Doing something useful: a bit of good for nothing

What happens if you stick a bunch of creative people who’ve never met before in a room, give them a brief to come up with a brand identity and marketing strategy for a social enterprise, and tell them they have until the end of the day to finish it, but that there are no leaders and everyone should self-manage?


On Saturday I went along to Good for Nothing where we did just that. I wasn’t really sure what to expect but the whole idea is to give some of your time and use your skills to do good for a social enterprise. The social enterprises come along with something they want help with, and they get access to a diverse group of people who want to do some good for nothing – in this case, most of whom hadn’t met before – and who aim to turbocharge a project by completing it in a day. There’s a briefing the night before to get you thinking about the problem, then you spend the whole of Saturday doing. Solving the problem. Coming up with ideas and doing stuff.

In this case the two organisations pitching their ideas to the group were Cowherd’s, a healthy vegetarian cafe which will run as a social enterprise in Salford and which wanted help with creating a brand and strategy, and Levenshulme market which was looking for a new website to better reflect the market and its stallholders. I opted for the cafe, not only because of my vegetarian leanings (which made this an easy choice), but also because I do strategy and brand a lot more than I do website building – I don’t really do code!

It was a great day – loads of creativity, working quickly with a lot of new people, all keen to help the organisation whose team we were supporting, and all just getting stuck in rather than debating or spending ages deliberating. And the results were fab – our Cowherd’s team created a logo, menus, business cards, paper bag designs, website wireframes and a marketing strategy in a day, while the Levy market group created an actual website – well, almost, I think they finished it on Sunday (as I’m writing this, it’s not live yet, presumably they need to transfer the domain over etc.) but come on, one day or a couple, it’s still pretty amazing! It’s ridiculous how much we got done, and Paula Maguire from Cowherd’s seemed genuinely really impressed with the designs and ideas she took away. As did the lady representing Levy market.

So people who are doing good (the enterprises) got something useful from a bunch of other people (us) doing good for them, and we got to solve a problem, meet a load of new interesting people and make some new contacts, as well as doing something more useful than what we’d usually do on a Saturday – we made a difference to someone just by sharing our time, which is a great feeling. I met a couple of ladies who work literally seconds away from my office, so we’re planning to do some ladies-who-Christmas-lunch soon, sounds like a good excuse to meet up again to me.

Big thanks to the guys at Good for Nothing who organised the whole thing, looking forward to the next one!

Fancy doing a bit of good for nothing? They’re on twitter and that, have a nosey.

Why we should be more playful and tell more stories at work

When I was about six I decided I wanted to do an English degree and then be a writer. I had my life all planned out, until the realisation hit me in the second year of my degree that I might actually have to get a job and earn some money rather than just sort of announcing ‘ta dah, I’m a writer’. I also lost some of my passion for reading during my degree (which is pretty sad really, after looking forward to it for over 10 years), and didn’t write anything, except the obligatory essays, pretty much throughout it. Hence market research beckoned*, and the rest is history. I still don’t read a huge amount, but more than I did a few years ago. Mainly work-related books though, I must admit.

Anyway, as part of my day job I’m looking at how we can incorporate storytelling techniques into our research communications and deliverables (presentations, reports etc.). As a precursor to this, I went to a workshop a couple of weeks ago organised by the MRS (Market Research Society, our industry body) about storytelling – in other words, I basically had a day out in London to attend a workshop on something I find really interesting (i.e. stories – whether I read much or not, I still like a good story), and called it work. I’ve also done a bit of my own reading and research, and now I have to make up my own story about storytelling and tell that to everyone internally so they use storytelling in their work. I know, tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

So I’ve done quite a bit of thinking recently about stories. In business, we tend to think telling stories is too playful, too much like fiction (and we’re in the business of DATA, not fiction) and too far away from the way we’ve been trained to analyse and report information. We think of stories as being childish and not for serious, grown-up business people who would be outraged if we told them a STORY for goodness’ sake. But isn’t this assumption questionable at best, when you think about it?

When we think of storytelling, we should probably remember that being researchers – or marketers, or whoever – we’re used to cutting through numbers, verbatim quotes, expert and client reports or whatever information it is we’re using, and finding a thread to link it all together, something to hang a narrative on, a way of presenting something our audience is (we hope) going to want to read or listen to for the whole time it takes to tell them our findings. This is just like being a storyteller. But rather than having to come up with the whole idea yourself, you get given material to use to turn into something interesting. A bit like an A-level English Language case study (or like they were when I did my A-levels anyway.) And even better, you get to make it into a visual, as well as a verbal, story, so you can really create your own story, from the words to the images. You might even get to tell the story yourself in person. Complete artistic control.

We should also remember that whether we’re in a business context or not, people are people, and people respond to stories. They respond to characters, to heroes and villains. To dramatic tension. To provocative views. To humour and playfulness. They respond to metaphors which conjure up vivid images we remember – and ultimately act on (at least hopefully, in a business context). There’s a reason most of us enjoy watching films or drama on TV, or reading books or newspapers, and it’s because we all love a good story. We remember particular characters or events, especially those where we make an emotional connection (positive or negative) with the people in the story. But we don’t often push ourselves at work – or at least I don’t – into a slightly uncomfortable place where we deliberately create themes and characters, or push metaphors further than we’d usually consider for a ‘business’ presentation. But why not? We don’t stop being people when we walk into the office in the morning. A good story is still a a good story.

I’ve been lucky recently to work on a client project which involved us compiling lots of their internal business information with trends reports to help shape their future strategy. We delivered a presentation which included, among other things, spaceships, jet packs and shopping lists – we were really fortunate that our client gave us licence to do something a bit different with what could have been a mass of uninspiring data, which was great (and very trusting of her!). We used big themes, dramatic language, asked provocative questions, made use of futuristic and slightly tongue-in-cheek visuals, and hardly quoted any specific numbers. And we got some great feedback after the event, because people within the business are using our metaphors and visuals to talk to their teams and think about their strategy in a memorable way. Job done, I think!

I’m sure the purists out there will criticise dramatising things in a business context. But if you want to inspire someone, you’re hardly going to bore them into action with a deck of 200 charts are you? To be fair, it’s been a push to go a bit out-there with some of our ideas, because even when you’re up for the idea of including rockets and jet packs, something nags at you, is it too flippant? are we trivialising things too much? But if our story of spaceships and the future engaged and inspired the audience to build something exciting and shape the future of their business (and apparently it did), then as far as I’m concerned, it’s all good. (And the client was happy. So I’m happy. Everyone’s happy, yay.)

I think where I’ve got to then in my thinking about stories, is that we should be more playful at work, especially in how we communicate, and we should go out on a limb every now and again. And even if that limb’s a bit uncomfy for a while, people will start to see we’re onto something, and at some point they’ll come and join us, so we might as well get the best view by being up on that limb first.

So are you coming to join me up here then or what?

*Of course, like most people who work in market research, I fell into it as a career rather than looking for it. But I’m glad I did, I might still be an out of work author who-can’t-be-bothered-to-write if I hadn’t. And I get to do storytelling as part of my job, which is pretty cool. 

3 o’clock dancing

3 o clock dance rulesIt’s mid-afternoon. You’re flagging a bit at work, and need a pick me up. Do you have a biscuit? A coffee? How about doing a spot of 3 o’clock dancing? Pick a song on your iPod or YouTube, get up, turn it up and throw some shapes.

We decided to give it a go at work this week. As you might expect, not everyone joined in when we tried it – in fact, some people (you know who you are!) left before we started and avoided the whole thing completely, partly because they didn’t want to dance, and partly I suspect because they thought it was just a bit stupid. Which it was, really. We also had some voyeurs and people filming, which has inspired some rules for 3 o’clock dance club (I’m aware I’m probably contravening rule 1, but I wasn’t the one to first post the rules on Twitter). Some pretty crazy moves went on and there was a lot of giggling; it definitely lightened the mood.

According to the rules which are now stuck up on the wall, it’s not going to happen every day. Which is probably not a bad thing – it might lose its appeal and irritate people if we do it too much – but as a way of doing something random every now and again to make people laugh, it works. It was a suggestion which came out of a creativity workshop earlier in the week and I’m glad we tried it – what have you got to lose? Except maybe a bit of dignity. But see rule 2, there’s no judging, so it’s all good.


Pecha kucha returns to Manchester

Last Thursday saw the return of pecha kucha to Manchester, at Manchester Art Gallery. Originally from Japan, the format of presenting 20 slides, with 20 seconds for each (auto-advancing) slide makes for a fairly fast-paced evening as each speaker only gets 6 minutes and 40 seconds to do their whole presentation before their time is up. It also made for a fairly random night, because with no set theme and people just talking about anything they’re interested in – which ranged from protein molecules to extracting colour from objects to a presentation in the form of a song about a painting – it was certainly entertaining! And there was a bar which was very nice on a Thursday evening, not something I knew was open at the gallery.

I’d seen the event advertised and thought I’d do a talk on creativity seeing as it’s something I seem to have been thinking about a bit lately. I based it on three ideas of how people could be more creative, and then talked about some of the things I’ve done to show some practical examples of the three things. The slides are below and you can probably get the gist without the speech (although I like to think I did add something to the evening  over and above the slides themselves – fail if not!). It was videoed on someone’s mobile phone but I’m not sure whether the footage will ever appear anywhere. The photos etc. are mine (from this site), the other images are from openclipart – a site I’ve only come across recently but which looks like a good source of  free images for presentations.

My tips for a good pecha kucha presentation:

  • Write your script before doing your charts. You can’t say a whole lot in 20 seconds, even if you talk fast (like I do) so try writing the whole thing and timing it before starting your slides, as you’ll probably find you have to cut it back a lot first.
  • Practice. And then practice a bit more. Ideally do it so you’re comfortable without your notes, but either way, make sure your timing is good and you know your material. This is unlikely to happen without timing yourself and practising and editing again and again.
  • Be yourself. The most memorable presentations from the evening are those where I felt like I’d seen someone interesting, talking about something they were passionate about. If you’re enthusiastic, even if your timing isn’t spot on, your audience will enjoy it.

Apparently there will be more pecha kucha in Manchester in the next few months so keep an eye out for them. I’m definitely aiming to be at the next one, although I think I’ll leave the speaking to other people next time.

Another painting

I did another painting on Sunday.*

abstract art

I’ve been trying to work out what’s brought on the sudden painting thing over the last couple of weeks (the researcher in me trying to analyse myself, no doubt), and wonder if it’s the sunny weather – it’s been sunny both Sundays when I’ve painted, so there does seem to be a pattern so far. That and the fact that I’ve had a couple of blank canvasses doing nothing and waiting to be painted, although I’ve had those for months, so maybe it is the weather after all.

I was a bit stuck for what to do when I first decided I was actually going to paint, and sat for ages thinking about it, not having a clue where to start. Eventually I decided I just needed to paint something to get myself started, so I painted the background pale blue. From there I ended up free-styling a bit with various colours at one end of the canvas, ending up with a sort of grass effect. The ‘grass’ wasn’t particularly intentional, but it meant I could add a sky at the top, and a couple of white clouds to fill the rest of the pale blue space. I did the clouds with my fingers and there was something quite nice and free and childlike using my fingers to paint, so maybe next Sunday I’ll have another go at that. The taller grass ‘stalks’ are bits of paint I mixed with water and then blew across the canvas. I enjoyed that too, and I’m thinking next weekend might end up being messy if I have another go with a bigger canvas (I have a wall to fill upstairs)…

I’ve now run out of canvasses anyway so need to top up if this is going to become a habit. I’ve nearly run out of white paint as well; I’ve got through a couple of tubes so should invest in a big one. Might even treat myself to some new brushes…oo-er. Whether I bother might depend on how sunny it is though, if my theory’s right. Or maybe it’ll just depend on whether I can be bothered to go and buy some canvasses this weekend.

*On proofing this post, it occurred to me that putting this sentence as a statement, on its own line and everything, makes it sound like it’s a big statement. Maybe something important. Something foreboding even. It isn’t (at least, not to me, you might be afraid of painting or Sundays for all I know), it was just the first thing I wrote to get this post started today, but I decided I quite liked the dramatic effect so decided to leave it. (I like a bit of drama every now and again.)

Bank holiday artday

Rather than spend bank holiday Monday doing anything particularly productive, like cleaning or gardening (I did the front lawn over the weekend, and no-one really sees the back garden except the window cleaner, so that can wait), I thought I’d do a bit of art. I remembered I’d found a brand new set of acrylic paints a few weeks ago when I was tidying up and got quite excited about painting something, but had the same problem I usually do when deciding to paint in that I didn’t know where to start. I have some stamps from my late Granddad’s stamp collection which I’ve had a play around with art-wise before, and a bit of inspiration from Pinterest suggested I combine the paint and stamps by choosing a stamp and expanding the picture around it with paint.

Admittedly, this isn’t as intricate as the one I got the inspiration from, but  I really like the concept and think I’ll do more of these.

I also had a go at an abstract painting. I’ve decided I quite like acrylic paint, it was easier to work with than oils because it dries quicker – so if you change your mind, you can just paint over it. I used a lot of white though, so think a big tube of it would be a good investment for next time, I’ve almost run out.

3 ways to be more creative

creativity screenshot

I had a play around with PowToon a few days ago to see how easy (or not) it was to create animated PowerPoint-type presentation videos. As I’ll be running a workshop at the BIG Conference in Brighton next week about being more creative, I thought I’d use some of the initial workshop content in it, hence the video being about ways people can be more creative. Only three ways mind you, it was designed to be a short video.

Here it is on YouTube. I actually started a PowToon video on behavioural economics based on the course I’ve just done, but because I decided I needed to think for a while about the content, it didn’t work as a quick experiment, so I switched to the creativity one. Maybe I’ll get back to the BE video another day.

I reckon it took me about three hours in total, having never used it before, and I don’t think the results are too bad. I’ve over-used some of the effects (e.g. text appearing in the same way throughout) but it was pretty intuitive to use, and very similar to PPT, just with timings for all the animations.

There are some limitations to having a free account, mainly the relatively small number of icons available (you’d soon tire of using the same ones over and over) but you can upload your own images, like I did with some of my photos – or you could use icons created in Illustrator etc. and upload those. I actually forgot to look at changing the background music, but I think there are more options with the premium accounts.

You also only get 30 ‘exports’ of whatever videos you create with a free account, which are exports to YouTube but don’t allow you to download the file. Presumably once you hit 30, you have to buy a paid-for account. And obviously the PowToon branding is all over it, which it isn’t with the paid accounts.

PowToon is still in beta but given how straightforward it was to use, I think we’ll see this kind of animation software quickly becoming more and more commonplace as a communication tool, both generally online (we are visual creatures after all) but also in the business world. In my day job as a researcher, we’ll see people increasingly using this kind of software as substitutes or companions to market research outputs; short, snappy and engaging ways of getting across key messages to busy stakeholders. If you can use PowerPoint, as 95% of people in the ‘presenting’ business pretty much do, then you can use something like this, so why wouldn’t you if you want to make an impact? (Unfortunately, many people who think they can use PPT, and I don’t just mean researchers, do a pretty awful job, so maybe there’ll be some pretty awful animations to look forward to over the coming months. Although more than likely these people won’t bother as animations will be too much of an effort and they’ll stick with the bullet-point and bar chart PPT default.)

I’m planning to suss out a few similar programmes over the next few weeks (this is only the first one, so I can’t say it’s the best, but it was certainly easy to use), so if you have any tips on what to look at next, suggestions would be very welcome.