Archive for May, 2010

Does anyone make sense just like you do?

May 26th, 2010 Kevin No comments

Here is a question I ask in my communication skills classes:

Does anyone “make sense” like you do, just like you do, day in and day out?

The answer is almost always, “No, not even close!” Sometimes I get, “Yes, my spouse” (what a lucky couple); or, “My dad/mom/daughter/son” (understandable given how genes and environment are dominant reasons why we are who we are); or rarely, “People in my trusted circle kind of make sense like me” (trust forms more easily with people who share like-minds).

With so few folks who make sense just like us, why keep making sense our way?

There’s the $64,000 dollar question. Will it ever make sense to use the exact way we make sense to help us settle arguments, talk about plans, or discuss different people and new places? No wonder we hear this alot, “That makes no sense, why would you say that?”Argh!

We love to “make sense” and there are near seven billion ways to do it!

As many people as there are on the planet: that’s how many ways there are to make sense. So, making sense can get real confusing, real fast. Keep making sense and see how far you get with another person, who keeps making sense his or her way. Those two ways of making sense might never meet, and in the least, it could be a long talk before you get to mutual understanding and common sense.

So what can we do, make no sense!?

No, of course not. We like to make sense because it usually makes sense to do that over time. Here’s the point of this post: just don’t try to make sense right out of the gate. Chill out a bit instead. Realize you are talking with folks who do not share your own unique way of making sense.

What should we do?

Consider how other people you talk with take in things with their own senses. Explore their way to experience things. Find out how they make sense. Watch their non-verbal cues. Pay attention to how they learn and process stuff. Whatever you do, just remember to avoid making sense at first. It’s that simple. Remember, this works because if you make sense exactly your way from the get go, more likely than not no one else will even come close to understanding how you got there! And again, that’s because no one makes sense just like you. So, try not to make sense next time you talk, on the way to finding common sense. I reckon it will work great.

Seek sense first, that’s the answer!

So instead of making sense at first, seek it. Actively go out and question others about their sense making. Seek sense first. Actively investigate how others get to their senses. This will work wonders for your talks, I promise.

Let me know how it goes!

Categories: Learning, People, Questioning Tags:

Stories help our talks work better.

May 20th, 2010 Kevin No comments

Why do we love stories so much?

Rich details, intriguing people and interesting outcomes, these are some of the reasons why we love stories. Plus, stories connect the new things we learn with the old things we already know. The next few headers cover the theory of story making and telling; if you want to run straight for the practical pointers, you will find story telling tips at the end of this post. And here’s the point of the post: stories help us relate much better to each other by connecting our experiences on the way to improving our understanding.

Stories meet the demands of our unique learning style

Stories help us process and learn things because they meet the demands of our unique learning styles: visual is most common; then auditory; and finally kinesthetic (or doing and feeling). Mostly we use all three to different degrees as we experience and learn things.

What makes stories help us learn so well?

Stories let us feel like we know what’s happening, why, and how it affects us directly even when we weren’t there when the events happened. When stories are told in present tense we can put ourselves in the story to see it, hear it, and feel it. That sense experience makes the things said in the story stick better for us. And a big part of learning is whether the stuff we hear sticks or not.

Are we hard-wired to tell stories?

You betcha. We are hard-wired story makers and tellers. In fact, our brains store information best as stories. We decide most of what we do based on stories. And another thing, we remember and call things up better when it’s in story form.

Do we tell ourselves stories?

Of course we do! We tell little stories to ourselves all day long. Will I get the sale? Is he ok with what I said? Will this plane get me home tonight? To answer these self-asked questions, we tell stories. As we do that, we connect stuff that we already know with stuff we make up. That’s right, there are always some gaps in what we know and to finish our stories, we fill those in by, well… making stuff up. We mup it, short for make stuff up.

Why do we tell ourselves stories?

We tell ourselves stories to make us feel better. Mostly. So the good news: the stories we tell ourselves usually help us feel ok about things because we are hard-wired to do just that! We naturally tell stories that tend to put us in the best light (researchers call this “memory bias,” which is a nice way of saying we consistently mup up things, it’s our way of filling in the gaps).

Are they always good stories, the ones we tell ourselves?

Of course not! Sometimes we tell ourselves not such good stories, about ourselves and our worlds. When you figure out you’re doing just that, stop it! Or at least, know you have found a great opportunity to change the story! After all, you are in charge of making up the stuff that fills in the gaps. Next time you catch yourself telling a not so good story, just give those “fill in the gap” facts a spin in your favor. Why not?

Do stories help us pass along things so they will stick with others?

You betcha. When we bundle important facts and information into a story it’s much easier for those listening to connect the new information we offer with the kind of things they already know. Story telling puts the information we want to share on the fast track to mutual understanding. Story telling is one of the best tools we have for sharing what we know in a way that compels the other person to pay attention, listen, and recall what we said.

What do stories do?

Stories let others feel out who we are and what goals we have in mind. They make things personal for us and for those with whom we share them. They also help folks remember things better because they frame the facts and events in a narrative structure. Story telling is our main way of sharing information. For example, gossip helps us build trust for others, or reevaluate it as needed. Stories are a critical decision making tool for us and we rely on them to help us decide things. And as mentioned, stories improve the listeners’ learning abilities because they experience the story in ways that help them learn, whether they prefer visual cues, auditory ones, or want to feel out things, as if they are directly participating in the story.

Any suggestions on best practices for making and telling stories?

Sure. To build your next story, consider the following steps: (1) identify all the key players; (2) list the critical facts; (3) clarify the conflict, climax, and desired resolution; (4) decide where the story begins and ends; (5) create the hook, headline and burning questions; (6) fill in details of the scene, mood, and plot; (7) and practice telling the story in present tense, scene by scene, so that as the action unfolds the listeners can understand the unfolding moral or point of the story.

To tell your story, use this tried and true formula: (1) set scene and time with mood and emotion; (2) introduce folks; (3) tell what happened as the story unfolds, with sense expressions in present tense scene by scene, and sprinkle in reflection that helps connect the action with the bigger point or moral of the story.

Do you have some tips on how to tell stories?

Sure. Here’s a list of tips to consider when next you tell a story:

Tip: set the scene, mood and feeling to form quick emotional connections

Tip: vary the tone, pitch and speed of your voice

Tip: stress the important words and downplay the stuff in between them

Tip: emphasize the first and last things, slow down when you share them

Tip: plan out the first and last things carefully because they are most important

Tip: break commonly perceived patterns to increase attention

Tip: use present tense to help the listener feel involved

Tip:  describe how the people in the story emotionally relate to the facts

Tip: offer the story in bits or chunks of digestible information

Tip: use lots of pauses

Tip: allow time to process what is being said

Tip: loop key points several times during the telling in slightly different ways

Tip: offer no more than three things at once if you can help it

Tip: if more than seven things are told at once all of them might get ignored

Tip: appeal to all learning styles with visual and verbal cues and action verbs

Tip: describe what someone in the story sees

Tip: explain what someone in the story hears

Tip: let the listener experience the touch, taste, and feel of what is happening

Tip: repeat key sentences verbatim

Tip: use rhetorical questions

Tip: ask a question and wait for the listener to offer his or her answer

Tip: plan out the plot, actors, scene and circumstances

Tip: offer things that are unusual, strange, or curious as hooks to get attention

Tip: use metaphors

Tip: use analogies

Tip: focus on people

Tip: use active verbs

Tip: use small words and simple, everyday language

Tip: use popular songs, poems, proverbs, and wise sayings

Tip: encourage emotion

Tip: foreshadow the moral of the story

Tip: ask questions during the story about how it’s unfolding and what comes next

Tip: use questions to build enthusiasm, mystery, and energy

Tip: let the listener figure things out, understand and learn on their schedule

Tip: use non-verbal cues to keep the listener engaged

Please comment back with any story telling tips of your own. Cheers!

Categories: Learning, People Tags:

What trial law teaches a communications consultant

May 11th, 2010 Kevin No comments

I left my law firm this month after ten years. The process of saying goodbye has been harder on me than I had imagined. Here are some musings about my path from law to business.

What’s different about trial work and business consulting?

The difference between law and business? Not much, in terms of outcome. Litigators use communication skills to discover, uncover, filter and focus. Those verbs help process what people have to say when stories conflict. In court, witnesses share facts and opinions. That’s evidence that helps juries right wrongs. The best lawyers help juries see, hear and feel the story that makes the most sense for them. Juries then act on that knowing to make the hard decisions that end lawsuits.

So, what’s the same about law and business communication skills?

Like business consultants, trial lawyers are facilitators and moderators. They have one basic job: help decision makers make the right decisions by making sure the flow of information is clear and compelling. When trial lawyers manage that flow well, they drive smart decisions. Lawyers unclog the flow, improve it, and condense it down so that the jury can decide things with the right evidence in mind.

Juries and leaders all make better decisions when the right evidence appears at the right time. They all benefit from access to a free flow of relevant information. Finally, great outcomes happen when the information flow is swift and smart because that’s when the best choices become obvious, even under hard conditions.

So, what has trial law taught you about communications consulting?

This post offers some personal reflections about the practice of law as I consider my transformation from trial work to business consulting. I hope the post offers you some helpful insights that can aid your own journey. Below are five key learnings, my top take-aways from law as I head further into the field of communications work. I hope these learnings trigger some useful thoughts for you.

1) It’s all about the story

Great litigators tell stories and stories win lawsuits. Litigators rely on three basic elements of great story telling: hooks; headlines; and burning questions. They set those out in themes, introduce actors, define settings, and keep things moving along without giving away too much at one time.

Juries want to know how to help and need the context for doing so. Stories let juries learn better because they connect past experiences to the current facts of the case. Juries tend to see things in the story like they’ve seen things in the past (visual learners), or heard (auditory learners), or felt (kinesthetic learners). How juries learn helps them know from “inside out” what really happened to cause the lawsuit.

Business can miss story lines, neglect engaging hooks, and get off track from burning questions in the pursuit of ROI, quarterly returns, and office politics. Business benefits from powerful stories that, when told, drive smart outcomes based on filling in the story line. Business fills the story in with evidence that proves which next steps make the most sense and why. Well told stories frame the stout proof that delivers business success.

2) Edges of knowledge are as important as the centers

I learned a painful lesson in law school over a footnote. The footnote was hidden deep inside a judge’s opinion so I missed it. That one footnote made all the difference in the opinion’s outcome. That day my reading style changed and so did my daily fact gathering, including how I question others.

Everything matters until we know better. Because that’s true, lawyers tend to leave few stones unturned, few footnotes unread, and few talks undiscovered. That’s not always so in business. Leaders can say, “Don’t tell me what I need to know, tell me what I want to hear!” Tell it to me in 60 seconds, they say, give me the top three bullet points.

It would be nice to get things done without having to hear and see the important stuff. Sadly, it doesn’t always work that way. Bullet points and elevator pitches can neglect small, really important facts. Law taught me to explore the deepest areas of what we know at the edges of our knowledge. Business can benefit from this lesson too. No surprise to me: solutions often live near the outer limits of what we know.

3) Question more, answer less

The number one tool of trial lawyers is the question. With it, they can understand what witnesses say on direct examination and cross. Questions also help them pick jurors during jury selection, frame issues during opening statements, and clear things up during closing statements.

Questions are so powerful, in fact, that the law restricts their use with lots of rules. Those rules let adversary lawyers object to questions as they desperately emote and seek to confuse the questioner. Sometimes the judge sustains the objection and rejects the question. This process can be humiliating the first couple of times you experience it!

That’s why trial lawyers get great at asking tough questions. Practice makes perfect and lawyers ask folks a lot of questions under terrible conditions. Where else does another professional get paid to interrupt the questions and needle the questioner about language form and content? And another thing, the adversary lawyer also “prepares the witness in advance.” This is lawyer code for creating a deviously unhelpful witness whose practiced answers do nothing for the other side’s case.

By contrast, when folks are not obstructed and interrupted, questions help the flow of information move fast to get things said with best choices in mind. Questions serve another purpose too, they make things stick. That’s because folks who answer for themselves own those answers and adopt them faster then when the same things are told to them without their independent consideration. Law teaches that when it comes to conversation choice: ask don’t tell.

4) Match word choice and body language for one complete message

Trial work is performance art. As a young lawyer, my mentors instructed me to stop fumbling with my notes, calm my expressions down, and look presentable. “We’ve got the ‘looking good defense’ going,” my law partner would point out. Most lawyers don’t study body language; they do, however, practice it and get better at it through trial and error.

The outcome of matching words with body language is powerful because it forms a complete message that is more authentic. That type of message influences others without the extra noise of mixed-messages. Business works better when it combines body language with word choice to form one authentic, complete message. The best communicators combine non-verbal cues with their words to form one message.

5) Knowledge is a flow and a place; it’s more flow than place

When I would return from a bad day at trial I would sometimes feel like everything was lost. Bad evidence came in, an argument failed, or some other calamity struck. Here’s the good news: one bad day, one unfortunate “place” of knowledge, almost never completely sways the flow of knowledge on its path to the logical outcome.

We win or lose over a period of time because of the power or weakness of the flow of information, not because of any one bad day. Great litigators know that it’s better to honor the flow even when it takes unsuspecting turns. The best at business also respect the information flow and treat knowledge more as a flow than a place. With practice and patience the flow of information will always drive the best available outcomes.

Next steps for my work

I conclude this post with a pledge. I commit to continue my path toward better communication through training and practice. I will devote massive energy and resources to improve the flow of information in the hallways and conference rooms of our businesses. Technology, science, and new understandings frame our opportunities and light our path in new and unsuspecting ways. We are in exciting times and I am honored to be part of the new knowledge advocacy. I will continue to heartily advocate for the flow of knowledge that surrounds us all.

Lastly, a thank you.

I end with a special offer of thanks to all the friends and colleagues who have been here for me and who join with me along this exploration of knowledge as a flow. Their companionship continues to be invaluable during this period of transition. They are my wellspring of creativity and the source from which my own energy renews. I thank them for their aid, assistance, and friendship.

Personalities are fixed and talk skills… fixable!

May 5th, 2010 Kevin No comments

The fix is in. For better or worse the personality we arrived with, barring some significant drugs, remains with us for the duration. This is great news!

Accepting who we are is the easy part

Turns out knowing who we are and then accepting that fact is relatively easy. It’s easy because there is little we can do to change it, that is, the who we are part. So, the hard part is getting to know who we are better. The good news there is we don’t have to change anything, we just need to understand things better. Change is hard, and that is the option with our talk skills.

Doing something about our talk skills is another thing

It’s our talk skills and not our personalities that are fixable. And that means, of course, we must work at learning the options available to improve how we talk and work at practicing new skills we learn. Oh, what a bother! Most folks would rather not deal, all that bother and the headaches as we try to figure out how we talk now so we can create new talk patterns and habits.

Can’t I keep on getting what I’ve always been getting?

Sure. Of course you can! And you will. It begs the question though, all that keeping things the same, how’s it working for you during your talks? How are your communications skills holding out with work colleagues, customers and clients, family and friends? Do you understand everyone real well? Do they get you and do they make sense the same way you do? Got room for improvement? We all do!

What can I do to improve?

First thing is to compare how you talk with how others do it. Are you an above average questioner? How can you know that? What about answers, how well do you answer things? When you make statements, are they short, to the point, and then done? How do you connect your feelings, body language, and words when you talk? Oh, there’s lots of work to do on communication skills. Maybe that’s why there are so many books out there on this topic. Do any of those books resonate with you?

After I compare my current talk skills with others, then what?

After you compare your current talk skills with others, you can set about changing some things as needed. Be a tortoise here and not a hare. Start out slow, take small challenges on at first, simply stop asking why, for example, that’s a start. Or, when you get mad, raise your eyebrows up, as suggested in one of my blog posts. These are simply places to start affecting big changes. They start small and grow in size and number. There are many books and guides that can show you the way.

Talk skills are absolutely fixable; have faith! Want new ones? Get on it!

Categories: Learning, People, Thoughts Tags:

“Why” is a lazy question that causes talk troubles

May 2nd, 2010 Kevin 1 comment

This post makes one point: we can avoid “Why?” when we question others because “Why?” is a lazy question and there are ways to craft better questions.

Why not use why?

When we only ask “Why?”, the person who will answer is left wondering: “what part of what I said is he/she curious about? Which things can I say to help him/her better understand me?” So, a seemingly harmless little “Why” leaves massive gaps in how one person makes sense compared to another and can cause someone to answer in a way that makes no sense to the person who asked the “why” in the first place!

Asking “Why?” without more leaves the answering person with lots of unknowns

When we just ask “Why?”, the other person is left filling in lots of assumptions and unknowns about the intent of our question. Are we asking why did the other person say what was said, or why one thing said follows from another thing said, or perhaps why the thing said connects to something else we are thinking about. So many ways to direct the intent of a “Why?” question, it can be daunting to keep up with them all. And as a result, asking “Why?” often leaves room for misunderstanding and a failed effort to reach common ground in our talks. Reflect on a little child’s fifth or sixth “Why?” in a row: not an appealing vehicle for mutual exchange of ideas, is it?

Do you agree “Why?” frequently comes across as a challenge?

If we are not careful, “Why?” can also be taken the wrong way, as a challenge or worse, a judgment. For example, it can come across as accusatory, the short form of, “Why would you say that, it make no sense!?” Or sometimes we say “Why?” with a hurt look on our face, and let the other person sort out the reasons that line of talk just hurt our feelings. “Why,” in short, masks all sorts of intent and meaning. It’s a lazy question and we can avoid its use from here on out.

“Why?” doesn’t work hard enough to connect our thoughts in talks; let’s stop using it!

There are very few times when “Why?” is essential. To avert a helicopter accident is one good exception I have heard. Now, how often do we have a helicopter pilot error pushing us to make a quick assessment by asking “Why?” Not often I bet, so absent impending death, surely we can craft better, more time consuming questions that get our point across better. Instead of “Why?”, for example, go ahead and ask “For what reasons?” Its a good start on the way to crafting better questions that need not go lazy with a simple “Why?”

Let’s stop using “Why?”– in its absence we can watch the quality of our talks skyrocket!

Categories: People, Questioning Tags: