Our culture mythologises creativity while, simultaneously, putting up barriers which prevent people from reaching their creative potential.
As much as “innovation” has been put on a pedestal, enshrined in corporate vision statements and funded by private, state and transnational investors, most companies still do the thing they have always done, in the way they have always done it. We keep hanging on to the coattails of the status quo, for good psychological reasons – fear of failure, various biases – but also because most people, most of the time, do not really understand the direct connection between business innovation, imagination and creativity.
We applaud the achievements of star artists, musicians, designers, architects but that is as far as our appreciation, and our understanding of creativity usually go. The process is reduced to admiration of talent and awards for spectacular success. Creativity is for the chosen few. With talent. And special abilities. It’s just not a thing for average people. Right? Wrong.
We celebrate creativity and applaud the achievements of those star artists, designers and entrepreneurs, but when it comes down to it we accept the new and exciting only once it has been well tested by others.
In the meantime, instead of trying the untried, dreaming up the new, we continue to attend fabulous events and reading blog posts by thought leaders, who continue to tell us that innovation is a good thing, and we must all do it. Yay! It really is like putting lipstick on a pig.
It’s a wonderful idiom “putting lipstick on a pig.” Trying to make something that is too difficult and too ugly seem better by pretending that if you put gloss on it, you’ve done the hard work. Lots of effort, lots of shine, but practically no real effect.
Somehow, putting lipstick on the pig has become the central activity to such a degree that we no longer see the pig, just the lipstick.
If a business is to survive the next five years and then thrive for the subsequent decade, assuming it is in an industry that has a future and that it is run by competent professionals, it has to draw on the collective creativity of all of its people, and all of its customers. It has to see fishing in this collective pool of ideas as a strategic asset, not a thing you do on team building weekends. Can you remember the last time when you spent a week working on something completely new, doing things in ways which were different from the usual ways of doing things, connecting with people outside of your normal circle of colleagues?
Creativity is in part about connecting what is in our heads with ideas from “the edge” and seeing patterns and linkages which may not be apparent to anybody else at the time.
What is required are ways to release the inherent creativity of your people and a system which builds on people’s natural strengths by centering on the psychology of individuals and groups. It needs to be simple in its fundamentals, and a “natural” thing to run. The point of innovation thinking is to allow people in your organisation to have insights about what can be done better, with a system in place to inspire them to do so, collect those insights when they come, and work with them.
Creative professionals have very real value to the business world just beyond that boundary line where art and commerce ordinarily meet.
The value which creative professionals can bring to the table, in addition to providing their specialised services, is in assisting executives in being able to look into the future and to train their people to work in this quickened, confusing, rapidly changing digitally transformed context that surrounds us. Creative professionals can answer the call when someone asks “take me, where I haven’t been.”
Creativity is not about finding new ways to put lipstick on a pig but about ways to make the pig a better pig.
This is the reason why I do what I do – or rather a number or reasons, all pulling in the same direction.
This text is an edited version of a talk I have given several times at conferences large and small, including gatherings of hundreds of bankers, and a dozen or so telecommunication executives. The message is always the same – to innovate you need new ideas, to get new ideas you need people and places you do not necessarily meet or see every day, and the best people here are artists and creatives of all kinds.
Boma Global has taken off. From a standing start, we are now in eight countries and can expect to be growing fast and making an impact worldwide over the coming years.
Boma is a format and content company. We are a global network of local partners and deliver value through executive education, public and in-company events, long-term engagement programmes and community building. We work with business leaders, public administration professionals, entrepreneurs & young people so that in a world of continuous, dramatic change we all can be more intentional and intelligent about the future.
I will be contributing blog posts to both the global site and the Polish site, and posting the links on this blog so they’re easy to find.
The Digital Economy Lab at the University of Warsaw is a research unit responsible for some very valuable work in that space where business and digital technology intersect. Their report “Wsparcie dla przemysłu 4.0 w Polsce” (in Polish) deals with the fundamentals of that ecosystem in the country. I contributed several quotes in the course of a workshop we held at the Lab as part of the research.
Our team was one of the first outside of the US to grab the idea of creating a “mini-TED” of our own – I think we were event number 59 in the World. Since then well over twenty thousand of such gatherings, big and small, have taken place all over the globe, and we have contributed our annual flagship event TEDxWarsaw, and numerous others, including the first ever TEDx inside the seat of a head of state, the TEDxWarsawPresidentialPalace in 2014.
Part an excuse to talk to fascinating people, part an experiment in making sure volunteer teamwork is beneficial and enjoyable to everyone on the team, TEDxWarsaw was an important part of life for many tens of team members for over a decade. After a hiatus, the event is back as at 2021 – though I’m now what’s called Curator Emeritus 🙂
For the benefit of those who are still running events such as ours, here are some thoughts on what worked, and how to make sure it does for you, too. This was written following our very first TEDxWarsaw, held at Warsaw University’s Old Library in March 2010.
This is a long post. I thought I could break it up but then thought the better of it. If you are organising a TEDx event — or any other small conference with people speaking and presenting — this is for you, and I’m hoping it contains enough information to carry you to the end of the piece, so read on.
More important than anything else is to pick a good team. It is entirely possible to arrange everything yourself but it will take a lot longer and the results will not be as good as they could be otherwise, so don’t try it. To a degree the team may self-select, with passionates getting in touch with you as soon as you receive your license confirmation. Let it happen, even if — or actually especially if — they seem too young, too inexperienced, too whatever. Trust me on this. Far better to have someone passionate and enthusiastic driving forward than to try and convince a reluctant “experienced pro” to put their weight behind the project. Of course, the ideal would be to have both and at TEDxWarsaw we were fortunate to have a great mix of skills and levels of experience. Passion to get it done to the highest possible standard needs to be the underlying force and it goes without saying that excellence is a starting point and not a goal to be reached. Team leaders listen up: if you want several months of intensive leadership training then putting together a TEDx event is one of the best ways to get this 🙂
The three critical areas in terms of putting together a successful event are choice of speakers, choice of venue and choice of participants. Get these three mostly right and any whizz-bang technology or award-winning stage design (as nice as they are) will only add to an already outstanding event. Get one of them wrong and there is little that technology or design will be able to do to compensate. How to go about choosing the participants is covered elsewhere on the Net so here I’ll concentrate on the other two points.
The quality of speakers is the single most important aspect of the day, and the single easiest to get wrong. Selection of speakers needs to begin months before the day. Make lists, put out a call for suggestions and pick someone appropriate and, preferably, experienced in dealing with a large number of fragile egos, and have them manage the speaker selection. That does not mean one person can, or should, do all of the work. It means speakers, and team, need clarity in terms of who is responsible for what — which of course goes for all the other roles to which people will need to be assigned. (I threatened the team that if it were left up to me then the entire schedule would be filled with feminists and jazz musicians and I was only half-kidding. It’s important to have several voices making decisions on whom to include and whom to leave out, for all the best reasons of variety, scheduling and ‘flow’ as well as on the simple basis of their presentation and speaking skills.) Make up a list of likely speakers, follow up, cull, discuss within your core team, make a decision, then repeat the process.
Speakers will likely fall into one of three categories: 1 — happy to contribute, “where do I sign up?” 2 — socially-minded and happy to contribute with a little explanation 3 — primadonnas. Needless to say, the last category is best left to itself since pushing a reluctant primadonna up a hill with a pointy stick is not something we usually have a lot of time for. Leave them to their primadonnaness. Their loss, not yours.
Have a couple more speakers lined up than you think your schedule can accommodate, and don’t “lock in” the speakers’ roster publicly till a few days out since someone will probably remember a wedding they’d committed to attending or get confirmation for that long-awaited lecture tour abroad. Conversely, keep the schedule as fluid as possible for as long as possible since excellent speakers will appear at the last moment and one of your afternoon speakers will desperately need to moved to the first morning session.
Communicate with your audience as frequently as you can. Whenever you have something to say, good, bad, or indifferent, post it, blog it and tweet about it. Train your audience to head for your website once or twice a week to get the latest lowdown. Following the same logic, announce speakers in batches instead of waiting for the last moment to announce everyone. Each speaker will have their own band of friends or followers who will do much of the publicity for you. Work with your speakers, prompt them to tweet or blog as soon as the are confirmed. Make the announcements using every channel available — do not assume that everyone reads your Twitter stream or your Facebook updates. Use every means you have to get the information out there, and make sure all team members are doing the same to get the news out to your entire social graph and to build buzz. Before, during, and after the day keep pushing speakers (and other, of course) to blog, tweet and generally talk about it. After a while, the conversation will build up momentum and volume. Check out some of our tweets — it’s all about keeping up a steady level of energy…
Assuming that your event is a general interest conference rather than one concentrating on a specific range of subjects, then hugely important to its success will be a good balance and mix of disciplines, approaches and levels of expertise of the speakers. At TEDxWarsaw we had several PhDs as well as some very young speakers, just starting out in their careers or fields of study. This allowed us to cater to our broad audience in terms of both a range of subjects as well as emotional identification with the speakers. It worked well.
In order to build your programme you need to make up a day schedule as early as possible (as a spreadsheet or database), complete with the number of minutes everyone gets. Allow for two minutes between speakers and follow the TED guidelines as to the length of sessions and breaks between them. We had a very full, and exhausting, schedule of over twenty speakers and a dozen TED talks or so. By the end of the day everyone was spent but elated.
How to help your speakers reach their best is covered elsewhere, not least in TED’s own materials as well as the TEDx wiki which is available for licensees, so I will skip those subjects. A word on presentations, however: give yourself twice as much time to correct all of the speakers’ presentations as you think you will need, then keep hounding them relentlessly. Once the speaker has agreed to participate, they are subject to the same rules as everyone else. This includes handing over much of their creative and technical control over the presentation to the team. For most speakers this will be a relief! Even experienced professionals are often at a loss as to present their ideas succinctly. If at all possible you should have a highly trained graphic designer on hand to fix up most of the presentations. In some case this will mean starting from scratch… Such is life.
All presentations need to have a uniform title slide with the speaker’s name in the selected house style. In our case we decided to draw direct on the design vocabulary of TED, with Helvetica in two weights, no spacing between words, and so on. Study this aspect of the project. A little extra effort pays off on the screen. Not enough effort takes down an otherwise excellent day by a peg or two. That’s the unfortunate reality.
As early as possible create a written document with as much information and ‘pointing the way’ for your speakers as you have to hand. Update it regularly and send it to each speaker as they are confirmed. Other documents that you will find useful will be a questionnaire which you send to speakers following the initial approach, and a call sheet / schedule of the day, to make sure everyone knows precisely when they’re on. Some speakers may ask you to put them in before or after others in order to get extra synergies from the talks playing off each-other. Go with it if the schedule allows it. Cool things will happen.
A few more bullet points:
Find musicians who will amaze the audience. Our accordion and cello duet was truly astonishing, and I’ve heard a lot of music in my day.
Challenge the audience at every step — with the choice of speakers and their ideas. Showing up at a TEDx event should not leave the participants luke-warm. If they’re merely politely grateful, you have not done your job. They should either love it, or strongly disagree.
Mix disciplines. We had a monk, a nationally known actress and a horse whisperer among our speakers, and they were fantastic.
Open and finish with the strongest speakers.
Allow plenty of time for screening of TED talks and discussion between the live sessions. The whole point of doing this is to get people talking.
If you are not able to pin down someone you particularly want, keep in touch with them and make sure they know about the next event. Timing may be on your side then.
The venue needs to follow the Goldilocks principle and be “just right” for the event. That means the first thing you have to do is to figure out what kind of even you want to stage. In our case, being the first in the country plus staging it in the capital city we figured it was only fitting to do something fairly large and well produced. That, naturally, meant a venue with appropriate capacity and facilities. At TEDxWarsaw we are fortunate to have the unstinting support of the University of Warsaw who has provided a large and comfortable auditorium, with adjacent spaces, and an industrial strength internet connection. At the other end of the scale, if you are producing a TEDx for your local community an auditorium such as ours would be entirely inappropriate — a school hall, community centre, art gallery etc. would work far better. Pick a venue that is easy to get to on public transport, has decent parking nearby for those arriving by car, is easy to find (a major thing to get right since the majority of people will not have been to it before) and is close to a restaurant or lunch bar, if you are doing an all-day event but are not providing sustenance. People will need to eat, drink and then, naturally, find somewhere to take care of the other end of that process 😉
You will probably screw something up. We did. Not a major thing but we’d thought we sent out about a dozen invitations too many and were worried people might not find a seat if they did show up, so we recalled the invitations and offered a full apology. As it happened, we learned that you need to overbook by 10% anyway since even those who have confirmed will show up late or not at all. So this would not have been an issue, had they shown up.
Technical advice on projectors, cameras, audio gear and all those other bits of technology we come to reply on can easily be found elsewhere so I won’t double up on that subject here. Here, however, are some of the software tools we have used:
File sharing: DropBox — a file sharing utility well integrated into your desktop; a fundamental necessity for sharing files with the team without emailing them
Information management: Spreadsheets — you can use Google Docs of course, very simple to set up and run. We happened to save in Excel format though I open spreadsheets in Numbers and a lot of team members use Open Office.
Presentations: all of the presentations received in PowerPoint or other formats were corrected in Keynote, then exported as pdf to preserve typeface integrity
Communications: Skype for VOIP, Gabble for instant messaging
So much of what passes for “innovation” is essentially stuck on the same tracks as ever — merely doing more of the same, just faster or cheaper. That is not quite enough, any more, given that radical new solutions are required in virtually every area of commerce and culture. Yet, the very phrase “radical innovation” causes many to feel a definite chill down the spine. It need not be so scary.
At its core, an effective innovation programme is about balancing the absolute uncertainties of the new with the perceived certainties of the established. Its main aim must be to identify potential value and place it within the context of what the organisation ought to do right now so as to be able to capture that value in the future. Value in terms of not just money but also, to name just a few possible items, ease of recruitment of high quality people, cost reduction and ‘good karma’ of sustainable practices, lowered customer churn, and so on. Ultimately, many of those translate into ROI of money earned or saved, but it is important to not artificially limit the scope of the ideas which, we hope, will be generated. Innovation is the natural outcome of putting the right building blocks together. The building blocks are the right people, the right mindspace and the right tools and spaces — both physical and virtual.Without those building blocks, it has little chance of finding traction on the inside, making it very difficult to find traction for products and services on the outside.
If you allow a group of change agents to emerge, give them training and responsibility, autonomy and challenge, you will be creating conditions for innovation to arise.
If you start from a position of encouraging curiosity and rewarding learning by trial and error (which some writers have termed “failearning”) you will be conditioning your people to open up their thought processes and step beyond short-term thinking, which means that innovation has the right mental background from which to arise.
Tools and spaces:
If you devote some physical real estate to spaces designed to promote group creative processes, you will be building an “architecture of possibility” (a phrase now often used) where innovation cannot help but arise. In a post-COVID world this may seem verging on impossible, yet the need for such spaces — real or virtual — is more urgent than ever. (And I suspect, with waning demand for standard issue “office real estate”, these types of innovation spaces will pop up with increasing frequency, both within companies and outside of them.)
The place where you want to end up is where innovating is as much a natural part of your business operations as planning and execution. Each business which wishes to still be in business by this time next decade, has to cultivate such an internal culture of innovation thinking. Unfortunately, this state of being still remains something of a theory for most companies, even post-COVID.Innovation is about the needs of clients, the process of satisfying those needs, and the pressure to compete in order to get there quickly. It is never just about the enabling tools but rather about overcoming groupthink, reducing delaying tactics and changing ingrained habits. It is often enabled by technology but is rarely solely about the technology.
The tools change constantly but the process continues, and the pressure to compete remains. This is against a background of our, human, natural tendency to seek order and simple explanations, while the world and everything in it is complex, and getting more so. Combine this with the desire for smooth social interaction and for phenomena to fit into existing patterns, and we can see where groupthink can easily sneak in. Add stress to the mix, and you can almost guarantee that things will go pear-shaped. For example, stress-induced groupthink has been attributed as one of the main factors behind the 1986 Challenger disaster, with team members putting higher value on consensus than on prudent dissent. Total focus on a goal at the expense of systems thinking and ongoing critical appraisal of the situation — have you seen it before?
Delaying is also seen as a rational tactic by many companies — “let’s just see how things pan out.” So is sticking to a very narrow view of what may constitute innovation. In a July 2014 article, a team of three researchers described a sobering, if unsurprising, discovery. Titled “Managers Reject Ideas Customers Want”, the article carried one key message: companies continue to turn out what they see as feasible products and services, and then wave their marketing magic wands to try and make people buy those products and services. “It makes sense that companies would be attracted to feasible ideas, but we found strong evidence that they are not what customers want” said one of the researchers, Jennifer Mueller.
Company leaders, for good psychological reasons, like to believe that they are being innovative when, in fact, they are choosing to make achievable products and services instead. Unfortunately, this is a slippery slide towards being disrupted by competitors who perceive the playing field altogether differently and ignore all the rules.
Seeing innovation as either a miracle pill or attractive bunting does nothing to fix the deep lack of innovative thinking which is required in every company which was not “born digital.” Pretend innovation may “make the people feel better for a while” — I have had this very sentence said to me by a client, so I am not making this up — but it gets the company not an inch closer to actual innovation thinking. If anything, it gets it further away, since the play-acting at innovation may be actually taken for real innovation, leaving no room, or perceived need, for any actual innovation to take root. Lipstick on a pig. Digital transformation, that context which envelops all business activity now, whether business leaders are aware of it or not, is both the threat, and the opportunity which must govern how you see your business.
The “sudden” and “unprecedented” river of change in which we are swimming is anything but sudden and unprecedented. The only thing that has changed is the pace of the flow.
“Capitalism is the midst of an epochal transformation from its previous model to a new one based on creativity and knowledge.” So reads the opening sentence of the 2015 Global Creativity Index, produced for the Rotman School of Management by a team headed up by the well-known urban studies theorist Richard Florida. We may argue the finer details, and Florida’s ideas have had their fair share of criticism, but the larger point made by the writers is the connection between creativity and “sustainable prosperity.” The Index invariably makes interesting reading in its entirety, but its key message can be summarised in one simple bullet point: countries which rank highly in the Global Creativity Index, report high levels of entrepreneurial activity, and their GDP and standards of living consistently outperform other countries. Creativity, however we care to define it, is good for business.
The greatest paradox about creativity is that it is at once immensely difficult and childishly easy. It is difficult because the process is usually riddled with self-doubt, its fundamental building material is patience, and its milestones are consecutive failures, each often greater than the last. There is no creativity without trying and failing, and trying again. It is easy because we are all inherently creative. Not in the sense of Leonardo-creative, but possessing the impulse to seek out new ideas. Whether it is planning a mission to Mars or putting together a team to tackle a stubborn production line problem, we are endlessly curious and eager to find new solutions. There is also, of course a caveat — being inherent in all of us, does not at all make it simple.
Coming from the world of creative industries and technology startups I hold a particular set of views about the value of creativity, placing it at the foundation level as the sine qua non of modern business. But I also have a clear understanding of just how difficult it is to continue to come up with good, valuable ideas. I’ve written about it many times, including this recent piece. It is hard enough to do when the problem is known. When the problem is fuzzy, the circumstances changeable and you have no clear idea of how to even start, it becomes really difficult.
Ultimately, creativity is about opening up your mind enough to make new connections between new stuff and the stuff you already know. Other processes are responsible for the sorting and application of any good ideas which may come up — filtering, selecting, adjusting and finally using them — but creativity is about swimming in the sea of possibility and catching any waves that come at us. Rather than any quaint ideas of “being creative” it has to do with self-confidence, however riddled with self-doubt it may be. It is also about inventing new tools along the way; tools which include new language — this is a process which is happening all the time.
Enlightened business leaders realise that their people need help and inspiration to access their creative resources. They also realise that accessing those resources is their best weapon in the competitive struggle against teams which have shown themselves as more effective in adopting innovative practices, or who have had a head start. Unlocking creative resources is the key to faster decision making, deeper and more varied sources of new ideas for products and services, and a higher level of employee morale. Companies are therefore hungry for intellectual stimulus and their leaders are searching for new ways to provide it.
Let me celebrate the act of creating language by giving you a present, to help us out in defining the things with which we will be working.
Virtually all books on innovation talk about it being a process of answering questions, solving problems, facing challenges. Naturally, that is so, except this is language which forces definitions on the meanings of words we use. You have a question? You are not complete without an answer. You have a problem? Then a solution is what you seek! You see a challenge before you? Best gird up your loins, stand up straight and look it in the eye. All very harsh, brittle, and demanding response that is precise, immediate and, above all, correct. Which is precisely the polar opposite of what you need by way of mindset when climbing the snaking, rough path towards Mount Innovation, especially in a time when uncertainty and volatility are the only predictable qualities of our new-found reality.
What you need is flexibility and imagination, patience and urgency in equal measures, a new set of skills, and a will to pursue goals which can only become clear once you get nearer to them. If it sounds more like a quest than pursuit of clear-eyed business objectives, that is because it is. Innovation, at its core, demands that you set out for a destination whose location is uncertain, and on the way invent tools and methods to help you get there. It therefore requires a whole new word to describe the thing that you are doing. A new word that doesn’t carry the gut-wrenching expectation of a question, the dread of a challenge, or the uncertainty of a problem.
So here is a present for you — a new word for a new era — there is such a word, and it is quproch. You haven’t heard of it? I’m not surprised. I made it up a couple of years ago as part of a long series of workshops on creative thinking which I delivered for a large e-commerce firm. It is a portmanteau of QUestion PROblem and CHallenge. It contains all three, but has none of the negative connotations or the demanding presence of any of them, since it is a neutral neologism. We can use it to describe “the thing you’re working on now.”
Quproch. There you go. You’re most welcome. By all means, go ahead and invent your own words to help you in arriving at elegant solutions to complex problems.
The father of strategic management, Igor Ansoff, saw identification of weak signals and appropriate response to them as key components of strategy. Coming from a perspective of analysis (he was, after all, a mathematician) he defined a pattern to such identification and response. The essential realisation here is that “sudden” changes are actually not sudden, and there are usually warnings to heed. The five steps are sometimes combined, but the basic sequence is the same:
To begin with, we somehow “get a feeling” about a threat or opportunity.
On sensing it we investigate it and possibly locate the source of the signal.
On considering the signal we form an opinion about its vector (speed and direction) and its essential nature, then formulate responses and consider different scenarios.
After some time, possible outcomes may become clear, at which point…
…we can reformulate our strategy.
Since Ansoff, the idea of weak signals (a term which he coined, incidentally) has waxed and waned in relative importance being given to it by management thinkers and professionals. Over the last few years, foresight practitioners have been emphasising just how crucial detection and analysis of weak signals really is, since it’s precisely at the point of still being weak that emerging threats and possibilities offer us the highest chance for appropriate strategic action. Our current predicament of needing to deal with numerous vectors of change coming at us from different directions all at the same time makes it imperative that we rapidly tune up our weak signal antennae and put in place appropriate rapid response mechanisms. Management practice in the main, however, still requires people to put “clear-cut” arguments and “watertight” cases before the board. Fear is the driving principle, instead of curiosity. Terror of being wrong overshadows, and then kills, any possibility of being right early. Hear that? That was the sound of another opportunity biting the dust.
A major shift in management logic is required – broadening the horizon of what is taught and practiced, to include consideration of weak signals. This is rather difficult, given our roots in the empirical tradition and a business logic which demands rational decisions based on facts.
The point of this shift, however, is not to throw out existing modes of management but to augment them; to enrich and fortify them with approaches and tools more suited to today’s fast pace. It is clear that listening to weak signals, analysing them and acting on insights thus gained should be a course taught at every business school, but it is not. MBA courses continue to flood the executive market place with high quality experts in planning and optimisation, while what we need is vision and imagination. There are, of course, also many examples of leaders who tuned into weak signals and made decisions accordingly, resulting in big wins for their companies. Unfortunately for established enterprises, however, most of those leaders are steering aggressive digitally-enabled startups, and they are coming for you. Very soon, managing exclusively from a perspective of hallowed orthodoxy will become a museum relic and an example of what not to do. The zone of what is possible lies beyond what you know.
There are companies that have implemented similar programmes to great effect. IBM’s “Crow’s Nest” system for listening to weak signals coming in along the periphery of the business and sharing them with top brass is focused on four specific areas, which they call zones: globalisation, networks, customer diversity and time compression. Your own business environment will govern what those listening areas ought to be for you. Identifying them will be a starting point for the process of setting up a proper “early warning system.”
Working with artists and creative professionals can help. In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan wrote: “The power of the arts to anticipate future social and technological developments, by a generation or more, has long been recognised. This concept of the arts as prophetic, contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression.” He was very precise in his evaluation of art as a weathervane for the future: “I think of art, at its most significant, as a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” Among the many other writers who have voiced similar ideas is the poet and consultant (he is both, really) David Whyte, who echoed this in his book The Heart Aroused: “A good artist, it is often said, is fifty to a hundred years ahead of their time. The artist must depict this new world before all the evidence is in. Leaders must learn the same artistic discipline, they must learn to respond or conceive of something that will move in the same direction in which the World is moving, without waiting for all the evidence to appear on their desks. To wait for all the evidence is to finally recognize it through a competitor’s product.”
Business loves to measure results since measuring is an exact science (if you measure the right things,) and business loves exact science, however the need to combine science with other tools is desperately urgent. Learning to see through complexity and to read ambiguous signals is not a science. It is an art, and as such it can best be learned from artists.
(A guest blog post at Amati & Associates. Education needs rethinking, from the ground up, and fast. Look at how a country educates its students and its adults, and it will be a fair clue as to that country’s likely future success. A new guest post for Amati & Associates, prompted by both Filiberto and me having tried online AI-powered essay writing bots. Take-away: they are so-so for now, but of course will improve very quickly – and which author can say that about own writing ability?)
A lot has changed since Frederick Taylor published his Principles of Scientific Management in 1911. A little over a century later, what was then cutting-edge management practice has been demonstrated to be a most destructive way to think, as predictability gives way to turbulence. What used to ensure employability for people and success for organisations – the ability to perform learned tasks efficiently – is now at the bottom of the list of desired qualities and is soon going to be dropped off the list altogether as automation of everything from production lines to legal compliance takes hold.
At the top of the list are now an ability to learn, flexibility, problem solving skills and above all creativity.
It is entirely natural to feel apprehensive when faced with an auditorium (or even a room) full of people who are sitting quietly, expecting to hear something interesting, informative and even maybe entertaining. It’s therefore unfortunate that we do not usually place enough emphasis on the need to practice effective public speaking. Here are a few notes to help you remember the content of the workshop and use it in your work. Here’s to effective presenting!
We are more scared of public speaking than we are, apparently, of may other things – real or imagined. This fear is a natural result of our biological history and cultural conditioning, but it does not need to be the defining factor in our presentations. The dread of being judged, of stepping in front of your peers, can be conquered. With practice, it is entirely possible to overcome it by remembering that every presentation is less about you than it is about the people you are talking to. And there is no magic involved!
The fundamental point to remember is that public speaking is not simply speaking in public. A presentation is a particular kind of communication and is governed by its own rules. It is not an opportunity to dump all available information in the audience’s lap. It is a very different discipline from written reports or other kinds of communication and it is not a chance to prove how mind-numbingly clever you are, unless you actually want to numb a few minds and turn them off the content of your talk.
An effective presentation is of course about the right content but it is also, in large part, about skillful treatment of the audience (psychology), beautiful, impactful and informative slides (design) and also a bit of showmanship.
A good presentation balances all of those elements and the result you want is that the audience walks away remembering the main points – the essence of what you were talking about. (If they want more information, you should make it easy for them to get it but it is not your job to cram ALL the information into your presentation.)
Concentrate on the key message, repeat it a few times in different forms and remember the old adage : Less is More.
So here are the seven principles behind effective presenting :
Start strong. You need to set the mood, grab the attention, maybe even wake them up if the previous speaker excelled at the skill of putting people to sleep with a boring talk. (The chances of that are, as we know, unfortunately high.)
Keep it simple. Of course, if you are presenting detailed data or offering complex insights to people who are familiar with the subject then do not dumb it down but generally it is more effective to prune the amount of information so as to keep to the main points which they can remember and use. Overload leads to only one thing – the audience forgetting everything you told them as soon as they leave the room.
Pace yourself. Figure out the best speed at which you need to talk, within the time you are given. Do not rush madly through one half of the talk only to realise that you have no material left for the second half. This can be only achieved with proper preparation and several run-throughs so you are familiar with the talk enough to know when to speed up, when to slow down for effect, when to pause to make a point.
Use Emotions. People may forget the details but they will remember the feeling. If you are giving a motivational talk, you want them to walk away, well, motivated! If you are giving a sales presentation, you want them to recall the gist of why they would want to buy the product, and not necessarily all of its features.
Trust design. Principles of good design can – and should – be learned with practice. Use the tools at your disposal : colours, type, graphics, balance and so on. Learn the basics of the craft and you will be able to lean on it, as you would on a good friend!
Tell a story. Nothing captivates the audience like a good narrative. This does not mean necessarily : “Once upon a time…” It means getting personal with your information. If it’s a business presentation this is just as important – people want to know WHY they should care about the thing you are selling. Take them by the hand and tell them a good story.
Practice. Practice. Practice. A famous musician was once stopped in the street by a traveller lost in Manhattan: “excuse me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer was: “practice young man, practice, practice, practice.”
It is an unfortunate truth that presentation is the orphan child of design. Other disciplines have dedicated glossy magazines and superstar designers. We have PowerPoint Templates. I’m here to tell you, Templates Are Evil! They kill any kind of creativity and original thought. They put your mind in a yoke and force you to present your awesome, Earth-shattering ideas as if they were half-boiled pieces of stale cabbage.
Do yourself a favour and trash your templates folder, right now. Because it is hard enough to make people remember what you were talking about without giving them reasons not to!
If you do not want people to remember your presentation, if you do not want to stand out from the crowd then definitely do not trash your templates folder. You’ll be lucky if they remember your name in a month’s time, and your subject in two.
You will help them remember a lot better if you stick to the ABCs of effective presenting: Accuracy, Brevity and Clarity. If this is the only thing you take away from here, remember your ABCs.
The good news is, we all know what makes a bad presentation. The bad news is, people continue to make them, despite knowing the facts.
In order to confirm my long-held suspicions that we all knew what made a poor presentation, I ran a semi-scientific survey a little while ago, asking for top-of-mind responses and then some more information about what people thought made, you guessed it, a boring, useless, badly done presentation. You can get the full low-down on my blog but the nutshell version is that pretty much everyone finds the same few things annoying to the point of being real performance killers. What are those? You know them : mumbling, rushing through the presentation, filling spaces with yyyy, or ummm, or aaahh, having dreadful slides and reading from them, not knowing the subject, not connecting with the audience, and so on. If we all know what makes a poor presentation, let’s all do the exact opposite and let’s start today!
Why do we bother to give presentations? Well, it seems that we do this, usually, for one or more of the following reasons: to motivate people into some kind of action, to persuade them of a viewpoint, to promote a cause, an idea or a product, or to educate them on a particular subject. (Sales presentations may fall into more than one of these categories.) The thing is, if the people you are trying to motivate, persuade and so on, care about the presentation, you are lucky! They probably don’t give a damn. You, on the other hand, do!
So you set out, starting out with what you consider to be the most important aspect of your presentation which is the information it contains. You hope that this information will engender some kind of an emotional reaction, which will result in you having a connection with the audience. Maybe they will end up giving a damn? Unfortunately, that is precisely the opposite order in which to get to that goal. Many studies have shown that in order to impart information in the most effective manner, you need to begin with establishing a connection which leads to an emotional response which only then makes it easy for the audience to “get” what you are saying.
Facts alone do not convince anyone of anything. Read Dan Ariely – probably the most lucid and up-to-date thinker on this subject. We, humans, are emotional creatures. We act on emotion and then fill in the blanks – justify the decision we’ve taken. So use emotions and connect with the audience first. Laugh with them, make them angry if that is appropriate, or show them the lighter side of things if that is the right approach. Every presentation, and every audience, is different. Connect first, only then try to persuade or inform.
So, you’re ready to start, right? You pull out your laptop and fire up your presentation software, right? Wrong! Presentation software is a tool like any other and there is a right time to use it. Now is not the right time. To give an effective presentation (assuming you are doing this alone, as is usually the case) you need to learn the ways of the circus. An effective presenter is all of these four people put together (Yes, horses are people, too.) You need to be the ring-master to be in control of what is going on. You need to be the star performer: they have come to see and hear you and now is the time to shine, so it helps to be a bit of a show pony, too. And, naturally, an ability to throw in humour does help immensely and a wise clown knows just what to do and when to do it in that respect.
The right place to start planning this star performance is on a piece of paper with a simple tool – a pencil or a word processor, not with your presentation software.
Write what you are going to say – this will be your script, to use a filmmaking metaphor. Work on the script until you have covered all your ideas and created roughly enough “words” to fill the time available. (If you don’t know how many words you need, time yourself with a stopwatch: read a couple of pages of double-spaced text and see how long that takes you.) This is your raw material and your starting point.
As our aim is to tell a story, let’s think visually, let’s think like a film director who doesn’t just pull the camera out and yell “action”. A good film starts with good story boards. Now we’re not all great at drawing but if you start sketching out what might go into your slides, based on the script you already have, you will be able to edit the script, alter the order, subtract pieces of it… The message will get crystallised and focused. In fact, in places it may get changed altogether.
You will end up with a series of drawings which will resemble something like this. Put ideas in order, swap them around, add bits to where you think they’re needed, take out anything that takes away from the flow of the message. Here is where you start to build up the pace of the presentation and your friends are scissors and tape, or a stack of post-it notes.
If you follow this methodology, or something similar to it that you feel comfortable using, then at the end of the process you will end up with the main points clearly outlined, ideas fully formed, a few design concepts in place, examples you can call on, resources you need… And, as ever, the aim is to present the ideas as simply as possibly without losing their completeness and sophistication. As old Albie said so well, “If you can’t explain a thing simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
So here you are able to start putting the slides together. (Assuming you need slides. Not all presentations do – and in fact some of the most powerful talks ever given never used slides. Think about Martin Luther King, or John F. Kennedy.) But let’s assume you do need slides, so here we go.
The first thing to understand is that “Design” is not, as it is commonly misconstrued, “Graphics”. Design is providing elegant solutions to complex problems. Graphics are simply a tool which may, or may not, be used.
So where do you start? I’m assuming you have trashed that Templates folder by now and are building your own slides. In fact, once you have arrived at a style which you are happy with, by all means create your own templates (and in fact there are some polished and well thought templates you can buy for Keynote from independent designers if you use a Mac. They are good and definitely not destined for the trash bin! PowerPoint lags behind in that respect somewhat, but there are other alternatives, one of which is the outstanding web-based SlideRocket. Check it out.)
OK. Where to first, remembering that everything matters. Well lets start with type which, obviously, matters a lot, despite the fact that most people treat it with disrespect. Typography is a professional discipline taught at tertiary level but we’ll confine ourselves to a few simple facts and ideas. Firstly, it is important to realise that the world of type is far larger than the measly, narrow choice of a handful of typefaces included as standard on every computer. There are companies which deal in the business of selling typefaces. You buy them online just like you buy music or books, and a large type foundry will have several thousand typefaces in its catalogue. Why? Well may you ask. The answer is simple – to present ideas and information with clarity and legibility appropriate to the medium and to impart emotional impact on the reader.
Have a look at this very basic comparison. The words on the left are all written in the same clean, precise, elegant typeface (Gill Sans, incidentally.) On the right each is in a typeface that somewhat adds emotion to the information of the word itself. Or take this phrase, and how the different typefaces suggest altogether different contexts.
Companies spend good budgets on brand manuals which include extensive directions of which typeface or group of typefaces should be used and how. There is no reason why you, the individual, should not adhere to a similar level of consistency.
While we’re on the subject of text, let’s talk about bullets. Bullets belong in a gun, not in a presentation. This is what bullets look like, and it doesn’t look any better if you further obscure any kind of message with inappropriate colours or graphics which, really, is like putting lipstick on a pig. Bullets take away from clarity instead of, as is usually intended, adding to it.
How do you get around bullets? Show one point per slide. If you have to build up the text, introduce it in stages because the audience can read faster than you can speak, and we know where that leads.
Text, it should be noted, is not the same as information. Presentations should be about the audience getting information out of the talk and not you putting information in. This is a crucial difference. Take a look at this example. A slide is filled with text, which is meant to impart some kind of a point; but the point gets lost. You cannot rely on people to wait till you read the slide for them. And you certainly cannot hope to force them to do it. They will simply miss what you are telling them.
And of course, proof-read everything. Twice.
What else matters? Colours, of course, do. Again, companies take colours very seriously and spend money on applying the right colours consistently, and again there is no reason why you should not use the same approach. Build up a colour palette from your existing resources and use it consistently in your presentations. The audience will see this as polished and professional and they won’t even know why they think that.
Colours impart feeling and we want to create the right feeling to then communicate the right information, right? Somehow the version on the right seems more joyful, for example, than the version on the left!
Balance and consistency matter also. This is fairly simple to achieve if you remember the rule of thirds and don’t get frightened of white space. Slides do not need to be chock-full of elements. In fact it is better if they are not.
Graphics are another thing that matters but here is an area which gets a lot of mistreatment in presentations. If we remember that we are trying to motivate or inform people, then confusing them with too many graphics is probably not a good way to achieve this. Or with graphics that can only be understood by an expert. Of course if they are experts then by all means, use complex graphics, but otherwise they are not going to be much good.
The best graphics are invisible. The best graphics get out of the way and present their information payload without tying to be too clever or complex.
Probably the best example of a graph ever created is this representation of Napoleon’s march on Moscow, laid out against geography and prevailing weather conditions. The beige line is the army marching East. The black line is the retreat. And the thickness of the line signifies the number of soldiers alive at the time. Graphics are not exciting. The information they contain is exciting.
The other thing that is not exciting is technology. Not really. What technology makes possible, that is exciting. So perhaps instead of showing a graphic of a joystick, how about showing what the technology does?
Data is not exciting either, but insight is very exciting. So putting a boring representation of information in a pie chart is not going to make anyone sit up. Since we are talking about pie charts, how about using a pie? Far more memorable and it represents the same data as the previous slide. And if you use type and colours well, you can bring attention to the points you want to emphasise.
Incidentally, when putting colours together in combinations spare a thought for the sizeable portion of the population who do not perceive colours in the same way as the average person.
Graphs are notoriously boring unless they are immediately understood. We are talking about a live presenter in front of a live audience, There is nothing worse than stopping the flow and explaining that the graph is not very good but you thought you would include it because it is important. It may be important but if it doesn’t add to the presentation it takes away from it. So how about using a photo to set the context and simplifying the graph so it shows the main point clearly? If it doesn’t, they will not remember it anyway so it’s a useless waste of your time and theirs.
Speaking of photos, they probably matter more than anything else in a visual presentation, and are also the most maltreated, disrespected, badly used elements of most presentations given on Earth at any one time. Again, companies spend good money on professional quality photography and again, there is no reason why with a little care and attention, you should not be able to stick to high quality standards. And I’m not just taking about using nice pictures of products, if that is what your presentation is about. I’m talking about a higher form of expression – using visual metaphors. How about using a photo like this when talking about the future , or one like this when talking about focus, or one like this about speed and overcoming obstacles? If you start to think visually, the right illustrations to your concepts will come to mind.
Where do you find them? If you have a budget then I would encourage you to pay for them. Photographers have spent their time and creative energy on making those pictures. It’s really nice to be paid for one’s work so go to the myriad stock photo agencies that exist on the web. And buy from the little guys, not just the giants of the business.
If you do not have a budget, do not rip pictures off Google Images. For two reasons – they are not yours to take, and they are likely to not be the right photos anyway. Instead head for places where generous people have actually placed their pictures for others to use, with their permission.
Now that you have the basics let’s answer the burning question of what makes a presentation effective. Effective, meaning not that it has been given and polite applause has been received and a pat on the back given. No, effective meaning the audience walks out of the room having gained at least some of what you were aiming to impart.
At the beginning of a presentation, you and your audience are on opposite sides of a chasm. There is a ravine over which you need to build a bridge and then carry your message to the audience over it.
And you have a limited amount of time in which to do this. So what do you aim for? Best to visualise this problem as the game we used to play when we were kids – connecting the dots. The object of the presentation, the solution to the problem, the main point is that picture which of course exists in your mind but not in theirs. Your job is to make it simple enough for them to connect the dots so they end up with the picture in their heads, too. It’s like holding their hands.
So are you ready to get out there and give that presentation at this stage? Not quite yet. The audience, as we remember, may not actually give a damn about what you have to say. Using every tool in the box, your job is to make them give a damn, How? Well, it helps to find out what every musician wants to know before a performance : who is the audience? Of course you might already know this – which will make it all a lot easier. If you do not, then definitely find out as much as you can as far ahead as you can, because you will likely need to adjust some aspects of the talk to suit the audience. Simplify, tailor, adjust and edit until you know the presentation says exactly what you want to say, in the best way that you think appropriate.
So how do you connect with the audience and give that stellar presentation? Well, you could rely on your charmin’ personality, but a more reliable way is to practice. Bruce Lee used to say “I’m not afraid of the man who’s practiced ten thousand kicks, but of the man who has practiced the same kick ten thousand times.” This does not mean learning to recite the presentation by rote. It does mean starting practice far enough ahead to give your brain time to absorb it enough to be able to say it with fluency and to quickly improvise a workaround if you happen to miss a point.
Mark Twain made more of his income from public speaking than ever from his books, so we can assume he knew what he was talking about when he said: “It takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”
What are the Six Ps of Public Speaking? “Proper Preparation Prevents Pathetically Poor Performance”. So practice to an empty chair, or your dog (if it will sit still for long enough) or your spouse (same proviso…) Practice with a slide clicker in hand and try not to look at your notes unless you really do get stuck. Imagine the room in front of you and be sure to practice out-loud, rather than in a half-mouthed, almost-quiet way. Give ourself two or three run-throughs a day, every other day, for a week and do one last run-through just before going on stage. This is certain to help you overcome that biologically pre-programmed fear we started out with.
The key to digital transformation lies not in more powerful computers, but mostly in changing the attitudes of people and procedures of the organisation.
There are a couple of simple things you can do right now that will signal to your people that you are consciously preparing for digital transformation and that positive change is afoot. The first step is the easiest but has potential for deep long-term shift in the course to be taken by your company. Do you have a mission statement that is longer than one or two punchy sentences? Throw it out and replace it with a few bullet points. Extensive research has demonstrated that it is easier to get people behind a set of precisely articulated values, than trying to have them follow a forgettable mission statement. Big, clearly defined goals are far more effective in increasing performance in people than small ones, or badly defined ones. Yes, it may have taken a long time to formulate it but is it still up-to-date? Has it kept up with the changes in the operating context?
Poland Today is a high quality quarterly which covers the business and cultural scene in the country. Liam Frahm’s story captures well the intricacies of the local startup ecosystem. My quote focused, as I often do, on the communication end of things. You can read the entire story here.
“The one key skill which I see really lacking is communication. Technical skills are never a problem – we have excellent engineers, be it hardware or software – but hardly anybody is able to describe their project in terms that are easily understood by people from the outside. A couple of years ago, I co-organised a series of pitch-offs with TechCrunch where we had local startups present their ideas to bodies of jurors. The quality of some of the projects was outstanding – in fact a couple of them have gone on to get funded and are hitting traction – but all of them struggled to communicate what the essence of the project was, who it was for, and why.”