a profound competitive advantage. The reason for this? The greatest need that people have is the need to be appreciated, and the simplest way to show appreciation is to listen.
While the other guy is talking, younger professionals (I’ve been one) are often busy thinking of what they’re going to say in order to prove their intelligence or defend their position. Wiser, more experienced hands are working to understand, and then recognize, the thoughts and feelings of others.
The fourth language is body language. Older executives tend to have gravitas when they speak—with words, voice, or body language. George Schultz, former Secretary of State, is someone who comes to mind when I think of gravitas.
Gravitas evokes a sensation of stability, solidity, confidence and calmness. Gravitas makes me think of deep, still water.
The body language of younger people often evokes sensations of quickness, flexibility, and turbulent water.
Or, put another way, whereas older people tend to move like large animals at the top of the food chain—like elephants or giraffes—younger people are closer cousins to our friends the chipmunks, squirrels, and finches.
These frisky friends are beautiful creatures, but you don’t want to trust a million-dollar project to Alvin, Rocky, and Tweety.
The fifth language: the language of clothes and grooming. If you wear blue jeans and T-shirts to an executive meeting within the Fortune 500, you’re probably committing a CLM (career-limiting move.)
And when you show up with a mohawk or a mullet, you’re road kill, unless you walk on water in some rare way.
These are broad claims, but they represent a broad truth. Large business cultures are more or less like the military. Each has officers and foot soldiers, objectives and enemies, front lines and back offices, campaigns, strategies, and tactics.
And each has a uniform—clothes and haircuts that signal that you are a member of the team.
These, in short, are the five languages we must master in order to earn the trust and respect of senior business people. The language of:
Some are easier to learn than others. For instance, developing your voice to make it deeper, more resonant, or less nasal takes time. And speaking more slowly can be a confrontation with a lifetime of habit.
But anyone can learn to speak all these languages more effectively, and thereby get people to take you and your ideas more seriously.
I’m with Dylan 100%: May you stay forever young. But may you also climb the learning curve quickly, to bring value to yourself, and to the enterprise you serve.
Sims Wyeth is a speech coach in Montclair, NJ specializing in presentation skills and public speaking training in order to give accomplished people the knowledge and skill they need to become accomplished speakers. Learn more public speaking tips at www.SimsWyeth.com.
May 14th, 2009
I just met a client, a young woman new to the work force and recently hired by a consulting firm, who had studied oratory and debating in high school. I don’t think I’ve ever had a client with similar experience in my 20 years working with speakers.
She had a remarkable ability to be still when standing in front of the crowd. Not just still on her feet, although she was good at that, but still in her composure. She had the ability to remain at rest even while projecting her ideas effectively.
When I suggested an alternative to the beginning of her talk, she responded with ease, using the approach in her own way and increasing the power and impact of her remarks.
She was the youngest person in the room, yet she had the most authority and stature.
If she’s as good at mastering the mountains of data required for success in her field as she is at the basic mechanics of communicating, she will go far.
I have high hopes she will give me some of the credit, while of course I will humbly deny any responsibility.
July 18th, 2008
Girls of a certain age expose their stomachs, and boys expose their underwear. Those of us who are too old to seek this kind of social status based on sex appeal are more concerned about dressing to project power, authority, and stability.
We select our clothes even more carefully when we are going to present. Do we dress like the audience? Do we dress in our finest? Or do we calculate what the audience will wear and dress slightly more formally?
We agonize over such questions because clothing is one of the languages we speak. Our first (or second) language is English. Then we have the specialized language of our industry or profession, which in some cases takes years to master. We also speak body language, over which we have little control and which communicates volumes about who we are. Then there is para-linguistics, which amounts to the impact of our speaking voice (nasal? whiney? fast? sonorous? deep? Brooklynese? Old New England?)
But not to be neglected is what social science calls “Symbolic Communication.” We choose our clothes, grooming, and accessories to show the world who we want to be. Thus, in adolescence, soon after the hormones kick in, we drop our drawers and raise our shirts to say, “I have the power of sex appeal.”
And when that phase is over, we climb into our power suits and power ties, wear a lot of black, and keep our hair neat and tidy so as not to suggest anything too playful.
We choose our watches and our cars as accessories, in order to tell others that we are successful and in-demand. We locate our businesses at prestigious addresses in order to appeal to the social aspirations of our potential customers. Such choices are forms of symbolic communication.
We do this to earn the trust and respect of others, so that they will give us responsibility and money, and we will therefore be prosperous, respectable, and secure.
I find it fascinating that it is difficult to trust somebody who is not dressed properly. We want airline pilots, judges, and doctors to wear uniforms. And those of us in business create our own uniform code of attire. Blue suits, red ties, skirts at the knee, cleavage in storage.
We don’t want our heart surgeons and pilots to wear torn blue jeans and ripped T-shirts. We don’t want our bankers to dress like Jimi Hendrix or Elton John.
Clothes make the man. I think Beau Brummel said that.
Deep down, we’re all shallow. Oscar Wilde said that.
I say clothes are either about sex or power. Guess which type presenters wear?
May 5th, 2008
I recently sat down to interview myself on the subject of speaker evaluation forms. Here’s the transcript of the interview.
What’s the use of a speaker evaluation form? First of all, I prefer the term assessment to evaluation. It sounds to me less clinical–less distant.
Sorry. What’s the purpose of a speaker assessment form? To help speakers get better. However, let’s distinguish between the uses of a speaker assessment form at a training course, and one passed out at the end of a live presentation.
What are the differences? A training course assessment form will be more detailed and analytical–more process oriented, more focused on the mechanics of speaking. A form meant to be filled out by audience members after a talk should be short and sweet, focused on what audience members took away from the experience and any suggestions they might have for improvement.
In what areas do speakers need to get better? In messaging, use of PowerPoint, and personal impact.
How should messaging be evaluated? The message of a good presentation should:
How should PowerPoints be evaluated? They should follow the principles of cognitive guidance, which are:
1. The Multimedia Principle; we learn better from spoken words and pictures than from spoken words alone.
2. The Coherence Principle; we learn better when extraneous material is excluded rather than included.
3. The Contiguity Principle; we learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented at the same time or next to each other on the screen.
4. The Modality Principle; we learn better from pictures with spoken text than pictures with printed text.
5. The Signaling Principle; we learn better when the material is organized with clear outlines and headings.
6. The Personalization Principle; we learn more from a conversational style than a formal style.
This adds up a few simple rules.
And finally, how should a presenter’s personal impact be evaluated? That’s a harder question. The simplest answer is she should be evaluated based on what she causes her audience to feel, know, or do. She should be judged by outcomes, not process.
How can presenters take control of the way they make listeners feel? By making a serious, sustained effort to understand how they are coming across and what they can do to improve. For instance, evidence suggests that tone of voice, image, body language, and clothing and grooming play a significant role in our impact on others.
But what role does intention play? You said earlier that messages should be listener-centric. Our intentions are important. We should align them with the interests of our audience. But we often have goals for a talk that are both overt and covert. For instance, ever since President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, the Republicans have been successful in winning the votes of working class white southerners. Since then, the overt goals of Republican speakers has been to convince those voters that the Republican platform is in their economic self-interest. The covert goal has been to play on their historical racial bias.
So what should A Really Useful Speaker Evaluation Form look like? It should be:
Can you give us an example? Yes, here are two that I find useful. Neither is perfect. One is clearly for training purposes, the other is meant to be completed by audience members after a talk.
Training Assessment Form
And here’s a Speaker Assessment form meant to be filled out by an audience member after a talk. It was created by Cliff Atkinson of Sociable Media.
April 3rd, 2008
“What do I do with my hands?” is one of the most frequent questions I get from people striving to improve their public speaking skills. The answer is more complicated than you’d think.
First of all, why is it important? It’s important because your hands speak quite loudly to the emotional radar of the audience. They can speak of your confidence and your delight in the topic, or of your anxiety and self-doubt.
A little anxiety is a good thing, because it tells your listeners that you care about doing a good job, and that you are a real person–like them.
But too much anxiety, demonstrated by wringing of hands, or fingernail cleaning, or spit-balling (rolling an imaginary spit ball between thumb and fore-finger), will undermine your credibility.
To do a good job, you need to let your hands talk, for two reasons. First, using your hands enables you to find the right word more efficiently, and second, your gestures enable the audience to better understand your meaning.
Please visit Science Daily to read more.
Here is a description of Vincent Scully, a Sterling Professor at Yale, giving a lecture on Classical Greek columns, insisting that “they rise like jets of water.” He is considered by many to be the best lecturer that Yale has ever seen.
“You can make that shape with a paddle in the water,” he says, of the scrolls on the capital. “It’s geometric. It’s hydraulic.”
…his hands reach out, turning and undulating, as if he means to conjure the image to life on the stage.
When he shows [a slide of] the huge choir window behind the altar at Chartres, he remarks that you have to climb uphill to the cathedral, and still seem to be climbing once inside.
“You get the feeling there’s a great tide coming. If you’ve ever rowed, and the tide changes…” Here he reaches out with both hands for imaginary oars and lays his back into it, as if toward the heavenly light behind the altar.
You may be thinking that your subject matter, your venue, or your temperament, prevent you from such theatricality. Doubtless there are moderating circumstances. But that does not negate the value of physical expression in front of an audience.
Hitler was a great speaker (not a great man.) He studied body language with some of the great actors of the German theater. He rehearsed, and had himself photographed. He made his passion and conviction visible and psychologically vivid for his audience. He used his gestures to help bring his message to life.
So my counsel to those who ask, “What should I do with my hands?” is, “Let them help you talk.”
And if they have trouble with that, I will ask them to do what Robert Lloyd, a great English actor, once asked me to do: wave them around while rehearsing. Don’t worry if they (your gestures) make sense. Break the habits of a lifetime with a sense of play. And, while playing, don’t allow your hands to touch your body. Keep them at arms length, making big gestures.
And then comes the final question. “What do I do with my hands when I’m not using them?”
If you’re the Prince of Wales, you hold them behind your back. If you’re Jesse Jackson, you press your fingertips together with isometric instensity. If you’re toasting at the country club, you may hold a glass of wine in one hand and have the other parked in the garage of your blazer’s pocket.
But ideally, I would like to see your body full of intention. You are there to get your point across. Your purpose is well-served if you bring yourself to life, not only intellectually, but emotionally, vocally, and physically as well.
And since your hands are such strong allies (and therefore, dangerous enemies if they go against you) I would keep them gainfully employed much of the time.
And when they need a rest from their labors, let them hang at your sides at the ends of your arms. They’re like bats–your hands. They like to sleep upside down. When their flying days are over, hang ‘em in the bat cave, down by your hips, at the side of your body, (and not in your pockets.)
December 9th, 2007
Science, like the rest of us, advances through trial and error, better known as dumb luck.
One summer day in 1991, neuroscientists in a lab at Parma University wired up a monkey’s brain for a simple experiment. They wanted to see which neruons fired during the series of movements involved in the everyday act of drinking from a cup.
But on that day the monkey was more interested in a student eating an ice cream cone. The monkey watched intently as the student moved the cone to his mouth and, as it watched, the motor neurons in its brain began to fire, indicating that the animal was moving its arms and hands. In fact, the monkey was perfectly still.
This suggests (they say) that our brains mimic, or mirror, the movements we observe, even though we don’t actually make the gestures. We are “moved” when observing the movements of others. In fact, scientists tell us that our brains have “mirror neurons” responsible for replicating the brain maps of gestures made by others.
While it’s nice to have science confirm this, didn’t we know it already? When we watch someone hit his thumb with a hammer, and he winces in pain, we make the same gesture.
When we see someone cover his face with his hands and shake with sobs, we can’t help but be moved, even though we don’t replicate the gesture.
And when we watch a speaker step out from behind the lectern, and we see that his or her body is free of tension, and even more importantly, full of intention, our brains recognize the speaker is confident in what she’s saying, and certain parts of our brains light up, and more importantly, she is more likely to exert influence over us.
As a great Roman said, “Unless the delivery stands guard over the material, the material will evaporate, no matter how precious it was in itself.”
There is no right way to “deliver” your thoughts: there is only your own best way. If you restrain yourself from gesturing, your audience feels your restraint. If you make exaggerated, unfelt gestures (because you’ve read and misinterpreted this blog) your audience feels that you are artificial. But when you allow your voice and body to express what your message means to you, they feel the meaning of your message.
And so I have a renewed interest in the body language and micro-movements of my clients. It doesn’t have to be elegant, but it does have to be full of intention.
I am still looking for a unified field theory of presentation skills, and when I find it, I will check to make sure that the mind-body connection is a significant part of it. The brain is in the skull, but the mind is in every cell.
November 20th, 2007
About two years ago, I attended a free webinar on marketing and liked what the presenter had to say. I also liked his voice. So I called him and chatted about my marketing issues, and eventually I hired him.
He lives in New Hampshire; I live in New Jersey. We worked by phone, Go-To-Meeting, and e-mail on my newsletters, website, blog, corporate identity–the whole thing. And we never met.
When we had a misunderstanding about cost, it got way out of control–way more wacky than it should have been, and I think I know why. We never met face to face.
I have read for years about “flaming,” which is the tendency for e-mailers to pour unmitigated vitriol into their messages, unmodulated by the physical presence of the other person. Now I’ve had the experience. I was the one who was pissed.
E-mail is a great channel–the killer app–but we all know it has one major flaw: it does not offer the multi-level signals our brains need to calibrate emotion.
Face-to-face interaction, by contrast, is information-rich. We interpret what people say to us not only from their voice tone and facial expressions, but also from their body language and pacing, as well as their synchronization with what we do and say.
Amazingly, the brain’s social circuitry mimics in our neurons what’s happening in the other person’s brain, keeping us on the same wavelength emotionally. This neural dance creates an instant rapport that arises from an enormous number of parallel information processors, all working instanteously and out of our awareness.
Compared to real life, e-mail is emotionally impoverished when it comes to nonverbal messages that add nuance and valence to our words.
In an article to be published next year in the Academy of Management Review, Kristin Byron, as assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, finds that e-mail generally increases the likelihood of conflict and miscommunication.
In the case of widely dispersed work groups, the potential conflict has been proven to be minimized by occasional face-to-face meetings which serve to augment the electronic communications.
And beware the tendency to e-mail the guy down the hall. You lose out on giving and getting friendly greetings, those innocuous interactions that slowly add up to rapport and trust.
My point? Presentations are different from e-mail. When presenting, you are speaking, in addition to English, several other languages. You are speaking the language of the body, which is emotional; the language of the voice, also emotional; and the language of clothing and grooming, which is the language of power and status.
Presentations give us the greatest chance we will ever have to move others to action, because they get us all together in one place, at one time, to think about one thing.
If you’re running a country, a company, a department, or a team, those are important moments.
Not the time to mail it in.
August 23rd, 2007
Trying to master a mental task?
Acting it out can help. In a study reported in Cognition, when kids were told to use gestures as they learned to do a type of math problem, the lesson stuck. Embodiment gives you–literally–another way to grasp an idea.
Actors use gesture in a similar way–to grasp the feeling and intention of the character they’re playing. When trying to discover the best way to speak a line, some actors will say the line using different gestures–even random and counter-intuitive gestures–to expand the range of possible interpretations of the text.
Gesturing also helps us find the right word in conversation. It’s almost as if we use gesture to “reach” into our own minds to find the word we need.
As reported in another posting, speakers with their hands in their pockets are more hesitant and awkward as speakers. Speakers who gesture say fewer “ers and uhms.”
Lesson to be learned? Let your body talk!