Reasons to be Creative 2015

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity of attending Reasons to be Creative 2015 in Brighton a couple of weeks ago. I had attended its predecessor, Flash on the Beach, a couple of times but I’d never been to this new incarnation since it started a few years ago. I’m really hoping I will get to go again next year as it’s an amazing event.

The three days consist of some incredibly impressive and inspiring speakers (including artists, illustrators, designers, makers, hackers, developers, film-makers and CEOs), some great ‘how-to’ sessions, demos of latest creative software and a very positive atmosphere of creativity. Even just being in the presence of several hundred other digital creatives is a motivational experience. You feel like you’re in the right place. And it certainly affirmed to me that I am definitely working in the right field, as I felt completely at home. Even if I won the lottery and could retire early I would still come and attend this event each year.

It’s a great location they have as well, in such a creative town as Brighton, with the venue just minutes walk from the beach, the pier, the Lanes and also my fantastic B&B at Guest in the City. A massive hat tip to John Davey and his entire team for putting on such a great event. Everything about it was so professional, friendly and welcoming.

Some highlights for me…

Dominic Wilcox

Dominic is incredible. A tour de force of original thinking. He was a great speaker too. Although billing himself as an introvert he had a great stage presence and a lovely dry sense of humour. This session was worth the price of admission on its own. He has a very practical and hands-on sense of design which is illustrated by his hydraulic grabber made using syringes, a great illustrative style as demonstrated by his slide titles and quirky little animations, and a wonderfully anarchic imagination as shown by most of his work, such as the headphones that make your left ear hear what is coming from your right hand side and vice versa. I also really loved the eyes on his robot cereal spoon. The animation on those eyes totally brought that inanimate object to life in such a fun way. Make sure you watch the short film about him below. So refreshing to see a creative mind like this at work. It makes me very happy that there are people like Dominic Wilcox in our world.

Website –
Twitter –
Video (a must watch) –
Robot cereal spoon –
Book –

Noma Bar

I would go so far as to say that Noma is a genius in his particular field. His illustrations are so, so clever and he has done it so many times that it is definitely not a fluke. He is able to portray someone’s personality using just a handful of lines and he is a master of the use of negative space to combine images in creative ways. He has the ability to make things seem so simple that you think ‘Oh yeh, I could do that.’ But having done caricatures in the past I know just how hard that is, and Noma’s style is the purest form of that art. This session came right before Dominic’s and combined to make the most inspiring 2 hour session of the event.

Website – just shows his cool dog/cat/mouse image –
Twitter –
Chicken Mouth –
Other images –
Book –

Jane ni Dhulchaointigh from Sugru

I was very aware of the Sugru product before I attended the event but I hadn’t used it yet. I knew nothing about the company or the CEO so I was fascinated to find out that the CEO was a young Irish woman who had attended art school (the same school as Dominic Wilcox interestingly – small world). It doesn’t really surprise me now though because it’s such a clever product and so cleverly marketed that I think it really had to be a creative person behind it who was able to think outside the box and not be restrained by normal parameters. Jane’s session was great as it showed how the company was founded, had extremely practical lessons to be learned, demonstrated some extremely clever and creative ideas and also managed to include many inspirational quotes such as “You don’t have to be an expert. Learn it”, “Start small, make it good” and “Design for impact, not just for the thing itself”. I wasn’t expecting to hear from a speaker like this on the event, so it was a hugely pleasant surprise. It’s great to hear from designers who have made a real impact in the business world.

Website –
Twitter –
Video –
Magnet Kit –

John Hicks
Very interesting to hear John speak, as he is the illustrator behind such great logos as Firefox and Mailchimp.

James Hall – Security
An extremely enlightening, and sometimes depressing (not James’ fault) look at how to keep yourself more secure online. Basically if someone wants to hack you, they will. There are ways you can make it harder for them, but if someone wants to hack you, they will. Extremely eye-opening, and I rarely used the public wifi after this session!

Ros Horner – Setting Goals
This session was great as a motivational, get off your arse and do it, goal setting session. I joined in and submitted my goal which was to build a retro arcade machine of my own.

Yuko Shimizu
Great talk by Yuko, about how you are never too old to reach for your dreams.

Danny Yount
This was another huge name for the event. Danny is the creative mastermind behind movie titles including the Iron Man movies, RocknRolla and Sherlock Holmes. Very interesting to see behind the curtain of someone actually working in Hollywood.

How-to Sessions…

Mike Brondbjerg – Using Data in your Creative Process
Mike did a great session on using data in your creatively. I’m very interested in Data Visualisation and his sessions focussed on using some Javascript techniques to help you create interactive display methods. I just loved his approach and how he built up his demo step by step from a very simple start to make sure people were following along and then adding layer upon layer of complexity. Some fantastic examples of his work (mentioned in a very relevant way) including the vector polygonal images of US Presidents.

Chris Gannon – Animating SVGs
This was a real highlight for me from the event, in terms of practical takeaway skills. Chris demonstrated how to create an SVG animation. SVGs are really hot right now, as a very light way to have scalable graphics online, and while there aren’t a huge amount of tools to animate SVGs Chris demonstrated the fundamental theory behind it whilst taking us through a cute little animation step by step. You copy the elements on screen in your Adobe Illustrator file, paste this into a blank text editor to clean up the code manually, then you put this into Codepen, with the help of Greensock, where you can directly manipulate the Javascript to animate the piece using code. This method really gets me excited as it’s the perfect marriage between left and right side brain thinking. Cute graphics with raw code. Chris presented brilliantly and it was a hugely enjoyable, as well as educational, session. Check out his Dribbble page. I just find those animations so pleasing to watch.

The Elevator Pitch
3 minutes to speak on stage in front of the whole event audience and pimp your ideas. Pretty nerve-wracking but 20 people put themselves through this for a chance of telling people about what they do or in the hope that they might be asked to come back and present a full session next year. There were some really interesting people here that I am certainly going to explore more of their work. It’s even given me the incentive to perhaps put myself forward to speak one year. Just not sure what my topic or subject matter would be yet!

Martin Hollywood
Thoroughly enjoyed Martin’s session. Some of the things he has made are fantastic examples of what you can do with Raspberry Pi’s and Arduino boards. And I also loved his Google poetry. Plus he’s Scottish which is always a bonus.

Adam Butler
Adam controlled a drone live on stage using the numerical pad on his iPhone. It must be scary enough doing a pitch on stage, let alone using live technology like that.

Mr Phil
Very cool illustrations from Mr Phil. I seriously think he should do a colouring book. I’d buy it!

Mark Robbins
I found Mark’s presentation very impressive indeed. He was showing advanced CSS techniques in order to perform cool tricks inside emails. Pretty cool stuff and I’m going to contact Mark to find out more.

In summary, Reasons to be Creative is a fantastic event and one I can’t recommend highly enough. I’ve come away with so much motivation inspiration I’m bursting to the brim with cool ideas. My main challenge is what to play around with first… illustrations, SVG animations, data viz javascript, title animations, Raspberry Pi solutions. Who knows where Reasons to be Creative will take me. I know it will be somewhere interesting though!

Microsoft, the HoloLens and the Word ‘Hologram’

Last week Microsoft revealed one of its exciting new projects, the HoloLens. The headset gives the illusion of virtual images being projected on top of the real world. I really like what Microsoft’s vision is here. There are so many useful applications of this device whether at home, in the workplace, in education or in science. I particularly love the 3D modelling aspects of the tool. It’s putting design into context and removing the potential barrier of screen and input devices.


Fair play to Microsoft for attempting to take the VR and AR worlds to the next level. That’s what this is, a whole of new level of interactive Augmented Reality.

The Hologram Rules

What is really interesting, however, is the product name and the language that Microsoft is using. They have not just added ‘Holo’ in the title to make it sound cool. They are using the words ‘hologram’ and ‘holographic’ a lot in their brand messaging. Their landing page has no fewer than 28 mentions of the word ‘hologram’ or ‘holographic’. I don’t think this is a decision Microsoft took lightly. Because, let’s be clear, these are not holograms. And I would like to think that Microsoft knows this.

I have followed holography since the mid-80s when I was child staring in awe at the holographic images in the Camera Obscura in Edinburgh. I’ve followed the technology through the years, hoping that one day we will be able to watch physical 3D holograms like the famous Princess Leia hologram in Star Wars.

Hologram is a term which is often misused. It generally refers to images recorded using a laser which look 3D when viewed. Initially holograms were generally 2D images which looked 3D when you moved your viewpoint around it. The term has also been used in sci-fi to describe the physical 3D images such as the aforementioned Princess Leia one. The general rule is that it needs to appear 3D and not involve any apparatus on your eyes.

Just an Illusion

Lazer BlazerThe term, however, has been hijacked for various means over the years. Do you remember Lazer Blazer ‘3D holographic stickers’ you used to get back in the 80s and 90s? They were called holograms but they were really just shiny coloured metallic images. Some bank cards did have holograms in their little square security picture but others just had shiny metal images. Both were called holograms. The recent projections of Tupac and Michael Jackson on stage, which were really just 3D computer animations projected using the Pepper’s Ghost trick, were both billed as being ‘holograms’.

Are the companies who specialise in true holography tearing out their hair whenever someone uses the term holography incorrectly? I used to do it and now I’m bald. Perhaps I can get some holographic hair one day. Now there’s an idea.

I could happily sit here and get all pedantic about the use of the word hologram and how it has lost its meaning. I really could happily do that. It’s a bug bear of mine. The HoloLens gives you the illusion of a hologram, not a true hologram. And sometimes you need to tell the people what they want to see instead of just telling them what they are actually seeing. If this product puts us one step further on the path to getting actual 3D holograms like Princess Leia then it’s ok with me.

For anyone interested in learning more about true holography then I recommended watching this great video about a man keeping the traditional techniques of holography alive.

Do I Really Need A Smart Watch?

This is the question many people will be asking themselves after Apple revealed their long awaited Apple Watch a few days ago in Cupertino.

Sony SmartWatch 2It’s also the question I asked a few months ago when I was given a Sony SmartWatch 2 for my birthday. I was very excited to receive it and was curious as to just how useful the device would be. I decided to wear it every day for two months to find out for sure. So here are my thoughts about my experience. I’m not focussing on the Sony model here but rather looking at the whole genre of wearable smart watches. And not only do I love my gadgets but I love my watches too. It will require something very special to stop me wearing my classic retro 80s Casio Databank I can tell you.

Let’s start with some of the negatives.

Charging – This was a biggie for me. It’s another device to have to charge. We are programmed by now to charge our phones daily but we’re going to have to develop new habits of charging our smart watches however regularly they need it (about every 3 days for the Sony model). This was a major issue for me as I often forget to charge my smart watch and then that left me without a watch to tell the time. Battery life was also something that wasn’t really covered by Apple in today’s Apple Watch presentation although they did show a rather cool wireless charging unit.

Privacy – The next biggest issue for me was that other people can read your text messages if you choose to have them appear on the watch. If you have a nosey person next to you, you need to be quick to turn your wrist or discard the message before they might be able to see it. And what if you fall asleep on public transport? The person next to you might be able to see all those personal messages from your partner as they appear. There are ways round some of these issues but it’s still something you have to be aware of.

Politeness – You need to keep looking at your watch whenever you get a notification. When you’re with other people this can appear rude and as if you’d rather be somewhere else. Again this probably can be bypassed with user habits and ‘smartwatchiquette’. Perhaps you should think about switching the notifications off when you’re with company.

Bluetooth – Currently most smart watches are tied to a paired phone. Obviously this means you always have to have the Bluetooth on your phone switched on, which will drain your battery life a bit more, but to be honest I didn’t notice this being too bad. The other problem with Bluetooth, however, is that you always need your phone on or near you for it to stay connected. If you leave your phone in the other room then you will just end up wearing a boring old ‘dumb watch’.

Aeroplanes – This might not be the case with all models but some smart watches are yet another device you have to remember to switch off on aeroplanes, so you can’t even have a watch to tell the time with during a flight.

Fashion – Some smart watches just don’t look very nice. This is changing, however. The Sony SmartWatch 2 is slightly bulky but I’m still very comfortable with wearing it out. The Apple Watch looks very nice too albeit still fairly rectangular and we are getting some very nice round models now as well such as the LG G Watch R.

Now onto the positives…

Control – In the past, every time we heard the beep or felt the vibration we had to check our phone which was often in our pocket, or across the room in our bag, and then the screen would have to be unlocked, only to find that it was a spam message or just some non-urgent text that could be looked at later. Smart watches put you back in the driving seat. I found myself in many, many situations where it was incredibly useful having the watch on to know whether or not the message I received was an important one that had to be replied to immediately or whether it could wait. I wasn’t left wondering what it was, itching to get my phone out of my pocket. I wasn’t wasting time getting the phone out before I could look. In a mindfulness zen like state I could just glance at my watch quickly and then carry on what I was doing. Situations like being in a meeting at work, sitting in a conference or lecture, driving a car, ironing, in a cinema, holding a baby, wearing a big long heavy coat when your phone is in your jeans pocket, on a cold night when you don’t want to have to take your gloves off to get your phone out. I’ve had my smart watch in all those situations and I’ve been really glad that I did.

Quantified Self – Health and fitness is huge with wearables. They are on your body and therefore they can measure your body. Heart rate, blood pressure, motion, sleep patterns etc. Many watches have some or all of these built into the watch and this is really where smart watches become not just a ‘nice to have’ or a ’too lazy to put my hand in my pocket’ but they actually add something to your life. This is a huge, new area that wearable tech is opening up and it is a game changer.

Adjustable faces – It sounds small but it’s really cool to adjust the watch face whenever you want. You can have a digital face for when you’re being active and then change it to an old fashioned analogue face for evening wear.

Apps – The convenience factor of having some of your favourite apps always attached to your body is a perfect combination of laziness and productivity. It removes the frustration of wondering where you left your phone and it gives you immediate access to the news or communication channel of your choice. It’s early days in terms of developers making apps work well with Android Wear or with the new WatchKit tools for the Apple Watch but I’m sure we will see some very slickly designed apps soon with great ‘wrist UX’.

Apple Watch - Image from

In summary, the main Pro point for me is the Control one. It alone has made me a wearable tech convert. It gives you more convenience, more choice, more freedom instead of being a slave to the vibrations in your pocket. Wearable tech is the future, there’s no question. Convenience + Added lifestyle and health benefits = Win.

So, to answer my own titular question. Yes, personally I think I do really need a smart watch.

(this blog post first appeared on the LEWIS 360 blog –

The Conflicts in Video Storytelling

We listened to a very interesting podcast this week from Inside PR about The importance of conflict in video storytelling which really resonated with us. As we work on larger videos here at LEWIS with our in-house production team we certainly appreciate the importance of engaging with the audience. The messages discussed in the podcast are very true for all kinds of storytelling where you want to engage the viewer, be it a presentation, a campaign or in this case a video.

Cameraman on a mountain

Conflict is a word that often conjurs up images of fighting or negativity. Another way to look at it, however, is that it is just something to be overcome. Do you want to be known as a company that overcomes things? Especially when it comes to things that your customers care about? Most companies would say yes, but brands can sometimes be too conservative or even scared of the notion of conflict. If you find that your video content isn’t getting picked up then it could be because it was too vanilla or too ordinary. There was no conflict there to engage the user and make them feel invested.

The podcast discussed how conflict is one of the fundamental elements of storytelling along with hook, context, build and resolution. It’s a universal truth of life that we will have conflicts. Decisions to make. Adversity to overcome. Mike Edgell, Video Creative Director at 76BrandFilms had some tips for how brands can use conflict and stated that “there is a way to inject conflict into all kinds of content without damaging the brand.”

  1. Safe conflict – Find a challenge that the organisation can overcome. Avoid large controversial conflicts if you don’t think you will be able to overcome it or if the viewer might not like it.
  2. Empathy – Align with what your customers want to overcome. The recent Real Beauty Sketches video from Dove took an insecurity about beauty and turned that conflict into what the customer was thinking. “Don’t start with what the organization wants to talk about. Start with what the audience fears, wants and cares about.”
  3. Consequence – There has to be some risk involved. Even Disney films often deal with subjects related to death. The risk of death can be a very powerful way to get the audience invested but another way to look at that is the absence of life. Find out what your customers can’t live without and focus on that in a more fun way.

Some of the most shared videos of 2013 had some element of conflict. The Volvo trucks Van Damme splits video has the conflict of danger. Will he hurt himself? The Ram Trucks Farmer video has huge conflicts of emotion. A farmer who sits up all night with a new born colt and then watches it die. The universal truths and the highs and lows of life. The WestJet Christmas Miracle video solves the stresses of holiday travel and makes it enjoyable. And in the same video the WestJet employees are overcoming a race against time. Two conflicts in one video.

We certainly agree that conflict is very important. When coming up with a concept for a video you could consider the following steps.

1. Identify what challenges your customers may have
2. Find a conflict that can represent this with empathy for your customer
3. Choose your level of consequence. The conflict can be made safer or flipped (listen to the donut example on the podcast) depending on the amount of risk/impact you desire
4. Build a narrative around this conflict
5. Shoot your video

If we want to get our audience invested then we need to make them care. We can’t just sit on the fence. Not many people will want to watch that.

Why not go and listen to the original podcast here.

(this blog post originally appeared on the LEWIS 360 Blog)

Stuttering: Part 3 of 3 – How to talk to a stutterer

This is the third and final part of my stuttering series of posts in aid of International Stuttering Awareness which is today, Tuesday 22nd October. You can view the first two parts here.

Stuttering Part 1 of 3 – My Stutter
Stuttering Part 2 of 3 – Working on my speech

In terms of awareness of stuttering I think it’s something that can always be improved. Many people used to think that people who stuttered were actually less competent in other areas too or less intelligent in some ways. Hopefully the recent public media coverage of people like Gareth Gates and Scottish Rugby Captain Kelly Brown has helped to diffuse this. The movie The King’s Speech also helped to highlight what stuttering is actually like and off the back of that many people have learnt that stuttering has affected lots of other famous people in the past such as Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, Joe Biden, Rowan Atkinson, Bruce Willis, Sam Neill, James Earl Jones and many others.

But for people who don’t stutter I think it can still be very hard to know how to talk to a stutterer. This is something I never used to think about. I was so worried about what my speech would be like and what the listener would think of me that I was never aware that the listener might be just as scared about speaking to me! I used to avoid friends when I saw them walking down the street, not because I didn’t like them but just because I didn’t want to have the embarrassment of stuttering in front of them. But I’m sure now that some people probably avoided me because they felt uncomfortable when talking to me. Not everybody of course but I do realise that it must be hard for some non-stutterers when they speak to stutterers. So I thought it would be useful to write a brief guide for how to speak to a stutterer, to remove some of the stigma and help explain some of the mysteries. Bear in mind, however, that there are no hard and fast rules. Every stutterer is different and every stutter is different. But these are some general guidelines.

Eye contact
Try to keep eye contact with the speaker if you can. I know from my experience that if my listener looked away it made me think they were getting embarrassed and that would then make me feel worse.

Try not to interrupt
A stutterer often has to build up to a word. They can have a breathing technique or certain tricks that lead up to them getting their word out. If you interrupt while they are starting their sequence it can mean they have to stop and start again. Sadly this also meant that I often used to interrupt people because I had a 3 second build up to getting my first word out and if someone else starting speaking in those three seconds I used to just carry on going for my sentence and talk over them which could be quite rude at times. Other times I would just stop and give up. So just try to give them enough time to get their words out.

Avoid jokes
In the past people often used to laugh in front of me when I spoke to them. I know now that a lot of the time it is actually just nervous laughter. They might just not be expecting dysfluent speech and it can just be a natural reaction to smile and laugh. Obviously it’s preferable not to laugh though. But some people would consciously make jokes to try to be lighthearted about it. Sadly the majority of stutterers can’t really joke about it. They even cringe when the word ‘stutter’ is used when describing the hurdles in athletics for example. They’re not ready to laugh at jokes about it. I’m absolutely fine with jokes myself now but that’s only because I’ve been able to gain control and turn my speech into a positive thing because of the things I’ve done since attending The McGuire Programme.

Saying the word for them?
This is the one that everyone asks me. Should you say the word for them? It depends. Generally I would say no, but not always. It’s a judgement call. Having to be helped to say words can be very humiliating, especially if the listener keeps doing it whenever the speaker has a slight struggle on any word. However, again speaking personally, there were times where I was really struggling to get a word out and I would really hope that the listener would say it for me, just so I could get through it and move on. So it depends. If they are really really struggling then you can choose to go ahead and help them if you want to and obviously if you do it with respect.

Be a good listener
The bottom line is that it’s just all about putting the speaker at ease and showing them that the stutter doesn’t bother you at all. A stutterer’s stutter is such a big thing to them that it consumes almost every waking moment and we assume that it is a big deal to everyone else too. What I have found, however, is that most people have big enough problems of their own and someone struggling on a few words really isn’t a big deal to them. If you can convey this in your body language and eye contact then you will help to put the speaker at ease. Simple things like repeating a few words back to the speaker, whilst nodding, to show you have been listening can help them know that the communication process is indeed working. And try to avoid asking them to repeat something unless you really have to. It can be quite a big effort for a stutterer to repeat themselves!

So I hope that these three blog posts have helped to raise a little bit more awareness of what stuttering is and how it can affect people. For more general information please go to or for more information about the course that has helped me with my speech please go to

Please also see a blog post I wrote for the LEWIS Blog about Communications Lessons Learnt from Stuttering.


Stuttering: Part 2 of 3 – Working on my speech

This is the second post I am writing this week in aid of International Stuttering Awareness Day which is on 22nd October. You can read Part 1 from yesterday here.

Over the years in my youth I tried many forms of speech therapy. NHS speech therapists, private tuition, books. My parents spent a lot of time, money and energy on help and support for me. A lot of it did help. For a while. But nothing really helped me in the real world. It might help in the therapy session but it wouldn’t last. And a lot of it felt like I was just using new tricks in order to avoid the stutter. I learnt that often that just made me even more afraid of the stutter. Speech therapy is fantastic for things like stroke victims or trauma patients where the problem is more physical, but for me my stutter always came back to the psychological elements like the fear.

When I was about 18 I basically gave up and thought I would just stutter for the rest of my life. But then when I graduated from Uni when I was about 24 I thought I would give it one last attempt before I entered the big wide world. I heard about The McGuire Programme and gave it a go and it was the one that has really helped me ever since. I don’t want to just make this an advert for the McGuire Programme as there are many good courses out there but McGuire has certainly been the only one that has helped me. It’s unique in that it is totally run by other people who have stuttered and who know what it is like deep down inside to have a stutter. And also it has an incredible support network where you can go to local support groups or ring hundreds of coaches around the world day or night just for speech practice.

A McGuire student giving a public speech

The approach that helped me gain control of my speech was two-fold. Physical and psychological. A stammer is fuelled by the fear. That fear then manifests itself in a physical way by making your speaking tools tense up. Your diaphragm, your vocal chords and your articulators (mouth, lips, teeth, tongue). This makes you have a physical speech block. You then get strange looks from your listener which gives you more negative emotions and then the fear increases. Thus the negative cycle continues and gets worse every time.

Learning Costal Breathing helped me gain control of my diaphragm which is the real engine of speech. Smooth airflow leads to smooth speech. Coastal breathing is like how you breath when you yawn or after taking exercise. It’s a very natural and powerful way to breath and it helped me gain control of my diaphragm which had been previously trained to contract due to the fear. This and other speech tools that I could use when I had to, helped me to start speaking in control. When you then combine this with fear reduction methods and new habits of non-avoidance you very quickly start to change your whole speaking mindset.

After 3 days on the course I was giving a public speech in the middle of Durham town centre. After a few weeks and months I was in control and doing things I never thought I would ever do. I’ve spoken on stage, and even acted. I’ve been interviewed on Radio like this one here and also on TV. And more important than any of these achievements is the fact that I now don’t have to live in the fear of having to speak. I don’t need to worry weeks before a big work situation. I know I can handle any challenge that life throws at me. That’s a good feeling to have. Public speaking is the no.1 fear in people whether they have a stutter or not. But I now enjoy it. I actually enjoy speaking now. I never thought I would be able to say that. Literally.

There is no cure for stuttering. But that’s fine. You only have cures for diseases or illnesses. That’s not what stuttering is. It’s a learned behaviour. A negative habit. We’re not stupid or physically defected. We’re not patients or victims. I consider myself someone who is just improving at the sport of speaking. That keeps me positive.

When I was younger I used to wish every night that I would wake up and my stutter would be gone. That it would magically disappear. Obviously it never happened but in a way I’m glad it didn’t happen. If it had mysteriously disappeared one day I would probably then have lived in the fear that it might come back just as quickly one day. The fact that I have worked hard on my speech, have slowly improved my speech and I understand what is happening in my speech means that I have earned my recovery and that I know it is reliable. I’ve built a foundation that isn’t just going to fall apart out of the blue.

I’m not fluent, but I don’t label myself as a stutterer. That would be restrictive. I’m just someone who has had a bad stutter who is continuously improving with their speech. Some days I speak great and don’t have to think too much about it. Other days I need to focus more. I can still stutter or block sometimes. I don’t get negative about that because I know exactly what to do to keep working at it, like a golfer who keeps working at his swing to keep it consistent. I know I enjoy speaking and I know what I can now do with my speech. I have no pressure to be fluent or to speak perfectly but I know within myself what I can do and that keeps me working on my speech even more.

Having passed the exams on the McGuire Programme to become a coach, a course instructor and a staff trainer I have been able to attend many of the courses and meet many other people who also have stutters. I’ve travelled to places like The Netherlands, Sweden, South Africa and Australia attending courses and keep meeting the same types of people who inspire me. Stuttering can affect anyone. It doesn’t matter your age, your background, your education, your religion, your nationality or your intelligence. Everyone is at the same level. And it’s fascinating meeting other people from all walks of life who are also working hard on their speech.

My stutter used to be a majorly negative thing in my life but now it is a positive. The process of recovering from my stutter has made me a stronger and a better person. Struggle does make you stronger and I’m enjoying the journey.

Tomorrow I will be writing about advice on how to speak to someone who has a stutter.

Stuttering: Part 1 of 3 – My Stutter

This Tuesday, October 22nd, is International Stuttering Awareness Day and I thought I would write a few personal blog posts about my own experience of having a bad stutter. Part 1 will be about my stutter, Part 2 tomorrow will be about how I have worked on my speech and Part 3 on Tuesday will be about how to speak to someone with a stutter. People often don’t know too much about stutters and I thought it would be good to help get some more awareness out there as it helps everyone involved.

People often think that a stutter is just the repetition of sounds, getting stuck on a word or physically contorting your face to get the words out. A good way to describe what a stutter is actually like is that it’s like an iceberg. The bit above the surface is all the things you can see. But the bigger, heavier part of the stutter is under the surface. Things you can’t see like the emotions of fear, embarrassment, shame, guilt, self-hate and also other tricks such as changing words or avoiding situations.

I used to go to various lengths to avoid speaking or avoid certain words. If I was in the house on my own I would often unplug the phone just so that I didn’t have to answer it. If someone rang the doorbell I would run upstairs and hide so that I didn’t have to speak to them. When getting a train I would often ask for a return ticket even though I wanted a single, just because it was easier to say. So stuttering can be an expensive problem too!

I used to be like a walking thesaurus always switching words at the last minute and wasting so much energy in the choosing of my words. But I would only be saying what I could say, not what I wanted to say. I would sometimes say fancier words because they were easier to say. People might therefore think I was posh. I would sometimes give the wrong answer to a simple question in school, just so I didn’t have to say a difficult word. People would think I was stupid. I would sometimes speak in an American accent in order to get some words out. People would think I was either American or just plain strange. But the thing is I would rather they thought these things than know that I was a stutterer. In our tribal society we don’t like to be different from others and that’s how much stigma stutterers can hold towards their speech.

When I couldn’t avoid and had no choice but to stutter I used to screw up my face. I would stick out my tongue and sometimes end up spitting on people. I would tap my foot or slap my leg to get the word out which would make me look like I had other issues. I would struggle so much that I would run out of breath and end up gasping. Stuttering is a strange beast and it’s not something you can avoid indefinitely. Communication is an essential part of being human. Having a speech problem can hugely affect your interaction with others, how you present yourself to others, your social skills and also affect things like what job you want to do and where you want to live. Even when choosing partners stutterers sometimes refuse to go out with people whose name they find difficult. It can change the direction of your life to that extent.

Speaking is such a fundamentally simple thing for most people to do, including small children, that it’s extremely humiliating to not be able to do it. When a non-stutterer stumbles on their words they may laugh and say “Oh, I can’t even speak today!” which highlights how it is so embarrassing that they can’t do such a simple thing as speak. This highlights the pressure that stutterers feel every time they open their mouths.

Stuttering also doesn’t just affect you when you are speaking. In fact when I was actually speaking and stuttering I entered a sort of Twilight Zone where I didn’t really have any perception of time or what was going on. I would close my eyes and the stutter would just happen. Sure, when I opened my eyes again and stopped speaking I would get the strange looks and the negative emotions. But sometimes the worst feeling is before you start speaking, or before you entered a speaking situation. The fear. The fear that you might have to speak. Not knowing if someone might ask you a question. I used to take my watch off when I was walking down the street on my own because I was scared of someone asking me for the time.

My stutter for most of my life has been a very negative thing. The one positive thing that I remember being able to take from my stutter even when I was about 12 years old was that I recognised it had made me a more sensitive person. In the sense that I was more aware of and sympathetic to other people’s personal struggles. Some people have obvious physical deformities and have to deal with strange looks everywhere they go. Perhaps that’s harder but also perhaps they just learn to deal with it earlier. Stuttering is perhaps easier in some ways as you can walk down the street without getting strange looks, but conversely there is the constant fear of what people will think once you do open your mouth. They’ll suddenly realise that you are different. I used to often go to ridiculous lengths to keep people from finding out that I had a stutter.

Stutterers live in fear. Fear of speaking. Fear of stuttering. Fear of being different. It’s not nice to live in fear and I’m glad to say that I was able to break the negative cycle and turn my speech into a positive. I could finally see that having a stutter wasn’t the worst thing in the world. More on that tomorrow… [Stuttering: Part 2 of 3 – Working on my speech]

Contextual Interfaces – what level of privacy do you want

This post was inspired by watching the movie trailer for ‘Her’ starring Joaquin Phoenix and reading a recent blog post by Robert Scoble this week.

Our fears about lack of privacy in a post-Snowden world seem to be increasing as devices seemingly start watching and listening to our every move. That’s the perception by many anyway.

The recently revealed Xbox One games console and Moto X smartphone are utilising ‘always on’ features where they have the ability to be always watching or listening so that you can use a voice activation feature anytime you want. You can speak to them as if they are a person that is always with you, rather than manually having to activate a function on your phone. They also offer other contextual features so that they remember information about you, your daily routine and what you recently asked them. If you ask them how long it will take to drive home they will interpret ‘home’ as your registered address. If you ask it to order a pizza it will know where you are, what local pizza company you like and what your favourite toppings are. If you ask them “When did Barack Obama become President?” and then ask “How old is he?” they will remember that you were asking about Barack Obama. They understand you more and they make your life easier.

In order to do this, however, they need to have more information about you and they need to be always on. The more you give them the more they can help you out. The first stage of this is that it can be incredibly useful and is an example of smart technology actually making our lives easier at last. Perhaps a future ‘danger’ of this going too far is portrayed in the upcoming movie ‘Her’. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a man who tries out a brand new futuristic artificial intelligence user interface. The female voice knows everything about him and what he needs and desires. In essence it becomes his ideal partner, albeit virtually. He ends up getting slightly too Siri-ious about this virtual partner (see what I did there? – I’m sure I’m not the first) and it raises the question about what is love, what is dependency and what is real in this digital age. Certainly looks like a fascinating movie.

Conspiracy theorists may also have a heart attack about all of the ‘always on’ and contextual features of these new devices, but in all honesty do you really think that these big organisations will actually always be listening, recording and monitoring every single thing that all of its users around the world are doing every minute of every day? Personally, I don’t think so. Or if they were they really aren’t going to be interested in what everyday punters like me or you are doing, apart from in ways that can help serve us info, features or ads. And it can get most of these things from the way we use the phone, not from our idle conversation. As long as you’re not breaking the law or doing something wrong then you should be alright. And if you are then you can’t really complain. If I was a paranoid conspiracy theorist who was also a celebrity or a politician in the public eye then I would perhaps be more aware and switch off the feature if I was ever doing anything that I didn’t want to get out to the public. But that is extreme paranoia.

New generations will adapt to this fully. They are growing up with social media and online sharing. They will be more savvy as it will be in their blood. They may say “Who cares who is listening to me. There is so much noise in the internet anyway”. It will be the norm for them to be part of a wider global platform where you are less shy about your activities because you’re not being scrutinised by a close village community but you’re getting lost in the herd of an online global network (obviously not including the environments where trolls rule – that’s a whole other argument and a major hate of mine).

Will there be a backlash of people, however, who ‘go dark’ and spend more time offline or on more manual devices and interfaces? Probably. In many countries there is a ‘slow movement’ where people are trying to slow down and not be forced to live at the fast pace of social media and urgent emails as described by Carl Honoré on TED. There are many things about that slow movement that I like and that I think can benefit health, relationships and communities. And more and more people are having holidays in internet blackspots to get away from the online stress. There will be many debates about the pros and cons of this contextual digital evolution too. For me it’s about working out just how it can help you in your daily life and also choosing what level of privacy you actually want.

I’m a private guy. I don’t choose to put lots of family photos on Facebook or Twitter. I keep them private to friends and family. I’m very specific about where I publicly check-in to on FourSquare. But if I think that Google or a similar company having a little bit more info on my daily habits can then serve me better with the features on their devices then I think I’m up for that. It’s a different kind of privacy. We can’t expect everything in our lives to be completely private. We’ve lost that complete freedom now. But we can be smart about our privacy. We can keep important things private whilst still allowing ourselves to benefit from features and services from this new technology.

I think we are entering a very interesting stage in the digital age and as Robert Scoble says, it could lead to the biggest digital divide we’ve seen yet. The ‘freaky line’ as he calls it. Companies like Google have to tread very carefully in order to be open and transparent about what they can and can’t see or use, in order to get as many people as possible embracing this new way of thinking. I’ll be walking into it with my eyes wide open and perhaps one eye over my shoulder just to be on the safe side, but I’m still going to give it a go. Google probably knows that. And so does my phone.

My automated life with NFC and IFTTT


If you’re either lazy, highly organised or interested in new technologies then this post is for you. I’m currently experimenting with three very cool technologies which work with my smartphone and other devices. The three areas I’m looking at are…

  • Wireless charging
  • NFC tags
  • IFTTT automation

Basically at the end of the process I should be able to do things like simply placing my phone on my bedside unit and it will do the following: charge wirelessly, set my alarm, reduce the volume of the phone, dim the screen, switch off Bluetooth and do pretty much anything else I want it to do. No wires or clicks required. If this sounds like witchcraft to you, read on.

Wireless charging
I recently read an article on Pocket-lint on wireless charging and there was a video by someone who had integrated a wireless charger into his bedside unit so that at bedtime he just had to place his mobile phone on the unit and it would start charging. No fumbling around for a cable. And to top it off, the beside unit he used is the exact same one that I have. I will have to buy a wireless charger but I’m up for getting one and trying it out.

NFC tags
NFC tags have been around for a while, in things like Oyster travel cards in London. They are now, however, really cheap and easy to use and can be used with more and more smartphones. A colleague of mine at LEWIS PR bought some from Amazon and I think they were only about £1 each. They came as a simple sticker and look quite cool (see image at the top of this post). They’re about the size of a 50p coin. I downloaded an app called NFC Task Launcher (no longer available at this link but I believe it is now called Trigger) which lets you make a Task. This can be anything such as switching WiFi or Bluetooth on, changing the volume, setting an alarm or checking into FourSquare. Anything you can do on your phone you can create a task for. You can also create multiple actions in a Task. When you then simply place your phone next to that NFC chip these tasks are performed automatically. For example if you had one in your car you could set it to automatically change your phone settings to increase the volume and switch on Bluetooth whenever you placed your phone on the dashboard or wherever. No wires or buttons. You just need to place your phone near the NFC tag.

IFTTT automation
IFTTT has been around for a few years. If This Then That. A simple programming concept to create chain tasks that automate when you do stuff online. For example when you favourite a picture on Instagram it can update your Facebook status and also save a copy of the photo to your DropBox. Or if someone mentions you on Twitter you can add it to a spreadsheet on Google Drive. You can mix and match actions to create your own ‘recipes’. But this month they have taken this to the next level and entered the physical world. You can buy real world devices which work with IFTTT such as switches and motion sensors. You can sync a weather website to automatically work out when the sun sets and this then switches on your lights at home. Or set an alarm to automatically switch on your main bedroom light at a certain time each morning. Or if someone walks into your child’s bedroom it could automatically send you a text. I could go on. And on.

The combinations of all the above are endless, and they aren’t just gimmicky. This is actual helpfulness to make our lives easier. You could combine the above to have a unit in the hall of your house that when you come home from work you place your phone on the unit and it starts charging, checks you in on FourSquare, switches on WiFi, turns your lights on in the house, sends your wife a text that you’re home and starts playing music on your Bluetooth speakers.

The possibilities are endless. If you can think of a mundane electronic task you have to do it can probably be automated in some way. The problem is that the time I save will probably be spent thinking of more cool ways to use this tech. Time well spent I reckon.

Got any other cool ideas for using this tech? Let me know in the comments.

Authenticity in Design


I attended a conference today in London today called Point. The main focus was around authenticity in design, and the first speaker, Lucienne Roberts addressed this point very well.

Is there a point at which graphic design makes a project lose its authenticity and becomes clinical or false? This is a very interesting question. Lucienne cited an example of her favourite coffee shop in Europe which had a very rustic and personal feel. But one day she went there and they had manufactured some well designed coffee mugs with a stylish logo on them and had even produced a coffee table book about the venue. They had in essence had a brand identity designed. Lucienne’s immediate reaction was that this made the cafe lose some of its authenticity, some of its rawness.

Lucienne then moved on to explain how she was involved in the branding of David Miliband’s campaign for leadership of the Labour Party in the UK. They produced a very fresh, slick graphical identity to communicate the message that David Miliband wanted portrayed. When she showed their brand against the other contenders’ brands it looked by far the most professional. Some of the others looked quite amateurish in comparison. But the fact remains that David Miliband didn’t win. When they did a post mortem on the campaign the graphic design was actually one of the areas they looked at to see if that had had some kind of unexpected negative effect. Perhaps the professional nature of the design took away some of the authenticity of the campaign and made it less approachable, less down to earth. And in the world of politics that can be very important.

Does design always have this effect? By its very definition design is something that is done with a purpose and is therefore contrived. You can lose the heart or personality that would otherwise come with either natural spontaneity or organic growth. Perhaps the trick is to find the balance and make sure you keep the ‘soul’ of the topic that you are designing.

This ‘soul’ was something that the next speakers focussed on a lot. Sean Rees and Nathan Webb delivered an amazing presentation about the great work they and their company, Purpose, has done on the brand identity of The McGuire Programme which is the speech therapy course that I am a member of. They have created a really fantastic way to communicate the struggle of communication. And well done Sean for getting up on stage and communicating so effectively in control of his own stutter.

The main thing that I took away from the conference was that when designing something the priority isn’t just to make it look cool. If it looks cool that can sometimes be a bonus. But there are also times when something actually shouldn’t look cool, or by making something cool you are creating something new and therefore losing a part of the original. You always need to make sure you retain the heart, personality and truth of the original subject. The design should just communicate those areas more effectively where appropriate.

The process of design is such a balancing act between aesthetic beauty and practical function. That is what makes design so difficult and makes it so powerful when done well.