Sunday, April 28, 2013

Communication as Possibility

Many years ago, as an undergraduate student studying with Dr. John Diekman at St. John's University, I was introduced to the idea of communication as possibility. It was one of those life-changing concepts that education, at its best, provides us.

Dr Diekman, a brilliant lecturer, introduced the idea by contrasting it with the notion of "communication as currency". As currency, communication is something that goes back and forth, a means of exchange between people. Thinking about communication as possibility, on the other hand, is quite a different matter. It is built on several premises, which together allow us to see communication in a unique way.

First, we live in a "process world". As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, all reality is change...everything is a process. There are no "things" in our world, as everything is a process. At the molecular and sub-molecular levels, everything is moving, changing. We cannot see these with the naked eye, but our scientific friends with powerful microscopes assure us that everything is changing, all the time.

Not the least of these changing bodies are our own. People are processes, as many of the cells that made up my body yesterday are now dead, as new ones emerge. Psychologically as well, I am not the same person I was yesterday, as I have had numerous experiences, conversations, and so forth that literally make me a different person than I was yesterday.

Second, once we accept that we live in a process world we can begin to understand that expression is a creative act. In this ever changing reality I bring something into being (the definition of creation) every time I open my mouth and speak, as well as with every nonverbal expression. And insofar as others are doing the same we are together creating our shared world through every communicative act we engage in. That simple "hello" uttered to a stranger creates the potential for a relationship should the stranger respond in kind. Together we have created that possibility.

And this brings me to my third premise, the notion of choice or free will. The French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre asserted that human beings are "condemned to choose". All meaningful behavior involves a choice. As communicators we choose how we express ourselves and we choose how we interpret the world around us. What happens to us we have no control over, but how we respond to it is a choice.

And so when you take these three ideas together we live in a process world where each moment is a new reality which has never existed before in the history of the universe. Within that context,we are making choices both in what we bring into the world and how we give meaning to that which we experience at the hands of others. And those choices are creative ones, bringing into being that which did not exist before.

And because we are free to think and choose and bring our ideas into being, communication is possibility. What can be, is what is possible. Is world peace possible? If everyone made the choice to stop fighting, to stop hating, to forgive and understand and dare to bet it is. Is it possible for you to make a million dollars? Think and say the right things to the right people and choose bet it is.

When we reconsider communication as possibility we see that anything is possible if we make the right choices, inspire similar choices in others, and so forth. We can bring things into being by thinking and speaking. All great advances in history begin with an idea, but then that idea is shared, it is communicated to another and then the causal wheels are set in motion.

If we can think it and speak it it is possible!

That's all for today, Until next time be well, speak well, and as always, thank you for reading,

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting services visit Semiosphere Consulting.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Listening is Sacred

I have been writing about listening for a week or so now, and somehow I don't think I've really captured its importance. Yes it is a practical skill that can help you immeasurably in your job, your schooling, and your relationships, but it runs deeper than that. Listening to someone--really listening--is a sacred act.

When we really listen to someone, driven by a sincere desire to understand them, it is like we open up our soul and allow them to write on it. Communication is irreversible. We can't "un-hear" that which we have heard. It becomes a part of us and our perceptual process going forward. This can be kind of a scary thought. Listening makes us vulnerable.

When I open myself up to you, it is a leap of faith that what you are going to tell me will not only be true, but that you won't hurt me terribly. For there are things that you could say that could wound me to the core. So listening involves a deep sense of trust.

The twentieth century theologian and philosopher Martin Buber spoke of the "I-It" orientation and contrasted it with the "I-Thou" orientation. These are two very different ways of looking at, and dealing with, other people.

Someone working from an I-It orientation sees other people as things, to be used for their personal gain and discarded when finished with them We have all encountered these people in our lives. Phony friends who use us, bosses who take advantage of us, lovers who disappear with the morning light never to be heard from again. These folks get what they want and then discard us from their lives.

An I-Thou orientation, in contrast, is a very different way of perceiving the people in our lives. That word "thou" has quasi-spiritual connotations. The word simply means "you" but "thou" means so much more than the word you. Buber recognized that some people look at other human beings and see something Divine. This Divinity has nothing to do with the external trappings like money, possessions, or looks. It is a simple fact of your humanity. As a human being you are a wonderful creature, endowed with the qualities of your creator, and capable of spiritual transcendence. When we look at another with an I-Thou orientation we see that person in all their glory--even if they are dressed in rags.

As listeners we can do it with an I-It orientation ("what can I get from this person to improve my own lot in life?") or with an I-Thou orientation ("How can I help this fellow Child of God standing before me?"). At its best listening is closer to the latter than the former. Listening is a great gift we give another. When we stop what we are doing, look at the speaker, set aside our preconceived judgments, offer honest feedback, ask questions and really hear what they are saying we are engaging in something Divine.

The word "communication" comes from the Latin "communis", meaning "to be as one". When we really listen we are joined as one. We are communicating in the truest sense of the word.

That's all for today. Sorry to get deep on you. I only hope you get it. Listening is more than an effective behavior, it is a Sacred act. My life has been blessed because I take the time to listen. Try it for yourself and you will know what I mean.

Until next time, be well and speak well. And as always, thank you for reading.

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting services visit Semiosphere Consulting.

Friday, April 19, 2013

9 Tips for Being a Better Listener

There is an old saying to the effect that God gave us two ears and one mouth because we should listen more and talk less.

In today's post I will share several simple tips for being a better listener. Individually, they are small behavioral changes. Collectively they will improve your listening immeasurably. For the most part they are simple and easily done. However, they are habitual ways of being with others and so old habits must be broken and new ones formed to make you consistently a better listener.

1. First, stop talking! If you are talking you are not listening. You are too busy trying to encode messages to put your full energy into decoding what your interlocutor is saying.

2. And in a related behavior, don't interrupt. Let the person finish the thought and be sure you understand it before you interject.

3. Avoid the temptation to spend your mental energy formulating what you are going to say next while the other person is still talking. If you are silently planning what you will say, you are not fully engaged in listening.

4. We must also avoid prejudging the person and the message before we have heard and understood both. Sometimes we take one look at someone and believe we know them and their views based on their appearance. We form opinions about people before they have even opened their mouths, based upon their manner of dress, hairstyle, tattoos, the quality of their footwear, and so on. We make an inferential leap from appearance to beliefs about attitudes and viewpoints that very well may miss the mark. At best they are presumptuous, and at worst just flat out wrong. The problem is those preconceived notions become the lens or context through which we see the other person and what they have to say and color our understanding of the message, distorting it to fit into our preconceptions.

5, One very simple thing we can do to be a better listener is simply to look at the speaker. We are surrounded by potential distractions and where the eyes go, the mind follows. This is particularly true when we are an audience member in a public speaking situation. I know that as a student with Attention Deficit Disorder, before such a term was popular, I was a classic underachiever because I was paying attention to everything going on around me--except the teacher! When I got to college, I knew I had this problem so I made a conscious effort to sustain my eye contact with the teacher. I zeroed in on instructors with all my might. And a funny thing happened; I went from being a C+ student to an A student. I didn't get smarter in college, and the work didn't get easier. I simply weeded out all the environmental distractions by focusing my vision on the professor exclusively.

6. We must also be vigilant in avoiding non-listening behaviors when someone is talking to us. If we are watching the game on TV, texting, perusing a magazine, or doing anything else that requires mental focus, we are not listening effectively. Our energy and attention is on something else and at best we are missing the non-verbal part of the message (which many believe is the most important dimension of the message). We are in essence saying to the person speaking to us "this other thing is equally or more important right now than you are"...a terrible message to send to our kids, significant other, or anyone really.

7. Good listeners are also able to empathize with the speaker. Put yourself in the other person's shoes for a moment and see the world through their eyes. Sometimes this is difficult--especially when we think we disagree with what they are saying. But if we want to truly understand someone's point of view, it is essential. The ability to empathize is an essential feature of emotional intelligence and resolving conflict.People who have a hard time empathizing, have a hard time with people in general.

8, We must also work to deliver non-verbal feedback. Good listeners let you know they are with you--and when you have lost them. Head nods, responsive facial expressions, small sounds ("hmmm", "uh huh", "right") all let the speaker know we are following along their train of thought. But the most valuable feedback we can provide is when we DON'T understand, are lost or confused. People want to be understood. Hell, we marry the person in this world who really understands us, right? We do them a tremendous service when we let them know we do not understand them or are lost. If you have ever talked to a stone-faced individual, you know how uncomfortable it is. It is disconcerting to not receive nonverbal feedback, and it affects how we continue or if we continue at all. A lack of feedback says "I don't care" and squelches communication.

9 Another good listening behavior is to ask questions. Good listeners ask questions for clarification, additional information and the like. Good listeners want to make sure they understand you and your message in its entirety so they ask for additional information, contextual information and so on. I once worked as a bartender and was pretty successful at it. The secret to my success was to ask questions! "How was your day?" "How's the family?" "What do you do for a living?". Ask a few questions and then just let them talk. They all said I was a great bartender, but all I really did was listen to them and fill their glass...come to think of it I was a great bartender!

These are some simple things that anyone can do to be a better listener. Try them. I promise you will get results that bring you closer to the people in your life. You will better understand your children, your spouse, your co-workers, if you simply take the time to listen to them.

I have more to say though, about listening and will try to wrap this all up this weekend.

Until then, be well and speak well. And as always, thanks for reading!

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting services visit Semiosphere Consulting.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Listening is a Life-Changer

Listening is the most under-appreciated communication skill.  The research shows that listening is the single most important communication skill in professional, academic, and personal life. In fact, many marriage counselors report that the number one source of dissatisfaction in relationships is not money, the kids, or work. It’s listening. As in “my partner just doesn't listen to me”.

The good news is that listening is a skill that can be learned. It will take effort, and perhaps the cost of a book or time spent with a communications expert, but it is time, effort, and money well spent, as the results can transform our careers, our relationships, and our lives.

One of the problems is that for most people hearing equals listening. However, hearing is just one small part of the listening process. Hearing is a passive process. You don’t have to do anything to hear someone. Listening, on the other hand is an active and sometimes difficult behavior. We need to work at it. As a college professor, for instance, I know that all my students can hear me. How many are listening—really listening—is another story. And the degree to which they are actively listening will be reflected in their performance on tests and other assignments. Those who are not listening effectively literally do not “get it”. Though they are physically present, they are somewhere else psychologically.

Why is listening so difficult though? There are dozens of reasons, including multiple kinds of distractions (environmental, psychological, and physical), topics of conversation we have no interest in, boring people, thick accents, unpleasant voices, and points of view we strongly disagree with to name just a few. I would add one other thing to our list…a lack of training.

As adults we survived years of schooling in every field under the sun, but have you ever been taught how to listen well? Most of us learned our listening skills by watching our parents, or whoever we grew up around. And if they were good listeners we have probably become good listeners by vicarious learning. But if our parents were poor listeners, we have probably become poor listeners too. It’s not a moral flaw, just the result of following poor role models.

For that reason many of us could use a lesson in listening. We need to learn what “listening” means, beyond just hearing, and we need to learn how to do it better. Limitations of time and space preclude me from doing that here today, but over the next few days I will share some specific tips on how to be a better listener.

And while learning specific tips for listening more effectively is great, ultimately you have to really want to be a better listener. The late Steven Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, says it best I think. “Listening is the sincere desire to understand another”. It is a desire. It comes from within. And for anyone who comes to understand the benefits of good listening, the desire should follow naturally.

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting services visit Semiosphere Consulting.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Motivating Action Based on Needs

One of the most natural things in the world is to take action on a need. If thirst kicks in--the need for water--we take a drink. If we need to release fluids (perhaps after too much water!) we go to the bathroom. In fact, Abraham Maslow theorized that most of our behavior is need based, i.e., just about everything we do fulfills a need of some sort. And as everyone who has ever taken an Intro to Psychology course knows, his famous "Hierarchy of Needs" systematically categorizes these needs.

However, as Maslow noted in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality, some needs are more powerful than others and must be met before higher order needs kick in. So the need for breathable air or drinkable water will be more powerful than our need to feel good about ourselves, because they are survival needs.

The need I've been thinking about a lot lately is the need for communication training. Since starting my consulting company I have become acutely aware of potential clients' need for help, especially in public speaking and listening. When I first started out I was taking different approaches to marketing my services, Sometimes the message was "you are pretty good now, but could be great with my help". And one time it was as strong as "I witnessed your sales presentation last night and it was dreadful, for the sake of your bottom line, PLEASE let me help you".

Unfortunately for both of us, neither approach motivated them to avail themselves of my services. Especially in the latter case, the need is clearly evident--to me anyway. But how could I get them to feel the need to a degree that it will motivate action? Many of you who offer a good or service might struggle with the same question.

I have found the answer lies in what I teach my students about persuasion and it is two-fold. First, get them to FEEL something by creating psychological dissonance, and second appeal to multiple layers of needs.

The term dissonance comes form music and refers to notes that are not in harmony to each other. If you have ever heard that one voice in the choir that couldn't hit the proper notes, you know it is an unpleasant listening experience. You literally cringe at the cacophonous sounds. Psychologically, dissonance refers to that strong feeling that a particular situation is disturbingly not right. Seeing a starving child on television while you chomp away on a pizza, or a report of a child suffering with terminal cancer would cause dissonance.

In the case of the bad sales pitch above, clearly my blunt honesty about the lack of quality in their presentation was insufficient. Perhaps a video of a portion of it would have been more powerfully undeniable. Video is starkly honest, which is why it is a staple of my training sessions. Quite honestly people often think that they have been an effective public speaker if they have managed to not poop their pants. The video forces them to hold themselves to a higher standard,

You see the thing about dissonance is it will motivate us to action. It is so unpleasant that we will usually do something to make it stop. That may mean writing the check to help feed the starving child, or more likely simply changing the channel. But we do something. In my case I hope that it means securing my services.

Second, rather than just appealing to one of the levels of Maslow's Hierarchy, it is better to appeal to several, if not all of them if you can. So not only is the "bottom line" appeal important, but also safety and security ("this may save your job") as well as the need for belonging (" imagine being one of your companies top producers, being among the best in sales, month after month"). The esteem needs can also be used by stressing how good the client will feel about him/herself when she is closing deal after deal, and how great it will feel to have the respect and confidence of their superiors, etc. Even the need to Self Actualize can be appealed to as we assure the potential client this will help fulfill his or her potential not only professionally, but personally.

So there you have it. We know our potential clients have needs, and that those needs drive behavior. We just need to really use them to motivate the action we want them to take. Play around with these ideas and see if they can help your sales pitch.

Be well and speak well.

And as always, thanks for reading!

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting services visit Semiosphere Consulting.

Monday, April 8, 2013

National Speech Champions!

Bradley University won the national intercollegiate public speaking championship at the American Forensics Association National Individual Events Tournament! Western Kentucky University and George Mason University were second and third respectively.

What a pleasure it was to judge this contest. I saw some of the most talented and inspiring performances I have ever witnessed.One young man in particular, deserves mention. His name is Jacoby Cochran and he was crowned as national champion in the Individual Sweepstakes. I was blessed to have judged him in several speaking events and he is one of the best young speakers I have ever seen in the thousands of college students I have witnessed in my career.

I saw him in the Quarter-Final round in Persuasive Speaking and he easily was my choice as the best of the six speeches in the round. His speech focused on the failure of the U.S. government to prosecute those responsible for the fiscal crisis we faced five years ago. His passion, research, structure and writing were all extraordinary. I fully expect he will go on to great things in his career. I don't know what his career plans are but this young man could be a political force if he chose that route.

I also had the pleasure of judging him in the Final round of Informative Speaking. In that event he spoke about a program called STRIVE. It is a "virtual vaccination" for combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in use by the federal government. The program uses computer simulations like those used for pilots and astronauts to put soldiers through the horrors of combat BEFORE they experience the real thing. With impressive results, it will protect soldiers from the post-war psychological struggles that have led to so many social problems and suicides. It will identify those at the highest risk for problems BEFORE the damage is done and "vaccinate" them from the tragic psychological consequences of war. The program sounds quite promising and the speech itself was another amazing effort by Mr.Cochran.

So remember the name of this young man. I would bet money he will make his mark on our world before he is done!

I will try to write some more thoughts on the contest when I have more time. If you would like to see the results they can be found at and click on the AFA-NIET link.

For now, I need to get some rest before my three and a half hour drive to the Kansas City airport and flight back to New Jersey.

Until then, be well and speak well. And, as always, Thanks for reading.

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting services visit Semiosphere Consulting.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Great Speakers of the Future

I write today from a hotel room in Kansas as I prepare to judge the American Forensics Association National Individual Event Tournament--the national championship in public speaking for college students. As the Eastern Regional Representative to the national committee, I have been invited to serve as a judge for this wonderful three day event.

This will be my fourteenth AFA-NIET and it is always remarkable experience, as students gather to share their speeches and performances of literature. They have worked all year to qualify their events and the qualifying procedure is a daunting one. It is based on the results of regional tournaments from September through March. There are several national tournaments but this one has the most rigorous qualifying process and thus these students are the cream of the crop of our nation's collegiate communicators.

I will weigh in throughout the weekend with impressions and accounts of some of the more noteworthy performances.

For now I just want to wish all of the competitors the very best of luck. It it is an honor just to qualify for this tournament. And it is my very great privilege to serve as a judge. At this point it's time to just let it flow!

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting services visit Semiosphere Consulting.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Do You Need A Speech Coach?

If you are in a profession that requires even occasional public speaking, you may have considered hiring a speech coach. Undoubtedly you will weigh the costs versus the benefits. Today I would like to spell out some of those benefits as well as the costs--the costs of not hiring a speech coach.

First, you probably wonder, do I really need help? After all I'm pretty good, certainly better than some I have seen! And you are probably right. But is "better than bad" good enough? And could "better than good enough" help your bottom line? If so, then you probably could use some help.

After all, even people who perform at the highest levels retain coaches to help them in their quest for ongoing improvement and to maintain excellence. Michael Jordan still had coaching, despite being the greatest of all time. Are you better at speaking than Michael Jordan was at basketball?

Another question to ask yourself is "How do I feel about speaking?" Do you love every minute of it, reveling in the moment? or do you hate it with a passion? Or are you more ambivalent about it, seeing it as a necessary evil?

I ask these questions because one of the things a coach can do is change our perception of speaking itself. We need to be fully engaged in the process, not the least bit reluctant. Our attitude comes through to our audience, and the least bit of negativity tarnishes our presentation in subtle and not so subtle ways that can undermine our efforts.

What else can a coach do for you? They will be brutally honest. This is something our friends colleagues and associates might be reluctant to do for obvious reasons. But sometimes we need to hear the cold, hard truth. And because they are brutally honest, we can also believe the positives, which is extremely important. This way, when they tell you you are great, you can believe it and go out there with full confidence in what you do.

A good coach will not try to change you. They will simply bring out your best qualities and eliminate any major flaws. The goal is to be yourself at your best. Anything else will stand out as being inauthentic. And we don't trust that which is not "the real thing".

Most importantly a good coach will help you prepare. I would hope we all prepare before a speech, but are we doing it in the best, most efficient possible way? For many, we're not. A good coach will make sure we are at the top of our game when the lights come up.

But what is the cost? A reputable speaking coach will probably run you $200-$500 per hour, so it's not cheap.

But, what is the cost of doing ineffective presentations? One lost contract or job could cost you many times the cost of some coaching. I recently watched a company pitch its services to my town at a borough council meeting. While I am not part of the decision-making body, I would be shocked if the company wins the contract. Not because they would be bad--quite the contrary, they appeared to have a great service/product. They will not win the contract because the sales presentation was so poorly done. It was poor enough that I emailed the company the very next morning offering my services. Alas, I received no reply. Sadly, this tells me they just don't get it and will be out there doing more bad presentations--losing more contracts--for reasons that are completely solvable. In one or two hours I would have them set up with a sales pitch and the principles to apply for future pitches that would maximize their sales potential.

Clearly they didn't think they needed a speech coach. I know better. They do.

What about you? Do you need a speech coach? Could your sales presentations be more successful? Or, would it be worth a couple of hundred dollars to give the most kick-ass "Best Man" speech ever? Do you have to deliver a presentation for acceptance into a prestigious school? These are all situations for which a speech coach would be well worth the cost.

Got questions? Visit and/or click on the "Contact Us" link for additional information.

Until then, be well and speak well. And as always. thanks for reading!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Beating the Monotone Blues

I think we can all agree that the monotone speaker is one of the toughest things to listen to in the world. They drone on and on. And even if their subject matter is interesting, their delivery sucks all the life out of the subject--and the room.

I once coached just such a speaker. He was the nicest guy in the world. He was smart, charitable, likable...and boring as hell when he spoke publicly. He was calm--calmer than most--confident and poised and yet he could put an audience to sleep in just a few minutes.

Anyway, he had enlisted my services as a consultant at the request of a third party, whom I'm sure recognized his shortcomings but didn't have the heart to tell him. I quickly diagnosed the problem and was struggling with how to overcome it when he gave me the answer. That's right HE gave me the answer. I had asked him about his experience speaking at scholarly conferences and he was telling me of one to which he had taken his family. Suddenly, when describing all the activities he and his wife and kids had participated in, he came alive! His voice suddenly danced up and down the pitch scale like Tina Turner on crack. His vocal variety was beautiful, he was conversational, and best of all it was completely natural. This was not the result of vocal exercises or drills. It was just him, telling a story.

And it was in that moment that I realized something that had always escaped me. When we tell stories, they not only work because they're interesting, understandable, and memorable, but they work because when we tell a story our voice comes to life.

The next session I had with my client, I told him " I want you to tell stories". He was puzzled by this at first but I gave him a few examples of how he could do it in some of his recent speeches I had seen. We then worked on his next speech where he was supposed to report the results of a building inspection (yeah, exciting stuff, I know). I had him tell me the story of the inspection. Who was there? (Characters) When/where was it? (Setting) What happened, in detail? (Plot) What problems did you find? (Conflict) What did you decide had to be done? (Climax) When and how will that work be done? (Resolution). We basically crafted the inspection into a STORY about the inspection. And when he delivered it to an audience, he spoke with all the vocal dynamics he did when he spoke of that family trip...he was great.

This has become a mainstay of my coaching technique. Tell the story. Not only do you get all the advantages of the story I wrote about in my last blog entry, but your voice comes to life as well. It is pretty hard to be a monotone storyteller.

So if you have a monotone speaker in your life, send him to me! Or save a few bucks and have them tell stories. You'll see a dramatic difference.

That's all for today...gotta get to work. Until next time, be well and speak well. And, as always, thanks for reading!

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting services visit Semiosphere Consulting.