Visual aids and crutches

Two of the best, most natural presentations I’ve given have been in the last two weeks – one of them I was coming off of 24 hours of travel and 3 weeks in India with a presentation (slides) but absolutely no real preparation; the other was a completely impromptu one hour talk with no supporting slides at all.

I think I made a mistake about a year ago in over-preparing for most of my talks – I ended up burying my personality, the spontaneous directions the talk could go, and my connection to the audience.  I couldn’t be more thankful for the friend who, about a year ago, cared about me so much that she walked straight up to me after a talk and said, “Sorry man, that just wasn’t that good.”

All of this made me think that I need to practice giving six different kinds of talks:

  • With and without slides
  • Scripted and unscripted
  • Rehearsed and unrehearsed

The food for thought part is:  if every talk you give has slides and is scripted and rehearsed, you might want to ask, “Are the slides there as visual aids, or are they a crutch?”  There are five other kinds of talks you can give.  And since nothing’s more attractive than earned confidence, why not start practicing these other kinds of talks today?

(and for those of you keeping track, yes I recognize that it’s hard to imagine a talk that is “without slides, unscripted and rehearsed” but I’m pretty sure you get my drift.  And while I’m adding postscripts, I’ll put one more reminder for me and for you: it’s never, ever better to read a script.)


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The power to mobilize resources

Remember that old, broken conventional wisdom about how fundraising works in the nonprofit sector– a few folks that sit in the corner while the rest of the people do the important program work over here?

Just the other day I was talking with the new class of Acumen Fund Fellows – as impressive a class as we’ve ever had – and I was struck with how important it is to strike at the heart of this destructive, outdated mindset.

What I shared with them (more emphatically than I or they expected, I suspect) is that for anyone, for absolutely anyone, who plans to make change by working in the nonprofit / social enterprise sector, the ability to mobilize capital behind your idea is one of the most important, most untaught, most underdeveloped skills around.

If you can get funding, you can set up shop, you can create breakthrough approaches that cut through the status quo, you can make things happen.

It’s ironic, actually, because in the high-tech world, successfully pitching a top-tier VC fund is fetishized even while the capital needed to launch technology businesses keeps decreasing.  Yet in the nonprofit sector where by definition we are in the business of addressing social issues in a way that the market is not – as it currently is structured – built to address, the ability to mobilize resources is downplayed in its importance.

So let me be as clear as possible: this is a skill required of all you who aspire to be leaders in our space.  We need you to learn how to do this because we need you to make lasting, large-scale change.

Please don’t put this off or think someone’s going to do it for you.  And please don’t think that just because you don’t know any really wealthy people that you can’t start working on this now.

The first shift you can make is to acknowledge that this is something you want to learn how to do.  That intention alone will unlock your potential, will set you apart from your peers, will set you down the path that you’re going to need to walk – and going to want to walk – sooner than you know.

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Willing and able

I had a professor once, a big fan of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who was emphatic about the limits of didactic learning.

“Try to learn how to farm from a book,” he’d say, “and you’ll discover when it’s better to learn from experience.”

It’s true, one cannot learn ANYTHING from a book (or from the web, or through online courses, etc.), but the number of things that you’re ABLE to self-teach is growing exponentially.

(I know you agree on some level, but to get this viscerally check out the Kahn Academy’s videos that explain EBITDA, the law of large numbers, 3-variable linear equations, or the Geithner plan.  This was built by one guy in his spare time.)

The pace of progress is hard to process, but I can’t help but notice, gathering dust on my bookshelf, a 15-year-old copy of German in 10 Minutes a Day, whose text exhorted me, unsuccessfully, to say “eeech seeche minuh koffer” (“I’m looking for my luggage,” in useless phonetics).  I threw in the towel after Lesson One because this was no way to learn a language – me alone with a book, sounding things out.

But if I wanted to try again, today, I could go online and have interactive, audio learning, repetition, playback that taps into the parts of my brain I need to activate to learn to communicate.  The excuse that I couldn’t learn German without going to Germany used to be true, and it isn’t any more  (and the same logic applies to understanding balance sheets and cashflow statements, DCF valuations, C++; Ruby on Rails; PhotoShop….you name it.  That means that the reason I don’t have a good working knowledge of everything on that list is because I choose not to).

If you’ve already gone to school, to college, through graduate school under the old system, getting your head around the new system requires a drastic rerientation.  The first thing to understand is that the barrier, for most of us, has silently shifted from what we’re able to learn to what we’re willing to learn.

Two conclusions:

  1. The value of deciding, of initiating, of self-directed action keeps on going up – because we have so much more leverage for each thing we decide to learn
  2. The value of things that only YOU can share and teach, things that someone cannot learn by themselves, has gone UP  – and your ability to share these things with everyone for free has gone up as well.  (And that’s a lot to wrap your head around too – a post for another day).

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For you, for me

For some folks, the fact that I blog is a semi-mysterious black box of cool, kind of like talking with a great English accent (if I had one). It is something people kinda sorta want to do before they talk themselves off the ledge instead of leaping.

When they ask me about it, here’s what I say: that I had no idea what I was getting into when I started; that it’s been harder and better than I expected; that I learn from every post that I write and from the things I hear back from folks; and that I’m absolutely positively sure that I would stop doing it if I didn’t have lots readers out there reading.

There are tons of great external things that come from blogging but what I get from it each and every day – even (especially?) on the days it’s hard – is already plenty of payback.

Each person reading is part of what makes this possible, part of what allows me to bring something into your day and mine.

So thank you, because I write for you but I also write for me.

And, with that in mind, what about you? Why not make today the day you leap into that thing you’ve been thinking about doing? Why not get up and spread the word about something that you love?

Whatever it is you’re thinking of doing, do it already.

No shortcuts

I vividly remember an end-of-year b-school class – my leadership professor asked the class where they’d like to be in 25 years.  Answers varied, but most sounded pretty lofty until one guy said what I suspect others were thinking: “This is all great, but I’m going to make as much money as I possibly can, then I’m going to buy an island and retire there.”

That wasn’t my dream, but I appreciated the clarity and the honesty.

The problem, though, arises after the first six months (or year?) on the island: then what?

I meet a lot of people who have had a great deal of financial success, and what I’ve found is that there’s a pretty low correlation between financial success and having a sense of purpose – that is, some people who are hugely financially successful have a great sense of purpose and passion; others don’t.  I can’t seem to find any greater or lesser tendency amongst uber-successful people in knowing why they were put on the earth.

As we all live (hopefully) longer lives, we will at some point have to start on the work of figuring our our passions, what we love, what inspires us.

My friend living on that island will be starting that work in 25 years.

You could start it today.

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A dollar fell out of my pocket today

A dollar fell out of my pocket today

while I was riding the subway.

A passenger tapped me and pointed to the folded bill

on the ground.

Meanwhile a homeless man was asking the car for money.

I looked at the dollar and realized it wasn’t my dollar.

So I handed it to the homeless man.

And I was left wondering.

Is it ever my dollar?

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Small changes, big changes

If you’re advocating for a shift, a new initiative that you’re pushing for from below, it helps to know what signs to look for (or not look for) as you gauge your progress.

In the beginning, any kind of new anything that’s not driven from the top will look like it’s not going anywhere.  With this knowledge in hand, it’s a lot easier not to give up.

Change from below can follow two paths, not three:

  1. You toil away at an idea that the organization never ends up supporting or adopting (or you give up before it does)
  2. You toil away at an idea, garner support and evidence and early wins, and the idea takes off

It’s 3 that gets us into trouble….the unstated assumption that if something’s going to get somewhere tomorrow we’ll see significant progress today in terms of the support we’re getting (funding, encouragement, approvals) and the external indicators of success.  Carrying this mental model around is the best way to ensure that you give up just when things are about to turn your way.

(by the way, the same thinking can be applied to work/salary/promotions, which often follow a step-change pattern when, of course, skills and responsibilities grow in a much more continuous way.)

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It’s so, so easy to look all around for advice – to ask people who have done this before, who have more experience, who appear more qualified.

And you should get this advice. You should research.  You should dive deep into all of the tacks you can take.

But don’t forget to ask – and give credence to – the most important person of all: you.  YOU are the person gathering the information, you are the person on the front lines, you  are the one seeing the whole picture, you are the one whose opinion matters the most.

There’s a fine line between asking what others think and being too concerned about making them happy – to your/your work’s determent. Remember, getting where you need to get isn’t the same thing as making your superiors/peers happy every step of the way.

So, WWYD – What would YOU do?

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Dispatch from Padrauna, India (Part 3)

[here are the links to Part 1 and Part 2]

My last night in Hyderabad, 100 people gathered at the Acumen Fund offices for an informal community event at which I and my colleague, Karthik Chadrasekar, spoke.  It’s always exciting to see such a large turnout and interest in our work, and I was struck particularly with the number of people I met who are working on entrepreneurial ideas to deliver power and light.

It’s not surprising, given the staggering numbers: 500 million people in India alone without reliable power (and 3 billion globally); 1.5 million deaths annually from indoor air pollution; and the poor typically spending 15% of their income on dirty, low-quality fuels – more than is spent on healthcare or education.

But of course all big solutions start at the beginning, not the end…with one system or pilot or idea that works so well that it is built to grow. And to make it all happen, you need the right person, or people, with a vision of how to make the impossible possible.

The idea behind Husk Power Systems came from Gyanesh Pandey who, together with his partner Ratnesh Yadav, began tinkering with renewable fuel solutions for the poor in 2002.  By 2007, Gayanesh and Ratnesh had settled on biomass as their preferred fuel source and had set up shop in the Indian state of Bihar, where Gyanesh is from.  Bihar is part of India’s “rice belt” so rice husk is abundant, as is poverty.

But no one had ever built an end-to-end system here that generates power and delivers it to villagers’ homes at an affordable price.

A Husk system (the brown stuff is rice husks)

Husk Power Systems began as an NGO, the Samta Samriddhi Foundation, that built one mini-system and wired the surrounding village.  The system uses rice husks to power turbines to create electricity, and the business model is powerful in its simplicity: create small-scale infrastructure (wires to thatch homes strung on bamboo poles); a predictable and reliable power supply from 6pm to midnight; and sell customers two CFL (compact fluorescent) bulbs at a price that they can afford.

Or, as it is sold to the villagers: the cost of electric light to your home (which has never been delivered in the thousands of years this village has been here) is 300 rupees for the connection (about US$6) and less than 100 rupees (US $2.50) per month.

Uptake has been swift.

In every village we visited, house after house after house was bathed in the cool blue glow of CFL lights.  Homes in villages that had been dark or powered by kerosene for thousands of years were lit up.  And not just some of them.  Nearly ALL of them.  80% or more of them in every village we entered.

Demand – for this product, with this reliability, at this price – is not an issue, which sets Husk apart from nearly all of the businesses that serve the poor in the developing world.

This helps explain the pace of Husk’s growth: they had two systems installed by the NGO by early 2008, and a little more than 2 years later they have nearly 50 systems serving more than 100,000 people and growing at an accelerated pace.  The plans to scale are aggressive, with the goal of reaching hundreds and then thousands of systems in the next few years.  And that will bring its own challenges – of acquiring more turbines and building and maintaining more systems and building the salesforce and collecting payments from customers and training thousands of mechanics.

But what I find so exciting is to see a business serving the poor with a core model that works so well, one in which promise of meeting a need is matching up with the reality on the ground – high demand , hugh penetration, and high satisfaction from low-income customers, with underlying economics that work.  Having seen hundreds of businesses around the globe that aim to do just this, I know how rare it is.

And if business solutions to poverty are going to work on any sort of scale – not just delivering products to some but addressing social issues at their root – we need to start asking ourselves this question of market penetration.  All too often we look at the company level and ask if it is selling enough at a low enough cost to make the business work.  This itself is hard enough.  But for so many social problems, large-scale change will only come when market penetration (even if the market is just one village) – for safe drinking water, primary education, sanitation, vaccines, maternal care, etc  – reaches 70%, 80%, 90%, even 100%.

It is this depth of adoption that will fundamentally alter the infrastructure of people’s lives.

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The other end of the line

[NOTE: more installments from my trip to Padrauna, India, coming soon.  If you missed it, check out Part 1 and Part 2 here]

I work at a global organization – my office is in New York and we have offices in India, Pakistan and Kenya.  Conference calls across time zones are an inevitability.  And with 9 hour time differences, someone (usually not someone in New York) is on the phone at an inconvenient time in an inconvenient place, trying to makes sense of and keep up with a bunch of voices half a world away.

The past 10 days I’ve been in India and have been on the other end of the line.  Not surprisingly, things feel pretty different.  For the best of these calls I was on a cellphone in a hotel lobby.  For the others I was on some combination of streetcorners, taxis, elevators and hotel rooms, sometime between 5:00 and 8:00pm.

Some thoughts on how to make things work better for people on the other end of the line:

  • The standard should be, for each topic, one person giving an update and a maximum of two comments/clarifying questions.  Not because people don’t have more to say or ask, but because this will enforce a level of discipline and make people set a higher bar on the things they say.
  • If you’re going around, asking everyone on the call to give an update, start with the people on the other end of the line, not the people in the room
  • Quick side conversations “in the room” are just impossible to follow for everyone else.  Not sure what to do here since jokes, laughs and stories are what make the world go ’round, but it’s tough when you can’t tell what’s going on.
  • Almost never ask a question just because you’re curious (versus you need to know).  When you’re sitting around a conference table with colleagues that you like, “curious” is fun and relaxing.  When you’re on the street, in a taxi, or just sitting there trying to get to the end of your day, a curious question often feels somewhere between unnecessary and disrespectful.
  • Experiment with having someone who’s not “in the room” lead the call.  It might not work, but at least you’ll see how the pacing and tone differ.
  • Be very active about “parking” questions and set a standard that this is par for the course…consider having someone be in charge of cutting off conversations

I wish the conference call services would add a feature allowing people on the line to vote “speed up” or “slow down.”  Imagine if the average sentiment were projected on the wall “in the room.”  Sure it would be distracting, but do that a couple of times and things will change forever.

This may all sound a little too grumpy, but things just feel different on the other end of the line.