Crafting An Interesting Story From A Boring Game

Good morning! Did you watch the Super Bowl Sunday night? While the pundits predicted it would be a close game, they didn’t predict a defensive struggle between two high-powered offenses. Translation? The game was “meh” – the lowest scoring Super Bowl in NFL history. How do you craft a good story out of a boring game? My suggestion is to think about the person or audience you are speaking to and choose a topic they would appreciate.

Super Bowl

Perhaps they are passionate about the lousy officiating that has plagued the playoffs. Then talk about the penalty on a Los Angeles Ram who made a terrific tackle. Instead of a big loss for the New England Patriots, the penalty gave them a first down. The rest of the game featured a striking absence of penalty calls. Now there’s a topic worth exploring.

Or, maybe your audience is into the statistical minutia of the game. Talk about how the game featured the longest punt in Super Bowl history by the Rams. The average kick broke the record with a tremendous roll. This came on their eighth consecutive possession ending with a punt. The Rams’ offense was stuck in neutral until some life showed in the fourth quarter, but their defense was good.

Sadly, even the ads were “meh,” weirdly featuring a lot of robots across many product lines. But if your friend likes robots, there’s your angle.

Audiences like food. Tell a story about any new additions to your Super Bowl feast. I shared with my boss, who is not a sports fan, that our family made Cauliflower Buffalo Wings – a vegetarian alternative using the florets as faux drumsticks, coated with Franks’ Red Hot (really tasty). That story led to him sharing that a family member is on a gluten free diet and would love to know the recipe. Score!

“There are no boring stories, only boring storytellers.” The way not to bore your audience is to tell stories they are interested in. Show your interest in them, share the memories that resonate, and create connections that last. And better luck to all of us for a more exciting game next year!

Posted in Communication Skills, Life Skills, Networking, Presentation Skills, Public Speaking

Take Your Storytelling Game From Good To Great: Lessons From The Super Bowl

This NFL post-season is already full of stories – just look at the two overtime victories in the conference finals leading up to the Super Bowl. Exultant victors! Crushed losers!! Unfair calls!!! That’s why people tune in – the sriracha infused chicken wings are gone, the ads are limited, the fourth quarter is a toss-up, and all attention can be paid. For the big game itself, one early prediction from SBNation calls for a close one with a game-winning drive – oh yeah, here we go!

Super Bowl

Competition is exciting, the stakes are high, and the outcome is unclear. The built-in conflict grabs our sports-loving attention and we often can’t wait to tell and relive the story of the game the next day.

Storytelling is a big part of conveying excitement and passion in business, too. With a nod to the Super Bowl, a good story has three parts – setting the scene, describing the conflict, and resolving the issue.

First, set the scene – give an overview of the people involved and the issue(s) at stake. For the Super Bowl, this ‘pre-game’ story will buzz all week – underdog LA vs. favored NE; veteran Brady versus newcomer Goff. Second, describe the conflict and build tension: we don’t know who will win or if it will turn out well – the game could go either way and we hope for a good contest. Third, resolve the issue and convey lesson(s) learned – the moral of the story. Which team won, why, and what’s next?

This season, you’ll hear this familiar pattern in many of the Super Bowl stories told and retold. In the stories you tell, set the scene, build the tension, and resolve the issue with a clear message. For the Super Bowl, hopefully it’s not a “meh” game and you’re not talking about the flavor of the chicken wings the day after. Of course, we’ll also talk about the ads – the most memorable ones will tell a great story.

Posted in Communication Skills, Life Skills, Networking, Presentation Skills, Public Speaking

Startups And Small Businesses: One Elevator Ride Can Change Everything

Elevators are cramped, slightly uncomfortable spaces at best. As you’re riding the elevator up to your office this morning, picture being joined by an interviewer and a camera crew. You’ve spent the last three or four years working on a technology startup – your bold idea to disrupt your industry. This morning, you’re a weird combination of tired and energized. The interviewer gives you literally one minute, 60 seconds, to make your “elevator pitch” about your fledgling company to an audience of thousands. Sound like a dream come true, or a nightmare to endure?

That’s the situation faced by Divya Tailang, one of the co-founders of Interlinkages. She and her co-founder, Anindita Ghosh, both veterans of global commercial banking companies, have created a platform to give companies in developing nations an opportunity to access capital beyond the confines of their local commercial banks.

Later this morning, October 26, Divya will ride the elevator of the International Commerce Center (“ICC”), the tallest building in Hong Kong, from the ground to the 100th floor. The ride takes 60 seconds and is the ultimate elevator pitch opportunity. One hundred startups will compete for $125,000 in prize money to fund their ventures. The event is sponsored by the HKSTP, the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation. What lessons does Divya’s elevator ride hold for you?

Jay Sullivan: Why go through this process? There must be easier ways to get funding for your startup.

Divya Tailang: We could take a more conventional path, but there are certain advantages to this approach. Anindita and I grew up – professionally – working in large corporate banks. We know there are lots of approaches. We learned you increase your chance of success if you expand your field of opportunity. We conduct lots of traditional investor pitches, but we also look for unconventional ways to raise our profile and broaden our network.

Sullivan: So what’s the short version of Interlinkages’ value proposition? Remember, you’ve only got 60 seconds to make an impression.

Tailang: We help small importers and exporters access financing directly from foreign banks. We save them time, money and hassles. In the process, we give banks the ability to fund projects that they would otherwise never find.

Sullivan: Worldwide?

Tailang: We’re starting in developing countries, where access to financing is hardest, and companies have the greatest number of hurdles to overcome.

Sullivan: You’ve still got thirty seconds left. Is one of those hurdles that you and your co-founder are both women in what is still the male-dominated world of finance?

Tailang: The finance world is focused on results. Anindita and I have earned our credentials. We can prove our model works. We’re confident our track record will impress investors.

Sullivan: What’s your advice for other startups looking for funding?

Tailang: First, hone your message. There are 100 startups participating in this event today. If you want to stand out, you need not only a great idea, but you need to make that idea easy for investors to understand.

Sullivan: The technology that supports your platform is very complicated, but the results are fairly straightforward.

Tailang: That’s right. We make it easy for someone to understand what we’re trying to accomplish. How we’re getting there is only relevant if we’ve already got you interested.

Sullivan: What else is important?

Tailang: Second, have a success story ready. Your message about your product is just a conclusion. You need to back it up with examples or anecdotes that prove you can deliver. We have plenty of those already at Interlinkages.

Sullivan: And finally?

Tailang: Have a clear ask. If you’ve convinced someone you are ready to take your idea to market in a significant way, you need to have a plan in place and a clear request for investors. If not, you’ll come across as an amateur.

Sullivan: Great advice for any startup. Good luck today.

Tailang: Thanks.

Find out more about the competition here.

Originally published on

Posted in Communication Skills, Innovation, Interviewing Skills, Meeting Skills, Networking, Presentation Skills, Women in Business

How Bryan Cranston’s Story Can Help You Improve Your Communication Skills

As you set resolutions, goals, and aim to form new positive habits, keep your communication skills top of mind. Here are a few thoughts, along with an inspirational story by Bryan Cranston, recognized by Business Insider as one of the best working actors today.

Breaking Bad star, Bryan Cranston, gives his advice for aspiring actors.

It’s all about your purpose when you communicate, not about you. It’s about the ideas you believe in and what your audience can do with those ideas. Ironically, once Bryan Cranston figured out that his purpose during an audition was not to get the job, he started getting good jobs and became a star. He got out of his own way. Through coaching, he realized that his real purpose was to show his interpretation of a role to the writer, director, and producer in the audition room. His audition became all about the role, not about him. Once they could see his idea in action, it became tangible and they could use it. So they wanted to hire him, which meant fighting for him with Fox studio execs!

Communication is about impact, connection, and what your audience sees in the ideas you bring. If you think an idea through, believe in it, and articulate it, then your audience can too. Finding an idea that you believe in and articulating that idea takes skill. Bryan Cranston developed his skills over 20 years of hustling for work. You’ve been developing your skills, too. Once you shift your focus away from yourself and toward the business at hand, your communications will have more punch, power, and purpose.

Reach out to us if you need help turning your resolutions into new habits. Here’s to a terrific 2019!

Posted in Coaching, Communication Skills

5 Ways To Turn Your Brain-Drizzle Into A Brainstorm

Solving problems requires both a left-brain analysis and right-brain creativity.

Ruckus headquarters in New York City

The analysis part comes into play as you define the problem, analyze how the problem developed, evaluate the benefit of solving the problem relative to the cost of fixing it and select the best solution to pursue. The creative part comes just before that final step, where we brainstorm the many possible solutions.

I recently sat in on a brainstorming discussion at Ruckus Marketing, a website design company that prides itself on creating “Expertly Crafted Disruption.” First impressions are important. Most businesses know that their website is the first impression they make on a potential customer or client. Therefore, they need to make sure the website conveys not only information, but the spirit of the company itself. Companies need to refresh or completely overhaul their website every few years to reflect their evolving offerings and emphasize their continually developing core ethos.

Seven senior leaders of a mid-sized training and development company sat in Ruckus’ midtown Manhattan offices, which oozed an understated ultra-cool vibe. They were joined by five creative types from Ruckus, including one of the company’s founders, Alex Freidman, and Madelene Eng, the chief website architect.

The Ruckus team challenged the client team with core questions about how the website should function and what the users’ experience of the company would be based on how they would maneuver through the website. While the discussion was ostensibly about a technology-based experience, because of the open brainstorming process, it morphed quickly to a discussion of the essence of the client itself – how it views itself, how that self-image translates to someone browsing the internet and how information in the form of text and images makes someone feel about the company.

Having taught brainstorming techniques to audiences as diverse as law students, marketing professionals, technology teams and internal auditors, I was impressed to see the skills in action in a real-life problem-solving context. What did the team from Ruckus do?

1. Set the ground rules.

Madelene gave the client clear direction as to the question they were addressing at any one time. If they got off track, she reiterated the focus. Alex set the rules regarding how much time would be allowed for each question, set his alarm to go off on time, and then allowed the discussion to go just long enough afterward to create energy and enthusiasm but allow the discussion to move to the next point.

2. Make everything public.

While the client group wrote their responses to the questions on extra-large post-it notes, they also called out what they were writing, which created a spirit of freedom for each person to offer additional thoughts, an essential element of effective brainstorming. The Ruckus team then put all the ideas on the wall and culled out repeats.

3. Keep the atmosphere free of criticism.

Brainstorming has a creative phase and an evaluative phase. In the creative phase, participants don’t comment on each other’s ideas other than to build on the idea. You can build an idea by starting with, “And….” Our inclination is to start with, “But…,” which is usually followed by why the idea someone just offered was off track, or just won’t work. Using “and” is a classic element of improvisational comedy, and it works just as well in a business meeting. The leader in any brainstorming session is in charge of nixing any comments that begin with the top three idea-generating killers: “We tried that before,” “That costs too much,” and “Management will never go for that.”

4. Start evaluating.

Once the ideas are up on the wall, the sorting and evaluation steps come into play. The Alex and Madelene led the client through a discussion of what ideas fell into which buckets, which were redundant and which ideas were really subsets of other ideas. The meatier discussion happens when the group has to discuss which buckets were the most important to the group. However, as happens in an effective brainstorming session, the group had adopted such an open-discussion format, that conflicting ideas on priorities were approached with openness and trust rather than hesitance and defensiveness.

5. Share the results quickly.

At the end of a brainstorming session, teams are simultaneously tired and energized. They will need to revisit their ideas in the very near future or the process stalls. The leaders should gather the info and distribute it as soon as possible after the meeting. One of the Ruckus team members was entering the data into a spreadsheet during the process, and by the end of the session, the team gave the client access to a file that contained all of the ideas that had been generated. The client’s team is now able to reflect further on what was gathered and where to go from there.

One additional challenge when brainstorming is recognizing our strengths and weaknesses in the process. Because brainstorming requires elements of both the left-brain and right-brain, we can all contribute. Because we all are inclined to leverage one side of the brain over the other, we tend to want to stay in the part of the brainstorming process that comes naturally and is easiest for us. Understanding the importance of both contributions is important to having a successful problem-solving conversation.

Originally published on

Posted in Communication Skills, Innovation, Leadership Skills, Meeting Skills

Share Your Ideas And Have Them Heard

You have innovative ideas and want to influence those around you. But to do that, you need to communicate in a way that works for your audience, or your message may fall on deaf ears. Anne Teutschel, Exec-Comm Learning Consultant, shares why using the strengths of your unique communication style, and being aware of the weaknesses, are both important.

Understand your communication style, and the styles of those around you, to maximize your impact.

Visit our YouTube channel, execcommtrainer, for more tips!

Posted in Communication Skills, Exec-Comm Team, Meeting Skills, Tips Videos

Chat, Email, Phone, Or Meet? What’s The Best Option?

Have you noticed an increase in the use of IM, email, internal chat forums, and project management platforms to collaborate? Some of these tools have become our go-to in business, while meetings seem to be taking a backseat. However, writing is not always the most efficient or effective way to communicate. And, it carries compliance and reputational risks.

If collaboration is the goal, a well-run meeting or a phone call are your best options.

In a meeting, more questions can be asked, and more thoughtful, complete, and candid answers can be shared. Face-to-face meetings can also allow non-verbal cues and tone of voice to enhance and deepen communication.

Unfortunately, meetings have a bad reputation. According to Inc. and Fuze, executives consider more than 67% of meetings a failure.

However, when a meeting is planned with a purposeful, others-focused agenda, attendees become engaged, and it is often the best choice.

If you follow a process to address opportunities or problem-solve and you use strong listening skills to engage attendees, your live and virtual meetings will be seen as a success.

Before you hit send on your next email, consider the purpose of your communication. Reflect on your goal and your content. Are you discussing potentially sensitive topics? Are you short-changing the discussion or missing out on an opportunity to brainstorm? Is everyone in the loop truly contributing? Is it better to stop the IM’ing or emails and schedule a meeting or phone call?

As always, we’re here to help.

Posted in Communication Skills, E-Mails, Leadership Skills, Meeting Skills

Take The Dumpling

I was sitting next to Manohar, aka Manny, best man from my wedding at a dinner recently. Earlier he toasted my husband for his “great choice in restaurants.” Feeling underappreciated, I quipped, “I chose the restaurant.” And then I immediately felt like an itch with a capital “B.”

Later, I convinced my friends to try the soup dumplings. My colleague, Yan, had introduced me to these tasty parcels of deliciousness in Shanghai years ago.

Toward the end of our meal together, Manny leaned over and said, “Christine, there’s one dumpling left. Why don’t you take it?” I looked at him with a face he knew just how to read, and he replied, “Come on. You ordered them. You love them. Do you think any of the guys would hesitate to take it?” I acknowledged that he was right and with a big grin on my face and soup on my chin, I enjoyed that little pocket of perfection. Then, the guilt set in. I felt it for days.

Who was I  to take that last dumpling?

That same week, I was with a younger, female colleague and listened as she politely refused a compliment and countered it with a self-effacing comment. It was the classic:

  • “This old thing?”
  • “Please, you go first. I can wait.”
  • “Take the last one? Oh no, I couldn’t.”
  • “This might be a dumb question, but….”
  • “I was just wondering if….”

All that lady-like speak that undermines us and allows some clueless or cruel men to take us for granted or worse, degrade us, objectify us, and sexually harass us.

As women, we’re often afraid of being labeled “over-sensitive” or “unable to take a joke.”

We have an inner dialogue that no one hears unless they’re an intimate friend or a patient partner. It’s that constant voice in our heads that says:

  • “Why do you care so much how I wear my hair – you’re my colleague, not my lover, for goodness sake.”
  • “Why do you care how much I’ve packed for this trip? What’s it to you?”
  • “Yes, those are tears. Don’t worry. They’re not deadly and I’m not falling apart. Just give me a minute. On second thought, wanna join me? You look like you could use a good cry.”
  • “I’d love to see you wear stockings, apply lipstick, curl your eyelashes or straighten your hair just once – never mind every doggone day! Better yet, let’s wax your legs!”
  • “Maternity leave is not a vacation; it’s recuperation.”
  • “How do I do it all? I am married. He is supportive. And our children do have two parents.”
  • “I miss my children when I’m away because they’re the cutest people I know. But believe it or not, I have no idea what ‘mother’s guilt’ feels like!”
  • “And, I think my husband is sexy as hell because he’s on the PTA and in a carpool.”

I was about to apologize for speaking my mind and showing emotion, as society has taught me to do. Instead, I’ll say, “thank you for reading.” And, if you’re a woman who can relate to my rant above, ask for respect in whatever form you need it – be it a promotion, a raise, some credit, or a simple foot-rub (damn those heels!). Don’t be afraid. Take a deep breath, count to three, and…

Take the dumpling!

Posted in Coaching, Communication Skills, Executive Presence, Leadership Skills, Life Skills, Women in Business

Engaging With China: Eyes Wide Open

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Later this month, I will be traveling to Hong Kong to present at Startup Launchpad, part of the Mobile Electronics Show. To make sure I’m giving the young entrepreneurs in attendance the most cutting edge advice, I contacted David Willard, the founder and CEO of 52 Capital Partners, a strategic M&A advisory firm headquartered in Silicon Valley. Given Willard’s extensive M&A deal-making experience, his advice for approaching the Asia market has value well beyond the tech world.

Jay Sullivan: What’s unique about Asia, or China in particular, that’s important for any business to know?

David Willard: The sheer dynamism of the Asia market is singularly unique. Asia is marked by extraordinarily high levels of new innovation, entrepreneurship, investment and economic growth across vast parts of the continent. No market in Asia better exemplifies this than China.

Take a walk through the streets of Shanghai, Beijing or Shenzhen; the vitality of innovation and entrepreneurship is palpable, even unbelievable at times.

On my first trip across China nearly two decades ago, the country’s nascent dynamism was self-evident. However, at that time, China remained out of the WTO. Chinese enterprises lagged behind other multi-national companies and weren’t as interconnected with other major economies. Five years later, while working in Beijing, I was stunned at how quickly China had advanced its economy within a relatively short time.

During the subsequent twelve years, including my years at Goldman Sachs and practicing law at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, I observed that China’s economy had evolved into—and would continue to be—a powerful, dynamic and deeply interconnected force in the global economy.

It’s important to acknowledge that, with China’s dynamism (or perhaps even because of it), China’s economy presents extraordinary challenges and pitfalls for businesses. Chief among them is that China’s legal, judicial and regulatory systems are in need of further reforms and development to give businesses greater confidence that their assets—operations, intellectual property, capital, contracts—will be protected. That will require duly enacted, enforceable laws and independent courts in China. The rule of law remains a work in progress in China. China’s dynamism yields an extra layer of complexity when deal-making and launching products in China. Any business should appreciate that unique tension when navigating the China market.

Sullivan: What factors should a small company consider before trying to launch in China?

Willard: That’s a great question, Jay. A lot depends on the company’s industry and the stage of the company’s life cycle. Important questions for a small company include, in no particular order: What is the current and prospective demand among Chinese consumers for your product or service? What is the size of the addressable market in China for your product or service? Who would be your competitors in China, and how do their products and services differ from yours? To what extent is your company able and willing to hire trusted local partners, counsel and advisors to ensure that your company’s assets are protected in China? It’s important for any small company to ask these questions before attempting to launch in China.

Sullivan: How do those factors differ for a large company?

Willard: A large company faces similar questions but will likely face greater complexity and a longer lead-time to launch. One big factor for a large company to consider is the concern of intellectual property risk in China. I’m on the phone daily with CEOs and Boards, strategizing about how to manage this risk. Think of it this way: Chinese consumers’ awareness of a major international brand often precedes the formal launch of that brand in China. For example, Michael Jordan was well-known in China before Nike started to sell Air Jordan sneakers in the country. Big brands and large companies need to conduct significant front-end due diligence to determine if any domestic Chinese entities have launched comparable, smaller-scale products in the China market. More importantly, has that domestic Chinese entity already secured the protection of China’s intellectual property agencies? Failure to perform serious due diligence can precipitate an unfortunate outcome: the large company pours extraordinary capital and resources into launching a new product in China, only to become subject to major infringement lawsuits levied by virtually unknown Chinese entities. This occurs with great frequency in China, and it remains a lingering challenge for large multi-national companies. It’s important for large companies to exercise patience and caution on the front-end. China is a big consumer market that presents great opportunity for large companies with established brands. But rushing into the China market without methodically ascertaining the intellectual property risk in advance can cause tremendous problems down the line.

Sullivan: Although I’ll be working with tech companies, I’m curious about whether those same issues should be of concern to a services-based company.

Willard: The same issues apply.

Sullivan: How have you seen the China market evolve in the last five years? What are the trends you see now?

Willard: It’s been a fascinating journey in the last five years. The China market has rapidly increased in scale and complexity. Compared to five years ago, the large Chinese technology companies and other major Chinese conglomerates—Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi, Baidu, Fosun, Huawei—feature even more prominently in global commerce. Think about this for a second: China today has 9 of the world’s top 20 technology companies; the U.S. has the other 11. That’s a major shift from five years ago, and it underscores the rapid growth of the China market. But greater scale begets greater complexity. Deal-making in China today requires a heightened level of caution and patience. Especially with respect to technology companies, serious concerns around intellectual property protection, cyber-security and data privacy in China are more salient than ever. And many observers in China acknowledge that those risks have increased in complexity in the last five years.

This isn’t to say that companies should avoid the China market. Quite the contrary. The launch of new innovations, technologies, products and services in China is fostering greater awareness of the challenges and risks inherent in the China market. With that awareness, both policymakers and industry executives increasingly recognize the hurdles. China will need to accelerate reforms across its financial system, capital markets and legal and regulatory frameworks in order to continue to grow as a major economy in the 21st century.

Heightened U.S.-China trade tensions and bi-lateral tariffs are more recent trends affecting the China market. Time will tell if those trends are purely episodic reflections of current political dynamics in Washington and Beijing or more lasting features of U.S.-China relations. But in any event, my advice to CEOs and Boards continues to be: Get smart on China; it’s here for the long haul.

Sullivan: What do you think the China market will look like in 2023?

Willard: I believe there is a high probability that the China market in 2023 will be even more relevant for early-stage ventures and large multi-national companies. China’s burgeoning middle class will only continue to consume greater volumes of products and services. I believe that China’s existing “national champion” enterprises will be playing an even more prominent role in global commerce. By 2023, we will likely see the emergence of new Chinese technology companies whose innovations will disrupt or otherwise challenge the existing products and services of major technology enterprises in China and internationally.

Beijing will host the Winter Olympics in 2022. That will afford China’s leaders and the country’s major multi-national companies a powerful platform to showcase China’s continued economic growth and development to a global audience. 2023 therefore could yield a renewed influx of foreign capital and investment into China’s economy. Notwithstanding this, it’s important to acknowledge that the probability of a fairly significant economic slowdown in China between now and 2023 is not inconceivable. China’s growing accumulation of public and private debt is reaching levels of unsustainability with no historical precedent. A major dislocation in China’s financial and capital markets—exacerbated by the nation’s large debt burden—could emerge as a significant impediment to China’s current economic trajectory. This is not a negligible risk.

Sullivan: Is the issue for startups getting funding, keeping funding, developing their product line, or figuring out the supply chain, and if you tell me “All of the above” tell me how to prioritize?

Willard: It’s a fantastic question—and it’s hotly debated in tech circles from Silicon Valley to Shenzhen. The short answer is: all of the above. In advising the management teams and founders of early-stage ventures across North America, I typically find that initial funding is the biggest priority. From there, developing the product line and optimizing the supply chain are critical. As a start-up continues to scale, securing additional funding often becomes a necessity. But a start-up’s ability to raise new capital typically requires “getting it right” with product development and supply chain optimization on the front-end. While the prioritization depends on a wide spectrum of variables for any given start-up, this sequence is most common.

Sullivan: Thanks for sharing your perspectives.

Willard: My pleasure. Best of luck at Startup Launchpad.

Originally published on

Posted in Global

Bringing Back-To-School Night Back To Work: 5 Steps To Make The Most Of Your Relationships

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When my son Sam was in second grade, I sat – really squatted – in a tiny chair in his classroom to hear his teacher – let’s call her Ms. Rose – talk to the gathered parents about the classroom atmosphere our kids would experience that year. One parent mentioned with a puzzled expression that her son had shared with her what sounded like a very questionable exercise that the kids had been asked to do in her class. I forget the exact exercise but recall that it sounded absurd on its face. Ms. Rose smiled and replied calmly, “I’ll make you a deal. You don’t believe anything your son or daughter tells you about what goes on in my classroom, and I won’t believe anything they tell me about what goes on in your home.” I immediately knew Sam was in good hands.

In the coming weeks, many of us will stumble awkwardly through our kids’ grade schools, middle schools, and high schools carrying a copy of their daily schedule, trying to find their lockers, looking to understand their path through the school each day, and thinking back on the energy and chaos of our own school years. Most importantly, we’ll have the chance to spend 7-10 minutes with each teacher. For some of us, those few minutes will be the only exchange we have all year with a person who will impact our child’s learning. How can we make the most of that, and every interaction we’re afforded on back-to-school night?

Andrew Selesnick has been an educator for almost 30 years. His career has taken him from English teacher, to high school principal, to assistant superintendent, and for the last four years to the superintendent of the Katonah – Lewisboro School District in Westchester County, New York. As the father of two high school students himself, he has been to more than his share of open house events at schools, from just about every angle. We had a chance to meet recently to discuss best practices for everyone regarding these rites of passage. The lessons he shared are applicable well beyond the unique structure of back-to-school night.

Jay Sullivan: The typical open house structure doesn’t allow for much interaction. How do we get the most out of the evening?

Andrew Selesnick: There is an overarching attitude we can all have about the experience. But there are also some specific things we can do.

Sullivan: What are the big picture items parents should start with?

Selesnick: Assume good intentions. The teachers are trying to pack a lot into a short time period. They have the best interests of your kids at heart. As you are racing around trying to find your kids’ classrooms, you’ll appreciate how your child is shifting gears so many times in a day, from science to history to gym, etc. Now look at the number of parents in the room with you. The teacher has that many kids in the class each day, and every hour or so a new crop comes in. There’s a lot of shifting gears going on for the teacher as well. In each period, the teacher is thinking about which kid is struggling, which kids need to be challenged at a higher level, and which kids they haven’t called on in a while and need some attention. If you assume the best of intentions on the part of the teacher, you’ll naturally approach the conversation with a positive tone.

And teachers need to make the same assumptions about the parents. The pressure has become fierce lately to make sure every child is meeting their potential. That’s a lofty, albeit legitimate, goal, and one every school should aspire toward. With the pressure, or even the perception of pressure, ratcheting up on both sides, it’s understandable that teachers and parents approach their interactions hesitantly, perhaps even defensively. The more honest and open the parent-teacher partnership can be, the better. Open lines of communications will allow both to share their unique expertise about the child. Teachers should assume they will get positive, realistic, legitimate questions and concerns from parents. That will help everyone have a more relaxed exchange.

Sullivan: It seems that tension is driven by a lack of trust.

Selesnick: I’d say it’s more a lack of a true relationship. Both the parents and the teachers have a relationship with the student, but the parents and teachers don’t interact enough to have a true relationship with each other. As a result, both parties must try harder to be open and trusting during the few exchanges they will have during the year.

Sullivan: Would more interaction help?

Selesnick: More balanced interaction would help. Often, after back-to-school night, the only time teachers and parents interact is if there’s a problem. Nowadays, parents and teachers are connected by email. Communication between them when things are going well is important. Even a short email from the teacher commenting on an assignment well done, or a message from the parent indicating their child seems excited about the class, would help build trust. That way, if the situation arises where the parent and teacher need to address any challenges during the year, there is already a foundation for the relationship.

Sullivan: Beyond the broad approach of assuming good intentions, what specifically can both parents and teachers do to get the most out of the school event?

Selesnick: Teachers will often focus on sharing the content of the course with parents. That can be conveyed better through a handout. I think everyone would be better served if the teachers spent the brief time they have with all the parents talking about their approach to teaching, the environment they hope to create in the classroom, and how they plan to try to connect with each student. They should just be themselves and let the parents know they view the kids’ education as a partnership. Most importantly, they should keep it brief and leave room at the end for a few questions. Relationships require listening.

Sullivan: Relationships also require two parties. What should parents be doing?

Selesnick: Parents might find the evenings more valuable if they ask good questions without assumptions. Ask, “What should I be doing at home to help my kid succeed?” Again, that goes toward the idea of building a partnership with the teacher. Even consider asking, “What should I not be doing?”

Sullivan: Can you elaborate on that?

Selesnick: Sure. Here’s an example. Let’s say you are helping you child with a writing assignment. Don’t have a pencil in your hand. If you have a pencil in your hand, both you and your child know that you’ll be tempted to jump in and edit the paper yourself.

Sullivan: That would never have occurred to me.

Selesnick: Your kid’s teacher might have very specific suggestions as to what you can do and avoid doing to help your son or daughter thrive academically. Another question both parents and teachers can ask each other is, “What kind of communication from me would be helpful?” That question avoids making assumptions, and helps people get what they need. The act of asking questions also goes a long way toward building trust.

Sullivan: So if I understand you correctly, we can all make the most out of back-to-school night if we, 1) assume the best of intentions all around, 2) focus on building a relationship instead of the content of the particular course, 3) ask good questions of each other, 4) listen well to the responses, and 5) create the expectation of further communication.

Selesnick: I think that would set us all up for a better evening, and a better pattern for interaction throughout the whole year.

Sullivan: Agreed. Thanks for the valuable lesson.

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