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.

10 Fundamental Insights about the Tech-Driven Future for Humanity*

*and why women, POC, and other underrepresented people in tech should lead it

Today I spoke at the Irish Business Organization of New York’s women’s networking luncheon and addressed them on the tech-driven future for humanity, and why women should be leading it.

Tech Humanist front cover

Here are those insights in brief; if you’d like to hear more of this, of course, I elaborate on all of these points within my keynote presentations and my books.

  1. The tech-driven future will be neither dystopia nor utopia. It will be what we make it.
    We tend to tell a story about technology that pits the worst case scenario against the best case scenario — and conveniently leaves our actions and responsibilities out of the equation. But the truth is we are very much responsible for shaping the future of technology.
    Is it possible that tech can even help us be better humans? As I repeatedly asserted in Tech Humanist, with the emergence of automation, artificial intelligence, and other capacity-expanding tech, we will have the opportunity to create the best futures for the most people.
  2. Humans crave meaning.
    We just do. We seek meaning, we’re compelled by meaning; when you offer meaning to us, we can’t resist it. To bridge the gap between what makes tech better for business and better for humans, business needs to create more meaningful human experiences at scale.
    Moreover, the shape meaning takes in business is purpose, and the amazing thing about purpose is that when you can be clear about what you are trying to do at scale, it helps both humans and machines function more effectively. Humans thrive on a sense of meaning, common goals, and a sense of fulfilling something bigger. Machines thrive on succinct instructions. A clearly articulated sense of strategic purpose helps achieve both of these.
  3. Robots aren’t “coming.” They’re here.
    Everyone talks about robots coming 
like they’re some far-off future 
as if millions of homes don’t already have Roomba and Alexa.
  4. What tech does well vs. what humans do well will continuously evolve.
    What does tech do well, for now? Productivity: 
speed up laborious tasks, improve reliability of variable tasks, automate repetitive tasks, archive, index. Certain types of predictive insights: 
track data, expose patterns. Security: 
impose rules and limits, regulate access.
    What doesn’t tech do as well? Tech isn’t so hot at: 
Managing people. Making judgment calls. Fostering relationships. Discerning contextual nuance. (Yet.)
    Also, humans can’t leave meaning up to machines. That’s value humans add to the equation.
  5. Machines are what we encode of ourselves.
    And since that’s true, why not encode our best selves? Our most enlightened selves?
  6. Data-rich experiences tend to be better experiences. Just remember that analytics are people.
    Everyone loves the oft-quoted statistics about data: every 2 days we create as much information as we did from the beginning of time until 2003, and over 90% of all the data in the world was created in the past 2 years.
    And there are huge opportunities to use this data to make amazing, delightful, fulfilling, enriching human experiences possible.
    But what’s important in all of this is remembering that most of this data comes from humans, and represents human identity, preferences, motivations, desires, and so on. Most business data is about people. Analytics, in other words, are people. And while relevance is a form of respect, discretion is, too. So we need to treat human data with respect and protect it excessively, even as we use it to inform the design of more meaningful experiences.
  7. If you don’t align human experiences with meaning, you risk building absurdity at scale.
    There’s a story I tell (and it’s in the book) about a big retailer encoding a behavior change that, at some point, could put a cultural norm in jeopardy. And the upshot is: experience at scale changes culture. Because experience at scale is culture.
  8. “Online” and “offline” are blurrier than you may think.
    This is basically the whole premise of my previous book Pixels and Place, but the short version of this insight is: just about everywhere 
the physical world 
and the digital world converge, 
the connective layer is 
the data captured through 
human experience.
    And to create more meaningful human experiences, 
we need to design more 
integrated human experiences.
  9. Everything is in flux. Embrace change.
    70-80% of CEOs say the next three years are more critical than the past 50 years. The coming years, for example, are likely to see massive shifts in the scope and types of jobs humans do. Some companies will gain tremendous efficiencies from the use of automation; I propose that companies reinvest some of those gains 
into humanity in various ways: better customer experiences, job training, basic income experiments, etc. And that where possible, companies look to repurpose 
human skills and qualities toward higher value roles.
  10. Diversity in tech is a strategic asset. Scratch that: it’s an absolute imperative.
    We need women — 
and diversity of all kinds — 
in tech, 
leadership, and entrepreneurship for myriad reasons: because algorithms contain our biases, because it makes the space better for everyone, because we need diverse representations of the problems tech can solve, and on and on.

If these ideas and insights resonate with you, check out my book Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans. Or inquire about booking me to speak at your company or organization.

Here’s to a more meaningful future for all of us.

The Most Interesting Things About Pokemon Go Have Nothing to do With the Game. (CEOs, I’m talking to you.)

Rather, the most interesting things about Pokemon Go have to do with connected experiences, and the sweeping changes these are bringing: new marketing models, opportunities with augmented reality, location-based marketing, and all the assorted issues with data privacy and security. The most interesting things about the Pokemon Go phenomenon have nothing to do with the game itself and everything to do with how different things are starting to be and are going to continue to be.

(These, by the way, are all part of what I examine in my forthcoming book Pixels and Place: Designing Human Experience Across Physical and Digital Spaces. Available in print and Kindle versions on September 1st, but you can pre-order a Kindle copy now.)

Connected Experiences Bring New Marketing Models

Marketing models are poised to be overhauled now that an online interaction can be credibly and consistently traced to offline visits in stores. See McDonald’s deal with Pokemon Go to make all 3,000 of its Japanese stores “gyms” in the game. The full details of their deal haven’t been disclosed, but one option this presents is an incredible opportunity for cost per visit modeling.

Connected Experiences and Social Interaction

The social experiences are different with augmented reality, when interacting with a digital experience doesn’t automatically mean being oblivious to the world around you (although obviously it still can – see, for example, the guys who fell off a cliff while playing, or the person who drove into a cop car).

But since you can engage with the game through a camera view of what’s ahead of you, it’s actually possible to walk and play and still be at least somewhat connected to your surroundings.

Connected Experiences… and Your Business Strategy?

This is only the beginning of what’s to come.

On social media, people have been laughing at the businesses who are developing Pokemon Go strategies (and well, it does sound absurd), but honestly if they’re starting now even these are a little late to the biggest opportunity. The gold rush was this past two weeks, when everything was novel and players were entertained by the outreach. Even if the game’s popularity continues to grow, players will likely begin to be put off by overt attempts to capitalize on the game from late entrants. And if your business is still laughing, you’re missing out on time to think about how augmented reality and connected experiences stand to change the status quo.

Of course then there’s this:

So I’m not saying to rush out and do something specific to Pokemon Go that has no alignment with your customers’ motivations or your brand. (Although if you have an idea for an experience that aligns and integrates your customers’ experience with the game in an organic, authentic, and/or memorable way, by all means do it, measure it, and publish a case study about it.) This is a call for strategic action about a macro trend, not mindless reaction to a micro trend. Trying to capitalize on the trend without strategy will probably come across to people like an attempt to manipulate the moment.

You need strategic planning (and do please note: I offer strategy workshops) that sets you up for success as the physical and digital worlds increasingly converge. There’s enough transformation taking place that there will be a relevant, meaningful way to make these opportunities align with your brand and your customers. Your job is to try to catch it.

Is Your Business Based on an Outdated Model of Customer Interaction?

You probably know, as most people do, that Netflix was all about renting unlimited DVDs before pivoting into streaming, but what you may not know is that before launching that DVD subscription program, they started out as a service to rent DVDs a la carte, just like Blockbuster, except online and through the mail. When they hit upon the idea of a DVD subscription model, they discovered that they had been working with a rapidly-aging notion of how customers wanted to interact with the physical world, and their new model simplified it. Of course their even newer model, of streaming video, simplified it even more. What are the wide-open opportunities to rethink the interactions with your customers and in your market?

The key thing to remember is that the convergence of physical and digital happens around the human experience. It’s not a new phenomenon, but the opportunities to adapt and offer more contextually relevant experiences are evolving all the time.

There’s a whole lot more about this in my new book Pixels and Place, coming out September 1st, 2016. You can pre-order the Kindle version here. Check back over the next few weeks, too; I’ll be posting more excerpts and giving away copies.

Trends and Insights for 2015 and “Minimum Viable Opportunities”

By now it seems everyone and their dog has shared their predictions and observations about the the trends of 2015, so it may seem I’m a little late to the party. But I was holding off because I knew I was scheduled to present on the topic 13 days into the year. That happened yesterday — I was the keynote speaker at the Franchise Business Network annual kickoff meeting — so I can break my silence, such as it is. Anyway, I spoke about the major trends affecting business that I see taking shape, particularly around data and technology, heading into 2015. And today, before we get any further into the year, I thought I’d share some of what I presented last night with readers here.

slide from 2015 Trends talk
slide from 2015 Trends talk – meaningful patterns

Bear in mind that this audience was primarily franchisers and franchisees, along with service providers to those businesses, and with a healthy sprinkling of high-potential startup founders in the mix. So I introduced the subject by talking about relevance and meaningfulness, and that I had tried to narrow the scope of the talk to those emerging topics that seemed like they could have the most meaningful impact on their businesses this year. I talked about six major trends:

  • Right-sizing big data
  • Ongoing channel shakeup
  • Rental crowding out the ownership model
  • Deeper and blurrier integrations of the ideas of “online” and “offline”
  • Disruption of payments: mobile payments, crypocurrency
  • Evolving ideas of “work,” “team,” and “leader”

I went into more detail for each trend, of course, but more importantly, I tried to summarize each trend with a “minimum viable opportunity,” repurposing the idea from the “minimum viable product” in the Lean Startup methodology. In case you’re not familiar with the notion of an “MVP,” as it’s called, a minimum viable product is a scaled-down first-stage version of your offering that you can produce with minimal resources to validate the overall direction and gain initial customers. My repurposing of the idea is to suggest that for each of these trends, there could be a scaled-down first-stage approach smaller businesses can take to implement them so that they can determine the trend’s potential impact on their business.

For “right-sizing big data,” for example, I said that although big data is not a new concept, it’s something there’s a growing awareness of, and its ongoing and increasing impact on business can’t be overstated. But I suggested that small businesses and startups can sometimes get bigger impact from being strategic with smaller data. So the minimum viable opportunity, perhaps, is to work on building processes that use the customer and marketing data already present in a business effectively before trying to tackle large-scale data mining or analysis projects. As small and growing businesses become more sophisticated about making data-informed decisions, they can potentially tackle more complex data sets to inform those decisions with a greater likelihood of effectiveness.

For “ongoing channel shakeup,” after covering some of the changes in the digital marketing landscape brought on by new advertising opportunities, algorithm changes, and so on, I talked about the opportunity, as I often do, for marketing to start from empathy and an understanding of customers’ motivations in a segmented and meaningful way so that they can craft relevant messages and experiences and test them in relevant channels. It’s increasingly an experience-aware world.

I won’t rehash the entire talk here (although if you’d like to have me come present to your company or organization, please reach out) — I’ll just offer that when you go back and skim the lists and roundups of 2015 trends, you might want to borrow this idea of the “minimum viable opportunity” for your business. What small change could you experiment with that might help shine light on where your next investments need to be? Bring in me or another strategic facilitator if you have to; we can help guide the brainstorming and identification of opportunities. However you approach it, I hope you do it with an intention to learn. Good luck, and may 2015 be full of maximum opportunities for you. Cheers!