Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Having Your Audience Talk Back to You

Did you ever have a one-way conversation with someone? Think of the times that you were cornered at a cocktail party by someone who was selling you something or sharing pictures of their vacation to Wisconsin. Pretty boring, isn't it? Perhaps even painful...reminds me of the movie Take the Money and Run, when Woody Allen's jailed character was tortured by being locked in a cell with an insurance salesman.
This is why I've decided to take questions throughout most of my speeches rather than wait until the end. I think you show your audience a certain disrespect when you expect them to sit quietly and passively while you talk to them. Also, your presentation may become that one-way, dead-end street to which I alluded at the top... all you, all the time, and maybe sounding like the same-old, same-old to your listeners. On the other hand, generating audience participation is a way of spicing up your talk.
Is this a hard and fast rule? Absolutely not. Sometimes it's impractical due to the circum- stances of your talk. Perhaps the room is too large and the audience is too big to do this. Or it may be inappropriate because of the nature of your presentation.
If you are delivering an emotion-packed speech, such as a eulogy or fund-raising appeal,
you certainly don't want to break the mood, or your spell, by having the audience interrupt. But, in many other situations, talking with the audience more one-on-one can be desirable.
In my previous post, I mentioned how I went around the room prior to the start of a recent presentation, introduced myself to the attendees as their speaker for the day, and got their names. That helped later as I stood at the front of the room. When I asked leading questions, and they showed interest in responding, I was usually able to call them by their names, connecting with them. In one case, I told a story that drew an amused reaction from a man in the back. I gestured toward him and called, "You liked that, didn't you, Lou?" He explained to me and the rest of the room why he had found that anecdote meaningful.
Note: He also bought my book after the meeting was over.

I recommend a book titled Preventing Death by Lecture, by Sharon Bowman. I met Sharon only once at a local meeting of the National Speakers Association, but I found her to be one of the most memorable speakers I ever heard. She gives lots of fun tips on how to engage your audience so they are involved in your presentation and are more likely to remember you and what you said afterward. I encourage you to check her out.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Forget the Grand Entrance

The lights dim.
Smoke envelopes the stage. A hush falls over the crowd.
There are strains of classical music, and then Stravinsky blasts out of the p.a. system.
Suddenly, there is a flash of light and there stands...

This is a dramatic and powerful way to bring a rock-and-roll star onto the stage in an arena, but it's much too much for many speakers. Most entertainers are there to WOW you and blow you away. But the relationship with a featured speaker is much different. As speakers, we engage our audiences personally, talking with them one-on-one the best we can in order to connect with them. We should take the stage much differently.
I had a very pleasant experience recently speaking to a local civic group. I arrived early as every speaker should to get a feel for the room, including the area from which I would be speaking. But there was an added benefit, as I was able to greet personally as many of the people in attendance that I could. I shook their hands and introduced myself: "I'm Pat Rocchi, and I'll be your speaker today." I tried my best to remember their names.
The meeting began with an invocation from Pastor Paul, a local minister, who talked about being thankful for the bounty of the season. Note to self: Remember those words for when I get up to speak.
The introduction I wrote for myself served a similar, personal purpose, thanks to advice I received from Craig Valentine: He advises us to write an introduction that tells the audience what they will get out of the speech, NOT a litany of our great accomplishments. In that way, the audience knows what's in it for them.
My talk to the group was about how to handle change, based on my book, "The Six P's of Change." I did research on the local economy and the people who would be in the room, so I was able to make my talk applicable to their jobs and businesses. When I opened, I referred back to Pastor Paul's invocation, reminding them that "for everything, there is a season, and we are in a season of change."
How did it go? Well, at the end, three people bought my book based on their interest from hearing my speech. (The man who brought me in was amazed. "I've been here for 20 years, and I never saw an author sell a book to our members.") Another woman handed me her card and asked if I would be interested in speaking to the local Chamber of Commerce. "I guarantee you that you will get more time than you got here," suggesting that a longer, more detailed speech to her group would be a good thing.
Before I started speaking professionally, I sometimes found meeting the speaker at the front of the room, introudcing her/himself, to be an affectation. But I've since learned that such personal engagement pays off. It certainly was a plus for me on that day.

Monday, October 12, 2009

From Speaking English to Singing Italian

I'm part of an a cappella singing group called A Cappella Pops. It's another way I use my voice, singing songs without any instrumental accompaniment alongside 30 of my closest friends. We've sung at Carnegie Hall and the White House, and the group toured Australia and New Zealand earlier this year, so, yeah, we take our fun pretty seriously.

The group needed a back-up for our version of "Time to Say Goodbye" (aka "Con te Partiro"). It is a pop standard made famous by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, though he is also known for singing it in a duet with Sarah Brightman. It is a very romantic song, made more so by the Italian lyrics.

The usual male lead for this song can't make an upcoming concert, so we needed a back up for him. I decided to try out. I figured I could handle the lyrics because I speak Italian -- not fluently, but I know all the pronunciations, so I can repeat them pretty convincingly. Furthermore, because I understand the language, I would actually know the meaning of what I was singing. This is no ABBA-like phonetic read-through.

However, I had one challenge: The song is generally sung by a tenor, while I am a baritone, a deeper voice. (Think of it as a challenge similar to fitting a Sumo wrestler into a kayak.) So I had not only to learn the Italian in time, but I had to push my voice to the higher pitch.

I practiced with two different vocal coaches, then with the woman who sings the other lead. The beginning parts were fine, as they fit right into my range. And while my voice is not operatic like Bocelli's, I am somewhat of a crooner, like my fellow Italian Americans Perry Como and Dean Martin. So I was giving the song my own unique spin.

Then came the night I had to audition before the whole group. I had been practicing about an hour prior to rehearsal, and I probably overdid it, so my voice was somewhat shot.

There was the matter of my nerves. This song is very meaningful to A Cappella Pops. I needed to prove I was worthy of the lead. Finally, I had been suffering from a cold and a post-nasal drip or some such irritation to my throat. This could not be pretty.

The song began. Deb, the woman who sings the female lead/Sarah Brightman part, is a trained contralto, and her voice is just lovely. She is a tough act to follow. But I had to follow her.

Remember those old print ads that read, "They laughed when I sat at the piano. But when I started to play..."? Well, the group was surprised at the power in my voice. (Hell, I was surprised! This was my first I sang the song in front of a group.) It went well, and the Italian flowed.

Then came the last high notes, the ones written for a tenor. With a combination of nerves and the cold, my throat was as narrow as a clogged artery. I couldn't squeeze out a note or squeak out a sound. Luckily, Deb blew the sound out of the room.

But the next week was better. My vocal production was even more controlled, and I sang the final notes in a falsetto. It was a definite improvement.

In the end, I took on this challenge because of lessons I learned as a speaker, which I applied here:
  1. Go outside your comfort zone. If you are known as a funny speaker, try to be more serious at times. If you're humor is dry as a bone, make 'em laugh, as Donald O'Connor sang.
  2. Be good to your voice. I taxed my vocal cords, and I paid the price. Our voice is our best, most valuable tool.
  3. Practice, practice, practice. I've said this before in previous posts. There is no substitute for this.
So on October 18, I make my Italian debut. I'll let you know how I do. Maybe I'll even add a file of my performance. In the meantime, think of the new vocal things you can do when you set your mind to it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

"The September Issue" Offers Lessons in the Creation of Communication

I am a sucker for works about the creative process. For example, the most compelling sequences for me in the 1996 film Shine were not about pianist David Helfgott's mental illness, but the cinematic portrayal of his artistic development while a young man. One of my favorite books is "In All His Glory," Sally Bedell Smith's mesmerizing account of how William S. Paley built CBS. Now I have a new favorite film in this oeuvre of the accounts of creativity. It is The September Issue, a documentary about the creation of Vogue magazine's eponymous and annual magnum opus, its biggest, most influential issue each year and a staple of the fashion industry.

The ostensible focus of The September Issue is Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of the American Vogue. However, I found that the central theme of this film is the power of the creative process and how it prevails under strong leadership and the support of a team comprising capable, talent colleagues.

Ms. Wintour was famously characterized (read: caricatured) by Meryl Streep in the 2006 film, The Devil Wears Prada. In that film, Wintour’s fictional counterpart comes off as an imperious shrew. But, to my eyes, she comes off more favorably and sympathetically in The September Issue.

Wintour is as fashionable as her any of the models she features, and she is just as savvy about how to use her looks to her advantage. Her print dresses are cut to compliment a youthful figure that belies her age (60). Even a turn of her head and a smile are calculated, bouncing her hair coquettishly as she negotiates with customers and designers.

Yet if you look closely enough, Wintour’s face becomes the cover shot for her own anxiety. She clearly labors over this issue. She is a thorough professional who knows what she wants instinctively and effortlessly. In one scene, she rifles through photographs and analyzes them at computerlike speed, rejecting many of them knowingly. It is judgment built from years of experience, and it is a testimony to Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour” theory," which he offered in his recent book, Outliers: If you practice your craft over enough time, you are likely to known as a master in it.

Wintour also provides inspiration in her surroundings. Her office and home are as well crafted as her publication. They are impeccable in their taste and design, festooned with photographs and graphics that are not only pleasing to the eye but also inspiration. For example, one wall hosts an iconic image of Pablo Picasso by photographer Irving Penn. It reminds the viewer of the power and distinction of an expansive vision.

If there is such a thing as a breakout star in a documentary film, The September Issue has one in Grace Coddington. Coddington rose from the ranks of models to become Vogue’s creative director. She knows what works and does not like being second-guessed. (In one scene, Coddington openly laments how Wintour threw out some of her favorite photographs for the issue in the scene I cited earlier.) But Coddington is also as wily as her boss, clearly manipulating the film’s crew to do her own bidding at one point and laughing at them for it afterwards.
In the meantime, one must note that Vogue must be doing something right. I learned in this film that the magazine was founded in 1892. How can it remain relevant for nearly 120 years? The answer is found in this instructional film:

  1. Pay attention to detail. The cliche is true. The devil is in the details; she doesn't only wear Prada.
  2. Commit to your craft. Know every aspect of it and become the best at it
  3. Maintain focus. Know your end goal, and stick to that

For those of us who aspire to creating communication vehicles of lasting value, there is much to learn from The September Issue.

If you see it, let me know what you think

Friday, October 9, 2009

Three Topics I'm Not Touching

Here are topics that you can expect I will NOT discuss, as I have learned to pick my battles after about a year writing this blog:
  1. JON AND KATE GOSSELIN -- I wrote once about these two losers and their craving for attention earlier this year, and that's enough. I think media professionals who devote ink or air time to these nattering narcissists should be ashamed of themselves. I don't care to be part of this blather. Let them die the death of disinterest that they deserve.
  2. THE DAVID LETTERMAN WORK SCANDAL -- There's enough being said about this situation that I can't add a thing to the discussion. I'll let others duke it out. Besides, no matter how you feel about ol' Dave, whether one thinks that he is a weasel or that his actions are none of our business, a consensus has emerged: He and his team handled it perfectly from a public relations viewpoint by getting ahead of the issue and taking control. That is the one communication issue that would be an appropriate focus for this blog, so what else can one say about that?
    However, on the other hand, there is...
  3. PRESIDENT OBAMA'S NOBEL PRIZE FOR PEACE -- ... and this discussion will go on for a long time, I assure you. Repeat after me:

    This blog is about communication, not about politics.

    This blog is about how effectively public figures get their messages out, not the
    content of their messages.

    Any blog, including mine, becomes a blank screen upon which often people project their own politics, regardless of the content of the blog. If I were to open the proverbial floor to this topic of President Obama's prize, it won't be pretty, as rational discussion is sure to give way to bipartisan bickering.
    I am not looking to create a battleground here; my goal is to build a forum. That's why I so seldom respond to readers who disagree with me. I want everyone to feel free to express themselves. The only exceptions I make are for the sake of clarity. If I feel either that a reader has misconstrued what I said, or if it's apparent that I did not make my point clear in the first place, I'll comment on a comment. Otherwise, feel free to come here and vent.
I look forward to speaking with you soon on the topic of communication in all its forms, through all the media available to us. Just don't expect communication on these three items.

Unless some new information comes up. ;-)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Why We Like, Even LOVE, the Social Media

Everybody Tweets, or so it seems. Facebook has gone well beyond its collegiate roots, and now it's largest-growing demographic comprises people above age 54 (much to the chagrin of people like my 23-year-old son, who thinks we Boomers have ruined FB). Business people worth their salt are on LinkedIn, where the average annual income is north of $93,000. "What's wrong?," some ask. "Don't people just talk anymore?"
Sure they do. They talk all the time, more than ever. And they're doing it with Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn!
I will tell that I am thrilled about these so-called "social media." On one hand -- the less important side of the matter -- I am enjoying it as a professional communicator. All these outlets continue to help me sell copies of my book. I can inform my friends, family and colleagues of little developments, such as interviews or developments in its distribution. I can also keep many people up-to-date on every my consulting activities. And I now have a global reach, just as you do, whether or not you choose to use it.
But even this mercenary side of me, the part of me that likes to eat and keep a roof over my head, is not as thrilled about these media as the sentimental side of me is. That's why they're described as SOCIAL! My life has changed since I joined Facebook about two months. (Hey, no one ever accused me of being an early adopter.) I have come in contact with friends from literally 40 years ago. Thanks to Facebook, I had breakfast with my partners in crime, Vicki and Barbara, from college, concerts and other indiscretions of my youth. When got together, we saw photos of each others children for the first, learned how we disconnected, and then learned how to stay reconnected.
I am in contact with my first love, the brilliant blond who broke my heart but taught me how to love, preparing me for the 30+ year old marriage I am in now. I can stay in contact with my long-lost family in Italy, sharing my life with them in ways our parents could only dream of.
Even the son of my best friend from childhood is connected to me.
And why, I asked myself, is this important? Why do we have the need to do this? I turn to my friend and advisor, Frank Sergi, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and heart-warming mensch for some insight. He offered these thoughts.
"I remember reading years ago about a Jewish belief that said one is not dead until everyone who remembers that person is gone as well. Thus the grave site overgrown with weeds is that of a truly dead person. The person with flowers on their grave is still alive. It makes us feel very much alive when we realize that we have not been forgotten. If you are part of someone's memory, you have been incorporated by that person because you have left an impression upon them. In essence you are now a small part of them, and therefore less alone and less invisible in this world.
"I think this is a significant part of the Facebook phenomenon. People need to feel that they are part of other's consciousness."
But what about this need to reconnect rather than simply being known, I asked Frank. "I believe has to do with nostalgia," he responded. "A reliving of one's past that is is simultaneously recalled by the parties involved can be pleasurable even when it may be an embarrassing memory. Ultimately, we are social beings needing social contact and connections. We are such a transient society that we long for connections to our past. The Internet allows us to do that now, in a limited way of course."
And of course, this fact has long been true, even when we weren't so transient. It has remained so with every technological advance. Yes, people liked to visit in person at one time. But that was when we all loved closer to each other. When the telephone came into existence, did that mean that they cared less? Of course not; it was simply one more tool for connection. That was eventually supplanted by email, and now we have the social media. Thank goodness for all of these opportunities to widen our circle.

Okay, gotta run. I need to fulfill a primal need and distribute this virtual valentine to people I care about. And believe me, if you are receiving this, it's because I care about you, too.

What are YOUR stories about your experiences with the social media? Who have you contacted, or who has contacted you? Which bridges have been crossed or rebuilt through this new-found ability to reach out and touch someone? Please get back to me with your thoughts, either through this comment section, an email, or one of these new-fangled Internet things.