A Cool Trick to Decrease Performance Anxiety

grade-aAs a leadership communication coach, I am always looking for ways to help my clients manage the butterflies that can easily morph into a shaky voice, dry mouth, quivering limbs and, well, the awful feeling that comes from being “verklempt.”

As I was perusing my bookshelf, searching for inspiration, I picked up Benjamin and Rosamund Zander’s book, The Art of Possibility.  And there it was: the simplest, fastest trick to decreasing stage fright.  Before I share it, let me just say that the absolute best way of getting rid of agita lies in the physical realm:  head rolls, arm pumps, heel bounces, rag doll flops, and deep breathing exercises. Nothing trumps the benefit a speaker gets from these techniques.

The problem is that most speakers are not able to use these techniques right before they speak. They are already sitting on a dais, as part of a panel of speakers, with all eyes on them, and can’t very well start jumping up and down (though I love that image).

What to do?

Back to the Zanders’ book, and it’s wonderful message. They write about twelve strategies designed to increase creativity and expand the human spirit so that we all may radiate possibility into the world.  Sounds good to me.

Principle #3 is called Giving an “A.” This practice helps us shift from constantly calculating how we measure up to an abundance mentality. It’s based on Benjamin Zander’s teaching experience. At the beginning of each semester, he would assign all students an A.  The only catch was that within the next two weeks, each student had to write a paper outlining how they were to earn the A. As Zander says, “The A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live in to.”

The best part of this chapter is his explanation of how speakers can use this practice to ward off the Evil Gods of Self-Doubt (my words, not his).  Zander explains, “Giving an A can be done metaphorically to audiences, large or small, in the same way as it is given to students. This allows the speaker to relax and connect with [the audience] from the perspective of possibilities rather than from judgment.

I, for one, think it’s genius.  We know that our thoughts drive our emotions in this situation. We think we are not ready, that we’ll forget an important point, that we won’t impress the “VIP” in the room, and on and on.  Those thoughts trigger physical reactions in our body, and we are hooked.  Anxiety wins.

The next time you feel the buzz-killing minions marching in, give them the “talk to the hand” gesture, and take a moment to look at your audience and say silently, “I give you all an A.  You deserve it, and I am going to treat you like the excellent listeners you are.”

I am always looking for tips, tricks and techniques to help our clients become more powerful communicators. If you have any tried-and-true strategies, let me know at info@barbararoche.net.

If you’d like to learn more, check out the Dynamic Speaker Series!

Three Questions to Ask Yourself at the Half-Year Mark

While everyone in the U.S. was celebrating the Fourth of July holiday, another important milestone came and went: the official half-year mark. That’s right – there are only six months left in 2015. It’s a great time to take a moment and look back, and then look forward with intention. Here are three questions that never fail to provide insight and motivation to tackle the goals you set way back on January 1st.


1. What accomplishments are you most proud of? It’s very important to be in the right frame of mind when reflecting on the past, and that means summoning feelings of satisfaction. Nothing feels better than overcoming obstacles and achieving what we set out to accomplish. So, what are the one to three successes you feel most energized by?

2. What are you tolerating? This is a tough one. And so important. Tolerations keep us distracted and drain our energy. You could be tolerating a hellish commute, a demanding staff member, or putting off firing someone. For me, it’s talking to a colleague who is extremely negative. I realized the only thing I am getting out of the relationship is acid reflux. Time to make some changes.

3. Which of your goals is worthy of attention for the next six months? Lots of things have happened since last January. Goals and objectives need to be revised and refreshed. Go for a walk, or any other activity that allows your mind to roam freely. Then go back to your desk (or your phone) and look at your goals. Oh, they were never written down? Then start there. Goals that are put in writing are more substantial. Goals that are in our heads or hearts are merely wishes.

I’m very happy to say that my business partner, Charlotte Dietz, and I just achieved one of our 2015 goals: we launched our first online course called the Dynamic Speaker Series and it’s great, if I do say so myself. So we are meeting today to make plans for the next six months. If any of your goals have to do with communication, then check out the series. I am confident the program will help you achieve your goals.

Here’s to a productive and rewarding second half. This is where championships are won.


How “Conversational” Should You Be When Presenting?

Female feet from the window of a car on a background of tropical beach

I had the pleasure of meeting a former colleague and friend for dinner last night. We had a great time catching up and walking down memory lane. Lots of laughs – and some new stories were shared.

Turns out she never heard about the time when I was presenting to a group of employee engagement experts, and after the presentation, an audience member came up and handed me his card. He stood there looking at it, which signaled I was to do the same. I commented on how great it was the he, the statistical wizard of our field, had joined us for the session. He stood there, like a statue…waiting. I turned the card over, and on the back he had written, “Data is plural.” I looked up at him with what I am sure was an incredulous look on my face, and he said, “Just thought you should know.”

That was quite a moment. The computer in my head started searching for the number of times I said, “The data shows,” instead of “the data show.”  Many times. And since then, I have been listening for this grammatical gaffe, and the “data shows” the majority of speakers use data as singular and plural. Otherwise, we would all have to say “datum” which sounds so snooty.

This got us talking about the age-old advice for speakers to use a conversational tone when presenting. Be approachable, be real. Great advice. The problem is, most of us have really bad habits, favorite slang, and go-to shorthand that not only fails to connect us with our audience, but can undermine our credibility. My friend gave a great example. In a best-and-final presentation, with ten decision-makers looking at her, she said, “We get off on statistical analysis.” I laughed out loud. What a great example of conversational communication that should not be invited on stage.

What are your verbal missteps?  The only way to find out is to tape yourself and listen back, or have a colleague offer feedback. Cleaning up word choices, idioms, vernacular and jargon will instantly make us all better speakers.

If you are interested in more tips, tricks and techniques on all things spoken, stay tuned for the launch of our Dynamic Speaker Series next week!

Team Meeting In Creative Office

The Presentation Everyone Must Give


I was facilitating a meeting last week with a leadership team who was trying to advance their strategic plan that was stuck in a ditch, to the point where one of the employees asked her manager, “What plan?”

The CEO said to the directors, “Please, I beg you, don’t make a PowerPoint deck for our next meeting. I don’t want to be ‘sold’ on your ideas like I’m the big whale you’re trying to hook. Just give me an update on the four things we discussed today.”  Such a clear and easy directive, and one we should all be ready to deliver on the spot. But are we?

At some point, everyone in the working world is called upon to give an update to the boss, team leader, or customer. In some instances, it’s a subtle request, embedded in everyday conversation, so we may not recognize it as our moment to shine; to communicate in a thoughtful, brief and influential manner. Perhaps your boss likes to say, “So what’s new?”, or, “How’s it going?” In other instances, it’s a more formal request and we can plan in advance. For example, you know that every three weeks you are to attend a meeting and provide a 10-minute update on your project. One would think the latter is a much easier update to deliver, but my experience shows that many of us put it off until the last minute. 

Assuming you don’t carry Excel spreadsheets and glitzy infographics in your pocket, you are left with your ability to capture the attention of your audience, structure a road map for your thoughts, and advance your career. How well do you communicate in these moments? Do you enhance your brand or diminish it?  Do you consider these moments opportunities or rotten luck? Let’s find out. Do you:

1.  Establish a focus quickly?  Don’t wander all over hell’s half acre looking for a key message.  People are busy and easily frustrated by having to work too hard at listening intently for a crumb of relevance. 

2. Emphasize progress?  Instead of a play-by-play because it’s easier for you to keep track of your thoughts, offer an update that picks up where you left off with this person.  If you cannot identify one thing that fits under the category of “progress,” then think about what’s been learned, what’s changed, what’s different. 

3. Foster interaction?  Some of us launch into a monologue that seems like a brief amount of time to us, but an eternity to the listener. Talk in chewable bites that allow your audience to respond, to do their part to advance the conversation.  

4. Speak to your listener’s needs/interests? If you are a black belt in managing up, then you are adept at structuring your updates to appeal to your boss’s needs and preferences. If your boss likes numbers, be sure you lead with the tangible aspects of your update. If your boss is a big picture person, stay out of the weeds.

5. Know your purpose?  Do you want more interaction with this person? Less? Do you need them to remove barriers, give you more money, more authority? Whatever it is, don’t squander the moment to ask. If it’s too early or not the right setting, then plant a seed, at least.    

Opportunities to deliver everyday presentations lead to the skills and attributes necessary for the high-profile presentations. Think of them as practice – like playing at your best in the minor leagues so you are ready when you’re called the Big Show.

Flower in Asphalt_Large

What’s Your Signature Strength?

This weekend marks a special time on the calendar: Easter and Passover – two religious holidays that include rituals of eating chocolate and unleavened bread. As fun as that may be, both events have a much more inspiring purpose: to remind us of the valuable and inspiring process of renewal; to re-commit to something we let languish, or to start something new altogether.

As I was finishing up a coaching session the other day, I just happened to ask my client what he might consider rekindling this spring, and he said something profound: “I used to be a much better boss. Between the depressing winter we just had, and a really harsh merger, I’ve become just an OK boss – very transactional. I’d like to get back to using my strengths, and help my team re-connect.” If only every boss would choose this as their focus for renewal.

To paraphrase Jim Collins, author of the best-selling book Good to Great, we are at our best when we fully utilize our strengths:

“For in the end, it is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work. Perhaps, then, you might gain that rare tranquility that comes from knowing that you’ve had a hand in creating something of intrinsic excellence that makes a contribution. Indeed, you might even gain that deepest of all satisfactions: knowing that your short time here on this earth has been well spent, and that it mattered.”

Before the hustle and bustle of your week begins, consider what you could put back into the rotation. What skill, talent or passion can you make full use of that will not only make you more effective, but will also bring a deep sense of satisfaction?

For me, it’s listening. I was (and still need to be) a great listener. When I am at my best, my clients get more out of their time with me. And when that happens, I am a happier person.

Happy Spring!

Death by PowerPoint

Clicking Ain’t Connecting: How to Up Your PowerPoint Game

There’s a very popular book written by Harold Stolovitch and Erica Keeps called Tellin’ Ain’t Training. I saw it on my bookshelf the other day and realized the same sentiment holds true for PowerPoint presentations: just because you are clicking through slides does not mean your message is landing with your audience, and it certainly doesn’t mean you are connecting with them. 

I just heard the fourth person in three weeks tell his or her staff to stop making decks for management meetings. Dare I even ask if corporate America is finally coming around to the fact that 100-slide decks are ruining our attention span and our good nature? One can only hope. Until that time, there are a few things we can all do to improve our use of visual display. 

The Power of the Right Image.  Not just any old image, and never – ever – tacky clip art or stick figure guy!

No No


Visuals can help or hurt your presentation. Done well, images can help a speaker be more persuasive, more credible, and more emotive. They can simplify a complex idea, and they can even garner an audible gasp from the audience, as one presenter did simply by showing the difference between a beach in the U.S. and a beach in China. At this point in the presentation, the speaker was a bit dull and rather dry. When the slide advanced to the second image below, the audience responded exactly as he had intended. Everyone was focused and listening to his key message.

Beach Compare

Have you received feedback on your image choices? Do they amplify your message or do they interfere?  Do you need to find higher resolution versions or simply improve their placement? The next question is: can any of your text slides be replaced by images or other graphics? Hint: I already know the answer to that question. If you are ready to give your decks a makeover, start with this checklist:

1.  Can your visuals be seen from the back of the room?  Font size and image size are critical. Too many decks are being displayed with 18-pt, even 14-pt font sizes. That’s fine if you are presenting in a shoe box. Otherwise, put your hand on the mouse and click the “up arrow” next to your font size window at least four levels.

2. Is your message clear?  Don’t take your own word for it, show the slides to someone you trust and ask them to tell you the message.

3.  Are you using good graphic design rules like the Rule of Thirds?  Break up your canvas into three sections for increased impact. Audience members learn more from your text when combined with an image in an elegant and clear manner. Here’s an example:

Rule of Thirds

4. Do you need to edit?  And edit some more? Let’s not forget the infamous “spaghetti slide” used by the U.S. military back in 2009 to explain why the war in Afghanistan was so expensive and protracted. The story goes that after seeing the slide, General McChrystal said, “When we understand that slide, we’ll win the war.”  Afghanistan PPT

Finally, make an honest assessment of your first and last slides. Spend the time to find just the right image to convey the most important word in your presentation title. And for your final slide, stay away from cutesy question marks. Even if that’s all the time you have to spend revising your deck, it will be well spent. 

Go forth and click.  


Clear vision concept

Advance Your Career With This One Skill

And it has nothing to do with Social Media!  And it’s not about your ability to managing others. Or perhaps you were thinking it’s a technical skill, like being able to calculate EBITDA in your head. Still others may be sure it has something to do with strategic planning. Those are all great skills to have, but none of them are worth a shiny new bitcoin if you cannot get your point across; if you cannot communicate your message so that it arrives in the receiver’s mind just as you intended.

Stripped to its essence, communication is the response you get. Just look at all the ways communication can go awry in the chart below.1 First, the speaker must encode his or her Encoding-Decodingthoughts, then communicate a message. Then it has to travel through all kinds of mayhem and foolishness (smart phones, iPads, shiny objects) to reach the receiver. Once there, the receiver must decode (that’s a whole other thing) and then, one can only hope, the message is received.

If you want to become a leader who inspires others to exceptional performance, the place to start is by evaluating your communication skills. For today, use this question to help you form and express your most compelling and articulate message: do you want to sharpen the point or soften the blow?

If it matters that your listeners hear and understand that phones must be covered until 5:00 on the Friday before a long weekend, you want to sharpen the point. This is what someone said this morning, which got me thinking about communication: “It would be great if someone could stay ’til 5ish in case any clients call late in the day?”  Yes, that question mark should be there because the speaker ended the sentence with an upward inflection. How do you think receivers of this message will decode the meaning?  One guess: “Somebody else will stay so I can leave early.”

The second example involves an aspiring leader who was given the task of updating the executive team on a very important project that would inform a critical ‘go/no go’ decision. Half-way through the meeting, the speaker said,”I hope this is sort of crystal clear.”  Not the best example of assertive communication, and naturally, one executive team member decided to sharpen the point by replying, “I hope it’s more than ‘sort of’ clear.”

When you want to sharpen the point, clean up your word choices and your delivery style. When you want to soften the blow, use more neutral, friendlier language and relax your delivery. With just this quick adjustment, you will become a leader with a communication toolbox filled with the coolest and most useful tools.

Who’s staying ’til 5?


1. Stuart Hall, Encoding and Decoding Communication Theory, 1980

About Barbara

Barbara is an executive coach, professor and public speaker working with a wide range of clients to achieve personal and organizational goals. She has designed highly-rated presentations on a wide range of career-building topics including business etiquette, networking, team-building, speaker and supervisor boot camp, and skilled communication. In addition to her speaking and coaching work, Barbara is a lecturer at The Wharton School where she works with full-time and executive MBA candidates to improve their skills and effectiveness in leadership communication.

Barbara received a Master’s degree in psychology from Northeastern University in Boston. She is a certified coach facilitator with Corporate Coach University, and is a proud member of the Red Sox Nation. While not as impressive as Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, Barbara leads a secret life as a fitness instructor.