Anne Ricketts, Founder & Principal of Lighthouse Communications, brings her techniques for public speaking and presenting to the show to help Chris and Ron unpack unhelpful mindsets around storytelling and unhealthy speaking habits. Covering the basics from filler words to hand gestures, eye contact to working the camera, Anne explains the role storytelling plays in the way people communicate at the office, out in public in their free time, virtually on Zoom, and even onstage at events like TEDx.
[00:00] Why Anne became a communication coach
[05:16] How COVID impacted public speaking and presentations
[12:57] Why you shouldn’t stop hand gesturing
[18:38] How to stop saying “um”, “like,” “so,” and other filler words
[22:45] What makes storytelling an essential career communication tool
Thank you to our sponsors Axonius and AttackIQ for bringing this episode to life!
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Why was communication coaching your chosen profession?
Anne wasn’t always a communication coach, but she’s always been passionate about helping others speak. In fact, prior to 2013, Anne taught English as a second language to a variety of people, first in Italy, then in San Francisco. When Anne founded Lighthouse Communications, her goal was to help everyone, English speaking or not, communicate efficiently and confidently. Speaking skills and storytelling talent can open up a world of opportunities for anyone, and Anne is excited that she can help others unlock their potential everyday.
“I really like helping people because there's so many small things you can do to look more confident, like the way you stand or projecting your voice. If you look more confident, you start to feel more confident.”
In the past two years, because of the pandemic, what have been the ways that you've seen communication coaching change?
With so few events and courses happening in-person, Anne had to shift her mindset around coaching and her advice she gives to clients. Virtual presentation unlocked a new world of communication, but comes with new rules and a learning curve. Thankfully, Anne has learned to love the world of virtual and believes that when professionals give their all to connecting with their audience, amazing communication can still occur, even from long distances away.
“Normally, when teaching a class, you can see if someone's struggling or confused, you can walk over and connect with them. Everything was happening so fast in the Zoom room, I personally felt like I started from scratch.”
How could someone who isn't the biggest fan of small talk reset and reframe small talk in a way that's valuable for them?
Networking and communicating can feel like a chore, especially when small talk is involved. Anne believes that small talk, as awkward and boring as it may be, allows professionals an amazing opportunity to practice connecting with others on a small scale and hone their listening and storytelling skills. Ask curious questions to connect with others during small talk moments, and don’t fear the occasional awkwardness that comes with meeting someone new.
“If you want to be good at small talk, it's just being curious. Asking questions like, ‘Hey, what's that in your background?,’ or in person, ‘Tell me more about yourself. Oh, interesting. Where did you go to school?’ Asking specific follow up questions and just being curious.”
What advice would you have for anyone that has impactful details to share, but doesn't really know how to make it into a story?
Storytelling is one of the most valuable skills a professional can learn, according to Anne. Stories allow us an opportunity to connect with others emotionally and mentally, and can even inspire someone to action with the power of simple words. Anne’s biggest advice around the art of storytelling is to practice. Listen to the stories others tell, build your experiences around a framework that feels personally right to you, and practice, practice, practice.
“What makes for a good story is tension, emotion. We want to know what was going through your head during that security hack, what was the reaction, what was at stake, and that's not necessarily, on an everyday basis, how we're trained to speak at work.”
Keep up with Anne Ricketts on LinkedIn
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Continue the conversation by joining our Discord
Hacker Valley Studio 00:07
Who says tech can't be human?
The other thing is, if you want to be good at it, it's just being curious. Asking questions like, "Hey, what's that in your background? That's a great painting," or in person, "Tell me more about yourself. Oh, interesting. Where did you go to school?" Asking specific follow up questions and just being curious.
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What's going on, everybody? You are in the Hacker Valley Studio with your hosts, Ron and Chris.
Welcome back to the show.
Glad to be back again. This episode, we're gonna be speaking a bit about effective communication. We can't just talk about this subject between Chris and myself because we believe that you learn from the best. There are leaders out there that can help you become a better and more effective communicator. So, we brought in a guest to help us discuss the topic and someone that we actually work with. Our guest this episode is Anne Ricketts. Anne is the Founder and Principal of Lighthouse Communications, where she helps professionals, practitioners, people of all walks of life, create more intentional and effective communication. I know we've been working together for a little bit, I'm excited to continue, but more importantly, Anne, welcome to the podcast.
Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
Absolutely. We have history, you and I, we've worked together on a few of my different endeavors when it comes to speaking. I really think you are one of the best communication coaches out there in the world, but for the folks that don't know who you are just yet, we'd love to hear a little bit about your background and what you're doing today.
Well, thanks, Chris. I have been doing corporate communication coaching since 2013, but before that, I was an English as a Second Language teacher. So, I started off after college, I actually taught English at a retirement home in Italy, and fell in love with the field there. And then, I came back and was teaching English as a second language in San Francisco, and that's actually how I started my business because I wanted to help non-native English speakers in Silicon Valley feel more confident, because I had heard that many people who weren't native speakers didn't feel comfortable speaking up in meetings. So, the business started off that way and from there, it blossomed to really helping anybody feel more confident and clearer in their communication.
Wow, I think that's such a great endeavor, because I think a lot of folks need it. To be honest with you, when I really started my speaking career, if you want to call it that, it was literally a few months before you and I met. I had done a lightning talk at a conference and I was like, "You know what? I'm gonna make an effort to do more speaking engagements, I want to become really good." I put myself in a lot of awkward situations to get better, did stand-up comedy during that time, Ron and I did a poetry reading at a place in Silicon Valley, and I worked with you to a great degree on some of my keynotes. For you, what was it about this ability to communicate, this ability to stand up on stage confidently and clearly communicate what it is that you want to the audience? Why was this your chosen profession?
I think why I gravitated towards it was because I really knew from experience that it's not something you have to be a natural in. You don't have to necessarily be talented in it. You just have to, like you said, put yourself in those positions, like do stand-up comedy, that's so impressive, but you don't even have to do stand-up comedy, you just need to practice and get the reps in. That's just my personality. I was an athlete growing up in high school and college. I'm used to the reps and so, I think I was attracted to it because I myself get really, really nervous. It's something that I struggle with, and so many people struggle with this. I really liked helping people because there's so many small things you can do to look more confident, like the way you stand or projecting your voice. If you look more confident, you start to feel more confident. So, I think I just like that, because it's just, in a one-day workshop, it's incredible how much progress people can make.
I love it. I would imagine that, overtime, especially the past two years, after the pandemic and digital transformation working from home, that communication is just changed so much. What have been the ways that you've seen it change when it comes to coaching others? I'm sure there's a lot less in-person events and more virtual, but I would love to hear: What's been your vantage point on the change in communication today?
Personally, I'll speak personally and then I'll speak about the observations that I see. From a personal standpoint, it was really hard for me because I was doing some remote coaching one-on-one, but all the classes I was teaching were in-person. Then, overnight, we had to pivot and do virtual. I don't consider myself very tech savvy, so I really struggled looking at this camera and being in this room by myself. Normally, when teaching a class, you can see if someone's struggling or confused, you can walk over and connect with them. Everything was happening so fast in the Zoom room, I personally felt like I started from scratch. But maybe about a year in now, it feels like no big deal. I'm completely used to it. In fact, I like it, I have two small kids and it allows me to be home a lot more. I think a lot of people feel that way, but it takes some getting used to. A lot of what we focus now on is how to have a great presence. So, people have kind of figured it out two years into the pandemic, but at first, it was a lot about, okay, where to look, how to not be backlit, just all the small things about virtual presence, and then, about six months, and people started to get the hang of that. And then, it was that they were burnt out, and so it was helping people find ways to take breaks in between meetings and connect still. What's interesting is that, every six months, what people need changes.
Yeah, let's get into some of those changes. Because when you talk about connection, I mean, when we're talking about me being up on stage, we talked about connecting with the audience, when we're talking about being on Zoom and being virtual, we're talking about connecting with our peers and our teams. But there seems like there's a bit of a disconnect, right? When you add different things in between those people, whether it's a virtual interface, in which we need to interact with, sometimes we forget about the other person on the other side of that Zoom call. So, how have things really changed between people? What are some ways in which we can counteract those changes?
Well, I think people are still really eager to connect. I think people are also, at least a few months ago, sometimes they're exhausted because they're in back-to-back meetings, and they're not getting that chance to stretch their legs and have that little moment of small talk in the kitchen, things like that. And so, I think we just need to make much more of a conscious effort to connect when we're in a virtual presentation, we're in a virtual meeting. One of the things I like to coach people on is connecting right away. So, we say connect early and often. For example, Ron, last week, when we were working on your virtual presentation, we talked about phase zero. Phase zero, I call is that, it's two to three minutes before you officially start a presentation, where people are logging in and you're welcoming them. So, Ron, you want to share what we talked about?
Yeah, absolutely. We spoke a lot about getting people acclimated to the environment. With I would imagine in-person, or even virtual, people are going to be coming in slowly and surely, like you said. They're going from meeting to meeting and if you're on a Zoom meeting, you might be two or five minutes late. So, having that welcome, but also a piece of engagement with the audience, or the people that you're on a virtual call with, having a talking point, something that you can learn from others, I think it's really good to just make sure that they stay engaged while they're waiting, but to also build that rapport and maybe even establish a little empathy and have others understand you for just something outside of the work that you do, or the content you're about to present.
Yeah, I think that's really important. And so, one of the things, that piece of engagement, like you mentioned, one is music. Music is huge. We use that a lot in those first few minutes because people are like, "Oh, this is kind of fun." Instead of that dead silence and, "Hey, we'll start in a minute. We'll start in a minute." Play music to break that awkward silence. You can also have a slide up that has a question or a poll, or put something into chat, just get them engaged in something right away. And of course, if it's a smaller group, you can do small talk, but even making a change in the small talk to be more specific and make a big difference. For example, if it's just, "Hey, how you doing?" Everyone says, "Good, how are you?" You're not really going deep. And so, let's say that it's more of a situation, not a presentation, but a group meeting, you could spend a couple minutes asking people the high and the low of their week, because that's very specific. Also, you'll learn what's going on with your colleagues. One time I did this with my team, and I learned that somebody had a death in their family, and what was interesting is, I noticed that her demeanor had changed over the past few weeks, but of
course, I was making it about me and thought that she was mad at me. And then, I realized, "Oh, she's just going through this thing," and because we're not having those hallway conversations and things virtually, it's important to make space for things like that and to be more specific in our prompts.
One thing that I have been challenged with over, I'd say, especially the last three years, because we spend so much time having deep conversations with folks, asking the deep questions, the vulnerable questions, that we don't really tend to talk about in real life. I'm not the best small talk guy. I know it's important. My wife tells me about the importance of small talk, and how you build rapport. But how could someone who isn't the biggest fan of small talk really reset and reframe small talk in a way that's valuable for them?
A couple of ways. One, to know that if small talk is awkward for you, just know that it's awkward for everyone. I mean, I'm a Communication Coach, and sometimes, small talk pains me, too. So, it's just accepting that, "Hey, it's not just me. It's not that I'm socially awkward, it feels weird for a lot of people." That's one thing that's helpful to me. The other thing is, if you want to be good at it, it's just being curious, asking questions like, "Hey, what's that in your background? That's a great painting," or in person, "Tell me more about yourself. Oh, interesting. Where did you go to school?" Asking specific follow up questions and just being curious, if you do that, people will never forget that you took an interest in them, it makes them feel good. So, that's really the key to being good at small talk, is just being curious. I dated for many years in San Francisco, and one of my pet peeves was when somebody asked me a question, and then would immediately interrupt, because they had something in common. I think the intention is good. For example, they'd say, "Okay, where did you go to school?" and I said, "UC Davis." "Oh, I have a friend who went to UC Davis," and now, the conversation has moved back towards them. Again, the intention is good, you want to connect and show that you have something in common, but just pausing, letting that person speak, asking some follow up questions, and then a minute later, you can say, "You know what? I have a friend who went to Davis as well," right? Does that make sense?
It does. Listening first, right?
Right, getting curious first, instead of thinking about what you want to say.
I would imagine that saying what you want to say and communicating with others also comes from confidence. Maybe some of the power that you have within, being able to use the body language, like you were speaking about, but also be presented in a way that's going to be inviting for others. I can only imagine, when we were all in person, that using your body language was one challenge, but now we have Zoom in front of us, so it's not just about our body language, which is still important from my eyes, but it's also about placement, eye contact, and I think those things are a little harder to do when you're remote. What have you found there to be the situation, but also some of the solutions?
It is hard. This is what I was saying, I struggled with so much the beginning. I think the most important thing is eye contact and finding that camera, really connecting with that camera as much as you can. So, on my team, we say 80-20 rule. So, when you're presenting, trying to look at the camera 80% of the time, or even 60 or 70, get as close to 80 as you can. And then, 20% of the time, you're breaking, you're picking up on cues, you're looking at someone's face, or if they look confused, or they have a question and then, you're coming back to the camera. But you're really finding that camera, especially at the beginning of your talking point, and even as you're listening. My colleague gave me feedback and he goes, "When you're listening, you look mad." When I was a kid, they'd call me "thundercloud" because my brow just furrows. I really have to make a conscious effort to look in the camera and nod my head and smile. That is awkward. And just again, that's knowing that it's not just awkward for you, it's awkward for everyone, and that doesn't mean it's bad, that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. It's just
what it takes to be an effective communicator online. So, eye contact is big. Another thing is using your hands. I think, Ron, the other day we were working on your story and weren't we getting you to be a little bit more animated?
Yeah, that's right, and it was funny because the camera was on my face and shoulders, but in order to show my hands, I had to lift them up a little bit higher.
I think you moved back a little bit from the camera, and it was fun because you were talking about one solution after another and how it gets so confusing. If you just say that in kind of a monotone way and there's no hands, we're not really getting the feeling of like, "Oh, and then there's this, and then on top of that, you add this." And so, seeing your hands come into it really adds a whole nother layer and makes it more fun, more interesting. There's actually research on TED Talks, and they found that the speakers who use more gestures are viewed by their audiences as more charismatic.
Hmm, that is interesting. You both nailed two of the things that I tried to do pretty often. Interestingly enough, probably a lot of people didn't know this, but I have a hard time thinking while looking at people. So, when I am presenting from home, I'm staring at the camera, I can think effortlessly, because if I'm doing an interview, I can completely engage in listening to what they're saying, really focus on the words, and then immediately, I can hop into thinking about whatever it is that I want to say in response. But I have a hard time when I'm looking straight at people, I'm sure Ron has seen it. When I'm on something like a Zoom, where I'm not looking at the camera, I might look down and away for a moment, so I can let my mind work. It's almost as if there's too much stimuli for me to really think cleanly. I'd be curious to see if you work with people like that. And then, the other thing that I'll mention is what you were just saying about the hand gestures, I really got into hand gestures. I try not to overdo it, but for some reason, it helps me nail a point. I use it to emphasize a point, or maybe a progression or
timeline, but I just tend to do that naturally. So, I guess my question is: Have you dealt with people that have those certain things about the way that they speak that you work with?
Well, it's great that you like to gesture, because there's also research on this and it shows that it helps people understand your ideas, because not only is there the auditory input, but there's the visual. They're getting two inputs instead of one. So, it's great. It's also charismatic and interesting. The only thing is that sometimes, people ask me, "Oh, well, you know, I'm Italian, or something like that, and I gesture too much and I got feedback when I was a kid to not use my hands." I think that's a shame because let's say somebody's Italian, they like to use their hands, that's good. That's what makes you you, and that brings personality. We don't want to squash that. We don't want to get into what I call presenter mode, where we're trying to be perfect. You want to be yourself and you want to be conversational. So, I say bring on the gestures. The more, the better. I mean, maybe if you're doing the same one over and over, you might want to change it up, but generally, gestures are a good thing.
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What about the habits? The habits that we have, whether they're good or bad? We're talking about hand gestures. One of the habits that I have, when it comes to presenting and speaking is saying, "you know." I listen back and I'm like, "Why did I say that there? I didn't even have a mention that was with the word you know, there was nothing that somebody would know." So, I'm not sure why I keep on using this habit over and over again.
We all do. I use "so" a lot. I think it's just to fill the space because we're not comfortable with silence. And so, that's why I like practice. I think practice is so powerful, because it's really hard, unless I mean, you two are speaking so much that you're in the habit, so you can probably turn it on pretty quickly. But for the rest of us, it's hard to go from 0 to 60 in our first meeting of the day. And so, I think warm up practicing, I'm always a big fan of practicing points, or practicing your presentation out loud. You're going to have a lot less fillers, if you do that. "You know," is better than "kind of," "sort of," "basically," "essentially." Those words I always trying to flag for clients and just try to fill them with silence. Just pause instead. But really, the first step is knowing what your filler word is and just trying to cut down on it. It's never gonna go away completely, but just trying to minimize it a bit is good.
That's one of those things that has It drove me crazy about my own speech. It used to be in, in the very beginning of the podcast, and there was a period where "you know" was my go to? And I remember Ron said, "Man, you did a double you know." I said, "You know, you know," and then went into whatever it is that I was saying, I just had this complete hang up about "you know," and sometimes I'll say "so," when it's not appropriate. I do feel like I'm constantly improving, getting better with the filler words. Is there any particular technique that you find to be valuable for folks that overuse filler words? How to get away from that, and slow their speech and their thinking to a way that they can control what they're saying.
A couple of techniques. I mean, none of them are rocket science, but they're effective. One is slowing down and just letting there be a pause after the sentence, instead of connecting the sentence with and, so, um. I think this is a great solution. The reason is, I mean, even if it sounds kind of stunted, it's much cleaner. So, pausing between sentences, shorter sentences. The other thing that's really effective is starting with your point because when we just start speaking, and we don't really know what our point is yet, we're speaking in a stream of consciousness. That's when we tend to use more filler. Pause, think about what your point is, and put your point first, that tends to really help. If you start strong, you start with your point, you're going to have less fillers. There are different structures that I teach my clients to use. For example, one of my favorites, for making a point is called PREP, it stands for point, reason,
example, point summarized.
I like that, and it makes me think of my own speaking engagements. I'm sure Chris is thinking of his speaking engagements as well. But it also makes me think about interacting and communicating with other team members, especially in my time as a cybersecurity practitioner. There will be times where I have such an amazing story to tell, a story about a hack unfolding within our infrastructure in our network, or a story unfolding where someone attempted something very bad, and I stopped them. But every time I would go to my stakeholders, my leaders, it was almost like it wasn't in the form of a story. And this is obviously a storytelling issue at this point, not necessarily a presentation, but what advice
would you have for myself, or anyone that has impactful details to share, but doesn't really know how to make it into a story?
Hmm. And so, what would happen when you would try to tell the story? Did you just feel like they didn't understand the impact or?
I got a perfect example. I would tell stories about the challenges of our organization and how we're struggling to secure it in many ways, but I would explain it from a technical perspective. I would talk about the solutions that we need to buy and the fact that these solutions have this feature and that feature, and they could help us do X, Y, and Z. I wasn't really good at really toning it down so anyone could understand it, not just the people that are very informed with the project and the technology and the industry. But what happens if my boss were to take this information and tell their boss? I don't think I really communicated in such a way to where it was a story that anyone could really consume and even share.
Yes, stories are interesting, because they are emotional. What makes for a good story is tension, emotion. We want to know what was going through your head during that security hack, what was the reaction, what was at stake, and that's not necessarily, on an everyday basis, how we're trained to speak at work. We use jargon, and buzzwords are optimized, and buzzwords for storytelling are terrible, because it takes you out of the story and makes it feel like now you're listening to a business pitch. So, it's tough because we're not used to communicating in that way at work. And so, I teach workshops on storytelling, and it's one of my favorite topics because it is a little bit of an art and it takes some practice, but it makes such a big difference. If you can start a meeting or presentation, or even in an interview— Let's say you want to hire somebody on your team, and you're able to share with them a really interesting story about what it's like to work at the company, rather than just saying, "Oh, I love it," but actually share a concrete story that could make that person choose your company. So, it's really, really important skill, and I'm guessing Ron, based on what you said, it was probably just because it was too technical and needed to be more emotional.
Yeah, that is the story of a lifetime. I feel like not just for me as a very technical practitioner of
cybersecurity, but even for people communicating their struggles and challenges at work, talking about deadlines and due dates. If someone were to miss a deadline or miss a due date, there's probably a big story that goes into why that was missed and what happened. We often miss that opportunity to share that story, to build relationships, develop empathy between ourselves and others.
Right, and maybe we think just because it's called a story, we feel a little self-conscious about this. I actually just coached a woman last week, and she started off her presentation, she wanted to do an exercise with a group, she was in HR, and she started off initially, before the coaching session, just saying like, "Hey, we're going to do this exercise," and started immediately giving the directions to it. I thought it was a little confusing, like she needed to give a big picture, use a story as a lead in as to why this is important, and we worked on the story. I thought it was great. I thought it made it really clear and it was interesting. And then, at the last moment, in the next coaching call, she said, "You know, I didn't tell the story. It's just not comfortable for me, I'm not the type to tell stories." I think a lot of people feel this way, a little self conscious, but I also think there are ways that you can tell a story that are
conversational. It doesn't need to sound like you're giving a TED Talk. There are ways to make it sound really natural. For example, you could say, "Last night, as I was preparing for this meeting, I was reminded about this experience I had two years ago." So, you can lead into that quite naturally, but it's hard. It takes practice, for sure.
One thing I am still in awe of, especially when you look at professions like stand up comedians, is just their ability to tell stories. Even folks that are those natural storytellers, you sit down, there might be a group of people, and they have everyone's attention and everyone is just hanging on every single word. I've improved my ability to tell stories, but I feel like I still have so far to go in being able to really captivate people with those stories. I know it's gonna take practice, but is there anything else that you've seen that really works in improving people's ability to tell stories?
Number one is there are storytelling shows all around the US that are amazing. Have you guys heard of The Moth? The Moth is NPR podcast, and they have shows in Atlanta, San Francisco, LA, New York. You have a theme, like let's say it's love, for example, and you have 10 people, they pull 10 names out of a hat, volunteers, and people go up there to tell a 5 or 10-minute story related to the theme. That's how I got into storytelling because, when I first started to teach presentation skills, I realized, like many people, I don't really know how to tell a good story. So, I started going to storytelling shows in Oakland and went to The Moth. I never got called up on stage, but it was through this practice of listening to other people's stories, crafting my own, that I learned what makes for good story. A couple things I learned from that experience. Number one, in terms of the delivery, is slowing down, because we get nervous, we just want to rush and this happened, and that happened, but those good comedians, the
really good storytellers, they're in the moment, and they're going slowly. So, that's something to practice that makes a big difference. The other thing is bringing in that emotion, that tension. What were you thinking? What were you feeling? In storytelling, we say show not tell. For example, I could tell you working from home is distracting, but showing would be, "Oh, the fire alarm went off, you bring all these songs live, my nine-month-old baby is crying mama in the other room." So, really bringing those things in, so people get like this appeal to their senses, and they can really imagine what's going on.
I love that. I think that's great advice for anybody that's looking to improve their ability to tell stories. But I would venture to guess there are several people that are listening to this podcast right now, and they don't know how to tell a story. They think, "I feel like my stories will fall flat. I don't want to tell jokes. I don't want to tell emotional stories," and they want to, but they feel like they can't. What would be your piece of advice for them to get out there, start telling some stories, and build that confidence that you know that they could have?
Well, there are a lot of resources for sure. They can email me and I'll send resources, there's
workshops, but The Moth, listening to that podcast, listening to stories, so there's lots of things that they can do that are low stakes. And then, just practicing with their friends, sharing more stories and being a little bit more vulnerable about how they felt and what's going on for them. That's great low stakes
Thank you so much, from the bottom of our hearts. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to hop on the mics with us. For all the people out there that want to stay up-to-date with you, your incredible practice, and everything you have going on in this incredible world, where the best ways that people can do that.
So, our website is LHCTraining.com, and they can also email me at Anne@LHCTraining.com.
Excellent, we'll be sure to drop your email and website into the show notes for everyone to stay up to date with view and it's been an honor to speak to you on the podcast and a pleasure to work together. And we'll be speaking together soon also. And with that, we'll see everyone next time. Bye.
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