How to Watch the Olympic Games

This Olympic year, more than any other, our Team USA athletes are under intense pressure.

As if it’s not stressful enough to qualify and make the team ordinarily, members of Team USA have trained, traveled and competed during a global pandemic to earn their spots this year. Then, in preparation for, and while in Beijing, they must adhere to strict Covid protocols, including constant testing, to keep themselves and their teammates and competitors healthy for competition. On top of that, they have the usual random drug testing and, much less usual, their own government is boycotting the Games due to the host country’s human rights violations.
 
It’s a lot. It’s especially a lot if your sole focus is supposed to be on your sport.
 
While the athletes are laser-focused on their competitions, as well as on enjoying the Olympic experience, one other pressure is unavoidable: the presence of the media. The media, both print and broadcast, come with the territory of the Olympic Games. And while not every athlete is a draw for the mainstream media, every athlete certainly is a draw for their hometown media at the very least.
 
The media will be interested to hear everything from the athletes’ feelings about their competitions and venues to how they like the food and everything in between. “Everything in between” is where it can get dicey; for example, at these Games, that could include questions about the U.S. diplomatic boycott, China’s human rights record, the situation with Peng Shuai, or even air quality and environmental concerns. Again, it’s a lot.
 
So, as you watch the Games this month, and the Paralympic Games next month, enjoy the spectacular athletic feats you see. But also pay attention to the public speaking feats as well. As with any high-profile spokesperson or ambassador, we should be seeing a demonstration of the following 5 principles from Jock Talk in the interviews they give:
 
Audience-centricity – Are they making it interesting and accessible to the audience, or are they using jargon and making it hard to follow or understand?
 
Transparency – Are they being as open as possible about, and letting us into, their experience? In other words, are they being as open and sincere about their feelings and emotions as they are about the facts?
 
Graciousness – Are they taking the high road when asked about a disappointing performance or about their host country? Are they displaying good sportsmanship and are they representing their teams and country well?
 
Brevity – Are they getting to the point or rambling in their responses to questions? Are they able to end the interview once they’ve said everything they have to say?
 
Preparedness – Are they prepared to address victory as well as defeat, or do they seem to be caught off guard? Are they consistent in how they present themselves and “on brand” or on point with their responses?
 
Enjoy watching the Games this month and next and, while you’re at it, learn from these athletes’ performances at the mic. Hopefully, both on and off the field of play, Team USA will inspire us to be better!

Preparing for Our Next Normal

Well, here we are <insert tentative smile> at the onset of another new year.

As they typically are, this new year is filled with the promise, hopefulness, and opportunities of a new start. Yet, at the same time, many of us feel uncertain, limited, and confused by the same constraints this winter as we did last year at this time. 

The pandemic is obviously with us. It’s moving into the new year with us and likely beyond. So it’s not really a new normal we need to concern ourselves with now, it’s the next normal we need to anticipate. While the situation around us is constantly evolving, and we’re hastily evolving along with it, the key question is: Do we have everything we need to be successful in the next normal? 

Sure, we’ve adapted and taken advantage of tools and resources we always had access to but hadn’t yet mastered or maximized. One of those, of course, is virtual meetings and virtual meeting platforms. Zoom has become the Kleenex or Xerox of virtual meeting platforms. But I think we all can agree it’s very 2020 and so it’s the old new normal. And while there’s a huge adoption of, and so many improvements to, virtual platforms like Zoom, there’s also still a ton of fatigue. The reality for all of us is that engagement in virtual meetings is still elusive.

What’s missing then? What can we do to be better, more effective, less draining to others? 

Communication. How we communicate, how much we communicate, when we communicate, how we listen, how we engage, how we execute on our goals for a meeting. Communication skills and styles need to be the sharpest tools in the toolbox in order to be ready and be successful in the next normal.

Getting there isn’t or shouldn’t be difficult. For starters, there are the five communication principles I espouse in Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World. They are audience-centricity, transparency, graciousness, brevity and preparedness. All five are critical, but clearly brevity is the one in shortest supply.

Take it upon yourself to sharpen your communication skills in 2022. Read the book (or listen to it) or reach out for coaching. In many cases, your exposure to others, internally and externally, will be one-dimensional … on a screen. Let’s make sure the impression you leave isn’t like the screen … flat.

Welcome to 2022!

Happy Holidays!

Here we are at the end of 2021. Cheers to all of us! We’ve been in person, virtual, working, resigning, working from home, returning to offices, and a hybrid of all of the above. We’ve seen normal, new normal, and the next normal. Adapting to change seems to be the one constant.

But it’s not. 

The one constant is Communication. Communication is the one superpower that can handle anything! In fact, I may be biased, but I would suggest that the people and the organizations who value communication the most and execute on it the best are poised to be more successful and better prepared for whatever comes our way in the new year.

As we reflect on this past year and look to 2022, let’s put Communication at #1. It’s the one thing we all need.

Happy Holidays!

Addressing/Redressing White Privilege in the Conference Room

In the early ‘80s in New York City, in my very first job, my very first colleague was Barack Obama. We both had just graduated college. We both started at the company within weeks of each other. We both were assigned entry level editorial jobs, working on a series of international business newsletters and reference books, and we both reported to the same supervisor.

Barack was smart, smooth, and savvy then. But he was also a little aloof. While he and I were friendly colleagues, chatted daily, and periodically went out for lunch, he pretty much kept to himself otherwise. He was the only black professional at the company; the other black employees worked as secretaries or in the mailroom. It was 35 years ago. Barack’s aloofness was also, in part, his “appropriateness” at the time. He didn’t have the latitude to be the social, chatty, sometimes loud and carousing associate that I could be.

When he became President – still smart, smooth and savvy – I watched him as infuriatingly unfair things were said to and about him, insults hurled at him (and his wife), and issues he championed were trashed or quashed. I frequently remarked to myself (and to anyone nearby who would listen) how cool, calm and collected he was no matter what because he had to be, he had no choice. He was a black man, and black men cannot get angry in public, it’s too threatening to white people. 

Fast forward, and here we are. Nowhere. Issues of systemic racism, implicit bias, micro and macro aggressions against people of color have made no progress … except, perhaps, the hope generated by recent protests and the renewal of active public discourse.

For those of us who are allies, but are also white, there’s a self-consciousness about our privilege and some feelings of helplessness about what to do right now – besides using our voices, voting, and whatever other forms of activism we can engage in. I, for one, can tell you I have so much heart and mind invested in helping to right the wrongs, but I am often at a loss for what, specifically, I can do to effect positive change.

I decided that, for starters, I can use my platform and communicate. I typically write this monthly piece to share tips, insights and strategies for being a better communicator and presenter. But, given current events and my despair over the dual and intertwined pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, I just couldn’t. Tips, insights and strategies seemed so trite right now … and so privileged. 

Instead, I decided to write about white privilege in the conference room and how we might begin to address and redress biases and inequities in meetings and presentations. 

Here’s the deal: I can be late, I can get annoyed or angry, I can tell a bad joke, I can be sassy, I can exaggerate my mannerisms, I can interrupt or talk over someone else, I can mispronounce a word or phrase, I can leave the room early — all without any consequences simply because I’m white. I’m not proud of that, but I’m aware of it. I have the same latitude to be big, take up more than my fair share of space, mess up, and even be offensive – without serious consequence – that I had in the early ‘80s. People of color haven’t and don’t have these luxuries and won’t … unless and until we force an awareness and an openness on ourselves and others. We need to take action and find ways to hold ourselves and each other accountable for the biases and inequities in conference rooms.

Here’s my starter set of suggestions:

  • Check yourself before you judge or speak up; 
  • Check your colleagues when they judge out loud or speak up; 
  • Hold a larger space for people to be different/do things differently.

Those, I would say, fall under the general heading of being tolerant. Beyond just tolerance, though, how about ways to be proactive?

  • Invite team members who are people of color to be lead presenters (for some reason, the lead presenter is like an NFL quarterback – more often than not, white);
  • Encourage directness and polite conflict, which, to date, have been more acceptable forms of communication for white people than people of color;
  • Learn about micro-aggressions and develop a system for imposing a “check” on colleagues’ responses to one another.

I don’t profess to have all the answers. I only have an awareness, an openness, and a starter set of suggested actions … so far. I’d love some input from readers. Please give this some thought and then share your ideas here. Thanks. 

2020 marks SmartMouth’s 15th year in business

Dear Friends of SmartMouth,

Happy New Year, I hope this year and decade bring you lots of opportunities to shine … especially at the front of the room! 

On our end, 2020 marks SmartMouth’s 15th year in business – hard to believe but also very satisfying. Our client list continues to grow, and our engagements continue to be rewarding. We’ve added several enhancements to our trainings over the past two years, all of which have been well received so far. Complementing our in-person coaching and training is our app, as well as our online courses on OpenSesame and GO1. On the publishing side, my regular columns in Forbes.com join Jock Talk in helping to expand the reach of the SmartMouth approach. 

In an effort to maintain balance and quality, I plan to scale back the SmartMouth blog post and newsletter to once a month, rather than twice. Starting this month, you can look for a nugget of advice on communication skills and style on the third Thursday of the month. I hope you’ll continue to follow and read!

In gratitude for your loyalty and friendship.

 
All my best,

Short and Sweet

There’s a lot of good advice out there about public speaking. Much of it is geared toward aiding the speaker.  I want to throw some advice into the mix that’s helpful to the speaker and the audience: Keep your sentences short and crisp!

Speakers do best when they prepare a talk in bullet points rather than prose. 
 
Preparing by writing a long prosaic document is problematic for a couple of reasons. For starters, speakers tend to get attached to the words, phrases and sentences they’ve composed. This is dangerous! It means the speaker is likely to feel compelled to read at the podium – which is bad for obvious reasons – or to memorize, which runs the risk of producing robotic delivery. Being conversational and staying connected with your audience, even if your presentation is imperfect, are still preferred.
 
On the other side of the podium, audiences need pace and rhythm and patter. 
 
For audiences, long, wordy sentences become a maze for the ears, something to get lost in. Preparing for a speech or presentation by writing a lengthy, thorough, fully accurate script for yourself produces something that readers, not listeners, would be willing and able to digest. Listeners need things to keep moving along at a clip. They need the speaker to start and finish a thought quickly in order to hang in there and actually get it. Speakers, don’t forget: you’re the subject matter expert, you’re steeped in your stuff, but it’s the audience’s first time hearing your material.
 
Move from script to bullet points.
 
You can always begin your preparation for a presentation by writing out a full-text script. It can help you establish order, organization, and some of your key phrases. But then you would be wise to use that script only as a practice tool. As soon as you can, switch over to bullet points and then rehearse your talk from those. But watch yourself – keep a lid on those long-winded, run-on, multi-clause sentences. Set a standard and a pace for yourself that requires you to make your sentences short, crisp, distinct units.
 
Good luck, your audiences will thank you!