Friday, December 30, 2011

A toast for 2011!

Sorry- due to technical difficulties this post was removed on Jan 3, 2012.

Here is a reconstruction of the original post:

This time of year, many of us sit through, stand through, groan through some pretty awful toasts. A toast should be a welcome element of any celebration. It presents an opportunity to honor and pay tribute to a special someone or singular occasion. But so often, it seems the better option might be to put a ban on toasts altogether. Out-of-control guests have been known to hog the microphone at times like this, to air grievances or unleash their inner Oprahs (an excellant example of this can be found in the dueling toast smackdown between Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne in Bridesmaids).

Of course, you could always rely on the inspiration of the moment, and give a toast that consists of some hastily scribbled napkin notes. None of your friends will tell you how that approach was not terribly successful, and you'll think you were great, until you see the video. Then, you'll say, "I was OK. If I had prepared, I would have been bettter."

So.... prepare! You don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure it out: if you had prepared, you would have been better. Prepare - and you will be.

I give my clients advice on what to do if they find themselves in the honored position of being asked to make a toast:
  • Take 10 minutes to put it together and practice at least 7 times (you'll memorize the speech as you practice).
  • The purpose is praise and celebration.
  • It should be short--no more than 150 words or 75 seconds long.
  • Tell something about the person or occasion you are honoring. Don’t just tell biographical information, rather, create a speech that penetrates to the essence of the person/occasion and generates a deep sense of respect. 
  • Major traits are expressiveness and feeling. Go for the warm glow!
Try this next time you're asked to make a toast. You will enjoy yourself more, your host will be pleased, and who knows where a successful toast could lead?

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Power of Voice

Last week I was honored to be part of the Women in Public Service Colloquium, sponsored by the Department of State and Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and Wellesley College. (

Thursday morning began with a wonderful kick-off: presentations and conversations with global leaders Hillary Clinton, Christine Legarde, Atifete Jahjaga, the President of Kosovo (at 37, the world's youngest head of state), and Gloria Steinem, among others.

The next day I got to work. I was asked to help train the 40 global leaders who had been selected to participate in the Emerging Women Leaders in Public Service Forum. The day's theme was The Power of Voice; I was there to give the group guidelines for effective public speaking and critique their presentations. I was delighted that the Director of the Forum, Dr. Rangita de Silva de Alwis, had the vision to bring me into the process. Often high-level trainings focus so much on the importance of content they forget that delivery is just as important for getting the message across.

Thrilled as I was to participate in such an exciting initiative, I knew it would be a creative challenge. My role was to offer constructive criticism to speakers who were often speaking, in their second (or third) languages, who had just put content together in committee, and who had not much chance to practice. I addressed technical vocal production and presentation issues; they were happy to get "nuts and bolts" answers to specific questions. I was even drafted to role-play a beleaguered speaker facing a hostile audience!

The women were all deeply committed to their causes (in this session they spoke on reaching various UN Millennium Development Goals:, and they spoke with passion. As Arig Bakhiet, the representative from Sudan, said: "Even when they are speaking with an accent, or with a language that they are not fluent in, the feeling, the committment they have for the subject comes through." She was right. These brave, inspiring women are already leading the world into a brighter future. When they return to their countries they will get to work, build stronger networks, and raise their voices for global women's empowerment and equality. The Power of Voice!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The present of presence

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 9, 2011

How Not To Be a Bore

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Have Yourself a Merry Bit of Networking....

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

Who has the time???

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

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tips for the Season, Part One

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pink and Blue? What's Up With That?

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Giving Thanks

Writing a blog post the afternoon before Thanksgiving may seem to be an exercise in futility. Who will take the time to read it?  I decided, therefore, to skip it and make this a one-blog week instead of two. And yet. . . I have something to write about that may not be read, but that I feel compelled to communicate, nonetheless.

I want to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for all the friends I have around the world, and the connections and contacts I have who are friends-in-the-making.

Professionally, I depend a lot on friends. So, I give thanks for the friends who remembered the odd professional niche I fill and called me when "something came up." Thanks for the clients who referred me to their colleagues who needed me. Thanks for those I network with on a regular basis who give me support, help me brainstorm, and share their expertise. Thanks for my students who always manage to teach me a thing or two.

Thanks of course to my wonderful family and long-time friends who have been with me on this journey we call life, who have shared the ups and downs of my acting career and Communications Conditioning practice. And my husband and kids all deserve more thanks than I can possibly give them for living through hours of conversations about the subjects of the plays I have written. They know obscure facts about the founding of Jamestown and the life of John Calvin that serve only as proof of the powerful bond that hold us together. 

I am truly blessed with such rich relationships. I give thanks.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Catch your breath

It's mid-afternoon on a Friday in November.
I am about to go do some pre-Thanksgiving reconnaissance for a fresh turkey.
Tomorrow, I will do a workshop on effective presentation skills for dynamic speaking to a roomful of emergent leaders.
The clock is ticking; I am starting to feel a teensy bit tense!
I tell myself what I tell my clients:

Just breathe! Just do it. Deeply and often. Take a "breathing break" during that mid-afternoon slump to re-energize.

And it works!

As we embark on the winter holiday season, filled with so many good smells, notice how often you stop and take a deep breath. Not for the sake of getting breath into your body, but because you are surrounded by incredible smells. We inhale deeply, to experience the aromas of turkey and pie, cinnamon, pine boughs, cookies in the oven. This deep breathing consequently relaxes us. It keeps us saner, more on track, and less stressed than we would otherwise be during what can be a pretty frenetic time.

So -- take a deep breath. Take another. Ahh!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Embrace the Speed Bumps

My clients come to me for a variety of reasons. Some are content experts who do a lot of speaking, but are always seeking to improve. Others are running for office and engaging in high stakes, very public communication from dawn till well after dusk. Still others want to get ahead professionally, and know they need to step up their speaking in all situations - around the conference table, with clients, at networking events,  etc. They come to me for different reasons, but they express many of the same concerns.

One I hear most often is, "I want to be able to think on my feet" or "I need to learn how to speak off the cuff." Clients are a bit dismayed when I tell them I have no magic wand to immediately make them extemporaneous geniuses. I do have strategies that I share, which vary according to client and situation. But one general rule I tell everyone  - slow down! The benefit of this is two-fold: it gives you time to think about what you are saying before you say it (which, we can all agree, is a prerequisite for sounding intelligent), and it helps you avoid those filler words which at best are a minor annoyance to the listener, and at worst make you seem disorganized and unfocussed.

Try slowing down today; what have you got to lose? Just a few "um"s, " you know"s, and (cringe) "like"s that you and your listener will not miss at all!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Teachable Moment

This year's crowded Republican campaign trail is strewn with gifts that keep on giving! Rick Perry's debate gaffe last night illustrated the importance of #3 on my list of Five Things You Must Always Do When Speaking.

I don't believe in too many rules (see, only five!), but one thing I tell my clients is ''Organize your thoughts before you speak! This seems obvious, but be honest! How consistently do you do it? For each meeting you attend, every phone call you make, you often have an idea of what will be asked of you and said by others. Have your main talking points ready so you don't fumble."

So it seems absurd that the GOP would even consider nominating for president a man who can't take time to organize his thoughts and practice his talking points (also on my Top Five list). And he didn't even have it in his notes! Such a rookie mistake.  I would be very shocked if one of my clients revealed him/herself to be so unprepared for any speaking engagement, let alone such a highly visible, high-stakes one.

I suppose there must be a few leadership positions somewhere that do not require "excellent written and verbal communications skills." But Leader of the Free World is not one of them!

At least now I have a new watchword for my clients - don't pull a Perry! 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Are you listening?

I have been thinking a lot lately about listening.
Last week, working with my adult acting class, I reminded my students that listening is a physical activity. It takes mental and muscular power to focus on being still enough to absorb what someone else is saying, to mentally travel through his or her thought process, and to understand the message being sent. A scene based on conversation, contrary to some students' initial impressions, is not one in which "nothing happens." It can be the moment when life-changing truth is revealed, decisions are made, bonds are forged. This happens, onstage as in real life, even though a casual observer might perceive this important exchange as "just talking."

Listening, being part of an ongoing communication loop, is the only way to make true connection possible. Otherwise all that verbal output is just chatter, cluttering up our already noisy days. Sometimes it verges on assault. The "used car salesman" approach of highly energetic delivery coupled with a forced cheerfulness is a perversion of leadership technique that I have seen applied by many who should know better.  

If you do not make the space to listen to others, to answer their questions, address their concerns, clarify your position, maybe even modify it after they give you feedback, you are not really communicating. To really listen you need to be unafraid. Ask yourself: so what if I am challenged? Remember, your goal is not to win or to be right, your goal is to get the job done in the most economical/effective/elegant/
excellent/expeditious way possible (and that's just the "e" list).

Something to think about next time you catch yourself not really listening. Or being heard.