How Doing, stopped my was and they thinking

I suppose, in highschool I first imagined being a writer, but I never committed.Adjusting Sensibility allows me the opportunity to practice, rehearse and communicate more effectively.

This morning Bruce Kasanoff’s  suggested “repetition is powerful, use it wisely.” It was a point I emphasized in my Goldilocks is a genius talk last week.  After spending my weekend struggling to write, it also reminded me that practice  always helps, but it’s not enough.

Purpose matters, and the ability to see differences yourself that yields progress.

I never learned grammar rules well. They annoyed me, they got in the way of my thinking aloud and desire to be creative, and imaginative in my writing.  Today, I read a note aobut courage and another about It’s more likley that unconsciously I was insecure, less confident about everything.  I did many things, and the easy stuff that came and most naturally, happened out of school in organizations and with people.

Today, maybe there’s a university that grants degrees in leadership, especially since so many claim to be effective teaching the subject. Personally, I fought taking on the mantle and continue to enjoy being a collaborator. I now know that leadership terrifies me, becasue I beleive leaders need to be clear in their vision, confident in their situational assessment and unwavering in their commitment to their team and the mission.

Several  times I held project and team leadership responsibilities, I found myself sabotaged. My team didn’t challenge me or push back, it was my associates and peers in other roles or parts of the organization, and even at times my own boss.It wasn’t that they disagreed. More often it was the changes that the success of my intiaitve implied for them, changes they didn’t want to make, even if the changes actively improved the organization’s positioning.  Now occassionally, they had better sight lines than I did. Just as often however they didn’t want to ponder the implications and preferred to shut down the intitiave, impede changesthat disrupted the smooth steady flow of their own projects.

Professionally, and personally, I had been taught not to speak out of turn, and that it was best to find the right time and place to raise objections.  In other words, a public meeting may not be the first time to challenge a colleague or a superior.

Many people are surprised most by the passion and persistence that occassionally emerges when I do feel in command of my subject. It rouses and inspires them.  Unfortuanately I don’t feel that consistently, so many who know me, see and experience something else. That voice needs confidence to speak, it needs purpose.  I may love an idea but until I know what to do with it, then it’s just a vague notion.

At present, in particular this post, I decided to share how using my voice in prose also helped me overcome confusion and reconcile inconsistencies in my thoughts and actions.

It’s not what you know, but what you practice that counts

Grammar annoyed me. It was a dull subject with seemingly annoying rules and my bad experiences stopped me from learning. I did well in school but not as well in English, becasue I  never fully assimilated the basic lessons. Rather than learning how to improve, I got angry at all my mistakes and lost my confidence and along the way muffled my voice too.

I recognized great writers by thir prose and persuasive narrative but never saw the effects of the underlying grammar unless, the author exaggerated it for affect.  My inability to see these signs meant I didn’t try and work them out for myself until decades later.  My writing remained less effective, less convincing and less committed.

In contrast, my graduate professor in statistics challenged my lack of commitment to learning and excelling in her classs.  I spent hours in the math library learning the notation to keep up with the matrix algebra that execeeded my formal math studies in basic calculus. I learned to feel the different effects that only practice produces. Likelihood tests and probability colors my thinking and establishes clarity that today I appreciate as akin to the effects of active prose.

Our will, our intention and our purpose expresses the likelihood of our followthrough.My senior year in highschool I took an advanced literature course from an english teacher my oldest brother revered. I like to think she drummed out the word I from my prose.

For decades, the pronoun One replaced I. Yes, it was gender neutral and I think that was its one saving grace. In additio to the distance it added to my voice, I no longer expressed my thoguhts or feelings but rather the thoughts, feelings or actions by those omnipresent, or omnicient–the ones.

It’s fine to use third person. After all, this voice appears most most commonly in storytales. Goldilocks does, so do the bears, and so does Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel every other character. What makes the story work for me is it’s use of active voice, that allows the reader to play along AS IF they too were that character. It’s in the active, direct prose that I now recognize but missed understanding and thus failed to practice.

More directly, my present experiences and payment for writing made me up my game.  It made me commit to learning and understanding.

Let me correct that. The faith of the marketer who offered me the job, in fairness had seen some of my writing but he also demonstrated the value of great prose.  After submitting a very hasty first draft long on creativity and very short on grammar, I got a single request.

“Tighten it up.”

I had no idea what they meant,what I needed to change or where to begin. The last thing I needed to do was show my incompetence, so  I turned to my colleagues of experienced writers to guide me.

One buddy asked “what’s your process?” I couldn’t answer that questions which led to a series of additional questions on both sides. The more I didn’t know the sooner I realized the depth of my inexperience.  The downside of blogging? It’s the absence of direct feedback that makes you a better writer.  Conceptually I knew about thesis statements but had never consciously tried to use them in a cogent, organized fashion.

Suddenly, years of prompts and suggestions made by lawyers and other active readers of my writring flooded back to me.  My arguments were delayed, I had been a weak communicator becasue I overwhelemed the reader with detail and never disclosed my purpose clearly up front.

After struggling mightily alone, a friendly call arrived just in time.  Another friend and occassional collaborator offerd to coach me through.  She held my hand, read my prose and succinctly pointed to examples of indirect reasoning and endless rationalization; that could be summarized in a short direct phrase. She helped me see how my sentences would benefit from  better grammar practices.  Her beautuiful quick examples used the active voice. Another lightbulb helped me see more clearly what I needed to do and how to do it too!

Suddenly, I could see my poor grammar, my awkward phrasing, and my habits encircling  a point and take the steps needed to correct them.

Tighten became a directive for simplicity. I could see where I confused presenting a fact and thinking aloud. My readers didn’t benefit from learning  my situation that led up to the analysis, they cared about the analysis.

In closing, it’s easy to read good writing and it’s easy to understand too. If you know what you want to say, then you can write it, and you shouldn’t be shy about it either.

If you don’t then whatever you write will waste yhour reader’s time.

Blogs are fine for thinking out loud, exploring what you want to say. Do yourself and your readers a favor, before you hit publish, take your closing points and put them at the top.  Then reread to be sure the prose you keep follows and supports that point.

Aat the very least, maybe, like me, it will allow you the practice needed to improve your writing.  Why else do you blog, if not to communicate your thinking more effectively?



Help others tell your story

Every time we open our mouths words come out. But people listen and naturally attend to stories. Really,  they do, they are far more effective, persuasive and enjoyable. let me explain. There is a pattern and a sequence that is far more subtle than merely having a beginning, middle and end. A story is a summary of an experience.

If you are lucky enough to spend time with three-year old children, you will notice that they typically don’t bother with  pretense, they go straight for the action.  They don’t care who as much as what someone else is doing, and then they pretty quickly want to do it themselves. We begin to mimic others as babies and by the time we push past toddling, we have enough language and ability to connect our movements to get what we want or more specifically compels us to do, to take, to grab and engage.

Direct experience in my mind remains  the best way to learn; but it’s also what gives voice to the stories we share. It’s exactly why if you’re not telling stories that your customers, clients and friends can repeat about you, then you are missing opportunities.

I know, because my story is malleable, liquid. It took me a long time to suppress my enthusiasm and obsession with detail to notice that I was losing my audience. Then again, we often are quick to qualify if not underestimate our audience as well by not giving them a clear handle on our interests, capabilities.  A one word label isn’t a story, but a simple gesture generates responses that put you on a path to a shared story.

Map of Chicago's community areas, grouped by c...

Map of Chicago's community areas, grouped by color by "side" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A neutral simple question such as where do you live can open or close the conversation.  When people ask me, I try to honor their knowledge by asking a question that helps me formulate a meaningful response.  I could simply answer with the name of my neighborhood, or even the town where I grew up, but very few people find them familiar.  I offer them a couple of larger landmarks or reference points and then lead them to my place.  But I don’t stop there.  Because I want to share a little of how it feels to live with south and east facing windows a mile or so from the center and magnificent skyline that characterizes Chicago,  I paint that picture.  Then I add in something about the diverse ethnicity and history of my neighborhood.  How the first time I stepped out on my balcony, the building was still under construction missing interior walls, and I discovered it was my destiny to live here.  That day in February was typically cold and overcast.  My eyes took in the panorama and tracked past the major intersection, gravitating east and focusing on the storefronts until in the middle of my frame, a billboard separated the street and the dramatic skyline.  For me an iconic image came into focus on this west-facing wall.  The bold black letters read Kaplan’s against a fading wash of yellow.  I suspected it was my great-uncle Dave’s store , which I instantly confirmed with a phone call to one of my older brothers.  I looked to live in this neighborhood because it was near where my mother had grown up, and the coincident discovery that I was between my parents childhood travels I realized I found my new home.

Were you listening? or was your mind painting some pictures?  The brain, cognitive psychologists explain, backed up by work in neuroscience, psychology and economic research, loves stories.  Rather than demanding attention or confronting people with facts and figures to present your case, tell a story.

Help your customers, clients feel at home with you, your products and services by taking them there.  Are you telling them the what, or the hows without the why?  In an era of information and sensory overload, consumers are finding it simpler to control, filter or ignore your message.  The brain’s two systems–the limbic and neo-cortex (or the sensory and thought processors) naturally filter input based on prior experience and novelty .

Think of the limbic system as the bouncer, it only allows the sensory data that passes muster to get through tho the neocortex for further processing.  In those moments where you can’t think straight?  Paradoxically, you must be pretty “safe” or the limbic system‘s antennae would shut down access.  Conversely, our multitasking abilities  support several functions at once, and make it possible for us to daydream while driving, walking, reading , cooking etc.  Data is instantly routed and cues up behavior that after the first experience quickly  reverts to routine processing. Uncannily, we can simultaneously breathe, walk with great coordination, even whistle, listen to birds, notice the flyers and traffic as we gently negotiate our surroundings, think about a novel we are reading,  or dinner scheduled later with friends while half listening to the chatter of a child who is holding our hand.  That is until you’re confronted, disrupted or challenged.  “Are you listening to me?”

The challenges are ever-present. Each of us want our own messages to be heard, our presence known, fully considered; yet we also want some natural escape and respite from the omnipresent sensory assault on our bearings. Story, regardless of the subject or language, our brain finds them comforting.  We relax and naturally attenuate to stories.

More often it’s the emotions not the facts and figures that sway our conscious brain to check in. Few stories in our lives begin with once upon a time or end in happily ever after sentiments.  They don’t need a formula, yet there is a pattern.

This week, Northwestern University’s Kellogg school of Business and Segal Institute of Design hosted a conference.  Academics and business minded professional came to hear about the ROI of Design.  The accomplished presenters demonstrated how their focus on bettering experiential elements created comfortable contexts and reference points of customers and the financial performance gains that followed.  Each presenter shared stories of the transformations in their respective businesses, from the perspective of their customers.

Sure, there is much more to storytelling than discerning a beginning, middle and end. The more we appreciate and acknowledge the value of the experiential elements on our customer and audience, the more stories become the byproduct.  Your customers will be telling and sharing stories about you–what are you doing to help them tell good, if not great ones?

I promise I won’t leave you hanging wondering how to be better at story making, but in the interim go test this hypothesis.  Take some time to be a better listener and surprisingly you’ll discover how you will naturally find a story that matches what you are hearing, but the story will be yours, authentic to you…not because you lived it but you own it.