Values that resonate with you and your audience

It’s hard to “add value”—our topic yesterday—if you don’t know what your values are. Before you sit down to write your next communication, spend some time thinking about it.

Take a piece of paper and make three columns, headed ME, OUR BRAND, OUR AUDIENCE. And then set a timer for 10 minutes and write down everything you can think of.

  • What do you need to live a meaningful life?
  • What would you do even if no one paid you to do it—and, more importantly, why?
  • What kinds of things never get bumped off your to-do list (and why)?
  • How do you want to relate to people?
  • How do you want people to relate to your brand?
  • What one adjective do you want in people’s minds when they hear about you? Your organization?

Evaluating your values

If you’re living in pretty close alignment to your values, you should find many of the same words popping up on all of the lists. Congratulations! But you might also find some surprises.

Say you’re a fairly laid-back person, but one thing that drives your audience is urgency. You might have to meet them halfway on that—unfurling from your serene mental lotus position to talk about a pressing issue. Or if that feels like too much of a deviation from your personal brand, deputize someone else to talk about the crisis in terms the audience can relate to.

Or you might be a super-serious person, but your audience enjoys a touch of humor. (For me, that’s always a given.) Until you learn to loosen up a little—do it right and people will respect you more for it, believe me—it doesn’t hurt to have someone with a more playful nature introduce you at an event. Your very own warm-up act.

My own values—in no particular order—include integrity, humor, respect, commitment, generosity, and excellence. I under-promise and over-deliver. I’ve structured my business around these values, and I know they resonate with my audience. In fact, one of the people who listened to my podcast interview with Joan Garry as much as told me that when she emailed me about the free gift I offered:

A thank you note to me mentioned one of my values: generosity.

There—right there in the first sentence—one of my values: Generosity. My communications must be doing something right…and yours can too.

The thrill of victory/the agony of defeat

This blog published on Sunday, August 7th. My subscribers received it in their in-boxes. (Want to subscribe? Just scroll to the bottom of the page.) And it posted to all of my social media feeds. It posted everywhere, in fact, except on my actual blog. I’ve tried a bunch of other ways to fix this, but nothing’s worked. So I’m left with two options: Pay WordPress $49 to talk to a human being, or repost this under today’s date. Apologies for the double email, subscribers, but I think you’ll agree I made the right choice. — Elaine


Who remembers ABC’s Wide World of Sports, with its iconic voiceover? Every episode of the show promised to bring us the stories of athletes and athletics, including “the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat.”

The tension between those two emotions is part of what makes sports so compelling to us—and that’s why the folks who broadcast the Olympics or other big sporting events spend so much time airing the stories about individual athletes. Hearing their stories gives us even more of an emotional connection to the outcome. Watching them learn, and fail, and try again gets us invested in the competition—gets us rooting for their success.

So as you’re watching the Olympics and NBC interrupts the competition to show you a feature about the athlete, don’t get annoyed—get interested: What kinds of things do they want you to learn about the competitors? How much time do they spend on “the agony of defeat”—or the struggle of intense workout programs—vs. “the thrill of victory”? How can you apply these techniques to your own storytelling?

Speakers always want to focus on triumphs. I understand that—they’re way more fun to talk about. But triumphs don’t just float down from the heavens; they’re always a product of hard work, trial and error, victory and defeat. Why wouldn’t you want to tell the backstory? It’s what gets your audience invested in your success.

I talk a lot about authenticity. Your “agony of defeat”—or challenge of choices, whatever—is your opportunity to be vulnerable with your audience. At least a little.

Does vulnerability make you uncomfortable? Get over it. If you’re selling a product that requires an emotional response, you’d better learn how to connect emotionally with your listeners. I’m looking at you, non-profit leaders. But emotion also “sells” in the corporate world: when you’re talking about reorganizations, rebranding, your corporate culture and values.

So celebrate the thrill of victory—just like the athletes, you’ve earned it. But don’t forget to embrace “the agony of defeat.”

A Starry Night Again: art and storytelling

One of my favorite moments on Joni Mitchell’s first live album, Miles of Aisles, happens when a fan calls out a request for her to sing “Both Sides Now.” Joni says something like:

You know, that’s the difference between singing and the visual arts. Nobody ever said to Van Gogh, “Hey, paint ‘A Starry Night’ again, man!” He painted it and he was done. He didn’t have to do it again.

Now, of course Joni played “Both Sides Now” in that concert. And she’s done it again many thousands of times since. But what do we expect when we hear an artist sing a song we love? Do we want to hear the exact sounds she made in the studio, or do we want to hear what the song means to her at that moment?

To judge from the few pop concerts I’ve gone to in the past couple of years, often these days audiences expect the same kind of visual stimulation they get from a music video. That could mean something as innocuous as images streaming on the background screen while the artist sings. Or it could mean having to pound out the exact choreography from the video—complete with dozens of sweaty backup dancers. And then people are outraged when they discover the star was lip-synching!

Is replication Art? I have no doubt someone could take the exact measurements of Michelangelo’s “David” statue and, given a big enough 3-D printer, spit out another one just like it. Art? Maybe to some people. But I love the idea of knowing that the artist turned rough stone into smooth “flesh” with the crude instruments he had at his disposal. When I stand before that statue, I feel an emotional connection to its creator. A 3-D “David” would be an amazing feat of replication. But—in my opinion—not art.

Now, Van Gogh could well have “painted ‘A Starry Night’ again.” Not exactly, of course—he didn’t have a 3-D printer. His subsequent “Starry Nights” might have been better in some way, or worse. But they would still be art, because they would be products of the human brain and heart—not just mindless reproductions. (See Monet’s “Haystacks.”)

So when I hear a singer sing a song I love—whether it’s her own song or someone else’s—I don’t want unswerving faithfulness to the original. I want to hear how the artist connects to the song herself.

Because you can’t tell someone else’s story. Whether you’re singing a song or giving a speech, you can only authentically tell your own story. That’s why canned jokes at the front of a speech never work as well to connect you with an audience as a true story about something that happened to you. Even if you’ve got to retell a story—the origin story of your nonprofit, for instance—you pick out the moments that resonate with you and craft the story around those. You don’t just stand up there and recite a bunch of facts.

Tell your story. Whenever you speak, speak your truth. It’s the best way to make a lasting impression.

Malcolm Gladwell on Conversation & Speaking

This morning I heard an interview Malcolm Gladwell did for Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics podcast. In discussing his analysis of Anders Ericsson’s “10,000 hour rule”—that it takes that many hours of practice to become an expert—Gladwell talked about his own evolution as a public speaker.

“I didn’t spend a lot of time studying others. Because I thought that what people respond to as an audience is authenticity.”

Readers of this blog will recognize that as my favorite A-word. Gladwell continues:

“So I spent a lot of time thinking about …what is the image I’m trying to project about the kind of person I am, the way that I see the world. And I finally realized that what I am is someone who’s not too formal or studied or…I’m conversational.”

I have heard this from so many speakers who insist on going into a speech armed with nothing more than a list of bullet points. “I want it to be conversational.”

So how does Gladwell achieve that conversational tone in his speaking? Let’s listen in:

“That meant that I had to, I really had to memorize everything. I couldn’t use slides and notes and it couldn’t seem like a classroom lecture; it had to seem like a conversation with me.”

In other words, he treats each speaking engagement like a TED Talk.

Most speakers don’t have the time to memorize a speech—especially if they speak on many different subjects at different venues. And, to be fair, it is part of Gladwell’s job to speak well. At this point in his career, his appearances command a hefty fee.

But communicating is part of an executive’s job, as well. Speaking can help raise the profile of the organization they lead, sell more of its products, increase its prestige. I encourage my clients to think of speech-giving not as something that takes them away from their “real”responsibilities, but as another facet of their job as leaders.

Being conversational doesn’t mean speaking off the top of your head—please, please never do that. But it does mean practicing. A lot. And as you practice, you will find yourself memorizing parts of the speech naturally.

I don’t share Gladwell’s aversion to looking at notes from time to time. Unless you’re an actor in a play, no one will fault you for having a script in front of you. But don’t  deliver your speech to the podium—if you glance at your notes, stop speaking and don’t open your mouth again until you’re looking at the audience. If you haven’t practiced your speech, those silences can seem interminable. Practice enough and your audience reads them as thoughtful pauses.

Conversational and thoughtful. Not a bad way to present yourself.


Getting to know you: Understanding “Authenticity”

Authenticity has been a huge buzzword in business for a while. As I read it, businesses mean that a gay employee should not have to hide his husband’s photo in a desk drawer; a parent—of whatever gender—should not have to pretend that being at the kid’s school play is less important than sitting in a meeting; an African American employee can wear her hair any damn way she pleases, even (especially) if it doesn’t look like “white” hair.

Hiding one’s true self requires an awful lot of effort, effort that most of us would much rather spend on—oh, I don’t know—doing our work. And, yes, just about everyone “covers” some aspect of their personality, as this excellent research report by Deloitte made clear a few years ago. Even straight, white men—the folks that everyone but Beyoncé assumes “run the world”—even half of them have something they cover. Imagine what we could all get done if we stopped covering and just lived our lives.

“Authenticity” is starting to generate a backlash, though. And that makes me sad, both as a writer and as a human being. If you have never been in a position where you felt you had to hide some part of who you are, you are very lucky indeed. Federal law now recognizes my marriage, but in more than half the states in the U.S. an employer could fire me for putting my wife’s photo on my desk. So authenticity means a lot to me as a person.

And as a writer and writing coach, I know the most effective way for my clients to connect with the audiences they want to reach is to allow themselves to be seen as human. By which I mean vulnerable (so they can demonstrate their strength) and occasionally fallible (so they can show how failure enabled their later successes). As the cliché goes, nobody’s perfect. Audiences want to feel that.

And whether it’s a speech or a written piece, audiences also want to connect with your real personality. Are you introspective? Let us in on your thought process. Are you funny? Don’t be afraid to make a joke. I’m not saying to turn your presentation into a Robin Williams-style free-association free-for-all. But laughter is a great gift to give people, and there’s no quicker way to create a bond between you and the people reading your words or listening to you speak.

What does authenticity NOT mean? It does not mean saying the first thing that pops into our heads. It does not give people a license to be publicly rude or sexist, as this op-ed from The New York Times implies.

But what if I am authentically rude or sexist? I hear you ask. Then the norms of polite society—and corporate culture, which tends to enforce its norms more forcefully—will soon put you in your place. And I hope you enjoy it.

Brené Brown posted a rejoinder to the Times op-ed on LinkedIn this weekend and restated her complex definition of authenticity. Have a read:

“The core of authenticity is the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, and to set boundaries.”

That’s who I want to be. That’s who I want my clients to be. How about you?