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724: How to Master Your Executive Presence with Muriel Wilkins

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Muriel Wilkins says: "Executive presence is really about how others experience you."

Muriel Wilkins dispels myths surrounding executive presence and shows you how you can develop your own, no matter what your role is.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What executive presence really means 
  2. The two muscles you need to train for executive presence
  3. The key factors that affect your confidence 

About Muriel

Muriel Maignan Wilkins, Managing Partner and Co-founder of Paravis Partners is a C-suite advisor and executive coach with a strong track record of helping already high performing senior leaders take their effectiveness to the next level. Muriel is the host of the Harvard Business Review podcast, “Coaching Real Leaders” and is the co-author, with Amy Su, of “Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence”. 

Resources Mentioned

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Muriel Wilkins Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Muriel, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Muriel Wilkins
Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig in and chat about executive presence. And maybe you could start us off by saying what the heck does that even mean?

Muriel Wilkins
That’s what actually set me on a track to figure out what it means because a lot of people don’t know what it means. It’s a term that’s used so broadly and loosely, and it’s a term where many of my clients, my coaching clients were getting feedback on their executive presence. And, quite frankly, when I would ask, “Well, what does it mean?” They’re like, “I have no idea.”

So, from my perspective, and based on the work that I’ve done with folks and my research on it, executive presence is really about how others experience you. And, more specifically, when I think about it from a leadership presence, is when others are in your presence, do they feel like they’re in the presence of a leader? And that has nothing to do with where you sit hierarchically in the organization. It all has to do with what you exude.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, certainly. And so, I can see how that really is frustrating for the individual, it’s like, “I don’t know.”

Muriel Wilkins
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
“It’s like based on someone else’s perception of me.”

Muriel Wilkins
Exactly. And even worse, it’s like, “Well, I don’t know, but Joe has it.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but you’re not Joe.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. So, that sets the vibe. It’s like, “If someone has executive presence, and I’m in the presence of someone with executive presence, I feel like, wow, I’m with a leader.” Okay. Well, then I’m curious, you tell me, is it like you either got it or you don’t? And what if you don’t, what do you do?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah, that in itself is sort of demoralizing as a follow-up to getting feedback on executive presence. It’s like, “You need to work on this.” But, you know, can you really work on it because you’re either born with it or you’re not? And if there’s one thing that I’ve tried to do around this topic of executive presence is really debunk the myth that it’s just something that you naturally have. It’s something that you could definitely build and develop over time. The key is developing a presence that is also authentic to you because it’s not mimicking everyone else. It’s about having an impact in a way that’s relevant to others while still maintaining a sense of who you are and what you bring to the table in your own authenticity so that you’re not a chameleon.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, got you. So, that sounds super. Let’s maybe dig into maybe the particular components and approaches to make that transition happen well. But maybe could you start by sharing an inspiring story of someone who got the word, “Hey, you need better executive presence,” and then what they did and the results that happened from that turnaround?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. Well, I’ll share my own story because I was the receiver of that feedback way back when, and the feedback that I got was that I needed to tone it down.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy.

Muriel Wilkins
And it was like, “Okay, what does that mean? My volume sounds just fine.” But what they were talking about was, again, my presence was not one that was with those particular stakeholders, one that really exuded the position that I had as an executive and as a leader at that time. And so, that is something that I think many people have experienced, whether it’s, “You need to tone it down,” or whether, “You need to be more confident.”

You often hear it in terms of adjectives, “Be more this,” “Be more inspiring,” “Be more assertive.” And the fact of the matter is that, just as I described with your presence, it’s the feeling that you give somebody. An adjective is not a verb so it doesn’t really give the concrete steps of what you’re able to do. I often say, if somebody has received feedback of “Be more confident,” it’s not like you wake up one day and say, “Well, today I decide not to be confident.” Like, everybody wants to show up as confident.

So, when we think about executive presence and what are the steps to really get there, the first place is to recognize, “What is the impact that you want to make? What is the impression or the feeling that you want to leave people with?” And when you think about what the impression is, or the impact, that a leader or an executive or somebody that you want to “follow” has on you, it’s usually two things, the combination of two things: they are credible and they’re relatable.

And so, the intersection of those two things is actually what makes up or what makes you feel like somebody has executive presence because they have that impact on you. And so, the first place to start is understanding that those are the two levers that you have, and then determining, of those two levers, “Which one am I exuding and which one am I not? Or am I exuding both? Or am I not exuding any of them?” So, it starts with some self-awareness around what the impact is that you’re actually having. Because if you can figure that out, that it’s either the credibility or the relatability, then you can figure out “Well, what do I do about each of those muscles?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I love that a lot. And in terms of that first step, I think it’s easy to skip over, like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, give me some tactics, Muriel.” But, no, no, it is so foundational because I guess I think I’ve made my own mistakes with this in terms of any types of presenting of yourself, like I think I’ve had headshots done, and I’ve made the mistake before. I picked a headshot, it’s like, “Ooh, I look really hot in that one. I think that’s the best photo to go with it.” It’s like, “You might look like the most aesthetically pleasing, in your opinion, Pete, but actually that’s not what we’re trying to accomplish here in terms of the target demographic and audience and impression that we’re sending.” Like, these aren’t modeling headshots. These are for a speaking agency to get me booked to do keynotes.

And, likewise, that comes up in LinkedIn in terms of it’s like, “In your profile and your picture, how do you want to present those elements and the headlines and the experiences because there’s a variety of flavors you could take?” Like, if you’re trying to represent yourself as a model or a standup comedian, that’s going to have a different vibe than if you’re trying to do this executive presence thing. And you’re seeing, when it comes to executive presence in professional workplace environments, generally what we’re after is conveying credible and relatable. So, it’s awesome.

Muriel Wilkins
That’s right. And it also goes beyond the professional workplace. If you think about your friends, or the people you associate with, or your family, or your partner, yeah, I don’t know about you, but I want my partner to be credible and relatable.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure, yeah.

Muriel Wilkins
So, it really also just becomes around what do we tend to look for as humans in others that gives us a sense that we can be confident in them, and that we have some type of connection to them? And so, those are why they end up being the two muscles.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then in practice, what are some key do’s and don’ts to convey all the more credibility and relatability?

Muriel Wilkins
So, the way that I tend to think about it is almost like conditioning an athlete. When you think about an athlete who conditions themselves in their preferred sport or their sport of choice, they’re a master at that sport. They have to be conditioned at three levels. They have to be conditioned from a mental standpoint, they have to be conditioned from a skills standpoint, the skill of that particular sport, and they have to be conditioned physically for the sport that they’re playing or competing in.

Likewise, when you’re trying to really master and train these muscles of credibility and relatability, again, mastering your leadership presence, you also have to condition yourself at those three levels. And so, what are those? So, the first place is your mental conditioning. Well, what’s our mental conditioning when we think about our presence? It’s the beliefs that you have. It’s the thoughts and the assumptions that you have about yourself, about the other, about the situation.

And understanding what those are, and with no judgment of “Is it a right thought or a wrong thought?” this is not like “The Power of Positive Thinking.” It’s more around, “Is that belief actually serving you in showing up as credible and relatable?” So, if I don’t have conviction around my message – and conviction is just a belief, I believe in my message, I believe in what I’m saying, or I have knowledge about what I’m saying – then how in the heck am I going to show up as credible in what I have to say?

So, the first level is mental conditioning, and I’ll tell you, Pete, that’s the hardest one for people to get their head wrapped around because a lot of times it is about them dismantling the beliefs that they’ve had for an eternity. So, that’s the first one. The second level of conditioning is skill conditioning. And in our game of executive presence, that’s your communication skills. And so, what are the communication skills that allow you to show up, again, credible and relatable? It’s quite simple.

From a credibility standpoint, the communication skill is your ability to speak in a clear and concise way. Rambling does not define credibility. And on the relatability side, the key communication skill is the skill of being able to listen so that you can understand where the other is coming from. Understanding creates connection. And in between those two, we have the skill of how you frame your message and also how you handle questions both in terms of how you ask them and how you answer them. So, with my clients, we work on those four buckets. I try to simplify. You don’t have to know all. You don’t know how to use every golf club in the bag. You just need to learn how to use a few of them.

And then the last piece is your physical conditioning. And physical conditioning is your nonverbals, your body language, your appearance, even your visibility and what message that sends across. And, again, I’m not one to say, “Here are the five great body language postures that you need to hold for you to show up as a leader.” What it really comes down to is, “Is there alignment between the way you are holding yourself nonverbally, or what you’re communicating nonverbally? Is there alignment between that and what you say and your assumptions?”

And so, we’re looking for alignment along all three of those conditioning levels, and that they’re not working against each other, and that they’re also not working against your desired outcome of being credible and relatable.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Well, Muriel, this is so powerful in terms of, okay, we’ve got the set of things to be working on. And the athlete analogy is swell. So, let’s talk about the mental and the skill and the physical components of conditioning. I’m thinking when you said with beliefs, thoughts, and assumptions, not about good or bad, right or wrong, but rather is it serving you? Is it helpful? Is it working out for you?

And you mentioned sort of the beliefs in the message, like you fundamentally buy what you’re selling. And I think this is probably universally true, it’s like I just cannot sell something I don’t believe in. I’ve turned down a lot of prospective sponsors. I turned down a lot of them.

Muriel Wilkins

I hear you.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, there’s that. And then I’m thinking there’s also some beliefs, thoughts, assumptions about sort of you, yourself, what other people think of you, like, “Oh, everyone is looking at me. Oh, they think I’m stupid or they don’t think I’m senior enough to be in this room. They think I’m a loser. They think I’m stuttering. They think I’m saying like or so and you know too much.” So, it seems like there’s a whole host of potential beliefs, thoughts, assumptions that can be not serving you. Tell me, are there some go-to beliefs that you find helpful, reassuring, confidence-boosting? And how do we condition ourselves to land there instead of the unhelpful places?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah, absolutely. So, a big one in terms of when you’re trying to boost your confidence, as you said, is around the belief that you don’t have to always have the answer, and that you are in the room to share the value, and you have to understand what it is the value that you bring to that table, and that the value isn’t always – and most times it’s not – about having the answer and knowing everything and being an expert on everything.

And so, when people tend to show up as lacking confidence, they place an expectation on themselves on what it means for them to show up successfully in that meeting or at that table. And what I have them do is recalibrate, “Well, is that even realistic? What is the value that you bring? Why are you in that meeting?” And when they’re able to define it and then actually stay in their lane in terms of what they’re able to do, they can have confidence in it because they know exactly what they’re there to do. So, that’s one example.

On the flipside, if somebody is working on the relatability aspect, the belief that often gets in the way is, “I already know the answer,” which then shuts them down from listening. And so, the belief that would serve them better in terms of showing up in a more connected way and a more relatable way is to come in with the thought of “I have a perspective around what needs to be done and I’m open to hearing others’ perspectives.” So, it’s a slight reframe. It’s a slight reframe.

And it doesn’t mean that, if you’ll notice, it doesn’t mean that you’re disregarding that you have the answer. Like, I’m not going to lie. Yeah, you probably do but let’s expand that a little bit. Let’s open the possibilities a little bit. When people stay too attached to their belief, it creates constriction, it creates closedness both in terms of what you have to offer, what gets in the way of confidence, as well as what you are open to from others, which then creates a disconnection.

So, all I try to do is get them to see that there are different ways that they can think about, again, themselves, the situation, or the other, that might then open them up to different ways of communicating or physically showing up.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And so then, once you know and have heard the belief once, you’re like, “Okay, yes, Muriel. That sounds like good, fine, and solid lead. That is true.”

Muriel Wilkins
“I wish it was that easy.”

Pete Mockaitis
“I would like to land upon and return to again and again.” But how do you condition, train, reinforce, lock in those neural pathways so that that’s where we go?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. Look, this is like, if we boil it down, this is what most people have, again, a very difficult time with. It takes practice. This is what we’re talking about here is mental discipline. And so, I try to get folks to just really focus on one at a time. Let’s hone in on one and they just practice it, they practice it, they practice it. And I try to get them to practice it in real situations, so not just thinking about it conceptually, because everybody can do something conceptually. I can speak conceptually about how I can do the Iron Man but it’s very different to actually go do the Iron Man.

And so, I get them to practice it, practice it, practice it, until it becomes more natural. And when they start seeing that their actions, because, again, it’s not just the mental, it’s also the skills and communication and the physical, when the skill conditioning and the physical conditioning reinforces those beliefs, then it helps, so it kind of creates a cycle. It’s holistic rather than just “Oh, I only need to do one thing and not the other.”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And so then, when you say practice it, as I was thinking about the athlete analogy again, I can imagine practicing free throws, or throwing the football, or conditioning strength, bench press, squat, deadlift in the weight room, what does practicing a belief look, sound, feel like in practice? What am I doing when I’m practicing a belief?

Muriel Wilkins
So, at a very practical level, let’s say I’m coming on to this show with you, and I can pause for 30 seconds beforehand and say, and really pause and ask myself, “What am I thinking about what I’m about to go into? What do I think about me? Like, let me really try to understand what my beliefs are going in, about myself? Do I believe I’m going to mess up? Do I believe I’m not prepared? Do I believe I don’t know what this is about? What do I believe about the show? What do I believe about Pete? What do I believe about what’s going on around me?”

And if I conclude that those things are not going to help me show up on this show in a way that is credible and relatable, then I say, “Okay, like what thoughts do I need to focus on right now? Let me put…It’s not that those things might not be true, but let me put them on the backburner for a little bit. I can come back.” So, the way that I’ll do it, I’ll just say this to my clients, is just say, “Hey, you know what, negative belief or belief that doesn’t serve you, I’ll check back in with you in 30 minutes and we’ll deal with you, but you just stay over there right now and let me focus on the ones that help, okay?”

So, it truly is around being able to pause, having awareness around what you’re thinking, and then being able to redefine the thought. It’s a three-step process. It is not easy, Pete. Like, this is, again, the stuff around mental discipline, and it’s hard because it’s inside of us. It doesn’t operate outside of us. But it’s what creates, from my standpoint, it’s what makes the most sustainable impact.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Thank you. Well, I appreciate you zooming in there, and that is handy in terms of making sure that you do have time for that silence as opposed to, “Oh, go, go, go, finish up, finish up the last words and the last deck, page, slide, and the last seconds, and then grab the laptop and head on into the room or the Zoom call,” or whatever.

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. And, you know, the funny thing, Pete, is like most people will say, “Well, I don’t have time for that.” Like, it doesn’t take a ton of time. Like, we just did it in 30 seconds, in a minute. It does not take a ton of time. So, I’ll tell my clients, like, “Well, as you’re brushing your teeth in the morning, kind of go through the meetings that you have that day?” Well, people aren’t commuting these days, but as they commute, as you’re walking the dog, the day before, go through your Outlook calendar, whatever calendar you use, what are the meetings, and just do a quick mental check around what you’re thinking going in versus it’s the warmup. I consider it the warmup.

You don’t wait till you’re on the field to look around and say, “Oh, who am I dealing with? Who am I playing against? What position do I play?” No, you do that. But that whole warmup happens way before you’re on the field.

Pete Mockaitis
Well said. Well said. All right, so that’s the mental game, a core piece of it. And how about we talk about communication skills? We could spend hours talking about these core skills. I’m curious, do you have any particular tips, tricks, tools, tactics, or do’s and don’ts that make all the difference when it comes to listening or speaking clearly and concisely?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. So, with listening, speaking clearly and concisely, framing, questioning, here’s the thing. These are not about just, “Hey, I just need to know these skills,” because, quite frankly, most people are already using them. The question is, “Are you using them in a strategic way? Are you clear around what it is, again, the impact you’re trying to make?” And given the impact you’re trying to make, then being able to dial back and say, “If that’s the impact that I’m trying to make, then what communication skill would increase the probability that I’m making that impact?”

And so, when you start thinking about it that way, so then you have a choice around what you’re doing rather than just being on default. You say, “All right, if I’m trying to create a connection with the other person, or with this group of people, or I want to come off as engaging, then it would behoove me to listen more.” Why? Because when somebody feels heard and understood, for whatever reason, it creates connection. When we feel understood by the other, it deepens the connection.

And I’m not talking about like we have to get into a deep intimate relationship with everybody. It’s just a feeling of like, “Yeah, you get me.” But when you have somebody, you’ve probably experienced it, when you’re faced with somebody, and you’re like, “Oh, my God, they don’t get me at all,” there is no relatability, there’s no connection.

So, listening is the key skill, I’m sure there are others, but the core skill. And it’s not…there are different levels of listening. You don’t have to go to the deepest level every single time. Again, it depends on what you’re trying to do. But I will say, if your goal is to influence or inspire somebody, the more you’re trying to inspire others, the deeper the level of listening you have to go into, to really understand what is going on with them.

On the flipside, which is the skill of what we call structured efficacy, the skill of being able to speak clear and concisely, what I tell folks is always start with the headline first, and then drill down to the data. Most people who cannot speak confidently will tend to share all of the data and then they give you the conclusion or the answer 20 minutes later. And I try to get them to flip that, “Give me the answer, give me the headline, and then give me the three supporting facts or datapoints or rationale that support your thesis, let’s say, or your headline.”

Because it’s kind of silly to say, “I have three points,” but then you go on to number 20. So, that in and of itself helps one be concise. So, those are some tips around those two. And to be honest, the most critical one is the communication skill or framing, because framing is all about how you set context, and context helps determine whether you can get other individuals to interpret the message that you are giving in a way that’s similar to how you want them to interpret it.

Left without context, people are going to interpret the message based on their own beliefs, assumptions, biases, and thoughts.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, if it’s the most critical, we must talk more about this framing. So, how does one frame well? And can you give us some examples?

Muriel Wilkins
Sure. So, one that people face many, many times is you walk into a meeting and there’s an agenda but there’s not a clear sense of what outcomes you’re looking to drive through in that meeting. So, you have good conversations, you leave the meeting, and it was like, “Hmm, what did we actually accomplish?” And so, a great example of framing is what we call outcomes-driven framing, being able to start your message or your conversation with, “Here are the outcomes that I want to drive to. I’m going into a meeting, all right. So, what we’re trying to drive to by the end of this meeting is making a decision on X.”

Now why is that helpful? Because everybody in that meeting at that point, or increases the chances that everybody in the meeting at that point will interpret or take in the discussion with a sense that there’s a decision that needs to be made rather than they’re taking it in as an FYI, they’re taking it in as a point of contention, they’re taking it in as whatever, the list goes on.

So, framing from an outcomes standpoint really helps. What’s another example of framing? Another example of framing is what we call strategic framing. This is when you give strategic context, or bigger-picture context, or the 30,000-foot altitude context. Where is this particularly helpful? It’s helpful when you are communicating up, communicating to people who are more senior than you. So, you frame your message in a way that’s relevant to them and what their strategic agenda is rather than how it’s relevant to you at the 10,000-foot altitude.

Pete Mockaitis
And can you give us an example of that in practice in terms of, “Okay, there’s a thing I want to make happen, and I got to give some strategic framing so higher up folk engage and want to back it”?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah, let’s say that you work in the HR function and you’re proposing an initiative around leadership development. So, framing it from your context might sound something like, “Leadership development is really helpful in terms of cultivating people and creating engagement in the workforce,” and then give whatever the initiative is.

Framing it from a strategic level is saying, “I know one of our key strategic pillars this year is talent excellence and retention of our employees. We’ve talked about how, by the end of next year, we want to achieve a workforce of X numbers,” whatever it is. It’s tied to the strategic pillars of the organization or the main business priorities of the organization, and so you start there. And then say, “So, therefore, this leadership development program or initiative is in support of that.” So, you tie it directly to whatever the organizational objectives are.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s super. And I’m thinking that some organizations have maybe – if I may be so bold – too many organizational objectives that the higher up you’re communicating with may well have forgotten that that was one of the strategic initiatives, they’re like, “Oh, that is one of them, isn’t it? And you got something for me to make that happen. Oh, and I don’t know of anything else that’s making that happen. So, yeah, let’s go ahead and do what you’re saying, Muriel.”

Muriel Wilkins
That brings such a funny story, Pete, because I ran into that once, and I framed it strategically around what the top brass of the organization had said was important for them, and they’re kind of like, “Huh? No.” And I said, “Well, look at the homepage of your website. Like, it says it right there.” So, they all pulled it up on their phone, and they’re like, “Oh, wow. Like, yeah, we actually said this was one of our strategic priorities.” So, to your point, sometimes they forget what the priorities are.

Pete Mockaitis
And then that just makes you wonder how much of the priority is it truly, and how much of it was sort of a word salad committee production versus a, “Wow, we’ve really thoughtfully clarified and drilled down into that which is the huge most impactful leverage.” Well, that’s a whole another conversation, strategic critical thinking priority matters.

Let’s hear about the physical view of things – the nonverbals, the body language, the appearance. So, we want to have alignment so it’s not sort of contradictory throughout. And I guess everyone have their own tics that they have, and maybe I’ve heard videos is a great way to assess them. I’m curious, are there any particular things you’ve seen again and again and again in terms of, “Hey, start doing this. Stop doing that,” that makes all the difference and it’s so easy to fix?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. Well, first of all, I think, again, it depends what it is the impact that you’re trying to make. One of the things I tell my clients is, “Look, if the feedback you’re getting is that you show up as abrasive, and when you asked, ‘Well, why do I show up as abrasive?’ people are like, ‘Well, you tend to yell a lot and you always have a scowl on your face.’’ If I say that to a client, the client says, “Well, I want to show up as abrasive,” well, then we’re done, we’re good, because their nonverbals are giving them the outcomes they want.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, mission accomplished.

Muriel Wilkins
Right, mission accomplished.

Pete Mockaitis
Apparently.

Muriel Wilkins
But usually that’s not what people want. Again, they want to show up as credible or engaging and relatable. And so, from a nonverbal standpoint, the place to first start is, “What is under my control?” which I am. I’m 5’3”. I cannot change that. I might add a little bit of height by wearing heels but out of my control that I’m 5’3”. So, if I want to give the impression that I’m confident and height is not on my side, because for whatever reason, height might make me seem a little more dominant or whatnot, so what else is at my disposal?

Well, how I sit at the table, when I physically sit at the table. Do I shrink to the back of my seat? Do I slouch back, therefore, retreating me even more? Or, do I actually lean forward on the table, pull up my chair to the table? I’ve been known to, if I walk into a meeting and the   is too low and makes me seem even lower than my 5’3” size, then I raise it to maximum height. So, these are things that are under your control and, quite frankly, it’s not just about the impression you make on the other. It’s also how it makes me feel. I don’t want to feel small at that table.

The other part is your voice. And so, your voice says a lot about you. Number one, you want to be heard in that meeting. Well, we better be able to hear you from a projection standpoint. I have twins, by the way. They’re 14 years old and so I’m constantly in this, “I can’t hear you. You’re mumbling.” Mumbling will never get your message across. And so, even from that basic level with your voice, “Do you have some poise around your voice?” Well, what does that sound like? It usually sounds with people who are comfortable, taking pauses as they speak. They speak much more in a deliberate way rather than just speeding through it and never slowing down. That’s in your control.

So, with all of these things, whether it’s your eye contact, your gestures, your voice, your posture, it’s not about, again, a right or wrong, which I think is the way that it’s been positioned a lot of times. It’s more around, “Is the way you’re carrying these things, are they going to have the impact that you want to have in this environment, in this context?”

Because take something like eye contact. In the Western culture, eye contact exudes confidence for whatever reason, but in other cultures, it does not. So, it also has to be culturally and contextually relevant. So, executive presence in and of itself is very situational. It’s very dynamic. It’s not this, “Do it this way and that’s it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so let’s say adopting the context specifically of we’re in a professional United States business environment, looking to be credible and relatable and persuasive in what we have to say so that it’s taken seriously and action is taken and things move forward, I’m curious, are there any particular appearance things you might quickly suggest that we adjust?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. So, here’s my rule of thumb when it comes to appearance, let it not be distracting and detracting from every other thing that you’re doing. That’s it. I have many people who ask me things like, “Should I cut my hair? Should I cut my beard? Should I not wear braids? Should I straighten my hair and not have my hair curly? Should I dress a different way? Should I wear suits? Should I wear pants? Should I…?” and the list goes on and on and on.

And I say, “Okay, in the environment that you’re in, would your appearance distract in any way?” So, I share the story around with me, I have clients all along the spectrum. I have some organizations that I work with who are extremely conservative, very traditional. And then I have clients where I have some nonprofits that I work with that are, in the inner city, small. If I were to go to my small nonprofits dressed the same way that I go to my traditional conservative clients, it’s not that the way I’m dressing is bad. It just would make me stand out in a way that then maybe makes me feel confident but doesn’t necessarily create or engender any form of connection with the clients that I’m serving.

So, it truly is about to what extent is the physical energy that you exude distracting or detracting from what you’re trying to do versus supporting you? So, that’s the same we do with beliefs.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And I’m curious, and this might be maybe more of an advanced move, are there times in which we do want to look a little different and distinctive from the audience in the room for a particular objective? What are your thoughts there?

Muriel Wilkins
Yes. So, let me back up a little bit from that question, because the goal is not, “Hey, I need to fit in.” You still want to have, like I talked, I’m not the most traditional conservative person, but I got to have these clients, so what I’m not going to do is wear my most outlandish outfit, but I will wear a suit but I might have some jewelry that’s still a signature me, so I don’t feel like I’m completely “selling out.”

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Muriel Wilkins
But are there times when you may want to stand out a little bit? Yeah, but know why you’re doing it. Know why you’re doing it. So, I’ll give you an example, not just about appearance actually, but more going back to kind of nonverbals. So, if you’re giving a presentation, you may have a choice between standing behind the podium or not using the podium at all.

Well, when somebody asks me, “Should I use the podium? Should I not?” I say, “Well, what impact do you want to make? What impressions do you want to make? If you want to come off as very professorial and expert-like, by all means, stand behind the podium. If you want to show up as like the expert, stand behind the podium. If you want to lean into engaging with the audience, trying to be relatable to the audience, don’t stand behind the podium.”

So, it always comes back to, “What do you want?” And that’s where a lot of people don’t have clarity is even around what is it that they want, how they want to come off.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Thank you. Well, Muriel, tell me, anything else you want to make sure we’d mention before we hit the favorite things?

Muriel Wilkins
Well, this stuff, as I said before, takes a lot of practice, and you never really fully stop because your context changes, you change, your assumptions change, your skills, hopefully, improve over time, how you physically show up changes, so you constantly have to think about, “In this moment, at this time, what is the impact I want to make? And then how do I get there?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Lovely. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Muriel Wilkins
The one that’s really been resonating with me over the past couple of months, the past year, quite frankly, has been, and I know it comes from Buddha’s teachings but I can’t quote who said it, is, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Muriel Wilkins
My favorite one is around growth mindset and the reframing, because I think growth mindset has a lot of reframing, and Angela Duckworth’s work around that, reframing around how we approach learning. And how we approach, quite frankly, how we define success, that it’s more about the effort rather than the outcome.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And a favorite book?

Muriel Wilkins
Favorite book. My favorite book of the moment is The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Muriel Wilkins
My Outlook calendar.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. And a favorite habit?

Muriel Wilkins
Favorite habit. I wish it was a more infused habit, but my favorite habit is meditating.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for and people quote back to you often?

Muriel Wilkins
I say there’s a favorite question that I ask my clients over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear it.

Muriel Wilkins
And it is, “What do you want?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Muriel Wilkins
So, they can go check out my podcast at Harvard Business Review called “Coaching Real Leaders,” or go to CoachingRealLeaders.com. They can find more information about me and all of the ways that I work with folks at MurielWilkins.com or ParavisPartners.com.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Muriel Wilkins
Figure out what you want and the impression you want to make and the outcomes that you want to drive to, and then work backwards from there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Muriel, thank you. This has been fun. I wish you lots of success and luck in the adventures to come.

Muriel Wilkins
Thank you. This was great.

711: Speaking with Calm and Confidence with Patricia Stark

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Patricia Stark says: "I'm making up what I'm telling myself about the situation anyway, so why not make up something positive?"

Patricia Stark shares key strategies for developing the calm and confidence to shine under any spotlight.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The critical mindset shift that brings both calm and confidence
  2. The simple rule for looking and sounding like an expert
  3. Just how long you should maintain eye contact 

About Patricia

Patricia Stark is owner of Patricia Stark Communications and Calmfidence® Workshops, providing training in personal and professional development. She works with celebrities, corporate executives, authors, news anchors, social media influencers, and others whose careers rely on their ability to communicate confidently. She lives in New York. For more, see patriciastark.com. 

Resources Mentioned

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Patricia Stark Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Patricia, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Patricia Stark
Pete, it’s so great to be here with you. Thanks for inviting me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about your book Calmfidence, and it’s spelled C-A-L-M-F-I-D-E-N-C-E. First of all, what does that mean?

Patricia Stark
Well, thank you for kind of spelling out that first word, because if you say it quickly, everybody’s ear hears confidence, which we all hear, but it’s Calmfidence. So, basically, I’ve been coaching and training people for many years, and I realized that all of my clients and students had two things in common. They wanted to be confident speaking in public, or being on stage, or in the media, or asking for a raise, or giving a presentation, or they were also feeling that they needed to find their calm.

So, a lot of people can be confident but they still get stressed out and anxious. So, they were really looking for those two things. And I found that’s really a very powerful and magical combination when you can both have calm and confidence simultaneously. So, thus, the term calmfidence.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. And could you share with us a story of just what’s possible in terms of a transformation with regard to starting out neither calm nor confident, and ending a super calmfident?

Patricia Stark
Sure. Well, I’ll give you a personal story where, really, I noticed it in myself for one of the first times. So, I was invited to be on a PBS program in New Jersey for one of the PBS networks here in our area, and it was the first time that I was going to be shown as a “communications expert.” So, I was thinking to myself, “Oh, my goodness, what if the so-called communications expert makes a mistake?”

Now, for years leading up to that, I had been the interviewer, I had been the reporter, the anchor, the host doing the interview, and now here I was as the guest expert, and I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, my goodness, like this is really a disaster if I can’t communicate well in this situation.” And I started to get myself a little worked up, as most of us do when we’re out of our comfort zone, and doing something for the first time where we’re expanding and we’re doing something new.

And, all of a sudden, it hit me that I was confident because I had helped a lot of people, and I knew that my exercises and strategies had really benefited people. And then, suddenly, I got this sense of calm over me where I realized, “You know what, this isn’t about me at all. This is about the viewers that are listening that really need some help, and that really need to have some strategies to work through this on their own. And I was there to be of service and to give value.”
And once I had that mind-shift change, it really gave me a very different perspective and sense of calm and confidence and control over the situation.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s even come up a few times in terms of feeling calm and confident in a speaking situation, it’s the realization, “Hey, it’s not about you. Get over yourself. Be of service. Focus in on the listeners, what they need and want, and how you can deliver that.” So, it sounds like, hey, there’s a huge nugget right there in terms of being calm and confident.

So, tell us, how do you think we get there if we’re sort in our head and self-conscious and thinking about ourselves, and, “What if I screw up?” How do we make that leap?

Patricia Stark
Yeah. Well, you just said a really key phrase, “What if I screw up?” and that’s what I was doing myself in the example that I gave you, is that I was picturing what could go wrong. And we’re so good at that, and it’s really a defense mechanism to help us protect ourselves, to think worse-case scenario, to think, “Okay, what if the absolute most horrible thing happens right now? How am I going to defend myself or get out of the situation?” So, that tends to be our default.

So, first and foremost, we need to really realize that the most important thing that we are hearing is, initially, our internal communication before we have external communication. So, we have to do a check-in on, “How am I speaking to myself, first and foremost, about this situation? And what is the story that I’m telling myself? And am I envisioning the way that I want it to go and how I can help others and really visualize and see this going the way that I want it to go? Or, am I going to that primitive default place where I’m in this protective mode of just hoping that I am going to survive this?”

So, I think that, really just by changing your focus and saying, “No, I’m going to have a plan, and I’m going to visualize how I’m going to work that plan in the positive way that I want it to go, and even seeing the outcome that I want to see.” And that may be someone coming up to you and saying, “Hey, wow, that speech really helped me, or that really inspired me,” or a boss coming up to you and saying, “Wow, you really did your homework for that presentation, and it was a great job. We really appreciate all the work you put in that.”

And doing that ahead of time, which is called pre-paving, really then helps our subconscious kick in and follow our positive plan, rather than worrying about all of those horrible images that we’ve created, that our autopilot is saying, “Well, I thought this is what you wanted me to do because this is the last thing you were thinking before you sent me out there.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Well, in your book, you’ve got a whole chapter on calmfidence boosters. It sounds like we’ve already maybe hit a couple of them. Can you share what are some of the other most powerful practices that really help people here?

Patricia Stark
Yeah. Well, I know that people have heard this time and time again, but it really works, and it’s really true. And that is having gratitude, being grateful for why you’re there, for the opportunity to be there. And it can be small gratitude, it can be large gratitude. So, if someone is asking you to be in a leadership role, or to be the expert on the topic of the moment, that doesn’t mean that you’re the be-all-end-all best expert there’s ever been, but you’re going to be the expert at that moment.

So, having gratitude for saying, “Wow, it’s really great that someone thinks that I have something to offer or that they’ve invited me to be here.” Instead of, “I have to do this,” no, “I get to do this. And how lucky and blessed am I that I’m even in this position to have a platform where I can, hopefully, help others and inspire others.”

So, gratitude is really one of the things that study show can completely cancel out anxiety. You literally can’t be grateful and anxious simultaneously because you can’t be thinking of things that you’re grateful for and also have that sense of anxiety.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s super. How about another calmfidence booster?

Patricia Stark
Another calmfidence booster would be trusting yourself and liking yourself. So often we worry about what others think, “How do I look? How do I sound?” But getting to the point where you’ve prepared enough to where it’s good enough, and you’re not trying so hard for perfection, but just good enough. And I think that sometimes we get so in our way because we think that everything has to be just right, everything has to just be perfect, but when we realize that good enough is good enough, now we have room to be human, we have room to be approachable and endearing.

And other studies that I’ve read also show that we don’t like perfect people anyway. We like people that seem like us, that are vulnerable, that mess up, that say, “Whoops, sorry,” and keep going on and let it roll off their back. So, that’s definitely another booster is cutting yourself some slack and liking yourself and allowing yourself to be human, and letting that be good enough and not aiming for such perfection because perfection really is a roadblock.

Pete Mockaitis
And you’ve got some particular perspectives on dealing with the inner critic. Can you share a few of those with us?

Patricia Stark
Yeah, the inner critic goes back to what I was saying earlier about that defense mechanism and that primitive place where we’re protecting ourselves. Everybody talks about the inner critic and it sounds like this big monster that has fangs, that is chasing us down in the back of our minds. But what that inner critic really is is it’s just you or I like a scared little kid that still lives with us, and we can’t ever completely make the inner critic go away.

But we can stop taking direction from it, and we can say, “Oh, you know what? I know why you’re here. You’re scared or you’re worried or something like this is baggage that you’ve been carrying on that maybe happened to you when you were a kid. Maybe you got laughed at. Maybe you got turned down for a job or for a date or for whatever, fill in the blank, and now that scared little part of us that we still all have like a squatter in the back of our mind, kind of shows its ugly head to warn us and to try to protect us.”

And that’s when I like to say, “No, we all have an inner critic but we also all have an inner coach.” And it’s almost like that angel-devil scene that we’ve all seen in movies or commercials, and we’re like, “Okay. Well, who am I going to listen to?” And it really takes practice and a conscious effort to say, “You know what, I’m not going to listen to the inner critic. I’m going to listen to the inner coach.”

“And I’m going to talk to myself the way that teachers, or mentors, or people that I’ve admired, or people that really helped me at certain parts of my life, a dear friend, or a confidante. How did they talk to me? Or how would I talk to a dear friend or someone that I care about if they were struggling with something or having stress or anxiety? And deciding that I’m going to talk to myself as my inner coach and then I can’t listen to the inner critic.”

Because if you’re not talking to yourself, that inner critic voice is going to be really loud. But if you’re talking to yourself, then you can’t hear that inner critic talking to you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. And, by contrast, what are some of the calmfidence killers?

Patricia Stark
Definitely, defining yourself externally. We all worry about what others think and, “What is this person going to think?” Or, I remember my mom always telling me when she grew up with her father, he had emigrated to this country, and he was always, “What will people think?” And, finally, she said to him as she got a little older, she’s like, “Who are these people that you’ve been talking about?”

So, I think that it is defining yourself from externally. I think that all happiness, all calmfidence, all calm and confidence, all starts from within. So, working on things, whatever you can, and knowing that, again, we’ve all got baggage, we’ve all got all kinds of things that have influenced us negatively going through our lives, whether it was family, friends, coaches, tough people that we work with. We’ve all got that. We’re all struggling with something.

But realizing that true calm and that confidence and trust in ourselves and belief in ourselves can never come from external sources. It can only come from the inside and doing that inner work. And that might look different for different people. It could be meditation. It could be preparation. It could be their faith. It could be, again, going into that inner coach mode. But knowing that we’ve got to go internal, and from within, and that’s where everything, that’s the foundation of everything, not coming from the outside.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you mentioned that can look differently for different people in terms of what is the inner work by which one arrives at, having an internal, I guess, self-worth, self-confidence, self-identity, that is, ideally, kind of unshakeable in terms of someone thinks you’re dumb or whatever. And it’s funny, in my own life experience, I’ve had times where I’ve had criticism, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, you’re mistaken. I don’t care,” and just like has zero impact. And other times, it’s like, “Oh, no,” and it really hits hard. So, I’d love it if you could dig into some of those different views of inner work that gets us to that place of unshakeable self-confidence?

Patricia Stark
Sure. Well, I can’t get in in other people’s heads but when I’ve had the conversation with clients and students, and even family and friends, and even when I’ve been discussing when I was writing my book, it’s really like, “What’s that personal ritual or that thing that you do that makes you feel like, ‘You know what, I’ve got this. I’ve got my act together. I feel solid. I feel like I’m ready to go’?” And those rituals are different for all of us.

Some people like to work on their outside and feel like everything looks just a certain way and then, hopefully, then they let that go and they can forget about themselves because they’ve taken care of whatever they needed to externally get their act together, and now, “Okay, I’m in that uniform, I’m in that mode so I can go out into the world and, hopefully, forget about myself.” It could be, again, someone that meditates in the morning, or maybe somebody that really does their homework, that really covers all the bases above and beyond so that they can perform to a certain degree and have a little bit extra if they need to whip something out of their hands that they weren’t expecting.

It could be someone thinking about, “What’s my why? Why am I showing up today? Is it because I feel that I have something that will help people? Is it that I want to do a great job so that I feel like I have something that I’m proud of or that my family will be proud of me? Is it my faith in myself or a faith in a higher power?” It’s something that all of us tap into that, again, is an individual thing that makes us each feel, like, “I know I’ve got this. And even if things don’t work out exactly the way I want to, or go south and are not okay, I know I’ll, at least, be okay.”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Thank you. And I’m curious, when it comes to, kind of shifting gears like into the actual presentation/communication zone, you mentioned rituals and preparation. I’m thinking about the actual preparation of your content or presentation. What do you recommend? Is there a particular amount or approach that really works wonders and making us feel confident and ready to go and deliver?

Patricia Stark
Yeah, over the years when I would work with a different content and copy, whether I was on stage or in front of the camera for a client, I remember someone many, many years ago, it might’ve been a director or a producer that we were having this conversation. And they made this comment where they said, “You know, it’s not about memorization. It’s about internalization.” So, it’s one thing to memorize things, and that’s fine and that’s good, and some people have better memories than others.

But when you’re really invested to the point where you’ve internalized this stuff, where you just really know your stuff, you eat, sleep, and drink it, you know it like the back of your hand, that’s when the magic can happen because you can be so much more free, and flexible, and not worry about, “Oh, I was supposed to say it just this way.”

Just like, I’m sure, when you drive to your home from work or wherever you’re going, to the food store, whatever it is. There’s probably five different ways or routes that you could take to your house, but all of them are going to get you to the place where you need to be, depending on what mood you’re in or traffic or detours. So, as long as you know your content inside and out, the best that you can.

And I know sometimes people spring presentations on us and things we don’t have as much time to prepare as we would like. However, if you’re someone who should know that content, and it is something that you live with and that you work with, and that maybe, and hopefully, is a passion of yours, to be able to have it more something that is just part of you and internalized, again, to where not just memorizing talking points, that’s such a beautiful place to be, because then you can have real organic things happen, you can really be in the moment, people can ask you questions and you’re not going to get thrown because you can think for a moment and you can be like, “Well, here’s my point of view on that.”

And, again, we want to be prepared obviously, so the best people will make it look like they’re winging it but they still have a skeletal structure. So, a lot of times I’ll tell clients, “Okay, if you’re not going to go from a verbatim script, have chronological bullet points where you’re going to kind of have a skeletal structure in your mind’s eye so you’ll see that structure of content points or concept points, and then with a more casual conversation, hopefully a little bit more organic, then you could put the flesh and the fat on it in a conversational manner, but you’re still following this beautiful skeletal structure so you know where you’re starting and where you’re ending up.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, certainly. And so, that sounds like a great kind of place to end, like, oh, you have that flexibility, you can rock and roll in that way. And I’m curious, and I’m sure it’ll vary based on the nature of the communication and the person, but sometimes I think we have it but we don’t really have it. In terms of, like, “Okay, yeah, I know what I’m talking about. Uh-uh, sure.” So, I guess, how do we really know? How do you really know that you know? Is there sort of an amount of practice or a key acid test that you run folks through?

Patricia Stark
It is different for everyone. I used to have a terrible fear of public speaking when I was in high school and in college, and I would overprepare and that would make me more nervous. Now that I’ve gotten over that, and I’m just at a place where I just love communicating with people, and I love talking about all kind of topics, including the ones that are my passion, I tend to just be more relaxed about it, I have a plan, but it’s more of a simplified plan, again, that I can kind of let happen organically.

But for people who can’t do that and they don’t speak enough, and that’s usually the problem, when we don’t speak all the time and we’re not constantly in great shape of organizing our content and presenting our content, what I will tell to people is I’ll say, “Let’s do it in like a rule of three.” So, I had a client recently that she’s an expert in her field, and she was going to be interviewed on a morning show about what she did, and it was three minutes.

And we went through it because she’s done that before, and we had her content, and the three main takeaways that she wanted to do. And then she came to me the next week and she said, “Oh, my goodness, someone just asked me to do a half an hour of content that they want to have as like a webinar or something that was going to live somewhere on somebody’s website.” And she said, “How the heck am I going to fill a half an hour?”

So, then I said to her, “All right. Well, what about those three main modules, or those three main takeaways that you normally talk about?” And we flushed that out again. And then I said, “Okay, so 30 minutes is really you’ve got, what, maybe about a minute, a minute and a half open, and then a minute, a minute and a half close, so now you’ve got like 27 minutes left, so that’s nine, nine, and nine, which makes 27.”

“So, let’s take three blocks of nine minutes and have that be one of each of your three talking points. And then, under that, let’s have a subset of three things under each of those umbrellas that go a little bit deeper, a deeper dive into the topic. So, then that was three minutes, three minutes, three minutes under each of those nine headings.”

So, all of a sudden, she’s working this all out, and she says to herself, “Wow, if I can include all of this stuff, I hope that I can give all the information I want to give. I hope a half an hour is enough time.” So, suddenly, she realized she had more than enough content. She just needed to chunk it down. So, I think that if we can chunk things down, think about what really are the main takeaways that the audience or the viewers, the listeners, really need and simplify that, and then go back and reverse-engineer and dive a little bit deeper into each of them, we’ll usually find that we have more content than we need.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Lovely. And you also got some particular perspectives on healthy, engaged eye contact. Lay it on us.

Patricia Stark
Yes. So, a lot of people don’t really feel comfortable with eye contact, and it’s particularly odd these days because we’re out of practice. We haven’t been in person with each other the best that we can and we’ve all been all over the place with our eye contact on some of these virtual platforms because it’s like, “Well, I want to look down at the boxes and see the people that I’m talking to as I’m used to looking at human beings, but I really need to look at that little dot in front of me so that they feel like I’m looking at them, and even feel like I’m listening to them,” because when we’re looking in other places, we look disengaged.

So, I know, in person, that a lot of people feel like either someone’s boring a hole through their head or looking into their skull if they make eye contact for too long. So, a couple of tips on comfortable, confident eye contact, the sweet spot seems to be between like two and five seconds. So, if we look away too fast before that two seconds, it looks like we’re nervous and we don’t want to make that eye contact or we’re hiding something. And if we stay, overstay our welcome a little bit longer than that five seconds, it looks like we’re way too interested or we’ve got that stalker stare.

So, to kind of think to yourself, “All right, just go for that two- to five-second sweet spot, and then look at the other nonverbal communication.” We should be looking at lips. We should be looking at eyebrows. We should be looking at facial expressions. And kind of looking up to think about our content, or looking down to ponder what we’re thinking about or how we’re digesting the information. So, we actually give each other breaks in those moments so that we’re not just completely engaged in eye contact all the time to where everybody becomes uncomfortable and awkward.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s a great perspective in two to five seconds that sounds and feels about right, and often that might be just about a short sentence or a phrase, and then we can look to the next person with the following sentence. And then when we start a new one, we’re looking at the next person. So, that just sort of has a nice flow or groove to it.

When you mentioned that we’re out of practice and scared, I’m curious, do you have any exercises you recommend? Sometimes I found, like in an airport, or I like to look at people’s eyes, and it’s funny, I see it in myself in terms like sometimes I’m just like ready. I’m ready to look at them for two seconds and nod, just like, “Hey.” And other times, I’m like, “Ooh, you caught me. Ahh.”

Patricia Stark
Oh, I know. Yeah, that’s like, “Oh, yeah, I wasn’t looking at you. I swear.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, are there exercises you think we can conduct safely to get more comfortable with this?

Patricia Stark
Yes. Well, I’ll tell you a quick little funny story. When COVID first happened and we were all in that really first intense quarantine, and I hadn’t been used to seeing faces up close other than my immediate family members, I opened the refrigerator one day and there was this huge image of someone’s face on the container of milk and it startled me. I was like, “Oh, that feels really weird and really close and a stranger.” So, I like felt that effect. And when I was doing a little bit of research on this, I found out that there are actually apps and websites where you can practice and you can go on and you can stare into eyes of people that are looking directly at you on your phone or your computer. So, that’s kind of an interesting little trick.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fascinating.

Patricia Stark
Yeah, or you could watch a video.

One little thing that I want to mention when it comes to uncomfortable or prolonged eye contact is that it’s also a very effective strategy in holding your ground. If you really want someone to know you mean business, or you’re really waiting for an answer, or you are expecting something, you can just really just maintain that eye contact, and look at them and hold your ground, and it really makes people respond or get uncomfortable. And not that we want to make people uncomfortable, but it’s very effective in letting people know that you are standing your ground and you’re not doing anything until they make the next move.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it really is. And I remember when I did a lot of keynotes on college campuses, sometimes there’d be some chatterboxes talking to each other in the audience, and I didn’t really like that. But it was almost like a magical superpower in terms of, sure enough, when I look right at them, it’s like, they say, “Ooh,” they kind of like tone it down and got quiet until I looked elsewhere and then they’d start up again, and you look again, and they tone it down.

Patricia Stark
Yeah, yeah. And we also…you reminded me of something about judging a book by its cover, and I’d mentioned earlier about the eye contact with the other nonverbal facial expressions which have also been tough with us with masks on, so we really rely on the eyes and, hopefully, seeing the crow’s feet so we could tell someone is smiling or looking in between their brow to see if they’re sad or angry or mad or whatever, but it’s really the whole picture.

So, it’s not just the eye contact. It’s, “What other messages am I receiving? And what are some of those micro expressions, little moments where we think we saw something but then it went away because someone tried to hide it.” So, hopefully, it makes us ask more powerful questions and engage verbally with people. But there was one instance where I was giving a seminar or it was a big workshop, I think it was, and there was somebody in front of the room that was staring at me, and she really had this terrible picklepuss kind of poker face look on her face, and I thought she was extremely unhappy every time I had kind of catch eyes with her.

And, lo and behold, at the break, who’s the first person that runs up with a big smile on their face telling me how much they’re enjoying the session? And I was looking, and I was like, “Are you kidding me?” I said, “You looked like you wanted to beat me up.” And she goes, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’ve been told I get this look on my face when I’m really into something and really intensely listening and paying attention.” I was like, “You’ve been told this. I think you need to work on that.”

But really, it was a good lesson for me to…remember how we talked about that self-talk? That was a story I was telling myself, “Oh, she must be unhappy. Why did I go there first?” So, now, if I see those picklepusses and poker faces, I think, “Oh, they think this is the best thing since sliced bread.” I’m making up what I’m telling myself about the situation anyway, so why not make up something positive?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good. And it’s true, I think that there are times where my eyes, they might just seem like I’m sort of glazed over, like maybe zombie-sque, but what’s really happening is, I’m like, “Whoa, Patricia, what you just said is huge. And so, if that’s true, then all these other implications and possibilities might work out. And maybe I should try this over here.” And so, it might look like I’m totally zoned out but, in fact, I’m engaging pretty deeply and my mind is really racing with ideas and possibilities associated with the thing that you’ve spoken about.

Patricia Stark
Yes, so we shouldn’t make assumptions. And if we’re going to, let’s keep them positive because we’re making it up anyway.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. Well, tell me, do you have a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Patricia Stark
I was thinking that a really great one, especially in business and in the way that we put ourselves out there, or not, in the world is, “God gives birds their food, all birds their food, but He doesn’t throw it into their nest.”

And I particularly like this quote because I am a bird person. I have a bird feeder out in the back of my yard, and I’m always going out there, and I get a lot of joy feeding the cardinals and the different birds, and even the squirrels, they don’t bother me because I think, “You know what, they’re coming out when I’m throwing this out there.” But they have to come out of their nests to come and get that food.

And when I see them with that motivation and they give me happiness because I see that they’re going out there to come and get what I’m giving to them, I want to give them more. I even have one squirrel that will come up to the backdoor and take a big piece of bread out of my hand like it’s a drive-thru window. And I love this squirrel because the squirrel is going the extra mile. It’s figured out that if it comes out and comes out of its comfort zone, out of its safe space, that I’m here to give it something.

And I think that this is a really great analogy for whether it’s a goal or going the extra mile at your job. When people see that you’re willing to leave the nest to take a chance to put yourself out there and show some initiative and go out there and get it and be a go-getter, people really respond to that and they want to help you even more. And I think that that is just a great thing to keep in mind, again, for any goal or anything that you’re doing in the workplace, that people want to help people who are out there trying to go above and beyond.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Patricia Stark
I think that anything to do with Positive Psychology, I’m all about that because, for so long, psychology really only focused on dysfunctional things and what was going wrong, and, “How can we help fix those things?” And then, lo and behold, Positive Psychology studies came around and it was all about, “What can be right and what can be done positively from a place of something is not broken or needs to be fixed? But how can we think better and think differently that will help us advance?” So, anything to do with Positive Psychology or emotional intelligence, I really love.

And there was also a body language study done by a woman named Amy Cuddy I have found it to be pretty true to where, when you use your space and you stand up straight and tall, and you feel more powerful, almost like a Superman or Superwoman pose that you might do before you go out to give that presentation or go in front of the camera, it changes your physiology, and your stress hormone, cortisol, drops, and your testosterone can rise.

And in her study, she showed this can literally happen in the way that we use our body in just two minutes. And I’ve used this with clients and students, and even myself, and I see the difference. For imploding, looking down at our cellphone, or looking at that resume and not getting up and using our body to feel open and more powerful, and using our space. There is definitely an effect on how we show up.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Patricia Stark
Well, I have so many but one that I just finished recently was called Rise and Grind by Daymond John from Shark Tank.

But I also love Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. I’ve referred to that many times over the years when I’ve been looking for a goal, whether it was to achieve goals at work, or write my book, or whatever it may be. Blink by Malcom Gladwell. I can go on because I am very big student of personal and professional development books, so I could probably rattle off more than a few for you right now but I won’t take your time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about is there a key nugget you share that people seem to connect and retweet and frequently quote you, a Patricia original?

Patricia Stark
I’ve told people, and especially, students and younger people when I go to speak at schools or at some of these Zooms, that I love to remind them that we all have our own personal fingerprint that no one has the same fingerprint that any of us do. So, it doesn’t matter if someone is doing something or has done something before. If it’s something that’s in your heart, and that’s a calling for you that you want to do in this world, just focus on putting your own personal fingerprint on it because that means no one has ever touched it just the way that you have or will from your perspective and your personal lifeforce.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Patricia Stark
Well, you can certainly link with me on LinkedIn, just Patricia Stark; on Facebook, Patricia Stark Communications; Twitter @clickpatricia, like you’re clicking Patricia. And then Instagram, patriciastarkcommunications. And then on the web, PatriciaStark.com or CalmfidenceBook.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Patricia Stark
Just know that when you have the plus factor, when you’re not just going through the motions, when you’re not just following the job description, everyone truly is really self-employed because it’s up to you to decide how good you want to be at something, how much effort you want to put forth, how much of a plus factor you want to have, and that’s the thing that will make you stand out from the crowd and be different.

And even if it doesn’t happen right away, people take notice when we go above and beyond, because, unfortunately, not a lot of people necessarily do that. And when you do that, and you are willing to go the extra mile, people will want to go the extra mile for you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Patricia, this has been fun. I wish you much luck with your book and other adventures.

Patricia Stark
Pete, well, thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed speaking with you today.

697: How to Make Your Point and Communicate Like a Leader with Joel Schwartzberg

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Joel Schwartzberg walks through how to sharpen your communication to maximize your impact.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to know if you even have a point 
  2. The simple phrases that make you more memorable
  3. Word substitutions that increase presence 

About Joel

Currently the Senior Director of Strategic and Executive Communications for a major U.S. nonprofit, Joel Schwartzberg teaches communication and presentation skills to clients including American Express, State Farm Insurance, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Comedy Central, and the Brennan Center for Justice. Joel’s books include The Language of Leadership and Get to the Point! and his articles appear in Harvard Business ReviewFast Company, and Toastmaster Magazine. A frequent conference presenter and workshop leader, Joel is also a former national champion public speaker. He can be reached at www.joelschwartzberg.net. 

Resources Mentioned

Joel Schwartzberg Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Joel, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Joel Schwartzberg
Thank you, Pete. It’s my pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear what you have to say, as well as to hear the tale about your Wheel of Fortune appearance. How did this come about?

Joel Schwartzberg
Well, when you live in Los Angeles and you don’t have a job, you don’t go to unemployment, as most people do, more often you go on to a game show. Why not? This was back in the day, we’re talking about the ‘90s. So, I was out of work at the time, living in Los Angeles, and I just took a chance. Even though I was local, I auditioned, they picked me. And a year and a half later, I was on the show. And, Pete, it was one of the most doomed experiences of my life.

Pete Mockaitis
Doomed?

Joel Schwartzberg
Doomed.

Pete Mockaitis
How so?

Joel Schwartzberg
I did not fare well. I think they do a week’s worth of shows in one day, at least they did, and I was clearly the big loser of the day so much so that they gave me some extra consolation prizes. So, all I took from it was not the $20,000 annuity. I didn’t even know what an annuity was at the time. I just took my memories from it, really. And those served me well, but it was not my finest hour in terms of being a successful contestant.

Pete Mockaitis
So, there is an episode of you but you didn’t do well on it, is that what I’m hearing?

Joel Schwartzberg
That’s basically the bottom line. Right, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. But I want to know then, so we’re talking about The Language of Leadership: How to Engage and Inspire, I’m curious if some of your skills, you think that won you the spot on the audition. What do you think sold them on you?

Joel Schwartzberg
One of the things I have to say, I’m not often asked that question, but one of the things that helped me is, I think, was eye contact. I maintained eye contact with the other competitors as we did sort of rehearsal rounds, I definitely gave eye contact to the people who were in the decision-making role, and I just sort of flooded them with my engagement through my eyes. Now, as we went through, these are things they’re looking for, “Am I going to be mousy or am I going to be confident and assertive? Am I going to ask for vowels in a strong voice or in sort of a small voice?” These are things they’re looking for.

So, as you ask that question, it’s interesting, a lot of the things I talk to my clients and students about are things I employed there that I think, yes, I think they did make a difference in them, ultimately, picking me.

Pete Mockaitis
Decisively buy those vowels, that’s a good takeaway right there. So, let’s sort of zoom out. In your years of working and research looking into how leaders communicate well, what would you say is one of your most surprising or counterintuitive discoveries?

Joel Schwartzberg
My biggest discovery, and this is sort of the bread and butter of what I train, is the concept of making a point. Now, obviously, leaders need to make points but, really, everybody needs to make points not only in our professional life but also in your personal life. We make points to our mother’s-in-law and our children, and to our neighbors.

And what I discovered, after a few years of training public speakers, was that, while they were doing everything right in terms of their gestures, they’re planting their feet, their volume, their articulation, when I asked them, “What point are you trying to make?” they would reply with something that wasn’t a point, which forced me to build a definition of what a point is, as well as a simple test that people can use to find out if they’re making a point or not.

And to be very clear about this, what they thought was their point was actually a theme, or a topic, a notion, a category, a catchphrase. For example, podcasting is not a point. If you asked me what my point is, and I said podcasting, I’m not telling you the value of podcasting, who I’m trying to reach through podcasting, the future of podcasting, how podcasting impacts culture. None of that. So, I’m giving you a theme but I’m not really making my point.

And once I sort of came to that realization, I turned around my training and I wrote this book called Get to the Point! which really helps people understand, A, what a point is and what it is not; B, how to sharpen that point; and, finally, how to champion that point. And that is an imperative for leaders, but it is certainly a benefit for anybody who needs to make a point, which is all of us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s just a huge learning right there. Let’s dig into it. So, some things that are not a point would be a theme, a category. So, then what is the definition and the test for whether a point is a point or not a point?

Joel Schwartzberg
A strong point is a proposition. I’m sort of putting myself on the line to put something out there and suggest or recommend something to you. And within that, I’m also explicitly conveying the value of it. Now, this gives us sort of an ambiguous idea of what a point is, so let’s take the podcasting example. A topic is podcasting, a theme is communication, a catchphrase is “the power of podcasting,” but a point is, “I believe that podcasting is the most effective way to reach our millennial audience.”

Now, how do we get from one of those to the others? That’s a test that I have in my book that’s very simple. It’s called the “I believe that” test. And I know it’s simple because my daughters, when they were in middle school, they used it. And it goes like this. You take what you believe is your point, and you put the words “I believe that” in front of it. Now, it’s a mild tweaking, if any. What you want to have is a complete sentence, not a fragment, not a run-on, something that will impress your fourth-grade language arts teacher – a complete sentence.

So, if we put that podcasting example into play, “I believe that podcasting…” not a sentence, even “I believe the importance of podcasting…” not a complete sentence. It forces you to say, “I believe that podcasting will enable us to X,” “I believe that podcasting will change the world in these ways.” And that’s where we talk about having a point and sharpening it.

So, I’ve ran this test many, many times for people in nonprofits, for people selling a product, for people in PR, for people running for office, for people interviewing for jobs, and it works the same for each person. You want to make the point so you basically want to make a belief statement that says, “If this happens, then this other thing will result,” “If you hire me, then your environment and your work product will be improved in this way.”

And then, when you use that test, when you have that complete sentence, you’re on your way to making a point. But if you fail that test, you need to go back and reimagine your point so that it can pass that test.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, can you give us some more examples of things that are not a point? I guess what I’m thinking here is I’m thinking about a lot of slide decks. So, back in consulting, we had our headlines at the top of the slide and that was kind of the idea, it’s like, “That headline, it’s about two lines maybe, up to a dozen-ish words, and it should say sort of the point of the slide.” And that was really instilled into us.

And so, it shouldn’t just say, “Revenue over time,” or, “Customer breakdown,” because that is a label of what is on the slide. And so, fair enough, that is what that is but it doesn’t sort of tell you, “What are you trying to tell me about the revenue over time or the customer breakdown?” So, what are some other ways that you see this not working so well in business and professional contexts, like common non-points that come up again and again that need to be improved?

Joel Schwartzberg
There are a lot of settings for it. One of the ones where you’ll see it most obviously is in conferences, “Hey, Pete, what are you talking about today? I’d like to come to your session.” “Oh, I’m talking about podcasting,” or, “I’m talking about income inequality,” or, “I’m talking about Coca-Cola.” Well, you’re not telling me what point you’re going to make. And if you do tell it to me in a form of a point, “I’m going to talk about the ways we can tackle income inequality so that everybody has the same opportunity in America.” You see how that’s more compelling and resonant?

You mentioned another place, and I’m glad you mentioned because even just PowerPoint, and you can get a million recommendations, but the one I never see, which is key to me, is what you said. In the title of a PowerPoint slide, what we’re often seeing is categories: what’s next, background, history, statistics. And then in the example you said, “Yeah, PowerPoint slides can say ‘Our feedback survey’ or it can say, ‘Results of our feedback survey,’ or it can say, ‘Feedback: Our community prefers Coca-Cola.’” Why not put the exact point into the topic or the title page of that PowerPoint?

Another place is in email. People are using subject lines that often read “Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Tuesday” when they’re actually trying to convey a very important point or a very important recommendation for a tactic that the team should take, but it’s submerged under a subject line that is not expressing that point.

So, really, in all settings, whether you’re writing, you’re speaking, you’re creating a video, you’re texting, you’re posting, these all benefit from points. And what I often say in my training is, “Tomorrow morning, when your manager says, ‘All right, let’s go around the room and if you have recommendations or if you have feedback, what happened over the weekend, please share it,’ and people will hem and haw, ‘Well, I think this happened and I don’t know if that should’ve happened,’ why not set yourself up for success by saying, you can say, ‘I believe that if we had done this, we would’ve had more impact on our customers,’ or, ‘I believe that what happened over the weekend was a great example of what happens when we take this approach to our audience.’”

Now, I want to make something clear, Pete. I’m not saying you always need to use the words “I believe that.” It’s merely a test to make sure you’re making a point. However, if you do say “I believe that” you’re putting your reputation behind it so there is value to saying those three words.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so that’s a big idea right there in the book Get to the Point! Let’s talk about your latest, The Language of Leadership. What’s the big idea here?

Joel Schwartzberg
So, the big idea behind The Language of Leadership, it’s really taking the ideas of Get to the Point! and it’s asking, “How can leaders use points to do the two most important things they need to do with their teams? Engage their teams and inspire their teams.” Now, that may seem obvious. Obviously, leaders want to engage and inspire, but those are the only two words I picked. I would’ve preferred one word, but for the purposes of broadness, I wanted those two words.

So, what words didn’t I pick? I didn’t say that leaders want to inform, entertain, impress, graduate. There are a lot of words that some leaders may think they want to do for their audience. But, to me, the two most important are engaging and inspiring, especially inspiring. And one of the biggest places where they don’t do that, because we want to talk about examples where people are just missing the mark, is leaders who think that information on its own inspires.

And we often see this in presentations or in PowerPoints, if I tell you the history, “All right, this is what we did in the past, this is what we’re doing now, this is how many, this is how many people, this is how much we’re going to spend on it. Thank you very much.” There is no point there. They merely thought by merely sharing the information, it would sell itself. And what you’re really doing is putting the burden on the audience to receive a point that was not conveyed when, really, that burden is on you to inspire and make the point. I call these book reports. You’re sharing something but you’re not selling something.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then merely information, like, “This is what happened before and what happens now and what happens in the future…”

Joel Schwartzberg
Right. Details. Data. Right.

Pete Mockaitis
So, a point would be like, “We have made tremendous strides and we’re so excited about what we’re going in the future.”

Joel Schwartzberg
Right. Or, let’s say data, we’re always sharing data and slides. I wrote an article about this for Harvard Business Review. The data, just like a story, storytelling is a big deal also, they share one attribute, and that is they don’t sell themselves. They only sell, and you’re only selling them when you say these words. And, in fact, these words are more important than the data and more important than the story. It’s the point at which you say, “This story demonstrates why we should,” “This story is an example of how we can,” “This data proves that we ought to take these steps.” And people leave that out.

And I have one really good example, if you don’t mind my sharing it. I had a client who created all sorts of collateral material. She created hats and calendars and brochures, and I said, “All right, give me your best pitch. Make your point to me.” And she said, “All right. You see these brochures? Well, they are a special material where they won’t crumple. And I’ll give you your logo in three colors all around it. And you see this hat? This hat, if an elephant stepped on this hat and it won’t crush. And this pen, this pen is made of a special nanotechnology. It’ll only pierce your shirt. It won’t pierce your skin. And I tell you what, I’ll give you three colors on the logo of your pen.”

And she went on and on describing her inventory, and she finished. And I said, “Do you think you made your point?” And she said, “I did. I described each and every piece of my inventory and why each of those pieces were great.” And I said, “That’s okay, but you know what I never heard from you? I never heard you say that if I buy your product, I will be more successful.” And that’s what she was selling, that was her big point but she never said it explicitly. What she was doing was sharing details, giving her inventory.

A good example of this is, also, imagine a book. In the book, there are two things, there’s a table of contents and there are blurbs. The blurbs sell the book. The table of contents just shares the inventory. So, what leaders want to do, what anyone giving a presentation or a speech wants to do, is they want to be the blurbist. They want to sell the idea, not just share it as like a table of contents.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s excellent. And it’s interesting, in the collateral materials example, like, “This pin is great because of that, and this hat is great for that,” I suppose if what the information you wanted was, “Why should I pick you instead of the other penmaker or hatmaker?” then that might be helpful. It’s like, “Oh, okay, the hat is more durable than others, or less likely to pierce flesh with a pen.” But if your question is more like, “Should I buy this at all?” then that doesn’t do the trick, versus if you could say, “We had a client who got these hats, and there are millions of impressions now on Instagram where people are being photographed in these hats which has driven their brand awareness a whole lot.” You’re like, “Oh, wow, that’s cool. I guess people are into hats and photographing themselves.”

Joel Schwartzberg
Exactly. What did the hats enable you to do? What did the service or product, not just what it is, but what it enables you to do? And you talk about, “Sell me this pen,” that’s really the basis of that exercise. The value of the pen is not that it’s blue or has a great cap or has a good design, and we’re using it as an example, but it empowers you to express yourself in ways that have impact. And, at the end of the day, what you often want to ask is, “If my audience can only take away one thing, what would that be? What do I want them to leave with?” And if you can answer that question, then you know what you need to do as the speechmaker or as the conveyer or the communicator.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Well, so that’s a great perspective right there in terms of not falling for the trap that information alone inspires, really thinking what’s the one key point you want them to be left with and going for it. Can you share with us a couple other key communication best practices and worst practices that really make an impact when we’re trying to engage and inspire?

Joel Schwartzberg
Sure. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is they think more is better. We know from writing, the writers amongst us, in your audience, we know less is more. But what we need to understand is that, also, more is less. When we add details or words or descriptions to our point or to even a sentence, we are doing a disservice to ourselves because here’s what happens. When you or I, he, she or someone, that has a lot of adjectives, a lot of points, all those points compete with each other for your attention. And then that competition, they’re diluting the impact of each other.

And we can just say an example. Let’s say I was the CEO of our company, and I said, “This new approach is going to make us more successful and experienced and powerful, effective, efficient, memorable, and brilliant.” Now, not many people are going to remember all of those words and, even if they could, they wouldn’t know which one was more important.

If an executive says, “This approach will make us more effective. Let me show you how,” because there’s only one idea, it really sinks into our brains. Now, I’m not saying that every presentation can only have one idea, although it’d be a beautiful thing, but if you have multiple ideas, you want to separate them and delineate them, “First thing, I’m going to talk about this idea. Then we’re going to move on and talk about this idea. And, finally, we’re going to look at how this affects the world around us.” So, I’ve delineated these instead of attaching them all together.

Remember, all we need to do, as speakers and communicators, is say the words that we’re familiar with. What does an audience need to do? A lot. They need to hear it. They need to process it. “Is this relevant? Should I write this down? Should I tweak this? Do I need to remember this? Should I share this with my direct reports?” So much needs to happen in their brains, as we say something, that by the time they processed it, we’re another six points down the road. So, we need to make it simple. We need to understand that more is less. We need to speak more slowly. We need to introduce pauses so that people have that critical digestion time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, those are some things that are common mistakes. And what do you see as some of the best-in-class examples or things to do to really do a fine job of engaging and inspiring?

Joel Schwartzberg
Our job, the most important part of a communication is the point because that’s where you’re doing the hard sell for your product or your service that creates this solution that you’ve matched in advance to whoever you’re speaking to, whether it’s potential clients or partners or customers. So, there are ways to reinforce that point in the middle of your presentation. And this is what I counsel leaders to do, and these I call attention magnets.

So, attention magnets include, “I recommend,” “I propose,” “Here’s the thing,” “Look, if there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this,” or, “My point is this.” And one of my public speaking idols is Michelle Obama. Now, when she spoke at the Virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention, she said these three things, and they seemed repetitive if I just pull them out and say them to you now, but these are direct quotes.

One, she said, “And let me, once again, tell you this.” Later, she said, “Let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can.” And then before she finished, she said, “If you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this.” Now, these are attention magnets and anyone can do them, not just Michelle Obama, so I encourage people to use those.

What they are are shortcuts to your point. But in front of any audience, if I said, “Oh, we talked about a lot today, but here’s the thing,” you could tell by just that example that that sort of drills attention to the point, you’ve captured it for a moment, and you want to fill that spot with your point, not with some detritus, some detail, something irrelevant. And to do that, you need to know your point.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, as you say those words, I could just sort of imagine an audience of people looking at phones and then looking up, and sort of like, “Oh, I feel kind of guilty that I’ve been semi-ignoring you.”

Joel Schwartzberg
Right. That’s why I call them attention magnets, not even getters, but magnets.

Pete Mockaitis
Very nice. Okay. And I’m also curious if there are any particular words and phrases that you really love or really hate in terms of being extra effective. So, we’ve had some attention magnet phrases, which are great. Any other key bits that should be on the do’s or don’ts list for our own vocabularies?

Joel Schwartzberg
Right. Well, the first thing I would say is authenticity is critical. Even if you have speechwriters working for you, as many leaders do, you should never say anything, nothing should come out of your mouth that is something you wouldn’t ordinarily say because audiences can pick up on that. It’s artificial. So, always scrutinize whatever you’re saying or reading to make sure it matches who you are and how you normally talk.

In terms of specific words, and, Pete, I really like to give nuts and bolts sort of tactics, not just broad encouragements, so there are things where leaders know that people are saying one word and it actually falls just short of what they intend. I’m talking about when people say allow when they really mean enable. What does it mean when we say allow? Well, we sort of stood aside and we let something happen. We didn’t play a part in it, an active part in it, but maybe we did. Maybe we made it happen. Maybe through our lobbying, that law came about. So, then we enabled it, but we often say we allowed this to happen.

Another is avoid versus prevent. If you actively prevented something, don’t go smaller and say, “We just avoided it.” Another is when we address things, “We addressed this problem.” What does that mean? We looked at it, we read it, we talked about it. But did we act on it? So, if you did act on it, if you overcame a problem, that’s act versus address. And there are a few of these, I call them strategic word swaps. This is another article I wrote for Harvard Business Review, where you can scrutinize a speech, especially ahead of time, or as you’re practicing, to talk about things, like, “We want to overcome goals versus face them,” “We want to accomplish a goal versus meet it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, those are handy word swaps. And then that’s interesting in that those words are all okay, and you took them to great. I’m curious if there are any words that are just kind of terrible For example, one word I frequently coach people to not say in a presentation is “obviously” because it kind of suggests, like, “Hey, if you didn’t know this, you’re an idiot,” and it can sort of be off putting and feel maybe patronizing or arrogant to say obviously, even though sometimes people use it innocently as a vocal pause, or even if they’re a little bit bashful, like, “I’m about to say something that you probably already know, and I don’t want you to think that I think this is a super insightful thing so I’m going to soften it by saying obviously.” I recommend just not doing that.

So, I’m curious, are there any other words, like obviously, that you recommend kind of striking out?

Joel Schwartzberg
Yeah, one of the words I really don’t like is “additionally” or “clearly,” not even because of the impression that people make out of them, which may be haughty, but they’re generally unnecessary. Remember when I said that more is less, and less is more? We often don’t need words like “additionally” or “clearly,” or “it need not be said that.” Often, “that is” a two-word phrase that can be removed. Remember, people are listening to it for the first time so we want to make that language as simple as possible.

I find a lot of people using synonyms all the time, “We want to make this television advertisement more powerful and resonant,” or “reach more people and to be truly resonant.” Well, those are virtual synonyms, but your audience, they’re deciding between two things. So, really scrutinize, when you give multiple things, for those synonyms so you can get closer and closer to the one thing.

And you probably know, Pete, and many of your audience know, in advertising, they often try to take out as many adjectives as they can, and adverbs, because, let’s remember that, adjectives only give the briefest kind of description to something, and it’s always going to be a generic one. What does it mean that something is great, awesome, interesting? I call these badjectives because they’re easy enough, we love them, “This product is great,” but to an audience, what does it mean? Lots of things are great. “I had a great tuna fish this afternoon.”

So, to solve that problem, ask yourself, “Well, why is it great?” “Well, this product is great because it allows us to make sure food doesn’t go bad in the refrigerator?” Aha, so now you have this product as great because it keeps things fresh in the refrigerator. Now, you don’t even need the great word, the badjective, why not just say that this product keeps your food fresh in the refrigerator. So, what we’ve done is we’ve spotted the badjective, we’ve asked why to get to the real outcome, and then we’ve removed the badjective. It’s almost mathematical in the approach.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that. That reminds me of resumes in terms of if you have a lot of adjectives about yourself, it’s sort of like, “Well, okay, says who? And I guess you think you’re great but that’s…” versus if you have actual sort of results, accomplishments, responsibilities, then they’re just facts, and facts don’t tend to need a lot of adjectives. And I guess if you do use an adjective, kind of like I’m thinking about sort of like movies that have…or blurbs, again like the books. When movies say, “Hey, we’re great,” they like to grab it from such and such reviewer from the New York Times that said, “A masterpiece!”

Joel Schwartzberg
“Go see it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Then that packs a little bit more weight, so maybe on the resume it might be like, “Received stellar remarks on reviews including…” whatever. That can make more sense

Joel Schwartzberg
And I’ll tell you something really interesting or sort of ironic that struck me when I was looking at a particular word. The word is hope, and leaders use the word hope a lot, and they should. It’s their job to have vision and point to a future. But here’s the funny thing. Hope works best in leadership as a noun and not as a verb. If we say, “I hope this will happen,” “I hope that this product will succeed,” you’re sort of taking yourself out of the role of making sure it succeeds. You’re sort of gambling on the future when you use hope as a verb.

But when you use it as a noun, you’re creating a vision and a future and a goal for your audience, “Our hope is that we will reach this level of success,” “We have hope that this product will sell,” or, “…that will reach this audience,” or that, “We have hope now that we’ll save the planet,” as opposed to, “I hope we can save the planet.” There’s a subtle difference even though it’s the same word. So, as we scrutinize these words, the language of leadership, as I like to say, there are often many ways to look at it but only one way to use it successfully to, like I say, engage and inspire.

Pete Mockaitis
And we’ve sort of been talking, and this is I’ve been visualizing or even talking about sort of like an in-person face-to-face context. Do you have any thoughts for when it comes to email, Slack, text messaging, how to think about communication that engages and inspires there?

Joel Schwartzberg
Absolutely, but each one of those is sort of different. I like to focus on email and I like to focus on Zoom or video meetings. In terms of email, a lot of it boils down to the subject line, “Am I making myself clear? And in making myself clear, am I engaging the people I’m trying to reach? In the body of an email, am I writing a novella or am I making it easier for my audience, my reader, to engage with me and understand the points I’m trying to make? Am I using bullets? Am I bolding things or using colors?”

One thing I say about email is it’s a hard and fast rule and it shocks people at first, and that is no No paragraph more than three sentences. I often use paragraphs of one sentence. What it does, it allows you to break up your ideas for your own conveyance but it also really helps the audience understand the breakdown of the points you’re trying to make, and that builds engagement.

There are also a lot of things we already discussed about hope and vision and authenticity that sort of create that inspiration. Now, on Zoom, there are a lot of other practices that really help what I like to say elevate your presence on Zoom, and much of it is visual. I see a lot of Zoom calls where leaders are way back, or their head is cut off, or they have a messy room behind them that distracts. So, when I train my clients and my leaders is to show your head and your shoulders, to understand that eye contact means looking into the camera not into the Brady Bunch grid as I like to call it, and to really check your environment, because anything in your environment that doesn’t support your point steals from your point.

And so, these are ways we can not only elevate our leadership but avoid some of the things that may hurt and injure and sabotage our leadership because they’re working against us.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Joel, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Joel Schwartzberg
Know that the one thing I’d like people to take away, and I’m going to use one of those attention magnets, is that it all boils down to having a point. If you don’t have a point, you are literally pointless and you should be nervous, and you should be expecting yourself to ramble because you need to know the one idea you need to get across to make that point, to champion it, so that you can really have an impact on your audience.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Joel Schwartzberg
I’m not sure who said it. It could’ve been a high school chum, but something that I keep coming back to is “It’s not about you being best, it’s about being the best you.” And, to me, what it means is we are all super qualified, uniquely qualified, in each communication setting to make that point. Even Michelle Obama or a famous CEO cannot do the job we do if we’ve prepared and practiced and have experienced to make a point to an audience.

And that quote about being the best you, connects a lot to a mistake people make when they give speeches, when I say, “What is your goal in this speech?” They’ll say, “My goal is not to screw up. My goal is not to embarrass myself.” Well, that really isn’t your goal. Your goal is really to move a point from A to B, not to be thought of as brilliant, or as the next Michelle Obama, or the next head of industry unless you want more public speaking gigs.

You’re more like a bicycle delivery person moving a package, which is your point from here to there. And guess what, you’re the one person in the world most qualified to do it. And that’s what it means to be the best you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Joel Schwartzberg
My favorite research is probably the research that was done on mindsets, and the difference between having a closed mindset and an open mindset. And the closed mindset means you’re not open to learning, and an open mindset means that you’re open to experiencing new things and learn from them. And I forget the name of the study. I think it’s fixed mindset and I forget the name of the other.

Pete Mockaitis
Growth mindset.

Joel Schwartzberg
Growth mindset. You’re exactly right. That sort of blew my world because it goes back to your childhood, the way you were raised. Sometimes kids are very, very smart but what they learn is, “I’m going to stay in my lane because I’m good at this and I’ll never be good at that, so I’m never going to try something new.” And often, those kids, overall, will not do as well as the kids who were not told they were geniuses but told to learn as much as they can.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Joel Schwartzberg
My favorite book is Les Miserables probably because I read it in high school. I’m more of an article reader than I am a book reader because of my time. So, the places I like to go to get sort of my research is Harvard Business Review. It’s a place where I see a lot of data-driven stories, sometimes I go to Fast Company. But there’s a lot out there.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Joel Schwartzberg
Probably my to-do list. I can’t rely on my memory, and most people cannot either, so I’m constantly making to-do lists. And by that, I mean a physical to-do list, the yellow sticky notes, but every computer also has a digital to-do list. And the nice thing about that to-do list is it doesn’t go away until you close it. So, even if you put multiple screens, that to-do list, that digital sticky note will always be there. So, I rely on actual sticky notes as well as the digital sticky notes.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Joel Schwartzberg
I really like editing. I’m not sure if you can call that a habit. I’m really a grammarian at heart, and nothing sort of interest me more than using Grammarly, which is another tool I really enjoy, to look at a document and to discover the ways it can be improved by making it tighter, by making it more focused, and by making it more grammatically correct. I know that’s not a habit like cooking or fishing, but I live, eat, and drink, as my wife likes to say, the world of expression and the world of making points. So, everything I find myself doing and interesting are in that universe or in that sort of frequency of thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Joel Schwartzberg
The idea of less is more, and simpler is better. One thing that CEOs I worked with go back to me is this idea of get in, get out. When you need to make a point, it’s easy for leaders to start to elaborate on it, talk about case studies, talk about things they’d read, talk about meetings they have had, because that’s where their mind goes. So, I often have to remind them, “Get in, get out. Make your point and get out so the audience has time to receive that and process it.”

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Joel Schwartzberg
I would point them to www.JoelSchwartzberg.net. A lot of what I talk about is I like to call it open code. I like to share it. I don’t like to keep it to myself. So, that’s one place where I put all the articles I’ve written, the books I’ve written. I share ideas there, podcasts I’ve been on. So, if you want to get a deeper dive into all of these ideas about how to engage and inspire, how to make and champion a point, there are a lot of resources there that I prove, because I wrote most of them, that people can utilize right away.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Joel Schwartzberg
I would tell people to think about what they’re going to say before they say it. The worst thing, the biggest mistake you can make is to wing it because you think you know it backwards and forwards, because you’ve studied it, you researched it, it’s your job. A lot of lawyers, nothing against lawyers, but a lot of lawyers I worked with often think they’re so knowledgeable about these areas that they are automatically good communicators, and that is not the case.

Communication is using another part of your brain. So, my one takeaway is really, before your next meeting, or your next communication, take a moment to think, “What is my point? Did I make it clearly? Will it have impact? And if there’s one thing I want my recipient to do, to think, or to take action on as a result of what I say, what is it? And what can I do to make that possible?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you, Joel. This has been a pleasure and I wish you many fun encounters of engagement and inspiration.

Joel Schwartzberg
Thank you, Pete. This has been fun.

676: How to Craft and Deliver Compelling Presentations with Dr. Ethan Becker

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Dr. Ethan Becker offers a practical guide to communicating more effectively in the workplace.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The two ways we process information 
  2. The four-step structure of compelling communication
  3. The simplest way to sound more engaging 

About Ethan

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.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

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Ethan Becker Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Ethan, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Ethan Becker
All right. I’m psyched to be here. I’ve been waiting. This is great.

Pete Mockaitis
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?

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, working buddy.

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And so, what are a few universals that cut across everything?

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
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?

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
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?

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And can you share maybe a story of someone who saw a transformation and what impact that made for them?

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
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?

Ethan Becker
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?

Pete Mockaitis
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.

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
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.”

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
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.

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
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.”

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
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?

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
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.

Ethan Becker
I love it. I love it.

Pete Mockaitis
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.”

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ll say commissions and delighting their customers.

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Thank you.

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. Okay, I like it.

Ethan Becker
I’m going on and on on this stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
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?

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
I think I’ve seen some keynoters who’ve managed to make a living out of good delivery without a lot of substance.

Ethan Becker
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?

Pete Mockaitis
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.”

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Ethan Becker
My mom always used to say, “Be sure that your brain is engaged before putting your mouth into gear.”

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Ethan Becker
A favorite tool would be taking a time out to practice.

Pete Mockaitis
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?

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Ethan Becker
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.

Pete Mockaitis
Ethan, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck in all of your communications.

Ethan Becker
Thanks, Pete. I appreciate it.

666: How to Build Trust and Connection through Digital Body Language with Erica Dhawan

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Leadership expert Erica Dhawan helps decode the new cues and signals that make up digital body language.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The new cues and signals to look out for
  2. Rules for emojis in emails
  3. The Zoom rule to keep everyone engaged

 

About Erica

Erica Dhawan is a globally recognized leadership expert and keynote speaker helping organizations and leaders innovate faster and further, together. Erica has spoken, worldwide, to organizations and enterprises that range from the World Economic Forum to U.S. and global Fortune 500 companies, associations, sports teams, and government institutions. Named as one of the top management professionals around the world by Global Gurus, she is the founder and CEO of Cotential – a company that has helped leaders and teams leverage twenty-first-century collaboration skills globally. Her writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including Fast Company and Harvard Business Review. She has an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School, MBA from MIT Sloan, and BS from The Wharton School. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

Erica Dhawan Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Erica, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Erica Dhawan
Thank you so much for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about Digital Body Language, but, first, I want to hear a little bit about your body of work in the realm of Bollywood dancing. What is the story here for you?

Erica Dhawan
I grew up as a shy and introverted girl in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and for most of my life, I struggled to find my voice. You couldn’t even realize I was there. Every teacher from kindergarten to 12th grade often said, “Erica is very studious and gave me straight As,” but every teacher had the same feedback, “I wish Erica spoke more in class.”

One of the things though that I loved and that really allowed me to connect with others was dancing. And coming from an Indian background, one of my biggest passions is Bollywood dancing. But with my passion and my work around connection and my research around how we really connect in today’s world, I found that so much of it comes not just through our heads but through our hearts.

And so, some of the things I love to do is not only Bollywood dance myself, but bring the spirit of dance and movement to my audiences as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, fun. So, then let’s talk now about body language, or specifically digital body language. You’ve got this book here about digital body language. Can you share with us what’s perhaps the most surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discovery you made along the way as you were putting this together?

Erica Dhawan
One of the things, or knacks, that allowed me to find my voice, beyond just dance, was understanding body language and the importance of it to build connections. But as I used the power of body language to get great competitive jobs and accelerate in my career, I started noticing something over the last few years that was pervading workplaces and people’s family lives – there was no rulebook for how we showed body language in a digital world.

And it led me for the last four years to study what I called digital body language, which are the new cues and signals that we send in our digital communication that really make the subtext of our messages, whether it’s punctuation, response times, how we sign up an email, to how we showed up on a video call.

One of the most surprising things that I learned while writing my book Digital Body Language is I originally wrote it thinking that it was really an additive benefit or skill in addition to traditional body language. It was something you need once you learned the basics of traditional body language. But what I really realized, as we’ve unlocked our digital shift over the past year, is that digital body language is now changing the way we use traditional body language.

My research is showing that even when we work face to face, moving forward, we are more likely to look down on our phones multiple times, to miss the lean-in in a sales conversation, to think in bullet points and expect others to speak in bullet points, and we are missing a lot of the traditional cues of the head nod, the lean in, the direct eye contact that we used to have. So, digital body language is not just how you show up on a video screen or how you send emails, it is truly changing how we make others feel not only online but even in live meetings in our new normal.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so there’s a lot in there, and that’s exciting. So, you talked about the word rulebook so I want to dig into lots of the precise do’s and don’ts and the implications of them. But before we go there, could you maybe share with us a story about someone who’s able to transform their digital body language and see some cool results from that?

Erica Dhawan
One of the best examples from my own research on digital body language that I feature in my book is about a leader named Kelsey. She works at a large company, and Kelsey is someone who really cares about her people and leading her team. But one of the things that she got was some negative feedback through a performance review that her empathy was weak.

And I started coaching Kelsey, and when I started working with her, I started to look at all the typical markers of subpar empathy: poor listening skills, lack of engagement. And I found that Kelsey was actually fantastic at all these things. She showed her team that she was engaged in the room with them. She would ask for their input repetitively. She would try to bring in her introverts and her extroverts. But I realized what was missing was a whole new set of things that weren’t the traditional cues of empathy.

She would look down at her phone multiple times during meetings, multitasking, or signaling to her team that she wasn’t necessarily always paying attention, thinking that it was important to be responsive, not realizing that was impacting how her team felt valued. She would send one-liner emails that were brief and no context, thinking that she was responsive but actually had a major impact on her team not having a clear understanding of what they needed to do next.

Another thing she was doing was repetitively canceling meetings at the last minute, and her team would feel devalued. So, while Kelsey’s traditional body language was actually quite good around empathy, her digital body language was abysmal. So, we did a few things to really help solve some of these challenges. The first thing we did, and I’ll describe them as sort of three tenets of digital body language, is follow one of the first tenets, which is what I call reading messages carefully is the new listening.

Instead of rushing to respond to things, she took a second, thought before she typed, and would send all her messages to her team with clear response expectations, made sure that she could read it a second time for not only what she was thinking in her head but how others may interpret her messages, especially some of her junior employees.

The second thing that she did, which was critical, is she practiced the tenet that I call hold your horses, which means less haste equals more speed. So, she focused on not rewarding the fastest person to respond in her team meetings but the most thoughtful ideas. And the way that she did this was she started to send agendas before those meetings. She was more thoughtful instead of chronically canceling.

And she had said, “Before the meeting, I want you all to think about these questions.” And then, in the team meeting, she had everyone go around and share their responses. And now, in video calls, she had everyone share in the chat tool so that they weren’t turn-taking and then she would call on the people that had the most different ideas. This allowed her to avoid that culture of group think and create that thoughtfulness.

And then the last thing she did is she was more thoughtful about how her team could find their voice especially in different medium. She found that sometimes, while she was really good with introverts and extroverts face to face, sometimes in digital mediums, they needed more engagement. So, she had a rule where she said, “If you have an idea that isn’t in this meeting on Monday, I want you to send it to me on Friday.”

And what it would do was it would force her to think, it would force her to not just reward the quickest person to respond, and it would allow her introverts to actually bring their best ideas to the table. So, those are just some quick examples of how what we all knew what was implicit in traditional body language, now has to be explicit in our digital body language.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. So, there’s a lot of specifics right there in terms of do’s and don’ts to bear in mind. So, let’s zoom right in to some more of those in terms of what are some key do’s and don’ts that you see all the time and make a world of impact when we make an adjustment there?

Erica Dhawan
Let’s start with the do’s. The first do is value others visibly by valuing their time. Don’t chronically cancel, send agendas, be thoughtful of people’s time. The new art of respect is honoring people’s time, inboxes, and schedules. So, so much of this is really around watching the clock of starting meetings, ending meetings on time, acknowledging those differences, and showing that you recognize others and value their time and engagement with you. There’s so much hidden costs in the emails we send back and forth.

The second do is to communicate carefully. Take a moment to think before you type. Another story I’ll share is I once had a client who sent a message to his boss Tom that said, “Do you want to speak Wednesday or Thursday,” and Tom’s response was, “Yes.” Now, Tom was probably rushing, he thought it wouldn’t offend his colleague, but reading carefully is listening, and writing clearly is empathy, so communicate carefully.

The third do is collaborate with confidence and understand that confidence today is being consistent in your messages. You don’t want to create cultures where people have to chase you down, and being consistent. Even if you don’t have any answer but having a cadence for following up matters more than ever.

And the fourth do is trust others and assume positive intent. Especially in a digital body language world, there are cases where we get all caps emails, we’re feeling someone is shouting at us. Or those emojis that feel a bit passive-aggressive, stay in the place of reason, don’t get emotionally hijacked, and choose thoughtfulness, and giving others a benefit of the doubt.

Now let me give you three don’ts.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, if I could just, because you said emojis, and that was on my list, so let’s just go there. So, emojis can come across as passive-aggressive. How do we think about emojis at work in terms of like, “Never use them,” or, “Use them freely,” or, “Use them only under these circumstances”? What’s your take?

Erica Dhawan
So, emojis are like our true body language facial expressions. And they do bring emotion, nuance, and tone to digital messages that are absent of the body language which makes up roughly 75% of nonverbal communication. I recommend using emojis carefully and knowing your audience when you’re using emojis.

Emojis can actually provide great benefit. They can showcase happiness. They can showcase gratitude with your team. The best way to decide when you should use emojis, how many you should use, how carefully you should use them, is by answering two questions. The first question is, “How much do you trust this person?” If there’s high trust, don’t be shy. Use your authenticity and maybe throw in that emoji. If there’s low trust, maybe be careful. First, mirror the other person’s formality, and then decide when might be that right moment to sprinkle in an emoji.

The second question to answer is, “How much of a power gap is between the two of you?” Is this a CEO who’s in their 60s and you’ve never met in person that you’re sending an email to, or is this a cousin or a friend? These simple things will help you decide power and trust levels whether to infuse that emotion or not. I would say that over the last year, we’ve seen a much higher degree of using the power of emojis and I really encourage it to show your authenticity, again, in places where there is high trust and little differentiation in power dynamics.

I’d also say that we’re seeing a lot more senior leaders throwing in those emojis or two, and I think that it can be really great to infuse a sense of emotion or connection. There are times where you’ll want to make sure you avoid them, sensitive periods where there’s difficulties, situations where…

Pete Mockaitis
“You’re firing 20,000 people…” yeah, I hear you. There’s sort of heavy gravitas elements that the emoji brings a lightness to, a lightness that ought not to be brought to that sort of thing. I wanted to ask, you talked about the power gap in the senior leaders. If you are the more senior person, does that kind of nudge you towards feeling more free to use emojis in communication with the junior folks as a means of making things seem lighter, freer, more open? Or, is it…? What’s your take there?

Erica Dhawan
I think that senior leaders have a great opportunity to sprinkle in that emoji or two to actually create connections. In my research, what I found is that we are all in different wavelengths of digital body language. On one end, there are digital natives, people that are very savvy in these tools, they grew up using emojis in high school, in college. And then digital adopters are the other category. These are people that are learning the new road of digital body language as we go. They never used an emoji for 20 years in workplace culture, and then they might start to try this, which feels like a big leap for them.

To give you a similar parallel example. My father is a digital adopter and I’m a digital native, and when my father sends me a text message, it starts with “Dear Erica,” and ends with “Love, Dad,” and I just scroll through it because it’s as long as a letter, and I haven’t quite taught him that a text is not a letter. But we have to understand that maybe some of our senior leaders are similar to my father. They’re new to these things.

And so, check your own bias. If you’re a leader, sprinkle in an emoji or two. It may actually bring more connection with your teams but know that there are some things that actually may go too far. One head of HR that I interviewed said that she remembers a moment when she changed her communications from an exclamation point to an emoji, and it was like a rite of passage, and it was a big deal. Whereas, for maybe a millennial or a Gen Z, it’s like a simple thing to use every day.

The other thing she learned though is she wrote adorbs, like adorable, but adorbs in an email with one of her millennial coworkers, she is a Gen Xer. And that millennial said, like, “I was uncomfortable with adorbs because you put it an email, and I feel like email is formal. And to you, email was actually more informal.” And so, not only do digital adopters and digital natives have different styles around when to use these punctuation or symbols, but even they have different norms around where to use them by channel.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, and it sounds like you’re sharing some really great principles here which are, in many ways, universal, but in some other ways individuals are going to have their own particular preferences, proclivities, nuances, and that’s just how they are. Like, that would not have even occurred to me. Like, “Email is a more formal channel. I prefer not to hear adorbs.” I guess I’m…how old am I again? I’m 37.

Erica Dhawan
You may be more of a digital native. And I find that it’s not just age-based. I know 50-year-olds that are digital natives at heart and 35-year-olds that want perfect punctuation in text messages. One fun fact is a research study showed that if you put a period at the end of a text, certain Americans will think you’re angry or passive-aggressive, other Americans will think you’re just using good grammar. And that’s just a very good example of how, similar to emojis, we are not all the same. We are all learning the brave new world of digital body language, so it’s important to check our bias to not read into things, and to really give others the benefit of the doubt.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, let’s talk about not reading into things. We’re going to talk about the don’ts here, so let’s start with that one and maybe hear a few more don’ts. Let’s just say our brain just start to go, like, “Wow, what’s up with that text, or Slack, or email that just said, ‘Okay.’ Are they mad at me? Did I screw up? Do they think that I’m trying to undermine them?” So, anyway, our brains just make up these stories and they go running. How should we deal with the internal game when that pops up for us?

Erica Dhawan
So, with the lack of that tone and body language, if you get that message and you see that someone is on the verge of tears, you know that they have good intent but if you can’t see any of those cues, it’s easy to get lost in our minds, caught up in rumination or paranoia. So, here’s a couple things that you shouldn’t do when you get that message.

The first thing you should not do is you should not respond immediately with another passive-aggressive, not react with a more passive-aggressiveness. Instead, stay in the place of reason, sleep on it. I like to call it the pregnant email pause. Sleep on it overnight and come back to it when you’re not as emotionally hijacked. You’ll come back to it refreshed. If you want to write something back, maybe draft it, and then come back to it later.

Another thing that you can do is just pick up the phone. Don’t use email back and forth if it’s not really working for you anymore. Know when it’s important to pick up the phone. I like to say a phone call is worth a thousand emails and there are certain cases where it matters more than ever to do that. That’s the first big don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
And to that point about the phone call, I think that that’s so…it is so powerful and it can be worth a thousand emails in the sense of kind of upstream and downstream in terms of positive or negative. And like when you call, and you say, “Hey, we said okay. I was wondering if maybe we’re thinking X, Y, Z.” And then maybe that can open up a really important emotional conversation, like, “You know, I’m sorry. I’m really stressed about these things. You’re doing a really great job. I’ve been really short with people.” And then you just really strengthen that relationship because you were able to go there. Or you can just have a quick laugh, like, “Oh, no. No, I didn’t mean that at all. No, that’s funny. We’re all good.”

Erica Dhawan
Yeah, someone is trying to be funny and it didn’t go well online.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it’s like that, even if there’s nothing there, taking the time to make the phone call can just go miles in terms of enriching that relationship, so I love it.

Erica Dhawan
That’s absolutely right.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Erica Dhawan
And digital body language is just as much about knowing when to have the video call, the phone call, the live meeting, the email, or the IM, or the text as it is, what we say in each of those mediums. I like to say the choice of communication medium is like the new measure of priority, complexity, and urgency. If it’s really urgent, know when to send a text or make that quick call versus an email. If it’s high complex, it’s very important to know when to have that video call with nuance, with SlideShare, or send a detailed email. And if you’re familiar with this person, knowing when you can just pick up the phone versus sending the long email, or where you have to work with their assistant to schedule something on a calendar.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Great. Thank you. Let’s hear some more don’ts now.

Erica Dhawan
Don’t multitask. Multitasking is rampant right now. We are all feeling not only Zoom gloom but constant fatigue, endless emails. What I really recommend to avoid this just endless feeling, like we’re constantly in meetings, and we have to multitask to just get through the day, is initiate what I call the Zoom BCC just as much as we do the email BCC.

If you’re in a lot of meetings, if they could be shorter meetings, first have less meetings. Instead of making them 30 minutes, make them 25 minutes, then you’ll see you can make them 20 minutes. And then if you have a lot of people on there that don’t need to be on there anymore, initiate a BCC rule on Zoom where you can loop people out just like we do on email. This will really avoid multitasking and really get individuals engaged.

If you’re in a meeting where you feel like you want to multitask because you’re not being engaged, start the meeting with, “What’s the agenda here and how can I help?” Be proactive to make sure that you’re valued, otherwise you don’t need to be there, versus feeling a fear or guilt. And if you’re the host of that meeting, always start with, “Here’s what’s success looks like. Here’s why I need all of your input. And if we’re able to get through this in 15 minutes, then we’ll end 10 minutes early.” Simple things like that will quickly avoid multitasking which is, as we all know, is pretty rampant.

The last thing I think is important is just don’t constantly be in a rush. We are living in a world where rush responses are often prioritized, as I said earlier, over thoughtfulness. Take the moment to really reflect on, “What is a working session that really needs group thinking versus group think?” instead of just saying, “We need to talk next Tuesday because that’s the next opening on our calendar.”

We are not robots and we can’t live or adhere to what our Outlook or our Gmail calendar is saying. We need to think about what will best serve the task at hand, and how we as humans need to process ideas and think through things before we actually jump from meeting to meeting.

Pete Mockaitis
And, in practice, if I want to implement this Zoom BCC action, how would I go about pulling that off?

Erica Dhawan
One of the best ways you can initiate the Zoom BCC is have a rule in the chat box on a video call when individuals do not need to engage anymore or they filled their part of the meeting, just write, “BCC: Sam, John, and Mary,” and then they have the liberty to BCC out of the meeting. That’s just a simple way to do it. I love the power of the video call chat tools because you’re avoiding turn-taking and allowing individuals to engage all at the same time.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, just for any listeners who aren’t quite picking up what we’re putting down and intricate for my understanding. Erica, when you say BCC, it’s much like when in an email we perhaps move the person who introduced us, like Dorie Clark introduced us, thanks, Dorie, we move them to BCC such that they are not privy to all of the back-and-forth subsequent emails about scheduling or whatever that we’re doing. And so, we’re using that as a shorthand then within the Zoom chat to say, “Hey, thanks for that which you have contributed. If you would like to exit now, you’re free to do so.”

Erica Dhawan
Exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. And so, it’s kind of nice as a cultural shorthand, they’d say, “Oh, okay. Got it.” Just like, “That happens in email, that’s what’s happening now, and I appreciate you respecting my time, Erica, and giving that back to me and I’m going to go do my thing.” Or they might say, “No, actually, this is riveting stuff and I really want to see what happens and I’m excited to contribute a few more ideas,” then, by all means, you stick around and it’s all good.

Erica Dhawan
Absolutely. And I think that’s the opportunity here. What we’re often finding is what happens when people don’t feel like they’re contributing anymore, they start multitasking on the call, and then people see that, and then other people multitask, and it just creates a disengaged scenario. And so, really being thoughtful about this can go a long way.

And, again, we are living in the wild, wild west of how we innovate around digital body language, so use your own creativity. With some of my clients who have read the book Digital Body Language and we’ve run workshops we’ve initiated email acronyms. For example, on subject lines, leaders are using 2H which means “I need this in two hours,” or, 4D which means, “I need this in four days” so that person doesn’t feel that like they have to rush; they have four days to actually think about it and then come up with the best product.

Another example of an email is one of my favorite acronyms NNTR which means “No need to respond.” That simple email acronym can avoid 15 thank you emails or okay emails. And this is not trivial, it’s actually valuing other’s time right now. Another one of my favorites is ROM which means “Respond on Monday,” especially if you’re a senior leader who’s sending an email on a Sunday, you don’t want to blast your team member’s weekend. Let them know ROM that they can respond on Monday. That can go a long way not only for you to get better ideas from them but foster wellbeing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly, yeah. And it’s just very clear because it’s ambiguous, they say, “This doesn’t seem super urgent but then, again, why are you sending it to me on a Saturday or a Sunday? And maybe you just had a good creative spark or maybe it is urgent and I can’t quite tell even if I’ve spent that couple minutes trying to figure out if it is or not urgent by reading between the lines.” It’d be great just to have that clarity at first, like, “Oh, I don’t even need to open this subject line that’s tantalizing me because see that acronym. That’s great.” Thank you.

When it comes to multitasking, I just want to get your take about how you say we see other people multitasking on like a Zoom call, and then that just sort of brings down the energy and the commitment focus level from others.

And I think what’s funny, I think most of us notice but some of us don’t apparently, which is that we can tell when you’re multitasking because we can hear the clicking, or if you’re in a Mac or something, like the “thunk, thunk, thunk” trackpad clicks, or see your eyeballs they’re like reading texts elsewhere kind of on the screen as opposed to listening to the person. And so, even with the mutes or whatever, there are many ways it becomes clear that you’re multitasking. So, public announcement there, we know you’re multitasking. So, that’s there if you didn’t already know that.

Can you tell me what are some of the other telltale signs of that? And how does that bring down the energy of the group?

Erica Dhawan
I think that your example was brilliant. It is obvious when individuals are multitasking versus when they’re actually engaging in a conversation. And if you just write even just like, “Oh, I agree” in a chat, it’s kind of like, “Okay, are you really listening?” versus sending something thoughtful around what was just said that will proactively contribute to the conversation and adds to it.

I want to answer this in a few ways. First, I’ll answer “What are some of the common cues of multitasking?” but then I want to answer, “If you are the meeting host, how do you avoid this from happening from those attending your meeting?”

So, common cues of multitasking, people are just not on video even though that you asked for people to be on video, or most of the people are on video. I think that there are reasons people aren’t on video, but if it is a meeting where everyone else is on video, take a second to think about the fact that other people may think you’re multitasking even if you’re not.

Another cue is just never looking into the camera at all and always looking down or somewhere else. A research study showed that making eye contact happens about 30% to 60% when we’re face to face. In body language, we want to actually, when we’re speaking, look into the camera about 60% to 70% of the time. Even though we can’t see everyone, they can feel a connection with us, so it does really help. The third is being someone who, when you’re called on, is sort of like, “Oh, what do we need again?” or, “Can you say this again?” Those are great examples of just the multitasking phenomenon that is existing.

So, how do you overcome some of these challenges if you’re a meeting host? Number one, before the meeting, I like to say the meeting calendar invite is like the new first impression. It sets the agenda for how people will behave in your meeting. So, in that meeting invite, have a clear meeting title, have an agenda, write in there some norms, “We’d like to have everyone on video. If you can’t join on video, let me know beforehand that you can’t.” Like, instead of creating the opt-in, create the opt-out of, “Here are the norms,” and people are automatically engaged more.

In your agenda, identify ways where you can actually solicit other individuals to lead parts of the meeting or to be prepared to speak around specific questions that you want them to discuss. Then, at the beginning of your meeting, when everyone is on, actually start with, “Here’s the agenda. I’m going to call on people randomly.” Encourage that. Just like we did in an office. Like, we don’t have to be polite. This is how we meet. And simple things like that will change behavior as well as using the chat tools, say, “I’d like everyone, as we’re discussing this, to share their responses in the chat. We’re going to wait till everyone shares in the chat. And then I’ll call on people that have different perspectives.”

And this is a great way as well for people to just pay attention and make sure that you’re truly soliciting that input from everyone. So, those are just some examples. Again, it’s not going to be perfect, but knowing how to engage the group thoughtfully and then knowing when to Zoom BCC them out, because otherwise it will create multitasking, can go a long way and just having great, good body language.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, tell me, Erica, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Erica Dhawan
My new book Digital Body Language is out May 11th. If you want access to some tools around it, if you go to EricaDhawan.com/digitalbodylanguage, I have a digital body language quiz that will help you assess yourself on some of the categories I talked about: valuing others visibly, communicating carefully. It’s free for anyone. And I hope you’ll check it out, take it with your teams, and understand whether you’re a digital native or a digital adapter. 

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Erica, now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Erica Dhawan
My favorite quote is from Maya Angelou, and I’ll share it with you, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And what I find so inspiring about that is that this is a moment that we can help others feel heard, respected, and understood with digital body language.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now could you share a favorite study or experiment or a bit of research?

Erica Dhawan
I recently ran a study of 2,000 office workers, and one of the greatest insights I found from the study was that the average office worker cited that they were wasting four hours a week on poor, unclear, and confusing digital communication. If we equate that up to the US GDP alone, that is $889 billion in wasted salary alone.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Erica Dhawan
My favorite book, most recently, I have many, is Choose Yourself by James Altucher.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Erica Dhawan
My favorite tool is the Calm app. I really believe in the power of meditation and connecting not only with our minds but our bodies. And I use it every single morning for a quick meditation, and every afternoon for a five-minute meditation.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Erica Dhawan
Yeah, my favorite habit is to wake up every morning and have a big glass of water with a Nuun tablet. Hydration is everything. It has changed my life. And if you are not drinking eight glasses of water, go for it and you will see immense results.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, hydration is actually one of my hobby horses, I guess, so you said it was transformational. Explain.

Erica Dhawan
I was constantly tired for most of my life throughout the day. I’ve been addicted to coffees, teas, chocolates in the afternoon, and after I became a mom of two kids, I have two kids under three years old, I realized that this could not be fixed with caffeine. Caffeine is just another addiction and I needed to change my habits. And so, I started to experiment with lots of different things, but the one that has really worked is just drinking more water. And I found that I don’t love to just drink glasses of water, but I started to use electrolyte tablets, like Nuun and others, and just that simple dose of not feel like water, warm water, but a little more fun goes a long way in helping me hydrate, keep my energy up throughout the day.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Erica Dhawan
In terms of all of my work, I think one of the most important nuggets that has connected most was the quote I shared earlier, “Reading messages carefully is the new listening, and writing clearly is the new empathy.” We are living in a new world of how we connect and build trust. And, as I shared earlier, I think what was implicit from body language now has to be explicit in digital body language. And I think that taking the extra steps to truly show empathy and care with simple actions like these go a long way in connecting.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Erica Dhawan
Folks can learn more on my website at EricaDhawan.com, or my book website EricaDhawan.com/digitalbodylanguage, or you can just check out my Amazon page and find my books there.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Erica Dhawan
To be awesome at your job, it’s critical to get comfortable being uncomfortable, to be willing to ask for help, say what you know, what you don’t know, and be vulnerable, because when you are vulnerable, you’ll create the safe space to allow others to speak up.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Erica, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck with the book and your digital body language and your many other adventures.

Erica Dhawan
Thank you so much.