Vacuum Pack Your Presentation

Whenever I put together any kind of presentation, be it a magic show, a talk or a theatrical piece, there is one rule I have followed over the years that has served me well. Your best bet with a presentation is to vacuum pack it. Eliminate the fluff. Suck the air out of it. Make it all meat and no veggies.

You get the point. I came to this realization years ago. I have spent a great deal of my life hanging around performers, and  performers have a tendency to compare notes. Every now and then I’d be talking with someone who had an effect in their repertoire that I also used.  Often, they would brag about how they were able to fill ten minutes  of their show with that one effect, which caught me by surprise because I only got three minutes from it.

And it’d make me wonder… should I be getting more time from it, or should they be getting less? Almost every time I come down on the side of less. And not just because that was how I did it, but because it is usually all that routine is good for.

I have sat through waaay too many Power Point presentations that could easily have been cut in half, but the presenter had to fill 30 minutes, so fill it they did. And they bored me so much that I missed the fifteen minutes of meat in their slide show. Just because you can talk ad nauseum, doesn’t mean you should make the audience nauseous.

Here is my method in a nut shell: Suck the air out of your presentation, or you will have to air the suck out of it. Vacuum pack it, and it will stay fresh.

Because if you’re fillin’ you ain’t killin’.

Saving Time Using Google Reader

If you’re like me, and I know that I am, you have a hard time keeping up with the overflow of information that comes your way on a daily ba
sis. If you were to look at my browsers bookmarks, you’d wonder how anyone could find the time to visit, let alone read all the blogs I find relevant and interesting. Well, it ain’t easy, but it can be done, using a little tool from that little start up company called Google.

If you haven’t used Google Reader, you are missing out on one great time saving tool. You’ve probably heard of it, but, like everything else in life, you were too busy to check it out. For me, it’s hard trying to find the time to learn how to use any new tool or gadget. That’s why I am pretty sure I am only using a fraction of my smart phones abilities. Heck, that’s probably why we only use ten percent of our brains. The owners manual is complicated and we don’t have time to read it.

Google reader though, is a piece of cake to use and you can get the gist of it in just a few minutes. And then, sit back and enjoy the extra time. Seriously, you will find it a time saver. Here’s how it works:

It starts with having a Google account, like your GMail account. It’s pretty safe to assume almost everyone has one, so go there and sign in. On the Google home page, the drop down menu will offer ‘Reader’ as a choice. Click that and you will see a basic environment, nothing to fancy here.

Now, let’s say you like to visit Chris Brogan every day (a smart move by the way). Just look for that orange RSS feed button. Not every site will have an RSS feed, but most these days do. In Firefox, it is located in the address bar. Click that and a drop down menu will offer you the option to subscribe to that sites RSS feed. Go ahead and do it. You will be taken to a page that offers a few choices of how you want to subscribe to this page. I opt for the Google choice. Hit subscribe now.

Your next choice will be to add it to your Google homepage or to Google reader. If you like everything on your homepage, opt for that. My homepage would be a disaster if all of my daily reads were fed there, so I opt for the Reader. After clicking that, you are taken to the Google Reader page. That is where you can manage your subscriptions.

I have many folders. One is called daily reads, but I have a political folder, one for internet business stuff, one for hobbies etc. Let’s say the site I just subscribed to is a daily read. I drag the new site into that folder. There is a number next to its listing that shows the number of unread posts. It will be small for now since you just subscribed.

When I click on the new listing, I will see all the unread posts. This is where the time saving comes in. Not every posts on every site will be of interest to me. Others will be evergreen topics that I want to look at over and over. Sometimes just scanning the title of a post is enough to let me know whether or not I want to read it. If I don’t want to, I click  the ‘Mark as read’ button. Others, I open up right there in the Google Reader window and preview it. The nice thing about the preview window is that you don’t have to leave the page to read the article. Sometimes I find a post that I know I will want to refer to again, so I will click the ‘Keep as Unread’ button, and it will always be available.

Now, if you have a dozen or so daily reads, you can visit them all in one place and at a glance know if you want to read a post. No more scrolling through a zillion blogs to look for unread gems, you can now find them quickly.

The other beautiful thing is that when you visit Google Reader the next time, within seconds you will know if any of your daily reads has posted anything new. So instead of spending twenty minutes to look for new posts, you can find them in seconds.I don’t know anyone who couldn’t use another twenty minutes in their day.




Creative Dissatisfaction

I’ve always believed that the majority of improvements in our lives come from people who are not happy with the previous incarnation of whatever their invention happens to be. Let me put it more plainly:  Someone looked at something and said, “I think it can be improved.”

I know money can be a great motivator, but it’s not easy to force your brain to create something out of nothing just because you want to make money. Money can be a result of an innovation (thankfully), but it seems that there is a better way to pursue money. Don’t go after cash, go after improvements.

I realize this is not ground breaking new stuff I’m writing here, but it is a process that is often overlooked. It’s what I call creative dissatisfaction. And here’s how it works: Something kind of ticks you off so you decide to fix it. Before you know it, others want your solution too, and they are willing to pay for it.

The thing I that I enjoy about innovation, is how often someone finds a need no one else even thought existed. The i-Pad fills a need, but it is a need it almost self created. People weren’t walking around frustrated that they didn’t have a device like this. Maybe a handful of people did. But when they pointed out the solution to the thing that bugged them, a few million other people said, “Yeah, we’re dissatisfied with the current crop of tablets too.”

Television picture quality has been improving for as long as I can remember. And after each improvement, most people thought we had reached the Zenith of picture quality (pun intended). But there was always a handful of others saying to themselves, “It’s not good enough.” And their unhappiness with the current state of the art led them to improve it further.

Washers and dryers now communicate with each other about the current load of laundry. The washer tells the dryer, “Hey, I just finished 20 pounds of towels in hot water with a gentle cycle of fabric softening. I’m handing it over to you now. Please dry appropriately.” That is cool, but if you had told me that washers and dryers could be improved any more over how they existed 10 years ago, I would have found that hard to believe. How could they have gotten any better I would have wondered?  Now I await the day when the machines fold the clothes after drying. Only then will I be satisfied.

Our quality of life continues to improve because there are people out there who are still not satisfied with the status quo. Everything that needs to be invented has not been invented yet. Not even close.

But the next big thing will not always present itself as a gaping hole in society that needs to be filled. Very often, it will just be a patch to a minor irritation or annoyance.

So the next time you find yourself a little frustrated at something, realize that it may be your creative muse gently tugging on your sleeve and whispering, “Fix me.”


How Hard Can It Be?

If ever there were a simpler, more innocuous phrase that could cause so much grief, I am unaware of its existence. Most of my life, the utterance of these five words is the beginning of a process that will test my patience, sanity and slumber. They are also the source of almost every accomplishment I am proud of.

The reality is, almost everything is harder than you originally think it will be, and that is good. Because if everything were simple, then everyone would do everything, and that would leave no room for anyone to excel at anything.

There is also one other hidden nugget of truth in this: If you knew exactly how hard something would be before you started, then you may not start it. And then, you would have very few accomplishments. And worse, you would have no growth in your life.

Many times I have said yes to a project without knowing just how deep I was getting myself buried in unknowns. I guess that’s why they are unknowns. I have always done my best to estimate just how much of the unknown I didn’t know, but, being the unknown, the exact amount was unknowable. Wouldn’t ya just know it! Suffice it to say, I have always underestimated.

However, when the project wrapped, I could look back at just how much knowledge and experience  I had gained. I also had a new tools in my repertoire. Those tools always get used again.

I think there is something wonderful about ignorance in the creative process. I don’t think it’s bliss, but I think the challenge of heading into uncharted territory stirs the creative juices and brings out some of our best work. If all you are doing in life is repeating what you have already done before, then you are just a version of an assembly line worker. Probably without the union benefits.

Sometimes the best way to supercharge the creative flow is to take on a few unknowns. That may be working in a new medium, say video when you usually use text, or audio when you are used to pictures. Whatever it is for you, that foray into a new field gives the right brain a kick in the pants.

Every now and then, if I’m not tugging on a few strands of hair trying to extract content from my head, then I feel I’m just not challenging myself enough. As much as I may dislike the moment when I’m in the middle of it, I always love the results.

I know a lot of people, (myself included) want to believe that when we are in ‘our true place in life’, that we should never have this level of stress. It’s not true. Sometimes that stress is what makes you feel alive. And when you feel alive, that is when you are in your true place.


We’ll Treat You With The Respect You Deserve

If there is one ubiquitous phrase popping up in commercials that makes me batty, this would be the one. I’ve never understood it. And that includes the variations: We’ll treat your pet, or your car, or your home with the respect it or they deserve. Really?

Well, of course you will, or I won’t pay you!

Seriously, is this something that needs to be said? Why wouldn’t you treat me this way? Has any business thrived on disrespecting its clients? Other than utilities and government agencies that is? Every one of your competitors is making the same claim anyway, so the phrase doesn’t even set you apart from them.

I have a philosophy that comes from doing hundreds of radio and TV appearances promoting a show. You only get so much time to make your point, so don’t waste it saying the obvious. Or the easily discovered. Besides, who sits next to the TV with a pen and paper just in case valuable information like this is presented? Most people don’t even have writing equipment next to their telephone.

For example: In some cities where we set up production, we’d have press appearances to promote our show. We’d be lucky to get 5 minutes on a morning TV show. Almost invariably, the PR people we were working with in that town would hand us a sheet of talking points to use in that 5 minutes. These would include show times, theater location, phone numbers to buy tickets, web site, etc etc. And I would always ask, “Why are we wasting 2 of our 5 precious minutes giving out information that can be easily found? We should be taking that time to sell the product, not telling them how to buy it.”

In our case, that product was ‘us’. Our show was a comedy, so we had better be funny. You wouldn’t buy teeth whitening services from a guy with a yellow smile, and you won’t buy comedy from boring, unfunny people. But at least you’d know where the theater is located, so you can avoid it. If we were funny and entertaining, then people would seek out our services. And these days, that information is easy to find.

Which gets me back to my original point. Treating me with respect is a selling point, but in my experience it is also a given. You should be doing this, in fact, I expect it. Every business does this. If you have to talk about it, then I suspect that you either have very few compelling reasons for me to patronize your business, or you have had a bad reputation in the past. Neither are good.

Take your precious 30 seconds and tell me why you are different than your competitors. Maybe it’s price; the same job for less. Maybe it’s service; you’ll finish faster and give me a donut. Maybe it’s experience; you’ve been doing this for a hundred years and you even trained all your competition. Either way, don’t waste that air or print time.

If you do that, then you will have truly treated me with the respect I deserve.

First Things First, And in That Order

Every now and then I make one of those ‘aha’ discoveries that are so obvious, that the only reason I didn’t make it sooner is that I must have been purposely avoiding it. In other words, I must not have wanted to discover it because it would probably mean a shift in the way I do things, and that shift can sometimes be uncomfortable. I believe that is what Seth Godin refers to as the Lizard Brain at work. Sometimes however, I give those new ideas a chance and before long I have a hard time going back to my old ways. In fact, going back to the previous ‘system’ would now represent change that I’d like to avoid. Funny how often that shift can occur.

Here’s my recent encounter with the obvious. I had been struggling to get any creative writing done. It seemed like the day would just slip away from me, and not only would no words hit the page, but the frustration of that reality would (or should I say ‘could’) make me a slightly less pleasant person to be around. I was, and am, a big fan of the book Accidental Genius by Mark Levy, and in the past had great success using his technique of free writing. In fact, I have written about it before here, here, and here. But lately, it wasn’t working for me.

And then… I discovered why.

KenKen. Well, it wasn’t all the fault of KenKen. Sudoku, Crossword and a few other puzzles contributed to my downfall. And they did it in the most sinister and clever ways.

Of course there was the waste of productive time spent solving puzzles instead of writing. But everyone should have a hobby, and this one was mine. It relaxed me, took my mind off of my problems and made me feel smart when I solved them. That was fine. Where they did their damage, was in when I would choose to do them.

Ever since my kids were born, I had gotten into the habit of getting up even earlier than usual. Four am instead of six am. I would then make a pot of coffee, and in those beautiful, quiet two hours, sit at my computer, and solve puzzles. Two peaceful, creativity packed hours, and I would spend them putting numbers into a grid.

This was bad for two reasons. First, what a colossal waste of quiet productive time. Second, and this is where the sinister part comes in, solving puzzles is a primarily left brain function. Once I had started my day with intense left brain activity, it was nearly impossible to switch over to right brain work. I was short circuiting the creative process. Most people, including me, have a harder time getting that right brain function kicked into gear. It is even more difficult to do when you’ve already pointed your brain in the opposite direction and have built up considerable speed. Imagine trying to shift your car from reverse gear to drive at thirty miles an hour. Not a good idea.

So here’s the new system, and so far it’s working beautifully. Get up at four am, make a pot of coffee and write! Write anything that comes out. The first few days, most of my scribblings seemed to center around how much I missed doing my puzzles in the morning. But soon, I didn’t miss them and the pages started to fill up. It was beautiful.

Besides, after a long day of being productive, solving a few puzzles felt kind of rewarding.

Every now and then I have to remind myself to do first things first, and always in that order.


Look Who’s Talking

My wife and I like to play a game with TV commercials. We call it ‘Look Who’s Talking’, or ‘Name That Goon’ (They aren’t really goons, it’s just the best rhyme for ‘tune’ I could come up with). The object of the game is simple really. When a commercial airs, we try to see who can name the actor behind the voice first. After a while, you start to see the same names over and over. And it got me to wondering why.

Let’s just assume that it is a nice pleasant voice. There are probably some qualities to it that are reassuring and soothing. Deep voices often convey authority and can create feelings of trust. A woman’s voice can be nurturing and make us feel safe.

But when it comes to celebrities, I believe there is something else at work as well. And it falls into the category of branding. Whatever good feelings we have about an actor are transferred over into the product they are representing. That’s why the majority of voice over work is done by actors who play the hero most of the time. They at least have to be someone about whom we have good feelings. Which explains why Charlie Sheen and Lindsey Lohan aren’t doing voice overs right now. A crook and a schnook do not evoke positive feelings.

Keifer Sutherland is the hero of TV show 24. We look up to him, trust him and know that he will do the right thing. So, even though we many not know it on a conscious level (in fact, we may not even recognize his voice in a commercial), his voice behind a product lends those same qualities to it.

So, the next time your favorite show breaks for commercial, don’t run to the kitchen. Who needs the extra calories anyway? Instead, close your eyes, listen to the voice behind the product and try to ‘Name That Goon’ (again, they are not really goons, but my rhyme dictionary didn’t return many options).

Once you have the actor named, try to think of why they were chosen. What qualities does the actor possess that the advertisers hope you associate with their product? Does it work?

And if so, is there any product out there that can benefit from having Charlie Sheen as their voice. He could use the work.


How I Turned a Twenty Dollar Pogo Stick Into Six Grand

Often in life, it can be the tiniest bit of extra effort that makes the difference. While I believe in putting everything you’ve got into an endeavor, it is surprising sometimes how a small thing can makes a huge difference. More than once in my life, that small thing has been the only difference.

A case in point: Back in my Los Angeles days as a budding commercial actor, you learned pretty quickly to put any unusual skill you possessed on your resume in the rare chance that a commercial would be written calling for a guy who could juggle chainsaws while riding a bull in knights armor. Since you wanted every audition you could get,this usually led to actors padding their resumes with all kinds of amazing talents. Unfortunately, a lot of those actors claimed skills they did not possess. When questioned, many would say, “If they call me and want me to play the part of a professional trapeze artist, I’ll just take a few lessons and wing it.” Most casting calls for commercials go out the day before the audition, so you would have approximately 24 hours to attain this new skill. Emergency rooms in Hollywood are filled with these people. None of them landed the commercial.

So, when an easily acquired skill is asked for, like say juggling one ball, you’d think most actors would put forth the minimum effort needed to ace the next days audition. And you’d be wrong. As an example, I offer you the Pogo Stick story.

My agent calls one day and asks if I can ride a pogo stick. I tell her I cannot. Her reply? “You’ve got three days to learn.” So, I did what I thought was logical. I went to the toy store and spent twenty bucks to buy a pogo stick. And for three days I bounced around my apartment complex courtyard. An older tenant got tired of the “boing, boing” noise and yelled out to me, “I hope you fall and break your neck.” But, I persisted. My hands blistered from the death grip on the handle, but still I bounced. And after three days, I could stay up for over a minute. As long as that was all they needed, I was ready.

When I showed up at the audition, I was the only one who brought his own pogo stick. (With a newly padded handle I might add). About three dozen people were there, but since the auditions were going on all day, they may have been seeing a hundred actors. All of them had three days advance notice, but only one bought a pogo stick. Me. None of them had even bothered to borrow one and practice, but all of them told their agent they could do it.

Guess who got the part? Me, of course. When I got my chance and bounced all over, they nearly hoisted me up on their shoulders in victory. Finally, someone who could actually ride one of these things! It was as if Pavarotti had come for a singing audition and all the other tenors had laryngitis.

For my efforts, I was paid $350 for a day of shooting, plus another $300 for a wardrobe fitting day, which took an hour. Toss in the residuals I made since the commercial ran in multiple regions, and my total take was about $6,000. My total time on screen was two or three seconds. Two grand a second is pretty good pay. And this was in 1990.

All of this to ask, is there some tiny thing you can do that will put you ahead of the pack? I am often surprised at the little things people overlook doing that can make a difference. Maybe we overlook them because we are certain all the others are already doing them. And just maybe, those are the things that will matter the most.

How to get noticed in Hollywood for 4 bucks

Trying to get  noticed in Hollywood isn’t easy, but if you can pull it off, the rewards can be fantastic. I have watched a few friends go from waiting tables one day, to having their former restaurant cater their celebrity parties.

About 20 or so years ago, I was one of those guys trying to break into TV Commercials. Even in the late 80’s, a decent national spot for a company like Budweiser or Honda could earn you upwards of twenty grand. For about one days work! Two if you had to go in for a wardrobe fitting (which you were paid extra for). It’s like hitting the lottery, only I think the Power Ball odds are a little bit better.

The problem of course, is how can you get noticed among the masses?  A friend proved just how futile the undertaking could be. He ran a tiny, 3 line notice in the back of a trade magazine mentioning that he was in pre-production on a film. One week later, his mailbox was jammed with pictures and resumes. Nearly 1000 of them. And I watched him toss most of them in the garbage with barely a 2 second glance. That was all the time he could afford to devote to the task.

So, armed with this insight, I realized if I wanted to get more than a 2 second glance, I had to give the person receiving my photo a reason to. And, I had to do this on my own since I didn’t have an agent. That’s when I turned to Wooly Willy.

You might remember this toy as a child. Magnetic shavings in a plastic bubble that allowed you to draw facial hair on the character inside. That’s Willy in the photo. The larger version was called Dapper Dan. I bought a few dozen of the Dapper Dans, carefully pulled them apart and reassembled them with my 8 X 10 photo inside. It took about a week of work and the cost was close to four dollars each. I then took them personally to casting directors around L.A.

The reaction was great, at least verbally. All of them said it was a great idea and that they would never throw it away since it was too unusual to toss with the rest of the submissions. The real question was, would it work?

It worked beautifully actually. The phone rang, auditions came my way, jobs were offered (and taken), and a top commercial agent, after seeing the initiative I had taken, offered to represent me.

Did I land any big commercials? No, but I did get one decent one for Long John Silvers that earned me about six thousand dollars. (A story about a pogo stick for another post some day) All told, the $400 investment probably returned twenty grand. Not bad.

Years later, I was at a casting directors office. Not to audition for anything, but in a technical capacity. That day they happened to be casting young kids for a commercial. To keep the young ones occupied, they had a bunch of toys spread out on a table for the kids to play with. There, in the middle of the table, was one very well worn ‘toy’. A Dapper Dan with the original cartoon swapped and an actors photo put in. My photo. True to their word, the casting director never threw it away.

Sometimes, all it takes is a silly idea.