What Are You Listening To?


Photo courtesy of Couleur on Pixabay.com

As part of a warm-up routine before giving a presentation or talk, I suggest students use music. Once I asked a class if they were already in the habit of including music—either listening to or singing along—before speaking. A man we’ll call Theo raised his hand. He said, “Yes, I play Whenever You Come Around by Vince Gill a couple of times and sing along in the car on the way to an event where I have to speak.”

Now this gentleman had some major fear issues related to speaking before a group. You can hear it in how he worded his response of “where I HAVE to speak.” He was filled with speaking anxiety and could find no joy in sharing his message; it was just something he had to do as part of his job.

Our conversation went on something like this:

Me:             Theo, I think you need a better song choice.

Theo:          Why?

Me:             I do believe the chorus of that song goes something like: “I get weak in the knees; and I lose my breath. Oh I try to speak but the words won’t come I’m so scared to death.”

Theo:          Yes, that’s right.

Me:             The idea of using music before speaking is to influence ourselves in a positive way. With that song you’re setting up yourself to have shaky knees and no voice.

Theo:          But I really like to sing that song.

Me:             Great! Here’s what you do. AFTER your next presentation, find a place that has karaoke, sign up, and when your turn comes, belt it out. But find something else to sing as part of your warm-up routine.

As part of our presentation pre-game routine, we need to think like a motivated athlete. Let’s pump it up and not wallow around. Be in the YES attitude, not the WELL, MAYBE attitude.

You may be asking yourself right now, “What’s on your presentation pre-game playlist, Norma?” I’ll share a few at the bottom of this post, but I don’t want you to just use mine since this needs to be personal. What speaks to you? What motivates you?

There are so many musical genres and my list is wide-ranging. It includes French organ music (Widor’s Toccata), soul man James Brown’s I Feel Good, and several inspiring religious songs such as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

As my good friend Marybeth likes to say, “You are what you listen to.”

So please be sure to exclude all those sad country songs from your playlist. And yes, before you ask, that includes Willy Nelson singing Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.


Widor’s Toccata

James Brown

Josh Groban’s version of Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring

Oh OK. Here’s Willy crying in the rain






Searching for Just the Right Word

Original word

Photo courtesy of Gavin Allanwood on Unsplash

Do you repeat yourself? No, I’m not inquiring whether or not you tell stories repetitiously. (“Say, have I ever told you about the time I….”)

Instead, I’m asking this: Are you word lazy? Many of us are. We get in a rut, using and overusing the same small vocabulary of words.

In a coaching session last month, I pointed out that a client used the word “thing” seventeen times in a fifteen-minute talk.

She uttered phrases such as, “The number one thing we need to watch for is…” and “The important thing to do first is…” and “Which thing has the most impact?”

I’m fond of speech coach Patricia Fripp’s take on the overuse of the word thing. Fripp has been quoted as saying, “Specificity builds credibility.” When we refer to issues, problems, and solutions as “things” we’re being overly non-specific and so we come across as lacking credibility.

Personally, I overuse the word great. I use it so much it has lost its meaning:  A great meal, a great visit, a great time, a great movie, a great friend, a great idea, a great TED talk…..”How are you, Norma?”  I’m great, thanks for asking.

Great is beginning to grate on my nerves.

Thanks to the online site Thesaurus.com, using the section of synonyms, I’m now building my own list of words to substitute for great. Although it’s not listed as a possible synonym for great, I like the word spectacular.

Listening to yourself is a rewarding experience as I wrote about on March 6.   I understand that can be a daunting exercise. Maybe as you work up your courage to try that, start by paying extra attention to yourself while you’re speaking. See if you can hear/find your own word laziness. Then use the synonym search tool to replace the word.

Note: If you’re hearing too much swearing (as some of my students admit to!), you should cut that out anyhow. You know who you are.

Stuck on a nonsense word or phrase like a parrot? Examples are “Gotcha” and “Right, right,” as your go-to response to let someone know you’re following what they’re saying.

How many words are there? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are “full entries for 171,476 words in current use and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.”

Figures are all over the place for the vocabulary of the average American. Links to some articles are below. Do we know 20,000 words?  40,000? 70,000  or more words? But how many words we KNOW and how many words we USE are two different categories.

Let’s step away from our word laziness and use a wider variety of words to tell our stories.

That will be a great thing.


Article on how many words are there in the English language

Here is one test for how many words average American knows

Here is a test you can take
















Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones

Sticks and stones

Photo courtesy of Rok Zabukovec on Unsplash

The young woman on the stage was obviously terrified. She held a piece of paper that undulated as her hands visibly shook. Her voice quavered as she stumbled through an introduction.

“Our next speaker is Dr. Kathleen, I mean Kathryn uh uh Flame? Flume? She received her doctorate in psychiatry umm I mean psychology from….”

At this point the speaker stormed onto the stage and began shouting at the young woman. “I have given this presentation dozens of times and so have been introduced dozens of times. No one has managed to do the miserable job that you’re doing. Whoever hired you made a terrible mistake. YOU are a mistake.  This is just, just….”

The speaker then stormed off the stage leaving the young woman standing alone, head bowed, quite clearly shamed.

After what seemed like minutes but in reality was about five seconds, the speaker returned and stood at the very front edge of the stage, almost looming into the audience.

She looked at the people attending and in a clear voice said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. That statement is one of the first lies we learn as children. The truth is this: Words DO hurt.”

After a short pause she said, “Please join me in thanking Amanda for being brave and helping me demonstrate this truth.” The young woman was now all smiles and gave the speaker a big hug before she left the stage.

The speaker then began her presentation on the topic of verbal abuse as the audience remained on the proverbial edge of their seats.

Using drama to open a presentation is an effective way of hooking your audience…pulling them into your presentation and causing them to want to listen.

Just imagine if this speaker had been introduced normally, come onto the stage and said this: “Good morning. Today I’m going to talk about verbal abuse.”

Boring with a capital B, right? The audience would already be thinking about something else, checking Facebook or email on their phones, or writing a grocery list for the way home.

It’s important to start every presentation with a great hook and using drama is one way that isn’t used much. Shake up your audience at your next talk!



Do Not Repeat After Me, Repeat After Me, Repeat After Me


Photo courtesy of SkitterPhotos.com on Pexels.com

Picture this: I’m looking online for a short talk by Simon Sinek that I “accidentally” saw yesterday and didn’t bookmark. Sinek is an author, motivational business coach, and professional speaker. He’s an inspiration to many people, including me. In my search for THAT video, I came across another Sinek interview that highlighted a point I had just taught the day before.

Surprisingly, I discovered that in this 15 minute one-on-one talk, Sinek repeats the word “right” over and over. I’ve seen other Simon Sinek talks and hadn’t picked up on that bad habit. It’s possible the reason for right popping out is due to this being more of an informal talk. Also, his audience of one isn’t giving any verbal attends. (Those are short feedback phrases such as: Oh. Yes. I see. Sure. Uh-huh. I understand. OK.) So when Simon adds, “Right?” he’s confirming that the audience appears to have received the message, and it’s time to move on to another thought.

How do I know this? Because I used to do the same thing with the word OK. It’s almost as if I was reassuring myself that all was well and I could go on to the next point.

What is the point of my encouraging you to watch this short video? (The link is at the end of this post.) Initially, it was to demonstrate that even a professional speaker can get into the habit of repeating a word while presenting.

But the more deeply I listened to the video, the repeated word no longer bothered me. I got so involved in Sinek’s talk that I tuned out the annoyance.

His message was so big it precluded any focus on this minor point.

I began thinking….hey, this is exactly how the process of becoming an amazing speaker works. The transformation into an engaging public speaker is not about learning and practicing ONE great tip from Norma. It’s about learning and practicing one idea and then another and then another.

It’s trying out the ideas you’ve learned and seeing how you can adjust them to fit your own voice and personality. Then each student or client puts together for himself or herself a custom-made toolbox of speaking practices.

Think of it like this: When you want to purchase a new shirt or blouse you may take half a dozen of the items into the fitting room with you. As you try on each one, you notice what works and what doesn’t. This one is a great color, but it’s a little tight across the shoulders. (So you can use this idea, just tweaking it to suit you.) This one looked super on the hanger but not so good on you. (While this concept sounded interesting, you decide it’s not for you.) But this one….Wow! The color matches your eyes and fits perfectly. (This idea becomes cornerstone content of your presentations. It’s your go-to tool whenever you’re speaking.)

So it’s not taking one class, or reading one book, or watching one video. The quick fix…the one and done method doesn’t work for many important aspects of our lives.

Whether it’s speaking or parenting or playing sports or doing our job…if we are to be successful in that role, it means lifelong learning and reading and watching and doing.

PS – Later in the Sinek video when the host actually does speak up, he also starts to add the questioning “right?” to his speech. Is this is his own bad habit or did he simply latch onto the word to mirror Simon? Hmmm…sounds like another blog post to me.

Link to Simon Sinek video


Find Your Own Voice


Photo courtesy of Brandan Keller on Unsplash

Why do we want what other people have?

My friend Sue has the greatest hair. It’s short and curly and a tad unruly, but it’s a perfect fit for her. When I asked how much time she spends on “the look,” she said, “Oh I slept on this and did nothing to my hair this morning.”

THAT is the look every woman I know longs for…to wake up and not have to do ANYTHING to your hair and have it look gorgeous.

So I tried Sue’s directions (which involved curl cream…something I’d never even heard of) and let’s just say, uhh…it looked like a mistake on me.

Sue’s hairdo is not for Norma.

That incident reminded me that once an audience member beseechingly asked me, “Please teach me to sound just like you.”  I replied, “I’m sorry, this is my voice and you can’t have it. But I can help you find your own voice.”

If you don’t like the sound of your voice, you’re not alone. Many people have told me they believe their voice detracts from the quality of their verbal interactions and presentations. Research bears that out; up to 38% of the verbal message that our listeners receive from us is based on various aspects of voice.

The good news is that you can take initial steps to improve some voice issues without spending a gazillion dollars on a voice coach.

The first exercise is to listen to yourself. That means you’ll need to record 30-40 minutes of YOU talking in everyday situations such as your side of a phone conversation, leading or actively participating in a meeting, teaching someone how to do something. Be creative and try to forget that you’re recording yourself.

No one listens to this taping but you. Set aside some private time to analyze your recording to determine what you want to change. Be brave! This is the point some people give up.

Trust yourself. You intuitively have the smarts to know what needs to be changed.

Don’t listen with a critical ear. Instead listen with an open and understanding ear, as though you’re listening to a good friend and you want to help him or her improve.

Do you hear a voice that’s talking so fast you don’t understand what’s being said? Or are the words coming so slowly that you feel yourself nodding off?

Is the voice high pitched to the point that it causes the speaker to sound unsure or even childlike? Or are the words in a dull monotone where every word carries the same weight? A monotone voice can cause disengagement because listeners aren’t quite sure what the main points are or what is being emphasized.

Maybe there’s a word or phrase that’s used repetitively without the speaker’s awareness of doing so. Some of the most overused words I hear are these:

Basically  /  Kinda  /  Literally  /  Sorta  /  So  /  And so  /  Just  /  Thing

Once aware of any issues that detract from the verbal message, we can begin working to repair them.

Your own true voice is inside you. Let it out because I want to hear it!


Just Where Do You Think You’re Going?

The Path

A path to Grace Church, Goochland, Virginia — Photo by Brian French. Used with permission.

Your life is a sacred journey. And it is about change, growth, movement, transformation, continuously expanding your vision of what is possible, stretching your soul, learning to see clearly and deeply, listening to your intuition, taking courageous risks, and embracing challenges at every step along the way…You are on the path, exactly where you are meant to be right now… And from here, you can only go forward, shaping your life story into a magnificent tale of triumph, of healing, of courage, beauty, wisdom, power, dignity, and love.    Used with permission of author Caroline Joy Adams.

I’m part of a faith formation group at church. A dozen of us meet weekly, talking openly about our faith and discussing reactions to and thoughts about faith-focused books.

In a discussion on discernment (how to know when we’re listening to the voice and will of God or…wait, it that just my ego shouting?), I shared that one of the ways I hear God speak to me is when I receive the same focused message in various formats. (And no, it’s not Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.)

Here’s a current message I’ve received several times over the last three months: Follow the path.

On the stand next to my desk lies a book I bought in December: The Path…a Journey Through the Bible.

In January I was cleaning out a stash of paperwork from past projects. One page explains the spiritual aspects of a labyrinth. It had been a handout I gave middle school students before we walked a labyrinth. The above opening quote was the first paragraph of the labyrinth page. And the next line on the handout was this: We are all on the path.

Not a path, mind you. But THE path.

By this time I’m answering God. “OK, I’m getting the message of the Path. But what path?” Receiving no immediate reply, I let it slip from my conscious thought.

In February as I spoke with business people in town about opportunities to add my public speaking classes to leadership and management training programs, several responded with, “You should talk to The Path Foundation. They do training for non-profits and hire instructors from various fields.”

The Path Foundation. The Path.

Are you expecting a happy ending to be inserted here? Sorry.

I haven’t contacted them yet. Letting my insecurity of “Am I good enough to do this?” get in the way of action, I’ve hesitated.

Even though late February’s mail brought me The Path Foundation’s Year in Review brochure, I’ve still held back. I’m usually a highly confident person and so I’m struggling to explain why I haven’t acted upon this.

I’m calling them on Monday because I got one more message the other day.

On pet therapy duty, we entered a hospital room where a woman was sitting up in bed, some personal effects arranged on the bed table in front of her. And what item do you suppose was facing my direction? It was a small black nylon bag with the distinctive Path Foundation logo.

I inquired about it. The woman’s grandson had given it to her after volunteering at Path the prior year. As the woman petted the therapy dog, I kept staring at that nylon bag and the colorful logo. I mean, what were the odds?

In sharing this story with my friend Philip, I said, “It’s as if I’m so dense that God had to keep sending me the same clues over and over.”

He replied, “Here’s my take on it. God loves you so much that he hasn’t given up on your following where this leads.”

I like Philip’s version better than my own.

Maybe I’m intended to be an instructor at Path. Or maybe I’m intended to cross paths (no pun intended) with someone there that will lead in another direction. We’ll see how this unfolds.

Oh, and one more thought from the labyrinth handout: “With a labyrinth there is only one choice to be made. The choice is to enter or not.”

I’m choosing to enter.

Note to my readers: I’m making a change in how I provide opportunities for you to learn more. So that you have the choice to mindfully read each post in full without clicking on links throughout my story, links will be provided at the end. And of course, soon I’ll be writing on what prompted me to make this change. Stay tuned!

Here are the links to learn more about what I’ve written today:

 Labyrinth        http://www.lessons4living.com/labyrinth.htm

 Author of opening quote    http://www.carolinejoyadams.com/

 The Path Foundation      http://www.pathforyou.org/    








Get Your Message Across While Maintaining the Interest of the Audience


Photo by John-Mark Kuznietsov on Unsplash

You’re listening to a speaker. It could be a teacher in a class you’re taking. Maybe it’s a co-worker training your team in a new process. It might be a pastor delivering a sermon. Perhaps you paid to attend a seminar where the speaker is an expert in a field where you want to learn more.

This speaker certainly has the credentials (education, skill set, experience, and achievements) to give this particular talk. But there’s a four component problem:

1) The presentation is so disjointed and rambling that no one in the audience can keep track of the main points. It seems like the speaker is lost and going off in one new direction after the other.

2) The speaker uses a lot of business jargon that you don’t know the meaning of. There are so many facts and statistics thrown in that you can’t keep track of their significance. Sometime the speaker merely hints at some points without really identifying them. Just when you think you understand a point, well…no, that’s not it. This is highly frustrating for an audience.

3) The body language and voice of the speaker are that of a person who has no confidence in herself or in what she is saying. The speaker is either reading from a manuscript or scanning the room without really looking at anyone. You find that you’re asking yourself if the person actually believes her own message. The speaker’s credibility fades as the presentation goes on.

4) When the speaker wraps it up with an “in conclusion,” you realize you haven’t taken any notes. You find that you can’t remember one single piece of advice or action step. There was no meaning to the talk; it was simply a mish-mash of words. An audience usually leaves such a presentation muttering, “What a waste of time.”

Any talk that you give—whether it’s to a class of middle school students, a team of five for fifteen minutes, a congregation of 150, or an hour’s presentation to a large audience—must be FUBR (rhymes with Uber) for the audience.

Follow – An audience needs to be able to follow the presentation. Don’t leave them guessing when you’re ending one main point and beginning another.

Understand – They need to be able to understand the meaning of your words to get your message.

Believe – A speaker’s voice and body language need to enhance the spoken words to strengthen the message. Really look at individual members of your audience while you speak.

Remember – If an audience can’t remember the speaker’s presentation, what’s the point of having sat through it?

An audience (no matter the size) comes to us with hopeful expectations. They may believe that the speaker can help them solve a problem. An audience may want to be inspired to make a change. Some people want to learn a skill or enhance their existing knowledge of one. They’re looking for an experience that will help them.

An audience wants to feel included, respected, and engaged.

If you use the FUBR model, your audience will come away from your talk feeling just that.



Two’s Company, Three’s Powerful


Photo courtesy of George Becker on Pexels

In my role as a speech coach and presentation skills instructor, I’m on a never-ending hunt for new material and ideas. Not willing to rely primarily on old standard public speaking instruction, I search for new studies on how a speaker can best engage with an audience as well as practical advice that people can use to refine their own authentic and inspiring presentation skills. “Find your own voice!” I encourage my students.

But sometimes there is older advice with such a strong backing that I suggest each student add it to their individual public speaking toolbox.

One such compelling (and simple) concept is the power of three. When you’re done reading this blog, go ahead and search online for “the power of three.” You’ll find nearly three million references on Google.

I’m going to share some examples with you and here’s my guess: You’ll start thinking about three and begin to see other instances of its use when before you hadn’t noticed.

Child-related: Goldilocks and the 3 bears / 3 Blind Mice / 3 Little Pigs / Donald Duck’s 3 nephews (Huey, Louie, and Dewey) / The 3 Musketeers / ABC / 123 ready or not here I come

Food: breakfast, lunch and dinner / 3 squares a day / appetizer, main course, dessert / vanilla, chocolate, strawberry / snap, crackle, pop

Music: 3 Times a Lady / Blood, Sweat, and Tears / 3 Dog Night / Earth, Wind and Fire

Sports: The Triple Crown of horse racing / 3 strikes and you’re out / Olympic winners of gold, silver, and bronze

Faith: The Holy Trinity / The three wise men

Phrases: Body, Mind, and Soul / The Big 3 companies today / The Big 3 auto makers / high, medium, and low / beginning, middle, and end / stop, look, and listen / stop, drop, and roll / past, present and future / see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil / yes, no, maybe / the third time’s the charm

Television: The Third Rock from the Sun / The Three Stooges / Three’s Company / and of course, the double three of Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory) knocking three times, saying “Penny” and then repeating the process twice more. Maybe I should refer to that as Sheldon to the third power.

So part of the influence of three is that we’re so used to it that we don’t notice it. We’re comfortable with having to make a choice among three options. Three is a nice, middle-of-the-road number. I encourage you to read more on your own on how three is used in successful marketing and other areas.

So how can we use this concept in presentations?

  • Have three main points such as, “Coffee is getting a bum rap. Here are three reasons why we should all drink more coffee.”
  • In a presentation with more (or less than) three main points, have three supporting ideas for each main point. “Coffee is getting a bum rap. Here are five reasons why we should all drink more coffee. First point: Coffee is actually good for you.” Then you could 1) cite a recent scientific study proving the point 2) share a recent study of people’s morning moods with and without coffee 3) share a personal anecdote about the time you gave up coffee for Lent.
  • Include within your presentation a bulleted list of three ideas.
  • Begin your presentation with a hook of three words such as Time, Energy, Moneywe seem to never have enough of these!
  • End your presentation with the same three words Time, Energy, Money…now you have a game plan of how to include more of each in your life.
  • End your presentation with a quotation comprised of three elements. An example of that is how I’ll close this post:

Mary Oliver’s instructions for living a life:

Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.




Not Just Any Christmas Tree

 The day after Thanksgiving I make a 45 minute drive to Loweland Farm in Middleburg, Virginia, to purchase my Christmas tree. They are open for tree sales exactly seven days (Thanksgiving Friday, Saturday and Sunday and the first two weekends in December).    

A hayride will take you to their tree field where you can cut your own tree from a selection of spruce, pine, and some fir. But my tree of choice is a Fraser Fir which is NOT a “cut your own.”

 Most Frasers are grown in a limited area of the Southern Appalachian Mountains at higher elevations in portions of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

 For many years the Farm contracted with a grower nearly at the North Carolina border to cut trees just for them. The trees would be harvested just before Thanksgiving, brought to the farm, and then each tree sat in its own bucket of fresh water to preserve the freshness.

 This year when I surveyed the Frasers, I was disappointed in the selection. The trees were as amazingly fresh as always, but the branches weren’t as tightly spaced together so there were gaps between each level.

 I politely noted this to the young man helping me and asked for the story. He said this was the first harvest from their own Fraser Fir tree farm in Highland County, VA, after eight years of growing.  (The county is referred to as Virginia’s Little Switzerland. )

 Well, guess what? I didn’t make a 90-minute round trip to come home without a tree, so I chose one that ended up a tad lopsided with branches that stick out here and there like my hair does when I use too much thickening spray for that “natural” look.

But here’s the upside: I had enough room to tuck larger lights into the tree next to the trunk; that provides an unusual effect. And while this is not the widest tree I’ve ever had, the wide-gapped branches provide more room so that every ornament is able to have its own space which means you can actually view each one to appreciate it.

This far-from-perfect tree reminds me of a lesson I teach my students:

Perfect is so boring. Unpredictable individuality is much more interesting and it produces rewarding reactions.

That’s true whether you’re a speaker in front of an audience or a guest in my home sipping hot cocoa while admiring my tree.









Out of the Mouths of Parents


Photo courtesy of Lindy Baker of Unsplash

After thousands of complaints poured in regarding my post about Dale and Andrew Carnegie…nope, just kidding…no one complained.

The topic of that post came up because of a great story my friend Jan Sutton shared with me.

Jan has been a business owner as a Farmers Insurance agent for over twenty years. Early in her career she took advantage of a short, teaser-type meeting sponsored by the Dale Carnegie company. While their website states they improve individual and business performance, most people associate Dale Carnegie with the topic of public speaking.

Jan got fired up at the initial meeting and signed up for their two hour presentation. As she recently talked to me about speaking pointers she remembers from all those years ago, I recognized that many of the ground rules for speaking in public are still important today.

  • Arrive early, check out the room and get to know it, test the equipment, and introduce yourself to the people running the show.
  • Appearance matters.
  • Body language speaks louder than your words can.
  • Be nice.

After that presentation Jan stopped at her parents’ home. She excitedly told her father about all the fascinating new information she had buzzing through her head. Her dad stood up and left the room. Returning from the basement, he held out Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People. This is THE book that started the whole Carnegie movement.

When Jan asked, “Oh, you took the class too?” her dad answered, “Yes. I was taught by Dale Carnegie in New York.”

In the late 40s and early 50s her family had lived basically around the corner from where Carnegie started. To think that her dad had been personally trained by Dale Carnegie blew Jan away. Me too!

Then she started thinking about the advice her dad had given her over the years. He’d always been so supportive of her tackling new subjects, taking chances, and then branching out to own her own business.

In thinking back, she wishes she had paid attention sooner and listened more intently to her parents’ stories. She offers up this advice to younger people: Interview your parents! Find out all the interesting stuff they know! Do it now!

One trait evident in Jan is her fervor to keep learning and improving. She looks for opportunities to gain knowledge, and she takes advantage of any class that’s offered. I’m sure at this point you won’t be surprised to learn she’s a participant in a leadership class.

She also recognizes the value of having a coach. As she expounds on that subject, she takes on an exuberant tone of voice.

“Do you think you don’t need a coach? Have you ever watched the Olympics? When the gold medal winners are shown, who is standing beside them? Yes, their family…and their coach. Regardless of what level you are at, even if you are at the top of your game, you need a coach to hold you accountable and to keep you motivated.”

Sage advice.

And my guess is that both her dad and Dale Carnegie would be very proud.