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About Bird's Eye View
From global dialogues engaging thousands, to tete-a tetes, to everything in between, I’ve got the greatest gig in the world: I get paid to engage the world’s greatest business and thought leaders in conversation. Significant conversation. I do a lot of other stuff, too, but basically I’m obsessed with conversation.
I’ve been asked to share my views on the power of conversation—especially as it’s exemplified in word of mouth marketing techniques. My preference is the gold standard of conversation” the kind of face to face, one-on-one dialogue that’s getting increasingly rare.
If you think about it, face to face conversation is the new luxury.
It’s so easy to “communicate” through technology-assisted means that some of us have trouble remembering the last truly fascinating, life-changing conversation we’ve had.
So there’s something a bit weird about my writing a blog about the most memorable conversations I’ve had. But I’m doing it to stir your appetite for significant conversation. We’ll share some of the remarkable conversations I’ve been privileged to have with people all over the world. Some are extraordinary leaders in business and public life; others just ordinary folks with extraordinary things to say. And I’ll throw in some conversational tips along the way, as well as comments from other people on the subject of talk, conversation…even just plain gab.
Whichever way you like it, I hope you’ll find inspiration here to go off and have a scintillating conversation of your own.
I’ll give you recommendations for initiating meaningful conversation as well as for places and activities that are worth talking about. Let me know what you find especially provocative or fascinating or enlightening or all the above. And, of course, tell me if any of this is wrong-headed, stupid, arbitrary or, worst of all, boring.
People have asked me for more information about the annual "State of the Union" exercise my husband and I put together. Every year on December 31 we meet for a conversation in which we review our accomplishments of the past year and plan, together, for the new year. Here's how it works:
We put together a review of the past year (my husband, a former banker, does the financial stuff and I add other items of importance to us). Independently, we put together our plans and wishes for the new year. We have several areas for discussion and we each put down our goals for the year in each category: financial (including potential investments, insurance, etc).; career; personal (as in a massage every month ; exercise X times a week, etc); children; vacation; interpersonal (what we want to do together). We end up with a calendar on which we have the timeline roughly outlined, and steps that need to be taken in order to accomplish the goals, with responsibilities for necessary steps, so it's clear who is doing what.
When we meet, we start with a review of the past year. What worked, what didn't. Then we move to the new year and what each of us wants to accomplish. Then we come up with our mutual plan for the year, so that each of us feels we've been heard and we tweak it until we're both excited and committed to the plan. That's pretty much it. Takes the better part of a day. Last year, we had an initial discussion and then separated for several hours while each of us worked on revisions to our individual plans based on the initial conversation. Then we met again and pulled together our blueprint for the year which included our agreement to sell our house in Connecticut, travel for 2 weeks to Italy or France, go to Asia at least once, work on building my husband's "Trusted Advisory" business (he's the world's best business coach, in my view), etc. We accomplished all that stuff, but there were other things we didn't. We allow ourselves to revisit and shift the plan during the year as needed, just as you do in a business.
One of my friends said "Good Lord! This looks like work...I mean real WORK!" after I described the process. Yes, I suppose so, but we take pride in it and feel energized by the whole thing. After it's over, we celebrate New Years Eve. And feel privileged that we have lots to celebrate, as well as anticipate in the coming year. I'd love to hear how others do this.
OK, more evidence that I spoke waaaaay too soon when I glibly posted the other day (in "Musings on Conversational Writing") that email communications rarely rise to the standard of conversation. First, Jeffrey Rubin raised a question about it (see yesterday's post entitled "Maybe I'm Wrong") and now, Brett Rogers, an Iowan who has his own provocative conversational blog going, wrote me to say:
"I love the idea of pushing conversations. That's really what we're all hoping for - through the window of our computer's screen: a conversation. Touch, in a virtual world. I know that I approach my read of blogs in the hope of gaining some nugget that transforms me into more than I was for the experience. Gotta love those 'A-ha!' moments."
In effect, what both Jeffrey and Brett are reminding me of is that aside from purely business communications, there are plenty of other verbal exchanges taking place on the web and many of them–forget the mere chattering and noisy rants–rise to the standard of conversation.
I stand corrected...and welcome more examples of provocative, occasionally wise, sometimes even life-changing ongoing conversations on the Internet.
"Susan, I agree that emails often don't rise to the level of genuine conversation - in which one is, in some important way, expanded - but I wonder if that is inherent in the form or more related to the spirit of the senders and the receivers? Could we - don't we - write some emails with a willingness to see the world from the different, and unique perspective, of the other person so that we might challenge our own cherished viewpoints? Then perhaps a generative dialogue might be stimulated...."
Jeffrey is right, of course. In fact, his comment illustrates the kind of thoughtful perspective that I stated is rarely the stuff of emails. He's right; I'm wrong. Perhaps because the majority of my email activities are associated with my business, my perspective is stunted. No, as I write this, I realize there is no "perhaps" here; my perspective IS stunted. Because the nature of business does not allow for such multi-layered, inquisitive introspection. Maybe I'll have to make a plan to write and read more email conversational exchanges in 2007.
One of my treasured holiday gifts this year is actually a corporate gift, this one from Alan Siegel, Chairman and CEO of Siegel+Gale, the super smart strategic branding firm. Alan sent the recently updated version of The Elements of Style, originally written in 1918 by Cornell University professor William Strunk, Jr., and updated in 1959 by E.B. White, a one-time student of Strunk and the author of classics like Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web and many more. As Alan says "ten million copies later, [White's Elements of Style] remains the only book on commas that is, indisputably, a classic."
This most recent version adds pictures, by Illustrator Maira Kalman who, among other achievements, did the "Newyorkistan" cover for The New Yorker.
Elements of style was standard issue for English majors in college (I assume it still is) and considered the ultimate authority on issues of rules of English usage and composition.
Here's a comment from the Foreword in this version, written by Roger Angell, himself a noted man of letters and, as it happens, the stepson of E.B. White. He notes about this latest version that "what is not here is anything about E-mail--the results-free, lower case flow that cheerfully keeps us in touch these days. E-mail is conversation, and it may be replacing the sweet and endless talking we once sustained (and tucked away) within the informal letter. But we are all writers and readers as well as communicators, with the need at times to please and satisfy ourselves (as White put it) with the clear and almost perfect thought."
I'm struck by Angell's comment "E-mail is conversation." Really? I would argue it is more often simply chat, and rarely rises to the level of conversation, at least as defined by my hero Theodore Zeldin, who says that the great conversations are those that we "start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person." Conversations are true exchanges in which both parties are, in at least some small way, transformed.
I'd venture to say that rarely, if ever, do emails I receive--and send--meet that standard.
Do you get a truckload of Christmas cards delivered by mail from vendors, clients, business colleagues? Which are the ones you enjoy receiving? Are they the ones that have the corporation's or the executive's name printed on the card under a printed greeting?...or are they the ones on which someone has bothered to handwrite a comment,or at least sign their own name (and I mean sign their OWN name, not have their assistant sing their name)? Bingo!
I'm amazed at how many companies go to the expense and trouble to send out holiday greetings that underscore the wrong message. By sending out cards that have no personal touch, nothing handwritten, no message that suggests the card I received was intended just for me, a company and its executives send a message that they may want to connect with their customers or business colleagues but are too busy or too important to make it personal.
Holiday greetings face the same challenge that all marketing messages face, namely the clutter of so much noise in the marketplace. In fact, in 2002 (the latest year we could find stats for) nearly two billions Christmas cards were mailed out.
In this age of connective marketing, it's important to take seriously the power of "making it personal", signing your own name--in short, letting me know you
So what about ecards? Are they worse? Some of them are. In fact most of them are awful, cloying, too cute, impersonal. But some I got this year were marvelous. First of all, they were clearly created by the sender (or the sender's company) so the message, however commercial, reflected some careful thought. And they all contained some personal comment from the person who sent it to me, generally at the top or the bottom of the message. That means they had to bother to personalize it. Takes time. But the message came through and I was, well, touched. Above is the ecard I got from an executive at the New York Stock Exchange. I found it so beautiful I sent it on to others...proving that a terrific marketing message that creates an emotional tug will get passed around, expanding the message. That's connective marketing at its best.
We held another of our Inner Circle programs last week. Usually, it's about a dozen senior level execs of leading (most often global) corporations. At this one there were 15 of us, representing a broad spectrum of industries from financial services to apparel manufacture and distribution, to health care, to market research, to advertising. The topic was "Trends in Marketing: How Leading Companies are Connecting with Customers and Clients". And the collective view was clear: the customer rules and there is no way to "control" one's corporate message in the marketplace. So the answer (according to many of those taking part in the Inner Circle) is to focus on the core values of your company, do exceptional work that is clearly reflective of those values, and then engage enthusiastic customers who have the ability to influence others to help you spread the word.
In other words, "connective marketing" is the name of the game in virtually every business. Word of mouth may be the oldest tool on the planet but has taken on new importance, especially in light of the clutter of marketing messages from so many sources. Individuals demonstrate the erosion of their trust in formerly sacrosanct sources (large pharmaceuticals; soda distributors; financial advisers; their religious community) and turn in increasingly large numbers to friends and family to get information before making purchases. And "friends and family" now includes people they've never met but know through on-line communities they trust.
I know I've written about this before but still find it fascinating that there's so much energy expended around this issue. In my post Is Are Folks Down Under Going Down Under? we talked about New Zealand passing legislation to allow kids to use text messaging language on exams, and in my post Kids Can't Talk, about the sloppy use of words like "whatever" instead of making the effort to more fully explain one's self.
In any event, Cingular plans to hold a series of interactive “texting bees” around the country next year for parents to learn the basics of sending text messages to their children.
Does this make sense? Haven’t kids always figured out a way to communicate out of earshot—or even understanding (think Pig Latin)—of their parents? Should teens be allowed to build their own culture of communication, without adults rushing in to take part? Or is there an important safety issue here, or at least an issue of parents showing an interest in their kids’ activities, since teens spend so much time on their cell phones?
On my wish list for Christmas is a new book by the prolific David Crystal (who's written 50 or more books, mostly on language), this one called How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die. I can't wait to get my hands on this tome, which Crystal compares to a car manual, in that one can pick it up and read different independent sections, depending on one's interest. He covers, says the review by Paul Dickson (himself a prolific writer) in Monday's New York Times, "lexicography, grammar, comparative linguistics...dialects, dyslexia, discourse, multilingualism and more." And there's a section on sign languages, which he declares as genuine languages (not simply a sophisticated system of gestures). Now that I've gotten to know Malkah Spivak-Birndorf, a teacher of the deaf and a passionate advocate for sign language (as opposed to lip reading) for the deaf, I'm especially excited about reading that section.
Clearly, this is catnip to a fiend like me for conversation and its origins. If you've already read the book and have some comments, I'd love to hear them. Otherwise, stay tuned. I'll let you know what I think.
Author of I is for Intercourse: The ABC's of Conversation, Susan Bird is the visionary behind Wf360, and a sought-after speaker around the world for her views on leadership, the strategic importance of conversation, entrepreneurship, and the role of women business leaders.
Susan's provocative addresses are geared toward helping people and organizations use conversation strategically to achieve no less than the transformation of their businesses, their careers, and the world. Learn more about Susan
Look Who's Talking
"It was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much." - Yogi Berra