Thursday, October 20, 2016

Let's stop tormenting speakers about these four normal qualities

There's a type of speaker coaching that's common, but more and more distasteful to me. It's coaching (or just garden-variety advice) that focuses on factors that, in large part, are normal and natural. Much is made of these factors, but the honest truth is that you'd do better to focus on your content and your confidence, and practice more, than to obsess about any of these normal qualities, in my humble opinion.

That's especially true for women speakers, since the over-attention to these factors can sometimes be used to silence women. After all, if we're all busy nitpicking how you speak, we're not really listening to what you're saying, right? As linguistics professor Robin Lakoff says, "We ought not to be instructing women to be better speakers. We should rather be teaching ourselves to be better listeners."

Here's my short list:
  • Ums and uhs: Yes, these can be distracting on those rare occasions where the nervous or ill-prepared speaker dumps 2 ums for every word. But for the rest of us, ums and uhs are normal--so much so, they are found in every language in the world, and make up about 10 percent of EVERYONE's speech. Everyone. (And most of the words you utter are function words like "a," "an," and "the." "Um" doesn't come close.) Even the very first audio recording, made by Thomas Edison, includes a big, fat "um" in the middle of it. And it was audio recording that made us all aware of our ums, according to Michael Erard's excellent book, Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. Instead of working on replacing ums--which generally are a sign you've forgotten what you want to say--try practicing more in advance of your speech or presentation, or work on memorizing portions or all of the talk. Most of your audience won't notice um any more than they do, say, the more frequently uttered "the." Some suggest there are advantages to using ums.
  • Vocal fry and uptalk: These supposedly modern trends in speaking are often attributed to young women (although plenty of men from Silicon Valley helped make uptalk popular over the past 25 years). Now, linguists say you should be giving them credit for establishing trends in how we all speak, rather than trying to get them to reform themselves. One linguist says, "The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships." And since the article cites such old-timers as actress Mae West as a vocal fry user on occasion--for emphasis--let's stop blaming and shaming young speakers on this score. Apparently, it's been around a lot longer than you think.
  • Resting face: I've already suggested that we take the "bitch" out of "resting bitch face," because it's a phenomenon that occurs no matter what your gender is. Everyone's face in default mode or resting mode has a mouth that either flatlines, or is slightly downturned. So it's normal for you to have "resting face" when you are not actively speaking. "Resting bitch face," to my ear, is another way of telling women they ought to smile, suggesting that they're there to be pleasant and pretty. But there's nothing wrong with not being "on" all the time. After all, in a poker game or a tense, political meeting, a good resting face is a decided asset.
  • Gesturing: I still shake my head when I hear people being shamed, or feeling ashamed, for gesturing. Your brain needs you to gesture in order to produce smooth and fluent speech, and the gestures can be random, not necessarily a literal illustration of your words. So gesture away, dear speakers. And if you're one of those who keeps your hands in your pockets to avoid gesturing, remember: Immobilizing your hands will make you stumble and sputter and "um" more, so keep one hand free to gesture, at a minimum.
These qualities are often criticized with an emphasis on whether you are doing them too much. And it's true: Doing almost anything too much in a talk is overkill. But few people gesture continually or vocal fry or um their way through an entire talk. If you're in doubt about the frequency and duration of any factor in your speeches, try a video recording of your practice. You may find that you feel as if you're doing something a lot when you actually are not. What worries me more is when people pounce on you for just one "um" or gesture. 

Each of these criticisms is a useful occasion for thinking clearly about your audience--that is, the person leveling the criticism. Often, the person giving advice about these factors will say, "It drives me crazy when I hear..." -- but that's just it. Others in your audience probably don't notice. So why are you customizing your presenting style for one listener? And is that listener really upset about something else, like the fact that you're speaking and he's not?

Most of the time, freely shared advice represents only that one person; that's one of the major differences between getting coaching from a professional with thousands of use cases, and someone who just wants you to present the way she would do it. Unfortunately, however, many coaches focus on picking just these nits, or focusing on externals instead of your content. Some observers will use them to shame you into being silent. The most important thing for speakers to remember is that these are natural, not unnatural, qualities, not deep flaws that will prevent you from becoming a great speaker. Spend some time thinking about the context for the criticism, before you take it personally.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Nicole Mays)

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both, and you'll get the best discount if you sign up by August 1.