Last year I had image consultant Frances Cole Jones on the podcast to discuss her book How to Wow: Proven Strategies to Sell Your Brilliant Self. At the end of that episode, Frances invited AoM Podcast listeners to ask her questions via her website about anything pertaining to personal presentation and social skills like job interviews, small talk, public speaking, and so on. And boy did you guys respond! Frances and I figured if one of you guys had a certain question, there are probably hundreds more who have the same one. So we’ve created a quarterly series on the podcast called “Ask Frances” where Frances will answer some of the questions you all have submitted to her.
In today’s edition, Frances provides tips on what to do if you lose your train of thought while speaking, how to avoid coming across like a know-it-all, how to handle a braggart at the office, and an extremely timely topic with a presidential election less than a month away: how to discuss politics tactfully and respectfully with someone with differing political views.
- What to do when you lose your train of thought in a conversation so you still look like a boss
- Why you shouldn’t make a big deal about losing your train of thought, nor pretend like it’s not happening
- How to recover from tripping over your words (and why you shouldn’t apologize for it)
- Why pen and paper can be the ultimate conversation hack in the office
- How to not come across like a know-it-all while still sharing what you know
- How to handle a braggart
- What to do when you feel outclassed at work or in your personal life
- How to tactfully get rid of the office chatterbox
- Should you put headphones on to keep people from talking to you?
- How to talk politics civilly
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And thanks to Creative Audio Lab in Tulsa, OK for editing our podcast!
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Last year, I had image consultant Frances Cole Jones on the podcast to discuss her book, How to Wow: Proven Strategies to Sell Your Brilliant Self. At the end of that episode, Frances invited AoM podcast listeners to ask her questions at her website about anything pertaining to personal presentation, and social skills, like job interviews, small talk, public speaking, and so on. Boy, did you guys respond. Frances and I figured if one of you guys had a certain question, there are probably hundreds more who have the same one. We’ve created this quarterly series on the podcast called Ask Frances, where Frances will answer some of the questions you’ve all submitted to her on our website.
In today’s edition, Frances provides tips on what to do if you lose your train of thought while speaking. This has happened to me several times. How to avoid coming across like a know-it-all, how to handle a braggart at the office, an extremely timely topic with the presidential election less than a month away, how to discuss politics with someone with differing political views tactfully and respectfully. Answers to those dilemmas and more coming up. Be sure to check the show notes out at AoM.is/FCJ2. Again, it’s AoM.is/FCJ2 for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Frances Cole Jones, welcome back to the show.
FCJ: Thank you so much.
Brett McKay: For those of you who aren’t familiar with Frances, she is a media and image consultant, where she coaches high-profile individuals about how to put their best foot forward for job interviews, sales pitches, media appearances, et cetera. She’s also the author of a book called How to Wow, and we had her on the podcast. It’s been about a year ago now, coming up on, to talk about her book and her work. At the end of that show, she invited Art of Manliness Podcast listeners to submit questions they had about personal presentation. It could be anything from how to prepare for a job interview, small talk, dealing with office politics, et cetera. She was inundated with questions from you all, and so what we decided to do, we bring her back on the show about once a quarter to answer some of these questions that you all have asked her. I figure if one person has that question, there’s probably seven dozen others who have that question as well.
Frances has sent me a list of some of the questions she’s asked, and I feel like, Frances, would you agree the topic, the main big topic of this is dealing with sort of social awkwardness that can come up when you’re dealing with small talk? Then, also, office politics?
FCJ: Yes. I mean, it’s funny because these are these seemingly innocuous situations, but as I certainly know from my own experience, you’re just kind of chatting, and the next thing you know, the whole thing goes south. Then, there are also these moments where people find themselves in that situation, and for whatever reason, they’re so upset that they lose their train of thought, then you leave, and you just berate yourself, because you say, “I wish I had said this,” or, “I can’t believe I could have done that.” It’s just about hopefully trying to keep a cool head in the moment.
Brett McKay: That sounds great. Let’s get to some of these questions. You’ve mentioned it just now, one of the questions was, you’re having a conversation with somebody, you get flustered for whatever reason. Maybe you’re upset, or maybe you’re just having a hard time figuring out what you’re going to say, your thoughts get all jumbled, and you lose your train of thought. I think we’ve all had that moment where we’re talking, in the middle we’re just like, “Uh, I just forgot what I was going to say.” That can be really embarrassing for folks, so what can people do when they lose their train of thought in the middle of a conversation?
FCJ: There are kind of two ways to approach it. One is, if you know you’re going to be in a situation, or you’re going to be meeting up with somebody who tends to fluster you, just to kind of hopefully think that through ahead of time a little bit. That looks like, one of the hardest things in the world is to field the softball questions, like, “How was your summer?” Really? My entire summer? Any time you get a big, fat softball like that, or, “What do you think we should do in this situation?” Pick one very specific thing. If you do get a softball like, “How was your summer?” “My favorite thing I did was X.” Bam. Then, great, conversation rolling. If you’re in an office situation, someone says, “What should we do about …?” “Well, one thing we could do immediately is blah blah.” That’s just a handy tip for any kind of a big, fat softball that people throw at you.
The other thing I want you to do is, again, if you’re thinking about someone who tends to make you tense, think about what are the worst three things that you can imagine this person saying to you. A lot of times, we’ll just be like, “Well, I hope that doesn’t come up.” Hoping isn’t really a strategy. Think through those few answers. That’s prepping it ahead of time. If you’re in an impromptu moment, and your mind goes blank, what I want you to do is to say, “I’d like to think about that for a second, because I want to give you the best answer possible.” I can’t think of anybody in this world who says, “Ugh, can you believe that guy that wanted to give me the best answer possible?” It’s not going to happen. Whomever you’re speaking with is pleased that you’re actually giving it that level of consideration.
The other thing you can do is, if you begin to answer and you get stuck, you want to fill people in on what’s happening. The important piece of that is you want to do it without apologizing. Instead of saying, “I’m so sorry. I just lost my train of thought. Blah blah,” which requires that person to now feel badly for you and to somehow jump in, what you want to say is, “You know what? I need to gather my thoughts. Thank you for your patience while I do this.” Or, “I’m going to ask you for your patience while I gather my thoughts.” There’s that moment when you make that very specific request, that people are like, “Oh, okay. I want to be that person for you. I want to be that patient person.”
Those are just some things that you can have in your toolbox. Your conversational toolbox.
Brett McKay: I like that. Also, I think the thing is, all these things, don’t make a big deal about it. I think the bigger deal you make about it, it becomes a bigger deal than it really is.
FCJ: Right. The other thing is, don’t pretend it’s not happening. A lot of times what happens is people keep talking while they’re trying to figure out what they are saying, and then you can either just go down some wacky rabbit hole that you end up having to clean up, or things usually end poorly. Just stop, fill people in on what’s occurring, ask for their patience, and then move along briskly.
Brett McKay: Great advice. Similar to that, someone asked, “How do you recover from tripping over your words?” This happens if you’re giving a presentation, or you’re just doing small talk, or you’re in a job interview, you’re really nervous, you start speaking really fast, and you just, “Blah,” barf things out. How do you recover from that?
FCJ: Again, what you can do, try not to apologize. You could say, “Hang on a second. I’ve gotten myself into a verbal tangle. I’m going to start again so I can be sure to give you the best answer possible.” It’s just really alerting people to what’s occurring for you. The other thing that can be nice, also, if you know that you’re going into a situation with your boss, or very often people also have trouble talking to their doctors, things like that, any authority figure, I recommend bringing a pen and paper, because as old school as it seems, just to say to somebody, “You know what? I know this conversation is important, so I want to take notes,” it slows everything down, again, so that you don’t end up getting into those kind of weird verbal cul-de-sacs, but it also makes the person that you’re talking to feel really important. People love it when you write down what they say. That’s another tool that can be very, very useful.
Brett McKay: Slows things down. I think you mentioned that in our last time we had you on. Writing notes. Have a pen and paper out when you’re having an important conversation, because it not only slows the conversation down, but it also gives you a record, like if you’re talking to a boss and he asks you for something, then three weeks later he asks for something completely different, you can say, “Well, I have here …”
FCJ: Right. “I’m looking at my notes,” which spares you the discomfort of saying, like, “You said …” No. “I’m looking at my notes.”
Brett McKay: That’s great stuff. Good advice there on how to recover from losing your train of thought, or recovering from tripping over your words. Slow things down, and great stuff. Let’s go over to this one. Someone asked … This can come up, I think, at work a lot, and even your personal life, where you know a lot about a topic, and you’re eager to share all that you know about that topic, but you don’t want to come across like a know-it-all. How do you avoid that?
FCJ: I think that there are a few ways that you can front-load what you’re about to say. Before you launch into it, you can say something like, “I’m guessing most of you know this,” or, “I’m sure most of you are thinking the same thing,” or, “I’m probably not the only one in the room with this idea,” because what that does is, it allows the people that you’re talking to to say to themselves, “I guess I did know that,” or, “I guess I was thinking the same thing.” That’s just a way to front-load, if you’re about to bust into the conversation with kind of knowing everything.
The other thing that you can do is, as you pause, as you’re moving through it, rather than saying, “Does this make sense?” Which can land for people as if you think they’re not quite as clever as you are, you could say, “Am I making sense?” That takes the onus for clarity on you. Rather than inferring they’re stupid, you’ve now said, “It’s possible that I’m not being clear.” “Am I making sense?” Is a great way to check in with people halfway through. You can also say, “Does anyone have any questions so far?” Just that kind of checking in and allowing people to interject if they need to.
The other thing I just want you to be aware of is that when you do pause this way, “Am I making sense? Any questions so far?” You actually want to not just do it in a kind of token way. You really need to pause and give people the opportunity to ask any questions, because sometimes it takes people a second or two to get the courage to pipe up.
Brett McKay: Are there moments where you should just, like, hold back, or should you go ahead and say what you know? While some people might know what you’re talking about, there might be others who don’t. Are there moments where you should just hold back, and say, “I’m going to bite my tongue here and just not reveal what I know”?
FCJ: I mean, if you find that every single time a question is asked, you’re the one with your metaphorical hand in the air, then yeah. It’s time to let other people have their moment in the sun. The other thing you can do, though, is if somebody does pipe up with an idea, and for whatever reason, again, because you do know it all, for whatever reason you think it’s not 100% complete, what you can do with that is to say, “If I could add to what Jim just said.” What that does is it validates that Jim’s contribution was meaningful, and then it allows you to include what it was that you really needed people to know.
Brett McKay: Great advice there. That’s awesome. Kind of related to this topic of not coming off as a know-it-all is when the shoe is on the other foot. Say you’re talking to someone, and they’re just coming off as a know-it-all, or they’re bragging about what they’re doing, or they’re doing the humblebrag, right? They’re not exactly explicitly bragging, but they’re bragging a little bit. How do you handle individuals like that?
FCJ: In these moments, if you have somebody who’s consistently bragging, I always go back to something that my brother always says, which is, “Tell me your pretensions, and I’ll tell you your insecurities.” I always tend to look at what people are being braggy about, and say to myself, “Wow, that’s something that they actually feel very, very insecure about. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be braggy.” The thing to remember is that if people are being that way, if you really are deeply, deeply cool, you don’t need to remind people about it. Someone who’s bragging is having an attack of insecurity, which is hopefully a more compassionate way to approach the conversation.
With that in mind, what you can do is validate that. They’re requesting validation. They want to know that you think that they’re fantastic. Though it can be hard, if you make a conscious decision about it, it can also be a little bit fun. For example, you have somebody who’s going on and on, “Well, I went to this very exclusive restaurant where nobody can get a reservation, and then, after I was there, I sent back my wine because …” This whole kind of “blah blah blah.” Rather than shutting them off, or talking about an experience that you had, you could say, “Yeah, really it sounds like you know a lot about wine. Where did you learn that? How did you come to know so much?” They’re going to be so excited about this. Yes, you’re probably going to have to do 20 minutes on how they learned so much about wine, but I think what this does is that, as people get more comfortable that you believe their back story, and that you accept them, the bragging will hopefully fall away a little bit. If you can, stay in, “Wow, that’s really impressive. Where did you learn so much?” Or, “Wow. And then what happened?” I think it’s nice to let braggarts talk until they run out of steam.
Brett McKay: That’s great advice. You have to play the long game. You have to think …
FCJ: Yes, you do, and just realize that it comes usually from insecurity rather than anything else.
Brett McKay: Speaking of insecurity, one other question that someone asked is, “What do you do when you feel like you’re out-classed?” This can happen in a whole wide variety of situations. Maybe you’re with friends, or associates who have more money than you, or you’re new at a job, you’re the low man on the totem pole, and everyone has lots of experience over you. They’re not even probably intentionally trying to make you feel dumb, but they make you feel dumb. What do you do when you feel out-classed?
FCJ: I think that there’s people who cause you to feel out-classed unintentionally, and intentionally. Again, it’s looking at what’s behind it. Sometimes people are just talking about their fabulous summer, or their this or their that, and you can be like, “Wow. My summer doesn’t sound quite so interesting.” In those moments, if their intention is they’re just chatting away, again, ask them some open-ended questions. There’s no way that people will not find you charming if you come back to, “Tell me more about that.” Or, “Where did you learn that?” Or, “That sounds like it was extraordinary. Is it something that I might want to look into?” That type of thing.
If you’re feeling out-classed by people who love to kind of use the big 10 cent words to let you know how very smart they are, that’s, again, just something you need to let roll off of you in a way, and embrace what you’re bringing to the party. It can be hard to do, but authenticity is actually, and simplicity, are actually incredibly compelling. If you doubt me, look at someone like Clint Eastwood, who doesn’t say anything and is without a doubt the coolest in any situation, or I always go back to the John Wayne quote, which is, “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much.” Those are nice. In terms of really practical stuff, if you are going into a social situation where you’re worried you’re going to feel like you don’t know what to do with the fork, or the handshake, or how to greet somebody, do the research. As kooky as it sounds, there’s a book called Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers. It’s a really down and dirty, how-to primer on how to get through almost any social situation. That can be very, very useful.
Those are the types of ways that I would approach that kind of thing.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this. I’m sure everyone’s experienced this if they work at an office. There’s that one guy or one gal who no matter if … Any time they swing by or walk by your desk, you’re in the middle of a report, you’re in the zone, and they want to stop and just talk about the game, or what they did this weekend. They just go on and on and on, and 30 minutes later, you haven’t made any progress. What do you do with the office chatterbox? You want them to go away because you want to get to work. At the same time, you don’t want to be rude about it. What’s the best approach there?
FCJ: In these moments, you need to be frank, and kind at the same time. This could sound something like, first you just need to be very clear. “I wanted to talk to you about a situation that’s occurring for me in the office. I notice that you love to chat about a lot of stuff, and that is so great for office camaraderie, and I know that we all depend on you to keep us all in the loop about so many things, and it’s a great way to find out about people’s weekends, and birthdays, and kids, and things like that. The downside of this for me is that I find myself distracted from the work that I need to get done.” Then, you need to give people the because. “Because I know that office productivity is super important to everybody, may I make a request? If I’m finding the chatting distracting, would it be okay if I alerted you about it?”
What this does is that you begin with a compliment. You begin with what’s working. “I love what you’re doing. This is what works about being a chatterbox. This is how it contributes to our well-being, the well-being of everybody.”
Brett McKay: You probably don’t want to call them a chatterbox.
FCJ: Right, no.
Brett McKay: “This is why it’s so great you’re a chatterbox, Linda.”
FCJ: “This is what’s so great about the chatting that you do, because it really does keep us all in the loop, and it is so important for office camaraderie.” This is the “what’s working” theory that I believe I’ve spoken about before. It comes from the Apollo 13 movie, which was when they first call down from the spacecraft, and the very first question that Ed Harris asks is, “What’s working?” “Let’s start with what I like about what you’re doing. I love that you’re contributing to office camaraderie.” Then, the next part of that is you aren’t saying that she is distracting, or he is distracting to you. All you’re saying is that you are distracted. Again, taking the onus for being unable to work on yourself. That’s very helpful.
Then, the third thing is, is that you kind of need to remind her, like, “Everybody’s got skin in the game. Everybody needs to be productive, so if it’s okay, can you let me know how you want me to alert you if I’m needing to, like, put my head down and get back to my report?” What this does is it gives the person who’s chatting a sense of control. You can say, “How do you want me to let you know? Do you want me to IM you? Do you want me to leave a note on your desk? Do you want me to just talk to you quietly? Can we work out some kind of a ‘hi’ sign?” What it does is it gives that person a sense of control over a situation, rather then just feeling like the whole thing is out of control.
Brett McKay: What’s your take on putting headphones on? I think that’s one of the ways people do it now. I remember when I was a law student, and I was studying. Even if I wasn’t listening to anything, I would just put headphones on so people wouldn’t bother me.
FCJ: You can do that, but the trouble with that is … I don’t know about you. I’m still fuming. Also, you don’t want to spend 8 or 10 hours a day in headphones. Yes, you can in moments, or you can say to her, “Can I let you know that if I have my headphones on,” or him. “If I have my headphones on, this really means I’ve got my head down, and I’ve got to stay with what I’m doing in front of me.” Maybe that’s your signal.
Brett McKay: I guess the other issue with headphones is that if you have them on all the time, it could cut you off from important conversation that could actually make you more productive. Someone swings by, “Hey, I’ve got this tip.” If you have your headphones on, that’s never going to happen.
FCJ: Then, all of a sudden you’re the one who’s anti-social.
Brett McKay: Right, yeah. You’re the weirdo who never talks to anybody.
Let’s talk about this, Frances. This is very timely for this time of year. We’re in an election year. Politics is being discussed feverishly right now. How do you have a conversation with someone when your political views differ? This could happen at the office, or just when you’re with friends or associates at a party. What’s the best way to tactfully have a conversation about politics when your views differ from them?
FCJ: It’s going to be an exciting fall. I think that what can be really helpful is to fall back on active listening. For example, if you’re talking to somebody and for whatever reason, they’re unhappy with how our current president has handled things. They might say, “Obama has done X, and Y, and Z incorrectly, and blah blah blah.” This whole thing. You just want to demonstrate that you’ve heard what they said. You say, “Wow. It sounds like you really disagree with X policy.” At which point they’re really reduced to saying, “You’re right. I do.” Now at least you have them agreeing with you, so it’s not quite as contentious. The thing I think that we all know, sadly, is that you’re not really going to change anybody’s mind during these conversations, any more than your Facebook post is going to change somebody’s mind, or your telling somebody why they’re wrong in the Starbucks is going to change somebody’s mind. It’s just really better if you want to get out of it gracefully, to do active listening. “Wow. It sounds like you’re really committed to so and so’s idea about immigration.” “Yes, it’s true. Blah blah blah. I am.” Again, “Tell me more about that.” “This and that.” “Tell me more.”
Another great phrase in these moments is, “Let me think about that.” I love, “You’ve given me a lot to think about,” which is just a variation on what Barbara Walters … She did a great book, which I love. She says her exit line when someone is being truly horrible is always, “You’ve obviously given this a lot of thought, and it’s been interesting to hear your views.”
Brett McKay: That’s a good one.
FCJ: Yes. I know. “You’ve obviously given this a lot of thought.” Totally true. That’s what I would recommend. It’s just active listening, in these moments.
Brett McKay: Not try to pummel them in the head and say, “Hey, this is why I’m right and why you’re wrong.”
FCJ: Right, or, “You’ve forgotten about blah blah blah.” Again, I think it will always depend on the person that you’re speaking with. Some people do enjoy a healthy debate, and some people are in the business of having their minds changed. I don’t know about you, but I very often think that I’m right about most things. It can be hard, and sometimes it isn’t worth it if it’s somebody that you have to see every day. If you get into a confrontation with them, and then that has to be part and parcel of every conversation. It’s easier not to get involved.
Brett McKay: What if things get really heated? I guess that would work, the Barbara Walters line, where if things get really heated, you can just bow out and say, “Well, it seems like you’ve given really a lot of thought to it,” and leave. Is there any other tactics if things get way … You’re just like, “Oh, man. This has just gone way too far. We should end this.” Not say, “I’m going to stop talking …” That just makes you look weird.
FCJ: I think you can say, again, “You’ve given me a lot to think about. What I’d love to do is pick this up another time.” Just really end that conversation in that moment. If they want to keep going, just say, “You know what?” You can be frank and clear. “You know what? I’m worried that this is getting out of hand, and our relationship is valuable to me, so in the interest of preserving our relationship, I’m going to step away for a while. Again, I’d love to pick this up with you another time.”
Brett McKay: Some solid advice there. Frances, this has been great. I think we covered a lot of great awkward situations that can come up, how to handle them gracefully. Where can people learn more about their work, and where can they ask more questions from you?
FCJ: My website is my name, FrancesColeJones.com. That’s Frances with an E, and not an I. Once you go there, I have a number of resources. As you mentioned, I have a few books. How to Wow is one, and Wow Your Way Into the Job of Your Dreams is another. I have a lot of videos on the site, both for if you want to get promoted, and that being tricky. I have some etiquette videos. I have some job interview videos. You can click around and watch those, and I try to make them funny. I did a lot on green screen. I did them like I’m Samantha on Bewitched. I have a situation that’s going poorly, and then I pop in on green screen. Then there is, as you’ve heard, I have an “ask a question” button. Please, please, please send me your questions, because I love to hear from people and I love to think about the questions that you have, and if I have any good advice, it really is my pleasure to share that. Please send me a question on the “ask a question” button.
Brett McKay: Great. Like we just did now, we’ll get back with you after you’ve accumulated a giant list of them, and we’ll talk about some of the ones that are the pertinent, that came up quite a bit.
Frances, as always, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for your time.
FCJ: Thank you. Have a good afternoon.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Frances Cole Jones. She’s a image consultant, author of the book How to Wow. It’s available on Amazon.com. If you’d like to ask Frances a question that we might use later on in the podcast, just go to FrancesColeJones.com. She has a little question submission form in her sidebar. Ask her a question, and she’ll answer it, even if we don’t use it in this episode. Go do that. Again, FrancesColeJones.com. Be sure to check out the show notes at AoM.is/FCJ2 for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
That wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com. Our podcast is edited by Creative Audio Lab here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you have any audio editing needs or music production needs, those guys can help you out. You can find more information about them at CreativeAudioLab.com. As always, I appreciate your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.