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Storytelling

5 Ways to Cut Through the Clutter

 

It has often been said
there’s so much to be read,
you never can cram
all those words in your head.

So the writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.

That’s why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader’s relief is.

And that’s why your books
have such power and strength.
You publish with shorth!
(Shorth is better than length.)

Dr. Seuss


By John Millen

Some of my clients are super-intelligent financial experts, technology gurus, scientists and business leaders who share a common handicap in their communications.

They believe that they must talk in the highly sophisticated language of their field to be respected as experts.

Many also feel that they must give longer, more complicated answers so that people have a deeper understanding of their ideas. They say they don’t want to “dumb it down” by talking more simply.

None of these ideas is true. Today people are so overwhelmed with information and activity that being clear and simple in your talking and writing will give you greater influence and respect.


Successful communication

Whether your communication goal is influencing, informing, educating or entertaining people, you’ll be more successful if you seek to be understood.

And this doesn’t just apply to experts in their field. It applies to all of us. People are not paying attention anymore. We get an estimated 5,000 marketing messages a day, not including your email, texts, news, Facebook and other social media.

Here are five ways to cut though the clutter:


1) Use clear, direct language

Speaking and writing in clear language is more understandable, authentic and approachable. People are put off by jargon they don’t understand. It stops us cold.

When their attention diverts, people don’t hear what you say or write anymore. If they are present at all, they are just hearing you say, “blah, blah, blah.”


2) Use fewer words, not more

I have clients who complain that no one reads anymore. Emails, reports, white papers that took a ton of time to create often go unread.

That’s because, with our short attention spans, people are intimidated by long reports and even emails. Give them a summary, so at least you’ll have them engaged with your basic ideas.

If you hook them in the beginning, you might find that they go deeper or ask you questions. You have to engage them. That's why less is more in your presentations.


3) Use short, simple sentences

The average newspaper in the U.S. is written for a sixth-grade reading level comprehension; blockbuster novels are written for seventh-grade reading level; while the Wall Street Journal is closer to the ninth-grade level.

I learned to write more crisply and directly in high school and in college journalism. The reason you find short, crisp sentences and paragraphs in news writing is to capture and keep people’s attention.

Studies show that our attention and comprehension decline after 30 words in a paragraph. That’s about the length of the previous paragraph. ;-)


4) Be conversational

Some of the feedback I get from readers is that they feel as if I’m talking directly to them. I think this is a great compliment because my mission is to help people communicate more effectively. That won’t happen if you don’t understand what I’m writing.

My goal is to have a conversation with you about topics that matter and give advice you can take action on right away. Part of the reason this might sound conversational is that I dictate much of my writing, as I am doing right now. Does this sound conversational? 


5) Test your communication

You can ask people if you’re communicating clearly, or you can run experiments. Start sending short emails on just one topic. Stay higher level when you talk about a complicated topic. See if people are more engaged, as a result.

You can test the readability of your writing here. Just click the “Try it Now” button, which gives you free access to the tool anytime. You simply paste in your text, and it will be thoroughly analyzed for being readable and conversational.

For instance, the article you are reading gets an “A” for readability; it reads at a 7.1-grade level; 68.4 reading ease (100 is best); 13.6 words per sentence. The tool gives a complete statistical breakdown on every aspect of your writing. This is my first time using this tool, and I’m very impressed. Check it out!

The primary basis of this tool is called the Flesch-Kincaid grading system, originally commissioned by the U.S. Military to write more clear and useful manuals. Dr. Rudolf Flesch’s most famous book, published in 1955, is called Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do About ItThat book inspired Dr. Seuss to write The Cat in the Hat in 1957.

Although it may seem easier to write in simple sentences and paragraphs, it’s not. You have to put in more effort and be willing to revise until it’s ready to go. As Mark Twain famously said, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

If you want to engage people, your best bet is to cut through the clutter by using clear, concise and authentic communication.

To share your thoughts or ask me any questions, just hit visit our contact page.

How to Talk Like TED

By John Millen

Ted has changed everything about presentations.
 
You probably know that I’m not talking about a guy named “Ted.” I’m referring to TED Talks, which are given at TED-sanctioned events around the world. 
 
The original TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, is a conference that has been held annually since 1990.

Talks have been given by a wide array of world leaders, including presidents and prime ministers such as Bill Clinton and David Cameron and big thinkers such as Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and the late Stephen Hawking. They also featured artists, musicians, surgeons, and every other conceivable endeavor.
 
No matter their stature in the world, all of the leaders’ talks have one thing in common: they are restricted to eighteen minutes in length.
 

One of the TED Talks I most frequently recommend to clients is Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are by Dr. Amy Cuddy, pictured in this photo.

Here are some TED-style strategies for developing and presenting your talk. As you read these tips, bear in mind that you can apply them to any of your meetings, from a convention speech to a one-on-one sales presentation.
 
Don’t give a presentation. Have a conversation with your audience. Presentation-mode means you’re giving a performance. A conversation means you are listening and responding to the needs of your audience in real time. You are present in the moment. 
 
Focus on conveying a single idea. Your talk is not a readout, and it’s not a data dump. It’s the opportunity to convey an idea into the minds of your audience, whether they be employees, investors, donors, or others. 
 
In his book, TED Talks, the Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, Chris Anderson, whose title is the Head of TED, writes, “The central thesis of this book is that anyone who has an idea worth sharing is capable of giving a powerful talk.” Indeed, TED’s tagline is “Ideas Worth Sharing.”
 
Less is more. An eighteen-minute window is more than adequate to share your core idea. This is true of most any meeting or conference call. We live in a distracted world. Fight the urge to go deep and fill a five-pound bag with ten pounds of sugar. 
 
Here’s a sample format you can follow to give your own TED-style talk. With this structure, your eighteen minutes could be distributed like this: 
 
3 minutes – Story relevant to your main idea
3 minutes – Intro of your main idea and three key points
9 minutes – Three key points/stories developed (three minutes each) 
3 minutes – Close and call to action
 
Simple slides. As you develop slides, consider using only a few slides to keep the attention on you and your talk. Also, consider using images, rather than words and numbers, to support your talk.
 
Tell your story. Human beings are wired for storytelling and story-listening. Your talk will be best conveyed with a few stories illustrating your key points. The best stories have emotional resonance and a relevant tie-in or lesson learned. You can use stories from your personal and business lives.
 
Connect with purpose. By starting with why, the purpose of adopting your idea, you’ll be tapping into the power of meaning to inspire action. Telling stories connected with purpose adds additional impact to your talk.
 
Talk with your hands. As humans, we become more engaged watching people with open gestures and body language. A team led by researcher Vanessa Van Edwards studied why some TED Talks go viral, while others don’t. 
 
The team reviewed hundreds of hours of TED Talks searching for differences in the most and least watched talks. They analyzed hand gestures, vocal variety, smiling, and body movement.
 
Edwards’ team concluded that speakers who used the most hand gestures had the most views. “The most popular talks used an average of 465 hand gesture (yes, our coders counted every single one). The least popular TED Talkers used an average of 272 hand gestures. And TED superstars Temple Grandin, Simon Sinek, and Jane McGonigal topped the charts with more than six-hundred hand gestures in just eighteen minutes.”
 
And it’s not only good for presentations. Edwards also notes that thirty years ago, researchers found that job candidates who used more hand gestures were more likely to win the job.
 
Call to action. As you develop your talk, think about what you want people to know, feel, and do. What beliefs, actions, or behaviors are you trying to inspire?

Your call to action can be as simple as asking them to think about your customers in a new way.
 
Today, there are thousands of TED Talks on every conceivable topic. I have a few highly disciplined clients who start or end their days with one TED Talk for motivation and inspiration. 
 
I recommend you visit the TED Talk site and think about how you might use this process to improve your own talks. You’ll find everything about your day-to-day communication will become easier and more natural.
 
So give it a try. Talk like Ted. 

John

One of the TED Talks I most frequently recommend to clients is Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are by Dr. Amy Cuddy, pictured in this photo.

Photo Credit: www.Ted.com


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How to Control Your Jargon

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

– George Bernard Shaw


I don’t often offer financial advice, but given the current quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve, it’s a no-brainer to build incremental value by moving your resources from ill-liquid investments to ETF’s or another high-yield vehicle.

Not sure what I said there, but it’s typical of what people hear when experts in a field try to communicate with people who are not experts in the field, or even people inside their own organizations.

It’s because we use jargon, our own particular language.

Merriam-Webster defines jargon in two ways:

  • The jargon way: “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group”
  • The simple way: “the language used for a particular activity or by a particular group of people”

Speak their language
If you’re trying to communicate with people, you need to speak their language, not your own.

As a communications coach for leaders, I work with many expert groups and individuals in specialized fields -- such as financial services, insurance, technology, pharmaceuticals, healthcare and others -- that have their own unique languages.

The problem is that to be successful in any endeavor you’ll need to communicate and influence others to support you -- to buy your product or service, fund your research or donate to your cause.

To call people to action, we must connect with them and build their understanding. Jargon stands in the way.

Talking with jargon becomes a stumbling block. When we hear a word or acronym we don’t understand, it stops us in our tracks.

With this in mind, I’ll offer a few tips on how to deal with your jargon affliction:

Develop jargon awareness. You can’t deal with a problem until you recognize it. The inherent problem with jargon is we get so used to talking in shorthand inside our organization and our industry that we don’t even know we’re doing it.

It’s like being a fish in water and not knowing you’re wet. That’s how immersive jargon becomes. Many experts I’ve worked with even admit to finding a sense of security in their jargon, it’s a place that feels safe and warm.

It’s important to watch yourself, or ask a colleague to help gauge your use of jargon.

Define your terms. What do those initials stand for? What does that term mean? It’s easy enough to define your working terms in a way that will make sense to the people you’re talking with.

This is important, especially with mixed audiences, inside or outside your organization. You never know what level of knowledge people have, so it’s critical to set a foundation of understanding with your terms.

Keep it simple. With this in mind, you should keep it simple. Make sure you cover the bottom line first and then give detail. In training leaders to face reporters, I tell them that most newspapers -- not the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, but USA Today -- are written at a 5th grade level, to provide understanding to everyone.

You can use that as a measure of basic communication for all audiences. Obviously, the more specialized or technically sophisticated your crowd, the higher you can raise your level. If you’re using numbers, you might want to read what I wrote about How to Use Numbers in Presentations.

Use an analogy or story. Even with more specialized audiences, you want to deepen their understanding. A good way to do this is to use an analogy, a metaphor or a story to connect with people and bring home the importance of your point. I wrote about this in Why Great Leaders Tell Stories.

Prior to a network television interview, I worked with the chief researcher on message points about an important new drug the company was introducing. She is super smart and conveys all the technical specifications with ease.

All I needed to remind her was to focus on the people who would benefit from the drug. With that prompt, she told me several true stories of the struggles of real patients. We were both choked up at their misery. Her media interview was phenomenal.

Watch for non-verbals. Some people like to stay in their jargon because they think it makes them seem knowledgeable, showing their expertise. But in fact it makes them distant from the people they’re talking to. It’s like they’re speaking a different language.

People won’t ask you to explain your jargon because they think they should know what it means. They’re afraid of seeming ignorant for asking a “stupid” question.

When we hear a term we don’t understand, it can stop us in our tracks. We’re trying to figure it out and you’ve moved on. But we’re still back there, trying to break through the jargon.

Watch people’s non-verbal cues to you about whether they’re following you. Do they have a distant, distracted look? Furrowed brow? Covering a yawn? ;-)

Ask and listen. Finally, and perhaps most important, ask and listen. Ask people frequently if they understand what you’re saying, what a term or concept means. Asking opens the door for real questions, dialogue and connection.

And making a connection is what it’s all about. We can’t inspire people to action, if they don’t understand us.

Kill the jargon!

Try to slay your jargon for a week and see the difference.

How to Build Your Story Bank

A couple weeks ago, speaking at a convention in Las Vegas, I was asked a question about how to find your purpose.

As I began answering the question, I spontaneously told a story about a personal struggle I had earlier in my career that helped me find my purpose. It’s an emotional story, with a happy ending.
 
My 'Story Bank' 
The reason I was able to “spontaneously” tell this story is because it’s in my Story Bank. Over the years, I’ve collected my own personal and business stories to use in presentations and personal conversations.
 
If someone asked me under pressure to tell them my favorite story, my encounter with Oprah during a half-marathon might appear, or I might tell them about having a week off before I started a new job in Los Angeles and how I auditioned for seven game shows in three days. But we’ll leave that for another day.

Your favorite story
Let’s talk about you. If someone were to ask you to tell your favorite story, what would you say?
 
Would you search your memory bank hoping to come up with a story that is worthy of being called your “favorite”?
 
Would you be flustered? Maybe tell the first story that comes to mind? Or would you give up searching and let this opportunity pass?
 
This exact scenario may not happen to you, but there are times that telling a story would be the perfect way to engage, inspire, or persuade someone important to you.
 
Stories can build understanding and connection in relationships – so they’re helpful in business and in life.
 
With this in mind, let me give you a few tips for collecting your own stories:
 
Create your Story Bank
You should consider developing a disciplined approach to finding and saving your best stories so that you have a collection ready to use. By sharing your stories you’re giving people insights into who you are and what you value.
 
You’ll find that your openness is rewarded with openness from others in return.

Develop a storyteller mindset
Once you decide to capture stories you’ll notice that stories are everywhere. That’s because we as human beings are hardwired for hearing and telling stories. We tell stories all the time, to others and to ourselves.
 
When you decide to collect your own stories, they’ll start popping up all the time -- when you’re in meetings, driving to work or just waking up.
 
Set a method for collecting your stories
When all of these stories start coming at you, it’s important to have a disciplined approach to capturing them. If you say, “I’ll write that down when I get to home” you’ll never remember that story.
 
I have a notebook I use to write my favorite inspirational quotes and my stories. I keep that notebook on my desk in the office. It’s a white Moleskine notebook with a black drawing of Batman on the cover. Don’t judge me.
 
To make sure I capture stories when I’m traveling or elsewhere, I have a notes file on my phone labeled “stories” and whenever I hear something that would make a good story (or a Sunday Coffee post ;-) I enter it on my phone. If I’m driving, I dictate a quick note.

Strategic approach
During my training sessions, I’m often privileged to hear amazing, and often intimate stories.  People will share tragedies and triumphs, contributing meaningful parts of their lives. 
 
When I ask whether they have shared these stories elsewhere, they often say no.  Sometimes people don’t remember to tell them or they didn’t think the stories were important.
 
This is why it’s vital to take a strategic approach to collecting stories.  Our stories need to be told, but we are the only ones who can tell them.  Take a few minutes to sit down and recall the stories from your life.

Ask for stories from others
If you’re a leader, or in sales, you should also be asking other people for stories. Collecting stories about your organization, successes and failures, helps to reinforce the culture you are seeking to strengthen. 
Rather than asking the old, “how’s business?” what if you asked someone to tell you the most interesting story they’ve heard in their business in the past year?
 
When you ask that question, rather than get the pat answer, “business is good” you’ll get a real insight into the person and the organization. That’s because to find a story, we have to search a different part of our brains, as it takes some effort and creativity. Watch a person’s face, especially their eyes, when they search for a story.
 
And when they share the story with you, the two of you are making the most real, intimate connection available to human beings. You’re sharing yourselves.
 
I call storytelling “the leader’s superpower” because telling a story is more engaging, inspiring and motivating than anything else you can say.
 
So keep your eyes open; stories are all around you. And search your life, for the moments you can share with others.
 
You’ll be on your way to telling the world your story.

Create Special Moments

“The greatest moments in life are not concerned with selfish achievements but rather with the things we do for the people we love and esteem.”

–– Walt Disney


If I asked you to think about the most powerful moments in your life, you might first think of the big ones – your wedding, the birth of a child, the death of a parent, advancement in your career.
 
These milestones certainly stand out, as we think of our lives in broad terms. These are indeed the major chapters when we tell our stories. 
 
But if I ask you think more deeply about the special moments of your childhood, you might recall ice cream with a parent, fireworks on the beach, or the first time someone taught you to ride a bike.
 
In my coaching and training, I ask people to bring and share stories. I also ask them to start a story bank that can be used to retell their stories in business to bring their messages to life.
 
Power of simple moments
Inevitably, these stories reflect the power of simple moments. A heartfelt note from a boss, tears from a customer, or a smile from a child.

While we think of our lives in broad, sweeping terms of many years, our key, cherished memories are simple moments in time. This is why the best films and books focus on sharing small gestures and moments.
 
The special moments are just minutes in hundreds of thousands of hours of experience. As leaders, it’s critical to create the moments that shape the experience of the people we work with. Whether with your customers, employees, or others, some thought and planning may produce extraordinary experiences.
 
One recent book outlines the importance of creating these experiences. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact,*  is another great book from authors (and brothers) Chip Heath and Dan Heath, who also wrote the classic, Made to Stick.*
 

the power of moments.jpeg
made to stick.jpg

 

 
The authors say moments are critical “because research has found that in recalling an experience, we ignore most of what happened and focus instead on a few particular moments….
 
“When people assess an experience, they tend to forget or ignore its length –– a phenomenon called ‘duration neglect.’ Instead, they seem to rate the experience based on two key moments: (1) the best or worst moment, known as the ‘peak’; and (2) the ending. Psychologists call it the ‘peak-end rule.’”
 
“What’s indisputable is that when we assess our experiences, we don’t average our minute-by-minute sensations. Rather, we tend to remember flagship moments: the peaks, the pits, and the transitions.”
 
Create positive experiences
This is obviously an important lesson to remember in business and in life. In service businesses, it’s critical to create positive impressions and memorable experiences.
 
Traveling as much as I do, I stay in a range of high-end and average hotels and I’m always interested in the experience they create. The authors use the example of the Magic Castle Hotel, which is consistently rated as one of the top three hotels in Los Angeles, higher than the upscale Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons hotels.
 
The Magic Castle Hotel achieves this rating despite the fact that it is anything but luxurious. “It’s not that it’s a bad-looking place; it’s fine. It looks like a respectable budget motel,” they write. Then why is it so highly rated that people rave about it to their friends and share it forever?
 
Here’s the secret. They’ve created extraordinary moments that are unforgettable, as the Heath brothers write:
 
Let’s start with the cherry-red phone mounted on the tool wall near the pool. You pick it up and someone answers, ‘Hello, popsicle hotline.’ You place an order, and minutes later, a staffer wearing white gloves delivers your cherry, orange, or grape popsicles to you at poolside. On a silver tray. For free.
 

Popsicle Hotline.jpg

Then there’s the snack menu, a list of goodies––ranging from Kit Kat’s to root beer to Cheetos––that can be ordered up at no cost. There’s also a board game menu and DVD menu, with all items loaned for free. Three times a week, magicians perform tricks at breakfast. Did we mention you can drop off unlimited loads of laundry for free washing? Your clothes are returned later in the day, wrapped in butcher paper and tied up with twine and a sprig of lavender.
 
The guest reviews for the Magic Castle Hotel are rapturous. What the Magic Castle has figured out is that, to please customers you need not obsess over every detail. Customers will forgive small swimming pools and underwhelming room décor, as long as some moments are magical.
 
There are so many opportunities all of us have to create unique and memorable experiences, yet we thoughtlessly stick with the well-worn path.
 
Defining special moments
The Power of Moments * defines four key elements for you to consider in creating special, defining moments:

ELEVATION: They rise above the everyday experience.

INSIGHT: They may shift your point of view of yourself or the world.

PRIDE: They capture moments of accomplishment or courage.

CONNECTION: They are often social events that strengthen the bonds we share with others.
 
Take action
I urge you to consider how you might take initiative to elevate experiences for yourself and those important to you in business and life.

  • Try a different approach at your next retreat –– as an opener, have everyone bring a meaningful object from home and explain the moment it became important to them.
  • Send a customer a thank you with a small, different gift, such as your favorite candy or dessert. 
  • Pick a “crazy” place for a weekend getaway with your partner or family.

It’s up to you. You have the ability to design the right kind of memorable experience, with powerful moments that might last a lifetime.

One final thought: as you think about creating special moments, don't lose the gift of being present for these moments. Too many of us have become consumed by our phones and have lost our mindfulness. Lots of us are capturing moments to share with others (it's Instagrammable!) rather than actually being present in the moment.

You see it everywhere: people glued to phones while walking dogs, sitting with children, dining with others.

I was watching an Austrailian DJ and singer who, during a concert, looked out and saw a sea of phones facing him. He screamed at his audience "you paid me a lot of money to be here with you so, for this one song, put down your phones and be here with me!" (I redacted over the colorful language.)

Thank you for sharing these moments with me.

What's Your Love Language?

All you need is love  - The Beatles


On February 14 here in the U.S. we will celebrate love in the annual, commercial tradition of Valentine’s Day.

While expressing your love with flowers, giftsand greeting cards has merit, you might consider a more meaningful gift: speaking the love language of the person you cherish.

As with all communication, in the language of love our actions often speak much louder than our words. We must understand our lover’s language to successfully express our love.

Gary Chapman, marriage counselor for more than 30 years, is author of The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. * First published in 1992, the book has been a New York Times Bestseller and published in 49 languages.

Chapman believes each of us has a primary love language, a way in which we are most emotionally satisfied to receive love from another person. Our lovers may find satisfaction from an entirely different love language.

The secret to communicating love, then, is to understand our partner’s language and act on that sincerely and consistently. “The one who chooses to love will find appropriate ways to express that decision every day,” Chapman says.

These are the five love languages identified by Chapman along with my thoughts:

1) Words of Affirmation
Kind, loving, supportive words that express appreciation. The tone and the intent of the words, of course, carry as much weight as the words themselves.

2) Acts of Service
The saying is “Actions speak louder than words” and for people who favor this language of love nothing could be more true. Simple acts of service will speak deeply to your love.

3) Receiving Gifts
Throughout all cultures and civilizations, the act of giving gifts has been seen as an expression of love and appreciation. Certainly the engagement ring is one powerful symbolic example. But speaking this language is not about expense. A small gift or thoughtful note sincerely given can mean far more than an expensive gift without thought.

4) Quality Time 
In our hectic, over-scheduled lives, nothing is more valuable than our time. Giving someone undivided attention, being fully present in the moment, is one of the best ways of showing love. Sharing quality time has impact on everyone but is enormously powerful to those who speak this love language.

5) Physical Touch
Human beings thrive on physical contact, from holding an infant, to consoling loss, to expressing appreciation. Research finds deep emotional and physical benefits of touch. If this is your partner’s primary love language, nothing will communicate more deeply than your touch.

Questions for you:

What is your primary love language? Does your loved one know that?

More importantly, what is your lover’s primary love language? Are you speaking that language consistently and sincerely? 

If you don't know, there's an easy way to find out: ask, and listen carefully.

Serious questions, since love is all you need.

 

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash