Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Spinning Plates Takes Focus

The most popular tourist attraction in Chicago, in the entire Midwest for that matter, is Navy Pier. Sure, it’s mostly a painful experience for us local types, but when you drive east from Iowa, what’s more fun than Ferris Wheels, cinnamon roasted almonds, fake pirate fights and IMAX movies? And can someone tell me WHY Navy Pier has fake pirate fights? This makes no sense whatsoever.

Anyway, seems like every summer Navy Pier plays host to Cirque Shanghai, a family friendly show that is half circus, half “I didn’t make the Chinese Olympic Gymnastics Team.” Well, for the first time, my wife and I took in this tourist-trap of a show, and damn if we didn’t enjoy it.

Flashy costumes, glittery sets, loud music, guys driving motorcycles inside a ball of death, impressive acrobatics and balance tricks. I mean, whats not to like, right?

Seriously, we really enjoyed the show.

Not surprisingly, I found myself looking at the performance on a multitude of levels, and I soon realized a lesson could be derived from the the girls spinning plates.

Undoubtedly spinning plates on long sticks while doing gymnastics is difficult. At my age, I actually have trouble bending over to put socks on in the morning, so I can promise you my knowledge of such things is purely anecdotal. Anyway, these performers made an extremely difficult task look easy.

In fact, they made it look really easy. Like it was a normal, natural thing that anybody could do. Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling book “Outliers” describes expertise coming after 10,000 hours of practice. Well, as the girls were all of 13 years old, I’m gonna say it’s more than just sheer practice hours at work here.

Studying their faces during the performance, what I saw was focus. Laser-like focus on the task at hand.

Before you ever get up to present, you’re probably knee-deep in all sorts of other tasks, commitments, responsibilities and diversions. Whether it’s little Johnny’s tee-ball game, a series of emails from the accounting department or hurricanes scheduled to wipe out most of the eastern seaboard, stuff happens!

To ensure success, you better do a whole lot of the right things and eliminate a whole lot of the wrong things. One thing is for sure--when the times comes and your name is called to present your ideas and knowledge, you better have FOCUS.

• Focus on being a likeable human, not a robotic, lifeless machine.
• Focus on restraint--you can’t say it all.
• Focus on telling appropriate stories that prove your point, not piles of redundant data.

And above all, focus on the audience first, not yourself. Remember, it’s not what you say that matters--it’s what they hear.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Keep it Simple!

It's widely accepted that Chicago has craptastic weather nine months out of the year. Fortunately for those of us who live here, right now we're enjoying the other three! Last night, as the weather was simply delightful, my wife and I embarked upon a classic summer outing.

We took a simple and fast Metra ride to Ravinia Festival to enjoy an outdoor concert under the stars. First, a quick trip to Whole Foods to buy some food, nice bottle of vino, pack a blanket and bug spray, all is good.

As the concert begins, which was actually a piano performance of Barto's "Liszt", a man with a simple sign walked through the crowd with a message intended for the entire audience.

His message was; SHHHHHHHHH. Below is a video clip I grabbed of the guy with my iPhone, you'll see what I mean, not a ton of complexity on display here.

What was really impressive was the power of this simple act. Children and adults alike got quiet in his presence. Everyone followed the suggested action and gave the performer the deserved attention.

We've all seen seen complex charts, wordy slides or printed materials, sales people that ramble and never actually answer questions or product demonstrations that leave us scratching our heads.

All of these things are too complex. Too hard to pay attention to. Sometimes, just too hard to follow. At SquarePlanet we believe strongly in removing complexity and distilling things down to the most essential.

Follow the lead of the man carrying a simple sign with a simple message.
No, not SHHHHHH. Well, maybe for some of you.

Instead, just remember to keep it simple!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Vary Your Pace

About two miles east of the SquarePlanet worldwide megaplex is a stunning national home improvement store called Menards. I'm guessing it's about 50,000 sq feet of pristine merchandise that's well stocked and well priced.

In the middle of the store, occupying a rather large footprint, you'll encounter two mechanical people-mover ramps. You know the people movers at airports right? The bouncy, rubberized, moving walkways that have the same handrails as escalators? EXACTLY! Okay, just like that, but these are ramps that go up to and down from the second level.

So, last week I'm at Menards, and as I watch people standing perfectly stationary on moving ramps, I'm struck by how consistent their speed is. You see, those who chose to simply stand on the ramp were moving at the exact same speed throughout the duration of their journey to the second level. Yet those who chose to walk, even just a step or two, seemed vibrant, youthful--dare I say, alive!

The contrast between the pace of the ramp travelers reminded me of the musings you'll hear at one of our monthly Presentation Workshops. Contrast is the key to great communication. The idea is that contrast breaks up the norm, alerts the audience that something big is going on and everyone should pay attention.

Contrast in communications comes out in all kinds of forms, everything from word choice to the substance in the stories being told to the physical space of a presenter to the PACE with which a person speaks.

If you talk in a monotone, never-changing, no up, no down, flat as a pancake style voice, you have no variance in your pace. However, if you talk in bursts, use staccato, vary your intensity, speed and volume, you now have contrast in your pace. And people will notice. More importantly, they will listen.

So remember, to really be heard, vary your pace. To really be hurt, walk the wrong way on a people mover.