"Excellent firms of tomorrow will cherish impermanence-and thrive on chaos." Tom Peters
After earning his PhD. in literature and rhetoric, Nick spent a number of years teaching Shakespeare and Public Speaking at the University of Virginia and Princeton University. He first started writing speeches for Virginia Governor Charles S. Robb and went on to found his own communications consulting organization, Public Words, in 1997. He's now one of America's top communication theorists and coaches. A passionate teacher, he is committed to helping people find clarity in their thinking and ideas—and then delivering them with panache. He has been commissioned by Fortune 50 companies to write for many CEOs and presidents. He has coached people to give Congressional testimony, to appear on the Today show, and to take on the investment community. He has worked widely with political and educational leaders.
His acclaimed book on public speaking, Working the Room: How to Move People to Action through Audience-Centered Speaking was published in 2003 and reprinted in paperback in 2005 as Give Your Speech, Change the World: How to Move Your Audience to Action. His latest, discussed with Erik for our interview, is Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma.
[Bio adapted from his website.—CM]
tompeters.com asks ...
Nick, you refer to yourself as a communications coach. What does that mean?
NM: We help people tell their stories. We think about it as a way to help people sharpen their messages, get them heard, and generally help them cut through the clutter. As we all know, this is an era with huge information overload. In order to get attention these days, you have to do some extraordinary things. One of them is communicate very, very well.
These days, everything seems to be happening digitally. Why are speeches so important?
NM: Precisely because so much of our communication now is in these other mediums, speeches are more powerful. There's something irreducible about getting people together in a room that motivates us in a way that an email or even a phone call doesn't. And that's because there are two conversations going on in every face-to-face communication. There's the content, which comes through in an email or a Twitter communication. But there's also non-verbal communication, body language. Those two things together are powerful. That's the irreducible part. We're still hardwired, as a species, to rate those things as important and care about them.
When you're coaching people, is there one thing that you see over and over, every time a new client comes in, that you feel the need to correct?
NM: We coach people on a variety of different things. With public speaking, there is a very typical problem. People have rules in their heads about what public speaking is, or they're naturally inhibited because it's a scary thing to do. You feel exposed standing up in front of a group of strangers and talking to them. So people talk in ways not from their natural selves. More times than not, we help people get conversational and relaxed, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. [Laughter]
That brings us to the subtitle of your book, The Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma. You help people become authentic. Though helping people become who they are seems like a tautology. You play with that in your book. Why is authenticity in the subtitle?
NM: Authenticity is extraordinarily important these days, precisely because so much of our communication is second-hand and is at a reserve or distance. That makes us crave the power, the intimacy of a direct conversation.
When so many of our communications, and so much of the information that comes at us is obviously inauthentic, that creates a hunger for authenticity. I think we saw that in the last election. The candidate who could communicate best, and most authentically was successful. People didn't care whether Barack Obama was from any particular group, or representing any particular issue, as much as they cared that he seemed comfortable in his own skin, and he represented something that was going to be different from what we'd experienced before.
Is he the President because of the speech he gave in 2004?
NM: That certainly was the one that got him recognized, put him on the national and maybe even the world stage. I think he did a lot of smart things after that.
In effect, no one knew Barack Obama before that electrifying speech. While we're on Obama, what did he do right in his inaugural speech?
NM: His inaugural speech was interesting to me. He was authentic and honest with us about the difficulty of the road ahead. This is a battle that you always find with leaders in organizations; the urge to put a happy face on things is a real bureaucratic urge that's hard to fight against. People don't want to deliver bad news. What Barack Obama did right in the inaugural was he delivered the bad news.
The irony is that your audience is always way ahead of you. This is a clear-cut example. Everybody in that audience knew how tough things are. We can hardly help it. It's given to us relentlessly every day in the media. The bad news is obvious and out there. It would have been surreal and incredibly inauthentic if Obama hadn't addressed that. To his enormous credit, he did address it.
Anything he could have done better?
NM: I think so. I talk in the book about the five basic stories, and it's something I've talked and blogged about before. These are stories that are fundamental to our culture and that we all know and learn from having been told and retold them as fairy tales, as movies, and as books. The most fundamental one is the Quest Story. That's the one that we like the best.
When you enlist people in a quest, they're very happy—they know exactly what they're supposed to do, because we all can imagine ourselves as heroes on a quest journey. We expect to meet troubles along the way. That's the definition of a quest. But because we're the heroes of the quest, we overcome them. What makes all the troubles worthwhile is getting to that goal at the end.
Obama didn't tell a Quest Story. He told one of the other four stories, The Stranger in a Strange Land. He said, "The world has changed. We're going to have to behave differently. We're going to have to fix all the things that are broken." He didn't hold out a nice prize for us at the end, so he didn't enlist us on the quest. Instead he said, "We're all going to have to work together here and learn this new way of behaving." That's a Stranger in a Strange Land Story.
The point of that story is that you're thrown into a strange new world, and you have to learn how to behave properly, learn the language, or learn the terrain. Whatever is new about the situation, you have to learn that. And that's a story that people do respond to, but not quite as powerfully as the quest, because there's no actual end point.
Unlike the Kennedy speech and getting a man on the moon in ten years.
NM: Exactly. That's the classic quest: let's put a man on the moon. And that's why there was never any question that we were going to do that, even though it was kind of a crazy idea at the time. It was extraordinary. None of the problems were solved. But when you enlist people on a quest, they don't say, "Hey, we can't do that." What they say is, "How do we solve the problem?" And that's why they're so powerful.
In that way I was a little disappointed that Obama didn't hold out a quest for us, paint a specific and precise picture of somewhere he wanted to take us.
He still has time to craft a Quest Story for America. Does he have to deliver that out of the gate, as it were, in the first big speech as President?
NM: That's a great question. The only reason that you'd want him to is that it was his first official act as President. And there were a whole lot of people listening. But he'll get other cracks at it, sure. Kennedy didn't enlist us to go to the moon in his first speech.
How about that.
NM: He has other chances. He's still in the honeymoon period.
That's very interesting, the difference between the Quest Story and the Stranger in a Strange Land Story. I think the latter has always been my favorite plot line.
NM: It's very much a story of the age, too, because when you talk to anybody in our line of work—in writing, communications, consulting, and public speaking—they will say the world is changing fast, and there are new rules that you have to learn. But if you talk to anybody in the world, they'll say the same thing. It's a very general perception that this pace of change has picked up enormously. It's a new ballgame, a new set of rules, a new world to win in every field of endeavor, in every industry. Look at the automotive industry. They are strangers in a very strange land right now.
It's getting stranger by the minute.
NM: I was just reading the stats for car sales at the end of '08. The bottom just dropped out of their market. Nothing like that has ever happened before. It wasn't just the big three automakers. The statistic that stuck in my mind was Rolls-Royce. If you ever thought there was a car company that might be immune to tough times it's Rolls Royce, right? They sold 29 cars in the United States in December 2007. That was a good average month for them. Guess how many cars they sold December 2008 in the United States?
NM: Zero. So their sales went down 100 percent in one month. Other companies were ranging anywhere from 20-30 percent down.
So what's the big idea in your current book?
NM: We acknowledged by our discussion of Obama that effective communication is extraordinarily important. And more so than ever, we were looking to Obama, saying, "Give us a story. Tell us what to do. As a country, as a world, we're troubled, we're confused. We are worried about a huge array of problems that we face."
Enormous stress is put on an executive's—in this case the President's—ability to communicate effectively, rally the troops, and give us a vision. We'll do the work, just tell us where we're headed and give us some hope. That's what Obama is so good at.
To do that, you have to realize that every significant communication is two conversations. It's the verbal and the non-verbal. What's fascinating is that when those two conversations are aligned, you can be an effective communicator, and when they're not aligned, people believe the non-verbal every time.
To be an effective communicator, you have to learn to master that non-verbal communication, that body language. What's difficult about that is—and I go into this in some depth in the book—that the neurological research tells us that non-verbal conversation happens a split second before conscious thought. It actually comes from a deeper part of our brain; we're not consciously aware of it. So we're all subconscious experts at reading each other's body language.
Think about the people that you know well, your significant other, your friends, your family. If they walk into a room and there's been a big bit of news that's just hit them, you know instantly that something is up. No words need to be exchanged. Your first question is, "What happened?"
If you were asked to describe all the little physical signs, all that body language that told you something happened, you would be hard-pressed to describe it because you're not consciously aware of it. In fact, we have evolved to be able to unconsciously read intent into body language. So we don't actually retain what the little movements of the head, hand, shoulders, or torso are. But we immediately—faster than conscious thought—ascribe intent to that.
A little twitch on the part of our significant other, and we ask, "What's wrong?" because we read the intent faster than the conscious mind can literally think. That sort of conversation goes on all the time with the people we know well.
The same thing happens when you stand up in front of an audience and speak to them. It's largely unconscious. Because we have natural physiological reactions to the experience of standing up in front of an audience, it feels risky to stand up in front of a couple of hundred people to give a speech. Imagine what it was like for Barack Obama to stand up in front of one and a half million people and give a speech.
More like the world.
NM: What that speaker has to do is fight the natural urge to be self-protective at that point. The first thing that happens between people—and this goes back to evolution and our cave people ancestors—is to read intent, and to either be open or closed. That's what we're looking for, friend or foe. Is this person open to me? In which case I can relax and we can have a communication of some kind. Or is this person tense and giving me a thousand tiny little signals that he or she is poised for a fight, or poised to run away, in which case I read threat into that situation. I read it unconsciously, before conscious thought can fire.
If you walk up to the front of a stage and project that tension, then neurons fire in your audience's brains that say tension. Then both the speaker and the audience close down.
That's the part of this that I love, that we're relaying all of our signals before we speak them.
NM: When I'm coaching people one-on-one, if they resist and say, "This sounds like hard work. Why should I do this?" I get quite blunt and I say, "Because the game is over even before you open your mouth." Just by walking up on stage, you're sending out signals. They'll either be successful, open signals or they won't. Whatever you're trying to do with that audience—win them over to some point of view, get them to buy your company, get them to vote for the biggest fiscal stimulus package ever devised by humankind—you don't want them to get off on the wrong foot and be resisting before you even open your mouth and try to sell to them.
Again, the idea is to have the non-verbal conversation and the content aligned. Because if they are aligned, then the audience relaxes, opens up, and is ready to hear your content. If not, then before you even open your mouth, you're sunk.
As you lay out in the book, once you start to think about this you're screwed because as you think about it, you're going way too slow, because the unconscious works much faster than the conscious.
NM: That's right. It's two parallel conversations. It's a conscious one, which is your content and it's an unconscious one. The unconscious one is happening faster.
If a speaker's concerned about this and wants to make sure that they're aligned, you have a way to do that.
NM: That's right. There are four steps. You start by working on the level of your intent. So the idea is not to try to consciously control your body language and to say to yourself, "I'm going to move my hands in an open way." That's the way I used to coach.
Really? So you'd say what? "Open up your palms."
NM: That's right. People are capable of learning a certain amount of that. People can control a few of the big motions. But in terms of all the tiny little adjustments that the body makes, that's just way too much work to think about while you're walking and talking and trying to give a speech at the same time.
So the idea is to work on that level of intent beforehand. To do that, I have people role play and imagine themselves telling their speech to a close friend or a significant other, whatever the topic is, in a way that's comfortable, fun, and exciting, as it would be when talking to a person you know very well. Why? To learn how that feels.
They learn that body language so that they can reproduce it, in effect, in front of an audience. When they go to give the speech to an audience, in their mind before they start talking, they go to that place of comfort and openness. They can say to themselves, "I'm giving this speech, but I'm going to imagine that I'm doing it for my significant other or my friend."
That active imagination then puts the unconscious mind in an open state, so they're more likely to have open body language. And if that sounds like a tall order, I can just tell you, I've done this now with a number of clients over the last couple of years while I was writing the book, and the transformation is extraordinary. People get this right away.
What comes to mind as you're describing that is the old saying, "Pretend everyone in the audience is naked." Is it that if you imagine the audience as vulnerable, you can relax?
NM: I'm familiar with that old bit of advice. What I don't like about that is that it creates a very strange vibe between you and the audience. If you do that, then you come across as superior, seeing the audience in all its naked flaws. The idea is not to set a barrier. One party being dressed and the other party being naked creates a barrier. What we're looking for is openness. That's the first step.
The second step is all about connection. I have people imagine that the audience's mind is wandering. Again, the audience is a friend or significant other. The speaker has to get their attention back. I tell them, "Use all the ways that you normally would to get your teenager's or your spouse's attention when they're not listening." People do a number of things. They may raise their voice. They may move around to get closer to that person. They may actually reach out and touch the arm of that person.
Even to a large audience?
NM: Yes. There are a number of behaviors that people use, and I advise people to use those which are most comfortable and normal for them. Because once you and the audience are open with one another—the first step—then you can begin to connect. You use behaviors to catch their attention—the second step—to show how important it is for the audience to get your message. So you're going to move toward them, or raise your voice a little, depending on what's most comfortable for you. This is all about finding your individual voice and a set of behaviors that work best for you.
The point is not to undercut that unconscious conversation or you'll look awkward if your mind is telling your body what to do. Let your body tell your mind what's going on.
The third step is becoming passionate. I tell people to focus on their emotional attitude toward that content. That's often the most revelatory for clients. It's fascinating to watch. Giving them permission to focus on that emotion, and then to bring it forward and communicate it to the audience is very powerful.
They must re-discover their passion because they've been freed up from worrying about the speech. That worry has gotten in the way of their love of the content.
NM: That's right. And they think there's a set of rules that they have to follow. Or they're so worried about the technology or a host of other things that they get disconnected from it. These steps bring them back to what's most important. What makes a speech memorable for an audience is seeing that passion.
Audiences always begin by asking, "Why am I here? Why is this important? Why should I care?" If you're successful as a speaker, you will take the audience to the How question: "How do I implement this? How do I get started?" A speaker's job is to take the audience from Why to How. The only way to do it is with emotion. The only way to change the minds of the audience is with emotion. It's an emotional thing to change the mind. All decisions are emotional.
The last step is—and this is the advanced course for those who master the other three steps—to listen to the audience. That always catches people by surprise. Communication is a loop. No communication is complete until you know how the audience has received it. Once you've mastered the other three steps, it's your job as a speaker to set aside a little bit of your brain to be able to monitor the audience. You can adjust your pacing and stop for questions, and do a host of things to check in with the audience along the way. But you can only do that if you really know your material well, and if you're open and connected and passionate with them.
Monitoring would include checking to see if they're smiling, for example?
NM: That's right. A small, but incredibly important thing is the difference in time between the speaker and the audience. When a speaker stands up to speak, they're in adrenal time. Adrenaline is pumping through their system, they're all excited, they deliver a line, and wait for a reaction. But because they're in adrenal time, they'll wait for a nano-second. And to the audience, who's in normal time, it seems like that speaker is rattling on at 90 miles an hour.
We tell speakers, "Let the point land." Say your sentence and then look into the eyes of the audience and wait until you see recognition there, a nod, something. That's listening to the audience. That's waiting for the audience to respond. You don't know whether the audience has responded or not unless you listen.
I did a little stand-up comedy. I highly recommend it, because it's a crash course in listening to the audience.
NM: I agree with you totally. I did stand-up for a year. I took a course at Improv Boston. Great place. Improv is the hardest form of theater by a long shot, because you don't know what you're going to say.
It teaches you a very simple thing: if an audience laughs, you freeze and wait until that laugh has peaked. You speak again when it's started its way down, at three-quarters of the full length of the laugh. If you wait too long, the audience gets impatient. If you start too early, you kill the laughter from then on, because the audience gets the message that they have to keep their mouths shut or they'll miss the next line.
That's a classic case of listening to the audience. You learn it the easy way or the hard way. But you learn it because there's no faster way to kill a laugh from an audience than to start talking before the audience has finished laughing.
I've seen supposedly professional comedians make that mistake.
NM: Some people never get that. They don't listen to the audience; it's all about them.
I enjoyed your comment in the book that you can't over-think this.
NM: That's true. You can't over-intellectualize it, because then it will enter the conscious part of your brain, and that will slow it down. Then everything will happen too late, because the unconscious conversation happens faster than the conscious one. That's very hard for people to understand. We think of our minds like a little conscious director sitting up there in our brain telling our bodies what to do. "I'm thirsty. I'm now going to reach for a glass and drink some water." But all the studies show that the intent to move happens before we get the conscious thought about it. This is really interesting because it means that our bodies are telling us what to do, in effect.
The more we learn about our brain, the more we realize just how animalistic we still are. We think of ourselves as very civilized and under control. And we are just so not in control.
Your title is Trust Me. When I hear someone say "Trust me," that's the last person I trust. Are you playing with that here?
NM: Absolutely. Of course, as you know, publishing companies have more say in the titles than anybody else. We played with a lot of titles. My first choice was Authenticity, and they thought it was dull and wanted something more fun. With Trust Me, we wanted to raise the questions of what trust is, why it's important, and why you should care.
I think they were right. Authenticity has become pervasive and has lost its distinctiveness, despite its importance.
What do you make of Twitter?
NM: I love it. Social media reconnects us in ways that email disconnected us. Email is asynchronous communication. I send one and 12 hours or two weeks later, you respond. Twitter is immediate and fun. And it lets us have a little window into other people's lives. But it raises issues of authenticity very powerfully. You don't know who's on Twitter, or how real they are, because you're lacking that second conversation. And that can never be replaced.
As long as we're animals who inhabit a body, we're going to have to acknowledge the power of that second conversation.
There is an opportunity for storytelling within Twitter. A fiction author is theoretically writing a novel, 140 characters at a time.
NM: There seems to be a never-ending compression of storytelling and communication. My period of study when I was an academic was the Victorian period. The three-volume novel was the norm. It could be as much as 800 pages, which gives you a lot of space to talk about things. Now we're down to 140 characters. What a challenge.
There's a site called 12seconds.tv. You have twelve seconds to do a little video post of whatever is meaningful.
NM: YouTube just recently passed a rule that the videos they post can be no longer than ten minutes.
But, as you say, people will always need to gather.
NM: Nothing significant happens between people except when in face-to-face contact.
Nick, thank you very much for your time.
NM: A pleasure.
Email: nick (at) – publicwords (dot) com