One-on-one. A group of friends. An audience watching you on stage. Whatever the context–truly, deeply connecting is the key to making a difference, to getting your message across, to building trust, to leaving a lasting impression, to inspiring good.
And I don’t think the ingredients in genuine connection differ too much from context to context.
So how DO you truly connect?
These aren’t the “top 3 ways.” There are lots of top 3 ways. But here are 3 ways that I found EXTREMELY useful in crafting a recent speech for my Toastmasters club:
1. Don’t describe your history. Use stories that give them the chance to feel your history.
Stories are said to increase your audience’s memory by twenty-two times what they’ll retain from the rest of your words. Stories are powerful.
I think where we can go wrong with stories, though, is telling people everything we think about our stories–how we felt about them, how we understood them, how everything fit in. Those aren’t bad things, but they’re not what’s memorable. What’s memorable–what really connects–is taking your audience’s hand and walking them through the story for themselves. It’s okay if they fill the story in with a few different colors and shapes than you. Let their imagination do its thing. All you need to do is put the audience right there. To put them through the experience as bluntly as you can.
I will understand you far better by reliving a couple crazy moments from your childhood than by hearing all the philosophizing you want to do about it all.
2. Get weirdly specific.
I wish I could take credit for this idea. I have learned to use it a lot, but I learned its value from an interview with a comedian. I’m pretty sure it was John Mulaney. Might have been Mike Birbiglia. It may have been John Mulaney talking about what he learned from Mike Birbiglia–who knows. Either way, here’s the gist: It’s easy to assume that the more broadly shared your experiences, the more people will get you. Well actually, it turns out that people get realness, not generic-ness. Even if their real was a little different than yours–they can feel your realness. People’s own lives aren’t generic, they’re extremely specific. So get very, super, weirdly specific.
For example: “When I was 18 I used to covertly bypass our burglar alarm at night so that I could sneak out later to take walks . . . alone . . . in the dark . . . in my trench coat.”
I could have told you all about how sheltered I felt my childhood was, the lack of freedom I felt, my desperation to get away, my loneliness and what a lifesaver my loneliness actually was to me, my fear and my need to keep my deepest needs sacred, my imagination and its strangely confident sense of my cool self, and the future version of me I expected to be. But those are ideas–concepts–concepts you may have experienced in your own ways in your own life. And making you listen while I analyze all those ideas through my own lenses requires a lot of attention. It requires a lot of you accepting and translating my interpretations. I don’t need to do all that work with you. And you may not have the time or patience. Instead, I can just give you a few really weird details. Details that make you go, “Oh yeah, I also have a weird life,” and then leaves your imagination filling in the blanks in my story. “What kind of kid wears a trench coat?”
“Kids think with their brains cracked wide open; becoming an adult, I’ve decided, is only a slow sewing shut.” – Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper
Every winter the day comes when we box up the Christmas decorations and close the door on the last little reminders of the wonder that the holiday brings. It won’t be long before I start looking forward again to the next first snow and the accompanying cheer. Whenever I’m asked my favorite Christmas movie, I have to say it’s The Polar Express, because it’s about a kid who learns not to outgrow magic.
As well as being a time for magic, jolliness, snowy walks, and hot chocolate, December is also a time where a lot of people who should feel love and belonging instead feel especially alone, confused, and hurt. Maybe your holidays are a mix of both. We’ve all just made it through the holidays and as we return to working full time through the cold, short days of winter, many people are left aching a little more than usual, a little more numb to the possibilities of joy and hope. Seasonal depression is ready to kick in. January can leave us feeling like, “Where did the magic go?”
As we get older and experience more stress and disappointments in a big and confusing world, I’m afraid we tend to lose sight of the little bits and pieces of the world that are beautiful and happy. The constant drip of stress rewires our brains and we might find ourselves daily a bit more “Bah humbug” about it all.
But guys… the magic is still there. I think no matter how much we grow up, if we look and listen closely enough, we can still find it. I promise.
If you’re struggling to find the magic you knew as a kid, you’re not alone. Here are a few places I’ve learned I can find magic. And maybe these will help you also find magic this year–if you look closely…
1. Watch a nature scene for a while. There are beautiful sights all around you. Bumblebees buzzing around flowers, leaves rustling in the breeze, fish jumping, storm clouds rolling in, little spiders, soaring eagles, and silly squirrels, the smell of rain and the burning warmth of sunshine… Nature is free. And beautiful spots are closer than you might think. Open Google Maps and zoom in on the sections shaded green. And if you need any recommendations, let me know! The only catch is: You have to sit still long enough to still be watching when the magic moments happen.
2. Learn to give someone a massage. Even if you don’t go to massage school and become a pro, there are lots of easy books and YouTube videos to teach you some basics in giving someone the gift of a relaxing massage. And honestly, just giving it a shot without any help will still be worth it. The soothing and caring touch of massage can be a comforting and relieving experience. The simplest massage can be an amazing gift for someone you appreciate, and giving that gift can be just as gratifying as receiving it.
3. Read a story from history. Our planet’s history is colorful, intriguing, and downright entertaining. Take a break from the modern world and immerse yourself in tales of Montezuma’s bustling old city of Mexico, fierce raids by the Vandal tribes, or the beautiful arabesques of the old Arabic world. If you don’t know where else to start, try E. H. Gombrich’s book A Little History of the World, which reads like a fairy tale.
4. Cook a recipe from a different cuisine. If you can read and if you can be patient with the slow, imperfect process, you can do this no matter how little cooking you’ve done in your life. And you may find it a delightful (and tasty) adventure! I especially love the idea of experiencing the creation of a meal like another culture traditionally does it. With thousands of recipes online and a variety of ethnic cookbooks at your local Barnes & Noble, and with a little help from Google in deciphering the weird ingredients and tasks–this can be an awesome experience. For Christmas this year we made a few traditional Italian country meals, like linguine with lentils and pancetta. I’m no chef, so it took a few hours, but how much fun (and what a delicious celebration)!
5. Take a simple hiking trip. Guys, here’s the thing: Outdoor hiking adventures aren’t nearly as expensive or complicated as you’d think! Seriously. Big airport hubs like Phoenix, Denver, and Dallas often offer cheaper flights than you’d expect. Or you can rent a car with unlimited miles from Enterprise for a several day road trip. Airbnbs can be way more affordable (and way cozier) than hotels. Local grocery stores have the same food you buy every week at home. You can cover a lot of ground in just a couple days. And nature is not expensive! National Parks are a great place to start–guides and information on experiencing them are plentiful, their trails are well maintained, and park rangers are there to help. Some even have free entry, like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An annual pass to all US National Parks costs less than a fancy dinner at a resort. And guys, once you get out into the nature and start moving… and seeing… the beauty you can find in nature is just indescribable. Hiking trips can become the most thrilling memories in your life. (Need any tips? Let me know!)
6. Make some new music. Don’t play an instrument? Can’t get one? Then sing! You don’t have to be a master musician to feel the magic of music. It can carry deep and powerful emotion and can move the toughest people to tears. Try picking up the guitar. Or the piano. It’s not too difficult, really. Or just turn up your favorite songs in the car and belt them out like there’s no tomorrow. Nobody’s watching, I promise. And if you can’t do any of those, find a beautiful piece of music and just sit down, close your eyes, and feel it. Music doesn’t have to become your “thing,” but maybe once in a while you can find magic there.
7. Find an epic make-believe movie. A lot of us adults decide we can’t like “kid stuff” as much when become older. Fantasy and imagination… aren’t those supposed to fade from our focus as we get older? But why not just embrace the fun and the artistry of it every once in a while? Epic visual story-telling can be a genuinely fun experience. Find some unique and enchanting animation. Shamelessly binge your favorite superhero movies and get excited about them. Why not? You can…
8. Have a conversation with a child. Nothing will remind you of the magic all around you quicker than having a chat with a little kid. They see monsters and epic battles and plots and imaginary friends and amazing animals all around them. Christmas and Halloween are just out of this world exciting to them. Accidentally walking into a wall or leaves them in hysterics. Every little leaf is fascinating. And each day is a new adventure. Listen to them tell you about their magic.
9. Start learning a new language. How cool is it to hear someone fluently carry on a conversation in another language? Isn’t it fun to learn how to greet someone from a little country on the other side of the globe? And what a magical connection when you meet somebody whose first language you’ve learned, even just a little. Languages aren’t that hard to pick up. They’re hard to master, but a few basic greetings and common words aren’t too complicated. And it can be loads of fun! Download the Duolingo app!
10. Take a long, quiet walk. Detach. Leave your phone in your pocket, if not at home. Just walk out the door and keep walking. A quiet, peaceful walk can be a grounding experience. Have some you time–time to catch up with yourself like you’d catch up with a friend. Time to think and feel while you’re not racing around accomplishing things. Maybe even bring a friend or two. A long walk can reconnect you to yourself, reconnect you to a friend, or even just reconnect you to the earth that is your home.
11. Make an elderly friend. I love listening to people reminisce about their years and years of unique experiences and adventures, the people and places they’ve known, the happy, sad, or funny things they’ve seen. And I love hearing the perspectives and words of wisdom their lives have given to them. And I love seeing what is truly important to people towards the end of their lives. Try getting to know someone who has lived a long life they’re willing to share with you. Not only can hearing all their stories be fun, and listening to their advice be helpful, but it can be incredibly happy for them to have a friend to talk to when some of their own friends have started to pass on, and their accomplishments have started to fade into the past–it can be a magical friendship for both of you.
12. Try meditating. Just try it. There are as many different reasons and ways to meditate as there are people who do it. Two of the things I love to find in meditation are: A grounded connection to yourself and the real world around you; And an acceptance and “okayness” with the way things are. If you’d like help getting started, look up Jon Kabat-Zinn, who helped bring mindfulness meditation to the west. His books Wherever You Go, There You Are and Coming to Our Senses were very helpful for me. His abridged audiobook version of the latter is a breeze. Or check out the Headspace or Calm apps. Or, if you’re brave enough, just take 20 minutes, sit quietly, and stop trying things. Just let things go. Observe. Allow feelings. Be still. If you’re not sure it’s “working,” you’re probably doing it right. Meditation doesn’t have to be about achieving some euphoric state. It’s more about learning to accept–that it’s all okay.
I hope this list has inspired you a little. If you’re feeling adventurous, try one of these every month. They’re all easy and affordable adventures. And I promise by the end of the year you’ll have made lifelong memories and you’ll have tasted a little bit more of the magic this life has to offer.
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely of places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl
I’m going to have an embarrassing moment of honesty here and say I legit have had a really terrible grasp on American history for most of my life. To the point where I couldn’t tell you whether Martin Luther King Jr was an activist in the 1980s or the 1920s. Well actually, I had a pretty good guess: It must have been at least as far back as, say, the 30s, because the civil rights war was soundly won long, long, long ago in a distant memory.
So yeah. Let’s just chalk it up to “I’m really bad with dates.”
In school I studied a lot of history–even a lot of early US history. But somehow I didn’t grasp much of what went on in America from the civil war through 9/11. I’m working on it now. I’m halfway through William Chafe’s book The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II, and my jaw has hit the floor quite a few times.
So, turns out Rosa Parks got arrested not that long ago for not giving up her seat for a white person on a bus. I guess I always thought that was “like a hundred years ago.” Nope. And Dr. King was assassinated only 50 years ago this year.
I guess I figured we Americans must have had all this equality stuff figured out (at least per law and official doctrine) by the time we took issue with Nazism in Germany for mistreating Jewish people because they weren’t built like the preferred Aryan ideal. But we didn’t. Some of the details of our recent history are pretty shocking. And not just where African-Americans were concerned.
Most of my life, I had heard that, despite a few crazy racist southerners here and there waving their confederate flags, racism and discrimination and systematic oppression were mostly gone, and that all the activist noise was just people holding on too long to injustices that their great, great grandfathers saw.
But 50 years is not a long time! I’m more than halfway there. That means a lot of my friends and family remember those days–when they shared the city with other human souls who were refused service at restaurants and businesses because they were born with the wrong skin color. Where a lot of America struggled desperately not to comply with judicial rulings and legislation made to protect colored people and ensure their integration into society as fully equal fellow humans.
Suddenly I see so many things differently!
A lot more current activist movements make a lot more sense. And I am quite sure we have not made nearly as full and healthy a recovery from racism as I learned growing up. I think I understand so many more people now, people I’ve seen, people I’ve worked with, people I’ve tried to help as a manager in past jobs.
And I’m reminded of one of my all-time favorite quotes, attributed to Isaac Asimov: “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
And that’s just a specific brand of discrimination. What about our treatment of over a hundred thousand Japanese who we incarcerated in our own concentration camps 70 years ago? Or what about the very weird and disturbing treatment and brainwashing our society promoted in the not so distant past of women regarding their roles in society and their purpose in life.
And these are just assumptions I’ve had to unlearn around recent American history.
What about things I have always assumed about my co-workers and where they’re coming from? Or the motives you’ve prejudged of that friend trying to sell me on their network marketing product? Or the obvious disdain we’re all supposed to have for those silly “self-help” books and “motivational speakers” who are just trying to get rich off gullible people? Or the crazy beliefs and weird religious rituals from eastern religions–like your friend who keeps talking about his weird meditation stuff? Or the fact that you’re obviously supposed to go to college, get a car, buy a house, and climb a corporate ladder? Or even things as personal as “Oh, I could never be a reader” or “I could never be a runner” before I’ve ever ever really tried?
The point is this: Over long, weird, narrowly-focused lives we have all picked up hundreds and thousands of little (or big) assumptions that color our world in big ways, ways that we might not realize, and ways that we rarely if ever question.
And those assumptions, prejudices, and misunderstandings can be blinding us from insights and opportunities. They can blind us to the reality others around us are experiencing. They can automatically turn us against a co-worker or family member, leave us always on edge, and keep us from fulfilling relationships or effective teamwork.
Until we finally stop and think: Wait… is that REALLY true?
Do you ever question your assumptions?
What is something you always assumed that you’ve recently had your mind changed about in a life-altering way?
And if you had to look at your life right now and take a guess at what is a big assumption you really need to reconsider today if you want to take the next step in your personal development–what might it be?