Viva Voce! Now Doesn’t that Sound Nicer than the “Oral Defense of your Thesis?”

When my children were toddlers and getting rowdy I would certainly set limits and reprimand any bad behavior – but I did it in Italian.   I found that especially in public it sounded so much more pleasant and was in fact much more effective to warn, “Non toccare!” instead of “Don’t touch that!”  And “Sta’zitto” said with emphasis sounded much more polite than, “Be quiet!”   Somehow my kids understood my admonitions more clearly and reacted faster and more favorably to them when spoken in Italian.   And it didn’t put them on the defensive.

Turns out, the same thing is so when it comes to degree candidates who find it the time of year to schedule “the oral defense of their thesis.”  Yikes!  Just the sound of it makes my stomach hurt and my heart race and I “defended” my thesis years ago.  Sounds like you’re going to the dentist and need to grab your sword and shield and put on your armor.   And it begs the question, “Defend it from what?”  Defend it against whom?

Doesn’t it sound kinder and gentler to say, “viva voce?”  In Italian this means “in live voice” and in Latin something akin to “with living voice” or even “by word of mouth.”   In fact, viva voce is what most of the world outside the United States calls the oral defense of one’s thesis.  Europeans call it “viva” for short and it connotes a live and lively exchange in good spirit between the researcher and the attendees.   And this makes sense because it better describes both the process of preparing for, and objectives of, this very special face-to-face meeting between researcher, faculty and community.

Let me be clear that I mean in no way to diminish the significance or implications of this necessary, focused and catalytic academic event.  Instead, I offer this fresh perspective to ease the unnecessary stress that seems to accompany the scheduling of and preparation for this occasion.   By thinking “viva” instead of “defense” you can begin to orient yourself to your role as teller of the story of your thesis.   You can begin to prepare excitedly your viva to be the best it can be for what it is.  And simply put, your viva is the sharing of your story as a researcher motivated to explore an unchartered area using a particular approach that produced certain findings.

“Simply” is a useful notion for preparation of your viva insofar as people inside and outside your area of expertise attend and can make use of your findings.  We present our thesis findings to a wider audience so others outside our disciplinary expertise can also benefit.  We will see that it is helpful to regard the “other” audience at your at your viva – the lay audience – before your supervisors and the experts in your field.  Why?  For the experts there is the written document, replete with details and composed in the jargon of the field or discipline.

So let us not make more or less of your upcoming viva voce, the live voice to be given the story of your research and findings.  Schedule your viva.  Finish writing-up your thesis.  Then we can focus on translating the written work into spoken language others can understand and appreciate.  We can then focus on telling your story clearly and comprehensively so adults in and outside your area of expertise can apply and make use of your findings as you earn your place among experts.

Make sense?  If so, check-in next month.  I’ll begin sharing my step-by-step guide to preparing a viva from Introduction to Q&A.  Write me if you have any specific questions that can’t wait.

This post is the first of a three-part series adapted from a workshop Lisa Bernard conducted in April 2013 for degree candidates in the Program of Neuroscience & Behavior in the Department of Psychology at Barnard College at Columbia University in the City of New York.

Do U have a Signature “Textyle” 2?

Yesterday morning my daughter called worried that something happened to me. Why? I didn’t respond to her early morning text. We routinely exchange morning greetings via text. We’re both early risers and get a lot done at dawn percolating right along with our coffee. So when her screen was blank she noticed. All was, in fact, well. My cell phone was simply charging after being drained of battery after a long day the day before. Her worry was palpable and got me thinking about how much we have each developed patterns in our texting which I call “textyles.”

Some themes are resonant of other channels of communication. Take silence, for example. If we normally speak on the telephone with someone at a particular time of day, say after work or before bed and there is no call, we feel the absence and the silence sends a message. It may be ambiguous but it is a signal. Anger? Danger? Mishap? Same seems true for texting. When we exchange texts with someone at the same time each day and there is a break in routine, we feel the absence and it is conspicuous. We keep checking for that little blinking light. Are they okay? Is our relationship okay?

And like other channels of communication, our interpretations and responses are often person-specific. If my former boyfriend didn’t text me later in the evening before bed I knew he dozed off on the couch. I was reluctant to text him first as he is a light sleeper and can be easily disturbed by the ping of an alert. When he awakened, however, my “silence” would prompt him to respond with his signature blend of curiosity and humor. He’d text me something like “Knock-knock.” In similar circumstances my daughters would likely write, “Everything okay? xox“ Different approaches but one thing in common: Each of them always uses proper grammar and spelling if it is at all possible. If, in fact, I see my daughter’s text with a typo in the middle of the afternoon and no correction in the next text, I know she’s very busy at work and texting hastily. If there was a typo in my boyfriend’s text on a frigid winter morning I knew he was out with his dogs but without his gloves.

One’s textyle is so distinct that it becomes obvious when there is an imposter using someone’s phone. My heart stopped for a nanosecond when a text came in from my daughter’s phone number but it was not her textyle. It read, “Hi there Mom.” Creepy. “Hi there” is not her parlance. Nor would she include the “Mom” specification. Then I recalled that her roommate likes to play practical jokes and suspected she was behind the prank text. I was correct. That alien textyle was my first clue.

Like hearing someone’s voice, the “tone” of a text can suggest attitude as well. I texted my daughter twice this morning each time in a different mood. My first message was spirited and fun and communicated my pride in a job well done. It had a salutation, a photo and a lot of exclamation points: “Hi sweetie, I painted the banister all by myself!!! xox” The next was serious and reflected my business persona: “What’s your student ID number? I need it to send in your tuition check. Xox” Both had my kisses and hug signature but each reflected a different mood. My guess is that if either of my daughters received a text from me without my signature “xox” they’d sense something was off—either with me or between us.

When we first text folks and don’t know their textyles we may be surprised at the difference from their face-to-face, phone or email styles. One of my warmest, most affectionate gal pals stopped me in my tracks the first time she texted me back to confirm a get-together. I was so excited to see her and about our plans that my text included my signature “xox” plus an exclamation point and a ;). She wrote back, “KK.” KK? Uh-oh! Was this subtext? I do catch myself sometimes trying to “read between the lines” of texts. It seems to be about as accurate as translating poetry from one language to another –hardly a science. Of course, when I saw my girlfriend she was smiling, tactile and as receptive as ever and all was indeed well between us and with her. Her “KK” shorthand was just her “work-day textyle.”

I imagine the above applies 2 u 2, 2 some DgrE. Do you ever read between the lines of texts? Does it work 4 u? It B Gr8t ;) and works 4 me if u write and share. Lol! xox

Is Transparency Always Beneficial in Business?

Of course not. We know this from the extreme scenarios. You use your cell phone in the bathroom. Probably better not to let on where you are when you email your client from that private “office.”

Yet “transparency” is still cresting as the way to operate in business and this is worrisome. Just this fall, I have seen and experienced a few situations where it might have caused unnecessary harm. It seems that when we allow and seek transparency we run the risk of miscommunication about our intentions and abilities. And I don’t mean the obvious blooper when your employer sees a photo of you holding a bottle of vodka and dancing atop a table in a restaurant after you call in sick. I am referring to the stand-up, ethical and professionally responsible behaviors in which we engage but the virtues of which transparency can actually cloud.

Take my weekly ritual of devoting an hour to reading up on a topic about which I know little. I have been doing this for years as “continuing education” of sorts for my ghostwriting of speeches and coaching of respondents in employment inter views. Staying abreast of ideas and trends in fields as diverse as retail, finance and education have each paid off when that email comes in with someone from that field in immediate need of my services. I have some sense of their subject matter, and combined with the intake and subsequent research, I can move expeditiously to meet their needs.

Last month my ritual had a most direct impact on mine and my client’s success. It was positively serendipitous. On Monday afternoon I took my Wall Street Journal and my lunch to the farm where I board my horse. I set him free to graze in a field as I sat and ate and read a section of the paper called “C-SUITE” which is devoted to the “pressing issues for CEOs, chief information officers and others in the C-suite” as the Journal describes it. It was interesting reading but not nearly as interesting as the coincidence that the assistant to a CEO phoned me that very evening with an emergency request – could I help with a speech on corporate culture to be delivered that same week? Yikes! It was already Monday night. On Tuesday I teach two three-hour classes and commute from CT to NY to do so. No time for an intake until Wednesday and another client was counting on me to finish her projects that week as well. My response to her: “Absolutely. I was just thinking about this subject earlier today.” My lunch-time excursion and exercise in fact left me with my brain already parked in precisely the right lot for this assignment. But what would have happened if a fellow boarder had posted and tagged a photo of me on Monday afternoon? In other words, what would the transparency of my study habits have suggested to my client? Imagine the image: I am in jeans in the middle of the day sitting in a field reading the newspaper. Hardly looks like “work.” And it certainly could have called into question my credibility if I shared verbally the fact that my work schedule for the week was already crowded.

These days with our digital footprints guiding much of the due diligence our business associates conduct, the risk of being misunderstood is real. Personal posts on Facebook are just a click away from our professional activities on LinkedIn. So, while transparency can indeed be valuable for the confidence it engenders and the credibility it inspires, transparency may erode both if it is not managed well. Like communication, to be effective, transparency must be timely, purposeful and mindful of the audience – today, a global one with access to quite a bit of information about our personal, professional and private lives absent context for it.

Get to the Point! How to Make Your Point Clearly and Memorably in any Meeting, Speech, or Interview

For years I have shared with my clients and students that the best way to know what you need to say in your speech is to understand what your audience needs to hear. Switch sides of the podium. Put yourself in your audience members’ seats and consider their perspective. What do you see that they don’t? How can they hear, absorb and digest your message comfortably? Through the years, I have realized that with just a bit of tweaking, you can use my format for reaching an audience for making a point in a meeting as well as in an interview. Let’s begin by reviewing my fail-safe method for making each key point in a presentation.

1. Affirm your point succinctly. Be bold. Make them think, “Gee, I never thought of it that way.” Be confident that your assessment will be new to them as they did not do all the research and reflection on the topic as you did. Nor do they have your angle on the material. Hence, you are going to see something in the subject matter that they do not. Key points naturally “wow” the audience.
2. Clarify or nuance your point. Spell out what you mean.
3. Illustrate your point. Give listeners a simple example to which they can easily relate.
4. Elaborate on the point. Tell them more. From your clarification and illustration they’re getting it and are poised to hear and absorb more.
5. Substantiate your point. There comes a time when a thoughtful listener will wonder, “How do you know this?” A skilled speaker is prepared to support his or her thoughts with data from dependable sources.
6. Reiterate your point. Realize that when folks are listening they do not have the opportunity to reread, review or rewind the message as with a book, DVD or recording. Effective speaking requires the repetition of key points.

Affirmation. Clarification. Illustration. Elaboration. Substantiation. Reiteration.

 

MEETINGS
The following is a sample of the above employed as a sales pitch by a wholesale footwear representative in a meeting with the buyer of women’s shoes in a major department store.

Affirmation:
This shoe collection is the magnet of the group.
Clarification: It will naturally pull in pedestrian traffic from the mall. Why? It’s rich in detail. This group is colorful and offers so much to look at and to touch.
Illustration: Buttons, buckles, bows, fabrics and flowers – this collection yells, “Try me on!”
Elaboration: Ladies ready-to-wear is simple this year and in these dreary economic times women are looking to perk up outfits with affordable novelties. My own sister shared that she is buying just a few solid-colored moderately priced dresses for work this season and spending most of her wardrobe budget on fun and flirty accessories. Footwear is first in spring accessories.
Substantiation: It’s like basketball Hall of Famer, John Wooden once said, “It’s the little details that are vital; little things make big things happen.”
Reiteration: Let this stylish collection be a magnet for new customers and one you can call your regulars about as well.

 

SPEECHES
The following is a sample of my fail-safe format applied in the body of a lengthier speech.

Affirmation: While no longer our main means of transport in civilian or military life, horses are still very much present in American society, culture and industry.

Clarification: We may not recognize their influence, acknowledge their contributions, or protest their exploitation, but horses are indeed still among us and imbedded in the fabric of American life in ordinary, profound, and even intimate ways.

Illustration:
Take for example, our common language, American English. Idiomatic English abounds with expressions from our relationship with horses as our partners in settling the American West. Ever describe yourself as “saddled” with responsibility? This derives from the heavy leather saddles we fashioned to hold us and our gear when traveling long distances, ranching and herding cattle while on horseback. Has a colleague try to “curry” favor with you? This derives from the use of the curry, a soft rubber or plastic comb with tiny teeth that loosens the dirt out of a horse’s coat and feels to them like a massage. Surely you’ve been told, “Don’t jerk me around!” If horses could talk they might exclaim that as well if we pull sharply on one rein; the horse will turn but that sudden jerky motion doesn’t fee l very good on its mouth and neck and there is a less aggravating and more productive way to get the horse to come around.

Elaboration:
Horses are with us in our daily lives in other more tangible ways as well. The average day in my own life reminds me of this. Soft, water-resistant hair from the horse’s mane is what makes up the make-up brush I use to apply my cosmetics and certainly the paintbrush used to apply the color on the walls in my home and office. When I hear the violins playing in a number of songs on my iPod during my morning run, I am reminded of and grateful for the bows that are strung with the coarse hair of horse tails. As I select an outfit for the day I can’t help but see the Polo ponies that have inspired an entire style of clothing and mark mine as designed by fashion icon Ralph Lauren. At that same moment I chuckle that horses are even on Madison Avenue – not just literally pulling the Hansom Cabs in New York City but in the advertising industry. You see, often as I am dressing for the day I look at my TV screen and see two horses pull a trailer out of the mud in a commercial for Viagra. This gets me thinking about all the horses who are actors in film as well as on television. Hollywood horses have appeared in small roles in movies as diverse as Animal House and The Godfather, worked as extras in Dances with Wolves and other epics and some even star in major motion pictures like Black Velvet, Sea Biscuit and My Friend Flicka.

Substantiation: Over four million Americans are involved through work or ownership with the more than nine million horses in the United States today. Ironically, it is the large industries of horse racing and pharmaceuticals that may offer our most personal connection to equines. Jobs and livelihoods are reliant on the horse racing business through the associated enterprises of breeding, training, insurance and gambling. These account for multi-billion dollar contributions to the economies of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to name a few. But perhaps the most telling example of the intimate connection between equines and the well being of humans is the manufacture and use of PREMARIN, a popular hormone replacement medication available in topical and oral form to post-menopausal women. On the market in the U.S. since 1942, the conjugated estrogens that make up the preparation are collected from pregnant mares’ urine. Today, an estimated two thousand mares in Canada are, for life, stalled and remain pregnant and producing estrogen-concentrated urine as the main ingredient in PREMARIN.

Reiteration :
Because we travel in automobiles these days we don’t have contact with horse grooming equipment, saddles, bits or bridles so we use the lexicon without experiencing the deep horse-human partnership from which it stems. Because horses don’t get invited to Fashion Week or nominated for Academy Awards we don’t celebrate their contributions to the arts, style and entertainment. And because we wager, win or lose money, and fill our prescriptions in a matter of minutes, little if any time is devoted to considering the lifetime of involuntary sacrifice that horses as athletes and industrial recruits make to these ends. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a horse or two contributing each and every day to the quality of modern life you know. They’re still our capable and dependable partners quietly helping move us along in our human journey.

INTERVIEWS

A local journalist asked me the question, “How is it that you went from a career as a Russian-speaking Sovietologist with degrees in Comparative Communist Studies and International Security Affairs to a communications coach?” I giggled watching him eye my diplomas on the wall with a genuinely baffled look on his face. I responded as follows.

Affirmation: It was actually an organic career shift.
Clarification: As a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs I met many experts on foreign affairs—including my professors and noticed they traveled quite a bit to give speeches to audiences of all types. In 1988, I started my first company, a speakers bureau, by offering representation to them. I cultivated a large clientele in academe and did a lot of program development for social science departments using my expertise in Russian and international affairs. My briefings to my speakers were very much a product of listening to my clients—their audiences—describe their needs and expectations.
Illustration: I loved learning from my speakers as they spoke expertly on cutting-edge issues in foreign affairs and to keep them successful, I began analyzing the most effective presentations for common elements. The patterns for success at the microphone were vivid and clear and I shared them accordingly.
Elaboration: Then one day a magazine called me to write an article on public speaking and presentation skills based on my experiences running my speakers bureau. I did and that article produced an invitation for me to give a workshop on effective communication. From there, individuals who attended sought me out privately for coaching. By that point it was 1991 and interest in global affairs was waning with the end of the Cold War. But, my oral communications business was percolating. I read every textbook on communication, closed my agency and devoted myself full-time to what brings you here today.
Substantiation: Speech-writing is my forte because in graduate school I took two to three courses each in economics, history, political science, etc. and we did a lot computer war-gaming. My studies not only gave me the discipline to learn a subject quickly, but the ability to turn out a substantive briefing or report in as little as twenty-four hours. Now I can ghost-write speeches for CEOs and executives on topics from real estate to cyber-security because I can learn the lexicon, get a handle on the issues and organize the message for a lay or expert audience. That’s what I was trained to do as a policy analyst.
Reiteration: In fact, my careers are so related that when I started writing workbooks on communication the series title was “Notes from the Podium,” a play on the title of the Russian novel, Notes from (the) Underground.  It really wasn’t a leap from one career to the next but a nicely paced marathon.

 

This method of presenting one’s thoughts has served me, my clients and my students well for two decades. It is not only fail-safe insofar as it provides something for every listener, but it is also self-checking. As you organize your thoughts for your next meeting, prepare responses for your next interview or script your next speech, realize that you can check your own words for the necessary ingredients. Did you assert your point boldly? Did you explain it? Did you support your assertion? Did you provide a listener-friendly example? Did you elaborate on it with a memorable vignette or enlightening anecdote? I share this all with you in hopes you will not shy away from making a speech, giving that interview or participating confidently and effectively in your next meeting.

The Final Word on Eulogies

Death takes people by surprise. Even when an elderly or infirm person passes we are shocked by the news. Funerals, therefore, unlike other ceremonies, aren’t scheduled far in advance and the eulogy is one ceremonial speech that is often prepared in haste and as the bereft speaker is experiencing an exhausting combination of shock and sadness.

Yet, amid this distress, it is the noble man or woman who accepts the responsibility of composing a final, formal statement of praise to the decedent. It is the noble man or woman who accepts the responsibility for articulating thoughts and feelings at the time others report that they “just can’t speak.” It is the noble man or woman who accepts the responsibilities of “saying a few words” just when others insist that words are insufficient to describe their loss or the meaning of their lost loved one’s life.

In point of fact, speech offers us a lot in this saddest of situations. A eulogy is actually a tribute in words to an individual at the time of his or her death, and the informed eulogizer can provide and find some much-needed comfort and guidance using language. While the challenge is great, the format and components of the eulogy offer direction and relief. You see, effective eulogies follow a very particular sequence in both preparation and delivery. As the decedent’s next of kin, clergy and undertakers each assume their traditional roles and responsibilities for observance of the death rituals, so can the eulogizer adhere to a long-established process of eulogy preparation and delivery.

Getting Prepared: Collect the Key Components

The eulogizer begins by gathering facts, acknowledging feelings and reviewing history as these are the three ingredients that combine to form an effective eulogy.

First, find the facts. List the facts of the death. Where did this happen? At what age did s/he pass? What circumstances surrounded the passing? As a eulogizer, you report the facts of the death.

Second, specify your sentiments. Identify two or three characteristics or personality traits about the decedent that account for your feelings. For instance, if you describe your late aunt as thoughtful and generous, note the illustration that she never once in twenty-eight years missed sending you a birthday card and it was each and every year the very first card and gift you received. If you describe your late great uncle as punctual to a fault, recall humorously the time that he arrived at the maternity ward before you did to deliver your child. As a eulogizer you share your own observations and sentiments as you reflect on the charms of the person lost.

Third, view the future through the lens of the past. Recall the personal history of the deceased, identifying the people s/he loved so you can mention them in the eulogy to offer the appropriate condolences. Reflect on the journey s/he took and the activities, roles and principles that characterized the decedent’s life. As a eulogizer your words move the mourners forward, pledging to keep alive the deceased’s values through specific acts.

Crafting the Eulogy: Rely on a Five-Step Format

Equipped with the facts about the death, feelings about the decedent and his or her personal history, you as the eulogizer are ready to weave them together in your own style and voice. The order and excerpts below will give you a model and feel for this.

1. Explicitly acknowledge the death. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to articulate the facts of the sad news unequivocally and early in the eulogy.

It is said that the Lord works in mysterious ways. This seems true today as we gather to pay our final respects to a very young man. It is indeed a mystery why and how a twenty-two year old athlete–a college basketball superstar–could collapse on the very court where he typically exhibited excellent health and a prowess far above his peers. And yet, this is precisely the mystery of the passing of Jay Grabor. This past Monday night, Jay collapsed and died during a home game. We cannot help but ask “Why?” and “How could such a thing happen?”

2. Reminisce fondly about the deceased. One delivers a eulogy if and only if s/he genuinely loved, respected and/or admired the decedent. Accordingly, you might recall the words of the deceased, perhaps a saying he or she often used. You might tell an anecdote, a story that reveals a key characteristic or personality trait you admired.

I have coached scores, perhaps hundreds, of young athletes in my years at this university and I can tell you that Jay was one in a million. I met none like him before his time and I don’t expect to find another soul like him ever again. His maturity was as deep as his talent. Once, I summoned a freshman teammate of Jay’s him to my office for a chat. There were problems between him and the other fellows and although things had improved a bit, I thought that a sit down might help things gel. Well, this young boy sits down and starts pouring his heart out about how rough he’s had it ’n all. And just as I’m about to give him some fatherly advice the kid says, “It was a good thing that Jay Grabor had me over to his dorm room for a sit down! Once he and I talked and he took me under his wing, things really started to improve!” My fellow mourners, I wasn’t terribly surprised to hear that. That’s the kind of mature and caring team player that Jay was. Actually, it wasn’t just the way he was with his teammates. It’s just the kind of guy he was. He was like that with the campus community at large.

3. Offer your condolences. A conscientious eulogizer recognizes that others are grieving as well.

While the loss of a son is unspeakable, while the loss of a brother is unbearable, while the loss of a grandson, nephew and all the other roles Jay played in his brief but vibrant life is tragic, know that your pain is felt by peoples near and far. We mourn with you on the campus and in the community and in your neighborhood and all the halls this treasured young man graced. Our memories are now your memories. We share them with you and we pray that in time they give you some measure of peace.

4. Reassure the mourners that the deceased will be remembered meaningfully. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to make a commitment to continue the efforts for which the deceased lived. These may be the continuation of the decedent’s work or the completion of plans to reach certain goals in the family or in the community.

A wise man wrote that, “true love is eternal.” And Jay Grabor truly loved the sport of basketball and the team he honored at the University of Southington. In Jay’s memory, this team shall go on. In Jay’s memory and for Jay’s memory this team shall prevail. He has forever changed us and it has been for the better. It is a change for the better of these players, for the better of us coaches and for the better of the sport of college basketball itself.

5. State a clear goodbye to the deceased. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to do what may be too painful for other mourners to do and that is to specifically bid farewell to the deceased. It is the responsibility of the eulogizer to mark the departure from life of the person we knew in life.

In a penalty we do not understand, with a time out that comes out a lifetime a head of it’s time, we all as fans of Jay Grabor, bid farewell to him, a true champion.

Delivering for the Occasion: Lean In and Let Go

In sharing the stories, words and traits of the deceased, don’t shy away from material that will make you laugh and cry. It is okay to get emotional when delivering the eulogy. You won’t be alone. Others will be comforted that you share their many emotions and they will admire you for expressing them nonverbally as well as with words.

It is my wish that your need for this skill-set be minimal. It is my hope that when the need for it does arrive you are equipped with the know-how to guide you through the challenge with as much ease and confidence as such circumstances allow.

Communication Rehab for Drive-by Interviewees

I have only been “retired” from my communications firm for a short while but some themes are already emerging from my reflections on the folks I have coached through various communications challenges over the last two decades.  In particular, those interviewing for jobs come to mind.

Job applicants tended to fall into two categories—one, those who insisted on absolutely only one “prep” session.   In retrospect, I realize that this was also typically on the same day as the interview itself.   In short, they waited until the very last minute.  (One gal scheduled a 7:00 a.m. appointment with me before for a 9:00 a.m. interview that same morning.  She then showed up twenty minutes late.)  In my efforts to ward off these anemic attempts to prepare I would often quip, “Let’s see if we can’t get you in here a week early to avoid a drive-by interview casualty.”  Many laughed but ignored the soft-pedaled advice.  The stress from their prolonged under or unemployment was palpable, infectious and sometimes self-perpetuating.  The second kind of applicants set aside time for a few hours of professional coaching and funds for the requisite retainer.  They didn’t “prep” but rather “prepared” with me for an employment interview.  These were folks I found to be more comprehensively committed to securing “a” or even “the” position.  By and large, they were successful.

To be sure, the aid of a professional is useful and I suppose that people who commit hard-earned money to a process do feel more invested in it and seek more from it because they have committed resources up front.  But I share here something that I realize made as much or more of a difference than anything else: deep self-reflection.  Yep.  Not appointments.  Not money changing hands.  Not mock interviews.  Not research on the company.  Not wardrobe choices.   Heck, one doesn’t even have to get out of their pajamas to do what I am describing here.  It is simply what Winnie the Pooh did each time he was faced with a new challenge: “Think Think  Think. Oh bother.”  Bingo! Think! Bother!  Whether or not you engage a coach, do make and take the time to ponder and consider who you are—constitutionally—and where you are in life.  Why?  Like Winnie the Pooh, we are most productive and magnetic to others when we work in harmony with our genuine selves and in the context of our lives.   And when these are communicated effectively to a prospective employer other matters tend to fall into place.  Let’s take these apart, latter one first.  Work in the context of your life.

It seems to me that applying for a job is like shopping for a car.  Hear me out on this.  Realize that the cars we drive reflect where we are at any point in life.  And the first thing a car shopper does is evaluate his or her need(s) for it in the context of their life.  Is it a “utility,” like a station car?   Is it a “second car” to make a busy life more convenient?  Is it a “trophy car,” a luxury vehicle to punctuate years of hard work or success with a particular venture?  Is it a “project” like a fixer-upper or a restoration of a classic?  Is it a sleek “performance car” that maneuvers well and commands respect?   Over the course of our working lives we will have many different kinds of cars and many different kinds of jobs.  Some stints are transformative and less about the compensation and more valuable as learning experiences where we hone our skills.  These jobs are like project cars.  Some jobs are shear utilities, the kind of shift-work that is often short-term and simply puts cash in our wallets while we finish school, get out of the house or publish that novel.  Some positions are downright sexy, like a stint with that celebrity client and the kinds of which future clients or employers take note.  For these, the fees generated may be of less value than the exposure and resume boost.  Some jobs are simply side-jobs or seasonal or part-time just to keep the cushion of our layered lives comfy and our reputations and skills fresh.  A few things are for certain, you won’t drive the same car for forty or fifty years.  You may share a car from time to time and have more than one at other times.  You might even need to go without your own and take public transportation.  But to make wise choices about any car purchase you need to know your needs and means and circumstances at the outset and be comfortable articulating them clearly.  Otherwise you will get ripped off, wind up at the wrong dealership or even break down.

Same is true when applying for a job.  Ask yourself this: What are your means and needs at this particular point in time?  Be specific and be candid.  When I was interviewing experts on international affairs for Foreign Affairs Speakers Bureau, candidates often shared their individual journeys as backdrop to their interest the lecture circuit.  Giving speeches on topics in world affairs is demanding work.  It is also lucrative.  But all jobs pay money.  And most highly-skills jobs that also require substantial experience pay commensurately well.  So, “Why the speaking circuit?” I would ask.  Those who could clearly articulate the context in which they were applying moved to the top of my agency’s A-list.  One world-renowned economist, TV personality and a fully-tenured professor at an Ivy-league university shared that he had just put a down payment on a condo for his adult daughter and wanted to help her pay it off.  He wanted to see her settled before he retired and declared that he was able and eager to travel the world to accomplish that goal.  That was critical information insofar as it gave me license to recommend him on a short-list to clients in Asia and Europe.  I was confident that he would show up and shine.  Another shared that he had two young children—toddlers, actually—and he wanted to get their college accounts off to a good start and also be around to help his wife manage the household.  He worked and resided in Manhattan and shared that he only wanted local appearances to save time on travel.  That was useful information as it enabled me to represent him to audiences in and around New York City and promote him as one who is available to give two talks – the actual presentation and a bonus, informal, “insider briefing,” all for a higher honorarium as there were no air travel or hotel costs for the client.  Win-win-win!

My other mantra is to work in a position that jives with your core self—your values, motivations and established “best-practices.”  Of course, the first step here is to know what they are.  This is another exercise in “think, think, think.”  Well in advance of your interview, set aside an hour.  Turn off your phone, close your laptop, sit down quietly and think.   Be candid and specific in your self-assessment.  With what are you most comfortable at work?  Autonomy?  Decision-making responsibilities?  Money?  Camaraderie with like-minded people?  Mentoring of staff?  Praise from your superiors?  Prestige?  Respect from clients?  People your own age?  Satisfaction from a job well-done?  The applause of an audience?  Health benefits?  What interferes with your productivity and satisfaction at work?  Commuting?  Accountability? Day care concerns?  Early starts?   Late nights?   Dress codes?   Meetings? Dealing with the public?  What adds up to a great day at work for you?  No emails?  New clients?   Making a deadline?  What makes for a lousy day at work for you?  Making a presentation? Air travel?  Computer malfunction?   Three hours of paperwork?

Obviously one’s candor in the self-assessment needs to be nuanced for the actual interview, but only a foundation of reality can provide the substance and make the difference in revealing whether or not there is an actionable and mutually acknowledged “fit” between applicant, job and boss.   For instance, I was thrilled to hear my intern share that she is a “night owl” and works best on creative projects between midnight and sunrise.  She shared this with an apologetic voice, gentle shrug of her shoulders and nod of her head when asked, “What one work habit holds you back?”  She and I were both delighted when I then shared that I love finding a full in-box very first thing in the morning.  I am an early riser and review new matters best when I am fresh.  Her style was quite compatible with mine and she was hired with the reassurance that she can work from home and email material so long as it is waiting for me at 7:00 a.m.

When it comes to job interviews, they are like shopping for cars: we do it numerous times over the course of our lives.  And because we get used to it we get stale.  Hence, a reminder of the basics is useful:  An interview is a special kind of conversation in which there is a bipolar exchange of views and information.  Bi-polar means two parties.  And ideally, both parties are fully prepared—interviewer and applicant alike.  But the ideal becomes out of reach when either party does not complete his or her due diligence.  As applicants, there is plenty to consider well in advance of an interview and after all the basic prep is done—research on the firm, research on the position, wording and rehearsing responses to the predictable questions, selecting out attire, etc., and there are excellent resources out there on how to go about that “standard prep.”  But for your next level of due diligence, remember Winnie the Pooh.  Avoid a drive-by interview casualty, and “think, think, think.” And do “bother.”  It’s the insurance on your vehicle—specific to your make and model.

Lisa Bernard retired after twenty-plus years of helping people achieve their goals in speeches, interviews and conversations.  She’ll tell you that, collectively, she learned as much about life from her clients as she taught them about effective communication.  Over the years, she designed workshops and seminars for organizations in the private, public and non-profit arenas, many of which she was thrilled to do because they were compatible with her parenting responsibilities and consistent with her values.  Most notably, she loved creating and delivering weekly a management studies program at a busy New York hospital.  Her deep respect for health care professionals and her teenagers’ readiness to learn to get home and dinner on the table themselves one evening a week worked beautifully with this late afternoon program and early evening commute.  Her clients’ fine examples of working in the context of your life and within your value system are lessons for which she is forever grateful and happy to share. 

In With the Old and Season with the New: What Food Communicates from Past to New Years

When my older daughter emailed me from Israel to tell me she was coming home I wrote something as well– a grocery list. Then I put up a big pot of lentil soup. Only then did I call her and verbally express my delight. And she squealed when she received a photo of my freezer shelf lined with Mason jars filled with the lentil soup that will be here for her when she arrives. I just close my eyes and see it going down: her flight will be delayed, we’ll hit traffic, the weather will be treacherous and the wear and tear will make us both cranky. But once we get home and heat up the soup, crisp up the semolina bread, boil up those Ditalini (little thimbles pasta) and sprinkle a heaping tablespoon of freshly grated Romano cheese, she will close her eyes and feel, “I’m home.” And my message will be clear to her, “I am so happy to have you back.”

Reflecting on the above, I realize that food communicates. It doesn’t speak, but it certainly transmits feelings and thoughts. And the way we select, preserve and edit our recipes are choices we make from year to year articulating our evolving sentiments and ideas. Last fall when I observed my annual ritual of harvesting my potted herbs before the first frost, I made pesto as usual. However, I did not use just basil; I modified my recipe to replace half the basil with sage. I gleaned that from the pesto my daughter and I shared in Tuscany last summer. It was a very different texture, color and flavor than any pesto I had ever eaten in America and it was served tossed with pasta we’d never seen before. We talked quite a bit about how we could replicate the flavors at home and with every draft of the family pesto recipe we relived our trip together and took our pride in our Italian heritage to a new level. Altogether it provided a clear interpretation of my behavior for my now adult children—from why I grow my own herbs to why I only buy the cheapest generic toilet paper but spring for extra virgin olive oil imported from a specific region in Italy that costs more than a dollar an ounce! Toilet paper is temporary. Food leaves a footprint. You can use it to trace back or guide you forward. That pesto “translated” my behavior into terms my family now understands including why my herb garden will be larger and more varied in this New Year. And when I showed up at my younger daughter’s dormitory with jars of the coveted frozen green sauce it spoke volumes to her about the transcendence of tradition across time and place.

It fascinates me that food can be less ambiguous than most other nonverbal messages. If I rub my hands together one may interpret this as me having just applied hand lotion while another may think I am nervous. Yet another might assume I am cold. But food sends clear signals. Kids attest to this. They are the keenest observers of signals long before they use words to order their world. “Out of the mouths of babes” as they say when my then ten year old came into the kitchen one morning and said, “It’s fall; you’re making oatmeal in the mornings again!” And on Fridays when they inhaled the aromas from the simmering chicken soup, roast chicken and fresh-baked challah they would dash into the kitchen, smile wide and exclaim, “It’s almost Shabbat!” No calendar required. And like word choice and tone of voice, food can transmit respect and affection. I catered my daughter’s college graduation party with a menu that was nut-free, kosher, in full Mediterranean fare and with vegetarian and vegan plates. Every guest was considered and had a tasty and thematic option that included them in this key part of the celebration and acknowledged their individual needs and preferences.

I am learning that food is a language that evolves alongside the relationships it attends. I am reminded of the changes in our meal preparation when my younger daughter was diagnosed with potentially fatal food allergies. Having almost lost her to an almond cookie seventeen years ago, I cleared our kitchen and every recipe of poppy seeds, peanuts and nuts (not to mention my bar of Amaretto and Frangelico). The table is where one finds community and sanctuary and her safe place had narrowed considerably. So then did my ingredient list. But the message she got from the safe zone I provided was large: “your well-being matters.” There was another message communicated by our abandonment of lemon-poppy seed pound cake, PB&J and cranberry-pistachio biscotti: “this is not a handicap but an inspiration!” That’s because each New Year since she was first diagnosed has yielded fresh innovations in our favorite family recipes that actually give our food its own “dialect.” When she was first diagnosed in 1996 there were few laws for labeling of foodstuffs and fewer chefs and wait-staff trained to insure “nut-free” dishes, so we ate-in for nearly ten years. We cooked and seasoned in our own unique way and all that experimentation with foods to mimic the textures and flavors of nuts and seeds not only yielded three creative cooks in the family but a rather idiomatic menu as well. Come for a meal here and we’ll share our interpretations with items we call by slang names like “salad dressing chicken” or “cheese toast.”

Set aside cooking for a moment and think about eating itself. With food so connected to relationships I wonder how many have fizzled or bloomed based on how we eat together. How we eat provides all sorts of information about our backgrounds and personalities and by extension our compatibility with others. I had a date with a man who claimed he was from New York. When he ate his sushi with a fork I seriously doubt that. Turns out, in culinary terms, he was full of baloney. He won’t be around in the New Year. On the other hand, when I walked into a random bagel shop in Fairfield, Connecticut and ordered a bagel with a schmear and belly lox and the gal behind the counter didn’t bat an eye, I didn’t need to hear a New York accent to know she was indeed my home-girl from the Big Apple. That nosh and her demeanor were delicious and I will be back there in the New Year—and with my friends. Now that’s word of mouth advertising!

Bar none, my dearest memory of food-handling as a measure of creativity and commitment dates back to when my daughter with the food allergies was sitting in a diner beside her best buddy from the fifth grade. We were ordering lunch and she really had a hankering for a big juicy American burger but was concerned that the bun might have stray seeds that she must avoid. She was debating out loud and lamenting that usually the bottom half of the bun is where the errant poppy seed appears. It took him a nanosecond to accommodate her wishes and allay her fears. Eyes wide open he volunteered, “When the burgers come, I’ll give you my top and take your bottom!” Clearly, that man is one we took from past years into last year and into this New Year for sure.

This is certainly not an exact science but close enough for conversation: Tell me what you put in your eggs this morning and I’ll tell you your roots and a bit about your journey. You see, food doesn’t fib. It narrates your story just as it happened. Today, I sautéed onions and sweet red peppers in olive oil and when they were soft I added three leaves of sage I had grown last summer and froze for this purpose. I cracked in three egg whites beat with freshly ground black pepper and a dash of grated Parmesan cheese. As it gelled in the pan, I added some cubed fresh mozzarella. That went alongside a toasted slice of sesame-encrusted semolina bread with fig jam. That’s what my Italian grandparents ate, plus the egg yolks and with basil instead of sage. Those healthy and culinary changes were my own revisions from new years back. What will I bring into 2014? Nearby, there is an authentic new Middle Eastern café that prepares a variety of hummus and pita breads alongside time-honored fresh falafel. I am in the process of tasting them all so that when both my daughters are home we can pool all our finds—from nut-free dishes prepared on one’s college campus to the vegetarian delights from the salad room at the kibbutz where another works. Perhaps we’ll call it “The Cutting Board.”

Lisa Bernard retired this New Year from twenty-plus years as Principal at Lisa Bernard’s Word of Mouth, Inc.  She continues to publish via http://www.CueCardCommunications.com, teach at the college level and consult for people and firms with compelling communication challenges.