Friday, December 31, 2010

Emphasizing Your Point in Three Sentences: Laudable Example From Neil deGrasse Tyson--Astrophysicist and Communicator Extraordinaire

In my presentations on “Conquering the Pervasive Disease of Rambling: How to Emphasize Your Point in Just Three Sentences” (a workshop that has been attended by several thousand people since its inception in the late ‘90s and which has become one of the three most popular topics in my repertoire), the collection of real-life examples in the handout comprises praiseworthy and highly instructive three-sentence utterances by articulate Americans in business, government, education, and law enforcement. The world of science has been conspicuously absent.

Then, last week, while watching “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams,” I came across an exemplary three-sentence statement by American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, arguable the most articulate of all the personages who grace “NOVA” and other science programs on television. And this was literally a case of “manna from heaven” because the reason for Mr. deGrasse Tyson’s appearance on that program was the coinciding of a total lunar eclipse with the winter solstice—the first time that has happened in nearly 400 years. Emphasizing why he will be focusing his attention later that night on the shade of red that the moon will take on at the zenith of the eclipse, Mr. deGrasse Tyson said:

“I will look forward to learning what is going on in our atmosphere from that signature of the reflected light on the moon. How much volcanic ash is still up there; what kind of pollutants are there; are there dust storms that kicked up just before the eclipse unfolded? So, there’s some information you can learn about earth’s atmosphere by monitoring the color of the eclipsed moon.”

The above promises to become one of the most prized real-life examples in future renditions of “Conquering the Pervasive Disease….” workshop because of the series of mini, evocative, and staccato questions that Mr. deGrasse Tyson packed into the crucial second sentence.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Expanding Your Vocabulary: New Edition of “Words of the Month”

The latest edition of “Words of the Month,” my free vocabulary enhancement feature, has been online since early last week. Among the featured words, all of which lie within the conversational vocabulary of America’s most articulate:

1. plebeian – to describe something that is crude or rough in style, manner, nature, etc; something that is commonplace, coarse, or lacking in refinement.
comment: I can’t recall any word featured in “Words of the Month” in recent years that has given me as much pleasure (in developing the examples) as has plebeian, perhaps because of its wide applicability. Here are some of my favorite examples:
(i) a member of a company’s top management who demonstrates the rare ability to be an executive and a plebeian at the same time by the way he mingles and interfaces with the company’s blue-collar workforce
(ii) a gourmet cook who, with a little bit of tweaking, can transform a plebeian dish into something that tastes and looks extraordinary
(iii) following the company’s annual Christmas party, one male employee saying to another: “I don’t think Ted’s remarks were appreciated by the women at the party. They were so coarse, so plebeian.”
(iv) “Oh, so you drive an LS 460! That is one of the top of the line Lexuses, right? My Lexus is a plebeian model—the ES 350.”
(v) a woman telling her spouse: “For an event like this, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go in jeans, and old faded ones at that. We don’t want to look like plebeians!”

2. beneficence – to describe the quality of being kind, generous; also: a charitable donation or generous gift.
comment: A great synonym for words such as largesse, charity, kindness, and munificence.

Yet to complete.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Verbal Tics: Even a Couple of Utterances of “Basically”/ “Essentially” in Quick Succession Can Muddy a Communication and the Speaker’s Image

When talking about filler words and other verbal tics and how they can eviscerate an otherwise well crafted presentation (a subtopic in my recent presentations on “Simple Verbal and Nonverbal Skills for Creating a Highly Favorable First Impression” at PMI Global Congress North America 2010 and at the Minnesota Government IT Symposium), I always share with my audiences some real-life examples to buttress my points. I also name names--not to denigrate anyone but because doing so endows my ideas and admonitions with credibility and helps establish that filler words and other disfluencies can get the better of even highly trained speakers and broadcast professionals, if they lower their guard.

Take a listen and see for yourself how even a couple of uses of "basically"/"essentially" and the like, when uttered in quick succession, can render a communication inelegant. The link is to a segment from a recent edition (Dec. 22) of “Marketplace Morning Report” --one of my favorite radio programs. You will hear co-host Stacey Vanek Smith utter the following as she throws her first question to guest David Lazarus of the LA Times on the subject of Christmas shopping: “Retail sales have been pretty good this season so far. It’s strange, though, that we seem to be spending again, given that unemployment is basically worse and personal income is flat. Why, since the economy’s basically where it was last year, is consumer spending up so much this season?”

For my thoughts on (i) how verbal tics can seriously dilute the impact of a presentation or other important communication (my research indicates that as much as 40% to 60% of an audience can become distracted and lose their focus on the speaker’s message!), and (ii) how to eliminate such disfluencies from your “system,” see posts of June 28 and Sept. 29.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Visual, Evocative Words to Emphasize Something—Some Inspiring / Humorous Examples

Here are some recent examples of articulate Americans and others using a vivid, evocative expression to emphasize something--examples which, I hope, will inspire the rest of us into similarly imaginative use of the language, especially when we are trying to break through the clutter.

1. Contrasting the Nixon presidency with current political times, Bob Woodward saying on “Face the Nation” this past weekend: “In the Nixon era, the piston driving the Nixon presidency was hate. We now have a lot of conflict, a lot of disagreement, but I don’t see hate in our politics.”

2. While commenting on the Fed’s plan to pump money into the economy by buying government debt, Alan Blinder--former vice chair of the Federal Reserve—telling PBS: “Here is another alternative for the Fed. Currently, it pays banks about a quarter percent on their account reserves. The Fed could lower that to zero, or even go negative (by charging them) to kind of sandblast that money out of the banks and into the economy.”

3. Talking about Cleopatra’s extraordinary verbal skills, Stacy Schiff, who has recently authored a biography of the famous queen, telling PBS’s “Newshour”: “…fluent in nine languages, able to converse with her own subjects, which no earlier king or queen of her dynasty had been able to do, and apparently just a persuasive, silken arguer and speaker, according to Plutarch.”

4. Speaking about the nation’s financial problems during a recent edition of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Bethany McLean (yes, she of “The Smartest Guys in the Room” fame) telling fellow panelists, which included Alan Greenspan and Newt Gingrich, “People at this table may disagree with me but it seems to me that our budget problems are not calculus, they are not algebra, they are simple arithmetic. We are spending three dollars for every two dollars we take in. Something needs to give.”

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Julie and David Eisenhower Interview on CBS "Sunday Morning": A Lesson in the Obligations of Those Who Are Voluble, Expressive, or Outspoken

I’ve long been an admirer of Julie and David Eisenhower, and not for any ideological reasons. And because the famous couple rarely appears in the media, I eagerly consumed every moment of their interview broadcast last month on CBS “Sunday Morning,” one of my favorite television shows. [For the uninitiated: Julie Eisenhower is the daughter of President Nixon and David is the grandson of President Eisenhower.]

But one aspect of the interview was painful watching: Each time interviewer Mo Rocca threw a question at the seated couple jointly, the voluble and assertive Julie would instantly launch into a reply, with David sometimes vainly gesturing and trying to add a comment (once, even flailing his arms) and then abandoning his response mid-sentence upon realizing that he was not getting anywhere (because of his relative inaudibility, he was unable to seize Mo Rocca’s attention), as Julie continued with her detailed and enthusiastic response.

I believe there is a powerful lesson to be drawn from the above. Whenever two or more people are being interviewed jointly, it behooves the person who is decidedly more vocal, expressive, or vehement to make a conscious effort, such as occasionally pausing and looking at the other person, to encourage and even coax a response from him or her. A must if the latter happens to be a relatively shy or reticent type.

To watch that fascinating segment on CBS:

© Copyright 2010 V.J. Singal

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Injecting Humor in a Presentation on a Dry Topic; Eric Schurenberg Shines

Clients often tell me that one of their biggest challenges is inserting a bit of humor into their presentations, especially if they are speaking on something “dry” or very technical. In response, and somewhat reflexively, I remind them about the power of metaphorical language. Of course, there are other ways to enliven a dull topic.

This morning, while reviewing the Oct. 13 edition of PBS’s highly-regarded “Nightly Business Report,” recorded during my recent four weeks of travel, I burst out with laughter when I heard Eric Schurenberg, editor-in-chief of, utter the words shown below in Italics while speaking about an unusual estate-tax avoidance opportunity that exists this year:

"2010 offers a tax-avoidance opportunity that is to die for, literally. This year, for the first time since 1916, the families of people who die will face not a penny in estate taxes. Draw a breath in 2011, however, and under current law your heirs will owe the government 55% of your taxable estate of above $1 million. Out of that ..."

It’s a fantastic example of how a bit of imaginative wording can animate something dry and desiccated.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Continued Reverberation of Obama’s Use of “Shellacking”—An Illustration of the Power of the Spoken Word

It’s nearly three weeks since the Nov. 2 mid-term election. Yet, Obama’s word “shellacking,” which he used during a press conference the following day to describe the reverses he and the Democratic Party suffered, continues to resound. There is not a day when I don’t hear or see that word quoted in a news report, magazine article, or a current affairs discussion in the media. It proves something that I have been telling my audiences and clients for over two decades: A single word that is out-of-the-ordinary and vivid can help make a presentation indelible.

Perhaps the finest example of a fresh, strong, evocative word giving immortality to a speech or other communication is FDR’s “infamy” speech. Here is what I say about that iconic speech in the opening paragraph of my essay “Building a Wide and Vivid Vocabulary—Why Bother?” in my book "The Articulate Professional": On each anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, we Americans get to hear, in the voice of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the opening words from a speech he delivered to Congress one day after the Japanese attack: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941--a date which will live in infamy--the United States was . . .” Clearly, it is the word “infamy” that endows that line with so much impact and firmness. What if FDR had stuck with his original draft, worded “…a date which will live in world history…” Would the opening line of that speech still be so resonant and a fixture of American history, replayed in news programs and documentaries year after year, more than six decades later? Hardly!

A relatively recent example of a prominent American’s imaginative words becoming airborne and thus entering the lexicon: then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance,” uttered during a speech in the 1990s, which were repeatedly quoted by talking heads, analysts, and others during the recent financial crisis.

Having made my case for why it pays to enrich one's command of the language, I hope you will be a frequent visitor to my free vocabulary enhancement feature Words of the Month which profiles words used conversationally by America’s most articulate.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Delivering a Cogent Presentation on Leadership: One Approach or Recipe

Sure, there are several approaches to developing a compelling presentation on the subject of leadership—a presentation that is a far cry from the one discussed in my previous post (Oct. 31) which was amorphous, built on an inappropriate and impractically long mnemonic, and comprised an unending fusillade of slides bearing the names and comments of/about countless famous leaders of the past. Here is one simple but highly effective way to create something that is crystalline and which the audience can easily embrace and remember:

(i) As a first step and based on your research and analysis, identify the most critical attributes of leadership that you wish to talk about. [Suggested number: 3 or more, but not exceeding six, to keep the list manageable for the audience.]

(ii) Mention the names of, say, half a dozen great leaders each of whom you believe exemplified all or most of the qualities enumerated in Step 1. And if you want to make your presentation universally applicable as well as timeless, pick leaders from different fields. For instance, a highly admired military commander such as Field Marshal Erich von Manstein (my long-time hero); a business leader such as Jack Welch or Carly Fiorina; a non-profit or environmental leader such as Dr. Steven Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society of New York; a leader of a highly successful movement for civil rights and freedom, such as Mahatma Gandhi; one of the most revered American presidents such as Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt; and so on.

(iii) The final step is obvious: Based on your research, show the audience how each of your pick of 5 or 6 leaders exemplified most if not all of the leadership attributes you mentioned in (i) above as being of paramount importance.

End of presentation, one that is convincing and thought provoking!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

How NOT to Make a Presentation: Using a Mnemonic As The Foundation Can Render a Presentation Hollow!

Last week, while I was in Dehra Dun, an Indian city located in the Himalayan foothills, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of my high school, The Doon School, I listened to a one-hour presentation on leadership by a Dr. Sanjiv Chopra of Harvard Medical School. What a disappointment! The only positive comment I can make about that presentation is the speaker’s delivery: a strong voice with excellent enunciation. But the content? An overwhelming, rapid-fire barrage of slides that lasted more then twice the allotted time and created severe listener indigestion.

I believe my analysis of why the presentation was completely ineffective, and why it did not leave any long-term impact on the numerous members of the audience I have spoken to since, will give you specific ideas on how to make your next presentation really worthwhile for the listener, especially if it's going to be on some abstract issue such as leadership.

So, where did the speaker go wrong? First, he made the common mistake of bundling his content into a mnemonic—in this case the word “L E A D E R S H I P” itself. Thus, he had L stand for “listening” as a key skill, E for “empathy,” A for attitude, and so on. Invariably, when speakers try to fit a complex subject into a mnemonic, they end up oversimplifying the matter and leaving the audience with a distorted takeaway. Let me elaborate.

Take for instance “communication” and “vision”—unquestionably two of the most important ingredients of leadership. Because the letters C and V do not appear in the word LEADERSHIP, what does a speaker do, if he is trying to force fit everything into the letters L E A D…..? Either he will crudely and feebly tie these two qualities to other letters in the mnemonic or just make a passing reference to them. Result: the audience does not get a sharp, crystalline view of what it takes to be a strong and highly successful leader. And when the mnemonic happens to be a relatively long word, as is the 10-character “LEADERSHIP,” it will invariably end up exaggerating some minor qualities or aspects.

The second big mistake Dr. Chopra made was that for each quality represented by one of the characters in the word LEADERSHIP, he had a fusillade of slides, with each such slide featuring a comment by or about a famous leader. Thus, the presentation turned into an onslaught of several dozen such slides, producing severe overload and listener indigestion. At the end of the long, insufferable peroration, all that was left in our minds was a blur.

Since “leadership” is a particularly sexy subject for a presentation, thanks to its universal appeal, my next post offers an approach for making a cogent and indelible presentation on that topic.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Making a PowerPoint Presentation Highly Effective

I recently gathered that it is standard practice in major oil companies and engineering firms located here in Houston, and presumably everywhere else, for presenters to simply read from their slides. In other words, instead of displaying short, highly abbreviated bullet points, presentation slides are very busy, packed with complete sentences. Not a good idea at all! Here is why:

(i) As soon as a slide appears on the screen, the audience is tempted to start reading way ahead of the speaker. Result: the presenter loses control of the audience.

(ii) In the process of reading full sentences from a slide, the presenter’s delivery becomes boring, devoid of any vocal variety and relative emphasis. Result: the presentation lacks “freshness” and “spontaneity” – necessary ingredients for highly effective public speaking, especially when it comes to projecting conviction and enthusiasm, and being persuasive.

(iii) Even if a presenter were to somehow employ vocal variety, hand and facial gestures, and other elements of “animation” while reading straight from the slides, such animation would be ineffective because, as mentioned in (i) above, many in the audience would be reading material in advance of its utterance by the speaker.

Bottom line: it is imperative that each bullet point contain, at the most, just a few key words, with the speaker doing the necessary elaboration orally. Also, rather than a slide being displayed in its fullness from the get-go, each successive bullet should get displayed (such as by “flying in from the bottom”) only after the previous one has been discussed. This will prevent the audience from taking flight and it will ensure that everyone’s mind is in lockstep with that of the presenter.

In my next post on this subject, I will give specific examples of abbreviated bullet points by discussing some of the slides I presented at the Project Management Institute Global Congress 2010—North America held earlier this week in National Harbor, Md.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Building a Strong Vocabulary: New Edition of “Words of the Month”

The latest edition of “Words of the Month,” my free vocabulary enhancement feature, has been online since last weekend. Among the featured words, all of which lie within the conversational vocabulary of America’s most articulate:

1. incubus – to describe something that oppresses or burdens like a nightmare; a cause of anguished uncertainty or fear of failure.
comment: In these days of high unemployment, mounting credit card debt is a big incubus for millions of American families. And for our law enforcement agencies, an all new incubus is the threat posed by homegrown terrorists such as the “Time Square bomber.”

2. panache – a vivid word for spirited self-confidence and a dashing style.
comment: A great synonym for flamboyance and verve. Among the many singers and actors who exude (or exuded) panache: Katy Perry and Sean Connery (especially when he played James Bond).

3. fulminate – a strong word to describe the action of somebody who is shouting or hurling a loud verbal attack or condemnation.
comment: One of the ways that today’s media is different from that of, say, 25 years ago, is the advent of the Internet. Another is the prevalence of fulminating talk show hosts on radio and TV. Of course, there are plenty of fulminations when leading Democrats and Republicans attack each other on the floor of the House or the U.S. Senate.

4. incredulity – to describe the state of mind of someone who is unwilling or reluctant to believe--somebody who is skeptical.
comment: With Christmas just about two months away, this author recommends the 1947 classic film “Miracle on 34th Street” to all those who are incredulous of Santa Claus.

5. ephemeral – a term for something that lasts a noticeably short time.
comment: The nature of today’s economic news is strikingly ephemeral. Thus, one day the latest “housing starts” number is positive and the stock market soars. Two days later, retail sales look unpromising and the market plunges. Later that week, the “new jobs” numbers look robust and the Dow Jones perks up again.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Visual, Evocative Words to Emphasize Something—Some Inspiring / Humorous Examples

Here are some recent examples of people using a vivid, evocative expression to emphasize something--examples which, I hope, will inspire the rest of us into similarly imaginative use of the language, especially when we are trying to break through the clutter.

1. Talking about the speed with which the U.S. military is acquiring robots, “Wired for War” author P.W. Singer said during a CBS interview: “We went into Iraq with a handful of drones; we now have 7,000 in inventory. We went into Iraq with zero unmanned ground vehicles that are robotic; we now have 12,000. And these are just the Model T Fords, the Wright Brothers flyers, compared to what’s coming.”

2. Earlier this month, speaking with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour about Princess Diana’s impact on the British monarchy, former British PM Tony Blair commented: “Buckingham Palace saw her as a threat because she was such a different type of person. For a very traditional monarchy, it was like a meteor coming in what had been a fairly well disciplined, well ordered ecosystem, and that obviously had a big impact on it, a big consequence.”

3. Asked why Mexico’s President Calderon criticized Arizona’s new immigration law during his last visit to the U.S.--criticism that, not surprisingly, created a brouhaha here--Jeffrey Davidow, president of the Institute of Americas, saying: “If Calderon had come in here and not mentioned the Arizona law and made something of a big deal about it, he would on his return be put on a spit and roasted slowly by the Mexican public. This is a big issue for them.”

4. With reference to why the Democrats have yet to see a political payoff from the health-care overhaul and other big initiatives of the past 12 to18 months, David Axelrod telling The Wall Street Journal: “We didn’t have a lot of cotton candy that tastes good right away but disappears quickly. What we had was some fiber that’s going to help people in the long run, but it doesn’t provide that immediate pop.”

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

High-Impact Public Speaking; Eliminating Uhs and Ums, Filler Words, and Other Verbal Tics From Your Oral Communications

In a post a few weeks ago, I discussed how the unrelenting use of uhs and ums, and filler words such as actually, basically, and you know can be extremely irritating to the listener and can eviscerate your presentation or interview. As promised, here are some thoughts on how to expunge these verbal tics and other annoying mannerisms from your system.

(a) Solving the problem on your own: First you must make a conscious effort to find out what sort of tics or disfluencies you utter frequently. I say this because many who suffer from such a flaw have no idea that their speech contains a preponderance of uhs and ums, or you knows, or basically/essentially/actually, and so on. The best way to find out is to quietly ask one or two people in the audience to give you some feedback each time you make a presentation. You could also request people in the office, especially those who can hear you speak on the phone or who often attend the same meetings that you do, or family members at home. Then, having sized up the problem, stick little post-it notes or other helpful reminders on your office desk or wall, or any other place that you often stare at while on the phone. Carry a sheet of paper with such self-admonitions into each meeting.

(b) Through outside help: Join a Toastmasters club. When I first became a Toastmaster, every sentence of mine contained a spate of uhs. Yet, within just a few months, I had almost banished them from my speech! Today, even during my long workshops (1- to 2-day affairs) the audience will scarcely find me uttering more than a total of one or two uhs.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Susan Desmond-Hellmann: Communicator Extraordinaire and One of the Most Illustrious Female Execs in the Land

I first learned about Sue Desmond-Hellmann in early 2005, when she appeared on "Charlie Rose." At the time, she was a president at Genentech. I was so struck by Dr. Desmond-Hellmann's nonverbal gestures that I remarked to myself "Move over, Carly Fiorina and Ellen Futter. Make way for Susan Desmond-Hellmann," and wrote her an email complimenting her. After a while, Ms. Desmond-Hellmann fell out of my consciousness, sort of, until this past week when she appeared on the PBS News Hour.

This time, she made an even stronger impression on me. And as I watched her respond to the interviewer's questions--see video clip below--words such as the following flashed through my head: crystal clear, crisp, animated, emphatic, persuasive, engaging, well poised, utterly endearing and, ofcourse, extremely articulate.

There is no question that each one of us can advance his or her communication effectiveness by taking cues from her style--a style that is a rare and powerful blend of nonverbal techniques (especially vocal variety and facial gestures) and verbal skills, such as the use of synonymous terms and phrases, and antonyms.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

My Testifying at a Public Hearing; Exhorting the Government to Adopt Tougher Public-Health Measures; Invoking the Gettysburg Address

Yesterday, I traveled to Dallas to speak at an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) public hearing. The issue: should the federal government tighten the regulation of coal ash disposal by coal-burning power plants.

Here is my approx. 2-minute presentation. Most of the words that I emphasized (by using vocal variety, hand gestures, and other body language) are in bold. Also note my liberal use of fresh words and synonyms.

“Good Afternoon!

I am a resident of West Houston. My name is V.J. Singal, and I am testifying as a member of the general public—I should say, a member of the concerned public.

Whenever I get a chance to appear before a highly consequential government body, as yours surely is, I like to invoke a key phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—the phrase “a government for the people” which, when translated into today’s issue, would mean putting the clamps on any industrial activity that is detrimental to the public’s health, any activity that is endangering the public.

Gentlemen, you have in your possession incontrovertible evidence that coal ash is highly toxic, that it is unquestionably deleterious to the public’s health. And you have similarly irrefutable evidence that the TCEQ has been utterly lax in monitoring and implementing the Clean Air Act and other environmental regulations.

A case in point: The Fayette plant outside Austin, where coal ash has so badly contaminated the water that it has been rendered undrinkable—a perfect testimony to the TCEQ’s apathy in matters environmental.

And so, if we are to adhere to that maxim of “a government for the people,” then it is imperative, and mandatory, that the EPA, which is, after all, a protector of last resort when it comes to the environment, takes firm and speedy steps to issue new regulation—regulation that is (i) tough, (ii) unambiguous, and (iii) enforceable.

And if you do that, you will have every reason to feel truly ennobled!

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts on the subject."

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Difficult Negotiations, Such As With Someone You Don’t Trust or Who is Adversarial

People with a relatively capacious view of what effective communication is all about include negotiating strategies and tactics within its fold, hence this post.

This past Thursday, August 26, “PBS Newshour” featured a remarkable segment on difficult negotiations—negotiations that are particularly challenging because, say, you are dealing with somebody you don’t trust or who is a tough adversary, an SOB!

During the short feature—less than 6 minutes—which you can either listen to or read, “negotiating guru” Prof. Robert Mnookin of Harvard, author of “Bargaining With the Devil,” suggests that the person in the weaker position (in other words, the poor supplicant) stands a much better chance of success if he or she uses the “economic approach.” And in explaining that approach, Mnookin uses a cogent and evocative metaphor: “the carnivore is eager to trade his broccoli for a lamb chop owned by the vegetarian.” The professor also points out that “the words you use, the tone you use, your language…” (in other words, some of the very verbal and nonverbal techniques that have been the subject of my previous posts) play a big role in one’s negotiating success.

Well worth a listen or read.

© Copyright 2010 V. J. Singal

Monday, August 30, 2010

Body Language for Creating a Favorable First Impression: Go for the “Three-Pump Handshake”

I've substantially improved upon my previous post on the subject (July 28) by mentioning, among other things, the top three "ingredients" or components of a perfect handshake. I also point out why an unimpressive handshake can be so very consequential!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Creating a Favorable First Impression: Egregious Grammar Can Undo You

The display of unacceptably bad grammar even by well educated Americans occupying high positions is not uncommon. A couple of examples that readily come to mind: A few years ago, the then-police commissioner of New York City telling Charlie Rose: “….he gave a copy of the report to the mayor and I.” A similarly horrifying mix up of the subjective and objective pronouns from another PBS interview, this one involving a state governor as the guest: “She is excited that her and her family will be moving back north to be closer to her parents….” But here is something that really takes the cake. It’s an excerpt from baseball star Roger Clemens’s statement during a congressional hearing last year which was rebroadcast on NPR’s All Things Considered last week:

“Once again Mr. Congressman, I think he misremembers the conversation that we had. Andy and I’s relationship was close enough to know that if I would have known that he had done HGH which I now know, if he was knowingly knowing that I had taken HGH, we would have talked about the subject. He would have come to me to ask me about the effects of it.”

The above “murder” of the English language is so “criminal” that I doubt if I will ever be able to disassociate Roger Clemens the person from his language skills, and Clemens’s above “tour de force” will become Exhibit A in my module on “destructive grammar” when presenting the topic of “Some verbal and nonverbal skills for creating a highly favorable first impression.”

Why I am writing this particular post is to warn you that egregious grammar a la Clemens will, in all probability, completely dissolve your chances of success in a job interview or at an important networking event.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Nonverbal Communication Skills: Purposeful and Exemplary Hand Gestures That Will Knock Your Socks Off

As promised in my previous post (July 31), below is a video clip of an executive using his hands in perhaps the most estimable manner I’ve seen in a very long time. In this 2-year old clip which I pulled from my archives, you see Nasdaq OMX group CEO Robert Greifeld using a variety of hand gestures each of which is extremely effective because it sharply accentuates his words. I am proud to write that most of the gestures he employs--hands folded in a streamlined shape and pointing toward the audience; the two hands, each semi-open, closing in to portray action and dynamism; formation of two fists… are among the range of hand movements I implanted in the acting CEO of a Waste Management subsidiary whom I coached about six years ago and who is the subject of the first “success story” on my website.

Also note that the video clip below is a testimonial to the enormous value that PBS’s Nightly Business Report (NBR) brings to the table. I recommend to all of my coaching clients and workshop participants to make NBR a part of their regular TV watching because, in addition to providing insight behind top business developments, you get to see some of America’s sharpest communicators in action—people like Larry Ellison, Ford Executive Vice President Mark Fields, and, of course, Bob Greifeld.

In a forthcoming post, I will get into the granularity of Mr. Greifeld’s hand gestures. In other words, what is it about his hand movements that make him a standout and add to his gravitas immeasurably.

Video clip illustrating exemplary hand gestures, worthy of emulation by top execs, managers, and other high achieving professionals:

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Nonverbal Communication Skills: Hand Gestures That Are Valueless and Diminish One's Presentation & Stature

It is common to see a communicator using hand gestures that do absolutely nothing to emphasize or accentuate his or her points and instead, as is often the case, even weaken or diminish that person’s stature. A case in point: in the video clip below, you’ll see Ed Rollins, one of America’s most respected political analysts and consultants, using his hands in a sort of robotic, automaton-like manner--he clasps and unclasps them more than 10 times within just 28 seconds. Such hand gestures, which I call "reflexive" and "knee-jerk" (because they result when a speaker loses control of his or her hands and which come about as a natural reaction to the stresses produced within the body when a person is trying to articulate something at a key moment) do nothing to strengthen one's utterance or enhance one's personality. In fact, they can be very distracting, even ludicrous!

Video clip of Ed Rollins

My next post will feature a video clip of a top executive displaying exemplary use of the hands--a style that every professional (male or female) should strive to emulate.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Enhancing Your Vocabulary: New Edition of “Words of the Month”

The latest edition of “Words of the Month,” my free vocabulary enhancement feature, has been online since the end of last month. Among the featured words, all of which lie within the conversational vocabulary of America’s most articulate:

1. recondite – to describe something that is extremely difficult to fathom or understand, and therefore beyond the comprehension of someone with an ordinary mind.
comment: This word is a perfect synonym for abstruse. A good example of something that is recondite and frequently in the news: derivatives, the financial instruments many blame for accentuating the global financial crisis.

2. moribund – a term for something that is nearing death--something that is showing no activity or progress, or is devoid of vitality.
comment: The housing market in some regions of the nation continues to be moribund, as is the Middle East peace process.

3. aphorism – a term for a concise and often profound statement of a principle--a terse and cogent formulation of a general truth or shrewd observation.
comment: A good synonym for adage. One of the reasons why Benjamin Franklin continues to be remembered fondly is the many simple aphorisms he handed down to us, such as “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

4. Svengali – a strong word to describe someone who manipulates or completely dominates another, especially for an evil or wicked purpose.
comment: It’s now more than three years since Dmitry Medvedev became president of Russia, but some Russia watchers continue to insist that the real political power in that nation is in the hands of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and that Putin is Medvedev’s Svengali.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Handshake: According to Recent Survey, Two Thirds of Us Display Diffidence, or a Lack of Confidence, When Shaking Hands

Reportedly, General Motors recently researched the handshake -- yes, researched it! -- to teach Chevrolet dealers how to do it correctly.

What a waste of time and effort, you might exclaim, considering that shaking hands is an activity all of us professionals engage in all the time. It is something we do quite naturally and reflexively, and so take for granted.

It turns out that nearly two-thirds of us display a lack of confidence when shaking hands, as per a recent survey cited on American Public Media’s “Marketplace” this morning. And why is that important for you and me? Because, as the “Marketplace” report points out, when you are meeting someone for the first time--say, during a job interview or sales call--the potential hirer, customer, or client is making instantaneous or snap judgments about your trustworthiness, your personality, your nervousness, and so on. In other words, the consequences of having an “unconfident” handshake and thus displaying diffidence when you meet someone for the first time can turn out to be very negative for you because they can affect the outcome of that interview or sales call.

Solution: The “Marketplace” piece goes on to make several suggestions and lists the various “ingredients” or components for the perfect handshake, but here are their three most significant and worthwhile tips:
(i) go for a complete and full grip, not the limp and almost half-hearted handshake I myself have often engaged in until now
(ii) shake or “pump” three times, which is why I now refer to the perfect handshake with the moniker “The 3-Pump Handshake”
(iii) smile with both your eyes and mouth and “let that smile fade slowly.”

Click here to listen/ read the report:

Friday, July 16, 2010

Men's Attire: Wearing an Exactly Matching Tie and Pocket Handkerchief Is Not a Good Idea!

Click on the short video clip below. Because Mr. Tim Tebeila--a highly successful South African industrialist featured earlier this year on PBS--is donning a tie and pocket square (or pocket hanky) that match exactly, the “center of gravity” of his visage falls sharply--to some level below the neck! In other words, the subject’s tie-pocket hanky combination is so conspicuous that it has become the dominant element in his overall appearance, and his face--which is what ultimately should attract the observer's eye--retreats into the background, almost falling off the canvas. Bottom line: If the tie and pocket hanky are of identical color(s), the combination will almost always outshine and overwhelm the wearer’s face and should be verboten. In his latest book, Alan Flusser, one of America’s foremost designers of men’s clothing, writes: “Wearing a matching handkerchief and necktie is a sure sign of an unsophisticated dresser.” Yet, in their show windows, several (misguided) retailers of men’s clothes in many a downtown, including Manhattan, continue to deck the suits with exactly matching ties and pocket squares. When will they learn?

Video clip illustrating a matching tie and pocket hanky

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Contagion of Two Adjectives—“Narcissistic” and “Self-Aggrandizing”—Triggered by LeBron James’s Media Event on Thursday Night

In the brouhaha following LeBron James’s decision and the way he let that decision be known to Cleveland and the rest of the world, two words have been on every critic’s lips: “narcissistic” and, to a lesser extent, “self-aggrandizing.” In fact, since the Thursday night sensation, I’ve seen many a media interview during which the guest--some noted sportscaster or the other--has used narcissistic as his only term of opprobrium and that too several times within just a few minutes. So, for talking heads and others who want to vent strong criticism of the way James handled his highly anticipated announcement, here are about a dozen other terms--in the order of mildest to the harshest--that could help break the annoying monotony of “narcissistic” and “self-aggrandizing” and thus quash this verbal contagion:

self-glorifying; self-centered; vain; egocentric; distasteful; tawdry;
egotistical; odious; conceited; egomaniacal; megalomaniacal; ignoble.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Executive Communications: During a Crisis, Top Executives Using Stirring, Evocative Words to Create a Laser-like Focus Among Employees

In a recent edition of The Wall Street Journal, I read that last month, while trying to energize his employees and get them to launch new initiatives with regard to combating the BP oil spill, Adm. Thad Allen compared the environmental crisis with Apollo 13 rather than with Exxon Valdez, and said: “This isn’t a sprint, or even a marathon. This is a siege.”

I was much impressed by the way Adm. Allen depicted the problem. Clearly, his objective at that moment was to create the right mindset within his organization and inspire everyone on his team to take fervent but appropriate action. It also reminded me of the finest example I have in my possession of a top executive harnessing the power of simple but fresh and imaginative words to create just the right focus in the workplace.

That example goes way back—to the early 1990s! At the time, Taco Bell, the progenitor of “the 99-cent menu,” was in a financial bind. Thanks to steadily rising costs of ingredients, the company’s commitment to continue offering customers an array of items priced at just 99 cents had put a severe crimp on profits. So, in a presentation to his top executives, the objective of which was to create the appropriate mindset and inspire a radical solution to that burning issue, Taco Bell’s then-CEO described the problem as “Our 99-cent handcuff!” Beat that for imagination and evocativeness.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Evisceration of a Presentation or Interview by Relentless Use of Filler Words and Other Tics; A Flood of “You Knows” In an NPR Interview Last Week

Did you listen to the interview with author Kevin Michael Connolly on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” this past Saturday, June 26? If you did, chances are that you came away quite irritated by the unending stream of “you knows” from the guest. During the approximately 8-minute interview, there were at least 29 “you knows,” sometimes as many as three in a single sentence. You can take a listen by clicking here:

The overabundance of filler words such as you know, basically, essentially, um, severely weakens, even cripples, a presentation or other important oral communication. According to my research, when a disfluency runs riot during a presentation or other communication, 40% to 60% of the listeners are unable to stay focused on the speaker’s message. Why? Because many in the audience start counting the number of occurrences of that particular verbal tic.

Indeed, while presenting my popular module “Diminishers: Communication traits that sharply reduce one’s effectiveness and affect others’ perception of your competence,” whenever I ask participants for their pet peeves, the “overuse of filler words” almost always tops the list.

The problem of verbal tics getting the better of one’s communications is pervasive, and it seems to occur just as much in senior executives as in newly minted college grads. For instance, during his interview on CBS’s “60 minutes” a few months ago, one of America’s top scientists began every sentence with the word “actually.”

Verbal idiosyncrasies such as those cited above are not pathological, and can be cured with some simple steps. People who have been employing filler words ad nauseam for years, even decades, have been doing so partly because no one--neither friends nor colleagues--summon the courage or will to point them out. And the reason for the latter: Fear of causing offense and possibly even ruining a friendship. Not surprisingly, whenever I point out such a mannerism or quirk to an executive or other professional whom I am coaching, their reaction is one of genuine surprise, their typical response being “I had no idea!”

Soon, I will be posting some specific recommendations on how to expunge these annoying and diminishing verbal traits from your “system” so that you can avoid a miscarriage or serious undermining of your presentation or interview.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

High Impact Communication Skills for Foreign-born Professionals: Surmounting the Accent Handicap

Yesterday, a friend called me for help regarding one of her former employees—a man in his late 30s and of Asian origin—who is looking for a job but is not doing well in interviews. And the central problem lies in his not being fully understood: Because of his accent, at least one or more words in just about every sentence he utters are not fully intelligible to the typical listener.

Since this is a problem I come across quite frequently when working with foreign-born executives and other professionals, I immediately asked my friend to pass on the following tips to this Asian gentleman:

1. Speak slowly, especially at the beginning of the conversation so that the interviewer can fine tune his or her antenna to your accent.

2. Clearly enunciate every syllable and consonant because that is the most effective antidote to an accent. So, for instance, if the person were uttering the words “….on the third day…,” make sure that the sound of the “d” in the word third is clearly distinct from the sound of the “d” that occurs at the beginning of the word day. Very easy to master and internalize with a little bit of practice.

3. Start preparing a list of words that, when uttered by you, are often not fully or easily understood by your audience. After identifying such terms, use some strategy or the other to avoid such “loss of communication” moments. For instance, use a synonym or synonymous phrase immediately after such a term. Alternatively, banish them from your spoken vocabulary until you are able to enunciate them perfectly.

4. When emphasizing something or when using fresh words, use synonyms, just as I did at a key moment during the spontaneous interview at Chicago’s O’Hare airport with a reporter for Houston’s ABC affiliate. [For video clip and a detailed discussion of how and why synonyms help offset the loss of communication that occurs from having an accent, see blog post of May 9.]

5. Use a good bit of nonverbal skills to project conviction and accentuate your points.

Summing up: If you are an immigrant who arrived in this country after the age of 13 (that magical number helps determine whether or not you will have an accent), and if you internalize the above strategies and tactics, there is no question that every oral communication of yours will be much more impactful and effective than would be the case otherwise, no matter which country you originated from, be it China, India, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Argentina, El Salvador…you name it.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Two Interviews That Are a Study in Contrast: A Perfect Illustration of How NOT to Present Yourself In An Interview

In recent weeks, PBS’s highly regarded Nightly Business Report (NBR) broadcast short interviews with Ford Executive Vice President--and President of the Americas--Mark Fields and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne. In sharp contrast to Fields’s persona which was pleasing, projected gravitas, and inspired viewer confidence in his company’s business outlook, Marchionne looked extremely unenthusiastic and, dare I say, even sleepy. With arms folded--clearly a no-no in such situations--and speaking in a monotone throughout the Q&A, the Chrysler chief appeared variously smug, morose, and bored, and his body language was devoid of conviction.

Here’s the most amazing thing about the Marchionne interview: Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who sat beside the Chrysler exec, displayed ten times more zeal and passion about the company’s new marketing moves than did Marchionne himself. Unbelievable! By injecting just a handful of appropriate verbal and nonverbal techniques, such as those discussed in my prior posts, Marchionne could have transformed his performance into one that inspired investor confidence in the firm.

I would urge you to access the NBR Web site and watch the two interviews--Marchionne’s was broadcast on May 21, and Fields’s on June 2 (see links below)--because they present a vivid and indelible lesson in how not to be appear or speak during an interview. And that lesson, in one sentence, is the following: If you, the person being interviewed, are exhausted or, for some reason, cannot summon plainly transparent enthusiasm and conviction about your ideas, products, or services, postpone the interview or send a double. Pretend you’ve got diarrhea or something. To do otherwise runs the risk of the audience losing faith in your cause, offering, or whatever. For instance, if a CEO or other top executive looked passionless and displayed no vitality while talking about his or her firm’s new products or strategies, would you feel like buying the company’s stock or one of its products?

For the Fields interview:
For the Marchionne interview:

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Visual, Evocative Words to Emphasize Something: “Immaculate Calamity”; “Immaculate Infusion” + Other Inspiring / Humorous Examples

Here are some recent examples of highly effective communicators using a vivid, evocative expression to emphasize something--examples which, I hope, will inspire the rest of us into similarly imaginative use of the language, especially when we are trying to break through the clutter.

1. After listening to testimony from former executives of Bear Stearns and other failed financial companies, Phil Angelides--chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission--expressing frustration in his efforts to get to the bottom of the financial crisis and saying: “It appears to be an immaculate calamity where no one was responsible.”

2. In his most recent weekly commentary on NPR, Frank Deford lamenting that it’s hard to find any sport these days that doesn’t have athletes accused of taking performance enhancing drugs, adding: “Athletes accused of taking illegal drugs are invariably just downright flabbergasted to find out what has gotten into their bodies by immaculate infusion.”

3. When asked whether current counterterrorism methods in the U.S. were adequate to interdict the “newly developing class of terrorists” (probably a reference to home-grown terrorists–people such as the Time Square and “The Underwear” bombers and the Fort Hood shooter), anti-terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, telling NPR on Saturday, May 8:

“I think many of the measures that we have in place, indeed the national security architecture that we’ve created, is really an inheritance from the 9/11 Commission and from the attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001 - in other words, nine years ago. We're talking about now, a very different threat and a very evolutionary and dynamic one. What I see as one of the main challenges and indeed, one of the more salient gaps in our national security architecture is who in the U.S. government is responsible for identifying, for instance, a radicalization process, and then interdicting the recruitment of American citizens to become terrorists. And that seems to be something that we haven't both figured out how to do but even more worrisome, who in fact should do it.”

It is because of Mr. Hoffman’s extraordinary precision and vividness of expression that I have long honored him on the home page of my Web site. Also see blog post of December 27’09 about his interview on the BBC.

4. Talking about the recent Greek and euro zone financial crisis during a PBS interview, Mohamed El-Erian--CEO and co-chief investment officer of PIMCO--using a very humorous analogy to explaining why capital that would have gone to Europe is now being diverted to the U.S., thus lowering U.S. interest rates:

“As somebody once said to me, you always want to wear a clean shirt, but there are times you have to settle for your cleanest dirty shirt. Because we live in a relative world, relative to Europe the U.S. looks attractive to foreign investors.

I am afraid Mr. El-Erian wasn’t quite that effective when, moments earlier in that interview, while explaining why investors were nervous about banks that have an exposure to Greece, he compared the function of banks to that of oil in a car. In my opinion, the analogy was much too simplistic and the overall utterance relatively unappealing: “As you know, banks are like the oil in a car--they connect things. If the oil in your car doesn’t work, your car doesn’t go forward. So, there is increased pressure on European banks.”

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Building a Strong Vocabulary: New Edition of “Words of the Month”

The latest edition of “Words of the Month,” my free vocabulary enhancement feature, has been online since the first week of this month. Among the featured words, all of which lie within the conversational vocabulary of America’s most articulate:

1. desiccated – to describe a person or thing that is lacking interest, enthusiasm, animation, or feeling; something that is devoid of intellectual vigor.
comment: I am sure you’ve had to sit through many a presentation or speech that was desiccated.

2. farcical – a term for something that is ludicrous, nonsensical, absurd, or laughably inappropriate.
comment: In my blog post of May 15, about BP’s bad PR, I described some of the analogies used by BP’s CEO to minimize the oil well accident as being farcical.

3. petulant – to describe someone who is ill-tempered without reason, someone who is impatient and irritable over a petty annoyance or something trivial.
comment: My favorite example for petulance is that involving homemaking dive Martha Stewart: During her 2004 trial, we learned that she got angry with her stockbroker over the type of background music being played on the phone while she was on hold.

4. doctrinaire – to describe somebody who inflexibly adheres to an abstract doctrine or theory without regard for practical considerations; somebody who is dogmatic about one’s beliefs, ideas, or theories.
comment: Why do you think we can sometimes predict which justice will rule which way on some of the cases that come up before the U.S. Supreme Court? It’s because most of the 9 justices are either doctrinaire conservatives or doctrinaire liberals.

5. genuflect – a term of disapproval for somebody’s display of servile respectfulness or submissiveness—for somebody’s show of abject obedience.
comment: I am sure you’ve come across superiors or colleagues who are “yes-men.” Put another way, these are employees who show no spine during meetings with senior management. All they do is genuflect.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A One-Sentence Articulation of the Central Issue Raised by the BP Oil Well Disaster

Over the past 4 weeks, we’ve been witness to the offshore oil industry’s “Three Mile Island” (what with the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez-sized spill every 4 or 5 days) and BP’s series of desperate, amateurish, and unsuccessful attempts to get a grip on the situation. Because of the unprecedented nature of the disaster and the catastrophic consequences for both the environment and businesses, I am sure this will be Topic No. 1 during some of your casual conversations with friends and colleagues. Here is one approach to articulating the central issue raised by the calamitous event in just one sentence:

“The state of affairs following the April 20 oil well accident demonstrates unambiguously that while the technology for drilling in very deep water is sophisticated, the technology for remedying some of the possible accidents deep in the ocean is relatively primitive and pathetic!”

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Case of Bad PR, with Inane Analogies; Is BP’s CEO Being Guided by a Misguided PR Department?

In an interview with the Guardian yesterday, BP’s CEO Tony Hayward described the oil gushing from that failed well in the Gulf as “relatively tiny” compared with “the very big ocean.” I reacted with indignation to that statement because, just one day earlier, scientists from Purdue and elsewhere--working independently of one another, and using sophisticated analysis of seafloor video--had rejected BP’s estimate of the leak at 7,000 barrels a day, with some saying that it was at least 10 times larger, implying an Exxon Valdez-sized spill every 4 days since the April 20 accident!

Mr. Hayward made a similarly misplaced and ill-advised statement earlier this week on NPR when, in an interview with “All Things Considered,” he analogized the oil well disaster to the Air France accident last year off the coast of Brazil. As the fast worsening and out-of-control situation in the Gulf has demonstrated unambiguously, an oil well blowout in extremely deep water, howsoever improbable, can have catastrophic consequences for the marine and coastal environment, in addition to wreaking havoc on the livelihoods of a big swath of the population and threatening the safety of seafood from that region for years to come. In comparison, the direct and long-term consequences of the Air France tragedy--as in the case of any other air accident--were infinitesimal and mundane, except for friends and relatives of those killed.

One thing that I stress in my workshop on How to disarm and neutralize one’s critics and detractors without being offensive or disrespectful is that following a high-profile misstep, blunder, or accident, any statement by the company’s execs that flies in the face of clear evidence and thus insults the public’s intelligence will do irreparable harm to the firm’s image. I’m afraid Mr. Hayward’s above comments and farcical analogies will only serve to heighten millions of Americans’ disdain for BP, and make the company even more of a target for scorn and derision, especially among those who attach deep importance to the health of our oceans and marine wildlife.

BP and its PR department would be far more successful in their efforts to disarm and neutralize critics if they pursued the techniques used by such eminent “disarmers” as then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, then-IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti, and then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, all of whom were adept at neutralizing their critics when things were going south.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

For Foreign-born Executives and Other Professionals: Simple Verbal Techniques to Compensate for Accent; My Interview on Houston’s ABC Channel 13

Ideally, every word uttered by the speaker should be intelligible to the audience. And that, of course, poses a problem for foreign-borns—people like me, who speak with an accent.

Foreign-born professionals should constantly employ verbal strategies and tactics that help compensate for the loss of communication that invariably results from having an accent. This is something that I stress in all of my communication seminars and workshops, particularly when there is at least one foreign-born among the audience (as was the case when I presented in recent months at the USDA’s NRCS unit in Ft. Worth; Rice University’s Jones School of Management; Toastmasters District 56 Conference; and the annual day of Shell Oil’s employees of foreign origin).

The use of synonyms, especially when the presenter is trying to emphasize something, is perhaps the easiest and most effective means of ensuring complete understanding by the audience. I use it all the time, often reflexively!

For instance, last week, when I was interviewed spontaneously at Chicago’s O’Hare airport by a television news reporter, and thus “put to the test,” I automatically used synonyms at the points of emphasis in my replies to the reporter’s questions. On Saturday, May 1, just as I was getting ready to board my flight back home, Kevin Quinn of Houston’s ABC Channel 13 approached me and inquired if he could interview me for my take on the upcoming merger between Chicago-based United and Houston-based Continental. I consented, and Quinn promptly thrust the mike toward me with his first question—“What did you think about the merger?” My indignant response, which you can see in the video clip below: “I think this is a reverse step, a backward step, unquestionably. It’s becoming more and more of an oligopoly. And who gets screwed? The customer does, as there’s less and less choice.”

A quick analysis of the above statement: The word backward acted as a synonym to the previous adjective reverse, and helped achieved two purposes: (i) it reinforced the thrust of reverse; the two adjectives in quick succession worked as a boxer’s left hook followed by a right hook, and (ii) it helped ensure that everyone in the audience would understand my sentiment 100% because of the very highly probability that at least one of those two key adjectives in the first sentence would be fully intelligible to every listener.

© Copyright 2010 V.J. Singal

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Communicating For Results: Citing the Mona Lisa, or David, When Justifying the Preservation of an Endangered Bird or Animal Species

“The monarch has the most fantastic migration of any insect in the world,” says Lincoln Brower, the world’s leading expert on that butterfly. So, last month, in a CBS “Sunday Morning” segment about the rapid decline in the monarch’s population (being caused by massive illegal logging within “protected zones” in Mexico), when he was asked how the world would be different without this phenomenal migration, Brower responded: “My answer to that is: What good is the Mona Lisa? What good is Mozart’s music? We could live without it, but we would be diminished as a culture and as a people. There’s nothing like it. It’s unique.”

The moment I heard Brower’s reply, I realized that his is an unusually compelling and effective response to anyone challenging wildlife preservation. In the past, whenever someone has asked me why I care so passionately about conserving wildlife, I have tended to wax eloquent on the morality issue, saying that other animals have the same basic right to exist as does homo sapiens. Of course, this argument does not appeal to many, especially those who take a more egocentric view of man. Well, in future, when talking about the need to save, say, the ocelot and the red wolf--two North American animals that are fast becoming extinct--I will simply resort to the analogy used by Brower, citing things like the Mona Lisa, the Sphinx, and Michelangelo’s David, to make my point.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

High-Octane Presentations; Recommended Actions BEFORE You Start Speaking—Part II: Using the Introduction to Whet the Audience’s Appetite

First, something that I forgot to mention in Part I (post of March 21): while milling around the room, remember to flash a big smile – what I call the “all-32-teeth-showing-smile” --as you introduce yourself to everyone you meet. The reasons why such a smile works in your favor were outlined in my post of Dec. 31’09.

Now, to the subject of this post. In addition to the usual biographical stuff, have your introducer also say something that will whet the audience’s curiosity and thus build anticipation. This will help ensure that the moment you begin speaking, you will have everyone’s undivided attention--you will have conquered any and all distractions in the room, including BlackBerries bulging with fresh, unread emails.

So, for example, if your topic is on how to raise an organization’s productivity, and you are planning to share several steps that are surprisingly simple but highly effective, could you insert one of these imaginative suggestions in the introduction, as a teaser? And if you are a NASA astronaut giving a speech on what the soon-to-be-concluded space shuttle program has yielded to the taxpayer, you could stir the audience by having the introducer state one or two little known but fascinating facts--for instance, how something learned from the program will shape space flight for decades to come.

Two other items that ought to be included in the introduction that is going to be read (or circulated) prior to your taking the floor:
(i) If you are not a widely known authority on the subject, a mention of your credentials with regard to the topic.
(ii) Why this is the right time for the topic. So, if you were to going to speak on how to make your next flight more enjoyable, have the introducer mention a recent study that suggests flying will become increasingly stressful.

One caveat: Do not let the “anticipation-building passage” in the introduction border on hype or overpromise, nor let it dissipate the thunder of your presentation.

Part III of actions to take before you start speaking will be posted in about 10 days.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Visual, Evocative Words to Emphasize Something—Some Inspiring Examples

A new regular feature of my blog will be the highlighting of some examples of highly effective communicators using a vivid, evocative expression to emphasize something--examples which, I hope, will inspire the rest of us into similarly imaginative use of the language, especially when we are trying to break through the clutter.

Here is my first such list. Some are very recent, others a bit ancient—stuff that I came across while cleaning out drawers overflowing with old video tapes, newspaper clippings, and the like.

1. Talking about the 19th century botanist Robert Fortune, thanks to whom the British were able to replace China with India as their primary supplier of tea, Sarah Rose--author of “For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink…”--telling NPR that Fortune went about some of his exploits in Chinese disguise, dressed up as if he were a wealthy Chinese merchant, and adding: “I don’t know if it captured the imagination of the Victorians, but that certainly captured mine, that notion of cultural transvestitism.”

2. In a speech about his proposed regulatory overhaul of the financial industry, President Obama saying: “…the cascade of mistakes and missed opportunities (of the past decades).”

3. Walter Mossberg, comparing Google to other notable search engines in a 2001 Wall Street Journal column: “I know that people have other favorite search sites, and whatever works for them is fine. But Google is a beacon in a sea of confusion.”

4. Some seven years ago, Bill Gross, America’s bond “guru,” expressing pessimism about America’s international economic dominance (as a consequence of the Sept. 11 attacks), and saying: “While the United States rules the waves as well as turf and sky, I’m not so sure that we are, or perhaps will be, the economic powerhouse we once were.”

5. In describing the revulsion some Orthodox Christians have at the very thought of a rapprochement with the Roman Catholic Church, Tufts University’s Sol Gittleman writing in a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal: “(While touring a Greek Orthodox monastery in Athens) I asked the priest how he felt about the pope’s effort to bring about a reconciliation…. ‘Never!’ he cried, and all pleasantness left his countenance. ‘We will never forget 1203, the Fourth Crusade and the murder of….’”

Monday, March 29, 2010

Building a Large Vocabulary: New Edition of “Words of the Month”

The latest edition of “Words of the Month,” my free vocabulary enhancement feature, has been online since March 1. Words featured this time: parsimonious, Potemkin, effervescent, impolitic, animus, invidious. As in previous editions, all of the featured words are within the conversational vocabulary of America’s most articulate.

Here are some of my favorite examples from the new edition:
1. At our workshop tomorrow, we will be serving sandwiches instead of a sumptuous lunch as in the past. These latest budget cuts have forced us into being a bit parsimonious.

2. in January 2009, while visiting a critically ill relative in Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital and driving on downtown streets that were rife with potholes and seeing rusty bridges and other images of disrepair, this author remarking to his fellow passenger with disgust: “Looks like the supposedly great metropolis of Chicago is, in reality, a Potemkin village.”

3. My understanding is that every major decision taken by our CEO, Robert, is really at the behest of the company’s largest shareholder. Robert seems to be a CEO only in name, a Potemkin CEO if you will.

4. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was forced to apologize for using the word “retarded” during a meeting with some fellow Democrats when someone offered a suggestion he felt was absurd. The question that has since been occupying this author’s mind: When referring to somebody’s quality of thinking, will the conversational use of words such as idiotic, stupid, and moronic also come to be regarded as impolitic, even if these words were to be uttered facetiously or jocularly?

5. I realize you want to limit the number of guests, but if you are inviting everyone who contributed to the project’s success, you should certainly include the design folks. Leaving them out would seem invidious to me.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

“Cocaine Pricing” – a Strong and Stirring Metaphor from Harvard’s Robert Darnton

The other night, as a guest on “Charlie Rose,” Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library, used the term “cocaine pricing” to describe the modus operandi of publishers of some highly advanced scientific journals who seduce librarians into buying an initial subscription (at a low price) and then, having hooked a library’s customers, start ratcheting up the cost, making the journal so expensive that libraries have to cancel several other subscriptions. The publishers of these scholarly journals know full well that librarians will be compelled to keep renewing because of pressure from readers.

As soon as I heard Prof. Darnton explain the insidious workings of some of these publishers, I realized that “cocaine pricing” is an incredibly appropriate and evocative metaphor to describe their MO--a metaphor that you and I can apply in many a situation.

For more on Robert Darnton’s use of the term “cocaine pricing” and his point of view, check out his interview on NPR.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

High-Octane Presentations; Recommended Actions BEFORE You Start Speaking—Part I: Mingling With the Audience

When delivering one-on-one coaching on public speaking, or delivering presentation skills training to large groups, I invariably urge my audiences to make a special effort to create the right atmospherics before starting their speech or presentation because that will help beget a friendly reception of their message, even if their ideas are a bit contrary to those cherished by the audience.

For instance, milling around the room before the speech; using the introduction to whet the audience’s appetite; making a broad “visual sweep” of all those in attendance; not picking the wrong moment to start speaking . . . These are some of the easy preliminary steps to create the right ambience and ensure a high-impact presentation. This week, in “Part I,” I focus on mingling. Parts II and III next month and beyond.

Mingling with the audience before the presentation: By arriving early and engaging in light conversation or banter with some of those who will comprise your audience--something which I’ll readily admit is not possible in all situations--has several benefits. Among them:

(i) You will be able to “connect” with the listeners. It’ll be an opportunity for you to be seen as an endearing, warm-blooded person. And we know from research that there is a much greater chance of people accepting a presenter’s point of view if they like the speaker “personally.”

(ii) For neophyte speakers, this can be a confidence booster. It helps lessen nervousness. By mingling and “connecting,” a speaker quickly realizes that many in the audience are unquestionably supportive and want the presenter to succeed.

(iii) It’s an opportunity to ask people at random what issues or aspects they are expecting you to talk about. You might be surprised to learn there’s a misconception with regard to your topic or subject matter--something that you should definitely address during the presentation. Such informal one-on-one quizzing of the audience before the presentation becomes even more valuable if some of your material is controversial.

(iv) Continuing on the issue of a controversial or charged subject matter, the chit-chat will lower the probability of those opposed to your point of view being totally impervious to your ideas. And there will be less likelihood of your encountering hostility during the Q&A.

(v) Finally, if you are a foreign-born and have an accent, as I do, it’ll enable listeners to fine-tune their antennas to your style of speaking and idiosyncrasies well in advance.

Part II of actions to take before you start speaking will be posted next month.


An Apology; End of My Long Slumber

Forgive me for not writing for almost 5 weeks. I was in one of the periodic Rip Van Winkle phases of my life.

Subject: Nov--Dec 2015 website update cycle: #5 -- Final email -- Contents of "What's New" box


please make the following changes in the "What's New" box on home page: 


First bullet:


Latest rendition of “Employee Recognition: How to deliver effective praise in Just Three Sentences”  

(embed the new link you are creating for the Oct. 15 seminar in Dallas in the words “Employee Recognition: How to deliver effective praise”) [note: the words “in just three sentences” should not be part of the link]


Second bullet:

 New seminar topic: Enhancing morale and harmony in a highly diverse workplace

(embed following link in the words “New seminar topic”)

Third bullet:

“Campaigning like she’s in Napoleon’s march on Moscow” -- visual, evocative expression for emphasis

(embed following link in the words "visual, evocative expression”


Fourth bullet:

Senior executive at ExxonMobil on the long-term benefits of my one-on-one coaching

(embed following link in the words "long-term benefits of my one-on-one coaching”)

Same link as last time

Fifth bullet:

November/ December 2015 Words of the Month

Sixth bullet: 

September /October  2015 Vocabulary Quiz



No more emails for this cycle.






Monday, February 15, 2010

The New, Capacious Definition for “Anniversary”; Will Terms Such as “1-Week Anniversary” or “3-Day Anniversary” Become Common?

This past Thursday, February 11, in his setup to a report from Haiti, Brian Williams of “NBC Nightly News” began: “Tomorrow is the 1-month anniversary of the earthquake that…….” Immediately, I said to myself, “What’s wrong with him! Doesn’t an anniversary refer only to the annually recurring date of a past event, by definition?” Of course, I was wrong and Brian Williams was right because, as per “Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary – 11th edition”--the most authoritative dictionary for American professionals--one of the senses of anniversary is: “a date that follows such an event by a specified period of time measured in units other than years; example: the 6-month anniversary of the accident.”

That brings me to the title of this post. Now that the definition of the word anniversary has become more expansive, I suppose utterances such as “Yesterday was the 1-week anniversary of my first ever presentation to the board” and “Today is the 10-day anniversary of my starting work at this company” will become common. And to extend this logic a bit: I know of a certain culture whose members hold a religious ceremony for the departed 3 days after death. Well, they can refer to that day as “the 3-day anniversary of…”.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Men Trivializing Women in a Professional Setting

Last weekend, while viewing some 2008 & 2009 recordings on my DVR, I came across a public affairs program broadcast on KTRK-TV, the ABC affiliate here in Houston, that left me indignant because of the blatant gender bias, however unintended it might have been.

The purpose of that show was to give Houstonians an insight into the four Republican candidates vying for the position of Harris County District Attorney. Here is the exact wording of the opening questions by host Art Rascon to the two men (Doug Perry and Jim Leitner) and two women (Kelly Siegler and Pat Lykos).
- (to the person on the extreme right) “Kelly Siegler, let’s start with you. There is a public trust problem with the DA’s office…..”
- (to the second person from the right) “Mr. Perry, what do you plan on doing to restore public trust in the DA’s office…”
- (to the 3rd person from the right) And how open should that office be, Pat Lykos? …
- (to the 4th person) “Mr. Jim Leitner, how much information is too much information for the public’s need to know…”

You can bet that the above will be "exhibit one" in future renditions of my sessions on “Diminishers” and “How to Minimize the Diminution of Women’s Communications in the Workplace.”
Incidentally, Pat Lykos went on to win the election and is the current Harris County District Attorney.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

High Impact Communication Techniques: Adopting Metaphorical Language Used by Others; To be the "Mountain Goat" of Something

Reference my blog of yesterday about President Obama using the term “Bolshevik plot” metaphorically during his Q&A session with the Republicans, and the term being widely quoted in the media. That is a perfect example of how all of us can enlarge our vocabulary of stirring and impactful terms by adopting somebody’s imaginative metaphor, simile, or other analogy.

Take for instance the term Bolshevik which is not commonly heard metaphorically, even though the Bolshevik Revolution is pretty common knowledge. Well, Obama’s use of Bolshevik this past Friday, and the resulting laughter among the audience and flutter in the media, reminded me how evocative and how strong a term of opprobrium it is in Western democracies, and immediately suggested to me that it would be a wonderful addition to my arsenal of metaphorical terms, especially when using the technique of exaggeration to create humor.

Specific examples of how I expect to use it in the near future: when referring to someone in the third person who is sort or rebellious or borders on being a bit of a revolutionary as “Oh, that guy is a Bolshevik.” Or, I could tamp down people’s anxieties following some tumultuous happening or political upset by saying “Come on, this is not the Bolshevik Revolution or something. They will recover.”

I am constantly picking up imaginative terms from the few talking heads who are extremely articulate and who regularly grace radio and television, and so can you. I refer to people such as George Will, featured every Sunday on “ABC This Week,” and Mark Shields, who appears on “PBS News Hour” at least once a week. Several months ago, I heard Shields describe a politician as “He is extremely surefooted, never makes a mistake. He is the mountain goat of politics.” Beat that for evocativeness! I have since used the term “mountain goat” metaphorically several times, and always elicited laughter from my audience.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Communicating Successfully: Obama’s “Bolshevik Plot” Line Instantly Becomes Airborne, Illustrating the Power of Fresh, Evocative Metaphors

During the fascinating 1.5 hour Q&A the Republicans had with Barack Obama at their party’s caucus yesterday, when the president, describing how his healthcare initiative had been treated by the other side, said “…as if it was (spontaneous pause) some Bolshevik plot,” there was laughter and even applause from many in the all-Republican audience. Radio and TV news channels of every political stripe began broadcasting that line immediately, and have done so incessantly during the past 24 hours.

Well, what accounts for Obama’s choice of words becoming airborne the moment they were uttered? It’s that the metaphor he used was so fresh and evocative. Further, it created much humor because embedded in those words was the technique of using exaggeration, a specialty of the late Louis Rukeyser. I can bet Obama’s “Bolshevik plot” line will be recalled for years to come by people on both sides of the political divide.

For ordinary mortals like me who are constantly trying to invigorate their communication skills, there are two important takeaways from the above:

(i) The wall-to-wall reporting of Obama’s statement containing the words "Bolshevik plot" graphically illustrates how someone who is trying to emphasize a point can get tremendous mileage by using an out-of-the-ordinary, strong, and easy to grasp metaphor or simile.

(ii) The use of spontaneous, split-second pauses at key moments can be very rewarding for they enable a speaker to come up with fresh and penetrating words on the spur of the moment. It was that mini pause, just after the words “As it was,” that facilitated Obama’s coming up with the term "Bolshevik plot" because it gave time to the random access drive in his brain--a device that we all possess--to seek some out-of-the-ordinary word(s).

Bottom line: Without a spontaneous pause, it’s unlikely a speaker will be able to come up with synonyms, metaphorical language, or other analogy to emphasize a point or buttress a communication, unless of course if the person has conjured up and made a note of such terms before the dialogue.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

High-Impact Public Speaking: Taking a Page from Elvis Presley

Take a moment to recall film clips of Elvis performing during the second half of the 1950s, his first years as a rock star. As pointed out by CBS’s Jeff Greenfield in a recent feature honoring the singer’s 75th birth anniversary, what drove Elvis’s audience into a frenzy was not just his voice or his looks, but the way he moved. His entire body seemed to be in motion. In fact, Elvis himself remarked: “I sing with my whole body!”

Public speakers seeking to maintain a tight hold on their audience during the entire length of a presentation would do well to substitute the word “speak” for “sing” in the above quote from Elvis and make it their motto. Indeed, highly effective public speaking involves not just using your voice but also appropriate facial expressions, hand gestures, and movements of the torso (see my post of Nov. 15 ’09). In short, high-impact public speaking means making your entire body animated!

As a public speaking coach here in Houston, I often urge my clients to perform the following "self test": Watch a video clip of your performance with the sound turned off. If you are doing a good job, you’ll be able to discern at which points in the recording you are striving to emphasize a point, for at those moments your whole body--at least the entire upper half--will be in motion. Yes, even with the sound turned off, it will make for fascinating viewing.

Building a Powerful Vocabulary: New Edition of “Words of the Month”

Oops! I had forgotten to mention that the latest edition of “Words of the Month,” my free vocabulary enhancement feature, has been online since late last month. Words featured this time: hegemon and hegemony; penurious; cantankerous; subversive; demigod; hector. As in previous editions, all of the featured words are within the conversational vocabulary of America’s most articulate.


Miscellaneous clips