Do I really need rehearsal? Really? Frequent Questions

Q: Do I really need rehearsal?

A: Do you really need to get your point across?

I get it. Many clients hate “wasting their time” in rehearsal—standing in an empty room for an hour, saying the things they will later say in a full room.

Do you need rehearsal?Here’s my tough-love response: If you don’t want to rehearse, don’t accept the gig. But if you have accepted the gig, if you’re going to stand up in front of a roomful of people and ask for their attention, you owe it to them—and to your reputation—to be prepared.

Think about it: How would you feel if one of your direct reports made an unrehearsed presentation to the Board of Directors? Would you think well of him? “Gee, what a great guy. And clearly so busy with his real work to bother with preparation. Impressive.”

I think not.

I expect you’d be embarrassed that one of your people showed up unprepared. You might even feel that he didn’t respect you or value the Board’s time. (And you’d be right.) Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be that guy when comp time rolls around.

You hate having to sit through an unprepared speaker’s performance. That—not rehearsal—is the true waste of your time.

So why would you even think about inflicting that pain on someone else?

Yes, you need rehearsal

Chris Voss, the former FBI hostage negotiator, might seem an unlikely person to offer advice to speakers. But in his book Never Split the Difference: negotiating as if your life depended on it, he introduces one of the best arguments for rehearsal I’ve ever read: the “7-38-55” rule.

“UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian created the 7-38-55 rule. That is, only 7 percent of a message is based on the words while 38 percent comes from the tone of voice and 55 percent from the speaker’s body language and face.”

Translation: Audiences have many ways to spot a bullsh*tter. So don’t be one.

Oliver Sacks told a story in one of his books—maybe The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, though I don’t have access to check it right now—of some neurology patients watching a televised speech by then-president Ronald Reagan. The sound was turned off, so they could not hear what the president was talking about. But although it was a serious subject, they were laughing their heads off. They registered his insincerity just by looking at him.

A later Republican president remains barely comprehensible when you listen to him speak, but completely indecipherable—and more than a little nutty—when you read the transcripts. In his case, his facial expressions and demeanor work in his advantage. Audiences somehow see him as more substantive than readers do.

People think speeches of speeches as a bunch of words. And words are important. But (and it pains me to write this), words may not be the most important element of a speech. Tone of voice, the expressions on your face, your comfort onstage—these convey your confidence in your message.

So do you need rehearsal? Only if you want people to believe you and your message.

And if you don’t want people to believe you, then—again—why did you accept the gig to begin with?

The language of lying – how to spot it

Lying has always been with us—ever since Eve said, “Oh, nothing much…” when the Lord asked what she and Adam had been eating in the Garden of Eden. But it seems to be making a comeback in what used to be known as civil society, so we need to get better at identifying and handling it.

In yesterday’s blog, master hostage negotiator Chris Voss taught us how to engage in dialogue with people who would rather be spouting a monologue. Today, he’s back with some tips on how to spot a liar.

How hard is that? you may be wondering. And you’re right; often it’s not. Some liars are just straight out of a Meghan Trainor song: “I know you lie, ’cause your lips are movin’…”

But everyone talks; we can’t assume that everyone lies. (I hope that’s still true.) So how can we sort out the information from the lies?

In his book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It, Voss cites a Harvard Business School study that attempts to differentiate between “lies, deception by omission, and truths.”

“…professor Deepak Malhotra and his coauthors found that, on average, liars use more words than truth tellers and use far more third-person pronouns. They start talking about him, her, it, one, they, and their rather than I, in order to put some distance between themselves and the lie.”

Lying and misdirection

Lying? I don't know. Are his lips moving?

People who lie on Twitter have a 140-character check on their loquaciousness. But they can easily employ the distancing effect of the third-person. It’s a classic misdirection technique: Look at them, not at me.

The Harvard study also identifies another misdirection technique used in lying. Voss tells us

“that liars tend to speak in more complex sentences in an attempt to win over their suspicious counterparts. It’s what W.C. Fields meant when he talked about baffling someone with bullshit.”

The researchers dubbed this phenomenon “The Pinocchio Effect”—after the story of the puppet-turned-“real boy” whose nose grew longer when he was lying. Speaking of puppets, this sentence makes James Joyce look like a piker.

The sentence so long it requires its own subhead

“Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart —you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you’re a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians  are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.”

Lying can confuse your SEO program.
My SEO program asks an unanswerable question

If all those words make your eyes glaze over, just go to the videotape. There may be truth in there, but who can find it? Who can find anything coherent in this mass of sound—with little fury, this time, but still signifying nothing.

You must meet George Lakoff

If that seems like “word salad” to you, then you are not George Lakoff. (If you are George Lakoff, I think I may faint.)

I’ve been following the indispensable political linguist George Lakoff ever since I read his 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know your values and frame the debate. I see there’s a 2014 edition; it’s high time to revisit this classic.

In his August 2016 blog post, “Understanding Trump’s Use of Language,” Lakoff makes the disturbing (to me) argument that Trump’s word salad is actually a carefully plated main dish. I cannot do justice here to Lakoff’s long, detailed, analysis. But here’s a sample of his argument, with my emphasis to give you an idea of why I find it so disturbing:

“So far as I can discern, he always on topic, but you have to understand what his topic is. As I observed in my Understanding Trump paper, Trump is deeply, personally committed to his version of Strict Father Morality. He wants it to dominate the country and the world, and he wants to be the ultimate authority in this authoritarian model of the family that is applied in conservative politics in virtually every issue area.

Every particular issue, from building the wall, to using our nukes, to getting rid of inheritance taxes (on those making $10.9 million or more), to eliminating the minimum wage — every issue is an instance of his version of Strict Father Morality over all areas of life, with him as ultimately in charge.

As he shifts from particular issue to particular issue, each of them activates his version of Strict Father Morality and strengthens it in the brains of his audience. So far as I can tell, he is always on topic — where this is the topic.”

Understanding the language our new leaders speak will be key to understanding what they may or may not be planning to do.

All of us who value language—writers and readers alike—need to fight to keep words married to their original, objective meanings. And to keep leaders accountable to the meaning of the words they speak.

I wish us all luck.

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How to “talk to the hand”…and get an answer

“Talk to the hand”—anyone alive during the 1990s will recall that classic retort, not generally heard at the Oxford Debating Society. Here’s the Urban Dictionary’s definition:

“A saying used to ignore and disregard a comment or an insult when you can’t think of a way to counter it.”

It seems to me we’re going to be doing a lot of talking to hands in the next four years. Democrats say something like, “Maybe you shouldn’t de-fang the only ethical watchdog we have in Congress.” And the Republicans say—well, to be fair we can’t hear whatever they said because they said it in a closed-door meeting. So let’s just fill in a hypothetical response:

“Talk to the door.”

When legislators offer a response that’s more suited to a middle school cafeteria or a Real Housewives show, what recourse do we citizens (or our journalist proxies) have? And yes, the de-fangers backed down the next day, but we can expect they’ll try, try again. So we need to figure out a way to counter them.

The kind of synchronized screaming that passes for political debate on cable news gets us nowhere. Those things aren’t shows, they’re show-downs. And who wants to be seen backing down on national television?

talk to the hand - or the closed doorWe can shout “No fair! No fair!” all we want. That at least will accomplish something: it will bring the level of discourse from middle school to Kindergarten. No, we need a new way of talking—a way that will get the hands or doors to respond.

I’d like to direct your attention to someone who has spent his entire career talking very successfully to doors, master hostage negotiator Chris Voss.

“How” opens the hand — and ears

Before Voss quit law enforcement to open his own consulting firm, he used to be the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. He’s dealt with everyone from stone cold terrorists to hapless bank robbers and kidnapper-bros just looking to score some quick weekend party money. Voss and his co-writer Tahl Raz recount his exploits in a fascinating book called Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It.

Whatever kind of hostage the bad guys are holding—whether it’s your great-aunt Minnie or your democracy—the key to a happy ending is conversation. Unless the hostage-taker is flat-out nuts, if you can start a conversation you at least start down the path of a peaceful resolution.

Here’s one of the words Voss suggests using:


He writes, “…’how’ engages because ‘how’ asks for help.” Consider this exchange:

“Give me a million bucks or the old lady dies.”

“How am I supposed to do that? The banks are closed and my ATM limit is only $500.”

You’re not saying NO to the kidnapper—you’re hinting that you both have a problem. You’re asking him to engage in helping you solve it.

“How” can be a very useful word—in business as well as politics and the previously unrelated pastime, hostage-taking. But you have to be brave enough to use it.

Know-it-All Disease

If you’re anything like me, the prospect of admitting that you don’t know everything may give you pause. And asking “how” is a pretty clear sign that you’re clueless, so the word has often stuck in my throat.

But deploying “how” as a tactic—intentionally—now that’s smart. So “how” is making its way into my vocabulary. So are a few other choice words, like “perhaps,” “maybe,” and “it seems.” Voss’s other suggestion, “I think” was drilled into me at a young age. But that’s another story.

Voss suggests using these words as part of “calibrated open-ended question.” People who conduct interviews for a living will recognize the technique, but in hostage negotiation the idea is not just to get a good story—well, it’s partly that. The more the bad guy tells you, the more you have to work with. But open-ended questions often get a hostage-taker 0ff-balance.

He’s expecting to meet with absolute opposition, which he will counter with absolute opposition—and there you are, on a cable news show. But Voss explains:

…the calibrated open-ended question takes the aggression out of a confrontational statement or close-ended request that might otherwise anger your counterpart. What makes [open-ended questions] work is that they are subject to interpretation by your counterpart instead of being rigidly defined. They allow you to introduce ideas and requests without sounding overbearing or pushy.

And that’s the difference between ‘You’re screwing me out of money and it has to stop’ and ‘How am I supposed to do that?’

The real beauty of calibrated questions is the fact that they offer no target for attack like statements do. Calibrated questions have the power to educate your counterpart on what the problem is rather than causing conflict by telling them what the problem is.”

Remember questions?

Imagine what those cable news shows would look like if instead of trying to out-shout each other, people actually asked and answered questions. As Voss notes:

“The implication of any well-designed calibrated question is that you want what the other guy wants but you need his intelligence to overcome the problem. This really appeals to very aggressive or egotistical counterparts.”

He must be talking about people who abduct human beings rather than human rights. Surely we don’t have “very aggressive or egotistical” people trying to hijack our democracy, telling us to “talk to the hand” (or door) instead of engaging in rational debate.

Well, it seems like good advice to me. Use it as you will.

EXTRA: The Congressman behind the—er—”strengthening” of the ethics watchdogs put out a press release. Of course he did. My invaluable colleague Josh Bernoff has run it through his bullshit-ometer. Read and learn, my friends.

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Going negative, the best place to start

Okay, I don’t mean “going negative” like some kind of mud-slinging political operative.

The truth is, I wanted to title this post “Getting to No—the best place to start.” But “no” is what the search engine optimization folks call a “stop word.” It is, you should pardon the expression, a no-no. Apparently search engines prefer positivity. As do we all.going negative can have positive results

But going negative, even briefly, turns out to be a great negotiating technique. I learned this from James Altucher’s podcast interview with Chris Voss, who wrote a book I may have to read called Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it.

In negotiations, Voss says, people expect that you want them to say yes. So go for a “no” instead. That will throw them off balance, and that gives you the upper hand. “Do you want me to leave the organization?” “Do you want to spend the rest of our marriage hating each other?”

The positives of “Going Negative”

It’s a brilliant negotiation technique. And as I listened, I wondered if we can use the same technique in speeches.

Not just to throw the audience off-balance—because when you’re off-balance, you pay closer attention to things. And what speaker doesn’t want the audience paying closer attention?

But also because it’s a way to bond with the audience: “Do you want this project to fail?”

They think, No!

I do foresee one problem, though; my clients generally resist going negative. Even if they’ve got something disastrous to talk about, they want to put a happy face on it.

I suppose I could use my newfound negotiation skills to talk them into it. (Voss’s book just moved to the top of my must-read pile.)

“Do you want this speech to tank?”

Who would say “yes” to that?