If you’re building a venture, running a country, or starting a movement, you need to know how to persuade people. What makes someone more a persuasive communicator than others?
Professor Barbara Tannenbaum of Brown University has turned heads all over the world with her powerful message—you can be more persuasive every single day if you know the right tools. Her course on public speaking is one of the most oversubscribed classes each semester because it teaches one of life’s most elusive and necessary skills: effective communication.
Barbara sat down with IVY Magazine to talk about ways all of us can transform how we speak and act to be more persuasive in our everyday lives.
IVY: What are the phrases or words to avoid when public speaking, or communicating in general?
If you’re looking to be powerful, the number one word to avoid is “just.” You can use “just” as a reference—I just came from another appointment—but any other usage—I just think that—diminishes the power of what you’re saying. Even “I think” should be avoided. I ask politicians whether they’d vote for someone who’d say, “I think I have a plan for education reform.” No, they would not. You should instead be saying, “I have a plan.”
“Kind of” and “sort of” are detractors. “You know” is similar. My parents rid me of “you know” at a young age when they said, “No, I don’t know, and if we do know, why are you telling us?”
I don’t like “actually.” It sounds like you’re surprised, or you expect that the audience is surprised: “Well, we actually went to the movies the other night….”
Avoid “really and “very.” The problem is that the vocal accent is on the weak word. It becomes “this is really important” instead of “this is important.” Get rid of qualifiers and user stronger words. This is critical.
IVY: What are the most common mistakes you see people make when public speaking?
People don’t take the audience into account. I talk a lot about audience-centered communication. We need to present the message differently to different audiences.
It’s about your goal and your audience. That goes back to Aristotle.
IVY: Aristotle is definitely one of the greats. What do you think all great speakers have in common?
The thing they all have in common is a great belief in what they say. And they have a capability to be powerful and natural at the same time. If we’re looking at political figures, I always go back to Bill Clinton, who loves an audience. When someone meets him, he’s charming. He looks at you, and he makes you feel important.
IVY: How do you read an audience?
Audience analysis should take place before, during, and after a presentation. Before, you want to think about who the audience is, and what you’d want to hear from their perspective. During the talk, you need to pay attention to the people who look confused. If you ask the audience, “is everyone with me?” they’re not likely to say, “no.” But if I say, “Would you like another example?” or “Would you like me to talk more about this?” then I can make sure everyone understands. This is especially important on the phone, with only verbal cues. After the talk, I do a brief write-up about what I learned.
IVY: How do you overcome anxiety when you’re speaking?
A common fear (which is listed first on the list of fears of Americans—higher than the fear of death) is public speaking. When we’re nervous, we assume we broadcast that we’re nervous. But only people who know us extremely well will know when we’re acting unusually. Most people won’t recognize it.
When you’re nervous, an important thing to do is to label what you’re feeling. Rather than thinking you’re nervous, you can think of yourself as energetic. It takes a lot of energy to speak, and we’re all attracted to people with a lot of energy. I call it my “Rock Star Theory of Communication.”
There was a study published in the Harvard Business Review that looked at what made people succeed or fail in front of an audience. There are our physiological signs of nervousness (increased heart beat, sweat, dry mouth) and then there’s the way we label those things. The study found that the people who succeeded despite nervous energy were not the people who tried to clamp it down and say to themselves, “don’t be nervous,” because in that case, they were putting themselves in psychological confusion. Instead, successful performers were those who directed their nervous energy elsewhere. If you’re nervous, you can say to yourself, “I’m feeling so excited about the opportunity.”
Also, it helps to know most audiences forget what they hear almost immediately.
IVY: Interesting. So how do you make people remember what you say?
Repetition. In order to remember something, we need to hear it between two and four times. More than four times, and we start getting annoyed.
We can also highlight the things that we feel are important—this is called verbal highlighting.
Humor also increases retention.
IVY: Are you born a good speaker, or do you become a good speaker?
Ted Kennedy once told me that his brother Jack didn’t fulfill his potential as a speaker until he received full coaching. People think the Kennedys were born to it. Coaching exists, and it will improve our performance whatever our job is. It’s not just what we know, learn, or discover; it’s how we communicate that to other people.
IVY: Do you still get nervous?
Of course I get nervous! I get nervous when I’m asked to stretch beyond what I’m comfortable being an expert in. Anyone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about ought to feel a bit of nervousness because there’s more to learn.
IVY: Do millennials have more problems with public speaking than older generations?
Millennials get less practice at delivering in person, and that changes things. It becomes a question of how you read this text, how do you respond, how eager did that message sound, or how does that sound in general without the visual of the person delivering it. In general, these days, I think that we don’t see as many role models for great speakers or great persuaders.
IVY: What are the greatest pieces of advice you’ve received?
I don’t even know who told me this but it’s something I’ve lived by: everyone is in our lives for a reason. It’s up to us to figure out what we can learn from them. So, sometimes if I dislike someone it’s because I see myself as part of them, or I’m afraid I’ll go in that direction. That’s a good reminder for me of who I want to be. We can architect situations so that we are interpreting someone’s energy in a new, constructive way.
Another one: my father told me before I left for college that I could be anyone I wanted to be, so it was up to me to decide what I wanted to be.
Then, there’s a quotation by Audre Lorde—she is a deceased African American lesbian feminist and poet. She said, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” I make myself take on challenges that still scare me. I’m terrified of singing in public. A few years ago, I was supposed to do an a cappella solo in front of 1,400 people. I wasn’t able to do it because I had a great voice but because I was singing about an issue I cared about. Dare to be powerful; it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re afraid.
IVY: Have you always been a good communicator?
There were two times I would have hoped to do better. One was when I let someone else take over—someone who wanted to argue with me. I was giving a speech at Brown about potential assault, and he was very argumentative. But when I interrupted him, he told me I was being rude, so I let him speak some more. But it was my speech; it was not a conversation. I got feedback that the students were disappointed that I let him take over too much.
Second, I was doing litigation work once, and while I had a good speech, it was the first time I was speaking about courtroom communications, and I wanted to do a lot of research on the subject. I went to the Law Library, read the books, got advice from lawyer friends, and went through all sort of studies on social psychology. But I didn’t feel comfortable—I had spent too much time researching and not enough time internalizing the research. The material owned me, and I was reading from my script. I learned that I need to take an extra step and make whatever I’m talking about become my own, and not just recount someone else’s thinking.
IVY: How can the IVY Community help support you?
It’s my belief that you are a group of people who either have or will have impact in the world. And so, members could help by taking what they learn from me and having that impact change the world to make it a better place.