How to Spin a Story from a Moment

If you’ve been keeping up with me lately, you’ll know that I recently purchased my first house and have been getting settled for about a month. One of the things that I enjoy the most about my new home is that we are in the flight path of DFW International airport. Whenever I’m outside, I love to watch the planes fly overhead. I know it sounds silly, but I really enjoy watching the jets climb over the tree tops and then make the slow turn that brings them directly over my house.

Since I’m a creative person, and a writer, I find myself thinking of who is on the plane, where is the plane going, and why. The plane flying overhead only lasts a moment and there is a lot of compelling story that could be told. Stories are essential for driving your point home, especially when presenting. Stories give you context, they show the audience a way to see a different perspective, and they also set up the punch line to any jokes you might be trying to tell. But even the best writer can get writers block and creating stories can be that much harder if you don’t do it on a regular basis. In order to create stories you have to see the world in a different way. Here’s an exercise you can do to start to open your eyes to seeing those stories.

Ask one question about everything that makes you take pause. Seeing something that makes you look again is a great way to start to see the stories. Whenever you see something like that ask yourself one question about what you saw. Write down your question and a brief description of the scene so you don’t forget.

Example: The other day, there were men in the building wearing sombreros and when asked about them; the response was “That’s top secret”. I asked myself why they were wearing the sombreros.

Answer the question with one sentence. When you get home or back to the office, answer the question in one sentence. Take my sombrero question – “Why were these men wearing sombreros?” and answer it very simply. My answer to the question as “Because it was someone’s birthday”.

In three paragraphs describe the events leading up to the moment that made you take pause. Why would someone want everyone to wear sombreros on their birthday? Did the boss rent a margarita machine? Does someone really like salsa dancing? The reason to this is because if you can “make up” a story you should have an easier time seeing the stories that are always around you.

Doing this isn’t going to turn you into an author, but what it will do is get your mind open to what could be going on around you, and give you more of the ability to see the world through open eyes. You never know where the inspiration for your next blog post might come from.

Understand Language to Make Language Work for You

In the field of linguistics there has for long been a debate on how human beings develop the ability to communicate. Often referred to as the nature versus nurture debate, the argument is over whether we are born with an innate ability for language or learn to use language through our interactions with environmental stimuli. Over time, both sides have presented convincing evidence. For example, Noam Chomsky, a linguist from MIT, demonstrated that babbling newborn babies produce phenomes (the smallest units of sound) which they could never have heard in the language of their present country, but which are used in a variety of languages all over the world. Babbling babies’ use of phenomes proves, according to Chomsky, that the human brain is prepackaged with a “language faculty.” Meanwhile, proponents of the nurture theory say babies merely make these sounds independent of any prewired linguistic ability. Given the nature of our vocal chords, any human has the potential to make these sounds; certain phenomes only become more difficult as a particular human grows more accustomed to the sound of the language in which he or she is immersed. It’s a matter of cultural evolution, according to the nurture camp. Depending on your interpretation of the data, the debate leans to one side or the other. But it’s most likely a combination of both: humans have some sort of built-in, prepackaged ability for language, which formed slowly via mechanisms of Darwinian evolution, but which quickly develops and matures based on input from the environment.

No matter which way the debate leans, all seem to agree on one fact: each one of us begins developing our linguistic intelligence at an early stage. Now that we’re older, we can hone in on this linguistic intelligence and put it to use. After all, before you master something, you must first understand it.

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner says humans developed language as a tool. It’s a means at our disposal for achieving an end. Every time you speak, according to Gardner, you use language to achieve one of four ends.

They’re broken down as follows:

  1. People use language to convince or induce other people to a course of action. A boss, for example, may tell his employee that he needs his TPS reports by the end of the week, or a friend may ask another friend to pass the salad dressing at the table. According to Gardner, lawyers and politicians have developed this ability to a high degree, but it’s also an ability that begins to form at a young age—like when a three-year-old wants a second helping of cake.
  2. Language is used for mnemonics. Before humans had language, memorization was far more difficult. Language, however, functions as a tool for codifying and memorizing things. We use chunks to memorize phone numbers. We use mnemonics like Never, Eat, Sour, Watermelons to memorize the cardinal directions.
  3. Language is used as a tool for explanation. In fact, it’s the primary tool for teaching. Whether explaining literature or mathematics, anyone trying to teach someone something does so through the use of language. This is part of the reason why the human lexicon is forever expanding. As new developments and breakthroughs are made, new vocabulary words are needed to explain them. Google it.
  4. Finally, language is used to talk about language. That is, language is used to reflect upon language. This is called “metalinguistic analysis.” We can see this when a child asks his parent about conceptual words, like “dream” or “wish.” These questions would require the parents to think about the word and use language to explain its meaning.

Now that you have (I hope) a better understanding of the uses of language, try thinking of ways that you can put it to use. You can be confident in your linguistic abilities—after all they’ve been evolving since before you were born. Ask yourself the following questions: How can I put language to use to get a colleague at work to do something for me? What mnemonic techniques can I use to memorize things? How can I better use language to teach someone something, to make something run more smoothly on my next conference call or at work? If there is a difficult concept you’re working with, look at it at the quantum level. Look at the actual words you’re using to describe it and see if you can’t break those words down into easier-to-understand concepts. Who knows, a little metalinguistic analysis may very well make the answer to your problem crystal clear.

You Are Not A Bird, Stop Winging It

I went back a few weeks ago and watched my wedding video. We had a wonderful ceremony and like most weddings it wasn’t without its problems. The AC stopped working in the reception hall, which in the middle of June means everyone is going to sweat like mad. My friend from high school had to leave in an ambulance after accidentally putting her hand through the glass window pane and passing out in the bathroom – something I didn’t know until well after the wedding. (She’s a really great friend). Aside from those things, we were also the catalyst for what has become the worst best man speech of all time.

No, I’m not being mean, if you ask him, he will agree with you, and if you ask him what went wrong he will tell you.

“I was winging it.”

No, you didn’t read it wrong – my husband’s best friend made it up as he went along (for 30 minutes) about really nothing.

Personally, I think you should never wing it. Even if it’s a situation where you’re speech is something that everyone isn't looking forward to.

I understand that not every speech can be planned.

  1. Always have an idea of how you're going to introduce yourself. You should always have a standard greeting for yourself and your company, that way you're not stumbling through "umms" and "ahhs" as you try to think of things on the spot. This is also known as your "Elevator Pitch".
  2. Think about the subject being covered and what your knowledge of the subject matter is. If you were asked to "weigh in" for a brief moment, what would you say? You don't have to write this down, but at least give yourself an idea of what your take would be so you would be prepared if someone were to say, "Hey you, what do you think about blogging/social media/etc".
  3. Do some research. Learning more about a subject is always a great idea -- and if you think that you might end up having to weigh in on a subject you don't know much about it, take about ten minutes and Google it. It'll pay off in the end.

No matter what you're about to attend (wedding, graduation speech, networking event) you should always remember that you are not a bird, so stop winging it.

What do you do to get prepared when anticipating having to make a speech?

Down With Being Boring

Have you ever seen the movie Down With Love?

I have seen it so many times. You have to look beyond the fact that it didn't get great reviews and see it as what it really is -- it a satirical piece that pokes gentle, but loving, fun at the rom-coms of the 60's. It happened to be on a couple of weeks ago and I watched it with a friend. (Sidenote: Movies like this should always be watched with your best friend. It makes them way more fun.)

The movie was so flawless in its satire - even right down to the over the top, wild hand gestures. David Hyde Pierce really has those down pat. My friend and I determined that everything should have big, over the top hand gestures. It makes things more exciting. Simply reading your lines in a movie and expecting a reaction is not going to be effective. The reason Down With Love works is because the actors and directors took special steps to make sure they moved and spoke in a way that would make the audience feel a certain way. The hand movements and camera angle were supposed to look cheesy -- so that I would remember my love of 60s rom-coms and giggle.

The next time you host an event or a web conference, think about how you are using the tools at your disposal to evoke emotions in your participants. Much like an actor, your tools are limited to your voice, movements, and facial expression. When you're without one or more of these elements, like on a conference call, it makes it harder to get the reactions you want and you could end up failing. Think about when Hollywood made the move to "talking pictures" rather than silent films, many of the faces that people had grown to love were no longer a viable part of Hollywood because they had really unattractive voices.

It's not really a shock, then, that I am often suggesting that you are aware of the way you sound. Which is where this title comes into play -- Down With Love has inspired me to advise to be Down With Being Boring.

  • Stop writing out all of your notes on a page and reading them word for word.
  • Stop standing behind a podium.
  • Stop mumbling.
  • Stop leaving your audience out of the presentation.

Instead....

  • Start making a bullet list so that you can follow a guide for your presentation instead of droning on and on. (People know when you're reading from a list)
  • Step out from behind the podium and walk around the stage during live presentations. Movements are natural.
  • Speak clearly and enunciate. Be sure you host a sound check with the conference call provider or the venue to have a sound check.
  • Leave plenty of time for a Q&A session. The information you're presenting will surely raise questions along the way -- questions that only you can answer.

On your next presentation or conference call, try taking the down with being boring approach and see how your feedback changes. What do you do to keep from being boring when you make presentations?

Are You Asking The Right Questions?

I’ve finally purchased a home and one of the (many) unexpected things I have to do involves transferring my utilities. My power company makes it very easy – all I have to do is go online and arrange for the start date at one address and the stop date at the other. (Thanks Reliant)

With my cable company, my husband and I have been considering switching to a different company, since my bill has gotten completely out of control. I joined the customer service chat with my current provider to get details on how to turn off the service, if we chose to do so. The person I chatted with was very helpful and I was very honest with her about what we were considering.

She gave me all of the information, let me know about when I would be billed again and how the bill would be prorated should we chose to disconnect our services. She forgot one very important thing – she never asked me why I was planning a switch of services. There’s a good chance that with the right price, I could have been persuaded to stay with them a little longer.

My reason for wanting to leave is the steady dollar or two rise of my bill over the last few cycles, which can add up fast. This representative failed to ask me one very simple question – Why is it that you are looking for a new service? It’s very important when a customer calls you to cancel or close their service you ask them why they are interested in discontinuing their services.

Even if you can’t retain the customer, they might be willing to give you some insight on how you can improve an aspect or two of your company. Are you asking questions when your clients call in to cancel services? Do you think it’s important to find out why they are leaving and going to another brand? What do you ask them instead?

Picking Up What You're Putting Down

I admit to loving the cliche I'm picking up what you're putting down. I think it’s hilarious – don’t judge me. But I heard it the other day and I wondered how we can apply a statement like this to things like writing. Writing a blog is all about catching someone’s attention and getting them to come back over and over again. What makes someone “pick up” what you’re “putting down”?

  1. Make it shiny. What makes you lean down and pick up a coin from the ground? The answer to that question is simple – because it’s metal and the light catches your eye. Natural curiosity has you stopping to study the item to see what it is. 1. For blogs you have to create the shiny effect by grabbing their attention right away. Many readers are “skimmers” so they’ll read the beginning and the end, so if those aren’t interesting, your readers are going to move on. You have to tell a story, or a joke, and create a moment that they will want to stick around for. Now, you’ve caught their eye, just like a shiny coin waiting on the sidewalk.
  2. Add some value. How many times has a penny grabbed your attention and you’ve walked right on by? Why? Because it’s a penny and many of us can’t see the value of a single penny. (Don’t try to tally up the number of times you have done this, it will only depress you – seriously.) If that penny magically becomes a dime, I know you’re going to pick it up and put it in your pocket. 1. You have to tell people how the heck they are supposed to take what you’re writing and make it work for them. It is one thing to say “hey this worked for me” but another to really show them. If you don’t want to give away your own secrets, that’s okay, but you need to show them how another company did something similar. This is so your readers will be inspired to do something about the idea you’re sharing.
  3. Save, save, save. That dime will end up in a change jar or hanging out in your purse with your lip gloss, until the day comes that you’ve had enough and you head down to turn that coin into cash and go shopping.
  4. It’s one thing to make your readers pick up the coin and it’s another to make them save it. When you’re writing you have to give them a reason to carry around the information. It’s not as simple as “great content” – it’s about showing readers how your post is going to affect their business or blog down the road. What happens in six months? What happens in twelve? Give them an idea so that they will put your post in their pocket and take it with them.

The next time you write a blog, plan a conference call, or start new campaigns think about how your attention is grabbed when you see that coin on the street. What makes you think it’s valuable and worth putting in your pocket? Ask yourself this – are your readers or atendees picking up what you’re putting down?

Make the Things You Hate Suck Less

Confession: I hate cucumbers and tomatoes. There is just something about the texture and that jelly like seed pod thing in the center that just grosses me out. I am such a picky eater in the first place, but you start trying to fancy up my salad with crap like cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, that just became the garbage cans lunch and I'm going hungry.

Second confession (two in one post!): I love pickles and bruschetta.

What is that? I had this realization about myself and my food choices last week and I simply can't understand it. Throw a cucumber in some vinegar or toss some Roma tomatoes with basil and garlic and I will be the happiest girl in the world. Why? Simple - someone took something I dislike and added a lot of things that I do like (salt, garlic, warm and toasty bread). Those simple additions can take something that would make me walk away from a meal and chow down.

It's a principal you can apply to one of the most hated things in all the lands - public speaking. Figure out the things you don't like and add elements of things you really look forward to. Here's a couple of examples:

  1. You hate being the center of attention, but love a team atmosphere. Instead of the typical 'stand in front of a room' presentation try doing a collaboration type of presentation. Let people make comments, ask questions, and build off a main idea that you have presented. Instead of doing a thirty minute presentation and then taking brief Q&A, do a five minute presentation and spend the rest of time getting your audiences input.
  2. You hate using a podium, but love attending round table meetings. In this case, consider setting up something more like a town hall meeting and using limited visuals if possible. Try to put yourself on the eye level of your audience by sitting down on a stool and shifting around as you speak to make eye contact.
  3. You hate using PowerPoint, but love a visual element in presentations. Try a different kind of visual presentation -- like using a short video or even the old school white board. PowerPoint, strangely enough, can make a lot of people uncomfortable so even though it might be considered "old school" to not use one, you have to find what works for you. Just remember that it is never okay to read from your presentation slides.

Just like cucumbers and tomatoes, public speaking can be considered a hated part of every day society, but by adding in some things you like, you might never think about the bad things.

Laura Lee Interns at AccuConference: Week 3

Third in the series from our interns. Laura Lee also learned the elevator rules and enjoyed free ice cream for volunteering to go pick up the treats for the office

Well, I was not disappointed. Last Monday was the Fourth of July and the building management here threw a regular party complete with hot dogs, cookies and cold ones. I’m talking about lemonade and fruit punch here people; don’t be too jealous. On that note, the official countdown has begun. No, not the days left until I leave and go back to Oklahoma State (home sweet home), but the countdown to my 21st birthday which takes place at the end of this month. The magic date is July twenty sixth. So as my final days of being the ripe old age of 20 come to a close, I’ve been learning some cool things on the job. Last week we learned how to file with the United States government for a trademark, since we are creating new products and don’t want anyone else to steal our ideas. The process is a lengthy one, but being here at the company has taught me that our ideas (especially in the marketing world) are what really sell and what keeps the company going, so why not put a trademark on it?

I was sent on my first ‘intern run’ this week; which included getting the office ice cream from Braums down the street. I can’t really count it though- I completely supported the mission as ice cream is my one and only staple food…and they paid for my ice cream as payoff for going to get the goods. But I did feel more like a typical intern taking down everyone’s orders and money.

I am also learning a lot about etiquette in a business environment. For example: why do men ‘hold’ the elevator door for women? It seems very gentlemanlike, but the concept is just strange to me. Instead of letting the girl go first they jump in the elevator and then stick out their arm on the elevator door. That took some getting used to! The first time that happened I literally thought the guy was going to karate chop me as his hand flew out the elevator. But I’ve learned to dodge out of the way of the karate chop and gracefully say thanks to the gentleman holding my elevator door so gallantly.

When I am confused about something (this actually happens a lot- surprising I know!) there is no sweating over if I should ask someone or not. The atmosphere here is very much like that of a big family. I think that being in a welcoming environment is key to learning, and I am learning a lot.

Tell Your Story

A couple of weeks ago, while catching up on some reading, I came across a post from Mack Collier (the leader and brains behind Sunday night #blogchat on Twitter) titled: Turning Failure into Success. I suggest that everyone check it out and read it, but if you can’t, here’s a quicker overview. Mack tells a story of his lack of preparedness in a college Business Communication presentation, his train of thought completely derailed, and even how he considered abandoning ship. Nine years later, at the B2B Forum, he found himself wishing he was presenting there – a far cry from the nervous kid who wanted to run nine years before.

I sent Mack a brief tweet and let him know how great I thought his post was and got an interesting comment back from him, stating that he hesitates to write personal stories because he doesn’t think anyone reads them.

I was absolutely surprised to read this. If you’ve never read Mack’s blog or followed him on Twitter, I’ve always found him to be very personal. His writing style is very open and honest, so I was surprised to hear that he doesn’t usually like to tell personal stories. I am the exact opposite and love to tell personal stories that somehow relate or lead into the points I am about to make.

I wonder why bloggers feel this way. Mack isn’t the first blogger I’ve corresponded with who feels like their personal stories are unwelcome in their posts. For those, like Mack, who feel like personal stories are often pushed to the wayside, I offer, as a reader, two thoughts on storytelling and blogging.

Everyone is a storyteller. No, not everyone is going to be able to sit down and hammer out a novel the likes of Stephen King or Tom Clancy, but everyone has experiences. We have all been in one place or another and had a moment resonate with us, so don’t fool yourself into thinking you don’t have a story to tell.

Everything has a story. Look at this post – what’s the story here? The story is that Mack told me something surprising and it made me think, and this post was born. Those are the kind of things that I love to know when reading a post. Where did your inspiration come from? What made you think that this story was relevant to the topic that you wanted to write about? Those are the things I want to read about, the things I want to know.

What you’re saying about a certain subject is just as important as how you go the place where you had to sit down and write your thoughts out. I want to know that, I want to feel your passion and your feelings on the subject. What do you think? Are you like Mack and feel like no one wants to read your personal stories, or do you write more like me who believes that every story is worth telling?

Why a Follow-Up Email Works

I have done business with a particular insurance company for about seven years now. I’ve never shopped around and I know that there are probably other companies out there who could give me similar coverage for a better rate. With two vehicles and a renter’s policy, our insurance each month is probably on the higher end of average, but I write them a check with a smile on my face.

The other day I was reminded why I stay with that company. I checked my email, just to see this note:

Subj:Hey Girl:

Hey Miss Maranda, {A recent referral to them} name just popped up on my screen and it made me think of you. I hope all is well with you!! We just don’t email and talk like we used to when you were {with another company} so I’m just stopping in to make sure everything is going okay.

Quick, simple, to the point, and it made me smile. She didn’t ask me for additional business, nor did she try to include any additional services or sell me products through this email. She simply asked me how I was doing. This is an excellent follow up email simply because there was no reason for it except that she was reminded of me.

Are you doing that? We all have memorable customers (I know I have) and the human brain will remind us of these people on occasion. When a customer pops into your brain, are you doing anything about it or simply asking yourself Hey, I wonder how they are doing up there? It’s not to sell anything; it’s to establish a relationship with your customer because it’s important to do so. I know that I’m not the only customer my insurance agent deals with, but with this wonderful member of the agents team thinking of me, it makes me feel like I really have made the best choice in my auto and renters insurance.

What does work for them is that the email reminded me I need to get my homeowners insurance quotes from them. So even though she didn’t mean to, she just generated some more business for her company. Are you sending your customers follow up emails when they cross your mind? Do you use them as an opportunity to pitch new ideas or simply as a way to reach out to them and see how they are?

AccuConference | The day in the life of a CEO – staying relevant and accessible*

The day in the life of a CEO – staying relevant and accessible*

I'm sure you already know this, and that you're already doing a great job staying relevant and accessible to your customers; but I wanted to share with you how I do it with Accu800.

The alarm rings every morning at 5:45am. I lean over, rub the sleep out of my eyes and switch on my Blackberry. I don't check my messages until after breakfast, but my phone stays on in case of emergencies. As I dash out the door, I check my voicemail, emails and toll free faxes.

The painstakingly slow commute starts at 6:20am so I use that time to listen to recorded conference calls. My employees each have an Accu800 toll-free number so that they can record, download and send me applicable client calls, business meetings and job interviews. I can fast-forward through to the important stuff and pause it when I need to throw quarters in the toll-booth.

A friendly face greets me at 7:15 am with a warm cup of coffee. I change the toll-free forwarding location to my office for the time being. The toll free number makes it easy and affordable for my east-coast clients to reach me. A stampede of calls usually ensues about this time.

Most days I'm away from my desk putting out fires, overseeing projects and attending meetings – but my 800 number follows me wherever I go. Whether I'm at home, at the office, or on-the-road, my toll-free number can ring at any location.  Gone are the days of lonely voicemails that sit on my machine for hours.

I retreat from the office at 1:00pm to workout at the gym. I forwarded my calls to an assistant who happens to be a rigorous note taker. I love having a number that can be forwarded to anyone at any location at anytime. And if I wanted, I can travel overseas and still be reached toll-free

In the afternoon I activate and record my own conference calls on-route to visit distributors. I know that I could probably spend more time in the office but the one thing I love most about my job is the face-to-face interactions and the handshake negotiations. If I talk about something important while on a conference call in my car, I email the recording or have it transcribed.

When business is booming I won't even sit at my desk. Accu800 follows me wherever I go and utilizes the latest technology so that I can stay accessible at all times.


* this is a fictitious account of how a CEO would use Accu800.

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