Dr. Ethan Becker offers a practical guide to communicating more effectively in the workplace.
- The two ways we process information
- The four-step structure of compelling communication
- The simplest way to sound more engaging
Ethan F. Becker, PhD is president and senior coach/trainer for the Speech Improvement Company, the oldest communication coaching and training firm in America. He has worked with Apple, IBM, Bain Capital, Sony Music, and the New York Giants, the F.B.I., Harvard University, YouTube, and other clients across the globe.
- Ethan’s book: Mastering Communication at Work: How to Lead, Manage, and Influence
- Ethan’s LinkedIn: Dr. Ethan Becker
- Ethan’s website: SpeechImprovement.com
Resources mentioned in the show:
- Book: Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William Ury, Bruce Patton
- Book: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins
- Book: The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense by Suzette Haden
Thank you, sponsors!
Ethan, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
All right. I’m psyched to be here. I’ve been waiting. This is great.
All right. Well, I’m psyched too. And so, I want to hear, so you’ve spent a long time working with folks, helping them communicate all the better. Is there a particularly surprising or fascinating discovery you’ve made along the way?
I think what surprised me is the similarities that people have around the world. We travel all over the world. Well, this year, nobody’s traveling, but like normally we’re on airplanes.
Oh, working buddy.
And the various cultures around the planet, mostly what we see on television, on the media, and on the internet highlights differences, and it’s designed for division because that’s like divide people because it sells ads. But in the work that we do as speech coaches, we see the similarities almost identical in some cases, culture after culture after culture. That surprises me, which I think is profound actually.
Intriguing. And so, what are a few universals that cut across everything?
Well, for instance, people get nervous when they have to speak in front of a group, not everybody does. Not everybody does. But the psychology around it and the reasons behind it are often similar. People get uncomfortable in the business world, when they need to give feedback, for instance. And, again, not everybody. I’m generalizing. But the kinds of things that we hear and see are almost identical.
Like, I’ll hear somebody tell me that, “My manager just doesn’t understand me. He’s putting too much stuff on my plate.” Like, I might hear something like that here in Massachusetts or when I’m in Malaysia, it’s like the same things. Once you get through the culture, the obvious cultural uniqueness of a different environment, there are very, very common similarities in all cultures.
Okay. Well, good to know for the world travelers or future returning travelers amongst us. Well, let’s chat a bit about your book Mastering Communication at Work. So, it’s been a while since the previous edition was published. Tell us, you say that everything and nothing has changed in the interim. What do you mean by that?
Yeah, there’s not a whole lot that’s changed. Much of what we know in human communication and psychology comes from Aristotle over centuries ago but there have been some things we’ve seen get updated. We updated the book. We did a second edition. We added a section for gender equity and a section for virtual communication, not because of COVID but just, in general, the technology curve has increased so there were some changes there. But a lot of how we think and process and connect and how we get good and develop skill in communication hasn’t changed too much. So, yeah.
All right. Well, so let’s talk a little bit about how that’s done but, first, maybe a little bit of the why. Just what kind of an impact does having excellent communication skills make for a professional?
The answer varies, really. In most cases, the impact is going to be pretty significant because when you can get your ideas and thoughts out in a way where another human can hear it, decode it, and understand it, usually things tend to go well. And when that doesn’t happen, it can be highly frustrating. So, in most cases, it’s a pretty positive experience.
Okay. And can you share maybe a story of someone who saw a transformation and what impact that made for them?
Sure. One client of ours who enjoys sharing his story with us, Jon Platt. He’s the chairman at Sony Music. So, when Jon first came to us, he was executive vice president, and this is the fellow who was a producer for like Jay Z and Beyonce and so forth, but he was looking to move up in his career. And one of the things he was saying, “So, look, I need to strengthen my ability to articulate my ideas in these senior executive levels,” which is a different kind of communication than he was able to do with artists.
Jon has a real talent, a real ear for talent, and he was able to negotiate very effective deals with artists, and he needed to update the language he was using and the approach he was using to communicate internally with those who would be in a position to put him in a position of leadership, and he did. He did. He did the work. It was very difficult at times because he had to learn to behave in ways that were new for him.
But, as he did that, he moved up the ladder pretty quickly throughout. He was at EMI at the time, and then he moved over to Sony, and he’s doing very well these days. But a great example of someone who put the time and effort into strengthening the quality of his communication skills and now he’s benefitting from that.
We see these examples all the time. Not everything is high profile. We’ll see this, sometimes, it could just be a typical manager or somebody maybe they have no interest in being a manager. Not everyone wants to move up in organization, that’s just one example. Sometimes it’s just a matter of somebody feeling comfortable on their own team, or learning how to communicate with peers comfortably, or it might be a presentation, anything like that. We see these kinds of things happen all the time with folks.
Well, I’m curious to hear about that notion about certain behaviors needed to change when you’re communicating in a more senior level. What are some of the key difference-makers when we are communicating like a leader? How does that differ from just kind of typical, normal everyday patterns in behaviors you may have around communication?
One way of looking at this, I’ve heard some other discussion around some Aristotle, and this would be a good idea to maybe sort of clarify some ideas around it. Aristotle, one of the reasons that speech coaches look at Aristotle is because he was one of the early philosophers to look at how we think, how we process information. And so, some of the terms we hear tossed around a little bit are a little bit sometimes not always clear. But he was saying people tend to think and process in one of two different ways, either inductive or deductive. These are the terms that are used.
And here’s what it means. If I’m an inductive thinker, it’s just who I am. What that means is that I need to have specific pieces of information that lead to me a general conclusion, it’s called going from the specific details to the general conclusion, what you want happens at the end. That’s inductive.
For instance, if I were to say to you, “Hey, listen, last weekend, I was at a family barbecue, and my mother-in-law was there. And she said, ‘Ethan, I think you should lose a little weight.’ Well, I think that was kind of rude of her but she’s the mother-in-law so she can say anything she wants to say. So, I thought I would take up jogging and I went to the mall to get a new pair of sneakers. And it was really frustrating that day because it was Sunday and it was really crowded.”
“There was a lot of sales on Sundays, by the way. So, I got into the parking lot and I couldn’t find a place to park, and this other guy came and cut me off. And I was going to get out and confront him but I was really just here for the sneakers so I had to park in the remote parking lot which was really frustrating because I had to walk to the front of the mall and I had this old pair of shoes. And if it gets too sore, the shoes get a little sore in the back of my foot, and thenI have to see my doctor, which is a nightmare because the lady at the desk hates me. She hates everybody.”
“You’re with me still? Good. You see, because I went into the shoe store and they didn’t have sneakers. I thought that was interesting so I asked if I could talk to the manager, and they sent me down to the sports shop. And at the sports shop, they didn’t have white sneakers. And I like the white ones because if they get dirty, you can bleach them. They’re just like new. So, that leads me to what I’m going to ask you today because, see, now I’m going to go jogging this afternoon, and I don’t want to get my new pair of sneakers dirty. So, could you tell me is it going to rain?”
“Is it going to rain? That was my point. That is what I needed to know.” But, you see, if I think and process in an inductive way, I can’t just ask that, “I think you need to know about the mother-in-law, and the parking lot, and the doctor, and all that.” And if you’re hearing my example right now, and you’re thinking, “Oh, the guy is just rambling about random stuff,” “Hold on a second. It’s not random inside of my mind. Somehow these things are all connected to each other.”
Now, this is an inductive pattern. Now, you don’t have to be that inductive. That’s an extreme example. I could be slightly inductive and it’s less frustrating. I could say, “Hey, listen, Pete, I just got a new pair of sneakers and I don’t want to get them dirty as I go jogging. Do you know if it’s going to rain?” So, I’m giving you the background information first and then the point, then what I want. That is known as an inductive pattern.
The deductive pattern is different. It is the exact opposite. You start with the point and then you give your details. So, for instance, somebody who is extremely deductive, they might sound like this, “Rain?” That’s it. Now, I don’t have to be that deductive. I could say, “Do you know if it’s going to rain? I just got a new pair of sneakers and I don’t want to get them dirty as I go jogging.” “Hey, I just got a new pair of sneakers and I don’t want to get them dirty as I go jogging. Do you know if it’s going to…?”
Can you hear the difference between the two patterns?
Absolutely. And when you said, it’s interesting that you say some people just are inductive. So, when in your first rambling example, I guess I found that very frustrating and thought, “Oh, I hate this.” Like, as I imagine that person talking to me, like, this is like, “Oh, I hate this. When are they going to shut up?” And I say, “Pete, be compassionate. And I’ll be patient with them. That’s kind of what was going on in my mind. But if someone is inductive, and they’re hearing that, might they be like, “Oh, this is really interesting and engaging”? That seems hard for me to believe.
Yeah, spoken like a true deductive listener. See, one of the reasons these matters is because one of these two people meet each other, look out, there’s a level of frustration that just breaks the communication down. If I’m a deductive thinker, it’s just who I am. I process in a deductive way. And this inductive person comes to talk to me? What I look like is frustrated, you know, “Uh-huh. Uh-huh,” I’m like nodding my head, “Uh-huh,” waving my hand, “Mm-hmm, yup. What do you want? Get to the point.” I get so frustrated to the point that I’m not even listening anymore. I might be looking at you and I might not be talking but the comprehension is very low. I would need you to do it in a deductive way for me.
And the reverse is true, by the way, also. If I’m an inductive thinker, and this deductive person comes to talk to me, what I would look like is very frustrated, “What? Whoa, wait a minute. Hold on. Slow down. How did you get to the…? Back up just a minute here.” So, this isn’t about right or wrong. The language we like to use here, this is about what’s effective versus ineffective. Therefore, the skill is to, number one, know which way you tend to lean. And, number two, probably more importantly, is, what does your listener, or listeners, need you to be? What do they need you to be in order to make it as easy as possible for them to receive the information, comprehend the information, and see what you’re trying to communicate? That’s the skill around here.
And where sometimes there’s a confusion is there are folks who will say, “You should always be deductive. Tell them the point up front.” It’s, like, well, that’s not bad advice for deductive thinkers. “Well, senior executives are always deductive.” Oh, that is not true. That is not true. I coach CEOs all over the world, and I know many who are inductive in the way they think. However, we know it is a trend that the more senior we become, there is a trend to become more deductive, so it’s not a bad way to plan but you always want to be ready to pivot.
Just like in the game of soccer, if I were to say to you, “Only kick the ball with your right foot. Never kick with your left,” that’s really poor advice. It doesn’t help you. The skill is to learn both. And that’s easy to understand, hard to do, because one of these is our comfort zone, and the other one is, Pete, you did a great job of explaining a second ago, kind of annoying. It’s like, “Will you just shut up and get to the point?”
In Jon’s case, what he did really, really well is he was very deductive in the way he thought because he knows a lot about the music business. And as he grew, and people would come to him with deals, he was listening deductively but they were talking inductively. He trained himself how to listen in an inductive way. And when he did, he says two things happened.
Number one is the quality of the relationships with those around him strengthened. And, number two, he actually learned stuff. It was like, “I could learn things.” So, it’s a good skill to look at. I know it’s old but the reason we’ve never decided to give cute names to it, or get into the psychometric, a lot of the psychometric tests have come from some of the Aristotle stuff, is that we just found that in the business world, when you teach it in its raw form, it’s much easier for people to hear it, comprehend it, and, most importantly, apply it in their daily life without us there coaching and so.
And that’s an interesting point with the deductive-listening approach. Like, on the one hand, we stay focused on the point, what really matters. But, on the other hand, when it comes to deal-making, you could very well be missing opportunities in terms of like, “Oh, that thing that you were just kind of rambling on about actually contained some kernels of stuff that’s useful clues about what really matters to you, or what really frustrates you, or if I could get incorporated in this deal for you, you’d be willing to make a concession elsewhere that is of more benefit to me. And if I were just like laser-focused about what just sort what just washed passed me, I’d miss out on it.”
Yeah. In the world of selling, we do a lot of this kind of work with sales professionals. And if you look at traditional selling, it’s been around for a while, the inductive approach is pretty much what’s trained, like, “Don’t tell them the price until you have presented the value proposition,” and it is drilled into people.
And I guess I haven’t thought about it in these terms but I guess I am super deductive because when I’m talking to a sales person, I guess, I want them to prove that they’ve got the goods. And so, they’re like, “Let me tell you a little bit about the history of our company. So, we were founded in 1974 by a couple who had some frustration with their…” and I was like, “I don’t care at all.” Like, “Show me some compelling data, tests, experiments, case studies, that reveal that you’re the real deal and you can do what you claim to be able to do supremely well such that I can trust that you can do it for me.”
And then I do get frustrated when they don’t do that. And sometimes I even tell them, it’s like, “Hey, heads up, here’s what I find very persuasive.” It’s like I’m giving you a roadmap to selling me, and sometimes it just doesn’t matter at all, they do their scripts.
Well, funny you bring that up, if you look at different sales methodologies that are out there, whether it’s Sandler or SPIN, or many of them are challengers, some of these things have been around for a very long time, these sort of older models that were, for the most part, what are they trying to do? They’re trying to teach the salesperson to learn something about the listener, understand their situation, and the problems, and the implications, and then go back and present what they need.
And those who are really skilled at it have very high-quality listening ability, and they’re listening for a lot of different things. Those who are brand-new are reading a script of questions, and people hate them, they want to smack them. But what are they listening for? Does this person need a more inductive or deductive approach? And when that’s not taught, when it is said, “Don’t tell them the price, tell the value,” that’s nice if, in some cases, that may be the case. But, in other cases, oh, my goodness.
It’s not just selling a product, like, let’s say, you’re trying to sell your idea to senior management, and you’re asking for, I don’t know, half a million dollars for your project, and you inductively lead up to that. And if that particular team are deductive, if it’s a deductive group of listeners, here’s what they hear. As you go through your value and the data and all of the details, what they hear is this, “[muffled sounds] half a million dollars.” Like, they missed it. Why? Because in their mind, all they’re thinking is, “What do you want? Where are you going with this?”
Now, that doesn’t mean start out by showing up and saying, “Hey, I need half a million dollars.” Some teams you might, but it means know your listener. The real thing is you can’t get too far on one way or the other.
Okay. And I’m thinking right now in terms of like best practices and how to kind of, as best as you can, be all things to all people in terms of, hey, we have an executive summary on the handout, and then we go into some of the details, or whatever, or just a little bit of a preview, “I’ve got an exciting investment opportunity I think it can give us 8X ROI that will cost about half a million dollars, and here are some of the details.”
Yeah, “What do you want?” and, “What do you want?” And so, from you, I’m going to ask you for approval. I’m going to ask, “What do you want from them?” Sometimes it’s nothing, “I’m just giving you an update.” The main point that you need might be at the beginning, and when we do that, for instance, like what you’re talking about in an executive summary, or when we look at, for instance, structure, there’s a structure that we introduced to the world back in 1964. It was actually ’63. The firm started in 1964, but in 1963, my mom and dad, both were on ABC television and they were interviewed about communication. It was sort of the year they were just starting the company.
And they were asked about this, and they talked about this, what we today we’ve referred to, and in my book, I talk about this, is we refer to it as the four-step outline.
Step number one has three words, “Tell what tell,” is the way we put it. And this is when you tell your listeners what you’re going to be talking about, how long you’ll be talking for, and how many particular topics. This might be your deductive point if it’s a deductive presentation. You might say what you want from them here. If it’s an inductive presentation, you might not. You might save that till later. But “Tell what tell” is when you set the expectation of what’s going to happen.
Step number two, this one kind of get dropped in some places but we still teach it, three words, “Tell why listen.” And this is a brief statement as to why they should listen to this presentation. It’s not necessarily why they should agree with you, or buy what you’re selling, or the why of the idea, or any of that jazz. It’s, “So, you’re going to talk about your department’s update. So, what? Why? Is this a good time for me to check my email? Like, why should I pay attention right now?” And we can talk about that in a bit, but that’s basically what it is; it’s brief commentary, and sometimes you have more than one if you have a group of people. If you got multiple people in the room, you might have to have more than one reason why they’re listening to this.
Step three, “Tell,” that’s the body of your presentation where most of your time is spent. Step four, “Tell what told,” and it’s a summarization, summaries of two parts to them. The first part is you repeat your most important points, not everything, but you go back and what it is those points are. And in some meetings, some business meetings, those points may have evolved over the course of the meeting, but you repeat, you come back, meaning if they’ve turned into discussion. But what are your most important points?
And then the second part is an action statement. What do you want your listeners to do? Now that they know this, do they go somewhere, call somebody? Maybe it’s just a soft action, like to consider or think about, things like that. But that’s it, tell them what you can tell them, tell them what they should listen, tell them what you told them.
And in some talks, we’ll reverse steps one and two, or repeat it, or if it’s a conference talk, or like a TED Talk, we might start out with a story, which is one big fat step number two that leads up to what we’re going to do. But when we look with inductive and deductive, well, that outline could apply either way. It depends who your listeners are.
And for the telling them why they should listen, you said that’s distinct from why they should buy or do the thing. So, could you give us some examples of statements or articulations of why to listen?
Sure. And sometimes they overlap so that’s fine. And when I’m coaching clients, sometimes the reason to buy is also a reason to listen. I just don’t think it’s that as strong.
So, let’s take the example of I’m a product manager and I’m presenting at a national sales meeting to the salesforce. And my job was to go up and do a 20-minute presentation on the new product, and my boss needs me to get the sales team all jazzed up about this because they’re going to be selling it for the next year.
All right, I’ll make this a little harder on me. It’s not even a new product. It’s the same product. We hear this all the time, it’s like, “There’s not even anything new but I still have to get them all excited about it.” So, step one and step two, “All right. Well, thanks, everybody. Over the next 20 minutes, I’m going to be talking to you about the product and all of the changes,” there’s step one.
“This is important because, for those of you who are not familiar with what’s different, this is going to help you feel very confident out in the field, that you know what is and what isn’t different about this so that you don’t accidentally say the wrong thing.” In that example, it’s not profound. This is where we get tripped up. Sometimes people feel like step number two needs to be this profound sale, “This will save your life.” It’s like, well, sure, that is a reason to listen but, in most business meetings, it’s usually something, “Who are your listeners? And why do they care about the particular topic?”
Let say, in that exact same example I just gave, there’s another targeted group, maybe they’re in that same group at the sales meeting, I also have people from finance at the meeting and I want to target them as well. So, it might sound something like this, “So, over the next 20 minutes, I’ll be taking you through the new product and so you can see all of the changes. And for those in sales, this is going to help you understand exactly what is and what isn’t different so that when you’re out in front of your customers, you have all the knowledge you need and you’re not going to look bad in front of them.” You’re not going to look bad in front of them, that’s the reason.
“For those of you in finance, I’m glad you’re here today. While this isn’t specific for you, this is going to give you some very good insight as to why we have been asking for what we have been, and where the money that you’ve been allocating to the team has gone. Okay,” and then they get into it, blah, blah, blah.
Now, I’m making up examples here. When we have real topics, it’s actually you can think about, “Who are these people? Who are my listeners? And why do they care?” And sometimes it’s hard because we’re so close to this, we just assume they know why. If you’re presenting to senior management just an update on your department, “Why?” “Well, because they told me to come,” but you can’t say that. I mean, you could say that but that’s not going to be very helpful. So, you might say, “So, this is going to give you the most up-to-date information on my team,” or something like that.
Sometimes folks will say, “But, Ethan, that sounds obvious.” Yeah. Well, we found in our research on this is that even when the listener knows why the speaker is talking, that when the speaker says it out loud, it just confirms in the back of their mind, “Why I’m here, why I am listening,” even if it’s not about them. They now understand who the speaker is talking to. It’s all part of setting the expectations.
Well, certainly. And it may seem obvious but that’s one of my top pet peeves when talking about communication because when people use the vocal pause “Obviously,” when it’s not obvious, and me as the recipient, it’s like, “Oh, actually, I didn’t know that but, apparently, it was obvious so I must be an idiot.” So, I just think that’s a great word to purge from one’s vocabulary.
I love it. I love it.
So, one, it may not be so obvious. You may have a different set of assumptions coming in, and you clarify that right up front, which is great, and then folks might reorient and say, “Oh, wait a second. I thought this was about this.” And if they’ve got the right kind of culture, “Hey, actually, I guess I don’t need to be here. Thank you for letting me know up front. I’m going to spend my time on this other thing because I had a different impression.”
Or, they can know that, “Hey, given that we’re moving in a slightly different direction than I had imagined, I’m going to formulate some different questions.” It’s just helpful. And I like the way you said it in terms of, “This is important for you because…” and then the way you arrived there is just by really putting yourself in their shoes in terms of, “I’m a salesperson, why do I care about this? Oh, because if I don’t have the info, I’m going to sound dumb. I may commit to something we can’t deliver, then we’re really going to be in a bigger pickle because we’ve disappointed somebody or we’ve blown a sale that could’ve been saved had we just sort of gotten it right the first time.”
Yeah, in that example, in the “Hey, we got to present to the sales team…“ example, this is an important one because sometimes marketing, product marketing, there’s sort of this fear of saying something that could possibly be perceived as negative. And when you look at inductive and deductive, we were sort of joking a little bit that all salespeople are trained to be inductive, right? Yes, as talkers. However, when it is time to listen, what we found in the work that we do is they tend to be deductive when they’re listening.
So, if you’re at a conference, and you’re trying to do a “Tell why listen,” step two, “Tell why listen,” first is you got to say at the beginning of your talk, can’t save it till the end. In general, we have found folks who are in the profession of selling, they tend to care about two things, and if you can tap into one of those, you have their undivided attention. Any guesses on what they are, two things salespeople care about? Listeners right now could think about it, say it out loud in your car.
I’ll say commissions and delighting their customers.
Very, very close. Commissions, yes, it falls into the category of money. Money, how much? And I don’t mean that in a mean-spirited way. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Look, folks who are in the profession of selling are typically hired with a particular…that’s a desirable thing. There’s nothing wrong with that, “How much will I make?”
So, if I’m at the conference, I’m at the company conference, and you’re talking to me about the same product, or a new product, or a plan, or a program, in my mind, I’m thinking, “How much will I make?” is one, or, “How will this help me get to my number or my goal?” something related to that. Fine. The second one is, “Is what you’re talking about going to make it easier or harder for me to make that number? Are you going to make my world easier or harder?”
There’s a big focus on that because they know the amount of work that they already need to do. And now they’re at the conference, “And if your product is going to make my life easy, you have my eye. I’m excited. If it’s going to be hard, I might not be excited but don’t BS me. Don’t try to tell me that this is wonderful when I can see it’s the exact same product with a different brochure color. Just be up front. I’ll respect you more.”
Because if I’m that rep, I’m out there in the field by myself representing, I need to know what I have to work with, so deductively say that near the beginning. You don’t have to say it in a gloom-and-doom way but just be straight up, “I’ll know how to take it out there. I might be upset about it but that’s a different story.” So, if you can be deductive about it, and you can connect to one of those two things in your step two, you’re going to do really, really well in that kind of a meeting.
Cool. Thank you.
Quite frankly, others, too. If you’re presenting to senior management, you got bad news, you don’t have to pretend it’s not there. They’ll respect you. You don’t have to say, “I have bad news.” No, not like that. But you don’t have to be nervous about it. These are business meetings, and if there’s something that’s not great, you can say it.
Sure thing. Okay, I like it.
I’m going on and on on this stuff.
Well, you’ve also got a concept called The Four Horsemen of Delivery. So, I’m curious, what are those horsemen and how do we master that?
All right. Deductively, they are speed, volume, stress, and inflection. Now these are delivery-specific things. And delivery, is not an effective presentation all by itself. Some folks could argue that it could be.
I think I’ve seen some keynoters who’ve managed to make a living out of good delivery without a lot of substance.
We see it a lot. This is not theater. That’s something I want to be very, very clear about. In fact, you’ll never hear somebody like me use words like rehearse, for instance. It’s a theater term. And in the business world, we ain’t acting.
And when we try to teach it in that way, folks tend to do well in training, but then they get there live and the anxiety can be very high. I think a more helpful way to look at it isn’t so much rehearse and so forth, but practice is a much more accurate term because speech is a behavior just like kicking a ball is a behavior, so we practice. You don’t go to basketball rehearsal. You go to basketball practice so that you can learn how to do things.
And in our delivery, we look at things like speed, and volume, and stressing of words, and inflection changing the word, things like that. These are tools that can help us enhance the intent of any sentence. Together, all of these things, we call it adding color to a word. And this is a technique, many of us do this normally, in our normal natural communication when we’re talking with friends. And the variety in our speech patterns are just there, for many of us.
But when we get into a formal presentation, all of a sudden, the speech pattern is almost identical, things change. So, the Four Horsemen of speed, and volume, and stress, and inflection are four things that you can look at specifically.
Speed is broken into two parts. We have what’s called the rate of speech and the pace of speech. I’ll say it again because you can think about it, for you listeners, your own speaking. Rate is the speed at which we put words together. We speak, on average, at approximately 183 words per minute, is the average rate of speech. If you were to go to a meeting today and start counting words, you’ll get to it, in general American, which is what we speak in the United States. We don’t speak English, we speak American. But, in general American, we speak at approximately 183, a little more, a little less depending on who you are.
If I start talking at a faster rate right now, right now my rate of speech has just increased. I’m probably, I don’t know, maybe more like 213 words per minute right now. That’s rate. Pace is the speed at which we put thoughts together. So, I can actually be a faster talking like this, and as long as I pause every so often, you’ll actually be able to follow and process the things that I’m talking about. But if I start talking at a faster rate like this and I don’t pause for pacing, and I start talking about technical things, and I’m expecting you to understand and follow and process the things that I’m saying, you’re going to be begging for me to just take a breath. That’s just what they are, rate and pace.
And, often, what happens is, in a presentation, as speech coaches, these are coachable things. We listen and hear that. Many people are pretty good with rate, not always. Sometimes you got to learn to slow the rate. but pacing is often off. It’s thought, thought, thought, thought, topic, topic, topic. It just keeps going and it is very difficult for listeners to comprehend.
When we don’t change the speech pattern, the speaker can lull listeners into a trance, literally, which is why, for folks who have been in a presentation, and you just sort of zone a little bit, sometimes that is because the speech pattern just does not vary. Speed is one thing we can look at to do that. The other ones, such as volume, that doesn’t work for everybody. We look at volume or stress or inflection. Volume, volume. Stress, we stretch a word out somehow. Or the inflection, the tone, somehow, we make a change, and that draws attention.
Let me give you an example. If I were to say to you, “Good speech is good business,” every word has about the same stress and same volume and same meaning, so it’s up to you, the listener, to hear the words, process that, and understand my meaning, and for the most part you can do that. That’s actually pretty profound.
As a species, we have figured out how to take thought and then control these articulators here, the vocal folds, or our breathing where sound comes from, and then the articulators, the teeth, the tongue, the lips, things like that, and shape the sound and the noises we make so another human can hear those sounds, decode it, and now they have the same thought that we had. I mean, it’s pretty profound when you think about that. No wonder there’s so much room for miscommunication, misunderstanding.
When I say, “Good speech is good business,” I’m making you work a little harder. A moment ago, I told you we speak at about 183 words per minute. We can think at like 600 words per minute so, therefore, there’s like 400 or so words a minute doing other stuff all the time. Even right now while I’m talking, people can hear me but in the back of their minds, they may be thinking, “Oh, I got to get that email out. He’s a second-generation coach, what is that? Oh, my goodness.” There are all sorts of dialogue happening in our minds while people are talking.
So, when I say, “Good speech is good business,” I am making you use that 400 words a minute to hear the words, decode the words, and understand the meaning. Okay, fine. Fine. Listen to how the meaning changes when I add color, one of the four horsemen, when I add color to one of the words, “Good speech is good business.” I’m going to change a few times. Let me do these three or four times. Listen to how the meaning changes, “Good speech is good business.” “Good speech is good business.” “Good speech is good business.” “Good speech is good business.”
Can you hear how the meanings slightly changes depending on where I’m adding the inflection or stress or changing?
You know, it’s fun how that works because sometimes I play around with that just for fun in terms of like a given sentence or a joke, and see how it feels different. And I think, as you discussed these principles, the speaker that comes to mind for me is the late Jim Rohn. His voice has such music in it. And I think he’s a master in that it’s like it’s almost too much, but not. And so, I just think it’s a great example of this is what it sounds like when you bring a lot of that color into it in terms of it does feel musical. It’s like I wish I could give a great quote but I actually think about how Jim Rohn might say it, it’s like, “Good speech is good business,” in terms of it’s like, “Ooh, we’ve got a lot of kind of flair on that.”
So, interestingly, here’s where sort of like in the world of theater, a director might work with an actor or actress on this, but that’s their profession doing this. So, this is one reason why we’re not big fans of bringing theater ideas into the business world because, in many cases, the folks we’re working with, they don’t have that level of time, understanding, background, history. There are many, many people that we work with who, maybe they are a scientist, for instance, and they were trained, in fact, graded poorly if they added emphasis as they did a report.
A classic example, so we work with a lot of life science companies, as an example. These are companies that maybe they already have their first hundred million dollars, but now they’re looking to raise the next round of funding. They’re looking for 200 million or 300 million, and the senior leadership team are a collection of incredibly smart scientists who have come from the academic space, and they will present, “We have a drug that will cure cancer.” Aristotle would refer to that as a logos approach, a very sort of not a lot of variation in the voice. And in their world, that gives them credibility in the scientific world if they were at a conference, if they were speaking to academics. And if they took a TED Talk-style, forget it. they would be laughed out of the room.
This is why we say, “Don’t just talk like TED in the world of business place. There’s a time and a place for that style as incredibly effective, which is really just the conference style.” But you take that style to like a boardroom, no way. Or, for these scientists, the challenge for them is, “How do I, as a scientist, who was trained to not show any emotion when I am talking about even something that is significant?” They need to learn how to add emphasis in a way that is effective. And we all look different, we sound different, they don’t have to talk like Tony Robbins or something. They don’t have to do that. You don’t have to, to be incredible.
They can take and keep their current style and just learn how to adapt and amend certain words that emphasize the point, and, bam, it will pop. Their listeners will tune right in. And what makes this authentic is they are spending the time, saying, “Whoa, what do I actually mean in any given sentence? What is the point?” But then they got to actually do the practicing of it. Learning it is easy. Practicing it, it’s not hard, you just got to do the work. You just got to do it, that’s all. Anyway, it’s a lot of fun. All this stuff is a lot of fun.
There are other environments where you got to take a different approach but we’re not all the same. We look different, sound different. This is why it ain’t one size fits all. You just can’t do it that way.
Okay. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
My mom always used to say, “Be sure that your brain is engaged before putting your mouth into gear.”
And a favorite book?
I like Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury. I like Good to Great, excellent book, Jim Collins. The third one would be, oh, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense by Suzette Haden. Elgin, she changed her name, but that’s a great one.
Okay. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
A favorite tool would be taking a time out to practice.
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers; they tend to quote it back to you frequently?
Yeah, getting good at step number two. That’s probably one of the things we get a lot of feedback on. Most folks have not thought about step two, “Tell why listen,” and they will…As you get good at that, the quality of their presentations really change. Not just the quality of the presentation, the attention span of the listener changes significantly when you get good at it and it feels authentic. None of this stuff is like gimmick stuff. This is all real. This is all how you do it.
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
Well, you can go to SpeechImprovement.com is the website. You can find me on LinkedIn, Dr. Ethan Becker. We do have an app that’s pretty cool. This is a free app. It’s called Speech Companion that has a great summary of the four-step outline, inductive, deductive, ethos, pathos, logos, with examples of phrases and language. It’s a tool we developed a while back. We actually wrote the code from scratch in-house here, which was a lot of fun to do.
Oh, cool. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
Yeah, as you’re listening to people, begin to notice how other people are communicating. Do they like their general information up front or at the end? And as you start to do that, you’re going to start to find that’s just one area you’ll be able to connect with them much more effectively.
Ethan, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck in all of your communications.
Thanks, Pete. I appreciate it.