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769: How to Command the Room, Connect with Your Audience, and Close the Deal with Laura Sicola

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Laura Sicola breaks down the communication tools and techniques for building a strong presence and delivering maximum impact.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How you’re introducing yourself wrong—and how to do it better
  2. The magic words to capture your audience’s attention
  3. What it really takes to persuade your audience

About Laura

Dr. Laura Sicola is a leadership communication and influence expert, speaker, podcast host, and author of Speaking to Influence: Mastering Your Leadership Voice. Laura’s TEDx talk, “Want to Sound Like a Leader? Start by Saying Your Name Right,” has over 6.6 million views. As founder of Vocal Impact Productions, her mission is to help leaders master the Three Cs of Vocal Executive Presence so they can COMMAND the room, CONNECT with the audience, and CLOSE the deal. 

Resources Mentioned

Laura Sicola Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Laura, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Laura Sicola
Hi, Pete. Thanks so much for having me on the show.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to get into your wisdom, and I love your TEDx Talk is called “Want to sound like a leader? Start by saying your name right,” so I just got to start right here. Are we saying our names wrong? What’s going on here? And how do we say it right?

Laura Sicola
The funny thing is that most people, how often are we frustrated because, number one, we say our name and then people keep us asking to repeat it, or they just keep saying it wrong where we feel like nobody seems to get it right, or we listen to the way other people introduce themselves to us and it goes in one ear and out the other, and then we feel stupid because we don’t really remember what their name was and we’re trying to figure out how to address them without saying, “It’s you, right. Yeah, you over there”?

So, the challenge is that the way that we usually say it, it’s an issue of speed, of rhythm, and of pitch, and that’s like the big trifecta. And when we do those in the way that most people do them, it’s too fast, it’s all in one slur, one giant blur of sound, and we tend to ask it like a question, which is just weird. So, most people, if you’re going a round robin or doing little networking events or whatever it is, people will say things like, “Hi, I’m Laura Sicola, blah, blah, blah,” and people, by the time you…

Pete Mockaitis
And you said, “Hi, I’m Laura Sicola.”

Laura Sicola
Right. Exactly. And then you go from there into your company and into whatever else. And by the time people even realized that you spoke, they already missed it. It was just way too fast. So, what we want to do is, number one, slow it down because, even if your name is something like Bob Jones, it may be simple but it’s not predictable so you got to get people’s brains a chance to catch up with their ears, number one. So, we want to slow it down to a pace that may actually feel awkwardly slow, uncomfortably slow to you to say because you’ve said it like a gazillion times. They’ve never heard it.

Pete Mockaitis
I want to pause right there. I think that’s perfect because I catch it even with myself. Maybe listeners have picked up on this after 700 episodes. There are some phrases I’ve said many times, like “Do check out the show notes and transcripts and the links we reference. Drop on by to AwesomeAtYourJob.com/ep.” And so, I have to check myself, it’s like, “Okay, hey, Pete, you’ve said it 700 times but the first-time listeners is like, ‘Wait, where do I go for all that stuff? Wait, what was in there? That’s kind of a lot of stuff.”

Laura Sicola
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s likewise with your name, you said it many times, it’s boring, you don’t have to think, versus we have a natural tendency to slow down when we’re exploring sort of new territory, like, “What novel original sentence am I going to speak now real-time? We don’t know. I’ve got to kind of think about it a little bit versus Pete Mockaitis.” It’s like, “That’s my name. I’ve said that. Yeah, they’re perfect.”

Laura Sicola
Right. Exactly. My five-year-old loves the book “Pete the Cat,” so, as far as I was concerned, that’s what you just said, you introduced yourself as Pete the Cat.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, the shoes, yeah.

Laura Sicola
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I know that one. Cool. So, speed, slow it down.

Laura Sicola
Slow it down, number one. And, number two, is breaking it up. We tend to blur it altogether as if you’re saying your first name and your last name. It should be clear that there were actually two names articulated, so we need to pause in the middle. And it doesn’t have to be a long break but there just has to be enough…if you were typing, you’re not going put an entire tab or this space, or line breaks in between your name, but there should be a space bar.

Pete Mockaitis
So, not like James Bond?

Laura Sicola
Right. That was a little bit easier because of all the consonants in the middle, but, really, no, actually, it shouldn’t be. James Bond. And he was, “Bond. James Bond.” He really does it slow. That’s a whole different ballgame. If you want to be Roger Moore, or Sean Connery, or somebody, we’ll talk. So, we want to have that little break, “Laura Sicola. Laura Sicola.” Try yours.

Pete Mockaitis
Pete Mockaitis.

Laura Sicola
Yup, and that’s good. So, you did something really important there. You aspirated the T on the end of Pete. You put the “th,” that little pop of air in it. Most people would swallow or do what, I’m a linguist, what we would call not releasing the T, and just say Pete instead of Pete, and then the T kind of slurs in with the M, and it’s like, “Is it Peep, like the Easter Peeps? What’s the last sound there?”

And if it’s a name, Pete is a very common English name, assuming you’re speaking to other English speakers who are comfortable with that name. It may be more intuitive but you never know who does or doesn’t pick up easily what you’re saying. So, we want to make sure that we’re being generous in our articulation and in our clarity so that whoever we’re talking to can easily hear and say, “I got it. Okay, Pete.” So, popping that T was a really great gift that you gave to them, yeah.

And then now your last name is a little bit less common.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. Lithuanian.

Laura Sicola
So, that one, I would slow it. Lithuanian, you say? Is that what it is?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Laura Sicola
Very cool. So, then I would slow that one down even more because there’s a lot of syllables and there’s a lot of consonants mixed into the syllables that are not predictable or, for most people, intuitive or expected combinations of contrast. So, try that one.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Pete Mockaitis.

Laura Sicola
Mockaitis. So, I’d slow it down even a hair more – Mockaitis.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Laura Sicola
Because it’ll feel weird to you but it won’t sound weird to anybody else.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Pete Mockaitis.

Laura Sicola
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Laura Sicola
And then the last one is the pitch piece. And we tend to go into this up-speak, into this questioning tone at the ends of all of our phrases and sentences, especially when we’re in what I like to call mental-list mode. So, if you’re introducing yourself, people will say, “Hi, I’m Laura Sicola,” question, “and my company is Vocal Impact Productions,” question, “and I’m in Philadelphia and I do executive coaching.” And it’s like, “Nyah, nyah, nyah,” and we just glaze over. When we start hearing that, “I’m just going through rote motions over and over again. I’m not really present to what I’m saying or who I’m talking to or if this really matters.”

So, what we want to do instead is, when we say our first name, assuming we’re going to do both, our first name goes up, which is like saying “And there’s more. I’m not done yet,” and then put that teeny weeny little break in the middle, and then glide down on the last name, like saying, “And now I’m done.” There’s the period at the end of my sentence.

So, instead of asking my name like it’s a question, like, “Hi, I’m Laura Sicola, I think?” we want to go, “I’m Laura Sicola,” up and down. Try it.

Pete Mockaitis
With my name?

Laura Sicola
Yours or mine, whichever makes you happy.

Pete Mockaitis
Laura Sicola.

Laura Sicola
Great. And yours?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Pete Mockaitis.

Laura Sicola
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Maybe a little slower. It’s so funny, Laura, it’s like you’re shaking my world. It’s like, “I think I know how to say my name.” You’re like, “Okay now, you’re almost able to say your name.” It’s like, what is it, the legendary NCAA basketball coach would say, “We’re putting your socks on. Like, that’s what we’re going to work on for the next hour, is putting your socks on because if you do it wrong, you can get a blister and that’ll impact your…” It is like, “Oh, seriously?” Like, “This is a basketball,” like go into the fundamentals, actually, really makes an impact over time. Like, you’re nailing and mastering them so well, it makes an impact.

Laura Sicola
And that’s the hardest thing. My world in leadership communication and influence coaching is so much of it does have to do with the voice and how your message lands with both how you frame it, what you say, and how you say it matter. And, in a way, so many people feel like they never realize what bad vocal habits they’ve just fallen into over the years. They’re totally unaware of it.

And then when they become aware of what those habits are and they can identify them, they can say, “All right, I want this to happen. I want to go from doing this to doing that,” but it’s weird because it’s almost like, “Well, why can’t I make myself do this?”

I did an exercise, and I’ll encourage everybody out there to try this. Listen to the outbound message on your voicemail, the one that you leave for everybody who calls you, the one that says, “Hi, this is Laura Sicola. I’m not available. Leave a message, blah, blah.” Most people use up-speak in leaving that list because they’re in mental-list mode, “Hi, this is Laura Sicola. Sorry, I can’t take your call, but if you leave a message and your number, I’ll be sure to get back to you as soon as I can.” It’s like, “Nye, nye, nye.”

And so I say go back if you did that, re-record and put periods at the ends of your sentences, “Hi, this is Laura Sicola. Sorry I missed your call. Please leave me your name and number and I’ll call you back as soon as I can.” So, there are sentences, there’s periods in there, you sound more declarative, not uncertain or completely disinterested.

And I did this with a room full of people, and they’re re-recording on their phones, right then and there, their new message, and, all of a sudden, I hear this one voice in the back just blurting out, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe I just did it again.” Like, we’re so used to…we don’t realize it’s muscle memory, the voice muscles that we use in our throat. We’ve never thought about how to consciously use them before so we try to retrain them.

It’s like taking a baseball player and trying to teach him how to play golf or play cricket. Same sort of idea, right? Hold the stick with two hands and hit the ball and make it go where you want to go. You may know it but it doesn’t happen the way we’d like it to, automatically. So, that’s a lot of what we’re working with people on, is how to regain control and adjust so that what you’re saying lands with the weight that you want it to have, and leaves the impression that you want it to make.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Well, thank you, Laura. All right. So, I wanted to start with saying our names right and then we went into some key principles associated with how our voice sounds. But I’d like to zoom out a little bit and talk about executive presence. Like, this stuff is one component of that. How do you define executive presence?

Laura Sicola
Well, it’s such a big construct. There was a great report that came out a few years ago by the Center for Talent Innovation on executive presence, and they did a great job of surveying hundreds of senior executives, CXOs, from, I forget, how many different hundreds of companies in the US, to try to operationalize that.

And what they found was that it’s a combination of three things, primarily. The way you show up, the way you look, your appearance is a small component. That’s the least important one but you do have to show up dressed for the part, looking the part, to some extent or other. Communication skills is the second main pillar, and what they referred to broadly as gravitas.

And having gravitas is a combination of everything from “Do you have enough technical expertise to know what you’re talking about? Do your words have teeth? Like, if you say that something is going to happen, are you willing to stick to your guns even if what you say is unpopular, even if there’s pushback? Or, if whatever deadline passes, and you’ve said ‘This is the consequence,’ will you actually execute that or do you sort of let things slide? Do you have that internal strength? Are you willing to speak truth to power, telling people maybe what they don’t want to hear even though you know it’s the right thing to do?”

So, these are a lot of the many components but that internal fortitude is a big piece of it. And, to me, my only complaint, frankly, with that…I understand what they were trying to do but with that report, is that they separated gravitas and communication skills because I don’t understand how you can demonstrate gravitas without communication.

Because if you’re going to sit there and say, “This is what has to happen. And if not, then this is the consequence for it,” but you sound like you’re kind of unsure, or you tend to fry out, or you’re going to back down, or you kind of mumble as you’re talking, then you can levy the, I’ll use the word threat for lack of a better word in the moment, but whatever it is. Who’s going to take you seriously? You sound like a marshmallow, like a doormat, so automatically it’s hard to respect you if you don’t really sound like you respect yourself.

So, okay, but those were the major areas they talked about. The gravitas and the communication skills are really the big buckets.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious, could you share with us a cool story of someone who really dramatically upgraded their executive presence and got some cool results? I guess I’m always thinking about the skeptic who has towering skills and, I don’t know, problem-solving or coding or whatever they do, and think that this might be soft or fluffy or whatever. Like, can you share some cool story of what you’ve seen transpire or, if you have it, any cool studies, data, research that shows that this makes a transformative impact on your career?

Laura Sicola
One example is where I was working with the SVP of finance for a big Fortune 500 company, and he was the heir apparent to the CFO role, understanding that it would probably open up in maybe two years, give or take. But the board said to him, in no uncertain terms, “Look, when you talk, frankly, we don’t understand you, so fix it or, when the spot opens up, we’re going to find somebody else.”

Now, that’s pretty darn straightforward, unambiguous. So, we had to look and say, “Well, what is it about the way he shows up because he certainly knows his stuff? There’s no question about his technical capacity.” But we did some digging and we realized it was a number of things. Number one, in his delivery, he talked so fast, he blurred through everything. There was no editorializing when he talked. There were no stories told. He went way too deep in the weeds and the board was glazing over at a certain point. There were so many different elements.

Even things like he could’ve said, just hypothetically speaking, “Last year, we exceeded revenue projections by 25% or we missed revenue projections by 25%,” and you couldn’t tell the difference. Like, if you blurred out that one word, the verb missed versus exceeded, no one would’ve been able to guess which one it was because his delivery was always identical, and that’s an issue.

Pete Mockaitis
That really resonates. And I’m thinking about that even with slides in terms of like we just got a bunch of data but the headline doesn’t say. I’m thinking about a time where I had a partner, we were starting an online math tutoring company, and we were checking out a conference so we get No Child Left Behind money, like, “Oh, what’s the story here?”

And so, someone was giving a report on all the tutorial providers, like, “Okay, inside scoop. What’s the deal here?” because we were at the early stages. And nothing about the intonation or the headline gave us the main message. It was a bunch of data, like, “Here’s all these providers and here were their scores before and after, and dah, dah, dah.” But I guess it was because they didn’t want to say the unpleasant news to everybody, it’s like, “Almost nobody’s getting meaningful results for these kids. Like, almost nobody. And the one out of 20 might’ve just gotten lucky with statistics.”

And so, it was startling to me in terms of, well, lack of slide headline, lack of intonation, lack of explicitly saying it, words being faster and running together, and, well, it’s unpleasant and it’s frustrating. And it makes me trust that person less. I was like, “Do you not know what that means? Why are you not telling it to us directly and clearly?”

Laura Sicola
Although, I wonder if because that’s such a…it was such negative results that they were trying to blur through it and hope you wouldn’t figure it out for yourself because he didn’t really want…

Pete Mockaitis
“We all might be fired shortly based on what I’m revealing to you today.”

Laura Sicola
Exactly. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“So, let’s hurry it along.”

Laura Sicola
Right. Right. But that’s important. If you’re looking to…I mean, what is influence? Influence is about having an impact on the way someone thinks, feels, and responds verbally or behaviorally, and changing or helping them to make decisions moving forward, etc. The board of a major company is somebody that you want their buy-in. You need them to be on board with whatever you are talking about and if you want them to get to say yes more often.

Everything that I do is about mastering the three Cs: helping people to learn to command the room, or, more often than not nowadays, command the screen; connect with the audience; and close the deal. And being able to do those, command the room, connect with the audience, and close the deal – closing the deal means just getting to yes, moving the needle, continual forward progress not just sales or something – but you can’t do that if you can’t inspire them, if you can’t get them to feel something and have their brains connect with their hearts, connect with their ears.

And so, even things like editorializing, and when I say editorializing your data, it could be things like you’re looking at market projections and you could say something along the lines of, “We find this encouraging,” or, “We’re pleasantly surprised with this,” or, “We want to bear this in mind,” or, “We’re going to keep an eye on this because…”

Those are implicit editorializing terms because they let the audience know, “Okay, I should be happy about this, optimistic,” versus, “Hmm, this is a cautionary tale. Okay, a note to self. I want to be wary of where this is going.” It plants an emotional positive or negative bent in me, and I use that then as my filter through which I’m going to be interpreting everything else that you say on this topic until you indicate otherwise.

And it’s kind of like leading the witness in a court of law. You want to lead your audience to where you want them to be because people will listen to data and they’ll look for information in data that reinforces what they already feel and want to believe.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Yes. I think about the boardroom situation, “We feel and want to believe that we are unstoppable and we’re growing and taking market share, and innovating and getting into new stuff, and winning, winning, winning. That’s what we want to believe.” And so, it’s interesting, now, sometimes you have to tell them that the opposite is true, “This initiative sure didn’t work out the way we wanted it to.”

So, is it ideal, then, to have your vocal emotional stuff reflect that just straight up, naturally, authentically? “Hey, unfortunately, adoption of this new product has been a lot slower than we had any budget for.”

Laura Sicola
I’m going to give the most unpopular answer ever, which is it depends. And it’s not to say that you shouldn’t be authentic, let’s put that out there for starters. But to take something out of a context, or where there’s nothing else around it, it’s hard to give a definitive yes or no on that. So, my answer would be framed more around, “Well, what other information is necessary to understand why that occurred? Or, what do we learn from it? Or, what do we need to do as a result of it?” There’s too many other pieces.

What is constant though is that when we have to give bad news and something we think there’s going to be blowback on, it’s still really important, and this goes back to the executive presence piece and the gravitas piece, “Can you own that data or are you shrinking away from it? Are you willing to…the buck stops with you,” assuming it does.

And often the way that our voice, when we’re nervous about something, for example, our body, our voice will throw us under the bus and just telegraph those nerves something fierce. But you would never walk into a board meeting or a pitch or whatever else it happens to be, and preface verbally by saying, “Hey, everybody, I just want you to know I’m really intimidated right now because I’m afraid you’re not going to like what I have to say. Okay, thanks. Just wanted to get that off my chest. Okay, let’s proceed.” Like, nobody in their right minds would articulate that thought.

So, similarly, and it’s not that you’re being inauthentic if you don’t confess that upfront. It’s just, no, that’s not a very smart move. So, similarly, when you’re sharing that news, if you are kind of hesitant in your voice or in your body language, or you’re frying it out, or maybe there is that up-speak again, which is like saying, “Is this okay, right? You’re not mad, are you?” as you’re inflecting the various points that you need to do.

And, guys, by the way, I know this sounds like valley girl kind of a thing, and that’s where most people’s brains go as far as the image that that kind of vocal tonality pattern conjures, but a Y chromosome is not a vaccine against up-speak. Guys do it just as much as women do, older and younger, you just don’t realize when you’re doing it so you want to be mindful of it.

Pete Mockaitis
And I thought your listing example was perfect, like, “Yes, we can drift into that up-speak when we’re in a list context and not even notice it because we’re thinking about the next thing on the list.”

Laura Sicola
Exactly. Exactly. Because your brain is one step ahead of your mouth, and that’s a really dangerous place to be because, when you think about it, there’s, more often than not, we do go into list mode. If we were to think of what constitutes a list. Well, maybe you’re going over your PowerPoint slide and there’s five bullets. Well, there’s your list. Maybe you’re giving an explanation for something and there’s two, three, four, five reasons and you’re going to go through those reasons one after another.

Maybe you’re explaining something and you’re giving steps, you’re giving instructions. Well, what are your steps that you’re giving? Maybe you’re just introducing a guest on a podcast or in a conference, or to speak to your group or your organization. Well, you’re going to go through their bio, and there’s this point, and this point, and this point.

And even if it’s just a matter of it’s your turn to talk, you’re in the meeting, and you want to give your idea, and there’s a number of elements that you want to include before somebody else cuts you off. Whatever those elements are that you want to include in your answer, in your brain it’s all one answer but it’s really multiple factors that you’re trying to share. And as you go through each one, there’s a very good chance that you slide into that up-speak without even realizing it because your mind is thinking, “Comma, comma, comma, comma, comma,” instead of “Period. Period. Period.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. All right. Well, let’s talk about these three Cs. Command the room, I’d love to know how this is done because, Laura, I think in my own life experience, in high school and college, I commanded the room quite frequently, and then I think I got a little spoiled with doing keynote speaking, and coaching, and podcast interviewing in which it’s like we zoomed it down to one person who…or like in the coaching and podcast interviewing space, one person who’s very interested in like the thing that we’re doing here. While in keynoting, it’s like it is very rude for you to be chit chatting while there’s a dude on stage, although people still do it.

So, I don’t know, it’s like somewhere along the lines, I’ve noticed my room-commanding has diminished maybe just in different rooms that I used to be. But what is the alchemy that’s behind the commanding of a room?

Laura Sicola
I think it’s a number of things. Number one is confidence. You have to show up in a way that says, “I’m here,” and not in an arrogant sense, let’s be clear on that. Confidence is a gray scale. We’re not sliding into arrogance but it is about being comfortable in your own skin, being comfortable in your own shoes, being ready to share what it is that you need to share, and ready to listen to what other people need to share, but holding your ground and having the facial expressions, the body language, the voice so that whenever you…

From the minute that you begin, and even before you begin, you look like you intend to be there, and that you’re comfortable and you’re ready and you’re not cowering from it or, otherwise, hesitant to step up and own your space. And I think a lot of people are really not confident doing that, even virtually. So many people, and I know we’re recording this without video, but I would ask everybody else out there. When you see yourself on camera, is there an invisible line drawn across the middle of the screen and your head is on the bottom half and the top half is ceiling or sky? If so, you’re not commanding the screen, you’re not taking up the space. The screen is owning you instead of you owning the screen.

And those little details have a lot of impact in so far as how people perceive you, whether or not you project authority. When you project authority, when you project confidence, before you even open your mouth, it predisposes people to lean in or lean out, to give you the benefit of the doubt or not with regard to what you’re going to say. There’s a whole training that I do, a full half-day intensive on virtual influence, which is all about how to own the screen even when you can’t see anybody else, and they’re going to see you but maybe two weeks later.

You talk about the keynotes and things, and it’s often hard when you’re doing a conference presentation for a virtual conference and they tell you, “We’d like you to speak for us and we want you to pre-record on Zoom and send it to us a couple of weeks in advance, and then we’re going to upload it and launch it live during the actual conference, but it’ll be pre-recorded.” So, my job is to talk as if I was in front of a live audience even though it’s just me and the dot, that little lens.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a new verb.

Laura Sicola
Yes, right because there are rooms a lot bigger than this. But that’s hard to do. Most people are not good at commanding their space, virtually or in person, and that’s really important.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s interesting, what’s resonating for me now is I’m thinking about the mysteries, like, “I seem to be commanding less in the rooms,” I think part of it is we talk about being comfortable in your own skin. I think that there can be, like literally, any number of little things that make us less comfortable in our own skin that are not even emotional, like, “This shirt is a little too short,” “My skin is literally itchy and needs some lotion,” “I didn’t get quite a good night’s sleep with the kiddos romping around the bed,” “Wow, it’s way hotter here in Tennessee than it is in Chicago,” or whatever.

Or, it’s sort of like, “I’m so used to speaking at sort of a lower volume now because we don’t want to wake up a child. We don’t want to wake up that child.” It was so funny, when we had some guests over, it was like, “Wow, these guys talk loud.” It’s like, “No, I think they probably talk normal but we’ve been doing so much quiet talking in this home that that’s sort of shifted it.”

And then it kind of shows up in terms of, “Folks are not quite giving me…I don’t have as much, I guess, commanding, like market share of eye contact,” if you will. It’s like I have less of that, it’s like, “Oh, they’re looking elsewhere. Or, someone else said almost the same thing that I said and now it’s hilarious or intriguing? But it wasn’t what I said. Huh, usually it’s the other way around. What’s going on here?”

Laura Sicola
Yup, and it is harder, I think, in the virtual world because, depending on what platform you’re using, if it’s Zoom or Teams or GoToMeeting or Google Meet or something like that, some of them make it much harder to look at or near the camera and still see everybody else’s face at the same time. Some people have multiple screens so your camera’s over here to the left and all the screen with everybody’s faces are on the right, and it’s like, “Well, am I looking at you or do I need you to think I’m looking at you even though I’m technically not.” It makes it a little bit more confusing there.”

So, there’s all sorts of strategies to use and head trash that we need to take out about our own discomfort and being in the virtual world but it can be really confusing. But standing your ground and, if nothing else, not showing, not telegraphing that discomfort, even if internally you are a little awkward feeling, that shouldn’t be the first impression that people get.

You know how they say dogs can smell fear? I think people can “smell” when the presenter or the speaker is feeling awkward or uncomfortable, and they sense it instantly, and they go, “Oh, boy, this person is not even confident in what they’re saying. All right, how can I multitask because this is going to be painful to listen to? I already don’t want to listen to it, so let me check my email while they’re talking.” And I think it’s really important to command that attention.

The difference between command the room and connect with the audience, and not to segue between them, but commanding is really capturing people’s attention and maintaining it. And connecting with the audience is being able to establish a rapport where there’s this mutual sense of “I understand you and you understand me.”

And that creates a fabulous current for us to continue the conversation in a really productive and constructive way that leads to the ability to then close the deal or to get to yes, figure out what our next steps should be, and move on from there. But the commanding the room piece is really critical because that’s step one.

Just by example, I did a training the other day for a client, probably Fortune 100, and there were about 50 people on the call, and I was the second presenter of the day, and they had multiple back-to-back speakers. The team had been having a conversation about whatever topic first. And when I got on, they introduced me, and I started, and, fortunately, they all had their cameras on so I could see their faces.

And within about two or three minutes, one of the guys unmuted and he chimed in, he said, “I’m sorry, Laura. Could I just ask, what are you doing with your voice? And are you going to cover how to do that because all I know is when you started talking, I sat up and I paid attention, and I find myself just focused? So, I need to know how to do that. Are you going to teach us how to do that?”

That was a great example of the effect that, A, using your voice well, and, B, an illustration of commanding the room, or commanding the screen, commanding the space. That’s what can happen when you do it effectively. Someone inherently just sits up and takes notice because there’s something in your presence that compels them to do so.

Pete Mockaitis
Great. That’s just so experiential, real, practical, tactical, right, like you can get your arms around that in that if you’ve been on conference calls, it happens that some folks are just talking “Nrrggh,” and it drones into nothingness. And then there’s a new speaker, and then you’re with them. And so, we’ve covered a couple of the ingredients, but could you lay it out, Laura, like, what are the top variables that are easy to adjust that put us in the “We are listened to” column?

Laura Sicola
Yeah, absolutely. One thing that I think the world must absolutely do when you’re in the virtual space, you need a better microphone. I mean, look, even to be on this podcast with you, you’re like, “If you don’t have a microphone, I’m going to send you one.” I have my good podcaster mic here.

But most people just use whatever is the default microphone that comes embedded into their laptop or other device, or they maybe use the earbuds that come with your phone, or worse, they’ll use the microphone that’s embedded, maybe if you’ve got one of those peripheral Logitech cameras that sits on top of your screen, or AirPods. Look, I’m an Apple girl

When I’m jogging, love my AirPods but Steve Jobs and I, in the afterlife, we’re going to have to have a conversation because it is very clear that the microphone on AirPods was an afterthought. For $179, those devices make music sound great to you. They don’t make you sound good to anybody else. And most people in the virtual world, sound like this.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

Laura Sicola
It’s like they’re in a tin can. It’s like they’re in a fog or under water or in a cave. I hear all sorts of different descriptors. And when most people sound like this, and then you talk, and suddenly your voice cuts through the fog, it’s like, wow, all of a sudden, your eyes, your pupils dilate, you find yourself sitting up, you’re suddenly focused. If you were multitasking, you do a quick little pivot, little jolt, and say, “Wait, what was that? What’s going on? I feel like I need to hear this. This feels and sounds important.”

Where you do not want to be is on the other end where someone else is talking, like you and I are, they’ve got a good strong voice, they’re using their microphone, or they’ve got a decent microphone. You don’t have to spend 500 bucks on a microphone but you should spend 100, somewhere in there at least.

And at that point, if everyone else sounds like this, and then you start talking and you sound like this, that’s a very bad place to be because what the immediate response that the listener has, “Ugh, that sounds awful. It’s too much work. I can’t be bothered. Don’t make me work just to understand what the heck your words are, much less what they mean, and whether I like them or agree with them or what my response is going to be. If you’re going to make me put in extra effort just to understand your words, I can’t be bothered, it’s unpleasant, I don’t want to. I think I’ll multitask. Let me know when you’re done.” That’s exactly how people react.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think about just basic likability. Like, there were times, I remember I would do like 10 hours of coaching with folks over Skype, and those who had better microphones, it’s like subconscious or maybe not so subconscious, I liked them more because just the way our emotions get linked up, firing together, wiring together. It’s like when I have a positive experience of any sort, in this case just how sound feels in my ears, I associate pleasantness to you. And when I have the opposite, I associate unpleasantness to you. and that’s the only way anybody ever interacts with you is with your horrible audio quality. It’s bad.

So, Laura, I really appreciate you hitting this because I’ve had some guests who are like, “Well, my microphone was fine for all these other podcasts.” And I don’t want to be like, “Well, I’m better than them, it is not up to my standards.”

Laura Sicola
Can I tell you, Pete? I have had so many both clients who I’ve trained and coached and done all sorts of workshops with on this, and my podcast guests because in my podcast, I interview only senior leaders of larger organizations, for profit, nonprofit, otherwise. And during our prep call in advance, we’ll go through the technical stuff, and I’ll let them know before our podcast, before we do the actual interview, “I need you to get a different microphone.” I’ll give them recommendations or whatever. And they’ll often say to me, “Well, nobody’s ever told me I had a problem with it before.” And I’m going, “I know because you’re the boss. Who’s going to stand up to you and tell you that you sound like…” well, fill in the blank.

Pete Mockaitis
“You’re Mr. New York Times bestseller,” like it took me a couple hundred episodes before I had the cajones to be like, “Yeah, this isn’t good enough for me. Step it up.’”

Laura Sicola
Yes. And so, here’s the thing, and this, we’re going to go right back to that executive presence piece. Some of these podcast guests that I have on, they don’t know me from Eve. They may not have heard of my show previously or whatever, before they’ve agreed to be on it. And so, without me having a very strong reputation with them as of yet, for me to come right on and say, “All due respect, Mr. CEO, CTO, CIO, whatever you are, you need a better microphone.”

And for them to say, “But nobody ever said it before. It’s always been fine,” for me to say to them, “With all due respect, as far as I’m concerned, that microphone doesn’t do you justice, and I won’t launch my episode with you if it’s not going to do you justice because that’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to my listeners, and it’s not good for me. We want to make sure that all of us are really pleased with how this reflects on you and your brand. And if I sound like this, and you sound like this, that harms your brand, and I would never do that to you as my guest.”

For me to be able to stand there and look at them in the face, and definitively state, “Yes, you make a billion times more money than I do. Yes, you run a company that’s a billion times bigger than mine. Yes, blah, blah, blah, but I’m telling you what’s what. And understand that I’m doing this for you in service to you, in your best interest so that we both have a better quality.” They, suddenly, are like, “Okay, I didn’t know who you were but, suddenly, I’m listening and I respect you for having that.”

There was this, I want to say, Pete, an insurance company who was on my show a little while ago, and my proxy, who’s the one who connected us in the first place, he reported back to her afterwards when we’ve had one of these little “Come to Jesus” meetings as far as the equipment is concerned. And it was really funny, he said to her, she reported back to me afterwards, he said, “When we talked, Laura corrected me. Nobody corrects me. I kind of liked it.” And I just burst out laughing because it’s like people have to tell you the truth. Can you speak truth to power? And most don’t.

So, if you can, people are suddenly like, “Okay, you’ve got…” I forget what word you used, cajones or something along those lines, “…but you’ve got them, and I respect that.” And we want that respect. Can you speak truth to power and own it respectfully but own it?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I didn’t know if I was going to venture into such a delicate territory, Laura, and I wouldn’t want to be judgmental, but that is what that makes me think. And you said it explicitly, it’s like, “Nobody ever corrects me.” It’s like, “That is kind of culturally problematic in terms of you being able to lead with maximum excellence if there are whole channels of information and feedback that you’re not getting.”

And it’s not that it’s necessarily that person’s fault, it’s like, “Oh, you must not be very welcoming or inviting or friendly.” You’re the boss, it’s like, “Hey, not my place to let you know your microphone sucks, dude.” So, it really does take quite a concerted effort to get that stuff to come to the fore. But I think that is telling.

I had a good friend who once said, “It is a shame…” “The people who don’t receive feedback are the ones who embarrass themselves in American Idol auditions. No one let them know, ‘You’re not ready yet, hon. This is going to take some time before the big stage.’” And whether the embarrassment is in front of a TV audience or just a lot of slightly worse than optimal meetings, it happens.

Laura Sicola
It does. It does.

Pete Mockaitis
Commanding the room, microphone, feedback. Cool. Cool. How do we get the connecting with the audience?

Laura Sicola
It definitely depends on who is the audience and what kind of connection are you looking to make. So, there are many different ways that you can do it. Is it a matter of using some humor? Is it about storytelling? Is it about using examples? So, there are certain programs that I do, my virtual influence training or speaking to influence training. Those are, I call them off-the-shelf programs, and I’ll go in, I’ll do those trainings in all different companies but it changes.

For example, if I’m doing the training for the women’s initiative. If it’s a room full of women, I’m going to tell different stories than I would tell, to illustrate the same point, than I would tell in mixed-gender company just because there are certain things that, in a room full of women, you can talk about certain things and not worry about making guys uncomfortable, and we’ll throw ourselves under the bus and we’ll all laugh together because we know it’s a shared chick thing.

Or, I’ve done talks, for example, to Pan-Asian employee resource groups, and I lived in Japan for a number of years, so sharing the experiences of working in that US-Asia connection, or speaking in different languages and whatnot, those are experiences that will connect with them, and they’ll look at me and say, “Oh, okay, so you’ve got a white face but you do kind of get that it is a little bit different.” “Yeah, I do.”

And so, storytelling, or even things like what we call matching and mirroring. If I’m talking to somebody and I get the sense, if I’m working with a client and they’re really kind of slow and hesitant and they’re clearly uncomfortable, it’s not that they’re uncomfortable sharing something with me maybe, but it’s just a situation that they don’t know what to do with, and they’re really just unhappy and frustrated and kind of sad about this, they’re sharing it with me. I’m not going to share, or I’m not going to respond to them with the energy that I just went through that whole thing about microphones on. That would be overwhelming.

So, I’m going to sit back in my chair also, if I see that they’re sitting back, and I’m going to mirror their tone, their volume, their intensity, their pitch levels, and their speed or how often they pause. I’ll suggest certain things but I want to empathize with them and to make them feel comfortable. And if I match and reflect that energy back to them, they’ll be able to receive it better. If I came right at them, like, “Why are you worrying about that? That’s crazy.” No, that’s going to shut them down because it’s overwhelming. They’re not in that emotional space.

Similarly, on the flipside, if you came on and you were super high energy and looking forward to talking about these kinds of topics, and I said, “Well, okay, so executive presence has a number of factors that are important. Let’s talk about them,” your audience will be like, “Oh, my God, talk faster. Why?” It doesn’t match well. There’s no flow. It’s blocky, your speed, and then my plodding pacing going through it. So, that’s another way to connect with the audience.

And it’s not about imitating, it’s not mimicking, it’s not faking or being somebody else. We all have what I’d like to call a prismatic voice, meaning that if you think about your wardrobe, like if you’ve got your buttoned-down shirts, you’ve got your polos, you’ve got your sweatshirts, you’ve got your tux, you’ve got your all different range of things, but it’s only your wardrobe, but you have the presence of mind to be able to decide, “Today is the tux. Tomorrow for that event is the gym shorts. The day after that is just the business casual kind of khakis and whatever else.” It’s all you but you know when to adjust.

Similarly, the way that we speak, we have our…and this is my coaching voice, my authority, my trainer, my public-speaking kind of voice. But, to your point earlier, it sounds like you’ve got a couple of little guys at home. I do, too. This is not my mommy voice. He’d stop playing with me. It doesn’t make sense but I’m also not going to talk to you in the same voice or the same style, the same manner, that I use when I’m playing with my five-year-old because you would not believe that I was an executive coach at that point. It wouldn’t quite be congruent.

But it’s not that one is the real me and one is the fake me. They’re both real me. Just like you change how you dress your body, you also change how you dress your message through the way that you speak. And that’s why I like to call it the prismatic voice because the same way you’ve seen those little crystals that hang on a window, and when the sun hits it, the rainbow hits the floor on the other side.

You are the white light and you have all those rainbow colors inside of you. Maybe I’ll call this podcaster voice my red, and I’ll call my mommy voice my green, and I can shift because I know it’s better for him if he hears more of my green. He’ll connect with me better. It’s better for your listeners, for my listeners, if we talk more in my red. It’ll just resonate better. It’ll allow them to accept my message more easily. So, having that facility to style-shift in a way that’s appropriate but still authentic, that’s really important. And that’s what allows you to connect with your audience.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And when it comes to closing the deal, how do we do that?

Laura Sicola
It starts with listening and really understanding what they want, what they need. And these three things, the command the room, connect with the audience, and closing the deal, they are mutually reinforcing. It’s not necessarily sequential. But closing the deal simply means getting to yes. And when you understand what someone else’s priorities are, what their pressures are, what they’re up against, what they want, what they like, what they need, and try to help them understand your side as well, but most importantly, letting them know that they have been heard.

And identifying whatever steps need to happen that is in service of both of you, that’s where you’re going to get the first yes. It may not be an ultimate, conclusive, comprehensive, sign-the-contract yes or deal that you’re closing, but it will be a matter of “Do we agree on this point? If so, okay, let’s go on to point number two.” There’s a little mini-deal that should close but it starts with listening and reflecting back, letting others know that you’ve heard them, and being able to share your information in a way that they can then hear you and moving forward from there.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Laura, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Laura Sicola
I think just knowing that authenticity is so important but there’s a huge misnomer, a misunderstanding about authenticity. And that is that authenticity is not a black-and-white, on-or-off construct. As I mentioned with regard to the prismatic voice, we have a range of style. I mean, the learning curve, by nature, means stepping out of your comfort zone.

So, if you’re learning maybe, look, I am a, we’ll call it a recovering academic. I was a professor. I was in the world of academia. Now, I do executive coaching. That’s a big shift industry-wise. The way I talked there, the way I wrote there didn’t translate to the corporate world so I had to learn to change my vocabulary a little bit, change the kind of stories that I told, change the way that I write in order to be able to connect with this new audience that goes back to step two, how do you connect with them.

And at first, it felt awkward because it had beaten into my skull for a decade and longer in the ivory tower about how to write to be taken seriously in that world. And now I was being told, “No, you can’t do that anymore.” That felt very awkward to me initially. And it took a little while for me to let go of as much as I needed to.

So, to be able to accept and strengthen, or stretch, that new style, the learning curve was awkward. It felt uncomfortable but it wasn’t inauthentic because, the fact is, that was a new community. I wanted to be understood by the new community, which means I needed to learn to speak the language of the new community, just like if I wanted to learn to speak Spanish or learn to speak Japanese. It’s going to feel uncomfortable but it’s not inauthentic. It’s just a matter of strengthening the muscles until it becomes second nature.

If my intention and my desire to connect with that group is authentic, then the discomfort of the learning curve is also authentic. Embrace that. That’s different from if you’re trying to act like someone else to make them like you, trying to pretend that you’re someone you’re not in hopes that they like you. That is inauthentic. That is a whole other ball of wax that we’re not getting into today. But accept that learning curve by nature is uncomfortable, and that is also authentic, and it’s okay to accept that as long as there’s forward progress. So, that’s a really important final point, I think.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Laura Sicola
Yes. I think one of the most valuable and important pieces of advice that I received early in my career; it was actually from my father. And I was right out of college, I was sending in, starting out my early career in teaching public schools. My father had taught public schools for, at the time, 25 years or longer, and he always seemed to have it under control. And I said, “Dad, how do I get the kids to respect me?” And he’s the one who said, “Laura, you can’t demand that the students respect you. You have to command it with your presence.”

And I didn’t totally understand it at the time, but over time, it really sunk in, and that became the foundation for everything that I teach and that I coach in my new role now, or more recent role in executive coaching, in leadership communication work. You can’t demand respect. You have to command it with your presence. That’s the key.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Laura Sicola
Okay. So, I’ll give two. A fun one and a serious one. Let’s start with the serious one, Psycho-Cybernetics, there’s a mouthful for you, by Maxwell Maltz. It’s an oldie but a goodie. But, boy, if you really want to dig into what motivates people, what help you change, what makes you do what you do, where do you get stuck mentally, and how is it possible to get out your own way, it’s an amazing resource. It’s not a light read by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re willing to dig in a little bit, it’s powerful.

On the fun side, there’s a great book called Life is Magic. Life is Magic is by Jon Dorenbos, who, he was recently a finalist on America’s Got Talent. He was also a former Philadelphia Eagle, a long snapper, for a decade or so, for football fans out there. But he’s an amazing magician, and he went through massive crises as a child. Talk about heavy. His father murdered his mother when he was 12. That’ll send you off in a tailspin early in life.

But his whole focus is about not letting adversity define who you are or who you become. And how he wrestled with all of this and how he took that in and used it, and a bunch of other challenges along the way as well but he used it to help him become a pro football star, help him become a star on America’s Got Talent. And he’s funny and he’s inspiring, and he’s smart, and he’s just great life lesson.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Laura Sicola
Oh, microphone. I think that goes without saying. And the one that I’ve got is the Shure SM7B. Just know, that anybody out there, if you are going to look into it, it also requires another 500 bucks’ worth of other devices to make your microphone talk to your computer because it’s got an XLR cable not a USB. So, lots of fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is a good one. I also have a Shure. It’s a BETA 87A. The SM7B people love to comment. I almost expected you to say it, “You know, every word of Michael Jackson’s Thriller was recorded on a Shure SM7B?” It’s like, “Yeah, I know. It’s come up about a dozen times.” But I’ve seen the Pope using this one, so I think…as well as American Idol people. I think they like it because it rejects background noise, which is great. No one knows when that train goes by. Thank you, microphone.

Laura Sicola
Right. Well, the SM7B is definitely not a good American Idol…it’s not a good handheld by any stretch. It’s a big clunky thing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Laura Sicola
It’s the name thing. It really is about how to say your name right. It’s amazing. Of all the things that I’ve taught, the TED Talk is about eight years old now, give or take, and for the almost seven million people who’ve watched it, I can’t tell you the number of people who I have met, and I use that little example in a lot of teaching and training and speaking engagements where people will come up to me later on, and say, “I just want you to know, I saw your TED Talk,” and that’s what they’ll quote.

Or, they’ll see me in a conference, and years later, they’ll reintroduce themselves to me, and say, “Wait, wait. I want to say it right. My name is so and so, so and so.” And they always want to get…or they’ll introduce me to somebody else, “Hey, I want you to meet Laura. This is Laura…oh, wait, no. It’s Laura Sicola,” and they’ll all just mock me right back to myself, which is great because you know it sticks, and that’s the key. How do you make it stick? When you speak, you want it to stick in somebody else’s mind. Follow that pattern and your name will stick in the other person’s mind.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Laura Sicola
They can certainly go to the website, which is VocalImpactProductions.com. If you’re curious about the podcast or my book, you can go to SpeakingToInfluence.com, and always, of course, connect with me on social media at Instagram, Twitter, whatever, but LinkedIn is really my main one. Please go to LinkedIn. Look me up, Dr. Laura Sicola. And if you reach out to connect, please mention that you heard me here on Pete’s show, and that’s the most important part because I connect with people when I understand why they want to connect.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Laura Sicola
Yes. Record yourself. And it can be when you’re on the phone with somebody else, it can be when you’re on a Zoom with somebody else, you’re on with your computer. Take your phone, and just record yourself talking in whatever little nugget that you contribute to the conversation or if you’re presenting, record yourself for a minute or two.

Go back and listen later and ask yourself, “Does this sound like I wanted it to sound? Did it sound in my head the way it sounds on the recorder? And what didn’t?” Because, inevitably, something will stand out to you that will make you say, “You know what, that didn’t land right. That’s not how I wanted to come across.”

The video camera, the recorder doesn’t lie. It does add 10 pounds, but beyond that, it doesn’t lie. It will reflect back to you exactly what everybody else heard, and help you understand why perhaps what you think you said is not what they thought they heard. And that is powerful information in your own professional development.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Laura, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck in your speaking adventures.

Laura Sicola
Thank you so much for having me on, Pete. It’s been a real fun conversation with you.

764: Enhancing Your Communications by Mastering Your Own Style with Maryanne O’Brien

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Maryanne O’Brien unpacks how understanding communication styles improves your ability to be heard.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The keys to better conversations 
  2. The four communication styles–and how to master yours
  3. How to bridge the gap between your style and others’ 

About Maryanne

Maryanne has spent her career helping leaders and teams learn how to consciously communicate, cultivate empathy, and deepen trust. She is the author of The Elevated Communicator: How to Master Your Style and Strengthen Well-Being at Work, which was born out of more than a decade of original research. Her proprietary self-assessment helps you identify your communication style––Expressive, Reserved, Direct, or Harmonious­­––raise your self-awareness and build the communication skills needed to create a positive impact at work.

Resources Mentioned

Maryanne O'Brien Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Maryanne, thanks for joining us here on How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Maryanne O’Brien
Thank you for having me. I’m excited to talk with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about communication and, specifically, your book The Elevated Communicator: How to Master Your Style and Strengthen Well-Being at Work. So, I’m going to start you off with an easy one. What’s the most surprising and fascinating discovery you’ve made about humans and communicating over your career?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, I’ve been in communications in some form my entire career, starting out in advertising and then moving into kind of growth and development. And I think the thing that struck me the most, as I’ve really gotten into this subject, is that if we want to become better communicators, we have to become better people. There’s just no way around it because, as we’re developing skills and really developing our own self-awareness and our ability to listen, have empathy and really understand ourselves and others, we, naturally, become better people over that kind of arc and journey to developing new skills.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fascinating. And when you say better people, you mean like virtue, like our goodness, and then like an Aristotle or sense of the word?

Maryanne O’Brien
I do. I mean, like our character strengthens.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Maryanne O’Brien
So, if you think about listening is one of the most important skills whenever you’re learning to become a better communicator, and it’s impossible to become a better listener if you’re not patient. If you don’t have some level of empathy and connection with people so that they can really know that you’re listening and connected with them if you aren’t willing to kind of keep an open mind. Like, it’s hard to listen without judgment if you’re not open to new people, you’re not open to new perspectives and new ideas.

And so, as we develop skills and become more aware of our own style and self-awareness and self-understanding, we naturally start to see ways to improve and grow. And so, one of the pieces and one of the philosophies that the work is kind of grounded around is this idea of the micro-evolution of self, the day by day, bit by bit we get better over time. And we do that through understanding kind of, you know, deepening our understanding, what we know. So, there’s some building skills. There’s usually some knowledge you have to have.

Then there’s what you do, the practices that support our ability to become better communicators, and, ultimately, it’s who we are. Success is a natural outcome of who we are, and we all want to be successful in our careers. That’s why we listen to things like How to be Awesome at Your Job is that we want what we do to matter. We want to have purpose. We want to have success.

And the reality is that success isn’t something that we do or something that we have. It’s a natural outcome of how we treat people, how well we interact, how able we are to build trust with all kinds of people. And so, as we learn and grow and evolve and make small changes, we naturally become better people over time. And as we become better people, we become better communicators.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. And I buy that, as I think about many of the skills associated with, well, just as you’ve said, with listening is sort of like, “Well, do I really care about you? Or, am I more interested in me and my fun interesting thoughts than your interesting thoughts? And am I more about being heard than hearing?” And there you go, that is like generosity or humility. These are character things. So, that totally resonates with me. Thank you.

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, some of the styles are more naturally they’re better listeners. Other styles are more interested in talking, and so understanding all of the four different styles. The first one is expressive. They’re the largest at 37%. The second is reserved, they’re 25%. The third is direct, they’re 22% of the population. And then the fourth is harmonious, and they’re 16%.

And the percentages are interesting to kind of know because they represent different sizes in the workplace but each of them is really important and plays a different role in creating high-functioning, high-performing teams. And really learning to understand all of them and understand what are the benefits that they bring, what is the role that they play, what are their needs, what do they value, what are they motivated by, how do they make decisions.

There are all these different complexities around each style that, first of all, you need to understand yourself but then you also want to understand others because what happens, oftentimes, is whenever we run into style tensions, we end up falling into judgment. We’re human, we judge. It’s kind of a natural thing, especially when someone is different than us.

So, sometimes we might find that we hire people that are like us and our teams become really homogenous, and there are two styles, the expressives and the directs, that tend to dominate in work. And if we don’t make room for people who are reserved and people who have harmonious as their natural style, as their primary, we miss opportunities to really create more balanced teams and a wider perspective on nearly every situation and, specifically, when it comes to problem solving.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was just about to ask what’s the big idea behind The Elevated Communicator. It sounds like maybe you just shared it with me. Or, is there any other core message about the book you want to make sure to put out there?

Maryanne O’Brien
So, the idea is that the better we know ourselves and the better we know others, it’s easier for us to bring out the best in ourselves and the best in others. But it really also comes to a level of as we raise our communication skills, we also need to raise our level of wellbeing and really look at how to manage our stress because every style has a spectrum that goes from healthy, when we’re at our best, to our style under stress, and it’s easy to slip into stress.

Like, we are in a pretty stressful environment in the world. Stress does not bring out the best in any style, so there’s a really deep level of self-awareness that happens as you start to really get to know your style and then the other pieces. Ultimately, how do you build those connections and build trust with people, because trust is always the Holy Grail, right? It’s always about psychological safety and “How do we build high-trust teams?”

But the only way we can do that is if we can have genuine conversations and feel safe enough with people to challenge ideas, to share something that is a different perspective, and to get our voice into the conversation whenever there is a really dominant perspective being held.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. And so, these four styles, tell me, where do they come from? I don’t imagine you just made them up. Can you give us a bit of the story about the research, the validation? Like, how do we know there’s four, Maryanne, and not six?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, so I’ve done consulting for several years, and one of the things I’ve always liked to do is to use assessments to help people better see themselves and better able to see other people, and so I was looking for a really great communication assessment. And I have a strong background in quantitative and qualitative research, and I could tell some of them just weren’t as robust as I was used to.

And so, I decided I was going to go create one because I know how important this tool is in organizations, and I’ve been working with organizations on this level for a long time. And so, I went out and I did a giant quantitative study, and my hope was that most style assessments you see, whether it’s a personality, whatever, that we come back in these four tidy little quadrants, and that it would be…

Pete Mockaitis
High this, low that. Low this, low that.

Maryanne O’Brien
Exactly. And so, what I found was, really, there were three primary dimensions that we communicate on. One of them is assertiveness. How forcefully do you share your opinion? Do you speak up? Are you expressive with your emotions and your opinions? The second is collaboration. How well do you work with people? Do you like to work alone? Do you like to work with others? How do you interact? Are you critical or are you supportive? And then the third is really about how you behave whenever you engage with people, so there’s a spectrum.

And it turned out that, rather than kind of falling into these nice little boxes, it’s easy to put a person in a box, but when it comes to communication, if there’s anything more complex than communication, it’s people. And these three dimensions actually formed more of a constellation, so every style has five really primary kind of shining stars that make it distinct, and that falls into this cluster analysis. And then there are some shared traits between some styles.

So, some styles will get along better than others, and that’s usually where you have some overlap. So, when I started to kind of step back and then I did probably a year and a half of qualitative research, going out to really add dimension and understanding of “What does it mean if somebody is expressive? How does that show up in the workplace?” And how we communicate at work is often different than the way we communicate at home. So, there’s parts.

If you read through all the styles, you’ll start to see, like, “Gosh, I feel like I’m a little bit of that aspect in me,” because we do share some of those qualities, and that’s kind of that constellation approach, but also because somebody who is really direct at work can be harmonious at home. And it seems counterintuitive but sometimes they’re like, “You know what, I don’t want to lead everywhere in my life.” And, conversely, I’ve seen people who are harmonious be really direct at home. Those two are kind of the most different of the four styles.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so how do I learn our own style and that of others so that we can make use of this?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, so I would recommend you go and you take the communication style assessment, which is free, at TheElevatedCommunicator.com. I wanted the assessment to be accessible for everyone because, for a long time, I had led StrengthsFinders and other programs where people would get the code and they’d throw away the book. And I was like, “You know, let’s not do that.” If you really are going to read the book and get into your style, which I would also recommend, but I’d love to give you a flavor for all of them today, but I would, first, start by taking the style assessment.

And on the site, you’re going to see a couple of brief descriptions that will help you to understand yourself kind of at a glance, and that will give you a good look into things. And if I could just take you kind of briefly through what the four are and how they show up, you’ll start to see…we start to recognize it in ourselves and in others.

The other piece I would ask you to kind of keep an ear toward as we’re going through this is how you can start to see, like, “Oh, I can see how those styles would get along and how those styles might have some kind of tension points,” because it’s, often, those style tensions that create the people problems in our job.

So, if I start with the expressives, because they’re the largest and most dominant group in an organization, so they are super collaborative. They build high-trust collaborative teams, that’s what they really care about. They’re open, they’re assertive, they ask lots of questions. They really have a strong need to make a personal connection. So, they won’t feel connected to you if they don’t know you on some level. So, they will often ask you personal questions about your family, about your interests, “Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?” They really want to know you.

They also bring the most energy. They want work to feel like it’s fun. They’re perceptive, curious. They ask the most questions. And when they’re at their best, they bring out the best in other people. They are comfortable bringing groups together. They’re really good at defusing conflict because they want the team to get back into a healthy place.

And whenever they’re under that stress side of their style, then they end up being a little bit more sarcastic. They’ll start to dominate a conversation. When you were talking earlier, they’re the ones who would get distracted easily and start a side conversation because they would rather be talking than listening. And so, you can kind of get a picture that gets painted of what that style is like.

Reserved is really interesting. They are the quintessential team player. They really care about having influence. They’re confident. They form their opinions quickly. What is distinctive about them as well is that they’re more private and guarded at work. They like to kind of keep things in a professional realm but they’re extremely great networkers and they’re very personable.

They’re the type of person who really wants to help see other people be at their best. So, they will give them input on like, “Hey, I think you can bring up your game over here. Here’s what the team really needs,” because they care that the team operates at its best, and they’re really thoughtful and deliberate.

When they get under stress, what happens is they don’t love to make decisions. They like to have a lot of influence on them but they don’t want to be the one, ultimately, responsible for it, and so they will wait for others to take the lead. They might withdraw. If they get under stress, they put their head down and they start doing the work, and relationships become more transactional and a little bit more serious. So, you can start to see how there’s a little bit of a spectrum in each one.

When you look at direct, they’re probably one of the easier ones to identify, too, because they get straight into work. They are so responsible, focused, thorough, candid, really independent. They don’t need to work with anybody. They love to work alone. The best conversations are brief, focused, meaningful. They like every meeting to start and stop on time. No small talk. No need to get into anything personal. And they’re the ones who will rein a conversation in if it starts to wander too far.

So, their strength is really to help teams operate at a higher level. They’re really clear and focused. And they inspire the level of accountability that they bring to others. If people kind of don’t meet their expectations, when they’re under stress, they will steamroll, they’ll damage relationships pretty quickly, they’ll tell others what to do and how to do it so that they can get it done as quickly as possible, and they’re super intolerant about any tangents at all. So, that will start to kind of set them off.

And then harmonious, which is the fourth style, they are the glue that kind of keeps teams together. They have the most people-focused approach to the way they think about things. So, whenever decisions are being made, they put it through like, “How is it going to affect other people? How is it going to affect relationships?” They are the best listeners, cooperative, really supportive, and caring. So, they bring the human quality to teams that the other styles don’t consider to the same depth.

Because they are so cooperative, when they’re under stress, they become more of that. So, they can become…they can comply too much. They can water down their opinions. They can become too cooperative and really become quiet. So, all of these styles, each of them plays a role in creating really healthy teams, and we need to make room for some of those voices that aren’t naturally going to jump into the conversation, and invite them in.

Pete Mockaitis
And with that, I guess all sorts of implications could pop up with regard to, “Oh, if I prefer this and someone else might prefer something else, we might consider this particular intervention or approach or adaptation.” I guess I’m curious to hear, since that’d be quite the matrix and difficult to maybe fully elucidate in the time we have, are there any sort of universal best practices and worst practices here when it comes to bridging gaps with others?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, listening is the first thing I would recommend every style puts at its focus. When we make it a point to listen and really be present and not thinking about our response, or waiting for the person to stop talking, that is always a great idea.

So, this idea of kind of flexing your style a little bit, if you can start to recognize what other styles need, and so if you understand, “If I’m direct and if I have no need for small talk, but someone is expressive and they do,” so expressive and harmonious both have a need from having some sort of connection to be made, is to find a way to start every meeting with some sort of connection so that people feel like that need is met but don’t linger on it for too long.

You don’t want to waste 10 minutes of every meeting trying to foster connections. There should definitely be time where you’re building that into your teambuilding, and building those social connections. But find a way to give everybody a little bit of what they need because if our needs go unmet for too long, we’re going to go into some sort of stress response, so fight, flight, or freeze.

We either want to push and steamroll over or we go into flight and we leave, and this is also in organization. I‘ve seen a lot of people who haven’t felt seen and heard or valued because their needs aren’t being met, and that big part of it is what is prompting them to leave. And then we go into freeze, which is we shut down, we disengage. So, we’re physically there but we’re not really there.

So, I would start with listening and it’s not that difficult, actually. I know it sounds, whenever you’re trying to mentally hold it in your head, but whenever you start to look at what each person needs. So, the expressives, they need some sort of personal engagement. Reserved, they need to have some level of influence. Direct, they need every conversation to have meaning. And harmonious needs to have it to be really respectful.

And those pieces, getting to know the different styles is so important because each of us has a different way that we build trust, so we have biases when it comes to building trust. And if that’s, ultimately, our goal is to find ways to work well together, to be more effective in our roles, to build trust and relationships that allow us to navigate the challenges that seem to come out daily, we’ve got to invest a little bit in getting to know other people and understanding what their needs are.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say the direct folks need meaning, I am interpreting that to mean meaning as in the exchange we’re having results in output, results, activity, stuff in the world being different, as opposed to it’s meaningful, Maryanne, that you and I are feeling connected to each other. Is that a fair interpretation of what you mean by meaning for the direct?

Maryanne O’Brien
It is. It has to drive to some sort of actionable outcome.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha.

Maryanne O’Brien
And so, it can’t just be like, “Oh, it felt really good to connect.” It’s like, “What’s the outcome coming here?” because they really have a high level of responsibility and they keep the trains running on time, so they’re the ones that want to know that the conversation is leading to something that’s going to make a decision. It’s going to inform something. It’s going to help me see a new perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha. Okay. Well, so listening, that’s huge, certainly, and having a sense for what the other party really needs, their desire and how you can meet that. Are there any best practices when it comes to listening in terms of this makes a world of difference in terms of really gaining that understanding? I don’t know if there’s any attention tricks or particular power questions that yield lots of insight. Or, how do we listen optimally, Maryanne?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, there are a couple things I’d recommend. First is eliminate as many distractions. Like, eliminate the distractions you can. Turn off your notifications. Put your phone away. Studies have shown that if our phone is just even visible, 20% of our attention goes to our phone because it might ring and we don’t even realize that part of our attention is being drained.

I would make it a practice to set an intention before you have a conversation. We tend to listen best when we think the conversations are important, instead of we’re kind of in that autopilot, like, “Oh, I’m just going to float into a conversation, float into a meeting,” that we’re half present, is to really make it a point to be present.

And then, for certain styles, because harmonious, they’re good listeners, every other style, especially for expressives, I would recommend that you mute yourself in every conversation and speak one time for every three times that you have the impulse because people who are expressive just have a natural desire to share their ideas and they get excited that they don’t even recognize that they’re contributing far more than anyone else and they’re not making room for other people in the conversation.

So, I would dial up your intentionality around conversations and how well you listen, and I would work to really strengthen your self-awareness so that you can become aware of how you’re coming across to people.

Pete Mockaitis
I like what you had to say about when you think a conversation is important, you have some intentionality there, you naturally do more listening as opposed to, “Oh, there’s just this meeting. I got to show up at that meeting.” So, could you give us some examples? Do you recommend like setting a very precise articulation of that intention, like, “In this conversation, I am going to try to understand why Bob is so worried about this thing”?

Like, that’s my goal, my intention. Or, “What I hope to achieve in this conversation is getting a sense of what would be truly most motivating and exciting to the team about this project.” Are those fair approaches? Or how do you think about intentionality?

Maryanne O’Brien
Yes, I think both of those are great examples. The more intentional you are, the more effectively you will show up, and the easier it will be to kind of follow through on that intention. So, I would look at, if you’re going into a meeting, what is it that you need to be able to listen to somebody who has a different perspective, perhaps?

So, if there’s somebody that you know, because we all start to kind of categorize people. It’s like, “Oh, this person always has great ideas and I listen whenever they’re talking, and I want to build upon those.” “This person always shoots everything down.” “This person has the most whacked-out ideas that never make any sense.”

So, if you can set an intention that, no matter who’s talking, “I want to stay open to what they’re saying. I’m going to try to at least understand where they’re coming from.” You don’t have to agree with everyone but if you can at least try to figure out “What is it about that idea that they like?” People want to feel seen and heard. That makes you feel valued.

So, if you at least can demonstrate to them that you’re present, that you’re really listening, that you hear them, that will go a long way into building trust. And then you can say, “You know what, I understood what you said. I see things differently.” We don’t have to agree with everything but the idea is staying open and having that willingness to listen.

So, I think if I was guiding someone toward this, I’d say, “What do you think you need going into this? Is it that you need to be more open? Is it that you need to watch for interrupting? Is it that you’re not going to shut down whenever somebody shares something that you disagree with? Can you watch for your biases? Can you watch for what triggers you?” because all of those kinds of communication influences affect how well we listen.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, Maryanne, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about a few of your favorite things?

Maryanne O’Brien
The piece I would just remind people to start looking for is what is it that they need whenever they’re communicating with people? And how do they help people understand what it is they need? So, we’ll do team-sharing, that’s one great way to start building connections with people. And whenever we all share our styles, so share your styles with the people you work with, and share, like, “Hey, you know what I realize about myself that I hadn’t really understood was I really need some time whenever we first start talking to have some sort of connection.”

And ask them what they need because then that’s an easy way for people to say, “You know what, that’s exactly what I don’t need. I need to get straight into the work.” And so, how do we find that kind of common ground? And the more that we can let people understand us, understand what our needs are, and give them an opportunity to help us meet those needs, and be willing to give them an opportunity to have their needs met, I think that those are some of kind of just basic pieces of making a great connection with someone is to be open, to be a little bit more vulnerable, let people get to know you a little bit, and kind of respect what they need as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Maryanne O’Brien
Sure. One of the ones that I love, I like Stephen Covey’s work. It’s just been influential in my life, and I love the one that he has about trust, which is around, “When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.” And if we thought about the idea that every conversation that we have has an opportunity to either build trust or erode trust, and if we cared about them and stepped into them with that intentionality, it would be a much easier world to live in and to recognize that everybody sees the world differently.

So, how can we be able to accept people who have different views, stay open to them so we can see diverse perspectives, and build trust with people who aren’t like us? It’s easy to build trust with people that operate the way that you do. And just to stay open to all kinds of people and different styles.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you share a favorite book?

Maryanne O’Brien
I really love the The Four Agreements. That is one of my favorites. And so, I think that that idea of having that kind of code of conduct and really getting to know yourself well, because that whole idea of the first one being be impeccable with your word. When you take responsibility for what you say and do, and you choose your words carefully, there’s far less room for the tensions and the people problems that we run into at work.

The second one around, don’t take anything personally. We recognize that what other people are going through and what they say and do doesn’t have to be about you. It’s usually what they’re going through, and just let it go, and not personalize things. The third one around not making assumptions. Like, I love the idea that people have the courage to ask questions and clarify things, and have the willingness to kind of step in and clarify conversations so that you can stay away from misunderstandings.

And then the idea, the fourth one about always doing your best. Every day is different, and people have been going through a lot, and we’re always trying to do our best and it looks different on different days. But if that’s our intention is that every day, “I’m going to do the best that I can and show up in the best way that I can,” I think there’s a lot of value in those four agreements, and they sound simple.

Living them is a practice and it comes back to that idea that if you live these, you will become a better person. And there’s nothing more powerful than self-awareness and the ability to see things and make those course corrections. There’s this old idea, like, “You can’t change what you don’t see.”

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Maryanne O’Brien
If you go to TheElevatedCommunicator.com, you will find the assessment so you can take the style assessment. You can take it for free. You can share it with your colleagues, share it with your friends and family. Start that conversation. There’s also a monthly blog that I do called “Ideas to Elevate,” that help people to put practices into play because that’s how we get better. We have to kind of continue to build those skills through practice.

And then on LinkedIn, I’m doing some online trainings and some different things every so often that are free for people so that we can get into these skills and really help people develop those practices that change the way they communicate.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, I’m going to encourage you to really get to know your style and become aware of how you’re communicating from either that healthy side of your expression when you’re at your best, and how well you know you can communicate when you’re really intentional, to when you’re slipping into stress and what that looks and feels like in your body because we’ll always be able to feel stressed in our body, and that’ll start to tell us how we’re communicating.

And to build in some sort of wellbeing practices that help you raise that level of resilience that you have because we communicate from that level of self-awareness and wellbeing, that combination. And when stress starts to become too much, we’re going to slip into those lower expressions, and that’s when we really damage our relationships.

So, I would encourage you to get to know your style, start to recognize that style spectrum, and develop some sort of simple practices that keep you really intentional about how you want to build relationships, how you want to show up, how you want to become a better communicator.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Maryanne, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck with your elevated communications.

Maryanne O’Brien
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

748: How to Decrease Ambiguity and Increase Clarity with Karen Martin

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Karen Martin shares her top tips for clearly communicating what you mean and getting others to do the same.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to speak your mind without coming off as harsh 
  2. The one question to ask when someone’s being unclear
  3. Fuzzy words you should stop using immediately 

About Karen

Karen Martin, president of the global consulting firm TKMG, Inc., is a leading authority on business performance and Lean management. Known for her keen diagnostic skills and rapid-results approach, Karen and her team have worked with clients such as AT&T, Chevron, Epson, GlaxoSmithKline, International Monetary Fund, Lenovo, Mayo Clinic, Prudential Insurance, Qualcomm, and the United States Department of Homeland Security to develop more efficient work systems, grow market share, solve business problems, and accelerate performance. 

Resources Mentioned

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Karen Martin Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Karen, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Karen Martin
It’s great to be back, Pete. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you just said something funny before I pushed record, which was, it’s been a little over three years since you were on the show, and you commented that it feels like a lot more than three years, would you say?

Karen Martin
In COVID times, that’s a decade.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it really is.

Karen Martin
My gosh, it’s so weird how warped time is, isn’t it?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it really is.

Karen Martin
It’s just weird.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s wild. And the last time, we talked about clarity. And if listeners haven’t checked out that episode, I recommend it. It’s a good one, number 382. So, I’d love to hit a little bit of some of those bits on clarity and, specifically, the questions, and questions about questions. And, maybe for starters, can you tell us, in these three years, or decade, depending on your perspective, have you discovered anything new about clarity, or refined any of your thinking in a way that’s super handy?

Karen Martin
Oh, my goodness. Well, let’s stick on the COVID thing for just a moment. So, talk about a lesson in the lack of clarity. Oh, my gosh, it has been three years of the most incredible ambiguity I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, and it’s everything from the debate about science and non-science. And I think the most incredible one, to me, is how unclear the media and the agencies have been on, “When do you turn positive for a rapid antigen test? When do you turn positive for PCR? What does turning negative mean?” There’s just no clear answer.

And then there is a clear answer. I’m a microbiologist from way back when, and there’s a very clear answer on when you turn positive and negative on these tests, but they’re just not communicating it well at all. So, I think if you pay really close attention to any information you receive, you can feel when it’s clear, not maybe clear and false, but you can at least feel when it’s clear and when it’s not. You get a visceral reaction when you’re in the presence of ambiguity.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you know, that’s a great point. And I guess I’m thinking about masks with regard to in the early stages because I had that feeling. In the early days, the guidance was, “Hey, yeah, go ahead and wear masks but not N95 masks because the healthcare workers need those.” And I was like, “Well, it sounds like the N95 masks are better if that’s who needs them, and so that’s actually not clear. So, what I think you need to say to me is, ‘Use the inferior masks and make a sacrifice for the sake of public health because the healthcare workers need them.’”

As opposed to, what was unclear was like, “Well, so do the non-N95 masks do good things?” because I generally like to have the best thing if I’m going to get a thing. I’m sort of like all or nothing in a lot of ways.

Karen Martin
Yeah. Well, a lot of that, I give a lot of grace to the agencies and to the media as well in the beginning days, a lot of grace, because we didn’t know. We just didn’t understand how much the virus can penetrate different kinds of masks and all of these different things that took a lot of experience and a lot of research of that experience in order to figure that all out. So, I will give a big pass in the very beginning.

But I also think that we could’ve been a lot more honest about, remember in the very beginning, it was, “You don’t have to wear a mask at all,” and it was because they were worried about healthcare workers having access to enough supply for them to be able to not be in harm’s way. And so, just the whole thing, again, I’ll give a lot of grace because we were all in panic mode, the agencies, probably the most panicked mode of anybody because they were responsible for what happens and what the communication is and everything, but it was really, it continues to be an incredible lesson in clarity versus ambiguity.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, Karen, I love that notion of there’s a feeling there. And I think that I can brush it away too fast in terms of, “That doesn’t quite seem to make sense but that’s what the expert said so…” I don’t know, if I were to kind of put words to the feelings.

Karen Martin
Yeah, don’t brush it away. One of the things I talk about in the book Clarity First is that you have a right to receive clear information and you have an obligation to deliver clear information. And delivering clear information is such a gift because there are so many people that are afraid to deliver a clear message for various reasons, and we could talk about some of those, but kind of being brave and being clear, you don’t have to be harsh and clear. You can be frank and candid and it be very loving, actually. But being the recipient of information? Absolutely you have a right to have clear information and the obligation to ask for clarity when you don’t get it.

Pete Mockaitis
This talk about courage and communicating clearly reminds me of consulting days and the headlines that go on slides because the best practice that has been drilled into my head, I hear from consulting, is that we have a headline on the slide that conveys the key message takeaway, such as, I don’t know, “Sales have fallen dramatically since 2012,” for example, as opposed to simply, “Sales over time.”

And it does take some courage because, and I think the reason, and I’ve been accused by my clients of using sensational headlines. I was like, “Are these sensational? I think it just tells you what’s going on here.”

Karen Martin
The truth.

Pete Mockaitis
They might be more sensational compared to “Sales over time,” which isn’t very instructive, is that, well, the director of sales who started the job in that year is in the room, and he or she could be super offended that you’re putting a bright spot on, “Oh, see, things went bad right around when this guy was there,” even though you didn’t say that. But I think it does take some courage to be clear because people’s feelings can get hurt.

So, help us sort through that a little bit in terms of, in some ways, you don’t want to have like the pure naïve clarity of a child who just says anything, like, “You’re fat, you know.” Like, “Don’t do that.” But help us out, Karen, how do we get clear but not be too offensive and do this dance?

Karen Martin
So, I think the key is to always communicate with love as the intention and not harm. And when you kind of go from a place of love, and I know it’s funny to be talking about jobs and work and love, but it really is, there’s two pure human emotions – love and fear. And when you have love as the intent of conversation, then you can be clear and not harsh or harmful or mean or it’s easier when it’s done with love.

Now, so tough love is a great phrase, and tough love can be a little hard to swallow but if you deliver it in the right way, you know that you care about the person and you’re delivering the information out of concern and caring and loving for that person, and it can be a person at work. This love thing isn’t just outside of work. That helps a lot.

And I also think that when it comes to team-based meetings and activities and proven activities and things like that, you have to kind of go into those with some ground rules about what the expectation is that the conversation should be like. And so, the expectation should be, ideally, that there’s a safe environment to speak the truth, and that the truth is founded and grounded in facts, and that it is what is, and it’s not going to be blame-oriented. I think that’s where we get ourselves into really, really big trouble is this blaming and finger-pointing.

When you’re trying to solve problems, which business is 90% solving problems, you have to not have a fear-based or a culture and an environment that’s going to evoke fear because people are being blamed. So, that helps a lot right there.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and I think maybe the other side of the coin maybe credit, it’s like, “We need the credit.” Like, if you view, wasn’t it Abraham Lincoln who talked about “Victory has a thousand fathers but failure is a lonely orphan”? Something like that.

Karen Martin
Oh, I love that. Yeah, yeah, that’s a really nice quote. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
In terms of everyone wants to claim credit for the things that’s going well, and everyone wants to divest blame or involvement or association with the thing that didn’t go so well. So, I guess I’m just talking with a buddy who mentioned some groups refuse to let someone mention a victory in another group’s newsletter because they’re like, “They’re always getting the credit for the things and we need to get credit for the things.” And I don’t know the whole story but that didn’t sound…

Karen Martin
That’s a toxic culture right there.

Pete Mockaitis
That didn’t sound like the best place to be from that little snippet.

Karen Martin
No, that is a toxic culture. Yeah, I think that the more that we can just get kind of unemotional about performance and projects that either work really well or don’t work so well, I love, actually, going into clients where they’re dealing with some perceived negative situations or something was “a failure” and get them to see it through a learning lens.

The fact that something didn’t work out as well as you would like, that’s the rich fodder for “Well, why not? What happened? And what can we not repeat the next time? Or, what should we do more of to increase our chances of success?” And really reflecting on why something didn’t work out so well is important but, yet, we kind of rush, rush, rush to the next thing, and don’t take time to really learn from our failures. It sounds overwrought to say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, we learned from our failures,” but you really do. It’s not just a saying. You really do. You can, if you listen and reflect, learn a lot from failure.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so, there are some emotional foundational things that kind of need to be present in order for clarity to even have a prayer.

Karen Martin
A fighting chance, exactly, a fighting chance.

Pete Mockaitis
Being around. So, then, let’s say we do have that or at least we have enough of that. Let’s talk about the underpinnings of clarity in terms of I love, in our last chat, we talked about some of those key questions that you can use of others to get clarification, like, “Why?” “What if…?” “Why not?” “How could we…?” “What would have to be true if…” as well as questions we can ask ourselves to determine, “Hey, am I clear? Is what I’m saying going to kind of make sense and feel clear?”

And you also have questions about questions. So, Karen, I just want to talk about questions. Lay it on us, if we’re trying to get clear, what are the fundamental questions we should be asking ourselves and others?

Karen Martin
Well, so let’s talk about email communications, phone calls, picking up the phone, and walking to a meeting, or chatting, or texting. One of the most important things to do is say, “What is my intent? Why am I communicating with this person or this team or this organization?” or whoever it is, “What do I want to achieve?”

And I think, also, being very, very precise on what are you asking for. Are you just sharing information just so they know? Are you sharing information because you want a decision? Are you sharing information because you want someone’s opinion? Are you sharing information because you want someone to take action?

If you can just be more precise on what you’re seeking to achieve, it makes it a lot easier to be clear. And I get emails, and, actually, I even have a couple people on our team that I have to work so hard to understand what they’re actually wanting to achieve in the email, and it’s like, “Ahh, ahh, ahh,” and I was like, “Wait, do you want me to make a decision? Do you want me to take action? Do you want me to give you an opinion? What do you want?”

So, I, long ago, actually one of my direct reports actually taught me early in my career how to put my intent at the very first sentence of an email and then give the backstory, and all the facts, and all the details that are needed. Just the essential facts are needed. So, if you just think about, “I’d love to get your opinion on blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” “I would love for you to help me with blah, blah, blah, blah. Do you have time?”

If you just are clear up front on what you want, and then give any of the details that are necessary, people love it because they don’t have to work to understand what it is you’re asking for. And this is true with love relationships, too. This is not just work. This is family, friends, partners. It really is amazing how, when you’re clear about what you’re seeking to achieve, how much easier the communication can go.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I love that. And it’s just like it can be one sentence at the top of the email, “I love your feedback. I love your decision.” It’s so funny, I’m thinking now about the email I get the most of in my life these days is pitches to appear on the podcast, so I think it’s funny. And now I just know what people are going for, but I think it’s funny how sometimes the emails will just sort of go into the details, like, “Karen Martin is the President of Global…” It’s like, “Okay, Karen is so great,” it’s like, “Okay. Well, good for Karen, but what are you offering me?” Well, now, I know sort of by shortcut. But I think that’s sort of funny.

Some marketing guru, I don’t remember who it was, he said that’s one of the cardinal sins whether it’s an About page, or an email, or a piece of marketing. It’s about, “Me, me, me, us, us, us.” And it’s sort of like, “Well, no one cares,” maybe often about sort of maybe like the history or the founding of something so much as the benefit that it provides me and/or what you need or want from me. Because sometimes, I guess that’s my test, is I would say, “If this just feels like a press release, then I almost feel paralyzed,” not to be overdramatic here.

It’s like, “Okay, thanks.” It’s like I’m reading a press release as opposed to, “Oh, did you want to buy our product or service? Did you want to interview this person? Did you want to explore this idea as an initiative for us in the next year?” It’s like I need a little something and I think sometimes we just assume that the person on the receiving end just knows. Like, it seems like if I get forwarded something and there’s nothing at the top of it for me, that’s the trickiest for me. It’s like, “Okay, now what?”

Karen Martin
And, yeah, I think It helps a lot to think about life, in general, as a supplier of customer relationship. It’s not just in business that we should be thinking about these things. So, the supplier is the person who’s communicating, and the customer is the recipient of that information. And I have a rule of thumb, I say, “Know thy customer, and know what your customer’s level of understanding about the topic you’re communicating, know what their motivation is, know what’s going to grab them versus turn them off.” You have to think a little bit.

We are not all cut from the same cloth. We all have different learning needs, learning styles, communication needs, absorption needs, and so you have to not just brush everyone with the same brush. You have to think about, “How do I properly convey to these folks whatever it is I want to share or ask for?”

But you mentioned questions behind questions, so that, we turn it around now. So, that’s when you’re communicating with others. Now, it’s when people are communicating with you, and a lot of times it’s so fascinating if you start really paying attention to this. If someone asks you a question, sometimes it’s very, very easy to understand what they’re asking you. Like, “What time do you have to leave the meeting?” It’s very concrete, tangible, and they’re asking for just a straight answer.

But sometimes people will ask questions that the question actually isn’t what they’re asking, there’s a question behind the question, but out fear, you’re not getting the right question. And so, if you say, if you pause, don’t be so obligated to answer the question, and say, “Hmm, that’s interesting. I’m curious, why are you asking that question?” You have to ask it in a really gentle way. You can’t go, “Why are you asking that question?”

You have to say, “I’m just curious why you’re asking that question.” Then you almost always will get the real question that they’re asking. And it’s fascinating to see how, if you would’ve just started talking and answering the question, the first question, you would not have provided what they were actually asking. And sometimes, people that are communicating, they aren’t even aware that they’re not being as truthful and forthright as they should be so that you can answer more clearly what they’re asking for because it’s habitual.

And so, you can help someone out of that habit of being afraid, or sugarcoating, or just being kind of vague. You can help them by saying, “I don’t understand, or tell me more about that. What’s behind that question?”

Pete Mockaitis
Two examples leap to mind here, and I want to hear some more from you, Karen. One, it might’ve been from Gottman, since we talked about romantic relationships as well here, in terms of if, I think, a wife asks her husband, “Oh, are you cold?” which is really thinking as, “I’d like to have some intimate time in bed and to cozy up and warm that way,” but she’s maybe a little bit timid in terms of she doesn’t want to feel a little bit rejection, so they say, “Oh, are you feeling cold?”

And then the husband, clueless to the intention behind the question is like, “Nope.” It didn’t even occur to him that that was kind of what we were discussing here. And then I had a buddy, I think I was showing him the game Angry Birds, and, this cracked me up, he said to me, “Oh, and people find this engaging?” which I clearly intuited meant he thought, “Wow, that looks dumb. I’m so surprised that there’s a lot of people who do this and for a long time? Wow.” They’re surprised.

So, maybe you can give us some examples, more in a workplace context, what are some times people are asking questions that aren’t really what they’re getting after?

Karen Martin
Well, I work in the space of improvement a lot, and so a lot of times people will ask questions about why the improvement is important, or what’s going to likely be the outcome, when they’re really saying, “I’m very concerned. I’m afraid I’m going to lose my job. I feel like I’m going to lose power.” So, the big threats in business are losing their job, losing power, losing budget, if you’re at a budget level, losing face, having people not respect you. They’re all kind of human but they’re a little more financially tied in business because of the paycheck.

And so, when they’re asking a lot about, “Well, why this and why that?” And when it comes to an improvement or idea, they’re actually, most of the time, they’re asking, “What guarantee can you give me that you’re not going to make my work much more difficult, or I’m going to lose my job?” And so, if you ask what’s behind the question, it starts coming out a little bit more.

The other thing that can happen is.

Karen Martin
So, you mentioned the questions, let me go here because I think it was tied to this. You said, “What would have to be true if why, why not, what if, all those things?” What I’ve learned, actually since you and I talked, I think this is one learning I had is that the question “Why?” I already knew it could be laced with accusation and blame and harshness, but I’ve learned even more how laced it is.

And so, the thing that’s easier on the ear and on the heart and the soul is a question begins with “What?” because you can turn all questions into “Why?” So, like, “Why is he doing that?” It sounds very accusatory. But the question could be turned around into “What conditions created the need to do that?” or, “What outcome is he trying to achieve doing that?” or something like that. It just has a little softer feel to it, what and how questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, “What made you prefer that option?”

Karen Martin
And you actually get people to think deeply when you ask what and how questions. Why are also good-thinking questions. So, there’s binary questions that are answered with yes/no, and those begin with should, could, do, so they’re all questions that are answered yes or no. The ones that are Socratic in nature, meaning that they require you to answer a little more deeply and think a little more deeply, are the ones what, why, and how are the big ones.

Then the ones that are kind of middle are the who, where. They’re kind of a little more binary because they’re easy to answer and concrete. The what, how, and why questions require thought. But of those three, I always place why as the last, kind of like the last place I go to if I can’t get the question answered better with what and how, I’ll go to why. But I try really hard to stick with what and how. Non-threatening. Much more non-threatening.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, so that’s a great notion associated about what’s behind the question is it’s often something, I don’t mean this in necessarily a bad way, but it’s sort of self-serving, and that’s kind of why they don’t just nakedly say it, like, “So, is this going to reduce my power?” Kind of make you seem like, “Oh, okay. We see what you’re into.” But, nonetheless, you care and you want to know, so you ask.

And so then, I’m curious, as we play out this conversation, how do you answer that well in terms of, one, I guess you ask what’s behind the question, and they may or may not sort of directly say, “I’m worried this will reduce my power”? I’m guessing it likely won’t.

Karen Martin
Well, you’ll get closer to that by asking the question behind the question, what’s the question behind the question. For sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. So, they might say, “Oh, well, we’re just working out this budget so we’re just curious about the budgetary implications.” It’s like, “Okay, budgetary implications is pretty close to ‘Are you going to take away my money?’” and so you can go there. And then, I guess, with reassurances there, I guess maybe you answered that question as I was just concerned that that might seem to, I don’t know, presumptuous or patronizing.

I know you’re not going to say, “Hey, relax, Mike. You’re going to keep your budget.” I know you’re not going to say it quite like that. But any thoughts in terms of, as that conversation progresses, in terms of keeping it productive and feeling good?

Karen Martin
Well, I want to highlight something that you said just about like, I don’t know, maybe 30 seconds, 20 seconds ago that was really, really good. And you started your sentence with, “I’m curious to learn,” or, “I’m curious to…” I think you said, “I’m curious to learn.” That is a wonderful phrase. It actually makes people relax a little when you ask things from a place of curiosity. And the cousin to curiosity, I talk about in Clarity First is humility.

And when you say, “I’m curious to learn,” humility is kind of implied there, and you can’t just say it just to say it when you’re actually being…have no interest in being curious and you have no interest in being humble. But if you are truly asking that question, which sounded to me like you were, truly from a place of curiosity, you’re going to get a lot farther because you’re not going in with assumptions and biases and judgments and blame. Like, you really want to learn. And when you want to learn, people can relax and give you information you might never get.

And, by the way, these are techniques that law enforcement intelligence use all the time, and investigators of all sorts, when they’re trying to get to the truth of a situation. They ask a lot of what and how questions to get people talking and relaxed so that they’re more likely to reveal the truth.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, I’d love it, Karen, can you give us some more phrases, questions, questions about questions, magical phrases, like, “I’m curious to learn”? Let’s hear some specific verbiage that’s awesome often.

Karen Martin
“Data doesn’t lie” unless the data has been fraudulently entered or faked. So, I like, “Data doesn’t lie,” and this is to get us away from the opinions that kind of come in at work, and people say, “It’s this.” And it doesn’t have to be big and complex data analysis. Just getting some basic numbers and quantities and volumes and things like that can really help chip away at the opinions and get to facts. So, “Data doesn’t lie” is another one.

Fuzzy words. I love the phrase fuzzy words, which I talk about, actually, in The Outstanding Organization in that clarity chapter. I talk about fuzzy words or things where they mean different things to you and me. So, it’s things like long, short, heavy, light, soon, it’s a long time. I give this example of Starbucks. When someone says, “The line is long at Starbucks,” how many people is that?

And if you ask a room of 20 people, you’ll get a pretty good split between two to four, another is like the five to seven people, and then there’s like the more than seven people, and it’s so interesting. And so, those are fuzzy words you should avoid at all costs. And if someone uses them with you, you should ask for clarification, “How many? How many do you mean?” I mean, if it’s rough, like I guess a line at Starbucks would be fair.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, “If you care…”

Karen Martin
Yeah, it’s not all that relevant at work, but you should really start tuning in to those words that people use them all the time, these fuzzy words. And it’s not necessarily because they’re afraid to reveal the truth; it’s a habit. It’s just you don’t have to commit when you’re using a word that means different things to different people.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think not having to commit, that’s huge. I’m thinking especially like with soon. It’s like, “Oh, I’ll get that to you soon or shortly.” It’s sort of like, “I don’t want to put myself on the hook.”

Karen Martin
Right. If you’re talking to me, I’m going to ask you what you mean by that.

Pete Mockaitis
“You’ll have this within nine days?” and then it’s like, “Well, now, I’ve given up some flexibility associated with my task management.”

Karen Martin
Yeah, the other thing is people have different expectations. So, I think that most of the conflict in the world is because of misunderstood expectations. So, let’s think about a boss giving an employee a task or a job to do or a project, or whatever. If the boss doesn’t get precise with what the expectation is from not only a date but also the quality of the results, and there’s done, there’s done-done, and there’s done-done-done, and that also is fascinating.

It’s fascinating to see how one person’s definition of what done means, “This project is done,” is not at all what another person’s idea of done is, and so you got to ask for clarity. And on our project plans, we actually have a column that says like, “What is done?” And done to some people is they’ve actually, let’s say they’re making an improvement, they’ve made an improvement. Done to someone else is they’ve made an improvement and people have been trained. Done to someone else is they’ve made an improvement, people have been trained, and is now being managed and monitored, there’s a measurement.

And so, you have to get really clear. I learned this actually from construction guys, and they were like, “Oh, this is decades ago.” And they were like, “Well, you know there’s done, there’s done-done, there’s done-done-done in construction.” And then, of course, I learned that that’s true in every aspect of work, all industries, all areas within an organization to have that same fuzziness that, unless you ask for clarification, two people can expect very different things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And that notion of the multiple dones kind of gets me thinking with regard to let’s just say there’s a meeting, let’s say, I asked you for something, Karen, and we both know that the reason I’m asking you for this is because I’ve got a meeting coming up in February 3rd, whatever, with somebody. And so, you understand that to be a deadline, “Oh, I need to get this to Pete before February 3rd.”

Like, if we haven’t discussed it, most likely I’m expecting you will get this to me well in advance of February 3rd so that I can review it and/or potentially share it with my boss, and boss’ boss, and boss’ boss’ boss, maybe, so that it’s perfectly polished and done-done-done for February 3rd. And so, I think that’s intriguing that I guess there’s deadlines and then there’s dead-dead-deadlines as well.

Karen Martin
Yeah, it is true. There’s a lot of clarification that needs to happen. And even the project itself, I see so many people at lower levels in organizations taking on requests from their bosses that they’re not clear what the request actually is, but they don’t feel comfortable asking for clarification, and I’m like, “No, you have to feel comfortable asking for clarification.

And if your boss is someone who’s not willing to give clarification, you have to have a conversation with that person about why you’re asking for clarification,” because sometimes someone can feel threatened if you’re asking for clarification. You have to help them understand that you actually want to serve them. You actually want to do well. You want to give them what they’re looking for. You want to have them look like a superstar in their boss’ eyes.

Or, whatever it is, you’re not doing it out of malice or threatening, assuming you’re not. So, I think it’s a really important thing for everyone from the frontlines all the way up the ranks to really get good at, is not taking on a project that they go, “I’m not quite sure exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. What’s the outcome? What are we looking for? What does good look like?” That’s another great question, “What does good look like?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’m loving this. So, what is done? What does good look like? When is soon? Keep them coming, Karen. What are some other favorite questions?

Karen Martin
Well, I say “What do you mean by that?” a lot. What do you mean by that? That’s a good clarification question, and that’s almost like the question behind the question, but, in this case, the person probably has made a statement, and I was thinking, “What do you mean by that?” They’re like, “What do you mean what do I mean?” I’m like, “Don’t tell me. Tell me more.” And that’s another thing. I’ll say, “Tell me more.” And it’s not really a question but “Tell me more” is also a good way to get people to reveal a little more so you become more clear what they’re actually communicating.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, Karen, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some more of your favorite things?

Karen Martin
I don’t know. I just want everyone to get infected with the zest for clarity and expect it, give it. People say, “Well, sometimes the truth hurts.” Yeah, sometimes the truth does hurt but at least you know what you’re dealing with. I just don’t think that…if you don’t know what’s going on, how do you possibly make a positive step in the right direction. Even if it’s the worst possible news you could ever get, then you know what you’re dealing with, and you can deal with it then, otherwise, you really don’t know which way to go, so go for it. Everyone who’s listening, go for it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Karen Martin
This is going to sound funny. It’s actually in an advertising timeline. I really love the Nike “Just do it.” It’s not really a quote per se, but I just think that we just live in a fear-based bubble too much, and I love “Just do it.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Karen Martin
My favorite research in decades has been the one that uncovered the fact that there’s no such thing as multitasking. And it was a study Professor David Meyer at University of Michigan did. He studied engineers, and he was studying how much time they take during the day task-switching from one kind of work to another kind of work, and how much productivity that robbed them off, and how much stress it added, and how much it risks quality problem because of this juggling.

So, when I see job, not as much anymore, thankfully, but I used to see a lot, job postings that would say, “Must be comfortable with ambiguity and must be able to multitask.” Well, first of all, we don’t want people to be comfortable with ambiguity. No, no, no, no, no, we want people to be truth-tellers and truth-seekers. And we also don’t want people that are able to “multitask” because it’s absolutely impossible to do two cognitive activities at the same time. It’s impossible.

And so, that research was really compelling. And when I work with clients on prioritization, the key is to say, “Not yet” to those things that can wait but to do fewer things at once, and you’ll get so much more done in the same unit of time if you do fewer things at once, complete them, then move on and complete them, then move on. You can get triple the output by doing fewer things at once and not juggling.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Karen Martin
My favorite fiction book is The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, and I did my first book report on that, and I just love that book. There’s so much in that book. My favorite business book, well, besides my own, I would say is Out of the Crisis by Deming. It’s an old book, it’s a thick book, but it’s really powerful about the ways businesses operate and keep themselves in crisis mode, and how to break. There are different principles that you operate. And lean management is actually heavily based on a lot of Deming’s work, so I love that book, Out of the Crisis.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Karen Martin
Well, I love value stream mapping, which is not for everyone. It’s a more strategic tool that’d be for directors and above in an organization. For directors and below, I would say I think one of the most important skills is to get really, really good at email management. I’m a big believer in zero inbox. I never get to true zero but I get to Teams, and it’s so much easier to do than to have these hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox robbing you of, I call that, existential inventory. It robs you of the psychic energy you need to be productive. So, get control of those inboxes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Is there a key nugget you share that connects, resonates with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Karen Martin
It’s not a quote but when I work with companies on clarity, I will often hear people in the hallway, in the cafeterias, wherever I go, “Curse you, Karen Martin.” And I’ll say, “Why?” “Because I can’t handle not having clarity anymore.” And I said, “Mission accomplished.” But it is funny how many people go, “Oh, my gosh, I had no idea how much ambiguity I allowed in my life and I contributed to until I met you,” or read the book, or whatever it might be. So, it’s kind of a “Curse you” thing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Karen Martin
I’ve got two websites. TKMG, so I used to be the Karen Martin Group but we shortened it, so I have a whole team now, so it’s TKMG.com. and then we have an online learning academy, which is new since you and I last talked, and that’s TKMGAcademy.com.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Karen Martin
Yeah, I think it’s just, starting tomorrow, listen, listen, listen, and feel what you’re feeling, and start paying attention to when things are clear, when they’re not clear, listen to how you’re communicating, re-read your emails, and just start becoming aware. Like, just take that first step. You don’t have to do anything yet. Just start becoming aware of the degree of ambiguity and/or the degree of clarity that is around you and that you’re contributing to. Just become aware and, that alone, can start moving mountains.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Beautiful. Karen, this has been a treat once again. I wish you much clarity and fun in your adventures.

Karen Martin
Thank you, Pete. It was really nice to talk with you again. I love your questions, so thank you.

724: How to Master Your Executive Presence with Muriel Wilkins

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Muriel Wilkins says: "Executive presence is really about how others experience you."

Muriel Wilkins dispels myths surrounding executive presence and shows you how you can develop your own, no matter what your role is.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What executive presence really means 
  2. The two muscles you need to train for executive presence
  3. The key factors that affect your confidence 

About Muriel

Muriel Maignan Wilkins, Managing Partner and Co-founder of Paravis Partners is a C-suite advisor and executive coach with a strong track record of helping already high performing senior leaders take their effectiveness to the next level. Muriel is the host of the Harvard Business Review podcast, “Coaching Real Leaders” and is the co-author, with Amy Su, of “Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence”. 

Resources Mentioned

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  • StoryBlocks. Enhance your video storytelling quickly, beautifully, and affordably at Storyblocks.com/awesome.

Muriel Wilkins Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Muriel, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Muriel Wilkins
Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig in and chat about executive presence. And maybe you could start us off by saying what the heck does that even mean?

Muriel Wilkins
That’s what actually set me on a track to figure out what it means because a lot of people don’t know what it means. It’s a term that’s used so broadly and loosely, and it’s a term where many of my clients, my coaching clients were getting feedback on their executive presence. And, quite frankly, when I would ask, “Well, what does it mean?” They’re like, “I have no idea.”

So, from my perspective, and based on the work that I’ve done with folks and my research on it, executive presence is really about how others experience you. And, more specifically, when I think about it from a leadership presence, is when others are in your presence, do they feel like they’re in the presence of a leader? And that has nothing to do with where you sit hierarchically in the organization. It all has to do with what you exude.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, certainly. And so, I can see how that really is frustrating for the individual, it’s like, “I don’t know.”

Muriel Wilkins
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
“It’s like based on someone else’s perception of me.”

Muriel Wilkins
Exactly. And even worse, it’s like, “Well, I don’t know, but Joe has it.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but you’re not Joe.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. So, that sets the vibe. It’s like, “If someone has executive presence, and I’m in the presence of someone with executive presence, I feel like, wow, I’m with a leader.” Okay. Well, then I’m curious, you tell me, is it like you either got it or you don’t? And what if you don’t, what do you do?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah, that in itself is sort of demoralizing as a follow-up to getting feedback on executive presence. It’s like, “You need to work on this.” But, you know, can you really work on it because you’re either born with it or you’re not? And if there’s one thing that I’ve tried to do around this topic of executive presence is really debunk the myth that it’s just something that you naturally have. It’s something that you could definitely build and develop over time. The key is developing a presence that is also authentic to you because it’s not mimicking everyone else. It’s about having an impact in a way that’s relevant to others while still maintaining a sense of who you are and what you bring to the table in your own authenticity so that you’re not a chameleon.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, got you. So, that sounds super. Let’s maybe dig into maybe the particular components and approaches to make that transition happen well. But maybe could you start by sharing an inspiring story of someone who got the word, “Hey, you need better executive presence,” and then what they did and the results that happened from that turnaround?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. Well, I’ll share my own story because I was the receiver of that feedback way back when, and the feedback that I got was that I needed to tone it down.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy.

Muriel Wilkins
And it was like, “Okay, what does that mean? My volume sounds just fine.” But what they were talking about was, again, my presence was not one that was with those particular stakeholders, one that really exuded the position that I had as an executive and as a leader at that time. And so, that is something that I think many people have experienced, whether it’s, “You need to tone it down,” or whether, “You need to be more confident.”

You often hear it in terms of adjectives, “Be more this,” “Be more inspiring,” “Be more assertive.” And the fact of the matter is that, just as I described with your presence, it’s the feeling that you give somebody. An adjective is not a verb so it doesn’t really give the concrete steps of what you’re able to do. I often say, if somebody has received feedback of “Be more confident,” it’s not like you wake up one day and say, “Well, today I decide not to be confident.” Like, everybody wants to show up as confident.

So, when we think about executive presence and what are the steps to really get there, the first place is to recognize, “What is the impact that you want to make? What is the impression or the feeling that you want to leave people with?” And when you think about what the impression is, or the impact, that a leader or an executive or somebody that you want to “follow” has on you, it’s usually two things, the combination of two things: they are credible and they’re relatable.

And so, the intersection of those two things is actually what makes up or what makes you feel like somebody has executive presence because they have that impact on you. And so, the first place to start is understanding that those are the two levers that you have, and then determining, of those two levers, “Which one am I exuding and which one am I not? Or am I exuding both? Or am I not exuding any of them?” So, it starts with some self-awareness around what the impact is that you’re actually having. Because if you can figure that out, that it’s either the credibility or the relatability, then you can figure out “Well, what do I do about each of those muscles?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I love that a lot. And in terms of that first step, I think it’s easy to skip over, like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, give me some tactics, Muriel.” But, no, no, it is so foundational because I guess I think I’ve made my own mistakes with this in terms of any types of presenting of yourself, like I think I’ve had headshots done, and I’ve made the mistake before. I picked a headshot, it’s like, “Ooh, I look really hot in that one. I think that’s the best photo to go with it.” It’s like, “You might look like the most aesthetically pleasing, in your opinion, Pete, but actually that’s not what we’re trying to accomplish here in terms of the target demographic and audience and impression that we’re sending.” Like, these aren’t modeling headshots. These are for a speaking agency to get me booked to do keynotes.

And, likewise, that comes up in LinkedIn in terms of it’s like, “In your profile and your picture, how do you want to present those elements and the headlines and the experiences because there’s a variety of flavors you could take?” Like, if you’re trying to represent yourself as a model or a standup comedian, that’s going to have a different vibe than if you’re trying to do this executive presence thing. And you’re seeing, when it comes to executive presence in professional workplace environments, generally what we’re after is conveying credible and relatable. So, it’s awesome.

Muriel Wilkins
That’s right. And it also goes beyond the professional workplace. If you think about your friends, or the people you associate with, or your family, or your partner, yeah, I don’t know about you, but I want my partner to be credible and relatable.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure, yeah.

Muriel Wilkins
So, it really also just becomes around what do we tend to look for as humans in others that gives us a sense that we can be confident in them, and that we have some type of connection to them? And so, those are why they end up being the two muscles.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then in practice, what are some key do’s and don’ts to convey all the more credibility and relatability?

Muriel Wilkins
So, the way that I tend to think about it is almost like conditioning an athlete. When you think about an athlete who conditions themselves in their preferred sport or their sport of choice, they’re a master at that sport. They have to be conditioned at three levels. They have to be conditioned from a mental standpoint, they have to be conditioned from a skills standpoint, the skill of that particular sport, and they have to be conditioned physically for the sport that they’re playing or competing in.

Likewise, when you’re trying to really master and train these muscles of credibility and relatability, again, mastering your leadership presence, you also have to condition yourself at those three levels. And so, what are those? So, the first place is your mental conditioning. Well, what’s our mental conditioning when we think about our presence? It’s the beliefs that you have. It’s the thoughts and the assumptions that you have about yourself, about the other, about the situation.

And understanding what those are, and with no judgment of “Is it a right thought or a wrong thought?” this is not like “The Power of Positive Thinking.” It’s more around, “Is that belief actually serving you in showing up as credible and relatable?” So, if I don’t have conviction around my message – and conviction is just a belief, I believe in my message, I believe in what I’m saying, or I have knowledge about what I’m saying – then how in the heck am I going to show up as credible in what I have to say?

So, the first level is mental conditioning, and I’ll tell you, Pete, that’s the hardest one for people to get their head wrapped around because a lot of times it is about them dismantling the beliefs that they’ve had for an eternity. So, that’s the first one. The second level of conditioning is skill conditioning. And in our game of executive presence, that’s your communication skills. And so, what are the communication skills that allow you to show up, again, credible and relatable? It’s quite simple.

From a credibility standpoint, the communication skill is your ability to speak in a clear and concise way. Rambling does not define credibility. And on the relatability side, the key communication skill is the skill of being able to listen so that you can understand where the other is coming from. Understanding creates connection. And in between those two, we have the skill of how you frame your message and also how you handle questions both in terms of how you ask them and how you answer them. So, with my clients, we work on those four buckets. I try to simplify. You don’t have to know all. You don’t know how to use every golf club in the bag. You just need to learn how to use a few of them.

And then the last piece is your physical conditioning. And physical conditioning is your nonverbals, your body language, your appearance, even your visibility and what message that sends across. And, again, I’m not one to say, “Here are the five great body language postures that you need to hold for you to show up as a leader.” What it really comes down to is, “Is there alignment between the way you are holding yourself nonverbally, or what you’re communicating nonverbally? Is there alignment between that and what you say and your assumptions?”

And so, we’re looking for alignment along all three of those conditioning levels, and that they’re not working against each other, and that they’re also not working against your desired outcome of being credible and relatable.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Well, Muriel, this is so powerful in terms of, okay, we’ve got the set of things to be working on. And the athlete analogy is swell. So, let’s talk about the mental and the skill and the physical components of conditioning. I’m thinking when you said with beliefs, thoughts, and assumptions, not about good or bad, right or wrong, but rather is it serving you? Is it helpful? Is it working out for you?

And you mentioned sort of the beliefs in the message, like you fundamentally buy what you’re selling. And I think this is probably universally true, it’s like I just cannot sell something I don’t believe in. I’ve turned down a lot of prospective sponsors. I turned down a lot of them.

Muriel Wilkins

I hear you.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, there’s that. And then I’m thinking there’s also some beliefs, thoughts, assumptions about sort of you, yourself, what other people think of you, like, “Oh, everyone is looking at me. Oh, they think I’m stupid or they don’t think I’m senior enough to be in this room. They think I’m a loser. They think I’m stuttering. They think I’m saying like or so and you know too much.” So, it seems like there’s a whole host of potential beliefs, thoughts, assumptions that can be not serving you. Tell me, are there some go-to beliefs that you find helpful, reassuring, confidence-boosting? And how do we condition ourselves to land there instead of the unhelpful places?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah, absolutely. So, a big one in terms of when you’re trying to boost your confidence, as you said, is around the belief that you don’t have to always have the answer, and that you are in the room to share the value, and you have to understand what it is the value that you bring to that table, and that the value isn’t always – and most times it’s not – about having the answer and knowing everything and being an expert on everything.

And so, when people tend to show up as lacking confidence, they place an expectation on themselves on what it means for them to show up successfully in that meeting or at that table. And what I have them do is recalibrate, “Well, is that even realistic? What is the value that you bring? Why are you in that meeting?” And when they’re able to define it and then actually stay in their lane in terms of what they’re able to do, they can have confidence in it because they know exactly what they’re there to do. So, that’s one example.

On the flipside, if somebody is working on the relatability aspect, the belief that often gets in the way is, “I already know the answer,” which then shuts them down from listening. And so, the belief that would serve them better in terms of showing up in a more connected way and a more relatable way is to come in with the thought of “I have a perspective around what needs to be done and I’m open to hearing others’ perspectives.” So, it’s a slight reframe. It’s a slight reframe.

And it doesn’t mean that, if you’ll notice, it doesn’t mean that you’re disregarding that you have the answer. Like, I’m not going to lie. Yeah, you probably do but let’s expand that a little bit. Let’s open the possibilities a little bit. When people stay too attached to their belief, it creates constriction, it creates closedness both in terms of what you have to offer, what gets in the way of confidence, as well as what you are open to from others, which then creates a disconnection.

So, all I try to do is get them to see that there are different ways that they can think about, again, themselves, the situation, or the other, that might then open them up to different ways of communicating or physically showing up.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And so then, once you know and have heard the belief once, you’re like, “Okay, yes, Muriel. That sounds like good, fine, and solid lead. That is true.”

Muriel Wilkins
“I wish it was that easy.”

Pete Mockaitis
“I would like to land upon and return to again and again.” But how do you condition, train, reinforce, lock in those neural pathways so that that’s where we go?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. Look, this is like, if we boil it down, this is what most people have, again, a very difficult time with. It takes practice. This is what we’re talking about here is mental discipline. And so, I try to get folks to just really focus on one at a time. Let’s hone in on one and they just practice it, they practice it, they practice it. And I try to get them to practice it in real situations, so not just thinking about it conceptually, because everybody can do something conceptually. I can speak conceptually about how I can do the Iron Man but it’s very different to actually go do the Iron Man.

And so, I get them to practice it, practice it, practice it, until it becomes more natural. And when they start seeing that their actions, because, again, it’s not just the mental, it’s also the skills and communication and the physical, when the skill conditioning and the physical conditioning reinforces those beliefs, then it helps, so it kind of creates a cycle. It’s holistic rather than just “Oh, I only need to do one thing and not the other.”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And so then, when you say practice it, as I was thinking about the athlete analogy again, I can imagine practicing free throws, or throwing the football, or conditioning strength, bench press, squat, deadlift in the weight room, what does practicing a belief look, sound, feel like in practice? What am I doing when I’m practicing a belief?

Muriel Wilkins
So, at a very practical level, let’s say I’m coming on to this show with you, and I can pause for 30 seconds beforehand and say, and really pause and ask myself, “What am I thinking about what I’m about to go into? What do I think about me? Like, let me really try to understand what my beliefs are going in, about myself? Do I believe I’m going to mess up? Do I believe I’m not prepared? Do I believe I don’t know what this is about? What do I believe about the show? What do I believe about Pete? What do I believe about what’s going on around me?”

And if I conclude that those things are not going to help me show up on this show in a way that is credible and relatable, then I say, “Okay, like what thoughts do I need to focus on right now? Let me put…It’s not that those things might not be true, but let me put them on the backburner for a little bit. I can come back.” So, the way that I’ll do it, I’ll just say this to my clients, is just say, “Hey, you know what, negative belief or belief that doesn’t serve you, I’ll check back in with you in 30 minutes and we’ll deal with you, but you just stay over there right now and let me focus on the ones that help, okay?”

So, it truly is around being able to pause, having awareness around what you’re thinking, and then being able to redefine the thought. It’s a three-step process. It is not easy, Pete. Like, this is, again, the stuff around mental discipline, and it’s hard because it’s inside of us. It doesn’t operate outside of us. But it’s what creates, from my standpoint, it’s what makes the most sustainable impact.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Thank you. Well, I appreciate you zooming in there, and that is handy in terms of making sure that you do have time for that silence as opposed to, “Oh, go, go, go, finish up, finish up the last words and the last deck, page, slide, and the last seconds, and then grab the laptop and head on into the room or the Zoom call,” or whatever.

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. And, you know, the funny thing, Pete, is like most people will say, “Well, I don’t have time for that.” Like, it doesn’t take a ton of time. Like, we just did it in 30 seconds, in a minute. It does not take a ton of time. So, I’ll tell my clients, like, “Well, as you’re brushing your teeth in the morning, kind of go through the meetings that you have that day?” Well, people aren’t commuting these days, but as they commute, as you’re walking the dog, the day before, go through your Outlook calendar, whatever calendar you use, what are the meetings, and just do a quick mental check around what you’re thinking going in versus it’s the warmup. I consider it the warmup.

You don’t wait till you’re on the field to look around and say, “Oh, who am I dealing with? Who am I playing against? What position do I play?” No, you do that. But that whole warmup happens way before you’re on the field.

Pete Mockaitis
Well said. Well said. All right, so that’s the mental game, a core piece of it. And how about we talk about communication skills? We could spend hours talking about these core skills. I’m curious, do you have any particular tips, tricks, tools, tactics, or do’s and don’ts that make all the difference when it comes to listening or speaking clearly and concisely?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. So, with listening, speaking clearly and concisely, framing, questioning, here’s the thing. These are not about just, “Hey, I just need to know these skills,” because, quite frankly, most people are already using them. The question is, “Are you using them in a strategic way? Are you clear around what it is, again, the impact you’re trying to make?” And given the impact you’re trying to make, then being able to dial back and say, “If that’s the impact that I’m trying to make, then what communication skill would increase the probability that I’m making that impact?”

And so, when you start thinking about it that way, so then you have a choice around what you’re doing rather than just being on default. You say, “All right, if I’m trying to create a connection with the other person, or with this group of people, or I want to come off as engaging, then it would behoove me to listen more.” Why? Because when somebody feels heard and understood, for whatever reason, it creates connection. When we feel understood by the other, it deepens the connection.

And I’m not talking about like we have to get into a deep intimate relationship with everybody. It’s just a feeling of like, “Yeah, you get me.” But when you have somebody, you’ve probably experienced it, when you’re faced with somebody, and you’re like, “Oh, my God, they don’t get me at all,” there is no relatability, there’s no connection.

So, listening is the key skill, I’m sure there are others, but the core skill. And it’s not…there are different levels of listening. You don’t have to go to the deepest level every single time. Again, it depends on what you’re trying to do. But I will say, if your goal is to influence or inspire somebody, the more you’re trying to inspire others, the deeper the level of listening you have to go into, to really understand what is going on with them.

On the flipside, which is the skill of what we call structured efficacy, the skill of being able to speak clear and concisely, what I tell folks is always start with the headline first, and then drill down to the data. Most people who cannot speak confidently will tend to share all of the data and then they give you the conclusion or the answer 20 minutes later. And I try to get them to flip that, “Give me the answer, give me the headline, and then give me the three supporting facts or datapoints or rationale that support your thesis, let’s say, or your headline.”

Because it’s kind of silly to say, “I have three points,” but then you go on to number 20. So, that in and of itself helps one be concise. So, those are some tips around those two. And to be honest, the most critical one is the communication skill or framing, because framing is all about how you set context, and context helps determine whether you can get other individuals to interpret the message that you are giving in a way that’s similar to how you want them to interpret it.

Left without context, people are going to interpret the message based on their own beliefs, assumptions, biases, and thoughts.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, if it’s the most critical, we must talk more about this framing. So, how does one frame well? And can you give us some examples?

Muriel Wilkins
Sure. So, one that people face many, many times is you walk into a meeting and there’s an agenda but there’s not a clear sense of what outcomes you’re looking to drive through in that meeting. So, you have good conversations, you leave the meeting, and it was like, “Hmm, what did we actually accomplish?” And so, a great example of framing is what we call outcomes-driven framing, being able to start your message or your conversation with, “Here are the outcomes that I want to drive to. I’m going into a meeting, all right. So, what we’re trying to drive to by the end of this meeting is making a decision on X.”

Now why is that helpful? Because everybody in that meeting at that point, or increases the chances that everybody in the meeting at that point will interpret or take in the discussion with a sense that there’s a decision that needs to be made rather than they’re taking it in as an FYI, they’re taking it in as a point of contention, they’re taking it in as whatever, the list goes on.

So, framing from an outcomes standpoint really helps. What’s another example of framing? Another example of framing is what we call strategic framing. This is when you give strategic context, or bigger-picture context, or the 30,000-foot altitude context. Where is this particularly helpful? It’s helpful when you are communicating up, communicating to people who are more senior than you. So, you frame your message in a way that’s relevant to them and what their strategic agenda is rather than how it’s relevant to you at the 10,000-foot altitude.

Pete Mockaitis
And can you give us an example of that in practice in terms of, “Okay, there’s a thing I want to make happen, and I got to give some strategic framing so higher up folk engage and want to back it”?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah, let’s say that you work in the HR function and you’re proposing an initiative around leadership development. So, framing it from your context might sound something like, “Leadership development is really helpful in terms of cultivating people and creating engagement in the workforce,” and then give whatever the initiative is.

Framing it from a strategic level is saying, “I know one of our key strategic pillars this year is talent excellence and retention of our employees. We’ve talked about how, by the end of next year, we want to achieve a workforce of X numbers,” whatever it is. It’s tied to the strategic pillars of the organization or the main business priorities of the organization, and so you start there. And then say, “So, therefore, this leadership development program or initiative is in support of that.” So, you tie it directly to whatever the organizational objectives are.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s super. And I’m thinking that some organizations have maybe – if I may be so bold – too many organizational objectives that the higher up you’re communicating with may well have forgotten that that was one of the strategic initiatives, they’re like, “Oh, that is one of them, isn’t it? And you got something for me to make that happen. Oh, and I don’t know of anything else that’s making that happen. So, yeah, let’s go ahead and do what you’re saying, Muriel.”

Muriel Wilkins
That brings such a funny story, Pete, because I ran into that once, and I framed it strategically around what the top brass of the organization had said was important for them, and they’re kind of like, “Huh? No.” And I said, “Well, look at the homepage of your website. Like, it says it right there.” So, they all pulled it up on their phone, and they’re like, “Oh, wow. Like, yeah, we actually said this was one of our strategic priorities.” So, to your point, sometimes they forget what the priorities are.

Pete Mockaitis
And then that just makes you wonder how much of the priority is it truly, and how much of it was sort of a word salad committee production versus a, “Wow, we’ve really thoughtfully clarified and drilled down into that which is the huge most impactful leverage.” Well, that’s a whole another conversation, strategic critical thinking priority matters.

Let’s hear about the physical view of things – the nonverbals, the body language, the appearance. So, we want to have alignment so it’s not sort of contradictory throughout. And I guess everyone have their own tics that they have, and maybe I’ve heard videos is a great way to assess them. I’m curious, are there any particular things you’ve seen again and again and again in terms of, “Hey, start doing this. Stop doing that,” that makes all the difference and it’s so easy to fix?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. Well, first of all, I think, again, it depends what it is the impact that you’re trying to make. One of the things I tell my clients is, “Look, if the feedback you’re getting is that you show up as abrasive, and when you asked, ‘Well, why do I show up as abrasive?’ people are like, ‘Well, you tend to yell a lot and you always have a scowl on your face.’’ If I say that to a client, the client says, “Well, I want to show up as abrasive,” well, then we’re done, we’re good, because their nonverbals are giving them the outcomes they want.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, mission accomplished.

Muriel Wilkins
Right, mission accomplished.

Pete Mockaitis
Apparently.

Muriel Wilkins
But usually that’s not what people want. Again, they want to show up as credible or engaging and relatable. And so, from a nonverbal standpoint, the place to first start is, “What is under my control?” which I am. I’m 5’3”. I cannot change that. I might add a little bit of height by wearing heels but out of my control that I’m 5’3”. So, if I want to give the impression that I’m confident and height is not on my side, because for whatever reason, height might make me seem a little more dominant or whatnot, so what else is at my disposal?

Well, how I sit at the table, when I physically sit at the table. Do I shrink to the back of my seat? Do I slouch back, therefore, retreating me even more? Or, do I actually lean forward on the table, pull up my chair to the table? I’ve been known to, if I walk into a meeting and the   is too low and makes me seem even lower than my 5’3” size, then I raise it to maximum height. So, these are things that are under your control and, quite frankly, it’s not just about the impression you make on the other. It’s also how it makes me feel. I don’t want to feel small at that table.

The other part is your voice. And so, your voice says a lot about you. Number one, you want to be heard in that meeting. Well, we better be able to hear you from a projection standpoint. I have twins, by the way. They’re 14 years old and so I’m constantly in this, “I can’t hear you. You’re mumbling.” Mumbling will never get your message across. And so, even from that basic level with your voice, “Do you have some poise around your voice?” Well, what does that sound like? It usually sounds with people who are comfortable, taking pauses as they speak. They speak much more in a deliberate way rather than just speeding through it and never slowing down. That’s in your control.

So, with all of these things, whether it’s your eye contact, your gestures, your voice, your posture, it’s not about, again, a right or wrong, which I think is the way that it’s been positioned a lot of times. It’s more around, “Is the way you’re carrying these things, are they going to have the impact that you want to have in this environment, in this context?”

Because take something like eye contact. In the Western culture, eye contact exudes confidence for whatever reason, but in other cultures, it does not. So, it also has to be culturally and contextually relevant. So, executive presence in and of itself is very situational. It’s very dynamic. It’s not this, “Do it this way and that’s it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so let’s say adopting the context specifically of we’re in a professional United States business environment, looking to be credible and relatable and persuasive in what we have to say so that it’s taken seriously and action is taken and things move forward, I’m curious, are there any particular appearance things you might quickly suggest that we adjust?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. So, here’s my rule of thumb when it comes to appearance, let it not be distracting and detracting from every other thing that you’re doing. That’s it. I have many people who ask me things like, “Should I cut my hair? Should I cut my beard? Should I not wear braids? Should I straighten my hair and not have my hair curly? Should I dress a different way? Should I wear suits? Should I wear pants? Should I…?” and the list goes on and on and on.

And I say, “Okay, in the environment that you’re in, would your appearance distract in any way?” So, I share the story around with me, I have clients all along the spectrum. I have some organizations that I work with who are extremely conservative, very traditional. And then I have clients where I have some nonprofits that I work with that are, in the inner city, small. If I were to go to my small nonprofits dressed the same way that I go to my traditional conservative clients, it’s not that the way I’m dressing is bad. It just would make me stand out in a way that then maybe makes me feel confident but doesn’t necessarily create or engender any form of connection with the clients that I’m serving.

So, it truly is about to what extent is the physical energy that you exude distracting or detracting from what you’re trying to do versus supporting you? So, that’s the same we do with beliefs.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And I’m curious, and this might be maybe more of an advanced move, are there times in which we do want to look a little different and distinctive from the audience in the room for a particular objective? What are your thoughts there?

Muriel Wilkins
Yes. So, let me back up a little bit from that question, because the goal is not, “Hey, I need to fit in.” You still want to have, like I talked, I’m not the most traditional conservative person, but I got to have these clients, so what I’m not going to do is wear my most outlandish outfit, but I will wear a suit but I might have some jewelry that’s still a signature me, so I don’t feel like I’m completely “selling out.”

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Muriel Wilkins
But are there times when you may want to stand out a little bit? Yeah, but know why you’re doing it. Know why you’re doing it. So, I’ll give you an example, not just about appearance actually, but more going back to kind of nonverbals. So, if you’re giving a presentation, you may have a choice between standing behind the podium or not using the podium at all.

Well, when somebody asks me, “Should I use the podium? Should I not?” I say, “Well, what impact do you want to make? What impressions do you want to make? If you want to come off as very professorial and expert-like, by all means, stand behind the podium. If you want to show up as like the expert, stand behind the podium. If you want to lean into engaging with the audience, trying to be relatable to the audience, don’t stand behind the podium.”

So, it always comes back to, “What do you want?” And that’s where a lot of people don’t have clarity is even around what is it that they want, how they want to come off.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Thank you. Well, Muriel, tell me, anything else you want to make sure we’d mention before we hit the favorite things?

Muriel Wilkins
Well, this stuff, as I said before, takes a lot of practice, and you never really fully stop because your context changes, you change, your assumptions change, your skills, hopefully, improve over time, how you physically show up changes, so you constantly have to think about, “In this moment, at this time, what is the impact I want to make? And then how do I get there?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Lovely. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Muriel Wilkins
The one that’s really been resonating with me over the past couple of months, the past year, quite frankly, has been, and I know it comes from Buddha’s teachings but I can’t quote who said it, is, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Muriel Wilkins
My favorite one is around growth mindset and the reframing, because I think growth mindset has a lot of reframing, and Angela Duckworth’s work around that, reframing around how we approach learning. And how we approach, quite frankly, how we define success, that it’s more about the effort rather than the outcome.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And a favorite book?

Muriel Wilkins
Favorite book. My favorite book of the moment is The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Muriel Wilkins
My Outlook calendar.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. And a favorite habit?

Muriel Wilkins
Favorite habit. I wish it was a more infused habit, but my favorite habit is meditating.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for and people quote back to you often?

Muriel Wilkins
I say there’s a favorite question that I ask my clients over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear it.

Muriel Wilkins
And it is, “What do you want?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Muriel Wilkins
So, they can go check out my podcast at Harvard Business Review called “Coaching Real Leaders,” or go to CoachingRealLeaders.com. They can find more information about me and all of the ways that I work with folks at MurielWilkins.com or ParavisPartners.com.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Muriel Wilkins
Figure out what you want and the impression you want to make and the outcomes that you want to drive to, and then work backwards from there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Muriel, thank you. This has been fun. I wish you lots of success and luck in the adventures to come.

Muriel Wilkins
Thank you. This was great.

711: Speaking with Calm and Confidence with Patricia Stark

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Patricia Stark says: "I'm making up what I'm telling myself about the situation anyway, so why not make up something positive?"

Patricia Stark shares key strategies for developing the calm and confidence to shine under any spotlight.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The critical mindset shift that brings both calm and confidence
  2. The simple rule for looking and sounding like an expert
  3. Just how long you should maintain eye contact 

About Patricia

Patricia Stark is owner of Patricia Stark Communications and Calmfidence® Workshops, providing training in personal and professional development. She works with celebrities, corporate executives, authors, news anchors, social media influencers, and others whose careers rely on their ability to communicate confidently. She lives in New York. For more, see patriciastark.com. 

Resources Mentioned

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Patricia Stark Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Patricia, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Patricia Stark
Pete, it’s so great to be here with you. Thanks for inviting me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about your book Calmfidence, and it’s spelled C-A-L-M-F-I-D-E-N-C-E. First of all, what does that mean?

Patricia Stark
Well, thank you for kind of spelling out that first word, because if you say it quickly, everybody’s ear hears confidence, which we all hear, but it’s Calmfidence. So, basically, I’ve been coaching and training people for many years, and I realized that all of my clients and students had two things in common. They wanted to be confident speaking in public, or being on stage, or in the media, or asking for a raise, or giving a presentation, or they were also feeling that they needed to find their calm.

So, a lot of people can be confident but they still get stressed out and anxious. So, they were really looking for those two things. And I found that’s really a very powerful and magical combination when you can both have calm and confidence simultaneously. So, thus, the term calmfidence.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. And could you share with us a story of just what’s possible in terms of a transformation with regard to starting out neither calm nor confident, and ending a super calmfident?

Patricia Stark
Sure. Well, I’ll give you a personal story where, really, I noticed it in myself for one of the first times. So, I was invited to be on a PBS program in New Jersey for one of the PBS networks here in our area, and it was the first time that I was going to be shown as a “communications expert.” So, I was thinking to myself, “Oh, my goodness, what if the so-called communications expert makes a mistake?”

Now, for years leading up to that, I had been the interviewer, I had been the reporter, the anchor, the host doing the interview, and now here I was as the guest expert, and I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, my goodness, like this is really a disaster if I can’t communicate well in this situation.” And I started to get myself a little worked up, as most of us do when we’re out of our comfort zone, and doing something for the first time where we’re expanding and we’re doing something new.

And, all of a sudden, it hit me that I was confident because I had helped a lot of people, and I knew that my exercises and strategies had really benefited people. And then, suddenly, I got this sense of calm over me where I realized, “You know what, this isn’t about me at all. This is about the viewers that are listening that really need some help, and that really need to have some strategies to work through this on their own. And I was there to be of service and to give value.”
And once I had that mind-shift change, it really gave me a very different perspective and sense of calm and confidence and control over the situation.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s even come up a few times in terms of feeling calm and confident in a speaking situation, it’s the realization, “Hey, it’s not about you. Get over yourself. Be of service. Focus in on the listeners, what they need and want, and how you can deliver that.” So, it sounds like, hey, there’s a huge nugget right there in terms of being calm and confident.

So, tell us, how do you think we get there if we’re sort in our head and self-conscious and thinking about ourselves, and, “What if I screw up?” How do we make that leap?

Patricia Stark
Yeah. Well, you just said a really key phrase, “What if I screw up?” and that’s what I was doing myself in the example that I gave you, is that I was picturing what could go wrong. And we’re so good at that, and it’s really a defense mechanism to help us protect ourselves, to think worse-case scenario, to think, “Okay, what if the absolute most horrible thing happens right now? How am I going to defend myself or get out of the situation?” So, that tends to be our default.

So, first and foremost, we need to really realize that the most important thing that we are hearing is, initially, our internal communication before we have external communication. So, we have to do a check-in on, “How am I speaking to myself, first and foremost, about this situation? And what is the story that I’m telling myself? And am I envisioning the way that I want it to go and how I can help others and really visualize and see this going the way that I want it to go? Or, am I going to that primitive default place where I’m in this protective mode of just hoping that I am going to survive this?”

So, I think that, really just by changing your focus and saying, “No, I’m going to have a plan, and I’m going to visualize how I’m going to work that plan in the positive way that I want it to go, and even seeing the outcome that I want to see.” And that may be someone coming up to you and saying, “Hey, wow, that speech really helped me, or that really inspired me,” or a boss coming up to you and saying, “Wow, you really did your homework for that presentation, and it was a great job. We really appreciate all the work you put in that.”

And doing that ahead of time, which is called pre-paving, really then helps our subconscious kick in and follow our positive plan, rather than worrying about all of those horrible images that we’ve created, that our autopilot is saying, “Well, I thought this is what you wanted me to do because this is the last thing you were thinking before you sent me out there.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Well, in your book, you’ve got a whole chapter on calmfidence boosters. It sounds like we’ve already maybe hit a couple of them. Can you share what are some of the other most powerful practices that really help people here?

Patricia Stark
Yeah. Well, I know that people have heard this time and time again, but it really works, and it’s really true. And that is having gratitude, being grateful for why you’re there, for the opportunity to be there. And it can be small gratitude, it can be large gratitude. So, if someone is asking you to be in a leadership role, or to be the expert on the topic of the moment, that doesn’t mean that you’re the be-all-end-all best expert there’s ever been, but you’re going to be the expert at that moment.

So, having gratitude for saying, “Wow, it’s really great that someone thinks that I have something to offer or that they’ve invited me to be here.” Instead of, “I have to do this,” no, “I get to do this. And how lucky and blessed am I that I’m even in this position to have a platform where I can, hopefully, help others and inspire others.”

So, gratitude is really one of the things that study show can completely cancel out anxiety. You literally can’t be grateful and anxious simultaneously because you can’t be thinking of things that you’re grateful for and also have that sense of anxiety.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s super. How about another calmfidence booster?

Patricia Stark
Another calmfidence booster would be trusting yourself and liking yourself. So often we worry about what others think, “How do I look? How do I sound?” But getting to the point where you’ve prepared enough to where it’s good enough, and you’re not trying so hard for perfection, but just good enough. And I think that sometimes we get so in our way because we think that everything has to be just right, everything has to just be perfect, but when we realize that good enough is good enough, now we have room to be human, we have room to be approachable and endearing.

And other studies that I’ve read also show that we don’t like perfect people anyway. We like people that seem like us, that are vulnerable, that mess up, that say, “Whoops, sorry,” and keep going on and let it roll off their back. So, that’s definitely another booster is cutting yourself some slack and liking yourself and allowing yourself to be human, and letting that be good enough and not aiming for such perfection because perfection really is a roadblock.

Pete Mockaitis
And you’ve got some particular perspectives on dealing with the inner critic. Can you share a few of those with us?

Patricia Stark
Yeah, the inner critic goes back to what I was saying earlier about that defense mechanism and that primitive place where we’re protecting ourselves. Everybody talks about the inner critic and it sounds like this big monster that has fangs, that is chasing us down in the back of our minds. But what that inner critic really is is it’s just you or I like a scared little kid that still lives with us, and we can’t ever completely make the inner critic go away.

But we can stop taking direction from it, and we can say, “Oh, you know what? I know why you’re here. You’re scared or you’re worried or something like this is baggage that you’ve been carrying on that maybe happened to you when you were a kid. Maybe you got laughed at. Maybe you got turned down for a job or for a date or for whatever, fill in the blank, and now that scared little part of us that we still all have like a squatter in the back of our mind, kind of shows its ugly head to warn us and to try to protect us.”

And that’s when I like to say, “No, we all have an inner critic but we also all have an inner coach.” And it’s almost like that angel-devil scene that we’ve all seen in movies or commercials, and we’re like, “Okay. Well, who am I going to listen to?” And it really takes practice and a conscious effort to say, “You know what, I’m not going to listen to the inner critic. I’m going to listen to the inner coach.”

“And I’m going to talk to myself the way that teachers, or mentors, or people that I’ve admired, or people that really helped me at certain parts of my life, a dear friend, or a confidante. How did they talk to me? Or how would I talk to a dear friend or someone that I care about if they were struggling with something or having stress or anxiety? And deciding that I’m going to talk to myself as my inner coach and then I can’t listen to the inner critic.”

Because if you’re not talking to yourself, that inner critic voice is going to be really loud. But if you’re talking to yourself, then you can’t hear that inner critic talking to you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. And, by contrast, what are some of the calmfidence killers?

Patricia Stark
Definitely, defining yourself externally. We all worry about what others think and, “What is this person going to think?” Or, I remember my mom always telling me when she grew up with her father, he had emigrated to this country, and he was always, “What will people think?” And, finally, she said to him as she got a little older, she’s like, “Who are these people that you’ve been talking about?”

So, I think that it is defining yourself from externally. I think that all happiness, all calmfidence, all calm and confidence, all starts from within. So, working on things, whatever you can, and knowing that, again, we’ve all got baggage, we’ve all got all kinds of things that have influenced us negatively going through our lives, whether it was family, friends, coaches, tough people that we work with. We’ve all got that. We’re all struggling with something.

But realizing that true calm and that confidence and trust in ourselves and belief in ourselves can never come from external sources. It can only come from the inside and doing that inner work. And that might look different for different people. It could be meditation. It could be preparation. It could be their faith. It could be, again, going into that inner coach mode. But knowing that we’ve got to go internal, and from within, and that’s where everything, that’s the foundation of everything, not coming from the outside.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you mentioned that can look differently for different people in terms of what is the inner work by which one arrives at, having an internal, I guess, self-worth, self-confidence, self-identity, that is, ideally, kind of unshakeable in terms of someone thinks you’re dumb or whatever. And it’s funny, in my own life experience, I’ve had times where I’ve had criticism, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, you’re mistaken. I don’t care,” and just like has zero impact. And other times, it’s like, “Oh, no,” and it really hits hard. So, I’d love it if you could dig into some of those different views of inner work that gets us to that place of unshakeable self-confidence?

Patricia Stark
Sure. Well, I can’t get in in other people’s heads but when I’ve had the conversation with clients and students, and even family and friends, and even when I’ve been discussing when I was writing my book, it’s really like, “What’s that personal ritual or that thing that you do that makes you feel like, ‘You know what, I’ve got this. I’ve got my act together. I feel solid. I feel like I’m ready to go’?” And those rituals are different for all of us.

Some people like to work on their outside and feel like everything looks just a certain way and then, hopefully, then they let that go and they can forget about themselves because they’ve taken care of whatever they needed to externally get their act together, and now, “Okay, I’m in that uniform, I’m in that mode so I can go out into the world and, hopefully, forget about myself.” It could be, again, someone that meditates in the morning, or maybe somebody that really does their homework, that really covers all the bases above and beyond so that they can perform to a certain degree and have a little bit extra if they need to whip something out of their hands that they weren’t expecting.

It could be someone thinking about, “What’s my why? Why am I showing up today? Is it because I feel that I have something that will help people? Is it that I want to do a great job so that I feel like I have something that I’m proud of or that my family will be proud of me? Is it my faith in myself or a faith in a higher power?” It’s something that all of us tap into that, again, is an individual thing that makes us each feel, like, “I know I’ve got this. And even if things don’t work out exactly the way I want to, or go south and are not okay, I know I’ll, at least, be okay.”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Thank you. And I’m curious, when it comes to, kind of shifting gears like into the actual presentation/communication zone, you mentioned rituals and preparation. I’m thinking about the actual preparation of your content or presentation. What do you recommend? Is there a particular amount or approach that really works wonders and making us feel confident and ready to go and deliver?

Patricia Stark
Yeah, over the years when I would work with a different content and copy, whether I was on stage or in front of the camera for a client, I remember someone many, many years ago, it might’ve been a director or a producer that we were having this conversation. And they made this comment where they said, “You know, it’s not about memorization. It’s about internalization.” So, it’s one thing to memorize things, and that’s fine and that’s good, and some people have better memories than others.

But when you’re really invested to the point where you’ve internalized this stuff, where you just really know your stuff, you eat, sleep, and drink it, you know it like the back of your hand, that’s when the magic can happen because you can be so much more free, and flexible, and not worry about, “Oh, I was supposed to say it just this way.”

Just like, I’m sure, when you drive to your home from work or wherever you’re going, to the food store, whatever it is. There’s probably five different ways or routes that you could take to your house, but all of them are going to get you to the place where you need to be, depending on what mood you’re in or traffic or detours. So, as long as you know your content inside and out, the best that you can.

And I know sometimes people spring presentations on us and things we don’t have as much time to prepare as we would like. However, if you’re someone who should know that content, and it is something that you live with and that you work with, and that maybe, and hopefully, is a passion of yours, to be able to have it more something that is just part of you and internalized, again, to where not just memorizing talking points, that’s such a beautiful place to be, because then you can have real organic things happen, you can really be in the moment, people can ask you questions and you’re not going to get thrown because you can think for a moment and you can be like, “Well, here’s my point of view on that.”

And, again, we want to be prepared obviously, so the best people will make it look like they’re winging it but they still have a skeletal structure. So, a lot of times I’ll tell clients, “Okay, if you’re not going to go from a verbatim script, have chronological bullet points where you’re going to kind of have a skeletal structure in your mind’s eye so you’ll see that structure of content points or concept points, and then with a more casual conversation, hopefully a little bit more organic, then you could put the flesh and the fat on it in a conversational manner, but you’re still following this beautiful skeletal structure so you know where you’re starting and where you’re ending up.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, certainly. And so, that sounds like a great kind of place to end, like, oh, you have that flexibility, you can rock and roll in that way. And I’m curious, and I’m sure it’ll vary based on the nature of the communication and the person, but sometimes I think we have it but we don’t really have it. In terms of, like, “Okay, yeah, I know what I’m talking about. Uh-uh, sure.” So, I guess, how do we really know? How do you really know that you know? Is there sort of an amount of practice or a key acid test that you run folks through?

Patricia Stark
It is different for everyone. I used to have a terrible fear of public speaking when I was in high school and in college, and I would overprepare and that would make me more nervous. Now that I’ve gotten over that, and I’m just at a place where I just love communicating with people, and I love talking about all kind of topics, including the ones that are my passion, I tend to just be more relaxed about it, I have a plan, but it’s more of a simplified plan, again, that I can kind of let happen organically.

But for people who can’t do that and they don’t speak enough, and that’s usually the problem, when we don’t speak all the time and we’re not constantly in great shape of organizing our content and presenting our content, what I will tell to people is I’ll say, “Let’s do it in like a rule of three.” So, I had a client recently that she’s an expert in her field, and she was going to be interviewed on a morning show about what she did, and it was three minutes.

And we went through it because she’s done that before, and we had her content, and the three main takeaways that she wanted to do. And then she came to me the next week and she said, “Oh, my goodness, someone just asked me to do a half an hour of content that they want to have as like a webinar or something that was going to live somewhere on somebody’s website.” And she said, “How the heck am I going to fill a half an hour?”

So, then I said to her, “All right. Well, what about those three main modules, or those three main takeaways that you normally talk about?” And we flushed that out again. And then I said, “Okay, so 30 minutes is really you’ve got, what, maybe about a minute, a minute and a half open, and then a minute, a minute and a half close, so now you’ve got like 27 minutes left, so that’s nine, nine, and nine, which makes 27.”

“So, let’s take three blocks of nine minutes and have that be one of each of your three talking points. And then, under that, let’s have a subset of three things under each of those umbrellas that go a little bit deeper, a deeper dive into the topic. So, then that was three minutes, three minutes, three minutes under each of those nine headings.”

So, all of a sudden, she’s working this all out, and she says to herself, “Wow, if I can include all of this stuff, I hope that I can give all the information I want to give. I hope a half an hour is enough time.” So, suddenly, she realized she had more than enough content. She just needed to chunk it down. So, I think that if we can chunk things down, think about what really are the main takeaways that the audience or the viewers, the listeners, really need and simplify that, and then go back and reverse-engineer and dive a little bit deeper into each of them, we’ll usually find that we have more content than we need.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Lovely. And you also got some particular perspectives on healthy, engaged eye contact. Lay it on us.

Patricia Stark
Yes. So, a lot of people don’t really feel comfortable with eye contact, and it’s particularly odd these days because we’re out of practice. We haven’t been in person with each other the best that we can and we’ve all been all over the place with our eye contact on some of these virtual platforms because it’s like, “Well, I want to look down at the boxes and see the people that I’m talking to as I’m used to looking at human beings, but I really need to look at that little dot in front of me so that they feel like I’m looking at them, and even feel like I’m listening to them,” because when we’re looking in other places, we look disengaged.

So, I know, in person, that a lot of people feel like either someone’s boring a hole through their head or looking into their skull if they make eye contact for too long. So, a couple of tips on comfortable, confident eye contact, the sweet spot seems to be between like two and five seconds. So, if we look away too fast before that two seconds, it looks like we’re nervous and we don’t want to make that eye contact or we’re hiding something. And if we stay, overstay our welcome a little bit longer than that five seconds, it looks like we’re way too interested or we’ve got that stalker stare.

So, to kind of think to yourself, “All right, just go for that two- to five-second sweet spot, and then look at the other nonverbal communication.” We should be looking at lips. We should be looking at eyebrows. We should be looking at facial expressions. And kind of looking up to think about our content, or looking down to ponder what we’re thinking about or how we’re digesting the information. So, we actually give each other breaks in those moments so that we’re not just completely engaged in eye contact all the time to where everybody becomes uncomfortable and awkward.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s a great perspective in two to five seconds that sounds and feels about right, and often that might be just about a short sentence or a phrase, and then we can look to the next person with the following sentence. And then when we start a new one, we’re looking at the next person. So, that just sort of has a nice flow or groove to it.

When you mentioned that we’re out of practice and scared, I’m curious, do you have any exercises you recommend? Sometimes I found, like in an airport, or I like to look at people’s eyes, and it’s funny, I see it in myself in terms like sometimes I’m just like ready. I’m ready to look at them for two seconds and nod, just like, “Hey.” And other times, I’m like, “Ooh, you caught me. Ahh.”

Patricia Stark
Oh, I know. Yeah, that’s like, “Oh, yeah, I wasn’t looking at you. I swear.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, are there exercises you think we can conduct safely to get more comfortable with this?

Patricia Stark
Yes. Well, I’ll tell you a quick little funny story. When COVID first happened and we were all in that really first intense quarantine, and I hadn’t been used to seeing faces up close other than my immediate family members, I opened the refrigerator one day and there was this huge image of someone’s face on the container of milk and it startled me. I was like, “Oh, that feels really weird and really close and a stranger.” So, I like felt that effect. And when I was doing a little bit of research on this, I found out that there are actually apps and websites where you can practice and you can go on and you can stare into eyes of people that are looking directly at you on your phone or your computer. So, that’s kind of an interesting little trick.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fascinating.

Patricia Stark
Yeah, or you could watch a video.

One little thing that I want to mention when it comes to uncomfortable or prolonged eye contact is that it’s also a very effective strategy in holding your ground. If you really want someone to know you mean business, or you’re really waiting for an answer, or you are expecting something, you can just really just maintain that eye contact, and look at them and hold your ground, and it really makes people respond or get uncomfortable. And not that we want to make people uncomfortable, but it’s very effective in letting people know that you are standing your ground and you’re not doing anything until they make the next move.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it really is. And I remember when I did a lot of keynotes on college campuses, sometimes there’d be some chatterboxes talking to each other in the audience, and I didn’t really like that. But it was almost like a magical superpower in terms of, sure enough, when I look right at them, it’s like, they say, “Ooh,” they kind of like tone it down and got quiet until I looked elsewhere and then they’d start up again, and you look again, and they tone it down.

Patricia Stark
Yeah, yeah. And we also…you reminded me of something about judging a book by its cover, and I’d mentioned earlier about the eye contact with the other nonverbal facial expressions which have also been tough with us with masks on, so we really rely on the eyes and, hopefully, seeing the crow’s feet so we could tell someone is smiling or looking in between their brow to see if they’re sad or angry or mad or whatever, but it’s really the whole picture.

So, it’s not just the eye contact. It’s, “What other messages am I receiving? And what are some of those micro expressions, little moments where we think we saw something but then it went away because someone tried to hide it.” So, hopefully, it makes us ask more powerful questions and engage verbally with people. But there was one instance where I was giving a seminar or it was a big workshop, I think it was, and there was somebody in front of the room that was staring at me, and she really had this terrible picklepuss kind of poker face look on her face, and I thought she was extremely unhappy every time I had kind of catch eyes with her.

And, lo and behold, at the break, who’s the first person that runs up with a big smile on their face telling me how much they’re enjoying the session? And I was looking, and I was like, “Are you kidding me?” I said, “You looked like you wanted to beat me up.” And she goes, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’ve been told I get this look on my face when I’m really into something and really intensely listening and paying attention.” I was like, “You’ve been told this. I think you need to work on that.”

But really, it was a good lesson for me to…remember how we talked about that self-talk? That was a story I was telling myself, “Oh, she must be unhappy. Why did I go there first?” So, now, if I see those picklepusses and poker faces, I think, “Oh, they think this is the best thing since sliced bread.” I’m making up what I’m telling myself about the situation anyway, so why not make up something positive?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good. And it’s true, I think that there are times where my eyes, they might just seem like I’m sort of glazed over, like maybe zombie-sque, but what’s really happening is, I’m like, “Whoa, Patricia, what you just said is huge. And so, if that’s true, then all these other implications and possibilities might work out. And maybe I should try this over here.” And so, it might look like I’m totally zoned out but, in fact, I’m engaging pretty deeply and my mind is really racing with ideas and possibilities associated with the thing that you’ve spoken about.

Patricia Stark
Yes, so we shouldn’t make assumptions. And if we’re going to, let’s keep them positive because we’re making it up anyway.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. Well, tell me, do you have a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Patricia Stark
I was thinking that a really great one, especially in business and in the way that we put ourselves out there, or not, in the world is, “God gives birds their food, all birds their food, but He doesn’t throw it into their nest.”

And I particularly like this quote because I am a bird person. I have a bird feeder out in the back of my yard, and I’m always going out there, and I get a lot of joy feeding the cardinals and the different birds, and even the squirrels, they don’t bother me because I think, “You know what, they’re coming out when I’m throwing this out there.” But they have to come out of their nests to come and get that food.

And when I see them with that motivation and they give me happiness because I see that they’re going out there to come and get what I’m giving to them, I want to give them more. I even have one squirrel that will come up to the backdoor and take a big piece of bread out of my hand like it’s a drive-thru window. And I love this squirrel because the squirrel is going the extra mile. It’s figured out that if it comes out and comes out of its comfort zone, out of its safe space, that I’m here to give it something.

And I think that this is a really great analogy for whether it’s a goal or going the extra mile at your job. When people see that you’re willing to leave the nest to take a chance to put yourself out there and show some initiative and go out there and get it and be a go-getter, people really respond to that and they want to help you even more. And I think that that is just a great thing to keep in mind, again, for any goal or anything that you’re doing in the workplace, that people want to help people who are out there trying to go above and beyond.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Patricia Stark
I think that anything to do with Positive Psychology, I’m all about that because, for so long, psychology really only focused on dysfunctional things and what was going wrong, and, “How can we help fix those things?” And then, lo and behold, Positive Psychology studies came around and it was all about, “What can be right and what can be done positively from a place of something is not broken or needs to be fixed? But how can we think better and think differently that will help us advance?” So, anything to do with Positive Psychology or emotional intelligence, I really love.

And there was also a body language study done by a woman named Amy Cuddy I have found it to be pretty true to where, when you use your space and you stand up straight and tall, and you feel more powerful, almost like a Superman or Superwoman pose that you might do before you go out to give that presentation or go in front of the camera, it changes your physiology, and your stress hormone, cortisol, drops, and your testosterone can rise.

And in her study, she showed this can literally happen in the way that we use our body in just two minutes. And I’ve used this with clients and students, and even myself, and I see the difference. For imploding, looking down at our cellphone, or looking at that resume and not getting up and using our body to feel open and more powerful, and using our space. There is definitely an effect on how we show up.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Patricia Stark
Well, I have so many but one that I just finished recently was called Rise and Grind by Daymond John from Shark Tank.

But I also love Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. I’ve referred to that many times over the years when I’ve been looking for a goal, whether it was to achieve goals at work, or write my book, or whatever it may be. Blink by Malcom Gladwell. I can go on because I am very big student of personal and professional development books, so I could probably rattle off more than a few for you right now but I won’t take your time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about is there a key nugget you share that people seem to connect and retweet and frequently quote you, a Patricia original?

Patricia Stark
I’ve told people, and especially, students and younger people when I go to speak at schools or at some of these Zooms, that I love to remind them that we all have our own personal fingerprint that no one has the same fingerprint that any of us do. So, it doesn’t matter if someone is doing something or has done something before. If it’s something that’s in your heart, and that’s a calling for you that you want to do in this world, just focus on putting your own personal fingerprint on it because that means no one has ever touched it just the way that you have or will from your perspective and your personal lifeforce.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Patricia Stark
Well, you can certainly link with me on LinkedIn, just Patricia Stark; on Facebook, Patricia Stark Communications; Twitter @clickpatricia, like you’re clicking Patricia. And then Instagram, patriciastarkcommunications. And then on the web, PatriciaStark.com or CalmfidenceBook.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Patricia Stark
Just know that when you have the plus factor, when you’re not just going through the motions, when you’re not just following the job description, everyone truly is really self-employed because it’s up to you to decide how good you want to be at something, how much effort you want to put forth, how much of a plus factor you want to have, and that’s the thing that will make you stand out from the crowd and be different.

And even if it doesn’t happen right away, people take notice when we go above and beyond, because, unfortunately, not a lot of people necessarily do that. And when you do that, and you are willing to go the extra mile, people will want to go the extra mile for you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Patricia, this has been fun. I wish you much luck with your book and other adventures.

Patricia Stark
Pete, well, thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed speaking with you today.