Long ago, when I was a product manager at NBI, I gave a speech on local area networks (LANs) at a customer conference. LANs were just becoming popular at the time and industry analysts were debating which standards would prevail.
NBI was betting on a standard called CSMA/CD. IBM was betting on token ring. The objective of my speech was to persuade the audience that CSMA/CD was the better choice and, therefore, more likely to prevail in the long run. Token ring, on the other hand, was risky and might become a dead end product – much like IBM’s OS/2 operating system.
I knew the technology cold and I gave a great speech if I do say so myself. I highlighted the technology advantages of CSMA/CD. I set criteria around the key functions that CSMA/CD could perform and token ring couldn’t. I know that most audiences admire IBM so I didn’t take any cheap shots at Big Blue. A cheap shot would weaken my credibility, not theirs.
At the end of the speech, I was busy patting myself on the back when a very nice woman came up and asked a simple question: “What’s a LAN?” Throughout my speech, I had defined an array of advanced technical concepts but had forgotten to define the basics. My face turned red as I realized that I had just made the rookiest of rookie mistakes. I had asked the audience to come to my house rather than going to their house.
In the trade, this is known as the curse of knowledge. I knew the audience wouldn’t know the finer points of CSMA/CD but I assumed – erroneously – that they grasped the basics. I didn’t need to explain them. I never even thought about it.
In Made To Stick, the Brothers Heath tell the story of “tappers” and “listeners” which was the subject of Elizabeth Newton’s dissertation in psychology. Tappers received a list of popular songs and were asked to tap out the song on a tabletop. No whistling or humming allowed; just tap on the table. Listeners were supposed to guess the song.
Tappers were confident that they could convey the song successfully at least 50 percent of the time. But, in fact, listeners guessed the song correctly only 2.5 percent of the time.
Why were the tappers so confident? Because they could hear the song in their head. They heard the taps but they also heard so much more. As the Heaths point out, “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”
When I gave my speech on LANs, I could hear the entire song in my head. I knew how it sounded. I knew how to orchestrate it. I knew where to pause. I knew where to put in jokes. I knew it cold.
The only thing I didn’t know was what was in my audience’s head. That’s the curse.
In my video, Five Tips for the Job Interview, my first tip is to be careful how often you say “I” as opposed to “we”. If the company you’re interviewing with is looking for team players — and many companies say they are — then saying “I” too often can hurt your chances. You can come across as self-centered and egocentric. Someone, in other words, who doesn’t play well with others.
I thought about this tip the other day when I watched Chris Chrstie’s press conference addressing the bridge closure scandal. (If you haven’t heard about it, you can get a good summary here). As the Republican governor of a very Democratic New Jersey, Chritsie is widely regarded as an appealing candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. In a way, he’s interviewing for the biggest job of all. Perhaps he should have watched my video.
In the press conference, Christie needed to address a scandal that appears to be about naked political payback. The Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey didn’t endorse Christie for governor in the recent campaign. As a result (it appears), Christie’s minions shut down traffic in Fort Lee for four days. Christie needed to apologize and distance himself from such nasty political deeds.
Dana Milbank, a columnist for the Washington Post, paid close attention to the press conference. In fact, he went through the transcript and analyzed Christie’s language. The press conference lasted 108 minutes; Christie said some form of “I” or “me” (I, I’m, I’ve, me, myself) 692 times. That’s 6.4 times per minute or a little more than once every ten seconds.
The net result is that Christie comes across as an egomaniac. That may be the case but, generally, you don’t want to come across that way in an important interview. There’s a lot that I like about Governor Christie — he seems to be one of the few politicians in America who can actually pronounce the word “bipartisan”. I hope he can learn to pronounce “we” and “you” as well.
When preparing a speech, I encourage my clients to hand write their notes and scripts. There’s something about handwriting that helps you connect with your thoughts and themes. The technique is especially helpful when preparing slides for a speech. Rather than sitting down at a keyboard, start with a set of yellow sticky notes. Then write down your thoughts — one per page — and arrange the notes on a wall. You’ll think more clearly and connect thoughts more effectively. You’ll also create better slides, with less text and more flow.
I never knew quite why handwriting worked so effectively. I just knew that it did. Then I stumbled across an article by William Klemm in Psychology Today about the importance of writing in cursive (as illustrated above). Klemm argues that learning to write cursive makes kids smarter. When learning cursive, “…the brain develops functional specialization that integrates both sensation, movement control, and thinking. Brain imaging studies reveal that multiple areas of the brain become co-activated during learning of cursive writing of pseudo-letters, as opposed to typing or just visual practice.” It also improves fine motor skills and gets kids to learn to pay attention more effectively.
Similarly, Susanne Baruch Asherson, writing in the New York Times, argues that “Cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing.” Iris Hatfield, writing in New American Cursive, says there are ten reasons to learn cursive. Among them: increased speed, better fine motor skills, better self discipline, and improved self-confidence.
These articles are about teaching cursive to children. Do these benefits apply to adults? I encourage my clients to write drafts of their speeches (or press releases or white papers, etc.) by hand. I think most of them don’t take my advice — it just seems antiquated. But those that do, report positive results. Their communications are simpler and clearer. I also encourage my students to write drafts of their essays by hand. Again, most of them don’t take my advice. But I can generally guess which ones do. They turn in better papers.
So think about your communications. It’s a complex world and communicating effectively is a fundamental competitive advantage. Give cursive a chance. You may just find that you win more business.
The other day, Suellen and I saw Chip Heath give a presentation on the key messages of his new book, Decisive. Heath is on tour to promote the book and Denver was a well-promoted stop along the way.
I’ve written about the book in recent weeks and plan to write more in the near future. It’s a simple, clear synopsis of recent research on decision-making.
Today, however, I want to focus on Heath’s presentation style – he reminded me of many lessons I’ve learned in public speaking. Here’s a summary.
Establish rapport and credibility – a large audience turned up in Denver and Heath commented on it immediately, saying, “It’s clear that the people of Denver are intellectually curious. In fact, I’d say that they’re four times more curious than people in Austin and eight times more than people in Los Angeles.” It was funny but it was also a nice compliment. We loved him right away. Best of all, it wasn’t canned.
Slides as hooks not as script – Heath used a lot of slides. He advanced to new slides regularly; no slide stayed up for more than a minute or two. Each time he advanced, the audience “refreshed”. Most of his slides had fewer than ten words on them. Many had only an image. Heath told the story; the slides illustrated it. The text on the slides helped you remember the key points; they didn’t steal Heath’s thunder.
Tell a story, not an abstraction – Heath told a lot of good stories about decisions gone right and gone wrong. They were stories about flesh-and-blood people whose experiences illustrated key ideas about decision making. Every now and then, he would state an abstraction to summarize a point. He never said, “the moral of the story is…” but he could have.
Humor — he wasn’t rolling-in-the-aisle funny, but he had a dry, wry sense of humor that helped hold our attention. We paid attention partially because we didn’t want to miss a laugh line.
Parallel construction – Heath’s book has four major messages – the WRAP process. Heath covered all four and each section was structured in exactly the same way. We always knew exactly where we were in the narrative. We never got lost.
Finish early – Heath finished about ten minutes ahead of schedule (at least, ahead of the schedule that I had in mind). Giving 500 busy people ten minutes of their life back is a nice contribution to our mental welfare. We appreciated it.
Practice, practice, practice – it was clear that Heath was a polished presenter and that he had given this presentation before. That didn’t make it boring. Rather, we concluded that he respected us enough to make good use of our time. If he respects us, we can respect him.
A woman says to a man, “Oh, you’re such a brute.” What does she mean? Well, it depends. The words have meaning in themselves but the way they’re delivered also counts for something.
Let’s say that she delivers the line with an aggressive posture, a scowl on her face, and a harsh tone in her voice. Most of us would conclude that the man should take her words literally; she’s angry and the man should back off.
On the other hand, let’s say she delivers the same line with a smile on her face, a flirtatious giggle in her voice, and a soft, inviting posture. She uses the same words but delivers them in a very different way. Most people would conclude that she doesn’t mean for her words to be taken literally. What she does mean may not be crystal clear but it’s probably not the literal words she speaks. (By the way, I adapted this example from an excellent article in New Scientist).
This is what Albert Mehrabian, the father of the so-called 7%-38%-55% rule, was studying. Mehrabian was trying to identify how face-to-face communication actually transpires, especially when the words are ambiguous. He identified three basic components: 1) the words themselves; 2) tone of voice; and 3) body language, including facial expressions. These are often summarized as the three V’s – verbal, vocal, visual.
In ambiguous situations, especially when discussing feelings, how do you sort out what the other person means? Mehrabian calculated that the words themselves account for 7% of the meaning (from the perspective of the receiver). Tone-of-voice accounts for 38% of the meaning, and body language accounts for 55%. To determine whether you’re really a brute or not, you should probably pay less attention to what the woman says and more attention to how she says it. (For more on the multiple meanings of simple words, click here).
Mehrabian’s findings may be accurate in the very specific case of conveying feelings in face-to-face communication. Unfortunately, far too many “experts” have over-extrapolated the data and applied it to all communications. When you give a speech, for instance, they may claim that 93% of what the audience receives comes from tone-of-voice and body language.
If that were really true, then why speak at all? If 93% of meaning comes from non-verbal channels, a good mime should be able to deliver a speech just as well as you can. Indeed, if 93% of communication is non-verbal, then why do we bother to learn foreign languages?
Fortunately or unfortunately, even Marcel Marceau (pictured) can’t effectively deliver an information-laden speech without words. Words are important – use them wisely and use them sparingly. Body language is also important. The best advice on body language is simple: you should appear comfortable and confident to your audience. If you don’t, your audience will wonder what you’re hiding. If you do appear comfortable and confident, your audience will attend to your words – for much more than 7% of the meaning.