May 26

Social Cemetery anyone?

A couple of years ago (whilst at Science City Bristol) I was fortunate enough to have a tangential involvement in BioBlitz 2009 out at Ashton Court and to be able to consolidate that support the following year, focusing on their innovative social media activities. Since then Bristol BioBlitz has gone from strength to strength; and from Ashton Court, to Blaise Castle (2010), to Tyntesfield (2011) and this year Arnos Vale Cemetery.

That success has been amplified by the national explosion of BioBlitz’s, most of which have implicitly or explicitly linked back to Bristol’s success and approach. Just to be clear, the first BioBlitz was in 1996 and was part of the US National Parks Service, but isn’t ‘owned’ by anyone. In the same ethos, the UK national BioBlitz network might be hosted by Bristol Natural History Consortium (BNHC), but it’s an open and inclusive network. The real success of the BNHC is in being able to innovate faster and ‘better’ than anyone else.

The BNHC are constantly on the lookout for new ideas and excel at absorbing and transforming those ideas into their own innovations. They’re also extremely good at executing on those innovations so that everyone has a fantastic day out. All of which means they can be open about those ideas and share their experiences widely, knowing that they’re already working on the next one. That open sharing is a key strength; search for bioblitz (I just did using Firefox & Bing – a combination I almost never use) and Bristol’s BioBlitz features 3 times in the top 10, in positions 2,3 and 6; second only to the Wikipedia entry! The US National Parks (the originators of the idea remember) are in 4th place. Sharing your innovations works!

What else have we learned? Well, hedgehogs have footprints that look a lot like little tiny hands (see above). And that doormice can hollow out an acorn forming a ‘cup’ with an almost perfectly smooth rim. And that there at at least 454 different species of animal living in Arnos Vale Cemetery!

That’s the great thing about Bristol BioBlitz, a social day out and you can learn lots (not just about natural history). What’s not to like?

Until next year

Jan 21

Pitching for Management

This is a great series of UK events offering fast-growth companies the chance to find senior executives and non-executives to help their company proceed to its next stage of growth. It’s a testament to the local entrepreneurship community that the first “Pitching for Management” event outside London, was in Bristol!

At each event, 6 companies present their businesses and the roles available to a room of highly talented individuals ranging from sales, marketing and finance board positions to mentorships, chair, CEO and non-executive director positions.

Join the hundreds of businesses have already presented at these events and have employed talented individuals as a result. Click here to read a great case study from a recent pitching company.

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Nov 15

Ignite Bristol 3

After the excellent Ignite Bristol #2, I wanted to have a go myself. I decided not to present anything connected to the ‘day job’ and thought that Octopush would make a great topic.

Ignite is a beautifully simple concept;

“Enlighten us, but make it quick”

Specifically 5 minutes quick. And you have 20 slides, that automatically advance every 15 seconds, whether you’re ready or not!

Octopush was an easy choice. Its not that widely know so I’d be enlightening folks about a new sport to them, and it has great entertainment potential! This is a dissection of how my talk was put together.

Any presentation takes much longer to put together than deliver. I had a broad outline for the talk fairly quickly but making sure I had enough to fill 5 minutes, without over running or leaving … long … pauses … took a lot longer.

There needed to be a gentle introduction, assuming no one in the audience had ever heard of the sport. I wanted to give a bit of history, talk about the equipment and the basic rules. In the end I didn’t really cover the rules, but I think there was enough other information, and some entertainment.

I had a great title that I borrowed from Sam’s undergraduate psychology dissertation “Octopush: Whether ’tis nobler to push lead’. We’d just had the World Cup and Paul the “Psychic’ octopus was all over the news so that was a good opening slide. I was doubly lucky (though Paul was less so) as he died on the Tuesday before the talk. That required a bit of a last minute re-write but actually made the introduction much smoother.

For some time I then had a slide referencing the Shakespearean aspect of the title, but somehow that never quite worked for me in this context. It was only when I went back to the slides after putting them aside for a couple of weeks that I decided I really wasn’t happy. I took another angle on the ‘pushing lead’ and found the Pencil Museum and that gave me my second introduction slide and a good link into the fact that the lead I was pushing was a hockey puck, specifically underwater hockey or octopush. So that was slides 1 & 2 sorted out, though slide 2 as shown was almost the last one into the deck.

I wanted to have some humour but I know that I’m not a natural ‘funny man’ so decided to let my slides do the jokes and play the straight man. The first picture of an octopush game, taken by me at the Student Nationals in 2009, was intentionally not a great picture but gave the first ‘joke’ of not being a great spectator sport. Slide 3; and getting into my stride.

Slight aside; the guy that introduced me to Octopush way back in Gibraltar (Steve Warren) now runs the fantastic Ocean Optics.

The pretty picture of the fishes was a good ‘filler’ slide to introduce some of the history, but I couldn’t get everything into 15 seconds so put in the diver shot & made a joke about UK diving at the same time. The exact invention of octopush is genuinely lost in time (though it is mentioned in the club’s magazine which is how we know the year). However, I was introduced to octopush by pushing a diving weight around with a snorkel so figured that was a good story to go with. Slides 4, 5, 6 & 7 sorted.

Finding the photo of players in 1977 was a godsend as it made a great link and showed some of the older kit.  I could then talk a bit about the modern kit. The image of the Dacor Bandit mask was one I’d used over 10 years ago when I first did the Plymouth University club’s website, its still a great mask and one of the lowest volume ones on the market. I can’t remember where the ‘wet poodle’ bit came from but I do remember using my Dad’s Jet Fins and they were as heavy and hopeless as described. However, the reason they’re not used in Octopush is more to do with their metal buckles than anything else. Slides 8, 9, 10 (halfway), 12, and 13 sorted.

And no, I haven’t forgotten slide 11 (the four pucks in a row). That one came quite a bit later when I realised that I hadn’t found a decent photo of their evolution. The octopush puck, along with the bat, is genuinely unique to the sport and represents a significant part of what makes the modern sport. Officially the pucks belong to Sam Harding (@samharding), I ‘m not much of a collector. 🙂

Fortunately, there are some really good photos of Octopush on the web and I was able to find a couple that show how the game is played at international level. The bit about having around 20 seconds to do something useful with the puck is true, and something that most people don’t believe. I’d found the closing shot of the puck flying towards the camera that would give a strong visual finish. Slides 15, 16 and 20 sorted.

The eagled eyed will have noticed that I’m still a few slides short!

I had lots of content, but not many laughs. The ‘Answer List’ was something that Sam & I put up on the Plymouth University Octopush Club website back in 1998/99 and I think was originally taken from a newsletter. I wanted to have a shot of me playing to prove that this wasn’t completely made up, there aren’t any decent in-water shots but the shower photo does the trick I think. That gave me 18 & 19.

I was still a couple of slides short, but hadn’t really talked about the game or its rules so pulled slide 14 in as a link from the kit description to the great photos of game play.

Finding a picture of a puck ‘in flight’ was a nightmare! I ended up with a couple of YouTube videos and screen grabbing them, paused at the appropriate moment. I eventually had nearly a dozen frame grabs with blurred orange, green or pink blobs on them. As I mentioned in the talk, orange is medium hardness, you also have green for the hardest coatings and pink for the softest (though its still coating a metal core so ‘soft’ is a relative term). I had my final slide (17), and a new respect for video editors!

So that gave me my slide deck and basic framework. A couple of trials identified where I had too much to say, and overran, and where the long pauses were. Fortunately, I had begun this some time before the event so was able to put everything to one side for a couple of weeks and come back refreshed to put together the talk as delivered (mostly as prepared) on 31st October. Right until Sunday afternoon I was refining the talk and making small changes.

Was it worth it?

Definitely!

But what do you think?

Oct 17

Empire of the Skies

(Disclosure: I was invited by Andrew Kelly to attend this talk & receive a complementary copy of James’ book and encouraged to blog about it afterwards, I did so I am.)

James Hamilton-Paterson’s new book “Empire of the Skies” has the official sub-title “When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World“, but from the interview with Andrew Kelly (Director, Festival of Ideas) it could more accurately be sub-titled “Decline and Delinquency of a National Industry“. Coming to Bristol during celebrations of 100 years of aviation engineering & innovation (BAC100) was thus akin to walking into the lion’s den and giving the lion a slap round the head with a fresh sirloin steak.

In fairness to James, his book begins at the end of the Second World War and focuses mainly on the military jet story. For the most part it is a boys-own style recounting of the early years in jet aircraft development. James’ own fondness and passion for that era is evident throughout and where he dips into melancholy it is for opportunities missed and advantages squandered.

Right at the start of the interview James made the point that, post-war, there were some 23 companies making aircraft from original R&D to production, and a further 9 engine manufactures. The almost mythical status of the RAF and associated planes, meant that politically the companies that built them “couldn’t be allowed to fail”, and where else have we heard that recently?

The following Q&A was predictably robust in defence of the aerospace sector, though too many rambling commentaries without discernible questions left little time or opportunity for a real Question Time cross examination.

From all the post-war jets, four are put forward as ‘great’; the Canberra (in service from 1951 and operational with the Indian Air Force until 2007); the Hunter in the same year (although only from the Mk6 onwards) and still operational with the Lebanese Air Force; the  Vulcan (1952), for which James describes Operation Skyshield in 1961 to test NORAD’s new DEW (Distant Early Warning) radar system where these remarkable aircraft effortlessly breached the US line and landed in New York State, less than 20min flying time from New York City; and the Harrier (1967) which was only the second post-war jet (after the Canberra) to be bought by US, and the last wholly British designed & manufactured military jet. This is also the de-facto end of the story for the book. English Electric Canberra at the 1951 Farnborough Air Show

If I have a criticism of the book it’s that there’s no grand narrative. There’s not enough depth and analysis in this book to genuinely think of it as a dissection of the post-war aerospace industrial decline. Although James apportions blame roughly equally between incompetent management at the companies and dithering short-termism in Government, he doesn’t go into the wider industrial-political story that might have explained why this happened. Its not really the story of Bill Waterson, though he is often the human face to the story. Other characters, such as Flight Lieutenant Al Pollock ‘buzzing’ the Houses of Parliament & flying his Hunter at full tilt through Tower Bridge on 4 April 1968 in protest at the lack of celebration for the 50th Anniversary of the RAF (for which he was discharged without a Court-Martial), are dropping in as vignettes but it’s not really a story of the decline of the RAF either.

The book, much like James during the interview, is at its best when recounting the undeniable bravery and honest patriotism of the people involved in pushing the technological limits of aviation long before the science was understood.

I did learn one cool fact, in 1971 we launched the satellite Prospero on a Black Arrow rocket (another wholly British undertaking) to test solar cells and detect micrometeorites, it’s still up there and probably will be for another 100 years.

Jun 06

Improv concerts & what social media can learn from them

Yesterday evening I attended the live premier of a BBC Concert Orchestra & Festival of Nature commissioned concert. (Disclosure: Science City Bristol are sponsoring the Science Cafes @ Festival of Nature, but I’ve not been involved in this concert, other than attending.)

The performance was in two halves; a short sequence of clips from the BBC Natural History Unit with the orchestra playing live, short chat with Q&A and then a repeat performance. Why two performances, and what’s it got to do with social media?

Well, the orchestra wasn’t the full BBC Concert Orchestra, 5 members of the orchestra and a composer were joined by 24 young people from schools across Bristol. They met for the first time on Tues, worked for 3.5 days and gave the performance on the Friday. They hadn’t seen the film clips beforehand, and they hadn’t played as an orchestra before. They also didn’t have any written musical score at the performance; it was all played from memory and partly improvised. And it sounded fantastic, both times!

December 28, 2009 by manning999

The key came during the Q&A. When they first watched the film and asked the young people about the music to go with it, there were lots of suggestions about a cymbal crash here, some flute there, and so on. Lots of focus on the individual instruments and notes, but no ‘bigger picture’. The first thing the composer and the BBC Concert Orchestra’s Learning Team did was to re-view the films and talk about that bigger picture, the emotions they evoked or wanted to bring out, the sense of majesty (Humpback Whales) or playfulness (Giant Otters).

Once they had those broad messages and the overall framework of the pieces, then they began to experiment with chord sequences and harmonies. By all accounts it was a very egalitarian approach with ideas being voted on, and continuous refinement selecting or disposing of small parts that worked or didn’t.

In the final performance, most of the music was played from memory, but there were still flashes of inspiration by individual orchestra members, and because they’d gone through that development process and the ground rules were clearly laid out, those individual flourishes could be included without grandstanding or throwing everyone else into confusion. They were all listening intently to each other throughout the performance, as well as having great fun.

You can see the whole thing (well a recording of the concert mixed with the films) on the BBC Big Screen in Millennium Square as part of the Festival of Nature (12-13 June 2010).

Business as music

The parallels with some types of business are quite striking. They had a CEO that was clearly in control, and he empowered this team to do what they do best. They worked on a shared vision and understanding of the broad task at hand, and willingly contributed ideas to other sections if it made the overall performance better. In the actual performance they were working to agreed boundaries but within those boundaries there was freedom to do what was best at that particular instant in time.

Social media as music

Too often people talk about social media in the same way as the young people first approached the films. We could use twitter to send out little updates, and that would link to our Facebook page, and we can pull in our blog rss, and mash up with a Google map, and…

Twitter is not a Strategy

There needs to be a bigger picture. Even if all you’re doing it trying out these tools to see how they work for you or your business, you need to have some thought as the purpose. You also have to have some thought as to the socially acceptable way of doing things. The musical rules that the BBC used were a based on a heptatonic scale, rather than the pentatonic scale. Neither is right or wrong, but you can’t do both at once (at not without calling it ‘experimental’). 🙂

There’s nothing wrong with breaking a few rules, that’s almost the definition of being a stand-out excellent entrepreneur / artist / individual. But you really need to know which rules you’re breaking and to what purpose.

Of course, with social media the rules aren’t quite the same as in other forms of social interaction, and as new tools come along they can mutate. Fortunately one of the rules that has completely reversed is lurking, allowing you to observe behaviour before you dive in.

Once you have that bigger purpose, knowing what the rules of participation are, then you can choose which tools / instruments will deliver the required performance.

Plans are worthless. Planning is essential. – Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, & many others

And of course things won’t go according to plan, but that’s where having the clear shared sense of purpose means that people can act without having to fight through layers of bureaucracy. And they can act honestly as human beings rather than PR spin-doctors or script-reading robots.

What’s your social media strategy? Listen, plan, listen, act, repeat; or deliver a stream of ‘messages’ across all channels in a blitzkrieg approach?