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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

Beware the novelty act

Now that the 2020 presidential campaign is off and running I'm being asked: What do I think of Bernie's yelling?Warren's wonky performance? Doesn't Biden just look like a leader? I'm in the business of leadership communication, and I appreciate the part debates play in helping voters make up their minds. But I'm all too aware of the fact that performance is not governance. The horse race that engrosses us now is barely connected to actual policies for creating a more perfect union.  

We all remember candidates who captivated us with terrific performances (who can forget Sarah Palin?) until we found out they had very little substance underneath their charisma. Which is why I fear Marianne Williamson's candidacy.  We need to guard against being caught up in her performance as truth-telling outsider. I have heard many people say she made some good points, showed herself to be worthy, etc. I must admit I watched her with fascination, calculating the amount of effort she must have put into her two turns on the debate stage. The fact is, any speaker who works at it can hone a message and perfect a delivery that casts her in the role of savior. It's even easier if she adds a touch of magic and mysticism. 

An ethical speaker shares insights and ideas to solve problems and create new opportunities, but the unethical speaker intentionally inflates her own importance by playing to the audience. Williamson does that when she exploits our greatest hopes and deepest fears ("
if you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred... then I'm afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days."). 

It's true that successful candidates connect to the hearts of voters as well as their minds. One of the best examinations of this subject is Drew Westen's 2007 book, The Political Brain. Many campaigns I have worked with use Westen's insights responsibly, to good effect. But what of those who seize upon the power of emotional connection and use it as a substitute for critical thought? Where are they leading us? We need to ask ourselves if any fresh-voiced, self-described radical renegade is being at all truthful when she promises to challenge Washington "with courageous love." If a candidate has no actual experience doing anything remotely like what she promises, how can we, as voters, believe her?  We need to shake off this enchantment and demand real answers to serious questions.

I know what power there is in a performance that makes you feel. But politics isn't theatre. Or entertainment. And the stakes are too high for us to be seduced by another novel performer. 


June 2019

When to call in the pros

I recently had an unexpected client: a well-regarded attorney who does a lotof speaking. He's not a person who normally needs help with any sort of speech. And yet... 

He'd been chosen to be the speaker for a community celebration in a large, impressive venue. People he'd known for years would be there, and he wanted to deliver a message that was smart, heartfelt, and with a touch of his trademark humor. It was very different from his usual type of speech! He spent a couple of weeks kicking ideas around, trying them out on friends and family. Somewhere along the way he realized he wasn't getting the job done. So he picked up the phone and called me. 

We tweaked and cut, rethought structure and word choice. He sent me rewrites. We perfected the 12-minute speech in a week! He vowed to practice more than the seven times I recommended. Afterward, he told me it was quite a success. And he even enjoyed himself!

Circumstances forced him to look beyond his usual circle. They meant well, but they didn't have the expertise. It's always good to hear a successful professional say that no matter how much experience you have, often there's something--an unfamiliar theme, unusual occasion, or lack of prep time--that makes you realize you're the one who needs help from an expert!

It's a humbling thing to admit. And can cause some consternation, maybe a bit of panic. But don't worry: I got this!



May 2019

Time disruptions

Have you ever wanted to go back in time? To fix something you did, or right some historical wrong? Even if you could, it would be tricky: backwards time travel carries with it a whole load of unintended consequences. That's why it is makes for good movies, from the classic teen comedy Back to the Future, to the thrilling super-hero adventure Endgame, to the excellent new sci-fi drama See You Yesterday.  So I was excited to read in the New York Times last week that a team of quantum physicists, using an IBM computer, launched five qubits back in time for a millionth of a second! OK, so that's a far cry from Marty McFly dating his mom, but researchers say this discovery holds promise. 

It looks like we'll just have to wait on the time-reversal technology. In the meantime, I could really use some time-stopping technology. Since I moved to New York from Virginia in August, I've spent so much time going back and forth from Brooklyn to DC that I almost meet myself coming and going. So I'd like to stop the clock and have a chance to catch up! If you can relate, you might be interested in some of the strategies that have helped me make the most of the time I have. 

  • Get it off your plate--when someone e-mails or calls me with a quick and easy question, I don't "put a pin in it" for later, but try to respond right away. It's done and I don't have to spend time "calendaring" it. Bonus: the person on the other end is eternally grateful!
  • Block it--those small things I couldn't get off my plate quickly sit in a pile of notes that grows higher and higher till it's a towering mountain of rebuke. So I schedule a block of time (30 minutes here, an hour there) to "clean up" and deal with them. Sometimes I haven't finished the task when the time is up, but at least I have a clearer idea of how much more time is needed. 
  • Turn off your phone--if I need to do a deep dive into a project (editing a client speech, drafting a proposal, or writing a scene for my play) I focus ONLY on the task at hand. I get in the zone. I don't let calls, Facebook posts or (especially) tweets distract me. There is always some shiny object within reach. If I ignore it I finish faster than I thought I would! And guess what? There's an app (actually several) for that! 
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare--I really save time in the long run when I allot sufficient prep time for speeches, presentations, or anything that requires me to synthesize information and deliver it to others. Building on a strong foundation, I can discover my thesis, put together a deck, and compose talking points much more quickly and effectively than filling in holes on the fly. 
  • Reward yourself--I give myself a break when I hit certain milestones: go get a cup coffee when the first draft is done; allow myself a few minutes on social media (avoiding the sites that raise my blood pressure and take me down a rabbit hole!) after I press "send;" get up and walk around after I've made those crucial edits.

You are in very likelihood doing many of these things already. But just in case you've forgotten one or two of them, I hope this is a good reminder. And when you next put them into practice, send a good thought to me bussing it to DC and Amtraking back to NYC. 

Or start working on that time machine!


April 2019

The Loops of Feedback 

I help my clients develop successful workplace communication skills. And usually that work is fun, positive, upbeat: people want to give exciting presentations, learn to effectively express their thoughts, demonstrate leadership through active listening. It helps them achieve their company's/team's/division's goals. But when talk turns to giving and/or receiving feedback, it's as if a cloud has suddenly passed over the sun and threatens to stay there. . . forever.

I have experienced that visceral dread. But it has taught me some interesting things, which I think will resonate with anyone who has ever found herself stuck in the Feedback Loop of Doom. As a playwright I have felt a chill during audience talkback sessions, a feeling that comes from the fear that my work will be judged and found wanting. Because often, it is. After hearing a play at an early public reading, people give all sorts of "suggestions." Many of these boil down to: "Well, that's not how would have written this play!" Anyone who has been given such unfocused criticism partway through a project or process knows that this is not helpful. In fact, it slows down the playwright's or employee's momentum, or stops it altogether. 

The best talkbacks happen within a supportive relationship, under a framework of stated rules of engagement. The audience is asked to answer the playwright's specific questions: What moment resonated with you? What overall image did the play leave you with? Which character made the strongest impression? We don't want prescriptions on how to "improve" our work, nor do we want proscriptions.  Give us answers to our burning questions and trust that we'll take it from there.

A playwright, like anyone engaged with a project, wants to know what's working and what isn't. But we don’t trust those who diagnose what's wrong and how to fix it after hearing the piece only once. When audiences (or supervisors or colleagues) offer non-constructive criticism, they put barriers in our way. When they tell us how they would do it better, they undercut our confidence, initiative, creative thinking. And on the flip side, when blanket praise is given--along with a command to do it 'just like that again!"--confusion reigns.

In their excellent article "The Feedback Fallacy"  in the most recent  Harvard Business ReviewMarcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall explore what the latest research tells us about the best way to give feedback. When I read it I immediately recognized the strategies they advocate. Because their preferred method is very like what good talkback facilitators ask audiences to do. "We humans," Buckingham and Goodall advise, "do not do well when someone whose intentions are unclear tells us where we stand, how good we "really" are, and what we must do to fix ourselves. We excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works."

I think they're on to something!


Mindful unwinding

I'm back from a lovely trip to Terre-du-Haut on the îles des Saintes archipelago in Guadeloupe. Ah--a warm beach vacation! Just the antidote to my first New York winter. And it's always fun to get away: traveling gives me a chance to get out of myself, to experience new things, to see the world through a different lens.

If you live in a tourist destination, it's useful to view things from that different perspective from time to time. Tourist season never really ends in NYC and I must admit that some days I find it exasperating getting from point A to point B, wending my way through a crowd of strolling sightseers. But my recent experience of communicating haltingly in French and showing up late to grocery stores that close at noon reminded me how challenging it can be to venture outside my everyday world. Which is something I conveniently forget, until I step off the boat and arrive on foreign shores for a week or so. Then I need to get up to speed, stat!

It's also instructive to see how different people handle this transition. Many tourists I saw on our little island were doing basic Box-Ticking Travel, going where their guides or guidebooks led them. They seemed to be having a wonderful time taking pictures of themselves in these exotic surroundings, but I wondered if they were experiencing anything, or just recording future memories. Now, as readers of my newsletter know,  I believe in the importance of being in the moment. Always. Even on vacation. Last time I went to the Caribbean that lesson was reinforced by a long climb up a mountain. This time I was positively luxuriating in the moment on every beach we visited in Les Saintes!

On the plane home, though, I got to thinking about how heedlessly I sometimes go through daily life. I've been in Brooklyn seven months now, so I'm getting used to my neighborhood, my routine. But New York is a pretty happenin' place; I'm not sure I could ever get too comfortable. Still, I need to remind myself to find something new to savor each day, wonderful or grotesque. I need to seek these out if I want to keep filling my creative well. If you need to top your own well off, I can think of no better advice than to live life mindfully, and with empathy for those who are new to your world. Photos are great memory jogs, but no substitute for actual experience you can feel.