Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Great Opening Sessions Light a Fire

It's the opening general session of a major conference.
What does that session need to do for those in attendance? For the sponsoring organization?

I've been thinking a lot about this after delivering the keynote at a fair number of opening sessions this year.  Too often general sessions feel like generic sessions, defaulting to a very tired template: Welcome. Announcements. Parade of insider talking heads. Sponsor thanks. Some awards. Keynote speaker. Dismissal.

Great opening sessions require a far more strategic and intentional design, one that embraces their significant role in an event's rhythm and the attendees' experience of value.

I'd like to suggest that a great opening session is an accelerant. It takes the natural kindling of participants' desires—to connect, to learn, to conduct business, to find solutions, to celebrate—and turns it into a roaring bonfire.  Sponsoring organizations need to consider
  • this mix of potential participant needs and aspirations; 
  • if some are more valued by their attendees (hopefully, a data-driven insight); 
  • what general session formats and components can accelerate participants receiving real value for each of the desires being addressed in the session design; and
  • how every single component of the session design and logistics can be tweaked or reinvented to be a greater accelerant.
Every. Single. Component.
Every. Single. Decision.
Designed, not defaulted to standard practice.

A few examples:
  • Accelerate community-building by sectioning off seating (by geography, functional responsibilities, organizational size, et al) so people can opt to be near like-minded colleague.
  • Accelerate learning by having multiple speakers addressing core topics or critical issues in shorter formats (IGNITE, Pecha Kucha, TED, et al).
  • Accelerate both recognition and learning by honoring accomplishments in a way that both celebrates the award recipient, but also makes explicit what other attendees can learn and apply from their efforts.
  • Accelerate connections by facilitating introductions at the onset and having participants join with a few others to discuss a non-threatening, but compelling question. My current favorite:  What is an experience that has significantly influenced your idea of what it means to be a good professional?
  • Accelerate learning by having a reactor panel of industry pros who comment on and engage with the thinking of a traditional opening keynote speaker if you have one ... connecting the speakers ideas to specific practical application opportunities.
  • Accelerate solution-finding with a running slide deck as people arrive, one that spotlights common challenges and organizational resources or member solutions. Or post a common challenge and let people text or Tweet a solution with responses displayed in real-time.
The possibilities are endless if you take the time to apply a simple, but powerful principle: design your opening general session to be an accelerant for the value participants seek.

What are example have you seen that accelerate learning, connections, and celebration in an opening general session?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Help Your Presenters Embrace Diversity and Inclusion

Note: I wrote the following article for ASAE-The Center for Association Leadership, and it was published on April 6 in their Associations Now Plus members-only resource. It is used here with permission and ASAE retains the copyright.
 A full commitment to diversity and inclusion means that an association’s educational programming—and the speakers providing it—reflect the learning community. Here are some practical steps associations can take to help presenters prepare sessions that reject assumptions about the audience and meet diverse attendee needs.

Association resource materials for speakers traditionally include key dates and deadlines, room and AV logistics, and suggestions for slide and handout presentation. Some also include basic tips on adult learning and how to create more engaging and interactive sessions.

Yet additional guidance in a critical area too often is missing: designing for the composition and culture of your learning community. Although this may be particularly valuable to presenters from outside your organization, even internal subject-matter experts can benefit from more specific instruction on how to design and deliver a session that not only is inclusive of the diverse participants they will address, but also reflects a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusiveness as core values. Learners want to both see themselves and hear themselves reflected in session content and delivery. 

Here are a few examples of what associations are doing to help presenters prepare.

Guidance and Orientation

LeadingAge Illinois, like some associations, includes a brief statement in their speaker guidelines “to sensitize speakers to the potential diversity in the audience.” It urges speakers to review their course content and style for inclusive language, professional content versus personal beliefs, and potential sexist, discriminatory, or similarly insensitive language.

Presenter standards from the Promotional Products Association International also include advice on introducing panelists in a non-sexist manner and avoiding visual aids that show people in stereotypical roles. The latter echoes encouragement from the LeadingAge Illinois statement to “make no assumptions about those in the group other than a common interest in the content area delineated in the printed meeting materials.”

One way to prevent speakers from making assumptions about attendees is to provide them an accurate profile of their audience. No doubt you orient new employees to key elements of your profession or industry, demographic data about your membership, and some of the cultural norms that may be unique to your organization. Speakers would benefit from the same insights.

As a presenter, I find it useful to also receive detailed event or conference profiles that provide similar information for the specific conference community. Several years ago, I benefited from conversations with staff at the Foundation to Prevent Blindness about what types of visuals I could use effectively given the range of sightedness in the audience. Based on their guidance, I included more and differently designed visuals than I would otherwise have used.

Other orientation materials could include
  • a glossary of key terms and acronyms to use (as well as ones to avoid) and other tips on appropriate language.
  • insights about learner preferences that you have gleaned from previous evaluations.
  • a brief overview of the current environment for your profession or industry (trends, challenges, opportunities) to help presenters customize content with the most relevant examples for your current context.  
Speakers can be more inclusive of diverse attendee needs and interests when you provide specific information to help shape what to include and what to exclude in their content and delivery.

Broadening Participant Perspectives

To help its subject-matter experts and other presenters infuse equity and inclusion into their conference presentations, ACPA-College Student Educators International created a guide, 10 Steps for Designing and Facilitating Inclusive Presentations at Conventions/Conferences, and addressed the steps in speaker-prep webinars. Dr. Kathy Obear, a diversity educator and organizational development consultant who led the development team for the guidelines, describes them as a “proactive step to help presenters develop formats, curriculum, and facilitator techniques to better meet the needs of an increasingly diverse membership.” 

While the ACPA guidelines help prepare speakers to design more inclusive sessions, Obear says they also are intended to “help facilitators infuse issues and images in presentations that help participants deepen their multicultural competencies and challenge implicit, unconscious bias.” In other words, presenter preparation should include planning how to help learners broaden, deepen, and be more inclusive of the perspectives that they themselves consider.

Doing so is both art and science. Associations should engage speakers in sharing advice with each other about strategies they use to challenge the potentially limiting perspectives of participants on ways that facilitate growth and learning.

A Self-awareness Checklist

In my undergraduate coursework as an English major, one of my instructors taught my class to proof our work seven times, each time focusing on a specific variable: tone; spelling, grammar, and punctuation; cohesiveness of argument; and so on. Associations looking to help busy presenters design and deliver more inclusive presentations may be wise to create a similar checklist, one that includes such proofing criteria as inflammatory or unhelpful language, diversity of content sources referenced and examples offered, visual portrayal of people and groups in materials, and presenter confirmation bias. Until diversity in presentation design and delivery is your default, a checklist is a helpful tool to make sure you aren’t missing a critical program enhancement.

Other presenter support—such as webinars, online resource centers, and speaker coaching—can address these same opportunities but in more specific ways. To make tangible improvements in their programs, analytical and more detailed-oriented presenters will appreciate having “before and after” examples of infusing inclusion into a session design, a particular teaching technique, or even a slide. 

Finally, associations should consider including a speaker-prep workshop at their conferences to continually build the capabilities and confidence of their members to be better presenters and learning facilitators.

The Person Behind the Presenter

Statements, tips, and checklists can definitely enhance a speaker’s presentation mechanics so that sessions better exemplify an inclusive design. But every presenter is also a person, and for these mechanics to have authentic meaning presenters may need to do their own inner work related to diversity and inclusion. 

That work has value beyond the conference itself. As Obear aptly notes, “Most organizations are preparing members to serve increasingly diverse populations locally, nationally, and globally, so their members may want more knowledge and skills for better serving others across all group identities.” Evidence that an association is truly committed to equity and inclusion should include support and learning opportunities for the person, the professional, and the presenter.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Why "It's OK to Fail" Doesn't Work

Failure has become a fetish you can't avoid. Media profiles focus on what entrepreneurs and other leaders have learned from their failures.  Conference panels regularly feature thought leaders discussing the importance of failure. Here in Indianapolis last year, we celebrated failure with an entire day devoted to the topic: Fail Fest.

That all of this is happening is not surprising. As the desire to innovate has taken hold in institutions of all forms (education, government, nonprofit, and corporate), the admonishment that "It's OK to fail" has increased in both volume and frequency.  In my role as a facilitator and speaker, I've been present when executives and innovators delivered this message from the stage, as well as committee chairs or staff liaisons in the conference room.

Here's what I am noticing in many cases: it's not working.  Despite permission being granted more often by more people in more ways, I don't think it is having the intended effect.  Of the many possible reasons why, let me focus on two that I believe are fundamental.

Reason #1: 
How OK failure looks and feels depends on your standing in the organization.

Large hiring bonuses are given to executives who often also receive huge parachute payouts when their failures or disappointing performance get them fired.  When the worst thing that can happen is you get fired and walk out the door with a six or seven-figure check, it is indeed very OK to fail.

Employees or volunteers can be forgiven for not jumping at the chance to fail when invited by individuals with significant organizational security (whether it be tied to contract terms, title, tenure, skill, networks, or otherwise).  Failure looks different through the lens of insecurity.

Before telling everyone that it's OK to fail, at minimum spend more time (1) thinking about how this advice/request sounds to those possessing less privilege within the organization and perhaps framing your message differently, and (2) ensuring that the organization's key systems (performance reviews, compensation, et al) are aligned with the acceptance of failure you envision.

Be mindful that failure is a very powerful term, one which evokes strong reactions from many people depending on their past experiences and the consequences they faced. Some individuals feel an intense pressure not to fail, one often associated with cultural considerations like race, gender, ethnicity, or age. And finally, the potential consequences of failing run counter to some of what research has shown human beings to value in relationships, most notably in the work of Chris Argyris.

The gravitational pull of the values Argyris identified may be compounded in organizations representing risk-averse professions or disciplines, as well as charities and other nonprofits with volunteer leaders serving in brief terms of office.  Few appointed or elected leaders want their legacy to be the year that XYZ program failed spectacularly because they tried a major innovation.  Yet, the cost of avoiding any setbacks or failures in the short-term may be the increasing likelihood of more damaging failures in the future. Both avoiding and embracing failure have associated risk and costs to consider.

Bottom line? It's OK to fail often fails to persuade because its evangelists do not adequately consider the very human dynamics associated with their message. Effective leadership appropriately surfaces, explores, and addresses them.

How might you do that?  Here is a simple survey I used as part of retreat preparation for a very large national nonprofit media company looking to foster a more innovative culture.  Employees were invited to anonymously respond to the following questions:
  1. When you think of the current culture, what changes would need to occur to foster greater support of innovation and collaboration?
  2. What behaviors, communication practices, etc. would senior managers need to model in order to illustrate a commitment to innovation and collaboration?  In other words, if senior managers "walked the talk", what would that look like?
  3. What skills might you need to develop or what support might you need to maximize your potential contribution to a more innovative and collaborative culture?
The dozens of thoughtful employee responses gave the senior management team more than enough information and insight to immediately initiate a variety of strategic and tactical shifts.

Reason #2: 
What is meant by failure is not commonly understood.

Have you or someone else in your organization told others that it's OK to fail? If so, let me ask you to conduct a little experiment.  Ask a sufficient sample of folks what they think the statement means and what it gives them permission to do. When I've done this in sessions I've facilitated the range of responses suggest more communication is required than a nice four-word mantra.

Some respondents focus on failure as an end state. They believe that if they "give it their best shot" and final results fall short, they won't suffer negative consequences.  Others focus on failure as embodied in the IDEO mantra: fail faster in order to succeed sooner. For them failure is more about experiencing little setbacks in an iterative product or program development process, not the final verdict.

It's OK to fail is a wonderful principle, but individuals need more detail and guidance about what it looks like in practice ... how it should show up both individually and collectively. In other words, people need to hear the story of It's OK to fail in action.  It is the job of leadership to craft and communicate this story, appropriately contrasting differences in how things may get done now with how they should be done in the future: "instead of doing this, try this ... " And in some cases, the story that need to be told is less about "it's OK to fail" and more about "we expect you to experiment, iterate, learn, and improve over and over again."

Regardless, we need to take individuals on a detailed journey through how the principle will behaviorally unfold at all levels: organization, department, project team, and ultimately, personal and individual. Entities with volunteers must share a story that also includes the board, chapters or other components, and committees and task forces. What are the various thresholds of/for failure?

Doing so helps people begin to let go of the past and try on new beginnings and behaviors ... two of the stages of transition William Bridges so effectively addresses in his work. Even if you can let go of any fear of failure that you may have and even if you are ready to embrace contributing to a culture where it is OK to fail, doing so is difficult without adequate specifics.

Bottom line? We can't expect people to be contributing characters to a story they do not understand.


A few years ago, I tested my own acceptance of It's OK to Fail when I decided to do an IGNITE talk on innovation and failure in a priest's robe and in the style of a sermon. This IGNITE program was ASAE's inaugural effort, and we did our talks first at a public session in DC (at Busboys and Poets) prior to presenting them at ASAE's Great Ideas Conference. You can judge the results here in this five-minute video.

Friday, January 02, 2015

The More Appealing Appeal

I am always thankful to get past December 31 of any year. It's not because I hate New Year's celebrations or all the talk about a clean slate, making resolutions, or starting a diet.

January 1 means we have 360 days or so until charities and other nonprofits send out their well-intentioned, but often underwhelming last minute year-end solicitations.

If you want to make a new year's resolution that may help with your friend-raising or fundraising, let me suggest a simple one: stop using mass messaging that treats all recipients the same.

Say what?

In a four-hour span on December 30, I received emails from four organizations I support asking me to make a donation before year's end.  Earlier in the year, I had already made contributions ranging from $100-$250 and I have given annually to three of the groups for multiple years.
  • Two emails were completely generic in their pitch, saying little except please make a gift and stressing the year-end deadline for tax-deductible contributions.
  • One was tailored to the organization's announcement of just receiving a major grant. Always a good strategy to link a solicitation to noteworthy and very timely news.
  • One was deeply heartfelt in reflecting on all the good that the organization had accomplished and what more might be possible in 2015.
So of these four, two were what I call fundraising spam: generic, impersonal, reflecting little thought.  I dismissed them outright. Two were strong examples of fundraising storytelling.  But those two excellent examples were undermined a bit by a simple mistake they shared with the two weak appeals. And it is a mistake that occurs all too regularly throughout the year, not just at crunch time.

What was it?  They failed to treat current year existing donors with any more personalization or attention than everyone else on the distribution list.  While not a fundraising felony, it certainly falls into the category of an avoidable error.

Here's what I'm talking about: in three of the four emails after the ask was actually made, a comment along the lines of "thanks to those of you who have already made a gift" was then noted.  The fourth email didn't even bother to do that.

At its most basic, when we do this we treat current supporters and their contributions as an afterthought: Oh yeah, thanks for that gift earlier in the year.  Don't ever make donors an afterthought if you want them to keep thinking about you.

So here's the oh-so simple way to avoid doing this again in 2015.  It's Fundraising 101 that often doesn't occur because of lack of staff time, training, or advance planning of donor communications.
  • Segment major solicitations and communications into two categories at minimum: (1) current year contributors and (2) current year non-contributors.  If you don't know how to do this with whatever list management program you use, stop reading immediately and go learn that first. It is the foundation upon which everything else is built.
  • At minimum craft separate communications for those two lists. Start your pitch to current year supporters with a re-acknowledgement of that contribution and what it has enabled the organization to do. Then launch into telling the story of your future plans and what an additional gift might make possible.  In short: thanks again for the past gift, here's what it has helped us do in the present, and listen to our plans for the future.  We'd love for you to be an even greater part of what we have planned.
That's it. That simple shift requires about 30 minutes to make, a minor investment in your major goal of increasing the support of existing contributors.  You don't want to treat all recipients of your message the same if their current level of interest and support is different ... differentiate your message to make them more meaningful.

Once this is mastered (or perhaps at the same time) do additional segmentation of current contributors based on level of support and engagement and create additional messaging and communications (both in content and form) that match appropriately.

And don't just make this a staff responsibility. While we often draw board members into making the ask, we less frequently involve them in "making the thanks." One of the most fulfilling 15 minutes I've had as a nonprofit board member was when we took time at a board meeting to each do a handwritten thank you note to a donor who had been especially supportive of our current efforts.

So the strategic question if you want 2015 to be a year of greater friend-raising and fundraising is this: how might we make our appeals more appealing and what systems and processes must we create to do so with a consistent level of quality and timeliness?

Now go get to work. Those 360 days will go by quickly.

P.S. Some of you might be asking yourself if this is really such a big deal: don't donors support the cause/organization and not their communication practices? Absolutely, and if you weren't competing for time, interest, attention, and money any list management or communication issues might be more easily overlooked.  But you're not. You're one of many. And more importantly, segmenting lists and messages suggests a level of operational intention and attention that may inspire donor confidence.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The One Way to Deliver Unwelcome News

Imagine you are leaders of an important community institution, one some might even describe as beloved.  You have a difficult policy change to announce, one presumably driven by relevant data and reflecting the best option from among many that were thoughtfully considered. Despite the case you can make for it, the decision is not going to be popular with many. How would you share it?


Did you answer "never really come right out and say it in an obtuse two-page press release"?  Because that was the approach the Indianapolis Museum of Art (and presumably the PR firm that advises it) opted for in announcing the elimination of free general admission, a practice in place from 1941 to 2005 and 2007-present (according to this article in the Indianapolis Business Journal.  An admission fee ($7) was charged in 2006, but was eliminated when attendance declined.

My focus here is not on the potential merits of the policy change, but on how it was communicated. At some point we all have to share decisions that our stakeholders won't like. Knowing how to do so is a critical leadership competency. I'm using the IMA examples as a case study from which other community institutions and professional associations might learn.

All of my professional experiences and formal training in media relations and crisis management suggest there is one way to deliver unwelcome news: honestly, clearly, and transparently.  That's not to say this prevents negative reactions. What it means is that you spend your time in conversation about the merits of your decision and the concerns people have rather than the process you used and the cloaked language you used to spin the ultimate decision.

I don't have a degree in journalism or public relations, so maybe I'm revealing ignorance as to why the IMA approach is a better one.  To me, the press release avoids stating the reality of the major change, tries to turn the liabilities of its decision into an unqualified asset, and sounds like something a major corporation fearing criticism or lacking faith in its decision might create.  Here's how my layman mind would have approached the same release. My opening:
For 70 years the IMA has offered free general admission.  After much study, we have regretfully determined that continuing to do so simply is not sustainable. 
That's the conclusion that the leadership reached, so why not put it on the table succinctly. It's the Band-Aid approach. It hurts to rip it off in one swoop (ouch!), but it hurts more to gingerly peel it back a little at a time (ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch)!

Once the bottom line decision has been communicated, you can now address the array of questions people will have.  That the IMA did not create a FAQ for this announcement is a huge unforced error in my mind. Don't make it yourself the next time you share a significant shift in policy.  What might a FAQ include? Well, in this instance:
  1. Relevant financial data that illustrates the need
  2. Highlights of other options that were considered
  3. Rationale for the new policy and admission charge
  4. How the IMA matches up to other comparable institutions and why they may have different admission practices
  5. Accommodations for people who value the IMA's offerings, but can't afford membership or admission fees
  6. What new benefits and opportunities are being offered
It's easy to focus on better mechanics of the decision roll-out.  But that avoids what I believe is a more important issue: just as members rightly feel they "own" their professional association, so do the arts and horticulture-loving residents of Indianapolis feel that they "own" the IMA. This sense of ownership (something most marketers dream of cultivating), of a strong affinity for an institution, means that we want to be treated like an owner: when a major policy decision is made, but even more importantly, when one is even being considered. 

If the IMA held public conversations with stakeholders around this difficult decision, I certainly never heard about them.  Did they have to?  Absolutely not.  But the IMA is an institution that cares enough about community engagement to now have a staff member with designated responsibility for cultivating it.

Institutions are shortsighted to think of cultivation only in obvious metrics like program attendees or memberships.  What any professional association or community institution also cultivates is a place of importance, meaning, and identity in the lives of its stakeholders.  We are active characters in the institution's story, not just passive consumers of its content. The reason nonprofits use the term stakeholders is because those they serve have a stake in what the institution does.

One of my mentors about what it means to serve as the leader (volunteer or staff) of a nonprofit institution is a gentleman named Frank Ruck. Frank indelibly drilled into my brain the real meaning behind the title of Trustee: we hold "in trust" the trust of those we serve and their faith in the institution.  Diminishing or dismissing this vital bond is demeaning for all involved and potentially destructive for the institution.

Honesty. Clarity. Transparency. That is how we deliver unwelcome news.

We treat our stakeholders as owners and demonstrate to them through the decisions we make, the process for making them, and the manner with which we communicate them that their trust in us and the institution is not misplaced. Never is that more important than when difficult decisions have to be made.

I can pay the cost of membership and I can pay admission for out-of-town guests, so I'm holding a position of privilege in relation to the new IMA fees. For me, the decision itself is a question of strategy: how does an important community institution create revenue streams to sustain its long-term future while also ensuring reasonably frequent access to those who are unable to afford its admission or membership fees? I'm not sure free general admission only one night a month for five hours is inclusive enough a commitment for a flagship community institution.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Speaking from Experience: How to Be a More Confident and Competent Presenter

18-year-old me getting a bit choked up as I deliver my final address as state president of the 
Illinois Association of Student Councils to about 1000 people at the convention closing banquet.

What have you learned from your more than 30 years of keynote speaking and workshop facilitation?

That was the question a graduate student recently asked when interviewing me for one of his classes. Poor guy. That one question became the basis of our entire interview.

After it concluded, I reflected a bit more and decided that sharing my key responses might be of value to others looking to be a more effective presenter. Not a week goes by that someone doesn't publish a post on this topic, so ample advice is available online if what I share below doesn't speak to you.

I believe the greatest gift we bring to a keynote, workshop, or webinar is our complete presence. To me, preparing to present is all about preparing to be present, a topic I've written about before. Each of us has different requirements in order to feel we can be 100% present during a speaking engagement. For me it begins with only accepting opportunities to speak on topics for which I have both content expertise and personal passion.  Doing so increases the likelihood I won't feel handcuffed to my notes, outline, or slides during the actual talk, and it also minimizes the potential need I may feel to script my comments in too detailed a fashion.

Participants' time is valuable. Selecting sessions from the long list at a conference can be daunting. While it may provide a temporary ego boost to see your workshop room fill to capacity, no one wins if you've written sexy marketing copy that attracts people to hear a presentation that ultimately doesn't quite match what was promoted. When we write a session description, we enter into a contract with those who attend based on it.  We must provide information to help people decide "yes, this is for me." We need to deliver what was promised, not pull a bait and switch.

It might be my theatre background that causes me to think in smaller increments (think scenes, acts, etc.) but I have always designed keynote speeches and workshops as bundles of intentionally sequenced short content segments.  Doing so means reducing all the things you could address into the most compelling and concentrated content.  The right key points will be catalysts for lively participant conversations ... with themselves and with each other.

Short bursts of concentrated content mean you can spend less time on your soapbox and more time involving participants in the sandbox of exploring your content and how they might apply it. Think lecturette, not lecture.  For every 5-10 minutes of me talking, I try to build in 10-20 minutes of peer-peer exchange. Those who prefer to passively sit and listen for an entire 90-minute session block won't be happy.  But if you were clear in your original session description about the program design, they hopefully have self-selected to attend another workshop.
Part of our role as speakers is to be the wayfinding system for participants as they move through these various short content segments that collectively form the longer presentation. We can intentionally provide signals that help people enter into and exit from any particular segment of a presentation, as well as thoughtfully weave individual portions together to create a seamless and coherent whole.  We must offer sufficient comments that can serve as a "content GPS" for participants' learning.

As presenters we deliver to (or help surface from) participants a lot of content. We can help them make the most powerful connections and application of the content by ensuring we address (and involve them in addressing) the so what? and now what?  questions for key points: Why is this important? What relevance might it have for specific situations? What actions might people now want to take? Content won't lead to any meaningful change if participants can't clearly understand and see the connections to themselves and/or their work.

When you have (1) command of your content and (2) the format options for each section of your presentation, you can more capably adjust both in real-time based on the ever-changing conditions of time available, learner needs and interests, and audience size. Preparing to be present means being ready to deliver both more and less content that you originally envision, slightly different content based on participants' knowledge level and interests, and alternative teaching techniques or interactive formats based on the size of your audience.

Yowsa!  That is a lot of preparation. Yes, it is, so that's why it is even more critical to only accept the chance to talk on content for which you already have pretty strong expertise and familiarity: it lets you spend more time anticipating and preparing for these real-time adjustments that enhance the quality and value of the learning experience you are delivering. You can't do that comfortably when you are most concerned about the content you are covering.

No matter how much you prepare, at some point you will encounter a situation which rattles you:  a fixed seat auditorium when you were expecting full rounds, 40 minutes for your keynote when you were told you'd have 60, an audience of 20 when you had designed for 100, and many, many more.  In general, I try not to inflict my angst on the audience as I don't want them being anxious about the session that is going to unfold.   But in some cases, making them collaborators in a potential redesign of your content and/or format may be the best way to create comfort for all involved.  Either way, no one benefits from a presenter who spends a lot of time complaining about what he could have done in more perfect conditions. Our job is to create the most compelling learning experience we can in the conditions we find ourselves.

My second year in graduate school I attended a conference on values and ethics where one of the keynote speakers sat during her entire 60-minute talk, read the entire time from prepared remarks, made little eye contact with the audience, and did not engage us at all.  It was one of the most powerful learning experiences I have ever had.  While technically she did so much wrong in terms of delivery and technique, she did everything right in terms of crafting amazing content into a compelling narrative featuring precise and carefully chosen language that she delivered with 100% presence and complete confidence and comfort.

So-called speaking "rules" are meant to be broken when they don't work for you: the right number of words to have on your slides, the right way to engage an audience, the right way to command the room for a keynote, et al. That doesn't mean we should dismiss them without consideration. The general concept behind much of this advice is sound.

But the days when I have received the most heartfelt responses to a keynote or a workshop presentation almost always have been when me, my faults, my fears, my soul, and 100% of my authenticity at that moment showed up on full display.  As one of my favorite authors, Parker Palmer, so eloquently said long ago: "Good teaching comes not from technique, but from the integrity of the teacher."

Saturday, November 29, 2014

15 Books to Jumpstart Your Creative Mojo

She leaned across the table and whispered to me in the most conspiratorial tone, "I'm suffering from a bit of creative ennui." She pulled back and let out a simultaneous guttural laugh and moan that caused others in the coffeehouse to look our way, "Oh who am I kidding, I am fresh out of both ideas and inspiration."

"What am I to do?" wailed my generally stalwart companion.  As I am wont to do in these moments, I reached below the table, grabbed my messenger bag, and pulled out a stack of 15 books, each of which I knew might be part of the creative cure she sought.  I kid. I don't carry ready-made resource kits around with me at random.But here are 15 resources I value to refresh my own creative thinking and doing.

Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer
This is not a book that many would normally associate with creativity.  "Is the life I am living the same life that wants to live in me?" is the core question explored in this slender tome. So why am I including it?  Because a creative crisis may be the symptom not the problem. Palmer takes us deeper into listening to the voice of vocation, our vocation. And in that journey he often helps me reclaim my identity as a creative in ways more powerful than any technique ever could.

difference by Bernadette Jiwa
Another slim book (79 pages), Jiwa frames her work as "the one-page method for reimagining your business and reinventing your marketing." While she no doubt helps you do exactly that, Jiwa also helps us think more broadly about what we create and for whom we do so: "If we want to survive in a world with unlimited choices, we've no option but to work harder to make sure that the right people care more."  So perhaps your creative block is tied less to the act of creating and more to losing touch with the audience (or Tribes to use Seth Godin's term; video) who most care about what you care about and how you exemplify that caring in what you create.

Serious Creativity by Edward de Bono
Enough with this search for inner meaning you might be saying. Just give me some tools. Coming right up then. A toolbook I refer to regularly is this de Bono classic offering the core principles and dozens of techniques for what he calls lateral thinking: "With lateral thinking, we move 'sideways' to try different perceptions, different concepts, different points of entry. We can use various methods, including provocations, to get us out of the usual line of thought."  I regularly draw on de Bono's techniques individually in my own work, as well as draw on them to help stimulate fresh thinking in the group sessions I facilitate. A favorite? The Concept Fan. While a bit stilted in tone, the book belongs in your library.

A Whole New Mindmap by Austin Kleon
A Whole New Mind by Daniel H. Pink
Another book chock-full of useful exercises and techniques, Pink's AWNM addresses six "senses" he suggests are required in an era when the value associated with left-brain thinking can so easily be replicated: (1) Design, (2) Storytelling, (3) Symphony, (4) Empathy, (5) Play, and (6) Meaning.  Pink brings each of these sense to life with his characteristic humor and approachable stories and also offers numerous exercises to help you apply them. I wrote a discussion guide about the book's application for associations. Download that free PDF here.

Full disclosure: I was compensated to contribute some of the exercises that appear in the paperback edition of the book.

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
Embedding isolated techniques into our routines until they become habits is an underlying premise of this interesting book from famed choreographer Twyla Tharp. "In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare yourself to be creative."  And prepare us is what Tharp does using a compelling narrative that weaves together personal example, stories from her choreographic work, and exercises to adopt.  Much of the book illustrates the paradox between the preparedness and the openness that creativity seems to require.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work edited by Mason Curry
If you like to gain insight into the mind and practices of an artist like Twyla Tharp, you may love this book. It's a catalog of the daily routines of about 100 writers, thinkers, and other creatives. As you skim the listings (each is only a page or two) you may find specific ideas to adopt or adapt. You most definitely will find yourself thinking more about your daily routine and how to modify it to better incorporate creative habits.

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace
It's one thing for individuals to develop creative routines, but how do organizations institutionalize creative habits so that they support a culture of innovation? Answers for this critical question abound throughout this really enjoyable read that uses the creative folks at Pixar as its cast of characters. What I most appreciate about this book is the recurring emphasis on tearing down impediments to creativity that commonly grow over time in an organization.

Creative Intelligence by Bruce Nussbaum
Pixar?  Seriously?  You want me to be creative like the wizards of Pixar?  If that dialogue is running through your mind then this closing assertion from Bruce Nussbaum calls for your attention: "... we have been brought up to believe that creativity is rare, the special gift of a few individual geniuses, the magical quality that we don't have and can't share. This destructive myth of creativity has crippled us as individuals and as a nation."

Like many before him, Nussbaum tries to dismiss creativity as the domain of a limited number of individuals and reframe it as a form of literacy or intelligence that far more people can develop.  To do so, he examines how individuals and organizations learn to be creative, highlighting five competencies: (1) Knowledge Mining, (2) Framing, (3) Playing, (4) Making, and (5) Pivoting.  Instead of a book of exercises, Creative Intelligence is a book introducing us to core principles that should inform our creative habits.

Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley
The Kelley Brothers, of IDEO fame,have written what may very well become the classic book illustrating a very real truth: without confidence we are unlikely to create or innovate. It's an enjoyable read offering the classic business book blend of stories, examples, and exercise, but in a more approachable tone that what often is offered. At the end you'll understand why they believe that: "Creative confidence is like a muscle—it can be strengthened and nurtured through effort and experience."

The Laws of Subtraction by Matthew E. May
Embracing a focus on changing the way we think AND changing the way we do is the space May owns in this useful book that extols the value of (and need for) subtraction in our current age of excess : "Subtraction is defined simply as the art of removing anything excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly ... or the discipline to refrain from adding it in the first place."  The discipline to subtract is a critical creative habit to develop, both in mindset and in specific skill (as in de Bono's negation technique). May offers six laws for doing so, each brought to life with numerous examples. In doing so, he bolsters our creative confidence that less is more and that subtraction can be the path to great gain.

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon
Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh MacLeod
Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination by Hugh MacLeod

I suppose it is a bit unfair to bundle four books by two authors into one description. My doing so should in no way make you think these books don't stand alone or that they are any less useful than those previously mentioned. Collectively they are similar in spirit and form in a way that I think makes it appropriate to talk about them together.

Kleon and MacLeod are both artists who write ... or maybe writers who create art ... or maybe hybrid creatives that cannot easily be categorized.  Kleon's art are "blackout" prints in which the few revealed words remaining send an interesting message.  MacLeod's art originally took the form of drawings and pithy sayings on the back of business cards.  All four of their books are what I consider great plane reads, the prefect length and form for a long plane fight.  Short chapters, punchy writing, practical points, inspiring admonishments, quotable concepts ... you'll find that and more in each book.

The Gift; Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde
Sometimes we just need reassurance that what we do as creatives matters, that we do important work not just for ourselves but for society.  Hyde offers us this support. "The passage into mystery always refreshes. If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom. Then we know they are not a solitary egotism and they are inexhaustible.”

Bonus Resources:

Friday, November 21, 2014

Advancing More from Retreating: Eight Tips

It's been fashionable for some to rename staff or board retreats as advances, presumably to signal the gathering's intention and desired impact.  I'm a firm believer in the power of language, but am a bit skeptical that a new name alone changes outcomes.

What does increase the odds of advancing more from any retreating you do are better design principles for the actual event.  Here are eight tips gleaned from my experiences designing and facilitating dozens of retreats for various stakeholder groups.

1. Design the retreat in the context of a larger menu of ongoing activity.
Too often, retreats are designed as isolated events. They need to be seen as a part of the larger context of how things get done in an organization: other professional development gatherings, planning calls and conversations, staff or team meetings, et al. How does/will the retreat honor the past, engage with and build on the present, as well as explore and create the foundation for the future?

2. Build desired follow-up and action planning components into the overall design.
Instead of asking at the end of the retreat for a few people to volunteer, review what happened, and plan next steps, be more intentional about weaving action planning into the planning and pre-work. If you have clarity about the context for your retreat and the output you want to produce, you can then back into what needs to happen during the event and any pre-work in order to produce it.  At minimum, keep an emphasis on answering so what, now what? throughout the retreat.

3. Involve a cross-section of the org in its planning and execution and everyone in contributing their ideas.
While particularly true if using an external facilitator, this principle also is relevant for retreats that internal team members may lead. A retreat should not feel like something inflicted on its participants, an intervention done to them. The experience should be co-created to build ownership for the outcomes, and the entire experience should be one that is done with the participants and in support of them.

Beyond the representative team convened to design the event, everyone attending or having a stake in its outcome should be surveyed to help frame the content of the gathering. Finally, whenever possible, involve participants in the actual presentation and management of the event … from coordinating meals and breaks to facilitating exercises and discussions. And be intentional about reaching out beyond the "usual suspects" to invite individuals to do so.

4. Focus on doing what is more difficult to accomplish in the workplace/typical workday.
The idea of the retreat is to step back from the daily demands and do what otherwise is unlikely to be done as efficiently or effectively. Honor this purpose by not making the retreat agenda a laundry list of unrelated backburner issues and action itemsReally hone in on an answer to this design question: what, if accomplished during the retreat, would dramatically accelerate the individual and organizational progress we need to achieve and enable us to be/do with each other more effectively?

5. Spend time digging deeper and thinking more about systems.
While it's fine to talk about tactics and micro-issues at a retreat, the special nature of the gathering begs that you dig deeper.  Drawing on the iceberg model, make sure your conversations don't merely remain at the results or events level. Look for patterns and organizing systems or mental models that really need attention if desirable forward movement is to be institutionalized and sustained as a result of the retreat.

6. Invest in the power of peer relationships and conversations.
As part of your initial design, consider what percentage of retreat time would ideally consist of individuals talking with each other (in pairs, small groups, the large group as a whole) instead of being talked at by other individuals, particularly those in charge. This simple metric is a good accountability check for the various content segments and formats you build into the retreat agenda. Simply having relaxed time to converse with colleagues and get to understand them more (both as people and professionals) is almost always mentioned on retreat evaluations as a highlight.

7. Have everyone take a task or get on a team.
It's tempting to involve only a small portion of retreat participants (maybe your initial planning team) in managing the output, but that limits the potential and pace of what will occur.  Instead, identify meaningful action items and tasks and have every individual opt-in and claim ownership for at least one of them.  Everyone needs to own the whole of helping the organization/entity get better, so make sure your action planning and follow-up involves them in doing so.

8. Don't make it more than it can be.
If I had to assert the #1 reason why retreats sometimes turn out to be ineffective or unsatisfying it is that those involved expect them to be more and do more than is realistic for any one block of time. This is why the first design principle matters so much: successful retreats never begin as "one-offs" into which disproportionate energy, attention, and resources are poured.  The best retreats are ones intentionally designed and utilized as part of a much more comprehensive framework for enhancing individual and organizational relationships and efforts.

Planning a retreat and need more insight?
  • Here's an article I wrote on planning memorable staff retreats.
  • Get format or activity ideas from Gamestorming or Thiagi's newsletter.
  • For more personal support, I'm happy to do a one-hour "think out loud with you" consult on your retreat design in exchange for a $200 Amazon gift card to further my professional reading.
  • I also can design and facilitate your retreat, but am doing a very limited number while on book-writing sabbatical in 2015.

Friday, October 17, 2014

10 Favorite Facilitation Quotes

"A facilitative leader brings discipline into maintaining and deepening their capacity—whatever that may be —to be engaged. Engagement is easy when there are no distractions, nothing else demanding your attention, and none of the internal anchors prevent us from committing. Of course, it is precisely in those moments of distraction and difficulty that the discipline is required."
The Nine Disciplines of a Facilitator by Jon C. Jenkins and Maureen R. Jenkins.

"The main aim of the facilitative leader is to leverage the resources of group members."
Facilitating to Lead! by Ingrid Bens

"The facilitator's job is to support everyone to do their best thinking. To do this, the facilitator encourages full participation, promotes mutual understanding, and cultivates shared responsibility."
Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner, et al

"When people who attend experience that their presence is truly wanted and valuable, and that their unique gifts is necessary for the best outcome of the gathering, the possibility for authentic engagement, leading to success, is greatly enhanced."

The Art of Convening, by Craig and Patricia Neal with Cynthia Wold

"But the essence of Humble Inquiry goes beyond just overt questioning. The kind of inquiry I am talking about derives from an attitude of interest and curiosity. It implies a desire to build a relationship that will lead to more open communication. It also implies that one makes oneself vulnerable and, thereby, arouses positive helping behavior in the other person."
Humble Inquiry by Edgar H. Schein

"Perhaps one of the most difficult things for a facilitator to do is to allow someone to struggle. To rescue people from the struggle immediately shuts off an opportunity for them to learn and grow. Supporting and encouraging them through the struggle is much more rewarding for everyone involved."
Facilitation by Trevor Bentley

"The more present we are as individuals and as organizations, the more choices we create. As awareness increases, we can engage with more possibilities. We are no longer held prisoner by habits, unexamined thoughts, or information we refuse to look at."
—a simpler way by Margaret Wheatley & Myron Kellner-Rogers 

"It is a misuse of our power to take responsibility for solving problems that belong to others."
Stewardship by Peter Block 

"Any thoughts about the future that do not strengthen our capacity to be in service to the group are harmful. When we get ahead of ourselves, predicting what might occur, we take ourselves out of the present—the only place where we can have a positive influence."
Standing in the Fire by Larry Dressler 

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Investing in Better Discussions to Produce Better Results

Take a moment and think about your days at work so far this month.
  • How many formal meetings do you think you've attended?
  • How many conference calls have been on you schedule?
  • How many informal discussions have you encountered?
If you calculated the total number of minutes you've spent in either informal or formal meetings, calls, and discussions, what would be your best guess?

No doubt it is hundreds and hundreds of minutes totaling many, many hours and reflecting a sizeable percentage of the work hours you clocked.

Now, the really important question: how much time do you and your colleagues spend on getting better at those discussions, working on making better decisions, becoming more efficient and effective in your work with each other?

Typically organizations invest little to no time in the professional development that would help their team members get better at something that consumes a sizable percentage of their working hours. True at the staff level.  True at the board or committee level.  True at the chapter or component level.

If you do nothing else this month, take 10-15 minutes with colleagues to collaboratively explore one very critical question: what are small changes that we could make in how we meet and make decisions that would better leverage individuals' time and contributions?

Trust me.  People already have answers for that question and already think about it on their own or talk about it with other workers.

And if you want to make a one-time professional development investment that will enhance the quality of discussions, decisions, and results in your organization forever, join 15 other association and corporate professionals at a one-time Art of Facilitation Train-the-Trainer event in Washington DC on October 22, from 9-3:30 p.m.

Participants will receive all the materials (content outlines, slides, and handouts) to teach facilitation skills to their colleagues at work and to volunteers in your association.  We'll spend the day experiencing sample content first-hand and discussing how to teach and facilitate it in your own future efforts.  You can register here:  I highly recommend sending a pair of participants if you can so that you have more than one individual equipped to do future training.

Can't make it to DC on October 22?  Thinking you might like to offer this type of program for your chapter leaders, board members, or maybe just your staff?  Interested in hosting a similar train-the-trainer opportunity and helping market it to other associations and organizations in your immediate area?  If you said yes to any of these future options, contact me about your interests.  While on sabbatical in 2015 writing, Say Yes Less, conducting facilitation trainings is one of the few programs I will be presenting along with a limited number of keynotes.

P.S.  It's easy to collaborate with another association or two and jointly bring me in for a facilitation workshop and share the costs.