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! 🙂

#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.

The King and Queen of Symbols

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The second you see this photo, I know exactly what runs through your head. You can hear the words as if they’re being spoken directly in your ears. “I have a dream.” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words echo throughout one of,  if not the best example of a speech that resonates in the history of public speaking. Add to that its persuasive impact — a world wide movement that literally, significantly and powerfully changed the world — and it’s worth all of the attention and analysis it continues to receive.

And… it’s received a lot! It’s worth even more. Watch the speech, then check out some of the great breakdowns on how it was structured, why it resonates and what gives it its persuasive power. Andrew Dlugan from Six Minutes gives a great breakdown of the speech with 5 lessons learned, and Nancy Duarte provides a “sparkline” that you can follow while listening.

What I love most about the speech is the consistent weaving of evocative imagery throughout. Besides the obvious — the repetition of his dream that the world can be a better place, that what is does not have to be — there are other incantations of palpable metaphors. “Drinking from the cup of bitterness and hate” is a biblical reference that instantly connects the audience to a deeper meaning, and my personal favourite is a spin on Shakespeare’s Richard III:

This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”

Symbols work. They connect, they transform, they resonate. A recent, very powerful example is Beyonce (whom I’ve been told is now referred to as Queen Bey… the Queen to Martin’s King) and her performance at that football game. The berets, the big “X”, the Black Panther salute — all subtly couched in a wildly entertaining dance routine — continue to incite reaction. Even the negative response from some of the world’s smaller minds serves to prove that symbols can be more powerful than words. Interpret them as you will, you cannot deny that they evoke passion and force people to ponder upon their meaning.

Obviously, not every presentation is going to have the scope or the lasting world impact as Martin Luther King, Jr., but we can still look to him for guidance. The man who convinced the world that we can build a better future, who gave us hope that the world could be a better place, also gives us a shining example of how to engage people and inspire them to achieve impossible dreams.

Hallo Spaceboy

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There’s an astronaut saying: In space, “there is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse.” 

These words launch Chris Hadfield’s excellent TED Talk about facing your fears and overcoming challenges to personal exploration. His description of finding himself completely blind during a spacewalk reminds us that our meagre earthling troubles aren’t so colossal after all, and maybe achievement is more within our grasp than we thought. He actually makes me think, hey, far out, I can go to space too!

This is the power of persuasion, because let’s face it, I get dizzy on a treadmill. I’m not going to space any time soon.

So, what makes this presentation, this moon-aged daydream, so powerful? Sure, he’s got a fabulous tale to tell, he’s one of the smartest people in the world, and he’s clearly an accomplished speaker — but what it comes down to is simple craftsmanship. The art of a well-structured presentation is all it takes to convince us that anything is possible.

When you watch the video below, take note of a few things:

  • Visual imagery: the use of photographs shot from the space station are awesome, they tell a story in themselves and entice an emotional response from the presenter. The reaction becomes a shared experience that the audience takes part in.
  • Connection to real experience: He knows that nobody in the audience has been to outer space, so he relates his fears to something we will understand. Yup, spiders. Not spiders from Mars, but spiders that crawl into our beds or spin webs on our doorways. This, we relate to and it makes his argument easier to follow.
  • Personal story: he not only describes the scientific facts of his journey, but all the emotions that go with it — what he thought and what he felt, and how he was able to overcome his fears in extremely trying circumstances.

These are all elements of a great presentation, and you do not have to walk among the stars to pull it off.

Granted, anytime you can wrap up your talk by singing a little David Bowie… you’re doing just fine.

Change the World

Imagine walking into an empty boardroom, and it looks like this…

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You’re the first person to arrive at a meeting, and a projector is set up, so you know there is going to be a presentation. You can sit wherever you want, but you’ll have to wait for the others to arrive.

At this moment… how do you feel?

I posed this question to a group of public servants in one of my recent presentations. The responses I got were not at all surprising:

Dread

Annoyed

Bored (and the presentation hadn’t even begun!)

And of course, “Why am I here?”

I was quick to say that I feel the same way, almost every time. I’ve sat through countless presentations wishing someone would stab me in the throat, and that’s time I’ll never get back. And that’s sad.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The presentation I was giving that day was a call to action, a dramatically expressed idea that we can change the world we live in, one presentation at a time. Each and every presentation is an opportunity to inspire and to incite change — to convince a willing audience that things do not have to remain the way they are, they can get better. All we need do is invest a little time… and a little passion.

I now see a blank screen as an empty stage where, with a touch of imagination, wondrous things can happen. And, yes, some people are gifted public speakers while others practically faint when in front of three people. But the great thing is, when presenting your own material, it doesn’t matter because the best presentations are suited to our own personal styles. Taking the time to create visually persuasive slides, and rehearsing the delivery of your presentation, can make the difference between an inspired audience and a group of conspirators plotting your murder.

One of the world’s greatest presenters and teachers, Nancy Duarte, says:

Passion for your idea should drive you to invest in its communication.

This is the main reason I’ve started this blog, so that I can share my passion for presentations that pop, that resonate, that inspire, and to do what I can to help others think beyond the bullets and the text-ridden slides and create presentations that change the world.

Bring those blank screens and those empty boardrooms to life — and make your space — any space — pop.