Mind Mint: Too much of a good thing.

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Mind Mint: Too much of a good thing.

Every weeknight, at dinner, our family used to play Jeopardy using the Amazon Echo (aka “Alexa,” the Echo’s voice-activated digital assistant). Alexa gave us six clues, we’d provide the “question” for each, then learn how we ranked against others who played that day.

For several months, Jeopardy was a quirky ritual that we looked forward to as a family. Then, in October, Amazon doubled the number of questions from six to twelve. We were thrilled! Twice as much of something we loved! 

But the very first night we played the longer version, we knew it was a mistake. By question nine we’d had enough. We gave it another try the following evening and again found it to be too long. We haven’t played since.

Jeopardy on Alexa is a new-fangled example of an old lesson: it is possible to have too much of a good thing. When in doubt, leave your audience wanting more.

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Mind Mint: My son's college essays.

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Mind Mint: My son's college essays.

I’ve been coaching my son on the writing of his college application essays. We started by googling “great college essays” and found dozens of beautifully-written pieces by applicants who have fascinating life stories.
 
Rather than being inspired by these examples, my son was intimidated. Even though he’s a smart, accomplished, ambitious dude, he felt his life wasn’t as unique and orderly as the students whose essays we read.
 
It was time for some fatherly advice (from a father who has written a few things in his time): 

  • No one’s life is as coherent or dramatic as their essay
  • The challenge is to craft a clear and meaningful narrative from the messy reality that is your actual life
  • Think about the reader: what do you want them to take away?
  • You’re really writing a story, so you get to decide what it’s about and what points to include and exclude 

It dawned on me that the same advice applies when putting together a resume or biography. Your background already contains all the elements of a great story. If you take the time to select the right pieces and put them in the right order, your uniqueness will shine through to the reader.

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Mind Mint: Born to Renew.

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Mind Mint: Born to Renew.

In a recent New York Times article about his Broadway show, Bruce Springsteen was asked whether performing the same material every night becomes repetitive. His response, in part:

“…you have to approach it not as a repetition but as a renewal. And to do that your spirit has got to be 100 percent present…it’s a new audience every night.”

Bruce’s performances are legendary, and his response offers some practical ideas for anyone who has to deliver the same message multiple times: it’s not about you; it’s about the audience. You’re there to give them something valuable.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve delivered this message before, or if they’ve heard it before. Your job is the same as Bruce’s: show up and approach this event as if it's your number one priority. Because while you're in front of these people, nothing's more important to you than reaching them.

Here's a live version of Jungleland. According to setlist.fm, Springsteen has performed this song live 641 times. Anytime I’ve seen it, he’s been 100% present and then some. 

And in case you were wondering, yes, I'll happily take those extra
Springsteen on Broadway tickets off your hands.

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Mind Mint: Careful what you count.

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Mind Mint: Careful what you count.

I remember watching the evening news as a 10-year-old and hearing the anchormen report the weekly totals of US and North Vietnamese fighters killed in combat. The enemy's totals were always higher and usually much higher. 

The focus on “body counts” started as a military strategy based on attrition: eliminate enemy troops faster than they could be replaced. But military and civilian leadership soon realized that body counts also provided an easily-understood way of convincing people that the US was winning. It worked on me, and I wasn’t alone.

Because leadership stressed body count, the military obsessed over the numbers (at the expense of more relevant indicators) and frequently inflated them. The public was fooled for many years as a senseless, unwinnable war dragged on. 

Body count is a tragic example of focusing on the wrong thing simply because it can be measured. In an age when we can capture and analyze data on just about anything, we have to be extra careful that we focus on the metrics that really matter. 

As you may have guessed, I’ve been watching The Vietnam War on PBS. While it’s difficult to watch in many ways, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a beautifully-made film about a seminal event, and it’s filled with themes and lessons that still resonate.

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Mind Mint: That guy at the airport.

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Mind Mint: That guy at the airport.

As I waited to board a flight back from San Francisco last week, I saw a passenger arguing strenuously with the gate agent. Turns out that due to an equipment change, he’d been bumped from his first-class seat into economy. 
 
I was close enough to hear the gate agent offer him a refund, a travel certificate, and a first-class seat on a later flight. But nothing would satisfy our friend, who became increasingly belligerent and disrespectful at the prospect of not getting his first-class seat.
 
The word that came to mind was entitlement: “the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment.” Though that passenger’s sense of entitlement was extreme, the truth is that I sometimes find myself feeling entitled: I deserve to be paid X for this project...that person should treat me with more respect…I ought to be able to have such-and-such vacation/car/smartphone.  
 
When these thoughts pop up, I try to catch myself and change my thinking: I’m not “entitled” to anything. The good things that come my way in life are gifts to be grateful for. This attitude makes it easier to appreciate the people and things around me, and helps reduce my chances of becoming that guy at the airport.
 
PS: He ended up in economy, in a middle seat no less. Proof that entitlement doesn’t pay!

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Mind Mint: The thin margin between destiny and doom.

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Mind Mint: The thin margin between destiny and doom.

I’m halfway through reading Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. The “doomed” theme hangs over every chapter as the authors share story after story about a deeply flawed candidate running an equally flawed campaign.
 
But here’s the thing: Clinton’s margin of defeat was paper-thin. She lost Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by a total of 79,000 votes, less than 1% of the popular vote in each of those states. Any number of factors (think James Comey’s controversial email announcement) could have easily swung the election in Clinton’s favor.

If a tiny slice of the electorate had pulled the other lever, the authors would have written an entirely different book. Even though 99.9% of the objective facts would be the same, Clinton’s campaign would be cast in terms of destiny rather than doom.
 
I discussed this idea in a recent Mind Mint, but it’s worth restating: every story can be told in multiple ways. As authors of our own stories – the endings of which are not yet decided – we get to choose which events and themes get highlighted. Let’s make the bold choices that move us toward living our best lives.
 
Fun fact: the authors of Shattered planned to use that title whether Clinton won or lost. It was either going to be about shattering the glass ceiling or a shattered campaign. 

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Mind Mint: Even Jobs went for the joke.

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Mind Mint: Even Jobs went for the joke.

It was January 9, 2007. Steve Jobs was on stage, about to reveal the iPhone, arguably the single most influential tech product of the last 30 years. After a few minutes of buildup, Jobs got to point, saying, “Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone, and here it is..."
 
Jobs gestured to the screen, as a photo of the first-generation iPod with a rotary phone dial appeared. The audience burst into laughter.
 
At the moment of truth, with his audience breathlessly waiting to see the phone that would change everything, Jobs went for the joke. It worked. 
 
In almost any situation, laughter elevates the mood. If you’re able to give your audience that gift, I encourage you to give generously!
 
Here’s the video of the iPhone reveal. Start at 2:16 if you just want to get to his laugh line. Better yet, invest 14 minutes to watch the whole thing, it's a classic.

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Mind Mint: The world's most important story.

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Mind Mint: The world's most important story.

The world’s most important story is the one we tell ourselves about who we are.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we each have an internal story that dictates how we think and act. Our story becomes our identity.
 
We believe this story to be “true" but in reality, the story we’ve been telling ourselves is just one version of the truth. What if we rewrote it by focusing on different memories, perspectives, or interpretations of significant events in our lives? 
 
Each of us is free to rewrite our internal story in a way that points us toward the life we want. That story, more than any other, will shape who we are. That’s why it’s the world’s most important story.
 
Here’s an exercise: pick a different career (or life) path than the one you’re on. For example, imagine you’re about to run for Congress, go to nursing school, or move to Costa Rica. Better yet, pick a real goal of your own. Then figure out a way to tell your story so that it leads organically to this goal. You can do it!

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Mind Mint: School's in for summer.

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Mind Mint: School's in for summer.

Is there a skill or area of knowledge that you know you should have but don’t?

I’ve got a few of those; one is PowerPoint. Though I've worked on hundreds of speeches and presentations, I have only the most rudimentary slide creation skills. I’ve gotten away with this because my clients usually want a design professional creating their visuals. 
 
But I’m tired of not being able to put together a decent slide deck. And the knowledge I need is just a few clicks away. So with the help of YouTube, Microsoft tutorials, and perhaps a few PPT-savvy friends, I’ll be getting to know my way around PowerPoint this summer. 

To hold myself accountable, I’m committing to sharing my “final project,” a slide deck demonstrating my newly-learned skills, with all of you by mid-September. (I'll wait while you mark this important milestone in your calendar...!)

Is there something you’re ready to learn this summer? If so, let me know: summer school is more fun when you do it with friends! 

And for those of you who now have the song stuck in your head, here's a link to
School's Out by Alice Cooper.

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Mind Mint: Life is short...take drugs.

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Mind Mint: Life is short...take drugs.

About 40% of my clients experience mild-to-severe anxiety when it comes to public speaking. Roughly half of these anxious clients are able to manage their symptoms through some combination of preparation and mindfulness techniques like breathing and visualization.
 
That leaves the other half – about 1 in 5 clients – whose anxiety is resistant to these natural techniques. They find public speaking to be torturous. This impacts their effectiveness, since it’s hard for an audience to listen when they sense a speaker’s anxiety.
 
My advice to these clients: ask your doctor if a beta-blocker would be right for you! This class of drug is indicated for the treatment of high blood pressure and other cardiovascular issues. But beta-blockers are frequently prescribed off-label for temporary relief of stage fright.
 
Most people experience vastly reduced anxiety without side effects, which is why many doctors will write a prescription for otherwise healthy patients. By all means, conquer anxiety naturally if you can. But if you can’t, consider taking a pill that will reduce your suffering and help your audience hear what you have to say.

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Mind Mint: In trust we trust

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Mind Mint: In trust we trust

When I first started writing speeches for others, I was shocked by how freely clients shared personal information about themselves – and confidential information about their organizations – as we worked together. These people just met me…aren’t they concerned about being so open with a stranger?
 
Over time, I’ve found that my most successful clients are also the most trusting. Their trust pays dividends: the more I learn about who someone is and what makes them tick, the more effective I am in crafting a speech that captures their essence and ideas.
 
I don’t think these clients reserve this trust just for me; I’ve seen the same people bring a remarkable level of openness to their interactions with others. 
 
This experience has motivated me to adopt an attitude of openness and trust at the start of a relationship. Of course, this approach comes with risks. But the rewards of honestly sharing who you are, and how you think, make these risks worth taking. Trust me.

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Mind Mint: Uber and out.

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Mind Mint: Uber and out.

Two years ago, I posted a Mind Mint praising Uber, after discovering how superior its service was compared to my local taxi and car service options. Now I’m retracting that endorsement.
 
While the service may be great, there’s a growing body of evidence that the company isn’t. They systematically mistreat female employees, illegally work around regulators, and break rules as they see fit in order to keep growing.
 
So I recently exercised my capitalism-given right as a consumer and switched to Lyft. While Lyft has some issues of its own (including investor Peter Thiel, a major Trump supporter), Lyft's record is far better than Uber’s when it comes to business practices.
 
As consumers, we can influence how companies do business by voting with our wallets for those that share our values (or at least don’t blatantly violate them). For those of us managing businesses, we can work on creating the type of organizations that customers want to support.

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Mind Mint: Who wants to go deep?

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Mind Mint: Who wants to go deep?

Some of the smartest people on earth are designing ways to get us to engage with their apps, websites, and games more frequently and for longer periods of time. They’re succeeding. As a result, our brains are being rewired to crave frequent distraction.

A growing body of research suggests that we need periods of uninterrupted attention to do our best work. Each time we check Facebook, Twitter, email, or text notifications, our attention is pulled away. Experts suggest that it can take up to 20 minutes to get back into a zone of focus.
 
After hearing a podcast featuring Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, I decided to give his methods a try. Specifically, I’ll be following the 3 suggestions outlined in this article:

  • scheduling blocks of uninterrupted time for “deep work”
  • deleting Facebook and Twitter from my phone
  • checking email only at pre-designated times 

With any luck, you’ll be seeing deeper, more thoughtful (yet still short) Mind Mints soon!

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Mind Mint: In search of criticism.

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Mind Mint: In search of criticism.

“That’s a great piece,” said a member of my writers group after I shared a new story I’d written. I was happy to hear that feedback and see the other writers nod in agreement.

But the piece I shared was a second draft, and by definition, my second drafts aren’t fully realized. So I made it clear to the group (which tends to be very positive/supportive) that I wanted them to put on their critic’s hats. They complied:

Actually…the section about your aunt goes on a little long/You might introduce the backwards laugh idea sooner/Feels like it’s missing one killer beat near the end/The washing dishes thing wasn’t that funny.

They saw and heard things that I couldn’t, giving me insights that led me to rewrite the piece. While the story’s main idea is intact, many of the details were changed – for the better – thanks to their input.

By putting my ego on pause, I got feedback that helped me improve my work. In the end, my ego and I both won.

My story was selected to be part of Listen to Your Mother/North Jersey, taking place on Saturday, May 13th 2017. Thirteen talented women and I will each share a story about mothers and/or motherhood. I’d love to see you there! Click here for ticket info.

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Mind Mint: What we take for granted.

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Mind Mint: What we take for granted.

For much of my life, I took journalists for granted. What’s more, I pitied them: they chose a profession in decline, dooming themselves to low salaries, low status, and limited career choices. What a pity!

Today, I’m grateful that smart, hard-working people continue to pursue journalism. At a moment in history when many elected officials embrace "alternative facts," we're fortunate to have reporters devoting their time to digging for the truth.
 
I'm betting that journalists will uncover the facts that some of our leaders want to keep hidden. And I'm supporting that bet with subscriptions to several news organizations, something I didn't do enough when I took journalists for granted. 

I’m also trying to be more aware of people, principles, and institutions that I value, because taking these things for granted increases the odds of losing them.

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Mind Mint: Yes, let's have a meeting.

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Mind Mint: Yes, let's have a meeting.

Face-to-face meetings have taken a beating lately in the business media, as people rail against the posing, time-wasting, and drudgery that is typical of these gatherings. Having attended more than my share, I can say that this beating is warranted.

The well-documented solution is to think through the goals, invite list, and agenda for every meeting. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about recognizing the value of being in the same room with people.

Social media has raised my awareness of this issue. It's easy to go after someone using our keyboards, perhaps because we’re focused on a particular statement of theirs that we find objectionable. But when we meet face-to-face, we see more than just their statement; we see a person…a fellow human being that can’t be dismissed so easily.

The same concept holds true in our work lives. It's easy to lose empathy for colleagues when we’re on a conference call or sending an email. But when we’re in the same physical space, we see them more completely, and our interactions become more considerate, more thoughtful, more human. And we could all use more of that.

For a great laugh on this topic, check out "10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings" from the hilarious Sarah Cooper.

 

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Mind Mint: Propagandist is the wrong word.

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Mind Mint: Propagandist is the wrong word.

When asked what I do for work, I’ve sometimes answered, “I’m a corporate propagandist,” and followed up with examples of the services I offer. The reference to propaganda was meant as shorthand for persuasive communications, which is one definition of the word. 

Shortly after January 20th, I stopped using “propagandist” in my self-description. While the word can refer to any communications effort, the new administration is reminding us of a more familiar and sinister definition of propaganda: the deliberate spreading of false or misleading information. That's not what I do.

My clients - individuals, corporations, and non-profits - hire me to help them tell their stories more effectively. They pay me to spin their messages as persuasively as I can. But they don’t ask me to spread falsehoods, rumors, or misinformation.  

I will never again use “propagandist” to describe what I do. Because I’m proud to work for and with people who value truth above any business goal.

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Mind Mint: Missing Mister Rogers.

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Mind Mint: Missing Mister Rogers.

I was born a few years too early to have watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a kid.

But as an adult, I’m awed and inspired by Fred Rogers’ life and body of work. If you’re not familiar with him, put “Fred Rogers” into Google and prepare to go down a wormhole of wonder.

At the core of Mr. Rogers’ effectiveness and success was a heartfelt commitment to his audience. Fred Rogers cared deeply about his viewers, understood what they needed, and went to extraordinary lengths (including this legendary testimony before Congress in support of public broadcasting) to serve their interests.

When we’re fully committed to serving our audience, we push ourselves to do our best work. We owe it to ourselves and our audiences to develop that level of commitment.

Thanks to my client and friend Josef Reum for sparking this Mind Mint with his blog post and for pointing me to this old but beautiful profile of Fred Rogers.

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Mind Mint: Putting the "high" in higher education.

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Mind Mint: Putting the "high" in higher education.

(No, not that kind of high…)

My family recently took our first trip to look at colleges for my son Sam, who is in 11th grade. The visits were eye-opening from a communications standpoint. 

One simple example: the student-led campus tour. On this front, UPenn was far superior to the other colleges we visited (which shall remain nameless, just in case Sam applies to them). Penn’s big innovation? Having the tour guides stand on a bench, ledge, or other raised spot every time they stopped to speak.

On the other campus tours, we had trouble seeing and hearing the guides because they didn’t stand above the crowd. To be clear, this wasn’t a case of one Penn tour guide taking initiative: ALL the Penn guides (we could see other tours in progress) made themselves visible at each stop. 

Making a strong first impression didn’t cost Penn anything; all it took was some critical thinking about the audience’s experience. A good reminder that sometimes a little thought and planning is all we need to rise above our competition.

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Mind Mint: Suits, salespeople, and spouses.

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Mind Mint: Suits, salespeople, and spouses.

Before starting business school, I needed to buy an interview suit. I went to a discount menswear store where an old-school salesman took my measurements, asked a few questions, and starting pulling suits off the rack for me.

Ninety minutes later I was still there debating the purchase with myself. I’d found a suit I liked but didn't love. Only partially concealing his exasperation, the salesman finally said to me, “You’re picking a suit, not a wife!” 

With that line, he managed to reframe the purchase decision for me. I immediately realized he was right: the suit was fine, it was time to buy it and move on. 

Anytime we feel stuck when trying to make a decision, it’s helpful to do what my suit salesman did: reframe the issue by “zooming out” and asking whether or not the decision warrants the time we’re investing in it. 

P.S. – While I have since bought many suits, it took another 16 years for me to find a wife. But it was worth the wait, as my marriage has outlasted all of my suits! 

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