How IGNITE Seattle! Ignites…

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 3.37.55 PMI had such a great evening this week speaking before 600 people at Town Hall Seattle, on a well worn stage that has seen poets, writers, academics and dignitaries. My claim to fame was a five-minute talk for IGNITE Seattle! whose motto is “Enlighten Us But Make It Quick.” In the spirit of the evening, I chose a talk that was not part of my professional portfolio but close to my heart: “Embrace Your Inner Clown.”

A friend, watching the live streaming of the evening event, wondered why people were still milling about on stage just minutes before the event. She asked me whether IGNITE Seattle! was “professionally run.”  I answered with a resounding YES!!!  I told her the organizers were a great team, and super tuned into their audience.  Just to prove it, I decided to offer five leadership lessons I took from IGNITE!:

Play to Your Audience

IGNITE Seattle! has a following and the organizers know it well. Without advertising (I didn’t see any at least), they packed the hall through social media and word of mouth, offering the best $5 entertainment in town. The audience, a bit geeky, hip and fun was diverse – ranging in age from 11 to 78 years old (including two of my guests!) From the stage, the crowd felt relaxed, informal and ready to learn.

IGNITE! doesn’t try to be a junior version of the TED talks.Their audiences want to be engaged, inspired, informed and have a good time. IGNITE! delivers that. As a friend I brought to the event said, “This would have been great even if you weren’t speaking!”

Go for Passion Not Pomp and Pretense

Credentials, degrees and speaking experience matter a lot less than a presenter’s passion for a topic. (One woman had never presented before!) Speakers don’t come to IGNITE! to market themselves or their professions – they present because they have something cool to share.

The IGNITE! team sets the tone for the event. You get the feeling that the group really likes working together. The organizers exuded a kind of relaxed, no-sweat, this-is-going-to-be-fun confidence, which, of course, it was.

Pamper Your Performers

The sandwiches from Paseo served at our first speaker prep session were a great way to start our work in the funky, fabulous Makerhaus – a design and fabrication studio in Northwest Seattle. The organizers generously offered us two optional prep sessions, lots of tips, and tons of encouragement. Rules were minimal: 20 slides, no more no less, and five minutes to present. Period. Oh, and we had to stand on a small, red rug on stage so we would be positioned well for video recording. The rest of their suggestions were informal (a.k.a. no dress codes!) and designed to encourage our confidence and uniqueness!

Stay Unbelievably Positive

The night of the event, speakers for each half of the evening sat in a few rows of pews near the stage, our own “bull pen.” I was second on stage, (gulp), but as soon as I heard the first laughter from the audience, I knew it was going to be all right. As I returned from the platform, I saw a host of hands sticking up in the air from the bull pen waiting to high-five me. Wow! The response from the audience was equally generous – the enthusiasm and positive vibe was infectious.

All fifteen of the speakers were great in their own ways. The range of topics was amazing – from the history of baby names, to food, to magic, to issues with girls bleeding in the developing world. Fascinating!

Polish didn’t matter. I loved hearing one speaker who would have failed the count of “ums” and “ahs” at Toastmasters. The audience went wild cheering him – he was the real thing, authentic, quirky and enthused with passion for his topic.

Keep the Beat

IGNITE! has a rhythm and knows it well. The evening pulsed. The M.C. gave a short, positive and punchy introduction and then we were off.  Each speaker climbed briskly on to the stage, spoke for five minutes, with the transitions just long enough to hear a wave of applause and welcome the next speaker on to the stage. Even the one promotional announcement from our illustrious venue – Town Hall – was brief.  The intermission gave us twenty minutes for drinks and socializing (an important part of the evening) before we started up again. We closed before ten p.m. and I made a ferry back to my island before midnight.  It couldn’t have been better!



How to Stop But-ting

512px-Goats_butting_headsIn improv, you learn what happens in a story or conversation when two partners block each other. The conversation slows, stops or becomes very boring. The most common way to block a point in a conversation is to use the word “but.”

That’s why improv teaches us to say “Yes, AND” not “Yes, But.”

There are many ways “but” can get expressed without saying the word. In fact, you can even use the word “and” to mean “but” as in “You raise an interesting point – and that’s why I think my idea is better.” Or “Yes, and of course that won’t work” (it’s too idealistic, expensive, etc.)  Other phrases to watch out for are words like “however” and “although” and phrases like “of course, that wouldn’t be feasible” or even the sneaky one, “Interesting, why don’t you research that (to death)?”

And “yes, but” isn’t always a conversation stopper.  A lot depends on your intent. You could say, “I’d love to go hiking with you tomorrow, but I hear it’s going to rain.  Shall we shoot for Sunday?” and your words would advance your plans – and lead to a good time.

In their book, Conversation Transformation (I highly recommend), authors Benjamin, Yeager and Simon offer the following exercise to help when you are beginning to argue opinions with your partner, tension is building, and you’re about to jump in and argue.

Start building rather than but-ting

When you want to encourage listening around a contentious issue, respond to your partner’s argument by first building on it. When you build, you offer true statements that acknowledge points in an opposing argument that you can agree with.

For example, you believe that taxes are needed and justified to make sure that the government can provide essential social services and rebuild our decaying transportation infrastructure. Your partner starts the conversation with:

“The trouble with America is that government has gotten too big. They are wasting our money and taxing the middle class to death. The only way out of this is to cut taxes and force the government to cut spending.”

You gulp and get ready to spring into your argument.

But first you think build…three times

You look for points in your partner’s argument with which you can agree.  And you offer three of them.  (Three can be hard – it requires you to stretch!)

  1. “I know that there have been examples of government waste and excess.”
  2. “Many middle class Americans are feeling pinched and I understand that the effective standard of living has gone down for much of the middle class,”
    and finally
  3. “It’s important to prioritize where to spend government dollars to make our money counts.”


Now the next part. Instead of jumping in with your best arguments, you offer a question about the issues that underlie both of your arguments.

“How can we curb excess federal government spending and make sure our dollars will be used well while also insuring that we have the essential government services that will keep our country strong?” 

The process of building three times and then asking a question is a skill that is easier said than done, especially when our desire to be right is so strong.  But it can keep us away from needless conflicts in relationships and promote a spirit of inquiry and discovery.

Remember to have fun!

In the class I taught on conflict last week, we supplemented these ideas with some fun improv exercises.  I used my version of the exercise “Presents” to promote a spirit of “Yes, And.”  One person gave an imaginary present, the second person named it and the third person made a comment about it.  We also had a fun time playing a “but” game where one person voices an opinion to a partner and the partner responds with a “but statement.”

As we debriefed the exercise, we observed that there are many ways to convey the spirit of “but” without using that word.

But then, I got in trouble.  (Note to readers – avoid this if you can!)

I was addressing all the ways people can say “but” without using that word and I added,

“I have a nose for “buts.”  I can smell them a mile away. “


There was silence.  Then lots of laughter.  Oh dear.  Now they have another, Sally-ism that I am sure to hear about at their graduation. At least they won’t forget the point!

How do you keep from “but-ting” in your challenging conversations?



Take a vision day



This year I am starting 2014 with a Vision Day.

Most of the year, I’m simply swamped with so much doing. It’s hard to pull away from the report that needs to be written, the class that needs to be planned and—always—so many emails.  But sometimes I just have to STOP and remember what it’s all about. A Vision Day helps me do that.

A Vision Day is an opportunity to focus, for one day, on the big picture, and to refuel my inspiration for work.

It’s an opportunity, especially at the turn of the year, to review where I’ve been over the past year and dream about where I want to go.

Vision Day is my opportunity to unplug from the urgencies and distractions of the day-to-day demands of a consulting practice and to concentrate on what is “important but not urgent”, in Steven Covey’s words. As a solo-preneur, I don’t get sent off on corporate retreats – if I want to retreat, I need to plan it for myself.

Let day-to-day demands wait

The demands of day-to-day business can wait one day. Vision Day is my day to think, take a walk with my journal in hand, watch the clouds pass (or the Northwest rains pour), savor long cups of tea, and reflect on what really matters and how that applies to where my business (and life) is going.  And, as the spirit moves me, I’ll envision the next year and begin to plan.

But forget the spreadsheets, timelines and metrics.  A Vision Day is a time to access the deeper sources of inspiration and to rekindle the spark from which my best planning comes.  Unless, of course, my inspiration takes me in the direction of action planning or my next blog.   (No need to be rigid!)  On Vision Day, I follow my nose, and let my footsteps lead me to what inspires my creative juices.


I love to take Vision Day during the holidays. Some years ago, during the days after Christmas, I took a lot of time to reflect on the purpose of my work – inside and outside of the university for which I worked.  I sat still, contemplated, meditated, listened. I did not try to “be productive.”

Be prepared to be surprised!

During one of my long reflections, I surprised myself.  An inner voice announced that my next job was to design and launch an innovative graduate program in management, one that would be designed as a learning community.  YIKES!  You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. That wasn’t in my plans!  But the message was clear.

When the Muse Speaks, Listen

I had asked a question about my purpose and received an answer.  The next step had to be action. I retreated to my desk and typed up a vision for this new program.

Three days later, the University President was in town and I presented him with the idea for the program.  The timing was perfect—he gave it his blessings.  I spent the next six years developing and running a very creative university program—with the best people I could imagine—all as a result of an afternoon of deep reflection.

Pick the right place

Northwest path through the trees

Place matters. On Vision Day, I want to be in a spot that inspires me and puts me in a mood of gratitude and reflection, such as a retreat center, a forest, the beach, a long ferry ride, or a great café. When I lived in Seattle, a 25 minute trip to Brusseau’s café in Edmonds, Washington was enough to send me into another world. If I were living again in New York City, I would choose to walk the Highline Garden with a notebook in my hand, or hang out in a beautiful hotel lobby or sit in the atrium of the old Citicorps building.  If I pick a place with the wrong vibe, I find another. It’s a special day for me, so I want the energy to be right.

This year, my home on this beautiful island feels like a retreat center, so I may take a walk around a forested pond and then curl up in my writing cabin.  I’m thinking about reviewing some of my recent journals and looking at books I keep in my cabin for inspiration.  My challenge will be to turn off my email and tell my husband that I’ll be “out of commission” for a while.

Then I’ll dial up the Muse – and listen.






Spark Your Thinking by Going Visual

Patty Dobrowlski at work on a visual goal

My artistic career ended in third grade.  In fact, after I received a B in Mrs. Potter’s art class, I figured that I had no talent at all.  “Stick to writing words”, I told myself.  That self-talk lasted fifty years.

More recently, I’ve recanted and acknowledged some artistic things I can do – such as create Ikebana flower arrangements– so it’s not over for me yet. But the fact of the matter still remains: I can’t draw.

This didn’t matter at all to Patti Dobrowolski, whom I heard at a recent evening event on Visual Goal Setting.  Patti is a former actress, business consultant, creativity consultant, visual strategist, visual process facilitator, and captivating wild woman. With great enthusiasm, she reassured us drawing drop-outs that we would do fine just sketching stick figures.

One of the purposes of drawing our goals was to activate the power of the right (imaginative) side of the brain, which, fortunately for me, does not do critical evaluations of artistic talent.

I was sitting next to my friend and collaborator Claire Bronson, who had introduced me to Patti’s work a year ago. Claire is herself a visual facilitator who can turn a flip chart into a work of art, and make even a word look beautiful. (see her words at  I made a mental promise: don’t even think of comparing my drawing with Claire’s!

Developing visual goals

 Patti gave us copies of templates for her visual mapping process and we began. Step one in her process is to reflect on current reality – “what’s going well in your world and what’s challenging you?”  She asked us to capture the essence of our thoughts and feelings in one-word statements. “Don’t make a list,” she told us because lists belong to our left-brain organizing, linear self – not to the creative, knowing, more random right-side of the brain that we were to encourage in this exercise.

Putting down words wasn’t hard for me because I’m pretty aware of what is working in my life right now and what I’d like to change –  so I scattered words that described my current life: “Mariah the wonder pony” (captures my heart); “Great group” (love my current leadership program clients); “Fear of the future” (yikes, this economy???)  I then struggled to think of images to go with the words and mine seemed pretty tight and constrained.

Patti kept reassuring us that drawings don’t have to be good to communicate to the right side of the brain.

We then shared with a partner what we observed in looking at our map. I noticed that Patti’s process had already included three modalities: thinking in words, drawing images, and sharing out loud – all ways of reinforcing the power of the exercise.

Our next step was the most fun for me: highlighting our intentions for the future.  Patti invited us to go on a creative trip and let our imaginations rip.

I’ve been working hard re-visioning my business and I have a lot of energy about the future, so this part was fun. I dropped my “am I doing it right concerns?” and lept into creative mode. I quickly came up with ideas and images (still not so artistic, but I didn’t care!), about the future I wanted to create.

I allowed myself to be surprised. An airplane became an easy symbol for the international work I plan to do. A circle showed me how much I value collaboration.

This time, I loved the process of drawing. I was playing full-out and my desire was pulling me forward. I was connecting with intuitive wisdom  – and putting it on paper where I could see it, reflect on it, and act. Patti again asked us to share our reflections with a partner.

Bridging the gap between current and desired reality

The final piece of this action-packed session had us think about how we would move towards the futures we saw in our drawings.  We were asked to identify three bold steps that would help us bridge the left side (current reality) of our maps with the right (desired new reality.)  I noticed one of my tablemates stalled at this point, but I was on a roll.  “Link arms to a wide community,” “Write a bolder truth,” “Speak the passion through great presentations.” I couldn’t wait to go further and look at what each of these might entail but, alas, we were out of time.

Patti encouraged us to keep working with our maps, and invited us to download the free map template she has on her website: Up Your Creative Genius. Just to feed my imagination and keep going with the process, I bought a copy of her book Drawing Solutions: How Visual Goal Setting Will Change Your Life that describes this process in more detail (complete, of course, with great illustrations.)

Many thanks to the Pacific Northwest Organizational Development Network for organizing this evening. I just wish I could get back together with everyone in six months and celebrate our progress creating that new bold reality.


The Eyes Have It – Use Them to Connect!

couple walking at a beach park in the fogWalking at a Seattle beach park at on a foggy Thanksgiving morning, I noticed something different going on and it felt great.  People were looking at me and saying hello.  Some smiled and said, “Happy Thanksgiving”.

Isn’t it strange that this would strike me as so unusual?

After all, it was just eye contact.  A smile.  A simple greeting.  All so basic. And non-intrusive. Yet these relaxed connections with folks at the park changed the quality of my morning.

I decided to try out this practice of greeting people as I walked.  More on this later, but it got me thinking.

Making contact is important in business.  Speakers are told to make eye contact with their audiences.  When I coach teams, I tell introverts that they should make make eye contact with others at meetings to ensure that their presence will be felt.

But as I thought about this, connecting with a large public or meeting-mates seemed like a big stretch for people who don’t greet a fellow walker strolling at a local park.

Of course, some public speakers may like the distance between themselves and their audiences – and making eye contact with an audience may actually feel safer them than greeting someone in a park.  Yet many of my clients are intimidated by this idea of eye contact with their audiences.

I offer them a simple exercise called “see and be seen” where we just walk around and see who else is in the room while we allow others to see us. This exercise helps relax people with the reality that audience members will be looking at them and they will need to look at the eyes of audience members.

simon eyes

 Of course, maybe it doesn’t feel safe to greet strangers in a park.  Maybe you refrain from looking and smiling at someone because you don’t want to send out a message that could be misinterpreted.  This could be useful guidance for walking alone at night in New York City (where I lived for a few years). But maybe not.  Smiles tend to beget smiles.  (Scientists write about mirror neurons that influence how we respond back to people.) Manhattan needs smiles, too.

There are cultures where looking at people may not be OK.  My clients in Japan, tended to keep their eyes down a lot in class, out of respect.

But I live in Seattle – the land of friendly/laid-back people (we’re not quite Portlandia but close enough) and I can’t use my fear of being assaulted in the dark in New York (I was) as my primary excuse for not connecting with folks.

Personally, I think I refrain from eye contact because 1) I’m shy and 2) I get absorbed in myself.

So this morning, I decided to experiment.  I opened up my eyes, let my cheeks lift up into a smile, and looked at people as I passed them on the sidewalk.  Then I greeted them with  “Hi”, “Good Morning” or “Happy Thanksgiving” and monitored the results.  Some responded immediately with a smile, and some said “hello” or “good morning” back to me.  A few seemed startled, but the small smiles on their faces suggested they were pleased.

My results were promising.  I can be shy and still do this!

Of course, I didn’t bat 100%.  That determined jogger in her coordinated teal jogging outfit ran past as if I wasn’t even there.  One or two people just ignored me and a few seemed so absorbed in private internal conversations that they didn’t even look up.beach stroll

I made a mental note that people are going to react differently to my smiles and I can’t take it all personally.  I know that the reaction of a teal-suited jogging machine has nothing to do with me!

After an hour or practicing, my cheeks were getting tired.  But I know that I have to practice, as with any new art, and develop my new eye and smile muscles.  Maybe I need a workshop in smiling and engaging my eyes. I know it could help my presentations.


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