Do I Have Your Attention?

Jon Barney is an up-and-coming writer in the Orlando, Florida area (originally from Lafayette, LA, and has a lot of big ideas about a lot of things. Jon says he has an amazing wife and two kids, and he “loves the hotel restaurant industry and corny jokes,” which makes him a man after my own heart. Jon is also in Toastmasters, and he wrote an interesting speech about getting and keeping people’s attention.

According to a 2015 Microsoft study, I will only have your attention until about. . .now. Eight measly, little seconds. Then I will have to work real hard to keep you from thinking about the errands you have to run later. Don’t feel bad for your short attention span. We are in good company, our friend the goldfish has an attention span of 9 seconds.

What is attention anyway, and why do we have to pay for it? Is it something we can control and direct or is it like the dog who sees a SQUIRREL!? Since attention is not food, why are people starved for it? I’m here to tell you today that attention is your most valuable resource and you need to control it, and protect it.

Attention is the notice of something we deem interesting or important. Have you ever sat down on the couch and got comfortable? You are about to watch Days of Our Lives or a football game; and your kids start screaming and yelling, fighting with each other? What happened? They were fine a minute ago. Your kids saw that they didn’t have your attention and they knew the fastest way to get it back.

We all need attention, we all want to feel important to someone.

When you receive attention from someone, you will receive the actions that flow from that attention, which could lead to feelings of love. That is why we hear stories of housewives, starved for attention, thrust into the arms of another man, Raul. No attention. No importance. No love.

It is why men walk around with puffed out chests, peacocking and showboating. It is why women take care in their appearance. We all act and dress in a way that draws. . . attention.

Attention isn’t only about importance and love. It is the very first step in any form of communication. For example: You’re watching the game. You’re leaned forward, hands clasped, staring at the TV. It’s the last 2 minutes and the score is tied. Then you hear, (wom wom wom wom, Charlie Brown teacher voice) and you say ok just to get it to stop. Then once the game is over, you sit down for dinner with your spouse and get, the look. “Did you take out the trash?” “NO” “Well, I asked you to do it 30 minutes ago!!” “What? I don’t remember that.” “You were watching the game and you said ok when I asked you.” We’ve all been there, once or a thousand times. Don’t deliver important messages unless you have their attention first. We need attention to feel importance and to communicate. But how do we get it?

There are many ways to get attention, some positive and some negative. We must first know how attention works. Your body, every part of it, eyes, nose, mouth, ears and skin is gathering information, receiving signals. Then sending them to your brain for processing into two categories: important and unimportant. To illustrate my point, let’s go for a walk in the woods. We are walking and we see a tree. “Ehhh, not important, keep going.” Then as we get closer to that tree we look down and see a massive, coiled rattlesnake, ready to strike. “OMG, I’M GONNA DIE. IMPORTANT!!” Our basic sorting system is for survival and reproduction, those two processes guide most of our attention.

Sometimes it take a bright red car to get people paying attention to you.How could we use the eyes to garner attention? Use the color red. Red is a bold color that commands our attention. If you want to get a lot of attention today, head down to the dealership, trade your car in and drive off in Red Corvette. Put the top down and drive slowly. Instant attention.

How could we use the ears to get attention? Have you ever boarded your flight, sat down, book out, ready to relax and then…you hear a baby start crying? “Really?” You can’t focus on anything else. Our human brains are hardwired to divert our attention to the crying infant. We have to stop it from crying. Diaper change, bottle, attention, whatever it takes. What a survival mechanism!

How could we use the nose to attract attention? You could wear a delicious, floral smelling perfume or musky cologne. Or you could fart in an elevator. Both are powerful ways to command attention. Now, I’m not saying to buy a corvette, cry like a baby or pass gas to get attention, but it will work. Which lead us to a more important question, what can you do when you have attention?

This is where things get cloudy. When you have someone’s full attention you are free to influence them any way you please. Sell them on a new product. Manipulate them into a situation. Seduce them from their lover. It is for these reasons, you should control and protect your own attention.

Have you ever heard the phrase “pay attention”? What that means is that for your ability to focus on something, you pay for it by ignoring everything else. It is like a zoomed in picture of a flower, you can see all the detail and its beauty. But everything else is fuzzy and out of focus.

This “Zoom Lens” feature of our brains is a great tool when you are in the pursuit of your dreams. Or realizing a new healthier version of yourself. Maybe you want to reignite a love that had gone cold. On the other hand is can lock us into an 8-hour Netflix binge. It is the reason why we drive staring down at our phones instead of the road. And why we work so much we never see our family.

I know that this speech was just a little longer than eight seconds. I see the goldfish is still paying attention so it couldn’t have been that bad. I hope that you found it interesting and important. We covered a lot, we learned how to love. How to communicate. How to gain attention without embarrassing yourself or buying a new car. But the most important takeaway from this speech is simple: Take control of your attention, or something else will.

Photo credit: Scott Webb (, Creative Commons 0>

Six Crisis Communication Lessons to Running Your Business During an Emergency

Ten years ago, when I was in crisis communication for the Indiana State Department of Health, part of my job was to create an emergency contingency plan if we were ever in the field without power or an Internet connection.

Our job was to communicate with the public during an emergency, and we couldn’t let little things like power outages stop us. Our plan involved battery backups, cell phones, a Verizon MiFi, car AC converters, and even hand delivering CDs of videos and releases to local newspapers and TV stations.

I was reminded of all this when I had to send my Mac to the shop to have the logic board replaced, and they said they’re keeping it for 3 – 5 days.

I’ve run my business out of a backpack for the last seven years, and this marks the first time I’ve tried to function without my handy laptop. In just a few agonizing days, I’ve been reminded of those emergency preparedness lessons, and I’ve learned some new ones as well. Here are six ways to function during an emergency or equipment loss.
My iPad and Bluetooth keyboard - a bare bones crisis communications setup

1. Make sure you already know how to use your gear.

I’m going to be working off my iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard for about five days, writing everything on Google Drive and using Google Chrome to update my client blogs. I had an old MacBook, but it bit the dust last month, which means I’m using the ultimate in dumb terminals.

Luckily I’ve used this kind of setup before, so I didn’t waste a few hours trying to figure out how to get everything to work. I fired up Google Drive, connected the keyboard, and I was off and running. But I was able to do it because I’ve already practiced this setup before.

Identify your backup gear, and try to spend a day using it. Find the holes in your knowledge and equipment, and fill them both quickly.

2. Store things in the cloud.

I have two external hard drives, but I also recently started backing up my important documents to my iCloud account, as well as Dropbox. So even if I don’t have access to everything on my hard drives, my important files are easily accessible.

Basically, I’m writing everything on Google Drive, including this article, since that’s how I share my client documents anyway. And while I normally keep my works-in-progress on my laptop, I uploaded everything to Drive before I headed to the Apple Store, just in case I got some bad news. I could also download my current articles from my iCloud and open them with Pages on my iPad.

And if my computer was completely destroyed, I can still restore everything from one of my hard drive backups.

3. Use cross-device apps and services.

I also use other cloud-based services for my business. My bookkeeping is on Freshbooks (they have an app, as well as their website), Todoist is my to-do list (which runs on all my devices, plus online), and I keep track of important information on Evernote (cross-device, cross-platform, as well as web-based). And my email portal is Gmail, which I can access from anywhere. (I could even go to the local library and answer emails if things were especially bad.)

However, the major DDOS attack last week reminded us how vulnerable we are if our access to the Internet goes down. This is why I don’t operate completely in the cloud, and still store things on my laptop. It’s why a cloud-only setup is not ideal. Even if we were cutoff from the rest of the world, anyone who still keeps documents on their laptop can still function. So don’t put all your electronic eggs in one basket. Strike a balance.

4. Keep everything powered up.

One lesson Hurricane Matthew reminded us of is to keep your devices and your batteries powered up at all times. Since my Bluetooth keyboard is cordless, that means I need to have batteries on hand. Since I’m working at home most of the time, I’m fine. But on those days that I’m working in a coffee shop, it’s smart to keep a couple batteries in my bag, just in case.

I also have to keep an eye on my iPad, which is running wifi and a Bluetooth. It slowly loses power over time, even when it’s plugged in, so I try to take a break every couple hours to let it recharge faster.

5. Use a password vault.

Security is also important, which starts with secure, hard-to-remember passwords. The problem with having everything on the cloud means trying to remember every password you ever created. Or worse, you can easily remember the one password you use on all your accounts. (Don’t do that. It’s extremely unsecure).

I use a password vault that syncs my various passwords between my laptop, tablet, phone, and the cloud. I never have to remember my passwords, I can either retrieve them from the vault by hand, or have them fill in directly. So I only remember the master password to get in, and my vault handles the rest.

This means I can even use a backup computer, and still access my various web services without using the Forgot Your Password retrieval function. I recommend a password vault like LastPass or 1Password, which both work on different devices and platforms. Even if you have a Windows laptop and an iPad, they’ll still sync up your passwords.

6. Practice, practice, practice.

When I was in crisis communication, we were always training and preparing for terrorist attacks, as well as natural public health emergencies, like avian flu. But rather than wait for years for one of those things to happen, we decided our best practice was to work on any small emergencies, like an e. Coli or salmonella outbreak.

My staff and I would put together a press release, gather the necessary information, and share it with the appropriate media outlets. We worked to get it out within an hour of our first notification, because we knew that would be our benchmark if we ever had a real emergency. While an emergency never arose, we were even prepared when we participated in full-scale exercises that involved the entire state, and would have been ready for the real thing.

Similarly, I try to spend a few hours every frew months working solely in the cloud or working on this iPad-and-keyboard setup to make sure I can make it all run efficiently when the time arises. I’ve still managed to meet all deadlines and respond to my emails, without any problems.

While this setup isn’t ideal for someone who focuses strongly on high-scale production work, and needs access to a lot of local information — photos, videos, and past work — it’s at least a great way for me to stay productive and give my clients what they need. It’s put a few of my wish-list projects on hold, but I’m still managing the important work.

By keeping backups of everything, and being very familiar with the way my backup equipment and services work, I was able to come home from the Apple store, switch everything on, and get back to work without missing a beat.

Screw the Long-Term Strategy! Smart Content Marketing is Agile

There’s an old story about an architect who was hired to design an entire campus of buildings surrounding a large empty quad. When the buildings were done, the administrators asked the architect to lay out a series of sidewalks between buildings.

He decided to wait instead. As he waited, people walked between the buildings, finding their own way, eventually wearing the most efficient paths into the grass. Then the architect had the sidewalks installed on the paths the people had made, saying they were more efficient and useful than anything he could have created himself.

How many times have companies created a long-term strategy for content marketing or social media marketing, only to scrap the entire plan after two weeks because of a crisis or major event.

I’ve talked with companies that will schedule everything — blog posts, Facebook updates, and even individual tweets. I’ve seen spreadsheets of scheduled tweets, three per day, five days a week, which took days and weeks to create, all thrown away because of a change in a law, regulations, or even a CEO or CMO.

There are plenty of reasons to have a long-term strategy, but plenty more reasons to avoid the strategy and be more agile. Here are five ways you can be more agile with your content marketing.

1. Create a topic checklist.

Marathon Checklist signFor some clients, we’ll blog about particular topics each month, but the actual titles of the blog post are wide open. We’re more concerned about the general theme of the month, but we don’t script each individual post. For example, a men’s clothing line might have a topic checklist like this:


  • 2 posts on dressing warm for winter
  • 2 posts on hats
  • 2 posts on scarves
  • 2 posts on winter suits

The blog posts themselves could be about how to wear a suit in the bitter cold, which kind of hat to wear to the office, the proper way to tie a scarf, and what materials are warmest in the winter.

This method lets the content marketing manager decide what to write about, taking input from product managers, as well as PR and marketing staff. It’s also flexible enough to change if problems or news stories arise. For example, if hats became suddenly more popular, they could drop a couple posts on suits and scarves, and write more about hats.

2. Watch your analytics

Google AnalyticsGoogle has stopped telling us what keywords bring people to our blogs, but you can still get a good idea by looking at the pages that get the most traffic. If you spot a pattern, you’ll understand what people are turning to you for. This means you should put more energy into those topics.

Keep an eye on your Google rank as well. Use a service like WebCEO to find your true Google rank for certain keywords and topics. Write about the areas you want to shore up, as well as write more about the things you want to improve.

3. Answer customer service and tech support questions

People who ask questions are usually a smaller subset of people who have a particular problem. That is, if 10 people ask a question, there may be anywhere from 100 – 250 people with the same problem. Write blog posts and create videos to answer those questions. As people search for the answers to their questions, they’ll find your content and visit your site.

Search your email for questions that start with “how do I. . .” Talk to your customer service department to find out what people are calling about. Rewrite and publish FAQs and tech support knowledge forums into blog posts. Use screencasts and videos to show people how to complete a particular process or fix a problem.

4. Monitor the industry news

As David Meerman Scott says, newsjacking is about injecting your ideas into a breaking news story. It’s about becoming the “second sentence” in a news article.

Newsjacking chart

As soon as you hear about breaking news in your industry, write a response story that includes your take and your ideas on how it affects your customers and your industry. It should be the second sentence in your blog post or press release. At the very least, your customers will appreciate you alerting them to the issue. At best, journalists will see you as one of the authorities on it, and call you for a response.

Be a voracious reader of little-known and industry insider sites. Create RSS feeds of your industry’s thought leader blogs and news sites. Set up Twitter lists of those people and monitor them constantly.

Most importantly, be prepared to jump on those news stories immediately. Take a crisis communication approach: Be first, be right, be credible. That means writing blog posts as soon as things happen, or even assigning someone to be a dedicated content marketer whose primary responsibility is to write content. (This may mean giving them a “get out of meetings free” pass.)

5. Think like a beginner, or ask your beginning customers

You work in a particular field day in, day out. You’ve talked about your work so much, you’re sure everyone knows the most basic information about what you do. It turns out, most people know nothing about your industry, your company, or your specialty. They come to your website because they have those basic questions and they need answers.

Ask your salespeople to explain their sales pitch, and look to your FAQ. Come up with lists posts like “Five Things to Consider About _____,” “Five Things to Avoid When Buying _____,” or “Five Reasons You Need _____” to answer those beginning questions.

Many of my clients are surprised to see these beginning posts are some of their most-visited posts. They figured “everyone” knew all about the subject, but it turned out no one did. I’ve helped clients scrap entire content marketing strategies because they had to take it back to the beginning.

Rather than spending a lot of time and effort creating a content calendar, leave yourself open to serendipity and happenstance. An agile content marketing approach lets you change directions and go with the flow when responding to events as they arise. It lets you provide more value to your customers and clients than a fully-developed and strictly-followed content calendar will ever do.

Photo credit:

#Ferguson Shows Why Citizen Journalism Is Still Critical

If you’ve been keeping up with the news from Ferguson, Missouri, chances are a lot of the updates and photos are coming from individuals who aren’t journalists, posting live video feeds from their cell phones. When members of the traditional media were being arrested by the police, and the cable news stations were all kicked out or, in the case of Al Jazeera Television, fired at with gas grenades, it was often the alternative news sources and citizen journalists who fed us new information and updates.

I spent most of last Friday night, as well as last night (Monday), following what was happening in Ferguson through a variety of Twitter users, including Vice News, Alice Speri, Ryan Reilly, and Adam Serwer, as well as alderman Antonio French (who was arrested Friday night), his wife @Senka, and several LiveStream, Ustream, and Vine users. That’s not to say the mainstream media wasn’t there — they were. But on that first night, most of the video footage and images they replayed over and over on CNN were coming from people uploading them from their phones to Twitter and Instagram.


I won’t rehash what’s been happening this week — the militarized police response, the protests, the tear gas and the flash grenades. The fact that you know about it at all is thanks to the mainstream media, the alternative and non-traditional media (Huffington Post, Vice News, Freedom of the Press), and citizen journalists. (Update: The police kicked nearly all the media out of the area at 12:00 am CDT, often pointing guns, firing tear gas, and threatening to arrest them. One journalist, Tim Pool, allegedly had his press badge ripped off his chest and told by a police officer, he “didn’t give a shit.”)

Citizen journalists can range from anyone with a Twitter account and a cell phone to an independent news organization as complex as a large blog or an online news website, like The American Reporter (disclosure: I’ve been the humor columnist for the American Reporter since 1997). And anyone with that basic technology can record and disseminate news on a micro scale, or have your content seen around the world by tens of thousands of people.

While the term citizen journalists is often spoken with air quotes around that second word, especially by professional journos, they still play an important role in getting out early information. Ever since George Holliday recorded the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles 20 years ago with a Sony Handycam, private citizens have become citizen watchdogs against the police, the government, and in some cases, even the media themselves.

In many cases, they’ve been doing it without protection, at their own risk, and without the benefit of a publication’s legal team to back them up. They’re the people who find themselves at the center of the action and rather than run away, they pull out their cell phones, hit the button, and stand around a little longer than is safe or wise.

This means anyone can upload videos of things they think are wrong, or want to record for posterity and history.

Of course this means we also have to become critical thinkers and viewers, making sure that what we’re seeing is real, and not a hoax. That we’re re-sharing news from people we trust, and not just blindly retweeting everything with the trending hashtag of the day.

We Also Need to Trust Our Technology

But while we were watching Ferguson news on Twitter, it turns out Facebook’s algorithm didn’t even allow #Ferguson news to show up in our news feeds at all. On that Friday night, if you weren’t looking at Twitter, you didn’t even know anything was going on. (And if you rely on Twitter’s U.S. trending reports to see what’s happening, you were told that #ThatsSoRaven was infinitely more important than #Ferguson, as the tweens’ show trended that night, while the civil unrest in our own country was supposedly not even happening. The hashtag trended in individual cities like Indianapolis and Nashville, but not the country as a whole.)

Medium writer Zeynep Tufecki argues that this shows why not only is net neutrality important — what if Facebook and Twitter didn’t want us to know about Ferguson? They didn’t mess with the algorithm, but what if they had decided to play that card? — but even the technology used by both real and citizen journalists could be affected. California is considering legislation that will require “kill switches” in cell phones. While the technology is there to discourage violent cell phone theft, who’s to say an overeager militarized police department won’t force a wireless company to throw that same switch when they’re about to come down on a crowd of protestors?

Citizen journalism isn’t going away, despite the gnashing of teething and rending of garments by the professional journalists who look down on the amateurs with only slightly less scorn than a militarized police force. It’s here to stay, and as we’ve seen in Ferguson, it sometimes may be the only source of information we have for a while.

The Sure-Fire Writing Process for New Writers

Novelists may have the luxury of writing and rewriting their work, but business writers and bloggers don’t. We need to get stuff out, and get it out fairly fast. But the danger is if we put something out before it’s ready, we’ll get hammered by our audience and our bosses. So the natural reaction is to withdraw and not put anything out until it’s good and ready.

My friend, Bryan Furuness, rewrote his first novel, The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson (affiliate link) seventeen times.

I rewrote this once.

Search engine friendly content factory notebook and macbookIf you’re a blogger or content marketer, you don’t have the luxury of time and, well, more time. You have to get your work out fast. But it can’t be so fast that you put out schlock. There’s a looming content shock, and anything that you put out that sucks will only contribute to the problem. So follow these steps, and your writing can stand above the massive glut of content that continually spews out of the laptops of the “quantity, not quality” content marketers.

Write Shitty First Drafts

Novelist Anne Lamott gives us permission to write shitty first drafts. They don’t have to be perfect, they don’t have to be nearly awesome. In fact, they should be awful. Just get your ideas out of your head and down on paper.

For a blog, keep the topic limited to a single idea. One idea, one post, one day. If you try to get more than one idea, your articles will be convoluted and hard to understand.

Shoot for no more than 400 words, but 300 is better. There are all kinds of arguments for and against 500 words, 750, or even 1,000 words. I like 300 – 400 because you can get the most important points of an idea down, and then explore them more in-depth later. (Clearly, that’s not going to happen with this piece, but I do that with my client work.)

Plus, the average mobile phone can display 100 words on the screen, and the average reader will swipe two more times to read something, which equals 300 words.

Rewrite Your Second Draft

After you finish your first draft, put it away and wait for several hours. Waiting overnight is even better. Then, go back and rewrite it. I don’t mean start over from the beginning. But don’t be married to every word on the page or think that you have to leave in every sentiment you expressed.

This is where you tear out words, sentences, and even whole paragraphs. If something doesn’t drive your story forward, tear it out. Everything should be about your topic, and nothing else.

It’s major work, and there should be drastic changes between your first and second draft, but don’t start it all over. If you do, the new version is still your first draft.

Edit Your Third Draft

While you’re still developing your craft, make sure you do a third edit a few hours later. (As you get better, you can skip this step, but plan on doing it for several months, or even a couple years.)

Fix the awkward wording, remove smaller sentences and words that don’t add any value. Remove adjectives and adverbs. (Don’t describe verbs, use descriptive verbs.) If you’re sticking with the 300 word limit, this can really make a difference. Why bloat a piece with 100 junk words? If your reader only wants 300 words total, make every one of them count.

This rewrite is not as drastic as your second one, but it’s still thorough, and we should see some serious changes.

Polish It Up

Finally, the following morning (this is a 3 day process), polish the piece up for the last time. If you’re still doing major rewrites, there’s either something wrong with your work, or there’s something wrong with you, and I’m guessing your work is fine.

Your problem may be that you’re a perfectionist, and don’t want to let the piece go. Don’t mistake perfect for finished. It will never be perfect, but it will be finished. And if you’re on a fifth, sixth, and even seventh read-through, you’re just stalling. Ship the damn thing and be done with it!

This is the copy editing stage. Look for misspellings, bad grammar, and punctuation. Make sure all the T’s are dotted and all I’s are crossed (I know what I said).

The House Building Analogy

As you’re starting out, this whole process should take about 48 hours, but spread over three days. Write the first draft in the afternoon, after thinking about and ruminating on the topic all morning (thinking about it will help you crystallize your thoughts when you actually sit down to write). The next morning, first edits. That afternoon, second edits. The morning after that, final polish.

Think of it like building a house: the first pass through, you’re putting up the walls and roof. The second, you’re shifting walls around and making some small-but-significant changes to the floor plan, but the outside walls are in place. On the third pass through, you’re putting up the drywall and painting. And on the final pass, you’re installing the drapes and light bulbs.

As you get better, you’ll find you can skip that third step. You’ll be confident enough in your word choices and writing ability that you don’t need so many rewrites. Even so, I still recommend taking about 24 hours to complete a piece. Write it in the afternoon, do rewrites in the morning, and final polish in the afternoon again.

Writing is one of those skills we all learned in school, but many never developed afterward. It’s easy to write, but it’s hard to write well. If you can do these four steps, your writing will become tighter, more interesting, and more enjoyable to read. And you’ll even like doing it.

Handshake is NOT a Verb

Turning nouns into verbs for business purposes is the Death Of A Thousand Cuts to writers and people who care about language. It kills us slowly, cut by cut. Blood drop by blood drop.

I recently heard someone say on a podcast, And when they’re really ready, we’ll handshake them to the investor community.

How do you handshake someone to someone else? What does that mean? Is that even a thing?

Yes, it means to introduce someone. They’re going to introduce people to the investor community.

So why don’t you just say “we’ll introduce them to the investor community?”

Uhh, this way sounds cooler?

No. It doesn’t. It sounds awkward. It sounds like someone tried to come up with some other name to mean the same thing they’re actually trying to say, only they want to say it differently.

I understand the sentiment. You want to introduce people to each other. When they are introduced, they will shake hands. So, you “handshake them” to someone else.

But there was nothing wrong with “introduce” in the first place. You’re taking something that was just fine, in perfect working order, and you improved it.

And by “improved it,” I mean “jumped up and down on it until it was a mangled heap, barely recognizable to even its own mother.”

The problem with business jargon is that people who use it just want to sound cool. They come up with some new term to mean something else.

People talk about “onboarding” when they mean “sign up.”

They “ideate” when they mean “come up with ideas,” or even “think.”

And they say “handshake to” when they mean “introduce.”

Hopefully you’ve never done this yourself. Hopefully you’ve never used “handshake” as a verb, at least when you’re introducing two people. (I understand it’s a term used to describe the way two computers communicate — they “handshake” with each other. But that’s the computer world.)

If you have, I won’t judge. I won’t cast aspersions on your character or demean your language abilities.

But I would ask you to stop it.

On a going forward basis.

Don’t Stick Your Finger In the Rat Cage – A Convocation Speech

I was invited to give the convocation speech at Ivy Tech in Warsaw, Indiana, during the honors ceremony the week before graduation. I was an adjunct faculty member there in Speech Communication for two years while I lived up in Syracuse, Indiana, so I was invited back to campus to share my words of wisdom. While it’s not Neil Gaiman’s Create Good Art speech, I think I did a pretty good job.

This is the text of my speech given to the students receiving honors and recognition, and their families.


I’m very pleased to be here. And a little surprised too. 30 years ago, I was not the guy you would expect to be asked to speak to a group like this. According to my high school grades and SAT scores, I was not even the guy you’d expect to be sitting out there with you.

But life gives us second chances. Second chances, third chances, fourth chances. I used all of those, and learned something each time. Eventually I got smart, and tried not to learn from my mistakes so much, but to start learning from other people’s mistakes instead. I learned how other people failed, so I could avoid doing that. And I learned how they succeeded, so I could do more of that.

So I want to talk about things I’ve learned in the last 5, 10, 20 years. Some of the knocks I’ve taken and seen other people take. I want to tell you what I learned in finding my way so you can find your own.

If I were really clever, like Neil Gaiman, the British science fiction writer, I’d tell you to “make good art,” and how you’re allowed to make glorious and fantastic mistakes. He didn’t say how many though, and I’m still trying to find the limit.

If I were David Foster Wallace, the American novelist, I’d tell you the story about the three fish, how “this is water,” and how it relates to the importance of being well-adjusted.” Well, I know what water is, but I haven’t been well-adjusted in years.

There are three lessons I want to share with you tonight, in the hopes that you can learn them now, rather than learning them yourself the hard way.


Lesson 1: Help Others Achieve Their Goals

The first is to help others achieve their goals.

When you do a lot of networking, you meet people who need something. They don’t necessarily need something from you. They just need something.

One day, you meet a Realtor who wants to fix up a rundown house to sell. The next, you meet a retired contractor who’s looking for something to do. You introduce them, and in a few months, he becomes her go-to-guy on all her fixer-uppers.

Or, your friend from high school is now a wedding planner. Two months later, your cousin opens a specialty cake business. And her best friend is a wedding photographer. You send a couple quick emails, and they’re having lunch and have passed enough business between themselves to book their entire summer.

Or your chiropractor tells you he’s trying to grow his practice. Three days later, a friend complains about her back pains. You refer her to your chiropractor, and she’s feeling much better, and is very grateful.

I have a friend who’s a professional photographer, focusing mostly on commercial and corporate work. He’s got another photographer friend who focuses on family portrait work. So the two of them trade leads constantly. Paul tells me he gets anywhere from 2 to 6 inquiries a month directly from Kristeen.

Why should you do this? What’s in it for you? You’re helping all these people, but what should you expect return?

Nothing. You should expect nothing. And that’s as it should be.

Because a little-known secret to success is first to help other people achieve their goals, their dreams, and their wins.

You don’t have to give up on your own goals. But in the course of your day, as you’re working on your own thing, you’re going to have a chance to help other people find the things they need. Introduce them to people they should meet. Share opportunities that don’t fit your own plans, and plug your friends in.

But — and here’s the kicker — don’t ask for a return favor.

That’s right, don’t ask for anything back. Nobody owes you one, you don’t have a favor coming to you. You don’t get a finder’s fee, a commission, or a free lunch.

If they insist on returning the favor, tell them about the people you’d like to meet or the opportunities you’re looking for. But explain that you’re not doing this so they’ll pay you back. You’re doing it to be helpful, because you hope they’ll do it for someone else some day.

Don’t keep track, don’t call in favors, and never call them and say, “Remember that one time I introduced you to that guy who did that thing with the stuff at the place?”

Because keeping track is petty and mean. Keeping track is lonely. Because people know when you keep track. They remember when you call in favors, and they know you keep an exact count of who owes what. And when they’ve paid you back, they’ll stop accepting your help because they know it comes with strings.

But if you’re the kind of person who just helps, they’ll remember you forever. If you do it enough times for a enough people, good things will happen for you.

Call it Karma, blessings, God’s favor, “The Secret,” or the universe doing you a solid. Whatever you call it, if you help enough people, your generosity will be returned to you in ways much, much bigger than if you kept track.


Lesson 2: Create Your Own Luck

By creating opportunities for other people, and helping them reach their goals, you’re going to accomplish my second lesson: create your own luck. You are going to create your own opportunities and your own lucky breaks.

Most people don’t like to do this is because it’s hard work, and the payoff is slow. Any time you try something new, like searching for a job, you won’t see success right away.

It’s very rare to try something for the first time and win a contest, get published, get recognized, or close a sale. There are no brand new singers who go on American Idol or The Voice and win the entire thing. Very rarely do we get that lucky. If you do, you’d better hope it’s because you bought a lottery ticket.

But you can create your own luck. You can create the circumstances where you get the thing you want, and the things you’ve worked for.

Maybe it’s getting that first job interview. Or the job offer. Or landing a sale with a big client. Or even running a 5K race. Trying out for a play. Publishing a magazine article.

But it’s not just blind luck. That didn’t happen the first time you ever tried to accomplish your goal. It happened after you applied to 50, 100, or even 200 jobs. Ten years ago, I applied for over 400 jobs in a single year before I got one.

Creating your own luck is not a matter of rubbing a rabbit’s foot, or having a four-leaf clover, or not changing your socks until your hitting streak ends.

Creating your luck is a matter of doing the thing you want over and over. It means applying for as many jobs as you can find. It means meeting as many people for coffee as you have time and a bladder for. It means making as many sales calls as you can, or sending as many emails.

Because the law of averages says someone is eventually going to pay attention to you. The hiring manager will call you. Or the purchasing manager will finally buy something. Or the newspaper or magazine will publish your article.

Lorraine Ball, Kyle Lacy, and Me

Me, Lorraine Ball, and Kyle Lacy. Lorraine introduced me to Kyle, and we started writing books shortly thereafter.

Or, if you’re like my friends Kyle and Lorraine, meeting someone will set off a long chain of events that lead you somewhere else. Kyle met Lorraine when they both attended the same networking group.

Kyle ended up working for Lorraine as an intern, and she taught him about marketing and networking. He left after a year and started his own business. I met them both through the same networking group, and Kyle and I eventually wrote a couple books together. Lorraine became my mentor and taught me about business, and I learned enough to eventually own my small company.

Now Lorraine’s business is the biggest it has ever been, I’ve written four books, and Kyle is a high up muckity-muck at ExactTarget in Indianapolis.

Our accomplishments all happened because we met someone who introduced us to someone else who introduced us to a third person, who introduced us to a fourth person who did something awesome. We constantly refer people to each other — “Oh, you need to meet Kyle,” or “you should really talk to my friend Lorraine.”

Sometimes those introductions pay off, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, they pay off five years later when someone calls one of us and says “we met a few years ago, and I just had something come across my desk that you would be perfect for.”

This isn’t just luck, this is serendipity. Being in the right place at the right time to meet the right person holding the right opportunity. This happens all the time in all our lives, we just have to be willing to be open to the idea, and pursue the people and opportunities that come our way.

It’s a direct reflection of the amount of energy and effort you put into other people and into the work you want to do. And the more people you meet, and the more energy you put in, the more successful you’ll be.

There’s an old saying that if you want to split a rock, you need to hit it 1,000 times. When it breaks, it’s not the thousandth strike that did it, it’s the 999 times before it.

When I was a kid, whenever I lost something, my dad always said, “It will always be in the last place you look.” I never understood exactly what he meant, so one day, when I was trying to find my basketball, I tried to shortcut the system.

I stood in my bedroom and declared, “The last place I’m going to look is my closet!” Then I looked in the closet and. . . no basketball.

I was so annoyed. I had told God and the universe that this was the last place I was going to look, but that didn’t put the basketball there, which meant this wasn’t true. It also meant I had to keep looking, which meant it really wasn’t the last place I looked. (It was in my toy box out in the garage.)

Your goals don’t work that way. You can’t stand over the rock and declare your first strike to be the thousandth. You can’t declare your first job application to be “the one.” If things worked that way, I’d be filthy rich.

Instead, you have to stand over the rock, sweat in your eyes, shoulders aching, swinging that stupid hammer over and over again. When you want to quit, you take a little break, get a drink, switch arms, and swing some more.

Just when you think you’ve had enough, and your arms are going to fall off, that’s when that last strike comes. You hit the rock and there’s a different sound. It’s deeper, and you feel it in the ground. That’s when everything starts to change and all your work starts paying off.

Not only do you get one phone call for a job interview, you get four. Not only did you close the sale, you got a year-long contract. Not only did you land the part in the play, you got the lead. Not only did you run the 5K, you won your age group.

It happened because you kept hitting the rock. You worked hard, you practiced, kept writing, rehearsing, running, and calling. And that’s why you succeeded.

None of this is going to happen for you every time. Just like every economy has an up and down, and every civilization has a high and low, our own lives have their own ups and downs. It’s what you do during the ups that prepare you for the downs. And it’s what you do when you’re down that makes your ups higher and longer.


Lesson 3: Don’t Take NO For An Answer

One of the reasons you have to keep trying? One of the reasons it’s going to be hard? Because you’re going to hear NO a lot. Which brings me to my third lesson, don’t take NO for an answer.

I was a troublemaker when I was a kid. I was constantly causing trouble, getting into trouble, and making trouble, and my teachers and parents were worried that I wasn’t going to do much with my life. I had “a lot of potential,” but so did every other kid. Turns out making trouble was the best thing I could have done for my future.

There are people who study this kind of thing. One interesting thing they found about troublemakers is that we make the best entrepreneurs and artists, because we never take NO for an answer.

“NO” is not the final word. It’s not even “No, dammit, now cut it out!”

We hold out for “Fine, do whatever you want.” Because in our minds, “See, I told you so” is our final word. We never want to end something on someone else’s terms, we end them on our own. If you tell us NO, we’re going to push and push until we get to our version of Yes, with or without you.

Lab ratIt reminds me of the time my dad made me get my finger bitten by a lab rat.

My dad was a psychology professor at Ball State for 45 years (in fact, today is his last day; he finally retired). When I was four, he did a lot of work doing behavioral testing on lab rats. One day, he took me to the rat lab so I could see where he worked. He bent down, looked me straight in the eye, and told me the one thing guaranteed to get me to stick my finger in a rat’s cage.

He said, “Don’t stick your finger in the rat cage.”

We spent the next few hours at Ball Memorial Hospital where I got a shot in my butt and a bandage on my finger.

Troublemakers never do what we’re told. In fact, we do the opposite of what we’re told. That’s what makes us such good entrepreneurs. People tell us to forget about a problem, or to just live with it, but we can’t. In fact, the best way to get us to fix a problem is to tell us it can’t be solved.

But we’re going to hear a lot of NO while we do it. We’re going to spend a lot of our life hearing NO over and over.

No, you can’t go to this college. Fine, I’ll go to another one.

No, you can’t take those classes. Fine, I didn’t want to take your stupid classes anyway.

No, you can’t have a job here. Fine, I’ll start my own job. And then you’ll contract with my company to do that job better than the person you hired.

This also means that life is going to knock you down. A lot. Many of us have been knocked down a few times already. That’s life’s way of saying NO.

But to the troublemakers and the entrepreneurs, that’s not the end. It’s a dare. That’s life pointing at its chin and saying, “come on, give me your best shot.”

The troublemaker will get up again and again and again. Eventually we’ll stop getting knocked down. We’ll be the ones knocking life on its backside for a while.

Many of you have already done something that 60% of the people in this country will never do — you went to school. And many of you are planning on going on to something bigger. A new job, more opportunities, maybe even more school.

And you are already — as motivational speaker Les Brown says — blessed and highly favored. I hope you all realize that, because I think all of you can do great things. All of you, not just our graduates.

And it really all will just come down to doing the three things I’ve discussed tonight: Help others achieve their goals; Create your own luck; Don’t take NO for an answer.

It’s that simple, but it’s not that easy. It’s hard work. It means doing a little more every day. Doing a little more than the person next to you. Working a little longer. Watching less TV and reading more books. It means getting up 30 minutes earlier, or staying up 30 minutes later.

I can tell you that even though this is common sense advice, it’s not as common as you might think. Because no matter how many times “the experts” tell people this is what it takes, most people won’t do it. They don’t want to put in the extra effort. But you can, and the payoffs will be huge.

Even if you do just 30 minutes more per day than anyone else — 30 minutes more practice, 30 minutes more sales calls, 30 minutes more job searching — you’ll be 2.5 hours ahead of the game at the end of the week.

That’s 10 hours in a month. That’s 120 hours in a year. That’s three extra weeks of work in reaching for your own goals. And if you can put in that three extra weeks of reaching for your dreams, you’re going to be miles ahead of those people who show up at 8 or 9 and go home at 4 or 5.

Because when you get down to it, by helping others, creating your own luck, and never taking NO for an answer, you too will be blessed and highly favored, and you’ll be in a position to do awesome things for yourself and your family.

Thank you, congratulations, and good luck.

After the ceremony, a woman came to me and said her grandson was a fellow troublemaker, and she wished she had a copy of the speech she could show her daughter. I happened to have a hard copy of the speech, which I gave to her. She was so pleased with that. Best. Thank you. Ever.


Photo credit: Erik, Lorraine, Kyle Toni Deckers Lab rat, Rick, Eh? (Flickr, Creative Commons)