What It Takes to Plan and Host a Conference in Only 46 Hours

In how many hours? Yes, 46 hours, according to my calculations. Sounds impossible? It can be done. As a matter of fact, it happened this week after the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) had to cancel its annual Technology Conference.

The conference was to start on Wednesday with exhibitor move-in and pre-conference workshops, but DC was still under nearly two feet of snow from the weekend’s storm and was due to get one foot more in blizzard conditions on Wednesday. Airlines were already canceling flights. Some attendees and exhibitors got to town on Tuesday before everything shut down but many were still stuck at home. Even many of those based in DC were still snowbound due to impassable roads and no Metro or train service above ground.

On Tuesday morning ASAE announced via Twitter that it would make a decision by 3:00 p.m. as to whether the conference would be canceled. That’s when the member community started working on Plan B. Later ASAE announced their decision to cancel, the right thing to do considering the conditions. Immediately after, Maddie Grant and Lindy Dreyer of Socialfish blogged about UnTech10, Plan B, an unconference that a team of members had quickly started organizing.

On Thursday, 75 attended UnTech10 in person and 425 attended virtually via a live stream (live webcast) of the programming. I didn’t have the time or budget to go to ASAE’s Technology Conference, but now I was able to “attend” UnTech10 for several hours on Thursday. It was an intellectually stimulating afternoon, time well spent. On Friday, although there wasn’t an on-site component, a full day of webinars was scheduled for the virtual audience.

What do you need to pull off something like this? Here’s what I learned from Maddie and Lindy’s post about organizing it.

You need word of mouth (or mouse) marketing. Most of the marketing for UnTech10 was done via Twitter. A hashtag for the conference was created (#UnTech10) so members could follow that stream of tweets to keep updated. Keep your tweets short enough so that others can retweet them. Vendors also notified clients via email.

Create a Facebook fan page. Although UnTech10 didn’t do this, I saw several references to UnTech10 in my Facebook News Feed as friends shared the original Socialfish blog post.

Create a buzz-worthy email and ask your members to forward it to those they know in the industry or profession. Give clear instructions on how to register and compelling reasons on why they will want to participate. Don’t scare them off by using only technical lingo. This is user-friendly technology, like watching TV!

Contact affiliated or friendly organizations for help in spreading the word. Provide copy and links that they can use to share the news. If you create a sense of buzz and excitement about something, it will go viral if you make it easy for others to help you.

Create a central hub for handouts, schedule, instructions on how to participate and an archive of webcast segments. Content experts were asked to submit program ideas to a wiki. The organizers created a full day of on-site programming (that was live streamed) for Thursday and a full day of webinars for Friday.

Most importantly, you need a community – good relationships with vendors who can help you pull it all together – vendors that will contribute staff to work with you and free services and/or funding for other expenses. This organizing team will take charge and make it happen. According to Maddie, each company on the UnTech10 team had an area to oversee:

You can do this. You can do this if your event is threatened by weather or other unforeseen circumstances. You can certainly do this if you have more time than the UnTech10 team had. They were able to pull it off because they had relationships based on existing trust. Trust that everyone would work together and do their best for the right reasons. The team stepped up and made something excellent out of an unfortunate situation and provided a meaningful experience for our community — an experience that many of us would not have had otherwise.  Because of the generosity and hard work of my fellow members, now I had a chance to grab several hours of education and online networking with other members. This is what a real community does. Does your association have that kind of community?

I Wasn’t Expecting That Reaction

I had a moment of bliss watching The Who perform last night at the Super Bowl halftime. I have loved The Who since junior high and remained an obsessive fan through high school, college and some years beyond – the type that had all their albums plus bootlegs (yes, this dates me), camped out for tickets and knew all kinds of arcane facts about them.

Last night I was just a normal fan grinning ear to ear (and got a bit misty-eyed, I admit) as they played. I didn’t expect a dynamo performance, after all Roger and Pete are well into their 60s, the only survivors of the original four, and can’t quite sing and move like they used to. But, in my opinion, they can still rock — Pete doing his windmill chords and Roger singing with passion. After the bliss and a bit of friendly sparring on Twitter about old rockers, I saw a retweet of this tweet from the National Association of the Deaf:

The phrase in question is from Pinball Wizard, a song from The Who’s 1969 rock opera Tommy. Tommy became blind, deaf and mute shortly after World War 2 and most of the opera took place in the twenty or so years that followed. We will all have different opinions on whether the phrase is offensive or not, whether the context matters or not and, based on that, whether the NAD overreacted or not. I want to concentrate on how the association reacted and what we can learn from that.

Their tweet got a response – about 37 people so far have retweeted or responded to it, most of them with disparaging remarks. NAD is not a complete social media rookie. They created their Twitter account last June and have 1064 followers. They also have an active Facebook page and a blog (no recent updates). Their web site has recent updates about their work with the NFL and CBS “to make advertisers who purchase Super Bowl commercials aware of the importance of captioning their content.” They do important work and are good at it.

This morning I found myself thinking again about their Twitter reaction and some issues it brings up. First, unfortunately, there’s the dreaded control issue. Did the staffer who tweeted have to seek approval before saying “the NAD will take action?” Were they authorized to say that? And if so, how did they manage to get approval so quickly? Or were they just reacting? Does NAD have guidelines for social media use? Do NAD members agree with this reaction? Only three tweets out of the 36 appear to support the NAD position. The members were not there defending them. Could this happen to your association?

And what’s the best response now? They could ignore the whole situation. 36 tweets is by no means a public outcry, although there is the possibility that someone with a much larger following than me could be writing about it right now and bring more attention to it. But more likely it’s only the prickly Who fans who care.

NAD could reply by explaining their reaction and giving us context as to why that reaction makes sense for their community. Perhaps discussing the history of their advocacy, the struggles and victories, and the need to pay attention to how we describe others. Turn it into a lesson for us. That’s hard to do in 140 characters but they could link their replies to a blog post. But 20 hours later, that hasn’t happened.

Let’s assume for a moment and for argument’s sake that this tweet was a mistake. What can we learn from this? We all make mistakes. Twitter is a fairly new evolving communication platform often blending our personal and professional lives – things can get sticky. I reacted as a Who fan, not as an association professional. Perhaps I should have ignored the RT and given them a pass, considering they’re an association and have enough battles to fight. But I couldn’t help but react – it seemed so ridiculous and wasteful to pick a battle with a 41 year old lyric. I can’t stand how litigious our society has become. I understand that sometimes legal action is appropriate, but this seemed over the top to me.

Mistakes will happen. What’s critical is how we follow up and whether we learn from our mistakes. Twitter is a public platform that’s indexed by Google, so there are more eyeballs than you might imagine who can see how you handle a situation. A mistake is an opportunity to do many different things, depending on the situation — make apologies and amends, explain a complicated or controversial issue, make friends or not. How we handle public mistakes will influence the perception that our members and the public have of us. Mistakes also help us learn how to improve our social media practices so we don’t make the same ones again.

Part of what draws us to social networking is the opportunity to learn from each other. Here’s an opportunity to imagine what you would do in their place – what if the tweet got more publicity, how you would handle the situation? How would you have prevented it? Has your association ever made what others thought was a public gaffe, and if so, how did you handle it? What did you learn?

UPDATE February 26, 2009: Thanks to Jessica Sidman at Association & Non-Profit Bisnow newsletter for doing some follow-up reporting for me. She told me about a February 25 blog post (and forthcoming video response) by NAD’s president where she explains their reasons for the Twitter reaction. They definitely did their research on the lyrics and Tommy story. The post is a good explanation with a call to action for their members to remain vigilant and educate others about how the appropriate use of the word “deaf.”

Kudos to them for the well reasoned and written response. How could they have done better? If they had posted their response earlier, it might have captured some Super Bowl momentum, and perhaps some press too. But associations are creaky institutions. We have procedures to follow, reviews and approvals, and maybe even a vote before we can take action. Our governance and departmental processes often prevent us from moving nimbly enough for the social media space.

[Flickr photos of Pete and Roger by kubacheck]

Trade Show Swag: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

We had a lively #assnchat on Twitter yesterday about trade show booth giveaways. I volunteered to write a summary, not realizing it would turn into the longest blog post ever. However, there’s lots of good information here from tweets and suggestions I received from Facebook and Twitter friends.

If this post isn’t enough and you want help choosing the best promotional product for your next trade show, check out Heidi Thorne’s book, SWAG: How to Choose and Use Promotional Products for Marketing Your Business.

Many of us agree on what we like to take home from a trade show. Shelly Alcorn raised an important consideration:  “What about sustainability? Can we give out cool things without just creating more junk?” Jeff Hurt recommended “contacting PPAI, the association for promotional products professionals, for green sustainable and unusual ideas.” Some of the greener ideas mentioned were:

  • Seed packets, but not for expos overseas. We like handmade paper seed packets or coasters that bloom into flowers when buried. Joe Flowers mentioned seeds that grow into “a plant with a one-word slogan on them. Very cool and geeky!”
  • Bamboo cutting boards with the exhibitor’s logo etched in — very nice.
  • Reusable shopping bags – one of the group’s favorites. They give the vendor a branding opportunity and fit the green requirement.

Vendors wants to get their brand out there, but we want good design. This is a chance to associate your brand with utility and style. We don’t want an ugly logo coffee mug, but we will take a nicely designed one, perhaps with a discreet logo on the bottom.

Dan Scheeler likes “how #tech10 posted booth giveaways in advance. I admit that will influence which vendors I visit.” 

Here’s what else we like in the food/beverage department:

  • Nalgene-type water bottles
  • Chip bag clips
  • A buddy from my old job at CBIA suggested cork screws or bottle openers, like the kind you can keep on a keychain. Surprisingly no one during the chat made that suggestion. Makes me wonder if those from the housing industry have a stronger need for this type of swag.
  • Neoprene lunch bags
  • Wine cooler bags
  • Insulated travel coffee mugs
  • Nice-looking coffee mugs
  • Drinks, wine or beer get our attention, especially when combined with comfy seating, or bottles of wine with custom labels. Speakers like them too.
  • Mints, power bars, bottled water and good candy help us get through long days at the show.

If swag can double as a gift for kids, it makes it home — rubber duckies, stuffed animals, even caricatures. Parents like the thoughtfulness of handy souvenirs.

Personal items we like:

  • Lip balm
  • Hand sanitizer in little bottles
  • Eyeglass cleaning cloths
  • For a boomer audience, magnifier eyeglasses to read show floor maps with really tiny print
  • Attractive or cool lanyards to reuse at other shows and conferences
  • One of our trade show sponsors provided lanyards with a business card holder attached. We gave them out in our Newcomers Lounge to first-timers. The buzz about them spread on the floor and thousands of folks stopped by to get one. They didn’t have a year on them, just the show name, so we used them for several years.
  • Headshots — useful for social media profiles
  • Magnetic picture frames
  • Digital photos with friends, adding a frame is even better
  • Retractable headphone/earbuds
  • Golf tees and ball
  • Keychain flashlights
  • Brightly colored luggage tags — however, luggage handle wraps got a thumbs-down. Sandra Giarde saw some particularly ugly ones that said, “I’m going to the (name removed to protect the stupid) Show!” Hmm, do you really want to announce you’re here for a convention and a likely mark for price-gouging and god knows what else?
  • Small travel mouse with retractable cord
  • iPod wraps
  • Sturdy messenger or gym bags without any tacky branding
  • Drawstring backpacks

Pens get mixed reviews. Pens with a thumb drive are okay. Dave Coriale said these bobblehead pens are big movers at his booth. A friend gives out the same logoed pens at his booth, and likes them because they double as gifts for kids. Elizabeth Derrico sent me a photo of robot pens she found today at their conference – kids (and some adults) would love those. Shelly summed up the pen issue, “Nobody wants a pen with your company name on it – I mean NOBODY.” Some people can never have enough pens but if you’re doing pens, try to make them cool.

Thumbdrives are popular with some, but others say they already have too many. Ones that stand out are those shaped like the association logo, or “with fun, informative content on it – not just a white paper or sales docs.”

Other popular office items are:

  • Post-its
  • Tape measure or ruler
  • Notepads
  • Highlighters

“The dreaded stress balls” – some like them, many don’t. I think they’re wasteful and will still be around in 2199 when we’re all in the matrix.

T-shirts get mixed reviews. Ray van Hilst said, “Lame t-shirts are bad. Funny or cool ones generate word of mouth.” Other t-shirt advice:

  • Have a mix of sizes so they actually fit attendees and don’t get relegated to the rag pile
  • Keep logos to a minimum. We don’t want to be your walking advertisements.
  • If you make it funny, we might wear it.
  • Matt Baehr suggested “using the threadless.com model on a booth giveaway t-shirt. Have members/clients submit designs. Generate word of mouth that way.”

One of my favorite swag gifts ever was a fleece top from a conference host – best to save that for your VIP clients and prospects.

Matt Baehr’s old association gave out “posters of art masterpieces that were redone to incorporate modern AV (think Whistler’s mother with an iPad). Those posters are still talked about and are in many members’ lobbies.” They used to sell them but after a few years started giving the remaining inventory away. How cool is that?

Ray reminded us that sometimes “an experience counts as a giveaway too. Chair massages get people to stop and relax,” or hand “facials.” At ASAE’s Annual Meetings, the St. Louis Build a Bear booth is always a huge hit, combining an experience with a giveaway. An experience/giveaway also happens at CalSAE’s Seasonal Spectacular every December. Marriott takes orders on site for personalized clay Christmas tree ornaments. It’s wildly popular and their booth is always crowded with attendees watching their ornament being made.

Peter Romeo told me about a conference that gave attendees Express Mail postage to ship their conference binders home. It was a sponsored perk.

Experiences, rather than giveaways, might be a more sustainable option too. Toni Rae Brotons told us about vendors at their show who did a ring toss game. The association donated money to a charity based on where the ring landed.

Helen Mosher gave us a heads-up that her colleague Maryann Lawlor was tweeting about swag from their conference. At one booth if you guessed the correct number of M&Ms in a jar, you could win a Snoopy lunchbox. In another you won prizes playing Wheel of Fortune. I’ve seen this at a restaurant in Sacramento – you spin the wheel on your birthday and have a chance at gift cards (best prize) or a bag of rice (worst but practical).


What kind of swag do you like taking home from trade shows? What do you actually use? On the contrary, what do you think is a big waste of money and resources?

If your company plans to send pre-show and post-show emails to conference or trade show attendees, don’t make the mistakes that most exhibitors do. Read these two posts to learn how to send emails that association executives will value:

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(This post includes an Amazon affiliate link. I receive a small commission if you click on the link and purchase the product.)

A Community Model

My friend Mary Nations shared a video recently that really captured me. She included it in a post about an innovative program at the Southside Regional Jail in Emporia, VA. When you watch the video, you’ll see a program that deserves to be in all correctional institutions. You’ll also see an example of the benefits that a community can bring to its members and to its host institution. There are two versions of the Community Model video created by the Center for Therapeutic Justice5 minutes and 20 minutes.

What’s going on in the Community Model? Do you see similarities to association membership, maybe not membership as you know it now, but membership as it could be?

  • These prisoners volunteered to join this community. They’re ready for change.
  • They’re bettering themselves – growing and evolving. These are life-changing experiences.
  • They support each other while learning together.
  • They listen to each other.
  • They come from diverse backgrounds and often have differing viewpoints, but they deal with it. Everyone has a voice.
  • They relish being part of something positive. They’re watching their community get stronger because of their own efforts.
  • They sometimes fail, but they accept that. They learn from their failures and figure out their own solutions.
  • The senior members mentor the newer members. They help each other work out issues.
  • Members, not staff, are the leaders and group facilitators.
  • They’re a “self-regulating community that supports the growth of its members and makes a positive impact on the institution.”

This is a community of growth that provides a meaningful experience and value to its members — a model not only for jails and prisons, but also for associations.

Our associations provide a platform for the growth of meaningful communities. Some of our members already work together to further the mission of our organizations – to help make changes in society or in the legislature, to provide educational opportunities or to help each others’ businesses thrive.

Think about the benefits of being part of a vibrant community:

  • Satisfaction from helping others or serving an industry
  • Stretching one’s skills – managing projects, public speaking, recruiting, mentoring, building teams, delegating, writing, teaching, running meetings
  • Widening one’s networks and developing new relationships, both personal and professional
  • Belonging to something good

How many of our members truly feel they’re part of a meaningful community and derive value from the community that they can’t find elsewhere? Is it only those who serve on committees or the board? Those who are in the leadership clique? Those who can meet face-to-face? How can we help all our members grow and participate in their own communities – online, face-to-face or both?

Think about communities in your life that you cherish, perhaps it’s a mastermind group, church community, social media club, coffee group or book club. What makes it so meaningful to you? Let’s become community gardeners – providing the rich soil and nourishment that will help our member communities take root and grow.

The long version of the video ends with this quote from Sir Francis Bacon: “If we are to achieve results never before accomplished, we must expect to employ methods never before attempted.” We all know this. It’s time to experiment with new ways of associating, building community, working together, leading together. New ways of associating have the potential to not only benefit our members but also to give meaning and value to association membership.

The CAE Journey

CAE. Certified Association Executive. Many of my friends outside the association industry ask, “What does that mean exactly?” According to ASAE, it means I’ve demonstrated “the knowledge essential to the practice of association management.” After reading this post, you may decide in my case it should be renamed Certified Association Geek.

The CAE journey gave me a deeper knowledge and understanding of association management, particularly in areas I never had the opportunity to delve into before. Reading the texts while reflecting upon my ten years of association experience gave me a much better grasp of the challenges of leading and managing an association. My mind grappled with a wide range of topics from the minutia of reporting requirements for lobbying to the more interesting concepts of shared leadership and strategic thinking.

Every week, a new domain entered my life: strategic management; planning and research; leadership; administration; knowledge management; governance and structure; public policy and governmental and external relations; membership; programs, products and services; and public relations and external communications. With each domain came lots of reading, quizzes and a conference call with my study group. I looked forward to my reading time, taking notes as I went, reflecting on what I was reading, what I had seen and how things are changing. I was amazed at how long I would study on weekends. It was a good experience. I knew my knowledge was deepening.

On test day, there was a strange moment about an hour into it when I said to myself, “This is kind of fun.” It might have been the coffee talking, or more likely, I was on a roll with some easy questions. By the end of the four hours, by brain was mush. I was drained. I remember thinking, if I had to bet money, I would bet I passed, but who knows. It was over, all those months of study, over. It was strange putting those books away. The books I had lived with for so long. Then I realized, I have my weekends back and I had a Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale.

Fast forward six weeks and a few days later to this past Tuesday. While running around town that afternoon I got an email from my CAE study buddy, Sandra Giarde, saying the results were out. Our buddy Aaron tweeted he passed. I checked the mailbox on my way home. Empty. The mail was late, really late. Then I had a conference call and couldn’t check the mail for over an hour. Meanwhile three of us who took the exam were emailing back and forth – messages of dread and silliness.

After the call I walked back to the mailbox and there they were — two postal workers distributing the mail among the boxes. “Have you done the other side yet?” My side of the boxes. “No ma’am.” I walked home. My palms were sweaty, my heart was racing.

I waited about 20 minutes and walked back, the mail truck was gone. The mailboxes never looked so ominous. I opened my box. It was full of mail. I quickly flipped through the envelopes and magazines, searching for that one envelope. Oh boy. There it is – a business envelope from ASAE marked “confidential.” Moment of truth. I tore it open with my key. “Dear Ms. Reid:” was all I could read on the first fold. Quickly I turned it over and saw the word “Congratulations!” “YES!” I shouted out, and then thought, oh wait, I better make sure, and quickly scanned and saw enough to know that yes, indeed, I had passed the exam and could proudly put the letters CAE after my name. If anyone had been at the boxes with me, I might have hugged them. I let out another whoop and skipped home with a huge grin on my face. I wonder what the neighbors thought because I really did do several skips.

I wasn’t expecting to be so over the top happy, my reaction surprised me. But I knew that if I hadn’t passed, I would have been so disappointed and devastated, never mind the blow to my pride and ego. All the work, the sacrificed weekends and the new love for my profession – it all paid off in the end.

The letters CAE are validation of what I know and what I’ve been through. But the best thing about this whole process was the journey — the learning and thinking. Everyone’s CAE experience is probably a bit different. We come to it with varying levels of management and leadership experience, areas of expertise, and views on association challenges and opportunities. We approach the study process in different ways. But no matter the final results, going through the process is a huge accomplishment and stands on its own. Passing makes it sweeter.

If you find our industry at all fascinating and would like a rewarding learning experience, I strongly encourage you to study for the CAE exam. I call it a “journey” because it’s like one of those memorable trips to somewhere new and different. I knew where I was heading — the exam. I had my maps — the study guide and texts. I met some people along the way — my study group. But the best part was the studying and learning — being in the experience — the journey.

Twitter – My Moving Experience

When I hear people disparage and dismiss Twitter, I’m compelled to tell them about my experience with Twitter, particularly how it made my move to Raleigh an entirely different (and better) experience compared to my move to Sacramento several years ago.

When I arrived in Sacramento in October 2004 to accept a job at the California Building Industry Association, I didn’t know a soul except for those who interviewed me. Slowly I widened my social circle, but for a long time it primarily consisted of those whose paths I crossed  — work friends and neighbors.

My move to Raleigh had been in the works for a while because my boyfriend is here. To prepare for my move, I started following and chatting with locals on Twitter. By the time I moved here I had dozens of people my Raleigh Twitter network. When I got here, one of them organized a lunch so I could meet him and four other Twitter acquaintances. I had beer and coffee dates with many others. I found my apartment through a Twitter friend, and learned about my hair stylist, shops and social events via Twitter.

Today, just six months later, I find myself with many friends and acquaintances, most of whom are entrepreneurs I first met on Twitter – a stimulating bunch of “grab the gusto” type people. My social calendar is now always full. When I look back and compare this to my Sacramento move, the difference is astonishing. It feels like I’ve lived here longer than six months because of my new network.

Twitter has also given me a circle of professional peers across the U.S. We chat on Twitter, read and comment on each others’ blogs and participate in weekly Twitter chats. Some of us are Facebook friends now too. When I met several of them in real life this past summer at Buzz 2009 and the ASAE Annual Meeting, it was like reuniting with long-lost friends. When you meet someone first on Twitter, you have time to get to know each other, both personally and professionally. By the time you meet, you’re not meeting as strangers but as friends who just haven’t met in real life yet. If this has happened to you, you’ll know what I mean by a Twitter hug — it happens all the time.

The tweets of those I follow have led me to blog posts and other resources I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Our twitter chats allow us to discuss successful practices and cutting-edge ideas. Twitter is now the best professional (and personal) development source in my life.

Contrary to what some say, Twitter isn’t about what you’re having for dinner. However, I have received good dinner ideas and recipes courtesy of Twitter. I’ve gained so much from Twitter that I try to help others get the most out of it too. It takes a bit of time to find the right folks to follow and to figure out how to use it in a way that works best for you and those who follow you, but it’s definitely time worth investing.

Agenda Abuse

Reading the paper this past week has reminded me of why it’s so important to train board directors and committee members on good meeting practices.

In Wake County (NC) a new majority was recently elected to the Board of Education. These new members were elected by a tiny percentage of county voters with a mandate to make some serious changes to existing policy – ending the mandatory year-round school calendar and eliminating busing kids to schools (originally instituted to achieve economic diversity). Emotions ran high during the election and especially after when these new faces won the seats of long-sitting board members.

My beef here isn’t with this new majority’s policy positions but rather how they have handled their board meetings, and I’m not alone. The News & Observer editors expressed exactly how many feel.

Taking advantage of their voting power, at the start of the first two meetings they added items and resolutions to the agendas without advance notice to their fellow board members or the public. These manipulative actions didn’t allow any time for public consideration or discussion of their proposed policy changes. They had the votes to ram their policies through but weren’t honest or courageous enough to allow discussion of the issues.

As I read the editorial and expressed out loud my disgust at how poorly the meetings were run, I was reminded about a recent County Commissioners meeting where a contentious issue was resolved by waiting until one of the more elderly commissioners had to use the restroom. Without her vote, the chair could get the motion passed while she was out of the room, so he did.

Is there no training for incoming board members on proper governance and meeting practices? On ethics befitting public servants? Where is staff when this is going on? I can’t imagine any chief staff executive of an association allowing such manipulation of an agenda. Any executive with a spine is going to make it very clear how horribly wrong and ill-advised that is for the long-term. Those items can be put on a subsequent meeting agenda, giving interested parties notice and opportunity to weigh in.

These antics have resulted in policy changes that affect every school-age child and their parents in Wake County – some will agree, some won’t. However, many on all sides are aghast at how these policies were changed. Another result is already clear – a loss of trust and confidence in these new members and their judgment and ethics. It will also be much more difficult for these two sides to come to consensus on future challenging issues. Alas, I guess that’s politics.

This disturbing story reminds me of how critical it is to train our board and committee members on governance and meeting practices that encourage transparency and thoughtful deliberation. Ideally all our leaders would come to the table with good ethics and judgment, and we wouldn’t have to worry about such things. But we can’t take that chance. We need to train our leaders in governing well. They are stewards of the organization and our job is to help them fulfill that role in the best manner possible.

Learning to Talk and Walk at the Same Time

A Twitter friend of mine, Jeff Bailey, something of a presentation guru himself, told me about a two-day speaking class, Powerful Persuasive Speaking, taught by Alan Hoffler. I don’t think any of us can ever learn enough about the science and art of communicating, so I quickly signed up.

I became more aware in a few hours of my speaking shortcomings and strengths than I ever could have imagined, and then spent the next two days learning how to correct my bad habits (that I didn’t even know existed!) and become a better communicator. Our teacher Alan was a walking talking example of an engaging and effective speaker and he was also a fun, patient and knowledgeable instructor.

We had two rules to bear in mind:

  • It’s not about me, it’s about the audience.
  • Mind the gap — there’s a huge difference between what I’m feeling while speaking and what the audience is experiencing.

I definitely knew the first rule, although there have been a few times when it was hard to get out of my own worrying head and into the audience’s, especially when things out of my control disrupt my carefully prepared plan. I had experienced the second rule (the gap) and never quite believed it, but now I have the film to prove its truth. Sometimes if our mind is in turmoil and we think we are absolutely dying up there, strangely enough we can appear poised and confident to the audience – a huge gap in perception versus reality. Why do we appear so confident? It’s because we have the skills – either learned or innate. We are connecting to and engaging the audience. It seems almost magical at times.

Flickr photo by uwdigitalcollections

We learned about posture, arm placement, gestures, eye contact and movement. Yes, it is hard to walk and talk at the same time! It actually takes practice to do it in an effective way. Thankfully, we learned that much of this is similar to muscle memory. If we practice the skills, soon they become natural to us and we can build our presentation on top of them. I thought back to when I learned to figure skate and the hours I practiced school figures using different edges. Boring! But those skills became part of my muscle memory. Without having them as a base I couldn’t have done the pretty spins and jumps.

Another thing happened in class, something that wasn’t included in the program description. We started as a group of eleven strangers who were feeling a bit nervous, anxious and vulnerable about speaking, totally unprepared as to content (improvising in fact) in front of each other, and being filmed while doing it. By the end of the second day, we had bonded as a group that went through a discovery and learning process together. We felt comfortable pointing out each other’s mistakes and strengths. We became interested in each other’s professional paths. Some of us spoke of meeting regularly as a group to continue practicing our burgeoning skills.

Learning and growing is always more rewarding when doing it with others – whether it’s a class, study group, discussion group, workshop or retreat. Seeing the excited spark in someone’s eyes or noticing how their body moves to the edge of their seat leaning into a conversation – that can be infectious in the best way possible. I’ve always been motivated by opportunities to learn and find ways to make it a regular part of my life. How do you find ways to learn and grow with others?

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