Preparing For a Disaster

This morning, I came across this heartbreaking story about Blake Hobbs, an independent meeting planner, who was running a 250 person meeting at the Marriott World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. An uneventful day, Blake went to notify hotel security about someone taking ice from the machines on the plaza and felt the force of the first plane that struck. He made sure that his attendees were evacuated promptly from the area and spent the rest of the day walking uptown, and trying to get to his Lake Wily, South Carolina, home safely.

None of us like the idea of a disaster striking in any circumstance, but with stories of earthquakes in busy city centers and stories of severe weather striking at any time, the fact of the matter is that the world doesn’t stop when we are in a meeting or on a conference call. Here are some points to keep in mind when planning your next meeting or event.

  • Everyone has a role. If you’re hosting a conference, assign single individuals to be “in charge” of a particular task in the event of a severe circumstance. You could be moderating a conference call with all of your people scattered around the country, or you could be doing a live broadcast from a conference room filled with live attendees. Have someone call in on a cellular phone, just in case you have to evacuate the area or go to a safe area so that you can let the conference call attendees know.
  • Know the areas. Know the ins and outs of the building – including the fire escape routes, the tornado safety shelters, and the procedures. It’s important to know what you are supposed to do so that you can advise your people and your employees where to go. There are often different procedures depending on the emergency.
  • Have a coded system. When I worked in retail, I had to learn the different codes, that way if something happened I would know how to direct customers that were near me. As an employee it was partly my responsibility to make sure that shoppers were safe, but we didn’t want to cause panic. Instead, we used codes to announce potential dangers. Things like “Code Black” and “Code Red” meant different things so that we would know how to advise people to get safe, before we told them what was going on. Safety is the most important thing.

Planning, hosting, and attending a conference is supposed to be a fun and exciting experience, and statistically speaking, you will probably never need to know the procedures in the event of a tornado. It’s important to know and understand the procedures and have a plan in place. What steps do you take before a conference to plan for the possibility of a disaster?

Survey Finds Companies Not Getting the Most Out of Conferencing

IT global solutions and services provider Dimension Data announced the results of a wide spread survey of IT leaders across the US on their unified communications strategies. The study found that while many businesses in the United States have implemented strategies like conference calls and web conferencing, not every is utilizing them to the best advantage. Many companies who are trying to make the switch from travel to conferencing to get their business done, have no long term plan for adoption.

Here are some of the stats:

89% of organizations have employees that work from home but 74% of conferencing solutions are offered “in-house”, leaving many telecommuters with no way to collaborate with those in the office.

While 70% of the organizations studied report having video conference capabilities, 70% of business leaders still travel at least once a month.

Mitchell Hershkowitz, National Practice Director of Dimension Data says, “Successfully implementing unified communications within an organization requires more than technology. Developing a roadmap and strategic plan is essential to demonstrating how the technology aligns to corporate goals and creating a clear plan and requirements that translate to enabling business groups and end users.”

The tragic part of being a new user to conferencing or other systems is that you may not always know when the “right time” is to initiate a conference call with another party. It’s often seen as “easier” to travel to a face to face meeting, which defeats the purpose of trying to implement this kind of strategy. If using a conference service is all about saving money and being more efficient, why are some continuing to do things the “old-fashioned” way?

They just don’t understand the savings potential. A lot of people can wrap their mind around why conference systems are important, but they can’t see how their bottom line going to be affected. Show them in hard number exactly how much it costs, on average, to travel for business meetings, and how much the average conference call will cost them.

No clue how to use a service. When you’ve never been exposed to something like conference calling or something other than the standard “old-fashioned” means of communication, it’s overwhelming to just be expected to change. Be sure you give your people detailed information about how to use the service, who the new provider is, and how to get ahold of someone at customer service if they have questions.

If you’ve recently introduced a new conferencing strategy to your team but find yourself frustrated as to why they aren’t using it more, it could be because they simply don’t understand how it works, or why they should. Send out an email letting them know you’re available for questions and anything you can’t answer, you’ll get from the service provider. How did you give your team the heads up when implementing a unified communications strategy?

The 23 Minute Conference Rule

A UK study reveals that the average attention span on a conference call is 23 minutes. After 23 minutes on a conference call, the participants on your call start to tune out and do other things. This is the part where they start checking their email, sending text messages, or playing Angry Birds. In fact, some people in the study admitted to falling asleep all together. When it comes to a face to face meeting, the attention span is increased to 35 minutes.

Whether you use conference calling services to have meetings, or you are still doing things in the traditional face to face way, this study is important to you and if you take nothing else away you should take away this – you have to get to the point. Here are three quick tips that you can apply to your next meeting so that you can say what you need to say while most people are going to be paying attention.

  1. Keep it short and sweet. A long drawn out introduction is only going to eat into the time that you have to keep everyone’s full attention. Instead of planning on a long introduction about the conference topic, send out an agenda ahead of time so that everyone already has a heads up. This way you can get right into the content.
  2. Use less time than you need. According to the study you have 23 minutes to say everything you need to say. When it comes time to actually plan out your conference, give yourself a little less time than what you actually have. This way, if you run over, you won’t be extending the time too much. It’s always better to end a little early, rather than ending very late.
  3. Wandering minds will wander. No matter what you do to keep the attention of the group, there will still be people who are going to tune you out. Unfortunately, there isn’t anything you can do about the Angry Bird addicts. Reach who you can because you’ll drive yourself crazy if you try to make a point to those who aren’t paying attention.

When you only have 20-30 minutes to make an impression that is going to stay in someone’s mind, you have to do what you can with the time allowed. Send out an agenda, plan for less time than you have, and remember that those who are going to be distracted will do so – and there is little you can do about it. What are you doing to stay within in the 23 minute time limit on your conference calls?

Respect is Key to Great Content

I recently had a chance to catch an interview that Michael Hyatt conducted with Scott Schwertly, who launched the presentation company Ethos3. His new book, How to Become a Presentation God, is available also. The interview showed off some of the great points from Scott’s book, but there was one that stood out the most to me.

Great content begins with respect.

Scott narrows down the point to remind us how important it is to be clear and concise with your messages. You only have about seven seconds to make a first impressions and it’s important to come out and get the audience’s attention. It’s a simple message that I and other presentation writers have addressed many times. You have to be the audience’s superman, you have to come out and get their attention right away, otherwise everyone is simply going to tune you out.

Scott is absolutely right. You have to respect your content and by doing that – you’re also respecting your audience. They have come to see your presentation and already have expectations. There is no need to explain that you are there to talk about “Subject A” when the first slide of your presentation clearly states that.

The audience understands what they hope to gain with a particular subject and when you take the stage or get on the conference, your goal should be to help them get every second worth of their time.

It’s not just about respecting your content – you do this because it’s respect for your audience too.

The rest of the interview is great and you can check it out over at Michael Hyatt’s blog. Check out the Ethos3 presentation blog too, it always makes me laugh. Thanks for the interview Michael and the great info Scott.

What Being a Baseball Fan Taught Me about Business

Daylight savings time went into effect this weekend and that can only mean one thing. No, it doesn’t mean that we were all late for work this morning, it means that in just a few short weeks, men around the country will be pulling on tight pants and oiling up their gloves. That’s right folks – it’s baseball season. Texas Ranger fans (like me) are hoping for another dream season – but there’s a lot of baseball to be played.

Since I’ve experienced being both a Rangers and an Atlanta Braves fan, I’m accustomed to heartbreak and I’ve learned that in order to pull for a team that doesn’t always win, there are a couple of emotions you have to embrace. As I’ve gotten older, I realize these emotions often mirror what we feel when we take on a new project or take a new direction in our jobs.

  • Faith. There are few teams in MLB who have more faith than the Boston Red Sox fans. Even with the 86- year long “Curse of the Bambino” their fans still showed up for games. They did everything they could, including burning a Yankee’s hat at Mt. Everest in order to break the curse. The fans believed that no matter what, their faith in their team would pay off – and in 2005, with a win against the Yankee’s in the World Series, it seemed like all was right in the world. When we make a change in a product or we start a new advertising campaign, we want to control the outcome, but it does take a lot of faith to stand behind something when you can’t predict the future.
  • Patience. In the late 80’s, I went to my first Major League baseball game at Fulton County Stadium and a monster was born. I began to follow the sport a little closer and by 1991, excitement for Atlanta Braves fans was growing. Bobby Cox had taken over and the pitching dream team (including Smoltz and Glavin) was coming together. Fans could feel the buzz in the air – we could feel the electricity and the stadiums couldn’t sell red foam rubber tomahawks quick enough. It took until 1995 for Braves fans to finally feel the victory – and it was a beautiful thing.
  • Passion. Last spring and fall was like a dream for me as a baseball fan. On October 31, when I walked into Ranger’s Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, I proudly admit that I had tears in my eyes. I’ve been a fan of baseball for as long as I can remember and getting to go to a World Series game was incredible. Despite the Ranger’s poor performance in Game 4, fans were still on their feet – we still loved our team. No matter what, those rally towels were flying, the hope for the comeback was there, and everyone hated the Giants fans in the upper decks. After the game was lost and everyone started to leave, the chatter was still heard around the stadium, “Yeah, but we beat the Yankees.”
  • Your new campaign has all the pieces in place. You’re excited and can’t wait to see the success. Remember that you have to give the pieces time to cultivate, grow, and grow before you see the success. Greatness doesn’t come over night. Now, you may not want to put your antlers up during a business meeting, but standing behind the campaign you’ve put in place or the product you’re selling is essential. You have to love what you’re selling and believe in its benefits in order to be able to translate that to customers or your boss.

Without passion and fire behind your words and actions in business, you’re just going to end up feeling disappointed. Unless you believe in the amazing and that anything is possible, you’re going to end up getting bogged down in all the things that could go wrong. Much like any given day at any ballpark across America, there’s a number of things that couldn’t happen. If things don’t turn out your way, I’ll leave you with this piece of advice my father (a successful Little League coach) always told me – “You win some. You lose some. And some of them get rained out.”

Communication Exercises

My Fair Lady (Pygmalion) is a charming story about a young girl with a bad accent who takes speech therapy in order to prove herself as a society lady in London. It’s a great movie – classic Audrey goodness and in an age where films about speech therapy are winning Oscars again, it’s not just about good entertainment.

Eliza Doolittle had a rotten accent and some pretty reprehensible mannerisms. Despite her charming qualities, she can never be presented to society as a lady without some *ahem* fine tuning. With the help of Henry Higgins – Eliza finds a voice that was hidden under her bad mannerisms and atrocious speech. While the musical adaptation is lots of fun, the movie does teach us a very important lesson about phonetics.

Phonetics, for those of us that don’t know, is the study of how you articulate and sound when you pronounce certain words. The sounds we grow up hearing and the language that we speak can affect our phonetics. Those of us with accents are often searching for ways to improve our pronunciation. In case you don’t have a Henry Higgins close by, here are some things you can do to help improve the way you speak.

  1. Listen more effectively. In order to say things in a clearer fashion, you must be able to listen to the conversations around you. One of the best things to listen to is an audio book – the people reading those books are paid to have excellent pronunciation.
  2. Practice. It does make perfect – so practice the words you struggle to pronounce. If you just don’t think you’re getting it just right, have someone pronounce it for you, or try this pronunciation tool.
  3. Twist it up. Get yourself a list of tongue twisters and set yourself five minutes a day to read them aloud. Reading them over and over will teach your mouth and tongue how to say words that might otherwise be difficult. Your tongue is a muscle and this is the perfect work out.

When it comes to public speaking there are a lot of things that you can do to improve the way you pronounce your words. When you pronounce words better, you can speak clearer, and help your audience understand the message you’re trying to communicate. If all else fails, remember that the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.

How Not to Be a Jerk on Collaborative Projects

I want to introduce you to someone, but I suspect you know this person already. I’ve deemed this person to be Idea McStealerson, and he or she likes getting all the credit for ideas that were a team effort. You know this person– when it comes time to present group ideas, they walk away looking like the hero while the rest of you end up looking like you didn’t contribute at all. Idea McStealerson is a jerk.

Sure, it may seem like a great idea to commit collaboration crimes – why wouldn’t you take credit for a great idea in front of the boss and look like the smartest person in the room? Well, there’s one very simple answer for that – your boss knows it was a collaborative effort. While you might feel like you look like the smartest person in the room, you just look like a jerk.

The temptation to further your own career is great – I get it. Everyone wants to look like the superstar. It’s important to remember that when you’re working in a group everyone knows that you didn’t come up with all the ideas. Even if it’s not you’re intention to take credit for the group project, you can still end up looking like that’s what you’re trying to do, unless you’re using the right words. Here are some tips to keep from looking like a jerk in the eyes of your boss, and in the eyes of your co-collaborators.

Words like me, my, and I are possessive and indicate sole ownership. Instead, you should try using phrases like our team and other words to establish shared ownership for an idea. If everyone came up with it, it’s not your idea and you shouldn’t use the possessive.

When it comes time to present all of your awesome ideas, don’t give the responsibility for presentation over to one person in the group. There will probably be a couple of different categories or sections that you will need to cover. Let everyone have something to present so that you are letting everyone on the team take a turn in the spotlight.

Use names! If you’ve been charged with presenting one of the categories, but it wasn’t your supreme brain power that spawned where these fantastic ideas came from, don’t be afraid to tell the story of how you got to this point. Say something about how Stephanie made a joke that we should do XYZ and it spawned the entire idea. How a simple joke lead the group to these ideas.

Collaboration works best when everyone feels like they get credit for the ideas that they helped to create. Plus, your boss knows when something was a group effort and they have been in the game long enough to have expectations when it comes to group collaboration, and they expect everyone to share in the development of a great idea. You might think you’re being sly, but your boss knows better.

Businesses Continue to Benefit from Audio Conferencing

Despite a reported upswing of the economic recession, businesses are not flying more. Audio conferencing saw a large jump in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, but many people speculated that over time, business travel would increase again.

A recent study from WWF shows that is actually not true. The report shows that 85% of the businesses interviewed (among the top 500 in the UK) do not plan to return to their pre-recession levels of travel. Simply put – the benefits of audio conferencing are simply too great.

87% of these businesses have used audio conferencing to stay connected. Despite the bit of a bounce back in the economy, many businesses that still feel the sting in rising airfare, gas prices, and other fees are still very happy with their conference call providers.

In the US, business travel continues, but often without perks or points that were offered by companies previously. The business traveler who is used to first class may find themselves flying coach or not staying in a five star hotel. They may be asked to foot their own cab fare, rental car fees, or expense for food.

In response, hotels are starting to offer fully wired conference rooms to attract the local business who might be trying to connect virtually to a client or department. Instead of flying to China to meet with the manufacturing division, the hope is that you will come down to your local five star hotels and take advantage of renting out their conference room. (Personally I say why go to hotel when you have everything you need at your fingertips?)

Did you go back to business travel and make a move towards conference calls when the price of flying increased drastically? A lot of people did, but what I want to know is if you stuck to it, even when people started to travel again? Are you still enjoying the cost savings for conference calls or have you gone back to travelling, the TSA, and body scanners?

Live Streaming Funerals – Great Idea or Inappropriate?

Last year when my friend got married, I wrote about broadcasting your wedding through a video conference. It wasn’t such a crazy idea – we use video conference services now all the time. Just like FaceTime, video conferencing is being used to connect families who are millions of miles away, and we’re fine with that.

Now imagine your feelings that if you’re going through the process of planning a service for a departed loved one, and a funeral employee asks you if you would be interested in the streaming package. Curiously, you inquire to know more and the director tells you that if you have family scattered about the country, instead of missing the opportunity to say their goodbyes – now, they can be conferenced in with the rest of the family and view the services from their home. Live streaming of the funeral services could include something like this:

  • Video stream of the entire procession, invocation, and eulogies.
  • Interaction with family members through chat.
  • Invitation only or password protected services.
  • Order a CD of the services when it’s over to keep or to send to family members who were unable to attend.

Now, I know you may seem a little creeped out. I was at first when the idea was brought to me. It seemed inappropriate, morbid, and just inconsiderate. But then I thought about it in a different way.

Do you remember when Ronald Reagan died? For days on end, we were glued to our television screens to watch the procession through the Capitol rotunda, and then to the television to watch the motorcade escort the former President to his final resting location. Most of us can remember the faces that two somber little boys wore as they escorted their mother, Princess Diana, to her funeral. In fact, Princess Diana’s funeral is the highest rated funeral of all time, followed by Michael Jackson and Ronald Reagan. 31 million people tuned in to watch Diana get laid to rest.

Since 1997, there’s a new technology that makes watching news coverage of events easy – live streaming. (PDF) MSNBC reports that their streaming of Michael Jackson’s funeral service was greater than that of the day President Barack Obama was inaugurated. So what does this say about how likely we might be to accept the streaming of funeral services?

We have no problem tuning in on our televisions or at our desks to watch an idol that we admire be laid to rest. Clearly, the numbers prove that. So why then does the thought of streaming a funeral of someone we truly knew and care about seem tasteless or wrong? Last year, my dear grandmother in South Carolina passed away very suddenly, and there was no way I was going to be able to afford to fly out with that short of notice. (Don’t let bereavement discounts fool you, folks, it’s not that much). Sadly, I had to miss her funeral and the opportunity to say goodbye, or see my family.

What if there would have been a way for me to join the services virtually? Would I have taken the opportunity? I’m not sure if I would have or not – despite the fact that I have watched the coverage of a number of funeral services of famous people, I’m still hesitant on if I would want to see that with someone who was personally near and dear to me. That’s probably just because it’s such a new idea and something that I don’t think we see a lot of. If we were to take part in the live stream of a video conference of a funeral once or twice, we might feel differently about the perceived inappropriateness.

Considering we watch funerals on mainstream media for people we don’t know, what drawbacks do you have to joining a funeral for a friend or loved one in a virtual set up, if you have any? Does this seem like a strange or outlandish idea to you? Let me know in the comments below – maybe we can figure out some situations in which this would work and some that it wouldn’t.

Thanks to Troy Claus for getting me thinking about this. I was a little surprised when he first mentioned it, but once I started to think about, I wondered what the difference between watching the funeral of a stranger on TV is between watching a friend or relatives services on your laptop.

Five Brainstorming Tips for Better Conference Calls

One of the most awkward parts of a conference call is at the end when the host quickly interjects to speak now if you have any comments or questions. Many times, there is just the awkward silence filling the lines before the host disconnects the call. In my experience, this happens because no one has had any time to prepare for the possibility of having comments. They are expecting a “listen-only” call and then are thrown off when the host asks for your opinion. Here are some tips to avoid the awkward silence when it comes to that time and how to get people talking on your next conference.

  1. When you send out your agenda, make special note of the topics you want to get feedback or ideas for. Tell all of your attendees that you want them to come with ideas about some of the different projects going on in your company.
  2. Don’t be afraid to throw anything on the table. We have brainstorming meetings here when sometimes, where we throw out crazy ideas. In an open setting, you can encourage everyone to toss out any idea they might have, and you can always go back later and refine them.
  3. As the host of the call or the boss you have to be okay with taking all of the suggestions. Even if one of the off the wall suggestions might not be something that you can (or want to) implement, there is the potential that it will spur another great idea.
  4. Bring in new people when you get stuck. This is a great place to use outdial to call in someone from a different department or someone who might have a different perspective. Sometimes, they can help the group see things in a different way.
  5. At the end of the conference call, put all of the suggestions to a vote and narrow down the options to three to five different ideas.

We don’t always have conference calls in order to update staff or co-workers on the latest changes or company policies. There are plenty of times when we’re trying to get an idea off the ground or come up with something new and exciting. Schedule a brainstorming session with your co-workers, give them some topics to think about, and then see what happens.