Innovation is all the rage these days. Everyone want's to be a "disruptor" or "alter the paradigm." It can happen; Uber and Chili Cheese Frito taco shells come to mind.
There's no one way to get there of course. But here's a thought exercise that can expand your mind to new possibilities.
Take a headline from an innovation newsstory, like the following:
Then take a line from the story that sounds like an origin of the idea. In this case, I choose: "During her senior year of college, Rose was dared to eat a fried scorpion while studying abroad in China."
Rose must have taken several dramatic and innovative steps between eating the scorpion and saving the world. Ask youself, what are some possible actions she took that led to such a life-changing result?
Some possibilities include:
1. Rallies her fellow bio students and persuades the college to fund preliminary concepts.
2. Works Lay’s and other large snack companies to obtain popular flavor profiles.
3. Automates proposal submission process with help from Google volunteers.
4. Researches salmon farms and applies parallel concepts to “bug farms.”
5. Reaches out to governments of poverty-stricken companies to promote health and positive outcomes.
Rose probably had her own ideas, but these are the ones that come to my mind. Then you can apply the same principle to something closer to you, like creating new programming, or offering a different product. Decide where you want to end up and back fill it with transitionary ideas.
As Lisa Daily, host of nationally-syndicated morning TV show, Daytime, "“You’ll never get a new ending if you keep starting with the same tired beginning.”
I often spend time with a new client connecting the dots between live theater and business and interpersonal communication...
The suite of skills needed to deliver a successful theatrical enterprise are the same ones required to deliver effective and memorable human interactions.
Though the connection between communications and theater can be apparent, there is another non-traditional practice that is equally as relevant and enlightening: role-playing games.
Dungeons & Dragons is the most recognized, but there are literally bazzilions of them.
Once relegated to the (sometimes true) stereotype of lonely adolescents in their parent's basement, RPGs are rapidly becoming more common in traditional pop culture. This is partly due to their inclusion in popular movies and television like Stranger Things, and also because now the kids who played them 40 years have a basement and kids of their own and are sharing their joy with the new generation. As of this writing, the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook is #8 of Amazon's all time best sellers list. It has spent a lot of time at #1. Best sellers! Not just the nerd section.
So, what do dungeons and cowboys and star ships and anime and cyberpunk have to do with communications? I will change only one part of the quote from above.
The suite of skills needed to deliver a successful Role Playing Game are the same ones required to deliver effective and memorable human interactions.
It's true. Teachers, writers, team-builders, 7-step programs, therapists and communicators of all kinds are realizing (much later than their 12 year old selves) the these kinds of games require team work, problem solving, creativity, mutual support and many other important life skills (like statistics and probabilities, but we won’t go into that.)
If you want more information on what RPGs look like at the table top level, listen to my new podcast, Yes and Dragons.
Life and communications isn't a game, especially when negotiating a salary or presenting a scientific thesis. But, we could learn a little bit from our childhood and remember that whether we're in a fantasy world or the real one a little creativity and collaboration goes a long way.
Customer service is largely about driving the conversation towards a solution – from “What’s your address?” to “My child is stuck in the turtle tank.” I call that “managing other people’s stress.” With all of that energy going towards helping other people, how do you lighten your load and remain effective? By anticipating customer needs as best you can and remaining positive.
How do you do that? Here's a thought exercise that can help work though your challenges and solutions. You can play by yourself but it’s best with a partner.
Have one person play a negative customer and state a common problem in your organization. Have the other person play a positive customer service representative.
Guest: I lost my ticket to the movie.
Staff: Fortunately, I have a back up.
Guest: Unfortunately, there's two of us now.
Staff: Fortunately, there are still two seats available.
Guest: Unfortunately, I have a bad back and need a special seat.
Staff: Fortunately, we have a guest back rest.
Guest: Unfortunately, it’s a very long movie.
Staff: Fortunately, it’s a very comfy back rest!
See? Super fun. (Also good for long car rides with the kids.)
So, what does this get us? Let’s deconstruct.
Guest: I lost my ticket to the movie. [You’ve identified a common problem.]
Staff: Fortunately, I have a back up. [Be proactive and recognize this happens. Many theaters reserve seat specifically for this reason.]
Guest: Unfortunately, there are now two of us. [Ok, decide the policy on this circumstance and inform your staff. Is there a discount for second ticket ? Tell them when the next show is?]
Staff: Fortunately, there are still two seats available. [Well, this is a good policy!]
Guest: Unfortunately, I have a bad back and need a special seat. [Tons of people have bad backs. You can anticipate this need.]
Staff: Fortunately, we have a guest back rest. [So, have a few cushions on hand.]
Guest: Unfortunately, it’s a very long movie. [Maybe recommend a shorter movie? Offer them a wheelchair? Decide the most appropriate offer.]
Staff: Fortunately, it’s a very comfy back rest! [Don’t get the cheap kind, get the good kind.]
This deceptively simple exercise allows you to anticipate visitor needs, effect policy, design staff trainings and most importantly help manage other people’s stress.
Fortunately, it’s an easy game. Unfortunately, there’s no cake.
I was leading a customer service exercise the other day and a woman asked for solutions on how to deter the same customer from asking for their password over and over. We crafted some solutions as a group (One of which was to make it more difficult for the person to reach her. We did NOT encourage that idea!)
In this case, sometimes people give themselves permission to forget things because the answer is so readily available somewhere else. How many phone number did you have memorized 10 years ago? How many now?
This situation reminded me there is often an emotional aspect to customer service that sometimes alludes us. It put me in mind of this story I heard from a 20-year veteran staff member from the Boston Public Library.
Every week for several months, a man would come in asking for information about radios. He seemed distant, unfocused, a little "off," Even though she repeatedly served him, he repeatedly asked for the same information. Of course, after multiple visits she became quite frustrated.
After being absent for several weeks, the man finally returned and approached her. He said, "I was on medication for the last few months. I don't remember much, but I do remember that when I was here, I was helped."
It's a touching story and a good reminder that what might seem a nuisance for us, might be priceless to someone else.
Building confidence in yourself can be a huge personal challenge. It's frustrating, demoralizing and lot of other counterproductive feelings. Sometimes I'll get a student who does amazing scene work, but then look sheepish and defeated, as if he just disappointed everyone. I then point out all of the good things and remind him to "put it in the win column!"
Similarly, sometimes I lead a meeting or give a presentation and feel like it didn't go as I expected, even though colleagues are thanking me for a job well done. I say, “I’m glad that’s over,” but what I should be doing is acknowledging all of the positive feedback and saying, “That was a success!” You can’t really build up your confidence – to go from less sure of yourself to more sure of yourself – unless you recognize your successes when you have them.
In public speaking, you can think “Gulp, everyone is looking at me!”
Or, you can think of your center seat at a table, the podium or where ever, as a place of power, of knowledge and respect. After all, they want something from you.
To help reinforce this idea of "owning your space," in my workshops I use a picture of the Chinese dragon, Lung. Lung traditionally symbolizes power and fearlessness. I place it on the floor at the head of the room and ask people to “Step up to the dragon’s perch.” If you think of it as a place of courage and poise, you will become more confident over time.
You’ll have a great meeting or presentation and put it in the win column!
Networking is one of those things that can require a lot of effort, and yet has the potential for a huge payoff. During the New England Museum Association Conference a few weeks ago, I used much of my time looking up attendees, setting up meet and greets and then following through. That meant introducing myself, telling my story, listening and sharing thoughts on the state of the industry.
I had to pull out a skill I hadn't used in awhile; a simple blueprint to maximize your impression and what you get out of the conversation: Ask It, Show It, Know It.
It may seem counterintuitive when you are trying to make a solid connection with a potential business partner, but your goal should not be to brag about your resume, but rather to ask questions and soak up as much information as you can. Ask about their work, their strengths, their challenges, their successes, what they do when they are not working, what do you have in common. A natural opening will come soon enough, and then you can tell your story. Really? Yes. Good question.
Learn as much as you can about the person you want to meet. Look online, talk to peers, read their bio in the program. You want to come to the conversation armed with relevant talking points and to demonstrate a competence that will get their attention. Remember, it’s networking so you don’t just want to make a good impression on them, but that they will remember you when talking to their colleagues.
"Hey, you know who would be perfect for this job? The woman I met at the conference!"
This is the time to telegraph your passion. Most people who network want to make an industry connection, collaborate, increase their knowledge, find a mentor or a protégé, or simple talk shop. Tell them why you love your job and what personal satisfaction you get out of it. Love your work, your projects, your goals…and let it show.
So, the next time you are at networking event, or a party, or a conference overwhelmed by how to make first contact with important people – just remember it’s as easy as Ask It, Show It, Know It.
Sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves that effective leadership really is all about people.
I occasionally look back through my archive of communication materials to remind myself of important ideas and interesting observations. I rediscovered this interview with Gary Smith, President and CEO of Ciena, next-gen software and telecomunications company from October 4, 2015 (New York Times).
Look for how he draws leadership inspiration from his personal life. Experts (like DLM Communications, as a totally random example) can share with you great techniques for effective leadership, but learning them through your personal experience is often the best way to drive them home, to make them meaningful to you.
In this interview, you can see Smith’s leadership approach evolve from analytical observation to personal connection.
Here is an edited version of that interview…
Tell me more about your parents. How have they influenced your leadership style?
My father was particularly influential. He never said a bad word about anybody, and I’ve taken some lessons from that. He was always very positive, and he did it naturally. He’s not confrontational at all and will do anything to avoid a confrontation.
My mother was a little more confrontational and very direct when she needed to be. I’ve taken a little bit of both of them, and part of the skill is to know when to pull on the different levers. It’s very situational.
What are some other leadership lessons you’ve learned over the years?
Early on in my career, I was told, “It’s all about people.” I got it intellectually, but it took me quite a while to really get it. It really is all about people, and if you get that right, the other stuff will get addressed. But you have to work at it all the time.
Culture takes an awful lot of time and effort, and it can be destroyed very quickly, because it’s built on trust and respect. You’re respecting the individual and what they do, and you’re trusting them, and they’re doing the same for you. That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s like personal relationships.
How do you hire?
I tend to focus more on whether the person is the right fit for the company. So I’ll ask questions like What do you truly enjoy doing? How can I tell if you’re having a bad day, and how does that manifest itself? What are the things that really irritate you, and what do you do about it? What’s it like to work for you? How do you interact with your peers? What do you do if you don’t agree with the direction of the company?
If you are a leader in a new role, or veteran manager, take a look at role models in your life – what you respect about them, how they deal with people, what they think of you. The lessons you need to elevate your approach to communication leadership are all around us.
You may have noticed our new logo.
We spent a long time trying to figure out the best way to represent our primary mission: to empower individuals to be the best communicators they can be.
The three ribbons on the left all launch from the same point – you – and expand out. These arrows represent the many choices anyone can make to enhance their communication skills. And we want to enhance our skills because we all know different choices lead to different outcomes.
As discussed before, Harvard University did a study that found there were two factors that determined what kind of first impression you make on people: competence and warmth. These qualities are on a spectrum from greater to lesser. That means we can choose to more or less warm and more or less competent. It’s up to you. The same goes for being more forgiving or less forgiving, more flexible or less flexible, and any combination of choices that directly effect your fellow humans
When you partner with DLM Communications you are partnering with people who want to help you be your best self, comfortable in your own skin, and give you tools to tell the world what you want to say.
And the best part is you get to decide how you want to do it.
We throw around the phrase “active listening” a lot in the business world. It's short hand for concentrating, understanding, responding meaningfully, and then remembering the conversation. That can be a challenge, but for the most part we get it right. But what happens if there is more than one voice? How do you manage the different ideas and unique lines of thought?
I sometimes lead an exercise creatively called “story.” Half a dozen participants stand in a line. I point at each of them one at a time and they make up a story, picking up where their colleague left off. Everyone shares the role of the narrator.
It’s collective storytelling, which means in order to tell a coherent story there needs to be collective listening. (For some reason the stories almost always involve dogs. I don’t know why. Someone look into that.)
There are challenges to this practice though. For example, it can be really tempting to throw in your own twist – or as we call it in the business world, "Hey, look at me!"
Once upon a time there was a dog…
…that loved running through the forest…
…and chasing squirrels…
…and then he blew up!
That non-sequitur is the equivalent of jumping to a new agenda item during a meeting, or skipping to the exciting reveal of a client pitch. "Story" quickly demonstrates the need for collective active listening, or, “honoring the intention" of who came before you.
Where was my colleague going with this? What’s the next obvious thing that needs to be addressed? How can I support that idea. It’s sharing the narrative. It’s sharing the story.
Actively tracking each piece of the conversation and being inspired by your team will lead you to a better place. You are literally moving the agenda…pitch…meeting…brainstorming session, in the same direction, with the same intention.
With the rapidly evolving social and political climate and the increased need to find ways to communicate more effectively it’s time to enhance and refine our company’s visual presence. And of course, as experts in transformative communication, we want to make sure we get it right.
In the words of Mark Twain…
“The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
So, with our brightest days yet to come we’ll see you next month with new product offerings, a new name, new logo, and a fresh new website.
“Empathy” is one of those buzz words that is overused. But despite being ubiquitous, in this era of social and political divide it’s more important than ever.
I often use an exercise in my workshops that gets to the heart of this.
Two participants learn about each other’s hobbies or interests. Then they are asked, “given unlimited resources, what is the ideal gift you would you give to that person?”
I like to kayak. Someone could buy me a new kayak. But, no, think bigger. Someone could buy me all the of the Rangeley Lakes in Maine, dozens of kayaks, and pay for lessons so all my friends can join me.
What people quickly discover is receiving this imaginary gift is really very satisfying. Coming up with the idea is equally gratifying. This exercise supports the old adage, “It’s the thought that counts.” (I have a friend who once gave his girlfriend batteries for their anniversary. It doesn’t apply in that case.)
When I was 13 years old my grandmother gave me a newspaper clipping about the life cycle of cicadas; they were going to emerge after being underground for 17 years. On it she wrote in her loving scraggily letters, “David, these insects are older than you are!” Grandmothers are supposed to do nice things, but I won’t ever forget it. This gift told me that not only was she thinking of me, but she made a connection I might not have made myself.
Buying me Maine and every kayak in the state would be wonderful. But, if you realize it’s sharing the wonder of the natural world that is compelling to me, not the real estate, that shows me you understand who I really am.
You can’t necessarily buy your clients expensive things – in some cases any gift might be considered a no-no. But true empathy is making a connection on a deeper level.
The next time your client tells you about a trip they took to NYC, make a note of it. Think about something you did that might be meaningful to them. The sights. The crowds. The shopping. Then go one step forward and make a connection personal to them. “I know you have a big family. I do too and we found a great place to stay off of Time Square.” Or, “You told me you were an avid bird watcher. I loved a private bird watching tour I took through Central Park. I recommend going with Dr. Robert "Birding Bob" DeCandido."
Making these kinds of thoughtful connections are moments your client won't forget. When we have so much competing for our attention, being memorable might be the greatest gift you can give.
I love this quote from the British Pakistani novelist Mohsin Mahid: “Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.”
In downtown Boston there are rumors of a mythical Dunkin' Donuts that has your order ready before you ask for it. Servers remember your name your order. I’ve heard it too many times – it has to be true!
If so, this is exemplary customer service. Remembering names, especially from a giant corporation, is an easy way to create a personal relationship with your customers because names are so…well…personal.
It’s also a good example of a simple act that can have a lasting impression. More commonly – as Maya Angelou is often attributed as saying – “At the end of the day, people won’t remember what you did or said, they will remember how you made them feel.”
This could not have been illustrated any clearer when a staff member shared the following story during a customer service workshop at the Boston Public Library.
A gentleman came into the library and asked for information on how to build a ham radio. He seemed unfocused and distracted. She helped him and he went on his way. Every week he came back asking for the same information. Most staff got tired of answering the same questions and began to avoid him when they saw him coming, but one librarian worked with him every time.
A few months after his last visit he approached the librarian who had been most attentive to him. He thanked her and said during that period of his life he had been on medication that effected his memory. “In fact, the only thing I remember is… every time I came to this library I was helped.”
He didn’t remember what they said, he remembered how they made him feel.
Often, these simple behaviors – calling someone by name, or simply serving a customer as you should – have an enormous impact.
It’s a great way to start your day.
One thing I regularly tell people in my workshops is that to change an outcome we need to change our behavior. As John Connor said in many timelines of the Terminator movies, “There is no fate but what we make.” We can do it one way and see the same thing, or we can do it another and do it better.
One of my favorite quotes is by Marshall Ganz, an activist leader and senior lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government. In his essay, “Why Stories Matter: The Art and Craft of Social Change,” he talks about the effects of aggressively owning your own choices. That is, being the protagonist in your own story.
"Some people say, “I don’t want to talk about myself,” but if you don’t interpret [it] to others...people will interpret it for you. You don’t have any choice if you want to be a leader. You have to claim authorship of your story and learn to tell it to others so they can understand the values that move you to act, because it might move them to act as well."
I use this message to remind people good presentation, good customer service, good leadership, in fact all we do, doesn’t happen by acident. We are our own agents of change.
He goes on to write…
"We all have a story of self. What’s utterly unique about each of us is not the categories we belong to; what’s utterly unique to us is our own journey of learning to be a full human being... And those journeys are never easy. They have their challenges, their obstacles, their crises. We learn to overcome them, and because of that we have lessons to teach."
This idea – that we all have a lifetime of experience that defines us and can influence those around us – reminds us everything we say and do has an impact, and we have the freedom to choose what we say and do.
There is a beautiful line in the play “Stage Kiss” by Sarah Rull: “Every night the sun goes down and the moon comes up and you have another chance to be good.”
Did the conversation with your boss not go well? Was your keynote not as polished as it could have been? Are you role modeling the behavior you would like to see in others?
All of these experiences are part of your story, the story of you. And you are the author of your life.
Many businesses encourage employees to treat each other as customers.
Jan Carlzon was the President and CEO of Scandinavian Airline in 1981. After years of delayed flights, his job was to make the planes run on time. He started a plan called "Putting People First." Notice it’s people first, not customers first.
The idea was now front-line staff were allowed to fix problems on the spot instead of waiting for a supervisor’s permission. Colleagues who worked for each other now worked with each other – the same way employees work with the customer to find the right shirt, buy the right gift, or book the right flight.
What does it mean to treat colleagues like customers? Give them the same courtesy and respect as you would a patron of your business
You know how customers go away if they don’t like your business? Martin Oliver, managing director of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., one of the world's largest insurance firms in the world, says the same thing about staff.
Treating each other the way you treat your customers is just good business. How can I help you?
Being nice to yourself can be hard. How many times have you left a meeting or difficult conversation thinking, “Ugh, I could have done better!” If you’re a human like I am – go humans! – probably often.
Of course, being aware of one’s weaknesses is the first step to self-improvement, but focusing on them can force you into a downward spiral of shame. It’s the difference between “I can do that better,” and “I can do that better...I’m bad at my job...I’m bad at everything! I’m the worst! I’m going to eat a pint of ice cream!”
Actors and writers are often called their “own worst critic.” That makes sense. We invest a lot of time and emotional energy into creating something deeply personal and then send it out into the world to be judged. If we don’t think it’s perfect we see it as a reflection of our own inadequacies. The problem is that we don’t give the other voice in our head – the competent one who just created brilliant art – equal time at the microphone.
Nataly Kogan from Happier Inc. calls it a “crisis of confidence.” Remember Don Music from the classic Sesame Street sketch? He’ll never get it. Never!
Research professor at the University of Huston Graduate College of Social Work, Brene Brown, explains in her TED talk there are several things you can do to break the dead-weight of self-inflicted criticism. One of the most powerful is talking to yourself the way you would a friend.
If she feels she messed up in a meeting, you wouldn't say “You’re the worst!" A kinder friend would help separate the emotion from the facts. “Yes, you showed the wrong slide at the wrong time, but you gave a thoughtful and knowledgeable presentation and everyone loved it!”
We all make mistakes, or think we make mistakes. To avoid them from defeating our self-confidence we must listen to the part of us that responds to disappointment with empathy, not defeat.