Happiness and Meaning

At present, there are nearly fifteen thousand books in print exploring happiness.  As if that were not enough, there are another 65 million web pages on the subject.  This banquet reveals two things.  First, everybody wants to be happy.  Second, mankind has yet to crack the code on what guarantees happiness.

As far as I can tell, the singular pursuit of happiness is a destructive behavior in itself.  Most human emotions exist in contrasting pairs.  Happiness and sadness, contentment and anger, love and hate.  If we managed to completely eliminate everything negative, then we could never truly experience ecstasy.  Happiness is something that is experienced, not pursued, as you live your life fully mindful of each moment.

You can create a mindset and an environment that will allow you to capture the moments of happiness as they arise.  Here is an approach.

Today and every day, find meaning and joy in large and small things

People appreciate what they have and resent what they do not.  However, remind yourself to be grateful both for what you do have as well as for what you do not.  This allows you to shift your mindset from the negative to the positive.  For example, if you live in a small, one-bedroom home, you might waste your days resenting the fact that you do not reside in a mansion.  Instead, you would be much better off focusing on the gift you have been given of not being homeless.

There is an excellent Jewish folk take that drives this point home.  A poor farmer along with his wife and an army of children and relatives are crammed together in a one room shack.  When he goes to his Rabbi to express his misery and seek advice, the farmer is instructed by the sage to bring a chicken into the house.  Of course, this only makes things worse. The man returns to the Rabbi who tells him to also bring in the family goat.  And so it goes day after day, animal on top of animal, until the living conditions become truly insufferable.  At last, the Rabbi tells the farmer to remove all of the animals.  In the end, the man learns to appreciate the relative space and quiet that he had to begin with.

In addition to finding joy in what is not, you should strive to perceive the hidden potential in all things.  Buddhists have a term – emptiness – that encapsulates this principle.  Emptiness highlights that nothing has an inherent positive or negative quality.  More concretely, people assign qualities to tangibles and intangibles based on perception and interpretation.  Take the feeling one has when lying down in a tranquil, flower filled meadow.  For many, this represents the peak of relaxation.  For the extreme allergy sufferer, it might be the incarnation of hell on earth.  Even in sorrow, there can be joy.  Consider the loss of a spouse after fifty years of close companionship.  The survivor can dwell on his or her grief or appreciate that the deceased loved one did not have to suffer the loneliness of being the last to go.

All too often, people cannot experience happiness because they are caught up either in the pain of the past or the promise of the future.  Again, Buddhists come to the rescue with the principle of mindfulness.  This concept teaches us to be fully engaged in the present.  Right now, you are just reading (and hopefully enjoying) a book.  Spending time thinking about how you got here and where you are going is not going to make you happy.

Searching for one true meaning of life is another major barrier to experiencing happiness.  Though a long range meaning to your life may exist, it may or may not reveal itself – and if it does, will do so only at the end.  Rather than a being source of stress, the quest to find meaning is a primary motivational force.  Embrace the tension this striving creates as necessary for mental health.  To free yourself from the tyranny of searching for a single purpose, ask not “What is the meaning of life?” but rather “What are the meanings in life?”  Meanings differ from person to person, from day to day, and from hour to hour.  According to existential psychologist and World War II concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl, meanings are found in three areas.  First, meanings exist in the work you do.  Second, meanings exist in your relationships – especially with the people whom you love.  Third, meanings exist in the positive “why” behind unavoidable suffering.  For example, a mother dies in childbirth so that her daughter can survive.  Finally, before you get yourself all twisted around, you must accept that meaning does not exist in every task, relationship, and situation.  Sometimes, you just have to relax and smell the roses.

Today and every day, enjoy and show appreciation for your friends, family, and fellow human beings

Taking the time to show appreciation for others has both selfless and selfish benefits.  On the selfless side, your gift of gratitude makes other people feel better about themselves and their value in the world.  On the selfish side, every show of appreciation that you provide is another seed you have sown.  Some seeds will shrivel.  Others will thrive.  The more you plant, the greater the chance that you will reap rewards in the future.  Remember that appreciation comes not only through actions and words, but also from thoughts.

One of the most compelling though often overlooked ways to show appreciation is bringing other people together.  Go the extra mile by giving them ideas and helping them to succeed.

Today and every day, follow your dreams and true purpose

What things would you consider worth doing today if it were your last?  Take the time to answer that question to set yourself on the right path.  As you proceed, you will need to arm yourself with defenses against self-doubt so that you can continue taking calculated risks.

Remember that the journey is the reward.  Stated from another perspective, where you are going is here.  Limit unrealistic expectations of yourself and instead take the time to appreciate everything that you have done so far.  You are not alone in wondering “How did I get here and when are they going to see that I am a fraud?”  Yet, know, truly know, that trying and staying in the game are what matters.

To be able to follow your dreams, you must live for self-recognition, not the recognition of others.  In the end, success is based on the quality of what you do and who you are as a human being.

Limit your expectations about the behavior of others

Learning to abandon expectations of yourself while you are on a journey in pursuit of your dreams is only half the battle.  The other half is releasing expectations about the behavior of others.  If you have ever said to yourself, “I cannot believe that Jane did that!”, then you are guilty as charged.

Every individual has a dynamic set of behaviors.  Rather than become fixated by someone else in the short term or, worse still, the long term, accept that you simply may not understand their motivations.  Generally people act in an internally consistent manner and though often selfish are rarely malicious.  Most of the time, the song is simply not about you.

Recap

Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to create a mindset and an environment that will allow you to capture the moments of happiness as they arise:

  • Today and every day, find meaning and joy in large and small things
  • Today and every day, enjoy and show appreciation for your friends, family, and fellow human beings
  • Today and every day, follow your dreams and true purpose
  • Limit your expectations about the behavior of others

Charisma

When I applied to the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, I was required to subject myself to a three-hundred sixty degree evaluation by my peers, friends, and superiors.  Most people either elaborated on my budding strengths or shared innocuous observations.  However, one person dared to share more critical feedback, writing “you are an intelligent, analytical person but need to develop poise to advance your future career.”  Those words immediately dealt a large blow to my self-confidence.  I knew what the word poise meant, but as she had accurately observed I did not know the first thing about exhibiting it.

Over time, I became more and more obsessed with the concept of poise.  I quickly intuited that poise is not only physical composure but also social and emotional composure.  However, my real breakthrough came when I realized that poise is a precursor to rapport and that rapport is the precursor of charm.  Several years of further introspection revealed that charm plus genuine persuasion equals charisma, the ultimate tool of influence.

The suggestions which follow will help you build charisma.  To accelerate your journey, remember that charisma is a connection that you make one individual at a time.  It is also a power to be used only ethically and sincerely.

Mirror the other person

If you observe close friends and family, you will notice that they have a tendency to mirror each other in a multitude of ways spanning verbal and non-verbal communication.  Because of this, mimicry is associated with likeability and trust.  To rapidly build rapport with others, you should consciously but subtly do the same.

At least half of the information that people exchange during a conversation is non-verbal.  You can begin to mirror a person’s body language in understated ways.  For example, if they have their weight shifted on one leg, then you can do the same.  In general, it is best to mirror positive body language, though the principle works with negative body language as well.  For example, suppose another individual has their arms crossed not out of comfort but out of disagreement.  Once you have synchronized your body language to theirs, you can lead them delicately to relax their arms into a less confrontational position.

Both words and vocal style make up verbal communication.  When mirroring another person, you can start by adopting their volume, speed, and tone. Next, align your word selection.  The sometimes maligned though generally useful field of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) provides some guidance here.  NLP teaches that people reveal through their word choice the dominant manner in which they process information.  For example, visual people might use words like “I see what you are saying…”  Auditory people say “I hear what you are saying…”  Finally, kinesthetic people use either emotional or tactile words such as “I sense you are right.”

Employ tools of influence

In his groundbreaking book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, Professor Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University detailed six methods of influence.  Knowing these will help you to exert ethical influence and to defend against manipulation.

  • Reciprocity: This concept taps into the human need to repay a favor.  To exercise it, you must give something away in order to create a tacit obligation.
  • Scarcity: This concept plays to desire.  To exercise it, you should be forthright in sharing when you possess something that is rare.  If your product or service is not hard to come by and you hold it out to be so, then people will see through the subterfuge and view you as manipulative.
  • Authority: This concept draws on social norms of respect.  To exercise it, project yourself as an expert by sharing compelling and legitimate evidence.
  • Escalation:  This concept taps into people’s wish to appear consistent in their actions.  To exercise it, begin by securing a small commitment and build from there.  Despite its power, this one is generally the most manipulative and should be used sparingly, if at all.
  • Conformity:  This concept leverages the human need to fit in.  To exercise it, provide testimonials by independent third parties about the value of your product or service.
  • Liking:  This concept ties to people’s tendency to trust people they like. To exercise it, develop positive relationships and find common interests.

Make the other person know that you sincerely care about him or her

While concepts like reciprocity and escalation represent the more aggressive tools of influence, the principle of liking exemplifies a softer side.  Genuinely caring about other people is the essence of charm.  In short, people like and trust people that like and trust them.  Because this is so important, it bears expanding upon here at some length.

To grasp the power of instant rapport, I encourage you to conduct an easy social experiment.  As you walk down the street, smile and make eye contact with others as you pass them.  Nine times out of ten, you will see their face light up and return the warmth.  Often, the other person will scan your face wondering ‘Do I know you from somewhere?”  You will also elicit the occasional audible greeting.  Remember that there is a huge difference between a genuine smile versus a grin or a smirk.  With the latter, only the mouth muscles move.  You should also conduct the dark side of the experiment by making eye contact accompanied by a neutral or scowling expression.  Most of the time, others will rapidly avert their eyes so that they do not absorb any of your bad karma.

Once, after receiving a promotion, I sought advice from one of my new peers.  He recommended that I tone down the volume and frequency of my ubiquitous smile.  His belief was that people only take serious people seriously.  Nonsense.  The power of smiling and eye contact is magnified in the business environment where you have recurring interactions with people.  Why?  Just ask yourself whom you would rather be around – someone that radiates warmth and happiness or the opposite?

Academic researchers have long known that tactile stimulation, or simply touch, is closely associated with liking.  For instance, in 1985, Stanley Jones and Elaine Yarbrough went so far as to study and catalog twelve distinct meanings of physical contact including appreciation, affection, and friendship.  The lesson is that appropriate, casual touches, for example to the shoulder or elbow, help build affinity.

Rapport building techniques are more powerful in combination as researchers Jacob Hornik and Shmuel Ellis discovered in 1988.  Hornik and Ellis sent graduate students to a suburban Chicago shopping mall to ensnare passersby to participate in a marketing survey.  They discovered that, on average, interviewers who made eye contact and a casual touch got 76.4% of people to take part in the survey.  Shoppers greeted without these pleasantries only consented 53.4% of the time.

Before you get too taken with this approach, note that gender matters.  Though the overall response rate was 65.3%, there were extremes depending on the gender combinations of the interviewers and the shoppers.  When a female interviewer touched and made eye contact with male shoppers, the willingness to participate in the survey was a stunning 91.6%.  In contrast, when a male interviewer applied the same techniques to female shoppers, the response rate fell to a paltry 55.6%.  Lest you conclude that men should avoid appropriate touch to establish trust, consider that male interviewers that approached female shoppers without eye contact or touching only garnered a 47.2% response rate.  The touch and gaze combination works to build rapport; it simply works better for women than for men.

To prove that you care about someone, ask people to share their story and their dreams and then actively listen to what that person has to say.  Sincere interest is interesting.  Adept listeners go about their art in a particular way.  First, they listen with every fiber of their being including their ears, their eyes, and their body.  They listen as if the person they are conversing with is the only other individual in the world.  Great listeners ignore every form of distraction including technology such as phones, computers, and watches.  Second, they think exclusively about what the other person is saying.  Finally, they are ready to speak.  Rather than holding a separate, parallel conversation, expert listeners respond constructively to what the other person is saying.

There are few words more pleasant to the ear than one’s own name.  Hence, to build trust, you should know and address other people by name.  As with every recommendation for building rapport, this too must be done with sincerity and subtlety.  People like to hear you use their name because it makes them feel known and respected.  It shows you felt they were important enough to take the time to commit them to memory.  However, avoid using someone’s name excessively during a conversation.  This behavior, associated with overly-slick salespeople, comes off as purely calculating.

When it comes to building rapport, opposites do not attract.  People are drawn to others that look and think like them.  Hence, to establish trust, you should strive to identify and highlight similarities.  Similarities come in all flavors including physical (ethnicity, height, etc.), situational (alma mater, job function, etc.), and intellectual (hobbies, movies, etc.)  Even if you struggle to discover similarities such as these, you can always find areas of agreement in your current conversation.

Just as the conventional wisdom that ‘opposites attract’ is completely off base when it comes to rapport building, so too is the belief that ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’  That could not be farther from the truth.  The greater the number of interactions that you have with someone, the more likely they are to trust you.

Another important element of being charismatic is showing that you are human.  One part of this is exposing your natural sense of humor.  People are drawn to others that are witty and light-hearted.  The combination of passion and light-heartedness is magical, albeit difficult to achieve.  Remember not to take things too far though.  Excessive humor, and especially sarcasm, will not win you any points.  A second part of showing that you are human is revealing vulnerability through gradual emotional self-disclosure.  People may respect emotional automatons, but they will not follow them.  Instead, individuals connect with leaders that have faced and risen above adversity.  That way, they have the confidence that you will guide the way in good times and in bad.

Go the extra mile

To be charming, you must go the extra mile to show appreciation for others.  This is one of those obvious rules that everybody knows but to which few adhere.  Though better than nothing, a simple “thank you” is not enough.  A charming show of appreciation combines sincere gratitude with specific acknowledgment of the effort a person provided as well as what their actions meant to you.  For example, imagine that you have asked a colleague to interview candidates for a position that you are filling.  A proper show of appreciation is “Thank you for spending twelve hours interviewing candidates for my open position.  Your input on Mary’s communication skills was instrumental in my decision to hire her.”  To magnify the effect of your gratitude tenfold, deliver your appreciation publicly and as soon as possible after their exceptional performance.

Sincere, specific appreciation is table stakes.  To take your charm to the next level, express your gratitude in ways that demonstrate that you took the time to truly care.  You will stand out from the crowd if you employ old world courtesies like hand written thank you notes and relevant gifts.   You no doubt receive hundreds of emails every day, but when was the last time you received a genuine handwritten letter?  In order to give a relevant gift, you must have purposefully had a social conversation to deeply understand an individual’s personal interests.  Gift cards and cash are nice but not charming.  If you find out someone loves books, probe deeper to see if they like fiction or non-fiction.  If non-fiction, then do they enjoy biography, history, business motivation?

Of course, there is another level of appreciation that transcends tangible gifts.  The most powerful reward you can give is the gift of relationships.  Instead of hording your valuable friends, become the bridge between the individuals in your lives. Just like a matchmaker, your mission is to facilitate timely, relevant connections without being an intrusive intermediary.

The true masters are consistently and continuously charming.  To reach that ideal, you must strive to anticipate and proactively address the needs and concerns of others.  Concentrate on actions that touch emotional factors such as hope, ambition, desire, and the need to feel important.  In the ultimate state of social resonance, you become one with the other person so that your wants and needs are completely aligned.

Best selling author and keynote speaker John Maxwell is universally adored as a charismatic leader.  By indefatigably showing people that he believes in their potential, John is the personification of going the extra mile.  Though his practices are innumerable, one of my personal favorites is his ’30 second rule.’  This simple practice directs you to say something genuine and encouraging in the first thirty seconds of every conversation.  Exercise this rule in your personal life and in your professional life.

Follow your own path

Making the other person know that you care and going the extra mile will elevate you from simply building rapport to being charming.  If you stop there, then you will have gained the benefits that accrue to a social chameleon.  However, to elevate charm to charisma, you must know and express your distinct personality, convictions, and values.  Those elements combine to make your personal brand.  Follow your own path with audacious passion and with no fear of failure. Express who you are with infectious enthusiasm.  Share your vision one person at a time and one moment at a time.

Recap

Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to develop charisma:

  • Mirror the other person
  • Employ tools of influence
  • Make the other person know that you sincerely care about them
  • Go the extra mile
  • Follow your own path

Body Language

To advance your personal relationships and professional career, study body language.  After covering a set of guiding principles, I will take you through reading body language from head to toe.

Develop personal body language awareness and alter bad habits

On a personal level, you should not struggle to control your own body language.  That is a lost cause, since most behaviors come from parts of the brain over which you have little or no control.  Moreover, you are more likely to be seen as manipulative rather than wise if you manufacture body language.

Instead, you should strive to do two things.  The first is to develop body language awareness.  This means understanding the resonance between what you are thinking and how you are expressing your feelings.  The second is to alter habits that you have that unintentionally communicate negative body language.  The classic example is people that have developed a habit of crossing their arms for reasons of comfort.

Understand that body language reveals stress and comfort, not truth and lies

There is a common fallacy that having the ability to read body language makes you into a human lie detector.  Though not entirely incorrect, the accurate assessment is that the ability to read body language makes you a human mood ring.  Specifically, body language reveals the absence or presence of stress and discomfort.

Find baseline behaviors and look for clusters of dissonance

In most situations where you are going to be actively reading body language, the person you are observing will be in an environment with an elevated level of pressure or excitement.  In personal settings, this might be a first date or a heated argument.  In professional ones, this might be a negotiation or a critical meeting.  Moreover, from day to day, people may be in a good or a bad mood due to events that have nothing to do with your immediate interaction.  Consequently, you should strive to establish a set of baseline behaviors that are specific to both the person and to the situation.  Since people aim to be at ease, you can assume that the baseline is the comfortable state.

Once you have determined the set of baseline behaviors, your job is to detect changes that show evidence of stress.  If someone who ordinarily crosses their arms braces them on their chair, you have one piece of evidence.  As in any investigation, one piece of evidence alone does not make the case.  Hence, to be great at reading body language, you need to find clusters of behaviors.  Remember that although many clusters are purely physical, you should also look for dissonance between words and behaviors.  A good example is when people shake their head “no” or look down when they say “yes.”  One of my all-time favorites is discord in words such as when a person says “No, I agree with you.”

Read the head and neck

Body language begins with the very top of the head.  When people touch their own hair, they are either subconsciously preening themselves or trying to sooth themselves.  The preening angle, particularly by women, is why hair touching is considered flirtatious in social situations.  It subtly communicates that a person is available and willing to relax some degree of control.  In contrast to the social interpretation, people in more stressful circumstances touch their hair to capture a soothing tactile response and release negative energy.  Individuals that develop a hair touching habit have become addicted in large and small ways to this comfort.

Progressing to the forehead, signs of stress include furrowing the forehead by contracting facial muscles as well as rubbing one’s forehead.  The interpretation of a furrowed forehead ranges from confusion to outright disagreement.  From the situation itself and clusters of other behaviors, you will learn to know where in that spectrum the person lies.  Rubbing one’s forehead stimulates blood flow to the brain.  Again, the meaning can vary from mere tiredness to true stress.

The eyes are where most people look for body language.  Stress is evidenced by variation from the baseline in squinting, closing, shielding, averting, and blinking.  With respect to blinking, for example, you may detect either a faster than normal or slower than normal blink rate.  The completely false conventional wisdom is that people break eye contact when they are lying.  Since virtually everyone believes this is true, you are wise, actually, to look for abnormally direct eye contact when someone is uncomfortable and possibly lying.  This preternaturally direct gaze is often coupled with restricted motion because it takes everything a person has to maintain eye contact with lying.  Lest you believe you can control this yourself, think again.  If you are lying, then odds are you will either have too little or too much eye contact and there is nothing you can do about it.  A better approach is never to lie in the first place.  On a positive note, high arched eyebrows and “flashbulb” eyes communicate genuine interest.

There are multiple signs of stress in the cheeks.  The more obvious include rubbing the inside of the cheeks with the tongue or biting.  Since many people have an oral fixation of one kind or another, these behaviors are more often than not simply baseline habits that provide little useful information.

The mouth is one of the most expressive parts of the body.  The oral fixation that afflicts the tongue also afflicts the mouth so be careful to not over-interpret the meaning of lip and nail biting.  However, pursing the lips is a telltale sign of discomfort.  Additionally, mechanisms that increase the supply of oxygen to the blood are signs of stress.  These include slow exhales as well as excessive yawning.  Of course, the mouth has the ability to display one of the most positive behaviors – the smile.  Unlike a fake grin or smirk, a genuine smile includes mouth corners turned up and “crow’s feet” emanating from the eyes.

Your examination of body language in the head ends with the chin and neck.  When people are stressed, they often tilt their head forward, forcing their chin down.  This often subconscious action protects the vital arteries in the neck.  This protection instinct also is sometimes coupled with a soothing instinct of gently stroking the front or back of one’s neck.

Read the upper torso and arms

The majority of stress revealing behaviors in the upper body involve the entire upper torso.  All of the relevant expressions of body language link to a preprogrammed need to protect the internal organs from harm.  The offending deeds include:

  • Turning one’s torso away from the other person
  • Self-administering a body hug
  • Hunching over or bowing (which are viewed as submissive)
  • Covering the body with an object such as a pillow or a purse

Consider next the shoulders.  When someone is stressed, particularly if they are afraid, you may see their shoulders elevated slightly upward toward their ears.  Another interesting tip is what people do with their shoulders when they say “no.”  Imagine that you are in a negotiation or other situation in which you are asking a person to do something.  If they say “no” with a half shoulder shrug, then there is a good chance their refusal is weak.  A strong refusal is accompanied by a full shoulder shrug.

Behaviors in the arms and hands are typically intertwined.  A confident, comfortable person (possibly making a territorial display) may interlace his or her hands behind the head or spread his or her arms out over adjacent chairs.  A more nervous person may touch jewelry or clothing and wring their hands.  If a person is aware of his or her behavior, the individual may move to hide discomfort by hiding their hands either in pockets or under thighs.

Here are two final tips on the hands, dealing with the palms and the thumbs.  A display of the palms is simultaneously a show of openness and supplication.  To that end, if somebody is asking you to do something with palms up, you can let down your guard a little.  Though you should only use this technique for good rather than for evil, you can use this method consciously, and in all good conscience, when you are making a request.  As for the thumbs, if you have ever injured these fingers, then you know how important they are.  Opposable thumbs give humans and precious few other species the gift of fine motor skills.  Consequently, people are reflecting comfort when they show their thumbs.  Examples include flashing a thumbs-up gesture or having one’s hands in one’s pockets with the thumbs sticking out.

Read the lower torso

You may be surprised to learn that the lower torso reveals more behavioral information per square inch than any other part of the body.  The generally acceptable biological reason for this is that the legs and feet are the farthest parts of the body from the brain.  As a result, movement and positioning of the lower torso is the last thing people are able to control.  Though most people are oblivious of this fact, criminal investigators are well aware.  The best interviewers position themselves in full view of a suspect’s lower torso, going so far as to remove tables completely from the equation.

From thighs to knees to feet, the catalog of stress signaling behaviors in the lower torso include:

  • Legs directed away from another person
  • Rubbing the thighs
  • Hands braced on the knees
  • Feet locked behind chairs
  • Feet positioned toward the exit or in a “starter position” (for a rapid escape)
  • Feet close together (viewed as submissive due to the inability to move quickly)
  • Feet jiggling or kicking

The last one, jiggling feet, is probably the one that requires the most confirmation from clusters of other behaviors.  In a positive situation, these can easily be a sign of happy feet.

Just as with all other parts of the body, there are manifestations of positive body language in the lower torso beginning with opposites of the behavior described above.  A fun additional one is noticing which way people cross their legs.  In particular, individuals tend to cross their legs with their raised foot in the direction of the person they favor.  Finally, the leg splay joins the arm splay as a sign of comfortable, albeit territorial, body language.

Recap

Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become adroit at reading body language:

  • Develop personal body language awareness and alter bad habits
  • Understand that body language reveals stress and comfort, not truth and lies
  • Find baseline behaviors and look for clusters of dissonance
  • Read the head and neck
  • Read the upper torso and arms
  • Read the lower torso

Storytelling

As our culture has evolved from an oral tradition to a digital one, great storytellers have become rare and highly valued.  Though the scarcity of experts will make finding a mentor difficult, you can develop excellent storytelling abilities on your own.

As with any learned skill, you must practice every day to move toward mastery.  Fortunately, you can make storytelling a habit by working narratives into every day conversation.  A story can be as simple as an anecdote or as expansive as a case study.  One excellent way to introduce storytelling into your life is to set a goal to make one ‘non-smiler’ smile each day.

Becoming an accomplished storyteller will provide enormous personal and professional benefits.  On a personal level, talented storytellers are the life of the party.  In professional settings, you will rapidly find that people who excel at spinning yarns are far more effective in communicating ideas and motivating others to action.

Find, repeat, and refine your stories

For blossoming storytellers, the most daunting task is discovering stories to begin with.  How often have you heard someone recount an amazing tale and then said to yourself ‘wow, if my life were only that interesting, then I could tell great stories too.’  I am here to tell you that your life is that interesting.  Any situation in which you felt inspired, enraged, or even embarrassed is story fodder.  In fact, any event or interaction that ignited an emotional response is fair game.  The rest is up to you.

With rare exception, the most compelling narratives are about your personal experiences.  One of my favorite modern storytellers, David Sedaris, exemplifies the art of transforming the everyday into the absurd.  For example, take the time Mr. Sedaris summoned a plumber to his apartment in Paris.  Instead of saying merely that he needed the tradesman to fix a commode that would not stop running, he describes how he used broken French to say ‘My toilet… she cries much of the time.’

Most of us spend our days moving hurriedly from place to place without deeply paying attention to what is happening all around us.  We eat breakfast while thinking about our drive to work.  We drive to work while thinking about our ten-o-clock meeting.  We sit in our meeting while pondering what we will eat for lunch.  To be an effective tale weaver, you must closely observe the people and the environment that surround you in the here and now.  Buddhists refer to that state of being as mindfulness.  Use all of your senses so that you can incorporate what you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, think, and feel into your narrative.

When you find a solid story, or better yet several of them, refine them through repetition.  Polish your ability to recount individual tales and the aura of skilled storytelling will develop around you.  Great stories start out as good stories but are gradually enhanced through continual pruning and editing until they become legendary.

Progress from characters to conflict to conclusion

There are innumerable ways to structure plot.  However, you will never go wrong with the tried and true approach of starting with characters, putting them in conflict, and then providing a conclusion; This is the situation-complication-resolution recast in another form.

Authentic characters, with all of their warts and complexity, are the basis for any riveting story.  By identifying with specific character traits, listeners imagine themselves or people they care about as the protagonists. To help your audience form this bond, introduce your characters at the beginning of your story with highly descriptive language.  Though human beings are the most effective characters for this purpose, you can easily substitute companies, animals, settings, or whatever suits your purpose.  In order to set the stage for the coming conflict, make sure to clearly communicate the needs and desires of your characters.

By putting obstacles between your characters and their needs, you inject conflict in a way that triggers your audience’s sense of empathy and their desire to problem solve.  Presenting a single obstacle can be highly effective.  Keeping things simple is indeed the best approach when you have limited time to convey a story.   However, your best strategy is to build progressively more intense barriers for your characters to overcome, all the while keeping the carrot just in front of their noses.  This will fuel intensity and suspense.

Every story should have either a positive or negative ending.  (Yes, a cliffhanger is the third option, but that is best saved for movies with planned sequels.)  Stories with positive endings are highly effective for inspiration.  They make people say and believe, ‘I can do that.’  In contrast, cautionary tales are more effective for teaching.  Since pleasure is a more powerful long term motivation than pain, I recommend telling stories with positive endings the vast majority of the time.

The time to pull out the calamity tale is when you are trying to instill the virtues of safety to audiences that work in dangerous professions like construction or law enforcement.  Nothing says “pay attention” like ‘listen, or you might be the next one to die in a careless, preventable accident.’  If you do tell a story that ends in disaster, spend time at the end exploring ways that the characters could have avoided their fate.

Connect with the deep needs of your listeners

For your stories to have lasting impact, you must strive to connect with listeners on one or more of the four chords of emotional resonance.  In doing so, you provide your audience with nourishment on their journey to self-actualization.

The first chord to strike is the fundamental human need for love and belonging.  Everyone wants to be proud of their lives.  They want to feel that they are important, known, and understood.  In some professions, like teaching and healthcare, people have ample opportunities to connect their work to the positive impact they have on individuals and the world at large.  However, in most professions, employees are many steps removed from that impact.  As a storyteller, you have an opportunity to help connect people to an inspiring noble purpose.

The second chord to play is an appeal to desire and self-interest.  Though less dignified than love and belonging, this emotional facet is equally powerful.  By way of example, an appeal to self-interest is highly effective in situations where you are motivating people to confront a threat to job security or life and limb.

The third chord to play is inspiring self-development.  Human beings are wired to be curious about the world so that they can grow personally and professionally.  Through their indirect nature, stories allow people to think for themselves in a way that builds new skills faster than by absorbing facts.  A story about the way someone rose from mail room clerk to chief executive officer is far more effective than a bulleted checklist of leadership skills.

The fourth chord to strike is that of providing hope.  This is achieved with stories that paint a promising tomorrow that is both reachable and worth the effort.

The four chords are so powerful because they provide a connection between your message or call to action and the fundamental needs that your audience already feels are important.

Establish trust with your audience

To accept you as a storyteller and, more importantly, your message, an audience must trust you.  Because you will often be an unknown quantity, you must weave the threads of trust directly into your stories.

Openness builds trust instantly.  When you are selling an idea or motivating action, your audience will begin listening with a healthy dose of skepticism.  To bring down their defenses, you should strive to give evidence of what is in it for you before you share what is in it for them.  Your motives must be honest, genuine, and pure.  An intelligent audience will rapidly see through smoke and mirrors.  In addition, you exude openness when you use language, gestures, tone, and body language that is congruent and genuine.

Another way to establish trust is by demonstrating your credibility.  If you are telling a story to inspire people to replace energy inefficient lighting with greener options, then you are swimming upstream if your family of three lives in a six thousand square foot home with an Olympic sized swimming pool and finely manicured grounds.  You must show that you walk the walk and that you care.

A final way to establish trust is by showing respect for your audience.  Some speakers make the mistake of expounding at length on their pedigree, believing this lends gravitas.  If you have been given a chance to speak, you have already been accepted as an expert.  Your objective is to highlight how smart your listeners are, not on how accomplished you are.  Though it is safe to challenge conventional wisdom, never challenge your listeners by attempting to prove them wrong.

Allow subtlety to triumph

The mark of a great story is that it allows the listener to discover layer upon layer of wisdom through interpretation.  This subtlety lies in not being overtly outcome focused.  To enable the listener to peel the onion, you must make your stories rich in personal, emotional content as well as vivid sensory detail.

Stories need not be objective.  In fact, the most compelling stories are told from a subjective point of view.  You need your emotions to shine through and that can only be achieved if you express your most strongly held beliefs.  An interesting twist on this theme is to tell a story sequentially from multiple, distinct points of view.

Above all, you will be far more successful with upbeat stories than with negative ones, even in an environment of disillusionment; if applicable, first acknowledge what is wrong, but then move toward positive outcomes.  People crave speakers and stories that are authentic, yes, but also passionate and fun.

Recap

Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become a thought-provoking storyteller:

  • Find, repeat, and refine your stories
  • Progress from characters to conflict to conclusion
  • Connect with the deep needs of your listeners
  • Establish trust with your audience
  • Allow subtlety to triumph

Public Speaking

When I changed jobs from being a semiconductor engineer to an information technology analyst, I realized immediately that success or failure in my future career would rest upon my then undeveloped public speaking ability.  More by chance than design, I stumbled upon a local Toastmasters International club.  This non-profit educational organization helps members develop their public speaking skills in a zero risk, feedback rich environment.  I owe everything I have learned about presenting to this organization and its members.  The only way to become a stellar public speaker is to practice, practice, practice.  Consequently, the best advice that I can offer is for you to join a local Toastmasters club so that you can apply the detailed tips provided here.

As you develop your public speaking aptitude, focus on improving one presentation skill at a time.  In my experience, the most common challenges that neophyte speakers have are eliminating filler words such as “um” or “ah”, controlling nervous energy, and figuring out what to do with their arms.  If, for example, you are on a mission to eliminate filler words from your speaking, then find a safe environment and focus solely on that for a while.  Do not worry about content, style, or any other aspects of delivery.  When you reach a sufficient level of competency (remember that mastery is asymptotic), move on to the next critical skill.

Control your environment

Public speaking is a performance that you are giving for your audience.  Just as stage directors ensure that everything is ready before the curtain comes up on a play, great presenters take control of their environment.  You must arrive early so that you have adequate time to assimilate or modify the technology and physical space.

If you are using technology, leave no stone unturned.  Test your microphone.  Run through your slides in presentation mode to ensure the computer is functioning and that graphics are displaying as expected.  It is easy to fall into complacency.  Once, I inserted a graphic for an innocent enough stop sign into a presentation and did not perform a dry run.  To my shock and horror, the stop sign began flashing obnoxiously in a presentation before the senior leadership of my company.  Fortunately, they had a sense of humor, but I learned that you can never be too careful.

Understanding and even changing your environment is just as important as testing the technology.  Regardless of whether or not you can alter your environment, you should take the time to plan how you will use the physical space.  For example, if you have the freedom to move around while speaking, you can determine where to stand and which pathways to take.  If you can alter the environment, you might choose to reconfigure chairs and tables, add or remove a podium, or reposition a moveable whiteboard.

Arriving early to gain control of the environment will give you confidence that will carry over into your presentation.  However, there is yet another compelling benefit.  Once you have mastered the technology and the physical space, arriving early gives you a golden opportunity to build rapport with your audience before you speak.  By listening carefully, you will create allies and be able to draw their insights and stories into your speech.

Develop your personal speaking style

As you gain comfort with presenting, your personal speaking style will begin to shine through.  For most presenters, their speaking style is a magnified version of their day-to-day personality.  Though you can develop a presentation persona that is different from who you are, the best advice in speaking is the same advice that applies to courtship – be yourself.

In a corporate environment, the most respected speaking persona is the ‘passionate presenter’ who radiates confidence and enthusiasm.  This style will allow you to shine in most situations including selling your ideas and motivating the troops.  There are plenty of good presenters with this style.  The great presenters are able to pair passion with sincerity so they rise above being viewed as merely silver tongued.  The key is to not let style overwhelm substance.

There are of course other styles besides the ‘passionate presenter’.  Personas run the gamut from witty to humorous to angry to dramatic.  Such styles are rare in the corporate environment since they are outside the norm and can be inappropriate in common situations.  For example, while being witty is pleasant, if you use humor excessively then you will not be taken seriously; avoid opening your presentation with a joke unless you are performing in a comedy club.  Likewise, it is never appropriate to insult yourself or your audience.

Seasoned speakers know that they, not their slides, are the presenters.  They possess the agility to weave stories in such a way that the slides become parenthetical (albeit supportive).  One of the tactical ways to make this magic happen is to never expose the guts of the performance.  The audience does not care how many hours you spent preparing or that you were up all night.  More subtly, you should avoid references to the slides themselves such as “in the next slide, we will see that…”  Again, always remember that you, not your props, are the attraction.

Another critical stylistic tip to bear in mind is that you are on stage any time your audience can see you.  Your manner of dress, grooming, and comportment should be consistent with your message.  In addition to the rapport building that you do before the presentation, your performance includes everything you do from the moment you stand up from your chair to the time you sit down.  Walk tall when coming and going, and if the situation warrants, smile liberally.

Regardless of which style you choose, you owe it to your audience to be prepared.  Many of those I have coached who are new to public speaking interpret this as a call to fully draft their speech, some even going so far as to read their speeches aloud.  Your audience did not come to listen to you read, nor did they come to hear you mechanically deliver your words.  They came to be inspired, to learn, to make a personal connection that transforms them in large or small ways.  Prepare and rehearse, but do not read your presentation or memorize it.  Instead, memorize only your opening and your closing, and simply keep a mental outline of what lies between.

When people finish their prepared remarks, they often let down their guard for the question and answer period.  However, it is critical that you develop a style for this portion of your speech as well.  You are still very much on stage.  When answering questions, you communicate respect to your audience by repeating the question.  After you answer, you should seek confirmation by asking “Did I answer your question?” and then looking carefully at the body language of the person that asked the question as well as at that of the rest of the audience.

During a question and answer period, generally strive to maintain the same tone – typically confident and passionate – that you used in your speech.  Continuity of tone coupled with repetition and reinforcement of important points will cement your overall message.  Note that confidence does not imply that you need to answer every question.  You need to know when you do not know.  You are a far more credible speaker when you say “Great question.  I do not have the answer right now but would be happy to take your contact information during the break so I can get back to you.”

A final stylistic point is that you should leave enough time at the end of the question and answer period for a prepared close.  This practice reflects utmost professionalism and allows you take back control of the stage.  To close, provide a summary of your main points or a call to action.

Architect your content

The key to crafting compelling content is to consider your material from the perspective of your audience:  how does it benefit them?  Your mission is to determine a single (and I mean single) purpose, key take away, or call to action.  This anchor message should be used as the beginning and the ending of your presentation.  For example, if I were giving a presentation on speech-craft, I might begin with the following:  “At the end of the next ten minutes, you are going to walk away with three valuable techniques that will transform your public speaking ability from good to great.”  That is the kind of beginning that makes most people, except for the most jaded, lean forward in their chairs.

Keep it simple.  Simplicity begins with crafting only one purpose, key take away, or call-to-action.  As you build a story around that anchor message, stick to a limited number of messages.

Keeping your primary message straightforward and the number and complexity of supporting messages to a minimum is half the battle in ensuring that you get through to your audience.  The second half is structuring the content in a way that makes it effortless to process.  When you are speaking, even if only for a few minutes, your audience will drift in and out of focusing on you.  One moment they fully comprehend the social ramifications of textile bartering in pre-Colonial America and the next moment they are remembering to pick up a gallon of milk from the store on their way home.  Regardless of how enthralling the speech or speaker is, unbroken focus cannot be sustained.

There are two excellent ways to deliver content so that your audience will be able to follow along in spite of human deficits in attention. The first approach is to use a structured content framework.  The second is to work your content into a story.

Though there are an infinite number of structured content frameworks, the key to using any one of them for delivering content is to expose the framework itself.  One of the most effective frameworks is: Tell them what you are going to tell them.  Tell them.  Then, tell them what you just told them.  This structure forces you to employ one of the most effective and sadly underused speaking techniques – repetition.

Another sound structural approach is to use the situation-complication-resolution-next steps framework.  The situation lays bare the facts at hand.  The complication piece details the set of issues or problems that are in play.  In the resolution section, you detail a number of possible solutions and highlight the one that you recommend.  Last, next steps provides your audience with an inspiring call to action.

Though it takes more preparation and skill than using a structured framework, telling a story is the single best method to cement your message in the subconscious of your audience.  People have a remarkable ability to fill gaps in stories and to apply stories to their personal situations and values.  Moreover, stories have layers and layers of meaning that a litany of facts can never convey.  One of my favorite quotes of all time is the following: “Tell me a fact and I will learn.  Tell me the truth and I will believe. Tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”  Before you think that storytelling is not applicable in a corporate environment, think again.  You can inject miniature stories within broader presentations to add truth and impact.  Or, you can weave a story of the future of your company or product and inspire your audience to dream with you.

Practice thoughtful slide use and design

With ubiquitous software, printing and display technology, slides have infiltrated human existence.  In most developed countries, the indoctrination begins in the classroom for children still in their single digits.  By the time people are well into their professional lives, slides become both a primary means of capturing completed work and of sharing messages.

The main problem with slides in the context of public speaking is the irreconcilable tension that exists between using slides as an information repository and using slides for storytelling.  Most slides begin their existence as the former integrating tables of data, complex graphics, and most typically page after page of bulleted lists.  Most people then take these original slides, clean them up a bit, and use them in a presentation. The slides serve the convenient role of a safety net and the worst offenders simply read bullets off the slide with a few verbal flourishes.

This does not mean that the best presentations eschew slides altogether.  The best analogy I can offer is that great presentations are like great movies.  There are a few singular movies with no music such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and David Lynch’s more avant-garde “Eraserhead.”  Similarly, there are a few exquisite films with no dialogue at all including Sylvain Chomet’s “The Triplets of Belleville.”  However, the vast majority of great movies combine stunning imagery and compelling dialogue with a subtle, emotion-eliciting soundtrack.  In a presentation, you are the imagery, your content is the dialogue, and the slides are the background music.  Poorly constructed slides can ruin a presentation just as fast as a bad score can ruin a movie.

As you set out to prepare slides that you will use for a public presentation, throw away your information dense research slides, or at least put them on the other side of the room.  Grab pen and paper, sticky notes, or a whiteboard, and start to draw out the story you wish to tell.  There is no need for you to be a trained graphic designer or artist.  Many gifted presenters follow the mantra “say it, then show it.”  To achieve this, imagine that each slide you draw is the accompanying exclamation point on the part of the story you are sharing.

As you shift from analog to digital, keep your slides nearly as simple as your drawings.  Second, make your titles strong enough that they provide the “so-what” in such a way that they alone could tell the story.  Third, do not provide handouts before your presentation unless absolutely necessary.  At best, your audience will be mildly distracted reading along.  At worst, they will scan your entire presentation end to end during the crucial opening minutes of your presentation and then conclude that they have learned everything you have to offer.

Perhaps one in a thousand people that prepare and deliver presentations even have a rudimentary understanding of graphic design.  Knowing just a few basic rules governing the use of text and images will give you an incredible edge.  (If you run into a snobby graphic designer just remember to say things like “Rules are meant to be broken” and “Helvetica is so jejune.”)

The most critical rule of graphic design that applies to slide building is “less is more.”  Strive for individual slides to be simple and elegant and for the entire deck to form one harmonious whole.  For starters, use the minimum possible number of words or directly relevant graphics that you need to get your point across.  Again, your voice will be the soundtrack providing additional detail.  Minimalism extends to limiting the number of fonts, colors, and images used.

Most designers will employ just a single font in a design.  Since many slides have titles or short key headline style messages, your best choice is a variant of Helvetica, including its cousin Ariel.  (try to ignore the Helvetica Holy War that has raged for decades in the graphic design community).  Every font carries an emotional context and you should strive to match the typeface to your message.  For Helvetica, the mood is neutral yet authoritative – hence a good choice for corporate presentations.  Nearly every sign you see and company logo you come across is constructed with this font.

If you want or need to use multiple fonts, the best advice is to stay within the same family.  Beyond size, fonts vary in thickness (light, regular, and bold), as well as other attributes such as italics.  All of these variations, in addition to sparing use of a different font color, will provide contrast.  However, you are bound to run into a rare special circumstance where you need something even more starkly different.  In that case, you need to dive just a little into the technical details of fonts.

Helvetica is a sans-serif font, meaning that the ends of the characters do not have little semi-decorative lines.  If you wish to mix Helvetica with another family, it is best to do so with a serif font or a script font to make the contrast look intentional and not accidental.  While sans-serif fonts like Helvetica are great for headlines, a serif font such as Times New Roman is more commonly used for longer passages of text since the little details help quickly guide the eye.  Consequently, if you look closely at most advertisements, you will see Helvetica for titles and Times New Roman for body text.  Maybe it is not clever or creative, but it is everywhere because it works and is an excellent choice for the rest of us.  The mood for Times New Roman is credible and classic.  If you need bold contrast, then you can (again very judiciously) use a script font.  I recommend Lucilda Calligraphy which conveys the air of elegant handwriting.

The “less is more” rule also applies to the use of color.  Choose a limited palette of at most five colors.  To maintain consistency between images, fonts, and backgrounds, an excellent practice is to draw the colors from an image or set of images in the presentation.  Many of the most effective palettes are actually monochromic where the color (hue) stays the same, but the lightness/darkness (tone or value) and brightness/dullness (saturation) vary.  Alternatively, you can go for subtle but clear contrast with an analogous color scheme which is one in which colors are adjacent on a color wheel.  For bold contrast, to be used sparingly, go for complementary colors that sit on opposite sides of the color wheel.

In addition to the colors contained in fonts and images, you should also be thoughtful about the colors used in slide backgrounds and foreground.  As a general rule, use cool colors such as blue, green, or silver for backgrounds and warm colors like red, yellow, and orange for foregrounds.  Neutral colors like black and white may also be suitable for backgrounds.

In addition to the “less is more” philosophy, another set of principles worth internalizing regards attentive placement of text and images.  Again, this is the stuff of design community battles, but the basics rule in the end, via the Rule of Thirds, to be exact.  Just divide a slide into a three-by-three grid of nine equal sized boxes, using this grid to align both text and images.  It is perfectly acceptable and accepted for elements to span multiple boxes but do so with awareness and intention.  For example, imagine that you consumed an entire slide with a single outdoor photograph.  In that case, you would align the horizon with one of the two horizontal grid lines.  If the sky is dull, align it with the top one.  If dramatic, then align the horizon with the bottom grid line.  Additionally, the grid is your guide to where the focal points are on the slide.  There are five of them.  The first four are at the intersections of the grid lines and make excellent places to place an image. The fifth one is more subtle and is at the visual center of the slide just up and to the right of true center.

As for using images, the sky is the limit.  Just remember to use only images that are relevant to the message.  Avoid pictures that provide mere decoration, including most generic clipart.  Oh, and one more helpful tip.  Where possible, consider bleeding images off the page; this stimulates people to use their imagination to compete the picture.

Manage your physical delivery

When I first started to develop my public speaking ability, my greatest weakness was that I did not know what to do with my hands.  When I consulted reference materials, I either heard useless generalizations (do what comes naturally) or read lists of what not to do.  I yearned for something or someone to tell me what ideal physical delivery looks like.

To be comfortable with what do with your arms, just do what you do when you are having a standing conversation with somebody you trust.  When people speak to one another, their rest position is to have their hands comfortably down at their sides.  This is the most effective base position in public speaking.  Next, you want to make natural gestures above the waist, but below the neck.  For about half the population, hand gestures are a natural part of the way they converse.   If you fit into that group, just keep doing what you are doing.  If you are in the other half like me, then you are going to have to force yourself to make hand gestures lest you stand uncomfortably fixed like a soldier.  It is going to feel awkward initially, but I promise your discomfort will disappear in no time.  The only difference between what you do with your arms in normal conversation versus what you do in public speaking is that you should make your hand gestures somewhat larger.  The bigger your audience, the more dramatic your gestures need to be for people to see them.

Rather than hands down comfortably at their sides with elbows slight bent, many people believe that the correct base position is to keep their hands above the waist at all times.  Some people put their hands together, some people keep them apart.  You can most certainly be a good speaker if you do this, but you will not be great.  Imagine walking around all day, every day like this.  It would be neither comfortable nor confident.  Remember, you would never have a conversation with a person whom you care about with your hands up the entire time, because it creates a barrier.  Even at a distance, you will be creating the same barrier with your audience.

Now that I have shared with you what you should do with your arms while speaking, it is worth knowing what not to do.  Do not hold your hands in any of the following positions:

  • Fig leaf: Holding your arms down but with your hands coupled in front suggests that you are timid.
  • Pockets: Hands in pockets makes you appear passive or disinterested.
  • Parade rest: Holding your arms down but with your hands coupled in back suggests that you are hiding something.
  • Hips:  Hands on hips makes you appear defiant.
  • Crossed arms: Crossing your arms is a negative, challenging position.

Effective use of your arms is just one component of physical delivery.  Another is transmitting positive body language.  For starters, you should shower your audience with a genuine smile.  Smiles not only communicate calm confidence but also build trust between you and your audience.  Though there are many aspects to positive body language, the most important factor beyond your smile is your ability to keep your body square and balanced.  Face your audience, keep your shoulders square, and plant your feet on the floor shoulder width apart.

Once you master your smile and your stance, you must develop your eye-contact skills.  The key to being expert at eye-contact is to make direct eye contact with specific individuals in the audience.  Rather than scanning the audience (or worse, the ceiling or the floor), aim to make direct eye-contact with one person at a time, with that contact lasting the duration of a thought.  This literally means holding eye contact for a minimum of a dozen or so seconds while you make it through a sentence or two.

Once you have mastered the physical delivery skills of hand gestures and body language, you can transform yourself into a true professional through the use of effective movement.  Your goal is to make your movement fluid and natural while still retaining discipline.  Making this concrete, I recommend that you move on transitions.  Remain in one spot with your body square to your audience as you make a point.  Then pause and move.  Once you have stopped, begin speaking again.  Rather than being awkward, this pause gives your audience time to process your last point and to prepare for your next one.  Of course there are times when you may wish to travel a longer distance.  In those instances, you can speak while moving.  However, when you get to your new position make sure to stop and square up your body so that you do not appear to be wandering or pacing.

Master your verbal delivery

To become an excellent public speaker, you must master your verbal delivery.  Fortunately, you have fertile opportunities to practice, as public speaking is generally an amplified version of your everyday conversations.  This is of course a double edged sword. The imperfections that exist in your regular speech will be magnified during presentations.  However, with a small amount of practice you can transform your verbal delivery both on and off stage.

If you are like most people, then your speech has become infected with filler words.  People use filler words because they are uncomfortable with silence.  The most common are “um” and “ah”, but the more evolved have masked these with “so”, “actually” and even the occasional lip smack.  More insidious, though in the same category, are the words and phrases “like”, “you know”, “sort of” and “kind of” since they express uncertainty, not to mention immaturity, in what you are saying.

Fortunately, the cure for using filler words is simple.  Just pause.  The pause not only replaces filler words, but also gives you an aura of self-control. A brief silence provides time to collect and structure your next thoughts.  Beyond the personal benefits, the pause gives your audience the time they need to process what you are saying.  Longer pauses add dramatic emphasis like a subtle yet powerful exclamation point.   They grab your audience’s attention.  The pause is a gift that keeps giving.

One you have eliminated most filler words by mastering the art of the pause, you must add vocal variety to make your speech interesting.  Start by modulating your volume.  If you speak softer, you will actually cause people to lean forward in their seats and take notice.  If louder, then you command attention.  Either way, take full, deep breaths and project so that people in the last row can hear you.  Next vary the speed.  For example, you can gradually increase the speed and shorten sentences to add excitement.  Though some dramatic speakers vary pitch (high and low) and cadence (rhythmic rise and fall of voice inflection), these vocal traits can come across as artificial in a corporate setting.

Your verbal delivery extends beyond speech mechanics into the words that you use.  To enhance your audience’s interest, you should make liberal use of vivid, descriptive, sensory detail.  Sights, sounds, and smells are the easiest to incorporate.  In some situations, you may even be able to weave in taste and touch.  The small penalty you pay in being verbose is more than made up for by the impact you have of allowing your audience to form a mental picture.

Recap

Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become a polished public speaker:

  • Control your environment
  • Develop your personal speaking style
  • Architect your content
  • Practice thoughtful slide use and design
  • Manage your physical delivery
  • Master your verbal delivery

Time Management

As a general manager, the most precious resource you have is time.  To excel, you need to upgrade the manner by which you deal with new projects and underlying tasks.  The ‘Delete, Delegate, Do’ framework provides a highly effective approach to time management.

First, delete unessential tasks

Having established a reputation for expert statistical analysis skills, I am frequently called upon to assist others when they hit a brick wall.  This means that many of the projects that I engage on are predestined to be grueling and time consuming.  So, I have learned that it is critical to carefully review all requests.

In one such project, my company’s customer service organization called me into a meeting with an interesting request.  They wanted me to develop a complex algorithm to prioritize which clients to proactively contact based on usage of our products, satisfaction scores, and so on.  In my early days, I would have jumped immediately at the opportunity to be the hero that solved the unsolvable.  In my older, perhaps wiser, and far busier incarnation, I started to probe.  My first question, as always, was: ‘What is the problem that you are trying to solve?”  The service team responded with a worthy goal; they were on a mission to enhance client satisfaction through direct client outreach.

Taking a consultative approach, I explored whether there were other ways to achieve this goal.  As it turned out, there was ample capacity in the service organization to proactively call every single client in the target population within a reasonable amount of time.  Hence, there was no real need to prioritize.  The customer service team could initiate their program immediately and I could delete the arduous task of constructing a complex algorithm before I even started.  Moreover, by using a consultative approach, I emerged as an even greater hero by suggesting a superior outcome.

Keep in mind, though, that it is neither constructive nor helpful to your reputation and your career to delete tasks lightly.  To assess whether or not an action can be deleted, identify whether there is a real problem to solve and determine whether it is large enough to be worth addressing.  Many tasks will fail to meet these criteria.  If there is a valid problem, explore if there are more efficient approaches that result in equivalent if not better outcomes.  In a good number of these cases, you will be able to delete the task.

Next, delegate tasks you can reliably entrust to others

After deleting all unessential tasks, your next step is to delegate all tasks you can reliably entrust to others.  To delegate effectively, select individuals that already possess the requisite skills to be successful.  You owe it to them to share why the problem is worth solving lest they attempt to delete the task.

Do the rest (and remember to single task)

In the end, you will be left with a set of tasks that can neither be deleted nor delegated.  For these projects, I recommend applying the lightest possible prioritization.  Tasks should fall into two simple categories.  The first is the “Do It Now” category of items that you can and should tackle immediately. Everything else falls into the “Schedule It Now” category.

There is a vast ocean between “Schedule It Now” and “Do It Later” and I choose this language very carefully.  The busier you become, the less free time there is on your calendar.  I can guarantee that those tasks that are not actively scheduled for completion either will end up not getting done (in which case you should have deleted them to begin with) or will need to be done during precious evenings and weekends.  This latter behavior will not be appreciated by your family, your friends, or your doctor.

Perhaps the most important advice I can provide is that you should exclusively single-task.  In the words of psychiatrist Richard Hallowell, multitasking is a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.”  Though you are no doubt able to walk and chew gum at the same time, actions that engage the thinking brain like processing e-mails, participating in conference calls, and building presentations should be done in isolation.  Single tasking will pay dividends in speed and quality, not to mention reputation; you do not want to be the one on the conference call that always says, “Can you please repeat that?”

Recap

The “Delete, Delegate, Do” framework is an invaluable tool for effective time management.  Occasionally, you will find a fourth “D”, for Delay, inserted between delegating and doing.  I strongly recommend against this extra step.  If a task needs to be completed and you do not have time to do it immediately, then your best tactic is to actively schedule the time required.

Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to be a proficient time manager:

  • First, delete unessential tasks
  • Next, delegate tasks you can reliably entrust to others
  • Do the rest (and remember to single task)