Category Archives: highlight

From zero to hero: a newbie’s guide to learning and building a reputation along the way

A friend of mine is a new IBM consultant who wants to learn more about and develop a reputation in social analytics. I thought I’d share some tips on how to learn and build a reputation along the way.

Pick your field carefully. Another mentor of mine said that emerging technologies offer the best opportunities. In a new field, it’s easier to not only catch up, but even distinguish yourself. In mature fields, it’s hard to compete with people who have years of experience. Even in mature fields, though, you might be able to find niches where things are rapidly changing.

Read. Read everything about that topic that you can get your hands on. Learn how to speed-read if you don’t already do so. Don’t worry about words you don’t understand or concepts that are too complex. Gradually, as you absorb more information, more of the things you’ve read will make sense to you.

Stay up to date. Find the key players in the space that you’re working on. Check out their blogs, their presentations, their tweets – whatever you can get that gives you more information. Set up searches and alerts so that you can find new material as it gets published.

Use bookmarks to organize your research. You’re going to immerse yourself in a flood of information. Use social bookmarking systems like Lotus Connections Bookmarks or Delicious to keep track of interesting things you’ve read, and to organize resources into your own categories. That way, when you need to find something again or if you want to send someone a link, you can quickly get it along with related resources.

Collect examples of ideas being been applied to real life. If you’re interested in Web 2.0 and financial services, you need to be able to tell stories about innovative companies and the results they’re seeing. If you’re interested in social analytics, find case studies where analytics has led to increased collaboration and productivity. Learn about pitfalls and challenges, too. There’s no substitute for experience, but awareness is a good start – and that can help you brainstorm opportunities for you to get involved.

Write notes and look for ways to explain ideas in simpler terms. Summarize what other people have said. Link to resources people might find useful. Share examples and the principles they demonstrate. Share your notes on a blog. Make presentations and volunteer to speak. This helps you understand a topic deeper and build the beginning of a reputation.

What can you write about? Write about what you’re learning and why. Write about the mistakes you made and how you solved them (or are trying to solve them!). Write about how you’re learning and from whom. Write about the resources out there. Write about the things you’re finding out. Write about the connections between your topic of interest and other things you know about. Write about what you want to learn next. There are plenty of things you can share, even as a beginner.

Experiment. Can you try things out yourself? Apply the ideas to your own life and share the results. As you build credibility, you might be able to convince your team to give a new practice a try. Share those results, too. Come up with ideas and try them out. Use these experiences to convince people to let you work on projects.

Volunteer and expand your responsibilities. Make sure your manager, your mentors, and your coworkers know what you’re interested in learning or doing. Volunteer to help with projects or presentations that need to be done. Ask your manager to help you structure a way to learn on the job.

Learn. Share what you’re learning along the way. Experiment. Volunteer and expand your responsibilities. You can go from being a newbie to being known in surprisingly little time, but you need to get out there and make things happen. Good luck!

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Webinar: Energy, Interaction, and ROI

I’ve been invited to re-do my Remote Presentations That Rock presentation this February. I can’t resist improving presentations every time I give them. What do you think of this?

This presentation and speaker notes will be available at URL. (If giving this remotely: Please feel free to use the text chat to ask questions and share your thoughts throughout the presentation.)

Remote presentations are harder than in-person presentations, but they can also be more powerful. Yes, you’re limited in terms of body language and delivery. Yes, you have to compete with e-mail, Sametime, and a million interruptions. But if you know how to work with the strengths of remote presentations, you can reach people more effectively and more intimately.

Let’s talk about the biggest challenge for remote presentations: the fact that it’s so easy for people to get distracted or to walk away. In real life, most people won’t walk out the back door. They’ll stick around long enough for you to make your main points. Online, if you lose people’s attention, it can be very hard to get it back. And it’s doubly tough because you can’t read people’s body language. You can’t see if people are interested or if they’re off checking mail, and you can’t pull them back by saying something interesting if they’ve already hung up.

You’ve got to offer people something they can’t get from reading your the slides or listening to the recording. Why is it worth paying attention to you? For me, that comes down to two things: energy and interaction.


Why should people attend your presentation? People aren’t going to come just to hear the facts or numbers. They can get that from the slides. If you’re a leader, they want to hear your confidence, maybe get a better sense of who you are as a person. Even if you’re not an executive – even if, say, you’re an IT specialist presenting a technical topic – you’ve got to bring your energy to your presentation, to show people why it matters to you and why it matters to them.

A huge part of this is your voice. You need to sound like you, and you need to sound like the presentation is worthwhile. If people give in to the temptation to multitask, your voice is going to be the only thing that can bring them back. Emphasize your key points by changing your pace, changing your pitch, pausing, repeating things. Let your message come through in your voice. Energy. Urgency. Confidence.

You’ll be surprised by how much little things matter. Get a phone headset so that you can breathe properly and so that you don’t get a crick in your neck. Stand up if that helps you get into the “presentation mode”. Have pictures of people around if that helps you remember that you’re talking to real people so that you can make that connection. Turn off the conference entry/exit tones so that you aren’t competing with (or distracted by) beeps.

Another, powerful way to share your energy is to add video. Now you might be thinking, “I don’t look good on video.” While we may never look as polished as Sam Palmisano with a video crew, it’s actually easy to look decent. Get a webcam. Even if you pay for this personally, it’ll be worth it. Find a quiet place – no coworkers on conference calls, no dishwashers going whrrr. Find a clear background and good lighting – maybe a blank wall near a window. If you have glasses, dim the light from your laptop screen so that they don’t reflect off your lenses. White shirts make it easier for your webcam to pick the right colour-balance and exposure. Practice.

It’s a good idea to tell people when you’re going to be on video. I know someone who found this out the hard way. She was giving a presentation, and then her husband walked past in the background… in his underwear! So make it clear that you’re going to be on the air, and close the door. Then you can make a much better–and more professional–connection with people.

Video can bring you much closer to people than most in-person presentations can. Sure, you probably won’t be able to do as many gestures, but people can see your facial expressions. Use them. If you step back a little, you can do some gestures.

How can you bring all these tips together? Figure out what you want to say, but don’t stop there. Figure out why it matters to you and why it matters for other people. If you can’t figure out why something is worth giving as a presentation instead of as an article or a set of slides, don’t do a presentation. Just send the information. Save presentations for where presentations can make a difference – when you want to persuade people.

End on a high note. If you’ve done a good job at convincing people for the need for action – and you’re always doing this with a presentation, even if you’re just presenting information – make it easier for them to take action by showing them what they need to do next. Don’t fade out with just Q&A. Wrap up with a quick summary and maybe a memorable tip, and make sure people know what the next actions are. If you’re doing a remote presentation, think of websites people can visit to learn more or actions people can take to commit to doing something, while they still have the buzz and energy from the presentation. This means you need to plan your time well. People have back-to-back meetings and commitments. Plan to end a little early so that they have time to act on your message before they get distracted by something else.


This also means you need to get people’s buy-in along the way, so that when you get to the end of your presentation, people are where they need to be. This brings us to the second part of making remote presentations that rock: Interaction. Q&A. I’m not talking about the five minutes near the end that you think you’ll have for questions. You know that hardly ever happens. You run into technical difficulties. People start late. People take a while to think of their answers.

Don’t leave Q&A to the end of your presentation. Make it part of your presentation. If I have an hour for a presentation, I’ll typically plan between seven to twenty minutes of content, with the rest of the time for Q&A and about five minutes at the end to summarize and send people off with actions. This works really well. It forces me to fit my key points into a short attention span, and leaves room for the interesting part: the conversation.

How do I make sure things fit? I figure I should talk at about 160 words per minute. (I actually talk faster, but I try to slow down to 160.) If I’m planning for 20 minutes, then that’s roughly 3,200 words. If I write down what I want to say and I’m over 3,200 words, then I have to cut and simplify. Don’t start with the slides. Start with what you want to say, and make room for what’s important. If you’re trying to say too much, split it up into multiple presentations or refer to additional information that people can use to learn more.

Q&A can be much more powerful in a web conference than it is in person. In person, you’re usually limited to three or four questions. In person, people have to remember their questions and wait for the Q&A period, then line up for the microphone, say their question, and wait for your response. In person, you don’t really get a choice about which question you want to address first. Online, if you ask people to share their questions throughout the presentation using the text chat, you not only get an instant feel for where people are curious or confused, you can also pick the most interesting questions–or the easiest ones–to answer first. You don’t have to read people’s body language – they can tell you what’s on their mind.

When you’re starting out, you might want to have a moderator watch the text chat for you. If you find that you can occasionally glance at the text chat without getting distracted from what you want to say–and this takes a lot of practice–then you can even start weaving those questions and answers into the flow of your presentation. It’s fantastic when you can pull this off.

Q&A is good for people and it’s good for you. You can learn so much from Q&A. You can find out what’s important to people, and what you should include when you’re following up. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with lots of questions, some of which you might not even know the answers to yet. Great. That not only gives you opportunities to learn more, but also to share those lessons with others. We’ll talk about this again when we talk about radically increasing your ROI from presentations.

You can still have people ask their questions over the phone. Now this is important: you should wait at least seven seconds for questions before you move on. Maybe wait even longer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on a conference call where the speaker said, “Any questions?” and then after a very short silence, says something like “Thank you, goodbye!” and I’m thinking, “I’m still coming up with questions I want to ask!” As a speaker, you should wait until the silence becomes uncomfortable, and then wait some more. It takes time for people to absorb what you’ve just shared and think of what else they want to learn. If you need to fill the silence, share some questions other people have asked you, or share some questions people might be thinking about.

When you’re speaking to an international audience, Q&A might be harder. People in some cultures aren’t comfortable with asking questions during presentations. You can get people used to the idea by starting off with typical questions people might ask, and encouraging people to share their questions through a text chat if they don’t want to use the phone.

If you really don’t get any questions, then you can share more examples and backup material. Flexibility pays off, and it shows that you know your stuff.

Radically increasing your ROI

Now you might be thinking that it takes time to prepare good presentations like that. It takes only a few minutes to throw together slides if you’re going to figure out what to say on the fly and you don’t mind if people forget or tune out. It takes time to plan your presentation so that you have a clear, concise, engaging core message. It takes time to prepare for Q&A. It takes time to learn how to use web-conferencing tools. But it’s a bigger waste of time if you don’t.

Presentations are surprisingly expensive. There’s the time you put into preparing it: maybe half an hour for a quick update, maybe four hours for a regular presentation like this, maybe days for a high-stakes presentation. There’s the time you spend giving the presentation. And then there’s the time people spend listening to you. Now I’m in Global Business Services, so utilization is always in the back of my mind. If I’m talking to a group of 35 people for an hour, I probably need to offer you more than $100 in terms of value, and I need to create more than $4,000 of value for IBM and our clients. Is it worth it? I want to make sure it is.

So let’s talk about radically increasing your ROI for presentations. When you’re preparing and giving presentations, how can you get even more leverage on the time and effort you’re investing? There are two parts to that: before and after your presentation. Let’s talk about what you can do before your presentation.

First: Figure out if you can get more people – and more of the right people – to get value from your presentation. It takes the same time to give a presentation to 20 people as it does to give a presentation to 200. Remote presentations make this even easier, because people don’t have to be in the same area and they don’t have to arrange for travel. They just have to dial in. This depends on the purpose of your presentation, of course. If you’re planning a small-group collaborative meeting, go ahead and keep it at six people. But if you’re sharing something of general interest, open it up. Post it on Inviter, which is this IBM service for sharing calendar events. If you’ve got a blog, write about your upcoming presentation. Post it on your Profiles board. Tell people about it. Make it easy for people to find.

Second: Share as much as you can while preparing. See if you can share your outline, your slides, your draft speech. If you’ve got a blog, write about your presentation there. I’ve been blogging my speaker notes and my slides on a blog. You’d think that would mean that people can skip the presentation because they already know the key points, like the way you might skip a movie if you already know how it ends. Instead, what happens is that people suggest ways to make the presentation even better, and then they come anyway for the energy and interaction. Result: better presentation, better interaction (because people have been thinking about things deeper), better reach, and better ROI. Share whatever you can share.

The same goes for after your presentation. When you’re giving a presentation that’s not confidential, make sure you record and share it. That’s one of the benefits of giving a remote presentation – they’re easy to record and share. It’s a few extra clicks using LotusLive Meetings, and then you can share your presentation with other people. Share your slides. Figure out if your presentation or a subset of your presentation can be shared externally. Take the extra five minutes to scrub it and share it on a site like Share your speaker notes. Share the questions people asked and your answers to them. It takes a few extra minutes and greatly improves your reach. When your presentations are shareable and searchable, they become a very powerful networking tool. And they’ll save you lots of time, too. I can’t tell you how often I refer people to my past presentations in order to help them learn something I’ve shared.

And this is where remote presentations can really help you rock. Work with the strengths of the webconferencing tools that we have, and you can really connect with people. Invest a few extra minutes to share your presentations and recordings, and you can radically increase your ROI. Use remote presentations to reach more people than you can bring together in a room, and that will pay off for you in professional and personal connections.

Here are seven small things you can do to improve the energy, interaction, and ROI of your remote presentations:

  • Get these slides or my speaker notes so that you can review them going forward. (URL)
  • Make your life better by sharing these tips with other people who give remote presentations.
  • Volunteer for a remote presentation if you don’t already have one on your calendar. Practice will help you learn.
  • Take a good look at your upcoming presentations and practice putting some energy into them. Make sure they’re worth listening to.
  • Get a webcam and learn how to use it well. Figure out where in your workplace or your home you can do a good presentation.
  • Cut your next presentation in half so that you can leave room for questions and answers.
  • Review your past presentations for things you can share, and share them.

We’ll come back to these tips five minutes near the end of this session so that they’re fresh in your mind. I want you to be able to walk out of here with a clear understanding of how you can apply these tips and how they can transform the way you present. What’s holding you back from giving better remote presentations? What do you want to learn more about?

2011-02-15 Tue 07:58

More about getting 27″ washers and dryers down 26″ hallways

Flora writes:

found your blog googling ’27” washer dryer 26″ hallway’ and am in
awe of your story about disassembling and reassembling your LG washer
and dryer. We’re currently dealing with a similar situation. I won’t
bore you with the details but basically, we decided to buy a Samsung
laundry pair because, in the store, both machines measured 26 3/4
inches and our staircase is 26 3/4 inches at most. We tried getting
them delivered and met some very rude and condescending delivery
people who were not cooperative at all. They wouldn’t even try getting
the machines through the first door which was 27 1/4 inches wide. They
took the machines back and now we’re faced with the decision to get
them redelivered or returning them and beating our dirty clothes on
rocks (or something). I was wondering if you could tell me a bit more
about your experiences with disassembling your machines. Was it really
difficult? Do you know if there are professional technicians who would
do that kind of work for people like me? Did you find the service
manuals really helpful? I imagine that this isn’t the first time this
has happened to people so I wish there was more of a support system
out there for those of us with horizontally challenged hallways and

From Appliance adventures

Oh dear. Yes, that is a challenge. As you can imagine, disassembling a machine and squeezing it down a narrow hallway will void your warranty and rough up the hallway, so it can be a tough decision to make. We decided to go for it because we had the budget for an experiment like that and we preferred to take the risk instead of spending time and money on either coin laundry or plumbing renovations, but your mileage may vary. This is not professional advice, so always exercise your judgment.

When we were thinking of doing this, we didn’t know any appliance repairers, but you might want to call around. Surely there must be people who are happy to do this for a fee. =) If you need to do it yourself:

Look for the service manuals for the washer and dryer you want to get or you want to buy. This may take some digging around because there are plenty of sites that will charge you a fee for the service manual, but you may be able to get it for free. If you don’t find the one for your exact model, you might find one for a similar model. Make sure you get a service manual that shows disassembly, not just a user’s manual that describes how to operate the machine. Also make sure you have a pair of work gloves with good grip, lots of things you can label and put screws into, and all the tools you’ll need, such as screwdrivers, clamps, and wrenches.

Take care when lifting the machines. A dolly can be very helpful. Lift it with another person. Gloves can help, too. You may need to take it out of the box in order to get it through the door. If so, look at your doors and corridors for anything that might get in the way, and remove them if possible. (We scratched the front of our washing machine with the door closer we’d forgotten to remove.) Think about the more scratchable sides when planning how to carry the machines in, and make sure that the path to your intermediate disassembly area is clear.

Confirm the machine turns on before you disassemble it. If your machine is dead on arrival, you want to know before you void the warranty.

Follow the instructions for disassembling. Read and understand all the instructions before you start. Make sure the machine is unplugged. Take lots of pictures. Label all the containers you use for storing screws. Label any wires you unplug. We used plastic containers for screws and masking tape for wires, writing down positions with a black marker. Wear the gloves whenever possible. There can be lots of sharp edges inside a machine, where they don’t expect anyone but trained technicians to poke around. You can bring parts down separately. This also makes it easier to move the machine down.

You may need to squeeze the chassis in order to get it through your narrow hallways. Remove trim that might get in the way. Consider taking out drywall. Expect that the paint will be scraped, and that the machine will also get a bit scratched. If it’s no longer square once it gets to the laundry room, hammer or nudge it into being square again.

Reverse the instructions in order to assemble the machine again. Hook everything up. Plug in the machine and see if it starts up. If it doesn’t, you may have an expensive paperweight. Sorry.

Run a small load or run through the test cycle in order to confirm that things work. Look for signs of leaks or missed connections, and be ready to turn the machine off just in case.

From Appliance adventures

W- says that it really helped that he disassembled the broken washing machine in order to get it out of the laundry room. The service manuals I found online were fantastic, too, with clear, step-by-step instructions and diagrams. Sometimes it was hard to find the part they were referring to because we didn’t know what it looked like, but going back and forth between close-up diagrams and the exploded parts list solved the problem.

Plan for this taking at least a weekend, and keep kids and pets away.

The good news is that if you successfully manage to get your laundry pair through your hallway and down your stairs, laundry becomes a whole new experience. We laugh about the laundry adventure whenever we do a load, and I still can’t get over how quiet the new machines are compared to the ones we had before. Is it weird that laundry is one of my favourite parts of the weekend?

Good luck!


2011-02-14 Mon 08:28

Things to write about: questions for your blogger’s block

People often tell me they’re worried about finding enough material for their blogs. The truth is, there’s so much you can write about. Here are four questions that can help you think of things to share.

What do you want to learn more about? When you write about something – whether it’s completely new to you or something you’re puzzling out – you can understand it more deeply. Write about what you’re figuring out. Write about how you’re figuring it out. Write about what you’re learning along the way. (Sharing is an excellent way to learn even more – people often comment with better ways to do things!)

What do you want to change? This is like writing in order to learn more, but with commitment and action. Do you want to change the way you spend your time? Think about what you do, why you do it, and how you’re going to change. Want to save more? Write about your goals and your progress. Writing helps you understand more, identify ways to improve, and publicly commit to growing. It also gives you a record of progress, which can be useful for motivating yourself.

What do you want to share with other people? Have you solved a problem that other people will probably run into? Save people time by sharing your solutions. Do you have a tip that will make it easier for people to do things? Share that. Do you have a passion you’d like to teach others? Share that.

What do you want to remember? Write about the memories you want to be able to revisit. Write about the feelings and reasons you may want to review. Write about tips and solutions you’re likely to need again. Write for yourself. It’s okay.

I tend to write posts that combine these questions. For example, my reflections on what I do for fun help me learn more, change, and remember why I want to change. If sharing the process inspires others, that’s a neat bonus.

How about you? What do you want to learn more about? What do you want to change? What do you want to share? What do you want to remember?

More tips on how to have tons of topics

2011-02-09 Wed 06:01

Disagreement and the road to trusting yourself

I’m glad whenever I find myself disagreeing with someone. Sometimes I change my mind, learning more in the process. Sometimes I understand my own reasons better, and learn more about why I think what I think. As long as I disagree well – in an argument instead of a fight, clearly presenting reasons and understanding alternatives – then I grow in the process.

Henry Will sent me a link to this Harvard Business Review blog post on teaching yourself to trust yourself.

…take the time, and the quiet, to decide what you think. That is how
we find the part of ourselves we gave up. That is how we become
powerful, clever, creative, and insightful. That is how we gain our

It reminds me of this slim book I tucked into my library haul: Anna Quindlen’s Being Perfect. Here are some excerpts:

p.12: Trying to be perfect may be inevitable for people who are smart and
ambitious and interested in the world and in its good opinion. But at
one level it’s too hard, and at another, it’s too cheap and easy.
Because all it really requires of you, mainly, is to read the
zeitgeist of wherever and whenever you happen to be and to assume the
masks necessary to be the best at whatever the zeitgeist dictates or

… But nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or
interesting, or great, ever came out of imitations. What is relaly
hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning
the work of becoming yourself.

Connect that with this excerpt from Everyday Ethics by Joshua Halberstam:

p109: We live our lives within a changing moral climate, and the
temptation to adapt can be overwhelming. … The moral nonconformist,
however, pays little attention to the popularity or unpopularity of
his moral positions. He is–it’s embarrassing to talk this way in our
cynical world–after truth, not applause. Genuine moral nonconformity
is difficult to achieve and difficult to maintain. Don’t be too quick
to assume you’re already there.

It isn’t easy to figure out what one thinks.

For me, writing and drawing are the best ways to sneak up on myself. In conversation, I’m sometimes too malleable. I catch myself listening for approval. Even when blogging, I catch myself refreshing the pages, looking for comments, looking for validation. Because the feedback for writing tends to be slower and more in-depth than the reactive cues of conversation, though, I have more time to think about my reflections and develop them. I can also slow down and untangle the feedback on my message from the feedback on my way of delivering it.

When I can form a tentative understanding of a topic, then test it in discussion with other people or in contrast with other positions I read, then I gain a little more confidence that my reasons are rooted in more than the urge to agree or disagree. Running into the imperfections of my understanding is part of the adventure of becoming myself.

Tying it all together into tips for myself and for other people this might help: Feedback might be about your message or about your delivery. Be clear about what kind of feedback you’d find the most helpful – usually feedback on delivery, if you want to keep your message authentically you, although content-related feedback can also help you recognize what you resonate with. Don’t be limited by the idea of perfection or the need for agreement. Test yourself and learn how to trust your thoughts.

How are you teaching yourself to trust yourself?

2011-02-06 Sun 21:16

On appearance and bias: thoughts from the Nerd Girls panel at Lotusphere 2011


One of the topics of great interest during the Nerd Girls panel at Lotusphere 2011 was that of appearance. How important is grooming? What about first impressions?

People shared the usual advice: Dress appropriately. Be yourself. Neatness counts.

Like the way I skip fluffy guest posts full of cliches, I try to avoid sharing the same thoughts you’ll find everywhere else. So I found myself thinking about one of the points raised, which you don’t encounter that often.

One of the participants had observed that “booth babes” at a tech convention can drive people away. My take-away from that is that *you should make sure that what you communicate with your appearance supports what you want to communicate.* Too much attention to appearance can conflict with your goals. You can dress to blend in or you can dress to stand out. Suits help you build rapport with people who are more comfortable with suits. Jeans and a geek T-shirt help you build more rapport with people who are more comfortable in jeans and T-shirts.

Tweaking convention can support your goals, too. I’ve turned up at technical get-togethers in brightly-coloured ethnic clothing to make several points along the way: a. it’s okay to bring personal interests into the tech world, b. it’s okay to be a girl, c. there are people here from different cultures, and d. it’s good to have fun. That this made me easier to spot in a crowd was an excellent bonus, and it worked really well.

Know what you want to say, and make sure your appearance supports it. Re-think what you want to say, too. For example, if the path towards becoming an executive requires expensive suits and other status symbols, it might not be for a person who disagrees with dry-cleaning, at least until people create better washable suits. (Or you can pick a different uniform: black mock turtlenecks and jeans totally works for Steve Jobs.)

I dress for minimal thought during most days, for either blending in or standing out during get-togethers, and for practicality when travelling. Slacks, blouse, sweater/blazer, and scarf give me a good uniform for the workweek. If I’m speaking at a conference, I might dig out my cream suit. If I’m attending a crowded event, I might wear a red top or bring a hat. If I’m travelling, I pack my Tilley’s Endurables businesswear: hand-washable slacks, blazers, and blouses that will dry overnight in a pinch. I wear flat shoes for comfort and boots for warmth. These routines mean that I need to spend very little time thinking about what to wear.

There’s a limit to how much time, money, and energy I want to spend on appearance. I’m not going to spend on make-up, cosmetic surgery, or designer items. I suppose going to a dermatologist or having frequent facials could help my face clear up, but it’s no big deal. I won’t experiment with body ink, piercings, or hair colour. The gradual onset of gray hair won’t be dyed away, and the wrinkles will be welcomed. (I do invest energy into making sure I get the kind of wrinkles I want: more smile lines than frowns! =) ) This is partly because I have other priorities, and partly because I want to help build a society where these things matter less, where we don’t shame people for appearance or age or lifestyle choice.

Thinking about this further, I realized that I’m not really interested in the conventional approach to thinking about appearance. This topic usually focuses on: “How can I get other people to think better of me? How can I increase my chances for a raise or a promotion? How can I project more status and confidence?”

For that part, my questions are more along the lines of “How can I stay true to my values? Are my goals in line with those values and priorities?” And there’s another, much more interesting question for me: *”How can I correct my biases?”*

Our biases around attractiveness reduce the quality of our decisions. People get dinged for being too fat, being too old, being too plain, and even being too attractive. Women are more harshly judged than men, and are the target of much body-policing from advertising, media, coworkers, friends, and even themselves.

I’ve received plenty of privileges. I’m young, female, enthusiastic, and easy to get along with, and that has almost certainly helped me do what I do. I have plenty of mentors while other people (perhaps less cheerful, perhaps less “cute”) It sometimes works to my disadvantage. There are areas of consulting that I probably won’t focus on until I have more gravitas, if ever.

I also carry biases. There’s that preference for people who are cheerful; people with symmetric, angular features; people who are trim; people who carry themselves with confidence. I work against these preferences, pull my attention away from that so that I can focus on other factors, try to separate seeing from thinking. (I indulge this bias with my husband, though, whom I think is very handsome, and with whom I have the license to look at as much as I’d like; but I always make it clear that I love him for much greater reasons.)

Likewise, there’s dealing with that reactive judging of people who frown a lot, people with weaker postures, people who are overweight, people who dress inappropriately… I work to separate negative perceptions and reality so that I can make better decisions. There’s ableism, sexism, ageism, racism, and a million unnamed stories we tell ourselves without examining them closely.

You can eliminate the visual aspect through teleconferences, but that doesn’t solve the problem. We joke about everything sounding smarter when said in a British accent, but accent stereotypes do influence judgment. I’m glad that accents are getting more mixed up now, what with people mixing cultures and people getting cross-trained in different accents. It helps challenge that bias. Then there’s confidence and pitch and vocabulary and fluency…

Paying attention to and adjusting for all these biases is partly why I like the move towards virtual connections, particularly during the beginning. If I can’t see or hear people, I can more easily focus on what they say. However, the Internet replaces one set of biases with another. Instead of being influenced by appearance, I’m biased by how articulate someone is – and that’s tangled up in class and education and culture and the availability of leisure time and the ability of people to access this technology.

It isn’t easy to separate all these factors, and I may never be able to do it completely. There’s a bit of shame in it too, when I realize how many of society’s messages I’ve internalized into these quick impressions of other people.

I want to make better decisions. I want to be able to see the best in people, unclouded by the preconceptions I carry. I might never be able to eliminate my biases, but I can recognize them and slow down when they might be in play. If I slow down and understand, for example, how my first impressions colour my decisions, then I can clarify my reasons and reject invalid ones.

You’ll find plenty of books about how to groom yourself for particular kinds of success. Wouldn’t it be interesting to build a society where this matters less?

Colander photo (c) 2010 Ben Hosking – Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

2011-02-05 Sat 08:40