All the Rage of Kindness

As a speech coach, I can’t help but click on speeches.

‘Tis the season for convocation addresses and I’ve already seen the kindness theme rear its ugly head. Back in 2021, just as the Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson rockets were about to dominate the news, a LinkedIn connection of mine posted a convocation address he said was “the best advice [he’d] ever read.”  It was an American writer’s convocation address to the 2013 graduating class at Syracuse University. This successful writer, George Saunders, waxes on about the importance of being kind and how each year as he ages, his appreciation for kindness grows. My LinkedIn connection couldn’t agree more.

He called it the best advice, but I call it a load of malarkey.

The post had me reflect on my relationship with kindness, and how it has served me. Professionally, I posit it hasn’t served many well.

Starting thirty years ago, in the summer between my third and fourth year at UBC, my friend Sarah and I both apply for a cushy job working reception at the campus Conference Centre. To even be able to apply, we have to be able to type 50 words per minute, and provide test results to prove it. We go to the typing test together. We are allowed two tries. After the first test is scored, I reach the 50-word goal! Yay! But Sarah doesn’t. She’s not even close. Boo! She suggests I put her name on my second test. It felt selfish not to. Unkind, even. So I type “Sarah” on the second test and I pass that one, too. Now, we both have typing tests that meet the requirements! We both send in our resumes! We both get interviews!

And then Sarah gets the job and I don’t.

Instead, I spend that summer at the Conference Centre stripping beds, folding hospital corners, pulling globs of hair out of sink drains and scrubbing toilets. Dragging my vacuum around, I can barely manage a wave across the lobby to Sarah at the front desk, in her pressed white shirt with her fancy gold name tag, cheerily greeting guests and typing reservations into a computer at a rate I’m guessing is less than 50 words per minute.

Forging Sarah’s name on the typing test was a bad business decision on my part, for sure, but it had felt selfish to leave her behind. I thought it was a kind gesture to a friend.

Returning to that convocation speech, even though George Saunders is indeed a successful writer, I had to look him up. As it turns out, he published a lot in the New Yorker, a magazine we used to get regularly in our household. With three kids to mind, that subscription was eventually cancelled as the piles of uncracked editions started to weigh on me as heavily as those piles of dirty onesies stacked up in the hallway.

In one particular New Yorker piece, Saunders describes the first day of his Master’s program at Syracuse University. They all go out dancing and George and his new professor, Tobias Wolff, stagger home together:

Afterward, Toby and I agree we are too drunk to let either him or me drive the car home, that car, which we are pretty sure is his car, if there is a sweater in the back. There is! We walk home, singing, probably, “Helplessly Hoping.” In his kitchen, we eat some chicken that his wife Catherine has prepared for something very important tomorrow, something for which there will be no time to make something else.

I leave, happy to have made a new best friend.”

After reading this, all I can think is Poor, Poor Catherine.

I wonder what her reaction was. Did she lose her mind the next morning when she opened the fridge? Or maybe she was a selfless and kind professor’s wife who just laughed it off. “Oh well! Aren’t you guys hilarious! So silly. No worries, I’ll make another chicken! Or something! Ha ha! So funny!” 

I can’t help but imagine that while they were out dancing after class, Catherine was at home preparing that chicken. Maybe they had kids and she had to do it after they went to bed. Maybe, since George and Toby ate it as described in this drunken (hilarious!) footnote, she will be repeating that task tomorrow, cooking another chicken (hilarious!). Maybe instead, Catherine had hoped to read something that next day—maybe peruse a New Yorker—or perhaps write something, or think about writing something, or just stop thinking about everything that needed to be done—like preparing a chicken dish or getting to those piles of laundry—to have the luxury to think about nothing, because we have learned that having time to think about nothing is necessary to be able to then think about something. 

Instead, Catherine would have to think about how to solve this chicken problem, this chicken that I can imagine might well have been prepared for a professional event that benefitted the career trajectory of her husband, Toby. It’s just a guess, but I bet I’m not far off. I bet he dedicates a book, “To my Catherine, who has the kindest heart in the world.”

Then George Saunders introduces us to Doug Unger, his other teacher in his early Syracuse days.

Every Monday night, Doug’s workshop meets at his house. Doug’s wife, Amy, makes us dinner, which we eat on the break.

He doesn’t mention Amy again. That’s all Amy gets. Doug’s wife, Amy, cooks them dinner every Monday. Something tells me Amy might be a bit disappointed with that one mention. But how kind of her to make dinner for them all, every single Monday. “To Amy, the kindest of us all.”

In his address to the 2013 graduating class, Saunders continues to illustrate the wonders of kindness:

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish—how illogical, really.

Nope. Malarkey. 

Being selfish is very useful and completely logical and it has landed many people exactly where they sit in their successful positions as C-suite executives, presidents, billionaires, and maybe even bestselling authors.

I’m guessing that Catherine and Amy were very kind people all along, and I bet they got less kind once they hit 50. That’s what’s happening around me, at least. I’m only now noticing how useful it might have been to be more selfish, professionally. There would have been much less toilet scrubbing, much more successful-being.

You name the “successful” position, and my money’s on there being a lot of selfish people in those spaces, with a lot of kind people having helped get them there, unnoticed footnotes who make them meals with chicken the night before, perhaps helplessly hoping to be rewarded for it. There they are, thousands of thankless kindnesses—worth nothing more than a book dedication—afforded to people on their roads to success. 

Being kind is a result of having empathy, which is all the rage now. Those in the corporate world call it a soft skill. They call it emotional intelligence. Empathy is the buzzword in leadership training. Vulnerability! Kindness! Empathy! All the rage! But how about rewarding those who already have heaps of it? Empathy only makes you a better leader once you’ve made your way into that leadership position. What gets people into those positions is often their distinct lack of empathy: less kindness, more ‘wise business decisions’.

Who are these ‘great leaders’ anyway? Maybe it’s my failing as a mother, but I know one of the first people my teenagers name as a great leader is Elon Musk.* Not big on empathy, our Elon. But Teslas and space rockets are a big hit in this house.

Empathy—which leads to being kind—only gets “better as you get older” if you sucked at it to begin with. 

If we’re not careful and start to genuinely acknowledge and reward empathy, then people who are selfish will continue to rise to the top, and people who are kind will continue to go unnoticed, becoming footnotes in the stories written by people like Toby, Douglas and George, Elon, Bill or Richard: leaders who are apparently just now waking up to the value of kindness. What a privilege for them to embrace kindness from where they sit.

So to Life’s Graduating Class of 2021, I propose this as you begin your quest for success:

Absolutely, by all means, strive every day to be kind.

But also, notice kindness. Acknowledge the kindness afforded to you.

See it around you. 

And in some real, concrete way, reward that kindness.

If we keep disproportionately rewarding those people who make selfish decisions labelled as ‘good business’, we’ll only end up with more of the same in leadership positions, and more useless, selfish rockets in the sky. 

*I’m happy to report that since 2021, Elon’s status as a great leader has significantly diminished in this household. A dearth of kind words about him, his politics in general and his Twitter/X endeavours have all combined to knock him down a notch. 

Do glasses change your voice?

After I gave Vaughn Fahie, the Voice Brander, one quick lesson in diaphragmatic breathing, he recorded a second take of the introduction to his audiobook.

In just three words, can you tell which take is before the breathing lesson and which one is after?***

There are many benefits to returning to the way we all started out breathing. Belly breathing (also called diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing) was something I learned about early in my speech pathology career. I had to relearn it myself, and as a reformed and recovering chest breather, I can attest to the calm feeling I’m able to conjure when my breathing initiates with a movement of the diaphragm. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which tells my body to ‘rest & digest’, the opposite of the ‘fight-or-flight’ response which triggers chest breathing.

But not only that, it can help create a more relaxed delivery of your message. Your voice can sound deeper, fuller.

Which of Vaughn’s two takes do you think is before the belly breathing lesson, and which one is after?

Don’t cheat before you scroll down down down to find the answer…

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***Vaughn is wearing his glasses for the take that is AFTER the breathing lesson. His voice sounds fuller to me. You?

A Faux Fox Fur Purse: the shame, the glory, the story

A lifetime ago, my husband and I lived kidless in downtown Toronto. One chilly November we found ourselves strolling along Yorkville’s chi-chi shopping streets, probably en route to some cheap eats, and I pointed to an adorable bright orange faux-fur purse in a window. One “That’s cute!” was all it took.

Fast forward to Christmas morning, there it was. I’m not sure what I saw in my husband’s eyes as he watched me open the fluffy present. Was it Pride? Fear? Joy? Guilt? Love? He would definitely get bonus points for thoughtfulness. It fills a heart to feel heard. I felt loved.

But then I suddenly also felt intensely conflicted. It wasn’t fake. It was *actual* fox! I…I have to return it…but that’ll hurt his feelings…but it’s REAL…that poor, dead fox…is so soft…holy crap we can’t afford this…I have to return it…but that’ll hurt his feelings…how did he think I would keep this…how is this real? it’s so orange…it’s so soft…it’s so sad…

As the picture suggests, I didn’t return it.

I don’t quite know why. Lots of reasons, really, only one of which is that it would have hurt his feelings. It’s gorgeous. Honestly, stunning. It physically feels amazing. I feel amazing when I hold it. I get a compliment every time I use it, even sheepishly from friends who might otherwise proudly hold PETA signs at a protest. I know they would have returned it, but I can also tell they understand that I didn’t.

Now, twenty years later, this purse is chock full of stories.

One story illustrates the well-known lesson of the price of procrastination. As it turns out, my husband had left his Christmas shopping until 6pm on that fateful Christmas Eve. When the woman at the counter revealed that the purse I had cheerfully, ignorantly pointed to was fox-fox not fake-fox, with price tag to match, he had no back-up plan. He felt he had no choice but to fork over a *lot* more cash than he had anticipated, more than he could afford, really. But he wanted me to feel loved that Christmas morning. He figured a scratch card in the stocking wouldn’t make me feel that way and he wasn’t wrong. I did feel loved, for his having heard me, remembering something I’d pointed out a month ago. And it’s only money, after all. (Well, money and one unlucky fox.)

Another story this purse holds comes from another dreary November when, in the excitement of getting all prettied up for a long-awaited dinner out with girlfriends, I pulled out old foxy. Getting in my car to go meet the posse, I readied myself for the inevitable onslaught of compliments. (I was filled with what I’ll now describe as the hubris of an Anthony Rota basking in the glow of a fateful standing ovation.) But then, for reasons I can only attribute to a merciful guardian angel intervention, I suddenly visualized walking into the setting of that night’s restaurant of choice: Pure Kitchen, Ottawa’s most celebrated vegan restaurant. Foxy stayed home that night. I still shake my head over that narrow escape.

One final, ongoing story old foxy holds is about me: this kid, this youngest of eight whose mom somehow managed dinner on the table every night with the meagre earnings of her husband’s second hand shop, somehow this snot-nosed, scraggly-haired kid is worthy of a brand new, bright orange genuine fox fur purse from Canada’s mink mile. She doesn’t quite believe it, but there are moments. That story still needs work.

Stories are everywhere. You have to look for them, but they’re there. Sometimes they tell us about how the world sees us. Sometimes about how we see the world. And sometimes, if you look closely, these stories tell us about how we see ourselves.

What do these stories have to do with what I do?

Come find out.

A woman on the world stage who does it perfectly

I just finished watching the Netflix documentary on Hillary Clinton. There are so many things I want to write about it, but let’s start with this gem from her Director of Communications who, when offered advice over and over on what Hillary should change—what she should sound like, the kinds of words she should use, how to modulate her voice—she’d ask for an example of a woman on the world stage who does it perfectly.

“If you could tell her a woman on the world stage who does it perfectly, then she could emulate that person. No one ever had an answer for who that woman is.”

As a woman, there is a reason you don’t feel at home when you’re speaking publicly. A big part of it is simply that throughout history we’ve been inundated with examples of one specific type of man with a deep voice who gets the “great public speaker” label. We simply need more and more examples of women who speak publicly and are celebrated for it. Every time a woman speaks from the world stage—or any podium—our brains get another example to shift our expectations.

The next example might as well be you.

Good Does Not Speak for Itself

My gosh Anand Giridharadas makes sense. He’s a great public speaker, because he’s a great storyteller. He talks about using storytelling to make meaning from what happens in people’s everyday lives, connecting it to the politics of their country. For example, how not being able to chat with the Spanish-speaking cashier at Walgreens can become a story that connects an aging American to an anti-immigrant political policy.

Please have a listen. And let’s start finding the stories that bring actual freedom, democracy, even fun! to all the changes in the world, instead of the stories that are making people afraid that all these changes (climate action, racial equality, demographics, feminist movment, etc.) are making them lose their way of life. When Tucker Carlson spends an hour arguing that putting the female M&M in flats instead of heels is a war on ‘sexiness’…it is building on an intuition that is out there: that equality, progress and power for women will lead to the erosion of a certain picture of women that they grew up with.

There will be no persuading anyone “if we’re not telling the equal and opposite story that yes, you’ve lost some number of high heels, but you’ve gained an ocean of talent, power, dreams, promise and ingenuity that we’ll get by doubling the fraction of people empowered to do their best in the world.”

Let’s find these stories, yeah? For democracy’s sake.

Biden speech

Biden delivered a doozy last night:

The story he tells at the end—about his journey to Kyiv—is riveting (12:57), but my favourite moment in this speech comes in the delivery of the following lines (starting at 8:07):

You know, and here at home, we have to be honest with ourselves.  In recent years, too much hate has been given too much oxygen, fueling racism, a rise in antisemitism and Islamicphobia [Islamophobia] right here in America. 

It’s also intensified in the wake of recent events that led to the horrific threats and attacks that both shock us and break our hearts.

On October 7th, terror attacks have triggered deep scars and terrible memories in the Jewish community.

Today, Jewish families worried about being targeted in school, wearing symbols of their faith walking down the street, or going out about their daily lives. 

You know, I know many of you in the Muslim American community or the Arab American community, the Palestinian American community, and so many others are outraged and hurting, saying to yourselves, “Here we go again,” with Islamophobia and distrust we saw after 9/11. 

Just last week, a mother was brutally stabbed, a little boy — here in the United States — a little boy who had just turned six years old was murdered in their home outside of Chicago. 

His name was Wadea — Wadea — a proud American, a proud Palestinian American family. 

We can’t stand by and stand silent when this happens.  We must, without equivocation, denounce antisemitism.  We must also, without equivocation, denounce Islamophobia. 

And to all of you hurting — those of you who are hurting, I want you to know: I see you.  You belong.  And I want to say this to you: You’re all America.  You’re all America.

Ten minutes to a TED-style Talk

Let’s call it an InsTED Talk! I used otter.ai to transcribe a testimonial by one of my clients, then asked ChatGPT to “write a TED-style presentation” based on it. The video below is the conclusion of the presentation.
I have to admit, the writing was….not awful! It even gave me specific suggestions for slides!

No, it wasn’t super creative—it clearly needed editing, story crafting, rewriting in words that sound more like me, and practice so the delivery is from the heart—but what a quick, easy way to get started on a presentation! Ten minutes!!

Steps to unblock your presentation writing:

1. Find content that represents what you have to present on. (I used a testimonial recording that I had otter.ai transcribe.)

2. Copy that into a conversation with ChatGPT and ask it to create a ‘Ted-style presentation’ from it.

3. Boom. You’ve started.

“Just be you?!”

If you were the gambling type, which panelist would you bet has NOT had to struggle with ‘being themselves’ at work? Go ahead, put your money down.

One of these panelists didn’t have to struggle to ‘just be themselves’ in their leadership position.

I watched a recording of a panel discussion on leadership and one of the women said: “My biggest challenge when I began my current position was ‘being myself’. I had big shoes to fill and I thought that I needed to be someone else to get the job done.”

I replayed the video several times over and watched each of the panelist’s reaction to her statement. Every single person on the panel gave a slow, knowing nod.

Except for one.

Panelist #6 was the outlier. The only straight white male on the panel didn’t nod in that knowing way. I’m not saying that every straight white male finds it easy to ‘be himself’ at work, but if I had to put money on it, I’d put it on #6. (Did you?)

It’s easier for some people to ‘be themselves’ at work because how they look and how they sound have traditionally been associated with ‘leadership’. If you don’t find yourself represented by the drawing of panelist #6, don’t be surprised if you have found it hard to just ‘be yourself’ at work. If you feel nervous speaking in front of a crowd, this is also a reason for it. You simply haven’t seen and heard as many examples of people in leadership positions who look like you and sound like you. (You may not have consciously noticed that, but your brain has.) As the woman panelist said, she thought she needed to be someone else to get the job done. It’s hard to speak from a place of authenticity when you’re contorting yourself to seem like someone you’re not.

But what is to be done about it? Well, every time you step up to lead a group of people, someone in that group sees you being a leader, and hears your voice as a leader. That alone will start to change what leadership looks like and sounds like to them.

And the more often you step up and speak out as yourself, the more familiar you’ll get with that expression of leadership and what it feels like to you: as authentic, deep-down, true-to-yourself you. Over time, with repetition, it will start to feel natural. Your brain’s pathways will become well traveled and your body will feel at home there.

So please please please step up and speak out, even if it doesn’t feel like ‘you’ at first. Change takes time and practice, and the time for this change has come.

Highlights from a Great Speaker

Sometimes insomnia pays off. I had the honour of watching Jacinda Ardern’s farewell to the New Zealand Parliament live last night. It was a great speech. She was a great leader. Here are some highlights from this lover of good speeches.

Of course, she told stories, of course. It was chock full of them.

There was great writing, delivered genuinely:
“Politics has never been a tick list for me. It’s always been about progress. Sometimes you can measure it, and sometimes you can’t. 
…There will be no list of the lives saved because of the banning of military-style semi-automatic weapons.”

Naturally, she had many people to thank. She included tightly-written lines to make them meaningful: “To Holly, who has the biggest heart but the sharpest mind.” Adding, with a cracking voice: “Your dad would be so proud of you.”

And obviously, a kicker closing:
“I cannot determine what will define my time in this place, but I do hope I’ve demonstrated something else entirely: 
That you can be anxious, sensitive, kind, and wear your heart on your sleeve.
You can be a mother. Or not.
You can be an ex-Mormon. Or not.
You can be a nerd, a cryer, a hugger.
You can be all of these things.
And not only can you be here…
You can lead.
Just like me.”

But most impressive—and what replays of the speech likely won’t show but at 3am I had nothing better to do than to watch—was what happened after. She took a sip of water and stood there awkwardly for a moment. I saw the nerd she described herself as. Then, a lineup started to form, what seemed to be almost every member of Parliament lining up to send her off. It looked like Easter Sunday communion at Notre Dame Basilica, only instead of the body of Christ they were there for a hug from Jacinda.
The Māori members sang to pass the time as each said their goodbye. She took a quick moment with every one. Some hugs were longer than others. You could feel the memories well up in the longer ones.
Indeed, you can be a hugger, and you can lead.
And, as it turns out, you can leave.

Farewell, Jacinda Ardern. And thank you.

What to do with EMOTION:

Dr. Jennifer Fraser, author of The Bullied Brain, testified to a House of Commons committee in what I consider an Olympic-level performance. She not only had to talk about child abuse and suicide from a very personal place, but she had to keep it together to deliver her message in the limited time the committee gave her. I had the honour of coaching her to help her let the emotion surface—as it should—but then continue on. We both agree, no one could do this alone. I think her performance is athletic. In order to nail the landing, she had to control her body’s response, including her breathing pattern. Here she talks about working with me and the role of emotion in public speaking:

You vs. Barack

How do you compare to the former President?
The following text is the beginning of Barack Obama’s second inaugural speech. I first published this almost ten years ago. It was a great lesson then, and still is.
Find yourself a timer, press start, and read. Read it as if you’re in front of the hundreds of thousands in Washington, D.C. (*Actual hundreds of thousands, not in Trump numbers.)

“Vice President Biden, Mr. Chief Justice, members of the United States Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens. Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution, we affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional, what makes us America, is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
[applause]

Now, press STOP.
It took Barack Obama 70 seconds to say that. 
How long did it take you? 

People think he’s a good, even great speaker. They even applauded. A lot!

Auditory processing is hard. Giving your listeners time to process one thought is more important than trying to express two or three thoughts in the same amount of time. If you don’t pause to let them process your message, they’ll come away with nothing.

So the next time you find yourself speaking in front of hundreds of thousands of adoring followers, be sure to pause. Long and often. But even if you only have a handful of listeners, my bet is that you could pause longer and more often. Your message, and its weight, will be better received if you do.

Listen to Obama here: