Centered on Communication

Watching and reading about the current negotiations on the fiscal cliff is reinforcing my belief that everything in life, including politics, centers on communication.

The Washington Post ran an article this week, “Moral values and the fiscal cliff” in which the authors delineated how “Sharing moral commitments helps teams to function cohesively, but it also blinds them to reality.”  When each team gets focused on what is sacred, there is less chance for compromise.  They authors, Haidt and Movius, recommend the Democrats and Republicans negotiate and describe their progress, in which both sides can tout some moral victories, and then jointly call for shared sacrifice. My favorite quote from the article is, “President Obama and Speaker Boehner should develop shared language to convey to the American people the severity of our problems and the need for all Americans to make some sacrifice.”  Shared language.  That is at the core.  Communication.

Those of us watching our political leaders know that we need to make sacrifices.  We would like to see our leaders act like mature adults and communicate effectively, almost as much as we want to avoid this fiscal cliff.

Obama acknowledged this in his November 28th press address, “Lyn Lyon, who’s here, from Newport News — where’s Lyn?  There she is.  She just wants to see some cooperation in Washington.  She wrote, “Let’s show the rest of the world that we’re adults and, living in a democracy, we can solve our problems by working together.””

NewsNation’s Tamron Hall discussed President Obama’s ‘outside-in’ strategy on fiscal cliff negotiations where he is speaking directly to the American people and asking them to make their opinions known directly to the Republicans. “I am asking congress to listen to the people who sent us here to serve,” said Obama.  What is at the core of this strategy?  Communication.

Communication scholars Roger Fisher and William Ury define a method of Principled Negotiation with four principles: 1) separate the people from the problem 2) focus on interests, not positions 3) invent options for mutual gain 4) insist on using objective criteria.  Four steps for effective communication.  To achieve these steps both the Democrats and the Republicans need to switch focus from party politics to economic reality.

ABC News, “Major Setbacks in Fiscal Cliff Negotiations” indicates that has yet to happen.  An agreement is not close to being reached and the article details how each side is blaming the other.

We have another month before we reach the cliff and I am sure we will be reading and watching much more on this subject.  One thing we can be sure of, it will all center on communication.

Interactive Presentations: creation to social networking

PowerPoint alone doesn’t cut it anymore.  We are too social and interconnected now.  Sure, we still see projected presentations at conferences and in lecture halls, but audiences are demanding more interactivity, and Twitter feeds aren’t cutting it.

Webinar tools were a start to interactive presentations.  WebEx, GoToMeeting, and such, allow people to see presentations anywhere and to interact in basic ways such as asking questions and taking polls.  But, they cater to businesses and require people to be at their computers.

Consumer tools, like SlideShare, have made inroads by allowing more people to share presentations in many different settings including mobile devices, but the interactivity is missing.  I personally use SlideShark because it allows projection from the iPad, but, again, there is no interactivity.

I just read an article in VentureBeat about a new company launched at DEMO Fall 2012 called Prezentarium.  Prezentarium claims to be a social presentation and online education tool.  The product is not yet available to the general public, but the website indicates it allows presenters to share with the audience on any device and to socially interact with the audience.  It allows the audience to socially interact with the speaker (comment, ask questions) and share the presentation content with their own social networks.

This recent news brings to the forefront of my mind how much presentation technology has changed.  Poking around the web, I found this old article from Mashable “ONLINE PRESENTATIONS: 30+ Presentation & Slideshow Services.”  I honestly wasn’t aware there were so many options back in 2007.  Many of the companies have died or been acquired, but some are still going strong.

The options today seem to each have a benefit, but none have all that is needed.

Teaching at San Francisco State University, the most popular tool among my students is Prezi. “Mastering Prezi for Business Presentations” by Russell Anderson-Williams, was just published and, of course, there is a PreziBook for you to view. Prezi has the benefit of allowing co-creation and the unique zoom picture that has the potential of changing the linear structure of presentations.  Though, honestly most Prezi presentations I have seen are still a string of data hung together, just like PowerPoint.

Also focused on the creation side is SlideRocket.  SlideRocket has the benefit of co-creation and storage of pieces of presentations that can be used by many within an organization.  Some clients of mine have found that feature very helpful, especially for outward facing marketing and sales teams who need to adjust a presentation often to fit different audiences.

Is the newcomer Prezentarium the answer?

Prezentarium compares itself to SlideShare, Prezi, and IdeaFlight in its presentation at DEMO, highlighting the addition of audience interaction and viral distribution.


I can imagine the benefit of socially interacting with the audience within the same tool as the presentation.  It would be much more streamlined than PowerPoint with a Twitter feed.  I can also imagine the benefit of taping into existing social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, to distribute content – instead of through a presentation-only network.  What it lacks is tools to collaboratively create and manage the presentation.  So, Prezentarium still falls short of having it all.

We don’t yet have our answer.  But, we probably won’t have to wait long.  One of the larger companies could acquire a couple of these smaller players and we could have a solution that allows you to co-create, manage, project, interact, and socially distribute presentations.

Then, in this age of sharing, we could use one tool to share in creation, share in viewing, share in feedback, and share through social networks.

Share Mindfully

Building rapport is important for communication.  Starting a conversation with small talk surfaces commonalities that exist.   Finding commonalities gives people a better ground upon which to communicate.  But, as of late the trend has gone to the extreme.  There is an epidemic of oversharing.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek article “Enough with the Enemas: Why People Overshare at Work” lists many examples, from enemas, to third nipples, to men’s sizes.  Two reasons for oversharing are suggested.  The first is lack of privacy filters, when people share too much with everyone; the second is a false sense of intimacy, when people feel they are closer to co-workers than they actually are.

“Thank You for Sharing. But Why at the Office?” in the New York Times blames the trend on the continuation of online behavior.  People share so much on social sites that they get in the habit of sharing personal information that others may not want to hear.

Since younger generations have grown up sharing on social media, it may be harder to learn the skill of office small talk without TMI (too much information).  In a blog for Community College Transfer Students, career management specialist Carol Sand acknowledges that “Knowing where to draw the line is a learned skill that sometimes has to be learned the hard way.”

The New York Times article gives practical advice worth passing along, suggesting questions you should ask yourself before you share in the workplace.  I am passing along three key questions:

Who’s listening to me (a boss, a client, a colleague or a friend)?

Why am I sharing this?  What is the point?

Does what I am sharing benefit my career or the quality of my relationships?

As soon as you ask these questions, you become aware of your communication intentions and can adjust your behavior.  Being mindful of your communication is the basis for a good interchange.  If you know your audience and your purpose and adjust your message accordingly, you are communicating effectively.

So share, but share mindfully.

Ask (Good) Questions

I hear from many leaders that a key to good leadership is asking questions.  I find this advice worthwhile in and of itself, since many want-to-be-leaders tend to talk more than listen.  I also desire more. I want advice that is more to be actionable.  So I have set about gathering advice on just what questions to ask.

Gary Cohen wrote the book, “Just Ask Leadership” that explains how to execute question-based leadership.  In an Ivey Business Journal article, Cohen gives the rationale for leading by asking questions, “In the 21st century, it’s not possible for leaders to be know-it-alls, nor is it in their or the organization’s best interest to try. Leaders need to ask questions that move others to action and answers. The employees that work for you today either know more than you do about their job or at least they should know more than you. As you move up the ranks of an organization or migrate up the ranks by job transfer, you will end up leading people that do things you cannot possibly understand. Rather than using a conventional way of getting up to speed, say reading extensively, leaders should use questions to increase others’ alignment, engagement, and accountability.”

Cohen outlines four styles for asking questions including the value of the style and when to use it.  He also gives sample questions for each style.  This table gives partial descriptions of styles and sample questions.

Professor Judge Innovator Director
Focus on knowledge, gaining perspective, current time Focus on knowledge, evaluating, current time Focus on action, gaining perspective, in the future Focus on action, evaluating, in the future
What is the goal?

What are your options?

What are the alternative choices?

What is the current reality?

Whose decision is it?

What is the most important consideration?

What are the consequences of the choices?

What would you do if time and funds were limited?

How could I support moving forward?

What is holding you back from the decision?

When is the decision due?

Do you understand the key drivers of the outcome for the situation?

What needs to happen for that to succeed?


My favorites are:  What would you do if time and funds were limited?  How could I support moving forward?

My preference here shows my Silicon Valley bias of innovation leadership.

Six Questions Every Leader Should be Asking from Evan Owens of Centresource, an interactive marketing agency:

Which gauges should we be watching?

Where are we manufacturing energy?

Who needs to be sitting at the table?

Who is not keeping up?

Where do I make the greatest contribution?

What should I stop doing?

My favorite is: Who needs to be sitting at the table?

I have been in meetings where, after an hour of discussion, it becomes apparent that the decision maker or responsible person in not even in the room.  Asking this question up front saves valuable time.

For a long list of leadership questions, see Kimberly Gleason’s recent executive and leadership blog 35 Empowering Questions Leaders Ask.

My favorite is:  What should be the measures of success for this plan/project/idea?

If success is not defined, you don’t know if or when it has been reached. Asking this question as a leader makes success possible for others.

I discovered a presentation from Margie Hagene, posted on University of Michigan Health Systems Leadership Reference wiki, How to Lead by Asking Effective Questions given on June 8, 2012.  Sourcing Edgar Schein, Helping, Margie compares helpful vs. unhelpful questions.  Helpful questions keep the ownership of the problem with the person and don’t give the ownership to the leader.

My favorite is: How would you describe what’s happening vs. what should be happening?

What I like about this question is the comparison. It prompts people to compare the status quo with the ideal and, therefore, highlights the difference.

Speaking of Edgar Schein, watch this Helping video to hear his ideas on why and how leaders need to be changing their competencies and helping others.  He defines help as giving someone the ability to do something they cannot do for themselves.  That means you can’t tell someone how to do something they already know how to do.  Of course, that requires asking the right questions.

Finally, Michael Hyatt’s Intentional Leadership blog “7 Suggestions for Asking More Powerful Questions” gives advice on how to ask good questions.  He suggests the questions need to be open-ended, get behind the assumptions, and get both sides of the story.  He suggests the leader asks follow-up questions, gets comfortable with ‘dead air’, helps people discover their own insights, and understands the difference between facts and speculation.

My favorite is: Get comfortable with ‘dead air’

It is always amazing to me how people feel compelled to fill dead air with talking. There is power in silence.  Silence shows respect for others.  It gives others the chance to think and articulate their answers.

In summary, not only do leaders need to ask questions, they need to ask the right questions for the situation in the right manner.  Not an easy communication task.  Not something you can learn how to do on the Internet.  But, you can gather information as I have done here and then put it to practice in your own leadership situation.  Personally, I will start with the following questions.

Who needs to be sitting at the table?

How would you describe what’s happening vs. what should be happening?

What should be the measures of success for this plan/project/idea?

What would you do if time and funds were limited?

How could I support moving forward?


And of course, I will pause and wait patiently in the ‘dead air’ for answers.



P.S.  Dilbert is always good for a counter example.


Consumer Dialogue

This summer’s special supplement to the Atlantic reads, “The Dialogue Economy, Social Media and the Marketplace” and contains multiple stories on how the power has shifted to the consumer and how companies are learning to engage with customers in dialogue.   The magazine has many examples of how the Internet has changed the relationship between those traditionally with power (corporations, government) and those without.  For example, Molly Katchpole took on Bank of America’s debit card fee and Verizon’s debit card convenience charge using social media, including, and had an incredible amount of influence.

Allstate insurance company has been conducting surveys they call Heartland Monitor designed to keep a pulse on middle-class America.  This special issue included the results of the most recent Heartland Monitor XIII: Networked Nation.  The poll focused on “how technology and social media are transforming the relationship between individuals and institutions” and found significant influence.  According to this poll 64% of Americans are active on social media and those people are more likely to be involved in political and community activity.  Fifty-five percent of polled social media users indicated that online access to information made it easier for them to research and compare candidates, and 54% indicated it has given them more influence with institutions.

The Deloitte 2011 Shift Index, Impact Index included the Consumer Power Metric, measuring the relationship and relative power between consumers and vendors.  Consumer Power is increasing in almost every category of the past few years.


As this shift of power to the consumer happens, institutions are changing their ways.  Listening more.  Using unidirectional communication less.  The Dialogue Economy issue shared how Fortune 500 companies are using social media to engage in dialogue with consumers.  Coca-Cola has the most Facebook friends with 42.1 million likes, followed by Starbucks at 30.2 million and McDonalds at 19.8 million. Google has the most Twitter followers with 4.7 million, followed by Whole Foods at 2.6 million and Starbucks at 2.5 million.  These Fortune 500 companies are using social media channels to say ‘thanks’ and ‘sorry’, in addition to promoting themselves, according to an analysis of 24,000 recent tweets.  So, there is definitely dialogue between consumer and institutions.  But, it is really changing the power equation?

Ralph Nader, king of consumer protests, doesn’t believe the power is actually shifting.  He does agree that it is much easier for consumers to get comparative information and that gives them power with their pocket books to make informed choices about their purchases.  Yet, corporations have all the power in over the government and, therefore, real change cannot happen.  Although consumers get temporarily riled over an issue and create a small change, such as the Bank of America debit fee, Nader doesn’t see consumers sticking with a significant issue long enough to make lasting change.

I see his point.  I agree that much of the dialogue on social media seems trivial.  But, I also believe that many little changes can add up.  Consumers do have a voice in a way not previously possible.  We as consumers need to use this voice in order to effect long-term change.

Fantasies of Always-On Connections

I confess to texting someone in the same room.  It can be more efficient and feel less intrusive than interrupting the activity in the room.  But, according to Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at MIT and author, these bits of technology use to replace conversation are adding up to trouble.  In the New York Time’s SundayReview article, “The Flight From Conversation” Turkle chronicles the move to more technology connections and less conversations in the past 15 years.

My favorite quote from the article is “Always-on/always-on-you devices provide three powerful fantasies: that we will always be heard; that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; and that we never have to be alone.  Indeed our new devices have turned being alone into a problem that can be solved.”

My late mother would tell me that no matter how unhealthy the coping device, e.g. eating a pound of See’s candy, it has some element that seems to work in the short-term or we wouldn’t use it to cope.  Despite the crash and the weight gain, the sugar from See’s definitely makes me feel happier and more energetic for some time.  In the same way, constantly connecting via our technology devices seems to work in the short-term to make us feel less lonely.  But, Turkle points out that just the opposite is true.

It is important to note that she is not anti-technology, but rather pro conversation.  Her 15 years of research has shown that technology plays a role in staying connected, but used exclusively only makes us lonelier.  Conversations, on the other hand, tighten our human bond.  Conversations improve our patience and our ability to take another’s point of view by requiring/allowing us to pay attention to many aspects of another.

Soren Gordhamer, author of Wisdom 2.0, makes the contrast of being constantly connected vs. consciously connected.  He touts that we can actively use technology and keep the human connection, but that requires mindfulness.  We must pay attention and make conscious choices.

Going back to the three fantasies, we can compare the effects of technology connection and human connection.  The first is ‘that we will always be heard’.  If you post to hundreds of Facebook friends, you feel heard in the short term, especially when those friends write a few-word comment or Like your post.  In contrast, if you are in the presence of someone who is truly listening, the feeling is very fulfilling and the effect long lasting.  The risk is that we will be in the presence of someone who doesn’t listen and that rejection is harder to accept than no response to a Facebook post.

I interpret the fantasy ‘that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be’ as always wanting control.  As fear-based beings, there is a tendency to manipulate what is happening to feel more in control.  If we can’t control a long store line, we can feel immediate satisfaction from putting our attention to a game on our always-on-you device.  But that only masks the feelings and it separates us from the shared human experience of those around us in the store.  We can make the conscious choice to connect with others around us in conversation.

The ‘never have to be alone’ fantasy is perpetuated by having lots of digital connections.  But being alone is actually a critical part of being connected.  We know ourselves through solitude and connect better with others when we know ourselves.  And the digital connections are ironically making us alone while we are in the physical presence of others.  Just as I text others in the same room, public spaces are becoming clusters of private bubbles as people connect through their devices instead of through live conversations. Again, we can choose the conversation.

Turkle gives specific suggestions for increasing conversations.  Create zones for conversations without devices, such as the kitchen table and the car.  Encourage conversations at work with ‘conversational Thursdays’ right before casual Fridays. And my favorite, “look up, look at on another, and let’s start the conversation.”


Taking Space

Seems to be a trend that companies are realizing people need space – both mental and physical – in order to put forth the creative work required for the 21st century American innovation economy.  The business section of the New York Times explored this concept in two articles on Sunday.  The first “When Technology Overwhelms, It’s Time to Get Organized” explored the effectives of productivity gains on today’s worker, who is expected to use technology to complete in one day what took three people to do the last century.  The article suggests that the sense of overwhelm felt by most can be combatted by gaining more space in a day through organization skills.  Four steps were recommended:

  1. Capture everything that has your attention in writing
  2. Clarify the importance and action needed of each item (aka prioritize)
  3. Use technology to set up reminders for these required actions
  4. Deploy you attention and resources appropriately (aka focus)

The worst-case scenario, which is all too common, is to let recency guide your attention.  “I have found that most professionals take action based on whatever is the latest and loudest in their universe, as opposed to making a conscious, intelligent choice,” commented David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done” and this article.  Instead, David recommends saying ‘not now’ to that which is not important.  The idea is that if you get organized and prioritize, you will have more space in your day to deal with the important things.

On the Mayo Clinic website, tips for coping with stress at work include identifying triggers, managing your time, and curbing burnout.  The first part, identifying triggers, is similar to David’s recommendation to capture everything that has your attention, only this time you capture everything that is perceived to cause stress.  Then you get organized and prioritize and find solutions to your stress-creating dilemmas. The stress management article goes on to recommend that you protect your time, “For an especially important or difficult project, block time on your schedule when you can work on it without interruptions.”  And, take breaks because “Even 10 minutes of personal time can be refreshing.” In other words, take space.

Taking space can be literal as well.  The second article in the NY Times on Sunday, “In New Office Designs, Room to Roam, and to Think” discussed physical space.  While the trend is open offices and shared space, companies are having offices designed with inspiring spots for employees to spend time alone or in small groups.  Taking physical space seems to help with creativity and achieving what David Allen recommended for combatting overwhelm.

Along side these two articles on taking space were examples of innovative companies, like Google and Dream Works, where employees are pushed to take risks and push boundaries.  And for that, they need space.

The 79th Organ Creating Collective Consciousness

Gopi Kallayil, Product Marketing Manager at Google, called the smart phone the 79th organ of the body.  At the Wisdom 2.0 Conference he depicted the smart phone as humanesque, with ears, eyes, voice, and brain, and claimed it is being used as a tool for collective consciousness.  Gopi gave examples of people all over the world connecting and sharing and ‘leveling the playing field’ through technology.  Lee Rainie, Director Pew Research Center’s American Life Project, said that on our planet of 7 billion people there are 6 billion mobile phones, more than half of them smart phones.  Imagine, Gopi commented, “We are each only 15 digits away from 6 billion people.”

As technology infiltrates our society and culture at a phenomenal pace, our ability to keep the human connection and each stay grounded becomes paramount. Thupten Jinpa, a Buddhist scholar and translator for the Dalai Lama, pointed out that technology development is in the hands of a few, but effects the entire world, making it critical that those few be conscious of their own humanity and the global implications as they create.  Pierre Omidyar, Founder of eBay and a philanthropist, added that now that we have completed the connectivity revolution, technology must help with the next revolution of encouraging humans to be consciously connected.  Dustin Moskovitz, Co-Founder of Facebook and recent start-up Asana, labeled this ‘conscious cocreation’ and believes the world’s problems can be solved as technology brings us all together.  That requires a cultural shift from the focus on me to the focus on we, which arises from the practice of mindfulness.

Throughout the conference I heard example after example of how people are merging the worlds of mindfulness and technology and creating wisdom.

Learning and development leaders from Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Zynga are helping their employees be more productive and happy through a wide variety of courses and programs designed to help people sprint and pause, sprint and pause.  It is the ability to pause that is a new skill for many in the technology industry.  As Padmasree Warrior, CTO of Cisco, stated, it is her daily meditation practice that allows her to be calm and listen well in the job of overseeing 22,000 engineers.  She acknowledges that everyone has a different way to pause to tap his or her creativity.  What is critical is that everyone is actually taping that creative source.  Over and over I heard the acknowledgement that in order to be creative and move at the technology industry pace, the ability to pause and reflect is essential.

The data is there to support that claim.  Daniel Siegel, Mindsight Institute, shared how brain research is showing the effects of a mindful practice.  It is not just that people feel calmer, but the chemicals and the structures of the brain actually shift when people pause on a regular basis.  The hard data may be what sways Google engineers from to take Meng Tan’s “Search Inside Yourself” course at Google University’s School of Personal Growth.  Stuart Crabb, Head of Learning at Facebook, stated that engineers want to understand how the mind works and appreciate the neuroscience and FMRI data that support the concepts of mindfulness.

Congressman Tim Ryan has written, A Mindful Nation that imagines the future of society where mindfulness has infiltrated education, healthcare, and the military.  Speaking at the conference he said, “If we want to fundamentally shift the country, this is the way to do it.”

As Eckhart Tolle, Author of A New Earth and The Power of Now, shared at the conference, when we take the time to pause and turn inward, we see the space inside that makes up the majority of us humans.  This spaciousness allows for the human connection.  Add the technology to physically connect billions of people and you have the ingredients for collective consciousness.  The key is the combination of the two.

Thanks to the myriad of leaders who took the time to share their perspective and for Soren Gordhamer for seeing the need for this combination and facilitating the conversation through the Wisdom 2.0 Conference.