Forget the Underwear

Remember that horrible piece of advice you got right before making one of your first public appearances?

Just picture everyone in their underwear.

I was 10 the first time I heard that advice. I'm 28 now and it still makes me want to shove my head in the sand (which is what I'm sure my reaction would be to a roomful of people in their skivvies.)

No, thank you.

The meaning behind the advice is great. The purpose of picturing everyone in their underwear is not to blind you or make you go run screaming from the mic, but instead to make you feel like everyone is on the same level. When you're on stage, you feel exposed and like you're bearing all for the world to see - so the underwear trick is supposed to make you feel like everyone else is exposed too.

There are some better ways to do that than picturing yourself as the grand marshal of the no-pants parade.

Meet & Greet.

Get to know some of the people who will be attending your presentation. Show up an hour early and shake hands with the people that come in. There is no better way to feel "on the same level" than to know what you have in common with your audience.

Remember: This Isn't High School.

Since we're adults now and don't have to face an auditorium full of people who are just looking for a reason to judge you, we can let everyone keep their pants on. Everyone in that room wants to hear what the professional and grown up version of you has to say so tell the teenage you to sit down and relax - their job is done, you'll take it from here.

Open With A Story.

This is a great presentation technique over all but it's especially effective when you're trying to find some common ground with your audience. Once people can relate to you and it feels like you've bonded, you'll feel more like you're having a conversation and less like you're lecturing people.

Picturing everyone in their underwear is going to very little, if anything, to boost your confidence. How are you connecting with your audience to calm your nerves. Remember to forget the underwear (except for yours... you should remember those...)

Speech Distractions & Being Prepared

History is filled with the people who can make a mark with their words. The great communicators in history are the ones that can connect with an audience, speak in a way the audience understands, and be able to keep calm in a possibly volatile environment. Typically, unless it's really bad those in our history who are not the best public speakers flit away and leave only lessons learned.

If you watched the MSNBC Iowa debates that were held on November 9th, then you know exactly where the inspiration for this post came from. As someone who lives in Texas and is proud of my state, I have to say it's been painful to watch Rick Perry struggle in his debates.

Politicians who struggle with public speaking may or may not be bad speakers and they simply could have just had a bad night. Here are some things that I think befuddle political speakers that can just as easily befuddle you in your next appearance.

Oh, look shiny things!

Losing your train of thought is probably the most frustrating thing that can happen in public speaking. Even the greatest public speaker or politician has a brain that can go off on its own when they need it to be focused.

Fix it by having an some index that cards that highlight your major points. In debate, you try to anticipate the kinds of questions that might arise based on the subject matter. Do what you can to anticipate what kinds of questions you might have and write down a short (no more than three bullet points) response to what questions you might encounter.

Second Guessing

Debate is a lot of flying by the seat of your pants. When someone asks you a question, you will probably answer with something that sounds pretty good but when your brain starts to dissect what every you just said, you can throw your entire flow off by overthinking how you answered the last question.

Fix it As long as you didn't say anything that is about to end your entire career, it's really not worth worrying about. What has been said is said and you can't rewind time and take it back. Instead of letting it distract what is happening now remember it for later so you can evaluate and make corrections.

Do Stretches, Not Shots

I'm not saying people get wasted before getting up to make a speech, I'm saying that the suggestion is out there to "have a drink or two" before a speech if you feel that your nerves are shot and you want to do something quick to calm down. I disagree with this before making a speech because you never know how your body will react to your drink of choice.

Fix It Instead, do some stretches. No, you don’t need to go all Jane Fonda in the middle of a conference room, but you can do some breathing exercises and simple stretches to make yourself feel more relaxed. (Check out this slide show from the Mayo Clinic for some ideas. These are also some office stretches you can do in the middle of a long day.)

Even politicians can have problems when it comes to making speeches and they are the same ones we come across. Rather than fall victim to the natural things that can derail our speeches, if you have a plan you can be ready to keep yourself on task and in control. What are some things you've seen politicians or have done yourself during a speech and how did you recover?

Small Talk Ice Breakers

It's not always easy to walk up to someone new and try to get some new connections. It's one of the things you have to do in business if you want to keep growing.

When I'm networking, I will do much better at making a great connection if someone will break the ice for me. (In fact, once you get me started talking I might not stop.)

Making connections goes well beyond asking someone "how's the weather". Here are some great ways to break the ice when you're simply trying to make small talk.

Are You From Around Here?

When attending conferences, this can be a great ice breaker. If you're visiting the city you and your new connection can share experiences at the airport or hotel opinions. This is even better if someone is visiting your city - you can offer them suggestions on places to see and go.

Comment On An Article of Clothing.

This works better for women, I'd imagine, but it's a great trick to get you and another person speaking to each other. Saying something like "I love your dress (or tie..)" can serve to break the ice. A compliment is nice to share because it makes you appear very nice and everyone loves a compliment.

Tech Talk.

Did you spot someone using the latest gadget or device that you've been wanting to get your hands on? Ask them about it. Feel free to jump in and ask them how they think it compares to a competitors device or something else that might be coming on the market soon. Boom - instant connection.

Small talk is my least favorite part of networking events. Once I can start talking with someone, I feel much better and can start getting to know someone. That breaking the ice part just always feels like the hardest thing. People who are good at small talk are that way because they have been doing it for a long time. What are some of the practices you use in breaking the ice to start making new conversations?

The Handy Dandy Notebook

Our intern, Laura, weighs in on how she stays organized in her busy life

As a student who has an internship, works 2 part time jobs, plays on a co-ed softball team and lives on her own with her boyfriend and a puppy, I often get questioned- how do you keep up? Sometimes I don’t know how I manage, but I couldn’t do it without my planner, or as I call it, my “Handy Dandy Notebook.” (Yes, I got that from Blue’s Clues)

While I don’t have much of a social life, I do get by somehow without my grades suffering. Here’s how I use my Handy Dandy Notebook to keep up with my busy life:

Carry it Around- I like for my planner to be small enough to carry in my purse so I can have it with me when I need to remember what’s on my to-do list or add something to it. However, it needs to be big enough so that I can see what I wrote clearly. I keep a paper clip on the current week so I can easily open it up and see what’s on my agenda for the day.

Plan Ahead- At the beginning of every semester, I take the syllabus from each class and write down all of the due dates in my planner. I know sometimes these dates change, but professors will let you know in advance when they do.

Give Yourself Time-Every week I look at what assignments are due for the next two weeks and make sure I give myself enough time to complete them without pulling an all-nighter the day before it’s due. This is especially important when taking an online class, because it’s easy to forget when you aren’t reminded when you meet in class every week.

Write Everything Down- In the past, I was bad about forgetting to pay some of my bills. I don’t even want to think about how much money I could have saved on late charges if I would have just remembered to pay on time. Even if it’s something that is due the same day every month, I write it down- and how much it is. I also write down how much my paychecks are and how much I make on the weekends as a waitress (it’s always different) – it helps me with budgeting. Once I pay the bill, I cross it out on my planner.

Check it Daily- Due dates will creep up on you quickly if you put it in the back of your mind. By checking my planner often, I remind myself of what I need to accomplish in the near future. If I ever feel like procrastinating, I remember one of my pre-Handy Dandy Notebook days where I took a midterm on 2 hours of sleep and then had to work till midnight. That experience was a big motivation to adopting the Handy Dandy Notebook and helps me remember to get things done.

As simple as it sounds, this really helps me keep up with my busy life. I like to see everything written out in one place that is easily accessible. What are some things that you do in order to stay organized and in control?

The Power of Words (And How We Destroy Them)

There are some words that are never used. In a post earlier, I wrote about the power of language and how our fear of it was hurting our exchange of ideas. Our fear of saying the wrong thing can put up a roadblock to changing the world and the way we see things. Writing that post made me think about the fact that while we hesitate to say things that may be seen as controversial we don't hesitate to let someone else know when we feel like they have crossed the line.

We use the "o" word liberally in communication. We ponder the ramifications before we say something and wonder if our statement will inspire someone to use the "o" word in response. What is the "o" word? Easy - offended .

When I was a kid, I loved to learn and use new words. When I learned the word hate my good Southern mama told me that I shouldn't use that word as liberally as I did. Hate had a strong connotation. Hating something meant that you wanted to see it disappear forever - so when I would get mad at my brother and tell him that I hated him, it meant I wanted to see him disappear, and I didn't really want to do that. Now, I'm sure that a lot of the other mothers out there have told you all the same thing and maybe you do the same thing with your children. It's a difficult balance to try to teach someone that there are certain words that have a stronger meaning than others.

Offended is one of those words to me and I'm concerned about how often I hear it tossed around in common language. Merriam-Webster defines offended very generally as "to cause dislike, anger, or vexation". This is a pretty broad definition, in my opinion, and maybe when we drop the "o" bomb we're not taking it too far, but that word has always meant more to me.

I've always felt like this word has too powerful of a tone for every time you disagree with something. I made a list of some times where I believe that offended is not always needed. Disagreement. Some people are not very good at debating or holding their own opinions. That's fine - not everyone can be a great debater. But the word "offended" is often thrown into a conversation simply to end it. Saying "That offends me" when it really doesn't isn't the proper use of the word. Instead, just simply say that you disagree and explain why you feel that way but remember the rules of debate and don't cross any lines. As a warning You know it's true but any time we start a sentence with "I don't want to offend anyone" the entire room immediately goes on edge and we all know you're about to say something really horrible. If you ever have to start a sentence like that - just don't.

The words we choose to use have a lot of power - they are designed to have power but when we over use a word it loses the power that it's been given. Just like the word "hate" the word offended is one of these words. Using it every time you feel wronged will only lessen the power of the word and when a truly offensive situation appears, the meaning will be lost. Do you think there are any powerful words in language that are overused? Does it worry you that these words will loose their meaning over time?

The 10 Minute Presentation Rule for Brains

We say a lot of things to ourselves to pump ourselves up for giving a presentation.

Don't trip. Don't stutter. Don't fall. Your slides look amazing. This is a great looking suit. Don't be boring.

Huh? What does don't be boring even mean? To many of us, it means that we are going to speak in a friendly tone - keeping our voices from getting monotone. It means that we have lively slides and we don't plan to read off them. Don't be boring means that we are going to make an excellent presentation and we are going to make sure that we provide information to our audience that they want and need. It should be as simple as that.

John Medina, the author of the book Brain Rules took a moment to remind us that simply reminding ourselves to not be boring isn't all it takes to be a great presenter. In his eBook, he discusses some rules to the brain and Rule #4 stood out to me. Rule #4 (paraphrasing here) states that our brains respond to emotion and in order to keep an audience engaged, we must provide them with something that will reinvest them emotionally into the presentation every ten minutes.

Not only is the 10 minute rule important psychologically, it's also important when you're dealing with an audience surrounded by smartphones, iPads, Facebook, Angry Birds, and the wonders of the Internet. You have to be prepared to make sure that you can draw them back when their distractions become too much. When your audience is in front of you it is a little easier to keep these kinds of distractions in check. Most members of an audience will do what they can to give a speaker the respect and attention they deserve - since the person is practically staring them in the face. When you're dealing with a conference call or web conference, it becomes even more difficult. Now you can't see what your audience is doing - and they can be easily distracted while "listening".

Here are some of the things that I think work well to reconnect with your audience through emotion in that 10 minute span.

  1. Tell a Story This is a best practice used by so many speakers. If you pay attention the next time you're listening to a presentation, you'll find that this is a common occurrence. A lot of speakers tell the story at the beginning and then launch into their information. I suggest you use a story every time you are shifting the focus from one idea to the next. This makes them invest emotionally into your presentation again. This gives them yet another reason why they can relate to the information presented.
  2. Raise Your Voice No, I am not advocating that you scream at your participants. What I'm suggesting is that you use emphasis to your advantage and put special notice on the words that might make a difference in the presentation. Instead of saying "I just really don't like..." put the emphasis on the "really" and wake your participants up. A change in pitch can make a world of difference to your participants. It's kind of like clapping your hands in a room full of children.
  3. Ask Questions. If you're running short on stories you can draw your audience back in by asking them questions every ten minutes. When you're running on a specific time limit, it's not always feasible to let everyone participate in an open Q&A session. What a question can do for participants is poke their brain with a stick and remind them that oh, hey, I need to be paying attention .

Reminding yourself to be entertaining and not boring is a great idea when you set out to make your presentation, but if you fail to operate within the psychology of our attention spans, you might lose your audience after the first ten minutes. How do you pull your audience back into the conversation and get their brains to engage with the subject being discussed?

Tips for Self-Improvement & Evaluation

One of the first parts of improving something is determining what you need to improve and what you don't. You have to know where you excel and where you fall short of your own personal expectations. The problem with evaluating yourself is that humans tend to be self-critical. We have a tendency to look at something with the critical eye and see nothing that is worth saving.

Remember when you were in school and you would hand in a paper? You worked your tail off on a paper or assignment and when it comes back, you have a shiny red B on the top of the page. You thought to yourself awesome - a B! but once you started to scan the paper you realized that there were far more red marks and notes than you had expected. The back of your brain would start first, telling you how poorly you did on the paper, even though there is a B on the front page. We get lost in criticism and don't see it for what it really is - help.

You made a speech and now you're going back to listen to your conference call recording or watch the video tape. You're ready to see what went well and what didn't, but you feel like that was an A+ performance. The problem is once your mind is open to evaluation it can quickly become judgmental and critical. Your A+ feeling can drop to an F- never do it again feeling. Before you give up completely - here are some things you need to remember about self-evaluation.

We Don't See The Big Picture

You had a B on your paper. That's a pretty amazing grade for something you worked incredibly hard on. When you scan the pages all you can see are the notes and suggestions. They are seen as an immediate negative and take over the space in our mind that was occupied by a feeling of success and happiness. We do the same thing to ourselves now when it comes to making improvements. Being overly critical is a difficult beast to defeat.

You'll Never Know Everything

You will never be the best . Athletes who get paid millions of dollars report to practice and have to make sure their skills are at the best level they can be. They still drop pop flys in center field and throw wild pitches. They still fumble the ball and get their passes picked off from the opposing team. You will never be in a position where you don't need to improve something so if that's your hold up, you need to let it go.

What Did You Like

When you get done with a speech and you feel like a million bucks, it has to be a good sign. When we mess up or let ourselves down, we know it as soon as we hang up the phone or step off the stage. When you get done with your presentation and feel awesome - you should be able to find some things that you did very well. When evaluating your speech, stop about halfway through and look down at your notes. How many negatives have you found? How many positives? If there's nothing positive on your page you're probably being a bit of a jerk to yourself.

Don't Be Afraid to Ask

Someone you trust can give you great insight. When you don't trust yourself to see what's good and what isn't a close friend or a co-worker is probably willing to take an hour or so of their afternoon and give you some thoughts.

Bonus Tip

In the mood for some raw feedback? Send out a survey to participants when your presentation is over. Ask them to tell you one place you can improve and one place where you did pretty well. (Positive reinforcement is a joy to improvement)

The next time you sit down to do some personal improvement be easier on yourself. Think about the grade that is actually on the page, rather than the notes for improvement. Those notes are places where you can become an even better speaker, writer, or employee. How do you evaluate yourself and take something away from it that is going to help you improve and not feel bad about yourself?

Are We Afraid of Language

I just have to ask a question. When did we become afraid to speak? I've noticed it lately - we tiptoe around things that are controversial, even if that's not the speakers intent. I feel like a lot of people who have made headlines for something they have said probably didn't mean it the way it sounded. Everyone is guilty of making a mistake in the way they use language and usually it's not that big of a deal. Even the people surrounded by talking heads that are coaching the speaker on what and how to say something make mistakes. I feel like we've gotten to a point where we fear language. We fear discussing ideas or sharing different opinions. We are terrified of offending someone - and because of it, we keep our mouths shut.

The Problem

When we become afraid to speak out and declare that there is something that could be changed we kill the free exchange of ideas. Yes, there are some subjects and words that over time and historical changes have fallen out of our lexicon. There are some words that, like many of diseases, have been eradicated from our daily life. These words (which I won't list) are the kinds of words that only people who are ignorant or just downright hateful still use in their everyday language.

Who's At Fault?

Everyone. That's the truth. History is littered with people who have opened their mouths and caused the world to be completely flipped on its head. These are people who have flipped the world in both good and bad directions. Intent with language is just as important as the words that are said. Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are just a few examples of people who have flipped the world. So are Hitler, Stalin, and Castro.

The difference? Intent. The people who speak with hate are doing so because that is exactly what they want to do. For them, it's not about creating healthy debate and exchanging ideas.

 

When it comes to debate, we apply it on an emotional level. This is a part of human nature but when we become afraid of expressing opinions and our thoughts, we stop progress. We stop understanding. We stop the idea that you can walk a mile in someone’s shoes . Having a debate is not the same as standing on a street corner with signs and screaming obscenities.

 

Debate is the exchanging of ideas - an understanding of two people who come from different backgrounds, were raised under different circumstances, and have different values.

 

Debate is not about changing someone's mind, proving yourself right , or hurting someone’s feelings.

You want to have an effective debate?

  • Listen & Learn - Do not discount someone else’s opinion simply because you disagree. There's a lot you can learn from another person.
  • (Try to)Keep Your Emotions Out of It - Easier said than done, I know, as heated debates are often based on things that get people pretty fired up, like politics and religion. In friendly company, these are subjects that people are comfortable enough to bring up and discuss. Try to think of things in a logical manner rather than a personal one.
  • Avoid The Okay, Whatever factor. - When someone says something you disagree with there is no need to snort laugh and say okay buddy, whatever . If you do this, you are only proving that you're closed minded and not open to another person's perspective.

Debate is a touchy thing but it is where some of the greatest ideas are born. I'm concerned about the state of communication to see that more and more people are growing afraid of language and how it can be used to discuss the things that are happening around them. Don't be afraid to speak and to voice your opinions. The problem with language is that it can be twisted to serve someone's needs. Stop twisting the ideas - stop twisting the language. Listen to someone else and open your mind to the fact that there could be other opinions besides your own out there.

Are you afraid of language? Why? Do you feel it stops you from gaining a different perspective because you're afraid to ask a question?

 

 

Are Your Emails Clear?

Email, texting, and chatting are very popular forms of communication but these written forms of communication do something that we weren't expecting when we embraced them with open arms.

They are hurting our ability to deliver clear messages

In our company, email is a very popular form of communication - we email customers and each other to get follow ups on accounts or answer inquiries. It's important that everyone in our company knows how to write a great email, but I've noticed lately that some messages are getting lost in translation. When you remove elements from communication like tone and non-verbal signs things become more open to emotional interpretation. Since how someone says something is just as important as what they actually say, email can cause more problems than it means to.

To make sure that you're communicating effectively when using email be sure to embrace these suggestions and start applying to your emails immediately.

When In Doubt...

Have you been emailing with a co-worker or customer a couple of times and there are still questions? Make your last email say something like Is there a good time that I can call you to go over this? Like I said we communicate with our customers through email and many times they need instructions on how to use some of our different features. If a customer has to email us twice to get the answers to their questions, we pick up the phone and give them a call. Simple as that.

Get a Second Opinion

There may be a chance that your email needs to send a stern message. Most often this occurs when you are the customer and you're trying to make your point clear. Just be sure to have a friend or someone else check the message over before you hit that send button. Being stern is one thing - being a jerk is another.

Ask for Confirmation

When setting up plans to meet or set up a conference call if you initiate the contact, be sure to ask the other party to confirm the date and time selected. A simple Just let me know if that works for you and I'll look forward to seeing / speaking with you then can cut down a lot of confusion on who is going to start the call or if it's even a good time for all the people involved.

Email is not a perfect form of communication and when you're communicating in writing, you lose a lot of the other clues in your communication strategy. Be sure you're writing clear and effective emails to your customers, co-workers, or even your friends. What are your must have rules for writing emails?

Improving Communication Skills {Part One}

Part One: Define Exactly What You Want to Improve

The umbrella of “communication skills” encompasses quite a bit. It can come down to every aspect of how another person receives a message from you and this can be everything from your nonverbal cues to the tone in which you use to speak to someone. For me a skill is something that can always be improved and should be evaluated periodically. For example, I’m a good writer, but I just started a writing improvement course, because writing is a skill. I need to practice, define some strengths, identify weaknesses, and work to improve them in a practical way that I can incorporate to my daily life.

Communication skills are the same. Even the seasoned and experienced public speaker or presenter can find things that they can improve on. A lot of speakers chose to tape their events and much like a coach or player on a sports team, will go back after the game and see where they could use improvement. No one is going to be 100% perfect every single time and professionals know that.

So if you’re looking to improve your communication skills you have to first be able to define exactly what needs to be improved, otherwise you’re simply going to be all over the place. A pitcher will work on getting his fast ball perfected, then his slider, and so forth. He won’t try to perfect all of his pitches at once and any skill that needs to be improved needs to be approached in the same way.

I recommend recording your recent speeches or presentations and then reviewing them so that you can spot areas of improvement. Some things to be on the lookout for when you’re watching your video:

  • Are you reading the text from your PowerPoint slides? This should be avoided because it doesn’t encourage the audience to listen to your every word. There’s no fear that they might miss something amazing because you’re just reading something they could read on their own. Use your slides to enhance your presentation but don’t let it steal the show from you.
  • Watch to see if you’re standing in one place or dancing around like an extra from The Nutcracker. If you’re not moving enough then you’re not doing enough to visually stimulate your participant’s brain. If you’re moving around too much then you make it difficult for the audience members to keep up with you. There needs to be a happy medium between the two.
  • On a conference call or a webinar the power to stimulate your audience visually is almost completely gone. If you’re lucky you have your PowerPoint slides to back you up, but it could all come down to the way you sound when you speak. Do you speak too fast and make it difficult for participants to understand you? Are you speaking in a monotone and boring voice that almost always guarantees your audience is going to do something else? When the audience can’t see you, you have to use your voice to mimic the same kinds of movements they would be exposed to – and too much or too little of a good thing is never a good idea.
  • What’s going on non-verbally? The way your body looks on stage or on a video conference can be a huge factor in how much your audience retains. You want your body to be open to the audience and you want your arms to move in a comfortable fashion. If you are standing in front of the audience with your arms crossed over your chest, you’re basically throwing up a wall between you and them and indicating that you don’t care if they listen or not.

Those are just some of the communication improvements that you might notice you need to address. The next part of this series will talk about identifying your strengths and weaknesses within what you want to change so that you’ll know exactly what needs to be fixed. And I’ll tell you what I’m going to work on improving.

What are you going to work on?

{Image Credit to West Point Public Affairs on Flickr}