My presentation secret

I’d like to let you in on a little secret.

A secret that can hold a key to more confident, joyful presentations and presentation presence. Ready? Here it is:

Keep a secret in your shoe.

A penny, a piece of paper, a picture, anything. You decide.

“Keep a secret in your shoe, smile about what you know that others could never guess, and use it to keep you in contact with the ground. Feel the secret in your shoe, to help you keep in touch with the gift you’re trying to deliver. Perhaps most importantly, use the secret to keep you from taking yourself so seriously.”

This was the advice I received from a dear mentor of mine before a big presentation a few weeks ago.

I wrote, “This will be awesome” on a small scrap of paper and could feel it nestled under my left foot as I facilitated my session.

Keep a secret in your shoe that’s only for you to know about. Shhhhh. Is it working?

How to surprise and delight learners with one simple tool

Imagine experiencing surprise and delight the moment you walk into a professional development workshop, a meeting, or a brainstorming session.

Imagine this surprise and delight didn’t come from something visual like bright colors, or exciting wall art but from something tactile and kinesthetic used to enhance adult learning.

Imagine it came from… silly putty?

I was turned on to a wonderful tool this past summer in a class taught by Dr. Julia Sloan and Dr. Debra France on Learning to Think Strategically, and I immediately implemented this tool in a learning experience I designed later that summer.

Upon arrival in our classroom, we found “table toys” (think brain noodles, slinkys, silly putty and the like) scattered around our tables.

By the end of the training I found myself practically addicted to having a toy to play with, push, meld, bend, or break during the 4 day learning experience.

While it may not be right for every type of learning or learner, here’s where we can put this tool to use:

  • creates and signals a relaxed, even fun, learning environment
  • helps adult learners focus – especially with complex or new content
  • improves retention
  • creates an element of surprise
  • creates an atmosphere or curiosity, fun, and even conversation
  • supports kinesthetic learners– those of us who like to fiddle and doodle
  • expands multi-sensor engagement

The point here is not to signal that learning is child’s play – far from it. Learning can be fun, can bring back that element of surprise and delight and can be individualized and personalized to cater to learners who crave (i.e. need) a tactile learning experience.

Thank you to Dr. Sloan for the idea, and for the research on the benefits of these tools.

Improvisation as a negotiation

“The real power and innovation of jazz is that a group of people can come together and create art – improvised art – and can negotiate their agendas with each other. And that negotiation is the art” – Wynton Marsalis”

Improvisers are trained to be masters of the “give and the take” – to simultaneously let go of control but to speak their ideas with confidence and boldness. How can this be, you might ask? Does nothing get accomplished?

It’s quite the opposite. The improviser’s negotiation table is a blank stage – there is no delineation between winner and loser, best or worst. It is a team sport where the rules of our negotiation are simple:

1. Accept and add on

2. Make the other person look good.

Beginning improvisers start by improvising in a way that’s comfortable for them – and that tends to fall on either end of the spectrum between being extremely timid or extremely domineering on stage. With practice and confidence the fear dissipates and one begins to see not only the benefits of both the give and take but is also comfortable playing either role.

One of my favorite examples of the Improvisers Negotiation in action comes from Keith Johnstone and it’s called Invisible Tug of War.

Ask two teams to mime playing tug-of-war, without a rope… and let this go on for a few moments. See what happens – and debrief around chivalry, give and take, noticing offers and making the other “team” look good.


TOOL: The Failure Bow

Last year I had the privilege of meeting Ted DesMaisons – a fellow Improviser, also a blogger, Stanford Business School Graduate, and a very gifted man and teacher.

His latest blog post, The Transformative Failure Bow , talks about one of the greatest resources in an improviser’s toolkit: the ability to transform failure and a mistake into a celebration of boldness. It is a learned skill worth practicing. Here he describes the history of this great tool, how he teaches it, and how it creates transformation by shifting our reaction and definition of “failure”.

He asks the question we all could be asking — what are we rewarding? The effort, the result, or both? How do you define the result?

“As Matt Smith affirmed in a recent conversation, “The Failure Bow isn’t designed to reward or focus on the failure. It’s designed to reward the willingness to be transparent, the capacity to remain available in the present moment, and the ability to get back on the horse without residing in shame.” It’s that awesome eagerness that leads an athlete to say “Hit me another, Coach” or a student to insist “Let me try again.” We get knocked down, but we get up again.”

The Transformative Failure Bow 

One link between emotion and creativity

Say you want to help a group be more creative. 

What emotion would best help the group achieve this goal?

This question was recently posed to students in a weekend workshop I attended on Emotional Intelligence at Columbia University.

The choices:

1. Happiness

2. Worry

3. Sadness

4. Anger

5. Other

What would you say? I listened as classmates, one after the other, suggested that negative emotions would fuel the creative fire.

Sure, we know that not everyone responds the same way, but could negativity really be the answer? It saddened me that this was the myth or common view floating around the University halls.

Results of a study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, set us straight.

The emotion that best helps a group promote creativity is happiness.  Why? An upbeat mood makes people more receptive to information, helps widens our lens and allows us to see connections we normally would have been closed off to otherwise.

In addition, happiness and laughter release dopamine which contributes to stress reduction.

Stress reduction and an overall relaxed state triggers responses in our brain that coincide with inhibition – and the ability to have more creative insights.

This blog post is brought to you by the letters “H.A.P.P.I.N.E.S.S” and Positive Psychology. Now go out and make someone happy!

Leadership as Jazz: Becoming an Improvisational Leader

Sometimes articles pass through your news feed that, when you read them, make you nod your head so consistently you fear you’ll give yourself a headache.

If Miles Davis Taught your Company to Improvise

“Nurturing spontaneity, creativity, experimentation, and dynamic synchronization is no longer an optional approach to leadership. It’s the only approach. The current velocity of change demands nothing less. It demands paying attention to the mental models, the cultural beliefs and values, the practices and structures that support improvisation.”

How do we as individuals, leaders and organizations prepare to Improvise? It can be done. In fact, here are 5 tips.

It’s why Improvisers rehearse, warm-up, and spend a lot of time building trust. We learn the structure first, and then find the freedom within the safety we’ve created.

1.  Approach leadership tasks as experiments – Be open to what emerges by suspending a defensive attitude. Improvisers are skilled at withholding judgement – with both our own ideas and the ideas of others.

“An experimental approach favors testing and learning as you go. It means presenting ideas, then observing how others pick up and build on them. This is leadership with a mind-set of discovery”

Being more open and receptive to the ideas of those around you also helps to break up a routine or automatic habits that may be weighing you, and your team down.

2. Expand the vocabulary of yes to overcome the glamour of no – Saying “no” is a habit for many of us, for many different reasons. To use what’s in the room, and accept all offers is to heighten and find the positive in what is already available to us. In improvisation, wishing things were different is truly a useless game.

“Too often, in established cultures, cynicism is a way to attain status, and cynical responses to ideas seem justified because they are more “realistic.” It is much easier to critique than to build. Yet equating cynicism with realism shrinks the imagination.”

3. Everyone gets a chance to solo – Learn the give and take. And, at the same time, if you’re passionate about an idea, do you have the freedom to go solo and experiment beyond your comfort zone?

4. Encourage serious play. Too much control inhibits flow.

5. Cultivate provocative competence: create expansive promises as occasions for stretching out into unfamiliar territory. – Competence versus a learning and growth mindset? Is there a happy medium?

“The need of leadership in a distributed age has never been greater. Instead of imposing competence–a virtual impossibility–leaders provoke it by designing the conditions that nurture strategic improvisation and continuous learning, and thus help their organizations break out of competency traps. Great leaders like Miles Davis are able to see people’s potential, disrupt their habits, and demand that they pay attention in new ways.”

What’s the drill – August 6: The Four Traits of Learning

Here’s a crazy idea.

What if, instead of pushing learning on people, we find ways to integrate it into their everyday lives? We take an approach to learning that makes it fun, engaging, humor-filled even… one that’s memorable, co-created, and reminds us that our ideas matter.

Recently I watched a speech by a man whose company and mission I am so excited about. In this speech he says:

“Curiosity, creativity, discovery and wonder; they aren’t traits of youth, they’re traits of learning. If you want to feel younger and you want to replicate the conditions of youth, do that.”
Adults are busy, adults are information-saturated. Learning, especially at work, can be viewed as a chore. I believe, the more we can do as educators to provoke curiosity, encourage questions and discovery, add play, humor, fun and exploration, we are encouraging people to not just learn, but to be changed by what they learn.

Censor got you silent? Try this exercise for your next brainstorming warm-up

When you hear the word ‘brainstorming’ you might instantly tense up.

What if my answer isn’t correct? I can’t think on my feet. What if my answer is judged?

All of these concerns (which can be lessened based on your office culture and reinforcement of values) are common and because of them, we tend to censor ourselves and become more inhibited with our ideas and contributions.

We filter out our “crazy” ideas, pre-judging them before they’re even spoken.

To fool our filters and train our brains to be more spontaneous, one trick, per this article in Fast Company is to focus on speed. When you’re going this fast, there’s no time to judge ideas.

We know it’s hard to brainstorm cold. So here’s my favorite 3-minute warmup to quiet your censor and get you primed for better brainstorming.

  1. Walk around the room, pointing out what you see and naming it out loud (60 seconds)
  2. Walk around the room again, point out what you see, but name it the item you previously pointed at (60 seconds)
  3. Walk around the room, point at things and purposefully call it by the wrong name. Anything you want! (60 seconds).

What did you notice?