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I live in a medium-size town in Australia, with a population of 16,000. Yesterday I attended a town meeting: a big corporation has been approved to establish a commercial goat farm here—with all its accompanying pollution, health hazards and quality-of-life issues. Town residents are not happy at the prospect, and we all turned up to voice our disapproval. More than 400 people attended.
Being new to the Australian political process, I sat back and listened as the townspeople spoke out passionately about the problems such a farm would create. We then listened to a woman with a Ph.D. in public health discuss the obvious and not-so-obvious health concerns that such a farm could create. She did two things right:
1) Clear Voice: She had a clear, crisp voice that could be easily heard by everyone in the audience. She did not speak in a monotone, and she carefully emphasized words that she wanted to stress. She enunciated her words and spoke at a moderate pace.
2) Clear Message: She immediately mentioned her own credentials and how she obtained her data (peer-reviewed journals). She immediately let the audience know what she was going to discuss—and then she delved into the data and discussed it in a way that we could all understand. The information she gave supported her point of view, and we all listened intently and gave her a huge round of applause when she finished. We learnt something that evening.
Then a gentleman discussed the history of this farm and what it intended to do. He made two huge mistakes:
1) Unclear Voice: He mumbled. Even though he had a mic, people were continually clamoring, “Speak up, mate!” Perversely, I felt better, for I thought that perhaps only I could not understand his very pronounced Australian twang. But no. Even with the mic practically down his throat, he kept the sound in his larynx and never projected it forward. He did not emphasize words; they all came out jumbled.
2) Unclear Message: As this individual was droning on, talking about the history of the goat farm, its purpose, the jobs it might bring in, the market it would serve, I wondered: Whose side is he on? These statistics were interesting, and they could be used to promote the pro-farm agenda. Well, I thought, so he is representing the goat farm. Turned out that he was also opposed to the building of the farm—but his content initially did not make his position clear. (It also did not help that we could only understand one-third of what he was saying.) This gentleman was obviously a well-respected member of the community, and people politely clapped when he finished talking. I glanced at my husband. “Blah-blah-blah,” he mouthed back at me.
While the first speaker came armed with a clear voice and a clear message, the second speaker felt he could rely on his amicable relationship with the crowd. As a result, he hadn’t developed his voice, or his message, to meet the needs of the audience. And that was a pity, for he had a lot to say (I think).
Whether you are giving a speech at an academic conference, sales meeting or town-hall meeting, prepare. Make sure your voice and message tell a clear story and give a clear message.
I am a coach specialising in the communications needs of non-native English speakers living in the Melbourne and Geelong areas. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember: It’s your story. Get it right.”
Balloons and job interviews? Yes. All my blogs talk about the importance of storytelling and active listening in all forms of communication: “small talk” in the office, in writing science articles, and in acing that job interview.
When you have a job interview, you have to “show, not tell.” Never say, “I will work hard.” Blecchhh. SHOW how you work hard—and work BETTER. In other words, if the interviewer asks you a question such as “What is the most significant thing you have ever done?” he or she wants more information than “I successfully meet challenges when I’m faced with them.” Too vague!
You will want to give a story such as the one below (and this actually happened in my own professional life when I was marketing and sales director of a U.S. publishing company):
It was September 12 and 13, 2001. The Twin Towers had just crashed. People were devastated, but they also wanted to buy any and all available books about the Twin Towers. It just so happened that my publishing company had recently published such a book. Demand for the title was overwhelming. I was dealing with my own shock of the situation—we all were—yet I was able to work with people in production, customer service, and acquisitions to develop a production plan that would immediately meet the public need, and yet not produce too many so that we would be inundated with returns. It was a horrible time in our history, yet we had a public service to do, and we did it very well. (We ended up with very few books being returned.)
In the story, above, I illustrated how I was able to demonstrate team work, leadership under stress, both professional and emotional. THAT is the kind of story you would want to have at your disposal.
Think of these stories as brightly coloured balloons. Before the job interview, make sure you have created at least three or four of these stories. Frankly, some of the stories could be interchangeable. I could use this story to answer the question “How well do you deal with stress?” as well as “What is the most significant thing you have ever done?” Have a story ready for the following questions:
- How well do you work under stress?
- How successfully do you meet challenges?
- What is your strong point?
- What is your weak point?
- How do you demonstrate leadership?
- Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years? (Yes, even for a question like this, have a story ready: this story should demonstrate how you have taken some job or task and made it better / more efficient. That story will show how you are always looking to improve both the work situation and yourself. Then conclude the story by tying it in to the job interview at hand: “So you can see that I am always eager to try new things, to do things in a better way. I look forward to doing this, and perhaps rising within your company.” Even if you’re pretty sure you won’t want to stay with that company, NEVER SAY that . . . always show your creative, innovative side, and how that can benefit the company you’re interested in now.)
So. Start thinking of stories.
SHOW, not TELL.
When the time is ripe, pull that red balloon story out of your mind and use it.
Contact me at email@example.com
See my website: www.eloquentenglish.com
Have a hero and a villain
In my website (http://eloquentenglish.com/2016/05/02/the-power-of-the-story/), I talk about what makes a good story. It’s all about having a hero we’re interested in, the challenges (villains) that this person must conquer and his/her transformation at the end. The best stories contain some type of universal message that we can all understand and believe in.
Think of your organisation as the hero, fighting a villain. The villain could be world hunger. The abuse of women. Factors that keep people unemployed. Your organisation wants to change that. Does your website and other material effectively show your ongoing battle with the forces of darkness? OK, that’s a little exaggerated—but you want to paint your organisation colours of vivid transformation and luminous optimism. People react strongly to that. They don’t react to a series of statistics and non-passionate language.
Make people care through personal stories
Which is more powerful to the average reader:
660,000 women are forced into marriage every year
When she was 12, Sasha was sold in marriage to to a 55-year-old man.
The second one will get your attention quicker. Certainly, statistics are important, but make sure that your statistics merely support the powerful story you want to tell.
Business presenter guru Nancy Duarte shows how the most powerful business presentations have the same structure as the world’s most earth-changing speeches. Both these talks, Duarte states, describe a world as it is. The presenter then highlights a problem in that world (abuse of women) and how his solution will help eradicate that problem. According to Duarte, the best speeches continually contrast the “old” world versus the “new”, proposed world that is being presented in the speech.
Here is a website that does a brilliant girl of combing facts with the personal. The language is simple and powerful.
On the website’s front page you read:
“MORE THAN 60 MILLION GIRLS AROUND THE WORLD ARE NOT IN SCHOOL.
“And we’re on a mission to educate 1 million of them.
And we want YOU to join us.
“It’s not okay with us that an 11 year old girl can be sold to a 55 year old man in the name of marriage. It’s not okay that a 12 year old girl is forced to sell herself in a brothel to earn money to survive. Stories like this that we hear each week are not inevitable. We CAN do something about it.
“Education changes everything.”
You get a statistic, certainly. But that statistic is stated vividly: 60 million girls are not in school. In doesn’t say “60 million girls are uneducated.” That’s boring. Onegirl make this statistic an actual activity–or the lack of an activity that can cause great harm.
They use the “it’s not OK” refrain beautifully to make it clear who the villain is: factors that allow girls to be abused.
Also, the organisation actually makes YOU—the potential donor—the hero. How smart is that? The website makes you believe that, with your donation, YOU can create a new, better world in which young women have a chance to contribute to this world.
So when you’re thinking about your organisation’s website, think passion. Heroism. changing the world. And make an unforgettable story about it.
“Asian women, ” I hear you say; “you can’t write that, that’s racial profiling!” Oh, I’m sorry if you feel that way!
*Ding ding!!* Oops, you see, I used the word “sorry” right away. That’s the problem, that’s what women do–they apologize too much. That’s one of the problems.
And you’re right, this blog isn’t just about Asian women. But I lived in Singapore for more than a decade, and I’ve observed that women from various parts of Asia–Singapore, Korea, China, Thailand, Vietnam–are especially vulnerable to certain pitfalls regarding speaking, both in public and in general. These days, many of these women are dealing with people from all over the globe. So this blog is especially devoted to them.
I’ve observed how extremely polite women can be when speaking to others. I have nothing against politeness, but my first bit of advice: get rid of some of the politeness. You can do that and NOT be a bitch. It takes some work, but it can be done. Remember this, Asian women: you are tiny compared to bigger, often obese Westerners. If you are speaking to a bunch of Australians, for example, there’s a good chance many of them will be a little overweight to obese. You will dwindle away to a speck surrounded by those mounds of flesh. It’s real important that your voice compensates. That doesn’t mean yelling. It means learning to speak in a measured, controlled manner.
Unfortunately, it’s still a man’s world, though a lot of progress has been made. Please note that many men will be quick to overlook women if they appear too reticent, and–this is the killer–men will put women down if women seem too authoritative. You can’t win!
So what can you do?
Tip #1: Do not speak too fast. Often, women (and men, but they’re not penalized as much for it) talk quickly when they get excited, nervous, or passionate about something. Resist the urge. Speak in measured tones.
Tip #2: Do not speak in a high-pitched voice. Many of us associate high-pitched voices with, well, nagging wives or nagging mothers. It’s true.
A famous piece of music, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” (Mussorsky/Ravel) musically depicted various scenes, including women shopping at a marketplace. Their voices were imitated using high-pitched, rapid tones: “The bitching women of the bustling market place gabble furiously in music of astonishing virtuosity,” writes Paul Serotsky.(1)
Gabble. See that? Ducks gabble! Geese gabble! And Serotsky isn’t even writing about women per se! If you speak in a high-pitched voice and if you speak too rapidly, you’ll be seen as a GABBLER, an ineffectual whiner of a woman. Don’t let that happen.
Tip #3: Stress words and individual syllables in words. Learn how to do this and lose your own stress when you speak to others. Many Asian languages are syllable timed, not stress timed. That means Asians often stress individual syllables, whereas English speakers stress certain parts of words.
Let’s take the sentence: I told you to buy me a bunch of red roses.
When Singaporeans, for example, speak standard English, the effect is like rapid gunfire, so they would say the above sentence thusly:
I-told-you-to- buy- me-a-bunch-of-red-roses.
All the words would have equal value. This can actually lead to aural (hearing) fatigue, for it doesn’t add emphasis to any part of the phrase. Indeed, many people unfamiliar with the accent might think that person speaking sounds like a computer.
A native English speaker would utter the sentence “I told you to buy me a bunch of red roses” like this:
I told you to buy me a bunch of red roses.
Different parts of the sentence are emphasized; it’s easier to listen to and comprehend.
Tip #4: The pause can be your best friend. When you speak, take the liberty of pausing for real emphasis. Not only should you emphasize certain words within a phrase, but think about pregnant (so to speak) pauses. They can work wonders. If you have the confidence to pause, the audience will sit up and take note.
Tip #5: Vocal tone. Think of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech”. It’s been played to death because its rhetoric and delivery are truly breathtaking. Imagine King uttering his words in a droning monotone; he never would’ve ignited millions of people to demand what should be theirs (social equality, in case you don’t know). Learn the artistic capacity of your voice. Play with it.
Tip #6: Don’t apologize (as I did with “sorry …” at the beginning of the blog) or put yourself down. Often, women worldwide will demurely murmur apologetic bits into their conversations: “I know I shouldn’t say this, but . . . ” “I’m not really sure . . . ” Men don’t do it. Don’t do it. Period. (In fact a Pantene hair colour ad actually had women saying “sorry!” all the time, and then switched to showing powerful women who didn’t do that–see this link here: Don’t say “sorry!” all the time.
Tip #7: Question tags. “I really enjoyed that talk, didn’t you?” That gives the other person the opportunity to expound away. And, usually, the woman will listen, give feedback, say something else. And the man? He will overlook what she said and expound again. This is an unequal dialogue; it’s not a dialogue, it’s a monologue. Nip it in the bud.
Tip #8: When you laugh, do not cover your mouth. PLEASE. You’re a grown woman. Showing humor is–just fine. You’re allowed.
I know this list should conform to the magic number 10, but never mind. Hope these tips are useful. If you have others you would like to add, feel free to leave them in the comments section.
Well, the first thing she can tell you is that you should have a really snappy beginning to a story to grab the readers’ (listeners’) attention—because this article is more about Nefertiti’s famous husband, the Egyptian pharaoh, Akhenaten. But if I had started with Akhenaten, many of you might not have been interested in reading further, so I put Nefertiti in there as the carrot. Sorry! But I hope that now you’re reading this article and will continue.
Let’s talk about Akhenaten. Some of you may have heard of him as the popularly called “Heretic Pharaoh”. Here’s the history: Akhenaten was ruler of Egypt during the 14th century B.C.E., of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. His father, the pharaoh Amenhotep III, oversaw a country at the height of its artistic and international powers. The Hittites, Babylonians, and Assyrians all enjoyed peaceful relations with Egypt, through mutual exchanges of wives and countless treasures. And over it all, the priests of Amun Ra, with their formidable economic and social power, kept tight spiritual reigns on the Egyptian populace, and the ruling family.
Things got weird with Akhenaten. He rocked the boat.
He appeared to have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the powerful grip of the Amun Ra priesthood. (Initially, Akhenaten wasn’t called by that name; he was logically called Amenhotep IV.) By the fifth year of his reign, he moved the capital to a godforsaken place in the Egyptian desert that he called “Akhetaten,” or “Horizon of the Aten.”
Back up. Who is Aten? Well, it’s complicated (as is anything related to religion—and ancient religion, especially). Suffice it to say that most Egyptologists agree that the Aten initially was simply the disk of the sun itself, and part of the god Ra (which is part of the honcho god Amun-Ra . . . see, everything having to do with religion gets complicated). Akhenaten took this lowly disk and elevated it to premiere, creator godship status; indeed, he wrote a lyrical “Hymn to the Aten”:
How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
They are hidden from the face (of man).
O sole god, like whom there is no other!
Thou didst create the world according to thy desire,
Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts . . . 1
So. Intoxicated by this one god who created the universe, Akhenaten built a new city, built gorgeous, sun-filled temples, and basically told the priests of Amun-Ra that they were out of a job— and that the populace should worship him and his family. Aten would bless the royal family, who would then pass on the blessings to all of Egypt.
Not a good idea.
Fast forward: Eradication of a legacy. After Akhenaten’s death, eventually his son (?) son-in-law (??–different theories abound), the famous Tutankhamen became pharaoh. Initially, in keeping with his father (?) father-in-law(?)’s radical framework, he was called Tutankhnaten. Soon thereafter, however, his name changed to the old Tutankhamen, and he and the royal family deserted the city of Akhetaton. Tut died at an early age. Murdered? Good chance. While several people could claim the title of King Tut’s murderer, most scholars agree that the proponents of the “old ways,” in alignment with the priesthood of the old god, Amun-Ra, were behind the killing.
Indeed, very soon thereafter, the succeeding rulers, Ay and Horemheb, did their best to delete any record of this royal, heretical pharaoh and his offspring: they tore down the new temples, smashed the …Aten family names out of the historical record, and had a great time deleting their faces from statues and artwork.
So what’s the message here?
Akhenaton had a story, but it wasn’t a good one. Not for his time. Not for his place.
- Number one: Too-radical break with tradition. While he began gently, eventually Akhenaten insisted that all the other gods just were not relevant to the prosperity of Egypt. His way was the only way.
- Number two: Unaware of power structure. Akhenaten seemed heedless of the dangers of the powerful ruling priesthood.
- Number three: An impersonal god with no resonance attaching itself to the old god. The Aten was not a personal god as was Amun-Ra, who was worshipped in households humble to palatial. The Aten was impersonal, theoretical; Amun-Ra had more human-like attributes that people could relate to.
In modern terms: It would be as if the Pope today suddenly announced that the Trinity has been a lie all along, that Jesus Christ really can be found somewhere within a subatomic particle. (This, too, would not be a good idea—but an interesting one!)
- Number four: Not appropriate for its time. The populace, and the ruling class, had no need for this radical restructuring of religion. The people (subjected as they doubtless were) were happy worshipping their many gods. They could be easily controlled vis-à-vis their many gods. This kept the priesthood and ruling class very happy, and Egypt could keep flowing along, just like the Nile . . .
In his book The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, Stephen Denning talks about corporate leaders needing a springboard story to urge employees to take the exciting, but potentially scary, next step towards organizational change: This story, Denning states, must be easy to grasp; have a single protagonist; and tell a clear story that epitomizes, in easy language, where the company wants to go, and why this step would be a good idea. This way, the story shows how individuals can make a difference within an organization—the story points the way.
Akhenaten did not have the right story.
Next time, we’ll talk about another great reformer, Martin Luther, and why his story of Church reform became a mass media sensation that truly rocked the world.
I have my own company, Eloquent English (www.eloquentenglish.com) that helps people find their own stories. Remember: It’s your story. Get it right.
I thought I’d mention why I chose this picture as my blog’s main image. Many of you may recognise this image as being a “cave painting” from Lascaux. Located in southwestern France, these caves are festooned with paintings that are more than 17,000 years old. Many of the 2,000 images are of the large animals that the Palaeolithic inhabitants would have known such as bulls, equines and stags. While the Lascaux artists did not paint the region’s plants or other environmental features, they did depict themselves (primarily as hunters) and also drew abstract signs (dots, lattice patterns) that scholars are still interpreting.
Some researchers hypothesise that the images are spiritual and relate to visions the hunters would have while in a trance. Others theorize that the paintings represent past successful hunting excursions, or rituals that were performed to ensure future hunting success. Not do be outdone, several art historians posit that the artists believed that the images themselves could spring to life, so painted “weapons” (the geometric shapes) in order to ensure everyone’s safety.
No one can know for sure what these amazing pictures mean. However, most scholars agree that those who painted the animals were not doing so just to show off their artistic ability. Providing both food and clothing, these creatures were crucial for the inhabitants’ survival. On some level, the animals shown on the cave walls symbolize a magical, hazardous world in which humans and animals weave around each other, playing a complex, dangerous game of survival.
The pictures are telling a story.
Psychologist Pamela Rutledge observed that while technology has progressed at a dizzying pace, our brains are evolving much more slowly. “Our brains still respond to content by looking for the story to make sense out of the experience. No matter what the technology, the meaning starts in the brain,” she writes.1 “Stories leapfrog the technology and bring us to the core of experience, as any good storyteller knows.”
We have always communicated through stories. In fact, let me tell you a story right now. I used to work as director of an English-language school in Singapore, and every month we would have a directors’ meeting. The school was part of a larger, private school that offered courses in hospitality, business and other such areas. Just as surely as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, we could be sure that sometime during the meeting the sales manager would deliver a dry-as-dust report on the number of students that had been recruited that month. Her slides were nothing more than complex Excel charts that were impossible to see if you were seated in the back of the room. And, unfortunately, every month, this hapless young woman would get castigated by the irate school owner who did not find her numbers convincing. Surely she could have spared herself some tongue lashings if she had only cast her findings in terms of a story that placed the figures in a meaningful context. She never created a narrative to even try to justify the figures in terms of the economy, marketing expenditures, or international educational trends. Without the glue of a story binding her figures together, her impossible-to-read slides always led her towards public humiliation.
We are hard-wired to listen to stories. We want to be enthralled by stories. Think about this before you write you next presentation.