Monday, January 28, 2013

Life lessons from the swim meet

Our new Aquatics Center, opening fall 2013. WKArchitect sketch,
I was timing for my son's high school District Swim meet on Saturday. Day One had been cancelled due to "inclement weather" on Friday and so everything was rolled into a super-sized meet on Day Two. Unlike regular season meets, swimmers for all eight teams were competing; there were hundreds! The scene inside the pool could have been described as controlled chaos. Certainly anyone susceptible to sensory overload would not have lasted very long. The space was filled with humid heat and glaring light, echoing with voices, music, loud whistles, cheers. I was timing, and as evening turned into night, I really needed to concentrate on what I was doing. I needed to prompt myself to be "in the moment" on more than one occasion (especially during eight heats of the 500-yard race!) But the young athletes competing displayed an extraordinary amount of focus. I know some of my son's teammates well, and they all surprised me with their ability to shut out all distractions and  

I am sure if you culled my blogs over these many months you would find a few on the importance of focus. We all know focus is something we should have pretty much any time we try to accomplish anything. Certainly it is a tool we should pull out of our toolkit whenever we need to communicate effectively, or otherwise get someone to "go along" with our thought processes. For how can we expect anyone to follow our logic or listen to our message if we ourselves are unfocused, unclear?

We know this, but often put ourselves in situations where -- in spite of the fact that focus is very much what we need -- we excuse ourselves because we "just can't." There are so many reasons: it is too late in the day, I haven't prepared, my glucose level is low, I didn't sleep well, this room isn't right, I don't really like the person I'm talking to, I do really like the person I'm talking to, and on and on...

In acting we need to focus, too. When I ask my beginning students why, they most often answer: you need focus so you remember the lines. That is not it at all. The goal of acting is to create onstage the reality the playwright has given you. You can only do that by focusing: on the character, on her needs, and on the actions she takes to satisfy those needs. And perhaps this is where acting, like swimming, differs from what we spend the rest of our time doing, in what we think of as real life. In acting, in musical performance, in dance, as in sports, the actions themselves are what you are doing. In life we forget. Actions do speak louder than words, but most of us get caught up in the talking and thinking and forget the doing.

A good tip for effective communications: next time you need to get an idea across, or connect with someone on a deeper level, ask yourself "what am I doing?" before you speak. Make an action plan. And then breathe, dive in, and do it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Inaugurally speaking: "to us" vs. "at us"

Waiting for the Inaugural Parade
There's nothing like being in the Nation's Capital during Inauguration Weekend! Though the excitement was not as palpable as it was four years ago, there was enough of a buzz in the air to put us in a holiday mood. I attended the Virginia Inaugural Ball on Sunday, and celebrated Inauguration Day at the Canadian Embassy's "tailgate" and parade-viewing party. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. However, as your faithful blogger on all things communications-related, I could not let my professional hat slip off for too long. And so, here are some observations from this weekend:

Practice really does make perfect. Or nearly so. You know the Inauguration Ceremony itself was scripted down to the minutest detail. There was a run-through a week before with stand-ins for all the principals. In 2009 my children & I watched the sound and light check two days before The Big Day. We heard Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman play, making the recording they later used during the frigid Inauguration. And this year, I would bet the singers and other participants "worked in the space" prior to yesterday's celebration, even if they did most of their rehearsal elsewhere. The singers came with knowledge of how to best use their microphones, but the speakers were also coached. The President, who has spoken here before, did a masterful job with his delivery. He hit just the right tones. His speech exhorted, encouraged, celebrated. He was speaking "to us" but he was also "of us." Myrlie Evers-Williams delivered a stirring Invocation that was a fantastic example of delivering a text that is more delicate, at once more personal and universal. Watch her. She is strong in her prayerfulness. She includes us in her circle of communication, and that is hard to do with such a huge live audience. Her focus draws us all in. We are communing with her. Even at the Embassy, there was a collectively breathed "amen" when she finished.

By contrast, most of the featured speakers at Sunday's Ball pushed the audience away with their aggressive energy. They were speaking "at us."  I felt I was at a late-stage outdoor campaign rally with people who didn't know/didn't trust how microphones work. I know it is hard to resist the temptation to shout over the crowd when you feel they should be listening to you. But the ones who wanted to listen listened while others partied. Shouting into a microphone does not make you louder; it does not command attention. It actually makes your tone more strident, harder to listen to, and thus, turns people off. Your sound engineer will try to compensate to help you. Really, if you had trusted that expert to do her/his job, you would have sounded better and found a more receptive audience. Practicing in the space would have helped. But I know these speakers have been in spaces like this before and they still don't seem to get that no one likes to be shouted at. Even your fans don't like it! (did you learn nothing from Howard Dean?)

The exception was my friend Charniele Herring, who was gracious and classy and most certainly was heard.  The guys need to take a page from her playbook. Maybe they will, now that she is Chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gender difference: science, or magical thinking?

I coach people who want to develop or improve their leadership skills. As it happens, I work more with women than men, and many assumptions are made about the differences in women's and men's communications styles, the way they lead, their inherent need to express themselves, etc.  So many times I find myself responding to statements that begin, "When women communicate they . . ." with "Well, yes, but . . ." Or hearing that the "female brain" is "hard-wired" to do this or that. It is all I can do to restrain myself from blurting out" "argh! The brain is not an electronic device!!"

I thought "conventional wisdom" had moved beyond such simplistic thinking: even Wikipedia has an entry on Neuroplasticity that describes how our brains change throughout our lives. Some of you may have seen my objections to the view that male and female are inherently different when I posted: Pink and Blue? What's Up With That?, written after a presentation by the Rosalind Barnett, author of The Truth about Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children 

So I was thrilled to read, in Sunday's New York Times, the provocatively titled "Darwin Was Wrong About Dating". This op-ed written by author and journalist Dan Slater, deals primarily with several recent scientific studies that throw cold water on accepted theories of gender difference. Slater writes: "Lately, however, a new cohort of scientists have been challenging the very existence of the gender differences in sexual behavior that Darwinians have spent the past 40 years trying to explain and justify on evolutionary grounds."

Which raises this issue: if the differences don't exist here, where there might be a clear evolutionary reason for such gender differences, do they really exist at all? Later in the article Slater echoes what has been on my mind for quite some time: "This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve pushed these theories too far. How many stereotypical racial and ethnic differences, once declared evolutionarily determined under the banner of science, have been revealed instead as vestiges of power dynamics from earlier societies?" I think that is a question we would all like an answer to.

We had our share of mis-information about gender difference this election season in the U.S. (see Aiken, Todd et al.) I hope we have reached the extreme, and our pendulum is now swinging back toward more reasonable discourse. It's past time to come out from under the cloud of simplistic thinking about gender, sex and power. As Slater says, "given new research, continued rigid reliance on evolution as an explanation seems to risk elevating a limited guide to teleological status — a way of thinking that scientists should abhor. . . How far does Darwin go in explaining human behavior?"

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Resolved: It's not just a New Year's thing

Happy New Year!
I was not going to write about resolutions for 2013, but today as I took my regular morning walk (my first of the New Year), I noticed there were about four times as many folks out exercising as there had been in December. And it wasn't even an unseasonably warm day! So I got to ruminating about resolutions.

I think that by January 3rd this topic has been done to death in all media. My favorite story this year was Ira Flatrow on NPR's Science Friday. Before the dawn of 2013, Ira interviewed psychologist John Norcross who said the best way to make resolutions stick is to set realistic goals. This is not really news, but Dr. Norcross did cite figures: "In two of our longitudinal studies, 40 to 46 percent of New Year's resolvers will be successful at six months." Wow! That means that half of our resolutions will be fading by the time the cherry blossoms bloom here in D.C. Dr. Norcross talked about motivation vs. inspiration. I have always thought of inspiration as the seducer, making our resolutions seem so attractive that we reallyreally want to try them. Dr. Norcross would agree, I venture. He also reminds us that motivation is what keeps us going. It is also what those who fail balk at -- the hard work part. Motivation involves specific behaviors we build into the fabric of our days. And we shouldn't get discouraged by early "slips" of resolve: they may indicate that our major goal is good, but we need to "tweak" strategies for reaching it to make it something do-able.

Like many people my age, I don't place much stock in New Year's resolutions (been there, done that!) I try to be more pro-active (as opposed to reactive) in my life every day. Some days, however, I find that in my home and family life I am making choices rather hap-hazardly, according to circumstances that present themselves, rather than sticking to any real plan. Undaunted, I still resolve to make improvements -- but not on Big Days. My goals are usually small and specific. Some might call them modest. But often they are only steps in a plan to attain a larger goal. (see the story of how I produced my play, Becoming Calvin)

One of my past resolutions involved the what was then to me the strange world of blogging. I was not sure where it would lead me, but I dove in with my first post on November 7, 2011. And I keep at it as regularly as I can. Since my first blog I have posted 58 times, and had 4,549 page views (thank you). The Value of Solitude from January 24, 2012 remains the all-time favorite. I have enjoyed the discipline blogging has provided. And while I know not every post has been brilliant, I hope I have been able to share with you, my far-flung readers, some new information, or helped you reach a new insight.

Keep reading. . . there's more to come in 2013!