Did you watch the Mark Twain Prize for American Humour on PBS

Where you there for it?

Did you watch the Mark Twain Prize for American Humour on PBS this past Monday? This time it was given to David Letterman, well-deserved after making zillions laugh and for decades. Last year’s recipient Bill Murray was side-splitingly funny, dressed better than Henry VIII and he delivered his tribute to Dave while eating. He saw that Dave’s family was fed too, way up high in their box seats. It’s not easy to do any of that while you’re eating. Bill is a master.

Then I heard a story I didn’t know. That the late musician Warren Zevon often sat in for Paul Schafer. How I missed that I do not know. When Zevon was told he didn’t have much time here on earth, Dave did a whole hour with him. I didn’t know that either.

Musician Eddie Vedder came out and sang the Zevon song “Keep Me In Your Heart” with Paul Schafer at the piano, some wonderful singers and a strong and gentle band. Every time I think about it I get goosebumps. Why? It was a sublime performance, everyone so talented and perfectly unified in telling that musical story. They did it together. Letterman said, “It doesn’t get any better than that” and he was right. They created something absolutely beautiful together and we could do with a lot more of it these days. They told a great story with music, on top of another great story, a communication of artistry. I hope Warren Zevon is on Cloud Nine.

You can see it online.

November 20, 2017

Failure to Communicate – The Elephant in the Room

Failure to communicate is a well-travelled elephant, present in rooms all over the world. That’s not to say people aren’t doing their best because they are doing their best. What if it could be better? Imagine that! That’s what we’re here to do, to make it better. Being aware of the words you choose and how they affect your tone makes all the difference there is to being a skilled communicator. It’s a wonderful place to be which I know, having made the trip myself.

I worked on a wildlife television show once upon a time and part of my job was to negotiate stock footage royalties with wildlife cinematographers and scientists and then to land the film we needed in time to make our air dates. We’d done business before with a small company in Paris and all the shipping was done by overnight courier which we paid for. So, where was the gorilla footage I’d ordered a week ago? I telephoned and was told it was sent by mail. “By mail?” said I. “What’s wrong with you people”, and the phone went dead. I’d been hung up on. It caused no end of problems for my colleagues and of course, I had to apologise.

Now, I would handle that situation in a completely different way. The objective was to get the film, not to insult a Parisian who had made a mistake. It was a boneheaded mistake, true, and I handled without an ounce of finesse.

These days I handle 94.5% of the moments in my life with lots of finesse and take great pride in that. I’m also having excellent experiences with people through this learnable skill that’s become second nature. My failure to communicate effectively taught me an important lesson that day and it’s always in the front of my mind. When there’s a problem, work to solve it rather than create another one.

Be at Peace Grasshopper – The Mechanic

Driving along in my ancient Saab 900 and I was feeling happy. I love driving, especially in my old friend. Even Top Gear said it was the best car ever made. And it just stopped. It would turn over but it wouldn’t move and I was in the left turn lane of a main road at 5:20 in the afternoon in Toronto rush hour. I put on the flashers and was waived across the road by a man who offered to push me onto a side street. Calls were made to CAA and to warn my mechanic Vito.

When I piled out of the tow truck at Vito’s garage I saw he was pretty stressed out. There was a bit of barely audible foul language. I like Vito a lot and this is a part of him that I’d never seen. He did say he had so much to do and he couldn’t get a break. He just needed to finish what he was doing and then he could talk to me. I was cool about my little calamity so I say, “no problem, be at peace grasshopper”. He looked at me and burst out laughing and I burst out laughing. Vito loosened up.

This was a diffusion tactic on my part. I recognised that he was struggling and I didn’t want to add to it. Instead I used a line from the old “Kung Fu” TV series. He saw that I appreciated his situation and said something that made him laugh. Lightened the whole thing up.

As I write this I don’t know what’s wrong with my ancient Saab. I haven’t heard from Vito yet but I’m pretty sure he’s going to do his best for me. If it means it’s time to let the car go, I think he’ll be gentle.

BONUS – Whenever I use “Be at peace grasshopper” it always gets a laugh. Guaranteed. I’ve been using it for a long time and it sits in my back pocket of ‘things to use when I need them’.  Feel free to use it too and carry it in your back pocket when you want to diffuse a situation, not make it worse. It made the whole exchange better for both of us because frankly, neither one of us needed any more aggravation.

Power and Getting Along – You won’t believe what Clementine Churchill wrote to Winston!

A letter from Clementine Churchill to her husband Winston, then British Prime Minister during WWII.

My Darling,

I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something you ought to know.

One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me & told me that there is danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner – It seems your Private Secretaries have agreed to behave like school boys &’take what’s coming to them’  & then escape out of your presence shrugging their shoulders – Higher up, if an idea is suggested (say at a conference) you are supposed to be so contemptuous that presently no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming. I was astonished & upset because in all these years I have been accustomed to all those who have worked with & under you, loving you – I said this, & I was told ‘No doubt it’s the strain’ –

My Darling Winston, I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; and you are not as kind as you used to be.

It is for you to give the Orders & if they are bungled – except for the King, the Archbishop of Canterbury & the Speaker, you can sack anyone & everyone. Therefore with this terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness and if possible Olympic calm. … – ‘ I cannot bear that those who serve the Country & yourself should not love you as well as admire & respect you –

Besides, you won’t get the best results by irascibility & rudeness. They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality (Rebellion in War time being out of the question!)

Please forgive your loving devoted & watchful


From Clementine Churchill,

By her daughter Mary Soames

Clarity Around Coaching

Coaching is designed to help you get better at something. The right type of coach can help your hit a bat, for example. Or in this case, to elevate your communication skills to navigate any kind of conversation with ease.

It is a future focused, goal oriented working partnership.

An Important Distinction – Therapy, Consulting, Coaching

Just say for the sake of discussion, you want to develop your bike riding skill.

If you go to a Therapist, the Therapist might say, “Approach the bike. How does it feel? Do you have any previous experience with bikes?”

If you go to a Consultant, he or she will learn how to ride a bike if they don’t already know, and give you detailed notes.

If you go to a Coach, the Coach will say, ”Get on the bike and start riding and I’ll walk along beside you until you can do it yourself”.

Therapy focuses on insight to resolve past issues. Consulting is an exchange is information based on expertise. Coaching works with focused goal(s) until the goal(s) are achieved.

One conversation, Two Ways – Spot the Huge Difference

He started it! The Franco vs Brantley Exchange

Except for the cat and baby videos, social media squeals with outrage and accusation. You can still hear it, almost, even when your devices are turned off.  But an incident jumped the shark and I read about in today’s newspaper.

The actor James Franco’s Broadway debut was as George in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  How lucky to debut in such a poignant role with Chris O’Dowd as Lennie. Franco’s performance was reviewed by the New York Times as “respectful”, “generally inert” and that both actors “wear their archetypes like armour”. Then, like a hair tweezed from a nostril came the comment that Franco’s performance was “understated to the point of near invisibility”. 

That was the initial volley. Then came Franco’s return on Instagram posting the review from Variety which called his performance “flawless”.  Franco went on to say – get this – that the reviewer Ben Brantley and the NYT “had embarrassed themselves. Brantley is such a little bitch he should be working for Gawker.com instead of the paper of record”. Insulted now are Franco, the NYT, Brantley and Gawker.com.

I didn’t see the performance so I can’t comment on whether it was ‘nearly invisible’ or ‘flawless’. But I would suggest that performance critique or any kind of critique can be offered filled with sharp objects or with all the intelligence and experience possessed by the reviewer to recommend something, or not. In this case I felt whooshed back to grade 8, the meanest place of all. 

Sadly, Franco did the same thing back to Brantley and put some spin on it to drive in those sharp objects. According to him Brantley is a “bitch” AND “an idiot”.

Look at what these two professional men have created! If Brantley had considered a less vicious approach Franco might have paid more attention and possibly learned something. He might say in 20 years’ time, “It was Ben Brantley of the NYT who said a really important…” That will not come from this. And Franco could have remained silent and relaxed in the hammock of his “flawless” review.  Social media doesn’t hurt people’s feelings, people do. Don’t keep picking at the scab, let the wound heal over and away you go. Not sure what Chris O’Dowd did but I haven’t heard anything, and I won’t go looking for it either. 

There, that’s better.