Category Archives: Authenticity

Whose language?

Andrew Sullivan spotted this extraordinary video on YouTube: In my language.

In it, an autistic woman lets us into her world. In the first half, we see her engaging with life in a way, I would say in a language, of her own. This footage will probably trigger a variety of reactions in you – it did in me. In the second half, she chooses to communicate with us in what we might think of us our normal language. I found it astonishing, humbling and deeply provocative.

Microphone or talking stick

Look, blogs are a great place for half-finished ideas. It’s probably one reason why I like to blog but find it an increasing ordeal to write essays, proposals etc.

In this spirit, I was thinking about talking sticks. I’ve been to events where we all sat in a cirle, and when someone wanted to speak, they would take hold of the talking stick. It’s the sort of thing you often see hilariously mocked on TV. The actual experience was very satisfying. I especially appreciated the principle that a facilitator articulated: if you’re talking, feel free to express what you want, and be mindful that others will also wish to speak. That somehow got across the idea that you shouldn’t prattle on but in a much more permissive way. The second principle was that if you weren’t talking, your focus should be on listening, and not sitting there planning your pithy follow up. Sometimes it works really well when the suggestion is made that we don’t respond directly to what the previous person has said, which gets away from a dynamic of a small number of people having a conversation being watched by others.

Anyway, what seemed to work about the talking stick ritual was that people managed to bring some reverence to the process of sharing experience together.

So I was thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to think of microphones at large conferences more this way?

Waiting and presence – experiment

A few days ago I blogged Chris Corrigan’s post about waiting. He was talking about experiences of waiting that is not about anticipating the future but about being fully present. Jeff Risley left a comment saying he’d be reading Chris’ post out at the start of his next meeting, and I did the same a few days ago.

The first thing I noticed was that this felt like a small risk. It’s not perhaps the conventional way to start a meeting. The effect was rather satisfying. The first person to speak pulled out a copy of a book by Eckart Tolle and shared her thoughts about the way we adopt masks for meetings, so that they become a sort of role-play exercise. The next shared thoughts about the pressures he felt to “perform” even in relatively informal situations. Several stories were told of the experience of being present to the birth of a child (something mentioned in Chris’ post). I don’t think any of these engaging things would have happened if we’d just pulled out our agendas or talked about our deliverables.

It also tends to confirm my growing sense that people are really not that reluctant to converse with depth and show more of themselves, if the context is right.

I noticed how much more engaging and animated the meeting felt after this. It would be great if you felt like trying this yourself and seeing what happens.

In the box: revenge of the geeks?

Prompted by several friends, and finally by some excellent posts from Marc Babej, I’ve read Douglas Rushkoff’s latest, Get Back in the Box. This is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time. It’s one of the few business books that I’ve read to the end.

If you don’t have time to read the book, Marc’s three posts above give some of the highlights of Rushkoff’s thinking.

The idea that resonates most for me is Rushkoff’s attack on the “business of business”. This is the popular idea that what matters is not expertise in, or passion for, a particular product or service; instead what gets popularised is the notion of genius business leaders who can flit from one industry to another, without much real interest in what industry does. The result: organisations that get distracted with gimmicks instead of putting their energies into creating good products. (This ties in to Jim Collins‘ observation, in Good to Great, that truly great companies did not have superstar leaders imported from afar; they usually had humbler leaders steeped in the business.)

This particular malady is very prevalent in branding and marketing, where gimmicks so often triumph over substance. Ruskoff puts this rather eloquently talking to Marc here:

Most executives today are career managers. Managing is a specialization that is, almost by definition, divorced from the product, and branding is the only thing these folks come in contact with. If you lack the knowledge to measure your success in terms of the quality of your products, then the replication of your image in the media space becomes your standard for success. Managers who are disconnected from their products will necessarily care more about their own careers than the companies they are supposedly leading, too. Hell, theyre going to flip jobs, anyway. Its become a generic position.

Branding also plays into managers notions of fame. Like everyone else, they experience the world through mass media, so they want the world to experience them through mass media. It boils down to a cult of celebrity. And that celebrity – more than competency in a particular industry – leads to big salaries in this upside-down business universe.

This gets to the heart of something that has long troubled me about the notion of being a branding or marketing consultant – it’s all too easy to be another diletante*, purporting to have communication skills that are applicable to all sorts of businesses, whilst not really understanding any business well enough to know what one’s talking about.

What Rushkoff argues will become even more significant as Web 2.0 applications gain ground. It’s why we’re seeing the debates about the future of Venture Capitalism when funding becomes less signficant a challenge for start ups, and passion and enthusiasm and the ability to sustain the idea become more important. It’s also a big part of why big agencies are right to be panicking these days.

(This perspective may also change how we consider the kerfuffle over A listers vs the Long Tail. Those who seem over-distressed about the power of the As are probably putting too much emphasis on the ego and not enough on the expertise; worrying about charisma instead of conversation, with too much focus on the nodes and not enough on the links.)

James and I have been having interesting conversations with organisations that are getting into the idea of blogging and other ways of collaborating with customers. What they are beginning to realise is that to blog well, you really have to be knowledgeable and passionate about your business. This kind of expertise, whether inside business or among key customers, has long been derided as geeky or fanatical – but now it needs to be valued much more highly (see James’ post on Why Hells Angels Know Best). It may be time for the revenge of the geeks.

* There’s a baby I don’t want to throw out with the bathwater here: let’s not confuse the dilettante, defined here, as an amateur who engages in an activity without serious intentions and who pretends to have knowledge (my emphasis) with the bricoleur defined here as a person who creates things from scratch, is creative and resourceful: a person who collects information and things and then puts them together in a way that they were not originally designed to do

Coca Cola for Winston Smith?

Danny G of AdPulp has discovered the slightly creepy website of The Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness. It has a Ministry-of-Truth-like quality, and turns out to be an outpost of Coca Cola, complete with a logo that feels like a cross between Coke and some strange religious sect. Danny says

But this site, an ersatz hydration nutrition portal with a MD advisory board and all, is just weird. Sections entitled “Are You Thirsty?” and “Hydration and You” in particular crack me up.

For me, it’s fairly typical of the way corporates are struggling to deal with changing attitudes, splintering off these odd outposts whilst trying to carry on regardless with their mainstream activities.

It reminds me of the flailing efforts of sugar-laden Sunny Delight to get away from an avalanche of bad publicity, which I wrote about here. Their “Real World Kids” site since vanished. Bizarrely, if you click to realworldkids.com you now get a page about Bold 2in1 Liquitabs. (Some of the decayed remains are preserved in this google cache) P&G sold the company off, and I see that the new owners have created a new iteration of the fan dance.

Is authenticity hyped?

Tom Asacker quotes Ionesco

“Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.”

and goes on to set some challenging questions for folks (like me) who opine from time-to-time in favour of authenticity in branding. Here’s a taster but read the whole thing if you can find the time.

Marketing experts continue to advise getting rid of the hype and, instead, providing more depth. For example, if you’re running a business event or meeting, give people content. That’s what they want: content and connections, which will help them improve their businesses and their lives. But the information says otherwise. That’s why the highest fees go to the biggest celebrities, and not to the most insightful presenters. Don’t believe me? Look it up. Halley Berry receives $100 -$500k for corporate appearances. Wal-Mart paid her six figures to appear at its 2004 shareholders meeting. Trying to get paid attendees to your next event? Who do you think will draw more people, the Desperate Housewives or Peter Senge? Be honest.

Tom isn’t being cynical here, I think he’s noticed a large elephant under the table that needs some attention. In the comments, Michael D Pollock has a pretty good stab at answering Tom’s challenge.

I regularly catch myself making predictions that such-and-such an approach won’t work. and I’m certainly guilty of insisting hype will fail when there is plenty of evidence that it sometimes succeeds, often for very long periods of time. So I try to qualify my predictions by admitting that I’m influenced by my own preferences. So if I suggest something won’t work, I might also say that I’m biased because I’m more comfortable avoiding hype. If you put me against a wall, there are a lot of things I won’t do for money and others are less picky or sanctimonious, depending on your worldview.

I suppose that I’m not likely to recommend getting Halle Berry to address your conference, although for some organisations, that might be just what they need. Walmart can easily afford her and she might do something worthwhile with the money.

And there are plenty of examples of businesses that seem to do well without the advertising and the hype, just as there are those that seem to flourish on them.

I’m with Tom in mocking expertise. I’m not an expert.

That Ionesco quote resonates too. Sitting in groups, I see a lot time spent on battling over principles, and sometimes I’m one of the battlers. Battles that often feel like the narcissism of small differences. I think when people talk more about how they feel, rather than saying how the world is, there’s a bit more common ground.

Next, I’m gong to post something about postmodernism, which relates to this in some way or other. I’m putting in a separate post cos it’s a bit esoteric.

Jory on Authenticity

One of the good things about More Space is that you can listen to each of the chapters as an mp3 (just register at the More Space website for free access). I enjoyed reading Jory des Jardins‘ chapter in its early draft – and I enjoyed it even more in the audio version over the weekend.

Partly because her theme is “the inevitability of authenticity”, partly because it is told as a personal story, it’s good to hear her tell it in her own voice.

Jory’s talks about the difference between being taken for who you are, warts and all, versus being hired on superficial appearances. Here’s how Jory used to see things

To me, getting jobs was tantamount to having a bag of tricks. I could pull any combination of delightful qualifications, based on the hiring manager’s need and what I’d read about in the company’s culture.

She tells how she made the transition to authenticity with humour and candour.

I didn’t suddenly decide to be authentic. I had simply given up on my need to be “on”, to sell myself. If I went to my computer feeling gross, the gosh darnit, I’d let the scant few who happened to bump into my blog know it. Instead of trying to produce content, I simply translated the thoughts, the impulses that were already there… It was around this time that I generated readers, not traffic.

I like that distinction between traffic and readers. I think it’s a nuance that a lot of marketing misses when it gets fixated with metrics for “impacts”. Losing some of our “persona” and showing some vulnerability can be a key to creating vibrant relationships. Jory does a nice job of describing her path to this.

More Space – Rob’s rousing chapter

The arrival of my hard copies of More Space, the book I’ve co-authored with eight other bloggers, has prompted to me re-read what others have written there. Today, I’m going to do a little trailer on Rob Paterson‘s chapter, Going Home. (You can read his essay online free, or order the book, at the More Space site.)

Rob’s chapter is a great polemic and rousing stuff. I think some of us bloggers have learnt to tone down our rhetoric so as not to alarm the uninitiated – and it’s fun to be reminded of the idealism that actually motivates some of us to keep this up.

Rob reckons that we’ve seen a version of the internet revolution before. He looks at how the world was changed by Martin Luther, Galileo and Gutenberg, and asks,

Who would have known then that a priest with a big idea, a man with a telescope, and a man with a new communication tool would come together to shake the world?

Rob’s point is that this is being repeated today:

Is this idea of going direct the same for us as Luther’s big idea that man could talk directly to God?

Is not the new doctrine for organizations based on the observable working laws and designs of nature the same as Galileo’s observations?

Is not the enabling vector a new type of communication device that is so simple and so inexpensive that it will give voice and hence power back to individuals and to their communities? Are we not standing at the beginning of a new reformation? Has the wheel of history turned full circle?

He goes on to look at examples of the sort of communities which are now possible, and which challenge conventional top-down notions of dealing with issues. One is an online health community for seniors on Prince Edward Island, where Rob lives:

Within two years, there were more than three thousand members and more than fifty groups on PEI alone, and the network is spreading all over North America.

Initially, the most popular groups were in health. The health groups grew up at first as support groups. The ?rst was for people who had severe arthritis. Within months this group had become very expert. They were on top of the leading research and had lots of practical advice for each other. They provided not only moral support but also expert help. For a group for whom mobility was a challenge, the online aspect was a perfect fit. Many broke though their fears of the Web by taking lessons from other seniors in the Blogging 101 group.

Here’s Rob’s optimistic prognosis:

Just as people at the end of the Middle Ages rediscovered the wisdom of the Classic world, so we are rediscovering the experience of tribal life. I don’t mean by this that we will have to take up hunting and live in caves. For we have made a Great Return before and we know how it will play out. Renaissance men did not put on togas. What they did was to remember the wisdom of the Classic world that had been forgotten in a millennium-long dark age and applied this wisdom to the world of their time. So we too will begin to experience a new way of living and of being and apply this experience to our own time and to our own challenges.