Use the MVP Concept to Make Your Communications More Concise

December 22nd, 2014

Keep It Simple sign with clouds and sky backgroundIn a conversation I had recently with one of my coaching clients, she asked me how to handle a request from a senior level executive for a report on a particular topic. Although she had an idea why he needed the information, she was not exactly sure, and for various reasons was not in a position to probe further for clarification. She was in a quandary: how much should she pack into her response. Her question for me was, is it better to cover all possible contingencies to ensure he got what he needed, or to focus on her own guess?

I’ve fielded this question in various ways many times in the past, because it’s a common issue I see when experts interact with generalists. I’ve also heard many times form the generalist side, those at senior levels who need information to make informed decisions or recommendations higher up their own chain of command. Typically, their complaint is that when they ask someone what time it is, they’re given a tutorial on watchmaking. In general, they prefer less rather than more; if they need more they will ask for it.

On the other hand, those providing the information, because they know so much about the topic, hesitate to give a simple yes or no because they see so many shades of grey. More selfishly, they are afraid of being caught short by not giving the questioner what they need, or they think they can bolster their own credibility by showing off their command of a difficult and nuanced topic. So, they give more rather than less, and expect the recipient to glean what they need from the mass of information. Recipients may not have the time or inclination to dig through it for what they need, and the consequence is inefficient and ineffective communication, which helps neither party.

Because she works in software development, I asked her if she was familiar with the concept of a minimum viable product, and she instantly caught on to what I was proposing. Basically, an MVP is a way of getting to market quickly with a product that works, that just does what it’s supposed to do, rather than delaying launch to pack in features to try to please everyone. In effect, an MVP is a best-guess hypothesis about what the market needs. It’s not a stab in the dark, because it’s based on your knowledge of the “customer” and your analysis of the situation.

Give them what you think they need. Answer their question directly without hedges, caveats and circumlocutions. Most of the time, you will give them exactly what they need, but if they need more, they will ask for it. The payoff for them is time and clarity; they won’t have to wade through a swamp of excessive detail to get exactly what they need.

The payoff for you is time and credibility. Make this a habit, and others will find that you are a clear, prompt and credible source of the information and judgment—and that will make you a different sort of MVP!


The Gift of Empathy

December 18th, 2014
Looking for a cheap but priceless gift?

Looking for a cheap but priceless gift?

While the Christmas holiday season is a time of joyous anticipation, fellowship, and spiritual renewal for many, it can also be an extremely stressful and trying time for others. If you’re one of those Grinches who can’t see past the aggressive commercialism, long lines, bad weather and annoying songs, perhaps you can do yourself and others a favor by boosting your skill at empathy.

Wait a minute—skill? How can empathy be a skill? Isn’t empathy a feeling you get when you identify with what other people are feeling? Isn’t it a trait that you get a certain amount of when you’re born? How can it be a skill?

Actually researchers have shown that empathy can be taught and improved. Even if you’re not feeling it, there are skills that you can employ to improve others’ perceptions of your empathy level—and actually foster the internal changes that will make you feel it. You actually can fake it ‘til you make it.

Why would you want to? If you’re already stressed out, why on earth would you want to start feeling others’ pain on top of yours?

The obvious answer is that it’s the right thing to do, but if you’re not feeling it, you’re not buying that one. So is there a practical reason for becoming more empathetic? Here are three:

  • Irritation and anger are definitely bad for you. But, as Mark Goulston says, “anger and empathy—like matter and antimatter—can’t exist in the same place at the same time. Let one in, and you have to let the other go.”[1]
  • If people around you feel valued and understood, their stress levels will go down, which helps you.
  • Having trouble knowing what to give? Empathy is a priceless gift you can give someone that costs you almost nothing.

So, how do you go about it? There are two general ways; you can adjust your mindset and/or your behavior.

Adjust your mindset:

When something happens or someone does something that gets under your skin, ask yourself, what’s really going on here? Did the other person purposely set out to attack me personally? Most likely, they did not. First, you never know what’s going on in someone’s life—they may have even more on their minds than you do. For a powerful reminder of this, watch just a minute or so of this video about empathy by the Cleveland Clinic. Goulston suggests giving yourself an empathy jolt: ask yourself, how would I feel if I were him right now?

Apply the same standards to them that you do to yourself. Remember the fundamental attribution error: when someone does something that irritates us, it’s a reflection on their character. When we do the same thing, it’s either an accident or was caused by circumstances.

Adjust your behavior:

Catch others doing something right. It’s easy to think everyone around you is crabby and discourteous, because you’re only going to notice evidence that supports your hypothesis. Make a game of scoring one point every time you see someone do something nice for others. (If you do something nice yourself, that’s not cheating, it’s a way to game the system so that everyone wins.)

Even if you’re not feeling particularly charitable towards the rest of the world, fake it. It will make others happy and because of embodied cognition, your mindset will tend to catch up with your behavior. You already know how to fake it, but in case you need some pointers, check out Helen Riess’s TED talk about practicing EMPATHY.

We all need an empathy boost once in a while, and what better time than the Christmas holidays to give others—and ourselves—that priceless gift?


[1] From one of my favorite books, Just Listen, by Mark Goulston, p. 126.

Christmas Book Recommendations

December 16th, 2014

Based mostly on my own reading over the past 12 months, here is a list of books that would make great gifts for the special someone who could use the gift of persuasiveness and personal effectiveness (even if the giftee is yourself):

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where and Why It Happens, by Benedict Carey.

In a rapidly changing world, personal success and well-being depends not only on being able to keep learning, but to get better at it—but much of what you learned about learning in school is wrong. I personally picked up a lot of good ideas from this book, and I put it first because it will help you get more out of the other books.

Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, by Ian Leslie.

I reviewed this book at length in an earlier post, but the thumbnail is that that there are three forms of curiosity, two of which are good for you and one which is bad. Empathic curiosity makes you dig deeper into understanding others, which is extremely useful in any persuasive communication context, and epistemic curiosity compels you to learn for learning’s sake. If you suffer from the bad form—diversive curiosity—this next book can help.

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload, by Daniel J. Levitin.

We put a lot of stuff into our brains every day, but taking out what you need when you need it is the real challenge. Levitin shows you how to organize yourself, your social life, and your business life to bring some sanity to your world and maybe even get more done.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century!, by Steven Pinker.

Pinker is an accomplished linguist who has turned his talents to popular writing, which is our gain. In this book, he takes on outmoded advice about writing and backs up his ideas with modern science. For example, you’ll be happy to know that it’s not a felony to end a sentence with a preposition. This book will help you sound like an intelligent, reasonable human being.

The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase, by Mark Forsyth.

Most business and personal communication works perfectly well if you stick to plain, short, direct language, but if you like to have fun with words, maybe show off a little now and then, and hope people will repeat what you said, study this book closely. I just reviewed this book at length, if you’d like to learn more.

The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.

Many extremely competent women are held back in their careers because they either lack confidence or are reluctant to show it to the extent that men do. Kay and Shipman explain why this is so and what you can do about it. It should also be required reading for men in positions to decide who gets promoted to plum positions.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain.

If being a woman can hold you back in business, so can being too introverted, in a society that is biased in favor of extraverts. Give this book to an introvert so they can learn how to apply their strengths to succeed, or to an extravert to show them how to better appreciate the introverts around them.

Strategic Sales Presentations, by Jack Malcolm.

OK, I’m biased, but it’s my blog. This timeless classic will put money into the pocket of the salesperson in your life, and even if they don’t read the whole thing, it will look good on their shelf, so I recommend that you buy one for their home and one for their office.


What Are the Three Tritest Tropes in Titles?

December 11th, 2014

Since reading The Elements of Eloquence, I am seeing tropes everywhere. Unfortunately, most people seem to go for the low-hanging fruit (Boo, badly overused metaphor!), especially in the titles of blog posts.

Numbered lists are probably the most common, for three reasons:

  1. Someone did some research once and found that they lead to more click-throughs, so there’s at least a pseudo-scientific basis for this one.
  2. They give the impression of completeness.
  3. They promise a quick and easy read.

Alliteration is a cheap way to win one’s attention. It’s easy, and personally pleasing to peoples’ ears, even when it results in rotten writing.

Why do rhetorical questions get our attention? Is it because they spark curiosity? Do they exploit our continuous search for meaning in a chaotic world? Who knows?