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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

The present of presence

Taking a break from ordering Christmas gifts online yesterday, I decided I should go through accumulated flagged e-mails. And I finally read a Washington Post article about Barbara Cook, the 84-year-old legendary singer who was one of this year's recipients of The Kennedy Center Honors:

My husband sent me this link, knowing I would be interested in the insights this incredible artist shares about vocal training and her approach to singing. What I didn't expect (though I should have, now that I reflect upon seeing her years ago in a small club room in NYC and recently onstage at the Kennedy Center), is that her primary focus seems to be on being present. Peter Marks starts this wonderful portrait of Ms. Cook by explaining her fascination with Hugh Jackman on stage: “Here’s the thing: What I try to tell students in master classes is what we want is them. It’s so hard to believe that what the world wants is the intrinsic you on the stage. And that’s what Hugh Jackman’s got, in spades. He’s incredibly present.

Later, she describes her own journey from Broadway leading lady, to has-been, to star of clubs and concert halls. Of course she has an incredibly well-trained, strong voice. And it is so beautiful it shimmers. But what really elevates her as an artist is her willingness to be open with the audience. She has been around long enough to strip all the artifice away; she invites the listener into her heart: "When you allow people to really, really see your humanity in its most profound form, it touches that humanity in them. In that critical way, we find we’re not so alone in the world.”

When you are being yourself, your best self, people can tell. They respond. They connect. It sounds so easy. But nothing is harder. For all of us, whenever, however we try to communicate, it takes thought and preparation. But if we lay the groundwork, trust what we're doing, and actually come prepared for give-and-take, we discover something rare and wonderful to share with others. We have that kind of courage to let go and just Be. Present.


How Not To Be a Bore

In An Actor Prepares, Constantin Stanislavsky (the father of modern acting) demanded that actors - to truly be good at their craft - "cut 90 per cent."

I offer similar advice to my speaking clients. As content experts, we often have the urge to tell everything we know about our subject, assuming the world is as interested in it as we are. Even if our conversation partners are incredibly captivated by what we do, unless they are colleagues engaged in the same line of inquiry/practice at the same level, they need it broken down for them. In easily-digestible, bite-sized pieces. They can't know all that we know (that's why we're the experts!) and so we need to meet them at their level. If we don't, we fall into the trap of droning, monologuing, and otherwise boring or confusing people who, through no fault of their own, have become our unwitting "audience." And how do they respond? Can you say, "Excuse me while I find that cheese dip?"

So as you go out to socialize with family, friends, and colleagues this holiday season, don't be the bore at the party. If someone ask you what you're up to professionally, give them the Twitter version - short, sweet, somewhat intriguing. If you tantalize them (and if they are interested in the subject), you may be able to arrange a follow-up meeting. If they have no interest in your subject matter, at least you found out in a mercifully short time, and can go connect with someone else. 

Oh - this advice works for non-business encounters, as well. It is a good rule of thumb to follow whenever you want to cultivate a relationship. As that old rascal P.T. Barnum said: "always leave 'em wanting more"!


Have Yourself a Merry Bit of Networking....

So, you're running through your days in December trying to get everything done for a very big, looming deadline, know as The Holidays. In between all the decorating, baking, shopping, etc, (oh, and trying to make progeress on that Must-Do list at the office as well), you're expected to actually be able to focus and enjoy a few social events this season!

Who has the time???

Well, maybe you're like me and have decided to save the hosting of a larger social gathering for a less stressful, busbusy time. But you still need to go to some to these, because. . . well, it's expected! So, here are some tips for getting the most out of those quasi-social/work-related, sometimes challenging "festivities" known as Holiday Parties:

  • Use social gatherings as networking opportunities. Have a good answer for the inevitable "What is it you do, again?" question: one or two sentences that succinctly convey what it is you do, and what excites you about it. Go ahead- prepare! You can think about these sentences while you're waiting for the cookies to come out of the oven or wrapping a present. Then practice in front of your cat, or in the shower. Try to "know" them so they sound natural, conversational, and not at all like you are giving a sales pitch or elevator speech. If you do a good job of this, your conversation partner (and it is imperative you think of him/her this way--not as listener or audience!) will ask some questions which you will answer. Then it's your turn to ask. Et voilà - before you know it, you are in a conversation! And a connection has been made.
  • Be sure to right-size your message. Make the most of your once-a-year opportunity to talk to that elusive prospective client, the colleague you would like to partner with, the manager you want to impress. Everyone is in a rush this season, so don't feel you have to tell everything all at once. When conveying information verbally you need to be sure to give only as much as your conversation partner can digest. If you hit your main points, slowly and clearly, you will have a much better chance of being understood, and invited back for a follow-up conversation in 2012.
  • Try to relax. We all appreciate the person in the room who radiates calm and a sense of well-being, especially at this frazzled time of year. If you can stay centered, breathe and focus, you can be the one in the room everyone seeks out. A gift to them -- and to you!


Tips for the Season, Part One

At this busy time of year, we can all use some help! If you are going to be making any speeches, toasts, or having "important" conversations, here are a couple of handy tips for you that I cheerfully pass on in the spirit of the season: 
  • Stand up straight. Your mother was right! Good posture not only makes you look better, it helps you sound better. You can convey your message more effectively if you are using your voice efficiently. Think of your voice as the water in a garden hose. It flows best through an unkinked, untangled channel.
  • Don't forget to breathe. Remember analogies? breath:voice :: gas:engine. Without proper breath support, your voice can quickly tire or sound exhausted. As you get busier and busier with all your seasonal shopping, baking, partying, and caroling, remember:  just because you feel stressed doesn't mean you have to sound stressed! Take time for a deep breath of winter smells and scents for instant reinvigoration.


Pink and Blue? What's Up With That?

Last week I attended a very interesting author's talk given by Rosalind Barnett, a senior researcher at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, co-author (with journalist Caryl Rivers) of a new book, The Truth about Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children (

As someone who regularly works with clients on issues of leadership communications, it was heartening to hear Dr. Barnett's conclusions. Her book explores solid science by respected reasearchers. It points to larger variations in natural skills and abilities within each gender group than between them. Boys are no more naturally inclined, as a group, to actively take charge and become leader than girls are (which is pretty obvious to anyone who has observed a group of preschoolers!) The pseudo-science that posits men and women are from different planets, or have evolved as quasi-separate species, has long rankled me. And yet this "conventional wisdom" persists! As the mother of a daughter and a son, I have observed that such understanding can do great damage to our children growing up, as they are pushed into socially acceptable roles by well-meaning teachers, parents, neighbors. Little girls are told to "sit still and be quiet," and work on fine motor skills. Boys are urged to run around, play with toys that move, and never, ever touch dolls. Dr. Barnett told us that girls have as much testosterone - sometime more - than boys, until puberty, so why should they have a "built-in" inclination from the start to be demure? To be more empathetic, more "relational" - all those things we are told come "naturally" to females? And Dr. Barnett reminds us that the brain is incredibly plastic, so that the concept of being "hard-wired" for certain behaviors is also so much "received wisdom" that doesn't stand up to science.

I could go on about this subject - indeed, ask friends and family, who will tell you I have! But, even when people are socialized over time to adhere to these strict gender roles and internalize them, science says they are not inevitable or immutable. So I say, we should strive to be ourselves, to be our best selves, and not be derailed by the noise of what we "should" be. Especially if we want to realize our full potential as leaders, we frst need to clear out that clutter to see who we are.

It takes lots of energy to fight against this and many other, falsely-perceived "truths" that shape how we function day to day. As Virginia Woolf wrote in August, 1940, "Mental fight means thinking against the current, not with it. That current flows fast and furious. It issues in a spate of word from the loudspeakers and the politicians. . . . it is our business to puncture gas-bags and discover seeds of truth." I plan to keep looking for those seeds.