Michael: On stage or giving a speech, do your job, meaning present a compelling, a fascinating, a heartbreaking story. Share your passion about these ideas. Construct this groundbreaking argument. Do those sorts of things. Don’t even worry about the audience liking you. Focus on your job.
NYLP: Welcome to the New York Launch Pod, a podcast highlighting new start-ups, businesses, and openings in the New York City area. I’m Hal Coopersmith and the voice that you just heard is Michael Chad Hoeppner, the Founder and CEO of GK Training and Communications. Michael is a communication specialist and this episode covers how everyone can speak better whether you’re an entrepreneur giving a pitch, in a conference room, or speaking on the telephone with friends and family. There’s a lot of great content here so if you go to the episode description you can skip around to parts that interest you the most. It’s also a bit of a time warp since we recorded this the night of the first presidential debate but the information is really timeless. I thought this episode would be a great way to start off the new year and you’ll find more of these helpful episodes pop up over time. Now let’s go to the interview.
Thanks for stepping on to the Launch Pod, Michael.
Michael: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
NYLP: So I’m a little bit nervous about this podcast because you are so good at your job and you are so good at talking, you are just going to crush it.
Michael: Well, it’s funny you should say that. People actually…they ask me this all the time and say, “Are you watching me right now?” So I meet someone at a party wherever the thing is they find out what I do, and immediately they have a thought that I must be analyzing every single thing that they’re doing at that moment, and a lot of the times, actually, I’m turning it off because, otherwise, you would just be staring at people all day long and listening to their verbal ticks and what they’re saying and how they’re carrying themselves, and all these sorts of things. And truth be told, I turn it off, too, meaning if I don’t talk to anybody for a weekend or I go on a long vacation and I’m not really thinking about it, some of these same things creep into my own speech and the way that I communicate, too. So you can rest assured I am not watching you with a hawk-eye right now and you can relax and have a good podcast.
NYLP: So glad to know that the judgment is off. First off, what is your background? How did you get into this?
Michael: Well, originally, I came to this work from a performance background. I studied as an actor and I was a professional actor for a bunch of years. I got my Masters of Fine Arts at NYU here in New York City, and then I worked as a professional actor for about five years in Broadway, in film and TV. And then, in 2009, I started this company, which is a strange time to start a company if you think about it, because 2009 was a great year in terms of starting a business if you remember, like, perfect economic conditions…This is a joke. I’m getting nothing from you at all. But 2009 was a disaster.
NYLP: It was a complete disaster.
Michael: Yeah, it was a complete meltdown. So anyway, the joke…the point is this, is I started a business at a very challenging time to do so but it did well, it thrived. And so, what I started out doing was taking artistic training and the tools of artistic training and helping non-artists apply those skills to be more effective in whatever they’re trying to do, from a communication standpoint. But then, over the period of the last seven years, what I discovered in working with people is there’s a whole suite of tools and skills we developed that have nothing to do with acting but that have a lot to do with how people generate language and how they actually put ideas into words, and do so in a compelling way.
NYLP: How did you learn everything that you now teach?
Michael: I don’t know if anyone has ever asked me that question. The foundation of what I teach definitely came from artistic training for sure. Because if you think about it, an actor’s craft is how to put anything into language so a stranger believes it’s real. So, good actors who are worth their salt can do that eight times a week, and a stranger, in theory, believes that they actually are thinking or living those circumstances. So it started there for sure. But then, over time, what I discovered was that a lot of the things I was innovating had nothing to do with artistic training and I just became a student of human behavior. And for instance, I discovered, if you have someone do a task, some sort of a kinesthetic task while they’re communicating, it changes how they communicate radically, and not just on the delivery side or the content side, meaning delivery is how you say something and content is what you say. And what I discovered is that there is certain tools that actually affect both of them and affect them in a very, very positive way. So you’re tapping into a virtuous cycle or a positive feedback loop in which both of those things get much, much better.
NYLP: And what does your company do?
Michael: Well, we like to joke that we help people walk and talk better, no matter what the situation is. So anytime people are trying to use words or language to achieve something, we help them achieve those things better. Now, you’re in the start-up space, so lots of times we’ll work with start-up companies who have to pitch for investors or, frankly, just get anyone in the world interested in what they’re doing. And very often, they have a limited amount of time to do that, maybe even five minutes, and so what they say and how they say it matters a whole lot.
But people often ask, they say, you know, “Who is your typical client,” and the truth of the matter is it ranges all over the place. I teach at Columbia Business School, I also work with high school students, and it’s everyone in between. And part of the reason that is, I believe, is because these are human things that all humans can get better at. And so, you’ll see these same challenges or same needs, really, in practically every industry there is.
NYLP: And your company is pretty big now. We talked about that it was a bad time to start a business in 2009, but now it’s grown a fair amount.
Michael: Yeah, I wouldn’t say we’re big, though. We’re boutique and we stay boutique on purpose, and one of the reasons is that I like to customize things for clients. It’s more interesting, frankly, meaning if I spend every single day teaching the exact same executive presence or presentation skills or whatever the same class was every single day, I think I would get really bored. Maybe that’s the improv person in me, but I like having to change things, and I like finding out where a client is coming from, figuring out what their challenges are and then building programs around that. And so, all the people who’ve apprenticed with me and that now are within the stable of coaches that we have are also trained with that same idea. So we are bigger, yes, but we’re still boutique. We’re still based in New York City but we work around the world.
NYLP: How big is your company?
Michael: We have 12 coaches.
NYLP: So let’s get to the meat of everything, which is why a lot of people may be listening. How can we speak better?
Michael: The simplest answer that I can give to that is this. Everyone listening already knows how to communicate flawlessly. A simple example of this, if a kid in the street runs in front of a bus, no one in the world would say, “Um, look out.” You would instantly say, “Look out,” with every bit of force, energy, intentionality, physical and vocal presence that you needed. And in fact, if you think about babies, they come into the world…the first thing a healthy baby does is let out a big, fat scream to let the world know that they’re here and they’re not too happy about it, actually. When we’re focused on reaching the other person, we’re fantastic communicators. So as opposed to thinking of an important communication situation like you’re doing right now, “Have a good podcast, right now, let’s speak well on my podcast…”
NYLP: From the diaphragm.
Michael: That’s right. And an even more important communication situation than a podcast, counseling a friend through a marital or financial crisis, helping a child learn a task, helping a lost tourist get from point A to point B; go back thousands of years, helping a cave person avoid a saber-toothed tiger. In all of those situations, when you’re really very, very focused on the other person, you would have all the components of good communication. You would have variation in your voice. You would have a rise and fall, an inflection in your voice. You would speak with relaxed, organic, very consistent eye contact, because you’d have to see if the person is digesting what you’re saying. You would do all of these things automatically.
When our communication breaks down it’s when we become self-focused. And so you’ll see this all the time, people become monotone or stiff or robotic as their attention goes entirely to, “How do I sound? Do I sound good? Do I sound…? What is my hand doing? Should it be doing that? Is it doing too much? Is that too much?” Or, “Maybe I should look longer at that person, maybe shorter,” and we get this inner voice that becomes…that starts watching every part of us, and that self-consciousness leads to bad communication. So that’s that simplest distillation of what we do, help people unlock what they already know how to do.
NYLP: How can people forgo that self-consciousness?
Michael: They have to connect to something more important than those thoughts, “What should my hands be doing? Do I look smart? Do I sound smart? Did I say something smart? Am I moving my hands too much or am I moving my hands too little,” those sorts of things. So they need to find an intention that is more important. Help these people understand X, Y, and Z. Make that person in the front row laugh or smile. Make sure that the person in the back row wakes up or, even simpler, allow myself to use all of my voice and all of my body to communicate this message. Any of those are positive substitutions.
If you think about…I like to joke that there’s something called the “General Don’t School of Feedback” when it comes to communicating, and I’ll give you an example. It’s a don’t, so it’s a negative instruction followed by something totally general. Are you ready? Here’s one: Don’t be nervous, just be yourself. Okay, so the first part is a negative, and humans are terrible at false impression. If I tell you don’t do anything, all you can think about is that thing, like, “Don’t think about your coffee cup right there. Don’t think about that microphone.” The only thing you think about is the don’t.
And the second thing is this totally general thing, which is just be yourself. Well, who are you today? Who is yourself on any given day?
NYLP: I’m not sure how to answer that question.
Michael: Precisely, precisely. So people get this very, very general and, oftentimes, negative focus about how they’re supposed to think about communicating more powerfully. And it has to be something more specific and a positive action that they can put their focus on.
NYLP: So an example of a positive action would be?
Michael: An example of a positive action, a very simple one, by the way, is make sure that the end of every single sentence I finish is clear. And that sounds very simple to say, but you’ll hear a lot of people pick on how people end sentences nowadays. You’ll hear people talk about a “vocal fry” a lot where people trail off at the end of sentences like that, and what they’re saying. Or, that they have up-speak or upward inflection when they talk like this and then, all of a sudden, everything becomes a question, no matter what you’re talking about, and it continues on like that as you’re speaking about any subject and it sounds like you’re asking for permission. Okay, you get the idea, I’ll stop doing that.
A very simple action is just this, make sure I complete my thought before I move on to the next idea. And you will be shocked at how much of the time people are actually three sentences ahead of themselves or two sentences behind themselves, sort of lashing themselves for the dumb thing they said two sentences ago, or three sentences in the future trying to think of, “What am I going to say in three sentences? Oh, that’s right, okay, that’s the rest of the script, okay, got to make sure I got there. Where am I? Okay, I’m still on that track,” as opposed to actually living in a single idea that they’re in, in that moment, and a simple key thing is make sure you finish the final word in that sentence.
If you need to give yourself a physical cue to do so, you can even…and we’ve done this with clients a lot, you can even build in some kind of physical task to do. Like, in phone calls, so you don’t look like a crazy person in real life, but on phone calls where no one can see you, actually smooth a post-it note down on the table at the end of a thought to remind yourself, “Finish a thought before I move on to the next thing.” If you don’t have a post-it note with you, you can’t do that, or you look like a strange person if you do that with someone in real life, you could simply give yourself some kind of physical cue: tap your leg, put your toe down in your shoe, anything to remind you to stay in the present moment as opposed to two or three sentences ahead.
NYLP: What about when there’s a big audience? You say, “Don’t be nervous,” but, intuitively, people may be nervous. What’s a good way for people to relax and not have those inward thoughts?
Michael: Yeah, if I have indicated to you in any way, shape, or form that I’m saying, “Don’t be nervous,” let’s rewind this entire podcast and go back and erase that, because I’m actually saying the exact opposite.
NYLP: I know that you’re not but, for people in a big room, what’s a good way for them to calm their nerves?
Michael: Well, the reason I’m highlighting this is because that’s the first step, actually. If you’re listening out there, I give you full permission, be as nervous as you want. Be as nervous as you want. Many of the great speakers of all time have had terrible stage fright. If you talk about Laurence Olivier, Pavarotti, people like this actually struggling with stage fright, with nerves. It doesn’t matter. The point is not, “Are you nervous,” the point is, “Can you do your job no matter how you’re feeling?”
And if you think about that, we hold ourselves to that same standard in other walks of life, meaning you don’t come into the office every single day, and if you’re feeling a little less alert that day you don’t say, “You know what, I’m not feeling my best. I’m just going to leave today.” I mean, if we held ourself to that standard, we would work one day a week, maybe, two days a week. So the same goes for public speaking and for presenting. You’re likely going to be nervous much of the time. Not only is that not bad, it’s actually evidence that you’re alive, you’re engaged, you’re enthused.
So the first and, perhaps, most important thing when dealing with nerves is this, let yourself off the hook of feeling that you should not be nervous. If you’re nervous, fine, be nervous. It’s very hard to control one’s feelings. Think about trying to control your stress level, your nerves, your anger. Anyone ever told you, “Don’t be angry,”? Was that helpful? Don’t be angry. Hal, don’t be angry, by the way.
NYLP: All these don’ts, you know, you just…
Michael: Yeah, you don’t.
NYLP: It sticks right in your mind.
Michael: Yeah, exactly. So controlling one’s feelings are not so useful. Therefore, if you’re nervous, fine, be nervous. Put your attention on something you can do.
Now, I can’t say this for each person listening because I don’t know, I’m not in the room with them. But typically, some of the things you will find that are very useful are focus on your breathing and breathing diaphragmatically, deep in your belly, and not just before you go into that situation but actually during the situation. Number two might be making sure you ground your feet and can feel the floor firmly beneath your feet. Another one might be make sure you choose three people in the audience. You’re going to connect with those three people, and make sure that you elicit some kind of response from those three. No matter what, you got to get that one person right there to smile. At some point in your presentation, you have to get that person to smile. Any of those things are positive places to take up more of your brain’s attention. And as you get accustomed to this, seasoned performers actually grow to like nerves. They enjoy it because it’s fuel that they can work with. It gives them a little “oomph” for a little energy.
NYLP: Big key to public speaking and speaking generally. How can people harness more confidence?
Michael: I’m really glad you brought that up. I’m going to say something that seems very antithetical I don’t actually care if you’re confident. I don’t care if anyone listening to this is confident, and, in fact, we joke in all of the large group training programs we do that we don’t care if you’re confident because it’s not our job. Now, we hope people are confident because feeling confident is a great feeling. It feels good to wake up and feel confident. Good job, great, you feel confident. But the debilitating thing is this idea of, if I’m not feeling confident I can’t present. I can’t get up today, I’m not feeling confident. And that actually leads to a very self-defeating cycle, because the more you’re focused on that feeling of confidence, the more ephemeral it becomes, the harder it is to hang on to it.
So we’re not focused on helping people feel more confident. We’re focused on helping people find the things they can do and do 100% of the time, no matter how they’re feeling. They become reliable, and that, over time, they have confidence in those things. And when they have confidence in those things then the confidence, the real confidence, comes along with that.
NYLP: And practice will bring on the confidence in terms of speaking and communicating.
Michael: Yeah, exactly.
NYLP: What are some of the biggest problems in speaking that you find?
Michael: One of the biggest is that people feel as though they’re obligated to speak before they’re ready to speak. We joke about the way in which humans really do want to be communicating is right idea, right order, right words. But very often, we do the exact opposite. We look for the right word, then we start going and we try to figure out the right order of it and then, eventually, we get to the right idea. Meaning, you asked me a profound question. I really should, in my head, grapple with it with for a moment. Think about the key idea, the real kernel of what I want to share, then begin to think, “Huh, is that a story or is that a…oh, yeah, there’s this one illustration I can share,” and then begin to put that into words. But most of the time we’re a bit nervous, a bit anxious, a bit focused on ourselves, so you asked me a question and I had this feeling right away, “I’d better say something, I got to, I got to, I got to sound smart. I got to say something quick, okay.” So we launch into speaking and, very often, the first word out our mouth is not even a word. What is it?
NYLP: It’s um, ah.
Michael: Um, ah, exactly. So now we’re off and running just saying a bunch of words, so we’re in the words category. Partway through that, we realize, “I guess I’m telling a story. Wait, does this story have a point, does it actually illustrate what I’m trying to talk about? Maybe, okay, I’ll try to weave it back to what I was saying,” and eventually, we might get to, “What the heck is the point of what I’m trying to say? Oh, yeah, that’s a big idea.” What is the cure for all of that? Building in the discipline to actually think about what it is you want to say before you say it.
The funniest thing anyone ever said to me when I was coaching them…this is a very high powered executive. He said, “Michael, but if I’m doing what you’re telling me to do, that means I’ll actually have to think what I want to say,” which I found hilarious because, of course, it indicates, “What, you never actually think about what you want to say?” Clearly, the answer was no, he just shot from the hip all the time, just spilling out of his mouth whatever first came to mind.
NYLP: It worked so far.
Michael: It worked so far, so far so good, yeah, exactly. So one of the biggest things is just simply building real comfort with silence which, by the way, back in this idea I started our conversation off with, you do that automatically. If a dear friend of yours sat down and said, “Hal, I need to talk to you about something. My marriage, business, house, whatever, is in crisis, things are falling apart. What should I do?” You would never say, “Um, well, the first thing I think you should do,” and just launch into some answer. You would take that information in, you would sit with them, you would automatically and organically, like the good listener you are, digest the energy he was giving you – or she was giving you – and begin to formulate the smartest things you could possibly think of to share. You do that automatically. Humans do that automatically all the time. And yet, when the focus becomes about ourselves, we forget to do that and we start becoming focused on our own performance rather than the other person.
NYLP: What if someone is listening to this and saying, “Well, Michael, that may work on a one-on-one conversation or in a small group. What about in a big office meeting where there’s a jump-ball and it’s the person who speaks first or loudest gets their voice heard?”
Michael: Sure. It’s the same thing, and what I mean by that is this, you may have to do something to claim the conversational space. Once you’ve done that, though, you have earned as much time as you need to figure out what it is that you want to say. So I actually recommend that people practice…and you can practice this physically, that you practice introductory phrases like, “I’d like to add something. Let me build on that. If I can offer a counterpoint…Here is a new idea.” I mean, I’m just throwing these out there as I’m saying them, and to actually…if you’re listening at home, you can stand up and do this now because sitting is deadly for all of us, we’ve all heard that by now. I’m saving your life by having you stand up, too. But you can stand up and actually practice stepping forward as you say those things. It will begin to put that impulse to jump in into your body, into a physical, muscle memory of doing that thing. Once you’ve done that, then you have some time, and then you could take a moment and think about what you want to say next.
Now, we happen to be at 6:20 on a Monday which, if we’re going to air this podcast later, you’ll just have to go with me on this, but the day we’re recording this podcast is the first presidential election debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And you’re going to hear them do this very thing tonight. They’re going to jump in, claim the conversational space, and then they’re going to speak for a little while until they get their footing, and then they’re going to go into the answer that they want. In a presidential debate, if you never spoke up until you had the exact answer you wanted to share, you would actually never get your voice in the room.
Similarly, another political example, Margaret Thatcher actually studied to learn this technique of building, rhetorically, her arguments, so that people wouldn’t interject and interrupt her. So the lesson here is, just because you don’t know precisely what you want to say doesn’t mean you can’t build the skill to jump in and claim the conversational space, and then figure it out as you go.
NYLP: And so, what is that technique?
Michael: Sure. I’ll give you two examples. One would be just the ones I said before, meaning some sort of introductory phrase, after which you can take a moment. Let me add something to that. Pause, pause, pause, pause, pause. The key thing we need to think about…So, “Let me add something to that,” took about three seconds, and you had about two seconds of pause, and now your brain works very, very quickly. So that’s actually about five seconds of thinking time, that’s one.
Now, the one that Margaret Thatcher…and this is…apparently you’ve seen The Iron Lady, the movie in which Meryl Streep played Margaret Thatcher. She actually studied to, what we call, build a staircase of rhetoric melodically, and I’ll show you what I mean by that. I’m going to use my voice in such a way that it makes it difficult for you to interject, and then I’ll give you the opposite so you can hear the two versions of this, okay? Actually, I’ll give you the opposite first and then we’ll do the other techniques.
NYLP: So you want me to interject?
Michael: Yeah. Well, no, you don’t have to interject, but just…I want you to clock in your own head how easy it would be to interject. Are you ready? Here we go.
Hal, I’m talking about how communication is a physical art and how much of what we do vocally is actually physical, too. Okay, you hear that? You wanted to jump in, I’m guessing, 19 times or something like that.
NYLP: Just from the first one?
Michael: From the very first, okay. So here’s number two, are you ready?
Hal, communication is a physical art. And what I mean by that statement is that what our bodies are doing, at any given moment, no matter what they happen to be doing, is very much related to how our voices are working.
All right, so if you looked at a track what my voice just did on the readout, melodically, it actually lifted up over a period of time, almost in an arc, all the way to the end of the thought. And melodically, what that does in your brain is it indicates to you, “Oh, he’s not yet done speaking.” It’s part of the reason why monotone is so deadly, is that it sounds like anyone is done the entire time they’re speaking, the whole time. So that’s just one example.
NYLP: One of the things that I also wanted to discuss is differences between men and women in communicating, and what are some of the common problems across gender?
Michael: Gender is a fascinating question when it comes to communication, and you need look no further than the relative uproar on any given day about all things Hillary Clinton when it comes to communicating, that she looks angry, that she is too shrill, that her voice is too pushed. She certainly does have some terrible habits, she absolutely does. I mean, we could spend the whole podcast talking about those if you wanted to, but she’s not alone in that; many, many politicians have terrible habits.
I am not a specialist on gender. I do think it’s pretty easy to see, though, that women’s communication habits, oftentimes, are held to a higher standard than men’s and they get nitpicked more. But I’m not a gender specialist. My specialty is looking at how anyone can be better. So some of the habits that you’re talking about that women get picked on for – vocal fry, things like that, or talking in, like, a really breathy voice or having lots of upward inflection, like, making everything a question mark, no matter what you’re talking about, those sorts of habits – men have them, too. Men have them all the time. You think about, like, the guy who pushes his voice down all the time and talks on the chords really hard like that, or some guys who trail off at the end of every sentence so they sound like they don’t have any kind of conviction on what they’re talking about. Men have those habits, too.
And so, my goal is, often, not just to focus on what habits may or may not afflict either gender, but help people use more of themselves as communicators in general. We have three surprises that we talk about with good communication. One of them is, it comes from being focused on the other person. Two is that you don’t need to feel confident in order to project your confidence. But the third one is, good communication comes from using more of yourself, not less. Now, people often think that to have good communication it means speaking in a low, powerful voice like that, slowly and distinctly, and using big, sweeping gestures to emphasize points, and standing with your legs squarely on the ground. But if you’re listening to this now, notice how disengaged I sound, like I’m a newscaster from some strange planet.
We use all of ourselves to communicate when we’re at our best. Think of kids, actually. Think of all the ways in which kids negotiate for a later bedtime or try to win an argument, and they use all of themselves to do these things. So if you see people stuck in habits like upward inflection, like vocal fry, like some of these habits that people pick on for various gender, oftentimes, it’s not the thing that is the problem. The problem is it is an uncontrollable pattern that just keeps repeating and repeating and repeating and, therefore, they don’t actually have a choice, they’re just stuck in it. All that being said, I absolutely think that there are more, sort of, constraints or limitations or expectations put on women in how they communicate in our culture than men.
NYLP: Why is that?
Michael: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I mean, I’m a communication expert, I’m not a gender studies expert. I mean, I have theories, and you can look around the world and see these things, but I’m not…I mean, frankly, when you have a podcast about gender communication differences, I will be the first one to tune in because I’ll be fascinated about that.
But let me add one thing, though. Think about the powerful female communicators that you see. And I’m not talking about politicians or, you know, executives or CEOs. Think of Maya Angelou. Think of Ella Fitzgerald. Ella Fitzgerald had one of the most massive musical ranges of any vocalist in the 20th century, huge vocal range, much bigger than Frank Sinatra. So it’s not at all that there is any kind of definitive communication difference between genders, but there are these very specific constraints that it seems as though women have to navigate that I simply think men don’t.
NYLP: One of the things that you talked about was focusing on the other person and I feel as though, in everyday life, aside from giving speeches, is translating your thoughts and your words into a way that the other person who you’re speaking to would better comprehend and process what you’re saying. We spoke about that a little bit before time, but can you talk about how people can communicate the same thought so it’s better understood?
Michael: Sure. It’s a very sophisticated thing you’re asking about because…I’ll give you an example. Think of poets. Poets might sit with a poem for a year, two years, five years, depending on the poet, and finally find precisely the right word to communicate what they’re trying to communicate. Now, we’re not all walking around speaking in poetry, but I bring up the point because what you’re talking about, which is eloquence, ultimately, over the long run, eloquence is a life-long journey, trying to get as skilled as you possibly can with words, and also words that are appropriate for the person you’re speaking to. So it’s a continuum. It’s not as though, “Oh, I’ve reached them! Oh, no, I didn’t.” There’s a continuum there for sure.
When you’re talking about trying to make sure you’ve reached the other person, now, there are some good rules. And one of the simplest ones is this, most of the times simple language is better. I’ll say that again. Most of the time, simple language is better. It’s super tempting in this day and age to think, like, “I’m going to prove my point by leveraging powerful ideologies to manifest a cohesive and coherent blah, blah, blah,” and we move into a bunch of jargon to prove how smart we are, how much of a subject matter expert we are. And most of the time, you’re better off speaking in simpler ideas and plainer things, often image-based, so things people can see and taste and feel. Far from that making you seem like you don’t know what you’re talking about, usually it makes you seem like you do even more, and more people will understand you.
That being said, by the way, this does not have to be a very heady activity. You don’t have to think about it real hard, and I’ll prove this to you. If you were helping a tourist…again, put it back to that metaphor for a second. You’re helping a tourist who is lost and you give them the directions, and you see in their eyes that they’re totally clueless. They have no idea what you’re talking about. You would never keep talking in very convoluted jargon with big, multi-step directions, you would stop instantly and you would say, “You know what, never mind. Take the freeway, take Exit 4. It will take a lot longer but you’ll get there.” So part of what’s implicit in your question is actually being okay with making a “mistake”, or to fixing what you’ve said to actually make it more digestible for the person you’re speaking to.
NYLP: So you can relate to people using simpler words. What are some other techniques to better relate to people in individual conversations?
Michael: Well, one of the easiest is ask them lots of questions. Put it, again, back to…What I always like to do is try to bring these back to circumstances that everyone can relate to, and circumstances in which everyone, everyone, communicates really well. If your friend, again, your dear friend, comes to you in a crisis, foreclosure crisis, business crisis, marriage crisis, whatever the crisis is, you would do that automatically. You would ask him a bunch of questions, “How bad is it? What did he say? What did she say? What’s the latest? Have you talked to an attorney yet?” You would ask them all of these questions to really help them think through what they’re talking about.
So this idea that communication is about what you’re saying, it could not be further from the truth. It’s really about the interaction between you and the other person. So to get someone talking and to find out how to make your message more digestible and memorable for them, ask them questions.
NYLP: The second point you brought up, more of yourself. So what we’re talking about here – I’m glad that you brought that up – we’re not trying to change people, or you’re not trying to change someone in the way that they communicate. How can people bring more of themselves to speech and public speaking?
Michael: Yeah. That’s a big topic right there. There’s a bunch of…
NYLP: We have plenty of time.
Michael: No, I appreciate it. There’s a bunch of ways. I guess the first thing I would say is this, you have to get a clear idea of what your normal actually looks like. And the reason I say that is because most people are much “bigger” in real life than they think they are. Most people at a dinner table, or talking to a friend on the street, just chit-chatting and sharing stories, use so much more of their voice, their face, their eye contact, their physicality, their vocabulary, than they think they do. And then you put them on their feet in front of their colleagues in a workshop setting and you put a camera on them, and then use about a tenth of all of that. Then they think that’s normal. It’s like, “Well, that would be weird if I did these larger things,” and it’s not true at all, it would not be weird at all. That’s actually how they communicate when they’re unconscious, or they’re not self-conscious, I should say.
So the first thing is to really get an accurate sense of how much of yourself you do use when you’re at your best and, by “at your best”, I mean totally focused in an engaging interaction with reaching the other person. So that’s the first thing, get an accurate base on just how big you actually are.
NYLP: Record yourself secretly.
Michael: Yeah, record yourself secretly, but do it in a situation which you’re passionately invested in what you’re talking about.
NYLP: How can someone do that?
Michael: Well, all right. Find a buddy who you disagree with vehemently on politics, on sports, something like that. Put on your phone and record a half an hour conversation. And then, jump ahead 15 minutes into it because, I promise you, the first five will be stiff, but by, about, minute 15, you’re not going to be stiff at all. Set up a camera, even better, that can actually see the gesticulations you make and the facial expressions and things like that, because it’s essential.
Oftentimes, our perception does not match reality, meaning when we think we have to be communicating a certain way, we perceive ourselves as one thing but, in reality, it’s totally different. And that’s partly why you see people be so stiff when they’re in front of audiences, because they stand there and they speak as though they think this is correct and this is strong presence, and this is how one should speak with authority and gravitas, and it’s garbage, they shouldn’t. But they’re using a very, very minimal amount of themselves in that situation. So that will be one thing, record yourself. Get an accurate baseline, okay?
Then, once you have that thing, you’ve got to find ways to stretch this received and straight-jacketed version of yourself that you have become when you’re in “public speaking” situations. And you have to do that like an athlete, you have to practice it. Practice it enough that you remind yourself what it actually feels like to be yourself, to be as big as you actually are. And then the third thing…So those are both delivery, meaning there’s how you say things and what you say. Those are both on the delivery side of things.
On the content side, meaning what you actually say, challenge yourself to tell stories, and tell stories that are meaningful to you, that you love and that you have told before, and that you know are near and dear to you, because it’s very difficult to tell one of those stories and not have more of your communication power come out. So if you practice those things, over time, you’re going to become a more and more successful communicator.
NYLP: Aside from planned speaking, questions, people get questions, or question and answer. What are some of the techniques to navigate question and answer?
Michael: Yeah. Well, we teach a whole program simply on…We have a half-day program on effectively handling Q&A. So I can’t go into all of that in one podcast like this, but I will give you a couple brief ideas on it. The biggest problem with answering questions is that people put way too much fear and attention on the, “What if I don’t know what to say?” And truthfully, it’s only about 5% of the time that you’re genuinely stumped in these situations. Most of the time in any Q&A, you will have anticipated or at least known, you know, the basics of many of the questions you’re going to get. But those outliers, those 5% that you really think might stump you, end up taking on this huge, huge psychic weight. And so, therefore, it really ramps up your own anxiety, makes you much stiffer, things like that. So the first lesson is to know, most of the answers you’re going to know just fine.
Then on top of that, for the ones that you might not know, you have to find some ways in which to buy yourself some breathing time, and we have a whole list of ones that we teach to clients. But I’ll give you this one that’s incredibly useful and it’s just called clarifying. So if you got asked a question you don’t know the answer to you can always ask the person a question back to make them be more specific before proceeding. If you do that all the time, eventually, people will catch on. But if you have it as, like, a lifeline, then you can use it when you need to. So ask me some question, it doesn’t…any question in the whole, wide world.
NYLP: Who is the best speaker that you’ve ever listened to?
Michael: And when you say best speaker, do you mean living or deceased?
NYLP: Of course, I mean all-time.
Michael: Okay, so all I did was just buy myself a tiniest moment by making you be clear, and you could keeping doing that, by the way. So let’s keep going for a second. Do you mean living…?
NYLP: Of course, I mean all-time.
Michael: All-time, alright, and do you actually…I should just go…
NYLP: Alive or dead.
Michael: Do you care about gender? Do you care, male or female?
NYLP: I do not care.
Michael: Oh, okay. Actually, and someone else comes to mind, do you care if it’s an English-speaking or in a different language?
NYLP: Latin, please.
Michael: In Latin, well, I don’t know anyone in Latin, but the reason I asked that question is because there’s an amazing English speaker who had an accent that came to mind. Okay, blah, blah, blah, now I’m off and running. So you really can do that for quite some time. And if you build the muscle that you have that skill, what happens is it calms you down enough that then you really can use your big, powerful brain to bring all of its big and powerfulness to the questions that you do know really well. So, as opposed to being focused on, “What if I get a question I don’t know what to say,” you know you have some tools for those questions, the ones that you should know and you do have a strong and specific answer to, you can free yourself up to really hit those out of the park.
NYLP: I think this happens a lot, but people have their talking points you’ll see rehearsed speakers certainly go back to all the time. But at that point, you lose some variation and lose interest, so it seems as though having talking points are a double-edged sword.
Michael: I agree with that very much. In fact, it’s funny, part of what people claim…and I am, again, I am a communication expert. I don’t pretend to be a political expert per se, but from the polling that you read, one of the things that people respond to, apparently, the very most about Donald Trump is that it’s like he’s unscripted, that he just says what he thinks, he just shoots from the hip. So the idea that you can get yourself in trouble by having canned talking points is absolutely very real.
In fact, another political example, Marco Rubio got destroyed in that one debate when Chris Christie pointed out that same talking point that he’d said, like, three or four times in a row. So can you be too much on message? Yes, you absolutely can be too much on message. Ideally, if you’re very good at your job, you can be hitting the same themes over and over again without using the exact same verbiage over and over again. And the way you can think about this from just a lay-person’s perspective if you’re not a politician…Think about this, there’s a story that you have told, and you’ve probably told, Hal, some story about your…a disaster backpacking trip, your favorite time a sports team won something, the time you met so and so, the time you got stuck in the subway for three days. I’m just making this up, you know, whatever the story is that you’ve told your friends dozens and dozens of times. You’ve told that story many times, many, many times. You don’t tell it the exact same way every time. You embellish it, you change it. You move it around. There’s key details that are different. But at no point would you ever think to yourself, like, “Boy, I’m really being inauthentic,” or, you know, “That really wasn’t me,” because you would just be invested in sharing these ideas even though you know the ideas very well.
So if you’re a media person out there, a politician out there listening, the task is not to say the same stuff over and over again. The task is to say the same basic message but reiterate it repeatedly in slightly different ways, so that it comes across – which it actually is – as a platform rather than just prepared speech.
NYLP: How can someone get an audience to like them?
Michael: That’s a good question. This is a question that actors get to wrestle with a lot. There’s a famous story, this is a story that all the actors out there will know very, very well. It’s a famous story about two actors on stage, and there was this famous moment in which the actor asks the other actor for a tea cup. This line always kills in the audience, everyone laughs, okay, so it’s a hilarious part in the play. He asked for the tea cup. One night she asked for the tea cup and there’s no laughter, nothing at all, nothing at all. She was like, “What is going on?” So she goes back and say and she talks to her costars, “What happened, what happened on that laugh line?” She said, “My dear, you didn’t ask for the tea cup, you asked for the laugh,” and the idea being, if you go into the actual event trying to, “Like me, like me, like me,” be liked, well, look, you know there’s actually…Go in to any social situation. You’re at a cocktail party, you’re talking to someone, you can see the person is desperately trying to get you to like them. There’s nothing less likable than someone trying to make you like them. It’s utterly unlikable
On stage or giving a speech, do your job, meaning present a compelling, a fascinating, a heartbreaking story. Share your passion about these ideas. Construct this groundbreaking argument. Do those sorts of things. Don’t even worry about the audience liking you. Focus on your job. Now, humans are fantastic listeners and fantastic empathizers and, if you do your job, guess what, they’ll end up liking you. But if you go about trying to be liked or be likable, it doesn’t work. Part of the reason why…Back to politics again, part of the reason why when you have people of high unlikables on their evaluations like Hillary Clinton, and then they get some campaign advice to be more likable, how does one be more likable? It’s totally vague and it’s a vague unactionable piece of advice, and then the candidates try to do that and they come across looking manipulative or a little hokey, and they seem like they’re a bit mercenary on what they’re trying to accomplish.
NYLP: So you say when someone is giving a speech, do their job, someone is preparing for a big presentation, when do they know if they’re ready to give it?
Michael: There is such a thing as being over-prepared, there is. It’s very rare, by the way. Most people don’t over-prepare, most under-prepare, but there is such a thing as being over-prepared I think that answer is different for each person, and it probably comes down to when they feel comfortable, when they feel as though, “Okay, I think I’m ready to go.” If you are an over-preparer out there, one of the ways in which you’ll know you’re an over-preparer is if you’ve practiced it so much that it comes out the same way every time. I’ll say this again, if you’ve practiced it so much that it comes out in the same way, every time. If you’ve practiced it so much that it comes out the same way every time. If you’ve practiced it so much that it comes out the same way every…you get the idea, just repeating the same lines. So if you’ve done that, where you’ve memorized not just the ideas you’re sharing but the actual inflection and pacing of it, you’ve probably over-prepared.
Actors like to talk about if it’s in your body. What they mean by that is not just in your brain, but if your body actually feels like it’s warmed up and it owns, in a way, this message, you kind of know where you’re going to be in the room when you’re in a certain section of the speech. You kind of have a feeling for what the flow of this whole thing is in an intuitive way. That’s usually around the time that you’re ready to deliver the thing.
NYLP: Wedding toast.
NYLP: Everyone has to give one at a point.
NYLP: Keys to nailing it.
Michael: I think this is a funny question because people often say to me, “Eulogies, wedding toast,” these sorts of things. And most of the time, if someone comes to hire me because they want a help on a wedding toast, I just refuse them. I say, “No.” I say, “You’re fine. No matter what you’re going to do, you’re fine,” because, most of the time, people care and love the person they’re talking about so much that no matter what they do it’s going to come across. No matter what it is, even if it’s a…they fall flat on their faces and they cry the entire time, or they go on too long and they get ahead of themselves and everyone laughs at how long-winded they are, because people sense that deep, deep devotion and love and it translates completely. And so, you really can almost do no wrong in a wedding toast or something like that.
NYLP: Same with a eulogy.
Michael: Same with eulogy except, if you offend people, if you lace in a bunch of profanity which is not necessarily right for that audience, those sorts of things. So can you be better if there’s a few things? Sure. Should they be brief? Yes, absolutely. Should there be some humor? Absolutely, yeah. Should there be a variety in terms of, like, some laughing, some crying? Yeah, but, in general, you’re going to be fine because you’ve known the person for 20 years.
NYLP: Is there a speaker out there that people should emulate, that you say, “This is a good speaker to follow, this is a good example,” because, as you said, there are politicians, public figures, that all have problems in their communication, but is there someone, a couple of examples, that says, “This is a good person to follow,”?
Michael: Yeah. Well, the way I’m going to answer that question is this. Even within that question, there’s a certain degree to which it assumes it’s the individual to follow. And the reason I highlight that is because a lot of it is the practice. And what I mean by that is Winston Churchill did not become Winston Churchill when he was 17; Martin Luther King, similar. So I actually like to say look at actors, look at actors who you think speak very, very well. Perhaps it’s Morgan Freeman. Perhaps it’s Ralph Fiennes. Maybe you like how Tom Hanks speaks. Maybe you respond to how Daniel Day-Lewis speaks. Perhaps it’s Kate Winslet. Those are folks who studied many, many, many, many, many, many hours to learn about diction, elocution, vocal placement, vocal inflection, melody, things like that. They’ve become masters of their vocal instrument. So even though they’re playing a character, and even though they’re being someone else, a historical or a fictional character, there’s no reason you can’t learn from what they’re doing. And in fact, if you look at Morgan Freeman, he’s almost made a calling card of, like, that Morgan Freeman voice that he does so beautifully, so much so that he’s now doing political ads and things like this all the time. So those are folks that I would say to watch.
I do think President Obama, when he’s at his best, is quite powerful as a speaker. Well, Martin Luther King, I mean, sort of the best there is in many, many ways. Those would be some.
NYLP: Is there a certain tone that people should use in terms of public speaking – deeper tone, lighter tone – that gives them more authoritative sound?
Michael: Yeah. This is such a fascinating question. Let me dive for a second into what I called input and output communication coaching. You’ll hear a lot of reference to women in particular, but speakers, in general, should speak in the lower third of their voice because it conveys gravitas. And a bunch of sociologists have gotten together and measured this, and they claim that speaking in the lower third of your voice conveys gravitas, and so people should do that more.
My argument is this, that is an output, meaning a bunch of sociologists or PR folks sit around, they take some notes on some speeches. They measure things with equipment, kind of like we’re looking at right now on this little screen, and they look at when the speaker has a low voice and then they rate it based on audiences’ evaluations of it. Now, audiences say that speaker had gravitas, and so then they reverse engineer it and they say that’s the output that equals gravitas. And therefore, if you want to achieve gravitas you should speak in the lower third of your voice, which is why then you hear newscasters say, “And that’s the end of the story,” and they all said the exact same. The input to achieve that is not necessarily speak in the lower third of your voice. The input might well be make sure that person in the third row listens to every single thing I say right now, make sure they’ve digested this point completely, meaning that’s part of that human need to reach the other person. So when you talk about tonality, I don’t actually recommend that people speak in the lower third of their voice, or speak in a slow and even manner, because all of that is tremendously reductive and it contributes, at times, to a very scripted or very artificial kind of a demeanor.
I’ll give you an example right now, I will speak now in the lower third of my voice in a slow and even way, and you can tell me what you think of this. Hi Hal, I would now like to talk to you about how all of the various aspects of communication add together to make a complete interview. Okay, so do you hear that? I mean, sure, it’s like I could be on a news program somewhere but, at the same time, it sounds a bit like I’m an alien or something.
NYLP: You sound like a book on tape in middle school.
Michael: Yeah, book on tape in middle school, exactly right, yeah. So the point is not to speak in the lower third of your voice. This point is this, use all of your vocal variety to reach the other person and accomplish what you need.
Vocal variety is made up of five Ps. Now, I reference them as “five Ps” so it’s alliterative and easy to remember. They are Pace, Pitch, Pause, Power, and Placement. Pace is fast and slow. Pause is musical rest. Pitch is high and low. Power is loud and soft. And placement is where the sound resonates in your body, like in a nasal voice or in a throatier voice like that, or a more resonant voice deep in your chest. Those are the five Ps, but you know them all already, by the way.
In fact, do this test. Imagine you’re reading a text message from a friend. The text message says, “Call me right now!” with an exclamation point, okay? Now, in your head, I want you to imagine it’s great news they’re going to tell you about, or they are mad as hell at you and it’s terrible news. How do those two things sound in your head?
NYLP: One is high pitch and one is lower pitch.
Michael: And I promise you, it’s not just pitch. It’s probably power will be different, probably pace is probably different, placement might even be different. All of those Ps, and they’re all linked together. So when humans are trying to back this idea of monotone, and I’ll do this now for a second, part of the reason that monotone is so deadly is not just that it’s boring because you know what’s coming next, but also because, as you’re listening to my voice, notice how difficult it is to extract what’s important, and the information, all of it blends together.
Do you hear that? You can’t even find…like, what the heck is Michael actually saying? I have no idea. And so, vocal inflection allows humans to understand meaning, to actually get the point of what they’re saying. So rather than speak in the lower third of your voice because that has gravitas, use all of your voice to achieve the mission that you have in that given moment.
NYLP: What’s one thing that someone who’s listening to this podcast should take away?
Michael: If there’s a habit you have that you don’t like about how you communicate – and I’ll list some now – that maybe drive you crazy, maybe you speak too quickly, maybe you say “um” all the time, maybe you have a hard time holding eye contact, maybe you know that you slump whenever you feel a little bit insecure, any of these sorts of things, stop the mental tape that is playing in your head right now about that very thing, because the more you play that mental tape, the more you’re going to do that thing. And what’s the definition of insanity? You know what the definition is.
As opposed to just saying the same thing over and over in your own head that you’ve heard countless and countless and countless times, find a kinesthetic, physical way to alter that pattern. Practice that kinesthetic thing by yourself, then in low-consequence situations, and then, finally, in higher-consequence situations. And if you have to make it invisible in some way to remind yourself, do so. And in three months or so, you can learn a completely different habit about how you communicate that breaks free of, perhaps, even, decades of negative self-talk about that same exact thing.
I’ll give you an example. This is something we teach to clients called “finger walking”. Now I want you to imagine that you are like that old Yellow Pages ad, when your fingers are going to do the walking. Now, this is particularly for people who tend to say lots of “ums” or speak very, very quickly, or just ramble without actually considering their thoughts. As opposed to saying to yourself, “Don’t ramble, don’t say ‘um’, don’t talk too quickly,” which we just established none of those things work because you’ve been saying them to yourself for a long time, instead, take your hand, put your hand on the table with two fingers and walk your ideas across the table, one finger-step at a time. Don’t worry about what you’re saying, worry about what your fingers are doing.
Be as specific with word choice as you possibly can. “Ahs” and “ums” and filler language like that, we like to say they’re not a problem, they’re not a problem. “Ums” are not a problem, they’re a symptom. It’s a symptom of you not being in as much charge of your communication as you could be. So practice this finger-walking drill at home and discover how much more in command you can be of the actual words you’re choosing. And if you like it, you can even practice it on the phone because no one can see you on the phone. So that’s one example of a way in which we help clients make it physical through kinesthetic learning.
NYLP: And you are actually walking your fingers across…people couldn’t see but you actually do this all the time.
Michael: I was actually doing that. Well, I do it to demonstrate for clients but, yeah, I mean…All of these things, everyone can get better at. I can get better, you can get better, l…thank goodness we’re not done yet, meaning hopefully, at 60, we’re better communicators than we are now. Hopefully we get better and better and better. Otherwise, what’s the point?
NYLP: I know I certainly can get better. I think I’m not alone. Michael, how do people find out more about you and your company?
Michael: Sure. The name of the company is GK Training and Communications, all spelled out one word for the URL, gktrainingandcommunications.com, gktrainingandcommunications.com, and you can check us out there. We have all kinds of videos. You can watch things like that, even guided physical and vocal warm-ups, and downloadable tongue twisters, if you want to get better at any of these given things.
NYLP: You’ve shared so much knowledge today. I can’t wait to apply some of these lessons. I hope a lot of our listeners are applying the lessons. Michael, thank you for stepping on to the New York Launch Pod and sharing your time with us.
Michael: It’s my pleasure, thanks a lot.
NYLP: And if you want to learn more about the New York Launch Pod, you can visit nylaunchpod.com. Follow us on social media @ NY Launch Pod. Reach out, and we look forward to hearing from you.