Better Communication with Dirty Rhetoric

Do you write? Present? Communicate with other humans? Need to persuade or share a compelling idea? (hint: the answer is “yes”). Read on.

It’s been said, “When Cicero spoke, people marveled. When Caesar spoke, people marched.” That’s how I want to write and present. I don’t want people to like my ideas, I want my ideas to inspire people.

If only… writing and speaking, communicating and persuading, are not easy. The difference between good and great, between marveling at a speech and marching because of it, is often subtle. Learning those nuances has been a bludgeoning task of trial and error for me. Hard knocks and underwhelming responses and I still have a long way to go.

So, I was stupidly, geekily excited to receive a set of Dirty Rhetoric cards in the mail. Yep, that’s actually the name and, no, it doesn’t come from an “adult” themed store. Rather, Peter Watts Paskale (@speak2all), a communications coach and analyst, and Gavin McMahon (@powerfulpoint), a communication and presentation consultant, created a card deck to quickly and easily teach the fundamentals of persuasive communication.

The cards are color coded into four categories – persuasion, scaling, description, and memory – and  each card describes one technique (53 in all). Along with the technique’s name in English and Latin, there are icons showing whether the technique connects to Ethos (belief/ideals/credibility), Logos (consistency/logic), or Pathos (emotions/imagination). Plus, each card has a rating system indicating the difficulty of the technique, a simple description, and two examples. Woof, that’s a lot of info on a card only slightly bigger than an average smart phone.

The instructions include six “games” to help incorporate the techniques into your messaging. For example, Aristotle’s Dilemma has you draw four cards from the color category matching the purpose of your speech (persuasion, description, etc.) and then find ways to incorporate those techniques into your draft. Writer’s Block focuses on learning the techniques and asks you to write a sentence or two, shuffle the cards, draw one from the deck, and apply that card’s technique to your writing. There are also games for four to six plus players.

Today is the first chance I’ve had to really open and look at the deck and I can hardly wait to really dig in. I love the premise of Dirty Rhetoric – a simple, practical way of learning and applying effective persuasive techniques to my writing and speaking.

Peter and Gavin were kind enough to send me a pre-production set for review. If you want to learn more or get your own set, check out the Dirty Rhetoric webpage, follow the #dirtyrhetoric hashtag on social media, or participate in the kickstarter campaign at .

presenting like a rock star

Rock and roll2Does anyone else go to concerts and try to figure out how to do your job better? No? A side effect of being a presenter and facilitator is that I cannot attend any training, speech, or event without noticing what is done well, what could be better, and what I can learn from it.

Eighteen months ago I wrote a post called “Rock and Roll Presentation Skills” after seeing one of my favorite European bands perform. As a presenter, this band inspires me more than any other with their stage presence, energy, and connection to the crowd. By sheer coincidence the same band was performing in Dallas the same weekend I was there to attend HRevolution and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see them again.

Reflecting on what I took from this performance, the presentation lessons hold true with what I learned from their last performance.

1. There is a huge, gaping chasm between “pretty good” and “great”. Three local bands opened up and they were pretty good. But there was a big contrast between the opening and main performances and, oddly, it had little to do with musical skills. Some of the local bands had outstanding musicians, but it wasn’t enough to close the gap. They did a “good” job, but not one that made me want to hear more from them.

That has me wondering what I need to do to leap to the next level. Obviously, a presentation has to be well written and delivered with reasonable skill. But, content and technical skills only get you to good. What are the components that move it to great?

2. ALL presentations matter.Although largely unknown in the States, the main band headlines festivals in Europe, playing to tens of thousands of people. In stark contrast, the show in Dallas was in a bar that held maybe a couple hundred people. They could have viewed Dallas an unimportant show and just gone through the motions.

Instead, they played as though it were the most important show on the tour. Full out, completely committed, pouring sweat, not an ounce of energy held back. Even with their relentless schedule of touring around the world they showed no signs of boredom, exhaustion, or the sense that it was just one more gig. Instead, they radiated joy and enthusiasm.

For me the big question is: How do I structure my life and mindset so I have the energy and focus to be at 100% for every presentation? How do I ensure I’m always treating every presentation as though it will define my career?

3. Engage the crowd. Rather than being the untouchable rockstars up on a pedestal, they interacted with the audience at every opportunity. The headlining singer continually and sincerely referred to the crowd as “friends”, showed off signs held by audience members, offered choices of what songs they’d play next, celebrated the energy of the crowd, and thanked the audience for coming out to see them. Sounds obvious, but the local bands did little of this.

What are the obvious things to connect with my audiences and classes that I’m not doing enough or at all? How can I better create a feeling where I’m speaking with the audience rather than at them? How can I connect with as many people as possible on as individual of level as possible.

4. Make it about the audience, not the presenter.The local bands kept mentioning the CDs they had for sale in the back, reasons they weren’t at their best, where they were playing next, blah, blah, blah. Any words between songs were few and focused on the band. In contrast, it would have been easy – almost expected – for the headliners to show up with rock and roll egos completely unchecked and gripe about the venue or small crowd. They could have bragged about the shows they normally do or made it clear a bar gig was beneath them. Yet, everything the headliners said – every single word– was focused on audience and how fun and great they were. It was clear the band was thrilled and grateful that everyone had showed up to see them.

Our words reveal our focus – as a speaker, is the concern for the audience and participants or for ourselves? This is a subtle, but really powerful difference. The audience knows and responds accordingly.

5. Keep it simple. One would think that less experience performers would keep it simple and focus on walking before they run, but it was the opposite. The local bands had five and six string basses and seven and eight (!) string guitars, using sophisticated techniques to play complex lines. The headlining musicians used a traditional instruments, straightforward techniques, and played comparatively simple songs.

As a presenter it’s tempting to show off with technology, complicated materials, fancy language, credentials, etc. But that’s all about the presenter. Complex is the lazy route. Simple is difficult, it takes more time to do, and it often feels unprofessional to the novice. What beginning presenters often miss is simple requires expert level judgment, effort, and refinement. Simple keeps it about the message connecting with the audience.

6. Have fun. It’s hard to travel day after day, connect with the audience, be grateful for any opportunity to get your message out there, and have a blast while doing it. Despite near continual touring schedule and the small venue the headliners were smiling, playing, joking around, and giving full effort like there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing. The headliners seemed to be doing their dream job, the local bands seemed to be showing up for work.

The differences between good and great are small, but significant.

It’s funny how the things that set us apart are often not all that big on the surface. Notice how none of this is about their musical ability. The gap between the opening bands and the headliner was much more about approach, attitude, and connection. Could the local bands have done all this? Yes. Did they? Not really. They were more than skilled enough, but in the end were no more memorable than the background music the club played over the PA between the sets.

It’s a nice reminder to continually step up my intention, focus, and connection. I need to make sure I’m creating a great user experience and not getting between my message and my audience.

For you, what’s the difference between a great presentation and one that’s merely good?

the three guaranteed new secrets of ancient best practices

Some days it’s all about the headlines isn’t it? A catchy, grabby declaration meant to attract eyeballs and wallets. There is so much content – so much content competing for your time and attention – that the headlines have become formulaic in their attempt to stand out.

“The”. We humans like to know there is definitive certainty. No wishy-washy possibilities or discussion here. This article is all about chiseled in stone absoluteness.

“Three”.  We also like definitive numbers. It tells us right up front that there is only a certain amount of info being discussed. Interestingly, the number is either single digit or a fairly high double-digit. Seven is fine, sixty-three is fine, fourteen just doesn’t work.

“Guaranteed”. Who doesn’t love a good guarantee. This is proof it works right? Um, sure. The most relevant legal definition from is: a promise to make a product good if it has some defect. Most often, if something you purchase doesn’t work, the guarantee would be for money-back, repair, or replacement. How much did you pay for the blog post? If it doesn’t work, how much recourse do you have? Yep, zilch. I guarantee it. A great, sounds good, but meaningless word.

“New”. Yep, none of those old ideas for me, thank you very much.  What? You mean I shouldn’t be a complete jackass as a manager if I want people to care about their jobs, I shouldn’t eat more than I burn off if I want to lose weight, and I shouldn’t drive like a teenage boy late for a first date if I want to save fuel? I know that already (even if I don’t do it, like, ever). No, tell me something new. And make it a…

“Secrets”. This goes right along with “new”. There will never be a blog post, article, or book titled, “Common Sense Stuff That Everyone Already Knows”. And the secrets must be either so hot off the press that the ink smears, or they better be…

“Ancient”. Yep, old. Been around for years and recently recovered from the mists of time. But not twenty years old, more like 200+. Bonus points if you connect it to a revered, yet mysterious people from: a) a long time ago; and/or b) far, far away. Tibetan monks, Peruvian priests, Spartan warriors. Tailored to the topic of course. “Leadership Secrets of the Viking Berserkers” would sell like water in the Sahara, but “Human Resource Secrets of the Druids” might not work so well.

“Best Practices”. This is the greatest term ever invented for selling ideas, because it looks buzzwordy, businessy, and authoritative, yet is essentially meaningless. It sounds like it means cutting edge, but it really means status quo. “Best practices” is more eye-catching than “currently fashionable ideas” or “the stuff we’re doing today that seems to work OK, but we’ll look back upon in fifteen years and face palm ourselves in sheer embarrassment.” Interestingly, these best practices can contradict other best practices in the same site or magazine and no one seems to notice or care.

The best part is the topic at hand doesn’t matter. Not a bit. It’s common across every professional, enthusiast, and tabloid subject I’ve seen. Unfortunately, using or not using these secret (ha!) headline best practices (ha!) is no guarantee (ha!) of quality. Some great articles use them and some don’t. Some horrendously vapid and vacant articles use them and some don’t.  But the trite articles trending through the interwebs? Definitely.


the insanity of someone else’s problem

Photo: Prepare...Chances are we’ve all heard the quote from Albert Einstein: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Except some days I’m less convinced it’s insanity and more just a part of human nature.

When we separate ourselves from the outcome, when we don’t see the part we play, when we don’t ask questions (What could I do different?) we see no reason to do anything different. So we don’t. After all, it’s someone else’s problem.

Recently, my son participated in his second martial arts tournament. The officials called his sparring division to line up with two divisions before them. He went and sat with his group and patiently waited. And waited. Finally, his group was called up to begin. He sat on the edge of the ring as participants were called out two at a time to spar.

More waiting. Several kids had sparred two or three times but he still hadn’t been called up. As it looked like his group was wrapping up and he still hadn’t been called I went and asked one of the judges. They said he had sparred, I said he hadn’t. They showed me the card used to track participants. I reiterated he had not sparred yet. It turned out another kid with a similar sounding first name had mistakenly gone in my son’s place.

Uh, oh. This caused all kinds of problems with the tournament bracket. At first the officials thought everyone was going to have to spar again. Then they called my son and another out into the ring where they waited (and waited). Then the officials shooed them off and called out two other kids. And then… and then… Much huddled discussion from the officials. This was at least a 40 minute process with a group of 6 and 7 year olds waiting very, very patiently.

Then after all the havoc and confusion caused by a simple mistake, the officials did nothing to change the behavior that contributed to the mistake. In a gymnasium with the background noise of six event rings running simultaneously (some of them using music for their events), with a group of 1st and 2nd graders wearing protective gear over their ears, the officials continued to call participants out using only their first names. Even with obvious hesitation, even with adults asking for the last name, the officials (all very well-meaning people) never stopped to consider how using both first and last names would prevent confusion caused by using only first names. So they persisted in the insanity of SomeoneElse’sProblem.

I suspect the officials mentally dismissed it as a problem caused by kids not paying attention. So they never considered what they could do to minimize the chances of it happening again.

How often does that happen in business? How often do we assume that we aren’t the problem so we keep doing exactly what we’re doing exactly how we’re doing it? How often do we get frustrated by different people creating the same problems over and over?

How often do we consider how a small tweak would reduce the chances of others getting it wrong? How often do we design and test our processes to make it as easy as possible for others (customers, users, etc.) to get it right? How often do we intentionally design communication to minimize the chance of misunderstanding or misinterpretation? How often do we have someone unfamiliar with the work review or even pilot it to see what questions they might have?

How often do we look to get rid of the insanity simply by focusing on the user experience? How often to we consider how we can minimize problems?

Even when they are SomeoneElse’sProblems.

hard won lessons on presenting

I really enjoy speaking and facilitating and wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned over the years.

It’s always about the participants. Always. The worst, most boring, least engaging presenters make it about themselves. And no one cares. The best presenters think through every single aspect from the participants’ point of view.

 They are participants, not an audience. This may be semantics, but in my mind participants are involved in understanding and applying the material to their own lives while an audience is passive and just along for the ride. Great presenters engage everyone in the room.

 The participants don’t know what they don’t know. This was the single most freeing concept I ever learned about speaking. The participants don’t know what you intended to say so they don’t know when you skipped something. No point in getting hung up on your mistake. If it’s important, loop it back in appropriately. If not, let it go.

 “Winging it” is for complete amateurs. There is a huuuuuuge difference between knowing your material so well you are able to adjust to audience needs on the fly and making it up as you go. Very, very few presenters are able to go off the cuff and those who are able to are tapping into years of experience and material. Some people complain that preparing makes it mechanical, but if your presentation is mechanical it means you haven’t prepared enough to truly own the material. Respect your participants (and yourself) enough to prepare.

 PowerPoint is a great enhancement, but a lousy focal point. The best speakers I’ve seen have very, very little content on their slides. By only having the most important points, the slides are used to support the mood and tone and enhance and underscore the most crucial information. Anything more risks becoming a distraction and a crutch. Think of it like a tie – it needs to match the suit, it can stand out but should never be the focal point, and if you took off the tie the suit should still look great without it.

 Technology breaks. I was at a conference recently and watched as a speaker went through three laptops, two connecting cables, and several staff and volunteers before he was able to get his slides on the screen. Fortunately, he wasn’t dependent on his slides and just rolled into the presentation while the staff and volunteers got his presentation to work. Once the projector was working, he smoothly transitioned to using it. Never rely on technology more sophisticated than flipchart and markers. Use the technology, but be ready and able to give a full presentation without it.

Everything has a purpose. Every-little-thing. Everything. Don’t do that activity, don’t tell that funny story, don’t show that slide unless it directly supports your presentation. If it doesn’t have a purpose don’t do it. Ever.

Introverts can be great presenters. Never confuse introversion with shyness. Some of the best presenters I know are introverts and they use it to their advantage because they are naturally good at staying on point, keeping the focus on the participants, and never talking just to hear themselves speak. Introversion doesn’t matter and it’s not an excuse. A good presenter is a good presenter.

Mistakes are the best teachers. We all screw up, forget stuff, get it out of sequence, and say just the wrong thing. I can say I’ve learned the most about presenting and made the biggest improvements to my presentations from my errors, not my successes.

Care. This one is simple. If you don’t care, neither will your participants.

Have fun. Relax and enjoy it. Once you get past the nervousness and adrenalin dump, presenting can be great fun. And your participants will reflect your energy. If you’re enjoying it, they will too.

Your thoughts?

double your charisma in 0.5 seconds

Us humans spend a LOT of time, energy, and resources increasing our attractiveness. We worry about it a lot. It’s evident in the enormous percentage of marketing aimed directly at convincing us that we would be more attractive, likeable, and charismatic if only we used a certain product. It’s apparent in the discomfort we inflict on ourselves just to look nice. It’s underscored by entire industries developed just to increase charisma and attractiveness.

No judgement  We all want to look good and be liked, admired, and attractive to others. We want to be charismatic and draw people to us. We want to dazzle on the job interview, impress on the date, ace the sales call, and have people say about us, “I don’t know what it is about them, but I really like them.”

No matter what else you do, I’d like to offer up one easy thing that will make a huge difference. It’s so simple that I’m actually a little hesitant to mention it. Us humans like to seek out the new, the complex, and the flashy. I’m afraid this is timeworn, simple, and basic. Yet, without it, all the other efforts are really a bit of a waste. This one thing takes no time, yet makes you appear relaxed, confident, friendly, and open. Pathetically simple to do, yet so few do it that you automatically stand out.

Smile. That’s it. Not forced or infomercial intense. Just a relaxed, pleasant, and authentic smile.

Your thoughts?

social media leap of faith

Social media seems to simultaneously intrigue and terrify a lot of businesses. They love the idea of their message and brand going viral and being cheerfully spread throughout the land by their adoring customers (at no incremental cost to the company). The problem is, they also want to control 100% of the message and when they find out they can’t control the message, they don’t want to play.

It’s a silly argument that is perpetual, redundant, cliché, and not going away: What if people say bad things about us? What if they hurt our brand? The response is just as obvious, cliché, and not going away: People are already saying bad things. And they are saying good things. The leaders of these companies are scared because they can’t control the conversation. They can’t control what others are saying.

What they aren’t seeing is that social media is not all or nothing. It’s not “we control the message or we won’t play at all.” The conversation is happening regardless. Pretending it doesn’t exist does nothing to stop the damage; does nothing to build the brand; does nothing to create strong relationships with customers.

That’s the key, isn’t it? In the past, the business / customer relationship was one-way. We used simplemindedly archaic terms like “customer loyalty” as though our customers owed the business something. It’s not a top down relationship like from commander to the troops or from dictator to the masses. It’s a relationship of peers and equals. Both parties have something the other party wants and values. Both parties can benefit from or be hurt by the relationship.

In Richard Bach’s book Illusions there is a story of an underwater society that clings to the bottom of a river so they won’t get battered by the current. One day, one of them, against all traditional wisdom, let go. He was initially tumbled and bruised as he was forced along by the current. But then, after this painful start, his journey smoothed out and we was swept along with, rather than against, the river. Suddenly, there was a freedom never experienced before. (I’m going solely from memory, but that’s the gist that stuck with me.)

I suspect that letting go of the idea that we must control the conversation is a very similar leap of faith. We have to let go and stop pretending that the conversation is always one-sided and people don’t say things about us. When we first listen, learn, and seek out what is being said it probably feels like we’re being hit with the full force of the current. Painful, chaotic, out of control. It’s a leap of faith.

But then, if we realize the tremendous power in actual two-way conversation, where we can respond and influence, instead of duck, cover, and retaliate, it smooths out. We shift from controlling very narrow messages to expanding and influencing and flowing with much larger discussions and conversations. The relationship changes and becomes much more potent for it.

Ultimately, I believe that influence is much more powerful than control. Control contracts. We can only control so much. Influence is expansive. We can influence far more people, messages, and relationships than we can control.

It’s a leap of faith though to shift from control to influence. When you are used to telling the customer what to think it’s a huge jump to welcoming discussion and conversation with the customer. It’s a shift from controlling the message to being transparent. This transparency shows confidence, vulnerability, and authenticity. It creates real interactions. It changes the conversation.

The thing is, it’s impossible to do a leap of faith half way. You can’t “sorta” do it. Are you willing to make that leap as a company? As a department? As an individual?


two secrets for better public speaking in 5 minutes or less

[Ok, just had to use an infomercial style title this morning. Seemed like a fun way to kick off a Saturday]

Public speaking is a crucial career (and life) skill that requires practice and persistence before most people feel comfortable. And, no matter how good we get, there is no finish line – there is always room to develop our skill even further. It can be a tedious and painful process, but there is a way to short cut it a little.

Use your video camera (differently)

Videotaping yourself presenting – and actually watching the video – is the only way you can see how your audience is experiencing you. We all know that. But it can be lengthy, tedious process. Here are two “secret” ways to shortcutting the process and picking up on nuances you might otherwise miss.

Different way #1: It’s not what you say, it’s your body language

Shut the sound off. That’s right: watch your presentation without listening to it. Communication is 55% body language and with the volume down all your attention is on your presence. In just minutes (5 or less!) you can easily see how confident, energetic, enthusiastic, charming, engaging, etc. you are.

Different way #2: Did you really mean to move like that?

Watch it in fast forward. It’s amazing how much you can pick up about your presence and body language that you don’t notice at regular speed (but your audience is noticing subconsciously). Are you flapping your arms about, pacing like a lion in solitary confinement, or stuck in a repetitive gesture? You’ll see it right away (that’s right – 5 minutes or less!).

Don’t words matter?

Yes, sort of. Words are about 10% of the message received by your audience. It’s an important 10% that can either be supported or completely undermined and negated by your presence and body language. Shutting the sound off or watching on fast forward removes the distraction of your words and lets you really focus on how you are coming across.

keep it simple, make it easy

Want to know a secret of great businesses, of great customer service, of just getting stuff done? If you want someone to do something, make it as easy as possible for them to do it.

The best example is Amazon and their 1-click checkout. It doesn’t get any easier to give a business my money. Although it sounds intuitive, there are tons of examples of businesses that do the opposite. For example, I used to live near a dry cleaner that didn’t take debit cards (?!?). They never understood that forcing me to go to an ATM before getting my cleaning pretty much ensured I used a different cleaner.

There are many examples that are much, much subtler. This is on my mind because just this week alone, I was assaulted with several examples of people wanting something from me but making it very difficult to do:

  • A company I’m a certified trainer for emailed to let me know that revised materials were now available on their website. But no mention of where. It took me a good five minutes to track them down when a hyperlink in the email would have taken them no more effort and would made it a snap for me to find (and use) the new materials.
  • A friend forwarded a newsletter on training and l liked it enough to go to the website to subscribe. Unfortunately, they REQUIRE me to give name, company, address, email, phone number, some demographic info about the company, etc. I just wanted a newsletter, not a relationship. If they had only asked for an email I would have subscribed then they could have wowed me into buying their products. Instead, they made it easier for them to do a sales call to me, but made it harder for me so now they won’t get the chance.
  • I received an email that wanted me to provide some information and then told me where I could find the address to send it rather than just providing the address. What? The odds of me replying went down substantially.
  • I’m attending a training in the fall and was sent a reminder that “to sign up if I hadn’t already”. There are – maybe – 30 people eligible for the training and they couldn’t look at the roster and send out the reminder to only those who still need to sign up? Instead I received an email that I didn’t need to get UNLESS I haven’t signed up yet and only thought I did so now I have to email them just to confirm.

That was all just this week. Great customer service – great leadership – means finding ways to remove barriers to action – not adding them.