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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life
Saturday
Mar162019

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. 

Thursday
Jan312019

Recall, re-create and connect

Writing a speech is one thing, delivering it is quite another! Many speakers fall into the trap of not allowing enough time to do both. And you've heard the result: wooden, stiff speeches coming from experts who should be really owning their material. Here's why this happens again and again: putting together a good slide deck takes time, so does editing and revising the text. As the graphics-tweaking and word-smithing drags on, the speaker becomes distanced from the original intent of the message. So in the end, they have words on a page or screen. And that's what you hear. Words. Not a message, not the thoughts the words represent.

You want to avoid this kind of dull recitation, right?  Many people think they can sidestep this problem if they go light on their written prep: if I don't have written words, I won't read them! But preparation is key (here are two of my favorite blogs on the subject, from 
September 2103, and July 2014). So don't skimp on it! Write it down. Once you've crafted the content for your message, your challenge is to connect with your audience. So you have to get off the page, out of your head, and back into your heart and your gut. You need to invest time in the process of creation and re-creation. Ask yourself why you're presenting on this topic, then recall what you felt as you began crafting your presentation. The next step is to connect that feeling to the ideas represented by the words you chose. Put those feelings and images into a mental video that you play as you deliver the speech. You'll recall what sparked your need to communicate, and your listeners will feel that you are fully invested in your message.

This is what actors do; they convey the subtext, the unspoken feelings and ideas under the words that are the essence of the message. Of course, they do it with a twist. They convey someone else's mental video! So you, as a speaker or presenter, have it that much easier. But you won't own it unless you rehearse.

 

Friday
Dec142018

The best gift of 2018!

Being fully present is something that takes some work. And the experts are on it! It seems that research in this area is having quite an uptick lately, so we might assume that the problem of distracted living is a recent development. But many ancient disciplines--meditation, yoga, Quigong, and others--focus on cultivating mindfulness. So it's safe to say that human beings have been having trouble staying fully connected and in the moment (in a nonjudgemental, non-reactive way) for millennia. It's a relief to know that chronic inattention is not a recent development! But that is small consolation to those of us who fight daily to keep our heads in the game.

It's especially hard to focus this time of year, when we have so much on our plates: wrapping up year-end business, traveling, shopping, doing whatever it takes to make the holidays more festive than ever!!! To counteract our natural tendency toward distraction, we need to double down in December. Put mindfulness at the top of your to-do list. Don't let your morning yoga routine or your walking meditation fall by the wayside. With the stress of so much to do in such a short time we need these activities to keep ourselves grounded, centered and sane. So make time to do this work on yourself, for yourself. And if you need more motivation, there's this: your friends and family will appreciate it, too! Nothing says "I care" better than really being there for someone, listening with your whole heart and mind, and providing that calm foundation that we all need, but rarely find. It's the season of giving: so let your presence be your present!

 

Friday
Nov162018

Tis the season!

Every year the holiday-themed displays in big box stores creep earlier and earlier into the fall, so I have gotten used to tuning them out. But as the snow fell (and fell!) here in Brooklyn on Thursday, it was as if a bell had rung, waking me up to the fact that The Holiday Season is just around the corner. And as the evergreens start to appear, I thought I'd reflect upon one of my "evergreens"--communications issues that crop up regularly in my practice. This particular one bears some consideration as we enter a holiday season of professional and collegial socializing.  

A client was discussing some workplace communications issues that had been brought to her attention. Her boss suggested she could solve them by "being more authentic." She nodded, of course, but shared her concerns with me. "Everyone places so much importance on being authentic; they say it helps the office culture. So we all need to 'just be ourselves' all the time. I feel I'm being honest, but I want to maintain a distance between my office self and my at-home self." And she is exactly right! I have blogged about this before (What is authentic authenticity?), echoing the sentiment of a New York Times headline that made me laugh:  "Unless You're Oprah, "Be Yourself" is Terrible Advice ." 

This buzzword "authentic" does not mean unfiltered! Few people in our personal lives--not friends, spouses, and certainly not children--want to see what's really going on in our primal, private inner selves. So why should we share those thoughts and actions with office mates? Bringing this point up to those who insist on it doesn't really get you anywhere, though. But take heart, this "authenticity mania" will wear itself out eventually. In the meantime, my client and I devised some strategies to give her more flexibility with those who chide her for not being "authentic" enough.  

True authenticity--being fully present, communicating with an open mind, responding appropriately to the situation--is a wonderful thing. But just like you wouldn't show up to a gala in torn jeans and a dirty tee, you don't want to show up for work without your professional communication mindset. "Authenticity" is a worthy goal, but not when people misinterpret it to justify their own laziness.

 

Thursday
Oct252018

Acting the part

Last week I was running a webinar for a leadership development program. The participants were senior level, super-smart scientists located around the county. Before I got to the meat of the session, I said (as I always do) that I might use some familiar words, but maybe not in the way they generally used them. I hate jargon, so I don't use "in group" vocabulary of communications professionals or theatre people unless I am speaking to those groups. Still, I try to be careful about defining my terms, but there is always something that slips through. In this case, the word was ...

"Actor." Well, not the word, exactly, but the concept.  

I talk a lot about authenticity, and the importance of finding your own authentic leadership voice, And the key to that is discovering your own presence, which I liken to an actor's stage presence. I then go on to explain to the participants how they can each go about finding their own presence, which in turn helps them embrace their authentic leadership style. When I opened up the discussion for questions,  I got one I hadn't expected. The concept of an actor being authentic seemed confusing. Actors do the opposite, don't they? They're not really themselves, because they become other people, right?

That stopped me for a second. 

Somehow I had forgotten about this common misconception. I guess I mistook the popular, pervasive obsession with actors for at least a limited understanding of what they do. But it seems many fans of movie, TV, even stage actors don't really know how their favorites create such compelling illusions. The fact is, actors need a high degree of self-knowledge, self-confidence, and grounded-ness to be able to do what they do. It takes training and discipline. Actors do not shed their own skin and put on someone else's, no matter how much their PR myth-making machines might insist that they do. To have the presence of mind and body to be able to fully be yourself--yet fully portray another person--is the craft an actor works on for years, if not a lifetime. No matter how much magic they create in the audience's eyes, actors are not sorcerers who can switch themselves off and step into another life. If they were, they'd have a hard time coming back to their own lives and picking up the kids or doing the grocery shopping. Which I know they do. At least in New York! 

I felt a twinge of regret bursting the questioner's bubble. Like a parent coming clean about the Tooth Fairy. But the good news for non-actors is this: it's not really all that magical. You, too, can learn how to get your own brand of presence. And maybe a little bit of stardust!