Archive for April, 2007


Making Your Voice Heard

“There will never be a new world order until women are a part of it.” –Alice Paul

My first “real” job was with an Internet company as a technical writer. I still had a year of college left, so it felt really good having a paying job that didn’t rely on tips. At 21, I knew everything. Yes, everything. Luckily, I did good work and played a mean game of Half-Life (screen name: G.I. Jane), so I fit in with the other self-absorbed 20-somethings and got on well with my boss. However, there was this Consultant. (I use “C” because he always spoke in capital letters. You know the type.)

In his 50s, the Consultant definitely didn’t care for our young group. He refused to listen to anyone. One day, he and I got into a heated debate. I can’t even remember about what, but he looked me in the eye, and asked me if I was going to cry. I couldn’t believe it. In a voice much calmer than the internal voice demanding I smack the man, I replied that, “No. When I get angry, I don’t cry. I just yell really loud, and you’re about to get a preview.” My fledgling career was saved by the well-timed arrival of a colleague and tempers cooled.

With time, I’ve figured out other ways to make my voice be heard, preferably without yelling. What I can’t fathom is the burden borne by women before (FINALLY) being given the vote. (For you faithful male readers, I promise, you’ll see how this post relates to you.) I knew the basic details of women’s suffrage. I knew of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. But I didn’t really identify with it until I learned about Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. I’m honest enough to admit it was via HBO’s Iron-Jawed Angels.

From the beginning, women experienced the same hardships as the men who settled Jamestown, signed the Constitution, and trekked into the unknown West. And yet their voices held no value. Weaker minds was a frequent excuse, but who took care of things when the men went away to war? Email and cell phones didn’t exist, so I suspect the women somehow kept things running. (Sidenote: I’d love to know how many wars men started versus women. Call me crazy, but I bet men started more.)

I’ve taken a while to get to the point, but here it is: if you aren’t recognized as a person with value, making your voice heard can be the most difficult thing you attempt—and the boldest. Closed societies will stay closed forever if the voices are locked away. Women suffragists and others who advocate for people without a voice were and are challenging a concept that’s existed for thousands of years.

Due to the fallibility of human beings, it is still a bold idea to believe that everyone has a right to their voice. Suffrage for women is only one piece of a giant historical audio file. Think back to the day’s of the Industrial Revolution. Men (see, it’s not all about women), women, and children were working 12 hour days, seven days a week for poor pay. Unions were the bane.

They dared suggest that the men getting rich pay more to the people doing the work and improve working conditions. (I heard a great interview on “On Point” about the Gilded Age/Industrial Revolution today. Fascinating stuff.) Today, thanks in great part to individuals like Eugene V. Debs, most of us enjoy bearable working environments with decent wages. The same isn’t true for every country in the world, so again, a need still exists to be bold and to demand that all be given a voice.

Based on history, one of the boldest things you may ever do is open your mouth and speak.



What’s Bold About Being Kinky

Note: This post takes it’s inspiration from a fictionalized character, so for any purists out there, I apologize.

“I see this as a positive step for a company who spent the last century making a range of shoes for men to start the next century making shoes for a range of men.”

–Charlie Price, Kinky Boots

I just finished watching Kinky Boots. What could be more bold than changing a staid men’s shoe factory into a production line for male versions of female shoes? It takes a real man to face his employees and say, with a straight face, “You are making two-and-a-half feet of irresistible, tubular sex.”

Here’s what I think we all, including myself, overlook. Some of the best and boldest ideas are just waiting amongst the common, every day nonsense that surrounds us. How many of us, if we inherited a men’s shoe factory would make the connection to men, dressing as women, needing a different shoe? If you thought of it, would you dare do it?

A while back, a manager supplied a book called Blue Ocean Strategy. The content was a bit stiff, but the idea was interesting: look for an untapped market and find a niche with potential. In essence, don’t try to go head-to-head with large, established competitors. Figure out what service they aren’t supplying that customers want and provide it.

For instance, not everyone wants to shop only in a Barnes & Noble or buy coffee at Starbucks. Every couple of weeks, I stop at this local, used book store, and I find books that would never end up on B&N’s inventory controlled shelves. And while I’m not a coffee drinker, I am a hot chocolate aficionado. In my humble opinion (I refuse to use the acronym), the best place is called Moxie Java (please don’t judge based on the Web site).

Each location is independently owned and consistently good each time I visit. What’s interesting is that while some characteristics of each location are the same (menus, flavors, etc.), each one has a slightly different vibe, an individual personality. Given a choice between Moxie and Starbucks, I, and my coffee drinking friends too, choose Moxie every time.

The bold thing about being kinky is that you aren’t worried about trying to be all things to all people. Both my local bookstore and Moxie, while not technically kinky, took a look at the marketplace. They decided that if they did things differently, they could thrive against bigger competitors. These businesses found their niche, and they’re thriving. If you want the same results, it’s definitely worth thinking about being kinky.



Are You a Mac or a PC?

“So, Mac or PC?” Every time I’ve ever been asked this question, I instinctively know the person asking uses a Mac. How? Mac users are the minority. They’re seeking out compatriots in the battle against conformity.

Here’s the thing, PC users automatically assume everyone uses a PC, so they don’t bother asking the question. Mac users ask because the potential exists to swing you their way. How many times have you assumed that people think a certain way? Did you fail to share your ideas because you assumed they either already agreed or weren’t interested?

Would Apple and Steve Jobs spend millions of dollars inventing the iPod, the iPhone, and AppleTV if they thought their only audience consisted of Mac users? Doubtful. They believe that even if you use a PC, you’ll still buy their products. And once you buy their products, you’re that much closer to actually buying a Mac.

I think one of the reasons that Apple continues to chip away at the PC market comes from their willingness to still ask, “Mac or PC?” People talk about Apple, and they share their stories, and stories will trump almost anything. When people talk about Dell or Microsoft, it’s usually in complaint or jest.

Interestingly enough, Apple’s products aren’t perfect, and yet we still purchase them in huge volumes. (Disclaimer: I own an “old” Shuffle, won during a contest at work, so I’m not innocent.) The iPhone hasn’t even been released, and already people are planning on ditching their current phones for a closed system on one network, but the trust people have in the brand seems to be offsetting these issues, at least for now. The opportunity still exists for someone else to beat Apple in the long term. But we haven’t heard from that person–yet.

Ultimately, for your bold ideas to come to life, for people to become engaged in your dream, you’ve got to put it in words. Apple gets it. Mac users get it. You have to ask the question. You can’t just assume you know the answer. By not asking the question, you run the risk of never being a part of the conversation.


UPDATE: Apparently the battle between Vista and Mac OS X is a battle to the death. Quite entertaining.


Growing Up to Talk Like a Kid

When you’re a kid, you believe you can grow up to be anything. I ran through the usual top 10…lawyer, doctor, astronaut, etc. (Writer didn’t make the first cut.) At about 10, I settled on becoming an architect.

Every piece of paper I could find was soon covered with house sketches. The houses didn’t vary much in design, but that didn’t matter. I was only practicing for when I’d do the real thing. Sad fact, I never went beyond high school drafting classes, even though I still love designing homes.

I’m not sure what age it happens, but somewhere between childhood, adolescence, and the teenage years, we stop talking like kids. Even more depressing we stop thinking like kids. We start putting limits on what we can and can’t do. We start talking like adults. There’s a reason why a show existed called “Kids Say the Darndest Things” instead of “Adults Say the Darndest Things.”

As we get older, we lose some of the inherent honesty we show about ourselves and others. Some might call it gaining tact. Others might call it conforming. As adults, it’s easier to give up on our bold ideas. We’ve become pragmatic. We need to pay the bills. We need to act like adults.

Kids aren’t afraid to share their ideas because they haven’t yet learned to question the possibility of their ideas. (Jerry Seinfeld has a funny line in one of his routines that references being a superhero as a real career option for children. If you like Seinfeld, you definitely need this recording.)

Some of the most successful people in the world take a kid-like approach to their work. For example, while Google is rapidly climbing many people’s list of “Company’s We Love to Attack,” I believe their corporate philosophy sounds more like a kid than an adult.

Google engineers spend a very un-adult amount of time (20%) working on personal projects unrelated to their primary objectives. The adult approach frowns on personal initiatives at work. Google seems to think great things can happen during “play time.” Google’s approach to business has clearly made an impression. According to a recruiter I met at SXSW, applicants are on a 90-day cycle from submission of a resume to reception of a job offer due to application volume.

Back to why I didn’t become an architect…I got into college and found out that physics and calculus failed to excite me. And while I loved designing homes, spending time designing regular buildings didn’t interest me. I probably gave up too easily on my childhood dream, but I don’t think I killed it because I still doodle designs (more variety now) on scraps of paper. It usually helps break my writer’s block.

Yes, you’re adult nature will probably fight you every time you try to talk like a kid. So remember how free it felt to not know there were limits. Remember that you used to believe anything was possible. It will make your ideas seem more doable. Especially when you compare them to your dream of becoming a superhero.



Don’t Act Like A News Anchor

A recent post by Jeff Jarvis points to the BBC’s belief that the era of the news anchor is finished. If so, I’m not surprised. They all sound the same. They all look the same. Shellacked and stuffed into designer duds, news anchors seem to take special care to not be different, to not stand out.

Flipping through the evening news, I see a significant overlap in coverage. Sure, there are special reports, but they are a minor portion of the broadcast. So what’s left to distinguish the program? The anchors. And if they are indistinguishable from each other, then it doesn’t matter which channel I watch. Now flip over to the Comedy Channel for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Same basic information, but clearly different.

Granted, the writers on The Daily Show have more flexibility, and traditional broadcasts are trying to be more original. But the recent kerfluffle at CBS over Katie’s plagiarized video essay was comical. And could it be any more obvious that anchors aren’t the ones writing the stories? (Yes, I know this is usually the case, but it was so blatant in this instance.) I’d be more interested (truly) in hearing what Katie has to say than her producer.

These same principles apply to you and your ideas. Yes, it’s appealing to fit in. Standing out can be uncomfortable. Sometimes you’ll only have one chance to tell people what you think. We no longer live in a world with only three channels, and potential audiences have thousands of choices. And being overly smooth and shiny with polish doesn’t equate to credibility.

Show me your passion, show me you actual believe in something. Don’t be the news anchor that acts and looks like everyone else. Write and tell your own stories. Few, if any, people can do it better then you. That’s how you can make take my finger off the remote.



Finding the Words in Difficult Situations

I ran into someone unexpected at a client meeting this morning. During the meeting, I learned for the first time he has taken an executive position with this client. It threw me a bit due to an earlier and not-so-pleasant business relationship. However, he greeted me with enthusiasm and seemed genuinely happy to have me working on their project.

His greeting indicated a willingness to forget the past, so I spent the meeting carefully choosing my words. I wanted to convey a strong understanding of the project. I also wanted to demonstrate that I too could put the past behind me. After the meeting, I felt good about how I handled the situation and confident about the project. Driving home, I got to thinking how hard it can be to say the right words in difficult situations.

One example captures this concept better than any I’ve experienced. During his bid for the Democratic nomination in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy made a campaign stop in Indianapolis. His planned rally would turn into an impromptu memorial for the murdered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Police advised him to cancel the rally because of its location in a dangerous area of the city. Kennedy refused, and on his arrival, found the crowd to be in good spirits. They hadn’t heard the news. Putting aside his prepared remarks, he addressed the crowd.

(Courtesy of luogocomune.)

Now think about the particulars of this situation. Kennedy was a white man addressing a mostly African-American audience.

He was a politician. His audience was every day people.

He came from a privileged background. These people lived in a poor area of Indianapolis.

After Dr. King’s death, over 100 cities experienced race riots. Indianapolis was one of the only major cities that did not. Kennedy found the words.

Most difficult situations will not require riot prevention. But it does takes practice. Based on today’s meeting, my technique still needs work too. However, don’t underestimate the difference the right words can make. Pay attention to your audience. Find a common point of reference. Then start. Sometimes the hardest part is opening your mouth.

Fear of difficult situations can get in the way of some amazing opportunities. So don’t let fear stop you from trying to find the words.



Follow the Directions

Have you ever read a good set of directions? They are rare. Case in point, today, I put together a new office chair for my brother. The included directions were vague and required some guesswork. But luck (in spite of one smashed finger) was on my side, and he now has a new chair. The directions also triggered an “ah-ha” moment. How precisely do we choose our words, and, in turn, how clearly do we share our ideas? (Disclaimer: I’m still working on this skill.)

Good directions, i.e. the right words, can be the difference between getting people invested in your bold ideas or sending them out into the desert for 40 years. You have to give people the words that set the tone for the conversation. For you, this can be both good and bad. Good because you define the idea, you chose the words. Bad because you define the idea, you chose the words. Yes, I know I repeated myself.

You are in control, for better or worse. So remembering all the bad directions you’ve ever read, what words do you use to express your ideas? Do you start at the beginning and give people points of reference? And when you get to the end, have you made it clear what people can expect?

I look for inspiration in some unlikely areas. Presidential farewell address are not known for their ground-breaking insight. But some of the best directions happen when you least expect it. President Eisenhower used his farewell address to make unexpected and highly accurate predictions about the future. Famous for the “military industrial complex” line, Eisenhower used bold words to describe a future world that for most of us is now all too real.

One of many applicable lines, this phrase in particular is as valid today as it was in 1961.

“Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.”

Most people don’t need their words to apply decades after the original idea. But wouldn’t it be nice if they applied for at least a year or two? Give your ideas the words they deserve and try to keep people from wanting to throw the hammer.

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April 2007
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