Your voice

Yes, your job is to learn from the masters.

This means that, to start to tell better stories, you’re well-advised to study the storytelling techniques of great storytellers – whether Martin Luther King, or Ken Robinson, or Hans Rosling, or Bryan Stevenson.

And, to make sense of all of that, you’ll want to unpack how to give a great TED talk by learning from speaker coach Nancy Duarte or from TED Curator Chris Anderson (special for blog readers: use the REFERAFRIEND discount code to save 80% on Chris’ course).

You may even take things a step further when you realize that it’s not just storytelling that interests you, it’s really about creating a broader framing of an authentic narrative, in which case you’ll bridge to the work of Marshall Ganz and unpack the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now.

Or perhaps you are more of a writer than a speaker, in which case you’ll want to start with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Stephen King’s On Writing, and Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car, and grow from there.

(And no matter what you do, you’ll want to get your hands on Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist)

But at the end of the day, technique will only take you so far.

At the end of the day, what the world needs from you is not a dim reflection of one of your mentors, not the echoes of someone who inspires you, not the loose parroting of someone else’s words, approach or demeanor.

What the world needs from you is your voice, your truth (here, now, at this moment), your honest language.

Because what we crave most of all are glimpses of humanity. What we long for are glimmers of the unique perspective that only you bring because of the combination of experiences and attitude and character that come together in you, right now, on a stage or in the written word.

To begin this exploration, ask:

Who are you when you are speaking to a close friend?

How do you sound when you give advice from the heart to your child after an argument with her best friend?

How do you show up when an old colleague asks for advice?

How do people say they experience you when you are at your best?

This real, true, honest you – the one who is brave or humble or funny or grounded or clever or bold or quirky – that’s the you we want to see most of all.

What’s in a Question?

This post originally appeared on Medium.  I’ll keep reposting these on my blog from time to time. If you want to learn more about Lean Data, check out the full story in this Stanford Social Innovation Review Article.  And there’s still one week to sign up for the free +Acumen Lean Data course.  It’s a great thing to do with a team.

Every day, more than 5 million new cellphones are sold. That’s more than 10 times the number of babies born each day. We are barreling towards a world where a cellphone will be in every pocket by 2020, and a smartphone in every pocket soon after that.

This revolution is making the unimaginable real— in the near future, we will have the opportunity to start a dialogue with literally every person on the planet. This new two-way conversation, where everyone participates, will pull billions of people into the mainstream by connecting them with one another.

At Acumen, we see inexpensive cellphones in the hands of a billion new low-income customers as a chance to supercharge the work we’re doing to end poverty. Through our Lean Data initiative, we are taking advantage of the spread of cellphones to talk to previously excluded segments of society. The focus of Lean Data is to equip startup social enterprises in the developing world with the tools and techniques to start a dialogue with their customers. Our aim is to empower these customers to articulate what they need to improve their lives.

Since starting this work in 2014, one of the most important lessons we’ve learned is that a cellphone in every pocket is just a starting point. The art of every Lean Data project is in the questions we ask. Ask the wrong questions, and you get back little of value. Ask the right ones, and you can move from data to information to actionable insights.

Great questions connect with customers and give them an opportunity to share their voice. But crafting a great question is no easy task. The slightest shifts in word choice can affect understanding; the smallest differences in intonation alter perceptions of sincerity. All of these nuances can bias the data and diminish its value.

For example, in trying to understand the usage of solar home systems in Kenya, we started with the question, “How often are you currently using (product/service)?” After testing this question over SMS, we received feedback suggesting we omit the word “often” and make the question more simple and direct. We quickly amended the question to “When do you use (product/service)?,” provided sample multiple choice replies, and received a higher level of understanding.

Getting questions right is not a new idea. Indeed, Angus Deaton’s recent Nobel Prize was largely the result of his foundational work on designing household surveys. What’s new is trying to gather rich data over a cellphone. While you can run an effective focus group with a loose guide of topics and you can cover a lot of ground in a 90-minute one-on-one interview, a typical SMS survey is limited to 10 questions and 150 characters per question. These constraints are a powerful pressure-cooker for the questions we ask. We’ve got to make every word and every question count.

So what makes a great question?

For us, a great question is one that is easily and consistently understood by customers. It’s one that makes the complex simple. And it’s one that yields insight around what matters to the customer and the social enterprise trying to serve them.

One of the biggest challenges in impact measurement and international development is understanding not just the breadth but the depth of impact. In Acumen’s case, depth is defined by the degree of change in their well-being a customer experiences from one of our investments’ products or services. For example, we know that a solar light is a better solution than a kerosene lamp, but exactly how much better and why is tricky to figure out. This isn’t an academic exercise for Acumen or our companies. Ultimately, we need to understand our customers’ needs to know where to direct our capital to drive the greatest impact, and without impact data we are simply flying blind.

Because we work across multiple sectors addressing a number of the problems of poverty, our challenge extends beyond just figuring out the quantitative impact of owning a solar light or sending a child to a low-cost private school. Our goal is to go one step further and understand the qualitative difference in value that our customers experience when comparing the various products and services available to them.

Photo by Joanne Schneider

Can we really compare the impact of a year of schooling to owning a solar home system? We’re not sure, but we think it’s worth a shot. We believe that trying to understand these comparisons from a customer’s perspective will push us to listen harder and deeper, and it will test the limits of our ability to get rich data through mobile phones.

We asked ourselves if we could create a question or a set of questions that get at this topic directly, helping our customers share what they value most and why.

 

While a single question to cut through the complexity of our work seemed far-fetched, we knew that similar attempts have been made before. Twelve years ago, Frederick F. Reichheld, Rob Markey and Bain & Company developed the Net Promoter Score® (NPS). According to the Harvard Business Review, the NPS “substitut[ed] a single question for the complex black box of the typical customer satisfaction survey.” Today, it’s become widely adopted by the Fortune 500 as one of the most effective ways to measure customer loyalty. Just as NPS provides companies with a method to effectively judge performance and generate qualitative customer feedback, we wanted to create a single, unifying question to compare social impact.

Photo by Joanne Schneider

We started by asking ourselves whether the NPS question — “How likely is it that you would recommend [product/service] to a friend or colleague?” [1–10 scale]” — could serve as a good proxy for how much impact a product had for our customers. We wanted to test this by asking NPS questions together with our depth of impact questions to see if products with a higher NPS also had a higher depth of impact.

We piloted this approach in Kenya and India in two surveys, and the initial results were not as promising as we had hoped.

Despite the proven success of NPS with more affluent, educated customers, the question didn’t seem to perform well with our customers who are typically poor, have limited formal education and little experience with surveys. In follow-up conversations, we heard that the 0–10 scale was hard for them to understand and the hypothetical “would recommend” language didn’t translate well.

Lean Data surveys are short and inexpensive to conduct, so it’s easy to test and refine questions. We experimented with four different versions of the question before landing on a question, inspired by NPS, that seems to perform well: “Have you ever recommended product/service to a friend?” We also played with three different answer scales and arrived at a workable solution. Instead of a 0–10 scale, customers choose between three responses: “Yes, I’ve told many friends;” “Yes I’ve told some friends;” or “No, I have not.”

Once we saw the effectiveness of this question, we wanted to go further, to learn not only whether or not customers recommended a product but also the drivers of meaningfulness of that impact. Drawing on the concept of Constituent Voice developed by Keystone Accountability, we developed a second question, asking customers to respond from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” to the statement: “There have been changes in my home because of (product/service).”

In the early tests we’ve run, we’ve seen correlation between reported depth of impact and the strength of agreement to this “meaningfulness” question. For example, owners of solar lights who “strongly agree” with the statement reported an 83 percent reduction in expenditure kerosene, while the customers who said “agree” only reported a 69 percent savings on kerosene. These are just preliminary results, but we’re starting to see that this question might allow us to compare across different interventions, so that customers can tell us what they value the most and why.

Photo courtesy of Joanne Schneider

While we’re still fine-tuning both of these questions, the progress we’ve made is exciting. Low-income customers are enthusiastic to engage in dialogue, and we are seeing that it’s possible — if you work at it — to develop new questions that capture rich, meaningful data about the wants and preferences of this emerging set of customers. At the end of one of our surveys, one happy customer expressed her satisfaction with the service she received at a health clinic and then added, “I really enjoyed being interviewed.” Clearly, we’re on to something.

These are the kinds of customers whose voices we aim to hear. Our Lean Data work is focused squarely on helping the startup social enterprises we invest in to listen more actively to the low-income customers they serve. For them, Lean Data is a chance to talk to their often remote and dispersed customer base in a way that doesn’t break the bank.

While Lean Data is, today, being used mostly by startup social enterprises, our work in learning to ask the right questions over mobile phones is universal. The low-income customer of today is the low middle-income customer of tomorrow. Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world are poised to improve their well-being, but this depends on how well we, as a society, listen to them and adjust our efforts to meet their needs.

So much of this rests on the simple act of caring enough to ask the right questions.

Why we read you

We read you because you are you. Because you sound like you, talk like you.

You are identifiable, clear, and you have a point of view. Whether that is polished or rough, grammatical or not…whether you use ellipses and start your sentences with “and” are all part of what make you you.

We read you because you teach us, or challenge us, or make us laugh.

You give us a feeling we’ve come to expect most of the time, and a feeling that surprises us some of the time.

By reading you we tell ourselves a little something about who we are. When we share what you’ve written with others, we are sharing what you’ve said and, also, shared a glimpse of what makes us us.

We can’t read “you” (an identifiable someone) if we can’t identify you, if you don’t sound like something.

If you’ve read this far and are still nodding, you’ve got no choice but to conclude that your organization’s voice isn’t supposed to sound like nothing and no one. If you’re nothing and no one, we won’t miss you when you’re gone.

 

David Pogue’s iPhone 4S review isn’t that great

There’s nothing wrong with the review, nothing at all.  It’s absolutely fine.  Anyone at all (especially non-techies and even non-iPhone users) who reads it will learn what’s different about the new iPhone and why she should be excited by it (spoiler alert: iMessage and speech recognition, called Siri).

But there’s nothing in there to make it the most emailed article on the NY Times site, viewed millions of times.

The thing is, the review itself doesn’t matter much.  People care what David Pogue is going to say about the new iPhone because David Pogue is David Pogue.  What’s more interesting is how he got to be David Pogue (for mass consumers, the authoritative voice, along with Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, on tech gadgets that are relevant to our lives): by writing for years and years about things that generally weren’t as interesting or as sexy as the iPhone: the Kindle before anyone cared, wireless speakers, the IBM Thinkpad and the Microsoft Zune.  He earned the right to be the person whose article you had to read on the coolest tech device in history (maybe not this iPhone but the iPhone) by spending years writing about devices that, by and large, weren’t that cool and that most of us will never buy.

You probably don’t want to be David Pogue, but you might want to be David Pogue about something.  You’d love to share your ideas and have people listen.  So how do you make that happen?

It might be counter- intuitive, but you get there by starting at the edges, meaning (if it were tech) not by writing about iPhones (only) but by writing about all sorts of obscure stuff too, like which is the best pre-paid cellphone plan or, better yet, which are the best pre-paid plans for college kids in rural Mississippi.

(Taking this a step further: if you care about yoga, you begin by staking your claim to extra- extra-hot yoga; if you care about veganism, you dive into organic, pesticide free local veganism.  Etc.)

My guess is that there are two things holding you back: you’re not sure you know exactly what your “thing” is today; and you feel like you have about 10 days’ worth of exciting, interesting things to say about that thing, not 10 years’ worth (which is what you’ll need to become the David Pogue of your thing.)

Fortunately, you’re wrong.  You have a lot to say.  The problem you need to crack isn’t figuring out everything you’re going to say.  The problem you need to crack is starting to say things.

Take this blog: when I started it, I knew that I had something to say about fundraising in the nonprofit sector.  That’s why I wrote my Manifesto for Nonprofit CEOs.  But I quickly discovered that I didn’t have a post to write every single day that was directly about fundraising.  That realization alone – it came early and it came often, I promise – tempted me to stop writing or, more pernicious still, tempted me to censor posts that felt off-topic.  I’m so glad I didn’t.  It’s only through the act of keeping on that I discovered what a blog post is, that I discovered how all the pieces could fit together, that I discovered my voice.  The topics will change, the blog will evolve, but through the act of doing I learned what it was I was doing, not the other way around.

If you’re expecting that you’re supposed to have all the answers before you start, you’ll definitely talk yourself out of jumping in, which would be a shame.  Get the scariest part out of the way by starting, and be prepared for the hardest part, which is shouting down the voice that will scream “this isn’t good enough!”  How could it be?  You’re just getting started.

There are only two non-negotiable prerequisites: dogged persistence (to keep at it) and passion for your topic.  Chipping away at the proverbial stone (to reveal the sculpture that lies within) is a daily undertaking, and only by sticking it out over a long period of time will you build up your expertise, your voice, and, eventually, your audience.

 

Voice, and wisdom

Sarah Kay, spoken-word poet and founder of project V.O.I.C.E. (and all of 22 years old), rocked the house at TED last night.  Sarah’s powerful poems are open, honest, vulnerable and beautiful…and man I wish I’d had her wisdom and creative guts when I was 22 years old.

When she’s not on stage, Sarah works with young kids to find their own voice through spoken word poetry.  She’s helped countless kids find their voice when they thought, over and over again, that they had nothing to say.

Reflecting on the path of finding her voice (a path she began walking at the tender age of 14), Sarah shared three excruciatingly simple steps (that I’ve paraphrased) that everyone can learn from:

STEP 1:   “I can.”

STEP 2:   “I will.”

STEP 3:   “I will write about what I know to be true, and write so that I can understand things that I do not yet understand.”

All three of these steps are decisions that Sarah made and that you can make too.  What’s stopping you?

One other reflection:

Step 1 and Step 2 are point in time decisions.  Step 3 goes on forever – it is the process of discovery, the process of continuing to explore the boundaries of what you know and what you hope to understand.  It is the daily re-commitment to do the work, to practice your art, to move forward, to find the cusp of what you do and don’t know.

Step 3 is the hard part, the part with a dip, the part that slowly, over time, transforms you and transforms how you interact with the world.

(This video of Sarah is from Def Poetry Jam in 2007…and she keeps getting better.  Look out for the post of her talk coming soon on TED.com)

UPDATE: her TED talk posted below.  Rocked my world.

Your voice

Seth recently shared a great response to all the people who say they’re going to be the next Seth, rightly exhorting folks to get busy being their best selves instead.

But how do you find your own voice?

We all stand on the shoulders of giants – people whose ideas we are building on, whose lessons we are working to learn, whose path has inspired us.

For a while, I think, we have no choice but to internalize, and at times mimic, the voice of those we admire, trying on constructs or phrases or ideas for size. If done honestly, without claims of being the next anything, it can be constructive, a process through which we play, we practice, we experiment…and in so doing we discover the ground we would like to stake out for ourselves. It’s the intersection of where we know the most, care the most, and have something to say that adds to the conversation.

It can be an awkward process. We see people who are great at what they do – especially great communicators – and can’t help but fault ourselves for not being as great as they are (never mind they’ve usually been at this a lot longer – you’re seeing the fully formed version of them, and you’re just starting out). Why don’t we do it the way they do?

It’s because their voice is theirs. You’re not ever going to do it the way they do because you’re not them. This is why you will never BE the next them; you can only be the best you.

Learn from them, walk in their shoes and down their path for some time. And in so doing discover your own gait and your own way forward. Someday, all that will be left of their voice in yours will be lines that start, “A mentor of mine used to say….” These are the crisp encapsulations of your own guideposts, how you navigate and explain your own orientation in the world.

Take the time to discover your own voice. And be patient with yourself. It takes a while.

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I missed you

Between trying to catch up on work and a publishing glitch this morning, there was a gap in my blog posts.

I was talking to one blog reader yesterday who said, “What happened?  You didn’t post today.”

That’s great news.  If you want to influence, if you want to lead, if you want to have voice and influence, the three words you most want to hear are “I missed you.”

Think about all the noise and commotion and all the competition for people’s attention.  Think about big corporations spending millions to find a way to get to all the people who are TiVoing their favorite shows and SPAM filtering their emails and do-not-calling at home.  Think of all the BlackBerry-buzzing, iPhone-app using, Kindle-reading cacophony of communication careening through everyone’s days.

If you have broken through so much that you’re missed, you’re doing well.  And if you’re missed by 100 or 1,000 of the right people (for you!), you’ve arrived.

(Just to clarify, this post isn’t about blogging.  It’s about your organization, your product, your program, your community, your career, your voice.    It’s about you.)

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