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The Sounds of Silence

In a recent article entitled “Hemingway, Thoreau, Jefferson and the Virtues of a Good Long Walk“, Ariana Huffington explored what some of our great thinkers had to say about the advantages of a good walk.  She also provided the following observations by painters, sculptors, poets, actors and musicians.

“Space is substance. Cézanne painted and modeled space. Giacometti sculpted by “taking the fat off space.” Mallarmé conceived poems with absences as well as words. Ralph Richardson asserted that acting lay in pauses… Isaac Stern described music as “that little bit between each note — silences which give the form.”

It was the comment from Ralph Richardson that got me thinking.  “Acting lay in pauses.”  So much of what we communicate is not only in what we say, but want we don’t say.  Even more specifically than the words we don’t use are the silences we place in between.  These pauses do much more than simply provide us with a moment to think.  As they relate to effective communication, pauses give the listener time to process what was just said.  Simply talking over someone, or verbally browbeating them into acquiescence (notice I didn’t say acceptance) is not communication.

When we pause, we are accomplishing several things.  First, we are telling the listener that we’re done.  At least done with a specific thought.  Second, a pause shows  respect  in that we are providing them time to think about what we said and articulate their response.  It’s only in their response that the communication process actually begins.
If we really examine the pauses, the in-between, we realize that this is where the real communication occurs.  What we say, the words we use, the tone of our voices and the body language employed is important, of course; but it is the processing of all this information that is critical.  It’s the “sounds of silence” that count.

So, I want you to do two things.  One, listen to Paul Simon’s “Sounds of Silence” from the 1966 album of the same name.  Just because it’s just a great song and you should treat yourself.  Two, the next time you have a conversation with someone, try extending the silences “in between”.  I think you will be amazed as to how more effective yourImage communication will be.

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All art is either plagiarism or revolution

Image If you’re not an artist, this is merely an interesting quote.  If you are an artist, it can be the difference between prosperity and poverty. 

I spoke to “The Artist’s Loop” in Providence, RI recently, and I started with this quotation by Paul Gauguin.  We agreed that plagiarism sells, revolution, not so much.  Maybe after you’re dead, but that doesn’t put food on the table. 

So, what to do?  Compromise?  Sell out?  Tough questions, and ones with which many artists wrestle.  Our conclusion?  It’s up to you.  Yes, I know; that’s not a satisfying answer, but, in the words of Bill Belichick, “it is what it is.” 

However, the purpose of the evening’s discussion was to talk about how to present your art and your self; basically how to sell your art;  how to convince someone that your product has value.  Crass?  Maybe.  Realistic?  Heck yeah. 

Since the overall topic was, in essence, “communication”, we started with the basics.  Are you and your potential buyer speaking the same language?  Do they understand what it is you’re selling?  If you are selling number 2 pencils, no problem.  If you’re selling artwork, you may have to look at what “language” you’re using.  You have to walk that fine line between treating the customer like they are completely ignorant (“this is a paint brush”), and they are an expert.  However, as Albert Einstein said “I never teach my pupils.  I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”  

Revealing a little bit of your “artistic process”, in a clear way can truly enhance the buyer’s understanding and appreciate of your product.  You want them to go home and hang that picture on their wall and be thinking of the conversation they’re going to have with the first person to comment on it. “Oh yes, that painting by Rich Austin.  I was talking to him about it and he explained to me how he…”  If you can give your customer or client that sort of connection with you, and your product, well that’s what puts food on the table. People buy from people.  Especially people they like. 

And why would they like you?  You took the time to talk with them and explain who you are and what you do.  Not a 10-minute lecture on whatever; just a normal but informative conversation.  Give them a peek behind the curtain.  (Who doesn’t want to know a secret?) 

How do you accomplish this?  It’s not magic; but it does take some effort.  You have to run these conversations through your head.  Anticipate who your audience is and what they may or may not know and what it is they may be interested in knowing.  Practice these encounters with a friend, fellow artist (or whatever your profession may be).  One last quote from my Boy Scout days “Be Prepared!”


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Make people want to buy from you!


People buy from people.  More specifically, people buy from people they remember.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling financial services, insurance, or camel muzzles.  Everyone will say the same thing.  “I give my clients special care.”  “I’m honest and fair.”  “Our camel muzzles are the best.”  No one even says “I only care about some of my clients”; or “I’m mostly honest”; or my favorite “let me tell you the truth.”  What does this mean; that you weren’t telling me the truth before?  It reminds me of signs I saw in front of pubs in Edinburgh.  “Good food being served now.”  What, if I came back in an hour the food would be lousy?

What can you do to stand out?  Again, people buy from people.  They want a story, a reason to choose you.  I’m working with a client who gave me a presentation on the history of the company she works for.  Pretty boilerplate stuff; until we dug a little deeper.  She told me that the founder of the company had a partner, and that the partner married the sister of the founder, and the founder in turn married his partner’s sister. 

Now, that’s a story!  People don’t just want to buy products from that company; they want to buy products from the two guys who married each other’s sister.  Now they know something personal, they have a hint of a unique love story.  “Let’s buy from those guys – that’s a neat story.”

This is the type of connection you need to make with your client.  They can buy your product from a dozen different people.  You have to give them a reason to buy from you.  You need to tell them a story. 

Our brains are hard-wired to hear and remember stories.  How long do you think we’ve been telling stories?  The cave drawings in Chauvet, France were done 30,000 years ago.  Were they just paintings?  No, they were stories.  Stories of those people and how they lived.  All cultures passed down their history through oral tradition; essentially, story telling. 

Eventually people started writing things down.  Without delving into etymology (the study of the history of words), it’s safe to say that if you put the evolution of mankind’s communication on a time-line, we’ve only been reading and writing for a very short time.  People remember only about 25% of what they read, but 75% of what they see; and that’s what a good story will do.  It will make them “see”, or visualize what we’re telling them.  Isn’t that what we want to do on a sales call or during a presentation?

Does a good story come easy?  Usually not.  Is it worth the effort?  Well, let me ask you this.  Do you want your clients to remember you and your products and services?  You bet you do.  Tell them a story that is relevant and memorable, and they will buy from you.  Why?  Because people buy from people they remember.

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To Really Get Them To Listen – Don’t Talk

I find it interesting that one of the most effective and powerful speaking tools is…. not speaking.”  What you talking about Willis?  I’ll tell you want I’m talking about.  When you have an important point to make, stop, pause, then deliver it.  Nothing grabs someone’s attention like hesitating, making them wait.  It’s almost like you are going to tell them a secret.  Everyone loves a secret.  Everyone wants to be in on the behind-the-scenes stuff.When used right, you will actually see people leaning in.  You’ll see that their interest has been peaked.  With a little practice, and a little flair, you will find “the pause” to be one of the most valuable tools in your vocal tool chest.

But wait; there’s more.  Another great way to really grab their attention is to whisper.  Being loud is the only way most people know how to get attention.  However, anyone who has children will tell you, loud doesn’t work.  At least, not very often; but the whisper, now that is an attention grabber.  Again, it makes people think you are telling them a secret.  A whisper is intimate, romantic and inviting.  Do you ever shout sweet nothings into your loved ones’ ear?  Not likely.  Dropping the volume of your voice also forces people to listen harder.  Isn’t that what you want; them to listen?  Of course, you won’t want to over do it.  Not only would it lose it’s impact, but it would be pretty darn annoying.  However, like the pause, it’s another way to build, if only momentarily, a little anticipation. 

Next time – some more tips on effective presentations.

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Kill the “ums”! Those pesty “verbal fillers”

KILL THE UMS – TOP 10 STRATEGIES http://issuu.com/gillantini/docs/web-vol2issue3/3

Have you ever heard someone say something like this?  “So, um, well, I guess you know that, um, we should, like, you know, be doing something about that, um, you know, problem that you, um, have?”  Just typing that was painful.  Listening to it is maddening.   Yet, lots of us talk like that to some extend.  These words are called “verbal fillers”. 

Why do we use “verbal fillers”?  One of the biggest reasons is we hate silence.  If someone isn’t talking (like us), we need to fill the void.  Silence makes us uncomfortable.  Martin Tupper, a 19th century English writer and poet put it well when he said  “Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech”.  Or in other words, silence makes you more eloquent by allowing your listener to reflect on, or interpret what you just said.  If you continue speaking just to fill the silence, those wonderful, inspirational and well-intended words you just spoke can easily be muddled or missed completely as you babble on. 

Another reason why we may use fillers is that we are talking too quickly to allow our thoughts to keep up.  We hesitate, and, to fill the silence that follows, begin to “fill in” the empty space with noise.  Nervousness can also force us to flounder as we cast about in our now blank minds for the thoughts we wanted to express next.  Finally, fillers can be “extra words” that we don’t really need.  If you tell someone, “honestly, this is what we do”, might they think, “so wait, now you’re being honest?  What about before?”  Likewise, you may say, “Basically, this is what do.”  Someone may be inclined to ask, “what are the non-basic things you do?”  Added fillers words simply serve to dilute your message.

Why are fillers so difficult to overcome?  For once, I have an easy answer.  Habit.  You know what a habit is right?  Something that you have done over and over again until it is ingrained in you and seems to be a part of you. 

Some habits are good.  That sweet golf swing or the way you say “thank you” to everybody.  Other habits, not so much.  I would list some here, but the RISBJ only has so much space. 

Back to verbal fillers.  How can you get rid of them?  I have listed here my


  1. Identify your own verbal fillers
  2. Pause
    1. Embrace the silence
    2. Look more thoughtful and confident
  3. Breathe
    1. Reduces stress and relaxes
    2. Build breathing into your normal speech patterns
    3. Fillers sometimes replace proper breathing
    4. Avoid losing track by reducing nervousness
  4. Listen to your own speech
  5. Listen to others
  6. Preparation/practice
    1. Predict and prepare for questions
  7. Body language, presence
  8. Slow down
  9. Monitory your progress.
  10. Improve your vocabulary
    1. Helps to avoid searching for the “right” word


If you would like some help identifying and eliminating your own verbal fillers give me a call.

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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX (but don’t forget the value of the box!)

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again.”  Under any definition, we would call this “out of the box” thinking. 

“People can have the model T in any color they want, as long as it’s black.”  That doesn’t sound very much like “out of the box” thinking, does it?

So how is it that both sayings are attributed to the same man, Henry Ford?  These two statements seem to be in direct opposition.  How can we reconcile them?

Henry Ford was, by any definition, a wildly successful man, celebrated for such out of the box ideas as the modern assembly line, interchangeable parts, and high wages.  Interestingly enough, Henry Ford also did his part for civil rights.  Ford promoted equal opportunity employment from the very beginning of the Ford Motor Company in 1903.  Ford believed that “skill and talent should be utilized without reference to race or color”, and thus hired minorities and trained them for jobs that required skilled labor, working side by side with white workers. 

With such “out of the box” thinking, what’s the story with the “any color they want, as long as it’s black”?  Even with all his out of the box thinking, I believe that Henry also knew the value of the box itself.

Before we look at the obvious values of the out of the box model, we should first look at the box.  Why do we even have the box?  What is the box?

We all have lots of boxes in our lives.  We have

  • Boxes that tell us how to behave in public
  • Boxes that tell us how to behave as husbands, wives, Mothers, Fathers, friends
  • Boxes for how we conduct ourselves at work

Boxes that mark the boundaries of society, behavior, and social mores.

Boxes, boxes and more boxes.

If we look at it this way, many of these boxes are pretty valuable.  I’m sure that you have boxes that are critical to your business.  These boxes contain the tools you need to execute the solutions that the outside the box thinking helps develop.  These boxes contain tools that set rules for decision making, for analyzing data, tracking and managing projects, procedures for getting things done. 

Once Henry Ford established the assembly line, and the concept of interchangeable parts, these because invaluable boxes that allowed the American auto industry to flourish.  Working inside these boxes enabled Detroit to mass produce the automobile and spread the message of American power and influence around the globe.  But, these boxes also became a trap.  The boxes invented by Detroit eventually constrained their thinking.  Their boxes didn’t allow for imaginative and unconventional thinking.  Their perspective, like that of the sled dogs in the back, never changed. 

We need to use the boxes as they were intended, but avoid getting stuck on the inside.  If not for the boxes, we wouldn’t have anything to color out of, would we?

So, how do we think outside the box?  The first thing we need to do is accept that not all parameters, or lines of the box, are a bad thing.  That may sound counter-intuitive, but too much freedom just becomes chaos and will hinder our creatively.  Boundaries give us form and function, which give our ideas depth and breath.  Our creatively has to be anchored somewhere before we can set it free.

Search for random inspiration.  Inspiration from things outside our normal boxes.  Read, watch, study, learn new and different things.   Things totally unrelated to your work.  When you permit your mind to look at different things, your perspective changes.  A change in perspective can be the trigger that allows our minds to take all the input we gather day after day and shake it up and pour it out in all sorts of different ways. 

Outside the box thinking allows us to reframe the problem, or as I mentioned earlier, look at it from a different perspective.  To engage in lateral thinking.  Lateral thinking, a term first coined by Edward de Bono in 1967 means to think about problems in an indirect and creative way.  Lateral thinking is, by definition, out of the box.

Let me tell you a story that wonderfully illustrates out of the box thinking.  A poor farmer owed the bank a large sum of money, which he could not repay.  The banker, an evil fellow had his eye on the farmer’s beautiful daughter.  He suggested that if he could have her hand in marriage, he would forgive the debt.  The farmer and his daughter were horrified and refused.  The banker then said “I will give you a chance to repay the debt and keep your daughter.”  He proposed that they meet him by the river the next day and he would give them the change.  The next day, when they met by the river, the banker told them he would put a black stone, and a white in a bag.  If the daughter picked the white stone out of the bag, the debt would be paid and she would be free.  If she picked the black stone, she would be his wife.  But, when he bent down to pick up the stones, the sharp-eyed daughter saw that he picked up two black stones and put them in the bag. 

What was she to do?  If she refused to pick a stone out of the bag, they would lose their chance to be free of the debt.  If she did pick a stone, it would be black, and she would be forced to marry the banker. 

Being a clever girl, she thought outside the box, or in this case, outside the bag. 

She reached into the bag and picked a stone.  However, when she withdrew her hand, she accidently dropped the stone among all the other black and white stones alongside the river.  She then said “Oh, how careless of me.  But, it is still okay.  All we need to do is look inside the bag and see what color the remaining stone is, and we will then know which color stone I picked.

Out of the box thinking.  How can we foster it in ourselves?  First of all, we should eliminate what may keep us from thinking outside the box.

  1. Do we have a negative attitude?
  2. Are we perfectionists?
  3. Do we see everything as black and white?
  4. Do we immediately make assumptions and stick to them
  5. Do we too often jump to conclusions?
  6. Is our logic inflexible?

So, lets take that list I just gave you and turn it on it’s head.

  1. Eliminate the negative attitude.  For some of us, this can be difficult, but I would start by avoiding negative people.  And, if your co-worker is being negative, call them on it.
  2. Don’t worry about perfection.  EMC has great products.  We have great service.  We have great people.  But, we don’t have perfect products, no matter what marketing may say.  We don’t have perfect service, event though we try to convince our bosses that we do.  We don’t have perfect people.  Just ask anyone around job performance review time.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not promoting mediocrity.  We need to strive for perfection, but we can’t allow this striving to prevent ourselves from moving forward, from taking the risk of trying something different. 
  3. Get your eyes checked.  If you see everything in black and white, ask someone else what color they see, and then imagine it in that color.
  4. Don’t assume.  Enough said about that.
  5. Challenge your conclusions.  Examine it closely before you make that jump.
  6. Be flexible.  In the words of the late senator Dirkson from Illinois “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.”

None of you sitting here today would be here if you weren’t very good at what you do.  None of you would be that good at what you do if you didn’t have at least some ability to think out the box.  To color outside the lines.  

I encourage you to keep pushing the corners of the box.  When you see a little daylight peeking through that corner you know you’re on the right track.  Push harder.  It could get uncomfortable.  That’s a good thing.  As President Kennedy said “ There are risks and costs to a action.  But they are far less than the long range risks and cost of comfortable inaction.”

Let’s be people of action.  People of discomfort.  Let’s not be afraid to pick up those crayons and make a mess.  Who knows what we could come up with?




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Abe knew a thing or two about axes.

Abe said “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the ax.”  Abe knew that if you were  going to do any job right, your most important tool was preparation.  I teach effective speaking, communication skills, and vocal skills.  The most important thing I tell my students is to be prepared for that next communication.  Yes, they need the vocal and communication skills I provide, but if they are not prepared to use them correctly, they won’t do a very good job.  To extend the ax metaphor, if you attempt to cut wood with a dull ax, not only will it take forever, but you will end up doing a lousy job, and you are more apt to hurt yourself when the ax fails to bite into the wood and bounces off.  (Yes, I was a boy scout for many years.)

Don’t be the one who goes into a meeting unprepared and without your “tools” sharp and ready to use.  Your conversation or sales pitch will be dull, lousy, and bounce right off your prospective client.