Category Archives: Communication matters

The power of networking

Many years ago I went to a talk in Cambridge by Hilton Catt, co-author of The Power of Networking. I don’t know whether the publicity was ambiguous or what but, it being Cambridge, there was a digital divide within the audience – one half thought it would be about virtual networks, the other half thought it would be about ‘real’ human networks.

I’m pleased to say it was about the power of the face-to-face – in Hilton Catt’s case, for job-hunting. I was unemployed at the time and, while the evening didn’t result in my immediate employment, it reinforced what I’d been told by other jobhunters and confirmed my belief in the benefit of seeking and nurturing contacts for both professional and personal progression.

To this day, I still think you can’t beat close encounters of the personal kind – even in our tech-rich, time-poor working lives – and more so in an age of faux online friends, false news, and reality TV shows that suggest that, in business, someone has to lose for you to win.

Call me old-fashioned, but my experience of working with small business start-ups for more than a decade is that they have far more to gain by sharing their ideas (rather than protecting them) and seeking partners for mutually beneficial relationships. I’m not starry-eyed about collaboration and co-operation (as opposed to competition) but I recommend it daily, and will do so until someone convinces me there’s a better way.

In my day-job I support young people in their efforts to turn business ideas into viable and hopefully sustainable enterprises. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely road to take, so I encourage then to seek out like-minded people – even the competition – for advice about mistakes made, lessons learnt, and what works well.

The young entrepreneurs are constantly astonished and delighted by the helpfulness of others (people who remember when they were starting out maybe) with no expectation of a payback. I also pull in my own personal and professional contacts when I can. In the last six months, I’ve fixed a fence erector up with a van, I’ve arranged a would-be photographer’s night at a music awards ceremony in London as professional snapper’s assistant, I’ve unearthed (pun intended) a garden designer to pass judgement on a newbie designer’s work, and I’ve steered others towards potential collaborators, including business networks.

The day that ‘who you know’ becomes less important than ‘what you know’ and online communications make face-to-face connections unnecessary, I think I’ll pack up and head for the hills (preferably somewhere there’s no broadband).

Small card, big message

In my day job I work with young would-be entrepreneurs to support them in setting up in business if they have an idea they want to pursue. As most people know, writing a business plan is a good place to start – to get the ideas out of heads and on to paper where it can be developed, adapted and, if need be, rejected.

When it gets to the publicity section I’m always intrigued that, in an age of social media and worldwide online communication, when asked how they plan to promote their business, nearly every young person writes ‘business cards’. How do they even know about business cards?!

I think the attachment to this humble handout is a combination of it being tangible (unlike things like ‘brand’ ‘values’ ‘and ‘social media’). It’s also cheap – most people know companies that will hook you in with an offer of your first 50 business cards free. Then there’s the comfort of conforming – ‘me too’ – everybody talks about business cards and seems to have then, so why don’t I?

This is not to knock the potential value of professionally produced business cards but, as money is always short, I tend to design and print my own (certainly when I’m paying for them) because I use so few. But then maybe, after 35 years in marketing, I’m missing a trick…?

A business card can, and should, say a lot about you and your business – your quality, character, professionalism, and quirkiness if that’s the business you’re in. Above all, it should be the ‘calling card’ that convinces your target customers that it’s worth making that phone call.

I’m someone with an interest in clear and concise communication in all its forms, so I find the business card an interesting challenge. Like most publicity pieces, it can be both ephemeral – one of many gathered at an event soon to be ‘filed and forgotten’, or essential for safe storage (in my case in a pile on my desk) for easy retrieval when the time is right. Surprisingly often I reach for one I know is in there somewhere, but the beauty of the business card for me is in the use of the limited space (in seconds and centimetres) for grabbing attention.

I’m a sucker for gimmicks so I’m usually more attracted to the design than the content. I’ve been working with a young person who plans to offer soft and hard garden landscaping services. We’re currently trying to produce a business card that grows using paper embedded with seeds. We’ve got the paper from my friends at the Frogmore Paper Mill.  Now it’s a matter of working out how to create the cards so they sprout and grow when watered carefully on an office desk – watch this space…

 

Last week in Bristol I was attracted to a slightly-larger-than-standard business card from a local company – Florentina & Chalky. What you can’t tell from the photo is that the card has a unique feel – like chalkboard – so they go one better than the company that ‘does what it says on the tin’!

What next – a scratch and sniff business card for a cheese shop?

http://florentinaandchalky.blogspot.co.uk 

http://www.thepapertrail.org.uk

PS – a re-use tip: If you’ve gathered a pile of business cards with blank backs and you don’t want them, you can use then as a deck of cue cards for your next talk – a handy-sized pack of prompts.

Nine Healthy Signs (NHS)?

Some years ago a wiser man than I observed that, while the ability to demonstrate on the streets is often cited as a manifestation of democracy in action, this is not necessarily the case.

He argued that a public demonstration is, in fact, a last resort when all other means have failed to get our voices heard – as such is it a failure of the democratic process. He’d had more than enough time to come to this conclusion having spent many years in solitary confinement in a Middle Eastern jail – fallout from a clampdown on free speech.

Without meaning to make a trite comparison, it felt a bit like a last resort to me last week as we gathered in Tavistock Square (home of the British Medical Association’s HQ) to proclaim and reclaim #OurNHS. The march from WC1 ended in Parliament Square, home of a government that seems bent on dismantling the NHS in the name of increased efficiency – by which they mean meeting an ever-growing need with ever-decreasing resources. Even the best miracle cures cannot square that circle.

In the face of such apparent indifference to reality, ignoring the views of health professionals at the frontline, and a dogmatic refusal to consider other views, maybe marching, chanting, and singing is all we have left in our armoury to foster a sense of common purpose, fellowship and, however small, power and influence?

In the end the #OurNHS march was a great day out with family and the weather was kind. But it didn’t feel like a mass demonstration and the mainstream media coverage was disappointing, even the rallying speeches at the end seemed a bit tired. But in one respect the loudest noise was made, not by voices, but by the messages on placards and banners. Each competed for attention with their soundbite 140-character quips and some seriously clever imagery.

 

With camera phones capturing and communicating every detail, we live in hope that social media might somehow magnify the impact of the march itself and make it all worthwhile. Maybe those placard bearers will have the last laugh. I share some of their messages here in the hope they will help lift your spirits and stave off the need for you to use the NHS for a little longer.

The story so far

latitude-books-2I was thinking about the power of storytelling the other day when advising young entrepreneurs about how to present their business ideas without using jargon, exaggeration or clichés. In other words, without bullshit. How do you grab attention in a matter of seconds; leading to the much-talked about ‘elevator pitch’?

One way is to say something that surprises your audience. I recently saw a beautifully designed standing desk. It was being promoted with a question – ‘did you know that standing for an average three hours a day at your desk for a year burns more calories than running ten marathons?’

Yes – it surprised me as well. I regret I couldn’t afford to buy that particular standing desk, but the appeal of such calorie loss (even if it’s not true!) while using my laptop was enough to inspire me to design and make my own not-so-beautiful standing desk from an abandoned wooden garden chair.

Another way to connect powerfully with an audience is through storytelling. Antony ‘Tas’ Tasgal, author of ‘The Storytelling Book’, believes stories are under-rated and under-used in business. After being exposed to around 6,000 business presentations, Tas is leading the fight against the debilitating effects of Powerpoint (which he describes as “people in power who can’t make their point”).

But the battle is not yet won; we continue to be bombarded by bullet points and deluged with data. Too often we still experience the mind-numbing effect of the presenter reading each slide as if s/he is seeing it for the first time, which may be the case. And often all this follows a delay to get the computer to talk to the projector. Never perform with children, animals … and technology.

Tas believes we need to develop and polish our story-telling skills, to bring the human element back into business transactions. “We often forget that all of us in sales, marketing and communications are – at least partly – in the business of storytelling” he says “We seem to have fallen headlong into a culture in which business thinking, business talking and business doing have been overtaken by a system that is contrary to our hard-wired storytelling instincts…”

Which is not to say that words alone can always tell the full story. Despite widespread condemnation of the misuse and abuse of statistics, figures do, of course, have a role to play. A fellow business adviser once suggested ‘never present figures without a story, and never tell a story without figures’. Accountants would, of course, argue that a set of figures tell a story without need for further embellishment…

latitude-books-1In the non-for-private-profit world, the art of storytelling can also be used to communicate a charity’s mission effectively, particularly when the stories feature real life experiences. A useful communication tool for trustees and directors is a small set of postcard-sized profiles of individuals who have benefited from the charity’s support. Each one describes the individual’s situation when they first contacted the charity, how the charity worked with them, and their new situation after the charity’s intervention. It has everything – a focus on real people and real benefits, bringing authenticity to the illustration.

A final word from marketing man Andy Bounds “Facts tell, stories sell. Tell stories about what you’ve done for others; don’t just list facts about what you do.” Andy Bounds has made a name for himself writing about ways to make ideas sticky. But that’s another story…

Further insights into the use of stories:

The Storytelling Book http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Anthony-Tasgal/The-Storytelling-Book–Finding-the-Golden-Thread-in-Your-Communications/17487848

A great infographic on capturing and using stories  http://www.imaginepub.com/Image/zTSY2BGi00imRglC0cmfgw/0/0

A word of warning from Seth Godin http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2016/01/3-d-printers-the-blockchain-and-drones.html

Why stories are good for our brains http://lifehacker.com/5965703/the-science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-most-powerful-way-to-activate-our-brains

Storytelling and presentations http://blog.strategicedge.co.uk/2015/03/better-storytelling-in-your-presentations.html

 

 

In praise of praise

standing-ovation-croppedA decade ago I was on a 12-week train-the-trainer course. The tutor was brilliant and I hope and believe I’ve applied what I learnt from him in a number of teaching roles over the past 10 years. He told us there are very few hard and fast rules about how to inspire learning in the classroom, but he stressed one; “Praising your learners will achieve more than any amount of negative criticism”.

We were then asked to describe a bad learning experience to the class; mine was singing in a choir. At that time, I’d been one of ten tenors for five years and I said I didn’t feel my signing technique had improved much since joining. I was asked to describe a typical rehearsal – “We turn up every Tuesday evening, our choirmaster shouts at us, particularly the female singers, and we go home two hours later.” The tutor didn’t need to say a thing – I’d made his point for him. “But our concerts go well” I added, out of loyalty to our choirmaster.

Fast forward to the present and a new choirmaster has, as reported in an earlier blog, transformed the choir over the 12 months. I feel he’s also improved (‘transformed’ would be an exaggeration at this stage in my singing career) my technique. A typical rehearsal now is one I relish –  singing technique is part of each two-hour session alongside note-bashing and attention to our diction. We are encouraged by frequent praise (although I’m not sure we always deserve it…) making any criticism more effective when it comes. Being harangued under the old regime meant we tended to simply switch off and stop listening; a few people voted with their feet and left the choir altogether.

Our new choirmaster’s impact was almost instantaneous. Unlike the arrival of a new football manager (reference my earlier blog) he raised our game and we have sustained it.

I was reminded of the motivational power of praise when reading a fascinating ‘pop psychology’ book by Claudia Hammond – ‘Mind Over Money’. The author reports on research showing that praise is more motivational that money – increasing both commitment to the task in hand and, it would seem, the pleasure in undertaking that task.

These lessons have stood me in good stead in a new role – working with young people who live complicated lives and, where possible, I support their efforts to start viable businesses. Our four-day enterprise course talks about passion and profit in equal measure. Both are important but I suspect that, in the long term, job satisfaction and the approval of others will ultimately out-motivate the understandable desire right now to make money.

Further reading:

Something to sing about: https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2015/12/22/something-to-sing-about/

Mind over Money: http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Claudia-Hammond/Mind-Over-Money–The-Psychology-of-Money-and-How-to-Use-it-Better/20322471

Balding and blogging

 

LawnMowerHeadI had a beard for 25 years. I grew it to look older and shaved in off to look younger. A similarly flexible response to the hair on my head is not possible. I’ve been balding slowly for the past 20 years which, as observed by comedian Harry Hill, means that each year I’ve had more face to wash.

I haven’t lost it (my hair) completely, but I’ve little enough to close crop it so as not to draw attention to the boundary between what’s hair and what’s bare. I like to think that balding doesn’t bother me and one of the ways we slapheads try to show this is by laughing at follically-challenged (or should that be ri-bald?) jokes.

The other week I heard two jokes about baldness on the same day (you wait ages for a bus etc ….) They were told by two men at two events at different ends of the day. The joke-tellers were definitely thinning on top; in fact, one looked like his head was shaved – baby’s bot style. I think the two jokes are worth telling.

Joke 1:

Balding Man: When I go to the barbers my haircut costs me more

Hirsute Man: Why’s that?

Balding Man: They charge me a search fee

Joke 2:

Balding Man: I draw little rabbits on my bald spot

Hirsute Man: Why’s that?

Balding Man: From a distance they look like hares

Yes, we can all joke about hair loss but for some it’s no laughing matter.

The boss of one of my relations didn’t believe him when he said he was stressed out with his workload until his hair started falling out. They finally got the message, but he’s had to shave his head ever since; if left to grow it would emerge in clumps.

Then there’s a friend who has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s just started the 21-week treatment and is preparing to lose her hair (which is expected to grow back). She’s also confronting the immediate future by writing a daily blog for personal reflection, to express her feelings and, knowing her, in the hope it will help others.

It’s certainly given me insights and, further equipped with some good advice for well-meaning but ill-informed people like me – see http://www.prevention.com/sex/cancer-support and http://www.notanotherbunchofflowers.com/collections/empathy-cards-by-emily-mcdowell I’ll think twice before I tell my next hair joke… and then probably tell it.

If you’d like to read my friend’s blog, go to https://community.maggiescentres.org/blogs/blogentrylist/1477635731391681/…no$002c_I$0027m_a_Gemini

Will my smartphone make me smarter?

DumbphoneToday is special for me in my relationship with social media – tweet number 10,000 – and I’m proud to say that all were sent from my laptop.

One reason for this is that the first and only mobile I’ve ever owned (until recently…) couldn’t connect online. My dear old Nokia was good for making phone calls and I took some pictures when I first bought it over a decade ago, but the novelty soon wore off. I didn’t demand much of it and (to the annoyance of my daughter) I had it switched off much of the time, which is probably why it served me so well for so long.

Which is the other reason I’m proud not to have had the facility to tweet anything, anytime, anywhere. I don’t believe my life is so important that I should have Twitter, or any other social media, at my fingertips 24 hours a day; particularly when I’m at conferences, as regular readers of this blog will know.

Now all that could change. My faithful and functional phone is knocking on heaven’s door as I can’t switch it on. I’ve had to dump my dumbphone and replaced it with what I think they call a ‘smartphone’.

Will this change my tweeting habits? Probably not. It’s not that I’m a Luddite (if you don’t know what one of those is, you’ve probably never known life without the internet – look it up via the link below). It’s just that I’m influenced by Richard Uridge at ACM Training who, leading a brilliant social media workshop almost exactly four years ago, suggested that Twitter, Facebook and newer kids on the block are simply communication tools – to be used if they do the job; not if they don’t. And before using them you need to know what that job is. “You wouldn’t get a saw out of your toolbox unless you had a job that needed one” said Richard at the time.

Now I have a smartphone, I can probably interact with the world far more than I will ever know (my daughter’s got me hitched up to WhatsApp – it’s brilliant…try it) because I don’t want to be available, worldwide, 24 hours a day. For me the smart move is to stay in control of my waking and sleeping hours and invest in real relationships.

Further reading:

My top tip for live tweeting… https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/my-top-tip-for-live-tweeting-dont-do-it (February 2014)

On Luddites… http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-the-luddites-really-fought-against-264412/?no-ist