Tag: writing

Here’s a little story about a man called Sid.

Sid was a skilled machine operator, able to work as quickly as any man who could see. But, you see, the thing about Sid was that he had been blind since birth. Not just visually impaired, but totally blind.

In 1974, when Sid was in his fifties, he was offered a corneal graft which would, it was hoped, give him the gift of sight. With no little trepidation, he underwent the surgery. When he woke and opened his eyes, he was amazed to find that he could see quite clearly. It was completely overwhelming. The world had opened up to him, but he had no idea what any of it was or why it was there.

As his brain struggled to take everything in, he realised that he knew what time it was. He could recognise the clock on the wall AND work out what time it was showing, even though he had never seen a clock in his life. Psychologists intervened. They were intrigued. They probed and poked and questioned. What the heck was going on?

It turns out that, like the rest of us, Sid had learned to tell the time at school using clock faces and moveable hands. Unlike the rest of us, Sid had worked out what the position of the hands meant purely by using his sense of touch. His brain had then assembled the touch information into a picture that built up gradually in his visual cortex. When he woke after his surgery, this picture was so clear in his mind’s eye that he was able to recognise the clock and tell the time without even thinking about it.

The psychologists determined that the brain is programmed to construct images. It can turn the most abstract information into a useful picture. And it can do it even if we have never seen anything before.

Think about this next time you’re assembling a presentation.

Brains crave pictures. If you’re feeding your audience words on the screen, they will create their own images. And if they’re creating their own images, you lose control. If instead you keep text to a minimum and use bold imagery to support what you are saying, your audience’s brains can take the visual cues and store them alongside a general impression of what you are saying. This means that when it comes to them spreading your story inside their own organisation or networks they are more likely to accurately recreate what they have heard.

There’s a huge amount of psychology at work when you stand up in front of a crowd of people and start speaking. You should use it to your advantage.

image by moonlightbulb

 

 

This is a brilliant tip for whatever you’re writing. And it is very powerful.

Think about writing emails. You might have an issue that you’ve been trying to fix. There may be a dozen or so people copied in on the email. Some are high up in the organisation, some are lower down. Everybody has a lot of emails to wade through every day.

But you find a fix for the issue. It make sense to you when you’re telling everybody to go through it in a methodical way – the kind you learned in science lessons at school. Apparatus, Method. Results. Conclusions. It’s the way we were taught to do it. And it’s part of the scientific method. At least, as far as we understand it.

So you start talking about the problem, how it first appeared, the trouble-shooting process, the things that definitely weren’t causing the problem, (we turned this off, tested again, tried another thing, tested again) and then finally say how you found the issue and fixed it.

What you should do is start your email saying “We found the issue and fixed it”. More than half the distribution list can then ignore the rest of the message. Problem solved. The ones that care enough can read through to the end, find out about your trouble-shooting process and, if they’re that way inclined, can replicate each step for themselves.

The science we’re taught in schools is quite separate from the way professional science works. At school, we’re taught to put important bit at the end. But if you ever read any kind of scientific paper, you’ll see that they tend to have the conclusions up at the beginning. Why? Because it makes it easier for science journalists to write headlines. And, although summing up scientific research in a headline may not necessarily enhance the greater understanding of what is going on, headlines tend to lead to more research grants. And scientists like research grants.

More broadly, journalists will always put the important bits at the beginning of a story. If you look at any big story in a paper it will break down into three parts – here’s a thing that happened – here’s why it’s good or bad – here are the facts. It’s always worth reading past the opinion and getting to the facts because they often change your understanding of the story. For instance – “House price rises cause cancer”, the headline may scream. “Thousands of Britons are putting themselves at increased risk of cancer as they work ever longer hours to meet high mortgage payments. This is a terrible indictment of our society, blah, blah, blah”. Tucked away at the end of the story though will be a fact about the survey, which is actually about the health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle. If you just read the headline and the opinion you’d never understand that.

So start off with where you want to get to and write backwards from there. “In the future retailers will send boxes of groceries directly to a customer’s door on miniature flying robots”. Then talk about how and why.

But where do you want the end to be?

“The End” as it relates to this tip can simply be the conclusions that you want to reach. The flying robots. You can take it a step further, though, and think about “The End” as being the effect you have on the reader. “I want the reader to have their mind blown after they’ve read this”. “I want the reader to laugh out loud six times as they read this”. “I want the reader to quit their job and go and live as a hermit in the Himalayas”. It’s kind of similar to the idea of selling to your customer’s customer. Aim through your target.

This tip works really well with presentations. If you want to give a confident presentation, before you start putting it together imagine the warm applause at the end, or the handshakes and congratulations that come when you’ve finished. If you see that as the end of your presentation, you’ll be more confident about giving your talk, because you’ve already decided that it’s going to end in a nice place. All you have to do is put together and deliver a talk that will get you to your destination.

I love Family Guy. Many people do. If you’ve ever seen more than one episode you’ll be familiar with the plots punctuated with a constant stream of asides, prefigured with the phrase “It’s like that time when…”

Now, much as I love Family Guy, we all know that the fastest way to get from one point to another is in a straight line. If the stories that you tell follow this path (i.e., moving from the beginning, through the middle and on to the end without swerving off at a tangent), then they are linear.

In natural conversations with friends and family, our stories tend to wander. They take detours, they get interrupted, bits get forgotten, good bits get stretched out (sometimes beyond the bounds of truth). Occasionally, they end up in places we never expected to go to when we started the journey. It’s like that time when I was talking to Tony Wilson and Frank Sidebottom about how Northside would save pop music*. These are non-linear stories.

The business world loves a story teller. Particularly an authentic story teller. So now there are now lots of bits of software that let you amaze audiences with a non-linear presentations. We talked about some of these a while ago. We even hoped that they would improve. Sadly, they haven’t. And there are new entrants to the market, such as projeqt that let you pull in blog posts and feeds from the social web to help your story spin round with increasing non-linearity and, it’s makers hope,  authenticity.

The sad fact is that when we plan a presentation we still think in linear terms. More to the point, audiences crave linearity. They want to be able to follow the flow of your thoughts. And if you want them to accurately re-tell your stories, it makes sense to present them as logically as possible. If your story has a defined beginning, middle and end, it is much easier to recount.

I can only imagine what the ultimate non-linear presentation tool might look like. Perhaps it would require us to dump everything we have ever known or thought about or heard onto a server somewhere. It would have been trained to follow our usual set of stories to conjure the required audio-visual aid onto the screen behind us in perfect synchronicity with our diatribe. It would know who was in the room with us and whether they were secretly willing us to slip in a vignette about the first ever football match we went to. And it would always earn us a standing ovation.

In the meantime, it’s back to thinking in straight lines and putting in the hard work to be engaging and authentic people.

 

*Actual, honest-to-goodness true story. Don’t forget to ask me about it next time you see me.

Florence Nightingale did a great many things for the world. Cleaining up hospitals was principle among them. Inventing the pie chart was another.

When she first presented the pie chart to the Royal Statistical Society it caused a sensation. Even today, pie charts cause a sensation – usually one of torpour.

Information is extremely powerful. Look at any one of a thousand powerpoint slide decks and you will see charts and graphs aplenty outlining everything you could possibly want to know. Unfortunately for the presenter, their audience will instantly forget every single piece of data.

The trick is usually to tell a story about your data to bring it to life and make it memorable. Or, even better, make your data itself tell a story. Here is a remarkable example of what we mean:

Visualizing empires decline from Pedro M Cruz on Vimeo.

Next time you contemplate putting a pie chart into your presentation, please think long and hard. It has hard a long and useful life, but would be far more usefully left to die quietly.

A new trend is emerging that is threatening the very existence of email, and could threaten the way many of us shop, vote and learn.

To be completely clear from the outset, email is shrinking in importance. There are now so many ways to communicate and collaborate that messages that could once only have been sent via email are moving onto other mediums. And while POP3 and IMAP still make up a huge proportion of the application traffic on a company’s network, the term ’email’ is slipping from popular usage. People now use protocols developed for email to send each other ‘notes’.

The ‘e’ prefix, once so ubiquitious, has had its day. This is a trend that we believe will continue. After all, it is no longer interesting that things are electronic. To a 45 year old, perhaps it is still a marvel, but to a 25 year old it is taken as read. So farewell e-mail, e-commerce, e-government and e-learning. And watch your backs VoIP and IPTV. Where being electronic is now taken as read, so the Internet Protocol is no longer so amazing. And no body ever really understood it anyway.