During a recent spring clean I came across chapters seven and eight of a novel my husband and I were writing five years ago (but abandoned when life got too busy). It’s about the upheaval and outrage that occurs when a community is forced to go without fuel … which seems all the more relevant at the moment with New Zealand’s rising fuel prices and the pain this is causing at a personal and political level. The underlying idea was to explore what withdrawing from our addiction to fuel will look like, and its many similarities to other addictions.
In my fiction writing days people often asked me how I could bear to write a novel with someone else. The key was to have distinct roles. I was generally better suited to the pioneering business of writing the early drafts (and perfecting the proofreading) but Dean was better at adding colour during the structural editing process.
While it wasn’t always easy to hear something needed to be cut or rewritten, it was fantastic to see the more distinctive dialogue, characterisation and descriptions which resulted from this process.
Something similar happened when I came to write Three Steps to Successful Council Documents. My graphic designer (Denise Tombs at DDesign) took the raw material and ran with it. It’s really exciting to see something come together that neither of us could achieve alone.
I get the same buzz from working with council staff with different skills than mine to create documents which benefit from the collaboration. Sometimes I’m responsible for coming up with a first draft for my clients to revise and enhance. At other times they send me their rough draft and it’s my role to look at the structure, and to identify what should be cut and any critical information which needs to be included. In other situations, the content is all in place and it’s just a matter of proofreading what’s there.
I have come to see that even though I love working in my home office, and generally do my best writing and editing work when alone, my work is far from a solo effort. It is just as collaborative now as the work I did while sharing an office with 20 other people — and the three stage writing process helps me to understand what my role needs to be on any particular project.
I hope anyone who downloads my free guide will also benefit from seeing the distinct stages of their writing process — from initial idea to refinement of that message and then polishing it through proofreading. It makes each step in that creative process more enjoyable — regardless of whether you are doing all the stages yourself or sharing the load.
As an example, as I write this article I’m going through all the stages of the process outlined in the guide. I held my nose while typing up the ghastly first draft, and now (several days later) I have scribbled over five different versions of the document as I clarify and then polish that initial idea. Knowing what stage I’m up to helps me to avoid becoming discouraged by the glaring flaws in an early draft.
Three Steps to Writing Successful Council Documents includes:
You can access the guide here.
Creativity might not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of the local government sector, but it is becoming increasingly important. As noted in NZTA's practice note ‘Innovation and Creativity in Business Case Development’, yesterday’s solutions won’t solve today’s problems, let alone the ones we’ll face tomorrow. While the NZTA is focused on transport, this is equally true for most of the big issues local government will be tackling in future.
The practice note identifies five steps of creativity: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation and elaboration. The first two are divergent (seeking as many ideas as possible), the second two are convergent (making choices in order to finalise an idea) and elaboration is about explaining the idea so that it can become a reality.
While thinking about this topic I have been reflecting on personality types and how this influences my (and other people’s) approaches to ideas generation and selection. As an ISTJ (in the Meyers-Briggs system) my focus tends to be on arriving at a practical solution … but I can see the benefit in staying longer in the divergence phase and taking more time to gather a wider range of ideas. On the other hand, people who prefer the ideas generation phase are likely to benefit from greater focus on narrowing down to a preferred solution and its implementation.
My personality type also explains why vision-related workshops make me want to gnaw my hand! I understand the importance of this process in the hierarchy of council planning documents but I do feel the tension of wanting to know what’s actually going to happen at the end of all the talk about themes and values. (Any other ISTJs out there with bite marks on their hands?)
However, in the spirit of open-mindedness to the divergence stage, I recently discovered a way to generate more ideas than you might think of on your own. I took part in a mini workshop offered by Jennifer Lund in which we practised having creative conversations. First, we worked independently to ‘brain dump’ all our current issues on to the page, categorised them, then chose the one question we most wanted to work on. Then we paired up with strangers to explain our question and listen with an open mind to their responses. Then we listened to the question the other person wanted to work on and gave them suggestions. I found this to be a fantastic way to have a really interesting conversation, to see my question from new angles and gain new ideas, with the added bonus of enjoying coming up with ideas related to other people’s questions.
I can imagine this working really well in a council environment where people of different life experience and job titles could provide genuine insight to colleagues in other departments, and learn about projects and issues they might not otherwise hear about.
This is the stage in which critical thinking comes to the fore, as an essential part of the creative process. The following checklist from NZTA's practice note Critical Thinking and the Importance of Asking Questions provides this guidance on what to consider at this stage.
The NZTA creativity practice note says elaboration is about clearly explaining the new idea in terms of concepts that are already known and understood. An article on the Creativate website takes this further, discussing the elaboration stage as moving from idea into reality. “Within an organisation, this is the stage where the creative idea must become an innovative presentation that is 'bought into' by other members, to help make it a reality.”
Here are some suggestions for expanding on your current process for writing a business case, report or any other council document.
A couple of months ago I published a blog about how my friend Melanie approaches giving a workshop. She mulls on the topic, does some research but writes nothing down. She then launches herself into the live event without even a few bullet points to help her, and trusts that the right words will come. Anything more formalised feels too static for her.
Around that time I received an email asking if I’d like to co-present a workshop on my favourite topic — writing and editing. I said yes and set about coming up with lots of ideas on what to include. I was in my happy place writing up the handouts and the powerpoint slides. As I had a nice lead-in time for these workshops I gave myself two weeks to ignore the fact that I would have to actually stand up and deliver this workshop. I settled back into my usual work life of writing and editing.
Then began two weeks of being pretty terrified. I realised my biggest fear was becoming frozen and not being able to extrapolate from bare bullet points. During this time I received some great advice from others (including Summer Turner), and through trial and error I also figured out a series of small steps that enabled me to move towards getting up in front of an audience.
So, for all of you who just get up and do it, read no further! You don’t need this advice. This is for nervous presenters only, for those of us who have reason to fear the words won’t just magically arrive when we stand up to give a workshop or a presentation.
1. Write it all out
The first thing I had to do was accept that the approach of the natural speakers (the mullers and the bullet pointers) was not going to work for me. In order to know what I wanted to say I had to write out the whole thing. This is the biggest lesson I learnt through this process.
The good news is that even if you are not a natural speaker, there are other ways to achieve the goal of getting up in front of an audience. It takes longer, but it can be done.
I wrote my notes by looking at each slide and then imagining what I would like to say when talking to it. However, it doesn’t pay to get hung up on perfecting these written words, as the content changes as you practise it.
2. Read it out loud
As you read out your full notes associated with each slide, you will hear what jars, or is too cumbersome when spoken out loud. Slash those bits and add the other things you find yourself saying off the cuff.
3. Record yourself speaking to each powerpoint slide
Record yourself speaking to each slide. To do this open your powerpoint presentation on your computer, select ‘Slideshow’ in the menu, then ‘record slide show’. (I just worked on one slide at a time at this stage.)
Look at the slide while speaking, with the aim of reducing the amount of time you are looking at your notes. Listen to that recording, then do it again as an improved version while still having your notes at hand to glance at.
I found this really useful. In all cases the second version was much better.
4. Record yourself speaking to all of the workshop slides
Download the app ‘Easy Voice Recorder’ (or similar) on your Tablet or Smartphone, and speak to all the slides in one go. Again, you can have your notes in front of you, but mostly look at the slides so you are practising saying your message rather than reading it. It will come out slightly differently each time, and that’s fine.
5. Listen to the recording
Listen to the whole recording several times, with your eyes closed. When I did this I was surprised to find I liked what I was saying. (Also that I say ‘um’ a lot!)
6. Listen to the recording again
Listen to the recording an hour or two before your workshop or presentation. This takes less energy than rehearsing it live, but still reminds you of your content.
7. Start small
Start with a small and friendly audience if possible. I was fortunate enough to be able to do a run through with an audience of four people who already cared about the topic.
It has been a pleasure to highlight innovations and collaborations occurring in the local government sector through a series of LinkedIn posts. As I have been sharing them I have been wondering how these ideas came about. Was it one person having a flash of intuition on a better way to do something, and successfully socialising that idea in their organisation? Or was the idea born in a brainstorming session, a one to one discussion or through the positive reception of a public submission?
Were these ideas arrived at using critical thinking (such as asking ‘why’ five times, to really get to grips with the true source of a problem) or was it a flash of insight? Both pathways to innovation are viable — and can be complementary as outlined in the NZ Transport Agency’s excellent practice note on Innovation and Creativity in Business Case Development.
The practice note discusses the value of beginning with divergent thinking where the aim is to think as widely and imaginatively about the problem as possible, followed by convergent thinking, where the aim is to think much more analytically, using critical thinking skills to evaluate ideas and focus on the best option.
Innovation can occur in a number of different ways. I know my best ideas arrive as a consequence of doing three pages of writing every morning. New ideas can also spark into life when people with different perspectives and talents come together in a workshop setting.
The NZ Transport Agency’s practice note says “there is strong evidence to suggest that genuinely new creative insights are associated with situations where people are more relaxed and can give thoughts a chance to incubate”.
Here are my questions for the local government sector.
Giving presentations and running workshops are essential elements of many local government roles. Here’s some advice from Melanie Stanton (www.redribbon.nz) who designs and implement workshops and training programmes for businesses and organisations.
What’s the difference between a presentation and a workshop? Do you have a preference?
A presentation involves conveying information, with a question and answer time.
A workshop is interactive. People do stuff, have experiences and talk to their neighbours. I like workshops most because they challenge me. I am interacting on the spot, live, and I don’t know what’s coming. People could be arguing my points. If they do, I give them a high five for courage.
People are their own experts, so it’s good for them to express what they know.
How do you know when a presentation or workshop is going well?
I can sense the level of participation in the room — I can sense when I’ve lost people so I change tack.
Yawning is normally the biggest giveaway, especially when talking about legislation on a Friday afternoon!
What are some of the things people can do to give their presentation or workshop a good chance of being successful?
Know who their audience is and cater for that specific audience.
The best thing to do at the start of a workshop is to have an icebreaker, for example, ask the participants to tell you what they do, and follow up on the response.
In a presentation you need to create a relationship. In a bigger group talk about yourself a bit, and why you are speaking to this group in particular. Show you know who they are – research them so it’s sincere. And talk about the things that really light you up, genuinely.
Do you have any suggestions for someone who is inexperienced with making presentations or running workshops?
Start small, and be generous to yourself by considering how to manage the focus being on you.
Powerpoint can be a good option because people will look at the screen. In a workshop, get the participants to do stuff. This also takes the spotlight off you, so you can have a breather. You can relax and interact with the group.
I do these tricks myself — I like being up there but it is uncomfortable, you are being seen. You can’t pause — it’s happening.
Two key things to remember:
I do lots of preparation. I think about the topic and I read books.
I occasionally go online, but I don’t do this first. There is too much information, it’s overwhelming, and you can feel like everyone’s already said everything about the topic. It is useful for filling gaps.
I think about how I want to present the topic and what I’m passionate about, while taking the audience into account.
It’s about finding your message, what you want to say and how do you want to say it —then the rest just falls into place.
Do you get nervous before a presentation? If so, how do you manage that?
I get nervous, but not anxious. The very first one I did, I put a vase on my presentation desk, with fragrant jasmine. I gave myself a whole lot of treats, to be kind to myself.
I also got there really early, to give myself time to set up, and to feel in control.
What sort of notes do you take with you?
I write a list of bullet points beforehand. But I don’t take it with me.
Notes are not helpful to me, and because it’s what I want to say, I don’t forget it. Some people do take bullet points into a presentation.
In a workshop situation, I provide workbooks, with the powerpoint slides printed out and space to write notes alongside.
Any comments about ‘death by powerpoint’? Is powerpoint a bad option or a valuable aid?
A bad powerpoint presentation is when you write everything up on that and read off it.
It’s even worse if you read it, and then put the same words up for the audience to read.
Only put topics on the powerpoint, not details. For example, in my legislation presentation, I put up snippets of the legislation in a powerpoint to highlight key points, but I didn’t read them out.
Powerpoint should not be the presentation, it is an aid for you.
Any suggestions on using visuals or other techniques to make a presentation interesting?
YouTube clips are great — you can push play and walk away. They are popular.
Microbreaks are a good idea. Give people two minutes to talk to the person next to them or to write down any notes. This also provides a breather for the presenter.
Groups of three where people can talk about their experience work well. People love that because they have lots to say. Give times for these break out discussions. You can adjust it later if everyone is fully engaged.
You can ask other people to contribute but that’s slightly unpredictable.
Physical visuals are also useful. For example, I have used a jug of water and cups to talk about balancing what you are giving out and what you are getting back.
Do you have any other suggestions of ways to build up confidence with presenting?
Talk about your real experiences. People aren’t so much wanting to hear what books say – they want to hear from you.
This type of presentation has a different quality. It’s about bringing stuff to life, and relating it specifically to them. When I’m speaking in this way I’m loving it, because it’s what I want to say.