How to sound more credible at meetings

Every leader-manager needs to sound credible – to their reports, their peers and their own manager. What do you sound like when you speak? When you speak too quickly or with a high pitch, you can sound overly excited, childish, nervous, or just plain inept.

There’s a good physiological reason for this: When you’re nervous, the flight-fight-freeze response kicks in and you tense up. You feel the need to rush as your muscles tense for battle or a quick getaway and your vocal cords follow suit. Tightened vocal cords (or vocal folds to be precise) raise your pitch. They can even cause you to squeak rather than speak!

A deeper voice sounds more confident and competent. Take your time, breathe deeply and relax your neck muscles. This opens up your diaphragm and relaxes your vocal cords, which lowers your pitch and slows you down. Don’t settle for a mechanical, low-pitched monotonous drone, though. That just puts people to sleep. Aim for an interesting mix of vocal pitch and speed.

Another way your voice can shatter your credibility is finishing sentences on an upward note, as if you’re asking a question. This can make you sound uncertain and immature. A 70 per cent falling inflection helps you sound confident and convincing.

When you have something to contribute to a meeting or discussion, gather your thoughts. Think about the two or three main points you want to make; you can even jot down as a few key words. When you’ve thought through how you can best contribute, you don’t need to worry about forgetting what you want to say or becoming tongue-tied.

Word your contributions clearly, objectively and positively, and  in a way that won’t create argument or antagonism. Clearly means replacing weasel words that diminish your points with powerful and specific words that strengthen your points: instead of ‘I think‘ say ‘I believe‘ or ‘I know’, for instance. Objectively means replacing emotionally-laden words and phrases with factual words and phrases: instead of ‘We were pathetic’ say ‘Our presentation let us down’. Positively means replacing negative points with positive ones: instead of saying what you want to avoid, say what you want to achieve.

In formal meetings, catch the eye of the person chairing the meeting and wait for acknowledgement before speaking. In informal meetings and discussions, wait for a lull, sit up straight and speak up in a clear voice that everyone can hear. Keep the floor by prefacing your contribution with a short goal: ‘I have three points to make that I believe can help us here’.

Don’t deny people the benefit of your point of view, your ideas and your knowledge. Speak up in a way that can make them sit up and listen!


Did you make one?

A New Year’s Resolution, I mean! I wonder how many of you actually did make one and if you did, whether you’re still keeping it!

I suspect New Year’s resolutions are something we all think about in a vague sort of way but seldom actually make one or when we do, seldom actually stick to it. That’s a pity, really, because unless we change and improve, we fall apart and decay.

You probably know about The Salk Curve of Change, named after Jonas Salk, who discovered the polio vaccine. Changing and improving is a natural part of life that governs all living systems (and probably businesses, communities and nations, too).

The Salk Curve is a sigmoid – think of an S on its side and you’ve got a sigmoid. You can see growth, prosperity, stability and decline – unless you make changes during prosperity to avoid decline and begin the cycle again. That’s the way to beat decline – change and improve. Otherwise, you keep doing what you’ve always done, which leads to eventual decline.

Resolutions are a great way to beat decline and you can make them any time: on your birthday, at New Year’s , or just whenever you feel like it. And now, at the beginning of a new year, is as good a time as any.

Instead of resolving to do something big, like becoming the world’s best manager, you can make a small adjustment, or improvement, to what you’re doing already. Tweaking is a lot easier than an extreme make-over. So you might resolve to get to know your direct reports better this year, or to listen to their improvement ideas more carefully and thoughtfully, or to spend three hours a week coaching or mentoring people. The trick is to make small improvements and stick to them.

You can make your decline-beating resolution even more powerful by writing it down. Research consistently shows that people who write down their goals are far more likely to achieve them than people who just think about their goals.

Write your resolution in clear words and make it positive – something you’re going to do, not something you’re going to stop doing. For instance, resolve to Listen carefully and thoughtfully to peoples’ ideas, not to Not brush off peoples’ ideas.

Out of sight is out of mind, so put your resolution where you’ll see it, somewhere that you will look at it often. A friend of mine writes hers on a Post-It note and puts it on the side of her bedside table, where she sees it as she falls asleep and first thing when she wakes up. Or you could stick your resolution on the mirror where you put on your make up or shave, or on the dashboard of your car. Whatever works for you. You want to keep seeing your resolution so it imbeds itself into your subconscious.

When ‘life’ gets in the way, as it does, do not tolerate exceptions. Stick persistently to your decline-beating resolution and avoid as many situations that could tempt you to ignore your resolution, as you can.

Old habits are hard to break – they’re wired into your brain. They’re the ‘default’ setting and you obey your old habits automatically, without any conscious effort. Replacing them with new habits, in effect re-wiring that part of your brain to create a new ‘default’ setting takes effort and commitment. The first few days are the hardest and then sticking to your resolution becomes easier and easier, until it becomes your new ‘default’.

That, in a nutshell, is how to stave off inevitable decline and make 2018 a great year.

Three cornerstones of successful communication

Who are the leader-managers you admire most? Chances are, they excel at communication. Chances are, they have a knack of getting on with people and winning their cooperation. Chances are they shine at three cornerstones of successful communication.

The first cornerstone is really an attitude, or an approach to life and to people; the second two are the skill sets of gathering good information and of giving good information.

  1. Respect: respecting yourself and respecting others
  2. Gathering good information: this takes empathy, the ability to see situations from other points of view, not just your own. This makes you willing to listen and helps you understand the whats, whys and wherefores of other people’s thinking.
  3. Giving good information: what good is it to have an opinion, an idea, or some information if you can’t share it clearly with others?

Here’s your challenge: For the rest of the week, pay attention to three aspects of your communication:

  1. how respectfully you treat others and how respectfully you encourage others to treat you
  2. how carefully you listen to others and put yourself in their shoes so you can figure out where they’re coming from
  3. how clearly and succinctly you give information to others.

That will show you your strengths and where your opportunities to improve are.

The people you’re stuck with

Sometimes they’re family members. Sometimes they’re people you work with. Sometimes they’re neighbours. They’re the people you wouldn’t choose to spend time with, but you need to.

Worrying about them or even allowing yourself to be annoyed by them is a waste of time and mental energy. Far better to overcome your annoyances and learn to work professionally with them, even though you wouldn’t choose to socialise with them. Much better for your career, your job satisfaction and your job performance. Here are four tips:

  1. Don’t take their behaviour personally. Maybe they’re having a bad day or maybe they have worries at home. Provided they behave pretty much the same with everyone, understand it isn’t about you.
  2. Look for their strengths and good points. Everyone has them. Recognise and acknowledge their abilities and find ways to put their expertise to good use.
  3. Maintain your professionalism at all times. Communicate with them constructively, not angrily or sarcastically – don’t let them dictate your behaviour.
  4. Stay focused on your work goals and what you want to achieve. This takes your mind off how annoying they are and helps you get on with doing what you’re paid to do – your job.

Toxic bosses Part 3

Over the last two weeks, we’ve considered how to recognise and survive working for control freaks, hollow superstars, wily politicians and narcissists. This week it’s how to survive working for dictators and bullies. They all prove boss is a four-letter word.

Dictators take being the boss into the stratosphere. They take no questions and give no explanations. They issue orders and tell you what to do – even when they don’t need to. They play their cards close to their chests, they solve your problems and everyone else’s problems, too, and they make all the decision themselves – even those you’d like to be involved in and could help with.

Some dictators simply love the sound of their own voice. Some can’t bring themselves to trust their followers – any of them – even though their poor followers probably are trustworthy. In the minds of dictators, their only option is to continually drive people and push them hard to do an honest day’s work.

Here are the two secrets to working for dictators:

  1. Remember that their ‘don’t trust anyone’ view of the world is their problem, not yours.
  2. Don’t give into the temptation to become as lazy and irresponsible as they seem to believe you are and just sit back and let the dictator do all your thinking for you.

The best thing to do, I think, is to keep your head down, do your work, and look for a new leader who doesn’t turn ‘boss’ into a four-letter word.

I’ve saved the most toxic boss of all until last – the bully. Bullies pick on one or two of their weaker followers and entertain themselves by abusing, belittling and berating them, assigning them impossible tasks with ridiculous time constraints and generally setting them up to fail.

And here’s the rub – to everyone else, bullies are often charming, and clever enough to hide their bullying ways from everyone but their victims. In fact, people usually find it hard to believe that a bully boss really does intimidate, terrorise and persecute anyone. That’s what makes them so dangerous.

If anyone out there is the victim of a bully boss, do not be conned into believing that you’re the failure your boss is making you out to be. Keep a record of the bullying treatment you receive (dates, times, locations, what was said, anyone else who was present). These records can help you see, clearly and objectively, that you’re not to blame and you may be able to use these records as proof of your boss’s toxic behaviour towards you.

My suggestion is that you find another leader as fast as you can, someone who inspires you and helps you achieve feats you never knew you could achieve. Look for someone who is talented and has high, but realistic, standards, who will give you constructive feedback, set challenging targets and expect a lot of good work from you. Above all, look for a leader who makes you feel energised and confident.

(I trust you didn’t recognise any of the characteristics of toxic leaders we’ve discussed over the last three posts in yourself. If you did, you know what to do. Change your ways and learn to be a real leader-manager.)

Toxic bosses Part 2

Last week we looked at how to deal with control freak bosses and hollow superstar bosses. This week, it’s wily politicians and narcissists.

Those wily politicians are easy to spot – they’re the managers who extol whatever is flavour-of-the-month in the organisation and next month when it changes, their theme song does too. Wily politicians are verbal contortionists who rush towards power like iron filings to a magnate. To the wily politician, ‘It’s all about ME’ and their sole goal is to survive and thrive – whatever it takes and whoever else suffers.

Their political skills are actually quite awesome. Wily politicians always know exactly what the prevailing mood of the people who count most in the organisation is and some of them are so good, they can even predict changes in direction.

Maybe the worst thing about working for a wily politician is that they’re only concerned with the people ‘up the ladder’, the more senior managers – certainly not the people at their own level or, heaven forbid, those below their level! This means that if you work for a wily politician, your only value is how well you can help him or her look good and how quickly you respond to the changing fads they follow (or rather, give lip-service to).

When your boss is a wily politician who delivers at least minimal results, you can benefit from being part of their team and, provided you can offer solid performance, you’ll be highly prized for making your boss look good. When your wily politician boss is a non-performer, move on as fast as you can before your reputation suffers.

Narcissistic leaders are the ones who can ‘rally the troops’ and engage people’s hearts and minds but they also have massive ego problems. They adore the sounds of their own voices and tend to dominate meetings, even when it’s with more hot air than useful information and ideas.

Because they love themselves so much, narcissists are terrible coaches and mentors, so don’t expect to learn much from a narcissist boss. They’re often emotionally isolated, distrustful of others, self-involved and unpredictable, so unless you’re quite a strong person, they can easily destroy your self-confidence.

To top it off, narcissists are usually convinced they are always right, so they’ll take reckless risks and hear only what they want to hear. In fact, they tend to surround themselves with people who always agree and pander to their egos in all sorts of other ways.

There are five secrets to working for a self-centred self-admirer like this.

  1. Zip your lips when you disagree because putting forward an alternative point of view is very career-limiting.
  2. Make sure you don’t burst their over-inflated self-image bubble.
  3. Praise them like mad.
  4. Always communicate with a narcissist boss in terms of their own best interest.
  5. Don’t worry when they take all the credit for your ideas and hard work – that’s just what they do.

Toxic bosses Part 1

If you’re a boss, you won’t want to hear this, but I’m going to tell you anyway. Second to people’s Number One complaint about their work – ‘poor communication’ – is their Number Two complaint: my boss. Yes, it’s a fair bet you are a source of angst to those you lead and manage. Sorry about that. It’s also a fair bit that your boss is something of a source of angst to you, too.

Fortunately, most bosses aren’t really all that bad, just a little bit annoying – they’re at the top of the bell curve. Many bosses are quite good – they’re at one end of the bell curve. And then there are the bosses at the other end of the bell curve – the toxic bosses. Read on of yours is a toxic boss. We’ll look at two types of bosses we’d rather not be managed by this week (control freaks and hollow superstars); two next week (wily politicians and narcissists) and two the following week (dictators and bullies).

The control freak is a perennial non-favourite, so let’s begin there. These are the bosses who believe it’s never too soon to start worrying; never too late check, re-check and check again or review all the details – yet again. The control freak’s attention to detail can be mind-numbing, especially if you aren’t detail-oriented yourself. These bosses plan every action to the finest detail and keep the panic button close at hand. They leave nothing to chance and it’s never safe to relax.

Control-freak bosses are always looking over your-shoulder – which can be irritating. It’s easy to become dependent on them because they do all your thinking for you. But that’s the easy option and probably best avoided.

To survive a control freak, you can calm their qualms by providing plenty of information, even if you think it’s overkill. Establish priorities (which sometimes isn’t easy because to many control freaks, every task is an ‘A’ priority). Stay on top of details and deadlines and gain their trust with regular progress reports so they can see you’re on top of your job. The secret is to help your control freak boss gradually come to understand that you’re dependable and produce the right results without their continual input.

Another good idea is to notice whether there’s someone the control freak gives more lee-way to and if there is, watch those people and figure out how they operate and adopt a few of their bid-for-freedom tricks.

Remember that nothing is good enough for the control freak – and that includes you. So whatever you do, don’t let the control freak to erode your self-confidence – the problem lies with your boss, not with you. However, if you can cope with it, the control freak’s zeal for perfection can teach you how to think clearly and prevent projects from going off the rails and you may shine in the reflected light of their successes.

Hollow superstars are the publicity hounds with the big reputations. They’re the smooth-talking, high profile networkers extraordinaire, the sole operators who offer no support or guidance because they’re too busy concentrating on making themselves look good, looking in the mirror and advancing their own interests.

If you work for a hollow superstar, it probably really irks you that other people – people who don’t work for them, think they’re great – ‘Gee, aren’t you lucky working for so-and-so,’ they’ll say, ‘It must be wonderful!’ But from those who know these empty superstars best, the people who work for them, there is faint praise.

That’s because those who work for them are the poor unfortunates who are left to make the Superstar’s grandiose promises work in the real world; they’re the ones left to write their fabulous speeches and stand in the shadow while the boss takes all the glory – unless, of course, the superstar’s schemes go awry, in which case, they’re quick to take a step back and push a follower forward to take the blame.

The secret to surviving working for an empty superstar is to figure out their PR plan for themselves and help make it happen. Become indispensable to the empty superstar and have a fun ride on their coat-tail – if your own pride and ego will let you do that, that is!

Two more toxic bosses and how to deal with them next week.