Speaking Coach Secrets

How to Get into Listeners’ Minds

Posted Jul 09, 2018

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Imagine you’re wheeled into the emergency room for urgent care, and the doctor there is fumbling the medical instruments and looking quizzically at the nurses. Imagine you board a flight and see the pilot in the cockpit with a perplexed look on her face, touching the controls hesitantly and then writing her hands. Chances are you wouldn’t feel confident about spending your time with these folks. They didn’t say anything to you indicating they were unsure about what they were doing (in fact, they didn’t say anything at all), but you read their uncertainty from their body language, expressions, and actions.

When you present your ideas to others – as is common in the education field and others – the way you hold yourself will significantly influence whether the audience finds you credible and listens to you, which determines whether or not your ideas can take root in attendees’ hearts and minds and influence their future actions. Yet speakers fumble this chance regularly, doing disservice to what they want to share. This can have grave consequences. For example, if a teacher isn’t a good speaker, it impacts whether students are helped by his words.

Dr. Danny Slomoff of Slomoff Consulting Group has lent his Ph.D. in Psychology and theater background to 30 years of communication coaching. Slomoff coached me prior to my TED Talk at TEDxTUM, is cited in my upcoming book on this topic, and opened my eyes to many aspects of speaking that can make or break whether you get your ideas across. Slomoff agreed to be interviewed for this column, to share some of his secrets on speaking and stage presence.

Dr. Jenny Rankin (JR): What is a key component to effective public speaking?

Dr. Danny Slomoff (DS): As a speaker you want to project presence. But what is it? Presence is made up several behavioral choices.

JR: What are those behavioral choices?

DS: Posture is important. You want straight lines, no angles. For example, if you move your pelvis and hips to one side, you create angles in your spine. Some people say this is a casual posture. It isn't. It is a weak posture. You will never see self-assured, powerful women or men stand like this. They know the value in projecting presence.  While you stand straight, your chest has to be relaxed. A stiff chest makes you rigid.  A soft relaxed chest conveys confidence.

JR: I like that you summarize those points as standing straight. That gives speakers a clear focus that is easy to follow, particularly once on stage (where nerves can make it easy to forget a long list of requirements). What else?

DS: Presence has a vocal tone. For women it is the alto range and men the baritone range. If your voice is too high you will be perceived as weak.

JR: Society encourages women to people-please with passive signals like upspeak and mitigated speech. For this reason, combined with the natural vocal range they’re born with, women might especially have to work on this one. How about the way speakers talk?

DS: Talking is defined as the transfer of a sentence to the mind of another person so they can think about the meaning and relevance of the sentence. If you speak in sentences first word to period, you will be perceived as a communicator projecting presence.

Since talking is the transfer of a sentence to the mind of another person, that means you want to talk to minds.  Great communicators don't talk to floors, walls or ceilings. Powerful engaging communicators don't even talk to faces, not even eyes.   In fact, the best communicators understand that there is no such thing as eye contact.  Why would I care about the color of your eyes?  Eye contact is superficial.  If you want to project presence, you go through the eyes to your listener's mind. They make mind contact.

JR: “Mind contact”; I love that. Getting my voice to drop was really hard for me. So was fighting the urge to constantly smile, even when I was speaking about tough topics. What do speakers need to know about expressions?

DS: Presence requires emotional congruence. That means whatever you compose you want to match your facial expression and tone to your words.  You can't have a blank expression on your face while saying, “I'm so excited to be here.” You can't have a smile when you're giving strong feedback. You can't complement a peer or direct report with a scowl.

JR: What final thoughts can you share with readers?

DS: Finally, we are neurologically designed to talk.  There are no neurons in the brain for public speaking or presentations or speeches. The only neurons that exist are to have a conversation. In order to do this, we compose each sentence and deliver it to a mind. We don't scan audiences, we converse with one person at a time.