Did you ever have the experience of thinking of the perfect witty thing to say in a situation—after it was too late? Of course you have, even if you can’t think of it right now. That’s because even though your mind works very well in real time, there are many times that it works better with a little time to reflect. In the example just mentioned, you might have unconsciously been bothered by the inadequacy of your response, and somehow your mind kept working at it even when you thought it was over.
I’ve also seen the phenomenon at work in a totally different activity: doing crossword puzzles. I love the really tough ones, especially the Saturday New York Times puzzles, because sometimes I will get stuck with large parts of the puzzle left as blank as my mind. Concentrating on thinking of the answers doesn’t work, so I set it aside. Almost invariably, when I pick up the puzzle a day later, one or two of the clues now seem obvious, and then the rest of the puzzle falls into place.
But the best use that I’ve found for this mental quirk is in improving my communications, whether it’s a speech, a blog post, or a section in my book. One of the simplest things you can do to improve your communications—at least those for which you have time to prepare, such as important meetings, presentations, or written communications—is to give them enough time to marinate in your mind.
When you think deeply about something, there is something mysterious working in your mind. I’m not sure what it is, but I know that when I think of a topic for a speech, for example, I can usually dredge up a lot of what I’ve heard or read about the topic during my first pass through it. But for some reason, some of the ideas I might have about it don’t come to the surface right away. I’ve written blog posts, for example, only to have a great idea pop into my mind two days after it’s posted.
Because of that, I’ve learned that the way to get the best out of your mind is to make time your friend. Start early, and think carefully and deeply about what you want to say and how you want to say it. This deep work at the start seems to be important in engaging your unconscious mind. If you have time, get as much of it done as possible.
Then, when you hit a sticking point, set it aside and do something else; a day or two seems to work nicely if you have the time. Somehow, your brain keeps working on the problem even when you are thinking about something else—maybe especially when you’re thinking about something else. In my own case, I find that the most productive time for having ideas bubble to the surface is when I’m showering; I also get good ideas while driving and even wake up occasionally with a new thought fully formed in my mind.
I’ve also found that if I’ve thought carefully about what I want to say, the logical structure of my message doesn’t change much. A quality cut of steak is going to be good no matter what you do to it, but marinating it can make it great. What does change is how you flavor your message, especially in the form of apt analogies, examples, or visuals.
There are other good reasons for starting early on major presentations, but giving it time to marinate in your mind is an unexpected bonus. I’m sure if I had more time to let it marinate, I would have thought of a better ending for this article.