Book review: Your Best Just Got Better

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Why this is a must-read productivity guide

by Peter Watts

It’s a pleasure to review a book that has changed not only how I achieve results, but most importantly has affected the results that I choose to achieve.

This is a book that you can immediately gain from.

Training to give presentations that make a powerful impact on audiences is akin to training as an athlete. It takes dedication, practice, the ability to execute on that practice, and above all it requires the drive to push beyond your comfort levels. It’s an iterative process of strengthening skills and reaching for the next stage. If every presentation is just 1% better than the last, then you know you are improving as a speaker.

This is the approach that Jason Womack takes in his personal productivity guide “Your Best Just Got Better”. I’ve read many such books, and this is the first one that has made a permanent change to the way that I work.

The story starts with what Jason calls “MITs”. MITs are your Most Important Things. Across the course of “Your Best Just Got Better” he urges you to consider these areas in close-up. What are they? Why are they important? To what outcomes are they leading you?

He then sets out a number of ways to keep you on track (or in my case: get yourself back on track) towards hitting those goals.

Here are just a few of the things that I do differently, every day, as a result of reading “You’re Best Just Got Better”.

15 minutes: Set a timer

I now set a timer for work activities. I decide upfront how long I’m going to spend on a task, set the timer on my phone, and then concentrate completely for that allotted period. There’s a timer running right now for example. 30 minutes to complete the first draft of this blog.

Jason encourages you to work in 15 minutes blocks, so this is a two-block activity.

The running timer enables you to establish what your daily productive base-line looks like. From that point of awareness you can then find ways day-by-day to increase the number of 15-minute blocks that are truly productive for you. Each day you get to see how your best just became that little bit better.

Team You

Another idea from the book is to be highly aware of the people in your network that you rely on in order to do your job effectively, and to help you move to the next stages in your career. Those networks are wider and richer than we might initially realize. I now consciously schedule “Team Peter” time to make sure I’m identifying and building those relationships. This one exercise alone has already made my life as a travelling presenter into an easier and more emotionally rewarding experience

ABR – Always Be Ready

A great deal can be achieved with those little 15 minute Lego-blocks of time, so long as you can utilize them when unexpected delays such as late flights or late meetings disrupt your schedule. One simple idea in the book is to carry in your bag a small number of ready to mail Thank You cards. Having those cards at the ready, means that when delays hit, you can use the time to send a hand-written thank you to somebody in your network. Foot-tapping time becomes team-building time.

Know Your Tools

This was another one that has really helped me. I’m notorious for buying software and learning just enough functionality to get me out on the road. At that point my learning stops, and I limp along with the product as best I can.

I now use another of those 15-minute blocks, just once per week, to learn something new about my software tools. Gradually. Iteratively. Week-by-week. Take Scrivener for example, the professional writing software that I treated myself to last year. Just one 15-minute block per week to learn new Scrivener skills has made a huge difference to my productivity.

Jason Womack Blog-Headshot-Jason-womack-96

Finally we have the author himself. Jason Womack gets very involved with his readers. He has a formidably active blog, twitter presence, and a weekly podcast. There is a lot of information out there to support you as you read the book, and if you fire Jason a question, he’ll send you back an answer.

My timer tells me that I’ve now been writing for 29 minutes and 15 seconds. Time to sign-off, other than to say:

Presenting is a rewarding and challenging skill, and it takes a focus that “Your Best Just Got Better” can prime you to achieve.

“Your Best Just Got Better” is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It is published by Wiley and available in a variety of formats including e-books and audio

Seven take-aways for beating block

Seven proven ideas for beating back presenter’s block

by Peter Watts

Presenter’s block can hit when you need to be creative. You need new ideas for a presentation, but all you come up with are worked-over old ones.

My personal view is that we become blocked when we’ve been spending too much time cooped up inside our brain cavities. It’s not that we don’t have ideas, we just can’t access them.

We need to get out of our heads and back into our bodies.

Here are seven physical ways to release the block:

Take a walk

Get out from behind your mental block by taking a walk around the neighborhood. Whether urban or rural, walking releases thinking

Take exercise

If you have a gym membership, now is a great time to use it. Pound out some miles on the treadmill or do some light weights. The perfect workout for releasing block is the type of workout you would do for toning rather than building muscle, with minimal straining and maximum aerobic.

Take a shower

Archimedes had his famous eureka moment in the bath. We can experience something similar in the shower. As the water relaxes our bodies, it also relaxes our minds. As our minds relax, ideas flow.

Take a nap

OK, maybe not strictly physical activity, but still addressing physical need; the physical need for rest. There is an old maxim that when faced with a problem, we should “sleep on it”. In his book “Imagine”, Johan Lehrer describes how during sleep, that vociferous internal critic, the prefrontal cortex, takes a nap along with us. This allows ideas to surface that our cortex critic would normally crush.

Take a sense break

Do something that involves all of your senses. For me, it’s a trip to Franklin Avenue, our local Little Italy. The tiny Italian grocery stores offer the full sensorama experience of Italian food, topped off with frothy cappuccino and seductive amaretti.

If food isn’t your thing, try gardening. Find a patch of space and some plant pots and bury your hands in the soil.

Take-off from your routine

When you pull on your pants in the morning, did you realize that you always pull on the same leg first. It’s habit. Next time you’re getting dressed, try consciously putting on the other leg first. See how odd it feels.

Whatever your routines might be, break a couple! Get up a little earlier. Go to a different coffee shop. Walk by a different route. Small changes shake us back into full consciousness and get us off auto-pilot.

Take a tool

I have all my best ideas when I’m raking leaves. One day of leaf-raking and my mind is as fresh and as naked as the ground I’ve just cleared. Friends ask me why I don’t rent a machine to suck-up the leaves instead, but that wouldn’t have the therapeutic powers of my old fashioned rake! (The Autumn leaf bonfire afterwards is another huge plus as it makes one of the best smells of the year!)

If you don’t have leaves to rake, then take a look around your home. Find something that needs painting or polishing or sanding or digging.

Find something that needs doing!

And that’s the ultimate take-away. When we’re blocked, we sit, and we mash our pencils against the page until our nibs bore a hole down into the desk.

Reverse the process.

Get up from the desk and go do something active instead.

Why you will fail to have a great career

by Peter Watts

Universities can scrap the scheduled speakers for this year’s graduation ceremonies. They can whack up a  screen and speakers, and play their students this TedX jewel instead.

Professor Larry Smith of the University of Waterloo, berating students about “Why you are going to fail to have a great career”.

The Professor enumerates for his audience the reasons for failure, pick-axing one after another the self-destructive excuses we feed ourselves for not reaching our dreams.

“I’m an economist, I do dismal.”

Not only does he do dismal (inspiringly), he does manic, funny, and spit-flecked passion. He does logic, structure, and crafted balancing of speech techniques. He offers a 15 minute alternate take on the tired old formula of the Commencement Address, and delivers memorable and stand-out thought provoking.

The talk veers through life stages from birth to death. From a digression on how not to propose marriage through to what your gravestone epitaph will say compared to what it could have said.

No punches are pulled in highlighting the self-destructive tropes we feed ourselves for why we can’t stand-up to achieve greatness……

Unless…….

Think free or die

by Peter Watts

Because presenting is inventing, constantly check yourself for dogma.

Dogma sets up unchallengeable absolutes, and has a simple purpose: to castrate.

By castrating the ability to question, it shuts down the chance to innovate. Public speaking without innovation becomes mere preaching by rote, the same cold meat served day after day until the intellectual hunger of the speaker becomes numb.

The people of the state of New Hampshire live by the state motto “Live free or die”. To be effective as presenters we guard and nurture that same freedom.

In her book “How to live a life of Montaigne“, Sarah Bakewell describes how the French philosopher lived by a simple credo:

“All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that.”

It is hard to be a know-it-all when your world view is “I know nothing”, and nothing captures the love of an audience quite like humility. Freshness and humility. What a killer combination on stage.

Genuinely free thinkers are few and far between, and that makes them memorable.

We walk amongst those thinkers whenever we cut free from the dogmas and orthodoxies that seek to hold us down.

Chicken soup for the Presenters’ soul (without harming chicken)

by Peter Watts

There is a New York Times article that will inspire you.

It’s short. It’s morning-air crisp, and in one brief column will transport you to a place you can scratch.

It’s a place full of chickens. And the daily life of chickens. And I never before appreciated quite how much inspiration your average chicken has to offer to a presenter.

Chickens, it would seem, appreciate more than any other creature, how even the most raked-over ground can offer surprises to those who come to it with fresh eyes and persistence.

There is always something new to be found, and we feed ourselves and our audiences by being constantly alive to the possibility of the angle undiscovered.

Here’s the article. Go on, be a chicken…… I dare you!

Performing Arts Perform Inspiration

by Peter Watts

It might feel a little early for New Year resolutions, but here’s one I want to suggest right now:

During 2012, go enjoy one live performance arts event every month

This past weekend I attended the annual Hartford Symphony Christmas Pops concert, led for the first year by new conductor, Carolyn Kuan

While a small number of classical Christmas pieces were included, the majority of Kuan’s program choices were non-traditional. Hanukkah rhythms. Tchaikovsky re-arranged as big-band jazz. Choruses in Cantonese. A Rodetzky clapping frenzy personally conducted by the conductor herself. From beginning to end, it was an explosion of the seasonally unexpected. Kuan radically reengineered her audience’s expectations of a Christmas concert.

Shunning the formulaic produces magical results. When we break new ground there is an edge of risk that summons our full spirit to the task, and that spirit manifests as passion.

Don’t play it safe. Play it with passion.

In her book “The Artist’s Way”, Julia Cameron suggests we each have a well of creativity. We dip metaphorical buckets whenever we want to pull up creative ideas and unless we take time to re-fill the well, we will one day dip the bucket only to have it come back up empty.

Cameron therefore recommends a regular treat called an “Artist’s Date” where you replenish that creativity. For presenters there can be no finer Artist’s Date than the performing arts.

Why wait till the New Year to start this particular resolution. December is a time when the arts come gloriously alive. Whether it be a play, a concert,  a night at the ballet, or a choir singing on a street corner, there is inspiration to be found all around us

As presenters we are members of many communities, and one of those is the community of the arts. Let’s make 2012 a year to enjoy our membership.

Further Ideas:
Now that my night at the Symphony has tuned me into the connections between the performing arts and presenting, I’ve noticed that a couple of my blogging friends are also thinking in the same direction:
Laura Camacho shows five ways to bring the joy of art to the art of your work, and Nick Morgan shares the insights that jazz can hold for public speakers.
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