SIMS WYETH Executive Speech Coach for Healthcare, Financial Services, & Consulting. We provide executive coaching, strategic advice, and messaging services to companies and individuals who want to be clear, memorable, and compelling.
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 – 1895) was a self-taught English biologist specializing in comparative anatomy. He earned the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his advocacy of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Why am I telling you this? Because Huxley said something that opened my eyes to my own career as a lover of the spoken word.
He said, “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.”
I confess to you that I did not learn anything in college. I was lost, completely unmoored, unhappy, and woefully depressed.
Lost and Found
But one day, when I was reading in my ratty old easy chair in my single room, I came across three words that made my scalp tingle: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.
Suddenly the world made sense to me, and I knew what I wanted to know everything about: I wanted to know about the power of the spoken word.
And when I knew that, I only needed to know a little something about everything else.
Those three words gave me a lens through which I could see clearly, and see myself thriving.
They were old words, ancient Greek words, but for me they were my future. They told me about the mysterious power of speech, the power to influence and persuade.
Ethos, Pathos, and Logos
First, ethos is our ethical appeal, our trustworthiness. It is arguably the most important element of a persuasive speech or presentation. We dismiss the appeals of people we don’t trust.
Next, pathos is our emotional appeal. Emotions cause people to act. Facts and figures don’t do that so well. They make us think, but they don’t often tip us over into action.
Finally, logos is our logical appeal, the information that our presentation contains and the coherence and clarity of our argument.
I confess that I don’t know something about everything, but who could? I don’t even claim to know everything about something. I only know that I try to keep growing and knowing.
For that, I hope Huxley would give me an “atta’boy.”
A researcher in a large pharmaceutical company was getting ready to sell his idea for a new drug to the executive committee. His molecule showed promising activity in the test tube and in animals, and he wanted funding to test it in humans, $350 million to be precise. He asked me to help him prepare.
We polished that talk until it shined like a waxed apple. We demonstrated that the drug could kill bugs, that it lasted for twelve hours in the bloodstream (which is important because it meant twice a day dosing, which is a very marketable option), that the animals tested showed no severe side effects, that the market opportunity was ample…
He was a serious guy, short, bearded. He wore corduroy suits and orange ties. He was extremely excited about his drug. He’d worked on it for three years. And unfortunately, he was extremely nervous.
Soon after he started his talk, he picked up a pointer, one of those telescoping antenna pointers that you can extend or retract. I had insisted that his hand was the best pointer, but he wasn’t in his right mind. He wanted to point at things on the slides with a long, waggly wand, something that many men seem to find comforting.
He stretched out the telescoping antenna and pointed at one slide, then brought his hands down in front of him. The pointer got stuck on the rugged, over-sized zipper of his corduroy suit. He couldn’t get it off. He tried briefly, got embarrassed, decided to leave it there and resumed his presentation. He walked back to the screen to point with his hand at some new data, but when he walked, the pointer hung too low and waggled back and forth, disturbing his gait. So he reached down between his legs and picked it up to point with it.
When he finished pointing with it, he realized that he had looked more than silly. So he reached down and folded it up again. Then he left it dangling on his zipper until the president of the company, unable to contain himself, asked him if he would please take care of the problem.
My advice: At every high-stakes presentation, keep it as simple as possible. An extraneous device can do more harm than good.
When you deliver a speech or presentation that is highly effective, you will get promoted and make more money. However, you will not save money.
When you understand and use the basic structures of persuasive speaking handed down to us from the Greeks and the Romans, you will save time.
When you practice speaking, you will acclimate yourself to being on stage. At last, you will grow a thick blanket of rhino hide. So, no sleepless nights, no panic attacks, and no jitters. Instead, you will just feel a slight rush of excitement as you reach the podium.
Best of all, you will look good in the eyes of others!
Good speakers are widely admired. Christopher Hitchens said, “If you can give a decent speech in public or cut any kind of figure on the podium, then you never need to dine or sleep alone.”
You probably have no need for random dinner partners or overnight guests, but I’m sure that you’d like to make more money, get promoted, have more influence, feel more confident, and bask in the adoration of the crowd. So, go ahead, cut a figure on the podium.
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
Three out of the four nouns in this famous sentence penned by Winston Churchill are concrete nouns.
That’s probably why it’s a famous sentence. It packs a powerful sensory punch.
Blood is red, warm and threatening. Tears drip clear, wet and salty. Sweat is also salty and sticky when it dries on our limbs.
In fact, we feel all three of these words on our skin.
But toil? Toil is weaker than the other three nouns, weaker than it’s strapping brothers in Churchill’s renowned sentence. We don’t know exactly what toil looks like, or how it tastes, smells or feels on the skin. It’s abstract.
Abstract nouns, like toil or denuclearization are blunt instruments, the Ambien of public speaking, and often the the dullest knife in the drawer of political rhetoric. The French are the worst. Jacques Chirac squeezed 13 abstract nouns—unity, liberty, humanity and more—into a single sentence.
Such sentences are called “nominalized” sentences because the author of the sentence has forced abstract nouns to perform most of the work. And they are not good, productive workers.
Don’t nominalize. Make your verbs do the work.
Consider this sentence: “This essay gives an analysis of the pollution problem and offers a solution.”
The abstract nouns “analysis” and “solution” convey most of the meaning of the sentence, while the verbs “gives” and “offers” are practically meaningless.
So let’s fix this sentence. “This essay analyzes and solves the pollution problem.”
See what I mean? It’s shorter and more direct, and it allows the verbs to do the work. Verbs are the worker bees in the hive of language. They move things along.
Nominalized sentences may be grammatically and factually correct, but they are vague. Finding meaning in them is like hunting through fog to sculpt smoke. Most humans learn best when they can listen to a speaker and picture specific, vivid mental images—and verbs are more vivid than nouns.
Banning abstract nouns from public speeches, despite the restrictions it would impose, would improve most of the 30 million PowerPoint presentations made each day.
The aim of all writing and public speaking, according to Robert Louis Stevenson, is to affect your audience precisely as you wish.
This is equally true for written and spoken English.
Precisely is the key. The concrete noun is a precision tool, and the abstract noun is a blunt instrument.
Rid yourself of abstract nouns, the worm that is eating your eloquence.
Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) was an Italian economist. He noticed that 80 percent of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people, and that 20% of the peapods in his garden produced 80% of the peas. Thus, he invented the 80/20 rule, more formally known as the Pareto Principle.
It’s now a common rule of thumb that many real systems have approximately this balance. People say that 80% of profits come from 20% of customers, and 80% of results come from 20% of efforts.
How does it work?
So how does the Pareto Principle work in communication? What is the magic 20% that accounts for 80% of your communication success?
I think it’s the ability to build trust and build it quickly.
Miller Heiman, the strategic selling company, found that lack of trust is the number one reason people don’t buy. Surprisingly, it accounts for more than all the other reasons that you can think of put together.
And Theodore Levitt, the great Harvard business guru, said, “…products (are) judged in part by who personally offers them… the representative is… inextricably and inevitably part of the product…”
The secret ingredient: trust
Charlie Green of Trusted Advisor Associates has spent decades studying what builds trust and what undermines it.
More than 70,000 people have taken his Trust Quotient assessment, which is an online course, and it turns out that the most important element of all the elements in this thing called trust, is the ability to create a sense of intimacy with your audience.
Trust and intimacy are very hard to fake. If they aren’t real, your insecurities peek out through the cracks.
When you can achieve that sense of intimacy, you will be very close to that magic 20% that will get you 80% of your communication success.
I have a client, President of a renowned think-tank, who came to me needing to raise “transformational gifts” for her organization.
She came up from Georgia to work with me for two days in my studio in Montclair, NJ . We put together what I thought was a rousing good talk that would appeal to the interest group she serves.
Toward the end of the second day, I suggested she get up on her feet and speak it aloud.
“Nope,” she said, “No can do. I will have my right-hand guy do the talking.”
Shocked, I asked why she didn’t want to do the speaking.
She slumped in her chair., “I have imposter syndrome,” she said.
What is it?
Imposter Syndrome has been in the news recently. It is a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite the evident success of the sufferer.
In other words, imposters suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.
Furthermore, they seem unable to internalize their accomplishments, however successful they are in their field.
High-achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so imposter syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence.
In fact, some researchers have linked it with perfectionism, especially in women and among academics.
I confess that I have a touch of the syndrome myself. After every encounter with clients, whether it’s a one to one working session or a large workshop, I feel that I have to reinvent the wheel for them.
And when I get home and my wife asks me, “How did it go?” I generally say, “Okay,” and she says, “That great, huh?”
When she comes back from a speaking gig, if I ask her how it went she will often say, “I was fabulous!”
I find it hard to own and acknowledge my success, or toot my own horn.
In fact, writing this just now, I was going to say, “my success, such as it is.”
Is it my WASPY background, or my dislike of braggarts and show-offs that makes me moderate my claims about my performance?
Where does it come from?
Where does it come from? Some researchers believe it has its roots in the labels parents attach to particular members of the family.
For example, one child might be designated the “intelligent” one and the other the “sensitive” one. I’m not sure why that would lead a child to feel like an imposter, unless the child accepts the label as his own, thereby owning a false identity.
Another theory is that parents can program the child with messages of superiority: the child is so fully supported that the parents and the child believe that he or she is superior or perfect.
That could be part of my problem. When I was born, my grandfather called me the King of Men, which is another name for Jesus.
My mother was outraged and forbade my grandfather to call me that. I found it comforting and funny, but I also had a perspective on the idiosyncrasies of my Grand Dad.
Some common thoughts and feelings associated with this syndrome include:
Here are a few things to help you conquer Imposter Syndrome.
Focus on providing value: Stop thinking about yourself and help others the best you can. This is another way of saying, “take action.”
Create a file of the nice things people have said about you. Read it regularly.
Don’t compare yourself to other people. You are different from them with different strengths.
Recognize that when you hold back you rob the world. Give them you with both barrels blazing.
Faking things actually works. We end up being the people we pretend to be. Fake it til you make it. Your thoughts create words. Words give birth to deeds. Deeds develop into habits, and habits harden into character.
The world needs you. It has been built by people trying to do things that probably weren’t going to work. We need them to keep trying. We need you to keep trying. We need you, whether you feel like an impostor or not.
Communication is the key to your future. It is also the number one soft skill that employees are lacking.
Now, that’s not just me talking. It was reported in LinkedIn’s April 2018 survey, so it’s also the word of 4,000 global business professionals and leaders.
The pace of change is fueling this demand for good communicators. Therefore, with the world topsy-turvy, we are looking for people who can provide a clear path to follow.
Machines are getting smarter, and jobs will be lost. That’s not fake news. That’s an established fact. Your driverless car will not be handmade, it will be made by a robot.
However, historians, scientists, and experts say there is some good news. Work is being transformed, it is not being eliminated. So, we can leave the bots to what they are good at.
What differentiates us from them are soft skills, like empathy, the ability to inspire, grit, teamwork, creativity, innovation, and especially, the human capacity for imagination. In a data centric world where machines do much of the work, highly effective communication is the skill that will drive your success.
A few days ago I went to meet a guy who is running for U.S. Senate. He wanted me to listen to his speech and make suggestions.
It was a pretty good speech, 10 minutes long, made for the recent primary and capable of being relevant whether he did well or poorly.
He went through the speech twice. I made a few suggestions that were accepted, but did not want to upset the apple cart: I was mindful that his speech writers owned the text.
After the second run-through the candidate relaxed and asked what he should wear at the “victory celebration.”
I said that his light grey suit coat that he was wearing was appropriate because it matched the snow on his roof, if you know what I mean.
I think he took that in, but then he expressed a worry that wearing a suit coat might make him look preppy.
He is not to the manor born. He grew up in a working class town although he is now living the American Dream, pouring his own money into his campaign and having a whole lot of fun.
I congratulated him on his accomplishments (which are substantial), and reassured him that he was in good shape. The speech was short and sweet and his delivery was on the money.
Two days later I saw him on TV coming out of the voting booth wearing faded blue jeans and a white buttoned-down shirt with the cuffs rolled up to his elbows.
I couldn’t see what kind of shoes he had on, but if they were loafers, he could have passed for a Brooks Brothers model.
He looked preppy!
Trivial and Profound
There is something about clothes and politics that is both trivial and profound.
Of course, you’ve seen the standard male uniform: the crisp white button-down, neatly tailored dark suit, red or blue tie in a Double Windsor knot, and flag lapel pin.
This is the uniform of every male politician in the Western world, a modern marvel of sartorial science that beams reassurances of competence and conformity into the brainpan of every person in the room.
Ever seen a G-20 group photo? It’s two women, the King of Saudi Arabia and 17 guys wearing the standard stiff stuff.
Too much deviation from the norm — think Rick Santorum’s sweater vests, Barack Obama’s mom jeans and Bill Clinton’s short shorts — and an inspirational leader risks becoming an object of ridicule.
However, we are increasingly seeing our politicians in more casual clothes.
Clothes in the Spotlight
They have to dress for different occasions, like Summits or parades or touch football games.
Their wardrobe must be occasional and consciously designed to communicate to a demographic group.
This means that candidates have to know the subtle social cues of all the classes in our so-called classless society.
Or, they have to have somebody to tell them what to wear, a Special Assistant to the President: Demographic Wardrobe Selection.
On Feb. 2, 1977 Jimmy Carter delivered a fireside chat from his West Wing study. What caught the attention of viewers that night wasn’t necessarily what Carter said, but what he wore: an unbuttoned beige wool cardigan, to stay warm after turning down the heat to conserve energy.
That month, TIME wrote that the cardigan “may prove to be the most memorable symbol of an Administration that promises to make steady use of symbolism.”
In the world of politics, and in our own daily effort to send a message about who we are, clothing is often symbolic. In Carter’s case, he was sending a message that he was not the “Royal Reagan.” Rather, he was the humble peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia.
On the other hand, Trump will forever be known for his long red tie. You will never see him in anything but a suit, unless you capture a glimpse of him on the golf course.
To Button or Not
And finally, this from a friend:
I have a serious professional question for you. I gave a talk in Warsaw yesterday and noticed that I was the only presenter who did not button up their suit jacket. Increasingly I notice that all the senior guys button up. I guess it does make them look a little tidier on stage but it also seems a bit formal and wooden to me – but if it might add a zero to my salary potential I could suffer the indignity. What do you think? Can I get away with an open suit jacket?
And my reply:
It is the fashion. I saw it over and over on the Academy Awards show on Sunday night. Button up as you step up to receive your award. It might have to do with how tight the suits are tailored these days, and the need for the owner of the suit to show off his fitness.
Or it could simply be that the senior guys are hiding their paunches.
I have recently bought three new suits and the one I like to wear the most is the one that makes me look fit and skinny.
It can’t hurt to look like a muscled titan. Good for the wallet.
How do you know who has the real power in your company? Yes, we know who has positional power. But do we know who has real, personal power? What are the behaviors that signify power–and what are the behaviors that don’t?
Reading Power Cues
Research by Pamela K. Smith and Adam D. Galinsky suggests that we are all unconsciously adept at assessing our own and other people’s power–where we sit in the pecking order.
We have to be good at it because our level of power dictates what behavior is expected and appropriate for us.
After all, not knowing our place can get us in trouble. We need to be adept at detecting even the most subtle cues that indicate our own and other’s rank in the hierarchy.
However, (and this is very interesting) when people explicitly and consciously search for those cues that indicate the distribution of power, they paradoxically tend to be inaccurate, missing cues that are actually predictive of power, while relying on cues that are actually not predictive.
So if you consciously try to detect who has power and who doesn’t, the odds are you won’t be accurate.
4 Behaviors that Predict Power
In their paper The Nonconscious Nature of Power: Cues and Consequences, Smith and Galinsky list 19 behaviors we could assume to predict power.
But in reality, only four behaviors out of the 19 predict real power.
Since you are reading this I assume you are interested in highly effective leadership communication.
So let’s take a closer look at these four behaviors. Two of them are visual and two are audible.
Facial Expressiveness/ Intensity
When you see film of Teddy Roosevelt, you see somebody with a big mouthful of teeth. They are square-ish and white and dazzling.
As a public speaker his face is often in a passionate grimace or a wide toothy grin, and he seems to be hurling his entire body into the spoken word.
There are no (or very few) recordings of his voice or his speeches, but there is plenty of film. Several years ago the public relations industry surveyed it’s membership, asking which President was the best public speaker.
Guess who came in first. Teddy! He won even though none of the PR people had ever heard him speak. He won on the dynamic images of his face and his physical intensity.
Powerful speakers show their listeners that they are not afraid.
They do this by being expansive. They take up space. They don’t clutch their hands together in front of their chests, like squirrels begging for peanuts. They don’t fold their arms across their chests. They don’t, like boxers, protect their ribs by pressing their forearms into their sides. They don’t fiddle with their wedding rings. They don’t clean their fingernails. And they don’t hold their hands in front of their private parts like little choir boys and girls.
They use their extremities to project power and dominance.
Nothing turns an audience off faster than a weak, timid voice. No one has the time to say, “Louder please.” Well, maybe they’ll say it once, but after that you’re toast.
If you have the courage to stand up and speak, then you must say it like you mean it. If your audience catches a whiff of uncertainty in your voice or your body language, they may eat you alive.
Speaking to a crowd of any size can feel like lion taming, a dangerous occupation due to the obvious risks of toying with powerful instinctive carnivores. You’ve got to show who is boss. In a sense, you have to roar.
It is rare that I encounter speakers with underpowered voices, but if you are concerned about the strength of your voice, call me and I will give you the names of some very good people who can strengthen your speaking voice.
Interrupting people is rude, but powerful people are not necessarily interested in being polite. They want to get things done. They want to break glass. They want to be understood, remembered and believed.
And when powerful people do interrupt, everyone in the room tends to get intimidated. Very few will challenge the interrupter.
So if you want to make a name for yourself, interrupt. Madeleine Albright, the first woman Secretary of State who served under President Clinton, had to learn to interrupt because of course, she was taught that is was rude.
But in a meeting, if someone is slowing it down, or going off topic, you win points by taking control and interrupting.
So, full circle, here’s what I’ve said:
We are very good at subconsciously assessing our own power and that of others, but when we try deliberately to pick out power cues in others, we paradoxically flunk pretty badly.
And I’ve given you four powerful behaviors that you can try out as a speaker. Just be careful to use them all gently.
When I turned on the TV that Saturday just as Bishop Curry began to speak, the cameras were turning their ever-watchful eyes on the dignitaries in the front pews.
The Queen seemed to be uncomfortable, and Prince Charles and Camilla Bowles were exchanging glances, avoiding eye contact with the Bishop.
They were in the front row, in spitting distance of the Bishop’s zeal. The Bishop was warming to his theme, leaning into the lectern and smiling his beatific smile.
Suit the action to the word
I have to say my mind went to the magnificent advice that Hamlet gives to his players when instructing them on how to perform:
…do not saw the air too much with your hand thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.
…suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature…
Now, we all have different tastes when it comes to preachers. My wife Sharon and most of our friends thought the Bishop was fabulous. But I was not alone in thinking that the Bishop was on the edge of tearing his passion to tatters..
And maybe that’s what he needed and wanted to do. He was knocking on the carapace of English reserve, while I was feeling embarrassed for my louder, more overtly expressive countrymen.
When someone starts to get hot under his or her white collar, when he or she starts to “tear a passion to tatters,” I tend to detect a manufactured performance. Maybe that’s just me, my curmudgeonly, waspy inclination, but I prefer my sermons more matter and less manner.
Kenneth Burke, in his book A Rhetoric of Motives (1950) argued for the importance of decorum when speaking to groups.
Every audience and circumstance is different, so a speaker must adjust to the expectations of the moment.
You persuade a man only insofar as you talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image [and] attitude.
Memorable & effective
Were we to follow Burke’s rules, Bishop Curry may not have succeeded in his effort to persuade, but he was certainly memorable.
In an Anglican temple, he quoted Martin Luther King, enslaved Africans, and, blessing the marriage of an English Prince and an African-American actress, he did in words what Harry and Meghan hope to do in deeds–temper the divisions in the broken world and lend it greater smoothness.