November 3, 2008

Good day team,

A few years ago, I attended a public speaking class for two days.  In a nutshell, it was painful.  There were 20 people in the class from lots of different companies here in Portland. We were all strangers to each other, but over the course of the class,  we got to know each other in ways we could not have imagined.

Simply put, standing up in front of other people and speaking makes most people extremely nervous and vulnerable. In our class, we all experienced painful moments of stuttering, silence, lots of ‘umming’ and ‘aheming’, and all sorts of odd looking body movements.  One woman ran from the room each time it was her turn to speak and we would have to coax her back so she could complete her assignment.  My personal experience was thatthe group was very supportive, forgiving, and compassionate.  When people suffer together, they come together in profound ways and our little group did just that.

I learned that public speaking is an art and not something that comes automatically to anyone. There’s no doubt, some people are better at it than others, but after two days of videotaping, coaching and open feedback from fellow participants, you learn that even the most comfortable public speakers have a lot to learn. You focus on how to stand, what your gestures look like, what tone of voice to use for different messages, when to pause appropriately, how to make eye contact, etc. After hours of grueling practice and honest feedback, you begin to learn the tricks to effective presentation. But, learning how to be an effective public speaker can also become an obstacle to the audience believing in you and your message. If you follow the rules too closely the audience can feel like you’re trying to sell them something and within moments, they will become suspicious of you and your message.

In the November 2008 Harvard Business Review, there’s a good article about “How to Become an Authentic Speaker”, by Nick Morgan. Here are some excerpts from his article.

“Authenticity – including the ability to communicate authentically with others – has become on important leadership attribute. When leaders have it, they can inspire their followers to make extraordinary efforts on behalf of their organizations. When they don’t, cynicism prevails and few employees do more than the minimum necessary to get by. We all know by now the power of nonverbal communication – what I call the ‘second conversation’. If your spoken message and your body language are mismatched, audiences will respond to the non-verbal message every time. Gestures speak louder than words. And that means you can’t just stand up and tell the truth.”

Our author goes on to say that you cannot rehearse authenticity and that leaves you in a quandary about how to be more effective without looking practiced. The classic suggestions you’re given in these presentation and public speaking courses i.e., maintaing eye contact, spreading your arms, walking out from behind the podium, etc.,  can often back fire.  They make you appear inauthentic and the audience sees you as being artificial.

Science teaches us that non-verbal communication starts before words actually get spoken and it takes place the instant after an emotion or an impulse fires deep within the brain. This happens long before it’s actually articulated in speech, and we often find ourselves having made certain conclusions before the thought actually gets translated by our brains. I recall walking into a manager’s office recently and immediately ‘knowing’ that he was not having a good day.  The expression on his face registered exasperation, he was sitting on the edge of his seat,  pounding on his computer keys.  I knew he was having a hard time.  The thought occurred to me, “this is probably not a good time to bring up the coaching budget for 2009”. We started our meeting from a completely different approach than I had intended. I asked what kind of day he was having and he talked for the next 15 minutes.  This gave the manager time to unwind and to get some of the stuff that was bothering him off his chest.  It gave us a chance to connect emotionally and for me to listen to what was really important to him in that moment. By the time the subject of coaching came up, he was in a completely different frame of mind and much more open to discussing the program for 2009.

Here are some suggestions the author makes in his article to assist us in communicating authentically:

“Tap into four fundamental aims, or ‘intents’ of a good presentation:  be open with your listeners to connect with them, be passionate about your topic, and listen to messages from your audience, either spoken or unspoken. In practicing your speech, work to get into the mind-set of each of these aims and you’ll achieve the perceived and actual authenticity that creates a powerful bond with audiences.”

“How can you become more open? Try to imagine giving your presentation to someone with whom you’re completely relaxed – your spouse, a close friend, your child. Notice what that mental picture looks like but particularly what it /feels/ like. This is the state you need to be in if you are to have an authentic rapport with your audience.”

And, don’t forget the importance of being present to your audience. I have often found it helpful to try to feel my feet throughout my presentation.  It grounds my energy before I being speaking and although hard to do, whenever I can feel my feet, it brings me back into the moment and gives me a new opportunity to check in to my audience, hear myself speaking (so I know what I’m saying), and breathe.

This week, your challenge is to experiment with being more authentic when you speak.  It doesn’t have to be in front of a large group of people, it can occur around a conference room table with just a few people in a meeting, or even over the phone experimenting with your tone of voice.  Try setting the intentions mentioned above before you speak.  Maybe you can try being more authentic in a one-on-one conversation with someone by listening to their unspoken as well as spoken communication.  Experiment with your attention when you’re speaking and when you’re listening.

I have often thought of this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, before going into a conversation,

“When the eyes say one thing and the tongue another, a practiced man relies on the language of the first.”

Have a great week!