Category Archives: Communication

‘Just Shut Up!’

There are blogs, tweets, texts, updates on various platforms, conversations other people are having on the bus, train, street as you make your way to work. There’s a quick natter with one of your friends on the phone, your colleagues, clients, friends and then conversation at the dinner table.

In today’s world, there is so much being transmitted.

As a communications trainer, my focus tends to be on how to make that transmission clearer so that it is heard and understood, but the programmes I’m currently developing have taken me down another route. I am always advocating more communication but that doesn’t mean more speaking. In our attempts to get our point across, we very often over-communicate to satisfy ourselves rather than the other person. I am guilty of this too, so this week I ask you all to take some time and ‘just shut up’. Be still, close your eyes, take a deep breath, ground yourself, feel the ground beneath your feet … be silent.














How does it feel to just have some space, to be still? Good, isn’t it? We should all do it a little more often!

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‘I Think I Love You’

It’s 2012, many people have made new resolutions goals for the year ahead. Some of these inevitably revolve around communication- ‘I’m going to network more’, ‘I’m going open up more at work’, ‘I’m going to close more sales‘, ‘I am going to get that promotion’ – you get the idea. And so we start with great enthusiasm and gusto but then we realise why those same goals never amounted to much last year.

The reason why you haven’t taken to networking or sharing yourself at work is that it doesn’t ever quite go as you planned. You have no problem when you talk to friends or are in familiar situations, however, in a new and important situation you find yourself lost for words. When normally you are calm and composed, but in front of an interview panel or meeting someone you admire and look up to for the first time, you find yourself saying jumbled up sentences and coming across as a blathering wreck.

What is happening you wonder? A bit of brain science but I will keep it nice and simple:
The amygdala in your brain is critical in scanning for danger so when it perceives a threat it gets into action- very quickly. It triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response which shuts down your cortex, which controls a lot of the higher processes of thinking and analysing to allow our instincts to take over (e.g. to step back from a fast approaching car). The reason why speaking in public or sharing yourself triggers your ‘fight or flight’ response is because we still have primitive templates in the brain which tell us that to ‘stand out from the crowd’ is dangerous. Thousands of years ago, to be expelled from a group meant death – we are programmed to ‘stay together’. This is also why our minds turn to mush and we can’t seem to ‘think straight’. The normal approach of telling yourself to calm down and tell you that the danger isnot real doesn’t work because in the battle of the cortex and amygdala, the amygdala is designed to win.

Something very similar happens when we are in the initial stages of love, as our amygdala also controls positive emotions. Whenever the object of our affection approaches our amygdala takes over and the higher thinking processes shut down. You are trying hard to impress, say something witty but instead it’s a car crash. Then to top it all off, you are trying to survive the situation and remove any feelings of embarrassment, you want to run away but you aren’t thinking straight. Confusion sets in- ‘do I really like them? Maybe I don’t? Oh, I don’t know anymore!’ Suddenly, you hear yourself saying ‘Hey, I think I love you!’


So whether it’s communication in your personal or professional life, here are a few things you can do:
Breathe: not just any old breathing – the out-breath should be longer than the in-breath, as it is the out-breath that stimulates the parasympathetic system i.e. your relaxation response. Try counting in to 7 and out to 11, or in to 5 and out to 8 – whatever feels comfortable. And breathe deep, from the diaphragm, not from the upper part of the chest.

Muscle tension/release exercises: try clenching your fists; hold them tight for a minute or so; then slowly release. This works on the principle that muscles cannot be tensed and relaxed at the same time – it is physically impossible. We tend to ‘tighten up’ when we get nervous, so this is a way of relaxing muscle groups.

Prepare: your amygdala tries to protect you from things you find threatening, one way to reduce the fear of the unknown is to prepare and practice. But make your practicing count by gently exposing yourself to slightly more uncomfortable situations, e.g. if you want to network more go to a small meet up and talk to one new person and gradually build up. If you want to try your luck at love, take the anxiety out of it and play a game simply to talk to people you find attractive. Your brain will gradually build up a pattern that doesn’t trigger the same levels of anxiety as it used to and if you develop a new pattern that is strong enough this will over-ride the old one.

Do you have any top tips that you use in nerve-racking situations? Does anyone have similar goals as described above and can I help you? Please post in the comments below.

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The Communication Connection

Communication allows people to connect and throughout time we have all wanted some degree of connectivity with our fellow humans. Times change and people connect in different ways. 2011 was the year I embraced twitter -a little late I know- but maybe I was supposed to be a little late to the party. It just makes connecting with people so much easier and I’m sure if I had joined earlier it would have been easier still as the place wasn’t so crowded.

The thing that worked for me as I started my life in the twittersphere was just to do my own thing. I didn’t read guides on how to get more followers and how to use it for marketing, what to tweet about, or whether it should be about my personal life or my work life. I did ask a few people about what they did in the offline world but I did pretty much what I would in life-  I just hung out, started listening to some conversations and then slowly join in. There was no big strategy, I followed people’s whose values resonated with mine, people I was interested in and started sharing the knowledge I had. Given what was happening in my life this year, I inevitably wrote lots about start-up businesses, issues affecting young people, communication and also tennis! What was required was to understand how the technology worked but that didn’t faze me, I guess the most difficult thing was limiting everything to 140 characters!

Tweets are just mini-conversations and they work best when they are real, relevant and connect with their audience. Once you’re comfortable about the technology, then it is no different from any other conversation- work out what your message is and transmit. Sometimes these conversations are with specific people but usually they are to the twittersphere in general, people get interested and then they engage with you (by following you, retweeting you or replying to you). It’s amazing who you can get to know and what can happen. I have connected with people I didn’t know previously and have subsequently met them- some are becoming friends, others clients- all from 140 characters!

I wanted to acknowledge the following people for what they added to my twitter journey this year and they fully embody what I love about twitter. They are #mytoptweeps2011, so in no particular order:

  1. @matt_hodkinson – Matt’s tweets are informative, funny and make the world of social media hugely accessible. He engages with you and has fully used twitter to his advantage and now makes regular appearances on the BBC- something that came about from one tweet.
  2. @jonathanfields – I followed Jonathan because he was tweeting about being an entrepreneur and being creative. I was instantly hooked and this year I really took on the wisdom he so generously shared through his tweets and blogs.
  3. @Kent_Healy – Kent had a phenomenal year (read his review of 2011 here), but he only appeared on my radar half way through 2011. He is an entrepreneur writing about approaching things in a ‘uncommon way’ and when he was passing through London in late October I got to meet him and his lovely wife.
  4. @DjokerNole – You don’t need to be a tennis fan to appreciate Novak Djokovic’s tweets. His tweets work because they are directed to his fans and are so humble, appreciative and also funny. Although he doesn’t follow many people he still manages to engage in conversation- many a business and celebrity could learn a thing a two from this man.
  5. @DavidMcQueen – David is a friend in the offline world but having his daily tweets in my life meant that it strengthened the original connection. We were already connected on Facebook but twitter allowed for those quick exchanges, the ability to draw others into the conversation- and he knows a lot of people!
  6. @FreeRangeHumans – Marianne was an early tweep that I followed and started engaging in conversation with. I loved what she stood for (escaping the 9-5 and leading a location independent lifestyle) and she struck the right balance between tweeting about her business and personal life.
  7. @LollyDaskall – If there was one word to describe Lolly it would be ‘generous’. Lolly really got me thinking about how I talked to individuals on twitter and also introduced me to personalised ‘Follow Fridays’. I really started to take more care over my tweets after getting some insight from Lolly.
  8. @SangeetaHaindl – I met Sangeeta at a Personal Branding Workshop I attended in April and started following her after that. What I love about Sangeeta is her ability curate interesting news information- the news she finds can sometimes be quirky or simply offer a new take on something that is going on. She’s also very speedy at getting the news out there.
  9. @Okwonga – Musa was an old university friend with whom I had Family Law tutorials. I love his tweets because they are ‘Musa Okwonga’. He has an ability to tweet about sport, his poetry and spoken word gigs in the same breath as politics and controversies in the world without it seeming disjointed and without pulling any punches.
  10. @Melody_Hossaini – Melody was on the UK version of ‘The Apprentice’ when she came to my attention. She was running a social enterprise and her work was similar to mine and I wanted to talk to her. I had seen her work website with an info e-mail address but thought that she was probably getting inundated as ‘The Apprentice’ was being aired at the time. I tweeted her business twitter and the next day I was speaking to her. She’s great because she talks to her followers all the time and I know that makes a huge difference to people who follow her.

Thank you to all the people who I follow and have connected with this past year who have made twitter a place I like being.

What are your experiences of twitter and who are your top tweeps of the year? Comment below or on twitter via the hashtag #mytoptweeps2011. You can follow me on twitter @sufiyapatel

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Help! I still haven’t written my personal statement yet!

I thought Personal Statement Workshop season had passed. It’s November now and most schools, parents and youth organisations that engage my services to help students write their personal statements don’t want me now. There has been lots of press coverage speculating whether the timing of your UCAS application affects the likelihood of being accepted at a university; while there was no official consensus it seems beneficial to err on the side of caution and submit an application as early as possible and this is what almost everyone seems to be doing now.

However, this weekend I was with a friend who has a 17-year-old daughter who is planning on going to university next year. I casually enquired about where she wanted to go and what subject she wanted to study fully expecting that she had already submitted her application. It turns out she hasn’t written her statement yet and I am wondering who is helping the students who are still working it all out. Concerned parents following the news in the media are getting stressed out. It’s worth noting that the UCAS deadline for most courses is 15 January so in many ways there is plenty of time, but I still recommend submitting your application sooner rather than later. Students applying now have either missed all the scheduled events that their school has put on or else are competing for their teacher’s attention along with other classmates.

The personal statement is one of the key things that forms part of your UCAS application. It’s where you have the opportunity to explain why the university should pick you in approximately 600 words (officially 4,000 characters). It is something that so many young people seem to stress over and put off until the moment of inspiration strikes. Those sessions at school when you are supposed to write your statement is spent thinking and trying to work it all out, often with little accomplished. Having worked on hundreds of statements I thought I would share some top tips to help students on their way. I also highly recommend going on the UCAS site as they have lots of information on what to include.

Ready, set, go– getting started can be the hardest part. You try to think of that killer opening sentence and sit staring at the blank screen. Instead, focus on something that will get you moving which is to brainstorm ALL the possible things you can put in your statement. This can be anything from reasons you want to study your subject, extra-curricular activities, jobs, hobbies, interests. You can work out what is relevant later.

Get passionate– the tutors reading your personal statement want to know why you want to study your chosen subject and why you would be someone they would love to have around. It is something they have devoted their life to and you should show them why you love it and what would make you a good student.

What’s the point?- 4,000 characters doesn’t give you space to waffle on. Look at what you have brainstormed, what can you link together, what points need expanding, what isn’t relevant? Roughly two-thirds should be devoted to why you want to study your chosen subject and what makes you a suitable for the course. Use the remaining space to talk about work experience (both paid and unpaid), extra-curricular activities and other interests. Read every sentence, what is it saying? Every sentence should be making a point, if it isn’t immediately obvious look at the preceding and following sentence to work out how to restructure it or remove it entirely.

Once upon a time– try to tell a story about what makes you a good candidate rather than simply putting together a string of random reasons. Link together different things you have done, e.g. did a holiday get you interested in Economics when you saw the disparity of rich and poor, which then led you to study Economics at A level and then led to work experience? Was it reading a certain book that got you interested in something you haven’t studied yet? How does it all fit together? Try and make it compelling.

Keep it simple– don’t use over-complicated words or sentence structure. Use language that is considered plain English and language you would normally use (as long as it is not slang). There is a lot of research that shows simple language is much more effective when communicating.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite– don’t expect to knock out a polished personal statement the first time around, or even the second or the third. Most people do about seven re-writes to produce the final polished version. Remember to get someone else to proof-read and spell-check for you. Don’t just rely on the computer.

If you have any specific questions about writing your statement, then please pop them in the comments box and I will respond.

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Networking Not Working

I tend not to go to many formal networking events these days. I don’t particularly like people thrusting a business card into my hands only to get mine in return and then bombard me with sales and marketing e-mails, or those that move on when they decide a communication trainer is perhaps not a potential client. Instead, I make time to go to events that I am interested in, perhaps a talk at the RSA, a book launch, an opening of an exhibition or an event at Central. I often see familiar faces and there are many new ones too. This provides me with all that I need and I enjoy the experience too.

First let’s look at why ‘networking’ events can be a painful experience for me and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

1. Pretence (e.g. I’m not after clients, I really just want to meet new people’)

There comes a time when some people feel they need to go to a networking event and it’s usually because they need some more sales. So off they go. Their strategy is to get as many cards as possible, take them back to the office, enter them into the database and then proceed to call them, e-mail them and get them to be a client. Sometimes, this person also suffers from 2 and 3 below which makes life a lot harder. They pretend that they are just meeting new people and come across as insincere because they are just trying to work out if you are a potential lead. I am quite happy when someone comes up to me at  networking event and tells me they want clients (doesn’t always work if it is your opening gambit but if you say that is what you are looking for, then I will try to help).

2. You’re not worth knowing

‘So what do you do?’ After your response you may find one of two things happening. The first is that this person is very interested in you almost to the exclusion of others. They don’t let you go until they have explained the full benefits of their service/ product and they also don’t let anyone else steal you away. Contrariwise, they find a quick way to end the conversation. It doesn’t matter whether you probably had lots in common and also have access to a huge number of people who you could refer onto them, they need to find someone they think is worth their time.

3. I really don’t want to be here

This can be a symptom of no. 1. This person hates meeting people but they need more contacts and the only way to do that is to go networking. Another reason they may not want to be there is they lack confidence when meeting new people. These people often hover around the edges, waiting for someone to draw them into conversation. Often, they will be happy just to be talking to someone and can feel that networking events are not the best use of their time.

So how could it be better? It might, at this point, be worth looking at the definition of ‘networking’

a supportive system of sharing information and services among individuals and groups having a common interest

I mentioned I go to events, and one of my reason for doing this is that there is some commonality of interest that draws us all there. It is a great talking point and so can help break the ice if you’re not comfortable with approaching people. I also find that I generally will get on better with people I meet at these events and therefore want to help them.

1. Know your intention

Before you go to an event work out why you want to go. If you want to get potential clients then do some research and go to events where your clients are likely to be. If you have specific people you want introductions to either find out where they will be or find out who else knows them. It can also be worth finding a guest list and asking someone to introduce you to a specific person. Are you trying to get known in your industry? Having a clear intention will help you make the most of your time at an event.

2. Strengthen relationships

Networking is not all about new contacts, it is also about strengthening and maintaining existing ones. Don’t just talk to new contacts, talk to people you already know. Indeed, they may be the one who introduces you to other people at the event. The last two events I went to I was introduced to valuable new contacts when in conversation with someone I already knew.

3. Add value in your conversations

Networking, like any team sport, creates a win when everyone plays their part. Be a valuable member of your networking community and in the individual conversations. This might be sharing some of your knowledge, offering to make an introduction. Don’t do it to get something, do it because you can.

4. Follow-through

So what do you do with that pile of cards you collected last night? Make sure you follow-up within 24 hours (48 hours if you are really busy) with an e-mail or a LinkedIn invite. With both methods make sure you personalise it by referring back to an aspect of your conversation. If you offered to introduce someone to one of your contacts then do so in a timely fashion and don’t forget to follow-up with people you already knew. I usually send an e-mail or sometimes even a text saying it was good to see them.

What are people’s experiences of networking? What tips can you offer to others?

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