Make Your Email Notifications More Relevant By Skipping the Inbox

Word association time:

  • Email
  • Telephone
  • Inbox
  • Voice Mail

EscapingOverwhelmingEmailIf the first and third words conjured slogging through innumerous messages, you’re not alone. Email has long been identified as that sucking sound that you hear as soon as you start your work day.  In my work, that flashing red light that used to indicate I had a voice mail has long ago been replaced by Outlook’s pop-up email notification.

Not only has email been identified as a detriment to productivity, so has that email notifier. Clicking this link will show numerous productivity experts telling you to turn the darn thing off. It’s a tip on page 35 of Franklin Covey’s Time Management for Outlook Toolkit. However, this email desktop alert was designed to serve a purpose: letting you know when emails important to you have arrived.*

So how can you use the email notification tool without derailing your productivity every time an “FYI email” or free whitepaper pops up in your Inbox? By not putting those emails in your Inbox in the first place.

Here’s a technique I developed a while ago that routes all emails to a folder that’s not tracked by the email notification tool, then pushes the stuff I want** back into my Inbox.

emailRulesFirst: create a special folder to receive all your emails. I call mine: “Inbox Manager.”

Second: create an Outlook rule that applies to all messages, with the action: “Move to the following folder.” Specify the folder you just created.

Third: provide exceptions to the rule. Mine are:

    • If it was received from members of my immediate team, my boss, my boss’ boss, and project managers for the projects I’m working on.
    • It was marked with High importance
    • It’s a type of Meeting Request
    • It’s flagged as “Call.”

You may not find all these exceptions useful for you. For example, perhaps these settings will not be as exclusionary if you’ve got people who mark every email “important.” Hopefully, this small selection of exculsions gives you an idea of how robust your Outlook rules can be.


There is a catch:

You’ll have two “Inboxes” to check.  And this second environment, quite frankly, runs the risk of accruing a balance, as it will be easier not to apply the “zero Inbox”/”Getting Things Done” methodologies that you may use to manage your “primary” Inbox.

Weigh your options. Will you benefit from allowing Outlook to help you prioritize the emails you address first? Will your productivity rise as your email distractions decrease? If so, activate those organizational skills you’ve resolved to apply, and give this a try.



* That request for information from your boss’ boss for today’s meeting? Yeah, you’ll want to get that.
** A much smaller list, n’est ce pas?

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Sharpening the Saw: Organizing My Social Media House

Ducks in a rowAt the beginning of the year, I’d made a commitment to learn 10 new tools and blog my findings. A quick review of this blog shows that I didn’t meet that goal.

To this, I’ll swiftly blame a busy schedule. There’s the family (of course), and work (don’t get me started), and the internet with all its shiny baubles.

But there’s also this: it’s challenging to learn a new tool well. Take, for example, my Google Hangouts post. It indicates that I’ve learned how to use the tool. But have I adopted it as a tool in my personal learning network?  Have I used it to support any of my training sessions? No.
And as I checked Jane Hart’s list of tools, I realized that there are quite a few on that list that I use poorly.  I have a Twitter account(#1 tool for learning, according to Jane Hart). I subscribed to blog feeds via Outlook once upon a time, and switched to Google Reader when I realized I could access the feeds on my more convenient mobile devices, then switched over to Feedly(#19) out of necessity. And I’m on Facebook(#9), and Google+(#10), and Tumblr(#65), and*… I think I once had a Diigo(#21) account, or a, or both. I was basically subscribing to information overload, and thus ensuring I paid little attention to any of my feeds.

So the latter half of the year I’ve focused on consolidation and organization.

I once believed that I needed multiple accounts for most of my information services: one for “business,” one for “personal” pursuits. With the advanced search algorithms available in email, and the prevalent use of hashtags, and other advances in the tools we use, no more. So I’ve consolidated:

  • I’m directing all correspondence to one email account;
  • I’ve transferred all those folks I follow into one Twitter account (I once managed (poorly) three of them);
  • I’ve given up on the news aggregator accounts altogether.
  • I’ve mothballed my personal blog; my whimsical posts on Facebook fulfill that need to boast about my kids to family and friends.
  • I have done away with about 7/8 of my e-newsletter subscriptions. Goes a long way to reducing my Inbox clutter.

I’m not doing away with my information feed.  Rather, I’m working to refine my personal learning network so I can get to this information readily.  All that talk about mobile learning? The way I see it, it’s really key for informal learning.

For most of those e-newsletters I’d unsubscribed from, I’ve been able to add them to a blog feed. Of the rest, many of these topics get repeated in my Twitter feed, or Google +. And if not, well, I’ve learned that I don’t need to read everything that crosses my path. I’ve done fine. I’ll do fine.

My primary source for articles to read will be Feedly, which I’ve sorted into lists: Training, Work Related, Corporate News, etc.  My other feeds, such as Google +, will probably fall into dis-use (although that’s a tough call as I’ve found some fairly intelligent discussions there), and I’ll sign into Twitter rarely — to join one of the Twitchats I appreciate, for example.

Future Considerations:
Most of these decisions are about time and mental bandwidth.  I have so little of each.  But again, it comes down to learning the tools. Each social media account I’ve opened, I’d done so because I’d gotten caught up in the press. But I’d never tapped into their potential.

One of the tools whose potential I should harness is LinkedIn.  These posts feed there automatically, but LinkedIn is about managing your professional presence, and a wayward post or two a quarter doesn’t do it. It’s likely that I’ll be more participative in some LinkedIn groups in the coming year.

For the other tools, I’ll need to ensure they align with what I’m trying to accomplish. Twitter is a perfect example. Most of the people I follow primarily post links to articles that they believe are interesting. Well, I’ve already subscribed to feeds of articles I believe should interest me. Which do I spend my time on? I may benefit from honing the people I follow in Twitter. I may benefit from better application of lists. I may do just as well to chuck Twitter altogether, and focus on the lengthier discussions available in Google +.

At the end of the year, I find that I appreciate Jane Hart’s challenge. It showed where my personal learning gaps were — not with new tools, but with the resources I’d already signed up for.


* and there was Plaxo, and Ning, and Posterous, SlideShare, ScoopIt, Yammer, Klout…

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One of the lessons I learned early on was to remove all the speech fillers from my presentations. You know: those “ums” and “uhs” that pop up as we work to recall that perfect word.

We may need to rethink that standard. Here’s a study that suggests that – ah – such pauses can improve listener recall.

“This is speculation, but if the speaker doesn’t know what they’re saying very well, you pay attention more because you think you need to work harder to get it. One thing that disfluencies do is buy speakers more time. They are a signal to the person listening that I need more time.”  – Duane WatsonCognitive Science group

I wanted to give this a test, see how it sounds.

  • Soundbite 1 – (That sounds good!)
  • Soundbite 2 – (OK, I can see how that could help focus the listener’s attention.)
  • Soundbite 3 – (Too much! Lack of credibility.)

So if you’re worried about your public speaking skills, this is good news. It’s permission to relax a bit. Yes, you’ll need to rehearse your presentations multiple times before you deliver them – your confidence in your knowledge of the subject matter builds needed credibility. But once you’re in front of your listeners, don’t focus on every word you’re saying. Don’t get flustered when you do insert a speech filler here or there.  Allow yourself to speak naturally, to let the “ums” fall where they may.

Good news for President Obama, Jon Stewart, and you!

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What’s That Behind You?

Distracting Background - Office

Just what DO they put in those botanical shampoos?

In last night’s “Facilitating Over the Web” session, the discussion migrated to best use of webcams. While I was extolling the virtues of using webcams, someone in the chat box piped up: “I’d have to clean up the disaster area that’s behind me first.” Which was a very astute observation. I had taken a few moments to clean up my office space a little before the webinar began.  It’s likely the first time in months that my desk has had that much open space.

Even after a little tidying up, it’s valuable to check your background to make sure that what your learners see doesn’t distract from you, and your message. The image to the left, of course, is an example that’s easily fixed. Move the vase, or move yourself.

But what if your entire background is distracting, and something that you cannot move? And what if you don’t have the option of going elsewhere? How can you ensure that the webinar you’re facilitating remains professional, and your learners stay on task?

These folks came up with a solution:

It’s pretty basic, and reminiscent of those pop-up car screen shades. But they do a remarkable job of blocking out the background, allowing you to facilitate from wherever you may have placed your home office: the kitchen, a corner of your garage, wherever you’ve got a desk and a chair.

The WebAround comes in three colours, and frankly, I’m eyeing the green one, wondering if I can treat it as a “green screen” for my eLearning video recordings.

If you find yourself facilitating webinars, but are concerned about the professional image you’ll project if folks can see the space behind your smiling face, this product may be a decent investment.

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Enhance Virtual Training Engagement With Hashtags

“Oh, my goodness, I think there’s a chat box blowout going on here!”


Image from, #hashtagyourlife

I can hear David H. through the thin walls of our offices, and can’t help but smile. Just a few weeks earlier, he’d shared with a group of Total Trainer participants a technique for engaging his virtual audience that he just stumbled upon one day – hashtags.

A hashtag is a word or phrase, preceded by the “#” symbol, used to “tag” a longer comment – a form of metadata. It was popularized in Twitter to help users of that social media tool to search for comments by a specific topic. #learning, for example. Or #FF.

“I was watching the chat during one of my webinars and noticed that a lot of folks were talking about the same topic,” David shared. “So I said: ‘Looks like there’s a topic trending in the chat box.’ and typed #listen (that was the trending topic). And the chat box just blew up.” He splayed his hands out to illustrate.  “I thought that was pretty cool, so I tried it again.”

Now, the #chatboxblowout, as David calls the practice, is a standard facilitation technique for his webinars.

Sometimes David will comment: “I see a topic trending in the chat box…” and participants will start adding hashtags to their comments.  Sometimes the participants – particularly the Millenials – will add hashtags without any prompting. Either way, adding hashtags to the chat spurs conversation and engagement with the majority of those on the call.

An added benefit:  just as hashtags were created as a grouping/search tool in Twitter, so can David search for content in his webinar chat, by topic, should he later want to refer to a specific comment someone had made.  Being able to recognize a participant’s comments as relevant to a subsequent topic can boost morale as well as engagement, indicating to the learners that the facilitator is actually paying attention to their contributions, and prompting more meaningful dialogue.

Back in today’s training session, David is narrating the comments that are filling up his chatbox with the fervor of a soccer announcer. There’s no denying that a simple “#” has provided a great deal of excitement in his classes.  #somethingtoconsider

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Sharpening the Saw: Google Hangouts

This “Sharpening the Saw” post comes on the heels of a conversation I’d had at the end of the Total Trainer: Distance Learning session I had facilitated back in May. I’d encouraged the participants of that class to practice designing webinars, and provided two free resources in which to do so:

I’d spoken of AnyMeeting previously in this blog. I used that resource a few times. I’d dabbled with Google Hangouts, but their interface had changed enough at the time of the seminar that I didn’t want to do more than mention it.

I knew I’d have to go back and try it out.

I’ve since started another side project (more on that later, as it develops) where I’ve had the opportunity to use Google Hangouts as our meeting center. I don’t believe it’s suitable as a fully-fledged virtual training resource, but it can be a remarkably facile tool for seminars, brainstorming, or other basic meetings.

Main display for Google Hangouts
Google Hangouts Main Interface

You May Already Have It

If you’ve got a Google account, and you’ve poked around a bit in Google +, you’ve already got access to Google Hangouts.

For my web meetings, I was able to create a Google Hangout invitation using my Google Calendar. I found a link in the calendar invitation form that says: “Add video call.” I clicked that, and the Google Hangout was created for the time I stipulated in the Calendar entry. The link to the Hangout was sent to all invitees via email. All they had to do was click that link and presto! they were in the meeting.

Google presumes that you are “hanging out” to collaborate with other humans, so it doesn’t default to a whiteboard or a PowerPoint presentation. Instead, the one window that is available for presenting information starts out with you as your webcam fires up and your computer microphone goes live (Hangouts uses VOIP for its audio communication).

This isn’t to say you can’t share anything other than your smiling face. Google Hangouts offers plenty of tools to help you say what you have to say.

Hangout Tools


(The first two buttons on the apps toolbar pictured to the left will expand the toolbar to include text, and invite additional participants, respectively.)


Chat is fairly ubiquitous in webinar software. I mention it to ensure you’re aware it’s included in Hangouts.

One thing to note: where other webinar software provides dropdown fields to help you specify who is to receive your chat, Google Hangouts assumes that you’re there to talk to everyone else who’s there. Want to chat to a specific participant? There are some commands for that. Type “/?” in the chat box to find out what those are.


Screenshare allows you to share any window that you have open on your computer.

In the apps toolbar, click the green monitor with the white arrow to display thumbnails of the windows you’ve got open on your computer. Select the image of the screen you want to share with your participants, and your webcam video will be replaced by that content.

In my meetings, the team either saw my smiling face or a different window I’d opened in preparation for the event. I shared a site I’d set up for the team, some documents that we needed to review, and typed up notes from a brainstorming session.


Photos taken by “capture” are shared with everyone on the call.  If you don’t want to display video, but aren’t sharing a screen or a document, I guess this is the feature you’d use.


This is an app I loaded into my Google Hangouts that allows me to search for presentations on Slideshare and share them in my Hangout. In the image above, I’ve shared an old ASTD-OC Slideshare deck about Mentoring.

That slide looks pretty small in this post’s first image. I was able to expand it to “full screen” mode, making it easier for participants to read.

Google Drive

Connecting with your Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) account, you can share documents that you have stored in the Google cloud.  You can use the Google Drive app to also create Shared Notes, or a Shared Sketchpad.

I was excited about this feature — I had wanted my first brainstorming session to allow all participants to contribute to the document I had displayed on the screen. It didn’t work as planned; each time I loaded the document I got an error message and a prompt to try again. After reloading the document enough times, I finally resorted to sharing the document via Screenshare, and typing in whatever the team said.

Google Effects

This resource gives you the opportunity to be a bit silly. If you’re sharing with family, you can “place” a “tiara” on your head or “glasses” over your eyes. A fun way to let off some steam.


I mentioned that I loaded a Slideshare App to my Google Hangout. There are others to try as well, including a “digital whiteboard with sticky notes,” which could be useful for group brainstorming, drawing and doodling tools, and more.

What’s Not There

Audio Bridge

As I mentioned earlier, Google Hangouts uses VOIP for the audio component of the meeting. You’re limited to your system’s microphone and speakers. I’ve got a decent USB headset, so I’m prepared for this.  And you can operate just fine on your laptop’s default microphone and speakers. But what about your learners?  You’ll need to determine before your session if everyone has the proper technology to participate in your Hangout. Otherwise, you may need a resource that allows for communicating over the phone.

Feedback prompts

WebEx Training Center allows the learner to respond to basic yes/no questions via icon, raise his hand, and even share their status via emoticon. AnyMeeting also has a mood indicator, which allows for the raising of hands. Google Hangouts relies solely on chat or voice for communication.


I’ve come to appreciate the power of polls in my web training sessions, and the lack of polling in Hangouts likely means that if I need to use a free resource for training, I’ll stick with AnyMeeting.

Unlimited participants

Google Hangouts is limited to 10 video call participants. OK, that’s a HUGE obstacle. However, Google also offers “Hangouts On Air,” which also allows for up to 10 video participants, but can be seen by as many people that have the link. Hangouts on Air has the added benefit of publishing your Hangout automatically to your YouTube account to share with whomever you so choose.

Final Thought

Frankly, I’d like to try a Hangout on Air.  That said, Google Hangouts won’t be my go-to freeware if I’m planning to facilitate a virtual training session.  But if I’m preparing a collaborative meeting, or one that applies more informal learning skills for small groups, Google Hangouts is more apt to be my free web meeting resource.

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I’m Not Dead (Yet)!

It’s been brought to my attention that I am a horrible blogger; that if one wishes to attract a following then one should post regularly – at least once a month – so those following don’t become disinterested or think that one has fallen off the face of the earth.

I know of a blogger who makes it a point, whenever he’s away from his blog for a day or more, to at least alert his fans that he’s not dead. I’m not going so far as to say I’ve got fans, or even a following of any considerable size, but I do acknowledge that it’s a pretty good practice. I’ll endeavor to do something similar so those who ARE following me know that I’m serious about keeping this blog going.

So. Not dead. Just tied up with an LMS implementation and a simultaneous intranet overhaul.

Yeah, death might be preferable.

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