Your voice

Seth recently shared a great response to all the people who say they’re going to be the next Seth, rightly exhorting folks to get busy being their best selves instead.

But how do you find your own voice?

We all stand on the shoulders of giants – people whose ideas we are building on, whose lessons we are working to learn, whose path has inspired us.

For a while, I think, we have no choice but to internalize, and at times mimic, the voice of those we admire, trying on constructs or phrases or ideas for size. If done honestly, without claims of being the next anything, it can be constructive, a process through which we play, we practice, we experiment…and in so doing we discover the ground we would like to stake out for ourselves. It’s the intersection of where we know the most, care the most, and have something to say that adds to the conversation.

It can be an awkward process. We see people who are great at what they do – especially great communicators – and can’t help but fault ourselves for not being as great as they are (never mind they’ve usually been at this a lot longer – you’re seeing the fully formed version of them, and you’re just starting out). Why don’t we do it the way they do?

It’s because their voice is theirs. You’re not ever going to do it the way they do because you’re not them. This is why you will never BE the next them; you can only be the best you.

Learn from them, walk in their shoes and down their path for some time. And in so doing discover your own gait and your own way forward. Someday, all that will be left of their voice in yours will be lines that start, “A mentor of mine used to say….” These are the crisp encapsulations of your own guideposts, how you navigate and explain your own orientation in the world.

Take the time to discover your own voice. And be patient with yourself. It takes a while.

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Classical or jazz?

Is storytelling more like classical music or jazz?  Is there a grouping of notes and turns of phrase that you hone and deliver, or just a rough outline and a sense of where you’re going, with lots of improvisation along the way?

A few months ago I was lucky enough to participate in a (surprisingly useful) communications / storytelling workshop. The workshop was led by two people: a political consultant who works with politicians on their public speaking; and a former stage actor turned coach.  One of the most interesting parts of the workshop came when the political consultant described his recent work with a local politician who was, in the consultant’s words, one of the worst public speakers he had ever met.

The genesis of this conversation was a question: whether it was more effective to have a single story and stick to it, or to have a stable of stories and pick and choose from those stories depending on the person you’re meeting/the group to whom you’re speaking.

My bias is to do the latter – I just cannot have a genuine conversation, nor can I be genuine, if I am giving what feels like a canned speech.

Hence my surprise at their response, that the “one story” approach often works better.  In the particular example of the politician and his political campaign, they worked with him to develop exactly ONE stump speech that he delivered, word for word, at virtually every public speaking opportunity.  The only difference was the ask at the end: for voters, he asked them to go to the polls, to bring their friends to the polls, and to vote for him; for donors, he asked them to give, to ask their friends to give, and to vote for him.  Apparently it worked like a charm, and audiences would laugh and applaud and respond at all the same points in the speech, each and every time.

Even imagining this makes me feel pretty cynical.  Part of the reason that politicians are generally not trusted is the sense that they will say anything to get an outcome.  On the flip side, it is interesting to look at the extreme take on a situation (tell one story, tell it well, hone it to perfection) and see if there’s something to learn there.

I agree that I need to have easy access to a few stories that consistently get my message across, since the message is the point and the stories are enablers.  I need to have enough opportunity to play with and test and experiment and refine these stories to understand how and why they work in communicating my message.  This takes time, work, practice….repetition.

(To go far afield for a minute, say you’re interested in getting people to wash their hands as part of a broader hygiene campaign.  You have to test and know which messages work, which ones are memorable, which ones get people to act differently.)

It’s no different with your stories.  Your goal is to communicate and connect, and the people to whom you are speaking are listening to you because they want clarity, understanding, and inspiration.

So how much is classical and how much is jazz?  What’s worked best for you?

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Honey, did you hide the Sample Copy button again?

I don’t know for sure, but I’d venture to guess that, given the near-extinction of the VCR, the copy machine has captured the title of Consumer Electronics Product that Most Makes People Want to Scream.

Today, two and a half years after I first used the copy machine at work, I noticed a tiny prompt in the LCD display asking me if I wanted to do a “Sample Copy” before making copies of a single sided document that I wanted to turn into 10 double-sided copies.

Now this is a great idea!  This way I get to see if my copies collate wrong; if I inadvertently clicked the “2 sides → 1 side” icon instead of the “1 side → 2 side” icon; or if the copy gremlins will stop the copy halfway through.

I go for it.  I hit the “Sample Copy” button, it makes one copy, and everything looks great.  Plus, a big question comes up on the screen saying, “Continue to make the remaining 9 copies? (Yes/No)”.  Yes!  9 more beautiful, double-sided, collated copies.  Mission accomplished!  A certifiably delightful copy experience.

This is brilliant.  Small swaths of forest could have been saved had I discovered this little button two years ago.

So why didn’t I find it sooner?  Because the darn copier has so many whiz-bang options for each copy, and it leaves it up to me to figure out which features are going to be most useful to me.  The message missed for me the first 50 times I used the copier.  That’s a design blunder if I’ve ever seen one.

It’s so easy to make the mistake of telling someone everything you know about something in the hopes of getting them as excited as you are about the story.  Don’t be like the copy machine designers and fall into this trap.  The person you’re talking to (one on one, in a group presentation, on your website, in a job application, on your blog) doesn’t live and breathe this stuff every day.

Instead, tell people what they need to know with the right level of information, detail, and complexity to meet them where they are.  Know what point to raise up in big, boldface letters , so that they hear your message the first time, and not two and a half years after they first meet you.  Be relentless about what you cut away.

(Oh, and don’t forget that at least some of what you need to put in boldface will be different for every person and group you meet.  That’s where things get really interesting.)

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20 tips for job seekers

Now more than ever you must put your best foot forward when applying for a job.  The trap is falling into “job mode” and thinking that somehow churning out a standard resume and a standard cover letter is the answer.  It’s not.  Your goal is to make a personal connection with the person reading your application, to use your application as a chance to tell your story.

How to do this right is not the focus of today’s post.  This one is about error avoidance: here are 20 things not to do on your next job application.  And while this post is meant to be lighthearted, these are all very common and very avoidable real mistakes people make.

  1. Ignore the instructions in the job description – late submissions are a plus
  2. Hide your personality, especially in your cover letter
  3. Make sure 2 out of every 3 sentences in your cover letter start with “I”
  4. Make spelling and grammatical mistakes
  5. Write such a long cover letter than you have to shrink the font down to 8 point to fit it on one page
  6. (And do this with your resume too!)
  7. Refer often to “how much you bring to the table” and “how this job is perfect for you”
  8. Lie or exaggerate
  9. Use fancy, crazy fonts – cursive is a bonus
  10. Write a really long resume…4 or 5 pages to show how accomplished you are
  11. Misspell the recruiter’s or the organization’s name
  12. Append titles to your resume (John Smith_nonprofit resume.doc), to make it clear that you’re applying for jobs in multiple industries
  13. When describing yourself, both on your resume and cover letter, refer mainly to tasks.  Steer clear of concrete accomplishments
  14. If there are gaps in your employment record, don’t explain them.  Instead, assume the person reading the application won’t notice
  15. Describe yourself as “uniquely qualified”
  16. Try not to refer to the organization and its strategy and needs.  Instead, keep the camera focused on YOU.
  17. Never use bullet points or summarize your experiences in a pithy fashion.  Rather, assume the person reading your resume has 5-10 minutes to spend piecing together your experiences
  18. Create a generic list of widely shared skills to describe yourself
  19. Use jargon and acronyms as much as possible
  20. If your experience is different than what the job calls for, don’t make clear that you know that.  And definitely don’t try to explain why your untraditional background could translate well for this role.

(this post was heavily inspired by 19 Offensive Presentation Techniques on paul’s blog.  The bonus there is the link to a wonderful lecture by Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen.  In fact, to continue the thought from today’s post, you might want to check out Garr’s post from Monday about how to land The Best Job in the World.  Applicants for that job don’t send in a resume and cover letter; they get 60 seconds to make a video pitch.  As Garr astutely points out, “Remember: the goal is not to land a job in the one-minute video presentation, the objective is to state your case (or make your pitch) and make a connection in such a way that you can land one of the interviews.”

So here’s the question: is there a single substantive difference between the dream job 60 second pitch and every other job you apply for?  I didn’t think so.)

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Which way to Newark?

I was walking up 6th Avenue around 26th street last night, talking to a friend on my cellphone.  A guy pulled over in a black SUV, rolled down the window and called out, “Hey, excuse me, can you tell me, how do I get to Newark airport from here?!”

“Hey,” I interrupted my friend on the phone in mid-sentence.  “A guy just pulled over and asked me directions to Newark.  I’m 26th and 6th.  The Holland Tunnel, right?”

“Right.” he said.  “I think he can drive straight down 6th and he’ll see the entrance at Canal Street.”

I told the driver, “Go down about two kilometers,” (he seemed European), “at around Canal street you’ll see signs for the Holland Tunnel.  Take the tunnel and follow the signs for Newark.”

“Thanks a lot,” he said, with a smile on his face.  “Straight on and to the Holland Tunnel, right?”

“Yes,” I said, turning back away to return to my phone call as the guy started to roll up the window.

“Excuse me, sir!” the driver shouted again, “Can I ask you another question?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“You see, I have to catch an 11:20 flight back to Italy. I was here for Fashion Week and I’m just going back.  I’m a designer and I was working these past two weeks at the shows and now I’m heading home.  So I know this might sound a little crazy but I’ve got all I can carry – you know, free stuff that you get at the shows, Valentino and Armani – and if I take it home I have to pay tax on everything I bring back.  $1,200 in tax, and I don’t need the stuff, I’ve got too much.  I wanted to give this away to someone because it seems crazy for me to bring it back home, and you seem like a nice guy.  Really, normally I wouldn’t do this, but are you interested in a suit or a jacket?”

“Hang on one sec,” I said to my friend.  “This is getting a little weird.  I’ll call you back,” and I hung up.

The driver backs the black car in front of the fire hydrant where I’m standing, and steps out onto the curb.  He’s dressed in black from head to toe, in casual but elegant clothes.  He opens up the back door, and the car is spotless and has a few designer bags on the floor and on the leather back seat.  “Here, let me show you these coats,” he says, “What size are you?”

He pulls back the wrapper, hands moving expertly up and down the lapels.  The whole thing is very casual.

“You know, this coat retails for $2,000, and this one for $1,800, and I’ve got a Valentino suit here.  I don’t even want to make any real money on these – I normally wouldn’t even do this,” he says, pulling a small stack of $20 bills out of his pocket, “I don’t need the money.  I just figured I don’t need these and you seem like a nice and helpful guy.  And if I could pay just for my rental car I figure we both come out ahead,” he says, showing me his $800 rental receipt from Budget Rent a Car.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

You can see where this is going, right?  It seems obvious in retrospect, but the delivery was good in this small-scale scam.  Fortunately I picked up on enough signals (the suggestion that I could go to an ATM to get some cash) that I eventually walked away.  But I’d been pulled in enough to hear the story, and I’m pretty sure I’m not a rube.

Why did this guy get my attention?

My guard was down because he had engaged me as a helper, brought me in to help solve a problem he had (getting to Newark).  So from the outset I’m feeling pretty good about myself.  I’m the Good Samaritan who disproves the New Yorker stereotype.

Then, almost casually, he presents an opportunity.  But he doesn’t really care that much either way.  He doesn’t need the money.  And, as the story unfolds, I get just enough concrete facts to make the story hang together: touching the coats and seeing their designer labels; his Italian passport, his ticket to Italy, his receipt from Budget Rent a Car.  The car is spotless, and has some designer bags in it.  And every time I started to doubt him he was more open and acted more like someone who would never do this, someone who was totally honest and just found himself in a stupid situation, with a bunch of designer clothes he didn’t need that would cost him $1,200 to take home.

My point is, if this guy could get even five minutes of my attention it’s because he knew how to weave a good yarn.  Storytellers are everywhere, and they spend a lot of time perfecting their craft.  Stories themselves are not good or bad.  They’re just a tool.

This guy reminded me that everything you do is part of your story.  How you dress, how you speak, how you shake someone’s hand, what your office looks like, where you meet someone for lunch, the thank you note you write, your email signature, your credentials, your photograph on Twitter, even your name.  These are all processed in real time and filed away by your audience.  They serve as shorthand for your listener, a way to understand who you are and decide about the credibility of what you’re saying.

Once you start thinking hard about stories, you see them everywhere.  Our brains are wired to find them engaging, so it’s easy to get drawn in to almost any story (Reread the first half of this post.  It’s not great writing.  It just says, “He did this, then he did this, then he did this,” and that simple sequence can keep you engaged for quite a while.)

Compare this to how we tend to speak and write about ourselves (especially in the nonprofit sector).  Think about the last presentation you gave, the last meeting you had, the last time a friend asked you what your organization does.

Did your second or your third sentence start with the words, “For example?”  If not, it’s time to start thinking harder about your story.

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What stories do you tell yourself?

“I’m bad with computers.”

“I’m too busy to exercise.”

“I’m no good at math”

“I don’t really get…what a 401(k) is, how mortgages work, why people Twitter, what’s going on in Afghanistan, why people blog.”


Stories do more than describe the world.  They define it too. 

You get to chose the stories you tell about yourself. 

Want to change your life?  Change your stories.

You too can be Hans Rosling

If you’re interested in the visual presentation of information, you should already have seen Hans Rosling’s TED talk titled “Debunking third-world myths with the best stats you’ve ever seen” from 2006. If you haven’t, go check it out.

What’s incredibly cool is that Google docs will now let you create Rosling-inspired motion charts here.

So, for example, you could create a motion chart like this one that shows the relationship over time between the housing price index and the unemployment rate; or this one that tells something (I honestly can’t explain exactly what) about trends in the top journals.

To me, the lessons here are:

1. Hans Rosling is a genius AND an incredible story-teller

2. The fact that Google is making these kinds of tools available is just one more reason (along with free, simultaneous collaboration) that Google docs may just obviate Microsoft Office in 2-3 years’ time

3. Just because you have the tools doesn’t mean you should use them.  In truth, neither of the two examples I’ve linked to in this post passes my litmus test of making a clear story out of complex data.

Nevertheless, the tools are fun and worth exploring.  Enjoy.

Example of a motion graph on Google docs

Obama and McCain repeating themselves

I’ve made every effort to steer clear of the Presidential race on this blog, but I couldn’t resist this one.

There’s no doubt that to tell your story to millions of people, you’re going to have to repeat yourself a lot.  But I’ve never seen this point illustrated quite so vividly.  Check out this mash-up of both Obama and McCain repeating themselves (over and over and over again) in the three Presidential debates.  Enjoy.

(Oh, and please go out and vote next Tuesday.)

Johnny Chung Lee’s Wii remote hacks and the power of sharing

Johnny Chung Lee figured out a way to turn a normal computer display into a close approximation of a virtual reality screen.  He also knows how to create an interactive whiteboard – which typically cost more than $1,000 – for $60 in parts and a little software code.

So what does he do with this information?  He shares it.  His video about a computer display has been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube.  More than 700,000 people have downloaded the software for making an interactive whiteboard, and a “Lego robotics club” of 5th graders (isn’t it great that such a thing exists?) built one in 4 hours.

Before you finish reading this post, do yourself a favor and DON’T file this away into the “computer geek” section of your brain (along with Linux, etc.).  Why can’t (and shouldn’t) this be the approach for all great innovation — especially in the nonprofit sector where resources are scarce?

Mr. Lee is quoted in yesterday’s NY Times asking, ‘”Would providing 80 percent of the capability at 1 percent of the cost be valuable to someone?” If the answer is yes, he says, pay attention.’

Imagine if every great innovation in fighting poverty, in hospital administration, in public schooling or early childhood education were open-sourced.  Wouldn’t we all be a lot smarter and more likely to focus our attention on models that work?

I posted a manifesto the other day making the same point as Mr. Lee: that the innovation, the insight, and the direct impact matter; and that sharing that innovation with others matters just as much.

I think I’m posting one of Johnny Chung Lee’s lines at my desk: “If you create something but nobody knows, it’s as if it never happened.”  Get out there and spread the word.

(And if you have 5 minutes to be amazed, watch Johnny Chung Lee’s demonstrations on the TED website).

The Body Shop: when stories fall short

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve been given a serious factual correction by Michael, the Brazilian fixer who worked for the photgrapher on this shoot.  Please see his comment below.  Bottom line is he’s right and I was wrong in jumping to conclusions.

It turns out this girl is not a model, she is a person who works on picking nuts that supply the Body Shop in Maranhão, Brazil.  So I was wrong here – I figured she was a model and wove a whole story around that.

Personally, I still have some questions about this choice of image and the decisions around this campaign, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that I missed the mark on this one.  Thanks to Michale for the correction, and lesson learned for me that there tearing others down is not the right way to make a point.

I’ve edited my post somewhat.  I still stand behind some of the points, but more importantly I think it’s only fair to leave up what I originally said — lesson learned on this one, though.]

I’m beginning to think that outdoor advertising is the lowest rung on the external communications ladder.

Yesterday I came across this terrible ad.  Here’s a storytelling 101 suggestion: when you think your story is done, step back, look at it, and repeat it in 10 words or less to someone who’s never heard it before and who represents the people you are trying to reach.  See what they say; ask them if the story makes sense to them.

So what is the (very low quality…sorry) “hand selected naturally!” image trying to say?  Presumably that this woman had something to do with the hand selecting of the natural ingredients to your Body Shop products, and that this makes them more real, natural and authentic. [In fact she did, according to Michael’s comment, below.] Problem is, look at the woman — down to her designer short jean shorts and her $75 woven basket.

The image is so far off that it is borderline offensive.  There are hundreds of millions of people out there who make their livelihoods in agriculture, and I’m sure many of them sell to the Body Shop.  But somehow the Body Shop was unwilling to go all the way to authenticity in this campaign and with this image — finding actual Body Shop producers and telling their stories — and the whole house of cards comes crashing down.

The irony here is that people who buy at the Body Shop and who are passionate about the Body Shop  are going to notice exactly this kind of thing.  The brand was once about authenticity, natural ingredients, and our interconnected world, and it attracted educated consumers who likely care about things like the environment, the well-being of producers, and poverty in the developing world.

I guess it’s not surprising that this once-authentic brand has gotten so watered-down within L’Oreal that it’s lost all of its distinguishing charateristics — and the passionate followers who once made this brand great are gone as well.