3 Habits that Detract from Your Credibility and How to Avoid Them

Most communication skills are not about “right” and “wrong.” The overall impression you make on others is a combination of many factors, and the frequency of certain behaviors. Here are three language habits that undermine your authority.

Qualifying Language

Sometimes, we can’t state things in the absolute, and need to qualify what we are saying. Lawyers are taught never to say, “You will win the case.” Financial advisors are quick to point out, “Past performance is no guarantee of future success.” Because we must qualify much of what we say, it’s important to state with certainty that which you can. Yet too often, we pepper our speech with “kind of,” “sort of,” “basically,” and “essentially,” among other words and phrases. All these phrases qualify the integrity of our statements.

If I say, “I kind of like sushi,” I’m suggesting I don’t dislike sushi, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it.  But if I say at a business meeting, “I sort of think we need to go with plan A,” I come across as hesitant, reticent to take a stand, and weak. What does it mean to “sort of think” something anyway? And if I say, “I sort of think we basically need to do X” I’m now three steps removed from taking a stand.

I’m not suggesting you should never use these words or phrases.  I only suggest you use them when you mean them.

Moreover, although many people use these phrases frequently while speaking, some people use “basically” and “essentially” in their writing as well.

The Fix: To minimize the use of qualifying phrases in your writing, search for “basically” and “essentially” in your document and make sure you are using them appropriately.  To minimize your use of these phrases in your speech, slow down.  If you pause between sentences, you will not only seem more poised and in control of yourself, you will be more conscious of your word choice and be able to cull out the unnecessary language.

Filler Words and Sounds

Muttering “um” and “ah” and other hesitancy sounds undermines our ability to sound confident and convey our ideas fluidly. We tend to fill in the pauses, particularly between sentences, because we are uncomfortable with the silence. The pauses between sentences are rarely as long as we feel they are in the moment. In fact, the silence between sentences gives our listeners the time they need to process the ideas we are conveying. We tend to use filler sounds most frequently when looking down at our notes or away from our audience to gather our thoughts.

The Fix:
 To avoid using filler sounds, only speak when looking directly in someone’s eyes.  If you talk only when you are looking right at someone, almost all the filler words will disappear.

Up-Speak

Up-speak is the inflection in our voice that, traditionally, indicates we are asking a question; our voice goes “up” at the end of the sentence.  “Would you like fries with that?” In the last two decades, many people have started using up-speak to end every sentence, undermining the sense of certainty in their speech.  You many know this habit as ‘Valley-girl’ speech. This habit is often used by those early in their careers.

If I ask someone, “Where do you live?” and they respond, “I live in Hoboken,” with their voice inflecting up at the end of the sentence, I know they aren’t asking a question or uncertain where they live. They are saying “Are you familiar with Hoboken?” or “Have you ever been there?” But if that becomes their speech pattern and they then say in a business meeting, “I think we need to close the deal sooner,” with their voice inflecting up at the end, it sounds like they are looking for confirmation, or hedging their bets. Neither result come across as confident.

The Fix: To avoid using up-speak, use clear, sharp, definitive gestures when speaking. If your hand gestures are strong and emphatic, it’s more likely your voice will match the power of your gestures, and you will land each sentence as a statement instead of a question. You will sound more confident. The size of the gesture doesn’t matter as much as the crispness of the motion, such as a flick of the wrist in a karate chop motion, rather than a gentle pat-on-the-head motion.

In conclusion, your overall impact as a communicator is not based on an isolated instance of what you say or the way you say it. It’s based on the cumulative effect of many behaviors – these and others. If you say “sort of” or “basically” two or three times in a long conversation, who cares? There will be little or no impact on your credibility. But if in every sentence there are “um’s” and “kind of’s” and instances of up-speak, you’ll undermine your sense of confidence in yourself and your ideas. So, slow down, only speak when you are looking at people, and use sharp, definitive gestures when speaking.

Originally published on Forbes.com.

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How to Write Like Warren Buffett…Or Not

Warren Buffett’s 2016 Shareholder Letter came out last week. It’s the year’s most awaited business publication and is probably read by more people than the average SEC pronouncement. It’s easy to read and enjoyable. In addition to providing an update on Berkshire Hathaway’s business, the letter reads like a business school primer. Buffett is to business and finance what Carl Sagan was to astronomy and Albert Einstein was to everything; he makes complex ideas easy to understand.

Translating complicated material into simple language is not “dumbing down” your material. Any idiot can make something easy sound difficult. It takes a smart, conscientious writer to make something complex easy to understand. Buffett accomplishes that goal. What lessons can we learn from Buffett’s letter?

  1. Make it personal. Your writing should sound like it’s coming from one human being and going to another human being. Create the impression of a conversation. Your writing will have more impact if you focus less on yourself and your content, and more on what the audience is trying to learn from your content. You’ll accomplish that goal if you write in a conversational style, where there are fewer barriers between you and the audience.

First, use personal pronouns. At the start of his 2016 letter, Buffett identifies who is in charge at Berkshire – he and Charlie Munger. Thereafter, it’s clear to whom “we” refers. His letter is written in the first person, referring to himself and his team as “I” and “we.” More importantly, he addresses the reader directly. He refers to “you,” “your,” or “yours,” more than 100 times.

Second, use rhetorical questions. Can rhetorical questions help? Absolutely. In both presentations and in your writing, rhetorical questions create the illusion of a dialogue.  Your audience hears you responding to a question. It’s irrelevant, and often unnoticed by your audience, that you are the one who asked the question. All the audience hears is that you are engaging them rather than talking at them. Six times in his letter, Buffett uses rhetorical questions to link the conversation back to the reader.

  1. Write the way you speak. Since all of us have a different style, your conversational voice in your writing will sound different that Buffett’s. He is a folksy, Midwestern, octogenarian, off-the-charts-successful business leader. You are you. Don’t try to be him; it won’t work. Buffett’s engaging, matter-of-fact writing style is consistent with his in-person persona. If you have ever seen him interviewed, you recognize the positive tone, the engaging voice and the intelligent banter as pure Buffett. You can almost “hear” his voice in his writing.

In the letter, Buffett confesses that he has made mistakes in some key business decisions, particularly in issuing shares to purchase a company. He even says that he’d “rather prep for a colonoscopy than issue Berkshire shares.” Not many business leaders would attempt that type of statement in a shareholder letter; that’s a good thing. Most people would not sound genuine being that frank in their discussions. If you have a more formal approach to communicating, if you aren’t as vivid or visual in your descriptions, don’t try to be so in your writing. It will be difficult for you to write, and likely awkward for the reader to read.  Once you’re done writing, read each sentence aloud. Could you actually imagine yourself saying that sentence to someone? If not, what would you say? Write that.

  1. Keep it simple. Microsoft Word provides a ‘readability’ assessment for all documents. See below for how to activate that feature. After you run a spell check on your document, you can see some basic stats about your writing. It might be eye-opening for you. Based on the readability stats in Word, Buffett’s 2016 letter is written between a 9th & 10th grade reading level. That means that a typical 10th grader can read any paragraph in Buffett’s letter once and understand the meaning. It’s written for an audience of educated business investors, and yet it doesn’t require you to draw on everything you learned getting your MBA in order to access the information. He made it effortless to understand complex ideas.

Again based on the readability stats, Buffett’s letter averages 4.9 characters per word. That means his summary of Berkshire’s performance in 2016 is nothing but a bunch of four-letter words. He didn’t overcomplicate things. Furthermore, once sentences exceed 17 words, the reader will struggle to grasp the concept easily. Buffett’s average sentence length: 13.5 words.

Activate the readability stats in Word. Aim for a readability as low as possible.  If you write at a 3rd or 4th grade reading level, you won’t sound like a 3rd or 4th grader. You will sound like someone with such a solid command of her content that you can make things easy for others to understand. If your readability comes in over 10, see if you can break up your longer sentences into two sentences, or use shorter words where appropriate. Don’t force it. Just think about how to make it easy for your audience.

To Activate Readability Stats:

On Macs:

  1. Click on “Word” at the top of your screen
  2. Click “Preferences.”
  3. Click “Spelling and Grammar.”
  4. Check the box next to “Show Readability Statistics.”
  5. Spell check text.

On PCs:

  1. File
  2. Options
  3. Proofing
  4. Check the box next to “Show Readability Statistics.”
  5. Spell check text.

Originally published on Forbes.com.

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‘Small Mishap’ Or ‘Huge Problem’ – Emails That Don’t Hit The Panic Button

Like many college juniors, my daughter, Magdalen, decided to travel abroad for a semester. Rather than go somewhere in Europe, where I would have gone, she traded the comfort of Boston College for a four-month stint in Uganda. My wife and I are not overly-anxious parents; we are normally-anxious parents, which means we look forward to each new email or FaceTime call to see how she is handling this experience.

Last Monday, we woke to an email ominously titled, ‘Small Mishap.’ I am sharing parts of the message to show how to write clear messages.

“Mom and Dad, 

I first want to say that everything is okay. I am okay. If you take away one message from this email, it is that I am okay.

I spent yesterday in the hospital….”

Maggie then detailed her body’s reaction to a food allergy.

I continued reading as Mary googled ‘flight options to Entebbe Airport – Kampala, Uganda.’

Maggie started with the key message. She’s OK. It put everything else in context. When you write with a purpose – compared to creative writing – put your message up front. It allows the reader to hear the details with perspective. If your email subject line is, ‘Update on the Acme Project,’ the first line should be, ‘With regard to Acme,…

…everything is on track,’ or

…we just hit a roadblock,’ or

…the deal isn’t going to happen.’

That key message at the front, tells me how to read the rest of your message. It prepares the reader for what’s to follow. It also allows the reader to prioritize your overall message. If I’m sitting at my desk and your message comes in and says ‘Regarding Acme, everything is on track,’ I might decide, ‘Great. I’ll read the rest of that later when I’m done putting out the fires in front of me.’

If your message says, ‘I need your help to get to the next step,’ I’ll keep reading to see if I can solve this quickly and then put out the fires. Either way, the key message up front helps me understand how to move forward.

Some people like to build an argument, or share background before stating their main point. This tends to be a less effective approach than just getting to the point. Regardless of your role at work, your title isn’t ‘Mystery Novelist.’ Don’t hold the big secret until the end. Just get to the point up front.

Back to Uganda. Maggie has battled severe asthma her whole life. Although it didn’t prevent her from being a high school athlete, it played a behind-the-scenes role in many of the choices she has made over the years. We sent her off to Kampala with enough albuterol to stock a small clinic.

In her email, after she described her food allergy she wrote:

“Now let’s get to the Q&A portion:

1) Is my asthma acting up? No. Not even a little bit.”

She knew what her audience’s most immediate question would be. She even framed it as a question to show she knows her audience and their concerns. She knew the intensity of the concern so she didn’t just say, ‘No,’ she emphasized it appropriately.

When you’re writing a work email, think about your audience. Your email isn’t about your content, it’s about what the audience needs to do with your content. Instead of thinking broadly, ‘What are my readers’ concerns?’ think specifically, ‘What’s the first question the readers are likely to ask themselves about this issue?’ The more closely you can identify with your reader, the more likely you are to provide them what they need. After telling me, ‘We’ve hit a roadblock on the Acme deal,’ address my main concern. ‘Will we still be able to close the deal? If so, on time? At what cost?’ Think of how you can be most helpful to your reader.

Maggie then posed and answered lots of questions she knew we would ask, each one more in depth than the last. But she also knew that the key message should not just be up front in the communication. It should be reinforced throughout.

Her final question and wrap up:

“8) Am I sure my asthma isn’t acting up? Yes, very sure.

I hope I anticipated all of your questions. Remember, I am okay.

Talk to you soon,

M”

A well written email puts a clear message up front, anticipates the main concerns of the reader, and reinforces the main point as often as necessary.

Just FYI – We have spoken to Maggie several times since last Monday. She is fine. On a separate note, please let me know if you are interested in a non-refundable coach ticket to Kampala. Going cheap.

Originally published on Forbes.com.

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Motivating Your Team: Why the Golden Rule Doesn’t Always Apply

MotivationWe all have different preferences. My wife, Mary, watches sports. I watch nature shows. She roots for the Knicks. I root for the young impala dodging the cheetah. Occasionally, I surprise her with tickets to a game at Madison Square Garden. While she whoops and hollers, I get a beer and hot dog, and enjoy people watching, which is really just another nature show.

For all of us, our varying likes and dislikes are what make us interesting, but also what lead to some confusion. While we all know we are unique individuals, we also tend to think that we are each fairly normal. Therefore, we tend to think, ‘What motivates me, will motivate others.’ That’s where we get into trouble.

Some organizations are structured in a traditional linear fashion with clear lines of reporting. Others are a matrix structure, with lots of dotted lines and concentric circles of influence. The structure of our organization dictates to what degree we can demand performance from people and hold them accountable for delivering. But regardless of which structure we work in, we get better performance from people when we motivate them to do their best work.

At work, there are two general types of forces that influence our behavior – External Maintenance Factors and Internal Personal Motivators.

External Maintenance Factors

External Maintenance Factors are the elements that are largely dictated by others and over which we have little control. They include basic features of our employment, such as:

Salary – usually dictated by the market.

Benefits – provided on a company-wide basis, not particular to an individual.

Working conditions – determined by the nature of our work and the economics of our industry.

These elements keep us showing up each day, and play an important part in our commitment to doing our job well. When you are trying to influence someone to do her best job for you, whether you manage her directly or indirectly, it’s hard for you to leverage these factors because you don’t control them. If you help set someone’s bonus, that certainly is a powerful factor in influencing her behavior, but most of us as managers have a very limited ability to affect these factors.

Internal Personal Motivators

Internal Personal Motivators are those elements unique to each of us that keep us engaged. They keep us providing not just the minimum performance to get by, but motivate us to do our best on the job.

These “true motivators” include:

Achievement – which we each define differently.

Recognition – of our hard work and added value.

Foreseeable growth – whether in what we do or how we do it.

If you need to influence others, these are the factors you can leverage to get better results.

Each of us has what’s called “discretionary energy,” the effort and enthusiasm that we bring to work beyond what it takes to perform at the minimum level of expectation. If you effectively motivate those around you, they are more likely to expend that discretionary energy to do a better job for you. If you don’t pay attention to motivating others, they are likely to use that energy while at work to shop on-line, play ‘Words with Friends’ on their phone, or work on their resume.

Awareness of your own motivators is the first step in understanding how to motivate others. What keeps you engaged at work? My colleagues frequently come to me, unannounced, with complex questions, and ask for a few minutes to brainstorm. I enjoy the intellectual stimulation and the acknowledgement that I can help them. Frankly, I also like the interruption because I get bored easily. I expect people to say ‘thank you’ at the end of the meeting, but beyond that, I don’t have a high need for praise. Now, if I assume others are motivated by these same things, I will show up unannounced, distract them from their concentration, and then show only a modicum of appreciation. But, if the person I interrupt values respect for his or her schedule, time to thoroughly analyze an issue, and effusive praise after the fact, I have undermined his or her dedication to their role.

So ask yourself, ‘What keeps me engaged at work?’ Keep that list of attributes in mind.

Now think about someone that you need to motivate to do a better job. What factors motivate that person? Are they the same elements that motivate you? If not, how can you approach this person not as you want to be approached, but in a manner that works for her?

How can you figure out what motivates those around you? Ask. Whether during a performance review or in a less formal setting, checking in with someone about what keeps them engaged is the first step toward actually keeping them engaged. It’s not hard. Here are some simple starter questions.

  • What do you like about your current role? What don’t you like?
  • What keeps you engaged here at work?
  • What could I do to help you get the most out of your role?
  • What learning opportunities have you had lately?
  • What’s the hardest aspect of your job?
  • Asking these questions, and then listening well to the responses and asking follow up questions will help you understand how best to keep someone engaged.

Jack wants to motivate Jill to hike up the hill to fetch a pail of water because Jack likes physical exercise and the great outdoors. He says, ‘You’ll enjoy the crisp breeze and the chance to break a sweat.’ However, Jill’s idea of enjoying the great outdoors is to sit at the kitchen window with a glass of chardonnay watching the blue jays at the birdfeeder. Jack needs to try a different motivator. He’d be better off saying, ‘Why don’t I grab a blanket and a bottle of wine and we can enjoy the sunset from the hilltop?’

The Golden Rule has certain assumptions built in – that others want to be treated the way we want to be treated. That may be true on the most basic levels of fairness and human behavior.

But motivating others requires a more nuanced approach that steers away from the assumptions and toward an approach focused on the individual.

So, what motivates you?

Originally published on Forbes.com.

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Feedback: Pick the Right Time and Approach

The process of sharing feedback with colleagues is essential in business. Clear, consistent feedback develops skills, builds confidence and motivates. But, too much or poorly timed feedback can destroy confidence and undermine trust. If you are planning on giving negative feedback to a colleague or employee, it’s crucial that you pick the right time and approach.

Schedule a Feedback Meeting

There is nothing worse than hearing “do you have a minute to chat” while walking to the restroom. Planning ahead gives you time to gather facts and reflect on the feedback in a non-emotional way. And, the person receiving the feedback won’t be blindsided. They will come to the meeting more open and prepared to hear feedback.

Make Sure the Feedback is Significant and Supported

Before you deliver feedback, reflect on what you plan to discuss. The feedback should be substantial and directly relate to a professional development opportunity or impact on the organization. Be sure to gather concrete examples to support the feedback.

If the feedback doesn’t
impact the business or isn’t helpful to the individual’s development, it’s best to hold your tongue. Feedback should never be “nitpicky,” trivial, or unsupported. This type of feedback can result in damaged relationships and resentment.

Ask Questions

Don’t go into a feedback meeting thinking that you are going to tell someone they need to change and it’s just going to happen. After you raise an issue, ask open-ended questions to gauge whether it’s an appropriate time to deliver feedback. You can say “What is your perspective?” or “Would it be OK if I gave you feedback about …?” You should also ask questions to uncover the cause of the issue. Maybe the feedback recipient has a problem you were unaware of. Finally, ask the recipient for solutions and collaborate.

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Responding to, “So…tell me about yourself.”

I have two kids in college and two recent graduates. If their early work life is like mine, every few years they’ll be changing jobs or even careers. When you’re in your twenties, it’s always ‘interview season.’ Even later in life we’re occasionally asked to explain our career arc to others when speaking on a panel or starting a presentation. How can you best respond to that question, ‘So, tell me about yourself?’

Let’s say I’m interviewing you for a job. If I’ve done my job well, I have read your resume and made some notes about your work history. I’m ready to ask some pointed questions to find out if you have the skill set to perform the job in question. If I start the conversation with, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ I’m trying to see how you view yourself. Wherever you start reflects your sense of self. If you start with your academic credentials, you’re communicating you think your education is impressive. If you start by talking about your current job, you’re saying what you do now has relevance to the job you’re seeking. If you’re in your thirties and you start with, ‘I graduated at the top of my high school class before going on to the University of X,’ you’re telling me you live on former glory. Since I already know where you went to school and what you do now, there’s not much added value in sharing those points. Granted, it gets the conversation started, but it’s not the strongest start.

Instead of sharing what’s already on your resume, tell me what makes you tick. Tell me about your value. I recently passed a college-age woman on the street who was wearing a t-shirt that said, ‘I bring absolutely nothing to the table.’ I laughed at the honesty and humility of the message. She’s young and isn’t going to pretend she knows more that she does. It’s a great line for a t-shirt, but it isn’t true. In fact, she probably has a lot of innate talents and skills, not to mention a sense of perspective and a sense of humor that are valuable to any employer.

To prepare for an interview, reflect on the attributes that have made you successful in your career and life so far. If you’re just out of school, think about what you have added to clubs or sports in which you’ve been involved. If you’ve been working for a while, what skills, talents or attitudes have helped you succeed? If you’re returning to the work force after an extended absence, what talents have you been using and what perspective have you gained that would be of value to me as an employer?

Pick three adjectives that describe you. Then, think of a real, targeted instance in which you have applied those skills. What story can you share that proves to me you have the skills or aptitude you claim to have?

Don’t tell me where you worked. Tell me what element of you helped you succeed and the benefit that brought to your employer. Since you can probably list ten or more adjectives that describe you, how will you know which to share with the prospective employer? Think about the job for which you are interviewing. What do you think the most important tasks will be? Of your many attributes, which are most important to this role? That answer will determine which adjectives and supporting stories you need to share.

Chances are that one of the adjectives that has made you successful is that you are smart. Don’t tell the interviewer you are smart. Demonstrate that you are smart throughout the interview – by how you answer questions, by what questions you ask, by not making grammatical mistakes, and by having a clear message about yourself. Use the interview to share attributes that won’t be evident from your resume.

When the interviewer says, ‘So tell me about yourself,’ you could respond by saying, ‘I’ve worked in many different settings over the years. I’ve been proud of being able to help my (employer, club, volunteer organization). I think I’ve been able to add value because I am (insert your three adjectives here). Those seem like traits that would be needed in this job.’

Then, let the interviewer take it from there. Don’t blurt out all of your anecdotes. Share your story about each adjective as the opportunity arises organically in the conversation.

I was once coaching a senior IT professional at a global financial services company. At one coaching session, he asked me to help him with a presentation he was making the following day. He had been asked to speak on a panel with other senior leaders to about 200 younger colleagues as part of a series of talks on career management. Each panelist had been told, ‘Just tell the audience about your career.’ I asked ‘Jack’ to run through what he planned to say. Jack spoke for about 10 minutes walking me through his career path. ‘First I worked in this division doing X. Then I moved to another division and was promoted to work on Y.’ In short, he reviewed his resume, using a tone of voice as flat as a resume. It was boring. It was boring because it had no application whatsoever to his audience. It was all about him. We’re all more successful communicators when we focus less on ourselves and more on the audience.

I asked Jack what he thought made him successful throughout his career. He reflected for a moment and said, ‘Well, I’m very hard working. I’ve been willing to take on roles and projects no one else wanted. And I always share the credit with whoever else on the team has contributed. I think those attributes have propelled my career.’ He was then able to share with me a brief anecdote about how those quintessential elements of being ‘Jack’ helped him succeed.

When he finished, I said, ‘You’re done. That’s your talk. Instead of telling people about you, tell them what they can do to succeed. The talk isn’t about your path. It’s about what the audience can learn from you path, which is different from the path itself.’

After the event, Jack shared that he got terrific feedback from his peers and boss. While other panelists had taken the approach of reciting their resume, Jack stood out because his talk was driven by stories that helped the audience.

If you’re on a date and your date says, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ he or she wants to get to know you. When you’re on an interview and the interviewer says, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ he or she means, ‘Tell me how you can add value to my organization.’ What are your value adds?

Originally published on Forbes.com

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Answering, ‘So, What Do You Do?’

This is my inaugural column for Forbes.com, where I’ll share thoughts on how you can communicate more effectively. Therefore, by way of introduction, I thought you might find it helpful to learn a different approach to introducing yourself to others. In business, we’re always meeting new people – on sales calls, at conferences, in social settings. After the basic chit-chat at the start of any introduction, comes the key question, “So, what do you do?”

Most people respond to that question with what’s printed on their business card. “I’m the Chief Talent Officer at Acme Industries,” or “I’m a Managing Director at Megabank.” Starting with your job title can be presumptuous. It tells the other person that you assume she knows about Acme, or that he knows what it means to be a Managing Director at a bank. You could be starting the conversation by confusing the other person or making them feel uninformed. More importantly, however, it communicates to the other person that you view yourself in terms of a status you’ve achieved. We should be proud of our professional accomplishments, but introducing ourselves in terms of our status can make us appear self-important or pompous.

Instead, try to introduce yourself not in terms of your status, but in terms of how your role impacts the end beneficiary of your job – your clients, your audience or your company. I never introduce myself by saying, “I’m the Managing Partner of Exec|Comm.” No one knows what Exec|Comm is, and saying I’m the MP makes me sound pretentious. Instead, I say, “I help people communicate better.” It opens the door to a conversation.

When you’re introducing yourself, you want a simple statement of how you impact others, just enough to make them want to hear the next sentence.

Our human nature is to be all wrapped up in ourselves – our needs, our goals and our issues. You’ll distinguish yourself from other professionals if you focus less on yourself and more on the other person.

Talking about yourself in terms of your impact rather than your status makes you intrinsically more attractive to other people. Of course, your simple statement about yourself should be sufficiently clear.

I was once working with a group of partners at a global law firm helping them hone their messages when giving presentations. Most of the partners in the room introduced themselves by sharing their titles. “I’m an insurance attorney.” That line doesn’t start conversations; it ends them. (I speak from experience. I practiced insurance law for seven years.) One partner in the group was a superb marketer. When I asked him what he does, he replied, “I marry money to movies.” What a great line. He found funding for art projects. I needed to know the next line. I wanted to learn more. That’s what you want an introduction to accomplish: the listener wanting to learn more.

One of his colleagues quickly caught on, but missed the mark slightly. He said, “I make my clients’ problems go away.” Without a small dose of context, he sounded like a hit man for the mob. Since he was a tax attorney, we massaged his message into, “I help companies return the most value to their shareholders.” His message became succinct and engaging, and positioned him as focused on the needs of his client. That’s about as good as it gets.

Think about the world around you. How is it better off because of what you do?

You’re not a “financial planner.” You “help people make sure they can retire in comfort.”

You’re not the “Assistant Art Director” at a travel magazine. You “help people figure out their next vacation.”

You’re not the “Operations Manager for Acme Industries.” You “help employees stay safe on the job.”

The more closely you can tie your statement of who you are and how you add value to the person standing in front of you, the easier it is to make them interested in what you do. Let’s say I’m a real estate lawyer and I meet someone at a conference in St. Louis.

Them – “So, what do you do?”

Me – “Did you see that construction going up across the street from the hotel? I make sure that when projects like that get started, the builder has the money to finish.”

Them – “You’re working on the new building?”

Me – “No. Not that one, but lots of others. I help negotiation construction loans for builders. What do you do?”

Don’t forget that people are more interested in talking about themselves than in listening to you. After a few sentences about you, flip the conversation back to the other person. It not only makes you a better conversationalist, it helps you understand how to tailor the rest of the conversation. The more you learn about the other person, the easier it is for you to craft a message about yourself that resonates with that person. If someone asks me what I do for a living, and I know that person is a lawyer, I say, “I help lawyers communicate better.” If I know the person is an accountant, guess what I do for a living. I help accountants communicate better. If you make your message less about yourself and more about the other person, you’ll be a more effective communicator.

For those of you launching your career, or with kids about to do so, I’ll share some insights next week about how to help young people position themselves better during interviews.

Until then, reflect further about yourself. “So, what do you do?”

Originally published on Forbes.com.

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Do As I Mean Not As I Say

stk77242corMarriage is all about communication. Sometimes that can go awry. The other day my husband and I had a miscommunication about something as silly as an email. Yes…an email.

The Set-up

My husband is a comedian and needed help with a promotion for an upcoming show. As his partner in crime, he recruited me and I willingly accepted the job.

The Mix-up

I asked him to send me the message as soon as he was finished with it. While he assumed I was offering to help edit, I thought I explicitly offered to send it around as soon as possible. I have a lot on my plate and not a lot of time to waste.

The Delivery

Once I received his email, I went ahead and sent it to my mass list. What followed was an irate call from my husband saying “Did you just send that email? It wasn’t ready!” We had a clear miscommunication.

Who’s to blame? Who cares? It truly doesn’t matter. What DOES matter is what we can do differently going forward.

The best way to avoid misunderstandings and assumptions in marriage and in business is to: Confirm and Clarify.

Think of confirming as a playback for the other person. The playback lets them know you get it, that you’ve heard them. It also gives the listener an opportunity to clarify the message if you got it wrong. Make sure when you do confirm, you use a neutral tone to avoid sounding judgmental, whether in email, face to face or over the phone. Try using language like “Let me see if I understand you…” or “Let’s make sure we are on the same page…”

Validating what you heard is helpful in both business and when trying to keep the peace at home.  Just don’t get me started on how he loads the dishwasher.

Posted in Coaching, Communication Skills, E-Mails, Life Skills, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Managing Your First Team

83253182The step from a junior employee to supervisor can be a daunting one. It’s one thing to manage your own schedule, workload, and projects. Once you add others to the equation, whether it be a summer intern or a new team of direct reports, it can be difficult to manage your work while also managing other employees.

Here are some tips to help you manage your first team.

Plan Ahead

The last thing you want is your team twiddling their thumbs until you come up with something for them to do. Know exactly what projects you need them to work on. It could help to give your direct reports a list of projects or tasks that you want them to help with and point out which ones need attention first. Of course, things do not always go as planned so you will need to be flexible and understanding.

Give Background

When introducing your team to a new project, give background information. They’ll be more engaged and motivated if you explain the importance of a task rather than simply asking them to do it. Sometimes the project could be just as mundane as it seems. Don’t try to sugarcoat it, simply explain why it is needed. Be honest, be direct, and be compassionate.

Be Mindful

If you’re team sees you stressed out, they will follow in your footsteps. Practicing mindfulness takes time and effort. It does not happen overnight. However, there are things you can start doing immediately to help you stay present, focused, and calm.

Spend a few minutes each day doing nothing.

Your mind needs time to rest. Take a moment to ground yourself and calm your thoughts.

Get in touch with your senses.

Notice the subtle sounds, smells, and feelings around you. Listen to the air conditioning creeping out of the vent. Smell the coffee your co-worker just brought back to their desk. Feel the cool touch of your desk. This will slow your mind and help you to focus.

Pay attention to your walking.

Slow your pace and feel your feet against the ground. Rather than rushing across the office to grab something from the printer, take your time and notice the world around you.

Ask for Feedback

Perhaps the most important aspect of managing a team for the first time is getting their feedback.

How is their workload? Are they bored or overwhelmed? Do they have any ideas on how workflow could be improved?

Be sure to confirm and clarify what your team is trying to say to avoid misunderstanding. Try to rephrase what they’ve said and ask if you heard them correctly.

Start with: “So if I am hearing you correctly, you think…” Or “let me see if I understand what you’re saying.”

End with: “Is that right?”

The best part about working with a team is that you have a new group to bounce ideas off of, learn from, and grow with. Take the time to hear their thoughts. If you’ve done a good job in guiding them, they will probably have some great ideas. Be honest with your expectations and allow your employee to feel comfortable being honest with you.

Your team is an extension of your work and ideas. Help them grow and encourage their success. The rewards will be infinite.

Posted in Communication Skills, Executive Presence, Leadership Skills | Leave a comment

Vote for the Best Message

It’s about five weeks before the presidential election and you’re probably getting bombarded with phone calls, flyers and commercials about various candidates.  Each of these communications carries a message.

The most successful of those messages are short, highly-focused and deliver a clear, relevant punch. Long after the election, you can use these same message techniques in meetings, presentations and interviews to hone what bosses, clients and colleagues should know about you.

Here are the five key components of an effective message:

Short and focused.

Messages are brief, usually fewer than ten words. Think “no new taxes.” They’re also most effective when they focus on the listener.  For example, a financial planner’s might say, “I help you plan a secure retirement.” Or a lawyer may describe herself as offering “the expert legal advice you need on intellectual property issues.”

Easy to understand.

Challenge yourself to create a message that contains short, simple words. If you say in interviews that your ideal next job “would allow you to transfigure your theoretical foundation,” you’ll confuse someone for sure. Make your message easy for the listener to repeat to someone else.

Supported with relevant information.

Ensure you can back up your message with a story, statistic or analogy. If a client wants to know more about your accurate reporting capabilities, you’ll want a few examples of work you’ve done. Practice and hone these ahead of time, so they’re immediately accessible for you.

Repeated three times.

Say your message three times during the meeting or interview. The listener may not take it in the first or second time they hear it.  By the third time, they get it.

Updated often.

Not only will you deliver different messages in different situations, you’ll want to refresh those messages. The message at the final presentation of a project is different from the one when you’re pitching that project. You’re now looking for additional assignments. A new message about your proven ability to deliver quality on-time work is now appropriate.

While you’ll hear lots of negative messages before Election Day, we encourage you to keep your message positive.  You’ll win more supporters kissing babies than slinging mud. Lastly, don’t forget to vote on November 8—for the candidate whose message you believe.

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