Why thinking and writing don’t mix

Why thinking and writing don’t mix

I was reminded this week of why thinking and writing don't mix if you want to deliver impact at work.

It's great if you want to keep a journal, write a novel or perhaps some poetry.

But, bear with me.

I do believe writing helps us clarify our thinking.

But I also think writing to think inside a doc or a deck makes for poor business communication.

Communication quality is further reduced by socializing your document with others.


Let me offer three reasons why I believe ‘thinking' into a document leads to cluttered communication that takes far too long to deliver value.

Clarity of messaging is compromised as we seek useful input from others. In today's busy world, messaging must jump off the page the minute someone opens an email, paper or PowerPoint.

Asking stakeholders to review lengthy docs or decks leads to a mess of track changes that focus on the minutiae rather than the substance.

Quality of insight is hard to coalesce into a cohesive argument. If you draft your ideas inside an email, a doc or a deck you will naturally wander all over the place. Your thinking will evolve some here, some there as ideas form. The structure of your story and the quality of your messaging will wander likewise.

Velocity is nearly impossible. By velocity I mean the speed with which you can create your communication, with which your audience can digest it and then make a decision. When my clients skip using a one-page storyline they frequently see at least three problems. They see extensive rework, delayed decisions and lots of last minute scrambling to ‘fix' their docs and decks.

As one CEO said to me recently:

“We chose to introduce your storylining method as it offered a system we could replicate across the business.”
“Iterating 16 times around a Board paper just doesn't make business sense.”
Now I receive a stack of one-pagers and spend 15 minutes reviewing each one before offering substantive feedback to the team.”
“The team then uses this to finesse their messaging before they quickly prepare their documents.”
“Our Board and SLT papers have improved out of sight”.



Early Bird registrations for Clarity First close this coming Sunday, June 19th.

>> Click here to learn more.

I hope to see you there.

Warmly,
Davina

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong where she helped others use the Minto Pyramid Principle.

She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia where she was approved by Barbara Minto herself to teach Pyramid.

Her clients include experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US. She currently coaches a number of C-suite executives as well as many mid-level folk and the occasional graduate.

Get her 4 Tips for Communicating Complex Ideas here.

4 ways to know if your message is powerful

4 ways to know if your message is powerful

We talk a lot about the clarity of communication. To me that means how easy it is for a person in our audience to grasp what we are saying.

This is, I suggest, only ground level for powerful business communication.​

The next level is to deliver a high-quality message. By my way of thinking this is a message that is not just clear, but which delivers significant value.

In most situations this requires a good degree of synthesis, and I thought sharing four key questions we ask might help you assess the quality of your own communication.

To test the quality of our messaging, we ask ourselves what level of message we have used.

  1. Level 1 – Is this a piece of data? A piece of data is a fact. For example, '10 widgets'. This is not a message, but rather a stand alone piece of information.
  2. Level 2 – Is this a topic? A topic is a category, eg ‘Options'. This explains what you are discussing, but not what you are saying. On its own, it is not a quality message.
  3. Level 3 – Is this a summary? A summary is useful when explaining what you found in some analysis. For example: “We sold 10 widgets more last week than we have sold over the past year”. It is an observation and tells you what your data set ‘says'.
  4. Level 4 – Is this a powerful message? A powerful message delivers the most value of any. It synthesises, which means it draws an inference from the information and says what it means. It involves taking a risk and is where the value lies.

I encourage you to review the three most recent pieces of communication you have prepared and assess what level your communication was at.

If you find very few level 4 messages ask yourself why and see if you can level them up in your next piece.

I hope that helps and look forward to bringing you more next week.

Davina

 



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PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong where she helped others use the Minto Pyramid Principle.

She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia where she was approved by Barbara Minto herself to teach Pyramid.

Her clients include experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US. She currently coaches a number of C-suite executives as well as many mid-level folk and the occasional graduate.

Get her 4 Tips for Communicating Complex Ideas here.

What to do with ‘pros and cons’?

What to do with ‘pros and cons’?

 I had a fabulous question this week: where do we fit ‘pros' and ‘cons' in our storyline?

That is a ‘ripper' of a question.

My answer is this: lists of pros and cons don't belong in your communication, they help you think through that message. 

Let me explain.

If we provide lists of pros and cons for an idea, we are providing information rather than insight. This matters, because in taking this approach we

  • Ask our audience to do the thinking work for us
  • Risk that they will misinterpret our analysis and draw unhelpful conclusions
  • Let ourselves down by not adding as much value as we could

If, instead, we do the thinking for our audience, we will deliver insights that emerge from our own analysis of the pros and cons list.

Although more intellectually challenging, this is better for us and our audience. We know more about the area than they do and we don't miss the opportunity to share our value add.

If your audience is explicitly asking for pros and cons lists, pop them in the appendix. Focus your main communication around your interpretation of that list.

Hopefully next time they won't ask for the list, but rather for your insights.

I hope that helps.

Kind regards,
Davina

Registrations Open:

Thinking Skills Workshop

May 27th

The leap from information is not magic: it's based on our explicit combination of top-down and bottom-up thinking skills to synthesise out a powerful message.

Learn these foundational skills for untangling complex ideas so you can move from delivering ‘information' to conveying insightful, high-quality messages that are easily understood.

Numbers are strictly limited to 30 participants. We have a terrific international cohort building. Hope to see you there.

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong where she helped others use the Minto Pyramid Principle.

She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia where she was approved by Barbara Minto herself to teach Pyramid.

Her clients include experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US. She currently coaches a number of C-suite executives as well as many mid-level folk and the occasional graduate.

Get her 4 Tips for Communicating Complex Ideas here.

How do we storyline when not making a recommendation?

How do we storyline when not making a recommendation?

Have you ever wondered whether a storyline is the right tool to use when you are not providing a recommendation?

Perhaps you have been asked to undertake some analysis or are concerned that your audience may not want you to be too assertive or direct?

If so, you may enjoy some insights from this week's coaching discussions which conveniently follow on from last week's focus on communicating details.

When delivering analytical findings, particularly to a sensitive audience, summarise your findings rather than synthesising or recounting your analytical process.

Provide a summary answer rather than a true synthesis. The examples below illustrate how to offer a summary rather than a synthesis:

  • Level 1 focuses on ‘what' you found or what needs to be done by illustrating ‘what we found', or ‘what we need you to do'.
  • Level 2 offers the implication of those things by placing them in a context. In these examples we are either offering a comparison to other options or explaining how these actions will help.

Avoid describing what you did to deliver your findings, but rather focus on what you found.

This played out perfectly this week when a data analyst in a pricing team for an energy company needed to backtest the pricing model. His goal was to assess whether the model was accurately reflecting the market by checking actual versus predicted market pricing over the past quarter.

The temptation was to explain the steps he took to confirm that the model was accurate rather than explaining that it has proven to be accurate this past quarter because it ‘ticked all the boxes'.

Listing all the steps he took required the audience to work through his analytical process rather than focus on the outcome.

This is a common challenge I see at play among analysts, which could also play out if you were trying to navigate cultural sensitivities about being too forward.

Allow your audience to make the decision if you are concerned about cultural sensitivities around assertiveness.

When I was based in Asia, particularly in Hong Kong helping consultants communicate with mainland Chinese clients, we had to be very careful about how we couched our messaging.

Our advice was not going to be welcome if we were too assertive, and we needed to respect a specific cultural need for leaders to be seen to make their own decisions.

The role of consultants in these contexts is different than in more direct, Western environments so we tailored our approach accordingly.

The example on the left of our value ladder is more useful in this context, with level one being pretty clear that ‘Black' is the way to go without going as far as saying that. Some interpretation is still required by the decision maker, which allows them room to ‘make the decision'.

This approach can be used more broadly when making a recommendation without being seen to recommend.

I hope that helps. More next week!

Kind regards,
Davina

PS – please note that in the example to the right you will see we jump from ‘four things to do' to ‘two ways to help'. This is because in the actual example we grouped the four into two parts as we elevated up the storyline hierarchy.

How do we know when we are fooling ourselves?

How do we know when we are fooling ourselves?

It might shock you to know that our brains are quirky and more like Homer Simpson's than we realise.

In Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes how we lie to ourselves just like Homer does.

He suggests that we make up stories in our minds and then against all evidence, defend them tooth and nail.

Understanding why we do this is the key to discovering truth and making wiser decisions.

In this piece I lay out the overview of his argument and illustrate through a business example.

 His argument leans heavily on an evolutionary bug in our brains that critical thinking strategies can resolve

He suggests there’s a bug in the evolutionary code that makes up our brains.  Apparently, we have a hard time distinguishing between when cause and effect is clear, such as checking for traffic before crossing a busy street, and when it’s not, as in the case of many business decisions.

We don’t like not knowing. We also love a story.

Just like with Homer did in this short clip, our minds create plausible stories to fill in the gaps in other people's stories to construct our own cause and effect relationships.

The trick is to have some critical thinking strategies to help us evaluate other people's stories and our own. To help us avoid telling stories that are convincing and wrong.

We need to think about how these stories are created, whether they’re right, or how they persist. A useful ‘tell' is when we find ourselves uncomfortable and unable to articulate our reasoning.

 A real life example brings his argument to life in an uncomfortably familiar way

Imagine a meeting where we are discussing how a project should continue, not unlike any meeting you have this week to figure out what happened and what decisions your organization needs to make next.

You start the meeting by saying “The transformation project has again made little progress against its KPIs this month. Here’s what we’re going to do in response.”

But one person in the meeting, John, another project manager, asks you to explain the situation.

You volunteer what you know.
“After again failing to deliver on their KPIs, we recommend replacing the project leader with someone from outside the organisation who has a proven track record with transformation programs. The delays are no longer sustainable.”
And you quickly launch into the best way to find a replacement team leader.

Mary, however, tells herself a different story, because just last week her friend, the project leader, described the difficulty her team was having with two influential leaders who were actively against the transformation program.
The story she tells herself is that the project leader probably needs extra support from the CEO and potentially also the Board.

So, she asks you, “What makes you think a new project leader would be more successful?”

The answer is obvious to you.
You feel your heart rate start to rise.
Frustration sets in.

You tell yourself that Mary is an idiot. This is so obvious. The project is falling further behind. Again. The leader is not getting traction. And we need to put in place something to get the transformation moving now. You think to yourself that she’s slowing the group down and we need to act now.

What else is happening?

It’s likely you looked at the evidence again and couldn’t really explain how you drew your conclusion.

Rather than have an honest conversation about the story you told yourself and the story Mary is telling herself, the meeting gets tense and goes nowhere.

Neither of you has a complete picture or a logically constructed case. You are both running on intuition.

The next time you catch someone asking you about your story and you can’t explain it in a falsifiable way, pause, hit reset and test the rigour of your story.

What you really care about is finding the truth, even if that means the story you told yourself is wrong.

Why am I sharing this story with you?

In Clarity First we teach people 10 specific questions to ask when evaluating our communication that helps us to see whether our ideas ‘stack up'.

These are incredibly powerful and help you ‘step back' from your own ideas to evaluate them critically.

Take a look at the Clarity First Program to learn more.

We help you communicate so your complex ideas get the traction they deserve.

 

 

Keywords: #critical thinking #decision making #kahneman

 

Why writers need to educate readers on how to read their communication

Why writers need to educate readers on how to read their communication

The Minto Pyramid Principle is a widely lauded approach for preparing clearer business reports.

Developed by a McKinsey & Company team led by Barbara Minto in the 1960s, ‘pyramid’ helps people use logic and structure to organise their ideas into a logical and coherent reader-focused argument.

At Clarity First we love this approach.

It enables us to think top down, draw out insights quickly and communicate complex ideas clearly.

However, despite much evidence from our own work and its popularity across consulting and business strategy teams in particular, very little formal research has been undertaken into its actual effectiveness.

Perhaps it was enough to say “It’s McKinsey: It’s good”.

However, Dr Louise Cornelis (another ex-McKinsey communication specialist) recently changed this when working with a series of Masters’ students at Groningen University in Holland.

She undertook a qualitative study to understand whether preparing a business report using a ‘top-down, reader-focused pyramid structure’ was actually helpful to the reader.

Dr Cornelis’ findings demonstrate some irony.

Writers and readers don’t always agree on what is ‘reader-focused’ unless the writer first educates the reader about what ‘reader-focused’ actually means.

Here is why that seems to be true.

#1 – Audiences are hard wired into their old habits

It seems that our readers are hard-wired into what they expect and can be confused by a new way of doing things unless it is explained to them.

In the case of business reports, many people are accustomed to receiving reports written with titles such as ‘Executive Summary’, ‘Background’, ‘Issues’ and a ‘Conclusion’ at the end and are quite lost when these are absent.

They can be confused by Pyramid reports that ignore these section titles, preferring to instead have customized titles that reflect the content of the report: a bit like newspaper headlines.

#2 – Consultants and others using the approach often forget to explain how their approach works

When, however, the approach is explained they not only like the Pyramid Principle approach much better, but can read the documents significantly more quickly.

Readers who were provided with a short description of the structure before reading the documents were able to grasp the main message from a document almost five times faster than those with no preparatory explanation.

Dr Cornelis found that people very much appreciated the Pyramid Principle report-writing approach but only when they understood what it was trying to do.

So the next time have a good idea: remember to ensure your significant others understand the benefit, even when the idea is specifically for the them.

 

 

Keywords: design your strategy, develop your storyline, research

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Louise Cornelis is a communication consultant based in Rotterdam. Louise specialises in helping her clients use structure and logic to communicate clearly, having learned her craft at McKinsey & Company and honed it by working with a wide range of clients since.

She particularly enjoys grappling with complex challenges that relate to helping others not only communicate clearly, but want to do so. The Clarity First team very much enjoys thinking about these challenges in collaboration with Louise.