How was your 2018?

I had the pleasure of gathering content for and laying out three annual reports this year. Here are some observations about the process. And why the most important thing is that they exist.

From the Left, The Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, La Trobe Sports and Excercise Medicine Research Centre and The Living with Disability Research Centre, all at La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia.

So many things: It’s the sum of a whole years work, it’s one in a series, its the product of a team, it’s a physical manifestation of sometimes pretty intangible collective activity.

Its a ton of effort for the people who have done the work to remember, recap and remind the team what they did, how many people were there and where they put the photos they swore they took.

Figuring out the story you want to tell beforehand is a good dream, but that’s hard for a lot of research teams new to creating an annual report.

Photos are important as well, alcohol and disability are two very hard subjects to summarise easily in photos. For alcohol, we ended up looking for the things around alcohol, bars, glasses, empty, nondescript bottles, rather than risk glamorising alcohol, which I fully realise now is a poison and should be treated as such.

Disability is hard too, treating it like any other modelling shoot was the best thing the photographer that was commissioned to do the shoot could have done, and did do, long before my time, the images are starting to look a bit stale now though.

It will take longer than you think, involve more people than you think and need a lot more editing that you think. Even if you just use the same format as last year. The message from the director has to agree with the project descriptions, the summary of income has to agree with the detailed list of income and endless other details.

Two of these used infographics, both well I think and this is an area that can benefit from infographics.

The most common feedback I get is ‘looks really good’. They have many audiences, and many functions, being nice to look at, reassuring and interesting, coherent and consistent is the baseline, anything above that is showing off, not a very Australian thing to do. The hard work is doing what goes into them, they should be a celebration.

Putting it all together in one place is an act of pride, and those that have anything to do with them should be proud.

One part communications

I found a comms strategy I worked on back in Scotland recently and it made me realize how much I love them. I love the security of planning your work then working your plan, and knowing how the sometimes abstract work of comms fits into the overall goals of the group.

They all work out differently, and the process of doing them is as unique as the people involved. But the ones that work all have a few things in common.

Here’s one, with identifying features removed, the basic theory is that (working up from the bottom) if you communicate the outputs via the channels to the audiences you will achieve the outcomes.

As the title suggests comms strategies are just one part of an overall strategy, your org needs to know where it’s going, what it wants and how it’s going to get it and from whom. A big ask for some groups.

Every strategy I’ve worked on and every board, external advisor and CEO has had different language and approaches for the strategy specifics. I’ve worked within timelines, horizons and waymarkers. And achieved goals, objectives and outcomes with actions, tactics and even once implementables.

Working through those specifics gives me such a good insight into the teams and leaders of orgs that I would suggest the meetings might make good televised content for adding to glassdoor.com. From deep disconnects to just not having the ability to make a decision doing a strategy doc really tells you a lot about the people in charge.

But the things that the ones that have worked have all had in common are buy-in, follow-through and looking back.

I’ve been frustrated trying to get leaders to look at a strategy they asked me to create and moreso trying to get them to look at it a quarter later so I can show them how we’re going. The best experience was a CEO calling me late one night because they wanted clarification on a plan I submitted weeks before.

That one worked well and we did good work. I like to keep them on my wall just behind my monitor so they are always visible.

Tell me your story – and did they!

Paralympians, musicians, writers, artists, performers. They have the best stories, and I had the great privilege to shepherd a few dozen of them into the wider world recently. I pitched a Story Telling booth the conference committee of the Australasian Society for Intellectual Disability. Their tagline is ‘research to practice’ and they involve people with lived experience of intellectual disability in research as much as is possible.

Ben behind a desk with a microphone on his hand, a banner on the table reads ' tell us your story'I focused on Self Advocates, but the amazing Sophia Tipping gathered vox pops, and talked to keynote speakers. It will all be going into the ASID podcast (subscribe anywhere you find good podcasts).

It was a lot of work, but very good fun, the ASID board were super supportive and I would do it again at the drop of a hat.

Who has stories that you are not listening to?

How simple should you make your story?

Tyler Cowen TED

I saw an interesting TED talk yesterday, Tyler Cowen of the blog Marginal Revolution among many other perhaps more important things. Cautioning against trusting simple stories, that complexity is our nature especially in this world. This made me think about some of the stories the non profits I’ve worked for have to tell. They are complex stories, and in making them simple you definitely have to leave things out, important things. But when it comes down to the problems we as a sector have they are nearly always problems with human faces and solutions of all kinds. Problems and solutions.

If you focus on the human face of the problem that whatever complex set of social, natural political has created you focus on the effect, neatly sidestepping the need for the complex circumstances that created that human problem.

The solution on the other hand can be complex, and will probably be hard. But the outcome, the change you want to see in the world, again will probably be simple. More of this, better that, less occurrence of something. If you can establish legitimacy and expertise in the solution, you can leave that ‘black box’ or point to a theme, or a risk area, or a pilot that worked well, and shortcut to the human face of the problem and the human face of the solution. Our stories need to be simple to be memorable, but stick to the problem and outcomes and we can avoid the need to confuse our audience with the complexities that take us most of our work.

Simple is always best

Light from a video projector being cast on a field of randomly arranged prisms.

Prism, projector repeat.

I saw some new art this week, always has a restorative effect on me. Ironic that in this city of culture I went an hours train ride away to Ballarat. Simple, powerful and endlessly engaging. I would like to think that the input feed was a camera of the guests at the museum, but I fear it is a loop.

I was there to see Melissa Peacock at the neighbour exhibition, great art all round.

Telling YOUR story better.

So you do something you are passionate about. Congrats. Getting there probably taught you that very little gets done on your own. So how do you get others onto your train? Telling your own story so others see your passion is a vital skill for every artist, maker and person who needs to work with others. Dictators, Cult leaders, Non profit CEO’s etc.

This was the draw for the artists, makers and creative professionals who work in the Edinburgh Palette building to come to a workshop I organised in December last year (2014). I work charities, one at a time, in jobs. I get in depth with all the aspects of an organisation; projects, services, people and above all the changes that group of people want to see in the world. But that’s one story per job, so helping more people with their story was my motivation.

In the end three professionals, David, Vittoria and Jan spent a day with me pinning down the specifics of their stories that they could use in their work. In the morning we went through the basics of story, why it’s so powerful, why, when told right, it sticks with people through their whole lives and some of the secrets to powerful stories.

Then all three workshop participants talked about themselves at length, what torture. Together we came up with the short version of what they do and an arresting reason why. Three images stick with me:

  1. David playing in his fathers glass shop, hiding in the inverted V between the stacks of blue green glass, looking into the infinite reflections.
  2. Vittoria and her collections of objects, 3 dozen brass candlesticks and hundreds of other multiples stacked in piles around her seaside home.
  3. Jan talking about felt, has to be seen to be remembered.

I made them practice telling their story to me, repeatedly. I asked them to tell it like they meant it, so it sounded natural. It wasn’t easy and it will take practice, but they will be better able to convincingly portray their vision and where it came from. The next step is finding the right people to tell those convincing stories to. I wish I could help with that.

Three participants and Ben Pawson sitting in a circle chatting.

Just four people getting to the bottom of the puzzling mysteries of story!