Journalists: Create your own future

There is good advice from Andy Serwer, Fortune magazine’s managing editor, in the summary of a talk that he gave business journalists in Canada. Dana Lacey writes for the Canadian Journalism Project:

Serwer’s advice for journalists in the digital age? Build a brand, work for a start-up, be the “baddest-ass investigative journalist” you can be, work for the New York Times and help that paper figure out what the next business model will be (think beyond the paywall). In other words: don’t be victims of the change washing over print journalism.

Can anyone ‘do a Radiohead’?

Radiohead really shook things up a bit when they decided to let people pay whatever they wanted for their album, In Rainbows. Although others had used similar models before them, Radiohead were possibly the biggest band to try that tactic and they inspired many more people to experiment with innovative funding and payment models.

But one of the main criticisms of Radiohead’s experiment was that it could only work for bands or artists who already had a following as substantial as theirs. There can be no doubt that the bigger and more committed your fanbase, the more likely an experiment like that is to succeed. But still there remain doubts as to whether the crowdfunding model can work for lesser known creative projects.

One thing that is clear is that many people believe that it is possible, enough to create the infrastructure required to allow people to tap into their communities for support. Since Radiohead’s experiment, several crowdfunding websites have sprung up which make it easy to ask people to contribute financially to different types of project. ChipIn, Pledgie, IndiGoGo and Kickstarter all help people realise their fundraising goals, although no site can short circuit the hard promotional work that users need to do to get word out about their own project.

I have a personal interest in learning more about what’s required to make a crowdfunded project a success, not least because I currently have my own project running on Kickstarter. Argleton combines storytelling, bookbinding and a geolocation game and is currently 27% funded with 49 days to go.

I like to think that I have a pretty well developed network, having been blogging for the last eight years and being fairly prolific on Twitter almost since the beginning. But my network pales in comparison to someone like Robin Sloan, whose Kickstarter project inspired my own. Robin currently has 212,704 followers on Twitter, in comparison to my paltry 3,255. I would imagine that finding enough people to support a project if you have an even smaller network than mine would be very difficult indeed – supporters don’t grow on trees and they don’t magically find out about your project without your hard work and intervention.

And I think therein lies the key. As my friend Lorin said on IM yesterday,

The gift of shameless, classy, effective self-promotion is one of the best super powers going around. I wonder what one needs to be bitten by / exposed to / turned into to get that happening.

Like bands before them, authors are going to need to learn not just how to write but also how to effectively promote their own projects in order to reach enough people. Having a good idea never was enough – life always goes more smoothly for those with the right connections. Now it’s easier to make those connections, although it takes just as much time and commitment to achieve that as ever. Only time will tell if I have the connections necessary to make Argleton happen.

Public speaking made easy

A couple of weeks ago I went to an event organised by Laura North aimed at helping people become better public speakers. I do a lot of presentations. I recently added them up and realised to my surprise that I have done 60 planned presentations over the last five years, not to mention all the unplanned ones! But I still feel that my technique could use some improvement so I was really glad that Laura put this event on. She is now planning a series of speaker training events, which I look forward to.

Meantime, here are my notes from the evening. You can watch the videos and see the slide decks on Speaking Out.

Host: Laura North
Dave Bell, Merrill Lynch
Katie Streten, Imagination
Christian Heilmann, Yahoo!

Dave Bell, Merrill Lynch
When he met Laura, who did the intro, they were discussing her dread of public speaking, and he gave her some insight into his experience, and later was accosted and asked to address a meeting like this because it’s a common fear. We all have to do it, whether we present to colleagues or clients. But the main thing is that everything comes with practice. Don’t worry if you feel nervous – you’re not on your own.

Most of Dave’s roles have included some sort of presentation aspect. Some events would be very large, and there’d be a hall of 400 people, but each time you do it you learn a little bit more about your content, your slides, what worked, what didn’t work. [Tip from me: Don’t spend quite so much time talking about yourself up front, just give the audience to establish context.]

Style and delivery varies according to the type of meeting and your role within it.

– Small meetings: Most extreme form of presenting is to present to one person, need to think about how that individual is thinking and feeling, how can you change what you are doing to suit what they need. Try to work out when they are following you, and when you are losing them or things have got too complicated. Learn to read the person on the other time of the table. Work out what you can do to meet them half way.

– Chairing meetings & large meetings: Let everyone in the meeting have a fair say and to contribute. Work out who are the key influencers, the people who need to participate. Who are the core constituents? Who needs to understand your message? Not the same level of communication as a one-on-one, but trying to build a consensus and that can be a challenge.

– Making presentations in meetings: When you have people who are not engaged, it’s an excuse for them to switch off, so try to make a connection with them. Look them in the eye. When we are presenting we are trying to communicate and make that connection to them. Address yourself physically to the whole room.

– Pitching ideas: When you’re introducing a new concept to people, especially if it’s new, it make take some time to build things up, don’t rush. How would you approach this if you hadn’t heard it before. If people don’t know who you are and what you’re on about. particularly if you’re external and you don’t have that rapport straight away, take your time and don’t rush to get to your message. Why should they be interested? Why should they come with you? Think about their position, not just about your content.

– Asking questions at conferences: Very nerve-wracking, but important in building reputation. Great if you can come up with some ways to get over the nerves and address a question to a conference. It’s ok if you have a question but don’t get to ask it exactly as you want to – don’t beat yourself up about it.

– Presenting at conferences: Biggest arena that you will face. It’s not as much about connecting with that audience [not sure this is what he really meant], but about having the confidence to speak from the stand.

Preparation is the key for being relaxed.

Audience: Who are they? Why are they there? Who are the key influencers in this meeting? What message do you want to leave them with? Who do you need to get on side in order to make your concept/idea get some legs? You can only leave people with a couple of ideas.

Cliche but true: Tell the audience what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.

Materials: Detailed slides can help, but can be a distraction. Presenting is at its best when it’s the big picture. Give people enough to give them energy. Don’t need the fine detail, give them something to take away. Strip back your material to the core ideas.

Objectives: Important point – a presentation is about a transition through a relationship. Often, you are trying to build a relationship. How is the presentation going to help you get from A to B, and how are you going to take your audience with you?

Don’t over-think! But put enough work in.

Style. Once you know what you’re talking about and you’ve thought about the audience, think about your style. Often it will reflect your personality. There are no real rules, but a few things to bear in mind:

Who’s the audience? Tone should be right for the audience. Think about how to connect with people. Think about the subject. Be consistent.


– connect with your audience
– preparation is the key to being relaxed
– be selective with your material – think big picture
– your style will develop and it will come with time
– presentations are performances, some times they go better than others. When it goes well, give yourself a pat on the back.
– …and everyone gets nervous! You are not the only one! Your audience is willing you on, they want you to be successful, so they are on your side!

Q: Should you do a dry run?
It helps you master the material, and the more comfortable you are with your core messages, the happier you’ll be doing the ad libbing. If it helps you relax, it’s a good idea. Use colleagues as a sounding board. You might think you’ve mastered the material, but when you get started you find you don’t know it as well as you could.

Q: What do you do if you think you’re starting to lose the audience?
Think about just slowing down and regrouping. The biggest thing is realising that you might be losing them is the important thing. Softly reposition what you are saying, perhaps say it again in a different way. Acknowledge to yourself they aren’t quite with you rather than charging through. But keep calm and try to address it.

Also, people sometimes close their eyes or stare at the corner, it doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t listening. Some people learn aurally.

Q: Camden Speakers’ Club. Found that getting over the phobia, speaking to the club, 15 people, was the same as speaking to 1000. It’s the same. You said there were differences, what do you think they are?
If you have 15 people sat round a boardroom table, within that room you’ve got a dynamic, some people who are more influential who might lead a consensus, so gauging how they are going is important. That’s different to when you are on a platform, you can’t connect on more than a fleeting basis, you can’t tailor what you are saying for everyone. In a small group, if you lose the key influencer, you lose everyone.

Q: What about presenting over the phone?
Keep calm, don’t try to get out everything you are trying to say straight away. Almost like when you’re losing someone in the audience: adapt what you are saying, take your time, be confident. Have an elevator pitch. What is your one little hook? You need that on the phone as they don’t know anything about you. Why are they going to be interested?

Q: When you need to convince people of your credibility, how do you win them over? Particularly if you are young and talking to much older people?
Demonstrate your experience and knowledge. Until you’re tried and tested it is very difficult. Know your material really well. Be clear when answering questions. Who else in your organisation can you reach out to? Who could do the meeting with you? Who of your colleagues has more experience who can give you back-up?

Katie Streten, Imagination
Goes to a lot of conferences where the speaker programme is packed with men, yet competent women don’t get asked, and don’t push themselves forward as much as they should. Has done two courses on how to present, and they make you very fired up, then you go away and don’t do any of the things you are taught! Have a LAMDA Spoken English qualification, and they do really great programmes where you learn to read aloud, ad lib, etc. Still gets nervous ahead of time and hates asking questions.

Reasons not to like public speaking and suggestions for dealing with them. Asked others why they hate public speaking.

Reason 1: “No one will be interested in what I’ve got to say”.

Well, they are there. They are there for a reason, and that reason is you. In meetings at work, they feel you have something valuable to offer, so remember that when you feel your opinion is irrelevant. Think about them and what you can give them. This isn’t about you, it’s about why they have asked you the question. They want something from you and they think you can give it to them.

Reason 2: “I will start speaking and go completely blank.”

Prepare. If you’re giving a really important talk or if you’re not confident, write your script out longhand. It’s a pain in the arse, but it’s the best way to get it out. Read it aloud to yourself, read it to friends, and just keep going to it. You will realise some of your jokes were bad, it was too long, and gradually you’ll get familiar with your subject matter. Then write out card notes, which should be as simple as possible and just give you your key points. Just glance down when you get lots. Highlight key moments on your slides. Don’t practice too much, because your brain will start to expect a certain rhythm and if you falter, your brain will freeze. Now what you are saying, use the cards to help you maintain your flow but don’t try to have it off pat.

Reason 3: “Everyone out there will find out that I’m a fraud.”

You have been asked to speak, you are there for a reason. People think you have something to say so you are not a fraud. Everyone thinks that. Everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Armando Ianucci, who has talked about “the fear of being found out for being a bit rubbish”

Reason 4: “I will look out over the crowd and see their faces and go blank.”

If you can make a connection with the audience, that’s great. But if you’re nervous, don’t look at the crowd. Before hand, pick 3 spots in the room, or place your mate at the back to smile at you. Start talking to the first point say something and move on to the next point and talk to that, then the third. If eye contact makes you uncomfortable, then it will throw you, so fake it. Remember that people are more interested in the talk than in you. They are not interested in the colour of your shirt, or your accent, or your hair. They want to hear what you have to tell them.

5: “I will lose my place and just stall.”

This is common, that you’ll kick off, then lose your place and it’ll all go up in smoke. So: Cards. Practice. And remember, the audience is on your side. Everyone is desperate for you not to make a fool of yourself for their own sake. They want you to succeed. It’s ok if you stall. And if you do, ‘fess up. Say “I’m sorry, I’ve just lost my place”, look at your cards and carry on. No one will judge you for that.

6; “I will ask something that everyone else understands, and I will look like an idiot.”

Everyone in this situation is thinking the same thing as you. And others may have the question too, but by asking it you have saved them the trouble. But if you are in a situation where you have paid to be at a seminar or conference, you have a right to ask. The speaker has a duty to you, to explain anything that is unclear. It is their problem, not your. And if you wait long enough, there is usually someone in the audience who makes a statement instead of asking a question, so by asking a question you are doing the right thing and saving the audience from statements. Asking questions is a good thing!

7: “It feels artificial. It should feel like a conversation, I hate the awkward feeling.”

The audience often hate it too, they don’t want formality except in serious contexts. The audience wants to make a connection, to feel relaxed. They want to enjoy it. Say ‘Hello!” at the beginning. That makes it more informal, makes people feel relaxed. Also, your arms. Don’t hold them by your sides but don’t gesticulate too much either. If you move your hands at about waist height, that’s what you naturally do in conversation, and it just makes it less formal and breaks up the space. Don’t have a rigid script, but notes that let you ebb and flow with the audience’s attention.


Two key things:

* Bullet points. This is not the place to write your script. (Don’t use a script, use cards!). Don’t put too much on your powerpoint, just do it in short bursts.
* Pictures: The things that stick in your head are images. Make the pictures appropriate to what you are trying to say. Makes it less formal too.

* People genuinely want to hear what you have to say. If they have invited you, they think you are capable, and you are capable.
* Think about your audience – what can you give them? Why have you been asked to do what you are doing? What can you bring to them?

If all else fails, try to remember the details of one speech you have heard in your life. You don’t. Some speeches really stick in your mind, as in you remember them, but you don’t remember the detail. So if you feel really bad about it, just remember that no one will remember anyway.

Q: What about humour?
Pictures can be very useful because a picture can be humorous without you having to be funny. If you feel you have to be funny, that can be massive pressure. You can get humour in via pictures. Obviously depends on context, so it’s not always appropriate.

Q: Struggle with going too fast. How do I calm down and articulate? What are your tips? And also, women should make more statements like men [instead of asking questions at a conference]?
Well, statements don’t hold people to account, so if you disagree with something don’t just refute it, ask them to back it up. You have to make yourself do it, you have to grab the opportunity to do so. Regarding speaking slowly, if you’re very nervous, put your reminders to speak slowly, raise your head, use your arms, on your first card. In terms of tone, the more relaxed you get the more conversational you get, and the more your tone will rise and fall. Think about the words you normally emphasise and do that.

Q: Jokes, sometimes they work once but not again? What’s your view?
Good pictures, quotes that other people have said. Because it’s not yours, then if it falls flat then it’s not your fault.

Q: Biting off, repeating oneself and then realising and ending the sentence abruptly.
Be aware of yourself when you’re speaking. It’s a bit weird, half of you is speaking, and half of you is trying to be aware of what is going on. As soon as you are aware, do something. Also, what that boils down to, is a desire to get your point across, and a feeling that either you’re not getting across well or that they are not listening to you. So be confident of yourself. Ask if someone has understood it, try to get to a point where you’ve said it and then ask, does that make sense?

Q: What do you do when people are behind you?
Depends on your room set-up and what’s your point. Either move out to the side, or turn round. it is worth doing that. Depends on how long your’e speaking for. If it’s short, it doesn’t matter. If a room is set up for training, people should face each other and you walk around. If it’s a presentation, then don’t have people behind you, even sit on a windowsill. Explain that you don’t want anyone behind you. If need be, rearrange the room so that you have no one behind.

Q: What’s the best way to say I don’t know?
Comes back to ‘fessing up if you make a mistake. Best thing to do is to say something along the lines of, “That’s a really good point, I don’t know but if you give me your email address I will find out and get back to you”. People can be a bit mean and want to put you on the spot, but if you don’t know be clear that you don’t, and follow it up. Or ask the audience, “Has anyone here had that situation? Can someone help?” Bring audience into the talk. Worst thing you can do is fake it, because they will know.

Christian Heilmann, Yahoo!
How to inspire as a speaker. Interesting to have this kind of event. Always a bit concerned about how everyone says that there aren’t enough women, as hasn’t had that problem when organising his own conferences.

Focused on how to teach people without them realising. Inspire people to learn more about the topic. Inspire them to find out and do something.

Was voted ‘most inspiring speaker’ in the SlideShare Zeitgeist. Upload the audio to his Slideshare.

Presentation is the flashcards – just one sentence. Records talks so he can remember what he said. You can do it too if you just trust yourself.

Why was he voted the most inspiring? He has very distinctive hair. Has its own tag on Flickr. Clearly it’s his hair…

He tries to look at the topic from a different point of view. What is different? Why would people care? Get out of the spot you are in, and look at it from a different angle.

Shows a photo that is missing a person in the middle. People laugh at the woman who didn’t jump, but people don’t notice the missing woman in the middle.

Toblerone. People don’t realise that if they look at the logo, there’s a bear in the logo. What is the story of the bear? Find the story that makes the difference. Even if it’s just anecdotes, make it lively, make it human.

Speaks in many different countries, different cultures.

People look at speakers first, then the information, then the audience. Although the audience is one of the most important things, people are seeking information. What do people take out of that info? How is that info useful to everyone else?

Know what your audience needs is the most important part of any presentation. What do people want? What is their problem? How can you solve it? This can be hard. Sometimes when you are invited at the last moment, or if you face a hostile audience. What do people waste their time on? How does your info make their time better spent? We should go into every conference asking what the audience asks themselves, what is in it for them? No matter how enjoyable a speaker is if they don’t give the audience what they need, they aren’t good. What would I want off me if I was sitting there?

Having the right mindset as a presenter is also very important. People came to see you speak. They had a choice and they chose to see you. So you’ve got nothing to lose. Even if you’re terrible, even if your slides are terrible, you can still say “I did it”, and dare yourself to get better. You can only get better if you keep going. We all suck, we just get better at faking it or don’t care anymore.

Look ahead at what might be interesting. Don’t just take the obvious topics. Just make something better. Tell a story. Find a story. Your presentation should be a story with a start, a climax and an end, with the repetition to drive it home.

How do you get to that stage? Relax, know your stuff. Not the presentation, but the stuff that you are talking about. People will ask you a question. If you just rehearse the presentation but can’t answer questions you lose everything you built up in the presentation. It’s not about dazzling people, but about learning something. Take the time to prepare your topic. It’s dangerous to just go out there and dazzle.

Own your talk. This is your talk. If someone sends you a slide deck, change it to something you feel comfortable with. Have seen people trying to tell other people’s jokes. It’s your talk, it’s what you define.

Practice. Any chance you get to give a public talk, do it. Go to unconferences. Talk to your friends.

Practice some more. The more you do it the better you get. When you get good, you can start to slip stuff in that people aren’t expecting. Grab people’s attention, and follow it up with lots of good information.

How can you practice? Loud reading in different voices is great training. If you have a kid, or can borrow a kid, read books to them with the different voices. Room on the Broom, great way to entertain the kids and you can train yourself to be a speaker.

Listen to audiobooks. Very good training. Stephen Fry is an excellent reader. Learn how to make breaks in the right spot. Accents. Hear the voice.

Listen to yourself. This is excellent training. When we speak our head vibrates, so our voice sounds deeper than we do to other people. Listen to your own talks, e.g. at the gym. Become your own critic. Find out mannerisms that you didn’t realise you had. Discover your own tics and weaknesses. Force yourself to listen to yourself.

Powerpoint karaoke. Friday afternoon. Beer. Download random Powerpoints off the internet. Then everyone has to give a five minute presentation to a random powerpoint deck. Everything from caring for crocodiles, to environmental physics. Good bonding experience too!

Lightning talks. 5 x 5 x 5. Good way to share information, to learn how to speak. 5 minute presentations of a problem encountered, 5 minute talking about how it was resolved, 5 minute discussion about whether the solution is good enough. Whatever you do at work, you can do this. Everyone in the team has to do one sooner or later. Very good to find new speakers too.

Get inspired by great examples. Sometimes, the quirky ones aren’t actually the best. TED is a great site for videos. Good introduction. Always pick people who are interesting.

Josh Blue, was at Last Comic Standing, and he’s got a Cerebral Palsy, and is very, very funny. US guy. Very in your face. Makes people realise that those with disabilities have something to offer too. Not just being funny, but also saying that we are out there, we are interesting. Anyone can do that too – show people that you are there.

Avoid at all costs:

* Imitation. If you imitate someone else’s style, that makes you a karaoke singer. Find your own style.
* Read your slides. It’s appalling if you read your slides. Slides are a guideline, outline of your story, reminds you where you’re going. Information for people who can’t be bothered to listen.
* Forget your story. It’s not just information. Make it personal if necessary. Use anecdote.
* Blinging it up. Don’t use the fancy transitions. You should never end up having to wait for your slides to build.

Overcoming the fear.
Some people say you should ‘dress a bit better than the audience’, but that’s not the point. Your presentation will talk for you. If you have to abide by company speaker guidelines, smile and nod and think of something happy. Be honest, accept your flaws. The audience is as afraid of you as you are of them. Some audiences are happy and supportive, others are very hostile because they think they are better. If you don’t talk to the audience and get them involved, you’re talking to yourself. The audience wants your information, give your slides to them online, let people relax and focus on your talk.

Instead of seeing a crowed or a sea of faces, pick a new person to talk to with every part of your story. If you’re experienced, try to figure out what they are trying to get out of them. Talking to people one after the other, people who look interested, makes you subconsciously talk to them more.

Has a presentation ebook online for free. How to write slides, how to get invited to speak, how to deliver the talk.

Q: Format and structure of presentation. What the background should be? Bullets or no bullets? If you have a 10 mins presentation, how many slides?
There’s another game, Pecha Kucha – 20 slides in 20 seconds. Very fast. Good way to pace yourself and find out. Normally take a minute a slide. Always be faster than you think you are, don’t be scared of 45 minute talk. Don’t like bullet points because they distract the audience. If you structure the points, and show them one after the other and talk them through the process, then it’s ok. Summary slides, that’ where they are good. Other than that, one piece of information. Background – black background with big (36px upwards) white text works everywhere on every technology. Other than that, it’s up to you what your style is. Don’t go after someone else’s style. Think about what might break, and one thing to remember is that everything will break. You will never have a set up that works.

Q: How do you combat nerves of just getting up there?
Be in the mindset. You’re already there, people have already booked, you can’t let them down by not going on. There’s nothing much you can do that would make them hate you. Everybody is afraid at the last moment. You cannot change it just before you go on. You just have to do it. Find a way to calm yourself when you’re stressed. You’ve made the commitment, you’ve prepared, so you’re ready.

Q: How do you deal with people who take over the meeting, and make sure everyone has a chance to talk?
Wish we had more female managers; male managers get into vocal fist fights, talk in circles because they want consensus. Have an agenda, because if you don’t it’s a waste of time. Say at the beginning, this is the agenda, say you are going to stick to it and stick to the time, and be firm but polite with people. When people go round in circles, say, “We’re not going to fix this now, so let’s deal with it after the meeting.”

Q: How do you deal with a microphone?
See it as sceptre. I just earnt this because I have something important to say. It’s my turn. Spotlight situation: you want that question answers. You’ve made the commitment to ask it. A lot of others have the same question, and they’ll love you for asking it.

Experimenting with Kachingle

In April last year I wrote about a start-up called Kachingle for The Guardian. I explained Kachingle thusly:

After registering with Kachingle, users decide on a maximum monthly donation, currently set at $5 (£3.50). When they see something they like, they simply click on the Kachingle “medallion” to initiate a donation. Kachingle tracks their reading habits, tots up how many times they visit each favoured site and divvies up the money proportionally at the end of the month.

It’s equally simple for site owners, who just need a PayPal account and a snippet of code to display the Kachingle medallion. The revenue split gives content providers 80% of the donations, with the rest covering Kachingle’s costs and PayPal fees.

I’ve been quietly keeping an eye on Kachingle to see when they would launch and was excited to get an email from Bill Lazar, Kachingle’s Marketing Engineer, last week saying that they were ready for beta testers to come on board. They will be launching properly in early February.

I think Kachingle is a really interesting idea, and I’m very excited to have the opportunity to test it out. That’s the medallion, up there in the top of the right-hand sidebar. All you need to sign up with Kachingle is a PayPal account and a spare $5 a month (although you can spend more if you want to). That works out at £3.07 per month, which even in a recession I think I can spare!

Kachingle sits very nicely with my recent decision to buy as many hand-crafted present for Christmas as I could. In an economic downturn it is more important than ever to support small businesses and I really like the fact that the vast majority of the money I spend on sites like Folksy go to the person who made the item I’ve bought.

But Kachingle is not just a way that I might earn a little spare change, it also gives me a way to support others. I’m hoping that over the course of the next few months, bloggers I enjoy will be able to join up and let me show them my appreciation.

If you want to sign up as a Kachingler or as a Site Owner, get in touch with Kachingle’s beta programme. And, of course, let me know what you think in the comments!

Hi. My name is Suw and I’m a social media expert

I’m getting increasingly fed up with a meme that’s been doing the rounds for the last several months, and I’m afraid this morning on Twitter I kinda snapped a bit. The idea that’s been spreading through the social media community is that no one in social media should ever call themselves an “expert”. There have been a number of blog posts and Twitter conversations about it, and although I can’t recall all of them (please leave links in the comments if you want), the one that pushed me over the edge was 6 Reasons You Shouldn’t Brand Yourself as a Social Media Expert by Dan Schawbel who is, I note, “the leading personal branding expert for Gen-Y”.

The big problem I have with this anti-expert meme is that it totally mischaracterises what it is to have expertise in the realm of social media. After five years of being a professional social media consultant, I can promise you that it takes a lot of hard work to really understand how social media functions in a business context – not just for marketing but for internal use too. It’s not just about understanding how the tools work, it’s about understanding the business context (doing gap analysis, for example), it’s about understanding how people work, both in relationship to the technology and each other (basic psychology and sociology), it’s about communication skills, management skills, analytical skills.

None of that is stuff that you can just pick up overnight. A super-user is not the same as an expert – it’s not about knowing how the tools work, how to make a new blog post or set up a new wiki. It’s a much more nuanced job and involves constant learning from sometimes unexpected sources. I never thought I’d end up talking to psychologists about email when I started as a consultant, but understanding why people are wedded to their inbox helps me to understand the problems I will face when trying to introduce them to a wiki. Being an expert in social media means that you are constantly pushing to understand the non-obvious, constantly questioning the assumptions and the so-called common sense explanations for why things happen the way they happen.

Frankly I feel that I and my peers all fit the definition of expert:

a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area

And we should be able to call ourselves experts without being censured by the community for doing so.

I think some of that censure comes from the idea that the internet is a truly democratic space where everyone is equal and to decide to elevate oneself by using the term ‘expert’ is somehow repellant. Well, I’m afraid the idea that the internet is a level playing field is bunkum. The history of the internet is shot through with elites and the people they look down upon (AOL, anyone?). Humans naturally create hierarchies, it’s part of being human. Hierarchies exist everywhere one looks, and they exist on the net too.

Whilst social media is a great democratising force, I fear people are confusing equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. The important thing about the internet and about social media in particular is that everyone has an equal opportunity to use it, but the truth – unpalatable as it may seem – is that not everyone will use it equally as well. However you define success, whether it’s on a personal self-expression level or whether it’s on a professional earnings level, some people will be more successful than others. The outcomes are not, and can never be, equal.

Yet we’re not supposed to use the word ‘expert’, despite the fact that some people clearly are more expert than others. Why this squeamishness? Partly I think there’s a real hatred amongst social media types for the self-promotional excesses we see all about us on the web. We see people bigging themselves up and it makes us squirm in our seats. And we don’t want others to think that we are that egotistical, that far up ourselves. Instead we want the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from someone else’s praise of our work, those third-party accolades and testimonials.

I can understand that. I’m not particularly great at self-promotion. It makes me feel dirty and unhappy. But relying only on external validation for our work is unhealthy, not just for us and our own mental health, but also for our industry. By censuring anyone who says they are an expert, we imply that there are no leaders and that everyone is equal. That implication devalues everyone working in the area by bringing us down to the same common denominator, making us no better than the whippersnapper carpetbagger who’s been on Twitter six weeks and thinks they know it all.

It also seems to me that the desire to punish people for saying they are an expert may, in some quarters, come from our own insecurities about a profession that seems like it should be easy. “I don’t feel like an expert, so anyone else who says they are an expert has to be bullshitting.” I have some sympathy for this, given my own recurrent self-doubt, but it is wrong. Being a social media expert is not easy at all and anyone who is one knows that.

I can’t think of any other professional field where is is frowned up on to simply call oneself an expert. Indeed, in every other field I can think of, we actively seek out experts. If you have a bad problem with your drains, you call a drainage expert without even thinking about it. If you want to learn about the nuances of the Bard’s great works, you seek out an expert in Shakespeare. If your MacBook conks out, you take it to an Apple expert.

There’s nothing wrong with being an expert in these fields, so why is it wrong in social media?

In the Twitter conversation this morning, @BenjaminEllis said “@Suw It’s hard for the true experts when people with 6 months experience and no results to show for it call themselves experts too.”

That’s a fair point. We deal with false experts in other fields by assessing their claims about themselves in the light of the evidence we can gather about how well they perform. Recommendations, reviews, even our intuition as we talk to them about our problem, help us understand whether they are as good as they say they are. The same is true in social media. People, hopefully, don’t just judge a social media consultant based on what they say about themselves, but also delve into their past work and their reputation.

But we don’t help that process by denying people the right to call themselves experts. By doing that, we also deny ourselves the opportunity to tell stories about expertise that help people outside of our field understand what a genuine social media expert looks like. If I can’t talk about what I think makes me an expert in social media, how are we going to find out what other people think makes an expert? I can say that I think Leisa Reichelt is an expert in usability, and I can point to her work to illustrate my point, but Leisa knows better than I what it takes to be expert in usability. If we never have that conversation, I’m none the wiser about how to compare her expertise with other people’s. How can I tell if Mr X is as good as he says he is?

The number of people self-identifying as social media consultants has sky-rocketed in the last year or so, and we need to start having conversations about what makes an expert an expert. If we can’t talk about it, understand it, and communicate it, how on earth do we expect clients to make good decisions about who to hire? We all decry the carpetbaggers, but we can’t do that and decry the experts too! We have to let people say that they are experts and we have to talk about what that means and how to compare claims of expertise against evidence of expertise. We can’t go on pretending that we’re all equal, and that experts don’t exist (whatever reasoning you give for it), because we’re not and they do.

There’s more I could say, but I’m going to leave it at this for now:

My name is Suw and I’m a social media expert.

So true it’s not funny

This video has been doing the rounds lately, but it is so amazingly true that it’s almost not funny.

I think the worst I’ve had from a proto-client lately is, “It’s a recession, how about a bit of a discount?” Well, mate, if you can get my landlord to discount my rent by the same amount then sure, let’s talk turkey. Otherwise, bite me.

Thanks to @febake for the pointer to this!

20 signs you don’t want that internal social media project

I just nearly burst my appendix laughing at Chris Applegate’s 20 signs you don’t want that social media project. I am thus inspired to write my own list of tips that, perhaps, one doesn’t really want that internal social media project after all.

  1. Client wants to code their own blog/wiki software because “we want total control”.
  2. Client insists that only the management be allowed to have internal blogs.
  3. The PR department wants to write the CEO’s internal blog posts.
  4. IT won’t allow anyone to install an RSS reader until it’s been through a code review. Which could take upwards of a year. And that’s not including reviewing updates…
  5. Client insists on using Lotus Notes as their blogging platform.
  6. When you ask how much experience staff have of social media, IT replies, “Oh, we block all those sites.”
  7. The client wants Facebook.
  8. “Why don’t we just throw some mud at the walls and see what sticks?”
  9. IT disables all RSS feeds because of “a potential exploit we read about on Slashdot”.
  10. Client insists on using Sharepoint as their wiki.
  11. User surveys show some staff have more than 50,000 unread messages in their inbox, yet management insist, “We really don’t have a problem with email here.”
  12. Management refuse to learn new terminology, resulting in statements like “I just posted a new blog to our wiki.”
  13. Apparently, IM is “just for kids.”
  14. Client decides that only “management-approved labels” can be used as tags in the social bookmarking app.
  15. Client’s wiki is called CompanyPedia, is already out of date and is never used for actual collaboration.
  16. IT eschew open source software because “Who would provide support?”
  17. There are regular discussions as to which is the best Web 2.0 application: Lotus Notes or Sharepoint?
  18. “Why don’t we just install some forums?”
  19. Client thinks that “adoption” means everyone is going to end up looking after a small orphaned child.
  20. The CIO still has his secretary print out all his emails.

UPDATE: The above list has now been translated into French by the lovely Frédéric de Villamil!

When context switching becomes thrashing

I was having a chat to Kevin Marks on IM this morning, mulling over the idea of pitching an article to Charles Arthur at the Guardian. Kevin said he thought my idea was good, but I mentioned that I really ought to sort out some other things before I get down to writing out a proper pitch.

“That sounds like thrashing to me,” Kevin said. I had no idea what he was on about.

Turns out that thrashing is a computing term, and Kevin defined it as “switching between tasks too quickly to finish any of them”. Wikipedia defines it as “a degenerate situation on a computer where increasing resources are used to do a decreasing amount of work.”

Holy shit. That’s what I do! Seriously!

It’s been pretty clear for some time that as human beings we can’t actually multitask. Multitasking is nothing more than cutting tasks down into slivers which we then interleave, fooling ourselves into believing that we’re doing lots of things at once when we’re really just doing lots of things in teeny-tiny bits, sequentially and very inefficiently. The cost of multitasking should be pretty obvious – every time you switch contexts you incur a time penalty as your brain refocuses on what it was that you were doing the last time you were doing this task. The more you flit between tasks, the more time is lost switching context. That’s related to the whole problem with email – emails interrupt, there’s an interrupt cost, therefore email costs us time (and money).

But what happens when the habits of so-called multitasking become so ingrained that we don’t even realise we’re doing it? When we start context switching so rapidly that our brains don’t get the chance to finish a train of thought? Well, that’s when we start thrashing, alternating between tasks, thoughts, ideas, plans so fast that we can’t get a proper grip on any of them, can’t actually make progress on any of them.

Technology aids thrashing in ways never dreamt of before. If I’m not entirely clear on what my tasks for the day are, then I can spend a lot of time switching between various pseudotasks, sometimes engaging in both true procrastination and yak shaving (doing lots of small and probably unnecessary tasks, ostensibly as preparation for doing a bigger necessary one, but actually as a way to avoid the larger task).

In theory, tools like Omnifocus should help me get over this by giving me a clear idea of what needs to be done next. I love Omnifocus, especially the iPhone application which lets me capture those annoying “Oh, I must remember to…!” thoughts that I have whilst I’m on the Tube or somewhere else where my computer is not. But it has become increasingly clear that Ominfocus is turning into the place where tasks go to die. My list of projects and tasks is absurdly long, and it seems to get longer rather than shorter as things I “ought” to do get added, but never ticked off.

Even if it is turning out to be at least partly a graveyard for tasks, that’s an important function in and of itself. I need to have a place to put those unlikely to dos that would otherwise rattle round in my head and get in the way of the really important things. (Although I also need to learn to delete tasks which are, in all honesty, never going to get done.)

All bets are off, though, as soon as I have a client work to do, because my priorities become externally set and much easier to manage. There’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind and clear out all the dross. This is one of the big challenges of being a freelance, actually. Managing your time when you have clients is much easier than when you don’t.

In the ten years I’ve been freelance, I think I’ve got to a point where I’m pretty good at being self-motivated and, because I don’t have any proxies for work to get in my way (more about which in another post), I suspect I actually am more productive than your average office-goer. I can’t fake working – everything that doesn’t get done today will still be waiting for me tomorrow. This also means that thrashing, yak shaving, procrastination and other such productivity issues need to be mercilessly hunted down and eradicated, because anything that dents my productivity also dents my ability to earn money. That pay cheque, sadly, doesn’t earn itself.

Five year plans and fairytales

“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” goes the aphorism. Personally, I like plans, although I’ve never made one that I’ve managed to see all the way through to the end, because something always changes halfway through. I still find them useful things to write, though, because they help me see beyond the end of my own nose.

Being self-employed means that I have to make most of the decisions about my business myself and although nowadays I have a good network of friends – and, of course, Kevin – to help me, it’s still easy to get lost in the details. Losing perspective makes it much harder to figure out what my priorities should be, and that means I can end up wasting a lot of time doing… suboptimal things.

It’s difficult to see yourself from the outside, but I recently had a bit of a revelation and although I have some interesting work hovering just on the horizon, I can’t afford to be complacent. Indeed, I rather wish that I had had this revelation a few months ago – I could have done with a bit of this clarity over the summer!

The upshot of all this is that I am in the process of writing myself a five year life plan which is going to attempt to answer the questions “What do I want to achieve over the next five years? What do I need to do to get there?”

Of course, everyone knows that the last four and a half years of any five year plan is a complete fairytale, (although I’ve seen many a bank manager and business advisor nod sagely when reading a long-term business plan as if it meant something). But by looking that far ahead I hope that I can get a sense of my priorities now, and I can prime myself to recognise the right opportunities when they come along.

At the moment, our bedroom wall is covered with little Post-It notes that give some shape to my thoughts as they currently stand. They include ideas from discussions with various friends and colleagues about what I need to do to reinvigorate my consulting business – and many of them contain some really scary words, especially the ones clustered around the “Marketing” note.

Even now, at just the beginning of the process, I can see that there is a real tension between the things that I like to do, and the things that I dislike doing but feel I need to in order to be able to be paid to do the things that I like to do. On one side of that equation is writing, journalism and consulting, and on the other side is pitching (to get articles places) and self-promotion/marketing (to get new clients). I’ve never been good at self-promotion and, frankly, I’ve often (subconsciously) avoided doing marketing as much as possible because it makes me feel icky and dirty.

Seeing things laid out so clearly is quite interesting – it does rather explain a lot about why I focused one the things I focused on this summer (and, indeed, in years past). I shan’t pretend that this is an entirely new revelation – I’ve known how much I hate self-promotion for a long time. But I haven’t reminded myself of my aversion, nor confronted it, in a while.

I’ve still got a lot of thinking to do around my five year fairytale. And I’d be very curious to know: If you were thinking five years ahead, what sort of questions would you be asking yourself?

Going Solo Leeds announced

I shall be reprising my talk on how to draw a healthy line between work and play at Steph Booth‘s Going Solo conference in Leeds on 12 September. Registration is now open, but don’t delay – the first 25 tickets will be going at the early bird rate of £150, and some have already gone. Once they run out, the normal price is £220.

If you’re a freelance, or are thinking of starting out on your own, then Going Solo will be invaluable – it has a great atmosphere and some stonking speakers! So go straight to registration, do not pass go, and pick up an early bird ticket whilst they are still around.