Dr. John C. Maxwell has been a public speaker and motivational teacher for more than 50 years. In his new book, The 16 Undeniable Laws of Communication, he shares everything he’s learned from a lifetime of communication. This blog post comes from the book’s fourteenth chapter, “The Law of the Change-Up: Sameness is the Death of Communication.”
In 2007, talk show host Charlie Rose interviewed Steve Martin, asking him questions about his memoir, Born Standing Up. Martin has had a long and highly successful career as a stand-up comedian, actor, musician, and writer. Along the way, he’s won five Grammy awards, an Emmy, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, a Kennedy Center honor, and an honorary Academy Award. In the interview, Rose asked him about his advice for being successful. Martin responded,
Well, it really is this – when people ask me, say, “How do you make it in show business?” or whatever, and what I always tell them – I’ve said it many years and nobody ever takes note of it, because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear. What they want to hear is, “Here’s how you get an agent. Here’s how you write a script. Here’s how you do this.” But I always say, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” And I just think that if somebody is thinking, How can I be really good? people are going to come to you.
Martin was so good that he filled stadiums with his stand-up comedy routine in the seventies – the first comedian ever to do it. But it took him ten years before that to make his comedy routine really good, plus another five years to gather those kinds of crowds. But his approach to performing was the same as his approach to learning to play the banjo. When he started, he said he couldn’t tell the difference between a C chord and a G. But he said, “If I just stay with it, one day I will have played for forty years.” Not only did he learn to play, but he added three Grammy awards for playing music to his two Grammys for comedy.
4 Ways to Change Up Your Communication
You can bring that same kind of thinking to your communication. You can continually learn new ways to change up your presentation to keep your audience with you every step of the way. If you do, it will set you apart from other speakers and connect you to your audience. You can become so good they can’t ignore you. Here are some ways to help you get there.
1. USE MOVEMENT AND FACIAL EXPRESSIONS.
Let’s start with the most basic technique: movement. Chris Anderson, the head of TED Conferences, advises new speakers to be careful about too much movement, but he’s really talking about nervous movement:
The biggest mistake we see in early rehearsals is that people move their bodies too much. They sway from side to side, or shift their weight from one leg to the other. People do this naturally when they’re nervous, but it’s distracting and makes the speaker seem weak. Simply getting a person to keep his or her lower body motionless can dramatically improve stage presence. There are some people who are able to walk around a stage during a presentation, and that’s fine if it comes naturally. But the vast majority are better off standing still and relying on hand gestures for emphasis.
Start by using your face and hands, as long as those movements are true to who you are. If you sense that people’s attention is wandering, you might need to walk to a different spot on the platform. You can address one part of the audience and then move and address another. Or walk forward to close the distance between you and the people you’re talking to. Try different things, and pay close attention to the responses you get. As you experiment, you’ll develop a sense of what works for you and what doesn’t.
2. UNDERSTAND AND PRACTICE GOOD TIMING.
It’s very easy to tell you to “understand timing.” It’s much harder to explain how. If you are naturally gifted as a communicator, then you already possess intuition related to timing. Much of it is instinctive. But timing can be learned, and the more you practice speaking, the better you can become.
Timing is the art of regulating your speech and movement in relation to your audience to produce the best results. That includes using the right words, facial expressions, movements, tone, and interaction; with the best rhythm and speed; at the best time. It may sound complicated, but here are three things I do to help me with my timing. I believe they will also help you. I focus on…
- What I see. Good timing requires reading the room. You can’t do that if you’re fixated on your notes or refuse to make eye contact with the people you’re talking to. Once you’re reading people’s faces, you can change up what you’re doing because much of good timing is a response to the reaction of your audience members.
- What I say. Another aspect of timing has to do with setting up your audience for something you want to say later. You can tell part of a story but withhold the ending until later. Or you can give a principle early and return to it later because it will have a greater meaning after you’ve taught it – just make sure you don’t withhold the principle so long that people stop caring.
- What I show. Sometimes good timing means saying nothing at the right time.
3. PRACTICE THE PAUSE.
That brings me to the next thing you can do to change up your communication. Practice the pause. Mark Twain said, “No word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” I couldn’t agree with him more.
I use the pause every time I speak, sometimes more than once. Some speakers are afraid of silence and fill it with nervous chatter. But not saying anything for a few seconds is one of my most effective ways to connect with an audience. It’s also one of my most enjoyable moments of communication. There’s an intimacy created by pausing, because silence gives people the time and space to respond in their minds and hearts. It’s where they fill in the blanks and meet what I’ve said with their own thoughts, experiences, and conclusions. It can become an act of unspoken partnership. In such moments, silence truly is golden.
4. CREATE INTERACTION WITH YOUR AUDIENCE.
I know that the more I involve people, the more I impact them.
Back when I used to host a leadership conference for pastors, I started my first session by naming each different denomination and asking people to raise their hands when I said theirs. For each group I made a good-natured joke, teasing them about some peculiarity they had. (Don’t worry. I also had jokes about my own denomination.) As each group identified themselves, I’d make the respective remark and everyone would laugh.
Why did I do this? Because it was common for some pastors to focus too much on denominational differences. I was letting everyone know that we’re on the same team and that our small differences shouldn’t divide us. With everyone laughing, their defenses came down and they were ready to learn.
People who study communication know there is a direct correlation between unpredictability and impact. Matt Abrahams, a Stanford Graduate of Business lecturer and coach, says, “Even just a 10 percent increase in vocal variety can have a highly significant impact on your audience’s attention to and retention of your message.” If you want people to pay attention to what you say, be less predictable. Change things up!
Are you looking for a way to improve your communication skills?
John Maxwell is one of only eight people on the planet who have been awarded Toastmasters’ Golden Gavel and been inducted into the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame. In The 16 Undeniable Laws of Communication: Apply Them and Make the Most of Your Message, Dr. Maxwell has condensed 50 years of communication experience and expertise into 16 simple principles that will help you move your message farther, faster. If you want to become a more effective communicator, you can click here to get your copy today.