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    Seducing better communication from your team

    Please enjoy my most recent podcast interview for Art of the CEO where I answer a number of questions on how to be an effective corporate communicator as well as establish a "culture of confidence." The podcast episode is called: Seducing better communication from your team. Listen Here

      Everything You Need to Know About Making Virtual Meetings Less Awkward

      This piece was originally published by Inc. Remote meetings come with their own unique set of etiquette guidelines. It seems like we're all spending more and more time communicating virtually with our colleagues, friends, and family. Yet while these conference calls and web presentations allow us more frequent interactions across greater distances than ever before, often they're missing something. Because we lack visual clues and a sense of connection, we are left feeling frustrated, unsatisfied, and perhaps even unfulfilled with our virtual communication. So, how can we become better virtual communicators? In the absence of visual cues, the two most important factors we can leverage are what are known as prosodic behaviors and vocal quality, says Joshua Feast, the head of Cogito Corporation, a spinoff of MIT's Media Lab, which focuses on technology that helps people understand what transpires during virtual interactions as well as how to improve the quality and satisfaction with those interactions. Prosodic behaviors, he says, include actions such as turn-taking, interaction-pacing, and listening. By intentionally incorporating these behaviors into your interactions, you can create a more balanced two-way conversation in which everyone involved feels more connected, invested, and, ultimately, satisfied with the outcome. Vocal quality refers to the tonal variation in what you say as well as the perceived strain in your voice--that is, does what you say sound forced and rehearsed, or natural, spontaneous, and authentic? Feast's cofounder at Cogito, Sandy Pentland, calls these clues "honest signals" because they are largely unconscious and uncontrolled. And Feast adds that we often focus exclusively on the content of what we say and not the manner in which we say it. This explains why an excited entrepreneur nevertheless can come across as flat when he delivers his well-rehearsed WebEx pitch, or the seasoned executive is perceived as disinterested when she presents her earnings conference call. In both situations, they are likely so focused on their content, they aren't even aware of their delivery. One-to-many Communication Cogito's research suggests that presenters communicating in a one-to-many manner (think web meeting) should consider two best practices: First, focus on the variation aspects of vocal quality--variety in tonal dynamics (e.g., controlled vs. excited) and pace (e.g., faster vs. slower). This type of variety is what makes you sound interesting and engaging and helps your audience avoid habituating to your speaking style, which in turn keeps them focused on what you're saying. Second, Feast says, it can help even in one-to-many situations to employ prosodic behaviors to connect with you audience. "It's on you [as the presenter] to take time to check in with your participants," he says. "It's going to be one-sided, but the less one-sided, the better. Stop and let people in to ask questions, etc." Collaborative Communication Interactions For collaborations, such as conference call meetings with a virtual team of four to seven members working together, Feast suggests that you strive for equal (balanced) participation over the course of the interaction. This means you need to be disciplined about allowing others to contribute. Additionally, you should value the contribution of others to let them know you care about their experience. He recommends three ways to show your gratitude for contributions:
      • Acknowledgement: verbally recognizing the contribution (e.g., "thank you for your input")
      • Feedback: commenting on, extending, or replaying a summary of someone's contribution (e.g., "that reminds me of what we discussed earlier when..." or "so what you are saying is...")
      • Non-verbal confirmations: sounds like "uh-huh," "ah, yes," and "mmmm"
      Often virtual communicators have a goal for how they want to be perceived -- you can modify your behaviors to help achieve that goal. For example: If you wish to be seen as caring and compassionate, try mirroring the tone and speaking rate of those with whom you are communicating. Additionally, listen actively by paraphrasing and confirming what you are hearing. Feast says these behaviors give your audience the feeling that you are "in tune" with them, which breeds connection, liking, and trust. If you wish to come off as competent and "in command," speak concisely with even pacing and a steady tone. Specifically, try to say less and avoid rushing to get your points across; this makes you appear more confident and comfortable being in charge. Also, allow others to put forward their ideas, too. In the end, with a little bit of careful thought about how you use your voice--including demonstrating vocal variety, active listening, and turn-taking, as well as acknowledgement--you can make up for the natural deficiencies of virtual communication. Plus, you will benefit from the added bonus that your communication will be more efficient and more satisfying--both for you and for others.

        Think Fast. Talk Smart

        Communication is critical to success in business and life. In my recent TEDx talk, you will learn techniques that will help you speak spontaneously with greater confidence and clarity, regardless of content and context.

          Be Thanked for Running a Great Meeting

          This piece was originally published by Huffington Post. How many dental appointments can you pretend to have in one month before your boss questions you? The answer is five. You see, I used this excuse (among many others) to get out of a regular meeting that I was supposed to attend during my first job right out of graduate school. This meeting -- like many meetings -- was a massively inefficient waste of time. I would go to great lengths to miss this weekly time-stealing abyss, including once letting air out of my car tires so that I would have to meet the tow truck when it arrived and thus avoid the dreaded meeting. But meetings don't have to be this way. It is possible for meetings to be effective and efficient. In fact, you can actually structure and run meetings that people are excited to attend. But it takes preparation, a smooth preamble, and effective paraphrasing. In other words, you need to be mindful of the 3 P's. Prepare with an agenda that sets expectations.
          • • Send out an agenda in advance that includes not only the overall meeting objective, topics to be covered and time limits, but also contains a few questions people are to contemplate prior to attending. This sets expectations and signals from the very beginning that you expect involvement from attendees.
          • • If virtual (Web meeting or conference call), have a set time when people can login and make sure everything works. This allows you to hold your meeting without having to do simultaneous tech support.
          • • Practice your opening statements. Like a presentation, starting a meeting, especially if the stakes are high (e.g., senior leaders are present, critical decisions are to be made, or tension exists among the participants), can be nerve-wracking. A great way to feel more confident and less anxious is to be comfortable with how you are going to start. Consider an opening that greets people and checks to see if anyone has additional items to cover.
          Provide a preamble to orient participants.
          • • Set ground rules at the beginning to help your meeting participants' interact. Ground rules should explain what is expected of people (e.g., cell phones off, laptops closed) and perhaps the consequences of noncompliance.
          • • For virtual meetings, tell people how they are to contribute. For example, should they use the chat feature on a web conference, or should teleconference participants state their names before speaking to avoid confusion.
          • • Clearly explain the purpose of the meeting, what will likely happen as a result of the meeting (and when it will happen), and how people will be kept informed after the meeting.
          Paraphrase during the meeting to boost engagement.
          • • Within any given meeting topic, connect participants' contributions to each other and your agenda via paraphrasing (e.g., "so what I hear you saying links with what 'so-and-so' said..."). By linking what participants have said, people stay focused and see ideas building off of each other.
          • • When moving from one point to another, sum up what was said (perhaps also capture it via note taking) and transition to what is next (e.g., "now that we have covered agenda item 1, let's focus on our second topic.").
          • • Value the contributor as well as his or her contribution. Simple statements like "thank you for that comment" or "glad to hear from you" can help keep people on task and feeling invested in what's being said.
          • By invoking the 3 P's, you can increase the likelihood that your meetings will run smoothly. And if you reliably run your meetings in this manner, people not only will feel more inclined to attend and participate, they may even thank you when they leave.

            5 Tips to Be a More Impressive Speaker

            This piece was originally published by Inc.. A Stanford Business School professor offers a treasure trove of tips on how to be a better public speaker. If you're a shaky public speaker, your next big presentation offers so many things to be worried about. There's conceiving of and planning your speech, practicing it, keeping your nerves in check, actually presenting it, and dealing with audience questions, as well as any memory lapses that might trip you up. With this minefield, no wonder your nerves are on edge. Thankfully, there's plenty of advice out there on each of these aspects of giving a truly compelling presentation. And while they're usually spread across the internet, Insights by Stanford Business recently did less-than-supremely-confident speakers a favor, gathering up a mountain of presenting wisdom on public speaking from professor Matt Abrahams. Abrahams' comprehensive article covers everything from how to structure your speech to what to eat the night before, from how to deal with hostile audience questions to identifying and correcting your annoying verbal tics. Here's a sample of the wisdom on offer. 1. How can I be of service? Most of us focus on ourselves and our performance before giving a big speech or presentation. But that's the wrong location for your attention, according to Abrahams. To calm your nerves and boost the usefulness of your presentation, instead think of yourself as serving the audience and focus on their needs. "The most useful way I know to focus on your audience is to start by asking yourself the simple question: "What does my audience need to hear from me?" This not only helps you tailor your message to your audience, but it also reminds you that they are the ones in the spotlight. Make this question your mantra as you prepare and practice your presentations," he advises. 2. Hook them with emotion No matter how data-driven or arcane your subject, you still need to try to inject a little emotion into your speaking. Why? "Emotion sticks," writes Abrahams. "People remember emotionally charged messages much more readily than fact-based ones. In fact, modern scientists are finding that our emotional responses have a fast track to our long-term memory. So when possible, try to bring some emotion into your presentation, whether in the form of your delivery or the content itself." And no excuses that your speech on algae concentrations in local ponds just can't be made emotional. If it's worth talking about, there has to be a reason why, and that why is always at least a little emotional. "Even the most technical talks can have some emotional aspect, especially if you focus on the benefits or implications of the science or technology," says Abrahams. "Benefits are inherently emotional--saving time, saving money, saving trees, saving lives--these are things people care about." 3. Practice right "Many presenters don't practice properly," according to Abrahams. "They simply mentally rehearse or flip through a slide deck, passive approaches that don't really simulate the conditions of a presentation. To practice effectively, you also need to stand and deliver--even if you are presenting virtually, you need to physically stand up to project effectively. Rather than only thinking through a presentation, standing up and practicing your speech helps you remember it." Specifically, he recommends breaking down your presentation into bite-size bits and mastering them one by one. "One very useful technique called focused practice involves taking one aspect of your presentation--say, the introduction--and delivering it repeatedly until you become highly familiar and comfortable with it." 4. Eat right for success Food might not be the first thing on your mind when you're about to give a big speech, but according to Abrahams, eating right before a presentation can significantly improve your performance. "Like a long-distance runner carbo-loading for a marathon, you will find it helpful to eat certain foods--in this case, to facilitate memory formation and retention--ahead of your presentation," says Abrahams. "Complex carbohydrates, nuts, oils, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and foods that contain flavanols (such as grapes, berries, apples, and cocoa) are good choices. Avoid simple sugars and sweets because they provide a quick energy boost that is often followed by sluggishness and mental haziness." And when it comes to coffee, Abrahams adds, "Plan your caffeine consumption wisely: Caffeine facilitates creativity and productivity, but it also invites jitters, dry mouth, and flighty memory. It may make some sense to go for the triple mocha latte when you're preparing a speech, but it's not a good idea the day of." 5. Beat "up-talking" with breathing What's up-talking? That annoying habit of raising the pitch of your voice at the end of your sentences, making everything you say sound like a question. "Nothing can be more confusing (and annoying) to an audience as when a speaker makes an important point like 'our profits are expanding,' yet it sounds like 'our profits are expanding?'" insists Abrahams. To beat up-talking, Abrahams suggests you focus on your breathing. "If you are an up-talker, then you likely take a quick inhalation prior to the end of your sentences because you feel you are running out of air to support the remainder of your spoken thought. This inhalation is often followed by a rise in pitch. To address this, you need to practice what I term 'landing your sentences and phrases.' Rather than inhale close to the end of your sentences, focus on exhaling completely as you finish your thought."

              Anxious about work? You’re not alone

              This piece was originally published by BBC. When Nawaf Bitar gave a keynote address at a web security conference in 2013, he planned to use a Polaroid camera as a prop to illustrate how data centre software has become outdated. He just hoped the camera wouldn't fail him in front of 3,000 of his peers. “Oh yeah, I was nervous,” Bitar, now a senior vice president and general manager at software maker VMware, said from his office in Palo Alto, California. “In that first minute, you could probably detect the nervousness in my voice.” Snapping a picture, he compared data centre software to out-of-date gadgets that were once state of the art. “It’s a Polaroid in an Instagram world,” he told his audience.
              “The truth is everybody feels anxiety.” — Matt Abrahams
              His strategy worked. His speech is now taught at business schools as an example of how to hook an audience with a compelling introduction. And, Bitar overcame nerves that could have sunk him at the beginning of his talk. For many people, those kinds of jitters only come from public speaking. But for managers, anxiety can be treated with valium diazepam, an every-day challenge. New bosses may freeze up before delivering a poor performance review or trying to organise the previously unruly weekly staff meeting. Nerves are more common than you think. “Managers may feel like they’re alone in feeling this way, but the truth is everybody feels anxiety,” said Matt Abrahams, lecturer in organisational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business, in California. Crippling Anxiety can escalate quickly and be crippling. It might start with shaky hands, a wavering voice and a dry mouth. Some have difficulty focusing and experience a loss of breath. Others suffer excessive perspiration, and then become anxious about being sweaty, which compounds the problem. In the end, Abrahams said, it’s simply a panic-inducing feeling of losing control. Instead of worrying about sweating — like President Richard Nixon did during a 1960 debate — you can work to master your anxiety. Hold a cold glass of water to lower your body temperature. Take deep breaths to ward off the shakes and slow your breathing. And narrow your focus to what’s right in front of you. Think of anxiety-inducing events the same way football star Lionel Messi addresses a penalty kick. Before a shot that could define his career, Messi appears in control, calm and focused. The secret, Abrahams explained, is living in the moment. Don’t get hung up on what could go wrong. Don’t worry about what might happen if that Polaroid camera doesn’t work. Instead, when delivering a big speech concentrate on the first thing you’re going to say, then the next, all the way to the conclusion. Next, reframe the situation as a conversation. Whether you are in front of a hostile room of a thousand or need to deliver poor sales numbers to your team, think of it as a discussion you’re having with a few people you know. Practice what you’re going to say as if addressing acquaintances, with conversational language and a calm demeanour. All of this can be especially tough for new managers, said Richard Posthuma, chair in business administration and professor of management at University of Texas at El Paso. Few companies offer any training to deal with the pressure of being a boss; this often means the only way to learn is simply to experience difficult events. “New managers need to know how to deal with weighty things, and unfortunately, often times it’s just a matter of doing it over and over again,” Posthuma said. Is smiling the key? Remaining positive is also a big part of it. Research shows that if you tell your body to feel happy, you’ll have more self-confidence. Whether you’re giving an employee evaluation or walking into a staff meeting, doing it with a smile will have a positive effect on your staff, Posthuma said. A smile, of course won’t fix everything, like delivering bad news during a performance review. To overcome jitters, focus on the future. Tell the employee what went wrong but then turn it to what’s next. “The key is to explain that the future is not fixed,” Posthuma said. “You can take steps to make things better.” Bitar mastered his public-speaking anxiety in 1999, as a manager at Network Appliance, when he addressed 200 people at quarterly meetings. When he first took charge of running the meetings, he could sense his mouth getting dry and his breathing becoming shallow. Slowly, he learned to control the fear, something he did mostly by memorising about 90% of his speech. Now he concentrates on what he wants to convey, a virtual storyboard laid out in his mind. That was the tack he took for his 'Polaroid' speech at the 2013 RSA Conference in Singapore. Since then, Bitar has spoken to far larger crowds, sometimes through webcasts watched by perhaps tens of thousands. Now, the nervousness is rarely an issue, and instead he thinks about something pretty simple: “Know the story you’re telling. If you know the story you want to portray backwards and forwards, it can’t go wrong.”

                3 Speaking Habits That Are Damaging Your Credibility

                Here's how to eliminate common speech patterns from your presentations. presentation-speech-1940x900_35890 Even the most confident and compelling speakers can work against themselves by allowing certain credibility-killing words and vocal habits to creep into their presentations. As a presentation skills coach and teacher, I often hear presenters chip away at their command of the room with three common speaking habits: hedges, tag questions and up-talking. These verbal and vocal habits cause an audience to pause and question the assertiveness and commitment of a presenter. Here's what they are--and how to stop them. 1. Hedges These are soft word choices such as "I think," "sort of," or "kind of" that litter many a presentation. In some interpersonal conversation situations, phrases such as these can actually help by allowing you to appear less dogmatic and more open to collaboration. But in presentations, hedges have the effect of softening your position, reducing your authority and making you seem wishy-washy and unsure of what you are saying. The best way to address hedging? Substitution. Find stronger, more powerful words to replace these less assertive ones. For example, "I think" becomes "I believe" or "I know." "Kind of" and "sort of" can be replaced with "one way." Finding more assertive substitutions affords you a way to make your point more clearly and definitively. 2. Tag questions These occur when you add a question to the end of a phrase, such as "This is a good hamburger, isn't it?" Again, in interpersonal situations tag questions can work in your favor, in this case by inviting participation from your interlocutor. But when speaking before an audience, tag questions diminish your potential impact, and should be eliminated. The first step to ridding yourself of tag questions--or any verbal tic for that matter--is to become aware of when you are speaking them. To raise your awareness, you can have a colleague notify when you have asked a tag question or you can record yourself speaking and note them yourself. In either case, you are moving an unconscious speech act into consciousness. Eventually, you will transition from recognizing that you just asked a tag question to noticing that you are about to ask a tag. When this anticipatory awareness exists, you will be able to eliminate asking these superfluous questions. Removing them will take practice for those in the habit of using them, but the benefit to you is a stronger, more assertive speaking style. 3. Up-talking This centers not on the words you choose but rather on how you speak your words--specifically at the end of your sentences. If you are an up-talker, then the ending of your sentences rises in pitch, essentially making your declarative sentences sound like questions. Nothing can be more confusing (and annoying) to an audience as when a speaker makes an important point like "our profits are expanding," yet it sounds like "our profits are expanding?" Your goal as a speaker is to use your voice--its volume, cadence, and tone--to help your audience understand your message, not to confuse them. The best way to correct up-talking is to focus on your breathing. If you are an up-talker, then you likely take a quick inhalation prior to the end of your sentences because feel you are running out of air to support the remainder of your spoken thought. This inhalation is often followed by a rise in pitch. To address this, you need to practice what I term "landing" your sentences and phrases. Rather than inhale close to the end of your sentences, focus on exhaling completely as you finish your thought. (Note: This does not mean lower your voice volume, but instead empty out your breath while maintaining your volume.) A useful way to practice this is to read out loud while placing a hand on your belly. When you up-talk, your belly will contract inward as you end your sentence (this results from your inhalation). If you land your phrase, your belly will extend with your exhalation at the end of your sentence. When you're giving a presentation, it's critical to command the room--if your audience doesn't believe you're confident and credible, they won't even consider what you're actually saying. Among the many ways to do this are smart word choice and speaking your words powerfully. Bad habits like hedges, tag questions, and up-talking distract your audience and undermine your impact. But with awareness and practice, you can eliminate them so that you appear more commanding and your message seems clearer and stronger. This piece was originally published by Stanford Business and is republished with permission. Matt Abrahams is a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business. [layout show="2"]

                  Presenters Need Emotion!

                  Most of us can quickly recall where we were on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, yet far fewer of us can remember our whereabouts on Monday, September 10, 2001. The emotional toll of the terrifying and tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks demonstrates a truism that has been known since the ancient Greeks studied rhetoric: Emotion sticks. People remember emotionally charged messages much more readily than fact-based ones. In fact, modern scientists are finding that our emotional responses have a fast track to our long-term memory. For example, psychologist Victor Johnston in his book Why we feel: The science of human emotions writes that emotions serve as “discriminant hedonic amplifiers.” In other words, emotions act as attention and memory beacons attracting our interest and invoking memories. So when possible, try to bring some emotion into your presentation, whether in the form of your delivery or the content itself. This emotion will bolster engagement in the moment and memory in the future To help your audience remember your message, work to have your tone and delivery match the emotional impact you desire. You must take time to reflect on the emotional response you want and then work to make sure that your delivery is congruent with the emotional impact you desire. However, be careful not to be too scripted or theatrical. For emotion to help you, it must be authentic and credible. I am often challenged when I assert that emotion is an important ingredient for engagement and memory. My technical and scientific clients and students claim that their presentations need to be highly detailed and descriptive, and, thus, emotion is antithetical and incompatible to their speaking goals. I fully believe that even the most technical and scientific talks can have emotion infused in them. Further, I have seen firsthand how emotion can elevate the involvement, impact, and memory of these types of presentations. The best way to bring emotion in is to focus on benefits and implications of the technology or science. Benefits are inherently emotional….saving time, saving money, saving trees, saving lives…these are emotional. I recently worked with a large graphics chipmaker whose standard presentations are jammed full of technical detail, jargon, and data. These presentations lead to what one of my former students termed “verbal anesthesia.” Audience members were overwhelmed with the presenters’ information and underwhelmed in their comprehension and retention. However, once the presenters focused on the benefits of the graphics chips to the audience’s lives, such as powering their mobile devices, car navigation systems, etc., the presentations had more impact. By including an emotional component to your presentations via your tone, delivery, and connection to your audience, you can expedite engagement and increase long-tern retention.

                    Commanding the Room during Challenging Q&A

                    Many speakers get very nervous about managing challenging questions after they present. This video provides specific techniques for handling challenging questions during the Q&A portion of a presentation. The goal is to command the room while remaining authentic and open to your audience's questions. If you like this information, consider enrolling in this Stanford Continuing Studies class.