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Monday, December 15, 2008

Learning to Hustle ... and Swing: Back to Basics

It’s not likely that I will Twist again like I did last summer. I was showing off my archived dancing skills at a wedding reception in July. Some folks were impressed; others thought … hmm, alcohol. I thought pain because afterwards I could hardly limp to my car. My right knee wasn’t working real well.

Now, five months later, I’m back to the basics. I’m standing with my wife on the dance floor at Arthur Murray’s for our first lesson, still feeling twinges of dull pain in that leg (the orthopedic doctor told me to buck up). The ballroom has more mirrors than a Poconos hotel room, the other couples don’t look like they’re fellow AARP members, and I’m wondering if the lovely young instructor would be a dating possibility for my oldest son.

Tonight’s lesson is Rumba and Swing, next week Hustle and Foxtrot.

It’s not easy returning to basics. Pride makes up lots of excuses: no need, no time, no gain for the pain. But whenever I was dogged about doing some particular thing right or better, I went back to basics, such as:

  • when I took swimming lessons at age 40 after swimming since I was five.
  • when I joined a Beginners Golf class after playing the game off-and-on for twenty years.
  • when, now at age … well, a good age, this American Bandstander is back taking dance lessons.

But for me, returning to basics was the toughest when I had to do it in my profession. I led corporate communication departments because I was presumed to be the best and I later advised clients who trusted that I knew virtually everything about communication. Despite the image, I never lost sight of hindsight. So, I went back to basics at times to shore up my skills and confidence, and learned or relearned:

  • how to write more with nouns and verbs, less with adverbs and adjectives;
  • how to listen intently even though I had counseled many people;
  • how to give up on slick marketing ideas when the market had no interest;
  • how to nurture a creative idea rather than grabbing an answer off the shelf; and
  • how to start always with the audience’s needs rather than unloading information on them.
3x5 Thinking
If you wonder whether or not it’s time for you to return to some basics, here are:

3 tell-tale signs:

  1. You’re coasting, and you sense it. The CEO or client trusts you; management likes you; your staff is still smiling. You’re managing the workload. You’ve got the organizational script down. Your career is on course – or was that the career you have had but may not have if the economy continues to plummet?
  2. You’re jabbering, and you hate it. How many times can you tell habitually sceptical people that “your organization is well positioned for the future because you have the bandwidth to push the envelope with mission-critical, next-generation deliverables?” If you talk and write like that, I say “eat your own dog food on a daily basis going forward,” or drop back and learn to write like people talk – like you once did.
  3. You’re suffering, and you’re not admitting it. You look and sound successful, your paycheck confirms it. But, face it, your work bores you and the environment is suffocating. You’re up a pants size, you can’t remember what you’ve accomplished on any given day, and even if you have a friend who would understand, you wouldn’t know how to explain what’s happening to you. Don’t wait to go flat-line before you stop and start again.

If you missed them as you raced ahead in your career or need to relearn them, here are:

5 shoulda-coulda-outta basics

  1. Relearn how to think. Switch from uber-linear to free association. Learn simple mind-mapping. Understand patterns of thinking, not just logic. Also, read novels for two months rather than business books. Rediscover the powerful advantage of stories over white papers.

    Dance lesson: Foxtrot in a straight line and you will eventually crash.
  2. Relearn how to write. Learn brevity by writing your resume in 140 characters (not words, characters). Here’s mine:

    Communication experience: been there, done that. Write like I talk, talk like I write. Smart, getting smarter. Eager to give more than take.

    Once you do that, you will know at your core who you are and why you’re good. Then, write up your full resume with those truths as your themes. Also, post your resume bite on Twitter, which mandates 140 characters or less, and watch the effect of personal viral marketing.

    One more writing suggestion: always carry 3x5 cards. Write one impression, one story idea, or one nugget of wisdom per card. You’ll be amazed at how having cards in your pocket improves your vision and hearing.

    Dance lesson: If you want to Swing, rock in place, side to side, then left foot behind right foot, and rock, rock. Short and simple, huh? And cool, very cool.
  3. Relearn how to listen. Spend time listening closely to the folks who leave work promptly at 5:00 p.m. – the ones you sometimes consider laggards. Hear how they help out each other without being asked, how they gossip because they don’t qualify for information benefits, how they get excited about going home to coach soccer, read romance novels, watch “Heroes” – simple stuff, fun stuff, life stuff. Hear the beat of their work-play lives.

    Dance lesson: If you can’t hear the beat of the music, the rest of your body gets confused.
  4. Relearn how to present. For your next report presentation to management, don’t use PowerPoints, organize everything around the only two messages the group is likely to remember, use at least one personal story, warm up before you speak not as you speak, say what you know and simply, and be more interesting than your audience’s Blackberries.

    Dance lesson: With slow, formal dances, you look good from the armpits up even if your feet are catching up.
  5. Relearn how to relate. Explain what you did at work yesterday to a four-year old, then your neighbor, then your clergy leader, and finally to your partner. Do that weekly until every one of them maintains eye contact. Now you’re relating.

    Dance lesson: If you’re the leader and think your partner can easily follow, remember she or he is trying to follow you backwards.


When Adjectives are Necessary
How to Listen
How to be Creative (from the Dilbert blog)
How to Mindmap (Tony Buzan)
Writing with Confidence
Panorama of presentation styles here


Greg Silsby said...

Indicting, thought-provoking, motivating. Not enough nouns? How about cards? I'm slipping 3X5 cards in my pocket right now.

Seth Simonds said...

It's been quite awhile since I saw a presentation that didn't include some sort of media portion. In some ways, we've become so hobbled in our thinking that it's impossible to comprehend a presentation that doesn't include a "oooh, look at the bright shiny thing with the pictures!" component.

Thanks for yet another remarkable post. I typically use a small notebook to serve the same purpose as your 3X5 cards. Good luck with the dance classes!

Best to you!


Howard M. Cohen (howardmcohen@verizon.net) said...

Nice to read someone who understands the link between communication and, well, everything else.

Back to Basics is always a good idea because the enduring basics endure because they keep getting better. So should we.

Thanks for an excellent, insightful, re-invigorating post!!

Dee said...

I learned once to use a kindergarten pencil when storyboarding ideas. I pull it out occasionally to get back to basics.

Great thoughts!

Nancy Carollo said...

What a delight to read this post. Job hunting doesn't bring a lot of smiles but your post did that for me this week. I'm checking to make sure I'm doing the basics in my job search ... I might even try the 140 word resume on for size.