Erica Pinsky



Oh sure, we can talk, but can we WALK the talk?

This article appeared appeared in the May 15, 2008 edition of So To Speak,
e-newsletter of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers.

A woman came up to me at one of my recent Respectful Workplace Workshops to tell me how much she was enjoying the presentation. Then she added, "But you might want to watch the use of the phrase: low man on the totem pole. I’m First Nations, and while I’m ok with it, I know other people who would be really upset by your saying that."


I was taken aback, and, quite frankly, ashamed. I had been talking about power and how it manifests in the workplace. Did I actually say, "low man on the totem pole"? I was shocked that I had unwittingly used a phrase that I would never consciously choose to say. I actually found it hard to believe I had said it.


My topic is respectful behaviour in the workplace. I am writing a book, Road to Respect: The Path to Profit, stressing the importance of "Choosing to Walk the Talk." It is not enough to say you will be respectful and make politically correct statements. You must walk the talk and model the behaviour so that respectful behaviour becomes "the way it is" in your workplace.


Given that I am writing a book on the subject, I was confident I was already "walking the talk" of respect. I was sure I was living the value. I think about modelling respectful behaviour in all my work. And yet I had used a phrase during my presentation that could alienate the very people I was trying to empower and inspire.


I certainly don’t want to alienate anyone who comes to hear me speak. However, I realized that it can happen in an instant, sometimes without awareness. Our language is full of potentially alienating phrases. While I always write out the opening and closing of a speech, I like to be somewhat spontaneous when speaking. I make that choice out of respect for my audience; I adjust my presentation as I go, in response to what is happening in the room. I try to be as interactive and inclusive as possible. The structure of my speech is carefully planned, but not totally scripted.


The risk with this presentation style, I now realize, is the accidentally use of words that might offend someone in our increasingly diverse audiences. It could be an expression used without thinking, like "low man on the totem pole," or referring to everyone as "you guys." I have heard speakers refer to women as "gals," which triggers an immediate negative reaction for me. In one case, that phrase, combined with other comments and innuendo, turned me off that speaker’s entire message.


The growing diversity of our audiences is presenting new challenges to us as speakers. We cannot possibly anticipate everyone’s different perspectives and experiences. However, our message has a greater chance of being heard when our words are respectful to anyone who may be listening.


Historical prejudice is a fact of life. In spite of the fact that my topic was about being respectful, I unintentionally used an offensive phrase. It came from my subconscious and I didn’t even realize I had said it. We all benefit when we start asking questions about our own biases, and about assumptions we make about others, particularly those that are different from us. Are we unintentionally crafting speeches that reach those that are "like us"?


Many of us are familiar with the Golden Rule - treat others as you would like to be treated. It implies self-respect and makes us think about how we would like to be treated. It is a good place to start when thinking about how to demonstrate respectful behaviour to our audiences. However, in today’s truly multi-cultural and diverse world, we have to go beyond the Golden Rule and think about applying the Platinum Rule as well.


The Platinum Rule - treat others as they would like to be treated - means respect based upon the appreciation of who "others" are. We must suspend preconceptions and assumptions to become curious about our audiences. Who will I be speaking to? Will my message resonate with this demographic or ethnic group? Will this story work with this audience? Is my language really inclusive? Do I unknowingly use expressions that may be alienating or disrespectful? Am I using references that only some groups may understand or relate to?


No matter what our topic, we reach our audiences by making an emotional connection with them. We connect on a human, gut level. At a recent CAPS Vancouver meeting, Lou Heckler, CSP, CPAE said he thinks of everyone in his audience as his best friend. This way he engages them from a place of openness, trust and love. I felt that connection as I sat in the audience that night. While Lou didn’t talk about being respectful, he demonstrated it throughout his presentation, both on and off the podium. He modelled both the Golden and the Platinum Rules. He truly walks the talk of respect.

"With the first of the baby boomers beginning to retire, businesses are making retaining and recruiting new talent a high priority.  Those that are ready to embrace this challenge will find Erica’s book, Road to Respect invaluable, as it lays the foundations of how to create a positive and efficient work environment that employees will not want to leave.  The best part is, it does not require a lot of financial capital: only the will to embrace the fundamental principles shared in this book."

Kamal Basra,
Investment Advisor, Sophia Financial Group

Raymond James Ltd.