August 9, 2016
As a public speaking coach, I frequently get asked to comment on political rhetoric, especially during election season. I pretty much always say NO THANK YOU. While I have my opinions about the messengers and their messages, I keep them to myself. Opinions and emotions around politics can get too heated. (Thank goodness for the secret ballot.) But this year, with all the unexpectedness that has come with the 2016 election cycle, I am willing to comment – not on the candidates, but on the political commentators. They, as a group, are grating on me. (Warning: when I point out what has become my number-one communication pet peeve and public speaking faux pas, you too are likely to become obsessed with it!)
The problem with ‘Look…’
Here’s what’s bugging me: Political commentators, whether responding to a reporter’s questions or participating in a panel discussion, all have adopted the habit of beginning their answers with the exact same word: “Look …”
Look? Look at what? Look, because I don’t see or know as much as you do? Or, Look, because you have the inside scoop and I don’t? What are they saying? To most of us, “Look…” says, you’re not getting it or you’re not paying attention. It’s patronizing at best, condescending at worst. Most of all, it’s just plain unnecessary. And yet, the entire herd is doing it.
Maybe it’s unconscious, or maybe it’s become the vernacular of this year’s cohort of political talking heads – you know, kind of like your teenager who uses the terms “cray” (crazy) and “rando” (random) because everyone else does. Maybe in the political world, they feel like they sound more knowledgeable or more in command when they start their comments with “Look …”
For the rest of us, sitting out here in the real world, we’re their audience – they are talking to us, not to each other. And guess what? We are without question paying attention if we’re watching these shows. Still, no one, in any audience, wants to feel like they’re having a finger wagged at them – even if they’re not paying attention. Saying “Look…” doesn’t help get attention or build connection and understanding. Being spoken to like intelligent adults and hearing sound reasoning does.
The audience experience is everything
At the end of the day, “Look” is a breach of my number-one rule of thumb for speakers and presenters – audience centricity. Audience centricity is the idea that your audience’s experience is your primary responsibility, and that the decisions you make – about time and yes, even tone – are driven by how they will impact, or enhance, the audience’s experience. That is job one.
So when you think about your go-to words and phrases, be sure they connect and draw people in rather than put people off and push them away. “Look” puts distance between the speaker and the audience, just in its most basic suggestion that you need to look, there’s something here you don’t see. And I’m going to tell you what that is.
Instead, the skilled audience-centric communicator will apply the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. To that end, when you are speaking, think not just about your content but about your tone as well. Think about your audience as a group of people you want to connect with and befriend. And think about the first words that will come out of your mouth, since those will either pull them in or push them away. It’s in your hands!
The least offensive aspect of the “Look” phenomenon is that the word is overused. The most offensive aspect of this public speaking faux pas is that it drives a wedge between the communicator and the audience. We can let them drone on and on if they want (it’s almost over anyway!), but let’s pledge to do better in the business world than our “friends” in the political world.