The Public Speaker’s Secret Weapon

Eyes Behind Red Curtains On Wood StageAlthough I’m pretty comfortable speaking in front of a crowd now, I wasn’t born that way. In fact, I remember being absolutely terrified for at least the first few dozen presentations I gave. I managed to get the terror under control but it took many years before I discovered the secret weapon that has completely turned around my experience speaking in public.

You’re probably familiar with the problem of confirmation bias – the human tendency to look for, recognize and remember information that confirms our preexisting beliefs and theories. As info pros, we have to be on guard against confirmation bias; it can blind us to relevant information that could challenge the entire premise of our research.

But for public speakers, keeping this human default setting in mind can be very reassuring. Remember, people chose to come to your presentation, join your webinar or attend the meeting you are leading. That means they all have a vested interest in confirming to themselves that they made a good decision to spend their time listening to you. They’re not secretly counting up your grammatical mistakes, judging your choice in footwear, or wondering why your hair looks like that. Rather, they are looking for evidence that they made a good choice.

Once I realized this, I developed a quick little ritual that I now practice before every presentation I give or meeting I lead. I find a quiet space (and yes, it might just be a bathroom stall), close my eyes and take a couple of deep breaths. I imagine the room filling up with people, each of whom is – subconsciously at least – rooting for me. I conjure up a feeling of gratitude that every person in the audience is on my side; they are confident that I’ll do a fine job and they know they will be glad they chose to spend time with me. I smile, even if I have to force myself, and take one more deep breath, inhaling gratitude and exhaling a calm confidence that I will show up at my very best.

Yes, it sounds woo-woo, but this technique has changed my experience of public speaking. The people who have joined me for this event are my allies, not something to be feared. They’re more than willing to forgive me when I suddenly lose my train of thought, as long as I get myself back on track and keep going. They won’t focus on whether or not I have a particular degree or so many years of experience; they just want to come away knowing more than they did before.

I still feel that adrenaline rush as I’m being introduced and I walk to the podium, but it’s not immobilizing. I recognize it as a tool to help me think on my feet, and I look at it as confirmation that I’ll give a great presentation.

Try this approach and see how it works for you. Public speaking may never feel completely natural, but you can hone your skills in managing and channeling your initial anxiety.

Killing the Task Monsters

I’m a great list-maker. I have to-do lists everywhere; they have been compiled carefully, organized strategically, color coded and tagged. But when it comes to actually getting all those listed things done, it’s another matter. Some I can get done right away, and virtuously check that item as DONE. Others I look at, think “ugh, that’s going to take time”, and skip over, day after day. Pretty soon, they become big ugly Task Monsters, glaring at me reproachfully, daring me to take them on.

I finally realized I could slay the Task Monsters the same way you eat an elephant… a bite at a time. I have gone from to-do lists to to-do index cards, and that has transformed how I approach projects both large and small. Whether it’s managing a complex client project, re-imagining a web site, developing a new marketing plan or scoping out a home renovation job, everything has its own pile of cards.

The magic is that I sort the cards based on how long I think the task will take. There are 15-minute cards for items like “Reach out to Anne to schedule informational interview” and “Email graphic designer re: logo”. There are half-hour cards for “Scope out options for new fridge” and “Sketch out upcoming webinar on big data”. For the tasks that I know will take more attention, I have 2- to 4-hour cards for jobs like “Write proposal for speaking opportunity at 2018 SLA conference” and “Outline new web page flow”.

Sure, it takes some time to chunk out all my projects into index-card-sized jobs, but I consider this time well spent. Now, when I have 20 minutes to spare before my next appointment, or a meeting was unexpectedly postponed and I have two unscheduled hours, I go through my cards to see what I feel like tackling.

The magic of these cards is that they’re so easy to pick up when you find yourself at the end of one task and not sure what to do next. While it might feel daunting to open up a folder labeled “New Marketing Plan”, it doesn’t take much to flip through some cards and choose one small item to take care of. Before you know it, you’ve made a significant dent in that daunting project. Take that, Task Monster!

ADDED: Joann Wleklinski suggested color-coding the cards – using a different color for each time category. Brilliant!

Stability vs. steady income

aesopAs a child, I read Aesop’s Fables avidly; I like getting my life lessons from animals rather than humans, I suppose. One fable that caught my attention way back then was The Dog and The Wolf, the TL;DR version of which is a well-fed dog offered to help a scrawny wolf get regular food from his master. The wolf listened but noticed a bald spot on the dog’s neck where the collar sat. Goodbye, said the wolf. There is nothing worth so much as liberty.

I often talk with coaching clients who have worked for years — often decades — as employees and who are learning how to look at the world differently. One of the biggest shifts is having to give up the idea of a steady, predictable paycheck in exchange for being self-employed. (And I’ll pause here to note that there are some situations in which a steady paycheck is more important than the liberty of self-employment. In that case, keep your day job!)

Often, new solopreneurs seek out retainer clients who will guarantee them a predictable revenue, usually in exchange for a lower hourly rate. They look for clients who, in essence, need to slot a contractor into their work process — like an employee but without the benefits or job security. They are looking for a client who looks like their last employer. (And look… there’s that bald spot on your neck, caused by the collar.)

I know what that feels like. When I launched my business, I had a retainer client who paid me for 15 hours a week at half my usual hourly rate. After six months, I realized that my nice, steady client was actually holding me back from building a stable, profitable business. I would never be able to expand my client base when so much of my time, mental energy and focus was already committed to work at an hourly rate that wasn’t going to sustain me. I took a deep breath, gave my client several months’ notice that I would need to double my hourly rate, and then helped her find someone else to take my place.

It was one of the scariest things I have done, but my next (full-hourly-rate!) client called me out of the blue the next week… and I have never looked back. I realized that having a regular stream of clients would make my business stronger and more stable than having one big client. I am better off having ten clients who use me periodically and refer me to others than having one client who could end my contract at any time. While I may not know exactly where my income will be coming from in six months, I know that, with consistent marketing and outreach efforts, clients will be calling me for projects. My business is more stable because it is based on the income from multiple sources.

Yes, there are months with thin cash flow, which I cover from the months when I am busier. I put up with the challenges that a variable cash flow present, because I’ve learned that the higher value we provide, the less likely we are to find steady clients who need to slot us into their work flow. We make a trade-off between having a predictable but lower income stream and getting paid significantly more per hour but not knowing exactly which client will be paying that high hourly rate. I don’t know about you, but I sure appreciate the extra hours in the day that I have gained by focusing on higher paying and higher value work rather than predictable but lower value work.

feed-usAnd while my own two dogs appreciate their steady and predictable paycheck of kibble every day, I’m glad that’s not how I earn my dinner.

Handling scope creep

Scope creep, the phrase that strikes fear in the heart of every consultant…

We have all had that experience, where we carefully plan out every aspect of a project, estimating the necessary time and resources and even adding in a safety margin, only to have our client ask for “just a little more” work or “just this little addition” to our deliverable halfway through the project. All of a sudden the expected work load has doubled, for no additional income.

It’s easy to react defensively when this happens — to feel that your client doesn’t respect your time or that he’s trying to get you to work at a significantly reduced fee. And it’s tempting to react angrily, to resent that the client is trying to change the agreement. (I am reminded of the immortal line in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in which Darth Vader snarls, “I am altering the deal; pray I don’t alter it any further.”)

Instead, reiterate your commitment to supporting your client, find something you can say yes to and then explain where you have to say no. If your client asks for analysis or conclusions you are not comfortable making, offer to highlight the perspectives of established experts your client can rely on instead. If your client’s new request means you will spend far more hours than you had anticipated, briefly explain that this would exceed the scope of the project and offer either to do just a portion of the extra work or to write up a supplemental agreement to cover the project expansion.

While these conversations often feel stressful to solopreneurs, we are actually providing a service to our clients—helping them understand how much time, judgment and expertise is involved in what we do. A friend and colleague recently told me about the response she got from a client whose request would have required far more work than she had negotiated. After she explained the situation and offered some alternatives, her client responded with a gratifying email:

I fully understood and that is fair. You have been very generous and we can see that you have already put more time into the work than we had agreed. Anything that you may be able to get back to us that can address any of the issues we discussed would be great. Whatever you can or can’t find will be fine.

Because of my friend’s ability to calmly and politely respond to the possibility of scope creep, she continues to have a client who values her work, her time and her commitment to his concerns. He knows that her budget is honest and realistic, and that additional work involves additional commitment. She turned what could have been an unpleasant discussion into an opportunity to strengthen her relationship with her client.

What I learned at summer camp

group of happy kids roasting marshmallows on campfireI just got back from my annual trip to solopreneur summer camp, otherwise known as the AIIP Annual Conference. I always come away inspired and challenged, ready to try out new ideas and approaches.

This year’s conference focused on pivoting as a strategic approach—something that we solopreneurs do continually as we adjust to our clients’ changing needs and pain points. We were lucky enough to have Jenny Blake, author of Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One, as our keynote speaker and Anne Caputo as the Roger Summit Award speaker. Their talks sparked rich hallway and mealtime conversations about how we can remain nimble and responsive while staying grounded to what our clients value the most. Here are some of the insights I brought home with me.

  • When I recognize that things aren’t working and I need to change strategies, find out what’s working now. It’s easy to focus on all the things I’m doing wrong instead of looking for the solid point upon which I can pivot. What am I doing now that I really enjoy, that requires my expertise and that has space for expansion?
  • Ambiguity and serendipity need to be part of my strategic plan. Change is a constant, so my best approach is to incorporate pivoting into my planning. I can set a long-term (say, one-year) goal and look at the immediate actions I need to get there, without having to plan every step along the way to my goal. When an unexpected opportunity appears, I will be more likely to recognize and embrace it if I have already built an uncertainty factor into my planning.
  • I’m living inside my stretch zone, not outside my comfort zone. I’ve often said that the most important characteristic of successful solopreneurs is the ability to live outside their comfort zone, but that always sounded so negative. I prefer the idea that I’m living beyond stagnation and within the realm of reasonable risk… in my stretch zone.
  • We all have things that scare us. Jenny Blake described them as fear dragons and suggests that, rather than try to banish them, we simply domesticate them and make them our friends. And Cindy Shamel mentioned the children’s book There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon, which reminds us that denying the existence of a dragon only causes it to grow larger. So I am going to become friends with my fear dragons.

I gave a presentation at the conference on time management. I know, the topic sounds boring, but it was a fun session. (I’ll probably do a webinar on it; if you’re interested, email me). I had a number of conversations with people afterward; here are some of the ideas that resonated most with me.

  • Life is short; don’t spend your time killing time. When you work, give each task 100% of your focus. Know what you can do productively to fill those random 15- or 20-minute openings. Likewise, when you’re not working, don’t work. Don’t check email in the evening or when you’re out with friends. Be 100% present with whatever you’re doing.
  • The value of The 12-Week Year is that it puts goal-oriented strategic planning into a set-it-and-forget-it framework. You don’t have to consult your strategic plan every week to make sure you’re on track. Instead, your three-month goals give you short-term guidance with enough flexibility to accommodate serendipity.

If you’re a solopreneur, or even just thinking about it, start right now putting $25 aside every week so that you can attend next year’s solopreneur summer camp AIIP conference (April 19-22, 2018 in Minneapolis).

“Busy” is a four-letter word

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a nice column by Elizabeth Bernstein on the use of “I’m busy” as a point of pride. (It’s behind the paywall at wsj.com/articles/youre-not-busy-youre-just-rude-1489354275. Seriously, consider a subscription; it’s a great newspaper. You may not always agree with the editorial page, but the reporting is high quality and neutral. These days, we need to support real journalists.)

According to Bernstein, studies have found that “busier people are perceived as having a high status. ‘We place a high value on hard work and rewarding effort, which is really rewarding activity and not necessarily achievement,’ says Woody Woodward […] Bernstein encourages us to stop using “busy” as a positive description but, instead, to focus on what specifically is eating up our time—and, just as importantly, to own our free time as rightfully ours.

Reflecting on my latest conversation with a colleague, I realized that I was guilty of this. “Yes, work’s really busy right now” I said, when asked how things were. Of course, solopreneurs know that clients keeping us fully employed is critical to success, but “busy” isn’t really the best description of what the optimal state looks like. And sometimes “busy” means I feel overwhelmed, not working on client projects.

So, I’ve developed a new lexicon to replace the word “busy”:

  • “Working on several projects right now; it’s fun to have a variety of things going at once.”
  • “I have a really time-consuming project right now. It’s nice to have the work, and I’ll be glad when it’s done.”
  • “I have a break in my client work right now, so I’m spending more time working on my marketing.”
  • “I feel stretched pretty thin right now. I’ve got some family responsibilities that have me feeling kind of anxious.”

And when I find myself NOT juggling four client projects, a bathroom remodel and house guests, I can embrace that, too. There are days when I feel caught up on my to-do list, I have social media posts in the pipeline, and my clients all have long deadlines. When those days happen, I can step back and decide that today I don’t need to be “busy”. I can use one of the best perks of being self-employed—I can give myself a guilt-free day off.

Think like a rock climber

rock climberI’m from Boulder, where there seem to be more professional rock climbers than people like me who like our feet planted firmly on terra firma. Whenever I drive up a canyon, I can see the tiny figures of people halfway up a sheer rock face, appearing to defy both gravity and common sense.

Our local newspaper has a regular column for rock climbers and a recent one caught my eye. Chris Weidner, in “Don’t just get stronger, get smarter“, offers four tips for mental toughness that seemed directed at us solopreneurs as much as it was to those about to scale the side of a mountain.

1) Make learning your goal, not achievement. While it’s important to focus on what you want to accomplish, pay attention to the landscape and signposts along the way. If you are too attached to meeting your goal by using a specific technique or by marketing to a specific market, you won’t see the indications that you need to veer off in a slightly different direction. Stay flexible and always open to taking in new or unexpected information.

2) Free yourself of wishing behavior. For rock climbers, wishful thinking sounds like “if only that foothold was better” or “if only I were a little taller”. For solopreneurs, it might be “if only the business environment were better” or “if only my clients had more budget”. Instead of putting your energy into the things you have no control over, focus on what you can control and affect. Your attention is one of your most strategic resources, and it needs to be focused on what you can accomplish.

3) In the midst of doubt, come back to what you know. It is easy for solopreneurs to feel overwhelmed; we are responsible for every aspect of our business, and its success or failure is on us. Sometimes we listen too much to our doubts instead of our strengths. If you feel like you don’t know what to do next, take a deep breath and think about your focus. What is one thing you can do to understand your situation better? What one step can you take that gets you in the right direction?

4) Get out there and try hard. I have always believed that failure is a sign that I am stretching myself and expanding my possibilities. Some of my business efforts have worked surprisingly well; others have failed miserably. If I defined myself by my failures, I would have closed my business years ago. Instead, I know that I always have to be pushing my comfort zone, and doing something slightly beyond what I see as my capacity.

While you may never be climbing a rock face, consider adopting the mental toughness required of serious rock climbers.

How’s your solopreneur mindset?

I have often wondered about why some people succeed as solopreneurs and others don’t. Almost everyone I run into has at least the basic skills needed for their business; it isn’t that they can’t do the work. Rather, I see attitude and approach as the distinguishing factors between successful business owners and those who never seem to get the traction they need.

Successful solopreneurs become accustomed to living outside their comfort zone. They regularly scare themselves silly. They know that having a great idea is easy; it’s putting that idea into action that requires guts. They may not be natural extroverts (in fact, most of them probably describe themselves as introverts), but they figure out how to act like an extrovert. They learn how to network in ways that are both authentic and effective. They practice their public speaking skills until they can at least convey the impression that they’re enjoying themselves. They hone their writing skills so they can effectively communicate and engage with their market. In other words, they learn to operate while scared.

Successful solopreneurs always think from their clients’ perspective. When they are negotiating a project budget and scope, they always find out what their client’s most important goal is and figure out how they can have the biggest impact on their client achieving that goal. (See my article on Successful Client Needs Interviews for more discussion about this.) They go the extra distance for a client, whether that means adjusting timelines or priorities, creating a new deliverable, or spending more time to make sure the job was done right. They are committed to having every client be delighted with the outcome of their engagement.

Successful solopreneurs ask “why”… a lot. They question the status quo. When they’re told that no one has ever done it that way, they ask why. They will try something new if it might achieve better results than the way things are currently done. They shake things up and assume that whatever they are doing now will need to be changed within a year. They put a sunset clause in every service and product, and re-examine their usefulness, relevance and popularity regularly.

Successful solopreneurs are future-focused. They listen to their clients to identify their most pressing concerns. They proactively seek out opportunities to create value for their clients rather than just waiting for business to come to them. They aren’t afraid to fail; in fact, their philosophy tends to be “Never fear making a mistake; just don’t make the same mistake twice.” They learn from every experience, and focus on solving problems rather than complaining about the current situation.

And finally, successful solopreneurs are committed to having fun. They start with the intention of creating a business that lets them do what they love and that lets them integrate their work into the rest of their life. If something isn’t fun, they figure out either how to have fun doing it or what to do that accomplishes the same thing and is more fun.

As you take an end-of-the-year look at where your business is and where you want it to go, consider how many of the following characteristics sound familiar — or at least attainable. What can you do now to enhance your solopreneurial mindset?

Improving your ca$h flow

Summer is a slow time for many solopreneurs; our clients are on vacation or taking Fridays off, and they just aren’t calling as often as they do during the rest of the year. That means that many solopreneurs are facing a cash crunch this summer. Our recurring expenses — utilities, ISP, health insurance, etc. — still need to get paid, but the income isn’t coming in. If you were able to anticipate this slow-down, you put money aside to cover your basic expenses when your income is not coming in. But even with preparation, it’s nice to get the cash flow going again. The following are a few thoughts on how to ease cash crunches.

  • Request prepayment of all projects. Many of us do this routinely, or at least get a certain percentage of the not-to-exceed budget up front. However, if you really don’t want to wait for payment 30 days after the end of the job, consider offering a 10% discount for prepayment in full.
  • Learn the name of the Accounts Payable person for each of your clients and contact him or her to find out what you can do to expedite payment. Is there a billing number or cost center you should reference? Do they prefer the invoice electronically? I have found that the smaller the client, the faster I get paid, as long as I’m on a first-name basis with the A/P person.
  • If you don’t already, obtain a merchant account so that you can accept credit card payments seamlessly. Many companies offer this service now, including PayPal, Square and Stripe; while they charge a fee of a few percentage points, you get the money in your bank account within a few days.
  • Include bank wire transfer information when you send your invoice. Your bank or credit union can provide you with this information, and many Accounts Payable departments prefer paying electronically.
  • Pay your expenses with a credit card instead of a check as long as you can pay the credit card bill in full every month. Not only does this postpone payment, but it is much easier to get a refund on a purchase if it was paid for by credit card. Of course, this assumes that you are not carrying a balance on your business charge card. If you have a balance on any of your credit cards, cut up the card and focus on paying down the balance before making any other discretionary purchases.
  • Pay invoices just before they are due. The most efficient way to ensure that no invoice slips through the cracks is to pay bills at single sittings, either weekly or semimonthly. Set up automatic payments when feasible.
  • Don’t take any actions that would suggest to a client or vendor that you are short on cash. So, for example, don’t cancel your business phone line, your web site or any online services that you depend on. You want to always present yourself as a business that will be around a year from now. And remember that your revenue will rise in a couple of months. If you have to spend time re-establishing accounts you canceled, you haven’t saved much in the long run.
  • And finally, take this time to work on some of your long- and short-term marketing projects. If your business is slow, then you have plenty of time to focus on creative ways to remind your clients of why they can’t live without you.

Who’s showing up for work?

We solopreneurs are CEOs of our business, but that stands for Chief Everything Officer. We are responsible for everything from strategic planning to marketing to sales to accounting to – oh, yeah – whatever it is that we charge our clients for.

As I plan out my day every morning, I make sure my most strategic self is showing up. Since I’ve found that my most creative time is in the morning, I schedule my Business Analyst persona for uninterrupted time from 9 until to noon most days. After lunch, my Accounting alter ego may appear to handle invoices and bills, or the Writer will come on the scene to queue up some blog posts and a newsletter article. Some days I need my IT skills to troubleshoot the video editing software, or my Marketing self to work on a new outreach effort for AIIP.

If I approach each day’s tasks with the question “who is the best persona for this job?”, I am more likely to be operating at my peak. If I am dealing with a technology issue, I marshal my forces — my Troubleshooter, Creative Problem-Solver, and We Can Do It personas step up to help me figure out a solution. If I have to conduct some primary market research on my own business, I call up my Explorer, Listener, and Open-minded personas to enable me to find out what I don’t know I don’t know yet.

When you tackle something, particularly when it’s not tapping into your strengths, run an inventory of your internal personas and see which ones you can bring to the job.