Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Your story in ten sentences

Time to read this post: 1 minute

One Thursday afternoon in November, the former president of Harvard University and noted orator Edward Everett spoke to a large crowd. Critics thought his speech was "erudite, moving, and well-delivered". Given his speech was over 13,000 words, he clearly had a lot to say.

As a former professor in Greek literature, Everett was masterful in his language. After more than two hours at the podium he wrapped up, "But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg". The year was 1863.

I had never heard of Edward Everett. But I do know Abraham Lincoln, the man who followed him.

In just over two minutes Lincoln delivered what is regarded as one of the finest speeches of all time. It is only 242 words - ten sentences in length. It reminded me of the power of an effective narrative. Fortunately, we don't have to deliver stirring speeches on battlefields at the end of civil wars. But we do need to be heard.

Tough questions

  • What is the next conversation, speech or meeting where you would like to be heard? Specifically when is it? Who do you want to be heard by?
  • What is it that you want the other person(s) to remember ? What is the one sentence that summarizes it?
  • How can you hit that objective by telling a story? Telling an anecdote? Using two minutes rather than two hours to be heard?

Write down your ten sentence narrative. Now.

The Gettysburg address

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate...we can not consecrate...we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

India calling - Virtual assistants

In 2005 I got myself a virtual assistant in India to make my life easier. It was an unmitigated disaster. Four years later and I am trying again. So far so good. This is a posting for those interested in what I outsource and how to do it successfully.

Time to read this post: 4 minutes

Who I use: I signed up with Get Friday on their 10 hours per month package. I considered doing pay as you go but I wanted to force myself to get ten hours of someone else helping me. It's about $10 / hour. There are many other services if you Google "Virtual Assistant" but this was a recommended firm that I trusted. By the way, if you do choose Get Friday and say you are referred by Alan Foster - I'd appreciate it.

Why do it: My wife and I had been to a wedding in Mumbai. We stayed with some friends in Bandra where we had breakfast with the father of our friend. He ran four different businesses and only seemed to work for a few hours a day. When I asked how he did it, he said he just got other people to help make his life easier. He had a man for everything. Why didn't I? I had also read Tim Ferris's Four Hour Work Week and become convinced that getting leverage from someone else was the way to go.

Enter Leo: my virtual assistant's name is Leo and so far it has been a huge success. I send him tasks via email. To give you an idea of what I use him for, here are a selection of the last few weeks:

1. Plan detailed parts of international travel: it was my school reunion in France and I got Leo to find a chateaux for my wife & I to stay the night before. he then found some recommended restaurants en route to our reunion that we could drop by for lunch the next day. He sent us PDF versions of the directions on Google Maps that I could print. On another occassion he summarised the recommendations on where to go in Brussels from the best of the New York Times, Guardian, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide & other sources I had recommended. This last weekend we were at a wedding in Pittsburgh, Leo sent us a summary of where to go, what to see and festivals / events that coincided with our stay. I was really busy at work and it was one less thing to worry about. Afterwards I send him a quick email about what I liked and what was missing from his research. He is extremely eager to learn & improve.

2. Job search: I had been procrastinating about doing research about other companies I might want to work at. Leo did a screen of all the portfolio companies of specific private equity firms in New York, put them into an excel spreadsheet, added descriptions, # of employees and then told me how I knew people at that company through LinkedIn. I have given Leo access to my LinkedIn website. He screened ~500 companies in a few hours - it was a repetitive task I had been avoiding. Well worth it.

3. House hunting: I have Leo regularly reviewing houses for sale near oneline where I live in Brooklyn and he alerts me when one that fits my criteria.

4. Website design & maintenance: my mum recently got her PhD and she wants to have somewhere online where people can come read more about her work and contact her. Get Friday has a team of web designers who can put this together in just a few hours. They are on it right now.

5. Document scanning: I realized that my work at home is cluttered. All my business school notes are in many folders scattered around the floors. Leo has researched places in Brooklyn where I can send the folders, get them scanned in onto CD-Rom and then recycle the originals.

6. Speech planning: I recently had a speech to give in London on stress management. I didn't know that much about the subject. Leo scoured the web and even watched a one hour video on TED lectures which he summarized into one document for me.

7. Weekly check-in email: I have Leo send me a weekly checkin email every Monday morning asking me about things I am trying to track each week. Stuff like how many times did I go to the gym, did I speak with my sister, did I use my strengths in a new way? I have 7 set questions that I track. Stuff I mean to do but without someone else hounding me I am likely to fall out of the habit. I had tried getting a Life Coach but I find this new method much more cost effective.

In the future I plan to have Leo do much more of our online shopping for us (he doesn't have my credit card details but their billing team does so it is secure). Down the line I can imagine him & his colleagues helping me run an online business.

Tips: if you do go down this route one of the most important things I have learned is how to request a task. I now always describe a task in 5 parts

a) goal: here is what I am trying to achieve (so he understands my overall intent, he might spot a faster way to do it or know another customer who had a similar request).

b) suggested approach: include your ideas for how he might do it. what sources would you recommend (e.g. if you are looking for a hotel do you want a chain where you have a loyalty card(e.g. Starwood) or a boutique hotel located downtown). Without your advice your assistant may assume you want the same as their other customer who has terrible taste.

c) format: do you want it in an email, to give you a call, in a word document, PDF etc

d) max time to spend: without guidance your assistant might spend five hours on something that you meant for them only to take fivee minutes. Sometimes I say "please work on this for 30minutes then email me and send an estimate for the total time you think it will take"

e) deadline: help them prioritize. sometimes I want it by end of day, sometime end of the week is fine. normally he will complete any task within 24 hours

Real example from last week:

"Leo, we are going to a wedding in Pittsburgh, USA this Friday for the weekend. We are looking for advice on things to do during the day on Saturday. Please could you do a search online (including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal) and see if there are recommended activities and good travel articles (e.g. good restaurants for Saturday lunchtime in central Pittsburgh); museums; anything else. Please could you summarise into a Word document.
Time to spend on this (max 30 minutes)

Deadline end of day Wednesday August 26th

Thanks, Alan"

So that's where I am right now. Still trying out new approaches but it's working out much better than my experiment in 2005.

PS One of my colleagues also uses Get Friday and has his VA (Virtual Assistant) look at match.com to look for suitable dates. They have had sessions over the phone to make sure the assistants understands his tastes in New York thrity something women...

Tough questions:

What are the repeatable tasks that bore you and someone else could help with?

What have you always dreamed of doing if only you had a bit more time to think about it?