Play the Part: Master Body Signals to Connect and Communicate for Business Success - Gina Barnett (2015)
Part II. PRESENCE IS A SKILL NOT A GIFT
Chapter 8. Presentation or Conversation? The Style of Delivery
“Make sure you have finished speaking before your audience has finished listening.”
One aspect of presence is the ability to fluidly move between the varied “yous” with ease. The overly used word authentic—as in “authentic leadership,” be your “authentic self”—is really a misnomer, because in truth there is no single “authentic” you. If there is, which is it? Is it the one who promises, indeed swears, to get up at 5:30 a.m. and go to the gym, or the one who, when the alarm goes off, pushes the snooze button and sleeps for another hour? Both are you. Both are the true “authentic” you. Certainly, regarding such things as currency and pharmaceuticals, authentic versus bogus is vital and clear, but when it comes to people, we enter entirely different realms of complexity. Every one of us consists of multiple selves. Each person has several styles, countless communicative talents and deficiencies that become manifest in constantly shifting situations.
If we eliminate the word presentation, as I recommend, and replace it with conversation, when you do “present,” what kind of conversation do you want to have? Which style of you is being called upon to communicate: the formal, relaxed, challenging, inspirational, urgent? The appropriate style depends upon several things: the audience, the situation, the purpose, and the content. We don’t explain complex concepts to five-year-olds the way we do to subject experts. We organically know how to tailor our delivery, approach, vocabulary, and tone to suit the needs of our audience. That’s not being inauthentic; it’s understanding that to connect we must have diverse styles of delivery.
Many clients have asked me, “But how can I know what the audience expectations are?” You can’t always. But you can know your objectives, and those will, in part, determine your style of delivery. And given the situation, you can pretty much grasp what the audience will be hoping for as well. The types of questions that I’m typically asked are too numerous to list. Here’s a brief sample: “How should I dress?” “What if I get thirsty?” “I usually pace and like to walk around. Is that OK?” “Should I stand behind or beside the podium?” “Can I hold the podium?” “Can I have notes?” “Should I memorize or just know my bullets?”
The answer to each is quite specific, but for general purposes, I offer three simple words: do your research.
PPPPP: PRIOR PLANNING PREVENTS POOR PERFORMANCE
Investigate. Whenever possible, get into the space where you will be having your “conversation” well ahead of time to see what it feels and looks like. If you’ll be in a boardroom or conference room, find out what the seating arrangement will be. I recently coached a group of senior executives for board and trustee presentations. It was a large national organization, with many trustees on the elderly side, and the speakers told me that at times it’s been a challenge to keep the trustees awake. I asked to see the boardroom. It was a huge windowless room, beige, with wall-to-wall carpeting and padded fabric walls! No wonder people slip off to the land of nod; it was like walking into a nursery! But having seen the room and discovered its muffled acoustics, we spent the next three days redesigning everyone’s presentations to make them dynamic, brief, targeted, and fun. We found ways to get the board members to stay engaged by having the presenters ask questions; we practiced ways that presenters could move around the space and not be stuck behind the podium; we replaced data with stories; we used novel images and fun visuals to liven up the decks; we shortened the presentations and made time for dialogue, and we used the key message structure. In short, we adapted and adjusted. It was the first time in recent memory that no one slept!
TRY THIS: BE PREPARED
Make your list of questions. Here are some ideas to get you started on your research. Is there a stage? A podium? Will people be behind desks or not? If there will be a slide presentation, where will the projector be? What equipment will be provided? Will any technology be used, and if so, what is it? Where will you need to stand so that you are not moving in front of the light source and creating a shadow? Will you deliver seated or standing? If you need to advance your slides, is there a remote or clicker? If not, how will you advance the slides? Will water be available, and if so, in what sort of container? What are the acoustics of the room like? Is the sound bright and crisp or muffled and flat?
These may all seem like tiny details, but as they say, the devil is in the details. How many times have you sat through a presentation, unable to see a section of a slide because the speaker was blocking it or casting a shadow over it? As a speaker, you want as much as is possible to be in the driver’s seat, and the first step is to know what you’ll be driving.
Jewelry that jingles, earrings that dangle and collide with a head mike, bangs that hide your eyes, hair that falls into your face, glasses that slip down your nose, clothes that are uncomfortable—there are countless distractors that can pull your and your audience’s focus as well as impact your comfort and credibility. Only by knowing everything you can ahead of time about all the physical factors of both yourself and the space can you hope to have some mastery over how you will, as they say in the theater, “take stage.” (Keep in mind that you are “taking stage” from the moment you leave your seat until you arrive at the spot where you’ll deliver. How you walk to that space, how you stand once you get there, how you look around and connect—all will be observed.)
The first 15 to 30 seconds of any delivery need to be very well practiced. Adrenalin usually floods the body, so it’s crucial to rehearse so as to address that chemical shift. My chief recommendation is to have the opening of your text so thoroughly embedded in mind and body that no matter what happens, it can be delivered without even thinking. Those first few seconds can really feel like an out-of-body experience. If you have your opening two or three sentences down cold, as in you-could-say-them-in-your-sleep solid, they’ll roll off your tongue with no thought, giving you the time to adjust to the room, the audience, and your own metabolic shift. During those first few moments, the audience also needs time to get used to you, your style, tone, pace, accent, voice, appearance, and gestures. That first half-minute is a mini-duet of all parties feeling each other out. After a minute or so, speakers tend to relax and find their stride, the body calms down, and tension recedes. Then the fun can begin!
TRY THIS: DOWN COLD
Memorize the opening two to three sentences of your talk. Sing them. Say them 20 times as rapidly as you possibly can. Say them in your mind as you walk down the street. Say them when you wake up and right before you go to sleep. Turn on the radio and say them while the radio plays. Do not memorize the tone, emphasis, inflection—just the words.
Each delivery style needs to be tailored to the content, context, and goals of the event. Some must be more formal, others relaxed. At TED, for example, the standard rule for men is no ties (though some have refused to obey!). It’s a high-stakes presentation in a relaxed atmosphere.
One of my clients, an advertising agency, had made pitches through several levels of a large, urban institution. The presenters had a final one to give, to the chairman of the board. “Have you Googled him?” I asked. They hadn’t. We looked at the chairman’s bio, and I insisted that for this final pitch, they all had to wear ties. “We never wear ties. Ever,” one pushed back. “You will tomorrow,” I insisted. “This is a very conservative man from another generation, who will immediately note your sartorial choices.” They wore ties; they got the client. Would they have anyway? Quite possibly. But by briefly shifting their style to align more closely with that of the prospective client, they removed one potential hurdle. (A banker client who is a serious watch collector told me how careful he is when selecting which watch to wear for a given client: Rolex for his business deals in Switzerland, Timex for those in Ohio, and never the reverse. I think of this as situational presence, shifting one’s style to suit the situation.)
TRY THIS: STYLE SELECTION
I recommend getting answers to as many of the following questions as possible ahead of time to help determine your delivery style: Why are you the designated presenter? Is it your knowledge, role, reputation, relationship? What is the style and tenor of the event? Even if you are a speaker who is introducing someone else, why have you been selected to do so? How can that small detail shape your remarks?
Answering these questions will help you prepare your presentation:
✵ What is the main story you wish to tell?
✵ What are the three most important points you want your listeners to remember?
✵ If you could deliver only one critical message, what would it be? Why?
✵ Return to key messaging: What is the purpose and/or business imperative of the meeting or discussion?
✵ Who is the intended audience, and what are the audience’s expectations?
✵ Who else might or will be present?
✵ Is the audience specific or general? Casual or formal?
✵ What will the members of the audience know already?
✵ What will they want or need to know in addition to that?
✵ Was a detailed preread or backup deck sent to the audience members? Will they have read it and want it addressed?
✵ Is interaction expected? If so, will this be an audience receptive to open-ended questions? What questions might the audience have?
✵ Is there a distinct time for Q&A?
✵ Will people be participating virtually? If so, how?
✵ Are there other speakers?
- What is the order of the speakers?
- What time will you be speaking?
- How long are you expected to speak?
✵ Is there a theme that you need to weave into your content?
✵ Is there a dress code?
✵ Will the event be video-recorded? And if so, what is the best attire for that? (No stripes!)
✵ What is your close? Will it be a call to action? A summary? A quote?
Anything that can be found out and answered ahead of time should be considered. Based on your previous experiences, it’s highly recommended to customize your own list of questions, so that you can get the answers beforehand.
Once you’ve written your text, it is essential to read it out loud. Words on paper have a very different ring and sound than spoken words. Do the words flow? Are they easy to pronounce? Do they feel right in the mouth? Is the vocabulary appropriate for the given situation and audience? Read it, edit it, and reread it aloud. This process may require several iterations, but each draft should get you closer to the final copy.
HOW TO REHEARSE
Once you have your final draft, read it aloud while seated and then do so while standing. Notice if, while on your feet, you move randomly. Put newspaper under your feet. If you shift your weight or unconsciously step backward and forward, the newspaper will crunch. That’s a good indication you may be moving from nerves and without intention. As you speak aloud, notice the places in the text where you’d like to put greater emphasis. Mark those places in the script. Underline them or use a highlighter. Note language that is not crystal clear or where it’s overwritten or repetitive. Words said aloud have a very different impact than those read off a page. They are embodied and as a result have much greater “sticking power.” Revise your text so it is as clear and concise as possible. Imagine a question, and answer it. Practice, practice, practice. The best communicators became the best from practice!
After you’ve rehearsed by yourself, it can be very helpful to gather a small audience of colleagues or friends to watch your talk ahead of time. If you decide to have a practice audience, make sure to discuss beforehand the goals of the rehearsal itself. Will the audience give you feedback on the content, clarity, and organization? On your delivery style? Are the people in your audience there to role-play Q&A? Are they there to watch or listen for any physical or vocal habits you are trying to correct? Rehearsals can serve multiple purposes, but are most helpful when the goals are clearly stated in advance by you, the speaker. Also, the format for providing feedback should be established at the beginning. One helpful structure is called observation-impact-suggestion. For example, with observation: “I noticed you looked at the floor a lot.” Impact: “It made me wonder if you had forgotten your text.” Suggestion: “Try making eye contact with us with your focus shifting to a few different people around the room.” Here’s another example: Observation: “I noticed you turned your back to us a lot so that you could see the screen behind you.” Impact: “I couldn’t hear you when you turned away.” Suggestion: “Try glancing at your notes or a computer in front of you so you aren’t turning away so much.”
Concerning audience feedback, it’s essential to request that the language used be clear and supportive and deliver actionable suggestions. Insensitively worded critiques can really devastate a speaker, especially a nervous one! As the speaker, make sure that you establish the feedback guidelines so as to help and not hinder your confidence. If someone delivers a critique that only makes you feel worse, ask for suggestions that can help to remediate what the person observed. If the person doesn’t know how to fix the problem, then ask him or her to reword the feedback in a way that can be actionable or incorporated on your end. Observe the difference: “You look like a nervous wreck pacing all over the place” versus “Moving around is OK, especially for a reason. Stillness has a lot of power too. See if you can find moments to be still.” The slightest difference in the delivery of a critique can have significant impact. As the person requesting a rehearsal audience, make sure that you set very clear expectations for feedback.
TRY THIS: OBSERVATION-IMPACT-SUGGESTION
Before a practice rehearsal with friends or colleagues, teach them “Observation-Impact-Suggestion” and do a trial run before delivering your talk to make sure everyone understands the practice.
While onstage, actors can see what’s going on backstage, but no matter what they see, they have to stay inside the world of the play. While delivering a consistent performance, they also have to make night-by-night, moment-by-moment adjustments to suit the particulars of each audience. Beyond being aware of their own performance, they also need to be sensitive to the small adjustments their fellow actors are making. In other words, there are multiple levels of observation and reaction going on simultaneously. This may sound impossible, but it’s one of the most thrilling aspects of live performance. Every sense is heightened, alert, connected.
When speaking publicly, the same degree of focus, along with instant adjustments, is required. To connect with an audience, you have to take the audience members in, not shut them out. To communicate effectively, you have to be keenly aware of all the signals coming your way and adjust accordingly. On the other hand, it is very important not to project onto the audience what you think may be going on. Once, when I was teaching a course in presentation skills, my video camera stopped working in the middle of someone’s presentation. I was worried about not capturing the footage but didn’t want to interrupt the speaker. Without my realizing it, I began to frown. The speaker, having noticed me frowning but not knowing why, assumed I was angry at him. This completely threw him. His focus was split between his speech and his worry over my presumed “anger.” He lost his train of thought, and it took him time to regain his composure. (This was all revealed during the postdelivery critique.)
That said, there is a very delicate balance between acutely observing the signals coming at you from the audience and accurately assessing them in the moment. Try not to assume or project upon flat facial expressions. Some people listen with very blank expressions; others with very reactive faces. Some listen by staring at the ceiling, or closing their eyes. On the other hand, if you feel as though you are not connecting, pause. Briefly. Take a breath; make eye contact; vary your vocal pace and energy. Do whatever possible to bring yourself back to yourself and bring along others who are with you. Again, remember, most frequently it is tension that blocks connection. Whatever you can do to relax and remove whatever is preventing the connection will only increase your bond with the audience.
IT’S NOT PERSONAL
Often when clients have to give a speech or present to senior management, they’re extremely worried about how they’ll come across, if they’ll get a question they can’t answer, if their request will be rejected or their suggestions ignored, contradicted, or even belittled. They become consumed with anxiety. I pose a hypothetical situation: “If I come to your house and you offer me a bowl of fruit and I decline it, I even say I don’t like fruit, am I rejecting you or the fruit?”
“The fruit,” they say.
“Is it possible in your role at work to think the same way? Imagine you are bringing senior management some fruit; if they reject it—as in they do not take your idea—is that a rejection of you or your idea?”
“But the idea is mine! I thought it up.”
“Really?” I ask. “Is any idea really yours?”
It really makes waves when I question this notion of “ownership.” Everything we know has been learned, borrowed, and built upon. Yes, we have ideas all the time, but the fierce attachment to this is “my” idea feels a lot to me like a three-year-old refusing to share. Our ideas, intelligence, original creations all exist on a continuum and exist in relation to what has come before and will come well after us. (A great book, E=mc2: The Biography of a Formulaby David Bodanis, explores how even Einstein’s brilliant and astonishing discovery grew out of a continuum of insights going back 200 years! A great read, which I highly recommend.) When we identify with and insist upon sole ownership of our ideas, their rejection feels both personal and painful. But if our ideas are there to serve the greater good, are offered and then let go, the impact will be far different. If they are not about proving how smart, talented, and brilliant we are, we need not attach so fiercely to the reactions they get, whether positive or negative. Here is a fun, and some may argue wacky, way to conceptualize ideas: The idea borrowed your brain, used your voice, body, and communication skills as a medium of its expression. You were merely the agent, not the owner. This is a really hard one for most people to accept. We take pride in “our” intelligence, “our” advanced degrees, “our” acquired job titles. But consequently we feel terribly hurt or offended when “our” ideas are ignored or rejected, when “our” project is not approved. We personalize things, get all worked up, ruminate, become consumed by jealousy, depression, even rage.
Here the seeds of office politics take root. When egos take over, going to work becomes akin to doing battle. Conversely, when ideas, suggestions, and opinions are conceptualized as something being offered, that bowl of fruit again, and if indeed the fruit is rejected, ignored, or worse insulted, it is not you who is wrong or stupid or ignored. You are not the banana! That you are not the banana is clear as day to anyone. But when we merge with and insist upon ego ownership of what we offer, that’s when things become personal. That you are not your ideas is quite hard for most to grasp and accept, but definitely worth aiming for. It may sound somewhat utopian and even foolish, given how most of the world operates. Nonetheless I offer it as a concept to explore as a way to counteract taking things so personally. Many clients have reported that saying “I am not the banana” to themselves before a high-stakes presentation has not only relaxed them but turned fear into funny.
HANDLING Q&A: CURIOSITY OR CONFLICT
A client recently defined the culture of her organizations as a “gotcha” culture, meaning that questions asked following, or even interrupting, a presentation were meant to prove either how smart the questioner was or how misguided the speaker was. In other words, questions were not posed for clarification or new information but as a power play. Aggressive questions make everyone uneasy. If not held in check, that style can spread like the flu through an organization, making everyone vulnerable. Whenever possible, it is best to defuse that kind of behavior with active listening.
The term active listening has been in general use for some time. It requires that when asked a question, you don’t automatically begin to think of your answer before you’ve fully understood the core ask. You wait until the key concept of the question has been stated. Often questioners will ramble or cover a number of challenges before they get to the point. While listening, the speaker will begin to process-listen, or frame the response, and will no longer be actively listening to the questioner. After a prelude a questioner will usually have a turn word or phrase—why, when, what, where, how much, what if—followed by the core question. Wait for that turn word or phrase and listen acutely to what follows and then repeat the precise words at the very top of your answer. I repeat, say the precise words of the questioner at the beginning of your reply. What this does is tell the questioner, “I hear you, not my agenda.” It also repeats the question for those who may not have heard it, a great time-saver. There is no need to repeat the entire question. That can become quite tiresome. Just echo back the core. With aggressive questioning, active listening buys you time, as you repeat the core words, to gather your thoughts and frame your response. (Usually people buy time with pat statements such as “That’s a great question” or “Thanks for asking that.”) Repeating the precise core words honors the question, defuses defensiveness, and puts you on equal footing with the questioner. Again, due to the stress of Q&A and aggressive questions, it’s only natural for listening well to go out the window.
TRY THIS: PRACTICE REHEARSAL FOR EFFECTIVE Q&A WITH ACTIVE LISTENING
Active listening is an art and needs to be practiced. If you do a practice rehearsal, make sure you add that to your process. Ask your audience to ask questions, so that you can practice answering actively.
PREPLANNING VERSUS WRITING THE SCRIPT
Given that we are such excellent predictors, we often find ourselves “writing the script” before we’ve even encountered the situation. It’s a common outcome of working in a highly competitive or aggressive culture. What do I mean by that? Think of the number of times you’ve negatively imagined how a conversation will go, working yourself into a bit of a tizzy before you’ve had the conversation in reality. I’m differentiating that from positively imagining an outcome— as in the “Standing O” exercise in Chapter 1, which can be great practice when prepping for a challenging delivery. Also it differs from attempting to determine anticipatory or challenging questions. That’s called preplanning. “Writing the script,” as I define it, is different. It is essentially driven by anxiety or defensiveness and sets up an unconscious, imaginary antagonism.
For example, to get cast in a play, actors have to audition. Actors can imagine the outcome any number of ways. But often due to their needing work, or their vulnerability, they will imagine themselves at the “mercy” of an all-powerful director who will or won’t “allow” them to work. This imaginary script sets off a level of fear and subtle antagonism that can be sensed by a director, and it’s an automatic turnoff. A director has a short amount of time, a tight budget, and a massive amount to pull together before opening night. The director is looking for someone to solve problems, not to make more of them! Every director wants an actor to enter the audition room fully confident that he or she can serve the role, solve problems, and be a team player.
Is any job interview any different? Is any negotiation any different? Is any presentation followed by aggressive Q&A with senior management any different? All parties in these situations are looking for solutions, not problems. And yet! How often we “write a negative script” and turn the director, headhunter, boss, interviewer, audience, or questioner into an adversary. I used to tell my acting students that an audition is not about getting a job. That can and does happen, but perhaps for only 1 out of 50 or more auditions. To make those other 49 worthwhile, the actor needs to write another—positive—script, to look at auditioning as an opportunity to deliver any number of options: to meet new creative people, to make bold unexpected acting choices, to practice craft, to try a new point of view and frameshift, to focus out and assess the director for his or her style, to audition the room from the actor’s point of view, to be curious. The actor should strive to approach auditioning not as a desperate attempt to get a job but as inquiry, as that radically changes the experience. These exact same shifts in perspectives can be brought to a myriad of stressful business situations. In terms of style, its worthwhile to become aware of habitual negative scripts you write that may impact how you are perceived is worthwhile.
Additionally, when we come into a situation having “decided” the bottom line, or having “written” the script beforehand, we miss or ignore vast amounts of information in the present. The tunnel vision that results eliminates our ability to perceive opportunities that relaxed curiosity can reveal. If the stakes are high and fight or flight kicks in, the ability to manage that response with wonder and curiosity is powerful. Indeed, to be curious about one’s counterpart in any high-stakes conversation, negotiation, Q&A, or conflict is one of the most effective ways to connect. To be curious immediately changes the dynamic and creates avenues for unanticipated exchange, connection, and communication. We know so little about one another; by boxing ourselves in and “writing the script” ahead of time, we leave very little wiggle room for finding alternatives. Curiosity is about being open to another’s reality without assuming you know anything. It is magic. And for a “gotcha” culture, it is the best way to avoid feeling “caught.”
What language might be used to defuse the stress of any of the contexts described above: interviews, negotiations, aggressive Q&A after a delivery? Consider the appropriate style and the objectives of the exchange. Vocabulary can have a huge impact on the outcome of any exchange. Seek words that are inclusive and respectful and that engender the free flow of ideas rather than stubborn insistence. To counter aggression or challenges with curiosity requires practice and forethought.
TRY THIS: KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING
Write a list of aggressive, challenging, or even borderline insulting questions or remarks. Take some time and write answers or responses that address those remarks in a way that won’t add fuel to the fire or seem defensive, but will encourage a deeper exploration of the subject. See how using such phrasing as “From your perspective, how might,” “I’m curious; what if we look at it like this,” “If I understand you correctly,” “What I’m hearing is,” “Might we consider?” Seek language and phrasing that don’t take the bait of the aggression, but also keep unpacking the differing opinions in a way that yields collaboration instead of combat.
If you use the key message template as a way to design a presentation deck, the acts of designing, editing, and structuring will only increase your familiarity with and grasp of the material you’ll be delivering. In that case, memorization won’t be necessary. Sometimes questions are asked during a presentation that require an answer well ahead of where you are in your delivery. The template, which allows for very clear and lean slides, will, like a road map, easily take you back to where you were. When you do catch up to the slide for which you’ve already answered the question, you’ll see that you’ve covered that material and can skip past it or very briefly reiterate as needed.
Regarding slide design itself, I always recommend simple and uncluttered slides. The simple reason is people cannot read and listen at the same time. If detailed or highly complex material needs to be delivered, it can be sent ahead as an advance preread presentation to those who will be in attendance. That way, audience members can give proper time, thought, and attention to what you will be delivering, which will be more of an “executive” summary. What do I mean by uncluttered? Lots of white space, crisp visuals, consistent fonts, bulleted items of five to seven words maximum so that the audience can quickly glance and grab the information without having to read. Less is more.
When delivering, the presentation deck will be ancillary to the detailed preread presentation document. The structure for the presentation deck should follow the key message template. The first slide would have your title with subtitle, name, and date. Before you delve into the content and while the title slide is up, introduce your metaphor or thematically related anecdote. Slide two would have your three key messages: situation (burning building); action (call fire department), result (prevent spread). They should be stated and not explained. What this does is prime the audience for the three most critical aspects of what you will discuss: your main what, your greatest recommended action to address that what, and your most significant hoped-for result. You are also telling the audience right at the beginning what your reason is for your recommended actions. Slide three would detail the situation, the what. It would list in bullet form the critical aspects of the situation for that given audience. For example, it would describe the relevant and prioritized aspects of the burning building. Four to five bulleted items of five to seven words should suffice. These are your talking points and are on the slide to allow the audience to quickly grab the key concepts visually while listening to you explain the situation in detail. Slide four would then state the actions, the hows, to address the burning building. Slide five, the reasons why. The last slide could be next steps or a call to action. I’ve found that a summary is not necessary when the content is so clearly laid out. This design can even be delivered on a single slide as a guideline for conversation.
Whatever design you choose to implement, designing well ahead of time for a given audience becomes a kind of mental rehearsal. It is essential to speak it out loud to craft transitional language between the slides and to see if what you’ve created flows logically. Remember to practice and choose a style that suits the audience and the situation.
Chapter 8: Presentation or Conversation? The Style of Delivery
✵ Be Prepared—do advance work ahead of any speech, talk, or presentation
✵ Down Cold—ensure memorization of opening remarks to navigate adrenalin rush
✵ Style Selection—research in advance to meet audience expectations
✵ Observation-Impact-Suggestion—technique for effective critique
✵ Practice Rehearsal for Effective Q&A with Active Listening—get in shape
✵ Keep the Conversation Going—manage aggressive questions