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: