It’s not just what you say that matters, but also how you say it. Everyone communicates differently, and knowing how to approach different people at different times can make or break you. Ethan Becker is the President and second-generation senior coach and trainer from The Speech Improvement Company. In this episode, he chats with host Bob Roark and shares some tips from his book, Mastering Communication at Work: How to Lead, Manage, and Influence. Ethan talks about the impact of communicating effectively and how that translates in different business situations. He also discusses the science behind speech and communication to give a better understanding of how it works.
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Dr. Ethan Becker On The Impact Of Mastering Communication In Business
How To Lead, Manage And Influence
This is going to be quite the episode. We have Dr. Ethan Becker. He’s the President and second generation senior coach and trainer for The Speech Improvement Company. It’s the oldest communication coaching and training firm in America. More importantly, he’s created what I would consider a tool case, a set of tools for Mastering Communication at Work. That’s the name of his book with the co-author, Jon Wortmann. It’s how to lead, manage, and influence. It’s the second edition. He was kind enough to provide me a copy, which I promptly read. It resides on my desk as a go-to resource and how-to in the speech side of the house. Dr. Becker, thank you so much for taking the time. If you would, maybe starting out with a story about your company and your mom and how this all came to pass.
It’s good to be here. I get asked that question about the company because we were founded in 1964. My mom and my dad were both at Emerson College, which for a long time is where you would go for communication. She was studying Speech Pathology and he was studying Rhetoric and Public Address, that was the vocation. They met, and dated, and they got together. They had this idea that if you could coach an executive, a businessperson, the same way an athlete was coached, you could help that person.
Their specialty was in communication, so they did that through the lens of communication and the company name, they started right away. They said, “Let’s name it what we do, The Speech Improvement Company.” Between the two of them, they found something that could focus on, in some cases, mechanics of speaking, and in other cases, psychology, persuasion, and rhetoric. Naturally, that grew into the business world. That’s how it originally started a long time ago.
Was there a recognition or a pushback when they started the company? Good speakers are born not made.
You get some of that stuff. They also had other challenges. They were out of the norm. My mother, a blind Jewish woman who married a Catholic boy. In the 1960s, that didn’t go over well.
Your dad must have needed a lot of work for her to marry him and to try to improve.
An Irish Catholic boy from Pennsylvania hitchhiked his way up to Boston and did what he couldn’t to get through school. She came from a long line. Her grandfather was one of the founding members of Brandeis University. She came from a different place. These two were not from the same background, but they found love and commonality, and they started this business and then it quickly grew. They never wanted the company to grow large. There were always about 10 or 11 on the team. Now, we’re about 20.
They never wanted to be like a Dale Carnegie or a McKinsey or some watered down, one size fits all for everybody type of thing. They always wanted it to be small. They had a real focus on the academics of communication. Even now, there’s nobody on the team who might have had a theatre background or wasn’t going in their career, so they’re doing this. All of us on the team, we’ve studied Speech Communication at the graduate level or beyond, so that way, we can go a little deeper with our clients than your typical executive coach. It’s worked out well for us. It’s made for an interesting collection of people.
We talked a little bit before the show and here you are, you’re a kid. Somewhere in the book, you talked about plosives. We probably should talk about this, so your mom doesn’t come back and get us both. How was that growing up in a family where they were building a business in communications?Speech behavior, just like every other behavior, can be learned to be very effective. Click To Tweet
Maybe for the readers, let me share with you that word is. It’s a technical word in speech communication, plosives. There’s one part of our business that specializes in accent. I don’t do a lot of accents. Before my mom passed away, she’s certified me in accent work but it’s not my favorite thing. I do more leadership communication. The accent work in our business, folks who have English as a second language, often come to us because they have a difficult time producing sounds. They study what is known as the International Phonetic Alphabet. Which has hundreds of symbols and the symbols represent sounds.
In General American English, which is what we speak in the United States, there are only about anywhere between 40 to 60 sounds depending on which speech coach you talk to. That makes up the entire language. Out of that group, there is one group called plosives and it has eight sounds in them. B as in boy, D as in dog, G as in girl, J as in jump, P as in put, T as in toy, K as in kite, and Ch as in child or chocolate. That’s what these things are. They’re called plosives because they’re exploded when they’re made. Why do we care about these? We care about plosives because when we are talking with people who we know very well, meaning they know our speech pattern, we probably don’t care about plosives.
We do something in human language, all languages called assimilation. We combine sounds. We say, gimme instead of give me, wanna instead of want to. If I say gimme, gimme a cup of water, and you give me a cup of water, who cares? Until, now I’m speaking with somebody from a different department at the company. Maybe not even in the company. It’s not that they don’t know my language but they don’t know my speech pattern. If I assimilate like that, I make it more work for the other person. This is what this is all about. This is why we get nerdy about these technical things. We talk at approximately 183 words per minute, the average rate of speech. We can think at 600 words per minute. When I talk to you, you can hear me, but there’s this extra 400 words a minute trying to process, decipher, and hear.
If I assimilate and I say, “Tomorrow, you can get up at 8:00 and go.” What? Your brain can figure out “Tomorrow, we’re going to get up at 8:00 and go.” Fine, until I do it again. After a few minutes of this, listeners begin to zone out. We look at plosives as a way to strengthen the quality of words. We chose them because, one, they’re impactful. Two, they’re easy. That’s the what to answer your question about my house growing up. We had sayings at the dinner table like, “Plosives are neat but hard to repeat.” Anyway, there’s probably more of an answer, but there’s some technical stuff. That’s why we put it in the book. This stuff matters, it does.
I grew up in the deep South, but out West for a long time. In the deep South, I’ll go back periodically, there are people from down the holler, for lack of a better word. The words are cut off. It’s interesting trying to communicate when you’re not from there. I can see where it’s a barrier. It doesn’t mean they’re not smart people, that means that’s how they communicate. It seems like you’ve been doing this since you were this tall, one way or another. There’s a transformation if you become a good speaker. Is there a story that you could relate where somebody went through either the book or coaching with you and then the outcome on the other side that changed their life? Do you got a story like that?
We do, every day. In a way, this pretty much is the heart of what we do in coaching. A lot of it is in presentation skills. Folks will come to us and they may feel nervous. A manager may come to us and say, “Yes. Not only am I nervous, but I’ve also been told I’m boring.” Things like that. We hear that, but as a coach, we have to profile and understand that, because one person saying, “I’m boring,” may not have the same meaning as a different person saying, “I’m boring.” We look at them and assess them. Usually, we can profile pretty quickly, even in their speech pattern. Within seconds, we can understand a whole lot about them. When we see their formal presentation, we start looking at what they need to work on. We’ve seen folks go from feeling terrified like, “Call in sick to work so I don’t have to speak,” scared to raising their hand saying, “Can I do another one?” You can change that. Speech is a behavior like every other behavior. We can learn how to be very effective.
I think about the esteem that we hold, recognized folks that can communicate, Winston Churchill and others. You look at them and they weren’t born that way, I don’t think. They spent a lot of time. In The King’s Speech, there was a good thing on them but that had similar issues other than speaking. That’s become of interest. As an example, let’s say that I’m a business owner and I bought a new company. I’ve got to go in and behave like private equity. I have a certain target I need to achieve, I need a certain return on investment. I’m trying to inventory what I’m dealing with and I need to communicate. How would you tell that person to approach or how would you use your book to help them approach that challenge?
In that particular situation, there are some examples in the book. We talked about Mark Russell in the book. He was brought in as a turnaround guy at an ad agency, WPP Wunderman. He was the fifth CEO in six years or something like that. There were a lot of turnarounds. The real challenge, you need to come in and communicate and get people excited and moving in a direction. It wasn’t an easy thing. In every situation, it’s a little bit unique. In his case, what we want them to do was to take the first six months and go on tour and get to know the different groups and learn a little bit about what was going on before having a first town hall meeting.
At the town hall, he starts the presentation and there was an honest approach at the time. It was something along in the terms of puts a slide up and everybody’s expecting another generic speech. He’s like, “I got a great chance to talk to everybody and get some ideas so let’s be sure some of the comments that I heard that we got.” He puts up the first comment, and it was something along with the terms of, “Management doesn’t seem to have a clue what they’re doing.” He turns around, looks back at everybody, and says, “That’s not good.” It was honesty and humor and it helped to establish what Aristotle would call ethos or credibility in the eyes of these people who have now seen many different leaders turning around.
He had to do more than one speech and they had to go and follow up with that. It’s a good story about that. In more specifically, how can somebody use a book like Mastering Communication at Work? We wrote this as a toolbox. You flip to the area. Are you dealing with someone who’s defensive? There’s a chapter on that. Are you putting a presentation together? It’s more than just, “Here’s how you put a presentation together,” but we put in comments about how your presentation should change based on different situations. It is not the same. This is why when we hear people say, “You can do a TED Talk. Talk like Ted.” You better not, in some cases.
If you’re presenting to investors and you’re asking for funding and you go in and you take a conference style, which TED speeches are conference style, to an investor meeting, it’s not going to go well. They want to know what you want and how much. We talked about inductive deductive. Right in the beginning, what do you want? They don’t want some beautiful story. In other environments, you might take that approach. The book is set up to be a tool for folks. That’s where a lot of our clients, they keep it on the shelves. They pull it off when they need it. Giving feedback, you got feedback to people, “Here’s a specific way to organize the conversation.” Not just, “Here’s what you should do,” but, “Here’s how to do it.”
There was a part in there where they had to go present to the board. For the first time you’ve ever done it, you go like, “I need help.” Speaking of which, let’s say that I’m the book consumer. I’ve gone through your book, I’ve underlined what I needed to and you go, “I’m not getting there.” What’s the next step past the book to try to take and master the concepts that you’re talking about?
Short of calling a coach and working with a coach. That’s what a lot of folks do. Let’s say that’s not an option for you, can’t do that. If you can, that’s great because a coach will walk you through it. If you can’t, the next best thing is you got to start practicing it out loud. My sister who’s also in the family business, she’s been in longer than me, too. She always likes to say, “When we practice in our mind, we’re perfect every time.” You’ve got a practice out loud and you want to record yourself. There’s high value in that. That may not be new to people. We’ve been hearing it ever since the video, “Record yourself.”
Here’s why. When you watch back a recording of yourself, there’s a calibration happening in the mind, “That’s what I sound like. That’s what I look like.” Once you do it and you get a feeling for the content, do it again, but this time, intentionally try things maybe out of your comfort zone with the delivery. Maybe you need more emotion, pathos. Maybe you need less emotion. Try that out and watch it back. Quickly, you’ll get a good solid sense of how you’re coming across.
You were talking in the book about pacing. You take and go, “I’m going to raise my voice. I’m going to lower my voice. I’m going to increase the speed of delivery. I’m going to pause,” in what seems like an uncomfortable vacuum.
With a special thank you to the television industry, silence is awkward. I say that because, on television, there’s no silence. In general, you watch any TV show, when two people are not talking, you hear sound effects and music. When we’ve put a lot of research into the fear of public speaking, the things that make us anxious, television is 1 of 4 that contribute to it. Why? There are a lot of reasons, but one of those reasons is the silence. Some people are comfortable with it. Anybody can become comfortable with it but it takes a little bit of practice.
Why silence? You see throughout the word pacing. When we talk about speed, we break it into two parts. We have the rate of speech and pace of speech. The rate is the speed at which we put words together. If I have good articulation, I can talk at a faster rate, and people can understand me. Now, I’m probably talking at about 193 words per minute, if I had to guess. On average, it’s 183. If I start talking at a faster rate, I’m probably around 218 words per minute, this is much faster. If you pause every so often, you can talk at a fast rate and people will understand you. If you talk at a fast rate and you don’t pause for pacing and things like that, and you start talking about technical things, and you’re expecting people to follow and understand what you’re talking about, they’re going to be begging for you to take a breath. It’s exhausting. That’s what it is.
What you can play with in your practicing is where and when you should pause. Specifically, speech coaches, at least on our team, it’s a speech improvement company, we do this all the time. We practice it, we train for it. We are well-trained to look at, “If I’m going to help you with pacing, I need to understand who your listeners are, what the content is, and what you’re trying to communicate.” From there, we will give coaching and advice because not all tips that you find on the internet are going to be good for you like the classic, put your hand in your pocket. Some people can put their hand in their pocket. Don’t worry about it, other people can’t.You need to understand who your listeners are, what the content is, and what you’re trying to communicate. Click To Tweet
Yeah, if you have a change in there.
The thing that struck me about part of it is understanding your target audience well. I came from the intel world back in the military, way back when. You got to understand the other side. If you do, you approach a certain way. I thought it was useful. One of the things that we touched on, they will do little marriage counseling work here. Inductive versus deductive. “What time is it? You don’t understand this morning when I was coming home.” You get this dialogue. The deductive person versus the inductive person doesn’t mean one’s right or wrong, but they communicate way differently.
This is Aristotle. Over the years, I’ve heard the terms in different ways. Sometimes they’re a little bit confusing to folks, but they don’t have to be. It’s very simple. The inductive thinker is what Aristotle was trying to say. What he was trying to figure out was, “How do we think and reason? When you talk to me, how do I reason and make sense out of what I’m hearing? When I talk to you, how do you reason and make sense?” He figured these two words, inductive and deductive. Here’s what it means. If I’m an inductive thinker, that’s it, this is who I am. That means that you got to give me the background information first. All the specific little details that lead me up to your general conclusion, your main point. It’s called going from the specific to the general. Deductive is the opposite of that. You start with the general conclusion and then you give all your specific little details. It matters because when these two people meet each other, lookout, there’s a level of frustration that can tear the communication apart.
It’s one of those things, “Bottom-line it for me. I know what kind of person I am.” Pretty straightforward there. I think about communicating complex topics, it’s easy to make a complex topic complex. I think about much of what goes on and I’m in the investment world trying to take a complex concept and drive it down to simplistic, understandable points. For you, do you get involved in that a lot?
We often do on a regular basis. For instance, take the industry of life sciences. We may have a company that has their first $50 million and now they’re looking to go out and get the next $200 million. Their management leadership team are scientists, academics, and they come from a world that has been trained intentionally with a more inductive style as the comfort in a way that people like. Now, they’re in a deductive environment and it might be easy to understand. This goes to that whole concept of telling you what to do versus how to do it.
Anyone can understand what to do, but then when it’s time to do it, it feels awkward, awful, and odd. There’s some practicing and some skill in learning how do I present in a deductive way. We do work with that. We call it hybrid speech writing. We will work with clients together because they’re the expert in the content. We’ll work with them on framing it and practicing it. There’s a lot of this going on, “Try it. No, that’s not it. Try it again.” We’re not trying to be mean, but you got to know if it’s not working. When you get it, you get it. It takes a lot of confidence.
The VC world. They’re going to go out and they’re wanting to get funding. I don’t know, but they don’t spend a sufficient amount of time to match their pitch to the audience. That’s a small investment.
Architects, design professionals, that industry, builders, where their livelihood is on whether or not they win the job at an interview yet they don’t do the practicing. What a lot of teams will do is they’ll talk about it, “You cover this. Tom, you cover that stuff.” That’s not that helpful. It is to a certain extent, but not nearly as effective as if that team were to present, maybe even record themselves. Ideally, they’d have a coach or somebody in there, too. Even on their own, it’s a night and day difference. You don’t have to memorize. We’re not professional actors. This is about familiarizing yourself with, not what you’re going to say but how you’re going to say it. The quality of the messaging is high.
What strikes me as I was thinking here, you’ve got the verbal approach to presentation and communication, then there’s the visual side, too. In the day, “That was a pretty PowerPoint.” Nowadays, it’s like, “No, less is better.” For you, when you think about working with some of the folks you do, typical advice, if there’s such a thing, on the visual representation of what you’re trying to communicate.
It’s probably not necessarily a new topic. Many senior leaders have heard, “Keep the slides simple.” The reason is it helps understand why what’s going on with this. Some teams say, “No PowerPoint at all.” I get that. I get the frustration. It’s a little bit of a cop-out because visuals can be helpful. They can also be harmful in the ability to communicate messages because we write it all out on the slide, and then project the slide ten feet high. Nowadays, it takes over the entire screen or most of the screen. There’s a problem with that, because in general, people can have a difficult time reading and listening at the same time. It’s hard to do.
It’s like if you were to watch a movie and the video and audio are not synchronized, you can still watch that movie but it’s a lot of effort. Those 400 words a minute in the back of your mind is working overtime to connect what it sees and hears. Imagine if that movie and halfway through it, it clicks into perfect sync. That’s what’s happening in a business presentation when the visuals have too much information on them. The technique is to try to synchronize as best you can, but sometimes you can’t. You’re projecting a spreadsheet. I get that, I respect that, I understand that. There are techniques that people can learn to do to maximize the synchronization and the impact, and now it’s helping you. In most cases, we don’t do that. It’s mean to the listeners.
I wanted to ask one more question down this thread. I’m tasked with going out and selling a particular thing or item to a particularly large opportunity. I don’t know if this person is deductive or inductive. There’s a lot of things I don’t know but I want to make sure that I have my presentation tailored to the behavior of the potential decision-maker. What type of things can you do to try to figure out what are you dealing with?
This is common, whether it’s in a selling situation like you’re describing or if it’s an internal meeting at a business. You can take a page out of sales. We work with a lot of sales teams around the world. We study a lot of the different sales methodologies. For the most part, they’re all the same. Sandler, SPIN, Challenger, they pretty much go back to the 1950s where consultive selling is starting to evolve, at least in a way that was written about or documented. I’m sure it goes way back further than that. If you want to learn about it, one thing that is easy to pick up, it’s known as SPIN. This one was first in the 1970s. Neil Rackham wrote about this. All of these guys, what they do is they look at great salesmen and they sit down and write, “What did they do?” They try to document. As speech coaches, we look at this so that we can then help people do it well.
Here’s what works well. If you understand the general concepts, you’ve got to ask questions to understand where your customers are coming from. That’s not necessarily new, but most people are only asking questions like, “What’s your budget? How many people?” or things related to the project or the product. What you should be writing down is, “How did they answer the question? Did they answer it in an inductive or deductive way? Do they have a lot of emotion when they talk? Are they name-dropping and they’re big on credibility? Are they very logos logic-based?” This information is gold. Yes, you need to know the scope and the size and all of those things.
The most seasoned sales professionals will take a look at inductive-deductive, and credibility, emotion, and logic. When you’re putting together a slide presentation, not only do you figure out because you’ve learned about the scope of the project, what do they need but you can present it in a way that connects, that feels right to them, that feels like you get them and it doesn’t feel like you took yesterday’s deck and are forcing it down their throat and it’s boring. If you’re selling an iPhone back the year it came out, you don’t have to do much selling. If your service is good, then that’s not the problem there. If you have a lot of competition and so forth, this will push you over the top because you’ll make that connection. Unlike Challenger, that’s saying that the world of the relationship is no longer important. I don’t agree with that at all. Relationships are very important.
I sense it more because people are looking for connection.
It’s a trust thing. Do I trust you? Do I think you can do what I need? If I go to my boss and put my neck on the line or if I put the dollar amount down here, it’s a feeling. Does it feel we’re going to make a connection?Familiarize yourself with not just what you’re going to say but how you’re going to say it. Click To Tweet
Shifting gears a little bit, you’re the president of the company. You are the second generation president of the company. In the business transition exit planning space, that can be a bit of a challenge periodically, going second generation. At what point in time or what event precipitated you becoming president of the company?
I didn’t plan on coming into the family business. I studied Television and Film Production in my undergraduate degree and then went in and worked in high-tech for a while. I moved up the ranks in this digital video, high-tech world in the ‘90s. We created this incredible website called ICanStream.tv. Now, it’s not along. Don’t bother looking it up, it’s gone. It was YouTube before YouTube. It was amazing. We built this thing, I had a team I. We had close to 300,000 unique visitors. People uploading their videos and sharing them is all part of the digital video space as that revolution was changing.
That whole project got sold as part of a $16 million sale to Autodesk. The division that I was running got sold in Autodesk in their infinite wisdom, shut it down. We’re like, “What?” They were like, “Nobody cares about video on the internet.” It turns out they wanted some pieces of software code in one of the parts of the deal. When that all happened, I got turned off the corporate world in that way. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had to let go of my team, I was let go when the division got closed. My wife and I at the time, she was pregnant with twins. She had given up her teaching job. We went from two incomes with no kids to no income and twins.
Mom and dad said, “Why don’t you come work with us?” I was like, “Okay.” They set me up in the basement. They owned this four-story brownstone building on Beacon Street in Brookline, Massachusetts, just out of Boston. It was a beautiful four-story brownstone for the building. My office was in the boiler room, in the basement that they set up. I went from this high-flying, high-tech, digital.com, lots of revenue happening and I said to my mom, “Mom, what’s the marketing budget here?” I’ve been working there for two weeks and she’s like, “What’s a marketing budget? Do you want me to make a sandwich? I’ve got peanut butter.” I’m like, “My life’s over.” I could not have been more wrong. I was poor me for a little bit.
I started doing formal coach training because I grew up around there and I thought everybody knew about Aristotle’s persuasion and I did plosives but I did have to go through formal training. I was at Harvard University. I was watching my dad. He was there and all of these CEOs were brought in to watch my father speak to learn from him. He’s doing stuff that I’ve been hearing my whole life as a kid. I’m like, “They are loving it.” It was amazing to see your dad in action. Normally, I’m off in Vegas and doing all of these things. I was in an amazing moment. I knew I wanted in. I’m like, “You get paid to do this? This what we grew up with.”
I wanted in and I started at the bottom like every new coach that does. I had no clients yet. I worked to develop it and try to strengthen my skill. I redirected my MBA and PhD. Everything was not in the original plan it came into it. My parents would not stop, they wouldn’t turn the business over. What happened was cancer. I moved to Malaysia. One of my clients asked my family if we wanted to be based out of Malaysia. They wanted me on loan for a little while. I did work throughout Southeast Asia. We were living there and then cancer came with my mom. She was a breast cancer survivor, though we didn’t think much of it like, “Cancer, who cares? She’s got this.”
Six months in, this was pancreatic cancer. We knew it wasn’t going to go the way we wanted. Things got real serious real fast. I canceled the contract with the team I had over in Malaysia and came home. Quickly, she was no longer able to run things in the business and my dad either because he was with her, by her. They were married over 50 years and ran this company together with a family of six. Amazing story. It was very difficult. I started stepping up at that point. I have an older sister, she had no interest in being in management.
For those out there reading, who are in family businesses, my sister and I had some honest heart-to-heart talks before things got serious about me taking charge because we didn’t want to be in a situation where it was going to be sibling rivalry. We have a great relationship. She was incredibly supportive. She said, “I don’t want to be a manager. I want to just keep coaching.” I’m sitting here, I did my MBA and I’m like, “I’ll do it.” We went from there. When my mom died, my wife and I took ownership of the firm from my dad. Now, he works when he feels like it. He’s still active, the guy’s incredible. He’s got a huge client base, but works when he wants. It’s a great setup. He built something amazing with my mom. I hope to carry it for another generation and carry the torch a little bit, maybe grow it a little bit and shoot further. That’s what we’re doing. it’s a great story.
I think about many different stories. In many cases, the business owners wish to pass the family business to the children. The reality is, not many of them are done successfully. If you were to look back over your academic efforts, knowing what you know now, what did you not take in school that you should have taken?
I don’t know because I never planned to go back to grad school. I hated school. I was not a math guy. I did communication because math was not my thing. I had ADHD. Back in those days, you didn’t diagnose that stuff. You backed it up. It was 6 or 7 years between my undergrad and my MBA. Another six years before that and the PhD. It was halfway through the PhD that I got the honorary doctorate. I asked my mom, this was right about when that cancer was happening and I asked my mom, “Does this mean I can quit the PhD because I get the doctor title now?” She’s like, “No.” I stuck with it.
If somebody was interested in getting into this space, anything related to communication, psychology, or business, those are all good foundational tools for a speech coach. We work with politicians, celebrities, and stuff, but the majority of our work is in the business environment. My PhD is in Psychology with a focus on Industry Organizational Psychology. I only chose that because I had been coaching for a long time now. I didn’t want the title, I wanted more knowledge. I wanted to better understand what I was seeing inside of all of these different companies.
Why I would be in Massachusetts and hear the same thing in Malaysia or Indonesia when mostly television and the internet talks about how different we all are in different cultures. I’d be hearing almost identical human concerns, “My manager doesn’t understand me. I get nervous when I have to speak to the bosses in the room. There’s too much on my plate. I have to give feedback and the person gets defensive.” I’m hearing this in Germany, Ireland, Indonesia, Korea, everywhere.
It’s like constructive criticism.
Yes. What’s interesting is there are word-shaped perceptions. There are ways to communicate ideas that might be perceived as negative and people walk away and they still feel good about themselves.
That’s in the book. That was interesting for me because I’ve got kids to coach. I think about all of the things. Thinking of that, you’re at whatever your age is currently, if you had to roll the clock backward and offer advice to you, the brand new guy taking and running the company, what advice would you offer to the younger you way back then?
This may not sound shocking to people, but I would say, “Be patient. It’ll come.” I mean it, because back then, I was so hungry. I had come from a position in the high-tech space where money wasn’t an object. In the ‘90s, high-tech, those companies were making a lot of revenue. Managing big events and activities, we had funding to do stuff. I go into a small little family business with nothing. I was eager and excited. I would say, “Be patient. Keep working and you’ll get there.”
In the business, there’s PC, pre-COVID, during COVID and now I’m hoping we’re post-COVID. How did you see your business change or adjust to that event?
I’m proud of the team. It’s not easy. It was like a switch. Within the course of three days, coaches were calling me, some of them in tears. They would watch their revenue, their work, for the next 2 to 3 months that was already scheduled. We often schedule about six months out. We’re busy all the time. We’re pretty much always booked with coaching on individual or group. Within three days, coach by coach, cancellation after cancellation. For some of the coaches, this is for all of us, our livelihood. This is how we make our living. It was unsettling and scary. We got together and we tightened the belts and said, “What are we going to do?”Words shape perception. Click To Tweet
Fortunately, we are in the type of vocation where remote work can be useful. At first, it was nothing. Most of our clients, if not all, cut off budgets. Things were turned off. We were like, “Hang on everybody. We got each other. We’re going to do fine.” There was a lot of creativity, discussion, learning, and studying. We had been doing remote stuff anyway because we have clients in Japan and Malaysia and overseas. That’s not new for us. We realized we needed to convert. What once was a two-day off-site presentation or leadership skills program that bonds, people love it, it’s great, to a Zoom experience or Teams or GoToMeeting. We learned a lot. Some of them were tough lessons. We didn’t realize that we were in the group. We did learn things like group size is significant.
These days, we will say if it’s virtual, we got to keep the groups to twelve or less. Going to 13, 14, it’s like that curve you see with technology where the newer years, the curve goes almost straight up how fast technology has adopted. It’s like that for attention span. In a group of twelve or smaller, attention span can be retained and the quality of training and development coaching that happens there is high. More people start to drop and it was tough, but we learn things like that. Slowly, our clients started opening up their budgets in different ways. We were able to be of service to them. We watched for our team that was also dealing with the emotion of what they see on television and news. As a leader, I was trying to keep everybody calm, “It’s alright. We’ll be here.” We have done and we made it. We’re ramping up again. It’s been fantastic.
You talked in the book about framing. First, you have the shock of the event and they go, “I understand the problem, where’s the opportunity?” I think about the level of communication that has to happen from your clients to their clients. You are leading the charge on how to frame properly, how to communicate properly, tonality, and all of that stuff. At some juncture, people said, “We can’t do it without you.”
We have a lot of clients that are like that. There are many of our clients we’ve been working with them for decades. The oldest I saw was probably around 2011 and a woman came up to me. She was an old lady, and she came up to me and she said, “I thought you were going to be your father. I took his class in 1963.” We started in 1964. This is when he and my mom are just getting going. She still remembered what she learned. She later wrote us a nice letter. That’s not uncommon. Many of our clients have been working with us for a long time.
Jon Platt is a client of mine. He is the CEO and Chairman of Sony Music. He’s been working with us when he was an Executive Vice President. He said, “I would love to move up in my career.” He needed to learn some language. He knew the language of his craft and music. This is the guy who produced and found Beyonce, Jay Z, and some of the big names. He was excellent at it. Now, he needed to learn some new language for the executive C-Suite and he did. He’s moved up along the way throughout his career. He still calls us, it’s not like I took the class that I’m done because each presentation or environment might be something new. We’ll use this as a resource and that’s how we work with folks.
It’s like a little knowledge starts to open up your perspective on the importance. I’ve been married 30 plus years and you think about the opportunities to not communicate well are regular and rampant and can be. Thank God I have a spouse that has a sense of humor that puts up with me. Do you think there’s an overarching misconception about what you do?
Probably. The most common misconception we get when we say, “Yes, The Speech Improvement Company.” They’d say, “You work with children?” I get that all the time, because speech pathologists, we thought of changing the company name. Speech Coach, we’ve thought about it and I get it. It’s very technically correct. It’s exactly what we do. Speech communication is the way we think and the way we talk. In fact, when we are doing leadership communication training, a lot of schools out there, whether it’s Harvard or MIT or programs that are out there people looking at leadership programs, I don’t know that they get it right. They will put leadership at the top of the pyramid.
By the way, here’s a little thing on communication skills, no way. If you go to the NCA, the National Communication Association, thousands of professionals in communication go to this every year. They’re all academics. They laugh at that because the general thinking is that the entire leadership industry has plagiarized the communication industry. I know that’s a strong word right in academics. The whole point is that, in communication, this is where psychology is studied for communication. We would turn that pyramid on its side and say, “If you learn and master your communication, you end up with strong leaders.”
Topics like how to get feedback, how to motivate, how to inspire, and how to present are all communication competencies that are often wrapped in a leadership program. The reason why I talk about it that way because that’s not the way to go about building skills. If you learn it at its core, if you strengthen real skills, fundamental tools in the way you think, and the way you produce sound, you’ll be excellent at communicating. Perfect? No. I mess up all the time. I am not perfect. I was raised by two PhD speech coaches. I’m not perfect. I mess up.
I need to talk to your dad.
If you put him on the show, he’ll be talking about me like, “When Ethan came here.” He still talks about me like I’m six.
I didn’t know what to expect out of this episode. I read the book and went like, “How did I not know?” I’ve got the leadership training from the military, that’s pretty straightforward stuff. Lead from the front, take care of the troops, do what you say, straightforward things. I’ve been starting to become enamored with the story. Do a fair amount with the stoics and looking at that side of the house. In the industry that I’m in, communication of an intangible effort is critical and poorly received and understood by many. You’re looking at your contribution and your family’s contribution to the space of understanding. For the folks out there going like, “I want to get better at this,” how do people find you and your company?
Thank you for that recognition. I do appreciate it. The reality is, we are a small firm. By design, we try and stay humble. I get about 100 or 200 resumés a year from folks who want to join us. One of the things I’ll say to anybody I interview is, “We want to make money, but that has to come secondary to helping people.” My mom and dad had this vision that if you can heal the world, if you help people learn how to talk more effectively with each other, they’d stop hitting each other. That might start in the business world, and then go into other places. You have to have a desire to help. As a result, we do stay somewhat humble as a brand. Even when folks come in here, we’ll have celebrities come into our office. They love it, it’s homey. It’s down to earth and calm on purpose.
We do have about 2,000 books physically in our library, the next room overall about communication that goes back as far as Aristotle and as new as present-day so that we can stay fresh with us. Folks can find us, if you ever come to Massachusetts, come into the office, and we’re here. You can find us on the website, SpeechImprovement.com. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, there is an app that we put out called Speech Companion. This is a free app. It only works on iPhone because that’s all we’ve been able to figure out how to do. It’s a good app.
We didn’t intend it to be a companion to the book, but it happens to coincide with it. It’s a companion to a lot of the work we do with our clients. There’s an excellent review right on the app of some of the tools that are taught in the book. In some cases, with the plosive sounds, we built in this thing called the Plosives Practice Lab. It’s cool. They used my voice in the app. You can tap and hear me demonstrate the correct way to practice the sentence and you can record yourself. It’s pretty neat. It’s free, we’re not making a dollar off the app.
Would you tell me, does your children all have your app on the phone?
Yes. They were beta testers.
You’re going full circle back. Your children are in a home much like you were because your wife is also highly educated. You had twins and you have two more children as well, or no?If you learn and master communication, you end up with very strong leaders. Click To Tweet
I have twins, boy-girl twins, and a girl. The twins are in college. One of them is studying Computer Programming. Although he’s thinking of switching to Communication, not because of me. The other one, I had nothing to do with this, is studying Speech Pathology.
It’s a defensive mechanism.
The reality is we’ve talked about it. We say wholeheartedly to the kids, there was no expectation that they come into the family business. I got that from my mom and dad. I was supposed to go to Hollywood and make movies. There is a rule that we’ve established as a family business. I’m a part of a network of family business owners. There’s a network group of us. One of the things I learned from that group, I loved this and we implemented it here at Speech Improvement, is for family members they have to work somewhere else for five years, then they’re eligible to come into the family business. I loved it when I heard that. I did that, so did my sister. We didn’t do it by a rule. We did it because I was out somewhere for about eight years before I came into the family business. The value is high working in another business for a while. It adds to the ability to coach effectively.
Ethan, this has been a joy. For the readers out here, a great resource. We all talked about communication. It’s a hard skill, which I thought was true. It is a skill. You can build the skill you got to mean too.
I understood you, so It’s okay.
Ethan, again, for folks. The name of the book is Mastering Communication at Work: How to Lead, Manage, and Influence. You can be found at SpeechImprovement.com.
You can find me on LinkedIn.
Ethan, thank you so much for taking your time. I appreciate it.
Thanks for having me. It was a joy to be here.
- The Speech Improvement Company
- Mastering Communication at Work
- Jon Wortmann
- WPP Wunderman
- Sony Music
- Speech Companion – Apple Store
- LinkedIn – Dr. Ethan F. Becker
About Dr. Ethan F. Becker
An international best-selling author, keynote speaker, and 2nd generation executive speech coach/trainer. Helps people to lead, manage, and influence through oral communication skills. To speak with confidence. From the mechanics of speech to the psychology of communication. He currently heads the 55-year-old global firm, THE SPEECH IMPROVEMENT COMPANY, INC., which has helped over 1 million people worldwide, and is known for founding the executive communication coaching industry in the 1960s. They design and implement highly customized enterprise-wide group training programs and private coaching for leaders of countries, companies, and people in all walks of life. Leaders from countries such as Malaysia, Germany, England, Ireland, the UAE, China, Japan and more have traveled to Boston to be coached by our team.
The co-author of the international bestseller “Mastering Communication at Work, how to lead, manage and influence” published by McGraw-Hill. It features interviews from Harvard Business School, The White House, Bank Negara, Google, TED, EMI publishing, Boston Scientific, and more. It is used in business schools and companies globally. It is also an Amazon #1 best seller in 13 categories.
From Harvard University to the New York Giants, to the leaders of governments and fortune 100 organizations around the world, he has helped tens of thousands of people with their communication skills. Often behind the scenes, he helps people to be authentic, engaging, comfortable, and impactful in their group and individual communication. He specializes in areas such as controlling nervousness, developing style, leadership, and sales communication. He also provide motivational customized keynote presentations.
In May of 2012, just after the passing of his mother, he was humbled and honored to receive an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from Fitchburg State University for my global work in communication. In addition, he holdd a BS in mass communication, an MBA in international leadership, and Ph.D. in the industry & organizational psychology.
Founded by his parents, Dr. Dennis Becker and Dr. Paula Borkum Becker, The Speech Improvement Company has a team of highly trained specialists who have dedicated their lives to healing the world through better speech communication. The firm has been helping people with professional development worldwide since 1964 and has been formally declared by the Town of Brookline, empowered by the state of Massachusetts as the oldest communication coaching and training firm in the United States.