Posts Tagged ‘Words at Work’


A Lesson From Director Robert Altman

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Great film directors, like great business leaders, work effectively with their teams, in part, by being great communicators.  Last evening I attended a “Live Talk, Los Angeles” discussion with actor and director, Tim Robbins and at one point he talked about what he had learned from Director, Bob Altman while shooting the film, The Player. (Robbins would shortly thereafter direct his first film and so studied Altman carefully during shooting).

As Robbins explained, Bob Altman was a true auteur who had a clear vision of what he wanted from his films, but he used collaboration rather than proclamation to get there.  As an example, Robbins described numerous instances wherein crew members or actors would approach Altman with a question.  Altman would respond with, “I don’t know.  What do you think?”

Robbins noted that by Altman simply turning the tables on the questioner, the questioner became more invested in the discussion and Altman gained insight about his team.  In the end, Robbins said, laughing, “Altman very likely carried out his original vision,” but everyone felt included in the process.

January 25 is Better Business Communication Day.  Take a note from Altman.  Rather than always doling out your ideas when others look to you for answers – turn the table and first ask them what they think.  The best questions start with what, how or why?  

And, as a side note – find out about live discussion groups in your area.  Often sponsored by libraries, local colleges, universities or public broadcasting outlets, these discussions offer you opportunities to learn from a broad spectrum of leaders, thinkers, authors and artists.

Why We Need Inaugurations

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

As I watched President Obama’s second inauguration, I came to realize that this historic gathering is really a cavalcade of words –  words delivered in forms of prose, poetry and song – arranged with the rhythm of a well established ritual that we, as a nation, participate in every four years.  Why is this process important?

The word “inauguration” means to mark a beginning – and the root “augur” means to foresee or predict.  An inauguration is the ultimate leadership moment.  It is a time for our president to set our course, to begin anew.  The patriotic songs with familiar lyrics, sung by powerful voices, stir audience emotions – and neuroscience shows us that these emotional connections are essential to our decision-making process.  The prayers and the poetry also connect with the audience on an emotional as well as spiritual level.

The best inaugural speeches help us to envision a brighter future – and inspire us to participate.  In President Obama’s speech, his language reflects his desire to bring our politically divided nation “together.”  He uses a litany of collective pronouns like “We,” “Us,” and “Our.”  He speaks of “collective action,” “binding” and “bridging together” our “one nation” and “one people.”  Later, the poet, Richard Blanco, reiterates the president’s theme and uses the power of metaphor in his poem “One Today.”

As a nation, we benefit from this coming together.  You can also benefit by applying these concepts in your professional life.

Perhaps your company or your team is changing leaders –  or you are updating a product, or seeking support for a new project – whenever you begin something new, you can apply the lessons of our presidential inauguration.  Start by creating your core message with a compelling storyline and concrete, vivid language. Use metaphors, especially for complex ideas.

Your “inaugural” event may also be the time to take a risk.  Following the President’s speech, political commentators remarked about Obama’s history-making mention of gay rights and climate change – two issues that will likely be on his agenda during his second term.

Next, connect to your audience emotionally, by way of stories and using confident delivery skills.  If you are working with a team, align your content and theme with others who participate in your “inaugural” gathering.  At this year’s inauguration all speakers included references about coming together (beginning with Senator Schumer who used the unfinished dome of the Capital building during Lincoln’s time to illustrate this point).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, bring people together, physically or visually as you share your message.  There is power in physical presence.  As President Obama spoke to our country, he looked out on a sea of people gathered on the mall, an invested audience, waving flags and applauding.  Later, the President and Mrs. Obama traveled in the motorcade along the procession route, lined with people.  Near the end of the route, the President and First Lady stepped out of their car to walk along, to wave, smile and connect with the public.  (A tradition started by Jimmy Carter).  If you watched on TV, you too were connecting – and that is, after all, what effective communication is all about – connecting.




Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

It’s happened to everyone – you’re about to say something important when suddenly – your mind goes blank. Noth-ing. Your train of thought slips into a tunnel of grey fuzziness and you panic. Where did that great idea go? Did the CIA “scrub” your memory bank or have you just been watching too many spy movies?

The problem is that our short-term memory allows us very limited storage capacity and most of us fail to leverage that capacity with much success. World famous cognitive psychologist, George Miller, who passed away this summer at age 92, uncovered the secrets about how we retain information.

Based on years of research and studies, Miller discovered that the average individual can remember roughly seven “chunks” of information such as words, names, or numbers at any moment, before needing to “refill” their short-term memory bank. In his often cited paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” Miller wrote that on average most people can retain up to five words at a time.

Think of your short-term memory bank like an ATM bank account. When you go to the ATM to withdraw funds, (or ideas) you can only withdraw the contents that your account can store – and in the case of our short-term memory – that’s up to seven numbers or five or six names or words. Our short-term memory doesn’t have overdraft protection and like any bank, you can’t withdraw what you haven’t deposited.

So here’s how to save your self from ever experiencing that panicky brain drain feeling again:

  • Use notes, or talking points that contain no more than five or six words per point. – Look at one note before you speak and if you forget something, stop speaking and quickly look down to find your next point. Joe Biden did this during his recent debate with Paul Ryan.
  • Take notes when listening to others – short notes, along the margin, allow you to easily locate your point when it’s your turn to speak. Again, you’ll see the Presidential candidates using this technique during the debates.
  • When notes aren’t practical – think in twos or threes and visualize those brief two or three ideas in a memorable, mental graphic. I like baseball, so I visualize the bases and picture my two or three ideas standing on first, second and third base. I will often see home plate as my one “Big Idea” and the bases as the supporting ideas.

According to an article about Miller in the LA Times, “The number seven also had a role in his personal life…he made his only hole in one at age 77, on the seventh green…using a seven iron.”

Find your own magic in fives, sixes and sevens by leveraging the capacity of your short-term memory – you’ll feel like you’ve come out of the tunnel of grey fuzziness into a bright, clear day.

(Visit Miller’s creation of WordNet, a type of electronic Thesaurus)




Monday, June 18th, 2012


Golf pros will tell you that when you find yourself in a rough, only an amateur will go for the “heroic shot” to try to reach the hole with one swing from the weeds.  An experienced golfer knows that what is needed is a “recovery shot”  – to just get the ball on the green – and back in play.

That’s what JPMorgan’s CEO Jamie Dimon did in his recent appearance before Congress – he put the ball back in play and in the process demonstrated the fundamentals of how to manage crisis communication:

#1.  Acknowledge the crisis.   Though in early April Dimon initially called the trading problem a “tempest in a teapot,” once he knew the true severity of the problem – two billion dollars lost – he admitted it.  You can’t say you’re on the fairway when you’re in the weeds!

#2. Own your mistakes and show empathy for those impacted:

Dimon used collective pronouns and apologetic language when he said, “We have let a lot of people down and we are very sorry for that.”  “We feel terrible,” and “I was wrong,” Dimon spoke with sincerity and vocal concern – he didn’t mumble or hedge.

#3. Put the mistakes into context:  If you don’t frame the issue, others will and often with vitriol. Dimon explained,  “We will not make light of these losses, but they should be put into perspective.”  He went on to frame that perspective:  “…no client, customer or taxpayer money was impacted by this incident.”

#4. Quickly look to the future and keep the dialog going: Let your public know that you’re proactively working to resolve and not repeat the problem; and keep the information feeder line to the media open.

Immediately after facing Congress, Dimon headed to CNBC where he sat for an extensive interview with Mary Thompson.  During the discussion, Dimon said, “We are going to wrestle this down, admit our sins and get on with our business.”

When probed about who would be fired and who would stay, he said they were conducting “an extensive review of this incident,” and stated, “We are going to do the right thing,” He also promised a personal commitment:  “I’m going to do the best I can every day.”

By the end of the day, Reuters posted the headline:  “Humble but firm, Dimon explains mistake.”  And, JPMorgan stock was on the rise.

With his effectively executed recovery shot, Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan were back on (and in) the green.


Friday, March 30th, 2012

At the start of this year there were 1,013,913 words in the English language, according to The Global Language Monitor. GLM estimates that a new word is created every 98 minutes!

Not too long ago – June 2009 – we crossed the millionth word mile marker with the controversial question: Should “Web 2.0” count as a word? Lively debates ensued and in the end the answer was yes.

Controversy also comes when we consider how people communicate. For example, Amanda Knox was labeled as guilty by the Italian media, based in part on her facial expressions, which were described as cold and without remorse.

Words, and the way we convey them, are at the heart of every human interaction. That’s what Words at Work will examine. In upcoming posts, we’ll offer observations about public discourse and give advice on communicating in the workplace. We’ll look at public speaking and debate in the presidential race and we’ll give you useful tips when you’re preparing a speech or writing a difficult letter. We welcome your thoughts and questions, so subscribe today!

For now, we invite you to become a neoterist. What’s a neoterist? – it’s someone who coins new words or phrases, (emphasis on OT). John Glenn, former senator and first man on the moon, recently did it.When asked to comment on his legacy, he said that he was less interested in the past and more interested in the present and future. He then told the interviewer that he’d invented a new word, “live-acy.”

So here’s your opportunity to contribute to your liveacy. What new word or phrase would you like to see enter the lexicon? Share your thoughts below. You have 98 minutes…Go!

We also welcome your thoughts and questions about speaking in public, writing to and interacting with others, listening, answering questions and responding to the media.