John Neffiger and Matthew Kohut. Piatkus. €12.99
John Neffiger , Matthew Kohut
Neffinger and Kohut are US-based communications experts who specialise in preparing speakers for what they call ‘high stakes’ audiences. Drawing heavily on psychology and anthropology, they examine how we are perceived by others and what we can do to influence this.
Their thesis is that the two most important human characteristics we project are strength and warmth and we need to find a balance between these two. Strength and warmth are complementary, not mutually exclusive opposites.
Likeability is important and usefully professionally. Several studies have found that more likeable doctors – those who take a little extra time with each patient and speak in warm empathetic tones – rarely get sued, even when their performance might merit it, while the opposite also holds true. There is also a hydraulic effect between strength and warmth. When one goes up the other usually goes down. It is tricky to do both, particularly if we have spent a lifetime favouring one approach over the other, the authors note.
Gender differences have a role as well with females tending to gravitate to the warm side and males to the strength side. It can be difficult for women to project strength without losing warmth. Women who voice anger risk being defined in terms of that emotion, the authors assert. Expressing disapproval, while remaining in control, is the key.
We have very little sense of the nonverbal cues we give off as we go through life, such as the default expression we wear on our faces, the tilt of our heads or the gestures our friends say would define us.
We project strength through nonverbal cues: upright posture, controlled gestures, a level brow, a focused gaze, a low vocal pitch, all of these can be practised. Strong eye contact is especially good for projecting strength as well as warmth.
Choice of words is important too. The use of ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ suggests self-centredness, which asserts strength but not warmth. Conversely, the use of we generally conveys an awareness of other people and offers a way to show that you recognise the feelings of others. This so called ‘circle language’ can be a powerful way of gaining empathy. Nonetheless, psychologists have shown that people who use ‘I’ frequently are more likely to be telling the truth. So-called ‘filler’ language such as ‘um’ and ‘you know’ should be minimised as its heavy use signifies a combination of youth, inexperience, informality and lack of polish.
Overcoming this habit requires becoming comfortable pausing between words and sentences. Similarly, uptalk, ending a declaratory sentence by going up in pitch as a way of checking on mutual understanding, should be avoided.
Stories are powerful and there is a significant body of research to tell us that that our brains are actually wired for stories. The devices used in stories – heroes and villains, plots and subplots – stick with us, relax our critical faculties and lower our guard.
The act of telling a story can be likened to giving a gift to an audience and they do not even realise that you have packed it full of messages and values until they are already hooked and hanging on your every pause, waiting to hear what happens next. Those who master story-telling have a very powerful tool in their armoury. Stories can persuade us to follow leaders, invest our money or support a cause.
Voice can convey a great depth of feeling and can influence outcomes. In telephone sales, it has been shown that lots of variability in emphasis, which creates a sense of openness to the person on the other end of the line, coupled with an active listening style, is a good predictor of sales success.
Two Duke University Professors have even developed a programme that can reliably detect stress in the voices of chief executives during investor calls.
Apologising is useful but only if you really mean it, which means firstly expressing genuine empathy for the people against whom you have done wrong and then making a statement of your determination never to repeat the mistake. In terms of confidence, the authors take the ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ approach. The very act of doing what does not come naturally to us helps build our confidence and it gets easier each time we do it.
Asking for feedback from friends on how we are projecting ourselves, as the authors suggest here, may be a little over the top for some. However, there’s plenty of solid advice here backed with examples of engaging leadership styles from the world of politics and business to draw practical lessons from.