The Importance of Listening

Last Friday I attended a workshop called “A Practical Experience of Story and Design” put on by the AIGA and presented by Kevin Brooks. I truly did not know what to expect from the workshop and it didn’t matter because, my recent interest in story telling and how to integrate it into our daily lives at HB has been overwhelming. I appreciated learning the key components and processes of telling stories to support our daily work. One of which was using our imagination and trusting the images we create in our head to craft a story instead of relying on our intellect. The exercises I worked on with other participants were eye opening, but the one thing that stuck out most to me from the workshop was Kevin’s opening remark. “The most important part of storytelling is…listening.” I didn’t understand how the two related at first, and then he continued while he had my attention. Here is what Kevin said about the importance of listening:

  • Listening well will help you become a better teller.
  • You will experience the best in what others are saying by paying attention to their stories.
  • Listening well helps imprint the best practices of others, so you can do them too.

The Role of Appreciations
One way of becoming a better listener is to listen to give appreciations. What does this mean? It’s the act of listening to someone speak and then giving feedback based on how you were affected. Here are some examples of giving appreciations:

  • Finding and expressing what is good or what you like about what someone said
  • Being specific about what was said
  • Explaining how what they said affected you positively
  • Saying how what they said affected the speaker

Try this:
Listen deeply to someone tell a story. Don’t interrupt them, don’t nod or say, “uh huh,” don’t be concerned about silences–just listen.
I think someone will appreciate you listening to them without interruption and you’ll take away the best of someone else’s story, which you can apply to your own stories. I can’t wait to use this new knowledge in my every day life.

Why I get nervous when you call me an expert

In recent months, I’ve heard the following words too many times: “I’m relying on you to tell me – you’re the expert.” During the same period, I’ve been very lucky to:

  • meet with investors I highly respect to brainstorm on product differentiation in the fresh produce industry;
  • help a company figure out how to bring together a community in the medical technology industry;
  • be interviewed and filmed as I commented on how best to describe a cutting-edge higher-education program; and
  • be invited to Germany to lead a group of technology company executives in a multi-day session designed to hone messaging and create a direct marketing initiative.

In each case, one or more people called me “expert.”  It made me uncomfortable, because a little voice inside my head kept repeating Shunryu Suzuki’s words of wisdom in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

I have experienced the “expert” phenomenon both as the expert and as the one seeking expertise. As “experts,” my colleagues and I meet with clients who want definitive answers, and we work hard to provide such answers.

“Here’s what we should do, how much it will cost, and the results you can expect. Yes, this is the best way to make the most of your marketing budget.”

[Read more…]

Getting inside the problem

Knee MRI

Sometimes you need to go deeper.

This week I had knee surgery. Originally I was diagnosed as needing ACL reconstruction. However, an MRI revealed that the ACL was intact. My surgeon wasn’t sure how things would turn out. He advised that he should wait to make a judgment call once he was inside the knee and could really see what was happening. I agreed.

It’s ironic how closely this matches the work we do on a regular basis. Prospective clients come to us with a problem or a challenge and ask for our help. Too often they ask us to diagnose the problem and prescribe a fix in the form of a proposal… before we truly understand the real problem.

Our point of view is that we must get inside the problem and deeply understand the challenge prior to prescribing a solution. We propose a strategy/planning session, one where we can peel away the layers of business goals, audience, messaging and competition in a well-defined process that reveals the gaps and overlaps and informs recommendations. Getting inside the problem results in better knowledge, deeper understanding and more positive results.

Where does inspiration come from?

I recently came across a documentary on the Discovery Channel that originally aired in 2007 about the famous fashion designer Ralph Lauren’s car collection. I had interest in the documentary for two reasons: I appreciate both cars and art. In this instance, they go hand-in-hand as Lauren’s collection is considered one of the greatest in history – the cars are viewed as works of art.

Their timeless design was regarded to be ahead of their time when created. As a designer, I draw inspiration from great designers of the past and popular trends of the present. As a fashion designer, Lauren draws inspiration from his car collection to create new trends for his clothing line that are both current and timeless. It’s easy to see how Lauren could draw inspiration from his collection.

“Cars have always been a source of design inspiration for me. The cars I collect have a message of timeless beauty.”Ralph Lauren

1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic Coupe

1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing Coupe

Or one of his 14 Ferrari's including the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO

IABC – Yankee Chapter – Worth the time and cost!

I had the pleasure of participating in an IABC Yankee Chapter event this week. I have been to several IABC events, and each time have met talented communications professionals who bring great acumen and experience to communication challenges. These have ranged from experts at other agencies to internal communications folks at some of the area’s largest and most recognized for- and non-profit organizations.

The discussions have been stimulating and I have always come away with new knowledge and connections I respect.

If you’re interested in networking with other communications people and learning more about the profession (and craft), and perhaps finding your next hire, job or client, then consider IABC.

A Little Extra Creativity

Even though I am a graphic designer, doing fine arts brings out a different kind of creativity in me. There’s something about getting my hands covered with ink (who I am kidding, all over my arms, on my face, in my hair) that sparks my imagination. It activates something in my body that feels like an “itch” to keep designing; like the feeling you get when you drink too much coffee. It felt so good to be creating something with my hands.

We spent most of the semester doing monoprints and drypoint etching. On the right, is one of the prints I created and the printmaking plate.

Learn more about the technique at

Composting — reducing greenwaste for a greener world and a greener thumb

The average household discards between one and two pounds of organic waste each day. For the city of New York, that adds up to over one million pounds per year. New York has its own compost project, and as does San Francisco, and even Los Angeles is starting a pilot table-scrap composting program.

Click here to see what composting programs might be available in your region.

The EPA notes that composting could reduce waste going into dumps by 700 pounds per year per household. If that’s not convincing enough, the EPA also lists the following benefits of composting:

  • Reduce local garbage disposal costs
  • Conserve valuable landfill space
  • Reduce air emissions from the incinerator plants that burn garbage
  • Produce a nutrient-rich additive for soil.

We started composting this year. Here are some tips we learned the hard way:

  • If you’re in an area with animals roaming (foxes, bears, raccoons, skunks), do not compost meat products and oils. They will attract animals more than your other organic waste.
  • If your compost begins to smell nasty, use cut grass and leaves in it to accelerate the breakdown of organic matter. You can also cut larger items into smaller pieces (corn cobs, watermelon rinds, grapefruit skins) to help them break down. Ideally, your compost will give off a rich smell that shouldn’t be offensive.
  • Get two compost bins or tumblers — we use these recycled pickling barrels made by a company in Vermont, Jack’s Composters and Rain Barrels. When one seems a bit full, we let the compost mature and use the other barrel.

Some benefits we’ve experienced: our kitchen garbage smells far less than it used to,and we change it less often (organic waste is what generally decomposes and stinks first); we have amazing, rich compost to use in potting plants or for growing vegetables in the summer; we feel better about bringing less garbage to the dump; when it’s time to finally give up on that rotting fruit or head of lettuce, it feels better to recycle it in the compost than to throw it in the trash.

If you get into composting and want to learn more, try these useful sites:

Podcasts are elementary

I am not the average 20-year-old college student. I do not know how to text message, I highly dislike computers, and I would rather hand-write all of my assignments than type them in a Word document. Technology is not my forte, and the 20+ year-old typewriter in my bedroom can attest to this. If I lived in the 1950s this would not be a problem. In fact, my typewriter would be cutting-edge. It is 2008, however, and I am not sure if anyone even knows what a typewriter is anymore.

Keeping up with the continually expanding world of technology is not only important in developing my career, but I have realized that it is necessary just to keep up with my tech-savvy siblings.

For example, I went home last week, overly excited about a new assignment to begin podcasting for I have never created a podcast before, and am still new to other media tools such as blogging. Beginning work in these areas is both nerve-wracking and exciting, and I am continually learning new ways to use them. I was hoping to show everyone how high tech I can be.

My mood slowly transformed into feeling pretty lame after my 10-year-old brother dove into a conversation about podcast specifics, and outlined a number of podcasts he has already created in the 5th grade. What happened to the days where color-changing markers were as high tech as elementary schools got?

Needless to say, I was blown away. I went on to discover that throughout his elementary school career, my brother and his classmates have made podcasts, maintained blogs, and created all kinds of technology-based projects that I was not even aware of until high school.

So, before beginning any work involving podcasts, perhaps I should go back to elementary school for a course on the basics.

Our Body: Inside and Out

The Body Worlds exhibit has been on display in many cities for quite some time now. I finally had the opportunity to visit this exhibit at the Maryland Science Center over the weekend.

The Body Worlds exhibit is an educational display featuring actual organs and bodies from persons that donated their bodies for this cause. The specimens on view are examples of the technique called Plastination. Invented by a scientist and anatomist Dr. Gunther von Hagens in 1977, Plastination is the method of halting decomposition and preserving anatomical specimens for scientific and medical education.

The exhibit made me realize what an amazing creation our body. I also left the exhibit feeling the desire to respect my body and care for it better.

If you have the chance, I highly recommend this exhibit. It’s not gory and the bodies are treated with care and respect. The Massachusetts exhibit is now closed, but you can check out other cities at

Design as Experience

Rarely can a concert be described as well-designed, but my recent experience at a Kanye West show was just that.

The hip-hop artist, who has been quoted as saying “I’m a designer and rap is just one of my designs,” has developed a cohesive concert experience. The show’s premise followed Kanye across outer space as his spaceship became lost on an uninhibited planet. His musical and artistic performance never strayed away from the night’s theme.

Consistent branding is important across many mediums – from events to corporations to products. Kanye West feels concerts are just as important.