Up Front Communication

Helping people and businesses through the art of communication

Friday fun: I feel the need for speed

Most of my work involving rate of speech is teaching my clients how to slow down and vary their pace.

Unless, of course, you’re this guy:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeK5ZjtpO-M&w=420&h=315]

His diction and clarity is impeccable! This is motor mouth mastery, I tell you. And I still miss his 1980’s Micro Machines commercials.

Dance on!

Everyone who wants to speak in front of a group should learn how to dance.

You don’t have to learn how to dance well, but you should give it a try. Dancing teaches you how to take an aural expression of emotion (music and sometimes lyrics) and interpret it as a purely physical expression of emotion. You may have heard about Albert Mehrabian’s studies regarding the importance of non-verbal communication in message delivery.* Your physical expression can have a huge impact on the message you are getting across, and learning to dance teaches you how to maximize the power of physical expressiveness.

Dance lessons and exploration can be even more important for people who are shy or naturally guarded with their expressions. When you tend to restrict your movement or control your face when speaking with someone, being required to use only your body to emote can be enormously freeing. Communication breakthroughs happen when you discover how you can demonstrate incredibly specific and powerful thoughts in, for example, the way you raise your arm or move your hand and fingers. It also teaches us to be comfortable with our bodies, aware of how they move and how much control we can exert over them. For someone who is uncomfortable in their own skin, overly concerned about where they put their hands when speaking to an audience, or mistrustful of the signals their expression might send, dance lessons can give permission to explore their expressive bodies in a safe environment.

There is also a marvellous language boost to be had. We’ve all been in situations where you have something you desperately want to communicate, but can’t say out loud. Dance can teach you how to deliver unvoiced messages with a tilt of a head, a shoulder shrug, a glance, or even a subtle change in your posture. Are you in a meeting where you want the committee chair to be aware that you are not in agreement with a point of discussion, but due to office politics or hierarchy you can’t come out and say it directly? Imagine being able to get that point across by slightly shifting your position in your chair and changing the angle at which you hold your head and neck. The effect can be incredible! What’s more, you learn how to be in control of this sort of communication. This means you also learn to control your body enough to prevent you from physically betraying thoughts you would prefer to keep hidden.

I’ve taken classes in several dance forms – ballet, jazz, ballroom, hip-hop – but the one that I’ve stuck with and that has had the greatest impact on me has been belly dance, particularly raqs sharki (classical Egyptian style). I started belly dancing over six years ago as a way to get back into shape, and since then I’ve participated in festivals, been a member of a performing troupe, and have done solo performances at local Greek and Lebanese restaurants. When I started dancing I was hardly thinking of it as a method of improving my communication. Later, when I started coaching interpersonal communications, I was floored at the impact it had on my methods and techniques. When performing belly dance, I was stripped of my verbal skills and had to communicate the message of the music – often sung in languages neither I nor my audience understood (if I did, it was because I found a translation of the lyrics) – through gesture and expression. A hip drop, an arm raise, an arabesque, a longing glance became key communication tools.

It hardly matters what style of dance you try, they’ll all require you to listen to some music and then respond to or interpret it with your body. They’ll all involve emotion and expression. I’ve learned loads from every style I’ve tried out, and I do believe there’s a style out there for everyone. You just need to be willing to explore.

Just like with exercises, you might have already thought up of a hundred excuses why you can’t try dance. Let me address a few of them up front:

I’m not in good enough shape/too old/too uncoordinated/too overweight/don’t have enough rhythm/etc to dance!

  • Dancing will help get you in to shape. It will teach you coordination and improve your rhythm; I say this a a person who broke her arm falling off a couch. Pop into an adult dance class; they don’t require you to be willowy and flexible. People who teach adult dance are incredibly accommodating, and will accept all body types. I dance with people who are rail thin, rubenesque, old, young, beginners, experts, fully physically abled, and with limited mobility. It isn’t important that you are as good as or better than anyone there, it matters that you try it.

I’m too self conscious to dance!

  • Dance will help you get over that, and as a result you’ll be more liberated in front of your speaking audience.

I don’t have time to dance!

  • Believe me, I understand hectic schedules. But taking a few dance lessons doesn’t mean that you need to commit to spending several hours a week practicing at a dance studio. It can be a quick one hour group class taken a few times a month. It can be a dance fitness class during your work lunch hour. Heck, you can even take out some basic dance lesson videos from your local library and give it a try at home.

I can’t afford lessons!

  • There are dance classes out there at just about any price point imaginable. There may even be groups in your community that offer classes for free. There also, as I mentioned above, the library. Most libraries have piles of DVDs of lessons in various dance styles that you can borrow and try at home. I still make use of my library’s dance DVD collection when I want to get in a bit more guided practice at home or try something new. And if all else fails, check out some dance clips on YouTube, put on some music, and give it a go on your own. If you need to lock the door and draw the curtains to get your groove on, go right ahead!

I hate dancing!

  • This is like saying “I hate fruit.” It usually means that you either haven’t given it a chance or haven’t explored different styles to find the one that gets you grooving. If one style doesn’t suit you, try a different one. If you don’t like oranges, try cherries. If you liked a style but not an instructor, try that style at a different studio or club. This isn’t exactly a high-risk activity, and there’s no shame in not sticking with a type of dance that doesn’t speak to you. Just try something else. Keep an open mind and be willing to explore.

Be willing to dance!

If you want some inspiration, I strongly recommend checking out the following TED presentation by the LXD (The League of Extraordinary Dancers). The descriptions of the dance artists is positively moving.

[ted id=786]

*It is worth noting that Mehrabian’s work is frequently misinterpreted; excessive emphasis is places purely on the physical message rather than on the value of the actual words. Words and body are both extremely important, and the degree to which one plays a greater influence depends on the speaker and the message.

Dramatic genius

When getting clients to emote more effectively, I often rail at them to go completely over the top with the melodrama.  Lay it on thick like spackle, wring every possible drop of emotion out of the words, free your spirit and let your inner ham out!

Canadian acting legend Gordon Pinsent provides a beautiful example of this kind of dramatic reading, using the timeless words of The Beiber:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ih-2O_gdYZo&w=560&h=315]

Brilliance! Sheer brilliance, I tell you!


When the lips are flappin’, but the brain ain’t kickin’ in

Despite all best efforts, some people are simply difficult to communicate with.  You’ve likely met a difficult communicator; no matter how hard you try, they seem to miss chunks of conversations.  No matter how clear the note, they still twist the message.  No matter how explicit the instructions, they still manage to screw them up.  It doesn’t seem to matter what type of communication you use, how quickly or slowly you speak, how many metaphors or descriptions you provide, or how transparent and clear-cut your writing is.

I’ve got a few ideas of my own as to why certain people are persistently difficult to communicate clearly with:

1: They habitually fail to pay focused attention to the person or item at hand. 

This is a big problem in an age where information flies at us a mile a minute, where we are in a perpetual state of stimuli overload, and where people are proud that they can “check emails and have a conversation at the same time” (hint: they can’t).  After a while, having a fractured attention span that wanders from one thing to the next – even if it is only wandering to the chattering in the person’s own head – becomes habitual.  This is a habit we need to break.  Focus and attention span is something that can be improved through concerted effort and mindfulness, but it is possible.  This is something that I myself am working on improving, and while it might not be easy, it is rewarding.

2. They have an agenda they are pursuing.

Realistically, we are all pursuing our own agendas at all times.  These agendas can be completely benign (I’m hungry, so I’m going to bring this conversation to an end so I can eat), altruistic (I want to help this person), or more…suspect (use your imagination).  Depending on the urgency and prevalence of that agenda, communications can very easily be twisted to ensure that the person hears or reads what they need to hear or read at the time.  With some people and in certain situations or organizations, this can colour just about any communication instance.

3. They do not feel you have anything of interest or worth to say.

This is pretty self-explanatory, and can be due to myriad issues.  At any rate, the person simply becomes accustomed to filtering out what you say.  This can be seen in situations where weak leadership has lead to mistrust or downright dismissal of just about anything a manager could have to say.

4. They’re paranoid.

We’ve all encountered at least one person who interprets just about anything directed at them to be either an insult, a threat, or at the very least something that contains subtext of which they must be deeply suspicious.  I find this is usually paired with either whipcrack tempers or with timidity and low confidence.

5. It’s not them…it’s you/me!

This is a tricky one; if it seems like everyone is impossible to communicate effectively with, or if you never have a good reasonable chat with a person, the issue might be looking at you from a mirror.  Look for the common denominator – if you have trouble with everyone, is it likely that the whole world is made up of crappy communicators except yourself?  If you are the only person in an organization who persistently has a major communication hang-up with a particular individual, does that mean that the individual is a good communicator with everyone except you?  Admitting that the problem may be us is difficult, but the good news is that means it is possible for us to change the situation.  Maybe you need to get to know the other person better and develop more understanding of their mannerisms.  Maybe you need to improve certain areas of your communication style to ensure you are giving the message you need.  Either way, changing ourselves is a lot easier than changing other people!

When something ain’t right

You know the person who has all the right moves but for some reason gives you the heebie-jeebies? I can guarentee that they’re doing something that you may not be able to specifically peg but that your subconscious really, really dislikes.  The person who is rubbing you the wrong way may be saying all the right things, but something about the way they are behaving just doesn’t add up.

I will admit that I get great enjoyment out of spotting discordant messages coming from people whose words and body language are out of synch.  This is even more fun when they are trying to further protect themselves by delivering veiled messages at the same time.

Want to give it a try?  Here’s a beautiful – if somewhat glaring example.  This is an episode of the CBC show Marketplace:


Pay attention to the final segment of the show, where the reporter is grilling a hospital big-wig in charge of monitoring cleanliness in hospitals in the Niagara, Ontario region.  All the fun occurs between 18:20 and 21:20.

Oooh, it’s delightful! I’d love to know your thoughts on the big-wig’s performance.