Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Write stories

Every piece of writing - from a brief email to a volume-long business report- can tell a story. Stories are easy to remember and easy to talk about. They are a natural way of combining diverse information into meaningful patterns, and they create both interest and understanding. Stories work - they work in creative writing and they work (possibly even harder) in other kinds of writing.

How can you turn an email or memo into a story? Think about it. If you were telling a story about your subject, whose story would it be? Would you be the main character or would the main character be a team, a product, or a place? How is the main character related to your reader?

Your job in the rest of the story is to lay out what is expected - the friends who will help, the obstacles that will be encountered, the conflicts that might engage. It's also to add something unexpected - the thing that happens that turns it into a story. Sometimes something disappears - like support. Sometimes something appears out of nowhere - like a quest or a challenge. Whatever it is, it begins the story and creates a reason for the reader to engage with it and to talk about it.

Here are some things that stories are not: Stories are not usually ironic; irony plays well in some forms of creative writing and performance. It doesn't play well in business writing and it doesn't play wel in stories. Stories are not lessons - sometimes they contain lessons but that's not what makes them a story and if they don't have the good bits, the lessons are quickly recognized as manipulative. Stories are not static - things happen and keep happening. Otherwise the story stops.

If you conceive of everything you write as a story, you will begin to automatically include the structures that make writing easier to understand. You will know the difference between the beginning, the middle and the end, you will find criteria for knowing what to include and what to leave out, and you'll include the tangible details that "hook" a reader and allow them to see, hear or feel what you are describing or explaining.

Practice by being outrageous (don't send outrageous email unless you want outrageous responses). Pick the most routine piece of writing on your "to do" list and write it as if it were a really exciting story. Have fun with it. Play with it.

Then look at the story you have written and strip it down to its barebones. You'll find you have something that retains the quality of a story and yet still fits the conventions of whatever kind of writing you are doing. You'll have a piece of writing that works.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Step into your reader's shoes

A basic principle of NLP-based communication is that the meaning of a message is the feedback it receives. When we think about this in terms of writing, it reminds us that what is important is how the message sounds to its intended reader(s). Instead of writing what sounds good to you, you want to write in the common ground between what sounds good to you and what will sound good to your reader.

Think of something you want to write - an email, a proposal, a memo or letter, or a more substantial report, whitepaper or article. What impact do you want to have on your reader? You may have a very specific outcome in mind or you might have a more general sense of what you want the reader to know, think, feel or do differently after s/he has read your piece. Allow your attention to focus on whatever impact you have in mind, noticing your intention to accomplish this impact.

Now, move your attention to your reader. Allow yourself to fully imagine a real person - this is easy if you are writing to someone you know. Just imagine yourself engaged in conversation with that person. If you are writing for someone you have never met, just accept whatever comes into your awareness as you imagine having a really terrific meeting with that person. Allow yourself to become fully caught up in your imagined conversation, curious and engaged and connected.

Now, keep your focus on that conversation with your intended reader as you allow your imaginary point of view to float up out of your own perspective, as if you were watching yourself and the other person from across the room. Notice the give and take in the conversation as both people are fully engaged. Notice how their body postures, movements and expressions match as they move through the conversation. Notice that you can tell they are moving fluidly through shared ground.

Then let your attention move again. Instead of moving back into your own perspective, move into the shoes of your intended reader. Notice how the conversation is unfolding from this point of view. Get engaged with a person who looks and sounds like you while you become the person with whom you want to connect through your writing.

You might find that it's hard to hold the scene you are imaging in your mind while you try to imagine what your reader hears, sees, feels and thinks while talking to you. That's okay. Just try two or three or four times until you are sure that you have put your best effort into connecting with the person for whom you will be writing.

Now sit down and write a fast, focused draft of your piece of writing. Do not mistake this for your final copy (see previous and future writing tips for more advice on what to do with your draft).

Friday, July 27, 2007

the only way to write is to write

All writers agree: the only way to write is to sit down and do it. Planning to write, wanting to write, and waiting for inspiration are all interesting processes. They are not writing. Writing is writing.

Writing does not require planning or inspiration. Writing requires moving your pen across the page or your fingers over the keyboard. Thousands of words run through your mind almost without stopping (your internal voice never needs to catch its breath). If you decide what to write before you write, you get tied up in tracking intangible thoughts (the ones jostling for position inside your mind) instead of in writing.

The way to write is to write. Put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard and look at what you are thinking as it appears before you. It is rarely precisely what you would have predicted.There are always more words available to you than you can capture on the page. The one resource you need to write is available to you in abundance.

It's available in such abundance that you will be free to throw much of it away once you have written. Just as many thoughts move through our awareness without leaving much trace, words written can be deleted, crossed out or transformed. Writing something shows you in visible form the trace of the thought that produced it: it does not make that thought true or useful. You make one set of choices in deciding what to write and you can make a second set of choices about what to keep.

Don't publish (by which I mean allow anyone to read!) your first draft. That's like offering to let someone wander around inside your mind, free to open the cupboards and poke in the corners. You are normally the only one who needs to see first-draft writing before it has the critical approval of the reviewer in you - that internal editor who evaluates what you are thinking and decides which thoughts to tie into other experiences, and which thoughts should float free, drifting out of awareness and memory.

Accept that writing always requires editing (what you are reading was written rapidly, but it is not a first draft). Know that you can change whatever you write - it belongs to you. Then open the connection between your mind and your fingers and write.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The first of a series of writing tips

I've just rescheduled my one-day writing course, and I have my college business students lurking at the back of my mind. As I seek for the most elegant solutions for allowing people to make rapid changes in how well they write, I'm going to share my thoughts in this blog.

Writing challenges the idea that it is possible to make significant change within short time frames. Most of us have been writing since we were about six years old: the way we write is mostly a product of unconscious processes that are extremely resilient. In other words, the way we write, like the way we speak, is a habit that resists change.

On the other hand, writing is also an area that has long presupposed the value of modeling: the advice most often given to people who want to write better is to read more. This is quite different than the advice we give people who want to improve their math skills, for instance (no one says that the way to learn math is to look at lots of equations). So we will begin not by doing the difficult thing (noticing how we make choices in writing) but by doing the less difficult thing (noticing how other people write well.)

The writing tip for the first day is a question: Who writes the way you would like to write?

If you aren't sure you have an answer, you have your first project. Go out into the world and notice examples of writing that you think work - whatever "work" means to you and whatever form or genre you are interested in writing. For instance, if you want to write better email, notice the email you read that "works." (Normally, we do it the other way around - we notice something when it is badly written. When it is well written, we notice what we think about its subject matter).

If you are sure, then go read writing that works. And visit again every day or so for a new tip.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

intense focus

I'm in the middle of an intensive training this week - six straight days, about 9 hours each, with a small group. It is exhilirating and exhausting all at the same time - for me and for the people I am training.

Oddly, we seldom give our kids this kind of intensely focused experience. Whether they are six or sixteen, they are full of energy and their minds are always moving. Given the right focus, lots of support and a multitude of perspectives, they can grow enormously in a few days.

When my sons were young, they attended the Oakville Performing Arts Camp run by the Oakville Suzuki Association. It was my first experience of a program for kids run on the basis that they could soak up enormous learning in a short time as long as no one told them they needed a break. That camp changed our lives.

Ten years later, my son went to camp with the Shad Valley program: it lasted four weeks of very long days focused entirely on the program and the people. Three years later, he still mentions Shad frequently, and keeps in touch with friends across the country.

The adults working with me this week are learning NLP in the same kind of format - they work intensely through many of their beliefs about learning, encounter new information, practice many new exercises, and develop a heightened awareness of how they achieve results. Sometimes, they begin by thinking that I feed them snacks, tell stories and make jokes because I am nice. They begin by thinking that being relaxed and playful and supported is a frill.

One of the things they learn is that I focus on allowing them to be relaxed and playful and supported because I am intense and intensely focused on getting results. I am not satisfied with anything less than their attentive presence throughout all the time they commit to me when they register for the training. I relax and play because it allows me (and them) to work harder and produce more in a shorter time frame.

Sustained intensity requires play.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A pentatonic scale for your workplace

This week I have been attending music camp with a 6 year old friend who is just beginning to learn to play the guitar. His teacher started with a pentatonic scale. That might seem counter-intuitive. The pentatonic scale doesn't sound like the scales the children are singing and playing in their other classes. It's not familiar. It's not even a concept that is familiar to most non-musical adults.

But it's brilliant. The glory of the pentatonic scale, as the teacher explained, is that as long as you stay within the scale, there are no wrong notes. Everything you play sounds like music, and everything you play will work with something someone else is playing using the pentatonic scale. For the investment of a short time learning the notes of the scale, you are rewarded with the freedom to play: to play patterns someone else has set or to make up your own; to play all by yourself and with other people.

Beginning with the pentatonic scale means teaching kids that music is, first and foremost, play. It's the ability to explore with joy, alone and in the company of other people. It's accepting a few rules so that you can experience wide and wonderful freedoms. Children who begin with the pentatonic scale begin by learning to improvise.

Think about it. It's possible to gather elements that create the freedom to improvise by limiting the ability to make mistakes. People trained in those elements can both seize opportunities and generate them. They can work on their own and they can work in teams. They can improvise effectively even before they have mastery.

What elements would you include in a pentatonic scale for your workplace?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

When enough is enough

What do you hear when you hear the expression "enough is enough?"

Some of you will hear frustration as it turns to resolution. You will hear "enough of this nonsense" or "enough of these excuses."
You might even hear Gandalf as he booms "Thou shalt not pass."


Some of you will hear a plea to be content, a statement that all the necessary criteria have been met. Enough is enough means that more is unnecessary. You can safely move in another direction, or even just drift. You have enough.

The two meanings meet on the line between motivation and frustration. Together, they imply that we have a set of criteria against which we judge experience, even when those criteria sit in the back of our minds. As soon as you say "enough is enough" you realize that you had the information you required to know what was acceptable, what was necessary, and what was extra.

Consider a situation in which you think those boundaries are unclear. Ask yourself, when would I know that "enough is enough?" You will find that you do know where the boundaries are, and what crossing them will mean.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Remarkable content

If I told you that kids are loud, squirmy and have short attention spans, you would probably agree. This is not only how adults view kids - it's quite often how kids view kids.

If I told you that I could fill a room with selected activities and keep children under 10 happily occupied for several hours, you might believe me. You would probably look around the room and be unimpressed. What you would see would be kids happily engaged with toys and books featured in most places that educate and entertain children: puzzles, building blocks, books, craft supplies. Nothing remarkable at all.

Nothing remarkable except the effect they have on children. When offered the opportunity to construct or explore models of experience (something all these activities share), children will consistently engage and play cooperatively, peacefully and sometimes with intensity. A roomful of small children busy with these kinds of activities typically makes less noise and experiences less conflict than the average meeting of a similar number of adults.

Is there a catch? Yes.

Adults have to support without getting in the way. That means resisting the urge to construct or impose models for the children. Let them play and watch how their experience grows. Watch it and hear it and feel it as you feel the alternating excitement and relaxation as they settle in and change and settle in again. Provide choices and provide snacks and bathroom breaks.

Do you need to praise? You can praise when you genuinely are impressed or engaged or delighted by what they are doing. It's always a great idea to connect and share positive states. Do they need your praise to enjoy the process in which they are engaged? Probably not. What you are seeing and praising is probably different than what they are noticing in any case.

There's one more catch.

You have to believe that it really is this straightforward. Kids are made to model their world - it's what they do most naturally and with most intensity and most pleasure. Give them the materials and the words they need to make increasingly complex models. They can do it. Can you?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

learning by doing

In Working Identity, Herminia Ibarra argues that people make big changes by taking small steps and noticing the results. She writes about people who have made significant changes in their career paths - and the message she takes from the people she profiles is this. Change doesn't happen because we think about it. Change happens because we do something.

We learn who we are by what we do. A little bit at a time.

Think about the day ahead of you. Assume "I am what I do today."

What one small step will you take in a new direction now?

Monday, July 02, 2007

What do you do?

I train people in NLP and integrated thinking.

What's NLP?

It's a different way of learning and communicating so that people are better at paying attention to themselves and other people. NLP teaches people to make stronger connections between what they notice and what they want.

Why is that useful?

People use NLP for mental fitness in the same way that they use a gym for physical fitness. It allows them to work through practices with a coach so that they live healthier lives and, sometimes, so that they perform better in competition. People who practice NLP are better at getting what they want.

Is it proven?

Nope. It's just like poetry and philosophy, management theory and much of the social sciences. There's a huge amount of evidence but no scientific "proof." There is a lot of scientific evidence that the brain works the way NLP says it works. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that people who do the exercises get results.

What's integrated thinking?

Integrated thinking is what you do as a result of practicing NLP with good coaches. You notice details and the way they are structured into patterns and enclosed in frames. You notice more about the trees and you see the forest at the same time. You notice that you get results when you put things together in the best way and that you get stuck when you fixate on one thing at a time.

Is it really that straight-forward?


Sunday, July 01, 2007

Happy Canada Day

I was in Ottawa this week, enjoying perfect weather and the prettier parts of the city. As we walked, my husband and I noticed the difference between the Byward Market (built for people) and the bleak prospects of the business district (built for someone's idea of convenience or power?). Similar differences exist between government buildings built to pull the spirit upwards (the Parliament buildngs, the National Gallery) and public edifices (an ugly word for huge, ugly blocks of buildings).

Why do we find it so difficult to believe that what is good for the soul can also be good for business? How many people look at a business plan and ask "where is the beauty in this? where is the joy? what part of this business will make people glad to be interacting?"

It is not the job of artists or architects to encourage us to embrace what it means to live together in community. That's our job. Artists and architects can support us but they cannot do all the work. If we want to interact at street level, we have to spend our money and our influence to insist that the structures within which we work - including but not limited to buildings - make it easier for us to notice what it means to be human and to be together. That means street-level interaction with co-workers and acquaintances and strangers. It means something to attract the eye and draw it upwards and outwards.

It means remembering that business and government both exist in support of the idea that we live better when we live together.

Happy Canada Day.