Monday, March 25, 2013

Accept no substitutes!

The world I live in today is one I could not have imagined as a child. Oh sure, The Jetsons had video chat (I have Skype) and Rosie-the-Robot (think Roomba with attitude). And my reality now is that today's technology has given me some great tools to make my life easier, though I am still waiting for my personal jetpack! But more than once I have found myself in discussion with digital natives trying to explain that just because technology is allowing us to do something faster, farther, longer, it is not neccessarily helping us do that thing better.  Or, as parents and teachers everywhere are fond of pointing out: Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

I am usually talking about communication. Don't get me wrong: I do agree that our current ability to see, speak with, and listen to people around the world has undoubtedly enriched us. But that is no reason to underestimate the importance of old school, same-time-and-place interaction. As a speaker trainer and public speaking coach, I am always reminding my clients of this. I cannot overstate the importance of non-verbal messages and feedback to achieving real connection. We need to share the moment with someone to truly communicate. High-stakes meetings are always face-to-face because there really is no substitute for being together (and if you don't believe me, ask Manti Te'o).

So I read with interest an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson.  She shares recent research she has done on the cost of our almost umbilical attachment to devices with screens. As with any habit, she says, our reliance on this digital connection "molds the very structure of your brain in ways that strengthen your proclivity for that habit." What she found was somewhat surprising: when we text at dinner rather than talk to our dinner companions, when we follow news discussions on twitter instead of engaging with other news consumers, when we send e-mails to co-workers instead of walking down the hall, we are not just being lazy or rude. We could actually be doing harm to our long-term health!

Dr. Fredrickson explains the how and why of this in her article, but the crux of the matter is that when we ignore our capacities to connect and empathize we could be doing real physical damage: "In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa . . . When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health."

Personal interaction: highly effective and good for you.
And now we have the science to prove it!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The power of story

TED | Facebook
It seems everyone is watching TEDTalks online these days. I wish I had more time to enjoy these fantastic presentations! So many talks, so little time...

As a public speaking/presentation skills coach, I love to see the different speaking styles of the experts. Many of them are coached extensively before they present, and mentored by former successful TED speakers.  It is no coincidence that TEDTalks describes these as "performances!" Online you see the cream of the crop, but if you were to attend a TED conference, you would probably see some not-quite-so-polished speakers. One of them, Nilofer Merchant blogs about what happened when she "didn’t deliver a seriously kick-ass talk" her first time around. She shares the lessons learned, and how she is applying them as she works on her successful comeback. This is valuable information for anyone prepping for any sort of talk. Merchant stresses that this time around, she has coaches and advisors to turn to when she has questions on content and delivery.

TED stands for technology, entertainment and design. It started out almost 30 years ago as a live conference to explore the intersections of those three worlds. Today, the magic of global internet allows us all to witness the lessons shared by speakers who see the world differently than we do, have made discoveries we would never dream of, have lived lives we cannot imagine. And throughout its long career, TED has relied on storytelling to get these lessons across.

What I especially love about the whole concept of TEDTalks, and the wonderful new NPR show TED Radio Hour  is also the answer to last week's Radio Hour episode title: Do We Need Humans? The answer is YES! We need humans to tell us their stories. Every successful TEDTalk you see or hear is a good story, well-told. Personal narrative is included, but it does not overwhelm the message. It acts to contextualize it, or underscores the reason for the speaker's discovery or theory, relying on data gleaned through personal experience. My favorite talk this week is TED 2013 Prize winner Sugata Mitra's vision of education for the future. The stories he shares make him a more credible expert, his message accessible to the audience. He wraps up his findings and hypothesis with the story of how he came to be interested in exploring this type of learning. He draws us in and we are fascinated.

Humans have learned from story since before we had written language. Mitra says that "knowing" is what distinguishes us from the apes. But I say it is storytelling.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Ginger vs. Sheryl

As regular readers of this blog know, clients comes to me to develop their own authentic leadership presence. They come from various management and executive positions, and I have several who are running for elected office. Since these particular clients have all been women so far, I am always on the lookout for information that deals with how women win elections. Some terrific new research from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation shows that when women run, the perceptions of "qualification" and "likeability" are inextricably linked.
She's qualified. But is she likeable?

Interesting, when you think about it. We'll vote for a man if we think he is qualified, even if we don't really like him. But a woman . . . ? Voters want the reassurance that she will be approachable and "like us." Because she needs to be even better than the man to win our vote. Like Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did, backwards -- and in heels!

It is difficult, however, to project the authority, expertise, vision, and character needed to be a leader, while keeping a foot in the "likeability" camp. Some people just seem more "likeable" than others, due to accidents of physiognomy or physical stature. Hillary Clinton, who has the traditional round cheeks associated with a "friendly" face, had to work so hard to prove her qualifications when she ran for President in 2008 that she was deemed only  "likeable enough" by then-Senator Obama in a debate!

There is lots of good commentary out there about Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, so I won't add my two cents. I haven't read it yet (though that has not stopped others from passing judgement), but I have read many other books on women's leadership. And it seems that in arenas other than elected office, experts are telling women that they need to seize more authority. Act more like leaders, less like peers. Run the risk of being "not liked" to get to the top. Very different advice.

So--what's a woman to do? There are general trends, but no hard and fast rules. Because when it comes to leadership there are many variables, aside from what you see on a resume: position sought (elected vs. corporate), gender (it will be fascinating to see what transgender leaders will bring to the mix), physical package (tall women have a whole different set of issues than short men). 

It is good to read the books and look at the research; they give you the knowledge to formulate some ideas of how you will climb the leadership mountain. Then look for someone to help you: a professional guide for your particular journey toward authentic leadership. It's a jungle out there. Don't go it alone!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Extro-intro-ambi, or the truth about 'verts

The talented and self-effacing Ang Lee
Most of the really good actors I know do not have large egos, nor are they super-outgoing or showy. In other words, they are not full-blown extroverts. They are more likely to be introverts, or "situational" extroverts. But they are not motivated by shyness or fear; they do not dedicate themselves to acting so they can "lose themselves" or "hide" behind their roles. Rather, they are gifted people whom life has taught to be good listeners, as well as close observers who can follow others' social cues. These actors combine heightened awareness of the world around them with courage, fearlessness, and a rejection of "playing it safe." So they probably fall somewhere in between extroversion and introversion. They are ambiverts.

Great directors are this way, too. I was in grad school with Ang Lee, who is famous for making tremendously ambitious films (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain; Life of Pi, to name a few). He is also known for relying upon a strong work ethic to execute his keen artistic vision, all while being quietly, yet unfailingly, generous to his cast and crew. He remains, as he was at the University of Illinois, the guiding light who is willing to let others star in his show.

Writer and thought-leader Daniel Pink wrote a column for the Washington Post in late January about these best-of-both world people, these ambiverts. He wasn't talking about actors, or directors, but leaders. I found his logic for upending the conventional wisdom (the best leader is a people-person, is larger-than-life, etc.) compelling, so I thought I would share it with you:

"When we choose leaders. . . we're understandably drawn to the gregarious, friendly types with their comfortable patter and ready smiles. But are they really the best? We'd be far better off with those who take a more calibrated approach - who can talk smoothly but also listen keenly, who know when to turn on the charm but also when to turn it off, who combine the extrovert's assertiveness with the introvert's quiet confidence."

Something to think about next time we select new leaders, or set our  sights on new leadership positions for ourselves!