Help! I still haven’t written my personal statement yet!

I thought Personal Statement Workshop season had passed. It’s November now and most schools, parents and youth organisations that engage my services to help students write their personal statements don’t want me now. There has been lots of press coverage speculating whether the timing of your UCAS application affects the likelihood of being accepted at a university; while there was no official consensus it seems beneficial to err on the side of caution and submit an application as early as possible and this is what almost everyone seems to be doing now.

However, this weekend I was with a friend who has a 17-year-old daughter who is planning on going to university next year. I casually enquired about where she wanted to go and what subject she wanted to study fully expecting that she had already submitted her application. It turns out she hasn’t written her statement yet and I am wondering who is helping the students who are still working it all out. Concerned parents following the news in the media are getting stressed out. It’s worth noting that the UCAS deadline for most courses is 15 January so in many ways there is plenty of time, but I still recommend submitting your application sooner rather than later. Students applying now have either missed all the scheduled events that their school has put on or else are competing for their teacher’s attention along with other classmates.

The personal statement is one of the key things that forms part of your UCAS application. It’s where you have the opportunity to explain why the university should pick you in approximately 600 words (officially 4,000 characters). It is something that so many young people seem to stress over and put off until the moment of inspiration strikes. Those sessions at school when you are supposed to write your statement is spent thinking and trying to work it all out, often with little accomplished. Having worked on hundreds of statements I thought I would share some top tips to help students on their way. I also highly recommend going on the UCAS site as they have lots of information on what to include.

Ready, set, go– getting started can be the hardest part. You try to think of that killer opening sentence and sit staring at the blank screen. Instead, focus on something that will get you moving which is to brainstorm ALL the possible things you can put in your statement. This can be anything from reasons you want to study your subject, extra-curricular activities, jobs, hobbies, interests. You can work out what is relevant later.

Get passionate– the tutors reading your personal statement want to know why you want to study your chosen subject and why you would be someone they would love to have around. It is something they have devoted their life to and you should show them why you love it and what would make you a good student.

What’s the point?- 4,000 characters doesn’t give you space to waffle on. Look at what you have brainstormed, what can you link together, what points need expanding, what isn’t relevant? Roughly two-thirds should be devoted to why you want to study your chosen subject and what makes you a suitable for the course. Use the remaining space to talk about work experience (both paid and unpaid), extra-curricular activities and other interests. Read every sentence, what is it saying? Every sentence should be making a point, if it isn’t immediately obvious look at the preceding and following sentence to work out how to restructure it or remove it entirely.

Once upon a time– try to tell a story about what makes you a good candidate rather than simply putting together a string of random reasons. Link together different things you have done, e.g. did a holiday get you interested in Economics when you saw the disparity of rich and poor, which then led you to study Economics at A level and then led to work experience? Was it reading a certain book that got you interested in something you haven’t studied yet? How does it all fit together? Try and make it compelling.

Keep it simple– don’t use over-complicated words or sentence structure. Use language that is considered plain English and language you would normally use (as long as it is not slang). There is a lot of research that shows simple language is much more effective when communicating.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite– don’t expect to knock out a polished personal statement the first time around, or even the second or the third. Most people do about seven re-writes to produce the final polished version. Remember to get someone else to proof-read and spell-check for you. Don’t just rely on the computer.

If you have any specific questions about writing your statement, then please pop them in the comments box and I will respond.

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Why I Don’t Multi-task Anymore

OK, maybe that statement is not completely true, but on the whole I try not to, which is a far cry from where I used to be – the queen of multi-tasking. Ask anyone that knew me, I had my finger in many pies, plates spinning, the whole caboodle. I used to eat lunch at my desk, have multiple coaching calls through my lunch break for a programme I did outside of work and then get on with my day job straight after. My desktop had lots of windows open and the end result meant that whilst I had started almost everything that needed to be done, I had completed very little. And, there was always something to do after work, even if ‘after work’ started at 9pm. It seemed never-ending and to top it off it was something I was very proud of being able to do.

Being a solopreneur makes things worse, there is always that constant nagging voice which tells you that you must make use of every available minute and the best way to do that is to multi-task. However just over a month ago I started a new 14-day eating plan and it made me look at life differently. One of the rules was to spend at least 15 minutes eating your food, so no wolfing it down like I usually do! I found I was having to pay mindful attention to something that I didn’t usually think about and just that very act brought mindfulness to other areas of my life. I felt more grounded and peaceful taking time over my meals. If I had lunch at my desk, I stopped work and all I did was eat my lunch. I didn’t even browse on the internet or check out any social networking sites. So you may think ‘why is she talking about diets and food?’ but bear with me.

What I started to realise was what a noisy world my head was in. There were very few things that had my focused attention and it had become my default modus operandi – all I could do was multi-task… and isn’t that what gives women an edge over men? So I decided to try something different with my approach to work and that was to take just one thing and do that, fully, completely for as long as I said I would, no distractions. I liked it. I realised that the most productive approach wasn’t to be doing multiple things at the same time, and often things got done quicker and to a better standard when I did one thing at a time. This might be stating the bloody obvious but it hadn’t been to me.

I can tell you that the difference has been amazing. I don’t feel so stressed out or buzzy (that feeling when you’re running on adrenaline the whole time) and I look better too (less stress does that to you!). I find I schedule things in much more realistically and it has kept me so much more focussed. It also has improved my relationships with people as I actually spend more time listening to them rather than the thoughts in my head! I do still read books and do some bits of work when commuting and there are times when I sit in front of the TV with my laptop or smart phone in hand but apart from filling dead time, I just find it better to do one thing a time.

I’m not saying multi-tasking is bad per se, but consider whether it is all that it is cracked up to be. What are your thoughts on this?

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Networking Not Working

I tend not to go to many formal networking events these days. I don’t particularly like people thrusting a business card into my hands only to get mine in return and then bombard me with sales and marketing e-mails, or those that move on when they decide a communication trainer is perhaps not a potential client. Instead, I make time to go to events that I am interested in, perhaps a talk at the RSA, a book launch, an opening of an exhibition or an event at Central. I often see familiar faces and there are many new ones too. This provides me with all that I need and I enjoy the experience too.

First let’s look at why ‘networking’ events can be a painful experience for me and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

1. Pretence (e.g. I’m not after clients, I really just want to meet new people’)

There comes a time when some people feel they need to go to a networking event and it’s usually because they need some more sales. So off they go. Their strategy is to get as many cards as possible, take them back to the office, enter them into the database and then proceed to call them, e-mail them and get them to be a client. Sometimes, this person also suffers from 2 and 3 below which makes life a lot harder. They pretend that they are just meeting new people and come across as insincere because they are just trying to work out if you are a potential lead. I am quite happy when someone comes up to me at  networking event and tells me they want clients (doesn’t always work if it is your opening gambit but if you say that is what you are looking for, then I will try to help).

2. You’re not worth knowing

‘So what do you do?’ After your response you may find one of two things happening. The first is that this person is very interested in you almost to the exclusion of others. They don’t let you go until they have explained the full benefits of their service/ product and they also don’t let anyone else steal you away. Contrariwise, they find a quick way to end the conversation. It doesn’t matter whether you probably had lots in common and also have access to a huge number of people who you could refer onto them, they need to find someone they think is worth their time.

3. I really don’t want to be here

This can be a symptom of no. 1. This person hates meeting people but they need more contacts and the only way to do that is to go networking. Another reason they may not want to be there is they lack confidence when meeting new people. These people often hover around the edges, waiting for someone to draw them into conversation. Often, they will be happy just to be talking to someone and can feel that networking events are not the best use of their time.

So how could it be better? It might, at this point, be worth looking at the definition of ‘networking’

a supportive system of sharing information and services among individuals and groups having a common interest

I mentioned I go to events, and one of my reason for doing this is that there is some commonality of interest that draws us all there. It is a great talking point and so can help break the ice if you’re not comfortable with approaching people. I also find that I generally will get on better with people I meet at these events and therefore want to help them.

1. Know your intention

Before you go to an event work out why you want to go. If you want to get potential clients then do some research and go to events where your clients are likely to be. If you have specific people you want introductions to either find out where they will be or find out who else knows them. It can also be worth finding a guest list and asking someone to introduce you to a specific person. Are you trying to get known in your industry? Having a clear intention will help you make the most of your time at an event.

2. Strengthen relationships

Networking is not all about new contacts, it is also about strengthening and maintaining existing ones. Don’t just talk to new contacts, talk to people you already know. Indeed, they may be the one who introduces you to other people at the event. The last two events I went to I was introduced to valuable new contacts when in conversation with someone I already knew.

3. Add value in your conversations

Networking, like any team sport, creates a win when everyone plays their part. Be a valuable member of your networking community and in the individual conversations. This might be sharing some of your knowledge, offering to make an introduction. Don’t do it to get something, do it because you can.

4. Follow-through

So what do you do with that pile of cards you collected last night? Make sure you follow-up within 24 hours (48 hours if you are really busy) with an e-mail or a LinkedIn invite. With both methods make sure you personalise it by referring back to an aspect of your conversation. If you offered to introduce someone to one of your contacts then do so in a timely fashion and don’t forget to follow-up with people you already knew. I usually send an e-mail or sometimes even a text saying it was good to see them.

What are people’s experiences of networking? What tips can you offer to others?

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Being Alone Together

The life of a solopreneur can be very lonely and it gets even worse when things aren’t going to plan. You get up in the morning, dreading dealing with the day ahead, who are you going to call, where is that next lead going to come from? You look through your contacts wondering ‘who can I call again?’ Deciding there’s no one, you trawl through the internet to find some meet-ups or networking events, but then decide you can’t face talking to a room full of strangers. There’s nowhere to go, all your friends are at work and the other freelancers and business owners you know are busy doing their own work.  You’re stuck, who do you turn to? Your friends and family are as supportive as they can be, but you don’t want to moan about your predicament. You were the one that went gung-ho, head-first into this venture, so you just have to carry on as best you can.

I remember feeling not too dissimilar at various points after I went solo. I just used to feel very alone and felt under huge amounts of pressure to make things happen from nothing. It was the fact that there was just me and the people who know me, know that I’m a social person; I missed the interaction with other people and staying at home was making things worse.

Fortuitously, there were two things that came into my life at about the same time earlier this year. The first was Central Bloomsbury, a co-working space just off Tottenham Court Road in Central London and the second was the Key Person of Influence Accelerator Programme, a 30-week business incubation programme. What both provided, as a by-product of their main service, was community. It’s hard to say your business isn’t going as well as you want it to without feeling like you’re undermining your credibility. However, everyone struggles and what we all need is a trusted network of people who have been through or are going through the same journey.

Central is not your average co-working space and I was immediately impressed by my first visit. The whole space is set up to allow people to collaborate both in a formal and informal way. One of their working spaces is much like a cafe where you can just strike up a conversation with another member and they also put on events to help you fill knowledge-gaps you may have, whether it is social media, marketing or getting investment. The staff is very attentive and the co-owners have an aim of supporting 1,000 grow in the next five years. Working at Central allows me to have the buzz of an office environment and in the members I have colleagues with whom I can share what is going on for me, bounce some ideas around and where in turn, I can support them if needed.

The KPI programme has also been a huge support, not just the content of the programme (which, BTW is amazing) but the generosity of the people involved. We have a Facebook group where past and current members come together. It’s a very active group and people share everything from requests for help, their successes, opportunities for other members. My programme is coming to an end but I know that I am part of this community for life. It has become a trusted network and often the first place I go to get some inspiration, offer support or get some help.

If you are on the lonely path of setting up your own business, I can’t recommend enough getting out there and joining a group of some kind- there are lots of options out there, not just the ones I have mentioned above, from Mastermind groups to online networks like Ecademy. You don’t have to go it alone and there are lots of people who want to help. Once your part of one of these groups, my top tips are to make yourself a valuable member of that community, support others and give generously- it will come back to you manifold.

It was at one of the KPI workdays that I came across the phrase ‘being alone together’. Penny Power who was running our Social Media day mentioned she had heard it somewhere (I forget where exactly) and wrote it down thinking it was a very apt description for many people I know. Certainly, it is where I am; alone but surrounded by amazing people who completely have my back.

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Practice and Preparation Lead to Spontaneity

This past week I was at various events where people were giving presentations, talks or running workshops. What I found surprising was that all of them told me that although they knew what they were going to cover, they hadn’t practiced lots as they didn’t want to come across as ‘stiff and rehearsed’. These people are not exceptional. I hear it many times over.

In my line of work I come across lots of people who tell me they don’t enjoy giving presentations and that they are not good at it. When I delve into why and what happens leading up to their talks, most would give me some version of the following situation:

16 days before the talk
they find out they have to do a talk. They decide they will deal with it later, they might make a rough plan of what they should do and will do it when they have more time. ‘I’ll do a much better job if I am inspired’
15 days before the talk
there’s plenty of other things to be getting on with while waiting for inspiration to come. ‘I’ll deal with it later’
11 days before the talk
they know they should start preparing, it’s at the back of their mind, but they get on with other work instead. ‘I must remember to write my talk’
3 days before the talk
they open up their PowerPoint and then look through the previous presentations, find one that is near enough, modify the slides and breath a momentary sigh of relief. ‘I’ve got it done -phew!’
The day before the talk
they go through the slide deck a few times- thankfully most of the points are on the slides to help jog the memory. ‘I better not practice too much or else it will sound rehearsed. I want to come across natural’
The day of the talk
Nervous, didn’t sleep well the night before. Get into the hall, get a little nervous as they walk on stage and speed through the process, barely pausing for breath. ‘I’m glad I don’t have to do that all the time. I’m just not good at talking in front of large groups’

That is like Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic saying ‘I know how to play tennis, I’ll just do a little warm up and get on the court’.  Actors rehearse for days before going on the stage, and then rehearse in between performances. Even London bus drivers practice driving buses before they drive their passengers around and spend time learning their route (I know it doesn’t always feel like it!). Yet, many people assume that speaking and giving presentations requires little if no preparation or practice. After all we speak everyday, we don’t need the practice, or do we?

Djokovic making it look easy after practicing for over 19 years!

All the workshops and training I deliver I have practiced over and over again. If I can’t find people to practice with, I will record myself going through the workshop. I then pull apart different aspects of my delivery from my body langauge to my intonation. What this has meant is that I am able to speak and present myself in a natural way. I can be spontaneous because I am not worried I will lose my way. If it feels weird or unnatural, I know I have not practiced enough. Federer and Djokovic don’t have to worry about where the ball is returned as they have practiced for all the eventualities. Stage actors don’t come across unnatural, even though it is ‘rehearsed’.

At the beginning of last week, I was lucky enough to go to a speaker training workshop run by Topher Morrison, a professional speaker who gives talks all around the world and also trains professional speakers. He suggested that for every 5 minutes on stage, you should spend 20 hours practicing. I think some people thought that number a little high but that sounds about right to me.

So how can you prepare and practice so it makes a marked difference?

Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. Start preparing as early as you can- find out about your audience, who else is speaking, where you will be delivering it, etc. Don’t leave it until the last-minute.
  2. Prepare your content by focussing on what the audience needs (wants) to hear, not just what you want to talk about.
  3. If you are giving a talk, practice in the mirror first, then scale up- your office, boardroom and then the room you will actually deliver in (if possible). Do the same scaling up with your audience- do it in the mirror first, then colleagues you get on with, colleagues you don’t know.
  4. If possible, learn your talk so that you can deliver it without looking at notes.
  5. If you are going to use notes, PowerPoint presentations or charts, then make sure you practice with these. Get familiar with the clicker if you are using one (I recommend you buy your own, so you know exactly how it works).

Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section and do let me know if I can help you with any upcoming talks, presentations or pitches.

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