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Speech Intelligence, Part 2

How to remain Speech Intelligent in front of today’s audiences, big or small. Beyond traditional presentation skills.

But first, introducing speech walking: I’ve been sitting at my desk for a full ten minutes with anxiety rising and words failing to arrive. How do I write this? How do I pass these ideas from me to others?

I’ll use gweek to help me out. Get my thoughts out into the open. I’m going for a speech walk.

Tools needed: gweek app (to record myself)

Environment: somewhere to walk (a nearby, quiet outdoor space)

Attitude: kind to myself, patient, open minded

Speech walk, here I come.

Back at my desk. 6 minutes of recording. 10 minutes of wandering around outside. If I listen back, the thoughts are not necessarily in the right order, but I heard myself give opinions. Has the mere act of speaking my thoughts helped me:

  1. Know what they are?
  2. Organise them?

Back to the keyboard. Did speech walking help? Did it break my writer’s block? Let’s see. Here’s what I then wrote:

Why Speech Intelligence?

Humans have continually sought out the most efficient way to communicate. To get things done. Socially, as well as professionally. We need to apply intelligence to how we successfully interact with one another. This is not just our content (the knowledge and opinions that we hold), yet also our ability to remain empathic and build trust.

In his article ‘Behavioral Intelligence: The Missing Link and Next Frontier’, Todd Maddox lays out a compelling case for the array of complementary intelligences in discussion today: Cognitive Intelligence (hard skills), Emotional Intelligence (soft skills), Behavioural Intelligence (people and technical skills). Speech Intelligence would be classified as a contributor to ‘Behavioural’, yet a key symbol of ‘Emotional’.


What is Speech Intelligence?

Our capacity to remain agile, authentic and listener-centric. Wherever we communicate.


Where is Speech Intelligence?

In all of us – an ability to exchange sophisticated communication messages with each other. We all have the means to do so. Many of us impulsively enjoy expressing our thoughts and feelings in order to learn things and bond with others. Speech Intelligence is latent in all of us.


Socially, are we always Speech Intelligent?

Yes, instinctively when we’re in conversation with others, and when that conversation is working well. By nature, and by social training, we strike a balance between efficiency in speech and conveying authentic self. Through ‘turn-taking’ mechanisms (you talk then I talk etc) we use basic frameworks to remain listener-centric.


Professionally, are we always Speech Intelligent?

Social conversation gives us frequent opportunities to remain Speech Intelligent. We have access to our listener’s feedback on how we are communicating with them. We can see and hear their regular reactions, as the communication progresses.

It’s much harder to maintain our Speech Intelligence in one-way settings: presentations, panel interviews, telephone and face-to-face product pitches. Keynote speeches. Debates. Listeners tend to react more passively, especially in numbers.

We can easily leave our Speech Intelligence behind, and go into ‘one-way presentation mode’, as a reaction to passive responses.


Presenting instead of communicating

I’d like to illustrate by way of a story.

Actually, it’s one I overheard. The following took place between two friends on the London Underground last week (route: Angel to Paddington). Sorry fellow travellers, you were sat opposite me and I JUST HAD TO LISTEN IN.

Friend#1: “We have to do these business updates…presentations…in front of everybody. So I spent ages putting the presentation together…you know with all the bells and whistles just to keep people interested…all the snazzy bits…and was then going to do some rehearsals just to practice it first.”

Friend#2: “Oh yes they take a lot of work.”

Friend#1: “Anyway I got a phone call from my boss saying that my presentation would be today and not tomorrow.”

Friend#2: “Oh no so you hadn’t finished.”

Friend#1: “No way and I started panicking because I hadn’t practised it!”

My stop came. I had to get off the train. I never got to hear whether the event went ahead. Nor how it went.

However, I am convinced that whenever we refer to ‘presentation’, we throw our Speech Intelligence away. We go into formal one-way mode. We ‘present’. We lose faith in the constant connectivity that in principle, is our lodestar in conversation.

Why is it all about the slides? Why do we refer to a ‘presentation’ and to ‘it’; as opposed to a ‘communication’ and ‘I’?

The sympathetic responses of Friend#2 confirmed in my head that it is normal to present via written and visual media, as opposed to spoken. Why do we communicate with one set of guidelines for two-way communication, and then migrate to a totally different one for one-way situations?


Communicate, don’t present (and don’t mention the word ‘presentation’ in the first place)

Here’s a proposal for a Speech Intelligent re-run of this scenario.

Day 0: The briefing.

Team leader to colleague: “Hi…we’ve got a team meeting tomorrow. Would you be able to update us on client accounts and where we’re at budget-wise? Can you lead a 20-minute discussion?” (Hint: no mention of the word ‘presentation’)

Day 1: The preparation

  1. Colleague prepares short-form notes on what they want to communicate. The preparation pivots around the limited number of key points to be made, and the evidence needed to support these key points. Considers also introductory/positioning comments and action points. Time taken so far: 60 mins.
  2. Colleague reviews notes and possibly speaks them through aloud (either to self or to a friend). Time taken so far: 70 mins.
  3. Colleague thinks, now, do I need any pictures (slides) to support these points I’m making? If so, opens a visual presentation tool, and prepares a limited number of slides, yet only when strictly in support of the identified key points. Time taken: 120 mins.

n.b. colleague is strictly ready to communicate after step 1. Any phone call that threatens to bring the meeting forwards doesn’t result in:

“But it’s not ready.”

Instead we have:

“Sure, I’m ready to get the essentials across…if you need to bring it forwards.”

Day 2 onwards: Ready to communicate

It is Speech Intelligent for the colleague to now:

  • Talk the team through the points, as opposed to hurry through a slide show
  • Maintain verbal clarity, yet also maintain the feel of a shared conversation occurring between speaker and listeners. Be agile, be there.
  • Maintain true self – it’s ok to let your listeners see you think in the moment; to be naturally expressive according to your personality. Be authentic, be there.
  • Communicate the key points and evidence, yet stay in the hearts and minds of the listeners; keep the communication listener-centric. Take questions as they arise, and stay in control, yet allow listeners to also shape the discussion as it builds.
  • Reveal the few slides as and when they are relevant to the audience needing a deeper dive n.b. the slides do not lead the discussion. They pop in and out according to need.

Breaking norms, bravely to the future

Your listeners, your audience need to maintain their Speech Intelligence too. ‘I am listening to a presentation’ immediately changes the mind-set of a listener. We become passive consumers of whatever the speaker serves up. We don’t interact.

Audiences expect presentation mode and instinctively don’t behave speech intelligently either. It’s a vicious loop, and I’m convinced that many people over-prepare themselves with scripts, slides and rehearsals to arm themselves against the passive listener.

Instead, go naked.

Or at least take off a few layers. No scripts, and as few slides as possible. Level with your audience using clear, yet authentic speech. Use your notes to stay loosely guided. Communicate ‘in the moment’ and keep a discussion, or the feel of a discussion, going. Speech Intelligence is two-way, and like two particles colliding, it’s where the energy sits. You can maintain the Speech Intelligent mind set of your very next audience.

Think on your feet. Use your pauses and your thinking eyes to guide your speech. Refer to your notes as and when. Stay agile. Not built into long scripted sentences that reflected how you felt when you wrote them. As opposed to how you feel on the actual day.

Not quite a social conversation, but much closer to one.


 – James Bryce

Photo copyright: Ricardo Cuppini (thanks, it’s a great photo and just what the article needed)

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