How To Be The Most Interesting Person In the Room

Belle and Joey

“So tell me a little about yourself.”

Yes, you knew that question was coming. Whether it’s in the context of a job interview, a cocktail party or a meet-and-greet with the media, I’ve seen no shortage of individuals who, frankly, aren’t prepared to answer this. Sweaty palms, dry mouth, furtive eye contact, squeaky voice, stomach pain, tensed muscles, increased heart rate – they’re all symptoms of performance anxiety in which something significant is at stake.

These are the same people who – despite their intellect and high level of expertise – dread written exams, can’t sleep the night before a speech, or worry they’ll literally drop the ball in a sporting event. In extreme cases, they become self-deprecators. It’s not that they’re indifferent about their accomplishments; it’s just that they find it hard to believe anyone really cares about what they have to say. Any question that requires more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ makes them uneasy because they wonder whether the person asking is fishing for something that could subsequently come back and bite them. Thus, they play it safe by downplaying the very elements that could make their stories – and themselves – look interesting. In a nutshell, they not only become invisible but are also pretty much forgotten five minutes after they’ve left.

On the flip side are those whose confidence and charisma manage to intoxicate total strangers from the first moment they walk in. I call it The Lemur Effect – the endearing way in which the members of a huddle promptly stop what they’re doing, collectively look up, crane their necks and, with unabashed curiosity, check out the newcomer. The latter may not have brought food but nonetheless every lemur in the vicinity will be eating out of his or her hand in no time flat. Why? Because it’s hard to stay away from anything – or anyone – that’s such a profound source of fascination.

So how do you become that mesmerizing magnet? Seven simple steps – all of which can be practiced on a daily basis.

  • Associate with the kind of people you want to be. If they’re interesting and passionate about the things they’re doing, chances are that some of that energy is going to rub off on you and help to expand your mental margins. If they’re gloomy, angry and negative, that’s going to rub off, too, and influence your own outlook. (Plus the fact that we really do tend to get judged by the company we keep.)
  • Consider the importance of a good delivery. If, for example, a comedian’s patter was transcribed to print and read silently, it likely wouldn’t be that funny. Conversely, someone like Bob Newhart could read the California Tax Code and audiences would be convulsing with laughter. Keep in mind that words only account for about seven percent of what gets conveyed in a speech or conversation. The rest is the inflection, the body language, the facial expressions, and the pacing. If your subject matter is serious, those with whom you interact need to see that this topic is something you believe in with every fiber of your being.
  • Have a memorable story to share that is neither a lecture, a brag nor a hard sell. Better yet, have two or three in your arsenal of social chatter. From the time we were children being read a bedtime tale, we’ve been programmed to pay more attention to anything we think is going to entertain, enlighten or surprise us. (Even as adults, we just can’t resist a compelling raconteur.)  Be mindful, however, of keeping your stories short and snappy and leave your listeners wanting more rather than watching their eyes glaze over in pained politeness as you rabbit on and on and on. Channel your inner Scheherazade and make them curious about how many other interesting stories you know.
  • Stay in the moment. A former colleague of mine in the publishing business is great at schmoozing during parties. The problem is that within about a minute of enthusiastically greeting you, his eyes are already darting around for the next person he has to say “hello” to. Granted, he’s in the business of working the whole room but he’s rarely in-the-moment even when he’s in the moment. For whatever amount of time you’re interacting with someone, s/he needs to feel you’re giving 100 percent of your attention and not regarding them as a placeholder until someone else comes along.
  • Speak clearly, slowly and insert thoughtful pauses. This not only projects confidence but also suggests this is the very first time you’ve ever told a particular story (even if, in reality, it’s actually the hundredth). My husband, for instance, can attest that I have numerous anecdotes about my life in the theater, travels we’ve taken, and strange coworkers I’ve known. Although he has personally heard these stories countless times, it continues to amaze him that although I relate them in a casual manner which sounds as if I just now remembered them, the phrasing and pauses are always exactly the same. I credit this to my years on stage where the script never changes but every audience is brand new and doesn’t know what to expect.
  • Smile genuinely at whoever makes eye contact with you. It projects that you’re positive, upbeat…and approachable. It also makes the recipient feel that you’re happy s/he is there, even if you’ve never previously met. Accordingly, it sets up a desire to remedy that situation with an introduction.
  • Lastly, create opportunities to make the other person feel that s/he is the interesting one. Listen attentively, ask questions, and pay attention to the answers. Oftentimes this will result in other people thinking you were completely fascinating…even though they were the ones actually doing the lion’s share of talking.

Click and Mortar

click and mortar

By what definition is something “real”? Take books, for instance. Between the two of us, my husband and I have enough hardcover and paperback titles that we could easily open our own bookstore or library. We also travel a lot and have no fewer than several dozen titles loaded on our respective Kindles.

The latter is a mystifying device to my beloved aunt, a former high school English teacher. When I first explained the concept to her, she asked what I did if I wanted to read an electronic book in bed. “I don’t think I’d like a big computer monitor sitting on top of me,” she said. To illustrate the compact nature of what a Kindle was, I took a photograph of it next to my coffee cup. This, however, confused her even more, for how could a flat little device like that hold 3,000 books at the same time? Furthermore, what happened to those books after I read them? I told her that they could either be archived indefinitely or deleted into the ether.

“But what if you want to read it a second or third time?” she asked. I could just imagine her horror that deleted books waft somewhere into outer space and are summarily blown up, never to be seen again.

I explained that there was a retrieval system to download these books back into the queue but even this didn’t satisfy her. “It would be much easier to just go take it off a shelf,” she said. Old books – like old friends – have always been plentiful in her life and she takes pride in knowing exactly where all of them are.

Despite my insistence that hardcover/paperback and ebooks can co-exist in the same universe, she just doesn’t believe it. Accordingly, whenever I tell her that I’ve just finished reading a great novel, the first question she asks is whether it was a “real” book or “one of those fake ones.”

As I see it, it takes just as much time for a writer to compose an 80,000 word book that’s published traditionally as it does to have that book published in a digital format. The same amount of time and care goes into designing the cover art, planning a marketing platform, and acquiring reviews. Why then, should an ebook be treated as anything less real and meaningful than that same content printed on paper?

A similar argument can be made for brick-and mortar-establishments versus those that exist entirely online. Depending on the type of product or service you’re promoting, one may work much better for you and your budget than the other or, as your company grows, there may even be a hybrid version; i.e., an online catalogue where customers can view designer merchandise and a physical store where they can try items on.

“So is it a ‘real’ business you’ve set up?” people might ask you. To which you can take a page from Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit: “Real isn’t how you’re made. It’s a thing that happens to you. It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. Once you are real, you can’t become unreal again.”

If you love your business with all your heart and can’t imagine going to bed or waking up without thinking about it, it doesn’t get any more “real” than that, no matter where or how it happens to exist in the big scheme of things.

 Excerpted from “Office For One, The Sole Proprietor’s Survival Guide.”

Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle

*****

Here’s this month’s line-up of guest contributors:

Top 10 Rules for Working With a Spouse – by Lee Romano Sequeira

Surviving the Age of Total Data Dependency – by Rich Silva

The 7 Deadly Sins of Bad Networking – by Rosalind Cardinal

Five Lessons about Finance from the Most Successful Businessmen –  by James D. Burbank

Mastering Web Design to Convert Traffic to Sales – by Ben Bradshaw

The Last Starfighter

starfighter

When you’re a restless teen living with your single mom and annoying little brother in a podunk trailer park in the middle of nowhere, it’s hard to greet each new day with feelings of optimism and unmixed delight. For Alex Rogan, a vintage arcade game represents the only escape from tedium. To that end – and much to the raised eyebrows of those around him – Alex has made the interstellar battle game his obsession. He knows nothing about the game’s inventor nor does he know anything about the players that came before him except for the high scores they racked up, scores which Alex is determined to beat.  Yet on the fateful evening when he finally achieves this goal, there’s a sense of bittersweet, short-lived jubilation. Okay, so now what? Once you’ve grabbed that coveted brass ring, what are you supposed to do with yourself?

In the case of Alex, the answer literally comes from out of this world. The game, it turns out, has been a proving ground to identify the most accomplished starfighter who will be up to the task of defending a galaxy far, far away that’s in jeopardy. Although he initially rejects this “honor” on the excuse that it’s not really his problem to solve, Alex soon realizes he has already passed a point of no return. For as zealously as he had committed to be the best of the best, what meaning does it really have if he’s not equally committed to now put those skill sets to their highest possible use?

The Last Starfighter (1984) may not spring to mind as an object lesson for today’s business owners but there’s actually a lot to be learned about embracing a competitive mindset, especially if you’re a sole proprietor. If day after day you sit in your home office or your one-person shop and focus on strategies to be successful, how different are you from the insularity of Alex playing the arcade game? You know you have competitors out there and maybe you even know how well they’re scoring compared to you because you’re probably reading about them or listening to what others have to say. At the same time, you’re also competing with yourself and striving to make each day more profitable than the one before. If, for instance, you made 10 sales by the close of business this afternoon, life will be that much sweeter if you can make 20 sales this time tomorrow.  Maybe you set your benchmarks of growth on a monthly or yearly basis or even go so far as to identify a specific number (i.e., $500,000 net) as a measure of ultimate achievement.

Like Alex Rogan, though, what are you going to do after that?

Too often, we can become so settled by disappointments, failures and setbacks that when success beyond our wildest dreams actually shows up, we’re thrown for a loop on how to deal with it and immediately make excuses that we’re just not ready. As 2014 draws to a close and you start thinking about your New Year’s resolutions, the one at the top of the list should be the unabashed acceptance of staying the course, persistently pushing yourself toward betterment each day, and knowing that every goal you reach is not only hard-won but well deserved.

Now go collect your starfighter wits and get a good night’s sleep; your ride will be here before you know it.

*****

Here’s this month’s line-up of guest blogs:

Do You Run Out of Clients? – by Anthony Kirlew

Office Perks That Will Actually Bring In Returns – by Fred Schebesta

Influential Speakers Create Influential Opportunities – by Chris Picone

Grown-Up Dreams

 

WH and dinosaursWhen my nephew Eugene was nine, he knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up. For starters, he would become President of the United States, having successfully run on a platform in which he promised (1) every city would have its own dinosaur museum, (2) everyone would take the bus to work, and (3) restaurants would have to make extra sandwiches every day to give out to the homeless. After serving two terms, he would then become an elementary school teacher, raise hamsters, live in a tree house, and maybe learn to play the cello. He also said that if I hadn’t married by the time he did all of these things, he would marry me himself and I could pen his best-selling memoirs.

Ah youth! When you’re young, you never really see any obstacles that stand between Here and There. In my own generation, kids who were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up would say things like, “I’m going to cure all the diseases in the world,” “I’m going to enter the Olympics and win every medal,” “I’m going to discover another planet and fly there in my own rocket.” Reality, of course, has a pesky way of derailing some of those fanciful aspirations. I might have become a championship ice skater, for instance, if I hadn’t discovered in second grade that you had to be able to skate backwards. (I’m pretty sure it’s all done with mirrors and holograms.) Writing, however, was a career that promised a much longer shelf life and carried much less risk of physical injury. When I began talking at school about wanting to write books someday, I was fortunate to have a succession of teachers who encouraged me and, later, publishers who encouraged me even more.

Ask kids in the current generation what their dream is and quite a few may respond, “Be rich and famous.” Okay, rich and famous for doing what? This is usually followed by eye-rolling and a shrug. The correlation between working hard and applying oneself to make a difference has gotten lost in the pervasive media noise and bright lights of seeing badly behaved, self-absorbed celebrities enjoying a glam lifestyle and spending money as if there were no tomorrow. As an illustration, there were two tweens behind me in the grocery store checkout line the other day, both of them a-giggle about the new Kim Kardashian iPhone app in which players climb the ranks to A-list Hollywood status by shopping extravagantly, having dates with hotties, and being seen in all the right places. “I sooooo want to be just like Kim!” one of them declared. “Me, too!” her friend echoed. I couldn’t help but reflect that my Barbie doll in the 1960’s demonstrated far more depth by exploring careers in law enforcement, medicine, aerospace, ballet, business, education, and fashion design.  With every corresponding outfit I bought her, I was inspired to actually go read about those careers (if for no other reason than she could talk intelligently about them to Ken, Midge and Skipper). To no great surprise, a limited edition set of Kardashian dolls is now rumored to be in development to keep “Barbs” company and friend her on Facebook. One shudders to imagine what will come of this in shaping the future career choices of impressionable young minds.

I’m often asked when it was that I first knew I wanted to be a writer. In looking back, I’m hard-pressed to remember a single time that I wasn’t writing. Nor can I imagine a more fulfilling way to make a living than doing something that comes as naturally to me as breathing. It’s therefore, exciting to talk to kindred spirits who can’t wait to get up every morning because they, too, know they’ll be spending the whole day ahead doing exactly the kind of work they love.

This month’s issue showcases some of those journeys and the epiphanies that made them come true.

Intuition – Your Compass for Success – by Sarah Yip

A Curious Journey to Success: The importance of Staying Flexible in Business – by Rune Sovndahl

Developing an App Before I even Owned a Smart Phone – by Kate Schwarz

Word of Mouth Lasts Longer Than Excessive Marketing Campaigns – by Wilhelmina Ford

Riding the Waves of Small Business – by Fleur Allen

*****

As for Eugene, he came out as gay in his senior year of high school, got his first job working at a neighborhood Jamba Juice, and discovered his true calling was in making smoothies.  Sixteen years later, he’s still there and happy as a clam. Learning the cello is still on his bucket list.

 

Taking the Show Off the Road

HPRC road show

When you’re on the cusp of an exciting new venture – a marriage, a dream job, a perfect house – “How am I going to get out of this?” is probably the farthest question from your mind. With the exception of certain politicians who spend their entire term campaigning for re-election (or the next higher office), most people approach each of these unfolding chapters with the expectation of settling in for the long-term and being happy as a clam. When you’re bright-eyed and effusive with optimism – and especially when you’re a solo business owner – it’s rarely in your wheelhouse to consider things like exit strategies on the very first day you hang out a shingle. Yet given the number of elements that can impact both your professional sustainability and your personal growth, it’s never too early to take a long view of where that path could eventually lead you…and whether you’ll want to stay on it.

In the summer of 1978, I started a touring theater company. The common assumption was that it represented a transition from acting to directing/producing. The true agenda, however, was to address a longstanding problem I had observed from years of treading the boards in community and college productions; specifically, the practice of directors always casting the same actors in every show. As I often told people, landing your first role in a play is not unlike getting your first credit card. Everyone would love to give you one as long as someone else has already proven you’re a good risk. Despite all the training I was providing aspiring thespians on how to ace an audition, directors tended to look with disdain on anyone who showed up at try-outs with an empty resume.  One such person I had formerly worked with even went so far as to say, “My shows are much too important to risk on unknowns.” Since I saw the creative potential of the enthusiastic newbies in my workshops, the obvious test of what I was teaching them about the craft of acting was to start my own troupe and cast them myself in a diverse range of roles to hone their skills on stage.

Was it challenging? Yes. Was it sometimes vexatiously crazy?  Yes. Was it gloriously fun? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Not only was I accomplishing what I’d set out to do by opening doors that had previously been closed to fledgling actors but the company was also providing a platform to develop my playwriting expertise. “I could do this forever,” I remember thinking.

Until I hit the 8-year mark.

The inciting incident was catching the worst cold and sore throat of my life. Although I wasn’t contagious, I felt wretched. Further, I was acting in one of the productions and my voice was about to go out at any moment. I turned to my assistant director and told her that she might have to go on in my place. Instead of sympathy, I got indignation. “You’re not supposed to get sick!” she shot back.

Apparently I must have missed that memo.

Perhaps it’s because I always made everything look effortless (which it truly wasn’t), I was never supposed to get sick, be tired, need a break or take a vacation. As is often the case when you’re the boss of your own business, the line between a work life and a home life gets so fuzzily blurred that you wake up one day and realize it’s not a healthy pattern to continue indefinitely (no matter how much you loved it at the beginning). I had also reached a point of starting to assess which one of the three things I did best – acting, directing and writing – would have the longest (and most portable) shelf life.

The subsequent decision to focus 100 percent on my writing meant that the show, sadly, would have to go on without me. Having already trained a handful of assistant directors to lighten the rehearsal load, I approached them with the idea of their collectively continuing the company after my departure. The reaction was unanimous: “It’s too much work.”  While many of my actors were happily treading the boards in productions all across town, there were just as many still with me who felt my decision was selfish. “How can you end something you yourself started?” they asked. There were even those who equated “quitting” with “failure,” despite eight years of success. The latter, I think, especially applies to the mindset of any sole proprietor  who – following the hoopla of  a grand opening – realizes one day that they’re just no longer passionate about baking designer cupcakes, doing consulting, or publishing other authors’ ebooks.

The answer is that everything which ends means the start of something new. And in the end, taking a step out of your comfort zone and off a familiar path can lead to destinations you never imagined possible.

*****

Here’s this month’s line-up of guest blogs:

Lost that Loving Feeling? 10 Tips to Help You Re-ignite Your Passion at Work – by Jennifer Martin

What Media Monitoring Can Tell You about Your Brand – by Elizabeth Victor

Grow a Company, Without It Being About YOU – by Kritika Ashok

The Curse of the Over-Qualified

Trophies

The office manager regarded me with a critical squint as he looked up from the copy of the resume I’d brought with me to the interview. “You seem to be over-qualified,” he remarked.

Of all the statements he might have made, this was clearly the one I was least expecting. Yes, I could type at 75 words per minute (w/o any errors), had a shorthand speed of 140+, was an excellent speller and proofreader, had a good education, and even possessed a modest string of publishing credits.

“Excuse me?” I said.

He removed his glasses and folded his hands atop his desk. “You’re much too qualified for this job. You’d probably be bored after the first day.”

What’s interesting to note here is that the only difference between the job I currently had and the one I was applying for was a 3% pay increase and a shorter commute.

I was also only a few months short of my 21st birthday. It struck me – as I’m sure it does most readers – that already being over-qualified at such a young age didn’t bode well for future career advancement. I candidly asked him what he thought I should do about it.

This being the 1970’s when prospective employers were saying all kinds of mindlessly inappropriate things – especially to females – he shrugged and replied, “You might want to think about dumbing down your resume.”

It was neither the first time – nor the last – that my credentials would be perceived as a negative. As recently as a month ago, my application to privately tutor aspiring writers garnered the response, “Oh, I’m afraid that you’re much too professional and over-qualified to mentor our students. I really can’t see why you’d even be interested in this.”

Hmm. Is it possible that it’s just because I love the craft of writing? That it’s rewarding to me to be able to ignite imaginations? To help others hone their wordsmithing skills? That I wouldn’t have applied if I didn’t have the time, commitment and passion to do the best possible job? That I truly think teaching others is fun and isn’t that a good enough reason? I was tempted at this point to insert a maniacal laugh and say, “Well, since you asked, I’ll tell you the truth.  You’re just another cog in my cunning plan for world domination…”

Whether it’s personal relationships or business, the more time you spend trying to convince someone that your awesomeness isn’t going to be a liability, the more opportunities you’ll lose being courted by those who recognize your worth from the get-go and, accordingly, can’t wait to put you on their arm or on their team.

As of this writing, a bachelorette friend of mine is lamenting that yet another lad has broken up with her on the excuse that, “You’re just so beautiful and smart and successful and confident that I don’t see us having a life together.” This, I tell her, is more of a reflection on him that it is on her. For in whatever context someone labels you as “over-qualified,” what they’re really saying is that they’re not good enough for you. And certainly since no one knows them better than they know themselves, the best thing you can do is believe them…and walk away.

*****

Here’s this month’s line-up of guest blogs:

From High Fashion Footwear Boutique Owner to Online Marketing Nerd – by Emilia Rossi

Don’t Believe The Hype About Online Business – by Magda de Berg

Who Owns That Image? – by Michael Wong

 

 

The 3 A.M. Call

Alarm Clock

My husband nudged me out of a deep sleep to say that my office telephone was ringing. I groggily rolled over, opened one eye, and took note that the bedside alarm was reading 3 a.m.

There is rarely anything promising about a phone call that comes at that hour. If you’re a parent, there’s the dread that one of your offspring has just been in an accident or is in jail. If you’re a business owner, the first thought is that there’s been a break-in at your store or a fire at the factory. If you’re the head of a country, it could mean anything from a terrorist attack to a giant asteroid plummeting toward Earth and anticipated to make impact in the next half hour.

Seeing as how I don’t fit any of these situational conditions – and also pretty sure that the lottery commission wasn’t calling to tell me I had this week’s winning numbers – I was hard-pressed to fathom who in their right mind was trying to reach me before the sun was even up. My husband watched as I padded out the bedroom door and down the hall. Whether as a show of support (in case it was a legitimate crisis) or just curiosity, he and the dog soon joined me.

The caller – one of my ghostwriting clients – was already leaving a peppy message, the gist of which was that he was working on his blog, got stuck trying to find the perfect phrase, and figured I could just give him one off the top of my head. Now it’s not as if this guy lives in – oh, say Holland, and that he didn’t do the time-zone math while he was having his lunch. We live in exactly the same time zone, which made his call all the more inexcusable. What possible urgency existed that he couldn’t have sent the same question via email to be opened when I was actually awake?

“So why didn’t you pick up?” my husband asked, recognizing I was peeved enough to deliver a well deserved earful to the caller for disturbing my slumber.

“Because I’m not due at work for another six hours,” I replied. And went back to bed.

When you’re a sole proprietor – and especially if you conduct the majority of your business from a home office – establishing and reinforcing boundaries is one of the biggest challenges. It’s not just about the need for a healthy balance between your personal and professional priorities; it’s about training your clients to respect that you’re not “on call” for them 24/7. In concert with this is a similar (mis)interpretation that “freelance” means you’re free day and night, weekends, holidays and even when you’re sick.

Granted, there’s going to be an emergency now and then that requires you to don your super-hero cape and go rescue someone. Readers be warned, however: the first time you bend your own rules, make non-emergency exceptions, and start answering your home office phone during dinnertime or at 3 in the morning, you’re giving your clients permission to devalue your time and services as well as your privacy.

Your business may not be brick-and-mortar but your mindset needs to embrace a steel resolve to keep it operating as professionally as possible.

Postscript: Within a few minutes of this post going live, I was asked whether I ever confronted the client about his 3 .m. call or just dismissed it. In no uncertain terms, he was firmly reminded of what my office hours are when I called him back. It’s unlikely he’ll ever be making that same mistake again.

*****

Here’s this month’s line-up of guest blogs:

Marketing Lessons From My Dog – by Jan Dunlap

Marketing Through Word of Mouth – by Garrett Mehrguth

Webinars: Both a Marketing and Sales Solution – by Leanne Hoagland-Smith

How to Survive an Economic Down Turn – By Cina Coren