Not-so-small talk

It amazes me how much time we waste in our effort not to waste any time.

Five, even ten minutes to understand who a person is, where they are today, now, at this moment…there’s no way that you can skip that step and hope to create any sort of real connection in a meeting.

Almost every culture in the world knows this – that you cannot start a conversation before you’ve talked to someone as a person.  Except Americans, of course.  We pride ourselves on “getting down to business.”

There’s wisdom in those old civilities of asking after someone’s well-being, their family.

Two people might be able to strike a deal, but two human beings are needed to create any sort of partnership.

One great moment in a 24 hour delay

I’d love to chalk it up to bad luck – I continually have things go wildly wrong most of the times that I fly Delta.

Here’s what happened this time: for an 8:30pm flight to Accra, Ghana, we dutifully boarded the plane around 7:30pm, taxied out on time and began waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting.  Rains came, and then lightning.

Around 11pm the pilot told us that the storm was moving quickly, that “most of the other planes have returned to their gates but we are keeping our spot.”

Sometime closer to midnight he said that “there are 66 other planes looking to take off” but he still felt we could get out.

A bit after midnight I finally dozed off, and was in and out of consciousness until 2:30am when the pilot threw in the towel, took us back to the gate, and told us to wait by the gate for an early morning departure.  It was to be at 6am, then 7am, then 8:30am.  After waiting in a plane on the tarmac for six hours, and then sleeping in the terminal for another six hours, Delta cancelled the flight and rebooked us all on a new flight at 8:30pm that evening, 24 hours after our original flight.

Who knows what really happened, whether we actually had a chance to get out and the pilot made the right call.  Who knows if it’s true that the Accra airport has a curfew – though all of my Ghanaian colleagues adamantly say that’s not the case.

What was striking through it all was that it was no one’s job to handle the whole situation.  The pilot’s job was to get us to take off, which didn’t work out.  After that we were handed to a series of gate agents and other representatives, none with any sense of ownership or real responsibility.  It was one massive game of pass the buck: at no point did someone stand up and say “I’m the person who is taking care of this situation, here is what’s going on, we’ll have more answers for you by 6:00am.”  Divide and conquer can work when things are going smoothly, but it falls apart completely when things go off the rails.  This is probably why at one point the NY Police Department had to be brought to the gate to quell a brewing uprising amongst the passengers – complete with threats of barricading security (“if we can’t fly out, then no one can!”).

The one bright spot?  Upon lining up (again) the following evening to board the flight, the amazing level of openness and camaraderie amongst all the passengers.  We were all in this together.  Conversations amongst strangers started effortlessly.  We were all smiling and laughing about our shared predicament and the absurdity of it all.  One Liberian woman, beaming at counter when I checked in, struck up a conversation with me about how she’d decided to just be happy and upbeat and stop worrying and complaining – she knew it would all work out OK and that was the energy she wanted to put out from that moment forward.  I smiled, laughed, and agreed with her, and the next moment I found myself getting a joyful hug from this woman I’d never met.

So there you have it: the moments of genuine human connection brought joy and laughter in the midst of this mess.

And it makes me wonder if it’s when the world around us breaks just a little that we pull together and come together, and if in our hyper-efficient, hyper-virtually-connected world where everything works smoothly, the chances of the impromptu smile, laugh, or hug simply disappear.

More or less, but not the same

There’s lots of stuff out there about how to make really great powerpoint (and about terrible PowerPoint).  What I’ve observed is that people read these great suggestions and think “I could never do that” (which isn’t true) and use that conclusion to do nothing different.  Because the leap to “No more than six words on a slide.  EVER.” is a big one.

I’m actually a big believer in taking that leap, because once you leap, your audience has no choice but to listen to you, the presenter, instead of pretending that the most important thing up there is the slide (it isn’t).

On the assumption that lots of people won’t make the big leap (yet), here’s a baby step: the amount of words on your slide should NEVER be the same as the amount of words you say.

Ideally your slide has very few words and you have a lot of interesting stuff to say.  Another extreme would be that your slide is full of a lot of really rich content (I admit, I fear this really is “too many words”…) and you just say a few words and let people read.

But when you have a bunch of words and a bunch to say it is totally confusing to your audience.  Are they supposed to read or listen to you?  Not only do they not know, you don’t know!

Number of words you say ≠ Number of words on the slide

(And hopefully once you start down this path you’ll end up at 6-word slides.)

Small talk

Americans are famous for wanting to just “get down to business” in meetings.  Maybe a few minutes of chit-chat about the Yankees game or the weather, but otherwise, let’s get to the important stuff.

The misconception is that the meeting is just that – a meeting.  What if the person you’re meeting might be an incredible individual who maybe, just maybe, is going to become an important part of your life (starting today!).

Reflecting on yesterday’s post about generosity, we know that generous action increases when we expect to have repeated interactions.  The expectation of repeated contact makes it more likely that our kindness will be reciprocated, and makes it more likely that it will be witnessed by others, so the rational / optimal thing to do is to help others.*

So the question becomes: if the person you’re meeting just might be amazing, how do you act?  You’d want to make it more likely that you’ll see that person again in the future, of course.  And, going in, you don’t know who is and isn’t amazing, but I’d bet that there’s a lot more amazingness out there than you think.

To get us yankees to make a shift, instead of shouting (ineffectually) about how we should all “spend a little more time getting to know people,” let me instead propose that we reframe each meeting as one moment, the first moment, in a much longer-term relationship.  And that relationship is just latent potential until you activate it with real human connection at the outset.

Oh, and how IS the weather?



*(let’s park the question of the motivation behind generosity for a minute…that’s a post for another day)


Time to be a little pushier

A friend of mine who’s a media executive described a recent meeting thus:

“At the end of the meeting, their CEO agrees we’ll have a decision by Friday. Then she said, ‘…and you may need to bug me a lot before then, send me a lot of emails on Thursday, call me…go ahead and do it, I won’t mind and I’ll probably need to be reminded.”


My friend’s take on this well-intentioned statement was that we’ve gotten to such a level of media (email, web, social media, etc.) overload that senior folks in all walks of life are simply abdicating responsibility for being functioning, capable people who stick to deadlines, reply in a timely manner, remember what they say and follow through on their promises.

It’s a sad state of affairs which basically says: I leave it up to you to bug me enough that I pay attention.

There are lots of directions we could go from here – about people not spending time on the right things; about how more information is leading to less effective leadership; about fighting this tooth and nail in your organization by creating cultural norms that are the exact opposite of this tidal wave of abdication of responsibility.

Instead, let’s be overwhelmingly practical and take this moment to remind ourselves that the ability to stand in front of a person and get their real attention is more at a premium than ever.

That you need to master multiple channels of communication to get through to different folks (texting in Europe and the developing world; email plus phone plus text here in the U.S.; etc.).

That, instead of sending the eleventh email and waiting, you’d best have your top customers/clients/relationships on speed dial. (Really.  Do you?  Do you have the cellphone number of all your Board members in your phone and at your fingertips?  Why not?)

On the margin – sadly – I bet you have to be a little pushier than you’d like to be in order to break through.

We are living in a Thank You Economy

I just finished Gary Vaynerchuk’s book, The Thank You Economy, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who’s trying to make sense of what’s going on online right now, anyhow who has questions like: do Twitter and Facebook really mean anything?  Should I invest in these tools to build my business?  Can I really use these tools to stand out and to build strong relationships?

Gary’s vehement answers to these questions are: YES, YES, and YES!!!!

His forceful, compelling argument is that the game has changed forever.  Business used to be a small-town endeavor, where word of mouth spread quickly and where you had to treat all of your customers right – even the elderly woman who never bought much, because the hammer would fall on you if word got out that you treated her wrong.  Then big companies and mass marketing and TV advertising on 3 channels came, and for 50 years it made perfect economic sense for businesses to be impersonal and not to care.  And now we’re back to a world in which the only way to succeed is to build powerful, one-on-one relationships with our customers – the elderly woman has morphed into the person commenting on Yelp, posting to her blog, or tweeting to her 100,000 followers about how great or terrible your product or service was.

I found the book to be incredibly optimistic – Gary’s breathless enthusiasm is contagious, it is filled with enough practical examples to be actionable, and he pulls the lens back just enough to let you see that there’s something bigger going on than people uploading twitpics of their grilled cheese sandwiches.  One on one communication is back, it’s still in its infancy, and folks who wake up to this fact now will have an incredible lead on their competitors.

Gary’s case studies bring things to life.  He shares how, for a while, restaurant-reviewer Zagat’s missed the social media boat and, in so doing, allowed Yelp to build a site with 25 million unique visitors in December 2009 (to’s 270,000); this same month Yelp turned down a $550 million offer from Google and a $700 million offer from Microsoft (Zagat tried to sell for $200 million in January 2008 with no takers).  He describes the over-the-top efforts of Joie de Vivre hotel employees to make guests feels at home and special.  He surprises with stories of a dentist in San Francisco named Irena Vaksman who built her practice through online marketing; and a lawyer (a lawyer!) named Hank Heyming whose firm let him tweet and blog under his own name, and in so doing he became a leading startup lawyer in Richmond, Virginia.

The point of the book isn’t that you should passively stare at your Twitter and Facebook feeds for hours a day and call that work.  That ain’t work – that’s being a spectator.  This is a new undertaking requiring, first, a new attitude (caring like crazy about your customers), and then a specific strategy for building genuine relationships with these customers – in a way that blends online and offline experiences to create something exceptional.

Whether you’re someone who directly employs online tools or someone who has people asking for permission to do more online, this book will help you make sense of what’s going on out there in the big bad web 2.0 world – most importantly, by demystifying it and bringing it back to the simple, powerful notion that we can, finally, get back to the business of caring about and taking care of our customers.

Secret weapon

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to break through all the clutter, to stand out from the mountain of emails in your customers’ inbox, to have your voice be a clarion call above the deluge of Tweets and Facebook updates?

Guess what, there is:  a mode of communication where instead of competing with 150 others’ messages in a day, it’s just you and maybe 1 or 2 other folks; it’s direct and gets people’s attention right at that moment; it’s a way to show that you care more than the other guy.

It’s called a telephone.

Yeah, that’s right.  Pick it up, dial the number, talk to another human being directly.

All those scheduling emails are a way to hide.  All those emails full of questions and a proposal that you find a time to discuss three weeks from Tuesday are an even better way to run away.

Today, pick up the phone three times (let’s start small) when you otherwise wouldn’t.  Call up a customer, impromptu, and talk to them.

That customer is getting 150 emails a day and 3 phone calls, and you’re wondering why you’re having trouble getting her attention?


It’s not personal (and that’s the problem)

OK, I know you’re busy, we all are.

And you have a lot of people you want to connect with.  We all do.

And yes, it’s true, sometimes you copy and paste stuff into more than one email, because the meat of the update might be pretty similar from person to person, right?

But here’s the decision you get to make: how much value do you place on making the person on the other end feel like the note was written just for them, every time?

Outlook has a whiz-bang feature that allows you to create a text email that is, in fact, a mass mailing.  It’s tempting isn’t it?  Think how efficient it would be!!


Except you have to decide if relationship-building is a mass-market undertaking.  You have to decide if scale comes from going broad or going deep.  You have to decide which tradeoff you’re willing to make, because halfway there is no man’s land.

Sure, you’ll be careful most of the time.  But the moment a giant block of text in your email is in another color, or another font, or another size, the illusion is shattered. The moment you email the same thank you note to five different people, the wires appear to the whole audience, and the magic of your flying act goes *poof*.

And the thing is, the moment someone discovers that they’re the kind of person who gets impersonal notes from you…well, there’s really no way to recover from that.


How are you doing? How are you doing? How are you doing?

Last week I went to my 20-year high school reunion – which was neither as dreadful nor as exciting as the hype would lead one to believe.

Over the course of a few hours, a group of people (most of whom live in the same city even when not reunion-ing) who once knew each other well assemble to engage in a speed-dating type dance, trading 2-5 minute updates on the last 10-20 years of their lives.  Mostly I found it positive to hear how people have grown, the paths they are walking, how they are making their way through the world.

What’s unique about a reunion is that it combines long-lost friendship (trust, openness) with the expectation that you’ll give shorthand update on a few decades of your life.  There’s an intimacy that’s absent from cocktail party conversations, which I found breeds honesty and directness if you actually stand up and listen.

Perhaps most interesting was the simple answer to the question, “How are you doing?” asked repeatedly.  In the context of a high school reunion, this innocent phrase carries some real weight.  Peoples’ short answers to this question revealed joy, excitement, the desire to impress, openness, closedness, happiness, disappointment…the whole gamut, if you listened closely.

Hearing 30 people answer this same question in 60 minutes certainly made me think about how quickly first impressions are made.  And then I thought: wait a minute, maybe high school reunions aren’t any different at all in terms of what you can learn from how folks (how you, how I) answer this question.

I think with my brain, but…

I spent some time today talking with a great filmmaker and TV producer.  Her mantra for everything she creates is to what she called the “micro story:” that one, personal narrative that captures the whole.

We know this, but we don’t practice it.

We throw up statistics.  We create mash-up stories profiling a series of good projects and forget that the end result of the glossy portrayals is so much less than the sum of the parts.  We have conversations about giving to our organization that lead with programmatic jargon, budgets, abbreviations and ratios.

I think we’re afraid that telling real, honest stories will somehow be insulting to someone’s intelligence.  We know that “people respond to stories” but the woman across the table from you is so smart and so accomplished that of course she “really wants to dig in.”

What if we imagine our audience wearing block-lettered, tacky t-shirts (like the caps that Frank from 30 Rock wears) that shout out:



I bet we’d act differently, we’d inspire more often, we’d create genuine connection and a sense of hope.