Tuesday, July 31, 2007

To Act or Not to Act - The Climate Change Debate

I don't normally focus on such issues in this blog. But this video struck me as very important to pass along.

This video demonstrates that the risk of not acting on climate change FAR outweighs the risk of acting.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Is our culture failing us?

“Fifty years ago, I suspect that along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax, most Americans could have named, at the very least, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O'Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not to mention scientists and thinkers like Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead, and Dr. Alfred Kinsey.”

So said Dana Gioia, chair of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, when he delivered the commencement address this month at Stanford University. Click here for an excerpt of the speech.

“I don't think Americans were smarter then, but American culture was. Even the mass media placed a greater emphasis on presenting a broad range of human achievement.”

He goes on to say:

"Everything now is entertainment. And the purpose of this omnipresent commercial entertainment is to sell us something. American culture has mostly become one vast infomercial. When was the last time you have seen a featured guest on David Letterman or Jay Leno who isn't trying to sell you something? A new movie, a new TV show, a new book, or a new vote?

Don't get me wrong. I love entertainment, and I love the free market. But we must remember that the marketplace does only one thing – it puts a price on everything.

The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace.

A culture should also provide some cogent view of the good life beyond mass accumulation. In this respect, our culture is failing us."

This reminded me of an article in Wired Magazine titled "Putin? Never Heard of Her."

"More than a decade after the Internet went mainstream, the world's richest information source hasn't necessarily made its users any more informed. A new study from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that Americans, on average, are less able to correctly answer questions about current events than they were in 1989. Citizens who call the Internet their primary news source know slightly less than fans of TV and radio news. Hmmm... maybe a little less Perez (sic) Hilton and a little more Jim Lehrer."

Reading this graphic, I was gratified to see that watchers of The Daily Show fared well in identifying figures in the news. It was also gratifying to see that Fox News either:
  1. Delivers the lowest quality news coverage.
  2. Is watched by idiots.
For my parent's sake, I'll assume it's the former.

In recent conversations with friends and clients, I have been saying, "Knowledge is no longer a determinant of success. Now, it's ideas."

I say this because Google, Wikipedia and other internet phenomena make your need to know information less critical than your ability to know where to find good, reliable information and come up with creative ideas - creative solutions to problems.

In reflecting on my work with presentation and communication skills with The Henderson Group, I believe that general and broader knowledge of culture is important.

Recently, I was leading a workshop with a group of sales people in the Pacific Northwest. I kept referring to my bibliography, the books that I and my colleague Chuck Kuglen, used in our research, preparing for the workshop. I would ask them, "Have you read The Tao of Sales by E. Thomas Behr ... or ... Selling With Integrity by Sharon Drew Morgen ... or ... Blink by Malcolm Gladwell?


It became a running joke.

"Would you please stop asking us if we've read any books because we don't read, apparently."

I remember thinking, "These people are sales professionals. Their livelihood depends on being able to do this skill well. I am a trainer. Yes, I do wear a sales hat but 60 - 70% of my livelihood depends on my being an effective trainer. And I've read more books about selling than they have. What's wrong with this picture?"

Perhaps this perspective grew out of my work as an actor and director. When working on a play, I was trained to read biographies of the writer and their other work, not just the play I was working on. In addition, if it was a period piece (Shakespeare, Dickens, Chekhov), I was taught to study the history and the culture of the period. This studious quality seems less prevalent to me now than when I was young.

Is our education system failing us, too? My wife's family is filled with educators that would argue that any alleged failure is certainly not due to the teachers.

Is this a sign that I am fully middle-aged - bitching about how lazy the younger generation seems? It's probably some of the latter.

I consider the stories from Blink of the art experts immediately recognizing a fake
Greek sculpture. Their snap judgments prove right because they've spent decades training themselves. This level of bone-deep knowledge doesn't come from a cursory read of a Wikipedia page on Greek sculpture.

In the end, broader understanding of a culture, deep knowledge of culture has some value and perhaps ideas alone aren't enough. Or perhaps the most useful and valuable ideas only flow from minds with a broad understanding of a the culture - be it knowledge of Greek sculpture, theater, or the problems facing businesses.

In closing I think of the words of 2 visionaries:

"Television is democracy at its ugliest." Paddy Chayefsky
The two most abundant things in the universe are Hydrogren and stupidity." Harlan Ellison

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Path to Presentation Peace - Mindfulness and Stillness

I was fascinated by Patricia Leigh Brown's story in the NY Times about mindfulness practice being used in public schools:
In the Classroom, a New Focus on Quieting the Mind

Mindfulness, while common in hospitals, corporations, professional sports and even prisons, is relatively new in the education of squirming children. But a small but growing number of schools in places like Oakland and Lancaster, Pa., are slowly embracing the concept — as they did yoga five years ago — and institutions, like the psychology department at Stanford University and the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, are trying to measure the effects.

The techniques, among them focused breathing and concentrating on a single object, are loosely adapted from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the molecular biologist who pioneered the secular use of mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts in 1979 to help medical patients cope with chronic pain, anxiety and depression. Susan Kaiser Greenland, the founder of the InnerKids Foundation, which trains schoolchildren and teachers in the Los Angeles area, calls mindfulness “the new ABC’s — learning and leading a balanced life.”

At Stanford, the psychology department is assessing the feasibility of teaching mindfulness to families. “Parents and teachers tell kids 100 times a day to pay attention,” said Philippe R. Goldin, a researcher. “But we never teach them how.”

Angela Haick, the principal of Piedmont Avenue (one of the piloting schools), said she was inspired to try it after observing a class at a local middle school.

“If we can help children slow down and think,” Dr. Haick said, “they have the answers within themselves.”

This is the very practice that I teach participants to use in our presentation skills workshops.

When the slightest thing goes awry (we forget one point in our "script", a cell phone rings, the wrong presentation slide pops up), it's easy to descend into a downward spiral of panic.

We begin to think: "Oh, sh*t! That wasn't supposed to happen. This is horrible!" This inner dialogue is often followed by a physiological manifestation of anxiety and stress: sweaty palms, physical tremors, accelerated heart rate, etc. Then we begin to focus on the feeling of anxiety and another round of self-talk begins: "OH, SH*T! I am feeling really nervous right now! How can I make this feeling go away? I hate this! Everyone must be able to see how nervous I am. This is a DISASTER!!! OH, God, give me the power to dissapear!"

We want our mind to be still and settled so that we can think clearly and communicate effectively. The metaphor than I recently found was this: It's a bit like enjoying the stillness of a beautiful pond. Suddenly, a large stone drops into the pond, ruining the stillness of the water's surface. So, in response to this, in our panic and frustration, we throw a handful of pebbles into the pond, shouting, "Hey, you stupid pond! Settle down!"

This cycle of thought sets off the stress response and the stress response sets off another round of negative self-talk, spiraling downward into lower and lower levels of Hell.

What's the solution?

Follow this process:
1. Awareness
2. Practice Stillness and Silence
3. Breathe
4. Think
5. Speak

Here it is in more detail:
1. Awareness
You become aware there is a problem - you catch yourself saying "um", you say the wrong thing, the media projector malfunctions, etc.

2. Practice Stillness and Silence
Stop moving and speaking. DON'T comment on what is happening with inane remarks such as, "I forgot my point." or "Oops - wrong slide!" No fidgeting, grimacing or nervous laughter. Just be still and silent.
This takes discipline and practice but will pay off in spades. The audience won't invest much import in whatever happened if you appear poised.

3. Breathe
In moments of stress, a typical reaction is to become tense and stop breathing deeply. The brain is the bodily organ most dependant on a fresh supply of oxygen. If you are not breathing deeply, your thinking will suffer. You will make poor decisions.

4. Think
Ask yourself, "How can I recover from this without making it seem important?" Even better, ask, "How can I turn this into an opportunity?" Often the most inspired moments in workshops and presentations were the direct result of a 'mistake'.

Once you've made a rational decision about how to proceed ...

5. Speak

Taking a moment to become still and mindful is the best antidote to the panic that many feel when presenting.

Here's the broader learning that I arrived at - this technique will help in ANY stressful situation when panic tends to take over. I've used this technique when I locked myself out of the house, on turbulent airplanes, and on difficult calls with clients. Invariably, things go better and I make better decisions when I remember to do this practice.

Mahatma Gandhi said, "The only tyrant I accept in this world is the 'still small voice' within me." We can only hear that voice when we can still the din of our own mental chatter.

To paraphrase Dr. Haick, “If we can slow down and think, we have the answers within ourselves.”

Thursday, July 5, 2007

SeatGuru.com - A Traveler's Friend

Check out SeatGuru.com.

As a frequent traveler, I've used this service many times over the last couple of years and found it valuable and informative.

You select your airline and aircraft and the site will give you information on every seat. If you roll your cursor over seats on their map, up pops a box with more detailed information.