Connecting the dots between customers, colleagues and community

Mari Pat's Communication Missive Vol.11


Communication ideas to

engage, influence and move

others to action.


September 2011
MP new head shotDear Clients, Colleagues and Community,

"Music is only love looking for words," said Lawrence Durrell.  I appreciate the sentiments expressed.  Words shape our world.  They give voice to our ideas and influence others.  My missive this quarter focuses primarily on words - the language we use to describe our world, our goals and our point of view.  I encourage you to leverage this opportunity to reflect on what you say and how you say it.

Recently, during a media workshop I conducted, the group was challenged to take overused phrases/concepts and give them a fresh coat of paint. They all responded to how the use of new words and refreshed definitions caused them to think differently - and more broadly - about commonplace ideas.

Some that the group shared are:
  • Tough on Crime could be Smart on Crime
  • Performance Appraisals could be Opportunity Reviews
  • Retirement could be Reinvention

Try this exercise whenever you are looking to talk about something in a new way.  Wake up your listeners and those you want to influence by designing and delivering your message in a memorable way.  It will be music to their ears!


Mari Pat Varga


Varga & Associates, Inc. 


Make Meaning
Hear it again, for the first time

How do we manage to get and hold people's attention these days when we are inundated with information? 


How can we introduce ourselves in a more vibrant way?


One of the ways you can begin is to describe the work you do differently.


Here are some recent examples I've heard from my clients:

The Usual:  I'm a staffing specialist...
The Unexpected:  I put great people to work!

The Usual:  I'm a management consultant...
The Unexpected:  I make business leaders soar through high performing teams.

The Usual:  I'm a teacher...
The Unexpected:  I'm an education lifeguard.

The Usual:  I'm a sales rep...
The Unexpected:  I sell game-changing innovation.

The Usual:  I'm a strategic planner...
The Unexpected:  I'm a business chess

Some you may like, others you may not but when used, they do get the listener's attention.  And really what we want in networking situations is for people to stop and say, "What, huh?  What exactly do you do, again?"


Dan, Dilbert and the Words we Use
How language can turn us on or off


Recently,  I ran into my neighbor, Dan, after we had both parked our cars in our respective garages and were making our way through our backyards to the house. Being the friendly neighbor that I aspire to be, I said to Dan, "Hey, how was your day?" He looked at me and said with a straight face, "Well, I've been on quite a transformative journey! I have shifted many of my paradigms, increased my intellectual bandwidth, clarified my understanding of our company's vision and I'm fully engaged and on-board! After a second or two trying to determine if he was for real, we both started to laugh.


He went on to describe how he began his day thinking he had walked into a Dilbert comic strip. His work team had been pulled together to review their processes and practices to determine how they impact the customer experience. Their focus together (it was the start of a three day retreat) was to re-invent the way they served their customers.


Dan went on to tell me - all kidding aside - that the day had been very productive and eye-opening and he thought the work they were doing together was not only important but was also energizing. The only thing that got in the way, he said, was the facilitator's excessive use of jargon. He said there were grins and smirks and a few rolling eyes as the session started and it wasn't until they were a few hours in were they able to overlook the corporate-speak and begin to find value in the process.


Are you guilty? Likely we all are to some extent. I believe that business jargon can serve a purpose. At best it is communication shorthand (for those who speak the same language) to convey larger concepts, issues or problems. For instance, saying that a certain initiative is "mission-critical" is an abbreviated way of saying "focus on the XYZ assignment immediately because if we don't accomplish this well, the future of our project is in jeopardy." At worst, if over-used, it becomes white noise and no one pays attention. AND, as in Dan's case, that overuse can be a distraction and a turn-off.


In a recent FORTUNE blog , writer, Jim Nichols, shared two questions you should ask yourself to help  to eliminate corporate speak. 


1.Who is my audience? Yes, your audience may use corporate speak. However, your message may be more effective by avoiding corporate speak in such an environment. Go through your writing and identify any words that your loved ones won't understand. This doesn't work in technical documents, but it will in 99% of everything else. If you can use plain, short language in a land of corporate speak you'll be amazed at the response.


2.Why am I using that word or sentence? Many people use corporate speak because it makes them sound smarter. Most people assume "sounding professional" is the same as "sounding smart." It's not. Let your intelligence shine through your ideas. People often use complicated sounding words simply to sound intelligent. Don't be that guy (or girl)!


Imbedded in Jim's questions is the central idea to think before you speak (or write). Recognize that what might be a pedestrian habit to you is akin to nails scrapping a blackboard to another. Notice that what you view as an expedient way of communicating may be perceived as lazy or pretentious.


Dan told me that while the speaker ultimately proved his value, the time wasted at the session's start could have been eliminated if the speaker focused on building rapport with the audience in a more authentic way. If he took time to ask himself - what language should I use to engage this audience? Are there phrases and expressions I typically use that might be foreign or even offensive to this group? Is there a way to share with my audience why I use the words I use? For instance, if you favor terms like "journey" and "transformation" let the audience in on it. Say, "You will hear me today refer to this endeavor as a journey...I use that word for a very specific reason and let me share why..."


The words we use shape the relationships we have and the experiences we create. Take the extra step to ensure the words you use have meaning not only for our audiences but for yourself as well.



The danger of a single story
One version is not enough

Nigerian Novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, spoke at a TED conference where she shared the "danger of a single story."  In that one phrase she captured the essence of a huge dilemma for many.  Making sweeping judgements about a person, country or situation after only hearing one version of the story.  When we do that we risk a critical misunderstanding. It is a simple truth that is extraordinarily wise.

So, the next time you hear someone say, "Don't ever go to ___________ it is very unsafe."  Respond with, "Thank you and I will continue to seek more information."

Or if someone says, "You shouldn't trust him." Say, "Thank you for the advice and I will seek more information."

Know the whole story first.

Digital Natives
Born this way...

My daughter is 15.  She is a high school freshman and a competitive volleyball player.  She is also a digital native.   

Youth and Media describes those children born into a world of advanced, sophisticated technology as "living in a culture of connectivity, of public display, of sharing, of feedback, of constant availability and of global citizenship." They have grown up with smart phones, ipods, YouTube and text messaging, to name a few.  To learn more, visit: digital natives

I am not one to stand in the way of progress and I certainly embrace technology as much as any other Baby Boomer.  But I worry.  I worry that face-to-face communication is becoming a lost art.

I hear clients share their frustration around the gaps they see in the abilities of their workforce's youngest members:
  • "They need to know how to organize and conduct an in-person meeting."
  • "I want them to know how to mingle at a networking event."
  • "Simple conversation at a client luncheon is challenging!"

Technology is good but I like to think of it as a  tool that facilitates the opportunity to go high touch.  When it is relied upon too heavily, however, we may forget how to engage face-to-face and toe to toe.   

Digital natives bring extraordinary value to the workplace AND there are things you can do to support them in areas that may not be their natural strengths or orientation.  


  1. Study Up.  Just as a Baby Boomer like myself might sit through any number of classes at an Apple Store or online to learn how to use all the latest technology - so too can a digital native take a class on how to facilitate a meeting or network effectively.  
  2. Break Bread together.  Create opportunities to practice table manners with an etiquette coach. Or invite your most well mannered friends to dinner - with their digital native children (and yours) and make it a fun, competitive event by offering prizes to the most correctly answered etiquette questions.  
  3. Write a thank you card.  I come from a family tradition of letter writing and thank you cards (for everything) - encourage the digital natives in your life to forgo the mouse the next time they may want to fire off a thank you e-mail, and get them to run to the stationary store, buy cards and experiment with sending a note.  Ask, how did it make you feel?  What do you think it meant to the recipient? 
  4. Invite them to join you.  Have them accompany you and participate (with coaching) in as many meetings as you can.  Ask them to observe, take notes and even critique you on what they felt work and didn't - from an interpersonal perspective. 

Digital natives were, in many cases, born this way.  Born into a world of connectivity through technology.  That brings with in advantages and areas ripe for coaching.   


For more solutions, ask us about our "Old School Communication in the Digital Age" series of workshops. 


Quirky Quotables
Great expressions from unlikely sources

My office shelves are lined with books of quotations.  I also have my favorite quote websites bookmarked for when I need the perfect quote for an specific occasion or speech.

Despite these plentiful resources, I find that I most often go to a stack of napkins, discarded junk mail envelopes or scrap paper that are stuffed in a box labeled "pot of gold."  On these bits of paper I have scrawled something I heard or read that piqued my interest.  Might have been a line from a movie I was watching, a comment from a neighbor down the block, or something overheard.  I never know when I will use it but I have found that when I am looking for inspiration - digging through that pot of gold  helps.

Reaching in today, I pull a couple of quotes I had written down from Bill Withers (70's-80's recording artist and author of songs like "A'int No Sunshine" and "Lean on Me") after watching a documentary about his life called "Still Bill."  Mr. Withers, now 73, came from the humblest of origins, attained great fame but in the mid 80's walked away from the spotlight to lead a quieter life with his family.

When reflecting on what it would take to get him back to performing he said, "I would need a heavy dose of show-off steroids."

When asked what he learned along the way to fame and stardom, he shared, "I learned that when you are on your way to 'Wonderful' you will pass through 'Alright'.  When you do, take a good look around because you might be back. And alright is OK with me."

Show-off steroids - a very funny image to me about what it does take to have stage presence.

On the way to wonderful - a poignant description of the value of appreciating what you have in life.

Listen for what inspires you because it is very likely it will inspire others.


Words that Work
Luntz's Lexicon

Product Details 

New York Times best-selling author and top pollster, Dr. Frank I. Luntz, recently released his latest book "Win".  I liked his recommendations around words that work. Here are a few:

People-centered (words that focus on the listener, not the speaker):
  • I'm listening
  • I hear you
  • I get it
  • I respect you
  • My commitment
  • You're in control
  • You decide
Persuasion (words that revolve around what people want most in their day to day lives):
  • Stability
  • Predictability
  • Insight
  • Specialist (rather than expert)
  • Performance-driven (rather than profit)
  • Common sense
  • Reliable/Reliability
  • Convenience
  • Consequences 

Passion (words that are inspirational and aspirational)

  • Imagine
  • Let me fight for you
  • Believe in better
  • Celebrate
  • Freedom
  • Nothing is more important than... 


Thought Leadership
Define, Deliver and Market

Discover the message, the methods and the market for your influential signature speech!


We know that every business leader arrives at a point in their career where they either want to be sought out as a conference speaker or are asked to speak but don't have a great speech.  Many companies and not-for-profits see thought leadership as a golden marketing opportunity to reach new audiences in a compelling face-to-face format.


As a business or not-for-profit leader you have a wealth of experience and expertise. You have a story to tell and lessons to share. The roadblock occurs when you don't have the time, or lack the confidence to develop an influential "signature speech" - one that positions you and your organization as a thought leader in your industry.


What are the benefits of developing an influential "signature speech"?

  • Raise your profile and visibility within your organization, market or industry
  • Sell your expertise without "selling"
  • Share your research in a compelling way
  • Develop opportunities to promote your products and services
  • Create multiple channels for delivery
  • Grow your network
  • Create a launch pad for your thought leadership and differentiate yourself from the competition
  • Be ready when asked to speak at an industry conference.
  • Market your practice or cause in an authentic way
If you are interested in learning more about how to define, deliver and market your thought leadership, let's have a conversation today!  We offer retreats, workshops or private coaching on this subject matter.


Thank you for your support, partnership and on-going collaboration.  It is an honor to be in conversation with you!


With regard,


Mari Pat Varga
Varga & Associates, Inc.