This blog is about the relationship between organizations and the people who work for them. And, it’s dedicated to the millions of people around the world who go to work every day wanting to do a great job.
Is there a right way to write? Ever since Dr. Johnson wrote his dictionary people have been laying down laws for the English language. Perhaps the most famous rules today are Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing, which begin with: Number 1 – “Never open a book with weather” – as in “It was a dark and stormy night.”
My own rule is the title of this post and¬†a central message of David Foster Wallace’s brilliant essay “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the wars over usage,” which was published in Harper’s Magazine in April 2001. Wallace¬† says that as much as grammarians want to believe that rules for writing exist to prevent misunderstanding they actually exist to prevent your not being taken seriously. For example, to make one up¬†- “Running furiously down the road the clock struck one and she knew she was going to be late.”¬†Everyone knows what this imaginary writer is¬†trying to say. But the result is laughable.
Here are some other examples,¬†not invented that I¬†found in the Montreal Gazette and Toronto Globe and Mail on Wednesday February 29, 2012.¬†
“Montreal drivers were slapped with a 14-cent jump in gasoline prices on Tuesday and energy industry eperts say that’s just a taste of the higher fuel costs Canadians can expect in coming months.”
“She was smart as a tack, perceptive and forever thinking outside the box.”
“Another worry: these digital medical records will be worth their weight in diamonds, not just in gold”
Here thanks to George Orwell are some rules to avoid breaking my rule.
On Sunday night when I was a kid everyone gathered around¬†the ¬†TV¬† to watch the Ed Sullivan Show. The papers joked about his voice, his awkwardness,¬†and his look – old stone face they called him. And impressionists like Rich Little and John Byner made a¬†living “doing” him, even on his own show.¬†Sullivan’s show was a hit. One of the reasons it was a hit is that he knew¬†people tuned in to see his acts not¬†him.
Yesterday I saw someone introduce a speaker at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art. It was wrong in almost every way. It was boring. It was too long. It began with the introducer explaining who they were. Then it had too much detail about the speaker – every degree and award for 30 years. And then not enough on¬†why we would¬†want to hear what the speaker had to say. It made me want to grab them, sit them down and force them to take a class from a master. A master like Ed Sullivan.
Watch the clip. He’s¬†fast. He’s excited. He’s all about, look what I”ve got for you, here’s why, and getting out of¬† the way.¬†¬†The clip is a long one -¬†although I assure you Ed’s intro isn’t -¬†¬†so don’t feel you have to watch the whole thing – intro plus act. But then again you just might want¬†to – it’s guaranteed to warm up a cold winter’s day like the one I can see out my window right now.¬†Ready? Heeeerrrrrrrrrreeeeee’s Ed!
Can it really be true that public speaking¬†is the number 1 fear of¬†ordinary people like you and me? Presentation coaches often say so. I should know because among other things I’m a presentation coach. But the evidence for the claim is underwhelming. Years ago Jerry Seinfeld used to open his comedy act with this story. “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking.¬†Number two is death. Death is number two. Does this seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Of course Jerry’s right this¬†doesn’t seem right. The facts are “most studies” haven’t found this. One study did.¬† The much quoted or referenced 1971 Bruskin Report, conducted¬†by the¬†U.S. marketing research firm R. H. Bruskin Associates for the [American] Travel Research Association.¬†The good folks at Travel Research wanted help dealing with¬†what they thought was a big marketing problem for the travel industry: Americans¬†fear of flying. Bruskin was delighted to be able to¬†help them out with their survey which, remarkably, showed ordinary Americans¬†were much more afraid of public speaking,¬†heights, insects, financial problems, deep water, sickness,¬†and even death than they were of flying. [Which proves, to carry on with Jerry's logic that if your swimming in deep water and get a cramp you'd much rather drown than ask the crowd on the beach for help.] Since then surveys¬†have been conducted from time to time that report what everyone already knows that large numbers of¬†otherwise ordinary people are to some extent apprehensive, hesitant, shy or nervous about, fearful or afraid, call it what you will,¬†of public speaking. If this research proves anything it is that nervousness about public speaking -¬†to use one simple label for a complex collection of feelings and energies – is a normal part of what it means to be¬†human. It is not our¬†number 1 fear; and fear is the wrong word for most people;¬†it is¬†our most common shared experience. And I have come to believe it is an extremely useful thing. I don’t think any great presentation happens unless the presenter feels some nervousness before they go on. Too much¬†can hurt a presenter but so can too little. The key is to master your nervousness not eliminate it.
Here, for your consideration, are the musings of an expert on the subject of fear:
The other day I was listening to a speaker on TEDx¬†talk about the¬†secret to writing the great speech. She had me hooked. Afterall, in one part of my life I’m a speech writer. If anyone has found¬†the holy grail of speech writing -¬†the secret to writing a great speech -¬†I want to know it. The secret she said is the structure of the speech. All great speeches begin with the present (“I have a dream …”) then shift to the future (“One day all God’s children …”). And then¬†work back and forth between the present and the future drawing their audience forward in the dramatic tension between what is and what will be. Great, only one problem. It isn’t true.
The great speeches aren’t all structured in this single way. Pick up William Safire’s collection of the world’s great speeches, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History. You’ll quickly discover¬†¬†other ways. Examples? Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address (“Four score and seven years ago …”¬†) begins with the past not the present. John F. Kennedy’s opening statement in the televised Nixon-Kennedy Presidential Debate also begins with the past (“In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln said …”).¬†Mark Twain’s much celebrated¬†recounting of his battle with stage fright¬†begins with the present (“My heart goes out in sympathy to anyone who …”) but then shifts sharply to the past not the future¬†(“I recall the occasion of my first appearance …”) and then resolutely stays there. I could go on but I leave it to you to discover the many other structures that provide the scaffolding for great speeches.
What can we learn from this? There isn’t one right way. You can succeed in a thousand different ways. Have a look at Saffire’s collection. It’s worth your careful study even if your next talk is a Monday morning briefing at Bombardier and not the opening of the United Nations in New York.
The secret to a great speech?¬† There isn’t one right way.
Today, I was reading an article in IABCs Communication World – “What can we learn from the ‘real world’” – by Steve Crencenzo. Steve advises companies on how to¬†write headlines so employees, customers and other people they want to influence will read what they have to say. He suggests that you write your headlines the way newsstand magazines like Cosmopolitan do. Cosmo, he explains uses three basic tricks to hook your interest: use lists, directly address your audience and use dot, dot, dots.
- 10 sure-fire ways to have the best sex ever!
- You can be a sex goddess now!
- Admit it … you definitely need more great sex!
Wow, I thought that sure beats the typical headlines you see in corporate writing, such as:
- Speed and disintermediation
- Reputation management is strategic management
- Local values, global view
Granted, as Steve points out, Cosmo has got a big advantage. It’s selling sex. Most companies have a less appealing product. But as Steve also points out Cosmo doesn’t rely just on sex to sell their magazine. Afterall a lot of magazines are selling sex. Cosmo uses a far more powerful weapon: the headline hooks.
The big question is: should you try to use these hooks in your business writing?¬†My take is if you do be careful.¬†If you have something important to tell people great. If not the hooks are not a substitute. And you may turn people off using them even if you have something to say because, let’s face it – they’re manipulative. And that’s not sexy.
What’s your take?
You get there just in time, find the room, and¬†grab an empty seat. The event begins and you sit patiently listening to the other speakers and making small talk with the people at your table. Finally, after an hour and half of waiting, it’s your turn. You look around the room as you’re being introduced.¬†The applause begins. You take your time getting to your feet, shake hands with the people at your table, and make your way in slow measured steps to the lectern. Taking out your notes, you straighten your jacket, clear your throat, and¬†looking back at the screen where your PowerPoint slides are flashing you begin: “I hope¬†everybody can hear me. These don’t look like the right slides.”
What do you think is the single greatest mistake made by this presenter?¬† There are a great many, but one might you might have missed is: “you sit patiently listening to the¬†other speakers and … .”
Recently I had a conversation with my friend Mitch Joel,¬†the marketing guru who wrote the book Six Pixels of Separation, and¬†writes the newspaper column and¬†blog¬†by the same name.¬†¬†Mitch is president of the Montreal-based marketing agency Twist Image and makes a lot of high-profile keynote presentations. Anything he says about presentation I listen to.¬†You might want to as well. What does he do before the presentation begins? He said that in the time immediately before he goes on¬†he focuses entirely on what he is going to say, his message, and getting his energy up. Pacing up and down. Rehearsing before a mirroir. Whatever it takes.¬†You might not give many keynote presentations, so you might not think you have to go to all this effort.¬†¬†After all it takes alot of dedication, concentration, and discipline, to be a professional speaker, but then again you might want to give it a try.¬†It just might be what you need to do:
The¬†shocking news on the internet is that¬†presentation coaches¬†have been telling you a lie: Mehrabian’s so-called “55 -¬†38 -¬†7 rule” is a myth.¬†
How shocked should you be? My take as a presentations coach is -¬†not very. The rule as it is usually presented in presentation workshops and seminars is¬†that only 7 percent of the “impact” of communication depends on the words used compared to 55 percent¬†on facial expression and 38 percent on voice, a¬†¬†discovery reported¬†by Dr Albert Mehrabian, a psychologist at UCLA in the late 1960s- early 1970s.
Hold on say the myth-busters doesn’t this mean words are unimportant. Have you ever tried to communicate without words? How far has that got you? And what about the times you got the words or¬†word¬† wrong (Sascha rather than Tascha,¬†Danny rather than Donny). Besides, they continue,¬†the rule applies only in very particular situations:¬†one-on-one, face-to-face conversations where someone is expressing their feelings (I would love to see you later, I really do want this job, Trust me, the check is in the mail) and the other person is making up their mind on whether or not to believe them. Clearly there is a lot of wiggle room for error.
What can you learn from this? (1) People will try to use academic research to sell you something. (2) People will also try to put down academic research to sell you something else. (2) Words do matter. (3) Far more than words matter. If you want to be believed pay attention¬†to what you say, how you say it and how you look when you say it.¬†And remember, there are more than three elements at work in any communication; pay attention to context too. And, yes, you might want to think about what your actions say about what you’re saying. (4) If Mehrabian had a nickel for every one who tried to make a buck putting him down or puffing him up, he’d be giving Donald Trump lessons on prime time. The big take away is that if you want to be believed you’re going to have to put some effort into persuading people. Shocking, isn’t it?
Recently the LinkedIn HR discussion group I follow asked the question: “PowerPoint slides loaded with paragraphs of text … is this laziness? Lack of awareness? Do people really think this is good visual support? What do you think?”
they don’t know they don’t know what their doing
they’re lazy and they¬†don’t know any better
it used to be ok, but not now. The world has moved on, but they haven’t
people who are afraid of public speaking do this in order to hide behind text-heavy slides
they have no respect for the audience
they’ve never heard of Pecha Kucha, the 6×6 rule, Prezi, the drop the slide at your feet and if you can’t read it it’s got too much on it rule¬†…
they think it makes them look smart
they don’t know the material
Great fun and a good way to let off steam. Given that you’re not an academic or a consultant, the question is, “Why do you do what you do on the job?”
Dale Carnegie once said people will¬†judge you not only by what you do, but also by how you do it, and¬†what you say, and how you say it. In other words, words and speech matter.¬†True, but strong and silent men and women have even more problems. Because in the real world¬†people will judge you not only on what and how you do and say it, but when, where, why, and to whom you do it and when, where, why, and to whom you say it. Not to mention, who said and did what immediately before and after you did. In other words, words, speech,¬†action, and context¬†matter. This is why communication is so difficult. The lesson for communicators in organizations is “be aware be very aware.” A lesson everyone else would also be wise to learn,too.
The other day I ran across a question on an on-line discussion group for people in Organizational Design and Training: ‚ÄúWhy do you think communication fails in organizations?‚ÄĚ If you‚Äôre tempted to say ‚Äúgood question‚ÄĚ think again. It is, I think, a bad question.¬† Bad because there is no such thing as ‚Äúcommunication‚ÄĚ in organizations, only particular people trying to make themselves understood in particular ways for particular purposes in particular circumstances. The question ‚Äúwhy do you think communication fails in organizations‚ÄĚ invites mistaken one-size-fits-all answers: sales never listens, people are too sensitive, too little too late.¬† It would be nice if there was a simple answer. Unfortunately, there isn‚Äôt, which means the next time you want to ‚Äúcommunicate‚ÄĚ you‚Äôre going to have to do the inescapable hard work of figuring out precisely what you want to say to whom for what purpose. If this is a formula, it certainly isn‚Äôt a simple one, which is perhaps why ‚Äúcommunication fails in organizations.‚ÄĚ
And now you know what you have to do if you want success.¬†