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There are people who come to me for help because they love speaking and want to get better at it.
There are people who come to me for help because they are terrified of speaking, because they are desperately uncomfortable being heard and raising their voice, or because their shyness has started to get in the way of their work.
Invariably at some point, the fearful or reluctant to-be speakers express the same reservation: “But I’m just not an outspoken person!” (Or, as often as not, “but I’m not outspoken like you!”*)
Here’s the flaw in that statement: they’ve equated being outspoken with speaking out.
Take a moment and bring to mind someone you consider outspoken. The most likely image is someone bubbly, boisterous, and probably a bit larger-than-life. You may love them or hate them, but they are impossible to ignore. They usually have bags of energy and say what’s on their mind, damn the consequences – and for some bizarre reason they can get away with it.
Now think of someone you’ve seen speak out. They are absolutely impassioned about their message and what they have to say,** but that’s where the similarities end. Some people think of a person with a soft voice and demeanour. Others conjure up an image of someone with fire blazing in their eyes who simply couldn’t keep quiet any longer. Others still think of a person who stood up with a carefully prepared message, notes in hand; maybe the paper trembled. Sometimes the speaker has a raised voice, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes their words are strong and powerful, sometimes they are hesitant and tremulous. In all cases, though, their message is heard. Their message is important.
Speaking out is about delivering an important message.
It requires you to open your heart. It requires you to open your mouth.
But it does not require you to be outspoken.
*I find the “I’m not outspoken like you” comment hilarious, probably because I have to muster up a pretty considerable amount of courage to don an ‘outspoken’ mantle. It is exhausting work.
**That’s what makes speaking out so courageous; the message is so important that it becomes bigger than the speaker’s fear. But this is a topic for another day.
You may be aware that I am a bit of a Seth Godin fangirl. It takes a great deal of restraint for me to not share nearly every one of his daily blog updates here on my own blog (Twitter is a better vehicle for sharing that sort of thing). Every now and then, though, there is one that is so good that I need to put it up here so that those not yet converted to Godinism read his words of widsom. Like this:
or sleep near a train station.
Don’t ask a cab driver for theater tips.
Never buy bread from the supermarket bakery…
and don’t ask your spouse for honest feedback about how you look.
Don’t do business with a stranger who calls you at home during dinner.
Think twice before you ask your ad agency how many ads you should run.
And never eat the macadamia nuts in the mini bar.
Proximity is not a stand in for expertise.
Think on that last sentence. Equating proximity with expertise is a common stumbling block in many industries. It is rife* in professions where members believe themselves to inherently be Jacks-of-all-trades. Librarians, for example, are extremely prone to this, so are doctors. In these cases, the “proximity” is their professional qualification, and it causes them to look inside their own professional body for people to occupy just about any kind of role necessary.
Going for proximity, regardless what form that proximity takes, is rarely a good strategy.
*Rife, not ubiquitous. There’s a difference.
It may be that the person who makes you uncomfortable, who openly challenges your actions and ideas, who unapologetically but lovingly debunks your dearly held notions is precisely the communicator you need.
Good communicators are not necessarily those who make you feel good or uplifted. They are the ones who bring you clarity, who get their point across without stomping all over your inherent worth. This does not mean they are warm, fuzzy, or even polite. It does mean that their message comes from a place of confidence and knowledge and care. Sometimes those qualities come wrapped in a package that can leave you feeling exhausted and maybe even a little bit bruised.
That communicator, however, has also left you with insight and clarity that you didn’t have prior to your meeting. It is likely they have also given you some motivation and maybe even a little bit of their grit to move forward. It is like a hard workout with a personal trainer who you know cares a great deal about your health and fitness; they may put you through hell, but once you’ve had a glass of water and a breather, you’ll be grinning ear to ear and looking forward to the next session.
The term ‘cold calling’ strikes fear into the hearts of many a professional. Heaven’s knows it does to me.
Cold calling, though, has its place. Actually, it can be a very useful activity for both the caller and the receiver. It can save time and energy, create new connections and opportunity, and grow your network. These happy outcomes depend a fair bit on the preparation of the caller.
“Cold calling” is a bit of a misnomer; the person you are calling might be cold, but you as the caller are not. Before calling, research your targets and know why it is you want to do business with them, why the two of you are a good match, and how your services or products can benefit them in particular. Note: you must know how your officer is going to benefit that person. Not the business down the street or the office three floors up. You need to be specific and precise, tailoring each conversation and approach to the particular person on the other end of the line.
You also need to have your product/service description down pat. In one short sentence – 20 words or less – describe what you do so that the listener doesn’t have to wonder how your business is relevant to them. Follow up that brief sentence with another brief (BRIEF!) blurb on how you will either increase their profits or somehow make their life easier; understand how they specifically will benefit from you, and give them that info with absolute clarity. Finally, tell them why you are the ideal person to do this for them. Again, keep it short – this isn’t the time to trot out your resume or CV, or list the 37 influential people you do business with it. One or two sentences. You should be able to say it in a single breath without rushing or wheezing.
The above might sound straightforward, but it takes serious preparation work. Get as much info on the company as you are able and craft each call individually. This will take you from cold calling to smoking hot calling. You’ll be listened to with greater attention and received with greater interest, because the person on the other end of the line will know that you know your stuff and won’t waste their time. Don’t expect this call to land you a deal or get you new business. In the case of cold calling, I define success as genuine requests for more information and scheduling follow-up conversations. If you’ve gotten their attention and have made them willing to give you more time and attention, then you’ve done well.
(Forgive me a moment while I brush the dust off my keyboard)
I’m a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde when it comes to how I gear up for a bit of advocacy. When I’m around my friends or family and telling them about the Thing That Annoyed Me, and how I will be standing up for myself, I’m all bluster. It really can get quite ridiculous; the more irritated I am about a situation, the more verbose I become. I rant and rave and pull out every ten-dollar polysyllabic word in my arsenal. With sweeps of my arm and flashes of my eyes, I illustrate the full, colourful degree of my vexation.
This is a good tactic for me. Not only does it let me get all my emotion out, it also allows me to puff up my chest and get nicely wound up. Without a good winding up, I may back out of my plan to stick up for myself and my expectations. This terrifies my mother, who often worries that my standard approach to lodging complaints is to march in, eyes and guns a blazin’, and rain holy hell on the first customer service agent I encounter.
Thankfully, Mom’s notion of my style of lodging complaints is false. God forbid I actually go out-of-doors and attempt to confront the irksome party while in full rant mode. That would be disastrous and would more likely result in me being carted away to the asylum than refunded my money. I am a firm believer that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and while a story of someone standing their ground and demanding satisfaction is entertaining, a calm demeanour and helpful attitude is much more effective.
The problem with the “stick it to ’em” approach is that it makes the person on the other side of the counter quite defensive. It doesn’t matter if the defensiveness is borne out of fear or irritation – either way, it makes that person less willing to help you. But applying honey to your tone and words does not mean simpering or becoming a patronizing twit. Rather, it involves taking the attitude that your feedback is helpful and the person you are speaking to wants you to be happy and is willing to cultivate goodwill.
The key is to go in without fear of reprimand but also without fomenting anger. By all means, you can be annoyed; a bit (note: a bit) of irritation in your voice can help get your point across. Instead of intending on going in there and making the target of your complaint see things your way, go in with the intention of helping that person improve their service for their customers. This can be difficult to do when you feel wronged or ripped off, as I had in my most recent experience.
In order to keep my cool, I first get very clear about what it is I am complaining about. Write the situation down, focus on the particulars that you are angry or upset about, and stick to those points. This falls under my advice to always keep your main point at the top of your mind in any conversation. If you find yourself getting off track or expanding your complaint to tangentially related or unrelated things, focus back on the thing that initially prompted your ire.
Next, make the following assumption: The person I am/will be speaking to does not know about or is not directly responsible for my lousy experience. They are simply the person who gets saddled with my complaint.
This assumption helps me to depersonalize the encounter. Recall how I’ve spoken about needing to depersonalize high-emotion interactions so that you do not become angry or defensive? Well, this is the same idea only you are doing the depersonalization for the customer service rep. You are not angry at them, per say, you are angry at the situation that brought you here. If you are complaining about a specific individual and have the option to deal with someone other than them, for Pete’s sake, exercise that option and talk to someone else. This will redirect your anger away from the person you are complaining to.
Third, know what action the person you are complaining to can make to satisfy you as a customer, and ask directly for that action. The person you are speaking to should not have to magically divine your heart’s desire. They don’t necessarily know if you want a refund, or exchange, or additional services. Being straight forward about what you want them to do makes it significantly easier for them to respond to your complaint as quickly and efficiently as possible. Ask for what you want.*
And finally, remember to breathe and relax. It always comes back to that, doesn’t it? Well, my constant harping about the power of breath and relaxation absolutely applies here. There is a reason why we describe people as “huffing and puffing” when they are worked up. If you are about to initiate a confrontation about a lousy customer service experience, give yourself a second to breathe, focus, and go in with a more neutral mindset. It really does do wonders.
*Of course, you might not get what you want, but at least the person you are complaining to will know what will appease you right off the bat.
“Sorry” is quite possibly one of the most pernicious words I hear in regular conversation. When used in its truest sense, a sincere sorry is lovely – both strong and vulnerable in the way in admits and accepts responsibility, or empathetic in the way it expresses understanding. These uses, however, are heard with woeful infrequency.
More often than not I hear sorry used as reduction term, as a form of pre-emptive verbal submission. We say sorry when we give an opinion, say sorry for asking for help, say sorry before speaking up in meetings, say sorry as a way to fill silences between sentences. On one hand, this compulsion can be seen as a throw-away word. We have lots of those, little words we use to fill in sound space when our brains are working. The danger of using sorry as a filler or an opener is that is has the same effect on our thinking as standing with our shoulders hunched and gaze low. It diminishes us in our own mind.
Whenever I have heard sorry used as someone’s go-to opener when they begin to speak, it has never resulted in them giving the impression of confidence or competence. This is unfortunate; one of the worst offenders in my circle of acquaintances is a remarkably competent man who gives good ideas and input. Yet instead of presenting his thoughts and ideas fearlessly or with pride, he physically and verbally shrinks, peppering his phrases with sorry.
Don’t be sorry for what you have to say. Don’t even think sorry for what you are going to say. Don’t think or feel sorry for giving your thoughts voice or for “taking up” your listeners time. Putting your ideas forward is an act of generosity, and conversation is an act of sharing. So share without restraint. You can be polite without being sorry, so for everyone’s sake, do so!
In my talks on communication and public speaking, I commonly address the flight-or-fight response that difficult speaking situations trigger. While I do train people on how to physically manage their distress symptoms (such as shallow breathing, elevated blood pressure, and the like), the way you perceive the stress response matters hugely. As McGonigal points out, if you view your body’s stress response as one of positive, preparatory excitement instead of negative, performance-shattering fear, you can learn how to use stress to your advantage. You achieve this view through practice, observation, and mindfulness. So watch the video, learn, and apply!
Stella Adler was speaking about actors. Her words apply to you, too. Actor, speaker, dancer, activist, employee, manager, whatever you are – this is the key to stepping up and letting your voice ring out with power and sincerity.
One of the keys to being able to ramble out a good, solid off-the-cuff or spontaneous speech is introspection – and lots of it.
The purpose behind this introspection isn’t to indulge in endless navel-gazing. That’s what Facebook and Instagram are for. This self-reflection is to develop an acute awareness of your values, your personal drivers, and your thoughts on life, the universe, and everything.*
When making spontaneous speeches, we need to rely on tidbits of information that we hold in our head. There isn’t time to ponder and compose an answer, and we may be lacking data critical to making an informed argument. We can, however, always give our opinion on matters. This is where the introspection comes in: if we spend time thinking about how our own brain works, we can address subjects from a personal angle. This may not result in a speech with heavy hitting evidence and data to back up your opinion, but it will result in something (relatively) thoughtful. You can speak to how you think about the topic or situation, about what affects your views and opinions, about how it relates to your own context. And – prize of prize – you can do so with sincerity because you are ultimately revealing a part of yourself to your audience, and you take the time to think about yourself and your context.
Speaking is about sharing. We don’t always have the luxury of being able to share facts, but we can always share a piece of ourselves. But in order to share ourselves, we must understand ourselves first.