The Burden of Proof

As we head into the final quarter of the calendar year, many organizations are looking toward the future. Sorting out the money, planning the calendar, and identifying the biggest worries are high on most board agendas. And from time to time, every board stops to look at their mission statement, just to make sure they are still headed in the right direction.

One of the boards I serve on is doing exactly that. There are discussions of who we are, what purpose we serve, and where we fit in the local landscape. We discussed what we want to be in the future, what we tell people about ourselves, and why we want to be part of the organization. And, of course, we discussed who we believe our audience to be.

Who We Speak To

The question of who your audience is versus who you want them to be is never an easy one. For so many organizations the answer to “who do we want to appeal to” is “we want to appeal to everyone”. And of course who your audience currently is tends to tie right in to who you appeal to naturally. During our conversation of audience, our board president said:

“If you serve, or want to serve, minority groups, then the burden of proof lies with you. Not with with the people you wish were there.”

In plainer words, if you want to speak to people who have reason to believe you are not speaking to them, you have to say “and that includes you”. If you are a church that accepts and loves those of all sexual orientations, you have to say it. If you are a technology company that accepts and values those of all skin colors and sexes, you have to say it. If you are a sports league that accepts and invests in those of all levels of ability, you have to say it.

What We Want to Be

All people, as we grow into the wonderful adults we will be, are shaped by those around us. We are formed by the experiences we are afforded (or subject to, depending on your perspective). We trust what we know and sometimes that means we surround ourselves with people who think, act, look, or speak like us.

Trusting in what we know is a basic survival instinct; anyone like us, probably won’t harm us. Stereotyping is a basic coping mechanism; grouping people and things lessens our cognitive load. Putting our faith in people and things that aren’t already like us takes a lot of self-awareness and personal growth… but we don’t continue to grow without it.

With these combined truths, you can see why it is so important to state when you embrace that which is not like you. Because people, when left to our own devices, often won’t.

Where It Takes Us

Very few people or companies will argue that diversity (of thought and demographic) is bad. There is a lot of support for the idea that different view points lead to better outcomes, no matter the project.

The most important thing that it does, though, is help us to share who we are with the people who would love to be here… if only they knew we were here for them. Figure out who you wish you could share your work with, and tell them how much you miss their voice.

Not sure how to get started? Here are a few things you can do today!

  1. Look for coded language in your public content.
  2. Instead of broad declarations (everyone is welcome), make clear statements (beginners welcome).
  3. Amplify people who are having trouble getting heard. 
  4. Here are a few more ways to support minority voices.

The Panel Predicament

For anyone who has worked with me organizing content-driven events, you will have heard me say regularly how much I hate panels. I am quick to declare my dislike of them, but generally only in the safety of a group of organizers. I’ll try to provide some clarity in the need for panels, why I dislike most panels I see, and what we can change to make them better.

The Value of Panels

In theory, I understand the appeal of panels. There is a lot of information available in the world, and it’s increasingly difficult to assess how trustworthy to consider the opinion of any self-proclaimed expert. There are many ways to achieve expert level opinions: by education, by research, by practice. Probably other ways, too. To solve the problem, we host panels. We gather industry thought leaders or experts and have them discuss things openly, in the accountability-forging context of “filming in front of a live audience”. We then leave it up to the audience to decide — what is your version of this truth that we’ve presented to you, almost without editorial aid?

The Failing of Panels

In practice, panels are far from that. They are either overpowered by a single voice or are overpowered by apparent fighting among the panelists. Moderators double as panelists and leave the group with no discernible direction. Panelists answer in a round robin style, often leaving no time for interesting or informed viewpoints to shine through. Panels are overstaffed and used as a way to prevent the discomfort of having to turn down speakers. Most people don’t apply to be on a panel, and many who get assigned to participate on a panel think that it means no preparation is required.

The Best Panels

It’s not that we’ve never seen a good panel. We see them from time to time, on TV or at large-scale niche events. There is a lot of writing available about how to be a better speaker, but not a lot about how to be a better panelist. Or even how to craft an excellent panel as an organizer. So I’ll tell you what’s proven to work for me over the years, as a long-time event organizer.

Crafting an Excellent Panel

In my experience, the best panels require a thoughtful moderator and panelists with a decent level of rapport (but not best friends). It’s great if you already have a group that fits that description. If you don’t there is a short, simple process that you can follow to foster one from the expert panel you have assembled.
  1. Dedicated Moderator – Find your moderator first, because you’ll need them throughout this process. The best moderators keep the discussion moving by helping with time management, directing questions toward particular panelists, and resisting the urge to join the discussion.
  2. Limited Number – If the time allowed for your panel is one hour, you should select no more than three panelists not including the moderator. That gives each speaker about 15-20 accumulated minutes assuming everything else is perfect.
  3. Prepare Panelists – Your moderator and panelists should have two meetings. Each meeting should take about an hour and be via voice (or a video call if you feel fancy). In the first one, do some general introductions and learn about everyone’s expertise as it relates to your broad topic. The moderator should take notes* and the panelists should explore what they are all excited about so that a topic can be defined.
  4. Clarify Your Topic – After the first meeting, the moderator will know what the most interesting areas of expertise each panelist has. That will help them guide questions (whether prepared or from the audience) to the right people. It will also help create a panel title that is clear, concise, and marketable.
  5. Written Questions – In the second meeting, the moderator should have some questions that have already generated interesting discussions among the panelists. Ask the panelists if, since their last meeting, they’ve been wondering about something another panelist said. Write down 5-10 questions and be prepared to start the panel on the day with 2-3 of them.

Rinse and Repeat

That’s it! Five steps and most of them are talking. 🙂 The first time through it will feel strange and uncomfortable, but after that it’s like riding a bike. *A note on notes. If you’re the moderator the notes you’re taking are:
  • who has a tendency to talk the most
  • who needs encouragement to talk
  • what panelists do 
  • what panelists wish they could do
  • why they do what they do (their philosophies)
  • why their future vision is what it is (their observations)
  • etc

Enclothed Cognition

I work in a company that is fully remote, and one of the things most commonly touted as a perk is the ability to work in an environment of your own choosing. You can work from the sofa or from a desk. You can work with music playing or in complete silence. You can work surrounded by people or you can work 8 hours solo.

But one of the things that comes up most often as a perk, is freedom to dress as you choose. Being free from the judgmental eyes of your differently-dressed colleagues, and therefore free to dress however you choose, can be a liberating prospect.

I tried briefly to dress casually but, having mostly worked in corporate spaces before, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t really preparing myself for work.

Turns out, this wasn’t in my mind. It’s independently observable enough, that it even has a name: enclothed cognition.

As a bonus, the very act of getting ready every day adds to your daily routine which has proven benefits for your mental health, productivity, and probably lots more. 🙂

The Courage of Failing Publicly

When I was in high school, I once refused to do something that my friends were doing because I knew I wouldn’t like the outcome. When pressed about how I knew and asked “Have you ever tried?” my response was this:

I don’t have time to learn from only my own mistakes.

I’ve never been particularly fond of the notion that in order to know what will and won’t happen one has to personally do all the dirty work of learning.

Knowing this about me, it’s less surprising to hear that I’ve spent a lot of time lately encouraging those around me to “fail publicly”. It’s not an easy call to make, of course. No one likes being wrong, let alone being wrong where everyone can see you. The idea behind it is this: if something doesn’t go as planned, and others can see it, then they can help find a stronger solution.

But there are two chances for discomfort here that I rarely, if ever, acknowledge. Boldly doing something in front of people while knowing that it could go badly is a clear risk. It doesn’t matter what that something is, public imperfection is terrifying. The other discomfort comes after that, though.

Failing publicly has no benefit to us, although it still might to others, if we are not able to learn from it. Growth is never something that comes easy and, if we aren’t open to the idea that something needs to be fixed, personal growth can be stopped in its tracks entirely.

I work on projects that, when done well, are intensely public and open. I have made so many mistakes during my time working on them and witnessed even more than I have made. I didn’t start out with the willingness to share my failings and I think that other people could have learned from me… even if I couldn’t have learned from myself at the time.

So… Note to Self – Do what you can with what you’ve got and let people see where you don’t have what it takes. Someone else might have exactly what is needed to get the job done.

Stressed? Try This.

Today is National Stress Awareness Day and, because I will take any excuse to celebrate a thing, I think we should share the ways we all handle stress in our day to day lives.

I will say right up front that I am no expert, but even non-experts can provide valuable insight. Here are a few of the things I do when I’m starting to feel a little stressed:

  • Take my dog for a walk around the block.
  • Write down something that made me happy today (I use the Happier app, but any recognition of happy things will work).
  • Make sure I’ve eaten recently and, if I haven’t, find a healthy crunchy snack. The crunchy part is important for me, personally, for whatever reason.
  • Remind myself of what I have gotten accomplished today.
  • Turn off all my notifications and take a yoga break.
  • Call/chat with one of my IRL mentors, heroes, or role models.
  • Listen to some rockin’ beats. Maybe even dance a little.

Stress management is an ongoing process, though, and it’s easier to deal with it if you do small maintenance every day regardless of how stressed you feel. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself, mentally and physically.

If you’ve got ways that you keep your stress levels low, share them in the comments!