Saturday, October 30, 2010

Simplicity in Presentations and Why it Matters


This morning, the Times of India newspaper was an ad-fest. Someone on the newspaper design team had decided that providing a page that was just a third of the original paper size would be a clever way of introducing a large advertisement before readers even saw the front page. Sounds like a great idea - preserve the sanctity of the front page, and still sell a costly front page ad that readers see first up. Turns out, they're not as smart as they think they are. No one on the Times design team seems to have thought once about the importance of function with form. People read newspapers sitting in their living rooms, in a train or at an airport and they need the convenience to hold the paper open, just as you see me do in the photograph. A page that's just a third of original width means that I can't hold my newspaper open without the inconvenience of one of the sheets continuously falling off. This is annoying; and Times, you've got to know how much I hate you for designing a paper with such little intelligence.

Then again, a lot of us tend to design beautifully without much emphasis on utility. In fact, we do it so often that it's unfair to call it design -- it's merely decoration. When I take this mistake to the realms of presentation design, this makes us create presentations that are either peppered with decorative information or decorative visuals. Simplicity however, doesn't need decoration. Simple presentation design demands that we make our idea easy to understand, visually clear and without confusion. In today's blog post, I want to discuss a few ideas that can help you create high-impact, simple presentations that'll make your message stick with your audience. I can't say I always do all of what I'm writing, but I can say for sure that if I did this more often, I'd be a much better speaker by the end of it.

Crafting an "Easy to Understand" Message

"Making the simple complicated is commonplace; but making the complicated awesomely simple - now that's creativity." - Charles Mingus

People often confuse simplicity with being simplistic or dumbing down your message. You can do no bigger disservice to your topic if you're trying to dumb it down for an intelligent audience. You want to let your topic be as complex as it really is, but your true creativity stems from being able to make it easy for others to understand. A couple of weeks back a colleague and I were talking about the rule of three in presentations. The rule of three is a simple theory that exists from the days of Aristotle and his book Rhetoric. The premise is quite simple, people comprehend, remember and enjoy information that comes in a group of three. There are several examples of this:
  • The Three Musketeers, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Three blind Mice and the Three Stooges are all symbols in popular culture and literature that are memorable and stick in your head from the first time you see them.
  • Several popular quotes and figures of speech incorporate the rule of three. "Friends, Romans, Countrymen..." from Shakespeare or "The father, son and the holy spirit." of the Holy Trinity and "Lies, damned lies and statistics." from Benjamin Disraeli are all great examples we all remember and quote till today.
  • You'll notice that filmmakers structure their movie scripts in a similar manner. Love stories start with how a boy meets a girl and then how their relationship faces some trouble and then how everything works out in the end. In tragedies, I guess everyone dies at the end! On the other hand, thrillers begin with a low-key scene setting, a high tension drama, and then a fast paced closure. Comedies too, follow the rule of three.
  • The 70-20-10 rule of learning, the 90-9-1 rule of online communities and Guy Kawasaki's 10-20-30 rule of presentations are memorable lessons in contemporary business. You hear them once, you don't forget them because of the way they use the rule of three.
I could keep giving you examples till I convince you, but I guess I'll rest my case here. The rule of three is a simple idea to apply to your presentations, so you can tell an effective story. Here are some ideas for you to chew on:
  • Consider structuring your presentation with three clear sections. Here are two examples:
    • Problem, Solution and The Way Forward (when presenting a plan);
    • or Current State, How we got here and Lessons Learned (when presenting a review);
  • Think of the three key things you'd like your audience to remember at the end of your presentation. Keep reinforcing those three key messages with examples, anecdotes and exercises in your presentation.
  • When you're teaching introduce no more than three critical tools that your students can use. If you're presenting case studies, present no more than three distinct examples.
The rule of three creates a lot of discipline with presentation design. Remember, if all you had to do was convey facts, then an email conveys facts much better than anything else. We know from experience though that people need persuasion. And if you want to persuade with your presentation, remember that storytelling trumps a fact-showcase each time. For some more excellent ideas on how you can tell an memorable story with your presentation, take a look through Scott Schwertly's Storytelling 101slidecast on Slideshare.

Design for Visual Clarity

People who say they "can't think visually" are liars and I don't mean to offend anyone when I say this. We are hardwired to thinking visually and there's enough research from Dan Roam's book that'll help you believe me. If you're one of those people though, think back to when you were a kid. If someone asked you if you could draw, when you were in kindergarten, what would you say? My guess is, you'd say yes. What happened in all these years? Ah! You got an education! And our education has taught us about 1000 word essays, bullet pointed slides and the need for verbose documentation. It's never too late to reach back to the natural, visual thinker amongst us and think of expressing ideas with simple images. And don't do it because I say so on this blog, do it because John Medina in his landmark book Brain Rules says that "vision trumps all other senses". If you hear a piece of information, three days later an average person is likely to remember only 10% of it. Add a relevant image and recall jumps to 65%. Now if that's something you want for your presentation, then you need to design visually -- you have no choice!

"Pictures beat text...because reading is so inef´Čücient for us. We have to identify certain features in the letters to be able to read them. That takes time." - Dr Medina

The good news is that being visual is real easy. You were a kid once (hopefully), so you have the natural tools to be able to visualise things. Stock photography and cheap digital cameras make the availability of high quality imagery a breeze. Add to that tools like Dan Roam's visual thinking codex, and you'll realise how powerful circles, boxes and arrows can be. Take a look at his simple napkin sketches breaking down the US healthcare problem, and you'll see what I'm saying.

A word of caution while I say this though -- the computer is only a bicycle for our minds. It can help you polish your idea if you have a good one, but it can't help you come up with the idea itself. Coming up with your ideas at the computer is the biggest presentation smell I can possibly think of. The computer is not only a source of several distractions, when you prepare at your computer you're forcing yourself to multi-task between coming up with your idea and representing it. You're thinking of the kind of image you want, and then you go to search it and then you decide it needs modifications and then you get sucked in and at the same time you're thinking about the order of your slides -- you get the idea, don't you? It's a mental mess. Take time away from your computer. Get some coffee, find a quiet place and plan analog (not digital). Sketch ideas on a notebook, draw out your slide details on index cards or storyboard using stickies. Get involved with your storyline so you have a visual connection with your concept. You'll see that this'll help you design your slides much faster as well! And guess what, by now you'll be so involved with your story that even if there's a catastrophe and your projector stops working you'll be able to tell your story with ease.

"If the presentation matters, you need time off the grid to prepare." - Garr Reynolds

Showcase an Uncluttered Mind
When I present about presenting or help others craft their presentations, I always mention that what you don't say is far more important than what you do say. When we know something about a topic, we want to say all we can about it. This is natural, and I believe this is a result of a speaker's passion for her topic. The problem is, that human brains aren't hardwired to remember as much in a short timeframe. Do remember that presentations are more about selling and exciting than about educating. If you wanted to teach someone something, you perhaps need to spend some time with that person in a real world context. On the other hand, if you can craft an exciting presentation, you'll encourage people to go out there and explore the topic for themselves. So the decision for you is: do you want overwhelm your audience with all that you've learnt about your topic from a decade's experience OR would you rather sell your topic so well, that you compel them to go learn more? The choice in my opinion, is quite simple - retain the signal, eliminate the noise!

I like to take the idea of unclutteredness to a slide level as well. Each slide needs to anchor just one key thought, not more. Don't try to cram everything into one slide! Extra slides don't cost money and depending on your presentation style you could need 10 or 100 slides for a 30 minute talk. Keep your visuals clear, minimise the decoration and focus only on the one message the slide aims for. In fact, I'll go to the extent of suggesting you ditch your corporate template because it gives you the visual clutter you don't want -- the logo, the page numbers, the decoration on top and the bottom. Anything that doesn't add to your message doesn't deserve to be on your slides.
I hope some of these ideas help you design a more powerful presentation the next time you're at it. In a subsequent blogpost, I want to deal with presentation stage fright and what you could possibly do to overcome it. I can't promise when that'll come up; you'll just have to wait and watch. If you want it sooner than later, drop a line in the comments section and let me know. Speaking of comments, do remember that your comments are quite valuable to me. So don't be shy to tell me what you thought of this blogpost. I'd love to hear from you.

BTW, if you're at DevLearn next week, do make an effort to bump into me. I'm on twitter and if you're around I'd love to catch up with you. I look forward to meeting as many of my small reader base as I can, at what promises to be an awesome conference!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

LSGWebinar - Influencing stakeholders and marketing your L&D capability

Paul Trueman is posing a few challenging questions to us today:
  • How do you get learning buy-in?
  • How do you ensure that individuals want to learn, that managers give them the time to learn and that executives give you the budget to make it happen?
Paul says it takes more than just smooth marketing talk to make this work for you and today he'll tell us about how we can influence stakeholders and make our L&D abilities visible. Very interesting, and something I really need to learn. Do remember, these are unedited, live-blogged notes.

Paul's in the middle of some interesting research that I guess leads to this talk. Paul does a whole heap of work, ranging from internal consulting to good old, face to face training. Paul is starting off asking what our biggest concerns are about promoting our L&D departments. Here are some of the responses we saw:
  • Mindsets
  • Budgets
  • Balancing quality and value
  • Tailoring content to demand
  • Getting mangement to understand where we're coming from
  • Resistance to change
  • Getting management to understand the value of investing in learning
Given some of those responses Paul's moving into the agenda for his presentation.
  1. How can we promote learning and development as a beneficial investment?
  2. What are the key drivers for different stakeholders?
  3. How can we articulate the value learning and development adds to the business?
  4. How do we communicate the benefits to learners?
A background of Paul's Case Study

Paul's work is with his company, Eaga Plc. Eaga is a Newcastle company, partner owned since 2007. They have about 4500 partners and they manage the government's warm front scheme and the BBC digital switchover scheme. Their culture is about empowering people, ensuring they look out for new ideas and to find new ways of delivering services in an innovative fashion. The culture sounds like what most companies claim to be like, and what ThoughtWorks is like!

The Eaga people development team has 22 people and currently invest 2 million GBP in training each year. They have heaps of face to face delivery with the support of their LMS.

They seem to have a strong set of values focussing on embracing change and continuous improvement. That's a win for the L&D team because people are keen to keep improving and they don't have to drag people into initiatives and embracing change helps them to keep turning around soon to respond to the organisation's changing skill needs.

Promoting L&D

Paul and his team promote L&D by conducting an annual partner engagement survey. Eaga has also has five key divisions with a key L&D partner assigned to work with each division. They support all their partners with additional academic funding options. They fund 50% of any external courses if that is relevant to their business.

They listen to their internal customers and take training evaluation very seriously. They also ensure that each partner has a personal development plan with the support of their line managers, L&D and HR.

Managing Stakeholders

Each partner wants skills development and career growth. So if the L&D teams don't invest in training approaches, this pushes the partners back. Paul's showing us several quotes and testimonials from his partners proving his point.

Paul also mentions that his department level stakeholders are looking for ways to make their groups more efficient. Again, he's showing us several testimonials from the managers that show their satisfaction.

Senior level management wants to know their skills base to be able to make effective business decisions on partner allocation. Paul and his team need to keep the senior management informed about this current state of the world so they can use this information to decide how they'll drive the business.

The key that Paul is trying to drive is that we need to go from the value that each individual stakeholder's looking for and communicate in a language that makes sense for them.
I thought Paul's messages were quite simple and very common-sensical though I didn't get heaps out of it. In any case, you are welcome to carry on this discussion with Paul on his email address. It takes heaps to come out and tell your story, so I congratulate Paul on that! And btw, if you wanted to learn about more influence patterns, please do look through Mary Lynn Manns' work in this area.

[LSG Webinar] When Learning is Working - The 70:20:10 model in Action

Can I say how excited I am to be at this webinar with Charles Jennings? As a big fan of Jay Cross' idea about workscaping and as someone who's put this idea into action, this is definitely a topic very close to my heart. I don't know what Charles' agenda is, but if it's about the way work and learning are synonymous, I'm sure he'll strike a chord with me. These are my liveblogged notes from the webinar, totally unplugged -- so I promise to keep it as honest and real as I possibly can.

So what does Charles want to talk about? What are the key challenges that organisations face today? Change is increasing everyday and we need to keep emowering our workforce to keep up with change and keep building their capabilities. We don't do training right - we, in fact do it very inefficiently. Charles is going to present a model on experiential learning that really works and hopefully he'll share some empirical evidence for this as well. Nom, nom, very exciting.

Charles asks us to think about some of our most significant learning experiences and to think of where they occured. For me most of my learning happened at work. Charles has picked up my favourite example to explain experiential learning. I use the example of how we learn to ride a bike - we got bare minimum instruction, but we learnt from experience, failure and reflection. We didn't real a manual or go through detailed training -- we just did it and learned!

"Learning is all about action. It's not about storing stuff in your head." - Charles Jennings

The Trouble with current Formal Learning Approaches

Much of formal learning is content rich and interaction-poor. We learn to know but we hardly learn to do. I called this the phenomenon of growing the knowing flab vs building the doing muscle. This is the big problem with formal learning programs in organisations these days -- if there's a best practice, content rich training works. OTOH for most knowledge workers, it's an interaction rich approach that's crucial, because it prepares us to face complicated and complex problem domains and thereby deal with novel and emergent practice.

Most away from work training and learning leads to the phenomenon of the forgetting curve, because instruction out of context leaves nothing for workplace performers to remember and apply what they've been "told".

Most of the participants like to get involved and try things out. They like to have dialogue and discussion. They like presentations which are organised according the logic of how they work and learn. They like to experience how things work. This is amble evidence that proves that people like to learn through interaction, working with others and real experience.

Real Adult Learning

Humans like other animals learn through experience, practice, conversation and reflection. Real adult learning is about acquiring new ideas from experience and retaining them as memories. Instead of structuring learning around content, we need to structure them around creating learning experiences.

Charles is now introducing the 70:20:10 model from the Princeton University which says that we learn 10% from training, 20% through observation and 70% through real experience. This is a model, not a recipe, but has significant evidence about this.

70:20:10 is a framework for thinking outside classes, courses and curricula. Most organisations spend their money on the formal training curriculum, where the bulk of the budget should ideally go to helping people learn from experience. A lot of the evidence comes from the initial assertions by Jay Cross and then from studies by Capital Works , Education Development Center at Massachusetts, US Bureau of Labour Statistics and Institute of Research for Learning. Charles will give us more evidence and studies later.

Incorporating 70-20-10 in Value Based Learning Strategy

First things first, this is only a model and not a silver bullet. The percentages are only indicative. So Charles recommends that we don't get hung up on the numbers and focus on the context because implementations will vary with the problem on hand.

"Informal learning is generally more effective, less expensive and better received than it's formal counterpart" - Jay Cross

This is quite understandable, given that you're very very unlikely to see behaviour change through classroom sessions. OTOH, this is extremely likely to happen with the constant "interventions" that informal learning creates for us.

Most managers say that they learn through informal chats with colleagues, search engines like google and through trial and error. This is some real research from Good Practice.

Charles mentions that thinking 70-20-10 requires a mindshift and cultural change whereby we can, as learning consultants help our organisations understand and be aware of the opportunities we need to create in the workplace people to pick up and hone the skills they need to grow. This means working with businesses to create sizeable investments in informal learning, getting managers involved and development driven performance management.

Charles also suggests that we include 70-20-10 thinking in the competency framework of various job families. This is something we've tried to implement via the concept of learning paths. Charles suggests through that we go a step forward where we list out recommendations in each area of the 70-20-10 model for each role to seek out their development through experience, observation & feedback and formal learning.

The Role of Managers

Managers are strongly involved in the development of their people. Not just Charles and I, Esther Derby says so too. Managers have the most impact in terms professional development and the mindset of "let's throw them to the trainers", takes away a lot of responsibility from leaders. The corporate leadership council has research that says that people who work with managers that are committed to developing them, outperform those with less involved managers. (I think that's what I saw, though I could be a bit wrong)

Working with team member through learning logs, coaching regular feedback, and goal setting are crucial skills for managers.

L&D's Readiness for 70-20-10
The focus of L&D has to change:
  • Moving from maintaining catalogues of courses, etc to managing workscapes.
  • Moving from designing and developing materials to supporting learning experiences in the workplace.
  • Moving from a course centric approach to a performance centric role.
  • Moving from predominantly classroom and elearning driven approaches to a multi-channel, multi-modality approach.
  • Finally we need to move from a learning focussed approach to a performance and productivity focus.

Great stuff from Charles, I really liked the stuff he's mentioned and this resonates with my own approach in L&D. Thank you!

Monday, October 18, 2010

The "New" Social Learning isn't a New Thing

For the last few days I've been reading Marcia Conner and Tony Bingham's book - The New Social Learning. It's an intriguing read, with several interesting case studies from organisations that are using social media to advance their business goals. Replete with heaps of evidence from the real world, the book is one that I recommend to anyone making a career in L&D.

While I was reading the book on my Kindle, I was possessed to share all the wonderful insights I was getting from the book. It felt natural to tell my friends and connections about this awesome book. As I've posted stuff to my network, I've realised how being social is inherent to not just my personality, but also to everyone of us. We've always been social learners, and modern social media is just helping our natural tendencies. From the time of cave paintings to the modern age of of microsharing via Twitter, our way of learning and sharing hasn't changed -- only the landscape is different. In today's blog post, I want to share some of my thoughts about building a social learning culture in your organisation.

Think Big, Start Small and Iterate

People are social in many different ways and depending on the goal they need a different social paradigm to communicate. I think of this as the way people play a game of Mafia when they are in a party, try karaoke at a bar and just sit around and have a nice little chat when over an intimate dinner. In a similar manner, your social learning infrastructure isn't complete with just an online forum or mailing list. One of the reasons I found Marcia and Tony's book really interesting is that they've looked at the social learning phenomenon from various angles, ranging from media sharing via channels like YouTube and going to immersive environments such as Second Life. When people want to share a stream of consciousness, they can use a Twitter style microblog - mimicing a constantly abuzz watercooler in the pantry. When they want to reach out to other practitioners they use communities of practice - much like special interest groups of yesteryear. When they want to work together, they use collaborative tools such as Google Apps and when they want to build their collective intelligence they use a wiki such as MediaWiki to build that together.

Some common pitfalls with social learning implementations is to either implement narrowly or to over engineer! The key here, is to work as startups do -- think big, start small and iterate from there. It's important to have a vision of the various ways you see people interacting. At the same time it's important to start with small, high impact rollouts, iterating constantly towards the final goal. One of the highlights of my talk at DevLearn will be around how ThoughtWorks has iterated over the last decade or so, to come up with a learning infrastructure that meets our organisational needs.

Don't just think Technology
If you follow this blog, then you may have read one of my older posts about social learning patterns that are not technology dependent. The key to remember that social learning is not entirely about the technology that enables it. The beauty of technology is that it helps transcend geographies. That said being social is hardly dependent on technology alone. It depends on the culture you create and the opportunities they get each day to learn in a social context. In that blogpost, I've outlined seven patterns to facilitate social learning in the enterprise without an over-reliance on technology:
  1. Reface your team spaces to encourage conversations, sharing and collaborative problem-solving.
  2. Try brown bag lunches where people can share the latest and greatest that they've learnt about in recent days.
  3. Try Pecha-Kucha nghts to provide people a forum to share their ideas in a fun way, in a short amount of time.
  4. Open Space conferences can be a light-weight mechanism for people to pull learning in a group setting.
  5. Offsites are a great way to socialise and learn from a large number of people with varying expertise.
  6. Bar Camps and similar unconferences are an excellent way to self-organise learning amongst large groups.
  7. Internal Conferences could be your way to have people share good practices in a contextualised setting for learning.
I'm sure you'll have several more ideas about social learning without technology, so feel free to drop in your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

Find the Evangelists, Ignore the Bozos, Respond to the Critics

Social learning strategies are nothing without the people behind the scenes. Nothing that you do is likely to be everything to everyone. It's important to seek out the people that believe in the power of the social media approach to not just evangelise the methods but also to community manage in the initial stages. It's a huge mistake to believe that if you put usable tools in place, adoption will follow. It's crucial to get the people most excited about your approach, behind the initiative.

Guy Kawasaki, in The Art of Innovation advises us to not let the bozos grind us down. The idea is to understand that you can't make everyone happy and there'll be those who will tell you it can't be done. For starters at least, it's important to ignore them and move on. If your ideas are good enough, the evangelists will help you win and adoption will follow. That being said, your critics (not the bozos) are the ones telling you they care for your success. So respond to your critics' concerns over time - don't pressure yourself to do it all in one go, but commit yourself to addressing their concerns. Critics can often be opinion leaders too - so winning them over is a way to get a new evangelist!
Todays post is inspired by Marcia and Tony's new book and I strongly recommend you pick up a copy. The amount of research the two authors have done is quite amazing and is well worth your reading time. I'll leave you at just that and remind you to catch me up if you bump into me at DevLearn 2010 in two weeks. Some news about that - I'm facilitating two Breakfast Bytes in addition to my concurrent session:
  • Thursday, Nov 4, 2010: Social Learning Patterns in the Enterprise
  • Friday, Nov 5, 2010: Vampires, Werewolves and Silver Bullets - Understanding and Dealing with the Myths of e-Learning
Join me at those - I'm really looking forward to learning socially from you!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Speaking with Passion and Connection


Two weeks back my friend, colleague and naturalist, Chirdeep Shetty presented a really vivid Pecha-Kucha talk called "The Truth about Tigers". It was a particularly inspiring talk - in fact, Chirdeep is my latest new hero for the passion that and connection that he spoke with that day. Chirdeep's talk and a few other such presentations that I've seen in recent months have made me think about the importance of infusing passion into our speaking and to heighten the sense of connection between us and our topics. In today's blogpost, I want to highlight my observations about this craft.

Presenting Naked - The words of the "Zen Master"
Garrey Reynolds' upcoming book, "The Naked Presenter" has to be one of my most awaited book on the subject of presentation skills. A few years back Garr blogged about making your next presentation 'naked'. His inspiration was the Japanese culture of community baths. A few weeks prior, he also spoke at Duarte Design about presenting naked - an obvious lead up to his book, but pretty awesome all the same. While the metaphor is a bit disconcerting to start with, it's a very strong message once you start thinking about it. The idea, as per Garr - "to soak with others in your in-group is to freely expose everything and communicate the naked truth." The 'naked truth' isn't always the sweetest pill to swallow as we learnt in Chirdeep's talk, where he wasn't afraid one bit, to expose the brutal methods that poachers use to kill our national animal.

Chirdeep has spent months at some of our most famous forests and has even followed a tiger on foot. His knowledge and love for the big cat showed as he educated us about the animal, it's prey, it's behaviour, it's endangered status, and the reasons why we should do our best to save this magnificent animal. It's easy with Chirdeep's exposure, to try and impress the audience with your knowledge - instead, Chirdeep chose to tell an honest story that was inspiring, informative, persuasive and motivational. I'm so inspired just listening to Chirdeep that I'm undertaking an arduos two-week big cat trail in the heat of summer 2011 just to see these animals in their natural habitat. Maybe then, I can speak about them as eloquently as Mr. Shetty does.

Pictures and Stories - Natural Connections

Some of the high-points of Chirdeep's talk were the images he showed and stories that he told. Most of the pictures on his slides were his own. When explaining the behaviour of the cats, he mentioned the solitary and territorial nature of the tigers - in that fact, this picture is a rare contrast and highlights one of the beautiful moments of wildlife photography. As Chirdeep told us his story as a naturalist and supported it with pictures of his own, it created an extremely strong connection to the topic for us. For Chirdeep, it created a strong, natural connection for him as well. It wasn't a topic that he was talking about anymore, it was his passion! The fact that the words just rolled of his tongue, showed how deeply he understood the topic, and the stories and pictures made the topic more personable.

I've mentioned this in a previous blogpost - stock imagery is great, but nothing beats a high-quality photograph that you took yourself. The dynamism of amateur photography completely surpasses the polished and therefore staged look of stock photography. In a similar manner, facts and figures about a topic are informative, but nothing tugs at the heart more than a real, true to life story!

How can you bring in Passion and a Natural Connection to your talk?
When I speak about the topic of presentations, I often mention a few key things to ensure when you're delivering a talk. I'll try to list them out here.
  • Think of what excites you about your topic: Don't do a talk because you have to. Do it because you want to and genuinely believe. If you don't feel strongly about a topic, then don't present - send an email or create a rich document. You'll save your audience the trouble.
  • Show, don't tell: If you look at one of the most effective speakers of our time - Steve Jobs always has a flair for showing things instead of just telling us about them. Take a look at his talks in 1984 and after his return in 1998 and 1999 and his more recent Macbook Air introduction, you'll realise that he likes to touch and feel what he's talking about. Now Chirdeep couldn't have brought a real tiger into the room, but he brought in what was closest - pictures from his time in the forest.


  • Tell stories, don't give information: In 2005, Stanford saw a different side of Steve Jobs. This wasn't the 'naked' keynote speaker in a turtle neck. This was a man back from cancer, standing at a lectern and delivering a commencement address. While the setting wasn't particularly awe-inspiring, the speech was a lesson in earnest story telling. Steve Jobs' message to the graduates was to go and pursue their dreams, regardless of how foolish they may seem. He started his address saying, "Today, I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it - no big deal." That's exactly what the talk was about - three stories about his life that made him the success he is today. Back in the day he couldn't have connected the dots forward, but looking back, everything makes sense. He ended the talk with his now popular message, "Stay hungry, stay foolish." The message has stuck with me for the last five years, because of the power of Jobs' storytelling. I'm sure all of us can make messages stick if we told stories with similar conviction.
  • The state of "No mind": One of my vivid Hollywood memories is a scene from The Last Samurai. In the scene, Tom Cruise keeps faltering when he spars using the Samurai sword and Shin Koyamada comes from the audience asking him to blur our everything that he's thinking about to get into the state of 'no mind'. I believe that's a particularly useful lesson for presenters. We can obsess about each detail when we prepare and design our talks. But as we step on stage, we need to shut our mind to the million distractions and prompts and focus on having fun and connecting with our audience. Yes, you may occasionally falter and yes there'll be the odd mess up. Take it in your stride and continue to have fun. If you don't show it, often your audience will not notice it. And if they do notice it, your best bet to carry on unhindered is if they're having fun. They can't have fun if you aren't, can they?

The topic of presentations is something really close to my heart and I love thinking and continually practicing the craft. I'm particularly inspired by earnest, honest and 'naked' presenters and I'm sure that happens to you too. Are there some tips you'd like to share about today's topic? I'd love to hear from you, so please drop your nuggets of wisdom onto the comments section of this post. In fact, feel free also to drop in any feedback you may have for this article. I'm doing my best to get back to a regular schedule, so your commentary will be worth it's weight it gold!

Saturday, October 09, 2010

350 - Our Survival Buzzword


This isn't the kind of stuff I usually blog about, but it's high time I used whatever little reach I have from my blog to voice some collective concerns about our rising carbon footprint. Months back, I started following an organisation called 350.org. The premise is quite simple - our carbon footprint is increasing steadily at a rate of 2 particles per million (ppm) each year. We're already way above the healthy limit of carbon in the atmosphere - 350 ppm. Given our current reading of 392 ppm, in two decades we're going to see some pretty drastic consequences if we don't act fast. What could some of those consequences be? Let's take a look:
  • Rising sea levels are likely to wipe out little countries and islands like Maldives. That means several people displaced from their homes, several people dying.
  • The earth is going to be a far hotter and inhospitable place for life - the greenhouse effect
  • Melting glaciers and ice-caps are going to create several domino effects on our climate and bio-diversity.
  • The extreme heat is likely to cause an overheating of the earth's crust, leading to earthquakes, tsunamis, volcano eruptions and what not.
  • The extreme heat is likely to lead to the worst droughts imaginable. In 2008, Australia has already suffered one it's worst droughts in a 1000 years!
  • Forest fires are going to become more and more common, leading to a huge loss of flora and fauna.
We could keep going, but I guess it's safe to say that the potential effects are quite scary. Now we can argue that all of this is conjecture and I'll stand on your side if you say that - no problem. The question I still want to ask is -- will you risk even a small chance that your next generation will not be able to see and enjoy this world as you do today? Just as my grandparents did for my parents and my parents did for me, I want to give my children (not here yet) an opportunity for a better life than I lead. I for one, am not going to leave that to chance. So I'm putting my stake in the ground and taking a stance. And frankly, so should everyone else because at the very minimum it takes nothing more than making a little noise.

We can all do our little bits
In 2006, Al Gore talked about averting a climate crisis and urged individuals to do the little things that could make a difference. The fact is that the developed world needs to take a lead in this as the developing world tries to catch up. Even by looking at the good old 80/20 rule, we can tell that we need to put our effort where the highest impact is. An example here is that each US citizen puts out 20 tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year! That's a whopping amount considering that people in India and Africa don't even put out a ton each year. The global average is five tons per person!

But the point isn't about who's responsible. The point is more that we all should do our bit, simply because we can. Take a shower instead of a bath, ride a two wheeler instead of driving a four-wheeler, join a carpool, go solar where you can, buy fuel efficient lighting, buy carbon offsets when you travel, raise awareness through social media, create political pressure. Every little effort makes a difference.

We can Innovate to Zero Emissions!
Frankly, the technology is out there. Bill Gates pointed this out in his TED talk about innovating to zero carbon emissions by exploiting carbon free energy sources. This is a crucial bit of investment that developed countries need to make, so they can bring down their emissions and then set the tone for technology adoption in developing countries. That said, the governments will have no incentive to do this if we don't make enough of a noise about it. It's a fairly simple equation - the carbon footprint will keep increasing as more people have access to services. The widespread availability of technology is a good thing and we can ensure that our growth remains sustainable as long as we can fund the research that'll bring down carbon emissions substantially in the next three or four decades. Your voice counts in making this research funding meaningful for governments to invest in.
The reason I'm blogging about this today is because today's the Global Work Party. Starting now, people at 7347 events in 188 countries are getting to work on the climate crisis. You can join one of these events as well. It's never too late! Make people hear your voice, raise awareness -- here's your way to change the world in a small way!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Starting a Training Program - 5 Things to Keep in Mind

I have been training for ages now. Some of the things I do have almost become part of muscle memory for me. I've always thought I do this well, but I hadn't quite nailed down what I really do when starting training programs. Well begun is half done, and I believe starting training is more than just calling out where the restroom is. It's about setting the tone for the days to come and to be able to introduce a safe environment for training. In today's blogpost I want to share some tips that you may want to consider when starting a training program of your own.

Throw in some ColourPeople like colour, and people like pretty pictures. On day one I don't want my colleagues to walk into a black and white, drab looking, dimly lit room. So I obsess over the colourful pictures on the flipcharts that I put in the room, I take extra care to ensure that there's bright lighting and I like to have a lot of colourful stickies for students to use in the classroom. Sketch pens and crayons on the table depict an environment of fun and play, so I often throw them in for equal measure. Some of the photos you'll see here are indicative of the things you'll see us do at ThoughtWorks University.

Get People to Know each other
The one thing you don't want is for your group of learners to be strangers to each other. People tend to work well with those they know so I do what I can to have people get to know something special about each other. One of the activities I use for this is a game called "Find Someone Who...". I'm sure you can guess what it is - it's a game where I snoop around on Google, Twitter, the blogosphere and Facebook to find interesting facts about each of my students. I then randomly put them onto a sheets which I give to the attendees. Now they need to talk to each other and find a unique name to put against each interesting fact. This becomes a nice opportunity for all of them to know each other a little better and to showcase their personalities a bit too. I've seen that this works well as a start for a training program even when people know each other. There's always a lot of things colleagues don't know about each other, so a little mingle at the start can never hurt.

Set the rules of engagement
Every workplace has it's ground rules. Training in it's own way is a workplace too and needs it's own ground rules. I like to agree these rules with the group when we start off, so that we can work together with a few clear assumptions in mind. What I do like to do however, is not make these sound like dictatorial statements. If you look at this picture, you'll see that I like to word these in a fun manner and I throw in a lot of colour so the ground rules don't seem like I took them out of a bland corporate handbook.

Level the Playing Field
I usually don't like to make too much of a difference between instructors and students in a course. The more students start to see instructors as just experienced peers, the more they're likely to participate openly in training. At ThoughtWorks, we like students to challenge the instructors and that's why we position ourselves more as facilitators than just subject matter experts. To achieve this, we do a few things:
  • Give the students an opportunity to become teachers through Open Spaces. This also an opportunity for them to define their own curriculum.
  • I have trainers participate in initial activities with the students to set them up as equally fallible individuals in the experience.
  • The rules of engagement applies as much to trainers as to the students. This helps everyone realise that we're in the experience as equals.
Make things big and visible
Last but not the least, it's important that your audience is aware of what the schedule for each day is. It helps them prepare their minds for what's coming up and gives them clear expectations. Even when collecting individual hopes and concerns I like to make them big and visible so people can feed off each other's thoughts. We also keep a visible parking lot for off-topic conversations and if that starts to fill up in a huge way then that's a clear indication that the group needs to have these conversations soon. All our planning for Pecha Kucha nights and Open Space sessions happen in a big, visible fashion. This democratises the learning environment and helps the students be as involved as the trainers, in making the program successful.

I'm pretty sure I'm missing some very obvious details that go into giving your training program a successful start. So if you've got something you'd like to add to this list, please be my guest and drop your notes in the comments section. BTW, I'm sorry about the recent irregularity with my blogposts. I promise to get back to a more predictable schedule from next week. In the mean time, I'm extremely glad to announce that I'm speaking at DevLearn 2010 at San Francisco. I'm both excited and nervous about the opportunity since this is my first time speaking at an eLearning Guild conference. I promise to try and put up a good show there though, so if you're at the conference do drop in to my session and give me some confidence!
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