No windup

I do four kinds of exercise: play squash, run, swim, and do yoga. A more accurate portrayal is that I mostly play squash, and do the other three every so often. This week, though, because of the warmer weather, earlier sunrise, and jetlag, I’ve run four times in 8 days.

One of the things that’s beautiful about running is that there’s almost no windup and wind-down: no place to drive to, no plan to make, no excess anything on either side. In 45 minutes set aside for a run, 40 of those minutes are spent running. Get dressed, lace up your shoes, and go.

Early yesterday morning, tired and cranky, I was wondering why I had dragged myself out of bed to run two days in a row. I had finished tying my shoes and I was standing at my back door looking for some way to stall (what I would have given for a fifteen minute drive to the gym!) It felt like there was a physical barrier I had to push through to get myself up and out the door. I walked out of my house, walked onto the street, kept walking for one more block, started the music on my phone, and finally had no choice but to start jogging slowly.

Similarly, earlier this week a colleague and I found ourselves with only 35 minutes at the end of a long day in which to get some important work done. Neither of us seemed up for it and I almost suggested we not bother. We chatted and stalled for a little, and we nearly got pulled into email on our open laptops. But then we began.

In both cases – the run and the 30 minute conversation that should have taken two hours – it was easy to be fooled that I needed more windup, more buffer, more something between me and the work.

Then I get out there and reconfirm what I seem to need to relearn each and every time: that the windup is nothing more than stalling; and that the correlation between how I feel beforehand and how the work goes is nearly zero.

The wrong public speaking mistakes

Public speaking is neck-and-neck with fundraising on the list of things people consistently fear.

To avoid that fear we often choose to read to people rather than speak to them.  That is, we write down and recite prepared remarks.  If our goal is to get our words across, this approach is guaranteed to succeed.  Visually represented, if we read typed-up remarks we’re likely to say nearly 100% of the words we have written down.

Reading your speech

Of course people didn’t show up just to hear your words, they showed up to hear you.

Yes they want you to have done the heavy lifting of thinking about and synthesizing your remarks.  Yes they expect that you’ll practice what you’re going to say with trusted colleagues and friends before you speak to get it right.  So yes, prepare.

But also remember that you are so much more than the words you put on that page.  You are a human being and people are desperate for human connection.  They want to feel and experience what makes you tick and how your mind words.  They want to interact with you, even if you are up on stage and they are part of an audience.  And most of all, and easiest to forget, they want you to succeed.  They are good people and they want good things for you.  Also, if you succeed then they do to – they learn more, they have more fun, they get a glimpse of you.

The speech read head down, in a monotone, is nearly always devoid of human connection.  Air flows back into the room when the speech-reader looks up, smiles, and says even one extemporaneous remark – the smiles from the audience aren’t just because the remark was funny, it’s because they’re breathing a collective sigh of relief when they glimpse your humanity.

And that glimpse is missing when your attention turns from them to the piece of paper you’re holding in your hands.  That connection is lost.

The reason error avoidance (aka “reading what you wrote down”) feels like a reasonable tactic is because it masquerades as a way to ensure that we avoid failure.  But what do we mean by success?  Because we know that, when we all start out, it’s nearly impossible to overcome the terror of standing up on a stage and ALSO get our point across without some help from our notes.  But the decision we can make is to recognize that someday we want to break free, someday we want to speak to people not read to them, someday we want to feel comfortable and maybe even a little bit happy up in front of people telling them our story.

Conceptually, we can break free a bit by asking ourselves whether quadrant 3 really is better than quadrant 2: that is, is standing up reading something we could have handed out actually better than saying a small fraction of what we thought we meant to say but making a real human connection?

Four quadrants of public speaking

Before you answer, you might remind yourself that the audience is at the edge of their seats, wanting you to succeed.

I’d trade error avoidance for human connection any day. Especially since I know that when you speak from the heart, you’ll speak your truth.

 

Two traps

Each day, each post, I walk a narrow path.

I avoid thinking too much about all the people out there who are going to read each post I write – people I like and respect and whose time I know is precious.  Because if I get too hung up on that, I can easily decide that a post isn’t worthy of landing in thousands of inboxes.

Or I could worry that the number of people reading this blog isn’t big enough, and try to write posts that will get more people to sign up.

Instead, I try to show up and do my best, most honest work.  I listen to my own standard of the work I’m striving to produce, and limit internal debates to conversations between me and my computer screen and ask: is this the best version of what I’m trying to say?

And each time I hit “publish” the inner critic, the doubts, the second-guesses lose a little bit more steam.

No irrational action

I used to dismiss what looked like irrational action.  I’d watch people’s behaviors and, when things didn’t make sense to me, I’d let it go.

“Sometimes people do things that just don’t make sense” was a safe refrain.  Maybe they didn’t have enough information or do the right analysis or sometimes actions just don’t make sense.  My overly-rational mind would see irrational action and deduce that the person had failed to analyze something properly, understand its implications, or explain themselves clearly.

Talk about a misdiagnosis.

People only do things that make sense (to them), and while I know we all make errors of judgment and analysis, these days anytime I have a “that just doesn’t make sense” reaction a little alarm bell goes off.

By way of analogy, I only recently figured out that getting really nervous about a new idea or a project – and feeling like maybe I should just drop it – is a great indicator that I’m on to something really important (nervousness = my lizard brain resisting me doing something significant and worthwhile).

Similarly, every time someone does or says something really irrational that’s a great moment to pay extra attention, to try to figure out what’s really going on – not rationally, on an emotional level.

These are great sensors to have on in fundraising situations, because it is so difficult (and slightly taboo) to talk about why and how real fundraising decisions are made.  You spend time in a long cultivation, building to what seems like a strong, jointly-developed funding opportunity, and at the last minute something veers completely off-course.

There’s no such thing as irrational action.

When I see an “irrational” response, I know that I’m the one whose information about, understanding of, and diagnosis of a situation is not (yet) on the mark.

It’s a great time to pay extra, not less, attention.  It’s a great time to listen more.

Your idea

At the start it’s just smoke, a wisp. It has no substance or form.

You can take it around to people for help shaping it, so you can better understand what it could be.

But the thing is, at the start it has no mass, and until it does it’s impossible for people to really do much of anything about it.  They can talk and you can talk, and that’s about it.

Mass gives it the ability to go places.  Mass means that with a push it can break through things.

Talk is fine, but the real work is giving your idea some mass.

What I didn’t need to worry about

Last Saturday morning I had the chance to give the opening keynote address at Unite for Sight’s Global Health and Innovation Conference at Yale University.  The energy in this conference is just amazing, and my hat goes off to Jennifer Staple-Clark and her team who pull off a 2,000+ person conference every year with a full-time staff of just three people (that’s right, three).

The fun part for me was that nearly every part of my talk came from ideas I had developed on this blog.  The talk focused on innovation, where it comes from, and how to design and organize around it – with a particular focus on the structural elements in the nonprofit sector that orient us to extremely long cycle times and a massive “build” phase in the buld-measure-learn cycle.

Put another way, the focal point of the talk was the lean nonprofit, with context provided by the observation that my toothbrush was good enough and by the notion of the adjacent possible, themes I’ve explored in-depth in posts on this blog.

This served as an important reminder that one of the great benefits of blogging is the practice of taking ideas further and deeper, forcing me to mine my understanding of concepts that are influencing my thinking and to take the extra step of relating these ideas to my own work.  I literally don’t know where the ideas would come from if not for the discipline of writing this blog.

So thank you for showing up to read every day.  I couldn’t do it without you.

The one thing I shouldn’t have spent any energy on (though I certainly did): the size of the crowd.  The notion of speaking in front of a full house at New Haven’s Shubert Theater created a mantra of “2,000 people!” that I couldn’t keep from running through my head in the lead-up to my talk.  Of course the reality is that whether it’s 50 people or 2,000, it’s still my job to stand up there and share what I’m going to share, tell the stories I’m going to tell  – the size of the audience makes no difference whatsoever. (In fact, with the lighting I could barely see past the third row, so it’s as if the audience wasn’t even there in the first place.)

Just a lesson in how the mind tricks us into focusing attention on all the wrong stuff sometimes, especially when something is brand new and when fear seems like an appropriate response.

It never is.

Terrified of success

It’s worth reflecting why we systematically under-prepare for things: big speeches, job interviews, presentations to the Board of Directors, asking for a raise.

We’ve heard all the talk about not losing spontaneity, about being in the moment.  Phooey.  All the best jazz musicians – professional improvisers – practice like crazy.

If there is foundational work that you (systematically) don’t do when the stakes are high, that is fear speaking.  Fear of spending time today looking the thing that scares you right in the eye.  Fear of putting in the time now, because when we put in that time we’re making an emotional commitment to a successful outcome.  Fear that if we try our hardest and then fail, we have no excuse – whereas if we wing it, we always have an out.

It’s surprising, ironic and a little sad: we under-invest in our own success not because we’re afraid of failing, but because we’re terrified that we might succeed.

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POSTSCRIPT to yesterday’s post: I was half right (or, if you prefer, half wrong), as Dean Karlan posted the results of his experiment on the Freakanomics blog.  The results are that prior donors who’d given less than $100 to Freedom from Hunger gave 0.9 percentage points LESS when presented with more facts/data; those who’d given  $100 or more gave 3.54 percentage points more.  So more facts made some donors give more, and some give less.  Dean shares an interesting observation in the post: “Freedom from Hunger is known amongst its supporters and those in the microfinance world as being more focused on using evidence and research to guide their programs.”  So these donors might be some of the most likely to be interested in evidence, and it still was a coin flip on whether more data resulted in more or fewer donations.