The Life-Changing Magic of Encouragement

The Life-Changing Magic of Encouragement

I remember the moment very well.

It was sometime around 1999 or 2000, and I had recently announced my decision to leave my job at Blanc & Otus for the greener pastures of Scient. Word had made its way around B&O that I was moving on, and when I saw our CEO, Jonelle Birney, approaching me in the hallway, I assumed she’d heard the news as well.

As she got closer to me, a pit opened up in my stomach. How would she react? Would she be angry at me for abandoning my clients and the few folks who reported to me at the time? Was I even a blip on her radar screen? I mean, jeeze, maybe she didn’t even know how to pronounce my name!

How to Torpedo Your Talk: Memorize It

How to Torpedo Your Talk: Memorize It

There are few things that scare me as a public speaking coach, but this phrase does it every time:

“Yeah, once I memorize my presentation script, I’ll be good to go.”

This is the point when my circuits get jammed, and I want to reach across the table and shake my client and warn them with language as strong as I can muster…


This Blog Post, is like, um, Important: Dealing with Vocalized Pauses

This Blog Post, is like, um, Important: Dealing with Vocalized Pauses

This Blog Post, is like, um, Important: Dealing with Vocalized Pauses

Ah, the vocalized pause…

The “ums” the “uhs” the “like”s that can riddle our spoken sentences like bullet holes. If you are someone who struggles with the tyranny of the vocalized pause, there are two things I want you to know:

You Tawkin' Ta Me?

You Tawkin' Ta Me?

You know that moment. You’re in a meeting (or worse, on stage) and someone says something that hits you right in the solar plexus. Your face heats up, your heart races, you feel rage, or fear, or embarrassment, or sadness—pick your poison—and before you know it, you’ve missed the last 3 minutes of the meeting, lost in your own reaction. If you’re someone whose default reaction is to fight back, you consider your counter-attack. Or your default reaction may be to get out of the meeting as quickly as possible, and stay as quiet as possible in the meantime.

Either way, from my perspective as a communication coach, you are in a death spiral. Once you go into default-reaction mode, it is unlikely that anything good will come out of your mouth.

Women & Power: Don't Believe Everything You Hear

Mask.TakeOff Recently I was at a women’s gathering (that shall remain nameless to protect the innocent), where we watched a 15 minute video clip on "power and the art of persuasion,” taught by a very accomplished communications expert.  Naturally I was pretty excited to see the video and hear someone else's take on the subject, since I have a similar workshop.

After a few minutes of watching the video I was baffled.

Here’s a sample of the advice she gave:

  • If you are already the highest ranking executive in the room, interrupt others when they are presenting or talking. Even if you have nothing to say, make something up—the point is to disrupt their presentation and chain of thought and thereby show your superiority. And just to be sure EVERYONE in the room notices your powerplay, she also recommends checking your cell phone while that other, more junior person (or someone you wish to relegate a lower rank) responds to your question.

She then turned to advice for lower ranking executives—with another set of complicated recommendations for shifting the power dynamics in their favor.

It sounded exhausting to me, and frankly, outrageous.

Winning In A Man's World?

If our goal as women is to step into the ring and fight for our right to party in a “man’s world,” then we must learn the best fighting techniques available.  And those techniques she mentioned qualify—if you believe you have to fight dirty to survive in a man’s world.

The problem here isn’t just the techniques. The problem is the game itself.  True power lies not in the Total Knock-Out, but in stepping out of the ring.

One of the most fundamental communication strategies I work on with clients is the notion of letting EQUALITY be the driving force in their interactions in the workplace.  Sure, there are differences in title, in hierarchy… But these are not existential differences between us as human beings. They are not differences in our fundamental worthiness, value, or capacity for creativity.

Why do I teach this? Why would a notion of equality be so fundamental to strong communication skills?

How does your voice change when you feel superior to a person? To an audience? Your presentation of self can be interpreted as arrogant, or abrasive, or even worse – dismissive. Superiority has other costs as well. If you perceived someone as beneath you, you will not listen as carefully to what they have to say.   You are also less likely to ask for feedback.  In effect, you gather less data from your audience, because you don’t think they have anything valuable for you.  Less data = less accurate perspective-taking.  And that often leads to bad outcomes and situational blindness.

If an audience senses that you feel superior to them (and believe me, audiences sniff this out instantly), are they really going to follow you?

Let’s take it from the other perspective.

How does your voice change when you feel inferior to someone? Your voice becomes less strong— you sound less clear and less certain of yourself. You might not raise your hand to ask a question, or share your ideas or insights.  You won’t make as much eye contact with your colleague or your audience. Your facial expression and body language will flash “You are the alpha! I’m just a beta!”  And as Dr Phil would say, “how’s that workin’ for ya?” How easy is it for a manager to promote someone that has a hard time speaking up in? How quickly can someone rise through the ranks who struggles with expressing themselves when they have a dissenting view?  See what I mean?

Now, try on equality for size. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, it always ends with a  “namaste.”  The definition in Hindu is “I bow to the divine in you.” For my work, I like to translate this concept into “I bow to our mutual humanity and worthiness.”  I don’t mean literally to namaste during meetings. But I do believe it is a mental ritual that bears good fruit.

When we are grounded in our own worthiness, and we recognize and honor the worthiness of another person, we communicate better, across every possible metric.  Speaking Anxiety? It gets easier when you believe in your own worthiness and the worthiness of the people in the room (imagining them in their underwear sort of undermines this doesn’t it?). Authenticity? Check.  When we feel secure in ourselves and in what we are here to do, we are less stingy with our personality. I could go on for hours about this, but I’ll get to the point.

If we want to develop our power and influence as women, we need to worry less about jockeying for alpha status and begin to look at the world – and our place in it - through a different lens.

Oprah Winfrey once said, “Authentic Power is when purpose aligns with personality to serve a greater good.”

If you are craving real power, figure out what your purpose is in this  meeting/presentation/press opportunity, charge it with your authenticity, and then make sure it is in alignment with something bigger than you. Something that aligns with a greater mission within the company – or better yet, THE mission of the company.

Then pour your energy, your joy and your creativity into that purpose, and communicate from this place.

That’s real power.  Feels good doesn’t it?


Leaning In, Bailing Out: Thoughts on Sandberg's New Book

Sheryl Sandberg is center stage again this week as she promotes her upcoming book, Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will To Lead.  As I understand it, the concept behind “leaning in” has to do with women pushing forward in their careers rather than bailing out as they approach the child bearing years.  This notion came from Sandberg having seen too many women opt out of promising careers before they were even pregnant, for fear of not being able to hack the mother/leader/wife balance game.

But what’s really making headlines is the fierce criticism she’s facing for it.

Some feminists are bashing Lean In because it is filled with advice addressing a rich girl’s dilemma – “Gee, should I get the nanny, have an amazing career and use my Ivy League education, or just stay home and focus on my kids?” Others feel that Sandberg is putting too much blame on women, letting corporations and government off the hook - not to mention the husbands - who should be working towards more affordable child care, family friendly policies, or a more fair division of house-holding labor.

Honestly, the more I read the criticism, the more annoyed I become.  Sandberg isn’t writing for low-income women.  She’s writing for women who have arrived at a place of financial and/or professional success either by hard work, planning, intelligence, charisma, dumb luck, or some combination thereof.  But apparently, that's not allowed.

Aren’t these precisely the kind of women that feminism has been hoping for? Women who could set the course for their destiny and not just succeed, but succeed beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings?   Is feminism only for the poor and marginalized?

My inner feminist is angry that Sheryl is the recipient of this kind of vitriol. My inner feminist is mad as hell that, yet again, women are being censored as they tell the truth about what matters to them.

But if I’m being completely honest, I was also angry when I first heard Sandberg’s assertion that we women should just suck it up, and push ourselves hard throughout pregnancy… have the baby and then hurry back to work.  The not-so-subtle message seems to be that if we didn’t take this approach, we weren’t trying hard enough.

Having had three children while running my own business, I can honestly say: “leaning in” is one of those ideas that we can all rally around, but in practice can be a nightmare.

I was on bed rest with two of my three children because I did precisely what Sandberg is recommending: A full pedal-to-the metal pregnancy strategy.

And according to Sheryl Sandberg’s world view, I’ve made all the right choices since then. I’m back at it after just 9 weeks or so of maternity leave.  To be fair, my schedule is more flexible than most.  But regardless, “leaning in” has very real consequences.

After one marathon client session, I remember pumping breast milk in a disgusting bathroom stall at La Guardia Airport, with the automatic toilet flushing at erratic intervals, scaring me half to death each time.  After 30 minutes of pumping, the milk situation just wasn’t happening.  I was so sore, I could barely move. But between the filth of the bathroom, the war zone flushing noises, and the vague terror of knowing that I could miss my flight, or suffer excruciating pain on the flight home, I couldn’t make headway.  I stared at those plastic bottles and WILLED them to fill with milk.  Nothing.  I wept and wondered “What the hell am I doing? Whose idea was this?”

But I also remember the exhilaration of that great session with kind, smart, funny, self aware clients, and I remember the joy of knowing that I was using my talents in a way that helped people.

I haven’t yet read Lean In (it's not out for a few weeks), but I’m hoping Sheryl is honest about the fact that yes, women of a certain income and education level do have more choices, and that yes, we can choose to “lean in.”  We can choose  to take full advantage of those precious opportunities to change the face of business leadership.

But the truth is that it’s bone crushingly difficult.   In fact, the only way to make it work is if you love what you do.  If you don’t love the work, “bone crushingly difficult” becomes “soul crushingly difficult.”

I tear my hair out on a weekly basis trying to make sure I give my children what they need, so they will rise to their greatest potential, while simultaneously making sure that my work gets the TLC it needs to thrive.  The stakes are high.  But I’m nourished by both my children and my work.  There’s no question I would choose my kids over my job if push came to shove, but isn’t the hope of feminism that women are no longer forced to make this choice? After all, this is not a choice men are often asked to make.

So while I'm on Sandberg's side in theory, I sure hope Lean In doesn’t sugar coat the reality of what it really means to be a Mother/Leader/Wife for the next generation of women business leaders.  Otherwise, the next thing getting Occupied might be Sandberg’s office.