One thing I regularly tell people in my workshops is that to change an outcome we need to change our behavior. As John Connor said in many timelines of the Terminator movies, “There is no fate but what we make.” We can do it one way and see the same thing, or we can do it another and do it better.
One of my favorite quotes is by Marshall Ganz, an activist leader and senior lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government. In his essay, “Why Stories Matter: The Art and Craft of Social Change,” he talks about the effects of aggressively owning your own choices. That is, being the protagonist in your own story.
"Some people say, “I don’t want to talk about myself,” but if you don’t interpret [it] to others...people will interpret it for you. You don’t have any choice if you want to be a leader. You have to claim authorship of your story and learn to tell it to others so they can understand the values that move you to act, because it might move them to act as well."
I use this message to remind people good presentation, good customer service, good leadership, in fact all we do, doesn’t happen by acident. We are our own agents of change.
He goes on to write…
"We all have a story of self. What’s utterly unique about each of us is not the categories we belong to; what’s utterly unique to us is our own journey of learning to be a full human being... And those journeys are never easy. They have their challenges, their obstacles, their crises. We learn to overcome them, and because of that we have lessons to teach."
This idea – that we all have a lifetime of experience that defines us and can influence those around us – reminds us everything we say and do has an impact, and we have the freedom to choose what we say and do.
There is a beautiful line in the play “Stage Kiss” by Sarah Rull: “Every night the sun goes down and the moon comes up and you have another chance to be good.”
Did the conversation with your boss not go well? Was your keynote not as polished as it could have been? Are you role modeling the behavior you would like to see in others?
All of these experiences are part of your story, the story of you. And you are the author of your life.
Including a personal experience in any kind of public engagement is a proven method of grabbing and keeping audience attention.
I recently directed a show called, “The Improvised Life of a Man Named Jack.” It was a kind of cross between “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Jack was the star, hero and narrator of his own life story.
With the exception of deciding in advance which actor was going to play Jack, all of the characters, dialogue and relationships were created in the moment to tell the evolving story of one man.
As with most improv shows, scenes were inspired by audience suggestions. The cast broke the fourth wall – the most dramatic of all walls! – and asked the audience things like “What’s her name?” or “How do they know each other?” But, we quickly discovered the most compelling scenes came from deeper, more personal questions.
The inspiration that came from the audience member's reply fueled a rich and dynamic scene that propelled the story forward in a way everyone could connect to. When you hear someone confide, “I left my family behind to come to America,” our emotions stir at a visceral level. Suggestions like "Her name is Rachel!” or “You met on the playground!” give information, but they don’t provide any emotional context.
Drawing on personal experience to brighten up otherwise mundane topics is common in all kinds of media. Planet Money, the NPR podcast which often explores curious money-based concepts regularly uses this approach. At the beginning of a recent episode discussing the national interest rate, two friends dug through a bin of bank receipts asking each other how they felt about the amount of money in other people’s accounts. What did it mean to them, and by extension, what does it mean to you?
Nondini Naqui, founder of Society of Grownups and a recipient of the “Ten Outstanding Young Leaders of Boston” award spoke to a crowd at the "Delight 2016" annual conference about financial literacy – a topic notoriously inaccessible. She could have simply listed facts and pointed at bar charts, but what kept the audience engaged was reference to her feelings, her family and her fears. (Got 19 minutes?)
Adding a personal experience to your presentation is the mark of a great speaker, and true of almost any TED Talk you can pull up.
So when you are writing notes to deliver your research, keynote speech or actuarial tables, ask yourself what is the emotional connection to your work? What does it mean to you? What can it mean to your audience?
In the words of John Stewart Mill, "There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realized until personal experience has brought it home."
As part of Third Sector New England’s Better Nonprofit Management Training Series, this October DLM is proud to be leading a workshop entitled, “Become A Power Presenter.”
One of my favorite topics as a communications leader is learning how to be authentic. It seems like a contradiction. How can you force yourself to be more natural? It’s often a challenge, but not impossible.
Amy Cuddy, Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, is known through her TED Talk of coining the phrase, “Don’t fake it until you make it, fake it until you become it.” Her point is anyone committed to being a better public speaker can do the simple things like stand straight and speak up. But, it’s the uncommon thing – engraining those behaviors into who you are – when things really start to get interesting.
Your message should always be about who is doing the speaking, not just how it’s being said. How can you draw on your passion? What values do you cherish? And as Cuddy suggests, how can you be the most compelling version of yourself (fake it) while staying true to who you are (until you become it)?
It doesn’t matter if you are presenting your life’s work at a TED Talk or listing quarterly earnings, the really good speakers – the ones who lead meetings you like going to – make you feel their interest and passion through the energy they give off.
They can do this because they found an authentic connection with the material and are sharing that enthusiasm. This is the kind of speaker we should all strive to be.
This idea is reflected is the words of Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.
“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
Registration will open soon. I hope to see you there!
My last post looked at a study by social psychologist Amy Cuddy who discovered that “warmth and competence” are the two traits we most desire to see in other people. If you look at the Fancy Chart below you can see Pity and Envy are two emotions we often feel when faced with the spectrum of those two factors. The other two are Contempt and Admiration.
Contempt – the intersection between “cold and incompetent” – is one of those feelings we usually reserve for people who we feel have wronged us with seemingly no remorse. They have acted, or chosen not to act, selfishly and with complete disregard for consequences.
It's a pretty fair guess that the most despised person in America as of this writing is pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shkreli. He was publicly branded a pariah after it was announced he had raised the price of a life-saving drug from $13.50 per pill, to $750.00 per pill, overnight. News commentators wore out their thesaurus looking for synonyms for "contempt." It's a natural instinct when you hear something so seemingly callous, justified or not.
Cuddy found low-income or state-supported populations often fall into this category. If you are suspicious that poor people aren't doing enough to get themselves out of poverty and perhaps taking advantage of the system, you will likely have little empathy for them. And as Cuddy points out, this is a normal emotional reaction.
But, as we all know from our rocky office and romantic relationships, acting purely on emotion usually doesn't end well. It's pretty clear regularly feeling contempt is an unhealthy way to view the world. You can't stop forming a first impression – humans after are all emotional creatures – but you can give the benefit of the doubt. When a client tells me how angry they get at stupid managerial decisions, I advise them to take a breath and not assume incompetence. Few people are deliberately inept and out to get us. Likewise, think about the last time your feelings were hurt and after talking it out you admitted, “Oh, that’s not what I thought you meant.”
Tom Hanks is often referred to as “the nicest guy in Hollywood.” He's won multiple Golden Globes, Emmys, Oscars and a whole bunch of other awards for his undeniable talent. As an actor myself I think: that guy is super nice and super talented! I want to be that! When I get my first Emmy I'll let you know how it's going.
Sticking with the Star Trek theme from the previous post, Captain Picard is considered one of the most admired diplomats in the galaxy! His command of language and alien societies combined with warmth and agreeability are undeniable. And Vulcans aren't the only one who thinks so! I recommend an excellent book by Wess Roberts, called “Star Trek: Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Take two minutes to see the master at work.
Do you remember your favorite mentor or teacher? Chances are he or she was both smart and made you feel good about yourself. I think of Mr. Quirk, my high school Advanced Composition teacher. He knew writing better than anyone and got people excited about it. And he always had time for a chat when we ran into each other in the library. I admired him. That experience informs how I interact with my students today.
Amy Cuddy’s study shows us what first impressions we make on people. The good news is since we know what qualities affect that perception – warmth and competence – we have an opportunity to make sure we stay nice and cozy in the “Admiration” quadrant by monitoring our behavior and increasing those qualities. Practice your presentation or interview, show a genuine interest in other people. Take command of your starship!
Not everyone can come across as a lovable 'ole teddy bear. But, we do have the ability to change how people perceive us and focus on the most positive aspects. In a previous post I considered the social and professional value of attempting to “be the type of person you would like to meet.” This is about perception.
According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, “warmth and competence” are the two positive traits we most desire to see in our fellow humans. And they are not insignificant. She states these first impressions account for “80 percent of our overall evaluation of people.”
When we meet someone for the first time we are unconsciously asking, “Do I like this person or not?” We answer by making a snap judgment based on those two factors, the relative strength of which informs how we feel about that person.
The four basic responses are contempt, pity, envy, and admiration. Can you guess which first impression would be the most advantageous? Let’s look at two of them and see how they play out in the real world.
Cuddy explains “pity” best in a summary article of her research in Harvard Magazine:
“The warm/incompetent quadrant…evokes an ambivalent emotion: pity, which fuses compassion and sadness. People are more likely to help groups in this cluster, like the elderly, but also much more likely to ignore and neglect them, says Cuddy. Furthermore, the more strongly one subscribes to the warm/incompetent stereotype, the more likely one is to both help and ignore such people. “It depends on the situation,” she says. “If you’re at a backyard barbecue, you’re more likely to help the elderly person. In the office, you’ll probably neglect them.”
That is a fascinating observation which can have direct consequences in the workplace. Obviously, intentionally or unintentionally avoiding anyone in an environment where collaboration and communication is valued can have a negative impact on your work and others. Or, at the very least create unwanted anxiety in either party. But, with a little self-awareness and motivation, one can take positive action – the opposite of neglect – and improve your interactions with those marginalized parties. Recognize your feelings and behaviors and go out of your way to be more inclusive. Remember that birthday party in the 6th grade you weren’t invited to?
At the other end of the warmth and competence spectrum “…groups seen as cold/competent evoke envy…it involves both respect and resentment.”
Let’s look at the Star Trek universe, one of the best of all universes. Commander Data, the silver-skinned android on board the starship Enterprise has many times saved the crew from imminent disaster by completing complex tasks much more efficiently than his humanoid counterparts. Many times his companions expressed a desire to have his exceptional skill sets. And yet, in the earlier episodes, he was utterly unable to understand simple concepts such as friendship or loss which sometimes estranged him from members of the crew.
Seeing the value of emoting warmer connections, he eventually created an “emotion chip” that allowed him to achieve a much greater level of human empathy.
During a particularly harrowing adventure, Data turns the chip off so as not to be distracted by his new feelings. Play this 28 second clip to hear Captain Picard's response.
Unfortunately, not being made of gyroscopes and circuitry you and I do not have that luxury. At the same time, our empathy does allow us to recognize how we are perceived by others, to “change our minds” and our actions to demonstrate a greater warmth. This is something that can be taught. Inexperienced managers, brusk CEOs and emotionally detached presidential candidates – think Al Gore and Hillary Clinton – see the value of this and are often coached to show more compassion and humor.
If we are aware of how we come across we have the tools to change people’s perceptions. Next month we’ll dig into the factors surrounding “admiration” and “contempt.” No spoilers, but it will have something to do with mermaids and the most despised man in America!
Crazy rabbit, Trix are for kids!
But, there are no tricks here. Researchers at Cornell University found that adults felt almost a 30% increase in brand trust when selecting a box of cereal with the rabbit looking out instead of away. Making eye-contact with even a two-dimensional fictitious character can have quite an impact. Imagine what happens when you look into the eyes of someone important to you!
New parents learn quickly that sometimes prefacing their instructions with “Look at me!” is the only way to get their rambunctious son to stop throwing sand at the beach. The ear has 30,000 nerve fibers. The eye, 1,000,000. That increases the chances of capturing proper attention by nearly two orders of magnitude!
The eyes carry a wealth of information that dramatically informs the conversation. It helps you determine mood, honesty, intention, comfort and a wealth of other vital indicators. Good and honest eye contact is just a basic part of clear communication.
Actors generally don’t like performing with their face covered for this very reason. Miranda Otto, who played the nazgul-slaying heroine in "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," requested a helmet redesign because she felt the narrow eye slits, perhaps more practical from a combat standpoint, nonetheless created a barrier between the audience and her most powerful dramatic tool. Unveiling her eyes helped broadcast to the audience the heroic grit and tenacity she wielded to help save Middle-Earth!
Even eyes disassociated from any semblance of a living thing can have a significant impact on our behavior. A 2006 study from the Netherlands discovered a mechanism they call the “cues of being watched.” University students were asked to pay whatever they wanted for coffee and tea in the common room. One box was labeled with images of flowers, another with images of eyes. The box with the eyes convinced people to pay almost three times as much than that of the flowers.
Similarly, a study by the International Journal for Behavioral Biology placed googly eyes on one of two donation buckets. The bucket with the eyes led to a 50% increase in donations!
It’s been said, “Looking into someone’s eyes changes the entire conversation.” It’s hard not to be effected. Eyes are our primary source of information about the outside world. So, the next time you are talking to a peer, client, boss or room full of stranger, look them in the eye and let them know they have your complete attention!
We have all heard, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” Adding an additional word gives you an even greater truth to live by: “You only have one chance to make a memorable first impression.”
This is what should concern you when greeting people you want to impress. This is a rare opportunity to identify yourself as helpful and unique, as someone who will enter their world and leave it better than before.
If that sounds overly dramatic, it is. But I would argue only slightly. I consider this approach as the natural outcome of following another wise maxim often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Leaving a memorable first impression is your chance to establish a higher standard of expectations, hopefully one that will spread from person to person.
In other words…
“You never get a second chance to make a great first impression. Within a few seconds, with just a glance, people have judged your social and economic level, your level of education, and even your level of success. Within minutes, they've also decided your levels of intelligence, trustworthiness, competence, friendliness and confidence. Although these evaluations happen in an instant, they can last for years: first impressions are often indelible.”
~ Olivia Fox Cabane, author of "The Charisma Myth"
“Image is the way other people see us, it deeply influences the way people react and respond to us.
“Your smile is your logo, your personality is your business card, how you leave others feeling after having an experience with you becomes your trademark.”
~ Jay Danzie, motivational speaker
There is no shortage of ways to make a lasting impression. And you can quote me.
According to a report in the Columbia Journalism Review, since 1989 the number of weekly newspapers featuring scientific developments has dropped from 95 to 19.
As periodicals devote fewer resources to science reporting, the responsibility of communicating new discoveries has fallen more and more to the scientists themselves. And because science communications is often considered separate from core science curriculum, this can lead to researchers feeling unprepared when called on to share their findings with the public.
A few weeks ago I was teaching presentation skills to rising seniors for the MIT Summer Research Program. I used Neil deGrasse Tyson as an example of my favorite science communicator. Probably the most recognizable astrophysicist of our age and host of the recent COSMOS series, Tyson is knowledgeable, approachable, passionate and quick to find relevance between what’s happening in the stars and what's happening here on earth. He has more than the technical knowledge required to excel in his field, he has the skills necessary to grab the public's attention and excite them about what's going on up in the sky. He and others like him are battling against a disturbing trend that his mentor Carl Sagan described as, “…a society [dependent] on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology…”
According to a 2014 survey by the National Science Foundation, a quarter of Americans were unaware that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around. At the same time a 2009 Gallup poll found an increase in the number of people who believe the space program should be scrapped.
Simply put, we need more Tysons and Sagans.
How does one square a misshapen understanding of the universe with decreasing the means to improve that understanding?
Some might argue this kind of ignorance does no harm. Like eliminating penmanship from elementary school curriculum. Sad, but come on, is it really important? Humans didn’t know what revolved around what for thousands of years and we got along just fine.
Of course, they didn’t have GPS, satellites, airplanes, cell phones and weather stations – all things that depend on understanding that fact. If someone didn’t care about the order of the solar system and wasn’t able to effectively communicate it we would be lost and driving around in the rain like a caveman.
Space exploration is an excellent example of a missed opportunity to demonstrate scientific value. It has brought us such a ubiquitous wealth of riches we are hardly aware of the connection between landing on the moon and our daily comforts. Here’s a partial list of new or improved technologies that evolved out of the space program, from the (rare) science section of Business Insider.
There are simply too many items to mention, but here and here are other sites that expand on that list. NASA does spend some resources communicating its discoveries and technological progress to the public. That’s because although they could certainly do more, as the list above implies, they understand that being a good scientists doesn't just mean knowing things. It also requires the ability to communicate those things in a way that makes people care.
As a scientist, you may excel in your field; you know exactly what's important and so do all of your colleagues. But when you step into the public spotlight you have to do more. It’s up to you to sell the value of your work in a clear, concise and compelling manner. Ask yourself, what’s old, what’s new, and what’s cool? And then tell the world.
In 2012 I wrote and directed a musical called “Pirate Lives!” with the Flat Earth Theater Company. It occurred to me as I chose the words for my smarmy-rogues that the process of writing a show, or indeed any kind of presentation, is deciding what to say, how to say it, and of course, how to look amazing doing it. Utilizing the same principles that deliver a lively “comedy of mariners” can help make you a better presenter and more compelling speaker.
It’s easy to know what to say when you have a script. The playwright has kindly laid it out for you. But how do you remain articulate and cool when you are pitching to a client, asking for funds or doing anything else that requires personable extemporaneous speaking? Write your own!
Unless you are meeting your nautical adversary on the high seas for the first time, you almost always know something about the person you’re talking to – a boss, a client, a direct report – and you adjust your “performance” based on that. Experience has taught you, for example, that the joke about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter might get a better reception during couples game night than it would at your executive staff meetings. You might talk more formally with your client than you would a peer. That’s because you know your audience.
Ask yourself, “What do I want to say?” and write the answer in plain and simple language. What is your main point? What are your supporting statements? What are key phrases? (“Avast, me hearties!)”* No need to memorize your script, unless that’s useful to you, but use it to solidify essential points.
This will force you to not only clarify what you want to say, but also remove what you don’t want to say. Most scripts go through multiple drafts. Characters might have a lot to say, but audiences can only take so much, no matter how much they sing about yardarms and pirate booty.
In an interview, if you are surrounded by enthusiastic, high-energy people, you might want to lean forward a little more and smile a little brighter. Likewise, if you are the loudest person in the room, turn that frenetic energy into warmth and everyone will be much more receptive.
TThe captain of the ship in “Pirate Lives!” commands attention from his crew as you should from your audience, minus the threat of flogging, of course.
When you are “on stage” – giving an interview, delivering a speech, presenting a report – everything you do says something about you. If you are trying to convince someone you are “the best person for the job,” fidgeting with your pen will certainly diminish that impression.
Like an actress heightening the parts of her that are most honest and compelling, the trick is to leave behind the things that make you look unfocused or inaccessible. This is often done by identifying the offending foible and then using self-correction techniques until the new behavior is so integrated into your style it is no longer a problem.
You might not have a full cast and crew backing up your power point presentation or networking event, but you should still put on a mini performance of your own by following the same principles. What do you want to say, who are you speaking to, and how do you present yourself to be the most compelling person you can be?
Whether you know it or not, you are on the stage. You might as well take the spotlight.
* Despite its use in popular movies, “avast” actually means stop. The phrase "Avast, me hearties,” typically meant, “Stop what you are doing, crew, and listen up!” http://www.wisegeek.com/to-a-pirate-what-does-avast-mean.htm
Speaking a foreign language can be incredibly difficult. But I’ve worked with many English-speaking clients who face the same challenges non-native speakers do. Like speaking too quickly, navigating unfamiliar words, and lacking the confidence to deliver their message with style and poise. Dr. Seuss can help with that!
Maryam, a computer science post doc at MIT, was concerned she was talking too fast. She felt that while presenting scientific papers to her peers some concepts were getting lost in her accent.
Her primary language is Farsi. When we sat down to look at her speech patterns, I assured her she had already mastered the technicalities of the English language. The next step was to face the same challenges everyone does who wishes to deliver information with confidence, clarity and strong personal presentation. Slow down, articulate, and as a college theater coach once told me, “stand there and mean it.”
This is good advice for all kinds of speaking situations.
To slow Maryam down we read “Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?” by Dr. Seuss and walked through the unfamiliar language. Reading the wibbley-wobbely words forced her to recognize her pace and deliver each thought with clarity.
On the first day we made a recording of her reading from a technical textbook so she could hear what her presentations sounded like. At later sessions we ran exercises that focused on breathing, diction, volume and pace. We regularly replayed the first recording to track her progress.
After our last week of working together she delivered a paper at a science symposium and got glowing reports from colleagues who praised her improvement.
It’s comforting to know that what might seem like an intimidating problem – shuffling your native language around the idiosyncrasies of the English language – can be addressed using the same techniques everyone can benefit from. Did I ever tell you how lucky you are?