Scared Speechless – Interview with Steve Rohr

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Episode Summary

Steve Rohr is a communication expert, speech coach, and author of the book, Scared Speechless. On this week’s episode, Steve offers quick tips on how to improve your speech to investors and shares advice on how to reduce anxiety and nervousness before you get in the spotlight. Remember, the key to presenting a fantastic speech is practice, practice, practice!!

Scared Speechless – Interview with Steve Rohr


Hi. Welcome to The Successful Pitch Podcast. I’m honored and thrilled to have a personal friend as the guest today. His name is Steve Rohr. He is the co-author with Dr. Shirley of an amazing book called Scared Speechless: 9 Ways to Overcome Your Fears and Captivate Your Audience. Since this is a podcast all about pitching, we need to know how to captivate our audience and not be scared and come across confident.

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Scared Speechless: 9 Ways to Overcome Your Fears and Captivate Your Audience

Steve is a college professor and works in the entertainment public relations. Currently, he’s the show publicist for the Oscars, if you can imagine what that job is like. His involvement in public speaking spans two decades. He doesn’t look old enough to have done that. He holds an MA in Communications from Arizona State.

For three years, he co-hosted a psychology show with his co-author, Dr. Shirley. This is his first book, but this is not his first time at the rodeo on helping people be good in front of other people. Steve, welcome to the show.

Thank you, John. I’m happy to be here.

One of the things I always like to have our guests talk about is how did you become such a successful publicist and what made you want to write this book? Take us back even further, now you’re teaching people how to be good in speaking, but when did you decide that you wanted to be a good speaker?

Yesterday, actually. It’s about time that I’m good at something. No, actually, I was pretty shy as a kid, to be honest. You know me, John, but if you were just to meet me out in the world, you would think that that would be a huge lie.

Actually, I was very, very shy as a kid and couldn’t really find my way. I eventually wandered into a drama/speech class in high school and really found my tribe. People were just as weird as I was and I fit right in and learned the skills that actually have propelled me to where I am today. I credit everything that I have today to my skill building in public speaking so many years ago.

That’s the pitch there. Along with that, I never planned to be a publicist. It never occurred to me to be a publicist as I was wandering through college and then started in business. I started in television first, in television news, and worked in news for a couple of years and then fell into publicity and have been doing it for 15 years. Representing talent, clients, authors, experts, and the like.

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Scared Speechless: Dr. Shirley and Steve Rohr

Then did this psychology show by accident as well. My life is just full of these accidents. With Dr. Shirley, who is a fantastic psychologist, one of the most noted Latina psychologists in the country. She’s been all over TV. Dr. Drew, the doctors and their like. Just started out as her producer and suddenly found myself on the air. We ran for three years.

One of the shows we did was about public speaking and the fear behind public speaking. Because nobody really talks about it. Everybody says, “Yeah, I’m super nervous,” but nobody explains why you’re nervous in a concise and accessible form. You’ve got the textbooks out there written by academic people and then you have a lot of books online and everywhere else that are public speaking books.

But, guess what, John? They’re not really written by public speaking experts, believe it or not. Many of these books are written by authors who have a business background and international relations, French even. While that’s fine, it just really kind of struck us as odd.

We combined the two worlds. We combined the psychology of public speaking with the how-to of public speaking in what we think is a pretty accessible, we think, funny, because we think we’re funny, read for people called Scared Speechless.

The title is fantastic, by the way, because it’s memorable and it grabs your attention, and that’s what you have to do when you’re pitching. Congratulations on a great title.

Thank you.

One of the things you talk about that I really thought was so fascinating is we all know we get nervous, or the adrenaline kicks in, but we don’t really know why. You talk about it from a historical point of view, from our brain. That’s standing out used to mean we could possibly get rejected, and rejection would lead to being ejected from the tribe. Can you walk us through what our brain is doing?

We’re going way back, John. Before the 1980s even. It’s way back. The ancient times for our ancestor. We have, in our noggin, something called the primitive brain. It’s pretty primitive and it hasn’t changed for 700 years. It is the defense mechanism part of our system that alerts us to danger.

That’s our fight or flight response. This has been in our world forever and ever and ever. Back in the olden times, it would trigger us not to go into that dark cave where we could possibly be eaten, or pet that very hungry looking tiger. It really was a great survival mechanism for us.

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Scared Speechless: Public speaking is the number one fear in America.

Now today, we’re scared of public speaking. It’s the number one fear in America. Death is second. Spiders are on that list someplace. Definitely, public speaking is the number one fear. Guess what, it has to do with our primitive brain, because our primitive brain is fantastic, yet unfortunately, has not evolved very much in 700 million years.

It actually thinks that going to that cave or petting that hungry tiger is the same thing as standing up in front of a group of people and speaking. It cannot tell the difference. We are terrified. It’s a good thing. It’s a good thing that we’ve got nerves because it keeps us alive.

It’s kind of a tricky thing when you’re standing in front of other people or about to pitch. Your brain is saying, “Uhh, these people are going to eat you.” You have to use a modern adaption and you have to think as a modern sensible person to say, “They’re probably not going to eat me. They could bite me, but they’re not going to eat me.”

You talked about the rejection aspect of it and the tribal connection. We used to wander all over the Earth in tribes. We didn’t have cities and we just kind of had our group and we stayed with our group for our entire lives. It was a matter of survival.

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Scared Speechless: Outside of the tribe, you have no protection. “You must stay in the tribe, you must stay in the tribe.”

If you got kicked out of that tribe or got lost somehow and were separated from your tribe, you stood a very good chance of being killed within minutes. Because outside of the tribe, you have no protection whatsoever. Our primitive brain then says, “You must stay in the tribe, you must stay in the tribe.”

When we get up in front of people to speak, oh gosh, we do not want to be rejected from this tribe. We don’t want to be rejected, we don’t want to stand out too much from the tribe. Our primitive brain then goes into high alert and says, “Look, buddy, you cannot be rejected from this tribe, so run away, hide in the bathroom, do whatever you can to avoid speaking in front of these people.”

Again, you have to accommodate with your modern sensible self to say, “I’m not going to get kicked out of this tribe. Number one, is this the tribe that I want to be in? Number two, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life wandering around the parking lot on my own.” It’s just not going to happen.

What you’re writing about and saying to us is so valuable, Steve, because if we realize that we’re programmed to panic in these situations, then we don’t get surprised when that fear comes up. We just go, “Oh, this is part of my programming, but I’m now in charge of my body, not the other way around. I get to tell my body, Look, this is not a dangerous situation. Don’t worry about the rejection.”

In fact, you also have some really great things to do that also counter any fear that might happen. If you’re scared speechless, in other words, if you go blank and your mind doesn’t know what to say, you’re so scared you get speechless, what is one of your big tips there?

First of all, I think that you can preempt your primitive brain a little bit in this regard, because we know that when we get scared speechless, it’s a physiological change that happens in our body as well. That’s why we sweat, that’s why our mouth goes dry, that’s why our legs start shaking uncontrollably, because it’s a physical act. It’s a physical event.

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Scared Speechless: Stretch like you’re going on a run. It signals to your body that something is about to happen.

I always encourage people to stretch out. Not just warm up your tongue, but warm up your entire body. Stretch like you’re going on a run. It signals to your body that something is about to happen. It gets your body primed to take on that fight or flight so that, suddenly, when it does happen and you’re in front of people and your shoulders go to tense up, guess what? You’re already loose. You’re already warmed up. You’re ready to go.

The second part of that story is, you go blank. This is a big fear for people. Huge fear for people because we think that, number one, the audience is our adversary. We think that the audience is judging us. Why do we think that? Because we judge people all day long. Of course, we think that and we put ourselves in the audience position and we think we’re going to be judged.

Here’s the truth, John. Here’s the absolute truth. The audience is not your adversary, not even close. Here’s why we know this is true. Number one, if you’ve ever sat in a room where a speaker starts to struggle, they go blank, they start to panic. How are you feeling at that time as an audience member?

You feel empathy for them. You want them to figure out what they want to say because you want them to get better.

That’s right. You go into immediate secondhand embarrassment. Maybe now you’re sitting on the edge of your seat and you’re trying to will words into that speaker’s mouth. If you were to look around at that point, the rest of the audience would be doing the same.

The audience is not your enemy. The audience wants you to succeed. They are rooting for you. They are championing you. When it comes to pitches, same same. Nobody wants to go into a pitch meeting and not have something great happen. Their wish, their desire, their hope is to go into a pitch meeting and hear something that will be a solution for them. A financial solution, a creative solution, any kind of solution. They’re going in for that purpose.

[Tweet “Investors are not the enemy, they want you to succeed.”]

Along the same line, when was the last time you walked into a room where there was a speaker and you said, “My gosh, I hope this person is really boring.”

Never. We’re going to tweet that out from the show, by the way. That’s such a great line. “The audience is not your enemy. They are rooting for you.” Even if the audience is investors, because they are looking for a good deal. It’s their job to hear a good pitch and make money and they hope that you’re the next person in. It’s almost like a casting agent looking for a great actor to be a star in a movie. They want to see good additions.

That’s absolutely right. Of course, if you don’t want a boring speaker, what do you want? You want a lively, entertaining, great speaker. You want to be entertained. That’s why we know that audiences are not your enemy.

If you go in with that mindset instead of going into it thinking, “Oh my gosh, well they’re going to rip me to pieces.” No, they’re not at all. Then, the chances of you going blank go way down.

[Tweet “Scared Speechless: If you do go blank, you ask a question.”]

If you do go blank. Here’s our trick, you ask a question. You ask a question. They don’t know what your speech is, they don’t know what your pitch is. They have not been writing it with you or practicing it with you. They do not know where the pauses are. If you come to a place where you just go blank, it’s okay, because they don’t know that isn’t some dramatic pause you’re taking.

Right. You write about it being a rhetorical question even. They don’t even have to answer. It just gets them thinking.

You go back to the last thing you said and then you ask a question. You ask either a rhetorical question or you ask a real question. Here’s how this works. The audience are humans, and as humans, when we’re asked a question, we automatically go into answer mode.

This is what happens. Suddenly, the audience is no longer focused on you. They’re inside their head, coming up with an answer. This will buy you time, and perhaps, a lively discussion along the way. Whatever it does, it’s going to take the pressure off you immediately so you can get back on track and move forward.

One of the things you write about that I’m a big proponent of is the superhero pose. Can you tell us what the science is behind that and what the advantages of doing it are and what it is?

We always think that our brain has to command our body. But, what if our body commanded our brain? What if our body sent signals to our brain that we were okay? What about that? This is true. It can happen.

The superhero pose is standing upright, being confident, even when you feel like maybe you’re dying inside. What this does, it just gets your body to send a signal to your brain to say, “We’re okay. We’ve got this. We’ve got this.”

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Scared Speechless: The superhero pose is standing upright, being confident, even when you feel like maybe you’re dying inside.

One of the ways you can see this is true is if you’re ever, say you’ve got to go to someplace that you really don’t want to go to. A crappy meeting with crappy conversation and crappy food, and you’re in a crappy mood. What if you smiled like a crazy fool in the car on the way there. Crazy big joker smile. Force yourself to smile.

By the time you get to that meeting, I bet you that you will be in a better mood. It’s so much easier to smile at that point, and your attitude will be changed by the time you walk in that room.

We know this. We know that a power stance, we know that your body can also send signals to your brain, we know the smile works. Instead of thinking of it brain to body, think of it body to brain. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by how you feel and how confident you become.

I love it. One of the things I’m a big proponent of is telling a story that makes your pitch memorable and pulls at the heartstrings. Can you talk to us about your thoughts about storytelling, and in particular, the underdog effect?

[Tweet “What is the underdog effect?”]

Absolutely. Storytelling is one of the oldest ways that humans communicate. Back in the days before the 80s, we had to sit around and tell stories, and that’s how we shared our history, that’s how we shared the social moirés of the time, how we made sense of the world and our place in it.

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Scared Speechless: Storytelling is absolutely programmed into the human brain.

Storytelling is absolutely programmed into the human brain. It’s, again, the most powerful way you can communicate. Storytelling in pitches and speeches will automatically resonate with your audience. Because we are programmed, as an audience, to listen to your story and then try to find references in our own life, in our own stories that match up. Automatically, we’re on board.

Guess what? We remember stories. If you’ve ever heard a speech or pitch, and that was a great speech and you thought it was a great speech forever and ever and ever. I will bet you that you don’t remember one statistic in that speech, but you might remember somebody talking about their grandmother, or you might hear them talking about how they struggled to achieve something, which is the underdog story. The underdog story is incredibly powerful as a rhetorical tool.

The underdog story is, of course, just what it sounds like. Somebody who is trying to achieve something with insurmountable obstacles in front of them. The underdog does not have to win, by the way. He does not have to win. Studies have shown that we are so rooting for the underdog that we’ll even root for a cartoon character or an animation to win.

There’s a study at one university where they showed two animated sequences. The first sequence was this little guy trying to push this big stone up a hill. Didn’t make it. The second animated sequence was another animated guy pushing a stone up the hill and doing it pretty easily. Then, they asked the participants who they were rooting for. To a person, they said, “The guy who was struggling. The guy pushing this animated, animated, stone up the hill.”

[Tweet “At some point in your life, you felt like the underdog. You could relate to it.”]

What does that tell us? It tells us this is a very powerful rhetorical strategy. I believe it’s powerful because at some point in our lives, at some point in all of our lives. I don’t care if you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, or very humble circumstances, or what color you are, or what flavor you are. At some point in your life, you felt like the underdog, and so you could relate to it. You can relate to it.

That’s so valuable because investors are looking for you to be a little bit vulnerable in your stories of a time you had to persevere and pivot and not give up. You can’t come across as if you’re perfect and you’ve never had a challenge and everything’s just been easy breezy your whole entire career.

Because they want to hear about you being the underdog and coming out on the other side. Because they know there’s going to be bumps in the road and they’re looking for you to tell them a story that makes you memorable and that they want to invest in you, and that’s a great tip.

That’s absolutely right, John. It’s about resilience. We value resilience, people who are resilient in their life. Look, investors are human beings. You cannot sit in a room and look at people as a dollar sign. You have to look them as real people, real people who’ve had struggles. Because chances are very good, those people are not sitting on all that capital because everything was smooth sailing in their life.

Each one of them has had to struggle and overcome some incredible odds to get where they are. They want to know that you are resilient enough to keep on going when the going gets really tough.

[Tweet “Scared Speechless: Investors want to know that you are resilient enough.”]

Yes, that’s so important. Can you talk to us about self-talk and the way that we talk to ourselves and what we should be saying to ourselves before we get up and pitch or give a talk?

John, we’re terrible when we talk to ourselves. We talk to ourselves all day long. This is true. Some of us talk to ourselves more than others, quite frankly. We know, from research, that when we talk to ourselves, we are teaching ourselves things. We’re helping ourselves, we’re guiding ourselves along. If you do this little trick, next time you lose your keys, John, not that you would.

Oh, I’ve done it.

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Scared Speechless: When we talk to ourselves, we are teaching ourselves things. We’re helping ourselves, we’re guiding ourselves along.

Okay, I do it a lot. If you just go around the house saying, “La-la-la, expletive, expletive, expletive,” that’s one way to do it. The next time you lose your keys, just say this, “Keys, keys, keys, keys,” and you will find your keys faster. You will find your keys faster. But, here’s the thing. We talk to ourselves, we’re not very nice. In fact, we’re pretty terrible, the way we talk to ourselves.

Women will, at some point during the day, tell themselves they look fat. Guys will tell themselves they’re an idiot or they’re a loser. We’re teaching ourselves that too. It’s one of those things where you have to look at it and say, “Would I ever say this to my child? Would I ever tell my child that they look fat, or they’re a loser, or they’re an idiot?” I would guess not. I would guess not.

If you’re willing to do that as a parent, then God help you. But, we’re not going to do it. Yet it’s so easy for us to do that to ourselves. We need to stop because when we’re going into a situation where we need to control our nerves, manage our nerves, and we need to really do our best, we don’t need another voice, especially our own, saying that we’re going to mess it up.

You need to stop. Here’s my trick for stopping, because it’s not easy, but here’s my trick. You stop. You stop. Here’s what I ask, I ask that tomorrow, just tomorrow, the first time and only time that you say something negative about yourself, I want you to stop. Just stop.

[Tweet “Scared Speechless: Feel like you’re in control to be successful in pitching.”]

You can turn it around and say something nice. You can just stop. Whatever it is, just tomorrow, just one time. After that one time you’ve done that, you can curse yourself out for the rest of the day, go to town. But, just that one time will give you the awareness that you need. Because, at that point, I want you to notice how you feel. I bet you feel like you’re in control. That’s the way you need to be to be successful in public speaking, or pitching, and in life.

I love it. Awareness gives us self-control. Just become aware of what you’re doing. If you’re unconscious and unaware, you can’t fix or change or improve your nerves, or your negative self-talk. It’s really, really helpful.

There’s another voice in our head too, John, that I just wanted to touch on with you. It’s the inner critic. The inner critic in our head that says, “You’re not good enough, you’re slow, you’ll never make it.”

This voice is so excellent, excellent at reaching us the moment we need to be at our very best. It will get louder and louder and louder, because it’s part of our primitive brain. It’s our primitive brain shouting at us to get away from the hungry tiger.

Because, again, the primitive brain doesn’t know the difference between a hungry tiger and pitching. It feels like we’re in grave danger. It makes sense. The closer you get to that meaning, the louder and more adamant it will become, this voice that says, “You’re a loser, they’re going to hate you, you’re going to fail, you’re going to go blank, you’re going to mess up, this is going to be disaster,” because your primitive brain wants to save your life.

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Scared Speechless: Talk back to your inner critic.

Here’s what you do. You talk back to it. I’ve had times where this primitive brain was yelling at me because I was in such grave danger. No danger at all, but grave danger because I was taking a risk. I was walking into fear. I shouted it down in my house. After the police left. No.

I shouted it down and told it, “Go away!” You can scream at it, you can swear it, make it go away, and I promise you it will. It will come back, but you can make it go away. If you are not a screamer, you can negotiate with it, and say, “Look, I get it, primitive brain. I get what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to help me. I get it. It’s natural. But can we wait? Can we put a pause on that for a second? Because I need to go and do this very important thing. You can come back later, you can come back tomorrow, or whatever. But, at this time, I just need you to take a minute and step out of the room.” That will work too. It will work too.

I love that. It’s a great conversation you’re having with yourself. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this all the time. She says putting fear in the backseat of the car when she’s still driving the car, not fear is driving the car. It’s the same kind of thing that you’re talking about. Two great speakers talking about a similar way to handle fear in different ways, but still really, really valuable, which just gives people the power to realize that they’re in control of their thoughts, not the other way around.

That’s right.

Can you tell us, Steve, about the importance of practice and what tips you have on practicing your speech or your pitch?

Sure. Most of us spend 99% of our time writing our pitch or writing our speech. We do this all the time. Then we spend maybe 1%, or maybe just three minutes in the car on the way to the pitch practicing it. Wrong.

[Tweet “Scared Speechless: It’s impossible to over-practice.”]

First of all, you can never over-practice. It’s impossible to over-practice. You know this because think about the last time you gave a speech or presentation. On the drive home, you probably thought to yourself, “I could have done it better. I wish that I had practiced a little bit more.” You can never over-practice. It’s impossible to over-practice.

Let me ask you a question that I sometimes get asked when I give that advice to people. “I’m afraid I’m going to sound like a robot if I over-practice.” What do you say to that?

Here’s the trick. Most times, we write our speeches, our pitches, we write them as essays. But we need to write our speeches and pitches to be said, not to be read.

[Tweet “Scared Speechless: Write your pitches to be said, not read.”]

Ooh, that’s good.

To be said, not to be read. English majors have a really tough time writing speeches and pitches because they want to use real sentences and they want to avoid jargon and they want to use huge words to be impressive. This is not the time. In English, you can get an A. In Speech, you get a D, because you need to write your speech to be said, not to be read.

We’re going to tweet that out.

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Scared Speechless: Write your speech out loud to avoid sounding robotic..

Here’s how you can make that happen. You write your speech out loud. You don’t spend 99% of your time writing this speech and 1% practicing because once you get to that 1%, if you haven’t written it in a conversational way, you don’t have time to go change it again. So you’re going to sound like a robot. Every time you hear somebody give a robotic speech, listen to the words, and you will tell that they have not written this speech out loud.

By that I mean you sit down and you’re writing things out. You’re writing all your ideas out, and maybe you try saying it out loud. “Oh, wait a second. That doesn’t sound quite … Huh, that’s a little wordy, isn’t it?”

Then you go back and you adjust it. Maybe you can work out an idea that you’re writing down just out loud. “Oh, this sounds a lot better, or maybe I can use a more active word here, or maybe, this word, nobody’s going to understand this word. Maybe I should just cut to the chase.”

Let me just stop you there because that’s so important. I’m constantly telling founders, “Do not use acronyms or complicated words in your pitch, even if the investors understand it. You don’t want to confuse people because a confused mind always says no.” Keep it simpler than you think you need to. This is not the time to impress people with how smart you are with a bunch of complicated terms and words.

It’s a huge waste of time. It’s a colossal waste of time. You just need to really communicate with your audience. I’m glad you say that to your peeps, John. That’s really, really important. You write your speech out loud, you work it out. One of the tips I always say is you put one thought per sentence. You put only one thought in every sentence. This means that if you have to take a breath, if there are a bunch of commas in your sentence, you have far too many words. It’s one thought per sentence.

[Tweet “Scared Speechless: You put only one thought in every sentence.”]

Listen to newscasters, listen to broadcast people, especially on television, and you will hear them use one thought per sentence. The reason they do this is, moms are getting ready for work in the morning, dads are playing with the kids. In the background, you’ve got the news going on.

Your audience only has one chance to hear it, one chance to hear it, and to absorb what you’re saying. One thought per sentence. It’s a lot easier to use shorter sentences well. You can use one word. You can just use one word. When you’re writing a speech to be read, then you can’t just use one word. It’s improper. That’s why you always write your speech to be said, not to be read, and you write it out loud.

Let’s say one of the listeners has been invited to pitch to a room full of Angels and they have to stand up and give their pitch. It’s 10 minutes. How do you recommend they practice that?

A lot.

How? Should they stand up or should they just read it at the table? In the mirror?

TSP 080 | Scared Speechless

Scared Speechless: When practicing your speech, you have to act as if you are actually doing the speech.

If you’re going to be standing up, you absolutely have to stand and deliver. You have to act as if you are actually doing the speech. If you have practiced your speech sitting down and even lounging on your couch eating popcorn, and by the time you get up to stand up to give your speech, it’s going to sound a lot different.

It’s going to feel a lot different, and your body’s going to go into some wacky shock because it doesn’t know what the heck is going on. But, if you have stood up and given that speech 25, 50 times in your living room, guess what? You have your body on your side then, and your body can do your bidding.

Nice. Steve, this has been so helpful. Where can people follow you on social media? What’s your Twitter and all that good stuff?

My Twitter account is @RealSteveRohr, and Instagram, @RealSteveRohr, and I’m on LinkedIn. I have 7,000 LinkedIn folks. Please join me. If you want more information about our book, Scared Speechless, you can go to

Fantastic. It’s been a great interview. My favorite line that we’re going to be tweeting out is, “A pitch is to be said, not read.” You’ve given us so many other great tips about how to deal with our fears and how to be resilient when you’re giving a talk, and most importantly, what we say to ourselves so that we don’t talk ourselves out of being successful. Thanks again, Steve, for being on the show. You’ve been an incredible guest.

It’s my pleasure, John. Thank you.

Links Mentioned

J Robinett Enterprises
John Livesay Funding Strategist
Steve Rohr
Scared Speechless by Steve Rohr
@RealSteveRohr on Twitter

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