How Activity Inspires Innovation

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When I first developed the concept for Hackfit, there were many who thought I was naive. And if not naive, maybe insane. “You’re going to take engineers and ask them to do WHAT? Yoga? Rock Climbing?CrossFit!? That’s never going to happen.” innovation and exercise: these characteristics combine together like oil and vinegar, right?


I’m an interesting hybrid of attributes myself – an athlete and a huge nerd. I’m at my best, both physically and mentally, when I am active, engaged, and stimulated. This doesn’t just apply to me. Most people have their Eureka moments, not while stagnant, but instead during incredible conversations, adventures, and physical challenges.

Hackfit is built on the ethos and understanding that technology development and a healthy lifestyle do not have to be mutually exclusive. Last year, we hosted our first Hackfit Startup Competition here in Boston with Constant Contact as one of our major sponsors. Our goal was to unite coders, students, and athletes to develop fitness and health related hacks, interspersing work with play by participating in exercise classes such as rock climbing, yoga, CrossFit, martial arts, running and more – healthy food included. Not only do Hackfitters live a healthy lifestyle, they make the world a healthier place as well.

What was the result? We sold out with over 165 Hackfitters in attendance and even had a Constant Contact engineer, Jason Weden join the ruckus. In just one weekend, each Hackfitter (on average) walked/ran 50 minutes, biked 30 minutes, did yoga/meditation for 47 minutes, and participated in heavy exercise (rock climbing, CrossFit, weight training) for 48 minutes. That’s a total of 2.9 hours of activity IN ONE WEEKEND! And so you might think, “how does anyone get work done?”

Well, we also discovered an overwhelmingly positive correlation between each team’s activity level, and their final project score (teams were scored on tech, business model, and WOW factor). The teams with the highest activity levels, had the most creative ideas and hacks. This result is not surprising.

Physical activity, particularly aerobic exercises such as running, cycling, and swimming, has many cognitive benefits and effects on the brain. This includes increased neurotransmitter levels, improved oxygen and nutrient delivery, and increased neurogenesis in the hippocampus (crucial for learning and memory storage).

There are a number of ways in which exercise also reduces levels of stress. Exercise produces feelings of happiness through the production of endorphins while also improving stress resiliency (people who exercise more are more likely to have less of a stress reaction to adverse situations).

At Hackfit Boston, we found the overall stress levels of our participants to be low, which is extremely uncommon for typical hackathons. Tylor Hess, one Hackfitter commented, “when you get frustrated with your work, you can go climb and then come back to [your work] after you’ve cleared your head, this is super helpful.” Another participant, Joey Orlando said, “I biked to the rock gym, did CrossFit, and then worked on my demo presentation. I felt so productive and exercise helped a lot.”

Some of you might be thinking, “I could never do something like this. I’m out of shape. Too old.” Wrong again. There were Hackfitters who had previously never run a mile in their life, complete a 3.8 mile run along the Charles River. It’s all about adopting a mentality where work, play, and activity are one-in-the-same. You are capable of more than you could imagine.

In innovation intensive environments, physical activity and exercise is absolutely critical for the success, sustainability, and wellbeing (both physically and mentally) of individuals. We hear very often about the long-term benefits of living a healthy lifestyle, but very rarely do we hear about the acute effects on productivity and creativity. At Hackfit Boston, we proved that activity truly inspires innovation.

Presenting Like Steve Jobs

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Think about a time when you heard someone speak and you could feel their words resonate throughout your body. As if their passion gripped your mind, opened your heart, and reached into your soul. We have all had experiences such as this, after all it is only human to feel this way. This is called empathy. Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings that are being experienced by another sentient or semi-sentient being. The power of public speaking lies in your ability to tap into this emotion.

1. Build tension

Steve Jobs

We all know Steve Jobs is an amazing presenter. He’s famous for it after all. If you haven’t seen Jobs present, then please crawl out from underneath the rock you’ve been hiding under, and take a look at this.

Now in order for you to start making great presentations yourself, lets delve into some of the detail here that makes this presentation one for the history books.

If you’ve ever been given constructive advice on presentation etiquette you are aware that every presentation should come with a hook. In a sense, the hook of the presentation builds excitement and interest for the rest of the talk. Some potential hooks that you could think about using are:

  1. Rhetorical Question
  2. Screening Question
  3. New Twist on Familiar
  4. Quote or Anecdote
  5. Personal Note
  6. Audience Participation Exercise

After laying the initial groundwork for the presentation, Jobs really builds tension by stating, “Today, we are introducing three revolutionary products. The first is a wide-screen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary new mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device.” Tension increases palpably as he goes on to say, “Are you getting it? These are not three separate devices. This is one device…today Apple is going to reinvent the phone!” BOOM. The audience goes wild!

Now I realize that presenting on interesting material isn’t always a given. Discussing scientific data or fiscal-end results? Not earth shattering. However, don’t go into the presentation thinking that you will simply inform your audience of your data. It’s all about playing to their emotions. Ask yourself, how do I want my audience to FEEL after listening to me? What is the call to action? Instead of words like inform, think of words like invigorate, excite, empower, or enthuse. Consider how you are going to impress these emotions upon your audience and you will naturally create tension with your words.

2. Show enthusiasm and paint a picture

One of the first things that an audience will notice about your presentation is your enthusiasm in regards to the material and ideas you are conveying. Many people are so afraid to over-hype a product or result that they migrate towards the opposite extreme. They end up exuding a sense of monotony and deliver a wonderfully boring presentation. If you’re passionate about your material, then SHOW IT! And if you’re not passionate about your material…then figure out a way to be. Have fun with it. Throw in some jokes. Express yourself fully and the audience will respond positively.

Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell is stunning in the way that he weaves stories for his audience. Although he speaks quickly, his story is never lost. After all, he is enthusiastic about learning from spaghetti sauce!

Make sure to take notice the way in which he uses body language. At times he will throw up his arms, point to invisible bullet items in the sky, or count with his fingers when reviewing the numerous types of spaghetti sauce. This is an extremely effective tactic to use to capture visual learners and draw them to various impactful words.

And one final thing…he doesn’t even use slides during this presentation. Imagine that?

3. Practice

Think that the great presenters out there are improvising? Think again. An outstanding 1 hour presentation very often takes upwards of 30 hours to prepare and fully practice. If you need some convincing. Check out this slide show…you’ll be blown away. Want another interesting example? Check out Dick Hardt and Identity 2.0.

Dick Hardt

This is by far one of the more interesting presentations I’ve ever seen. Almost every sentence, every word even, is connected with a separate slide. I’m not necessarily recommending that you come up with a 200 slide presentation, but you do have to appreciate how much time and effort went into this for it to go as smoothly as it does.

4. Add some flair and create meaning

Learn how to vary the pitch in your voice, and the speed at which you deliver your words to effectively create meaning. Pausing for a few seconds may seem awkward, but it’s a great way to emphasize the power of single words or phrases. Now here’s a more advanced technique. Change up your vocal pitch. This is a great way to wake up sleeping audience members and to grab attention.

Guy Kawasaki

The beauty of Kawasaki’s presentation here is that he isn’t afraid to throw in some flair. He uses jokes and speaks bluntly about several very important concepts. This is a skill that is very often lost in public speaking. If you can pull it off, you’ll succeed in creating a message that really sticks.

If you are unsure what kinds of words will grab the attention of your audience, make sure to check out one of my earlier posts. It explains how to use action oriented verbs in your every day language and presentations. It’s a must read.

To sum everything up, make sure to remember these four items and your presentations will be much better off. If you feel nervous, that’s good. It means that the presentation is important to you…and if it’s that important, make sure it packs a punch.