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Small Talk: Follow these tips to transform any interaction from dreaded to productive

Small Talk: Follow these tips to transform any interaction from dreaded to productive

We dread small talk but we don’t have to. Transform small talk into a welcome opportunity with these tips.

You dial into a conference call right on time. It’s just you and another person on the line, and you’re waiting for two more. Your anxiety rises, and you bring up the weather to fill the silence.  “Is it spring yet in Chicago? Here in New York…” it feels fake and forced. Despite your best intentions, you feel trapped by small talk. That’s no way to start any interaction!

Most people despise small talk but I think it gets a bad rap. We don’t want to feel inauthentic. We are not comfortable with silence. We feel pressure to make the interaction work, when in reality, that’s a two person job. How can we feel more in control of these interactions without avoiding them all together?

For introverts especially, it’s essential to transform small talk from a dreaded nuisance to an opportunity to begin a new relationship—even if it’s one that only lasts for 30 seconds.

Here are tips to avoid feeling inauthentic when faced with small talk:

Think Up Topics

Whether you’re heading into a networking event or a wedding, it’s likely you’ll be chatting with someone new. Think of a few relevant topics you can bring up if you feel cornered in an interaction. What new TV shows are you watching, or are you taking a trip sometime soon? People love to talk about themselves so ask questions and go beyond the weather.

“It’s Not You…”

We feel pressure to perform in small talk situations. Reframe the experience and make it all about the person you’re talking to. Focus on making them feel comfortable. Make eye contact and remember their name.  Remember that if you’re uncomfortable so are they. Practice getting more comfortable with being uncomfortable and less afraid of silence.

Make an Exit

The interaction will not last forever (promise!) and it’s okay for you to decide that it is over. Rather than making up an excuse to go to the other side of the room—and then avoiding that person until the end of the night—make a solid exit. “It’s been nice talking to you—I hope you enjoy the rest of the event” is acceptable and respectable when the time has come. It shows you value the interaction and the time spent together and gives you an out as well.

Voice of Reason: How to mediate a difficult conversation

Voice of Reason: How to mediate a difficult conversation

Want to mediate a difficult conversation?  Here’s how.

Navigating conflict is never pleasant.  And it can be doubly hard to witness friends or colleagues in the midst of a disagreement that doesn’t directly involve you.  Especially when you find value in both sides of the argument.  This week we offer guidance on how to communicate neutrally and mediate a difficult conversation. Spoiler alert: remaining neutral doesn’t mean you won’t have to communicate your opinion.  Rather, you’ll communicate an opinion devoid of judgement.  Just the facts, ma’am, if you will.

Schedule some QT

I recommend carving out time to talk privately with those involved in the dispute individually.  It’s important to establish that your conversation is a means to an end.  In other words, discourage a confessional or ‘bitch fest’. Instead, frame the conversation as a necessary step on the road to resolution.  It’s important that the person in conflict understands you intend to use the information they share with you in your pursuit to help identify a resolution.

Active listening skills are also crucial. Pay attention. Maintain eye contact.  Do not interrupt.  Visualize what’s being said. When necessary, ask questions in order to better understand their feelings. And what they need to regain their sense of safety and respect.  At the root of almost of every conflict is the feeling that those you’re in conflict with don’t respect your needs or value what’s important to you.

Insert Yourself Into the Equation

Once you have an understanding of each person’s individual experience and what they need in order to move beyond the conflict you’ve reached a powerful juncture. Ask yourself, what is the best way to neutrally convey these feelings on behalf of those involved?  How do those involved need to hear what they have not yet been able to understand or acknowledge? We often impress upon our clients that it’s not what you say but how you say it.

Meet On Neutral Ground

Pick a spot where everyone feels safe.  Maybe it’s your local bar.  A park or coffee shop.  Perhaps the conversation has to happen at work.  Do your best to identify a physical setting that’s private and isn’t the “scene of the crime”.  Maintaining a calm and neutral setting will put those involved in a better position to communicate openly and honestly.  

It’s crucial that everyone arrives with a clear understanding of why they’ve come together.  Is it to reestablish a line of communication?  Reach a compromise?  Retain respect for one another while agreeing to disagree?  Crystallizing the objective ahead of time is a productive way to begin a difficult conversation.

Now You’re Ready to Mediate

Start by thanking everyone for coming together and acknowledge that it’s awkward.  Not shying away from the fact everyone’s uncomfortable will set a precedent for speaking honestly.  State the pre-established communal objective for coming together and ask everyone to verbalize their agreement to it.  There are many studies that have looked at how saying ‘yes’ engenders feelings of goodwill and camaraderie.

Now frame each person’s feelings on their behalf.  Be careful not to ascribe value or judgement. Yet don’t shy away from sharing your assessment of the situation.  Your neutral vantage point is valuable and can guide those involved toward understanding how others are feeling.  

Then give each person the floor one at a time. Discourage yelling which releases adrenaline and cortisol.  This tightens blood vessels and sends blood pressure soaring.  The conversation may become quite uncomfortable but that’s not necessarily bad.  

Hopefully a resolution will be reached yet if it isn’t that doesn’t mean you’ve failed.  Creating a space for people to communicate calmly and honestly is an admirable feat.  Give yourself credit for working to help others communicate effectively and truly be heard.

Bespoken’s Year-in-Review: A Powerful Presence

Bespoken’s Year-in-Review: A Powerful Presence

It gives us tremendous joy and satisfaction to help you speak your story and be powerfully present.

This year, we helped hundreds of entrepreneurs, creatives, professionals and leaders improve communication and presentation skills.  Thank you to our clients and collaborators for choosing us to be a trusted outside eye in your personal and professional development. Here are just a few of the folks we helped to have presence this year:

We helped Barbara Bush and her global staff at Global Health Corps communicate their vital mission to develop global health leaders.


We were chosen to be the official coaches for the Columbia Business School Public Speaking Association where we helped dozens of MBA students learn how to speak in public.


We taught at the Made in NY Media Center helping media tech entrepreneurs speak their story.


We helped the Hospital Services team at LiveOnNY communicate in life-or-death, high stakes environments.


We teamed up with Lisa Allison Pertoso to help women speak with intention and without apology. Stay tuned for our next collaboration with Lisa to be announced shortly!


We helped the board and staff of the anti-street harassment organization Hollaback! convey their mission with confidence.


We appeared on the Real Simple podcast, Adulthood Made Easy, to talk about how to find your voice and own it.

We can’t wait to see how you use your voice in the New Year.  Our training is customized for individuals and groups.  Get in touch and choose to BEspoken.

Mindfulness: Get Your Head in the Game

Mindfulness: Get Your Head in the Game

What is Mindfulness?

Ever hear a voice in the back of your head when public speaking saying things like, “Do I sound nasal right now?” or: “Why did I scratch my nose?!? Did that make me look unprofessional?”  You are not alone.  I recently came across an interesting article in the New York Times about how Phil Jackson, president of the NY Knicks, leads the team in mindfulness sessions during practice.  The article caught my eye as I’ve been thinking about “mindfulness” with increased frequency since becoming a communication coach.

What is mindfulness? And why would the president of a major professional sports franchise think it a valuable tool for his world-class athletes? Psychology Today calls mindfulness, “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad.”  Clients come to us wanting to learn how to speak in public.  They often ask us how to stop judging themselves in the moment when public speaking in front of an audience.  Silently critiquing your performance while public speaking (or playing at Madison Square Garden) is a sure-fire way to to throw you off your game.  In a blink of an eye it can unravel all of your thoughtful preparation.  It’s important to acknowledge being overly self-aware is a natural part of public speaking.  It’s also important to understand how to diffuse it.

Mindfulness + Improvisation

George Mumford, who also led the Knicks in mindfulness exercises likens mindfulness to, “improvisation, where actors and actresses confront the situations thrust on them and try to function inside those limits.”  He goes on to say the goal of mindfulness exercises is to “allow athletes to reflect and to slow down the mind — to get it into game shape.”  When we employ practical theater techniques to help people hone effective communication skills we often focus on techniques important for successful improvisation.  Most notably how to maintain a connection when the unexpected happens. What I like about Mumford’s interpretation of mindfulness is that it releases the [speaker, performer, athlete] from blame or judgement attached to self-assessing in the moment.

Mumford goes on to assert “that when you’re performing at your best level, there’s usually a lack of self-consciousness.”  I could not agree more.  In the theater we often talk about “throwing it all away” when it comes time to perform.  If an actor is focused on the diction exercises she did during rehearsal to sharpen her “T’s” and “B’s” when performing she’s likely not focused on what she’s saying.  Or truly paying attention to her scene partner.  It’s important to trust the preparation you did with your communication coach (or at home in the mirror) will support you when it’s finally showtime.  Used in this way, mindfulness exists on a continuum of fostering trust in your communication skills and your ability to effectively stay focused when connecting with an audience.

Put It All Together

When you’re ready to work on techniques, including mindfulness, to retain effective focus when communicating in public get in touch about our coaching services.  Or check out Headspace and the wise thoughts of our friend D.G. Watson.  Or join the NY Knicks!

Asking For a Raise? Read This First.

Asking For a Raise? Read This First.

Asking for a raise is awkward.  But it doesn’t have to be.

Time to negotiate your salary? Performance review on the horizon and feel you deserve a raise? Being an advocate for yourself and asking for more money can be a nerve-wracking experience. A recent article in The Atlantic cites a study conducted by PayScale which surveyed 30,000 workers about their experience asking for a raise: “Forty-three percent had asked for [a raise], but only 44 percent of those who asked got the amount they wanted, with 25 percent not getting a raise at all.” Even though asking for a raise is uncomfortable and intimidating it’s an important and necessary business communication skill to cultivate.

So how prepare and ask for that raise?

Take a thoughtful look back at the goals you achieved over the previous year. It’s easier to identify external accomplishments such as the number of projects you completed successfully or the amount of money you earned for the company. But internal accomplishments are equally important and sometimes more compelling. What do I mean by internal accomplishments? These are professional accomplishments that may not be overtly obvious to those around you at work. When articulated effectively they can paint a compelling narrative about your job performance and help you successfully advocate for yourself. For example, say you mastered a new skill and you are accomplishing the same amount of work in half the time. Yet your boss, consumed by other responsibilities, hasn’t noticed or acknowledged your increased productivity. Your performance review is the perfect time to compellingly communicate this new accomplishment!

Once you have your list of accomplishments pick one and breakdown the steps you took to achieve it – build the story of your accomplishment.  How did you identify the skill you lacked? What did you do to learn this new skill? How are you currently putting the skill into practice? What positive impact is this new skill having on your work? Craft a succinct narrative of the journey you took learning this new skill. Then illustrate why it is increasing your value as an employee. Be sure to use tangible outcomes: “Since mastering the new software the project that used to take me 4 hours to complete I now finish in 90-minutes.”

Hone Your Story.

Once you’ve got a story you feel good about it’s time to practice it aloud. Enlist a friend or your bathroom mirror.   This step is key. It’s easy to silently practice what you plan to say while you’re in the shower. Simulating ahead of time what it will be like sitting across from your boss with your adrenaline pumping is integral to your success.

The final step is polishing your delivery. Maintain eye contact, focus your energy on a part of your body to calm nerves (I like using my feet), dial down verbal and physical ticks that will undermine you and your story. Do this with every accomplishment you want to share.

Finally, it’s time to leverage the sense of pride that illustrating your accomplishments has conjured: “Given my significant recent accomplishments I feel I deserve a ten percent salary increase.” You may feel uncomfortable at first but the more you practice this crucial business communication skill the better you will be come at confidently and unapologetically requesting the raise you deserve!

Active Listening: How to Communicate Consciously

Active Listening: How to Communicate Consciously

What is Active Listening and how can it benefit our professional as well as personal conversations?

Ever anticipate your turn to speak during conversation instead of truly listening to the other person before responding?  Me too.  So, what is Active Listening and how can it benefit our professional communication skills as well as personal conversations?

According to researchers at the University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium, “Active listening is a structured form of listening and responding that focuses the attention on the speaker.”  An exercise we use to explore the concept of Active Listening we call, “Segue Sparks.”  Participants pair off and the first person begins speaking about any subject they wish; what they had for breakfast that morning, something experienced on their daily commute, plans for an upcoming trip.  Their partner is instructed to interrupt, overtake the conversation, and change the topic when they hear a word that sparks the memory of a story of their own.  

Each time we finish this exercise we have participants share their experience.  Without fail we receive a version of the following: “I felt rude interrupting and uncomfortable abruptly changing the topic of conversation.”  The reason we like this exercise so much is because it illustrates how we are innately hard-wired to listen intently to one another.

So how can we employ Active Listening on a consistent basis?

Approach each important conversation with the notion of what you might come to understand about the other person,  You’ll notice I said “understand” instead of “learn”. When we engage in conversation with this spirit of openness it encourages the speaker to share their thoughts and desires in greater detail.  This in turn encourages a more thoughtful exchange of ideas.

Once you’ve embraced the practice of truly listening to what the other person is saying, bring your awareness to how it informs your response. You may find yourself responding with a question instead of redirecting the conversation back to yourself and offering your own opinion or experience.

It’s been said that the platinum rule of listening is to listen to others as they want to be heard.  This is not to suggest that you have to agree with what the other person is saying but instead encourages engaging in an engage in an exchange of ideas in a way that is attuned to the speaker’s feelings so that both parties stand to come away from the exchange having truly listened and having truly been heard.

How to Talk About Diversity

How to Talk About Diversity

When it comes to diversity, do we have the tools necessary for a productive, inclusive conversation? Follow these tips to strengthen the conversation!

Leah & Jackie 1-19-15 © Julienne Schaer
Bespoken co-founder Leah Bonvissuto

Diversity is a growing buzzword in every aspect of our lives, and rightfully so—women directed only 4 percent of the top movies over the past 13 years, the Republican frontrunner is stoking racial divides amidst the growing Black Lives Matter movement, and for the second year in a row, the Academy failed to nominate a single actor of color. Yet when we try to talk about it, we fail (did you see the Oscars this year?).

We know that women coders do better than men when you take gender bias out of the equation. We know that diversity unlocks and drives innovation. And we know that female leadership leads to more productive and creative output. In every determinable way, diversity is only a positive (and, hey, radical inclusion is also the right thing to do). Yet, according to Scientific American, “In the U.S., where the dialogue of inclusion is relatively advanced, even the mention of the word ‘diversity’ can lead to anxiety and conflict.”  So, how can we deepen and strengthen the conversation to move the needle forward and ensure that all voices are heard?

Cyrus Innovation is tackling the issue head-on. According to Cyrus CEO Tami Reiss, their Diversity Apprenticeship Program is “an option for recent bootcamp grads to get contract to hire positions with Cyrus clients.” (Earlier this year, the Cyrus team also launched Just Not Sorry, a plugin that alerts you when you are using words that undermine your message—a useful tool to empower all of us and level the playing field).

At Bespoken, we specialize in helping people communicate with clarity, control and conviction but the diversity conversation is often so dreaded that people avoid it all together. We’ve seen enough blunders to put us on edge. We worry we’ll say the wrong thing. We fear that if we acknowledge our differences, we won’t be able to see anything but our differences.

In order to deepen the conversation, we have to identify and acknowledge why effective communication when it comes to the topic of diversity is difficult in the first place.  We then need to practice and ingrain tools to make sure these conversations are handled with compassion, empathy and inclusion. Here are some techniques to implement the next time you approach this conversation. 

Communication skills to deepen the diversity conversation

Acknowledge the effort

Recognizing that this is not an easy conversation to have can help deflate it and start everyone off on the same page and on the right foot.

Clarify your intention

Understand why the conversation is important to you on a deeply personal level. Moving it from the abstract to the personal will help keep the conversation focused, present and specific. Reframing the conversation will empower everyone in the room and help them understand their unique perspective and contribution, and how to communicate it.

Be present

Identify unconscious bias and implicit associations—we all have them. Acknowledging what you’re walking into the room with can free you up to have a more grounded and authentic conversation.

Speak in perspective statements

Empathy is powerful stuff—and it’s important to put yourself in another’s shoes—but when it comes to diversity it is essential to speak for yourself and not for a larger group. Start thoughts with “I feel…” to ensure you are not accusatory and to optimize your ability to connect.

Keep the conversation grounded

Heated conversation can go off-the-rails fast. Preempt this by building in checkpoints—every 20 minutes would not be overkill—to assess the effectiveness of the conversation thus far and to remind everyone in the room of the intention originally put forth at the beginning of the session.

Follow through

If you think you’ve said something offensive, acknowledge it, dissect it and move on. It may be uncomfortable at first but it’s the best way to get to the root of the problem and move forward with clarity and compassion.

Let us know how these techniques work for you and check back for future installments in our series on diversity!  

BespokenFOX_0187 is a coaching firm based in New York City that is dedicated to helping people speak with conviction and communicate with confidence. We believe everyone has an innate ability to communicate powerfully and purposefully. The story of Bespoken began when two friends, Leah Bonvissuto and Jackie Miller, decided to channel years of professional theater experience into helping people be better, bolder communicators. Offering 1×1 coaching and small group masterclasses, Bespoken training is customized, on-your-feet and interactive. Rooted in powerful yet practical theater techniques, our work is designed to help you harness your innate ability to communicate effectively in any situation.
Put Yourself Out There – April 12th

Put Yourself Out There – April 12th

Put Yourself Out There with Bespoken

When: April 12, 2016 | 7:00pm – 8:30pm
Where: Spark Labs, 833 Broadway, 2nd Flr., NYC, 10003
Cost: $25 Early Bird (thru 4/5) | $35 Regular Registration
Registration: http://bit.ly/1ROW4wr | Free for Spark Labs members [contact Andrea for link]

Doors at 7:00 pm – Class begins promptly at 7:10 pm.

Bespoken is excited to announce our next professional development masterclass on Networking at Spark Labs!

Networking is a skill.  Have you honed it?
Your expertise and enthusiasm make you uniquely qualified to speak about your work and your company. In this interactive masterclass, you’ll hone your business communication skills by workshopping your elevator pitch in front of the group and receive personalized, in-the-moment feedback to optimize your response to the ever important question, “What do you do?”

What previous participants have said about Bespoken classes:

  • “I loved this. Super powerful stuff.”
  • “Great presence and infectious attitude. Wish you could do this for my team at work!”

*Given the interactive format of this event attendance is limited to 20 participants.

@BespokenNY | www.bespokenpartners.com


About Bespoken

Bespoken is a coaching firm based in New York dedicated to helping professionals and entrepreneurs speak with conviction and communicate with confidence. Offering 1×1 coaching and small group masterclasses, Bespoken training is customized, on-your-feet and interactive. We believe everyone has an innate ability to communicate powerfully and purposefully.

Leah Bonvissuto, Co-Founder Leah Bonvissuto is an award-winning theater director. Always fascinated by what makes the audience-speaker relationship unique and powerful, Leah has worked extensively outside the theater to translate performance-based techniques for non-actors of all ages and backgrounds in organizational and educational settings.

Jackie Miller, Co-Founder With over a decade of experience in New York City as a director and curator of cultural public programming, Jackie’s work is creatively driven by the relationship between audience and performer. As the Artistic Director of Only Make Believe she serves as the company’s creative lead, producing over 300 interactive theatrical performances for children in hospitals and long-term care settings each year.