Interview with Journalist and Communication Skills Coach Edie Lush
Edie Lush Edie Lush is a journalist and communication skills coach. She is the Execu­tive Editor of Hub Culture and regularly interviews CEOs, entrepreneurs and politicians, and chairs events around the world.

As a journalist, she has worked for Bloomberg TV, the BBC, The Spectator, Prospect, The Week and Spectator Busi­ness magazines.

She has been a political analyst for a hedge fund and a speechwriter for the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, and is a graduate of UCLA and Yale. She lives in London and works in the UK and US.

Hi Edie, thanks so much for stopping by the Activia Training website. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

As you mentioned, I’m a journalist and a communication coach. I’m Execu­tive Editor of Hub Culture – I go to Davos every year to interview entrepreneurs, academics and politicians – this year I was excited to interview Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus and former Prime Minister Tony Blair. I also chair events on Hub Culture’s behalf around the globe, including events celebrating Extraordinary Women.

I’m also a communication coach for Charlotte McDougall Associates and help clients shine in big speeches, pro-motion panels, interviews, pitches, literary festivals, board meetings, media appearances and TED talks.

What made you decide to become a communications coach?

I was a reporter for Bloomberg TV – reporting on economics, currencies and bonds, and politics and economics.  Then I became a print journalist and wrote for The Spectator, Prospect, The Week and Spectator Busi­ness magazines.  My business partner Charlotte and I come from different but complementary backgrounds – she is an actor - from those different beginnings we’ve come to the same place!

What are some of the most common problems or challenges you have to deal with when coaching clients, and how do you address them?

I always start out my 1:1 and group sessions asking what people want to work on. One of the things I hear most often is, ‘I can’t control the nerves!’ I also hear, ‘I want my messages to stick with people after I’ve stopped speaking and I’m not sure they are.’

Let’s take nerves – they are a killer. (I’ll come to sticky messages in the answer about storytelling below.) I’d love to wave the magic wand and make them go away. Yet they are part of life. The actor Laurence Olivier is quoted as saying, ‘If you’re not nervous, you’re dead.’

Here’s a neuro-linguistic programming technique that my friend Lucian Tarnowski, founder and CEO of told me about. I like as it is both practical and porta­ble. You need to set yourself up for it ahead of time.

Here’s how he describes it. Find a time and place when you are really relaxed at home. Close your eyes. Imagine your favourite place on the planet. Somewhere you have been before without a worry in the world. Perhaps your favourite beach. Imagine your partner or best friend lying next to you. Your favourite drink by your side. Feel the sun on your skin. Hear the sound of the waves (or whatever sounds accompany your favourite place). Try to picture every little detail – the colour of the water, the texture of the sand, the feeling of being completely relaxed and sublime. Really focus on this and take it all in. Smile.

Then with your right hand stroke a knuckle on your left hand. I like to stroke my middle finger with my index finger. What you are doing is creating a mental association with the feeling of stroking your knuckle. Since this is a very particu­lar feeling, your body can remember it. Practice this a few times in a relaxed place. Now, when you are about to go up and speak, stroke your knuckle (close your eyes if you need to). Your mind will bring back the image of your favourite place. This will distract you from the nervousness you will be feeling about speaking. It will lower your heart rate and allow you to take a deep breath and collect yourself. Let out that deep breath with a smile and know that you are ready to share yourself with the people you are speaking to.

Go and hit it out of the park.

If your nerves get the better of you at any point while you are speaking, just pause, take a breath and stroke your knuckle and then carry on again.

How to speak with confidence in publicYour book, How to Speak with Confidence in Public is coming out later this week. Could you tell us a little bit about the book and what inspired you to write it?

It was so fun to write! It came out of a series of courses that I teach for the How To: Academy. John Gordon who runs the How To Academy suggested that it would make a good book and Macmillan agreed!

Are you working on any new projects at the moment or what are your plans for the future?

I’m working on an online course with the How To Academy – that’s exciting!

Longer term, I’m working to set my business up in both California and the UK. I’m from San Francisco, and I am working on building my business up there.  Once my kids are grown up (I’ve got time – they are 9, 10 and 13) I’d like to split my time between London and San Francisco.  Let me know if you know anyone looking for communication training on the West Coast of America!

When it comes to presenting, would you say that the key is in the strength of your content or in the style of delivery?

Both! To be memorable and interesting you need to have great substance. To look confident and comfortable you need to be in control of your delivery style.

Many people talk about ‘storytelling’ in communication, would you consider this to be an effective tool?

Yes! I’ll never forget hearing about the start of the Arab Spring – when Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after being humiliated by a municipal officer. His weighing scales were confiscated and his wheel­barrow was turned over because he didn’t have a vendor’s permit or the money to bribe the police. This wasn’t the first time – at age twenty-six he’d worked since he was ten and had, his friends and family say, been regularly harassed by police attempting to extort money. This time, he’d had enough. Perhaps it was the fact that the person who took his scales was a woman. He ran to the governor’s office to demand justice. After the governor refused to see him – even though he threatened to set himself on fire – he bought a can of gasoline, stood in the middle of traffic in front of the governor’s office, and set himself on fire. His action became the catalyst for protests and strikes across Tunisia and other parts of the Middle East.

Whenever you read about the Arab Spring you come across phrases like ‘dissatisfaction with the rule of local government’, ‘economic decline’, ‘corruption’, ‘youth unem­ployment’, ‘extreme poverty’, ‘dissatisfied youth’ and ‘human rights violations’. The point of Mohamed’s story is that it illustrates these phrases. It brings them to life. I can see the overturned wheelbarrow and weighing scales in my head. I can’t, however, see ‘corruption’ or ‘human rights violations’ or ‘dissatisfaction with the rule of local government’. There is nothing wrong with the words, but it is hard to think about ‘dissatisfaction with the rule of local government’ in a concrete way. Mohamed’s brutal treatment by the regime and his subsequent self-immolation tell the story of part of the Arab Spring both brutally and memorably.

Mohamed’s story paints a picture in your head. There are real people, real characters, real descriptions to latch on to.

We are addicted to stories. It is as though we have a story gene. A newspaper editor doesn’t say to a journalist, ‘Go and get me the facts and figures,’ but instead, ‘Go and get me the story.’ It’s why we love going to the theatre, or the cinema, or the opera. It’s why we have piles of books next to our beds. It’s why we take our e-readers on holiday.

Yet somehow, these stories get left behind when we go into presentation or speech mode. It’s back to ‘three key messages, two points I’d like to get across’.

The problem with ‘three key messages’ is that they are boring and predictable. Listeners turn off. Stories, on the other hand, are compelling. They’re memorable. And for the speaker, they’re much easier to remember.

Why is body language so important in communication and how does it affect the audience's perception of your presentation?

We know that non-verbal messages are important! Anyone interested in this topic should start by looking at the research by Albert Mehrabian (Silent Messages, 1971) and Ray Birdwhistell (Kinesics and Context: Essays on Body Motion Communication, 1970) as well as  Allen and Barbara Pease, (The Definitive Book of Body Language: The Secret Meaning Behind People’s Gestures, 2008).

When I was researching this topic for my book I asked Olivier Oullier, Professor of Behavioural and Brain Sciences at Aix-Marseille University in France about his work on what he calls ‘social coordination dynamics’[1]. He and his colleagues placed pairs of people in front of one another and asked them to make a series of movements. It was up to them which movements they chose. First they performed their movements with their eyes closed. When they could not see each other, their movements were not influenced by each other. But when Professor Oullier asked his pairs to open their eyes while performing their movements, their actions started to mirror each other. In Oullier’s scientific world, this is called ‘spontaneous interpersonal synchronization’. We can settle on ‘mirroring’.

What is intriguing about Oullier’s work is that the behav­iour of each individual remained influenced by the social encounter even after the information exchange had been removed. It became what he calls a kind of social memory. When asked to perform their action again, there were ‘remnants and echoes’ of the other person’s movements. This suggests that if you are dynamic, or full of energy in your speech, your audience can become more energetic and actively engaged in what you are saying.

We’ve all experienced the moment when someone yawns, and we yawn back (in fact, we only have to see a picture of someone yawning to trigger the yawn impulse in ourselves). Equally, when someone smiles at us, we tend to smile back. This is because our brain mirrors what others do, and encourages us to do the same.

Taking responsibility and consciously upping our energy levels means that our listeners start, unconsciously, to increase their own energy. The negative cycle begins to turn positive.

Several studies and surveys have shown that the average person ranks the fear of public speaking higher than the fear of death. Is it possible to learn how to overcome this fear – and if so, how long does it usually take?

Amazing isn’t it? Jerry Seinfeld once joked that most of us would rather attend a funeral in the casket than give the eulogy. Many of us would agree. A 2013 poll in the UK had glossophobia – the fear of speaking in public – as the second largest fear (after losing a family member). Fear of being buried alive – or just dying – came third and fourth, respectively. [2]

I can usually get someone looking like they are enjoying speaking in public within a day. Half the battle is getting other people to think you look confident, comfortable and happy to be standing up in front of a group. When you’re getting used to speaking in public it doesn’t matter how you feel inside – you can still be thinking, ‘I don’t want to be here / I’m afraid of getting found out!’ Once you’ve got the audience fooled, then you can work on ways to start to enjoy it yourself!

Finally, is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?

I’ll never forget my first day working at Bloomberg TV. I’d arrived from UBS as a political analyst, and while I’d often spoken as a ‘talking head’ on various political and economic matters, I’d never had to put my own material and graphs together and think through what a three-minute appearance on TV would actually be like.

At Bloomberg I was given a glass box, roughly the size of a dinner table for six, which had a camera and a microphone attached to it. I carefully prepared the graphs I was going to use to illustrate the dollar’s move after a decision by the Federal Reserve Bank to raise interest rates. I made careful notes as to what I wanted to say and waited for the anchor to toss to me. And then it came. Mark Barton, the anchor, said, ‘For reaction on that Federal Reserve rate hike, let’s go over to Edie in the studio ’ – and I was off!

About twenty seconds into my performance, I noticed on the TV screen that I was no longer on air. Rather, Mark was smiling and reading a story about gold prices. I began to hear a rumble of laughter from outside my studio which echoed louder as my producer opened the studio, wiping tears out of his eyes. ‘That was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. You stepped too far away from the camera and your mic went sailing off – I think it ricocheted back and hit the lens!’

Not a great start to my career as a TV presenter. It’s perhaps no surprise to hear that I borrowed a roll of electrical tape and blocked out my space on the floor immediately afterwards, cheeks still burning from the experience.

A week later, my producer came back into the studio and said, ‘You’re doing fine, but if you use the words “going forward” again, I think I’m going to pull my ears off.’ Of course, the next few times I was on air I think I said ‘going forward’ about a hundred times because I was so rattled and worried about it. It took me over a week to get rid of the verbal habit.

I often get asked, ‘Aren’t some people just natural speakers?’ As you can see, I had a lot to learn when I went on air. I had a background in covering and speaking about how politics affected the markets, but none of the ‘natural’ ability to appear on TV. I worked hard at it. I watched my hits, tried to improve on the many mistakes I made and got training.

I think saying some people are ‘natural speakers’ is a little like saying that Roger Federer is a natural tennis player. Of course he is brilliant and sporty. But he trains really hard – before tournaments he’ll train over three hours a day in the sweltering heat of Dubai. He takes it seriously, he works at his volleys, serves and returns and never rests on his laurels.

I do think some people are great speakers, just as there are great actors, tennis players or pianists. I also know they work hard at it. Anyone can do it – it just takes practice!

[1] Olivier Oullier et al., ‘Social coordination dynamics: Measuring human bonding’, 2007
[2] Speaking in public is worse than death for most’, The Times, 30 October 2013.

Edie's book, How to: Speak with Confidence in Public is published on 8 September, 2016, and is now available to pre-order from Amazon. If you'd like to connect with Edie, you can find her on Twitter at @edielush.