Growing Change

This post is dedicated to the memory of Andrew ‘Wilf’ Wilford, a changemaker, a mentor to many, and my friend who died on 13 August 2012.

In the last week I’ve discovered two of the most inspiring changemakers I’ve ever encountered.

Both are leading grassroots change from their respective (and very different) communities – one in the UK, one in the US – and both are doing this through growing food.

Both are bringing into play their own unique styles of comedy and wit in their delivery – note the amount of laughter throughout both of these presentations.

So who are these people? What are they doing in their communities, and what makes them effective change agents?

In under half an hour, you too can learn about their initiatives, feel inspired, and consider how their approaches and techniques could be used in your own work.

Let me introduce you to Pam Warhurst and Steven Ritz.

Incredible Edibles: How We Can Eat Our Landscapes

Pam Warhurst is a co-founder of Incredible Edible, a community-initiated movement in Todmorden in northern England which grows and campaigns for local food.

mary clear (left) and pam warhurst, co-founders of Incredible Edibles

Image credit: Daily Mail UK (Pam at right, with co-founder Mary Clear)

Incredible Edible emerged when its creators were thinking about the most effective way to get people involved in having some agency over their own lives, right where they live:

We tried to answer this simple question: Can you find a unifying language that cuts across age and income and culture that will help people themselves find a new way of living, see spaces around them differently, think about the resources they use differently, interact differently? Can we find that language? And then, can we replicate those actions? And the answer would appear to be yes, and the language would appear to be food.

Here is Pam at TEDxSalon in May 2012 (13 mins):

Leadership Skills

Warhurst’s group initiated the growing of food on unused public land. They started with a seed swap, and then turned a verge into a herb garden. Now food is being grown in a wide range of places, including in the railway station car park and in front of the police station. To accommodate the tourists the group’s work attracted, they established the Incredible Edible Green Route, a walking tour of these and other sites, which takes people through the town and past local businesses.

They started with a small, practical action, created a visible success, then attracted other people into their conversation, their story.

People are ready and respond to the story of food. They want positive actions they can engage in, and in their bones, they know it’s time to take personal responsibility and invest in more kindness to each other and to the environment.

They’ve since established a partnership with a high school, with whom they are designing and building an aquaponics system. The high school is now teaching agriculture as a result of the community wanting to work with the students. They’ve turned some donated land into a market garden training center, and as a result, local academics offered to design a commercial horticulture course.

Warhurst acknowledges that what her group is doing is not original or clever – however it is joined up, and it is inclusive. Their motto is: ‘If you eat, you’re in!’. She understands that an holistic approach for change is necessary – for example, if you can get people interested in local food because they can see what’s growing all around them, then you have a better chance of them spending their money to support local producers.

To engage local farmers and producers, her group established the ‘Every Egg Matters’ campaign, where the availability of surplus eggs has been plotted on the Egg Map. There are now 64 local egg sellers on the map. Imagine doing this with everything that people produce in backyards! People began asking for ‘Todmorden eggs’ in the shops ie. looking for locally produced product. A survey conducted by local students revealed that half of all food traders in the town said they had experienced an increase in their bottom line as a result of Incredible Edible’s efforts.

Further, its not just about people who are growing food:

…we all are part of this jigsaw. It’s about taking those artistic people in your community and doing some fabulous designs in those raised beds to explain to people what’s growing there, because there’s so many people that don’t really recognize a vegetable unless it’s in a bit of plastic with a bit of an instruction packet on the top.

A number of projects have spun out of Incredible Edible, including a commitment from the local authority to make everywhere ‘incredible edible’, starting with creating an asset register of spare land that communities can use to grow food. The group is calling for planning authorities to bring food growing sites into the heart of towns and cities, not relegate them to peri-urban areas where few people encounter them.

More than 30 towns in the UK have adopted the Incredible Edible model, along with communities from the US to Japan to New Zealand, where citizens of Christchurch visited Todmorden with a view to incorporating these ideas in the post-earthquake rebuilding of their city.

Personal Attributes

Warhurst has a sense of dogged determination about her, and is no-nonsense  in her approach, with a very English sensibility of just getting on with it:

We’re starting to reinvent community ourselves, and we’ve done it all without a flipping strategy document…

We’ve not asked anybody’s permission to do this, we’re just doing it. We came up with a really simple game plan that we put to a public meeting. We did not consult. We did not write a report. Enough of all that.

This will resonate with anyone who has ever been hamstrung by risk-averse or officious authorities, or become frustrated with groups where the need to create some universally-agreed to master plan with every last detail planned out (but that all parties can never quite agree to) stymies action.

The can-do approach Warhust embodies has resulted in a remarkable list of achievements in a short time, especially, as Warhust pointedly said:

And we’re just volunteers and it’s only an experiment.

In showing how her group of volunteers brought about change, particularly with limited resources, it gives people a real sense of hope and possibility that they too could do the same.

Presentation Skills

Warhurst’s delivery is matter-of-fact, yet witty, and her presentation is rich with images of the people and places associated with Incredible Edible.

She tickles the crowd by referring to the group’s work as ‘Propaganda Gardening’ and noting that they’ve invented a new form of tourism – ‘Vegetable Tourism’. Creating vivid phrases for concepts like these are effective ways to marshall and promote ideas, and enthuse others about becoming involved. The idea of ‘planting verges’ may interest a few folks, but framing it as ‘Propaganda Gardening’ both connects it to a bigger idea and makes it sound more appealing.

All through her talk, Warhurst conveys a feeling that all of this has happened not because it is a kind of  miracle, but because doing it was just plain common sense, and that everything that has been done is perfectly normal, including growing food in the town’s cemetery where, she informs an amused audience, ‘the soil is extremely good!’.

The Green Bronx Machine – A Teacher Growing Green in the South Bronx

Steven Ritz teaches at-risk kids in the South Bronx, where the unemployment rate is 25%, poverty is at 40% and the median income is $20k a year. Most of his students are homeless, and many are in foster care.

Steven Ritz and some of his students at work in Harlem, NYC

Image credit: Green Bronx Machine

Now that’s a challenge for a changemaker. How has he turned those starting conditions into this?

Ritz believes that students shouldn’t have to leave their community to live, learn and earn in a better one. Moving generations of students into spheres of personal and academic successes they have never imagined while reclaiming and rebuilding the Bronx, Stephen’s extended student and community family have grown over 25,000 pounds of vegetables in the Bronx while generating extraordinary academic performance. His Bronx classroom features the first indoor edible wall in NYC DOE which routinely generates enough produce to feed 450 students healthy meals and trains the youngest nationally certified workforce in America. His students, traveling from Boston to Rockefeller Center to the Hamptons, earn living wage en route to graduation.

Here is Steven Ritz at TEDx Manhattan in February 2012 (13 mins):

Leadership Skills

Ritz has formed a community around the gardens students are designing and the food they are growing, which provides them with food, skills and jobs. He’s found a way to help the students meet pressing personal needs, and contribute to something bigger than themselves, both of which foster self-esteem.

He’s created a highly visible example of something that works, and can demonstrate success, which has attracted the attention and support of media, foodies and politicians.

Ritz understands that he is merely the enabler, the ‘conductor’ of an orchestra (*meaning himself):

…when you put big kids together with little kids, you get the big fat white guy* out of the middle, which is cool, and you create this kind of accountability amongst peers, which is incredible.

He’s constantly searching for new ways to build on the existing body of work. He celebrates achievements and ensures his students get that positive feedback.

And where it counts? The results of how Ritz has helped students change their lives speak for themselves:

Forty percent attendance to 93 percent attendance. All start overage and under-credit…my first cohort is all in college, earning a living wage. The rest are scheduled to graduate this June.

It’s not just about the gardening and food growing – it’s about raising expectations and expanding horizons.

Personal Attributes

On a personal level, Ritz is an absolute dynamo. His enthusiasm and confidence is contagious, his energy leaps off the stage and out of the screen – as he himself exclaimed ‘I’m the oldest sixth grader you’ll ever meet!’

He delights the crowd with his self-deprecating wit and uses comedy to get people to laugh with him. He tells his stories in a way that makes the apparently unlikely seem perfectly normal:

…I met nice people like you, and they invited us to the Hamptons. So I call this ‘from South Bronx to Southampton’. And we started putting in roofs that look like this, and we came in from destitute neighborhoods to start building landscapes like this, wow! People noticed. And so we got invited back this past summer, and we actually moved into the Hamptons, paid 3,500 dollars a week for a house, and we learned how to surf.

Part radio DJ with his rapid-fire delivery, part Baptist preacher as he responds to the reactions of his audience in the moment, Ritz explodes preconceptions of what life options are available to poor and often homeless kids. He is deeply emotionally invested in what he is doing, and one gets the impression he would not give up easily or take ‘no’ for an answer.

Presentation Skills

Ritz delivers not so much a presentation as a performance.

As a speaker, he moves along at a rapid pace, and can do so because he knows his content inside out. And because he’s telling a story, not delivering information, because he’s using images (not bullet points) to illustrate his talk, the audience can keep up.

He uses rich metaphors, such as when he explains how the green wall in his classroom is there to be grazed: ‘if you’re hungry, get up and eat – my kids play cow all the time’.

He uses repetition of certain phrases, such as ‘I am not a farmer. I’m a teacher,’ and  ‘the glory and bounty that is Bronx County’ (the latter is also a rhyme, a mantra even).

He uses vivid language to highlight the stark difference between what is, and what would have been, if it wasn’t for these initiatives:

The borough that gave us baggy pants and funky fresh beats is becoming home to the organic ones.

Brook Park feeds hundreds of people without a food stamp or a fingerprint.

Nothing thrills me more than to see kids pollinating plants instead of each other.

Thank God Omar knows that carrots come from the ground, and not aisle 9 at the supermarket or through a bullet-proof window or through a piece of styrofoam.

How could you not warm to a character like Steven Ritz and want to get involved in whatever he is doing?

Although from very different communities, Pam Warhurst and Steven Ritz are both leaders who ignite in people a passion and belief that they can change their world and themselves, and they tell their stories as empathic and inspiring communicators.

Have you worked with a great change-maker? What personal attributes and leadership skills did they have that made them effective?

Can you identify people around you who are creating change through practical action? How can you help support their efforts?

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How The King of Communicators Inspired Change

Ever wondered how the great orators of history crafted and delivered such memorable speeches that resonated with their audience?

Nancy Duarte of Duarte Design – the company responsible for turning Al Gore’s Powerpoint slides into an Oscar-winning quality story in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ – has dissected Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech from the 1963 March on Washington D.C., to show how it’s done.

In this fascinating analysis, Duarte extracted each line of Dr King’s speech and organised it according to tense in order to show visually how he moved the audience from ‘what is’ to ‘what could be’, ending with the positive situation the speaker and audience wish to manifest, ‘the new bliss’:

screenshot of Duarte's dissection of King's speech, showing where parts referred to the present, and the future

Don’t worry that you can’t read the words – they’re being used here for a different purpose, to show the structure of the speech.

Duarte then separated out elements of the speech, colour-coded them, and plotted them in accordance with where they were used by Dr King. Here’s a visual overlay of each element:

Repetition (identified in blue), a device to drive a point home, and usually done in threes – here are points in the Dr King’s speech where repetition was used:

screenshot of graphic showing where King's words were repetition

Dr King’s most well-known repetitions from this speech were the words ‘I have a dream…’, but he also used it in other sections of his speech:

But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. 

This paragraph is also rich with metaphor, or visual words.

Metaphors and visual words (identified in pink) were used liberally by Dr King:

screenshot of graphic showing where King's words were metaphorical

Dr King uses the metaphor of a check, and a bank account – one that would be familiar to most people – to speak of justice:

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Cultural references (identified in green), show where Dr King used songs, scripture, literature that were familiar and dear to the audience:

screenshot of graphic showing where King used cultural references

Dr King referenced ‘Free At Last’, a Negro spiritual song in his rousing finish to his delivery:

Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Political references (identified in orange), show where Dr King refers to political events, dates or documents, like the Declaration of Independence:

screenshot of graphic showing where King used political references

At the beginning of his speech, Dr King invokes abolitionist President Abraham Lincoln and echoes Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (which began ‘Four score and seven years ago…’)

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

It is worth nothing that the most powerful and memorable part of Dr King’s speech combined ALL of these elements: repetition, metaphor, cultural and political references:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” (political)

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. (repetition, metaphor)

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. (repetition, metaphor)

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. (repetition)

I have a dream today. (repetition)

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers. (repetition, metaphor)

I have a dream today. (repetition)

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. (repetition, metaphor, cultural – scripture)

Each of these elements, along with Dr King’s measured delivery and speaking style, combined to create a powerful emotional call to action. Dr King was not appealing to the ‘logical’ part of the brain, but intent on shifting the heart.

As noted in ‘Motivating Sustainable Behaviour’, it is more effective to inspire and involve people, and give them a sense of agency over their situation than it is to rationalise and instruct. Martin Luther King appealed to people with ‘I have a dream’ – not ‘ I have a plan’.

Here is Duarte’s analysis in full (7 mins):

It would be fascinating to see a similar visual analysis of speeches by another great political orator of King’s era, President John F Kennedy.

A cursory glance at JFK’s Inaugural Address from 20 January 1961 shows all of the elements of King’s speech: repetition, metaphor, scripture, political references:

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us…

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce. (repetition, metaphor)

Let both sides unite to heed, in all corners of the earth, the command of Isaiah – to “undo the heavy burdens, and [to] let the oppressed go free.” (cultural – scripture)

And, if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion…(metaphor)

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. (repetition, call to action)

In his address at the American University, 10 June 1963:

“When a man’s way[s] please the Lord,” the Scriptures tell us, “He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights: the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation; the right to breathe air as nature provided it; the right of future generations to a healthy existence? (repetition, cultural – scripture)

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal. (metaphor, repetition)

Duarte has also applied this technique to other historical speeches, such as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and from more recent times, Steve Jobs’s iPhone launch speech. You can learn more about creating messages and storytelling approaches in Duarte’s book, ‘Resonate’.

Yet King’s speech is perhaps the best example – not only is it memorable, it has become a cultural icon that has touched audiences beyond those who were immediately involved in the civil rights struggle, and has continued to be influential beyond the time and cultural context in which it was made.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Address at March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Washington, D.C. (17 mins)

It’s success depended very much on the spirit of the man, but also on the structure and delivery of his most cherished message.

Which other great historical or contemporary speeches would you like to see dissected and analysed? 

How well do you know your audience? What metaphors would you use, and what cultural and political references could you tap into when presenting to them? 

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‘Bad’ Powerpoint Banned at National Conference

As audiences around the world are sent into a soporific stupor through being subjected to bad presentations, the usefulness of Powerpoint as a means of communicating ideas has been called into question.

In Switzerland, a political party called the Anti Powerpoint Party has been formed, which encourages people to report Powerpoint Sinners and submit ‘Horror Slide of the Month’!

The APPP sees itself as ‘…the advocate of approximately 250 Million people worldwide, who, every month, are obliged to be present during boring presentations in companies, universities, or at other institutions…’

The party’s founder, Matthias Poehm, has also written a book called ‘The Powerpoint Fallacy’ which makes the case that Powerpoint has the opposite effect on the audience that the presenter intended.

The primary objective of any presentation should be to engage, and not bore, your audience.

bored baby

Yet Powerpoint, and other presentation platforms, are merely the tools; perhaps the real issue is how we are using those tools?

Hence, I was both pleased and amused to learn of this announcement from Meetings and Events Australia, via Duarte Design’s Facebook feed:

Meetings & Events Australia (MEA) has become the first organisation to ban the traditional use of PowerPoint-style presentations at a major conference. The MEA Annual National Conference, to be held in Sydney on 21-24 April 2012, attracts around 900 delegates to discuss meeting and event issues.

Given its role in advising clients how to communicate effectively at events, MEA has long questioned whether speakers who read out bullet points provide a useful experience for meeting delegates.

“The bullet point model was created in the pre-digital era, when there was a shortage of expert information. It was worth flying somewhere to hear that kind of speech. Now the web is full of expert presentations you can watch in your own time and location, so meetings need to provide something beyond that,” said Linda Gaunt, chief executive officer of MEA.

The aim is to deliver presentations that are simpler, more emotive and more human than delegates normally see. Presenters are encouraged to tell stories rather than read out lists. Endless studies have shown that stories are far more memorable and inspiring than the standard style of business presentation, but until now organisations have balked at enforcing speakers to break the mould.

MEA has drawn up a banned list of classic PowerPoint techniques. Bullet points, flow charts, template backgrounds, clip art, reading from the screen, and other proven yawn-inducers are all forbidden, a challenging task at an event with speakers from around the world.

Presenters have been briefed to present with simpler, more involving material: photos, videos, demonstrations, old-fashioned storytelling. No image is allowed to have more than 10 words.

“As an industry, we manage everyone else’s events. It’s up to us to set an example to show that when you get people together, it doesn’t have to be a process of dull, passive one-way communication,” said Gaunt.

“We’re pushing everyone outside the comfort zone, and we think it’s going to be involving and inspiring. It’s the future of meetings.”

Source: Spice News, 2 February 2012

It is heartening to see MEA have made a decision to walk their talk – to understand the power of story and the perils of ‘slideuments’ – essentially putting a document in Powerpoint and reading it to your audience:

We are out of the age of ignorance about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to presentations, so there is no longer any excuse for boring an audience to sleep!

In the past, I have been guilty of Powerpoint sins, but having sat through one too many appalling presentations – including several by an executive who literally used to copy and paste text-dense paragraphs onto slides, and another which attempted to get through a three-digit number of slides in an hour (speed Powerpoint, anyone?) – I have endeavoured to change my presentations in accordance with the kinds of guidelines mentioned by MEA, which has banned the Powerpoint ‘bads’.

In 2008, I gave a presentation which was almost all images, and very few words, although I still admit to reading from prompts – it was my first go at doing a presentation this way. It was the last slot of the afternoon on the last day of the event, about the time when most people want it to be over so they can go to the bar for some drinks.

Halfway into my presentation, I noticed that none of the audience had left, and they appeared attentive when they otherwise might have been expected to be nodding off, distracted, or have left for the bar. It was because I was telling them a story, and the images on the screen were illustrating my words, not competing with them.

Following on from what not to do means learning how to craft presentations – which are both technically excellent, and that work in terms of memorable content – from those doing this best and teaching others presentation skills.

Duarte Design’s Resonate and Garr Reynolds’s Presentation Zen are both leading edge, and their books, blogs and videos are essentials for anyone interested in delivering successful presentations and ensuring their message is received by, and stays with, their audience.

What are some of your Powerpoint horror stories – either presentations you’ve given, or ones you’ve experienced as an audience member?

If you have delivered the kind of presentation the MEA is talking about, how did it feel? Did you notice a different response in your audience?

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