It’s not just what you say that matters, but also how you say it. Everyone communicates differently, and knowing how to approach different people at different times can make or break you. Ethan Becker is the President and second-generation senior coach and trainer from The Speech Improvement Company. In this episode, he chats with host Bob Roark and shares some tips from his book, Mastering Communication at Work: How to Lead, Manage, and Influence. Ethan talks about the impact of communicating effectively and how that translates in different business situations. He also discusses the science behind speech and communication to give a better understanding of how it works.
Dr. Ethan Becker On The Impact Of Mastering Communication In Business
How To Lead, Manage And Influence
This is going to be quite the episode. We have Dr. Ethan Becker. He's the President and second generation senior coach and trainer for The Speech Improvement Company. It’s the oldest communication coaching and training firm in America. More importantly, he's created what I would consider a tool case, a set of tools for Mastering Communication at Work. That's the name of his book with the co-author, Jon Wortmann. It's how to lead, manage, and influence. It's the second edition. He was kind enough to provide me a copy, which I promptly read. It resides on my desk as a go-to resource and how-to in the speech side of the house. Dr. Becker, thank you so much for taking the time. If you would, maybe starting out with a story about your company and your mom and how this all came to pass.
It's good to be here. I get asked that question about the company because we were founded in 1964. My mom and my dad were both at Emerson College, which for a long time is where you would go for communication. She was studying Speech Pathology and he was studying Rhetoric and Public Address, that was the vocation. They met, and dated, and they got together. They had this idea that if you could coach an executive, a businessperson, the same way an athlete was coached, you could help that person.
Their specialty was in communication, so they did that through the lens of communication and the company name, they started right away. They said, “Let's name it what we do, The Speech Improvement Company.” Between the two of them, they found something that could focus on, in some cases, mechanics of speaking, and in other cases, psychology, persuasion, and rhetoric. Naturally, that grew into the business world. That's how it originally started a long time ago.
Was there a recognition or a pushback when they started the company? Good speakers are born not made.
You get some of that stuff. They also had other challenges. They were out of the norm. My mother, a blind Jewish woman who married a Catholic boy. In the 1960s, that didn't go over well.
Your dad must have needed a lot of work for her to marry him and to try to improve.
An Irish Catholic boy from Pennsylvania hitchhiked his way up to Boston and did what he couldn't to get through school. She came from a long line. Her grandfather was one of the founding members of Brandeis University. She came from a different place. These two were not from the same background, but they found love and commonality, and they started this business and then it quickly grew. They never wanted the company to grow large. There were always about 10 or 11 on the team. Now, we're about 20.
They never wanted to be like a Dale Carnegie or a McKinsey or some watered down, one size fits all for everybody type of thing. They always wanted it to be small. They had a real focus on the academics of communication. Even now, there's nobody on the team who might have had a theatre background or wasn't going in their career, so they're doing this. All of us on the team, we've studied Speech Communication at the graduate level or beyond, so that way, we can go a little deeper with our clients than your typical executive coach. It's worked out well for us. It's made for an interesting collection of people.
We talked a little bit before the show and here you are, you're a kid. Somewhere in the book, you talked about plosives. We probably should talk about this, so your mom doesn’t come back and get us both. How was that growing up in a family where they were building a business in communications?
[bctt tweet="Speech behavior, just like every other behavior, can be learned to be very effective." username=""]
Maybe for the readers, let me share with you that word is. It's a technical word in speech communication, plosives. There's one part of our business that specializes in accent. I don't do a lot of accents. Before my mom passed away, she's certified me in accent work but it's not my favorite thing. I do more leadership communication. The accent work in our business, folks who have English as a second language, often come to us because they have a difficult time producing sounds. They study what is known as the International Phonetic Alphabet. Which has hundreds of symbols and the symbols represent sounds.
In General American English, which is what we speak in the United States, there are only about anywhere between 40 to 60 sounds depending on which speech coach you talk to. That makes up the entire language. Out of that group, there is one group called plosives and it has eight sounds in them. B as in boy, D as in dog, G as in girl, J as in jump, P as in put, T as in toy, K as in kite, and Ch as in child or chocolate. That's what these things are. They're called plosives because they're exploded when they're made. Why do we care about these? We care about plosives because when we are talking with people who we know very well, meaning they know our speech pattern, we probably don't care about plosives.
We do something in human language, all languages called assimilation. We combine sounds. We say, gimme instead of give me, wanna instead of want to. If I say gimme, gimme a cup of water, and you give me a cup of water, who cares? Until, now I'm speaking with somebody from a different department at the company. Maybe not even in the company. It's not that they don't know my language but they don't know my speech pattern. If I assimilate like that, I make it more work for the other person. This is what this is all about. This is why we get nerdy about these technical things. We talk at approximately 183 words per minute, the average rate of speech. We can think at 600 words per minute. When I talk to you, you can hear me, but there's this extra 400 words a minute trying to process, decipher, and hear.
If I assimilate and I say, “Tomorrow, you can get up at 8:00 and go.” What? Your brain can figure out “Tomorrow, we're going to get up at 8:00 and go.” Fine, until I do it again. After a few minutes of this, listeners begin to zone out. We look at plosives as a way to strengthen the quality of words. We chose them because, one, they're impactful. Two, they're easy. That's the what to answer your question about my house growing up. We had sayings at the dinner table like, “Plosives are neat but hard to repeat.” Anyway, there's probably more of an answer, but there's some technical stuff. That's why we put it in the book. This stuff matters, it does.
I grew up in the deep South, but out West for a long time. In the deep South, I'll go back periodically, there are people from down the holler, for lack of a better word. The words are cut off. It's interesting trying to communicate when you're not from there. I can see where it's a barrier. It doesn't mean they're not smart people, that means that's how they communicate. It seems like you've been doing this since you were this tall, one way or another. There's a transformation if you become a good speaker. Is there a story that you could relate where somebody went through either the book or coaching with you and then the outcome on the other side that changed their life? Do you got a story like that?
We do, every day. In a way, this pretty much is the heart of what we do in coaching. A lot of it is in presentation skills. Folks will come to us and they may feel nervous. A manager may come to us and say, “Yes. Not only am I nervous, but I've also been told I'm boring.” Things like that. We hear that, but as a coach, we have to profile and understand that, because one person saying, “I'm boring,” may not have the same meaning as a different person saying, “I'm boring.” We look at them and assess them. Usually, we can profile pretty quickly, even in their speech pattern. Within seconds, we can understand a whole lot about them. When we see their formal presentation, we start looking at what they need to work on. We've seen folks go from feeling terrified like, “Call in sick to work so I don't have to speak,” scared to raising their hand saying, “Can I do another one?” You can change that. Speech is a behavior like every other behavior. We can learn how to be very effective.
I think about the esteem that we hold, recognized folks that can communicate, Winston Churchill and others. You look at them and they weren't born that way, I don't think. They spent a lot of time. In The King's Speech, there was a good thing on them but that had similar issues other than speaking. That's become of interest. As an example, let's say that I'm a business owner and I bought a new company. I've got to go in and behave like private equity. I have a certain target I need to achieve, I need a certain return on investment. I'm trying to inventory what I'm dealing with and I need to communicate. How would you tell that person to approach or how would you use your book to help them approach that challenge?
In that particular situation, there are some examples in the book. We talked about Mark Russell in the book. He was brought in as a turnaround guy at an ad agency, WPP Wunderman. He was the fifth CEO in six years or something like that. There were a lot of turnarounds. The real challenge, you need to come in and communicate and get people excited and moving in a direction. It wasn't an easy thing. In every situation, it's a little bit unique. In his case, what we want them to do was to take the first six months and go on tour and get to know the different groups and learn a little bit about what was going on before having a first town hall meeting.
At the town hall, he starts the presentation and there was an honest approach at the time. It was something along in the terms of puts a slide up and everybody's expecting another generic speech. He's like, “I got a great chance to talk to everybody and get some ideas so let's be sure some of the comments that I heard that we got.” He puts up the first comment, and it was something along with the terms of, “Management doesn't seem to have a clue what they're doing.” He turns around, looks back at everybody, and says, “That's not good.” It was honesty and humor and it helped to establish what Aristotle would call ethos or credibility in the eyes of these people who have now seen many different leaders turning around.
[caption id="attachment_5924" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Mastering Communication: You need to know the scope and size of things, but the most seasoned sales professionals will definitely look at inductive, deductive, credibility, emotion, and logic.[/caption]
He had to do more than one speech and they had to go and follow up with that. It's a good story about that. In more specifically, how can somebody use a book like Mastering Communication at Work? We wrote this as a toolbox. You flip to the area. Are you dealing with someone who’s defensive? There's a chapter on that. Are you putting a presentation together? It's more than just, “Here's how you put a presentation together,” but we put in comments about how your presentation should change based on different situations. It is not the same. This is why when we hear people say, “You can do a TED Talk. Talk like Ted.” You better not, in some cases.
If you're presenting to investors and you're asking for funding and you go in and you take a conference style, which TED speeches are conference style, to an investor meeting, it's not going to go well. They want to know what you want and how much. We talked about inductive deductive. Right in the beginning, what do you want? They don't want some beautiful story. In other environments, you might take that approach. The book is set up to be a tool for folks. That's where a lot of our clients, they keep it on the shelves. They pull it off when they need it. Giving feedback, you got feedback to people, “Here's a specific way to organize the conversation.” Not just, “Here's what you should do,” but, “Here's how to do it.”
There was a part in there where they had to go present to the board. For the first time you've ever done it, you go like, “I need help.” Speaking of which, let's say that I'm the book consumer. I've gone through your book, I've underlined what I needed to and you go, “I'm not getting there.” What's the next step past the book to try to take and master the concepts that you're talking about?
Short of calling a coach and working with a coach. That’s what a lot of folks do. Let's say that's not an option for you, can't do that. If you can, that's great because a coach will walk you through it. If you can't, the next best thing is you got to start practicing it out loud. My sister who's also in the family business, she's been in longer than me, too. She always likes to say, “When we practice in our mind, we're perfect every time.” You’ve got a practice out loud and you want to record yourself. There's high value in that. That may not be new to people. We've been hearing it ever since the video, “Record yourself.”
Here's why. When you watch back a recording of yourself, there's a calibration happening in the mind, “That's what I sound like. That's what I look like.” Once you do it and you get a feeling for the content, do it again, but this time, intentionally try things maybe out of your comfort zone with the delivery. Maybe you need more emotion, pathos. Maybe you need less emotion. Try that out and watch it back. Quickly, you'll get a good solid sense of how you're coming across.
You were talking in the book about pacing. You take and go, “I'm going to raise my voice. I'm going to lower my voice. I'm going to increase the speed of delivery. I'm going to pause,” in what seems like an uncomfortable vacuum.
With a special thank you to the television industry, silence is awkward. I say that because, on television, there's no silence. In general, you watch any TV show, when two people are not talking, you hear sound effects and music. When we've put a lot of research into the fear of public speaking, the things that make us anxious, television is 1 of 4 that contribute to it. Why? There are a lot of reasons, but one of those reasons is the silence. Some people are comfortable with it. Anybody can become comfortable with it but it takes a little bit of practice.
Why silence? You see throughout the word pacing. When we talk about speed, we break it into two parts. We have the rate of speech and pace of speech. The rate is the speed at which we put words together. If I have good articulation, I can talk at a faster rate, and people can understand me. Now, I'm probably talking at about 193 words per minute, if I had to guess. On average, it's 183. If I start talking at a faster rate, I’m probably around 218 words per minute, this is much faster. If you pause every so often, you can talk at a fast rate and people will understand you. If you talk at a fast rate and you don't pause for pacing and things like that, and you start talking about technical things, and you're expecting people to follow and understand what you're talking about, they're going to be begging for you to take a breath. It's exhausting. That's what it is.
What you can play with in your practicing is where and when you should pause. Specifically, speech coaches, at least on our team, it's a speech improvement company, we do this all the time. We practice it, we train for it. We are well-trained to look at, “If I'm going to help you with pacing, I need to understand who your listeners are, what the content is, and what you're trying to communicate.” From there, we will give coaching and advice because not all tips that you find on the internet are going to be good for you like the classic, put your hand in your pocket. Some people can put their hand in their pocket. Don't worry about it, other people can't.
[bctt tweet="You need to understand who your listeners are, what the content is, and what you’re trying to communicate." username=""]
Yeah, if you have a change in there.
The thing that struck me about part of it is understanding your target audience well. I came from the intel world back in the military, way back when. You got to understand the other side. If you do, you approach a certain way. I thought it was useful. One of the things that we touched on, they will do little marriage counseling work here. Inductive versus deductive. “What time is it? You don't understand this morning when I was coming home.” You get this dialogue. The deductive person versus the inductive person doesn't mean one's right or wrong, but they communicate way differently.
This is Aristotle. Over the years, I've heard the terms in different ways. Sometimes they're a little bit confusing to folks, but they don't have to be. It's very simple. The inductive thinker is what Aristotle was trying to say. What he was trying to figure out was, “How do we think and reason? When you talk to me, how do I reason and make sense out of what I'm hearing? When I talk to you, how do you reason and make sense?” He figured these two words, inductive and deductive. Here's what it means. If I'm an inductive thinker, that's it, this is who I am. That means that you got to give me the background information first. All the specific little details that lead me up to your general conclusion, your main point. It's called going from the specific to the general. Deductive is the opposite of that. You start with the general conclusion and then you give all your specific little details. It matters because when these two people meet each other, lookout, there's a level of frustration that can tear the communication apart.
It’s one of those things, “Bottom-line it for me. I know what kind of person I am.” Pretty straightforward there. I think about communicating complex topics, it's easy to make a complex topic complex. I think about much of what goes on and I'm in the investment world trying to take a complex concept and drive it down to simplistic, understandable points. For you, do you get...