Here’s something for you to ponder. Business practices are built entirely on logical thinking. Cool heads rule. Decisions are based on thoughtful analyses. Emotions are messy. They have no place in the world of commerce, and professionals who express their emotions in the workplace are weak.
Have you ever wondered why listening—the simple act of taking in a spoken message—is so very difficult to master? Intellectually, the idea of listening is easy to understand. It appears to be passive in nature; you just sit there and . . . well . . . listen. So what’s the big deal?
To begin with, listening isn’t passive at all. It requires that you fully understand the message from the other person’s point of view. You must also recognize that point of view as valid, even if it differs from your own. Contrary to prevailing opinion, being a good listener doesn’t obligate you to agree with what you hear. In fact, putting yourself in the other’s place and seeing things from their perspective is evidence of strength and insight on your part.
The other difficulty relates to the misconception I spoke of earlier, which is the disregard of the emotional factors central to any interaction. Like it or not, we are all emotional creatures. Our first reaction to any stimulus is emotional. In the split seconds before our brains kick in, our adrenal glands are working overtime and our gut reactions take hold. That means that people who appear to be basing their arguments on facts may actually be churning with emotion on the inside.
This puts demands on the listener, who must determine whether the speaker’s words are coming from a logical or an emotional base. Good listening requires your full attention on both aspects of the speaker’s words. Are his comments fact-based, reasonable, and grounded in sound principles of logic? Is she being melodramatic, with tone and gestures that are over the top? Or has he gone silent on you, closed up and shut down? You must become well versed in nonverbal communication and learn to read between the lines. The speaker’s tone of voice and body language—even when they are subtle—will give you much more information than relying on the words alone.
Here are some indicators to look for when you’re distinguishing between logic and emotion:
The words don’t match the behavior.
When a verbal-nonverbal mismatch occurs, the nonverbal takes precedence. If the words say one thing and the tone of voice contradicts it, the tone of voice tells the real story. If positive words flow from a scowling face, it’s time to stop and reassess what you’re hearing. Regardless of what is being said, look carefully at body language and pay close attention to the tone of voice. The speaker’s words will give you information; his or her behavior will give you the meaning behind the words, including important clues to the underlying emotions.
The words are overstated.
Words like always, never, obviously, and worst are all good indicators that strong emotions are present. “We never come to an agreement . . .” “You always say that . . . ” “Obviously, this strategy won’t work . . .” The reality is these statements are too harsh to possibly be true; we agree sometimes, I don’t always say that, and this strategy may, in fact, be quite workable. When you hear these red-flag words, it’s a pretty good bet emotions are running high.
The body language and/or vocal tone is out of character.
A normally calm and centered person becomes visibly tense; a friendly, warm person suddenly clamps his jaw and goes dead silent; a usually poised person loses her cool and goes for the jugular—these are clear signs that emotions are overriding customary behavior and that rational thinking is being distorted.
Making the effort to distinguish between a speaker’s logical argument and it’s emotional origin is not a passive process. When you sense the speaker’s emotions are getting in the way of a fruitful conversation, you can’t ignore them. Acknowledge the emotion; don’t discount it. Once the speaker feels heard and understood at the emotional level, you can then move forward confidently into a more reasonable and productive discussion.
Imagine this. You’ve been told you must give a presentation tomorrow. It may be you’ve known for a few weeks, but you’ve been busy. Or you’ve been avoiding the necessary preparation because giving presentations isn’t your thing. Or you’re just plain scared and just want it to go away. But now the zero hour is almost here. It’s time to stop worrying, stressing, and reaffirming just how much you hate speaking before groups.
Mastering the art of presenting—and it is an art—takes training, practice and experience. It’s also a vital component of any business career, and you owe it to yourself to improve your speaking skills whenever and however you can. However, your immediate concern isn’t what you’re going to say next week, or next month, or next year. It’s what you’re going to say tomorrow.
Maybe I can wing it, you think to yourself. Then reality hits and you realize winging it isn’t going to work, and you’re totally out of options. But don’t panic. Help is at hand.
Here are some tips that will make you a better speaker overnight.
Get Your Thoughts On Track.
If your inner voice is telling you you’re going to fail, don’t listen. Instead of picturing yourself as stumbling and unprepared, change that picture and change your thoughts. What would it be like to be a great speaker? How would it feel? What would you say and do? Then picture yourself in that role—calm and self-contained, comfortable in your own skin, able to think on your feet and handle anything unexpected that comes your way. Concentrate fully and expect to succeed. Disciplined mental focus is the ideal performance state. It is the starting point for the mastery of any skill, and presentation skills are no exception.
Serve Your Audience.
Now it’s time to turn your thoughts to your audience. Your presentation must be designed to meet the needs of the people listening to you. Who are they? How can you help them? Don’t try to be profound or impress them with your knowledge and expertise. Speak in language they will understand, and keep it conversational, with short sentences and small words. Honor them by looking at them, speaking directly to them, and watching them for feedback. In turn they will give you courtesy and respect.
Organize Your Material.
Decide on the three most important points you want to make. Surround those points with evidence: facts, data, statistics. Introduce some good examples and stories that add a personal touch. If you must incorporate slides, decide where to put them and get them in order. Create a brief introduction that tells the audience why you’re giving them this information and what’s in it for them. Add a short summary at the end, give them an action step or two . . . and you’re home free.
Put Life In Your Delivery.
In describing a speaker, someone once said, “His voice was so monotonous that if it were measured on an EKG, he would be pronounced dead.” Put life into your voice. Vary the pitch and volume for a livelier sound. Emphasize key words and speak at a moderate pace, neither too fast nor too slow. Keep your body loose and your gestures free and easy. If you can include these qualities in your presentation, it will make it easier for your audience to connect with you and hear what you have to say.
Speaking is a lot like golf: You can spend hours improving your game, but sometimes a minor adjustment to your swing can make everything fall into place. By focusing on any one of the above suggestions, your overall technique will improve. If you incorporate them all, tomorrow’s presentation will be a winner.
“Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away”. “I believe in the church of Baseball”. “I owe everything to George Bailey”. “Rosebud”. Recognize these? They’re the opening lines of some really great movies. Star Wars, Bull Durham, It’s a Wonderful Life, Citizen Kane.
Imagine if these movies had started differently. “In a past scenario, the troop strength of corrupt military-industrial complex had a 500-to-1 equipment advantage over a small but vocal group of dissidents…as you can see in this bar chart on my PowerPoint slide.” Movies show us the power of storytelling to engage and persuade people, don’t they? I got a reminder of this from a great interview with screenwriter and creative writing teacher Robert McKee on Screenwriting for Executives. Whether your interest is in sales presentation, public speaking or simply team communications, this Hollywood advice applies to you.
Of course, storytelling doesn’t replace facts and logic. Its role is to help bring your information to life and make it more persuasive. It helps people understand complex ideas. It inspires, motivates – and gets remembered.
So how do you start developing the plot line of your next presentation? Storytelling is built on examples, metaphors and analogies. Is your story about the battle for market share? Then the hero may be you and your department. Maybe there’s a metaphorical “damsel in distress” who was rescued by the new training in customer service. Or, perhaps you’re explaining major management changes. Is the analogy the exploration of an undiscovered planet? Or getting a hard-case kid onto the championship football team? Or like the two little nuns who made all the difference when they yanked the carburetor out of the Nazis’ chase car in The Sound of Music? Now that’s a story about innovation and initiative!
Once you’ve decided the plot of your story, how do you put it all together? Here are a few speaking tips:
- Use powerful, concrete words and phrases. For example, in a sales presentation, it’s easy to talk about a new product “providing increased effectiveness.” But it’s more compelling to talk about “no more Saturday catch-up work” or “make a difference to three more people every day.”
- Laughter is good medicine. It helps people remember. It lightens the weight of a tough message. Of course, make sure it’s relevant and appropriate.
- Think visually. This isn’t radio – you’re on the big screen. What would be a great prop to convey your message? A black hat and a white hat? A letter from a customer? A tiny pebble, a melted DVD, your grandfather’s pocket watch, the contents of your organization’s lost and found box? Extra credit: make this the only visual in your PowerPoint – or replace it all together.
Presenting your ideas in the form of a story is an emotionally powerful way of sharing the picture you have in your mind’s eye with your listener. If you and your listener are seeing the same picture then you have truly succeeded in conveying your message.
In part one; I talked about the communication skills for managing change. Now I want to explore how leadership skills play into creating the content of those communications to help reach and inspire people to success.
One of the points I mentioned before was that people want to know why a change is taking place. It’s easy to think about the more literal response to that question. “It will save money.” “It will help us respond faster.” “It will open up a new market.” Or, in these tough times, the answer is often, “It’ll help us hang on until the economy turns around.” Those answers aren’t enough. They aren’t enough to qualm fears. They aren’t enough to build buy-in. They aren’t enough to inspire belief and action.
Getting to positive change requires communication skills, powered by leadership skills. Let me explain. All of us are rational and emotional beings – and we bring both those outlooks to the workplace. Transformational leadership requires us to connect with both. The rational mind responds to goals. The emotional mind responds to vision. The two must be interconnected and both must be communicated for successful change. Why?
- Goals appeal to our intellect. Vision engages us. Goals tell us what we need to do, what the changes will require of us. But that’s just the beginning. Vision brings meaning to the change, captures our imagination for the good that could come from it.
- Goals give us timeframes and results. Vision shows us our future. Always, the logical mind wants and needs the specifics of goals. Vision helps us soar above the everyday to see the big-picture possibilities.
- Goals drive performance. Vision inspires. We want to understand the standards by which we’ll be measured and rewarded. But vision asks us to think for ourselves and empowers us to find ways to expand upon it.
- Goals solve problems. Vision opens possibilities. For example, goals say, “Reduce customer wait time by 20%”. Vision says, “Delight customers by easing the stress of their time-crunched days.”
- Goals are concrete, written. Vision is a living story to be internalized. One you pull up and access on your computer. The other you carry in your mind.
Chances are, you already have skills and training in goal-setting. So, I want to focus on visioning here. Where do you start? You’ll need to do the same thing you’re going to be asking your team to do. Think beyond the current actions to the future. What does “good” look like? What will a day be like when the change is in full force? What will be the response from customers? How will they write the article on your success in the Harvard Business Review? Gather those mental images for your vision story. Then think about how you want to characterize the vision. Are you on a mission? Is it a battle? A quest? Is it a marathon or a sprint? Is it art or science? Are you creating or conquering? Now build your thoughts into your story, filling it out with details that tie it to the everyday experience.
Here’s a crucial reminder. Your goals – and especially your vision – may be most important when the changes you’re facing are triggered by “bad” news. Downsizing, financial reorganization or the departure of a key leader can scar a company’s performance for a very long time if not approached correctly. Without being a Pollyanna, you need to focus on the positive future. Not the pain, but the gain. Try to set goals within a positive framework. Define your vision, not in terms of loss, but of the open door. Once you have your messages in place, communicate them often, in as many ways as you can. Update the vision with success stories. Share goals reached. And, when necessary, recalibrate.
Change is a reality in today’s world. To be a true leader you need to go beyond managing change to empowering it.
Posted by Leslie Dickson
Last weekend I went whitewater rafting with my sister, her husband and another friend. We went on the middle Gauley River in West Virginia. The Gauley is one of the premier whitewater rivers in the country, but the water was on the low side, so we expected an easy day of great weather and beautiful scenery.
Be prepared with clear expectations.
Claire and I were in a boat called a shredder. It has two side tubes that you sit on, with your feet on the “floor” of the boat. With Claire on one side and me on the other, we paddled our way down the river. Claire has boated on the Gauley and New Rivers for 25 years. She guided rafting trips for many of those years, so she knows the twists and turns well. She also knows the power of the rapids—and the danger that goes with it. With that knowledge comes an intense respect for the river—and a lot of dread too.
Me? My boating has been filled with joy and excitement—and total ignorance. I had never been thrown out of a raft and forced to swim through a rapid. Until you do, you have not truly experienced the full impact of a white water river trip, so you might say my brain had only tapped into the positive side of rafting.
My cautious sister, on the other hand, has the negative side of rafting imbedded in her brain. She has swum most of the challenging rapids, and she knows what it’s like to get thrown out of a boat when you least expect it. Boulders and swirling eddies await the unwary swimmer. On that beautiful day, when I looked over at Claire, she would be staring downstream . . . holding her breath. When I looked downstream, it didn’t look all that dreadful to me.
When I asked what was up, she said, “Can’t you hear that?” The sound was the next rapid coming up. This seemed like more fun and excitement to me. For Claire, however, it signaled time to think about what was ahead and how to navigate a rapid that she knew well, but that might have a surprise or two in store. (This is what made my sister a sought-after rafting guide. She knew what she was doing and didn’t take unnecessary chances.)
Turn negatives into positives
On that glorious day of rafting, I did have my first rapid swim. I got thrown out of the boat so fast that I didn’t have time to worry about what might happen to me in the water. The worst part was the egg on my shin where my leg hit a boulder. But I didn’t die. I popped up downstream, got back into the boat and thought, Excellent, now I don’t need to worry about swimming again because I just did. If and when it happens again, I will handle it.
How do you want to move through your life? Check in and monitor your thoughts. Are they positive or negative? Do you want to avoid the experiences of life because of what might happen? Or do you want to enjoy the excitement of what’s coming around the bend? My choice is to deal with what is at hand, and deal with what might happen when it happens. If I spend my life in dread, and the dreadful things don’t happen, what an enormous waste of time. I would much rather be joyful.
Make your choice
How you move through your world can be joyous or full of dread. Experience and knowledge is powerful. It will make you a great boater, as long as it doesn’t paralyze you. My sister doesn’t stop boating because of what might happen. She has too much skill for that. She just needs a gentle reminder to keep breathing.