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How to Foster Open Communication in Meetings

How to Foster Open Communication in Meetings

Editor’s note: Given Bespoken’s dedication to helping people communicate with purpose, we are thrilled this week to welcome guest blogger, Tai Tsao, from Meeteor.  Meeteor is an innovative platform helping teams meet mission through effective workplace communication.  Enjoy!

Do your employees speak freely in meetings? Do they feel their voices are heard and valued?

Everyone on your team brings unique perspectives based on their professional and personal experiences. If your organization does not provide a safe environment for open communication, you could be missing valuable insights.

As a meeting leader, you want to establish a culture of open communication in meetings. But first, how do you know whether your team feels safe to speak up?

What does an unsafe meeting environment look like?

I’ve observed a range of company cultures – from dysfunctional to thriving – in my work as an organization development consultant. Here are some common communication behaviors of people when they feel they can’t share honestly in meetings. People might:

  • Hold back their thoughts so when you ask for input, you get silence.
  • Fight too hard for their ideas, act defensively, and/or not listen to each other, which can lead to talking over each other.
  • Censor their opinions in order to conform, resulting in verbal or silent agreement.
  • Hold “real” conversations after the meeting while making “loaded” eye contact during meetings.
  • Avoid making eye contact or speaking up.

It turns out people are hard-wired to act conservatively around authority. Business and management professors James R. Detert at the University of Virginia and Ethan R. Burris at the University of Texas at Austin conclude that “a fear of consequences (embarrassment, isolation, low performance ratings, lost promotions) and a sense of futility (the belief that saying something won’t make a difference, so why bother?)” are the main inhibitors to candor at work. In their studies, they found that when employees can express their thoughts openly, organizations achieve stronger performance and higher retention.

At Meeteor, we’re on a mission to help teams create a positive team culture in which everyone can contribute their best and thrive. We consolidated the following steps to help teams combat this behavior bias and reap the benefits of open communication in meetings and the workplace.

Step #1. Define open communication in meetings with your team.

Think about a time you participated in a meeting that provided a safe environment for honest discussion. What did it look like?  Then ask your team the same question. Don’t force people to share their thoughts if they’re resistant; rather, find other ways to gather this information and (re)build a candid company culture.

Initiate offline, informal conversation to understand what your team really thinks.

Connect with people individually or in small groups outside of more formal meetings. Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations, recommends proactively seeking feedback in casual, informal settings, such as lunch or coffee chats. An attitude of curiosity and a genuine desire to understand team members’ concerns will aid this connection.

Gather anonymous feedback.

If people are not comfortable speaking with you individually, try other ways to gather feedback. Ask people to write down ideas on sticky notes. Your team can look at the notes together and identify common themes. Or, you can just gather the feedback and report back. Another way is to create an anonymous online survey for people to answer.

Don’t expect change right away.

If this is your first attempt to establish open communication in meetings, or if the team size is small (making it more likely you’ll know who said what), you may not immediately get honest feedback. Don’t give up. It can take time to build trust. Let your team know that you are prioritizing honest communication.

Step #2. Share your learnings and invite responses.

Once you’ve gathered information from individuals, share your learnings with the team to generate actionable next steps. Respect individuals’ privacy by not disclosing who said what.

Model the behavior when you share your observation.

The way you share your observations will model to the team that you welcome different ideas and even difficult conversations. How you deliver the message is as important as the message itself; your vocal tone and body language influence how your message is received.

Share your observation with warmth and welcoming voice. You can say something like, “I’m noticing that there may be ideas that aren’t being shared in our meetings. I’ve talked to people individually and received XYZ feedback. I would like us to have a culture of open communication in meetings and wonder what we can do to encourage this.”

Reflect on the learning as a group.

Team members may be hesitant at first to participate in this discussion but give them time to think about their responses. Use the following questions to guide the team:

  • What benefits might we experience from including diverse perspectives?
  • What will the team lose if great ideas are not surfaced in our discussion?
  • What are the ways we can create a safe environment for open and honest communication?
  • What are the new norms our team can embrace to sustain open communication in meetings?

It may take several meetings and some follow-up communication to shift the trust of the team, but the rewards will justify the effort.

Step #3. Take actions based on your team’s suggestions and start implementing quick wins

Implement your team’s feedback as soon as possible to show them you are serious about building open communication in meetings. Here are some strategies that can help to consistently bring candid voices into the room.

TIP #1. Establish and rotate the “challenger” role in meetings.

Make “raising issues or concerns” in meetings a norm. Some teams create a “challenger” role, or “devil’s advocate” as a way to challenge group think and raise unpopular ideas. According to Detert, “It’s a good way to show that this process of putting things on the table is everybody’s job. And everybody does it without consequence.” You can start by inviting people who are more comfortable with this role to give it a try. It helps others see this behavior in action and feel more confident to speak up.

TIP #2. Ask participants to write down their ideas and follow with a round-robin sharing.

To create an inclusive meeting environment, you want everyone’s voice heard in meetings. After posing a question for discussion, give participants a moment to quietly reflect and write down their ideas, and then go around the room so everyone shares. Everyone comes up with their own ideas without feeling pressure to conform to the ideas of others. Everyone participates, further democratizing the meeting process.

Step #4. Build off of your successes

Once you establish some quick wins, ride the momentum and introduce the concept of norms to create lasting change. Here are some example norms you can establish in your team meetings:

  • Ask clarifying questions to avoid making incorrect assumptions.
  • Make sure everyone’s voice is heard.
  • Balance your participation – speak and listen.
  • Listen actively to teammates without interrupting others.
  • Say it now, in the room. Avoid waiting till later to raise an issue.
  • All voices count. All opinions are valid, but offer reasoning behind your thinking.

Step #5. Reflect and iterate

Once you begin implementing practices that facilitate open communication, make sure you schedule time to review them and adjust the approaches accordingly. Improving communication is an ongoing process and adapting to a new way of working takes time. Having regular team review meetings creates a space for your team to celebrate what you’ve achieved and identify areas for improvement.

Like any relationship, it can take time to establish trust. A meeting leader must be patient and consistently model an attitude which welcomes open communication. When a meeting leader is transparent with her team, the team is more likely to reciprocate with honest feedback.

Ready to build a work culture that supports open communication? Share this article to let your team know. Follow the #ThrivingTeams conversation on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook!

 

Tai Tsao is leading change management efforts at Meeteor. Meeteor helps mission-driven teams build a thriving team culture, develop effective meeting practices, and achieve greater impact through programs and technology. Tai is driven to help individuals, teams, and organizations transform the way they work. Tai holds a Master’s degree in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University.

Avoiding Job Interviews? Follow these tips from actors to put yourself out there and land the job

Avoiding Job Interviews? Follow these tips from actors to put yourself out there and land the job

Actors have job interviews nearly every day—they just call them auditions. We can learn a thing or two from the audition process to help make job interviews a bit more bearable. 

Whether you’ve just graduated or are returning to the job market after some time, job interviews can be harrowing. We all know people who’ve stayed in jobs they don’t like just to avoid the interview process altogether. But when the time comes, it’s essential to put yourself out there. And no one has more experience with that than actors.

Actors have practiced and perfected the art of owning the room and rolling with the punches. They are experts at dealing with rejection. Acting is perhaps the only profession where you interview for jobs more than you do the actual work. What can we learn from the process of auditioning, which some actors do hundreds of times a year?

How do deal with performance anxiety in interviews

Like all things, the more you interview the easier it gets. Still, very few of us relish the opportunity to walk into a room and feel judged for our experience and capabilities.

There’s plenty of articles out there with tips and tricks to help you ace your interview, but very few prepare you for the onslaught of in-the-moment self-doubt that can spiral out of control and cause you to say the wrong thing.

Actors train so they can get out of their heads and into their bodies. Practice embodied cognition—feel your feet on the floor and make eye contact. Whether or not you meditate, bring your attention to the sensation of your breath going in and out of your body.

All of these techniques will help you focus on the person in front of you and not the negative self-talk that may be spiraling in your mind.

How to prepare and practice for interviews

Many people think that actors are naturally natural but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. We’ve known actors to have some of the worst cases of social anxiety out there. The difference is that they spend hours rehearsing and preparing for moments that make them uneasy. In fact, the general rule of thumb is to rehearse one full hour for each page of text in a play. Imagine if we put that type of preparation into our most important interactions!

First, set an intention or a goal for each interview—and make that objective about the company you are interviewing with or even the interviewer. Helping the company reach their goal, or making the interviewer feel inspired will reframe the interview experience and take the focus off of you, which relieves pressure.

Next, choose 2-3 questions you will likely be asked and prepare answers for them. Make a list of bullet points for each answer rather than scripting—then spend 20-30 minutes practicing these responses. Interviewing is improv, after all!

The best part is, you will likely use these responses in one way or another at your next interview. Practicing for the specificity of one interview carries over into all other opportunities to talk about your experience and skills.

How to make a connection with the interviewer

First, be strategic with setting up the logistics of your interview (sometimes, timing really is everything). And, of course, be extremely courteous with everyone you interact with, from the scheduler to the person at the front desk when you check in. But what do you do if you walk into a cold room, or if the team has just returned from lunch and the food coma hasn’t worn off?

Actors know how to stay the course. When you perform a play eight times a week, you get used to the subtle fluctuations between audiences and learn not to get derailed by an audience who laughs one night and is silent the next. It’s best to not beat yourself up (or the interviewers!) for a less than ideal vibe in the room. Bring yourself to the present moment and deal with what is in front of you, not how you wish the room would respond.

If you are being interviewed by a panel, pick the person who is the warmest of the bunch and put your focus on them while still acknowledging everyone in the room. Another technique is to mirror the energy of the room without sacrificing positivity. If the level of energy you are getting is a 5 out of 10, match that energy but remain connected and present. This may allow the interviewers to come towards you, rather than you trying to fill the gap, which can make you feel depleted.

Why emotional intelligence is key to personal and professional success.

Why emotional intelligence is key to personal and professional success.

Emotional Intelligence (also known as EQ or EI) is a highly valued business communication skill.  How can you assess and increase your own EQ?

Daniel Goleman’s 1996 groundbreaking book, Emotional Intelligence Why It Can Matter More Than IQ takes a comprehensive look at why some people with exceptionally high IQs are unable to attain success in their personal and professional lives.  Goleman and his co-authors posit that in order to truly excel, a person needs not only book smarts but emotional smarts as well. 

Many following the job market acknowledge that candidates with strong emotional intelligence are more attractive hires.  People with high emotional intelligence make better leaders, better managers, and better colleagues. For a comprehensive deep-dive into the topic check out, “EQ and the Future of Work,” by Advance Systems.

“Today companies worldwide routinely look through the lens of EI in hiring, promoting, and developing their employees.”-Daniel Goleman

So what is EQ and how do I know if I have it?

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to achieve our goals through recognizing our emotions and the emotions of others. This is in order to guide our behavior and adapt to our environment.  Interested in formally assessing your EQ?  There are several tests available online (some charge a fee). Check out Psychology Today, Greater Good Magazine (published by UC Berkeley), and Yale University.  

A healthy dose of self-reflection is also an effective way to rate your EQ abilities.

Assess your emotional self-awareness.  How good are you at acknowledging how you’re really feeling?  The pressure to project outwardly that everything is fine can often lead to bottling our true emotions.

Admit whether emotions stemming from one particular situation are influencing exchanges with others in your life.   Could the disagreement you had with your boyfriend on the way out the door this morning be the real reason you were short with your colleague during morning staff meeting?

Acknowledge your ability to be socially aware.  When you walk into a room can you sense the ‘vibe’?  Think beyond walking into a library or movie theater and automatically lowering your voice so as not to disturb others.  It necessitates taking a look around the room to assess people’s emotional state of mind.  Are they relaxed or tense?  Happy or anxious?

Understand your ability to employ empathy. There is distinct (and important) difference between showing someone empathy vs. sympathy.  It boils down to how well you are able to truly understand how you would feel and act if posed with the same circumstances as someone else.

How can I strengthen my EQ skills?

Identify a recurring interaction you have at work.  Such as weekly supervision with someone who reports to you or your team check-in.  Observe those you’re meeting with closely.  Note any physical cues they are giving off.  Is their body language closed or open?  Is their energy calm and focused?  Or disjointed and erratic?  Based on what you intuit adjust your actions accordingly.  If they seem frazzled ask them if they need to take a moment before beginning in order to focus themselves.  

It’s also worth checking to if your company offers reimbursement for professional development.  You may be pleasantly surprised to find there are resources at your disposal you didn’t know about.  Hiring a communication coach or taking a class to hone your EQ skills is a great investment in skills that will serve you in all aspects of your life, personally and professionally.

Finally, I love from Roots of Action: “Emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence. It is not the triumph of heart over head.  It is the unique intersection of both.”

Free Your Voice (and the rest will follow): This Independence Day, liberate your voice.

Free Your Voice (and the rest will follow): This Independence Day, liberate your voice.

This July 4th, let’s talk about freedom of speech. Are you using your voice to get what you want, or is your voice holding you back? Follow these tips to free your voice. 

Our tagline at Bespoken is Own Your Voice”. For some, that means knowing what you want to say. For someone else, it means practicing how to say it. It can mean not feeling censored or oppressed, or feeling heard and vindicated. Knowing how to use your voice and own it is essential to public speaking and having effective communication skills. Is your voice serving you or undermining you? When communicating, is your voice is in sync with your thoughts and feelings, or are you swimming upstream? It may be time to free your voice.

Here, I share my own story in finding, freeing and, eventually, owning my voice. It’s a constant journey and I learn every day. I hope it is helpful in your own process towards vocal liberation.

Finding My Voice

As a kid, I had crippling social anxiety. I had plenty of close friends but in groups, I would clam up and couldn’t be myself. But as a theater kid, I could be whoever I wanted to be onstage.  I could play a role. There were rules we all had to follow, and they even told me what words to say. It was heavenly.

Even when I started directing theater, I played the role of theater director. The problem was that between shows, I lost my identity. That meant that I rarely took breaks between shows, often double booking myself and working 14-16 hour days all the time. In a rehearsal room, I knew who I was, but I lost my sense of self once I got out of my comfort zone. Being interviewed by the press or meeting with producers was harrowing. I didn’t own my voice and I didn’t know how to find it.

I was hiding behind my role as a theater director. It was time to leave my comfort zone and take a conscious break from theater. What happened after surprised me. Instead of going back to theater, my lifelong love, I became an entrepreneur instead. I found my voice through helping others free theirs. Helping others helped me help myself.

Freeing My Voice

We weren’t taught how to interact with others. We think it should come naturally, but for me, I needed a technique to help me connect with others in a meaningful and authentic way.

Inside Out

Before I could look outside of myself and connect with others, I had to look inward.  I needed to practice vulnerability and connection. For the first time, I started meditating and spending time alone. My father was a lifelong meditator, and we had dabbled in it in acting school, but I always thought I was supposed to turn off my thoughts before being able to “do it right”. Since that was impossible, I always felt like a failure. I started using Headspace, an app which taught me that meditation is not about getting rid of thoughts. There is no “doing it right”. Instead, it’s about not judging yourself for having the thoughts in the first place. That is the practice.

I read The Artist’s Way and took myself on dates alone. For the first time ever, I was asking myself what I wanted to do and I would do it. And yes, sometimes that meant being lazy and not doing anything. I started writing in the morning, which was cringeworthy at first, but helped me hear myself for the first time. My wants, needs and goals became clearer once I was able to listen amidst all the noise.

Outside In

Once I was able to listen to myself without judgment (a constant struggle to this day), I could begin to look outward. In safe situations, I practiced connecting and letting down my guard. I practiced vulnerability by not filling the silences and by allowing myself to be quiet with others. It was extremely uncomfortable but I slowly got more comfortable in the discomfort. I made big physical changes, like dying my hair platinum and changing my wardrobe. Embracing Embodied Cognition made me feel more confident because I would appear more confident which would in turn made me feel more confident.

Owning My Voice

Communication is a muscle and like any skill, the more you do it the easier it gets. Before now I had been avoiding situations that made me feel uncomfortable. I was always terrified that I would spark a panic attack, and when you constantly live in a place of fear it’s impossible to be present and connect with others. I started going to networking events nearly nightly, which happened to coincide with Jackie and I starting this company. The simple act of taking ownership over my fears helped me to move through them, instead of constantly avoiding them.

This Independence Day, I hope you begin the journey towards vocal liberation. Your process for finding, freeing and owning your voice will differ from mine but we all start from the same place: Acknowledging that we are not alone and recognizing that there is something we can do to take ownership over the way we interact in the world.

A woman struggling with being interrupted at work? Handle it with these tips.

A woman struggling with being interrupted at work? Handle it with these tips.

If you find yourself being interrupted by your male counterparts at work here are a few active tips to help your voice be heard.

Last week’s NYT article about, “The universal phenomenon of men interrupting women” really hit home.  We hear from many of our female clients that they struggle to be heard over their male counterparts.  Seeing Senator Kamala Harris battle being interrupted by her colleagues while questioning Jeff Sessions proves no one is immune.  Much ink has been devoted to dissecting why this happens.  Some articles that are worth a read here, here, and here.  So it’s definitely a thing.  That happens a lot.  What can you do?

EMPLOY SHINE THEORY.

Having your idea shot down only to have a male colleague pass it off as their own later in the same meeting = FRUSTRATING.  Also sometimes referred to as “amplification”.  It involves women repeating each other’s ideas during a meeting to help ensure they are heard.  It also can aide in preventing other men from claiming the ideas as their own.  So ladies, circle up before that next staff meeting and strategize in advance!  (For more of a deep dive on Shine Theory take a listen to the interview Leah and I did with Mavenly’s Women, Work + Worth podcast.)

ESTABLISH YOUR BOUNDARY UPFRONT.

Before sharing your comment it can help to articulate your desire (and right) to finish your thought to the entire room.  This will help avoid creating an uncomfortable situation by singling out the culprit in front of everyone else.  This is especially helpful to have in your back pocket if you’re going into a meeting with someone who has interrupted you repeatedly in the past.  Preface offering your idea with a version of the following.  “I’ve been thinking a lot about this particular issue and I ask that you hear out my entire idea before responding.”

ASK FOR WHAT YOU NEED.  

Chances are if you are constantly being interrupted you are not facilitating the meeting with the offender(s) in question.  Find a quiet moment to speak confidently with the person who is. Communicate your frustration and ask for their help diffusing any interruptions in the moment.  Sometimes we feel others should inherently understand what we need instead of explicitly asking for it. You may surprised to find your boss or team leader hadn’t even noticed the issue. Oh and people like being asked for their help.

AVOID UPSPEAK & DROPPING THE ENDS OF YOUR SENTENCES.

‘Upspeak’ refers to phrasing a declarative thought as a question.  You’re essentially going up in tone at the end of your sentence when sharing a definitive opinion or idea.  It’s a way we assert ourselves when we want to seem amenable and non-threatening. It’s also a surefire way to detract from your power.  Conversely, dropping your volume at the end of your sentence results in the same effect (and emanates from the same place of self-doubt). Own your voice!  Finish your thought with authority and conviction.

BREATHE.

Being thrown off mid-thought is a deeply nerve wracking experience.  If (or when) it happens take a moment to take a breathe, center yourself, and recalibrate your thoughts.  Dwelling on the fact you were just interrupted throughout the rest of the meeting is a waste of your focus and energy.  Let the moment pass (you’ll effectively deal with it later using the awesome tips you now know about above!) and soldier on. Don’t give your interrupter more power by letting them disrupt your thoughts as well.

Finally, suffering in silence helps no one-least of all you!  Share your challenges with us @bespokenNY.  Or drop us an a line and let us know about your experiences trying out any of the above tips.

Small Talk: Follow these tips to transform any interaction from dreaded to productive

Small Talk: Follow these tips to transform any interaction from dreaded to productive

We dread small talk but we don’t have to. Transform small talk into a welcome opportunity with these tips.

You dial into a conference call right on time. It’s just you and another person on the line, and you’re waiting for two more. Your anxiety rises, and you bring up the weather to fill the silence.  “Is it spring yet in Chicago? Here in New York…” it feels fake and forced. Despite your best intentions, you feel trapped by small talk. That’s no way to start any interaction!

Most people despise small talk but I think it gets a bad rap. We don’t want to feel inauthentic. We are not comfortable with silence. We feel pressure to make the interaction work, when in reality, that’s a two person job. How can we feel more in control of these interactions without avoiding them all together?

For introverts especially, it’s essential to transform small talk from a dreaded nuisance to an opportunity to begin a new relationship—even if it’s one that only lasts for 30 seconds.

Here are tips to avoid feeling inauthentic when faced with small talk:

Think Up Topics

Whether you’re heading into a networking event or a wedding, it’s likely you’ll be chatting with someone new. Think of a few relevant topics you can bring up if you feel cornered in an interaction. What new TV shows are you watching, or are you taking a trip sometime soon? People love to talk about themselves so ask questions and go beyond the weather.

“It’s Not You…”

We feel pressure to perform in small talk situations. Reframe the experience and make it all about the person you’re talking to. Focus on making them feel comfortable. Make eye contact and remember their name.  Remember that if you’re uncomfortable so are they. Practice getting more comfortable with being uncomfortable and less afraid of silence.

Make an Exit

The interaction will not last forever (promise!) and it’s okay for you to decide that it is over. Rather than making up an excuse to go to the other side of the room—and then avoiding that person until the end of the night—make a solid exit. “It’s been nice talking to you—I hope you enjoy the rest of the event” is acceptable and respectable when the time has come. It shows you value the interaction and the time spent together and gives you an out as well.

Why Finding Comfort in the Discomfort is Key to Confident Public Speaking

Why Finding Comfort in the Discomfort is Key to Confident Public Speaking

The phrase ‘old habits die hard’ exists for a reason. Especially when it comes to confident public speaking.

Making the decision to actively change your communication style can be daunting.  Even so, you’re ready to commit to making a change.  Maybe you’ve reached this point on your own.  Or a subtle suggestion from a colleague or friend that did the trick.  Or a not-so-subtle suggestion from your boss.  Regardless, you’re committed to doing what it takes to achieve your new public speaking style.Yet undoing old habits is difficult.  And changing how you speak when speaking publicly can feel counterintuitive to the way you’ve always known.  

So how can you overcome these uncomfortable sensations? And avoid them derailing you from achieving your communication goal? Acknowledge that different doesn’t equal bad.

A few weeks ago, a quirky client with a goofy sense of humor was preparing for a high-stakes pitch to potential investors. I encouraged her to employ a more direct and confident tone. She expressed concern that delivering her pitch in this manner felt “false”. And what’s more, seemed imprudent. Why would she want to purposely exclude the part of her personality that she found ingratiated her to many people?

After successfully explaining how self-deprecating quips and unrehearsed comic relief could easily backfire(!) we spoke at length about finding comfort in the discomfort.  In other words, communicating differently in order to effectively get what you want may feel like “not being yourself” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Awkward sure.  But an important indicator that you’re actively working on implementing the change you set out to achieve.

Maybe you are often complimented on your warm and easy-going nature.  Or lauded for your ability to quietly and deeply focus on a task.  Yet these same characteristics that make you ‘you’ may not serve you when public speaking.  And letting go of them can be uncomfortable.

Most detrimental public speaking habits tend to rise to the surface making them easier to identify and correct.  

Some that come immediately to mind: overuse of hand gestures.  Employing unnecessary fillers such as, “like” and “sort of. Formulating a response before the other person has finished sharing their thought. But for many of us, beneath these superficial facets of our communication style live characteristics deeply rooted to our sense of self.  Which can be linked to powerfully potent feelings such as fear and our sense of self-worth.  Examples include the sound of your own voice. Making direct eye contact to invite your audience’s gaze.  The cadence and pace of your speech.  Even something as simple as standing up straight when speaking publicly can trigger feelings of intense vulnerability.

In his recent article for Forbes, “Communicating Effectively In Times of Change,” David Villa shines a light on the importance of a strong sense of self when working to lead external change. “I believe that all great leaders possess an understanding of their own behavior [and an] understanding of their own thoughts and feelings. I feel strongly that the same holds true with internal, self-propelled change as well.

Embracing the sound of your voice as it fills the room, slowing down and giving your audience time to absorb your ideas – can trigger discomfort.  Reminding yourself that this discomfort is not bad but quite the opposite is important.  It’s proof that you are doing the hard work required to replace longstanding bad habits with good ones and are taking control of the impression you want to make.

 

 

Why doing theater makes you a better communicator and a stronger leader

Why doing theater makes you a better communicator and a stronger leader

Photo: Neil Magnuson and Harold Lehmann in The Resurrection of George (photo by Katie Kline)

At Bespoken, we come from the theater. Learn how theatrical experience makes you a stronger communicator, a better listener and a more effective leader. 

Before Bespoken, Jackie and I devoted most of our time to bringing theater to non-traditional places and voices. I spent years directing plays in basements of bars in Brooklyn. Jackie spent her time helping non-profits and students amplify their voices through the arts.

Theater is a great way to practice thinking on your feet and making a connection. It flexes the muscles of public speaking, storytelling, and intuition. Whether or not you intend to ever take the stage, experience in the theater makes you a stronger communicator. It can even make you a better leader.

“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” – Ira Glass

Storytelling is the most effective way to get ideas out into the world. And scientific evidence backs this up. Paul Zak’s research proved that when the brain produces oxytocin (which happens when we hear stories), people are more “trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate.” Research shows that after a presentation, 63% of the audience remembers stories while only 5% remember statistics. Playwrights constantly edit their stories to make them more efficient and actors then have a daily audience on which to test it out and pivot in order to make their storytelling more effective.  Takeaway: Theater is the quickest way to hone your storytelling skills on the page and on the stage, giving you immediate feedback from a live audience—and invaluable resource.

“At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of you intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.” – Alan Alda

If an actor has one job, it is to explore and exert empathy. In rehearsal, actors examine and uncover a character’s intentions, backgrounds, motivations and objectives. And if it’s not immediately clear in the text, they use their imagination to dream it up. Understanding a character (even an unlikeable one) and portraying them truthfully onstage is no small feat. The magic of live theater means that actors continue to explore the limits of their own empathy with an audience in the room every single night. And because anything can change at a moment’s notice we have to listen—to our fellow actors, to the audience, to ourselves. The fate of the play depends on it. Takeaway: Practice active listening and being in someone else’s shoes to build intuition, a necessary skill for any leader.   

“Please use your voice. Refuse to be silenced. Make the work. Turn your rage into action. Find your inspiration. Find your resistance and resilience. Hold it close. Get loud.” — Leigh Silverman

In theater school, we train our voices and bodies to be receptive. Passionate emotion is available—not because it is forced but because the actor knows how to access it in a truthful way. We build our voices to be able to fill a 500-seat theater and work our bodies to be malleable, depending on a character’s needs. We know how to be heard, and how to make a point as effectively as possible. Takeaway: Work with a vocal coach or take a movement workshop to flex these muscles, grow your voice and own any room you walk into.  

“No mistakes can be made during rehearsals, only progress toward what works best.” — Jim Jarmusch

Actors practice practicing—that’s all rehearsal is. Rehearsal is where preparation meets collaboration. Actors rehearse to be truthful, so that when they get onstage (the least natural environment of all) nothing can go wrong. They have prepared for every possible scenario, and a good director makes sure of it. Takeaway: The technique of preparation and the discipline of rehearsal are transferable skills, whether you are practicing for a keynote speech, preparing for a team meeting or having a challenging conversation with an employee. 

“The only safe thing is to take a chance.” — Mike Nichols

The first rule of improv is to say “Yes”. Another improv rule is to make statements, not ask questions. Improv is about getting comfortable not knowing what comes next. It’s a safe space to practice being in charge while also being collaborative and positive. Improv helps you improve communication, self-confidence and projecting yourself as a leader. It’s why improv classes for professionals have been so popular in the past few years. Takeaway: If you have trouble thinking on your feet or speaking off-the-cuff in meetings, throw yourself in the deep-end and take an improv class. 

So, flex your theatrical muscles, even if you never intend to take the stage. Take an improv class, write a screenplay, or work with a coach. And let us know how it goes!

Sales Speak: How to use communication to close the deal

Sales Speak: How to use communication to close the deal

What is the cost of bad communication in sales? Follow these tips to use clear, concise communication when closing the deal. 

Whether you’re a rep on a sales team, a small business owner courting clients or an entrepreneur pitching your product, odds are you have something to sell.

Since the 1970s, most job growth has been in the service industry. Before that time, most jobs were in manufacturing. Communication and presentation skills are essential in these client-facing situations. And yet, so few people receive training to improve professional communication skills.

First, it’s important to understand how customers make buying decisions. Seventy-one percent of the population bases it’s buying decisions on believability and trust. Seventy percent of people make purchasing decisions to solve problems whereas thirty percent make decisions to gain something. If you’ve got something to sell, it should solve a problem, and you should be believable and trustworthy.

Ninety-eight percent of top salespeople identify relationships as the most important factor in generating new business. We’ve been working with sales teams all over the country and those who know sales agree: You cannot be a good sales rep without strong communication skills. Empathy, confidence, clarity, presence and preciseness are all necessary traits. So, how can you cultivate these qualities and translate them to the sales process?

Prepare and practice

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Map out the sales call in advance in the shape of an agenda—and frame the call for your customer at the top of the conversation. Knowing that you are going to tell them about your service, and then ask them about their needs, before talking prices and process helps you set expectations and helps your client feel in control. Expect, prepare for, and overcome objections—even putting a few minutes aside to think these objections through will set you up to succeed.

Ninety-three percent of communication is non-verbal (on the phone, tone is 86% of our communication). So, practicing your delivery is key. Have an audience-focus and think about how you want to make the customer feel (it will help take the focus off of yourself). And focus on selling yourself, not your product or service. You are the key differentiator from your competitors—knowing your competition and being able to articulate how you are different will help you stand out.

Listen actively 

When someone feels heard, it is indiscernible to feeling loved. This is a powerful tool, considering that most purchases are emotional ones. If you’re in person, make eye contact, ask thoughtful questions without interrupting, and be physically present. Follow this formula when talking to a potential client: 100% of all talking = 75% from the client + 25% the salesperson. 100% of all listening = 75% the salesperson + 25% the client.

Say what you mean 

Seventy-nine percent of communicators say they use too much jargon.  Record your pitch and pay attention to words that are industry-specific. Most likely, your client will not fully understand what it means, or it may even turn them off. Remove jargon from your language and practice saying the words you mean to say. Keep it “stupid-simple” and you’ll be helping your client feel like the product or service is crafted just for them.

Paint a mental picture

Visuals are processed 60,000 times faster in the brain than text. When speaking to your client, paint a mental picture or tell a story—they’re more likely to feel connected to what you are saying. And follow up with visual marketing materials that back up the necessity of the product or service you are selling. It will help them remember you and your story longer.

Follow through

Gaining a new customer costs six times more than it does to keep an existing customer.  When you satisfy a disgruntled customer and resolve his or her issue, that customer will typically spend 10 times as much money on future purchases than he or she did on the initial purchase. Nurture your relationships. Spot problems early, and solve them. If your customers feel valued they will value you in return.