Persuasive Strategies, Part One

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A.K.A. How To Embody Richard Gere as Billy Flynn in Chicago

As a speech coach, one of the most common questions I hear from clients is “how can I be more persuasive?” They explain that they understand why their skills/experiences/insights are valuable to their clients, but they just aren’t sure how to explain it to them effectively. Or, perhaps, they think it’s so simple to identify the worth of someone else’s products, but when it comes to crystallizing and selling the value of their own services, they freeze up.

Any of this sound familiar?

Selling yourself is difficult, especially as a woman; we’re socialized almost from birth to be deferential and modest. BUT! Even if #TheMan has made you second-guess yourself in the past, you can still learn to sell your brand better than a spray-tanner at a bikini competition.

You see, the issue many speakers struggle with is that they approach persuasion as an all-or-nothing proposition: they stare at a blank page, cursor blinking ominously, and assume that it’s all up to them to fill that page, from scratch. Luckily for you, that is NEVER TRUE.

The study of persuasion stretches back over 2,500 years; many, many people have put so much thought into how to do it well that all you, the 21st century speaker, need to do is plug your information in like a paint-by-numbers. So, let Dr. Lanie be your Bob Ross and let’s get started.

What are you trying to say?

The first thing we need to do, my intrepid little painters, is ask yourself: what am I actually trying to say?

I know, you thought you already had this covered. Surely you knew by the time you started reading this article what you wanted to persuade people about, or you wouldn’t have come looking for this piece in the first place, right?

Wrong, unfortunately. Your persuasive topic or pitch is the foundation of the entire persuasive house you’re building. If it’s vague, generic, overly ambitious, or confusing, your house has no chance of standing.

SO, important things to consider:

Is my topic too broad?

Consider this: how would you persuade an audience to support an issue like “environmental protection?” While a worthy and important topic, how do you decide whether to focus to on state, national, or global protections? Are we  talking about rivers, oceans, air, underground digging? Individual responsibility or corporate regulations?

Yikes. You can see how what might seem like a simple, agreeable topic can quickly spiral into something unmanageable. As a general rule, it is easier to persuade an audience to adopt a specific, narrow position – so instead of “environmental protection,” consider “state-level legislation protecting rivers from corporate runoff.” Your job immediately becomes easier.

Does this need to be said?

The scope of the topic isn’t the only issue at hand, however. We also must consider public attitude toward our topic. In my public speaking classroom, there’s always a handful of students who want to write a persuasive speech advocating for abolishing puppy mills. It seems like a great idea, at the outset – puppy mills promote unhealthy breeding! They create artificial price hikes! They discourage individuals from adopting pets out of shelters! Dogs are kept in abysmal living conditions!

There’s just one problem. Have you ever known anyone who was specifically PRO-puppy mill? While some dog owners might prefer pure-bred animals, you’ll almost never find anyone advocating for the conditions animals are kept in in a puppy mill setting – even the puppy mill owners know they’re engaged in shady business. In short, if everyone already agrees with you, you can’t persuade them! You’re not contributing anything to the discussion at play, and therefore your voice is not adding value. It’s harsh, but it’s true.

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This puppy has never felt grass or LOVE, and if you don’t already know that’s wrong you’re a monster. Image credit: FancyCrave.com

Persuasion, by definition, requires moving an audience to change their beliefs or behaviors. Trying to “persuade” your listeners to adopt a position they already agree with is wasted time. Again, this is where specificity is your friend. To bring it back to a business angle, if you’re trying to persuade people of something that is accepted as a common truth in your industry, you need to start back at the drawing board and reconsider what your message should be.

Who are you talking to?

Demographics.

They’re a basic truth in advertising, for good reason. The same set of evidence or emotional appeals won’t always work on two different audiences. If you’re pitching the  decriminalization of marijuana to teenage boys and middle-aged mothers using the same pitch, then I hate to break it to you, but you’re doing it wrong.

Refining your persuasive appeals for your audience’s specific needs means you need to know who your audience is. Viagra was developed as a blood pressure medication, but we all know that’s not where it’s biggest persuasive appeals currently lies. Are you certain you are targeting your message to the proper audience?

If the answer to that question is yes (you are absolutely certain you have identified the proper target demographic for your services) and you’re still not seeing the results you want, it’s time to reconsider the types of persuasive appeals you’re using – but I’ll save those details for PERSUASIVE STRATEGIES, PART TWO.

In summary, don’t assume you know what your persuasive strategy should be without doing the appropriate background research into a) whether your message is specific, necessary, and appropriate in scope; and b) whether you’re targeting the right audience, in the right way. Stay tuned for part two, wherein we learn the brass tacks of formatting your specific persuasive messages.

6 Tips on Using Gestures In Public Speaking

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Help! Where do I put my hands?

Let’s talk about a common, yet tragic public speaking scenario. Sara has spent hours rehearsing her Big Talk at home. She’s thought about the needs of her audience. She’s rolled up to the venue in her power outfit and is feelin’ her look. Sara, in short, is ready to rock it out. But when she stands up in front of the crowd, she is suddenly and overwhelmingly aware of her hands. They are just dangling awkwardly at the ends of her arms. Oh God. What do people usually do with their hands? Is this right? It feels SO UNNATURAL.

In a certain sense, public speaking IS unnatural; it’s a contrived scenario, designed so that one person can influence others. But that means that – lucky for you! – someone else out there has already given plenty of thought to how to best manipulate your presence as the speaker for maximum benefits. Read on for my top tips on using hand gestures to improve your public speaking and banish that panicked feeling of confusion once and for all.

1. YOU are your first, best visual aid.

Here’s a truth for you: most speakers default to using slides, video clips, posters, or other visual aids because it just seems like the thing to do. But a visual aid that doesn’t ADD anything to our presentation will only drag you down and make you appear less polished and authoritative. If the subject of your text is not visual in nature (i.e. blueprints, film clips, web design), consider that YOU might be all the visual aid that you need. Which leads me to…

2. Start with the text: look for areas of emphasis.

If you’re struggling with how to move your body during a presentation, it might be because you don’t understand your own presentation well enough. Sit down with a paper copy of your outline or manuscript and walk through it with a highlighter, looking for the most important points, the examples that are critical to understanding your perspective, and structural language like transitions and previews. (That’s right, I said a hard copy. Try this on paper instead of digitally editing, at least once – it makes a difference). Once YOU really understand the flow and the key points of your presentation, you will start to see the places that will benefit from some bodily illustration.

3. Help the audience follow along.

Oral communication can be tough for audiences. After all, there’s a reason why we don’t listen to many two-hour speeches these days. Help your listeners follow along by using gestures to outline lists and sequences. If you’re previewing major points in your speech, listing the component parts of any type of system, or describing the relationships between people, places, and things, you can show me all of those things with your hands. Thinking about gesturing in terms of what your audience needs – instead of what you need – can clarify when hand movements help, and when they hurt that bottom line of getting an audience to accept your central argument.

4. Think INSIDE the box.

Gestures need to be visible to your audience. Imagine drawing a rectangle in front of your torso; it begins about at your collarbone, extends to the outsides of your shoulders, and down to your belly button. This is your safe zone for gesturing! Big enough to allow free range of motion, but contained enough to avoid the “crazy grandpa” handwaving stereotype. The gesture box also helps avoid “penguin hands,” the result of a speaker’s hands trying to move while their elbows and forearms remain rigidly locked to their sides. Penguins are adorable, but not known for their persuasive talents. Don’t be a penguin.

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5. Say it with me: mittens in pairs.

Do you remember in old-timey movies or picture books when every child under the age of ten seemed to be sporting a pair of knitted red mittens that were attached to each other by a cord? Put on a nice imaginary pair of those babies. Consider how your hands would look: fingers loosely held together (not splayed apart), thumbs relaxed. Because your mittens are a pair, your hands move together as a natural unit. The “mittens in pairs” approach wards against getting stuck in one gesture, the off-putting phenomenon of choppy robot hands, or only relying on your dominant hand (creating an unbalanced appearance). My main man, President Barry O, is providing an excellent real-life example of the mittens approach in the photo up top.

6. Practice how you play.

Yep, that high school track/football/field hockey/soccer coach was right. You can’t adequately prepare for a speech that will ultimately be delivered standing, with a microphone, to a large audience if you practice sitting cross-legged on your bed and mumbling to yourself. #sorrynotsorry

Stand up, square those shoulders, breathe deep, and deliver your speech the same way you will in front of that audience. Now, when you actually take the stage (or lectern, or the head of the table), your body will already be familiar with the required actions. This is one of the best suggestions I can give you for cutting down on nervousness! Do not let the first time you run through your entire speech – standing up, out loud – be the day of the presentation.

The Gang (er, me) Explores Academic Precarity

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I love working in a university. I love being surrounded by intellectually driven, curious professionals who are passionate about their projects. I like seeing young adults blossom as analytical thinkers. I like having a community of like-minded individuals who understand whatever weird niche topic I’ve decided to dive into this year. I love the freedom of the schedule, the chances to travel and talk about my work, watching students explore across multiple classes, having free access to all the best research and resources…..

So why am I pursuing opportunities outside the university?

Why branch out into consulting?

That’s a good question, and it requires some understanding of the state of academia in 2018.

For the four years I was in graduate school, I earned $14,100.00 per year. Before taxes, student fees, insurance, class materials, and general living expenses. Now I lived in a relatively low cost-of-living area, but that’s still an extremely tight budget. I was lucky enough to have a live-in partner during those years to help me cover costs. Some friends picked up odd jobs ranging from driving a cab to installing roofing to selling books – whatever helped pay the rent.

That’s not a new situation. Grad students have always been a cheap source of labor for large universities. The difference is that in generations past, an implicit understanding existed that these years were the trade-off for a future tenured professor position, in which you could earn comfortable money and benefits. Academic hazing, basically, with the assurance that the pay-off will be well worth it.

However, a tenure-track job hasn’t been the reality for most PhD graduates in maaaany years. While the number of PhDs awarded has steadily increased in the last 60 years, tenure track jobs in virtually every field are being replaced by adjunct or contingent labor. In 2014, 39% of all doctorate recipients left their graduate programs without a job commitment; in the humanities, that percentage increased to 46%.

Please note – I am not necessarily protesting this state of affairs. I went into graduate school with the understanding that the only thing a PhD guarantees you is the title of “Doctor.” Not a certain job, not a certain amount of money, not a certain amount of respect. I genuinely think that being clear-eyed about this fact is a blessing and sets me apart from some of my less-fortunate colleagues.

The fact remains that a surplus of highly qualified, equally capable PhDs are swimming around in a pool of dwindling jobs like state fair guppies fighting for a kernel of funnel cake and that is our new normal. Don’t believe me? Take it from my favorite academic/alt-ac/post-ac consulting queen, Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In:

“This job market is not ‘daunting’ or ‘uncertain’ or ‘volatile’ or other pretentious evasions… It is in a state of catastrophic 40-year-long collapse that has destroyed countless lives. And elite faculty, who by their own admission…’don’t know what the fuck we are doing,’ have failed utterly to train their students to cope with this catastrophe.”

Preach, sister.

As for me? I’ve been one of those carnival guppies in a bowl of colored water for two years and counting. I yearn for the wide-open ocean of opportunities beyond the ivy-covered, rose-colored-glasses wearing walls of academia.

Which brings us back to the beginning: why consulting? Okay, okay. An answer for you in three parts.

Professional Independence

For better or worse, completing a doctoral program drills into your brain that when the chips fall (i.e., it’s 3:00 a.m. and you have a research deadline in 4 hours and you’ve already been up for 20 hours), the only person you can count on is yourself. We spend most of our time alone, sitting in offices, trawling through books and research articles to transform them into parts and pieces of new books and articles.

I love collaborating and bouncing ideas off of my colleagues, but that basic message of “work is best when done solo” is hard to overcome. Running your own business fits well within this model. If things take off – it’s because of the work you put in. If everything tanks – no one to blame but yourself.

I won’t lie, I’m also a night owl, so being able to work at 1:00 a.m. instead of 9:00 a.m. is a huge bonus to me.

Specialized Skill Delivery

Once a teacher, always a teacher. The rush of watching someone else takes the lessons you’ve been working on together and connect the dots provides such a profound feeling of satisfaction. There are SO many parts of classroom teaching that frustrate me wildly, but reveling in the joy of coaching someone past their stage fright, or watching a speaker grow a presentation from concept to beautiful, professional execution, is always worth it. (Still not sure it could be worth it for you? Just ask me!)

Reciprocal Learning Environment

So why attend graduate school, if the answer is not a lifelong desire to be a classroom teacher? Simply put: I had questions about how people communicate (specifically, how social media changes the ways in which we communicate), and I wanted to answer them. I’m fond of asking questions and finding out how things work, or why we behave in certain ways, or how rules and traditions came to be.

Working for and with a variety of professionals fills this need for me because it allows me to do a deep-dive into their content area of expertise. Actually, before I attended graduate school, I worked as a digital content writer for an SEO company for the same reason – doing research and writing copy for dentists, bakers, skiers, small business owners, and a variety of other pros and entrepreneurs felt more like Internet Playtime than actual work.

Is now an appropriate time to insert that old saw about doing what you love and never working a day in your life? God, no. I’d never be so clichéd.

In summary, being a professor is not the only way to use your PhD! I absolutely do not regret attending graduate school. I will never believe that more individuals with advanced education, high literacy, and research and analysis skills are anything but a MASSIVE BENEFIT to society. But the work of reframing the way we think about the value and purpose of an advanced degree is on all of us – wandering/contingent academics, tenured faculty, university administrators, and curious laypersons alike.

The Art of the Paraphrase

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What do you think of when you think of public address? The President giving the State of the Union? A Baptist preacher thumping on a pulpit? Grainy black-and-white footage of dictators of yesteryear, insidiously swaying the hearts and minds of their people? To be sure, all of these situations hinge on the power of a strong rhetor (or speaker), but they are certainly not the only areas of life that are enriched via a strong grasp of good public communication skills. Instead, try to think of public speaking as any situation in which you want your views, experiences, and advice to be critically taken into consideration.

“Public speaking” touches so many areas of our individual lives, ranging from the toast you gave at your cousin’s wedding, to that Q&A panel you participated in at last month’s networking conference, to last year’s infamous family political meltdown during Thanksgiving dinner. Demystifying the concept of public address – and taking it down from the pedestal that we so often place it on – can go a long way toward removing our fear and anxiety around the concept. It’s not just the 20-minute long speeches in front of a giant audience; rather, it’s every time you want to meaningfully express your ideas or participate in civic discussion with a group of other individuals.

To that end, one of the most useful concepts you can pick up right now to improve your public speaking skills is the art of the paraphrase. The paraphrase is how you demonstrate to your conversational partner that you understand and are invested in their perspective or idea. To effectively paraphrase, you must first engage in empathic listening. How frequently do you find yourself nodding along as a friend talks, only nominally listening as you check your phone or sneak glances at the television? Our surroundings are typically so densely saturated with media and information that the multitask has become our default mode. Unfortunately, we’re not very good at it… forcing your brain to rapidly alternate between tasks and subjects causes a loss in efficiency, accuracy, and awareness. Plus, it pisses your friends off.

So instead, the next time a serious topic crops up, try empathic listening. Orient your head and shoulders directly toward your conversational partner. Make direct eye contact. Encourage them to keep sharing by nodding and expressing verbal affirmation (“mmhm” or “then what happened?”). Finally, paraphrase their statements back to them to check your understanding.

A good paraphrase restates the original speaker’s idea, but uses the listener’s own words and ends with a request for affirmation. For example: “It sounds like you were really frustrated when you thought the boss was not interested in hearing your opinions.  The company says all opinions are valuable, but you feel like your suggestions aren’t taken very seriously in the group.  Is that right?”

In this form, the paraphrase allows the first speaker to feel heard and take ownership of their own story by confirming the listener’s take. Rephrasing the wording allows the listener to demonstrate their investment and avoid potentially inflammatory phrases.

The paraphrase proves its usefulness in a wide array of scenarios: romantic partner disagreements, family squabbles, professional queries, interactions with persons who have more or less social power than you…. The beauty of this tactic is that the open-ended format allows the speakers to either continue defining the problem, discuss their feelings on the problem, or try to find a solution to the problem. All participants’ perspectives are acknowledged without any explicit judgment placed on the problem at hand. In this way, civil discourse can flourish – and that’s always the goal of public speaking, no matter how big or small the scenario.