Taking the kids on a travel adventure

December 19th, 2012

When my husband and I took our three-year-old son on a vacation to Asia and Australia this year, I knew it would be a good opportunity to tell some great travel stories.

We took our little guy to the places we knew would excite all our souls, including Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysian Borneo and Perth.

But we also brought along a fair amount of mobile technology, including an iPad, iPhone, countless travel apps, two digital cameras (one just for kids), and a Skype account to help give us that little bit of home whenever and wherever we needed it.

The result? A spectacular experience that I hope other parents will try too.

To that end, here’s an article I wrote, called Family Travel: Plenty of great spots for an adventure with the kids that was published today in the Toronto Star.

Please spread the word by “liking” it on Facebook!

Working with infographics: Part 4

February 6th, 2012

This is the last of my four-part discussions about infographics with my friend Rahul. In part 1, we talked about why infographics need to be able to convey an idea or issue quickly. In part 2, we discussed how the make up of your audience impacts your infographic or any other communication you create. Part 3 looked at the strange evolution of a very simple infographics concept.

In this last post, Rahul and I get back to talking about audiences and how different infographics will resonate more with different people.

Point #4:

Michela: There’s a lot out there to choose from in terms of infographic styles. How do you know which will work best? Do all audiences react the same way to information being displayed a certain way?

Rahul: If you're familiar with the graphic style, the story means so much more to you.

This is a sticky point: sometimes the best tool to communicate the idea relies on assuming your audience’s understanding of cultural norms, existing and accepted paradigms, rules, concepts, and/or tools. For example, you can present a supply curve and demand curve to an economist and they will likely buy in immediately, and wait for your argument. But if you haven’t studied economics, you may still be thinking about the quantity of widgets you can buy for the right price, while I’m already moving onto substitutions.

M: Huh?

R: Exactly. So we are now trying to find the image that anyone (sometimes everyone) will understand and identify with – this is where the circle comes in. Everyone gets it. But, as we’ve already discussed, that doesn’t seem to work any more.

What about choosing a visual framework that can stand alone regardless of the reader’s pre-existing knowledge and experience? Is there such a thing? I doubt it. At some point we have to make certain assumptions about what the other person is reading, seeing, interpreting. So my message comes back to my first one: knowing your audience. The more we know about our audience, how to persuade them, how to please them, how to impact them, how to satisfy them, how to enable them to reach their own successes, the better tools we will be able to choose to present them with information, ideas, concepts, conclusions, and so on.

M: So you’re talking about customizing infographics in the same way that you would the text in your communication.

R: Absolutely. Targeted is the way to go.

Working with information graphics: Part 3

January 31st, 2012

This is the third part of my four-part discussion about infographics with my friend Rahul. In part 1, we talked about why infographics need to be able to convey an idea or issue quickly and, briefly, how infographics are especially applicable to a particular audience – business leaders. In part 2, we looked at how the make up of your audience impacts your infographic or any other communication you create.

In this post, we discuss the strange evolution of a very simple infographics concept.

Point #3: 

Michela: I’ve heard that drawing a circle on a page is one of the best ways to focus people's attention, but when you look at the circle in infographics, it has changed into something much more complex and confusing, with circles within circles, etc.

How could such a simple concept become so corrupted?

Rahul: Almost all visualization textbooks and graphic designers I encounter today subscribe to the notion that if you put a circle around anything, it makes it more legitimate. It gets your audience to isolate the concept, even to understand it, or identify with it. This is not true (any more).

See Dan Roam’s book: The Back of the Napkin. Page 7, and 257-258, are examples of what I mean. He instructs us to put a circle around a term, just to get started, and to make things very simple. But things are not always, or often, very simple, and so we end up complicating the rest of the visual in order to catch up with the rest of our understanding of the concept.

Too often we see unnecessary visualizations in business writing – I think this is what your original blog post may have been speaking out against. Authors will write a few words, put a circle around them, and then surround them with concentric circles or arrows, or other shapes. The circle no longer does what it used to.

I think this comes from a sub-conscious intention to communicate everything we know about a concept; to prove how smart we are. In this case I am not sure who the audience is or what the message is – my best guess is that it belongs in academia. In business, we ought to be communicating clearly and concisely. This may take the form of text or visuals, but the ubiquitous and generic use of circles is no longer effective.

Circles make things simple, but they do not guarantee clear communication of your key message. Actually I think Dan Roam is suggesting using the circle to help us understand our own message before we even attempt to communicate it.

M: I’ll be keeping my circles to myself then, I guess?

R: That’s entirely up to you.

Creating a story spontaneously

January 22nd, 2012

My three-year old son just started sleeping in a “big boy bed”. The event was clearly a sign for change, since he took the opportunity to introduce a new bedtime routine. Every night, after I’ve read him two or three or five stories, he asks me to tell him a story.

And not just any story. He carefully outlines each new plot or premise.

One night I had to entertain him with a tale about a boy who flew a rocket out of his bedroom window to the moon. Another evening it was “tell me a story about my pillow.” Just last night, he asked for a story about “two talking crocodiles in Home Depot.”

Children can be very inventive. But can their mom’s just create stories out of the blue? Stories that simultaneously entertain and lull their little one to sleep?

Apparently, yes. (Although, perhaps with less emphasis on the lulling to sleep part...)

My little guy seems to think my stories are the best in the world. Maybe when he’s older he’ll be more discriminating, but for now, the apparently riveting adventures I dream up rival The Gruffalo, Diego, Olivia and even The Cat In The Hat.

Being cornered by a three-year-old into creating something new and captivating, something that speaks to his imagination, is a great test of your ability to be spontaneous.

It’s not something I ever thought I was good at. But this nightly exercise with my son has taught me that working on the fly, creating on the spur of the moment, diving into the unknown, can be fun and rewarding. For everyone involved.

I forgot that years of reading and writing stories come in handy when you’re asked to create on the go. Suddenly, you see ideas materialize in your brain. Plots and dialogue coalesce before you have time to edit them.

Before you know it you’re telling a full-fledged story.

You see your son’s eyes light up. His broad grin reaches almost back to his ears. He lets out a yelp of surprise.

You’ve got him. And the new bedtime routine has you hooked too.

Interviewing 101

December 12th, 2011

Writing business communications often involves interviewing clients or subject matter experts to get the bulk of the story. I like interviews because they are a starting point.

Interviews can be tricky, however. Here’s why:

  1. I might not know anything about the subject, so I have to ask questions that will prompt the interviewee to explain things at my level. But I don’t want to ask questions that are so basic that they irritate the person I’m interviewing.
  2. Interviews are a two-way street, so the questions have to engage whomever I’m interviewing. They have to interest and entice the interviewee so that he or she wants to continue talking to me and provide great quotes.
  3. Interviews are free-flowing and can go anywhere, so I have to be prepared to go where they go, but also keep on track with the story my client has hired me to tell.

Here’s what I do to make sure my interview is a great experience for me and for the person I’m interviewing:

  • Before I start, I do as much research on the topic and the interviewee as possible. This helps me ask intelligent, though-provoking questions and connect with the interviewee, but it also helps me add to the story once I’m writing it.
  • I write out a list of questions I need to get answered and a separate list of questions I’d like to get answered. That way, if the interview gets cut short or if it takes a sidetrack I wasn’t prepared for, at least I’ve got my main questions covered.
  • If I need clarification on a topic, I ask “why is that?” or “how exactly do you do that?” until I understand whatever it is the person is talking about. I never leave a topic hazy, because otherwise my writing will be hazy.
  • I keep to the timeline I’ve promised the interviewee. If I’ve said the interview will take 15 minutes, I make sure I’ve got what I need in that time and end the interview on a positive note.
  • As I’ve mentioned before, I always take notes during an interview, even if I’m recording it.
  • I always end the interview by thanking the person and asking if I can follow up with him or her if I find I’ve missed something. I’ve never had an interviewee say no and there have been times when I’ve come up with more questions while writing a piece and so, have had to go back to the interviewee. And because I’ve prepared them for a possible follow up, they’re not put off.