Author: Jen Stebbing

Media and Strategic Communications Consultant

Travelling solo – and trying not to learn too much in the process

Asking (non-camera thieving, potentially artistic-looking) randoms to take your picture is the only way to avoid having 100 selfies when you get home

Asking non-camera thieving, artistic-looking randoms to take my picture was the only way to avoid having 100 selfies in my Mexico album.

I’ve been taking planes, trains, buses and yes, auto-mobiles, to and from places on my own for years, but really taking time out to travel by myself? Well, I’d have to say never. Until this May when I decided that Mexico needed a visit and none of my friends were able to take the time or budget.

I’m not really sure why it’s taken me so long to write about it when all I really wanted to say was I’m glad I did it, for a couple of reasons, other than the obvious… the proof that I could.

It certainly wasn’t that whole eat, pray, love thing, but then it was only two weeks, I wasn’t really expecting any real revelations, and most of all I’m still a fair way from actually enjoying my own company.

That, however, is definitely now a work in progress, because the very first thing I realised was if I am going to expect someone else to want to spend time with me, in the short, or long term, then I really have to start valuing my own company more. And actually, when I look back at the balance of that holiday, compared to say, a trip of similar length and exploration factor with a friend or a boyfriend, there were probably just as many low points (after that fight, or that hidden frustration) it was just of a different type (that dinner alone).

As for the high points, that was the second learning, there were loads. I met people. Not people I’ll be best friends with or even perhaps see again, but real people from completely different walks of life, that I would never have spoken to for any length of time if I was with someone else. I spoke Portunhol and therefore learnt a lot about Mexico from Mexicans. I went where I wanted to when I wanted to – that took the longest to get used to. And I wrote a lot, and realised how much I enjoyed it, not only when I was there (an extract follows this), but also when I got back.

Go, if you can, go alone. Be prepared for some loneliness and few low points, but revel in the highs, and start the journey to enjoying the company of the person you have to spend eternity with.

—-

Oaxaca, Mexico, 13.05.15, 

I have a view of the Iglisa de Santo Domingo and the blue sky with its gathering clouds, the sun behind me warming my back and arms. It’s hard not having anyone to share this with me but I’m very happy to be here and feeling 11424670_10153377960950185_3556554495112004555_othis. Mexico is an adventure, an assault on the senses, and it feels more like home to my bones. The clouds are the ones that gather over the hills on the horizon and then sneak forward, advancing surreptitiously, with flat black bottoms and cotton wool heads. They complement the green and purple hills and the golden and green-tinted stones of the church. The palms explode gently into vision lower down, evoking holiday…but oh the flamboyants…those are the things that really hit my heart. Remembering playing with their huge flat banana-shaped seed pods in Botswana. The flat, polished seeds…don’t eat them…which fall and pop out, the fanned leaves which feel so soft and tickle nicely when you run small fingers through them. Pull off the leaves from the stem and you have useful bendy straws that can be tied in knots or stuck in dry sand like goosebump-ed hair.

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Top 5 Interview tips

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The last time I got a job via interview was in 2004, and I’ve only had one formal interview since then, so I suppose I’m not really qualified to give advice from the side of the interviewee. However, in the last year I’ve interviewed people for five separate positions and I thought it might be useful to jot down some of the easy things to do that can really make a difference.

1. Be prepared

I know this seems obvious but it’s incredible how many people haven’t done their research on the company, interviewer and type of role. You will undoubtedly be asked about your opinion – make sure it’s clearly well informed.

2. Body language

Eye contact, a firm handshake, sitting up straight, and a ready, confident smile… those are my top four, and possibly all you can focus on at one time. Of course there are hundreds of incredibly useful articles on this subject from Forbes to Mashable – check them out and don’t underestimate how much of a difference it makes to get it right.

3. Take a notepad

The best interview tip I had from anyone, ever, was to take a notepad into interviews. Not only did it make me look super organised and prepared (I had written my notes and questions in it), but it calmed me down by giving me something to focus on and a confident way to start the interview. Thanks to my great friend and sometime mentor Victoria Ribbans.

4. Deep breaths

Everyone expects a little nervousness from an interviewee but when it becomes awkward and difficult for both sides of the table, it can be hard to come back from. Take 10 long deep breaths before you go in to the interview, and try to speak on the exhale, matching your interviewers pace and pitch.

5. Stop talking

When you’ve made your point and answered the question, stop. Smile if appropriate and lean forward slightly, but don’t be afraid of silence. If you find yourself rambling, try to bring yourself back to your original point and end on something sharp and snappy, otherwise both you and the interviewer will have forgotten the good bit of your answer – you’ll be on the back foot, and they won’t have heard your best answer.

Finally, try to enjoy it! Even if you don’t get the job, there are so many good things about an interview – it’s a chance to find out more about a new role and organisation, a practice ground to hone your communications and presentations skills, and a new contact made.

How to make decisions and stay calm

Head space

I always think of myself as living more spontaneously than in a planned way and with that seems to come the need to make fairly big life decisions fairly quickly and pretty confidently. I don’t think that makes them easy, but I’ve recently had to make an important (and exciting) career decision and I was asked how… so here’s how I got there:

1. Go with your gut

If you have most of the answers to most of the questions you might ask about a decision then your brain doesn’t need days or weeks to come to a conclusion. It may be a throw away term when people talk about gut instinct but I do believe your mind can work that fast.

You know how that feels.  The spark of excitement you get when you or someone lays it out for you. The way you can easily imagine what it might be like to choose that. Not the spikey fear that makes you want to hide under your duvet but that good scary feeling that gives you energy and drive to move forward (or at least more of the latter than the former!). It’s the decision that resonates. The one that feels right.

2. Align that with how you want to feel

Now think about how it might feel to have made that decision and be a few months or years down the line from it.  Does it align with how you want to feel in your work, in your life? When you make a goal it’s not just about achieving something for the sake of it, it’s about knowing how you want to feel, who you want to be and how you want to be living your life at that point.  It may be that the decision gets you out of a hole now, or makes financial sense, or indeed is something that your best friend or colleague might do, but is it right for you, for your life goals, for your personal values?

If you haven’t done any work on this before, there are of course many resources out there that can help. I’d recommend Danielle LaPorte’s Desire Map.

3. Ask for specific advice

Do not take a survey.  There is great video on this by the fabulous Marie Forleo, and indeed with the serendipity that often comes along in times when you most need it, this episode of Marie TV was perfectly timed for me.  However,  my experience has generally been that if you go through the two steps above you have a fairly good idea of what YOU want and asking a few well regarded opinions will help you reinforce that in your own mind along with some great insights you may not yet have considered.

I am lucky in that I have a fantastic network of friends and colleagues who all have different strengths and experience and so I tend to choose 3 or 4 of them to ask their advice. It’s not always the same 3 or 4, it depends on the decision and of course what situation they are in their own lives. I make sure I don’t do this lightly – they know I’m asking for a serious and considered answer. I will schedule in a phone call or take them out for coffee or lunch. Each one of the people I ask has given me good advice in the past and I know has my best interests at heart.

If it’s a work based decision then I ask one or two colleagues I have worked well with in the past who are senior to me and more experienced in my field as well as someone who’s career I admire who is not necessarily in my industry. I also always ask one of my best friends who knows little about my career but a lot about me and my life away from work.

4. Take some time out

I was lucky enough to have had a week’s holiday learning to surf already booked in my diary when I was thrown my most recent big decision (there comes that serendipity again!) and I took the time not to dwell on each pro and con,  but just to remove my head from murky indecision-infested-waters all together.

If you don’t have the time for a full-on holiday escape, it can be as simple as going for a long run,  taking a few hours of pampering time,  a night out dancing with friends – anything that not only distracts you but is good for your soul. It’s amazing what your subconscious can achieve when you’re not watching it.  I came back clearer and calmer having spent less than a few hours in that week with my decision at the front of my mind.

Meditating, just to clear the mind, can also be a really effective way of getting some head space in which the right answer just seems to appear. I have relatively recently become a headspace convert.

5. Don’t flip flop

Give yourself a time period after which you will assess the results of your decision in line with where you wanted to be and how you wanted to feel (make sure to write that down now!). Until that time, unless you are really struggling (and I mean unable to work, panic attacks, you know, the big stuff) go with what you have decided and make the absolute best out of it that you can.

Once you’ve made the decision there is no point in going back on it until you’ve given it a proper chance to take hold.  If you keep wondering what might have or could have been you’ve never really made the decision. Give yourself and the situation the best possible chance to succeed.

You are exactly where you need to be right now.

How I changed my perception of networking

Friends

Last week I was having a drink with a friend/colleague and she accused me of being good at networking. Or at least that’s how I initially felt! A networker?! Urgh, slimy! Does she mean I’m tarting myself around only being nice to those who could be “useful” to me? Networking, especially among the self-employed, has got a bit of bad name, particularly here in the UK where it seems to fit in the self-promotion category and any kind of self-promotion is looked down upon. But then I thought about it a bit more, and got her to elaborate, and realised she was actually giving me a compliment and that, scarily, she was right, it is one of my strengths.

I’ve never seen what I feel I do naturally as networking. I see it as keeping in touch with people that I like, respect and believe that we can have a mutually beneficial working relationship, as well as putting other people in touch so they can enjoy the same. It’s like having a whole new group of friends with inspiring interesting people who understand the business you’re in. Who wouldn’t want that? But like friends, I believe you are building and developing relationships among people who can help each other in professional and sometimes personal ways and that’s not to be taken lightly.

I realised that to me, that’s the key – networking is maintaining a network of people for mutual assistance, built out of mutual respect. So, fine, I’ll refer to keeping in touch with my cross-industry colleagues and friends as networking, but hope to explain it in a way that makes it feel much less slimy and much more of a solid, fun, interesting part of work.

Probably the easiest way to network, and certainly keep aware of who your network is and what they’re up to, is LinkedIn. However, there’s really nothing like personal, face-to-face meetings, even just a 15 minute catch up, to feel connected and understand where your colleagues, contacts and friends are at in their work and lives. Especially as a self-employed person, I find that just the energy and inspiration created by talking to people is immeasurable and invaluable.

1. Make the time

This is the most common excuse for not connecting with people: I don’t have the time. Would you say this about your friends or about dating? If you need to, do it systematically, decide on a number of hours or coffees or lunches you want to have per month to keep those relationships going. Use LinkedIn or make a list, but above all else, make it fun for you and for the other person – enjoy it – you’re not sitting at your desk, you’re talking about things that excite and interest you and if you’re not, then change your job!

2. Connect and engage

Many professionals tend to overestimate the important of their technical skills and while of course that’s important and a huge factor in getting work, remember that potential clients or referees are human and (usually) think like humans: whether they can trust and get on with you is of primary concern. Would you get married without meeting someone and connecting on some level? (Please don’t say yes to this one!) Successful business people, in any industry, will be there mostly because they are good at relationship building over time and across many industries, including with the media.

3. Give more than you receive

Make sure you listen for at least 50% more than you talk. If you don’t listen you won’t have any idea how you can help. When you do talk, use that time to share: ask questions and give (tailored and asked-for) advice, recommendations, contacts and praise. It’s not rocket science – it’s the basis to developing any kind of successful relationship – just remember that professional ones are no different.

Finally, remember that networking is not about getting something out of the relationship now, it’s for the long term benefit of both parties – you may not even see how you can be useful to that person or how they might be able to help you in the future, but if your relationship is based on mutual trust, respect and a healthy dose of fun and good humour, then it will bear fruit for both of you at some point along the way.

Five ways to do business without taking your clothes off

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Sexism is an extraordinary thing and it baffles me that, between condescension and flirting, we still struggle as women to be taken seriously much of the time, across so many different industries. I know it’s not always the case; actually media is one of the better industries; and I know that sometimes it’s just better not to highlight it, but with  International Women’s Day 2014 coming up this weekend, it’s been on my mind.

I was researching an article a couple of months ago and sent out a call for thoughts and comment from my inspiring female friends and family around the world. I got some amazing and incredibly helpful tips from them, and as we weren’t able to use them all in the article, I thought I’d collate them here.

1. “Dress how you want to be addressed” – Bianca Frazier

It is astonishing how many women will wear skin tight skirts and cleavage showing tops and expect that men won’t look them over, and talk to their chests rather than their eyes. I want to look good, but I want to be taken seriously. We are lucky as women, that we have more flexibility in work-dress than wearing suits all the time, but sometimes this can feel like a disadvantage. By dressing professionally, stylishly, non-revealingly and true to my style, I feel more confident, and I can see that what I’m saying is being listened to.  News presenters are generally very good at getting this balance right.

2. “Men are taught to apologize for their weaknesses, women for their strengths”  – Lois Wyse

One of the excellent pointers I received was about cutting out some of the phrases that women tend to use as a matter of course, the first one being “I’m sorry”. As long as you’re not late for your meeting, there should be no need to apologise, even as a cut in, in most professional conversations. While you’re at it, throw out “I feel”, “I think” and “the options are” and replace them with “I suggest”, I advise” and “my recommendations are”. It’s not easy, and I’m not sure I’ve even achieved it in this blog, but it’s amazing how just by sounding more articulate and confident, I actually feel it too.

3. “The thing women have yet to learn is nobody gives you power.  You just take it.”  – Roseanne Barr

It’s difficult to maintain poise and professionalism when you’re being flirted with, especially when you really need a meeting with that person, or you really need to get them on
side. I have to keep reminding myself that if they see me as someone to flirt with, or embarrass, then they don’t see me as someone to do business with. A friend recommended that if you’re asked for a drink or dinner, counter with a breakfast proposal – it doesn’t always go down as well, but it works!

In a similar vein, some great advice on how to react to sexist or inappropriate jokes: laugh briefly and move on quickly. Change the subject, bring the conversation back to business, be the professional and set the boundaries. None of us want to be the person that men can’t be around because they think we’re prudes, or angry feminists, but it’s important to maintain composure and confidence, and keep the meeting moving towards its goals.

4. “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” – Madeleine Albright

I am lucky to have an inspiring network of successful female family, friends, colleagues and clients who keep me grounded and who I can talk to about the ups and downs of being freelance and bounce ideas off. I’m not undervaluing the support I get from the men in my life, but there is nothing like being recognised, mentored and inspired by other women.

5. “Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition” – Timothy Leary

Apparently 70% of a deal is made through first impressions and body language. Used right, femininity is an indomitable strength. Women are naturally intuitive, and by tapping into this, we can really discover what it is that will make our business relationships succeed. My remarkable cousin reminds me that as women we can use our natural networking and interpersonal skills to bring value to our work and business every day. I would never deny that being a woman is the best piece of genetic luck that could have happened to me.

Communications

(c) Jen Stebbing

There’s been a lot of re-branding of the traditional press office over the last year or so and the word communications more commonly describes the person, department or function that deals with communicating the organisation’s messages and goals to their audiences. Following the recent Royal Press Office merger there is now a department called Royal Communications at Buckingham Palace that engages rather than tells, and proactively churns out online content like a news channel, creating its own content and therefore to a certain extent, its own agenda.

I call myself a communications professional more for the generic labelling it gives me than with any real job description, but where I am head or director of communications, even part time, for a brand, organisation, event or project, it doesn’t just cover media relations (proactive and reactive). This is what we usually understand from the term ‘Press Office’ that comes from the pre-TV era. While media relations is still a hugely important part of communicating an organisation’s messages, and journalists are still incredibly influential and rightly so, for me communications as a job covers a whole raft of different responsibilities throughout an organisation.

I am now directly involved as part of my communications remit with on-line presence (websites, of course, and then whichever social media channels we use to engage audiences and push out content), branding, event organising, marketing, stakeholder engagement, gaining investment or new clients, conference and event speeches, and even sales to a certain extent.

You can’t run any organisation without communications, without communicating in some small way. PR has had a bad name, mostly because of the associations with spin, but remember what it stands for (especially when calling someone the grammatically incorrect ‘PR’!). Having a ‘Public Relations’ department actually makes more sense than having a Press Office, and comes closest in description to what the communications team would do, whether that’s in house or agency, which is: relate to the public. It doesn’t matter about the medium, it doesn’t matter about which public, as long as it’s the public/s that you want to get your messages out to, and it’s through medium/s that they relate to or engage with.

The key is to pick what your message is (always related to your organisational goals), decide who you want to communicate it to (your audience who could be customers, clients, stakeholders, etc), and use the right channels (journalists, advertising, blogs, twitter, websites, meetings) to get it to them.

Clarity

(C) Jen Stebbing

When I was trying to sum up what I do in a sentence for a short, snappy and I hope impactful about.me page, I (eventually) came up with ‘bringing clarity, energy and fresh ideas to news broadcasters, PR consultancies, special projects, young businesses and start ups.’ The most important and probably also most ambiguous of those is clarity. What do I really mean by that?

For me it’s about two things, focus and simplicity.

My industry is communications and whatever channel that might be through – broadcast journalism, writing, social media, strategic objectives, key messages, media relations, marketing or just plain old networking – I wouldn’t be able to work without clarity. It’s how I define the way I look at things and the way I’m able to help people and add value to their lives and businesses. It’s how I give friends and family advice, and it’s how I look at organisational or project goals and through that communication strategies.

Here’s what I do that brings clarity (focus and simplicity) to my projects:

1. Take a step back

Ok, this is one of those annoying “big picture” clichés, but it wouldn’t be a cliché if it didn’t work. What are your goals? But one step back from even that… Why are your goals? How do you want to feel, how will you feel when you get there? Let’s say one is successful. What does that look like for you or your company and what goals can you put in place to make you feel successful?

2. Define what’s important to you

List them. 5 things that are important to you as a person and as a company/project. Sometimes they overlap but often they don’t. Boil them down into key words, key values – those are your touchstones – if you’re feeling lost or overwhelmed, or can’t make a decision, go back to them. Is the decision you are making in line with those values? Yes – go for it. No – next!

3. Listen and look

Admittedly this is not an easy thing to do for yourself and so it’s worth getting someone (me!) to do it for you. Talk about your plans, go through your objectives, ideas, things to do – the person listening will be able to tell by listening actively and thoroughly what you’re really enthusiastic about and where your focus will be to make you most productive and successful. (You can try to outsource the things you HAVE to do but ditch the rest).

4. Don’t over complicate things

Communicating is something we all do with varying degrees of success every single day. If you have a great product or service, if you’re good at something, shout about it! That’s all there is to it. If you don’t show you believe in yourself or your product, then how can you expect others to? Focus on 2-3 short thoughts that communicate simply what you want to say about your product, project, service or company. These are your key messages – get them out there whenever you can.

5. Write a plan

I usually think of myself as pretty organised, and yet writing a plan is one of the things I find the most difficult to do. I think it’s the enormity of the task. When I actually sit down and bash it out, I’m fine, but I can put it off for literally weeks. Your plan should include all the points above and needn’t be long. Make it simple – follow a step by step guide if you need to – but make sure your audiences, your key messages and your objectives all relate back to your values every step of the way.