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11 Jun

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Drew Tarvin recently about his book, his work, and how he ended up proselytizing for humor in a very unfunny world.  I was instantly on board with that!  Here goes.

Nick:  So, how did you get started?  Take us back to your origin myth.  Did it have something to do with Krypton and a space ship? 

Drew:  No.  It was much more terrifying than that.  I was in a business meeting, and terminally bored.  I had to do something or die.  The problem was I was leading the meeting.  I started asking myself how to make meetings more fun.

Nick:  Were you always funny? 

Drew:  No.  I was an engineer. We don’t do funny.  But my best friend in college forced me to join an improv group, and I discovered that I loved it.  After college, I started working at Procter and Gamble, not a place known for being particularly amusing.  So I started ending my emails with a joke as a way to force people to read all the way to the end of them.  I was a project manager, and so it was natural for me to fear that they wouldn’t.

Nick:  How did that work out for you?

Drew:  For one status report, I forgot the joke at the end.  I got a ton of replies asking where were the jokes?  So I knew I was on to something.  At least people were opening my emails and scrolling to the bottom!

Nick:  You didn’t get any pushback?  From the corporate powers-that-be, I mean?

Drew:  No.  I thought I would, but I didn’t.  So after about a year, I proclaimed myself Corporate Humorist at P & G.  No one ever stopped me!

Nick:  Did you have any kind of self-policing going on? 

Drew:  I made sure my jokes were always rated “Mom” – meaning my Mom could read them and I’d still get invited to Thanksgiving.  I made sure that my humor was always positive and inclusive.  And I started an internal blog, and then started speaking internally to P & G employees about humor.  I discovered that I loved it.

Nick:  How did you finally achieve escape velocity from P & G?

Drew:  I began Operation Leave Corporate America.  I created a spreadsheet so that I could chart my progress and so that I would know when I had enough savings.  I lived off ramen noodles and pizza and launched my humor business in July 2012.

Nick:  Congratulations!  And what does that business look like today? 

Drew:  I do speaking and training, company offsites, conferences, and workshops.  I also have an online course.  When I first started, it was more workshops than speaking; now, that’s reversed thanks to the TEDx talk and the book, which was published in April this year.  I do a little consulting and one-on-one coaching as well – I can help almost anyone become funnier.

Humor is a skill that can be learned.  And if you really don’t think you’re funny, you don’t have to be the creator of humor, you can be a conduit, and share it.

Nick:  OK, can you give us your top five insights into using humor in the workplace? 

Drew:  First, humor is more broad than comedy – it’s not about becoming a standup comedian, but just making the workplace more fun;

Second, understand your humor “MAP” — Medium, Audience, Purpose – whether it’s in an email, or in person, you need to know your audience.  What does your audience need, want, and know?  What is your relationship to them?  And why are you using humor?  The engineer in me says be specific, have a purpose, such as to relieve stress, make a point memorable, or reduce tension;

Third, make sure your humor is appropriate.  I don’t know anyone who has been fired for a bad joke, but I do know people who have been fired for an inappropriate joke;

Fourth, humor is a choice – funny people see the world in a funny way.  Start by understanding what makes you laugh, and how you can be funny in both content and delivery, because it takes both.  Always put the funny at the end:  “Happiness is having a tight-knit, close family.  In another city”;

Finally, think about humor having a specific goal – and be clear what that is.

In the book, I talk about both the why and how of humor in workplace.  I have a total of ten humor strategies.  And a bonus strategy:  regardless of where you are, look for one smile per hour.  That will simply add a little more fun to the day – and we can all use that.

Nick:  Drew, thanks a million!  How can people get more Drew if they want more? 

Drew:  They can go to and for lots more information and resources.  And I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Nick:  Thanks, Drew!  Drew’s book is Humor that Works:  The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work.  You can get it here! 



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07 Jun

Some recent research on what it’s like to work in a half-face-to-face, half-virtual world arrived too late to be included in Can Your Hear Me? but confirms what I found doing the research for that book in interesting ways.

Ranstad US is a recruiting and talent company, and they combined with an HR consultancy, Future Workplace, to study the effects of virtual tools in the workplace.  The results are sometimes disturbing and always interesting.

More than half of the respondents, both managers and employees alike, said that they used virtual communication tools to handle workplace conflicts, rather than talking face to face.  That’s not a good thing, in case you were thinking otherwise.  And almost 80 percent said that communicating virtually has caused them to be more reactive than strategic in their daily work.  Also not good.  Two-thirds of managers believe that negative online reviews of their workplaces haven’t significantly affected their ability to recruit, but almost 60 percent of workers disagreed, saying they would never consider applying to a company that had negative online reviews.  Hmmm.

In the research for Can You Hear Me?, I found a clear warning:  ¾ of your fellow workers can tell when you’re texting during a meeting – and they disapprove.  Perhaps feeling that heat, this study found that slightly less than half of millennials admit to texting during meetings, and only 22 percent of baby boomers.  There’s a similar greater use of technology in many areas on the younger side of the digital divide.

And here’s a clear sign of what I warned about in Can You Hear Me?:  the promise of asynchronous communication, in which the comms channels would bend to our schedules, has turned instead into the nightmare of 24/7/365 communication.  More than half of all managers expect their workers to respond to business messages while on vacation.  Only one-fifth of the workers say they will.  But millennials are more likely to do so than baby boomers.

What’s the problem with that, you ask?  Well, then it’s not actually a vacation, is it?

One further unintended consequence of our virtual lives seems to be that the likelihood is going up that a new hire will back out after accepting employment but before starting work.  Millennials are far more likely to say that they will do this than baby boomers.  Perhaps, as I noted in Can You Hear Me?, that’s because they feel a weaker tie to the workplace given that it’s a virtual connection, at least in part.  If so that has worrisome implications for the workplace of the future.

What’s to be done? The experiment will continue. We can’t live without our gadgets. Too much of our personal and work lives today relies on the virtual. Indeed, most organizations with an international reach couldn’t function without the digital means of communication they use every day.

But we need to learn to live smarter and communicate differently to survive in this brave new digital world. We need to begin to consciously add the emotional subtext back into our virtual communications to avoid the costs—personal and financial—associated with miscommunication.

That’s what I argue in Can You Hear Me? It’s up to us to put the emotion, the human intent, and the meaning back in that the virtual world takes out.  Not one else will do that for us.  It means learning a third conversation, the conscious conversation of human intent, the one that we used to let body language do for us.  And we need to start now.


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06 Jun

Liane Davey is an old friend and client, one who has proved incredibly skilled at understanding and helping improve the psychology of team dynamics in the workplace.  Her company, which she founded with her husband, is 3COze.  And so I was thrilled to learn of her new book, The Good Fight.  It seemed like a good time to catch up with her and see what she’s thinking about right now.

Nick:  Many people, especially in a business setting, are conflict-avoiding.  How should those sort of people approach this book?

Liane:  First, they should understand that it’s normal and natural to dislike conflict. Not only are we biologically wired to get along with those in our group, we’re also raised to think that conflict isn’t nice or polite. So that’s the first thing; I don’t want people to be too hard on themselves. I do want people to realize that conflict is a part of life in an organization. For example, you have to make difficult trade-offs, allocate promotions, and give feedback that people don’t necessarily want to hear. Avoiding those conflicts costs your organization in stalled productivity, costs your team in eroded trust, and costs you in pent up stress. I guess what I really want people to see is that some things are worth fighting for.

Nick:  I’ve often noted that we seem to be living in an angry era, thanks in part to spending so much time in our digital worlds.  Will this book help our plight or make it worse, focusing on fighting as it does?

Liane:  It is an angry era. That’s where the second half of The Good Fight comes in. We already talked about why sometimes you have to fight, but now we need to focus on making that fight a good one. A good fight is one where you come to a resolution (instead of facing the same issues week after week), where trust among colleagues goes up, and where you can look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and be proud of how you showed up. The Good Fight is full of actual scripts on how to ensure that any fight you have is a good one.

Nick:  How did you get so comfortable dealing with these tough issues?

Liane:  Ha! I have you fooled. I’m not comfortable dealing with these issues. But several years ago, I realized that I was just going to have to get used to being uncomfortable and broaching conflicts anyway. It was a really important moment for me. I had gotten into so much conflict debt (from avoiding the issues) at one job that I finally declared bankruptcy and quit. After finding what I thought would be the perfect team, I suddenly found myself back in a challenging situation with plenty of dysfunction. That’s when I realized that I couldn’t run from conflict and I had to start dealing with it.

Now I think about conflict the same way as I think about exercise. I used to get a really sore back standing to give speeches or facilitate. I started doing abdominal workouts for 10 minutes, three times a week. To this day, I still find those crunches and planks so uncomfortable, but now I can be on my feet all day without getting a sore back. I just think about conflict the same way. I try to have the three uncomfortable conversations in a week that will make the rest of my week so much better. So ,you see, I’m not comfortable with conflict, I’m just comfortable being uncomfortable!

Nick:  What’s the experience like of seeing Liane live?  Do you get into fights with the audience:-)?  

Liane:  Not usually with the audiences at my speeches. I did get into a bit of a fight with a podcast host recently. He was doing a podcast about leadership and he showed himself to be rigid and unwilling to consider a different perspective. (Ironically, we were talking about what respect means.) I decided I had to practice what I preach so I used several good fight techniques on him.

For the most part, my speaking audiences take ownership for their own conflict avoidance and then I’m very empathetic and keen to help them. I use lots of humor because I believe that a spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down.

Nick:  Tell us about you and your background.

Liane:  I started out as a researcher, doing a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Even back then (25 years ago) I was really interested in how team dynamics play out in the real world. I had one supervisor in Psychology and one in Engineering and I studied how team dynamics affect innovation. I still love to help teams be more innovative and solving the conflict avoidance issue is one big part of that.

I’ve been a consultant since 1998 and my husband and I founded our firm, 3COze Inc in 2015. That allows me to focus on two things. First, I help build high performing executive teams working with some very large organizations your readers would know well. Second, I write, and speak to help everyone learn the habits that will keep their teams healthy and make work the meaningful and positive contribution to their lives that it should be.

I wouldn’t trade my job for anything. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to help people get to the other side of these sensitive and vexing interpersonal issues.

Nick:  Liane, what you’re working on is so important.  Everyone should get this book and use it to improve their working relationships.  Thank you for chatting with me!

Order Now:

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06 Jun

The promise of word processing and email was that they were going to bring us friction-free communication and asynchronous convenience.  Friction-free meant we no longer had to totter down to the Post Office, with the envelope, letter, and stamp we had managed somehow to put together in a tidy, first-class threesome and beg the post office worker to deliver the menage to the addressee.

We were to be freed from all that drudgery and set loose on more creative tasks.

The asynchronous part was how we were going to be able to send that email when it was convenient for us, and the recipient was going to be able to open that email when it was convenient for her.  My cocktail hour, your morning coffee.

It sounds so civilized, it seems hard to believe that it didn’t work out that way.  Instead, what we got was information overload, because it was so easy to send those emails, and 24/7 connection, because somewhere along the way we lost track of civilization.  Now, anyone can email you at any time of day or night and feel entitled to be cross if she doesn’t hear back from you in an hour or two.

Enter Slack, and other similar “workplace software” or “team collaborative applications” designed to help you get a handle on the information overload and make workplaces more productive – by making text-based communication even easier to send and even more friction-free.

What do you think is the result?

You guessed it.  According to recent research, Slack is causing workplace nightmares.   Employees at large corporations that use the software are now averaging 200 slack messages per week.  That’s just the average.  Power users manage to spray the world with 1,000 Slack messages per day.

Instead of helping us control the email problem, Slack has just made matters worse.  It’s what I discussed in Can You Hear Me?  How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, published by Harvard in 2018.  This recent research was published after Can You Hear Me? came out, but it confirms what I say in the book.  When you make the cost of communication zero, you get more of it, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Our emails and Slack messages are misunderstood approximately 50% of the time.  But the research shows that we believe we understand and are understood 90% of the time.  Sadly, no.  Our accuracy rates for both writing and reading text is no better than chance.

Part of the reason is that we’ve responded to the information overload in two rational ways. First, we’ve become a world of skimmers.  We keep up with our flood of text by reading it less carefully.  That helps us get through it faster, but it leads to more errors.  Second, we’re writing shorter and shorter emails.  The research backs this up.  As we get more emails, we respond quickly with one and two words answers.  Also, the higher up we rise in an organization, the shorter our texts, Slack and emails become.  This economy of phrase, of course, compound the meaning felony by making misunderstanding even more common.

Now, try to wrap your overloaded mind around what happens when the highest levels of executives in an organization, who are copied on everything because no one wants to leave them out, skim more and more, reply with fewer and fewer words, and themselves make mistakes in both comprehension and meaning half the time?

This situation is only getting worse, not better.  The pressures leading to this moment are only going to continue.  What will be the endgame?  Perfect inundation with perfect misunderstanding?  What will written work-based communication look like then?

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06 Jun

Can we actually become addicted to anger?  I’ve posted a number of times about how we seem to be living in an angry era.  And when I was researching my new book, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, I unearthed lots of evidence that the human connection that social media offers is more fragile, more superficial, and more prone to negativity than the face-to-face kind.  So if social media is replacing our real-world connections, then it is inevitable that we’ll become angrier.

But could it be addictive – something that we start to seek out?  If so, then creating a better world – weaning ourselves off the anger, in essence – will be much harder than you’d think.  Addictions of any kind are hard to kick.  I’m still trying to wean myself off sugar, but there’s so much of it, and it’s so good!  How else am I to get through the three hours of the Avengers Final Whatever?  Give me M&Ms!

Sadly, it turns out that anger, indeed, as a strong emotion that disables the pre-frontal cortex (the logical, executive functioning part of the brain), is addictive in the same sense that sugar is.  Both get a big part of their mental punch from dopamine, the feel-good hormone that’s also released when we do good stuff like eating good food, cuddling, and thinking about not eating kale.

That’s not technically addiction like heroin or tobacco, according to the psychologists, but it’s a strong compulsion nonetheless, as anyone trying to pass up that second cookie at the buffet knows.  Me.

Our emotions evolved in a time long before our world moved online, of course.  They developed to help us respond quickly and efficiently to the kind of repetitive dangers that existed back then – tigers, snakes, and other people with clubs. As a result, some emotions are more powerful, addictive and contagious than others—the most basic ones: anger, anxiety, fear, and also happiness and joy. The reasons most likely have to do with the basic hardwired questions we humans ask ourselves, questions that are highly dependent on our unconscious minds, a quick read, and empathy:  Friend or foe?  Eat or be eaten?  Powerful or subservient?

What happens in the virtual world when you make experiencing these basic emotions and sharing them more difficult, because the feedback loop we get easily and naturally face-to-face isn’t present? Anxiety and fear top the list of emotions that get lost. But we replace them with remembered anxieties and fears because that’s our default state. Negative emotions exist to keep us out of trouble and, once we’re in trouble, to help us escape it as fast as possible. Dull the fight-or-flight response, and you dull your survival abilities. So when those are stripped out, our minds put them back in, assuming the worst at all times.

Put all this together, and you get a powerful mix of brain structure, chemical response, and survival instincts all working together to take the signals from the new half-real, half-virtual world we live in now and turn them into an addictive mess of anger and anxiety.  Fury is addictive, and the online world is more furious and more addictive than the face-to-face one.  And we only have ourselves to blame.  As a wise comic said once, years ago, in words that are truer than ever:  “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”


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06 Jun

Thanks to the persuasive powers of David Meerman Scott, I decided to take a work day to attend a Vice-President Biden rally in New Hampshire – his first.  One of the advantages of living nearby in Massachusetts is that you can easily get to this political hotspot and back in a day.  David is once again making a marketing study of the strategies and techniques of the various candidates, and he likes to attend many of their personal appearances.  He and his wife Yukari Watanabe have been to a dozen so far.

That’s no mean feat, either, as you’ll realize when you understand that in order to have any chance to get inside where the candidate is speaking, you have to show up at least an hour ahead of the published time.  And then the odds are good that the show will be running late.  It was an hour and a half after I arrived that the strains of the Beatles’ “Come Together” wafted through the pizzeria where the event was held, and after introductions by New Hampshire state representatives Tom Loughman and Mike Edgar, Joe finally took the stage.  About an hour of that waiting time was standing outside in the unseasonably cold Spring weather we New Englanders have had so far.

My interest was in the speechmaking, of course, and so let’s cut to the verbal chase.  How did the speakers do?

Tom Loughman is a pretty good speaker.  He partly read his speech, but it was articulate and delivered with some panache.  Mike Edgar was so nervous that he read his speech verbatim from a clipboard, and it was frankly a fairly weak performance.

And Joe?  Sadly, I don’t think V-P Biden is ready – yet – for prime time.  He rambled, got lost in his speech, frequently apologized for going on too long, and used the same stock phrases over and over again.  He had a roomful of supporters and came close to losing his audience.  There were only two applause lines in the entire speech.  He needs to work on becoming much clearer, more vivid, and more concise in his remarks.  He needs to tell better stories.  His best moments were in his answers during the Q and A, and his best answer was when he talked about his father, fighting the abuse of power, and his sponsorship of the Violence Against Women Act.

His body language signaled his lack of focus:  he wandered around the small stage area set aside for him, at random.  Indeed, he turned his back on one woman who had asked a question as he got lost in his answer and rambled over to the other side of the room.  She would have had every reason to feel snubbed.  I don’t think he won her vote with that answer.

Mr. Biden is a transparently decent, kind, and honorable politician.  His heart is obviously in the right place.  But he needs to sharpen his oratory or he won’t be able to go the distance.


A few pics from the Vice President Biden event.  

Joe preps while Mike Edgar introduces him.

Joe making his pitch to the NH crowd.

V-P Biden and this blogger!


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06 Jun

This is the first of two posts on finding your voice as a speaker. 

When I was at a low point a couple of months ago, some kindly friends took me out to see a show, Photograph 51, about the X-ray crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin, and her efforts to contribute to the decoding of the molecular structure of DNA in the era of Watson and Crick.  (Shout out and heartfelt thanks to Sally and Joe for doing their level best to cheer me up.) A theatrical show is always a busman’s holiday for me and this show was no exception.  It was all about finding your voice in a world which doesn’t much care whether you do or not.  In this case, the show focused on Franklin’s difficulties as one of the few women in a very male, very sexist world of chemists and biophysicists – the scientific rat race of her day to be the first to figure out the double helix.

Sally and Joe could not have known that the show had a very special resonance for me because my father was a junior scientist trying to make his name in that same race, and he worked closely with Franklin.  He made the trip to England as often as he could because Franklin “took the best pictures.”  He was a few years behind Watson and Crick, and focused on RNA, since they were known to be hard on the trail of DNA.  Alas, another team beat him to it, but nonetheless even as a young boy I got a sense of the excitement at that time surrounding the enormous strides in basic scientific knowledge that unlocked so much progress in so many areas.  The race was on, and names were being made, and mere weeks could separate the geniuses who won the Nobel Prize from all the rest.

And I have a very hazy memory of meeting Dr. Franklin once, as a very young boy, and not having any idea of her struggles in a male-dominated field.  I just heard that she took the pictures that made my dad’s work possible.  So she was a wondrous figure of scientific prowess in my eyes.  Of course, I knew nothing of the gender politics; I was too young to understand.

But as the play dramatizes so effectively, Franklin was shut out of the Nobel Prize and denied the respect and status she deserved partly because she was a woman and partly because her role was defined as that of a technician, whereas the theoretical scientists were considered more elevated in their roles as thinkers.  In that era, it didn’t pay to be a doer.

And she paid for her technical prowess and artistry with X-rays with her life:  she died of cancer at 37, unquestionably from exposure to radiation from her work.

What does that tell us about finding your voice, whether as a speaker or in any other endeavor?

It’s work only you can do.  The journey to finding your story and message is yours alone.  No one else can make the journey for you and hand you your voice at the end.  But also, no one can take your voice away from you unless you let them.  I’m often asked, by people beginning the journey to becoming a thought leader and speaker, “do you think what I’m saying is original enough?”  It’s natural as you begin the process and start to see the outlines of your field, and learn the contributors who have preceded you, to worry if you have anything new to say.  But my response is, “Only you can tell your story.”  So the world isn’t going to help you, and it may indeed make it hard for you, but it also cannot stop you. Only you can do that.

It’s in the hard places that the essence of your story is to be found.  We tend to want to shy away from the difficulties and present only the triumphs and the successes we have experienced.  But for the rest of humanity, those moments are the least interesting parts of your story.  We want to understand how you struggled, because that’s what truly sets you apart and defines who you are.  We already know how the story ends, or you wouldn’t be standing in front of us talking.  What we want to know is, how did you get here from there?  Because we’re all on that journey too, and we all face predicaments, doubts and discouragement, and we want to know how you got through those tough times.

Don’t let the perfect story be the enemy of the good onePhotograph 51 dramatizes Franklin’s struggle with her need to be absolutely certain of her findings before she could feel comfortable sharing them with the world.  In the end, the play tells us, her need for perfection held her back and prevented her from getting the credit she deserved while she was alive.  It’s the perfect metaphor for a public speaker, because your speech will never be perfect.  You can always refine it, change it, rehearse it some more.  But don’t let that prevent you from getting it on stage.  The difference between the successful and everyone else in the public speaking world is that the successful ones take the critical step – out of the wings, onto the stage, into the light.  With all their imperfections on display – and all their uniqueness too.

Don’t be that person who never shares her unique voice with the world because the time is never quite right, or you’re never quite ready, or you’re not sure of your reception.  We need all of us.  We need you.

I’ll conclude this two-part blog series next week.  



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06 Jun

This post is the second of two on finding your voice.  

It seems like every other person I meet either announces that they’re a storyteller or tells me that they want to write a book.  So naturally we start talking about the book they want to write, and it almost always falls into one of three categories.  First, and most common, they’ve led a remarkable life and have lots of anecdotes to share.  For these memoirists, the challenges have to do with time and selection.  That desire to write a book is constantly giving way to other more pressing tasks, or they can’t figure out where to begin – there’s simply too much material.

I met a wonderful psychologist a few weeks back who had me convulsed with laughter over the stories (anonymized, of course) of her patients, and she referred to boxes and boxes and boxes of case notes going back 30 years – and when would she ever have the time to sort through all of them?

Second, and a little less common, they’ve got an insight into an industry or an idea or a slice of life. They know something no one else knows, and their friends are always telling them they should write a book.  For these people, the issue is really that they’re good at something else, not writing a book, and they can’t stop long enough to learn how to become an expert in book writing.  Sometimes the solution to that is essentially dictation.

We had to corner Les Gold in a hotel room, order room service, and lock the door to get him to stop filming his TV show long enough to tell us the stories and negotiating hacks that formed the basis of his highly entertaining book, For What It’s Worth: Business Wisdom from a Pawnbroker

And third, and the smallest of the three categories, but a significant one nonetheless, they’re in recovery, and they want to share (or someone they respect thinks they should share) the story of how they beat the addiction to drugs or alcohol or sugar or gambling or whatever the problem is.

Do you fit into one of these three categories of people who think they have a book in them?  If so, I have some blunt, and perhaps unwelcome advice.  You should, like Mark Twain may have said of exercise, “lie down until the feeling passes.”

Here’s the bad news.  If you’re the memoirist, the first category, there simply isn’t a market for what you have to say, unless you were one of three members of a famous rock band, and the other two are dead, or you climbed Mount Everest riding an ostrich, or you were Fidel Castro’s gay lover.

Second, if you’re the one with the insight, your industry, or idea, or slice of life is currently changing fast enough that by the time you write your book your information will be outdated.  As Geoffrey West details in his splendid and essential book, Scale, human life and knowledge are measurably moving faster than ever – and the pace of change itself is accelerating.  This acceleration is not water cooler gossip, it’s fact.  And thus the dissemination of knowledge is necessarily affected, especially at the pace of book publication.

And finally, your recovery story is of interest to the group of fellow sufferers, and it may indeed be life-saving, but no one else.

Unless.  Unless how you tell the story is in your unique voice.  Unless you show us the real truth behind the cover story, unless you let out the authentic person and tell us your deep, raw story in a way that can only come from your perspective.  Don’t even think about writing a book unless you’re going to do that.  And if you are going to do that, don’t even think about not writing a book.  A book is a piece of permanence in a world that is throwing everything away faster and faster, including the precious voices of unique human beings.  If you’re willing and able to share your voice with us, then please start writing.

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06 Jun

Last week I was off on another busman’s holiday.  I learned at the last minute that Rodrigo y Gabriela were appearing at the Orpheum in Boston and there were a small number of tickets available.  I grabbed one for an extortionate amount; for me, Rodrigo y Gabriela is one of those bands it’s worth a little suffering to see.  The Mexican duo got their start busking in Ireland, and their roots are flamenco and heavy metal – really.  Who can resist?

I went prepared to bliss out over the likes of “Tamacun,” “Ixtapa,” and “Satori,” not to mention their delirium-inducing covers of – wait for it – “Take Five,” and “Stairway to Heaven.”  Not joking.

I’ve seen them a few times and delirium was the result each time.  The first time I scored tickets, the audience was on its feet in five minutes, dancing, clapping, cheering, and roaring in delight.  None of us sat down for the remainder of the show.  It was one of the top five performances I’ve ever seen.  So many endorphins fired that the concert organizers had endorphin-collection stations at the end of the performance, so that you could donate your extra on the way out for the good of the city.

OK, I’m making that up.

This time, I’m sorry to say, the audience stayed seated.  Throughout.  We kept our endorphins to ourselves. And at the end, when the duo came back on for an encore, the audience actually started filing out.

What was the difference?

I could say that it was an off night, or that an initial mishap with a string – that caused Rodrigo to walk off stage for a few moments early in the show in order to get another guitar – threw them off.  Gabriela, after a moment’s shock, grabbed a mic and started talking to the audience.  When Rodrigo came back on stage, she stopped in mid-story and they picked up the music again.  It was only a minor glitch, but perhaps their chemistry was altered.

Or perhaps it was the slightly less energy overall that these two amazing performers put into the show.  There was more talking and less performing.  There were more slow pieces and fewer of the incredibly fast guitar licks for which Rodrigo is known.  Gabriela toned down her pounding rhythmic accompaniment a little, perhaps.

But it wasn’t really any of that.  What was different was that Rodrigo y Gabriela are no longer putting the audience first.  In previous shows, each piece they played was an extended dialogue with the audience.  Gabriela would get the audience applauding in time, or shouting choric responses, or Rodrigo would shout, “Are you ready?  Are you f**king ready?” to the audience until we shouted back, on our feet, putting as much energy into the show as the performers, or very nearly.  What made Rodrigo y Gabriel so extraordinary was the joy and audience-grabbing interaction they brought to each number.

This time, much of the show was delivered without that extensive reference to the audience.  Both performers sat down for long periods, and Gabriela’s familiar jumping up and down was absent.

To have seen Rodrigo y Gabriela a few years back is to have participated in something unforgettable.  If you had wandered into this recent concert, knowing nothing about them, you would be pardoned if you wondered what the fuss was about.  The difference is audience participation.  It’s something I’ve been preaching to public speakers for many years.  It takes a lot of energy, it involves risk, and it’s messier than just performing exactly the same show each time without reference to the audience.  But it’s also the difference between just good enough and magic.


Image Credit: agwilson /

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06 Jun

Starting this week I’m going to one post a week, for the summer.  That way we can all take a deep breath, relax, and spend more time at the beach.  Enjoy!  I’ll go back to two posts a week in September.

Forgetting is important for speakers in several ways.  First of all, there’s the very justifiable concern that your audience remember as much as possible of what you say.  Research over the years has suggested that the track record of speakers and audiences is not particularly good:  we apparently remember something like 10 – 30 percent of what we hear from a speaker.  And the half-life of that memory is equally dismal – the number of speakers, memories, and audiences that intersect in a rich cornucopia of details, lessons, and stories falls close to zero as soon as you get a few months out.

I’ve had a few people come up to me a decade after a speech of mine and tell me (quite proudly) that they remember nothing of that speech – except one story.  And that, they’ll proceed to tell me, as a proof point, in a kind of summary form that usually preserves the conflict and the point of the story, but not much else.

Note to self:  all good speech stories should have conflict and a point.

Speakers need to scan their speeches for minimal numbers, maximum stories, and minimum points if their goal is to be remembered.  And by the way, as I’ve said before in this space, PowerPoint (or other slide software) doesn’t help.  And also by the way, that whole theory we used to embrace about different kinds of learners – visual, aural, kinesthetic, etc – forget that.  The research doesn’t bear that out either.

So we’re on our own, just the speaker and the audience, in a race to forget.  There are a few ways that you can in fact increase the likelihood of your audience remembering what you say.  As I said, telling stories to make your points is probably the most important.  Also, repeating your lessons helps – but not in the way you think.  It doesn’t help to say the same thing over and over again.  It does help to say it in different ways.  And it really helps to get your audience involved.  So, for example, if you’re trying to help audiences remember not to set their hair on fire, then say it first with a terrifying story of the poor kid who did and suffered horribly as a result.  Then, get your audience to stand up, grab their hair, jump up and down, and chant “I won’t set my hair on fire!”  over and over again.  That’ll probably do it.

The second kind of forgetting that’s important for speakers is forgetting the traumatic times when things go wrong.  You can get a complex that way — if you can’t.  For example, if you forget a key section of your speech one of the first times that you give it, you would be pardoned for obsessing about not forgetting that section again.  And yet you find that the more you worry about it, the more likely you are to forget it yet again.

The brain is funny like that.

Instead of obsessing, trying sitting yourself down and thinking about it, and reasoning with yourself that it won’t happen again.  New research shows that the best way to forget a traumatic memory like this – in the sense of not letting it have a hold over you – is to actively work on forgetting.  If that sounds paradoxical, it only seems that way until you try.  Have a talk with yourself.  Go over what happened.  Explain to yourself that it won’t happen again because you’ve had the key phrases from that section tattooed on the back of your hand, and you can just read it to remind yourself.

That should do the trick.  If you run out of tattoo space, I recommend PowerPoint.

The final kind of forgetting is forgetting yourself in the moment of giving the speech.  The best speeches happen when the speaker realizes that ultimately a speech is not about them, but rather about the message and the audience.  Something sublime happens when a phrase comes to you in the moment, because you’ve been preparing for this moment all your life, and you look out at that audience and you say, “I have a dream. . . .”  It’s the preparation that lets you forget yourself.  You have to be so ready that it no longer feels like work, exactly, but more like flow.  The words come because something bigger than you has taken over, and it’s about the message you have to give, and about this exact audience, right here in front of you, hearing it.


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