Don’t Leave Home Without Them:
The Nonnegotiable General Principles
I began presenting myself early and, if I remember correctly, somewhat reluctantly.
When my siblings and I were in the age ranges of three to six, my father would line us up in the living room before a cocktail party and make us practice shaking hands with him before the guests arrived. (The Von Trapp family had nothing on us.) I still remember him looming over me, pumping my hand up and down while saying, “Look me in the eye, look me in the eye, look me in the eye . . .”
While I may not have enjoyed those impromptu personal presentation sessions, their effect was beneficial. To this day, I have a super handshake, and definitely look people in the eye when I greet them.
As with looking someone in the eye, there are some elements to presenting yourself that are nonnegotiable. Regardless of the situation, these fundamentals are necessary in order to make a strong and lasting impression. Whether you are presenting to one or one hundred—at a lunch, on the phone, with a speech or PowerPoint presentation—they will always be beneficial. These nonnegotiable principles are presented here. If you read or do nothing else in this book, incorporating these foundational elements into your daily communication and interaction will guarantee instantaneous, positive results in how people respond to you.
Dearly Beloved Data Lovers
The following statistic, from a study done by Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of psychology at UCLA, is among the first things I tell every client. Known as the “7%—38%—55% Rule” it states that there are three elements to any face-to-face communication: words, tone of voice, and body language, and we are influenced by these things as follows:
•7 percent of our influence comes from the words we say.
•38 percent from our tonal quality while saying it.
•55 percent by what our body is doing while we’re saying it.
What does this mean? So often we think presentation and communication are about the words we say. In fact, it’s often far more about how we say them, and what our body is doing while we are saying them.
For example, we’ve all been introduced to the person who says, “Nice to meet you” with a fishy hand, a nominal smile, and an over-our-shoulder-to-see-if-someone-more-interesting/important/ attractive-is-coming-in-the-room gaze. Contrast that with meeting someone who’s genuinely delighted to meet you.
Same words, very different message.
My goal in telling you this is to help you begin to consider the global impact of your message—to understand the importance of managing every aspect of your presentation style.
•Knowing that listeners often remember just 7 percent of the words you say will remind you to choose language that’s precise, colorful, and concise.
•Knowing that 38 percent of your impact comes from your tonal quality will reinforce the importance of having your tone match your message: be authoritative, commanding, persuasive, entertaining, etc, depending on your objective.
•Knowing that 55 percent of your impact comes from what your body is doing while you are speaking will encourage you to focus on how you can best express commitment to, and enthusiasm for, what you are saying through your facial expressions, posture, and gestures.
Breaking down your message in this way makes it much easier to figure out what you need to do to capture your listener’s attention. You can ask yourself:
•Is my language flabby?
•Do I sound happy when I’m giving good news, and genuinely sorry when I’m apologizing?
•If I were on television—and the sound was off—would someone walking by the TV know from my body language that I was enthusiastic about, or committed to, what I was saying?
As with anything, the first step to creating effective change is awareness. Now that you have a greater understanding of the factors in play when you present yourself, you can begin to pick and choose, strengthen or minimize, bump up or play down each element to achieve the results you desire.
Tell Me a Story
As children, we all felt the power of storytelling, its ability to transport us to another place and time. As adults, we feel it when we’re in the grip of a masterful book or movie. Using stories when speaking has the same effect on your listeners, and the added bonus of helping you retain and commit to the message you want to deliver.
Two of the most frequent questions I get from new clients are “How can I get rid of filler words like ‘um’ and ‘uh’?” and “What should I do with my hands?” Embedding their answers in stories solves both these problems. Think about it, when was the last time you were wrapped up in telling your best friend or coworker your latest grievance against your spouse or your boss and simultaneously using filler words or worrying about what your hands were doing? It’s simply not possible.
An important point to remember in this is that the story doesn’t have to be long to be effective. I heard a great example of this on a morning talk show. The segment was “The best new minivans.” The speaker said, “This minivan is so big you can drive six kids to soccer practice, pick up some wood from the lumberyard on the way home, and build a tree house with them that afternoon.”
Excellent storytelling, and not a stray “um” to be found.
How can you find the shorthand story that will make you memorable? The quickest way is to speak from your own experience—which will provide you with colorful, heartfelt examples—while simultaneously acknowledging your listener’s experience, situation, or expertise. Ask yourself, “Why do I care?” Then ask yourself, “Why should they care?” Once you have the answers to those questions, you’ll have a great story.
“My name is Bond”
From time to time I teach presentation skills seminars for new hires at large corporations. Inevitably, at some point during my pitch to a new firm, I hear, “Yes, but most of the time all these kids get to say in meetings is their name.” “All?” is my response. (At this point, I know the person I’m speaking to might benefit from some presentation skills training, too.) Why? Because you are never “just” saying your name. Presenting the self is an opportunity.
The best example of this I can think of is, “My name is Bond. James Bond.”
Regardless of who’s saying it, Roger Moore, Sean Connery, or Daniel Craig, within that one sentence we hear a world of possibility.
In the same way, then, whenever you introduce yourself you need to say your name with such panache that your listener:
•is left thinking, “Wow, that guy was impressive. . . . Am I supposed to know him?”
•is so knocked out by your “presentation” he wants to get to know you better.
If it helps, you can imagine you have “Q” as your backup, an Aston Martin as your getaway car, and a cold martini waiting at home.
So whether you are sitting in an executive board meeting, standing up at the PTA, or shaking hands in an elevator, always give your name the VIP treatment that flags it as a “Marquee Name” for those around you, leaving them alive to the possibilities and opportunities that knowing you offers them.
Useless Modifiers Are Just That
“It’s great, it’s amazing, it’s incredible, it’s so cool . . .”
Can you tell from the above whether it’s your boss talking about the new hotel he just stayed in, your coworker telling you about her new car, or your teenager describing the new telephone he wants you to get him?
The only way we’ll believe your experience or product or skill set is amazing is if you tell us why. And it’s not enough to include the answers to the standard reporters’ questions: who, what, where, when, and why. We need to know—what did you see? Hear? Touch? Taste? Smell? How did it make you feel? What did it remind you of?
A good place to see people practicing this is on cooking shows. Because we can’t smell or taste the food, these chefs have to describe those elements in detail. “The smell of these cookies baking reminds me of sitting on my Grandma’s back porch watching the laundry dry on the line . . .”
As with most things, this is a skill that comes with practice. Initially, your practice will just be to notice when others are falling back on “great,” “amazing,” “incredible.” One place I hear this a lot is with actor interviews. A common interview question actors are asked when their new movie opens is, “What was it like to work with so-and-so director/ fellow actor?” In these moments, unless there’s been some coaching, many actors fall back on, “He was great.” “She was amazing . . .” Granted these stock responses are understandable. They don’t want to say, “Oh my goodness, I was in hell.” What, then, could they do instead? What’s a safe answer that also highlights their intelligence? Tell us a story: “One thing I didn’t expect was his wicked sense of humor. He played the most ridiculous jokes on the entire cast. For example, one day he . . .” etc.
Once you’ve spent some time observing others, you will want to begin to notice your own habits. How was your day? Your sandwich? The movie? Have your friends challenge you. Can you get through each of their questions without using a single useless modifier? Once you accept the challenge, you’ll discover that it’s great fun—and that they’ve started referring to you as a master storyteller.
An Utterly Unscientifically Chosen List of Fifteen Words That Say Nothing at All
The All-Important Diaphragm
While this tip is important for both sexes, it’s particularly impor- tant for women as we tend to have higher—and subsequently less authoritative—voices.
To naturally lower your voice, you want to speak from your diaphragm. What does this mean? Or, more accurately, what does this sound like?
Well, as mentioned, it naturally moves your voice into a lower register. If you think you have problems with sounding “nasal” this solves those, too.
What does it look like? When you are speaking from your diaphragm, your abdomen naturally moves in and out with the movement of your diaphragm. A quick way to check if this is happening is to place your hand on your abdomen and see if it’s moving in and out while you speak. If it’s not, you need to begin accessing your diaphragm. (One of my favorite coaching moments was having a male client say, “But I don’t think men have one of those.” Tackling that was a task far beyond my pay grade. . . .)
How to do this? An easy way is to lie on the floor, put a telephone book on your stomach, and breathe in and out as deeply as you can. You want to be able to see the phone book move up and down . . . a lot. If it’s not, keep breathing. It may take a minute or two, as many of us have become used to our shallow breathing.
Once you’re comfortable with this, stand up, place your hand on your stomach and say a few practice sentences. The results are immediate. Your body will naturally retain this diaphragmatic breathing for a minute or so; your voice will have a lovely resonance.
Now that you’re aware of the difference this makes, make it a habit to check in with yourself and, if you notice your abdomen’s not moving, recalibrate. This doesn’t mean getting out the phone book every single time, just keeping your hands on your abdomen and breathing deeply until they are moving in and out with your breath. Over time, it will become second nature—you’ll be uncomfortable speaking any other way.
Additionally—and these are great “gifts with purchase”—you’ll be calming your nervous system, strengthening your respiratory system, and releasing both stress and toxins . . . all while appearing unflappable.
“You’re such a bad dog . . .”
I imagine most of us have had the experience of having a friend’s dog jump on us while its owner coos, “Oh, you’re such a bad dog . . . you’re the worst dog in the world.”
Does the dog know he’s being indescribably awful? Absolutely not. (Does your friend know how crazy-making this can be? Probably not.) Why? Because her tone and her words don’t match.
I see the same thing happening when no canines are present. A speaker will get to the podium and say, “I’m so happy to be here today” while putting down his notes, adjusting his mic, smoothing down his tie . . . all the while looking anything but happy. You’ll be introduced to someone at a cocktail party who will say, “Great to meet you,” while looking over your shoulder to see if someone they’d prefer to meet is behind you. Your spouse will say, “I love you too, honey,” without looking up from the paper. . . .
Here’s the thing: You’ve got to put the “happy” into “happy.” If you’re happy to be there, you have to sound happy. Your eyes have to look happy. Your body has to express happy. If someone in the audience can’t hear the words you’re saying, they should still know you’re communicating “happy.” If you’re introduced to someone and say, “Great to meet you,” it’s important that they are left thinking that you think it actually is great to meet them. And if you tell someone you love her, you want her to leave for the day with that warm, fuzzy feeling.
What happens when there’s a disconnect between your words and your expression of them? Well, depending on the person’s tone, you might end up flagging him as anything from nervous to self- absorbed to “too cool for school” to untruthful. None of which make a favorable impression.
I’m not saying it’s easy to stay present for every introduction, but I am saying it makes a difference—it distinguishes you in others’ minds. The other reason I recommend this is that, as Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” The habit of bringing your full attention to the words you say—embodying them for your listener—means that in the moments when the stakes are high because you’re meeting your prospective boss, investor, fiancé, you’ll be ready.
Your Most Persuasive Words
In 1970, Yale University did a study of the most persuasive words in the English language. They claim the most persuasive word in the English language is “you.”
Funnily enough, I’m guessing that once you think about it, you’re not. We all like to be acknowledged and appreciated. We all like to know we count.
How can knowing this work for you?
When I work with clients, I advise them to both frame their responses in terms of their audience’s interests—“What’s in it for you?”—and to literally use the word “you” a lot.
Here’s an example: I was working on an IPO show down in Mexico and my client kept saying, “And the Mexican constituency can use this technology to do X, Y, Z . . .”
Huh? No one thinks of themselves in the third person. (Except, perhaps, royalty of some sort . . . “Her Majesty’s Grace will do as she pleases” . . . But I digress . . .)
I asked him to change it to, “And you can use this technology to do . . .”
Ah! Me?? I can? Now I’m interested . . .
What are the remaining eleven words on the Most Persuasive Words List?
Interesting, right? My clients generally think so. In fact, I have one firm that plays the “Who can get the most of these words into their presentation?” game during every meeting. Because they are financial-types, the word “love” was giving them trouble. The day they solved this they were so proud they called me up. Their solution? When they get to a particularly intricate slide on their PowerPoint handouts, they say, “I love this slide!”
What to Wear? What to Wear?
For many of us, this question can suck up a lot of time and attention on a regular day. When you throw in an important meeting, a presentation, an appearance in traffic court, or a cocktail party with the ever-helpful phrase “Festive Dress” in the corner of the invitation,
I Before You
While using “you” is a wonderful way to engage your listener, reassuring him that you are giving his interests and/or concerns equal weight with your own, it’s not a useful word to throw around during a heated discussion, an argument, a problem-solving conversation . . . call it what you will. In those situations, beginning sentences with, “You always/You said/You think/Why can’t you?” generally doesn’t help things along. Depending on the context and tone, phrasing things in this way can convey an enormous amount of hostility, resentment, disparagement.
Given that, I recommend instead putting “I” before “you.” For example:
•“You agreed to be in charge of X,” becomes, “As I remember our conversation, you agreed to be in charge of X.”
•“You said you’d provide Y—which is why I agreed to meet you halfway,” becomes, “When I agreed to meet you halfway, my understanding was that you were going to be providing Y.”
•“When you say things like Z, I’m not sure you’re willing to resolve this,” becomes, “When I hear words like Z, I’m not sure you want to resolve this,” etc.
Too often, beginning with “you” packs too much of a punch.
you can really ramp up the suck-time. As you know, whole books and countless magazines devote themselves to this conversation. My goal here is just to put some parameters in place so that you can feel confident and comfortable in any situation.
In every case, you are going to want to take your cue from the probable dress code of your host, the time of day, and your intention: to inspire confidence, to impress, to promote trust, etc.
For example, recently I had a day when I had two very different meetings. In the morning I was meeting with a state-run agency whose mission is to enforce safety code and whose goal was to increase transparency with the public. For them, I wore tailored pants, a button-down shirt, flat shoes, and carried a functional bag. My goal was to reassure them that I understood their audience—mass, their budget—modest, and their mission—accessibility. That afternoon, I had a pitch meeting for new business with a Latin American company. Having researched them on the Web, my guess was that they would respond to a very different look, that it was important for me to break out higher heels and a few designer labels. For them, this way of dressing was reassuring; for my morning client, it would have been off-putting.
In a business setting, my overarching recommendation regarding clothing is that it be constructed—i.e., well-tailored. This means that shirts should have a collar and cuffs. For men, this is because it’s unlikely they will be in a business setting that might allow for a T-shirt; for women, this is because it’s all too easy for an unconstructed shirt to end up looking like a leotard. The fact that both the Gap and Banana Republic have now mastered the stretch/no-iron fabric necessary to make these clothes washer- and dryer-compatible is genius. They’re both affordable and user-friendly.
If you want to get something more distinctive, please remember that “cheap is expensive and expensive is cheap.” In other words, while there have been moments when I’ve flipped over a price tag and started to laugh, thinking, “They want that much money for black pants?” the fact remains that black pants are a staple of any wardrobe and that investing in one beautiful pair that isn’t going to begin to fray or stretch or stain after a year makes a lot more sense than buying a new pair every eight months or so. If you want to invest in a beautiful shirt, the same is true. If and when you do, I recommend that it be blue. Why? Because blue looks good on most people, photographs best, and studies have shown it promotes trust. Within the spectrum of possible shades of blue, I recommend a French, or cornflower, blue.
“But,” you may be thinking, “I look great in white or pink or yellow.” That may be true. I’m only saying that if your budget is limited, blue is a fail-safe option.
In terms of your next big business-wear investment, I think it has to be in a really good handbag or briefcase. Once again, I know that “really good” can often lead to sticker-shock, but these items, well cared for, will literally last you a lifetime. If you can only afford one, this is not the time to pick something to express your personality. I know green reptile skin has a place, but—aside from the reptiles originally wearing it—it doesn’t really work day to day.
After that, if your budget stretches to it, I suggest investing in a good watch. Again, it can seem like a small thing but, as they say, “the devil’s in the details.” The fact that you’ve gone to the trouble to do this will speak volumes to others.
For social situations, if you are unsure about the possible dress code—for example, dresses vs pants for women, open shirts or neckties for men—call your host or hostess and ask. A good host will always want a guest to feel comfortable. He or she would much rather field a few inquiries than know a guest feels out of place. After that, my only recommendation is that your choice be both body and age-appropriate. No one wants to see a man being throttled by his tie, or a woman vacuum-packed into an outfit that would be more appropriate on an MTV spring break special.
Ultimately, whether you are a willing or unwilling slave to fashion, it pays to spend the time and the money to make the best possible choice for you and your situation. If it helps, think of it as appropriate costuming. We all know how jarring it is to be watching a period drama and notice someone’s twenty-first-century innovation—whether it be a push-up bra, Rolex, or Reeboks. The same is true here: You never want your wardrobe to detract from the message you have chosen to convey.
Your Nerves Are in Your Neck
A lot of people are nervous about speaking in public. When I ask them what happens to them physically, they’ll often tell me, “I get short of breath” or “I feel sick to my stomach.” When I hear this, I ask them to bend over . . . and let their head hang freely. (I’ll bet you didn’t think that’s where that sentence was going . . .)
The reason for this is that the nerves that control your digestion and respiration attach at your C3 and C4 vertebrae—in other words, in the middle of the back of your neck. When we get tense, the muscles in our necks tend to bunch up around these nerves, causing them to double up on their duties; this leads to shallower breathing and an upset stomach. Bending at the waist and letting the head hang freely relaxes these muscles, which allows the nerves to relax.
Often when I talk about letting the head hang, I’ll get people who bend over but continue to keep tension in their neck. Maybe it’s from too many years of adopting this stance to tie their shoes—a place where you see a lot of neck tension. (Which is interesting, because after about age five most of us don’t need to look at what we’re doing when we tie our shoes. Nevertheless, we have held onto the habit of holding our head up to watch ourselves do this.) To check and see if you are keeping tension in your neck, place your fingers on the ridge at the base of your skull and gently, gently pull your head downward.
If you’re not flexible, I recommend standing about a foot away from a wall and leaning your backside against the wall while you do this. Bend your knees, engage your abdomen, let your arms hang freely, allow the weight of your head to pull the head toward the floor.
Regardless of the position you adopt, you want to keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose. This particular way of breathing is important because breathing through our mouths tells our body we are in distress. Breathing through our nose calms our central nervous system. A way to help deepen your breathing is to lengthen your exhalation—not try to increase your inhalation. Why? Because your lungs will naturally rebound to replace the air you’ve exhaled. Simply trying to inhale more deeply is stressful for the body, and if you’re in a nervous state to begin with, it contributes to possible hyperventilation.
When you are ready to stand up, bend your knees a bit more, keep your arms hanging like a rag doll and roll slowly up to stand, vertebra by vertebra. Your head should be the last thing you bring up. Once you’re standing, shake your hands vigorously—from the shoulder, not from the wrist—as if you’ve gotten something stuck on them that you want to get off. Or, in this case, to rid yourself of adrenaline you want to get out.
A lot of people I’ve worked with have been highly resistant when I first asked them to do this. I even had a guy on one team who initially insisted on keeping his hands on the table while he did it and only bending forward enough to look as if he was shortsighted and trying to read papers on the table. Interestingly, it’s this same team who now asks when I arrive, “Can we begin with stretching?” The reason for this is that it’s an amazingly easy way to give yourself the feeling of having had an hour’s nap in the middle of the day.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from How to Wow by Frances Cole Jones. Copyright © 2008 by Frances Jones. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.