Truth-telling, a life-changing skill

What did I do over my Labor Day break? I learned the art of truth-telling. Well, more about truth-telling than I’ve allowed myself to learn before.

Now, in business I’m scrupulously honest. But in real life, if you ask me how I’m doing, as the chipper waiter did last night, I’m likely to dazzle with you a smile and a very sincere “Great, thanks!” Why burden a stranger with whatever’s chipped my chipperness? What purpose could that serve?

It could serve to create a human connection, that’s what. And if that advice sounds familiar it may be because it’s advice I give you—oh—just about every time I talk about writing or speaking.

Taking my own truth-telling medicine

Well, I wasn’t feeling chipper Saturday night, so I decided to engage in some radical truth-telling:

“I’m not doing so well,” I said to the waiter. “I’m coming down with a cold.”

He took what he hoped would be an imperceptible step backwards (I don’t blame him) and asked what he could do for me. “There’s a chicken spaetzle soup on the room service menu, but I don’t see it here in the restaurant.”

He smiled and said, “I think I can get that for you.” And he did.

The receptionist at the hotel I landed at Sunday—Day 1 of Yep, It’s Definitely a Cold—took that to the next level. Before I’d even left his desk, he ordered up some chicken soup to my room—his gift. I’d no sooner set foot in the room when room service called to say the chef was whipping up some soup just for me and was there anything else I’d like. More blankets? Pillows? What kind? “If you need anything else, just call me direct because it’ll be faster than calling housekeeping.”

Do I feel taken care of? You bet. And would any of this have happened if I’d returned chipper with chipper? Of course not.

Truth-telling and asking, Amanda Palmer-style

Fortunately for me, I’d been passing my plane rides (5 in the last 5 days) by reading Amanda Palmer‘s wonderful book The Art of Asking. Seth Godin recommended it during his Marketing Seminar and he’s right (of course); it’s brilliant. A combination of Palmer’s autobiography and the things she’s learned as an artist and as a human about being vulnerable enough to ask for things.

I finished the book about an hour ago and I already want to re-read it. And I hardly ever re-read books—certainly not the minute I’ve finished them.

P.S. My dinner just arrived, piled with extras: ginger ale, Italian water, hot decaf tea. And no check. Extra pillows showed up shortly after that.

I’ve got one more thing to do before I crash: write a thank-you note to the hotel while I still remember my benefactors’ names.

Truth-telling won’t always get you a free grilled chicken breast. But it will get you a human connection.

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“I have no regrets” — Ana Marie Cox across the political divide

When Ana Marie Cox launched her podcast “With Friends Like These,” she promised her listeners “uncomfortable conversations” with people who have different points of view. Last week’s podcast delivered that fifty times over. Cox took her microphone to Trump’s campaign rally in Iowa and interviewed a range of people waiting to get inside. The episode’s title tells the sad, sad story. It’s a quote from one of the people who voted for him: “I have no regrets.”

Ana Marie Cox
Ana Marie Cox’s Instagram profile photo

Before I get into the content of the interviews, I need to state an incontrovertible truth:

Ana Marie Cox has the patience of a saint.

I mean, I know she’s a longtime journalist—just let go this week from MTV News—but she listened without comment to some of the most idiotic things I’ve ever heard. Without comment. I mean, the woman has the “uh-huh” of a seasoned therapist.

“Some of the most idiotic things I’ve ever heard.” And I’m not talking about the older man who thinks we should send gang members to the moon—literally. Or maybe Mars.

As I recall, more than one person cited the riots in Berkeley as a sign of just how out-of-control and intolerant the left is. “As I recall” because while everyone should listen to this episode, it would be cruel and unusual punishment to make anyone listen to it twice.

Ana Marie Cox: the patience of a saint, the microphone of a journalist

Intolerance runs rampant through these interviews, though there was far less racism and sexism on display than I’d expected. Perhaps the interviewees were on their best behavior. One businessman worried about “retaliation” from the left if his identity were revealed. Apparently conservatives are being targeted, boycotted even. Apparently it’s rude of us to inject politics into business. Those folks who refuse to bake wedding cakes for LGBT couples, or the landlord asking his tenants to show their citizenship papers—they’re not expressing political views through their business. Right? Ana Marie Cox just listened. A saint, I tell ya.

Cox asked several of her subjects which policy of Trump’s they supported most strongly. I nearly did a spit-take when one woman said, emphatically: “His agricultural policies.”

His what?

Seriously, listen to this podcast. It’s important to know who we’re dealing with. The world is calcifying into “us” and “them” with no apparent regard for objective truth.

Of course, I firmly believe the truth resides with “us.” The problem is, the other side believes they’re the “us.” And the more we push against them, the more they’ll cling to their position.

Who wants to be shown to be wrong?

Thanks to Ana Marie Cox for putting her patience to the test so we could hear people on the other side of this political Grand Canyon. Now all we need to do is figure out how to talk to them.

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Prepared remarks — prepare for anything

When you deliver prepared remarks, do you read them over before you hit the podium?

Longtime readers of this blog know that’s a trick question: Of course you read them beforehand. In fact, you rehearse them beforehand, too.

I recently heard a speaker correct himself in mid-speech. His prepared remarks had him talking about some sort of training program started under his watch. The text had him saying, “To date, we’ve trained X number of people.” But he actually said:

“To date, we’ve trained—well, I haven’t trained anyone; the program has trained…”

It got a laugh from the crowd, but I winced. He clearly hadn’t read through the speech in advance.

Make sure they’re your prepared remarks

Now it wasn’t the worst speech-reading gaffe I’ve ever heard. That prize would have to go to “Uncle Joe” Biden. He may have rehabilitated his reputation somewhat after eight years as Vice President. But to me he’ll always be the clueless pol who, in one of his presidential runs, delivered a stirring speech about his ancestors, their challenges and their joys. Problem was, they weren’t his ancestors. He lifted the speech from a British politician.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the press to out him—even in those dark days before Google.

He said it was unintentional. Really?

Keep your ears open

Prepared remarks represent the speechwriter’s best guess about what you should say at the event. But stuff happens. You have to be aware of your environment, of who’s spoken before you and what they’ve said.

I once gave my client a speech that mentioned “rabbit ears” TV antennae as a reference that will outlive its usefulness when the Baby Boomers pass on. Turns out an earlier speaker had used the same metaphor. Staffers alerted my client before he went on and he was able to adjust on the fly, making a joke of it. Awkward situation averted.

The speaker I saw at the women’s business conference this week did not have his wits about him. Or perhaps he hadn’t been paying attention to the introduction, because he bounded to the podium and said,

“Thanks, Ann, for that terrific introduction.”

What’s wrong with that? No, it’s not that he got her name wrong (I actually don’t remember her name, only that he used it). It’s that the “terrific introduction” consisted of—and I quote:

“Our next speaker is the only man here, so let’s give him an enthusiastic welcome.”

Is that what you’d call a “terrific introduction”?

I’d call it about the bare minimum anyone could say. Now, obviously he can’t go out there and say, “Thanks for doing the bare minimum to introduce me.”

But he could have said, “Thanks, Ann.”—surely no one needs a speechwriter to tell them how to say that—and then just skip to the second sentence of his prepared remarks. Which was probably something about how honored he was to be there.

Not honored enough to pay attention to what was going on. But honored enough to have someone write up some remarks for him. Too bad he didn’t read through them beforehand.

“Leadership is about engagement”

Add to the arsenal of reasons to tell stories this gem from Caroline Stokes, founder of FORWARD, a game-changer in the executive search business:Caroline Stokes, leading executive recruiter and coach, knows how to drive engagement

Leadership is about engagement. Collaborative networks and discussions, not dictators and orders, form the model for leading today’s companies.

Engagement. Discussions. You can’t have those without telling stories. Or without being authentic, another of my favorite topics.

“Yet,” Stokes concludes, “across the board, people struggle to work in teams and effectively collaborate.”

Listening—another tool to fuel engagement

People in business today don’t listen as well as they should. Stokes reports that listening has become “an art form in some countries, especially France.” Not so much here in North America. (Stokes is Canadian and one has to wonder: If the famously considerate Canadians don’t listen well, is there any hope for the rest of us?)

You may be wondering, How can I listen and tell a story at the same time? You can’t. But listening will help you determine which story to tell. What qualities does your audience or reader need to hear about? What experiences will resonate most with them? And remember:

Listening is about the ability to hear the other person, not just through your own personal bias, but from multiple perspectives.

Leaders may have grown up thinking that their perspective was the only one that mattered. That may have been true in those jolly Mad Men days, but not any longer.

You need to be able to look at a challenge from your people’s perspective as employees. And from their multiple perspectives as human beings—parents, spouses or partners, wine aficionados, sports fans, music lovers. Some of these perspectives you may share, and that’s a great way to connect. Other perspectives you won’t share, and that’s an opportunity to be authentic.

Don’t know how? Learn.

Stokes hits another point dear to my heart when she writes,

“Never stop learning. Never stop investing in yourself….If you’re not learning, you’re not advancing.

If you want better opportunities tomorrow, you can’t rely on just the skills you have today. Update your skills—and while you’re at it, learn new ones. Stretch out of that comfort zone a bit. You’ll emerge a better leader.

Learn to tell your story and own your leadership skills. Join me for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead”—Saturday October 29th at 12 noon Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific.