Chapter 1: The Personal Touch
Would you rather listen to someone with a monotone voice who awkwardly reads from a written speech or to someone who communicates with passion, conviction, and feeling? The answer seems so obvious it's hardly worth mentioning, never mind writing a book about, but if you've recently attended a conference, convention, awards dinner, graduation, business or political meeting, or even a wedding, you know that, unfortunately, it is rare to come across someone who knows how to put aside the written speech and simply have a conversation that comes from the heart. No doubt you've heard presenters drone on as they read carefully prepared words off a piece of paper. You've seen them lose their place and stumble to recover their thoughts. You've seen the slide projector or PowerPoint equipment break down, the audio fall out of sync with the visuals. You've listened to statistics and you've looked at charts and graphs without hearing or seeing them in any meaningful way. How did you respond to these speakers? I'll bet many of you have dozed off occasionally or at the very least tuned out the speaker to take a short mental vacation in which you plan what you'll have for dinner and what you'll do on the weekend. You may even have walked out -- I know I have. These experiences can make you nervous about giving your own presentation because they show you firsthand how easy it is to lose an audience.
Have you ever tried to figure out why it's so hard to keep an audience (or even one other person) interested in what you say? If you stand back and objectively view any presentation, you can quite easily see how things go so wrong. The world of business and most professional situations are dominated by people speaking from every place other than their authentic self. Somewhere along the way they have come to believe that if they inundate people with enough facts, figures, stats, charts, and graphs their message will be too compelling, the logic too indisputable, to ignore.
I remember waiting my turn to give a speech at a business conference in New York City. The five people before me gave extremely well rehearsed PowerPoint presentations. The lights were down; the bells and whistles were going off; the speakers were clicking their slides along in perfect synchronization one to the next. After an hour or so of this, it was my turn. I got up and said, "I have to apologize for not coming prepared with a PowerPoint presentation for you." The audience cheered, applauding wildly. They were thrilled that someone was going to turn on the lights, look at their faces, and talk with
them rather than at
them. My presentation focused on communication competence and connecting with people in a low-tech, conversational way. I spoke what I believed. I tried to talk with conviction from a place rooted in strong feelings. I told them about the mistakes I've made as a communicator and the ways I was trying to improve. I used real-life examples and anecdotes to support and explain my main point. I told them about my own communication challenge of trying to become a better listener. The audience stayed with me; they asked good questions; I asked them questions; we were engaging each other. No one, that I could see, dozed off. The "magic" in that style of communicating compared to the others was simply this: my effort to make a personal connection with the audience.
I certainly don't own the patent on this idea. There have been far more powerful speakers since the beginning of humankind who, with mere words, could inspire people to move mountains. Consider great communicators like Jesus or Gandhi, who through their powerful lessons about the nature of right and wrong moved people to change their lives. Consider Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who changed the course of history with his forceful words of conviction. (Can you imagine Dr. King giving his "I Have a Dream" speech in PowerPoint?)
Unfortunately, the ability to touch people with words is becoming a lost art. In an age in which we are overwhelmed with information, data, and technical wizardry, our society is hungry for people to speak to us in a human, personal way. That's exactly why Oprah Winfrey is so successful. Every day she communicates a sense of genuine caring by empathizing with her guests and audience. Her tremendous skill as a communicator allows her to engage in a personal heart-to-heart conversation with them. She is living proof that audiences are quick to appreciate the spoken word that is not written by a professional speechwriter or advertising jargon master, that is not dependent on the bells and whistles of high-tech, audiovisual support, and that is not crafted to sound good in a fifteen-second media sound bite.
I recently experienced this effect as a member of the audience myself at my son's graduation from second grade (no caps and gowns here, but our educational system now moves him into a middle school). I sat back at this graduation ceremony expecting the usual little speeches that say, "We're so proud of your children....They have all worked so hard....We will miss them and wish them good luck." But I was soon surprised. Judith Conk, the superintendent of the school system, touched each one of the several hundred parents that day in a way none of us will soon forget. She told us that her own children were in their twenties and that she sometimes has a hard time remembering what each one was like in the second grade. She then asked us to take a moment to look at our children on the stage -- not through the lens of a video camera, but from our deepest selves -- and to burn that picture into our memory so that when the years flew by, we would always have that mental picture to cherish. She spoke to us without notes in a very personal, human way. Although I no longer recall the other speeches given that day, her words are forever etched in my memory.
Not all speakers know how to do this -- or are even willing to try. During that same week, I watched a political candidate who had just won a hotly contested primary election for major public office illustrate a more common and flawed style of speech making. As he read his carefully prepared acceptance speech, he kept losing his place when the audience interrupted him with applause. He would then fumble along searching frantically for his next words. He had no idea what he really
wanted to say to these thousands of enthusiastic supporters. He didn't realize that they didn't want to hear a "canned" speech -- they simply wanted him to look into their eyes and tell them how he felt at this very special moment. He failed to capitalize on the opportunity that their enthusiasm offered to really connect and create a memorable and meaningful exchange.
I'll wager that not one of the millions who heard the candidate's speech live and on TV could tell me today a single detail of that message, but that not one parent will ever forget the message he or she received from Judith Conk at that graduation.Making the Connection
In addition to the many dreary speeches I've had to sit through, I've also listened to many exceptionally good ones. In all my experience, no one that I know of reaches an audience better than General Colin Powell. This top military man, who has lived most of his life in a world dictated by strict rules and procedures, has mastered as well as anyone the ability to talk to people in a caring and empathic way. I've seen him do this on several occasions, but the speech that stands out in my mind is a presentation he gave as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to a gathering of army nurses at the groundbreaking for the Vietnam Women's Memorial.
In analyzing how he prepared for this critically important speech that brought his audience first to tears and then to their feet with cheers, General Powell says, "There were a lot of things I wanted to say to these women, but most of all I wanted them to know how important they were to our country. And I wanted to make a personal, human connection. My speechwriters gave me some ideas, but they didn't seem to capture the essence of what I felt -- which is understandable because they're not me. I had to ask myself how I really felt about these women and about the way the United States military had treated them in the past. I read some books, some memoirs, that nurses had written about the feelings and emotions they had bottled up for so many years after the Vietnam War. And I read some of their poems and I was deeply moved by what these women had gone through. This helped me understand what I wanted to say to them, but it was still a very difficult speech for me to write and to deliver."
General Powell did this preparatory research, not to pile on the data, statistics, and facts, but because he wanted to feel a sense of empathy with the nurses' point of view on a personal level. "I saw combat every now and again," he said, "but the nurses saw the consequences of combat every single day as these youngsters were brought in, broken and shot, wounded. And they had to comfort them. They were those moms and sisters and aunts and loved ones and wives in the last few moments of the lives of these young people. And we had not properly recognized that or adequately acknowledged the contribution that women and especially the nurses have made, not just in the Vietnam War but throughout our nation's history in combat."
The result of these personal insights gave General Powell the body of a speech that did not follow the expected military line. He did not go to that groundbreaking to take the easy way out by saying something like: "We thank you for your contribution. You should be proud of all you have done. Blah, blah, blah." He brought with him that day honest words filled with personal perspective, emotion, and candor. Here is a short excerpt from this extremely personal and human interaction. It is a classic example of a speaker establishing a true connection with his audience:
"How much of your heart did you leave there? How often were you the mother for a kid asking for Mom in the last few seconds of his life? How many nineteen-year-old sons did you lose? I didn't realize, although I should have, what a burden you carried. I didn't realize how much your sacrifice equaled and even exceeded that of the men. I didn't realize how much we owed to you then and how much we should have thanked you and recognized you and comforted you since then."
It doesn't get better than that.Do It Now
To speak like General Powell does not mean talking off the cuff or discounting the value of the intellect or a rational argument. It remains necessary to invest time in preparation, research, planning, and practice. But it means that you prepare differently than you might be accustomed to. To begin to prepare speeches with a significant impact, try these two steps:Step One: Determine How You Feel About Your Primary Message
Making a personal and honest connection is impossible unless you tap your feelings. A simple and practical brainstorming exercise will help you do this with ease. To begin, think of the topic you want to talk about and get in touch with your feelings on the subject. Focus on isolating those pieces that affect you most deeply. Jot down on a piece of paper any feelings or thoughts that come into your mind. Not complete sentences -- just words and phrases. When I prepared a recent speech about race relations, for example, I sat down and put words on paper that the topic brought to mind -- words like fear, frustration, anger, confusion, lack of empathy, prejudice, baggage,
When the paper was full, I picked out the few words and phrases that I reacted most strongly to and focused my presentation on those key points. Once I had these, I could begin my research. I found quotations, facts, examples, and anecdotes to support my point of view and add to the points of my subject that touched me most. Remember that data mean nothing without context and in every case the context is how you
feel about the subject, what matters most to you
the speaker. This is where effective communication begins.Step Two: Ask Yourself Three Key Questions
- What is my message? (This is the one thing you want people to remember when you finish.)
- Who is my audience? (What will move them? Touch them? Reach them? What do they need or want from me?)
- What do I want these people to do or feel when I'm finished?
Until you complete these two steps, you're not prepared to communicate in public no matter how many color slides you have, no matter how many pages of text you prepare, no matter how many hours of research and editing you invest. The most effective communicators connect personally with their audience, whether one-on-one, in small group conversations, or with crowds of thousands. It is the key to moving people into action, to persuading them, to gaining their support, or to resolving a conflict or difficult situation. This is the most powerful communication tool you have.
Copyright © 2002 by Steve Adubato