I’ll Take Bad Gestures and Great Energy Any Day

Sure Billy Mays has terrible gestures. And sure they’re distracting. But Billy Mays isn’t a highly successful pitchman for no reason. He’s successful because he knows how to get listeners fired up about his products. 

What fires people up is his vocal and facial energy.

If he really wanted to, Billy Mays could fix his gestures.  But what if he calms down his gestures and at the same time loses the amazing energy?

That’s not a good trade off.

Gestures don’t sell. Energy does. Passion is contagious and gets people fired up to buy.  

So fix the gestures if you can Billy Mays. But don’t lose that energy. Because that energy is what’s putting the spaghetti on your table. 

So How Can Billy Mays Improves His Gestures?

 Make ’em big and hold ’em steady.

Those are the keys to good gestures. The best gestures add to your size, making you come across bigger and with more presence. But they avoid being distracting — a la Billy Mays from yesterday’s post — by being steady.

The idea is to reach out and make yourself look big, kind of like Senator Barack Obama in the above picture. But you should also hold the gesture steady through a thought, so that you’re not thrashing the air and distracting your audience.

The main thing Mays could have done in the commercial discussed in yesterday’s post is simply calm down his movements. 

The question I have for everyone is this.  To be sure, Billy Mays’ gestures are distracting. But would it make sense for him to change them?

Billy Mays Gives Lesson in How NOT to Gesture

Check out the hand gestures from television pitchman Billy Mays.  The number one rule for effective gestures is this: DON’T DISTRACT. 

Mays apparently doesn’t get this. Once I noticed them, Mays’ gestures were all that I could focus on. They’re constantly moving, pointing, and punctuating every syllable. Overall, his hands are incredibly annoying.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss how he could improve his gestures.



Communication Tip for Chinese Cops: Smile!

If you think you have trouble connecting and building relationships, you might learn why from the Chinese Police.  Apparently the Chinese Police and Military officers need to work on improving their facial energy so as not to scare the tourists in Beijing for the Olympics.

They’re scaring the tourists with their stony faces, according to a member of the Norwegian Olympic Committee.

“The police and military … need to act differently,” said Gerard Heiberg. “They have stony faces. They’re seriously scaring the foreigners in Beijing. Something has to be done.” he said.

Heiberg said that he had met with Chinese Olympic organizers about the issue. “I’ve asked them to smile more,” he said. 

Heiberg said that his request wasn’t taken seriously.

Perhaps he would have been more persuasive if he had explained to the Chinese authorities that the coaches at Speechworks say, “A smile is like a handshake with your face.”

Do You Believe John Edwards Has No Love Child?

Watching John Edwards interviewed about his confessed affair, you have to admire the man’s ability to communicate.  Everything about him conveys a sense of believability.  

He makes unwavering eye contact. He speaks with total committment and energy in his voice. He varies his facial and vocal energy. When asked questions, he gives straight, simple answers. There appears to be no attempt to evade.

And when he says he has no love child, I want to believe him. 

But he has the problem that many extremely polished communicators have. He’s almost too polished. 

Do you believe him?


Where Do We Sit During a Team Sales Pitch?

I was working yesterday with a team competing for a piece of new business. When we were finished, one of the team members approached me and asked, “Where do we all sit during the pitch?”


There is no simple answer because all rooms are different. In general, you want to be sitting or standing together so that you can all get up and get back down quickly and easily as you transition between speakers.


Far more important is what you should be doing when you’re not actually speaking. You should be watching your fellow presenters, paying close attention. You want to look like you’re part of the team, not just waiting for your chance to speak.


I’ve seen team members working their BlackBerries while waiting for their turn to speak. It looks terrible and reflects poorly on the team.


Question: What’s the worst thing you’ve seen a team member do during a sales presentation? Best story gets a copy of my book. Contest ends in a week.

How to, Like, Eliminate Filler Words

In my previous life as a young attorney, a senior lawyer once called me into his office and shut the door. “Joey,” he said. “I want to give you some feedback on how you handled yourself in that meeting today.”

I braced myself.  “You did fine,” he said, “The client seemed satisfied.  But I think I counted 25 “ums” in five minutes. It doesn’t sound good.”

Filler words like “um” and “er” make us sound unsure and even ignorant.  Yet with focus and the help of our brain’s “reticular activation system” you can eliminate filler words.

“Ums” make us sound uncertain and ignorant

Linguists posit that we use filler words to maintain a stream of vocal sound. We’re afraid that if we get quiet, someone will interrupt us and we’ll lose our “conversational turn.”  And filler words vary with the language.  English has “uh” and “er”.  Spanish and Italian have “e.” Mandarin Chinese speakers say “zhege zhege zhege”.

Regardless of the language, “filler words” are universally seen as signs of uncertainty and even ignorance.  In Russian, filler words are called “vermin words.” 

One social scientist has shown than the words make us sound less intelligent.  Robert Gifford, Ph.D., of the University of Victoria in British Columbia., taped high school kids answering tough questions and then played the tapes for other students. The students that avoided the “uhs” were perceived to be smarter.

To eliminate filler-words, first you have to notice them.

Most people don’t even hear their filler words. When that senior lawyer told me that I was saying “um” during that client meeting, I had no idea. I didn’t hear the words.

Why don’t we hear the words?  It has to do with our “reticular activation system.”  This is the part of our brain that filters out unnecessary sensory data.  If we’re driving down the road, we can’t pay attention to every sensory input that passes through our line of sight. Otherwise, we’d get distracted and crash.  Our reticular activation system helps us stay focused on what’s important.  Similarly, we don’t hear every “um” or “er”.

How can we notice the fillers?  We can program our reticular activation system to “let in” certain things.  When I bought a silver Honda Accord several years ago, I immediately began seeing silver Accords everywhere.  I had programmed my brain to “let in” Honda Accords.  Similarly, you can program your brain to notice the “ums” and “ers”. Put a rubber band around your wrist as a reminder.

Once you notice the words, pause and force yourself to speak faster

Once you start noticing the words, the rest is easy.  When you feel a filler word coming, just pause.  Close your lips as you figure what to say next. That is what I did and it worked.  In about three weeks, I had largely eliminated my filler words. We’ve given this same advice to our clients for years with great results.

And try speaking faster. I was working with the Chief Financial Officer for a cement company who spoke extremely slowly and threw in lots of filler words. He seemed to be measuring out every word. And when he couldn’t come up with the perfect word, he’d say “uh” as he scanned his mental dictionary. It was maddening.

When we made him speak faster, he reduced the fillers.  Speaking faster eliminates filler words by giving you less time to substitute the “uhs” and “ers.”

Don’t let filler words “clutter” up your speech and make you sound uncertain and ignorant.  With just a little focus, you can be sounding smooth and confident.

Public Speaking Tip from Albert Einstein (Contest!)

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

I love this quote from Albert Einstein because it touches on an important aspect of public speaking.

In business we see so many people stand up in front of audiences and give complicated presentations.  There are dozens of slides. And the slides have highly complicated diagrams.  

But, as Einstein might say, any intelligent fool can stand up and make a complicated presentation.

It takes courage to look at your audience and make just three simple points.

Why does it take so much courage? Perhaps there is a sense that we aren’t doing our jobs if we don’t make it all sound complex. “Surely,” the thought goes, “no one will think it is worth paying me to do something that seems so easy.”

Of course, that’s the wrong attitude when it comes to speaking. Everyone knows that what you do isn’t easy. But it’s your job as a communicator to make it simple for others. You’re being paid to make them understand. 

So have the courage to be simple.

Contest Question: Why do you think that so many business presentations are long and complicated?  Most interesting answer wins a copy of my book “Even A Geek Can Speak.”  Contest ends next Tuesday.


Skip Caray’s Unique Style and Voice Connected

When I was in high school, I had a clock radio by my bed. On some nights I would listen to Larry King, who had a late night radio program. And that was always interesting.

But the best nights were when the Atlanta Hawks were playing. On those nights I spent the evening with Skip Caray.

News of Skip’s death Sunday hit me hard.  I never met the legendary Atlanta sports broadcaster. But I felt like I knew him personally. His voice was a beloved soundtrack of my teenage years.

 My old buddy Rich sent an email saying “This news was surprisingly tough for me. I spent so much time with that guy — hours and hours side by side with him listening to the Hawks get beat.” I felt the same way.

Skip seemed different than other announcers. He had an anti-establishment style that connected with me. He had a nasally voice. And he was opinionated in a lovably crabby way.  He hated the “wave”. So did I. He used to trash the movies that would be upcoming on the Superstation.  I loved that. 

And he made even the dullest games interesting.  With runners on first and third, pitchers will sometimes fake a throw to third and then try to pick off the runner at first base. Whenever Skip called that play, he’d say, “Well Pete, there’s the 7,452nd time that play didn’t work.” I always smiled at that one.

But Skip’s humor wasn’t always sarcastic.  During the Olympics, he broadcast a game where the USA team beat the Chinese team. Skip said, “The funny thing about beating the Chinese is that two hours later you get a craving to go out and beat them again.”  I still laugh at that one.

When I think about what we can learn from Skip as a communicator, I mostly think about how he refused to imitate anyone. He insisted on being himself. To that end, he left Chicago to get out of the shadow of his dad, the legendary Cubs announcer. And it worked. I didn’t learn of Harry Caray until many years after I had been listening to Skip.

Skip talked to you like a friend you had met for beers and nachos at the old “Aunt Charlie’s” bar in Buckhead.  Of course that’s what all the great communicators do. They learn how to be themselves and just talk to you like you’re a friend.

It’s amazing how powerful that kind of style can be. I can’t remember ever crying over the death of someone I had never met. I remember being surprised when my wife cried at the death of Lucille Ball. But I cried real tears yesterday morning when I learned that Skip Caray had died. I never met him. But I feel like I’ve lost a friend.

Question: If you loved Skip, what do you think made him a great communicator?

Speaking Tip from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

“If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being?”

Those are the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian literary giant who died yesterday at age 89.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 and was a brave dissident who spoke out against the Soviet regime.

Anyone who wants to be a great public speaker should heed his words. And while you’re at it, take a moment and read his obituary. Here is the one that ran in the New York Times. 

Like Solzhenitsyn, the best speakers say something important to their listeners.  The best speakers take a position. 

Too many speakers go in front of their audiences and refuse to take a stand.  If you think that a program needs to be terminated, then say so in simple terms. If you think that your competition has a great idea, then say so and propose a clear solution. Don’t be afraid to state your ideas powerfully and in simple terms.

Solzhenitsyn didn’t waffle. Great speakers don’t either.