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July 2008

Comedian: The documentary

Comedian_dvd_Earlier this month I wrote this piece on how professional stand-up comics and presenters & speakers have much in common. Many of you agreed. Then my buddy and marketing guru Mitch Joel in Canada left this comment concerning a wonderful little documentary called Comedian: "[Comedian] is the movie that aligns perfectly with this blog post," wrote Mitch. "To watch Seinfeld grapple with new material, work it out in front of an audience, refine the flow and the stories, rehearse, plus, on top of it, the isolation that all speakers feel was scary (and brilliant). I highly recommend it. I think all people passionate about presenting should rent, buy, and devour the documentary Comedian starring Jerry Seinfeld...."

Jerry_seinfeld Well, Mitch was right. I loved this documentary and I too highly recommend it. However, it's not for everyone — don't buy it if you just are looking for laughs; it's not a comedy though it's often funny — but if you are a professional speaker or presenter (or any other professional) with a passion for learning and improving your speaking skills, then I think you will enjoy this documentary. William Krischke's Amazon review of the documentary (DVD) parallels my own reaction to the the film. "This ends up being less a documentary about comedy and more a character study of a mature and an immature craftsman," wrote William. "The craft here is comedy, but it really could be anything, especially any type of art. A friend and I watched this and afterwards talked about how well Jerry Seinfeld and Orny Adams illustrate the principles of leadership."

Orny_adams I too thought of the dynamic between Jerry Seinfeld (sitting above, back stage) and Orny Adams (standing right, on stage) was a lesson in contrast: the master artist and the aspiring artist/student. But the student shows he has much to learn, not about technique (he's already good) but about himself and learning to get over himself and his ego. Unlike a good student of the Zen arts, for example, Orny fought against constructive criticism and advice from the masters in the film. Yet the grasshopper fought mostly against self-doubt and his own attachment to the way he thought it was suppose to be. This destructive monologue of self-doubt and comparison with others is something most of us carry on in our heads all the time; the true master of any art learns to go beyond such crippling talk. 

In this scene below from the documentary, you can see how the master is so perplexed by the grasshopper's concern for the things that matter not. Orny's head and concerns are in the wrong place. So the master tries to make his point, not through lecture, but through a short story (as a former musician on the road I found this old story quite amusing and illuminating). Checkout this clip below.

Update from the other side of the pond
Below is a short video message recorded yesterday on the beach here in Oregon. Hope your summer (or winter for my friends Down Under) is going well.

Robert McKee on the power of story


StoryAs children we were naturally good at telling stories about events or topics that mattered and learning from others via their stories, but as we became older we were taught that serious people relied only on presenting information and "the facts." Accurate information, sound logic, and the facts are necessary, of course, but truly effective leaders in any field — including technical ones — know how to tell "the story" of their particular research endeavor, technological quest, or marketing plan, etc. There are a few people talking about the importance of storytelling these days (see this post from last year: Ira Glass: Tips on storytelling), and if you look to non-traditional sources there is much to be learned. Famed screen writer Robert McKee's book (Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting) is one I have recommended before—highly recommend it. But you may hesitate to spend $35 for 480 pages on the topic of screenwriting (though the lessons have broad applications). However, the Harvard  Business Review featured a nice article on McKee's ideas in their June, 2003 publication. You can purchase a PDF of the short article for $6.50 titled Storytelling that Moves People on the Harvard Business Online site.

Below, I summarize McKee's points by touching on just a few of the questions discussed in the interview. Following that is a great video interview with the man and the legend, Robert McKee. The last video is from the movie Adaptation featuring a scene of an actor playing the part of McKee. Fantastic scene.

Does being good at storytelling make you a good leader?
Harvard Business Review"Not necessarily," says McKee. "But if you understand the principles of storytelling, you probably have a good understanding of yourself and of human nature, and that tilts the odds in your favor." McKee says that good storytellers must have a good deal of life experience. He can teach the fundamentals of storytelling, he says, but not to someone who has not had a breadth of experience (good and bad—especially bad). "Self-knowledge is the root of all great storytelling."

Why should a CEO or manager pay attention to a screen writer?
 "A big part of a CEO's job is to motivate people to reach certain goals. To do that she must engage their emotions, and the key to their hearts is story." The most common way to persuade people, says McKee, is with conventional rhetoric and an intellectual process that in the business world "...usually consists of a PowerPoint presentation" in which leaders build their case with statistics and quotes, etc. McKee says rhetoric is problematic because while we are making our case others are arguing with us in their heads using their own statistics and sources. Even if you do persuade through argument, says McKee, this is not good enough because "...people are not inspired to act on reason alone." The key, then, is to aim to unite an idea with an emotion, which is best done through story. "In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener's emotion and energy."

Mckee_quote.020 Slide with
quote from HBR article (click for larger size).

What is a story?
At it's core, story is about  a "...fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality," says McKee. Story is about an imbalance and opposing forces (a problem that must be worked out, etc.). A good storyteller describes what it's like to deal with these opposing forces "...calling on the protagonist to dig deeper, work with scarce resources, make difficult decisions...and ultimately discover the truth." Can not a presentation on a technical or scientific topic be a story — with plenty of data and information along the way — about a long journey of discovery, of trial and error, and so on?

How can executives/leaders learn to tell stories?
We tend to forget lists and bullet points, McKee says, but stories come naturally to us; it's how we've always attempted to understand and remember the bits and pieces of experience. McKee's point is that you should not fight your natural inclination to frame experiences into a story but should instead embrace this and tell "the story" of your experience/topic to your audience.

Story_slides.018  Story_slides.019
Sample slides based on HBR material (click for larger size).

What makes a good story?
It's not what you think—the beginning-to-end tale about how results meet expectations is boring and banal, McKee says. Avoid this. Instead, it's better to illustrate the "struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness." So, what's wrong with painting a positive picture? McKee says that spin and a glossy, rosy picture actually works against you because everyone knows it can't be exactly true. What makes life interesting is "the dark side" and the struggle to overcome the negatives — struggling against the negative powers is what forces us to live more deeply, says McKee. Overcoming the negative powers is interesting, engaging, and memorable. Stories like this are more convincing.

Isn't this just exaggeration and manipulation?
McKee admits than business leaders are often skeptical of story. But "the fact is," he says, "statistics are used to tell lies...while accounting reports are often BS in a ball gown — witness Enron and WorldCom." When McKee helps executives turn their dull presentations into stories, he starts by looking for the dramas and the difficulties, the antagonists and the struggles, and even the dirty laundry. People prefer to present only the rosy (and boring) picture. "But as a storyteller, you want to position the problems in the foreground and then show how you've overcome them." If you tell the story of how you struggled with the antagonists, says McKee, the audience is engaged with you and your material.

More from Robert McKee
Here's a nice 10-minute interview with Robert McKee (interviewed by George Stroumboulopoulos).

In the interview, McKee quotes Aristotle.

Story seminar from Adaptation
This short clip features a great actor playing the Robert McKee chacter giving some "feedback" to a writer's question (played by Nicolas Cage) in the Oscar-winning movie Adaptation.

A takeaway line: "If you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis you'll bore your audience to tears." For presentations, and from the audience's point of view, the question is: Why the bloody hell does this matter? Clarify that and you're on the right track.

Robert McKee's seminars (got to make it next year).
Interview with Robert McKee (The Screen Players).
Chapter 4 (Crafting the Story) from PZ book free on the Peachpit website.

Sir Ken Robinson: We need to transform education

I'm a big Ken Robinson fan and have pointed to him many times such as in this post on his TED talk from 2006 (and see Sir Ken's ideas on public speaking here). Even if you saw the TED talk, you will enjoy this 15-minute presentation (given sans slides, as is the Sir Ken Robinson style) that he delivered in April of this year to an international crowd of school superintendents at the Apple Education Leadership Summit in San Francisco.

Sir Ken did not go into depth in his 15 minutes on stage. If you want to go deeper into his ideas I recommend his book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. The book will not teach you how to be creative, but it will make you think (and rethink) about the way we do things in the world of work and education. As he says in the talk, we do not need to reform education, we need to transform it. (Below are a couple of slides I'm using in a future hunk on creativity & presentation — click for larger size.)

Quote from Out of Our Minds.

Full quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

If you liked the Ken Robinson talk, then you may enjoy this recent talk by Malcolm Gladwell on a related issue.

Note: If you have sent me an email recently — thank you! I am sorry if you have not received a reply (yet). I've been under the weather this week and just swamped with work. I'll try not to suck so much at email in future. Also, travel note: I'll be in Silicon Valley for a preso at HP in Palo Alto on Monday and then in Oregon for a bit, followed by a trip to Redmond (guess where?), then some time in Kona and Honolulu in early August. I plan to have some time to move toward in-box zero.  

When bar charts go bad

Environmental Graffiti posted a bar chart suitable for entry into the Bar Chart Hall of Shame.* I made a list of at least ten ways to improve the chart, but it's more fun to read your comments below. Questions for you: (1) How many ways could you improve this chart? And (2) how many ways can you misinterpret the chart's meaning at first glance? Please share your comments about the quality of the chart in terms of signal vs. noise, contrast/affinity, color, area distortion, labeling, etc. (Although, since the comparison is just on price, perhaps a simple table would lead to more clarity (and less snickering).

Click for larger size. (Image (c) of Environmental Graffiti)

And speaking of chart junk, Seth Godin had some interesting things to say about charts here and here. And the very cool blog Junk Charts had a response to some of Seth's ideas.

*I'm assuming this was intentional; EG is an interesting site.

The need for sleep

Sleep_alarm The BBC reported today that, according to a study presented by The University of Geneva at a Federation of European Neuroscience Societies conference, getting proper sleep will boost your memory. The findings in this small study seem to support claims made by Dr. John Medina in Brain Rules that getting a good quantity and quality of sleep is important for good brain health (brain rule # 7: Sleep well, think well). Medina points out that sleep is not really for resting the brain in the typical sense of the word since the brain actually remains very active at night while we sleep. So why do we sleep then? Medina says that it may be because we need time to process the information acquired during the day. So while you sleep, suggest Medina, your brain is imprinting the memories you took in during that day. Studies show that if you do not get enough sleep (or your sleep is interrupted) "...the information you take in suffers."  In today's article, the BBC quotes Dr Neil Stanley on the findings: "Sleep is not just a waste of time, it is a very active time and we need it for things like memory and learning. During the day we acquire information, but at night we sort that information. People complain about sleep deprivation, but now with the 24/7 society and information overload we need our sleep more than ever." (Below are three versions of a slide I'll be using in future talks with a quote from Dr. Stanley; click for larger size.)


Sleep_quote.002    Sleep_quotes.003

One of the researchers in the University of Geneva study, Dr Sophie Schwartz, was also quoted in the BBC article: "Our results revealed that a period of sleep following a new experience can consolidate and improve subsequent effects of learning from the experience." This is also in line with what Dr. John Medina says in Brain Rules. Moral of the story? If you want to be sharp for that big conference presentation or sales pitch, then get a proper amount and quality of sleep. And be mindful that most of your audience members (or students) have not gotten enough sleep (the BBC article cited a recent survey which showed only one in five sleep for eight hours in the UK), so mix it up during your talk to keep them engaged. And by the way, proper exercise will not only "boost brain power" (Medina's brain rule # 1), in my experience, proper exercise during the day will help you sleep better that night as well.

The 3:00 pm presentation
Sleep_lecture Every semester I have a 2:30 pm - 3:50 pm class to teach. This is a time of day that John Medina calls "the nap zone." If you are a teacher or the lucky person who gets to present at about 3:00 pm you know very well that this is a challenging time to keep audiences (or students) engaged. Not only are many in our audience sleep deprived, but it seems we are wired to need a nap at about that time as well. Dr. Medina says that in the nap zone the brain "...appears to be trying to down cycle..." and this makes focus and concentration more difficult, especially if one is listening passively to a typical bullet point snoozer with the lights dimmed. There are some studies that show a short nap in the afternoon can improve cognitive function. Medina mentions the NASA study here. (Exercise can help: When I worked in Cupertino, I usually went for a daily run (or volleyball match, etc.) at about 3:00 pm, then back at work about 4:30 — but since I was thinking about work ideas while running, what is "work time" anyway?).

Brainrulescover As Dr. Medina points out in Brain Rules, experts still do not understand much about sleep yet. But what they do know seems to indicate that we're not getting enough sleep and that sleep deprivation is not only unhealthy (and sometimes dangerous), it impairs cognition and hurts learning...and it makes for sleepy audiences too. See more on the Brain Rules website. And I highly recommend the book. (And just in case you missed the Slideshare on Brain Rules for presenters...)

Two short stories on sleep deprivation
Below is an interesting little video presentation on Peter Tripp's 201 hour wakeathon, a DJ's publicity stunt and an early experiment on sleep deprivation from 1959 (in two parts). Following that is a fascinating and unsettling story of a man suffering from a rare condition known as Fatal Familial Insomnia. The first word in the name of the medical condition answers the question of what would happen if you lost the ability to fall asleep. 

Peter Tripp story (on sleep deprivation) Pt 1

Peter Tripp story  Pt 2

The secrets of sleep — The man who never slept

Stand and Deliver: The comic & the presenter

Stand_deliverI've said many times before that the art of the live presentation has a lot in common with the art of stand-up comedy. Few things are more difficult than standing with nothing but a mic in hand in front of a crowd who expect you to make them laugh. Good stand-up comics tell good stories, and story, among other things, is about emotion. Presenters do not have to be funny, but they do need to evoke and to engage, something stand-up comedians know very well. The best stand-up comedians are wonderful performers, but my favorites are the ones who make it feel natural and conversational, as if they are doing the routine (or having "this conversation") for the first time. That is, they perform as if they were not performing. Good musicians do this too. Although they played the song a thousand times before, when they played it for you it felt fresh and new. Maybe you have experienced this recently?

George Carlin on "stuff"
Below George Carlin warns of the danger of attachment to things like...stuff.

Adam Hills
I discovered Adam Hills while watching one of the early morning talk shows in Sydney last week. Seemed like a very likable guy. Liked his material on YouTube (and I even understood his jokes about Australia). Here's a short clip below.

Lewis Black
Here's a short clip of Lewis. (Warning: Lewis Black uses adult language and has a point of view — you have been warned).

Ichi-go ichi-e: this is the moment

TeaYou may think that the traditional art of Sadou (茶道) is a strange place to glean lessons that can be applied to various aspects of our daily lives, but the simple practical lessons from the Zen arts run deep and wide. Ichi-go ichi-e (一期一会) is a concept connected to the way of tea; it expresses the ideal of the way of tea. Roughly translated the phrase means "one time, one meeting" or "one encounter; one opportunity." In the way of tea we should respect the host and the others in the garden and the tea room and honor the moment as if it were a once-in-a-lifetime gathering. That is, we should cherish every meeting for it will never happen again. Ichi-go ichi-e is a reminder that each tea ceremony is unique even though the elements are familiar.


Application for presentation
Each occasion to present or speak publicly is also a unique event although your material may be so familiar that it feels routine. Being completely present in a presentation — right here right now — is something I always touch upon when discussing the delivery of a talk. The moment will never happen again, even if you do the same talk 100 times or more, the audience is different in each case. The audience is different, the time is different, and since your last talk, you are different.

Forever but never again
This idea of ichi-go ichi-e reminded me of a line from a famous jazz ballad from 1949 called "Again" (Mark Murphy's Stolen Moments version is my favorite; listen to the song). There is nothing Zen about the lyrics or their origins, of course, but there is one line from the song that has stayed with me since I bought the Mark Murphy album when I was 16: "We'll have this moment forever, but never again." I didn't understand that line when I was in high school, but it stuck with me. Now those simple eight words are almost a kind of mantra for me; and the meaning is clear and illuminating.

(By the way, the subtitle for the movie "Forrest Gump" in Japanese is ichi-go ichi-e. I suppose this is because the Forrest Gump character appreciated every moment and every chance encounter without a thought of being anywhere except where he was at that moment. See the movie poster in Japanese.)

Update: went to a tea house today and did indeed enjoy a great time with a couple of very nice tea masters who taught us more lessons on the way of tea; very casual and friendly. A few snaps from today.

Benjamin Zander: Who are we being?

Australia-sydney-opera-house While in Sydney last week, we were honored to be invited by one of the Sydney Opera House staff for a private behind-the-scenes tour of the Sydney Opera House including climbing stairs and ladders high above the theatre and having dinner in the green room, etc. before being wowed by the opening performance of Don Giovanni. Though I'm pretty green when it comes to the opera, I was blown away by the talent of the performers on stage. No microphones are used by the performers on stage, of course, and yet their voices — accompanied by the live orchestra — filled the large theatre with a big, natural sound. Amazing projection and stage presence, a kind of presence that never seemed forced, yet it maintained its power. The night at the Sydney Opera reminded me how important the art of performance is. We often talk about presentations being conversations, which is what I believe they are. But they almost always have an element of performance to them as well. The next day our friend at the Sydney Opera House (see photos on their site) reminded me of this talk below by the presentation maestro and Boston Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander (I've talked about Benjamin and Rosamund Zander before; they're in the Presentation Zen book as well). Whether you like classical music or not, you will enjoy this TED talk by Benjamin Zander.*

Awakening the possibilities in yourself and others
Zander starts off by brilliantly and simply illustrating, in his own unique way, the power of getting yourself and others to "do it on one buttock." If you watched the presentation you get the point, but ask yourself this: How can you turn your presentations into one-buttock presentations? How can you turn your organization (company,school, church, etc.) into a one-buttock organization? Doing it "on one buttock" is not only for musicians, it's for athletes, teachers, artists, business people, and on and on. Leaders of all types must understand the need for doing it on one buttock.

What is your role?
Benjamin Zander is a master at awakening the possibilities in others (the name of his book is The Art of  Possibility which he wrote with his partner Rosamund, the philosopher behind the core ideas). So, what's the role of a good leader then? Is it not to awaken the possibility of an organization (or a nation)? What is the role of a good teacher? Is it not to inspire and awaken the potential of each student? Is not the role of a good parent, among other things, to awaken the possibilities within each of their children?

How do you know if your connecting?
How do you know if you are "awaking the possibility" in each student, or each audience member, Zander asks. The answer?  "Look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you're doing it." Zander goes on to say "...if the eyes are not shining you have to ask yourself a question: who am I being that my player's eyes are not shining?" This goes for our children, students, audience members, and so on. For me that's the greatest takeaway question: who am I being when I am not seeing a connection in the eyes of others? Zander's lessons go far beyond the world of music and the art of presentation, and although the ideas may seem simple, they are not easy. Some of the best ideas out there are the simple-but-not-easy ones. These are the kind of ideas that change things.

* The best part was what happened *after* the first 20 minutes — perhaps TED will put that up someday as well. In the mean time, checkout this 4-min video by Tom Guarriello, Ph.D from True Talk giving his impression of Zander's presentation (or watch the end of Zander's Davos 2008 talk). The final 15 minutes of Zander's presentation featured the audience singing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" in phonetic German, and thanks to Zander's magic, kicking-ass while doing it. Zander also introduced the idea of BTFI (Beyond The Fuck It), an idea from The Art of Possibility. This is a simple idea: What would happen if you stopped worrying, stopped holding back, and stopped avoiding the possibility of mistakes and just said "Fuck it!" and then just did it.No thought of technique or of victory or defeat...just the moment.

Benjamin Zander presentation at Davos 2008.

By Design on ABC Radio

Listen to By Design podcast The day after the sold-out presentation hosted by Step Two Design in Sydney, I appeared live on the radio program By Design (ABC Radio National), a popular program hosted by Alan Saunders and produced by Janne Ryan Mark Wakely (see their bios here). There are four topics covered in this hour-long broadcast. Preceding my segment at the end of the show is an interesting piece on the "cute aesthetic" in Japan; that prerecorded bit was a nice transition into the live interview we did in the ABC studios just a 15 walk up the street from our hotel.  I thought Alan Saunders was an excellent interviewer and he's certainly blessed with an excellent voice. The show was live at 9am on Saturday and will be played again this Wednesday at 3pm, or just listen to the show here online or download the audio here.

Abc_radio Pausing for a photo with host Alan Saunders after the By Design show wrapped up. 

Domo Arigatou!
Just a note to say thanks very much to all the people who attended the seminars in Wellington and to all the folks who came to the 2-hour presentation in Sydney last Friday. I think I'll spend the rest of my life now looking for reasons to return Down Under as much as I can. I was blown away by both New Zealand and Australia even though my stay was brief (and in the middle of winter at that). The beauty of the land and the warmness of the people made a huge impression. Can't wait to return. Thanks again everyone.