What Happens When You Call Someone Out (And You Should)

When I was a graduate student at Emerson College, I got a teaching fellowship and found myself for the first time teaching writing comp to a roomful of freshmen.

And while I never met a captive audience I didn’t like, this group had its share of challenges—the most memorable being a very tall, very wise-ass kid named Ben who clearly just didn’t want to be there—in this class, in this school, in his own skin.

He asked questions like, “Why do we need to title our work?” and one day opened up a big book of sheet music right in front of me, casually flipping through it while I talked about essay structure.

I went to speak to my advisor about it, a badass woman who said what she thought without apology. She told me to ask him to step outside at the start of class. Oh god.

So that’s what I did.

I wrote a prompt on the whiteboard, gave the assignment to the class. And then:

“Ben, would you step outside with me a moment?”

I don’t care how tough or tall or irksome you are. You get called out of class by your teacher, and you’re going to shrink a few inches. Both of our hearts were pounding as I led us out of the room and closed the door behind us.

We sat down on a window ledge.

“Ben, what is going on.” And then I STOPPED TALKING, as instructed.

“What do you mean?” he said, shifting uncomfortably.

“You tell me,” I said. PAUSE. “Because it’s pretty clear you don’t want to be here.”

And just like that, the whole dynamic shifted, palpably.

His facade crumbled like King’s Landing under the blazing fire of unwanted attention.

He wasn’t happy, he said. He’d wanted to go to the Berklee School of Music, but he didn’t get in. And now he was here.

I told him that I understood how disappointing this might have been. And if he didn’t want to be here, then he had a decision to make.

I told him I didn’t care if he decided to stay or leave—in fact, if he wanted to leave, I would help him. But I was not interested in trying to win his affection for this course or this school or me. That’s not my job.

I gestured to the closed classroom door.

“What I am obligated to do is make sure that everyone in there gets the best possible experience here. And you’re making it hard for me to do that. And so this won’t work.”

I never had a problem with him again.

If I had to guess, this was a kid who’d had people (cough cough, his parents, cough cough) trying to win him over to do what they wanted, and had made it his go-to response to be resistant in ways that helped no one, including him.

And I was not his mama.

I was barely 28 at the time, and I learned a powerful lesson then about what it means to keep your commitments—and what your job really is.

Because there isn’t a classroom or an office or a meeting or a PTA that doesn’t have a Ben in it—someone who doesn’t really want to be there and makes it unduly hard on everyone else.

And if you ask me, far too many of us choreograph days and decisions around that person, navigate them as if they’re an old tree rooted into the ground, just part of the landscape, part of life, and part of our job to endure the people who least want to be there.

Look, I don’t love confrontation, either. And while I get it, some people ARE old trees planted into your life in ways that are hard to navigate (family being a prime example), there are lots of ways to deal with people who are NOT permanent fixtures.

That lesson stays with me to this day, as a grown-up running her own business. Because I know that it is not my job to “make” people fall in love with what I want them to do. I don’t actually care what they do. That’s not indifference; that’s the job.

Trying to bend others to my will or agenda is a losing battle. And it doesn’t serve them or me.

I offer what I can do, and if they want that, we do it. I don’t make empty promises and I don’t waste time convincing you to like it or me. If this isn’t for you, you are free to leave, or take what I create for you and take every last of its teeth out with a plier. I will sleep regardless.

This is not about giving zero F’s, etc—this is about being open, but unattached to outcome. This is about being process-, not ego-led. And it has helped me tremendously.

My uncle, the late Rev. Robert Barone, was also a professor, at the University of Scranton and stood in front of rooms full of freshmen for decades. I told him about Ben at the time, and here’s what he said to me:

“You’re only ever really talking to one, maybe two, people in the room. Everyone else is along for the ride.”

Make sure you’re giving the best of yourself to the right people.

Do You Really Want It, Or You Just Saying That?

I spoke at a big design conference called How Design Live earlier this month for creative professionals (marketers, designers, writers) hungry for fresh ideas—and got to watch one of my heroes take the stage.

Liz Gilbert. As in, Eat Pray Love Liz Gilbert.

She has a stunningly simple stage presence. She stood there and barely moved, and neither did we. The entire time.

One of the stories she told was about when she was in her 20s and obsessed with an artist who lived in her neighborhood, a woman about twice her age who lived off and for her art alone. What a life! Liz thought. How do I get that life?

Liz was hitting a wall with her own writing, working three jobs, making zero money, not getting published, and wondered, as all of us have, how she would ever do anything that mattered or, at the very least, paid enough to live on.

One day Liz cornered this artist at a block party. She knew Liz was a writer, asked her how the work was going. She complained that it was hard, that she had no time to create, and thought if only she could have more time, she could actually do what she wants most to do.

Then the artist asked her a simple question that she never, ever forgot:

“Liz, what are you willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending you want?”

Ouch.

She never forgot that. The word “pretending,” Gilbert recalls, was particularly wounding. Do we really want what we say we do? Or do we prefer to complain about all the things that keep us from having it?

The artist asked her what writers she liked, what she was reading, what TV shows she watched, what she did on the weekends. She told her. “How nice that you have time to do all that,” she said.

Point taken.

Liz wasn’t actually putting the kind of focus into her work that she needed to, and she also had more time than she realized. We all do. (Just ask Laura Vanderkam, who’s basically an expert on time and how we have more than we think.)

Liz jokes that she asked people on Facebook what kept them from creating the work they want to, and the answer people gave? Not enough time.

I’ll repeat, she asked this ON FACEBOOK.

Social media is one force that’s siphoning off our energy and focus. But it’s not the only one. The critical mind is another (I can’t do it, I’m not as good, I shouldn’t bother). In the end, we are accountable for how we spend our time.

I’m not saying you’re not busy, or that you don’t have obligations.

I am saying that we all love to yearn.

…For better conditions. For more resources. For another parallel universe in which we know for SURE that our work, our careers, our lives, would flourish.  

In her book The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp says, “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources.”

Should you say no to things you’re lukewarm on? Yes. Must you also say no to things you actually like and enjoy? Yes.

BUT you’ve also gotta ask: Do I really actually want that? Or am I pretending I do? If you’ve been saying it for years and yet haven’t made a single move in that direction, let it go! Who cares! Don’t overidentify with things you think you should do. It’s not who you really are.

Your life will take shape around what you prioritize. What is the absolute most important, valuable thing for you to do today? This week? OK, and when will you do it?

That’s the question.

Don’t do it all. Do what matters.

I So Don’t Feel Like Doing Anything.

How are you? Feeling inspired, fired up, and ready to do stuff?

Me neither.

It doesn’t mean I won’t do anything.

It doesn’t even mean I won’t like doing it when I get moving.

But inspired to do things, before I do them? Please. If I waited to be inspired to do things, nothing would ever get done.

I say this because I have been asked twice in the past two weeks “what inspires me,” and I realize this sounds like a good question to ask, but I never have a good answer. Ever.  

It’s just one of those questions. The kind people ask when they want to sound thoughtful and deep, and then it makes us feel we need to be thoughtful and deep in response.

In other words, it practically begs you to lie. And I think the truth is usually far more interesting.

So when a perfectly nice person asked me at the bar after a speaking event recently, “What inspires you?” I said, I have a disappointing answer.

The inspiration problem assumes a specific order, and it looks like this:

  • A lightbulb goes on in your head–for a story, a business idea, a new way of organizing your dresser drawers.  
  • The inspiration is so profound that you succumb to its positive spell and you fly on fairy wings with little effort and do what needs to be done. Ah! Thanks inspiration!

If that’s how you roll, amazing. Do it.

Ok now how about the rest of us?

I have spent a lot of time the past few years working with financial professionals. And I have really enjoyed it. It’s given me the chance to work with people I really like, and create some fantastic brand work together.

But am I “inspired” to work with this particular group or industry? No.

I do it because there’s a need there—one I can fill, and when we START DOING the work? That’s when it gets fun! I get energized by doing; I don’t need to be energized to start doing.  

In short, I don’t think we need inspiration to act.  

You know who agrees with me? Mel Robbins, author of the runaway bestseller, The 5 Second Rule—which, in a nutshell, is this: When you have the instinct to do something, especially something you want to do or have done, you have five seconds to count down (5-4-3-2-1) and then you MOVE—into action.

No thinking, consideration or debate.

You just act.

Thinking and deliberating and analyzing, not your friend. And it rarely works in your favor. Because I’m pretty great at coming up with reasons not to do a thing. We all are!

I wasn’t inspired to write this email even. I just thought, I want to write to you more, and so I just did it.

Inspiration is like a flame, it catches after you strike the match. You don’t wait for fire to appear. Matches don’t work that way. Striking is a decision.

It’s only when you’ve started the work that the heat kicks up and the fire, a form of energy starts devouring the air you’ve provided it.

Your job is not to be inspired by fire, but to feed the flame.

Ok, firestarters. Have at it.

Can You See the Future? I Can’t. I’m Near-Sighted. Or, Notes from HOW Design Live

I get annoyed easily and often, seizing on the most benign things with a kind of righteous anger.

Like when people say, “hot enough for ya?” and “The thing is, is that” (WHY do we say “is” twice. WHYYYYY. Who started this? I want to bludgeon them.)

Also, I get annoyed at profiles on dating apps, an alternate universe where LITERALLY EVERYONE lists “hiking” as one of their very most favorite things to do. Please, “Doug45.” You live in Manhattan. The only hiking you’re doing is up the long broken escalator from the Q train which starts at the core of the earth.

But another thing people say that drives me up a wall is, “Well, I can’t predict the future, so…”

…and they use that as their legit “out” for why they can’t commit to things—or make a decision. They can’t say for sure if they’ll come to your party or be able to go that show or know if a relationship will work out.

“Oh, you can’t see the future, Bob? Oh that’s too bad. Because I totally can and my spidey sense says you might want to come to a complete stop at the corner of Elm today.

My point is this: NO ONE can see the future. But it’s the one thing we’re all trained on, worried about, losing sleep over. Because we don’t, won’t, and never can know what will happen.

Not with your portfolio. Not with your favorite team. Not with your relationship. Your favorite hair salon could close without notice (true story).

The reason I’m thinking about this is because I just presented a talk on this topic at How Design Live, one of the biggest design conferences in the country for creative professionals. And I spoke alongside a roster of industry leaders in the creative and design space (Debbie Millman, Beth Comstock), as well as heavy hitters like Elizabeth Gilbert.

This year’s conference theme was “Future Proof.” It raised the question: Is anything you’re doing right now future proof?

Will what you’re doing now last? Will it be here five, 10, 50 years from now? How would you know? How would anyone?

This isn’t just a critical question for creative marketers and designers, but for all of us.

I debuted a brand NEW talk called “Discover, Capture, and Communicate Your Best Ideas.” My thesis here was that there IS no one product, design, or asset that we’d expect to last forever. Things get outdated and updated all the time.

The thing that must be future proof is YOU.

YOU have to be sure that you’re not overly attached to any single idea, that you’re not rigid, nor aimless, and that you can flex and flow and adapt in order to stay at the top of your game.

That’s what makes you sustainable. That’s what makes you future proof.

I also gave attendees a taste of the Gateless Method, which I’ve studied and been trained in (created by Suzanne Kingsbury), which enables you and your team to generate new ideas and fresh perspectives on your work, without putting your creativity in a chokehold.

I’ve used Gateless with writers and speakers…but ALSO to great effect with financial professionals, too.

And I couldn’t have predicted it, but damn, it was a lot of fun.

Want to learn more about it? Let’s talk!

 

Image by @catiswhy.

 

Some People Are Going to Hate You for It. Don’t Listen.

A few weeks ago, I spoke at an event. The folks were lovely: Kind, friendly, considerate and welcoming.

The talk I gave, on how to get beyond commodity, master your message, and stand out in a sea of sameness, was very well received and got top ratings by attendees (they do real-time ratings–the minute you leave the stage, people cast their votes and feedback via the app).

Everyone liked it…but one guy.

I was at the bar later that night, much later, basking in the glow of these new people, new friends, and an overall great day. When he came up with a pointy needle and popped my bubble.

“You did a great job up there,” he started. “Just one thing offended me.” Yeah? What’s that.

“You took the Lord’s name in vain.” Oh, Jesus. It’s true–I said “goddamn” in my talk, but trust me, it was timed and placed in a context that had purpose and intent.

“You can say whatever you want,” he continued. “Fuck, cock, cunt, asshole…just don’t say goddamn or Jesus Christ.”

But, didn’t he just…? Wait a minute. My new friends stopped talking and paused over their prosecco to stare at me and him.

“If you don’t like using those words, sir, then don’t use them.”

“It’s offensive. You shouldn’t say it.”

“Sir,” I said. “I hear you. But now what if I dropped an F-bomb in the middle of my talk and someone got offended by that?”

“Then don’t say that.”

“OK, so, what you’re saying is, you expect me to edit what I say based on individual preferences for every talk I give? No. That’s not happening. I hear you, but it’s not happening.”

At this point, I really didn’t know what I was dealing with, and so I certainly didn’t want to escalate the situation.

“I’m trying to help you,” he said—and what’s sad is that I think he really believed that—“It would be better if you didn’t take the Lord’s name in vain.”

We did not part friends, and neither of us walked away any smarter or more tolerant.

Of course, I thought of lots of things I WISHED I’d said. But it’s probably better that I didn’t.

One of them was this:

“Sir, I take offense too, but not to your words. Rather, to the idea that you have any right telling me what to say. I am a guest here, and not just invited but paid to come here to speak. I’m not sure why you think I need your help, but I assure you, I do not. I also doubt you approached any of the male speakers to give THEM tips on their performance. God is fine with his name being thrown around. He’s used to it. But what I’m not and never going to be ok with is you telling a woman what she can and can’t say. GOOD DAY SIR.”

In the movie of my life, can we pretend it went down that way? OK cool thanks.

This is to say: Every time you take a stage, whether it’s an actual stage or a digital platform, SOME PEOPLE ARE GOING TO HATE YOU FOR IT. They’ll find reasons why you’re wrong, or why you have no business being there at all.

My advice: IGNORE THEM. I was right not to make a scene when I’m there as a guest. But I did not capitulate or apologize and neither should you. This man doesn’t give a crap if I say “Goddamn” in the middle of a talk; he’s mad that I’m up there at all.

Sometimes the world is not only not welcoming, it’s the complete and total opposite. It’s dying to tell you what not to say, and to shut up altogether.

Don’t listen. Never, ever listen.

Being Novel Is Not the Same as Taking a Risk

This weekend I went to see my friend perform in a staged reading of “Welcome to the Doll Den.”

It’s a play inspired by real-life events about the first all-female radio station, WGAL, in Memphis, Tennessee in 1955.

Talk about standing out—these ladies were the first, they were special, they were different.

Over the course of the next decade, however, things changed…dramatically.

The civil rights movement, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., the rise of feminism, a host of unrest—all of this challenges WGAL’s idea of what its role on the air even is.

Are they willing to open up the phones and talk about the (real) issues, rather than swap recipes? Can they be not just a novelty act, but real leaders?

Or are they stuck on being “dolls”—providing cute, lightweight, benign radio while the rest of the world moves on?

To their credit, the jockeys were willing and brave…but surprise surprise! Management wasn’t. The show ends on a sad note: WGAL closes its doors and goes off the air for good.

After the reading, there was a “talk back” with the director and performers. This particular work has been through many iterations. No fewer than 30 artists, writers, and performers have had a hand in the play so far. (Learn more about Electric Eye Ensemble here.)

The feedback came first from people who had seen earlier iterations, and who were attached to their initial experiences of the show. Ok, fine.

But they wanted the artists to “make it more hopeful” and to “give the characters more wins.” I was shocked. This brainy and theater-minded audience of New York theatergoers wanted, it seemed, to be comforted more than challenged.

I, of course, can’t keep my trap shut. So I spoke up.

“First,” I said, “I’ve never seen this show before. And I loved it, and didn’t need more songs or more hope or more Disney characters or a happy ending.”

(My friend, who was sitting with her fellow actors, burst out laughing. She knows me.)

I went on to say that there is a dangerous temptation to want every woman to win at everything, and win the long game, and earn their Hollywood ending. But that isn’t how any of this works.

Every big step—and WGAL was a big step—takes us a bit further down the road. But no one takes us all the way. We all play our part, and sometimes that part ends.

But it’s worth looking at this, too:

WGAL lessened its impact (and lost its business) because its leaders feared taking their innovation beyond novelty.

They made history by being first, yes. But being “new” is not the same as being sustainable, or taking real risks.

What were they afraid of? Of opening up the mics and hearing what people really thought. Of getting into the real issues, of fights, disagreements. They wanted to be sweet as sugar, and were afraid to offer anything but.

You may not think that any of this applies to you, but boy does it.

Because how often do we beg off tough questions and issues because we’re afraid of conflict? How often do we go with safe and sweet out of fear of offending?

I know I likely offended some of the people in that audience who want theater to feed their emotional preferences or comfort.  

But that isn’t what art is meant to do. And it’s not what you’re meant to do, either.

3 ways you’re hiding on stage (and how to stand out instead)

I see you over there you know. Hiding. In plain sight.

I hide, too. I hide from email. I hide from people. I’m also partial to the French Exit, where you just sneak away from the pack and jump in a Lyft so you can be home in bed watching SNL before anyone knows you’re gone.

To hide is to avoid risk, criticism, uncomfortable feelings.

But hiding also puts you at risk: You could miss opportunities, and connection, and growth. Even fun.

For a culture that prizes visibility above all else, we do a lot of hiding. Even on stage.

(I talked about it recently with Seth Godin on his FB Live, if you want to check it out.)

Here are three ways you’re hiding on stage and how to stand out instead:

1 | You’re hiding behind jargon.

No one likes jargon. It’s useful, sure, because it gives you shortcuts, often for processes or you do all the time. Jargon is a big green dumpster, the catchall for worn-out ideas. Boo. Boring.

2 | You’re hiding behind knowledge and information.

Data in a talk gives context. But your knowledge about a topic is not the talk itself. Your authority on stage comes from your unique idea, delivered with an artful and decisive blend of story and information that serve the communication of that idea.

3 | You’re hiding behind your bio.

Do you know how many people begin their time on stage by essentially reciting their LinkedIn profile? ALMOST ALL OF THEM. And how many people in the audience care where you got your degree? ALMOST NONE OF THEM.

When you’re on that stage, your job is to connect with your audience. And you do that by giving them content that matters to them first. Trust me, if you’re good, they’ll want to find out who you are.

It’s time to step out. Stop hiding. And the best way to do it? With good company. Great teachers. And a safe place to try.

No more hiding.

I happen to know a great place to stop hiding — my two-day, transformational event Tapped to Speak LIVE, April 4&5 in Boston. Here you get to learn and practice the craft of writing and delivering a stand-out talk, based on an idea that’s uniquely yours.

Why Your Audience Isn’t a Bunch of Fish to Shoot in a Barrel

Seth Godin’s blog the other day was simply this:

“Of course it’s easy to shoot fish in a barrel. The difficult part, the part no one talks about, is getting the fish into the barrel in the first place.”

The man is a walking mic drop.

Think about that though, for reals. How you THINK about how to get fish into that barrel says a lot about your attitude and beliefs.

Some believe you have to trick the fish into jumping in.

Some want to catch them somewhere else and transport them to said barrel, whether they want to go there or not.

Some think it’s enough to have a barrel, and that the fish should simply WANT to be there.

Somewhere along the line we started to believe that it’s our job simply to manipulate, coax, and cajole people to do what WE want.

We don’t always ask what the fish want.

Oh sure, there are marketing surveys and polls, psychographics, demographics, metrics measured within an inch of their lives. But I’ve found, surprisingly, that despite all this work, when I ask someone who’s been tasked with getting fish in the barrel what is the real reason the fish would want to be there, they come up empty-handed. (Or they tell themselves a story about how cool their barrel is).

What if we lost the barrel altogether? Great messaging, to my mind, is never to get anything into a container so we can shoot it.

I’ve always thought that the idea was to get in the water, find out where they are and why, and turn the tide in the direction where they most want to go.

That’s a relationship. A live fish, not a dead one. Which one becomes the customer for life?

 

 

Watch the FB Live I did with Seth right here. ⬇️⬇️⬇️⬇️ And if you want to learn how to speak from the stage in a way that connects with your audience, inspires and motivates them, join me at #TappedtoSpeakLIVE, Boston, April 4&5: www.tappedtospeaklive.com.

 

Top Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

I’m Allergic to Two Things: Gluten and Cliché

It’s true. Ok. To be fair, I have a severe gluten INTOLERANCE, not an allergy.

But I have developed a pretty bad allergy to cliché. Symptoms include: involuntary eye rolling, a mild but persistent headache, and a creeping sense of boredom and despair.

In the brand messaging biz, it’s a workplace hazard. And as much as I hate them, fact is, clichés serve a purpose:

They show you where you gave up. Where you’re settling.

They’re the police tape that marks the spot where someone committed the crime of not trying hard enough.

They’re the well-worn path that everyone takes because it’s easy. Comfy, but common. Clichés are the Ugg boots of messaging. (I have a pair myself, by the way, so no judgment.)

The problem isn’t that clichés exist or that we slouch around in them from time to time, but that far too many people stop right there, at the level of cliché—in their messaging on their website, their posts, their talks, (their cocktail party banter, oy). They unfold a lawn chair right on it and kick back with a daiquiri.

Please don’t.

You want fresh, compelling, exciting ideas? You want to take the world by storm? Then cliché is the X-marks-the-spot where we start DIGGING. Where we go below, deep down to the roots of what you’re REALLY trying to say, and when you unearth that—everything changes.

And guess what? Those spots are often where you’ll dig up the freshest, most unexpected parts of your ideas. That where your ideas become uniquely yours. And without that, you got nothing.

Okay, but digging deeper and getting real for a brand message or TEDx or keynote or book ain’t easy. Trust me, I’ve worked with hundreds of people to get at their most powerful messaging. Everyone balks. It’s scary.

They take two digs at it with a shovel, and then stop and worry they have nothing original to say. NOT TRUE. They just haven’t dug deep enough.

You can’t get to this key messaging for your talk without good company, the right tools, and conditions that allow for safe, creative exploration, focused thinking, and an air of playfulness.

This is the magic of Tapped to Speak LIVE, happening April 4 & 5 in Boston.

I was at a party for authors recently, and a woman said, “Aren’t TEDx talks played out?” She was worried that TEDx talks were a cliche. Wrong. Not any more than books or blogs are a cliche. It’s the ideas that matter. (Watch this short video to find out what I said to that lady. 😊)

I would love, love, love to see you in Boston and be part of the extraordinary team guiding you and cheering you on as you dig into your TED-worthy talk.

⇒ HOLD YOUR SPOT at Tapped to Speak LIVE! I can’t wait to see you.

 

 

P.S. Here’s what Kate White, bestselling author and former Editor in Chief of Cosmo, had to say about last year’s event:

“Tapped to Speak LIVE was a breakthrough experience. Even as a seasoned speaker I took so much away. Plus, Terri’s just got such a fabulous style. My cheeks hurt from laughing so hard!”

(Watch what others had to say in this short video.)

 

 

Photo by David Paschke on Unsplash