Visual aids and crutches

Two of the best, most natural presentations I’ve given have been in the last two weeks – one of them I was coming off of 24 hours of travel and 3 weeks in India with a presentation (slides) but absolutely no real preparation; the other was a completely impromptu one hour talk with no supporting slides at all.

I think I made a mistake about a year ago in over-preparing for most of my talks – I ended up burying my personality, the spontaneous directions the talk could go, and my connection to the audience.  I couldn’t be more thankful for the friend who, about a year ago, cared about me so much that she walked straight up to me after a talk and said, “Sorry man, that just wasn’t that good.”

All of this made me think that I need to practice giving six different kinds of talks:

  • With and without slides
  • Scripted and unscripted
  • Rehearsed and unrehearsed

The food for thought part is:  if every talk you give has slides and is scripted and rehearsed, you might want to ask, “Are the slides there as visual aids, or are they a crutch?”  There are five other kinds of talks you can give.  And since nothing’s more attractive than earned confidence, why not start practicing these other kinds of talks today?

(and for those of you keeping track, yes I recognize that it’s hard to imagine a talk that is “without slides, unscripted and rehearsed” but I’m pretty sure you get my drift.  And while I’m adding postscripts, I’ll put one more reminder for me and for you: it’s never, ever better to read a script.)

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The power to mobilize resources

Remember that old, broken conventional wisdom about how fundraising works in the nonprofit sector– a few folks that sit in the corner while the rest of the people do the important program work over here?

Just the other day I was talking with the new class of Acumen Fund Fellows – as impressive a class as we’ve ever had – and I was struck with how important it is to strike at the heart of this destructive, outdated mindset.

What I shared with them (more emphatically than I or they expected, I suspect) is that for anyone, for absolutely anyone, who plans to make change by working in the nonprofit / social enterprise sector, the ability to mobilize capital behind your idea is one of the most important, most untaught, most underdeveloped skills around.

If you can get funding, you can set up shop, you can create breakthrough approaches that cut through the status quo, you can make things happen.

It’s ironic, actually, because in the high-tech world, successfully pitching a top-tier VC fund is fetishized even while the capital needed to launch technology businesses keeps decreasing.  Yet in the nonprofit sector where by definition we are in the business of addressing social issues in a way that the market is not – as it currently is structured – built to address, the ability to mobilize resources is downplayed in its importance.

So let me be as clear as possible: this is a skill required of all you who aspire to be leaders in our space.  We need you to learn how to do this because we need you to make lasting, large-scale change.

Please don’t put this off or think someone’s going to do it for you.  And please don’t think that just because you don’t know any really wealthy people that you can’t start working on this now.

The first shift you can make is to acknowledge that this is something you want to learn how to do.  That intention alone will unlock your potential, will set you apart from your peers, will set you down the path that you’re going to need to walk – and going to want to walk – sooner than you know.

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Willing and able

I had a professor once, a big fan of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who was emphatic about the limits of didactic learning.

“Try to learn how to farm from a book,” he’d say, “and you’ll discover when it’s better to learn from experience.”

It’s true, one cannot learn ANYTHING from a book (or from the web, or through online courses, etc.), but the number of things that you’re ABLE to self-teach is growing exponentially.

(I know you agree on some level, but to get this viscerally check out the Kahn Academy’s videos that explain EBITDA, the law of large numbers, 3-variable linear equations, or the Geithner plan.  This was built by one guy in his spare time.)

The pace of progress is hard to process, but I can’t help but notice, gathering dust on my bookshelf, a 15-year-old copy of German in 10 Minutes a Day, whose text exhorted me, unsuccessfully, to say “eeech seeche minuh koffer” (“I’m looking for my luggage,” in useless phonetics).  I threw in the towel after Lesson One because this was no way to learn a language – me alone with a book, sounding things out.

But if I wanted to try again, today, I could go online and have interactive, audio learning, repetition, playback that taps into the parts of my brain I need to activate to learn to communicate.  The excuse that I couldn’t learn German without going to Germany used to be true, and it isn’t any more  (and the same logic applies to understanding balance sheets and cashflow statements, DCF valuations, C++; Ruby on Rails; PhotoShop….you name it.  That means that the reason I don’t have a good working knowledge of everything on that list is because I choose not to).

If you’ve already gone to school, to college, through graduate school under the old system, getting your head around the new system requires a drastic rerientation.  The first thing to understand is that the barrier, for most of us, has silently shifted from what we’re able to learn to what we’re willing to learn.

Two conclusions:

  1. The value of deciding, of initiating, of self-directed action keeps on going up – because we have so much more leverage for each thing we decide to learn
  2. The value of things that only YOU can share and teach, things that someone cannot learn by themselves, has gone UP  – and your ability to share these things with everyone for free has gone up as well.  (And that’s a lot to wrap your head around too – a post for another day).

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For you, for me

For some folks, the fact that I blog is a semi-mysterious black box of cool, kind of like talking with a great English accent (if I had one). It is something people kinda sorta want to do before they talk themselves off the ledge instead of leaping.

When they ask me about it, here’s what I say: that I had no idea what I was getting into when I started; that it’s been harder and better than I expected; that I learn from every post that I write and from the things I hear back from folks; and that I’m absolutely positively sure that I would stop doing it if I didn’t have lots readers out there reading.

There are tons of great external things that come from blogging but what I get from it each and every day – even (especially?) on the days it’s hard – is already plenty of payback.

Each person reading is part of what makes this possible, part of what allows me to bring something into your day and mine.

So thank you, because I write for you but I also write for me.

And, with that in mind, what about you? Why not make today the day you leap into that thing you’ve been thinking about doing? Why not get up and spread the word about something that you love?

Whatever it is you’re thinking of doing, do it already.

No shortcuts

I vividly remember an end-of-year b-school class – my leadership professor asked the class where they’d like to be in 25 years.  Answers varied, but most sounded pretty lofty until one guy said what I suspect others were thinking: “This is all great, but I’m going to make as much money as I possibly can, then I’m going to buy an island and retire there.”

That wasn’t my dream, but I appreciated the clarity and the honesty.

The problem, though, arises after the first six months (or year?) on the island: then what?

I meet a lot of people who have had a great deal of financial success, and what I’ve found is that there’s a pretty low correlation between financial success and having a sense of purpose – that is, some people who are hugely financially successful have a great sense of purpose and passion; others don’t.  I can’t seem to find any greater or lesser tendency amongst uber-successful people in knowing why they were put on the earth.

As we all live (hopefully) longer lives, we will at some point have to start on the work of figuring our our passions, what we love, what inspires us.

My friend living on that island will be starting that work in 25 years.

You could start it today.

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A dollar fell out of my pocket today

A dollar fell out of my pocket today

while I was riding the subway.

A passenger tapped me and pointed to the folded bill

on the ground.

Meanwhile a homeless man was asking the car for money.

I looked at the dollar and realized it wasn’t my dollar.

So I handed it to the homeless man.

And I was left wondering.

Is it ever my dollar?

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Small changes, big changes

If you’re advocating for a shift, a new initiative that you’re pushing for from below, it helps to know what signs to look for (or not look for) as you gauge your progress.

In the beginning, any kind of new anything that’s not driven from the top will look like it’s not going anywhere.  With this knowledge in hand, it’s a lot easier not to give up.

Change from below can follow two paths, not three:

  1. You toil away at an idea that the organization never ends up supporting or adopting (or you give up before it does)
  2. You toil away at an idea, garner support and evidence and early wins, and the idea takes off

It’s 3 that gets us into trouble….the unstated assumption that if something’s going to get somewhere tomorrow we’ll see significant progress today in terms of the support we’re getting (funding, encouragement, approvals) and the external indicators of success.  Carrying this mental model around is the best way to ensure that you give up just when things are about to turn your way.

(by the way, the same thinking can be applied to work/salary/promotions, which often follow a step-change pattern when, of course, skills and responsibilities grow in a much more continuous way.)

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