Public Speaking Tip from Liz Taylor’s Eyebrows

When the Elizabeth Taylor died earlier this year, the world lost one of history’s greatest pairs of eyebrows. They were magnificent.  And as a public speaking coach, I consider myself quite a connoisseur of eyebrows.

They are one of the most expressive tools we have as communicators.

The Science of Eyebrows

Eyebrows have always been known as a way to make women look sexy. During the 18th century, full eyebrows in Western Europe were considered so important that some upper class ladies were said to affix mouse hide to their foreheads.

But there is more to the eyebrow than just beauty. They are a critical part of how we express ourselves.

Indeed, there has been a fair amount of anthropological study of eyebrows. Social scientist Dr. Paul Ekman has an entire section of his book Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage dedicated to reading eyebrows.

It seems that eyebrows are critical landmarks that define our faces and give them distinctive looks and expressions. When people talk about the expressiveness of the eyes, what they’re really referring to are the eyebrows.

I read about an eyebrow study done at MIT. Volunteers were shown celebrity faces like Richard Nixon and Winona Ryder.   When the faces were digitally altered to eliminate the eyes, the volunteers were able to identify the celebrities with little problem. But if the researchers eliminated the eyebrows, the volunteers’ ability to recognize the faces dropped dramatically.

Where would Jack Nicholson or Groucho Marx be without their eyebrows? And what about Mr. Spock?  His eyebrows were his only way of expressing emotion.

Use Eyebrows  To Show Intensity

The best speakers find ways to convey passion and intensity.  You can express that passion with your voice or by smiling. But I’ve found that exaggerating eyebrow movement is a great way of injecting intensity into your message.

I was working recently with a senior executive from a large water utility. He had an incredibly bored look to his face.  And when I told him to try smiling, it just didn’t work.  It looked like he was in pain.

So I said, “Try exaggerating your eyebrows. Imagine that you’re Jim Carrey.”  And it worked.  Suddenly, he came across as expressive and animated rather than bored.

When I left the practice of law, I had a coach to help me with my speaking skills. The number one piece of critical feedback I received was that my facial energy was weak. As I spoke, I seemed bored.  I spent a lot of time working on my facial energy. Specifically, I worked on activating my eyebrows.

Develop Your Eyebrow Smile

It’s easy to develop a great eyebrow smile.  Stand in front of a mirror and practice speaking. As you speak, force your eyebrows up. You might be amazed at how it warms your features and makes you look expressive.

Try it. And have a nice thought for Liz Taylor.

“Microstyle”: New Book on Keeping It Tight

“We don’t always have to be clever, thank goodness. Often, simply being clear is enough.”

Those are the first words of a new book by blogger and consultant Christopher Johnson called Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little.  It received a rave review from The New York Times.

While Johnson’s book is about writing, we certainly think many of his ideas apply will apply for speaking as well.  One of the things we often tell our clients is that too many people sacrifice clarity at the alter of clever.

Public Speaking Lessons from Bernie Madoff

Reading recently about Bernie Madoff’s polished communication skills, I was reminded of one of my favorite sayings:  “You can take a kitty cat and put it in the oven. But that don’t make it a biscuit.”

In other words, you are what you are.  You can learn to express your ideas better and to connect better with listeners. But all the public speaking training in the world won’t change your heart.

Madoff , who will spend the rest of his life in prison for defrauding investors of millions, was apparently a smooth communicator.   At least that’s the impression of Diana B. Henriques, the New York Times reporter and author of the newly published The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust.

Henriques gave a fascinating interview about her experiences with Madoff for the website Huffington Post. Here are three communication lessons from Bernie Madoff.

Madoff Lesson 1: You Can Improve Your Skills Over Time

Henriques said that as a business journalist she had known Madoff many years before the scandal that sent him to jail.  But when she first interviewed him in jail, she was struck by how polished he had become since their last meeting.

When I first met him in prison, my first impression was how polished he had become since I had known him 15 years earlier, even in his prison uniform. Every crease is crisp, every button is buttoned. His belt is shiny, his shoes gleam. Very much the dandy, even in prison. And very much in control of our conversation. He had a very engaging, low-key style. Never took his eyes off of me. [He] leaned forward and was very interested in everything I had to say. A few little jokes, a little bit of flattery. But very much on-message.

This portrait of Madoff’s improved skills struck me in light of a conversation I had recently with a lawyer from a major Atlanta law firm who wanted to know if people could really improve their skills.  “Do people really work at this stuff?” he asked.

The answer is yes. With work and focus, you can improve.  Just ask Bernie Madoff.

Madoff Lesson 2:  Make People feel Good About Themselves

There’s an old saying that everyone’s favorite radio station is “MMFG-AM”: “Make Me Feel Good About Myself.”   Madoff understood that idea.

Henriques points out that unlike many con men,  Madoff was not charismatic. But he did know how to make you feel good.

Madoff was never the most charming man in the room. But, he could make you feel like you were the most charming person in the room. That was the magic. He could reflect back on you a very attractive image of yourself that made you feel good. I felt it. I’m sitting there interviewing him in this prison and I’m feeling like I’m one of the best reporters he’s ever known. He bounces it back — that feeling of, “Oh, you’re so interesting, you’re so competent, you’re so professional.” It’s an amazing gift.

Madoff was apparently the kind of listener who made great eye contact and knew how to seem interested.  Flattery, it turns out, will get you everywhere – including, eventually, prison.

Madoff Lesson 3:  You Can’t Polish Turd

Finally, Henriques said that Madoff was fascinating but not likeable.    “To be candid,” she said,  “he frightened me a little because he was so unpredictable and so untrustworthy.”

A well-spoken rat is still a rat.

Get Your Shtick Together To Speak Better in Impromptu Settings

Speaking impromptu is hard.  Ask the average person in a meeting to “update us on the project you’re working on,” and if they’re not prepared, you hear a disorganized mess.

It’s just show up and throw up.

But if you have trouble coming across as organized in impromptu settings, you might take a lesson from comics who rely on repeated routines to churn out reliable laughs.

These repeated routines are called “shticks”. And if you want to learn how to quickly organize your thoughts in a meeting, you should consider developing your own shtick.  Such routines can help make you sound smooth impromptu.

A “shtick” is a Yiddish term for a comic routine.  For performers, a shtick is a standard bit that they return to over and over again to reliably get laughs.

Johnny Carson could always get a laugh with his Carnac the Magnificent shtick.

Jack Benny’s shtick was that he was cheap.

Rodney Dangerfield’s shtick was “I don’t get no respect.”

But you can use a non-comic shtick or routine to quickly organize your thoughts and reliably get you through impromptu speaking situations.

There are many impromptu speaking shticks that you can rely on, some of which you may already know.

Let’s say that someone asks you to tell what’s going on with a major project.

You can use the “Good news bad news” shtick.  You’d say, “Well there is the good news and the bad news. “  And then you can organize your thoughts around those two ideas.

One of my clients told me that he uses the “ Three Ons” shtick. In meetings, he organizes his thoughts around “Whether we’re ‘on budget’, ‘on schedule’ and ‘on scope.’”

We tell our clients to organize their thoughts around the following three-point shtick.

  1. What’s happened so far?
  2. What are the challenges?
  3. And what are we doing to meet the challenges?

These shticks quickly put your thoughts into a little organized story that your listeners can easily follow.

Let’s say that someone says to you “Carl, why don’t you update us on what’s happening with the Marietta Project?”

Rather than speaking in a stream-of-consciousness ramble, you’d turn to your shtick, laying out your simple story.

“Well it’s going quite well but we’re having a few issues. Let me talk about what’s happened so far, the challenges that we’re facing and how we’re planning to meet those challenges.”

You’d then go through the three things you’ve described.  “Let me start with where things stand right now.”  After detailing the status, you’d say, “Now let me talk about the challenges we’re seeing.”  After detailing the challenges,, you’d turn to the final point of the shtick: “Finally, let’s talk about what we’re doing about these challenges.”

Shticks don’t only make it easy on the listener. They make it easy for the speaker as well.  The shtick relieves you of having to think about how to structure your thoughts.  Rather you just rely on the template that’s already in your head.

Next time you’re faced with having to speak impromptu, rely on a simple shtick to pull your thoughts together.

How I Salvaged My Imploding Presentation in Long Beach, Ca.

I gave a 40-minute presentation several weeks ago to 600 computer programmers in Long Beach, Ca. Five minutes into the talk, things started to go horribly wrong.

This is the story of how I escaped with my pride intact.

The speech was on my usual topic: presentation skills.  What was different was that the conference organizers had asked that I use a new technology that allows audience members to use their cell phones to text answers to questions I posed to them.

For example, I could ask “What are the biggest challenges you face organizing a message?” And anyone in the audience could text back “My biggest challenge is figuring out how to decide what to leave out.”

All the text messages would then scroll up on the screen next to my PowerPoint slides.

I had never used the technology before. But my client said that they had used it in the past and it had been a huge hit.   They wanted me to use it. So I said “Why not?”

We tested out the technology ahead of time in the auditorium. It worked great.  The night before in my hotel room, I rehearsed several times, making sure that I practiced weaving the texting system into my message. This was going to be fun.

I thought it might even be a breakthrough. After all, one of the biggest challenges we face as speakers is finding ways to interact with the audience.  It’s hard to do that with large groups. This new technology offered a way past that problem.

And when I started to speak that morning, the technology worked wonderfully.

Too wonderfully.

The vast majority of the texts were responsive to my question. Unfortunately, a handful of jokers thought it would be funny to broadcast up on the screen things like “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like George Bush?” and “Hi Mom” and “When’s lunch?”

Things got far ruder.

I subsequently learned that the technology has a screening function. But that wasn’t helping me as I was getting titters of laughter at the inappropriate comments.  My presentation was imploding.

So what did I do?

First, I plowed ahead. Yes. I was distracted and panicked.  But the show had to go on. So I pushed ahead trusting that most of the people in the audience were enjoying the presentation.  This is one of the reasons that you practice. So that when distracting things happen, you can push ahead.

Second, I made a joke.  Rather than getting defensive or scolding the handful of jokesters, I said, “I see that several of you have taken it upon yourself to give me some personal feedback. I just want to say thank you for that.”

Now as you read that, it probably doesn’t seem funny. It doesn’t seem funny to me as I write it. But it got a huge laugh.  I wasn’t the only one getting nervous. The audience was nervous too.  They didn’t want my presentation to implode.   And my self-deprecating remark relieved the tension.

Finally, I adjusted. Even though I had planned to use the texting technology several more times during the presentation, I dropped it and went back to my standard speech.

And it all ended well.  Afterwards several people came up and said, “I was amazed at how you handled those jokers.”

“Though, I must say,” someone added, “You really do look like George Bush.”