Allison M. Shapira

Thursday, January 03, 2008

New Blog Site

I've transferred my blog and my website to

Please visit my site at to access my blog.

Thanks for the visit!


Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Art of the Start

Moving right along down my holiday reading list, I just finished The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki.

It's an excellent read for many different reasons, not the least of which are the wit and wisdom of the author, who writes in such an engaging style that I was able to read the book in just a few days.

But I'd like to focus on one specific chapter that was relevant to public speaking:

The Art of Pitching

While Guy is mainly talking about how to pitch to venture capitalists, his points are transferable to many types of presentations. Some of his main points are:
  • 10/20/30 - Ten slides, Twenty minutes, 30-point font as a rule of thumb for presentations. This makes sure you don't overload your audience with long presentations that have too many slides that are too hard to read.
  • Make your points relevant to your audience by adding real-world examples or stories.
  • Know your audience in advance and cater your presentation to them.
  • Practice your presentation a minimum of 25 times so you become comfortable with it. He says, "There are no shortcuts to achieving familiarity."
Guy included had some great guidelines for using PowerPoint, including "animate your body, not your slides."

There were also a few pages in the book dedicated to public speaking itself. Again, he had some very relevant suggestions beyond the normal "make eye contact, use body language" which are important but not the only points. For instance:
  • Say something interesting
  • Meet the crowd before the speech (so you see familiar faces in the audience)
  • Ask for a small room (instead of a large room that might not fill up)
  • Practice. He rewords something I repeat often during my lectures to highlight the importance of practice. He says, "Ironically, the more you practice, the more you'll sound spontaneous."
An excellent book that has much to offer individuals from all fields. I highly recommend it.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Made to Stick

Since classes have ended for the semester, I've been reading some interesting books related to communication.

I just completed Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

It was a fascinating and well-researched look at what makes messages "sticky" - what makes them stick in people's minds long after they have heard them. The book looked at both truisms and urban legends, famous and obscure messages. The authors find a pattern among sticky ideas, that many of them have some combination of the following 6 elements of SUCCESs:


The book is relevant for anyone who has to convey a message: school teachers, PR professionals, marketers, parents, governments...just about anyone.

As a public speaking professional, I found one section particularly interesting. The authors mentioned that in certain studies they performed, there wasn't "necessarily" a correlation between good speakers and sticky messages. In other words, you could really entertain a crowd for 15 minutes, and they wouldn't remember a word of it.

This is a challenge to those of use who speak publicly on a regular basis and who help others to speak well. It's a reminder that our goal as speakers is not only to entertain a crowd, but to inspire them to think or act in a certain way afterwards. We can't simply focus on presentation without focusing on content as well.

We need to ensure that our delivery is an effective vehicle for delivering a message that our audience will remember afterwards. In other words: have something to say, and say it well.

This was a powerful take-away from the book.

Friday, December 07, 2007

A Day in the Life of a Public Speaking Consultant

This past Monday, I had a day that made me stop and think about how much I enjoy the field of public speaking. It was a day that helped me really delve into the field in several different ways. Here is a description of my activities, starting from 1:00 PM and ending at 9:00 PM.

1. Toastmasters Meeting: At the last moment, I was asked to give a speech to my local Toastmasters club, Crimson Toastmasters at Harvard University. I decided to start a new advanced speaker's manual entitled "Speaking to Inform", and for this first speech I educated my group about the best way to prepare for a "Question and Answer" session that often follows a speech. It's a particular skill set within public speaking that unfortunately you need to experience in order to improve. But there are specific ways to prepare for it.

I had to leave this meeting early in order to attend...

2. Presentation by Professor Rod Kramer of Stanford's Graduate School of Business. He spoke about "Effective Self-Presentation: How Leaders Project Desired Images." I found this fascinating because he discussed such important speaking techniques as making sure your nonverbal communication matches the verbal (show the audience you really believe what you're saying) - and we looked at examples where the opposite happened. He mentioned an idea that I have long espoused when talking about the subject of leadership: no matter what values or ideas you have, you have to be able to effectively convince people at work, in the media, within your constituencies, etc. In other words, it's not enough to have a vision - you have to communicate that vision to others. Communicating that vision to others is in itself a leadership challenge.

At the conclusion of that fascinating presentation, I left to prepare for my next engagement, where I was the featured speaker:

3. Public Speaking Clinic at the Harvard Kennedy School on the subject of "Taking Control of Q+A." You may now realize why I was so quick to speak at my Toastmasters club. I had already prepared a speech for this clinic. During this clinic, I spoke about how to prepare for and handle Q+A sessions. Then I gave the students a chance to write their own short speeches on a controversial topic. They each presented their speech and took tough questions from all of us (myself and the students). After that exercise, I facilitated group feedback for each person. It's a great method for giving everyone experience speaking and taking questions, and also for stimulating the analytical way in which we need to observe and learn from other speakers.

At the end of this session, I had to leave promptly in order to take a cab to Simmons College, where I was giving my final presentation for my Writing class about the reality TV show I was asked to write.

4. Presentation of "The Communicator with Donald Trump." In this show, Donald Trump is searching for a new VP of Communications for his company, so he sponsors an Apprentice-type reality show to find one. Each week, he gives the participants a variety of writing challenges to test their communication skills, and each week they make a variety of outrageous errors. The participants themselves are each stereotypical in their roles: the MBA student, the writing professor, the foreign diplomat, and the communications consultant (guess who wins?).

So for this final event of the day, I gave a Power Point presentation on the concept, rules, and participants of the show, and then read from the Pilot episode that I had written. The class reaction was great - people loved the participants and the exercises. Of course, this was in my business writing class, so I knew my audience.

Public speaking is a skill: the more you practice, the better you will become. The converse is also true: the less you practice, the worse you will become. That's why when opportunities come along to speak at the last moment, I always accept them. And that's why a day like Monday really makes me feel like I have increased my capacity to both speak in public and teach others how to speak.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Service Learning Project

A fascinating part of our Writing class has been the service learning component, which we finished this past week.

There are several non-profit organizations in the Fenway which work with Simmons and other local colleges in an effort to engage their students in service learning. "Service learning" was a new phrase for me, and I learned that it entails encouraging students to help a local community group or organization by giving them a credit-based assignment that requires them to work with the group.

It reminds me of companies that encourage their employees to volunteer in the community.

Being a writing class, we were asked to write copy for the web site of a local non-profit in the Fenway. I was the group leader of a team of five women, and each of us tackled a page of the web site. The scope was pretty limited, and we felt like we should be doing much more, but we stuck to the assignment and wrote to the best of our abilities.

I liaised with the community contact, and over the course of a month we stayed in touch to make sure that our project would fulfill the organization's expectations. While we have yet to receive our grades, we all felt pretty good about the work we did.

I really like this component of our class, because it gave us practical, hands-on experience with an actual company facing an actual need. It wasn't writing a theoretical letter or drafting our personal literary narrative, interesting as that may be. It was directly related to the field of business communications, and for that I feel that I have benefited as a professional. At the end of the day, that's why I'm pursuing this degree.

Turning Ideas into Deliverables

In my Writing class tonight, our guest speaker was the Director of Development Communications for a large organization in Boston. He had some interesting ideas about how to achieve results as a communications professional. I chose the best ones to write about tonight:

1. Find out what the client really wants - this requires some reading between the lines and asking some delicately phrased questions. Not a bad start. Sometimes we are given an assignment or job when the client has a specific goal in mind that they don't articulate. To ensure the client's satisfaction, find out the real end goal in advance.

2. If you work for the organization, how does this job fit into your communication plan? Do you even have a communication plan?

3. Collect primary source material - what already exists? How can you avoid reinventing the wheel?

4. Define your audience. I cannot stress this enough, and anyone who has read my past blog entries knows how much I emphasize putting yourself in the mind of your audience before you engage in any communication project. It's not about changing yourself for your audience, it's about showing them the specific aspects of you that are most relevant.

5. Find an ally to bounce ideas off. It's of great use to have someone who can look at your work from an outside yet relevant perspective. Sometimes we get so focused on our work that we are unable to analyze it - it's like looking at a huge Salvador Dali painting from up close. You need to be across the room to appreciate it.

6. Don't procrastinate. In my writing class, there is almost unanimous consensus that everyone procrastinates. But I do not. Singers and speakers do not procrastinate, because we know that you can't just wing it - you have to be prepared. And it's so much easier when you plan in advance!

7. Always gives others a deadline for getting back to you. It's a simple courtesy - when would you like a response?

8. Don't expect the client to do the proofing. How anyone can hand in a job that is not proofed, I do not know...

9. Get to know other people's schedules and work pace. This seems crucial when working in a team environment.

There were a few others, but these are the most salient ones. And many of these points are relevant no matter what field you are working in. Most are directly related to communications, but they can also be applied to a number of disciplines.

Good thoughts to end the night.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Death of Distance, Part 2

This week was our last discussion of the year. The final two classes will comprise our group presentations.

So for our final discussion, we talked about The Death of Distance by Frances Cairncross. I really liked the format of the discussion - our instructor put up slides from the chapter "The Trendspotter's Guide to New Communications," and we engaged in a discussion of all the issues it raised, from privacy to outsourcing to world peace. A great discussion, and I think it was a great way to end the class. I was specifically interested in the social and cultural consequences of emerging communications technologies, and as a result of this class, I feel like I'm in a better position to deal with them as a communications professional.

I was specifically interested in the idea that technologies can simultaneously cause fragmentation and cohesion. When you're dealing with someone's communications adoption, it's important to recognize in which way they are affected.

In closing, our instructor warned us to always think through the new technologies that we are using, in an effort to understand their implications. But no matter what technology we are using, it always comes down to human relationships - we are always trying to communicate with one another, and that will never change. The medium may change, but our needs won't. And we won't.

The last two quotes of the class were the following:

"Technology takes shape long before its full consequences for society emerge."

"Technology, driving economics, has the power to change the social and physical world."

Interesting thoughts to keep with me as I progress through the Master's in Communications Management program.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Yoav and iTunes

My husband and I recently had a fascinating conversation about iTunes.

We were walking on the beach in Florida, and I was complaining about how I couldn't purchase songs on iTunes Italia with an American credit card.

I said, "Why can't they just allow Americans to purchase Italian songs? It's not like the technology is different."

So Yoav said, "Well, let's work backward. What would you have to do in order to let Americans purchase Italian songs?"

In doing this backward thinking, I realized that the issue was not so much one of technology as it was one of copyright. For iTunes Italia to give Italians access to Italian songs, they need to purchase the copyright for those songs from the record label. They purchase the songs for a particular audience, knowing that they will be widely popular to the audience.

In order to purchase the copyright for an American audience, you have to pay a lot more to have access to a much larger audience (US iTunes users vs. Italian iTunes users), but only a small fraction of that audience will actually purchase those songs. Since the market for Italian music in the US is not so high, it would be very hard to recoup the cost of making music available to such a large audience.

After going through this exercise, on the beach in Florida, I found myself much more appreciative of iTunes' challenge. But I still want to download Italian songs...

What's a Fat Draft?

Our writing class has been going well. I've already mentioned the research paper, but I want to touch upon an interesting exercise we went through in class.

We learned how to write a fat draft: to take something we're working on and simply double its size. For every sentence, add another sentence with more details. Then, when we have a second draft that's twice as long as the first, condense it into a third draft.

At first, this exercise seemed a little silly. Our instructor had just told us that our writing style was too long. And who has time to do this?

But then, as I added more details here and there to the performance review I had written for myself, I realized that I was coming up with new ideas and angles from which to write. Having freed myself from the bounds of brevity, I was actually being more creative.

Then, when I went back and wrote a third draft, I incorporated some of the fat draft material and came up with a concise, logical third draft that was no longer than my original. But it was much better.

In a society where we always need to be brief and effective under deadline, sometimes the best way to be brief and effective is to take just a little more time - to take a draft, flip it upside down, fatten it, and then slim it down. In the end, it will create a better product.

Last ECT post for now

Last night's ECT was particularly interesting. We talked about Disruptive Technologies and the effects they can have on a company and an industry.

What are they? How do you recognize them? What are their implications?

We spoke briefly about each of these, and I feel we should have spent more on actual examples. But we moved quickly to a connected topic that was also fascinating - the technology market adoption cycle.

As someone who has worked tangentially in marketing (PR is a form of marketing an image), it was so interesting to actually study the field of marketing. We discussed the S-curve of the adoption cycle, and learned about two books by Geoffrey Moore that discuss how to cross the chasm between early adopters and the early majority, between visionaries and pragmatists. The books are Crossing the Chasm and Inside the Tornado. I'm going to add the second book to my personal reading list between semesters.

In suggesting how not to get left behind when a disruptive technology comes along, our instructor suggested that we READ - follow different sources all the time, from the stock market, to the newspapers, to online media. Don't get silo'd into your own field or product, rather keep your eyes and ears open to the political, technological, and social changes that are going on all around you. Pretty wise advise.

To be a Communications Manager?

Our ECT instructor is always explaining the relevance of ECT's to our future careers as "Communications Managers" - "As CM, you are going to have to manage people's CM, you are going to have to deal with situations like this..."

I always feel a little underwhelmed by those statements. Although I appreciate the direct relevance of what we are studying, I feel we shouldn't be striving to be simply communications managers. We should strive to be leaders in our field, whatever the field is. Do we want to simply manage communications at our company, or do we want to lead the company to use communications technologies in the most effective ways? Do we want to manage the status quo, or stay on the cutting edge of technological innovation so that we keep our company one step ahead of the competition?

Perhaps I feel that by referring to ourselves as communications managers, we accept a more passive role in our future professions. I prefer to look at the future in a more radical, catalytic way. We're not doing this just to get paid, we're doing this because we are inspired by this field, and we are going to achieve great things.

ECT and the Internet

We've also spent a fair amount of time discussing networks, the Internet, and the World Wide Web. We learned that the Internet is just a network of networks that joins people together. It's a connection of people through computers, since at the end of the day, it's the people who send things to one another. Communications is really a discipline, not just a technology.

The Internet has pulled us out of a two-dimensional world, where we are no longer bound by geographic constraints - our physical address has become our IP address.

Our instructor provided some figures during class to show the differences in the adoption of a technology. Here is the time it took a technology from the first available product to adoption by at least 50 million people:

Radio: 38 years
TV: 13 years
Internet: 4 years

The point? ECT's are accelerating at a rapid pace, and we need to be prepared for new ones to be developed all the time. We're only using a fraction of the fiber optic cables that we laid around the world, so we have room to do much more. We need to anticipate what's coming and embrace it.

ECT Almost Over

We only have one more lecture in our Emerging Communications Technologies class before our final presentations, which end the semester. It's amazing that we haven't even gone on Thanksgiving holiday, and yet we are almost done. That's one of the advantages of starting class the first week in September.

I have some notes to catch up on here, as I haven't had as much time to blog as I would have liked. The best time to blog is right after a class, when the information is fresh in my mind. However, when I come home from class at 9:30 or 10:00 PM, I want to spend time with my husband in the two hours we have before going to bed. This is a work-school-life balance that I need to manage, since I'm sure it will only get more relevant as school continues. So I look at it as practice.

Over the past month, we've spent a lot of time in class studying the history of broadcasting, from public speaking to newspapers, from radio to internet.

Interestingly enough, the first newspapers in ancient China and Rome were used to control the population - they were a form of propaganda. Maybe it explains the instinct some restrictive governments have to control the media in their societies - it's an age-old desire to control their citizens. It shows a need for control that hasn't really gone away over human history. Now it's simply harder to do it, but the desire is still there.

Additionally, many newspapers have focused on the exact same types of news items, from ancient times through today: sports, weddings, obituaries, horoscopes, upcoming events. In other words, although technology has evolved over centuries, cultural needs and wants have basically stayed the same. We want to know what's going on around us, in our society and in our country.

But since we're in ECT, we also want to focus on changing technologies and how they effect us. For instance, newspapers in the 21st century are having to change their priorities. As less people subscribe to the printed paper and more people read it for free online, newspapers are relying more on advertising to pay for their production.

In general, we are going to have to manage the expectations of a new generation of people who expect most information on the Internet to be free: newspapers and information, music and movies. The recent strike in Hollywood is a result of this tension. In a capitalist society, you have a right to ask payment for the result of your hard work - but in capitalist society, you can only receive payment if you produce something the consumer is willing to pay for. The decreasing willingness of the consumer to pay for a product or service will force producers to look for some kind of reasonable balance, even as they adjust their production to allow for decreased revenue.