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Don’t hold back when you present

I gave a couple of presentations already this week. Both were somewhat informal. No slides. Fewer than 25 in each group. 

Today I was Skyped into a student staff meeting at Stanford. That was a first for me. It’s an odd experience to not be physically in the room with the audience. It was a challenge to read the room as I was staring at a fuzzy image on my computer screen while talking in a louder voice than normal, trying extra hard to be heard far away on the west coast. The faces were somewhat pixelated (or maybe that’s just how people in Palo Alto look), so I couldn’t rely on the subtle feedback cues of expressions and body language that I usually adjust my energy to during a talk.

I left both presentations this week, though, feeling satisfyingly drained. I don’t know if what I said connected, or if I made a difference in any way. There were no surveys to give me direct feedback. I seemed to be received warmly and thanked enthusiastically, but the satisfaction for me was intrinsic. I just enjoyed the experience and felt that I gave both audiences something worthwhile. 

If I finish a presentation and don’t immediately feel the need to sit and chill for a few minutes, then I know I probably didn’t give enough energy to the effort. And energy can make up for a lack of eloquence or clumsy structure or even lame slides. (But don’t make lame slides.)

Care enough to uncork enthusiasm and give your audience all you can. It takes courage. Enthusiasm and caring somehow seem risky and vulnerable. But it’s a low risk and one, unfortunately, too few presenters take. 

Don’t hold back next time you present. Don’t give in to caution and the inner voice of resistance that wants to keep you safely mediocre and forgettable. Be awesome instead.

David Letterman and the power of turning obstacles into fuel

I’m of the Letterman generation. I began college the same year Late Night debuted on NBC.

Better observers of television and comedy have better summed up why Letterman is significant. (I love Jimmy Kimmel’s take.) But to me he was just real. He didn’t treat television like it was a big deal, and he didn’t treat people who thought they were a big deal like they were a big deal.

His show was irreverent and unpredictable and fun. His timing and self-deprecating humor and wry asides influenced the way I communicate and attempt humor and the way I respond to others. I’ve realized even some of my facial expressions are Letterman inspired.

I listened to Jason Snell’s The Incomparable podcast about Letterman yesterday on a long drive home from the holiday weekend. The podcast was really well done and right in the wheelhouse of someone who would regularly stay up late in the dorm lobby to catch at least a portion of Late Night.

The podcast reminded me that when Letterman got the Late Night gig airing immediately following The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson’s team at NBC put some restrictions on what Letterman could do on his show. He could have no more than four band members and could tell only four jokes in his monologue. They wanted to protect their turf at The Tonight Show and not risk some young upstart stealing their stuff.

But Letterman used those restrictions to reinvent the talk show and to come up with something unique to him. Bizarre, wacky, occasionally cringe-inducing, but so refreshingly unique.

Years later when Carson retired, everyone assumed The Tonight Show would go to Letterman. It was Letterman’s dream, and Carson saw him as his natural successor. But the suits at NBC gave the job to Jay Leno instead.

Again, though, Letterman ended up embracing this setback and used that disappointment to do something better. He moved to CBS, started The Late Show, and competed head-to-head with The Tonight Show.

But he got to stay in New York and keep doing his unique version of a talk show, just on a bigger stage and an hour earlier. He’s even said that if he had been given The Tonight Show, he probably would have just followed Carson’s formula out of respect for the institutions that The Tonight Show and Carson were.

It was the restrictions and the disappointment and the obstacles that Letterman used to shape himself and his show into the cultural forces they became. He didn’t end up winning the ratings war, but his influence resonates as no other television personality’s has since Carson.

Heartbreak? Disappointment? Obstacles in the way? Dream job falls through? Accept a bad turn of events as if you had chosen it to happen that way. Then get busy transforming that setback into previously unimagined possibilities. Turn your obstacles into fuel to propel you further and higher.

Apple’s new iPhone dock

A dock came with the first couple of iPhones. There was one in the box with my iPhone 3G in 2008. 

It was a nice touch and gave the phone a home, a more definite sense of place. And it was more of an incentive to just put it away when you got home. 

But docks went away as an Apple option eventually. Third party solutions have been available, but there’s been nothing from Apple in the Lightning connector era. 

But last week Apple announced a new dock to fit all the Lightning connector devices. That’s the iPhone 5, 5s, 6, and 6 Plus. Apparently, even iPads will fit. 

I ordered a couple as soon as I saw them available and got them this weekend. 

Here’s my wife’s iPhone 6 (sporting the new red Apple leather case I just got her for Mother’s Day) in the new Apple dock:  

The dock is very simple and offers a minimalist, elegant alternative to just laying the phone on a nightstand or desk. Even with the case on the phone fits perfectly onto the dock. It’s easy to connect one-handed, but it’s not so easy to disconnect without using two hands. 

The dock itself is barely there, with just enough of a form to fulfill its function. No flourishes. Nothing unnecessary. Classic Apple design for even a lowly phone dock. 

“A place for everything, and everything in its place.” This new dock is a simple way to fulfill that declutterer’s mantra and give your iPhone a place to call home. 

Sunday morning Stoic: The shortest route

Meditations 4.51:

“Take the shortest route, the one that nature planned—to speak and act in the healthiest way. Do that, and be free of pain and stress, free of all calculation and pretension.”

No games. Don’t overthink. Just say what is essential. Do the right thing.

On Writing Well, on living well

The author William Zinsser died recently, and his obituary in the New York Times prompted me to start reading his highly acclaimed book, On Writing Well. The book had been recommended by several writers I respect, including John Gruber of my favorite Apple web site, Daring Fireball.

The book begins with a firm exhortation to simplify:

“Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.”

I’m two chapters in to Zinsser’s book and already more aware of how sloppy my writing is. I just went back to the post I wrote yesterday and trimmed a few unnecessary words.

Writing should serve a purpose, and anything that detracts from that purpose should be eliminated. Simplify. Do less, better.

This is good advice for writing, but it applies well to living, too.

Consider the passage above with these changes:

“Look for the clutter in your life and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine every thing (or commitment or relationship) you put in your life. Is every thing doing new (or meaningful) work? Can any task be done with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something (or someone) useless just because you think it’s (or he’s/she’s) beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.”

Choose kind 

My 7-year-old daughter came by my office after school on Tuesday. It’s the last week of school, and she was lively and lighthearted and spent some time, as usual, writing on the whiteboard in my office. When I left work I noticed she had written this on the board:  

“When given a choice to be right or kind, choose kind.”

I paused and wondered where a 7-year-old came up with such a thoughtful bit of wisdom, but I forgot to ask her about it.

The next day my wife and I attended the end-of-year party for her second-grade class. Her teacher, Ms. McCranie, is a superhero of a teacher, and she’s retiring this year after a long and remarkable career. As Ms. McCranie was giving out the academic awards she came to the Citizenship Award and explained that it was awarded primarily for kindness. She said she tells her students that, “when given a choice to be right or kind, choose kind.”

“Aha”, I thought. That’s where my Annie got that wisdom. And I was so impressed that this thought had been impressed in my daughter’s consciousness so distincly.

And then Ms. McCranie announced that the Citizenship Award for her class was being awarded to Annie.

Her mom and sister and I are entitled to smirk at this slightly, knowing what it’s like to live with her occasionally feisty and fiery moods. But if in public and at school, at least, she’s demonstrating enough kindness to win a class award and she can quote verbatim such solid wisdom, I’ll take it.

I need to have that wisdom impressed on me regularly as well. 


Current reading list

I’m currently switching between Natural Born Heroes and James Michener’s Hawaii

Michener’s novel is such an epic, and I’m only 75 percent through it after weeks of light reading. But it holds up and keeps pulling me through it. 

Next up in non-fiction after Natural Born Heroes will be Greg McKeown’s  Essentialism. And my next novel will be Neal Stephenson’s latest, Seveneves, which just released tonight. 

I continue to enjoy balancing non-fiction and fiction, usually saving the novel for night time reading and working through the non-fiction at lunch. 

Einstein: Have holy curiosity

“Don’t think about why you question, simply don’t stop questioning. Don’t worry about what you can’t answer, and don’t try to explain what you can’t know. Curiosity is its own reason. Aren’t you in awe when you contemplate the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure behind reality? And this is the miracle of the human mind—to use its constructions, concepts, and formulas as tools to explain what man sees, feels and touches. Try to comprehend a little more each day. Have holy curiosity.” –Albert Einstein

Roman Mars on flag design

This talk about flag design — yes, flag design — by Roman Mars of the 99% Invisible podcast made my day.

Some of these design principles can be directly applied to presentation slide design. Don’t put text on a slide that is hard to read. In most cases a strong, simple, clear image will be more effective than text on a screen, especially if that text is small or redundant or is read word-for-word (no way, right?) by the presenter.

The presentation, of course, is not about the slides, it’s about the interaction of the speaker and the audience resulting in a transformation. Only use slides if they support and enhance that interaction.

Your slides are your flag, your visual symbol of you and your message, but they’re also a tool that should serve your message and not detract from it.

Don’t be like San Francisco or Milwaukee or, holy smokes, Pocatello with their mishmash abominations of design dereliction. Be like Amsterdam, instead, and go for kick-ass.


While listening to a technology podcast today I was reminded of just how good the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark is.

Not like I needed reminding. It’s always been my immediate response when asked for a favorite movie. But I tend to chalk up my affection for it as a bit of nostalgia rather than simply an appreciation of the merits of the film.

I saw it when it was first released in the summer of 1981. I was a rising high school senior. My family went to see it on opening weekend at the downtown theater In my hometown and sat in the balcony. Classic.

But, we arrived a few minutes late and missed the opening scene. We then sat through what was the most sensational film I had ever seen. We were all delightfully stunned. It was unlike any other movie. And when the closing credits rolled, we decided to stay for the next screening to see just the first few minutes we had missed. And then we ended up staying and watching the whole film again. We couldn’t stop watching. We went through some popcorn that night. And happily.

The very next weekend I was back at the theater to watch it again, this time on a memorable first date with a girl from my high school.

That movie was etched into my consciousness. Indiana Jones’s  improvisational heroics and authentic, rough-around-the-edges cool became my inspiration.

But it was more than just a happy teenage summer memory that endears the film to me. It was also a remarkably well crafted film. Spielberg and Lucas were in their prime, and the great Lawrence Kasdan wrote the script. The casting was spot on. There were no wasted scenes. The story was tight. The dialogue rang true and remains so quotable. There was clever humor and action and an unconventional love story. The cinematography was impeccable. The music was epic.

I took a screenwriting class a few years later in college. The professor had us over to his home one night to watch Raiders (on VHS tape, of course, at a time when owning a copy of a movie was expensive). Raiders was my teacher’s example of an ideal screenplay. The class gathered around his television while he charted the plot points with us. And we all marveled at the skill of the filmmakers in creating an unapologetically fun film that could stand as a work of art as well.

Yes, it’s just an action/adventure film, but it’s impeccably made, crafted by true icons of the film world. I would not hesitate to rank it with some of the best films ever made. I can’t think of any Spielberg film that’s better than this one, and that’s saying something.

I went back today and listened again to the episode of The Incomparable podcast that’s devoted solely to Raiders. And those guys feel the way I do. It’s such a satisfying film on so many levels.

If you haven’t seen Raiders, go fix that. And make an event of it. Watch it on the biggest screen you can. Make the room dark. Pop some popcorn (not the microwave kind, certainly), and enjoy a truly great escape.

Steinbeck’s writing advice: Your audience is one single reader

Here is just a bit of author John Steinbeck’s advice on writing, taken from a Paris Review interview:

It is usual that the moment you write for publication—I mean one of course—one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.

            Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.

            1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

            2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

            3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

This is good.

Focus on just one page at a time. One line at a time. Just the next word, even.

Don’t try to edit as you go. Just let it flow and see where it goes.

And, instead of imagining some potential vast audience or the possible impact of your work or the rewards that might come from it, focus on just one single reader.

Be the reader, in the way that director Christopher Nolan puts himself in the position of his audience when making films. But reading is a solitary affair, so you need to imagine only that one single reader.

One. Single. Reader.

Back to awesome

I’ve been slacking. (Not slack-lining. That would be cool.)

This is not cool. I put my good habits aside for a minute, which is perfectly okay in moderation. But that minute turned into weeks.

I’ve not been diligent with what I eat and how I move. Too much sitting. Way too many food-like substances. (Curse you, Ben… and Jerry.)

Not focused enough when I work. Not present enough with my family.

Just not aiming for awesome often enough.

No one seems to have noticed. But I have. And I want to rededicate myself to habits and systems that lead to excellence, for the sake of those I love and those who expect the best from me and for my own self-respect.

“Get it together, man.” Indeed.

Awesome doesn’t happen in an instant. But deciding to be more awesome does.

Mark Twain On Being Unafraid Of Dying

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.

And this:

I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.

Doing summons feeling

From R.J.Baughan’s The Joy of Doing:

“Men do not really live for honors or for pay; their gladness is not in the taking and holding, but in the doing, the striving, the building, the living. It is a higher joy to teach than to be taught. It is good to get justice, but better to do it; fun to have things, but more to make them. The happy man is he who lives the life of love, not for the honors it may bring, but for the life itself.”

via Art of Manliness

There’s magic in action. Just start. Do the thing you want to do for the simple joy of doing the thing.

And even when — especially when — you don’t feel like doing the thing, do it anyway. Doing usually summons feeling.

Stoic Zen: The glass is already broken

Kottke shared this paragraph from Mark Epstein’s book Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy From a Buddhist Perspective:

“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

This is Zen. But also very Stoic.

Negative visualization is a Stoic practice. Imagining and accepting the worst case can help me better appreciate what is while preparing me for what could be.

Sunday morning Stoic: Only the present

A crisp, bright, quiet spring Sunday morning.

A cup of tea (coconut) and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

A Sunday morning ritual for me.

It’s hard to open this book without reading a passage that delights or challenges and refreshes my mind with its clarity and straightforward insight.

This passage today, 8.35:

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.

Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present—and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold out against that … well, then, heap shame upon it.”

Only the present.

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