Join the 21-Day Thaw…And defrost the ideas you forgot you had

I live in a small studio in Manhattan. That means I have a small refrigerator. And an even smaller freezer. It’s the size of two shoeboxes. Enough for three bottles (gin, vodka, tequila) to lie horizontally, wedged next to a bag of frozen veggies, and some mummified food I don’t remember buying.

My freezer is where good food goes to die.

I know when I put it in there, I’ll never see it again. When it occurs to me to eat something there, I’m already too hungry and it’s not defrosted and screw it, I guess I’m getting takeout. If you do go in there, what you’ll find are things you don’t recognize, let alone want to eat. (What is that, anyway. Pork? Cod? Forget it.)

So why do I do this? Do you do this?

The freezer is the physical manifestation of procrastination.

And there’s a freezer not just in our homes but in our lives, our brains. It’s where we shove good ideas, would-be plans, things we mean to do. And then forget them.

Why it matters: The things that sit there and collect ice become useless. Packing away worthy ideas, prospective projects, things that could be of value to someone somewhere — it’s a big waste.

Why the F would I waste my own ideas? So I signed on to do something that seems nuts even to me: Megan Macedo’s 21-day writing challenge. Every day starting now (except weekends), I’m going to write based on Megan’s prompt. I’m going to dig stuff out of the freezer and see what I totally forgot was there.

I’m not doing this because I need another thing to do, but because in my experience, writing about a thing is the only way to know what you think and to keep ideas in from icing over.

No one likes to thaw alone

Writing with good company is, frankly, even more useful. There’s a charge, a kind of heat, when you know that you’re writing for other minds.

So here’s where it gets interesting: I would like to invite you to join me on what I’m calling a 21-Day Thaw.

Join the Thaw, and each weekday you’ll get unfiltered, entertaining stuff from me in your email, said in a way that probably no one else would. (Maybe for good reason!)

To be clear, I’m not going to make you read my journal. There’s nothing more loathsome than someone making you the victim of their self-indulgence.

But here’s what I’m thinking:

I have no idea what we’ll find when we defrost my mind. As a brand adviser, writer, and speaker, I help other clients excavate and shine up and share their ideas all the time. As a comic, I know how to surprise people and make them laugh (most of the time!).

I do this defrosting for others constantly, but I haven’t dug around in my own head like this in… ever? I just know that being able to do it with your company is going to be awesome. Unexpected. Funny. Fresh. Raw. All me.

You don’t have to write anything yourself, but who knows? You might be overcome with the itch to write.

You might hit on ONE new idea or decision. Who knows what that could be worth to you?

The 21-Day Thaw might change the way you do one thing, or inspire you to do a thing you’ve been meaning to. Who knows? But I bet it could kick something loose in you, in a very good way.

I can promise you one thing

If you decide to join me, for the next 21 days, you’ll get free and fun and wildly entertaining stuff every weekday in your email.

And then it’ll be over.

To be clear: This is not a sales page, and I am not selling you a course. I just wanted to try this out, and to do it with people who are psyched to see what happens.

(Pro tip: Once you add yourself to the 21-Day Thaw list, make SURE you confirm your subscription, or else you’ll get squat.)

This is going to be fun.

Join the 21-day thaw. It’s fun, it’s free, and it doesn’t matter when you pop on–we’d love to have you!

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Want People to Read Your Website? Write It Like A Love Letter

I recently had the privilege of working with one of the top financial advisors in the country. She wanted to rebrand her firm, and with good reason: It didn’t reflect who she really is, and what she and her team really stand for. Common problem.

And who could blame her? She’s a little too busy running her company and managing millions in assets to worry about her website!

She had, until now, looked at her website the way most people do: A cross between a file cabinet and a billboard.

On one hand, a place to simply put all your stuff, in case anyone wants to go rifling through it (they don’t).  

On the other, a digital sign that says to all the world, “Hey, here’s my file cabinet, in case anyone’s looking for it.”

Unless you’re conducting business online (selling merchandise or online programs, for example), the purpose of a website is still kind of unclear for most people. What should I put on there? What should it say?

After we had deconstructed and reconstructed her messaging, and crafted a fresh approach to how she presents her brand online, this client said something I’ll never forget.

“You approach a website differently than I’ve ever seen,” she said. “You approach it as, well, a love letter.”

She’s right. I do.

Think of the last time you received a love letter.

I bet you hung on every word. I bet you read it more than once. Why? Because it was to YOU and no one else, and you knew it. Those words were written expressly to connect with what you needed and wanted to hear, and most importantly, the person who wrote them, meant it.

Can you think of a better way to treat your website? Your brand? All the tiny touch points of it—the emails, blogs, the freebie pop-ups?

This is what’s missing, I believe, from most websites. You know, the ones that feel wooden or flimsy or a little too slick. They may have cool logos and graphics, flashing, moving parts. But what are they saying? What do they mean? Why do I care?

Here’s how to use the love letter approach for creating more powerful, compelling messaging on your site (and everywhere else).

Ask yourself:

Am I a bad date?

Most people’s websites are like terrible first dates: They’re all about THEM, and how great they are. They never ask you a question. They never show an ounce of concern or even mild interest in you. (Trust me, I’ve been on a few of these this year.)

I tell people that their websites shouldn’t simply be mirror images of themselves.

No one’s coming to your site to watch you preen in front of it. They want to know what you have to offer them. Simple concept, hard to execute on, especially if you’re not sure yourself.

Think of it, instead, as a way to connect with the person you’re looking to attract. What are his or her concerns, fears, struggles? Where are they at right now, and how can you help? The real skill is in being able to make a reader “heard” when they’re not even the ones doing the speaking.

What do I most want to do for this person?

And please don’t tell me to improve their lives, because that’s a given. Unless someone out there is publicizing their efforts to ruin yours, you can assume that most people, whether they’re bookkeepers or coaches or personal trainers, are always trying to help.

I’ll add that there’s a kind of mealy-mouthed aspect of this that I can’t stand, and it’s when someone wants credit for wanting to help. That is your job.

If you weren’t purporting to solve a problem for me and in so doing improve an aspect of my life, then you don’t have much of a business. So get past this and instead focus on what you can do for me, your one true love. Haha.

Do I actually love them?  

If you don’t love the person you’re trying to reach, good luck getting and keeping their attention. Seems obvious. But if down deep you’re annoyed at, judgy of, or otherwise impatient toward the people you want to help (for instance, if you think they’re stupid and that’s why they need you), trust me, it will show.

I remember an interview with the actor John Goodman about his role in the film 10 Cloverfield Lane, in which he plays a conspiracy theorist-slash-survivalist living in a bunker. He’s a terrifying, loathsome character—and Goodman said that the only way he could face playing him is if he found something, anything, likable about him. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know he basically nailed it.

Now, you aren’t terrifying or loathsome, and neither is your audience. I hope. But when you think about what you truly want to do to help these particular people and why, connect to that part that appeals, that draws you in, that makes you excited to help.

Because if you don’t love them, at least some part of them, you by definition won’t have a love letter. Just…a letter. And that’s no fun.

Great branding, website, copy, all of it, should do one thing: Connect. And so yeah, there’s a little romance involved. And by romance I don’t mean “sexy”; I mean the kind of romance that draws you in, makes your audience feel wanted, and heard. That kind of romance.

Your job is to create meaning and value for the person whom you can most successfully serve. If you can do that, over and over, you’ll get the best kind of response from fans and prospects that you could hope to: “Tell me more.”

 

Does your website feel like a love letter…or a form letter? Send it to me. I’ll tell you straight up.

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5 Branding Rules That Won’t Steer You Wrong

There are lots of people out there with lots of opinions about what a brand is and should be. Ask a handful of them what the answer to better branding is, and you’ll hear basically the same advice:

“Stand out!”

That’s like a swimming instructor telling you to stay afloat; it doesn’t help you if you don’t know how to swim.

For the record, I am one of those people with an opinion about branding. And that means I have the double task of not only making sure I have a viable brand, but that my MESSAGE about branding is different than what other people say about branding, too. (Anyone else getting dizzy?)

How I can talk branding to bankers or bakers—and make it work

The big breakthrough for me was when I realized that the best branding advice is industry agnostic. It happened when I started working with, and speaking to, groups with very specific goals.

I’ve found there are a few core branding tenets that work for just about everybody—whether you’re launching a new business, shining up an old one, or trying to craft powerful messaging to promote this product or that service.

These days I might speak to a roomful of professional organizers, and the next, 100 of the nation’s top financial advisors. On a Monday, a conference for professional photographers; on Wednesday, a group of health coaches.

It really doesn’t matter how different they are—they are all trying to be better, or at least distinct, from the next guy. My job is to draw out their brilliance and put it in a bottle so they can see it for themselves, and share it with everyone else.

And I’ve found there are a few core branding tenets that work for just about everybody—whether you’re launching a new business, shining up an old one, or trying to craft powerful messaging to promote this product or that service.

I’ve tried very hard to make sure they’re not glib or vague. It is not helpful to you for me to scream, “Stand out!” and “Swim harder!” as you splash around.

Here we go:

5 branding tenets that apply to you—no matter your industry

1. Your brand is not a website, a logo, or a tagline.

I know it seems like it is! But it’s not JUST those things. Sure, you need them, but they don’t mean much on their own. I know people who want to pay $50 for a tagline or even $5 for a logo, and they’re essentially treating those things as commodities, like shaving cream or shoes. You can do that if you like.

But anyone can do that! And if anyone can, then it’s not necessarily worth it. Even $5 isn’t worth spending if what you get doesn’t reflect your unique brand, and if it doesn’t communicate that value to others.

2. There is no such thing as a boring topic.

Oh, this is a big one with me. It makes me nutso. This tendency to assume that some things are interesting and some aren’t is a doomed conclusion—and either way, it makes you lazy. Why? Because you’ll assume what you’re doing is boring and limited and you won’t even try. Or, you’ll assume that what you’re doing is fascinating or meaningful in and of itself without you having to work very hard to communicate it.

Lazy either way.

Accounting software can change lives. And sex toys aren’t necessarily riveting. If there’s a reason to buy what you have to offer, it has the potential to be a brand that people love. Your job is to tap that thing.

(Consider Simple, a bank which plenty of people found so compelling, as a brand and business, that they, including me!, gave up the brick-and-mortar option to get what they had!)

In fact, every topic is neutral (your own emotional triggers around sex toys notwithstanding). What makes anything interesting is your take on that topic, and the precision with which you can create relevance and urgency to me, your customer, client, or fan.

3. Authentic is an effect, not a goal.

Authentic is an effect; it’s how you come off, no matter what your brand is. You can be an authentic or inauthentic sneaker salesperson or business coach. Just because you want people to like you doesn’t mean you’re authentic and vice versa.

You could say that the moment you “try” to be authentic, you cease to be authentic because you’re not being, you’re trying.

I’ll even go so far as to say that you don’t get to decide what’s authentic; we do! If you ping our BS filters, it doesn’t matter what you say you are. Any more than I can call myself an armadillo and assume that makes me one.

Instead of trying to “seem” authentic, align your efforts and actions with your beliefs—and get busy doing, making, and offering something of value to others.

4. It’s one thing to be passionate; it’s another to be compelling.

The word “passion” raises a flag for me. Not that I don’t believe you can’t be or shouldn’t be passionate—but your passion does not give me a reason to care. Should I hire you to exterminate my home because you’re passionate about pest control? Do I hire you to consult on my business just because you like doing it? No. The world does not owe you its attention because you care about a thing. It’s your job to give them a reason to care.

Instead, take it one step further. Channel all that passionate energy into something that matters to me, not you.

5. Pick a fight with old ideas.

I’m convinced that your creativity is largely determined by how willing you are to challenge existing ideas. Stop assuming people already know what you know (what I call the curse of knowledge), and start upending old assumptions.

Ask yourself, what do you hate about this? What bothers you about that? What do you think is the status quo for your business, and why do you think it can be different, better? Try the opposite game: What if the opposite of what you believe were true? Even if that isn’t the case, what if it were? See how challenging assumptions, even small ones, can breathe new life into your work.

Pick more fights with ideas—yours and others. Though, be careful about doing that at Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve made that mistake. More than once.

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Why You Should Stop Trying to Inspire People

I work with people of all backgrounds and businesses who have something to say and are dying to say it.

They want to do media and launch podcasts, give TED talks and write books. They want to “put themselves out there.” If there were two words that literally every person says to me, it’s that they want to “help people.” That’s not unique, but it’s a good direction to head in.

There’s another thing they want to do: “inspire people.” In a post-Oprah world, it’s no wonder that this is a common goal. They see authors and thought leaders and everyone else signing copies of their books and strutting around the TED stage, and it looks like those people are up there with a single goal: to be inspiring. That might be the effect, but I don’t think that’s why you get up there to begin with.

It’s not a bad intention, don’t get me wrong. But I think when we set out to inspire, we’re missing a step.

I’ve wrestled with this for a while—why it sticks in my craw, why it bugs me, why I feel like even though it seems great it’s the wrong goal. And the reason is this: It presumes I need inspiring, and that only you can fix my lowly, sordid self.

I don’t believe that’s what moves people.

I teach an online course on how to create a standout signature talk, for TEDx or any stage, and in it, I specifically ask students NOT to try to be inspiring. Be the opposite: Be vulnerable and honest and self-deprecating and real. Be willing to show how you struggled and messed up and why you’re no different from the rest of us.

In his (amazing) book, The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, Chris Anderson talks about how the pursuit of “inspiring people” is a little too on the nose:

“Inspiration is like love. You don’t get it by pursuing it directly. In fact, there’s a name for people who pursue love too directly: stalker.”

And there it is. The reason “I want to inspire people” doesn’t work (in a talk, but really, anywhere) is because it’s more about what YOU want, not what I need. And if you assume I need what you want, you’ve jumped a few steps, and you’re no longer leading with message, but agenda.

I think of inspiration as a little like self-esteem: You can’t give it to someone; it must be earned. It’s a byproduct of vulnerability, wisdom, courage. Your willingness to take a risk will inspire us far more than anything you do “to” inspire us.

When I had the opportunity to pitch my TEDx talk idea (“Stop Searching for Your Passion”) to the organizer of TEDxKC, I never, not once, said I wanted to do it to inspire people. Are people inspired by TED talks? All the time. The good ones, anyway. But it’s not because people got up there with the sole purpose of inspiring you; they had something they wanted to say, some truth they’d come to, some struggle they’d had, and wanted to share it.

The last thing I wanted to do was “inspire people to follow their passion.” I’d always felt that “follow your passion” was unhelpful advice, and I knew I couldn’t be the only one who rankled against it. I didn’t go in to “inspire” people with my brilliance, but to share how I’d struggled with an idea, and how I’d ultimately come to terms with it. I had the sense I wasn’t alone, and I was right.

So? Don’t go in to inspire. Instead, make it a point in all that you do, whether it’s writing, speaking, leading, managing, delivering, to tell us the truth, to show us the work. To change the way we see a thing. Share your own contradictions, complexities, and struggle. Take us with you down the path of your own discovery, so we can see how you got there, what decisions, and mistakes, you made.  

That, to be sure, will be the most inspiring thing you can do.

3 Questions to Ask Before You Do Your Next Talk

There’s nothing like getting tapped to speak at an event or conference—it’s not only nice to be asked, but it speaks volumes about what people think of you: That you have something of value to share with their community, and they want it.

That said, there are three questions I ask myself before I accept, let alone begin to prepare, for a talk. And it isn’t, “When, where, and what should I wear?”

Nope. They’re questions that most people don’t ask before they dive in, and I believe you should to set yourself up for success. I like to ask the organizer these questions so I get a handle on who I’m speaking with, but also, I use it to generate my own questions and shape my content and approach accordingly.

(This is part of a live webinar I did recently called “5 Steps to a TED-worthy Talk” and I’m happy to share it with you because attendees found it so useful.)

1. Why are they there? 

There are lots of reasons people take a seat at an event. And they’re worth considering:

They paid to be there. If they paid their own money to attend an event, they want something in return, and expect something, right? What investment are they making—are you speaking at a business seminar or an event that’s more lifestyle focused? Are they there to rally together and change the world? Or is this meeting or community more focused on trying to maintain the status quo?

They paid a lot to be there. Then there’s the next level up—I’m talking not $50, or even $500 to be there, but like $5,000 or maybe more. We’re talking fundraisers, high-profile events. Now, if someone is donating that much money to be part of an event, it’s not because they expect, say $10,000 worth of content.

As Seth Godin says, when people pay to be somewhere like that, they’re saying to themselves and each other, “people like us do things like this.” Think about how what you’re about to tell them affects or touches their vision of the world, and their role in it. Especially if they’re there for a big cause, a pioneering effort, or perhaps something less grand but no less expensive.

They have to be there or else. Perhaps the group of people you’ll address have to be there because it’s their job, their managers mandating it, or it’s part of their own training and required.

I won’t purport to know what every group of required attendees thinks when they walk in a room, but that’s why it’s worth asking. Is this an event that’s highly anticipated, or deeply dreaded? Do they have high expectations or the lowest of low? This is how to gauge your own approach. Often I’ve found people who file in with zero expectations are sometimes the easiest to delight.

2. Why did they pick you?

The people who hired you or invited you to speak have their own goals and objectives, and they’re not necessarily the same thing. Do you know why that is? (And it’s not just cuz you’re awesome, even though you are.) I once spoke at an event of full-time employees in the HR business, and I was told, “We want you to motivate them enough to love their jobs, but not to leave.” Good to know.

Ok, so, do they want you to inspire the people there to be empowered and to create positive change? Or do they want you to inspire…compliance? There is no good or bad here, by the way.

We operate under the assumption that they want what’s best for the attendees and the organization. But what that is something they take the lead on, not you. So ask, and listen closely. Maybe they want you to wake them up—or perhaps, calm them down in the wake of organizational or industry unrest. Good to know.

3. Why are you there? 

I mean, aside from because they asked. Maybe they’re paying you good money to be there, and that’s great. But no matter what you speak about, chances are, you don’t do it for the money; you’re there because you want to exert some kind of positive influence, some change or fresh perspective or compelling information that can change the way they think and live.

So it’s important to be clear on your own intentions. Maybe it is a good gig and you do it every year, end of story. You have some contacts there and you like to keep them up.

But maybe this speaking event presents another, larger or longer-tail opportunity, in which you make inroads to do more work with them or to get a foot in the door in their industry.

Perhaps it’s an event in your own industry, and speaking there gives you a bit more clout and attention, and that’s a real plus. All great reasons! Just be clear when you’re going in. Because the way you approach a talk to people whose business you know is quite different from when you’re an outsider. Both have great advantages, if you know how to use them.

Bottom line, be honest with yourself about what is expected of you here, and also what YOU want to get out of it. The purpose and mission that drive your talk may not change, but the way in which you deliver it does, group to group. And the more mindful of that you are, the more powerful and effective you will be—and the more opportunities will come your way.

(Want to learn how to create a stand out signature talk that gets you booked, again and again? Join me for Tapped to Speak, my six-week online program designed to help you land the idea, develop the talk, and wow the crowd. Registration closes Friday, 6/16/17 @ 8p ET.)

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4 Ways to Get Laughs on Stage (even if you’re not that funny)

Of all the people you’ve seen get up in front of a room to speak, how many do you really remember?

Very few. And chances are the ones who made an impact probably made you laugh, too.

Solid content gets a nod.

But funny gets rave reviews.

Funny gets asked to speak again. And again.

Here’s the thing: You don’t have to be a standup comic to get laughs. Or a joke writer. Or a ham.

Quite frankly, you don’t even have to think of yourself as funny.

Some people may are particularly gifted, sure. But other, I’d say most, great speakers get laughs because they work at it; they learn to use humor as a tool. And when you see it that way, you can learn to use it like anything else.

I interviewed evolutionary psychologist and humor researcher Gil Greengross, PhD, for a piece I wrote for Women’s Health magazine. And he explained that humor is not usually something made up by one person and consumed by another; it’s how humans relate. It’s something we participate in together.

“Humor is a fundamentally social phenomenon,” says Greengross. When you share laughter and humor with other people, says Greengross, you build up trust and camaradie with others.

He told me about this study, led by neuroscientist Robert Provine and published in the International Journal of Behavioural Biology, which found that in 99 percent of the cases observed, laughter functioned more as punctuation at the end of statements, in response to mundane statements, and nothing that would be deemed funny outside that context.

Aha!

That means humor isn’t always mass produced by pros—it’s made by hand, in the moment. If you’ve ever tried and failed to explain to someone why something was funny, after the fact, then you know this is true. “Guess you had to be there,” you say. Indeed.

This is great— because it means that you, too, can get great, real laughs in your talk, too.

Think your subject matter is too serious for laughs? Think again. A speaker who deftly handles a difficult or serious topic can actually earn big laughs—because in so doing, he gives the audience the much-needed chance to relieve tension.

So how can you get more laughs on stage? Here are some techniques I’ve used, observed, and put into practice for myself and others I’ve coached.

  1. Don’t try to be funny. (Be honest instead.)  

    You know who gets the most pained pity laughs ever? The person who is trying too hard. Please promise me you won’t do this. Instead, try being just blatantly honest. I know it works because I do it all the time.

    I happen to think that people who are tagged as “so funny” are often just more honest than the next person. They say things other people would filter out. Fact is, I am a speaker who also happens to perform stand-up comedy—but doing stand-up didn’t teach me to be funny; it gave me a forum and format for what I already knew got laughs: Say things other people wouldn’t. I’ve been doing that forever.

    This, by the way, is why a little self-deprecation goes a long way to winning over an audience.

    When you make a comment or joke at your own expense, you’re showing the audience that you don’t take yourself too seriously; that you’re no different from them.

    Because you’re going to appear high status on a stage, taking yourself down a peg or two makes you more relatable as a person. As opposed to an insufferable blowhard.

    For instance: I joke in my TEDx talk (“Stop Searching for Your Passion”) about how I was so down at one point early in my career that I spent every night sitting around in my underwear watching Seinfeld reruns. That got a laugh. Because the fact is, we have all done this. I still do it.

  2. Go for specific over general, every time.
    Note that in the above example, I didn’t say I sat around and watched TV. That would not have gotten a laugh. The laugh comes from the details: you can picture the person slumped there, staring blankly at the TV while Kramer comes crashing into the Jerry’s apartment. It works because you can see it.


    If you say in your talk that you were in such a bad mood and binged on junk food, that’s not going to get the laugh. But you know what will? When you admit that you started hurling unflattering epithets at the Verizon customer service agent while knee deep in a bag of Ding Dongs.

    Don’t just say a thing: Fill in the rest of the picture and include the details that give the scene weight, color, and dimension. The funny is in the granular. Always.We laugh because that’s where we see ourselves most clearly.
  3. Use pop culture references—carefully.
    What makes pop cultural references work is because again it lends specificity. It puts us in a place in time—a specific time, one we all shared and remember and perhaps are nostalgic for. It can get a laugh because it allows us to remember it and we feel included by it.


    My rule is this: Know what purpose that reference serves. Is it a cutting commentary on something happening in our culture? Is it a great comparison to show how far we’ve come or how far we’ve stayed the same perhaps?

    If you’re doing a talk that will be recorded and shared (say, a TEDx talk), you don’t want to make a reference to something or be too dependent on an example that’s exclusive or fleeting because then the talk has a more limited shelf life.

    My rule of thumb is that if you want to make a pop culture reference that isn’t lost on half the crowd or meaningless six months from now, use one that has stood the test of time, meaning, is old enough that people will remember. The more mainstream the better, usually.

    This is why a reference to Duran Duran is going to get more laughs from an adult audience than Drake. (Then again, it depends).  People love to be reminded of where they came from, their shared history, things they can laugh at now.Making just the right cultural reference, be it to older songs or movies, foods or fashions, or something we all used to be into but are embarrassed about now? That’ll get a laugh. Again, consider the crowd and what purpose that reference serves.
  4. Take a hard left turn.

    I said you don’t have to be a comic to be funny, but it does help to take a tip from the pros. I had the chance to study under comic Jim David, a very successful standup who has performed for decades. And he says that comedy isn’t a talent or a gift.He said joke writing is a mathematical equation, and anyone can learn it.

    Jokes are, he said, simply a series of hard left turns. You make the audience think you’re going one way and then you make a hard left; it throws them off, and quite often, will make them laugh.


    You see this technique lots of places, by anyone trying to entertain and engage someone else—so you see it in comedy sure but also compelling narratives and great advertising, novels, horror movies, you name it. It requires that you know what someone anticipates or assumes, and then–surprise!–go in a different direction.

    Think about what your audience anticipates, and then, hang a left when they least expect it. When done right, your audience will be surprised and delighted to be along with you for the ride, and they’ll remember you long afterwards, too. 

Want to learn how to crush it on stage? And start stepping up your game in ways that get you noticed—and booked to speak again. 

Happy Accidents: Why Staying Open Should Be Part of Your Plan

After I finished my session on creativity at the How Design Live conference, a woman approached me and handed me a note.

“I know now that I was meant to be here,” she said, dreamily. “I mean, I’m not even part of this conference.”

Wait…what?

But before I had time to call security, she was gone. That woman is fast.

Her note was cryptic, too: She wrote that clearly the Universe had played a part in getting her to my session (the rest of us registered). If I want to know more, she says, I could call her.

Later in the conference I saw creative director turned creative activist and sometime troublemaker Jeff Greenspan (Buzzfeed, Facebook, BBDO) speak on how to make your work compelling to other people.

Jeff has made headlines over and over again with his “side projects” in which he does things like lay hipster traps all over the New York City, and erect a bronze bust of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene park.

He says that, yes, quite a bit of planning and expense have gone into the brilliant and disruptive stunts he and his creative partner Andy Tider have pulled off over the years.

But, there have also been amazing things that just happened.

Such as when the police came and hung a tarp over Snowden’s statue—a lovely bit of stagecraft he couldn’t have planned for, which created the visual irony of the government covering up the face of the man who risked his life to expose the government. It was the icing on his rebel cake. (More on that whole project here.)

Lots of other very cool things have happened in Jeff’s creative life that have earned him headlines and accolades, paying work—and allowed him tap a wellspring of collective energy from all over the world.

Is he lucky? Guided by the invisible hand of The Universe?

“You don’t get happy accidents if you don’t put yourself in accidents’ way,” he says.

Ah. And given the risk in standing up and saying anything contrarian (which Jeff is not afraid to do), it’s no wonder most of us might defer, might instead stay where it’s safe and quiet, and out of the way.

Interesting, right?

One woman wanders into a conference she didn’t register for and calls it divine intervention; a man performs an illegal act that triggers a media event better than he could have imagined, and he calls it a happy accident.

Both had some kind of plan in place (though in truth I am very curious about what that woman was up to). But what they did was leave their doors open a crack.

Whether you believe your life is guided or a series of random events, a bit of magic is at play. Something that’s beyond your control.

So what does that mean? It means your job is to put some conditions in place, but it’s also your job to keep your heart open and, as creative sherpa Sam Harrison said at his session, “available for seduction.”

That is what an artist—anyone looking to discover or create something—must do.

In his book Creativity, famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who introduced the concept of “flow”) studied how creative people think and work, and one of my favorite takeaways is this:

“Creative people are constantly surprised.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

They don’t assume they know what’s going on, he says, nor do they assume anyone else does. I love this. Because that’s the source of childlike wonder and brilliant perspective.

You can’t discover what you’re not curious to know, and the fact that we can’t know everything is, I think, an advantage. Discovery requires a bit of darkness in order to shine.

I’ll add this: The dreamy lady and Jeff also broke the rules; they did things you’re not “supposed” to do. Now, I don’t think you have to perform illegal acts to make things happen. But to invite divine intervention, inspiration, or happy accidents, you need to be open to the unexpected, to the what ifs, to the flow of things outside your control.

We can all have happy accidents and find ourselves the recipient of some benevolence, some great wonder, if we’re willing to wade out into it, and, when we feel the lift of that mysterious tide, start swimming. Hard.

,

Unless You Haul Rocks for a Living, This Applies to You

If you spend most of your time at a keyboard, you can count yourself among the 60 million or so professionals known as “knowledge workers”—a term Peter Drucker coined in the 1960s to describe academics, tech people, analysts, essentially, anyone who didn’t work a physically demanding job.

You know. People who “think” for a living.

What a weird term, knowledge worker. It’s also kind of classist and obnoxious. Please. I know plenty of “knowledge workers” who don’t think about anything.

But what’s more, the term seems to imply that what we come in knowing is more important than what we learn while we’re here. 

Here’s why I bring it up: I spoke on a panel called “The Future of Work” at the Workfront LEAP 2017 conference in April, held annually for users of its project management software. Workfront CMO Joe Staples posed the question of how we thought the role of the knowledge worker was changing.

So I piped up and said that the real challenge of the “knowledge worker” has little to do with knowledge, and everything to do with getting anyone to care.

In his book The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin says that while we’re living in the new Connection Economy, we’re nursing an Industrial Age hangover. We still think compliance and efficiency is most important; it’s not.

We have machines that can gather, process, and evaluate information. The challenge, then, is for modern “knowledge workers” is to get over what they know, and instead, stay curious and engaged and empathetic. Because if they don’t, they won’t learn, or grow, or invest in any real way in the work they do, which is already happening.

Disengagement is one of the big threats to corporate cultures, productivity—and costs the U.S. economy somewhere around $500 billion annually. Meaning, far too many people just don’t care. And if you don’t care, how can you create trust, loyalty, value? You can’t.

Futurist Jacob Morgan says on Forbes.com that it’s goodbye to the knowledge worker and hello, instead, to the learning worker:

“This new movement is the age of the ‘learning workers.’ Yes, these people largely have college degrees and advanced training, but what sets them apart is their knowledge of how to learn. Instead of having a set of specific skills, learning workers have the skills to learn as they go, adapt, and apply their learning to new situations and issues.”

What’s far more valuable he says, is not what someone comes in knowing, but how they can adapt and get up to speed as the business landscape and demands evolve. It’s those who can adapt who will be more successful, but also more valuable, and the same goes for learning organizations who are stay light on their feet.

So rather than get hung up on what you know or don’t know, recognize that one of the most valuable skills you can bring to the table is your ability to be a quick study, to be truly interested and engaged. Do you have any idea how rare that is?

(Here are the slides for the session I presented at Workfront LEAP 2017 was called “Out of Juice: How to Reinspire Yourself & Reengage at Work.”)