The Game of Netflix

Speaking is quickly turning into the game of Netflix. It used to be that as a speaker we could rely on our audience to be sort of our prisoners. Whether it was in a meeting, at a conference or at any other occasion, once we had started talking, our audience was pretty much stuck to their chairs and we had privileged access to their attention.

That’s not the case anymore. Since speakers have become just another small screen among all the other screens we’re looking at throughout our day, we’re suddenly competing with Netflix, YouTube et al. A great show on the large streaming platform manages to grab our attention for an extended amount of time. Many speakers currently fail to do so because they still rely on telling their story just as they were used to from offline situations. Yet, on a small screen it’s much harder to hold the attention of a viewer if you fail to get to the point quickly. Or if you don’t engage with your audience. If what you say doesn’t resonate. Many viewers aren’t very patient towards bad shows. They are not going to be patient towards boring presentations.

Add to that all the distractions that come with Mail, Instagram, Google, a good book etc. and it becomes way harder for people to cut through the noise if their story doesn’t nail it.

The bars have been risen a lot to make listening to your story worthwhile. As a speaker, you need to adapt quickly to the new situation in order to get your story heard. Because if you don’t, your audience will just switch their attention to something more engaging.

(PS: If you want to level up quickly, you might want to consider a coaching).

Leaders who struggle in front of a crowd

Why is it that some leaders who are brilliant, passionate communicators in 1:1 settings become stiff and monotonous when speaking to audiences? It’s not that they are shy or anything. They are not. They also don’t have a problem to be exposed on a stage. It’s part of the job description and they will just do what’s required. Yet, it’s obvious how they don’t enjoy it. They prefer more intimate settings a great deal.

So why is it that they are not as brilliant on stage as they are in 1:1? A major cause is that they don’t feel comfortable with the story that has been prepared for them, e.g. by the marketing department or by some assistant. It’s not that the story isn’t great. But somehow it doesn’t feel right. It’s not how they would speak. It’s not how humans speak. It’s how companies speak.

Therefore, it doesn’t feel natural to them. They don’t trust that it will resonate.

There’s no doubt that they do believe it to be true. But they don’t trust in the way they tell it. It’s not how they normally talk. It’s not how they speak in a conversation. And so, it doesn’t really resonate with them themselves. Therefore, they lack that last bit of confidence that turns a good speech into a great one.

In 1:1 or a closed circle, where these leaders can interact or where they clearly have the lead, it feels totally different for them. They just say what they believe in. They are not “on record”.

And that makes a big difference. In front of a crowd, their speaking is scripted. And it is scripted in a way that doesn’t feel true to themselves. It’s not who they are and how they normally speak.

It feels a little awkward.

One of the things that distinguishes masterful communicators from mediocre ones is that the latter have found a voice that is true to themselves, even when speaking to crowds of people. Even then, they are speaking from their heart saying words they believe in, in a way they believe in. And with this comes confidence, the confidence that’s required to move an audience.

So, the next time you’re about to enter a stage, ask yourself: is this how I would say it?

Top of mind

So, you’ve done a great job at communicating your idea. People are pumped. What you said is the #1 topic during the coffee break.

But then … what? What happens the next day?

How do people put in action what you told them? How do they even remember?

Speaking for applause is a completely different goal than speaking for change. For change you don’t just need to get into people’s minds. You need to stay there. People need to be reminded of your input at a time when they need that input. So, if change is what you seek, you don’t want your audience to only think of you while you speak to them, but also – especially – when you are not present?

One way to do that is to weave in triggers into your speech. Triggers that remind your audience of you when they encounter that trigger. Like in that famous “KitKat and coffee” campaign that boosted KitKat’s revenue because it reminded people of KitKat whenever they had a cup of coffee. For example, when I teach my clients how Moleskine set itself apart as a brand by becoming “the notebook of creative people”, they are reminded of that whenever they see a notebook – and thus, reminded of who taught it to them.

So, what could be a trigger for your audience that people frequently encounter that make them think about you?

It’s still story first!

For many of us, the new world of online communication feels like a restart. We have to get used to new technologies and accustom ourselves to speaking in front of a camera. This brings about many new challenges. Which camera is best? How do I arrange the lighting? What’s a good microphone? The list goes on. Yet: don’t fall into the trap of distracting yourself with technology!

To be sure, it’s important to look good on video. It’s even more important to have great sound. But: just as with PowerPoint and any other technological trend of the past, having a great story takes you a long way while great technology has never been a substitute for relevance and resonance of your content.

It’s still story first!

Therefore, this is what you should primarily focus on: How do I need to adapt my story so that it works on video? What’s different for my audience when viewing me on a small screen compared to interacting with me face-to-face? How can I engage them although we might be continents apart?

This has more to do with empathy and storytelling than it does with technology. By any means, use the best technology you can get. But don’t loose sight of what matters most: the connection to your audience.

How to get your audience to like you

Often, I get asked how one can work towards ensuring that your audience likes you. In general, people are much more open towards people they like. If you want to inspire your audience and – even more – if you want them to buy from you, this will be much more likely to work out if they, well, like you.

So, how can you improve your “likability”? How can you make your audience feel like you’re a nice person?

Well … be a nice person! It’s as easy as that! Instead of working hard on a facade to give the impression of being nice, why not work on the real thing?

Because if you genuinely care for your audience and treat them with respect, if you are honest in what you say and believe in it yourself, if what you have to offer is, in fact, helpful to your audience, then why should they not like you?

That’s the key: Be nice! Don’t act “as if” but do it because that’s who and how you are! And if you are, your audience will notice – because they always do when people speak right from their heart.

From bad to good to great speakers

What separates a good teacher from a bad one? Here’s Keith Johnstone’s take – one of the pioneers of improvisational theatre:

People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in the same activity, as if education was a substance, and that bad teachers supply a little of the substance, and good teachers supply a lot. This makes it difficult to understand that education can be a destructive process, and that bad teachers are wrecking talent, and that good and bad teachers are engaged in opposite activities.

The same applies to speaking in general.

What’s interesting is this: Whether you are a good or a bad speaker in Johnstone’s sense is not so much about whether your audience liked your presentation. You can give exciting speeches and still destroy your audience. For example, you can point in the right direction and at the same time discourage to follow it. You can speak in a motivating way and your audience feels pumped after your speech, yet can’t put it into action and feels bad because of it.

The important question to ask is in what way are Taylor and Casey and Kim transformed by your speech. Do they see the world with different eyes? Can they act upon what you made them see? Can they do it on their own?

This is what separates good from great speakers. Good speakers make their audience see. Great speakers enable, even empower their audience. Bad speakers, on the other hand, do not just waste their audiences’ time. They crush the audience by misleading them and treating them with ignorance.

How can you move your audience to action? How can you empower them?

Tips to conquer the fear of public speaking

Here are a few tips if fear of public speaking is holding you back from achieving your goals:

First thing I’d ask you is this: How much do you practice? Because what often happens when people are afraid of doing something, they also hide from practicing. Yet, practicing is among the most effective ways of countering anxiety. Because the more you practice, the more often your brain recognises: “Oh, this didn’t hurt, actually.” And then you can extend this by imagining you standing in front of an audience. Do this as vividly as possibly and as often as possible. Think of it as watching a movie of yourself doing the speech. Do everything like you would do it live, only in your imagination. The more often you do this, the more you’ll get used to it.

Second thing I’d ask is this: Are you saying what you mean? Or did you prepare some “artificial speech” which is not really what you want to say but some form of how “one speaks in public”. If what you say doesn’t feel right, then this will reinforce anxiety. On the other hand, just saying what you mean (and don’t even thinking about using slides) frees a lot of people of the chains they felt when sticking to a script. So, in a way, just speak from your heart. Presenting really means talking to people. It’s just that you are the one talking a bit more than the others. In fact, in a way, I do believe that the most satisfying speeches are the ones where you feel like being part of a conversation.

Third, I’d suggest to look out for every opportunity there is to speak (or rather, talk to a group of people). First, do it in small groups. Look consciously at how you act among a group of friends. How do you speak there? Then try to transfer this to when you are the one doing the talking. On a birthday, say a few words to thank the guests and what it means to you. Pick every possibility there is. If there’s a Toastmaster’s close by (find one), go there. It’s an excellent and very forthcoming community that is there to help you. It’s a great atmosphere where you can practice “in private” while getting lots of encouragement.

(PS: feel free to drop me a note for a personal conversation and setting up a safe space.)

Reading list 2020

Here’s a list of books I enjoyed recently which you might find useful as a communicator: four novels loosely arranged around the topic of empathy, three non-fiction books on ideas and how they spread and one essay on silence and where to find it.

Novels around empathy

In Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan drags us into an alternative reality where robots have become largely indistinguishable from humans (e.g. they pass the Turing test). It’s a great exploration into the boundaries of rationality, morality and emotions. (deutsch: Maschinen wie ich)

The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells explores how we become who we are and how our experiences stand in the way of understanding others as well as our true self. (deutsch: Vom Ende der Einsamkeit)

Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is a phenomenal exploration into how we form our realities and how who we want to be has a huge impact on how we act and in turn how others perceive us. (deutsch: Die Lügnerin)

The Rosie Result is the conluding third book of the Rosie series by Graeme Simsion. The final part of the series sees eccentric genetics professor Don Tillman live with his eccentric son and along the way understand profound truths about himself. The book is an important look into how fragile the boundaries between different, special, and weird can be. (deutsch: Das Rosie Resultat)

Ideas – where they come from, how they spread, and how they spread

Where Good Ideas Come From is a fascinating read by Steven Johnson and investigates how to build yourself an environment in which great ideas thrive. (deutsch: Wo gute Ideen herkommen)

Contagious by Jonah Berger examines how ideas spread. If you need to make your ideas go viral, this books has some interesting findings.

Made to Stick by Dan & Chip Heath is one of my favorite books on communication for more than a decade. It explains what makes great ideas stick in the minds of your audience.

Silence

Silence by Erling Kagge makes a striking case for the power of silence and how you don’t need silent surroundings to find inner silence. Highly recommended. (deutsch: Stille)

The future, now!

Many people think of pitching as the act of selling an idea or a product. It’s not. Because pitching is not about you making a profit. It’s about the other party making an even greater profit. The more they benefit, the better! Pitching is the act of selling the future.

When my wife and I sold our first license in the US toy market, we left out everything that most people would consider the core of a pitch: no praise, no cheering, no profit forecasts. All we did when we pitched the product was to spark imagination. We crafted a story that made our partners visualise how they could turn our idea into a profit. We made them see the final product. We made them see children wanting that product. We made them see people falling in love with the product. We pulled the future into the present by having them visualise their future profits by looking at our present idea.

How can you shift your perspective from what you want to what they desire? How can you make them visualise the future now? What will using your products or investing in your idea mean for them?

(PS: “The Art of Pitching” is now open for the public. We’ll craft the story for your pitch. A few sessions are still available in June, but hurry, they are selling fast.)

Fixed worldviews

When we listen to someone, a basic process that happens in our brains (in very simplified terms) is that we compare what we hear with what we know and then – if necessary – adapt.

Yet, there are two extremes in how people do this:

On the one extreme are people who fit what they hear to what they know. These people will default to adapt new information to confirm what they already believe. If people like this believe that their business partner is cheating on them, everything they learn about that new deal will reinforce this perspective.

On the other extreme are people who fit what they know to any new information. These people will frequently adapt what they believe to new information. If an “expert” offers them her opinion, they will frequently adapt this as a fact.

Both, of course, have an utter deficit in critical thinking. The former judge any information by their existing worldview – it’s what ideologies are made of. The latter shy away from trusting their own assessment and avoid any judgement of their own.

What’s surprising at first sight (at least to some) is that the former group is just as easy to manipulate as the latter. Demagogues excel at this. They manipulate their followers by attaching to people’s beliefs. Knowing that these people will approve of anything that reinforces their worldviews, demagogues craft their story in a way that does exactly that.

The way to react to this is not by trying to convince these people that their worldview is wrong. They will dismiss any attempt at this simply because their worldviews are closed. Any new information will be judged against these worldviews. The way to react – probably the only one – is to acknowledge their worldview, understand it on a deeper level, and then – if possible – attach to it in a way they can approve. You need to speak their language, give them a feeling of being heard and seen and of being in control.

As someone being capable of critical thinking, ask yourself: What’s right from their perspective? Why do they believe what they believe? What might have led them to believe it? What do they really care about on a deeper level? What are they afraid of? How can I acknowledge their fears? What would need to be true for them to accept a fact or a point of view while staying true to what matters to them?

It’s easy to dismiss different perspectives. It’s easy to laugh at people who just seem to not get it. It’s easy to rant about this or that worldview. But it doesn’t help very much. It’s much more helpful to acknowledge different perspectives, try to understand them, and act accordingly – not by manipulating but by offering a balanced, ethical perspective to attach to.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz