Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A whole lotta nothing

Think back to show and tell at school. Or, if you grew up in another country, class presentations where you stood in front of everyone and were expected to present from flashcards or recite from memory. Do bad memories come to mind?
Fast forward now and think of the times you have been in a meeting and when time comes to "share your thoughts" the same people speak up, every single time. How many times have those same people said something that actually helps further the goals of the meeting?
I've gotten these three schoolwork variations and lived through meeting déjà vu hell. I believe, none of these school experiences raise kids to become more comfortable with public speaking or to become adults who can drive their points across professionally.
Instead, whenever public speaking is involved all we hear is complaining, self-praise, or repetition of project updates for a project that should have been completed months ago. Dr. Travis Bradberry just wrote a great post on how to handle toxic people, who, to me, seem to be the perfect examples of this public speaking educational failure.
The ability to share thoughts and ideas out-loud has come up at meetings or networking sessions these past weeks. Thanks to being an only child and to speech writing and public speaking classes, I have received compliments on my public speaking more often. As well as receiving questions on how to become a better speaker.
While I am honest in explaining that I needed to speak up as a child whenever I wanted something, since no siblings were around for me to get things from, or that timed debates and lots of red ink in edits from professors created a mental whiteboard, where I draft sentences before I speak or write, a separate aspect of what makes public speaking easier for me now is still often unaddressed. That aspect is the purpose of speaking.
Every opportunity we get to speak and deliver a message, even if it is the message of "dinner is served," is an opportunity to provide something meaningful. As with the aforementioned example, "dinner's ready!" is very different from, "everyone, come to the table, dinner is served!" Even more different is, "Bobby, Jane, honey, dinner is ready, come to the table please!"
Words are everything.
Perhaps you've heard the saying, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all" What you may not have considered is that this Bambi-adapted adage can refer to more than just the way you speak to, or about, others. Everything you say and the way you say it has a purpose. Therefore, speak with purpose.
Are you about to open your mouth for something good?
"That's it?" you may be asking now. "What hippie-dippy hogwash," I've also heard. Okay, "hogwash" replaces another term to be honest, because you deserve more polished language, but the remainder of the expression stands.
Speaking with purpose is not easy to adapt to, to enforce, or to like. Because of this many people choose to ignore purpose and live with their fears of public speaking; knowing they will have a reason to blame for their speech inabilities. It's an understandable reasoning.
Many times my accent, my impatience and my favoritism of expletives, get in the way of my purpose. Thoughts or ideas are not delivered adequately but I still get a societal pass because, "I was nervous," "I felt attacked," "I was waiting forever," or "I was hangry."
While things work out despite word vomit, projects, activities or conversations take on a different path. A path that will often involve more work and more future explanations. When you become aware of how purposeful speaking can change your workflow and life, you regret the times that word vomit gets the best of you.
Try these simple exercises and begin to speak with purpose:
Pen and paper
Before and during a meeting write down the topics you would like to discuss and the questions that come up in your head as the conversation is taking place. Use a pen and paper, not a laptop. Studies have shown that we are more receptive to a message when we write down notes- and we process that information better because of it, the latest example is here. Sounds simple enough but you may be surprised to find yourself holding your tongue and fidgeting with your hands because you want to interrupt a person to share your thought- instead of writing it down. Some eureka moments still need to occur but ask yourself before you speak, "is this a eureka thought?" Allow people to finish their sentences before you begin yours then. This will also help you fine tune your listening skills and demonstrate respect to your colleagues.
Breathe in
As you look over your written-down notes breathe in before you share them. Those seconds allow you to put together a sentence and even straighten up your posture. Deliver your message at medium-speed and continue to breathe in between points. If someone interjects between your points raise your pen and calmly say, "excuse me, I was not finished." There is no need to be rude when saying this, you want to be firm and drive the point across that you actually listened and you have full sentences to share, not just blurbs. After you do this once, people around you will notice your delivery is different and may actually pay more attention to you because you're sharing complete ideas. Also, because you managed to stand your ground in a polite manner. Flawless, as Beyoncé would say.
Use your tone and language
Since you and I are grown ups we need to use grown up words. "Yeah" or "you know" should not be the main expressions in your conversations. If you are meeting to discuss a report, write down words from that same report and use them when discussing it. If you are brainstorming for a new product, express support or disagreement with examples rather than applying one word responses. So, "this is an idea that would work because..." or "I don't believe we should attempt that for this reason..." are great. Leave "that's cool" and "I don't like it" behind. It is inspiring to encounter a professional who can express him or herself in layman terms, without needing clichés or colloquialisms. Try to be that inspiration. Moreover, be aware that the tone you use, and even the tone of your voice, affects your delivery. Mimic the tone of a broadcaster on TV or the radio, not too high pitched and not too somber, when speaking in a group setting.
Don't force it
Think of Bambi and Thumper and remind yourself not to say anything that will not benefit the cause or the people around you. Sometimes just being alert and engaged through note taking is enough. You won't have questions or ideas in every interaction you have in your personal or professional life, so learn to agree, smile and stay quiet. By no means does this mean become a pushover, though. If you do have a thought, breathe, form a sentence in your head and speak clearly until you finish a whole sentence. Don't stop halfway. Don't start a new idea in the middle of your sentence. Don't back down and say "never mind." Begin to realize that your thoughts are important and deserve to be delivered and received as such. When you don't feel like a thought should be shared, then be content with yourself for acknowledging this too.
Very few people are born with the skill to speak with purpose, or the ability to recognize this skill. All us need to train ourselves and help others by example.
Speaking with purpose can make you into a powerful messenger or leave you saying, well, a whole lot of nothing.
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