Little Talks – TEDx Talk

November is National Blog Post Month (NaBloPoMo). This post is part of my post-a-day challenge. I have picked a theme for the challenge: song titles. These songs have been featured on live albums from KEXP (an awesome alternative radio station in Seattle), so at a minimum you will hear some great music.

I am excited to be able to share my little talk (Empathy for Geeks) given at a recent TEDx event in Toronto.

As I described in my director’s commentary, preparing for this talk was a lot of work. I’m very pleased with how it turned out.

I recognize that I can only step out and take risks like this because of my support network. I am grateful to those that provided commentary and encouraging words.

I hope you enjoy the talk.

I almost forgot, here is the song that inspired the title

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TEDx Director’s Commentary

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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)

Wired to care

One of my life goals is to write a book. Every day is an opportunity to work out the content. This blog is a place for me to practice my writing. Repeat each and every day until I have a story to tell and the ability to write it. Sounds like a decent plan, right?

A great title for my book would be “Wired to care.” I’ve been blogging a lot about the importance of empathy. I could tell the world about how companies prosper when they create widespread empathy.  I would take readers inside of big companies like IBM, Target, and Intel to see widespread empathy in action. I would show you how we are designed to be empathetic. This book would be awesome.

Sadly, (or “fortunately”, if you can read!), Dev Patnaik has already written this book. So you should go and read it. I am only a chapter deep, but I am loving what I see. I’ll be sure to devote a couple of posts to the content.

Buy Patnaik’s book, but save $10-20 for my upcoming work. It will be worth the money and the wait!

Get emotional

As someone who is continually looking at numbers, specs, contracts, prospectuses, etc, it is easy to forget about the people who buy our products. Focusing singularly on the technical aspects of one’s job tends to create a clinical environment. Somewhere in the discussion of “ROI”, “pattern of cash flows”, “interest rate sensitivity” and “asset/liability matching” we lose touch with our emotions.

I’ve written about the importance of feeling something at work and how I believe it’s important to be “emotional” – even – no, especially – when you work in a technical field. Being “emotional” has a negative connotation, but I believe being an “emotional” employee will help you to become more engaged and innovative.

Your company exists because of its customers. Customers are the reason that any business exists. And spreadsheets, contracts, processes, KPI targets all serve as a buffer from the messiness of people’s lives. But why is it that we create, or allow this separation?

I believe this separation mindset was made popular during the industrial revolution, where management believed that employees were interchangeable parts. Managers only cared about the work force being as efficient as possible and most workers were happy to have a job that paid them much more than they could have made farming or continuing the family craft. Empathizing with the customers didn’t seem necessary.

But as we have moved from an industrialist society to a post-industrialist connection economy, empathy and connections matter. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t care if their work has impact.

Isn’t it time to change how we view our work?

Part of my personal journey involves a transformation of a worker who lacked empathy, to one who saw the life changing impact of knowing the customer intimately. Here are a couple of huge benefits of being closer connected to your customers:

  1. Better engagement – most workers net worth does not increase $1MM for every $1 increase in the stock price. Your record quarter doesn’t mean much to 95% of the company. What matters are the lives that you are able to impact through your work.
  2. Innovation – the magic of design thinking depends upon empathy. When I truly feel what it is like to have a particular problem, I see the real needs. The real problem. And I will develop more innovative solutions.

So, why aren’t more workers connected to the customers? I think the language we use plays a large part in removing the emotion from work. Here is an example from the actuarial field:

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This symbol stands for “the probability that a life aged 33 will not be living at the end of 15 years.” In other words, what are the chances that a guy aged 33, would die before 48? We would run a model and I could tell you that out of a 1000 lives, 21.297 people are not alive at the end of the 15 years.

While this may be technically accurate, it misses all the emotion. What if you thought of this symbol standing for:

  • A father not being there to walk his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day
  • A mother not being there to see her son graduate high school
  • A middle school aged girl who isn’t sure who will take her to a father-daughter dance

Photo credit: Jenna Perfette photography

How much more motivating and rich would your work become if you felt more connected to the impact your business has on its customers? Start by imaging the peoples lives that are represented by the spreadsheet. Your customers are more than just points in a model or a series of cashflows. They are real people.

There’s nothing wrong with using technical language to describe a calculation, or spending time in a spreadsheet. But don’t lose sight of your customers. Literally. Place their pictures on your walls, know their stories, go and talk to them.

You’ll find yourself more engaged and you’ll find yourself thinking more creatively about solving their problems.

Race against the machines – TED talk

As soon as I post about how technology is often not the answer, Andrew McAfee goes and gives a brilliant TED talk showing technology’s impact.

A friend of mine recommended this and one more talk of McAfee’s that I will share later.

While technology has transformed every part of our world, a machine will never be able to empathize, never show compassion, love, anger and sadness.

If you are worried about having your job replaced by a machine, become really good at empathizing with your customers and make that part of your job. Making connections and caring and loving for people you work and live with is something that is uniquely human.

Empathy = job security

Go to the gemba

Lean thinking sprung forth out of the Japanese automotive industry (specifically Toyota). War torn Japan had to make more with less and lean thinking was the answer.

One of my favorite phrases from lean methods is “gemba.” It means “the real place.” In lean terminology, “going to the gemba” means going to the place where the action happens – the shop floor, the call center, the engineer’s cubicle.

It is important for leaders to see problems with their own eyes. Going to the gemba ties back to empathy and design thinking beautifully. But just like all of these ideas, thoughts, principles, they can be applied to life.

Going to the gemba in your life means engaging with people – talking with your spouse about difficult things, going to your kid’s soccer game, walking along side a co-worker as he or she goes through something trying.

When you go to the gemba in life, you leave the “office” of your life and head down to the “shop floor.”

Go to the gemba.

Empathy experiement – TEDx talk

I’m excited to share with everyone that I will be speaking at a TEDx conference this October. More details to follow soon and I will also share some of the content – I’d love feedback.

My talk is going to focus heavily on how I came to see the importance of empathy. In order to gain inspiration, I have been viewing some other TEDx talks.

This talk by Sam Richards is powerful. He does a great job getting the audience to empathize with another culture.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.