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“Going from 0 – 1 is the hardest part”, says Richard. H. Thaler, the American, Nobel Prize Winning Economist. I wholeheartedly agree with him, as I’m sure many of you will too. All the rest, the bits in-between 1 and 10 are easy! Easier at least. It’s finding that momentum to type the first word, open the book, take the first step outside for the run… or whatever it is you happen to be doing. Ideas and good intentions are great, but being proactive in making them happen is a different matter. We’re probably all familiar with the notion that cleaning the house or replying to all your WhatApp messages is much more important (or appealing!) than knuckling down to the one, probably more challenging task you actually need to do.

The new year is often a time for reflecting on what has happened the previous year, and making resolutions and plans, or forming dreams for the year ahead. This year I have decided to (try) and work on being more patient and calm in the face of conflict, and to do some serious triathlons. But how will this work in the moment when emotions are heightened, or when plunging into icy water for a training swim seems like the least appealing prospect in the world?

Steven Covey says in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People;

“Look at the word, responsibility – “response-ability” – the ability to choose your response. Highly Proactive people recognise that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behaviour. Their behaviour is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling…

Reactive people are often affected by their physical environment. If the weather is good, they feel good. If it isn’t, it affects their attitude and their performance. Proactive people can carry their own weather with them”.

We have the freedom to choose how we respond, and the brain power to be self-aware enough to reflect on how we have responded. This is a gift which brings with it a huge challenge. I think it would be naive to think that circumstances, conditions and conditioning don’t inform how we react in certain situations, (my mood is definitely affected by the weather!) but I definitely think we have the power to reflect and the power to change things that have become habitual. It takes 21 days to break a habit – only 3 weeks – but it requires work and dedication. This is what I tell clients who habitually shuffle when they speak – they can absolutely learn to stand still, but it will take work.

Similarly, if we have learnt to react negatively in certain situations – for example, snapping our nearest and dearest when they annoy us by accident, or telling ourselves there’s no way we can go running if it’s raining – we actually have the power to overcome these mental and physical responses. We can become proactive rather than reactive.

It’s much like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). In simpler terms I think it’s about dedicating time to developing ourselves, which requires self assessment and reflection. The first few weeks of January can feel like we’re shifting up through the gears on a rusty car that has been sitting in the drive for a long time over the festive season. But just because it’s a new year doesn’t mean we are new people… we are still very much ourselves, carrying all the same burdens and joys that we’ve built up over the course of our lives. The question is, during this time, how can we make small adjustments to elevate pro-activity and diminish reactivity? And how do we do this when things get busy, when the year properly gets going and work gets on top of us? The answers will be different for everyone but David Kolb (who invented the Experiential Learning Cycle Theory) argued,

An experience on its own is insufficient to facilitate learning. It needs to be followed by reflection on what happened, thoughts about what might happen if you do it differently and active experimentation on doing something differently and testing the results.

How to Combat Monotone

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When was the last time you sent a text to someone that was misinterpreted? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has ended up in a difficult situation due to written words being read in a way they weren’t intended. I think that’s why emoji’s have become so widely used – they help express our emotion and the intention behind the words. Voice notes are even better, but a video says it all…

As many of you will know, the actual words we say only count for 7% of our face to face communication – according to Albert Merrabian’s Communication model – especially when it comes to expressing emotion. 38% is attributed to tone of voice, and the other 55%, body language. Despite this being the case, we often spend 93% of our time preparing what we are going to say in a presentation, and only about 7% (if that) working on how we’re going to say it!

The part I’m focusing on today is the 38% – tonality.

Speaking in monotone is an incredibly common occurrence in presentations. Suddenly, when put in front of an audience, a lot of people seem to default to speaking on one level, seemingly forgetting how to be expressive with their tone of voice. Perhaps this seems safe? Being expressive can feel vulnerable, so a classic defence method is to appear void of emotion. Or perhaps it’s because, once rehearsed and practised a few times, the meaning and connection is lost and the words become lifeless. But what is the result? The audience switches off, often within seconds! All the words sound the same and we start hearing a drone akin to white noise… perfect sleeping conditions!

So how can we combat this, and instead make more of an impact with the words we use? How can we inject meaning and increase tonality so that the words come alive – and thus, the audience. The technique outlined below will mean that monotone – i.e, boring – will cease to be an issue.

It’s something I used to with every line of a script: I’d circle the most important word in each sentence. This may sound tedious – and often it was – but when I didn’t do it, I would notice the difference; the text was in danger of becoming flat, and the meaning could be lost in a sea of words.

It’s a bit like when we read a book – important words are often written in italics for emphasis. This is, more often than not, found in dialogue, because when people are talking in real life, they emphasise the important words to make a point. We can do the same thing with a presentation, even if we’ve rehearsed it 100 times.

If you’ve ever had a workshop or a 1:1 with me, I may have asked you to do this with your text  -circle the most important words that you want to stand out. It’s amazing what a difference it makes to your expression. Sentences immediately become a lot more interesting. You’re metaphorically hitting your audience in the face with the word to keep them listening.

For people to whom this comes naturally and seems instinctive, it’s worth playing with placing the emphasis on different words to see how the meaning of a sentence is changed or enhanced. With the emphasis in the right places, your audience is far more likely to a) keep listening, and b) understand what you’re saying.

So here’s the challenge – with the next presentation you write, try circling the most important word in each sentence, and make sure you mirror this with your voice. (If you want to take it to the next level, you could even add in gesture!) This really simple technique is going to help with communication no end, and your presentations will come out of the danger zone of being boring!


The Element of Surprise

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School children, soldiers, entrepreneurs…  What do they have in common? Over the past few months I have worked with all of these groups and can tell you that the answer is; a short attention span.

It has been proven that, since the year 2000, the average attention span for an adult has dropped dramatically – from 12 seconds down to 8. This is partly due to the world of screens and instant gratification we live in; anything we want to know is readily available for us to find out at the tap of a button and when we get board of one thing, we can flick along to the next in an instant.  The amount of information we receive from our phones and computers every day is phenomenal.

So how, when our minds are so quick to lose interest, do we captivate an audience and hold their attention from the beginning, right to the end of a presentation?

The ingredient I’m focussing on today is Surprise. I always remember one of my drama school tutors saying that we needed a performance that would, hypothetically, keep poking the audience with a long stick for the duration to keep their attention. (This in itself was a surprising phenomenon – hence I remember it now.)

So what can we do to achieve this? What is this, “stick,” comprised of?

S – Story – a story is always a winner when it comes to keeping people’s attention. Communication is founded on stories, and a story told well will mean that people are on the edge of their seats, wanting to find out what happens.

U- Unexpected – breaking the mould of what we expect to see or hear. I once saw a vicar in church strip off all his robes, right down to a pair of swimming trunks! I was about 13 at the time. Because this was totally unexpected, I remember it to this day.

R – Rhetorical Questions – Challenge the audience. Make them think for themselves. Ask them questions. This will catch them off guard, and because of having to apply what you’re asking to their own lives, they will subsequently be more invested in what you go on to say.

P –Pace – If we vary the pace when we’re speaking, the audience’s ears will remain pricked. Maybe speed up at a dramatic moment and then slow down when you get to the punch line of a story. The change of pace is surprising and interesting.

R – be Real – When someone gets up to give a presentation, it is all too rare that we see their true personality or real-life stories. The more real, genuine and honest we can be, the more invested our audience will be. (Have a listen to Brene Brown’s Ted talk on Vulnerability:

I – Inflection – One of the biggest enemies of getting people to listen is talking in a monotone. If we use a decent amount of our natural range (which for the average person stretches over 2 octaves), people stay interested because it just sounds more interesting.

S – Silence– can be as powerful as words and can be used to great effect. If the audience are drifting off whilst listening to your voice, the absence of your voice will jolt them back to attention. They will think something new is happening, or that they have been asked to do something, and will therefore listen to the next part.

E – Energy – It is rare that we see someone talk about something with too much energy. Think back… can you remember a presentation where the speaker bowled you over with the amount of energy they had? Energy is contagious, and when we are on stage, we need more than in normal life.

If we include some, if not all these elements of surprise in our presentations, we will be metaphorically, ‘prodding,’ the audience throughout. They will have no choice but to sit up and listen.



Medical Simplicity

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How often have you been to the doctors and been given an explanation for your condition that you just didn’t understand? If you’re anything like I used to be, you nod along making, ‘mmm’, noises, as you try to decipher a load of medical jargon, but really, in your head, you don’t have a clue what’s being said. At the end of the 10 minute appointment, you’re none the wiser about what is actually happening in your body. You leave the surgery feeling frustrated and a bit stupid!

I was recently doing some medical role play at St George’s Hospital, Tooting, and it got me thinking about just how technical the world of medicine is! I was playing a, ‘simulated patient’, for the 4th year exams, assessing the students on their personal skills – their levels of empathy, their manner, their clarity of expression…

Out of 60 students, each of whom had a 10 minute slot, there were 2 people that really stood out. (Incidentally, these were the only 2 that were awarded A’s in that particular exam!) One of them likened individual cells to encyclopedias… she said, “Imagine each of your cells is an encyclopedia and they all contain the same set of pages. However, there are a few encyclopedias that have some pages that are crumpled or torn, and that’s what causes the problem”. Because I already know what an encyclopedia is, I immediately created an image in my head – I could see the cover (akin to the encyclopedia Britannica set) and the contents of the pages. When she said, some of the pages are crumpled or torn, I could see exactly where the problem was! This may not have been the most technical explanation in the book, but it was the one I could understand and relate to. As patients, (and not trained doctors,) we need an explanation that is similar to something we already know in order to understand it!

The other student was the one who drew a diagram for me! As a simulated patient, you have a brief which explains what your condition is and what questions to ask. In my brief, it stated that I was very confused about the results of a test that had come back, and could the doctor explain the numbers to me? This one girl drew a 10×10 grid, and colored one square in to show me, visually, what the 1/100 statistic meant. Genius! So simple, but for someone who’s trying to understand an abstract number, it made it so much clearer.

I watched, ‘Brain on Fire’, a Nextflix original, with my sister last Friday; the true story of 21 year old Susannah Cohalan. Susannah is living a normal life, thriving in all she does, when suddenly she starts having black outs, dizzy spells, extreme mood swings and hallucinations. She trapezes round doctor after doctor and none of them can work out what the problem is. Finally she is seen by a neurological expert, Dr Najjar… I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen the film, but I would highly recommend it. His explanation is spot on in terms of making something that is highly complex, extremely simple for us to understand!

So next time you go to the doctor, if you’re struggling to see what the problem is, try asking them to explain the technicalities in terms you can relate to! The simpler the initial explanation, the more complex we can then go in terms of our ultimate understanding!

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