Don’t look at me, look at my hands.

September 17th 2012

June O'Sullivan addresses staff at the LEYF Annual Conference
Job descriptions for leaders and managers always stipulate a need to communicate. And as a CEO, I am expected to be able to talk to many different audiences on a number of subjects, often at the drop of a hat. (LOL I hear you say in my case, since born in Cork, I have certainly benefited from its proximity to the Blarney Stone.)

While public speaking doesn’t faze me (in fact I rather enjoy it), I have recently had to do more TV and radio.  And whilst for me TV is a challenge (not least since there’s nowhere to hide),  I recognise that it’s a great way to make people more aware of what we do at LEYF; it also forces me to be good at sharing our message in no more than 2 to 3 minutes. So, under pressure from my Chair, I agreed to undertake a one-to-one media training session.

When asked what I wanted to achieve, I said that my worst nightmare would be finding myself in front of Jeremy Paxman; trying to convince him that if we were nice to babies we could end up with world peace. As ever, he is in tip top Rottweiler form – yep just imagine! (Remember that poor young politician Chloe Smith).  My only goal would be to survive and retain an ounce of credibility.

The trainer never balked at such a task, and immediately started to unpack my anxieties about answering questions and sounding credible. She reassured me by telling me how people we consider great orators, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were much improved by some serious training on the art of communicating.

So here are some great tips that will help us all become as smooth as Obama:

  • Get your message clear in your head
  • Be clear about your desired outcome and what you want people to hear
  • Don’t worry about your strategy for answering the question – just use the time to make the point you want!!

And if this last point got your attention, here are the rules for doing that:

  • Acknowledge the question (using words and phrases like ‘interesting’, ‘useful question’ etc; just try not to sound like a politician – sorry President!)
  • Broaden the question so it fits into the bigger picture and allows you to refocus on your issue
  • Clarify your point or throw the ball back to the questioner
  • Decide on your action (this may be where you apologise, agree action or flirt like mad)

Some other useful pointers you might like to try out for yourself:

When making your point, remember the interviewer will be operating the 80% / 20% rule between fact and opinion.  They will at times be a cat who likes fact, respect and challenge – and if you don’t give it will play with you like a trapped mouse – while at other times you need to be the dog, seeking approval and a pat by being warm, engaged and liked.

Remember the Jerry Springer mantra: “Talk to the hand ‘cos the ears ain’t listening”. Well there is something in that, not least because the audience spends as much time watching your hands as it does looking at your eyes.  Palms up means open, opinions and some entreaty; palm down says listen to me, I am giving facts here and I am knowledgeable.

June O'Sullivan takes time out to read to children at LEYF's Noah's Ark Community Nursery in Tower Hamlets

I always thought working in Early Years set you up for life.  Remember the importance of giving children a space to answer the question?  Apply that rule when making your point.  Try and keep silent for at least two long pauses.

When giving a speech with certain key words use the rhythm of a nursery rhyme to make your point:

Mary had a little lamb
Its fleece was white as snow
Everywhere that Mary went
The Lamb was sure to go

And finally, breathe steadily; it will slow down your pace and tone.  I always feel that when making a very important point it’s easy for your voice to scale up so you end up sounding like a character from Neighbours, when everything sounds like a question, or Beatrice from Much Ado about Nothing, ready to eat you alive.

Some of my next speaking engagements include:

So if you want to see how successfully I manage to put anything I learnt into practice, come along to one of these. Just be kind, and not a Jeremy Paxman wannabe ready to pounce…

Meanwhile,  if you have any tips that work for you, let me know in the space below.