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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.

The Lilypod: Joseph’s Machines

Tia’s third grade daughter Lily met kinetic machine artist and YouTube star Joseph Herscher of Joseph’s Machines at the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest Finals last week in Chicago. Joseph was there to referee and judge the elementary, middle, high school and college finalists from across the U.S., as well as share his approach to designing his world-renowned Rube Goldberg machines with the contest audience at the Museum of Science and Industry. Listen to Lily and Joseph’s conversation and you’ll learn what inspires his designs and how he handles challenges that arise when materials – even live ones – don’t work quite right, including on his latest machine: The Cake Server.

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!


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.


Engineering a great thanksgiving

It’s time to pause and give thanks for the many ways that some of our favorite people – American engineers – have contributed to the Thanksgiving holiday. This article is lifted from the November newsletter of our clients over at the National Engineering Forum, which you can read in full here.

As you relax on the couch this Thanksgiving, take a moment to thank broadcast engineers for bringing football and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade your television. The Macy’s parade has been a tradition since 1924, and designing and filling those balloons takes some serious engineering. For football fans, there’s plenty of action, and the chance to ponder engineering’s impact on the sport, including MIT’s helmet research, Oregon State’s artificial intelligence work, and Carnegie Mellon’s research into technology to help referees make better calls (insert your own joke here). Of course Thanksgiving centers around the food, and there’s plenty of engineering at work in the gadgets for prepping and cooking, but according to this, there’s a proper way to engineer your plate to ensure maximum deliciousness. If Tofurky’s on your table, you can thank the folks in Hood River, Oregon, whose food engineering gives vegetarians an animal-free option. For meat eaters, the turkey is the main event, but not all birds are destined for the dinner table. Some get a pass from the president. There’s some debate on who originally engineered the annual presidential pardoning of the turkeys, but no matter how it began, it’s a sure bet, those turkeys are thankful. Happy Thanksgiving!