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How to Prepare Your Talk Without Starting from Scratch

You have a big talk coming up. So you say to yourself, I’m going to sit down right now and write it.

You type one sentence: “Good afternoon.”

You delete it. You wonder if you’re a fraud. You wonder why you’re doing this. You wonder what to have for dinner.

Then: Oh would you look at that. I just got an email! I better go see what it’s about.

There isn’t a person who’s ever been asked to speak who hasn’t done this. Not. One.

Myself included. I also delay, procrastinate, worry. Except I have the best out ever. I can easily avoid prepping my talk—I’ll work on yours instead!

As a consultant who helps people identify their messaging and develop their talks, yes, working on yours is a whole lot easier than working on my own. But I also realize that sitting down to a blank page will stop anyone cold.

For most of us, sitting down to “write a talk” from start to finish just doesn’t work.

You’ve got to give yourself something to work with first; think of it as getting a lot of clay on the table so that you have something to shape.

So here are my tips for working on your talk–without writing it from scratch.

First, do a big ol’ brain dump.

Note, this is NOT the same as “writing your talk.” Fact is, you don’t know what you really think about a thing until you express it—it’s in the cognitive act of putting it into words that you give form to the ideas. You may even be surprised about what comes out. I know I often am.

Here are some prompts to use to fuel this writing session. Use whatever ones work for you, or do them all:

  • What I love about this topic is:
  • What frustrates me about this topic is:
  • The thing people don’t realize about this topic is:
  • The one thing I want the audience to walk away with and why:

The only rule is that you KEEP WRITING. If you hit the brakes as you do it, you will not get to the good stuff. Whether you type or handwrite, set a timer for 15 minutes and just write out your opinions and thoughts on the topic—in no particular order. Jot down any stories or scenes or examples that come to mind. But just a quick sketch–don’t get bogged down.

Remember, this is not for anyone to see but you. This blurt onto the page captures your first thoughts, which often prove valuable.

I started my TEDx talk process this way–I tried to get out of the way of my internal editor and just say everything, messy and loose and all over the place. Just to get it OUT of my head. Say the unpopular things. Say the things you really think.

The only rule is that you don’t hit the delete button and you don’t pause to reread or think about it. You keep your pen or fingers moving, even if what you write is nonsense. Don’t judge, revise, or edit. Just get it out.

Now, put it away and don’t read it until later. Let it sit. Like a good stew, those ideas will mingle and marinate and be better tomorrow.

Next: Get it onto cards (or stickie notes!).

Grab a stack of index cards or stickie notes. Whatever you prefer. Think of each one as like a tiny dish to hold a single mouthful of an idea. The only rule: You must do this by hand, with pen and paper, not on your computer.

Here’s why this works: In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon says he has an analog desk, where there is no digital equipment, just paper, markers, and other physical tools.

“The computer is really good for editing your ideas,” he says, “but it’s not really good for generating ideas…The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us–we start editing ideas before we have them.

Here’s what to do now:

  • Identify your key ideas, thoughts, and opinions. Go back through your brain dump and pick out the ones you know you want to include. The rule is that each card gets ONE idea; i.e., “Companies overestimate the value of perks,” or “Searching for your passion is a waste of time.”
  • Sift and feel around for examples, stories, or anecdotes that you want to share. And you need several! A talk without scenes or stories is dry indeed. Write ONE story or scene per card. So you might write, “The day I quit my job,” or “what my father said to me”—you know what these things are. You just need a phrase to capture the idea so you can include it in the talk. What scenes do you want to show in your talk? What moments or stories matter?
  • Capture the evidence you want to share. What information will help create the frame and context for your talk? Maybe it’s a few statistics or other things, experts, case studies you want to include. Again, one per card— “Seth Godin quote about how to stand out,” “Domestic violence stat,” or “Client case study: XYZ company”

OK! Now you have a stack of cards, and you will continue to add more. In fact, spend a few days doing this. The benefit is it’s non-linear–so you’re not worried about what you’re saying in what order. Just capture the key stuff and put it in the stack.

  • Shuffle the deck. When you have a solid set of cards, start shuffling them, or put all those stickies up on a wall. Stare at them. Move them around. This is what’s so handy about using cards vs. writing out your talk first: You can physically manipulate them and look at them in a few different ways.
  • Experiment with flow. Move them around, look at them, and see how doing so changes the shape and flow of your talk. This is way more fun than trying to write it from beginning to end, which is too hard.
  • Talk it through. Once you have your cards in an order (and it can change), start talking them through, out loud, as if you’re giving the talk, but you don’t have to be all formal. Do it as if you’re telling someone a story (which, by the way, you are). The talk actually can take shape this way, without having to write down or memorize a script.

Rather than write a script and memorize it, practice talking it through with the cards. You’re not writing for your audience; you’re speaking! So practice speaking. Because every time you do, you’re burning it into your mind and walking those words across your tongue so that they get used to being there. You may never say the same thing the same way twice. That’s ok! You can’t forget your own stories and ideas.

(Tip: Those cards may be a clue as to where you might use a slide. You don’t need a slide for every single thought. Think of slides as a place for the audience to perch while you unpack your idea.)

Boom. You will have a talk on your hands, without blank page syndrome. That’s a win!

3 Questions to Ask Before You Do Your Next Talk

There’s nothing like getting tapped to speak at an event or conference—it’s not only nice to be asked, but it speaks volumes about what people think of you: That you have something of value to share with their community, and they want it.

That said, there are three questions I ask myself before I accept, let alone begin to prepare, for a talk. And it isn’t, “When, where, and what should I wear?”

Nope. They’re questions that most people don’t ask before they dive in, and I believe you should to set yourself up for success. I like to ask the organizer these questions so I get a handle on who I’m speaking with, but also, I use it to generate my own questions and shape my content and approach accordingly.

(This is part of a live webinar I did recently called “5 Steps to a TED-worthy Talk” and I’m happy to share it with you because attendees found it so useful.)

1. Why are they there? 

There are lots of reasons people take a seat at an event. And they’re worth considering:

They paid to be there. If they paid their own money to attend an event, they want something in return, and expect something, right? What investment are they making—are you speaking at a business seminar or an event that’s more lifestyle focused? Are they there to rally together and change the world? Or is this meeting or community more focused on trying to maintain the status quo?

They paid a lot to be there. Then there’s the next level up—I’m talking not $50, or even $500 to be there, but like $5,000 or maybe more. We’re talking fundraisers, high-profile events. Now, if someone is donating that much money to be part of an event, it’s not because they expect, say $10,000 worth of content.

As Seth Godin says, when people pay to be somewhere like that, they’re saying to themselves and each other, “people like us do things like this.” Think about how what you’re about to tell them affects or touches their vision of the world, and their role in it. Especially if they’re there for a big cause, a pioneering effort, or perhaps something less grand but no less expensive.

They have to be there or else. Perhaps the group of people you’ll address have to be there because it’s their job, their managers mandating it, or it’s part of their own training and required.

I won’t purport to know what every group of required attendees thinks when they walk in a room, but that’s why it’s worth asking. Is this an event that’s highly anticipated, or deeply dreaded? Do they have high expectations or the lowest of low? This is how to gauge your own approach. Often I’ve found people who file in with zero expectations are sometimes the easiest to delight.

2. Why did they pick you?

The people who hired you or invited you to speak have their own goals and objectives, and they’re not necessarily the same thing. Do you know why that is? (And it’s not just cuz you’re awesome, even though you are.) I once spoke at an event of full-time employees in the HR business, and I was told, “We want you to motivate them enough to love their jobs, but not to leave.” Good to know.

Ok, so, do they want you to inspire the people there to be empowered and to create positive change? Or do they want you to inspire…compliance? There is no good or bad here, by the way.

We operate under the assumption that they want what’s best for the attendees and the organization. But what that is something they take the lead on, not you. So ask, and listen closely. Maybe they want you to wake them up—or perhaps, calm them down in the wake of organizational or industry unrest. Good to know.

3. Why are you there? 

I mean, aside from because they asked. Maybe they’re paying you good money to be there, and that’s great. But no matter what you speak about, chances are, you don’t do it for the money; you’re there because you want to exert some kind of positive influence, some change or fresh perspective or compelling information that can change the way they think and live.

So it’s important to be clear on your own intentions. Maybe it is a good gig and you do it every year, end of story. You have some contacts there and you like to keep them up.

But maybe this speaking event presents another, larger or longer-tail opportunity, in which you make inroads to do more work with them or to get a foot in the door in their industry.

Perhaps it’s an event in your own industry, and speaking there gives you a bit more clout and attention, and that’s a real plus. All great reasons! Just be clear when you’re going in. Because the way you approach a talk to people whose business you know is quite different from when you’re an outsider. Both have great advantages, if you know how to use them.

Bottom line, be honest with yourself about what is expected of you here, and also what YOU want to get out of it. The purpose and mission that drive your talk may not change, but the way in which you deliver it does, group to group. And the more mindful of that you are, the more powerful and effective you will be—and the more opportunities will come your way.

(Want to learn how to create a stand out signature talk that gets you booked, again and again? Join me for Tapped to Speak, my six-week online program designed to help you land the idea, develop the talk, and wow the crowd. Registration closes Friday, 6/16/17 @ 8p ET.)

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4 Ways to Get Laughs on Stage (even if you’re not that funny)

Of all the people you’ve seen get up in front of a room to speak, how many do you really remember?

Very few. And chances are the ones who made an impact probably made you laugh, too.

Solid content gets a nod.

But funny gets rave reviews.

Funny gets asked to speak again. And again.

Here’s the thing: You don’t have to be a standup comic to get laughs. Or a joke writer. Or a ham.

Quite frankly, you don’t even have to think of yourself as funny.

Some people may are particularly gifted, sure. But other, I’d say most, great speakers get laughs because they work at it; they learn to use humor as a tool. And when you see it that way, you can learn to use it like anything else.

I interviewed evolutionary psychologist and humor researcher Gil Greengross, PhD, for a piece I wrote for Women’s Health magazine. And he explained that humor is not usually something made up by one person and consumed by another; it’s how humans relate. It’s something we participate in together.

“Humor is a fundamentally social phenomenon,” says Greengross. When you share laughter and humor with other people, says Greengross, you build up trust and camaradie with others.

He told me about this study, led by neuroscientist Robert Provine and published in the International Journal of Behavioural Biology, which found that in 99 percent of the cases observed, laughter functioned more as punctuation at the end of statements, in response to mundane statements, and nothing that would be deemed funny outside that context.

Aha!

That means humor isn’t always mass produced by pros—it’s made by hand, in the moment. If you’ve ever tried and failed to explain to someone why something was funny, after the fact, then you know this is true. “Guess you had to be there,” you say. Indeed.

This is great— because it means that you, too, can get great, real laughs in your talk, too.

Think your subject matter is too serious for laughs? Think again. A speaker who deftly handles a difficult or serious topic can actually earn big laughs—because in so doing, he gives the audience the much-needed chance to relieve tension.

So how can you get more laughs on stage? Here are some techniques I’ve used, observed, and put into practice for myself and others I’ve coached.

  1. Don’t try to be funny. (Be honest instead.)  

    You know who gets the most pained pity laughs ever? The person who is trying too hard. Please promise me you won’t do this. Instead, try being just blatantly honest. I know it works because I do it all the time.

    I happen to think that people who are tagged as “so funny” are often just more honest than the next person. They say things other people would filter out. Fact is, I am a speaker who also happens to perform stand-up comedy—but doing stand-up didn’t teach me to be funny; it gave me a forum and format for what I already knew got laughs: Say things other people wouldn’t. I’ve been doing that forever.

    This, by the way, is why a little self-deprecation goes a long way to winning over an audience.

    When you make a comment or joke at your own expense, you’re showing the audience that you don’t take yourself too seriously; that you’re no different from them.

    Because you’re going to appear high status on a stage, taking yourself down a peg or two makes you more relatable as a person. As opposed to an insufferable blowhard.

    For instance: I joke in my TEDx talk (“Stop Searching for Your Passion”) about how I was so down at one point early in my career that I spent every night sitting around in my underwear watching Seinfeld reruns. That got a laugh. Because the fact is, we have all done this. I still do it.

  2. Go for specific over general, every time.
    Note that in the above example, I didn’t say I sat around and watched TV. That would not have gotten a laugh. The laugh comes from the details: you can picture the person slumped there, staring blankly at the TV while Kramer comes crashing into the Jerry’s apartment. It works because you can see it.


    If you say in your talk that you were in such a bad mood and binged on junk food, that’s not going to get the laugh. But you know what will? When you admit that you started hurling unflattering epithets at the Verizon customer service agent while knee deep in a bag of Ding Dongs.

    Don’t just say a thing: Fill in the rest of the picture and include the details that give the scene weight, color, and dimension. The funny is in the granular. Always.We laugh because that’s where we see ourselves most clearly.
  3. Use pop culture references—carefully.
    What makes pop cultural references work is because again it lends specificity. It puts us in a place in time—a specific time, one we all shared and remember and perhaps are nostalgic for. It can get a laugh because it allows us to remember it and we feel included by it.


    My rule is this: Know what purpose that reference serves. Is it a cutting commentary on something happening in our culture? Is it a great comparison to show how far we’ve come or how far we’ve stayed the same perhaps?

    If you’re doing a talk that will be recorded and shared (say, a TEDx talk), you don’t want to make a reference to something or be too dependent on an example that’s exclusive or fleeting because then the talk has a more limited shelf life.

    My rule of thumb is that if you want to make a pop culture reference that isn’t lost on half the crowd or meaningless six months from now, use one that has stood the test of time, meaning, is old enough that people will remember. The more mainstream the better, usually.

    This is why a reference to Duran Duran is going to get more laughs from an adult audience than Drake. (Then again, it depends).  People love to be reminded of where they came from, their shared history, things they can laugh at now.Making just the right cultural reference, be it to older songs or movies, foods or fashions, or something we all used to be into but are embarrassed about now? That’ll get a laugh. Again, consider the crowd and what purpose that reference serves.
  4. Take a hard left turn.

    I said you don’t have to be a comic to be funny, but it does help to take a tip from the pros. I had the chance to study under comic Jim David, a very successful standup who has performed for decades. And he says that comedy isn’t a talent or a gift.He said joke writing is a mathematical equation, and anyone can learn it.

    Jokes are, he said, simply a series of hard left turns. You make the audience think you’re going one way and then you make a hard left; it throws them off, and quite often, will make them laugh.


    You see this technique lots of places, by anyone trying to entertain and engage someone else—so you see it in comedy sure but also compelling narratives and great advertising, novels, horror movies, you name it. It requires that you know what someone anticipates or assumes, and then–surprise!–go in a different direction.

    Think about what your audience anticipates, and then, hang a left when they least expect it. When done right, your audience will be surprised and delighted to be along with you for the ride, and they’ll remember you long afterwards, too. 

Want to learn how to crush it on stage? Join my FREE online training June 7 & 8 – “5 Steps to a TED-worthy Talk.” And start stepping up your game in ways that get you noticed—and booked to speak again.

Happy Accidents: Why Staying Open Should Be Part of Your Plan

After I finished my session on creativity at the How Design Live conference, a woman approached me and handed me a note.

“I know now that I was meant to be here,” she said, dreamily. “I mean, I’m not even part of this conference.”

Wait…what?

But before I had time to call security, she was gone. That woman is fast.

Her note was cryptic, too: She wrote that clearly the Universe had played a part in getting her to my session (the rest of us registered). If I want to know more, she says, I could call her.

Later in the conference I saw creative director turned creative activist and sometime troublemaker Jeff Greenspan (Buzzfeed, Facebook, BBDO) speak on how to make your work compelling to other people.

Jeff has made headlines over and over again with his “side projects” in which he does things like lay hipster traps all over the New York City, and erect a bronze bust of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene park.

He says that, yes, quite a bit of planning and expense have gone into the brilliant and disruptive stunts he and his creative partner Andy Tider have pulled off over the years.

But, there have also been amazing things that just happened.

Such as when the police came and hung a tarp over Snowden’s statue—a lovely bit of stagecraft he couldn’t have planned for, which created the visual irony of the government covering up the face of the man who risked his life to expose the government. It was the icing on his rebel cake. (More on that whole project here.)

Lots of other very cool things have happened in Jeff’s creative life that have earned him headlines and accolades, paying work—and allowed him tap a wellspring of collective energy from all over the world.

Is he lucky? Guided by the invisible hand of The Universe?

“You don’t get happy accidents if you don’t put yourself in accidents’ way,” he says.

Ah. And given the risk in standing up and saying anything contrarian (which Jeff is not afraid to do), it’s no wonder most of us might defer, might instead stay where it’s safe and quiet, and out of the way.

Interesting, right?

One woman wanders into a conference she didn’t register for and calls it divine intervention; a man performs an illegal act that triggers a media event better than he could have imagined, and he calls it a happy accident.

Both had some kind of plan in place (though in truth I am very curious about what that woman was up to). But what they did was leave their doors open a crack.

Whether you believe your life is guided or a series of random events, a bit of magic is at play. Something that’s beyond your control.

So what does that mean? It means your job is to put some conditions in place, but it’s also your job to keep your heart open and, as creative sherpa Sam Harrison said at his session, “available for seduction.”

That is what an artist—anyone looking to discover or create something—must do.

In his book Creativity, famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who introduced the concept of “flow”) studied how creative people think and work, and one of my favorite takeaways is this:

“Creative people are constantly surprised.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

They don’t assume they know what’s going on, he says, nor do they assume anyone else does. I love this. Because that’s the source of childlike wonder and brilliant perspective.

You can’t discover what you’re not curious to know, and the fact that we can’t know everything is, I think, an advantage. Discovery requires a bit of darkness in order to shine.

I’ll add this: The dreamy lady and Jeff also broke the rules; they did things you’re not “supposed” to do. Now, I don’t think you have to perform illegal acts to make things happen. But to invite divine intervention, inspiration, or happy accidents, you need to be open to the unexpected, to the what ifs, to the flow of things outside your control.

We can all have happy accidents and find ourselves the recipient of some benevolence, some great wonder, if we’re willing to wade out into it, and, when we feel the lift of that mysterious tide, start swimming. Hard.

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Unless You Haul Rocks for a Living, This Applies to You

If you spend most of your time at a keyboard, you can count yourself among the 60 million or so professionals known as “knowledge workers”—a term Peter Drucker coined in the 1960s to describe academics, tech people, analysts, essentially, anyone who didn’t work a physically demanding job.

You know. People who “think” for a living.

What a weird term, knowledge worker. It’s also kind of classist and obnoxious. Please. I know plenty of “knowledge workers” who don’t think about anything.

But what’s more, the term seems to imply that what we come in knowing is more important than what we learn while we’re here. 

Here’s why I bring it up: I spoke on a panel called “The Future of Work” at the Workfront LEAP 2017 conference in April, held annually for users of its project management software. Workfront CMO Joe Staples posed the question of how we thought the role of the knowledge worker was changing.

So I piped up and said that the real challenge of the “knowledge worker” has little to do with knowledge, and everything to do with getting anyone to care.

In his book The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin says that while we’re living in the new Connection Economy, we’re nursing an Industrial Age hangover. We still think compliance and efficiency is most important; it’s not.

We have machines that can gather, process, and evaluate information. The challenge, then, is for modern “knowledge workers” is to get over what they know, and instead, stay curious and engaged and empathetic. Because if they don’t, they won’t learn, or grow, or invest in any real way in the work they do, which is already happening.

Disengagement is one of the big threats to corporate cultures, productivity—and costs the U.S. economy somewhere around $500 billion annually. Meaning, far too many people just don’t care. And if you don’t care, how can you create trust, loyalty, value? You can’t.

Futurist Jacob Morgan says on Forbes.com that it’s goodbye to the knowledge worker and hello, instead, to the learning worker:

“This new movement is the age of the ‘learning workers.’ Yes, these people largely have college degrees and advanced training, but what sets them apart is their knowledge of how to learn. Instead of having a set of specific skills, learning workers have the skills to learn as they go, adapt, and apply their learning to new situations and issues.”

What’s far more valuable he says, is not what someone comes in knowing, but how they can adapt and get up to speed as the business landscape and demands evolve. It’s those who can adapt who will be more successful, but also more valuable, and the same goes for learning organizations who are stay light on their feet.

So rather than get hung up on what you know or don’t know, recognize that one of the most valuable skills you can bring to the table is your ability to be a quick study, to be truly interested and engaged. Do you have any idea how rare that is?

(Here are the slides for the session I presented at Workfront LEAP 2017 was called “Out of Juice: How to Reinspire Yourself & Reengage at Work.”)

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3 Life Lessons You Can Learn from Being on TV

If you’re smart, you’ll learn something new from every job. And given that you’ll switch, not just jobs, but careers several times over your life, your unique advantage comes from the wisdom you pick up along the way.

If you worked in customer service, you’ll know how to handle clients when you go into business for yourself.

If you used to work as a reporter, you’ll have a nose for asking the right questions when you start law school.

And if you’ve ever douched your own nasal passages on national TV, you’ll know how to, quite literally, go with the flow.

(True story. More on that in a minute.)

For years I served as a magazine editor at Martha Stewart—and part of my job was doing regular TV segments on hers and other daytime shows. I also hosted my own daily radio show on Sirius XM for years.

Media, I’ve found, is a pretty powerful crucible for learning how to think on your feet when it matters most.

And should you decide to pursue media as part of your career (say as a contributing expert or guest, or perhaps even as an editor or producer), here are some key insights that will serve you on the air—and everywhere else.

Lesson #1: Keep it moving

In TV, you have maybe 3 to 5 minutes tops, so you have to make the best of every single one of them—especially on live TV. There is no editing, and there’s no time to hit the brakes if things go awry.

One time on Martha’s show, I was demonstrating a series of meditation apps. They worked fine during rehearsal. But when we went live? No dice. There we were, and for two long seconds the balloons that were supposed to dance across the screen, didn’t.

Martha started asking, “Why isn’t it working,” and rather than dwell on it, I waved it off (“Who knows?”) and kept things going. I said, “Well, what you would have seen, had it worked, was…” and spent a second or two explaining it, rendering the actual demo unnecessary.

In Real Life (IRL): Don’t dwell on it. Doesn’t matter if your powerpoint slides wouldn’t advance, or why three people canceled on your meeting. We waste far too much time looking backwards, trying to edit the past.

Obviously, understand a problem well enough so that you don’t let it happen again. But there are some times when inexplainable blips occur and at some point, it isn’t worth revisiting.

Instead, think like a host who is on to the following segment: “Next up! Let’s find out how to juice kale at home!” It doesn’t matter why the world didn’t going your way. Just. Keep. Going.

Lesson #2: Make an impression

The people who do well as on-air contributors are not only clear communicators—they aren’t afraid to stake their claim.

The people I booked as experts on my radio show were those who brought their ideas and opinions to the table, not the ones who played it safe all the time.

IRL: The more you waffle and hesitate, the less impressive and less interesting you become. The people who stand out and get tapped for bigger opportunities are the ones who aren’t afraid to own up to what they really think, and stand by it.

Lesson #3: Be game for anything

There’s no room on TV to do anything less than 100 percent. Even if you’re nervous. Better to see it through than fail halfway.

I was about to step onto the set of Martha to discuss a series of natural flu remedies, including the neti pot, an ages-old practice of flushing the nasal passages with warm saline water.

The plan changed five minutes before I went on the air, when the producer said, “Martha wants you to demo the neti pot.”

Um, what?

“Get me a towel and a bowl,” I said. And I walked on stage and douched my nose on national television. It was messy and, yes, I was dying a little inside as I did it. But you can’t fake a neti pot demo. You have to go all in.

(You can watch that clip here—at the 1:50 mark)

The audience laughed, Martha clapped, and a clip of it ended up on some online video called “WTF is going on with daytime TV?”

That was a win.

IRL: Commit. You’ll get real props for trying something, whether it works out or not—especially if you fully commit to doing it.

Realize that you don’t actually learn much from doing things right. You learn from doing it period. Win or lose, the effort teaches you so much more, not only about what you have done—but, more importantly, what you can do.

Want to learn more about how to be a go-to media expert? Register for my FREE online training, “5 (Little-Known) Ways to Snag Media Attention…That Even PR Pros Get Wrong” on March 15 or 16th.

What You Can Learn About Yourself at a Naked Party

You don’t really know if you would do a thing until you are in the middle of doing it. This is, I believe, how we find OUT whether we do things at all. We are often the last to know.

The other night, a few friends and I decided to stop by a party of a friend of a friend. Turns out, the party had a theme:  “Formal Wear or Underwear.”

There was one guy in a jacket and tie. I’ll let you guess what everyone else had on.

I looked down and remembered what I had under my jeans and t-shirt: A pair of $5 cotton briefs and a bra that I keep meaning to take out of rotation because it’s seen better days, but earlier that evening I was like, “Meh. Who’s gonna see it?”

My friends, who are fearless and fun, whipped off their tops in a flash (“Let’s do this!”). I could feel the blood pounding in my head as I tentatively peeled off my jeans.

I was having the sensation I get when I’m about to truly embarrass myself: I start to slip the bonds of cognition and self awareness. I flip on autopilot, leave the cockpit of my brain, crawl into coach, and stare out a window til it’s all over.

(Like that one time, years ago, when a voice over teacher had me sing to a stuffed bear so that I could find my true voice. I have blacked out the entire incident.)

I had nothing on but my t-shirt and my underwear, but had the presence of mind to put my shoes back on. Because for some reason, I felt weird going barefoot. I reasoned that I wasn’t really naked because if the sign outside a store read “no shirt, no shoes, no service,” I’d still be allowed in.

Still. Unless it’s 80 degrees outside and you’re near a body of water, it feels weird to walk around half naked in front of strangers.

What happened next was surprising: Nothing. No one said a thing or looked at me sideways. Simply because everyone was dressed exactly the same way.

Socially appropriate behavior is governed by a collective thermometer. We set it and adjust to it, whatever it is. In this case, it was set to “skivvies,” so no one, in fact, stood out. (With the exception of one man who was wearing a striped onesie. You can’t unsee that.)

I stayed for 30 minutes—long enough to prove to myself I was a good sport, and just before my mental captain roused from her nap. By 12:45 am, my ass and I were tired of hanging out.

Truth be told, after the initial thrill, this party was just as tedious as any other. Drunk girls dancing and singing too loud. Men making predictable conversation about politics or the viral video making the rounds. (Though I saw not one smart phone. I don’t know if that was party policy…or that no one had anywhere to put one.)

This experience might make me look like a fun, youthful party-goer who gives zero F’s, but that’s not true, either. I’m hardly a party animal. I was dead sober and desperate to be in bed already.

As mortifying as you might think it is to strip down to your undies in a roomful of strangers, it’s actually easier to follow suit and fit in, swim with the tide.

In a culture like ours, so obsessed with standing out, being different, independent, unique, it’s eye-opening to recognize how rarely we do that, how easy it is to get us to do a thing simply because other people are doing it.

It also calls to mind how many other times I gave into things, went along, made nice—just because it was easier. Regardless of how uncomfortable it made me.

Underwear parties are harmless and don’t matter in the grand scheme. But it’s worth noting that how we behave, treat each other, normalize things that aren’t normal (um, turn on the news), determines what we think is fair and normal and acceptable.

If I’m quick to go along with everyone else, that’s enough to make me question my actions. We all should.

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How Knowing Too Much Is Holding You Back

My family is big into board games. At around 8:30pm on any given holiday or a night when at least two people are holding beers, my brother in law rubs his hands together and asks, “Who’s up for a game?”

Taboo is one of our all-time favorites. The goal of this game is to get your teammates to guess the word you’re given—without using any of the other words listed on the card. So if the word is Santa Claus, the words you can’t use are: Christmas, holiday, December, North Pole, chimney, or gifts.

This means you have to think beyond the shortcut references that you’d normally use to explain it and start fresh. In this case, I might say, “This is a man who comes to your house the same day every year to give you things you asked for, but you never see him.” Even that may be too easy.

The most frustrating thing of all is when your teammate says something like, “Oh! You know what I mean! God. C’mon! It’s that guy! You know!”

This is a losing strategy.

In order to effectively communicate the meaning, of anything really, you need to be able to explain it to someone who doesn’t have a flipping idea what you’re talking about. And it’s what so many people—entrepreneurs, business owners, even marketers—often get wrong.

In a Harvard Business Review article called “The Curse of Knowledge,”  Chip and Dan Heath (I have no idea if they’re related), address how vague, high-level strategy language is completely unhelpful, and does nothing to differentiate a brand or a business.

The curse of knowledge is, in layman’s terms, a cognitive bias that makes it hard for you to remember or imagine what it is NOT to know a thing, because you already know it—and so you forget that other people don’t.

I see this all the time when I talk to people about their brands or missions, and they tell me things like, “I want to empower women,” and “I believe everyone can live a healthier life.” They make big, high-level sweeping statements that do nothing to differentiate them. And they skip over the nitty gritty, specific things that are SO much more helpful. They assume everyone knows. Nope.

This has real repercussions: Particularly when you try to: stand out, attract clients, make sales, close deals, or get anyone in the media to return your calls or emails. That’s when it becomes clear that…something isn’t clear.

My business partner Paula Rizzo has worked for years as a TV producer, and so she’s pitched all day and night e by people who want to get on TV and who believe they have something valuable to offer.

And she always says, “If I’m confused, it’s a no.”

The value in being able to clearly communicate what you do and why anyone should care cannot be overstated.

And if you’re having a hard time, it’s not because you’re stupid—it’s because you know too much.

Your ability to adopt the mindset of someone who has no idea and zero context on what you have to offer will determine how effectively you can land that message and get results.

Here are three points to bear in mind:

  1. We all have our shields up. There’s so much info coming at us from all angles, we can barely see straight. Your job is to get me to lower my guard. If anything you say makes me work hard to understand, I’m moving on. Your job is to compel me, to pique my curiosity, to target my need so swiftly and clearly that I am willing to get in the car with you and drive with you a bit.
  2. Don’t assume I know, or care, about anything. It’s not that I’m willfully ignorant or don’t like you. I just need to be convinced, in seconds, to pay attention to whatever it is you want to share.
  3. Play Taboo with your brand or business. It’s a good exercise: How would you, Taboo-style, describe what you do without any of the usual terms or context you’d normally rely on? Try it. It’s not so easy. Talk about it with someone who has no involvement, or, frankly, interest, in what you do. That’s a great target to practice on! When you can effectively communicate and compel someone who isn’t sure they give a damn, imagine what you do for someone who does.

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The #1 Way to Get Clear on Your Messaging

Say what you will about holidays (Hallmark and otherwise)—they give us an occasion for doing a thing (exchanging gifts, drinking green beer, singing, etc).

If you want something done, you don’t have to wait for a holiday, but you do have to give yourself the occasion for doing it.

Things like: Writing a book. Launching a podcast. Giving a TEDx talk. You can do these things…or not. You can relaunch your website. Or not. Unless you’re under pressure to do a thing, it’s hard to get motivated to do it.

I know of no better way to be accountable to your goals and figure out what exactly you’re trying to do than to speak about it in public.

Promise a group of people you’ll show up in a room and talk to them.

That’ll motivate you. It’s like throwing a party so that you have a reason to clean your house.

When you have a date on the books to show up and speak, you’ll be under considerable pressure to deliver on that promise.

And not just that—but knowing you’re going to speak on a thing forces you to get clear on your ideas, and those are the ideas that feed other, bigger projects, like books and courses.

You can use speaking to test out and explore ideas that you may want to pursue in a bigger way.

I do this for other people (as a brand messaging expert this IS what I do for a living). But I also do it for myself! I pitch ideas to speak on topics that I myself want to explore and form an opinion on.

And it works.

It helps me get a clearer sense on what it is I stand for, and what I think is most important to put out into the world.

I’ve done it for the TEDx talks I’ve given (this one and this one), but also for a range of other events and conferences.

Committing to speak on a topic gives you the occasion to form your insights.

This is why, if you’re trying to nail down your “thing,” your mission, your message, the thing you want to be known for, you’ve got to find occasions to speak.

Anywhere—networking groups, workshops, conferences, industry events. For the avid speaker, the crowning achievement is a TEDx talk. And fact is, each speaking effort improves on the last, and helps you get a clearer sense of what you’re trying to do and say.

Don’t wait to “figure out” what you’re trying to say, or assume you’ll do more speaking “later” when you know what you’re doing. No one really ever knows what they’re doing.

Start giving yourself real reasons to stand up and speak and you’ll be forced to get really clear on what’s most important, and get it out into the world in a powerful way.