The End of the Back-to-Back Day?

We all know that sinking feeling when we’ve started the day off positively, only to open our diaries and see a flurry of colour blocks demanding every second of our day to be spent in front of our computers on calls.

We see this frustration often at MSB during our programmes of 1:1 coaching sessions in the corporate world. There is rarely a person that doesn’t need some support to reclaim their diaries. We share tips and techniques on ringfencing time for yourself, prioritising what is really important and how to say no to requests that are urgent for others but not for you.

Many organisations are trying their own methods of changing the ‘tyranny of meetings’ culture. These include meetings ending at 25 or 55 past the hour or starting at 10 past the hour to ensure people get breaks. Companies such as Facebook, Asana and Shopify have company-wide ‘no meetings allowed’ days.

BUT could a new type of communications technology drastically change how we conduct meetings?

We like to keep our finger on the pulse at MSB. We’ve noticed a new app on the horizon called Katch which is a heavily backed start-up with high expectations to ‘blow up’ the way we use calendars currently for meetings.

The way it works is that instead of booking a meeting slot in people’s diaries, you send them a ‘card’ in the Katch app with the topic of conversation. Both parties can assign a priority rating for the conversation, and you are only contactable when you switch your status to available.

 

So instead of having a full day of meetings that may or may not be relevant to your top priority items, the idea is that you bash out shorter, more productive and timely conversations in moments that work for you. Plus when you are ‘unavailable’, you have time to focus on your own strategic work. It’s a concept designed to put you back in charge of your day in a more effective way.

Could it really work?

In theory it’s a concept that could instigate a complete mindset shift regarding how people interact at work, and it therefore has the power to change behaviours. History reveals time and again how sceptics were proved wrong over how an app or piece of technology changes behaviours and even society – Uber, Deliveroo, Whatsapp. So who knows what this little app could do?

We do have some questions:  what’s to stop this new piece of tech getting clogged with requests and becoming yet another channel we need to monitor alongside calendars, emails, Whatsapp, Slack, Instant Messenger, Teams etc? Won’t a friend or colleague  be offended or annoyed if you deprioritise their conversation request? If someone senior sends a conversation card, how easy would it be to refuse?

But ever the hopeful optimists here at MSB Executive, we’d love to see this app take off and put people back in control of their own time – making them happier and more productive.

What do you think?

By | October 26th, 2021|Communication, Online meetings|0 Comments

Natural, Virtual or Blurred Backgrounds?

Our Head of Voice, Steven Maddocks, explores the various ‘background’ options at online meetings.

 

‘We can’t decide what to do about our backgrounds. What do you recommend?’

This question arose recently during an online communication workshop I was running for the senior team at a law firm.

I cast my eye across the framed faces on my screen. Most people were evidently sitting in a home office. Some, had blurred their background, so I couldn’t tell where they were. A few had opted for a virtual background: there were some tasteful interiors and a hip-looking coffee house. One person was apparently dialling in from space.

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘there are three options, and we can see all three on this call. Let’s look at each in turn.’

1. NATURAL

PROS

(i) Visually, the least discordant. You are where you appear to be, in a real space.

(ii) The personal touch sets a relaxed tone and puts others at their ease.

(iii) Objects and decor stimulate small talk.

CONS

(i) Not everyone has a ‘professional’ working space at home.

(ii) If you are interrupted, you cannot cover up.

(iii) There is a lack of uniformity across a team.

2. BLURRED

PROS

(i) You can work from a convenient spot at home without doing a major makeover.

(ii) There is a degree of connection between you and your surroundings.

(iii) Others at the meeting can focus on you, not on your room.

CONS

(i) People might wonder what you are hiding.

(ii) It is rather artificial: you can appear somewhat floaty.

(iii) When you move, the blur effect ‘leaks’, so that bits of your room come in and out of focus.

3. VIRTUAL

PROS

(i) There is an opportunity to communicate a strong corporate identity.

(ii) A relevant background might stimulate conversation about the company.

(iii) A fun background could lighten the mood.

CONS

(i) Requires a green screen to work well; frequent glitches can be distracting.

(i) The artifice is usually evident, and you appear disconnected.

(iii) Can be somewhat clinical and impersonal.

 

As we weighed up the various options, the discussion opened out.

‘Clients love our old building with its traditional decor,’ one person pointed out. ‘Couldn’t we use different photos of our offices as virtual backgrounds?’

The senior partner thought for a moment. ‘I lean towards natural backgrounds, warts and all – or pets and all,’ she laughed as her cat jumped onto her lap. ‘It seems more honest.’

Another colleague joined in. ‘Yes, but consistency is important. Sorry, guys, but we are a bit of a jumble.’ Someone else agreed. ‘If we all have blurred backgrounds, the focus is on us.’

Another attendee had switched across to a virtual background, and now sat in front of the striking company logo. ‘We have such great branding. Let’s make use of it.’

At MSB Executive, we don’t believe that one size fits all. In this case, I offered a fourth option – and for this team, it seemed the best fit. I called it “Branded Natural”. Everyone on the team was to place an object carrying the company logo somewhere in their webcam view. That could be a picture hung on a wall or placed in a photo holder on the desk. It could be a standing banner somewhere in the room. They might all have exactly the same object, or all have different ones. It might not even be a logo – was there a company motto? An animal or object that represented their core values?

I’ll find out what they chose at our follow-up workshop in a few weeks. But the discussion was a reminder of how vital the visual message is. Online meetings present unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to saying who we are before we’ve said a word.

By | July 27th, 2021|Online meetings, Online video, Personal Profile|0 Comments

Kelly McGonigal on Stress at TEDGlobal: Our Response

An intriguing TED Talk on stress recently caught our attention at MSB Executive. In his latest blog, Steven Maddocks, our Head of Voice, shares our response.

Though we cover a range of disciplines at MSB Executive, a few core themes cut across all our specialist areas. Stress is one. The subject arises wherever we work, from executive coaching sessions to communication workshops.

So when Martyn, our founder, told us recently that he had watched a TED Talk that shed new light on stress, our eyes lit up.

The talk in question, called ‘How to make stress your friend’, was given by Kelly McGonigal at TEDGlobal in 2013. McGonigal, a health psychologist, starts with a confession. For the last ten years she has been telling people that stress makes you sick. She now realises that this advice might have been doing more harm than good.

McGonigal quotes a study showing that stress does indeed raise the risk of dying. However, this was true only for people who suffered from stress and believed it was doing them harm. Stress sufferers who did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die than the stress-free.

In other words, it is not the stress itself that kills you. What kills you is the belief that the stress will kill you!

We must change our view of stress

Therefore, McGonigal advises, we must change our view of stress. Stress symptoms – namely rapid breathing and a pounding heart – are usually viewed as signs that we are not coping. Wrong, she says: they are positive signs that the body is preparing itself to meet a challenge.

What McGonigal says is broadly reflected in our own practice at MSB Executive. We agree that stress should not be viewed as an ‘enemy’. This is itself a stressed response that traps mind and body in a vicious circle. We work with our clients on managing stress, not on crushing it.

Like McGonigal, we are enthusiasts for the increase in oxygenated blood that flows around the body under stress. We love the energy bonus it gives us as performers. As I used to tell my young drama students, ‘It’s good to be nervous! It means you know it’s important and you’re getting ready to do your best.’

Practical Changes

There are areas, though, where we would develop and refine McGonigal’s advice. At MSB Executive, we like to work practically. McGonigal’s instruction to ‘change your beliefs’ begs the question: how? We like to give clients specific tips, tools and techniques to help them cope with stress.

McGonigal’s talk doesn’t cover the mental effects of stress – such as sleeplessness, racing thoughts, the negative inner voice. This mental turmoil makes it extremely difficult to get hold of one’s belief in the moment and change them. Therefore, a vital first stage is to manage the symptoms of stress downwards, so that the mind is calmer and clearer.

Stress stems from a primitive fight/flight response (see my earlier blog on this subject). The modern stress response is poorly aligned to the actual threat faced (there is no tiger!). Armed with this knowledge, we already begin to put ourselves back in control.

McGonigal talks about the effect of stress on the heart, but its symptoms can be felt throughout the body. There is not much one can do about constricted blood vessels, but one can directly address tense shoulders, a churning stomach, or a dry mouth.

In fact we find it reassuring to know that the path to a calmer mind can lie through simple physical exercises, especially breathing. ‘Change your beliefs’ takes a little work. ‘Breathe out slowly for a count of eight’ – now that is something that can be done immediately.

Nerves and ‘Fight or Flight’

In his latest blog, Head of Voice Steven Maddocks looks at the science of nerves to explain why they affect us in the way they do.

Lisa’s heart is racing. Her breathing is rapid and shallow. Her armpits are sweating, her hands are clammy, and her neck and face are red. Her legs are jittery, her mouth is dry and her teeth are clenched. Her brain is alternately racing, then going blank. She has pins and needles in her stomach, and she feels sick. She needs the toilet. Is Lisa ill? Is she dying?

No. She is on stage, about to deliver a workshop to two hundred senior industry figures. Lisa is nervous.

The Source of Nerves

As trained actors and performers, we at MSB Executive are familiar with pre-performance anxiety. Our clients often ask us for advice on the issue. We think it is important to understand what is going on in the body. Why do nerves put us, like Lisa, into such a calamitous state? The situation is not so serious. Lisa’s extreme response does not seem logical.

Indeed! Responsibility lies with a very illogical part of the brain called the amygdala. Located deep within the limbic system, it belongs to what Steve Peters calls the chimp brain (The Chimp Paradox, Vermillion, 2021). Lisa’s amygdala has detected a threatening situation and switched Lisa into ‘fight or flight’ mode. There is no nuance; for the chimp, every threat is a mortal threat.

Mortal Danger

Lisa’s body is behaving as though there is a snarling tiger a few metres away. Her adrenal glands are unloading adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine into her blood. These hormones are racing around her body, delivering instructions.

Her digestive system has been issued a shutdown order: the blood it uses is needed in her muscles. As the capillaries in her gut give up their blood, she feels a fluttering sensation – the butterflies. The digestive shutdown – which is giving her the urge to throw up or go to the toilet – extends all the way up into her mouth, which has stopped producing saliva. Her jaw has clamped shut. (Has the tiger seen her? She mustn’t make a noise.)

Lisa is breathing rapidly to take in oxygen, and her heart is furiously pumping the oxygenated blood. The large muscles in her legs twitch as they receive the extra supply. She is heating up (blood is hot), and her sweat glands have kicked in to cool her down.

Lisa’s amygdala wants her hyper-alert, so her brain also gets extra blood. The capillaries in her neck and face dilate: that’s why she’s blushing. She hops from idea to idea, trying quickly to make a plan. Fight or flight? Only those thoughts are permitted; if she attempts to think analytically or self-reflectively, she draws a blank.

Getting Control

Lisa’s workshop starts in two minutes! She needs to make a big impact with her opening words. How does she switch off her amygdala? She can’t close capillaries, seal up sweat glands, or reboot her gut. Is she trapped in fight or flight?

Good news for Lisa: she has worked with MSB Executive, so she has plenty of tools for dealing with nerves. Her favourite technique is to take a few slower and deeper breaths. As soon as she does that, her heart rate slows, her temperature drops and the butterflies ease.

In the words of breathing guru Stuart Sandeman, the Founder of Breathpod, ‘Calm your breath, and your mind will follow.’ It is true: by breathing better, Lisa feels as though she is soothing her inner chimp: ‘Sssh,’ she tells it. ‘It’s only a workshop. Everything will be fine.’

The workshop was fine – better than fine, in fact. It went so well that Lisa was invited to deliver it the following year as the keynote speaker at a prestigious international conference.

Feeling Nervous? – Good!

In his latest blog, Steven Maddocks, our Head of Voice Coaching, explores the upside of nerves and shows how public speaking might even be good for your health.

Public speaking gets a bad rap. One well-known poll places glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, at the top – making it a more terrifying prospect than spiders, enclosed spaces and even dying. (As Jerry Seinfeld wryly observed, at a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.)

Many of our clients at MSB Executive report feeling nervous – in some cases, very nervous – before speaking to an audience. We are commonly asked for advice on ‘combatting’ or ‘getting rid of’ nerves. Our response takes people by surprise: we tell them, ‘Don’t try to combat your nerves. This is the wrong approach. Your nerves are important!’

If combat is the wrong approach, what is the right one? Our answer to this question involves three stages: understand, manage and appreciate.

First, understand that nerves are a fight-or-flight response trigged by a situation of extreme danger. Or rather, triggered when the brain perceives a situation of extreme danger. Because in the case of public speaking, the brain has got it wrong! You are not on the savannah facing a sabre-toothed tiger. You are in the fourth-floor conference room facing your colleagues in HR. The nausea, the blushing, the sweaty palms – these are all vastly disproportionate to the situation at hand. Don’t let your body fool you into thinking this is life or death.

The second stage is to manage nerves. We have plenty of tips and techniques for managing the dry mouth, knocking knees, racing mind and other symptoms of nerves that threaten to derail a speech or presentation.

When we come to the third stage – appreciate your nerves – we are able to draw on our performance training and experience. Nerves are a fact of life for actors: we depend on them. Feeling nervous before a show gets us in the game. Judi Dench describes nerves as ‘an actor’s fuel.’ We know how to put our nervous energy to good use by channeling it into our performance. That’s what gives good actors their unmistakable fizz and stage presence. At MSB Executive, we show our clients how nervous energy, properly managed, can power a business presentation in the same way.

After a successful presentation – particularly if we were very nervous beforehand – we feel a buzz, that post-performance euphoria when we know we ‘knocked it out of the park’. This is partly rational: we take satisfaction in having mastered a challenge. But a recent scientific study suggests that there is something deeper going on. The buzz could in fact be a direct consequence of having felt nervous beforehand. The study in question placed its subject into a situation of stress for a short time and then took blood tests at intervals. The remarkable finding was that soon after feeling stress, the subject’s body was flooded with white blood cells. The stress had actually boosted the immune system.

If you think back to the savannah, this makes perfect sense. If the tiger takes a bite but doesn’t kill you, your body needs to be primed to fight off infection and heal. The immune system needs a boost.

Though ongoing stress is bad for us, the study suggests that we should embrace brief bouts of stress. Perhaps we should take a thrill-seeker’s approach to public speaking. Next time the nerves strike, remind yourself of the health benefits. Public speaking could save your life!

Zoomed Out? Some Top Tips To Survive The Zoom Era

Among all the terms future dictionaries will inherit from COVID-19, ‘Zoom fatigue’ is certain to feature. (It applies to all video conferencing software, but ‘Microsoft Teams fatigue’ doesn’t have the same ring.) Citigroup employees are clearly fatigued: on 23 March, chief executive Jane Fraser announced ‘Zoom-free Fridays’.

But are there ways – short of a total switch-off – of making online meetings less exhausting? Considerable brain power has been applied to this question. Professor Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University offered four remedies for Zoom fatigue. How useful are they?

1. Reduce eye contact

Bailenson notes that eye contact on Zoom, with its sea of staring faces, is unnatural. Each face fills its box, so you are seeing colleagues or clients much closer-up than you would in real life. This can put the brain into a state of heightened anxiety. Bailenson suggests reducing the size of the Zoom window to shrink the faces. He also suggests increasing the distance between you and your screen so you are literally further away from everyone.

Our opinion: This is useful advice. We work with our clients on how to ‘frame’ oneself. Giving a good view of yourself to others can be vital to a successful meeting. (We don’t just mean having some ‘clever’ books in the background!) If everyone’s view of you – and yours of them – is approximately what it would be across a boardroom table, you have got it right.

2. Turn off self-view

The constant view of ourselves we have on Zoom (Bailenson likens it to being followed around all day by someone holding a mirror) can cause negativity and stress. Bailenson suggests we ‘hide self-view’. To do this on Zoom just right click on your thumbnail and you will be given this option.

Our opinion: This advice is sound, though we would point out some of the benefits of self-view. Without it, we can only guess at what others are seeing of us. Is the bright light in the background throwing us into silhouette? Are our excellent hand gestures ‘in shot’? We say, by all means turn off self-view, but only once you are confident that you look your best. Appoint a trusted colleague to keep an eye on you and let you know (privately!) if you have spinach in your teeth.

3. Move around

A day working from home is much less mobile than a day at the office. Bailenson recommends putting distance between yourself and the camera to allow room to ‘pace and doodle.’

Our opinion: The problem is correctly identified, but the solution is incomplete. We advise a maximum of fifty minutes before a break to stretch legs. Meetings should not be back to back. Lunch breaks should be long enough for some light exercise. We recommend using a standing desk (it could just be a kitchen worktop or a music stand) for at least part of the day. Why not designate certain meetings as scrums, with everyone standing? We think you’ll notice an uplift in positivity!

4. Have ‘audio only’ breaks

Bailenson identifies a downside of Zoom that we at MSB Executive have been talking about since the beginning: effective communication online is harder work. A virtual meeting strips away the ‘nonverbals’ that flow between us when we meet in real life. These subtle (and subconscious) eye movements, twitches, gestures and electrical signals clear the path along which our words travel. Our brains naturally seek them out, but – on a Zoom call – cannot find them. This futile hunt exhausts us. Bailenson suggests taking breaks from video by switching to audio-only and turning away from the screen.

Our opinion: This advice (avoidance) is somewhat negatively framed. It is true that some meetings would be better as ‘audio only’. So leave the laptop behind altogether, go to a different room and… pick up the phone!

The absence of nonverbals increases pressure on the voice, which has to work harder. That is why we offer voice coaching sessions with plenty of practical advice for keeping the voice bright and confident throughout the day. Our clients report back that sounding good makes them feel good – just the sort of positive outcome we always drive for.

Written by Steven Maddocks, MSB Executive’s Head of Voice Coaching

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