Pocket Hands

A friend of mine pointed me to this blog post by a woman named Shamelle, "12 Words and Phrases that Automatically Kill Your Self Image". On a side note, the author offers a class called "Title Writing: Save the Drama for Your Mama so You Don't Perish in Flames and Lose Your Family to Wild Dogs". It's pretty good.

Besides laughing out loud at one poster's comment about how his son says the F--- word more since working at a Chevy dealership, the article reminds me of a time when I had just finished an hour of coaching public speaking at a Wyoming school principals conference.

After my hour, I was approached by a professional speaker who told me that he had some advice for me. He said that I made the mistake of speaking in front of a group while having either of my hands in my pockets, and that I did so twice.

It was true. I did have my hands in my pockets a couple of times. In this case, I was aware that I was doing it, and it was purposeful to the extent that although it was not planned, it was a posture that matched the message I was conveying.

It is fine for a presenter to have their (own) hands in their pockets as long as:

  1. the posture matches the occurring auditory 'track' (i.e. pocket-hands is sometimes an unconscious move when I am deeply listening to someone)
  2. the presenter is in a more conversational, less formal moment
  3. the presenter is in a personally vulnerable moment
  4. the presenter is consciously matching a hostile audience's emotional state with his/her body
  5. the presenter is playing a character
To me, effective public communication is not so much about being professional as being real. There are almost always norms and procedures we need to follow in every presentational dynamic, but in my world of public speaking, "genuine" almost always achieves more than "rules".

The challenge is learning how to be genuine in the midst of craft.

And finally, be wary of people promoting sound bites or 'easy fix' communication tips like "never put your hands in your pocket" or "always speak without 'um'". Audience style, speaker style, and event dynamics are all valid considerations that should influence our behaviors.

There are very few pervasive, simplistic communication keys. While there are a great number of easily understood strategies, most of them have unexplored room for the creative communicator to grow.

How Do I Move to Hold Attention?

Clint Eastwood, speaking about how to act on camera said, "Don't just do something - stand there."

Eddie Murphy told Chris Rock to pace the stage like a stalking cat during his standup routines.

Regarding how we move our body in front of an audience, how are we supposed to know which advice to follow?

My personal take is that although purposeful walking/pacing back-and-forth can work as a gimmick or for short segments of frenetic energy, stillness holds up better with time. It's more natural and less presentational.

Climate Change: If We Can't Go To Hell, Let's Bring It Here

I wonder what percentage of us are merely espousing our beliefs on human-driven climate change, not science? My guess is that the majority of us have never done any serious research or comprehensive scientific reading.

And those of us who have done a lot of varied reading on the subject have probably gathered our information from sources that match our own present beliefs, dismissing opposing views.

Is anyone else out there scared of people who speak about topics from which they received their education solely from partial corporate-funded media, hand-me-down beliefs from relatives or the church, and adamant opines from the vocal?

Like so many significant topics, climate change is a 'change-by-pain' issue. When/if we start feeling enough collective pain in our health/bank account, then we will rally to make a behavioral change.

I know it is more comforting when I think of our planet as strong and mighty, isolated from any catastrophic harm. I know that I feel better when I think of myself as a good person who is nice to others; I would never be an accomplice to ecological murder. Look around me: I have a healthy family, I eat well, have a good education, good job... my life is good, so how could any of this looming disaster stuff be true?

"The earth is invincible to humans" is a long-held belief. But let's keep in mind that just a few hundred years ago some of us wanted to behead a man for his radical belief that the earth orbited around the sun. How dare he say that we were not at the center of the universe, in control of all of our surroundings?

And many of our ancestors would point and laugh at their neighbors who were in the "round world" bandwagon conspiracy. It's obvious that those nut jobs just wanted to cause civil unrest for personal financial gain.

It Isn't What It Isn't

Perhaps you have noticed the emergence/reemergence in recent years of the phrase "It is what it is." It could be regional to some degree, but I have also read the phrase in U.S. articles and blogs, so there is something catchy about it at a national level

People tend to say, "It is what it is" in conversation when they want to describe something as self-describable or straightforward.

To this point, as far as I know, I am the sole linguistic warrior engaged in battle against this phrase. I have chosen a bloody fight to the death, and as is typically the case with cultural catchphrases, I will meet great resistance. But similar to the joke phrase "...not!" my hope is that English speaking culture will realize what an ill catchphrase this is and drop it like that dried old turd you thought was a wood chip.

Let's get lexical.

  1. We have 40,000 English adjectives at our disposal. As simple and seductive as it may be to describe something as "what it is", there is a high percentage chance that at least one actual adjective will apply to it, even within our personally limited vocabularies.
  2. If I were to use this phrase in a debate where well-educated people were listening and critically thinking about what I was saying, I would lose major points. (Unless the audience was gaga for catch phrases and easily swayed by base rhetoric - then the choice of how I present my position becomes one of integrity.)
  3. It is a 'dumb down' phrase. Be it by lack of effort, lack of lexicon, or lack of creativity, when we use phrases like this we do interest a disservice.
Join me in my fight, won't you?

An Executive's How-to Guide: Five Tips to Ride a Recession

Five Tips For Riding A Recession: An Executive's How-To Guide

1. Sell more at any cost to you. Take resources away from somewhere else in your business (ex. quality or design) and devote those resources to selling more of that lower quality product. Customers will appreciate that you are spending more time and money trying to get more time and money from them, and will forgive you for a slightly inferior product. Don't be surprised if one of your customers says, "I like you guys more than your competitor because you guys focus more on what is important to you than us. That is just smart business." Hot Tip! Revenue is more important than any other facet of your business, including profit.

2. Micromanage your employees. Tighten your grip on their daily activities by requesting frequent status reports and knowledge of everything they are doing. You will achieve greater respect and trust from them because they will think things like, "Hey, this supervisor really cares about every minute of my day," and, "I love planning to tell and telling someone about all the productivity I am planning to do as soon as this meeting/email/check-in is over."

3. Label your employees with easy sterotypes. Plan ahead for downsizing by classifying staff as either "revenue generating" or "non-revenue generating". This helps them see the black-and-white truth: that some of them are not really adding monetary value to the company; they are just there to make the company look like a company. When they understand this truth, all the non-revenue generating employees will gladly accept salary reductions or even proactively quit on their own. Hot tip! This means you don't have to do any unpleasant firing!

4. Know who butters your bread. Time Saver Alert! The degree to which you listen to people should be based on the power of their title. When an employee below you sends you an email with a suggestion to improve the business, ignore it. Or, if they manage to talk to you in person, nod your head slowly and say, "mmm" and "mmmhm" while you consider your leisure activities for the weekend). Disclaimer! If you think the employee's idea will please your boss, present it to him/her as an idea for the company that "our team" came up with - it sends a powerful message about the value of socialism in these financially troublesome times.

5. This tip is no longer working here.

Backchannels: To Twitter During Presentations?

Some presenters like using Twitter and backchannels for participants while presenting, others do not. I believe the decision to use them should rest upon the circumstances of the presentation, content, style and outcomes of the presenter, and audience makeup - NOT upon a love for technology or a "I always use them" stance.

Regarding backchannels, this point is not up for debate:

Over the last twenty years, Meyer and a host of other researchers have proved again and again that multitasking, at least as our culture has come to know and love and institutionalize it, is a myth. When you think you’re doing two things at once, you’re almost always just switching rapidly between them, leaking a little mental efficiency with every switch. Meyer says that this is because, to put it simply, the brain processes different kinds of information on a variety of separate “channels”—a language channel, a visual channel, an auditory channel, and so on—each of which can process only one stream of information at a time. If you overburden a channel, the brain becomes inefficient and mistake-prone.


I appreciate that people like being able to talk with their neighbors and experience collaborative learning moments whenever they wish, but I appreciate creating the environment necessary for maximum retention and learning more than giving the opportunity for a freedom that, when used without knowledge of cognitive processing, can do more harm than good.

If one person is talking into your left ear while you carry on a different conversation - even if it on the same topic - to someone on your right, you stumble and are a less ineffective communicator. The same is true for reading or typing and listening to someone speak at the same same time. If the human brain (not just "some people") attempts to focus on multiple language sources at the same time, it fails, and it loses nuance and meaning from both point sources that are disseminating the content. And if either of the sources are delivering complex information, forget it, it gets worse. Brains must tune into one language channel at a time, or they are forced to toggle, bleeding a bit of comprehension with every jump. Try listening to two audio recorded lectures of university professors at the same time and you will hear what I mean.

In some circumstances, backchannel discussion can gash the body of the outcome the presenter is working to create. To achieve their outcomes, presenters rely on thousands of purposeful words, gestures, postures, volumes, tones, and visuals that work in sync with each other. Personally, in a presentation where I am there to create understanding on specific content within a short time (like a keynote), it is out of my integrity to create a back channel. Not out of opinion, but rather based on how humans are able to use language.

I am not saying that backchannel conversations cannot be useful or that people cannot learn anything from them. I am saying that when they are used simultaneously while a presenter is delivering, the presenter is being listened to and understood less. (Yes, I know sometimes this can be a good thing.)

Giving opportunities for people to have conversations both short and long, verbally and typed, written and drawn, one-to-one and in small groups, is really valuable for learning. It's just solid collaborative learning theory. But when we put complex and shifting dialogue on screen while someone is presenting complex information we are ignoring the capacity of possible attention in our brain.

If participants want to create a back channel within a presentation on their own, they should feel free. If they do this, it is a signal that one or more of several things are happening:

  1. The presenter is boring and the audience would rather engage with each other more
  2. The presenter's specific content is boring and they would rather go parallel on it or talk about something else
  3. The back channel people need to chat online to get their information load fix
  4. The back channel people are rude

Point number three is interesting to me right now, because online chat is a cultural phenomenon that has developed only in recent times. When I present in technologically undeveloped areas or with audiences who would rather not be on a backchannel, the audiences are often engaged at a higher level with my specific content.

I know there are presenters who have opposing experiences and will disagree with this. It is just that when I am presenting and ask a question or when someone in the audience makes a comment out loud and there is no backchannel pulling attention away from the conversation I am having in live air, everybody hears it and the response rate is usually higher.

The presenter is a channel. You get more viewers on a channel when you show better content, yes, and also when the other options are fewer. There can be value in limiting options. You can't eat all the food in your refrigerator before some starts to go bad. (Hungry.)

I have seen some presenters use back channels because they love technology so much that they can't see the forest for the luminous screens. They nobly want their audiences to be engaged, so they bring a backchannel into their presentations. But the forest the presenter is missing is an understanding of the brain's capcity to receive and comprehend information. Brains ability to give full attention is a limited bandwidth, not infinite. This is backed up by plenty of recent research on multitasking and processing channels (if you care to search).

Some presenters use back channels as a crutch in the same way that other presenters use their slides as more of a focal point than themselves. In these cases, why not just email the audience the PDFs and save everyone the tedium of your delivery?

Again, before all the All Backchannel All The Time people get defensive, please understand what I am saying: I like online conversations and I like groups of people to have them for learning. But there needs to be discernment in how and when to use them. This discernment comes from understanding how brains process information and what presentation means best support the dynamic's learning outcomes.

We can cry "Times are changing!" but it does not mean that all change is good (or that it just "is"). Some changes can and should be dissected and explored more deeply before jumping on the bandwagon. 

We all carry our own belief systems around that make sense to us, and one recent push in the live speaker scenario is that the use of backchannels is modern and about being "with it" technologically. Before blindly accepting this, I encourage all presenters to learn more about how the brain receives and comprehends information and how people learn best in different dynamics. There are times when backchannels can be useful and times when they can hurt the learning process.

In many cases I do use backchannels myself and love or hate them depnding on how and when they are used.

Why Write For The Public?

I took several months away from my blog. Part of this was due to travel for fun and some work overseas, and part was the curiosity of what blogging - public writing - was adding/subtracting to my life.

When I originally started to write my thoughts online, I had the notion that maybe it would pay off for my training business by adding credibility, or maybe actually attracting customers. I saw the value in it solely in getting some attention for my business and maybe a few people would get value from my communication thoughts.

But I think the main force behind me blogging now has shifted. The two values I now get are that

  1. Blogging makes me learn how to write better. There are bigger emotional stakes when my writing is public, and this affects my sense of effort. When I write in my paper journal, I am just frantically scribbling thoughts without rereading them. (I sometimes wonder how much editing someone like Michael Palin does when he decides to publish his journal.)
  2. I get to involve myself in conversations rather than monologues about topics I care about. Granted, since my posts typically read by few and commented on by less, these conversations are sometimes only with myself.

But my main point of learning is that when I perform or present my work publicly, I work harder to make it better.

I often aim to be self-content with my work. This is fine in and of itself, and sometimes certain work of an artistic bent should not be molded or influenced heavily by anyone other than the author. But regarding thoughts on communication, I think those are more valuable when they are made public for conversation.

What's up, Thailand?

I just got back from 10 days in Thailand. I'd never been there and was really excited when I got the opportunity to do a nature and leadership program for a week with middle school kids.

An exciting part of my work is in creating a program from start to finish - not only writing curriculum, but also being able to directly deliver it and work with the kids. Having created programs like Leadership Forum for SuperCamp in the past, I have experience in this. But what awaited me in Thailand was a very different beast. This beast had peanut sauce on it.

The first thing that hit me was the age range: 8-16. In case you have never worked with kids, that is one monster of an age range. It is difficult enough to continually engage one age range, much less a developmental range whose internal dialogue runs from "how do I get with the opposite sex" to "how do I avoid cooties". But my Thai marketing partners had to accept a wide range so that they could get the enrollments they needed for the program to get off the ground. This is normal.

Quick tip: if you're ever in a situation with a diverse age-range, use stories as engagement tools for your content. Good story-telling works for everyone, and the language does not have to be focused on demographic tendencies as much as propelling the story.

To say the program was diverse in content would be like saying Don King has a little bit of hair. We traveled across the country on a bus, doing leadership sessions in the most prestigious boarding school in Bangkok, sleeping in tents in the shadow of a war memorial where fighters thwarted communists, barbecuing octopus and fish balls, feeding monkeys from a boat, eating seafood up in a fisherman's hut on water stilts, planting mangrove tress in mud that we sunk in up to our chest, and generally just had an excellent time learning and exploring Thailand, its culture, and our leadership skills.

I would recommend a trip there to anyone who loves to travel in Asia. But... the swine flu is hot there right now. I actually got sick toward the end of the program, which sucks because no matter what kind of sickness you get, if there are cases of swine flu around all you can think is, "Do I have swine flu?"

Here's hoping nix on the swine.

Secret Teachers

I was thinking about heroes, idols, and mentors.

When I was seventeen, I spent dozens of hours learning a Steve Martin standup routine word-by-word, beat-by-beat for a high school speech class assignment. I didn’t really have my own voice yet and considered the learned mimicry a sort of “homage to a master”.

Almost twenty years later, I give a lot of credit to Mr. Martin for my sense of vocal timing and appreciation for language. And also Bill Cosby, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Ricky Gervais, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, etc. Not that I am in comparing myself to comedy greats, just that they are people who have influenced me, teachers who never knew they were.

But spending thousands of hours with funny movies and comedy TV shows isn’t enough. You can’t just watch shows, you have to observe them. It takes an inquisitive mind to learn how to improve.

Why did he say that line like that? Why did that long pause make everyone laugh? Why can that actor say a line with a straight face and it’s funny, while the other one uses lots of expression and animation and it’s funny? Why does he move like that? What do I appreciate about him, even though I see no similarity in our styles? What is he doing that I can learn and use immediately in front of people?

You don’t need a formal teacher or mentor to learn interesting communication choices - sometimes you can learn more valuable lessons from those who are not official teachers.

I wonder who the world's most prominent secret teachers are? Perhaps it depends on chosen professions and areas of interest, but I am guessing moms and dads are up there.

What You're Sitting On Might Look Great

An education company I used to work for has a game in its youth curriculum that you may have heard of. It’s the one where you start with a trivial object like a paper clip, then go around to people and try to trade up for items of bigger and better value. I have also seen this same game done by Girl Scouts and youth groups. I don't know who invented it, but my guess is that it has existed for at least twenty-five years.

So the company I was with did not invent the activity, but had been doing it with youth in their programs for at least fifteen years. Then this big story broke where a Canadian guy was playing the exact same game as a hobby and had traded for a house.

So basically, the company I was with had a deliciously news-worthy story that, if played out, could have gotten them huge media; there was just no understanding of its potential. To the company, it was just a little paper clip game, a clever little game hidden amongst hundreds of pages of games and curriculum that we were doing. Ever seen that final scene from Raiders Of The Lost Ark where the Ark of the Covenant is put into a crate and wheeled into a government warehouse full of a million identical crates?

Is the secret of life sitting in someone’s hard drive or box in the attic?

Every now and then I read a story about someone finding old recordings of Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan in a forgotten attic, and I wonder what else is out there - not just music, but science and technology, communication and literature.

What wondrous ideas are already born but don't have a spotlight? Some ideas lie dormant due to lack of initiative or belief. Some lie wounded due to companies rejecting them.

What are you sitting on right now that needs a lift?

Every Time A Pastor Says "Um", He Makes God Cry

Presentation trainer Olivia Mitchell's post How Obama could eliminate his ums (and so could you) voices a more open mind to the 'filler' conundrum than most communication trainers I meet. You should read it.

Yes, the problem of public speaking coaches tallying people's non-words like "um" is widespread, but the problem is not with the people giving the speeches - it is with the coaches.

This coaching is misguided because it focuses on just a technical aspect of language. When we over-coach this way, we allow linguistics to strangle meaning and intent. I think we do it because it's an easy thing to hear, and it is concrete. And it annoys some listeners because they have a personal filter from which they hear and are aggravated by certain words.

Anyone who has trained people in presentation and delivery has heard fellow trainers - maybe even ourselves at times - ruthlessly target "um". But when did this become The 11th Commandment of public discourse? Did the disciples nail Jesus for using fillers when he spoke to crowds on a hill? ("Well, sure the idea is good and all - do unto others and whatnot - but he just really didn't sound credible when he sort of sighed and said 'erm' before he started talking. Let's go listen to some other speakers who are more successful.")

Undue attention has been given to Obama for his non-words in moments where he is off-script. The pundits cry, "Oh, he's really not that good at public speaking if you listen - you can hear all kinds of 'ums' and 'ahs'. He's unsure! He's not confident! He's... a democrat."

Well, apparently saying "um" did not make a difference for scoring the job of President of the United States. (Although, let's be fair, it is just a temp job).

Quick Quiz: who is the overall most famous professional speaker in the US over the past 30 years? Yes, Anthony Robbins. Regardless of your personal opinions on him, he is massively popular, and I bet for the most part he could care less about the occasional use of non-words. In the first five seconds of his TED speech he says "uh".

Back to a point I've made before - nearly everybody occasionally commits this travesty of speech where we allow ourselves to actually be in the moment and think while in front of people. And I for one am thankful that public speaking is not always rehearsed.

If it is important to you to stop using non-words, or you want to coach others, the vital first ingredient of learning is awareness. What are the situations that motivate us to inadvertently utter 'non-words'?

  1. We are processing at a deeper level than surface thoughts or well-rehearsed phrases, while at the same time we feel the expectations of people around us to speak.
  2. We were asked a question and feel social pressure to start speaking quickly or we will look dumb.
  3. We are running out of allotted time and feel pressure.
  4. We pressure ourselves to sound like what we think an expert should sound like.
  5. We don't want someone else to start speaking yet.

The result of these circumstances is often a short, unplanned auditory sound to fill the space. Non-words are behavior we learn from the moment we begin to learn language, hearing adults think out loud as they answer one of our questions about where babies come from.

These sounds are an unconscious device to fulfill the purpose of cueing people that we intend to deliver a message, that we have more to say. Yes, some artful speakers such as comedians more fully understand the value of these words as sounds, transitional devices, and timing tools, but generally, trying to kill all non-words can actually hinder the goals of public communication.

People who speak professionally like Laura Bergells tell of clients being weirded out by 'perfect' speech patterns of no "ums". Their point is important: If you are meant to be in a conversation and want to be natural with us, please don't lose the 'human' in you.

And yes, before we all go off and start being far too easy on our language patterns, I must be clear that I do strongly believe there are many times when non-words should be eliminated. Always keep key phrases that are intended to ring, resonate, and resound, spotlessly clean.

"I have a...uh...dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where, um, they will not be judged by the color of their skin but, erm, by the content of their character. OK?"

Low Frequency x Short Duration = Intense Listening

I just read about a company, Seriosity, that built an e-mail system where every employee is given 100 virtual tokens a week that they can attach to e-mail they write.

If you want someone to read your message immediately, you attach more tokens, and your message ends up higher in their inbox. The idea is to encourage people to send less e-mail - those who are frugal will have a large reserve of tokens, so when they have an important e-mail message, they can load it up with tokens to ensure it is read.

It worked. When IBM tried it out, messages with 20 tokens attached were 52 percent more likely to be quickly opened than normal. E-mail overload ceased to be a problem.

I think these tokens exist in not only email, but in conversation and public speaking dynamics.

Communication trainer Michael Grinder talks about speaking "tickets". Basically the theory says that everyone in a group has a set number of tickets, and every time you choose to speak up, you spend a ticket. Run out of tickets, and people get annoyed with you for hogging time.

And regarding how long we talk when we spend a ticket/token, I believe that in most conversational circumstances, people who speak in short bursts of 30-60 seconds are more actively listened to. After that point, listener comprehension decreases significantly because they have things they want to say, too, and because of the basic laws of auditory attention.

Basically, the theme is:

Speak less and people will listen to you more.

I find the idea of tokens, tickets, and short-burst speaking to hold water in both conversations and in parts of formal speaking dynamics.

But how are some people able to spend more tickets and get more fans when they spend them? What are these scalpers doing that puts their tickets in higher demand and allows them to play by a different set of rules?

  1. They have high respect. You get workplace respect by being the boss, subject matter respect from established expertise, and human respect from people in general by having proven, consistent moral character and treating others nicely.
  2. They have high communication ability. Your tokens are more abundant and enduring when you have sweet timing, understand group dynamics, are funny, interesting, move well, are good looking, and smell nice. (Yes, looks and hygiene are a part of communication ability.) Some things are inborn gifts, but almost everything can be improved with coaching.
  3. They have a big stick and are threatening you. (This one tends to have only short term success.)
If you don't have enough respect or communication ability, a group may still be silent when you are talking, but this does not mean they respect you, just that they are respectful.

This silent act of non-listening is called paying 'ear service', and through self-conditioning, some people even learn to give it to themselves.

We call those people hypocrites.

Distract... ed?

I am reading In Defense Of Distraction. Only on page 2 of 8, but the interviewer just asked, "Are we living through a crisis of attention?"

Expert on multitasking and the brain, David Meyer, responded:

“Yes,” he says. “And I think it’s going to get a lot worse than people expect.” He sees our distraction as a full-blown epidemic—a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought. He compares it, in fact, to smoking. “People aren’t aware what’s happening to their mental processes,” he says, “in the same way that people years ago couldn’t look into their lungs and see the residual deposits.”
What an incredible analogy. It has me questioning how I use all the modern tools I do - Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blog, Delicious, flikr, iLike, Myspace, comment discussions all over the web, and my phone thrown into the mix. What is the best way to use them? Do some people have higher ability to use more and get value? What are the brains "attention rules" that need to be followed in order to learn most effectively?

OK, back to reading...

A Business Is Not A Family

What's on my mind today is why so many businesses insist on referring to themselves as a "family".

In twenty working years, I have worked at a number of companies, from small education businesses to giants of retail. To varying degrees, all of them speak about the value of relationships.

Yes, relationships are good. I understand this. But can you really improve relationships by examining them? I think going metacognitive on relationships worsens them.

Some businesses say, "But we actually work on relationship here; we do something about it, not just talk about it."

I think the problem with this lies in perceptions.

When relationship building is done wrong, it reeks of ulterior motive - easily interpreted thusly when done at the work place. I have actually been around leaders who say they build relationship with employees so they can get them on their side - to do what the leader wants. You can argue these leaders' results, but one thing you cannot argue is that I fear them and do my best to keep them out of my life. I would guess there are others who share my sentiment.

Besides the perception of a shady motive, when a business leader strives to build relationship amongst employees, it is awkward because (1) there is a necessary degree of compatibility between people for relationship to develop, and (2) people skills are mostly not skills at all, but inherent talents.

Imagine trying to teach someone conversational timing - a vital tool in coming across graceful and comfortable around others, and a sound relationship-building ingredient. Like learning a musical instrument, your brain has to have a certain understanding of rhythm, a "knack", or you will never pick up on complex rhythmic nuances. That knack is a talent, and not everybody has it. I believe relationship building works the same way.

Have you noticed that the people who are the biggest proponents for workplace relationships are often the ones with whom you would never want to eat lunch? I would bet that the people who have good relationships don't spend much time talking about them or even consciously focusing on them. People skills - and the ability to cultivate good relationships - are hired, not built on company time.

Sometimes leaders are out of touch with their employees, and they try to 'lead' their staff into better relationships with speeches, books, and workplace activities.

But it's surface level. What a relationship actually needs to develop are commonalities and the initiative to get to know someone on our own time or on unstructured time. There is a huge difference in this versus relationship building in structured time. And it does not help that leaders are often scared reach out to employees on a personal level. Many leaders are great at administrative skills, strategizing, and running meetings, but are weak with their relational ability, or worse, feel employees should come to them, since they are the leader, after all. (Like a dad demanding that that child should the one to initiate relationship with him... "Junior needs to prove himself to me!")

What are some honest and intelligent businesses out there that put the focus on hiring and developing intelligence over relationship? I've found that those businesses that hire right - that hire based on intelligence for the role and good relational ability already in place - have very happy and high performing employees. Fortune's "Best Companies To Work For" is a fun read.

Oh, and can we stop the "we're one big family" talk at work? A family does not fire its children.

The Customized Life

I am sure this is not a new idea - I have not checked. I was thinking about the five eras of the social web by Jeremiah Owyang, specifically in our reading materials.

What if when you read a book/magazine/periodical in a digital format (like online or downloaded for a Kindle) the book changed based on your profile? I am 99% sure someone must have already begun work on this, but bear with me.

Let's say I buy a mystery novel for reading on my browser or iPhone. When I buy it, it accesses my profile info information. Then before and while I read, the content would actually morph so that the story's city was in my city (the weather, current news in my area, etc.), the love interest's traits would change to my personal preferences in a love interest, the style of music played by the protagonist matched my favorites while the villain listened to Rush Limbaugh.

When I read the world news it would use my job, hobbies, and family makeup to make its story content connect to my personal life and present/future situation, and use my past experiences to make stories relatable to me by using familiar schema I would understand.

My individual preferences would be stored in some sort of hyper-detailed personal online profile that I would update like I do my auto fill information in a Google toolbar. Of course, there are many people who would be scared of volunteering such personal information into the cloud, but there are constantly more and more people who will volunteer this information, and it is already happening more on social media sites.

I'd probably do it. It would be so cool to see a protagonist have the same circumstances as me - a completely relatable read. Weaving the reader's details into their pre-written work would be a technical and artistic challenge of syntax finesse from this new breed of authors. Maybe the reader/user could select the level of 'match' that the story would make with one's personal life. Is the story in your very neighborhood or just somewhere in your state? Is someone you know kidnapped or just vaguely familiar to a past friend? That would all be a part of the fun.

I wonder what it will do the the lines of reality and virtual. "Last night, that dream I had, was it based on something that happened in my real life or in the story I was reading? Both? Wait... am I supposed to call someone or was that just...?"

Yeah, I'd definitely do it.

Backchannels and Surface Levels

The level of conversational depth with which we engage each other is on my mind today.

First backchannels. In case you are not familiar with them, they are a chat room where audience members at a seminar can chat and interact with each other while the speaker/panel is presenting. Jennifer Wagner has a post and comments here that I like.

My initial impression after being in several backchannels was that it was really neat. I could talk and participate with people who were interested in the same topic I was. It was exactly like being able to turn to the person next to me and talk about what I was seeing in a movie or TV show.

But then I thought, "Wait, I almost NEVER do that with my actual live voice during a movie, play, or TV show." I consider it respectful to the creators/presenters of the content to wait until afterwards to have that conversation. Furthermore, I hate it when people start talking to each other when I am trying to watch a show or listen to a speaker. So what was I doing in these backchannels? Were they just a way to disengage from being a listener to a degree, to tune out of the presentation so I could tune into a place where I could talk?

In 2009 versus 1999, there are more available outlets to be a talker. Blogs, video blogs, podcasts, profile pages, and all sorts of social media give us ways to broadcast our messages, our personalities, and our thoughts into the public setting, even if the public never hears it. Nobody has the time to read 99.999999% of the world's content. Most blogs (like this one) get zero comments per post. Some people may read it, but why take the time to comment when there are so many other things to go read? The onslaught of Information Overload is more prevalent now than ever, and most people talking will not be heard most of the time.

What does it all mean? I don't think this Rise Of The Talker is all-in-all a bad thing. I, like many, enjoy having more options available to me to hone in on specific authors, musicians, and content generators than ever before. But in this long tail, I see more people getting left to speak to nobody, versus listening to somebody.

Are long-form presentations and speeches are in decline in favor of more immediately conversational dynamics (e.g. chat and social media versus e-mail)? Are verbal listening attention spans shortening? Are youth learning how to communicate points faster, in shorter-form than what I grew up able to do? or are they just in a more manic communication landscape where deeper meanings are present but not as often learned due to social influences?


Some speakers can spontaneously create and respond with lightning cleverness. When improvisation is happening at its best, the audience is often laughing, always attentive. Valuable skill to have, right?

At a foundational level, improv engages us because the we like the stakes - we like to see some guy out on a limb, in the breeze, with no pants on. That harsh immediacy of being in the present moment, able to fail, where only your cleverness and humor can save you... if that does not get your heart pumping, you might be my dead grandpa.

So how do you get better at it? Is it even something that can be worked on or are there certain inborn talents that you need to improv well?

Before we talk tips, let's set some context. Readdressing a theme in this blog, practicing communication happens all the time - not just when you are up in front doing a presentation. In our context of public speaking (versus the context of MacGyver), improv is communication. And improv can happen for a one-minute impromptu speech or in moments and chunks throughout a longer, planned presentation.

  1. Listen. Listen more carefully than you think is necessary. People (e.g. the audience) drop clues on what to say and set rhythms for you to follow in their vocal ti... ming.
  2. Speak. Be an active speaker, not just a great listener. Don't dominate people by hogging more than your fair share of the conversation, but be a willing participant in the twisted and occasionally intimidating nether of mutual conversation.
  3. Study. Instead of getting swept into the passive state of waiting until something said affects you, the next time you are watching a show like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, consider what you would say or do in a certain moment. Even better: join an improv class.
And if you ever get frustrated about how you just can't come up with the right words fast enough and just need a punch to get you going, watch this. It just might work.

Pubic Speaking

That's right, I said pubic.

As in mons pubis, from late 19th century Latin, meaning ‘mount of the pubes.’ Today let's talk about the oft overlooked importance of this particular bodily habitat and its relation to our speaking.

I was working with a wonderfully exuberant woman named Patti who wanted to appear at her most confident in front of groups. She was already a powerful speaker, and came across confident - she just was honing her edges, so to speak. Because of her experience working as a teacher, school administrator, and education speaker for years, our coaching session was not going to be about working on her fundamentals. What we started talking about was her style.

Specifically, Patti's natural exuberance came across in a 'rock and roll' manner. This was fine. Her fiery and bigger-than-life presence was just striving to successfully and fully translate when she addressed groups. So we started talking about some of the mechanics lead singers of rock bands use. This seemed to connect well for her.

One thing many lead singers do is push their hips forward, their (shh) pubic area forward, especially when they are front and center at the edge of a stage. Whether intentional or unintentional, they adopt a primal, sexual posture, and it conveys a strong confidence. Now, knowing that she probably did not want to be so brazen as to sexually shove her she-junk at audiences, we toned it down, distilling the hips-forward stance into a working, confident posture.

This can work for women and men when your style is earthy enough. Place your feet one-and-a-half to two times shoulder-width, while holding a two or three inch push forward of your hips. It is better to have your hips forward (pelvis, belly, etc.) than your shoulders or head. And this is not an 'always on' stance - just something to use for certain big and bold moments where you are really rockin' a point. I have found it a valuable addition to my own posture where my body wants to curve forward, leading with my shoulders. Thinking about "pubic speaking" keeps my shoulders back and helps me feel more confident in my delivery.

Too much?

What Is Public Speaking?

The most respected communicators hold an uncommonly broad definition of Public Speaking:

Public speaking is intentional human-to-human communication.

When we have a message to get across, whether it is developed beforehand or developing as we go, we have intention behind our words. When we have compelling intention we are more interesting and people want to listen. The instant someone stands up in front of a group, be they a politician or standup comic, the audience expects that person to have something important to say. To be a dynamic act, public speaking must be intentional.

"Human-to-human" means speaking is not limited to formal, public settings with lots of people. It can be that, but when we open up our definition to be 'anytime, anywhere, with anyone', we start to open up to all of the methods and dynamics available to us. Speaking happens constantly with friends on the phone, family in the car, and coworkers at lunch. Learning to communicate naturally in multiple human dynamics is a skill-broadening endeavor.

And consider the modes in which the public speaking can occur. It can be live or prerecorded, on phone or video, amplified or organic. But although the available delivery modes have increased since its earliest documented teachings thousands of years ago, the one mode that has remained constant is the actual act of speaking. Mimes are still not considered public speakers.

In addition to verbal communication skills, public speaking uses visual skills (body movements, graphics, and use of props), and physical skills (engaging the audience in physical activities or purposeful movement during the presentation).

Regarding the word "communication" in the definition, although most presenters do not view public speaking as dialogue between the presenter and audience, it can be useful to approach presentations as conversations rather than monologues. (This becomes more difficult as group size increases, i.e. forget interactive conversation with a stadium full of people.) Pose interesting questions to your groups, elicit responses, and consider what they say in return. Allow yourself to engage people in short conversations if your mind is so present. The Politician Speech where one waits until the end of their monologue to ask for questions is boring as spit. Avoid it unless you are a celebrity or giving fire drill instructions.

Expanding our definition of public speaking lets us more frequently practice our skill sets in varied dynamics, more comprehensively honing our communication ability. How often can you allow yourself to be your most engaging, emotionally resonant, and clear with your communication?

Um, Er, Like, Uh

Because of my training work in public speaking over the past twenty years, I tend to interact with a lot public speakers who have strong opinions and 'rules' about verbal communication.

Because there are always some people who give as little effort as possible to their work, I have heard my fair share of public speaking assumptions and theories stated as facts by some of these public speaking gurus.

I need to clear something up. I need to clear it up based on my life of listening, study, and open-mindedness: Fillers are OK.

"Oh no he did'n!"

"Yeah, gurl. I totally did."

Unless you are one of the masterful top 1% of verbally talented and trained public speakers, do not fret about fillers. Fillers are what bean counter minds like to tally mark about another speaker at a speech training seminar. Ever heard of majoring in the minor? If you hone in on fillers as your main coaching point, you have no idea what you are doing. Stop It.

Now, yes, I know that too much of anything can be annoying. But what constitutes overuse of a filler is based on so many factors besides one listener's opinion - factors like, um, everyone else in the room. Because there are no defined rules in the court of public speaking law, somehow the rule of speaking just defaulted into: NEVER USE A SINGLE FILLER.

But that rule is wrong. It is a 'letter of the law' rule rather than a 'spirit of the law' rule. Let me do my best to persuade you.

For most speakers, being lasik-precise with one's language distracts the speaker's focus from hitting the intended message. If played out to its robotic end, this incessant filler-focus can, as Gordon Sumner said, dehumanize yourself. Practice avoiding filler when you are in everyday conversation with your friends or in inconsequential circumstances. Game time is not the time to try new moves unless they are well-rehearsed.

Again, yes, I understand annoyance due to overuse. I am aware of this. I am aware. I am. The problem is that a lot of people with a little knowledge are a dangerous body of rule makers. "Fillers" can actually serve a linguistic purpose. They are often called "discourse markers" by linguists, because they help listeners better understand meaning within spoken communication. Read this PDF for researched and studied details.

If you are watching a video clip of a comic from a performance in front of a paying audience, chances are that he/she is in the top slice of successful comedians, because most never make it past five-minute open mic night at Chuck's. When you listen to a comedian, chances are good that you will hear fillers. Whether you like a comic's humor or not, these people engage in arguably the most difficult and elusive communication objective on the planet: get a room full of total strangers to laugh using nothing but your live communication to drive the outcome. They know what they are doing with language, purposefully and intuitively. Comedians use fillers to create comic timing, characterization, 'relatability', and to get specific reactions and subtle points across.

Fillers can be either a purposeful style or unintentional, based on social factors such as age, gender, immediate friends, or role models. And certain words become more or less prevalent in our speech depending on the social dynamic of the moment. Personally, when I am in front of a group, my fillers drop significantly because my training of mastering concise word choice increases, and my language becomes more visually descriptive. When I am more relaxed and off-the-cuff, or I am telling a funny or personal story, my language is more kinesthetic and emotion-based. In those moments I feel my way through the conversation more, so fillers pop up more often.


Nobody except novices and the less successful or respected public speakers ever give me feedback after a public speaking event about how I need to eliminate any of my fillers, even though I virtually always use them. That is because when we have a powerful message and are able to create emotion in the speaking we do, the individual moments of individual words become unimportant to the audience.