Uncovering Your Story

We all remember that kid in school, who when the class was asked to write a story seemed to know right away what they were going to write about. Most of us chewed on our pencils, looked out of the window, and looked around at our friends for inspiration before finally settling to the task. Eventually something would come to mind and then we wrote, well aware that we’d have to hustle to catch up, but knew we would get our story written and handed in on time.

I have news for you – life is still like that when were are older – there is always someone who has already written their book, painted their picture, got a gallery of photos all the way up their staircase – but that doesn’t mean we can’t catch up! In the same way we doggedly worked at our story and got it written as children, we can still get to our project now – and get it done!

How people decide what to work on has always mystified me. As someone who always has many projects on the go at any one time, I find it hard to decide just which one to work on at any time. I have friends who find this approach really bizarre. They prefer to research, read, think, buy tools and supplies, get the opinions of others, and do nearly anything but get started on the project. We’re all at some point on this spectrum of fear of commitment to a project and fear of finishing one and being judged on it, so many of us struggle with choosing one project and working on it until it is done.

One way to bypass this indecision is to ask different questions, and let our gut reaction decide which answer feels best. Our ego-lead brains will try to talk us out of doing anything, and yet we keep asking it what to do. So here are some questions that bypass your brain and go straight to your gut to get some clarity.

  1. What do you find yourself doing – when you have free time – that you actually enjoy? Hint: Ignore all the “shoulds” and head straight for the “loves”. (E.g. “I love to go to the beach!” not, “I need to wash the kitchen floor.” ) List 2-3 things, big and small, that you love to do, then look at your answers to see if there are any common threads. Are they all about getting outside, uncovering mysteries, or eating, perhaps?
  2. What did you spend a lot of time doing as a child? Again, this refers to your down time, the things you would go to your room and pick up to play with, or start to do, that made time disappear? Or did you go outside and play with others or refine your own skills?
  3. What is it that others say is unique and wonderful about you? Do they admire your homemade cooking, your ability to do your taxes without breaking a sweat, or your organizational skills?
  4. What personality traits do others tend to comment on about you? Are you the go-to carer, listener, no-holds-barred-tell-it-as-it-is person, the stoic who can be relied on to listen without freaking out?
  5. What could you stand up and speak about or demonstrate for 15 minutes (or more) right now this second?
  6. What do co-workers or clients say about working with you? What do they most like about your interpersonal skills and ethics?
  7. What do you feel you have still to achieve in life? What is driving that need?

If you jot down all your answers, you will probably find your story in amongst the words on the page. Your personality will start to appear – like it or not – and threads like “freedom”, “friendship”, or “family”, will start to emerge. Sit with this list for a few days and see if you change or add words. This task has no due date, so work on it until you’re ready to act on your project.

Working on your story

As I work on telling my own story I realize just how hard it can be to decide how to tell it as there are so many viewpoints so consider. Is my childhood memory the correct version, or should I interpret it in the light of my understanding of it now? How should I tell the parts of the story that were difficult? Should I protect people who didn’t behave very well? It is so much less clearer than it may at first appear!

I have noticed over time that the story I tell myself has changed, from simple acceptance, to a more nuanced understanding of adult motivations. As a parent I am seeing why parts of the stories were not told to me as a child, and yet I would have liked to have had the opportunity to have formed my own opinions. There were vague reasons given for things I sensed were happening, but which weren’t told to me as a child. As the real stories emerged from amongst the shadows of age and approaching death, I’m sad that I didn’t really knew the people concerned. I responded to them based on my incomplete – and biased by the teller’s – information, and wonder how much more rich my life would have been if I had been told the unvarnished truth?

There are also positive memories to be recorded. I am moved by photographic evidence of how comfortable and rich my life was as a child. I was surrounded by a village of generations of family and their friends who looked out for me and after me. They taught me skills, how to make things, how to identify plants, how the tides worked, and how to behave around people of different ages.

I was taken to so many different locations and given so many experiences that other children didn’t have. We had a camper van and after a few forays into the English countryside, began three week odysseys each summer to different areas of Europe. We saw and learned about Mulberry harbors on the D-Day landing beaches, saw row upon row of graves in war cemeteries, and exhibitions of photos and artifacts showing just how awful both wars had been. These images were counterbalanced by stories of human kindness and tenacity in the face of such horror. It was far from the experience of many of my friends whose times away were spent basking on a sunny beach and learning nothing from their location.

So I have a personal story to tell, but it is also the story of my family, and it is my brother’s story seen through a different set of filters. Which perspective should prevail? All, or just mine? How can I best preserve my recollections, and choose which ones will be most useful to future generations as they try to understand my life? As someone who loves to write and use images, my thoughts lie with creating a catalog of memories combining media. As technology moves so fast I don’t want to limit the way I leave my story, so am seriously considering creating a digital presentation that hopefully will survive a little longer than the many albums of orangey 1970s photos have done.

How will you work on the best way to tell your story?

Using technology and media

Using technology and media is not just for the young! As you think about what you would like to share for your idea, whether it will be for profit or for your personal legacy, don’t let the “hows” of your idea get in the way of the “what”. I hate to tell you how many opportunities have slid through my fingers simply because I talked myself out of doing them – based on what others would think of me, or in case would I look stupid if I tried something new. One of the huge advantages of getting a little older is that we become less preoccupied with what other people might think, which frees us up to take more chances to do the things that matter to us! I first set hands on a computer in 1987, on a course was for young mothers to learn to use computers before returning to work. The teacher spent quite a lot of time explaining to us that we would have to work very hard to damage the computer, and so not to be afraid of it. We successfully went on to turn the computers on (with no scary electrical sparks or smells) and then code them to say “Hello” ten times. By today’s standards that was pretty tame for a first class in using a computer, but on that sunny day long ago, it was pretty heady stuff! If I hadn’t gone to that computer class, I wonder how different my life would have been since it began my love affair with technology?

Using Technology and Media

So without further ado, here are a few ways of using technology and media that could bring your project to life:

  • Start a blog – if you like to write, or have encyclopedic knowledge that you’ll never get written as a book, start by writing a little every day. You can sort your posts by “categories” so you can go back later and build on a topic. If you are concerned about who might see what is in your blog, you can keep your blog private, or give access to only those with a password.
  • Display your photos or art – if you have a huge catalog of images, they can be scanned and then added to a website. As with a blog, you can sort them by categories so you – or others – can find specific images very easily. Again, they can be private, password protected, or public.
  • Publish a book – take what you have written down and have stored away in closets and boxes. You can buy just one copy for your own satisfaction, or buy a few to share with friends and family (the cost per copy to authors is usually $2-3 per copy) or let the book out to the world.
  • Create information products – there are several options here:
    • Write down your information and offer access to it for a subscription fee
    • Create an ebook to sell with slightly less information in it to sell as a stand alone product or as an entry point to bigger products
    • Create an audio course and offer it as a download – or on CD for those who prefer a tangible product
    • Become a consultant on your topic – by selling it to those who have purchased earlier and less specific materials
  • Create an online course – you teach the material either in person on video or as a slide show with voice over
  • Sell your photographs or artwork directly from your secured site
  • Sell your photographs or artwork printed on other materials
  • Create a photo book or iPad book to display your artistry
  • Create your own audio or video recording to sell or enjoy

Before you let any objections creep in, know that all the technology exists to do these things online. Some tasks are easier to do than others, but there is always help available to get the information from your head and out into the world. In addition to building websites I have helped create CDs, built paid membership sites, built a consulting business, created both text and image books, uploaded images to appear on products for sale, and assisted in marketing the end products, so am confident I can help you, too! Now it is time to start thinking what would be the best way to get your knowledge, memories, art, music, and stories out of your head and out to those who would enjoy sharing them with you. Click on the picture below to go to a page to let me know when it would be convenient for you to talk with me. I look forward to hearing from you!
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Get found online

“How will I get found online?” is one of the first questions I get when people are discussing their new website. With nearly a billion sites live in the world at the time I wrote this, that is a very relevant question, and one with many answers, but they all boil down to consistent hard work!

Get found online solution #1

The first is to have a blog on your site and commit to writing a post as frequently as possible, but at least once a week. While at first you may feel you are talking only to yourself and your mother, Google notices when you keep updating the content on your site and improves your visibility in searches as a result.

Get found online solution #2

Select your key words carefully then use them in posts and pages on your site so your site can be found through these search terms. Learn how to write for human beings, but also for Google using the search terms selected for your site. Get help with this by using the SEO plugin by Yoast. It will guide you to improve your use of your search words and phrases.

Get found online solution #3

Make sure your site is mobile-friendly so Google doesn’t demote it to the lowlier pages of search results. If you aren’t sure if your site is compliant, read more here on how to test and fix any issues.

Get found online solution #4

Add your site’s url to your email signature. It is easy to do for most email varieties. If people are unfamiliar with what you do this provides a quick way to click through and see your site.

Get found online solution #5

Register your domain with Google Webmaster tools. It is an easy way of bringing your site to Google’s attention, and requires a few simple steps to prove that you are indeed the owner of the site. It also provides feedback via email to make sure your site is as optimized as possible.

Get found online solution #6

Get your site registered with as many online directories as possible, even if you don’t have a brick and mortar store. There is a great list of options here, which you can work through at your own pace. Another option is to add yourself to Angie’s list. You will have to get a background check to be allowed on the list, and since the company works on social recommendations this might be better when you have some happy clients who are willing to recommend your services.

Get found online solution #7

Create social media channels to promote your posts. This alone will not bring hundreds of screaming fans to your site, but should be seen as part of the trickle out process. As people see your posts and get used to them appearing, they will (hopefully) start sharing them with friends and coworkers so you start to see some viral spreading of your content. If your work is primarily visual Instagram and Tumblr are your best options, if written, the LinkedIn is a great resource. Begin by distributing your material as far as you are able, then remove the sites that aren’t working for sharing your messages.

Get found online solution #8

Link your blog so it is distributed immediately to other social media outlets. One great function of the WordPress plugin JetPack is that you can immediately post to a Facebook page, Twitter, Google+. Tumblr and Linked when you click on “publish” your post. Make sure to add relevant hashtags so your post doesn’t vanish on Twitter, via the “edit details” link under “publicize”

Get found online solution #9

Help a Reporter Out is a stream of requests for information and interviews for reporters on a deadline. If you are willing to read the frequent emails and respond right away, this could be a great way to get yourself and your business known to a wider audience.

Get found online solution #10

Think big! Submit really good post ideas to bigger organizations for greater reach. The Huffington Post is a great site to reach out to and pitch your post. You will not be paid for your writing, but the traffic an accepted post brings are incredibly valuable. If you prefer to speak, you can also pitch your idea to give a TED talk. Large news and information outlets are always looking for new voices and sources, so your ideas may be just what they are looking for!

So there are a few free solutions to help your site get found online. There is unfortunately no magic bullet that will attract thousands of people to your site with one push, it takes time, patience, and a willingness to persist even though you think no one is listening. It is a process of attrition because everyone is so overwhelmed by information, so show up consistently and make sure what you say is worth reading. In time people will start to notice you and tell their friends about you!

Web design follies

I have been thinking a lot about web design follies this week. If you came to the home page of this site before arriving here, you may have noticed an enticement to sign up for may newsletter, called “The Top Ten Reasons Web Sites suck – And Why Yours Doesn’t Have To”.

In m y research it didn’t take long to uncover lots of examples of web design follies. As I made notes I found that some had practical issues, some aesthetic, and some were designed so long ago old age and neglect had crept in and left them looking tired.

I’m not going to tell you what I wrote, as I want you to sign up for my newsletter using the box on the right of this article, but I will pass on some links to sites that I suspect you will agree with me are follies. My research took me first to this gem of a site called, Bad Web Design. At first glance this site seems to have stopped to have stopped operating in 2013 as their annual awards ended then, but then I found this gem from just last month. (Watch the video on YouTube that accompanies it.)

If these examples of web design follies don’t bother you, this site has curated some real horrors that break every design rule in the book – and created a few new ones. The sad thing is that back in the 1990s the rule book for good web design was still being written, but nearly two decades later there really isn’t any excuse not to know what to do.

It is always easy to make fun of sites that have been up for a long time, were designed using a basic template and never modified, or were created by someone whose heart was in the right place, but whose design skills were seriously impaired. For one final round of fun please look at these hilariously bad websites.

And now for your site. Perhaps this series of links has made you reflect on your site. Perhaps it is

Web Design Follies

your site to avoid it ending up in a parade of shame. Here are some simple guidelines to get you started:

  1. Never ask your uncle to design a site – unless he’s a web designer or developer
  2. Know that what looks clever on a desktop screen can be difficult to use on a phone screen
  3. Take flashing text off your website – it is no longer 1999
  4. Make it easy for people to find what is on your site – clear navigation and a search box
  5. Pick just two colors and two fonts to use – less is more
  6. Pink text on a navy background is bad – stick with dark text on light backgrounds
  7. Distractions will cause visitors to forget why they came to your site
  8. Have someone else read your text to find typos and grammar errors before your audience does
  9. Think about words in a domain name that run together: for example, Pen Island’s domain name is penisland.net
  10. If you want your business to appear trustworthy and professional, make your site trustworthy and professional

So that is the end of my roundup of web design follies. Please don’t let your site join this list!

How will you design my site?

The other day I was working with a design client to help them to create their first website. As anticipated, there was a momentary look of panic as everything that lay ahead of them came screaming into view. I learned a long time ago that this realization only sets in when the very empty site is sitting staring blankly back at the proud new domain owner, but it is the pivotal moment when the need for design and planning decisions becomes real.

This is never a good moment to start discussing options, as the reality has to sink in before the design process can begin. Although I always ask questions about the goals for the site and how they would like it to look, the answers are very abstract in the early stages, so pace my interrogation to match the level of courage my client is showing. For ease of explanation I use these analogies, the domain name is like naming a new baby, the hosting is its home, the client is the parent, WordPress provides the body for the child, but as the parent you have to dress (create or buy a theme) and care (do routine maintenance and feed with new content) for the child. This usually brings the decision making back into more familiar territory!

The next question is where to find the theme for the new site, since buying clothes resonates with most people! I explain that there are several different options. You can use the free themes that come with WordPress, but you will then have a site that looks very similar to many other sites. You can purchase ready made themes from many companies, and when I want to get a site up quickly and beautifully, I will often buy a site from ThemeForest. These themes generally have many options so you can personalize them to a considerable extent, but they remain a publicly available “look” to a certain extent.

I use a theme that is very different from these pre-designed themes. It provides the building blocks to create any layout, and then thousands of options for personalizing the appearance of practically every facet of every box and each piece of writing. This theme is called Headway and it is a wonderful resource for designer who aren’t coders as it enables me to create custom sites for every client. It has the advantage of being responsive from the outset, so immediately works on mobile devices as well as looking beautiful on desktop and laptop screens.

When designing a site for a client who isn’t sitting beside me, I have a questionnaire that I have them complete. I know that the scary moments of the process will not be seen by the client, because the first time they see their site is when preliminary layouts have been established and it is looking like a website. The design process is the same for any site, but seeing the look of alarm on this client’s face reminded me that the steps from installing WordPress to creating a site are many.

So now you know how I design custom websites to match the needs and wants of each client I am lucky enough to work with!



Why you need a WordPress website

While there are many options for getting your idea online, I strongly believe you should have a WordPress website to call your own! While you have been considering what your passion project will be, you may not have spend much time thinking about how to promote it, but WordPress comes with lots of the things Google likes right out of the box, and other elements can be added or enhanced by adding a plugin or two.

Hardcore designers will suggest that only hand coded sites can be considered to be “real” websites, but I began building WordPress websites for clients because they could use them, add to them and feel at ease with them. I want my clients to have their own unique website to reflect who they are and what their passion is, but the real work continues for many years after the original building. While I’m happy to see to the maintenance and updating of sites, I love to see people take ownership of their sites and feel confident about adding text and images to it – maybe even changing colors and fonts if they feel like it! I want clients to feel empowered by their websites, not intimidated by them.

So what is so great about having a WordPress website?

First of all WordPress is “open source” software, which means that the great minds and techs keep adding to it and updating it – without charge to you and me. When I build a WordPress website for you, you will have to update it fairly often, but in doing so, you are getting the latest security features and options available.

Secondly, you don’t ever have to touch a scrap of code to use your WordPress website. You certainly can if you wish, but all the extra features are added via “plugins” which perform a specific function on your site. They could ask people to “like” your site, or keep them out if they shouldn’t be trying to get in. Plugins can display your photos in a slide show or allow you to email people every time you write a new post. These examples are even less than the tip of the plugin options, as at the time of writing there are 37,905 free plugins available from WordPress.org and thousands more plugins in addition that are sold by their developers.

Thirdly WordPress websites are reliable, even when huge sites are built on the platform. Amongst big companies and entities who trust WordPress for their websites are: The New Yorker, BBC America, Variety, Sony, MTV, eBay, Best Buy, Xerox, Nokia, Ford, fortune, Time, The New York Times, Marks & Spencer, The Harvard Business Review and The Rolling Stones – to name just a very few. (Source WPBeginner.com) If organizations as prominent as these feel confident in having a WordPress website, then I think you can feel confident too!

Most importantly for you, is that a WordPress website is user-friendly. If you were a techie you would have built a site for yourself, so that you are here suggests that you are more interested in growing your passion project than getting bogged down in technicalities. With a little training before handing off your site to you and access to my online tutorials you will have no difficulty adding text and images to your website – as and when you choose!

Working on your project

I know how difficult it can be to keep working on your project when there are many other claims on your time. Like anything else in life it comes down to deciding to commit to doing the work on a regular basis. Procrastination and doubts can suck the energy out of any new project, so it is vital to do some work every day. Think back to Girl Scout days and how you were taught to build a fire. Think of your daily work as blowing gently on the tiny flames amongst kindling, giving them the oxygen needed to become a fully-fledged fire that you can then use for heat or cooking.

From experience, committing to working on your project makes it easier to show up every day and do something. You don’t have to commit to spending hours each day, but find something you can commit to that doesn’t feel too daunting. Some people use 21 days as a goal, as in 21 days doing the same thing each day becomes a habit, which makes it easier to continue beyond that deadline. Others suggest committing to a specific amount of work, such as writing 1,000 words every day. Only you know what feels doable, what you aren’t going to resist doing and then stop doing, so don’t set your goals too high. EvenĀ  a small amount of work each day over a period of time builds up into something larger.

For example, I have been wanting to learn how to paint with watercolors for some time, but never made time to take classes – or even watch online videos. About five weeks ago I saw that there was a 100 day challenge about to start. Since the end product had to be posted on Instagram it was clearly directed at arty types, and as I wandered through the postings about the project, I realized this was the way I was going to learn watercolor painting. I decided to set my expectation bar low and committed to creating a watercolor flower painting on a 6″ square piece of watercolor paper every day for 100 days. I bought a book to show me some basic techniques and have scoured Pinterest for inspiration. I completed the 100 days, and while the results of my work were mixed, it was something I look forward to doing each day. I have managed to trick my monkey brain into learning watercolor painting by committing to just 15 minutes of activity each day!

So now it is time for you to commit to working on your project. Will you work on it for 90 minutes for 90 days or for an hour a day for a month? The choice is yours, but I definitely found that having a commitment help me keep going. Will you do something small for a longer period of time, like the 100 Day Project? I found it made me accountable having to put my work up on Instagram each day. I found a bunch of people who followed me on Instagram and Facebook who encouraged and supported my efforts, which was very humbling, and yet very satisfying – even on days when I was less than thrilled with my art. It is too easy when the commitment is only internal to renege on it, thinking no one else knows or cares if you show up and work on your passion project!

I do, and I understand

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”
~Chinese Proverb

On my first day at teacher training college we were told that the best way to teach children was to remember an updated version of the proverb. The proverb as I heard it was, “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” We were being given rule number one as we worked our way into the world, which was, “don’t talk and expect children to learn form that alone.” We all duly wrote it down in our notebooks.

In the past few days I have noticed several forms of this proverb – and attributed to an array of authors – and realized that it applies to tutoring work as much as any other teaching. When working with clients I always have them open up their computer and show me what they they have been doing to try to solve the current problem. This gives me a clue as to the way they are thinking about the problem, and whether they are on the right track or need to start over.

While I may open my computer and show how to do the task, I will also talk the client through the steps, and then have them do it again without prompts. Then I will have them do it again and offer no suggestions so the process has to be recalled – or the solution found from the new information learned earlier in the lesson. The look of triumph as the task is completed is always a joy to see!

When my younger brother took an advanced driving course he reported back that he had to talk through what he was doing so the trainer could be sure he was aware of everything that was happening. This showed the trainer he was actively attending to the road conditions as well as driving the car, so the trainer could see whether he was really learning and not hoping to get through. Because it focused his attention so closely on what he was doing, for several months after he had passed the course he continued to talk through what he was doing because he realized that it helped hold him accountable to the process.

While adding text to a photo is substantially less dangerous than driving at high speed on a busy road, I also employ the “talk me through what you are doing” strategy. Not only does it help the client focus on the task at hand, but it can also reveal odd behaviors that don’t add to the process, so I can help stop the unnecessary steps.

I also set homework if it is an ongoing tutoring project. It isn’t anything arduous, but does ask the student to repeat what has been learned without my being close by to step in or remind them what to do next. Mostly this is a success, but sometimes the results reveal that intriguing workarounds have been applied. Again, this is a great opportunity to ask questions and have the client show me what they did.

Ultimately it remains as true now as when I first heard it on that sunny day in London in 1975 that for tutoring students, “I do, and I understand.”

Project Ideas

While many people love the idea of discovering and pursuing a ‘passion’ project, for some just coming up with project ideas is much harder. While many people have weighed in about finding your passion project, when faced with thinking just what you want to do, it can be a real stumbling block. From experience this is rather more a problem of belief in one’s self, and a belief that we actually have anything of sufficient value to be worth sharing with the world than a lack of ideas.

So let’s get the psychological blocks out of the way! We are of an era when bragging about what we knew, loved, and had a talent for wasn’t encouraged. We learned to accept a quiet, “well done!” or pat on the back as a sign of accomplishment. As a result it is still quite difficult to join the “me, me, I’m an expert!” chorus of subsequent generations without feeling awkward. The truth is that for once age is in our favor. We have had multiple decades in which we honed our love of a topic, our knowledge, our skills and our dexterity. It may seem that we don’t know anything that would be valued by others, but we have longevity. Our knowledge wasn’t consumed from YouTube yesterday and dispensed as wisdom today.

It is also important to remember that while conventional rules of education suggest that only those who are most qualified have anything worth sharing, in reality your nephew, niece, neighbor or friend don’t ask for academic proof before asking your advice. What you know, and possibly don’t value, is a wealth of knowledge that others don’t have, but would like to have. Even if you are a few steps ahead of the person your are helping, you still know more than them. You almost certainly know so much more than you are giving yourself credit for!

So, back to project ideas. it is time to ignore that chatter in your head about your values, and simply think about what you find yourself thinking about most, the things you most enjoy doing, reading about, seeing or experiencing. Perhaps it is something you did as a child or young adult but haven’t practiced for some time? Perhaps it something you learned to do at work (non-proprietary ideas), that you have refined and perfected to the point where colleagues always seek your advice? Perhaps it is something you learned how to do to save money, and now have been doing for so long, you are really good at it? Perhaps it is a skill or craft you learned in school and have used to make a living, but want to return to the earlier version of that craft where you had more creative control? Is there something you pay to do that you could teach to others, with just a little research or training? Is there something you can see yourself starting as a side project for now and develop more fully later?

Start to write down your thoughts and ideas as they come to you. This isn’t school so no one is grading you – just put them down on a piece of paper or a note on your computer. Put it away when you feel like you have exhausted all the possibilities, but don’t cross anything off. Review your list a few days later. Do you want to refine any of these ideas, make them clearer? Are there any things on it you now really have no desire to take any further? Have any new ideas come to you? Have you tried asking friends and family what it is they think you are good at doing? Keep working on this list until you have one or more ideas that really set your heart singing. Don’t delete the other ideas as they may combine in unexpected ways with an idea you really like, or prove to be a great counterbalance to your main project that you will move onto later on. Keep looking for the pieces of the passion project puzzle, and gradually they will come to you. It is important that you allow yourself the time and space to do this as the need to find your project is important!

So while this isn’t a list of project ideas for you to go through, it hopefully offers you a path towards working out what you would really like to put your energy into.