Archive for category Personal development

A dozen tips for graduates entering the real world

College graduation season is upon us, and for most, it’s time to turn in the textbooks and begin your career. I think back to those days — bright-eyed, ready to take on the world, and completely unaware of what waited around the corner. I wish there had been more real-world wisdom to draw from. Would have saved me many hard knocks.

In that vein, here are some thought for those just starting out, or anyone who looking for a few workplace tips.

Get out and meet people. Go to business or social events and introduce yourself. Connect with people on LinkedIn and other social media sites. More connections translate into more job leads, and also to more resources if you have questions or want advice.

Life isn’t fair, but that’s okay
Disappointment is part of life, and bad things happen for no reason: someone else lands your “perfect job,” your iPhone is stolen, or you miss lunch with a friend because you boss schedule a meeting at noon. Sure, that stinks, but what really matters is how you react. You can say, “Things happen,” and move on, or you can sulk and complain. I promise that if you do the former, you’ll be a much happier person in the long run.

Keep plugging — perseverance and patience pays off
My dream out of college was to be a sportscaster at one of the local stations. I learned of an opening that  July, and spent much of the summer and fall helping out (without pay) and learning the ropes, until I finally got the nod from the news director — in December. I busted my butt for 6 months to show them what I could do, and to make sure they never considered anyone else.

Be ready when opportunity knocks
I’m a firm believer that if you prepare, the opportunity you seek will arise, whether it’s a job, a trip, or a date. In the example above, my foot in the door came when I ran into the station’s top news anchor in a parking lot. I introduced myself and asked for career advice. I had a degree from a great communication school, along with some solid experience, so she set up an interview for me with the Sports Director.

Be true to yourself
Look to work for organizations that share your values and personality. I spent 14 years at L.L. Bean, a company that prides itself on treating people — customers, employees, vendors, and its neighbor — with respect, honesty, and integrity. That was very important to me, and was one of the reasons I stayed there. The same barometer works with friends.

There’s an old saying that you learn more by listen than talking. Very true.

Look into the mirror
The person you’re most accountable to is you. Can you look at yourself in the mirror at the end of each day and be satisfied with your effort and actions?

Ask questions during job interviews
While a big part of an interview is promoting yourself as the best candidate, it’s also an opportunity to see if this is a good fit for you. Plus, hiring managers appreciate candidates who come prepared with questions.

Don’t oversell yourself
One of my graduate school professors told us were didn’t have enough experience for a two-page resume. And if you worked as a lifeguard, don’t put Crowd Control Officer on your resume. I know lifeguard work is tough, and I’ll give you points for that, but if you exaggerate, you’re onto the rejection pile.

A former boss of mine left a resume and cover letter from a potential intern on his desk. He’d circled all of the typos.

Do your homework
Check out a company before you meet with anyone. Look at its webpage, Facebook account, etc.

Everything works out
I’m a believer that things always work out in the end. So if you’re turned done for one job, be ready for the next one. You might find it’s an even better opportunity.

Good luck!

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Being humble makes you a better communicator

During a live shot on the news this week, a local reporter caught my attention when she used the word “I” three times in a sentence. Sure, it’s conversational and brings the reporter into the story, but at the same time, use of that pronoun takes away from the subject of the story.

Know your audience
Communicators often talk about identifying your audience. If you’re selling fishing flies, you want to target people who fish. Manufacturing a new soda? Aim for kids and teens.

That’s pretty basic stuff, but writing to your target audience is where many messages fall short.

My favorite example is the typical, annual benefits enrollment announcement that you see at many companies: “Benefit enrollment packets will be mailed to eligible employees beginning November 1.”
In this message, you’re talking at employees, not to them. Contrast the above example with, “Look for your benefits enrollment packets, coming in the mail in early November.”

The second version rises above the first because it 1) carries a friendly, more conversational tone; and 2) speaks to the reader, not from the company.  It’s a subtle adjustment, but a very effective technique to improve your writing.

What’s the secret? Be humble, and put readers ahead of you and your organization.  Think about what they want to read. It’s human nature to be proud of your accomplishments or your company, but remember that you’re writing for your readers, and the message should focus on them.

Another example
Company focused: XYZ Company, the nation’s leading developer of pain-relieving medications, announced a new, over-the-counter medication that extensive studies show significantly reduce pain caused by arthritis.”

Audience focused: Relief is on the way for arthritis sufferers, thanks to a new over-the-counter medication that studies show significantly reduces joint pain. The medication, Pain Away, was developed by researchers at XYZ Company, the nation’s leading …”

While the company was bumped from the first sentence to the second, your message is more likely to be read and remembered because it addresses an issues many readers have (arthritis pain). And that’s what matters.

Being humble does pay off.


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Lessons learned from a self-made man

John_BizantakosSaturday would have been my Uncle John’s 99th birthday. I grew up in the house next to his, and being named after him, always felt a special bond.

He was also a self-made man, who taught me a great deal. So, in honor of his birthday, some of his lessons:

‘Kill them with kindness’
His single most repeated piece of advice. Took me years to realize he was right, but it’s spot-on wisdom. Whenever I feel the urge to tell someone off, I smile and think of these words.

Reward loyalty
I shoveled his driveway and mowed his lawn from junior high school through college. I never asked for a raise, but he gave me one each year.

Take responsibility
My grandfather died at a very young age, leaving my grandmother with a houseful of kids. Uncle John became head of the house at 14 or 15 and began working to provide for his mother and siblings.

Teach responsibility
One summer Uncle John decided we’d paint his house. He told me I was the boss and he the helper, so the task of deciding what and when to paint fell on my young shoulders. We also set an hourly rate, and he asked for a weekly bill, with my hours worked. It was one of my first financial lessons.

Set a direction and let people do their work
The first time I mowed his lawn, he walked around with me, letting me know whether to cut or leave a variety of items growing around the house. After that, he left me alone to do the work.

Be a gentleman (or lady)
My uncle was polite, courteous, and well groomed. His clothes were always neat and pressed. I sometimes wonder what he’s thinking as he looks down on me, going to the supermarket unshaven and in paint-covered jeans.

A penny saved …
Okay, it was originally Ben Franklin’s idea, but Uncle John believed in working hard and saving his wages. He encouraged us to do the same.

Family first
I could write pages about this one. He worked hard to provide for his family, and all of us owe him a debt of gratitude. I hope to be half the man he was.

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5 ways to beat writer’s block

You sit, ready to craft an important memo, but find yourself struggling to begin. Staring at the blinking cursor doesn’t help, so you do the next best thing — go for coffee.

Overcoming writer’s block can be difficult. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years:

Just write it
Early in my career, I was working with a veteran PR person on an important memo. As I noodled what to say for the opening, he interrupted, “Type something … Just start writing.”

He was right. If I’m struggling with a lead sentence, I’ll skip it and start with the second paragraph. It helps establish a rhythm and prevents me from over thinking.

Make a list
If I’m stuck, or have a lot to cover, I’ll jump to the end of the document and list key points. It substitutes as a primitive outline of sorts, and lets me focus on how I want to say something, rather than what I should include.

For example, if I’m working on a flu vaccine story for a newsletter, my list might include:

  • Free for employees
  • Protect yourself and your family
  • Evergreen Conference Room
  • M-F, 8 – 9 a.m.
  • Nov 1 – 15
  • Painless
  • Employee Health, ext. 1234
  • Remember hand hygiene too

Jump around
Once I’ve made the list above, I’ll pick a point or two and write a sentence or paragraph. For example:

“Public health experts say a vaccine, combined with good hand hygiene, is the best way to protect you and your loved ones from catching the flu. Best of all, flu vaccines are free for employees.”

You can order the segments later, and once you start writing, you’ll likely see things falling into place.

Talk it out
Good writing is conversational, so think of how you’d tell the news to someone who knows nothing about the situation. For example, work is being done on the plumbing in your office building, and during that time, the facility will be close due to lack of water. So what do you want to tell staff?

“The office will be closed next Friday while crews work to repair a damaged pipe.”

You’ve got your start, now fill in the details.

Walk away (but not far away)
It’s a bit counterintuitive, but when struggling to come up with something, try walking away for a couple of minutes. Grab a drink of water, pop a letter in the mail, anything to clear your head.

Your turn. What do you do to overcome writer’s block?



Photography 101: Learn from my mistake

High_Five_700TI’ve been shooting photos for many years, and am generally happy with the results. But last weekend, I made a mistake that cost me a really nice shot.

Each year, I photograph the team in the Medical Tent at the TD Beach To Beacon 10K road race. There’s not much activity until the wave of runners arrives, so I’ll grab a few shots of the winners crossing the finish line.

As this year’s winner was approaching the ribbon, I decided to try a different setting on my camera. Bad move. The camera is fairly new, and despite having read the instruction manual, the change took longer than expected. By then, the runner was at the finish line and I missed the shot.

The lesson: decide how you want to shoot something ahead of time, and set your camera accordingly. Yes, you should be ready to adapt to the environment, but changing directions seconds before your first shot is asking for trouble.

While I was able to salvage the day with some nice shots, including the one above, I missed the photo I really wanted. That said, the experience left me with a lesson I’ll always remember.

Related posts:
Improve your photography by planning ahead
Look for good photos away from the action
Confession: I love my iPhone camera
Take Better Photos With These 7 Tips

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9 lessons we can learn from the family dog

Studies have shown a range of health benefits that come with owning a dog, but beyond the stress reduction and increased fitness levels, we can learn much about life from our canine friends:

Value loyalty
Is there any creature on earth more loyal than the family dog? And all they ask in return is to hang out with you.

Make time for play
We burn the candle at both ends, but in a dog’s mind, there’s always time to play. Whether measured in dog or human years, life is too short to miss out on some daily fun.

Be willing to learn
My neighbor’s new dog has a long list of tricks that he happily demonstrates. He jumps, crawls, and rolls over, all with a wagging tail. My neighbor says he loves to learn new things.

Chill out
Dogs know the value of sleep, so as we read reports late at night, they’re counting sheep in front of the fireplace.

Exercise more
Sometimes dogs just want to run. Doubtful that they’ve read the health benefits of exercise, but regardless, dogs prefer to be active.

Be friendly
While people have to earn our trust, dogs generally give a new person the benefit of the doubt.

Show enthusiasm
I think when their owners are away, dogs rehearse how they’ll greet us for maximum impact.

Be sincere
What you see is what you get. No faking, no mixed messages. And if you catch Fido stealing a hamburger off the kitchen counter, you won’t hear excuses.

Think of others
Dogs are natural born greeters. For us humans, a figurative wag of the tail goes a long way. Say hello to coworkers in the hall, smile to strangers on the street, or help an elderly woman who can’t reach an item on the top shelf at the store.

Your turn. What have you learned from a dog?

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Times change, but skills remain key

Think about the changes an 80-year-old has seen. Growing up, the family’s primary sources of news and events were likely the daily newspaper and word-of-mouth from family and friends. Then came the telephone, radio, and television. That generation witnessed a shift in the methods and speed of communication greater than any group prior.

Now we have the internet, email, social media, smart phones, tablets, and apps that will do everything from paying bills to creating a talking Santa cartoon.

Staying in touch has never been easier — while being an effective communicator has become increasingly difficult.

The following tips will help increase the odds your audience will pay attention to your message:

Be clear and concise
Regardless of your field or message, your writing (or speaking) should be direct and to-the-point. If your readers have to look for key message, you’ve likely lost them. Make your point without lengthy introductions, then follow-up with details.

This is particularly critical when targeting younger generations that are accustomed to more direct communication.

Consider your audience
A NASA engineer speaking to her peers would likely use very different language than when addressing a group of high school students on the same topic. Ask yourself what you audience knows about the topic, how much detail is appropriate, and if they’ll understand terminology associated with the subject. If’ I’m chatting with another photographer, I might mention shooting an image with my 135mm at f2. However, if speaking my aunt, I’d simply say I adjusted the camera to blur the background out of focus.

Be objective
Passion is a double-edge sword. It’s what makes you good at your job, but also makes effectively communicating about it much more challenging.

I’ll explain. You want to tell people about a project, and assume they’ll share your excitement. You begin to tell them the specifics of your work, and before you can know it, they’ve lost interest, either because they can’t follow the details or the story ran too long.

A programmer friend once told me a story about a project she was working on. As much as I tried to follow along, I was lost within 3 minutes. The story continued, with me struggling to keep up. It’s became jokingly known as the “Flat File Story.”

Be timely and time sensitive
Readers are incredibly busy, so you have to reach them where they want to hear the news, and then present it in a way that they’ll want to read/hear.

In my early years, we often drafted newsletter articles or messages from executives that were fairly long, and people seemed to read them. Now there’s great competition for readers’ attention, and you run the risk of losing them with a message that’s too jam-packed. And given the speed at which news travels, by the time you craft your detailed message, it might be old or outdated.

Follow Twitter’s lead
Twitter, with its 140 character limit, provides a great exercise in good writing. It forces you to be direct, clear, and concise. Give it a try.

Your turn. How do you reach your audience?

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A lesson in customer service from Frank Burns

In one of the early episodes of the popular television show M*A*S*H, bumbling Frank Burns tries to impress a shapely 20-something who was visiting the camp. When she commented how nice everyone was, his pithy reply was, “It’s nice to be nice to the nice.”

Oddly, old ferret face is right. I’ll explain.

Saturday was errand day for me: supermarket, gas station, department store, office supply store, etc. Between stops I made a couple of phone calls to stores and customer service numbers. Clearly, a very exciting day.

What really struck me was how terrific (and nice) everyone was. For example, I called Staples a couple of times, and both employees I spoke with were helpful and incredibly polite. While neither was able to completely grant my request, their attitude left me feeling okay about that.

Later, I visited our local Staples, and came across one of the employees I’d spoken with earlier. Despite being interrupted by me several times, he remained pleasant and very helpful. When I reached the cash register, the young woman there was also very friendly.

While this might sound like an ad for Staples, it’s simply the story about the impact of good service, which begins with being nice to customers.

On the other hand, I recently heard a story about a customer who called a tire company about a quality issue. He was unhappy with their resolution, and shocked to hear the representative tell him, “Take it or leave it.” Clearly, the customer has taken his business elsewhere, and I’ve made a mental note to steer clear of that brand, too.

Your turn. Do you make purchase decisions based on how you’re treated?

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3 things to ask before you begin typing

You’re sitting at your computer (or on the couch with your iPad), ready to start work on a long overdue memo, upcoming speech, or new Facebook post. You’ve got a pretty good idea of what you want to say, and start to type the first letter …

Like the song says, Stop right there

Before you begin, ask yourself the following questions. Your end product will be better for the extra 2 – 3 minute you take to ponder:

Who is your audience?
What do they already know — and need to know? Is the topic important to them? Are they friendly, hostile, or neutral?  In an earlier blog I stressed the importance of speaking to your audience, not at them. While you may be passionate about the topic, it’s wise to consider potential disinterest, perhaps resistance. Let’s say, for example, you have an update of a new, unpopular policy. Remember to show empathy for staff, acknowledging that the change may be difficult.

What is the best vehicle to reach your audience?
Too often we put the cart before the horse and choose a vehicle before deciding on the message or defining the audience. Before settling on a vehicle, look at your options — email, video, team meetings, posters, face-to-face conversations, etc. — and then decide which will be the most effective, given your audience and the message. Remember, the best option is often a combination of vehicles.

What are your key messages?
Your message should be clear, concise, and obvious. Too often, important messages are buried in the fourth paragraph (or closing remarks), and skimmed past by busy or distracted readers. I generally advise people to make their most important points upfront, then support or build on them. Think back to the terrible bombings at the Boston Marathon. Nearly every communication started the same way: Two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Simple, direct, and clear. Details and background followed.

Your turn. What do you think about before beginining a communication?

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Keys to success? Start with relationship building

I was cleaning out some folders and ran across notes from a discussion about success with a director at a former employer.  I’ve always been intrigued by what makes a person successful, and found her thoughts enlightening.

Relationships come first
My director stressed the importance of building relationships, particularly important at that organization, L.L.Bean. First, because it’s the right thing to do — we’re all people, after all — but it also helps you in your job:

  • On a practical level, a good relationship helps builds your personal and professional credibility. That should enhance the credibility of your perspective and help influence the outcome.
  • Good relationships with co-workers make the work more enjoyably and productive.

Take people at face value
Yeah, you’ll run across people with questionable scruples, but start by assuming the best. With that as a foundation, build trust, and remember that everyone sees the world differently. Perhaps her most salient point: be open to disagreement with your point of view, and resist the urge to automatically push back against other views.

Be a learner
In this ever-changing world, it’s crucial to stay abreast of new techniques, technologies, and information. Be a constant learner: read about best practices, take classes, or development sessions. This helps develop your potential, and may even change your world view.

Your turn. What advice have you been given?

Related blogs:
9 things L.L.Bean taught me

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