Podium Coaching Blog
Cain’s blather: why his words fail to connect with audience
Another burst of blather from beleaguered US presidential hopeful Herman Cain.
Cain is the Republican wannabe who has spent most of his campaign doing damage limitation after a series of allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour.
Trouble is, his damage limitation causes more damage – because he’s seen as fudging his message.
He has a reputation as an orator. But when he’s on the defensive he shows us clearly why his communication skills desert him.
Today he gave us a great example.
“We have to do an assessment as to whether or not this is going to create too much of a cloud, in some people’s minds, as to whether or not they would be able to support us going forth.”
We all distrust blather and bafflegab. We appreciate straight talk, and when we don’t get it we get suspicious.
Cain’s message today contains several devices we should avoid if we want to be perceived as straight talkers.
- ‘We have to do an assessment…’ Cain has taken a perfectly good verb (to assess) and swaddled it in so much padding that it loses it’s power and clarity. How often do we see phrases like ‘We have to have a meeting…’ when we really mean ‘Let’s meet…’
- ‘as to whether or not…’ The Plain English Campaign constantly fights against these overloaded constructions. What Cain means is ‘if’. The Plain English Campaign has a great web site packed with examples of clunky constructions and crystal clear alternatives.
- he repeats the cumbersome ‘as to whether or not’ construction, further confusing listeners who are already struggling to understand him. Your audience has one chance to receive, process and understand your message. Keep it simple.
- ‘going forth.’ Few people use that phrase in conversation. We’re more likely to say ‘going forward’, or ‘in the future’. Anyway, since the sense is implicit, the phrase is redundant.
If you want to be more able than Cain as a communicator, remember:
- Keep it simple
- Keep it conversational
- Let verbs work their magic
- Don’t send five words to do the work of one
- Strip out every word that’s not working hard
How to spot an email scam: 6 tips to keep you safe
An invitation dropped into the Podium Coaching inbox the other day. It was a request for Podium’s Halina St James to speak at a university in England.
Halina is a member of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers, so the request was not unusual.
But it was a scam. It was a variation on an email fraud that a lot of people are aware of, and some have fallen victim to.
So we thought we’d devote this blog to a list of warning signs when you receive an email that you are uncertain about.
1 – Look at the language, grammar and punctuation.
Halina’s invitation started:
“I am Prof. Joe Elliot from the KEELE UNIVERSITY Here in London UK. We want you to be our guest Speaker at this Year Bird college Seminar.”
The style, and the eccentric capitalization and spacing, is a real give-away. Over-emphatic language and heavy capitalization are good clues that a letter is a scam.
2 – Look for anything that seems odd.
Because we lived in England, we know that Keele University is not based in London.
3 – Look carefully at the email address.
Our invitation asked us to reply to universityof firstname.lastname@example.org. Would a university have a gmail address? Unlikely.
3 – Do a little research.
A quick online search showed no Prof. Joe Elliot on the staff at Keele. The letter we received also said the website was being updated – but a quick trip online proved this to be untrue.
4 – Alert your friends.
Enough of our friends have been caught to persuade us that even smart people sometimes fall for email scams and hoaxes. In this case the author of the email indicated Halina was being approached because of her profile on the legitimate CAPS website. Maybe others in the organization are being targeted, too.
5 – Do not open attachments or click on links.
Sometimes the email is bait to get you to a fake website where you are asked to give personal information. Identity theft is a massive problem.
6 – Be skeptical.
If an offer sounds too good to be true – it probably is. The whole process of figuring out our invitation was a scam didn’t take very long. The most important thing is to read carefully with your head, not your heart.
If you apply these tests and are still unsure, you might want to check out some of the web sites dedicated to exposing scams and hoaxes. The RCMP has some great information about scams, particularly the ones purporting to come from banks. Hoax-slayer is another good source of information.
Show a little respect when communicating bad news
Mark Timney, president of healthcare giant Merck, sat down recently to write to staff about some bad news: the company needed to get rid of 13,000 jobs.
But Timney didn’t want the news to sound too gloomy.
So he decided to avoid words like ‘layoffs’, or even ‘jobs’, in his 550 word memo.
In fact he decided to present the removal of 13,000 jobs as an opportunity, writing that it was “the opportunity for employees in the aforementioned select areas to proactively hand-raise and be considered for separation”.
Hmmmm, sounds so much better.
By now Timney was warming to his task. “Our strategy, which remains unchanged, reinforces the need for us to change our underlying operations and enables our ability to grow.”
Now that’s getting a little confusing.
C’mon bosses. Confusing AND patronising employees is not going to make the job-reduction process any easier. It’s going to make it harder.
You employ people because they are smart: certainly smart enough to know that talking about ‘vacancy management’ is just sugar-coating a pink slip.
Euphemisms are counter-productive. At Podium Coaching, we believe that if you are giving bad news, you should play it straight: help people understand why the changes are happening. Keep the language simple, conversational, respectful.
Getting people to engage with a difficult business decision is hard enough. Blowing smoke in their face isn’t going to help.
Say what you mean – and mean what you say
by Halina St James
A friend of mine just got her Visa statement. She had a charge for $50.95 for ‘retail interest’. At first she thought she bought something and just had a senior moment remembering what it was. But she was sure she didn’t buy anything for that amount.
So she called Visa. She was right. She hadn’t bought anything. The $50.95 was interest charged for being two days late on a $2000 payment.
My friend was incensed. One reason was the wording ‘retail interest’. It wasn’t clear. In her mind, Visa was covering up the real reason for the charge, which was interest for a late payment. She admitted to being 2 days late with her payment but ‘retail interest’ really irritated her. It smacked of cover-up.
How often do we try to cover up our real meaning with some fluffy euphemism. Somebody ‘passes’. They don’t die. We have ‘sanitary engineers’ not garbage collectors. We say ‘adult entertainment’ instead of pornography, ‘armed intervention’ instead of war.
Just a few minutes on Google resulted in some mind numbing phrases such as ‘unable to operationalise the customer request’ (meaning the sales person was not helpful). Apparently ‘outsourcing’ is now ‘bestshoring’. And if you’re stealing from a company, you’re ‘liberating captive assets’.
Playing the euphemism card is a dangerous game. People will sense you’re up to something. The best thing to do is to say what you mean, and mean what you say. Keep your language simple and honest. You will be a more powerful, less misunderstood communicator.
By the way, my friend cut up her Visa and moved her money out of the bank into a credit union.
How to hold an audience, without props or gimmicks
If you can make global economics interesting for more than an hour to a non-specialist audience, you have to be doing something right as a speaker.
Hats off to Scotiabank chief economist Warren Jestin for doing just that today at a luncheon in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
And he did it without notes, or charts, or slides.
At the end of the session, at least one member of the audience was heard to say ‘I wish I could make a presentation like that.’
So let’s just look at some of the things that helped Warren Jestin engage with his audience:
- He made sure we knew where he was taking us: the euro crisis, the problems in the US, the Canadian economy, and the prospects for investors. Several times he reminded us of the route map of the speech.
- He was authentic: histrionics and laugh-out-loud jokes are not his style. He’s quietly understated, but with occasional sunbeams of dry wit.
- He used short labels or memorable phrases to summarise his points: ‘mathematically impossible’ for the debt crisis in Greece; ‘no-one’s having adult conversations’ for the inability to drag the US from the brink of recession.
- He knew his audience – interested investors but generally not financial professionals. He used appropriate, conversational language – avoiding jargon.
- He had a logical structure that enabled him to flow from point to point effortlessly.
- He pulled the various elements together at the end to give his audience a succinct and relevant takeaway.
Jestin’s performance was a gentle reminder that we don’t need elaborate props or podium-thumping dramatics to engage an audience.
All you need is a passion for a topic, and a genuine desire to share that passion with others.
As we remind people in Podium Coaching presentation skills workshops – have something to say, believe in it, say it simply, and shut up.
Great advice for nervous public speakers
“All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
“If I could just say a few words … I’d be a better public speaker.” — Homer J. Simpson
And my third big idea is… oh, I forgot it
In case you didn’t see it, here’s the moment Republican Rick Perry went from US presidential hopeful to hopeless.
In last night’s candidates’ debate he promised to eliminate three federal agencies. But he couldn’t remember their names.
After the debate, his communications advisor tried to spin it as a ‘stumble of style, not substance.’ You be the judge.
How talented young dancers can boost your next presentation
Our home town of Halifax, Nova Scotia, knows all about sad farewells. It’s a navy town, where long goodbyes and anxious waits are part of military life.
There’s a long tradition of families waving loved ones off on missions around the world; missions of peace, and missions of war.
In the last few years Halifax dockside has seen anxious farewells and joyful reunions after conflicts in the Persian Gulf (Iraq), the Gulf of Aden (fighting piracy), to Haiti after the earthquake, and most recently in the Mediterranean (Libya).
These stories of military deployments are stories of comradeship, of bravery, of duty.
But they are also love stories. Stories of families divided, fearful, apprehensive, wondering if their lives will ever be the same…
That story of sadness and fear was the story that played out on a polished hardwood floor in a dance studio in Halifax over the weekend.
Talented ballroom dancers Brenton Mitchell and Julie Poirier (ranked 11 in Canada) played out their homage to all military families at two full-house performances. The shows were fund-raisers, to help Brenton and Julie raise the $30,000.00 it costs these amateurs to compete each year at the highest level of international dance.
Dance tells stories, just as songs tell stories. Stories help us make sense of our lives and our world.
If you are in the communication business, you have to be in the story business. Story takes complexity and makes it understandable; it takes forgettable information and makes it memorable.
Next time you have to make a speech or presentation, do what Julie and Brenton do so well… tell a story. Your audience will do what they did for our talented dancers – give the ultimate reward of a standing ovation.
Live microphone catches world leaders in ‘liar’ gaffe
Oops. French President Nicolas Sarkozy thinks Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is a liar. And he told US President Barack Obama so at the G20 summit.
“I can’t stand him any more, he’s a liar,” said Mr Sarkozy.
President Obama replied: “You may be sick of him, but me – I have to deal with him every day.”
Two men who should know better ignored one of the basic rules of our media training sessions… don’t speak out of turn when there are microphones present.
It was supposed to be a private conversation, ahead of a news conference by the French and US leaders. Journalists had been given translation boxes – but told not to plug them in.
Which is a bit like giving kids candy and telling them not to eat it.
If you don’t want to see your words in headlines or hear them broadcast – don’t say them. If you see a microphone, assume it is ‘live’ and someone is listening.
(The BBC has a good report on the incident on their web site).
Why did the chicken cross the road?
‘Deregulation of the chicken’s side of the road was threatening its dominant market position. The chicken was faced with significant challenges to create and develop the competencies required for the newly competitive market. Gobbledygook Consulting convened a diverse cross-spectrum of road analysts and best chickens along with Gobbledygook consultants with deep skills in the transportation industry to engage in a two-day itinerary of meetings in order to leverage their personal knowledge capital, both tacit and explicit, and to enable them to synergize with each other in order to achieve the implicit goals of delivering and successfully architecting and implementing an enterprise-wide value framework across the continuum of poultry cross-median processes.’
OK, it’s an old joke… Isn’t it?
It’s just a little worrying that, while most of us laugh at that sort of self-important, hyper-inflated, babble there are some who still think grandiose language is the way to impress a client or audience.
Join Podium, and Kevin and his students, in fighting against gobbledygook. What horrors have you seen recently? Send us examples. We’ll give an e-copy of our Presentation Skills book to the best (worst) example.