Dupe and Mask

I came across this idea on the TED blog. It’s a concrete solution to the universal problem of writing slides with way too many words on them, and then reading them.

First, a quick review of presentation tips.

To start, never read your slides, ever. Everyone in your audience can read, so why are you reading for them? Reading your slides is the best way to get people to disengage, and it also disempowers you as the speaker—you want us to pay attention to you and to what you say, and you don’t want to fight it out with your slides.

Second, if you’re giving (versus sending) a presentation, limit yourself to six words per slide. Yes, six. If this idea is new to you, check out Seth’s famous post on Really Bad Powerpoint. I know you’re telling yourself this is impossible, that there’s no way you could write a whole presentation with six words per slide (and great images). But it isn’t: one idea per slide, described by a great image with up to six words, is possible and powerful. Give it a shot.

And finally, if you’re putting more than six words on a slide, and you’re not going to read them, what do you do? Here’s where the dupe and mask comes in. The example on the TED blog is of a busy webpage in which the presenter wants to focus in on just one thing – views of this talk, in this example.

 

 

 

 

 

You could do this for any busy slide, and it’s a visual reminder to only present one idea per slide. Even if you don’t literally gray out 90% of the slide in your presentation, dupe and mask is a preparation tool to figure out the one idea this slide is here to communicate. Plus, it’s a great way to remember not to meander around, jumping from circle to circle, and fall back into the trap of sort-of-reading it.

A final suggestion is to keep things moving. Limit yourself to 20 seconds per slide. I just made that number up. It might be 25, or 30. It’s not two minutes though, unless you’re telling us a story (in which case you have all the time in the world). By keeping your internal clock attuned to how long you’ve spent on this one idea, you’re more likely to keep your audience with you by maintaining forward momentum.

What this all boils down to is this: your presentation is about the ideas you’re here to share. Whatever visual aids you bring as support should accentuate and illustrate, but they are not the story. You are the storyteller, and we’re hear to hear what you have to say.

The What, the How and the How Long of Mastery

One of the reasons we don’t acquire new skills in the way we’d like is because, ironically, we take on too much.

It goes like this. We decide one day that we’re motivated to learn something new. Armed with a vague and imprecise understanding of the new skill we’d like to develop, we engage in an (often haphazard) mimicry of that vision. Then, after trying for a bit and seeing few tangible signs of progress, we give up, falling back on a familiar internal chorus of “change is hard” and “I’m never going to be good at this.”

That’s patently untrue. You could be great at this with a different approach.

One way to rewire our ability to learn and grow comes through a clearer understanding of the What, the How and the How Long of mastery:

What to focus on.

How that focus will manifest.

How Long it will take to master the skill.

What to Focus On?

“What” is a massive point of leverage. The most important “what to focus on” rule is to stick to very small things. These are the types of things that, lacking the skill we aim to acquire, we can still learn and master.

This feels counter-intuitive, because we’ve been wired to think about big changes and big skills. Naturally, we fight against the notion of committing to something small, believing it won’t add up to anything. Yet we take for granted that the flawless abilities of any master—musicians, athletes, writers, public speakers—are comprised of thousands of micro-skills brought together seamlessly. Why would it be any different for great people managers, great listeners, great analysts?

The truth is, the only way we learn is with tiny, incremental changes in small things, coupled with enough follow-through to have these small changes accumulate over time. The specific small things we focus on will depend on the skill we aim to master, but a good rule of thumb is to find the foundational skills that have the most connection to the other pieces of the puzzle and go from there.

How to Focus?

The “How” of successful skill acquisition is marked by consistency, concentration and presence.

Consistency is the most important: each and every day, in very small doses, is a far more powerful approach to transformation than once a week on Saturdays for two hours.

This can seem obvious, but we rarely sign up for 15 minutes a day for 30 days straight. We think “that’s not enough time to (write a book, learn to swim better, become more creative),” when, in reality, this sort of daily commitment is transformational.

We should spend these 15 minutes with full concentration and presence, sweeping away both obvious external distractions and the more pernicious internal (mental) ones that hurt us more.

We do this by cultivating the skill of deep mental focus, learning to redirect our attention, every time it gets pulled away, to the task at hand.  In this act of re-direction, we can remind ourselves to maintain an attitude of curiosity and good humor, rather than one of self-criticism. Think of it like a moving meditation, and gently bring your wandering mind back to the micro-skill you are working on.

How Long?

“How Long” is the doozy.

BKS Iyengar Photo Credit: Jack Cuneo Yoga

Early on in my yoga practice there was a pose I simply couldn’t do, called Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana: standing up, you grab your big toe of one foot, lift your leg and straighten it in front of your hip.

It was the second year of my yoga practice, and, in the midst of a yoga retreat in which, thanks to 4+ hours a day of practice, I could nearly do the pose, I quietly predicted that I would be able to do that pose in another year’s time.

That was 18 years ago, and I still haven’t pulled it off. While some of this mis-estimation was a failure of the right kind of commitment on my part, mostly I grossly underestimated how much further I had to walk on that journey.

“How long” is the silent killer of improvement: the gap between our expected and actual progress creates a cycle of self-criticism, reinforcing our original, fixed story of ourselves. “This is impossible, for me,” is untrue, but it taunts us daily as we soak in small failures.

Each of us needs to find our own way to banish this demon, but it helps to remember that these things truly take time (18 years!!), and to remind ourselves that the journey is the whole point.

With this in mind, today, we commit again. We find our 15 minutes. We focus on the one thing we’ve committed to. We remember that working on this one thing, today, is the only way to be sure that we are moving forward.

Stay the course.

 

Announcing the Launch of 60 Decibels

I have exciting news to share.

Today marks the start of a next chapter for me professionally: I’m launching a new social enterprise, called 60 Decibels, that I’ve co-founded with Tom Adams. Our goal is to reboot social impact measurement, to make it useful for people who are doing the work of building social businesses and NGOs. We want to help them serve customers better and, in so doing, create more social impact.

Our thesis is simple: understanding social impact should be based on listening directly to people.

60 Decibels will take forward the Lean Data approach, which was first built at Acumen to solve our own impact measurement challenge and has already been used by more than 200 non-profits and social businesses in 34 countries.

Imagine if we truly held ourselves accountable to the people that impact capital and philanthropy are meant to help, by systematically including their voices in how we assess impact.

(And, for those of you who don’t work in this sector, it’s worth articulating the counter-factual: yes, it’s true, today, when we ‘measure’ impact in impact investing, most of the time we don’t actually talk to the people whose lives we aim to improve. Crazy, huh?).

My belief is that if we can get this right, we have the potential to make a massive shift in the world.

Everywhere, the cracks in capitalism are being exposed. That’s leading to backlash against “plutocrats,” it’s creating waves of populism, and it’s generating calls, in some circles, for a new model of capitalism: one that creates wealth without being so extractive, one that balances the needs of shareholders, customers, suppliers, employees, and the planet.

But how are we going to put the needs of customers, suppliers, employees and the planet on more equal footing?

Our bet, with 60 Decibels, is that it starts with voice: that by listening better, and by amplifying voices that are currently left at the margins, we can create a system that’s more in balance.

The in’s and out’s of how I think we get from here to there is a longer conversation. (You can get a sneak peek here at the 60 Decibels website, where we’ve written a white paper that’s equal parts manifesto and social impact data). The short version is that 60 Decibels helps companies that are in the business of creating social change listen to their customers. We leverage the power of technology and mobile phones to make it easy to listen to anyone, anywhere, and hear from them about their lived experience. And we move fast, getting results in weeks (not months or years), because that’s the only way we’ll be relevant to the people doing the real work.

So, if you’re in the business of social change and have found social impact measurement to be challenging, burdensome, complex, or frustrating, let me know, maybe we can help.

And, if you’re wondering, 60 Decibels is the volume of human conversation.

So far, it’s been a lot of fun, it’s really challenging, and we’re just getting started. We have a team of 30 amazing people in the US, UK, Kenya and India and we’re working with customers all over the world.

And, in terms of this blog, I’ll still be here every week sharing what’s on my mind. I expect that, gradually, the content of the posts I write will shift slightly. That’s nothing new—it’s been happening since I started blogging in 2008, as my bullseye has moved from fundraising and sales, to generosity, to leadership and the work we all need to do to be grounded, effective agents of change.

A closing thought: in many ways, this blog is a chance for me to think out loud about the issues I find most important, most challenging and most meaningful. That exploration is an important part of my own evolution and growth. To the extent that I’m ready to take on this next challenge, that is due in no small part to what I’ve been able to figure out, week in and week out, through the dialogue that unfolds here on this blog.

None of that would be possible without you showing up and continuing to read and respond. So thank you.

Here’s to the next chapter. Thanks for continuing this journey with me.

Left Handed

I tweaked my arm last week, enough that it hurt to straighten it.

I spent a few days being left-handed: opening drawers, brushing my teeth, closing the zipper on my bag and my jacket.

It was a reminder of how we, repeatedly and unconsciously, favor things that are a little bit easier, that make us a little more comfortable.

Each of these micro-choices deepens the grooves we’ve carved for ourselves, reinforcing what comes naturally and erecting a slightly larger barrier that keeps us from strengthening a weakness.

Right-handedness is also: the food we eat, the TV we ‘need’ to watch, the social media that’s become part of our lives, the way we react to emotionally challenging situations.

Where do Blog Posts Come From?

I’m always curious how others come up with blog post, so I figured I’d share my approach after 11 years of blogging.

Being a writer of any sort means paying attention, and blogging has kept me on a constant, quiet lookout for moments of insight: a topic I find myself or my team struggling through, a conversation or article that touches on a bigger theme.

These sorts of moments happen unpredictably in all sorts of places. When they do, I jot them down. If I’m in front of my laptop, I’ll write a headline or a few sentences in Word. More likely, I use my phone to send myself a short email with the blog title in the subject line and a few notes. These emails are sketchy at best, and they’re occasionally frustratingly indecipherable. But they often are enough to go on as long as I get back to them quickly.

I go back to these sketches of ideas on the train to or from work. I dedicate 10-15 minutes to the first draft of each post. If things are going well, that’s enough time for a decent rough draft. Or, I discover that the idea isn’t a post after all, and I let it go.

I save these as drafts on my laptop, and at any given moment I have 10-20 drafts at various stages of doneness. I label them as drafts so they’re easy to find, and I’ll return to them from time to time. All of this happens in Microsoft Word.

The morning before my publish deadline, I read through near-finished drafts and find a post that feels right at that moment. This is a time of polishing. I cut as many unnecessary words as possible, especially qualifiers. I push for specificity in my language and try to breathe life into the points I’m making (not “trying to make,” which I just edited out) with specific examples. Ideally, I proofread, though I should do a better job of that by reading the whole post out loud.

Letting posts sit, as drafts, for a few days or weeks is the biggest change I’ve made to my approach since I started blogging. I made the shift when I shifted to fewer posts (1-2 / week) than I used to publish (3-4 /week). I’ve no doubt that posts are stronger thanks to this change, but ideally I wouldn’t have traded quantity for quality.

Nearly everything I’m describing happens on the train I take to and from work. I do my best writing first thing in the morning, usually at the beginning of the week when my head is clear. I mostly edit at night.

Having a place—the train—where I do the writing helps: whether it’s sitting in the same chair or the same train, putting yourself in the same location to write seems required for almost all writers. As Stephen King famously said, “This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon. Or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.” Exactly.

My last step is to put the posts into WordPress, do a final reread and make last tweaks, and I hit the ‘Schedule’ button.

The best part is, eleven years and more than 1,100 posts in, when I hit that ‘Schedule’ button I still have absolutely no ideas which posts will have a big impact and which ones won’t. That’s all part of the process, one that’s equal parts faith and commitment.

(As a bonus, if you’re specifically interested in becoming a blogger, this post has helped a lot of people: What I Talk About When I Talk About Blogging.)

Bringing Joy to our Jobs

I’ve written before about Total Immersion swimming. While it’s taught me a good deal about swimming, the bigger lessons are the Kaizen-based mindset that form its foundation.

Kaizen, a Japanese word that describes the idea of continues improvement, is an attitude we can apply to anything in life. For me, Kaizen is a mindset that is equal parts curiosity, self-reflection, self-knowledge, high standards, patience, and discipline.

To illustrate the thinking, here’s an excerpt from a Total Immersion blog post by TI founder, the late Terry Laughlin, that I got a few weeks ago. Swimming is, of course, just a placeholder:

Expect improvement. Most adult swimmers have become resigned to swimming year after year with little to show for it. A T.I. Swimmer’s goal should be Kaizen (continuous improvement) Swimming. Because swimming offers limitless opportunities for solving the UHSP (Universal Human Swimming Problem) and increasing self-awareness, you could continue gaining in Mastery for decades. I still make exciting advances every year, and still sense almost limitless possibilities for further improvement. The refinements I’m making are fairly subtle, but my capacity for fine distinctions in position and timing has increased steadily. My current focus is on greater relaxation, especially when swimming faster.

There’s so much to grab onto in this short excerpt:

  • The mindset of expecting improvement, rather than resignation to being stuck. It’s all too common in the workforce to resign oneself to no longer improving. Not only is this a depressing thought, it’s an enormous waste of talent and potential.
  • The notion of increasing self-awareness. I’ve found that self-awareness builds on itself. The more genuine curiosity and humility we hold, the more we discover.
  • “Gaining in Mastery for decades.” Imagine continuing to work on mastery, in something as deceptively simple as recreational swimming, for decades. Imagine applying this same mindset to other skills we hope to develop in life: listening, learning to apologize, being courageous, connecting with people, writing, public speaking, presence…
  • “Limitless possibilities for further improvement.” Terry sees learning at a micro-level, the tiny subtle improvements, as joyful. So often we think of learning and growth as painful, something we must endure, because it can be uncomfortable. Terry knows that learning often feels like struggle. The question is, what would it take for us to convert that struggle into joy?

Goldilocks Was Wrong

Freelancers know this best: most weeks feel either a little too hot or a little too cold.

When work is too light, when you’re in a dry spell, it can feel like the next right client may never come around. Fear starts to creep in.

“Maybe no one will ever hire me again. Ever.”

The worries (and the bills) pile up.

Then comes the deluge. When it rains, it pours, and there’s only one of you! You can’t keep up with all the work, you’re pulling late nights, scheduling clients two months out, handing them off to other folks because you can’t meet their timelines.

Non-freelancers, people with “regular jobs” with a weekly paycheck, have echoes of this experience. We often bemoan the heavy periods, when the work is piled up too high: we get frustrated at the extra hours, we over-experience the stress of looming deadlines. We long for our workload to be “just right,” but that feels perpetually out of reach given all the demands on our time.

Then, all of a sudden, things lighten up. A contract falls through, a program gets suspended, our calendars free up and our Inbox empties a bit.

This should feel great, but it causes its own struggle. We can’t seem to shift gears and find it hard to take advantage of newfound time to reflect and gain perspective. Instead of letting our soil rest and get replenished, we get restless and antsy. We long for the intensity, the thrill, the daily affirmation of being on the hook. All of this white space is, frankly, uncomfortable, as are the nagging questions that bubble up: why aren’t I on that big project, leading that important team, at the center of the action?

Goldilocks is a nice story, but there’s no “just right” bowl of porridge waiting for us.

Life, and our responsibilities, come in waves. Our job is float with the waves, instead of getting knocked around by them.

We do that, in part, through strategies—time management, good prioritization, the 80/20 rule, delegation—that smooth out the waves.

But most the answer is a mindset with psychological resilience built in. I’m reminded of a yoga teacher who would remind us that we couldn’t wait for everything to be just right in our lives before we made time to step on our mats—out job was to step on them every day. In the same way, our job isn’t to “cope” with this particular period (whether it’s an up or a down), our job is to see that this moment is every moment.

As important, it helps to remember that part of the problem is the very the idea that there’s a perfectly balanced day or week waiting just around the corner. This fable contributes to the gnawing discomfort and dissatisfaction we say we so desperately want to overcome.

You could get it for less

If you’re pricing right for your outstanding work, it will sound expensive to others.

After all, they’re not used to buying outstanding work.

This means that the moment you tell them the price, it will probably feel uncomfortable, both to you and to them.

It helps to remember that yes, it’s true, they could find another way to do this.

Maybe they could get some graduate students to do it for free.

Or find someone who’s just starting who is desperate for the work.

Someone on a website, somewhere, who does piece work at a seemingly-cheap hourly rate.

Or someone who can do just enough to make the problem go away, but who won’t fundamentally move things forward.

All those options are possible.

But for this work, at this standard, delivered in this way, it will cost this.

And it will be a bargain.

The Empathy Challenge

The challenge of empathy is that it requires us to overcome our own convenient mental shortcuts.

“He’s just disorganized.”

“She is so rigid.”

“They are biased.”

“They don’t care about disadvantaged people.”

These shortcuts are the opposite of empathy, which is defined as “vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” Surely someone else doesn’t feel they are disorganized, rigid, biased, or uncaring.

Our first step towards finding empathy is to see our mental shortcuts for what they are: they save us the trouble of seeing the world from someone else’s perspective, helping us box in and simplify another complex human being.

Our next step is to work to see and hear the story they tell themselves about themselves.

This story is, of course, a positive one.

“I am flexible, nimble and creative.”

“I am structured and diligent.”

“I’ve been around the block, and I’m not naïve.”

“I value hard work above all.”

What are the truly good, worthwhile things they are in favor of? What are the values they cherish?

Our empathy breakthroughs ultimately come when we understand the values someone else is fighting for.

We are all protagonists in our own story.

Mariano Rivera on Luck vs Skill

At the end of every How I Built This podcast, host Guy Raz asks his guests whether they’d attribute their success in building their business to luck or to skill.

Hearing that question, it’s hard not to think: how would I answer?

Listening to episode after episode, I looked forward to this question. Both answers seemed valid to me. Then, last week, I attended a benefit for Family Services of Westchester, a not-for-profit that supports the community in Westchester County, where I live.

FSW is a wonderful organization that does important work. However, like most non-profits, their benefit followed a familiar script: drinks, a seated dinner at 10-tops, a silent auction, and a litany of speakers all saying how humbled they were to be honored… It’s not fully FSW’s fault. This is what is expected, and meeting people’s expectations is an accepted way to grab attention to raise money and awareness for good causes.

Mariano Rivera Hall of Fame
Mariano Rivera in 2011. Photo credit: Richard Perry / NYTimes

Near the end of the event, it’s time for the guest of honor: Yankee relief pitcher and Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. I’m not a baseball fan, so I don’t know that Rivera was the first baseball player to be inducted unanimously into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I don’t have any expectations.

But when Rivera starts speaking, the mood shifts. He has a natural charisma that holds the room, an easy smile and a quick wit. Sports marketer Brandon Steiner, who is set to interview Rivera, walks up to the dais and spontaneously asked him if he’d auction off his watch and his tie for the cause. Without missing a beat, Rivera flashes a big smile, says yes, and runs the impromptu auction himself. The room is jovial, relaxed and engaged.

For all his confidence, charm, and sense of humor, Rivera shifts gears when he’s asked about what got him here. In response to how he stayed calm in big situations, where his famous 90+ mile-per-hour cut fastball came from, how he became one of the all-time greats, Rivera’s answer is the same. He is a religious man, and time and again he says, clearly and simply: he had been blessed by G-d, he is just the vehicle for this blessing.

There is something about the clarity and genuineness with which he says this. He isn’t boasting, grandstanding, or prostrating himself. He is speaking his simple truth. As noticeable, he does so in ways that don’t diminish his own struggles, hard work and perseverance. Yet the ultimate message is that he isn’t the hero of his story, he is a vessel for a bigger story.

Whether or not you’re a person of faith, I’d offer that there’s an old lesson to be re-learned here.

The successes that really matter are ones of good health, a loving family, the talents we’ve been given and the opportunities we’re lucky enough to come across. Whatever other successes we might pursue, and achieve, are built upon this foundation of good fortune.

Yet increasingly I worry that we’re living, in the United States at least, through the logical endgame of our national narrative of an individualistic, “meritocratic” society. As religious practice fades, as our communal ties weaken, and as technology feeds us stories that reinforce our worldview, more and more of “successful” people believe, deep down, that we’ve earned our good fortune.

What I saw in Mariano Rivera was the power of faith of any kind, and the truth that if we’re successful by any conventional measure, we probably have been outstandingly, undeservedly lucky. I also saw in the way Rivera told his story that there is no necessary trade-off between gratitude and agency, no need to diminish ourselves as we acknowledge that we are small players in our own story.

The best part is this: the moment we let go of our story of deserving what we have, we find greater ease in connecting with others, in giving thanks, and in doing what we can to rebalance the scales.