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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Speaking Smart

     Whether you're in front of a large crowd as a presenter, a small group in a staff meeting at work, or one on one with an acquaintance, what you say shapes how they view you.  Here are a few pitfalls.  If your story, presentation or conversation has no meat, no real substance most of the time, you will be viewed as superficial.  They'll think, Well here comes this dude.  I'd better get ready to hear a whole bunch about nothing.  If your train of thought is akin to getting lost in the woods with no compass, then others will think, Do I really have enough time to listen to this woman shift her focus ten times before she gets to her point?  If your word choices are inaccurate and misplaced, people may think you lack a certain level of competence, intelligence, and/or credibility.  You may not.  But you certainly come across that way.  If it's not reflective of who you really are, then you have to represent yourself differently.  So how do you present yourself as a smart speaker?  There are a number of ways, but I'll share three:
      First, think ahead and speak after.  For those whose speaking style--and it is a style--is to be thoughtful about an issue, they tend to speak while they are thinking.  So what comes out sometimes is a long, meandering answer or reflection of an idea.  Meanwhile, the listener is groaning inside because they just want the speaker to get to the point.  On the speedway of life where most of us travel, we just won't give them the time they would like in order to formulate their ideas fully.  If this is you, try this:  to keep a person's interest, and to present yourself as knowledgeable about your topic, think first before you speak.  Collect your thoughts, and then share them once they're all together and are coherent.  That's why writing your speech first and practicing it is an excellent idea.  Or if you're asked a question that would require some thought, let the person know by saying, "I need to think that over.  Let me get back to you on it."
     Second, have something current, relevant, valuable, and meaningful to say more often than not.  We all engage in casual conversation and even useless banter regularly.  And that's okay, especially when there's time to chill.  Discussion about TV shows, movies, books, music, family, vacations, dating, etc. are all absolutely fine when the time is right.  But that kind of conversation all the time detracts from your depth as an individual (unless shallow is your goal).  Find times when you can discuss pertinent current events.  Have a well thought-out opinion on controversial topics.  Seek to inform based on your area of expertise when the opportunity presents itself.  Be a resource.  Have something worthwhile to say, and others will want to listen.
      Finally, expand your vocabulary.  Learn a new word.  Pick a new one every week, and find opportunities to use it in your conversations so you can get used to it.  Make sure you know the accurate use of the word before you start flinging it around though.  There's nothing worse than learning a new word and practicing its use in the wrong way.  Read, read, read!  Even as adults, we have to challenge ourselves to read works of higher intellect.  If you come across a word and you don't know the definition, don't just gloss over it and glean the meaning from the context.  Read with a dictionary at hand!  There's no shame in not knowing.  The shame is in not learning better.  Even in your writing, learn the right tense.  Learn the difference between "loose" and "lose" and "their" and "they're".  These are often misspelled.  Know when to use "further" and "farther".  Remind yourself when it's appropriate to say "lie", "lay", "laid", and "lain".  It's English basics that we may not have mastered in school, but it's never too late to get it correct now.  Don't forget the thesaurus either.  It will help you to freshen up what you want to say with different words that add color and verve to your discourse.
       Show yourself to be a smart speaker, a powerful presenter, and a competent conversationalist.  Do the work.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Who Wants to Listen to You?

     Have you ever been in a conversation with someone, and they were talking a lot but saying nothing?  At least nothing you wanted to hear.  The content was superficial, the attempt at humor was weak, and fumbling around for the right words was distracting.  You've been there--trying desperately to make a way of escape.  Don't get me wrong.  Shooting the breeze is cool.  I'm all for it.  Nobody's in any particular rush.  The scene is laid back.  Maybe you want to engage in mindless conversation because you've been thinking too hard and too long all day at work.  So a little friendly banter or casual discussion is perfectly acceptable.
     However.  When you find that nearly all of the conversations you have with certain people lack substance and are downright boring, then you search for ways to avoid or skirt them.  Especially when you're short on time.  You go in another direction at work.  You immediately start constructing excuses in social settings.  You ignore their calls when their number pops up on your cell or home phone ID screen. 
     Now consider this:  what if you're the person others avoid?  Have you considered whether your conversation is something in which others would want to indulge?  Do you have enough meaningful things to say so that people will stop and engage you in interesting discussion?  Here are a few actions you could take to add depth to your discourse. 
  1. Increase the value of your conversations by keeping up with current events.  Therefore, read!  Check out your local and national news to find out what's happening around you and in the world.  Have an opinion about controversial topics, but make sure you can support what you believe by studying both sides of an issue.  Don't just say assault weapons ought to be banned.  Be able to speak concretely about why you feel that way.  If you have to debate the issue with someone who disagrees, you can't just parrot what you've heard others say.  Be able to defend your position.
  2. Talk about topics that interest other people.  Don't just drone on and on about the things you like.  For example, I can probably stand to hear somebody talk about the stock market for about 20 minutes.  Then I'm done.  It's a dry and technical topic.  You're going to lose me past that 20-minute mark.  Therefore, find out what's important to me, and balance the conversation with topics I like.
  3. Say things that are helpful and positive.  All of us have an ample share of hardship in our lives.  No one is exempt.  Not one.  Therefore, if I already have my own problems, what makes you think I want to hear all about yours?  It's okay to commiserate, ask for feedback or take into account another perspective.  But if the bulk of what you talk about every time somebody encounters you is your struggle against this force or that one, then people are going to scatter or cut you short.
 We'll talk about body language next time, but pay attention to those nonverbal cues.  If people always seem too busy to talk to you, you might need to change your conversation.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

How to Speak So Others Hear You

     I was coaching a director once who had one of her supervisors quit abruptly.  She complained that the supervisor hardly did what she'd asked her to anyway so "good riddance".  She met with me to try to brainstorm some ideas around how to engage employees better.  As she spoke for about five to eight minutes uninterrupted, I noticed something that might lend itself to the reason why the supervisor rarely did what was asked of her and quite possibly why she left.  The director's comments went like this:  "I've been thinking about some things that I think will help my team...I'm not quite sure if they'll buy it, but...well before I tell you that, I was thinking...I just want to have you as a sounding board.  Sometimes it's so difficult to get it all out...let me know if you agree with this...I haven't tried it yet, but...be frank in your feedback because I want to make sure...you know what I'm saying?"  In short, the answer was "no".  I did not know what she was saying because she hadn't said anything yet.  In fact, I'd stopped listening minutes ago.  I can't help but wonder if that's why the supervisor didn't do what she was asked.  Maybe she had no clue what the director was asking!  Clear communications is an important part of being heard.
     When you don't feel heard, what could you be doing that prevents the listener from wanting to sit up and take notice?  There are a whole host of barriers we self-impose, but I'm going to deal with three.  Read with your own communications habits in mind.
     First, when you need to command attention, make sure you're saying something important.  Far too often, we waste other people's time with idle chatter.  Taking time out to shoot the breeze is fine when time is on your side.  But with most people's time a limited resource these days, nobody wants to squander the little they have by listening to another person who is talking a lot but saying nothing.  Even if someone has the luxury of time on their hands, they could find plenty of other things to do than listen to your meaningless and meandering musings.  Speak of things that are important to them.  Give them useful information that will somehow peak their interest and give them pause.  Make them think.  Make their minds transfer your information to something applicable in their lives.
     Second, articulate what you need to say clearly and without clutter.  For example, imagine you are cleaning out a room in your house that had managed to become a stockpile of worthless items amid some valuable, useful objects you wanted to keep.  As you are finding the valuable items and hauling out the worthless ones, a friend who is helping you keeps hauling back in the stuff you've thrown out.  Such is the case with language.  We clutter up our messages with worthless words, thoughts, ideas, and intentions that only serve to weaken our conversations.  Toss out the trash, and keep only those things that will make people stop and pay attention to what you have to say.
     Finally, make sure your conversation evokes an action or reaction.  If you're making a request, ask for what you want to have done clearly.  Don't hem and haw around the question, be direct.  If you're interjecting humor, then make sure it's funny enough to elicit a chuckle or smile at least.  Misplaced humor or an unfunny comment will make people want to end the conversation immediately.  If you seek to inspire and encourage, then make your words and phrases those that will evoke those emotions.  When it's important and you need to be heard, you must make sure that on that particular time, your words matter.
     When you do this consistently, people will be ready to hear from you almost every time.  They will know that when you speak, you usually have something worthwhile to say even if it's casual.  They will give you their full attention, and you will be heard.