I spoke with Danny Bauer from Better Leaders, Better Schools on my journey to the classroom, why I started Humans at Heart, and how I'm using human-centered design in the education and business world.
Here are the podcast highlights:
^ The podcast is 37 minutes long, and if you don't have time for that, don't worry. ;)
Skip to any of these sections for a quick listen:
6:45 - The story of Humans at Heart
16:40 - How I use qualitative research
20:25 - My advice for school leaders
22:05 - If I could design any kind of course...
24:17 - My favorite improv games!
30:22 - The worst leadership advice I ever heard...
Northside Design Team (watch my student's empathy video!)
Cross the Circle - Improv Game
Theater Games for the Classroom
--> Email Michelle
Last week, I went to the Circular Summit conference in Washington, D.C.! Hello Alice did an incredible job bringing together a diverse crowd of women entrepreneurs, investors, experts and supporters. I met female scientists and activists and smiley college grads. I stood up and talked about a time I failed in front of everyone (which is how I won this glittery-unicorn-poop-emoji-keychain).
When the conference came to a close, I grabbed a pencil and tried to make sense of it all. Here's everything I learned, wrapped up in a staircase.
Reflecting on Circular Summit when I saw these stairs. Yesterday, there were tons of women who saw something and did something. On stage they looked at us and story after story said—get out there. Find your purpose. Connect. Create. But take care - if a distraction clouds your purpose, move. If your purpose changes, move with it. It’s going to be a cycle, a naturally unbalanced rhythm of evolving, connecting, adapting, changing. Run with it.
I think about my own path; there seems to be so many directions I could go. But really I think we have two choices, we either move forward or we move up.
We stay on the level we’re on because we have more to learn right where we are. We’re not done exploring yet. Or we decide to take the stairs. To move up to a new challenge, a new opportunity, a new chapter.
We don’t know what’s up there. But we see these women coming down to greet us, one by one. Each one gives us her own flower of wisdom. She doesn’t have all the answers for our lives, but she can give us hope. Tell us to keep going. Keep searching. Keep believing that it’s worth it. If and only if we start stepping. Not towards money. Never towards money alone. But towards our purpose, our Why, our reason for being.
The key is to keep going. Keep listening. Connecting. Moving.
For a moment in time on March 1st, a group of women came together and paused to ponder this. But now, the wind is at our backs. And boooy, is it strong. So strong it shut down all the government buildings in D.C. Now we have no choice but to jump back into our worlds and keep going. So...what are you waiting for? #Rungirlrun
On a small stage in a tiny dark theater, a group of people came together to do improv. They showed up, they jumped in. Ready to play, to feel, to build something great. Something funny.
Each one had a unique presence and a calculated premise in their minds. They swam fast in their lanes and did what they knew best.
Yet something was missing. Nothing was coming together. Things felt off. So focused on what they could add, they missed the strengths of those around them. They took personalities personally, trying to protect their space to shine.
Stay in your own lane.
Did you hear what I said?
You’re ruining it.
When we get in our own heads, we lose our ability to connect with others. We can’t operate as a team, we can’t build something greater.
Not unless we stop.
As a qualitative researcher, I work to understand how people and customers and teams think. I’ve seen inside IT companies and plumbing companies and strategy teams in the NBA. Everywhere, there are small disconnects. People working in silos, so focused on solving the problem in front of them, that they forget to look around. To harness the strengths of the humans right next to them. The ones on their team.
I kick myself, because I’m guilty of this too. I think it’s part of human nature to live in your own world. But there is hope, you guys. I’ve seen it firsthand.
When you find yourself in a disconnect with those around you, stop what you are doing. Pause. Do nothing but listen. Watch what happens.
Every human wants to be heard. It is only when we listen that we can truly connect. In improv, it only takes one scene of letting go and listening to feel the magic. And you know what? I’m finding the same thing in companies. I’m realizing to create change and synergy and meaning, it’s not that complicated.
I’m kicking myself, because the answer is simple.
When in doubt, listen.
ach month I host mentor office hours at Station Houston, and most of my sessions begin with startup founders coming to me with the same concern: is my messaging right? While some hope they can flash a quick tagline and get a “Yes” or “No”, the true essence of strong messaging goes much deeper than what meets the eye.
Brand messaging starts off the screen, with human-to-human contact.
It starts with people.
Not the ones on your team. But the customers. Who are the people you are trying to change? What do they believe? How do they talk? What do they fear, care about, and desire?
Communication is a two-way street, and when we are so focused on building our vision, we sometimes forget to look both ways — in our hearts and minds AND into the hearts and minds of our customers.
As Alan Alda, actor and founder of the Stony Brook Center for Communicating Science, says:
If you are thinking only about communication as having the perfect message regardless of how it lands on your audience, then you’re likely just to be spraying information at them and not really saying something to them that sticks.
In his book, If I Understood You, Would I have this Look on My Face? Alda dives deep into the art and science of communicating. He applies the improvisational techniques he learned in acting to help scientists communicate their research.
As it turns out, basic communication exercises can help even the most technically minded researchers learn how to share their work in an intuitive way that resonates with people outside their field.
The Key to Communication is Contact
No matter what kind of startup you have, there will be times when you need to stand up, talk about your company and get people on board with your mission.
You need to be comfortable looking people in the eyes and seeing them as fellow humans. The more you notice about them and their body language, the more easily you can see if they are following along or very, very lost.
If you want to avoid spraying information and find what sticks, shift your focus to your audience.
Make Contact and Find the Sparkle
When you are talking to someone about something novel, note their facial expression. Once they understand what you are saying, you will notice. They may say, “Ohhh!” and you will see a sparkle. A glimmer of comprehension. Take note of exactly what you said right before the sparkle.
The key to strong communication is finding the words, examples, and analogies that lead to sparkles. Identify these moments and lead with them. Eliminate everything else. Seriously.
But! I need to give people some context and this information is important…Anything that comes before a sparkle moment is typically confusing and goes in one ear and out the other. That’s why people say, “start with a story” or “start with a hook,” because everything before that moment of connection will be lost on people.
Action Item: Carry a notebook with you always. When you are talking about your startup to someone, take note of a sparkle moment. Write down everything about it— the exact wording you used, how they reacted, what they said next.
(^I learned this technique in The Comedy Bible — to connect with people on stage, you must notice how you connect with people offstage. If you can isolate sparkle moments and then string them together, you will be a star!)
Choose Hats Over Stats, Guys
The other thing that my tech friends love are statistics. Statistics can be powerful, hard hitters when you want to quantify your value. But sometimes, they can fall short and leave people wondering what that value even means for them. Let’s take a look two copy examples I pulled from sites on the Internet:
Option A: On average, custom software projects built using our software are at least 50% less expensive and are done in 50% less time.
Option B: Build enterprise-grade apps fast. How about a native mobile app in 4 weeks?
Which one do you think has stronger messaging? While they both talk about time frames, the first one leaves me wondering what “50% less time” even means. Four weeks on the other hand, I get that. I know I need an app ready next month, and the second company is going to help me meet my deadline.
When talking about your company’s value, you can use a statistic, or you can put on your customer’s hat, see the world through their eyes, and talk like they talk. If you want your messaging to resonate, always choose hats over stats.
Practice the Art of Empathy
Putting on someone’s hat and seeing the world through their eyes is a task that requires an open heart and mind. Take a gander at this video for a breathtaking reel of empathy IRL.
The only way to get better at empathizing with others is through practice. Think about your team, your customers, your partners, and the humans that matter most in your world and business.
The more you can focus on psychographics over demographics — what people are like on the inside versus what they look like on the outside — the more effective your messaging will be.
Analyze Your Customers As Humans
Who are the people your company is setting out to help? Think beyond job titles — what do they believe, who do they trust, what do they fear? What’s their sense of humor like? How do they react when they’re starving and stumble upon free breakfast burritos?
The more in tune you are with your customers, the more in sync your marketing will be. And the best way to get to know these people doesn’t start online.
It starts offline, with casual conversations and human-to-human contact.
How You Can Apply These Strategies Today
Marketing is the promise land of opportunity, and people know this deeply. They've seen their favorite brands captivate their hearts, wallets, and weekends. They've watched other companies publicly crash and burn. And they've scrolled passed every brand in between. Every quiet small business that didn't get their messaging right. Every product they didn't have a need, want, or longing for.
Yet every business owner, no matter what industry, dreams of captivating the people they are seeking to change. No one builds a business with hopes of people walking right passed. Brands want to be seen. The good ones want people to buy what they are selling, because they see the value in it.
The key to selling is understanding the human side of business. If you want to be seen, you need to recognize the people you are trying to reach as human and understand them deeply.
Think about marketing like a treasure map.
Your objective is to get to the X--the place where your target audience is waiting for you, listening, and ready to buy. Getting there will be a journey; there are no one-stop, fast tracks (no matter how many online "get rich quick" gurus will try to tell you).
Finding X will take time, but the good news is that there are hundreds of clues surrounding you right now. These nuggets of knowledge are everywhere. They are like a compass, showing you where to go next. They are waiting in books, people, and fresh Google Chrome tabs.
Use research as your magnifying glass.
If you want to find clues, you must be deliberate. You need a strategy and a general idea of which direction you are going. Can you articulate who your target audience is in human terms? How can you test your assumptions? What might X look like when you get there? How will you positively impact people's lives?
Realize that data is everywhere on everyone. Your first mission is to use what others have already compiled to better understand your industry.
Secondary data will show you the landscape.
There are thousands upon thousands of organizations collecting, analyzing, and using data. Take advantage of high quality data sources as they will help define the landscape of your treasure map.
Here's my process for secondary data collection:
Poking around on the internet is not the most fun, but keep your head up and keep searching. The process can be mega-insightful if you land on a jackpot study.
Primary data will show you the way.
After you've found some good information on your target audience and industry, you are ready to embark on primary data collection. This is the human side of marketing, and the most important! Data doesn't matter if you can't translate it in human terms.
Here's my process for primary data collection:
My favorite tool for plotting insights is RealTimeBoard. It's a virtual whiteboard that allows you plot all your golden nuggets on post-it notes. During primary research is where the real marketing magic clues lie.
When you find patterns, you're getting warmer.
Similar to improvisational comedy, if you hear someone mention something once, it's a data point. If you hear another person mention the same thing, it's a coincidence. If you hear a third person mention the same thing, it's a pattern.
Great marketing resonates with people because it hits on the elements of the shared human experience. To get to X, you must identify critical patterns in your target audience. Maybe they all use the same phrase to talk about their worries. Or perhaps they all feel frustrated by the same annoyances.
The more intimately you can understand the commonalities they stress over, love, worry about, talk about, need, fear, and desire, the more targeted your marketing will become.
The more you can empathize, the closer you will get to X.
Remember, the humans carry the magic.
Your goal is to get close enough to see it, and quiet enough to hear it.
Isn't it lovely when you feel something deep and hard to explain, and then pick up a book only to find the author has already captured that very thing and put it on paper?
I love this excerpt from Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Everyday we have so many choices. Will we eat this or that...work on that or this? If life is a smorgasbord, are you choosing with your eyes or with your heart?
"One of the most important discriminations we can make is the difference between the things that beckon to us and things that call from our souls.
This is how it works: imagine a smorgasbord laid out with whipped cream and salmon and bagels and roast beef, and fruit salad, and green enchiladas and rice and curry and yogurt and many, many things for table after table after table. Imagine that you survey it all and that you see certain things that appeal to you. You remark to yourself, "Oh! I would really like to have one of those, and one of that, and some of this other thing."
Some women and men make all their life decisions in this way. There is around and about us a constant beckoning world, one which insinuates itself into our lives, arousing and creating appetite where there was little or none before. In this sort of choice, we choose a thing because it just happened to be beneath our noses at that moment in time. It is not necessarily what we want, but it is interesting, and the longer we gaze at it, the more compelling it becomes.
When we are connected to the instinctual self, to the soul of the feminine which is natural and wild, then instead of looking over whatever happens to be on display, we say to ourselves, "What am I hungry for?" Without looking at anything outwardly, we venture inward, and ask, "What do I long for? What do I wish for now?"
Is that on the smorgasbord? Maybe yes and maybe no. In most cases, probably not. We will have to quest for it a little bit--sometimes for a considerable time. But in the end we shall find it, and be glad we took soundings about our deeper longings."
How might we reflect on what we're hungry for, before our eyes catch a glimpse of the table?
How might we shift our days to look inward first, before we let anyone pull us out?
Building a successful business is a voyage, and you are Amelia Earhart. You want to do something; build something, see something, sell something...so you do it. After all, “The only way to do it, is to do it,” as Amelia once said.
If you want your idea to take flight, you must pay attention to the elements around you. Like the stars and the wind and the rain. Everything is a clue. Every interaction. Every book. Every business that has come before you.
Your goal, my dear Amelia Bedelia, is to find these clues and figure out how they fit together. What’s the bigger picture, the other side of your world that you cannot yet see?
You can read books on Richard Branson, Sheryl Sandberg, or Tina Fey. They’ll sprinkle fairy dusts of inspiration to help you move along on your way. But the true nuggets of knowledge, the brightest stars in your sky, sit closest to home in a human nearby.
It’s the people in your circle--your family, your customers, and the ones on your team--that are the true co-pilots on your voyage to reaching your dream.
If you can figure out what pains them, moves them, or fills them with glee, it will reveal a small piece of the sky you hadn’t yet seen. The more you listen to people, the more stars you’ll collect. And the real magic happens when you see how they connect.
Are you looking around and mapping your plans in the sky? Or stuck with a keyboard sewn to your hands, and a screen glued to your eyes? Reading blogs, crunching data, and trying to figure out what it all means?
Get up, sweet Amelia.
Swivel out of your chair and hop onto your feet. There are tons of important people you absolutely must meet. Come listen to their stories. Collect every clue. Explore the curiosities, may each one bring something new.
A new star to add to your sky. A friend to take along for the ride. A wind of an insight that changes your direction. A dose of humanity, belonging, and connection.
People are people are humans at heart.
Tune in, Amelia, and I swear you'll go far.
PS, if tuning in is not your forte, or you don't even know where to begin, I can help.
I help startups and companies tune in to their audiences. We call it customer research, but it basically means getting to the heart of your customers, then using that information to guide your business and marketing strategy. It's an intuitive process of connecting the dots.
Learn more about my research, or reach out to me to chat.
Scanning the seats at the end of an airport terminal, a head of shiny, dark hair catches my eye. The strands shimmer little specks of light and leave me mesmerized just thinking about this young girl's hair conditioning regimen. She looks my way, her round brown eyes filled with a sense of wonder.
“Are you going on the flight to Amsterdam?” I ask her, ready to hand over a survey from my stack if the answer is yes.
“No, I am going to Columbia and then to Peru — ” she says, “I am going to hike Machu Picchu!”
“How exciting, I’ve heard it’s so beautiful there!” I say, taking note that she is sitting by herself. “Are you going alone or do you have friends meeting you?”
“I’m going alone,” she says, and then pauses.
There is more, I know there is more, so I take a seat next to her to chat.
Her name is Alex. As a recent grad with a stable job, she finally has the vacation time and money to travel. But her family is terribly freaked out that she booked a vacation alone to another country.
“My Dad dropped me off at the airport this morning and I could tell he wanted to cry. And I wanted to cry, too. But I couldn’t, because I needed to keep it together, you know?”
I do know, because I know the struggle of trying to convince your family that you are ready to go to a foreign place. I know what it feels like to hear their disapproval echoing in your head, the ache of stress consuming you to the point that your body physically hurts and the tears come easily.
It’s so hard to hear the faint voice in your heart over the sirens of fears people project onto you.
“When I first told my family I was going, they were all talking like I was already dead!” she says. “My parents even offered to give me the money I already paid for this trip and pay for a vacation to another place.”
I can’t help but laugh, “Parents are the worst when it comes to supporting adventures,” I tell her.
“I know it’s coming from a good place, because they really do care,” she says.
And I too know how deeply this is true.
In the name of love, parents will do everything they can to protect their kids.
Learning How to Fly
I am reminded of a timid little dove that sat motionless on our balcony. She was a sweet mix of baby fluff and disheveled feathers with a crooked stick for a beak. Each time I stepped outside, she froze. Not yet brave enough to fly, her beady eyes and birdy heart wished desperately for an invisibility cloak.
Day after day, the mother would return to feed little fluff. Some days the fledgling wouldn’t be there, and I wondered how she could have possibly gotten off our balcony. Until one day I saw what looked like a grey ball free-fall past our window.
Running outside to peer over the balcony, I saw little fluff and her parents frantically attending to her three stories below. Their wings flapped vigorously as the adult birds did what looked like a beak-to-beak resuscitation on their little one.
After a few traumatic seconds, their wings calmed and everyone relaxed. Phew, little fluff was fine.
Instinctively, she knew it was the only she would learn how to fly.
Oh, But The Risks…
There is a grave fear that parents hold heavy in their hearts, that their child will leap before she is ready. She will jump and fall 3 stories down, and they will not be there to help her get back up.
The risks here are real; broken hearts, bones, injuries, and scars that could require much more than a mother’s love to heal.
So parents keep their children close, an arms reach away all through adolescence. To ensure safe and optimal outcomes, they create mental maps to guide us along in the direction they see fit.
“You will follow this path; the one others have done before you — look how good it looks from the outside! We want this for you.”
When we try to do something outside of this plan — like venture alone to another corner of the world — the thought of us stumbling out of their reach can be overwhelming.
Avoid the danger! their parental instincts shout.
Chase the dream, our hearts whisper.
This tension affects us deeply.
Yet our calling, our purpose, our true inner strength, is something we must discover for ourselves. Parents cannot create the map to lead us there, they can only get us to the edge and encourage us to fly.
What If...She's Not Ready?
As Alex sits in front of me wide-eyed and waiting to board a plane that will drop her off in a foreign country alone, I can feel the tension heavy in her heart. Her parents don’t think she is ready.
I know she is.
I know this because I have been there and moved to a foreign country where at times, I felt completely, utterly alone. I trusted the process, hoping that if I kept learning a little bit every day, I would be okay.
There were days I cried frustrated tears filled with doubt. And later days when tears came again, filled with pride.
Venturing to another part of the world and figuring out how to live and breathe and communicate gives you a newfound sense of confidence in yourself and your ability to survive.
To enter a new arena of life alone requires a huge dose of bravery and vulnerability. Others may mistake this bravery for foolishness, seeing your courage through the lens of weakness. But this view is erroneous.
As the brilliant researcher, writer, and human Brené Brown says in her book Daring Greatly:
There is no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure equals weakness.
Rather, accepting the call to adventure and choosing to leave the familiar for the unknown is one of the purest forms of bravery.
When you know in your heart you are ready, you must listen.
Fly Baby Girl
Watching this sweet stranger on the brink of a worldly journey fills me with an immense sense of pride.
No matter where you are, even if it is the middle of the airport surrounded by hundreds of strangers, it is always okay to cry when you feel something in your heart. And it’s okay to speak it out loud.
To tell her,
Yes, you can do this.
Fly baby girl.
I believe in you and everything will be okay. Trust your instincts, and all the wisdom your parents instilled in you.
You may fall and it might hurt, but you will be okay. You will meet incredibly kind people. They are in every corner of the planet, I promise you this. When you need help, reach. Ask. Seek the good.
You will see sights out of a book that will feel like a dream, and it will be a dream. Only you will be wide awake and feeling everything. The sun on your skin, the thoughts in your head… noticing the greens of the leaves and the delicate details that surround you.
You will find that bravery comes in small packages and courage in quiet moments when it is just you and the wind. Breathe it all in, my shiny haired Pocahontas.
This moment, discovering the world with fresh eyes, is what life is all about.
Run girlfriend, run as fast as you can.
Leap fearlessly and know that you are strong enough, brave enough, wise enough. And when you fall, trust and believe that the universe will catch you.
Everything you need is already inside of you. Listen.
Your website is an online version of your pitch. It’s the perfect–and sometimes the only–opportunity to wow potential customers and investors. The catch is that you only have seconds to captivate and inspire them to take action. How do you do that?
You need killer web copy. Clear messaging that draws people in, resonates on a human level, and makes it easy for them to sign up, learn more, or buy. Ready to turn casual website visitors into paying customers, intrigued followers, and dedicated fans? Here are 5 tips to help you write great web copy.
Interested in learning more about the copywriting and the heart of marketing? Join the Humans at Heart mailing list. ❤
As a copywriter, I talk with entrepreneurs, business owners, and marketing managers about their websites, and I’ve noticed a striking pattern: almost everyone feels some level of doubt about their website. One by one, they confess their uncertainties to me…
Inherently, people know their website copy matters. However, they often underestimate how much an effective website could exponentially improve their bottom line and bring in new customers. To figure out if updating your online presence is a wise business decision, let’s start with situations where it’s not a good idea to invest in your website.
When Not to Invest in Your Website
During a recent focus group I was facilitating, an entrepreneur mentioned advice he heard that stuck with him (and me): "Startups are usually at an earlier stage than they think."
Occasionally, an entrepreneur will come to me with an idea and ask if I can build the story around it.
If you are in the idea stage, don’t invest in your website. Focus instead on hashing out your idea. Put your head down, develop a great product or company or at the very least, prototype, then worry about marketing it. You can’t invent a great story and hope it builds the business. Make the idea come alive, and the story will follow suit.
Got a Business You Want to Grow? Invest in Your Website
If you have a revenue-generating business, it’s absolutely worth it to keep your website updated. To help you determine what an "updated website" means, the simplest analogy is a glass elevator.
When you step into a glass elevator, do you look at the doors where you came from, or turn around to face the outside world?
Many companies will write their websites looking at the doors--fixated on what they know best, themselves.
"We've been around for 30 years...we do X, Y, and Z and we're the best in town. Here are some of the clients we've worked with before."
Forward thinking companies turn around to face the outside world--their customers. They recognize the environment as constantly changing, and stay vigilant and proactive. They observe how their customers' needs evolve and are continually focused on re-positioning their company to solve these problems.
"Did you forget your sunglasses on a sunshiny day? Don't let your eyeballs suffer any longer.
Get a spare pair that fits in your wallet→"
What sounds more compelling? A company biography or a novel solution to one of your current problems?
It's Time to Turn Around and Face the World
Connecting with your customers on a human level is essential to achieving your business and revenue goals. To determine if your website is outdated, ask yourself:
If it's been awhile (3-6 months) since you've checked in with your customers, now is the time to look. Only by listening to your customers can you uncover the most efficient way to market your value online, and marketing is integral to success.
As Bob Fifer, author of Double Your Profits in 6 Months or Less (a 90’s classic that still rings true today) says, "Most truly successful companies outspend their competition in marketing, either in absolute dollars or as a percentage of sales ."
When it comes to business expenditures, investing in your marketing is a strategic cost, which Fifer defines as follows:
The money you invest in well-directed marketing will help bring in new clients, improve your bottom line, and best of all — it’s generally tax deductible.
Website Content and Tax Deductions $$
Most people understand how a website can attract customers and grow their business, but many either forget or don't realize the tax incentives from Uncle Sam. Here in the promise land of entrepreneurial dreams, advertising costs for businesses are generally tax deductible.
You can pay money to invest in marketing your brand, or you can pay it to the government in taxes. Though I am not a tax accountant, there are plenty of resources online with more information on this.
Website content that is advertising is generally currently deductible; the treatment of other content costs will vary. Advertising costs are, generally, currently deductible. Thus, the costs of website content that is advertising are, generally, currently deductible -- CPA Services, Riley & Associates
Let's take a moment to count our blessings that it is not our job to write tax laws. To decipher any areas of uncertainty, speak with a tax accountant on your specific advertising expenses.
Don’t Put Off Updating Your Website
If you have a revenue-generating company and want to grow your business, make your online presence a priority. A website with a clear value proposition that speaks to the hearts of your customers is an invaluable marketing tool.
If you need help, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy to chat!