Frankly Speaking: How I Learned to be Heard

Finding my voice got me a passport to the future.

Francesco Marconi
Jun 18, 2015 · 8 min read
Illustrations by @MikeBowser

The years following graduation were especially hard for me as a young professional. I was eager to have an impact in the “real” world. I decided to write a career playbook (see part one and two) based on my observations and experiments as a young professional. I was at my first job at the time and tried out those ideas on my friends and close colleagues, who encouraged me to share them with a wider audience. The problem? That playbook was boring as hell. I had to learn how to communicate.

My next step was studying how journalists like Katie Couric, screenwriters such as Lena Dunham and speakers like Malcolm Gladwell engaged their audiences by leveraging different ways of telling stories and evoking emotions. I continued drafting my playbook after hours, my ideas slowly taking shape as I tested this new found knowledge. Finally, I had what I wanted: a series of clear communication tips to help you sound like a pro in any industry, at any stage of your career.

Rule #13 Tell A Tale

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”Muriel Rukeyser

According to West Wing Writers, a speechwriting and communications strategy firm in D.C., 63 percent of people recall stories a speaker tells, yet only 5 percent can remember a single statistic — even when the speech includes vastly more statistics than stories.

Since I work in a news company, I often share my personal story to tell people why I am passionate about the industry. The story goes like this: my Italian father was on a train in Paris when he noticed a group of soldiers bothering a Portuguese woman as she was trying to read a newspaper. He approached the soldiers, telling them to leave the woman alone. Then he wrote his phone number on the front page of the woman’s paper, saying, “If you are ever in Rome, give me a call and I’ll show you around.” One year later he received a call from the woman on the train, who was visiting Italy with a friend. She had kept the paper. That was the beginning of my parents’ relationship — and why I can say that newspapers are in my DNA.

Rule#14 The Rule Of Three

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” — Hans Hofmann

Most studies agree that the average person remembers between 25 and 50 percent of what he or she hears. That means that when you talk to your boss, your colleagues or customers, they are likely to retain less than half of the conversation.

So how do you make sure you get your point across? Entrepreneur and former McKinsey consultant Ameer Ranadive believes the rule of three is what persuades his clients to take action. Ranadive writes, “1. Your argument gets their attention and is memorable, 2. You are forced to choose the three most important reasons, 3. You sound more structured, confident and decisive when you speak.”

I use Ranadive’s rule of three at work and in my everyday life, so much so that I have developed a reputation among my friends for having an interesting opinion about everything. When they ask, “What do you think about X?” I always answer, “Well, I can tell you three things about X…” I do this even when I don’t know much about whatever X happens to be, but since my ideas are well-structured, they sound smart. Now that my secret is out, use it to your advantage.

Rule #15 Shut Up

“Honey, once you’ve made the sale, stop selling.” — Marshall Eriksen of How I Met Your Mother

In a study on task switching and interruptions, researchers for Microsoft Corporation recorded the activities of information workers. They found that participants were interrupted four times per hour on average. Not unexpected, right? But get this: 40 percent of the time the interrupted individuals did not resume the task they were working on before they were disturbed. In fact, critical long-term projects were even more difficult for the workers to return to.

I learned this the hard way. At the beginning of my career I felt the need to interject myself into discussions to prove I had something to offer. When I joined a team working on a proposal due the following week, however, I quickly noticed a change in the behavior of my peers in response to my constant editorials, as the initially welcoming atmosphere devolved to a high-pressure environment. At first I thought I wasn’t contributing enough, so I jumped in even more frequently than before. We missed our deadline — and I later understood it was my fault.

Rule #16 No Trash Talk

“Promote what you love instead of bashing what you hate” — Ron Oliver

A close friend of mine was very popular in college, wowing faculty and students with his academic and athletic performance. Unfortunately, he also excelled at criticizing people.

Before graduation, my friend applied to his dream job at a top marketing firm. He was the ideal candidate. He aced the interview. But the company turned him down. Shocked, he later discovered that other recent hires knew about his reputation as a sidewalk superintendent and advised the hiring manager to choose a different candidate.

A team of psychologists from the United States and New Zealand found an occurrence called “spontaneous trait transference”. Individuals take on the personality traits that they use to describe others. If you tell your friend, that someone you both know is selfish and self-centered, she will unconsciously associate you with those two negative characteristics. The worst part is that such associations persist over time!

Rule #17 Mine The Nugget

You see things; and you say ‘why?’But I dream of things that never were, and I say Why not?’” — George Bernard Shaw

Since it was launched in September 2012, digital news website Quartz has achieved immense growth, reaching millions of social media users. How? By extracting the “golden nugget,” the most unusual or unexpected side of the story. For example, a story on pollution and mislabeling in the tuna industry gets compressed into the headline, “59 percent of America’s ‘tuna’ isn’t actually tuna.” That sums up the real meat of the story, so to speak.

When I first started working for a news company, the reports I sent to my supervisor, a former business journalist, often came back to me with the question, “What’s the story?” The story (aka the nugget) was always buried at the end of my write-up. This is why my work was not getting noticed, my supervisor told me. People were not interested in making the commitment to read what I wrote unless I engaged them right off the bat. Once I began mining the nugget, I finally received the recognition I had been waiting for.

Rule #18 Know Your Stuff

To be prepared is half the victory” — Miguel Cervantes

A descendant of working class immigrants, Al Smith grew up in the early 1900s in the Lower East Side of New York City. Despite his humble beginnings, Smith was interested in politics, a profession usually reserved for the well-off. But Smith defied the odds and became a junior member of the New York State Assembly at 31.

At nights, while politicians from aristocratic backgrounds attended parties and social events, Smith would read every single piece of legislation he could find. Eventually, senior leaders of the party noticed his preparedness and made Smith their trusted advisor. Smith went on to be elected Governor of New York four times.

In 2012, I was asked to give a TEDx talk regarding a small book I had published on innovation. I had always been terrified of public speaking, and when I received the formal invitation, I gaped at the impressive lineup of speakers. Without a doubt I was the least qualified. I felt crushed under the weight of the names flanking mine on the program: one, a NASA astronaut, and the other, Brad Pitt’s brother Doug, who does charity work in Africa. The pressure was on.

For a month I studied and memorized my talk, preparing contingency plans and pacing my presentation. On the big day, following the astronaut I walked up to the stage, looked at the audience…and to my surprise, I felt entirely relaxed. I was ready for this. I was prepared.

New to #FranklySpeaking? Here’s Part One: How I Found Purpose

Want to accelerate your career? Part Two: How I Got Started

How to persuade? Part Four: How I Shaped My Path

The grand Finale!Part Five: How I shared Inspiration

Frankly Speaking

A playbook meant to cut through the noise of career clichés.

Francesco Marconi

Written by

R&D Chief at The Wall Street Journal and fellow at Columbia Journalism School. I write about media, storytelling and innovation.

Frankly Speaking

A playbook meant to cut through the noise of career clichés.

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