March 31, 2009

Endowment Exercise

At my most recent Improv class, we learned the importance of endowing our partner with details about where the scene is occurring, and what we are doing. And the importance of providing details to our partners about who they are. These details provide motivation to our partners, and keep the scene moving forward. This class underscored two lessons I teach when helping leaders increase the persuasiveness of their communication:
  1. All communications is a means to an end goal.
  2. Our communication is a gift we give others.
Because my clients are focused on achieving a policy goal, increasing sales, or obtaining funding, we commence our discussions of strategic communications with a focus on the end goal. We focus on answering, What do your listeners need to feel in order for them to be moved to your desired action?

Too often, people blabber on, forgetting that they have an agenda (usually benevolent). People often fail to show their listeners the respect they deserve, asking them to be a part of the solution, and facilitating action-oriented communications.

This Improv exercise was fascinating to me because it stripped down communications solely to forward movement. I was able to experience and truly appreciate the pure momentum of targeted, respectful, and shared dialogue. I loved the ability to practice endowing my partner with gifts of both verbal and body language, absent a focus on any strategy other than to move forward.

I am greatly enjoying, and learning from, deconstructing the act of communicating!

Of course.

It's true.

March 25, 2009


Working at home today, sitting at the dining table, looking up from my work, I saw this out the window:

A car stopped in front of our house. Both front doors opened, and the driver & front-seat passenger – man & woman – walked around the car, swapping places.

The car made a u-turn. Then it stopped, again in front of our house, but now on the other side of the street. Both doors opened, and the driver and passenger swapped places.

Hmmm... Perhaps the driver wasn't feeling up to a u-turn, and asked for help?

A little later, I was standing by the coffee pot in the kitchen, and from the kitchen window, I saw the
exact same thing happen again.

Only this time I figure out what was going on: Dad was having his daughter practice driving, down the block; then he would turn the car around, so she could drive it in the other direction...

Hmmm... Manual transmission?

So, the
third time this happens, I notice the car slip backwards just a tiny bit before the U turn - consistent with a manual, but not automatic, transmission.

And, after the car is turned, Dad waits and holds the driver's door for his clutch-mastering daughter, ushering her in with a small bow and flourish. Sweet. I don't know these folks, but I'm happy for them.

A NeuroCooking Public Service Announcement: Effective Earworm Removal.

Ever have trouble getting a song out of your head? That's called an earworm (or Ohrwurm in German). 

I've found that "Boots of Chinese Plastic", the opening track of the new Pretenders CD, drives out a wide variety of earworms, without leaving much residue.

It might work for you.

Here's the video of the song performed on Letterman, on the eve of the album release. (I admit though that it's tough to make out the lyrics in the video.)

By the way, you look fantastic, in your boots of Chinese plastic.

March 23, 2009

"in media res" & "methods at the end"

"In media res," to start at the middle, is a venerable dramatic tool. Don't start the story at the beginning! Instead, capture your audience's attention by starting in the midst of battle; later, go back in time and establish the events leading up to that dramatic opening battle-scene.

Scientific communication, in contrast, usually uses the four-part form sometimes called the "structured abstract": Background, methods, results, discussion. First tell us why, then what, you did; then what you found; then what it means.

Recently, some journals have adopted an alternate form of scientific communication, called the "methods at the end" ("MATE") form. A brief background comes first, then the results, then discussion; at the end come the methods,
often in small print. The idea being that most readers are less interested in methods than in findings.

I used to dislike the MATE format. Perhaps because, since we need to use methods to get results, it seems only natural to communicate the methods before the results. And perhaps because so much of my own work has been on developing new methods, I don't like to see methods relegated to the ghetto of an almost-appendix.

But lately, I have become more tolerant of the MATE format. Perhaps because once we think of a scientific paper as telling a story, we are forced to admit that "in media res" can be a great way to do that.

March 19, 2009

Serendipitious Findability

Serendipitious Findability, aka, Chance Meetings.
What happens when we decide to live our lives in public, via Facebook, Twitter, etc., as defined by Micah Sifry, co-founder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum "Chance meetings between people, facts, and people and facts."

Micah spoke last night at a wonderful new program called The Little Idea. In his short, 10 minute talk, he noted that "information isn't power: disproportionate access to information is power."

And on the topic of science and communication, Micah continued, "Geeks are taking over the earth. We feed information to them because they feed information to us."

March 17, 2009

"Read a Book, Get out of Jail"

This is a wonderful story from the NYTimes Book Review about:
 "Changing Lives Through Literature," an alternative sentencing program that allows felons and other offenders to choose between going to jail or joining a book club.
“I don’t want to be all negative,” the officer begins, “but you have to read this book.” Not as in “This is a must-read,” but “We’ve had people go to jail for not reading.”

March 11, 2009

Explaining vision through story

Here is a great example of crafting a future story to clearly articulate vision and potential impact - and the future of newspapers.

March 10, 2009

March 8, 2009

Facts Fly By, Stories Stick

Last night, I attended an event in the "Brainwave (It Could Change Your Mind)" series at the Rubin Museum of Art. This was a conversation between Miranda July, the author and filmmaker, and George Bonanno, Columbia University psychology professor and expert in emotion. Bonanno stated that birds share more computational language skills with humans than our closest primates.

This fact alone was new and interesting to me. But Bonanno added that former President George Bush, who was "unfriendly to science," cut funding for a perhaps silly sounding, but quite scientifically important, study of Pigeon Language Cognition Skills.

Adding this point of conflict turned a fact into a story. Among communications experts working with story, there is much discussion about what elevates an anecdote into a story. I find the simpliest definition is that a story contains a conflict.

Facts fly by, and stories stick. Bonanno provided a great example of how to take a fact, add a conflict, and make the fact memorable.

March 7, 2009

Are you playing to the cameras, and, if so, what might you be loosing?

Last night, I had the great pleasure of seeing the new Broadway production of West Side Story. I was there as a guest of the company that was filming the show for the producers. At intermission, when I commented that the performance seemed just the tiniest bit slow, ever-so-slightly off its natural tempo, I was informed that invariably, when the shows are filmed, they run 3-5 minutes longer! The director felt the actors might be playing to the cameras, emphasizing certain lines, being more conscious of foot work, etc.

It got me thinking: as presenters, do we play to the cameras? And, if so, do we sacrifice of a certain level of naturalness, a comfort level we've previously established with our material?

Great presenters, of course, balance the two. Perhaps a trick is to always play to the cameras - to imagine, from conception to implementation of your presentation, that you will, indeed, be filmed. Given cell phones and video technology, it's not an unlikely premise.

March 6, 2009

What do the bass, the treble, and 104 gauss have in common?

The bass, the treble,
don't make a rebel –
having your life together does.
is an excerpt from Michael Franti's lyrics to "Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury," the title track of the 1992 debut album by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. But one idiot (who wrote that "only a churl could get a kick out of ... rhymes as awful") got it wrong, reprinting the lyrics correctly but citing, erroneously, a different Disposable Heroes song, "Television, the Drug of the Nation." And then that mistake propagated onto the internet, where, for awhile, there were many web pages stating this error as fact.

The Tesla is a unit of magnetic field strength, as is the gauss. One Tesla is equal to ten thousand gauss. 10,000 is ten to the fourth power, or 10^4, or 104. Can you see where this is going? There are many pages on the web, today, which define a Tesla as 104 gauss. 

So, with apologies to Mr. Franti, may I rap out with:
The bass, the treble,
don't make a rebel –
and 104 gauss
don't make a Tesla –
but 10,000 do.

March 5, 2009

Also in that RFA...

One more instruction from the NIH Challenge Grant RFA: "Do not include animations."

Just one sentence from the "Challenge Grant" RFA

Yesterday, the NIH released a "Challenge Grant" request for applications, to help spend stimulus money disburse funds allocated under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It includes this instruction: "The presentation must be clear and particularly compelling."

March 4, 2009

Heart, then Head

This afternoon, I visited a dermatologist for treatment of an ongoing, though minor and isolated, problem. The assistant who took me into the examining room opened my file and asked why I was there. This information had been given when I made the appointment, but I understood if it had not found its way into my medical file. After I explained that, despite earlier treatment by this doctor, the problem had not cleared, the assistant then, while looking at my fairly thin medical file, asked me where the problem was, and how long I have had it. I grew concerned that this information was not recorded in the pages on which she was looking, answered the questions, but pointed out that this should all be in my file. The assistant then asked me how the doctor treated it previously. At this point, I grew agitated and concerned, and stated that that information should definitely be in my file. She then proceeded to announce that the doctor treated the condition differently than he, in fact, had! When I corrected her, she admitted that she could not read the doctor's handwriting.

What if the assistant had introduced herself, perhaps explained that she was a medical student and interested in my care, explained that she found the doctor's notes difficult to decipher, and then proceeded to ask me the very same questions? What if she had explained her intent prior to seeking knowledge? If she had communicated authentically? A relationship based on meaning and mutual understanding would have been established, I would have understand the context of the questions, and the knowledge gleaned would have been much more useful for her purposes.

Just one sentence about Duluth, Minnesota.

I knew that if the immortal spirit of Homer could look down from another heaven than that created by his own celestial genius upon the long lines of pilgrims from every nation of the earth to the gushing fountain of poesy opened by the touch of his magic wand, if he could be permitted to behold the vast assemblage of grand and glorious productions of the lyric art called into being by his own inspired strains, he would weep tears of bitter anguish that instead of lavishing all the stores of his mighty genius upon the fall of Ilium, it had not been his more blessed lot to crystallize in deathless song the rising glories of Duluth


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