Trouble at the Starting Line

Trouble at the Starting Line

As many of my clients will agree, the most challenging part of any presentation, meeting, or other high-stakes communication is the beginning (with the end running a close second). In a workshop I was running last week, many participants received the same feedback from their peers, “You seemed a little shaky at first but got more confident as you went along.” It makes sense. Often people come in cold and need a couple minutes to get into the swing of things. Also, the start is usually where we might be introducing ourselves – something most people really hate doing. Finally, the beginning is when we are adjusting to being the center of attention.

Luckily, there are some very simple things we can do to get that shaky part sorted out before we start, so the beginning is as good as the middle (we’ll talk about the end in a future installation). So let’s get to it:

  1. Warm up your mouth: Silly as they are, tongue twisters are a great way to warm up your articulators and tighten the link between your thoughts and the words you say so you don’t stumble over difficult consonant combinations. This is especially helpful when your communication is occurring early in the day, when you may not have been doing much talking yet. Here’s the way to get the most from practicing tongue twisters:

► Choose ones that are particularly challenging for you.

► Start slowly and increase speed only when you can get through the twister without any errors.

Hyperarticulate the sounds (ie. For Tip of the tongue, say “tiP OF THE tongue,” as opposed to shortening to “tip-uh th-tongue” – or – for Thistles Stick, say “thistle-Z Stick,” not “thistlestick”)

► Memorize difficult ones and practice them while you get ready in the morning or on your drive to work.

► Practice with your kids if you have them (they will love it!)

Here are some of my favorites. There are many more to be found with a quick search online.

  1. Emotional Preparation: A simple and effective tool that many trained actors (and boxers, and other athletes) use to prepare for peak performance is listening to specific music. Even for people who aren’t particularly musical, songs can provide a fast track to reaching a different emotional state. Listening to the right song can slow your heart rate, or energize you, brighten your mood, or make you sad and introspective. Because music has the potential to be this impactful, it’s important to find the right songs to help get you where you want to be. Here are some tips:

► Don’t judge what works for you. When I was in graduate school and needing to prepare to come into a scene on an upbeat note (when something happy was supposed to have happened offstage, for example) the song I listened to was Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride. Do not ask me why that particular song, but it was the perfect choice to get me joyful and bouncy. You could be the CEO of an investment bank and, for whatever reason, Toxic by Brittney Spears is the song that works for you. Don’t judge, just listen.

► Choose a song that brings out the best in you. Go ahead and dance to it (before you start your meeting, of course) and get your body moving and free. If you’re listening to it in your car, sing along. You can listen to it in earbuds in the restroom stall right before the meeting or presentation to get you in a good emotional place to start.

► If you struggle with managing too much energy, choose a song that you find beautiful and calming but not something that would put you to sleep. You want energy to start and stay strong.

► Try a number of songs and see how you feel when you listen to them. Sometimes it may be a song from another time in your life.

► If you’re not much of a music person, ask friends and colleagues what songs they like for the mood you are trying to attain and test those.

    1. Plan your introduction thoughtfully. If you’re starting with a personal introduction, think about what would be important for this audience to know about you for this occasion. When people don’t know us, the introduction serves to establish credibility and an opportunity to build trust. Don’t squander this chance to lay a solid foundation for the information you plan to share. Come up with a few ways of talking about yourself briefly that would be appropriate in different situations and that you can feel good about sharing. Here are some ideas for getting the most out of your beginning:

► Write key bullet points for your introduction.

► PRACTICE SAYING THEM OUT LOUD. Many clients skip this step and only write notes for the meat of the content. 

► Do not write out, word-for-word, your own introduction. This inevitably comes off very strange as you are talking about yourself and speaking from a script is very difficult to make seem natural (take it from an actor – it requires special technique and training).

► Practice OUT LOUD speaking to those bullet points in different ways each time. This will loosen you up to articulate the same points in the way that feels best in the moment and shake loose the idea that there is only one correct way to say these things. Address each point separately and sincerely with small pauses in between.

► Consider these when starting a meeting or presentation:

■ Greeting

■ Gratitude (thank you for taking the time to join me . . .)

■ Personal Intro (if appropriate)

– name and title

– what I do

– how people benefit from what I do

■ Purpose of what is about to take place – Why we are doing this

■ Intended outcome (“At the end of this hour, we should all be clear on the next steps for this project,” or, “This presentation will provide you with a better understanding of how inflation is impacting our clients and ways we can address their concerns with confidence.”)

► Record this process on your phone or other video device (you can do this for your whole presentation) and observe things you’d like to change and try again.

By adding these steps to your next presentation or meeting, you will find you have a much stronger start, you will appear more confident (even if you aren’t feeling it yet), and your audience will be able to sit back and enjoy the ride. Isn’t it nice to know that sometimes the answer is simple? 

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