In Pursuit of Mastery

In Pursuit of Mastery

Humility plays such a big role in the pursuit of mastery.

Several weeks ago I attended a Speaker Lab, sponsored by the National Speakers Association of Illinois (NSA-IL) of which I’m both a member and a board member. The lab was led by two veteran speakers, teachers and authors, Cyndi Maxey, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional) and Kevin O’Connor, CSP. Both Cyndi and Kevin have given tirelessly to our chapter and that Saturday was yet another example of the generosity of NSA members who are committed to helping others in the profession of speaking.

Over and over I’ve heard the recommendation that in order for professional speakers [or any professional] to get better, we have to seek out and welcome feedback. Easier said than done, though. It’s scary to put yourself on the line to be critiqued, some of which may hurt. But asking for feedback is a critical component in the pursuit of mastery, isn’t it? Asking for a critique says your commitment to mastery is bigger than your ego, even if it smarts. So I was one of the first ones to sign up for the Speaker Lab, and that Saturday I trooped down to Chicago to National Louis University where the lab was held. My goal was to perfect my “signature story,” a story about my dad that I wanted to use in a presentation I was giving in Indianapolis the next week. And while I’d used the story before, I’d never scripted it, so the results were often shaky and unpredictable. This time, I wanted to nail the story or, as we say in the world of music, get it “flat.” No winging it.

And that’s where humility comes in. You can’t get better without knowing what’s missing. The feedback I received at the Speaker Lab was compassionate and spot on: I meandered with too many off-track details, and the listeners weren’t quite sure where I was going. Got it. I took the feedback, scripted the story, practiced it and used the story during my presentation in Indy as “bookends,” beginning with the introduction and later ending my presentation with the story’s punchline. For the first time, I felt like I was in control of where the story was going and how it would affect my audience. It worked.

I did another brave thing: I recorded my presentation on my iPhone. Conor Cunneen, fellow dean of NSA-IL Speakers Academy and a consummate professional himself, has said over and over that it’s imperative to record every presentation and then review it to see what worked, what didn’t work and how to improve. While I would nod my head in theory, I hadn’t yet practiced this technique. I don’t know if my resistance was based on fear or laziness. This time, in pursuit of mastery, I hit “record” and later listened to my presentation while driving back from Indianapolis, a very long drive.

I was deeply humbled by what I heard. When did I start saying “um” every other sentence? How could I not have heard that before? I didn’t stop to count the “ums” but I was horrified by this vocal tic that I wasn’t even aware I had–and one I never would have known about if I hadn’t hit “record.”  Back to being a student. Back to the beginner’s mind.

One other thing struck me during that trip to and from Indianapolis. I was listening to some CDs in the car while driving, recordings of presenters at our NSA convention last summer. One of them, a veteran speaker and coach to other superstars, Lou Heckler, told a story about coaching a new speaker. After Lou gave the young man his homework, this neophyte speaker said wearily, “Boy that sounds like a lot of work.” Big laugh from the crowd–and from me. Yeah, it’s a lot of work. Discipline. Self-reflection. Practice. A hunger for feedback, a rigorous request for coaching and the ability to withstand the honest truth without flinching (or at least without dropping out) in order to get better.

In pursuit of mastery, there’s always something new to learn.

[Photo credit: “Maria Callas” by Marilyn Szabo, used with permission of the artist.]

The Energy of Ensembles

The Energy of Ensembles

Last Sunday at my church the men’s chorus and the women’s chorus joined to sing a complicated medley of old gospel tunes, ending on a chord of voices that nearly knocked the stained glass out of the windows and the folks in the balcony out of their pews. The joy of singing this song, which I compared to white-water rafting (and a couple of times I nearly fell out of the raft), reminded me of the energy of being in an ensemble.

My coaching business is a solo practice and while I am a member of many “teams,” including the Ambassadors Club at the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce, a band and chorus at church and the board of directors of the National Speakers Association of Illinois, I operate mostly as a single unit. When I go to the office, unless I bring my dog Peanut, I’m there by myself. No water-cooler banter, no one to distract me from the work at hand. I do have an office mate across the hall and we occasionally stop to catch up between our respective clients but for the most part, I’m alone until I meet with clients or head off to a meeting. For someone like me who enjoys being with people, this sometimes can prove to be a challenge. That’s why I couldn’t stop thinking about our combined choirs’ performance. Here are just a few of my observations about the benefits of being in an ensemble:

  • People are working together toward a common goal. In the case of our medley, which was not an easy piece of music, we had to rehearse together. Dan Keck, our irrepressible music director who leads the men’s chorus, worked patiently with the women on learning our parts. We knew we had to pull off the song by the next week, so there was a pleasant pressure to get the vocal parts worked out and we all gave up time we otherwise would have spent on our families, our work or other commitments related to self to practice the piece together.
  • The sum is greater than the parts of the whole. Did I get that right? Singing a solo, or even a duet or trio, is fun but when you put all those men’s and women’s voices together, you get an amazing sound that you could never get alone. I like to say that good music “rearranges your molecules,” and that last note of our song certainly did just that.
  • The “you” disappears and you become a “we.” As fascinating as we may find ourselves, sometimes it’s exhausting to be us. Being in an ensemble means you set aside your focus on self, your issues and concerns, to work with others on the task at hand. Being a “we” has a completely different agenda and it can provide relief from that circular logic that often comes from working by ourselves.

Whether you’re working on a team or working by yourself, I think it’s important to recognize the power of being in a group. For those of you who work in corporations and get frustrated with the need to always negotiate, and sometimes capitulate, perhaps you can take a new look at the value of being part of a team. And for those of you who, like me, work primarily in solitude, you may want to look for ways to engage in ensembles to tap into that energy source. Whether it’s sitting together with other Chamber members, working on a project or an event, or adding your voice to a mighty chorus, there’s a singular joy in working with others.

[Photo: Dan Keck leads the Men’s Chorus at Gary United Methodist Church, Wheaton, IL.]

Why Volunteer?

Why Volunteer?

This morning I’m rubbing the sleep from my eyes, trying to wake up after spending the afternoon and a late evening in the city of Chicago. Last night we kicked off the first of six sessions for NSA-IL Speakers Academy (see photo, above, of our March 2013 graduating class with Mikki Williams, CSP, CPAE, center).

This is the third year I’ve participated as a “Dean” of the program, along with my “Co-Dean” Steve Beck, an irrepressible speaker, trainer and leader. Steve is also this year’s president of our state chapter, National Speakers Association of Illinois. For both of us, leading NSA-IL Speakers Academy (formerly known as Speaker University) is a labor of love. Thinking about all the work that’s required to organize and administer this program, along with a recent conversation I had with a friend who is considering joining the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce, has me thinking. Why volunteer?

First, let’s look at the incongruity of volunteering. When you volunteer, you aren’t getting paid. And for those of us who are entrepreneurs and who don’t get a regular paycheck, that’s a pretty big trade-off of billable hours. For those who are employed, it’s time away from the office which brings its own risk. You may or may not get accolades or visibility; you may or may not get “credit.”

Yet according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 64.5 million people in the United States volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2011 and September 2012. The Corporation for National and Community Service has a boatload of statistics, research and reports on the benefits of volunteering, including data that demonstrates people who volunteer are healthier and live longer. And if you look around you, you’ll see that really successful people always have some aspect of their lives dedicated to volunteering, whether it’s through their professional associations, their organizations of faith or their communities. As a business and career coach, I believe that volunteering is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Here are just a few reasons to volunteer:

  • Being a volunteer puts you immediately in community with others. Our business and career success is dependent on being part of a larger community. Whether you’re a member of your local Chamber of Commerce or your professional association, you have a chance to build relationships with others. And we know that people like to work with and do business with people they know and trust. Volunteering gives you a chance to earn that trust.
  • Volunteering is like an audition. When you’re leading a committee, you get to flex your leadership muscles. As you work together with others on a project, you demonstrate teamwork. You have a stage on which to hone your presentation skills. People are observing you and believe me, they notice. Are you kind to others? Do you show respect? Do you have a sense of humor and not take yourself too seriously? Do you show up on time? Do you do what you said you’d do? In essence, are you “count-on-able?”
  • You get to practice. Volunteering is a great way to build a new skill set. If you’re in marketing, try working on the finance committee. If you’re in finance, join the strategic planning committee. Experiment and volunteer for things outside your “wheelhouse.”
  • Without getting too corny (although I think all good things in life are corny), being a volunteer allows you to leave a legacy. I am amazed at the depth and breadth of people’s commitment to their professional associations, their alumni associations, their churches or their service clubs. People devote countless hours to ensure that the missions of the organizations they support continue to thrive long after they’re gone.

I love being part of NSA-IL Speakers Academy because we’re helping other aspiring speakers reach their goals. I have a chance to share what I know, to lead from a curriculum developed by a dedicated task force of NSA members across the country, and to contribute to a profession that changes the world. One of our core values is continuous learning, and my commitment as a “Dean” allows me to learn as well. And I don’t mind admitting that I relish receiving “love letters” and acknowledgement from our participants and graduates who appreciate our devotion to them.

Over the course of my 16 years as a coach, I’ve heard one consistent theme from the folks who seek my services: they want to make a difference. Being a volunteer for an organization that resonates with you, your heart and your mission allows you to make a difference. Do it because you don’t need the money and you don’t care who gets the credit. But don’t be surprised when you get an amazing return on that investment–a job offer, a contract, a client. That’s the paradox of giving first.

Putting the “Dead” Back in “Deadline”

Putting the “Dead” Back in “Deadline”
Pere Lachaise Cemetery

The graveyard is full of great ideas that were never heard (Photo: Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France)

My friend Greg Crawford had a wonderful saying he once shared with me. “I love deadlines,” he deadpanned. “I love the sound of them as they go whooshing by…”

Boy, can I relate. Even with the discipline of having been a journalist for a daily newspaper (read: daily deadlines), I struggle with those commitments, mostly the ones I make to myself. That’s why I loved hearing the audio promo from the August 2013 issue of SUCCESS magazine, in which Publisher and Founding Editor Darren Hardy cites a story about a French mathematician who learned the value of deadlines.

Évariste Galois was a young Frenchman who was born with amazing brilliance in math, particularly algebra. But it wasn’t until he was challenged to a duel that he took the time to furiously scribble 60 pages of notes, ideas that would later lead to a revolution in higher algebra. Sadly, Monsieur Galois lost the duel… thereby putting the “dead” back in “deadline.”

Why is it we’re our most productive when there’s a (literal or figurative) gun to our head? Mr. Hardy of SUCCESS Magazine says this story demonstrates the need for tension, pressure and urgency to push our ideas out of us. “Otherwise the feeling that we have an endless amount of time is insidious and debilitating to the mind,” he writes in his publisher’s letter. “Our attention and thoughts become fractured and dispersed. Our lack of intensity makes it difficult to jolt our brain into high gear, into that higher state of creativity and mental lucidity.”

One of the reasons I love coaching people in mid-career is because somewhere around 40, we start to hear the ticking of that proverbial biological clock. The career trajectory that we saw as endless opportunity in our 20s suddenly has some very real parameters around it. If we don’t do what we were designed to do now, then when? Barbara Sher wrote a book called It’s Only Too Late if You Don’t Start NowJohann Wolfgang von Goethe, known as Germany’s Shakespeare, is often quoted as having said “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Maybe the  best quote of all is from Dr. Wayne Dyer: “Don’t die with the music still in you.”

In other words, we need to get off our duffs (OK, need to get off my duff) and get busy, creating whatever it is we’re going to create. If you want to start a business, begin working on a plan. If you’re dying to become a professional speaker, sign up for one of the many National Speakers Association Speakers Academies around the country. (Shameless plug: I’m dean of the one in Chicago that starts in September–visit NSA-IL for details.) If you have an aria to sing, find a stage and some folks to listen.

While we may not be facing a duel tomorrow morning at sunrise, we don’t get any guarantees. What would you scribble on those 60 pages if you knew your days–even minutes–were numbered? What’s the music still left inside of you?