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Practice Makes Better

Like everything in life, when we practice speaking, we get better. We don’t get perfect, but that is not what we are striving for. Perfect sounds fake and looks impersonal. Better is about highlighting our natural talents and employing a few audience-engaging techniques such as voice variation, pauses, and meaningful body language.

We get the chance to practice written and interpersonal communication as a regular part of our job, but most of us do not speak formally to a crowd on a daily basis. When we do get the opportunity to speak, we need to set aside the time to practice in order be as effective as we are at our daily communication. Beyond organizing content, looking over slides, and thinking through talking points, there are ways to practice that help us improve.

Of course, I recommend working with a communication coach as that is my livelihood. In addition, there are several things we can do that help memorize the content and to condition our bodies to perform effectively. I categorize these into three groups of tips:

  1. Practicing in daily life
  2. Getting feedback
  3. Over dramatizing

Say Your Speech During Daily Life Tasks

Once we have a good sense of our talking points, we can incorporate practice into our daily life. That helps us find the best wording and get really comfortable with our content and flow. We can say our speech, or parts of our speech, out loud when doing the dishes, working out, going for a hike, or driving in our car. While we are doing this, we will not say the same things we wrote for our talking points and that is actually beneficial. We will find the words that are most natural for us and still get the concepts across. I also recommend practicing a speech right before bedtime as the brain solidifies knowledge while we sleep.

Get Feedback from Yourself and Others

Even when you are getting feedback from a coach, it is helpful to get additional feedback from other sources. Sharing your speech, or parts of your speech, with friends and family helps you to simplify your content for a general audience and gives you reactions from a variety of perspectives. It may feel awkward in the moment to practice in front of others, but it makes us more at ease on speech day. While we are our own worst critics, or maybe because we are our own worst critics, it is helpful to record and review our speeches. I recommend both audio and video recording. Capturing just the words, on Voice Memos or other devices gives, us information about our enunciation, pitch variation, pace variation, and pauses. Video gives us information about our body language and helps us get our verbal and nonverbal communication in alignment. We can see our facial expressions and note if our hand motions are adding to or detracting from our words. I also recommend practicing in front of a mirror so we can get instant input and can immediately adjust what we are doing.

Over Dramatize to Calm Nerves

Everyone gets nervous when speaking. Some feel that energy as positive and some feel it as dread. If you fall into the dread category, adding a bit of drama to your practice can lighten you up. Try taking your content and singing it to a tune from a toddler song, like the ABCs or Itsy-Bitsy Spider. It will make you laugh, and you will remember your talking points. If your voice is monotone or cracks when you are nervous, try saying your talking points in a whisper and then really loud. We can also do this dramatization with our body language, making big facial expressions and big hand motions, exaggerating our movements. Adding drama during practice makes us more comfortable with ourselves when we present.

Practice makes better. We can count on giving better speeches using these strategies. May you enjoy experimenting and feel more at ease giving audience-engaging speeches.

The Sounds of Good Listening

We may think of listening as a silent activity, but good listening includes a surprising number of verbal responses. It is helpful to think of listening as distinct components so we can analyze our own listening skills and recognize good listening in others. Listening, the process of paying full attention to someone speaking, includes three elements, each with two components: the affective element with the components of empathy and engagement, the cognitive element with the components of attention and comprehension, and the behavioral element with the nonverbal and verbal components.

Homing in on the verbal component of listening behavior, there are the small sounds/words we utter, the phrases we state, and the questions we ask. Usually, these verbalizations occur in some combination. Always, the purpose of the verbal component of listening is to encourage the speaker to continue or to clarify/confirm understanding for the listener. Even though the listener is verbalizing, this component of listening focuses on the speaker. The “litmus” test of effectiveness is if the verbal behavior keeps the speaker talking. Here are examples of little words, helpful phrases, and curious questions that my communication coaching clients have found effective.

Little Words

The pitch and volume of these utterances can vary depending on the intent of the listener. For example, a higher pitch at the end connotes a question and louder volume adds emphasis.

  • Uh huh
  • Really
  • Wow
  • Got it
  • Interesting
  • Hmm
  • Huh
  • OK

Helpful Phrases

Longer phrases encourage the speaker to provide more detail or to clarify/confirm some element of their communication. The purpose of rephrasing what was heard is not to prove the listener is good at memorizing, but to give the speaker a chance to clarify their message based on feedback.

  • Thank you for sharing.
  • I appreciate your perspective.
  • I appreciate the information.
  • It is clear you have researched this topic.
  • So, what you are saying is <rephrase what your heard>
  • What I heard was <rephrase what your heard>
  • It seems as though <phrase what was inferred but not directly stated>

Curious Questions

Open-ended questions allow the speaker to continue the conversation in the direction they see most fit. On the other hand, specific questions serve the needs of the listener to clarify or expand upon points of interest – this is a good conversation technique, but not a listening technique. Curious and open-ended questions are designed to encourage the sharing of more information that the speaker deems relevant.

  • Can you tell me more?
  • What else have you discovered?
  • What else might be possible?
  • What else could we explore?
  • What have we yet to consider?

Combinations

Here are some effective combinations of the sounds, phrases, and questions.

  • Got it. <Rephrase idea>. Did I hear that correctly?
  • Thank you for sharing. Can you tell me more?
  • What I heard was <rephrase idea>.   My initial reaction is <emotion-not thought>. What I would like to know more about it is <element you are most curious about>.
  • Hmm. It seems like you may be feeling/thinking/considering <state what is inferred but not spoken>. Might that be the case?

Uttering small sounds and words, stating helpful phrases, and asking curious, open-ended questions comprise the verbal behavior of listening that supports the speaker in sharing information they seek to convey. I encourage you to try out the examples above and send me other examples that have worked well for you. Keep listening – it makes communication better and it makes life more interesting!

Keep It Simple: Top Three Tricks

We have all had the experience of reading or hearing something and having no idea what it means, making us either feel stupid or stop paying attention or both. Good communicators use simple language to help others understand their message, especially when communicating complex or technical topics.

Just yesterday I read on my Twitter feed, “In response to today’s coronal mass ejection (CME) from Region 2887 associated with the X1 flare a G2 (moderate) watch is in effect . . .”

     What do I do with that information?

Climate change advocates are explaining carbon neutral as, “. . . when anthropogenic CO2 emissions are balanced globally by anthropogenic CO2 removals over a specified period.”

     When was the last time you used anthropogenic in a sentence?

At a conference I heard a speaker say, “Create the environment without conspicuously otherizing people with the difference.”

     How many times do I have to repeat that back to myself to figure out what it means?

Here are simplified examples of the above statements that are easier to understand.

  • We might see gorgeous lights in the sky called an Arora because of an electrical storm.
  • Balancing out the carbon dioxide we put in the air with the carbon dioxide we take out is called carbon neutral.
  • Make everyone feel included without pointing out differences.

Keeping our communication simple helps people understand better and it does not offend those who may already have an understanding. Here are the top three tricks for keeping it simple.

Top Three Tricks to Keep it Simple

  1. Use Everyday Language

Think of explaining something to a recent high school graduate with no job experience. Using words and phrases they would understand is everyday language. We can write out our message and then edit it to reword anything that requires a dictionary or an internet search.

  1. Avoid Jargon and Acronyms

People outside of a specific industry are totally lost with jargon and acronyms. Take for example the acronym EMT; it can mean ‘emergency medical technician’ or ‘electrical mechanical tubing’ depending on the industry. Both ‘exercise induced asthma’ and ‘environmental impact assessment’ are abbreviated as EIA. Even people within a specific industry need to spend more time figuring out what something means when jargon and acronyms are used.

  1. Explain with Stories

Stories bring ideas to life. When we share situations where something relevant happened, people are more likely to understand our ideas. When I tried to explain to a friend how my AeroPress was not working, I failed to gain understanding until I told a story of coffee spurting out in all directions as I tried to make my morning caffeine fix. 

Wise words taken from a symposium on science communication remind us, “We cannot afford to assume that the public, or even sometimes our colleagues, will understand our science without investing some effort into the manner of its delivery.”

We want to communicate in a way that makes our audience easily understand our ideas, and most definitely not feel stupid. Using the top three tricks of everyday language, no jargon, and story explanations keeps our communication simple and our audiences engaged.

Getting Comfortable with Discomfort Makes us Better Communicators

Fear of public speaking, conflict avoidance, dread of delivering bad new – many communication interactions can lead us to a sense of discomfort. Handling these tough interactions skillfully requires us practicing in order to get more comfortable with the discomfort. What typically happens is that emotions arise that throw us out of our prefrontal cortex of executive function and into our amygdala reptile brain of flight/fight/freeze. In that moment, we need the skills to reverse that phenomenon quickly so we have the wherewithal to cope. The skills required are awareness to notice what has happened and calming techniques to quickly reduce the adrenalin and restore equanimity. Let’s look at some of the situations that tend to get us riled and explore ways to practice with discomfort.

Discomfort Triggers

We’ve all heard that fear of public speaking is the number one phobia, so it is not surprising that it causes discomfort. Giving a speech puts us in a vulnerable position of being judged by others, which can trigger emotions of fear and unworthiness. While it is true that many people feel significant discomfort when they are giving a speech, in my experience it is not the most common creator of discomfort in communication. The more frequent complaints I hear working with professionals as a communication coach are about the discomfort from dealing with conflict, giving criticism, and delivering bad news. These items have in common that they are confronting others one-on-one with the risk of hurting or insulting another person. Because we as humans have such a strong need to feel a sense of belonging, we to strive to create connection. Confrontation risks breaking connection and therefore triggers discomfort.

Practice with Discomfort

Engaging in interactions that create discomfort is one way to practice, but that is high risk until we have mastered the awareness and emotional regulation. It is better to first practice being with discomfort outside of situations that generate discomfort. This requires imagining the situation with detailed visualization engaging all senses, then feeling the subsequent emotions arise and processing those emotions with a technique. Ways to practice listed here are all mindfulness techniques and can be used both in visualizations and in real life communication interactions that trigger discomfort.

Use the Breath to Calm the Body – Breathe in 4 counts, hold 4 counts, exhale 8 counts

“Breathing in, I know the feeling of despair is in me. Breathing out I know this is only one feeling and I am much more than one feeling.” Thich Nhat Hanh

IRL: Before going on stage to speak, pause, turn focus inward, and practice this breathing technique. As you are breathing out for the long period, silently say to yourself that you are much more than what you are feeling at this moment. Doing just three of these types of breath will calm your fight/flight/freeze physiological reactions and get you ready to do your best public speaking.

Approach with Curiosity – What might happen? How can I be with that?

“When you see the beginnings of a healthy conflict, you should lean into it. Say, ‘That’s interesting, this feels productive. Let’s talk about it.’ It signals that you are intentionally fostering ideas.” Jack Altman, CEO of Lattice from First Round Review article, The Ultimate Guide to Running Executive Meetings.

IRL: When somebody disagrees with your idea in a meeting, pause and notice the initial reaction, take a breath, and then intentionally shift to being curious. The first thing that comes out of your mouth should be a genuine question. For example, “Hmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way before, can you explain your thought process so I can fully understand?”

RAIN – Recognize what is happening;  Allow it to be; Investigate with kindness; Nurture it

“The RAIN technique is a simple, yet highly effective way of tuning into our inner world and creating a pause between the stimulus of the outside world and our reaction.” Tara Brach

IRL: Delivering bad news, such as letting an employee go or telling a client the goal was not met, is a good time to use the RAIN technique. When developing talking points, pay attention to feelings without pushing them away. Let the emotions guide what you are going to say. Then in the moment, honor your feelings and those that are likely to arise in the other person, in order to be with the discomfort of the situation without any pretense that things should be otherwise.  

The purpose of practicing outside of the moment is to experience the reaction and repeat the process over and over until we feel more comfortable with it. We practice until we feel comfortable with the rising of emotions and the mechanisms of calming the emotions so we can interact skillfully. Think of it like practicing a tennis serve or a basketball show – repetition is what makes our bodies build muscle memory and it give us a level of comfort.

Over time, practicing being with discomfort will increase our comfort with the human process of having strong emotions arise and modulating those emotions so that we can make clear decisions and communicate skillfully. Then in the moment, being comfortable with discomfort, we can stand strong and grounded on stage and belt out our opinions on a subject, we can approach conflict with the true desire to understand another’s perspective, we can share criticism in a way it can be heard as caring, and we can deliver bad news with the presence that allows space for all emotions.