Smartt Talk

Communication Tips & Random Observations

Speak like Hot Buttery Cornbread

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When I woke up on New Years Day this year, the first thing I did was clean my oven.

I had to.

The evening before, in preparation for my New Year’s good luck ritual of black eyed peas, greens and cornbread, I had just put my cornbread in the oven to bake, confident of all the great luck this food would be bringing me and my guests.

About 10 minutes into the 20 minutes of baking time, thick black smoke started pouring out of the oven vents.

EAR SPLITTING CHIRP…FIRE!!

EAR SPLITTING CHIRP…FIRE!!

EAR SPLITTING CHIRP…FIRE!!

After grabbing a chair to dismount the screeching fire alarm and pluck out it’s life force of AA batteries, I opened up all the windows (it was 23 degrees), cranked up a fan and pondered the source of all that smoke.

Oh! I know what happened…

I was over generous with my doubled cornbread recipe, and put too much batter into my buttery iron skillet. When the batter expanded, the stick of butter in the recipe had no place to go but over the sides of the skillet onto the oven floor.

Butter at 425 degrees = lots of smelly smoke.

What can I do to avoid smoke the next time I turn on my oven?

  • Clean it now, and follow the recipe in future.

What can you do to assure that the next time you speak, you’re more confident and not feel like burned butter at the bottom of a stove?

  • Practice out loud now (even if it feels ridiculous), and follow that recipe in future.

Both are forms of preparation that will yield results.

Don’t procrastinate and become a shitty self-fulfilling prophecy of lameness. If you’ve got an event that’s coming up, put some hour-long blocks on your calendar for out loud run throughs and stick to them.

Avoid feeling like that smelly, smoking burned butter at bottom of your stove. Feel more like delicious, hot buttery cornbread that your audience will love and want seconds of.

YBATS Series: You’ve been Asked to Speak - 10 Steps to Take

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So, you’ve been asked to speak at an event or at a conference and you’ve got plenty of lead time (hopefully). Here are ten steps to take to help you knock ‘em dead (not put them to sleep)

  1. Who is the audience? Remember, it’s not about you - the audience is king. Figure out what they care about. Think pain or gain and speak to that.
  2. Come up with your main message that conveys what you want to accomplish and what’s in it for the audience. “By volunteering your time with our non-profit, you will transform lives.”
  3. Brainstorm tons of ideas that support your main message on post it notes. Then kill your darlings and pick the three most compelling. No more than three, otherwise you’ll overwhelm your audience with TMI (too much information). 
  4. Use examples or stories for each supporting point you ultimately choose. Get personal - we’re way more interested in you than in statistics or data.
  5. Use amazing visuals (your own, shutterstock, Flickr’s Creative Commons). Check out “Steal this Presentation” by @jessedee for more ideas.
  6. Speak through your presentation out loud. That’s right, it’ll feel dumb, but do it. Break out the video camera. Watch & learn. Yes, it’s painful, but incredibly informative. You can do this.
  7. Based on your video, take action. Filler words? Replace w/a pause/breath or slow down & stretch out the delivery of your sentences. Monotone? Practice hitting different pitches. If you can sing different notes, you can speak different notes (even it you can’t sing).
  8. Practice improving your delivery in your daily conversation. Don’t wait for the podium. Block time on your calendar and get into a conference room (or some other space) 30 - 60 minutes each day (at least) for run throughs. Stick to it, no matter how busy you get.
  9. Invite a test audience. Tell them you just need them in the room, but don’t need their advice (people can often give terrible advice).
  10. The day of the talk, go to the gym or take a brisk walk beforehand to burn off some of your excess energy. Arrive early. When your time comes, think about the amazing thing that you want to share with your audience (and not so much “how am I doing?”). Tap into the passion you have for your topic, connect your words with your gut, and you’ll rock the house!

Smartt Talk Moves to Madison Avenue!

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We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog reading for some big news!

I’m happy to announce that Smartt Talk now has opened shop at 99 Madison Avenue in the heart of New York City!

We’ve got three conference rooms, a beautiful reception area (check out pics below) and are outfitting a space for leading Skype coaching sessions and virtual workshops.

OK, I know this is a blog, and really shouldn’t be a commercial, but we’ve got discounts! Through the end of the year, we’re offering coaching discounts for group and individual sessions.

The calendar is booking up, so contact us now to schedule some coaching sessions for you or your organization. Whether at your place or ours, we’re psyched and ready to help you rock your next presentation!

Now, about my blogging. Yeah, I’ve been remiss. But busy is good, right?

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I got critiqued - Ouch!

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As an communication coach & entrepreneur, I often reach out to other coaches to discuss how they’ve developed their business, talk about their processes, challenges, etc. I set up a call with a fellow coach recently & we started with introductions & a bit of background about how we got into this line of work. After we each spoke & engaged in some small talk, the coach told me that they wanted to give me “a gift,” & that I should take a deep breath (& apparently prepare).

Then the critique started. My fellow coach told me that at the beginning of the call, I wasn’t very clear about my objective & what I wanted to get out of the conversation. Secondly, I spoke too quickly, gave too much personal history, & wasn’t succinct enough.

Okay…my first response was one of being stunned (but I guess I was warned to take a breath). Then as we were running out of time, my southern manners kicked in and I thanked the coach for being frank & willing to take the time to speak with me and wrapped up the call.

Then I hung up the phone & I felt like shit.

What just happened? I was looking forward to connecting with a new person, getting an opportunity to “talk shop” & what I got was a critique. I certainly don’t fault the coach - they genuinely felt they were helping me out - & indeed they did. It just didn’t feel all that great on the receiving end. Part of this was context & part of it was the critique itself.

Was there any truth to the critique? Certainly, which is what made it so hard to hear. Part of the southern culture in which I was raised encourages plenty of conversation before you jump in & “get to the point,” so my lack of setting up a clear objective most likely got muddled in my historical chatter. I probably could have abbreviated my “how I got to where I am now” story & been more succinct. Additionally, I wouldn’t have felt the need to speed up my rate of speech if I’d not been trying to cover so much material. 

While I didn’t go into the conversation expecting a critique, it did give me an opportunity to stand in the shoes of my clients. While receiving feedback is key for growth & development, it was a reminder for me that taking criticism isn’t easy.

As Sheryl Sandberg says in “Lean In, Women, Work & the Will to Lead”:

…the truth hurts. Even when I have solicited feedback, any judgement can feel harsh. But the upside of painful knowledge is so much greater than the downside of blissful ignorance.

Keeping in mind what you’ve got to gain can help assuage feeling stung. Remember to be kind to others when giving criticism, & be kind to yourself when receiving it. Take what’s useful, make a change if needed & move on.

You might be the speaker, but it’s not about YOU

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This week, I had the pleasure of seeing the incredible Holland Taylor take on the formidable role of Ann Richards in “Ann.” While the show was a tour de force, what lifted the roof off of the Lincoln Center theater was the attendance of Bill & Hillary, Gabby Giffords, and Meryl Streep.

After chatting with Holland Taylor backstage, Hillary looked up at some of us gawking down as she walked below toward the parking garage, and said to us “Wasn’t she amazing? She was JUST like that in real life!” She took the focus off of her and shifted it onto Holland Taylor and her astounding performance - something that we all collectively shared. It wasn’t about her, it was about us.

So remember when you are next in front of a group and the focus is on you - bring that focus back to your audience. Because ultimately it’s not about you.

When Pitching - Get Personal

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I was recently coaching women CEOs seeking venture capital as part of Double Digit Academy, a boot camp in NYC organized and led by Julia Pimsleur, a veteran fundraiser, Forbes blogger and Little Pim CEO who’s been through the trenches and has vast knowledge to share.

When seeking VC funding, there is a list of things to prepare. You need to understand your market and be clear about how you’re going to make money, of course - but at the core is your story.

Why are you doing this? What is the problem you are solving, the need that you are meeting, and why are you so passionate about it? Get down to the root of what is driving you to act. Get personal.

One CEO stated that she wasn’t comfortable talking about her personal life - which is understandable. What was fascinating was that once she DID talk about the personal reasons she started her company, she had the entire room captivated. The passion that she felt was undeniable. She struck storyteller gold.

But this was an emotional place, and she expressed concern about “going there” when pitching for funds. When telling your story, touch on the personal, possibly tender point, but keep your focus on the exhilaration of crafting a solution. Practice telling the story. A lot. But don’t ever lose connection with the personal passion that’s driving you to make things change for the better.

Your passion will illuminate you. Your audience will experience it with you and be moved to take action.

By telling your personal story, you create a path for your audience to connect with you on a human level. 

Do NOT Picture your audience in their underwear!

One piece of advice that seems to have made it’s way into the cannon of public speaking tips is “just picture the audience in their underwear.” From the Brady Bunch to the current reality show The Pitch, this is bad advice that just won’t die.

I would like to kill this advice once and for all.

In his excellent radio interview on NPR with Regina Brett, Scott Berkun traces the origins of the underwear advice possibly to Winston Churchill, who while being an excellent speaker, “was also an alcoholic, so a lot of his advice about what he did probably doesn’t apply to most people.”

There are a lot of things you can do about nerves, but adding the visual of your audience in their underwear most likely will short circuit and distract you from why you’re speaking in the first place. 

OK, so what CAN you do about nerves?

  • Cut yourself some slack - everyone feels nervous before they speak - just acknowledging that to yourself can take some of the pressure off. Avoid starting my saying “I’m really nervous…I don’t do this often.” The audience might not even realize you’re nervous, so no need to sabotage yourself.
  • Avoid caffeine, bubbly drinks, heavy meals, and alcohol beforehand. I’ve had to discourage more than one client NOT to drink before they speak.
  • Practice - Go through your presentation out loud until you’ve got it down cold. The fact that you’ve got it under your belt will alleviate a lot of the anxiety you feel. There are many things you can’t control, but practicing is one that you CAN.
  • The day of your presentation get some physical exercise to help expel some of the energy that your body generates. You could probably lift a car with the adrenaline that’ll be pumping through your body, so work some of that off beforehand. The is one of many great points made in Scott Berkun’s excellent book Confessions of a Public Speaker, my number one book recommendation to my workshop attendees at General Assembly & Brooklyn Brainery.
  • Remember to breathe deeply, slow down and keep it conversational.
  • Make allies - If it’s possible, chat with people beforehand so that you have some friendly faces in the audience to connect with.

My Story? Well, it all started…

At job interviews, do you freeze up when you start to talk about your history? Do you have a hard time figuring out what to tell and what to leave out? What about the things you did that didn’t really turn out exactly as you’d planned? How do you talk about jobs that you absolutely hated without detouring into Negative-land?

The good news is that as the storyteller, you have the ability to craft your story. This isn’t to say that you should lie or in any way misrepresent yourself. Don’t. It will come back to bite you in the ass. But if you had a job that you absolutely hated, the one thing that you CAN say is that you learned from it. Whatever it was about it that you didn’t like, it more than likely made you wiser than when you started. Give it a positive spin - going negative in a job interview is a big turn off for employers. Think about it, would YOU want to be around someone who complains all the time?

Focus on talking about what you really love and are passionate about. This is the same advice I give to my workshop attendees at General Assembly and Brooklyn Brainery. When you speak from a place of passion, your audience (in this case your potential employer) picks up on that and you rise above the other interviewees.

Of course, your passion is hopefully connected to your job - but that’s not always the case. Perhaps this job is a foot in the door. This might be the job you need to get you closer to the job you REALLY want. Communicating your desire to learn more and build on what you already know is a great place to start.

The one thing that you must do is spend some time looking at and writing out your personal history. Yes, it’s jobs that you’ve had, and school you’ve attended - but don’t forget to think about the things that you do that you might not have been paid for - sports, hobbies, gardening, family history, traveling, etc. These are important elements that reveal who you are and what makes you unique.

Once you’ve written down your personal history, and included all of the things you’ve done and are good at (paid or not), think about a way to tell your story that emphasizes your strengths that will give a brief history of what brought you to where you are today.

Practice telling the story out loud. Time yourself. Have a five minute version ready. Then, a two and a one minute version. Obviously, you can’t tell everything, but you can hand pick the important elements that are relevant to your potential employer that brought you to where you are today.

By planning in advance and having your story ready to go, you’ll avoid some of the interview anxiety that can result in missing an opportunity to land the job you’ll love.

Technically Speaking -10 Tips for Speaking on Technical Topics

Speaking about something technical need not be boring. No matter how technical your topic, it’s up to you to find a way to keep your audience interested in what you have to say. Here are 10 steps to take to assure you’ll keep your audience with you.

  1. Think about why you are speaking. Most of the time, you are the bearer of information that in some way will improve the lives of those you are speaking to. As the subject matter expert, you have a gift to give your audience that will help them out. Think about an action that they will take as a result of your presentation. Saying you’re speaking to them to “impart information” is a cop out. Get more active and think about what they’ll DO with your words of wisdom.
  2. Give your unique perspective and tell personal stories that relate to your material. Whether you’re talking about APIs or financials - everything has a story behind it that adds up to meaning for your audience. Its up to you to find stories that connect you to your material. Your audience will remember anything that relates to a good story. Including a “wart” story about some really stupid thing you did (but learned from) is a great way to get the audience on your side. Just make sure it ties back to your topic. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t feel confident about what you have to offer your audience, but no one likes a know it all. If you’ve lived life, you’ll have plenty of things to draw from.
  3. Define who your audience will be. What is their background? What are they interested in? How familiar will they be with your topic? This is one of the most important things that people tend to overlook - but finding out what your audience really cares about will help you tailor your presentation to their needs and interest.
  4. Do you care about your topic? If you don’t care and can’t show passion for your subject, you certainly can’t expect your audience to. You’ll be radiating your boredom, and your audience will follow suit.
  5. Keep it Conversational. Sure, you’re the subject matter expert, but that doesn’t mean you have to speak like a robot. Tape yourself and listen and / or watch. Does it sound like you’re speaking at gunpoint, or like you’re actually talking to someone? Practice with a friend running through the presentation talking to them as you would about anything. Speaking like a real person having a real conversation makes a huge difference to your audience.
  6. Make Eye Contact. Keeping your face buried in your notes, or staring at the screen behind you disconnects you from your audience. After you make a point at the end of a phrase or sentence, check to see if the audience got what you said. Avoid scanning the audience, choose one person at a time to speak to, and the entire audience will feel as if you’re talking to them.
  7. Breathe and Slow Down. These are the two things that will most quickly improve your ability to speak effectively to an audience. No doubt, having lots of pairs of eyes on you is freaky and stressful, and you’ll probably start to breathe in a very shallow way, and speak as fast as you can so you can get this over with. This is normal, so don’t beat yourself up for being a freak. Breathing more deeply will send needed oxygen to your brain and nervous system telling them to calm down. Pauses and breaks are great ways to give your audience time to process what you’ve said.
  8. Be Prepared, not perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist, and straining to be perfect will squeeze the life out of your presentation and squelch your natural ability to carry on a conversation with your audience.
  9. Choose your visual images carefully. Less equals more. Go easy on the bullet points, and please don’t just read exactly what’s on your screen without elaborating. If you have to use bulleted lists - at least reveal them as you speak about them, otherwise everyone will stop listening to you while they are reading what’s on your screen. Use real world examples and talk about real situations. Check out Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen for more tips.
  10. Practice. A lot. Period. I’ve come across a lot of people who feel that if they practice too much, their presentation will come off as “too rehearsed.” The most calm, relaxed, conversational presenters you’ll see have rehearsed A LOT to look that effortless. It’s hard work, and takes time, but as long as you rehearse, connect to your words, have passion for your subject, and carry on a conversation with your audience, you’ll come across as genuine and knock it out of the park.

A Minute of Silence Please

Ok, maybe not a full minute, but how about a few seconds? When speaking in front of a group, most people find it difficult to get comfortable taking a pause in their speech at all. As the person getting the focus of the entire room, it can feel like you could drive a Mack truck through any pauses you take.

Its easy to feel that if you’re not speaking every second that somehow the audience might get bored. You might feel the pressure to deliver your words rapid fire - as if you’ll lose your reputation for being the subject matter expert if take a pause.

The funny thing is - taking a pause and taking your time will give the impression that you really ARE the expert - as you’re not worried about trying to prove it to anyone.

So, take a breath, take your time, remember to pause - particularly if it feels like a big challenge. Practice it as you run through your speech out loud - finding appropriate places to pause.

This is your time - be wise with how you shape it. Give your audience time to process what you’re saying - they’ll be thankful.