professional communication skills

Home / Posts tagged "professional communication skills"
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.



Conquer Your Public Speaking Fear in the New Year

Conquer Your Public Speaking Fear in the New Year

A Practical Guide for How to Speak in Public 

You stand up to speak. Your mouth is dry, your heart is beating out of your chest, and you can’t think straight. Many people avoid public speaking all together—in fact, 74% of us are terrified of it and many prefer death to the thought addressing an audience.

It makes sense. Not too long ago, you could be exiled for saying something disagreeable to your fellow humans, and you would be 26% more likely to die if that happened. It’s no wonder then that public speaking triggers our fight-or-flight response.

Just because public speaking makes you feel like you’re about to die doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it (promise!). The key is not to eliminate nerves—that’s setting yourself up for failure. Instead, institute a system that puts you in the driver’s seat of your own voice and makes you feel in control.

We believe that great speakers are made, not born. If you have never spoken in public (or if you have and it didn’t go well) making the decision to overcome your fear is step number one.

In January of last year, Na’ilah Amaru made a decision to overcome her fear of public speaking. Seven months after coming to Bespoken, she addressed the nation onstage at the Democratic National Convention to introduce Hillary Clinton with poise, power and precision.

Na’ilah exceeded her expected goal but we recommend starting small—public speaking doesn’t have to mean addressing a crowd at a podium on national television. It can be speaking up in a meeting, introducing yourself at a networking event, or pitching to a group of investors. Choose a speaking engagement that is achievable and set yourself up to succeed.  Schedule a meeting, apply to a pitch night, or sign up to speak at a community board meeting.

Overwhelmed? Break it down

Deciding to speak in public is a big step so pat yourself on the back! It’s a huge undertaking, and one that takes preparation and practice. Creating a plan for yourself moves public speaking from the scary abstract to the doable specific. Break the process down into actionable steps as much as possible. Here’s a suggested starting point:

Identify your audience

Are you addressing eager students or seasoned executives? Understanding your audience helps you pinpoint their needs, which takes the focus off of you.

Name your objective

Specify what you want your intended audience to do immediately after hearing you speak. Do you want them to hire you? Go to your website? Buy your product? Sign up for your newsletter? Be specific!

Familiarize yourself with the environment

Will you be onstage, in a boardroom or in an elevator?  How big is the room and will there be a microphone? Envisioning the space during the preparation process is essential to success.

See content creation as a journey

Knowing what you want to say takes time. Jot down some ideas and let it soak for a few days. Create an outline of bulleted items you want to include. Perfection is the enemy of good and speaking is dynamic so don’t finalize anything!


We know that practice is essential and yet, we avoid it and wing it anyway. Deciding to actually work on it sets you up to succeed. Your goal should not be to get it right but instead to practice so you can’t get it wrong. Don’t expect to hit it out of the park the first time you stand to speak it out loud. It’ll be messy, and that’s the point: You’re figuring it out!

Harness nerves

The only thing to fear is fear itself, and fearing nerves gives them power. Accept that nerves are a part of the process. Ask others what their reactions are to public speaking and you’ll find that most people experience similar physical sensations, making you feel less alone. They may call it adrenaline and you may call it anxiety but it’s all the same. Speak it out while running on a treadmill to get comfortable in the discomfort.

Seek feedback

Don’t let the event itself be the first time you do it. Join Toastmasters or ask a trusted friend to come be an outside eye. Better yet, stage a test run in the safety of your own home and welcome constructive criticism on your turf.

Be present

Presence onstage is the exchange of energy, so make connecting with your audience your primary goal. Make eye contact. Breathe. Be in your body. Know that nothing can go wrong because you have prepared.

Still overwhelmed? Break it down even more, and most importantly, make the plan your own. You know yourself better than anyone and you will only succeed if you feel ownership over the process.

Managing Up: How to Talk to Your Boss

Managing Up: How to Talk to Your Boss

What is Managing Up and how can it boost your professional communication skills?

Working for someone who doesn’t communicate effectively can be tricky.  Maybe your boss is passive-aggressive.  Or she gives you feedback at 10pm the night before your presentation that you asked her to look at weeks ago.  Since it’s in your best interest to forge a healthy relationship with your boss, what to do?  Enter the concept of ‘Managing Up’.   There are a lot of great articles out there on strategy for Managing Up effectively.  Two faves: What Everyone Should Know About Managing Up by the Harvard Business Review and Mashable’s Managing Up 101: How and When to Take Initiative at Work.  For our purposes, let’s assume you’ve identified the issue, have a strategy for how you’re going to address it, but find yourself at a loss for how to navigate the actual exchange. That’s where Bespoken comes in!

Circumstances Matter.

Throughout our work we underscore the belief that we each have our own unique communication style.  And that it’s important to understand our communication style so we can leverage it to our advantage in different professional and personal settings.  The same holds true for your boss.  Turn the tables and spend some time observing her communication style.  Is she more comfortable in formal settings or informal?  Does she prefer in-person meetings over conference calls?  Is she a good listener or does she have trouble holding focus during conversation?  Once you’ve identified the characteristics of her communication style you can begin to formulate your approach.

Let’s say you want to suggest a monthly interdepartmental meeting to discuss new business because you’ve seen a few potential clients slip through the cracks recently. But you anticipate your boss will bristle at yet another standing obligation on her calendar.  Think back to when she’s at her most receptive.  In casual conversation when packing up at the end of the day?  Over breakfast before the obligations of the workday begin?  Speaking to her in the right circumstance is almost as important as the conversation itself.

Now It’s Time to Manage Up

Whitney Johnson’s advice in Managing Up Without Sucking Up is spot-on when she says, “Understand what job your boss was hired to do.”  Follow a two-step approach: make your boss feel you understand her perspective and then speak your idea without apology: “I know your goal is to increase our bottom line in the 3rd quarter which means bringing in 10 new clients by June.  I believe we can handily achieve this goal if we devote more time to speaking about new leads as an entire department. Wednesdays seem to be your lightest day.  Would you be open to meeting for 30 minutes the first Wednesday of the month as a department to speak about new business?”

Understanding how to manage up is a strategic business communication tool to master.  It can really work to your advantage when you find yourself in a challenging workplace dynamic. Have you managed up successfully or experienced a situation when it was called for?  We’d love to hear about it at: @bespokenNY.

Bespoken’s Year-in-Review: A Powerful Presence

Bespoken’s Year-in-Review: A Powerful Presence

It gives us tremendous joy and satisfaction to help you speak your story and be powerfully present.

This year, we helped hundreds of entrepreneurs, creatives, professionals and leaders improve communication and presentation skills.  Thank you to our clients and collaborators for choosing us to be a trusted outside eye in your personal and professional development. Here are just a few of the folks we helped to have presence this year:

We helped Barbara Bush and her global staff at Global Health Corps communicate their vital mission to develop global health leaders.


We were chosen to be the official coaches for the Columbia Business School Public Speaking Association where we helped dozens of MBA students learn how to speak in public.


We taught at the Made in NY Media Center helping media tech entrepreneurs speak their story.


We helped the Hospital Services team at LiveOnNY communicate in life-or-death, high stakes environments.


We teamed up with Lisa Allison Pertoso to help women speak with intention and without apology. Stay tuned for our next collaboration with Lisa to be announced shortly!


We helped the board and staff of the anti-street harassment organization Hollaback! convey their mission with confidence.


We appeared on the Real Simple podcast, Adulthood Made Easy, to talk about how to find your voice and own it.

We can’t wait to see how you use your voice in the New Year.  Our training is customized for individuals and groups.  Get in touch and choose to BEspoken.

Office Politics: Talking about the election at work

Office Politics: Talking about the election at work

Is it still possible to keep politics out of the office? 

Your co-worker has had a skip in her step the past few weeks. You’ve disagreed over the years but you’ve agreed on one thing—to not talk politics at work. A client references the election, your co-worker smirks and your blood boils. You won’t make it four more days (let alone four years) in this environment.

The far-reaching implications of this particular election make it difficult to not talk politics in professional communication. It’s never been riskier (or more unavoidable) to talk about an election. More than a quarter of working Americans reported at least one negative outcome as a result of political discussions at work during this election season.

According to a VitalSmarts survey, 9 out of 10 people feel the 2016 elections are more polarizing and controversial than the 2012 elections and 1 in 4 say they’ve had a political discussion hurt a relationship. Ouch.

Talking politics at work right now is like walking into a minefield. It may be unavoidable, but these tips will optimize your chance of coming out unscathed:

Set the stage

Be intentional in setting up the conversation. Acknowledge the problem and invite your co-worker to have a discussion about it. Schedule it at a mutually convenient time (that may mean scheduling it in the future to let emotions settle). Set some parameters, which may include having another co-worker act as mediator.

Agree on ground rules

It’s your conversation and you should set some rules together. Discuss your desired outcome. Take breaks every 20 minutes. Decide to make eye contact. Pick a neutral space.  This helps build a productive environment before you start talking about the tough stuff.

Implement tools

We need tools when discussing politics in any situation and this is especially true at work. According to Harvard Business Review, with these four simple tools you are 5 times more likely to be seen as diplomatic, 4 times more likely to be seen as likable, 140% more persuasive and 180% more likely to maintain relationships with others: 1. Focus on learning and be curious about their perspective, 2. Ask for permission to have the conversation, 3. Over-communicate your respect for the other person and 4. Focus on common ground by looking for areas of agreement.

Share these tips with your co-worker so you are starting from the same place.  Let us know how it goes!

How to Master Public Speaking

How to Master Public Speaking

Last week, D.G. Watson got #BEspoken and showed you how to use meditation to overcome your fear of public speaking. Today, we’re sharing an infographic we received from Lydia Bailey, Content Coordinator over at Lydia created this infographic to help advanced degree students develop versatile professional skills, and we think it’s fantastic. What do you think?


From Lydia:

“For a lot of people, public speaking is worse than a death sentence. This graphic helps to explain why public speaking is so scary to certain individuals and ways to get over it. The fear of public speaking is known as “glossophobia”. Many Americans report they fear it more than heights, flying, drowning, and small spaces. Some people fear it from having past traumatic experiences with public speaking, such as being made fun of in school. Extreme cases can even be selective mutism, preventing the person from speaking at all in certain situations. Selective mutism can also be a social anxiety disorder affecting 1 in 8 children. Much of the anxiety associated with public speaking can be changed by the way a person thinks about it. The speaker needs to accept that a poor attempt does not mean that every public speaking engagement will go badly.”

FOX_0187Bespoken co-founders Leah Bonvissuto and Jackie Miller channel years of professional theater experience into training people to be better communicators and powerful speakers. Our work is customized, on-your-feet and interactive, and designed to improve communication and presentation skills, confidence, presence and emotional intelligence. Rooted in powerful yet practical theater techniques, we provide personalized, in-the-moment feedback to optimize retention and growth. We believe everyone has an innate ability to communicate powerfully and purposefully.