How Do They Do It? Secrets of Great Storytelling

Twenty-five years after publicly announcing it, at a party in Cupertino, I’ve finally begun to work on my first mystery novel. The visit to Hampi, which ironically I did many years after I had visited Pompeii, was the catalyst to set my murder mystery in early 16th century Vijayanagara. If you think making daily sales calls is hard writing every day is harder still. And I’m not even talking about writing well, just putting words on paper.

As entrepreneurs, we have to be storytellers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about making stuff up. Each day, whether we are trying to hire a new person, motivate an employee who can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, persuade an investor to make a bridge investment or trying to get a customer to buy or better yet pay us an advance, we are trying to persuade others. Make no mistake, persuasion is selling. In a manner of speaking, we are all sales folks. The sooner we accept it, the sooner we can get better at it.

It’s no accident that the best sales folks are good great storytellers. Here’s the good news, like most things storytelling is a learned skill. With a little attention to how others do it and a good deal of practice, we can all get better at it. November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) – and there’s no reason you can’t make a resolution or start a new habit on the 1st of November. Make improving your storytelling skills a goal. Notice I say improving, for we are all natural storytellers. Any time you’ve tried to lie to your mom, or a friend or fudged the facts with your spouse (none of which you’ve ever done of course!), you were telling a story—not necessarily well. Let’s get started. One of the simplest and most fun ways to do this is to join a ToastMaster’s club near you. Your storytelling will get better (mine certainly did) but at the very least you’ll make some new friends. It never hurts to have a life (and a few friends) outside of our businesses.

To make things easy for you, I’m sharing one video (below) and one article.- Get rolling.

Storytelling in a corporate setting – 11 examples

 

2 Tools That Will Improve your Effectiveness as a Marketer

Every year I try to learn something new – be it a skill, a tool or just some facts. 2018 has been a time of great learning, thanks to my daughter, I wanted to share two tools that I’ve learned about from her and since put to good use for myself and customers.

  • Canva, as my primary online visual design tool – from making Twitter or web post headers, webinar announcements to trifold brochures and even eBook cover design, this has been an amazing tool where every day I’m discovering more. Here are some examples

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  • Tableau as my data visualization tool has similarly been a much used for not just number crunching, but being able to create excellent visualizations as well as insights that aren’t always self-evident from staring at the data in Excel.
    Here are two examples

Visualization of Girls Toilets Availability


The kicker is, both of them are available online, easy-to-use and you can get started for free. They also have great online communities that can help you get up the learning curve fast. So give them a spin today and share your own favorite tools in the comments.

Crafting that Compelling Story – A 3-Point Cheat Sheet

Regardless of our job role, one skill every one of us needs is storytelling. The truth is we are all born with it, but let’s just say some of us are a little rougher around the edges. Having spent most of my time around tech folks, I suspect we probably beat this skill out of them which is why so many presentations we sit through or documents we read, make us at the very least drowsy — some even maybe put us in a coma. These same people, when you observe them talking to friends or colleagues can be great raconteurs. Some of this comes from just not having performance anxiety that presentations induce in all of us. So without having a few libations how do we spin a good yarn? And particularly in a business context how do ensure that we’ve provided our listeners or readers something of value – that elusive takeaway?

Here’s what I’ve learned.

A. Begin with the end in mind I’ll use the example of a seminar or webinar that you intend to host. Write down the one takeaway that your listener or audience walks away with – it could range from broad statements or highly specific

  • Entrepreneurship is hard – so you’d better be certain, what it is your passion? And why you are doing this?
  • Good leaders recognize strategy is as much about deciding what NOT to do, as it is about what it is you’ll do
  • Writing 1000 words every day is the key to finishing your book – then all you have to do is edit it
  • Measuring ROI on your GIS project can seem hard but it’s not rocket science – here’s how our customers are doing it

B. Use the power of three  While scientists and psychologists thought that the human brain can hold only 5-7 things at a time, newer research suggests that number might actually be (gasp) 4! So why risk it? I find if you break down things into three chunks, they are a lot easier to hold at least in my easily distracted mind. Now break it down into three chunks. Sticking with the entrepreneurship or leadership theme,

  • Context: Set the stage – often best set as a story – that usually illustrates or reinforces a widely held belief. How Steve Jobs had a mythical touch when building products or how Unilever or P&G were masters of strategy leading to their success; Or why government projects are always a boondoggle, like the Big Dig in Boston
  • Counterpoint – core premise: Is that really the case? Here are eight products that Steve Jobs launched with much fanfare and failed miserably at; here are the huge missteps P&G made and here’s what we’ve learned from NASA’s space mission, which has had minuscule failure rates – so here’s the takeaway – entrepreneurship is hard, there will be naysayers, you’ll fail before you succeed, so you’d better know what your passion is about, if you wanna be able to stick with it
  • Break it down: Offer an actionable set of things that they can do – how can they realize this core premise you’ve made? Maybe it’s a checklist – that helps them understand themselves better? It’s reading of case studies – of how other entrepreneurs succeeded (or better yet failed and recovered), followed by a checklist.

This can work, whether the topic’s losing weight, giving a speech, or how to measure the return-on-investment on a project.

C. Challenge your audience This is what we marketers term the Call to action!  This could be as simple as inviting questions that allows them to challenge your assertions or having them take the first step (“What will you do differently tomorrow morning, because of what you learned here”) The key here is that this doesn’t remain your story but one that compels them to action – ideally an action that benefits them. Of course, if it benefits you whether purely psychically (I did some good!) or professionally (lands you a consulting gig or job) that’s icing on the cake. As my father tried to teach me, “Give first before you ask.”

Here’s a great presentation on how one technical guy (Claudio Perrone aka AgileSensei) went from being just a dude to a compelling storyteller to even cynical technical folks).

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Yet Another Tip To Make Decisions Faster

In an earlier post, I’d shared the insight that separating WHAT it is you want to do (your decision) from WHEN you’d implement it can make the entire decision-making process easier. The human mind, certainly mine, fickle as it is, finds numerous ways to avoid making decisions. Take the case of wanting to quit your job, which seems a perennial favorite with young aspiring entrepreneurs.

WHAT: I’d like to quit my job – I’m sick and tired of it and want to do a startup.

BUT, how will I let my family/wife/significant other, know? The thought of having to convince stakeholders, especially if they are family – who we fear will not be receptive or supportive – puts the kibosh on even making the decision.

So step back and recognize the WHAT of a decision is the most important – and neither the WHEN will I implement the decision nor HOW will I implement the decision should come into play, while trying to make a decision. Of course, they are relevant such as

WHAT: I want to fire that guy who’s being a jerk to everyone else

HOW: Talk to him, if necessary with HR present. Ask him questions on how he perceives his own behavior. Provide him feedback on what you’ve observed. Put him on a 90-day improvement plan.

WHEN: By June 30th of this year

As you can see the HOW may require a fair amount of work – may involve others and will definitely influence the WHEN. None of this should put off making your decision – WHAT it is you want to do.

 

Decisions – A Secret to Make Them Easier

“Do you think I should just quit?”

This is a question that comes up with surprising frequency. It’s not just prospective entrepreneurs who ask such questions.

“Should I fire him?” is another one I get asked frequently. This is often with a high-performing but a hard-to-get-along employee.

As leaders, managers, and individuals we are constantly having to make decisions. Decisions, that all too often don’t seem easy to make. They may have too high a cost – one that makes it daunting, even if it’s a simple Yes or No decision. Some would argue there are no simple decisions, especially when it comes to matters of people or organizations. And when a decision is hard to make, we invariably postpone it.

Rarely does such procrastination make things easier.

One simple secret to make such decision-making easier, is to separate the what from the when.

Most people, conflate what they intend to do (“the decision”) with when they will implement the decision.   In other words, if you decide to quit your job, when do you have to give notice? The thought of giving notice, is itself daunting and keeps you from making a decision about your job. The moment you recognize that these are two distinct things – “Should you quit?” and “When should you quit?” – you will find it easier to make the decision about your job.  This works from the simplest “Do we go on a vacation?” to “Do we fire this customer.”

Try it today and let me know how it works for you.

4 Steps to Better Care of Your Entrepreneurial Heart

Heart

Photo frankvanroon

The Ohio State University sends out a daily news update to its students and faculty. For Valentine’s day, one of the articles they shared in the daily mail was on how to take better care of your heart – or as they put it “4 simple steps to a healthy heart

 It struck me how appropriate this advice – useful for any person, is particularly relevant to entrepreneurs – who all too often – skip meals, and even if they don’t skip meals end up snacking unhealthily, run around in a high state of stress and all too often are desk-bound and sedentary. If that’s you (it certainly was me), that’s not a really good way to take care of your heart and health.
The four simple ways to take better care of your heart they recommend are:

eating healthy in my case this began by becoming conscious of what it is I put in my mouth – my meetings seemed to be accompanied with drinking endless cups of tea or coffee (with large doses of sugar in them) and snacking on cookies (or biscuits). Simply replacing such snacking with a water or green tea made a huge difference. I’ve written elsewhere how eating healthy also helped me drop 15 kgs (33 lbs) elsewhere.

being active I’ve begun using a simple 15-45 minute (Pomodoro) timer on my laptop and mobile phone so that I don’t spend 3 or 4 hours sitting on a chair. Additionally, I try to put in between 2-4 miles of walking a day – usually sneaking away at lunch time. Try holding at least some of your 2-person meetings as a walking meeting, in a nearby park – you get some exercise and mind find your meetings go way better.

managing stress many of us when younger were like “What me stress?”  But whether we feel stressed or not, the every day pulls and pressures of our jobs and lives do cause us stress. Conscious deep breathing, when you take that 5-minute break, walking around, mindfulness exercises or good old exercise are all good ways to manage stress. Of course, one key indicator for me personally is when my snacking desire increases, it’s usually a good indicator of being stressed.

avoiding tobacco here’s the good news – eating well, exercising and managing stress are all good ways to overcome habits, that you’d like to lose. Not having been a smoker, I’m hardly an expert in this area. But do what you can to avoid tobacco or seek help to quit smoking.

You can read the original article here.

3 Reasons Why Rejection Can Be Good For You

In 1988 just as I was about to finish up my Ph.D. and finally graduate, a good friend Murali arranged for me to interview with his group at Intel. My father, who was visiting, insisted on driving down with me to Santa Clara, as he was bored out of his mind hanging around my apartment. I dropped my dad at the Marriott, I think, around the corner and went on to my interview with Intel.

It did not go well.

I recall Murali’s boss asking me about how a PN junction works and being greatly offended mostly because I flubbed the answer. I don’t recall how the rest of the meeting went, safe to say not too well. In an ego-protecting move, my brain seems to have blanked it out completely. Needless to say, I never heard back from them.

It stops you from being complacent I realized that I’d just not prepared for my interview. I’m not sure what I’d thought – that I was a Berkeley grad or that I could answer anything on the fly. The interview that day made me face, how clueless and complacent I was.

It makes you better prepared It was not easy to admit to myself, the assumptions I’d made had made me complacent in the first place. Challenging the assumptions was a start but not sufficient. I realized being better prepared was the answer. Of course it took me more than one screw up, to learn this lesson and even today I find I could always be better prepared.

It leaves you open for better opportunities Little did I realize that flubbing the Intel interview was not a bad thing, for that’s how I ended up at National Semiconductor. Intel’s enormous success stemmed from their relentless and singular focus on what needed to be accomplished – this translated to new graduates often having to work on a reasonably narrow scope of things, for a good deal of time. That is not a bad thing! In fact, it’s a good thing to focus and go deep but just wasn’t my thing. Guess my inability to do one thing at a time is not a recent phenomenon.

At National, they just threw you at a problem, often a big one, and let you go at it – not pretty or efficient, but enormously educational. And if you were interested in something and prepared to put in the hours they were happy to hand it to you. Of course, this may explain their meanderings and lack of profitability the first five years I was there, but talk about learning on the job. Over the last 20 years, many of my successes and particularly my problem-solving expertise was built in those early years at National. They also spent a great deal on educating me on things that I felt then, as unrelated to my job role. This is something that I’m immensely grateful for, particularly to my managers and colleagues who guided me with great patience and fortitude.

Of course, if I’d paid attention in school and actually learned how a darn P-N junction worked, I might have learned just as much or even more at Intel, but I suspect given my own personality I wouldn’t have. So despite the disappointment, I felt that day driving back – with my father trying to assure me that he was sure I’d done well in the interview – it all turned out well.

And I’ve learned since then rejection need not be bad always.

As I’ve heard my wife say often to our daughters, when one door closes, God opens another. This has been my experience and I’m grateful for it.

7 Steps to Being a Better Conversationalist

storytelling“I’m terrible at making small talk! I have no problem talking to people one-on-one but put me in a roomful of people, I just freeze and don’t know what to say!” A fellow member of our ToastMaster club shared this tale of how his father was great at making small talk but the skill seemed to have somehow eluded him. He finally decided that not only would he learn how to be a better conversationalist, one capable of making small talk but would actually deliver a speech to our club. And so he did. As the assigned evaluator that evening, I took rapid notes as he spoke and as I glanced through the notes later that evening I realized these were indeed very good advice for all of us – whether we were looking to be better conversationalists or just better listeners. So here are his insights

Observe Look at the most effective person in a room – the one who’s surrounded by others and is most engaging. Walk up to them and observe, how they initiative conversation, and how they sustain it. What works for them may not work for you – and even if it did, adapt it to your style.

Be a good listener This seems counterintuitive, at least initially. To be a good conversationalist you need to be a good – active – listener. One way to do that is to ask questions – questions that acknowledge what they said, or clarify – open-ended questions so that they can drive the conversation. Observe how they respond. Rinse and repeat.

Reverse Questions Often people may start conversations by asking you questions. All of us have met folks who’ve walked up to us and asked questions such as “What is it you do?” or “How do you know the Samuels?” One technique my friend shared was to respond in kind – “That’s an interesting question. I was, in fact, going to ask you the same. What is it that you do?” Of course done right, this will not seem so much a deflection, but an expression of interest.

Body Language Conversation isn’t just verbal. When I first came to the US as a grad student, I was lucky enough to have a good friend Marcel (from the Netherlands) who pointed out to me that I tended to not only invade folks private space, but also reach out and touch them, literally. “Not a good idea,” as he put it. Observe people’s body language – of both speakers and listeners, when it’s done right and others respond positively and when it isn’t.

Listening while speaking Even when you are the designated speaker, when the floor has been ceded to you, confine your speaking to a finite amount (my friend recommended 30% – not sure there’s a magic number) and get your audience to engage by getting them to speak, whether through questions, responses or other forms of participation. In other words, even when you are “speaking” you are getting others to speak and you get to listen.

Prepare Nothing makes you a good conversationalist (or even a listener) as being prepared. Preparation here is not so much a speech you give – as much as having trivia or fun facts handy – be it about the weather (always safe), a sports team, food, pets or current events. I’d hazard into politics or the election only if you know the folks and even then if you want to be invited back I’d stick with safer topics.

Be Authentic Nothing kills a conversation faster than being a phony. Evince keen interest in what the other person is saying – this is part of being a good listener but stay authentic. If you are being bored, don’t try to hang in there bravely – your body will announce your disinterest louder than your words. Even if you disagree, you don’t have to argue nor do you have to silently agree. In short be authentic.

Now get out there and work the room!

 

250 stress-filled days with near-perfect health

Almost three years ago, I shared how I’d lost nearly 35lbs (16kgs) over the previous six months. Whilst that particular piece of good news on the health front, was a result of a diabetes scare, little did I realize what lay ahead. Six months later, I took a sabbatical, started a gaming studio and moved, rather unplanned, half-way across the world. It was the last part that was stressful – of course doing a gaming startup was no walk in the park either.

My normal coping mechanism for handling stress is snacking – maybe even binge-snacking at times. So having worked so hard to lose all that weight, I wasn’t going to let two adolescents, a major move that might put the kibosh on my startup and all the uncertainty that came with it, undo it all.  While losing the weight proved I had some measure of discipline and self-control, this did not extend very far.

So when I got on a plane in Bangalore 250 days ago, I wasn’t exactly confident how I’d do. Today I’m happy to report, for the first time in my adult life, I’ve gone through 250 days – the better part of a year – without as much as a sniffle or a sneeze (both common in Bangalore’s allergy-prone environs) nor an upset stomach, cold, cough or the flu. And at a particularly stress-filled time of my life with a great deal of uncertainty and free time to ponder on it. Here’s how I did it.

Daily walks – for 40 minutes – is what I started with, so as to not lose the health gains I’d made. Most days – the wife and I managed to sneak in an additional 30 minutes in the evenings. When I walked by myself I did a sub-15 minute mile, however, the wife and I together did a far more leisurely 18-20 minute mile.

I was lucky enough to read my former colleague and friend Troy Erstling‘s humbly-titled post My Epic Daily Routine – which acted as a great inspiration – I adopted several elements and adapted others to fit my own idiosyncracies. So here’s my own daily routine that’s led to my 250-day streak.

The Short Version

  • regular water drinking, starting first thing in the morning
  • daily exercise (walking) and sun salutations
  • eating whole foods, cut and prepared lovingly each day
  • portion control, and 5-6 small meals with mostly vegetables and fruits

The Gory Details

Two or more glasses of water – soon as I wake up. I go to bed with my 700-ml water bottle next to me and take a swig the moment I wake up. Have also taken to lugging around the water bottle all day and consume 1.5L of water on a typical day.

Morning ablutions – use the bathroom usually right after I get out of bed – occasionally in this season of Trump, have fallen into the bad habit of reading election news on my phone while in the bathroom. This is a new source of stress, so trying to lose it.

Mindfulness practice aka vegetable-cutting  Starting with slicing (yep, slicing) ginger for our morning tea, I spend between 10-20 minute cutting (slicing, dicing, at times pounding) vegetables and fruits for both our morning smoothie and later meals – this is the best stress-buster, a truly meditative and mindfulness exercise I’ve found. Shades of OCD in how small (and near-perfect cubes or parallelepiped shapes that I cut and the color combinations I strive for. But both my wife and I are happy that I do it.

sunsalutationfinal

Pic Credit: Hope’s Yoga

Sun Salutations Troy’s link  to this chart, helped me get off my duff to do daily sun salutations, which makes sure that I stretch myself and get a bit limber. The first one is always a little stiff, but after four or five months getting a whole lot better. Anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

Morning tea – I’ve always nursed my tea (with crushed cardamom and sliced ginger). Use this time to plan my day – at least the burning things that I can no longer avoid.

Morning walk – Barring a few days in a month, every day we’ve walked in the woods for not less than 30 minutes but most days 40 mins and cover between 2-2.5 miles in that time. Most importantly for the first time in the 25 years of being married, my wife and I walk together – so it’s done wonders for our communication, creativity, and our waistlines.

Eating Right As adherents of Dr. Ronesh Sinha and Rujuta Diwekar dietary principles, we’ve been enormously disciplined in terms of what we eat, which I believe is the primary cause of our present good health. We’ve gone to a very low-grain diet, with quinoa being our primary grain – with vegetables being the largest share of our diet, be it in smoothies (veggies + fruits), soups, chutneys, or sauteed dishes. We’ve been consciously consuming more nuts, fruits (low-glycemic) and snacking healthy with practically no commercially prepared foods. We do consume milk, yoghurt and soy-milk mostly with our tea and smoothies. A lot of grandma’s recipes have been resuscitated with coconut and ghee having returned to our diet, in finite quantities. Our diet (and recipes) deserve their own posts. The only other thing to note here is that we’ve stuck with 5-to-6 small meals in a day – breakfast, morning snack, lunch, evening snack and dinner (usually before 7pm).

Sleeping (early) For most of my adult life I was up till midnight before I got to bed. Been consciously working that towards 10pm – not there yet. But trying to put an end to electronic stuff by 930-10pm and read – usually a book before knocking off by 11pm. Again Mr. Trump really tested this routine, as I began watching the TV news – if we can call it that – somewhat obsessively around the debates or when I wanted to avoid doing taxes. Anyway, this is an ongoing effort, but am sleeping early and surprise, surprise, getting up earlier, despite Fall being here and the days getting colder.

What’s ahead (or things that have not worked)

  • meditation (10-30 minutes)
  • regular writing (3/days a week) – work on my book
  • pull ups (haven’t been able to do 1 yet, though gotten pushups to 30-40)
  • strength training to build some muscle

3 Steps to Becoming a Better Communicator

“What is this person trying to tell me?”

Haven’t you found yourself wondering this in more than one situation?  In my experience, the single most critical skill that leaders in general and startup founders in particular need is that of being a good communicator. While most of us find it easy to talk  and some of us may actually listen, it doesn’t make us a good communicator.

How many of the meetings you attend seem not only interminable but often indecipherable? If this were a problem with just meetings, you could excuse yourself and read the meeting minutes. But alas meeting minutes, like many emails or other forms of written communication seem to only add to the confusion.

“What is this person trying to tell me?”

All of us are just as guilty as we dash off memos, texts, and presentations, sowing confusion at best and mayhem at worst. Here are three steps to help us communicate better. Try them and let me know how they work for you.

Single central message Whether a 3-line email or a 6-page white paper, your communication should have a SINGLE central message – what our English composition teachers tried to tell us – the theme sentence! This answers the question “What is this person trying to tell me?” So whether it’s the personal — “You need to spend less money on eating out” (that’s to my daughter), “We need to re-do the In-app Purchase (IAP) in this game (the professional)” or “We need to ensure ________ is not elected this year” (the national) or “We need a new nuclear disarmament treaty (the global) we need to communicate a single central message and no more in each of our communications.

Short as possible but long as needed This is one I’m yet to master and often undermines my own communication effectiveness. Even when I have a single central message if I wrap it with too many words, my message is lost. This could be emotional content (especially with my daughters), or excess justification (social or business context) or plain verbosity. Yet, in a corporate context, major changes require context setting, such as environmental factors at play, why this course of action and options considered – alternates considered and discarded and potential outcomes of actions taken or not. So the 3-sentence email one of my friends insists on writing may not always do the job, but ask yourself, does your presentation require 48 pages or can you say it any shorter?

Choose your medium carefully Sure writing email is easy – heck texting someone is even easier. But just as most folks agree, breaking up with your girlfriend (or significant other) over text is not cool, there is such a thing as an appropriate medium for any given communication. I’d say easier a missive is to send, the more likely it’s to sow confusion. Sure there are exceptions, but in general, it’s a good idea, to take a moment, before you send that text or email, to ask yourself, is this the best medium to communicate this message. I find often after having written a draft email, that picking up the phone or walking down the corridor to talk to the person a much more effective way to communicate. Similarly, even when presenting to a group of folks, few words on a slide or a graph to accompany your verbal communication or a handout might be more effective.

In summary, these 3 steps will help us take the first steps to being better communicators

  • What is my single central message?
  • Am I saying it as concisely as possible with adequate context?
  • What is the best medium to communicate this in?

An earlier draft of this article appeared in LinkedIn