Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Art of Fielding Questions

Some weeks back I discussed how you can up-level your presentations at work. While careful preparation, organization and practice are critical to presenting well, I find that employees I coach often dread the Q&A session following the presentation. They fear looking stupid or else stumbling over their words when responding to questions or interruptions to their well-prepared and timed presentation.  

You want questions

Really, you do. That’s the way to be sure you’ve gotten your message across and achieved your purpose. If you avoid answering questions, you miss the chance to understand your listeners’ objections. You won’t be able to figure out what you can do or say to convince them of your point of view. You’ll be frustrated when you don’t get what you want (resources, the okay for your recommendation, etc.), and you’ll lose an opportunity to show your expertise, confidence, and authority.  

Set ground rules*

Conferences normally set aside a Q&A time after each presentation, but audiences in typical business meetings/presentations play by their own rules. You may start your presentation by asking people to hold their questions until you’ve finished, but colleagues and especially senior level managers will jump in with questions or comments whenever they want.  You may say that you will address their concerns in the next slide or in a few minutes. Or, you may need to move around in your presentation to satisfy a senior manager. (Know your presentation organization so well that you can do so without stumbling around in the material.) However, if people keep interrupting to ask for clarity or data, consider that you should have better organized your presentation to put that priority information up front. Thus, it’s critical to practice your presentation with colleagues in advance of “game day.”*

Tips for responding to questions and interruptions

You should anticipate 90% of the questions that will be asked. After all, you are the expert, and you’ve rehearsed your presentation with your manager or other colleagues. Thus, you should have worked out answers to those obvious questions. Practice aloud your answers so you hear yourself speaking, instead of just running words through your head and then struggling for vocabulary under the stress of an actual presentation.  I’m amazed at how often presenters seem stunned by questions, when in truth they should have known exactly what the audience would ask.   

Fielding questions on the fly*

Of course, that one question you didn’t expect or can’t answer will arise. Here are some tips for handling the unforeseen.
·        Clarify with the questioner the specific nature of the question, so that you don’t begin speaking to a different point, only to waste time and look stupid when the questioner says, “That’s not what I asked.”  
·        Acknowledge (if true) that the question is important, interesting, insightful, critical, or even one you’ve asked yourself. Your honest statement is a compliment to the questioner, and it gives your brain a few seconds to organize a response.  
·        Make eye contact with the questioner, or, if on a teleconference call, repeat the name of the questioner. That connection helps you focus on the underlying nature of the question, and the intent of the questioner.
·        Be truthful. Never pretend to know what you don’t. Someone will know you are faking. You might need to state that you can’t answer the question. Do so calmly, and add that you will get back to the person with an answer. 
·        You might turn to a colleague and ask for help answering the question. It’s okay to call on others’ expertise, but you don’t want to lose control of the meeting. Thank your colleague and resume your presentation. 
·        If the interruption is not a question but rather a long statement, you might need to interrupt and ask the person what it is he/she wants to know. Don’t allow your presentation to turn into a platform for others to take over.  You’re at bat.*

·        * Note: In this blog I’ve included several idioms from the world of baseball. Please see my book, Touch All the Bases: The Culture and Idioms of America's Pastime - Baseball, to learn over 170 baseball idioms and expressions used daily in business.

Happy holidays,

Thursday, November 24, 2011

All Voice Begins with Vibration

I started blogging a few months ago by sharing communication tips and strategies gleaned from workshops and classes I’ve taught over the years. I’m shifting the focus of my blog to discoveries I’m making about the interface of communication and culture.

My Singing Bowl
A few weeks ago I purchased a beautiful gold-colored bowl, 12 inches in diameter, forged of seven metals, and made by artisans in a small village in the Himalayas.  Such bowls are called singing bowls, or sometimes Tibetan bells, because of the amazing sounds they produce when struck. 

My bowl has helped me “tune in” to the essence of sound – a vibration set in motion by a “mover,” and “received” by the “antenna” of our ears and entire body.  Whether I strike my bowl with a wooden implement or roll the striker around the bowl’s circumference, the complexity of sound is beautiful and mesmerizing.  

All voice begins with vibration

Anthropologists and linguists have debated for centuries the interrelationship between the speech patterns developed by cultures, and the natural sounds they heard in their environments and eventually imitated with their voices and musical instruments. What, for example, led the peoples of Tibet and Himalayan India to forge metals from their mountainous homes into bowls that could produce such a range of captivating sound? And how did the bowls themselves alter the pitch, intensity, and range of the speech of those very people who created them?

Physicists explain that the human voice begins as vibratory energy produced by the complex forces of our body’s organs on molecules of air. Such vibrations become spoken voices because of factors unique to each body, as well as to learned factors of pitch, breathing, resonance, articulation, etc. Cultures impose their own “likes” upon speech, so that a particular pitch, cadence, and intonation become favored. Musical instruments and objects come to complement that range of voices dominant in a particular culture.

Each voice is unique

When I coach people on how to speak clearly or present more effectively in meetings, I am aware of some of the cultural or geographical influences that forge familiar patterns of speech (i.e. accent). I also am interested in discovering how a person’s voice projects his or her personality. Each voice contains within those molecules of vibrating air the potential to express itself in an individual way. When we speak of a person having “a voice,” we mean more than simply vibration and accent; we hear the person’s essence in the timbre and intensity of the words conveyed in speech.   

The goal of coaching or training, therefore, is not try to change that vibrating, molecular-level essence of the person’s unique voice. Rather, it is to help the person fully utilize the instruments of sound available in his/her body to form words, express thoughts, and evoke responses that we then call communication.

I give thanks for my bowl

Today, Thanksgiving Day, I will “play” my beautiful bowl, an instrument uniquely different from all the other bowls in the little shop where I bought it. I give thanks for its harmonics originally forged and valued by the cultures of the Himalayas. I give thanks for the lessons it’s teaching me about the human voice. 

Note: A helpful book for those interested in singing bowls is Singing Bowl Handbook: Singing Bowls - Tingshaws - Bell - Dorje


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bears and Bulls

The stock market’s gyrations these last months have led to speculation about whether the market will rally and become a “bullish” market, or else retreat into a “bearish” market.  I got thinking about how American culture, any culture, uses animal metaphors.   Such metaphoric communication is called zoomorphism, the tendency to describe human activities and behaviors in terms of the behavior of animals. When animals are paired and then contrasted in descriptions, we gain insights into what is being described metaphorically.

Bears and bulls

Bears hibernate in the cold months of the year; i.e., they retreat into caves and lairs to sleep. And while a mama bear with her cub can charge a summer hiker who stumbles across one in the mountains, a bear usually runs away when disturbed. 

Bulls, as we know from viewing a rodeo or a bullfight, seem wired to attack.  A “bully” at school is a stronger child who makes fun of or physically attacks weaker children. None of us likes a bully. However, anyone with money invested in the stock market hopes for prices to charge ahead. To that end, Merrill Lynch uses a bull for its logo, and visitors to the Shanghai stock will see five golden bulls at the entrance.

Hawks and Doves

Hawks are predator birds, skilled hunters with keen eyesight. One often sees a hawk perched on a fence post or tree limb, ready to swoop down on an unsuspecting prey. Used metaphorically, hawks are those individuals who advocate an aggressive foreign policy based on strong military power, and who see war as a logical response.
Doves, on the other hand, value peace and try to resolve international conflicts without the threat of force. A dove is a bird with a heavy body, small head, short legs, and long pointed wings.  A dove has a soft “cooing” sound. Some birds in the dove family, like pigeons, are kept as pets. Doves appear in art as peaceful birds in idyllic scenes.

The Tortoise and the Hare

Aesop, an ancient Greek write (620-564 BCE) is said to have written many fables, stories with a moral teaching to them. Many of his stories use animals that speak and have human characteristics.  One of his most famous stories is that of The Tortoise and the Hare.

The story concerns a hare (a rabbit) who challenges a slow-moving tortoise to a race. The hare soon leaves the tortoise behind and, confident of winning, decides to take a nap midway through the course. When he awakes, however, he finds that the tortoise, crawling slowly but steadily, has arrived before him and won the race. Today people might describe a person (or themselves) as a tortoise, a seemingly mild criticism but with a subtle message of a persistent person who wins out in the end.  

Cat and Mouse

“Cat and mouse” is an old English idiom that means an action involving constant pursuit, near captures, and repeated escapes. Sometimes the idiom “cat and mouse game” implies that the contest is never-ending, as in a battle. If you’ve ever observed a cat chase a mouse, you’ll know that often the cat can’t quite capture the mouse, who is weaker but smart. Sometimes a cat appears to "play" with the mouse by releasing it after capture, only to pounce on it later.

In all of the examples above, commonly recognized animal characteristics are used to describe human behavior. At times English language application of zoomorphism is confusing. A person can be described as a “lazy dog.” However he or she can also “work like a dog,” meaning to work hard.  Some animals have such a variety of observed behaviors that their metaphorical usage in English is mixed, and therefore confusing for people of other cultures.

Many of you reading this blog are from non-English cultures.  What are some of the animals that have appeared in idiomatic phrases and descriptions in your language? 

I welcome comments, or questions about other zoomorphic pairs used in English communication. 
Jolinda Osborne 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Give your audience what it wants – and they will give you their support!

An audience is critical to your presentation. You need each other – they to gain information or ideas from you, and you to gain their support in order to achieve your purpose.  Thus, understanding and satisfying your audience’s expectations will determine your success as a presenter. In earlier blogs I introduced five employees whose upcoming presentations may have a similar purpose to yours. Let’s see how they, and you, can think about your audience in relation to your purpose.

Informers, present just the right amount of information

As yourself, “How much information and data is sufficient to support my purpose?” If you are updating your team, as Jose must do, consider exactly what pieces of information are critical.  Eliminate anything extraneous, as you don’t want to insult or bore people. On the other hand, give them enough facts, insights, and details to form an opinion or answer their questions.  Share your presentation ahead of time with trusted coworkers. If your coworkers find gaps, have questions, or are bored, your audience certainly will, too.

 Instructors, know your steps

If you, like Sue, need to instruct people on a process, make sure you have gone through the steps yourself. Several times!  Then try out your instructions on colleagues. Note any steps or processes where they are confused, ask questions, or don’t demonstrate proficiency.  Those places are where you need to factor in more time or add more instruction to your presentation.  Also, give colleagues your handouts/slides in advance, and have them critique your steps.  What have you left out? They will tell you.

Recommenders, anticipate the objections

If you, like Abdul, expect your recommendation to be accepted, make sure you anticipate the questions and objections that will derail your presentation.  Money, resources, and schedule are always issues.  How will you answer the “naysayers,” those folks who say it won’t work, or it’s too expensive, or no one will like it?  You need solid responses that are rooted in information. Practice aloud answer to their objections.  Remember, you are the expert, and so you should not be surprised by questions that you should have anticipated.

Interest sparkers, show them the vision

 Mei wants her audience to see the value of and support her new research idea. If your purpose is to spark interest, you need to show people a vision of what is possible. People need to believe in you/your idea if they are to follow you.  Help them see your vision, its value, and its benefits to them and to the organization.  Moreover, you’ve got to show excitement and passion in your delivery (more about delivery in later blogs). If your presentation is flat and dull, why would anyone believe you can achieve something new?

Evaluators, be balanced and complete

Your audience, like Tom’s, expects a fair and balanced evaluation of a project’s successes and failures.  While you certainly can choose aspects of the evaluation to highlight, a one-sided presentation will arouse suspicion and push back. Carefully plan how you will present the pros/cons or successes/failures. Make sure your deductions and recommendations arise out of the assessment you’ve given. We’ll talk more about organization styles in later blogs.

In summary, think hard about what your audience expects of you.  Of course they always expect honesty and clarity, and you’ll give them that – and more. Know what they want to hear and they will become allies in support of your purpose.

As always, I welcome your comments.
Jolinda Osborne

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Know your Audience

“Who will be sitting in the audience when you present?”   That’s a question I always ask when coaching folks on their presentations skills. I’m often surprised when the answer is, “I’m not sure who will be there.”  Knowing your audience – the specific attendees or at least the nature of those you’ll be speaking to – is critical to making a successful presentation.

Be a detective

Here are some questions to ask yourself, and to ask your manager and others who might better know your audience or the meeting attendees:
·        How much do the attendees know about my subject?
·        Are they technical?  Managers? A mix?
·        And, if a mix, at what level do I pitch my presentation?
·        How well do they know me? Do I need to establish my credentials or expertise, or can I skip that information?
·        What attitude does the audience have?  Friendly? Eager? Skeptical? Hostile?

Moreover, learn the names of the people who will be at your meeting, if possible.  At work, an agenda is often sent out by email. Look at the distribution list, note the names you recognize, and find out who the other people are, whether they will be at the meeting, and what their interest is in your topic.

Knowing the attendees is not possible at a large conference, though you should have a good idea of their level of expertise and interest. However, in a smaller meeting, you can and need to know who will be attending. Often an interruption or question arises from the audience (in person or via teleconferencing), and you want to be able to know who asked the question, as well as ascertain the reasoning of the questioner. 

Everyone needs a friend

I mentioned in a previous blog that it’s important to have an ally or supporter in the audience or at the meeting.  Find the most respected person you can, share in advance your material and get his/her buy-in, and make sure your ally is at the meeting. We all need such support. The notion of walking in alone and handling the situation, like John Wayne at high noon in a western town, is usually only effective in cowboy movies.

If you get questions or push back on your idea, that’s the time to turn to your ally and ask for his/her comments. Use your ally to bolster your credibility. If he/she knows and agrees to what you are proposing, you’ll have a much easier chance of success with a skeptical audience.

Who is the decision-maker?  

If the purpose of your presentation is to gain a “yes” for your recommendation or get approval for a project or resources, always make sure the decision-maker is present. Otherwise, you may have wasted time and energy, you may suffer an unnecessary defeat, and you may lose the chance to present again to the “right” person.  

If you are not sure who the decision-maker is, ask.  Your manager is an excellent resource because he/she likely knows the politics, the budgets, the constraints, and the decision-makers.  Find out the person or persons you need to influence, and start the influencing process well in advance of your presentation.

No one likes to be surprised, especially anyone in the position of making a decision.  The more information you provide to your stakeholders and decision-makers in advance of your actual presentation, the easier your presentation will go.  It might even be fun!

Next time, we’ll look at our five presenters introduced in an earlier blog, and explore in more detail what they need to know about their audiences that will help them craft effective presentations.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Plan for Success – Before you Stand Up to Present!

Last week I introduced you to five employees who will soon make important presentations. Over the coming weeks, I’m going to offer tips on how each of them can succeed. First, it’s critical to consider upfront whether they have a chance of achieving their purposes.  And if so, what will success look like?

Like them, you need to evaluate well in advance of putting together the presentation your chances of achieving your purpose. Why? So that you can formulate a strategy, carefully structure your message, get compelling data, invite the “right” people, and set the stage for your success.

Five scenarios illustrate what success can look like 

Jose needs to inform his team of the data and feedback from the latest customer surveys. To succeed he needs to provide the appropriate data his team wants, and anticipate their questions. He also needs to distill information rather than do a “data dump.” Success is measured by whether he chooses and shares all relevant information, answers all questions and leaves his audience satisfied, and sets the stage for discussion/decisions based on his report.

Sue needs to instruct her people on new factory safety features. The clarity and specificity of her instruction and directions are critical, as is allowing enough time for questions. Measuring success might mean asking for employee demonstrations or a proficiency test, and zero safety issues in the future is another longer-term measurable.
Abdul wants to recommend a new inventory system and get approval so he can start implementation.  He should have laid the groundwork in earlier meetings for why a new system is important. Now he’ll need solid, persuasive data on costs, disruptions, scheduling, resources, etc. His audience is senior management; he must answer their rigorous questions. Success depends on the decision-makers being present. His measure of success: does he get the green light to move ahead with implementation.

Mei wants to spark interest in and gain support from her manager and team to explore new research ideas.  Mei needs to paint a picture of what her research idea can offer and where it may lead. Industry data, trends, as-yet-to-be solved problems and gaps in her company’s product/patent portfolio, as well as her own preliminary work, are imperative to convince managers to support her ideas. She so needs senior-level advocates on board. Like Abdul, she must insure that decision-makers are present. Her measurable is a bit tricky: to move beyond discussion of her ideas and get approval to start the research.

Tom’s purpose is to evaluate the successes and failures of the Grand Opening of the company’s newest store.  Such a meeting is sometimes called a de-brief or a post-mortem (a medical term to describe the cause of death). Tom must carefully sift, organize and deliver a wealth of data -- sales reports, number of shoppers, inventory management, etc., as well as provide anecdotal feedback from customers and employees. He will succeed if his audience makes sense of the data and experiences, and draws useful lessons for the next Opening.

So, what is the purpose of your upcoming presentation? 

I suggest you answer that question by completing these statements:
·        My purpose is to _______________________________________ 
·        In order to achieve my purpose I must ______________________
·        I’ll know if I am successful if ­­­­­­_____________________________

If you can’t complete these sentences, you’re not ready for “show time.” Re-think your purpose, or break up your presentation into action steps, each of which moves you to your purpose. Re-organize and hone your presentation to include precisely what your audience needs in order to give you want you want. Make sure you’ve invited advocates and decision-makers, and schedule your presentation only when you’re sure those folks will be present.

Next time I’ll write about how you evaluate your audience. After all, a presentation is really communication with listeners. You want to know all you can about them.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

You -- A Successful Presenter!

Picture yourself in a business conference room. You sit calmly, ready to speak, eager to share what you know, and confident of achieving your purpose. Then you stand. Your strong and confident voice projects to the back of the room. All eyes look up from laptops and phone screens to focus on you and your compelling presentation material. Your narrative is a seamless weave of facts, examples and illustrations that keep your audience listening, questioning, and nodding. You deliver just the right number of details and words, summarize in the time allotted to you on the agenda, and sit down. You breathe deeply and smile. Sweet.

Yes, you can be an effective, polished presenter

During the coming weeks, I’ll be blogging with tips and strategies to help you become the kind of presenter pictured in that first paragraph. I define success as achieving the purpose of your presentation, with a delivery that demonstrates your confidence, expertise, and authority. 

Of course there are many types of presentations: formal speeches in front of an auditorium audience or at an international conference; informal talks given to your coworkers or customers or management team in small meeting room or via phone/video conferencing.

No matter what your venue or audience, however, the fundamentals of presenting for success remain constant: a clear purpose, knowledge of your audience, compelling narration and organizational structure, appropriate information and visuals, attention-grabbing introduction, and effective conclusion.

Why am I giving this talk?

The very first question you should ask yourself when thinking about a presentation is, “Why am I presenting?”

Wrong answers to that question include: “My manager told me to do it.” “I’m pinch-hitting* for a sick coworker.” “No one else wanted to present, so I guess it’ll have to do it.”   Those might be the reasons for why you’re standing nervously in front of a skeptical audience, but they are not your purpose.

Define your purpose by what you want to achieve. For example, your purpose may be to:
·        Inform/update
·        Instruct/train
·        Recommend action and ask for agreement/approval
·        Gain interest in and support for your strategy or methodology
·        Evaluate/Debrief

Certainly there are other reasons to give a speech, such as entertaining an audience with an after-dinner talk, or inspiring others through a church sermon.  The bulleted purposes above are business-oriented, and they are the ones you’ll most likely encounter at work.

Five business people demonstrate what success looks like

Drawing on presentations classes and coaching sessions I've conducted over many years, I’ve created composites of individuals who are charged with delivering a business presentation.  I invite you to follow their stories in the coming weeks, as they build and deliver successful presentations to achieve their purposes.  
·        Jose needs to inform his team of the data and feedback from the latest customer surveys. 
·        Sue must instruct her reports on the new safety procedures in the factory.
·        Abdul is eager to recommend to senior management a new inventory system and get approval to implement it.
·        Mei wants gain support from her manager and team to explore an exciting avenue for new research.
·        Tom has called a meeting to evaluate the successes and failures of the Grand Opening of the company’s newest store.

Next week, learn how the five employees get clarity for achieving their purposes, and practice getting clarity on your purpose for an upcoming presentation. Also, you’ll learn how to make sure your purpose is achievable and measurable.

* The idiom “pinch hit” comes from baseball, where one batter is substituted for another in order to have a chance of getting a hit. See my book, Touch All the Bases: The Culture and Idioms of America's Pastime - Baseball: Stories for Learning Useful Business Idioms (Volume 3) for many other baseball idioms used in business.

I welcome your comments and your questions on strategies for successful presentations in your business environment.  

Jolinda Osborne

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Communication for Social Support at Work

Workplace research by sociologists and psychologists indicates that social support – the help and interaction we receive from colleagues – is a major factor in employee happiness and productivity. A recent Harvard Business Review blog by Shawn Achor HBRblog discusses research showing that giving social support is equally beneficial.

It seems as if the advice our mothers gave us, “It’s better to give than to receive,” holds true in the business world.  Ancor maintains that “work altruists,” his term for highly engaged worker who make an effort to develop relationships with their colleagues, are more productive and more likely to receive promotions.

Social engagement at work can be challenging

Many of us are reluctant to engage colleagues in conversation when we don’t know them well. We hesitate for fear of intruding, we may be naturally shy, or we may feel it’s impolite to approach someone new in the café or hallway.  While these reasons are understandable, I find in my coaching work that people are often reluctant because they lack appropriate language for beginning a conversation. Following are some tips for opening a conversation with a colleague or person you don’t know well.

Shoot the breeze

Think of what you might have in common with the other person. Be honest, as people can tell when you are faking interest. Here are some ideas for finding a connection:
·        In the parking lot, remark on the other person’s car, and ask about the car’s performance. State that you have been thinking about buying another car.
·        In the café, express curiosity about the dish the other person has chosen (or brought from home). How was it fixed? How might you fix such a dish?
·        In the coffee line, remark about the weather, (cold, hot, changing), and what you/your family plans to do for the weekend. Then enquire about the other person’s weekend plans.
·        At break time during a conference, approach a fellow audience member with a comment about the lecture you’ve just heard, and a question about what the other person found to be of interest. Don’t simply ask, “Did you like it?” to which the other person can say “yes” or “no.” End of conversation.

Bounce an idea around

·        Ask open-ended questions. Start your question by using an interrogative word such as who, what, where, when, why, or how. These inviting opening words prompt the other person to speak at length.
·        Do not ask yes/no questions, or the conversation may come to a quick halt.
·        Be prepared to ask two or three questions to show interest in the other person, as well as to expand the topic. You want to allow for the conversation to move in directions you may not have imagined.  
·        Then make a comment about yourself, your family, or your work project. Add information that will help the other person see the possibilities of continuing to talk with you.

To talk shop, or not?

The workplace offers many openings for a conversation: your company’s stock price, renovations to the lunchroom, how the new product is doing in the marketplace. Such topics are fine, though if you only “talk shop” you won’t usually have a chance to develop a more personal connection.

An alternative is to use the tips above to learn about the other person’s family, interests (music, sports, TV shows, hobbies, etc.), weekend plans, or cultural background. Such shared information in a relaxing setting, freely exchanged to the degree that you and the other person feel comfortable, can go a long way to building social connections that will nourish you at work, and also help your career.

You might give yourself a task: approach one new person each week. Start with a person you know a bit, and then widen your social network. Put the task on your calendar so you will be sure to remember to socially engage others.

** I’m taking a short summer holiday break from my blog, but I’ll be back in early September with more communication insights and tips, including a series of blogs on how to give a compelling presentation.

I welcome your suggestions for blog topics, as well as comments on this and previous blogs.  

Jolinda Osborne

Thursday, August 11, 2011

When the Chips are Down

During the recent Congressional debt ceiling debate, President Obama spoke often of the need for compromise, transparency, and a fair deal for all sides. I got to thinking that while we might agree that such attitudes are inherent in a civilized society, the idiomatic expressions Americans use in negotiations (whether in politics or in the business conference room) support very different values of confrontation and a “winner take all” approach.

Who blinked? Who folded? Who cut a deal?

These and so many other idiomatic expressions arose out of card games, gambling, and risk-taking. Card games such as poker produce clear winners – players who rake chips off the table and count their money. In business and politics, however, victory is complicated by who is seen as having blinked (showed weakness), cut a deal (not necessarily positive of your side is uncompromising), or bluffed (deliberately misleading opponents) Perception of strength and winning is as important as the actual content of the victory.

An ace up my sleeve

In negotiation, it’s strategic to have a hidden advantage or resource that you can pull out at a critical moment in the discussion. Aces are usually the best card in a poker player’s hand, and many a poker player in the Wild West found that a hole card, an ace in the hole, or an ace up his sleeve to be useful securing a win. Of course, to the opposition, producing such an advantage at the last moment leads to shouts of “unfair.”

A poker face

Successful negotiators hold their cards close to their vests so as not to reveal plans or innovations prematurely. To tip your hand and reveal your cards (strengths) might allow a competitor to get to market first. So while transparency is applauded, in Congress and in business negotiations, we see a lot of poker faces. Good poker players never reveal in their faces or bodies how good (or poor) the cards are they are holding. They dare their opponents to throw in their chips (give up), rather than risk losing more.

Call my bluff

A corollary idiom is a bluff. To bluff is to show confidence even if one doesn’t hold a winning hand of cards in hopes the other side will give up. We see politicians on TV all the time touting with great assurance that they have the better argument, the voters’ support, or the ability to stop the other side. Of course so much rhetoric is suspect, which is why speaking out or not speaking at all may be a strategy. After all, if they play their cards right, and prevent verbal mistakes that the opposition or the media will pounce on, they might win. All the while, we, the public, know only a small part of the behind-the-scenes story.

Gain the upper hand

At times in the just-ended debt ceiling debate, the President seemed to gain the upper hand – the advantage. But the tables can turn quickly in a gambling game or in negotiations where the stakes are high (a lot is at risk). Even if the cards are stacked against him, and thus loss seems imminent, many a risk-taker would draw to an inside straight (in poker, to draw a specific card to complete five cards in a row). With luck, some bluff, and a tolerance for risk-taking, he just might win.

Lay my cards on the table

I love learning about and using American idioms, so much so that I’ve written Against All Odds: The Culture and Idioms of Risk-Taking in America: Stories for Learning Useful Business Idioms (Volume 2)
. In the story I include over 170 idiomatic phrases and expressions. The American psyche seems wired for risk and winning.

For this blog post I tried to come up with idioms that reflect compromise, sharing, and fair play. While we have a lot of sayings that reflect advice we all got from our mothers (share your toys, etc.), the vivid language we use everyday in business and in politics reflects singular achievement, often at the expense of another's loss. A challenge for society, it seems, is to come up with new imagery and language to communicate the need for compromise and win-win outcomes.

What are some of your favorite expressions for risk-taking and winning? Or for compromise and sharing?

Jolinda Osborne

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Take Deep Breaths of Fresh Air when you Speak in Public

We’ve all experienced nervousness when speaking to a group of familiar faces or to a room packed with strangers. And while symptoms of nervousness vary by individual, some combination of shaky hands, trembling voice, flushed face, beating heart, and even brain-deadness can ambush us like a sneaker wave, upend our confidence, and undermine our message.

Fear of Speaking in Public is Widespread

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s famous joke in reference to a well-known Gallop poll is one of my favorites. He said, “According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Yikes!

I just finished reading  Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool. This new book covers recent research on the biology and psychology of fear and stress. The book’s many enlightening stories show how ordinary folks, soldiers, businesspeople, and entertainers handle (or fail to handle) their fears and respond to stress or danger. The book also provides tips for facing one's fears and reacting successfully in stressful situations. The book got me thinking about people whom I help with their presentations, and what advice is immediately helpful to reducing their levels of nervousness.

Breathe properly

Of course people breathe when they stand up to speak, but the breath is often shallow. Thus, too little oxygenated blood reaches the brain, and the heart beats faster to try to compensate. Then the body heats, the brain gets foggy, panic sets in, and… well, you can imagine where this story will end.

To learn how to breathe properly, simply watch a sleeping baby. Notice that the baby’s belly goes in and out as she rhythmically takes in and expels air with the help of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the strong belly muscle. Adults are so intent on “sucking in” our stomachs to look fit that instead of allowing the belly to move out (and take in more air), we hold the belly in and raise our shoulders (allowing less air in).

If I could I’d stand beside you I’d urge you to place your palms around the area of your belly button, keep your shoulders low, and breathe in. Feel your belly expand. Now exhale and feel your belly collapse as you expel more air. It’s a matter of physics – more space in the belly allows for more air. Since I can’t stand beside you, below is a drawing from my book, Improve Your Spoken English and Pronunciation , of how to breathe properly.

A diagram showing the airflow when you breathe

When you can breathe deeply, the symptoms I mentioned above ease. Your heart rate slows, your body remains cooler and steadier, your voice is stronger, you retain enough air to finish each sentence, and you think clearly!

Tips for conscious breathing
• Start breathing through the diaphragm before you stand up to speak. You’ll get a rhythm going, your blood will be more oxygenated, and you will be steadier when you do stand.
• Sit up straight while waiting to speak, and stand up straight when speaking. Allow as much air as possible to enter your lungs. Slouching works against you.
• Pause a second or two before you begin to speak. Use that time to breathe deeply through your nose and center yourself.
• And smile. A warm, wide smile not only connects you with your audience, but it helps you breathe deeply. Try smiling now. Notice that you breathe in. A smile happens on the in-breath. Thus, smiling is a great start to reducing nervousness.

In upcoming blogs I’ll discuss others ways to handle nervousness when speaking.
Jolinda Osborne

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ask For What You Want

I was recently coaching a non-native English-speaking client who expressed disappointment that he did not receive the response he wanted from his manager. In his case, he wanted an invitation to present his data at a particular meeting. When I probed about the language he used in his request, he said, “I didn’t actually ask. I thought my manager would know I wanted to be there.”
Never assume people will read your mind

Managers and coworkers are busily focused on their projects and their issues. They don’t have time to speculate about what you want. Thus, the responsibility is on you to make a positive and clear request.

Some people, especially shy individuals or those from cultures where such a request might be interpreted as questioning authority, think such straightforward, positive communication is impolite. In reality, is the most respectful and beneficial way of relating to your workplace colleagues.

A clear request respects your manager, and it benefits you

·        You give your manager an opportunity to see the benefit to him/her and to the organization of considering your request.
·        You don’t waste energy by regretting your silence, or by bemoaning a missed opportunity.
·        You display a confident attitude that will earn you respect, even if your manager doesn’t agree with you.

How to make a request that is respectful and positive

Let’s use as an example my client’s situation: He is a chemical engineer who did considerable validation testing in order to provide critical and complex data about a new process that was being considered for adoption. 

He sent the data as a PowerPoint slide set in an email attachment to his manager (as requested). He simply wrote: “Here’s the data you requested for the meeting.” He knew he could give a thorough explanation of the data and answer detailed questions that were sure to arise at the meeting. He assumed his manager would want him there. However, the engineer did NOT specifically request in his email (or later when passing his manager in the hallway) that he attend the meeting. Thus, his manager went alone and presented the engineer’s data.

How my client could have more effectively communicated his request to his manager

·        Send the test results, along with an email that says:
o       “I would like to attend the meeting with you to present the data. I anticipate numerous questions about the complex test results, and I’d like to be there to help you field the questions.”
·        Offer in the email to go over the data with his manager in advance of the meeting: 
o       “I’d like to meet with you to go over the slides to be sure I’ve included all of the data that will be discussed at the meeting.”
·        Follow up in person with his manager – either by setting up a phone meeting if they are not in the same office, or by stopping by his manager’s desk.

Note that the engineer is professional and positive, and he shows why the request is valuable to his manager. Most likely his manager would welcome his attendance at the meeting, since his expertise and grasp of the issues would make the manager look good, and ensure a win a decision at the meeting.

A helpful template for communicating clearly what you want

Here are some tips for making a request that is clear and positive, and has a good chance of being accepted. Remember that even if you don’t get what you want, a clear request will likely elicit a clear response. That, too, is helpful in understanding your manager and your work environment.
1.      Be laser-focused on what it is that you want. For example:
a.      “I would like to call a follow-up meeting for next Monday.”
b.     “I am requesting a summer intern for 10 weeks.”
c.      “I would like to travel to Texas to meet face to face with our customer.”
2.      Immediately follow your request with a statement of WHY this request is important to you, your manager, and to the project/organization.
a.      “The follow-up meeting will enable me to personally walk the team through the additional test data they requested.”
b.     “An intern can run the test scenarios so that we stay on schedule.”
c.      “Our customer is nervous about the product spec changes, and I want to reassure them we’re meeting their needs and timeline.”
3.      Then listen to your manager.  Be prepared to justify your request with details. (specific meeting agenda, costs, etc.)

To summarize, ask for what you want, be clear about why your request makes sense for the organization, and be prepared to justify your request.  And always be positive!

I welcome your comments and questions.

Jolinda Osborne

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Turning Lemons into Lemonade: How to make the most of a low-visibility work project

Last week I suggested four ways to determine if you’re working on a “lame duck” project, and I offered six communication strategies to ensure that your project gets the attention and resources it deserves.

But what if those communication strategies don’t get you and the project more visibility or resources? What if your project is important but not flashy? Solid but not “sexy?” Work that must be done – and you’re the one assigned to do it?

Well, why not make lemonade from the lemons you were given? While lemons are a delicious ingredient in many cuisines, the idiomatic phrase means to make the best (sweet lemonade) of an undesirable or frustrating (sour lemons) situation.   

The Lemons

You may find yourself on a low-visibility, light-impact project for several very practical and understandable reasons:
1.      Your work supports customers or upgrades to a product already launched. The “buzz” has moved on.
2.      The project is an early stage where outcomes are inconclusive or not ready for public sharing, or else the work is so technical that few people really understand it.
3.      Your work is a critical but small piece of a more visible initiative or product/service, and the focus is always on that big deliverable.
4.      Your manager is under pressure to get the project done, you've been assigned to do it, and so that is reason enough.

The Lemonade

Okay, so your work is necessary and important to someone. Here are some communication strategies to turn each of the four bullets above to your advantage.
1.      Consciously track how your work has helped specific customers (internal or external), and let your manager know, through brief emails or hallway chats, about your satisfied customers. Pass on a customer’s positive comments. Unless there’s a complaint, we all tend to forget about what is working well.  Continue to communicate (not bragging but simply noting) the customer feedback.
2.       If you can’t “go public” with your work, take the initiative to set up a brown bag lunch or “chalkboard talk” with your team and other influential people connected to the project.  Invite your manager and your manager’s manager. Keep your project in their minds, and appropriately showcase how your work is progressing.
3.      Attend forums on the bigger business strategy, and contribute ideas in addition to your particular work. Be generous with your support, and be visibly engaged in the big initiative. Senior managers will notice.
4.      Help your manager solve a problem and you’ll be remembered for your hard work and your loyalty. Then the next time a more visible or interesting piece of work comes along, ask your manager about joining that project. You’ll likely get a positive response.

In my work with corporate clients, I’ve seen how quickly the hyped, “hot” project everyone is talking about can fade just as quickly as it begins. So keep in mind that a low-key but critical piece of work often wins the day, and provides you with accomplishments you can point to with pride.

Make this a lemonade summer
When I was in the third grade, my Mom set up a table on the sidewalk in front of our home on hot afternoon, and I sold glasses of lemonade to the neighbors. It’s a summer tradition across America – one where children earn a bit of spending money and learn early some sales and marketing skills. So this summer, help your own kids set up a one-day lemonade stand, or else quench your thirst by supporting the entrepreneurial spirit of other kids in your neighborhood.  

Please feel welcome to comment below on how you’ve made lemonade from a less than perfect work situation.

Jolinda Osborne

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Are You Working on a Lame Duck Project?

On public radio this week, I heard again the idiomatic expression, lame duck.  This phrase describes a political leader who has been voted out of office or who has lost the support of the citizens, but who still remains for  weeks or months in that office. Lame ducks are ineffective because everyone knows they won’t be around much longer, so there is no need to respect or fear them.

Lame duck can also describe an organization or business project that is not noticed, may not “fly*,”, or is low-priority and not vital to the company.   Might you be working hard on a lame duck project?

Why it’s important to identify a lame duck project

I tell employees I coach that it’s critical to assess the value and visibility of projects they’re working on. If you silently struggle on a low-value and under-resourced project, you may get frustrated and lose motivation.  

Ideally you want to be positioned on projects that are “hot,” ones that matter to the company’s strategic plan, projects that have legs.*  Below, I’ll share some tips for how to better position yourself.

Realistically, though, you can’t always choose your projects, so next week I’ll discuss how you can use good communication to make the most of the project you’ve been assigned.

Four ways to assess the value and visibility of your project

1.      Note the level of management engagement in your project. Do the decision-makers show up for your project’s meetings and prioritize your meetings over other conflicting meetings?
2.      Read senior management report-outs and “roll ups” of your larger group’s array of projects. If your project isn’t mentioned, or if it is always at the bottom of the list, it’s likely not getting the support it needs in order to thrive.
3.      Attend corporate forums where senior managers speak about the organization’s direction. Managers have limited time, and they focus on what is important to the company’s bottom line. Is your project on their radar*?
4.      Network. If you’ve got your head down in your cubicle, focused on the details of your project, you might miss the buzz* about how the project is viewed in the eyes of senior management and other teams.  

Six communication strategies to help ensure that your project “will fly”  
1.      Take an honest look at how well you have fought for your own project. Ask yourself:  “Did I communicate my project’s value and bottom-line* impact to the organization, so that my manager has the information to knowledgeably champion my project?”
2.      Set up a meeting with your manager. Communicate that you’ve noticed attention, resources, etc. have been focused on other projects.
3.      Immediately follow that statement by asking how your project can have more value, become higher on the priority list, or obtain further resources in order to have a bigger impact.
4.      Listen closely. Your manager attends higher-level meetings and will likely know what issues, concerns, or roadblocks exist.
5.      Respond with specifics about what you can provide to your manager: data, rationale, research, input from customers, etc.  If your manager agrees, make sure to follow up on your commitments.
6.      Be positive. No one likes a complainer. Always be positive with your observations and your suggestions.  (More blogs on positive communication strategies and techniques will be forthcoming.)

 * I will sprinkle idiomatic expressions throughout the blog posts. I am so committed to the value of understanding and using idiomatic expressions at work, that I’ve written three books in the series: Stories for Learning Useful Business Idioms. Check them out on my website.

Lame duck is an old idiom, whose origins are described at  This site explains the origin of many English language phrases.

Feel free to post a comment or suggest other topics you’d like to see covered in my blog.

Next weekTurning Lemons into Lemonade: Communication Strategies to make the most of a low-priority project

Jolinda Osborne