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How to Avoid Awkward Holiday Conversations

Ah, the holidays. It’s that special time of year when we slow down, eat too much food and…engage in awkward conversation.
For many of us these conversations take place in office parties, community events or extended family gatherings.
While it can often be nice to mingle, sometimes meeting new people or chatting with people we rarely see can leave us feeling uncomfortable and dreading these visits. It can exacerbate social anxiety.
Here are a few tips for surviving the holiday conversation gauntlet:  
Don’t reach for your phone
For many of us, the solution to feeling awkward at a public event is to reach for our smartphones. When we are left standing alone, feeling like a lonely middle-schooler, the answer is to grab for our smartphones.
By palming our phone and checking for email, text or notification we reassure ourselves: “I’m not a loser, standing around by myself with no one to talk to,” we tell our inner critic. But we also cut off the possibility of meeting someone new, of catching the random set of eyes and making new friends.
Prepare ahead of time
Who will you be seeing? Old friends? Colleagues? Random strangers? Think about who will be there and scribble a few notes on a card about what you might want to share or avoid.
Will there be a particular person you want to make sure to connect with? Someone you should avoid? A little planning can help you maneuver through the emotional minefield we often face during the holidays.
Bring your stories
A great way to avoid awkward moments is to think ahead of time about some of your favorite stories. As human beings we are hardwired for stories.  Just take a few minutes to look through your story bank to refresh your memory. You do have a story bank, don’t you? If not, check out my article Oprah’s in My Story Bank!
Be vulnerable
By opening up and sharing your personal stories or passions, you will encourage others to do the same. You’ll be amazed at what you hear and the bond that can be forged in a few minutes with someone by sharing yourself.
I recently met someone who told me he grew up in a small town in Texas. Though I’d never been there, that obscure town has special meaning in my life; so I shared my personal story with him and we came to understand one another at a much deeper level.
Ask questions
People love to talk about themselves when given the right space and opportunity. Ask open-ended questions (those that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”) and ask questions that are more specific. In other words, not “how was your year?” but “what’s the best thing that happened to you this year?” A question like this will usually bring out a great story.
Be an active listener
We all like to think of ourselves as good listeners, but in most cases that’s just not true. If you monitor your listening skills you’ll find you spend a lot of time thinking about what you want to say next. We often just listen for keywords that generate thoughts that will turn the conversation in our direction.
Instead, listen without intent. Listen with empathy. Listen for what’s not being said. Listen for the attitude behind the answer and ask follow up questions to go deeper.
Stay focused
There’s nothing worse than the person who pretends to be listening to you, but keeps looking over your shoulder to see if there’s someone more valuable in the wings. Don’t be that person. See if you can stay completely focused on the person in front of you while truly listening.
These simple practices can make a huge difference in the quality of your communication and your relationships.
While some awkwardness during holiday conversation cannot be avoided, a bit of planning and thought can make a challenging season a whole lot less stressful.
Happy Holidays!

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An Attitude of Gratitude

Stormy or sunny days, glorious or lonely nights, I maintain an attitude of gratitude. — Maya Angelou
Celebrating Thanksgiving in the U.S. this week has me thinking about the power of expressing sincere gratitude to others in business, and in life.

Signs are all around us of the need for personal, genuine thanks to others:

  • In a digital world, where attention is a nanosecond,  “thank you’s” seem to come as afterthoughts in brief texts (thx!) and hurried voice mails.
  • Employee engagement is at all time low. A recent Gallup Poll found that only 13 percent of people worldwide are actively engaged at work. (Here in the U.S., the number was 32 percent, nothing to brag about.)
  • Our national dialogue, from hate-spewing politics to bleep-coated TV, has become a coarse joke.

People have become so busy paying attention to the constant noise that appreciation of personal relationships seems to have taken second place.

Harvard research
The need is so clear that Ivy League schools are doing serious research to understand the power of “thank you.”

A Harvard professor’s book explores the science of gratitude. Her research highlights how leaders’ expressions of gratitude motivate people.

The professor mentions that her husband is working at a startup. One day, after her husband had been up all night working on a project, the professor received a card and flowers from the company's founder, thanking her for her patience. It was pleasant for her—and a motivator for him.

I worked with a CEO who was the best I’d ever seen at saying “thank you” to people. There were times I would ask myself if it was too much, but I had to say no. The thanks were always delivered sincerely and with the appropriate tonality for the situation.

Sincere appreciation
What can we do to bring sincere appreciation back to life? Think about these expressions as a starting point:

  • Sending a handwritten “thank you” card to a person’s home with a small, relevant gift related to one of their passions.

  • Making a public statement, whether at a team meeting or family event, with clear, sincere thanks to one or more people. It lifts the morale of everyone.
  • A face-to-face show-up with no agenda other than to say “thank you.”

Of course, there’s also that opportunity around the dinner table this Thursday, or those moments this holiday season when you are one on one with someone you rarely see.

What better time to say, “I appreciate you”?

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Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Why People Love Pictures

Of all our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language. — Walt Disney

Think back to a moment in your childhood, or some other special time in your life. Chances are, you see a picture. It’s a mental photo capturing the essence of that moment.
Look up from your phone or tablet or computer right now.  If you scan around your home or office you’ll probably see pictures that capture special times or a memento or an art piece that brings out a certain emotion.
The Power of Visuals
Visual images have that kind of power — the ability to evoke deep emotions, inspire and entertain us.
As human beings, we think in images. It’s why we are captivated by movies, television and websites. Images, not words, are what power Facebook, Instagram, Snap Chat and YouTube.
This makes sense since scientists have determined that the majority of our brain’s activity is dedicated to visual processing. In fact, various researchers have found that:

  • When we have our eyes open, our vision accounts for two-thirds of the electrical activity of the brain — a full two billion of the three billion firings per second.
  • About half of our neural tissue, that stuff that drives our nervous systems, is directly or indirectly related to vision. In fact, more of our neurons are dedicated to vision than all the other senses combined.
  • We process images in as little as 13 milliseconds, according to a recent MIT study. That’s 13/1000 of a second.

“The fact that you can do that at these high speeds indicates to us that what vision does is find concepts. That’s what the brain is doing all day long — trying to understand what we’re looking at,” says Mary Potter, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and senior author of the study.
This rapid-fire processing may help direct the eyes, which shift their gaze three times per second, to their next target, Potter says. “The job of the eyes is not only to get the information into the brain but to allow the brain to think about it rapidly enough to know what you should look at next. So, in general, we’re calibrating our eyes so they move around just as often as possible consistent with understanding what we’re seeing,” she says.
This means our eyes and minds are constantly searching for images and processing them to understand the world.
And, according to research, we process images tens of thousands of times faster than words. This is probably why more than 65 percent of the population falls into the visual-learner category. Thinking visually can help you to learn and memorize concepts more easily.
Even the act of reading, as you are doing now, is piecing together images, according to
Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and the author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.
Medina explains why reading is not as efficient as images can be for learning and retaining new information. “Combinations of straight lines and curves become the word ‘three.’ Written information has a lot of visual features in it, and this report takes a great deal of effort and time to organize.” For this reason, Medina says, “reading is a relatively slow way to put information into the brain.”
Bare this in mind next time you’re putting together a PowerPoint or report and use images and a few words on your slides, as opposed to text-heavy information.
I encourage you to use more images in your slides and reports because:
People can’t multitask
They’re either reading the words on your slide or listening to you. An image is easier and faster to process so people can return to looking at and listening to you.   
One of the most important elements in your presentations is contrast. Human beings, particularly in a digital world, are constantly distracted. An image gives your audience new stimulation and a rest from all the words and numbers.
Most people are visual learners
As noted above, most people are visual learners and will better understand and retain your key messages when you incorporate images. Pictures also appeal to the creative side of the brain and more effectively engage people.
Images dominate modern culture
We have become a visually oriented society. People are used to seeing and responding to images. If they are at work being given an extra deep dose of data without a visual break, they will feel overwhelmed or bored and tune you out.
Visuals speed understanding
With a visual that represents a metaphor of the concept you are trying to explain, you help them make a faster transition to learning what you want them to know.
Where to find images
There are plenty of sources for images around the internet, both paid and free. Google is your friend. Creative Commons and Flickr are good sources for royalty-free images, with or without restrictions such as needing to provide attribution to the photographer.
On the free side, there are sites that come with no requirements and few restrictions on use. My current go-to site is I generally give credit to the photographers, though this is not required.
This week, think about the visuals in your world and how you respond to them. Then consider using more images in your presentations and reports to speed understanding and keep your audience engaged.
In your mind right now, think about looking up at that PowerPoint screen and seeing a bright, orange sunrise. It feels warm and full of possibilities for the future!
We are visual creatures. See what I mean?

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Photo by Benjamin Szabo on Unsplash

Why I Write (and you should, too)


The Woman Who Changed My Life

This week marks two years that I’ve published these articles every Sunday. I appreciate your support and thought it would be worth sharing why I write.
But first, let me share with you the exact moment decades ago that my attitude about writing — and my life — changed forever.
I was raised by a hard-working single mother and started life in the housing projects of Philadelphia. We moved to California when I was eight and though our quality of life improved, I was never motivated by anyone to achieve academically. It was mostly C’s and D’s in my early life.
So, when I signed up for a journalism class in my junior year at Hawthorne High School (where the Beach Boys had graduated years earlier), I had no particular intentions.
But something startling happened. My teacher, Konnie Krislock, dropped my first draft of a news story on my desk with this handwritten at the top: “Great work! A+” and she said, “You’re a great writer.”
At first, I thought there had been a mistake. Then, Konnie, which she requested that we call her, asked me to stay after class. Until then, hearing that from a teacher usually meant trouble.
Instead, she asked where I was going to college. I said I wasn’t going to college. I worked at a local plant nursery and enjoyed it. I thought that might make a nice career.
Konnie said, “No, you’re going to college.” And, with her belief in me, my grades became mostly A’s for the next two years, and I won a statewide news writing competition. This led to a prolific campus career at Cal State Fullerton, serving in a variety of roles, including student body president.
Later, Konnie left teaching for a successful business career and eventually made her way back to advising the student newspaper staff at a private school in Newport Beach.
As a teacher, Konnie changed many, many lives. Her Facebook page is packed with testimonials of her impact over decades. She also taught us the value of free speech and has testified before legislative bodies on behalf of students’ exercising their rights to free expression.
Konnie recently retired from teaching and received the Youth Journalism International Journalism Educator of the Year award. Well deserved!
Congratulations and heartfelt thanks, Konnie!

Why I Write (and you should, too)...Continued

During the past two years, I’ve learned that writing Sunday Coffee every week:

Helps fulfill my purpose
A few months ago, I called the CEO of an organization, an acquaintance, to connect him a client of mine who I thought could benefit him. I didn’t realize the CEO read this newsletter. He said kind words about sending it on to his leadership team, then added a line that stuck with me: “It’s so nice you give away all of your secrets for free.”
That made me smile because I write Sunday Coffee from a place of purpose. In my coaching and training, I emphasize that people should find their “why” because it serves as a deep well of energy and commitment.
My “why” is to help as many people as possible to find success in their lives with effective communication, leadership, and personal development skills. Writing this newsletter helps me achieve my purpose by reaching thousands of people every week.
Gives me discipline
Years ago, I had lunch with a friend who’d written a weekly blog. I was amazed that he could keep it up and asked, incredulously, how do you come up with ideas every week?
His answer was that writing, like any other behavior, becomes a habit and continues until broken. It’s true. I had previously considered writing a book but didn’t create the habit. Now, two years in, I have enough material for two books (that’s a threat, not a promise ;-)
Focuses my work
I constantly advise clients on the need to be clear and concise when communicating in a world where all of us are totally distracted. Writing gives us the opportunity to cut the clutter from our wide-ranging thoughts. As I noted last week, Mark Twain had it right when he apologized to a friend writing, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
I know that people will not continue reading if I don’t stay focused on a single idea and explain it in a clear and concise way. Each week I’m forced to be concise. Once I’ve done this, I’ve created a mental path that will be tighter in my speaking, coaching, and training as well. 
Keeps me fresh
Every week I get live feedback from you, our thousands of readers around the world, reacting to what I’ve written. You write about your struggles, challenges, memories, joys, and stories. This gives me fresh, instant feedback. As I write, I know I’m directly addressing your real, current needs, which gives me a sense of meaning.
Gives me a challenge
With a live audience and a weekly deadline, I feel the need to up my game every week. I write and research late at night and early in the morning. I’ve written in hotels, on planes, on rides to the airport. I’ve even dictated walking to a meeting in New York City.
I feel compelled to look for and capture new ideas that will give you a unique perspective or strategies to deal with your personal and work challenges.
In the end, I hope I bring value to your life. In doing so, I find that I get as much reward as I give. I derive real personal satisfaction and meaning from writing for you every week.
This is why I write and you should too.
You don't have to create a newsletter or blog, but perhaps a weekly email to your team, or friends, or family. What’s that idea or strategy that’s whirling in your mind? What’s a problem you can solve for people?
If you had the time, what’s that thing you’d really like to learn more about, and could share with others? As they say, if you want to really learn something, you should teach it.
If you don’t feel comfortable sharing at this point, start writing in a journal when you are fresh early in the morning, or before bed. Or keep a document on your computer or phone where you can sketch random thoughts and ideas that might grow over time.
I just ask that you consider this because you will find that writing it down focuses your mind, clarifies your ideas and keeps you fresh. I find great satisfaction in this endeavor. 
This is why I write and you should too.

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Less is More in Presentations

I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.
                                Mark Twain

We know that everyone is distracted beyond belief. When I’m giving a speech and talking about distraction, I see a room full of knowing smiles and nodding heads. 
There is a good reason for that. It’s estimated that we are exposed to some 5,000 marketing messages a day. Our phones constantly beg for attention. We have endless emails, texts and social notifications.
And the pace of business and life is faster than ever. The 24/7 news cycle. Working through worldwide time zones.

One. Word. Texts.
This has meant people communicate in increasingly short messages. 140 characters. Five-second sound bites. One. Word. Texts. Or just an emoji. ;-)
All of this means that we are awash in information.
Despite all this distraction, there are times we are held captive and must pay attention, or seem to pay attention, and that’s at work. We go to meetings — little meetings, larger meetings and even convention-size meetings.
If you’ve sat through a seemingly endless presentation, you know how that feels.

Focus Your Messages
All of this distraction means it’s more important than ever that we focus our messages to be as clear and concise as possible.
As subject matter experts, our biggest job isn’t knowing what to say, it’s knowing what not to say. We have an obligation to cut the clutter and focus on what people really need to know.
But this is hard work. We can take the lazy way out and do a data dump. That’s easy.
Just put up a huge deck of dense PowerPoint slides covered with words and numbers. Just stand there and talk, and keep talking until they get it.
That might have been okay at one time. But today, less is more.
Engage and Influence
People are more likely to be engaged, enlightened and influenced if you give them less information — with more meaning.
No one misses what they didn't know was coming. Unless you printed out a transcript, they don't know what you were going to say. When I’m working on a presentation with a leader, I often have to tell them to stop trying to squeeze 10 pounds of sugar into a five-pound bag.
I've been guilty of this myself. In trying to give workshop participants maximum value, I have sometimes sped up to cover every section rather than leave some techniques for another day.
We all need to be part of the solution and give people less information and more understanding.
Here are a few strategies and tactics for you to consider:

  • Take your slide deck and reduce the number of slides by half. Then remove half of the words on each slide. Force yourself to be clear and concise about your ideas. We think we can multitask but we can’t. If you have a lot of words on your slides, your audience will be reading them and not listening to you. We can’t truly do both.


  • Consider not using slides at all. People are there to hear from you. Your slides should only support your points. Having no slides will mean they are fully focused on you and your message.


  • Cut the time of your talk in half. Instead, use the extra time for questions, or just let people go. Nobody complains about a presentation that ends early. “That presentation was way too short,” said no one. Ever.


  • Boil your presentation down to key words that you can write on an index card. I call this a “confidence card.” You will know that the brief card is there if you need it, but you’ll be better off without it. Just speak from your heart.


  • Tell stories. As human beings, we are hardwired for storytelling. Instead of presenting a lot of data, try telling a story that makes your point. Stories are more engaging, persuasive and memorable.


  • When planning your presentation, think in terms of ideas. Decide on your major message, the one thing you want people to remember and then think of three ideas or points that support that message. Then build on those three ideas with one-liners, a meaningful statistic, or a story.

Find the gems and give those as gifts to the people you reach. They’ll appreciate
Following these and similar approaches will allow you to use less information with more impact. You get the idea. Think about paring back the amount of clutter you put out in the world.

Find the gems and give those as gifts to the people you reach. They'll appreciate it because today, truly, less is more.

7 Ways to Engage People Right Away

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Living in a digital world as we do, with our micro attention spans, people are deciding within seconds whether it’s worth listening to us.

Most of the research concludes that we have between three and seven seconds to engage people before they move on to other distractions, such as their phones.
With this in mind, it is clear that the most important moment of our presentation, meeting, or conversation is the opening. That’s when we set the tone. That’s when we enter the topic. Most important, that’s when we show ourselves and how this thing is going to go.
And the thing is, people know immediately and instinctively whether we are going to be worth their time. That’s because we all make snap judgments. We are conditioned with this three-second rule from cruising TV, browsing the internet and interacting with our phones.
Three seconds…change the channel
Three seconds…click another web page
Three seconds…open a new app
This is why, as communicators, we must engage people immediately and keep their attention throughout our communication. (In fact, it’s our job now to continue to engage them every couple of minutes, but we’ll cover how to do that on another day.)
There are many ways for you to start your talk. But here are seven winners you can use to start any presentation, meeting or conversation.

1. Ask engaging questions
Asking a question is easy—lots of people do it. But asking the right question is hard. In a business conversation, a lot of people typically ask, “how’s business?” That elicits the typical response … wait for it … “fine.” This doesn’t engage people. I recommend instead that you ask something more complex like, “what’s the most interesting story you’ve heard in your business over the last year?”
In a presentation, a similar rote response happens when people ask their audience, “how are you doing?” Depending on the status of the person asking, the audience will say some version of “great.” Sometimes, the high-status leader will ask again and the audience will shout, louder, “great!”
This is not necessarily a poor approach, but it doesn’t elicit a useful, relevant response. What if, instead, the leader asked something relevant to the presentation, such as, “How many of you feel overwhelmed by all the changes we’re implementing this year?” People will have to think about the response and be open enough to share. The leader might then say, “me too,” and proceed to talk about how they all have to work together and support one another through change. It sets up the conversation to come.
2. Share stunning statistics
Use a couple of key numbers in the beginning to gain interest and set up your premise. Warning: don’t overwhelm people with too many numbers. Just a pinch to spice up your dish—don’t dump it all in there because if you do, you’ll have the opposite effect: a turn-off.
For example: Did you know that the average person sees 5,000 marketing messages per day? That’s in addition to email, text and other messages. No wonder we’re so distracted.
Or: Speaking of distracted, did you know that the National Safety Council estimates that one in four car crashes resulting in deaths, injuries or property damage occur while drivers are texting or talking on the phone? That’s a total of up to 2 million crashes per year.
3. Tell a relevant story
Tell a story or short anecdote right off the bat. Immediately. People love that, as long as it’s relevant and you tie it in. You might say up front, as I do, it’s important to pay attention because if you don’t you might miss a major opportunity, as I did. Then I tell a story from my life that was a funny fail.
You have plenty of good stories to tell. It might feel weird starting off with a story, but trust me, it works. We humans are hardwired for stories.
4. Create a meaningful analogy
What situation do you find your business in? What is the major challenge you’re trying to motivate people to overcome? An analogy, or metaphor, can give people the change of perspective they need to move forward.
Like this: As we near the end of the year, we are so close to winning in the national sales competition. We are like a football team that’s been beaten down with injuries and challenges throughout the year, but we’re still here and we’re on the 10-yard line. Let’s meet our biggest challenge and win it all.
Analogies are especially helpful in guiding people into uncharted territory. You take them from what is familiar and understandable to a future, analogous state.
5. Make a request
I always recommend a call to action at the end of your presentation or meeting. People want to know what to do with the information you’ve given them. What does it mean to them and what should they do with it? Lacking a call to action can make it largely irrelevant.
An interesting and engaging technique is to ask people up front for action. Make your request or call to action at the beginning. In essence, you’re telling them the case that you’ll make. They’ll know exactly why you’re saying what follows.
6. Give a powerful quote
The right quote, relevant and from a credible source, can set the tone for everything. In most of my coaching and training sessions, you’ll at some point hear my favorite quote from Maya Angelou:
“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Truth.

7. Tell an appropriate joke
Warning: this is the riskiest tactic of all. If you’re not naturally funny, don’t tell a joke. If you are naturally funny, don’t automatically decide to tell a joke. You need to decide if the audience is ready, the environment is right and the joke is relevant. Lacking any of these elements can hurt you. And having all of these elements aligned is no guarantee of success.
It doesn’t have to be your own joke. When speaking on dealing with anxiety, I often tell Seinfeld’s joke: “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.”
Which is also truth. We all have anxiety in communicating with others, but once you engage your audience, with a strong opening, you’ll feel a sense of connection that will give you the energy to keep engaging them all the way to the end.
Open strong, my friend.