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Q&A with Dr. Nick Morgan

Monday, March 7th, 2011
Dr. Nick Morgan

Dr. Nick Morgan is one of America’s top communication theorists and coaches. He helps people to think clearly – and then articulate with panache. His clients span the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies such as Warner Brothers; those testifying to Congress; and guests on the Today Show. He has spoken, led conferences, and moderated panels at global venues. His acclaimed book is Working the Room (Har- vard, 2003) and his new book is Trust Me (Jossey-Bass, 2009). See Public Words, at for more. Nick gave this exclusive interview to Victor Fic, our special correspondent for economics and politics.

Nick, what qualifies you to be a coach of public speaking?

I earned a Ph.D. in rhetoric from the University of Virginia and wrote speeches for the Governor of Virginia for 2 years and taught [rhetoric] at Princeton and Harvard. And I have run my own communications compa- ny, Public Words Inc, since 1997, coaching hundreds of CEOs and business leaders, politicians, educational figures, and celebrities.

What is the one key purpose of public speaking?

Public speaking is a wonderful opportunity to move an audience to action. Especially in this virtual age, where more meetings occur online or via video conference, people should be eager to speak to a present group for far better communication.

You have worked with some famous organizations such as Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. What did you do there?

I taught mid-career fellows at the Kennedy School about persuasive communications. The key lessons? Every speech is an opportunity to persuade an audience to action, not an information dump. Audiences can’t remember much, but they can be moved to action. Second, body language always overrides content. If a leader claims that his company is growing, but his body language appears nervous, the audience will disbelieve him.

Explain your role in the US Army.

I worked with intelligence researchers, particularly on how to persuade no-nonsense army officers to try new intelligence ideas; how to be authoritative and confident without antagonizing superiors.

Many famous speakers started out inept and erred. Can you relate any embarrassing or funny stories about how you learned the hard way?

When I first started teaching, I was very enthusiastic, but my students were not - some fell asleep. So I studied how to present to many audiences effectively - they awakened! For instance, to engage an audience, understand its problem and relate it to your expertise. Then offer a solution.

Some scoff that the real skills that a business leader must have are being competitive, innovative with products, understanding the market, etc. Really, how important is public speaking for a corporate leader?

All those are important, but if a leader can’t communicate what the employees must do and why, no good idea will bear fruit and the leader cannot move his followers to action.

Who are some of the great corporate speakers today and why?

Steve Jobs of Apple is because he extensively prepares and [he has a lot of] passion. Passion appropriately expressed makes speakers charismatic. Because our brains are wired to remember things with emotions attached, we recall passionate speakers, not ones hiding their emotions - they are doomed to be ineffective.

What is the single most important factor, or factors, that makes for a great public speaker?

Passion, but more, express it appropriately for a particular audience and time. Humor is disarming, but will backfire for bad news: context matters. A great speech has the right speaker, audience and subject.

As for content, do you agree that technocrats overwhelm the audience and instead [should] offer [only] one key point fully supported?

Audiences only remember between 10 - 30 percent of the words. Public speaking does not convey much information. I often work with experts, scientists, IT people, engineers and medical professionals with very sophisticated information. We work hard to find elegant, clear and compelling [ways to] communicate, boiling it down to [a] few essential messages. Knowing what to omit is as important as knowing what to put in.

On delivery, your goal is to be an “authentic” speaker. Can you explain what this means?

An authentic speaker is believed because he shows sincere emotions from the heart. We are subjected to so much spin and marketing that we crave authenticity. The challenge for business people is to find their humanity within the corporate message. It often means sincerely telling personal stories that connect you to the enterprise.

Is the key to being sincere eye contact?

It is important, but even more so is whole body listening. We move fast today and listen with half of our minds. We signal this by turning away from the talker because we think we’ve heard the important point or we’re impatient. So I recommend listening by standing very still with your torso leaning toward the other until he is done. Then paraphrase his message to ensure you heard accurately - only then respond.

You claim to teach charisma. Really?! Isn’t this like sex appeal -- you got it or you ain’t?

No. Charisma can be learned by focusing an emotion for a particular meeting, speech, or occasion, and then delivering it appropriately. The second half is listening to your audience, who find close attention charismatic.

Nick, explain how to deliver passion tactfully versus emotionally?

Passion is tactful when appropriate to the occasion and audience. A politician might get angry about injustice at a public rally with thousands, but that overwhelms a small room with 20 reporters. So he must scale down the emotion for the audience and the setting.

You insist words lag behind body language. How, and so what?

Yes, brain research shows that we have an intent or emotion deep within [our] unconsciousness, [we] then begin to gesture and only later form a conscious thought. So our gestures are the first indication [of our intent]. We humans quickly and accurately decode body language unconsciously and sense that a person looks fake if they get the order wrong or if the two are not aligned.

What are the worst possible gestures and the best ones?

Gestures depend on the moment and intended meaning, so are not bad or good. But never cross or fold your arms across your chest- it looks closed and defensive.

Your site shows you dressed as nattily as an actor,but Bill Gates looks casual - no tie, casual hair. He appears honest and real - could you assess him?

I heard Bill speak and though he is not a comfortable speaker, he is highly introverted and a nervous, twitchy speaker,his body language signals discomfort, but his intelligence shines so if you just listen: he is highly enlightening.

To help the nervous nellies, what is your fail safe tip if the speech goes “horribly wrong.”

Stop speaking, take the audience’s temperature, and ask for questions and comments [can] help.

And that will get you back on track?

Yes, it gives [you] time to understand and fix the error. If all else fails, remember that all welcome an early finish!

What if the audience is hostile?

Audiences are rarely hostile. It is usually because an issue strongly divides it. Handle the hostility by thoughtfully discussing the other view point and giving it credence before debunking it. But if you knock down a “straw man” of the other side or mock it or dismiss it, then the audience will be hostile.

Does the question period expose the truly talented speaker - he can refute or neutralize attacks?

It’s trickier during an unscripted Q and A and always difficult to handle public attacks. There are several responses. Complimenting the attacker, for instance, may surprise and defuse him.

Our Asian readers get especially nervous when asked questions. What are the key points for the Q and A?

When answering, start with the headline or one sentence answer. Then give several reasons for it. Then repeat the headline. That keeps the answer simple and focused. You can also truthfully say, “I don’t know the answer, but can study it and get back to you.” Or ask the audience for help because they are usually delighted.

Will training create cookie cutter speakers with the same personality and approach?

No. Training allows the individual to express himself uniquely and effectively and shows the authentic self, which is always interesting.

Could you assess technology such as video conferencing and Power Point presentations as speakers’ assets.

Each takes practice, practice, practice. Technology permits better communication, but is not an end in itself. Too many speakers focus on their Power Point slides, filling them full of motion, noise and clutter [therefore] communication is less likely to succeed.

Our readers are international: Koreans, Chinese, Europeans and Americans. Is there a global mode for all - say the Obama style?

Each individual must take the best of his/ her culture as a basis for an authentic communication style. There is no one style for everyone. But the tactful expression of passion, according to local cultural norms, is always most interesting.

Bill Clinton and Obama persuade because they tie a big, abstract theme like political change to their life and tell a story over stats or a lecture. What is your assessment of this method?

Yes, your theme must resonate with many, so tell stories. If you just focus on yourself, however, you will turn off your audience.

Have you worked with Asian clients, if so who and how?

I’ve worked with some Asian business people in the US and Europe and in Tokyo. I would love to do more!

Many Asians especially hate public speaking, for example juniors before seniors. How do you conquer fear of rejection?

Control your breathing to calm [your] nerves. But there is no substitute for knowing your subject thoroughly and preparing: practice, practice.

When you say breathing, be specific, do you mean meditation?

Breathing is important because it provides a strong voice and grounded emotions. We breathe shallow gasps when nervous and that signals the brain and starts a vicious cycle. So breathe deeply, expanding the belly with air and holding it in with the diaphragmatic muscles. Your shoulders should not go up and down.

What is your outstanding contribution to the art of speaking?

My first book starts with the words that the only reason to give a speech is to change the world. That phrase is often re-quoted globally. My second book, Trust Me, shows how recent brain research flips upside down many commonsense assumptions about communications. I was the first to apply these insights.

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