Let Things Marinate in Your Mind

February 24th, 2015
Give it time and it will be great

Give it time and it will be great

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.


The Only Time the AVK Myth Applies

February 19th, 2015

Now Or Later Signpost Showing Delay Deadlines And UrgencyI am taking dancing lessons in preparation for my daughter’s wedding next month, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that when the instructor shows me a new step, it looks simple. But when I try it, I can’t get it until I step through it a few times.

According to training lore, I guess that makes me a kinesthetic learner. But if you consider the corollary to that statement, I suppose an auditory learner would be able to pick up the steps simply by listening to the following instructions: “move your left foot about twelve inches to the side, then bring your right foot to meet it; next, advance your left foot forward a bit. But be sure to make the first two steps quick, and the third step slow…”

I had an opportunity recently to sit through a facilitation skills class put on by a major training company, and I was astonished to find that they still teach the idea that facilitators should tailor their techniques to the styles of their learners. One would think that they would have buried this myth long ago, since there is no scientific evidence to support it. Learning theorist Richard Mayer illustrated the weakness of the idea with one experiment that I’ve written about, and another famous example in the literature is described in John Medina’s book, Brain Rules. He describes a study in which expert wine tasters—about as kinesthetic as you can get—were completely fooled into describing white wines with the language reserved to reds, merely through the addition of food coloring. Maybe they were closet visual learners, but I doubt it.

Even if it were true, I can’t see how the instructor would actually change anything—they’d have to first, figure out how to quickly identify the style of each individual, and second, say or show everything three different ways to make sure everyone gets it.

But there actually is one way the idea applies, and dancing lessons offer a clue. It depends on the subject matter and the task. One can understand complicated verbal directions for navigating in a strange town, but a map is much more efficient. It’s possible to learn how to dance by watching others on YouTube, but trying the steps is much more efficient. You can memorize the words to a song by reading them on paper, but hearing them is much more efficient.

Why should this be important to you? Because if you believe the myth, it just becomes another useful excuse for why you didn’t learn something. The world is not going to accommodate itself to your imagined strengths and weaknesses.

You hear what I’m saying? Do you get the picture? Can you feel me?

Want to Drive Change? Choose the Right Role Models

February 12th, 2015

Dog and treat.I listened to a sermon on Sunday in which the theme was that the pursuit of money is not the surest path to happiness. The pastor’s contention was that money does not automatically lead to freedom and safety.

It’s one of those “yes, but…” themes: no one disagrees, but no one does anything. We get messages like these all the time—from motivational speakers, from our bosses, from our parents, but very little actually changes.

If you’re the one delivering the change message, how do you get out of the “yes, but…” rut? How do you break through inertia and complacency and actually make an actual difference in someone’s behavior? One of the most common devices that speakers use is a role model which listeners can measure themselves against, and, being found wanting, act to close the gap. Role models are excellent because they show what’s possible and they provide lessons for how to improve.

But that’s where a lot of speakers and writers make a mistake: they choose the wrong role models. They are either unrealistic or too different from the target audience.

It’s tempting to choose the most prominent person in the field, which is why we use Steve Jobs, or Martin Luther King, or Winston Churchill as shining examples of the speaker’s art, and churn out books such as “The Presentation Secrets of (insert famous name here)”.

What’s wrong with using folks like them as role models? You can’t identify with them: you don’t have the resources of a multi-billion dollar corporation behind you; you will never be Prime Minister with 40 years of parliamentary speaking experience under your belt, and if you ever get the chance to address a quarter of a million people from the Lincoln Memorial, please invite me.

If you’re coaching a high school freshman to play quarterback, who’s a better role model, Tom Brady or the senior starting QB? The role model has to be better, but not so much better that he or she is totally out of reach (insert picture of a dog reaching for a treat?)

If I want to get my dog to work hard for his treat, I have to hold it just the right distance from his nose. Too low, and he snaps it up immediately; too high, and he doesn’t even bother. But if I hold it just a millimeter beyond his reach, he will jump as high as possible and won’t quit until he gets it. It’s the same way with examples. Lofty, heroic examples make for dramatic stories, but they won’t inspire emulation, because we just don’t realistically see ourselves doing the same things that the outliers do.

Can you identify with him?

Can you identify with him?

Role models only work if we can identify with them, and plausibly see ourselves doing the same things they do. The pastor for Sunday’s sermon used a member of a Panamanian jungle tribe as his example of someone who had very little money but lots of freedom and safety. He totally lost me, because I could not even remotely relate—I couldn’t picture myself in a loincloth, eating monkeys for breakfast. If instead he had named someone from our community who exemplified those values, I believe my mind would have been actively engaged in comparison with that person.

In their book, The Power of Positive Deviance, the authors write about their successes in driving change from within societies or organizations, such as getting villagers to improve their eating habits, or encouraging hospital staff to wash their hands. The heart of their approach is to find people under the same circumstances who are already exhibiting the behaviors that need to be copied. That’s key: it can’t come from outside “experts” because they’re not seen as relevant or realistic, but when you see people just like you who are behaving better, you know that you can do it also.

So, when you’re choosing a role model, the question is not, “Who does it best?” It’s, “Who will help your target audience to do it best”?

The Technology of YOU

February 11th, 2015
The time is now and always

The time is now and always

Selling is simple when you have something that customers value and competitors can’t copy. Most companies strive to accomplish this through technology, which is simply defined by Peter Thiel as making improvements to a product that customers will pay for. When that’s the case, you can sit back and earn monopoly profits.

But here’s the rub: just as nature abhors a vacuum, a free market economy abhors a profit. Whenever you make an improvement that customers will pay for, others will begin plotting how they can get in on the action, either by matching what you do and offering it cheaper, or by leapfrogging your offer. In a flat world, where competition can come from anywhere and technology changes so rapidly, the idea of enduring competitive advantage seems like a quaint relic, something that old-timers talk about while youngsters roll their eyes.

Unless you work for yourself, you’re selling a product that someone else is responsible for improving, so there’s not much you can do about that. But you are part of every selling transaction, and the technology of you is something you can control—in fact, it’s the only thing you can control.

What are you doing to avoid becoming a commodity yourself? What improvements are you making to you that customers will pay for?

The only way to escape the personal commodity trap is to constantly make improvements to your personal technology, in the form of your professional learning and performance. You have to constantly make improvements to the product, and you have to do it in such a way that it’s difficult—if not impossible—to copy.

Why can’t they copy your professional learning and performance?

Learning is an individual responsibility and it’s hard, which is why most people stop at a comfortable plateau early in their careers. If they do make the effort, their laziness draws them to approaches that promise “secrets” and easy tips to improved performance, and easy tips are worthless as a source of competitive advantage because even if they work anyone can copy them.

Even with the best intentions, many people don’t know how to learn. Some think that it’s like punching a ticket—you attend a class and now you’re an expert. But the other side of the learning curve is the forgetting curve, which starts immediately unless you actively and deliberately practice the skills you’ve learned. Others get enthusiastic about a topic and start tackling it without either being systematic or being critical and choosy in their sources.

If you learn the right things right, you will be almost impossible to catch. First, knowledge is cumulative and it earns compound interest—the more you know, the easier it is to learn more. Second, by keeping your learning focused on what customers value, every improvement you make sets you apart from the competition.

So, you have to be smart about what and how to learn

The test for what to learn is, “what improvements will customers pay for?”

Know what your customers don’t know, because they won’t pay for something they already have. Look at all relevant levels and functions that you impact—technical, operational and business decision makers—and brainstorm ideas about what additional knowledge would make them more effective in their roles.

Compare your customers’ needs with an honest assessment about your current skills and knowledge; identify obvious weaknesses and discover positive opportunities. Have a “beginner’s mind”, and know what you don’t know. If you find this tough, ask around: there are many people who will give you an honest opinion, and most experts are proud to show off their expertise and will share a ton if you just ask. You’ll need a balance of broad and deep knowledge, or what I call being a “hedgefox”; depth will earn you the right to be heard and breadth will give you the perspective to bring valuable insights.

Learn how to learn. A lot of what we’ve learned about the best way to absorb and retain material is wrong, according to recent research. Rather than making this a tutorial, I recommend picking up any one of several excellent books about this, such as How We Learn, by Benedict Carey.

Copy and improve. While you want to make it hard for others to copy you, there’s no reason not to copy what others know. It’s called research and reading. But be careful what you put in your mind; it’s better to read one or two quality sources deeply than to skim a lot of shallow crap. Depth is critical because it’s hard, so those willing to put in the work will be rare and valuable.

Make it a habit. Set aside time in your regular schedule for professional learning and skill development. You have to take control and responsibility for your own “product development”, because relying on others will only put you at the same level of everyone else.

Let’s conclude with a good news-bad news sandwich. The good news is that continuously improving the technology of you can’t fail in propelling you to the top of your profession. The bad news is that you don’t own that spot—you have to keep paying rent to remain there, in the form of even more learning. But the final good news is that it will keep you young: Henry Ford said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty.” So, learn early, learn fast, and learn well.

Stay curious, my friends.