TEDx Director’s Commentary

tedx picture

Typically the director’s commentary doesn’t come out until the DVD is released. It is for the true movie buffs who love to hear what the director and/or producer were thinking. They go through every painstaking detail. If you don’t like film, then it would be the most boring two hours of your life. If you love film and how it is made, you can’t get enough, hearing directly from the people who made the movie. You get some insight into their heads and how they think.

Since I am fresh off my first TEDx talk, I wanted to share some “director’s commentary” with you – before the DVD is released (i.e. video is uploaded to the web). If you are interested in TEDx, you might enjoy this – otherwise, it could be a boring ten minutes!

The director’s commentary around my TEDx experience involves two parts: how I ended up being asked to speak at this TEDx event, and what it was like to prepare and deliver the talk.

Getting to King Street East
The official name of the TEDx event at which I spoke was TEDx King Street East. King Street is a major street running through the heart of downtown Toronto. I met the event organizer, Chris Murumets, at an actuarial conference in Toronto this past May. Chris volunteered to be a part of a presentation that I was organizing on Design Thinking. Chris told me that he was impressed with my presentation this past May and asked me if I would like to come back to be a part of a TEDx event he was organizing. I gave him an emphatic yes, and I’m so glad that I decided to speak.

Prepping for the big day
I decided to start working on my talk in mid August. Here’s how I approached it.
August 12: Think about needing to work on TEDx talk, procrastinate and do other stuff
August 19: Think about needing to work on TEDx talk, procrastinate and do other stuff
August 26: Think about needing to work on TEDx talk, procrastinate and do other stuff
September 2: Labor day, forget to think about TEDx talk
Skip to September 30: stay up until 2 am finishing draft of TEDx talk

I settled on “Empathy” as a topic early on. Becoming more empathetic has had a big impact with my outlook on my work, and I wanted to share that story. I have a technical background (i.e. I am a geek), and I notice that many other people with technical backgrounds also seemed to have empathy problems.

But, I thought this has to be bigger than me to be enjoyable for the audience. I wondered, “do empathetic organizations outperform companies that lack empathy?” Thankfully, a fellow TEDx speaker recommended a book (Wired to Care). In this book, the author places a few companies in three categories (high empathy, low empathy, and somewhere in between). It turns out that the stock performance of highly empathetic companies is substantially better than that of low empathy companies. Bazinga! Something bigger than my personal story.

More prep
I’d love to tell you that preparing for this talk was easy. Delivering fifteen minutes of original live content that you know will live forever on the internet sounds scary to me. Scary enough for me to want to practice!

Once I had a draft of the presentation, I must have practiced a million times. Once in front of a few co-workers and my wife. Once with a fellow TEDx speaker. I even created a recording of my talk and sent it out to a few friends for review.

Each reviewer gave me great feedback and helped shape my talk. All that was left was to continue to practice. I recorded my best version yet four days before the talk and then I listened to it almost non-stop.

You heard that correct, I listened to myself speak over and over and over again. I listened to my talk on the drive into work. I listened to my talk on the flight to Toronto. I listened to my talk on the subway. And lastly, I listened to my talk about an hour before I was on stage.

I have used this technique before for big presentations. Develop the talk, practice several times, record a “good” version, listen to the “good” version until you can give the talk in your sleep.

You did all of that for that?
Devoting so much time to one presentation does add some pressure. It’s tempting to not put in this kind of prep and then write off a poor performance by saying, “no big deal…I didn’t really put that much time into it.” Hopefully, some of you will watch my 14 minute talk once it is up on the TED website. And you might think, “wow…you did all of that for that?” And that’s ok. I would rather work hard knowing that my performance might be a colossal failure, with no excuses. I don’t like thinking, “what if I had actually tried?”

The talk
It was the definition of fun for me to stand up and share a part of my journey. I was fortunate to only have a few verbal missteps, and I don’t think they took too much away from my talk. The attendees at the event were gracious and gave me some positive feedback. Some of my favorite quotes were, “my son is a 25 year old computer programmer and he has got to hear your talk!” and “you have advanced the image of an actuary by a light year!”

I am looking forward to sharing my talk once it’s up on the TED website. Now, I need to get busy creating content for future talks. (i.e. taking risks, caring for others, and trying new things)

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My oh my

Please treat yourself and watch Macklemore perform My oh my.

My oh my. I love his passion – it’s infectious. He gets that he is making art and his first desire is to connect with his audience.

But connecting doesn’t always come easy. Macklemore writes about working on his craft from an early age

Chasing dreams since I was fourteen with the four track bussing
Halfway cross that city with the backpack, fat cat, crushing

He’s now 30 years old and has spent 16 hard years honing his craft. What have you worked on almost continually for the past 16 years? For me, the list is short. In fact, there’s nothing on the list. But if you’re like me, you sometimes expect to make Macklemore quality art, without his hard work and dedication.

Making art is hard work and not everyone will connect, but I believe that is ok. You’re art isn’t for those people. Don’t let the critics keep you from making art.

Connection is why Macklemore makes music. If people don’t resonate with his music, then doesn’t feel like he is doing his job. Notice that nowhere does he say that it has to resonate with everyone. He wants his music to resonate with his fans.

Be an artist. Keep honing your craft. I feel like I’ve been making art for close to a year now. By the Macklemore standard, I have many years to go. To keep a long perspective on my journey as an artist, I set a reminder on my calendar for 9/17/2028 to see how my art is connecting. Hopefully it is half as good as what Macklemore is making.

I wanted to end this post with a couple of things:

  1. It’s been a delight to post daily for the past month, and today is my last post for a few days. I want to reflect about what I have learned and share with my readers.
  2. Below is the text of the interview between Kevin Cole and Macklemore. He completely get’s what it takes to make art. Enjoy:

Kevin Cole: My oh my. I’ve had listeners email after I’ve played that song saying that they had to pull over the car because they were just weeping. And it’s amazing to get that response. Just incredible. And the interesting thing about that song, Dave Neihaus, the announcer for the Mariners from day 1 to the end of the season – it means a lot to Seattleites, but it really connected beyond that. If you look at the YouTube comments people are like, “I have no clue who Dave Neihaus is, but this song is incredible.” That’s special.

Macklemore: Yeah…Yeah…When I wrote this song it was more of dealing with the grief and a therapeutic exercise in writing and it turned out to be something that not only are Seattleites relating to, but something that people from all over the country are submitting YouTube comments or whatever are connecting with it. So it’s amazing.

KC: How important is it to get people to connect?

Mac: That’s why I make music. That’s why I write music. This is a oral tradition. This is a language and if people aren’t resonating with what I am writing, then I’m not doing my job.

KC: Yeah, I think what makes that song so powerful though, is that you could write and have it be very nostalgic, but there are so many layers to the song. In fact, you kind of turn you back on nostalgia in that song when you talk about “I don’t collect cards anymore, it’s just cardboard gathering dust.” You turn it into something about being in the now. About living your life to the fullest. Super cool.

Mac:Thank you.I appreciate it.

Lessons from dancing girl

I wrote a while back about lessons we can learn from a dancing guy. At a concert last night, I was thinking about lessons I could learn from a (crazy) dancing girl.

I’ll set the scene for you. I am with my wife and two other friends at a local venue to see Mumford and Sons. (aside: they put on a great show and I would highly recommend seeing them). Everyone is having a good time, doing the normal concert stuff. Everyone but this girl in the row in front of us. She is dancing (slightly offbeat – someone told me, I would never have known) like we’re at a Widespread Panic concert. Hands are in the air with movement resembling a mild seizure.

Mumford & Sons

Mumford & Sons (Photo credit: staceymk11)

She obviously didn’t care what others thought of her dancing and I am guessing that pretty much everyone within a few rows thought something. So where am I headed with this?

Do I want to be a distraction. An uncoordinated, unskilled distraction to a perfectly fine concert? Not at all. But I do want to be different. And I want to be un-phased if onlookers within “two rows” of my life are chatting about what I’m up to – it doesn’t matter to me.

If my life looks like a amalgamation of eight different sets of feedback I’ve gotten on my latest mistake, then I am doing something wrong. Don’t try to please everyone.

There should be something unique about all of us. I believes is part of what makes us human. But let your uniqueness be in what you do.

Sadly, it’s somewhat unique to care about others more than yourself. It’s unique to take a risk corporately. It’s unique to pursue endeavors the rest of the world might view as impractical.

The beats of a story

Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

I love this post at 99u on “The five beats of successful storytelling.” I plan to use this to explore the story I want to tell at an upcoming talk.

As I have mentioned before, storytelling is so crucial in today’s world. There is so much information floating around, the only thing that tends to get our attention is a well crafted story.

My take on the importance of storytelling overtime

  • pre-3000 BC – I would love to write some of this stuff down, but I don’t know how to yet. It’s easier for my cro-magnon brain to process a story, so tell me about the story about that enormous woolly mammoth you killed with your bare hands and I will draw pictures of it on this cave wall.
  • 3000 BC – 2013 – This industrialist work/life balance has really got me down. Can you just send me the excel spreadsheet with last quarters’ sales figures?
  • 2013 and beyond – I have a million tweets a minute coming at me. Lot’s of information, but nothing is sticking. My modern hipster mind would love a story so I can make sense of all of this.

So as you can see from my exhaustive chronicle of time, storytelling is back in. There’s no doubt that good storytelling has always been valued, but I believe stories help us separate the signal from the noise.

So check out the framework and 99u’s article. Try and craft your story doing this…I am working on mine and hope to blog about it in a few days.

Never ending work

When I travel, I am continually amazed at the lack of good design in airports. Check out the picture above. This is the scene that confronted me this morning as I waited for my bag in the jetway. We wait in a long line, then when our bag comes we go grab it, only to bump into every other passenger trying to grab his or her bag. This setup is by default, not by design. But why should this surprise me, you or anyone else?

Good design is hard. Really, really hard.

Hard, but not impossible. Running 26 miles is also hard, but many can do it with the right training.

I believe the most important tool for good design is empathy. The training mostly involves taking a stand, trying something, failing and then trying again to make it better.

It is an art – not a science. And one thing I am beginning to love and hate about making art – it is never finished. The artist is always trying to make “better” art.

Good design is hard because it requires time. Time to plan. Time to observe. Time to collaborate with others. Time to test. Time to refine.

Who has this kind of time? You do. I do. We all do. If you are doing something important (aside: what are you doing that is not meaningful in some way?) then it is worth taking the time to make your doing is “by design” not “by default”.

I failed on this front just yesterday (another entry for the #FAIL folder!)

I was leading an important meeting for our department to discuss some recent changes that occurred in the organization. I walked into the meeting having given it only a couple minutes of thought. This important meeting was being run by default, not by design.

How could I have designed this meeting?

Step 0: gain some empathy for the team
Step 1: establish the goal is for the meeting
Step 2: think through what behaviors would help accomplish the goal
Step 3: bounce this plan off of someone else
Step 4: refine based on feedback
Step 5: have meeting
Step 6: evaluate the meeting to see if goals were met
Step 7: use experience to do this better next time

This may sound tedious, but remember good design doesn’t happen by chance. It takes hard work.

While I’m a fan of learning from failures, I think a better approach is attempting to design for success – not to launch into something saying “this is probably going to fail, but I’ll learn something.” What is it you want to learn? Write those things down and see if after you learned them after you are done. If you didn’t you need another test.

But testing again is ok. Because like I said designing is making art. It’s never finished. It’s never ending work. But that’s a great challenge. There is always an opportunity to improve.

For me, it’s oddly freeing to know that I can never “arrive.” I am on a journey that I can never complete. This would lead (and has led) many to despair.

It’s freeing for me because if you can’t “arrive”, then the joy must be in the actual journey.

I am enjoying the journey.