The Truth About Listening

By | September 30th, 2021|Uncategorized|

If I were to ask you, “What part of the body do you use for listening?” most English speakers would emphatically shout ‘EARS’. Of course, that’s what gets drummed into us in our infancy. However, the Chinese symbol for listening embodies a far more complex and arguably more accurate reflection of what listening really involves.

Could it be true that we need all FIVE aspects of the symbol to truly listen?

Let’s take an example. Imagine a simple statement; ‘I’m fine’.

Imagine it’s said with a smile, a calm, warm tone. What you can see, hear and feel is congruent – so they probably are fine.

Imagine it’s said with a curt, loud tone. I’m FINE. The person’s body is tense, their face is pinched with pursed lips. You’d believe the exact opposite.

Imagine the emphasis is on the ‘I’m’. I’M fine. You’d immediately question if there was someone else who’s not fine?

The exact same words can convey multiple different meanings depending on what we can hear, see, feel and interpret. This echoes Albert Mehrabian’s finding that when we seek to understand and interpret another person, their body language and tone of voice are more significant than the words they speak. If the body language and voice match the words, then we listen to the words. If they don’t match, then we pay far more attention to body language and tone for meaning – we might even ignore the words.

Clearly, we need at least 3 of the symbol’s aspects to listen:

Ears – to hear the tone and words.
Eyes – to see the body language and facial expressions.
Heart – can we feel what they are saying and tap into our own empathy?

But what about the Mind and Undivided Attention?

Let’s think about a concept from Stephen Covey in which ‘most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply’. This means that whilst someone is still talking, we are busy formulating our response and readying ourselves to jump in with our own point. Or there’s mind chatter going on – a running commentary in our heads ranging from thoughts on what the other person is saying to what we might have for dinner. Both prohibit us from being truly focused on tuning into and absorbing what the other person is saying.

Therefore, we absolutely DO need the last 2 aspects of:

Mind – are we being objective or making assumptions?
Undivided attention – being completely focused on the other person.

But why bother improving our listening skills?

Think about the people in your life who are good listeners. How do you feel about them? You probably really like them or at the very least respect them. When we really listen to others it’s what Covey describes as giving someone ‘psychological air’. They are more likely to think highly of you without you trying too hard AND if they feel heard by you, they will more likely listen to and take on board your ideas afterwards.

HOW do we listen bearing the 5 points from the Chinese symbol in mind?

Listening is HARD. Most of us like to think we’re good listeners but given the above definition – are we really? The truth is that listening is a state that we need to consciously ‘switch on’. It doesn’t come easily to us as humans.

3 quick tips to immediately listening better:

• Actively DECIDE to listen to a person – you really must ACTIVATE listening mode.
• Dial down internal chatter in your head. Stay focused. If you notice your mind has started to wander – just bring the focus back to the person.
• Reflect what you’ve heard – it shows the other person you’re really listening.

So start right now. The next person you talk to today – activate listening mode and really give them your absolute full attention. Notice the impact it has!

Kelly McGonigal on Stress at TEDGlobal: Our Response

By | June 17th, 2021|Performance, Presentation skills, Public speaking, Uncategorized|

An intriguing TED Talk on stress recently caught our attention at MSB Executive. In his latest blog, Steven Maddocks, our Head of Voice, shares our response.

Though we cover a range of disciplines at MSB Executive, a few core themes cut across all our specialist areas. Stress is one. The subject arises wherever we work, from executive coaching sessions to communication workshops.

So when Martyn, our founder, told us recently that he had watched a TED Talk that shed new light on stress, our eyes lit up.

The talk in question, called ‘How to make stress your friend’, was given by Kelly McGonigal at TEDGlobal in 2013. McGonigal, a health psychologist, starts with a confession. For the last ten years she has been telling people that stress makes you sick. She now realises that this advice might have been doing more harm than good.

McGonigal quotes a study showing that stress does indeed raise the risk of dying. However, this was true only for people who suffered from stress and believed it was doing them harm. Stress sufferers who did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die than the stress-free.

In other words, it is not the stress itself that kills you. What kills you is the belief that the stress will kill you!

We must change our view of stress

Therefore, McGonigal advises, we must change our view of stress. Stress symptoms – namely rapid breathing and a pounding heart – are usually viewed as signs that we are not coping. Wrong, she says: they are positive signs that the body is preparing itself to meet a challenge.

What McGonigal says is broadly reflected in our own practice at MSB Executive. We agree that stress should not be viewed as an ‘enemy’. This is itself a stressed response that traps mind and body in a vicious circle. We work with our clients on managing stress, not on crushing it.

Like McGonigal, we are enthusiasts for the increase in oxygenated blood that flows around the body under stress. We love the energy bonus it gives us as performers. As I used to tell my young drama students, ‘It’s good to be nervous! It means you know it’s important and you’re getting ready to do your best.’

Practical Changes

There are areas, though, where we would develop and refine McGonigal’s advice. At MSB Executive, we like to work practically. McGonigal’s instruction to ‘change your beliefs’ begs the question: how? We like to give clients specific tips, tools and techniques to help them cope with stress.

McGonigal’s talk doesn’t cover the mental effects of stress – such as sleeplessness, racing thoughts, the negative inner voice. This mental turmoil makes it extremely difficult to get hold of one’s belief in the moment and change them. Therefore, a vital first stage is to manage the symptoms of stress downwards, so that the mind is calmer and clearer.

Stress stems from a primitive fight/flight response (see my earlier blog on this subject). The modern stress response is poorly aligned to the actual threat faced (there is no tiger!). Armed with this knowledge, we already begin to put ourselves back in control.

McGonigal talks about the effect of stress on the heart, but its symptoms can be felt throughout the body. There is not much one can do about constricted blood vessels, but one can directly address tense shoulders, a churning stomach, or a dry mouth.

In fact we find it reassuring to know that the path to a calmer mind can lie through simple physical exercises, especially breathing. ‘Change your beliefs’ takes a little work. ‘Breathe out slowly for a count of eight’ – now that is something that can be done immediately.

Feeling Nervous? – Good!

By | May 6th, 2021|Communication, Nerves, Presentation skills, Public speaking, Uncategorized|

In his latest blog, Steven Maddocks, our Head of Voice Coaching, explores the upside of nerves and shows how public speaking might even be good for your health.

Public speaking gets a bad rap. One well-known poll places glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, at the top – making it a more terrifying prospect than spiders, enclosed spaces and even dying. (As Jerry Seinfeld wryly observed, at a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.)

Many of our clients at MSB Executive report feeling nervous – in some cases, very nervous – before speaking to an audience. We are commonly asked for advice on ‘combatting’ or ‘getting rid of’ nerves. Our response takes people by surprise: we tell them, ‘Don’t try to combat your nerves. This is the wrong approach. Your nerves are important!’

If combat is the wrong approach, what is the right one? Our answer to this question involves three stages: understand, manage and appreciate.

First, understand that nerves are a fight-or-flight response trigged by a situation of extreme danger. Or rather, triggered when the brain perceives a situation of extreme danger. Because in the case of public speaking, the brain has got it wrong! You are not on the savannah facing a sabre-toothed tiger. You are in the fourth-floor conference room facing your colleagues in HR. The nausea, the blushing, the sweaty palms – these are all vastly disproportionate to the situation at hand. Don’t let your body fool you into thinking this is life or death.

The second stage is to manage nerves. We have plenty of tips and techniques for managing the dry mouth, knocking knees, racing mind and other symptoms of nerves that threaten to derail a speech or presentation.

When we come to the third stage – appreciate your nerves – we are able to draw on our performance training and experience. Nerves are a fact of life for actors: we depend on them. Feeling nervous before a show gets us in the game. Judi Dench describes nerves as ‘an actor’s fuel.’ We know how to put our nervous energy to good use by channeling it into our performance. That’s what gives good actors their unmistakable fizz and stage presence. At MSB Executive, we show our clients how nervous energy, properly managed, can power a business presentation in the same way.

After a successful presentation – particularly if we were very nervous beforehand – we feel a buzz, that post-performance euphoria when we know we ‘knocked it out of the park’. This is partly rational: we take satisfaction in having mastered a challenge. But a recent scientific study suggests that there is something deeper going on. The buzz could in fact be a direct consequence of having felt nervous beforehand. The study in question placed its subject into a situation of stress for a short time and then took blood tests at intervals. The remarkable finding was that soon after feeling stress, the subject’s body was flooded with white blood cells. The stress had actually boosted the immune system.

If you think back to the savannah, this makes perfect sense. If the tiger takes a bite but doesn’t kill you, your body needs to be primed to fight off infection and heal. The immune system needs a boost.

Though ongoing stress is bad for us, the study suggests that we should embrace brief bouts of stress. Perhaps we should take a thrill-seeker’s approach to public speaking. Next time the nerves strike, remind yourself of the health benefits. Public speaking could save your life!

Zoomed Out? Some Top Tips To Survive The Zoom Era

By | March 31st, 2021|Online meetings, Online video, Presentation skills, Uncategorized, Video, Voice|

Among all the terms future dictionaries will inherit from COVID-19, ‘Zoom fatigue’ is certain to feature. (It applies to all video conferencing software, but ‘Microsoft Teams fatigue’ doesn’t have the same ring.) Citigroup employees are clearly fatigued: on 23 March, chief executive Jane Fraser announced ‘Zoom-free Fridays’.

But are there ways – short of a total switch-off – of making online meetings less exhausting? Considerable brain power has been applied to this question. Professor Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University offered four remedies for Zoom fatigue. How useful are they?

1. Reduce eye contact

Bailenson notes that eye contact on Zoom, with its sea of staring faces, is unnatural. Each face fills its box, so you are seeing colleagues or clients much closer-up than you would in real life. This can put the brain into a state of heightened anxiety. Bailenson suggests reducing the size of the Zoom window to shrink the faces. He also suggests increasing the distance between you and your screen so you are literally further away from everyone.

Our opinion: This is useful advice. We work with our clients on how to ‘frame’ oneself. Giving a good view of yourself to others can be vital to a successful meeting. (We don’t just mean having some ‘clever’ books in the background!) If everyone’s view of you – and yours of them – is approximately what it would be across a boardroom table, you have got it right.

2. Turn off self-view

The constant view of ourselves we have on Zoom (Bailenson likens it to being followed around all day by someone holding a mirror) can cause negativity and stress. Bailenson suggests we ‘hide self-view’. To do this on Zoom just right click on your thumbnail and you will be given this option.

Our opinion: This advice is sound, though we would point out some of the benefits of self-view. Without it, we can only guess at what others are seeing of us. Is the bright light in the background throwing us into silhouette? Are our excellent hand gestures ‘in shot’? We say, by all means turn off self-view, but only once you are confident that you look your best. Appoint a trusted colleague to keep an eye on you and let you know (privately!) if you have spinach in your teeth.

3. Move around

A day working from home is much less mobile than a day at the office. Bailenson recommends putting distance between yourself and the camera to allow room to ‘pace and doodle.’

Our opinion: The problem is correctly identified, but the solution is incomplete. We advise a maximum of fifty minutes before a break to stretch legs. Meetings should not be back to back. Lunch breaks should be long enough for some light exercise. We recommend using a standing desk (it could just be a kitchen worktop or a music stand) for at least part of the day. Why not designate certain meetings as scrums, with everyone standing? We think you’ll notice an uplift in positivity!

4. Have ‘audio only’ breaks

Bailenson identifies a downside of Zoom that we at MSB Executive have been talking about since the beginning: effective communication online is harder work. A virtual meeting strips away the ‘nonverbals’ that flow between us when we meet in real life. These subtle (and subconscious) eye movements, twitches, gestures and electrical signals clear the path along which our words travel. Our brains naturally seek them out, but – on a Zoom call – cannot find them. This futile hunt exhausts us. Bailenson suggests taking breaks from video by switching to audio-only and turning away from the screen.

Our opinion: This advice (avoidance) is somewhat negatively framed. It is true that some meetings would be better as ‘audio only’. So leave the laptop behind altogether, go to a different room and… pick up the phone!

The absence of nonverbals increases pressure on the voice, which has to work harder. That is why we offer voice coaching sessions with plenty of practical advice for keeping the voice bright and confident throughout the day. Our clients report back that sounding good makes them feel good – just the sort of positive outcome we always drive for.

Written by Steven Maddocks, MSB Executive’s Head of Voice Coaching

The top 3 traps leading to ‘death by powerpoint’

By | November 12th, 2020|Uncategorized|

Most people have suffered from terrible Powerpoint presentations at work. Unfortunately, in the UK government briefing are now bringing bad Powerpoints into our sitting rooms. It is unfortunate that when the message is so important the medium can let us down.

We thought it might help to share a few of our team’s thoughts on making our Powerpoints support our message rather than distract from it. If we can all raise our game maybe we can do our bit to make bad Powerpoints the exception rather than the norm. Below are the most common pitfalls in using Powerpoint slides. In our next Blog we will talk about what we can do to make them better.

The example that prompted this blog were the slides the Government used on 31st October 2020: overcrowded, tiny writing, complex data and far too much going on. It’s something we come across a lot when working with clients on their presentation skills. Presenters who would otherwise be engaging to listen to, get overshadowed by the Powerpoint slides they feel obliged to use. The audience doesn’t know whether to listen or read the slides and so often ends up doing neither. We want to create positive emotions in our audience, but baffling or illegible slides create the opposite effect – they feel frustrated / confused / wonder if they’re being stupid.

Here are the main traps we see people falling into regarding the use of Powerpoint in presentations:

Trap Number 1: Using the Powerpoint presentation as a script

As Seth Godin reminds us, ‘slides should reinforce your words, not repeat them’.

Your slides should not be your script. That’s not to say you don’t need to plan out your content in detail. However, do this on cue cards or in the ‘notes’ section of Powerpoint.

Trap Number 2: Using what should be a Handout as the Powerpoint presentation

We know that often our clients are using material that was put together by the marketing team. These playbooks are usually created to be stand-alone documents – i.e. to be read by the client rather than be read to the client.

To use these to give presentations is a mistake.

Instead, pull out the absolute key points only from the collateral. Challenge yourself to ask – what one thing from this page would I want to client to really understand? Try to keep one point per slide. Use only a few words on the slide. YOU are there to deliver the actual content, not the slides.

Trap Number 3: Using the Powerpoint presentation as a data dump

Sometimes people try to include every piece of evidence that has led you to draw your conclusion on slides. This is certainly what the government did on Oct 31st. However, you can really lose your audience by doing this. They are trying to make sense of what they’re seeing so they don’t actually listen to your message.

It is much better to skip to the findings from your analysis.  You can always provide the raw data in a handout or have it ready in an appendix in case someone does ask for it. Simplicity on your slides is golden. It doesn’t diminish the hard work you’ve put in. It allows people to get straight to the key points.

To conclude

Those are the most common pitfalls we see. In our next blog we will talk about what is the purpose of slides along with some simple design principles. As ever, we would be delighted to hear your thoughts.

 

 

 

Empathetic Communication From Leaders In The Time Of Covid

By | May 28th, 2020|Authenticity, Leadership, Personal Profile, Presentation skills, Public speaking, Uncategorized|

We often look at how our leaders communicate to see what we can learn. Sometimes we share examples of outstanding communication as well as times they get it wrong.

 At the moment, what our leaders are doing and saying is affecting our lives in an extraordinary way. This means we all have strong opinions about the actions that are being taken and how they are explained to us.

 From the many briefings and Q&A sessions going on around the globe, we have been repeatedly struck by one lesson. That is the importance of empathy.

 This is often an underrated quality in speakers. Unfortunately, some leaders confuse it with showing weakness and vulnerability in a way that will undermine respect. We do not believe this is true in ‘ordinary’ times and it is certainly not true in a crisis.

 For anyone who underestimates empathy as something ‘fluffy’ or untrustworthy, they are on shaky ground. From Aristotle’s Rhetoric onwards it has been an essential part of persuasion.

 Two politicians who have unquestionably shown the power of empathy are Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Andrew Cuomo Mayor of New York.

 For Ardern, there are the memorable moments of empathy on a small-scale level including warning children the Easter bunny might not make it to every house . When empathy is combined with simple, powerful messages it hits home. Particularly effective was her comment: “We only have 102 cases – but so did Italy once.”

 For Andrew Cuomo, he wasn’t afraid to share his personal pain:

 “I haven’t seen my daughter in over two weeks. It breaks my heart. It breaks my heart. And this concept of maybe I can’t get next to her because of this virus. There’s a distance between me and my daughter because of this virus. It saddens me to the core. And it frightens me to the core.”

 This gives him the right to talk about shared struggles and his belief about the ability of the people of New York to come through it.

 “Understand what we’re dealing with. Understand the pressures that we’re feeling, but we will get through this time. Be a little bit more sensitive. Understand the stress. Understand the fear. Be a little bit more loving, a little bit more compassionate, little bit more comforting, a little bit more cooperative and we will get through this time.”

 Empathy is something we can all embrace and become stronger leaders.

A simple guide to improving your articulation

By | April 14th, 2020|Blog, Building Confidence, Client skills, Online meetings, Online video, Presentation skills, Uncategorized, Video, Voice|

Our Head of Voice at MSB Executive; Steven Maddocks shares simple tools and techniques to improve articulation. This is another part of our series to ensure impactful communication at online meetings.

Hate watching yourself on video? Don’t worry, you are in good company.

By | March 25th, 2020|Blog, Body Language, Building Confidence, Online meetings, Online video, Personal Profile, Uncategorized, Video|

One of the side effects of having so many online meetings is that we cannot avoid seeing ourselves on screen. Some people find it distracting and others even say it makes them feel anxious.

This short blog is written to assure you that you are not alone. Many actors refuse to watch their performances and go to great lengths to avoid it. Recently Adam Driver walked out of an interview to avoid seeing himself on screen.

This may seem particularly strange for an actor. It feels a bit like a chef refusing to eat their own food!

Whenever we use video in our sessions with clients we always give a health warning. Most of the video we see is on television and film. As the end credits show there is a small army of people ensuring the actors look good (or sometimes bad). This includes a lighting team, sound team and a number of make up artists. 

This can mean that even if we are doing a great job at our online meeting it might not look that way. If we judge ourselves by the standards of TV and video then we will always be disappointed.

More tips will follow on this blog to help us look as good as possible but in the meantime, a really good option is to get a desk light like the one we recommended in an earlier blog.

If all else fails, hopefully you can take some comfort from the fact that even the professionals with all their support teams often find it difficult as well.

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