Articles: Helping Others

A Failure to Communicate

Some of us will remember Paul Newman’s classic role in the movie “Cool Hand Luke”? You may recall the prison warden’s famous line, “What we have here is a failure to communicate!”

How many times have you sat through seminars and information meetings and come to a similar conclusion as that prison warden? Some presentations are captivating all right … you feel like they will go on forever, and there is no escape!

These days in funeral service, presentations about wills and estates, funeral planning and information sessions have become a way of taking our message to the community. And rightly so! People need information on these important topics, and I for one am delighted to see the initiatives that encourage more open conversation and communication about death, dying and related topics

A recent study has shown that on a list of things they fear most, most people place public speaking ahead of dying. The problem is that if this fear isn’t managed effectively, it’s apt to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, if you are afraid you are going to mess up, it is likely to actually happen. Thankfully, the principle also works if you believe you will do well.

Have you ever found yourself standing up in front of a group of people, butterflies in your stomach, weak knees, clammy hands, a tight, dry throat, your voice and body shaking? You would rather be anywhere else than there.

But these admittedly uncomfortable reactions are in fact natural. They are how your mind and body focuses its energy on the challenging task at hand. If you don’t have at least a mild case of them you’ll probably not give your best performance.

Most people’s concern about giving a speech stems from their OWN expectations, not the expectations of the audience; which, incidentally, are usually a lot lower than yours!! Learning to do anything well takes time and effort. All speakers, even the most accomplished you’ve ever heard, have had to overcome some level of fear.

Many of you are called upon to give presentations about your work, on the importance of pre-need or some other relevant topic. It benefits you and your business to do that well.

The good news is that good communication is a skill that we can learn and develop. Communication depends on two elements, Content and Process. The equation is that Content + Process = Communication.

The content refers to the subject your presentation seeks to address. It consists of the material that is being shared, the issues that are being addressed, the topics for discussion or consideration, or the problems to be resolved. Because it is the verbal portion the content is obvious and typically consumes the attention of the listeners

The process deals with how things are being presented. It refers to the methods and procedures by which your content is going to be imparted, the group dynamics involved, and the communication tools that are necessary.

Put simply, the content is the WHAT of the presentation, the process is the HOW.

Hopefully we believe that the content of every presentation is important, and that we prepare it thoroughly. However, Dr Albert Mehrabian theorizes that true communication is:

    55%   Body Language (which includes physical energy, smile, eye contact, appearance, and many others.)

    38%   Voice    (the sound and tone of your voice, whether friendly, nervous, shouting, calm and reassuring, among others.)

     7 %   Content

These statistics serve to show us how vital the process, or the way we deliver the content actually is. In fact, when speakers can captivate their audience with an effective process, the content is actually perceived as more important. But beware, for, sadly the opposite works too! In presentations where content is seen to be the primary focus, process can often be ignored, and we have all sat through boring, uninteresting meetings like that, have we not?

So here are a few suggestions to try for your next presentation:

Suggestion 1:    Organize your Content.

Define your objective. What is it you are trying to say? Be clear and to the point. Being clear is not as easy as it sounds. Putting your thoughts together in your mind is one thing, but also try putting those thoughts on paper. That’s a different story. Write out your presentation, read it aloud, edit it, and rewrite it. Say a lot with few words. I have found that I need to prepare more to say less, because if you ramble on you have more words, but it is repetitive and unorganized and people pick up on that quite quickly.

The greatest weapon against fear is preparation. Plan and know your opening (the few words or the first minute or two) so well that you can be confident that you can get through it no matter how nervous you feel. Getting through the first few sentences will have an unbelievably settling effect on you, and also on your audience.

Once you’ve said what you have to say, especially if it is going well, you may have the natural urge to keep on talking. Try to avoid the temptation.

Suggestion 2:    Rehearse your Body Language.

55% of the effectiveness of your presentation depends on body language and the way you deliver the content of your message. So you need to pay careful attention to what people are seeing as well as what they are hearing.

  • Breathe deeply. Breathing will help you to relax which will calm the butterflies, the shakiness and the tightness in your voice. If you seem relaxed, the audience will relax; if you are uptight, you will communicate that nervousness to your audience.
  • Connect with your Eyes. When you get up in front of a group, pause for a minute, and look around. By making eye contact you are inviting a more personal communication. If you can do this with a SMILE, that again communicates a friendly desire to share something with them, and invites their attention.
  • Stand Tall. Try not to hide behind a lectern, or sit behind a table. Stand up and let people see you. A lectern, though practical, can sometimes be a psychological barrier between people. So even if you are using one, try to come out from behind it, even if just to the side once in a while. Let people see you.
  • Move with Ease. Try to make your movements natural. Watching yourself on a video will show you the idiosyncrasies that we all have, some of which are OK, others of which may need review.

Suggestion 3:    TAPP your Voice.

The sound of your voice and the way you say things is another crucial component in communication. Now admittedly, not all of us are blessed with a Scottish accent, but there are 4 parts to vocal expression which we may refer to as TAPP. Tone, Articulation, Pace, and Pitch.

  • Tone, which establishes intent and adds quality to the words being spoken. Is this a serious or humorous part of your message … your tone will establish for the listener how to take the words you are communicating.
  • Articulation, which gives clarity to your speech. Make sure you are at an appropriate distance from the microphone; do a sound check before you start; speak into the microphone from all angles. Try to make sure your voice will project to the back of the room. Tapping the microphone and asking if people can hear you belongs in “amateur hour”, and suggests you are unsure. Check all these things before you get up there.


  • Pace, which enhances understanding. Most people speak too quickly. Many don’t pause for effect. Try to make sure that you are speaking at a pace that is appropriate to your listeners. Watch them carefully, and their body language will tell you if you are going too fast or slow.


  • Pitch, which refers to the way we present our message, using inflections and pauses to maximum effect. You will find this adds colour to your presentation and frames key words.

And may I respectfully suggest. Rehearse! Rehearse! Rehearse! I am not suggesting that we repeat our presentation until it comes so mechanically that it sounds phony! What I am saying is, rehearse it in front of colleagues or family, and let them make some suggestions based on what they observe.

Have the courage to video yourself giving the presentation and watch it to see what others see. Most of us hate watching ourselves on video simply because we didn’t realize some of the idiosyncrasies that others notice. Once we see and know them, we will want to make the changes. If you practice these suggestions your presentations will be even more effective than ever.

But back to Paul Newman and the movie! A “failure to communicate” finally got Cool Hand Luke shot. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! And try not to make the same mistake.