Up Front Communication

Helping people and businesses through the art of communication

Smile, damn you, smile!

I have and will always maintain that a weapon every speaker should carry around in their arsenal is the ability to fire up a genuine beaming smile on demand.

Actually, scratch that statement.  Everyone, speaker or no, should learn how to smile on cue.  And by smile, I mean the sort of eye-crinkling, cheek raising smile that people give when they are truly happy to be where they are and doing what they’re doing.

Why is being able to smile like this so important?  Because genuine smiles show signal to your audience that you are interested in them.  They engender trust and foster happiness in both the person smiling and being smiled at.  They make you seem more approachable and open.  They make you more likable and will trigger your audience to smile back at you.

Even better, a beaming smile can hide the fact that you are nervous, tired, panicky, irate, desperate, generally out-of-sorts, and otherwise freaking out!

“But Lauren,” some may protest, “I just couldn’t smile!  Everything was going completely wrong with the presentation/speech/situation!”  Ahh, my friends, that is when the ability to feign a genuine smile becomes absolutely necessary.  Case in point: a photograph of me performing during a particularly disastrous show at a local Lebanese restaurant.

(Please excuse the odd blurriness of the photo – it is quite hard to get a good shot in those lighting conditions.)

Most people see a picture of a happy belly dancer demonstrating her art, inviting a customer up to dance.  Here is an actual summary of the scene:

    • Due to an equipment malfunction, my carefully arranged 20 minute set wouldn’t play*, so…
    • I was improvising to live music provided by the in-house musician who, unbeknownst to me, likes it when dancers do long sets, which means that…
    • This photo was taken 40 minutes into what ended up being a 45 minute set…
    • Having no idea when the set would end…
    • In a costume I had never performed in before and was a little too long for me…
    • While 16 weeks pregnant (with all the exhausted, bloated discomfort that comes with that prenatal period).

In the photo, I am imploring the woman – an acquaintance who came out to see my performance – to get up and dance with me.  This would encourage other customers to get up and dance, which is quite desirable.  That grin you see plastered on my face had been there for well over half an hour, and I was begging, begging, begging her with my eyes to get up and dance.

Believe me when I say that I did not feel like smiling at that moment in time.  I was, to put it bluntly, freaking out.  But at that time, my job was to be a glamorous belly dancer who entertained the customers while exuding joy, grace, class, musical knowledge, technical aptitude, and general bonhomie.  That means smiling.  If needs be, I would have smiled until my cheek bones shattered (which, by the end, was exactly what they felt like).

Despite the general  wretchedness of my situation and my state of intense panic, the performance was apparently well received.  The customers got up and danced, and in an uncharacteristic move, actually tipped me.**  Later I found out from my dance instructor, who arranges these gigs, that the musician was heartily pleased with me and very glad that I was so willing and able to dance energetically for the full 45 minutes.  This reception is quite contrary to the information my own brain retained, which is best summarized as a long, agonized wail.

I have never been so happy that I can smile so realistically and so relentlessly.

Practice your smile, folks.  Figure out how to make it look real.  Sometimes it is the thing that saves the situation from utter disaster!

*Due to a faulty set up on the mixing board, the sound on my pre-recorded set went haywire about five minutes into the performance.  The in-house musician, who was in charge of the sound system, mixing board, and keyboard, frantically waved my husband over to help, and then tried to skip ahead to my next song.  This was a bad move, as I create my sets by re-mixing multiple songs into one single track.  I had borrowed this particular MP3 player from my mother-in-law.  She happens to like really terrible country pop music.  Many belly dancers say you can dance to any kind of music.  I disagree.  You cannot belly dance to really terrible country pop.  It was the most horrifying hilarious 5 seconds of dancing I have ever had to get through.

**Part of me wonders if they were tipping me out of pity (“oh, that poor white girl is really giving it all she’s got”).  Perhaps the tipping was out of admiration for my endurance of the never-ending-set – we usually only dance for 20 minutes.  While I can expect to receive generous tips from the Greek restaurants, the regular customers at this particular restaurant are not known to be avid tippers.  Different restaurants can have different customs.

Do you have Smartphone tunnel vision?

Oh, smartphones. I have a very, very conflicted relationship with the damn things. On one hand, I recognize their usefulness for the busy professional. If your office is effectively your vehicle – and I know many people for who this holds true – then they can be a godsend. On the other hand, they do nothing to improve productivity for the majority of people, are generally used as convenient devices for obsessive checking of email/social networks/online game apps, and they’ve made people twitchy and compulsively responsive to their every chirp, buzz, or ring. I’m sure many of you have been to meetings where high-level executives spent more time checking their smartphone than actually attending to the agenda or discussion at hand.

For your end-of-the-week-ha-ha, I present to you an old Rick Mercer Report video (I’ve been referring to him a lot lately, no?) highlighting the dangers of our smartphone obsession. It is still freakishly relevant!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bV7pM_HS70&w=420&h=315]

The air of professionalism

The definition of ‘professionalism’ is as varied as the contents of people’s bagged lunches. What we consider professional will vary greatly depending on our personality, experiences, education, and frame of mind at any given moment.

Some days I see ‘being professional’ as being capable of effortlessly moving from one group of colleagues to another while maintaining an engaging flow of intelligent, insightful conversation. On these days I feel like a corporate superstar, capable of handling even the most demanding conference. Other days, ‘being professional’ means not launching myself across a table and throttling a fellow meeting attendee. On days like that, the best policy is usually to avoid saying anything much and, if possible, get out of as many human interactions as I can.

There are some markers of professionalism, however, that I consider fairly universal. One of them is the use of an open, friendly attitude towards your clients or colleagues. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes this is difficult. The ability to instantly produce a genuine (or genuine-looking) smile helps enormously with this task. Being friendly and taking an interest in the other person will get you much further than adopting a flat, expression-free aloofness, no matter how much you think such behaviour conveys expertise and knowledge.
Another marker is writing style. The use of emoticons, excessive exclamation marks, unnecessary double quotes, and other such devices can distract the reader from your actual message. It might make you sound overly emotional and slightly unhinged. At worst it makes you sound like a teenage girl. There is never – ever – any need for smiley faces in business emails or communications.

In terms of my personal tastes for projecting professionalism, I like to see a person’s capacity for self-control. Self-control doesn’t mean lack of expression – far from it. Easy expressiveness tells people what state of mind you may be in and opens up communication. Rather, I mean that the individual is able to refrain from expression excessive excitement or excessive disappointment. The level of excitement displayed should be proportional to the issue at hand. For instance, I don’t like seeing people reach massive states of thrill when they learn of a new initiative that may possible happen if all the conditions are right. I’d rather see genuine interest tempered with a rational discussion of the likelihood of those conditions being reached. Once the conditions are ripe and the project is actually initiated, then the excitement can build.

What sort of behaviours do you consider markers for professionalism?

Panic on!

This week’s dose of Friday fun is brought to you by Rick Mercer. His rants are works of genius! Consider this a lesson from Rick in both presentation and modern communication.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GiHLN6l3Ld0&w=560&h=315]

Style matters

In public speaking – and in everything else in life – it is impossible to please everyone. To think that in order to be an excellent speaker you must receive universal adulation is an exercise in frustration. Different speaker quirks will enchant some audience members while repelling others. There is nothing wrong with this; it often just comes down to a matter of individual taste. Our peculiarities as individual speakers are what make us interesting and give us distinct styles.

The way I see it is that if there isn’t a single audience member who is riled up or annoyed by something you’ve said or something you’ve done, then you’ve probably delivered one heck of a bland, predictable speech. Provided that our quirks don’t muddle our message to the point of incomprehensibility, we should embrace those aspects of ourselves that give us our spark of originality.
This isn’t a permission slip to get lazy and stop improving areas where our speaking skills could be stronger. Telling yourself “I’m a naturally fast talker and Lauren said that’s just my style on her blog” won’t cut it. I’ll still nag the daylights out of you to slow the heck down when we’re working one on one. The same goes for aimless wandering, making aggravating smacking noises, or not organizing your thoughts. If one of your characteristics is overly distracting or confusing, then you must work on controlling it. But don’t be surprised if you hear one listener saying that they couldn’t stand one of your characteristics while others say they absolutely adore that same trait. When watching Gordon Ramsey speak, I love how he gets so excited that he bounces up and down on the balls of his feet. My friend (a fellow lover of cooking shows) hates it when he does that – to her, it makes him seem unhinged.

Wondering what some of your own stylistic traits may be? Listen for differences in feedback where the same trait is brought up repeatedly. Pay attention to the different reactions people have towards that same aspect. If more people find the trait distracting and confusing, than consider it something that you need to work on or change altogether. If the majority of the feedback is positive, than think of it as a strength and part of your individual style.

A personal trait that I’ve incorporated into my own speaking style is my use of language and vocabulary. I love long, polysyllabic words and use them often while speaking. I then provide a heavy contrast between these formal, florid terms with a bit of earthy slang and metaphor. This is very characteristic of how I speak both casually with my friends and in front of an audience. Most feedback I’ve received about this quirk has been very positive; listeners find the turn of phrases and the new words very interesting and entertaining. Occasionally, however, someone will tell me not to use “so many big words” (that’s usually how the criticism is phrased). Knowing that most of my audiences love my choice of words but some find it challenging helps me not only understand my strengths and style, but also tells me when I need to adapt my style to suit a different audience.

Paying close attention to when you receive negative feedback about your style will give you the insight needed to adapt your style to different audiences. When I know that I’ll be working with an individual or a group of people whose second language is English, I’ll consciously adapt my language to something plainer and less florid than I would normally use. If I’m talking about a specialty subject to people who are unfamiliar with the topic, I’ll shy away from using confusing jargon or acronyms. If you tend to be a very energetic speaker with a fast, clipped rate of speech, you should slow down if you are dealing with a group that tends to be hard of hearing (such as an elderly audience). Having this knowledge at your disposal makes you a flexible, adaptable speaker while still allowing you to maintain your own distinct style.

Just don’t expect everyone to be happy with you 100% of the time!