Writing Tip: How a strategic break helps get better results

July 12, 2012

Facilitators who guide groups in brainstorming sessions have something to teach writers who want to save time and energy.  A  facilitator breaks a brainstorming session into two distinct tasks:  generating ideas and choosing which ideas to keep.  A professional facilitator always calls for a break between the two tasks. 

A break after the expenditure of energy to generate ideas seems natural to participants, but it is much more than that to the facilitator.  The break is essential.  It is deliberately placed to allow participants to shift gears.  The break helps participants to disengage the generative, creative portion of the brain and to engage the critical, judgmental portion of the brain.

To do your best work on any writing project, follow the same procedure.  First, generate as many ideas as you can without judging them.  When you’ve finished, grab a cup of coffee, make a phone call, or take a walk.  When you come back to your project, evaluate your ideas critically.  Which ideas and examples are strongest? Which ones have power to persuade your target audience? 

Cut away all but the best ideas.  Then spend your energy refining those ideas and getting the words just right.

Need More Information? Stop Talking

February 4, 2010

An executive, who is a coaching client, and I were discussing the use of questions to uncover what’s behind a person’s position on a particular issue. We discussed a number of open-ended questions, like the following:

  1. Can you give me a bit of the history behind this process? What problem did it originally solve? Who was on the team of developers?
  2. Here are the facts as I see them. What else do I need to look at? What am I missing? 
  3. In an ideal world, we would proceed in the following way…. What concerns does this raise for your department?

The executive expressed some disappointment: “I was hoping you’d tell me some questions to get behind these issues.” Later, I realized the opportunity I had missed. Nothing was wrong with the list of questions. The secret the executive was hoping to find lies in the way we handle the responses we get to the questions.

For example, if a person’s answer to a well-formulated question still leaves us murky about what she really thinks, we can respond with a simple statement: “Please tell me more.” The secret, then, is to stop talking. Assuming you are not asking for private or embarrassing information, a pause is a powerful tool. In western culture, if one person is silent after a question is answered, someone else will rush in to fill the vacuum. In the process, that person will often provide more information in relation to the question—exactly what the silent person is looking for.

Don’t Make this Stupid Mistake #15: Expect People to be Supremely Interested in Your Story

February 4, 2010

Here’s the situation:  It was a big networking event, and the speaker was introduced as a networking guru, brought in from another state.  The speaker began her presentation with a funny story about how someone bored her by talking only about himself over a get-to-know-you lunch.  The speaker then announced that she would share five important networking tips with the audience.

Here’s the stupid mistake:  “But,” the speaker said, “first I have to tell you more about my personal story.”  The audience members let out a collective sigh.  Fifteen minutes later, the audience still  hadn’t heard the five tips, and people began to discreetly leave the room.  I confess that I was one of the ones who left.  A person I met just outside the room gave me an unsolicited comment.  “I don’t care a bit about her personal story!”  The speaker had broken her own rule about considering herself a bit too interesting!

Here’s the solution:  Organize your comments, spoken or written,  by beginning with whatever is most relevant to the receiver.  Give the punchline first or as soon as you possibly can.  The temptation to present a message chronologically is a trap.  People don’t care how you came to know something.  They just want you to tell them what you know and why it is important.

 Yes, your personal story can add some interest and context–when it is kept to the minimum.   Avoid leading up to your key points–start with them!   Once you’ve established the message, you can add examples, illustrations, or humor.  This is the way to keep your audience members “present” and engaged.

Nervous Before a Presentation? Check for Counterfeit Breathing

January 25, 2010

You are in a meeting, anticipating your turn to stand and present before a large group.  It’s natural to feel the jitters.  The speaker before you drones on, and you feel your heart begin to race.  What can you do to settle your nerves?

Both friend and speech coach will give the same advice:  take a few deep breaths.  It’s good advice as far as it goes, but this advice can lead to danger.  Did you know there is such a thing as counterfeit deep breathing—the type makes things worse rather than better?

To make sure you know the difference, try the following:  Stand in front of a mirror, and take some rapid deep breaths.  You should see your shoulders move, and you’ll know you are engaged in counterfeit deep breathing.  When the shoulders and upper chest move, the breathing is quick and shallow.  This type of breathing is counterproductive when you are nervous. 

Slow, deep breathing calms your nerves, delivering a full load of oxygen to your body.  Practice like this:  Place your hands on your rib cage.  Breathe in through your nose, directing your breath until you feel your ribs expand like a tire inflating.  Fill yourself up with air, and then slowly exhale through your mouth.  Take another breath through your nose and exhale through your mouth.  You’ll notice in the mirror that your shoulders are no longer moving.  Keep your shoulders relaxed as you fill your body with oxygen.

Nervous before a presentation?  Take some deep breaths.  Just make sure you use the authentic kind.  Don’t be fooled by counterfeit breathing.

Avoid this Stupid Mistake #14: Step on Someone’s Story

January 23, 2010

Here’s the Situation:  Okay, I was complaining.  I was describing a frustrating situation at work with a professional friend.  I had had a rough day and  needed to vent  before I dusted myself off for the next day.

Here’s the Stupid Mistake:  I’d barely finished my story before my friend began with a story of her own.  She delved into details of her own challenges and frustrations at work.  I’ve heard the behavior described this way:  “She stepped on my story.”  As a result, I felt “cut off.”  At the end of the encounter, I felt worse than at the beginning–because my friend did not listen to me or offer understanding.

People step on the stories of their conversation partners all the time.  For example, we step on stories of success, failure, frustration, illness, relationships, etc.  At minimum, this mistake makes for an unpleasant conversation because the person who initiates the conversation doesn’t feel listened to.  If you make a habit of stepping on stories, you run the risk of being judged insensitive, self-centered, and even narcissistic.

Here’s the Solution: A good listener allows a speaker to fully finish his or her story, acknowledging both the details of the story and the feeling behind it.  Once the original speaker feels acknowledged and understood, it can be appropriate for the listener to share a similar story of his or her own.  This builds a common ground–but only once the original story has had the opportunity to stand on its own.

Don’t Make this Stupid Mistake #13

January 11, 2010

Here’s the Situation:  About a year ago, I changed my route to work, causing me to pass through a small town at least twice  per day.  One day, I stopped to browse in a lovely antique store.  As I entered the store, the owner was sharing a relaxing chat with a friend in the rear of the store.

Here’s the Stupid Mistake:  The owner didn’t get up, greet me, or ask me if I was looking for something in particular.  In fact, she ignored me completely.  Although I found a few items that interested me, I wasn’t inclined to interrupt a conversation to ask for information or a price.  I felt both irritated and invisible.  Although I love antiques and have passed this antique store at least 1000 times in the last year, I’ve never gone inside again.  I am decidedly resistant to this store–I have no receptivity to the store’s charms.

Here’s the Solution:  No matter what  situation you find yourself in, receptivity to your ideas is key to your success.  Whether the situation involves sales, a training class, a meeting, a networking  event, or you are speaking  from a large stage, the people in the room want to be acknowledged.  If you are in charge of a meeting, or the speaker at an event, go out of your way to welcome people, respect their time and let them know you understand their frustrations. Even when you have no leadership responsibilities in a situation, make the first move to introduce yourself to others. 

It might seem like a simple thing, but a gracious greeting can open others up to be receptive to your proposals and your products.  A  little investment here will  go a long way to increasing your persuasive powers.

Don’t Make this Stupid Communication Mistake #12

October 2, 2009

Here’s the Situation:  A professional colleague and I were discussing an incident that occured  in the association we both belong to.  It was one of those incidents that ocur in every organization that involves volunteers.  Leadership on the board had turned over with a new year, and the outgoing leadership had neglected to provide the recognition my colleague felt she deserved. 

Here’s the Stupid Mistake:  The colleague began several of her sentences with the words, “I don’t care about the recognition, but . . . ”  Other sentences began with, “I wouldn’t say this to anybody but you . . . .”  What’s worse is that these type of statements consistently pepper the conversations I have with this individual.  As I result, I am quite sure she does care about the recognition and she does make these statements to me and to others. 

When a person is indirect about feelings such as being hurt, it results in the person seeming petty.  When a person claims she won’t say certain things to anybody but you, it  results in the person seeming like a true gossip.  These statements erode trust and make the listener cautious about interactions with the person making the statements.  We tiptoe around people who have a high need for recognition.  We withhold confidences from people we perceive as gossips.  We certainly lose respect for these folks.

Here’s the Solution:  If you are slighted by someone’s failure to recognize you in a professional context, deal with it directly, with the person who committed the error.  If you don’t feel it’s worth it to confront the person directly, then shut up about the whole thing!  If you talk about it behind someone’s back, don’t kid yourself into thinking you don’t look petty.

Gossip is never attractive, and it never builds respect and trust.  Avoid it at all costs.  If you have to say, “I wouldn’t say this to anyone but you . . . , ” reevaluate the comment.  Chances are it should remain unsaid.