Sunday, August 31, 2008

Frugal kitchen adventures

Parsley goes in the brown rice after the rice is cooked. After!!

There's nothing quite like eating your mistakes. Sigh.


Weekend roundup, TV turnoff challenge, and more

Welcome to all of the new visitors, especially those who got here via anarticle on the MSN Smart Spending Blog. Take a look around; hope you find something you like.

The Frugal Blog Network was a busy place this week. With stores already gearing up for Halloween, you know that Christmas won't be very far behind. Almost Frugal has a really good post about ideas for frugal gift-giving. I'm one of those people who can never think of any good gifts, so this will be a great reference guide to go back to later in the year. Frugal Babe waxes rhapsodic on her favorite frugal health food of all time, although in all honesty, even as a healthy, active person, I would have difficulty getting on board with the green smoothie idea. Armchair carpenters, take note: Not Made of Money has a really good post up discussing which repairs should be done by a professional, so read it and think twice about getting up on the roof. Finally, Tight Fisted Miser has some regrets about grad school that I happen to have experienced myself. If you're thinking about going back to school, definitely read this one before you start filling out applications.

Meanwhile, a few people noted in my last post that they are either doing their own post-Labor Day TV turnoff challenges, or would be interested in participating in one. Anyone who wants to play, let's give it a try: Define your TV challenge on your blog or in the comments here (if you're defining it on your blog, please drop a link in the comments), and let's check in after a few days and see how we're all doing. I would suggest following S.M.A.R.T principles by making your goal Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. Here's mine:

I don't have television in my home, so from Septembmber 1-15, I'll refrain from watching any online TV. I'll also refrain from more than a total of 1.5 hours of recreational internet use per day. I'll monitor my internet use by noting my start time and setting an alarm.

I don't think this will be too hard given that I'm mostly TV free, but the internet thing might be a challenge. Why include internet at all? In my case, it's simply a case of swapping one bad habit for another: mindless time spent on the internet is as unproductive as watching television for me, and I've noticed that the amount of time I spend on the web has grown to a level that I'm not entirely comfortable with, especially since I've been sacrificing other, better habits for it - e.g., reading books. It's time to ratchet my internet usage back, and I think that goal works well with a TV turnoff challenge.

Finally, I did join the very nice gym, and I didn't manage to talk down the $247 initiation fee at all. I did, however, score a free month and a $100 gift card. Later in the week, I'll post about why those options are more attractive for the gym than knocking down the intiation fee up front.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

The media is the massage

FM Lurker and Susy both responded to a post from last week suggesting that as bad as the economy looks right now, irresponsible reporting by the media is likely to prolong and worsen the slump. FM Lurker specifically suggested that heavy-handed reporting on foreclosures and people walking away from their homes is already becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: when we become desensitized by hearing reports over and over stating that thousands upon thousands of people are doing something, it makes that certain something easier to contemplate doing and ultimately to do in the end, and maybe the increasing number of foreclosures reflects that to some extent.

I like to think I'm not deeply impacted by what I see in the media, but I realize that I'm deluding myself for the simple reason that I know all the words to the Oscar Mayer song. The truth is pretty plain: advertising works. Short, snappy vignettes that grab the viewer's (or reader's) attention and get repeated over and over tend to stay with us. Concepts, ideas, or stupid little jingles that stay with us influence our buying habits whether we know it or not.

I realize that news stories about foreclosures and economic gloom and doom are not the same thing as advertising by a long shot, but much like advertising, the simple fact that bad economic news gets repeated in dire, somber tones over and over and over causes that concept to take root. What I'm not sure about is to what extent internalizing negative economic projections actually influences behavior. Do people spend less because they feel poorer? Do they spend more because they feel bad about the state of the country and want to make themselves feel better? Do they fight harder to save their homes because they see so many others are going down in flames, or is it easier to just let go and burn with the rest? I don't know the answers to any of those questions, but I'd like to hear your thoughts.

I do have one simple suggestion for people who want to be less influenced by the media as a whole: turn off your television. My screen went dark in 2006, when the cable company finally flipped the switch in my building left on for five years after the former owner of my home moved out. I didn't have any cable channels, but screwing the cable into the wall gave me crystal-clear reception on the network channels. When I was finally faced with the dilemma of either paying for cable (since I have nothing but snow on the screen without it) or letting go of television, I opted to let go.

It was harder than I thought it would be. Much, much harder, in fact.

That's not to say that I don't watch TV online at times. I love The Office and last year's other guilty pleasure was Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I sure don't miss hearing the nightly news anymore, though. You could argue that I'm just putting my head in the sand because I'm avoiding hearing news that seems more depressing day by day. Even though I read the newspaper and pop in on a few news sites every day, there still may be some truth to that. On the whole, however, I think being TV-free has been a good choice for me because it's one less inroad to having my emotions and desires tweaked by someone who ultimately just wants to lighten my wallet.

Would anyone be interested in a group TV shutoff challenge? Drop a comment if you think it's a good idea. If you think it's a bad one, well, let me know that as well - but I'd love it if you'd tell me why.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Well, rats. Sorry about that.

Apparently, some dumbass ding dong managed to link a teaser to my article about Career tips for twenty-something women to a MySpace virus, and seven unsuspecting people clicked on it. If you clicked on a redirect link within MySpace and you didn't encounter an error page, please make sure your security patches are up to date. It wouldn't hurt you to run a full scan on top of that, too.

One more related to career tips: check out this wonderful 2007 post from Baglady about some of her weird and wonderful interviewing adventures.

One more related to viruses: Someone found my blog while searching for the phrase frugal disease tips, which is probably the first time I've ever seen those particular three words juxtaposed. Searcher, I hope you found what you were looking for.

Check back tomorrow for something a little more substantive. In the meantime, my five-day weekend has started and I hope yours does soon as well.


Monday, August 25, 2008

Blog buddies and other connections

Thanks and appreciation to Almost Frugal, Not Made of Money, Tight Fisted Miser, and especially Frugal Babe for giving me such a warm welcome to the Frugal Blog Network. This network is new to blogworld but I'm looking forward to helping it grow.

Also, I accepted an invitation today from Divine Caroline to start providing periodic content for - what else? - the financial section of the site. I haven't spent much time poking around the website yet, but at first glance I can see that there's a very broad spectrum of information and I'm looking forward to more exploration. (In one of those weird coincidences that happen from time to time, I glanced at the blog of one of the content providers and on the first page, up popped a photo of someone I know in real life! I think it was just a convenient pull from that person's Flickr account based on the fact that the photo matches the topic, but it was a little jarring all the same.)

I'll post a heads up here once I start posting content over there. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I like writing it.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Yay! Worst in the class!

Since the end of the month is drawing near, last week I decided that it was time to put my gymstalking plan into action. A year and a half ago, a friend gave me a one-week membership pass to the gym I've zeroed in on, so I went into the branch closest to my home and activated it. A vacant-eyed redhead took the pass and a photocopy of my driver's license and asked me to fill out an information card. (I found out later that she promptly lost all of the paperwork.) She then sent me off to work out right away, which was somewhat surprising: I was expecting a tour and a sales pitch first, but I certainly wasn't going to quarrel about not getting bullied about signing up right away.

I trotted off to the locker room to stow my bag, and the first thing I noticed was how clean the place was. It was a massive, monumental change from the gym I used to go to. I also saw a great many amenities I've never seen at a gym before, including a towel warmer, a mouthwash dispenser, and courtesy razors, shaving cream, hair mousse, hairspray, and deodorant. Outside the locker room, there were two exercise studios, a cycling studio, two rooms of free weights, and a vast array of cardio machines - all functioning and all in good condition.

I had a great hour of exercise and then headed back to the front desk to pick up my week-long membership card. Nothing doing, as it turned out: after I reminded the vacant-eyed redhead that she had taken my information an hour before, she told me that the card wasn't ready yet and I could pick it up on Friday or Saturday. There was a rather large snafu involving the lost paperwork, and I ended up speaking to a membership coordinator on Saturday morning to explain why I was at the front desk without a membership card. She saw that she obviously had a live one and invited me into her office to discuss.

I wasn't ready to enter into negotiation, so I realized I was going to need to take control of the interaction quickly. I told the membership coordinator that I'm previewing several gyms over the course of the week and that if I like what I see at this one, I'll make an appointment with her on Thursday. I added that I do not want to have any kind of a discussion about membership before then, and she backed off quickly. I did get her to confirm the pricing, however, and she also volunteered that there is a promotion for 50% off of the extortionate initiation fee on at the moment, which brings it to around $245.

(I'm aiming for zero, but there was no reason to tell her that just yet. I don't think there will be much benefit in trying to talk down the monthly membership rate. I've read some extensive reviews online and apparently the monthly rate is completely inflexible.)

I continued trying out the gym by taking a yoga class this weekend. I've been a runner for about 27 years, and I rarely stretch. I was easily the worst in the class and probably a source of great amusement for everyone else, but after all the unnatural twisting and stretching was done, I actually felt slightly more limber and that was encouraging. All in all, I like this place.

I'm planning to be ready with a list of questions for the conversation about membership on Thursday, and this is where negotiating down the initiation fee comes into play. Here's what I have so far:

--Please talk me through each of the different membership plans and pricing.

--What is the normal annual membership fee increase and when does it take effect?

--What happens if I join a single club and then later on want to upgrade to all clubs? Can I do that, and if so, at what cost?

--What happens if I join all clubs and later on want to ratchet down to membership at a single club? Can I do that, and if so, at what cost?

--What is your guest policy?

--Are there any additional fees for certain classes? If so, which classes and how much do they cost?

--Do you give any discounts on other chargeable amenities, like spa services, for members?

--Do you have any preferential pricing for [my employer]?

--Can I suspend my membership temporarily for any reason?

--You mentioned that the initiation fee is currently half price. I'm actually looking to waive the initiation fee altogether. What are the available options that would make that possible?

--If I sign up for a two year membership instead of a one year membership, can you waive the initiation fee?

--My friend received a $60 initiation fee offer in June. (I have a copy of it and will bring it when I meet with the membership coordinatory.) If you can't waive the fee, can you match this offer?

--I'm looking at [X] club a couple of blocks away as well. Their initiation fee is [Y] and their monthly rate is [Z]. Can you match their initiation fee?

That's a lot, but I don't plan to be nasty or confrontational about any of it; this is one of those situations where being pleasant but firm will get me much closer towards what I want than being argumentative.

What am I missing?

Feel free to chime in with any own good or bad negotiation experiences of your own, too.


Friday, August 22, 2008


Thanks to Living Almost Large for hosting the Finance Fiesta!. LAL flagged my article titled How to blow a job application in five easy steps as one of the top carnival picks, which was a pleasant surprise (and very much appreciated). She also picked up In Oprah we trust in a PF roundup a few days later.

There are lots of great carnival posts, so be sure to click on over to Living Almost Large to check them out.


Time waits for no one

My friend's dad died a week ago and she is devastated. It's only just over five months since I lost my dad, and I ended up in tears a few times myself during phone and email exchanges this past week. Her father didn't have the long, drawn-out illness that my dad did, but his sudden yet gentle passing meant that my friend didn't have time to say goodbye.

I didn't have time either. I visited my parents a couple of weeks before my dad died, and I remember thinking as I left that I might not see him again. He declined quickly after that; within a couple of days of my return, I had a packed bag at work and a packed bag at home in case I had to leave without notice. When the end came, however, there wasn't time: my mom helped him to the floor and he was gone in minutes.

People who get to say goodbye are lucky, but I think they tend to be the lucky few. The time to say everything you want your loved ones to know is while they're alive to hear it.

If you've been reading for a while, you know that I'm a strong believer in personal responsibility and accountability for one's actions, and that is particularly the case with personal finances. When it comes to maintaining a relationship with family, though, I have a much harder time drawing a frugal line in the sand.

(I'm not talking about manipulative, toxic family members who expect handouts, by the way. That's a whole other issue of boundaries, and I'm not addressing that here. I'm thinking more of what George Orwell meant when he recalled a time . . . when family members stood by one another without needing to know the reason why.)

Folks, if you have older parents and grandparents in your lives, set financial responsibility aside for a while and call them. You don't need a reason; just call them to talk, or let them do the talking if they're lonely. Go see them when you can, even if it means giving up a trip to go somewhere else. Take them on a trip if they're well enough, even if it's just out for the day. Fill their lives with the things and experiences they enjoy; if you're creative, you can do it on the cheap without sacrificing the pleasure these things bring. If you have kids, let them and your older relatives be a part of each others' lives. Make sure your older relatives are eating and drinking enough, and that they're taking the right medication at the right times and in the right doses. Stay in touch with their daily routines and get a sense of how robust their social networks are.

Most of all, tell them you love them now, while you still have the chance. Giving of yourself doesn't have to cost all that much, but it can save you a lifetime of regret.

Put another way, generosity of both spirit and wallet won't make the hole in your heart go away when they're gone. . . but it just might make it just a little bit smaller than it could have been.

(I miss you, Dad.)


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Haven't seen it put quite like this before

I saw an interesting article on CNN today (which, unfortunately, I can't find any longer) about how the days of easy credit are gone and how changing economic conditions are impacting consumers. The article noted that many people, particularly chronic credit abusers, can no longer fake being able to afford luxury in their lives. For the first time since the Great Depression, it's likely that the average standard of living is going to go down instead of up.

Wow. I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but there it is.

I honestly don't anticipate that happening to me to a very large extent despite the painful inflation crunch, both because because my job is secure for now (I'm actually hiring a new direct report!) and because I never really left my starving student roots.

How about you? Do you feel like the good old days are firmly behind you for the next few years?

How about ten or twenty years from now?


Monday, August 18, 2008

In Oprah we trust

This weekend's New York Times ran an article about a blogger who is eight months into an experiment of living her life according to the decrees of the Oprah Winfrey show. When Oprah tells the nation to buy certain clothes to look their best, she goes shopping. When Oprah tells her audience to create "vision boards" to help define and articulate their goals in life, out come the scissors for a kindergarten project.

I don't think this blogger is nuts. She admits that she's pitching a book deal; I kind of wish I'd thought of it first.

I haven't seen much of the Oprah Winfrey show myself because I don't have television. I've caught a handful of episodes over her long career, so if you ask me just what Oprah has going for her other than a little je ne sais quoi, I can't tell you. I do know, however, that she's a heck of a businesswoman and for that I admire her. It's also what makes this blogger's quest a little bit disturbing: Oprah's vast ability to influence the marketplace with her recommendations suggests that more people than probably care to admit are following her dictates more or less blindly as a matter of course.

I don't know about you, but that kind of freaks me out. You see, Oprah's not doing any of this altruistically. She makes a crapload of money on her show, and that crapload of money comes from sponsors. That fact alone significantly reduces her credibility as a tastemaker: when Mr. Coffee is paying for the ads, the host isn't going to proclaim her preference for Black and Decker. In addition, the New York Times article noted that for all Oprah's declarations of the importance of empowerment and self-esteem, the subtle message given by makeovers and emergency style interventions is that viewers are not good enough the way they are. The article also stated that if the new latest style or workout or whatever isn't working for her audience, Oprah also breezily declares that it's their fault, not hers.

Talk about adding insult to injury. If I got treated that way by a friend or trusted advisor, I'd be devastated.

Now, the Oprah Winfrey show is supposed to be entertainiment; thus, people aren't really supposed to take her seriously. Well, guess what? Many of them DO. Her influence on the marketplace is a great indicator of that. Most people probably aren't taking the Oprah devotion to the extreme that the blogger profiled in the New York Times is, but I think it's likely that a great many people are turning off their critical thinking skills when Oprah's on, passively sitting back to let her hector us on what we should do and watch and like and believe.

Personally, I think we'd all be better off turning off the TV and figuring it out for ourselves.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sock it to me

I'm putting together some ideas for topics to write about in upcoming posts. Since the readership around here seems to have taken a nice upwards bump lately, this seems like a good time to ask:

What burning topics do you want to see covered in this space?

My last foray into national politics was greeted with a unanimous Bronx cheer, so I figure that's a topic that won't play well (although I might write about it anyway at some point simply because it's my blog and politics interest me). Readers seem to respond with some level of interest to posts about battling clutter demons, living well on the cheap, and succeeding in jobworld. Is that what you want to read? I'll take personal questions too if you have any, although please understand that I'm committed to maintaining my privacy zone.

I'm open to whatever PF concepts float your boat, so hit me in the comments if there's something you want to see here.

In the meantime, it's a gorgeous summer afternoon, and I'm goin' out to play. Peace out.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

How to blow a job application in five easy steps

The other day, CNN posted a neat article about ten of the most audacious fibs told on resumes. In an increasingly competitive jobworld, putting one's best foot forward on a resume or in an interview is the only smart thing to do, but for some people the best foot forward turns out to be the foot that landed in dog poop.

I've been interviewing for a new junior hire over the past couple of weeks. While I haven't hit any fibs quite as outrageous as the ones collected by CNN, I've seen some interesting behavior over the past couple of weeks. For your consideration, here are a few really good ways to blow your chances of getting hired:

1. Put everything on the resume except what matters
One candidate sent in a nine-page document that recorded just about everything except for the number of times he or she goes to the bathroom in a day. That would be great, except that it's all buzzwords and no substance. Meanwhile, in this expansive document, all the important stuff was missing. Case in point:

Exceeded management expectations

Single-handedly turned a negative perception of [business unit name] around
Great! What did you do?

I declined to interview this one.

2. Go over my head
I read one unimpressive internal resume and declined to interview the candidate. Next thing I knew, a very senior executive was banging down the door demanding to know why.

If a very senior executive is trying to offload someone on his own team, what does that tell you about the candidate?

The bossman and I interviewed the candidate together, largely so we could back each other up if crap started raining from the skies.

The interview was interesting. It confirmed my original expectations and then some. Afterwards, the bossman looked at me and said Well, that was a fucking waste of an hour.

Thanks to this person's effort to override my initial decision, now our entire division knows not to touch this one with a ten-foot pole.

3. Lie
If you're going to lie outright, don't make it something an employer can check on by walking twenty feet down the hall. There are benefits to leaving an organization and then coming back but if you lie like this rebound candidate did, you're playing a dangerous game.

I asked around after interviewing the candidate and then marked this one as a no hire, no referral. This candidate was an outrageous slimebag.

4. Betray common sense
This one was a candidate in the last stages of acheiving permanent residency. The candidate declared his or her reason for leaving the current employer as too much time traveling for business.

That's a fair enough reason, but who voluntarily leaves an employer a couple of months before achieving permanent residency? A more likely explanation was that this person was laid off or fired.

I declined to interview this one. That's too bad; the credentials were actually quite good.

5. Unleash your anger issues
Finally, here's one dating back a few years: if you get a job offer and it's not to your liking by a magnitude of less than five percent, you probably don't want to blow up and scream at the unlucky person conveying the news: you might find that your offer gets retracted very quickly. If you start stalking both the person with the bad judgment to make the initial offer as well as the unlucky person who conveyed the offer to find out why your offer was retracted, you might find your description in the hands of the local police and a cease and desist letter in your mailbox.

I wish I was making this up, but I'm not.

Any other bad candidate/bad employer job-hunting stories out there?


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Shooting myself in the financial foot

Well, so far I've managed to do two dumb and entirely avoidable things to sabotage my finances this week.

Stupidity #1: I chipped a molar on a jawbreaker.

Well, why do you think they call it a jawbreaker, f.z.?

Yup, figured that one out already, thanks for that. There's no pain and the chip is actually quite small, so while I'm keeping a close eye on it for the time being, I haven't scheduled a dentist's appointment just yet.

I hope you don't think this is gross, but I've parked the chip in front of my monitor at work to remind me that I've now sworn off of hard candy altogether.

Stupidity #2: I forgot to move money into the account that's linked to my automatic credit card payment.

I have two accounts at the same bank, checking and savings, so it's not like the money wasn't there; it was just in the wrong account. Nevertheless, I should have remembered to shift it and didn't. Thanks to a long history of overdraft protection plus the fact that I've never bounced a check or otherwise incurred any overdrafts, my bank didn't ding me with any charges even though I moved the money between accounts to cover the overdraft after the payment went out.

All's well that ends well in this case. Nevertheless, the fact that I let that happen in the first place greatly disturbs me. Repeat occurrences will be costly, so there simply can't be any.

What have you done to shoot your finances in the foot lately?


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Big brother is watching your coffee cake

Following an April federal court ruling affirming the legality of forcing New York City restaurants to post calorie information, the calorie counts of entrees and appetizers in a wide variety of restaurants are popping up.

In some cases, it's been a distinctly ugly surprise.

I have an unfortunate sugar jones that I give into from time to time (that means more often than I should), but seeing that a piece of coffee cake packs a 400-calorie punch has given me incentive to rethink my craving more than once. Similarly, my SO is fond of a bread basket option at a restaurant we go to for brunch every now and again. Last time we went, we were both aghast to discover that just the bread in the bread basket adds up to a whopping 1100 calories.

1100 calories! For bread! Gaaah.

For the first time since we started going to that restaurant for brunch, we passed over the bread basket altogether and instead ordered a little 400-calorie side plate of bread that we shared. It gave us a taste of what my SO really loves, but at a much less devastating impact on our waistlines.

The increased availability of information is clearly influencing our choices at the moment, hopefully in a way that will benefit our long-term health. If this is the impact on just two people, I wonder what the macro effect is going to be. Will we start seeing an overall reduction in obesity in New York City and a corresponding decline in public health spending related to obesity treatment and prevention? Alternatively, will the shock value soon wear off as people get used to seeing the information posted and stop internalizing it?

I tend to think that the impact will be short-term at best, largely because making nutritional decisions on the basis of calorie count alone is a short-term approach to losing weight. In order to be effective over the long term, I think moderating calorie intake needs to be combined with increased exercise and focus on getting the most bang for the calorie buck - in other words, eating based on achieving high nutrient value for a relatively low number of calories. In addition, making choices based on guilt over calorie count is likely to trigger feelings of deprivation after a while. For most people, feeling deprived has a similar impact on both budgets and diets: the plan runs off the rails rather quickly.

I get the impression that local government feels that the impact of this new law will be substantial in terms of reducing obesity and the many costs that come with it in terms of public health care. While I think a more informed consumer generally makes better decisions (and thus, I'm in favor of the law despite my reservations about its effectiveness), I can't see the short term impact being more than marginal, and I think the long term impact will be essentially nonexistent.

I hope I'm wrong. What do you think?


Friday, August 8, 2008

When frugal goes horribly wrong

It's a floor!

Made from paper bags.

Either this is a really, really bad picture, or it's a really, really bad idea and your house will hate you forevermore.

Guess which way my bet is swinging.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008


I followed up the Great Mortgage Payoff by quitting my disgusting and inconvenient gym a couple of days later. (They didn't even try to keep me, which was surprising.) I'm gymless for the next couple of weeks, and in that time I'm pulling together a strategy for approaching the nice and pricey gym in order to get the most bang for the buck.

It would all be easy if I got to drive the negotiation, but I'm well aware that since the nice gym is in the role of trying to get me to buy something, they're going to hit me hard with the pressure tactics. I wrote about what some of the common pressure tactics used in sales are and how to resist them a while ago, so I'm not going to go back over old ground. Aside from what's covered there, I think there are some things I can do to make the pricing work more to my advantage. Here's what I have lined up so far:

I've read that gyms have monthly sales quotas to meet, so going in at the end of the month when the sales quota period is closing is likely to give me more negotiation leverage. Hopefully, the fact that the economy is so turbulent will actually work to my benefit on this one: gym membership is a discretionary expense that is often among the first to get cut during hard times, so there's a good chance that the gym will not only be under quota but significantly under quota as well.

Play one gym off against another
There's another halfway decent (better than I go to now) but not great gym one block away from the nice one. I have no intention of signing up there instead, but the people at the nice gym don't know that.

Gyms are really tight-lipped about their pricing policies because it gives them an advantage in sales pitches, but from talking to current members and scouring the internet, I've found out the pricing for the regular membership for one person at one club ($137 per month) as well as for access to multiple clubs (a breathtaking $175 per month). The initiation fee is nearly five hundred DOLLARS. From everything I've heard and read, there is zero give on the monthly rate. Instead of trying too hard to influence the monthly rate, I'm aiming for no initiation fee and as short a contract as possible. If I can't get zero initiation fee, I do have a copy of an offer a friend forwarded me for June offering $60 initiation. I don't see why they can't match that.

No is a complete sentence
I mean No as in,

Can I ask why you're leaving your current gym?

Or, to be a little less blunt, I don't care to discuss it. Why give up information that will surely be used to better target the sales pitch?

I feel like I'm about to walk into a cave of lions that couldn't care less about me but would be delighted to eat my wallet. How does my action plan look so far? Any other suggestions for how I can walk out of that cave without losing a load of cash in the process?


Sunday, August 3, 2008

Career tip for twenty-something women

You know how when you're talking? And you take, like, a break in the middle of the sentence? And your voice goes up like it's a question at the end of every, like sentence? Even when it's only part of a sentence? And, you know, when you use a lot of crutch words?

Stop it. For your own good, I'm begging you to stop it.

I'm not saying that all twenty-something women do this, but I'm alarmed by the number I see who do. It's one thing to talk like that amongst your friends, but in a professional environment? Bad thing. Very, very bad.

I'm a great believer in the concept that in most interactions most of the time, we teach people how to treat us. Part of succeeding in the workplace is teaching people that you are someone who deserves to be taken seriously. Twenty-something women, when you talk at work like the example I wrote above, you are conveying a very different message:

--Using crutch words tells me that you are inarticulate.

--Letting your voice rise at the end of a declarative sentence tells me that you are not confident and sure of yourself.

--Breaking your thoughts off mid-stream tells me that you have trouble gathering them in the first place.

The repercussions of sending these messages are significant: they roll up into the overall perception that you are not a person with potential, and that will bite you squarely in the ass.

In my experience, sloppy speech habits tend to bring poor body language along for the ride. Some of the common body language habits I see along with poor speech habits include slouching, shifting weight from side to side, twisting one's hands or playing with jewelry, and having difficulty sustaining eye contact. All of these things help undermine the perception of you as a capable person.

Twenty-something women, our moms and grandmothers did not fight the good fight so we could shoot ourselves in the foot without even knowing it! Bad speech and body language habits are absolutely possible to break, but it takes a lot of self-awareness and concerted effort. There are a few things I've learned over the years (because yes, I've had all of these bad habits and more) that were helpful, so I'll share them here with you:

Find out what you could be doing better
You might be projecting an image you don't want to give at work without even knowing it. The best way to find out is to ask someone you trust, preferably someone with significantly more work experience. If there's no one you can ask at work, try asking one of your friends to listen to you give a presentation or mock-interview you and get their feedback on your communication skills and presence.

Role play in the mirror
Giving a presentation to yourself is a great way to do this. (Guess what? You'll probably find it really hard to look at yourself while you're doing it. Force yourself. What you see will be invaluable.) Watch what you're doing with your hands: if you're a hair-twister or a jewelry puller when you're nervous, it'll probably come out. Being aware that you do it is the first step in stopping it. Do you clutch your forearm with one hand or rock back and forth? Those behaviors don't look good in public either. That's not to say that hand gestures aren't good, because they are - but only if they help you deliver your message instead of distract from what you're saying.

Tape record yourself
You can do this while presenting to yourself in the mirror. Listening to the playback is usually painful, but it's well worth it. Consider these points:

--How many times did you say Um? If it's more than a few, you probably sounded like you didn't know what you were talking about.

--Are you a monotone speaker? If so, your audience would have fallen asleep halfway through.

--How did you pitch your voice? Speaking in an alto voice conveys more confidence and is more persuasive than speaking in a high-pitched squeak (no offense to squeakers). Learning to pitch your voice in a lower register on important occasions is very, very valuable when you have a point to make, as long as you don't overdo it and end up sounding like a porn star.

--Most importantly, if you let your declarative sentences sound like questions, there's a good chance that in real life, you'd have completely lost whatever grip you had on persuading your audience of anything.

I'm suggesting presentations as a key tool for developing awareness of and control over your body language and speech habits, and that's mostly because getting up and talking in front of a critical audience is the most stressful thing that many of us will ever encounter in a professional workplace: there is no such thing as being too prepared. It's by no means the only tool, though. If you can recruit a friend or trusted advisor, role playing is just as good and perhaps even better in some ways because you can get immediate feedback on where you did well and where you needed improvement.

The bonus that comes from self awareness and practice is the old fake-it-till-you-make-it: acting like a confident person helps confidence grow. If you're looking to grow your career, the payoff is unbelievable. . . and your bottom line will thank you as well.


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