This article is an update from one I wrote in 2013. I think it's still relevant and something to be revisited.
If I were to ask you to complete the following sentence, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but..." what would you say? I can already hear the giggles and the mumblings that sound something close to "...but whips and chains excite me." Sigh. There's always at least one in the crowd. Most of us, if not all of us, probably heard this well-intentioned phrase recited from various adults who were trying to help us get over a nasty comment made by another kid. But is this the right advice? Does it really help? I say, "NO!" And that's with a big, fat N.O. Read on to learn why this statement, along with some others, is just poppycock - in my humble opinion.
1. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Ooooooooh reeeeaaaaallllly?! Well, I do understand where this statement is going. It's trying to teach us that others' opinions don't really matter. Our opinion of ourselves is what truly matters. Here's the problem. Research has shown that our self-identity is influenced by how we believe others perceive us. In short, if enough people tell me that I'm a loser, then eventually I might start believing it. Julia Wood, author of Communication Mosaics, explains, "When we're around downers, we tend to feel down about ourselves. Reflecting their perspectives, we're more aware of our weaknesses and less confident of what we can accomplish. Downer's discourage belief in ourselves." What does this mean? I’ll tell you. It means that language matters. It's not merely a reflection of what's around us. It actually helps create the reality that exists around us. Let’s be honest here. Sticks and stones can break our bones and words can definitely harm us. So instead of perpetuating the myth, let's help our kids to understand that the words they choose to use do matter. Words can leave bruises just as bad as the sticks and the stones can - just not the visible kind.
2. "If you can dream it, you can do it!" Thanks Jimmy for that little nugget! "Blades of Glory" was an awesome movie wasn't it? When people say this to their kids, do they really understand just how much of a downer it's gonna be for their kids as they get older and reality hits them right between the eyeballs? I (day) dream all the time about what a kick-ass rock chick I could make - especially as I jam out while cruising around town in my BMW. My voice sounds especially awesome in the shower. But guess what? Even if I had the motivation to move to L.A., or Atlanta, or N.Y., and knock down every door of every producer I could find, I still would not be a Haley Williams. That was a Paramore reference by the way (it’s a rock band). In reality, I just don't have the pipes. Perhaps with a lot of practice and a personal vocal coach, I could strive to be better than average. Better than average is not going to make me a rock star. But here's the thing - everybody can't do everything. It's only natural. Some are just naturally better at some things than others. And that is totally okay! We all do have a natural talent at something. The key is finding that something and going for it. My natural talent? Sniffing BS, writing BS, and teaching others how to speak. So instead of pressuring our kids into thinking they have to be the top-dog in everything they do, or telling our kids that they can do anything they want, let’s do them a real service and help them first identify their strengths (their natural talents) so they can reach their true potential.
3. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This has got to be the most egocentric statement of ...well, forever. I have to say it. The Golden Rule is probably the worst relationship advice one could ever give or follow. Before you get all huffy and puffy, hear me out. What happened to individuality? Accepting others…no. Appreciating others for who they are? Understanding that not everybody is alike? And understanding that that’s okay? Well, if you really want to be all "we are the world" and stuff then you have got to get rid of this bogus golden rule. Why? Because not everybody is alike! And everybody is definitely not like you! Here's an example. Let’s say your favorite flower is the orchid. Well, my favorite flower is the daisy, so guess what I’m getting you! Daisies! Your favorite band is One Direction? My favorite band is the Smashing Pumpkins, so guess what tickets I’m buying for you? Pumpkins! You love white chocolate? Well, I like dark chocolate, so guess what! Hugs and PDA make you feel uncomfortable? I’m gonna be all up in your business when we go out then! You probably get the picture by now (hopefully). I’m only following the Golden Rule. How about instead we teach our kids about The Platinum Rule. "Treat others the way they want to be treated." If you want to be a good friend, partner, parent, etc., then you have to learn to put your needs aside. I’m not saying your needs are less important, but I am saying that if you want to be able to strengthen your relationships, then you need to recognize and accept the other person’s individual wants and needs. So before making that next decision regarding where to eat, or what movie to watch, or whether to buy a greeting card or make a home-made one, or to “borrow” some chow out of the community fridge at work, don’t think about what you would like. Think about what the other person would like. Think about how your action will make them feel before taking that action. Relationship saved.
4. "If you wait long enough, good things will happen." I tell you what, while you're waiting for the I'm-Gonna-Make-All-Your-Dreams-Come-True fairy to show up and just make good things happen, I'm going to be outside actually making things happen. I think this saying is supposed to support the "Patience is a virtue" thing, but I don't think it quite hits the mark. After all, the only things that happen when I wait around are the laundry pile gets bigger, the trash starts stinking, and my family gets irritable from being hungry. I think we're better off teaching the young ones that if you wait around long enough, your butt will become numb from not moving. Let's face it. Good things happen when we work for it. Want to be an athlete? You have to train hard and even lose some games to keep getting better. Want to be a musician? You have to practice every day. Make a demo. Get your music out there to be heard - or join the Disney Channel. Want a degree in biochemical engineering? You better study your arse off and make it to every class. The point is, nobody got anywhere by waiting. Nobody has actually achieved anything by waiting. I guarantee you that if you just keep waiting for a good job to miraculously appear, you’re gonna be disappointed. You have to keep moving in order to make things happen. Blast through some walls and leap some tall buildings if you have to. And if you keep moving long enough, good things will eventually happen. It really is amazing how the more you work at something, the “luckier” you will become.
5. “Win! Win! Win!” Whether it’s an academic subject or a sport, not coming in first place is not the end of the world. What is up with putting so much pressure on kids these days? Parents will actually do their children’s homework assignments and science projects for them just so they can get a good grade. I want to ask these parents, “but what did your kids learn from that?” I’ll tell you what they learned. They learned you didn’t have confidence in their ability to do a good job. They learned if they give up, mom and dad will bail them out. They learned to get ahead by doing as little as possible while allowing others to do the work for them. They learned…well, nothing. And as for the sports? Can we just let the kids have some fun? I understand you might have this dream that one day your child will be the #1 draft pick in the NFL, but just in case that doesn’t happen (and likely it won’t), how about just allowing your child to enjoy playing the game itself? I’ve seen more parents yell at their kids about not hitting the ball hard enough, or not throwing the ball far enough, or not catching the ball enough. I’ve seen little children crying because they were tired and didn’t want to do another backflip. I’ve seen exhausted parents racing around town frantically trying to get their kids from wrestling, to baseball, to karate practice…all in one evening. And guess what? The kids were just as miserable as the parents. I agree that it’s good to have kids involved in extracurricular activities. It’s good to encourage kids to do their best. But let’s not lose sight of what’s most important here. And if you’re answer to what’s most important is “winning,” then you’ve completely missed the point…and I feel sorry for your children.
When Darth Vader speaks, everybody listens. The audience clings to each syllable as if they are afraid to let go. Well, afraid is probably not the type of response you nor I would want from our audience, but still. You have to admit the guy commands your attention. Whether we are pitching a new idea to a client, interviewing for a job, speaking in front of a group, or talking to another individual one-on-one, we can only hope to gain and keep a fraction of the attention that Vader can muster. So, let’s take some lessons from the master himself.
Have you ever noticed it’s not even what Vader says that matters; rather, it’s his mere presence that manages to capture and keep our attention? The man is the master of nonverbal visual communication. He makes it very clear that he is the one in charge, and he doesn’t even have to utter a single syllable to get others to understand it. Here are just 3 steps you can take to transform your meager human presence to that of a commanding Sith Lord:
1. Body Posture – Darth Vader is no slouch. Even when he just stands still, he emits nothing but pure power. How is it possible that someone can exude so much power while covered in drapes? It’s all in the posture. Have you ever caught Vader leaning against a wall, or standing with one hand on a hip, or uncomfortably swaying back and forth, or sitting like he just can’t wait to take a nap? Me neither. There’s a reason for that. The straighter you sit, the taller you stand, and the more confident you will appear. Did you notice that Vader seems to always be the most confident person in the room? It’s because he stands like he’s the most confident person in the room. Whether you are speaking to a large audience of 5,000, or a smaller audience of 50, or an even smaller audience of one, sit or stand like you are the most confident person in the room. But what if you don’t feel confident? That’s easy. Make yourself sit and stand straight anyway. Research shows that yes, you can actually “trick” yourself into feeling more confident (or not) through your body posture.
2. Body Movement – Whenever Vader walks, you can tell he’s going somewhere important. He’s got a purpose. In public speaking, we too should walk like we have a purpose. Can you imagine how ridiculous Vader would look pacing aimlessly about, going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, like some nervous Nelly? And did you ever hear of him shuffling his feet while taking a lazy stroll around the Death Star? Ah, no. There is nothing less intimidating than a person who walks while shuffling his or her feet. Just watch an episode of The Walking Dead. Yes, the dead are pretty disgusting and gross to look at, but they aren't even scary anymore. Why? Because they are aimlessly shuffling about going nowhere fast and without a purpose. Whenever you are speaking in front of an audience, move with purpose. Choose a section to stand near, walk there, address that part of the audience for a bit, then walk to another section of the audience to address them for a while. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. And when you’re standing there addressing a particular section of the audience, refer back to #1 on this list.
3. Hand Gestures – Just as with walking, Vader doesn't waste time with random hand movements. You really don’t even notice what he’s doing with his hands until he raises them to use them for a purpose (just like the walking). Take for instance, whenever Vader decides to use the Force to choke someone. You know it’s coming because he raises his arm and uses a hand gesture just before it happens. And when it’s time to employ the Jedi mind trick, a wave of the hand helps to persuade another person to change his or her mind. Could Vader be equally effective in choking and persuading others without the use of his hands (and let’s not focus on the fact that they’re fake hands okay)? I’m willing to bet my next paycheck that the answer is yes. But using his hands does seem to help him channel and focus all that dark energy into a certain direction. It’s no different for you and me when it comes to public speaking. Actually, we shouldn't even think about hand gestures while speaking, unless we are using them purposefully (think Jedi mind trick and pretend you’re using the Force). When not thinking about hand gestures while speaking, you’ll allow them to move naturally – just like you do when having an everyday conversation. Just let them flow. When it comes time to make a point though, think about the impact you want to make and what kind of hand gesture you could use to complement and complete the message.
These are just 3 steps you can begin practicing now in order to improve your visual nonverbal communication skills. Next time, we'll take a look at why how Vader speaks is equally as important.
Jennifer Furlong has 25 years’ experience in the communication field and teaches communication and public speaking courses in the Savannah area. She earned a B.A. and M.A. in Communication from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She currently resides in Richmond Hill, Ga. with her family of canines, felines, and humans. Let's be social! Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. Just look for Professor SpeechLady. See you in cyberspace.
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