Curses and communication roadblocks

I’m not talking about curses like the F-word—although they certainly can be communication roadblocks. Nor am I talking about the kind of curses that require professional removal. I could be talking about that kind of curse, though, since I just listened to a delightful conversation in which Erik Vance told Tim Ferriss about the time he paid a Mexican witch-doctor to curse (and, a week later, un-curse) him.

No, I’m talking about the Curse of Knowledge, the phenomenon Chip Heath and Dan Heath so beautifully explained in their classic Made to Stick.

My clients create complexity, using their MBA-honed brains to dream up new products, services, and processes. And that’s fine, as long as they talk amongst themselves.

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-3-25-34-pmBut when they need to reach a wider audience, they turn to me. Because, cursed with too much knowledge, they can’t explain their nifty new products, services, and processes clearly enough to a wider audience. They can’t reset their brains to “factory default”—the state of not knowing about this nifty new thing. But I can. Because I come to the problem with fresh eyes.

Communication roadblocks: Do as I say, not as I do

When I write for my clients, I can spot communication roadblocks like the Curse of Knowledge from 20 yards away. But in my own work…

[Shaking, as the kids say, My Damn Head.]

I wanted to help people discover how to improve their writing, so they can get to where they want to go in the business world. Great idea, right?

Yes—if you already love writing. But for people who don’t write, maybe it’s because they don’t like to write. Maybe they’re scared of it. Scared they can’t do it; scared no one wants to read what they have to say. Who knows, maybe scared of changing the ink cartridge in the printer. Doesn’t matter. What matters is they’re scared, and serene in the Curse of Knowledge, I completely forgot to explain writing in terms they can understand.

I used to be scared, too. Of course, now you can hardly tear my fingers away from the keyboard. I write for myself and for my clients, and I’m very happy doing it.

Writing takes courage, yes. But you don’t need enough courage to write an entire novel. All you need is the courage to place your fingers on the keyboard and press down gently for 15 minutes a day. Most of what you write will be awful. That doesn’t matter—no one needs to see it.

But press on that keyboard enough and some of what you write will start to be good. But I can guarantee it will never start to be good if you don’t start to write.


Storytelling and Problem-Solving

The other day I came across a quotation attributed to Pablo Picasso: “I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it.”

He sounds so cheerful about it, doesn’t he? But problem-solving is hard. If tackling something were easy, I suppose we wouldn’t call it a problem.

Fortunately, we have at our disposal a way to help our colleagues and audiences tackle their challenges: We can tell stories.

Now, I know about the old canard that when you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Yes, I talk about storytelling a lot. But I’m not the only person who sees stories as a great tool for problem-solving. Here I quote from the gospel of Make It Stick by the marketing evangelists Chip Heath and Dan Heath:

“Stories are like mental flight simulators; they allow us to rehearse problems and become better at dealing with them.”

Stories get into our brains in a very different way than facts do. And they stay there—they’re “sticky,” in the Heaths’ term.   Certain skills may need to be taught more analytically, but not every problem can be solved with a calculator.

I write a lot about business ethics for my clients—it’s one of my favorite topics. Virtually every company has developed a Code of Conduct it expects its employees to adhere to. And some industries have regulations imposed on them by government or other agencies. Employees sign contracts specifying that they’ve read and understood this information, but no one could possibly retain all of it. You don’t remember rules; you remember stories.

Think of the 10 Commandments—arguably the most famous and widely read “Code of Conduct” in the world. Can you list them all? If you’re like most people, you’ll get through two or three at the most.

The story of the 10 Commandments is easy to remember—Moses (or, depending on your age and degree of religiosity, Charlton Heston) climbs the mountain alone, while his people wait expectantly below. The Lord descends in a pillar of smoke and delivers two stone tablets containing the law. This is powerful stuff; no Ethics & Compliance Department can compare.

And yet you still can’t name all 10 without Googling.

So, how do you make your corporate “commandments” stickier? Turn them into stories.

Tell cautionary tales about how rule-breakers meet their fate. Tell funny stories—yes, I said funny stories. I know ethics is serious business, but do you want people to remember your stories or not? So tell stories that will make your listeners or readers smile, even as they store the information in their mental “don’t do this” file. Tell real stories—your own or others’—that get at the emotions involved: the frustration at being confronted with an unethical behavior, the dismay of needing to sort through the numerous “gray areas” we encounter every day to find the path to something closer to the right decision.

What do you think about when you hit those gray areas? Do you mentally shuffle through hundreds of pages of regulations written in legalese? Or do you remember that story about Joe and how he handled a similar situation?

Tell stories. Early and often. You won’t regret it.

Fast food, faster message: Wendy’s one-word answer

How powerful is a one-word answer? Very. (Okay, maybe not every one-word answer.) But if you want people to remember your message, the fewer words, the better.

What's Wendy's mission? Founder Dave Thomas offers a one-word answer

I’m not big on fast food, but I found myself in a Wendy’s last Saturday, and after I finished my (surprisingly good) hamburger, I looked up and found this mission statement on the wall, a quote from the chain’s late founder, Dave Thomas:

All of Wendy’s spins off one word: FRESH

It reminded me of a story Chip Heath and Dan Heath tell in their invaluable book Made to Stick. Herb Kelleher, a legendary CEO of Southwest Airlines, once told someone:

“I can teach you the secret to running this airline in thirty seconds. This is it: We are THE low-fare airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company’s future as well as I can.”

Wendy’s employees have even less to remember. They only need that one word—FRESH—to guide their actions.

A one-word answer sticks

Companies tend to write wordy, multi-part mission statements. But the more ideas you present, the less memorable each one becomes. (The Heath Brothers discuss that bit of wisdom in their book, too.) When you’re tempted to add more ideas to your mission statement, stop writing and ask yourself a different question: What’s the mission of my mission statement?

If you answer, “To make sure every department and stakeholder feels included,” then by all means keep adding clauses and bullet points. And adjectives, don’t forget the adjectives.

But if the point of your mission statement is to give your people clarity about your expectations and goals, get out the red pen and start eliminating all of the extraneous stuff.

How much more power does one sentence pack? “We are THE low-fare airline.” Really, what else does anyone need to know?

And if you can boil your mission down to a one-word answer, even better.