Solving Upwards: Revisiting My Speaker Strategy Clarity Model During Social Distancing

At the beginning of March, I published a post here sharing my Speaker Strategy Clarity Model. But in the weeks since then (which have felt more like years), conferences and events large and small have been canceled or rescheduled, our everyday vocabulary now includes phrases like “social distancing” and “flatten the curve,” and — hopefully — everyone who can isolate at home is doing so. In addition, much of the global economy is on pause, and the financial markets are thrashing around like a live electrical wire. All the while, every speaker and would-be speaker on Planet Earth is firing up Zoom and other virtual platforms to try to reach the audiences they miss seeing from the stage. And in the midst of all this chaos, I hear from even longtime professional speaker friends that now they really don’t know what to speak about.

So with not only the meetings and events industry upturned but the whole world seemingly in chaos, where can this possibly leave you as a speaker? When your work has been about helping others by sharing insights from a stage, what can and should that work look like when the audiences all stay home? More to the point: when they’re all coping with the stress of a global pandemic and worried about their health and finances?

Solving Human-Level vs. Humanity-Level Problems

I think the original Speaker Strategy Clarity Model still applies broadly, but an addendum that may help us in this moment is to think about the problems we solve and how to uplift them.

We must stop and recognize a new truth: when there is a humanity-level crisis, it’s natural to feel human-level panic. One of the ways panic manifests is that we feel the inner call of our survival instincts, and we may hurry to put out a promotional message, trying quickly to make money to save ourselves and our families from the financial ruin we fear is coming. That’s an understandable response, but it’s one we have to try to quell within ourselves.

Our best impulses at this moment will require us to respond to humanity-level crisis by empathizing our way down to human-scale problem-solving, and in doing so, trying to lift our work up to humanity-level problem-solving. If you are in a position to solve problems directly at the scale of humanity, with actions such as manufacturing personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, then by all means, please do so, and I wish you all the very best and will support you however I can. But most of us are going to be better positioned for work at the human scale, which means empathy is our strongest asset right now.

An opportunity to solve problems “upward” from the human level to the humanity level

(Of course, empathy was always our strongest asset, but in ordinary circumstances it may feel like a luxury that requires patience to deploy. In times of crisis, it’s absolutely vital.)

What about B2B?

Even if your work is directed at business leaders, the best and highest work you can do right now is to help leaders lead with our best and highest human attributes, especially empathy. I listened in to a brilliant webinar my friend David C. Baker, who is a keynote speaker and author of The Business of Expertise: How Entrepreneurial Experts Convert Insight to Impact + Wealth, gave for his clients and followers about how their businesses would likely have to adjust during this period, and while it was all very sensible and pragmatic, it was also clearly heartfelt and human, even while talking through the unfortunate realities of staff reductions. Our audiences look to us for perspective and insight; let’s not let now be the moment when we fail to connect back to the human impact of every decision we and they make.

Perhaps you can think of that model sort of like this:

Even within B2B, you’re still solving problems for humans and humanity

Marketing? In This Economy?

The urge to market and promote is going to be strong, and it is an understandable impulse to want to stand out above the crowd of other voices asking for attention right now. But as I watch emails from brands come in, a few of them stand out as being well done, and they illustrate the best approach that we who are speakers and thought leaders can borrow as we plan to promote our work:

  1. acknowledge the reality we’re in, preferably in a way that shows you’re doing something useful about it
  2. offer ideas with some kind of value that creates relevance between your core brand and the recipient’s reality, and then
  3. get out.

Here’s a promotional email from Crate and Barrel that I thought walked that fine line well: it stayed on brand, the offer was relevant, and the promotion wasn’t so heavy-handed as to be in poor taste.

Perhaps you disagree with this example or with any of these guidelines. That’s OK — do it the way that feels right to you.

Just don’t oversell, and likewise don’t turn the communication into pageantry or melodrama. For once in our lives, everyone around the world is experiencing a version of something that has everyone’s attention at once — there’s no need to dwell too long on what we all already know.

Twist, Don’t Pivot

We also all need to be especially sure we are offering value right now that’s as close to our expertise as possible while relevant to the moment. Not all of us are experts in virtual presenting, so it doesn’t make sense for everyone to try to sell that offering in webinars and online courses.

If you do have expertise relevant to that topic, for example, be sure to add your own twist to it. A kajillion videos went up in the past few weeks on how to be effective when presenting on video, but my friend Mark Bowden, who is a top body language expert and the author of Truth and Lies: What People Are Really Thinking as well as being a sought-after keynote speaker, is uniquely suited to be able to offer guidance on how to come across in the limited medium of video and virtual presentations with trust, credibility, and empathy. (Do be sure to watch that video. It’s a great resource for us all right now.)

What’s especially elegant about what ends up happening when you do that is that you can take a human-level problem — the need to come across well on video while everyone is working and presenting from home — and solve it upwards towards a humanity level, because if more people learn how to communicate well on video, it seems possible to imagine that human communication could improve at scale.

You’re uniquely suited to something, too. What human-level problem can you solve upwards towards humanity?

Be safe, be well, be sensible, and, of course, be as helpful as you can.

Here’s to getting through this by solving upward to our highest and best work,

Kate O signature

What Should You Speak About? Sharing My Speaker Strategy Clarity Model

I am a professional speaker, and while I don’t speak about speaking, I do often get asked for input on how people can get into speaking, become better speakers, grow their speaking business, and so on. And I like to be able to be helpful when I can.

So at one of the recent opportunities to speak to a group of speakers, I was asked to talk about speaking strategy and how to really hone in on your topic.

By way of an answer, I put together the following model, and I’m sharing it with you. Maybe you’re working in a field where you occasionally get invited to give presentations at conferences. Maybe you are already a speaker but you want more clarity about what your topic area should be. Even seasoned speakers will benefit from this exercise every so often — perhaps make it part of your annual review, and it will keep you directed toward your own true north star.

How to Draw the Model

Start by taking a full-sized sheet of paper and drawing three circles that overlap a bit, like so:

Three overlapping circles

Next label those circles as follows: “What is your unique experience, your credibility?” “What do people pay to learn?” “What are you endlessly curious and passionate about?”

The three circles with their captions

Pause here and take some time to fill in a few answers to the three questions.

“What is your unique experience, your credibility?”

For this, think about what gives you authority in your subject. Do you have a unique accomplishment? Were you Team Captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition like my friend Alison Levine? Were you the first female F-14 Tomcat pilot in the U.S. Navy like my friend Carey Lohrenz?

Or is your story more personal? Are you a cancer survivor with a unique observation about your journey? An early childhood educator with a unique perspective?

Dig deep and capture some of those characteristics here.

“What do people pay to learn?”

Now think about what you can speak about that people will shell out money — their own or their employer’s money — to learn. Companies will always pay good money to teach their employees better sales and leadership skills, and many invest heavily in other professional and personal development topics. Every business discipline has industry events full of paid conferences. Individuals are often drawn to skills that can increase their marketability and value as employees, or skills that help them become more independently successful.

Of course people often pay to hear about and learn about squishier topics too that they hope will make their lives better, like improving their interpersonal communication, strengthening their relationships, finding their purpose, and so on.

Think about the topic areas adjacent to your expertise where you know people are willing to pay to learn, and list a few of those.

“What are you endlessly curious and passionate about?”

To me, this one is the kicker. If you only thought about what you’ve already done and what you already know, you’d have nothing pulling you forward and keeping you current. But think about the subjects that fascinate you, that you maybe collect articles about, that you always stay up to speed on, that you could talk for hours about at a cocktail party if you found someone equally as interested in the subject.

Ask yourself what you wish you knew more about than anyone else in the world.

Go ahead and write one or a few things in that circle.

Your X Factor

Now that you have your three circles and you’ve labeled them and filled in some answers for each one, take a look at the section where all the three circles overlap: this is your X factor. Think about what gives you credibility AND what people pay to learn AND what you are passionate about knowing.

Try to articulate this X Factor in a few words or a short phrase. If you can capture it just right, your X Factor should reveal something about your unique selling point in the marketplace. Not bad for a few circles, huh?

The X Factor

Bonus: The Overlaps

What I find so interesting about this exercise is that you also get meaningful insights from the overlapping areas.

The overlap areas

Your Unique Experience and Credibility + What People Pay to Learn = Event Themes

When you think about the overlap of your credibility and what people pay to learn, that should lead you to some ideas about the themes of events you may want to search for to find speaking opportunities.

What People Pay to Learn + What You’re Curious and Passionate About = Media Hooks

When you look at what people are willing to pay to learn and what you’re passionate about, you have a great formula for satisfying media outlets with up-to-the-minute hot takes that people care about.

Your Unique Experience and Credibility + What You’re Curious and Passionate About = Content Ideas

And when you look at the overlap of what you have credibility in and what you’re curious about, you should have a rich source of ideas for content that you can create as a thought leader.

The Grand Slam: Add Your Purpose Statement

Of course in all areas of my work and my life, my mindset is that purpose plays a big role in strategy. So I added the question: “What is your driving purpose for what you do?” Theoretically you should begin with this question, but I think it can be as clarifying after you’ve taken inventory of your experience and credibility and all the rest of it, too. It can help you go back through your answers and refine them, bringing them all into alignment.

The full model with purpose question

So that’s the model. When I presented it to the last group of up-and-coming speakers at a weekend-long speaking bootcamp, one woman came up to me the following morning and said with a smirk, “It’s all your fault I had to throw away everything I had and start all over again.” But I heard her talk the day before the exercise and the day after, and the clarity she had after working through the exercise was inspiring. When you want to communicate powerful ideas, clarity is a gift.

Speaking of Gifts: Have a Free Download of the Full Model

To make this as easy as possible for you and save you some drawing and labeling, I’ve put together a worksheet you can simply download and get going on. There’s no email signup, no obligation to buy anything from me, no program I want to upsell you into. If you find value in it, please share it with other speakers. The best way to thank me for sharing it is to use it to make a great speech that helps make the world a better place.

Download “Speaker Strategy Clarity Worksheet” speaker-strategy-handout-by-Kate-ONeill.pdf – Downloaded 265 times – 45 KB

Here’s to the clarity of your X Factor,

Kate O signature

Goodbye to 2019, hello to our uncertain future

Our emerging tech panel at UN COP25 in Madrid

This time of year is my absolute favorite because for me it’s so much about relaxed reflection and setting intentions for the year — or even the decade! — ahead. And this year, with Christmas and New Years Day falling mid-week, all normal work schedules seem disrupted, creating extra space throughout these final weeks and over the weekend between them to reflect and plan.

It’s also a good time to think about the future in general.

One of the characteristics about the way we tend to think about the future now, though, is with more uncertainty than ever.

Yet as I wrote in Tech Humanist:

Here’s what I want to offer you: To me, the idea that the future is never fixed or certain is actually encouraging. Truly, it fills me with hope. I think of the future largely as something we continuously alter, shape, or at least influence with what we do today.

That thought also fills me with a sense of duty because it means there are always many possible futures that depend on me and you and everyone else doing our parts in the whole. It means our everyday actions have more power to shape outcomes than we are often comfortable admitting.

from Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans

Planning your own future

My friend and one of the organizers of House of Beautiful Business, Tim Leberecht, has written a lovely guide to help us all do just that. His process will help you have a productive and insightful “time between the years,” as Tim calls it, and a brilliantly successful 2020:

>> How to Make the Most of the Time Between the Years
(written by Tim Leberecht for Psychology Today)

Some of the questions I like to ask myself and encourage my clients and audiences to ask are:

  • What kind of future do you personally want to have?
  • What kind of future do you want for everyone on the planet?
  • What are you working on building?
  • What are you trying to achieve at scale?

By the way, all of this reflection and planning pairs well with another piece about getting better at training your brain what to retain and what to let go of. Hint: it comes down to the discipline of spending time thinking about what you most want to be thinking about.

>> Your Brain Has A “Delete” Button–Here’s How To Use It
(by Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane for Fast Company)

What are some other questions that help you clarify your purpose? What are some other exercises you engage in to help you reflect and plan?

Goodbye to my wild 2019

For me, 2019 was a whirlwind of unprecedented life opportunities, but also a time for increasing clarity and commitment to what I see as my mission.

To recap: In January, just a few months after my book Tech Humanist came out, it was featured on the CES stage. The following week, I had a tweet go viral and a follow-up in WIRED that also went viral, and I appeared on just about every major news outlet from BBC to NPR to Marketplace to talk about facial recognition (and to pivot the conversation to the larger issue of how technology is changing our human experiences). The next week, I spoke at the United Nations about innovation and humanity.

Then in June, a few days after delivering a keynote on Tech Humanism at a conference in Mumbai, India, I guest lectured at the University of Cambridge. Yes, the same one Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, and Stephen Hawking are all associated with. That University of Cambridge. I know, I couldn’t believe it either.

In the second half of the year I keynoted Etsy‘s Engineering Day in Brooklyn, a Google team offsite in Lake Tahoe, the P2P Transformation Summit in London, DevLearn in Las Vegas, UX Australia in Sydney, the Boston CIO Summit, and presented versions of my Tech Humanist talk at INBOUND, Content Marketing World, the Inc. CEO Summit, Mind the Product in London, House of Beautiful Business in Lisbon, and more.

Our emerging tech panel at UN COP25 in Madrid
Our emerging tech panel at UN COP25 in Madrid

Finally in December, after speaking once again at the United Nations headquarters, this time on AI and youth skills, I closed out my work year at the UN COP25 climate change conference in Madrid where I led a panel on the final day about the challenges and opportunities of leveraging emerging technologies to fight climate change.

Oh, and over the course of the year I added representation from Washington Speakers Bureau and Leading Authorities speakers bureau. That’s exciting personally and professionally but in addition it should help make bookings easier for many large company clients, which means there may be even more of those audiences in 2020 and beyond.

I’m telling you this to say: I think all of this activity proves there’s hope. I think my year has been wild because a lot of people see the potential for technology to diminish the humanity in the world, and a lot of people want to see to it that that doesn’t happen. If my experience this year indicates anything, I think it’s that people are determined to make the best of our tech-driven future

So what’s in store for all of us for 2020?

You’ll see many articles with predictions for 2020, and some will be more outlandish than others. I’m including just a few here that will likely affect you and your business more than others:

Expect to see more facial recognition in use everywhere and to hear more debate about it. Governments, law enforcement agencies, and high-traffic facilities like airports see tremendous opportunities and conveniences in deploying this technology, while civil liberties advocates see many privacy risks and challenges. Personally, I’m on Team Ban Facial Recognition Until We Have Better Protections In Place, but I’ll continue to follow all the developments and report on them (as I did in WIRED earlier this year).

Expect to have to grapple with privacy debates inside and outside your organization. The major push for companies to meet GDPR compliance in time for the May 2018 enforcement deadline is only the beginning of such regulatory efforts; the CCPA is due to be fully enforced as of January 1, 2020, and you can bet more regulations will be coming as time goes on. Your best bet to dealing with these is to get ahead of them: enact human-friendly data collection and usage practices such as not collecting more data than you need or than is relevant to the context of the interaction. (I spoke about this topic extensively at House of Beautiful Business in Lisbon, as well as at many other events throughout the year.)

The push for digital transformation isn’t over yet (no matter how tired of hearing about it you may be). Most companies, organizations, and cities are very much just catching up, still sorting out how, for example, the data from their front-end services can inform back-end operations and vice versa. Meanwhile, upstart data-rich apps and services are still disrupting industry after industry, so we’ll still be talking about that for a while. (This was the focus of many of my keynotes to executive audiences, such as the Boston CIO Summit, and more.)

You may also be tired of hearing about AI, but we’ve only scratched the surface of that conversation. While some folks debate the semantics of whether simple machine learning processes really constitute “artificial intelligence,” the advancements within that space progress daily, with both challenges and opportunities aplenty. (Part of my focus throughout 2019 and into 2020 has been on how machine learning and automated intelligence can help with addressing climate change. Stay tuned for more on that.)

Speaking of which, perhaps the biggest and most urgent trend of all will be facing the scale and scope of climate change, and using whatever technologies and tools we can to remediate against its effects.

Looking into the future for me and for us all

Above all, what is ahead in our future is increasing interconnectedness of our experiences. It’s the perfect time to adopt the mindset that in many respects what I do does affect you just as what you do affects me, and that we’re in this together. We need to accept our futures as wholly connected: connected through data, connected to each other, connected to the planet, connected to our collective destinies.

That connectedness shows in the work I’m lined up to do. To prepare for the bookings I have for 2020 so far, for example, I will be examining more deeply the future of jobs and work, the future of privacy, the future of trust, the future of the climate, and more. All of these topics have a through-line: the future of human experiences will depend heavily on our wise use of technology, collectively and individually.

Speaking of my bookings in 2020, I have talks booked throughout the U.S. — and in Budapest for the first time! If you happen to be able to attend any of these events, be sure to come up and say hi — I’d love to see you. And of course you can always book me to speak at your company or event.

And! I’ve begun to work on my next book. More on that to come, but you can be sure it will follow along these themes.

But for now the big question is:

What will you do with the future for you and for us all?

Here’s hoping you find the quiet reflection you need in these last days of 2019 to set the kinds of intentions that will guide you to achieve what you most want to achieve, for your own good and for the good of humanity.


If this theme resonates with the conversations your company, organization, or city has been having and you’d like to hire me as a keynote speaker at an event in 2020, please do reach out. Here’s to a meaningful year for us all. 

Make Your Own Calling (Transcript of Talk to NSA NYC)

On Thursday, August 22nd, I gave a talk to the National Speakers Association New York City chapter at their annual Summer Social event, to which they invite a lot of prospective members, mainly people who may want to make speaking their business but who aren’t yet there. The theme of the evening was to make it clear that we all have a process by which we get there, and I shared mine. The following is a transcript of that talk.

Photo credit: TE McLaughlin

All my life I’ve envied those people who say in interviews that they always had a singular vision of what they wanted to do with their lives.
I’ve never been one of those people.

I always wanted a calling. I would read interviews with famous people and so many of them said they knew that they had to write or they had to act or they had to play baseball.

I mean, did I have to become a professional keynote speaker, talking to corporate leaders about emerging technologies and digital transformation?
Uh, no. I did not have to.

In fact, throughout my life and especially throughout my career I’ve struggled with pinpointing and defining what I do and what I’m about. Maybe you have, too.

So whether you’re here tonight because you’re building a career as a professional speaker, or you think maybe you’d like to, or whether you just want to be able to do it well enough as a secondary part of your occupation to generate leads for your primary business —
whatever the case, I think now and then it’s helpful to go back and look for clues throughout our lives about what has led us to where we are, and how we can take it further.

Me? I grew up interested in lots of things. Reading was one of my favorite hobbies, as well as writing and making up stories, poems, songs, and plays, and performing them for my family and our friends. And charging maybe a quarter for admission. (Because I was also a budding entrepreneur.)
Also learning to program — which in the ’70s and ’80s meant typing up pages of code I’d torn out of printed magazines.

So somehow I was equal parts book worm, aspiring writer, stage ham, and computer geek. I was very adaptable, multi-skilled, as it turned out. But I would’ve traded it all in to have had a singular calling.

I wanted my calling to be music — I loved music — I sang at my church, played clarinet first chair in my high school band, and taught myself literally a dozen other instruments. My dream career was to be not just a singer or rock star, but specifically to be a singer-songwriter.

I have this one memory of being very young — maybe 6? — and using the family typewriter to type out lyrics so that I could study them as inspiration for learning to write great songs. You know the earliest one I can remember studying? Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind.”
Yeah, that’s right: a song about an aging man reflecting on the hard decisions in his life.
I was precocious, yes, but I think it also showed that I was also already fascinated with people and their stories, and the human condition.

Anyway, I really wanted music to be my calling, but I loved too many other things. I was too adaptable.

In first grade, I even won first place in two different statewide competitions:
one for a statewide young author’s contest
for a book called Herman the Horse Gets Lost,
and one for a statewide computer programming contest
with a game I’d written/coded called Doggie.
My love of animals was clearly strong even then (and I’ve now been a vegan for 21 years).

And then there were languages. When my grade school class hosted some foreign exchange students from France and we got handouts with French phrases to learn (“bonjour! je m’appelle Kate”), I discovered that I was good at learning them. (It turned out it ran in the family — my dad had been a linguist in the military, and was fluent in Arabic. Side note: he had also been a singer. Also multi-skilled.) I loved language. I taught myself basic Spanish during family trips to the public library. My older sister studied German in high school, and I helped her with her flash cards — and along the way, I picked up the vocabulary and an affection for the language. I’m not kidding, I loved languages.

So while there was no single calling, there were all these recurring themes: writing, performing, computers, music, fascination with people, and language.

That’s not exactly a college major.

So when it came time for college, I couldn’t decide if I was going to major in music, theater, or language. Ultimately I decided that what I wanted to do in music and theater I could do without a degree in those fields, but what I wanted to do with languages
— which was, get this, to become an interpreter at the United Nations
(remember that, because it comes back up later)
— I could only do with a specialized degree.
So I majored in German, minored in Russian and linguistics, and had a concentration in international studies. I went all in on languages.

And then I built my career in technology. But that actually makes a certain kind of sense.

I’ll explain.

I think the thing I always loved about language is that things could mean different things. That a book is also a Buch and a livre and a libro and a книга(kniga)… that you could have different names for the same thing. Which meant, I realized, that a thing exists separately from whatever you call it. Which meant that meaning itself was adaptable.

It turns out that that idea — that meaning isn’t fixed, that we learn and curate our own sense of meaning, that we can create meaningful connections with each other based on what we have in common — that idea became the undercurrent of the work I’ve done throughout my life.

Part of what drives my work in technology is a curiosity about what makes humans human. My contention after some 25 years of working in this field and researching this topic is that the most notable attribute about humanity — and the one most pertinent to a discussion of technology — is that humans crave meaning.

Meaning, after all, takes many forms in our lives: the considerations of relevance, significance, purpose, even our own existence in the cosmos. Meaning is about what matters.

And one of the ways I describe my work is that I am helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future, and what’s so fascinating to me about the idea that meaning is what matters is that you can also say that innovation is about what is going to matter.

And all of this is true on both an organizational level and an individual level.
So conveniently, the same tools that I now talk to corporate leaders about in preparing them for digital transformation are tools we need as speakers:
Purpose, relevance, alignment.

We need to define what is most meaningful to us and to our audience to find the alignment between them. We have to be able to tell our own most meaningful stories and talk about our own experiences in a way that people can see how those insights are relevant to them.

And we have to dig deep for our clarity of purpose and know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and as I tell business leaders, we have to know what we are trying to achieve at scale. In other words, what does this look like when it’s very successful? For us that means, not just how much money do you hope to make as a speaker, but what changes do you want to be part of making in people’s lives and in the world?

For me that can be summarized in the phrase Tech Humanist, which is both the term people sometimes call me and the title of my most recent book.
The idea of the book — the idea of my work — is that technology is changing everything, most notably (and what I care the most about) human experience, and business is most responsible for those changes. So there has to be a way to marry the interests of business and humanity through tech, and my work is dedicated to doing just that.

So in practice, what I speak about is digital transformation. But every speaker’s subtext is transformation, of some kind: we’re all trying to help people see their way from one state of mind or being to another state.
In my audience’s case it’s from a state of fear about the future and technology to a state of preparedness for the future and curiosity about how technology can help amplify their company’s purpose.

And in the biggest picture sense, as I mentioned before, I like to say I am helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future.
That idea is endlessly inspiring to me, and in my experience, to make a career out of this, you have to draw from what you’re naturally curious and inspired about.

There also has to be alignment with what the market wants. Sometimes that’s not entirely what you want. My moments of strongest market validation this year followed a sarcastic conspiracy tweet about facial recognition, so now I get tagged on a lot of posts people make about technology conspiracy theories and invasive use of facial recognition. Some of that is relevant and interesting to me, but I can’t imagine reshaping my career to become the Tech Conspiracist.

In any case, this is what it all boils down to, all the advice about finding your niche, your positioning, your value proposition… it’s about whatever consumes you in the middle of the night anyway, and what you’ll wake up with fresh ideas about. For me, that is somewhere at the intersection of meaning, technology, and the human condition.

Because eventually I realized that if you aren’t born with a singular calling, you get to spend the rest of your life knitting the threads of your passions together to form one. You get to make your own calling.

In many ways what I do now is the perfect combination of what I dreamed of doing as a kid.

No, I’m not a singer-songwriter, but I do write and I do perform.
I certainly use my skill with language both in a broader sense of understanding the meaning of things
and in a literal sense: I get to try out my foreign languages when I travel internationally.
And these days it takes a pretty good deal of tech savvy to do some of this work, in terms of the digital marketing it takes to build a business. So I’m grateful to have that in my background, too.
So although it sort of bothered me as a kid, I now consider my versatility to be my strongest asset as a writer and speaker:
so many things interest me that I can draw parallels between unexpected ideas for new insights.

Speaking has become my main source of income, and it’s an amazing career because once you decide what your message is,
you can get the message out to people who can take it to heart and make decisions with it
And I’ve been honored to be asked to speak for big companies with huge impact like Google,
forward-thinking cities like Amsterdam,
and even this year, thanks to my friend Jennifer’s invitation, at the United Nations.
Remember I mentioned that?
When I saw the interpreter booths at the back of the room I got chills.

Getting to speak for cool clients is definitely a perk of this business, and there are plenty of other upsides to this job: travel can be fun, the money can be good, and you can feel like you’re making a difference.
The downsides? The road warrior life can also be exhausting, the time away from friends and loved ones is tough, and most people have no idea what it is you actually do.

As a speaker, you have this weird job no one quite understands
— a lot of people think it’s more glamorous or more sleazy than it really is — 
so it’s nice when you can be around people who understand
that what you’re doing is mining the depths of your experience,
sharing truths about yourself and your observations about the world
so you can help your audience understand how to make a difference, how to transform.

The barrier to entry in this field isn’t very high: you can start speaking anywhere and anytime.
There is no one right way.
You can absolutely use your unique combination of skills and life experiences to carve out a path that suits you so perfectly you might swear it’s your calling.

But the barrier to greatness is a lot higher
and you need great people around you to support you,
to challenge you,
and to encourage you to do better and bigger work.

That’s what’s so great about building our network here and in other communities of speakers, amongst all these other adaptable, versatile, multi-skilled people like you with varied and colorful life experiences who are just as much on a quest to make your life into your calling, get your unique message out, and transform the world.

2018: Transformations All Over the Place

It’s a good thing the work I do is in insights and transformations, because probably little else would have prepared me for 2018.

On a global scale, this year seemed to be about 1) getting a grip on the scale and immediacy of climate change, 2) raising questions of policy and human decency toward migrants and refugees, 3) comprehending the magnitude of emerging data privacy issues and the impact of technology on our behavior and our lives, and 4) dealing with a recidivistic slide in countries around the world into populist nationalism and fascism. So. Y’know. Just little stuff.

Transformation and Systems

Since my own work is at the intersection of technology and humanity, I was particularly interested in the stories that pertained to that third topic: data privacy and the impact of technology on human behavior, experience, and life in general. But I also know that none of these topics happened in a vacuum. Our willingness to confront climate change—or not—will parallel and perhaps have rippling consequences in how we handle the emergence of artificial intelligence. Acknowledging and dealing with underlying issues will be key in both scenarios. And the discourse around those topics will shape the global political theater, and vice versa. It’s all connected. 

So it’s timely that this is the year my book Tech Humanist was published; it delves into the idea that how we articulate purpose and values inside business will have effects at scale on the human experience. The reviews and testimonials on behalf of the book have been incredible and humbling. Here was one:

“For the past two decades, the Computer History Museum has chronicled the amazing rise of the technology which just in our lifetime has become the most powerful agent of change the world has ever known. While the stories of creativity, invention, innovation and impact are fascinating, what all this means for the future and humanity is what we are poised to take on now as an institution. Nowhere has this become more clear to me and my colleagues here at the museum than in reading Kate O’Neill’s blog about a year ago entitled “The Tech Humanist Manifesto.” The idea that we need to develop and imbed in all future technologies the very best of ourselves and our ethics and ultimately have the goal of those emerging technologies to make us better humans has resonated deeply into our own plans of what we will present, discuss, and debate going forward.
After reading the manifesto, my initial thoughts were ‘Kate should write a book on this.’ Which I am very happy that she has done, and now her humor, excellent insights and heartfelt philosophy can reach the leaders and influencers throughout the world. And the rest of us too.”
— Gary Matsushita, Vice President, Computer History Museum

As the book launched in September, I embarked on a nearly-four-week long speaking and book tour, finishing the trip by being recorded for the “Talks at Google” lecture series, which they describe as bringing “the world’s most influential thinkers, creators, makers, and doers all to one place” — and that place is the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. With that description, I can’t tell you how honored I was to be asked.

If you don’t have time to watch, I’ll give you the premise: the technology-driven future can be filled with human meaning. I genuinely believe that. It’s the undercurrent of my work, and my personal and professional purpose. With automation and artificial intelligence amplifying and accelerating the goals of business, it’s an important message for business leaders and experience designers to hear. 

Human-Centric Digital Transformation in Business

It encourages me that so many companies have signed on to this “Tech Humanist” message of human-centric digital transformation by hiring me to keynote their corporate events (and it was lovely that so many this year were in wonderful locations, such as Palm Beach in April for a Kelly Services event, and Barcelona in May for a Cisco event). 

Delivering the keynote at a Kelly Services event in early 2018

In October, I was delighted to partner with Cognizant and their Center for the Future of Work for a webinar on automation and the future of human jobs and work. We talked about how and when human jobs will be augmented, displaced, and replaced by automation, but also how new jobs will be created, and what those jobs are likely to be. (I am already booked to do a good deal more writing and speaking on that subject in 2019, as well; sign up for the KO Insights email list if you’d like to be notified when new insights are available.) 

In December, analyst firm HfS Research, which specializes in automation and artificial intelligence for enterprise, invited me back to keynote their FORA (Future of Operations in the Robotic Age) event on the hyperconnected economy. Again, they did this specifically to emphasize the human angle in this otherwise technology-heavy discussion of enterprise operations. I find that incredibly encouraging, and I’d love to suggest that you should, too.

The Tech Humanist Movement Grows

My “tech humanist” message and movement is spreading in ways I could never have predicted, too: some of this year’s highlights for me were seeing my work finding its way into university curricula, such as having The Tech Humanist Manifesto licensed for inclusion in a textbook, and seeing my work spread internationally, such as signing the paperwork to have my previous book, Pixels and Place, translated into Korean.

Transformation in Cities

In fact, speaking of the international scale of the message: in early December I was honored to be asked to keynote the Amsterdam Economic Board’s annual meeting, as part of an initiative preparing the city of Amsterdam to be future-ready for its 750th (!!!) birthday in 2025. It was the perfect synthesis of Pixels and Place and Tech Humanist: I shared my thinking about how cities of the future can be fully human-centric while embracing data and emerging technology to empower its citizens, its visitors, and all the humans who live, work, and play in the city. 

Transformation Happens on a Personal Level, Too

The theme of transformations with systemic consequences carried over on a personal level, too: I celebrated 20 years since quitting smoking and 20 years since going vegan. Apparently 1998 was also a pretty darned transformational year for me.

Oh, and another transformation: suddenly this year I became allergic to mango! I love love love mango, so that was disappointing. Now I have to carry an Epi-Pen with me everywhere; that’s a weird change that could have systemic effects. After all, who knows if someday I may need to offer my Epi-Pen to someone else who’s having an allergic reaction? (It’s a good idea for more of us to carry Epi-Pens.) 

On a heavier note, this was also a tough year for transformative losses: most notably my dear friend Jen lost her husband in late summer, and for me and many of her friends, the following weeks and months were devoted to seeing her through her grief and adjustment to being a widow, something I am unfortunately qualified to help with.

Speaking of which, another systemic effect: with Kate Spade’s and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths by suicide happening just days before the 6th anniversary of my late husband’s death to suicide, I felt their deaths acutely as triggers. Triggers are, at the moment, talked about through a sneer in contemporary culture, but they’re real and they’re hard; I wrote about them in this essay called “Suicide vs. Love” back in 2014 when Robin Williams died.

It All Connects Together

And the reason why all these deeply personal matters are relevant here, in this year’s business summary along the theme of interrelating systems, of how one planet’s shadow causes change on another planet’s surface, is that this is how we must begin to think about humanity. We do not live in isolation; we do not live in tidy boxes that separate one effect from another. Our lives and our deaths affect one another. Our decisions—professional and personal—shape and change each other’s lives.

The world around us is transforming in big, fast, sometimes frightening ways, and it will continue to transform, radically and quickly. We must adapt with it, and we must take responsibility for our role in making the best of those changes. That means thinking about the connectedness of systems, and about the connectedness of us all.

Happy New Year, and may 2019 bring about happy and meaningful changes for you, for me, and for everyone. 


If this theme resonates with the conversations your company, organization, or city has been having and you’d like to hire me as a keynote speaker at an event in 2019, please do reach out. Here’s to a meaningful year for us all. 

The Why, When, and Who of Where: Place, Meaning, and Context

A coffee mug professing love for New York, in Nashville
Oddly, this NY-loving mug picture was taken at a coffee shop in Nashville. I love it when the places in my life collide in interesting ways. ☕️


I often work at coffee shops. A lot of other people do, too, of course. But since it’s my nature to think about meaning and what makes different human experiences meaningful in different ways, I sometimes find myself deconstructing the experience of what it means to work in a coffee shop. Overthinking it? OK, maybe. But I’m looking for what we can learn about designing experiences, both online and offline.

The “Why” of Place

The opening question is “why?” What is the value of working on my smallish laptop screen on a hard chair at a crowded coffee shop as opposed to sitting at my desk in my apartment, where I have a big display to dock my laptop into and access to a huge supply of teas, and where I can put on slippers and make myself as comfortable as I like? What possible explanation could there be for why I and so many others choose to pay and be inconvenienced for discomfort and fewer amenities?

You could propose “because there are no distractions,” and yes, for some people, including myself, that’s probably a piece of it. (After all, if you live with cats, you know they can get pretty insistent about getting attention. I can only imagine how insistent kids might be.) But then again, you’re adding a whole new set of distractions when you work in a coffee shop, or other “third place.” You’re introducing whole villages of people to have to tune out and ignore.

But ignore them you can. In general you’re likely to perceive less of a sense of obligation to acknowledge and respond to the distractions you encounter in a coffee shop like you would, say, at the office, when your colleague shows up at your desk asking for that TPS report. Beyond that, I don’t have to think about the small stack of paperwork on my desk — I’ve effectively eliminated it from my context and can concentrate on the work I’ve come to do.

Also, you’re trading in familiar distractions for more interesting distractions, and perhaps more stimulating distractions, in a sense. But for someone who thrives on creative inspiration, that can make a tremendous difference, whether tackling creative or mundane tasks.

The “When” of Place

The next question that occurs to me is “when?” How often is it productive and beneficial to work in a third place versus the usual place? What’s the ideal combination of familiar and new to inspire but not distract?

For example, I find that I do really powerful brainstorming and big, think-y, strategic work in airplanes. I always assume there’s a combination of factors in play: turning off internet connectivity, probably first and foremost, but also being in a constrained environment where it is literally a challenge to get up from the seat and do anything other than focus on the space right in front of me — all of that seems to come together to reward me with some of the clearest thinking work I ever do. But then I wonder: would I be able to rely on having such breakthrough thinking if I increased my frequency of travel? Maybe it’s the pacing of it that works. I travel far more than the average person, but not as much as many frequent business travelers do, and perhaps the relatively limited availability of the airplane context keeps it fresh. I’m looking to experiment with that a bit over the next year or two.

In any case, asking “when” in relation to changing the context of place is important in designing optimally meaningful experiences. At a certain level, it’s the heart of what work-life balance is about.

Meaningful Experience and the Third Place

You’re probably already ahead of me on thinking through the next questions: “where,” “what,” “how,” and “who.”

Well, “where” is already all about place, so we’re fundamentally examining it already, not to get too meta. But to frame it up in a way we can try to apply in designing experiences, the place you’re in is a significant part of the context of your interactions. And place creates opportunities for stories and interactions.

In your home, the opportunity for interactions is limited to a small and mostly repeating set. But home is where, in some respects, you probably have the most control over your environment and experiences.
In your office or fixed workplace, the opportunity for interactions is limited to a small and mostly repeating set. Depending on your position, you probably have some degree of control over your environment and experiences.
In a third place, though, like a coffee shop, a bar, an airport, a park, etc, the opportunities are pretty much unlimited and the opportunity for novelty is much higher. And although you have little control within the place itself, you have in some ways the most important kind of control: you get to choose to be in this place (“where”) for however long (“when”) for whatever purpose (“what and why”) and how much you acknowledge your surroundings (“who”).

It’s not that one is inherently better than the others; sometimes the interactions and novelty introduce too much of a distraction and annoyance.

Today, for example, an uncommonly beautiful woman was seated to my right at the window bench, and for a while (until I put headphones on and drowned it out) I was privy to overhearing her being constantly hit on by strange men. Some were one-and-done approaches; one in particular was a prolonged attempt to wear her down and get her interest. She was unfailingly polite, but I thought (and tweeted) if this is as tedious as it is for me, I can’t imagine how tedious it must be for her.

I digress. But that digression is more or less the point. In a coffee shop or other third place, you’re placed in proximity of these kinds of micro-happenings that don’t really add up to much and don’t change your life, really, but taken as a whole they add color and perspective and dimension to our lives. It’s an opportunity for empathy and framing up your perspective alongside countless other people you can observe.

In an upcoming post, I’ll take these ideas about the meaning of place and apply them to online experiences, and some of the nuances of how we can intentionally create meaningful experiences of place will start to become more evident. Until next time, I’m headed home to give some cats a little attention.

From Thinksgiving to Strategic New Year Planning

The fun thing about owning your own company is that every now and then you get to institutionalize ideas that inspire and excite you. Back when I owned a digital analytics agency, I instituted the practice of encouraging employees to spend the week of Thanksgiving engaged in big picture thinking, for themselves and the company. At the beginning of the week following, we’d all meet and review and if there were ideas we could try implementing to improve the company, we put them in place.

Someone — maybe it was me, maybe an employee — called it “Thinksgiving” and the name stuck.

Several years later and running a different company, I still practice Thinksgiving, only now at some level I carry it all the way through the end of the year. What starts during Thinksgiving incubates during December as I wind down my other work, and then luxuriate in spending the last week of the year immersed in deep strategic planning and big picture thinking for the next year. It feels decadent and liberating, and it really inspires me to enter the new year strong.

Let’s call it “Thinksgiving+.” I’ll tell you about it in case it inspires you to do your own version.

What’s different about Thinksgiving+ from traditional New Year’s resolution-making is that so often resolutions stem from arbitrary pressures we put on ourselves to be a more idealized version of ourselves. This process, instead, is intentionally about what will fulfill me, my business ambitions, and my personal ambitions, so the goals originate from aligning my intentions and efforts, and it becomes much easier to follow through on them. In practice, it might be the difference between an arbitrary resolution to do more exercise, versus observing that I always enjoy bike-riding and also want a little more exercise, so I’m going to try to remember to use bike share for short trips more often instead of, say, taking the bus.

Also, although the process overlaps with goal-setting for the year, as opposed to making resolutions, these aren’t necessarily commitments I’m trying to make with myself; they’re more like saying what I want out loud, so I can hear myself say it. It’s not at all about putting pressure on myself and trying to motivate myself to stick with it; it’s about being clear and honest with myself about what I want to see happen, and what kind of work I’ll need to do to get there. It’s a subtlety but it matters immensely in practice.

The other piece that makes a big difference is that once I have my plan and goals outlined, I rename and reconstruct the taxonomies of my life so that they align: my notebooks in Evernote, my lists in Remember the Milk, and my folders in Gmail, to name a few. I try to ensure that they reflect the verbiage and the spirit of the goals and the focus, so that I have contextual reminders of my big-picture direction.

Not everyone has the luxury to take the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day and invest it in planning, and perhaps not everyone would want to. But even if you only spend a few hours this week thinking about how you want 2016 to look and feel and sound and smell, even if you only write down a few thoughts about what you want in your heart of hearts, I’m betting it’ll be easier to make it happen. Good luck.

The Meaningfulness Manifesto

I founded KO Insights in early 2014 after spending the previous five years leading an analytics strategy agency and guiding clients through the colliding worlds of marketing and technology. This collision had (and increasingly has) the power to provide access to life-changing information and resources and solve world-class problems for the good of humanity, but more often these fused capabilities end up compelling us to be hurried and intellectually lazy, and to engage in endless cycles of short-sighted busy-work.

Or worse. Marketing organizations now have the option to learn how to gather nuanced insights from data and use them to develop a more robust and sophisticated understanding of customer motivations at a segmented level, with amazing speed and clarity. But the opportunity too often is wasted — for example, by piggy-backing on low-level data tracking to make advertising more persistent and creepy. Even if it “works,” we must know we’re capable of so much better.

It also seemed to me that the world had enough voices talking about internet marketing, growth hacking, and SEO. Moreover, between global warming and the “rise of the robots,” there were enough aspects of our future that seemed dystopian, or at least uncertain. Of course our future is bound to involve digital technology and data, so what we needed were frameworks, guideposts, and even reassurances that could help us embrace that digital future with a clear heart and an open mind so that we could use the growing powers of technology, data, and global access to solve the problems of humanity. We needed more of an emphasis on meaning.

So I’ve spent the past year and a half researching, writing, partnering with smart people and companies, speaking, listening, and building a body of work around meaning. I see meaning everywhere now.

my own path to meaning
After I’d been working for a while on examining meaning across disciplines, I realized I’d been on my own path to understanding meaning in faceted ways throughout my life.

There are fundamental ways that meaning informs our lives and work across every area, if we are conscious of it and recognize its shape. The shape meaning takes in marketing is empathy — all relevant customer understanding and communications flow from being aware of and aligned with the customer’s needs and motivations. And in business at a broader sense, the shape meaning takes is strategy. It guides every decision and action. In technology and data science, meaning can drive the pursuit of applied knowledge toward that which improves our experiences and our lives. Creative work becomes more meaningful the more truth it conveys. And in our lives overall, an understanding of what is meaningful to us provides us with purpose, clarity, and intention.

These are all somewhat different interpretations of meaning. But in all cases, meaning has to do with the associations things carry on individual and societal levels that impact emotion, psychology, behavior, and more.

This is the lens through which the purpose of work becomes clearer. This is the framework through which our work and personal lives can stop being so compartmentalized and become more aligned.

Through the work I do with my partners — researching, validating, and communicating what we have learned — I try to provide clearer ideas for how to move forward purposefully, how to use technology for the good of humanity, how to be mindful of each other’s needs, all while still fulfilling the profit motive of business.

KO Insights works by allowing me to partner with people, companies, and organizations that adopt these values and want to apply the learnings to their own work and lives. And I use the word “partner” purposefully: there really is more of a sense of partnership than in the traditional service provider/client relationship; together, we’re applying the framework of meaning to their environment and challenges and creating value directly for them as well as indirectly for others.

Speaking has been a primary function of this work, and I enjoy it immensely. It is not only the distillation and presentation of the ideas, but very often is the impetus for the research.

For example, when CIVSA hired me to give the keynote at their national conference after they’d found me online and liked my emphasis on meaningfulness, neither they nor I knew precisely what specific topic that would imply. But my work on that presentation — which ended up as “The Meaning of Place” — along with their input and feedback along the way, led to strong takeaways for them on place-making and the culture, brand, identity, and experience of a place. And that work led me to some realizations about meaning and place that have shaped my subsequent work in other areas, such as meaning and user experience. That work will soon be transformed into a book on meaningful place-making and can offer insights to place-makers around the world.

Similarly, in my work helping marketing organizations solve operational challenges around digital data, I have developed workshops and tools to help companies understand how to use behavioral strategy, experience design, and data-driven insights all together to get the right message in front of the right customer at the right time. Without being creepy.

These are some of the things my work and life have demonstrated to me and that I now believe:

  • That a disciplined focus on improving customer experience through empathy leads to greater profits.
  • That “analytics are people” – that in real ways, the tracking data we use in business represents the human needs and interests of people who have entrusted their information and interactions to us, and that it is our human imperative not to violate that trust.
  • That meaning in marketing creates value, and from value follows stronger sales, deeper loyalty, and greater profit.
  • That marketing is the knowledge center of the organization, where the most nuanced understanding of the customer should reside, and where the most sophisticated learning operations should take place.

And while it is not the corporate-world norm to talk openly about what we somewhat arbitrarily call our “personal” lives, my personal journey through loss and grief informs my work, too, as it must. It does so both circumstantially, in having spurred the end of my last company, and philosophically, in that I believe everyone deserves the chance to work on something that is meaningful for them if they can connect it to creating value for someone else.

(Besides, forget corporate-world norms. They don’t lend themselves to the examination of meaning.)

It has been a very fulfilling process learning how to connect the framework of meaning to value for others. It’s been a challenge at times, because our cultural discourse rejects the notion of “meaningfulness” as too abstract, yet there are very real and applicable ways that meaning shapes our work and our lives. Meaningfulness helps us prioritize, for starters, and who doesn’t need a better way to do that? It’s also been challenging to keep up with how expansive my understanding of meaning has become. But that makes the quest for value easier: the value of meaning is ready to be found, hidden in plain sight all over the place. Because meaning is the lens through which we understand our experiences. And the link through which we connect with each other.

There’s so much more to do. I’m still on this journey to better understand how a rich framework of meaning can make our work more rewarding, make our lives more connected, and make the world better. I hope, after reading this, you will join me on that journey, too.


 

That was that! What happens next? 

Well, you can share this manifesto on social media and help spread the importance of meaningfulness. Maybe you can hire me to come to your company or event to speak, present a workshop, or consult on meaningful growth strategy, customer experience, meaningful marketing, the strategic and empathetic use of data, or things like that. That’d be cool. Or you can follow the company or me personally on Twitter. Or you can join the KO Insights email list, and get occasional notes with insights you may be able to use in your work, as well as announcements about upcoming webinars and workshops. 

About the author:
Kate O’Neill is a keynote speaker, writer, startup advisor, and strategic consultant focused on topics at the intersection of data, humanity, and meaningful experiences. She founded [meta]marketer, a digital strategy and analytics firm. Kate’s prior experience included creating the first content management role at Netflix, leading cutting-edge online optimization work at Magazines.com, developing Toshiba America’s first intranet, building the first website at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and holding leadership positions in a variety of digital content and technology start-ups. Read more

How do other people introduce you?

I was meeting with a colleague in a coffee shop yesterday, and as we approached the end of our scheduled time, her next appointment walked up to the table and my colleague introduced us. What she told the other person, in essence, was that I was smart and joyful. I don’t think anyone’s ever distilled me quite that way before, and I was charmed but also intrigued. It’s always entertaining and enlightening to me to observe how people introduce me to new people. I wonder how many different ways my friends and colleagues would describe me. I wonder how much overlap there would be, and what those points of overlap would be.

All this got me thinking, too, about marketing. What about my company? What about your company? How would people describe or introduce your company? How do you suspect your best customers would describe you? How would your most unhappy customers describe you? Where is the overlap?

Depending on how you think about your brand strategy, you might feel comfortable with a degree of uncertainty, ambiguity, and variance in how people describe your company. I have friends who have a business that does very prestigious projects, but whose model is very difficult to explain. I know, because I once tried to explain it to a 13-year-old child of a friend who heard us mention the company, and asked what they do. This was a bright child, but even bright children aren’t overly familiar with abstract business concepts like strategy, engagement, and revenue share. Plenty of adults are unfamiliar with those concepts.

That business thrives on a certain amount of mystique. But most businesses, particularly consumer-facing ones, live or die by how clear their value proposition is to their potential new customers.

Of course there’s always the opportunity to ask your customers directly, and it’s a good idea to do so. But it’s also a good exercise to think about it yourself. Let me know in the comments if you come up with something good.

Column: “Carry what you love and value forward into the new year” at The Tennessean

An excerpt:

The transition from one calendar year to another, with its themes of improvement and renewal, often casts light on the areas where we are not aligned with our purpose and priorities. And while any time is a good time to take steps toward living the life you want to live, the fact that so many people around you are probably asking themselves the big questions makes this time of year particularly well suited to introspection and reflection.

Read the rest at the link:

http://www.tennessean.com/story/money/2015/01/02/carry-love-value-forward-new-year/21123827/