All posts by The Mathews Group

Building machines… and life skills

Katherine Brennecke
Mathews Group Managing Director of Training & Content

For the entirety of my career, it’s been my mission to simplify. To tell stories, no matter how complex or technical, in a way that people can understand quickly. That’s what we do every day. We help people in industries like energy and aerospace and education communicate their ideas.

But a couple weekends ago, we turned all that around and got complicated.

A high school student tells her machine’s story at the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest finals.

As a sponsor of the 30th Annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, two communicators from The Mathews Group (Tia and me), got to spend a weekend at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry judging the best of our country’s future engineers as they, in the words of the folks at Rube Goldberg, Inc. put it, “solved a simple task in the most overcomplicated, inefficient, and hilarious way possible.”

Hundreds of students and their elaborate machines filled the exhibit space showcasing their hard work as teams of judges from places like General Mills, Southwest Airlines, NASA, Argonne National Laboratory and many more evaluated them on criteria including creativity, humor and teamwork.

Now, you might be wondering what all this has to do with communication. These are STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) whiz kids from kindergarten through college, building machines from everyday items to solve a task. Doesn’t sound like a lot of “soft skill” action.

But like we tell clients every day, it’s not enough to just build it.

As each team did their official machine run, they were allowed three minutes to tell their story.

And that’s where those so-called soft skills come in.

Teams spent months and months working together to create a machine that checks all the boxes. They know everything about it. They could spend hours telling you about the process, the physics, the engineering and even the drama you get when you mix humans and the frustration of building something.

But in order to share their wonderful creation with the world, they needed to be able to strip the machine’s story down, figure out what would matter to someone who was seeing it for the first time.

They had to remember what it’s like not to know.

Katherine and Tia: proud judges of the 30th Anniversary Rube Goldberg Machine Contest Finals in Chicago

Then, they were challenged to educate us – and be entertaining in the process – in only three minutes. It’s not an easy task. And then they had to stand in front of a group of strangers, many of whom were wearing bright yellow sashes with the word JUDGE in bold capital letters across their chests, and deliver that three-minute speech. I’m pretty sure most of us wouldn’t want to have to face an audience like that.

That process and experience is a life lesson I hope they carry with them.

Every team I saw did an admirable job. They told their stories, each with their own flair. Some relied on a group-based presentation, others had one spokesperson, but they all broke down the process and made us understand with creative storytelling. In addition to all the other wonderful things these students learned in the months of trial and error, creative breakthroughs and circuitous problem solving that earned them a spot in the final competition, they learned what we wish every student would have the chance to learn – that when you have an amazing machine or product or idea, you have to be able to explain it to other people and bring them along. And that’s how you’ll succeed.

Giving DevRel pros something to talk about

In August, Tia presented “Talk tech: communicating your work and why it matters” to the inaugural DevRel Summit comprised of developer relations professionals from Seattle and the west coast.

The event was a hit – scoring a spot on the Twitter trending list! #DevRelSummit
The event was a hit – scoring a spot on the Twitter trending list! #DevRelSummit
After her talk, enthusiastic attendees approached Tia to discuss why they believe helping technical professionals get better at sharing their work is not only important, but critical to their success over the course of their career.

Get the essence of Tia’s talk in her supporting Medium post.

Podcast party: Melissa’s tips & tricks for taking your job virtual

melissamathewsmacslistMelissa recently took part in a Mac’s List Find Your Dream Job podcast hosted by fellow PRSA Counselors Academy member Mac Prichard. She shared advice for anyone looking to make a business case for virtual work, how to make it work with clients, as well as tips for succeeding in the model she’s helped pioneer within our industry. Join the dialogue around virtual work in our LinkedIn Group: Virtual Agency Realities. VAR

Us on Medium: Three things you need to know about telling your startup story

Katherine puts forth some great considerations on Medium today for startups and small businesses on the level of PR agency support that’s right for them. Here’s a tease: “Like anything, you need the right partner. If you’re a scrappy startup with a revolutionary idea, you’re not going to find your match with a huge, traditional agency. If you’re in tech, engineering, science or medicine, you’ll want an agency that operates in those worlds. You need to find your people.”



All Ya’ll podcast features our own Elizabeth B.

“And I decide in that moment, I’m going to turn around. I’m going to keep walking away from her. Because in this one moment, for Charlotte, I am not going to arrest the intoxication and I’m not going to soothe the terror. I’m going to let her ride out the full arc of both of those emotions so she can be one step closer to the kind of courageous and resilient grown woman that she is trying to become.”

That piece of moving narrative comes from our brilliant Elizabeth Beauvais who took the stage in Louisiana last month for a storytelling podcast about the time she let her eight-year-old daughter run away from home. For 45 minutes. Grab a beer, a burrito, a box of tissues and listen to “The Chipotle Rebellion.”

We’re so proud of you, Elizabeth!


It’s not you. It’s them.

Think about the worst speaker you’ve ever heard.

Not the one who was so nervous his voice shook or the one who was so wildly uncomfortable that she stood ramrod-straight gripping the podium like a life raft, but think for a minute about a speaker who took to the stage (or conference table, or hallway conversation) with a haughty air of condescension. The one who used multi-syllable words when a common word would do and made obscure references that left you wondering what you’re missing. That speaker.

Did he or she make you feel smarter? Probably not. Leaving an encounter where you’ve been made to feel out-of-touch or not worthy doesn’t leave anyone with a positive feeling. That’s because nobody likes a know-it-all. Yet, for too many people, stepping up to the podium creates a change in personality from charming and collaborative to dictatorial.

So when you’re called on to be the expert, or the voice of authority, there’s something you must remember.

It’s not about you.

It feels like it is. You’re the one standing up there, You’re the one sharing the knowledge. You’re the one setting the tone. You’re the one running the show.

But it’s not about you.

It’s about your audience.

Good communication is not about showing how smart you are, and it’s definitely not about showing your audience members how much smarter you are than them. It’s not about how many slides you have or how complex they are. It’s not about burying people with an avalanche of numbers and charts to prove you did the work.

It’s about making your audience smarter. It’s about showing them slides that give your work meaning in their worlds.

If your audience doesn’t understand what you’re telling them and why it matters, you fail.

Plain and simple.

If the people on the other side of the podium, the conference table or the conversation don’t leave with an understanding of why they need to know the information and what they should do with it, you just wasted your time. And theirs.

Sounds harsh, doesn’t it?

It is. But it’s the truth.

That’s why the audience needs to play into every decision you make when you’re planning a presentation. Who’s in the audience? What do you want from those people? What do they need to know in order to give you what you want or help you get it? The answers to these questions will not only help you avoid being “that speaker,” but they will help you be more successful.

Who’s in the audience?

Think through who will be, or could be, in the room. Consider whether they’re executives, investors, peers, students or a mix. Tailor your information to their level of understanding and tolerance for detail.

What do you want from them?

If you’re seeking to provide them with better understanding of a concept, make sure you’re offering context and examples they can relate to in some way. If you need them to take action, make sure you’re clear about what you need them to do and what the benefits are.

What do they need to know to give you what you want?

Make sure the information you give them helps them build a case for any action they need to take. If you need them to evangelize a policy change, help them out by leading them through answers to potential questions. If you need your audience to invest money, give them the information about how the money will be used and what return they can expect.

Keep the focus on your audience and how you can help them, and I promise, you’ll never be “that speaker.”


Photo Credit: by Ralf Roletschek, Wikipedia


Another year with Ameena

Ameena_Kids A cause close to the heart of The Mathews Group is Ameena Project, a nonprofit focused on improving the lives of children in extreme poverty. Ameena Project operates Ameena Centre, a preschool in Kiang’ombe, Kenya, creating a sanctuary for learning, wellness and opportunity. Our very own Tia Over serves on Ameena’s board of directors.

In 2015, we sponsored five “graduates” of Ameena Centre preschool into their first year of primary school. Recently, we received a progress report on our “Mathews Five,” and, in all honesty, it was difficult for us to read. Some of our students have lost a parent and experienced extreme malnutrition and associated health problems. But we were encouraged to learn they are performing at “average” to “excellent” levels, and we are honored to be able to offer them another year of primary school sponsorship in 2016.

Two other bright spots of progress: running water was recently introduced to the village and school property, and a fundraising Ameena_Kids_2effort is currently underway to build a playground on the property. We supported the playground project by creating a direct mail piece to encourage donations.

If you are interested in receiving regular updates from the Ameena Project, let us know and we’ll send you the newsletter we create as part of our pro-bono support for Ameena. And if you wish to join us in supporting Ameena Project, you can do so here.


Don’t call it a soft skill, this stuff is hard

For the people we work with, many of whom are scientists and engineers, communications have long been considered a “soft skill.” That’s code for “not important enough to study.” The irony is that as people in even the most technical fields rise through the ranks, they realize that it’s more important, and a whole lot less “soft” than they thought.

In the newly-released results of the Chapman University Survey of American Fears, researchers found that, 28.4 percent of Americans are afraid or very afraid of public speaking. There are also a lot of undocumented stats out there stating that public speaking is scarier than death and is second only to a fear of flying. Actual soft things like cashmere sweaters and bunnies didn’t even make the list.

So why is a supposedly soft skill so hard?

There are lots of reasons. Fear of being judged, fear of failing, fear of losing control and any number of other anxieties about being vulnerable in front of a group of people all make public speaking pretty scary.

But you can cure your fear.

My Rx: take control, increase your confidence, and vaccinate yourself against the idea of perfectionism.

Take control

Take an organized, logical approach. Think through your goal for your presentation, an important meeting, or any other occasion that calls on you to talk about yourself and your work. Figure out how you’ll get the audience interested on an emotional level, plot the path to your conclusion, and create a narrative thread to tie everything together so you can end with a logical conclusion. Then practice. A lot.

You choose what information you include and how to present it. You deliver it. That’s control.

Increase your confidence

Think about what your audience is going to ask. Come up with questions and answers about your main points and your presentation as a whole. Be ready. Know what to do if they ask for information you don’t have. Know what you’ll say when you get those questions that are off-topic. Know how to positively handle anything the audience throws at you and keep the focus on your goal. Practice these too.

Know your stuff, and know you’re ready for the audience. That’s confidence.

Vaccinate against perfectionism

As for that vaccine against perfectionism, you can get that here .

Because once you know there’s no such thing as perfect, you can relax and do the hard work to be fantastic. That’s perfect.



Photo Credit: Ross Little (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons