This post, “Why You Should Avoid Othello’s Error,” was published on April 3, 2014.
In Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello is tricked into believing that his wife, Desdemona, cheated on him with his Lieutenant. When he confronts Desdemona, she weeps—a sign, Othello concludes, of her guilt. In a rage, Othello murders her, only to learn shortly thereafter that she hadn’t committed adultery after all.
Othello made the mistake of assuming that he understood the source of Desdemona’s anguish. He assumed that his wife’s sobs when confronted were a sign of her guilt; he didn’t understand that her grief was rooted not in guilt, but in her knowledge that there was no way to convince her husband of her innocence.
That tragic mistake—what psychologist Paul Ekman dubbed “Othello’s Error”—teaches us that just because someone exhibits an emotion doesn’t mean we understand the root cause. “Emotional signals don’t tell us what brought them forth,” Ekman writes in Emotions Revealed.
As an example, let’s say you’re about to deliver a talk and you’re feeling nervous about the proposal you have to present. You believe that a few people in the room actively oppose your idea, so you’ve prepared rebuttal arguments just to be safe.
During your presentation, you notice a man in the front row—a key decision-maker—who’s furrowing his brow and crossing his arms. He looks unhappy with your proposal, confirming your worst fears.
At the end of your talk, he approaches you to thank you for your talk and ask you a question about how he can follow up with you. “I’m surprised you’re interested,” you say. “I was convinced that you didn’t like my proposal because you looked skeptical.” “Nah,” he says. “My wife tells me I look that way when I’m thinking. I thought your proposal made sense all along.”
That type of scenario happens all the time. And it happens, in part, because we’re conditioned to see that which we expect. According to Dr. Ekman:
“Our emotional state, our attitudes, our expectations, what we want to believe, even what we don’t want to believe can all bias how we interpret an expression or more specifically what we think caused the emotion shown by the expression.”
In other words, if we’re nervous about an audience when presenting, we’re more likely to interpret a man’s “thinking” face as his “disgusted” face. We’re more likely to assume that his seemingly disinterested expression means that we’ve failed to persuade him. We’ve committed Othello’s Error.
Othello’s Error doesn’t mean you should stop trying to read your audiences. You can often glean important clues about their moods and attitudes by remaining attentive to nonverbal cues. But it does suggest that before solidifying any assumption that they’re against you, you should ask a clarifying question instead (“It looks like a lot of people are thinking hard about this proposal. May I ask what you’re thinking about or what questions you might have?”).
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This post, “Why You Shouldn’t Trust ‘Man On The Street’ Interviews,” was published on May 21.
When I worked for CNN, I occasionally went into the streets of Washington, D.C. to interview “real people” about a topic in the news.
Those interviews—known within newsrooms as an M.O.S. (“man on the street”) or a “vox pop” (derived from the Latin “voice of the people”)—always struck me as problematic.
If we interviewed 20 people about a specific topic, we might have encountered 14 people with a “for” position and 6 with an “against” viewpoint. But when we edited the interviews, we might have had time to air quotes from only two of the people—so for purposes of “balance,” we’d air one of each, as if that 50/50 ratio represented the views we encountered.
That’s an inherent problem with the M.O.S. Time and space restrictions prevent every comment from being aired or printed, so they have to be condensed. Some journalists are better than others about disclosing the overall sentiment of opinions they encountered—and even if they do, that sentiment doesn’t mean much, since M.O.S. interviews only represent a specific place and time (M.O.S. interviews shot on Wall Street would likely yield different results than ones shot at a homeless shelter).
I’m far from the only person skeptical of the technique. In fact, some of the journalists I worked with referred to the M.O.S. under a different, more jaded name: Any Available Assholes, or A.A.A.s. Although flip, it really did seem to capture the essence of the assignment.
Stephen Colbert recently mocked Fox News correspondent Jesse Watters, who occasionally uses the M.O.S. technique to make his subjects look uninformed. Here’s Watters’ technique:
And Colbert’s hilarious response:
For all of these reasons, both silly and serious, I recommend viewing M.O.S. interviews with great skepticism—unless reporters disclose their broader findings.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
This post, “What These 1990′s Songs Teach You About Public Speaking,” was published on June 18, 2014.
In the 1990s, we were rico suave and too legit to quit. We lived la vida loca and smelled like teen spirit. We wore gold-colored hammer pants and flannel. We went to Lollapalooza and the Lilith Fair. We listened to grunge, Britpop, and hip hop.
Nostalgia for the 90s has never been greater. In this post, you’ll find public speaking lessons based on 13 huge hits from the 1990s—from superstars like Paula Abdul and Guns N’ Roses to one-hit wonders like Chumbawamba.
I hope you enjoy this post! If you do, please help this blog grow by sharing this post through your social networks and signing up for our free weekly newsletter. You can opt out at any time. And now, on with the 90s!
Sir Mix-a-Lot, “Baby Got Back” (1992)
Great speakers often provide the person introducing them with a pre-written and attention-grabbing introduction. When they hit the stage after being introduced, they seize the audience’s attention from the first word by using a compelling opening. Sir Mix-a-Lot did exactly that by having two white women introduce his song by criticizing the size of a black woman’s butt—and then rebutting them with an attention-grabbing opening that has survived more than two decades: “I like big butts and I cannot lie.” One other note: the attention-grabber was tied directly to his message, which was about the unrealistic expectations magazines like Cosmo put on a woman’s shape.
Note: After posting this story, Sir Mix-A-Lot responded on Twitter:
Backstreet Boys, “I Want It That Way” (1999)
According to a fascinating piece of research, boy bands use the word “you” more than any other word. Perhaps the boys of ‘N Sync, 98 Degrees, and Hanson were onto something. By using the pronoun “you,” they directed their message straight into the hearts of their mostly younger, female fans. The word “you” has that power, and great speakers use it often to deliver their personal-sounding messages to each individual audience member. As an example, this Backstreet Boys classic uses the word “you” or “your” no fewer than 20 times—and “you” is the first word in the song.
Alanis Morissette, “Ironic” (1996)
Okay, so none of the incidents described in Morissette’s “Ironic” are actually ironic. But her rapid-fire series of mini vignettes (a man terrified of flying who conquered his fear, boarded a plane, and crashed; the old man who won the lottery and died the next day; meeting the man of your dreams only to find that he’s married) offers a terrific template for speakers. The “short vignettes” opening can be an effective starter. As an example, a physician might open by describing the ailments suffered by three patients, with each mini anecdote receiving no more than 10-15 seconds of detail.
Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You” (1993)
Whitney Houston’s record label hated the idea of a 45-second a cappella introduction to this song, but her instincts to keep it were right. According to Rolling Stone, “after 14 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts, it set the record for the longest run at Number One on the charts.” Her unique intro stood out from almost all of the other pop music on the charts at the time—her moments of breathy silence in between lyrics broke the pattern—and that’s a lesson all speakers should remember. Speakers can break the pattern by pausing, blacking out presentation slides after using them for a few minutes, or distributing a handout to the audience (among many other ways).
Guns N’ Roses, “November Rain” (1992)
As a general rule, it’s better to speak for too short than too long. But if a great movie can hold your attention for two-and-a-half hours, shouldn’t a great speaker be able to hold your attention for longer than the typical 50-minute conference breakout session? Guns N’ Roses pushed back against the typical constraints of pop radio, which restricts most songs to about four minutes. In 1992, their nine-minute hit “November Rain” made it to number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, becoming the “longest song in history to enter the top ten of that chart,” according to Wikipedia—and proving that longer can be better if the song—or speech—is good enough.
TLC, “Waterfalls” (1995)
TLC’s terrific mid-90s hit song (and award-winning video) delivered a straightforward, unambiguous, and easy to act-upon call to action: “Don’t go chasing waterfalls / please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.” Similarly, speakers (depending on the purpose of the speech) should offer a simple and direct call to action. How important is a call to action? In one study, the “jerks” who received a direct call to action acted more charitably than the “saints” who didn’t.
Spice Girls, “Wannabe” (1997)
Like TLC, the Spice Girls offer a formula for a successful call to action: “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want.” If your audience doesn’t understand the next steps they’re supposed to take after hearing you speak, they won’t take any. Some research suggests that asking for a small and easily accomplished call to action is a good way to begin, since a small action often leads to bigger future actions.
Elton John, “Candle in the Wind 1997” (1997)
When Princess Diana died in a car accident in 1997, Elton John repurposed his 1970s hit “Candle In The Wind.” Whereas the original was about Marilyn Monroe, Elton John changed the lyrics to become about “England’s Rose.” This is relevant for speakers who tend to deliver similar information to different audiences. With minor but important tweaks and modifications, “generic” presentations can become immediately relevant to the specific audience to which the speakers are presenting. The heart of your presentation may be the same—but the audience will feel that you’ve created it just for them.
Los del Rio, “Macarena” (1995)
Let’s face it: this was a terrible song with a video to match. But the men of Los del Rio were onto something when they followed in the footsteps of other artists who wrote songs that became popular dances (e.g. “The Twist,” “The Hand Jive,” “Da Butt,” “Vogue,” “Conga,” “The Electric Slide”). These songs became staples at weddings and proms because they involved the audience in a meaningful way. The analogy to public speaking is obvious.
Extreme, “More Than Words” (1991)
In their gorgeous ballad, Extreme pointed out that there is a difference between verbal communication and body language: “More than words / is all you have to do to make it real / then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me / ‘cause I’d already know.” As Extreme pointed out, words are only one way to deliver a message—and they’re often not enough on their own. To be truly effective, words need to be fully connected to the body language associated with them. In some cases, that means that your tone is as important—or even more important—than the words you choose. And great speakers have the ability to use their faces and bodies to communicate certain key points without any words at all.
R. Kelly, “I Believe I Can Fly” (1997)
Given his history, R. Kelly may seem like an odd choice to deliver such an inspirational ballad. But his song about positive self-talk is a great internal monologue for all speakers to remember before hitting the stage: “If I can see it, then I can do it / If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it / I believe I can fly.” Many speakers say they benefit from that type of “positive visualization” by visualizing the audience’s enthusiastic response to them before they walk onto the stage and begin their speech.
Chumbawamba, “Tubthumping” (1998)
Despite your positive visualization, there’s still a chance you might bomb your presentation. That’s where this song comes in: “I get knocked down / But I get up again / You’re never gonna keep me down.” With its pick-yourself-up-and-try-again lyrics, it’s a good reminder that most of us are going to deliver a dud once in a while. But your next audience won’t know that you didn’t succeed with your last audience, so it’s important not to bring that imperfect history into your new talk. Every presentation offers an opportunity to succeed anew—if you don’t self-sabotage it with your negative self-talk.
Paula Abdul, “Opposites Attract” (1990)
The video for Paula Abdul’s hit “Opposites Attract” featured MC Skat Kat, an animated cat that performed choreographed dance moves with her. The video was so popular that it won a Grammy Award. It’s a good reminder to speakers that in order to stand out, visuals need to be more engaging than bullets and words on a screen. Get creative—use compelling images, relevant multimedia elements, well-designed handouts, or anything else you can think of that will bring your main points to life in a more memorable manner than audiences are used to.
This post, “Why You Should Push Back In Both Directions,” was published on January 16, 2014.
You’ve probably heard this advice before: When a journalist asks you a question containing a flawed premise, you should challenge the question.
That’s smart advice—but it’s also incomplete. That’s because the advice is almost always intended to apply to unfair questions. As an example, a reporter might ask:
“Since your company is suffering from unusually high turnover, how will you remain competitive this year?”
If that premise is incorrect, you might push back politely but directly by saying:
“Actually, that’s not quite right. Our turnover is close to the industry average—and there’s been no turnover at all on our executive team for the past three years.”
But there’s another type of “incorrect premise” question that can be equally—or even more—damaging.
While most “incorrect premise” questions are negative in tone, some are overly charitable. And if you bite on the reporter’s overly charitable bait, your response can make you appear self-indulgent, self-pitying, or both.
For example, let’s say your company made a product—a poorly designed auto part—that is likely responsible for four deaths. The reporter might ask the company’s CEO, Bob Miller, this question:
“You make more than ten million auto parts each year, and only four have been linked to deaths. Do you ever feel that it’s a bit unfair for your company to be viewed as irresponsible when you have such an impressive safety record?”
You might agree with that premise, but agreeing with the question won’t do you any favors. If you say anything remotely close to “yes,” here’s how that devastating two-minute news segment might play out:
:00 – :20 Reporter sets up the piece
:20 – 1:20 Interviews with the grieving mother of one victim and the sister of another. Both of them cry throughout the segment; both blame the auto parts manufacturer for the deaths.
1:20 – 1:40 A government official says he plans to call for an investigation of the company which, he says, appears to have a negligent manufacturing process.
1:40 – 1:45 Reporter voice over: “But Bob Miller of Giant Manufacturing said it’s unfair that his company is being labeled as reckless.”
1:45 – 1:55 Bob Miller sound bite: “We have a long safety record, and it’s a bit unfair for everyone to be piling on right now.”
1:55 – 2:00 Reporter close
A BETTER APPROACH
When you recognize a reporter’s question as being overly charitable, flag it as a potential trap and disagree with the premise. For this example, you might say:
“I wouldn’t say that. Look, any time a loss of life is involved, it’s a very serious matter and we have a responsibility to investigate whether anything could have been done differently. We’re doing that. And while it’s true that our company has an impressive long-term safety record, we also are well aware that one preventable accident is one too many. If there’s a way can do our work better, we will—and we must.”
This post, “How To Get People to Change (By Encouraging Them Not To),” was published on May 6.
People don’t like change. That’s a generalized statement, of course, but the behavioral science makes clear that change is hard for many people, who tend to stick with familiar but imperfect behaviors rather than cultivate unfamiliar but better ones.
So what should you do if you’re addressing a group of people who resist change? One of the best strategies is to convince them that nothing has changed.
As an example, I once worked with a woman who regularly presented her company’s social media strategy to her corporate board of directors, a group consisting primarily of older, wealthy men who aren’t engaged in social networks.
They didn’t care much about Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and tended to dismiss those social networks as something the younger generation used. Every time she presented to them, she felt they didn’t appreciate her work or its value to the company. She was frustrated.
I suggested that the best way to convince her board of the value of her work was by stating that it is exactly the same thing they’ve always done. Here’s what we came up with for her open:
“Many people regard social media as something that’s new and exciting. I do believe it’s exciting, but it’s definitely not new. Social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social networking sites—are actually doing something quite old. What they do is almost exactly the same thing that the marketing and PR shops in your own companies were doing 10, 25, 50, and in some cases, even 100 years ago.
The goal has always been the same: Reach our customers where they are.
If your customers read The New York Times, you’d advertise in the Times or try to get a story written about your company in it. If they listened to local radio in Topeka, you’d run an ad in Topeka. If you were trying to reach travelers, you might have called the editor of an in-flight magazine.
Social media is exactly the same. We’re trying to reach people who are interested in our brand where they are. The names have changed: Instead of reaching people primarily through daily newspapers, many of which have collapsed, we’re reaching them more often today through Twitter and Instagram. But the goal is exactly the same as it’s always been: reach them where they are. And that’s why your input and marketing expertise remains as essential as ever.”
By beginning her presentation that way, she removed her audience’s fear of change from the equation. She was able to draw a straight line from the familiar (newspapers) to the less familiar (Twitter), allowing the board to invest energy in the topic even though they weren’t specifically knowledgeable about social media.
As a result, I’m betting her board will view her as someone doing important work and adding value to the company—even if they don’t quite understand all of the details.
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This post, “Why Cognitive Dissonance Is a Critical Media Strategy,” was published on October 22, 2014.
Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. (source: Wikipedia)
I recently worked with a company that is frequently portrayed by the media as a “bad guy.” As a result of receiving some critical media coverage, the company’s executive team ordered a clampdown on external communications.
That means no more interviews. All interactions with the media occur solely through written statements. That way, the company figures, reporters will be unable to twist their quotes. By maintaining a paper trail, they feel safer and better protected.
There’s one problem with that approach: Their defensive posture results in media stories that contrast the company’s cold, lawyerly written statements with their opponents, who speak to the press, appear open, and look more sympathetic.
When working with the company’s representatives, I had an “A ha!” moment. I noticed that all of the spokespersons were smart, funny, and instantly likeable. Unfortunately, the public couldn’t see that for themselves, since their statements contained none of those things. But if they could—if the public could see that this company was made up of thoughtful people who were trying to serve their customers well—it could force them to change their thinking.
Think of it this way: A customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.” would believe that their beliefs were well founded when watching a news report that showed the company communicating solely through uninspired written statements.
But a customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.”— and who then sees a company vice president expressing sincere commitment to improving their service—might experience a bit of cognitive dissonance (“I thought they were jerks. I still don’t love them, but maybe they’re not as bad as I thought.”).
If your company is in a defensive crouch but has charismatic, credible, and thoughtful spokespersons, ask yourself this question: Would our interviews create cognitive dissonance for some members of the audience? And if they would, should we really depend solely on written statements to carry our message?
This post, “Seven Rules of Engagement for Managing Audience Q&A,” was published on April 8, 2014.
Too often, speakers spend weeks carefully crafting their presentations but fail to prepare adequately for their audience’s questions. As a result, they deliver a successful presentation only to become derailed during the question and answer interaction.
One bad response can be all it takes for speakers to diminish—or even reverse—the good impression they established during their presentation. This week, we’ll focus on the question and answer period to make sure you take advantage of those critical minutes.
1. Set Time Expectations
If your presentation doesn’t have a firm ending time, tell the audience for how long you intend to take questions. If the audience knows you’ll wrap up the session in 15 minutes, they’re less likely to be distracted by the phone call they have to make, their biological needs (“When can I go to the bathroom already?), or their growing hunger.
If you don’t tell them, they’ll become uneasy, as they don’t know whether they’ll be stuck in the room with you for 10 minutes or an hour. You can eliminate this step if your session is time limited—the audience will understand that a 50-minute conference breakout session will predictably end at 50 minutes past the hour.
2. Invite Audience Participation Using The Right Phrases
When most speakers open the floor to questions, they ask, “Does anyone have a question?” That question often fails to elicit a response. One reason is that whereas only a few people in your audience may have a question, many more likely have thoughts, opinions, or comments about the material you presented. You can encourage more participation if you use those words when soliciting feedback from your audience instead of—or alongside—the word “question.”
Ken Molay, president of the firm Webinar Success, says that another problem with the “Does anyone have a question” approach is that it doesn’t place personal responsibility onto any single member of the audience to act. As better alternatives, he advises clients to change that question to “Do you have a question?” or “What are your thoughts?” Although those questions can be addressed to the full audience, the use of the pronoun you may prompt a more active response.
An even stronger cue, Molay says, is to give the audience a direct command to take action in a specific way: “Now it’s your turn to guide the discussion. What should I clarify or go into more detail on?”
3. Repeat the Question or Comment
There’s usually no need to repeat (or summarize) an audience member’s comment or question when speaking to smaller groups in smaller rooms, or in larger groups when questioners use a microphone.
But repeating an audience member’s question is imperative when: The audience size or room is large enough that some people might not hear the question; the person asking the question is soft-spoken; or the session is being recorded and questioners do not use a microphone.
You don’t have to repeat back each question in its entirety, but make sure you include the heart of the question in your summarized version.
4. Avoid Negative Language
Neurophysiologist Rick Hanson writes that, “Your body generally reacts more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally strong positive ones…Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense positive ones.” Since negative words or experiences tend to be more memorable than positive ones, it’s best to remove any negative language when restating a question posed by an audience member.
For example, a member of the audience—a person who rents apartments from your management company—might say, “We’ve been complaining about the noise for a year, and you’ve done nothing about it. It’s obvious that all you care about is money.”
When repeating back the comment to the audience, don’t say:
“She says that all we care about is money and that we haven’t addressed the noise problem.”
Instead, strip away the negative language when restating the comment:
“I understand that you’re concerned about the noise. Let me tell you what we’ve done to address the noise problem.”
Click here for part two of this post!
This post, “A Surprise for People Who Think They Hate Reporters,” was published on October 6, 2014.
I’ve worked with many people who don’t trust or like the media. But one recent group of trainees from a public entity was more emphatic in their hatred of the press than I’d ever encountered before.
This group constantly felt besieged by a rapacious press corps that couldn’t be satiated, and they believed that reporters were far too busy pursuing their own predetermined agendas to give them a fair shot.
Given the hostility of this group toward the press, I decided to try something different. The result was striking, if not outright shocking.
Instead of playing the role of reporter (as I usually do in media training sessions), I decided to divide the group in half.
The first group played their usual role of serving as corporate spokespersons. I gave them a scenario to work with, asked them to develop their messages and media strategy, and told them to assign a person who would deliver a press conference.
The second group was tasked with playing the role of reporters during a press conference. I told them that their job was to do everything they could to get the facts the spokesperson was reluctant to offer. I instructed them to get past the spin, challenge evasive responses, and do whatever they could to get to the truth.
The second group took their job seriously. When the press conference began, they were unforgiving of anything that remotely bordered spin. They asked tough follow-up questions, used evidence to contradict some of the spokesperson’s claims, and adopted an almost hostile tone. Frankly, they were tougher than most of the reporters I’ve ever seen at press conferences.
The “Aha!” Moment
When the press conference ended, I asked both groups what they were feeling. The group representing the company said they felt exhausted and beaten up. But the group of reporters was pissed. They felt that the company was being evasive, and they resented the company’s lack of candor.
I didn’t have to say anything. My takeaway message seemed to wash over everyone simultaneously: Reporters aren’t always being jerks just to be jerks; sometimes, they just resent that you’re not being straight with them.
That profound realization, which reminded me of the old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, changed their perspective. Suddenly, they understood how they were complicit in the media’s reaction to their attempts at media management—and they recognized the need to begin doing things differently.