Recording yourself to improve your verbal communication

I’m delivering this post, very aptly, as a video post today in which I talk about recording yourself to improve your verbal communication.

In this video, I cover:

  • The benefits of recording yourself, including getting over the ‘umms…’, getting used to your voice, and being conscious of your body language
  • How the recording set up is easier than you think
  • What to say when you’re recording yourself
  • And the things to avoid.

I’m hoping to do more of these video posts every now and then. Let me know what you think!

 

Preparing brainstorms in 3 easy steps

Brainstorming, blue skying, thought showers, idea mills…call them what you will and find least offensive, they are a powerful tool and I’m a huge fan. As a bubble of productive creativity, they are a safe hub of generating ideas that tackle a particular problem, decide how to get a particular outcome or direction for a particular project, plan a particular event – I could go on.

In short, it’s a dedicated session to dump ideas and provoke discussion and debate on feasibility, practicality and follow-up concepts.

If you have been asked to lead or facilitate a brainstorming session, you may be wondering how to go about it. Without resorting to brainstorming the ways in which to facilitate brainstorming sessions (although this is do-able), here are 3 steps to help prepare your session.

Step 1 – The objective

The first thing you need to be clear on is the brainstorm’s objective. Without being absolutely clear on this, you cannot effectively steer the session to the desired outcome. The three questions you should be asking yourself are:

  • What events have taken place to warrant the brainstorm – understanding what has happened for there to be a need for a brainstorm, as opposed to a meeting, round-robin email etc., will give you some background to the reasoning behind this. This should be included in the introduction to the session (look out for next week’s post on leading brainstorms) as it sets the scene for the attendees.
  • What are the desired outcomes from the brainstorm – ideally you should have been given a clear outcome for the brainstorm. If you can answer the first question, the outcome should be in context with the reason for the session.
  • How will the outcomes be presented after the session – how do the end users (this could be the person asking you to do the brainstorm or for another team who will take the actions away) want the information to be presented. Rarely will you be able to get away with presenting the crude pieces of paper the group dumped their ideas on, so you will need to determine before collecting the ideas how they will be cleaned up and summarised smartly to the end user. This should still be done at discretionary effort if the end user is happy to see the crude pieces of paper.

Step 2 – Additional information

Once you know the objective of the brainstorm, decide what additional information you will need. Being prepared will increase the effectiveness of the session, as well as avoiding any embarrassing questions you cannot answer in a room full of people, making you feel a little more confident. Additional information could include: the background; statistics or figures that help illustrate a problem; information from other people or teams that are not part of the session but will help with how the attendees come up with ideas; an agenda, explaining how much time will be spent on introductions and each topic; or case studies from other teams, departments or external organisations on how they approached a similar issue.

You’ll especially need to know who the attendees will be (or decide who they should be if you can) and what their experience, background and potential perspective will be. If you know them personally, it would be helpful to know if there are too many strong/weak vocalists. This will also help you to decide how to format the session.

Step 3 – Format

Now you know why the brainstorming session is needed, what its purpose is and all other additional information including who is attending, you will need to decide the format of the brainstorm. This needs to be appropriate to the audience, the objective and the time you have to conduct the session. You’ll also need to consider the strong/weak vocalists, for example, if there are more loud people than quiet, a big group session might not be the best option as the quiet’ns might not feel comfortable competing to be heard. As long as you can create and develop productive and usable ideas, there is no wrong way about it, but there usually is two or three ways that work the best. There are more and more ideas on different types of brainstorming – far too many to list and link to (but I’ve listed my favourites below) – so have a search on the number of formats and pick the best one that caters for the audience, objective and time. A few to mention are:

  • Old-fashioned brainstorm – a group of people giving the objective and begin to create, challenge, develop, imagine, and (hopefully) applaud ideas.
  • Individual and group think – similar to above but the objective and additional information is provided to the attendees well in advance. They all then individually start generating ideas before the session. They then take it in turns to share their ideas to the group on the day of the session. Not only does this really help for time-sensitive meetings, it also allows the attendees to do their own homework and gather their own additional information that would help the session.
  • Sticky notes – this is particularly helpful for ideas that aren’t too lengthy or complex and normally consist of 1- to 5-worded answers. The attendees are each given a sticky-note pad and use one note per idea (they can work on their own or in separated groups) and then stick these on a big board at the front. The group then discuss the ideas and can rearrange the positioning of the notes if there are a sequence of events. This is usually called storyboarding.
  • Stepladder brainstorm (1992 Rogelberg et al) – this is a new one for me and have only recently heard about it but it’s an interesting concept. Essentially the attendees are asked to leave the room bar two people. These two are then given the objective and so begin to create and discuss ideas. Then one person from the group that left is brought in to join the two people and given the objective. The one person tells the two people their ideas before the two people tell them what they came up with. Then another person joins the 3 people and so on. It’s a great way to steer away from ‘groupthink’ yet allows each person to have their say while also benefitting from the group’s thoughts.
  • Talking stick – this is a method where each member of the group provides an idea and the thoughts around it individually and in turn. The name comes from schools when children could only speak with they held the talking stick (my school had a wooden spoon). Props are optional…

So, preparing the brainstorm session is half the battle. But making the effort into this side of the process will make the other side, ie leading the session, a lot easier. Next week I share 5 easy steps for leading and facilitating a brainstorm session.

 

Presentations for introverts: Part 1

“I have to give a presentation to a group of around 20 people but I’m really scared of public speaking. What’s more, there are a couple of people in the group more experienced than me who probably know a lot more about the stuff I’m going to talk about anyway. As an introvert, I haven’t got a lot of confidence with having all eyes on me and I’m just dreading making a mess of it. I know I need to develop this skill to grow professionally, so any advice would be much appreciated!”

I hear that. As an introvert myself  I can’t tell you that the nerves will go away anytime soon. Believe me when I say though that it does get easier with practice though, as with probably every other challenging task in existence. So it’s great that you acknowledge this is something you need to do. To get ahead in your career, it’s an important thing to learn, whether you’re comfortable with it or not, and approaching it head on rips off the proverbial plaster. I’m much more confident with them now and once the momentum picks up, it’s really (nerdily) enjoyable!

My approach is having a number of safety nets in place before and throughout the presentation in 10 simple steps. The first 5 talk about what you can do before the presentation. I will then talk about the other 5 in the next post, where I explain what you can do during the presentation. These are tips on delivering a presentation – I will write another post later about how to put one together.

  1. What’s the point…

…of the presentation? To avoid wasted effort and time, clarify what the presentation needs to be about. To use a corporate word for it, what is its ‘objective’? What does the audience need to take away from the presentation? Who are the audience? And if this has been commissioned by someone else like your line manager, confirm the point with them so that you’re both on the same page before work starts. This saves you embarrassment if you’re pulled up in mid-presentation that you’ve got the wrong end of the stick.

  1. Fact check

Always routinely fact check your presentation. Even if you are pretty sure a certain fact is correct, double check this from a reliable source. Odds are the one fact you didn’t check will be brought up by someone who will challenge you. Scary right? Check your facts.

  1. Get your intro right

While conquering my fear of public speaking, I find that the best way to start a presentation is a really good and well-rehearsed introduction. Starting off on a trip or stumble (verbally of course, although physically is just as humiliating) will really knock your confidence and you run the risk of this setting the tone for the rest of the presentation. Only a risk though, not a guarantee.

Knowing exactly what you’re going to say at the beginning and how you’re going to say it will really get you on the right foot and build confidence-momentum. This will involve writing down the tiny detail, even an ice breaker, of what you’re going to say to hush people to attention. Practise what you’re going to say, you need this in your ammo. For example:

Right everyone? Excuse me, everyone? [you need to choose specific wording otherwise you won’t feel comfortable using a hushing expression on the spot without knowing what the words sound like in the air]. I think it’s time we all crack on with this if we’re going to make the best of our time so if we could just settle, we can begin.

‘Right, thank you everyone. My name is Bob, and today I will be talking about X so that by the end of the presentation, we will get a really clear understanding of what we need to do next, while also opening the floor for any comments’.

  1. Rehearse

Go through the presentation a number of times and make sure the flow is right. You don’t want to write an entire script down that you read off, which sounds like a safe option, but it’s really awkward hearing it. And once you start and you realise people know what you’re doing, it’s incredibly hard (and more awkward) to break out of it mid-presentation.

  1. Prepare, pause, repeat.

Preparing for a presentation might sound like an obvious step, and rightly so as without preparing for the presentation, you feel less in control, and that’s where the fear kicks in. What you need to be cautious about though is preparing too much. That might sound a little odd, but you can actually prepare so much that you play out the same presentation over and over again so rigidly but in your head. Come the day you present, it’s more likely not going to turn out the way you planned, and frankly, you can never be 100% sure how it will go. Preparing too much gives you a false sense of security.

Instead, give my ‘prepare, pause, repeat’ method a go. What I do it prepare a lot for a presentation then ‘pause’, or just put it away out of my mind and not think about it for a day or two. Then I prepare again, be it a rehearsal or quick fact-check, and then I put it away out of my mind again. This stops you preparing so much that you overwhelm yourself with such a rigid perception of how it will go while also giving you the opportunity to not be so heavily involved that you can’t spot grammatical errors or inaccuracies.

So these are 5 things you can do to put some safety nets in place before the presentation. In my next post I will share 5 further tips in what you can do during the presentation.

 

Planning your career in 2018

So 2017 is behind us. Where did it go? Did you manage to accomplish everything you wanted to do, or did one thing or another get out of hand and time just simply slipped away? It’s OK, it can happen. Life gets in the way and sometimes certain commitments overtake others.

So, as 2018 kicks off, here are 3 really easy steps on how you can take more control of your career planning in the new year, whether you fell behind in 2017 or not.

Step one: look at what you did (and didn’t do) in 2017

Before making a start on what you want your career to look like in 2018, you will need to evaluate what was and wasn’t done this year. This isn’t an exercise to give you a hard time or dwell on mistakes; it’s about making a simple bullet point list of each the things you accomplished and things that got side-tracked. The list of accomplishments provides you the self-reflection every professional needs time to do, while also laying down the ground work for next year, for example, you might have completed a level 3 course, so 2018 might involve looking at level 4. But for now, focus on what was done.

Then you can focus on what you didn’t do, and determine what got in the way. For example, you might have wanted to be promoted this year but didn’t; why was this? Lack of skills? Lack of insight to what is required for a promotion? Your company doesn’t really offer promotion opportunities? Write, or keep note of your answer to this.

Step two: look at what you want to realistically accomplish in 2018

The key word here is ‘realistically’. You need to keep your eagerness to be a highflier by tomorrow in check and keep timescales realistic. This helps give you accurate deadlines that can actually be met, rather than thinking you have failed somehow by not meeting a deadline you set that was improbable in the first place. This will be put you in a place of defeat and potentially stop you in your tracks when you could have made steady progress to your goals in a controlled pace.

You will want to begin by understanding the direction you generally want to go in. This can be in 1, 5, 10 years etc., from now, but where is the focus? The master plan? For example, if you are an insurance professional and one day you want to be a manager. It might not be in 2018, but that’s where you want to head for now. It also might not be the actual end goal and for now it seems that far away, it’s not a clear picture as of yet. That’s fine, for now you can focus on what will get you closer to being an insurance manager that will be accomplish-able in 2018?

Begin your list with the areas you might want to explore on the things you had accomplished in 2017. As avid doers, we don’t rest on our laurels when we’ve completed something, we want to see where the next step is, where can this take us, how can we get even better? It might not necessarily be closely related to it, but can feed an idea as a starting point to your list. For example, you might have been promoted in 2017. Well done! Now what? You might want to explore how you can understand the new position fully by doing a particular thing, or upping your game by patching over some skill gaps you’ve only just discovered now that you’ve started the new role.

You can then move onto the things you didn’t do while being mindful of the reasons why you didn’t do them. To eliminate any out of date stuff, determine if there are any objectives you didn’t meet because they no longer relevant to your role, or what you want to do. If they’re not important, don’t include them in your 2018 plan. Then, anything left over, you can decide to bring forward into 2018 as they will still be relevant and play a part in your development and progress. Feel free to tweak them in certain ways so that they make sense.

Then the final consideration for step two is to include any new areas you want to cover in 2018, any new objectives, that aren’t covered by the lists above. Anything new that would help you in your master plan.

Step three: bridging the ‘now’ to the ‘then’

Now you need to bridge between where you are now, and where you want to be by the end of 2018. To do this, you need to understand what is needed to get you there and detail this into a particular objective. For example ‘getting good at maths’ is a good start if you have recently been put in charge of handling budgets, but it’s not really quantifiable. It’s not giving you any recipe to make sure that is completed. You know you need to ‘get good at maths’ but how are you going to do this? Make it easy for yourself by laying out the steps you need to do to get good, for example ask sign up to a course, buy a book (a popular genre is along the lines of ‘finance for non-financial managers’), understand financial terminology (a glossary from a search engine should do the trick), or simply make a conscious effort to ask more questions from those who have more experience than you when you don’t understand a particular concept.

If you know where you want to be by the end of 2018 but you’re not entirely sure how to get there then make it your mission to understand that. Make that as one of your objectives. You can then break it down into a step-by-step recipe, as above, for example research on the internet, online resources about particular careers, look up courses, find information in books, or simply ask people face-to-face.

You could start with your line manager, as you should already be having conversations about your career anyway – if not, make sure you do. Take control by setting a meeting up yourself with your manager so you can talk about where you want to be and what they can do to help you understand what needs to be done.

Of course, you might not be in the position to ask around too conspicuously if, for example one of your objects is to find another job, or start your own business. If this is the case, speak to those already in the career or company you want to swap to, talk to those who are already running their businesses. This will really help you get tried-and-tested steps to implement into your objectives for 2018.

What if you don’t know what to do?

I hear that. Like so many others, I have been there myself. You know you want to put your energy into a career, you feel as though you’re a wind-up toy that’s ready to be put down and speed off to success if you just knew in which direction to be dropped.

This is a whole topic in itself, and one I will cover over a number of posts in the future as I believe it’s a common problem, not to mention one that is so incredibly frustrating for those who have the avid doer attitude without an outlet to apply it (Update: I’ve now written a post on a secret to finding your perfect career here). For now though, you can still follow these steps to help you on the track of discovering what it is you want to do. That can be your end goal, or at least your master plan (ie you might not know by the end of 2018, but you can have objectives in place to help you discover). What did you do in 2017 to help you find out what you want to do? If you did nothing, why is that (note: ‘waiting for a eureka moment’ is not an acceptable answer I’m afraid)? What will you now do in 2018 to get a step closer to discovering what you want to do? One of the objectives is to certainly stay tuned to The Avid Doer as it will be covered in the not-too-distant future.

Whichever your situation, make sure 2018 has a feasible roadmap that consists of sequential steps and progressive events. And then stick to them. Your 2018 plan can of course change and be updated – it’s a living thing, and not something that’s written in concrete. But it is important it is written in one form or another, to remind you what you promised you will do in 2018.

By the time 2019 is here, you would have accomplished your list which will set you up nicely for accomplishing more amazing things in the new year, and so on.