Saturday, September 29, 2012

What Romney's Jet Window Story Teaches About Jokes in Public Speaking

One of the most common mistakes people make in public speaking is to try too hard to be funny. You don't need to be funny to be a great speaker and unless you are a professional comic it is surprisingly difficult to get a laugh, even when you have good material. Writing comedy material is also far from trivial and best left to experienced writers.

What reminded me of this key lesson in public speaking was the media coverage of an episode where US presidential candidate Mitt Romney was ridiculed for apparently not knowing why airplane windows can't be opened. You can read the whole story in this LA Times article of 24 September 2012 Romney Mocked for Comment About Jet Windows

One of the reader comments points out that every child knows why airplane windows don't open and since Mr Romney was once a child we can probably assume quite safely that he does know. The most likely explanation for this bizarre statement is that he was trying to be funny -- a very dangerous game for anyone but especially so for someone in the public eye and with so many adversaries.

There is a valuable lesson in this case: it is risky for a speaker to try to be funny, especially when the humor is, like in this case, based on feigned ignorance. Let's see why this is the case.

Suppose, for example, that a speaker wants to get across the idea that he was an early adopter of YouTube. He jokes hat he started using YouTube when the videos were still in black and white. Some people in the audience will think he means it literally and repeat to their friends that YouTube used to be in black and white. Many others will think that he is just an idiot because even a child knows that it isn't true. Some will wonder if any of the stuff he is saying is true. Only a few will get the joke but because they are surrounded by a sea of puzzled faces they don't laugh either.

And that's if the delivery is flawless. But delivering funny lines is much harder than most people realize. The timing has to be exact, the construction optimal and the body language coherent. People spend years in comedy clubs perfecting the art and then have at least the advantage of working in an environment where people are expecting to laugh. Not all speakers have this advantage. Maybe you have a reputation for being serious and you are speaking in a serious context so people are not expecting jokes. In these circumstances jokes can fall flat -- and that is probably a good outcome. What is more likely is an airplane-window-style outcome where you just damage your reputation.

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Friday, September 28, 2012

Dear Best Regards: How to Start and End Your Emails

Last year I wrote that to make your email more effective you should put meaningful content into the subject line, keep your messages short and consider other channels (see Three Timesaving Tips for Email). I also wrote some guidelines about common culture problems when email crosses borders (see Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email).

But there is one other question about international email that comes up regularly in workshops: how should you start and finish? Do I use "Dear", "Hi",or "Hello" to start with? What do I do if I don't know if the person I am writing to is a man or a woman? "What is the difference between "Best regards  and "Warm regards"? This is a question that puzzles many people and a while ago it stressed me, too. But the answers to these questions are perhaps easier than you imagine.

DEAR MR/MRS WHATEVER. First of all, at the start of a mail you probably have some sort of salutation. How do you know which one to use in each case? The answer depends partly on the culture of the country, the culture of the company, your business and your relationship with the person. There is no way to list all of the possible cases and luckily you don't need it anyway. The simplest way to find the right greeting is to look at what the person you are writing to uses when they send an email to you. With the appropriate gender correction it is invariably the right answer. So if your colleague in Kabul writes Dear Mr Hennigan I can be sure that he or she is unlikely to be offended if I use the same formula to reply. And if they have never written to you? In that case look through your emails to see if they have written to someone else you know. If that fails find an example from another person from the same background and if that doesn't work try asking your network for advice. And if you don't have a well-developed network you just discovered another reason why you should do something about that. A network is not just for finding jobs.

MAN OR WOMAN. Let's assume that you have chosen a formula like Dear Mr/Ms X for your greeting. What do you do if you don't recognize if the name is masculine or feminine? Again this is not as hard as it looks. One simple solution is to ask someone from your network -- you really have to take care of that . Another is to ask Google. Let's suppose that you need to write to someone called Andrew and for some reason you don't know the gender. Try googling both "Mr Andrew" and "Ms Andrew" then look at the number of pages Google finds. In most cases it is obvious which is the one most commonly used. But in any case some names are used for both genders -- Kim, Jacky, Lesley and so on -- so in some cases this technique doesn't work. In that case try searching for the person you are going to write to and look for profile pictures in places like LinkedIn. Again in most cases it should be obvious from the photo, unless they have used a picture of a cat for their profile -- a very bad idea for this reason.

YOURS WITH KINDLY WARM REGARDS. People have even more trouble with the salutation at the end of a mail. There are many variations from "Sincerely yours" to just "Best". In this case, too, the easiest solution is to just look at what the recipient usually signs and use the same salutation yourself. Look through email threads and you will see that this is exactly what most people are doing today. And its for that reason that the same person might be inconsistent in their use of greetings and salutations. One day you write "Warmly" and they reply back in the same way. Another day you write "Best regards" and they answer you in that way.

Ultimately the only rule you need to remember is that you should just use the same style that is normally used by the person you are writing to. But perhaps even more important is to understand that the greetings and salutations are not so important anyway. Normally balanced people will not be upset if someone on the other side uses an unusual greeting or makes a gender mistake. It is much more important to write brief and clear messages, to have a clear idea of what you are asking, to answer messages promptly and other things. If you sign a message to me "Regards" I will not think you don't like me, but answer two weeks late and maybe I go somewhere else next time, if I can.

Related posts about email:

Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email
Three Timesaving Tips for Email -- Five Minutes to Boost Your Productivity

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For lectures, workshops, coaching and writing on this and other communication topics visit contact me by mail at or call 0033 6 79 61 42 81.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Working with The English: Three Things You Need to Know

Most people underestimate the difficulty of working with English people. Americans are often misled by the similarities to assume that it is going to be easy. Neighbo(u)rs in mainland Europe are likewise fooled by the proximity; if someone is so close how can they be so different, they ask.  But in fact there are some significant yet non-obvious differences in English culture that can easily derail your attempts to do business with English people.

You are not going to master the entire culture of a nation after reading a single article, but there are three key concepts that tend to cause the most problems. In workshops and coaching on this subject they are the most frequent sources of misunderstanding I have encountered over the years.

INDIRECT COMMUNICATION. One of the most difficult facets of English culture for outsiders to understand is the reliance on indirect communication. Some people take pride in their plain and direct speech, saying what they mean and meaning what they say. This is not mainstream in English culture, where most of the time all you will get are delicate hints.  Your English colleague might remark that a proposal is "interesting", meaning that they believe it is complete nonsense, or they might say that it is "one way to do it", meaning the worst idea they have ever heard. 

CONFRONTATION AVOIDANCE. Less challenging, perhaps, but more insidious is the unwritten rule that you should avoid open confrontation. When someone says something, even if it is wrong it would be impolite to contradict that directly. You might ask if they are sure, say "Oh really" with a question mark face or just raise an eyebrow. To openly disagree would at best make everyone feel uncomfortable and can also be interpreted as a provocation. Because of this you might miss a key message from an English colleague. But, more dangerously, your English friends are always searching through what you say to try to find meanings that you perhaps did not intend. 

HIDDEN EMOTIONS. Raising eyebrows is a typically English gesture because it is so understated. You are allowed to have emotions in England but you are not supposed to show them. You will often hear people talking about a "stiff upper lip", the capacity to maintain a neutral expression even through your world is collapsing around you. Manifest displays of emotion like raising your voice or waving your arms in the air will just cause embarrassment and undermine your credibility. But you are allowed to show your emotions through smaller, controlled gestures like the infamous raised eyebrow. This means that you perhaps need to keep your own emotions under control but at the same time be alert for small signs like raised eyebrows in other people. Sometimes that is the only answer you will get but it is also the most valuable.

These are the three most important things you need to know about English culture, but this is only the beginning. If you would like to learn more then the best place to start is to read anthropologist Kate Fox's wonderful book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour.