When I worked in the corporate world, you were supposed to give a trip report when you returned from a conference or client travel. This was an opportunity to share learned information with the home office, and also provided some nice accountability to participate fully while you were away.
Since I’m the director of the company, there might not be as much an incentive to give trip reports, but I feel like I should give an account to the people I serve – you.
A few weeks ago I attended the Practice Perfect conference in Albany, NY. The conference host, Uncommon Schools, is devoted to improving the quality of education through teacher education and training. They recognize that it is skill, and not merely personality and experience, that makes the difference between an effective teacher and a frustrated classroom. This conference was about establishing practice habits that translate to skills. The application and reach of the concepts could apply to anything – running meetings, coaching a basketball team, study habits for your kids, or even personal habits. I was surprised there was not more non-educator presence – I was the only person there not affiliated with a school.
Here are the highlights of what I learned and will begin to implement in our public speaking workshops and one-on-one coaching:
- First, there was a large validation that our methods are effective. We’ve preached for years that our content and methods are useless without practice and correction of (mis)behaviors. This was hammered home time and again.
- Micro-practice. The more modular you can make practice, the more effective the small skills can be acquired and perfected. Focus on the smallest possible skill – be that a gesture, particular phrase, or movement, and find a way to do it over and over. In our workshops now, we implement a short-phrase story-telling exercise to hammer home the concept of S.T.O.P. (Single Thought, One Person).
- Call your shots – learners who state what they are about to do will be more effective at focus and execution than those that “grip it and rip it” and evaluate later. Having a specific purpose to practice yields results more than just doing something over and over.
- Repetition – spend less time talking about what is effective and more time DOING what is effective. But it must be done with purpose.
- We rarely interpret audience feedback data correctly (see below). Gathering information on the true understanding and pulse of the audience is critical to adapting an effective message for them.
- Economy of words – the simpler and shorter you say it (these are keystone principles in my “Winning Communication” keynote and something I’ve taught a long time – again, validation), the more easily understood it is by the audience. This is particularly true of directions
- On the topic of directions, getting the audience to repeat what they will be doing gets them into the task quicker and with more focus and activity. I’ve seen this time and again where a group will spin their wheels when the assignment is not crystal clear.
It’s been years since I taught a formal subject in a high school setting, but our classes at MillsWyck Communications can benefit from all this – and more.
On a recent trip to Europe, I spoke to about 125 folks. Even though I attended the group’s dinner that evening, I received almost no comments from the audience that had heard me speak. Since I am my own worst enemy, my inner critic began to question the effectiveness of my presentation. The next morning, I asked my host directly if there was any specific feedback and acknowledged a mistake I knew I made. Her response was something I probably should have known, but took me by surprise: “If you don’t hear anything from Germans, it means it was fine. They would let you know quickly if they didn’t like it.”
In contrast, in two speaking engagements in the States after my return (one to about 75 and the other to about 200), I had dozens of comments after the talk, many before I could even leave the room. I don’t usually place much stock in after-talk kudos – I’ve never had anyone come up to me after I spoke and tell me I stunk. But the contrast is a good reminder of two important truths:
- Culture is always at work. You must know the audience culture in order to understand (and adapt to) them.
- Audience feedback is mostly useless. “I liked your talk” has no actionable information and gives a tangible data point that you shouldn’t change a thing. Plus, most (non-German) cultures of the world will never tell you if they didn’t like it. Some will say they did just to be polite. How useful is that? (In case you missed the May edition of Communication Matters, you can read more on my thoughts on speaker evaluations and feedback.)
Here in the U.S., we’ve just celebrated our Independence and freedom. I remind my kids (and clients) of this all the time: “We live in America – you can do whatever you want.” Speakers have incredible freedom. You behave, speak, and imply whatever you want. But…
YOU CANNOT CHOOSE the consequences. A simple example: Many of our clients wish to be more approachable and friendly. But they choose (most likely by habit, doubtfully by intention) to stand closed and rarely smile (“that feels weird!”). That’s OK, but you can’t choose how people will respond to an unsmiling, stiff or standoffish posture. If you want the results, you must train yourself to speak/act to get the response you desire. This is simple, but not easy. Coaching and self-critique must be relentless. Oh, and practice.
While I (and millions of others) take some time off this summer, please don’t think we are simply taking a hiatus. Even on the road, I am constantly gathering and refining material and working through ways to improve our impact on the world. We are making some important improvements to our materials, offerings, and opportunities for our clients. Together we can meet our mission to rid to world of boring presentations and training!
Communication matters. What are you saying?
This article was published in the July 2016 edition of our monthly speaking tips email, Communication Matters. Have speaking tips like these delivered straight to your inbox every month. Sign up today and receive our FREE download, “Twelve Tips that will Save You from Making a Bad Presentation.” You can unsubscribe at any time.