Monthly Archives: April 2010

The Golden Rule for Conferences

This past week, I attended #140conf in New York City.  Every session was recorded for posterity, so if you weren’t there, you can see what you missed at your leisure.

Instead of recapping the event with a play-by-play, I’d rather share one key observation I made during the event that, I soon realized, applies to conferences as a whole:

Always deliver more in person than you deliver online.

More of what, you might ask?


Whether you’re a conference organizer, speaker or attendee, your goals may differ but the same rule applies: You always want to get more from the people you’re staring at than what they make available to you digitally.

But in order to do that, you first need to give more of yourself.

Web time is compartmentalized; face time is linear.  Face time is worth more.

We have to earn the benefits that come with face time.

Here’s how you can do that.

10 Tips for Conference Organizers

  1. Promise attendees, speakers and sponsors one specific payoff; then deliver it.
  2. Start on time, stay on time, stop on time.
  3. Make it easy for attendees to network before, during and after the event.
  4. Don’t enforce your event’s brand at the expense of your audience’s experience.
  5. Nourish the attention spans of your attendees.
  6. Sponsors deserve better than being chained to display tables and ignored.
  7. Provide more value than the ticket price would suggest.
  8. Would you pay to attend your own event?  If not, add value until you would.
  9. Be conscious of homogeneity; sexism, racism and cronyism damage when implied.
  10. Promoting your event doesn’t stop when the event itself stops.

That last point deserves some explanation.

Having organized several live events myself, I’m very aware that the core team of organizers is generally exhausted by the time the event is over.  The last thing anyone wants to do talk about an event they’ve already been talking about for months.

But you don’t have to.  Instead, assign one person from your promotions team to cultivate and curate the best of what other people are saying about your event.  This includes:

  • Finding the most revelatory blog post recaps from attendees
  • Seeking out the best photos from the event
  • Identifying the most important videos filmed at (or about) the event
  • Interviewing the sponsors to obtain their immediate feedback
  • Asking the speakers for a list of their favorite event sound bites

Then, the week after the event, post your curated summary of conference-based media on the event’s website and email it in a final e-blast summary to all sponsors and attendees.


Because the buzz surrounding your event will now be shrinking, just as your attendees have finished recuperating from their live experience.  They need a reminder of who they just met and what they just learned.  Plus, those who couldn’t attend this time around will need proof that your next conference is going to be a can’t-miss event.

And if you don’t do it now, everyone’s memory will turn to mush.  (Trust me, without documentation, all live events quickly become either legends or lost weekends.  And no one wants to pay top dollar only to immediately forget why you matter.)

10 Tips for Conference Speakers

  1. Stop repeating your bio; we can find that on our own.
  2. Don’t thank the organizers for inviting you; save that for the VIP room.
  3. Tell me a story.  Data without context is just numbers.
  4. If your entire presentation consists of information I already know, you’ve failed.
  5. Ditto presentations comprised of things I could discover by Googling you.
  6. The auditorium is your bedroom.  Dazzle us.  We paid for it.
  7. Everyone in the room should want to hear you speak again.
  8. Always leave time for a Q&A.
  9. Don’t make your entire speech a Q&A; the audience paid to hear you, not itself.
  10. Leave us with an action item, so your revelations will live on beyond your exit.
  11. Bonus points if you rejoin the audience after your presentation; it reminds us you’re human.

10 Tips for Conference Attendees

  1. You paid to be there (with your money, time or both).  Use it.
  2. Don’t come to sell; come to help.
  3. You’re not required to listen.  If the stage is dry, seek wisdom in the gallery.
  4. Every conversation you have could change your life.
  5. Spend less time documenting the event than experiencing it.
  6. A speaker is more (or less) than a sound bite; anoint your saviors accordingly.
  7. Nobody wants to hear your pitch; they want to know why you matter.
  8. Identify one interesting thing about yourself; when in doubt, talk about that.
  9. Always make time for the after-party.
  10. Always leave the after-party before you can’t.

And one bonus tip for everyone:

Time Stops at Live Events

At least, it should.

Online, our attention is perpetually assailed by more information than we can process.  As such, any interaction that lasts “too long” automatically starts to feel “wrong” because we feel compelled to look elsewhere for input.

At a live event, we have the luxury of turning off the endless stream of stimuli and really focusing on the human beings staring back at us.  We can have one-on-one conversations without the obligatory multitasking.

Enjoy this.

For me, one of the high points of #140conf was a late-night conversation I had with C.C. Chapman and Matthew Ebel in C.C.’s suite at the Roger Smith Hotel.  We talked about family, technology, business, theology, sex, money and the future — essentially, everything but Twitter.  (Which, at a Twitter conference, is impressive.)

That’s not the kind of conversation that fits into 140 characters, or a blog post, or a series of emails.

That’s the kind of personal connection that makes all the digital work we do worthwhile.  It reminds us that our machines connect us to complex humans with more to say to one another than we can ever squeeze into our momentary sampler platters of partial attention online.

And I have no idea what time it was when I left.

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Talk Less, Do More

I’ve been thinking.

Most “serious” bloggers blog daily, because a daily blog is a heartbeat.  It lets the people who follow you know that you’re still alive, still thinking, still contributing to the greater good.

But what, exactly, are you contributing?

If I Don’t Blog, I Don’t Exist

Most daily blogs I come across are heavy on…

  • Personal wisdom
  • Analysis of current events
  • Tech / product reviews
  • Context-free statistical reports
  • Lists

The connective thread?

They’re all easily written in a short amount of time.

If you’re blogging daily, your emphasis is almost always on a quota.  Yes, ideally, you want to be good.  But you also want to be there.  And sometimes “there” trumps good.

You also want to be noticed / found / loved, and if you blog daily, those odds increase.


What If You Did More and Talked Less?

Instead of blogging daily, why not blog weekly, but spend that week crafting something really good?

Advice, reviews and event analysis is a dime a dozen on blogs.  What’s useful but rare?

  • Experiments (and results)
  • Long-term case studies (and timelines of strategy adjustment)
  • Process analysis
  • Interviews that alter the way we think
  • Content that truly entertains, educates or illuminates

If we daily bloggers wrote less, did more, and delivered insightful, impactful, vital content (instead of daily blips), wouldn’t we be providing a more useful service?

Wouldn’t we be creating less white noise, and less clutter that needed to be cut through?

This isn’t just about blogs, either.  If Twitter’s volume were reduced by 80%, wouldn’t it be easier to find messages that mattered?

Let’s Stop Mass-Producing Our Own Irrelevance

It’s easier to stand out when you’re not simultaneously creating content that distracts people from you.

To that end, I’m trying an experiment: through July, I’ll be blogging once a week instead of once a day.*  My goal is to provide you with better content less often, rather than the most relevant content I could think of at that moment.

And if the end result is noticeably less valuable to me and / or my audience, I’ll adjust my course as necessary.

But first, let’s see where this goes.

* NOTE: Life may occasionally prompt multiple posts in a week.  Let’s not be totalitarians.

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Are You Listening to the Right Audience?

A few nights ago, The Streamy Awards happened.  The results — and the ceremony — pleased almost no one.

If awards can’t even please the people creating them, there’s a problem, and it starts with the basic goal:

Who are you doing this for?

Are the Streamys meant to be an award for web creators?  A validation of the web industry itself?  Or an appeal to the mainstream, intended to direct people’s attention to media they wouldn’t otherwise notice?

If you don’t know why you’re doing something — and who you’re doing it for — you’ll never know if you’ve succeeded… but you’ll definitely know when you don’t.

“It’s No Asimov.”

Let’s say you’re a mystery writer.

You’ve just spent the past year writing your latest detective novel.  But before you send the manuscript off to your editor, you’d like to get a second opinion.

So you ask your friend, who only ever reads science fiction.

This could be a problem.

On one hand, your friend’s feedback might be crucial.  Elements like plot, character, dialogue and pace are universally appreciated, regardless of genre.

On the other hand, if your friend has no exposure to mystery novels, she may not know which elements of your story are predictable, overdone or outdated.  She won’t know if what you’ve written is groundbreaking or simply serviceable.

And, because she’s your friend, she may not tell you what you need to hear the most:

What if it’s bad?

Know Who — and What — You’re Working For

If you create an ad campaign for a client, who judges whether or not it’s successful?

You might think it’s wonderful… but the client may not understand it.

You may both think it’s perfect… but the audience may not respond.

Everyone might hate it, but it might be the most effective campaign you’ve ever launched.

Does that also make it your best?

Are you focused on numbers, sales, reach or authority?  Are you more interested in the process or the results?  Would you rather cause a large, brief impact or a series of small, ever-widening ripples?

Most importantly: who decides when you’ve succeeded?

Are you trying to please your boss?

Your client?

Your audience?


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How to Be More Productive (and Expand Your Network) in 4 Weeks

I never accomplish everything I’d like to get done.  And, as a freelancer, I have no one to blame but myself.  I don’t have coworkers and bosses reminding me daily about deadlines like a 9-to-5 employee does.

Therefore, if I starve to death, that’s my fault — and I don’t like starving.

But I have a solution.

Over the past month, I conducted an experiment that was intended to improve not only my productivity, but the productivity of several other Baltimore-based freelancers.  And, after only four weeks, its benefits have already outweighed our initial expectations.

Here’s what we did, and how it might also help you.

The Premise:

For me, any tasks that don’t literally pay the bills are “optional,” AKA “whenever,” AKA “probably never.”

But I also know that I work best under pressure.  So it was time to invent some.

To do that, I approached several local freelancers and pitched them on a simple idea:

Let’s be accountable to each other.

The Process:

Each week, I met face-to-face with my freelance peers, one-on-one.  We’d discuss our business goals, our “must-do” work, and then identify any optional tasks we’d like to accomplish in the next week.

Then, each of us would then make a list of our own goals for the week, as well as the other person’s goals.  One week later, we’d meet again and see how we did.  (And if anyone needed a reminder, a nudge or a mid-week check-in, we could DM each other on Twitter and keep the ball rolling.)

Since the only penalty for not accomplishing our own goals would be the embarrassment of inventing excuses meant to convince a near-stranger that we were busier than expected, I presumed the absurd guilt involved in such an exchange would keep the participants honest (and motivated).  After all, why lie to someone who isn’t affected either way?

And I was right.  But, along the way, we all learned something else completely unexpected.

The Participants:

Initially, I only wanted one partner for this experiment.  I figured one hourly meeting was all the time I could spare.

But when four different freelancers took me up on my offer, I decided to involve all of them, but still meet them one-on-one.  That way, I could compare and contrast each person’s challenges and workflow, while mine would (presumably) remain constant.

My collaborators in this experiment were:

We’re all self-employed, we all battle periods of distraction and aimlessness, and we live our days sandwiched between the rush of deadlines and our own long-term life goals.  We’re busy, but we each needed a voluntary reason to stay focused.

So we started relying on each other to keep ourselves honest.

How It Went:

In my very first meeting, Katrina laid out 5 goals she wanted to accomplish in the following week.  That number was arbitrary; some people only committed to one goal a week, others to more, but no week’s total was ever more than 6.

NOTE: Since I was meeting with people 4 times each week, I kept my own stated goals consistent from person to person.  Otherwise, I’d be making myself responsible for 20 different goals each week, and I’d fail spectacularly.

The first week, I accomplished everything on my list.  My fellow freelancers performed nearly as well, with only a few missed goals in total.

However, the following week, each of us hit a stumbling block.

Personally, I over-committed myself when compared to the amount of free time I ended up having (because I was traveling for 5 days that week).  Others had unexpected family commitments, client complications or new business opportunities that required more time than they’d anticipated.

This setback was actually a bonus, because it prompted each of us to think more critically about how many “minor” tasks we could realistically expect to accomplish alongside our recurring obligations.

Each of us continued to experience our own peaks and valleys of productivity over the following weeks, but we made a point of meeting (or calling) weekly to stay in touch, even if we were slightly off target.  (That way, even if we fell short, we had to own up to it.)

What We Learned:

In the end, I accomplished 11 tasks that I probably would not have completed otherwise.  These ranged from the mundane (backing up old projects stored on my various hard drives) to the opportunistic (getting a month ahead on client blog posts).

Surprisingly (and somewhat embarrassingly), the tasks I tackled took far less time to complete than I’d originally expected.  (One dreaded task took four whole minutes to complete.)   Once I realized this, I felt like an idiot for having postponed so many of them for so long.

For me, the biggest tangible benefit came in the last week, when I finally created my own a daily work schedule.  To do this, I listed:

  • my hourly client obligations for each month.
  • any recurring tasks (i.e., “editing video,” even if the hours differ monthly)
  • any recurring personal tasks (writing this blog, walking the dog, etc.)

Then I broke my week down to hourly blocks and scheduled ample time for each task.

The results stunned me.

I discovered that I have more than enough time to accomplish everything on my list each week.  In fact, if I stick to the schedule I’ve created, I’d even have free time every day.

So where had I been going wrong?

Simple: misunderstanding my time was causing my to mismanage my time, and that drove me into the arms of distraction.

Until this week, I’d been tackling new tasks as they came up, or delaying them under the presumption that I’d have “more time later.”  But once I plotted my obligations against my available time, everything fell into place with time to spare.

And yet, the most interesting benefit of this exercise had nothing to do with efficiency.

What We Were Surprised to Learn:

Along the way, each of us learned a lot about one another’s businesses — and our own.

Hearing someone else’s challenges, exploring their solutions and offering our own suggestions all combined to get each of us thinking differently about how we solve our own problems.

For example, Nicholas told me about his complex system for backing up client files.  I mentioned some of his observations to Katrina, who (coincidentally) had experienced a computer crash the week our experiment started.  She thought her own system for backing up files could use some improvement.  I related both of these anecdotes to Molly, who suggested Katrina should try a service called Dropbox.  I passed that information along to Katrina and Nicholas, and now all four of us are using it.

And while that exchange may not have crossed anything off anyone’s to-do list, it’s information and experience that we wouldn’t have shared if we hadn’t sat down to discuss our businesses with like-minded strangers in the first place.


Based on my wrap-up discussions with each of my collaborators, here’s what we’ve taken away from this experience:

—  We each accomplished tasks over the past month that we would have ignored otherwise.

—  We learned while discussing our businesses, and got valuable feedback on our choices.

—  We enjoyed offering helpful suggestions based on our own “outsider” perspectives.

—  We’ve each begun thinking about our businesses in new ways.

—  We have a better understanding of our priorities, and a clearer idea of where our time is spent (or wasted).

Moving forward, we now intend to meet monthly, as a group, and continue to share our observations and solicit each other’s advice.  We’ll also be sharing a web-based project management system, where everyone can post his or her weekly goals and check in to see how everyone else is doing.

And if one of us is falling behind, now we have four people to help pull us ahead.

So… who’s keeping you honest?

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My Own 11 Little Secrets

Last week, Chris Penn blogged his 11 Little Secrets to staying happy, healthy, productive and sane.  Fellow bloggers followed suit, turning the idea into a mini-meme.

So I’ll bite.

Justin Kownacki’s 11 Little Secrets to Being Moderately Successful

1.  Don’t Use Your Job as an Excuse for Not Having a Life. Ideally, you enjoy your job.  Optimistically, you love it.  And realistically, you can stomach it for 40 hours a week in order to pay the bills and keep a roof over your head.  The rest of your time is your time.  Live it.

Everyone can live a life that’s filled with amazing moments.  Not all of that will happen at the office.  Don’t feel guilty for not living there.

2.  Create Something You’re Responsible for Sustaining. Maybe it’s a business.  Maybe it’s a work of art.  Maybe it’s a child.

When you’re emotionally invested in something, you’re living a life that no one else has lived.  That’s your story.

When something (or someone) relies on you for its very existence, that gives you a clearer perspective.  Your choices now have consequences.  You can be a hero every day.  Embrace that, because it’s a responsibility not everyone has the opportunity (or the stomach) to enjoy.

3.  Pretend Your Kids Are Watching. Imagine the idealized version of you, the way your kids think of you when they’re too young to realize that you’re just another flawed human being.

Now make the same choices that the idealized version of you would make.  Isn’t it wonderful be to able to look up to yourself?

4.  Observe People. If you only ever live inside your own head, you’re missing the big picture.

Everybody you meet is a litmus test for your own beliefs.  Are your presumptions correct, or are people more complex than you give them credit for?

As a freelancer, I choose to work from cafes every day because a) I like coffee, and b) I like watching people.  I like hearing and seeing the ways they interact.  I learn from the choices they make, and from the way they phrase their questions and answers.

And what I learn from observing others helps me better understand myself.

5.  Surround Yourself with People Who Challenge Your Presumptions. The world is the way we make it, so reminding yourself that people have differing worldviews is helpful when you’re trying to understand why the world doesn’t always work the way you’d like it to.  It can also help you think differently about your own beliefs, and lead you to separate the grey areas from the black and white.

Plus, how you’d solve a problem is not always how I’d solve a problem.  If you know how others would act in your place, your artillery of possible responses to any situation increases exponentially.

6.  Be Comfortable Alone. Ultimately, we live our lives alone.  If we’re lucky, we spend those lives affecting and being affected by others, but that’s entirely external.  The bulk of your life is lived alone, in your own head.

Be comfortable there, because there’s no getting out.

7.  Draw a Line Between Quirks and Flaws. Our irregularities come in two flavors: the quirks that make us individuals, and the flaws that prevent us from succeeding.  Don’t waste time perfecting your quirks when your flaws are what’s actually holding you back.

Your high-pitched laugh or your tragic fashion choices are quirks; others may find them annoying or endearing, but they’re incidental to who you are as a person.  Your chainsmoking, your grudge-holding and your refusal to show up on time are flaws; if they don’t kill you directly, they’ll certainly degrade your quality of life.

Remember the idealized you?  The idealized you doesn’t have those flaws.  Work on that.

8.  Be Specific with Your Language. Words mean something.  Don’t take them for granted.

Like him or loathe him, Christopher Hitchens is one of the most specific writers I’ve ever read.  The words he chooses to express himself mean exactly what he intends for them to mean, which leaves very little room for ambiguities or misinterpretation of his ideas.

Relying on tired metaphors and figures of speech is lazy, and it muddies our ability to understand one another.  When you’re writing or speaking, be conscious of every word you select.  It’s better to use your 1000 word vocabulary well than to sleepwalk through a minefield of ambiguities.

9.  Walk Where You Can, While You Can. America is a car-based culture, which leads us to consider most locations as widespread vistas.  But that’s just one sweeping point of view.

Walking through a neighborhood gives you the time to see the bricks and pavement that comprise the daily lives of the people who live there.  It prompts you to consider the ways our lives are connected, and to marvel at the ways our lives have evolved from the times when walking was the only way we could have gotten from place to place.

It’s also good exercise, great “thinking time” and better for the environment than driving.

10.  Take Naps. Few things in life are more pleasurable than pressing the pause button on your obligations and recharging.  Don’t let a puritanical work ethic rob you of the freedom to disconnect on your own terms.

11.  Have Extremely Few Inviolable Principles. Life is a grey area.  People, situations and opportunities are constantly evolving.  What’s “right” for one person may not be “right” for you, and it all may be “wrong” tomorrow.

The fewer filters we invent to ignore other people and discount their opinions — or to judge them into categories, instead of as fellow complex humans — the richer our lives and the greater our potential will be.

Plus, the less you believe in, the less often you’ll consider yourself a hypocrite.  And then the idealized version of you will have a lot less explaining to do.

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