Sunday, October 27, 2013

Likability: The Speaker's Secret Weapon

As an undergraduate Speech Communication major at St. John's University (NY) many years ago, I came across a little book in the library that did more to aid my understanding of communication than anything I had ever read up to that point. It was titled You Are The Message and was written by Roger Ailes. Ailes was, among other things, a communication consultant to President Ronald Reagan, who was often referred to as "the Great Communicator". I've always thought that Ailes' coaching was at least partially responsible for Reagan earning that moniker.

Politics aside, Ailes has a chapter in the book devoted to the importance of likability--he called it "The Magic Bullet"--for public speakers and communicators in general. The truth of this simple fact has been proven to me time and time again throughout my career. Simply stated, if an audience member likes you, they will forgive nearly any flaws or imperfections in your speech and even your personality.

For some, likability comes naturally--or at least it seems that way. These folks have a manner of being that evokes positive regard from nearly everyone they meet. In fact though, these people just have developed behavioral traits that endear them to others. These are traits that can be developed by anyone. However they must be sincere and genuine or people see right through you.

What makes someone likable? Well, think about the people you know who are most likable. They are authentic, they're not phonies. They probably have similar values to our own, treat people right, listen respectfully, are empathetic, generous in spirit, kind, and have a sense of humor. Heck, who wouldn't like such a person?

In short, they re good people and treat others well. It sounds so simple but being likable takes effort for some people. Some are held back by fear, insecurities, closed-mindedness, and negativity. It is risky to be kind, for instance, because it makes us vulnerable to those who might take advantage of us. So it takes courage to habitually embody the behaviors that people find likable. But I think if someone wants it, he or she can cultivate a manner of being in the world with others that elicits positive regard from those they encounter.

For a nice starting place, try reading this. Just understand that it can't be an act we put on. It stems from a genuine liking of people and a desire to be liked.

The payoff transcends being a good speaker. For the likable nearly everyone they meet is a potential friend and ally. Yet, the likable do not takes advantage of the esteem others hold them in. To abuse the power of being likable makes you less likable.

In my consulting work, I often advise politicians who desire to communicate more effectively. Much of what I coach them in is aimed at making them more likable. We talk about how to handle tough interviews, hostile audience members and the like in an honest and straightforward way, while remaining likable. Because the simple fact is we don't vote for people we don't--at least at some level--like.

I do this because I know that people interpret our message through the lens of how they feel about us. If those feelings are positive they are much more likely to interpret whatever we say positively. Sometimes speakers get so caught up in the facts and figures of their talking points, that they lose sight of what is really our audience feels about us. And, as I said at the outset, if the audience likes us they will overlook and/or forgive our imperfections as speakers.

It is hard for me to overstate the fundamental importance of likability. It is worth your time and effort to cultivate it.

That's all for today my friends.

Be well and speak well. And as always, thank you for reading.

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting work, see

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

What to Wear for your Next Presentation

Appearance matters. We all know this. Heck, we don't seek out ugly people to date, right? Your clothing and overall appearance are part of your message. The wrong clothing, accessory, or hairstyle choice can create a distraction that speaks louder than your words and, fairly or unfairly, turn people off.

It is hard to generalize about the perfect clothing for your speaking engagement because each speaker, occasion, and audience are unique. So ultimately only you can decide what will work for you. But what follows may help you in that decision making process.

One big rule is to avoid distracting clothing or accessory choices. The best choices are generally conservative and nondescript. When all is said and done I want the audience to remember your message, not your outfit. So this is not the time to be a fashion trend-setter.

Those beautiful jingly earrings are so beautiful that audience members may spend half your talk thinking about them--and not focusing on what you are saying. Leave them home.

Certainly if there is an unofficial "uniform" that your audience will be wearing--as is the case in much of corporate America--you probably want to be mindful of that and not stray too far from the norm (unless you are purposefully presenting yourself as an "outsider", which might free you up to break the sartorial rules).

Of course if you happen to be speaking on Dress Down Day, you might vary that strategy. However be careful there too.If your short sleeves reveal tattoos, keep the sleeves...lest we spend your talk enjoying the beautiful artwork rather than your message.

And while I shy away from giving woman fashion advice--I'm just not qualified to speak on the subject!--I heard a good rule of thumb recently that I liked. My colleague Ms. Joan Ali Scocco shared that woman "do not have the right to bare arms". The play on words suggests a radical second amendment position, but is simply good advice. As she suggests to her female students, put on a blazer and you will look "professional". Of course it is important that the blazer isn't over a "Top Ten Thinks I Did in Cancun" tee shirt, but for the most part regardless of what is under the blazer, it will work nicely.

And while on the subject of women's attire, I think it is worth saying that the presentation occasion is not a date. When I tell my college students to "dress professionally" I am often surprised about what young woman consider "professional". Very often I see outfits more suitable for the night club than the board room. Mini skirts, plunging necklines and stiletto heels will create quite an impression, but is that really the impression you want to make?

As for men, I think the choices are easier. A business suit is a business suit. But not all occasions call for a suit. Sometimes you are addressing the cub scouts or a crowd at a rock concert.

I have a simple rule of thumb that I am comfortable with in those non-business suit settings. I try to look a little better than most of my audience. If my audience is in tee shirts and sweats, I would wear a polo shirt and jeans or khakis. If they are in polo shirts, I might wear a button-down shirt. If they are in button-downs, I might put on a tie. You get the idea. This basically insures I'm not under-dressed for the occasion, but also not far too formal.

Again, each occasion is unique and you must choose for yourself what to wear. Be aware though, that our audience makes judgments about us quickly and we want those judgments to be positive ones. So make wise choices that do not detract from the presentation you have worked so hard on.

That's all for now. Be well, speak well, and as always thanks for reading!

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting work see Semiosphere Consulting.