Sketchnotes from Culture of Data Conference

Last week the Colorado Public Health Association hosted the Culture of Data Conference, attracting hundreds of local professionals interested in learning more about using community data and engagement to achieve health equity. Here are some sketchnotes of some of the sessions I attended.

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"Hiding" in your communications: When it's helpful

My last blog was all about the ways that we might be hiding instead of communicating and how doing so can hurt us. 

Now for the good news: hiders like myself can also put their instincts to good use. Here are some ways that I've found my introverted, introspective attributes to be highly helpful in communications:

1. Listening and observing. If you pay close attention, you will hear and see what others may be missing. Rather than using social media (or meetings for that matter) for promoting your services, use them to tune into what people are talking and caring about. Practicing reflective listening, where you repeat back to the person what you heard them say, is also good practice for finding a message that will resonate with the people you seek to serve.

2. Exercising prudence with words. Speaking of messaging, we all know how much words matter. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words leave wounds more lasting. Experts hiders like myself may be more selective about what they say, when they say it, and/or who they say it to. Such restraint is an especially important skill in situations of stress, tension, mistrust, and conflict.

3. Honoring confidentiality (and giving shout-outs). At the very least, refraining from toxic gossip can move mountains towards building trust. Keeping confidences is an even better way to demonstrate that you are focused on building bridges not taking sides or claiming turf. (Speaking of which, while it's helpful to take credit for what is yours, when you are curating the work of others, say so.)

4. Recognizing less is more. This principle not only works with words, but also with numbers, images, pages, time, etc. Clearing away the clutter and noise paves the pay for honing in on what matters most. Expert hiders can practice refining the art of concealing what doesn't. (Note, this can also be the most difficult practice if our habit is to complicate and perfect.)

5. Speaking up in service to others. Nothing irks me more (yes, not even poor design) than a presenter who spends hours of time pitching their ideas and then a few minutes basically shrugging at questions posed by their audience. What the folks they are speaking to struggle with is exactly what the expert should be paying the most attention to. Just like these folks need to learn to listen more than talk, we hiders have to be willing to speak up if/when we can be of service. When we recognize that doing so doesn't have to be about promoting ourselves but rather can be about helping others, we more easily overcome our hesitation and are willing to risk speaking up despite our self-doubt.

6. Using uncertainty as opportunity. It was excruciating but liberating for me when I realized that what often causes me the greatest distress (my inability to communicate effectively) was actually a reflection of my strengths. I naturally do all of the things that were labeled as harmful in the previous blog - take a step back, listen to others, sit with complexity, put things in order, and iterate as needed - and these gifts are exactly what enable me to help my clients succeed. You see, if we don't do these things at least on occasion, we are just running endlessly from task to task, absorbed in the minutiae, missing the bigger picture, and stuck in confusion or inaction. Cave dwellers like me are experts at staying in the dark long enough to be able to see the light, however small it may be. 

You might notice that many of these helpful strategies also allow us to generally be more objective. It has taken me years to understand that this correlation may be at least partly why scientists and other quantitatively-strong individuals are not well known for their ability to share or promote their ideas. As always, it is my hope that my experiences may provide hope and possibility for these folks, especially because I so passionately believe that these ideas are the very key to transforming our struggling world.

If you take nothing else from this blog, take this: there is no shame in hiding, or perhaps any other thing we tell ourselves we "shouldn't" be doing. The goal of growth need not be to erase our weaknesses, it can simply be to bring them into harmony with our strengths. It takes practice, and we need confidence, not judgement or recrimination, to be able and willing to begin.

"Hiding" in your communications: When it's harmful

While you may know me as an expert communicator, what you may not know about me is that I am also an expert hider. It has taken me years to develop messages about my services, to have a website that I am proud of, to be able to write and stories like this - and a lot of that time and energy was spent waiting, overanalyzing, rehearsing, pretending. Knowing one needs to communicate well and committing oneself to the hard work of doing it consistently are two different things.

Like me, the organizations I work with often recognize that communication - among internal teams and with the communities they are a part of - is one of the greatest obstacles they face as they seek to grow their impact. Some are willing to face this challenge, but many may not achieve the results they seek. It is just so tempting and easy to stay safe within the echo chambers we are already in.

In her book "Playing Big", Tara Mohr identifies six ways that women in particular continue to stay small based on her experience coaching them. Not surprisingly, I found these to be the same strategies that I see in organizations that may say they want to better promote their programs but yet can never quite get there. They are the same habits that I have seen in myself as I've tried to strengthen my own courage to make myself visible enough to offer services to these organizations.

The good news is that when we see these behaviors as the distractions that they are, we open ourselves to finding new possibilities and opportunities to take the actions that will expand our influence and ability to serve.

1. Thinking "this before that." What this often sounds like in organizations is: "we need to have software before we can create materials," "we need to learn code or hire a web designer before we can have a website," or, most commonly, "we need a lot more money before we can get our message out there." Personally, I have told myself things like "I need a perfect business plan and expensive consultant or coach before I can work with more clients." What I have found is that waiting to take action doesn't make it easier to do so.

2. Designing at the whiteboard. This means that you come up with ideas entirely on your own, without any input from or testing with others. Such plans, whether business plans, strategic plans, or communication plans, are easy to create but usually not very realistic or effective. The most effective way to design anything is to actually put the audience first. Taking the time to deeply understand their needs and concerns will make any plans informed and possible.

3. Overcomplicating and endless polishing. When it comes to communications, I see this most frequently with website projects and branding processes. Both can be time and resource consuming, a seemingly-endless search for impossible perfection. This trap is why constraints are so critical to creating anything. Limiting the amount of time, number of people, cost, revisions, etc. and being willing to get to "good enough" focuses attention on what is most important and ensures you will be able to celebrate at the finish line.

4. Curating others' ideas. Sometimes this just looks like a preoccupation with other organizations that share similar ideas, services, and/or resources, which distracts us from minding our own. This is also a habit that is rampant on social media platforms, where you can easily share ideas produced by others rather than generating original ideas of your own. In a time when collective impact is all the rage, it can be all the more easy for boundaries to blur, but it also makes it all the more imperative to avoid...

5. Omitting your own story. I know that producing original stories, data, and any other kind of content is difficult. And that what's even harder is including experiences not just theories as part of what you share. We all know that the best stories are about triumph over "failure" - and that those are the most challenging for us to personally share. But consider what happens if you do: you connect with people in a way that matters, to them and to you. If you read previous posts on this blog, for example, you will experience for yourself that the less-personalized stories that I used to share are on average less inspiring and useful than the ones I've been daring myself to write more recently.

6. Pursuing evermore education (or other accreditation). While individuals may think they need certifications or higher degrees to get a stamp of credibility or authority, organizations may think they need to win awards or garner large amounts of funding. What this reflects is simply that we are seeking recognition. In addition to having our story be seen and heard, we want it to be believed. But what I have discovered is that no external validation is a guarantee that we will fully believe in ourselves - and that is what we must practice doing if we wish others to do the same.

Guess what? The best way to stop hiding is to start practicing sharing your story now, however imperfectly. If we want to feel the warmth of the sun, we have to be willing to come out of the cave. Take it from a fellow cave-dweller: yelling from them just doesn't work.

But there is good news for us expert hiders too! Read my next blog to hear all about it.