Category Archives: general thoughts

It’s all about control

A long time ago, I used to work as a lighting designer, specialising in touring with dance companies. I mixed with all kinds of people, and that’s how I met Alison, a professional singer (soprano), working in Scotland.

Even before that, a mentor of mine, (hi Mel!) had explained to me that pressure and stress aren’t the same thing.  No matter how much pressure you’re under, if you can handle it (or think you can!) it’s just pressure. If you don’t think you can handle it, it’s stress. It doesn’t matter how much pressure you’re really under – what matters is if you believe you can cope. Simple…

And one of the things that help you cope is feeling like you’re in control.

Let’s go back to Alison, and I’ll show you what I mean.

On Sunday, I met her in a bar in one of the big railway stations in London. We’d both been working there and it was a convenient place to meet before we caught trains back to different parts of the country to go home. Stressed, anxious and upset, Alison threw her work diary onto the table and ranted about the opera company she was working for…

It’s ridiculous! Look at how much work they’re making me do. I can’t keep it up!  I’m making myself ill and I’m damaging my voice!

She didn’t actually cry, but there were tears of desperation hovering in her eyes.

We talked and one of the things we talked about (other than the silly price of the beer!) was the fact that Alison was about to quit and become self-employed.  And six months later when we met up again in very similar circumstances (different pub but the same idea) she’d done the deed and was now working for herself. This time there were no tears as she tossed her diary onto the table for me to see, declaring

It’s fantastic, look how much work I’ve got!  I can barely keep up!

I looked down at her diary and say – you’ve guessed it – that she was working more or less exactly the same amount, for the same people, doing the same things, as she had been the last time we met.

The only difference was that she was doing it for herself and felt like she was in control.

What can you do, to  get that feeling, no matter how high the pressure of work?

Confidence and Nervousness

Like a lot of people, I watched some of the Commonwealth Games recently. (And why not? Not only is it fun, but we’ve trained quite a few of the people involved, in one way or another!). My friend Alan Stevens recently posted on the Professional Speaking Association’s Facebook group a comment from one of the shooters, saying that they didn’t feel under pressure from the other competitors – they had to do what they had to do, and ignore everyone else.

Of course, that’s an easier tactic to take in shooting than in some other sports, such as racing, where you’re interacting a lot more with everyone else, but it is a useful analogy in some ways, and it got me thinking about other sporting metaphors that are useful in the real world… (whatever the real world is!).

The one that leapt to my mind was the idea of being both confident and nervous at the same time. (It’s something we’ve written about in the presentation skills blog but it has wider implications too.)

My experience is that people assume that confident people aren’t nervous. It follows that if they are nervous they mustn’t be confident. From that, in turn, follows a lot of in-head negativity. The thing is, I beg to differ.

Sure, confidence and nervousness aren’t independent but they aren’t a one-to-one match, either. Stay with me for a minute and I’ll explore what I mean.

Being confident and not nervous

For me, this is the land of arrogance and over-confidence. It’s the land of people who don’t care what other people think and who are so very sure of their skills that they’ve got no need to be nervous. To me, that smacks of either arrogance or that they’re doing something which they’re not engaged with – there’s nothing riding on the outcome. Things like ‘doing the washing up’ aside, that’s a pretty sad place to be in, isn’t it? It means you’re not pushing, you’re not trying and you’re not growing.

Being unconfident and nervous

The fear zone. This is the land of mistakes and anxiety, of paranoia.  And to me it sounds like an indicator that you’ve reached too far, gambled too high a stake and are too far out of your comfort zone.

Something’s gone wrong if you’re here.  Perhaps you’re doing something just because you were told to, counter to your skill-set. Or perhaps you’re like this just because you’ve not prepared enough, not had enough training, not done enough practice.

The long and the short of it is that if you’re in this place, you shouldn’t be and you’ve got to ask yourself two questions.

  • What can I do to get out of it; and
  • What can I do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

Pretty obviously two of the answers are going to be practise and training!

Being not confident and not nervous

Truth to tell, I can only imagine being in this place if I was either very drunk (very, very drunk!) or doing something I didn’t care about. At this point the key question is why I’m bothering to do this at all – it’s time to move on.

Being confident and nervous

For me, this is the performance zone.   This is where I’m nervous in case things go wrong, but confident in my ability to handle them if (when!) then do. This is where being confident allows me to take risks, and so achieve great things, but also where being nervous keeps me on my toes. If I’m nervous, it means it matters: and if I’m confident it means I’m prepared.

Perfect, eh?


Continually learning – the how!

I’ve read – over and over and over – that it’s important to carry on learning. I agree. Learning from your mistakes is better than fretting over them, worrying or just feeling guilty…

Of course, that’s easier said than done!

It’s human nature to worry about what went wrong and to compare ourselves to other people or (worse) compare ourselves to the fictionalised, apparently perfect, demi-god-like versions of other people. Comparison can be good, too – it helps us learn, to grow and improve.

The problem, it seems to me, lies in how we make those comparisons and how we learn.

If we have a system for learning it makes it easier.  Instead of just fretting over what we did wrong and saying to ourselves “Must do better next time”, if we have a process for how we plan to “do better next time” we can take those actions and close down the worry, knowing that we’ve learned what we can.

We use two systems here, which might be useful for people.  The first is our simply Ties and Flies lists and the second is the Rolfe methodology.

Ties and Flies is the generic name we give to all our preparation checklists. They got this name because the first one we created was called this – and in turn the list got it’s name from the last item on the list… things we check before we go on stage to give a presentation! (There’s nothing going to undermine your confidence more on stage than wondering if your fastened your flies or if your tie is straight! :) )

The thing that might need a bit more talking about is the Rolfe thing. We like to do a bit of self-reflection after every event, gig, training event, project, whatever, that we do. It’s easy to dwell on the negatives but having the Rolfe approach to give this reflection a structure is very helpful.

Essentially the Rolfe method consists of asking yourself the questions ‘what’ three times – or more specifically

  • what?
    What happened?  What is the incident of note that you’re interested in?  Did you forget to bring something? Was someone particularly interested in something? Did an attendee think the course started at a different time?
  • so what?
    What were the consequences of this? Were they significant and if so in what way? Were the consequences positive or negative?
  • now what?
    What can you do about the event? If it was a positive event/effect, how can you adjust your working to make it happen again? If it was a problem, how can you set up a system to stop it happening again?

We love it – not least because of its simplicity. Anything more complicated and we would resist using it after a long, hard training session! This is simplicity itself.  (Rolfe is now how our Ties and Flies lists get updates, for example.)

Speaking of examples, let’s work one through, using Rolfe.


A fuse blew

So what?

A data projector stopped working suddenly which means that a video the audience were watching suddenly vanished!  (And the life-expectancy of the projector’s lamp was also reduced).

Now what?

All our equipment has the correct spare fuse taped to the plug. It might not stop the fuse blowing but it means that we can replace it (with the right amp’d fuse) in the minimum time possible.

Nice, isn’t it! :)

Assertiveness vs aggression vs arrogance vs real life!

The difference between being aggressive and being assertive is an interesting one and it’s sometimes a challenge for anyone who isn’t used to being either. All too often people realise that being the walked-over-passive-type isn’t working for them and flip to being aggressive… ironically becoming the very type of person that they found difficult themselves and making other people’s lives a misery.

This brief blog just highlights a few of the common misconceptions about assertive and aggressive behaviour. It isn’t intended as a full explanation!

Myth 1 – aggressive people are rude. Well true, they can be. But it’s also possible to be both polite and aggressive. The working definition of aggressive that we take in our training (which is designed for an office/workplace environment) is that aggression is when you don’t take due account of the other person’s rights and/or integrity. It doesn’t matter how politely you phrase you instruction or putdown, it’s aggression.  “You need to work this weekend” can be said in the most friendly tone of voice imaginable but if you’re riding roughshod over the other person’s right to say they don’t want to (or can’t) work that weekend, it’s aggression.

Myth 2 – aggression is the best way to get what you want. It might be in the short term, but all it does in the long term is build up resentment. People will fight you whenever they can. If they don’t feel able to stand up to you directly, they’ll find ways of undermining you indirectly. For example, following on from the example above, you might be able to force them to come into the office on Saturday, but how do you think you’re going to force them to be productive…?

Myth 3 – aggressive people are strong. Well I’m sure some of them are, but all to often aggression is brittle and is being used to hide a level of insecurity. After all, it’s easier to bully someone into doing something for you than it is to tell them you don’t know how to do it and then ask them to show you how!

In reality, no one expects you to know everything, so there’s no shame in asking for help.

Myth 4 – aggression is efficient. Really? If you force me to make you a cup of tea by being aggressive, what’s going to happen the next time you want a cup of tea? You’re going to have to bully me again. And again. And again. Annnddddd agaiiiinn… Each time you do that, you’ll find it gets harder and harder as I become more and more resistant. Even if it’s not a direct row, I’m going to spoil your cup – too much milk or too little. Even if you correct me and force me to make you a fresh one it’s taking your time and energy. Believe me, I can make you spend more time, energy and effort forcing me to make you a cup of tea than it would have taken you to make it yourself! And what about the next time? You’ve got to start the battle of attrition all over again. And I’m certainly never going to make you a cup of tea voluntarily!

Myth 5 – aggressive people are charismatic. Tosh. Sometimes charismatic people are aggressive, sure, but that’s a different thing entirely. Charismatic people are charismatic for a whole range of reasons, none of them particularly to do with being aggressive – although my experience is that they can often be aggressive if they need to be.

Myth 6 – aggression is always wrong. I believe in explaining things to people so that they’re on your side. (If you can’t do that you either need to get better at explaining things or you’re in the wrong yourself – learn from that!). However, there are times when there simply isn’t time to be reasonable – in the face of an emergency, for example. But even here, think about it – do you know the story of the boy who cried “Wolf!”? If you’re known for being aggressive, you’ll be less effective than if you’re not: in the latter case, people are more likely to realise you’re being aggressive for a reason and not fight back.

So there you go – a few aggression at work myths. There’s nothing there that’s not common sense when you think about it, is there?  So why is there so often aggression in the office?!

Here’s a thought to leave you with – You can’t control the other person. If they’re being aggressive, being aggressive back isn’t going to do much other than leave you both exhausted.  Why not try doing something different? :)


Staying positive.

speed_limit_50I’m 50, according to my Birth Certificate. As my (otherwise lovely) elder daughter just said “How does it feel to be half a century, Dad?!”

Thing is, in my head I’m about 29.

This whole ‘growing up’ thing has come as something of a shock… and it’s been a heck of a year. So much has happened, a lot of it not good, that I’m finally beginning to understand why the ancient Chinese curse of “May you live in interesting times!” is actually a curse!

Until a few days ago I felt a bit beaten up, and very, very depressed. I wasn’t fighting back much when things went wrong – except out of pure stubborn-ness.

Why? Because as I cast my mind back over the year it had been such a bad one – I’d lost friends and contracts.

Fortunately, my wife (who if she’s reading this should be a officially recognised as a saint) reminded me of my year’s log. It’s not a diary as such, just a logging of the good things.

For good evolutionary reasons we’re programmed to remember the bad times more easily than the good, so keeping a log of the good times/things/activities/outcomes/moments helps to balance this tendency. For the life of me I can’t remember the researcher who recommended it (but if I had to guess I’d say it was Prof Martin Selegman) but I’ve found it to be a remarkably useful tool for putting the negative memories in context.

Of course, it’s easier said than done, so here are some tools and tricks to help you do it.

  • A paper diary. It’s easy to underestimate the value of good ol’ analogue. There’s something about writing things down with a good quality pen in a good quality book that feels better than just typing, no matter how cool your computer. I recommend you use a diary that has the days marked off in it, so that if you forget/miss a day you’ll see that you’ve done so. Jot down the good stuff – including (very importantly!) the days when nothing happened of particular significance. These are the days when nothing happened, when nothing went wrong. These are the days you’ll forget about otherwise, remembering only the ‘interesting/bad’ days.
  • A blog. You don’t have to publish it to the world if you don’t want to! What’s more, it’s got the added advantage of being with you everywhere you go (almost) so you can update it easily when you’re traveling etc. The downside is that it’s all too easy to neglect it if you’re under pressure – you might want to consider a plug-in that ‘nags’ you to write an entry
  • Your phone (or iPad). Speaking of nagging, why not just set your smartphone to nag you nag you when you go to bed? That way, you never forget to think about the good things at least once a day… What’s more, there are some handy apps which will help.
  • Children. If you’ve got young children that you put to bed still (bed time stories and ritual) it’s worth considering a good-things-debrief with them.  My kids are waaaaaay too old for this now (I go to bed before them) and I can’t promise it works because I’ve not tried it, but someone on one of our recent training courses recommended it – she said it worked really, really well for her. If she ever forgot, her daughter reminded her in no uncertain terms! :)
  • A simple wall calendar. Ticks and crosses on a calendar is a great visual reminder that the bad days (red crosses) are the odd-days-out when you see them surrounded by green ticks!

That’s it!  I’m sure you guys can think of a better, longer list. Whatever works for you, works!  The important thing isn’t how you record it but that you record it (in enough detail for you to get the idea of things going well and to put the bad days into context.

New Company Social Responsibility

We’re proud of what we do. We’re proud of the way we do it, too.

What I mean is that we don’t just take our training seriously, we take our other responsibilities seriously too. We’ve got a strong Corporate Social Responsibility programme – despite not being very ‘corporate’! ;)

It’s new, and it’s a development on our old 13% policy. What’s more, it wasn’t written by us. It was written for us by a specialist in helping the charity and not-for-profit sector called Gerry Beldon, and his company called 26-01.

It goes like this… We’re going to provide five full days of training per year at absolutely no charge what-so-ever, for people who are working in the charity or not-for-profit sector…  That’s five days that you can sign up for… either one day or all five days… or anything in between…

We’re going to be launching this fab new approach just after the summer, so watch this space for the details of what courses we’re offering and how you can get onto one (or more!) of them!

It’s not often we think Seth’s wrong…

… but I think he misses the mark here:

I know plenty of people who’re negative at meetings for the sake of it, but just being negative isn’t a sin. Looking at the details isn’t a sin. Checking out what could go wrong isn’t a sin. Looking at the worst case scenario isn’t a sin.

It’s just different…

It’s often very handy to have this kind of person in your meetings… they stop people like me from making decisions without thinking through the possible consequences, of shooting from the hip.

Okay, so being negative just because you can is frustrating for the rest of the people around the table, but it’s not a hanging offence!  And often being nit-picky is handy! :)

Platinum and diamonds

I just bought my wife an Eternity Ring. (Technically it’s a semi-eternity ring because the diamonds only go half way around.) It’s wonderful how nice and polite people are in shops when you say you want to spend a lot of money on platinum and diamonds. :)

Eternity ring

Eternity ring - not my wife's but like it! ;)

Why platinum? Because our wedding rings are platinum, that’s why.  But what’s important is that platinum is a lot more expensive than gold.


Because it’s a lot less common than gold.

What’s this got to do soft skills? Cialdini’s six principles of influence include one called ‘Scarcity’, that’s what. On this list it’s number six.

Let’s take an example, which will make things a bit more obvious, I hope. Because people want things more if they can’t have it (why do you think sales “must end this weekend”? Or why do you suppose there are limited editions of cars, collectors cards or… well almost anything!). A lot of our work is done in-house for what we call our internal client: this internal client is responsible for selling places on our courses to the workforce where they work. Often this ‘internal client’ is one of the company’s HR team.

Instead of sending and email around everyone in Workplace X saying ‘There are are 18 places on the training place next month about MBTI, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator” our internal client says “There are only 18 place on the training place next month.”

The difference is critical.

By implying that there’s not much of me to go around, it makes people want us more… :)

The only hard part to using this technique is finding a way to describe what you’ve got as relatively rare.  For example, when you email us, one of the things we might mention is that we’re currently totally booked up for the next two months.

Oh yes, something else… A moral point!

You have to be ethical. We won’t be telling you that if it’s not true. It is. It’s just that we decide to to say it… ;)

As an aside, saying how busy we are not only hits the mark in term of Cialdini’s ‘scarcity’ tool, it is also a good example of another of his principles, that of ‘social proof’. After all, if lots of other people are using our training, it implies it’s good.

The trick for using it in your working environment is to find people that the person you’re talking to regards as peers and agree with you. Something like “After all, it’s what they’re doing on the day shift now, have been for months!”

Again, be ethical: it has to be true!


Thoughts from a cafe…. ;)

“Soft skills – ahhhhh, wish I could take time to learn the easy stuff: I’ve got too much to do, just with my real job!”

If we had a couple of quid for every time I’d heard that, or something like it, we’d barely have to work every again.

The thing is though, it misses the point.

In today’s world it’s not a question of “the real job plus…” because the soft skills are the real job.

Technical skills alone don’t cut it. Technical skills alone don’t differentiate you from the competition. Technical skills these days are taken as a starting point. They’re the baseline, they’re a given.

These days the differentiator is the so-called ‘soft skills’.

Make no mistake, by the way, soft skills are hard – but that’s a different issue, perhaps.

Think about it… if there are two people in front of you and both of them can do their job, which of them are you going to pick? The one who can talk about his job, too, of course.  And if everyone can do the job but only one of them can talk about it?

You get the idea, I’m sure.

(By the way, I’m not alone in this thought: the erudite Mind Tools site has a similar, but more in-detail post.)

So what’s the point? The point is that anyone who wants to get on in their job – particularly if that job isn’t simple repetitive/mechanical work – needs to up their game. The kinds of training you need to do your job aren’t the kinds of tools you need in management and leadership.

What got you here won’t get you there.

That means you need to get your soft skills up to spec.. .and the less you agree, the more you need to! ;)


The speed of training.

I’ve been prompted to write this by a feedback form (only 23/25, shock horror!) that suggested the the content, the materia, the most important bit of our training, could have been delivered in an hour less.

They’re right, it could have been.

Instead of finishing at half past four, we could have delivered the material more quickly and finished at half past three in the afternoon. It would certainly have been easier for us (we’d have avoided bad travel conditions) and very popular amongst the people on the course.

And it wasn’t as if we didn’t know this before we started (hey, we’re expert trainers after all!).

So why didn’t we? Why didn’t we go for the easy hit?

Because training it’s not about what we say, it’s about what people hear. It’s not about how fast we can deliver material, it’s about how fast people can receive that material. It’s not about how short a time we can make it take to get information into people’s heads – it’s about how long a time we can make it stay there!

By taking that extra hour over the day, we had time for what we call ‘embedding exercises’.

Training is only effective if it sticks – if people can not only receive it, absorb it and recall it – but only if they can then apply it. By allowing time for reflection and for having a go, for things like looking at case studies and discussing personal circumstances, we make it much (much!) more likely that what we train people in can and will be applied…

…that it will be used to make a difference in the real world.

For us, it’s all about use, not convenience.