The Legend of Flying Boy

The Legend of Flying Boy

Daring You to Take Flight in 2020

My very first brilliant idea, which I’m lucky was not my last, materialized when I was 9-years old. It came to me while watching a plastic bag blow around the yard and eventually get caught in the branches of a tree. It occurred to me that the aerodynamic principles of a plastic shopping bag are exactly similar to those of a parachute. And thus my dream was born.

I would design a parachute for kids.  

Yes, it would be considerably smaller than those used by actual skydivers … I knew this from GI Joe cartoons. But my plan was not to jump out of a plane. That would be crazy — not to mention the logistical problems of acquiring a plane, a pilot, and an airport. No, I would limit the altitude to the rooftop of my house. 

I couldn’t believe it had never been done. I had a glorious vision of kids around the world jumping off their rooftops, floating blissfully to their backyards — and then hurrying up the ladder for another jump. And for me, the money would be rolling in.

But I wasn’t in it for the money. It was more about the glory. 

Now, I don’t want you to think I rushed into this without doing some research. I didn’t just grab a bag and jump off the roof (thank goodness… because if I’m honest I really did consider it). No. I worked on developing a prototype. 

A child's drawing of a boy holding a shopping bag next to an actual parachutist. Drawing is "Not to scale".

And… this was my design.

This perfectly reasonable, intricately detailed, scientifically sound design was my ticket to the skies. It’s funny how, even as a child, I knew that a dream doesn’t become reality on its own. You need to take action — and write it down. Suddenly, prototype design in hand, my dream was palpable. Alive. Real.

There was one problem.

I have an uncle who knows about inventions. He had once told me that if you want to invent something, you need a patent. And to get one, you had to test your design. You know… make sure it works. An idea does not an invention make.

Easy to solve. I decided I would test my design, but do it at a lower altitude for the initial jumps, make whatever adjustments I’d need, then take to the roof. I planned my first jump out my bedroom window. (It was the 2nd story — what was the worst that could happen?)

But, thinking ahead (as visionaries do), I knew that eventually I would need to market my idea. Kids needed to know about this fabulous new product that would change their lives forever. So, I decided to combine my prototype test with a prototype demonstration.

A child drawn poster that reads "Come see the Amazing Flying Boy - he doesn't even care if he dies."

I made a poster.

And I became the Amazing Flying Boy.

Come to think of it, this was also my first marketing campaign. And it was a good one. I made copies of the poster and put them up all over the neighbourhood. I even charged $0.10 for admission (to get shopping bags you needed to buy something, and I was going to need a LOT of bags). And of course I knew that kids were not going to be interested unless there was some element of peril, so I added the line “he doesn’t even care if he dies!”

By now, you probably realize that this was a bad idea. Testing your product before a live audience is not a good marketing strategy. I had a backyard full of enthusiastic children waiting to watch the Amazing Flying Boy soar out his window like an idiot.

And honestly, as I stood in the window looking out at their excited faces, I believed, without any doubt, that it was going to work. I saw myself in that moment, completely free, in utter control of the elements. Gravity be damned. In my vision, I jumped into the air and floated gently, gracefully, to a soft, safe landing.

You’ve heard the mantra “fail fast”? I failed in less than a second. I woke up in an ambulance, and eventually faced two very angry parents. Thankfully, nothing was broken. Well, nothing physical. My spirit, like my dream, was crushed.

My parents even made me give all the money back. I went around the neighbourhood handing kids dimes and apologizing for making them have to explain what happened to the paramedics.

So I had nothing to show for it. The Amazing Flying Boy was grounded for good.

But, truth be told, there is something so valuable I learned from that experience (besides the obvious). It’s something that I have forgotten over the years, and something that so many of us leave behind amongst the ruins of our youth. On that day, I had no fear. An idea came. I embraced it. I built it. I sold it. And then I jumped out a window.

How many times have I been able to do that as an adult? Why, when I’ve learned so much about the world (including basic aerodynamics), am I so afraid to try something new, however crazy, for fear of failing?

I know I’m not alone. I think most adults experience this in some way or other. But perhaps if we remember that childhood fearlessness — that willingness to act upon an idea and work to see it become real — we can make things happen in ways we actually dreamt of.

I hope that this year ahead brings you many opportunities, and that your brilliant ideas inspire you to take action, take a leap, and take flight.

Just remember to test your prototype first.

Note: The drawings in this post are an artist’s rendition of the originals, and may not be exactly the same. However, they are really super close! 🙂

Beauty, Like the Night

IlluminateShe walks in beauty, like the night; Of cloudless climbs and starry skies… 

Lord Byron’s stunning verse evokes the glowing beauty of a woman’s eyes, comparing them to the loveliness of night. It is a sweet poem about illumination and the soft glow of tender light. It poses the wonders of night against the shine of “gaudy day”.

This is how I feel about clip-art.

In far too many presentations, I’m being forced to look at cheesy clip-art images, their gaudiness burning my eyes like I’m staring directly at the sun. I mean that literally, because sometimes I’m actually looking at the image of a sun — a sun with a freaking smile on its face. Why does the sun have a smile on its face? Because somebody chose to put the damn thing in their PowerPoint. For shame.

Beauty, like the night, is subtler and more refined than a smiling sun, or a thumbs-up emoji, or hands shaking in front of a globe. The images you choose to put in your slides project much about your efforts. When crassly done, they tell the audience that you rushed your presentation, don’t care about it, or are not invested in communicating your ideas. When done with care, they can have great power. They illuminate your points, give them life, and resonate.

This is not to say that clip-art can’t work. It can. But only when images have been thoughtfully chosen to fit thematically with your work. Otherwise, more often than not, they are clichés, unoriginal, and likely to garner groans instead of your intended reaction.

Thankfully, this is an easy fix. You don’t need to be or hire a graphic designer to have great design. There are plenty of striking, beautiful images to be found from stock photo libraries like Shutterstock, iStock, or Adobe that will fit nicely into your work. Better yet, if you have a photographer in your network (or are one yourself), why not create original content? Not only will you see your points jump to life, but you’ll connect with an audience who longs for that personal touch.

When you look into the night sky, do you want to see a smiling emoji giving you thumbs up? Or would you rather see the Northern Lights, glowing, dancing against the darkness, illuminating…

Other Worlds

book-otherworlds-splshMargaret Atwood, that reluctant Canadian icon whose pen has been been known to build and destroy entire worlds in a stroke, has had a lifelong relationship with Science Fiction. She claims it came to be due to a childhood difficulty relating to the rudimentary elements of the here-and-now. She says:

I wasn’t much interested in Dick and Jane: the creepily ultra-normal characters did not convince me. Saturn was more my speed, and other realms even more outlandish. Several-headed man-eating marine life seemed more likely to me, somehow, than Spot and Puff.

Last week, I had the opportunity to hear Ms. Atwood speak at this year’s SpecFic Colloquium, where she, along with other authors including Andrew Pyper, Michael Rowe and A.M. Dellamonica, spoke about the power of unearthly imaginings and their impacts on our social order.

Generally, authors such as these are not known for their public speaking abilities, but I must say I was quite impressed. Atwood, for me, was the most engaging — her slow, methodical speech is powered by a quick wit and her enchanting ability to bring stories to life. This is encouraging to me, knowing that introverted, deep-thinking book-worms are just as capable of delivering a persuasive talk as a boisterous arm-waver in a power suit. (Especially if said speaker is a multi-headed man-eater with tentacles).

IMG_3834What works about Atwood’s talks is probably the same thing that works in her fiction, an ability to transport an audience to another world where the impossible exists — where the rules of our world are broken, and the things we believe to be untrue land in front of us with a thud, wrap their tentacles around us, and fly us to the moon.

It’s a very good lesson for public speakers, both reluctant and seasoned, to consider other worlds when giving a talk. The other world is where you want to take your audience, the place where we can achieve the impossible, where what could be suddenly is — real and awesome and… dare to dream… possible! This is an important step toward innovation, the seed of belief, and the power of an unleashed imagination.

In other worlds… we can believe.



I work in an organization that loves… LOVES… to prey upon innocent minds with a relentless assault of Slide-uments.  Slide-uments are what presentation professionals like Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte call a cross between a slide-show and a document — text laden, information saturated splashes of stuff. They’re like abstract art with words and the occasional clip-art cliche just to fool you into thinking the presenter actually put some thought into the visuals.

Now, calm down Policy Analysts, I know there are times when a slide-ument is absolutely suitable, if not entirely necessary, and you may have no choice. I would suggest that in such times you simply create a Word document to circulate and discuss details rather than have a bunch of innocent spectators sit around a table, stare at a screen and try desperately to look like they’re paying attention. It’s a form of torture and it’s just cruel.

Remember, a solid presentation has three legs holding it up — content, delivery, and visual presentation. Your visuals should never BE the content. They provide clarity, and enhance the delivery, helping ensure that your message resonates in the minds of your audience. If I have to read every word you have to say, I’ll order a transcript. And I might punch you.

There is help. An excellent resource is Nancy Duarte’s book Slide:ology – The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations.  It may seem intimidating at first (it really goes deep into the graphic art of slide design), but I assure you, you do not need to be a graphic designer to pull it off. The book provides detailed, step-by-step instruction on how to create individual slides that will project what you really need – VISUAL IMPACT. I encourage anyone who’s been tasked with putting together a persuasive presentation to read this book. If you don’t want to take my word for it, Alex Rister gives it a solid defense on her blog, Creating Communications.

I will share with you, however, three general slide rules that I picked up:

  1. Only 1 idea per slide: don’t fall into the trap of trying to condense multiple thoughts by using smaller fonts. You’re getting into slide-ument territory.
  2. Three second rule: Your audience should get that 1 idea in 3 seconds, tops.
  3. Enhance, don’t detract: Your idea should enhance your message with visual impact, not distract the audience from what you are saying.

Visual impact is not a myth. It’s out there for you to harness.

Your audience thanks you.



The Keynote


Here’s a guy who could command a stage.

Last night I watched Danny Boyle’s film about Steve Jobs and was so gravely disappointed that the bio did not take us as far as the 2007 keynote speech that launched the iPhone into my life.

Yes, I’m convinced that the iPhone was invented just for me — so that I can more effectively ignore phone calls while I listen to music. The “Ignore Call” option is like a lifeline that gets thrown out to me every time my phone rings. (How badly does Rogers really want to talk to me, anyway?)

But that’s just the introvert in me. The presenter in me goes apples over this Steve Jobs speech, this keynote address. It almost has as much lasting power as the phone itself. I’ve been at several conferences where it’s been touted as one of the greatest pieces of corporate storytelling ever, and it continues to resonate.

You can watch the entire speech here, but my favourite moment (everyone has one) is when he uses the phone, turns it sideways and scrolls through album covers. When I first saw that, it was, to me, a science-fiction dream came true. And his presentation of it was spellbinding.

This is a perfect example of showing, not telling, and bringing a product to life. When you’re delivering a keynote, it’s pretty easy to fall into the onerous practice of description. When you have the opportunity to demonstrate an innovative product, to show us how it works and how it will change our lives… well, it’s like magic. Suddenly a new world comes to life before our very eyes.

And to take you through the magic of the speech, its “secret structure”, I’m happy to share with you a TEDx talk by another presenting hero of mine, Nancy Duarte.

Just ignore your phone while you watch it…