Mastering your mother tongue by age Four?

Yes it is a fascinating subject how the young are able to learn with incredible little invested in them…I read recently that most 4 year olds have more or less mastered their mother tongues with little or no formal training along the way to age 4…go figure?

Here is a brief extract from an article I read by Vyvyan Evans, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor, Maine:
” Imagine you’re a traveller in a strange land. A local approaches you and starts jabbering away in an unfamiliar language. He seems earnest, and is pointing off somewhere. But you can’t decipher the words, no matter how hard you try.

That’s pretty much the position of a young child when she first encounters language. In fact, she would seem to be in an even more challenging position. Not only is her world full of ceaseless gobbledygook; unlike our hypothetical traveller, she isn’t even aware that these people are attempting to communicate. And yet, by the age of four, every cognitively normal child on the planet has been transformed into a linguistic genius: this before formal schooling, before they can ride bicycles, tie their own shoelaces or do rudimentary addition and subtraction. It seems like a miracle. The task of explaining this miracle has been, arguably, the central concern of the scientific study of language for more than 50 years.’

Noam Chomsky has also written about what he refers to as the ‘Language Instinct’ (that we all were born with a predisposition that allowed us to pick up language far easier than other hominid species)

Fascinating stuff…

Is brevity truly the soul of wit…?

It seems anathema to me that our marvelous English Language that has grown from strength to strength to its amazing current status of 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words (and the additional 9,500 derivative words that are likely to be  included as sub entries).
Source: The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary which contains full entries for all the above words.
So why skimp and scrounge with this embarrassment of plenty we have inherited in the way of words that are expressive, obfuscating, long, short, simple, complex, descriptive, emotive, onomatopoeic and …well i guess you get the drift. It’s like owning a dozen pairs of shoes  using  only one pair every day…why have the others at all???

On the Queen’s English…is our North American prose too abrupt?

There is a subtle context of ‘foreplay’ I feel when it comes right down to it. The typical British English user is more than likely to seek words that best articulate a fully formed thought or even a passing idea not yet fully crystallized.
The speech therefore comes out much more finessed than a typical American English user is able to deliver.

I am not saying either one is wrong – just that they (the Brits) utilize a somewhat different set of objectives in their choice of words. The one (Brit user) is predisposed to consider all the niceties that the language can bring to bear on the conversation, where the other (Yank user) would tend to parse it down to the bare-bones, unconcerned with niceties or embellishments – so long as the point gets across.

I do not believe there is any overt or covert belief that American’s come across as abrupt…just that their use of the ‘Queen’s English’ is somewhat…’improvised.’

What I find really neat about the American prose/conversation style is that the focus is on getting the key points across always. It is not too concerned with proper spelling, or grammar or enunciation, etc. If the text or the spoken word is clearly understood and can be acted upon, that is satisfaction enough. This makes for communication that is economical, crisp and readily understood. Many of us who come from backgrounds where the Britain ruled, and espoused the Queen’s English, may tend to be critical of this lack of attention to grammatical finesse and detail on the part of the our American brethren, so to speak. But this easy style kinda’ grows on you…and you soon begin to love it’s unpretentiousness and realness!

Groupthink…

Groupthink is an irrational desire for members in a group to seek conformity and cohesiveness with each other, to the degree of suppressing any dissenting views or opinions from other members. This desire for group cohesiveness  causes decisions to be ratified without any critical analysis/debate, so key to ensure decisions are critiqued and debated before they are approved.
I disagree with some who would suggest that Groupthink is caused by bad leadership? Groupthink is the result of a group of people who yearn to conform with the larger group’s thinking, even if it is detrimental to the group at large.

Read Irving Janis’s ‘Victims of Group Think.’

Here is a pithy quote from Janis that I rather like: “The more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making in-group, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by Groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against out-groups.”

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In discussing Groupthink, some like to point towards a leader who is happy with all around agreement to his/her decisions, and generally accepting of silence as consensus. In actuality Groupthink is not about an individual exercising his/her will over the team, but more a team so cohesive and conformity driven that they view any form of dissent as dangerous to the team’s general ‘joie de vi·vre.’ A danger that is rapidly snuffed out – which means the team acts against the individual dissenters and closes ranks to effectively shut them out. The opposite of group think is more difficult to obtain – the willingness on the part of individuals to hold their ground and uphold their values, beliefs and critical opinions, regardless of the rest of the groups thinking. But such a stand is taken not just against the leader – but indeed against all of the team, to defend one’s opinion. Like the individual Juror’s dissent that can often cause a ‘Hung Jury.’

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The most damaging outcome of groupthink is often the waste of time and resources that go into a team going into a retreat/closed-door meeting to thrash out some jugular corporate issues, only to come away with a sub-standard quality output as a result of groupthink.
If the team is so fortunate, they can rally their forces and rework the outcome, with a better result, if they recognize that their initial outcomes came out of groupthink’ing. The damage could be vastly more far-reaching if they remain ignorant of the groupthink driven outcomes and go ahead with their actions and decisions based on it.

Public Speaking & Presentation Tips

Nothing strikes one with a greater sense of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD), quite like being called upon to address an audience in a public setting. It is irrelevant whether you are required to address a social or a business audience. The FUD factor hits you all the same, and before you know it you are breaking out in a sweat, fumbling for last minute ideas and jokes, and generally anticipating how much of an ‘Ass’ you are going to look like up there on stage, under the harsh white lights, alone and unprepared.In many ways we are already in the process of creating a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ for failure, even before we have uttered the first word in our speech or presentation.

Well let’s talk a little about this very rational sense of foreboding that almost always accompanies any suggestion of ‘Public Speaking’ or ‘Presentation.’ (I will use the term ‘Presentation’ to include Public Speaking and Presentations going forward).

I am going to break it down into 5 parts and for ease of memorizing this approach, I will use the Alphabet ‘P’ (yes inspired from the word Presentation) to categorize each step in the process of getting you to a better state of mind, the next time you are called upon to perform any Presentation honours.

The Five steps are:

  1. Plan
  2. Prepare
  3. Practice
  4. Perform
  5. Process (for Improvement Actions)
  1. Plan:
  • Who is your audience (Demographic, Psychographic) – who are the key ‘Decision makers’ present?
  • What is the occasion?
  • What is the subject you will be Presenting?
  • What is your single point objective (what is the single, most critical point you would like your speech/presentation to deliver?)
  • Do you have sufficient time to prepare – or have you been called to speak or present without prior notification? (See ‘Skating backwards at the speed of light.’)
  • How much time do you have – is there any expectation that you will take questions at the end of your speech/presentation?

Any information and answers you are able to gather for the above questions can only help you to better prepare your Presentation

  1. Prepare:

Consider dress code and the venue – do you need to dress formal, informal or Business casual (dress appropriately and remember; it is better to err on the side of caution and dress formal). You don’t want to show up in Bermudas and Flip Flops and find everyone else in Business Suits?

Prepare for your Presentation.

  • Will you be using a computer with projector, Overhead projector, Flip charts, TV monitor or cue cards/Notes?
  • Include an Introduction, Agenda, Objectives, Main content (Body of your presentation) and Conclusions/ Recommendations.
  • Clarify if you are prepared to take questions after your Presentation.
  • Factor in the questions/answers from Step 1 (Plan) above.
  • Consider an interesting way to kick off your presentation so that you capture the Audience attention and interest right from the start (remember AIDA – Attention, Interest, Desire, Action).
    • What is it about your presentation topic that will motivate your audience to stay tuned and listen?

Here are some common ‘Introduction’ ideas you may consider:

  • Humorous comment or joke (keep it relevant to the theme of your Presentation)
  • Dramatic announcement (something unusual, factual and relevant)
  • Shocking Statement of fact (Historical, Empirical data/fact)
  • Relevant Analogy
  • Personal anecdote that allows you to segue into your Presentation content (Beware personal ‘war stories’)
  • Relevant quotation

 Three ‘T’s’ of Presenting/Public Speaking:

  • Tell them what you are going to tell them
  • Tell them
  • Tell them what you just told them

It is a proven fact that using the above technique makes it easier for the presenter to underscore critical parts of the presentation or speech, while also ensuring that the audience has sufficient opportunity to memorize key points.

Skating backwards at the speed of Light

For the times that you are called upon to speak or present ‘ad lib’ or without any opportunity for preparation, get used to skating backwards at the speed of light. What do we mean?

We mean the ability to internalize the process of Public Speaking or Presentation to a degree that we can perform it at a level of ‘Unconscious Competence.’

In other words, regardless of the Subject matter, Audience, Time available or Venue, we are always totally in control of the Speaking and/ or the Presentation process.

So how does one go about performing on the spur of the moment without any time to prepare?

The answer is to think in terms of ‘Three.’

Almost any subject is better articulated when broken down into smaller, manageable components and three just seems to be a great balance of economy and completeness.

Here is an example of a potential random topic (Sales Trends) to illustrate the point of thinking in terms of ‘Three.’ This will give you some ideas on how you may consider breaking this subject down into three parts in order to speak or present it   ‘off the cuff’ so to speak:

Sales Trends: Break it down into three parts by product configuration: Mainframe, Midrange, Desktop.

Sales Trends: Break it down into three parts by Geography: North, South, East (you could add West – doesn’t have to be Three?)

Sales Trends: Break it down into three parts by Chronological factors: Q1, Q2, Q3 (you could add Q4, or breakdown by year – 2011, 2012 and 2013 for a different option).

Sales Trends: Break it down into three parts by Strategic intent: By existing markets, Growth markets and ‘White space’ (untapped markets)

The above examples should give you an idea of how you can address those tricky situations when you are expected to speak/present on the fly…or in other words to skate backwards at the speed of light!

Feel free to make your own ‘Three’ breakdown categories. The opportunities are limitless.

  1. Practice

Practice your Presentation in the same position you will be delivering it. If standing, then practice standing up.

If using a microphone, try to practice with a microphone so you become familiar with your tone, volume, and distance to be maintained away from the microphone.

If you will be using a collar mike, get used to using it just the same as a podium microphone. If you will be walking abut while Presenting, by all means practice in the same setting. Remember the more familiar you become with your subject matter, your physical self and your presentation Venue or environment, the less stressful the Presenting task becomes.

Where possible, perform a ‘dry run’ with an audience of peers to get their feedback and guidance so you can iron out any last minute wrinkles from your speech/presentation content.

Enlist a colleague to help you with your delivery so you can become familiar with areas of your Presentation that may require additional elaboration or explanation.

Get to know the venue, Equipment and layout of the environment in advance if possible. Visit the venue prior to your presentation if that is possible.

There is no such thing as too much practice so make use of every opportunity you can to practice, practice, practice.

  1. Perform

You have completed all the Plan, Prepare and Practice steps.

You have practiced your Presentation several times now, and you have also had a ‘dry run’ with your peer team members and refined your Presentation accordingly.

You have become familiar with the Venue and the Equipment you will be using (If you have been fortunate, you would have also had an opportunity to visit the Venue and become familiar with the layout plan)

So you are now ready to ‘Perform.’

Dress appropriately, make sure you have your Presentation material, with any back-up material you may need to consider (What-If the Laptop or projector does not work?)

Eat light and stay hydrated. Use the Wash- room faccilities if you can prior to your Presentation cue.

Arrive at the venue at least an hour ahead of your Presentation. Make sure everything is working as per plan.

When you are ready to present do remember to thank the Sponsors for inviting you to present at the event. Thank anyone else who may require to be acknowledged in the Audience, or who may have helped with your Presentation.

Remember the Three ‘T’s’ of Presenting/Public Speaking:

  • Tell them what you are going to say
  • Tell them
  • Tell them what you just said

Go ahead – knock them out!!!

Notice that all the ‘Perform’ steps outlined above assumes that you are presenting to a pre-prepared agenda.

So what do we do for those ‘Skating backwards at the speed of Light’ situations?

We don’t need to do anything at all because we are confident that we have completely internalized the Process of Presenting and are now Masters of the concept of thinking in terms of ‘Three.’

We are now able to think on our feet and rapidly navigate and select the most appropriate ‘Three’ breakdown for almost any random subject we may be called upon to Speak/Present to.

So we are now armed for both – the Speaking/presentation eventualities where we have adequate preparation time, as well as for those ‘Elevator Pitch’ opportunities that may come our way.

  1. Process (for Improvement Actions)

Every Good process needs to have what the Japanese Quality Management experts refer to as a ‘PDCA’ cycle built into it.

(PDCA: ‘Plan, Do, Check, Act – or take corrective action)’

Step 5 (Process for Improvement Actions) focuses on the ‘Act’ step in the PDCA cycle.

Having executed the Presentation we had Planned, Prepared and Practiced for, we are now at the stage where we can review:

How we performed, what were the areas that went well and what are the potential areas for future improvements.

How did we do in terms of getting through the presentation, answering queries and questions and closing on time (Time Management?)

Do we believe that our Audience was satisfied with our Presentation?

This is the ultimate measure of Presentation success and not an easy indicator to fathom, unless a post-presentation survey is administered

Did all the Equipment function as planned, did we have adequate back-up and redundancy available – did the back-up plan perform seamlessly if such a contingency did arise during the Presentation?

Make sure that you learn from each presentation and take the corrective actions required to Improve the process so that your next presentation is always better than the last one.

Author: Richard Francis, March 18, 2014

Is it a sin to use big words?

It seems anathema to me that our marvelous English Language that has grown from strength to strength to its amazing current status of 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words (and the additional 9,500 derivative words that are likely to be  included as sub-entries).
Source: The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary which contains full entries for all the above words.
So why skimp and scrounge with this embarrassment of plenty we have inherited in the way of words that are expressive, obfuscating, long, short, simple, complex, descriptive, emotive, onomatopoeic and …well i guess you get the drift. It’s like owning a dozen pairs of shoes  using  only one pair every day…why have the others at all???

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What I find really neat about the American prose/conversation style is that the focus is on getting the key points across always. It is not too concerned with proper spelling, or grammar or enunciation, etc. If the text or the spoken word is clearly understood and can be acted upon, that is satisfaction enough. This makes for communication that is economical, crisp and readily understood. Many of us who come from backgrounds where Britain ruled or had colonized the land and imposed the Queen’s English, may tend to be critical of this lack of attention to grammatical finesse and detail on the part of the Americans so to speak. But this easy style kinda’ grows on you…and you soon begin to love how unpretentious and real it sounds.

There is a subtle context of ‘foreplay’ I feel when it comes right down to it. The typical British English user is more than likely to seek words that best articulate a fully formed thought or even a passing idea not yet fully crystallized.
The speech therefore comes out much more finessed than a typical American English user would be able to execute. I am not saying either one is wrong – just that they utilize a somewhat different set of objectives in their choice of words. The one (British user) is predisposed to consider all the niceties that the language can bring to bear on the conversation, where the other (the American user) would tend to parse it down to the bare bones, unconcerned with niceties or embellishments – so long as the point gets across. I do not believe there is any overt or covert belief that American’s come across as abrupt…just that their use of the ‘Queen’s English’ is somewhat…’improvised.’

Is Leadership a conversation?

Right off the bat – Leadership must be more than a conversation?
Leadership requires several conversation threads that must be maintained by the leader with the rest of the organization…Finance, R&D, Production, Marketing, Sales, HR and the list goes on.
These conversations take precedence over each other on a brisk, rotational, pace – as the Leader focuses on what is immediately Important, versus what has become urgent (but ceases to remains important).

All conversations have a beginning and an end…however the Leadership conversation is one that is almost infinite…over the lifetime of the Leader within the Organization.
The Leader needs to develop a culture of listening more than talking – as a part of this conversation…this is one of the common traits we have all observed over time – from great Leaders.
The reason the Leader’s conversation must necessarily remain infinite is that the only time the conversation would logically end…would be when the Leader’s vision and mission have been achieved and attained…and then yet another conversation will begin!
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Further to my comments above, I thought I should share this thought
Leaders are constantly engaging in two forms of conversation with the Organization at large:

1. ‘Maintenance’ Conversations – These are the daily, weekly, monthly routine conversations that Leaders engage in and initiate with the various parts of the business – How is the market trending, how are goals and objectives being deployed across the teams, how is the Organization performing, what are the Competitors focusing on, what are the Organization’s Wins and Losses, and the list goes on and on…

2. ‘Breakthrough’ Conversations – These are the Leaders ‘Vision/Mission’ type of Organizational conversation/questioning areas:
What do we need to do to take the Organization to the next level (Quantum leap progress).
How can we better serve our customers and society at large – how can we address bigger and more global issues and concerns through our Products, Technology and Services?
How can we engage newer and more sustainable markets (White space) than what we address today?
What do we need to take costs down and quality up – consistently?
What is keeping our customers awake at night – how can we help them sleep better?
How can we drive towards delivering better dividends to our Stakeholders /Shareholders…and the list goes on and on

Leaders are constantly juggling between the ‘here and now’ realities of running a successful business model with reasonable return on investment…while keeping their eyes and ears open – to the bigger, more jugular Organizational Conversations that need to drive to ensure the organization is ever current, moving forward, and driven towards quantum leap advancement.
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As a comment on the younger generation growing up perhaps on too much of reliance (almost addiction) to social media, and basing most of their communications via the various social media platforms. I WISH I COULD BE MORE LIKE THEM…more open and willing to embrace the technology of today!

I would postulate that perhaps it is the ‘We’ from the previous generation who need to embrace far more aggressively these fantastic opportunities that have spun off from the Web, I/T, Cloud, Social Media and on and on.
All of these new communication medium provide for better, faster, more cost effective and stable communication platforms – more than we have ever had before.

I would never suggest that face to face communication is not critical or invaluable in almost any social and business context – all I would say is to consider how we can add value to our overall communication strategy by combining and interchanging our communication medium for best effect.

To tie it all back to the subject of leadership being a conversation, it is incumbent upon leadership to become savvy and competent with the current technology and to truly become ‘Early Adopters’ of the Technology and Change that is transforming the landscape at such a rapid pace. Teams will have zero tolerance for leadership… if they propose to lead them into the 22nd Century, …using Rotary Telephones, Facsimile Machines, Photocopiers and …snail mail!

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Leadership necessarily needs to more a soliloquy than a conversation…what do I mean you ask?
Here is a brief definition for Soliloquy:
A soliloquy (from Latin solo “to oneself” + loquor “I talk”) is a device often used in drama when a character speaks to himself or herself, relating thoughts and feelings, thereby also sharing them with the audience.
In Shakespeare’s soliloquies he explores the way someone wrestles with their private thoughts under pressure, often failing to perceive the flaws in their own thinking, and character.

Therefore one way to look at this thread/topic is that Leadership should constantly engage in soliloquy with their teams and peers…this is not to say that the leader needs to strut about on some imaginary stage…muttering in undertone, his next business case or strategic goals and objectives for the next year…not at all.

What I mean is that the leader needs to find a platform…time and space that is consistent and allows for ‘thinking out aloud’ so to speak, with the Organization at large. To honestly share triumphs and concerns, as well as any personal disclosures that he/she believes would allow for better ‘trust’ relationships with the team (Think ‘Johari window’ – used to help people better understand their relationship with self and others).
What do you think…?

On Feedback

A critical component of the overall Feedback process is the need to create an environment that is open and conducive to giving and receiving feedback. Here are the top 10 things we need to ensure:

1. The recipient the receiver is ready and open to receiving the feedback at the time assigned to the process (cancel if you suspect that the recipient is not prepared or mentally uneasy to receive the feedback now)
2. Feedback provider is familiar with the critical areas where feedback (positive and negative) applies to the recipient
3. Focus on the positives to start with and then cover off the negatives – always consider that negatives could expressed as ‘future areas of strengths’
4. If you believe the recipient is somewhat tentative about the process overall, consider sharing/disclosing past feedback you have received (negative and positive) and how you applied it to improve yourself
5. Keep the session ‘issue focused’ and disallow yourself or the recipient to reference anything that becomes personal to both of you.
6. Do not use vague, non-measurable language – ” I have noticed many times that you appear to be disconnected with the rest of the team.”
This is statement is far too vague to be able to use it for any meaningful guidance or feedback. Consider this statement: “During the last 3 weekly team meetings I noted that you chose to excuse yourself during all three meetings and only returned when the meeting was wrapping up.”
7. Giving feedback comes with the responsibility of providing the structure and support that the recipient will need in order to take the feedback in a positive vein and then do something to improve themselves based on the feedback. Your role does not end until the recipient and you agree that the recipient has adequately implemented the feedback and addressed the concerns noted
8. Consider the feedback you are planning to give – ensure that you are prepared for any feedback that may be bordering on the personal (Drug use, family problems that may be manifested in poor work productivity, personal relationships in the office, etc). Consider talking with HR before engaging in such feedback sessions.
9. Be brutally honest always – but remember this is a constructive session and not intended to be a destructive one. Choose your tone and tenor appropriately and keep things issue focused always as stated before.
10. Remember that you are working with an extremely precious asset to the Organization – consider the time, effort and cost of getting a brand new employee up to the level of productivity this individual can currently bring to the team. It is in your best interest and that of the organization to make the feedback session a productive and gratifying experience to the employee as well as to yourself and the organization.

On Public Speaking…

If you were to teach a class called “Speaking Success 101″- what is the most important thing you would like your students to learn from you?

Being Honest!

Often time presenters and speakers get obsessed with the idea that they need to be ‘omniscient.’
In my experience, there is little to no way that any speaker or presenter could ever be so well informed, or with such unlimited awareness/knowledge as to have an answer to any question the audience may pose during the session.

In the various courses I have taught or speaking/presentation assignments that I have taken on, I have usually prefaced my sessions with a brief introduction from the audience – their years of experience, education or job role background and current assignments. It has never failed to humble me with what I learn from that simple process. The audience is almost always composed of individuals with the most impressive education, skills, knowledge, talents… and the additional factor of many, many years of experience.

I then suggest to my audience after this quick process, that when I add up all their education, talent, years of experience etc, it far outweighs any pretensions I may have about being omniscient and knowing everything.

I point out that there may be areas where I may not have all the answers but that I will make it my duty to get back with an answer before the end of the session or after – without fail (and this is a commitment I have never failed to honour to date).

On Negative Feedback…

Negative feedback is only negative if it is delivered in a negative context.
I prefer to consider giving feedback only for the following two reasons:

1. to advise the individual about current strengths (Positive feedback) or,
2. To advise the individual about future strengths (negative feedback)

a. Any feedback session is only the tip of the iceberg. As a manager/leader about to provide an individual with feedback, it is incumbent upon you to ensure that you have absolute command over the background, the individual’s performance, specific achievements, notable peer comments or feedback (negative and positive) and specifics about the individual’s contributions to the team and business goals.

b. Be prepared to answer the individual’s questions and clarifications with honesty and openness – remember that he/she trusts your inputs and feedback and looks up to receiving only the most accurate and honest direction from his manager/leader

c. When pointing out positives or negative – remember to stay focused, transparent and totally factual – do use real life examples and scenarios to emphasize your point where such information is available to you (you should have determined this in step a. above)

d. Ensure that you are prepared to close the feedback session with SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-based) that the individual is agreeable to and fully commits to achieve these goals. Also be prepared to discuss interim reviews to check for progress with the individual – feedback is of no consequence if delivered too late in the performance appraisal cycle.

Stick with the above and you should be on the right track before too long…