If you want people to like you, trust you, or buy from you, being congruent is critical whether you’re talking in a small meeting or speaking to a big crowd.
My clients hear this all the time: “If what you say and what they see don’t match, people will believe what they see.”
Your words might be polished, perfect for the occasion. And, if your listeners pick up on a fast facial expression or a tiny gesture that seems “off,” you won’t have the impact you were hoping for. You might even torpedo your whole message.
Nobody knows that better than Michelle Obama.
She revisits the “Angry Black Woman” brouhaha from her husband’s first campaign for president in her book Becoming.
Remember? They had her out on the campaign trail, and she was attracting good crowds talking about the struggles people shared and what they wanted in the future. She noted changes in our society that paved the way for Barack Obama’s campaign. She outlined the changes he promised. “Hope,” she declared over and over, “is making a comeback.”
You know what Obama’s opponents did with that video. They took out progress and hope and unity. And left a clip that we all saw over and over and over: “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country.”
A new image of Michelle Obama was being created…disgruntled, hostile, militant. Even anti-American. She describes how demoralizing it was, to see herself portrayed as someone altogether different from who she was.
The lesson for us?
There’s more to this than an interesting tale of political process. A pivotal moment demonstrated how Michelle herself had made things easier for the opposition.
The former first lady met with the people running Barack’s campaign—they played a video of her stump speech with the sound off.
What did she see on the screen? “Intensity and conviction” … her face reflecting “the seriousness” of the situation, the “important choice” facing the voters.
And without the sound of hope and change and optimism…her face was “too serious, too severe—at least given what people were conditioned to expect from a woman.”
She was shocked at what she saw on the screen. And the backlash began to make sense: “I could see how the opposition had diced up these images and fed me to the public as some sort of pissed-off harpy.”
People believed what they saw, with some help from Republican operatives directing their view in an effort to neutralize her. As Mrs. Obama says, “The easiest way to disregard a woman’s voice is to package her as a scold.”
They had to un-do the damage.
That meant overdue media training and speech prep. A communications specialist joined the future First Lady’s team to help her “sharpen her message and her presentation.”
She learned to play to her strengths, “to talk about things like her love for her husband and kids, her connection with working mothers and her proud Chicago roots.”
And her new communication expert advised her not to hold back with her humor. To go ahead and be herself. To “allow voters to see her as a real person so they could see that the caricatures were untrue.”
As a result, Michelle says, “I was suddenly having an impact and beginning to enjoy myself at the same time, feeling more and more open and optimistic.”
This new, more natural way of speaking also set the stage for her appearance at the Democratic National Convention leading up to her husband’s nomination. It was a smashing success.
What about you?
What do people see you say? And is it the message you intend to convey?
Most of us don’t have communication experts and speechwriters and personal assistants. But we do have access to video. Even if, like me, you’d just as soon not watch yourself, it’s worth getting over the discomfort.
Listen to yourself talking on video. Then watch with the sound off. What do you see? And is it congruent with what you want people to hear when you’re speaking to them?
If you notice a mismatch, coaching can help you coordinate your message and your delivery. A good speaking coach will give you valuable feedback and boost your skills so you’re more effective.
And with those new skills you’ll have more confidence in your ability to deliver your message so they really do see what you say. Imagine what that could do for you!
Meantime, maybe you’ve seen a speaker miss the mark with words that didn’t land quite right because of the way they were delivered. (Maybe you’ve even been that speaker.)
Post a comment below and share your experience.
I love the “watch with sound off” tip. That’s going to be interesting. Thanks for every article you have sent. Each one has left a mark.
It will be interesting, Sharon. When we hear the words, our conscious mind fixates on them, as the non-conscious continues to process what we’re seeing. (Is this person honest? Am I safe? Can I trust them?) Watching without the sound gives the conscious mind a chance to notice those cues too. We can learn a lot about how others perceive us when we see what we say.
What an interesting insight – I have had “Becoming” on my nightstand for months and still haven’t read it but will soon! I would agree that I pretty quickly dismiss speakers who yell at me or have an aggressive approach. It becomes pretty common on the campaign trail. I respond far better to people who speak with a half-smile or at least smiling eyes – I’m drawn in and without sound, they will still look warm. Thanks for always sharing such thoughtful posts. Valuable reading every single time.
I’ve enjoyed the book, Jeanette, although there’s a lot of detail I could do without. Too many adjectives and adverbs for my personal taste; I’m a simple nouns and verbs kind of woman. Interesting about what strikes you as “an aggressive approach.” Part of what happened to Michelle Obama was that she was terrific talking in church basements and people’s living rooms. So good, that they started sending her into auditoriums and arenas. In a bigger space with a bigger audience, a speaker needs bigger gestures and more exaggerated facial expressions. But being emphatic and loud looked like angry or aggressive. Coaching helped her project her natural warmth even in a big space.
And, you’re welcome! Thank you for reading and weighing in …
Yes, facial expressions can often belie the message we are trying to deliver. Taping yourself and watching with the sound off is a great tip.
Let me know what you see when you try it, Tom!
I was told after a Toastmasters speech delivered on Monday that I looked “too serious” and needed to lighten it up occasionally for variety. I realized I was concentrating so hard on recall of the content that it came through in the facial expression.
Isn’t that interesting, Tom? Our faces give us away. I’m always better off being PRESENT with my audience, creating a real connection with them, than focusing on remembering exactly how I intended to say every element. In the end, they don’t know whether I said everything I meant to say, or whether I said it all in the right order. They know how they feel, though, and if I’m really present with them, the odds are they feel energized.
So interesting, as always Catherine! I’ve given this a lot of thought because of my yoga classes. I want people to take them seriously and to see me as a knowledgeable, professional teacher. However, I also want the sessions to be comfortable, not intimidating, even fun. Several weeks ago I started new classes in my new home with my new neighbors, I was quite nervous about all this and I’m sure it showed. The more relaxed I am, the better I do – I think! Do I get too casual sometimes?? It would be interesting to see myself on film but fortunately it is not an option —- I know I’d hate it! I still worry about how I’m doing and getting the balance right but the feedback has been good and most are still coming so I just keep working on it! I find MANY helpful suggestions in your newsletters so know that they are appreciated by a wide audience. Thank you!!!!
Linda, you have plenty of company–I don’t know very many people who love seeing themselves on video. It’s a useful tool, though, to help us understand how we come across to other people. Especially when we eliminate the audio and just WATCH.
Here’s a flip side story. When John McCain introduced Sarah Palin at the Republican National Convention, I was struck by how impressive she was. Polished and still conversational, comfortable in front of a big audience. Natural, attractive, likeable. The next day I heard a clip of her speech on the radio–she sounded, well, not too bright. On TV, the visual image had elevated my perception of her. Without that, I was much less impressed.
As for you, my guess is you do pretty well at striking a balance between knowledgeable and professional on one hand…and comfortable and fun on the other.
Thanks again Catherine, Great example, I remember it well …. presenting well only gets you so far! ????