Take Fake News By The Reins

We’re drowning in information, inundated from every angle. Like many people, I’ve become a news junkie, unable to stop tuning in. My homepage is set to CNN.com, but I’m frustrated that the default banner is “BREAKING NEWS.” Isn’t all news “breaking?” If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be “news.”

How do we sort through the clutter to recognize the truly important? More importantly, how do we differentiate truth, from propaganda, from outright lies. In the last six months, we have not only been introduced to, but become used to, two new phrases in our vocabulary: “fake news,” and “alternative facts.” “Fake news,” as I understand that term, is a strategic fabrication of lies disseminated widely to create a false impression. “Alternative facts” seems more tactical, and more personal: I’m more selective about the information I choose to listen to so that I only hear what I already want to believe.

How do we, as adults, learn to think more critically, and more independently? More importantly, for those of us responsible for younger, more impressionable minds, how do we teach others to be more discerning? To listen with a critical ear? To challenge what someone else’s words are trying to do to us?

For more than 20 years, Vivian Vasquez of American University, has worked in the classroom helping teachers guide young children toward being more critical learners. Her goal is to help all of us learn to listen more critically to what goes on around us. She believes that listening with a healthy degree of skepticism won’t make us more jaded, but will help us understand more deeply.

I had a great conversation with her recently.

Jay Sullivan: Dr. Vasquez, what’s the chief problem with understanding the world around us these days?

Vivian Vasquez: We all have our go-to sources for information – FOX or CNN, the Times, Post, or Journal, our mom or even the person who cuts our hair.  We go, not only to what’s familiar, but what makes us feel comfortable. That limits our exposure.

Sullivan:  What should we be doing instead?

Vasquez:  We should be challenging ourselves to look at opinions we don’t expect to agree with, and to compare the different language people use to express the same ideas. When the next big news story comes out, flip back and forth between the websites for your favorite network and a channel you wouldn’t normally be drawn to. Become conscious of the way the same stories are positioned on one media outlet vs. another. Pay special attention to the verbs. You might be amazed.

Sullivan:  I started doing that after the election. Being a New Yorker, my default was always to go to the New York Times.  After the election, I thought the best way to understand where other people were coming from would be to read what they’re reading and listen to what they’re listening to. Now, I routinely go to the websites of papers in the Midwest and South. In particular, I read the editorials. It’s been enlightening to see how others have a different take on the same facts.

Vasquez:  Now go a step further. When you read the paper, you know the Op-Ed section is pushing a certain point of view – that’s its role. Now go to the regular headlines. Look at the verbs they’re using. Even when they are purportedly just conveying facts, they’re doing so through a particular prism. Ask yourself, “If I had written the story, would I have used the same verbs? Taken the same angle on the story?

Sullivan: Once I have exposed myself to different points of view, how do I read each with a critical eye?

Vasquez: There are two key steps to reading more critically. I work with teachers to help them encourage students to ask some core questions when they are reading something. Ask yourself, “What is the writing trying to make me feel? What is it trying to do to me? What reactions am I having emotionally, cognitively, physically? You may find yourself getting sympathetic or angry as you read something. Was that the writer’s intent? If so, was the writer being manipulative, or are the facts of the story innately endearing or infuriating? I call this step “reading with the text.”

Sullivan: This sounds a lot like another hot topic these days – mindfulness. In mindfulness training, we’re asked to be conscious of our breathing, of the sounds around us. Being conscious of our breathing helps us control our breathing. You’re suggesting that being conscious of how a piece of writing is impacting us allows us to take control of the information.

Vasquez:  That’s right. Being conscious of the clutter allows you to manage how it impacts you, to sort out the unimportant, or at least to slow down how we react to it.

Sullivan: Once I know what impact the text is having on me, what’s next?

Vasquez: After we read with the text, we need to read against the text. We should weigh the different perspectives before deciding what to take away from the text. Writers create their own contexts based on what they’ve written, and by what they’ve left out. They create the scenario, so they get to develop the plot and the characters the way they want. For most of us, our ideologies are invisible to us. Step one is to be conscious that we are hearing things a certain way. Step two is to ask ourselves why we hear things that way. That level of self-reflection and self- analysis is important to understand how to hear others more clearly.

Sullivan: What are some easy steps we can take to achieve that?

Vasquez: It’s all about the questions we ask ourselves.

Who is the source?

What do I know about the source?

Who benefits from a particular angle on the story?

Who is disadvantaged?

Whose account of the story is prevalent? Whose is missing?

How could it have been told differently?

Who benefits or is disadvantaged by different tellings?

These are just some of the questions we can ask ourselves to become more mindful, more conscious of, and more critical about the news we experience.

Sullivan:  So I know the news is having an impact on me, and then I reflect on the context of the speaker. “Is she or he a part of a larger organization that has a broader agenda?” What comes next?

Vasquez: Next comes the “so what” piece. After we hear the voices around us with a more critical ear, how do we then act differently out in the world? Well, we’re part of the story too.  As we engage in discussions with others, as we debate current events, as we interact with those around us, we are doing so having been influenced by the news we’ve processed. If we listen both more broadly and critically, and then reflect consciously on how those stories are influencing us, we are better able to put the stories in context. It takes the edge off the anxiety.  It helps us then communicate our ideas more clearly, with greater intention, and, hopefully, with the desired impact. By becoming more conscious of how others communicate, we improve our own ability to communicate. We become part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

Sullivan: Not a bad result.

Originally published on Forbes.com.

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Guiding Quick Decisions

Snap decisions are made all the time. Whether they’re about how to begin tackling a new project, or choosing between a burrito or bowl, many of our decisions are made in an instant. We all make these snap decisions because we are confronted with so many choices each day. Knowing that your peers, clients and coworkers also make snap decisions, it’s important that your messages are sharp and easily understood.

Reaching the word count on an essay has become an art form and a highly cultivated skill for most college students. Abusing the thesaurus, overloading sentences and using superfluous adjectives are all common practices that can form damaging writing habits. In an office setting, where time is extremely valuable, it becomes increasingly important to cut out the clutter and get to the point.

Here are some tips to best influence snap decisions and cut to the chase:

Keep it Simple

One of the easiest traps to fall into when writing is trying to sound intelligent. The reality is that the message of your content is far more important than the words used. In business, your ‘grades’ are based on the impact you have and contributions you make; not the extent of your vocabulary. Keep your message simple by avoiding unnecessary information and clarifying the main points.

Consider your Audience

When presenting or sharing information, the audience isn’t focused on you. They are focused on the message. It’s important to consider what kind of information will be most valuable to the audience. After a meeting or presentation lasting a half an hour, the audience won’t be able to remember everything that was said. Focusing on the needs of the audience will improve your ability to persuade and leave a lasting impact. When creating your presentation, think about what you want your audience to walk away with most prominent in their mind.

People make snap decisions constantly. It’s crucial to ensure that your message is clear, so when a snap decision is made, it’s the right one.

Matt DeBonis is Exec-Comm’s Summer 2017 Marketing Intern. Learn more about Matt.

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Three Tips for Maintaining Respect During Meetings

When participating in a conference call or meeting, there may be occasional interruptions or employees may get frustrated when trying to get their point across and begin talking down to others.

Here are three quick tips to ensure all participants are respected during meetings.

Set rules

Set rules at the top of the meeting. Tell attendees that there will be “no disrespecting others’ ideas” and enforce the rule throughout the meeting.

Pause briefly

If an interruption or frustrated employee disrupts the meeting, simply pause and look in their direction. This is usually enough to get them to recognize their mistake.

Discourage interruptions

When dealing with an interrupter, slow the person down by saying, “that’s an interesting point. Now let’s see what the group thinks.” If you continuously interrupt him/her and open the discussion up to the group, the interrupter will recognize a pattern, and hopefully get the hint that they’re out of line.

Get more meeting skills tips from Exec-Comm here.

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Congratulations to David Nevin!

Exec-Comm is extremely proud of our Global Sales Consultant, David Nevin, for becoming an IAF Certified™ Professional Facilitator. To accomplish this impressive distinction, David demonstrated a set of skills, knowledge, and behaviors that qualified him to meet an internationally recognized standard for group facilitation.

To learn more about IAF and their professional certification, click here. To learn more about David, you can view his bio here.

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Six Steps for a Successful Apology

At some point in your career, you’ll have to apologize to someone up, down or across the corporate ladder. Getting to the next rung on that ladder may depend upon on how well you deliver the apology.  The well-executed apology establishes your credibility as a decent person and helps others trust you.

Here are the six steps we recommend for a successful apology:

Say it soon

Usually, apologies are best said right after realizing you need to utter one. Don’t let too much time go by, or you’ll diminish the impact of the apology.  An immediate “I’m sorry” for a missed or late appointment, for example, is good manners. For especially egregious errors, the apology may require some extra time and care to construct. That’s fine; just don’t wait more than a few days.

Say it live

Unless it’s impossible, speak your apology in-person. The person receiving the apology needs to see your humility, or even hear it on the phone. Less effective is an email apology, better to send a well-crafted handwritten note.

Name the deed

Own up to what you did and take responsibility with your apology. Something like “I’m sorry that I talked behind your back” has an authenticity that “I’m sorry I made you feel bad” may lack.

Omit the “but”

If you say, “I’m sorry I yelled at you during the staff meeting, but you missed the deadline by a week,” you’re excusing or justifying your actions. That’s not apologizing. So leave out “but” and its first cousin, “however.”

Note the pain

Acknowledge that you said or did something that hurt the person: “I realize that my gossiping hurt you and made you feel isolated from our group.” This adds a necessary integrity to your apology.

Fix it

Ask what would correct your wrong. The person may say that the apology is sufficient. Possibly, they might ask you to speak to their boss or do something else. Hear them out and do what they ask, assuming it’s a reasonable request.

Apologizing is never easy. Do it earnestly, though, and people will respect and forgive you. And when someone apologizes to you, accept it graciously. It’s all in a day’s work.

To read more on this topic, take a look at my colleague’s newsletter: Oops. The mistake that still haunts me 15 years later.

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Learn to Listen

From business courses to software training, a university can offer an abundance of resources to help prepare students to plunge into the work force. Students arm themselves with certifications and fine tune their resumes, however some of the most important skills aren’t taught in a textbook. As a student in the midst of figuring out life after school, it has become abundantly clear that there is plenty to gain from learning one simple lesson; listen.

The power of a conversation cannot be understated. Some of the most influential insights gained along my path have come from simple conversations and a desire to learn. Often students in this transitional stage of life can be overwhelmed with worries and questions, while the answers may be right around them all along. There is so much to be learned from speaking with co-workers, clients, employers and peers, if you are willing to listen.

Here are some tips to help you listen effectively:

Be Open 

Each new person you meet and each conversation you have can be an opportunity for growth. Every person has traveled a unique path and is likely to have been in your shoes at one time. Asking questions and taking stories into consideration can go a long way in shaping your perspective.

Be Engaged

It’s difficult to share information or enjoy a conversation with someone who appears to be distracted. Open body language, eye contact and active listening are all important skills that should form into habits.

Be Receptive

Allow the other person to finish their thought before readying a response. Taking a brief pause and asking a few questions can help you to fully understand the other person’s intent. Make a clear effort to listen and assure that you are both on the same track.

While hard work and determination can take you a long way, it’s important to learn as much as you can from those around you. Learning to listen is one of the best ways to enhance your career.

Matt DeBonis is Exec-Comm’s Summer 2017 Marketing Intern. Learn more about Matt.

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Exec-Comm’s Take on the Most Persuasive Words

I recently came across this great Business Insider video, “The 4 Most Persuasive Words In The English Language,” and thought it might be fun to see what partners at Exec-Comm thought on the topic.

Here are our top three picks for the most persuasive words.


A few of us absolutely agreed with the video on the effectiveness of the word “you.”

For me, I find this to be the most persuasive word.  When you target your message, need or benefit to an individual with a focus on the “impact to you,” people listen.

Partner Jay Sullivan shared, “I think the most persuasive word, depending on how it is used, is ‘you.’ The more you talk to another person about that person, the more they are likely to listen.”

Partner Christine Healey de Casanova agreed, sharing that “To persuade others, we first need to engage them.  Most people are engaged when we’re talking about them.  Half the battle is getting people’s attention.”


Partner Carmen Ivonne Goitia shared “If I’m asked to do something because it’s going to make me happy, I’m most likely willing to try.”


Partner Karen Diaz believes one of the most persuasive words is please. As she shared, “I would be more likely to do anything you need if the word please is used. Take a look at these two statements that ask you to do something in two different ways. ‘Take out the garbage!’ sounds harsh and commanding. ‘Please take out the garbage’ softens the tone.”

Partner Joe Rigney agreed, sharing “I think that the word please is very persuasive especially when followed with a directive like ‘please get started today saving for your retirement so you benefit from compounding.’ It sets a friendly tone and promotes action.”

What do you believe are the most persuasive words? Let us know in the comments below.

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It’s All About Building Relationships: Alan Alda Talks About His New Book

I write about communication and leadership, which means I write about relationships. Picture yourself walking on a path.  You’re often looking down to watch your step.  When you look up, the view is sometimes mundane, occasionally spectacular.  But it’s the intersections with other paths that provide the greatest opportunity for challenge, for learning, for adventure.  It’s at the intersections that we meet other people.  It’s the relationships we build that build our lives.

Alan Alda, of TV, movie and Broadway fame, has been building relationships not only on the screen and stage, but in academic circles as well.  He has a passion for science.  For decades, he has been working to help scientists communicate their ideas more clearly.  In his new book, he shares how he has helped a wide range of academic and business professionals explain complex ideas more clearly by focusing on the relationship between the speaker and the listener.  In, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?, Alda uses his trademark humor and a well-honed ability to get to the point, to help us all learn how to leverage the better communicator inside each of us.

I had the privilege to interview him for this column.

Jay Sullivan: You have been deeply involved in helping people communicate for many years now.  What prompted you to write the book at this point in your career?

Alan Alda: After more than 20 years of helping scientists to communicate better, I realized that with a few adjustments, the approach worked for people in pretty much every situation. In business, in families – anywhere there are people who want someone to understand them. That seems to be an increasingly urgent problem. There are some pretty high prices to pay for misunderstanding.

Sullivan: Your first section is titled “Relating is Everything.”  In a nutshell, why is relating to the other person so important?

Alda: What you have to say is, of course, important, but if the people you’re saying it to don’t understand you, or worse, think they understand and get a disastrously wrong impression, you might as well not have talked to them. Somehow, you have to find out if they’re following you. That’s where relating comes in – allowing you to pick up cues from their faces, their tone, their overall body language, allowing you, in a way, to read their minds. Even better, relating puts you in intimate, personal contact with another person. Thoughts and feelings flow back and forth more freely. You’re in sync. And it’s fun.

Sullivan: What is one concrete step we can each take daily to try to relate better?

Alda: Notice the person you’re talking to. If you close your eyes, or turn away, can you remember what color their hair is? What they’re wearing? And as you listen to the other person, are you waiting until they finish so you can talk, or are you listening for something in what they’re saying that might actually change you for the better? That’s hard to do if you don’t agree with them, but for me it’s a radical, deep kind of listening that’s worth the trouble.

Sullivan: You talk often about the skills and attitude that comedians hone through improvisation.  For people who can’t take an improv class, what can you suggest for developing the same instincts or habits?

Alda: There’s a list of things people can do to get better at reading other people. Reading novels is said to be one of them, because you’re following the emotional life of the characters. What seems to work for me is paying really close attention to the people I’m talking to. How are they hearing this? Have I left something out? Have I gone into too much detail and confused them? Thinking about what the other person is going through has been a good habit to get into for me. And research seems to suggest it’s not a bad idea, as well.

Sullivan: What comes first, the habit or the instinct?

Alda: I think most people have some ability to read another person. But if they’re poor at it, it can be developed. But it can also slip away. It not only needs to become habitual, it needs to be reinforced regularly. It’s like going to the gym, only better. The gym feels good after you get out of there. Relating feels good while you’re doing it.

Makes you wonder why it needs to be worked on if it’s so pleasurable. Why isn’t it the default mode? I guess it is for some people, but for me empathy cools down if I don’t keep it stoked.

Sullivan: The end of the book focuses on telling engaging stories as a way of building a connection with your audience.  You weave throughout the book stories drawn from your various careers.  What story or event from early in your life sent you on a path of being open to learning for the sake of learning?

Alda: I wish I had a story about how I learned to love to learn. From the time I was little, I was always trying to figure things out. Why did that adult just say that — what does that mean? I wonder what’s going on in the inside of that watch? I eavesdropped on a lot of adults and took apart a watch or two, but I didn’t come away with a story. The only thing that comes close to a story is that my mother was, unfortunately, schizophrenic and paranoid and I had to become very observant and a little analytic. When she told me something, was this reality, or her reality?

Sullivan: Your book is about bridging the gap between the intellectual and the emotional.  That’s a core struggle in the human experience.  If a reader takes away one piece of advice that will help them close that gap, what do you want her or him to know from reading your book?

Alda: What’s worked pretty well for me is to realize that both ways of processing the world are helpful, and helpful to one another.  I try to have a friendly relationship with my brain, letting those two ways of thinking sort things out in their own time. I try not to bother them too much.

Sullivan: Thanks for your time.

Whether you’re an actor, scientist, banker, or busboy, “If I Understood You…” will help you communicate better at work and beyond.

Oringinally published on Forbes.com.

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Top Four Things To Know About Creating A Start-Up

You worked hard in undergrad. You earned your business degree from a great university. You landed a plum job at a top tier consulting firm. You feel like you’ve made it. And five years later you walk away from it all to start your own company. Are you nuts?!

In late 2016, Chris Stamerjohn, a University of Kansas grad, quit his consulting job to join forces with Jonathan Choumas, a former colleague. Jonathan had started Whisha, a specialty coffee distributor. Whisha buys coffee from local roasters in northern California and distributes it to local businesses. Through their partnerships with over 25 roasters, they now service more than 200 grocery stores, cafes and restaurants. From a warehouse in Larkspur, California, their delivery team runs a growing fleet all over the Bay Area and Sacramento Valley. Coffee distribution isn’t a “sexy” business, and the business model isn’t complicated. There are no hip pool tables in the office space, but the warehouse smells a lot better than the average tech start-up.

I asked Chris what others should consider before quitting a stable career to go all-in on a start-up.

First, it’s all about the relationships, both internally and externally.

When you go into business with someone, you’re tying your success to theirs. Do you know the person well enough that you trust their integrity as much as their judgment? I had worked with Jonathan for a few years. I didn’t just know he was smart and hardworking. I knew the values he would apply to this company.

You also need the right relationships with your suppliers and customers. Before I made the leap, I visited some of the suppliers with Jonathan. The feeling I got for their commitment to working with us, and their genuine sense of being excited to grow our businesses together contributed to my confidence that there was a need for specialized distribution services within the coffee supply chain.

Second, you need a solid business model.

Does your business solve a problem for your suppliers and customers? Some people start companies because they think their particular product or industry is cool. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not usually enough to build a sustainable business. We identified a gap in the supply chain for craft coffee. The roasters we work with offer a premium product, roasted in small batches, with sensitive shelf life and branding requirements. Our coffee specialists visit customer stores on a weekly basis to merchandise, rotate products, and organize offerings. That level of attention is not something that a lot of bigger distribution companies can provide.

Third, you need to be versatile.

Everyone in our company wears multiple hats. I am the company president, but I also manage the financials, create routes for drivers, go on sales calls with potential customers, and track which products are in each store and which ones are moving. You need to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and expand your skillset.

Versatility also extends beyond personal responsibilities. The company as a whole needs to pro-actively adapt processes, offerings, and service to best meet the needs of the customer. When we learned that there was a growing demand for our products outside of Northern California, we decided to launch a home delivery service directly to consumers through our website, www.baristami.com.

Finally, ask yourself, “What am I willing to give up?”

Within any startup, you will need to make personal sacrifices to find success. As a consultant, I was making a lot more money, had nearly unlimited PTO, a weekly expense budget, and an ever-expanding amount of hotel and airline points. I had to take a serious look at my lifestyle to see what changes I could make and where I could save money. Those decisions are not always easy and in the end, it comes down to sacrificing a lot of short-term perks to accomplish a long term goal.

I asked Chris what’s next.

We hope to be in an additional 200 stores by the end of June. It’s a big push, but we’ve got the structure in place and the drive to get it done. 

So, readers, if you or someone you know is planning on making that jump from safety and security to self-driven start-up, consider Chris’ advice. You’ll need all the energy you can muster. If you need a jolt of caffeine to keep you going, go to www.baristami.com. Personally, I’m not a coffee drinker, but my wife recommends Verve.

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How to Get Along Better with Your Boss

One day, I got a call from a Senior Vice President at a major bank in NYC. He said to me, “I’m having a problem with one of my direct reports, Don. I need you to fix him.”

When I asked about the problem, the SVP shared, “He’s driving me crazy. He pops into my office all the time and says, “Boss, you got a minute?” Then he starts talking and talking–interrupting my day.  He doesn’t think in advance about what he wants to say; he just rambles. It really bothers me when he wants my immediate opinion about something that I’d rather think about for awhile. If this guy doesn’t shape up soon, I’m going to fire him.”

Sounds harsh, right? Fortunately, the boss gave Don a chance to improve. I spent four hours coaching Don and quickly discovered that he was smart, capable and charismatic. He respected his boss’ intelligence. However, Don didn’t enjoy working with his boss, because their communication styles clashed.

Don loved the bank and wanted to advance his career. So we came up with a simple strategy: give your boss what he wants.  Only then, I assured Don, will you get what you need. Over the next month, Don changed three behaviors, he:

  1. Set up meetings with his boss, rather than popping into his office unannounced.
  2. Created an outline of key points to share with his boss, rather than winging it without notes.
  3. Gave his boss data to analyze prior to a meeting, rather than sharing it during the meeting.

These were easy to implement and immediately noticed. Within weeks, the boss called me and said, “I don’t know what you did, but Don is a changed man. I’m really enjoying working with him now.” Don did not get fired. Instead, he got promoted three months later.

So, what can you do to get along better with YOUR boss?

Think about your boss’ communication style

Communicate to him in that style. Is your boss detailed? Then give him the details. Does he only want the big picture? Skip the details– he doesn’t need ‘em. It doesn’t matter whether you like details or not…go with what your boss likes.

Think about your boss’ preferences

Does your boss like to brainstorm? Then brainstorm with her. Is your boss time sensitive? Then show up on time and wrap up early. Does your boss like to analyze things before making a decision?  Then let her analyze and give her a lot of data.

Focus on what your boss needs. Then you’ll get what you need. That promotion is just around the corner.

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