Having a speech writer would be too phony. I just try to remember six words before every talk.
-— Mark Spitz, Olympic gold medalist swimmer
Mr. Spitz had the right idea, but once the words are out of your mouth, you can't get them back. Unlike the written word, the spoken word is often said before you think. So, it's always a good idea to have a few logical sound bites in mind when you go into any situation, especially where you could be quoted.
One of the biggest challenges for celebrities and everyone who gets interviewed is having something interesting to say. Often, the questions you are asked are not what you want to talk about. But there's almost always a way to address the question with answers that you know will at least interest, if not directly answer, a reporter and his or her audience.
Part of my job description as an associate producer for David Letterman, was to explore with celebrities and personalities what they were willing to share with their audiences. What did she like about a co-star? What was the funniest thing that happened to him on a recent vacation? Why did a particular movie role appeal to him? What was her secret to anything?
The secret is to acknowledge questions instead of answering them. Then bridge to ready answers that are safe but are more interesting and sometimes, even entertaining.
Watch the pros in interviews and on talk shows. A well-known actress, who naturally didn't want to talk about her pending divorce from a well-known co-star, did have to talk about her new movie. We explored interesting facts about her role requiring a vigorous work out, the challenges of working in an exotic location, and what good company she was in as an Academy Award nominee.
There's an old expression in acting called "playing against type." It seems out of character for an 73 year-old wealthy widow to use four letter words, but it's fun to hear my mother's friend swear once in a while. She looks like a grandmother and can swear like a sailor, on occasion and on purpose, but she knows the difference and when to play with it.
You can work this technique to your advantage, but in a different way. What is your type? Are you, like me, an enthusiastic, blonde cheerleader? Do words spill out of you very easily? For you, less might be more. Still waters run deep. Perhaps you'll seem more intelligent if you don't tell them everything you know, or don't, by talking too much.
If, instead, you are shy or naturally self-conscious, go out of your way to be friendly. Introduce yourself first, offer a genuine compliment, or ask a question that puts others at ease, too.
One man I know is very big and tall. He learned early on to have a good sense of humor. It's how he disarms a situation. By being funny and self-deprecating, he takes away some of the intimidation of his size. Sort of the gentle-giant approach.
The Harvard Business Review reports: "The number one criteria for advancement and promotion for professionals is an ability to communicate effectively."
Obviously, effectively presenting yourself, whether to your peers, your boss, the customer, the general public, or even the media, plays a major role in career advancement.
Is it any wonder that CEOExpress.com, one of the best websites for executives, includes in its Office Tools section: Citing Sources, Common English Errors, Economist Style Guide, Elements of Style, Guide to Grammar & Writing, Presentation Tips, Press Release Guide, Famous Quotes: Bartlett's Quotations, and QuoteLand.com.
Good grammar is a key to being educated, which is the key to getting ahead. Poor grammar, vulgarity, crudeness, and insensitivity have the opposite effect on your image. It doesn't matter the car you drive, the clothes you wear, or the pen you carry if the words that come out of your mouth are all wrong.
But isn't one person's mistake another's standard or colloquial usage? Sometimes. But if your standard usage causes other people to consider you uneducated, you may want to consider changing it. If you wish to communicate effectively, you should use nonstandard English only when you intend to rather than do it mistakenly because you don't know any better.
As a melting pot of peoples and cultures, the fabric of America is rich with colloquialisms. But for a people to communicate, standards have to be set.
Paul Brians, a professor of English at Washington State University, notes that African-American parents were especially outspoken in arguing that to allow students to regard street slang as legitimate in an educational setting was to limit them and worsen their oppressed status. Years of discrimination have taught those parents that the world is full of teachers, employers, and other authorities who may penalize you for your nonstandard use of the English language.
Upwardly mobile parents in the Spanish-speaking and Asian communities of Los Angeles are also eschewing the languages of their homelands in favor of good English. That's understandable and even appreciated in a country created by immigrants who chose American English as their common language. But it's also a little extreme in today's world where being bilingual is a plus and will be expected by others who share your children's heritage. It's best to let your children grow up speaking as many languages properly as possible. Again, the media will help. Television programs and newspapers in native languages as well as English abound and should be encouraged to teach reading, and both proper writing and speaking.
Giving today's student and tomorrow's executive the option of speaking several languages, including Standard English, correctly, is the best gift education can give. But I recently received a thank you note from a new college graduate in which he wrote: "I wish I could of made it to California."
Like many employers, I automatically discard any job applications that contain a common usage or spelling error. My logic is that if applicants could or would make such an error in something as presumably important to them as applying for my job, what mistakes would they make in representing my company to clients? Of course, conversational English is much more casual than written English, but to a well-educated ear, grammatical errors have the same effect as running fingernails over a chalkboard.
When anyone makes grammatical errors, I've always believed that it was how they learned to talk at mother's knee. What loving mother would let her children out of the house speaking in a way that didn't sound good to her ear? So one grows up not hearing grammatical errors as improper or wrong. The good news is that someone with poor grammar usually makes only one or, at most two, basic mistakes over and over again. This makes grammatical errors much easier to correct than you might think because there are usually only one or two key corrections needed!
For me, it's that and which. If you are defining something by distinguishing it from a larger class of which it is a member, use "that": "I chose the flowers that had the brightest colors." When the general class is not being limited or defined in some way, then "which" is appropriate: "I made a flower arrangement, which impressed everyone."
The secret is hearing what's correct, and using it. Learn your grammatical faux pas. Ask someone who is good with grammar and a good friend, spouse, or trusted coworker who hears your mistakes to correct you. Immediately, if possible, or at least as soon as you are in private. Having a trusted friend, associate, or executive assistant edit your e-mail for grammatical errors is another good way to train your ear to hear what's correct.