Stoke Your Curiosity

Valencia Mood Board Onscreen

Exactly one month from today I’ll be flying to Valencia, Spain.

If we’re connected via social media, or through QRCA or the AQR, then you may already know that the brilliant Peter Totman and I are co-chairing the 9th installment of the “joint conference,” or the Worldwide Conference on Qualitative Research (#WWQual). As someone who used to attend or submit a paper to speak at the conference, before I got involved with organizing it, I can honestly say that this is the most important conference for qualitative researchers worldwide. Any of you who have been at previous incarnations know what I’m talking about…it’s the perfect blend of killer content and collegial spirit that keeps us coming back for more.

I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned, and how important the connections I’ve made through this conference have been to my career, but I know that it’s profoundly changed me for good. It’s inspired me to learn new things and push my thinking, it’s enabled me to form collaborative relationships with stellar quallies across the globe, and it’s encouraged me to have a lot of fun exploring cool cities I might have never visited. And it’s always left me with a burning sense of curiosity about what’s next.

When Peter and I were selected as co-chairs for this conference, I knew we’d have fun devising the theme. I created a messy collage before our first meeting, where I envisioned what I hoped the conference in Valencia would be, and Peter agreed that it closely matched his own vision. We settled almost immediately on the theme of “Stay Curious.” (See the collage above!)

The 97 proposals we received from potential presenters speak to the excitement all of us feel about the theme “Stay Curious.” The 25 selected presentations are truly awesome. Each of them could be their own webinar or workshop, yet we’ll be keeping the program flowing with energy, as all speakers will have 20 minutes to share their best thinking. We’ve allowed plenty of time for interaction: Q&A’s after each session, conversation at the tea breaks and lunches in the sunshine, sharing stories over cava and tapas, and partying at a beach club on Thursday night.

Exactly one month from today we’ll be launching into three days (and evenings!) filled with content designed to stoke your curiosity and result in transformational thinking, as well as some seriously fun relationship building. If you’re interested in the future of qualitative research and want to be part of the conversation, you need to be there.

I know you’re curious, too… Check out the program and register today.

I hope to see you in Valencia!



How to make your conference talk a sales pitch without making it a sales pitch

It’s conference season, and every speaker should read this. Thanks, Annie (@lovestats) for this list. I’d also add: “Make sure the content and tone of your talk matches the title and description you’ve given to the conference organizers. Don’t promise one thing and deliver something different.”

The LoveStats Blog

I suspect this is the number one complaint people have about conference talks. Not the lack of vegetarian meals, not the early sessions, but rather sessions billed as educational that turn out to be sales pitches.

What happens when a talk is a sales pitch? People tune out of your talk and in to something else like complaining about you on Twitter, choosing the next talk to go to, finding out what’s for lunch, or checking the sports scores. In my case, I tweet about brownies.

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A Consultant’s Guide to Saying Yes, Maybe or Flat-Out No


When it’s your favorite client, or a dream client.

This is pretty much a no-brainer. I bend over backwards for my favorite clients, and I’ve never been disappointed. I also get excited by the idea of a “new” client who is known for smart thinking, great people, and interesting challenges, no matter what they make, sell or do. Dreamy clients are rare, and deserve to hear “yes” whenever possible to keep them coming back.

When it’s smack inside your wheelhouse.

You may not know the client yet, but when the challenge is presented you realize immediately that you could do the project without undue effort. In this situation, everyone wins, assuming you still like what you do for a living. Clients often find their way to a particular consultant thanks to reputation (your expertise was hard earned, so milk it!), and this typically comes from referrals. Who doesn’t want to honor the client or colleague who made the referral by doing a killer job?

When it scares you a little bit, but not too much.

Staying on the edge of your seat is a good thing, right? If a new project sounds like a challenge that will force you to learn something new, to stretch yourself and to continue honing your skills, it’s probably a good one. Yes, it might take more time in the prep and execution, but you’ll feel invigorated along the way, and your clients will absorb that energy, too.

And, sadly, when your accounts receivable column is looking pretty dismal.

There are times where not all the stars align, and it’s a project where you need to psych yourself up to say yes, for any number of reasons. Say yes anyway. Who knows what might happen? At the very least, your business will stay open so that you can respond with an enthusiastic, full-body “Yes!” to a more interesting challenge down the road.


When you don’t have the bandwidth or firepower.

Get reinforcements before you reply! Ask for help and use your *team of collaborators* who can make this happen. I call on a rockstar field manager, a videography master, and colleagues from QRCA who are amazing at their craft, and we work on the proposal and project together. Sometimes I even pass the project along to others. This way I have full confidence that the client will be well-served, and the project will go smoothly, using the best consultants…even if it’s not me!

When you have lots of potential projects brewing, very few committed.

This is where flexibility and masterful scheduling is critical. I’m always honest with potential clients in these situations. An instant reply of, “I’d love to say yes, but I have several “holds” on my schedule. Let me how we can make this work…” buys you time to sort out the schedule, bring in firepower if needed, or to pass the project along. Ideally, you can get commitment from the “best” clients first!


When you lack interest or passion for the topic, the client or the method. 

Lack of passion at the outset of a project is a major red flag for me. The engagements where I’ve done my best work are those where I would probably do the work for free. Not feeling it? Say no, thank you. You’re probably fully booked with work you’d prefer to be doing, anyway. If not, you can use the time to work towards that.

When you really don’t know what you’re doing. 

Who are you really helping by “winging it”? No one. When you’re asked to consult on a project where the subject matter or method is WAY outside your expertise, and the learning curve is simply too steep, admit it. I’ve heard the phrase, “Fake it ‘til you make it,” but I don’t think that’s fair to clients. Use this as a rallying opportunity – go learn something new, test it, and then you can say yes at the next opportunity.

When you’ve felt used or undervalued by the client requesting the work. 

Every consultant I know has had that moment when a one-time “regular” client sends an email or leaves a voicemail about a new project, and the consultant wonders, “What’s up this time? Why are they calling me?” Apparently, dear consultant, you have something to offer, but you may never know what it is, beyond being a supplier who’s available on the dates needed, or who will work within a tight budget. It rarely feels fulfilling. (A friend likened this to a “consultant booty call.”) Why keep that kind of relationship going, unless you’re both desperate? I have a very polite way of saying no to these until they get the hint that we are never, ever, ever getting back together.

Fellow consultants, what are your own guideposts for knowing when to say “heck, yes!,” “well, maybe…” or “hard no!” to client requests?

And clients, how do you feel when suppliers/potential partners respond this way?


No Apology for Optimism

My current mantras:
  1. Be present, not perfect.
  2. No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.
  3. Listen twice as long as you speak.
  4. Passion is my superpower.
  5. It’s easier to say no. Just say yes.
  6. Live as if everything is rigged in your favor.
I used to feel the need to apologize for being generally positive. I know it bugged some people that I was relentlessly optimistic. My tendency to try to find the softer side of the jagged edges, to be able to say something “nice” in situations where finding that flicker of light was less obvious, well, I know it seemed superficial to some.
But you know what? I don’t care anymore.
I am authentically optimistic and no longer feel the need to tone it down. It’s who am I am and what I do. I’m totally OK with looking for the good, and finding it. This attitude has spurred my success in relationships and in business, and helped me see the way out of myriad problems. In the murkiest times I can not only see the silver lining in the clouds, I can envision the sunshine on its way.
Part of this is nature, some of it nurture (thanks, Mom and Dad, for making sure my glass was always half full). I’m starting to view optimism as an ability, something that I have and can use. My decision to use this ability is a gift to myself, and if I’m doing it right, to the world around me.
How I’m living my mantras:
  1. Perfection is a myth. I hold out hope that in being present, I can find the good in that moment, that person in front of me, that situation or problem that needs to be solved. Finding the good makes the next step easier. Move toward the good.
  2. At least 85% of the time it’s better to be kind than to be right. Go with the odds. Every time I show real kindness to others, I get something wonderful in the moment, and usually in the future as well. So really, being kind is awesomely selfish.
  3. Listening for meaning and real understanding takes discipline. Listening is also harder to do when you’re reloading, getting ready to fire off a response. Yes, listening twice as long as speaking is a challenge for an extravert, even one who wants to learn, grow and connect. I’m working on exercising my listening muscles every day.
  4. Passion is a catalyst for good, so use it. You may be able to fake enthusiasm, but not passion. When I do or think about things I’m truly passionate about, spectacular things happen both for myself and those around me. I’m not a polymath, and I have limited time left on this earth, so I’m focusing on my passions.
  5. Saying yes puts you on the path toward bravery. Saying yes when I wanted to say no has forced me to learn new things, to keep growing, and to get comfortable with looking foolish on occasion. You know what? Looking foolish actually feels like bravery. I’m a big fan of bravery.
  6. The Universe is always conspiring to help you. Whenever I remember that everything is rigged in my favor, I get what I want or need eventually. My absolute certainty that everything will be OK means that it is now, or shortly will be, OK. Good things are always on the horizon if you look for them.
Optimism works for me, and being intentional about it has made all the difference.
What are your mantras, and how are you putting them into practice?


Curation is everything

I curated a conference where one of the major themes turned out to be the power of curation. It wasn’t INTENDED to be a theme. We never mentioned it in the Call for Submissions, or in any of the marketing of the QRCA Worldwide Qualitative Conference, but here’s what I noticed: of the 28 main stage presentations, at least 6 of them discussed curation at some level. I may have missed another reference or two, but it was an unmistakable theme.

What does curation even mean in the #MRX and #QUAL world, where we have and will always be synthesizers of complex data? Our good friend Wikipedia has an excellent entry for “Content Curation,” relevant mainly in the world of social media, which I’ll post here.

Content curation is the process of gathering information relevant to a particular topic or area of interest. Services or people that implement content curation are called curators. Curation services can be used by businesses as well as end users.

For the conference we held earlier this month in Vienna, the curation started from the moment we considered “What will make this event special, meaningful and valuable?” This is especially true in this area of conference overload – we no longer have a “conference season,” but a year-long string of opportunities to learn and gather with colleagues, both online and in person. So, we invited potential speakers to bring us their edgiest, most thought provoking material, and to think of ways to present it in 20 minutes (or less!) that would be compelling to colleagues and potential collaborators from around the world. There would be no clients, so no selling, just sharing our best thinking among friends. We asked potential presenters to be bold.

Once we received the 90+ proposals, the 4-person evaluation team (2 from the US, 1 from the UK, 1 from Canada) reviewed them in spreadsheet form, BLIND, so that we would not be influenced by the presenter names. Each reviewer awarded each proposal a total of 4 points, then opened it up to see who had sent the proposals; we awarded an additional 1 point if we thought the speaker(s) would be particularly compelling, intriguing, or inspiring, for different reasons. Each evaluator then wrote a few notes about each proposal, we tallied the point totals, and we began our deliberations. It was my job to “bucket” the presentations into thematic groups. With that as our mid-point, we invited the speakers and waited to see who might fall out for any reason. That’s when the curation fun began in earnest.

I looked at this opportunity as a way to create an EXPERIENCE for attendees and presenters, alike. I thought carefully about flow, pacing, and mitigating the risk for cerebral overload. (Anyone who has been to a content-rich conference knows this can happen and it’s not pretty!) Our program committee deliberated about the session blocks and timing that I proposed, and this made the program even stronger.

The result? It was a fantastic conference, one where no one wanted to miss a single session, and there were wonderful surprises throughout. The co-chairs for this event, Susan Abbott and Kendall Nash, did an amazing job weaving threads and herding cats to make it happen. My program committee partners, Pat Sabena and Sarah Davies, could not have been better co-curators in this process. I am immensely proud of them and grateful to these 4 women for creating a conference we all can look back on with great pride.

Perhaps I’m overstating the importance of curation in the success of this conference? Take a look at what one of the fantastic presenters said in his own blog. Here, from Edward Appleton of Happy Thinking People in Germany. {insert a big, fat smiley face!}

My experience leading up to and in Vienna this month has made me more curious than ever about the power of curation – how it’s being used by quant researchers (e.g. live-streaming content dashboards, infographics with daily updates, etc.) as well as by qual researchers and strategists like me (e.g. live workshops rather than presentations, visual storytelling rather than text, co-creation and mixed-method, iterative design rather than fixed, finite projects). It’s an exciting time to be in this field, where our value can come from the way we manage, oversee, interpret, arrange and present insights in an ongoing and lively way.

curator (from Latincurare, meaning “to take care”) is a manager or overseer. Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g., gallerymuseumlibrary or archive) is a content specialist charged with an institution’s collections and involved with the interpretation of heritage material. A traditional curator’s concern necessarily involves tangible objects of some sort—artwork, collectibles, historic items or scientific collections. More recently, new kinds of curators have started to emerge: curators of digital data objects and biocurators.

By this definition, aren’t all good qualitative research consultants serving as curators for their clients? If we’re not, we should be. How are you doing it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The QRCA Worldwide Qualitative Conference in Vienna was truly an awesome event – IMG_3709fantastic content, wonderful camaraderie, some special cultural experiences, and an overall feeling of understated awesomeness that permeated the entire experience.  If you were there, your head is now nodding in agreement and a huge smile has spread across your face. If you missed it, well… we tried to tell you it would be awesome! Just promise me you’ll be at QRCA’s Annual Conference in Los Angeles next January. Or the Worldwide Qualitative Conference in 2 years, wherever the QRCA organizers decide to hold it.
Something tells me that curation will be on the agenda.


Qual & Quant are siblings, not cousins

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a lot of *family time* in the past month. For Thanksgiving, we had extended family with us for 8 days… yes, 8 days and nights…and I’ve been enjoying watching the family dynamics of my in-laws, as well as my own nuclear family, while in close confines. There was much laughter, some heated debate, a lot of cajoling one another, and a few tears, proving that we are a real family. IMG_1730

In this process I learned that great relationships between cousins are fantastic, meaningful and usually filled with joy. However, it’s the sibling relationships that really matter. They’re tougher, more important, require care, and can have daily impact on our sense of self and place in the world.
Anyone in the market research world has heard that qualitative and quantitative are like cousins – related, but not close (what, are they fearful of inbreeding?), existing in separate boxes, but not inextricably linked. I disagree. Perhaps quant and ethnography are cousins, but not quant and qual.

But it’s more like siblings – one moment loving and harmonious, other times derisive and warring. And there’s no parent to ensure they work it out, so we have to do it on our own.

I’m in the midst of a project now where I’m “the moderator” and there are other quantitative researchers, qual project managers, research strategists, and of course the client. I’m having a first-hand experience of being adopted into this crazy family, where all of us are siblings (except the client – we’ll save that for another blog post). We must negotiate our roles, and figure out how we can build on one another’s strengths to get the best outcome at the end of a long project — one that’s been designed to answer a complex, important business question. Because we’re siblings, we’ve had a few squabbles, but honestly, I have total faith that this client is getting the best deal possible by allowing us to work together, fluidly, without trying to do a mashup or hybrid approach. It’s coordinated and step-wise, with thought and care put into how we can share our strengths and minimize our shortcomings, cohesively, so that all the client sees is one, big, happy family serving up a beautiful outcome.

I read a fantastic blog post by Ray Poynter, founder of the Future Place and #newMR, which brought to mind this cousins-siblings debate in a new way. He points to the assertion that qual and quant are merging, almost as if they’re becoming one being (e.g. qual on a quant scale), and lays that one flat.

Here’s Ray’s important, and useful, blog post.

There’s no way this merger or ‘hybridization’ will happen if we, as an industry, keep focused on the differences between us, and how these matter. We need to consistently show and remind clients how quant and qual complement each other in the way only siblings can. There may be a few tussles along the way, but we come out stronger for it. We need each other and our clients need us both.

My teary-eyed brand love affair

I’m the first one to admit that I’m a total sap.

When it comes to emotion, I believe more is better, and that feeling deeply is being truly alive.

So it’s not a surprise that one of my favorite lunchtime activities, when I worked a research company across the street from Hallmark Cards’ world headquarters (Kansas City…woot woot!), was to head to the “visitor’s center” and watch the commercials. I knew what I was getting myself into. I’d stand there in front of the monitors playing Hallmark Cards ads on a loop…and I’d inevitably cry, making my ugly face, searching my laptop bag for a tissue, and end up laughing at myself. But honestly, I’d always feel better afterward, and the security guard never indicated what I was doing was out of the ordinary. It was advertising as catharsis.

Still from Hallmark Cards' "Proud Mom" ad
Still from Hallmark Cards’ “Proud Mom” ad

I don’t know who Hallmark’s agency was in those days, but they were awesomely effective at making me feel that the act of sharing your feelings, via a very lovely and slightly overpriced greeting card, was an optimal way to make a real, heartfelt connection with someone. Or to convey something profound beyond just “thank you” or “I love you.” Those long-form, storytelling commercials – and the ability to cry pretty easily, I must admit – have stayed with me to this day.

Even today, when advertising RIVETS me emotionally — makes me think, feel and spend half the spot sniffing and trying not to give in to a flood of tears — I know it’s powerful stuff, and the brand will reap long-term benefits. That may be why I absolutely LOVE the “FeelMore50(tm)” from BrainJuicer. It’s a rating system and catalog of the most emotionally powerful, global advertising for a given year.

What’s beautiful about the ads on this list (the best ads from 2014, as measured by BrainJuicer) are the universal themes and the profoundly simple, yet emotional moments we share while viewing them. Feel like a good cry? Maybe a laugh to go along with it? Then this list is for you.

Are you in awe of emotionally riveting ads, too? Which of the ads on the FeelMore50 is the “best,” in your opinion? And more importantly…what advertising has stuck with you over time? I’d love to know.