It’s been a while since I’ve posted a “how to”-style article and I thought it might be helpful to have a quick look at some tools that can help with one of the most challenging part of anyone’s job. The title is of course tongue in cheek but there are small things we can do that will make a transformative difference. Things no one told Phil Davison in the video above. Don’t be Phil.
It’s funny, as sophisticated communication is the one gift humans have that surges us far beyond all other intelligent life; yet it is the cause of so much confusion and uncertainty in both our professional and personal lives.
As an actor, I love communication. Like anyone, I don’t always get it right but when I was 17, performing in a Shakespeare lead for the first time at school, I discovered that the relationship between me and the audience was one I inherently understood. I felt powerful in that space. I had found where I belonged. My journey to Coach has been a long and winding one (politics degree, actor training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, professional actor, professional theatre director, coach, business leader) and I am passionate about sharing the thrill I felt as that 17 year old with others. I hope I can help them, if not love the dynamic created when speaking to an audience, to at least approach it without fear or trepidation.
So here are 10 perspectives on successful communication. Where I’ve italicised I am referring to a skill or technique to implement.
It’s all about the breath
The breath is the key to successful communication. It’s the first thing to tighten up when we feel under pressure. Notice the next time someone asks you a question you’re not prepared for, or you are about to speak to a large audience: what happens to your breath? I’ll bet money that you hold it.
Let the tension go by breathing out. Remember: “If in doubt, breathe out.” It resets the system, tells the mind you are not in a fight/flight/freeze state and, without going into the physiology of it, will allow you to think clearly. It’s helpful to know that the literal meaning of “inspiration” is to breathe in.
Don’t try to control the room
Lots of people say to me, “I want to be able to control the room”. I understand what they are asking but I believe they are going the wrong way about it. We actually need to think about release, not control. Control implies effort and effort, particularly when exerted under pressure, can easily lead to tension. Tension in itself is not necessarily a bad thing as it gives us energy and focus, but if it’s not harnessed in the right way, it can really stymie communication. An actors’ training is, in part, preparing them for the pressure of performing to hundreds of people every night with an awareness of resilience that would make most HRDs salivate.
Change the script, you can’t actually control a room, or the people in it. If you want them “eating out of the palm of your hand” you have to let go of the notion that you can control them, focus on releasing your own tension, this will allow you to be “in the moment” and more responsive to their needs.
Say more with less
Stopping speaking can be a hard thing to do. So just do it. Breathe more and take your time before you articulate your next thought.
If you feel like you often over-speak this can be an immensely liberating and powerful experience.
Communication is physical
Because our thoughts are articulated through speech we can forget that the act of (person to person) communication is actually a physical one.
What do I mean? Well, we all know that body language speaks volumes but it goes beyond that. The voice is simply the product of muscular engagement. More than that, as words are articulated changes in air pressure are created which the audience’s ear drums respond to with movement. So, when someone says “you really touched me with that speech” they mean it. It’s a form of physical connection, if not quite contact.
Consider how much more time you spend thinking about and preparing your content, versus actually practising saying it. You might want to think about redressing that balance.
The Eyes have it
There is loads of research into eye contact and communication. It stands to reason that meaningful eye contact creates a more positive connection with people and yet, we find it very hard.
Remind yourself to look at people until there has been some sort of acknowledgement of connection. It might be a smile, a blink, or even they look away, just know you’ve made an impact.
Hold your space
Lots of people say moving when they present helps them think and put energy into their delivery. Well yes, it might. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help your audience. You are there in service of them, not yourself. The power to hold your space helps your audience “know what you stand for”, they will view you in “good standing”; they might think you’re “down to earth”, they won’t see you as “shifty” “and “the ground won’t open up beneath your feet”.
We have lots of positive associations with stability and stillness, use this to your advantage. This doesn’t mean don’t move, it just means if you do, do it for a reason: change the space, change the energy, change perspectives.
Want to be heard
If you’re going to speak, make sure you can be heard. It’s obvious but don’t let your reluctance to be the focus diminish your message’s impact. Your voice is your single biggest tool of influence as it is the delivery method of your content – make it count.
Of course this doesn’t mean shout but connect your voice to your breath, find energy from your belly and share your ideas as you would like to hear them.
Past, Present and Future
We all struggle with time, often meaning we rush. Pausing is the key. And the key to pausing is the breath. You have to breathe. The great thing about taking time is that it means that people can catch up with what you’ve just said (the past); it gives you time to think about what you’re going to say next (the future); and these meet in the present as you breathe freely. In this way, pausing and breathing ensures we are present, which is a thing all of could probably do with being a bit more of.
The floor is your best friend
Gravitas is not an inherited gift. It’s simply a manifestation of how we use our physical and vocal energy in response to the force that holds us to the floor. Gravity is great. Work well with it and you can show up with what I call Goldilocks energy: not too much, not too little, just the right amount. It’s simply the energy of readiness. Too often, because of the maelstrom of chaos around us, we under or over energise ourselves and this severely effects our impact.
To be able to connect to the floor and increase you gravitas. Get the weight evenly distributed between both feet, release your knees (like you need on an underground or subway train) and breathe low into the belly.
Know why you are saying something. It might sound obvious and you might even be thinking you do this already. What I actually mean here is less about knowing why the point matters and more the impact you want it to have. It’s about delivery.
Think about your intention, what do you want your audience to be feeling as you deliver this thought, idea or concept? Do you want them to be thrilled? Shocked? Tickled? Cheered? Challenged? Elevated? Honoured? What do all these words have in common? They are all verbs and consequently all about action and movement. How do you want to move your audience?