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OK, so never start a sentence with these 10 words…

No offense, but I recently had to leave a lecture because the speaker began every other sentence with either “So…” or “Alright, so…”

His information may have been spectacular, but after a half hour, I felt too distracted to listen anymore. When your audience starts playing a mental drinking game based on taking a sip every time you say “so” and downing the whole glass every time you begin a sentence with the word “so” — and they’re hammered in 5 minutes — you might want to face the problem.

Saying “so” is so over.

The dreadful part about saying “so” is that it’s insanely catchy. A half-hour of listening to someone repeat so like a neurotic cuckoo clock, and you’ll find yourself doing the same damn thing.

The “so” phenomenon has spread like wildfire over the past few years. If we’re conscious of it, maybe we can make that little devil go away.

I’m trying like mad to drop that absurd little word from the start of my sentences, and it’s going pretty well. But all I have to do is listen to an interview on NPR for 10 minutes in the car, and it comes galloping back at my next meeting.

Vexed, I scrawled a list in my Moleskine: Top 10 words never to begin a sentence with —

1. So…

2. OK. So…

3. Alright, so…

4. Alright…

5. OK.

6. No offense, but…

7. I think…

8. I feel…

9. Ahem…

10. Just…

It’s a hastily scrawled list, based largely on my own annoyance that these words have actually flown out of my mouth. It’s a monkey-hear, monkey-say situation: I hear these phrases and I repeat these phrases.

I’m going to make a conscious effort to stop saying these phrases with any kind of frequency. If one slips into my speech a time or two, that’s acceptable. But I don’t want to have it escalate into a drinking-game distraction!

What “stop words” are on your Top 10 lists?

Laura Bergells is a professional story finder. She writes, coaches, teaches, and speaks. Check out her online courses at LinkedIn Learning. If you’re a LinkedIn Premium or member, these courses are free! If you’re not a member, you can either become a member or buy each of these classes à la carte.

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Doing Nothing is the New Doing Something

Recently, I noticed this absurd trend of gallantly and heroically doing nothing.

About 19 months ago, I accidentally left my cell phone home and traveled out of town on business. When I arrived at the hotel, I needed to find the conference organizer. I used my laptop to call her via Skype & explained that I forgot my cell phone.

I found not-carrying a phone to be extremely advantageous that week. No one changed plans with me at the last minute, since they had no way of reaching me. And I received no interruptions, so I got tons of stuff done.

When I got home, I didn’t want to return to my life as a cell phone carrying goofball. So I didn’t. I just stopped carrying a phone. No big deal, right?

Oh, no. Some folks made a huge deal out of it. I got four main questions:

  • Was I making some kind of social statement? (Not really. I forgot my phone one day, found out I really didn’t need it and that was that.)
  • How do I communicate effectively with clients and friends? (I make plans and stick to them. Every productivity expert on the planet tells you to only check messages at a few planned times a day, so not carrying a phone is probably a best practice.)
  • What’s it like to not carry a smart phone? (I don’t know. I’ve never carried a smart phone, only a cell phone. I have nothing to compare it to, so I honestly don’t know. The smart phone seems like a way for marketers and others to have unrestricted access to me, so I’m not all that keen on the idea of owning one.)
  • What if you have an emergency? (At first, I was stubborn. Everyone else has a phone, so I can borrow one in an emergency. That was my argument, and it lasted about 7 months. However, my partner insisted that I carry a cell for emergencies, so I got a burner mostly to comfort him and foster family harmony.)

So, there I was, not-doing anything, and it got me all kinds of attention. It was like I was actually doing something! One conference organizer suggested I prepare a talk about what it was like to not-carry a phone.

That seemed crazy to me. But I was wrong.

Not-doing something is the new doing something. People are fascinated by people who don’t-do things.

There’s a long list of popular things to not-do. Eat meat/gluten/sugar. Drink alcohol or coffee. Do drugs. Have children. Watch TV. Consume the news. Drive a car. Go to church. Use social media. Carry a gun or credit card. Honestly, the list of things to not-do is infinite.

However, what do people do while they’re not doing the thing they’re not doing?

Here’s the odd part: they talk or write incessantly about the thing they are not doing! If you decide not to use a fork, for example, you set up a Tumblr account to journal about the experience. If you’re not going to use the internet for a bit, you issue a press release and try to get media coverage or a book deal. If you plan to not-work and not-drive a car, you set up a blog and make money from the idea of not needing much money.

Frankly, I’m a bit jealous. There’s a zillion things that I don’t do. It simply never occurred to me that not-doing something was worthy of a book deal, blog, TV show, press release, or humanitarian award.

Since not-doing anything is a pretty hot trend, I thought I might cash in on this gravy train. Pick a thing that I don’t do, and then write about not doing it. What I normally do is not even think about the things I’m not doing.

Why feed the poor, care for the sick, pick up trash, or plant trees — for example — when you can do nothing and make the world a better place?

Clearly, I’ve been doing it wrong. I’m going to start not-doing it right!

What are you not-doing lately? Where’s your humanitarian award?

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What’s the exact opposite of what you’re saying?

When you edit a business presentation that offers a numbered list or step-by-step instructions, here’s a fun way to make your content more satisfying. In your head, ask yourself, “what might the exact opposite of that action be?”

  • “Communicate with employees” might become “Leave employees in the dark.”
  • “Follow the company policy manual” can be “Ignore all laws and rules.”
  • “Remain calm” might become “Have a complete nervous breakdown.”

Freak out

photo credit t0 Frau Shizzle

When I play “the opposite game” as I’m editing a list, I can easily spot weak writing. If my “opposite” advice sounds ridiculous, I know I’m saying something too vague to be valuable.

I might as well not say it at all!

Other than simply eliminating weak writing, I might also want to consider a re-write. A great way to pack more punch into a sloppy call to action is to move from the general to the specific. For example, instead of the first two bullet points, I might write “3 Company Policies to Review with Staff on May 1”. A specific headline or bullet point is often more memorable, actionable, or valuable than a generic one.

Try playing “the opposite game” with your latest business presentation or article. Take a look at your bullet point lists or headlines. What insights does “playing the opposite game” give you? How did it help you make your presentation stronger or more specific?

(And help me out — how can I re-write “Manage Expectations”??? As opposed to what?)

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How do you feel about the “thank you” slide?

At the end of a presentation, you can say, “thank you.”

Sure, it’s not the strongest close in the world. However, it’s certainly acceptable to say “thank you” if you’re feeling especially grateful or moved.

But a slide that reads “Thank You” at the end of your presentation? That’s weak.

Thank You Slide

A “Thank You” slide takes the focus off the genuine emotional gratitude of the speaker. It reduces authentic warmth to an emotionally hollow visual cliché.

Further, it shows that you assume that your audience will be grateful for your presentation. What if they aren’t? What if they’re hostile to you and your message? And then you go ahead and put up your ‘thank you’ slide while they’re all booing, further antagonizing them with your sarcasm.

What’s your excuse for using a “Thank You” slide at the end of your presentation?

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When to use social search to supplement Google search…

You can ask Google almost anything. But at the moment, you have to use your words.

Today, I can’t show Google a photo of an unknown thing and ask, “What is this thing?”

For such queries, social search might be a better option. You can post a photo on your blog, on Twitter, on Facebook, on YouTube, on Flickr — and ask your friends. After wading through guesses and jokes, you might want to use Google to verify the answers!

Before the popularity of online social search, I used my favorite social network: face-to-face. I’d ask friends and colleagues, “What is this?” In the case of the unknown object seen in the YouTube video posted below, it took about 5 years of lighthearted cocktail party conversations before I found a correct answer.

Today, I’m posting the object online for the first time. I’m going to guess that it’s going to take a considerably shorter amount of time than 5 years for someone to see this and correctly identify the object.

My three questions to you are:

1) how long before we’re able to show Google a photo of an object and have Google correctly identify the object?

2) under what other circumstances might you use social search to supplement Google search?

3) what is the ‘thing’ in the video?

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Why do people love the positive-attitude presenter?

We have different feelings about that guy. Who’s that guy?

Oh, you know that guy. He’s that presenter that’s very pumped up in front of his audience. He’s idiotically happy, and demands that you act that that way, too.

HE: Good morning!
HE: I can’t hear you! Gooood MORNING! Let me hear you say GOOD MORNING! C’mon! It’s a beautiful day! Let’s make this the start of a super positive day! GOOD MORNING!

fake a smile.

photo by Lauren Garza

Yeah. I don’t like that guy. Most everybody else in the audience hated that guy, too. Can you blame us? It was 8am. We were all easing into  our days with mugs of coffee in a corporate training room. The forced cheerfulness made everyone feel hostile toward the outside training guy almost immediately. Frowns, groans, and eye rolls all around.

Afterwards, connecting with colleagues, we agreed. The presenter was insufferable. Corny, cheesy, fake-positive awful. For hours.

When I told the story of our unanimous dislike for the faux-cheerful speaker to other colleagues, I was reprimanded.

“What’s wrong with you? I love positive attitude guys. They give me a lift. You should have given him a chance.”

In all fairness, I gave him a chance. I felt insulted. So did most of the people in the room.

As a presenter, I need to gauge the mood of the audience and adjust my tone and style. Most of the time, a business presenter needs to be slightly more peppy than the audience. (There are exceptions.) Displaying a little more energy than your audience demonstrates courtesy. Without words, a slightly amped energy level says that you acknowledge the feelings of the audience while being mindful that you’re enthusiastic about your content.

If you go way overboard and fake an egregiously cheerful attitude, you cross a line. It says that you don’t care about the feelings of the audience: you’re going to try to force them to be as falsely cheerful as you’re pretending to be. It even sends a message that your content isn’t that good — instead of being genuinely enthusiastic, you have to fake your enthusiasm.

So yeah, I don’t like that guy. But my question is: why on earth do other people seem to love this guy?

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How are you using improv skills to build credibility?

True story: I haven’t formally interviewed for a job since 1999.

So when a local university called to ask if I could conduct a training session about interviewing skills, I politely declined. I haven’t interviewed for a real job since 1999. I don’t feel qualified to speak to a modern audience about interviewing for a job. I can personally claim no first-hand expertise in successfully interviewing in this job market — in this century!

For me, it’s all about credibility. If I don’t have experience or knowledge about the topic — why would I agree to talk about it? I told the event coordinator that I’d be happy to talk about body language or confidence building — but not interviewing skills.

Interviewing skills

Image by bpsusf, on Flickr

It was one of those out-of-the-blue phone calls that lasted 5 minutes — but it stuck in my mind in a glib, offhand way. I often use this anecdote to offer an important lesson on developing credibility: don’t agree to speak on a topic if you don’t have knowledge or experience in said topic!

But I thought about it a little more last week. I fell to wondering: who did the university get to speak on the topic?

It strikes me that job seekers who have interviewed extensively throughout this decade may have experience with interviewing. However, their experience may not necessarily be successful! After all, they haven’t landed a job.

As it turns out, the university hired an HR person from a large company to speak. And he received rave reviews.

Apparently, the speaker ran an improv session. He asked students to come up and fake interview with him. Brilliant approach! The HR person offered critiques, and the audience chimed in with their comments, as well. It was a lively and interactive show, with lots of actual learning taking place.

I’m a huge fan of using improv skills in business presentations. Improvisation shows that you know the material well enough to think on your feet. You can adapt your content on the fly. Done well, improv demonstrates competence and confidence.

Improv skills

by gaelenh, on Flickr

Often closely associated with raucous comedy shows, improv is also a critical skill in a business context. After all, listening is at the heart of improv. Instead of sticking firmly to a script, you listen and react to the other performers on stage, as well as the audience. You put aside your ego, and engage in public conversations.

As we enter into the era of greater social media use, business improv skills are becoming increasingly important. Gone are the days of using a corporate voice and sticking to the company script.

Boring, pompous, one-way conversations are officially OVER. I’ve been discussing the need for developing more improv skills in business communications for the past few years. In corporate training sessions, I often lead sessions by inviting the audience to participate and react. As a result — we all learn.

I see the need for more improv training in business communication. You?

And how are you currently using improv techniques in your business presentations?

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When was the last time you flipped someone the bird?

Earlier this week, I showed this image of an adorable baby during a body language training segment.

I asked the class, “Is this baby angry?”

Baby Flips the Bird

The class smirked. Sure, the baby’s flipping the bird, but the infant’s not angry. A baby has no idea that showing the middle finger might be an obscene or angry gesture.

However, the photo inspired another thought-provoking discussion. One student commented that he couldn’t remember a time when someone seriously flipped him the bird. The bird is seen as more of a “fun and friendly” gesture than an obscene one.

I had to agree. I can’t remember the last time someone flipped me the bird in anger! However, I can recall a number of times when friends flipped me the bird ironically or in mock outrage — and vice versa.

The context for ironic bird flipping usually occurs when you say something obtuse, challenging, or intentionally provocative to a pal or colleague. Your chum cheerfully acknowledges your japing remark with a friendly, ironic bird flip and a half-grin.

It’s all in good fun, and no one is legitimately appalled or hurt. Example:

Work colleague:
“What do you say we organize a company golf scramble for June?”

“Really? You still want to play golf after last year’s event when you lost 4 balls in the pond?”

Work colleague:
Flips you the bird with a twisted, tortured smile.

Don’t call the HR Department for harassment. Don’t throw fisticuffs. Instead, recognize that you and your colleague are deepening your relationship with a little smack talk…and a hand gesture.

Groovy. Epic. Awesome. Gnarly. Many words and phrases lose their emotional significance due to overuse (see Lake Superior State University’s annual list of banished words for more ‘amazing’ examples). However, we seldom look at gestures to see if they’ve lost their ability to provoke.

It’s 2012. Has ‘the bird’ lost its emotional power to inspire anger or outrage?

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I can haz mad communication skillz…

If you say you have excellent communication skills, you’re demonstrating that you don’t. Communication skills are self evident, not self described.

I can haz cat

Yet many hiring managers persistently write “strong communication skills” as a requirement in job descriptions. Sadly, savvy job hunters must include the vile term “excellent communication skills” in their résumés …or risk being rejected by an automated résumé keyword scanner.

The automated résumé keyword scanner is a nasty robot that scans your résumé before humans get a chance to review it. If your résumé fails to include all the requirements in the posted job description, you’ll get an automated rejection letter. A human being who has the power to hire you may never even see your résumé.

Therefore, in order to prove that you possess excellent communication skills, your résumé must demonstrate poor written communication skills. Blind to the finer nuances of communication (sentence structure, word choice, posture, tone of voice, etc.), an adroitly programmed robot will systematically reject the most exceptional candidates.

How Orwellian and twisted has job hunting become in 2012? And how might an excellent communicator get around the robot?

The fault lies squarely with hiring managers. Why put “excellent communication skills” in a job description at all? It’s not like “an absence of communication skills” would ever be desirable. And when HR departments use robots to eliminate people, don’t be surprised when résumés include spammy, meta keyword-loaded sections titled “FOR AUTOMATED KEYWORD SCANNING ROBOTS ONLY”. You asked for it!

After all, ‘audience identification & analysis’ is one of the first tasks a skilled communicator will perform!

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Three vital presentation lessons learned…from a walk in the woods

For close to two decades, I take an almost-daily walk near my office. It helps the creative process to get out and clear my head. My office is located in an old forest. A creek runs through it, creating a sizable gully. I’ve seen deer, coyotes, rabbits, and all sorts of birds on my constitutional.

As one of the more civilized creatures, I walk on the sidewalk that cuts through the forest. No sense muddying my shoes on the way to and from work.

A few weeks ago, something new caught my eye on my daily walk. Someone had crawled down into the depths of the gully to place a red sign on a tree. The bright red spot caught my eye and raised my curiosity.

Sign from the sidewalk
The sign, as seen from the sidewalk

Squinting, I gathered that there were words on the sign. However, the sign was too far down the hill for me to read. An innately curious person, I simply had to know what the sign was trying to communicate. In a typical January, the forest would be filled with drifts of snow, making it near impossible for me to get close to the sign. Even so, the forest floor was filled with slick leaves, so I half slid down the gully to get a closer look. Halfway down, I snapped another photo:

Sign, halfway down the hill, with zoom.
Sign, halfway down the hill, with zoom.

Curses! I still could not read the sign. Determined, I continued to slide down the hill until I got a few feet away from the tree.

No Hunting or Trespassing.
I'm going to be prosecuted.

I felt entrapped. Twenty years, and I never once think to wander down a steep hill to go into the forest. A bright sign inflames my curiosity, and boom. I’m a trespasser.

Vexed, I trudged back up the slippery hill. A Pileated woodpecker gave me a stern lecture, then banged his head on a rotted tree top. The judge banged his gavel. I had been dismissed. Case closed.

What three presentation lessons had I been reminded of from my foray into the forest?

The unexpected will rivet audience attention. Breaking a pattern is a very basic way to grab attention. I was accustomed to seeing only forest: the red sign caught my interest because it was different than what I had expected to see. How can you break a visual or sensory pattern in your next presentation to grab attention and get your audience to take action?

Be careful with negative instructions. If you don’t want your audience to do something, don’t even put the idea into their heads. If I tell you to NOT think about woodpeckers right now, guess what you’re going to do? You’re visualizing woodpeckers right now, aren’t you? Yet, you had no intention of doing so… until I told you NOT to do it.

Take words seriously. If you want me to take your words seriously, how about making your font size huge and clearly visible? What about placing your sign (or your PowerPoint) almost smack in front of me, instead of making me peer down a gully or around a post or from the side or through someone’s head?

I’m pleased to report that the woodpecker let me off with only a warning. I will be doing no serious time or paying a hefty fine for my trespass  — other than scraping what appears to be an unpleasant mix of mud and coyote dung off the bottom of my shoes.