Writing about contemporary art

I have a book of Gilda Williams’ (correspondent for Artforum and lecturer at Goldsmiths College and Sotheby’s Institute of Art) called “How to write about contemporary art”.

I bought this during my art days before my umpteenth career change, but have rediscovered its relevance to my career now, not just in my writing, but in HR as well.

It promises (and delivers) a helpful, no-nonsense approach to structuring written pieces, avoiding common pitfalls, developing concrete research and close thinking, and positioning language effectively. It’s incredibly helpful for those who need to articulate their internal chatter concisely and accurately, and generally be a better communicator.

It never ceases to surprise me how often skills and supposedly-niche advice can transfer into other sectors, other roles, and complementing other skills.

Thinking back to your previous careers or fields, do you still find relevance for ‘specialist’ guidance?

Free agents

“It is generally recognised that humans have a need to experience themselves as free agents, and are not just entities to an ordered environment”. Eugene McKenna wrote this back in 1994 in a beast of a book I’m reading ‘Business Psychology and Organisational Behaviour’ (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Ltd, 1994), and it’s interesting to see this rally for individualism in the workplace was still in swing 24 years ago.

I’m giddy with a specific pivoting word in this quote which almost goes modestly unnoticed – “just”. It suggests we need to be free agents and “are not just entities to an ordered environment”.

To some organisations “free agents” would spark absolute horror. This quote however notices that an ordered environment is still needed to facilitate this freedom, which sounds oxymoronic but makes sense if you see the order as warranted and well-thought out parameters.

We do need to let the workforce make more decisions and have freedom in how they work, within the safety net of pragmatic and nurturing order which we as people still need.

How to write a business case

Articulating an idea in a way that illustrates the benefits for the business usually takes its first formal format as a business case. This is used to set out the key solutions, advantages and a practical roll out plan to senior or executive leaders who must be sold on the idea without too many criticisms or concerns. 

There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to layout – you might find that your company has its own particular and preferred layout whether it’s an unspoken obligation or a mandatory template.

Or you might get to choose your own layout – just try not to be too creative about it as it needs to have some sort of degree of formality to be taken seriously. Unless of course it’s a case study that the business needs to be more creative then by all means have at it!

Whichever the layout, this post explains the key sections a good business case should have to make sure everything is covered. You don’t necessarily need to stick with the title of the sections but make sure the nature of each section is included.

Introduction

The first section should introduce the business case that covers the current situation ie the problem or situation your plan can solve. At this point you don’t particularly want to touch on your proposed solution – reveal this too soon without the background story and you risk the leaders being turned off too soon.

When people hear a controversial or seemingly outlandish idea without having worked through the motions to understand why the idea can actually work, no amount of explanation can convince them to change their mind once it’s been made too soon.

The introduction would normally stick to what is happening right now in a way that suggests that an answer or resolution is needed to stop this happening.

Implications

This section broadens the introduction or current situation. The introduction has acted as a hook, the beginning of the story that convinces and sometimes shocks the audience to pay attention.

This section covers the implications of what the current scenario is producing and takes the shock further. It’s essentially telling them to look at the things that are happening as a result of this problem.

To help you with this, stick to cold hard facts and figures, any that will help you portray the issue accurately.

It’s important not to put across your own agenda, which is easier said than done, but keeping to the figures and facts, and what they’re telling you is a good start. You shouldn’t be selective with this either, omitting certain facts from the case purely because it doesn’t fight your case very well.

On the contrary, you should include these not only to prove the integrity of the business case (by being transparent with the data) but to also help pinpoint exactly where the issue lies.

For example, if you’re trying to prove that your team’s performance is dropping due to lack of wellbeing initiatives, but miss out two team members whose performance is actually increasing, including these in the case can actually help your point.

The point isn’t that the team’s performance as a whole is declining, it’s that there are localised issues, and being able to see the differences between the high and low performing members can help your case if you’re providing a specific rather than general solution.

Detriment of taking no action

The ‘Implications’ section focussed on the facts and figures now, the result of the current issue. This section looks at the detriment of inaction and projects these facts and figures into the future.

These predictions highlight the potentially escalating nature of the issue, bringing home the big message that essentially says “this is a big problem and if we don’t do something about it now, it’ll only get bigger.”

At this point graphs that illustrate a trajectory of decline and/or peril will help the audience digest the information quicker.

As I talked about in this post about presenting data using graphs is a good way to show the overall picture without the need of specific numbers, or in other words, all the lines are going in the wrong direction and that’s bad.

So far, the business case has looked at the current situation, the implications of the situation and what will happen if no action is taken. We have them at the edge of their seats for a solution!

Proposed solution

And lo you have a solution. Not only does your solution correct all the wrongs of the previous three sections, it details the proposed approach.

It’s all very well in saying, for example, employees will be rewarded for their hard work to resolve an issue of lack of engagement, but it’s not enough to support your case.

In this section, you need to detail how your proposed solution will be rolled out, anticipating any questions you might expect the audience may have. These need to be written in clear actionable points, which will in turn essentially be the specific requests you are asking the audience to agree on.

They should know exactly what you will go away and do by them agreeing these points, as well as the consequences of them, i.e. resolution.

This can be helped by referring specific actions to specific people or teams from the previous sections, to the point where if you were to read back over the problem sections, they can be ticked off one by one as “sorted”.

You could have a separate section for Results but by doing so you run the risk of subconscious disassociation between the proposed solution and the results.

As such, I recommend keeping them together, as a single unit of solution and results rather than two separate points to consider.

You may also have a number of solutions up your sleeve and want to run each of them by the audience for their preference. In which case, it’s good to have some sort of clear comparison to the options, the strengths and weaknesses of each, and your recommendation with reasons.

Conclusion

The concluding section will consist of a summary of the case and a formal request to consider it as a whole as well as agreeing those actionable points.

Where applicable, it can be helpful to use this section to direct them to any appendices or annexes* that helped you with your business case, or any extensive and comprehensive pieces of data that aren’t necessary for the business case but still available should it be needed.

This basic structure is a good starting point when constructing your business case. It almost follows a story format: this bad thing is happening, causing all of these problems, and they’ll only get worse, until help comes along to solve the issue and as a result good things happen…

Very crude way of putting it but you get the gist!

Hitting the right note is your aim, particularly if you’re in front of a tough crowd to please.

* Ever wondered what the difference between an appendix and an annex is? An appendix is additional content relevant to the main body of text that you have put together but is better as an aside, for example case studies or tables of data. An annex is a supplementary document that has been put together by someone else but still helpful for reference or part of your research, for example a report on performance by the CMI, or a relevant article. 

 

Personal branding for professionals

Did you know that 85% of people find new jobs through their existing contacts? It stands to reason that as working patterns and practices in general are changing with the modern world, so too are the methods in which people are finding these opportunities. One way to make sure you’re well thought of throughout your network is by having a strong personal brand.

Personal branding (the term is quite buzzwordy yet annoyingly apt) is how you present yourself in a professional capacity both in real life and online, and not only aids you in your job hunt, but also builds your professional persona throughout your HR career, or any career.

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about building your professional credibility by immersing yourself into a wealth of information and applying it in real life, for example in the workplace or online discussions on the topic du jour.

It’s important to follow this through into building your personal brand and how other professionals perceive you. This isn’t about getting ‘Likes’ on your social media posts, or having your quippy insights retweeted – this isn’t a sign of approval.

In fact, you don’t need external approval. If you want to maximise what the online and real world have to offer, what you need is a strong personal brand.

This is no easy feat. You will quickly find you are potentially a mere whisper in an overcrowded stadium of loud ruckus , so it’s important to focus on the realisation that your intentions aren’t necessarily to be heard, but they are to be seen.

Seen and not heard

What is the difference between being seen and being heard? In a modern world where everyone has an opinion on everything, voicing this is nothing ground-breaking.

It is possible to be heard over all the social hubbub but before you can be heard, you need to be seen.

And to be seen – the unequivocal separation from being heard – you need to build up, or upon, your strong personal brand. Your personal brand is:

  • your core principles
  • your work ethic
  • your ethics
  • your opinions
  • your knowledge
  • your enthusiasm
  • your skills
  • your background
  • your career
  • your social decorum
  • your integrity
  • your aspirations
  • your professional motivation
  • your focus
  • your intentions
  • your connections

These are not exhaustive, but hopefully you’re getting an understanding of how deep this can go. It’s essentially who you are as a professional, what you stand for, and how you go about it.

Luckily (perspective-dependent) building your personal brand doesn’t involve excessive amounts of actionable exercises – the things that make up your personal branding aren’t really physical…things to fix or work on.

It does however take ongoing conscious effort (which becomes less effortful as time goes by) and self-awareness of your actions, and below, I touch on just a few small pointers that you can be thinking about.

Social media introductions

Introductions on social media are a funny thing and I’m slowly getting to grips with the correct netiquette myself. Luckily, the HR and L&D tribe are a friendly bunch so I’m fine-tuning my introductions on social media which takes me further than I expected, but this is of course true to many other ‘tribes’.

Whether it’s a response to recent followers of replying to a comment, the first impression you make on social media is open for all to see, not just the recipient.

Being helpful, insightful and genuinely interested are what you’re aiming for, but also showing your personality and what you’re professional purpose is.

Social interactions

Following on from the previous point, how you come across in your general conversations in your social interactions, online or IRL, will paint a picture of your professional persona to all those who observe it.

This will help them determine whether or not to trust you, converse with you, or become a key member of your network. All of your debates, opinions, views and debates are open for everyone to see, and I encourage you not to shy away from voicing your opinions on things you are passionate about.

This itself builds your personal brand and attracts other professionals that share the same view, or educates them on your own perspective. Your personality in general should shine through, so if you’re funny, serious, passionate or laid back, let this contribute to your personal brand.

Your social network

The members of your network also contribute to your personal brand. The people and companies you follow (on social media) show a different side to your brand – your interests, your colleagues, your role models, your supporters, your political preferences, your professional intrigue, companies and people you admire, potential employers, potential business partners – listed together on one block tells onlookers a lot about you.

Experience and professional history

Where you have worked and the experience you picked up along the way develops your personal brand. You have a very specific formula of your experiences by working at very specific companies, and with each of those came their organisational culture.

How you reacted and adapted to this has shaped your personality and work ethic and in turn your personal brand. You might have also developed your brand in a particular niche market by only working in a specific industry, or specialised roles.

Think about what these previous experiences tell onlookers should anyone look you up on, for example LinkedIn, and in a job-hunt capacity, what your brand can do for potential employers with these experiences.

Qualifications and training

Similar to the previous point, your select and specific set of skills and qualifications contribute to your personal brand. In a more evident, in-your-face way this is more apparent with any post-nominals you may have.

How you have approached your training also depicts your personal brand; self-funded or funded by work? Clear strategic escalation of levels or different qualifications at the same level? Relevant qualifications or seemingly irrelevant qualifications? Loads of qualifications or none?

Professional community contribution

You will also need to consider the activities you do outside of the day job and think about what extra-curricular activities you do and how this contributes to, and even strengthens your personal brand.

If you do any at all, this alone is enough to tell people something about your brand, specifically that you’re dedicated to the profession, or volunteering, or being more socially or environmentally responsible, for example.

Or if your activities are dedicated to researching various or specialist fields and topics and contributing your thoughts and views on these to the wider professional community.

Or if you do none of the above and contribute very little.

These just touch the surface of the number of question and considerations you can begin to think about when firstly being aware of your personal brand and then how this is perceived to other professionals.

Again, this really isn’t about seeking approval or making sure you show off all your best bits. Indeed showing some of your fails and struggles contribute massively and positively to your personal brand, demonstrating that you are learning along the way as is everybody else.

But this is generally to make you become more conscious of the areas of your professional persona can come across as, how it can steer you to greater opportunities, and how to identify potentially harmful turn-offs.

This is particularly important for HR professionals as I find the HR community are very keen to network and learn from their peers. As natural people-people (most of us anyhoo), we value community and the people that make up that community, and by having a strong and authentic professional brand, it can help you settle into the right sort of community that share your views and aspirations, as well as opening doors for new opportunities.

How to present HR data

Retrieving and disseminating HR management information is one thing but presenting this data to various audiences that engages and informs them, without sending them to sleep, is a different thing altogether. Understandably, the topic of statistics doesn’t tickle everyone’s interest even though we understand that they are crucial to inform decisions, measure impact, and project trends.

So how do we relay metrics to key decision makers and tell them what they mean without losing their attention span within the first 10 seconds?

The answer can be summed up in one word: illustration.

Illustration, in all manner of meanings, can help audiences understand not just what the stats are, but what they’re illustrating. This can be done literally through illustration, that is presenting the data in pictorial format with graphics and charts, or figuratively, that is illustrating the idea of what the stats are saying.

Death by PowerPoint

It’s almost customary to include some sort of PowerPoint-bashing in an article about presenting, and this one is no exception. Granted there are times when PowerPoint or other similar and just-as-useful programmes are appropriate and necessary, and indeed for presenting data in person. But I want to bash the generic, almost primal use of slides that present data in a cold and useless way. White background. Bullet points. Comic Sans. Word-for-Word reciting. Cringe.

Have you ever sat in a presentation when so much data is displayed in monotonous charts, accompanied with labels and figures, and then the presenter reads off each and every single piece of data that is already on there, one by one, as if it adds value to what is already on the screen? Don’t do this. This is a sure way to kill what little attention people might have had prepared themselves for, for a notoriously tedious topic.

What’s worse is that this way of presenting data is also a time killer. This style of presentation could be done by email – the presenter doesn’t need to be there as essentially they will only read off of it anyway. The audience’s attention will in fact be MORE engaged reading it from an email as they don’t have the robotic narration in the background.

So how can we illustrate data and metrics?

The first thing to ascertain is the purpose of this data; how is this data being used? You might have several answers for several audiences from the one set of data, so by determining context before illustrating your data, you as the presenter can add so much more value than reciting numbers and percentage points.

Understand the purpose of the data and you can paint them a picture. By way of example, let’s assume you are presenting on the effectiveness of training, beyond attendee feedback:

Instead of saying:

“15 staff went on line management training in the last quarter, compared to 7 in the previous quarter”

Say:

“The amount of managers developing themselves has rose by more than double in the last quarter than that of the previous.”

These sentences are very similar and I could be accused of being pedantic. But the second sentence explains the data in words that people understand. “More than double” is more easily comprehensible compared to hearing two lots of numbers. Of course 15 is more than double of 7 but the more you recite numbers, the more they lose meaning.

With the above example, you could take the stats a bit further, providing you have the information available:

“Formal grievances raised have reduced by 25% in the same time period suggesting that line managers are more confident in managing conflicts before they escalate.”

This adds relevance to your presentation and adds another measurable dynamic to your illustration. This illustrates the impact behind the figures; there is a possible correlation between the increased uptake in manager training and the decrease of grievances. Although it’s a number, including the figure “25%” adds a quantifiable impact that is easier to mentally digest than reciting numbers like “the number of grievances have reduced from 76 to 57.” When first hearing this, is that a lot, is that a little? They don’t need to know the numbers, just that the numbers have been reduced by 25% – that’s instantly quantifiable.

If they need to know the numbers

When illustrating your data, the objective isn’t to eliminate the numbers entirely – without these there is no presentation. All you’re doing is explaining what the figures mean so the audience is informed on what to do next or assess retrospectively. However keeping these numbers to hand during the presentation means that your presentation is backed up by cold hard statistics when challenged or questioned. They’re handy to have in the background but they’re not necessary to be shared. If the data is being presented through a report or paper, and in other words you’re not there to have these figures to hand, supplying this hard data as an appendix means it’s readily available for those who want to see this but is separate from the main body of the report.

Infographics 

I have written before about my love for infographics. They are the older, much cooler sibling of the pie and bar charts and take data presentation to a new level.

Using infographics to present your data contributes to the relevance of the figures, as touched on above. Depending on how the illustration is put together, it can be easy to instantly portray the impact and effect of figures on a number of variables and other metrics.

Infographics can also skip the unnecessary commentary and narrative as the pictures will speak for themselves in a way that the audience can immediately identify and put into a bigger picture context.

You need to think creatively when jazzing up a cold subject like data so using infographics to present the data gives the audience a break from seeing the same presentation-by-bullet-points they’ve grown to loathe. There are a number of sites that allow you to create infographics in a variety of styles and designs that require no payments, licenses and attributions. There are paid options available but they’re unnecessary for the likes of what you need them for.

Stop reciting!

I cannot emphasise this enough. This advice can be applied to presenting in person in general – do not recite word for word from the slide that is already in front of people if you are presenting the data verbally. If a visual representation of what you are speaking aloud is in front of someone, they are much more likely to read what is in front of them than hearing what you are saying. Worryingly, they are also reading ahead which means assumptions are already being made on something you have yet to say and you lose the impact. Similarly, resist the temptation of swapping or skipping words in an attempt to look like you’re not reading it word for word. Everyone knows what you’re doing and you’re more than likely to stumble over your words.

You can resolve this by using the slides purely to prompt and illustrate what you are saying. As mentioned, data can be a tedious subject to explain so keep the words to your commentary and keep the data on the slides.

Know your audience

After discovering the joys of creating infographics can bring to your life, you’ll be tempted to use infographics for every presentation. Although this can be informative and more useful, certain elements of infographics might not be appropriate for very serious and traditional audiences. Presenting data to a management board for example should be done in a slick and simple manner, almost to the point of being cold. They really want the cold hard facts and although you may want to illustrate the impact etc. in an innovative way, sometimes this can be done simply with a bar chart or diagram.

So now you know there is another way of presenting data, you should be able to add impact to your presentation or report without boring the audience or reader. As long as the illustration is appropriate, your cold data is made available, and the digestible data hasn’t been skewed in the process of making it easier to understand, your data and metrics can go far beyond than just numbers.

 

 

Realign your efforts or your goals?

My recent posts were a 5-part series on reaching job satisfaction, one of which discussed the vital element of professional motivation. It touched on knowing what you want to be known for professionally, what you consider is the peak of your career. By getting a basic understanding of what motivates you professionally you have a better chance in lining your efforts and behaviours up with your career goals.

Have you all of a sudden become aware that what you set out to do to achieve your career goals is completely out of sync with what you’re doing now? Slowly but surely over time your efforts and actions have taken a natural life of their own and are set onto autopilot. Their trajectory is completely off course from your original plan and carrying on as you are means you’ll imminently miss the mark.

Before you beat yourself up about it, you might want to consider if your actions have gone off-piste for a reason, or in other words that they have organically steered you to a better path, one that you subconsciously decided is more in tune with what you want, rather than what you think you want.

How to decide if you need to realign your efforts or goals

You see, sometimes your subconscious provides its own nudges to guide you into what you should be doing, a bit like your ‘gut instinct’. It’s something that you can’t justify or even need to be aware of, it just knows what is best for you without actually articulating it to you. That would be too easy.

Therefore if you were to be all of a sudden startled at this suspected misalignment and try to readjust your efforts to get back on track to your original plan, you might be scuppering the subliminal message your mind has been trying to tell you all this time.

Deciding on whether you need to realign your efforts or your goals ties back to your true professional motivation, which may well have changed since you first considered it. You know more than you did before so it stands to reason that your motivation has evolved into something new, more complex, or more simple.

If what you’re doing now is taking you onto a different path, question yourself why this might be. Is there a hidden message your mind is trying to tell you, for example, leading you to a point that will give you more satisfaction and accomplishment or more in tune with how you are as a person? Or, are you avoiding the less that desirable but necessary steps to get to your goal and instead just directing yourself down the path of least resistance?

If you still want the goal you set out for but your actions are taking you on a different path, rather than try to change the things you’ve already done (note: impossible), are there ways of incorporating these into your realigned path? Are there new skills you’ve inadvertently picked up that can actually be really useful in your realignment? It’s still perfectly acceptable (not that you need acceptance!) to say no to both of these and decide to draw a line under what you’ve done and hop back onto your original path. Any concepts of quitting, flaking out and all that other negative rubbish should be immediately disregarded – it’s far better to get back on board to your original plan after acknowledging you’ve veered off course than to carry on the diversion to save face. If there’s no link to what you have done to your goals, these are the only two things you can do and the former gets you to where you want to be. So poo to the naysayers.

If you realised you want a different goal as a result of your recent actions, then changing your goal is a lot easier. This isn’t to say it’s the better option – it’s the option you should choose if you really want a new goal, not because it’s convenient and more easy than to get back on track to your original goal. The goal doesn’t necessarily need to be the consequence of your veered off actions but more times than not, the veerage is down to your mind realigning your behaviours for you.

Realigneffortsorgoalsinfog

Again, disregard the naysayers who think you hop from one goal to another. I touched on Emilie Wapnick’s widely recognised concept of Multipotenialism in my post about having too many interests – give this another read if you’re having doubts. Adjusting your end goal to meet your current needs and wants (or to anticipate future needs and wants) is your business and yours alone. Being self-aware enough to know when to change course is an underrated skill but sadly one that is misconceived by others at times.

So fret not that you have all of sudden become aware that you aren’t where you want to be, or thought you should be. Assess what actions you’ve taken and the behaviours you’ve shown and compare these to your original goal. Whether you decide to realign your goal to these actions, or realign your actions to your original goal, do what you think is right for you and try not to care how this will be perceived by others. At the end of the day, those around you who are satisfied with their careers will know that the path isn’t a straight line and requires changes of plan once in a while…