Tag Archives: communications

Forgotten Love Letters

27 Dec

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Back in the 90s Ben and I lived in a small brick apartment building in Grandview, right behind the St. Christopher Church and Trinity School playground. It was our first off-campus home as newlyweds. We moved there after I graduated from OSU in 1991.

The building was the smallish variety, with just four units, so that we knew everyone around us–mostly because we could all hear each other through the walls. Below us was an older gentleman from Bulgaria who made exotic dishes requiring mysterious herbs in small baggies, which my cat would retrieve from his apartment and bring back to us on occasion. And next to us was an older couple in their 60s or 70s, named Agnes and Steve.

All of us shared a basement. Around the time we moved in, we were putting a bunch of our boxes down in the basement and were cleaning out the area that was “our” storage space, just beyond the laundry chutes. We found a dusty old box of letters that we’d been told were the remnants of previous tenants. I opened the box and took a look.

These were intense love letters, from WWII, written by a soldier to his girlfriend. The guy was a prolific writer and the passion of a 20-year-old who’s away from the one he loves. He missed her terribly and went through a lot of paper saying so.

There wasn’t anything sublime in the letters–mostly what you’d expect. In one letter, he mentioned resisting the temptation of a solders’ night out in the city, all for her. (The guy was earnest but not a good liar, by the way.) In another letter, he clearly described which parts of her he most missed, in graphic detail. I couldn’t help noticing that he signed his name “Steve,” and the letters were addressed to “Agnes.”

Well, this could not be a coincidence. Feeling a bit embarrassed to have rifled through my neighbors’ love letters, I closed the box back up and went upstairs to tell my husband. Sheepishly, we took the box to our neighbors, not mentioning that it “had been opened.” Interestingly, they said that the letters did not belong to them and told us to put the box in the trash.

We lived in the apartment for about two years, and since the love letter incident, we discovered more about Agnes and Steve, thanks to our thin walls. They argued a lot–loudly. Steve snored–loudly. And every few nights Steve wanted to do things that Agnes didn’t. They argued, things got quiet, and then Steve snored.

The repetition of their argument–the same one every time–was both sad and comical. It was sad because they were oblivious to how ridiculous it had become. I wondered how long they had been caught in this loop.

As a naive and newly married 23-year-old, the state of Steve and Agnes’ relationship baffled me. How could they write letters so full of life and love, then deny ever writing the letters and sink into the opposite of domestic bliss? Maybe the letters were a bittersweet reminder of things past–a life so long ago that it didn’t really belong to them anymore.

I could never find any resolution to this mystery, and after a few years we moved into another Grandview apartment where we could no longer hear Steve and Agnes. That was 20 years ago, and I’m sure that they have moved on as well–perhaps even passed on.

Steve and Agnes taught me a lesson about love. When the spark and joy of relationship fade so far into the past that you don’t care about throwing memories away, when you repeat yourself over and over again and fall deeper into the rut of the same argument, when the status quo becomes good enough, having past tense love doesn’t make a difference. I’m thankful to have learned that lesson.

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The Goldilocks Communications Principle

3 Nov

I’ve never been a big talker. Unlike most communications professionals, I am closer to the middle on the Introvert-Extrovert scale. My preference is to mull over and percolate what I learn before I discuss it. I tend to be a minimalist in terms of what I say and write–at least compared to others in my field.

I was always the girl in high school that you could share your secrets with, because I wouldn’t broadcast them to the world or judge you for them. Professionally, this style of being a confidante and thoughtful communicator has served me well in working with clients in crisis situations, where a lot of information needed to be collected, shared and processed by a small team before it is ready for public consumption, to avoid spreading rumors.

Yet there are situations where it’s actually MORE comforting for people to have information, even if it is incomplete and still messy. I’ve had to fine-tune my communications approach during my career based upon the situations I’ve been in, and shaped by the people involved. In business and in life, how much communication is not enough, too much or just right? Not always an easy question to answer.

It’s all subjective, based upon the needs of the audience and the circumstances prompting the communication in the first place. Even with the same group of people, the communications needs can change based upon the situation. I call this “The Goldilocks Principle” of communications. Here are the stages, described by caricatures from my own career:

  1. Goldilocks tries to eat Papa Bear’s porridge–TOO MUCH! Early in my career, I wrote A LOT of detail in my business communications–emails, reports, talking points for communications. At that time, I thought that you needed–and really wanted–to know everything that I knew, exactly how I knew it. Because I identified as a writer, by God you would see my writing…and have to determine for yourself what was most important, buried somewhere in the long sentences and James Joyce density of it all.
  2. Goldilocks moves on to Mama Bear’s porridge–BETTER BUT STILL NOT RIGHT! As I progressed in my business writing skills, I tapered back and began to position my writing so that the reader would not have to wade through so much and would know more about what was really important to understand. I was also given counsel at this stage of my career that even if I had limited information, sometimes it was best to share it in the moment because I worked for a person who wanted to have all of the buzz. For this audience, I needed to inject more of my gut reactions and not “filter” out what I often perceived as people’s over-reactions to situations. Trying to compensate for being overly analytical and not “human” enough in my communications, I put more of myself, and more emotion, into this stage. The thing is, not every Goldilocks wants Mama Bear’s feelings…
  3. Goldilocks tries Baby Bear’s porridge–JUST RIGHT! On most days I am here, but it’s always good to be reminded of what the audience needs to know and can truly benefit from. It takes more time to communicate just the right amount of information, positioned in just the right way, to meet the needs of all the right people. A heavy dose of emotional AND intellectual intelligence gets poured into this porridge. “Just right” is usually about telling them what they need to know, but in a way that it’s framed as a story–something that they will BOTH “get” AND remember.

I continue to learn lessons about the “Goldilocks communications principle.” What it really comes down to is being aware, pivoting to meet the needs of the audience and acknowledging when you’ve over- or under-communicated. And not forgetting to celebrate when the porridge is “just right.”

 

Get Smart

12 Oct

This is how Merriam-Webster sees it.

I have a bumper sticker on one of my cars with a big American flag and one word: THINK.

This pretty much sums up my thoughts on what it means to be American. I respect anyone’s personal opinions about religion, politics and other controversial topics when they can back them up. Repeat rhetoric to me, from either side of the aisle, and I’ll lose patience. Anyone can parrot back empty words. Put your mind and your heart behind them, and then I’ll bother listening.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of media consumption: watching television news and reality shows results in zero thought process. It’s easy to get sucked into…I’ve had my own binges with Project Runway, Dance Moms and Russian Dolls. The first is at least somewhat intellectually stimulating. The last two are complete wastes of time.

Thinking requires discipline. Here are some things that I try to do to keep my brain in shape.

  1. Read the news. My own personal scientific studies (okay, not scientific but bear with me) indicate that WATCHING the news results in very little recall and no critical thinking whatsoever. I don’t care if it’s CNN or Fox. Most of it is designed to lure me into more watching–not more thinking. By reading the news, I have a chance to learn something new, because most written news stories go into more depth than TV news. I also have a chance to reflect on what I’ve read, re-read it if needed and come away with some new thoughts of my own.
  2. Consume news that is not aligned with my opinions and/or perspective. I try to listen to talk radio occasionally, even though it makes me angry. (Extreme opinions on either side just don’t make sense to me. I just want to tell them: Calm down, people!) I also try to read foreign news. If you can read in a foreign language, this is a real benefit on this front. In particular, taking in our own political process through the lens of foreign media can really be an eye-opener. I was in France in 1989, during the Beirut hostage crisis when they were showing the American hostages on television, speaking. Chilling really, but also different when interpreted by foreign newscasters with another take on America.
  3. Have conversations with people who have opinions different from mine. How simple is this? And how difficult? Safe to say that I am a conflict-averse person. Also safe to say that my opinions may not always be aligned with the everybody’s. Add to that a mainstream that prefers to think of their opinions as facts and “right.” All of this makes having conversations difficult, which pushes people further into the extremes–or perceived extremes. I like having friends with different opinions on all of the hot-button items. It makes life more interesting–and I think it makes me more educated about the world around me. Seeing things through others’ eyes is not always easy, but I think it’s worth the hard work.

America at its core is a place built by and for people with different, and at times differing, opinions. I’m a believer in civil discourse that keeps us “true Americans.”

Public Speaking: How I Got Schooled by Angela Pace

4 Aug

In my years working at PR agencies, I had no better training than the time I got personal coaching by local news anchor Angela Pace. She’s a legend in the Columbus, Ohio area. Even my dad knows who she is.

(Side note: She went to South HS, as did my parents, and my dad insisted that I say, “Go Bulldogs!” when I met her. Which I did. But that’s another story.)

My boss decided that a colleague and I needed help with our new business presenting skills. She was right. To be fair, presenting for new business is one of the toughest things that you can do. Those who’ve done it will understand. Those who have not probably won’t.

They say that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Evidently, I am not yet an old dog, because I did learn some new tricks from Ms. Pace. I’m a decent public speaker, but under her tutelage, I kicked it up a notch. And laughed a lot, including at myself, in the process.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Probably the biggest thing that I learned was not to take myself too seriously.
  2. Smile more.
  3. Don’t assume that people want to dwell on all of those details.
  4. Smile again.
  5. Don’t forget to bring your water.
  6. Warm up beforehand.
  7. And don’t forget to breathe.
  8. Then smile (yes, again). It’s true: The smiling is really not easy for a serious person like me. I have got to learn to be less serious!

I feel very lucky to have experienced this individualized training. Most public speaking trainers apply a formulaic approach, but not so with Ms. Pace. She paid attention to every non-verbal, every nuance of what I said and how I said it. She was not shy to stop me mid-stream and make me start again. There was no escaping her. She noticed every detail. This was a good and bad thing!

If you are in a career where public speaking, in small or large groups, is important, I’d highly recommend working with a coach who cares, knows the ropes and forces you to get outside the podium. It forced me to think differently about how I interface with people in my presentations–and it made a big difference in the end results.

We landed two new deals right after our coaching, by the way!

Public Discourse

19 Mar

Two-people-talking-logo

Today’s episode of Ira Glass’ “This American Life” contained two fabulous acts.

The first is a very good piece. I highly recommend that you listen. It’s a rescue story full of second thoughts and bizarre coincidences.

And the second act is even better. It’s about public discourse and why it’s important. In the story, professors at a liberal arts college must make public arguments about why their disciplines are preferable to others, and most worthwhile to have with you if you get stuck on a life raft. These public presentations have been going on for years, and it’s become a contest. The student audience votes for the winner. And at every contest, there’s a naysayer — one speaker who argues that the audience vote for no one.

Every year, one of the professors has won. And every year, much like our political races, the players become more performance than substance, more attention-getting than true to themselves. They use stunts, props, comedy, sexual innuendo and any number of distractions and off-point tactics to gain popularity and win the audience vote. Sound familiar?

In the episode, this year the naysayer wins — for the first time — because he encourages the students to vote for no one. None of the performers get the vote.

A man at the gas station yesterday told me he liked my American flag bumper sticker. Besides just being a flag, it says, “THINK,” across the top of the flag. To me, this bumper sticker is the epitome of being American. It’s why we are all here in the first place. Freedom of speech, religion, press. The ability to make up our own minds and voice our thoughts. A chance to vote and be active participants in a democracy.

Empty rhetoric has become so important in American life. It’s not a good thing. Most of what we hear from our leaders is crap. Most of what the people around us say about public policy — our coworkers, friends and family, and even ourselves — is not based on a lot of thought process. It resonates from pure opinion — usually someone else’s — loudly spewed opinion that we heard on whatever talk radio or supposedly news program. We’re good at mouthing back someone else’s words. Where are ours?

It is overly simplified and sound bite-ish. It’s oratorical, it’s designed — and maybe scientifically tested through polling — to leave an impression, a very specific impression. There’s very little substance behind it. In a word, it’s fake and it’s manipulative. It’s stupid.

What would happen if we only voted for those candidates who actually make cogent and substantive arguments? Not just the ones who convince us through persuasion and emotion. The ones who really say something. Ignore the political parties and just vote for the people who are thinking.

Beyond our failure to create an environment where candidates actually prove a point, we are reticent to get into conversations with one another about politics and policy matters. There’s no discourse in our discourse. It’s one-way. A friend was recently lamenting about this on Facebook.

Why won’t we have conversations with friends, family co-workers, about things that are controversial, about topics that are difficult?

We don’t want to offend. We don’t want to disagree with people that we have daily relationships with. We don’t want to make our lives more difficult.

I think that another reason for this fear is that we don’t know much about what we say. We don’t know enough, and we need to know more. And we need to be less afraid. And we need to have less of a need to be entertained and more of a need to know.

We are Americans, living in a country where our ancestors came here because this was supposed to be a place where you can think and speak your mind. Where you can engage in public discourse that has meaning and impact. Will you? Will I?