Stories from the front

Speech is a contest to gain the attention of others

Humans are the only primates who gain status by speaking instead of fighting.(1) We talk to gain the attention of others and as society evolved, those who gained the most attention in the cave controlled the crowd.

And therein lies the DNA of leadership.

This “attention getting” through speech is what elevated the status of storytelling for leaders in pre-literate society. The ability to tell a good story was so prized in some societies, such as Celtic Ireland, that leaders were as known for their poetry as their prowess in battle. As the size of kingdoms spread out from caves through villages and into city-states, story became even more important. In the early Middle Ages, troubadours—traveling storytellers—became fixtures at Court. The top ones were heavily wooed because their ability to tell the king’s story throughout the kingdom was a critical way of disseminating his message and managing perception about what was happening at Court. Shaping that into story made it easier to remember and pass along (and making troubadours, in many ways, the first press secretaries and spokespeople).

 Today, story continues to be a key element of leadership speech communications because of its ability to engage, connect and persuade. A neuroscientist named Uri Hasson researches story and human communication and he found that story actually synchronizes brain waves across a group of listeners. He has shown that if you experience an event, say you fall down the steps, the incident generates a pattern in your brain waves. Then later, when you tell the story about falling down the steps, your brain regenerates the same wave patterns. AND, when you tell others your story about falling down the steps, their brains generate the same wave patterns as yours! Our brain waves are literally synced by story.

It stands to reason, whoever is telling the story is in control of the crowd.

Story is a powerful component of strategic communications as well, because story can provide a framework for understanding complex information. Hasson conducted another experiment with story that bears this out: he assigned a short story about a husband and wife at a party to two different groups. He told one group the woman was having an affair with a man at the party and told the other group the woman was loyal but the husband was intensely jealous. Then he sent the groups off to read the story—and when they returned, they interpreted the story along the lines of how it had been framed to their group. The framing of the incident shaped the groups’ interpretation. That level of persuasion is what most politicians dream of.

 Storytelling helps leaders not only frame events but makes the events understandable whether they’re simple or complex. And employees are predisposed to pay attention to those storytelling leaders because we’re born to understand and think in story. Yet storytelling takes a backseat to analytical and financial skills in the C-suite. Multiple channels have been opened between organizational leaders and their employees in an attempt to increase and facilitate communications—when in the end, they may need just one. A story.

  1.   Marshall Poe, “A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet”

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You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

From the moment you step in front of your audience, you’re being assessed. How are you inhabiting your space? What’s your body language saying? What are you saying when you open your mouth? In 30 seconds the audience decides whether to tune in or tune out. And how they respond can make or break your presentation or event.

The worst executive presentation I ever witnessed was when a speaker refused to share his slides ahead of time, refused to schedule a call to discuss content, refused to show up for rehearsal on site…then he showed up less than one minute before he was supposed to be on stage. I thought the audio guy would have a heart attack as he was attempting to mic the speaker up. And of course, the exec went on stage and went sideways. His preso was disjointed, uninspiring and he ran 25 minutes over his allotted time. The audience applauded when it was over because it was over.

The best I ever experienced? An exec brought us on 60 days out. We scripted his opening video that brought him to the stage, we refined the speech over and over and on-site we put in hours in the off-line room. He was ready. When he came to the stage, he was full of positive energy.  He hit his mark center stage—and then his mic failed. And then the back-up audio failed. But he didn’t miss a beat. He called out to the room and asked if they could hear him and when they shouted back yes, he started speaking without the mic. Eventually the sound system caught up with him and when he finished, it was to a standing ovation. He came off the stage and said to me, if I hadn’t done all of that prep work I never would have been able to carry that off. But he did and in so doing, he turned a potentially epic fail into a resounding success.

You wouldn’t send an athlete—even a top performing one—into a game without practice time and coaching prep. So why would you send your top people out to perform in front of clients, investors or vendors without practice and coaching prep? As the tagline from an old commercial said, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

Speaker Support Services are invaluable to the success of a successful presence. What are speaker support services? I was actually asked that question when we joined a convention and visitors bureau association in a major urban area—because the idea of hiring specifically for these services is a relatively new idea. Another event manager, who got the concept, said to me, you’re providing a real service.

In addition to offline and tech rehearsals at the venue, Speaker Support services include speaker coaching and executive speechwriting; strategic content for presentations; coaching and prep for fireside chats and panels; slide review and production; and video. In short, they’re the services that help you polish and support the stars of your event: your speakers.

It can seem like a paradigm shift to work with a team that’s separate from your event agency team, but frankly that’s not their focus. It is, however, ours. Because we don’t do backdrops. We produce what’s upfront.

As we head into another year of event planning and prep, make the decision to make every second count for your speakers.

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Women and men are equals but how they’re perceived in front of an audience is anything but.

A male executive stepping on stage is going to be judged very differently than a female executive. Take the issue of clothes, for example. For male execs it pretty much boils down to which shirt and tie to wear with the suit—a suit, any suit or any variation on a suit. For a female exec it’s, suit or a dress? If a suit, a pant suit or a skirt suit? If a dress, with a blazer or not? Hose? Heels? What kind of jewelry will set off the outfit without wreaking havoc with the mic?

The deeper issue behind the question of what to wear is how the clothing will add to or subtract from the executive’s presence. When an audience sees a man in a suit, it registers the suit as the statement of a position of authority—and then promptly forgets about it. What color or cut of the suit is immaterial, the perception has been established that the man is in charge, because of the suit. Women’s clothing neversinks into the background that way–there are still articles about Brandi Chastain’s sports bra, 20 years after she led her soccer team to victory. Still.

Clothes are the first thing the audience perceives about a woman, because society continues to judge women on their looks whether we admit it or not. And if a female exec’s clothing or hair or shoes don’t fit the preconceived image, the audience will remember it before they remember anything else. A colleague of mine coached a senior level female exec at a large pharma. She delivered an in-depth, knowledgeable and serious presentation. But what did she wear? A very pink dress, with her long blond locks tumbling about her shoulders. My colleague said that all anyone could think when they looked at her was, “Pharma Barbie.”

Once execs open their mouths to speak, it can get even worse.

Everyone gets a little nervous before going on stage and when they do, their voice rises higher in their chest. Men’s voices start lower on the scale so when anxiety pushes their voices up, it’s still a lower octave than where most women speak naturally. When anxiety triggers breathlessness in a woman, her voice gets higher and thinner. Think of the words associated with women’s high voices—shrill, shrieking, scolding—all of which are the opposite of resonant, which is associated with power.

Getting an exec ready to go on stage involves more than prepping talking points and slides. They’re being judged when they’re up there—and you can help them win points by getting them help with their presence as well as their presentation.

Prepping Panels with Non-Native English Speakers

If your company has a global footprint, chances are good you’ll be prepping panels at your next event that include non-native English speakers and attendees. And while English is the lingua franca in the international business world, large scale venues can have an impact on comprehension. Audio systems in a hall with 5,000 attendees can accentuate accents, garbling or swallowing the accented English.

The same halls pose challenges for those in the audience. Even if they’re fluent English speakers, simply listening can decrease an audience’s ability to understand what’s being said because visual cues and facial expressions are extremely important when understanding another language.

One tip is to have your moderator reframe what’s being said—simply say, “Let me recap what I’m hearing from you,” and then turn to the audience and say it again, slowly and clearly. Another is to make sure the video crew holds a tight shot on the panelist who is speaking so the audience can watch their expressions as they listen.