The Hard Truth About Soft Skills

A few weeks ago, I popped in on a marketing event for a skincare company. A company consultant was scheduled to speak and asked if I’d provide some feedback on her presentation. She did well, but it was another consultant, a young lady endearingly nicknamed “The Millennial,” who really caught my attention as she put the financial benefits of her part-time job into perspective. She said, “Instead of having to choose between buying groceries or a new dress, I can now afford to buy groceries and that new dress!”

As she continued to speak, I noted a parallel. How many professional business people can say they’re great at their jobs and skilled communicators? When people launch their careers they immerse themselves in the technical aspects of their work. To be a good accountant you have to know how to prepare financial documents, right? But what then? How many people take the time to develop the interpersonal skills needed to sell themselves, their company and their ideas?

I recently worked with a partner at a prestigious law firm. Dave, as I’ll call him, was whip smart, hard-working and an insanely good problem solver. He was also an insightful guy, who had come to see these qualities as foundational rather than a guarantee for success. As Dave put it, expertise without a sizable roster of clients doesn’t mean diddly to a law firm. Like the aforementioned skin care consultant, Dave wanted it all. To be a top-notch lawyer and rainmaker. He saw it as a great way to distinguish himself from competitors who he observed as either people oriented or great legal minds, but rarely both.

It comes down to this: If you can’t effectively share your ideas or connect with others, at any level, who’s going to follow you? It makes you wonder why companies, even schools (law schools included), tend to give short-shrift to communication skills. When budgets are tight, communications training is often the first to go. Even the nomenclature “soft” skills in itself implies a level of inferiority to hard skills, but to assume communication skills don’t impact a company’s bottom line is a mistake.

A 2013 Google study outlined by business writer Joel Anderson reinforces the point. Dubbed ‘Project Oxygen’, Anderson reported on research that examined all available data to determine which skills and characteristics were most predictive of success at Google. Anderson wrote, “Even at Google, a company built around the idea that hard engineering skills like coding and mathematics are what truly define success, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) expertise finished last among the top eight characteristics of Google’s best employees.” 

So what were the top seven characteristics? Yep, all soft skills:

  1. Being a good coach

  2. Listening well

  3. Possessing insights into others

  4. Having empathy toward colleagues

  5. Being a good critical thinker

  6. Being a good problem solver

  7. Being able to connect with others across complex ideas.

A similar study at MIT Sloan revealed a 250% return on investment (ROI) after factory workers in Bangalore, India were taught soft skills over the course of a year. Researchers cited increased productivity as the main reason for the gain.

Soft skills can be hard to master and unlike hard skills, are more nuanced. There are the fundamentals like eye contact, body language and vocal inflection, but as the Google study reveals, listening skills and emotional IQ are also of critical importance. Have you ever met someone who looked at their watch while you were speaking to them? How did it make you feel? How about people so focused on themselves that they fail to ask you questions? Or what about the colleague who checks-out after completing a presentation. You gave them your attention, but when it’s your turn to speak, they’re slumped in their chair checking e-mails. 

Our brains are hardwired to judge. How we relate to people, how we speak, dress and even sit are noticed and assessed by others. And don’t expect anyone to tell you, you don’t seem ready for prime time. It’s sensitive stuff and often difficult to quantify or articulate. You just wont get the business or promotion.

Here are 5 easy ways to bolster your interpersonal skills:

  • Be present in a conversation. If you have to look at your watch or phone during a conversation, at least explain why so you don’t come across as arrogant or bored.

  • Take note of the way other people communicate. If you’re outgoing and a prospective client is introverted, try dialing back your energy to accommodate their communication style.

  • Don’t interrupt. Let a person finish their statement before chiming in. Good listeners are regarded as more trustworthy.

  • If you’re concerned about the tone of a sensitive e-mail, read it aloud to see if it delivers the intended meaning. 

  • Demonstrate engagement by asking questions and then follow-up questions to clarify. The best way to build rapport is to demonstrate genuine interest in another person’s work.

Everyone has their communication challenges. For some, better eye contact and executive presence fit the bill. For others it’s about how to best start and end a speech, engage the media or finesse small talk with a prospective client. Anyone can kick their communications skill-set up a few notches with as little as an afternoon of coaching.

Five New Tips for Presentation Prowess

If you’ve sat through your fair share of PowerPoint presentations, you know how torturous they can be. While some presenters’ delivery styles are more sleep inducing than melatonin, others overwhelm and confuse their audience by cramming too much content onto their slides and then ignoring half of it.

What a colossal waste of time for both parties.

Here are five new suggestions for effective, impactful presentations.

1. Give them what they want.

Want a better chance of getting buy-in from your audience? Instead of concentrating on what you want to say, try crafting a presentation focused on what your audience wants or needs to know. How often have you heard a presenter say, “What I’d like to talk about today is .…” It’s language that tells the audience the presentation is more about the presenter than them. People come to your presentation for a reason. They have questions about your ideas and endeavors. Why not take those questions into consideration as you craft your content. Begin your presentation by telling your audience what you believe will be most helpful for them- and you’ll find there’s a benefit to you as well.

Instead of worrying about messing up or any other host of things you imagine  can go wrong, you’re now focused on how you can be of service to your audience. You’re changing your internal monologue- shifting your focus from you to them. Doing so is also a highly effective, but little discussed approach to calming the anxiety most presenters feel. According to, an estimated 75% of the U.S. population struggles with a fear of public speaking to a certain degree. That’s about 238 million people who admit to getting the jitters.  Just imagine how much higher that number would be if it included those who don’t cop to the anxiety.

2. Clean up those slides

The rule of thumb for text slides is no more than six bullet points to a slide and no more than six words to a bullet point.  Some consultants will suggest a 5x5 or 7x7 rule. It’s all good.

Look at older presentations. Is there one slide that could have been divided into two or more slides? Cleaner slides don’t just look better, they’re easier for you to present, easier for your audience to digest and they allow for larger font size. I’ve seen way too many slides that look more like a handout or bottom of an eye chart. The standard is 28 to 32 point text with headlines at 36 to 44 points. I often go even bigger. Also, think visually. Rather than myriad bullet points, is there a visual that could better represent your idea and have more impact? Dr. John J. Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, says people are likely to remember only 10 Percent of what you say days after the presentation. If the information is paired with a relevant image, retention rises to about 65 percent, days after the presentation.

3. Stop saying, “As you can see”

Unless your audience knows your visual as well as you do, avoid this language.  In most cases the “as you can see” statement usually accompanies a graph or pie chart that needs, but doesn’t receive a thorough explanation. The presenter just throws a visual up onto the screen, delivers a main point and then moves to the next slide- all while the audience is still trying to figure out what they just saw. 

Stanford communications coach, Matt Abrahams, suggests you think of yourself as a tour guide. What’s your imperative? To make sure no one gets lost! Once they’re gone, they’re not coming back. By providing an overview and explanation of the visual you have a better chance of keeping an audience focused and engaged.

When the graphic goes up, tell your audience what they’re looking at so they can orient themselves. Then describe the parameters. If it’s a bar graph, tell them they’re looking at a bar graph and what it represents. Tell them what the horizontal and vertical axis represent. Is there a datapoint you’d like to highlight? Perhaps there’s a cautionary tale about revenues in Q3. Cover you bases. Too much brevity can create confusion.

4. Don’t forget the stories

“A fact is like a sack- it won’t stand up if it’s empty. To make it stand up, first you have to put in it all the reasons and feelings that caused it in the first place.”
Luigi Pirandello, Novelist

 I love this quote because it beautifully illustrates the power of story over facts and data. Facts inform, they have their place, but they aren’t as effective as story in making information memorable. Stories, when delivered effectively, create a visceral connection with an audience. They activate emotions, creating a connection that sets the stage for influence. 

In her groundbreaking book, The Story Factory, Annette Simmons offers practical advice on how to create stories that can be used to persuade, motivate and inspire. So why don’t more presenters incorporate stories into their presentations? Probably because most people struggle to come up with compelling stories that reinforce their messages.

Your stories don’t need to be epic. Dig deep, think of a single person who’s life or career was improved because of your product, service or mission. Perhaps you have an anecdote about someone else’s experience. If the story reinforces your message, you’re likely on the right track. Just keep your stories short.

5. Make sure what you say and how you say it are in sync.

Our bodies have their own language and sometimes what they communicate doesn’t align with our words. In his book, Never Split the Difference, former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss says incongruence between a person’s words and their non-verbal cues, like vocal tone and body language, are sure fire ways to tell if someone is lying or uncomfortable.  

A while back, I attended a business breakfast in which the moderator stood before the room and stated how excited she was to be there. I didn’t believe her, and I doubt anyone else did either. Her dead-pan facial expression and minimal gestures didn’t convey excitement. In fact, she looked as if she would have rather been watching paint dry than standing in front of that room. If an audience has to choose between what we say and how we say it, our non-verbal cues win every time.

Communications studies even suggest, that in certain circumstances, your appearance and delivery have more impact than the words you choose. Ray Birdwhistell (1918-1994) an American anthropologist and body language expert estimated that no more than 30 to 35 percent of the social meaning of a conversation or interaction is carried by our words. Think of the implications for a presentation or speech. While not a one-on-one conversation, they're still a conversation. If the goal is to connect with an audience, strong vocals and body language remain a non-negotiable. Land the eye contact, don’t forget to gesture, vary the tone and pace of your words … yada, yada, yada. The upshot: Look like you want to be there and your audience will likely do the same.


The Eyes Have It- How to nail eye contact for a tv interview.

One of the most frequent questions I get from media training clients is:  “Where do I look during an on-camera interview? At the reporter or field producer? In to the camera?” It’s a great question, and one that doesn’t come with a standard answer. To understand why, consider three of the most common interview formats:

  1. Soundbite
  2. On-set
  3. Remote

How you manage your eye contact will depend on which of these interview formats you encounter.

1. Soundbite interview. This type of interviews is generally brief, maybe 5 -15 minutes in length. The reporter likely wants a soundbite or two from you to help balance a story. The rule of thumb is to keep your eyes fixed on the reporter or field producer when answering their questions. Don’t look directly into the camera- it’s jarring. You’ll look more natural speaking to a person rather than a camera. It’s also a lot less stressful since most people aren’t used to speaking to a camera.

You also never know which bite a reporter is going to use, and you don’t want it to be one where you look distracted or unfocused. I was reminded of this golden rule a few months ago while watching a tv news story on a medical malpractice suit. One of the interviewees was the plaintiff’s attorney. Her soundbite started out well enough, but then, for what ever reason, she looked down and delivered the the final and most important part of her message to the floor! Ouch. It was like watching a marathoner collapse right before the finish line. The downward glance diminished her presence and diluted the impact of her message. She could have nailed her eye focus in every other bite, but it didn’t matter. If you’re worried about creeping out the reporter with all that eye contact, try briefly looking away while the reporter is asking the questions. You’ll appear as if you’re contemplating an answer, rather than avoiding a stare down.

2. On-set interview. This format is usually live, and tends to be more complicated since there’ll be plenty of in-studio distractions. There are the cameras, camera operators, floor director and all those monitors where you can see yourself. Again, the challenge is to keep your eyes focused on the host. If there are two hosts, perfect! Make eye contact with both of them.

3. On-camera remote. This format is arguably the most challenging for media communicators.  In this setup, the program host is geographically separated from the guest. Usually, the two are in different cities as in the CNN interview below.

Unlike soundbite and on-set interviews, the key here is to always look and speak directly into the camera. The guest and program host can, in most cases, only see each other via a split screen monitor and hear each other through an earpiece called an IFB, or Interrupt Feedback device. 

As a former Chicago news anchor and reporter, I know how disorienting this can feel. It's difficult to sound conversational or forge a connection with an audience while speaking to a camera. If you’re asked to do one of these types of interviews, my advice is to imagine the camera lens is a window through which you and your host can see each other. Fight the compulsion to grab a quick glance of yourself in the studio monitors. I see tv guests doing this while on-air all the time! It's distracting, your audience will wonder what the heck you're looking at? Do yourself a favor and practice this type of format at home using a cell phone, I-pad or any other recording device before the interview. 

If you’d like more information on this subject or would be interested in a media training workshop, consultation or mentoring session, contact me at or


Making Lemons out of Lemonade

If WGN entertainment reporter Dean Richards didn’t know it before, he sure knows it now. Do not ask Kelly Rowland about Beyonce.

From the moment Kelly appeared on screen, her cool demeanor and tone of voice conveyed annoyance. We didn't know why at first, but then it became clear. Kelly wanted to talk about the product she was being paid to promote, Claritin, and not the other, more compelling subjects reporters are likely to ask about e.g., her career, and of course Beyonce. This isn’t to say Kelly wasn’t justified in being annoyed by the Beyonce questions during her via satellite interview on WGN and other TV stations. Especially since her handlers issued the "No Beyonce questions" mandate. But, when your former bandmate is as big a star as Beyonce and Beyonce has just released an explosive “video album” called Lemonade, you have to know you’re going to get questions on the subject. It's the proverbial elephant in the room. Richards wouldn't have been doing his job if he ignore the obvious.

Instead of clipped answers and an attempt to abruptly change the subject, Kelly could have utilized a time tested interview technique called Bridging to go from Bey to Claritin.  Bridging involves the use of short phrases to help interviewees get from a reporter's question to their message. Instead of dismissing Dean Richards' Beyonce questions, Kelly could have briefly responded and then transitioned to Claritin by perhaps saying “You know what Beyonce and I have in common besides music?…spring time allergies! Anything along those lines would have made Kelly appear more open than defensive, and likely made the folks at Bayer a lot happier. Yes, the video above went viral and got the segment more attention than it would have received otherwise, but for the wrong reason. What people are likely to remember about this segment is Kelly putting a reporter in his place, not the product she was promoting.


Enthuse them or Lose them. 4 key tips for more powerful presentations

I was at a women entrepreneurs luncheon when I notice a striking difference between the delivery styles of two speakers. One was an award recipient, the other our keynote speaker. The award recipient spoke from behind the lectern, her hands glued to its sides, her head buried in her notes. When she did come up for air her eyes scanned the room in a trance like state, never focusing on anyone or anything. You knew that at that moment she would rather be standing barefoot on a bonfire. It made her speech uncomfortable to watch.

Fast forward to our keynote speaker. From the moment she appeared we knew her presentation would be different. Susan, as I’ll call her, leaped onto the stage like a race horse bursting from the gate. She smiled from ear to ear, saying hello to people as she made her way to the center of the stage. Standing behind a lectern was never an option. 

Susan was a successful financial executive and budding author who had come to share her tricks of the trade. She could have regaled the audience with a list of accolades and achievements, but she didn’t. Instead, she delivered a genuine and commanding presentation that didn’t include reams of notes. She told relevant stories and shared real-life examples of successful sales strategies she had developed. Her hands moved freely as she spoke. She varied her tone and pitch and actually looked at people as if engaged in conversation. Susan had the rapt attention of every business woman in the room, and she was rewarded with a standing ovation.

Regardless of whether you’re a c-level executive, budding entrepreneur or designated company spokesperson, the one leadership trait that trumps everything else is strong communication skills. Fail to connect with an audience and your words are wasted. Was Susan born a great speaker? Likely not. Becoming a great speaker is more often a matter of practice and persistence, not natural talent. Even one of history’s greatest orators, Sir Winston Churchill, had to work at it. Churchill had a slight stammer and a bit of a lisp when he was young. Churchill famously said, “Continuous effort - not strength or intelligence is the key to unlocking our potential.”

4 key tips for more powerful presentations

  1. Don’t data dump. Yes, it’s tempting to cover your bases by cramming everything you know into a presentation, but don’t do it unless you enjoy boring and stressing out your audience. Data dumps lead to what psychologist call “Cognitive Backlog.” It occurs when speakers deliver too much information making it harder for audiences to remember key points and ideas. “If you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t know it well enough.”-Albert Einstein.

  2. Don’t scan the audience. Scanning is when you try to make eye contact with as many people as possible in a short amount of time. You were probably told doing so helps you connect with an audience. Not true. Scanning leads to filler word syndrome. That’s when speakers unwittingly pepper their presentations with ums and uhs, or the words like and so. When you scan an audience your brain takes in too much information and basically crashes, cueing filler words as you try to get back on track. If there’s one irrefutable truth, it’s that you can’t deliver and receive information at the same time. Instead of scanning, try focusing on one audience member at a time for several seconds, then during a natural pause, move on to another person. Besides rooting out filler-words, extended eye-to-eye contact helps mitigate anxiety and controls pacing. 

  3. Make the word “novelty” your mantra. People are natural explorers. They enjoy discovering things they didn’t know they didn’t know, and speakers who find creative ways to make their presentations more memorable. Think of how you might wow your audience. It could be something as simple as a short personal story, a prop or demo. Bill Gates mastered this approach during a 2012 TED talk. Gates was speaking about the millions of people who die from Malaria every year when he unleashed a jar of (disease free) mosquitoes on his unsuspecting audience. The stunt went viral, catapulting Gates’ presentation into national news. This doesn’t mean you have to aim for news headlines, just try thinking out of the box. How can you make your message concrete?
  4. Don’t forget the personality. Authenticity is the coin of the realm in public speaking. Some speakers shed their personalities like an exoskeleton and adopt personas they believe make them appear more intelligent, experienced, confident etc…when actually the opposite is true. How do you communicate with friends? Shoot for that person. In her blockbuster book Presence, Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy writes, “When you’re inauthentic, your verbal and non-verbal behaviors begin to misalign.” The upshot: your credibility takes a nosedive. 

And the award for worst media disaster of 2014 goes to....


It just keeps getting worse for Bill Cosby. The steady drumbeat of sexual assault allegations is at this point deafening. Now, a new low in the scandal. Cosby is being sued by Judith Huth, a Southern California woman who claims the comedian molested her 40 years ago when she was just 15 years old. The suit marks the first civil lawsuit filed against Cosby since he settled a similar case in 2005, and the first time a woman has publicly accused Cosby of sexually abusing her while she was still a minor.

If Cosby is innocent, it’s time for him to sing it from the mountain tops. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. He had the chance last November during NPR and AP interviews. In both instances, Cosby refused to answer questions about recently reignited, decade old rape allegations. From a PR standpoint, the AP interview was especially disastrous and telling. Cosby not only challenged the reporter’s integrity for broaching the rape allegations, but tried to bully the journalist into deleting the segment. 



While Cosby has stayed tight-lipped, his lawyers have vigorously refuted the accusations. They’ve questioned why it took decades for the women to come forward, (Many didn’t want to risk the scorn and fall-out from taking-on “Americas Dad”) and reminded everyone that Cosby has never faced criminal charges. 

But in the court of public opinion, Cosby is behaving like a man who has something to hide. The fall-out has been merciless. NBC and Netflix have discontinued shows they were developing for the comedian, TV Land has suspended “Cosby” show reruns, concert venues have cancelled his appearances, and Cosby has stepped down as a trustee of his beloved Temple University.

Some PR executives have suggested that if guilty, the only way for Cosby to restore even a modicum of his legacy is to come clean. Cop to the allegations, deal with the legal and financial fallout, and dedicate the rest of his life to sexual assault and rape causes. But the Daily Beast’s Jay Michaelson believes there may be good reason for Cosby’s continued silence. In a November 2014 article titled, “No Wonder Cosby’s Keeping Quiet: He Could Still Be Prosecuted,” Michaelson writes, “Not all of the women’s claims are blocked by the statute of limitations…..this might be why Cosby is keeping mum on the accusations, despite the obvious public relations disaster. If he were to confess, he could well be prosecuted for his crimes.” 

Case in point; a 2004 allegation of sexual assault and battery by Andrea Constand; the most vocal of Cosby’s alleged victims. The alleged attack occurred in Pennsylvania which has a 12-year statute of limitations on sexual assault. And then there’s Huth, now 55, who suggests the statute of limitations be waived in her suit because she discovered "her psychological injuries and illnesses were caused by the sexual abuse perpetrated by Cosby" within the past three years.

Despite the legal maneuvers and revelations, an indictment still looks to be a long shot. Huth’s claim sounds calculated and financially expedient, and as has been widely reported, the district attorney investigating Constand’s 2005 allegations said he didn’t have enough evidence to pursue charges, (even though he found her credible). There’s also the issue of evidence or lack thereof. We have yet to hear anything about rape kits in any of the cases. 

As the scandal continues to develop, it’s anyone’s guess where the chips will fall. But one thing is certain. Cosby has been sucked into the vortex of 24/7 news coverage, and it won't be letting up anytime soon. Cosby is too big a name, and the allegations too numerous. It’s still so difficult to fathom. Bill Cosby a serial rapist? With this much smoke, it's hard to ignore the likelihood of a fire.



PR Gone Bad—How to Master Your Public Relations Disaster

From the Ray Rice fiasco, to the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal to BP’s bumbling of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, America’s media landscape is littered with tales of PR disasters that could have been averted.

As a longtime broadcast news journalist, I’ve seen plenty of PR masters and disasters, and it’s always those who think they can run, hide or deceive who exacerbate the crisis and sometimes do irreparable damage to themselves and/or the organization they represent.

One of the first tenants in effective crisis management is transparency. When a crisis hits, there’s a natural inclination to want to make everything right as fast as possible, lie, spin, exercise a little subterfuge…do what ever it takes to make it go away fast. Big mistake. Damage control is a long term endeavor…it can take months, even years to restore trust. 

Roger Goodell should have known better as he tried to contain the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal by imposing a two game suspension. Lets face it, you did’t need to see the video to know a two game suspension is insufficient punishment for domestic abuse. Goodell even admitted as much, before trying to right the wrong by offering tougher league policies to deal with abuse cases. 

But then came the coupe de gras, the tape release, that shined a critical light on Goodell and the NFL’s real intentions. No one believes Goodell didn’t see the tape. Rather the consensus as David Von Drehle of Time magazine put it is: “Ray Rice is just the latest example of football’s reactionary devotion to a cushy status quo.” The NFL’s problems extend well beyond the Ray Rice disaster. It’s been slow to react to a myriad of issues like head injuries and player addicted to pain killers. Now its worked itself into an even bigger crisis that shows no signs of waning anytime soon.

Another high profile crisis management case studies is the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal repeat. Not because of the salacious nature of the story, but by incredulity of it. Did Weiner really believe he could keep snapping pornographic selfies with impunity?  Even after resigning from congress for the same infraction less than two years earlier? Had Weiner been sincere after his first mea culpa, its very likely he could have redeemed himself all the way to the New York Mayor’s office. He was the early frontrunner, but finished 5th, The public is usually willing to forgive a first infraction, but fool them twice and you’re done. So long ‘Carlos Danger.’

Whether its a politician caught with his pants down, or an NFL commissioner’s nonchalant response to domestic abuse, a crisis doesn’t have to spell the end of a career or company. While each crisis has its own personality, there are fundamentals, that when adhered to, can help anyone navigate a disaster.

When trust has been violated, the offenders audience (this can be the public, stakeholders, and/or employees etc. ) needs and demands:

1) Recognition of the transgression 

2) A sincere apology 

3) Explanation of what will be done to keep it from happening again 

4) Transparency, show them how your making amends

In September 2013, U.S. yogurt-maker Chobani put these fundamentals to work after discovering several lots of its Greek yogurt had been contaminated with mold. 

The company was quick to take ownership and issued a swift recall of the yogurt that had been produced at it’s Idaho plant- the source of the contamination. Chobani went on to issue a page long apology and ensured that the company was doing all it could to fix the issue and ship fresh product to stores.

It was a well planned and executed response to the crisis. If you didn’t hear about the story, that pretty much illustrates my point. The sooner a crisis is addressed the sooner it’s relegated to yesterday’s news. 

I tell clients it’s not if a crisis will strike, but when. Having a well crafted disaster plan in place can be the difference between controlling the crisis or inadvertently contributing to it. Are you  listening NFL?