My notes from leading a session on Oral Communication

At the Village Global Founder Retreat 2019 this summer, we brought together 75+ of our founders for a couple days of networking, content sessions, and relaxation.

I moderated a session on oral communication and public speaking. Below are my rough notes/talking points for my facilitation.


Three premises from me:

  1. It’s an incredibly high leverage skill to develop. As CEOs, we are storytellers-in-chief. We’re always telling stories. Being good at it means adapting our storytelling depending on who’s around, who’s in the audience.
  2. Need to actually practice and develop this skill. It doesn’t come naturally.
  3. Storytelling per se is one element of effective oral communication. There are other elements to the broader skill set of oral communication.

A few principles for being better at oral communication, be it in a meeting with a few people and large presentation, much of it inspired from Own the Room.

First, content.

  • Eliminate weak language. RECORD YOURSELF on video and audio and you’ll hear weak language (ums and ah’s).
  • Paint a picture and evoke an emotion. Set a scene. A scenario. “Imagine…” as an opener…
  • Involve the audience with the content. Poll the audience. Body polls. Thumbs up. Thumbs down. Audience engagement is crucial. Prepare the points of engagement.

Second, tone.

  • RANGE. Change in tone creates energy. Speed differences. Voice modulation. You can talk quickly or slowly and be a powerful speaker. The key is to change it up.
  • Pause. Nothing as powerful as a well-placed pause.

Third, body language.

  • Big gestures that mirror what you’re saying verbally. Get creative.

Fourth, use space.

  • If giving a presentation, move your body with each point purposefully. For Point A, stand here. For Point B, stand over there. Don’t nervously pace aimlessly.

Misc:

  • Stories have beginning, middle, and ends.
  • Rehearse your jokes. Laugh lines should be prepared.
  • You’re not as good as extemporaneous speaking as you think you are. Prepare.

Why Do So Many VCs Say They’re Introverted?

I wrote a tweet a couple months ago:

Who knew that introversion/extroversion was such a hot topic?! It generated a lot of replies from people I respect. Here’s one:

And this:

And this:

The three replies above, as I understand them, all make a similar definitional point: A person can be introverted and still be highly social; it’s just that the social interactions drain them of energy and they need to re-charge alone afterwards. Fair enough and I appreciated the clarification.

Now, if we accept the premise that VC is an extremely social enterprise, does this mean that VCs who consider themselves introverts by this definition — capable of being highly social — do these VCs find themselves drained of energy at the end of most days?

Mike Arrington replied and said yes:

Brad Feld has also written about how he is “fundamentally an introvert” and, similar to Mike, the venture work stream drains him completely once a year:

About once a year I completely use up my extrovert capacity.  I drain it completely to zero. … The last sixty days have been awesome but extremely intense. My ordinarily full days had the Do More Faster book tour layered on top along with a bunch of other public appearances, interviews, speaking engagements, and events.  About two weeks ago I started feeling a fatigue that I couldn’t get in front of and the last two weeks pushed me over the edge.

For those for whom this is true, who am I to judge their career decisions? It’s hard to perfectly match career to personality; no job will ever be 100% perfect. And this dimension of social/energy is just one consideration on whether VC is the right fit. Both Mike and Brad have been extremely successful in tech and venture capital. I don’t know Mike personally, but I do know Brad, and I know that on balance Brad loves what he does. The VC job, on balance, appears to be a great fit for him.

My point is that, in general, most of the VCs I know are highly extroverted. And this would be logical, because people tend to gravitate to jobs where a primary piece of the job description energizes them, not drains them. So with respect to VCs and introversion/extroversion, I believe there are not as many Mike Arringtons out there as we may think — i.e., people who are “painfully introverted” who do the job well even though it leaves them “exhausted.”

Among this crop of extroverted VCs I know, some still call themselves introverted, which perplexes me. They’re highly social and do not seem — at least to me — not very drained by all the socializing. Yet they nonetheless refer to themselves as introverted.

What’s going on?

First, as mentioned in my original tweet, the “introvert” label has come to be associated with adjectives like thoughtful, intellectual, wise, evolved. Introversion may be a higher status description than extroversion. Extroversion is associated with smarmy networkers. I don’t read many extroverts declaring themselves proud extroverts in public. I do routinely read about people proclaiming their introversion.

I’m fascinated by the evolution of terms and connotations. As “networker” has evolved from being a cutting edge business skill in the Dale Carnegie era to now being term to describe the worst excess of that original skill, so too has “introvert” evolved from formerly describing a shy, awkward minority to now being a broad term that connotes a refined, thoughtful, intellectual air about life that seemingly a majority of people now claim.

Second, the comparison set. VCs in general are among the most extroverted humans on the planet. They (we) are professional meeting-takers, emailers, phone callers, conference attenders, deal makers with others humans. (To be sure, I appreciated the point in the reply tweet embedded above that 1:1 founder meetings is a different type of “social” activity than big group meetings, and VCs do a lot of 1:1 small meetings.)

When you work in venture, you’re comparing yourself to other VCs. I know VCs who take 7-8 calls/meetings a day and then a long dinner, and they do this 4 days a week. But, they look around and see another VC who does all of the above PLUS post-dinner drinks followed by an all-weekend conference, and the first VC thinks, “Gosh, I’m an introvert compared to that guy.” It’s LeBron James comparing himself to Steph Curry and concluding, “I’m not a very good three point shooter,” when LeBron’s 3 is better than 99% of all humans’ 3 point shot. So, it’s a comparison / frame of reference issue.

So, to recap my thinking here:

  • You can be introverted and be highly social. If this is the case, you probably find those social interactions draining. But you can do it successfully.
  • Some VCs are introverted, successful, and are simply drained by the social part of the job.
  • The vast majority of VCs in my experience are highly extroverted, which makes sense in terms of trying to align career with personality.
  • Many more VCs describe themselves as “introversion” than who probably are. Perhaps because of status considerations. Perhaps because of their comparison set.

Thanks to everyone who replied to the tweet and emailed me about it. Definitely pushed my thinking. Happy to hear any additional feedback on these points in the comments.

The Wisdom of John Donahoe

I interviewed John Donahoe, CEO of ServiceNow, for a Village Global masterclass. Video of our conversation embedded below and linked here. John is one my all-time favorite CEOs, and a real inspiration. We were in a private meditation retreat together and got to know each other well a few years ago. In this conversation, we talk about ServiceNow, leadership, what he learned as CEO of eBay, and from his board service at Nike and other legendary companies.

The Perils of Having an EA Schedule All Your Meetings

Feeling overwhelmed with meetings and calls? If you’re using an executive assistant to schedule everything, that may be the source of the problem. Execs heavily dependent on EA’s for scheduling can easily become over-scheduled with low priority appointments. For two possible reasons as I see it…

First, exec wants to say “No” but can’t. Busy people often know, deep down, that they don’t have time to do a random meeting or phone call. But they can’t say no because saying no to somebody will disappoint them and cause that person, at a subtle level, to dislike you in that moment. Most of us strongly desire to be liked. So replying “Sure” and handing the interaction off to an EA allows you to win social approval in the moment, and the interaction disappears into a magical scheduling queue. And then you get back to work. No social disappointment, no studying your calendar in the moment, no immediate cost.

Alternatively, exec wants to say “Yes” but it’s a momentary emotion. The exec genuinely believes the meeting request is worth doing in that moment. “Hey great to hear from you, it’s been a long time, yeah let’s definitely hang out soon!” The EA is immediately CC’d. But. If exec had only spent 2-3 minutes encountering logistical friction when trying to schedule it herself, she would realize that, upon reflection, the benefits do not outweigh the costs. If your desire to do something cannot withstand even the slightest amount of friction, it’s probably not something you actually want to do. I analogize this to seeing books for sale on Amazon. When I encounter a book on Amazon that looks interesting, I often want to buy it right away. Instead I add the book to my wish list. When I visit the book’s listing a day or two later, I oftentimes find myself less interested in buying it. The enthusiasm turned out to be temporary. Adding a little bit of friction to the buying process causes me to be more honest about my true interest level. Adding scheduling friction to your meeting requests has a similar effect.

To be clear, there are opportunities to get scheduling leverage out of an EA. For one, EA’s are great at helping you schedule internal meetings — regular calls or meetings with colleagues. EA’s also are great to introduce at Round 2 of the logistics ping pong game. What I tend to do when I say yes to an external meeting request is to personally offer a few times that work for me and see if I can just schedule it myself in one email. This helps me internalize the “cost” of the meeting as I’m saying yes — I’m having to spend a few minutes looking at my calendar, hunting for convenient open spaces, and offering those times in a message. If none of my times works and the thread turns into a ping pong game of dates and times, and I’m still motivated to do the meeting, and the status dynamics make sense (i.e. I won’t offend a higher status person who’s scheduling with me directly), I’ll hand it off to an EA to finalize the scheduling process on my behalf.

Bottom Line: EA’s can give execs leverage, especially around scheduling. But if not managed thoughtfully, an EA-only scheduling process can cause you to become quickly over-scheduled with appointments you would not, with full perspective, actually prioritize.

Village Global

Personal update: I helped launch a new venture capital firm this week called Village Global. You can check out the Village site, or read our announcement post.

Exciting adventures ahead!

Stop Asking Busy People to “Catch Up” With You

“Don’t be transactional. Build genuine relationships. Play the long game. Don’t keep score. Give first.”

All good advice when building your professional network. The Start-up of You is full of these sorts of lines. But good advice taken to the extreme becomes bad advice.

Here’s how. Say you want to maintain a relationship with someone busy in your network. Heck, maybe you even have a specific question or favor to ask of that person. But you don’t want to seem transactional. After all, “authentic” relationships in business involve mutuality and back-and-forth and personal rapport. You don’t want to come off as having a transactional agenda. Right? Right.

So you ping this busy person in your network and ask if they want to “catch up” with you sometime for coffee: “It’d be great to see you and catch up on life. Let me know if you are around next week?”

Unless the person is already a pretty good friend of yours, the answer you often get back is… Crickets.

What happened? The random coffee catch-up meeting request is the most common “external” meeting request in the world, largely because so many of us have been trained to not seem overly transactional when we stay in touch with our network. So when we reach out to busy people, we bury our agenda and hide behind “coffee catch up” as the vague purpose of the meeting.

The problem is, busy people are busy. In fact, they get hit up for coffee catch-ups multiple times a week. They can’t take coffee catch-up meetings all day. They actually have to get real work done. So they avoid your request for random coffee.

What will catch their attention instead? A specific transaction or topic.

“I’m considering taking this job opportunity and would love your perspective.”

“I saw you on stage at a conference and had some feedback for you on the virtual reality topic you spoke about.”

“I’m hosting a conference in a month and would love to brainstorm who we should invite as speakers.”

Best case, this transaction intersects with something they’re actually interested in and would fine useful. Medium case, it lends a finite crispness to the interaction — it feels “manageable” — and the person is likely to agree to a quick call or meeting if he knows it can be quickly resolved. Worst case, the topic isn’t of interest to the person at all — in which case, didn’t you both just save time by realizing that on the front end?

Oftentimes, when reaching out to someone busy, you’ll have a specific transaction in mind plus an interest in just general catch up and general relationship building. In these cases, consider leading with a “transactional bluff.” Lead with the transactional item you have in mind, but know that you may spend 90% of the meeting — once you’re actually in the meeting — talking about whatever general catchup topics you want to cover. Maybe you spend the first 10% of the meeting on the transaction and then you switch to “How can I help you?” and the other practices that fuel long term relationships.

Bottom Line: Busy people need a reason to prioritize scheduling your “catch up” meeting. If you don’t know someone well already — this means most people in your professional network — be candid about a specific transaction you have in mind when making the meeting request.

Low-Pressure Requests for Intro

A friend asked me via email if I’d be open to introducing him to another busy friend of mine. He then wrote:

If you are willing, and feel you could recommend a meeting with sincerity, then I’d be most grateful for an introduction. And if you have the slightest hesitation, please do nothing. In my mind, the latter choice is the default, so please know I have zero expectations.

I really liked the way he put this. It feels very low pressure. I’m going to start using the phrase “If you have the slightest hesitation, please do nothing….please know I have zero expectations.”

Asking Acquaintances About Mutual Friends

All business is people business ultimately, and so improving your ability to size someone up should be a relentless priority — it is for me, anyway. By “size a person up” I mean figuring out how much you trust a person, how you can best collaborate with him, whether you’d hire her, whether you should fire him.

One of the simple ways I size a person up is by understanding how they understand and judge other people. In this way, I start to be build a model of the person I’m getting to know. I get to know their likes and dislikes, their biases, their underlying motivations, and of course their meta ability to evaluate people — all by hearing them talk about friends I know well.

Practically speaking, when I meet someone new, I like to ask them about someone we know in common. “So how do you know Jane?” Sure, it’s a trite question. But it can lead to a substantive exchange. It doesn’t have to be gossip. How has this person partnered with Jane? What’s frustrated him about Jane? What have been the delights?

When you ask someone to talk about their relationship with someone else, they often inadvertently reveal a lot about who they are.

At a breakfast meeting, I once asked an acquaintance — who I was also evaluating as a prospective business partner — to describe how he knew a mutual friend. As I probed, I realized this acquaintance spoke in condescending, patriarchal terms about a person who I very much considered his peer. It was revealing. I may not have gotten a glimpse at this element of his oversized ego if we had not gone down this path.

In another case, by talking about mutual friends I realized the person I was speaking to grasped subtleties about a friend’s personality that I had missed, and it made me all the more excited about partnering with him because of his extraordinary ability to make sense of at least one complicated person — and likely many others.

Bottom Line: Get to know someone new by asking him or her about someone you already know well.

When Giving Advice to Peers…

It’s hard to give advice to a peer or an especially prideful person of any sort. Advice giving can be interpreted as a power move, and if you don’t deliver the advice in the right way, the other person — a colleague, a partner, someone who’s close to you in terms of professional trajectory — can feel subtle resentment. Even if he asks for your feedback, a part of him is asking himself: “Who are you to be giving me advice?”

I handle this in two ways.

“I’m Trying, Too.”

Make your advice come off as less condescending by acknowledging your own on-going quest to live up to it or your own on-going need to be reminded of it.

In her brilliant book of advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed writes to a reader:

You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself. I don’t say this as a condemnation–I need regular reminders to stop feeling sorry for myself too. I’m going to address you bluntly, but it’s a directness that rises from my compassion for you, not my judgement of you. Nobody’s going to do your life for you. You have to do it yourself, whether you’re rich or poor, out of money or raking it in, the beneficiary of ridiculous fortune or terrible injustice. And you have to do it no matter what is true. No matter what is hard. No matter what unjust, sad, sucky things have befallen you. Self-pity is a dead-end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out.

She literally says: “I don’t say this as a condemnation — I need regular reminders to stop feeling sorry for myself too.” And that’s what makes it work.

Another example. Recently, a friend on Facebook recently wrote about how she is grappling with critiques of her personality. Another friend — who’s her peer, not an anointed Wise One — commented: “Be yourself, because your self is awesome. Trite to say, a lifetime to try to do. I know because I’m also trying.”

I know because I’m also trying. That’s the sort of advice given by a friend who’s a peer.

From “You should…” to “I would…”

The second approach I take when giving advice to a peer or prideful person is I avoid directly addressing their scenario and instead I make it about myself. When you find yourself saying “You should do X…” you begin to trigger people’s pride instincts. Even if they asked you directly for advice, by directly telling them what to do, you risk unleashing subtle but very real swirls of resentment.

So if you tell me about an employee you’re trying to hire and a dilemma you’re facing in the hiring process, and ask me what you should do about it, I would talk about a similar experience I’ve had and how I handled it, or construct a hypothetical parallel experience and talk through what I would do in that scenario. I’m avoiding the phrase “you should do X, you should think about Y.” I’m instead saying “I would be doing X, I guess I would be thinking about Y, I wonder about Z…” I’m trusting in their ability to connect the dots between my experience or my constructed parallel scenario and their own situation.

Note that for people who are clearly my junior, or where I do not fear at all any status offense, I will sometimes be quite direct in my advice. But relationships with peers at work and the associated status considerations are rarely quite that simple!

A Little-Things Agenda

Josh Barro’s review of a new book about America’s physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, airports, etc.) touches on the idea that “small thinking can be a virtue, because the history of infrastructure is a series of experimental and incremental improvements.” The book under review “brings an eye for the little things: what kinds of guardrails are best, how roads can be made safer through better signage, which paving materials last longest.”

A little-things agenda is not sexy, as is highlighted in the discussion of one of the most disastrous public works projects in recent history: The Bay Bridge in San Francisco-Oakland:

Petroski devotes one chapter of his book to the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which opened in 2013, nine years late and $5 billion over budget. “With uniqueness also come uncertainties — of complications during design and construction and of cost,” he writes. Replacing an old bridge with seismic problems could have been done fairly easily and cheaply by building a simple viaduct. But politicians wanted a “signature span,” and for a variety of aesthetic reasons they chose to build a single-tower, self-anchored suspension bridge — a relatively rare design. The proposed bridge would be the longest of its kind in the world.

But self-anchored suspension bridges lack the massive anchorages at each end that are typical for suspension bridges. Instead, the cables would be anchored to the deck itself. Because of the desire to add a cantilevered bike lane, the bridge would also have to be wider on one side than the other.

This combination of specifications led to a variety of unforeseen complications. The addition of the asymmetrical bike lane required a counterweight, which would increase the load on the bridge cables, which would pull on the deck, which therefore had to be built stiffer to resist the stronger pull. But the stiffening would make the deck heavier, further increasing the load on the cables, requiring further stiffening, and so forth.

These shifting specifications added greatly to time and cost, obliterating the justification that had led politicians to choose to build a new bridge in the first place: that it would cost about the same amount as retrofitting the old span to be safer in earthquakes. And in the end, the single tower wasn’t built quite upright, and the technique used to straighten it after construction weakened the steel rods inside it, calling into question how seismically sound it was anyway.

Politicians aren’t drawn to megaprojects just because they believe the initial rosy cost projections and therefore underestimate the risk of complications. They also see an opportunity to build their legacy: It’s more fun to say “I built that bridge” than “I retrofitted that bridge.”

In this case, the hubris of politicians and civic leaders got in the way of a less-sexy and less-complicated plan.

There’s a lesson for business leaders in here, too, I think. So many new initiatives at companies are big, bold, sweeping, inspirational. You rarely hear a CEO announce to his or her employees a “yearly theme” or new cultural initiative that focuses on the corporate analogs to “making sure the signage is still up on the roads” or “putting down lane markers that won’t come off when snow plows drive over them.” In other words, initiatives that are small and incremental but perhaps surprisingly impactful — e.g. shaving 15 minutes off every scheduled meeting, or double-checking every email to a customer to make sure the tone is just right.