Get to the Point! How to Make Your Point Clearly and Memorably in any Meeting, Speech, or Interview

For years I have shared with my clients and students that the best way to know what you need to say in your speech is to understand what your audience needs to hear. Switch sides of the podium. Put yourself in your audience members’ seats and consider their perspective. What do you see that they don’t? How can they hear, absorb and digest your message comfortably? Through the years, I have realized that with just a bit of tweaking, you can use my format for reaching an audience for making a point in a meeting as well as in an interview. Let’s begin by reviewing my fail-safe method for making each key point in a presentation.

1. Affirm your point succinctly. Be bold. Make them think, “Gee, I never thought of it that way.” Be confident that your assessment will be new to them as they did not do all the research and reflection on the topic as you did. Nor do they have your angle on the material. Hence, you are going to see something in the subject matter that they do not. Key points naturally “wow” the audience.
2. Clarify or nuance your point. Spell out what you mean.
3. Illustrate your point. Give listeners a simple example to which they can easily relate.
4. Elaborate on the point. Tell them more. From your clarification and illustration they’re getting it and are poised to hear and absorb more.
5. Substantiate your point. There comes a time when a thoughtful listener will wonder, “How do you know this?” A skilled speaker is prepared to support his or her thoughts with data from dependable sources.
6. Reiterate your point. Realize that when folks are listening they do not have the opportunity to reread, review or rewind the message as with a book, DVD or recording. Effective speaking requires the repetition of key points.

Affirmation. Clarification. Illustration. Elaboration. Substantiation. Reiteration.

 

MEETINGS
The following is a sample of the above employed as a sales pitch by a wholesale footwear representative in a meeting with the buyer of women’s shoes in a major department store.

Affirmation:
This shoe collection is the magnet of the group.
Clarification: It will naturally pull in pedestrian traffic from the mall. Why? It’s rich in detail. This group is colorful and offers so much to look at and to touch.
Illustration: Buttons, buckles, bows, fabrics and flowers – this collection yells, “Try me on!”
Elaboration: Ladies ready-to-wear is simple this year and in these dreary economic times women are looking to perk up outfits with affordable novelties. My own sister shared that she is buying just a few solid-colored moderately priced dresses for work this season and spending most of her wardrobe budget on fun and flirty accessories. Footwear is first in spring accessories.
Substantiation: It’s like basketball Hall of Famer, John Wooden once said, “It’s the little details that are vital; little things make big things happen.”
Reiteration: Let this stylish collection be a magnet for new customers and one you can call your regulars about as well.

 

SPEECHES
The following is a sample of my fail-safe format applied in the body of a lengthier speech.

Affirmation: While no longer our main means of transport in civilian or military life, horses are still very much present in American society, culture and industry.

Clarification: We may not recognize their influence, acknowledge their contributions, or protest their exploitation, but horses are indeed still among us and imbedded in the fabric of American life in ordinary, profound, and even intimate ways.

Illustration:
Take for example, our common language, American English. Idiomatic English abounds with expressions from our relationship with horses as our partners in settling the American West. Ever describe yourself as “saddled” with responsibility? This derives from the heavy leather saddles we fashioned to hold us and our gear when traveling long distances, ranching and herding cattle while on horseback. Has a colleague try to “curry” favor with you? This derives from the use of the curry, a soft rubber or plastic comb with tiny teeth that loosens the dirt out of a horse’s coat and feels to them like a massage. Surely you’ve been told, “Don’t jerk me around!” If horses could talk they might exclaim that as well if we pull sharply on one rein; the horse will turn but that sudden jerky motion doesn’t fee l very good on its mouth and neck and there is a less aggravating and more productive way to get the horse to come around.

Elaboration:
Horses are with us in our daily lives in other more tangible ways as well. The average day in my own life reminds me of this. Soft, water-resistant hair from the horse’s mane is what makes up the make-up brush I use to apply my cosmetics and certainly the paintbrush used to apply the color on the walls in my home and office. When I hear the violins playing in a number of songs on my iPod during my morning run, I am reminded of and grateful for the bows that are strung with the coarse hair of horse tails. As I select an outfit for the day I can’t help but see the Polo ponies that have inspired an entire style of clothing and mark mine as designed by fashion icon Ralph Lauren. At that same moment I chuckle that horses are even on Madison Avenue – not just literally pulling the Hansom Cabs in New York City but in the advertising industry. You see, often as I am dressing for the day I look at my TV screen and see two horses pull a trailer out of the mud in a commercial for Viagra. This gets me thinking about all the horses who are actors in film as well as on television. Hollywood horses have appeared in small roles in movies as diverse as Animal House and The Godfather, worked as extras in Dances with Wolves and other epics and some even star in major motion pictures like Black Velvet, Sea Biscuit and My Friend Flicka.

Substantiation: Over four million Americans are involved through work or ownership with the more than nine million horses in the United States today. Ironically, it is the large industries of horse racing and pharmaceuticals that may offer our most personal connection to equines. Jobs and livelihoods are reliant on the horse racing business through the associated enterprises of breeding, training, insurance and gambling. These account for multi-billion dollar contributions to the economies of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to name a few. But perhaps the most telling example of the intimate connection between equines and the well being of humans is the manufacture and use of PREMARIN, a popular hormone replacement medication available in topical and oral form to post-menopausal women. On the market in the U.S. since 1942, the conjugated estrogens that make up the preparation are collected from pregnant mares’ urine. Today, an estimated two thousand mares in Canada are, for life, stalled and remain pregnant and producing estrogen-concentrated urine as the main ingredient in PREMARIN.

Reiteration :
Because we travel in automobiles these days we don’t have contact with horse grooming equipment, saddles, bits or bridles so we use the lexicon without experiencing the deep horse-human partnership from which it stems. Because horses don’t get invited to Fashion Week or nominated for Academy Awards we don’t celebrate their contributions to the arts, style and entertainment. And because we wager, win or lose money, and fill our prescriptions in a matter of minutes, little if any time is devoted to considering the lifetime of involuntary sacrifice that horses as athletes and industrial recruits make to these ends. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a horse or two contributing each and every day to the quality of modern life you know. They’re still our capable and dependable partners quietly helping move us along in our human journey.

INTERVIEWS

A local journalist asked me the question, “How is it that you went from a career as a Russian-speaking Sovietologist with degrees in Comparative Communist Studies and International Security Affairs to a communications coach?” I giggled watching him eye my diplomas on the wall with a genuinely baffled look on his face. I responded as follows.

Affirmation: It was actually an organic career shift.
Clarification: As a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs I met many experts on foreign affairs—including my professors and noticed they traveled quite a bit to give speeches to audiences of all types. In 1988, I started my first company, a speakers bureau, by offering representation to them. I cultivated a large clientele in academe and did a lot of program development for social science departments using my expertise in Russian and international affairs. My briefings to my speakers were very much a product of listening to my clients—their audiences—describe their needs and expectations.
Illustration: I loved learning from my speakers as they spoke expertly on cutting-edge issues in foreign affairs and to keep them successful, I began analyzing the most effective presentations for common elements. The patterns for success at the microphone were vivid and clear and I shared them accordingly.
Elaboration: Then one day a magazine called me to write an article on public speaking and presentation skills based on my experiences running my speakers bureau. I did and that article produced an invitation for me to give a workshop on effective communication. From there, individuals who attended sought me out privately for coaching. By that point it was 1991 and interest in global affairs was waning with the end of the Cold War. But, my oral communications business was percolating. I read every textbook on communication, closed my agency and devoted myself full-time to what brings you here today.
Substantiation: Speech-writing is my forte because in graduate school I took two to three courses each in economics, history, political science, etc. and we did a lot computer war-gaming. My studies not only gave me the discipline to learn a subject quickly, but the ability to turn out a substantive briefing or report in as little as twenty-four hours. Now I can ghost-write speeches for CEOs and executives on topics from real estate to cyber-security because I can learn the lexicon, get a handle on the issues and organize the message for a lay or expert audience. That’s what I was trained to do as a policy analyst.
Reiteration: In fact, my careers are so related that when I started writing workbooks on communication the series title was “Notes from the Podium,” a play on the title of the Russian novel, Notes from (the) Underground.  It really wasn’t a leap from one career to the next but a nicely paced marathon.

 

This method of presenting one’s thoughts has served me, my clients and my students well for two decades. It is not only fail-safe insofar as it provides something for every listener, but it is also self-checking. As you organize your thoughts for your next meeting, prepare responses for your next interview or script your next speech, realize that you can check your own words for the necessary ingredients. Did you assert your point boldly? Did you explain it? Did you support your assertion? Did you provide a listener-friendly example? Did you elaborate on it with a memorable vignette or enlightening anecdote? I share this all with you in hopes you will not shy away from making a speech, giving that interview or participating confidently and effectively in your next meeting.

The Final Word on Eulogies

Death takes people by surprise. Even when an elderly or infirm person passes we are shocked by the news. Funerals, therefore, unlike other ceremonies, aren’t scheduled far in advance and the eulogy is one ceremonial speech that is often prepared in haste and as the bereft speaker is experiencing an exhausting combination of shock and sadness.

Yet, amid this distress, it is the noble man or woman who accepts the responsibility of composing a final, formal statement of praise to the decedent. It is the noble man or woman who accepts the responsibility for articulating thoughts and feelings at the time others report that they “just can’t speak.” It is the noble man or woman who accepts the responsibilities of “saying a few words” just when others insist that words are insufficient to describe their loss or the meaning of their lost loved one’s life.

In point of fact, speech offers us a lot in this saddest of situations. A eulogy is actually a tribute in words to an individual at the time of his or her death, and the informed eulogizer can provide and find some much-needed comfort and guidance using language. While the challenge is great, the format and components of the eulogy offer direction and relief. You see, effective eulogies follow a very particular sequence in both preparation and delivery. As the decedent’s next of kin, clergy and undertakers each assume their traditional roles and responsibilities for observance of the death rituals, so can the eulogizer adhere to a long-established process of eulogy preparation and delivery.

Getting Prepared: Collect the Key Components

The eulogizer begins by gathering facts, acknowledging feelings and reviewing history as these are the three ingredients that combine to form an effective eulogy.

First, find the facts. List the facts of the death. Where did this happen? At what age did s/he pass? What circumstances surrounded the passing? As a eulogizer, you report the facts of the death.

Second, specify your sentiments. Identify two or three characteristics or personality traits about the decedent that account for your feelings. For instance, if you describe your late aunt as thoughtful and generous, note the illustration that she never once in twenty-eight years missed sending you a birthday card and it was each and every year the very first card and gift you received. If you describe your late great uncle as punctual to a fault, recall humorously the time that he arrived at the maternity ward before you did to deliver your child. As a eulogizer you share your own observations and sentiments as you reflect on the charms of the person lost.

Third, view the future through the lens of the past. Recall the personal history of the deceased, identifying the people s/he loved so you can mention them in the eulogy to offer the appropriate condolences. Reflect on the journey s/he took and the activities, roles and principles that characterized the decedent’s life. As a eulogizer your words move the mourners forward, pledging to keep alive the deceased’s values through specific acts.

Crafting the Eulogy: Rely on a Five-Step Format

Equipped with the facts about the death, feelings about the decedent and his or her personal history, you as the eulogizer are ready to weave them together in your own style and voice. The order and excerpts below will give you a model and feel for this.

1. Explicitly acknowledge the death. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to articulate the facts of the sad news unequivocally and early in the eulogy.

It is said that the Lord works in mysterious ways. This seems true today as we gather to pay our final respects to a very young man. It is indeed a mystery why and how a twenty-two year old athlete–a college basketball superstar–could collapse on the very court where he typically exhibited excellent health and a prowess far above his peers. And yet, this is precisely the mystery of the passing of Jay Grabor. This past Monday night, Jay collapsed and died during a home game. We cannot help but ask “Why?” and “How could such a thing happen?”

2. Reminisce fondly about the deceased. One delivers a eulogy if and only if s/he genuinely loved, respected and/or admired the decedent. Accordingly, you might recall the words of the deceased, perhaps a saying he or she often used. You might tell an anecdote, a story that reveals a key characteristic or personality trait you admired.

I have coached scores, perhaps hundreds, of young athletes in my years at this university and I can tell you that Jay was one in a million. I met none like him before his time and I don’t expect to find another soul like him ever again. His maturity was as deep as his talent. Once, I summoned a freshman teammate of Jay’s him to my office for a chat. There were problems between him and the other fellows and although things had improved a bit, I thought that a sit down might help things gel. Well, this young boy sits down and starts pouring his heart out about how rough he’s had it ’n all. And just as I’m about to give him some fatherly advice the kid says, “It was a good thing that Jay Grabor had me over to his dorm room for a sit down! Once he and I talked and he took me under his wing, things really started to improve!” My fellow mourners, I wasn’t terribly surprised to hear that. That’s the kind of mature and caring team player that Jay was. Actually, it wasn’t just the way he was with his teammates. It’s just the kind of guy he was. He was like that with the campus community at large.

3. Offer your condolences. A conscientious eulogizer recognizes that others are grieving as well.

While the loss of a son is unspeakable, while the loss of a brother is unbearable, while the loss of a grandson, nephew and all the other roles Jay played in his brief but vibrant life is tragic, know that your pain is felt by peoples near and far. We mourn with you on the campus and in the community and in your neighborhood and all the halls this treasured young man graced. Our memories are now your memories. We share them with you and we pray that in time they give you some measure of peace.

4. Reassure the mourners that the deceased will be remembered meaningfully. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to make a commitment to continue the efforts for which the deceased lived. These may be the continuation of the decedent’s work or the completion of plans to reach certain goals in the family or in the community.

A wise man wrote that, “true love is eternal.” And Jay Grabor truly loved the sport of basketball and the team he honored at the University of Southington. In Jay’s memory, this team shall go on. In Jay’s memory and for Jay’s memory this team shall prevail. He has forever changed us and it has been for the better. It is a change for the better of these players, for the better of us coaches and for the better of the sport of college basketball itself.

5. State a clear goodbye to the deceased. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to do what may be too painful for other mourners to do and that is to specifically bid farewell to the deceased. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to mark the departure from life of the person we knew in life.

In a penalty we do not understand, with a time out that comes out a lifetime a head of it’s time, we all as fans of Jay Grabor, bid farewell to him, a true champion.

Delivering for the Occasion: Lean In and Let Go

In sharing the stories, words and traits of the deceased, don’t shy away from material that will make you laugh and cry. It is okay to get emotional when delivering the eulogy. You won’t be alone. Others will be comforted that you share their many emotions and they will admire you for expressing them nonverbally as well as with words.

It is my wish that your need for this skill-set be minimal. It is my hope that when the need for it does arrive you are equipped with the know-how to guide you through the challenge with as much ease and confidence as such circumstances allow.

Communication Rehab for Drive-by Interviewees

I have only been “retired” from my communications firm for a short while but some themes are already emerging from my reflections on the folks I have coached through various communications challenges over the last two decades.  In particular, those interviewing for jobs come to mind.

Job applicants tended to fall into two categories—one, those who insisted on absolutely only one “prep” session.   In retrospect, I realize that this was also typically on the same day as the interview itself.   In short, they waited until the very last minute.  (One gal scheduled a 7:00 a.m. appointment with me before for a 9:00 a.m. interview that same morning.  She then showed up twenty minutes late.)  In my efforts to ward off these anemic attempts to prepare I would often quip, “Let’s see if we can’t get you in here a week early to avoid a drive-by interview casualty.”  Many laughed but ignored the soft-pedaled advice.  The stress from their prolonged under or unemployment was palpable, infectious and sometimes self-perpetuating.  The second kind of applicants set aside time for a few hours of professional coaching and funds for the requisite retainer.  They didn’t “prep” but rather “prepared” with me for an employment interview.  These were folks I found to be more comprehensively committed to securing “a” or even “the” position.  By and large, they were successful.

To be sure, the aid of a professional is useful and I suppose that people who commit hard-earned money to a process do feel more invested in it and seek more from it because they have committed resources up front.  But I share here something that I realize made as much or more of a difference than anything else: deep self-reflection.  Yep.  Not appointments.  Not money changing hands.  Not mock interviews.  Not research on the company.  Not wardrobe choices.   Heck, one doesn’t even have to get out of their pajamas to do what I am describing here.  It is simply what Winnie the Pooh did each time he was faced with a new challenge: “Think Think  Think. Oh bother.”  Bingo! Think! Bother!  Whether or not you engage a coach, do make and take the time to ponder and consider who you are—constitutionally—and where you are in life.  Why?  Like Winnie the Pooh, we are most productive and magnetic to others when we work in harmony with our genuine selves and in the context of our lives.   And when these are communicated effectively to a prospective employer other matters tend to fall into place.  Let’s take these apart, latter one first.  Work in the context of your life.

It seems to me that applying for a job is like shopping for a car.  Hear me out on this.  Realize that the cars we drive reflect where we are at any point in life.  And the first thing a car shopper does is evaluate his or her need(s) for it in the context of their life.  Is it a “utility,” like a station car?   Is it a “second car” to make a busy life more convenient?  Is it a “trophy car,” a luxury vehicle to punctuate years of hard work or success with a particular venture?  Is it a “project” like a fixer-upper or a restoration of a classic?  Is it a sleek “performance car” that maneuvers well and commands respect?   Over the course of our working lives we will have many different kinds of cars and many different kinds of jobs.  Some stints are transformative and less about the compensation and more valuable as learning experiences where we hone our skills.  These jobs are like project cars.  Some jobs are shear utilities, the kind of shift-work that is often short-term and simply puts cash in our wallets while we finish school, get out of the house or publish that novel.  Some positions are downright sexy, like a stint with that celebrity client and the kinds of which future clients or employers take note.  For these, the fees generated may be of less value than the exposure and resume boost.  Some jobs are simply side-jobs or seasonal or part-time just to keep the cushion of our layered lives comfy and our reputations and skills fresh.  A few things are for certain, you won’t drive the same car for forty or fifty years.  You may share a car from time to time and have more than one at other times.  You might even need to go without your own and take public transportation.  But to make wise choices about any car purchase you need to know your needs and means and circumstances at the outset and be comfortable articulating them clearly.  Otherwise you will get ripped off, wind up at the wrong dealership or even break down.

Same is true when applying for a job.  Ask yourself this: What are your means and needs at this particular point in time?  Be specific and be candid.  When I was interviewing experts on international affairs for Foreign Affairs Speakers Bureau, candidates often shared their individual journeys as backdrop to their interest the lecture circuit.  Giving speeches on topics in world affairs is demanding work.  It is also lucrative.  But all jobs pay money.  And most highly-skills jobs that also require substantial experience pay commensurately well.  So, “Why the speaking circuit?” I would ask.  Those who could clearly articulate the context in which they were applying moved to the top of my agency’s A-list.  One world-renowned economist, TV personality and a fully-tenured professor at an Ivy-league university shared that he had just put a down payment on a condo for his adult daughter and wanted to help her pay it off.  He wanted to see her settled before he retired and declared that he was able and eager to travel the world to accomplish that goal.  That was critical information insofar as it gave me license to recommend him on a short-list to clients in Asia and Europe.  I was confident that he would show up and shine.  Another shared that he had two young children—toddlers, actually—and he wanted to get their college accounts off to a good start and also be around to help his wife manage the household.  He worked and resided in Manhattan and shared that he only wanted local appearances to save time on travel.  That was useful information as it enabled me to represent him to audiences in and around New York City and promote him as one who is available to give two talks – the actual presentation and a bonus, informal, “insider briefing,” all for a higher honorarium as there were no air travel or hotel costs for the client.  Win-win-win!

My other mantra is to work in a position that jives with your core self—your values, motivations and established “best-practices.”  Of course, the first step here is to know what they are.  This is another exercise in “think, think, think.”  Well in advance of your interview, set aside an hour.  Turn off your phone, close your laptop, sit down quietly and think.   Be candid and specific in your self-assessment.  With what are you most comfortable at work?  Autonomy?  Decision-making responsibilities?  Money?  Camaraderie with like-minded people?  Mentoring of staff?  Praise from your superiors?  Prestige?  Respect from clients?  People your own age?  Satisfaction from a job well-done?  The applause of an audience?  Health benefits?  What interferes with your productivity and satisfaction at work?  Commuting?  Accountability? Day care concerns?  Early starts?   Late nights?   Dress codes?   Meetings? Dealing with the public?  What adds up to a great day at work for you?  No emails?  New clients?   Making a deadline?  What makes for a lousy day at work for you?  Making a presentation? Air travel?  Computer malfunction?   Three hours of paperwork?

Obviously one’s candor in the self-assessment needs to be nuanced for the actual interview, but only a foundation of reality can provide the substance and make the difference in revealing whether or not there is an actionable and mutually acknowledged “fit” between applicant, job and boss.   For instance, I was thrilled to hear my intern share that she is a “night owl” and works best on creative projects between midnight and sunrise.  She shared this with an apologetic voice, gentle shrug of her shoulders and nod of her head when asked, “What one work habit holds you back?”  She and I were both delighted when I then shared that I love finding a full in-box very first thing in the morning.  I am an early riser and review new matters best when I am fresh.  Her style was quite compatible with mine and she was hired with the reassurance that she can work from home and email material so long as it is waiting for me at 7:00 a.m.

When it comes to job interviews, they are like shopping for cars: we do it numerous times over the course of our lives.  And because we get used to it we get stale.  Hence, a reminder of the basics is useful:  An interview is a special kind of conversation in which there is a bipolar exchange of views and information.  Bi-polar means two parties.  And ideally, both parties are fully prepared—interviewer and applicant alike.  But the ideal becomes out of reach when either party does not complete his or her due diligence.  As applicants, there is plenty to consider well in advance of an interview and after all the basic prep is done—research on the firm, research on the position, wording and rehearsing responses to the predictable questions, selecting out attire, etc., and there are excellent resources out there on how to go about that “standard prep.”  But for your next level of due diligence, remember Winnie the Pooh.  Avoid a drive-by interview casualty, and “think, think, think.” And do “bother.”  It’s the insurance on your vehicle—specific to your make and model.

Lisa Bernard retired after twenty-plus years of helping people achieve their goals in speeches, interviews and conversations.  She’ll tell you that, collectively, she learned as much about life from her clients as she taught them about effective communication.  Over the years, she designed workshops and seminars for organizations in the private, public and non-profit arenas, many of which she was thrilled to do because they were compatible with her parenting responsibilities and consistent with her values.  Most notably, she loved creating and delivering weekly a management studies program at a busy New York hospital.  Her deep respect for health care professionals and her teenagers’ readiness to learn to get home and dinner on the table themselves one evening a week worked beautifully with this late afternoon program and early evening commute.  Her clients’ fine examples of working in the context of your life and within your value system are lessons for which she is forever grateful and happy to share. 

In With the Old and Season with the New: What Food Communicates from Past to New Years

When my older daughter emailed me from Israel to tell me she was coming home I wrote something as well– a grocery list. Then I put up a big pot of lentil soup. Only then did I call her and verbally express my delight. And she squealed when she received a photo of my freezer shelf lined with Mason jars filled with the lentil soup that will be here for her when she arrives. I just close my eyes and see it going down: her flight will be delayed, we’ll hit traffic, the weather will be treacherous and the wear and tear will make us both cranky. But once we get home and heat up the soup, crisp up the semolina bread, boil up those Ditalini (little thimbles pasta) and sprinkle a heaping tablespoon of freshly grated Romano cheese, she will close her eyes and feel, “I’m home.” And my message will be clear to her, “I am so happy to have you back.”

Reflecting on the above, I realize that food communicates. It doesn’t speak, but it certainly transmits feelings and thoughts. And the way we select, preserve and edit our recipes are choices we make from year to year articulating our evolving sentiments and ideas. Last fall when I observed my annual ritual of harvesting my potted herbs before the first frost, I made pesto as usual. However, I did not use just basil; I modified my recipe to replace half the basil with sage. I gleaned that from the pesto my daughter and I shared in Tuscany last summer. It was a very different texture, color and flavor than any pesto I had ever eaten in America and it was served tossed with pasta we’d never seen before. We talked quite a bit about how we could replicate the flavors at home and with every draft of the family pesto recipe we relived our trip together and took our pride in our Italian heritage to a new level. Altogether it provided a clear interpretation of my behavior for my now adult children—from why I grow my own herbs to why I only buy the cheapest generic toilet paper but spring for extra virgin olive oil imported from a specific region in Italy that costs more than a dollar an ounce! Toilet paper is temporary. Food leaves a footprint. You can use it to trace back or guide you forward. That pesto “translated” my behavior into terms my family now understands including why my herb garden will be larger and more varied in this New Year. And when I showed up at my younger daughter’s dormitory with jars of the coveted frozen green sauce it spoke volumes to her about the transcendence of tradition across time and place.

It fascinates me that food can be less ambiguous than most other nonverbal messages. If I rub my hands together one may interpret this as me having just applied hand lotion while another may think I am nervous. Yet another might assume I am cold. But food sends clear signals. Kids attest to this. They are the keenest observers of signals long before they use words to order their world. “Out of the mouths of babes” as they say when my then ten year old came into the kitchen one morning and said, “It’s fall; you’re making oatmeal in the mornings again!” And on Fridays when they inhaled the aromas from the simmering chicken soup, roast chicken and fresh-baked challah they would dash into the kitchen, smile wide and exclaim, “It’s almost Shabbat!” No calendar required. And like word choice and tone of voice, food can transmit respect and affection. I catered my daughter’s college graduation party with a menu that was nut-free, kosher, in full Mediterranean fare and with vegetarian and vegan plates. Every guest was considered and had a tasty and thematic option that included them in this key part of the celebration and acknowledged their individual needs and preferences.

I am learning that food is a language that evolves alongside the relationships it attends. I am reminded of the changes in our meal preparation when my younger daughter was diagnosed with potentially fatal food allergies. Having almost lost her to an almond cookie seventeen years ago, I cleared our kitchen and every recipe of poppy seeds, peanuts and nuts (not to mention my bar of Amaretto and Frangelico). The table is where one finds community and sanctuary and her safe place had narrowed considerably. So then did my ingredient list. But the message she got from the safe zone I provided was large: “your well-being matters.” There was another message communicated by our abandonment of lemon-poppy seed pound cake, PB&J and cranberry-pistachio biscotti: “this is not a handicap but an inspiration!” That’s because each New Year since she was first diagnosed has yielded fresh innovations in our favorite family recipes that actually give our food its own “dialect.” When she was first diagnosed in 1996 there were few laws for labeling of foodstuffs and fewer chefs and wait-staff trained to insure “nut-free” dishes, so we ate-in for nearly ten years. We cooked and seasoned in our own unique way and all that experimentation with foods to mimic the textures and flavors of nuts and seeds not only yielded three creative cooks in the family but a rather idiomatic menu as well. Come for a meal here and we’ll share our interpretations with items we call by slang names like “salad dressing chicken” or “cheese toast.”

Set aside cooking for a moment and think about eating itself. With food so connected to relationships I wonder how many have fizzled or bloomed based on how we eat together. How we eat provides all sorts of information about our backgrounds and personalities and by extension our compatibility with others. I had a date with a man who claimed he was from New York. When he ate his sushi with a fork I seriously doubt that. Turns out, in culinary terms, he was full of baloney. He won’t be around in the New Year. On the other hand, when I walked into a random bagel shop in Fairfield, Connecticut and ordered a bagel with a schmear and belly lox and the gal behind the counter didn’t bat an eye, I didn’t need to hear a New York accent to know she was indeed my home-girl from the Big Apple. That nosh and her demeanor were delicious and I will be back there in the New Year—and with my friends. Now that’s word of mouth advertising!

Bar none, my dearest memory of food-handling as a measure of creativity and commitment dates back to when my daughter with the food allergies was sitting in a diner beside her best buddy from the fifth grade. We were ordering lunch and she really had a hankering for a big juicy American burger but was concerned that the bun might have stray seeds that she must avoid. She was debating out loud and lamenting that usually the bottom half of the bun is where the errant poppy seed appears. It took him a nanosecond to accommodate her wishes and allay her fears. Eyes wide open he volunteered, “When the burgers come, I’ll give you my top and take your bottom!” Clearly, that man is one we took from past years into last year and into this New Year for sure.

This is certainly not an exact science but close enough for conversation: Tell me what you put in your eggs this morning and I’ll tell you your roots and a bit about your journey. You see, food doesn’t fib. It narrates your story just as it happened. Today, I sautéed onions and sweet red peppers in olive oil and when they were soft I added three leaves of sage I had grown last summer and froze for this purpose. I cracked in three egg whites beat with freshly ground black pepper and a dash of grated Parmesan cheese. As it gelled in the pan, I added some cubed fresh mozzarella. That went alongside a toasted slice of sesame-encrusted semolina bread with fig jam. That’s what my Italian grandparents ate, plus the egg yolks and with basil instead of sage. Those healthy and culinary changes were my own revisions from new years back. What will I bring into 2014? Nearby, there is an authentic new Middle Eastern café that prepares a variety of hummus and pita breads alongside time-honored fresh falafel. I am in the process of tasting them all so that when both my daughters are home we can pool all our finds—from nut-free dishes prepared on one’s college campus to the vegetarian delights from the salad room at the kibbutz where another works. Perhaps we’ll call it “The Cutting Board.”

Lisa Bernard retired this New Year from twenty-plus years as Principal at Lisa Bernard’s Word of Mouth, Inc.  She continues to publish via http://www.CueCardCommunications.com, teach at the college level and consult for people and firms with compelling communication challenges.

Guest or Host, How to Make that Holiday Toast

‘Tis the season we gather for holiday meals and New Year parties with family and friends, colleagues and coworkers. Along with the rich foods, sparking beverages and festive décor is the need to “say a few words” to our guests and hosts. For many, it’s the traditional way we celebrate the milestones we’ve met together and acknowledge those without whom the way would not have been as clear or the journey as meaningful. For the rest of us, it’s the reason we get heart palpitations and tongue-tied!

Getting Started

To begin, let’s all exhale. No matter how little public speaking you have done, you can say more than, “Happy, healthy, merry” when your guests look at you under the mistletoe or your host starts popping corks. And, you can do this with aplomb. It’s just a matter of understanding how to construct, practice and deliver this very special kind of speech. I even have a pneumonic to help you through: T-O-A-S-T. Yep. It’s that straightforward. T. O. A. S. T.

T is for THOUGHTS. One of the reasons we still treasure this centuries-old ritual is that human beings enjoy reflecting on the reasons we are together as a group in the first place. So ask yourself this question: What unites those in attendance at your holiday gathering? Effective toasts include some of that reflection and revealing one’s thoughts is what makes the toast credible. As I prepare a toast to my fellow riders and the owners of the farm where I board my horse, I am organizing my thoughts on the thrill we share for being in and around and a part of nature whenever we are with our horses. I call it “our farm personalities,” the way we dress, behave and interact with the animals so differently than we do elsewhere in our lives. I might offer one or two examples such as sharing an apple with one’s horse or enduring single-digit temperatures just to visit with them. In our day jobs we might never drop our hygiene standards or expose ourselves to the elements. But we do it without hesitation for the horses that are part of our families and so I might share this thought: “As we gather in this warm and cozy and restaurant to feast on much more than carrots, I am reminded that each person here is one who loves and is loved by a horse.”

O is for Occasion. Memorable toasts make meaningful and specific references to the occasion around which we gather. Rather than saying, “To health, peace and prosperity,” my toast to my family at our Hanukkah dinner this year began as follows: “To miracles—and to those who are faithful enough to acknowledge that they are possible. We are blessed to be here in my new home after so much disruption and transition in the past two years. Like lighting the menorah with so little oil and seeing it illuminated for eight days and nights, we, too, took a chance that what was unlikely might well be possible. And to be sure, our incremental movements did all add up to a safe passage and a fresh and promising new start.”

A is for Attributes. Specify the attributes of your guests or hosts. Anecdotes accomplish this nicely. Tell a brief story that reveals a talent or quality of your host or guest. In a Christmas party toast to the firm’s cadre of interns, each was heralded for a specific character trait of value to the firm and consistent with the meaning of the holiday. For one, it was going above and beyond her job description, even in matters outside her daily responsibilities. The CEO shared that when Jayne learned that all of the desserts catered for the event contained nuts, and knowing that a number of staff had serious allergies to nut products, she took it upon herself to stay up all night preparing an assortment of festively decorated and nut-free confections for the dessert buffet. And it wasn’t until prodded that she took credit for her delicious and deeply thoughtful contribution to the event.

S is for Sentiment. A toast without sentiment is like lemonade without sugar. In short, let them know how you feel about them. Just like thoughts bring credibility to the party, your sentiments bring the sincerity. In a toast this season my client raised his glass to his hosts, his employers, as well as his new colleagues and shared that “this year was not only a professionally satisfying one, but a deeply gratifying one personally. After a few false starts in my new career, I remember now how really special it is to have coworkers you respect and like and how fulfilling it is to work as a team. I won’t name everyone here like Santa named his reindeer, but I will tell you I do sometimes feel like Rudolph!“

T is for Tone. The tone of your toast does well to reflect the tone of the event itself. For instance, a low-keyed toast in conversational English is befitting an intimate dinner party. My friend recently began our annual holiday pot-luck luncheon by raising her glass and saying, “To my wreath of strength, my circle of friends. Around this table it’s not just the food that nourishes me. Here our laughter is music and the warmth rivals that of the Yule log.”

A banquet in a hotel ballroom merits a lengthier toast with more formal language to convey a more ceremonial tone. A friendly, annual holiday gathering with a group of folks who all know one another socially calls for a ninety-second, witty, poignant and forward-looking speech. Note that the constituent components of a toast do not change; there is just more or less material and detail in any given toast and one’s thoughts and sentiments are expressed in language that is more or less formal. My client in the real estate industry hosted a holiday party for 500 agents, brokers, buyers and he began his appropriately formal remarks as follows:

Good evening and welcome. Let us first take a moment of silence to remember those men and women in uniform stationed abroad in service to our country. (PAUSE) It was Simone de Beauvoir who wrote, “The ideal of happiness has always taken material form in the house, whether cottage or castle; it stands for permanence and separation from the world.” Happiness in the form of the home you always wanted make, the house you need to sell, or the transaction you want to facilitate, happiness is my holiday gift to each and every one of you in the coming New Year.

Easy Delivery Does it

What enables you to deliver the toast extemporaneously rather than recite—or worse—read it? Practice! Out loud! This helps you get familiar with the sounds of your voice and breaks the habit of reading. Reading a toast is like swimming in your clothes. It’s doable but both swimmer and spectators feel that something is off. You will feel more comfortable making eye contact with the guests instead of facing down and talking to a sheet of paper. Practice enough to achieve fluency, about ten to twelve times aloud. Record yourself on your cell phone. Download the toast to your iPod. Listen to the toast as often as time allows.

Then Raise Your Glass

So as the mistletoe sways and Santa’s bells chime, deliver well-chosen words with rhythm, maybe rhyme. Speak warmly from the heart, oh toastmasters of mine. And do not omit thoughts from deep in your mind. Do say them loud. Do say them clear. Leave them smiling, even shedding a tear. That’s the true meaning of “holiday cheer.”

To all my readers and your families I wish you the best of this season and a peaceful and healthy 2014.

Don’t Get Your Tail in a Twist! When Bad Body Language is the Signal to Speak Up and Straighten Things Out

This is the third article in a series on nonverbal messaging inspired by the equine world, one realm where beauty is never vain, strength does not mean aggression and nonverbal cues always trump talk.

I adore my horse, Dolce. His name in Italian means “sweet” or “sweetly.” He is well-named as he has, true to his Arabian breed, a lovely disposition. Every wrangler, rider, rancher and farmhand who has ever come in contact with him has commented on his gentility. And he came to me sweetly. He was rounded up in a rescue effort and transported to the farm where I took riding lessons. I first saw him as the farm owner drove me around looking at the horses available for lease. He had been living there for about six months and was cowering under a big mare. What first caught my attention was not his physical beauty, but that he made extended eye contact with me –and then suddenly looked away. This happened three times. Our eyes locked for about three seconds and then he turned his whole head away. By the third time, I sensed that he had once been very much loved by a human. That’s how I read it. His expression and gestures said, “Are you back? Is that you?” And, implicitly, “If you help me now we can put this all behind us.” Three days later I leased him. Three months later I bought him. We’ve been together as horse and rider for six years now.

I know Dolce quite well and when I see that he is not himself in some way, I know he doesn’t feel well. This was the case the other day when he didn’t trot right over to me. He was moving slowly. He didn’t whinny. His ears did not come forward—the equine equivalent of a smile. Worse, his ears went back when I haltered him—the equine expression of irritation. I admit that I first felt insulted. He’s always so happy to see me. Then, when I began to groom him, he pinned his ears. That hurt! That hurt me, I mean! As I brushed his back near his rear he swung his head around as if to bite me. He was letting me know he was not taking it. And I was taking the rejection personally. After a deep breath and a pause, I started to emote less and think more. I palpated his spine. I was thinking Lyme disease which gets horses and causes them painfully sore backs. But he didn’t jump when I palpated further. Not back pain. But what was it then? It was time for a thorough head to hoof examination. And there it was: a nasty-looking abrasion on his heel bulb. Communication experts say, “A problem named is a problem solved” and so it was. Just as I lifted the injured hoof to clean the wound his ears went forward. True to his personality, Dolce knew I was trying to help him. I think that’s why he heals quickly when injured or ill. He starts to heal even before the medicine is applied. He starts off grouchy and defensive until he senses the sincerity, accepts the helping hand and warms hearts in the process. That’s a lot of camaraderie and effective communication for a creature that doesn’t use words.

How different it is in human to human communication! What happens with us humans when other humans’ “body language” communicates to us that they are not happy to see us, irritated with us and even seem to be rejecting us? Ouch! We feel hurt. We get insulted. And we walk away, snarl back, or otherwise escalate the hostility. But just as with our four-legged friends, I propose that these negative signals we receive are actually clues to one’s circumstances and if we can “respond” thoughtfully rather than “react “ emotionally we humans, too, can find relationships in unexpected places and productivity in stressful situations. What do I mean?

Let’s start by realizing that non-verbal communication is ambiguous. This is counter-intuitive as many of us have powerful gut-feelings about what a look, tone or gesture mean. We really believe we “know what she meant when she averted her eyes during our conversation.” We are certain that “his tone was dismissive during the phone call.” We are sure that “when she shifted in her chair and looked at her watch during the interview that she was bored.” The fact is that we really do not and often cannot “know” any such things. Why? Because, nonverbal communication means different things depending on the culture from which it emanates. In short, it is culture-specific, a fancy term for the behaviors of particular people with common characteristics that impact the way they act and especially how they communicate. For instance, if you are American and give a fellow American colleague the “thumbs up” gesture, it is a compliment. Give a “thumbs up” to a Persian associate and you just gave someone “the finger.” One gesture. Two cultures. Divergent messages. And unintentionally hurt feelings.

And culture is not just about ethnicity. Take the culture of folks with back problems, say compressed discs. They have trouble sitting for long periods of time and they behave in certain ways as a result. During hiring season a human resource professional might need to sit through back-to-back interviews that aggravate her condition. Feeling her back start to ache, she shifts in her chair trying to find a comfortable position. This happens two or three times until she also glances at her watch wondering if it is time yet for another dose of her medication. However, the signal received by the anxious interviewee is, “Uh-oh. She’s bored with my responses. This is not going well.” Wrong! The message sent has zero to do with the interview. Rather, the behavior stems from a physical ailment, not an interpersonal issue or negative view of the matter at hand.

What thickens the plot is how one handles a perceived slight. If one self-righteously declares, “You are being very rude and I won’t stand for this treatment” it is dramatic and makes for a juicy, “I told her where to go” story at dinner with friends. However, it doesn’t help one get a job. If one stays quiet and silently brews resentment that too will likely backfire as those signals eek out to pollute the communication environment and sabotage the interview. When affronted, one must think logically about what to say that is productive and can contribute to a climate of good will. And make no mistake about it: words are necessary. We are the only species on the planet with the gift of speech and arguably, we have not only a responsibility to use it sensitively with other humans, but great opportunities to use it smartly to achieve our goals. How so?

Bearing in mind that nonverbal messages are ambiguous, culture-specific and typically based in biology, we must remind ourselves that we are likely mistaken in our first read of what is being signaled. That doesn’t mean our intuition is off; on the contrary, something is indeed happening when one averts their eyes suddenly in the midst of an otherwise engaging conversation. What’s off is our translation or interpretation of the gesture. So when we’re observing a change in an interviewer’s body language, that is, she goes from smiling and making eye contact to fidgeting, grimacing and glancing at the clock—simply speak up! We need to share the observation and pose a genuine question in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. We need to smile sincerely and say, “I notice that you are checking your watch. Have we run over our scheduled time or need a break?” How welcome that will be to a person who needs an aspirin! And what’s in it for us? She now sees a perceptive and reasonable person! She will likely call a five-minute break and return focused and noting that she is interviewing someone who is a whole person and not just a resume. In a word, her ears will come forward.

Lisa Bernard, M.A., is the founder of Lisa Bernard’s Word of Mouth, Inc. a full-service oral communication firm based in Westport, CT. For over twenty years Lisa has been helping real people achieve their goals one conversation, speech or interview at a time. She can be reached at WordofMouthInc@optonline.net, followed on Twitter @CueCardComm or via LinkedIn.

Sitting Tall in the Saddle of Comfort and Effective Communication

This is the second in a series of articles on nonverbal messaging that have emerged from my observations and experiences in the equine world, one realm where beauty is never vain, power does not produce aggression and nonverbal cues always trump talk.

About forty-five minutes into a ninety-minute riding clinic my gelding, Dolce, began pulling away from the group and heading for the gate. This has happened before on extended rides or events; in less than an hour he starts to head home. Ordinarily, after a few spins to tire him out he is reminded that I am the “alpha” in this relationship and he continues the ride, but only to start pulling me “home” again in another half hour or so. Traditional horsemanship suggests we riders must insist through persistent and clear cues that our horses obey our wishes and continue on the course we set. But this time, I was too curious to be the “alpha.” Instead, I let my equine “partner” lead us out of the arena to see where he would go if the decision was his. He went straight to his post and paused. I dismounted but left him tacked up. And then, as if on cue, he calmly did his business and looked right at me appearing, no pun intended, relieved. I then remounted and we returned to the clinic where he was again attentive and responsive. Hmmm….

I shared this with the farm owner, a gifted horsewoman who is especially tuned into the equine sensibility as well as their constitutional and individual needs. My first thought was that given his bout with kidney failure a few years back, perhaps the pressure on his kidneys (located under the saddle) occasions him to feel the need to urinate more frequently. But this didn’t explain why he feels he must leave the arena to do so. She proffered a very logical explanation: Dolce was likely originally trained and served as a lesson horse in his life before me and my rescue of him. That made complete sense. He “works” for forty-five minutes, then eats and does his business—and always at his post. And as I reviewed my riding journal, I saw that his habits were there well before the illness that shut down his kidneys and almost took his life.

The next day, I saddled Dolce and took him right into a small ring. I figured that if he were once a lesson horse, he would likely be most familiar with a small ring in which lessons typically take place All the paraphernalia for a lesson were there: crop, mounting block, locked gate. I was eager to observe his behavior. It was a stunningly revealing and rewarding exercise. From bridling to mounting to turning, trotting and backing up, my Dolce performed with ease and confidence. And forty minutes into the exercise, he paused at the mounting block cueing me that our “lesson” was done. I took the cue and when I dismounted, I looked at him and he looked positively glowing! Actually, it was more than that; his expression was one of “I am so happy to host you in my home.” He was proud! He was in a place where he is entirely comfortable and doing the things he knows best because he did them, it seems, from an early age, for many years and with very positive reinforcement. In retrospect, it all adds up. All the times my nieces and nephews came to take a riding lesson on Dolce he was so patient with them. He would stand like a statue as they mounted. He would pose with them for photos wearing funny hats and sunglasses. He would endure the hot August sun for hours as they took turns on his back. He knows his “job” in the ring and senses that he does it very well.

This all got me thinking about our comfort zones and the opportunities they provide for improving communication between partners—be they in business, romance, community or family. As the universe would have it, the next weekend my daughter invited me to the New York Philharmonic. A cellist, she was thrilled to hear that they were performing a program she had recently performed with her university orchestra. It is her favorite and her excitement was palpable. Her energy and enthusiasm were flowing as we selected our outfits, drove in listening to the CD, walked across Lincoln Center and entered Avery Fisher Hall. She was grinning the entire time. There was a bounce in her step despite her high heels. She navigated the ticket booth and concert hall with a graceful flow and familiarity I have never seen—even in our own home. With our last-minute ticket purchase we had to sit separately but she stood with me until the last possible second pointing out the instruments less familiar to me and the particulars of this ensemble. When she took her seat, I could see her beaming with delight through the entire program and looking away only to share a contagious and wide smile. During intermission, she shared so many insights about the conductor, the orchestration and the challenges of playing the piece and all in a voice I had never heard from the body of my child! She was sharing and welcoming me into her “home,” her comfort zone from which emanates her sense of purpose and self and pride. What a different place that is from even our physical home, where while we are loving and close but where we must also share space and chores and other banalities from which come few opportunities to shine.

Too often, we interact with a sliver of our clients, mates, neighbors and kin—all complex creatures who have a number of roles in life many of which push them well outside their comfort zones in their interactions with us. Given the stress we feel when we are outside our comfort zones it’s no wonder our communication get sloppy. Stress pollutes our communication with even those we have known for years, share goals and values, and for whom we care deeply. Instead of responding sensitively to a neighbor’s complaint, we react and get defensive only prolonging the conflict rather than resolving it. We may pull rank and use a harsh tone with our children when they ask for more than our resources allow rather than sharing our simple need for a grown-up snack and nap. And technology facilitates our worst impulses and indulges lazy behaviors. We bang out a terse email and hit “send” rather than “draft” when a friend hurts our feelings or a lover lets us down. We allow ourselves to go months or even years without seeing a client face-to-face in his or her place of business, relying instead on phone calls and emails and that easily mask the realities of what they are doing, enduring and accomplishing. Texts may give us the sense that we are efficiently taking care of business, but being the “alpha” doesn’t really resolve conflicts or promote trust in human or equine relationships.

Keeping others’ hurtful, mysterious or insensitive behavior in perspective is accomplished by spending some time “where they live” and in their comfort zones. It reveals precisely what makes them tick and what they really value. That refreshes our respect for them and, in turn, their commitment to us. My relationship with my daughter took on an entirely new dimension that night at Lincoln Center and it provides us with tolerance during the times when we disagree or quarrel. The combination has made us even closer. Reflecting on strained or failed relationships—both personal and professional—I see a common thread: lack of regular, real-time, face-to-face contact on both parties’ “home turfs.” Denied invitations and missed opportunities to understand our clients’, colleagues’, neighbors’, friends’ and family members’ behaviors through the lens of their comfort zones deny us the chance for genuine insight and long-term trust, respect and commitment in the relationship. That is why I so enjoy going to my clients’ offices to see where and how they run their businesses and support their families. I love meeting my young clients’ parents to understand the home environments that shape their study habits and provide the support they’ll need during the demanding season of college applications and admissions interviews. When the forum is public, I attend my clients’ speeches to witness their success at the podium earned through the tedious and time-consuming work behind-the-scenes. And I realize now that it is no coincidence that the professionals who have been in my life for twenty-plus years and who continue with me through today are only those who know me, my children, my life’s work and values because they stayed close and took the journey along side us, not dispensing advice from behind computer screens or via voice mail messages. Simply put, we need to be understood and appreciated in our comfort zone before we can expand it.

True to his Arabian breed, Dolce is an intelligent, athletic and communicative horse who gets on beautifully with humans so I won’t insult his intelligence or mine by thinking we can ride only in a training ring. He is certainly capable of “expanding his comfort zone” as can any healthy creature who has a willing to surrender the reins every now and then and enter another’s zone. Lately, Dolce and I have been starting our rides in that small ring, then moving into the larger arena—always well before that forty-five minute alarm—and by first opening the gate together, me on his back and him accepting my gentle and clear cues for a slow and gradual movement from one space to the next.

Lisa Bernard is the Principal at Lisa Bernard’s Word of Mouth, Inc., an oral communications firm that helps real people achieve their goals one speech, interview and conversation at a time. She can be reached at WordofMouthInc@optonline.net or (203) 846-6115.