Letting Go

shutterstock_386267536Letting go.  It’s the hardest thing to do.  Whether it’s a person, a thing, an idea or a fear, it takes a lot of effort and often times tears are shed.

Here are a few of the things I can’t let go of:

  • an off-key note in the shower
  • the fact that some people think the world is flat
  • getting dumped for a golfer by a college girlfriend (and he sucked)
  • the Royals beating the Jays in 1985
  • the Royals beating the Jays in 2015
  • getting cutoff while riding my motorbike
  • a grudge
  • a presentation

So, you can imagine my dilemma when, a short while ago, I was forced to abdicate my appearance at a conference and allow someone else to deliver one of my presentations. I developed the slide deck, spent weeks working on the slides, creating what some might call a PowerPoint masterpiece…

Only to let it go.  I had to be out of town and there was no way to reschedule.

It was so difficult. Ridiculously difficult. I say that because there was no decent reason for me to feel that kind of separation anxiety. The person delivering in my place is fully capable and accomplished. I worked with her, coached her and remained in contact with her through the whole process.  (Yah, maybe I didn’t totally let go).

So why did I feel like someone had just kidnapped my child and made it to love her more than me?

It’s called ego.   Something that plagues many people who remain emotionally attached to their work and can’t. let. it. go.

I learned this a long time ago when I was writing plays and getting produced in Montreal. As a playwright, I needed to step away from the stage and allow the director and the actors make my words their own.   And I mean their own.  There was always a moment in a production where the cast knew the play better than I did.  They had transformed into something bigger than me. They owned it. They lived it.  And, for the sake of the play, I had to let them have it.  I no longer mattered.

(Possibly the reason I no longer work in theatre).

It’s the same in the business world. Leaders who are committed (as they should be) on developing staff, nurturing talent, and building a stronger, more vibrant workforce, need to let their team members go. Give them the tools they need to succeed and watch them soar.

Interestingly enough, the result of my letting go of the presentation made it better.  The presenter brought a new, fresh perspective to the piece that connected with the audience.

Here’s a little exercise.   All you need is a piece of paper.

Goal: craft the best paper airplane you can.

Spend a few minutes getting the folds right.   Make it as aerodynamical as possible.

Then hold it up above your head.

Now, I challenge you to not throw it. Not to let it fly.  Instead, just crumple it up.

You can’t do it, can you?

You have to let it go.

A Quantum of Solitude

shutterstock_135427394A “quantum of solitude” can be defined as the precise combination of aloneness,  peace and personal reflection required to maintain our humanity and survive in a noisy world. It is a significant need, especially for an introvert like me.  It provides oxygen during times of increased social interaction and over-stimulation, so you don’t suffocate.

Over the last few days, I’ve learned to seek out solitude and respect my inner hermit.

I spent this past week immersed in learning at the Ivey Spencer Leadership Centre, trapped in a network of 50 or so high-achievers, active-thinkers and hyper-leaders, all burning with the desire to grow and to succeed. Since the program is designed to increase togetherness and incite collaboration, we were all housed in the same facility. Round the clock collaboration, integration, socialization — bordering on molestation — one participant likened it to being in jail.

And — I had a blast. The program is the beginning of a long journey and I’m honoured to be among these wonderful and brilliant people. I was as boisterous and interactive as anyone. But I’m an introvert — so it came at a cost.

For one, I went three days without sleep. An overload of information, intellectual and emotional stimulation — I had difficulty coming down. I needed time to process all that information, to reflect.   And for me, reflection requires time alone.  Time that wasn’t in the schedule.

The constant interaction also made me more emotionally vulnerable.  The program involved dissecting all the things that make us tick – our fears, weaknesses and sensitivities – to make us better leaders.  While it was eye-opening it was also draining.

So, how do we manage all this? For the introvert, who needs some measure of solitude to exist, how do you handle a conference where ‘networking’ is key ? A team-building event, where one is expected to be up-close-and-personal with your cohorts? A learning symposium where you’re barraged with information and endless intellectual discussion?

I learned a few tricks that helped me unfurl from the fetal position and optimize my learning.

1. Take a few coffee breaks alone. Often, as soon as break time comes up, people tend to congregate and discuss what they think about what that guy said or that crazy exercise they did with those tennis balls. Sure, take part in a few of those conversations, but not all. It’s a good time to walk away from everyone. Look out the window, stare at an apple, check out some art… anything but talk to another human.

2. Go on long walks. When the group breaks for the day, before you head to the social cocktail event, go out on your own for a bit. I had a wonderful walk in London (Ontario) this week where I went to see the Thames River, which unlike it’s namesake, is a peaceful, soft-flowing brook, perfect ambience for self-reflection.

3. Find a person to help ground you. Remember, you’re not alone. There is likely someone going through the same thing and you can confide in that person. It helps to have someone who understands.

4. Connect with home. For me, it was my parachute. Your family, your partner, your friends, your dog. Anything that brings you mentally back to your happiest place in the world is worth as many visits as you can fit in.

And again, you’re not alone.  There are plenty of introverts among us.   When you’re feeling overwhelmed and your instinct is to run to your room and barricade the door until the conference is over – – take a breath, tell your colleagues you need a moment and find a place to be alone. They will understand and they will let you go.

You can survive many compromises and interactions, but never the absence of a very human need for self-retreat.  When the Quantum of Solitude stands at zero… you’ve got to get away to save yourself.

 

Stage Fright

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I gave the presentation of my life last week.   Standing there, among a group of senior executives looking at me expectantly I felt invincible, like a Cy Young winning pitcher throwing a perfect game.   Actually, nah.   The only thing I wanted to throw was my breakfast all over the floor. I wanted to vomit, and this isn’t a rare occurrence. It happens every time, without fail.

You wouldn’t think of it to look at me.  At least, that’s what people tell me.   They say things like ‘but it’s so effortless for you’ or ‘it’s easy for you because you’re an extrovert.’  But this is an illusion.  One, I’m a textbook introvert.  And two, no matter  how often I present, no matter how good I am at it, no matter how well I perform… I feel like puking my guts out.

Every single time.

Fear is a major adversary for anyone who stands in front of a group of people ready to be judged.  Even that sentence makes me sweat.   The fear of judgement, of screwing up, of forgetting your ‘lines’, of looking nervous plays on  ‘repeat’ in your mind, takes form in your guts and stays there. It is the number one killer of presentations today. It’s no wonder that so many people list fear of public speaking as their primary dread… over spiders, snakes, and homicidal clowns.

But fear can also be your friend.

Let me tell you a story…

Years ago, during my days in the theatre, I was performing in a one-man show called Tintin Untold — a play that I wrote myself so had no excuse for not knowing the lines.   About mid-way through one of the performances, in front of a sold-out house, I lost my place in the script and froze.  Without a clue of what to say next.

Time stopped and panic set in. The only sound I could hear was the heavy thumping of my heart in my ears (and my inner voice screaming HOLY SHIT). My stomach simmered and gurgled and I could feel whatever I ate that morning slowly working its way into my throat. I was sure I was about to do something far worse than forget my lines on stage. I was about to puke on the audience.

Now, every time I’m about to start a presentation, I remember that moment. I see myself standing on the edge of failure about to vomit on innocent spectators. But instead of letting it get the better of me, I use it. Because I remember what happened next.

While I did throw up a little in my mouth, the release actually gave me the chance to take a breath, shake it off, and say to the audience, “I’m so glad we could share this moment of reflection.” It got a nice laugh and some very kind, forgiving applause. And the moment allowed me to gather my thoughts, find my place in the script and carry on with my performance.

It also taught me that nothing is ever as bad as it seems, and sometimes all you need to do breathe. It makes a world of difference.

Whenever someone tells me they’re not nervous before a presentation, I wonder if they’re lying, not taking it seriously enough or they’re a sociopath.  We are naturally social beings engineered to care what other people think – to one extent or another.

But instead of allowing fear to be a barrier, we can use it to motivate us to be at our best – to put in the time, to practice, to perfect, to be fully prepared before we take to the stage. If we have done all that, then no matter what happens, we will be able to recover, and we’ll get through it.

Remember, when you are presenting, you are never alone. There is a room full of people who actually want you to succeed. You have all kinds of tools at your disposal to help you recover if necessary. Take a sip of water. Ask for questions from the audience. Or, just stop in your tracks, shut your eyes, take a deep breath, throw up a little bit in your mouth and carry on. Most people won’t notice and those that do, won’t mind.

What’s more, it’s okay to be nervous. Your fear is a good thing — it gets your adrenaline going, your blood pumping, your energy up. It doesn’t own you. It’s your fear, you own it. You are here for a reason. This is your show.

So take a breath, look to your audience, and engage.

Unless, of course, your audience happens to be a group of homicidal clowns.

Look Into My Eyes

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Feed me.  This is what every dog is saying when you look into their eyes. You know they’re playing you in the hope of getting that extra treat. But that moment when your eyes meet feels so heartwarming that it renders their manipulation superfluous (OR that it makes their manipulation feel incidental) and has you reaching into the doggie cupboard for the dried liver.

It comes to dogs instinctively and necessarily.   Since we don’t speak each other’s language, their methods of communication are limited to their eyes (and maybe their tails and teeth, if you get too energetic).   And as humans, it’s also one of the most powerful forms of non-verbal engagement. It connects and conveys sentiment – desire, happiness, surprise, anger, sadness, aggression. And love.  Our eyes say, “You’re important to me, and I care about you.”

So it baffles me that so many presenters do not use this tool in their arsenal when speaking with their audience.   I’ve noticed that many focused on anything BUT the audience, the people they’re there to engage. Instead they’re looking at inanimate objects – their speaking notes on a podium or a desk, the slides on their computer or in what I consider a worst case scenario, their PowerPoint presentation on a screen, while their backs are turned to their audience.

When this happens and I’m in the audience, I feel like I don’t matter.  They matter.   Their insecurity, or overwhelming stage fright or lack of time to rehearse and commit at least some major points to memory are what matter.   Or – less generously – they simply didn’t care enough to put in the effort.

They’re not getting one of the basic tenets of presentations.   And life.   Practice makes perfect.   And getting the content of your presentation down cold leaves you with the confidence to actually engage with your audience.  To speak to them, not at them.  To look like you’re there with them.    And you  may not look adorable enough to get that liver treat but you will convey knowledge and confidence and engender trust.   People will want to listen to you instead of checking their Facebook account on their mobile phone or wondering what they’re feeding the kids tonight.

I know, it’s scary and daunting. Fear is a prime motivator of almost every shitty presentation that’s been read off a screen.   Like most people, unless you happen to be a sociopath, you’re afraid you’ll stumble over your words, forget what you’re supposed to say, skip essential information that makes your case.  And that’s why you practice.  Alone for the first few times in whatever way is comfortable.   Lying down and memorizing.  Standing up and pacing.   And then you practice again but this time in front of someone supportive who will give you props first and then some constructive criticism.  (Remind them you need the props first, even if it’s just ‘yah, that shirt suits you’).  And when you feel confident enough to take to the stage, practice one more time. And remember, once you’ve engaged your audience, there is nothing you can do that’s so wrong – minus illegal shit – that you can’t fix it because they’re rooting for you to succeed.   You’ve got them.  They’re engaged.

Liberate yourself from the podium.  Create a personal connection with each and every audience member.  LOOK at them. You’ll feel the love.

Just look into the puppy’s eyes and tell me I’m wrong.

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…

What’s the Big Idea?

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The past two days have tested my patience. I sat through back-to-back presentations that, despite having interesting subject matter, failed maddeningly to resonate. I know I’m not the typical audience member — I get overly frustrated by disengaging slide-decks and prodding presenters pontificating their prose-ridden presentations. It’s surprising that I’ve not been asked to leave — I’m rather demonstrative of my distaste (there’s a lot of huffing and eye-rolling and even the odd “Are you kidding me?”). But I think sometimes presenters are happy to have elicited any sort of reaction, and simply regard me as “engaged and enthusiastic”.

In both cases my problem was an overabundance of information contained on each slide. The term “Slideument” most certainly would apply — documents in slide form that succeed only as a distraction and do nothing to convey the idea.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 3.42.46 PMHere’s an example of one of the slides I saw today. See! Horrifying, right? Now, for the sake of confidentiality, I replaced the text of the slide with my own, conveying as best I could what I actually got out of the presentation. I’m quite certain it’s not what was intended.

Now, compare this to the image at the top of this post. In a second… at a glance… you get the idea. Literally. Because that’s what it’s about. The idea.

Each slide should be limited to one idea. What’s more, no matter how complex that idea is, the context and meaning of the idea should be conveyed in three seconds. That doesn’t mean you can’t have supporting text, images or information. Remember, the role of the presenter is to deliver the information the most suitable means necessary. But again, in three seconds max — you should get the idea.

A good measure of how effective your slides are is to have a colleague take a quick look, and for each slide, ask them, “What’s the idea?” If they don’t get it off-the-bat, you’ll know to reconsider.

And, when you walk off the stage to a round of applause, you’ll know my advice is more than a “big” idea. It’s a good one.

#OpeningDay

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One of the best things about baseball is that you can fail most of the time and still be considered a great success. Last season’s batting title went to Dee Gordon of the Miami Marlins with a .333 batting average, meaning he managed one measly hit for every three at bats. That’s a failure rate of 67% — two thirds of the time. Imagine being allowed that margin of error in your job! Most of us are barely permitted one mistake, let alone a 3 game batting slump. Consider child care professionals, for example. You could take care of a thousand kids, and deliver 999 of them back to their parents, safe and sound. But it’s that one kid you lost that they’ll never forget. “Sorry, Ed, you’ll have to forget your merit increase this year — I mean, there was that kid…”

Today is Opening Day of the 2016 season, and it got me thinking about a presentation I delivered a few years ago about what we in the workplace can learn from baseball. I think one of the greatest lessons is that you don’t have to win to be successful. As a major league ball player, you’re not going to win the World Series every year. You may not even make the Post Season. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a successful season — because every at bat, or every trip to the mound, is an opportunity for success. If it doesn’t work out, there’s next inning. You don’t have to wait till tomorrow, or Monday (as we often tend to do from Thursday on…) to correct your mistakes and make it count.

One of the game’s greatest managers, Joe Torre, says:

“To me, success is playing — or working — to the best of your ability. And winning is a by-product of living up to your highest standards for your-self, getting the most out or your natural talents, reaching down and rooting out your own drive, courage and commitment… But success should be your daily focus. You can’t win every day, but you can succeed in fulfilling your potential as an individual and a team member.”

I often think about baseball coaches when I’m delivering a presentation, because you’re often trying to achieve the same thing — give a team of talented professions the tools, inspiration and motivation to succeed. Communication is so important in the pursuit of winning, be it on the diamond or in the office.

Why not look at it this way? Next time your about to give a presentation, see yourself in the locker room, on opening day. The entire season is ahead of you and anything is possible. The World Series is in reach, because you have the right time to get there. They have the talent, the skill and the drive. All you need to do is give them a little guidance, a few tips, and a touch of belief.

I’ve uploaded a version of the presentation I referenced earlier, with the new addition of the famous “bat-flip”.

Play ball.