Newsletter 630 – Look-Around Learning

During my years as a public speaker, I got into the habit of listening to preachers and other speakers with two questions in my mind: what were they saying (their message) and how were they communicating (their methods)? I looked at how some speakers connected effectively with the audience and why other speakers rarely connected at all. Later I started doing something similar with writers. Why are some better than others? Maybe you have developed the practice of observing academic, business, political and pastoral leaders in the similar ways. If you want to be better in what you do, open your eyes, look, and learn from what others are doing well–or not so well.

Francis 1Pope Francis is an example. This week a blogger critiqued the Pope’s leadership style as demonstrated on his recent North American trip. Francis had prepared well for his speaking, using illustrations and quoting leaders who would be known and admired by his audiences. Wherever he went, the Pope modeled his stated values. Away from the crowds, Francis apparently maintains a disciplined schedule, takes short rest periods to preserve his strength during each day, resists trying to do everything, and avoids pointless activity that drains his energy. And he’s not afraid to tackle difficult issues even if they are unpopular.

OscarEverybody knows about the Pope but have you heard of Oscar Muñoz? His name appeared in the news last month when he was appointed new CEO of United Airlines. Last week Muñoz was interviewed about his new leadership role. He observed that United employees have become disenchanted, disenfranchised, and disengaged. These “three D’s” need to be acknowledged openly, then fixed. But United customers also need attention because they have been forgotten in a business that claims to be service-oriented. Muñoz added that “the key is not always improvement, which suggests doing things better, but innovation which means doing things altogether differently.” And like Pope Francis, Muñoz seems to be operating in accordance with his values.

Both of these leaders are working to change a culture: one changing the culture of an international church, the other changing an international corporation. Sometimes we learn from reading accounts from or about turn-around leaders like Howard Schultz at Starbucks or Steve Jobs at Apple. But there is much to be learned simply by looking around at leaders in front of our eyes. Please comment on this and share other examples.

Newsletter 622 – Two Growing Trends

Podcasts 3
This week I read two articles that describe growing technologies: one newer, the other well established. The first is the subject of the August 17 Time cover story (US Edition) titled “The Surprising Joy of Virtual Reality: And Why It’s [nearly upon us, better than you think… and] About to Change the World.” Put on those increasingly sophisticated virtual reality goggles and our whole perceptions change. This is not just about making video games more dramatic. It can be about treating the effects of trauma, dealing with various psychiatric disorders, and revolutionizing education. I wonder about its potential for changing how we lead, learn about God, or advertise. And are there dangers that we don’t yet see? Apparently we’ll encounter lots more about this come Christmas shopping season.

Much more familiar are podcasts, recently discussed in a Wall Street Journal article (August 8-9.) We’ve all seen podcasts and webinars, some very sophisticated, which move us beyond radio, television or weekly written blogs like this one. Friends have urged me to replace or supplement this Podcast 2newsletter with audio and/or video posts, especially since these tend to be favored by so many people who like to listen or watch rather than to read.

  • A good communicator knows the characteristics of his or her audience. Surely this includes knowing how the audience learns or prefers to get information. Most readers of this newsletter are older, educated, and presumably inclined to learn by reading. Like me. Would a different audience be attracted by a podcast or other non-written, video or audio format? What about using both formats?
  • Experienced bloggers have demonstrated the value of captivating titles, eye-catching images, and succinct introductory sentences. These are more likely to attract and hold readers to the end. Similarly, aren’t most of us grabbed and retained by articulate speakers in attractive settings telling interesting stories with practical implications? Boring podcasts may give us something to hear or watch but they make no more impact than boring blog posts.
  • Podcasts can be produced relatively easily. All you need is a computer with a camera. I have done these with my classes, replacing long lectures with video clips to be watched at leisure.
  • Podcasts and webinars can be produced from anywhere and allow feedback so observers are more involved with the action. Should you be doing this? Should I?

Please comment. Tell us how you have used podcasts, webinars or virtual reality.

Newsletter 606 – Adult Learning: Seminars, Workshops and Courses

Bored students 7It’s no secret that seminars, workshops, and college modular courses are hugely popular. They give quick access to skills and information, provide continuing education and academic credits for professionals or students, and are convenient for people with other demands on their time. These training sessions can be money-makers for cash-strapped colleges and for many who work in the growing adult-education industry. Brick-and-mortar academic institutions are expensive to maintain; modular courses and distance learning are cheaper and often attractive to potential learners.

I’ve learned a lot from teaching modular courses or leading seminars and workshops. This learning never stops but here some conclusions. For each there is at least some published research to support these observations.

  1. Keep aware of your audience. All speakers agree but some forget. I interact with the learners, discussing what they want and need to learn. I request their ideas to help in planning the course or seminar. Then I try to include their input. Usually I ask “What will make this training a winner for you?” In these ways the leader and participants are more engaged in planning and learning together.
  1. Keep it interesting and as practical as possible. Avoid dumping information on participants, especially when they can get this easier without you lecturing. Seminars and modular courses can be incredibly dull and I use an image (see above) to show what we don’t want. Try to avoid those old-fashioned bullet points. Remember that stories and images are more engaging (and probably more often remembered) than seeing dull lists on a screen. Ponder Jesus’ teaching style.
  1. Pay attention to evaluation. This can be the hardest part of teaching. Where do we get the idea that all learning can be measured by numbers or that multiple-choice exams test knowledge rather than one’s ability to memorize or to overcome test anxiety? Depending on the experience and maturity level of the group, I often invite participants to set their own course requirements. Of course we need to heed the requirements of accrediting agencies. Those can set standards although they also can kill creativity and stimulate both busywork and boredom.
  1. Focus on follow-up. Before they leave, ask learners to develop a plan for using or applying their learning. Who will hold them accountable? Without a plan, the seminar notes often land on a shelf and are forgotten.

This is a huge topic with potential for controversy. Please comment.

Newsletter 585 – The Significance of Millennials

This week I read an interview with Bill Marriott, CEO of the hotel business that carries his family name. Now 82, Marriott is looking ahead, committed to launching a new hotel chain aimed at the so-called millennial generation, (people born in 1980 or after, now ages 18-33). In four years an estimated 60% of Marriott’s business will be geared for Millennials, with room features and amenities largely designed with input from people in the target group.

Millennials 1Scientifically valid research shows that this group is forsaking religious institutions in droves. Young adult Evangelicals, traditional Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims are all leaving their faith traditions and few seem interested in coming back. The challenge of adapting and connecting across generations applies as well to colleges, professions, counselors, and businesses, including hotels.

Literally for centuries younger generations have been misunderstood and criticized by those who are older. Time magazine once did a cover story on Millennials with the biased headline “Me, Me, Me Generation.” Isn’t that equally true of other generations? Much better is the current issue of CT (July/August 2014) that focuses on how many Millennials are leading the church. Here are randomly-chosen practical conclusions, some from the magazine:

  • Connecting with Millennials takes more than a coffee shop or hip place to hang out. They want involvement and responsibility. Too many who come to churches feel unwanted and not needed .
  • This generation longs for face-to-face interpersonal interaction more because so much of their interaction is online. They value community and spontaneity.
  • Like other generations, Millennials don’t like to be stereotyped. They want to be accepted and appreciated for who they are.
  • Many are spiritually starved but they want in-depth spiritual experiences, knowledge, and opportunity for discussion without being manipulated or forced into some theological or denominational mold.
  • Many Millennials are heavily involved in service to others. Many want to be successful in the arts, technology, business, and other careers. But they are less concerned about money, prominence or power.
  • They are not opposed to interaction with older mentors who respect them as they are and don’t try to imitate or look like them.
  • From a personal perspective, I have several twenty-something close friends. We appreciate, enjoy, accept and learn from each other.

What is your experience with Millennials? Please comment.

Newsletter #549 – Jim Collins’ Leadership Lessons from West Point


Jim Collins and cadets. Inc photoIf you have an interest in leadership probably you know the name of Jim Collins. Author of Built to Last, Good to Great, and other research-based best-sellers, Collins (no relation to me) has been an astute observer of leadership and a teacher of leadership skills. An Inc magazine article (October, 2013) describes one of these teaching assignments.  Collins was invited to give lectures on leadership to West Point cadets at the US Military Academy. Not willing to use past lecture notes, Collins immersed himself in the West Point culture, made seven visits to the campus before giving his lecture, got to know some of the cadets and even joined some of their physically demanding Continue reading →

Newsletter #540 – The Power of Powerless Communication

powerless 1In Give and Take, Anthony Grant’s new book (see last week’s newsletter), an entire chapter discusses powerless communication. At first the two words powerless and communication suggested to me that this would be a discussion of communication failure. Aren’t effective speakers and writers supposed to be assertive, exuding confidence, captivating and dynamic? These words don’t suggest anything powerless.

Grant cites research to suggest that there are two especially effective paths to having an influence. The first is dominance where we impress audiences and others with our strong, assertive mannerisms and words. This is powerful communication. Speakers emphasize their competence and expertise so others are impressed. Sometimes that works well. The second route to influence is to earn prestige so others respect and like those who speak. This comes best from powerless communication. It’s a term most associated with Susan Cain’s best selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Powerless communication works best with speakers or writers who demonstrate or are known to be capable. There is no need or attempt to wow others, impress or overwhelm them. Instead the powerless approach is more relaxed and engaging.

In a TED talk that is worth watching, Grant gives three marks of effective powerless communication:

  1. Instead of emphasizing your strengths, be open about your vulnerabilities and shortcomings. Be humble and authentic, able to laugh at yourself.
  2. Use less assertive speech and more tentative language. Frame your opinions as suggestions like this: “I am wondering if this might work…. What do you think?”
  3. Rather than giving answers, raise questions or ask others to give their input or their help. Then listen. In a paragraph that sounds a lot like what we do in coaching, Grant writes, “By asking questions about their plans and intentions, we increase the likelihood that they actually act on these plans and intentions.”

So let me try this below.

Would powerless communication be good for you? When have you used it? Many of us would like to read your observations. Please comment. Thanks.

Newsletter #532 – Giving Killer Presentations

Last month I gave a talk that I wanted to be especially good. It wasn’t!

microphone 2It is easy for a perfectionist like me to be self-critical and the speech may not have been as bad as I concluded. But it fell short of what a Harvard Business Review (June 2013) article calls “killer presentations.” Good coaches, counselors and leaders need to be good communicators. Chris Anderson, the HBR author, coaches TED speakers for their presentations. Here are some of his recommendations that can apply to the rest of us:

  • There is no way to give a compelling talk unless you have something fresh and worth saying. If there is no central theme and clear purpose for your talk it is better to not speak. “Presentations rise or fall on the quality of the ideas” as well as the passion of the speaker.
  • Frame your talk as a journey. Quickly introduce your topic, explain why you care deeply about it, and convince audience members that they should too. “If a talk fails, it’s almost always because the speaker didn’t frame it correctly, misjudged the audience’s level of interest, or neglected to tell a story.”
  • Limit the scope of your talk. Don’t try to include too much.
  • Plan your delivery and rehearse your talk.
  • If you use slides, avoid reading what is on the screen.
  • Remember that people don’t care much about your organization, books, awards or accomplishments.
  • Don’t get lost in jargon or overly intellectual language.
  • Make eye contact, at least with a few people.
  • Steer clear of the following ways to ruin a presentation:

–       Taking a long time to explain what the talk is about.

–       Speaking dramatically like an orator.

–       Subtly letting everybody know how important you are.

–       Referring repeatedly to your book or (worse) reading from it.

–       Cramming your slides with numerous bullet points, multiple fonts, and flashy movements.

–       Never rehearsing your presentation or checking the timing.

–       Using unexplained jargon to make yourself look intellectual or informed.

–       Filling your talk with facts but no stories.

Could these guidelines apply to academic talks or to sermons? What would you add or subtract? Please comment.

Newsletter #528 – Who Is Jonah Berger?

Jonah Berger 1Have you ever heard of Jonah Berger? Probably not, but it is almost guaranteed that within the next few months we’ll be hearing a lot about this 32-year-old Wharton Business School professor, especially those of us interested in communication and leadership. I almost skipped the article about Berger in Fast Company magazine (“The Making of a Guru,” April 2013) that describes the man and his new book titled Contagious. “He’s creative, thoughtful, spunky and playful” wrote one enthusiastic reviewer. Another describes his book as written in an interesting,  “sprightly, charming style” that shows how to spread our messages so they become contagious.

 Perhaps I’ll say more after I finish reading the book but the magazine article raised several issues that might have relevance for all of us who are communicators. (And that includes all of us):

  • Stories and Facts. Probably you are aware of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 best seller (4,500,000 copies to date) The Tipping Point. Gladwell is a master story-teller but there is one problem. At least half of his conclusions are wrong according to subsequent research. Several very recent books criticize the tendency of self-help authors to make sweeping recommendations based on heart-warming stories that are at odds with careful research facts.* Like these other authors, Berger tries to start with research and build stories around this. What does this say about how the rest of us communicate?
  • Solid Facts and Quality Writing. Too often highly capable people are the dullest speakers and writers. Whatever our training we learn that scholarly and well-researched communication should be boring. Berger defies this myth and joins others in academic and ministerial communities who show that ideas are contagious when they are well presented.
  • Marketing Machines. The Fast Company article describes the marketing strategies and frenzy that has surrounded the launch of Contagious. “All signs are that he will be one of the leading business thinkers of his generation,” gushes Berger’s editor. Maybe true, but in large measure this is because of the promotion dollars that have launched the book and drawn in people like me. Does this leave you with some discomfort, especially when we see the many teachers, speakers and writers with good ideas who never get heard?

Please comment.

*In addition to Courageous the books are Changeology (Norcross), Decisive (Heath Brothers), and How will You Measure Your Life (Christensen).

Newsletter #517 – How to Deliver a TED Talk

Ted TalkAre you familiar with TED talks? Founded in 1984 they emerged into a series of annual conferences in which attendees hear extremely competent speakers talk about issues and ideas that “change attitudes, lives and ultimately the world.” At the beginning the focus was on technology, entertainment and design (hence the name TED) but the conference mission expanded to become “a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers” committed to disseminating “ideas worth spreading.” Speakers are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present their ideas in the most innovative and engaging ways that they can. In 2006 TED talks were offered for free viewing online and in November 2012 TED talks passed a record after being watched one billion times worldwide. Consistently interesting and often entertaining, you can find them at

 If you are a speaker, an aspiring public communicator or someone who appreciates hearing good talks you can benefit from watching. If you are like me, constantly striving to be a better speaker, probably you will appreciate Jeremy Donovan’s new (2012) book How to Deliver A TED Talk: Secrets of The World’s Most Inspiring Presentations. Like the talks themselves, the book is short (112 pages) and to the point. You can order a Kindle edition for only three bucks.

The book starts with ten commandments for TED-type speakers, including:

  • Thou shalt dream a great dream, or show forth a wondrous new thing, or share something thou hast never shared before.
  • Thou shalt tell a story
  • Thou shalt not sell from the stage: neither thy company, thy goods, thy writings, nor thy desperate need for funding.
  • Thou shalt reveal thy curiosity and thy passion.
  • Thou shalt not flaunt thy ego. Be thou vulnerable. Speak of thy failure as well as thy success.
  • Thou shalt not read thy speech.
  • Thou shalt not steal the time of them that follow thee.

Fourteen practical chapters discuss the basics such as how to select a topic, open and close your talk, build the speech’s body and transitions, master your verbal delivery, use humor effectively, create inspiring visuals, and overcome your fear.

Has anybody watched a TED talk or read this book? Please comment on what you learned from this.

Newsletter #510 – What Keeps You Fresh?

fruit 1Based on the above title and the photograph, what is the likelihood that you will read this post to the end? Writers and speakers (professors and preachers included) quickly lose their audiences if nothing grabs and holds their interest. This starts with the title, topic, photo image or first sentence.

Like many columnists, preachers or bloggers I try to be fresh and relevant week after week. But freshness fades — both with fruit and with ideas. We all stop reading, listening, or sticking with projects if they get repetitious, irrelevant, boring or tasteless. So how do we keep freshness alive? I try to answer several questions on a regular basis:

  • What makes me stale? Most weeks I build on some recent book or article that I have read. We all lose freshness and creativity when there is no outside input to stimulate thinking.
  • What keeps me fresh? Prayer is of prime importance. I ask God to show me what to say. I also try to keep alert–reading, listening and interacting with people who differ from me. Ideas and people that stimulate me have potential to stimulate others. Every day I give thought to what may be relevant, practical and of interest to others.
  • What is the nature of my audience? Effective communicators know their audiences. Before I give a talk or write an article I want to know who I’m addressing and what people expect. Usually it is easiest to reach others who are most like us. In turn our words, lyrics, and ideas attract people like us. That means we could end up surrounded by people who all think alike.  That stifles fresh thinking and innovation.
  • What can be done to keep fresh? Remember that rotting fruit and vegetables stink and so do dull blogs or speeches. We prevent this when we communicate with passion, make deliberate efforts to connect, and seek to be interesting. Stories, illustrations and practical applications help, providing there is good content at the core.

Thank you if you read to this point. What kept you here? What was fresh? How does this apply to you? Please leave a reply or check the comments icon so you can see how others are responding.