The blanks

Compared to you, the people you’re communicating with (customers, colleagues) don’t have the whole story. They don’t know each and every detail, they can’t see every tiny nuance.

How could they? They aren’t you.

What they have is the information they get from you, and a whole lot of blanks.

Most of these blanks get filled in by things outside of our control: their worldview, their filters, the mood they’re in that day. But some of them are filled by the story they tell themselves about our product or about us. And the last few are empty for no good reason, because we’ve not communicated the right things to them in the right way.

This means we have two jobs.

First, and always, to communicate better, with more empathy about what the world looks like from where they’re sitting and more specificity about what we want them to feel, believe and do after they hear from us.

And second, to remember that each time we communicate, we’re doing so on two levels:

On the level of what we say, we are transmitting information, content and meaning.

On the level of how we say it, we are building out the scaffolding that they’ll use to fill in future blanks about us: future expectations about who we are, our personality, our intent, and how much we can be trusted.

Think of it as two stories: the one they’ll remember today, and the one that will inform how they fill in the blanks tomorrow.

 

(Speaking of blanks to be filled in: welcome to all of you who just showed up thanks to Seth Godin’s blog post on Wednesday. I’m glad you’re here and thanks for subscribing! And for those of you who didn’t see that post, you might want to check out a few other blogs Seth recommended: Gabe, Fred, Bernadette and Rohan.

As Seth mentioned, this blog has a backlist of more than 1,000 posts on all sorts of topics including storytelling, generosity, fundraising and sales, social change, leadership, and a lot more. Mostly, posts are a mirror of what’s on my mind, ideas I’m working through, and ideas and advice that I’ve found (or, more often, am still finding) useful.

These days, you should expect 1-2 posts per week in your inbox, so if you’re not getting them check your spam filter.

Comments are welcome, sharing posts with friends is a gift, and if you want to reach me I’m easy to find: sashadichterblogs@gmail.com)

 

It’s alive

For your next sales-and-storytelling practice session, try this.

Think of your favorite popular song, one that everybody knows. Then tap out the tune on the table with your hand, and have the rest of your team go around in a circle and guess what the song is. Try it a few times and see how many times the song gets guessed.

How’d it go?

The answer is: terribly.

You can’t guess a song by just hearing the rhythm. But even so, when you’re the person tapping that “tune,” you can’t help but hear the song in your head. Nor can you help wondering (just a little bit) “why don’t they hear it too?”

This is your storytelling problem in a nutshell: you can see something that your audience can’t.

This something has a color and a smell and a texture, it is just about to burst with feeling and emotion and meaning.

Picture it.

Your stories need to help us see what you see. As your audience, we are begging you to paint this living, vibrant thing for us, to help us see what you see so we can feel what you feel. Let us, first, experience its texture and shape and possibility.

That’s your one and only job at the outset.

Once that’s complete we have a real, shared conversation about whether and how to make that picture come to life.

Seven Words

“I’m going to tell you a story.”

This was the first thing Acumen Fellow Aaron Kirunda said last week in a talk I heard him give at Acumen’s Partner Gathering.

Upon hearing those words, the audience leans forward a little bit, they relax, they open up. Because everyone loves a story.

Aaron’s story was about enjuba, his Ugandan organization that provides literacy training to 1.5 million Ugandan kids, anchored around hosting spelling bees. But that’s not where he begins.

He begins by telling us about two children who grew up in a Ugandan village. One of those boys dropped out of school, he never learned to read, he ended up cutting sugarcane, and he eventually struggled with alcohol abuse and parenting multiple kids out of wedlock.

The other boy, his friend, also had trouble completing primary school, but he had a mother who read the Bible to him and his brothers every night. That boy was fascinated by that ritual, of the family gathered together around a dim light and his mother’s own storytelling. He dreamed of one day being able to read that Bible, and eventually he did learn to read, as did his brothers. This reading ignited his passion for education, and he ended up being the best student in his district, which opened up doors to Uganda’s prestigious Makerere University and eventually to the London School of Economics.

This boy eventually made his way back to Uganda where he started up an organization to pass on the gift of reading to more kids like him and like his friend. This boy’s name was Aaron Kirunda. The organization he found was enjuba, which means sunshine. Seven years after he founded that organization, he came to New York to share his story, and I was lucky enough to hear it.

The reminder here is: I didn’t take any notes on this presentation, and I didn’t know Aaron’s story in this way before that night. But because he told me a story, I listened. And because it was a story, I not only stayed engaged, I remember it effortlessly a few days later. That means it stayed with me, so I can carry it around and reflect on it and contemplate its meaning.

The reminder here is: we want to listen to stories.

They keep us engaged.

They have a beginning, a middle and an end.

This makes them easy to remember – both their content and the lessons they contain.

So, it is our job as people trying to make an impact to tell stories all the time. Not just when we’re in front of a room of people doing “a presentation.” All the time.

These seven powerful words, “I’m going to tell you a story,” whether spoken or implied, can and should be used anywhere. The story can be about a challenge we once had at work, what it felt like when we heard hard feedback for the first time, the lead-up to an insight that hit us over the weekend, or a yarn about a friend we knew who also struggled for nearly a year before putting down roots in a new place.

“I’m going to tell you a story” is the beginning of a conversation that people will remember.

If they remember, it might change them.

If they forget, it definitely will not.

What’s it worth

At some point in every negotiation, the conversation turns to price.

Sometimes this is straightforward. It’s been discussed all along and you are formalizing what everyone expects.

And sometimes, a new prospect will come at you with some version of, “We really want to do this, we just can’t make it happen at this price. Could you do it for less?”

Can you?

Well yes, you always can do it for less.

But should you?

There might be good reasons to do it for less. The work is interesting and important and will allow you to grow. It will open new doors for you and your firm. You have available resources (time, people) that otherwise would lay dormant.

But if the price you’ve offered is one you’ve been paid before, and if clients keep coming back for more and referring new people to you, this means that, at the price you initially offered, the one you’ve been asked to lower, your work is a bargain: you’ve been delivering a lot more value than the price you’re charging.

What’s challenging is how uncomfortable  the “can you do it for less” moment is. The tension in the silence that follows this question makes you want to make the discomfort go away, which you can do by negotiating against yourself.

“Maybe,” you think, “this time I’m wrong.”  “Maybe, this time, my work isn’t worth it.”  “Maybe this client will get away and……..”

And what, exactly?

And there will be another client tomorrow. This client will see what you’re worth, be willing to pay that amount and, in doing so, will get be getting a bargain relative to what you’ll deliver.

Don’t uncut yourself, and certainly don’t apologizing for asking for what you deserve.

Instead, you might offer: “I’m confident that at the price we’re discussing, you will get more than you’re paying for.”

Then, when she ultimately say yes, it’s up to you to do something magical, which is exactly where you want to be.

How to avoid hiring a consultant for the wrong reasons

Before spending money on a consultant to solve an important problem, ask yourself what would happen if:

Everyone on your team set aside 8 hours to work on this problem.

You all agreed that this work is more important than the other urgent things going on, so you’ll honor that time commitment.

You empowered someone on your team to be the ‘consultant.’ This person has free rein to use the allotted 8 hours of each person’s time as she sees fit.

Those 8 hours can be used for prep time, for meeting time, for brainstorming time.

Those 8 hours have a new set of ground rules, some of which push against the established culture of your team or organization. Cultural boundary-pushing looks like: asking un-askable questions, naming established assumptions, noticing the many elephants plodding around the room.

It’s expected that some of those 8 hours are spent generously reaching out to smart, helpful people at just the right moment to see if 15 to 30 minutes of their wisdom could get you unstuck.

Once those 8 hours are used up, the results will be shared, along with no more than three recommendations for what to do next.

At an agreed-upon date, those recommendations will be discussed, decisions will be made, actions will be taken and resources re-allocated based on that decision.

I’d bet that in 90% of the cases the above exercise gets you better results faster, for much less money, than hiring a consultant. And, better, yet, if you still decide that you need a consultant it will be for one of the only two good reasons to hire one:

  1. The consultant is a scalable resource: the amount of time required to do this work really is more than what your team can spare.
  2. The consultant has unique skills or resources not possessed by your team, and you need those skills to get the job done. These skills could be creativity or design. They could be skills in managing group dynamics and creating space for important conversations. They could be the skill of teaching things your team needs to learn.
  3. There is no third reason, because most of the time you’re hiring a consultant so they can bring the discipline to focus on an important problem. But you don’t need to pay a consultant to do that, do you?

The right reaction to a mistake

I come from a family of musicians and have played classical piano all my life. So, naturally, all three of my kids play too. It’s not always easy, because unless they practice regularly at home, they don’t make any progress–and very few kids want to sit down and practice every day.

In an effort to bridge the gap between how I grew up (rules for how many minutes, and then hours, to practice daily) and what seems possible in our family, I try to spend a good deal of their practice time with them to help them make the best of it. Over the years I’ve worked on finding the sweet spot between the helpful role I can play as a more experienced musician; the somewhat stern role I need to play to push them to practice more productively; and being careful not to be too tough on them and take the fun out of things. It’s a delicate balance, one I’m still working on, and I don’t always get it right.

This fall, I’ve been noticing my middle daughter as she’s been making her way back to the piano after a summer at camp. She’s started doing something new that I think is just wonderful: when she misses a note that she knows she should get right, she lets out a small chuckle. It’s almost as if she’s saying to herself, “oh, I know that’s a B-flat, isn’t it funny that I played a B-natural.”

What a lovely, elusive reaction to a mistake:

I see myself making a mistake.

I observe the mistake, and see it clearly.

I note what I want to do differently the next time.

And I take the whole thing lightly.

This is not the typical response to a mistake. Normally, when we notice that we messed up we show up with piles of excess emotional baggage. This baggage doesn’t make us better the next time, nor does it deepen our ability to make a change. All it does is associate our misstep with self-criticism and an imprecise emotional mixture of fear, anger and shame.

Much better to notice with curiosity, be deliberate about what changes to make, and let escape a nearly silent little chuckle.

By when?

Behaviors around time and deadlines are some of the most important unspoken elements of your team culture

Do we ship?

Or do we delay?

Do we let plans and projects float around without deadlines?

And when we say the due date, what does everyone understand? Is it real or will we “do our best” to hit it? (or know that we’ll blow right past it?)

These elements of your culture can be seen in the most micro of interactions. As in:

The email you receive says, “Could you give this a quick read and get it back to me?”

Or, “Looking forward to receiving your thoughts.”

Or, “I’m slammed right now, can you please review this for me?”

As the recipient of these sorts of messages, you empower yourself and strengthen your culture of shipping by asking, each and every time, “by when?”

“By when” says you will hold yourself accountable to that date.

“By when” reinforces clarity for both of you.

“By when” is the first step towards making, and keeping, a promise.

And “by when” communicates (to you, to your colleague) that you have your own priority list, that your work is important, that the simple fact that someone senior to you (or not) needs something doesn’t mean it’s automatically at the top of your list too–unless they and you put it there.

Yes, be flexible, and create a culture of support, pitching in, and having each others’ backs. But your culture of hitting deadlines is only possible when we talk about time and managing priorities in all our interactions, and handle that precious time with intention.

Oh, and if you care about this sort of thing and want to strengthen your team’s culture of shipping, you must get everyone a copy of Seth Godin’s Ship It Journal. Download a free copy here, or buy a beautiful journal version from MOO.com.

The quantum mechanics of intentions (Part 2)

I’ve been thinking more about my post from last week, trying to figure out why I found myself questioning the value of good intentions. As my friend Greta rightly pointed out on Twitter,

“I believe that our intentions, objectives, or ‘passionate purposes’ make all the difference, Sasha. They guide us internally and have a lasting effect on all those with whom we connect.”

That’s right.

So how to resolve the tension between good intentions that mean little to the person whose life isn’t any better, and knowing in our gut that that if we are serious about making the world a better place then we must take our intentions seriously?

Where I’ve landed up is:

Intentions, if you just take a snapshot, might not matter much.

At a moment in time, the fidelity of that intention, from its genesis in the person deploying capital to the lived experience of the person served by that organization, is not necessarily that high. Intention can get lost in an impact investment just like it can get lost in a game of telephone, an ad campaign or, dare I say, a blog post.

However intention is powerful, maybe even unstoppable, when observed through the lens of time.

True intentions, strong intentions, deeply-held intentions cause those holding them to focus deeply on an outcome.

That focus results in curiosity.

That curiosity results in inquiry.

That inquiry results in examination of what’s really happening all the way down the line.

That examination leads to dissatisfaction if results are not being delivered. It leads to a rise in expectations and a drive to find better answers.

When it comes to creating social impact, that intention may in fact be the only thing that leads to an improvement cycle – because external forces driving to better results are weak (poor feedback loops in terms of the data that typically comes back; huge power imbalance between those providing capital and those, hopefully, benefiting from it).

Intention, then, is the engine of our own cycle of improvement. As builders of new solutions, new companies, new NGOs, new investment funds that are trying to push the frontiers of social change, of business, of markets, of inclusive economies, our intentions are what push us to be dissatisfied with “better than before.” They fuel us through the dips and the bumps and help us turn around when we hit dead ends. Our intentions, held by us and shared by those around us, give us the strength to keep on building.

The quantum mechanics of intentions

Think about a Spotify playlist for a minute (or whatever music service you use).

Today it’s easy for a computer to put together a list of songs on a common theme or genre, and it’s just as easy to have that same computer create a playlist that weaves together a few different themes. Once you’ve got that – voila – you have a playlist that’s indistinguishable from one made for you by a friend.

What I can’t help but wonder is: what, specifically, is the difference between the two playlists – the one made by a machine and the one made with thought, care and intention? What role does the intention play when I listen to the music?

Is that intention real? Is it tangible? Does it have a weight and a meaning? Or is my experience listening to the music, potentially insulated from that intention, all that matters?

Of course, hard-to-experience intentions are everywhere, not just in playlists but in works of art, say, or even hidden within the work of an impact investor.

I bring this up because, lately, as impact investing veers towards the mainstream, it’s become common for some investors to wake up and say, “look at the impact my investments created! I’m an impact investor and I didn’t even know it!” And then it’s just as common for those whose cup runneth over with intention to say, “Not so fast…without intention you cannot be an impact investor.”

Who is right?

To be clear, intention alone is not enough. It needs to be coupled with material, measurable impact to mean something.

But, taking a half a step back, are we able to articulate why, exactly, intention matters?

The end customer of an intervention is likely to be oblivious to the intention (of the investor) that led to that experience. Doesn’t she simply experience – like the person listening to the next next song on a playlist – what she experiences? And if she doesn’t care about intention, why do we?

Here are some thoughts, meant to open not to close a conversation.

Intention might matter because you could learn about it later. When I discover from my friend why she put two songs together, or when I hear the story of a particular song’s meaning to her, that discovery creates meaning and connection between us. But this one falls apart in the absence of a real relationship between the two parties involved, so I don’t think it’s useful for the broader conversation.

Intention might matter because it influences current and future behavior. To argue this, you’d be saying that the fact that, in this case, the customer doesn’t experience intention doesn’t matter. What matters is that the person deploying capital (or running an NGO or a social enterprise) has a purpose guiding her actions. We believe that having purpose oriented towards positive change is likely, in the medium- and long-term, to result in more decisions and actions that create positive change (and less harm) than being agnostic or skeptical of making positive change. Similarly, the existence of this purpose could influence how durable the experienced impact is: if the going gets tough (profits down), we believe the person with intent will stick it out longer.

Intention might matter because it influences others. A person with intent inspires others to have a similar intent. A person with intent might cause those lacking intent to question why they don’t have it. It might also rally others to the cause.

Intention might matter in and of itself, in a way that is neither instrumental nor quantifiable. It just exists out there in the world in ways that are positive and worthwhile. Juju is a good thing, the light in me touches the light in you.

I find it surprising that I struggle to make a longer list, and hope that you have more to add (here, on social media, in an email to me, wherever).

The conclusion I’ve come to for now is that I’d always prefer that someone have intent than not. But at the same time I won’t go so far as to say that intent is a necessary ingredient to creating massive positive social change.

What do you think? Does intent matter? Where, why and how much? It is the roots of the tree, or one of many ingredients in a big stew: seemingly important, but not necessarily required?

Atoms Shoes – Cloud Walking

My most astute, long-time readers will recall that I’ve shared in the past the amazing story of Waqas Ali and Sidra Qasim, the Pakistani co-founders of Markhor (originally Hometown) and now co-founders of Atoms. Waqas and Sidra are living the long, hard road to overnight success.

They’ve already pulled off a number of firsts: the most successful Kickstarter campaign ever run out of Pakistan, the first social enterprise to get into Y-Combinator.

And now, after having put on my first pair of Atoms, I think they just might have created a whole new category of shoes.

To be clear, I don’t have a particularly well-developed shoe or fashion vocabulary, nor am I young or hip enough to do a proper unboxing, so you’ll have to cut me a little slack here.

The short version of the story is: I put the Atoms on this morning, and I don’t want to take them off. Not tonight, not tomorrow. I just want to keep wearing them because they feel so darn good. And I’m already getting compliments on them.

They are a wild combination of just firm enough to feel like real shoes, just flexible enough to give me feel of the ground, and they have what I can only describe as a “squishy” feel under my feet that makes me feel like I’m being pampered. I have wide feet and most shoes are uncomfortable, but these are luxurious. I also love the mesh top, the same that my beloved, travel-essential and worn-down Nike Free 4.0 Flyknits have.

And, as an unexpected bonus, the shoes come in quarter sizes. Plus, when you buy them, you can mix and match each individual shoe to get a perfect fit–they send you multiple pairs and you keep the two (one left, one right) that fit best. If you’re one of the many people whose feet aren’t the same size, or if you’re fit-challenged for any other reason, this makes a big difference. Plus, since Allbirds only come in whole sizes, this could convert a lot of people.

And don’t take my word for it, here’s what TechCrunch has to say:

Step aside, Allbirds. Atoms come in quarter-sizes you can mix-and-match. Emerging from stealth today in a TechCrunch exclusive, this shoe startup’s obsession with satisfaction allowed it to replace my Nikes. I’ve spent the last two months wearing Atoms every day. They’re the first sneaker classy-looking enough for semi-formal occasions, but that I can comfortably walk or even hike in for hours.

I guess this all explains why more than 4,000 people have signed up to be on the Atoms waitlist before the public launch. You might want to sign up too.

Atoms Shoes