In Communication, Less is Better Than More

“Less” sounds undesirable. Who wants to settle for less when you could have more? Well, in communication, less is often much better than more.

For example, if you are offering a proposal to a prospective customer, it’s much better to offer just the top three options rather than eight possibilities. If you give too many options, you make the decision harder, distract attention away from the top options, and make it less likely that the customer will buy anything at all. That’s not good for you or the customer.

The same holds true in a report. A concisely-written page is often more valuable than a sprawling 15-page report–even if the sprawling report has more information in it. Why? Because it’s been essentialized, your reader can read it faster, and get the main points quickly, without a lot of analysis. When they read something that meanders, they have to do the summing up and integrating and prioritizing that you didn’t do for them.

Essentializing is good for the mind. We can only hold a few units in mind at any one time. When you can package your message into a few meaty units, you get clearer on your message, and your audience has to do less work to “get it.”

How do you do essentialize what you want to say? It takes extra thinking to turn a pile of ideas into a targeted message. Here are three ways to help:

1) Think about your purpose before you think about your message. Why do you want to have this conversation or write this report? Do you want the listener or reader to do something as a result? Knowing your goal can help you figure out what’s important to include versus what’s not.

2) No matter how long a piece you’re writing, or how much you’re talking, make sure you can reduce your message to its core thought. That’s a single grammatical sentence, under 15-20 words. You can think of it as the theme, or the point of the piece.

When you can pare it down to that size, you can communicate the essentials in a mind-friendly unit: a sentence. When you share that core thought, it will help organize and integrate everything  else you say.

3) Make the message more precise using differentiation. Go through your core thought, looking for places you could insert an “as opposed to ____” phrase. Then elaborate on each one. When you state explicitly what you are NOT saying, you demarcate your positive message.


July 2, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

How do you know you need to think about that?

Some things need thinking. Some things don’t.

Thinking is a purposeful process of integrating new observations with existing knowledge and values to figure out something new. The goal of thinking is either to put something into words (conceptualize it), infer a conclusion, make a decision, or imagine a new possibility (as in forming hypotheses or coming up with possible solutions to a problem). Thinking is a means of achieving many goals, but most goals are action goals, not thinking goals.

If you’re stuck, you probably are confused about whether you need to set an action goal or a thinking goal.

For example, if your goal is “write an article” and you’re stuck, you’re stuck in action. You probably need to think about a few things before you can write, such as “what should my theme be?” and “what are the main points I want to make?”

In contrast, someone in my workshop needed to figure out how to train his replacement on new software which might or might not be released before he moved. In this case, the solution is not something he could figure out by himself. It was literally impossible for him to make a plan with so many unknowns. Instead, he needed to raise this problem with the other people involved to even get clear on the scope of the problem. He didn’t have enough information.

There are three tests for whether you can profitably think about something:

1) Is this a question that can be answered by thinking in general?
That is, is the goal to conceptualize, decide, infer, or imagine something? Can you  figure this out based on things you already know, or are observing?

2) Do you want and need to know the answer? If you already know the answer, you don’t need to think about it. If you don’t care about the answer, you shouldn’t waste time and effort thinking about it.

3) Are you the right person to figure out the answer? That is, do you have reason to believe that you know things relevant to the question? If you don’t know anything about the topic, you will have to do research or get information from someone else. That’s an action goal. You can’t think unless you have relevant knowledge to draw on!

If you’re not sure why you’re stuck, these three questions can help you figure out what you need to think about versus what you need to do:
What information do we need to answer this question?

  • What can I do in this situation?
  • Who can help answer this question?
  • What do I need to tell them about the issue?


June 30, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Avoiding Setbacks When You Add a Weekly Commitment

When you are on a program of continuous improvement, you are often adding  some new activity to your weekly schedule, or improving the existing one. But by continually raising the bar you create a hazard: the increased potential for failure!

Here are a few things that can help you add a weekly commitment without so many setbacks.

1) Before you add a new activity to your life, make sure it’s important enough to push out some other activity.

This is true even if you’re just adding 15 minutes a day for journaling (an excellent activity to add). It is rather hard to make 15 minutes consistently. You already have morning, noon, and evening routines, which are timed to get you to work or home or sleep on schedule. You will need to cut out something: maybe reading the paper, or maybe late-night TV or surfing the web, or maybe a leisurely meal.

If there is nothing you would remove to make space for the new activity, it’s better not to commit. The new activity is not important enough for you.

2) Plan it for a suitable time block.

All times are not created equal. You will have more energy at some times, less at others.

If you’re adding recreation—maybe you want to see more movies—you can probably schedule it for an evening when you’re less energetic. But if you’re trying to start a business on the side, you will need some high-energy time for it—most likely in the early morning, or in the morning on weekends. (Unless you’re a night-owl. Then you might choose go to the matinee, and work on your startup at night.)

3) Set a physical reminder so you don’t forget to follow through.

Routines have inertia. One activity triggers the next. You will need to make a special effort to break the routine. You can’t count on remembering, you need a physical reminder.

One way to do this is to set an alarm. For example, you can set an alarm to go off 30 minutes before your usual bedtime to remind you to plan the next day.

Another way to do this is to create a physical reminder. It could be a note. Or maybe you pack your gym bag and leave it at the foot of your bed the night before, so you remember your intention when you wake up the next morning.

Don’t assume you’ll remember to follow through. If you don’t take proactive steps to remember the new activity, you will forget. The routine run as usual.

4) Plan for contingencies.

Things will go wrong. They always do. The key to following through is to adapt the commitment rather than drop it. And it is much easier to adapt if you’ve thought through various scenarios in advance.

For example, suppose you are running late, and do not have an hour to go to the gym as planned. You have only half an hour. There are a dozen ways to adjust. You could exercise at  home with a video instead. You could cut back the workout at the gym. You could reschedule work so you have the full hour at the gym. The key to creating a new routine is to do something not nothing. Any form of exercise will help reinforce your intention to go to the gym.

Problems are inevitable when you are breaking routines. If you think ahead for what you’ll change, when you’ll change it, how you’ll remember, and what to do when things go wrong, you have a much better chance of success.


June 25, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Avoid the Plague of Vague

“Somebody ought to do something about that.”

We’ve all heard that vague statement offered as a “solution” to a problem. But vague ideas can’t solve anything. You can’t grasp the implications of a vague statement—they are as woozy or woozier than what you started with. That means there will be no action plan until the vagueness is pinned down to be more concrete.

For example, if the “somebody” and “something” and “that” were filled in as: “hey, you should spend a few hours solving this problem we just identified,”  you would have an immediate concrete reaction. Either–“Yes, that’s important! Where am I going to find the time?” Or more likely, “Hey, that’s not my priority.”

When you translate a vague thought into something concrete and specific, you can make connections. If-then sequences will be triggered from your subconscious, and you’ll see how events might play out. You’ll start imagining consequences and catching contradictions.

So, here’s the tip of the day: if you find you’re uttering vague generalities, stop! Get concrete and specific so you know what you’re talking about.

An easy way to do this is to generate some concrete questions to pin down the issues. Use questions starting with who, what, when, where, how, and why to get more focused on what you mean. (These are sometimes called the journalists’ questions.)

For example, with the “somebody ought to do something about that” statement, you might come up with:

  • Who can do something?
  • What needs to be done?
  • Where is the problem?
  • When does something need to be done?
  • How can this situation be improved?
  • Why do we really need to do something about this?

Once you start pinning down the who, what, when, where, how, and why, you will find that your ideas are actionable by real people at real times in real places.


June 23, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Preparing for a Difficult Conversation

Whenever you have a difficult conversation ahead, it pays to get a quick overview of the issues sooner rather than later. That first quick overview helps you gain perspective on the situation, and identify problem areas so you can avoid mishandling the conversation and damaging the relationship. An excellent resource for this is the book Difficult Conversations by Stone, Patton, & Heen.

In the book, Stone and his associates explain a several-step process to prepare for a “difficult conversation” about someone’s misbehavior. Their in-depth process can be translated into these four overview questions:

a) What’s my story? What impact has the situation had on me?

b) What’s their story?  What might their intentions have been?

c) What have we each contributed to the problem?

d) What do I hope to accomplish by having the conversation?

When you have a difficult conversation coming up, it’s worth spending three minutes answering each question (12 minutes total) to get a good quick sense of whether you’re prepared for the conversation.  The more you’ve thought about both perspectives, the better you will be able to keep the conversation amicable and on track.

I recommend this book, and there is much more detailed information in it (including advice on whether to have the conversation at all). But if you haven’t read it, you can still benefit by getting a quick overview using these prepared questions before you you jump into the conversation.



June 9, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Tip: Strengthen the Weakest Link

When you have a complicated project, it’s sometimes hard to figure out what to work on first. Like any prioritization task, the first step is to get an overview. You can’t judge priorities without an overview.

Once you get an overview, you can often identify the order you need to do the work, by just identifying temporal dependencies. If that’s not enough, I recommend that you prioritize by looking for the weakest link and strengthening that, first.

The top problem area is the part of the project that is most risky. It’s the part that you worry about.  Call it what you will:

The Weakest Link in the Chain

The Long Pole in the Tent

The Bottleneck

The Logjam

It’s the one part that is “behind” everything else. It’s the section of the report that hasn’t been drafted. It’s the module in the software that no one has figured out how to do. It’s the time period on the schedule marked “To Be Determined.” It’s the element with the longest lead time. It’s the one resource that’s overcommitted.

An overview gives you the context to see what the top problem is. It’s the “top” problem relative to everything else. You can’t judge how big a problem something is unless you know how everything is going.

But once you know, it’s worth putting some extra effort into fixing it. As a rule of thumb, the project as a whole will benefit significantly if you can fix the biggest problem. Strengthening the weakest link of a chain increases its overall strength. Adding resources to a bottleneck speeds up progress on the overall timeline. Putting up the long pole gives a structure to the whole tent. Breaking up the logjam makes everything move downstream.

So, that’s my advice. If you are feeling a little overwhelmed by a complex task, make a list of the parts, and look to see if one of them is the problem child. Focus your effort on that and you will make a large improvement in how well the project is going overall.

June 5, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The 24-Hour Rule for Reviewing Performances

What do you want to improve? Your presentations? Your powers of persuasion? How you run a meeting? Your joke telling? Your ability to answer questions?

Whatever it is, to improve it, you need to review it. You may be thinking that means to record your performance, then go back and watch the video or listen to the audio. That is a very powerful way to improve. I used to go through every all-day workshop I gave, analyzing every minute. But that takes a lot of time. That’s why we rarely do it.

So, I recommend you do a shorter review, more often, by following the 24-hour rule. Within 24 hours of any performance, sit down in a quiet place with pen and paper and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What went well? What do I think contributed to that?
  • What didn’t go well? What do I think contributed to that?
  • What would I do differently next time?

These are not particularly hard questions if you ask them within 24 hours. That’s when your recollection is still fresh. You can answer them in about 5 minutes. This is what I try to do for every performance. I reserve an in-depth analysis for a special case.

I recommend you “think on paper” to answer the questions. That gives extra objectivity through seeing the pluses and minuses in black and white. Sometimes the minuses are a little upsetting, but writing them down always helps you to  figure out how to improve. Moreover, if you do the work in a thinking notebook, you can find your notes later when you need them. You can easily refresh your recollection before  similar performance.

But follow the 24-hour rule: Do the review within 24 hours of the performance.

This is an example of a technique that gives you significant value at a very low cost. The most important areas of improvement will be obvious to you, in retrospect, just after your performance. You can harvest those observations if you’re fast. But if you don’t get around to it, they will fade away.

Improvement is a lifelong undertaking. Finding simple ways to make reflection for improvement a regular, easy process helps you become the best you can be.


May 14, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Need a Fresh Idea? Prepare to “Incubate”

Often fresh, new ideas occur to you after a period away from your work. That’s why many authorities on creativity recommend taking breaks to let this process happen.  But  just taking a break isn’t enough. How often have you come back, after a break, and been in exactly the same stuck situation as you were before?

The subconscious is not active–it can’t figure things out for you. You need to prepare your mind so the time spent away “incubating” can pay off. That means, take a few minutes to think about what kind of a solution you need.

For example, some years ago I bogged down rehearsing a new script. I knew I needed to speed up the process, but although  I took a couple of breaks, I didn’t get any new ideas.

I finally got the rehearsal process moving by doing some thinking on paper about what kind of solution I needed. I realized I was trying to combine rehearsal with editing (a bad combination–I should separate them) and that I wasn’t sure how to do the editing effectively. I needed a better way to keep track of changes for the script. Then I took a break to “incubate.”

An idea occurred to me. It may sound silly to you, but here it is: It occurred to me that I could use bigger pieces of paper to make notes on the problems. (I had been using little sticky notes.) This was exactly the encouragement I needed. I was able to settle down and go through the whole script in less time than I had wasted being stuck on just a small part of it.

What happened there? I set a very specific intention–figure out how to keep track of changes for the script. And I held it in the back of my mind (as a standing order) during my break. As I recall, when I came back to my desk I saw the little sticky notes and felt a sense of frustration–they were messy and confusing. That observed fact connected with my intention, to generate the idea of using bigger pieces of paper.

The moral of this story is: new ideas don’t come by magic. They come when you prepare for them, by describing to yourself (in whatever terms make sense) what new ideas you wish you had. When you do this, you set up a “standing order” to your subconscious. Then, as you go through your day, something you run into by chance can trigger a new connection that is just what you needed.

This is why I put “incubate” in scare quotes. I agree the phenomenon exists (as I describe it here). But most people seem to think the incubation is some magical process that happens in the subconscious. I believe all the action is in peripheral awareness–with a standing order in the background that can trigger an idea based on some fresh observation.


May 13, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Ideas on Breaking Habits

Here’s an extremely interesting article which discusses the difference between making and breaking habits.

Short version: Habits can be made, by adding actions to something that already happens. To break a habit, you can sometimes substitute an alternate behavior. If that doesn’t work, you need to use what the author calls “progressive extremism.” Well worth reading.

Here’s the full link:

May 9, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Ask An Easier Question

Asking yourself questions is essential in thinking. It’s the way you get information out of your subconscious and into conscious consideration.

Your subconscious is a huge repository of past observations, past conclusions, past training. It is where your expertise resides. But only some fraction of that information can be activated at a given time. Questions activate the information so you can use it into your thinking.

But what do you do if the information lies dormant–even when you ask yourself about it?

Suppose you ask yourself a reasonable question (like “what should I be doing right now?” or “how am I going to explain this to person X?” or “how are we going to get this done on time?”) and the response you get back from your subconscious is “I don’t know”?  Or the more emphatic: “Aaaaaye donno.”

When this happens, don’t despair. You probably know much more than your subconscious is letting on. What happened is that the question you asked was a little too hard for you. You don’t have a ready-made, pre-packaged answer for that question. You will need to put one together from pieces of information–pieces you can lure from your subconscious databanks by asking an easier question.

To me, “ask an easier question” stands for the more complicated thought, “soften up your subconscious with patsy questions it can answer that inexorably lead to your figuring out the answer to the question it resisted.” It’s like you’re playing “good cop” with the suspect–playing along with what you get, edging toward what you really want–a full confession of the truth!

So, for example, if I were a little stuck on a question like “how am I going to explain this to person X,” I might ask myself things like, “what does X need to know?” and “how would I explain it to someone else who’s not as touchy?” The right follow-up questions would be ones I felt I *could* answer. Spending the time on them would help me put into place the information I would need to build a full answer to the original question.

“Ask an easier question” is a sound bite to remember. When your subconscious says, “Aaaaye donno,” ask yourself an easier question, and find out what it *does* know that can help you with your task.

May 7, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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