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Becoming More Expressive


October 2007

We express ourselves in a bandwidth that’s comfortable. When someone’s expressive bandwidth becomes too narrow, we struggle to listen to them. Here are tools to expand your bandwidth.

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October 2007

Becoming More Expressive

Tom Henschel

Randall looked like a Marine recruiting poster. In his forties, he still had the firm body that had made him a high school football star. Close-cropped blond hair and piercing blue eyes set off his handsome face. In front of a room, he looked commanding—until he began to speak.

His voice was almost completely devoid of inflection. His words came out at a comfortable pace—and never altered. His attractive face became an unexpressive mask. His whole demeanor was lacking variety. No wonder people were having trouble listening to him.

Randall recognized the problem and asked me to help. Having brought video equipment, I asked him to make a mock presentation and focus on one thing only: exaggerate everything he did.

For five minutes I hounded Randall. Bigger! Broader! Raise your eyebrows! Smile! Talk higher! Talk lower!

As he made a particularly broad gesture I asked, “Feel embarrassed?”

“I feel like a fool!” he grimaced.

“Good! Keep it up! It’s just us. Really go for it!”

I let him go another minute, then told him he could stop. With a groan of relief, he sat down as I turned on the tape. He couldn’t believe what he saw. In spite of having felt so foolish, in spite of having pushed himself into such discomfort, the man on the screen was not at all grotesque or exaggerated. In truth, on tape he wasn’t all that different from his normal style of presenting. Randall was not only shocked, he was disheartened, doubtful he’d ever improve.

When I was young, certain trucks were made with governors installed on their engines. Governors regulated the engines so the trucks wouldn’t exceed specified limits. Randall was discovering he had governors of his own.

I asked him if he’d always been so contained. He told me about growing up as the only child of two college professors where everyone read silently for long periods of time. His parents, soft-spoken intellectuals, shunned displays of emotions with each other and with him. As we talked, he quickly connected the programming he’d received as a young child to his current struggle to be expressive.

Regardless of our individual upbringings, we all have governors. They influence how loudly we talk on the phone or in a conference room. They keep our physical gestures within certain parameters and regulate our facial expressions. But make no mistake, these are not physical limitations. We avoid broad gestures or extreme inflections not because we think we’d alienate our audience, or because our body can’t do it, but because our internal governor says it’s unacceptable and wrong.

Expanding our governors’ limits is important because lack of variety is one of the biggest reasons we stop listening to each other. Most people would benefit by increasing their expressiveness in two ways: vocal inflections and facial expressions. Here are four tips to stretch your governors in both these areas.

  • First, remember Randall. His internal sensors screamed that he was making a fool of himself, but the recorded feedback showed he had barely stretched his limits at all. When you push beyond any of your natural limits, your governors will shout at you to stop. You’ll feel certain that what you’re doing is “bad” or “goofy” or “embarrassing.” But those alarms are almost certainly false, tripped because you’ve gone past your pre-programmed norms. In fact, those alarms are good. If you don’t feel some discomfort, you’re probably doing what you’ve always been doing, which is no stretch at all.
  • Second, get good feedback. Since your internal sensors are unreliable, get recorded feedback or create a feedback network. If you’re working on expanding inflections, get a little digital recorder. Hit “record” before you make a call. On your way home, listen only for your highs and lows, and changes in rhythm. When you hear them, no matter how small they are, mark them. Celebrate them. Then commit to doing just a little more tomorrow. (Remember, this is about stretching over time, not doing a make-over in a day!)
  • If you’re working to become more facially expressive, ask some one you trust to give you real-time feedback. You might say, “I’m working to be more expressive. If you notice my face is blank for any length of time, will you tap your lips with your pen? And if you see me being expressive, even a little, will you hold your pen between both hands?” That sort of feedback in real time is hugely helpful in resetting your governors.
  • Finally, watch other people. Notice your own tolerance for variety. If you’re like most people, you like it in others whether or not you are able to do it yourself. Focusing on variety, gathering lots of data about it, is an important way to begin resetting those limiting governors.

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