The Making of an Un-Conference: An Interview with Kathie Lingle

In April, the Alliance for Work-Life Progress (AWLP) is holding a Work-Life Forumin Arizona that’s being billed as an “un-conference.” Since many of my readers are interested or intimately involved in the work-life field, I thought I’d devote this blog post to an interview with Kathie Lingle, Executive Director of AWLP. I asked her to tell me more about this event. We talked for nearly 45 minutes, so I couldn’t include it all, but here’s an edited version of our conversation.

Kathie Lingle

So what exactly is an “un-conference?”

We’re experimenting with turning many of the expected features of a conference upside down, in order to stimulate creative thinking. A typical conference is usually an event where a whole bunch of people sit down while talking heads present to them. It usually begins and ends with a keynote speaker who may or may not be from the same profession as the audience. In between are workshops with more talking heads who use PowerPoint slides. Some are consultants who are selling something. If you’re lucky there might be some interactivity and the opportunity to network. If you were to survey participants six months later they’d probably struggle to remember what went on. That’s a conference.

At our un-conference, the core principle is there are no observers– everybody is a participant. We don’t have keynote speakers. We don’t have workshops. We don’t have talking heads. The fact is, every attendee at our Forum could be a keynote speaker, so our goal is to structure things so the work-life profession is talking to and amongst itself, not being talked to.

We do have a storyteller who’s going to help us kick off the meeting but unlike a normal conference he’s not coming in to entertain or dazzle anyone with his own brilliance. He’s going to interview a sample of participants in advance to find out what their challenges are, then customize his storytelling tools and techniques to the real-time needs of the audience. When was the last time you had the chance to influence the design of a conference to meet your specifications?

You held an event like this last year, too, right?

Yes, this is our second year. Our first year we looked at how many elements of “conference” we could change. We thought of following the opening reception by serving breakfast food instead of dinner. We thought of playing with clothing–if we were serving breakfast for dinner, why not have everyone wear pajamas? (We didn’t end up doing this!)

We also thought about not having enough chairs, so literally some percentage of the audience would always have to be on their feet. We didn’t do that, but what we did instead, was to put “Innovation Stations” around the room. They were tall bistro tables, and they each had different things on them. One was a Creativity Station with clay, markers, paper and some other materials. Another was a Think Station where we had blocks and puzzles and things that would occupy people’s minds. We also had a Play Station with stuffed animals, toy cars, an Etch-a-Sketch…At different times people would get up and wander to one of these tables and listen to what was going on while they were kneading clay or building with blocks.

Are you going to have the Innovation Stations again this year?

Yes. This isn’t just to be silly. The perception that some of our best thinking happens in the shower is no accident. The phrase “thinking on your feet” comes from man’s origins. We were designed to run, hunt and think on the move. AWLP has always stood for innovation with our Innovative Excellence Awards and other initiatives. If you want people to be really creative and innovative, the last thing you want them to do is sit down for hours at a time and listen to other people. That violates every principle of adult learning.

I see that storytelling is a big part of the forum. Why? What do you mean by storytelling and where did that idea come from?

Well, partly it comes out of what happened last year. We spent the whole first session re-constructing the history of the work-life movement. We went back to the 60s and caught up to the current time. We had teams of work-life folks who were actually from the various decades tell us the story of what their lives and careers were like at that point in history. And we had a graphic artist with a huge room-sized sheet of paper capturing their stories as they spoke. For the first time ever we recorded as much as we could catch about the work-life story. The finished product was a pictorial work-life timeline.

At the end of that session a number of our younger people who had just entered the profession said things like: thank you so much for sharing your stories; I had no idea what it was like back then and how much all of you have led the way to the workplace I enjoy today.

We’ll have a digital image of that work-life timeline displayed as we begin this year’s forum. It’s something you can walk up to and look at and you’ll see people and companies and developments over time. It’s a way for work-life people to catch up with their own history. So that was one big reason for this year’s focus on storytelling.

The second is that those of us who have been work-life practitioners have all learned, sometimes the hard way, that the data we produce (and I believe the work-life field produces more empirical data on the impact of what it does than any other people function) is never enough. When you’re trying to get your agenda at the top of the corporate food chain, it’s not the data that wins the argument. You have to have that, of course, but you also have to have stories about the struggles and triumphs of real people that those leaders care about. It’s the combination of fact and human interest that ultimately creates change.

So we’ve turned to the professional world of storytellers and storytelling. One of our sources is Stephen Denning, who’s written a book called The Leaders Guide to Storytelling, which is all about mastering the art and discipline of business narrative. And Mark Guterman, the storyteller coming to our event, is a CEO who spends his time educating corporate leaders about the power of storytelling to set vision and create change. We’re going to be focusing on those two kinds of stories and purposes for storytelling. What we’re going to be learning is how to modulate your experience and what you know to connect with the people you need to influence in your organization and create change. How do you wrap data in the right kind of business narrative that wins your case?

But stories are not just for leaders. They’re for people everywhere up and down the line because, if you’re going to embed a family-friendly environment in your workplace, that’s culture change and you need stories to make culture change.

Absolutely. And it turns out—as we can see on the national stage right now—whoever tells the best story, wins. The really important issues are ultimately decided by the story that grabs the most attention and gets repeated most often. Another reason for doing this now is that people are absolutely drowning in an ocean of data and disconnected facts. A meaningful story can feel like a life preserver. So stories are more important today than ever before. We’re going to help people create their storylines so they can go back to work more powerful for seeing more clearly where they’re going.

Another thing I see on your agenda is an “Imaginarium.” What’s that?

I mentioned that we won’t have workshops. One of the un-conference elements we’ve worked on is a replacement for those and we came up with Imaginariums. The objective is to do a group imagining on what the future will look like for a series of  topics. In one Imaginarium last year,  people were invited to engage in thought experiments about how culture change could be taken viral within an organization. Suppose you could inject a vaccine into an organization to cause culture change. What would that vaccine consist of? How would you make that happen? People broke into teams and they figured out what they would do with that idea. Or imagine you could drive a bus up to the door of a company and out would come a self-contained culture change movement that would take over the institution. Who and what would need to be on the bus and how would the change actually be mobilized on the ground?

Out of last year’s Imaginariums we got several “Big Ideas.” Remember I said six months after you leave a conference you usually don’t remember what went on? Last year, people signed up and committed to keep working on these Big Ideas until the next conference. The Imaginariums this year are actually three of those Big Ideas that teams have been working on. They’ll come back with a bit of secondary research, more of a plan and we’ll push deeper into what the future might look like. We’ll spend time deciding how and where we can take control of our future rather than having it control us.

What are the three “Big Ideas”?

One of them is about leadership. Some research we revealed last year was a an AWLP/WFD study showing 80% of leaders in the U.S. and around the world—not just CEOs but supervisors and managers— said they “get” the work-life business case. But then in the next breath when we asked them who their ideal worker is, it’s the person who has no family commitments and basically has no life outside of work. So one of the imaginariums we’re planning for this year is pushing forward on that: using the storytelling techniques we will have learned from Mark Guterman the day before, how can we communicate and create common experience with leaders to begin to close the gap between what they know and what they do?

Another Big Idea that emerged was about taking what corporations are doing with health and wellness and trying to address the huge problem of cost and the fact that this country spends more money on healthcare than any other and yet has less to show for it. A Big Idea came up about devising a community approach to health and wellness. What can we do outside of the company that will connect with efforts going on around health and wellness in the community?

And the third one (this won’t surprise you because this is what we work-life people have been trying to do for three decades now) is how can we fundamentally change the way work is done?

You’ve said elsewhere there will be a number of work-life visionaries at this event. Who are you referring to?

Well, Ellen Galinksy, President of Families and Work Institute, will be involved in two sessions, including one about the latest and greatest in work-life research. Sandy Burud, a Principal at Flexpaths who’s leading the effort on changing work; her book Leveraging the New Human Capital is one of the most important reference sources for any of us in the work-life field. Charlie Grantham—he’s the founder of the Community Design Institute and author of the book Corporate Agility and he’s working with Sandy on changing work and just led a big conference on the topic in California. Maureen Corcoran, who has the wonderful title of VP for Health, Life and Inclusion at Prudential Financial. She’ll lead the Imaginarium on community approaches to health. Perry Christensen will be with us…

Wow. This is quite a lineup…

Yes. Perry was co-author with Stu Friedman and Jessica DeGroot, years ago, of the seminal Harvard Business Review article on work-life, “The End of the Zero-Sum Game,” which really laid out the argument for the first time of how it’s not about your life vs. your work—that you can have both. He’ll be working with another luminary in our field, Diane Burrus from WFD Consulting, co-chairing the leadership gap imaginarium. We also have the president of WFD Consulting, Debbie Phillips, and Judy Casey, director of the new Work and Family Researchers Network. The Network is having its first global meeting in June, so we’re going to be the beneficiaries of some of the advance research information for that meeting.

Of course we have Mark Guterman, our storyteller, who is CEO of America’s Next Career Center. And then we have a number of our AWLP rising stars. They’re the next generation of work-life leaders: people like Kristen McNally, Judith Finer Freedman, Casey Carlson and Kyra Cavanaugh.

Your first “un-conference,” last year, was invitation-only. Why did you open it up this year and who is this year’s forum for?

Last year was invitation-only because we wanted to keep it very small and lay the groundwork for creating the Big Ideas.  We wanted to make sure we had the people there who would stay with us after the event, so we really stuck to a lot of the core work-life practitioners who have been at the business for a long time and are dedicated to making change. We did mix that up with new talent, as well, but we put the emphasis on long-term practitioners because we wanted to get things moving.

This year it’s wide open because we’ve accomplished that objective. We have our Big Ideas pretty much fleshed out and now we want to open it up to a much broader constituency. In fact, I’m hoping that some people come who aren’t conventional work-life practitioners. We really want to push these ideas forward with the richness of all kinds of different perspectives.

So everybody is welcome?

Everybody and anybody who really cares about changing the work environment and is involved in one way or another in making every workplace a better workplace. That clearly isn’t limited to one particular group of people or any one profession.

I’m sold. I’ll be at this “un-conference” and will fill you in on my experiences when I return! (In the meantime, watch here for more posts on writing for  work-life, HR  and internal communications professionals).

Saying More With Less: Winning the Word Count War

Around about now, you might be trying to write your Working Mother or NAFE “Best Companiesessay and despairing of cramming everything you want to say into 2,500 words.

Admittedly, twenty-five hundred words probably sounded like a lot when you began. You might even have wondered if you could find enough to say. But you started writing, describing this program and that, adding data and anecdotes and quotes from employees, and suddenly—boom—you realized you were 500 words over. Then your boss told you to add a sentence or two to clarify paragraph four.

(If you found you could say everything in well under 2,500 words, good for you. Kristen Willoughby, of the Working Mother Research Institute, which scores these applications, points out that there is no minimum word count. Many companies submit shorter essays. On the other hand, if your essay is all that brief, are you sure there isn’t something more you could say to state your case?)

Yes, You Probably Can Fit It All

When I’m helping companies with essays of this sort, my goal is to never omit a significant detail because of lack of space. You may think you can’t fit it in. But chances are, you’re just cluttering up your allotment of words with stuff you really don’t need. Here are some tips for making it all fit:

  • Don’t dither away your word count with platitudes and cliches: “Employees are our greatest asset?” “We hire the best and the brightest?” Hmm…you and every other company that’s written a mission statement in the last couple hundred decades.Here’s one that manages to waste even more words: “We strive to create an environment in which employees can maximize their talents and achieve their goals no matter what their gender, race or ethnicity.” Remember the old adage: show, don’t tell? The folks at Working Mother don’t care what you say you strive to do. They want to know how, exactly, you strive to do it.
  • Save the corporate hype for your website. You, may, indeed, produce the highest-rated electric pancake flippers in the industry, as identified by Entrepreneurial Breakfast magazine for seven straight years, but, in this case, it’s not particularly relevant. (Unless, of course, you can demonstrate a likely link between your work-life policies and the high quality of your pancake flippers.)
  • Skip the generalities. Believe me, the folks at Working Mother know that flexible work arrangements or generous parental leave policies can help companies attract and retain workers. (Of course, if you have actual data showing that they have had that effect in your company, you’d be crazy notto include it.)
  • Watch for meaningless clauses and two-words-when-one-will do.  A few paragraphs back, I initially wrote, “my goal is to never leave out a significant detail…” Then, just for the sake of practice (since fortunately my blog has no word limit) I changed “leave out” to “omit.” Here are some other examples of useless or unnecessarily wordy phrasing:

“The program serves to increase the retention of women”  means the same thing as:
“The program increases the retention of women”
or, better yet:
“The program increases women’s retention.”

“All four of our child care centers,” means the same thing as:
“All four child care centers.” (And by the way, if you’re writing a lot about child care, keep in mind that it can also be one word: childcare.)

“We offer this program as a means of supporting employees” means the same thing as:
“We offer this program to support employees.”

 “It is our hope” means the same thing as “We hope.”

“Having the ability” means the same as “being able.”

Also watch for phrases like “the program aims to” or “the program is intended to.” Sometimes they are necessary, if you’re really trying to set out a program’s goals. But sometimes, you’re just trying to say what the program does. A lactation program doesn’t aim to help women returning after childbirth. It helps them.

A faculty member at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, has created a useful list of suggested replacements for wordy phrases. Check it out!

  • In general, just think lean! Lean doesn’t have to mean choppy and style-free. In fact, most times you’ll find that lean writing is better writing. Consider:

FAT: Our CEO, Marvin Bagsley, gave a presentation about our core values. His presentation included a discussion of our work-life programs, in which he emphasized how they support our employees and their ability to balance work and family responsibilities. (38 words)

LEAN: CEO Marvin Bagsley presented the company’s core values, emphasizing the role work-life programs play in supporting employees’ work-life balance. (19 words)

For those of you who are arithmetically-challenged, the fat version is exactly double the length of the lean. And seriously, now, which one would you rather read?

Ten Words Here or There Won’t Matter

Willoughby informs me that she and the others scoring your essay aren’t obsessing over your word count: “The word counts are mostly there for our technology limits, so as long as it fits in the space provided and is accepted by the system, it’s considered acceptable.” On the other hand, you may not know if it fits in the space provided until you hit “submit,” so unless you’ve left yourself a nice fat margin of time for last-minute revisions, you’d be wise to go lean.

Don’t have time to waste paring down your word count? Let me do the job for you. Send me a copy of your draft ( and I’ll get back to you with a price quote within 24 hours. Or use this form to contact me with any other questions you may have!

Eschew Jargon

Don’t you love that word: eschew? English is rich with so many quirky, wonderful words. One of the great joys of reading great literature is savoring the writer’s word choices like a dish cooked by a master chef.

(Sometimes I just stop reading to wonder at the word a writer has used. How did he/she think of that? It’s so surprising, so utterly perfect. In Dickens’ Bleak House, a nasty old man, Mr. Smallweed, always has at his side his equally nasty granddaughter and caregiver, Judy. Just about every time Dickens mentions her he uses a different adjective: “snappish Judy,” “scornful Judy,” even – with some irony—“gentle Judy.” Several hundred pages into the book, when she turns up yet again by his side, it’s this: “The door is opened by the perennial Judy.” Italics mine. Perennial! So absolutely perfect. But who in the world, other than Charles Dickens, would have thought to use that word in such a context?)

But if words chosen with care and inspiration are like a brilliantly seasoned meal, jargon is the fast food of language. It is predictable and boring and, worse, often fails utterly to do what language is supposed to do: communicate—just as fast food generally fails to deliver either flavor or nutrition.

What exactly is jargon?

Defining jargon can be easier than recognizing it: jargon is the language of insiders. What they are inside of can be as various as a field or a trade, an organization, a hobby or a sport. Jargon is a kind of shorthand. Sometimes, it even has its uses. When doctors write for a medical journal, for example, it makes sense that they’d use medical jargon. Speaking doctor to doctor, jargon might well be the most precise and accurate language they can use. But when they’re writing for a larger audience—when they want to explain the workings of a drug or the causes of a migraine to the rest of us, jargon can kill their communication.

People in the HR, work-life, and related fields have their own jargon, but more often than not the audience for their communications is the whole wide arena of people in their companies. And companies, themselves, have jargon—their own alphabet soup of acronyms for programs and policies, their own job and department titles that make perfect sense within the company but outside—not so much. Actually, assuming your organization, like everyone else’s, has turnover, it’s not even safe to say everyone at your organization will know what you’re talking about. One friend told me how, for the first month on his new job, he kept getting emails with subject lines that ended in “EOM.” Until he mustered the courage to ask, he had no idea that it meant “end of message”—in other words, no need to actually open the email. Acronyms like this are particularly insidious; just check out the acronym section of the free online dictionary to see how many different things the same set of letters can mean.

But even if you feel completely confident that people within your organization will understand your jargon, it pays to remember that folks on the outside—say, the staff scoring Working Mother and NAFE 100 Best Companies applications (over which a lot of HR folk are slaving just now)— will not.

The tricky part about avoiding jargon is that if you understand it, you may not recognize it. You’re so accustomed to referring to certain employees as “hi-pos,” calling that program “FLEAS” and hiring people into the role of “Lead Operations Analyst,” you forget that these are terms used only within your field, your department or your company. You may find it obvious that one term is jargon, but be surprised when your cousin, the cable guy, has no idea what you mean by another term.

Right on the fuzzy border of jargon lies “corporate-speak.”

Corporate-speak is the long list of mis-used, meaningless or clichéd words and phrases that have crept into the lingo of daily life in the business world—and often the nonprofit world, too. The opening paragraph of this post on another website does a wonderful parody of the phenomenon.

Corporate-speak takes many forms. Like jargon, it has no single clear definition and people may disagree over what does and what doesn’t fall into the category. (Over two months ago, someone started a discussion on the topic in one of the LinkedIn groups I belong to and members have been weighing in and arguing almost daily ever since.) It includes invented words, used euphemistically to disguise an ugly truth: downsize started like this, and when even that was deemed too depressing it became rightsize. It includes real words, used incorrectly or at least unnecessarily, for reasons only known to the perpetrator: 99 times out of a 100, when you write utilize you should be writing use. (Utilize means to make use of something as something else—“I’m utilizing my cat as a neck-warmer.” But even in that case, use would do just fine.) And take it from me, something can have an impact on something else, but it can’t impact anything. “Impact” is not a verb. (The word you’re looking for is “affect.”)

Some corporate-speak involves pointless—and pompous–wordiness. How is “this point in time” different from “now”? Some corporate-speak began as image-rich metaphor but took an express train to cliché. Consider: think outside the box, sit at the table, at the end of the day, and push the envelope. (Come to think of it, I don’t have the faintest idea what the origin metaphor of “push the envelope” might be…) Like jargon, corporate-speak can be a tempting shorthand and can even be useful on occasion. But also like jargon, it is the fast food of communication, and is ultimately not only unsatisfying but downright unhealthy.

So stop serving your readers mass-produced, flavorless language. Explore the wealth of the English language and write to communicate. Eschew jargon; give your audience it can chew on.

Have a writing question?  Just want to hand that writing task off to someone else? Struggling with the Working Mother/NAFE “Best Companies” applications? Relief is only a click away.

Quick tip: Put those shiftless subheads to work

I’m too busy helping companies with their Working Mother submissions to write a full blog post.

But here’s a tip for today.

Make your Working Mother and NAFE essays easier to digest by incorporating subheads—without wasting valuable words.

Get lazy, pointless subheads to work for you.

Turn them into a part of your message. For instance, instead of having headings like “Parental Leave,” and “Mentoring Programs,” try heading sections with “We Offer xx Weeks of Parental Leave” and “xx Women Participate in Mentoring.” You’ve just freed up room for four extra words somewhere else, where—who knows?–they might make all the difference.

I may be busy, but that doesn’t mean I can’t help. Have a question about your Working Mother submission? Call me at 718-628-4753.