IMPACT: It’s a Product of Wind Power

January 18th, 2012

When someone asks what I do for my clients, I rely on this mnemonic: CCRRS. It stands for clarity, confidence, rate, resonance and strength. Those are the top five elements most clients want to improve. Number six would be impact. Every once in a while, someone says to me, “I just want to have more impact as a speaker.”

To make an impact as a speaker, you’ve got to put something out there, right? And obviously your voice is the major vehicle for that process. Since the voice is a wind instrument, that means spending breath as you speak. So, at a concrete physical level, making an impact involves putting your breath into the room. Generously.

You’d be surprised how often you hold back your breath when you speak. Need proof? Take a deep breath, say a phrase or sentence out loud, and notice how much breath you have left at the end. Why don’t you use all your breath? Isn’t it odd that, in the very act of reaching out to make a connection, you unconsciously hold back? You probably aren’t aware of it. You certainly don’t mean to do it. But those old habits are always there, working in opposition to your intention, undermining your impact.

One of the best ways to learn the feeling of generously giving away your breath is to play with lip flutters. It’s difficult to describe what I mean, so I’ll just show you. video 1 It’s almost impossible to flutter your lips and hold back at the same time. You’ve got to go for it. You’ve got to put your breath out there, generously, and allow it to happen. It’s a very concrete, physical way to discover the feeling of being fully engaged and available whenever you speak.

When that’s easy and comfortable, with no sense of pushing or forcing, add voice to the lip flutter. video 2  (Some find this easier than lip flutters with just breath. If that’s true for you, you might skip the first step—but you can’t skip this step.) Are you giving away your breath as generously on the voiced flutter as you were on the flutter with just breath? When that’s going well, seamlessly transition from a lip flutter to a vowel sound. video 3 Make sure there’s no break between the flutter and the vowel. Does the vowel sound feel just as free and engaged as the flutter? Then try fluttering your lips and merging into a simple word, with the same easy, generous feeling throughout. video 4 It’s probably best to use words that begin with vowel sounds, such as “away” or “own,” or perhaps /h/ sounds such as “hello” or “highway.”

This is how you should feel when you speak, this sense of no hiding, “You can have it all.” You can’t control how your listeners respond; you only control what you put out there in the room. So don’t fail make an impact because you didn’t give them anything to respond to. When you use only part of your voice, then they get only part of you.

By using your breath generously, allowing it to pour out of you as you speak, you engage your whole voice, and that tends to engage your whole being. Being fully in the game, you’re much more likely to make an impact.

REDUCTIONISM: Putting All the Pieces Together

January 4th, 2012

I have an ambivalent relationship with WIRED magazine. The topics featured in each issue are always so fascinating. When I look at the cover, I get very curious. But I resist the temptation to pick it up and start reading. Because it’s all a tease.

In my experience, a WIRED article rarely delivers what the title promises. I’m always disappointed when I give in, decipher those weird unreadable page numbers, and take the time to read the content. It’s like watching a TV program where people search for ghosts in a haunted house; never half as gripping as the trailer promises.

Well, last week I picked up the January issue of WIRED and read an article called “Trials and Errors,” by Jonah Lehrer. It turned out to be a happy exception to the rule. Three paragraphs were particularly thought provoking, and hopefully the copyright gods won’t strike me dead for reprinting them here.

“This assumption—that understanding a system’s constituent parts means we also understand the causes within the system… defines modern science. In general, we believe that the so-called problem of causation can be cured by more information, by our ceaseless accumulation of facts. Scientists refer to this process as reductionism. By breaking down a process, we can see how everything fits together; the complex mystery is distilled into a list of ingredients.

“The problem with this assumption, however, is that causes are a strange kind of knowledge… although people talk about causes as if they are real facts—tangible things that can be discovered—they’re actually not at all factual… We look at X and then at Y, and invent a story about what happened in between. We can measure facts, but a cause is not a fact—it’s a fiction that helps us make sense of facts.

“The truth is, our stories about causation are shadowed by all sorts of mental shortcuts. Most of the time, these shortcuts work well enough… However, when it comes to reasoning about complex systems—say, the human body—these shortcuts go from being slickly efficient to outright misleading.

Trials and Errors, Jonah Lehrer, WIRED, January 2012, pp. 105-106.

I see this all the time in the field of presentation skills training. People assume that by observing successful presentations and breaking them down into the smallest components they can come up with a list of ingredients, the recipe for a great speech. The result is something lifeless and mechanical or so bloody complicated it has no hope of practical application.

Communication is complex. No matter how much skill and experience we bring to the process, there will always be an element of mystery involved. We can only keep reinforcing the fundamentals and exploring what it means to be fully engaged and fully available, connected to our self, our message and our audience.