We gain or lose status based on what we say and how we say it. Yet, we live in a world where our abilities to talk intelligently to one another seem to be declining. In a sense, we have almost decided to let our machines do our talking for us. Computers talk to us and to themselves. Faxes talk to faxes and where earlier in this century we used to talk, now we watch TV.
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Today, people who can speak on their feet, be crisp in meetings, or just engage in good conversation have a clear advantage. People in business and politics who can best promote their ideas also best promote themselves—whether they acutally intend to or not. For what good does it do us to be good managers, competent engineers, smart lawyers, and productive workers of any kind if we are unable to express ourselves in our own language?
I predict that technology will never take the place of plain conversation—whether that conversation is two people talking, a group of people meeting, or just one person talking to hundreds, or maybe even millions of others. People see the articulate voice as the voice of reason and wisdom. He who talks well will more than likely do well. He who has good ideas and talks well will lead. Deals are made. Decisions are made. Obstacles are cast aside. Whatever the job, the job gets done face to face.
A phone call can be more compelling than a letter, and a face to face meeting is always more compelling than a phone call—provided, in both cases, that you know how to marshal your thoughts and speak intelligently. Business leaders meeting face to face can cut a transaction in two minutes, where the same transaction might take a committee two years. I once shared an elevator with two CEOs of chemical companies who hadn't seen each other for a number of years. By the time they reached the 30th floor, they had agreed in principle to merge their corporations.
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Also to Fran Williams, who suffered through endless hours of typing and retyping, and my friend and associate, James Humes, for his uncommon wisdom, piercing intelligence, and unfailing sense of humor. I've had clients who would rather have a root canal than speak—even to a small group.
I've had clients whose personalities change so much when they speak, you would never know they were the same people. I've had clients who became so sick to their stomachs that they could not function one actually had to leave the stage for several minutes. I've had clients who go into a kind of shock and seem to forget for just a moment who they are, what they're doing, and what they are supposed to say.
I've even heard of at least one person who stepped up to a lectern, only to drop dead of a heart attack. This is all part of life—and death—I suppose, but it doesn't have to be. Most people who view the act of public speaking as a bad thing that's to be avoided at all costs are amazed to find that speaking can actually be fun—and well worth the time and effort.
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But in fact, the exact reverse is true. There is no single greater opportunity for productivity, profit, and reward than the simple act of opening your mouth to tell your own story. Yet this is an opportunity that escapes 9 out of 10 people with responsible jobs in America. The reasons, I think are obvious: 1 We are not living in times that place high value on articulation—yet, ironically most people seem to be attracted to and to admire the articulate when they hear it.
The wholesale axing of hundreds of thousands of largely capable, perhaps even talented, white-collar managers in the s and s put an end to that dangerous misconception. My own experience tells me that a large number of the managers who remain distinguish themselves with one outstanding characteristic: They are better communicators than their fallen associates.
Today, more than ever before, we see an urgent need for better personal interaction in business. At the multinational level, good communications are not only important but absolutely essential to the successful conclusion of sometimes complex and sensitive transactions. Junior and senior people alike have got to be able to carry the ball anytime, anywhere, and in any situation, no matter how challenging.
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She'd been sent from New York by her firm to make a presentation to civic and business leaders in Thailand for a contract worth tens of millions of dollars. By the time her plane landed two days late, other firms had made their pitches. The Thai officials had pretty much made up their minds and were reluctant to see her. Finally, a committee agreed to meet with her, for 20 minutes only, in a hotel lobby.
Any hope of a proper presentation went out the window. She knew she had to abandon her original game plan. Forget the expensive slides. Forget the carefully groomed script. Now it was quick thinking, mental discipline, rapid regrouping and reorganization, streamlining, editing, refining. Everything had come down to just a few minutes face to face with a bunch of complete strangers. All this with a case of jet lag that made her feel like she'd been up for two days—and she had, almost. She felt oddly tipsy, a little punchy. But the stakes were too high to yield to sloppy thinking.
The company's immediate future and her career, she knew, hung in the balance. She cleared her head. She forced herself to focus.
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When the Thai leaders arrived in the lobby, they were courteous but refused to sit down. They let her know that they were in a hurry and that the meeting would have to take place standing. To press the point, they glanced at their watches. It was all over in 15 minutes originally, she had planned to speak for an hour or more. When they were gone, she sank into a lobby chair and worried that it had gone badly. The following day she flew home—but not before learning to her surprise and delight that she had won the account, over seven other vendors!
Today, not knowing how to play the game is simply too large a liability.
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I read somewhere that more than half of all job applicants are turned down on the basis of verbal communications skills judged to be less than adequate. If all these people hit a wall—and probably never know the real reason why—it's mind-boggling to imagine how much wasted effort is being poured into presentations that fail for the same reason. What if more than half of all the pitches, presentations, speeches, lectures, and assorted other communications all over the world also failed because of poor communications?
What if the number were only half of that? We're still talking about lost productivity and lost opportunity on a staggering scale. Anyone who is serious about his career or his company has got to know how to play the game. A friend of mine in a mid-size company got an assignment to give a new-business presentation but waited until the last minute to prepare the big pitch. He cannibalized other presentations, made hasty notes, threw together a mixed bag of handouts and visual aids, then rushed to the airport to catch a plane to the prospective client's headquarters in another city.
Not surprisingly, the presentation did not go as well as he might have hoped. When I hear stories like that, it seems only fair to ask, what is the nature of true productivity? Is it more productive to apply oneself diligently every day at one's desk with the aggregate long-term rewards of that labor almost impossible to measure? Or is it more productive to set aside more time—perhaps a day or two—to adequately plan, prepare, and practice for a presentation that could be worth more to your company in just one day than all the fruits of an entire lifetime of bureaucratic diligence?
Most of us spend our working lives unaware that we are in fact the message—that how others see us can determine the degree of our success. Seizing Opportunity To look, sound, and act more like a leader or someone worth listening to, you've got to begin with right thinking, with a correct attitude. Polls tell us that public speaking for some people can actually be scarier than death.
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Whether you believe that, it is still important to take the opposite view. Think of speaking as an opportunity rather than a necessary but unpleasant job that has to be done. Think of speaking as fun. Think of speaking as a kind of challenging game or sport, like any other game or sport—a challenge, not unlike golf or tennis, that involves 1 a knowledge of how to play the game; 2 learned skills; 3 good timing; 4 correct moves; and 5 yes, practice and discipline.
Think of yourself as worthy, admirable, capable, and not in the least bit shy about grabbing opportunity to secure the success in life you desire because you know no one else is going to do it for you. When I talk about opportunity, I mean opportunity in two ways. I mean the opportunity of gaining the advantage in any business relationship, negotiation, transaction, or speaking assignment. We know that the articulate, well- organized, thoughtful, and forceful player will fare better. But I'm also talking about actively seeking opportunities to practice your new skills learned in this book.
That means start by seeking low-risk audiences to hone your skills. Each day some 80, people speak on any number of different subjects across the United States. They speak in libraries, community centers, clubs, hotels, motels, churches, and other places where people assemble. They talk on whatever they know: photography, orchids, computer programming, cooking, solar energy, the paranormal. Once you have learned the basics of speaking from this book, it might not hurt to join a platform organization like Toastmasters International—regardless of whether you have further opportunity to speak on the job.
The more practice the better. Toastmasters and others can give you an opportunity to practice, plus find low-risk speaking engagements where you not only can learn the game but can learn to have fun playing it and afford to make a few mistakes. Once you learn to command the room and influence the audience, you won't have any trouble convincing yourself that your new sport really is a thrill.
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