The small things

Earlier this week, I promised that I would balance my somewhat negative post, Burning question, with similar positive insights. Well, today’s the day.

I had planned to conjure up an impressive list of small communications efforts that can make all the difference in shaping a successful interaction. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t do it–the impressive list part, that is. As I tried to compile the list in my head, I realized that every interaction that leaves me smiling shares the same feature: someone cares about the details.

Think about it. Successful interactions involve connections. One person finds a common thread and offers it to the other, creating a path on which to navigate the transaction. The easiest way to make a connection, to touch the other person, is to address the details.

Amanda from Madeleine’s Bakehouse does it. She remembers my name and my kids’ names and little things we’ve discussed. So we keep going back.

Evans Toyota did it. They took the time to follow up and find a solution for me before I even knew I had a problem.

Landry’s Bicycles did it. They covered all the bases and made it easy for me to interact with them–and silly for me not to do so.

My friend’s former CEO did it. He made it a point to know everyone’s name and job, regardless of whether he had interacted with her.

The deli clerk in the UK supermarket did it. She went the extra mile and offered to lead my colleagues and me to the right spot in the store after she had given us verbal directions.

Susan, who owns the local Chinese restaurant, does it. She remembers or notices something positive about every single one of her customers, and she makes a point of mentioning it when she thanks them for their business.

Conversely, not caring about the details or getting them wrong can derail any communication effort. For example, doctors missing details can have disastrous effects, not paying attention leads to inaccuracy and inefficiency, as well as a few embarrassing moments, and messing up someone’s name shows a lack of regard for that person’s identity. Try any of these things, positive or negative, and see what happens.

Getting the details right requires some extra effort, but I have no doubt that you’ll quickly reap the benefits of it. The small things matter.

You say it’s your what?

Today is the very first half-birthday of my blog. A quick search for statistics yields heaps of shadowy estimates and not much precision, but the general consensus is that the average lifespan of a blog is pretty short, often just a few posts. That leaves me feeling pretty good about the last six months. On that note, allow me some retrospection.

Good: The regular commitment to writing–something, anything–has helped me get better at it. Also, my life has a lot more interesting moments than I thought. As I’ve stepped back and taken a long view of the compilation of my experiences, the bounty of object lessons I’ve been able to harvest has taken me by surprise. It really just depends on perspective. Finally, I like having a platform, a pipeline to share my thoughts. I hope someone is listening because I love the discussion, but ultimately, my writing is my outlet.

Bad: Having all sorts of statistical information available in mere keystrokes feeds my hyperanalytical nature. I’ve fallen victim to temptation and check my stats more times per day than I will admit. Then I worry about what they might mean, and I’ve come very close to falling into the trap of writing to appeal to an audience rather than writing what I have to say.

I intended to take a the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly approach, but neither can I find any ugly, nor do I want to. In fact, I should replace ugly with best. The best part of this blog is that I love writing it. I love the challenge of fleshing out material from experiences new and old. Finding meaning in tiny vignettes has been fun and rewarding. And of course, I love playing with words.

I really don’t know if people read my blog for the content or just because they know me, but right now I don’t much care. (Okay, I care a little or I wouldn’t be checking the stats so much.) Maybe that’s selfish, but I like the way blogging is helping me grow. I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am.

Happy half-birthday, Wordsmatter!

Oh yeah…You say it’s your birthday? It’s my birthday too.

The play that lost the game

My football team isn’t doing very well this year. Our star quarterback hasn’t taken a snap and most likely won’t take one all season. His replacement still hasn’t found his footing, and his back-up suffers from terminal inexperience and gotta-prove-himself syndrome. Without a quarterback to lead, the offense can’t do anything but mill around the field. Everything rides on the defense in this case, and last week, they lost the game. They couldn’t stop our opponent’s late-game drive, and the resulting field goal in the final seconds sealed the deal. Those knuckleheads! That play lost the game for us.

Whoa. Back up. Let’s take another look.

The pigskin through the uprights may have changed the score from tied to three down at the buzzer, but we shouldn’t forget how we got there in the first place. Our first offensive drive went three-and-out. Huge turnovers orchestrated by the defense went unconverted or resulted in only anemic field goals. Dismal special teams coverage forced the kicker to make a score-saving tackle. Receivers dropped passes, even the few well-thrown ones. The QB back-up-to-the-back-up fumbled (again) and the other team recovered, running it in for a touchdown. The defense was actually the only reason we stayed in the game at all.

Those sixty minutes on the field showcased more mistakes than candy in my kids’ Halloween buckets, and that’s exactly my point. Very rarely does a single action determine the outcome of any endeavor. Success or failure generally results from the culmination of a series of actions or circumstances; we just laud or blame the last guy. He’s the easiest to find when fingers start pointing.

Burning question

Are you busy?

I hate that question. There’s just no good way to answer it. If I’m at work and someone asks that, I can’t say no, can I? But if I say yes, the person asking may not follow through with whatever brought him to my office in the first place.

It’s even worse when someone asks in a personal context, and there are several variants: Are you busy this evening? What are you doing on the 23rd? Do you have plans? Unless I have a close relationship to the person asking–and sometimes even then–this question leaves me feeling trapped. If I say no or that I don’t have plans, the person asking often automatically pencils me in for whatever event has spurred the question, even if I have no interest. Of course, that makes a later refusal more awkward. And saying I do have plans may not even allow me to hear the offer. What to do?

Here’s where I’ve landed. On the asking end, I think a small tweak does the job: state the issue first, and then ask about availability. I have this issue/opportunity. Do you have a minute [or 5 or 10, whatever] to help me with it? Or I need someone to watch my kids tomorrow. Can you help? Unless the person I’m asking is in a coma, he’s doing SOMETHING. I don’t need to verify that; what I really want to know is whether he is willing to put his activity aside to handle my issue, attend my event, come to my aid, whatever. When someone asks me a question like that, I feel much more comfortable saying either yes or I’m in the middle of something; can I call you in 30 minutes? or I’m sorry, that won’t work for me. I no longer feel trapped by the question. I have control of my destiny.

On the answering end, I just turn the question around. I’m not under oath in a court of law–yes or no are not the only valid answers. Are you busy? becomes Why? What do you need? or What do you have in mind? Easy enough, and I’m back on equal footing.

For whatever reason, this communications quandary renders me particularly peevish. What starts as a minor annoyance eats at me until it eventually finds its way into a *cough* blog post. Anyway, I try hard to avoid the are-you-busy phraseology. I know it seems like a small thing, but ultimately, the small things set the tone in our relationships.

This “small thing” happens to lean toward the negative, but I promise to share some on the positive side soon. In the meantime, I’d love for you to share the communications challenges that make you cringe–or the opportunities that make your heart sing. Comments?

Time management

Occasionally, someone will ask me to evaluate a meeting or an event and give suggestions for improvement. Never short of an opinion, I relish opportunities like this to share my thoughts. I take copious notes during the event, observing the actions and reactions of the audience, as well as the presenter. I listen to the feedback chatter that happens during breaks and I take in body language. I try to figure out what connections are being made or missed. I love this kind of challenge.

It didn’t take many times of doing this for me to pick out some common threads, the most vibrant of which is TIME. In today’s meeting-happy world, nothing has more power to win or lose an audience than how you treat its time. Respect it, and your credibility skyrockets. Waste it, and eyes roll and grumbling commences as soon as you look away.

I’ve seen meetings on both ends of this continuum, but unfortunately more of them tend toward the wasting end. Meetings that are scheduled for their own sake, to check a box, to strut in front of peers, to CYA, or worse yet, to simply read (not interpret) reports that are already accessible to everyone do nothing but suck productivity from the participants–and believe me, they know it.

On the other hand, the best meetings are the ones that follow an agenda and stay on schedule. A couple of months ago, I attended a meeting that was scheduled to last a couple of hours. It presented an interesting challenge to the organizer in that the attendance was comprised of employees all over the world, with a significant portion of them signing in via phone and WebEx. Meetings like that generally make me wary, but this one was the exception. What was different? The meeting organizer presented an agenda, including time limits, and he stuck to it. He frequently let us know where we stood in the agenda, and he prodded stragglers along. He didn’t cut anyone off, but he didn’t have to. He kept his presenters on track along the way. I left that meeting feeling as if the organizer had made a promise and kept it–and I told him so.

Certainly respect for time isn’t the only component in the formula for crafting a good meeting. Content, the right participants and the right number of them, and forward motion are also critical factors. Even so, you can get the right people in a room to make important decisions, but if it takes three times as long as it should–or as promised–you won’t feel very successful. Time management can make or break any meeting.

If you have the time, I highly recommend this lecture from Randy Pausch, given at the University of Virginia. (It’s not The Last Lecture.) It lasts a little more than an hour, so you’ll want to make sure you allot enough time. It’s good stuff.

Language lessons in math

Earlier this week, my hates-to-ask-for-help fifth grader came to me with her math book. As much as it pained her to admit (wonder where she gets that), she was struggling to understand her current unit. She’s a sharp kid, so I knew that once she fully understood the concept at hand, she’d take right off. The key was finding the right explanation to unlock it for her. Given my passion for finding the right words, this should have been right up my alley.

The task at hand was solving for variables in algebraic equations. 2x+4=10 kind of stuff. Overall, not too tough. Imagine my surprise when all of my logical explanations were met with frustration and indignance. She just didn’t get it, and I wasn’t helping. My own frustration level grew right alongside hers.

Finally I realized that I just wasn’t speaking a language she understood. Doing the opposite operation, isolating the variable, and even “move it all to the other side” meant nothing to her. I quickly gained a heap of respect for her teacher, who has to navigate her way through teaching algebra to elementary schoolers by creating a new language. The otherwise common terms in the field just don’t work for kids that age.

Through trial and error, we both figured it out–I the language and she the homework. Once the equal sign became a balance, she understood that in order for the problem to stay in balance–or for the scale to stay even–anything we did on one side, we had to do on the other. Then it became simply a matter of moving pieces around until the x was all by itself. Whew!

It’s funny how lessons in communicating can come from any direction. With as much thought as I’ve given to speaking the other person’s language, I’m still amazed at the times when it takes me by surprise, particularly when it happens at home.

Keep it in perspective

I don’t normally comment on social media topics because enough people out there–perhaps too many–are already doing it. For whatever reason, this time I feel compelled to jump into the fray. What set me off? Facebook.

WAIT! Don’t stop reading! This isn’t what you think. I’m not going to pick a side in the current uproar over the merits of the recent changes to Facebook. In fact, I’m sitting here shaking my head and chuckling that there’s even a debate at all.

I’m a regular user of social media in several of its forms. I like the access it offers, I enjoy the connections I make, and in some ways it even serves as a sort of anti-aging balm for me. I say this simply to underscore that I’m not a hater. I love social media–in its place.

That’s why I’m chuckling. Somehow, the groundswell that occurs each time something changes with Facebook (among others) has gotten way out of control. Seriously, some people make it sound as if their lives are ruined. We need to keep things in perspective, and I don’t think I could sum it up better than a 13-year-old friend did. Here’s his tongue-in-cheek status update from yesterday:

It just appalls me that the free social service that I am in no way obligated to use keeps making small changes that bring me minor inconvenience.

Bravo, Ev! I couldn’t have said it better myself.

And while I’m on perspective and social media, check out my current favorite commercial. In the grand scheme of things, we shouldn’t forget that social media–Facebook, You Tube, Google+, blogs, whatever–is intended to enhance our lives, not become our lives.

It’s a stretch

If I stood on the sidewalk outside my house for an hour and asked every runner who passed about his stretching habits, I’ll bet at least half would tell me they don’t stretch at all. I’d be part of that group, too.

Before you gasp in shock, go online and poke around. For every article you find about the necessity of stretching before a run, you’ll find another saying it doesn’t matter. Some even go so far as to say it does more harm than good. Both sides offer seemingly sound arguments, both sides boast venerable physicians, and both sides use data to back them up. How do I know which argument is right?

Like so many things, there’s probably truth in both. Unfortunately there’s no single authority to offer a definitive ruling, so it’s up to me. Being naturally impatient and the kind of person who just wants to “get it done,” I have diligently eschewed a pre-run stretching ritual in favor of hitting the pavement that much sooner. I keep the anti-stretching articles in my proverbial back pocket as justification, but I got to this place all on my own.

The problem with my cavalier attitude is that recently I’ve noticed some new twinges and pains in my legs–nothing serious and nothing that seems permanent, just some tightening and weirdness at certain times. While this could have something to do with a heightened sense of awareness of my body the more I run, I wonder if it wouldn’t help to stretch my calves a little before I beat feet. I think it might be worth a try.

Of course, this kind of change in direction causes a tremor in my mental fault lines. I’ve been running successfully for several years. I haven’t materially altered my routine. With all the variables the same (ignore the fact that I’m aging, please), I should have no reason to change a thing, yet here I sit considering doing just that–and anticipating, or at least hoping for, success. To me, this begs a question: If this works, what other areas of my life deserve this kind of re-evaluation? What else have I been doing that merits a potential change of routine? To what end? What results to I want to achieve?

That last question is a tough one. What results do I want to achieve? With running, I’m not too concerned about my muscle aches; they’re just a springboard for trying something different, injecting my running game with new life. Maybe I’ll run faster. Maybe I’ll run longer. Maybe my legs will feel better. Maybe nothing will change and I’ll go back to the old way. It might be a stretch, but it can’t hurt to try.

Running is my metaphor. What’s yours?

Connections

Someone I know well attended Bike Week in Key West this year. While he was there, he sent me a text message that contained his whereabouts, and he happened to be in a place that I know flaunts a web cam. Excitedly, I replied to him and told him where to stand so I could see him.

How cool is that?! I thought. He’s almost 1500 miles away, and I can see him on my computer! 

Then I wondered why that was important to me. I’ve seen him hundreds of times in person, I’m don’t have him under surveillance, and the scene isn’t really that exciting. What got me so jazzed up?

Connections.

I truly believe that the power of the internet lies in helping people make connections–to ideas, to products, to services, to causes, and most of all, to people. Evolving technology has allowed information to bombard us faster. And because it’s so easy for anyone to participate, the amount of content is growing by leaps and bounds, too. Surrounded by so much noise, we tend to leap at opportunities to connect. Those connections offer small footholds we can use as either respite or jumping off points as we navigate our way through the din.

Continuing to turn over this idea in my head, I wonder how, as a content producer–personally, professionally, whatever–I can use this revelation of mine. If nothing else, I know that in order for my content to be meaningful to someone, it has to facilitate a connection. It has to draw people in and allow them to identify with it. I can’t just create noise; I have to create meaning. It’s a lot easier when we’re talking about personal content because I have relationships help draw people in. Making a professional mark proffers a more daunting challenge, however, particularly if I’m a new business trying to get noticed.

I know I’m not the first person to preach make-it-mean-something content creation, but I may be the first to arrive there from a bar’s web cam.

Do something

Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s when you’ve had everything to do, and you’ve done it. –Margaret Thatcher

From time to time, I revisit this quote, which I’ve carried in my subconscious since I first read it. Each time it occurs to me, I find it brilliant all over again. I take mental inventory of my own experience, and I can’t find a single exception to this axiom. On the contrary, my ever-lengthening accumulation of days can be segregated into those that support it from the positive side and those that support it from the negative side.

On the positive side, my most satisfying days have been packed with activity. One day that comes to mind, for example, found me driving home from a video shoot in Wisconsin. Along the way–I was in the back seat, not driving!–I planned a menu and compiled a grocery list for the dinner party I would host the next evening. In the hours that followed my 4pm arrival at home, I hugged my son as he left for a weekend with his dad, sped to the Y for a run, bought ingredients for the 20-person dinner party, returned home to shower (left the groceries in the car, preserved by sub-zero temperatures), and dashed downtown to watch my daughter sing with her choir. I then made my way back home, unloaded the groceries, cranked out a couple of batches of homemade pasta, prepped the braciole and chicken Marsala, made desserts and sides, and cleaned up the kitchen. As I fell into bed at 2am, I was exhausted–and exhilarated.

On the negative side, I learned through experience that there is nothing worse than being bored at work. Many years ago having just come back from maternity leave with a freshly minted MBA, I found myself with little to do. In preparation for my time off, my boss had divvied up my previous responsibilities. He made the changes permanent, intending to provide me with a new assignment upon my return. The plan worked great, except for the new assignment part. For a few months, that assignment didn’t materialize, and I found myself desperately treading water. Oh, I made sure I had activities to occupy my time, but those often consisted of reading and learning about the business; I didn’t feel as if I were accomplishing anything or contributing to the company’s daily forward motion. I was bored, and I felt worthless. I hated that period of time when I didn’t have a to-do list, let alone a task to check off. (Trust me, that has since been remedied!)

It’s important to note that this quote focuses on feeling satisfied, not feeling happy or content or anything else. It has to do with a sense of accomplishment. There are certainly days when I feel very happy with a latte, a good book, and nothing else to do. Along with everyone else, I need those once in a while. Those aren’t the days that leave me feeling fulfilled, however. Mrs. Thatcher is right–I need to make a list and get it done. Checking off that last item feels great.