It was Day 2 of the Gobi race and we were somewhere midway in the 96km race.   Right in the middle of the day, all were tired and some were injured.   Whilst I was at the front using the GPS to navigate, I noticed that Danny (pseudonym) was at the back of the line, and falling behind more and more from the pack.   He did not look good. 

I picked up the walkie-talkie and asked him, ‘Are you ok?’.   He replied. ‘I am ok’    I then carried on the walking.

This sounds like a normal and caring exchange.  But subsequently, I realize that this kind of ‘Are-you-ok-I-am-ok’ transactions is one of the BIG reasons why we performed so badly in Day 1 and Day 2.   This is probably a major reason why teams at work failed to unleash its potential better.

Why so?   It is about what was probably going on…. actually:

Overt >>> â€˜Are you ok?’                       

Covert >>>‘‘You do not look good.  You probably need some help to pick up the speed for us all. We do not want to finish last again!   But I do not want to make you look weak.  And I do not want to be rejected if I offer concrete help.  I better just check gently only.’

Overt >>> â€˜I am ok’

Covert >>> â€˜Man, I am in big trouble.  My leg can hardly move and I am slowing the team down.   But I cannot look weak in front of the others.   And you may not really want to help.  You just asked out of courtesy.   It is better to say I am ok’

Apparently, the ‘Are-you-ok-I-am-ok’ transactions covered up opportunities for the team to improve.    A team can perform better than a collection of people only if the members can share their resources and capabilities.   This means that a high-performing team can transfer ‘resources / capability surplus’ from the stronger to the weaker.   (Note that one can be stronger in a particular aspect e.g. physical strength but weak in another e.g. navigation)

It was a big ‘Aha’ to me as this above ideas came to my mind during our joint reflection.  I felt so shitty – How could I be consumed by the personal pride / fear of rejection at the expense of team performance?   Instead of asking ‘Are you ok?’, it made more sense for me to just go behind Danny and pushed him, or to pull him with a hiking pole.   Whilst I sensed that it was not just me gone off-task this way, I shared in our circle in our tent something like this, 

‘I, may be even we, have been fxxking (deliberate choice of words) too polite to each other…….   This has been keeping us from getting better……   To be specific, we have no option but SHAMELESSLY:

  • Ask for help
  • Accept help
  • Offer help’

Others laughed and we started to talk about this problem. This apparently helped bringing the undiscuss-able more discussable.   Subsequently, with other factors, we did step up our ‘shameless’ exchange of help on Day 3.

Further reflection will lead to the next question – how can a team battle against the obstacles (e.g. personal pride / fear of rejection) to ‘shameless’ exchange of help ?    The ‘triangle’ in the book ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ answers the question well.   What need to achieve is the vulnerability-based trust (as described by the model) i.e. readiness to admit mistake, weakness and concerns to the fellow team members.    A key to build such trust is personal disclosure e.g. personal history, personality profile (and stories behind it), among other things mentioned in the book.

I feel so grateful of such lively and personal lesson in illustrating models in books.

What story would you like to tell?



Many years ago, I was facing some difficult career choices.   As a coachee, I was asked a question which I found very powerful.   My first kid was a few months ago at that time, and the question was like ‘The best way to raise the kids is to role model.   How would you choose so that you will have the stories you want to tell your kids when they grow up?’

I suddenly became very clear on what I will do.    On reflection, the question is powerful because it connected my emerging identity to the problem.   Since I had a lot of energy on such identity, the question empowered me to address the problem the better.

The implication for me as a coach is then to look for the different identities a coachee has, especially those outside the natural scope of the underlying problem.   So, if the problem is in the workplace, look for identities like a mother, a father, a daughter, a son, a sister, a brother, a friend, a sports team member, a church member…..    Sense which one the coachee has energy with.   Prompt the coachee to look at the problem from such identity may give him / her new perspective.

What is the right thing to do?

I came across a series of very insightful lectures on the Internet.    It is called ‘Justice’ by a Harvard Professor called Michael Sandel.   It is one of the most popular courses in Harvard’s history.   It is so popular that it is broadcasted on TV!    More information about the lecture here.

More importantly, I am amazed with how he engages over 1,000 students in class for almost an hour each time by effectively facilitating discussion!   I learnt a lot from watching his video.  Let me detail out my observation with one of the episode:

This episode is his first class of the series where he introduced ‘moral reasoning’ e.g. Consequentialism.     A lecture on this topic could be boring.   However, the Professor made it lively and engaging.   Here are what I learnt from this episode (watch 02:00 to 10:00 on the video above)

  • Story – Instead of theories, he started the class with short and simple stories e.g. the 5 workers on the track.   And he built the discussion based on these, which then eventually led to the planned learning on moral reasoning.
  • Non-verbal response first – He was very conscious to get the students to talk.  He often started by first asking them to take position against an easy-to-understand close-ended question e.g. ‘Please raise your hand if you choose to turn the wheel’.   Only after such warming-up and commitment demonstrated (Cialdini Principle here), he invited view from the floor.
  • Pit-ball Discussion – He got the students to respond to each other rather by himself.   There were a few powerful questions he often used – ‘OK, who has a reply?’ and ‘Do you want to reply?’
  • Use names – He involved the students even more by using names.  He often asked for names, and then facilitated discussion by asking question like ‘Let me ask you this question?  Andrew.’
  • Paraphrase – He often summarized the students’ view before moving on.
  • Giving recognition – Whilst it would be rather scary to speak in front of 1,000 people, he encouraged participation by recognizing those who spoke up e.g. ‘It is a hard question.  You did very well’ and ‘That’s a brave answer.  Thank You!’, etc
  • Powerful question – Other than the above, I like his ‘Who else?’ question a lot as well.

It is just unbelievable how the Professor can turn such potentially-boring subject into engaging sessions.  There is always someone who told me that they could not present or train well because his or her topic is boring by nature.   I would recommend him / her to watch Sandel’s videos.   What stops us from being half as good as what he does?

In addition, I find it beneficial to watch them before I facilitate session.   The videos made me unconsciously facilitate more, rather than tell!

I wish one day I could attend Sandel’s speech live.

Made it Stick

I am clearing my annual leave these days as things get slower at the year end. One thing I am doing during this holiday is reading the book called Made it Stick. Again, I learn of this from Presentationzen.com!!

I like the ‘contemporary wisdom’ in this book. Unlike those old-fashion literature, this book is easy to read with simple sentences and lots of real life relevant examples!!   I am particularly amazed by the examples it given.   Right when you need one after reading a concept, you will get one.  And most examples are to-the-point and of real-life.

This is definitely a learning point for us as a trainer / facilitator / presenter who needs to communicate effectively.

Of course, other than how the book is written, got to talk about its content.   In short, the book argues that there are 6 principles in making an idea stick:

  1. Simple
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credible
  5. Emotional
  6. Stories

I agree.  It definitely applies directly in presentation.  I however will need some more time to think before I properly relate to training skills.  For example, I want to think through how these 6 factors can apply when we face with technical training with huge amount of dry knowledge.   I actually plan to read the book twice.   I will share with you more thoughts at that time.    But in short, a great book.   I believe as the readers of this blog, you will like it.   BTW, do go to its website www.madetostick.com as well.

“Natural delivery, not Cesarean Section!”

I attend a pre-natal training today in a local hospital in Shanghai today. It is of good value – RMB50 for 2 hours. And to my surprise, the presentation quality is much better than I expected. I expected the training session to be a boring and lecture-like one. In short, I am very engaged in the whole 2 hours. I do not feel bored or simply I almost do not check my watch at all. Whilst I am listening to the content, I also jot down a few points why the presentation is good:

Lots of examples – The content is dry by nature e.g. how to breathe according to the Lamaze method. However, the speaker makes it lively by giving 1 to 2 examples as she introduces each point. Lots of real stories. People love to hear stories, especially exotic ones like how she helped a case where the baby was delivered with leg coming out first.

Humor – Again, her experience helps. They are mostly cases of how the parents-to-be over-reacted during preparation.

Creditability – Her wealth of stories only tells her rich in experience. Simple, she is credible.

Not all on the slides – Her slides are not exactly good. They are mostly word slides. The one on the left is one of the very few using diagram. However, the good thing is that not all the content is on the slides. People have to listen well to catch the extra points, and especially the stories.

Passion – She is simply engaged into what she is speaking. She is interested herself. I can feel that she wants to share with you something good. For example, she strongly advises all for Natural Delivery over Cesarean Section. I can feel that she cares (well, especially since I know that the hospital actually charges more for Cesarean Section!!) It is not easy to be that passionate especially if you have delivered the same topic many times. But it does come with reward. You earn good attention, if not respect, from the audience

On the other hand, there are a few things which do need improvement (in terms of presentation, not the content!!)

Room setting – There are simply too many people cramped together. 42 people in a dark room of around 40sqm. And note, most are pregnant women of some size!!

Interaction – She can do much better if she interacts with the audience. For example, she can invite volunteer to the stage in order to demonstrate the Lamaze method. Or she can ask for show of hands to guess the right answer of her questions. The message will be more clearly delivered and audience will be even more engaged!

Overall speaking, she was already great as her profession is an Obstetrics and Gynecology physician, but not a trainer / professional presenter!! Well, the only question which I asked her at the end is ‘Which other training session is conducted by you as well?’!!!

ASTD – Safe is Dangerous


In my organization, we sometimes video-taped some class delivery and send to remote branches for their viewing. Not many colleagues there are interested in watching them. I somehow guessed that it would be the case but I do not have a clear answer…. until I attended Doug Stevenson’s session on story telling.


Here is what Doug said – Imagine, whilst you are reading a book in a beach, you suddenly find someone surfing in the sea on a huge wave. What will you do? You will continue reading or watching the surfer? Probably the latter. Why? Partly because surfing is a beautiful act, partly because you do not know what will happen in the next second – will he fall? People love uncertainty or unexpectedness in this sense. They know they can always go back to their books, but for the surfing, if they do not pay attention they may miss something great.


A video-taped presentation is just often too ‘safe’ to be attractive (….unless its other elements e.g. content / delivery skills are great like ‘The Inconvenient Truth’). The same applies to those plainly-designed live presentations where audience can readily expect what to happen next e.g. going through points shown on the screen or worse in the handout.

So, make your presentation ‘unsafe’. Build the thought to the participants that something unexpected may happen so that they will pay attention!! Of course, one way is to tell stories as what Doug advocates.

How prepared are you in using stories in presentation? And do you have the gut?

I attended a big conference call this week. Well, you know how boring conference call can be, especially those with over 10 people and wide spectrum of topics (Why is big conference call boring? I think it goes back to the essence of a good communication i.e. you need interaction. You simply do not have enough air time for all to speak, which is the only interaction medium in a conference call.)

Having said that, there was a UK lady in the call who gave an impressive briefing (almost a speech since it was so polished). She started with a story about her son, and then related it to her topics, and at last summarized with the same story. More importantly, she impressed me by finishing her entire briefing in 20 minutes, exactly the duration indicated in the agenda.

Let’s not think about what (whether too much) preparation she made, but focus on the effect. Her performance impressed me a lot, and I believe it also impressed to most (for those who was listening) in the call. In the future, I will associate her name with ‘preparedness’, ‘articulate’, ‘good communication’. A very effective way to perform and gain reputation in a community, which help gather collaboration and help our work)!!

I then think of her preparation (always the key in any form of presentation). She probably has scripted her speech, well, at least in bullet points. And she must have rehearsed as well in order to have such a good control in time. In addition, she really has spent time selected her stories and practiced telling it. Adding altogether, I guess it may take at least 30 minutes. Well, it may not worth the while for everyonel. But it is definitely worth us to keep it as an option – when you have to build reputation, or when the audience is very important.

And a question to me (or to you as well) – why haven’t I done it at all before?

Another thought out of this call is the gut in telling a story in such a high level conference call. Hey, everyone is so serious talking about business, with all those high-sounding jargons e.g. strength-based, retention, value-added, matrix…. Do you dare to tell a story relating to your son? I guess this all goes back to how much you believe the power of story, and how much you are willing to take risk. I think for me the latter question relates to me more. I do believe story help to draw attention and retain memory. And if I take some risk, give it a try though others may think otherwise, get used to it, it will be fine. Yes, it is the risk-averse attitude which is the obstacle.

As I shared with the others in the class, one can only acquire a skill if he / she takes the risk to use it. Open your mind, and do what you believe. Also, as Steve Job said, ‘Stay foolish, stay hungry!!’