30 September 2005

Demographic mapping

Get demographic information for any location by pointing to it on a map. By default the map is focused on the LA area, but you can view other areas by zooming out and panning around.

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How to write a memo to your boss

When writing a message to your boss, the cardinal rule is to keep it simple, brief, and to the point. Here's a template for a simple memo or email:

- Why you should care: Briefly describe the problem and why the "as is" state needs to change.
- What you/we stand to gain: Briefly describe the "end state" you envision.
- What I propose: Describe what you want to do, with special attention what's unique or different. You might need to explain how or why it is different than things that have been tried before.
- How it will work: Describe the resources you will need, and break down the entire plan into three easy-to-understand steps, complete with milestones and deadlines.
- Risk considerations: Take a balanced view and do your best to define the risks, relative to the rewards, of proceeding
- Next steps: What specific action(s) do you want from your boss, right now?

Important note: If your boss says yes, be prepared to have the project added to your workload!

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29 September 2005

The hardest thing a manager ever has to do

It's no secret and there's not much debate about it: the hardest thing a manager ever has to do is to let people go.

It can be for any number of reasons:
- Finances, as in "sales are down and we need to cut costs"
- Change, as in "the company is changing and job descriptions need to change with it"
- Performance or culture fit, as in "this just isn't working out"

If you are a manager, how do you handle these kinds of situations?
- Be careful about who you hire in the first place. Take interviews seriously. Some companies have a policy to have two people interview any new candidate together. This can give you greater insight into how they will fit in your company.
- Don't avoid difficult conversations. If you see performance issues deal with them immediately. It's important that people know where they stand, especially if you might have to fire them later.
- If your business is changing you may be tempted to design new jobs to fit the people you already have on staff. If you are in doubt, avoid this temptation. Design the job descriptions based on what you need, and then see if you can fit the people in the slots. If you can't, then you need to make the tough calls. You won't do anyone a favor by putting them in a job where they have little chance of happiness or success.
- Don't underestimate the emotional impact on those who are left behind. They will be emotionally shaken by any change, and will also have questions about anything that might need to be done differently. You will need to focus on anticipating and answering their questions -- both emotional and logistical.

Here are some of the questions you should be prepared to answer:
- Why did this happen?
- How will this affect me?
- What do I need to do differently?
- How will we handle the transition?
- What will be different in the future?

Some questions probably won't be asked, but people will look for the answer in your tone and body language, like:
- Is the ship sinking?
- Who's next?
- Are you telling the whole truth?
- Will this place be better or worse now?
- Should I be looking for a new job?

Here are a few rules of thumb for dealing with traumatic situations:
- Don't sugar-coat the truth. Be honest and accurately convey the basic facts.
- Don't make promises you won't be able to deliver on. You may soften the blow now but you'll ruin your credibility forever.
- Admit fault if it's appropriate: if you are a manager you may have contributed to the situation in some way.
- Don't blame your boss or upper management. This only encourages "blame the boss" behaviors. People won't respect you for it, and may emulate the behavior behind your back.
- Don't overexplain. This is one of the most common faults of younger managers. You can find yourself answering questions people weren't even asking, and start digging yourself into a hole where you create more doubts than you resolve. Be brief and to the point, and let people's questions drive your answers.
- Do it quickly. Difficult management moments work like ripping off a bandage: It may hurt just as much but it's over twice as fast.

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28 September 2005

Search for images -- visually

Step had a very cool answer to my question about visual search interfaces. It's not completely there yet but I think it's headed in the right direction. It allows you to search for images based on how similar they are to others.

Check out Cydral > Web Page and Image Search.

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27 September 2005

Create a staging area for large tasks

Create a Staging Area for Large Tasks: "A large construction site is an amazing thing to watch from up high. From my comfortable viewpoint, I have taken away some insight that has guided my own approach to managing large tasks: create a staging area before starting any work."

Courtesy of To-done.

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26 September 2005

Why you keep losing your best people

Here's a comment someone left on my blog in response to a recent post.

"... all too often, managers and their bosses don't care what you think, and their boss certainly doesn't care, either. Approaching your boss outside of the work atmosphere can be helpful, but all too often, I've seen any broaching of the subject by an employee lead to their "disappearance" within a day or two. And that's probably why there's a dead elephant in the room so often; because employees know if they speak up they are putting themselves in jeopardy. Until management and HR change to start viewing employees as people with skills and knowledge, rather than automatons that can easily be replaced with another, the communication gap will always be there. Bad managers are what cause people to leave companies, and upper management still hasn't realized they have mostly bad managers."

What kind of managers do you have in your company? And how do you know?

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25 September 2005

100 most often misspelled words

Dr. Language gives us a lecture on the 100 Most Often Misspelled Words in the English language. Each comes with a mnemonic pill, which, if swallowed, will help you remember to spell it right next time.

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Visual thinking question for today

So I was thinking today: how could you design an interface for visual search? I don't mean where you'd enter text and find an image, like Google image seach (which I love). Although you can find an image that way, you're still searching with text. I want to incorporate images into the search process.

For example, what if you know what something looks like, but don't know what it's called?

I picture an interface that involves fuzzy logic; one that would enable you to gradually circle in by choosing things like "kinda like this."

Such an interface could be helpful; for example, if you were searching your hard drive for an image, and although you knew what it looked like, you also knew the image title was something meaningless, like "img00345.jpg.

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24 September 2005

Saturday night fights

Tonight's fight comes to you from Microninja. That's right, Microninja.

The land to the south has been overrun by armies of dead and mutated warriors. The king's daughter has been stolen away. Can the three-foot ninja save the princess and the kingdom? Click here for the main event. Be sure to read the instructions first, or you will die many painful deaths.

Hungry? Turtles make a tasty snack; and if you long for the days of the teenage mutant ninja turtle pie, you can sign the petition that asks for its return.

After the fight, stop by the gift store, Tiny Ninjas, for a souvenir, or make up your own tiny ninja scene at Tiny Ninja Theater.

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23 September 2005

Picasso on "getting things done"

The "visual thought of the week" is an idea I was playing with a while ago before I started blogging instead. (Click to view).

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22 September 2005

How to develop a questionnaire

A comprehensive -- you might say exhaustive -- guide to developing questionnaires: United States General Accounting Office

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21 September 2005

How to write a better report or white paper

Irene Ng, professor in marketing at the University of Exeter, has some great advice on how to improve your report or white paper. She applies five rules:

1. Start at the End. We usually write papers or reports in a historical way, finishing with our results and conclusions. But readers usually want to know our findings before learning how they were obtained. Technical reports and learned articles are not detective stories. We therefore should start at the end, giving our main results and conclusions first.
2. Be Prepared to Revise. Few people can write clearly without revision.
3. Cut Down on Long Words. Technical writing is often dense and heavy. It can be made more readable by using shorter sentences and fewer long words.
4. Be Brief. Brevity is best achieved by leaving things out. This works at all levels: sections, paragraphs, sentences, and words.
5. Think of the Reader. We must consider what our readers will do with our report or paper. What will they want to communicate to others?"

She gives a deeper explanation of each rule in Writing Technical Papers and Reports.

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20 September 2005

The suggestive dictionary

Here's an interesting tool called the ObjectGraph Dictionary. It could help you when you are unsure of a spelling, or when you want just the right definition; it's an online dictionary that suggests words as you type. In addition, it pulls multiple definitions from several online dictionaries.

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19 September 2005

How easy is your writing to understand?

Are your written messages easy to read and understand? One way to know is to look at how often people respond positively to your requests; or whether they respond at all.

Do people read your messages? Or do they skim them, save them to "read later" or otherwise ignore them? If your writing is hard to read or difficult to understand, people may not get your point, or they may decide to skip reading it entirely.

Clear, simple, easy-to-understand writing is a mark of an excellent communicator. It's worth taking some time and effort to improve. After all, people won't act on information they don't understand.

There's an easy way to check any Microsoft Word document for readability. It uses something called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. The test has two parts: "reading ease" and "grade level."

The tests compare two things: the number of words per sentence, and the number of syllables per word. Shorter words, fewer syllables, and shorter sentences yield you a higher score.

The reading ease test scores you on a scale of 1 to 100 (100 being the best). The grade level test gives you a rough approximation of the U.S. grade level the text is most appropriate for.

Here's how to test the readability of any Microsoft Word document:
- In the tools menu, go to options
- Click the "Spelling and Grammar" tab
- Select "Show readability statistics"

The next time you do a grammar check, Word will show you how your document scored on readability according to the Flesch-Kincaid scale.

Language isn't math, and any mathematical test of readability is going to be imperfect. Some longer words are easy to understand, and some shorter ones quite difficult. But as a rough indicator of how you're doing, it's not bad.

This document, for example, scored 56.5 on reading ease and 9.0 on grade level. That puts it between Time magazine (52) and Reader's Digest (65).

If you want to try a deeper analysis of your text, check out textalyzer.

Give it a try before you send out your next proposal!

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XPLANE is looking for quality consultants

Customers are banging our doors down. The demand for our work is growing, and we need quality people to join our growing company.

This post is about consultants: the people who lead our teams and manage customer relationships.

I mentioned last week we were looking for Concept Developers (Sketch artists). We're still seeking people for that job as well. If you think that job might suit you please contact our Creative Director Scott Matthews.

We're looking for quality people who are great communicators, innovative thinkers, good managers, and who have a strong, positive dynamic with customers. You will work on an XPLANE development team, partnered with a Concept Developer (CD). The CD is the artist/designer on the team and you will manage the projects, as well as the overall customer relationship.

You may not be an artist but you're definitely a visual thinker, comfortable scribbling a "napkin-sketch" at the lunch table or on a whiteboard. If you join us, your job will be to work with XPLANE customers to:
- Identify communication challenges and gaps
- Design communication programs that fill those gaps and deliver understanding
- Gather information through research, in-person interviews and facilitated meetings
- Manage the programs and projects from concept through delivery
- Do all of this faster and more effectively than any other company

You will be trained in our methods, but we are looking for people who can quickly familiarize themselves with our consulting "toolkit" and immediately begin to innovate. In other words, we give you the tools but not a complete roadmap -- insight and innovation are required to each customer.

Here's a rundown of what we're looking for:
Agility: You've heard of extreme programming? We need "extreme consultants." We work in a fast-paced, dynamic environment. You'll need to be the kind of person who is comfortable with change and able to think on your feet.
Communication skills: You'll need to be an excellent communicator in every sense of the word. You will need to be clear and concise in all spoken and written communications. You'll need to impress customers with your ability to listen and quickly understand their problems. This is more important than impressing them with your brilliance.
Self-starter: The good news is that we're a small company with a flat org structure, and because of that we can offer huge growth potential -- both personal and financial -- for great people. The bad news is you will be on your own much of the time, often with limited resources and support. You won't get much hand-holding and most of the time you'll be expected to "figure it out."
Analytical problem-solver: You'll need to be the kind of person who can quickly grasp complex issues and convey them clearly to others.
Team player: Working well with others is a must -- "high-maintenance" individuals need not apply.

This is an exciting opportunity and we need people right away. Do me a big favor and forward this to anyone who might be appropriate.

Interested parties should send bio and resume to Janet Hull, XPLANE Operations Manager.

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18 September 2005

What is your personal voice?

Your voice leaves an impression on others. Do you know what that impression is?

Are you loud? Crude? Soft-spoken? Timid? Distant? Your personal voice comes through not just in conversation but in any communication where words are a part: emails, announcements, meetings and presentations.

Your personal voice defines you in the eyes of others, just as much as your clothing or grooming habits. The right voice will leave a strong impression that people will remember. The wrong voice can make a powerful message seem flat and uninteresting.

How do you work on improving your voice?
1) Pay attention to it. It's true for anything, but by simply focusing on your voice, you will begin to improve it.
2) Measure your success. Measurement isn't just about numbers. Watch people's faces when you talk. Gauge their reactions to your emails and other written communications. Is it working? If you're paying attention you will note that some communications work better than others. See if you can figure out why.
3) Be personal. When you speak or write, address your thoughts directly to people, not the void. Use the word "you" more than "I." Research has shown that an informal voice is more effective and memorable than a formal one.
4) Don't shield people from your emotions. Your feelings define you; they offer the context that gives everything else worth and meaning.
5) Keep it real. At the end of the day, your personal voice must genuinely reflect who you are as a person.

Great people throughout history had a personal voice that defined them. It's easy to think of artists and writers such as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh, and musicians, from J.S. Bach to Miles Davis. But don't forget powerful communicators in other disciplines, like Martin Luther King, Ronald Reagan, Oprah Winfrey, Carl Sagan, Steve Jobs and countless others.

The list of great communicators is endless, and each one has a powerful voice that is uniquely theirs.

What's yours?

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17 September 2005

Saturday night fights

Who would win in a monkey-dinosaur fight? Care to guess? Tonight's main event is a cliff-hanger, right down to the last minute: Monkey vs. dinosaur.

During the break you might want to have a go at the monkey slot machine, or if you're hungry, try a monkey snack.

Of course everything is over-dramatized in the movie version.

If you get really inspired you might challenge a friend to your very own monkey battle.

Tonight's educational moment is on Monkey Knife Fighting: "Monkey is our closest relative of the animal group and his knowledge of combat is similar to our own. Monkey's concerned with keeping his head just as we are; Tiger fights Monkey, Snake fights Monkey, RajaNaga fights Monkey, he answers them all. Man has nothing to teach Monkey, we can only learn! "

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16 September 2005

Infect your environment

Do you let small issues build up inside? Do you simmer? Does it raise your stress levels?

If you want to change things, you need to believe that you can start small and still have big impact.

In this case, starting small means you begin to turn the tables by investing your positive energy, a little bit at a time.

From 43 Folders: "At work we usually wait until we've had enough of a particular situation and explode, leaving a lot of bad feeling and damage. If we can begin to infect our environment in a positive way on a daily basis, the changes will be lasting, less damaging and sustainable."

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Dealing with the poor performer

Open Loops: "You may have been a manager of a department for quite a while and, either by sheer enlightenment or a kick in the seat of the pants from someone higher up, you suddenly see problem performers that you have never seen before. In any case, you must now deal with the poor performer. "

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15 September 2005

Writing prompts for analytical types

Are you a spreadsheet kinda person? Need to be creative about your communications, but not sure how to go about it?

Check out Writing Fix: Left-Brained Writing Prompts...Long Live Logic and Structure!: "The writing activities housed on this page celebrate a left-brained approach to writing and challenge you to be more logical as you come up with ideas for writing topics"

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14 September 2005

Are you living in a prison of your own design?

Do you see problems in your workplace?

Do you feel like you know how to fix these problems, but nobody's interested in hearing about it? Do you feel that you're not listened to, that you have no impact, that you are powerless to effect any meaningful change?

It could be that you are working in one of those top-down, hierarchical or highly political companies where nobody wants to hear about problems, and independent thought is not a virtue. But there are fewer and fewer of these companies every day, because they are going out of business. The world is changing too fast, and no company can avoid change and survive.

So consider this: what if it's not your company that constrains you at all? What if it's you?

It might be time to look at your constructions. Try asking yourself these key questions:
1) Are you really powerless? How much of your powerlessness is based on assumptions? Nearly everything has been talked about before or tried before, right? What makes today any different? Why should you succeed when others have failed? This is an imprisoning thought process. Today is always different, and you can succeed where others have failed; it happens every day.
2) Are you sure you want change? Most of the time it's easier to talk about change than to do it. If you really want things to happen, you have to be willing to put significant effort into it. You may or may not be rewarded. To a true change agent, the change itself is the real reward.
3) Are you talking or doing? Most change agents don't ask permission, they just make things happen. And much of the time, their bosses appreciate it. When you see a problem, do you talk about it or do you fix it?
4) Are you willing to take a risk? It's true that people sometimes get fired for sticking their necks out. But it's equally true that people get promoted for the same reason. Do you want to stay where you are? Then do your job, keep your mouth shut, and live with the status quo. Do you want to go places? Stick your neck out. Put your job on the line for something you believe in. No risk, no reward.
5) Do you bring problems to the table, or solutions? It's one thing to identify a problem, and quite another to be able to solve it, especially with limited resources. If you want people to listen to you, bring achievable solutions to the table, and be ready to take the lead if asked.
6) Why not? This is one of my favorite questions, both as a manager and as a practitioner. In my opinion it is not asked nearly enough. Try asking it at your next meeting.

If you feel powerless, you are living in a prison. It could be that the prison is real. It could be that you have designed it yourself. Either way, it's important that you break out of prison, now.

Think of it this way: if everyone keeps their head down and their mouths shut, and nobody sticks their necks out, the whole company will probably go down in the end. So if you stand up for positive change you win either way:
- If you get fired, you leave a sinking company earlier rather than later.
- If you get promoted, both you and your company will be better off.

It's time to start planning your jailbreak.

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13 September 2005

Find that word that's on the tip of your tongue

Trying to think of a word?

Try the OneLook Reverse Dictionary: "OneLook's reverse dictionary lets you describe a concept and get back a list of words and phrases related to that concept. Your description can be a few words, a sentence, a question, or even just a single word. Just type it into the box and hit the 'Find words' button. (Keep it short to get the best results.) In most cases you'll get back a list of related terms with the best matches shown first. "

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12 September 2005

Find anything

Are you a master of the Boolean search?

No? Me neither. If you want an easy way to power-search Google, without an MST (Masters in Search Technology) check out the Google Ultimate Interface, from Fagan Finder.

Find anything or your money back.

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11 September 2005

From fog to focus

Are you caught in a fog?

Do you feel that, although you are working as hard as you can, you can't clearly see the road ahead?Despite your hard work, do you feel that you're making progress too slowly? Like running in sand? Or worse yet, is it both? Like you're caught in a fog and running in sand?

Changing your perspective might change your reality.

People often look at things in a linear way. That is, we tend to think of everything as having a beginning and an end. This task has started; this task is complete; these others are underway; that one is on hold.

But when you look at the world around you, most endings are also beginnings. The world of nature is a world of cycles, not linear events. Rain falls from the sky and eventually ends up in the clouds again. Day and night, phases of the moon, and the turning of the seasons are all cycles. As you look at similar cycles and begin to compare them, you can begin to see subtle differences you might not otherwise notice.

Noticing differences is the first step toward real progress.

Whatever your situation, here are a few ideas that can help you establish a cycle, so you can begin to move toward productivity and meaningful results. You will make progress by completing cycles, noting differences, and initiating feedback loops.

Contextualize: Start by establishing a baseline and defining it somehow.What’s going on? Observe your situation objectively, as if you were on the outside looking in. Ask tough questions. As you gather information, you will see problems. Don’t point blame, but do your best to see the unvarnished truth. To avoid groupthink, reach out to peers and mentors, not only in your own industry but across as broad a base of industries, cultures and practices as you can find. A deep, contextual understanding of today will help you set your goals for tomorrow based on reality, instead of wishful thinking. Try to examine, document and report on the situation as if you were completely objective, like someone from another planet. If you don't have all the facts, don't let it hold you back -- guess. Don't worry, you'll always have more information on the next cycle.

Prioritize:What do you want, and by when? Approach the situation like an architect, not a mechanic. In other words, don't look at broken things and try to fix them! If you try to fix things, your best possible result will be a return to your former state. Think of it this way: if your goal is to get from here to there, fixing a broken motorcycle, at best, will get you a working motorcycle. You will never get to an airplane with that kind of thinking. To avoid being seduced by your assumptions, biases and blind spots, set clear, simple goals based on the what -- the end result you want to achieve -- as opposed to the how -- how you will do it. Most people can focus on three priorities at a time. What are your top three?

Visualize: How will you get there? Think about the resources that are available to you the environent you are in, and what's realistically achievable. Imagine what will need to be done in order to achieve your objectives. Imagine who is needed, and how it will be executed. Close your eyes and try to visualize it. Can you picture it? You might try drawing in on a whiteboard with stick figures. Where are the potential pitfalls? Can you anticipate these in advance, and mitigate their effects? How will you, or your people, know that they’re doing it right? How will you know when it's done?

Mobilize:Go. The sooner you get moving the sooner you will succeed. If you wait till your plan is complete -- till every contingency is covered -- you will never get anywhere. Progress, not perfection, is the goal. Enable decision-making as close to the action as you can. Build feedback into your execution mechanisms, so you can improve as you move. Some degree of failure is inevitable. Accelerate the failure to accelerate the learning.

Set the cycle in motion: Gather feedback to complete the cycle. Use it to enrich your thinking and improve your understanding of the situation. Feedback is the most important and most often neglected piece of the puzzle. When you first contextualize you are guessing. When you incorporate feedback and use it to re-contextualize you are improving. Feedback doesn't have to be numbers; it can be as simple as asking people questions about how you are doing.

Congratulations! By forging the critical link between mobilize and contextualize, you have established a baseline. Success does not come from perfect execution, but from a fast-moving cycle of continuous improvement. The faster you go, the more you learn. The more you learn the stronger you get.

Progress, not perfection!

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10 September 2005

Saturday night fights

Feeling contentious? Obstreperous? Ferocious? Vociferous? Welcome to another edition of Saturday night fights!

The main event this evening promises to be a battle royal: Microsoft vs. Google.
Dates are the dates of the blog entries, not necessarily events. What am I, your personal research assistant? And who cares about facts on Saturday night anyway? This is satire dammit!

Just trying to get you in the mood. Now let's rumble!

March 25, 1998: Microsoft patents ones and zeroes, creating a "lock" on the software industry.

May 3: Gates enters the fray, bringing "a ferocity that no one has seen since the Netscape war."

July 26: Microsoft and Google take to the skies in a battle for aerial supremacy.

August 2: A small Microsoft Delta Force enters Google territory.

August 23: Google launches a major counterattack into desktop territory.

August 25: Google Talk rips off the Microsoft butterfly. Zing! But Microsoft quickly responds by sending Scoble to Google to investigate.

August 31: Google announces plan to destroy all information it can't index. Ouch!

September 2: Ballmer throws a chair at @#$%! Google!

Both companies have become entangled in lawsuits and... hold on, the crowd seems to be leaving. Wait, the fight isn't over!

Well, if you must leave, try a random snack on your way out. If it doesn't suit your taste just hit the refresh button to try another.

Maybe you're leaving because you're goingt to a party tonight? Before you go, you might want to review Thirty - Eight Ways to Win an Argument, by Schopenhauer (just in case). My favorite is number 5: "Use your opponent's beliefs against him." Sometimes you need to defend yourself in casual conversation. This tactical training could be especially valuable if you happen to work for Microsoft or Google.

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09 September 2005

Want people to remember what you write?

"If you want people to learn and remember what you write, say it conversationally. This isn't just for short informal blog entries and articles, either. We're talking books. Assuming they're meant for learning, and not reference, books written in a conversational style are more likely to be retained and recalled than a book on the same topics written in a more formal tone. Most of us know this intuitively, but there are studies to prove it."

Lately, when it comes to clear communication, it seems to me that all roads lead to O'Reilly.

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Paint a picture in the minds of your listeners

Presentations: Public Speaking: "Painting pictures in the minds of your listeners is the key to effective presenting and persuasion. Yet many people dismiss this part of a presentation as just so much fluff. They may change their minds when they understand how the human brain processes information. "

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08 September 2005

Do you know how to say NO?

Sometimes the biggest key to increasing your productivity is to take some time and work on your "Stop doing" list.

Learning how to say no in a polite way is a good start.

Try it at least once sometime today.

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How effective is your workplace communication flow?

How effective is the communication flow in your workplace? Do people know what is expected of them? Do they know how they are doing and how they will be rewarded if they do it well?

I'm conducting a "lightning survey" to get a sense of how well companies out there are communicationg. I'd appreciate it if you would take a moment to answer 10 questions on how your workplace is doing.

Your response will be completely anonymous. As soon as I have 100 responses I will publish the results. Thanks in advance for your help!

[This survey is now closed. Check out the results!]

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07 September 2005

How the Moleskine Rocked My World

Speaking of paper, check out the following from Omar Shahine's WebLog : How the Moleskine Rocked My World:

"It's so weird how a small black book and a nice pen can change things."

"I feel that I've arbitrarily limited my own success because I never even allowed myself to consider paper as a tool for helping me. Kind of short sighted looking back."

"My Tablet PC and OneNote has an amazing writing experience, but my laptop is too big, heavy, and runs on batteries, making it non-ideal for note taking. Until there is a small slatelike device that can capture ink like the Tablet PC, I will probably never feel that it's suitable for the kinds of things my Mokeskines are."

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Paper comes to life

Curious AND intriguing. The following link comes courtesy of Haddock, by way of Plasticbag.org:

exbiblio - the concept: "Rumors of the death of paper have been with us for some time, and appear to have been exaggerated. If anything, the more time we spend at computer screens, the more we appreciate the qualities of paper; the flexibility, the low cost, the convenience, the reliability, and the ease of reading. Must we give up these advantages to gain the benefits of electronic documents?"

I do love paper.

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The dead elephant in the middle of the room

Many times in the corporate world, you will find yourself facing the "dead elephant in the middle of the room."

This is the issue that everyone is aware of, but somehow nobody mentions. It could be emotionally charged; it could feel too big to confront; it could be that nobody is comfortable bringing it up. If you are a manager, it might very well be that you are the only one who doesn't see it.

Nevertheless it is huge. It fills the room and it stinks to high heaven: it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get anything meaningful accomplished as long as it is there.

How do you know there's an elephant in the room? You might see the following symptoms:
- You catch people exchanging meaningful glances and you don't know why.
- People aren't responding to your thoughts or statements in the way you expected them to.
- You note awkward or uncomfortable silences and you don't know why.

How do you get the elephant out of the room so you can move on with business? Not by avoiding it, that's for sure. You need to shine a spotlight on it.

First you have to understand what it is. The best way to get this kind of information is by working on your listening and questioning skills. You may be able to do it in a meeting, but it may take more investigation. Try talking to people outside the office and having casual conversations. In a one-on-one situation, especially outside the work environment, people often feel more comfortable raising difficult or emotionally charged issues.

If they feel that you are listening and that you truly care, you probably won't have to ask the question at all; chances are that they want to bring it up. So don't probe. If you have to ask questions keep them general, like "how's work treating you these days?" If there's an elephant lying around and people feel comfortable with you, they will tell you about it.

If you are not a manager you can still bring it to your boss's attention in a similar way: get your manager off-site or in a comfortable environment, perhaps at lunch or over a cup of coffee, and try to bring up the subject as delicately as you can. Listening and questioning skills can be quite helpful here as well.

Once you are aware of the elephant, you'll need to raise the issue in a public forum. Here are a few thoughts about how to shine a spotlight on a dead elephant:
1) Broach the subject. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, you can't move ahead without bringing it up. At the beginning of a meeting, or towards the end, are usually the most opportune times. You may want to introduce it in a general way. Don't mention anyone by name, even though you may have discussed it with them. Just say, "a number of you have mentioned to me..." or "some of you might be wondering about..."
2) Call it like it is. You don't get any points for euphemisms or vague language. Describe the dead elephant in all its stinky ugliness.
3) Describe the emotions that surround the elephant. Don't be shy about sharing your personal emotions related to the issue. Seeing you talk about feelings will make others comfortable to do the same.
4) Ask people how they feel about it. Usually people are dying to discuss it and are happy to discuss it once the issue is raised. If people seem reticent, encourage them to talk. Whoever the first person to speak is, and whatever they say, listen carefully and show them that you understand. You don't have to agree, but letting the person fully air their views will serve to encourage others.
5) Schedule this kind of meeting later in the day, when people have a tendency to be more agreeable.
6) Follow up. This is a basic rule of management that is -- all too often -- forgotten or ignored. If you make a commitment or promise to address an issue, follow up and make sure it gets done. If you don't, you risk losing credibility with your team.

As always, please share your comments on the usefulness of these ideas.

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06 September 2005

Can you micromanage yourself?

Here's a great article from 43 Folders: Harnessing your interstitial time, which could help you improve your time management skills. The article is about mining those unexpected moments when you unexpectedly have extra time on your hands (being on hold, for instance). The idea is that you can train yourself to use these moments more productively.

"The point is to get in the habit of challenging yourself to see what you can accomplish over very small, unscheduled periods of time. Like bird watching or shell collecting, these habits will improve with your ability to recognize this pattern quickly."

A few of the tips you'll find in this article:
- 1-2 minutes - Review your inbox, answer an email, or take out the trash
- 2-5 minutes - Return a fast phone call or draft a short email
- 5-10 minutes - Proof a draft report, finish your time sheets, or call to follow-up on a request you've made
- 10-30 minutes - Draft a new blog post or work report, research a client question on Google, or cull your Current Work file

43Folders is rapidly becoming one of my favorite spots for productivity tips. You might want to bookmark it.

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Will we ever replace paper?

We're getting close, but no technology has succeeded in replacing paper yet. The promise of a paperless, digital workplace is great, but as the emerging back-to-paper movement suggests, there still seems to be a long way to go.

One of the things I have tried in the past is Anoto functionality, which combines pen and paper in a unique way. I first read about Anoto in the April 2001 issue of Wired magazine.

The story was about this hot new company that had invented a way for a pen to remember everything it wrote, and beam the information directly to a computer. It involved a tiny digital camera and hard disk in the pen, and a complex dot patterm, which was invisible to the naked eye and somehow never repeated itself exactly so the pen could always "know" where it was.

I didn't fully understand it, but I have been wanting something like this forever: a way that I could write on paper and synchronize the files with a computer or PDA, where they could be stored digitally.

The article was titled "The hot new medium: Paper", and at the time, I was convinced that it was an April fool's joke Wired was playing on all of us. I mean, the company was called "Anoto" and I was waiting for the "This was Anoto real story" joke.

Later that month though, a friend convinced me it was real and I looked up Anoto's website. Turns out it was a real company after all.

So I got online and bought the pen and some of the special paper. I had to buy it from a site in the UK because I couldn't find one in the States.

When I got the thing I tried it out and was amazed. It worked perfectly; better than I had anticipated. I could carry the pen around, write in the sketchbook any time I wanted, and when I got back to my laptop I could synchronize the drawings with my PC. I could even go back later and modify a drawing I had worked on two days earlier: the pen could always remember where I was.

I got a Nokia version of the pen, which was cool because I could use the same charger that I use with my phone. The pen synched with a "digital diary" on my computer. I could turn sketches into PowerPoint slides with the touch of a button.

I brought the digital pen and a digital sketchbook to an XPLANE training session and passed it around. Everyone took a turn.

I was very happy with the whole system but for some reason it didn't become a part of my daily routine. Why? I'm not sure exactly, but if I had to put my finger on it I would say it was the complexity of the entire system:
- You had to have special paper, and remember to bring it with you
- You had to have a special pen, and it was battery powered so there was always the potential for it to run out of juice
- Since it didn't fully replace my PC, it didn't actually lighten my burden when traveling
- In fact it increased my load, because I had to carry the PC, the pen, the special paper and the docking bay.

Now I'm moving on to my next great hope: the tablet PC. It's not quite the ultimate tool yet, but it's starting to get close.

If you want to try the digital pen/paper scenario, you can get everything you need at Datamind, the UK company where I got mine. As far as I know, they will ship it to you just about anywhere.

If you don't mind managing a number of moving parts it's a great system.

If you have had an experience with Anoto functionality -- positive or negative -- please leave a comment. I would love to hear about your experience.

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05 September 2005

Notepaper generator

Here's an interesting tool for back-to-paper evangelists called a notepaper generator. It was designed by Simson L. Garfinkel, and it allows you to generate personal notepaper over the web.

In case you lose your notes, you can set it up so every page has your preferred contact info.

You can also download the source code under a Creative Commons license.

Thanks to Arlen Britton for this link.

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04 September 2005

Can you keep your entire life in a text file?

One man is trying to live his life in a text file: "As Danny O'Brien discovered during his research into effective organizational habits of geeks, text is the simplest, most platform-independent, fastest-to-search format we have for storing information."

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Pencil revolution

In all this talk about paper I fear I have neglected a key player: Pencil revolution.

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03 September 2005

The best technology ever invented

Paper, yes paper, is still the best, least expensive, most long-lived and most reliable technology:

- It doesn't need to be upgraded. Paper has not significantly changed for thousands of years. A hundred-year-old piece of paper is still usable -- readable and writable -- today.

- It does not need electricity or any other power source to function.

- It does not crash. Unless you spill something on it, or take the effort to light it on fire, you will not lose your work.

- Industry standards are open and widely accepted. Paper comes in standard formats for standard purposes: Letter-size, tabloid-size, index cards, business cards, etc. These standard sizes fit standard devices such as printers, fax machines, etc.

- It is ligher in weight and more transportable than any other technology.

- It's inexpensive. The entry-level price point is just a few cents. Usually it can be found for free.

- It's easily learned and used. Just about anyone in the world can be up and running in minutes, even a small child.

The back-to-paper movement is in full swing. You can find an eloquent manifesto on the subject by Douglas Johnston at A Million Monkeys Typing. It's titled well: "The Lost Art."

The much-maligned, all-too-often taken for granted staple of everyday communication, paper, is coming back. The back-to-paper movement is growing.

Viva the revolution!!!

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Get more productive with your email

If you want to improve your productivity, there is proably no better place to begin than to focus on that hungry "information monster" that devours way too much of your attention every day: your email. Check out entropic principal: Using Thunderbird to Get Things Done, for some interesting ideas about how to categorize your email and tasks:

"I've assigned my labels as follows: Delete, Archive, Action Required, Wait, Defer."

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The back-to-paper movement

The back-to-paper movement is gaining momentum. Take a look at the D*I*Y Planner: Paper, productivity & passion: "We are a community of people who see the value of paper as a medium for planning, productivity, creative expression, and exploring ideas. "

You heard it here first.

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Saturday night fights

The weekends are a time to relax and get away from it all – and what better way to relax than to watch a good fight!

I have two Saturday night fight options for you this week:

If you’re a dev geek you have got to check out the Sumobot competition from the Windows Embedded Devcon, emceed by none other than Windows Embedded guru Mike Hall.

If you’re more of a comics geek you need to check out the Kami-Robo fight between The Ole (pictured here) and Thunder Tiger.

Of course if you’re both a dev geek and a comics geek, you will need to check out both fights, in which case you might get hungry. If you do, you might want to have a sandwich, courtesy of Bill Keaggy.

Let me know if you’d like to see Saturday night fights become a recurring tradition in this blog.

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The ultimate PDA

I'm not a PDA guy because I haven't found the ultimate PDA yet. To me, the ultimate PDA is as thin and light as a piece of paper. It can fit into my back pocket. It's disposable and fully recyclable. It requires no electricity. And oh yeah, it's free.

Guess what: I've found it. It's the Pocketmod, a new way, low-tech way to keep yourself organized.

The Pocketmod is made out of paper, still one of the best and most long-lived technologies ever invented.

Pocketmod offers a number of "mods" that allow you to customize your Pocketmod to suit your needs. I've set mine up for monthly use, with a to-do list, four weekly calendars, a monthly calendar to capture dates for the next month, and a yearly calendar as well just in case.

For those with a need for a PDA that will hold a little more information, you might want to try the Hipster PDA, which can hold significantly more data.

The Hipster PDA uses index cards and clips. There's a whole user community out there, and even a major wiki entry to get you started. If you're willing to put in a little energy, you can even synch between your paper and digital PDA.

Dare I say there's a major "back to paper" movement underway? And just when I finally broke down and got a tablet pc. What was I thinking?

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02 September 2005

Why you should leave comments on my blog

I love to get your comments on my blog: it's highly valuable feedback that can help me continue to make it more useful and relevant to you. If that isn't reason enough, here's another reason for leaving thoughtful comments on any blog you visit: It could make you famous!

"Comment added to blog leads to inclusion in the Wall Street Journal" from The Intuitive Life Business Blog: "In less than six days I am quoted in a national newspaper because I've gotten involved with the discussion happening in the blogosphere."

Many thanks to my friend Richard Black, Technology Strategist.

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Visual thinking: How culture influences perception

XPLANE is known as the visual thinking company. Sometimes people ask me what we mean by visual thinking. One answer is that seeing and thinking are difficult to separate: The mind works with the eyes in mysterious ways to interpret the world. Here's good example of how that works: a recent study about how your cultural background may influence the way you see the world.

Wired News: In Asia, the Eyes Have It: "Kyle R. Cave of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst commented: 'These results are particularly striking because they show that these cultural differences extend to low level perceptual processes such as how we control our eyes. They suggest that the way that we see and explore the world literally depends on where we come from.'"

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01 September 2005

When a chart is not enough

Visuals are a great way to get a large volume of information across in a very short period of time. Our eyes are directly connected to our brain, and we process visual information far more rapidly and effectively than any other kind.

Charts and graphs are powerful tools to make information more visual and engaging. But when you are describing something really new or different, charts and graphs may not be enough.

For example, when early explorers returned from distant lands, they had to describe all sorts of strange and unusual creatures; things people had never seen before. On occasion they would describe them to artists who would attempt to depict them visually. Here are a couple of examples:

In this case the pictures depict elephants, and they were created purely from verbal descriptions. You can see from these pictures that even talented visual artists can have trouble visualizing something really new or different, something they had never seen before.

Now, imagine you were an explorer, and that you needed to explain what an elephant was using charts and graphs. It might look something like this (Click to enlarge picture):

How the elephant differs from other animals

Do you think the chart is getting the real point across?

Today’s world is changing at a breakneck pace. Often the things we are challenged with communicating are complex, new and different – we are often trying to explain things that are really new or different; things they have never seen before.

And still we attempt to convey these ideas using charts and graphs. Charts and graphs are a wonderful way to visualize complexity; they are powerful tools for depicting rich sets of data; but there are times – and they come more and more often these days – when a chart is not enough.

Remember: when you have something really new or different to convey; something people have never seen before – draw them a picture. Your audience will thank you for it.

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How to know when someone is lying to you

Interesting post, courtesy of digg: How to detect lies - body language, reactions, speech patterns

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How much information is too much?

When you are presenting information, how do you determine what to leave in and what to leave out? It can be difficult, especially if what you want to communicate is complex or potentially confusing.

As you think through your presentation, turn the situation around in your head. Think about the person you are presenting to and try to imagine the meeting from their perspective: Where does the meeting fall on their priority list? Think about the other things on their plate. If you were that person, how much time would you want to devote to this issue? How much energy or attention would you be willing to commit to understanding?

The amount of information you include should be in direct proportion to the amount of time and attention you expect from your audience. Someone who is highly interested in the subject matter – a technical reader, for example – will enjoy deep and textured content, with many layers and shades of meaning. One who is less interested, for example, a sales prospect, will prefer a brief, simple picture or description that he can understand as quickly as possible.

Know in advance how much time your reader is willing to invest, and design your presentation accordingly. When in doubt, leave it out.

Nobody will ever complain that your presentation was too short.

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