Jocelyn Roy, Chris Patten, his assistant, Chey and Joanne Cohen help new panelist with presentation skills during a Community Counts! webinar.
By Eliza Marie Somers
Effective communication skills allow people to live a vibrant life from a satisfying career to a diverse social calendar to a peaceful home atmosphere. However, if those skills are compromised conflicts and misunderstandings are often the outcome, along with missed opportunities.
Now tack on intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and, for some, the inability to communicate your wants and needs can result in a life of isolation, confusion and unsettling encounters. To assist people with I/DD polish their communication skills, CTAT, LLC., founders Joanne Cohen and Gayann Brandenburg developed the Community Counts! program bringing together mentors and people with I/DD eager to learn how to tell the world about their disabilities and how they want to be respected, valued, appreciated, and what challenges they face.
“The communication skills I now have, have helped bridged the gap between the normal masses and the community with I/DD,” said Alan Staude, who started the Community Counts! program in 2020 and is now a mentor. “What I got out of the program was a better understanding of myself and the communities I frequent most. … This is being part of something bigger than myself. I can now see both sides of the coin.”
The Community Counts! program, created by CTAT, LLC, in conjunction with the City and County of Denver, encourages inclusion for people with I/DD, and continues in 2021-22
Brandenburg added, “Communication is like a good breakfast. You need all the pieces, milk, spoon, bowl, cereal. We are here to make sure you have all the tools you need to be successful.”
One of the first skills the new panelists learned was Zoom Etiquette, something unheard of until the COVID-19 pandemic. New panelists learned about lighting, camera position, the use of headphones, body language via computer and how to dress and be presentable. They also learned about background “noise,” such as clutter and how ceiling fans can be distracting.
After the class on Zoom Etiquette, Adrien Law adjusted the lighting by covering a window behind him.
New panelist Jake Miller said he learned how important it is to keep your head and shoulders centered in the camera while on Zoom, while Jesse Farley learned how to use the camera on his computer.
During the practice sessions, mentor Jocelyn Roy encouraged the new participants by asking them to adjust their cameras, to center their body, to unmute and more important to take their time when they got nervous.
“I’m here to help you to the best of my ability,” Roy said. “I want to help you take it easy if you are overwhelmed, and to give you tips on how to deal with this program.”
Fear of Public Speaking
Cohen addressed the fear of public speaking and related an acronym -- False Evidence Appearing Real, and asked the new panelists what they feared most as they prepared to address the public.
“I fear -- am I doing a good job?” Adrien Law said. “Am I capable of helping others? Sometimes I lack the courage, and it beats me to the ground and punches me more.”
Mentor Staude stepped in and related his experiences with fear of public speaking. “Trust me. Me and Dennis (Carbrey) were in the same boat, and that is why we are now mentors -- to help you out in the long run. It took someone else to see the potential in me for me to believe it. ”
Brittany Murdock is afraid of forgetting what to say and using proper English.
Cohen reassured Murdock telling her “we are here to help and support you.” Cohen then gave the panelist some tips to help with anxiety, such as the window technique. With a window you can still see through it, but you can shut your window if you are having a negative experience or leave it open when you are in a good situation, Cohen explained.
She also taught the panelists a 6-3-6 breathing technique, (breathe in for six seconds through your mouth, hold for three seconds and breathe out for six seconds through your nose).
New panelist Adam Barrow shared the three T’s technique he uses: Talk to an adult. Take some space. Take a deep breath.
Brandenburg related a centering skill using power poses, such as standing with your hands on your hips, before an event to gain confidence. “A power pose is anything that makes you feel strong and confident. You start to feel more powerful, centered and focused.” This is from Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk.
Dennis Carbrey says he stands up and shakes it out when he needs to overcome fear.
Mentor Carbrey said he stands up and shakes it out to help him overcome fear, while Staude listens to music.
Mentor Chris Patton gave some words of wisdom: Be hungry for success, and it will eat the fear.
Telling Your Story
One way to help ease anxiety is to talk about something you know, and that is your story.
“I told my story, and it felt freeing and fun,” said Erin Bargman, who is one of the mentors. “I am speaking with more confidence now, and being in front of a crowd is scary, but empowering.”
Mentor Erin Bargman says the skills learned in the Community Counts! program empowered her and gives her confidence when communicating.
Cohen stressed the importance of telling your story to people whom might not know what it means to be a part of the I/DD community. “It’s important for people to hear your experiences. What you have to say can help someone in the community.”
Patton related his experience of speaking his story and his fears. “It felt like my stomach might blow up, but I was OK. I was scared to show my true color, but it was OK. I was accepted and loved regardless.”
Panelists learn how to tell people about themselves by relating their stories.
More Skills to Hone
Body language and the likability factor still play a huge role in communication, even though the panelist will be using Zoom to present their stories. Panelists were given tips, such as acknowledging the person you are speaking with, smiling and making eye contact, to fine tune before serving on a panel.
The panelist practiced reducing filler words, such as um, ah, so and you know. According to Cohen, “These vocalized pauses/filler words happen when the brain is moving at one speed and the mouth is moving at another. The best this to do is to PAUSE, think about what you want to say, and then say it instead of using filler words.”
“We don’t want people to be paying more attention to the filler words than to the message we are trying to convey,” said Cohen, and suggested panelists take a deep breath and slow down when they get a little flustered.
“Another important skill is to speak clearly,” said Cohen, who also gave tips on tone of voice, pitch and volume.
Mentor Alan Staude discusses tone, pitch and volume during a Presentation Skills webinar.
The new panelists were given guidelines on how to be professional, even though they might be in the comfortable confines of their home or in a familiar place.
“Show up on time and let people know if you are going to be late,” said Staude, who added that participation is key. “Take the initiative and responsibility, and be part of the conversation.”
New panelist Dan Brazen said being professional is key to everything in life.
“We need to show each other respect,” mentor Roy added. “I’ll help and encourage you, but we have to show patience and be courteous.”
Not eating or smoking while on a Zoom panel and dressing appropriately were addressed.
“Panel members should always look clean and neat,” Brandenburg explained. “You don’t have to wear fancy clothes, but you never know when you will meet someone who you want to really impress, like an employer who might hire you.”
Tools to Last a Lifetime
Getting your message across to engage others is a skill that will transform not only your everyday affairs, but will enhance your future.
“These are tools to help you throughout your lifetime,” Cohen explained. “We all need to shine and polish our communication skills. Pay attention to your message, and the main thing is we want to do our best.”
Staude added, “Remember how good it will feel to present the message you want to convey. Like a great painter or great sculptor it takes time, and focus on the positive.”
Panelist and mentors gained valuable communication skills they can use throughout their life.