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Obliterate the Opening Remarks

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I recently attended a high-level technology summit, who’s innocence I will protect by allowing them to remain anonymous. It attracted power players from all over the world. The quality of social influence and brain power was as impressive as the quality of the content in the panels.

The event was wonderful, I really enjoyed it on the whole and feel honored to have been invited. However, as the second half of the second day came to a close, we packed three sessions into two marathon hours. What struck me towards the end of the event was how the 10 minute opening remarks of each panelist caused each panel to provide information that was more flat than they intended and reduced the energy of the room to a snore. This unintended consequence of the format allowed the panels at the beginning of the day to go long and the ones at the end of the day to be cut short. Also, this prevented the panels from taking questions from the audience, which on a whole is usually when a room starts to wake up and the panel actually begins to become interesting. Thus, I call on all moderators of the world’s future panels to obliterate the opening remarks and organize panels around Conversational Clarity.

Let’s face it, opening remarks are boring. My former NPR editor called them “delay of game” content. “Get to the point and get me interested!” he would say.

Being a former NPR/PBS reporter and talk show host forced me to learn the art of Conversational Clarity. It’s a technique that forces moderators or hosts to skip the background and get right to the meat of the topic.  Though the delivery of their answers panelists can pepper the conversation with their expertise, background and the missions of their respective organizations in ways that audiences would retain better than opening remarks. This format creates more compelling content delivery that causes curiosity in listeners, piques their interest, and prompts them to follow up for more information.

The Art of Conversational Clarity

Conversational Clarity requires a moderator to understand where their panelists are coming from and ask opening questions that cut to the chase.  It does require preparation from the moderator, so if you are organizing an event make sure to give your panelists plenty of lead time.  Encourage them to connect with their panelists two to three weeks ahead of time to discover the messages and points they are looking forward to making on the panel. Additionally, encourage your moderators to offer panelists ideas and sample questions that can start off the panel.

At the event, Conversational Clarity starts with detailed, yet brief introductions by the moderator based on panelist bios. Overall, this short speech should last no more than 20 seconds and only offer the highest level of detail. Organizers should instruct their moderators to modify and rewrite bios so that they can be read in a more conversational tone.

Moderator introductions skips the opportunity for panelists to ramble on for ten minutes about their company and what they do. After that these short introductions, the first question should bring up the largest challenges to the topic at hand, as a way to jump start a dialogue of actionable items people could implement to accomplish the end goal. An example of a CC opening question might be:

“Much has been made about the rise/fall of [insert topic]. In fact, [insert statistic]. To kick off this panel, what is the one strategy you would recommend to overcoming the challenges to get us to [insert desired result].”

Each panelist can answer the question and offer up an example from their own experience. By doing this they can drop open threads about who they are and the organization they represent. Since everyone has some type of mobile device these days, interested parties will likely look them up online to learn more about them and their organization in the session. I, myself, routinely peruse the websites of people on a panel to learn more about who they are during the event. I find when I’m interested in learning more about a person or organization, I actually retain the information better. This is likely due to the seeking hormone response of dopamine and the finding pleasure reward of opioid.

Once each panelist has answered the opening question, the moderator can follow up with the next, detailed, well researched tough question.  A common transition from the first to second question is,

“So what I’m hearing is X, Y, and Z (mini recap). Which leads me to my next question…”

After this second question has been fulfilled, it’s important for the moderator to let the audience know that they will be opening up the panel to questions after this third question. That allows the audience time to prepare. The last thing you want to do is open up the panel to audience questions only to hear crickets from the room.

Opening up a panel to questions early is critical. Panel after panel that I have moderated has proven to me that the audience always asks more compelling questions than the list most moderators can prepare. Additionally, audiences love a back and forth with the panel and those asking the questions. Suddenly, people stop checking their email and start listening attentively to the dialogue that’s been created.  At that point the session takes on a life of its own and the lift of the energy in the room is palpable. That’s when a moderator knows they have done a good job.

Managing the Energy in the Room

Energy management in a panel is critical. Well documented research shows the lack of audience participation can cause the attention in a room to plummet. Especially if half of your audience is jet-lagged!

Activities that can raise the energy in a room include:

  • Questions
  • Clapping
  • Laughter
  • Call and response
  • Storytelling
  • Exercises (on stage or in the room)

By including one or more of these elements every five minutes, you can raise the energy in a room markedly.  The next time you are at an event, check in with the energy of the room and how you feel. Then check in with your interest in the panel (your energy level) after one of these items above have happened. You may notice that you feel better, more engaged and/or with a greater ability to retain the content being presented.

Managing the energy in the room also means moderators must have a strong enough sense of self that they stop panelists who drone on too long or halt participants who have more a soapbox to stand on than a question. To the moderator this can feel like being rude, interrupting people and taking the heat of it. More often then not, however, the audience is also feeling the same way the moderator is, and welcomes their leader taking control of the situation, in a friendly way of course.

Obliterating the opening remarks is not going to happen overnight. It requires moderators to think like talk show hosts, preparing ahead of time and managing their limited time exquisitely.  It also requires panelists to feel comfortable with serving on a panel that doesn’t guarantee them “air time” to talk directly about themselves and use the crutch of slides. Slides are sometimes important to conveying complex ideas in a panel, and I encourage them in limited use, but not as a routine or requirement.

Panelists should want to serve on your panel regardless of whether or not they are guaranteed 10 minutes to drone on about themselves. If a panelist doesn’t feel confident enough that they will be able to pepper their answers with proof points and content regarding their own organization, then they might not be dedicated enough to your topic to serve as a quality resource.

Overall, obliterating the opening remarks is about putting the needs of the audience above the self-promotional needs of the panelists. If only 10% of moderators took this approach to their events, participants would see a significant increase if the quality of events. Energy envy would percolate though the audience and future moderators would seek to emulate those moderators they admired.

Lisa Ann Pinkerton is founder of Technica Communications, as well as Founder and President of San Francisco’s Women in Cleantech & Sustainability. Lisa Ann is a former award-winning broadcast journalist who reported for National Public Radio, PBS Television, American Public Media, Free Speech TV and a variety local stations.





Charging Scarcity Holding Back EV Growth

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Article originally published in Cleantechies

At the turn of the 20th Century, it took only 13 years to replace the the horse and carriage with automobiles. A system that had dominated for centuries as a preferred means of transport was displaced seemingly over night.. Today, transportation is witnessing another technological shift to electric plug-in and extended range vehicles. However, four years in to the shift, it’s still to early to say how the transition to an electrically dominated automobile industry will compare to the switch from horse to “horsepower.”

At the 4th annual Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s Driving Charged and Connected event last month, experts debated the challenges and speculated on the speed of the move to electric vehicles. The answer promoted by many was that the issue is not one of technology development, but a question of the public’s desire to deploy it, i.e. a willingness to finance the infrastructure needed.

In 2011, Google announced it would install 450 charging stations with free “fill ups” to employees. Today, the Mountain View campus is conducting over 900 charging sessions a day. That’s a charging load of approximately 7.5 MW of energy each day. “We built it, and the EVs arrived, and they keep on coming,” said Rolf Schreiber, technical program manager for electric transportation at Google. “That amount of power is like displacing over 500 gallons of fuel.”

Schreiber says Google’s current charging stations are over-subscribed and the campus’s electrical infrastructure has exceeded the ability to put in more charging stations. “Our expanded charging system has helped several Googlers decide to buy new EVs of their own,” said Schreiber. “Now we must develop strategies to balance the needs of drivers who need to charge, verses those that want to charge.”

For Google EV drivers commuting from the East Bay, the opportunity to charge at work is critical to their ability to get home. Additionally, many Googlers depend on charging up at workplace because the apartments they rent do not accommodate their charging needs. Meanwhile, others who simply want to charge but don’t really need to, also feel entitled to a charging option at work, whether or not it’s a necessity.

“It’s not really in our culture to institute top down mandates,” said Schreiber. So in response, he says the Google community is starting to regulate itself. Systems like email lists help people ask others to move their cars if they are finished charging. Charging buddies take turns swapping out each other’s cars to share the same plug. Some Googlers were even asking for fee based charging, as a way to regulate behavior.

From a company perspective, all of this ad-hoc charging organization and plug-swapping cuts into employee productivity and causes range anxiety for workers when they should be focused on other things. That got Arcady Sosinov thinking about the potential of mobile and autonomous charging. During the Silicon Valley Driving Charged & Connected event, his startup FreeWire demonstrated an innovative prototype called the Mobi, which stores energy using second-life EV batteries and then moves around the workplace parking lot to charge vehicles. Combined with a business model he calls “Charging as a Service,” Sosinov aims to solve the challenges facing workplace charging.

“Employers are frustrated that their costly infrastructure upgrades are charging only two cars per workday. Not to mention the time workers take out of their day to shuffle cars in and out of spots,” said Sosinov. “Instead of bringing the car to the station, it’s much more efficient to bring the station to the car.”

With FreeWire’s solution, companies can forgo costly infrastructure upgrades and charging station installation. Instead, needy EV drivers request a charge by leaving their charge port open and the Mobi moves from car to car throughout the day. At the end of the day, the charging station takes itself to its own base station for an overnight fill up, at a fraction of the electricity rates charged during the day. When companies move offices, their charging infrastructure moves with them.

While Freewire envisions fully automated charging, its first generation system is not robotic. Instead, the first gen model employs an attendant to transport the charger from car to car. Sosinov says a conventional charge station usually averages about two cars per day, but this first FreeWire unit can charge an average of 8 cars per day, a 300 percent increase in utilization.

“Scalability of existing infrastructure is a huge challenge and it’s not about the charging hardware itself,” said FreeWire co-founder Sanat Kamal Bahl. “Instead, it’s the cost of laying down conduit, digging up the parking lot and costly electricity infrastructure upgrades. The expense increases exponentially as you move the chargers further into the parking lot.”

Tech firms in Silicon Valley, where EV adoption can range as high as 25% of the workforce, clearly see huge benefits in FreeWire’s solution. Not surprisingly, the startup’s recent announcement of a limited availability pilot program has stirred up strong demand among potential corporate customers.

Regardless of how EVs are charged at the workplace, the larger impediment to electric vehicle adoption experts saw was the significant lack of charging options for those living in multi-unit dwellings, another market where FreeWire might thrive. In California alone, 41 percent of residents live in apartments. To date, forward thinking companies have been footing the bill to provide apartment dwellers with workplace charging as an employee perk and recruitment tool.

However, from the landlord prospective it’s a chicken and egg problem. They don’t see the need to add infrastructure if people are not going to use it. However, EV dealers say, many people don’t purchase EVs if their apartments don’t offer charging beforehand. In fact, only 8 percent of all EV owners live in apartments (this writer being one of the few). With apartment vacancies at an all time low in the Bay Area, property owners feel little pressure add amenities that would eat into their profits.

That’s something Mario Landau-Holdsworth of the startup EverCharge says is going to quickly be changing. The company specifically targets multiunit dwellings, home owners associations and large corporations to maximize a property’s charging capacity, while spreading the installation costs across the membership of users.

EverCharge’s charging technology communicates wirelessly with its charge ports to share load capacity across the system, allowing power to be stepped down as more cars request charging. This adds capacity to the system, without overloading the electrical infrastructure.

“With traditional systems a vehicle is assumed to be using full power all the time. EverCharge monitors  needs the individual vehicles to allocate the power according to their needs. The excess power can be allocated to other vehicles allowing up to ten times as many vehicles to charge using the existing capacity of a site,” remarked Landau-Holdsworth. “Complexes can get up to 10 times the capacity, without the costly upgrade to their infrastructure.”

Whether it’s smarter practices or more clever charging approaches, the infrastructure for EV charging is steadily growing. Yet, the tipping point may depend more on the success of enrolling new infrastructure providers, and less on convincing consumers that electric vehicles are a better buy than their fossil fuel counterparts.

Lisa Ann Pinkerton is Founder and President of Technica Communications, as well as Founder of San Francisco’s Women In Cleantech & Sustainability.  Lisa Ann is a former award-winning broadcast journalist who reported for National Public Radio, PBS Television, American Public Media, Free Speech TV and a variety local stations.





Turning Local Coverage, National News

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Recently, Technica client PurThread Technologies was featured in the online pages of USA Today. This was excellent exposure for the company, but it did not happen over night. It was the culmination of strong business development, a two years of solid momentum building press, a bit of luck. Additionally, it would not have occurred if the company resisted the opportunity to gain local and trade exposure first.

In today’s media business, reporters are disappearing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted the industry will see a 13% decline in employment from 2012 and 2022. On top of that, it’s estimated that the ratio of reporters to PR professionals is 1:4.

To make up for the lack of staff and original reporting, outlets are increasingly sharing content from local regions and re-purposing the story for national audiences. When you read the USA Today article in full, the last item on the page is a notation that the reporter also writes for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, located in upstate New York. When you compare the two articles side by side, their exact similarity is clear.

This is a also a common tactic for reporters to make a little extra money on a story already written and edited. My NPR All Things Considered report on urban land conservation is a typical example. Back in 2008, I sold this story four times to various outlets. By kindly suggesting that a local reporter might be able to re-purpose a story with a more national angle, companies can get a little extra mileage out of their local coverage.

The USA Today/Rochester Democrat article reports on the reemergence from bankruptcy of local employer Eastman Kodak and their new applications for their silver halide technology. Commonly used in photography, silver also has antimicrobial properties. The company was approached by PurThread on the potential to use their silver technology in medial and consumer fabric applications, such as scrubs and bed linens.

Extensive third party research on the effectiveness of the Kodak product in PurThread fabrics, and a published peer reviewed study likely gave Kodak the confidence to go public with the start up and the new applications for their silver technology. Collaboration and joint development agreements were signed and Technica and the Kodak PR Team worked together to get the word out. When the Kodak team sparked the interest of local Rochester reporter, it opened the door to a reprint in USA Today.

Appealing to the Masses

Mainstream consumer press are charged with reporting on stories with a broad reach and appeal, that are also well founded in science. Without the peer reviewed study, and the Kodak name recognition, PurThead’s ability to gain such exposure, would have required other big news, like a major deal with a large sports brand, endorsement by a celebrity or impressive research results on the effectiveness of their products in a real world clinical setting.

In the case of the USA Today story, it was the interest of a local company that caught the eye of the local reporter. Then it was the more consumer angle of a household name breaking into a completely different market that got the attention of USA Today editors.

The Road to the Mainstream

What start ups typically take for granted, is that to reach a mainstream audience they need serious technology stories with general consumer appeal and a bit of coverage in the local and trade press, as well as the strong media relationships a company like Technica Communications provides. Building up a list of coverage from smaller outlets shows mainstream reporters the company was worth someone else’s time, so it would worth theirs as well. Additionally, previous reports, make the research job of the mainstream reporter easier.

Serious technology angles that peak mainstream interest include:

  • Venture funding over $5 million
  • Peer reviewed research with a consumer implication or a well known third party
  • Big news with a well established brand, preferably one average people would recognize
  • New, never before seen technology that appeals to a wide consumer audience
  • Out of the ordinary technology that has a very high “cool” factor
  • Technology that solves a large problem in society that has already received a lot of coverage in the media and garnered emotional attraction by consumers
  • Use of a technology in the field that raises impressive data that directly impacts mainstream society.

Every once and a while, Technica engages with a potential client who tells us they only want national coverage. As one start up CEO put it, “No trades and no local, I only want mainstream press.”

At Technica, we strive day in and day out to garner mainstream press for all of our clients. The road to achieving that goal depends on a variety of factors, both related to the business and to the larger conversations the media is already having around a certain topic.

However, building the right environment where mainstream coverage can flourish is a proven, systematic process. It starts with launching a company into the media, building momentum with evenly spaced new announcements (about every 6-8 weeks), and the growth of a long list of coverage. Gaining local and trade coverage gives start ups the opportunity to share their story and refine their messages. Additionally, it might be their only chance to be featured in television news reports. The coverage gives new reporters the opportunity to learn about the company quickly and do a little research before their own interview. Ultimately, you create such a body of work, that mainstream reporters can’t help but feel they are missing out on an important story.
A smart tactic for short cutting this process to the mainstream is peaking the interest of local reporters and leveraging their contacts in the press. Navigate this successfully and you’ll convert local excitement into national attention.





PurThread Wins Spot as Top Fabric Innovator

FabricLink Award Badge

This annual award recognizes new textile based product technologies in the area of specialty fabrics and the development of significant improvements in design, construction or performance of existing products. The selection is made by the FabricLink Network, based on a review of new products currently in the marketplace within the specialty areas of technical sports textiles, industrial, medical, safety/protective and home furnishings.

Technica Communications helped PurThread discover the FabricLink award and apply for it.

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