Podium Coaching Blog
Three tips to help guard against slips of the tongue
President George W. Bush once said “For seven and a half years, I’ve worked along side President Reagan. We’ve had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We’ve had some sex… uh… setbacks.”
Bush had a slip of the tongue and recovered quickly. As did his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, when she said “As I was telling my husb… as I was telling President Bush.”
These quotes, and many more, are in Terrorized by the Tongue, an article in the magazine Psychology Today about slips of the tongue.
The article examines the psychology of why we blurt out supposedly repressed or unconscious words. It says that we all do it, and “each day, most of us make somewhere between 7 and 22 verbal slips.”
If there is a word we want to suppress consciously, the sub-conscious mind will work really hard to get it past our lips.
So, as speakers, how can we minimize or prevent these embarrassing slips?
First of all, pause before you speak. Get comfortable being silent for a second or two especially if you think you are in potentially dangerous territory. In our presentation skills workshops we tell people one of the hardest skills to learn is to be comfortable with silence. Silence is one of our most potent communication tools. And a pause is a great way of guarding against a slip of the tongue.
Second, wake up. Be truly conscious of what you’re saying. Focus your mind so you say exactly what you want to say.
Third, use the TalkitOut technique to prepare your speech or presentation. Rehearse your thoughts out loud as your plan your content. The more you practice what you want to say out loud, the stronger your chance of actually saying it when you are in front of an audience.
Of course there is no guarantee you still won’t make a little thunder… er, blunder, now and then.
Tune up your story-gathering antenna
As a trainee newspaper reporter, I would routinely be despatched to some town or village to ‘dig up a story or two’.
Many years later, when I was training young journalists, I would assign them to visit a place they’d never been to before, to talk to people they didn’t know, and come back with a story.
This little trip down memory lane was prompted by a client who told me he wanted to include more stories in his presentations, “but didn’t know any”.
He looked surprised when I said his life was full of stories. His friends’ lives were packed with stories. Everyone he met had a great story to tell. There was a story behind every little card tacked up on the local store’s notice board.
It’s not that we don’t hear stories… it just that we don’t always recognise the universal truth behind a personal anecdote. And we don’t always have a system for capturing good potential stories.
Next time you hear something that makes you smile, or makes you reach out a supportive hand, don’t trust your memory to capture the story. Carry a note book for potential stories. Or tap a short version into your PDA. Or call your phone and leave yourself a message.
An old TV series always ended with the lines ‘There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them’. (Historical note – the line was taken from an earlier collection of semi-documentary photographs of New York).
Stories are vital for speakers and presenters. Stories make information manageable. Stories make facts memorable. Without stories your presentation is a mass of data – a bit like reading a phone book aloud.
So tune-up your story-gathering antenna. And make sure you have a good system for capturing stories that will add a little sizzle to future presentations.
Don’t make interviews tougher than they really are
Some of the people I work with in media skills training sessions make interviews harder than they need be.
Let me give you an example of what happens, using a real question from the grilling of much-criticised former Barclays Bank boss Bob Diamond by British parliamentarians.
Here’s a ‘question’ by MP John Mann:
Q: You’re in charge. People were suggesting impropriety. And you did not investigate it. Either you were complicit or you were grossly negligent or you were grossly incompetent.
Inexperienced interviewees hear the words ‘impropriety’, ‘negligent’ and ‘incompetent’ and feel obliged to defend themselves against the charge.
More experienced interviewees notice that in all his huffing and puffing, John Mann forgot to turn his comments into a question.
He makes a statement. The smart interviewee, listening really carefully, notices what’s happening. The smart interviewee doesn’t help the interviewer by accepting the implied question ‘were you negligent or incompetent?’ Instead the smart interviewee grabs the opportunity to make a statement of his/her own.
By not creating a hard-working question, John Mann gives Bob Diamond an escape route. Instead of having to defend himself, Diamond has the opportunity to talk about his principles, philosophy… anything. He settles for saying that the unethical behaviour of some bank employees was wrong.
His questioner returns to the fray, almost certainly disappointed not to have drawn blood.
But John Mann’s next question is – again – not a question.
Q: You’re in charge. You did not see what was going on. You’re incompetent.
Mann means his comments as a question. But he doesn’t force Diamond to make a direct response. Abrasive allegations only work if the interviewee responds to the implied question. Once again the smart interviewee notices Mann has delivered a statement. It’s another opportunity to reply with a confident statement of a strategic message.
But Diamond misses his opportunity. Instead, maybe riled by the personal attacks, he snaps back with ‘Is there a question?’
A mistake. Instead of occupying the time with a strategic statement supporting his case, Diamond hands the inititiative back to his challenger. And John Mann comes back smartly with:
Q: OK. Last time you said an incompetent executive would lose shares and bonuses. Will you forfeit them?
At last Mann has formulated a short, potent question. It’s a zinger. And Diamond is now facing the very question he doesn’t want to answer. He could get a 20 million pound payoff – and he’s not prepared to say he’ll forego the money.
We’ll never know whether Mann would have formulated such an effective question if Diamond had matched statement with statement, instead of pointing out that his challenger was letting him off the hook.
My advice to clients preparing for an interview is simple:
1 – active listening is the key to smart answers
2 – don’t do the interviewer’s work for him
3 – any statement from the interviewer gives you a platform to respond with your own statement
4 – avoid the ‘is there a question there?’ response – it may goad the interviewer into formulating a question you don’t want to answer
5 – up to a third of the ‘questions’ asked by journalists are really statements
6 – don’t miss a chance to deliver your strategic message
Just a second – what’s your message?
A number of high-profile websites and online services suffered over the weekend. Cause of the trouble was the ‘leap second’ – the extra second added to the world clock to compensate for a wobble in the earth’s rotation.
The problem was made worse by major power outages along the US east coast because of storms. The outages affected a major cloud storage data centre.
Let’s look at the contrasting ways two companies responded in public to the disruption.
Amazon Web Services was taken out by the storm. And so was its back-up generator. Amazon’s response? “We will share more details of this event in the coming days.”
Social news aggregator Reddit also lost service for a while. They responded with a Tweet: “You ever wish you had an extra second or two? This is not one of those times!” Earlier they had said “We are having some issues related to the leap second. We’re working as quickly as we can to restore service.”
Which response gets your vote?
Amazon issued a formal statement promising information in the future.
Reddit tried a lighter touch, and indicated they were dealing with the problem right now.
If you had to update your customers on a service glitch, which approach would you take?
(If you are struggling to decide, ask yourself which approach you would prefer if YOU were the customer.”
Effective messaging is just one of the elements of our media skills training.