30 November 2005

It's time to move away from presentation mode

Presentations need an overhaul. I don't mean your PowerPoint or your presentation style; I mean our cultural approach to presenting. We need to take another look at it.

Question: What is the purpose of the presentation?

The overt purpose is to educate and inform

The covert purpose is to reinforce the status of the expert and remind the audience that they are not competent to solve their own problems.

I submit that in the information age the traditional presentation model needs to change from

presenter>audience to


Ideas don't evolve in a vaccuum and they don't generally flow in one direction.

Our current paradigm is based on a preacher model. An authority figure stands at the front of the room and lectures the class for forty minutes and then takes questions from the audience. Presentation styles vary but more or less they all follow this model.

Nearly every one of XPLANE's customers already has the expertise they need to solve their problems. They don't need more experts in the traditional sense -- they need people who can help them find, develop and share the best practices and experts within their own organizations. They don't need more wizards and consultants; they need to improve their communication flows.

We need fewer presentations and more conversations.

We need to develop new approaches that allow the group to take on a greater role in the knowledge-sharing experience. Approaches that turn the traditional presenter into the host of a knowledge-sharing event, rather than an expert spouting wisdom.

At XPLANE, we are working on some experiments in conversation, in an attempt to flesh out some new mechanisms for unleashing the knowledge and creativity of groups. We have already identified some interesting patterns and structures that have lead to powerful results. If your organization would like to host one, please let me know and we can try to design one together.

Please share your thoughts.

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28 November 2005

Lines of communication

In war, the first thing an army will attack is the enemy's lines of
communication. Why? Because success depends on people, who can only act on information they have received and understood.

The Internet was originally developed to enable rapid and reliable communication in times of war. Ironically, the resulting improvements in information flow have also spawned a fog of confusion. The volume of information that’s now available leaves many people overwhelmed, stressed and confused.

Advances in technology and genetics continue to change the business landscape in dramatic ways. There will be winners and losers, and businesses who can rapidly deploy understanding to their extended value chain — both inside and outside their “four walls” — will win.

Click here to download Lines of Communication, a visual map of the complex information flows within a typical large enterprise, courtesy of your friends at XPLANE.

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27 November 2005

What is information design?

There are as many definitions of information design as there are information designers. Some think it's the presentation of complex or potentially confusing information. Others see it as a method to visualize quantitative data. In the end it comes down to how you define information and what you mean by design.

Here are my definitions:

Information: Anything that people need to be aware of in order to make better decisions. For example, the weather report, a new workplace policy, when your taxes are due, etc.

Design: The discipline of developing structures which enhance people's lives. For example, a well-designed house, website or newsletter improves your quality of life more than one that is poorly-designed.

So if you can agree with those definitions, a good definition for information design might be:

Information design: The discipline of developing structures which allow people to find information that's relevant to them, and use it to make decisions which enhance their lives.

This sounds simple when you say it that way, but it has broad implications to a field that most people think of as "the chart people." It's a broad role that crosses organizational silos and goes straight to the heart of what is essential. It includes things like interface design, meeting design, and standards for organization-wide communication.

There is a role in many organizations that is well-suited to owning the information design agenda: and that's the CIO or Chief Information Officer. Developing and sustaining the structure that supports good information flows requires attention to technology, culture, management, and even the simple daily habits and behaviors that rule our organizational lives, such as how we use email and how we run meetings.

Message to the CIO: Step up to the plate!

In a recent web post, Mel Chua made some great points on the subject:

Data continues to burgeon, and we're totally unprepared as a society to handle it. We need a thinking shift. I'm not sure I would call it knowledge management, if by knowledge management we mean "Look, lots of data - store it." We need design (product, software, analysis techniques, whatever) that's geared towards

(1) communication and

(2) organization/productivity.

How do we make use of massive streams of data while still getting things done? We can't shut the doors and say"we can't deal with this much input, so we'll ignore its existence." We can't go "All right, let 'er in!" and then drown in overload. There is too much to do; there is too little time and too few people.

Forget motivational speakers and their exhortations to "take charge of your life" and "get organized." We know all that stuff. We roll our eyes at it. Our work habits are still a mess. It's like the couch potato that knows he should hop off his bum, stop eating TV dinners, and exercise. And yet he doesn't. How can he create a plan so he will? This is an information design problem.

Or you're presenting your new project at a conference ... How do you manage your slides, your speech, your lighting, your talk - how do you get your audience engaged and engrossed in your concept? Numbing their brains with powerpoint bullets is not the right solution, but what is? This is an information design problem.

You want to explain a process ... You want it on a poster you can tack to the wall, but there's so much data to abstract. You don't want a gigantic text dump, but at the same time, a big unlabeled triangle doesn't really tell you much... how do you make content concise yet intuitive, simple yet full of meaning? This is an information design problem.

You're working with a software team. Bug reports and revisions are flying through the air. How do you hold it all together? How do you share information, delegate tasks, ask questions, talk to one another, keep the wheels turning smoothly - what makes a good team good, and what can bad teams do to get better (or is all hope lost for certain group dynamics?) Where do you store what you know? This isn't just a matter of what variable name in what database on what server; this is also things like "Betty's our resident skateboarding expert, but Dan is really good at giving speeches" that nobody ever writes down ... How do you formally describe this so you can make the process better? This is an information design problem.

[Read more from Mel in Information Design: A new discipline?]

I don't agree with Mel that information design is a new discipline, but it's clearly an evolving discipline. "CIO" is a newly defined role, and like "Information Designer," it means different things to different people. There are many definitions, and in some ways they are all correct. But I agree with Mel that most definitions seem too narrow to achieve their stated aim.

The roles came into being to meet a real need. People are overwhelmed with information -- so much so that they increasingly tend to shut down, to filter out key information from the world around them. This is a trend that's dangerous, both for people and the companies where they work.

If we are going to help people cope with the arrival of the information society, where information can be delivered "any time, any place, anywhere," then information design needs to stake a larger claim in the corporate world. Information design must rise to the challenge, to rescue us from the increasingly tangled complexity we are collaboratively creating.

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26 November 2005

The beauty of simplicity

"It is innovation's biggest paradox: We demand more and more from the stuff in our lives--more features, more function, more power--and yet we also increasingly demand that it be easy to use. And, in an Escher-like twist, the technology that's simplest to use is also, often, the most difficult to create. "

Read more in The Beauty of Simplicity

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Is better what you think it is?

If you think it's better, then it is.

That sounds pretty obvious, doesn't it? But wait a second; that's so subjective. Isn't "better" something you can measure? Can't you test for quality, survey people about their preferences, measure against benchmarks?

Sure you can. By all means, test quality, measure it as best you can. But don't labor under the illusion that being the best will lead you to victory.

But think about it this way:

Pepsi won the taste test, Coke won the war
Apple had the best operating system, Microsoft won the war
And take a guess... what's the best search engine?

Are you sure?

Do you know what the survey said?

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Even if you're not a professional copy editor, you may be asked to check someone else's writing or read it and comment. If you're going to mark up someone else's copy, it's a good idea to know how the professionals do it: over the years they have developed excellent standards.

Here's a summary.

More at Chicago Manual of Style: Chicago Manual of Style - Tools - Proofreading

[Update: Here are some lesser-known proofreader marks from Geist, courtesy of Neil at beatnikpad (I have a feeling these might more fully express the emotions of copy editors I have known in my journalism career). Thanks Neil!]

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How to be happier

Lifehack offers 9 life tips for happiness:

1. Understand what it is that will make you happy.

2. Make a plan for attaining goals that you believe will make you happy.

3. Surround yourself with happy people.

4. When something goes wrong try to figure out a solution instead of wallowing in self pity.

5. Spend a few minutes each day thinking about the things that make you happy.

6. Take some time each day to do something nice for yourself.

7. Find the humor in situations that would otherwise make you unhappy.

8. Maintain your health by eating right and exercising.

9. Believe that you deserve happiness.

Read more in lifehack.org: 9 Tips in Life that Lead to Happiness

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Schedule meetings easily online


"Arrange a meeting or event. Work out which day is good for everyone & keep track of who is coming. Meet With Approval' could not be simpler. Fill out the form which creates a meeting page. Your friends or colleagues are notified of the event. They visit the meeting page and help decide a good date. When you are all happy, 'Meet With Approval' confirms the arrangement and you all meet up.

Best of all it's FREE!"

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25 November 2005

What makes a great presentation?

Here's a great thread on how to improve your presentations, from 43folders.

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Group brainstorming with index cards

Douglas Johnston, creator of the DIY planner has a great method for group brainstorming with index cards. Douglas says he's used the process several times to good effect.

It's designed to ensure that a broad range of ideas is collected in the shortest possible time.

Here's how it works:

1. Set your group or team around a table. Give each one a stack of index cards. The problem or issue at hand is explained by the facilitator. If people want to discuss their ideas, stop them. (This may not be easy.) The important thing is not to "taint" their creativity with only one or two threads that might stifle new ideas.

2. In relative silence, each person takes a card and writes down one idea. He or she then passes the card to the person on the right.

3. That person reads the card and uses it to generate a new idea. He or she then turns the first card upside down in a stack, and passes the new card to the right.

4. The process of writing new ideas and passing to the person on the right continues for a set amount of time, perhaps ten minutes.

5. At the end, the facilitator gathers the cards. Each idea is read alound, and the cards are then arranged and grouped on a whiteboard or wall, with duplicates discarded. This is used to stimulate discussion or more ideas, preferably on another whiteboard or some mind-mapping software on a projector.

Thanks Douglas!

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The Ultimate Guide to Google Services

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The world's largest online brain

My friend Jerry Michalski of Sociate has the world's largest personal online brain. It's a fascinating romp through theories of everything, isms, management theory, conversations about change, and much more. You could easily get lost in Jerry's brain.

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Paper magic

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Warning Label Generator

Make your own at Warning Label Generator

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24 November 2005

The corporate hip-hop presentation style

Dick Hardt of Sxip completely captivates his audience with great visuals, great storytelling, and great timing. His presentation has a staccato, rhythmic quality, like a kind of corporate hip-hop.

And he pulls it off by focusing your attention on the screen; he barely moves a muscle and doesn't budge from behind the podium. One benefit of this presentation style is that it transfers seamlessly to the web.

Clearly he practiced his talk; it went like a well-oiled machine. If you want to try this style you'll need to practice several times to get it down.

Erick Gockel points out that the style is derived from Lawrence Lessig's approach to presentations, sometimes called the Lessig method. I agree with Eric, but I also think that Dick is building on that approach and taking it new places.

Take a look.

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Edelman on where PR needs to go to survive

PR mogul Richard Edelman:

"The most striking development for our industry must be the fundamental shifts occurring in media. Here are a few statistics:

Every dollar coming out of print advertising revenue for newspapers is replaced by only 33 cents online.

The largest 50 Web companies are attracting 96% of the ad spending online ... with the majority going to AOL, Google, MSN and Yahoo. The hottest genre of Web advertising is 15 second commercials that run before online videos on sites such as WebMD.

An estimated 9.5 million homes in the US now have TiVo or another digital video recorder. According to a study by CBS, 64% of DVR users skip all ads and an additional 26% skip through most ads. The number of homes with DVRs is expected to triple in the next five years.

An estimated 24 million homes in the US now have access to video on demand.

Publishing companies are moving away from free content towards a subscription model on the Internet. The New York Times has put its very popular columnists (Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd) into a paid format called TimesSelect costing $49.95 a year. There has been excellent response to this service, with 135,000 new subscribers in only two months.

Circulation for large American newspapers is down 2.5% in the third quarter versus a year ago, continuing a decade long slide. Erosion is particularly evident among younger consumers. As a result, there have been reductions in head count in the newsroom. The Philadelphia Inquirer just cut 5% of its reporters. According to today's New York Times (an article by David Carr), The Los Angeles Times announced cuts of 85 newsroom employees, while The Chicago Tribune side it was cutting 100 jobs across all departments.


Our traditional channels are under siege, yet there are more media options, particularly if one includes blogs. Here are a few suggestions for the next year:

1) Retrain our work force. PR should move away from 'pitching the story' mentality. We can be part of conversations on line. We have to be smart about our subject and careful with our facts because these discussions are always on the record.

2) Recognize the influence and credibility of blogs. David Kiley of Business Week wrote about Paramount Studios' success with a niche film, Hustle & Flow, which was promoted through music blogs and fan sites. Thirty five percent of moviegoers said they were motivated to see the film through discussions on line.

3) Experiment. We should be working with video clips attached to press materials to make it easier for bloggers in consumer technology to create v-blogs. We should seek out innovative sponsorships with traditional media, including cross-platform content creation such as a discussion of real beauty, brought to you by Unilever's Dove. "

Read more in Richard Edelman - 6 A.M.

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What kind of blog do you have?

Thomas Crampton writes on Joi Ito's Web:

"In studying blogs I have come to notice there are relatively few styles of postings. In descending order of difficulty, they are:

Conversational: Asks for a response, implicitly or explicity. Often gets no responses but occasionally it hits a home run with a great discussion.

Informational: A 'neat-o' style of posting that tells information but does not really encourage discussion. These tend to get links without comment. BoingBoing, Engadget, etc are very successful blogs of this sort.

Polemical: A posting that takes a strong opinion. These tend to get both responses and links. The responses, however, tend to be opinions. Can be dull unless you use it like a drunk leaning on a lamppost: More for support than shedding light."

I think Communication Nation is primarily conversational, with informational posts filling in the spaces between the conversations. What do you think?

And how would you characterize your blog?

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Attention = time

From The Social Customer Manifesto:

"Attention is another way of saying 'time.

Attention is time, as in 'where I choose to spend my time.' This is why this concept (whether we call it 'attention' or 'time' or what have you) is fundamental. It's also why it applies, fundamentally, to marketing.

If this is true, how do you earn the time of your prospective customer? It may mean that "marketing" now needs to do things that:

Provide real value (in the form of information or insight)

Provide content that is creative and/or entertaining

Provide a venue and the opportunity for prospective customers to connect with others who have similar views or needs"

Read on.

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A simple question

"A question to companies considering a ban on their employees blogging. Why would you expect us to trust your company, if you're unable to trust the employees that compose your own company?"

From Tragic's Rants & Raves

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Escape from voice mail hell

Are you tired of being shunted, shuffled and shoved through corporate voice mail systems? There is a better way. Check out the voice mail cheat sheet for the secret codes that will help you quickly find a live person.

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23 November 2005

The number one rule of writing

"The number one rule of writing: if the person reading your prose understood what you were trying to convey, then your text met its primary goal."

Read more in semicolon: YOU CAN'T USE A SEMICOLON THERE!

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Common errors in English

Do you know the difference between abstruse and obtuse? Affect and effect? Is "alright" all right? When should you use "each" instead of "both?"

Find answers to these questions and many more: Common Errors in English.

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22 November 2005

21 November 2005

What's your preferred communication mode?

"When you are trying to communicate with someone, getting their attention is critically important. So communicating with people when they are the most likely to respond is important. Over time, I started to notice that there is a pattern to this - people respond better when you use their preferred communication mode. "

Sast Wingees names four types of people:
- email types
- phone types
- letter types
- in-person meeting types

Read more.

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20 November 2005

Online sticky-notes

Here's an interesting web-based program called Webnotes. It allows you to create notes in a browser window, arrange and re-arrange them like you would with sticky-notes.

I created a workspace for us to play around in.

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To smiley or not to smiley?

I realized as I postes my last message that I used a smiley. I'm curious how you will all answer this question: To smiley or not to smiley?

If yes, when is it appropriate and when is it inappropriate? I'd very much appreciate your thoughts.


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A blogger moment

I am sitting at a conference and Ellen Wagner is talking about how people blog about her while she's talking; and I am watching Jay Cross blogging her while she's talking. So I thought I would blog this to give it one more degree of recursiveness :)

[Update: Photo by Jerry Michalski, who was sitting next to me and compounded the trend when he posted Abu Dhabi (re)recursive blog moment]

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19 November 2005

Why techies are leading the back-to-paper movement

Here's a guest post from Douglas Johnston of DIY Planner fame:

Vive la révolution!
by Douglas Johnston

I spent last year working a full-time contract as an I.T. trainer and facilitator for non-profit groups. My only colleague in that branch of the organisation was the regional coordinator, Bettina. Now, she and I got along fabulously, but there was one fundamental difference between us: she had used the same type of paper planners since she was a teenager, and I -- the high-tech wunderkind -- had an elaborate productivity system set up to span three operating systems, a Palm, several online services, and pretty much every possible eventuality of the job. She would march around toting a pen and planner, and I would alternate between the handheld and the keyboard. Who do you think was consistently more efficient?

She kicked my sweet little fanny, and good.

The problem with technology
While I would carefully set up my list of 50-odd next actions, prioritising them, categorising them, setting alarms, and syncing between all the technology tools I had at my fingertips, Bettina would just glance at her book and get things done. This is not to say I was a slacker -- on the contrary, I did manage to plough through an extraordinary amount of work and training-- but a certain needless percentage of my time was spent tweaking my productivity system and trying to make it all work smoothly as a whole, mostly after-hours.

And then there were the crashes....

The torch is lit
Others have caught on, too. The sense of irony in such things is igniting a flame or two, raising a certain noise in the night, causing cries to ring out amidst the broken delusions and utopian dreams: were we wrong to invest all our trust and labours in technology?

Dave has mentioned the back-to-paper revolution here, and he's right. Strangely enough, it's mainly a revolt of tech lovers against their favourite toys, junkies eschewing their drug of choice. It's painful, it's heart-wrenching, it flies in the face of our own self-identities, and it makes all our high-tech podium-thumping and evangelising suddenly look hollow.

Trading away the handhelds, tablet PCs and online productivity tools for pens, planners, cards and Moleskines is a leap of faith, like toppling a regime in the hope that the next one will somehow be more benevolent, more attuned to your needs, and offer greater opportunities. It may not, and you may find yourself before the firing line, remembering with fondness the evils of yesterday.

I'm overstating the case, of course, and the metaphor too. But to a techie, the sudden wild thrust into the world of analog is a revolution, both exhilirating and frightening. It's the thrill of learning new skills and gear and approaches, but it's also the abandonment of many addictive tools you know so well. But why bother?

A change in focus
Not only does using paper planners, storyboards, index cards, whiteboards and flip charts allow us to see and experience things from entirely new vantage points, they force us to re-examine the execution and importance of the task at hand. It's the break from the worn-out tech-centred paradigm, with no restrictions to hinder you, not even battery life.

While we're on the topic of focus, paper does help slow down the world, if only for a mere moment, and collect your thoughts. Free from the white noise of websites, the endless pinging of the email inbox, the 120 menu items per mouse click, and the average of one thousand significant chunks of information per hour, we can devote the entirety of one instance to one topic. Clarity of thought, anyone?

Back to basics
The biggest boon for the low-tech migrator is the stripping down of one's needs to the barest fundamentals. Suddenly naked in front of the mirror, we see all our marks, foibles and strengths. We see the things we actually need to get done, and perhaps how best to do them.

We see the downfalls of the past, and the possibilities of the future. We can suck in our stomach, puff out our chest, and get to work. We see our calendar, in black in white, before us, as well as some simple checklists, some basic reference material, some blank paper to brainstorm, and perhaps a chart or two. Why exactly does one need a 17-step process to create and then tick off "read office memo"?

The revolution is not for everyone, of course. Some people, attaining a Zen-like fluidity and uncluttered approach to their technological tools, are perfectly efficient to the point of no longer needing paper. But --if you love your technology-- it might be difficult to beat the addiction, to stop the tinkering, to put away the neat little AJAX web applications, to break away from the scribbling (and Mah Jongg) in your handheld. Your evolved digit musculature might cramp at holding a primitive pencil, or you may balk at the waste of trees (neglible, to be fair, compared to the environmental damage caused by outmoded computer equipment). Or you may even be forced to use a company extranet which allocates and subdivides your time into scheduled nuggets of productivity, no exceptions please!

Seeking a balance
Don't assume that the revolution advocates leaving it all behind for analog. It's far easier to bring an iPod aboard a bus, for example, than your French horn, and chances are that you'd disturb far less people with a stirring medley of your favourite Motley Crue songs. While I do carry around a Day Runner planner or a Hipster PDA, I still use a Palm for MP3s, ebooks and news, and I do spend nearly a hundred hours a week in front of a computer -- such a thing is unavoidable in my work. However, it's all about striking a balance, and avoiding the lure of using technology purely for its own sake, especially when your productivity is on the line and suffering. Ask yourself, do you want to spend all your valuable time just figuring out how to use your valuable time?

What are you waiting for?
If this sounds like you, do yourself a favour. Throw off your shackles, take up the torch, grab yourself a nice little organiser (you can make your own customised D*I*Y Planner, if you wish) and a Pilot G2 pen, and try an analog productivity system for a full week. Use it to manage your tasks, keep track of your appointments, take notes during meetings, brainstorm, and even doodle aimlessly in the pursuit of inspiration. You might even find yourself rousing your neighbours and calling for a change....

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18 November 2005

Good morning from Abu Dhabi

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Hacking the Human OS > How we learn

If you want to hack the Human OS, one of the most important things to understand is how human beings learn: There are some basic biological constraints and if you don't understand what they are, you're likely to waste a lot of energy communicating things that either won't be understood or won't be remembered.

According to Richard E. Mayer, before any message or new idea will be fully understood, a person must go through three learning phases: I like to call them select, construct, and connect.

Select: We learn by choice. Attention and interest are critical if you want your message to get through. People begin to learn when they select -- out of the many thousands of sounds and images that surround them -- the things they choose to pay attention to. So first of all, your message must be timely, relevant or interesting enough to be selected.

Construct: Once you have a person's attention, they must take the information you give them and construct a mental model of what it means. Especially if you are communicating something new, this can be a difficult hurdle to overcome. You'll be most effective if you build this model for them or help them build it. One of the easiest ways to do this is to take a model people already know and modify it.

For example, when we helped the Auto-ID Center explain their new radio-frequency identification technology (RFID), it became much easier when we explained it as "the next generation of the bar code." "Bar code" is a mental model that people already know; that is, they understand what it is, how it functions and how it's relevant to them.

Even though RFID was far more powerful and in fact quite different than the bar code, explaining it in this way gave people a starting point that they could build their model on top of.

Connect: Finally, people must be able to link the new mental model with the things they already know. Integrating new ideas with their existing knowledge base is the only way that any new message will become a part of their long-term memory.

As you can imagine, it takes a period of sustained effort and attention for a person to select, construct and connect any new idea to the degree it becomes true knowledge -- part of their long-term memory that forms the basis by which they make decisions and take action.

This is one of the reasons it is so difficult to do anything new.

Next time you want your ideas to take root; when you want people to adopt them and make them their own, remember to help them learn by helping them select, construct and connect.

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17 November 2005

Noah Brier on brainstorming

I just arrived in Abu Dhabi for a conference on e-learning, so I don't have anything to post for you today. In the meantime check out this great guest post from Noah Brier, Bringing Brainstorm to the Boardroom:

Walk in stupid
This is one of the five rules of Wieden + Kennedy, by coming to work without preconceived notions you allow new ideas to flourish. Throughout history some of the most unexpected people have solved some of the most vexing problems. That's because so often specialists who all know the same things come to same conclusion. When you bring in someone new who's willing to try new things, who doesn't know this or that method won't work, sometimes they can imagine a completely different kind of answer.

No negativity
This is the number one rule of improvisation. Don't shoot down anyone's idea, instead add to it, let it play itself out and then decide whether it's good or not. What you come up with in a brainstorm is a seed of an idea that needs to be cultivated to grow. You'll never know what that tree looks like if you don't plant the seed.

Cultivate diversity
Mutts are generally healthier than pure-bread dogs because they have a much wider range of genes. Ideas work the same way. The more different the people are who are working on an idea, the more diverse their experiences, the strong the idea can be. When everyone brings something different to the table, you can be sure an idea won't be one-dimensional. Someone will be willing to ask the "stupid" question, someone else willing to make the "stupid" suggestion because they don't know any better. (And because there are no stupid questions or ideas in brainstorms!) But it's those kinds of questions, which may seem obvious to some, that can lead to innovative ideas.

Remember: big ideas grow, they don't hatch
I've written about this in the past, but it's important not to forget that big ideas must evolve into being. They don't just happen all of a sudden. Too many people think that they just hatch out of thin air, already fully developed ideas, instead of trying to come up with small ideas and working them, massaging them and cultivating them into big ones. By creating a culture where this is understood, people will be more willing to just throw ideas out there without fear.

Stay small
Keep a brainstorm small (I've found around eight people or less is best), creates an atmosphere where everyone has a chance to make their voice heard and a group who can move quickly from idea to idea. This, however, is the most difficult rule to translate to a large company. After all, by definition, a big company is no longer small. But that doesn't mean they can't act that way. What makes small companies so successful is their ability to move quickly and encourage ideation to flow from the bottom up, better utilizing a staff of smart and talented people. These ideas can be translated, but it's probably one of the most difficult thing a big company will face. Many look to Google, who allow their employees to spend 20 percent of their time working on their own projects. What this does is create a corporate culture where ideas flow from the bottom-up, just as they do in a small company, as opposed to the top-down. When employees feel involved in the process it's good for everyone: ideas tend to be better than those that come out of the boardroom, employees are happy with their contributions and turnover rates are lower.

Thanks Noah!

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16 November 2005

Google cheat sheet

Here's a great tool to help you get better results out of Google: Google Help : Cheat Sheet

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15 November 2005

Seven steps to better presentations

Adaptive Path's Jeffrey Veen offers Seven Steps to Better Presentations:

1. Tell stories. Seriously. People could care less about the five ways some XML vocabulary will enable enterprise whatever. Rather, put a screenshot of your project up, tell people what you learned while doing it, then give them a slide that reiterates those ideas in easy to digest bullets. That'sdo not go from bullet-point slide to bullet-point slide trying to tell people what to think.

2. Show pictures. Got a good metaphor? Use it. "The Web is like a school of fish." But go to images.google.com and type in "sardines" or "school of fish" or whatever. Make it a slide. Then say the Web is like that. Much more powerful and memorable.

3. Don't apologize. Ever. If something is out of order, or if something occurs to you as a mistake during the presentation, keep it to yourself. They'll never know. Besides, nobody cares about the presentation itself. This is really hard, because you know the whole backstory, and you'll be tempted to explain why something isn't quite perfect. Skip it. Also, you don't need to apologize about the color on the projector, or the fact that your mic just popped off your lapel, or that a staff person spilled a pitcher of water. Commiserating is fine, however. "If it gets another 5 degrees colder in here, I'll be able to see my breath!"

4. Start strong. I can't believe how many presenters forget this. Do not get up there and say, "Um, well, I guess we should probably get started." Instead, say, "Hi, I'm Jeff. It's really great to be here, and thank you so much for coming to my session. Today, we're going to talk about...." Make sure those are the absolute first words you say out loud. No need for a joke or an opening or any of that. Just start strong and confident.

5. End strong too. "...so that's why I like social software. I appreciate your attention today. Thank you." Then stand there and wait. Everyone will clap, because you just told them you were done. When they've finished, ask them if they have any questions. If nobody asks anything, break the uncomfortable silence with "Well, I guess I told you everything you need to know then. [heh heh] I'll be around after if you think of anything. Thanks again!" and start packing up your stuff.

6. Stand. Away from the podium. Out from behind the presenter table. Keep your hands out of your pockets. Take off your conference badge (the lights will catch it and be distracting). I pace a little bit around the stage, timed with my points, saying one thing from over here, and another from over there. But don't move too much.

7. Pause. When you say something important, leave a gap after it. Let it hang there for a few seconds. Try it when talking to your friends. "You know what I think? (pause...two...three...four...) I think Bush is bankrupting this country for the next twenty years. (pause...two...three...four...) Here's why..."

Thanks Jeff!

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14 November 2005

How to succeed in business

Here's a compilation of "how-to" posts from this blog that can help you be more effective in business situations:

How to assert yourself
How to deal with an angry person
How to develop a questionnaire
How to differentiate, just like everyone else
How to handle an emotional conversation
How to implement a strategy
How to know when someone is lying to you
How to listen
How to make better presentations with storyboards and story templates
How to measure your communication effectiveness
How to present like Steve Jobs
How to screw up a reorganization initiative
How to win a deal after it's already been lost
How to write better emails
How to write a better report or white paper
How to write a memo to your boss
How to write more clearly, think more clearly, and learn complex material more easily

and... drum roll please...

How NOT to make a chart

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Analyze your text

In a recent post called How easy is your writing to understand? I showed you how to use Microsoft Word to check the readability of your text.

Here's a tool you can use to quickly check the readability of any website or blog. You can also use it to do a deeper analysis of any text. Just enter the web address or paste in the text, and in addition to a readability index, you will get all kinds of interesting information, like

Number of different words used in the text
Average number of syllables per word
Sentence count
Average sentence length
10 most frequently used words
Most frequently used two-word expressions

Check it out: Textalyzer.

Thanks Hotlinks!

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13 November 2005

Visual thinking practice: Turning words into pictures

Here's a Pictionary-like exercise that's fun, easy and will help you hone your visual thinking skills.

You'll need a friend and a sketchbook, and you can do it nearly anywhere -- in an airport, a bar or over lunch. Here's how it works:

1. Each person makes a list of words and phrases. If you want you can pick a theme, like famous people, transporation, or dot-com companies.

2. Next, pick a word from your list and try to draw it. No letters or words allowed. It's your friend's job to guess the word. If your friend guesses the word you each get a point. If you give up, you lose a point.

3. Take turns and see how high a score you can get in an hour.

4. Next time you play, see if you can beat your record.

You can also play with three people: Every time someone correctly guesses what you're drawing, both you and they get a point.

Don't have any friends? No problem. You can also play this game online with anonymous strangers.

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12 November 2005

Visual thinking workshops

Starting this blog has sparked some interesting ideas and conversations about communication, learning and visual thinking.

I'm thinking about designing some XPLANE workshops that will focus on communication, learning and visual thinking. Do any of these sound interesting?

Hacking the Human OS: How to be more effective in life by understanding how people communicate, think and learn.

Visual thinking practice: Learn some fun and easy exercises that you can do to improve your visual communication skills. Bring paper or a sketchbook!

The seven C's of communication design: Seven principles that you can use to create more powerful, effective presentations.

The one-page proposal: How to boil your proposal down to a single-page storyboard

The power of paper: How to use flip charts, index cards and sticky-notes to become a better communicator.

If you have other ideas for workshops you'd like to see, let me know here.

I am conducting a quick survey -- six multiple-choice questions -- to get a better idea of what you want to see. Please take a minute to give me your thoughts.

Pictured: yes, that's a picture of visionary thinkers Biz Stone, Merlin Mann and Evan Williams in deep creative conversation in the Odeo conference room.

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Visual thinking practice: Your life as a book

People like stories about things they find interesting; things they are passionate about; and things they enjoy. If your life were a book, would you read it?

A treatment is the document used to sell an idea to film, tv and broadway producers. It's short -- anywhere from one to twenty pages long. It's also one of the best ways to organize a bunch of ideas into a story form.

If your life were a book, would you read it?

If your answer is no:
1. Write a treatment that describes your other life -- the book you would want to read.
2. Visualize it: storyboard the main scenes with stick-figure drawings.
3. Now sit back and look at the story you've outlined and ask yourself: is this the life you want or is it time to make a chnge?

If your answer is yes:
1. Maybe you should consider sharing your story with the rest of us. You can start by writing a short treatment with storyboards to organize your thoughts.
2. Take a quick skim through the writer's toolbox to get aquainted with some good writing techniques.
3. Now get started. If you want to work at it you can have your novel ready in 100 days.

Make no mistake: the story is the thing. And it starts with a blank sheet of paper. Will you start today?

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A quick-and-dirty reading strategy when time is short

A Quick and Dirty Reading Strategy When Time is Short: How To Find the Essential 20% (From Open Loops).

"To get the most out of a book, report, review, etc., in the least amount of time, try this strategy:

1. Read the title of the material.
2. Read the introduction.
3. Read the Table of Contents.
4. Flip through the material, scanning the chapter titles and sub-headings. Note the words that stand out as bold, different colors, underlined, or italicized.
5. Look at the illustrations and captions. Look at the charts and diagrams. Read the pull-quotes and sidebars.
6. Scan through the index looking for your particular business buzz words.
7. Now read the first chapter (or in a shorter work, the first paragraph).
8. Flip through the book and read the first sentence of each paragraph. The 80/20 rule says that only 20% of each paragraph is essential. Each paragraph should contain a topic sentence (the 20%). The rest of the paragraph is simply support material to defend the topic sentence, examples, illustrations, etc. (the 80%). The topic sentence is often the first sentence of the paragraph -- but not always.
9. Read the last chapter (or paragraph in a shorter work). If there is an executive summary, read it.
10. Read any other information on the cover or dust jacket."

If you're pressed for time and have a book you want to read, why not give it a shot?

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11 November 2005

Word abuse

The English language is a powerful and flexible communication tool. It's highly modular and can be bent, twisted and tweaked in numerous ways to convey complex meaning with great precision.

But as we all know, just because you are flexible doesn't mean you will be appreciated for it. In fact, the English language is so flexible that it is rarely respected and often abused. People will invent a new word on a whim, even when a perfectly good word with the same meaning already exists. Words can be arbitrarily truncated or extended and easily enter into common usage.

It's not that your writing needs to be formal; I prefer a conversational tone in writing because it's easier to understand. And I don't mind sentences that start with and, or sentences that end in prepositions, as much as some of the grammar nazis do.

But certain things grate on me like fingernails on a blackboard.

For example, here are some non-words that I hear all the time:
incent: A truncated form of incentive. Use encourage or you will incent a shudder up my spine.
remediate: This may be a word but it's lengthy and there are so many better words that are shorter and clearer: do you need it? You can remedy, repair or perhaps rectify this problem by using "fix" or "solve."
strategize: If you strategize a little more succinctly you might plan, or maybe even think!
messaging: It's your message or your messages -- or it's a mess.
marketspace: Use marketspace if you want to sound like a flake. Otherwise use market.

Are you a word-beater? This phenomenon is so profuse that any list of commonly abused words would be out of date as soon as it was written, and I am sorry to say that it is as common among professional communicators as it is in the world at large.

Especially if you are a professional communicator, educate yourself and be vigilant. And try not to use a long and confusing word when a short one will do.

What words do you hate to see abused? Post your comments.

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The mentat Wiki

This looks like a great resource for you Human OS hackers out there: The Mentat Wiki. Courtesy of 43 Folders.

Plus I love the name.

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10 November 2005

How to write a novel in 100 days or less

An inspiring essay, the gist of which is this:

If you want to write a novel you need to stop talking about it and start doing it.

But John Coyne says it in a much nicer way -- plus, he walks you through 100 days of novel-writing, one day at a time. You better believe it works: he's done it himself.

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Hacking the Human OS > metaphor

Hacking the Human OS is a series of posts that investigates the mechanics of the human mind. Understanding your Operating System (OS) will help you think better, and help you get better, more consistent results from your interactions with other people.

As a tool for hackers, the metaphor offers both power and danger.

Power: It captivates, engages, and motivates people. Because it tends to trigger an emotional response it can galvanize people into action.

Danger: It's highly subjective and invites cynicism (as in "flavor of the month" and "Who Moved my Cheese?"). It's easy to poke holes in (as in, "That's very interesting Dave, but we're a technology company, not a spaceship").

So what is a metaphor exactly? It's a simple comparison between two seemingly unrelated objects. Hacking the Human OS uses the metaphor of a computer's operating system to represent the mechanisms of human mind.

Metaphors and analogies are like hyperlinks: they are a connection that molds a single thought out of two disparate ideas. You use them all the time without realizing it: for example, for most people up equals good and down equals bad. That's a metaphor.

Metaphors are frequently helpful when you want to explain something, especially when you want to clearly explain not just the facts but what they mean and why they are emotionally relevant. Frequently in business you will see things defined as a battle, or a race, or looming storms, even a tornado.

They are not merely tricks of language; according to two of the most recognized experts on the subject, they are concepts that govern our thought.

"The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor."

Here's more:

"To give some idea of what it could mean for a concept to be metaphorical and for such a concept to structure an everyday activity, let us start with the concept ARGUMENT and the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language by a wide variety of expressions:

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments."

Here are some other metaphor examples from the same book:

Time is money
Communication is a conduit
Happy is up, sad is down
Conscious is up, unconscious is down

For many people, a metaphor can be a ruling principle or deeply embedded worldview. For example, what is life? People have different metaphors; knowing a person's ruling metaphor can help you predict how they will act in certain situations:

Life is a game
Life is a battle
Life is a conversation
Life is an adventure

Serious conflict can arise when people's metaphors are not aligned. Part of the problem is that people don't know why they disagree so strongly. This is because even though metaphors have major influence on our thinking patterns and actions, for the most part they remain under the surface, unrecognized. The story of the blind men and the elephant is a perfect example of dueling metaphors.

In interface design we use a combination of office and building metaphors, which includes things like folders, pages, windows and home. Usually new ideas are introduced using metaphors. The metaphors improve adoption and limit thinking simultaneously, for example:

Metaphor: A photograph is like a painting.

Limitation: For years, photographs were all the same; static portraits and landscapes that used almost all the same conventions.

Here's another example: Are computer programmers engineers, architects or artists? Each metaphor has a different connotation and drives a different pattern of thinking. No matter which metaphor you choose, it will have a tendency to constrain your full potential.

This is especially helpful when you run into conflict, difficult conversations, or have trouble getting a point across.

As a hacker, you can use metaphor to reframe an issue so that people see it in a different light. To change their understanding of an issue, you can "reboot" their OS and build the new understanding on a new metaphor.

Think of a metaphor as X=Y, where X is the thing being represented and Y is the metaphor.

To reboot, ask yourself "what are the characteristics of X? What are its attributes?" Then ask "What else has similar characteristics or attributes?"

Next, see if you can replace Y by asking "What is an equal or better metaphor to describe the same thing?"

When people have a deeply embedded metaphor that governs their thinking and can't be changed, work with it. Put yourself mentally within their metaphor: Who are the players? What are the roles? Then put yourself in the metaphor and speak from the perspective that will help you make your point. For example, if the metaphor is football (American) you might find it advantageous to take on the role of coach, quarterback or fan to get your point across.

You can read more about this kind of reboot in Metaphor in Mediation, by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.

You might also try keeping track of peoples' overriding metaphors.

Take note when people have a "life-ruling" metaphor, and try to use the same metaphor when making your points. In your address book, jot down the metaphors you've noticed people use. When speaking to them, "follow the script" of their active metaphor.

Personally I have several life metaphors:

Life is a game
Life is a puzzle
Life is a quest

What are your overriding life metaphors? Please share your thoughts.

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09 November 2005

The human OS: metaphor

This post has been modified and can be found here.

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How to write more clearly, think more clearly, and learn complex material more easily

Highly recommended.

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Slow Leadership

Slow Leadership is a blog focused on helping leaders slow down and reflect so they can act intelligently.

Slowing down can help you focus on building the right relationships and the right momentum, so you get where you want to go, while retaining enough bandwidth to enjoy the journey.

And the journey is really the point anyway, right?

A lot of us could benefit by slowing down: I believe it was backpacker and author Harvey Manning who said "Make your world larger -- by going slower.

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08 November 2005

How to listen

Great communicators are great listeners. They pay attention and ask questions until they gain a deep and textured understanding of whatever situations they find themselves in.

An intellectual understanding is not enough: great communicators listen till they feel it. They empathize.

If you want to be a better communicator learn to listen, and more importantly, listen to learn.
As you talk to people, make it a habit to continuously check to confirm that you are understanding them correctly. The more questions you ask, the less tempted you will be to preach or prescribe solutions. How would you feel if your doctor prescribed medication before asking you about your symptoms? The more people talk to you, the more they will feel understood, and the more they will like you.

Here are the ten commandments of good listening:

1. Empty your mind. Try to begin with a blank slate. This will help you stay open to things you don't expect -- one of the most powerful things listening can do is open your mind to new ideas or reveal things that were formerly hidden.

2. Understand the context. Try to figure out what the person is trying to communicate and why. This will help you act in a manner that's appropriate to the context, and ask the right questions.
- Are they just venting or do they want to change something?
- What problem do they want to solve?
- What result do they want?
- Do they want you to do something? If so, what?

3. Don't get distracted. Your mind will have a natural tendency to wander, because we can think faster than people can talk.

4. Use follow trails. A follow trail is a simple question that you can keep asking till you get to the root of something. Just continue to ask the question till you get to the source. You'll be surprised how powerful this one is. Here are some examples of follow trail questions:
- And?/and?
- Why?/why?
- How?/how?

5. Use body language. Your physical behavior signals how well you're communicating. The most important signal is your eyes. Make steady eye contact and focus on the person's face. Nodding and leaning forward also signal attention.

6. Ask questions. Like a good detective, the art is in asking the right questions, and asking them well.

7. Take notes. It demonstrates that what the person is saying is important enough for you to write it down. Occasionally, verbally summarize your notes out loud, to show the other person you are hearing and understanding them.

8. Confirm your understanding. As you listen, think about how the person's thoughts would work in practice. play out scenarios in your mind and ask the person to confirm your understanding. For example, ask the person:
- "So if I were to apply this, I would..."
- "So what you are saying is..."

9. Let the person finish before you speak. We listen and process information faster than people can talk -- this can result in reacting or answering before someone is finished speaking -- your mind is racing ahead. Not to mention it's rude. Don't interrupt.

10. Don't judge too quickly. Suppress your own reactions -- remember to maintain that blank slate in your mind. Reserve judgment till the end of the conversation (or even later). If you keep an open mind you will reap the full benefit of the conversation and if you don't, you are limiting its potential.

Next time you communicate -- whether it's with an individual or with agroup -- diagnose before you prescribe. The results will amaze you.

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07 November 2005

The blue ball machine

Words cannot describe this.

If you're a Windows user and you want to take it with you, you can right-click on it and set it up as an active desktop.

Thanks Richard!

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Lao Tsu's Tao Te Ching online

Lao Tsu is sometimes known as the father of Taoism; it is likely that he was a contemporary of Confucius.

"Written in China centuries before Christ, the Tao Te Ching offers incredible insight into the human condition. Originally the work of Lao Tsu, this text has been translated more frequently than any other work except the Bible. "

His words have been preserved for thousands of years, and for good reason. They are light and dense at the same time, and reward carefule reading and thought.

An example from Chapter 36:

That which shrinks must first expand.

That which fails must first be strong.

That which is cast down must first be raised.

Before receiving there must be giving.

This is called perception of the nature of things.

Soft and weak overcome hard and strong.

Fish cannot leave deep waters, and a country's weapons should not be displayed.

Read more, and search the full text, at Lao Tsu's Tao Te Ching Online.

If you like this you may also like Sun Tzu.

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Hacking the Human OS: The map

Hacking the Human OS is a series of posts that investigates the mechanics of the human mind. Understanding your Operating System (OS) will help you think better, and help you get better, more consistent results from your interactions with other people.

Here's a visual map that will serve to open the floor for discussion on the Human OS. At a very high level, the map visualizes my current understanding of how the Human OS functions as a system:

The primary inputs are sensations from the outside world.

The primary outputs are the actions that you take to create results in that outside world.

The primary feedback loop occurs when the impact that you have on the outside world drives more sensory inputs, which result in your understanding of how the world works and how you can be successful in it. One of the things we'll be talking about is the difference between positive and negative feedback loops, and what you can do to encourage positive loops in yourself and others.

Between sensation and action are the guts of the system, where you translate sensations into things like memories, mental models, habits, routine behaviors and priorities.

At the moment the map may not be self-explanatory. If it doesn't make sense yet, don't worry: in the coming week's I'll be posting more on the subject.

If you can make sense of it please share your thoughts; I consider it a work in progress and want to incorporate your thoughts and ideas. With your help, I will solodify the model as we move forward. The goal is to develop a functional model that people can use to effect change.

So what do you think?

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06 November 2005

How to implement a strategy

Knowledge management expert James Robertson offers 10 principles of effective information management.

Robertson's paper is specifically about knowledge management implementations, but I think the principles apply equally well to the implementation of any strategy. Here is a summary of Robertson's 10 principles:

1. Recognise (and manage) complexity: There is usually no one single solution to any problem. Rather than trying to "boil down" to a single approach, focus on articulating a clear direction that can help people see how different components weave into a larger approach.

2. Focus on adoption: Whatever it is you're implementing, if people aren't asking for it and they don't start using it, you're probably forcing it on them (and you'll probably fail).

3. Deliver tangible and visible benefits: Determine how you will measure success, be sure it makes sense, and measure it.

4. Prioritize according to business needs: Look for quick wins. Short-term, tangible benefits help drive adoption early, when people are skeptical and you need support most.

5. Take a journey of a thousand steps: Change is a marathon, not a sprint. A series of small steps, when aligned with a common and well-articulated vision, will increase your chances for success, and help reduce your risk of failure.

6. Provide strong leadership: If you're a leader, focus your efforts on communicating the vision, and making sure people understand the importance and urgency of the initiative.

7. Mitigate risks: Identify risks up front and plan how to address them. Expect that it will cost more than you think -- it will! One way to reduce risk is to tighten up the budget.

8. Communicate extensively: Establish a clear, simple message at the beginning of the project, and create a plan to communicate extensively throughout the implementation. If people aren't hearing about it they'll assume it isn't important. [Note: This is where XPLANE can help you create a change communication plan]

9. Aim to deliver a seamless user experience: Keep it simple, be clear and consistent.

10. Choose the first project very carefully: Think of your first project -- and plan it -- as a catalyst for change. Start by giving people something that helps them do their jobs better.

Read more in 10 principles of effective information management.

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05 November 2005

Saturday night fights

It's Saturday night -- time to pick up your Saturday Night Special and shoot some cute little stick figures (but only in self-defense, okay?).

Don't forget to reload!

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Cool tool: write-on poly sheets

Cool Tool: Write-on Poly Sheets:

"Polysheet instant whiteboards are thick, static-laden sheets of plastic, like ultra-heavy garbage bags. Just unroll one, slap it on the wall, and instant whiteboard! Best of all, in the corporate world, at the end of the meeting, you can roll them up, take them back to your desk, and process them. After capturing the contents in your computer, wipe them off for next time!"

Buy some.

Thanks Kevin!

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An online crash course in typography

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What's your penguin score?

Michael Katz of Blue Penguin Development offers something he calls the Penguin Score. Although Michael is a specialist in email newsletters, it's a great way to score yourself on any communication.

Position: Did you take a position or try to please everyone?
Easy: Was it easy to understand? Did you use simple language or try to impress with jargon or tech-speak?
Narrow: Did you narrow it down to a few simple ideas?
Genuine: Is it genuine, sincere. Is it you?
Useful: Is it practical and can people apply it in their lives?
Infectious: Is it viral? Will it spark conversations?
uNexpected: Did you wake people up?

Here's how to score yourself:
For each attribute listed, assign a grade of 0,1 or 2 (2 being the best). Add up your total score and take the appropriate action:

11 - 14: Go with it!
8 - 10: Keep working.
5 - 7: Start over.
0 - 4: Have you considered a career in politics?

You can order printed Penguin scorecards for yourself or colleagues at penguinscore.com.

[Thanks to Adam Ciesielski for the penguin photo]

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04 November 2005

The search for happiness


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Are you sick of hearing about it?

It's time for a Friday rant.

I for one am sick of hearing about branding. Especially in the communications business, it seems like you can't walk around a corner without hearing somebody talking about it.

Branding, branding, branding.

Every time I hear the word I think of red-hot irons and burnt flesh. The very notion that you can slap a brand on nearly anything and that will change it for the better seems ludicrous. How's this for a notion: Make better products!

Take a minute to give me your own Friday rant before you go home for the weekend.

What are you sick of hearing about?

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A day in the life of the FAA

Check out the Flight Patterns.

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Why tagging is easier than categorization

"The rapid growth of tagging in the last year is a testament to how easy and enjoyable people find the tagging process. The question is how to explain it at the cognitive level." Curious?

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How to measure your communication effectiveness

Do you set understanding goals for your important communications? Most people don't.

If you don't set goals for your communications, you'll never know how effective you are. You won't be able to improve because you won't know how you're doing. How can you measure communication effectiveness?

At XPLANE we set "understanding goals" for any important document, presentation or interaction. There's a simple, easy way to do it, and it's one of the most powerful tools I have ever found in my quest for clarity: frame it as a question. Determine the question that your communication will answer for your audience.

There are three reasons for this:

1. To clarify why people should care.
If you don't offer anything new, why should anyone listen? Effective communication should result in someone acting or thinking in a different way than they did before.

Ask yourself: "What question do I want to answer for my audience?" Framing your goal as a question will help you define exactly what's new, and why people will care. If you can't define a question, maybe nobody's asking it -- and if nobody's asking the question, it's probably because nobody cares.

2. To be sure your content is complete.
Defining your goal as a question offers a second benefit: It's a check to ensure that your communication is on target. At any point in the design or delivery of your communication, you can ask yourself "Am I answering the question?" When it's time to edit, you can test the relative importance of any element by gauging the degree to which it contributes to answering the question.

If it's not contributing you can safely cut it completely. You'll be surprised how much information you deem extraneous or irrelevant when you start to use this approach.

3. To ensure you are understood.
You can also use questions as a metric, to test your communication's effectiveness. Ask someone to review your document, or practice your speech on them. Then ask them the question you intended to answer and see what they say. You can see how effective you have been by seeing how close they come.

This is also quite useful for management conversations. Before you have the conversation, define the question you want the other person to be able to answer. At the end of the conversation, ask the question.

You might be surprised at the answers you get. I have often been about to leave a conversation when I asked my question -- just as a check -- only to find that the other person was about to walk away with a completely different understanding than I had expected. You can save yourself a lot of wasted energy (and sometimes misery!) by double-checking that your communications are understood before moving on.

And you can't double-check unless you have a metric. Use questions.

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A new vision for electronic documents

Theodor Holm Nelson, the inventor of the terms hypertext and hypermedia, is on a mission to transform the world of electronic documents.

Here's the problem as he sees it:

"Instead of looking at deeper possibilities for electronic literature, the designers of today's electronic documents have imposed hierarchy and simulated paper. This has drastically limited us. We cannot annotate, we cannot publish side-by-side commentaries, we cannot legally quote at length, we cannot easily see the original contexts of quotes."

His term for the new world is "Transliterature," which he has copyrighted not for personal gain, but to contain what he calls "semantic creep."

Among his ideas are:

Parallel tracks that allow side-by-side comparisons. He sketches an interface where numerous comments are seen next to a document, like overlapping sticky-notes.

Color-coding to track multiple authors in collaborative documents, or where one author quotes another.

Eliminating the clipboard. The clipboard does not retain information about the author or origin of the information it contains. he advocates "pullacross editing" where you pull a text block from one document to another, retaining the link.

Deconstructing documents so that elements (Headlines, text, images, quotations) retain their connections but can also be viewed independently.

3D navigation that involves multi-diimensional documents flying and floating in 3D "gaming spaces."

Paradigm shift: Nelson proposes moving from WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) interfaces to WYSIWYL (What you see is what you like) interfaces, where users can override the author's intentions to view documents as they see fit.

Read more in Transliterature, A Humanist Design:

"A document is not necessarily a simulation of paper. In the most general sense, a document is a package of ideas created by human minds and addressed to human minds, intended for the furtherance of those ideas and those minds. Human ideas manifest as text, connections, diagrams and more: thus how to store them and present them is a crucial issue for civilization.

The furtherance of the ideas, and the furtherance of the minds that present them and take them in, are the real objectives. And so what is important in documents is the expression, reception and re-use of ideas. Connections, annotations, and most especially re-use-- the traceable flow of content among documents and their versions-- must be our central objectives, not the simulation of paper."

I am strong proponent of paper, especially for visual and creative thinking. I remain convinced that great ideas nearly always start with napkin sketches. In fact, I can't help noting that Nelson himself is a prolific napkin-sketcher and appears to use pen and paper to think about virtual spaces and convey his ideas.

But electronic documents are not paper, nor do they need to be constrained by a metaphor that forces us to treat them as such. I see some potential difficulties in the approach he advocates. For example, color-coding has a built-in limitation, based on the number of colors most people can easily distinguish.

Nelson's vision is an expansive one and I look forward to seeing where it goes.

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03 November 2005

A page of utilities that help you do stuff

I want to: a page of utilities that help you do stuff you want to

Thanks Merlin!

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Do you suffer from analysis paralysis?

You are contemplating a new undertaking.

It could be a new product you're about to launch. It could be a change initiative at your company. It might be related to implementing a new technology solution or making a big purchase.

At any rate, you're not ready to take the plunge just yet. You haven't quite completed your plan. You need more information. More specifications, more analysis, another focus group. You haven't finished your analysis of the competitive landscape.

When will you be ready to start? It's hard to say. These things take time, and you wouldn't want to make a mistake.

It's time to face it: you may be suffering from analysis paralysis -- a slow, creeping disease that's contagious and tends to spread fast in many companies. It's deceptive as well; at first it causes only stagnation, but once it spreads to the entire company, it usually results in death.

People or companies that suffer from analysis paralysis use the remote dream of some unrealistic, perfect future state to avoid taking action in the here-and-now. It's a holding action. Nothing moves or changes, and therefore no growth occurs.

There's no way around it: growth involves discomfort and pain. No pain, no growth. You won't start growing -- and learning -- until you start doing things. You don't know what you don't know, and no amount of analysis will ever tell you.

Here's a golden rule of new undertakings:

You won't know what you're doing till you already did it.

When you start doing things you'll make mistakes. Reality is messy: deal with it. The world is full of people who sit on the sidelines and analyze; they are the spectators of life, the analysts, the theoreticians and the critics.

Don't be one of them. Get out on the playing field. Jump in and play. Get dirty, make mistakes, have fun!

Stop analyzing, start doing and join the game. You don't need to start by taking major risks or huge gambles; you can always start small.

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02 November 2005

Hacking the Human OS

If you're like most people, you feel as if you are rational and logical, and most of the rest of the world is not. If you're right about this, then most of the world is illogical. If they're right, then you're illogical.

The fact is you're both wrong: neither you nor anyone else is as logical as you think you are.

You think and feel with your brain all the time, but how often do you think about your brain; its strengths and weaknesses and its limitations?

Your brain is a battlefield peppered with electrochemical explosions; a wet bundle of nerves, firing at each other within a glue-like soup. It does some things well and others poorly.

Not only do you think with your brain, you also use it to perceive: it's the primary mechanism by which you collect information about the world around you. It's a bit like the fox guarding the henhouse: the same entity that provides you with information is also telling you what it means. Any information you take in -- through your eyes, nose, ears, tongue and fingertips -- is heavily filtered before you are even consciously aware of it.

This is a necessity: if you consciously processed every piece of information you are capable of perceiving, you would be so flooded with sensation that you would be unable to function. A lack of such filters is one of the primary characteristics of autism.

Now, think of your brain as if it were a computer for a second.

Your hardware is the bundle of nerves that makes up your brain; it's simply gray matter.

Your applications are patterns of thought, which are built up over the course of years. Some of them, like basic algebra and how to read, were written by others; and some of them, like the way you kiss or buy clothes, you probably wrote yourself. Some of them run like clockwork, others are riddled with bugs; some are in beta, others are in version 9.0. If you're a life hacker [What's a hacker?] you have probably written more of your own "brain apps" than most people.

Your OS is the low-lying software that all the other apps rely on. How much do you know about it? Most people don't think about it much.

If you want to get serious about communication, it's time to learn more about the Human OS.

Understanding how your mind works will make you a more effective communicator, so you'll know the path of least resistance to getting people's attention and getting them focused on the things you think are important. If you do it well, people will even start to think that you're logical!

In the coming weeks, I'll be posting more on the subject in a series called "Hacking the Human OS." It may become a book at some point. The goal is to give people practical, proven tips from people who have learned how to turn ideas into action by engaging and motivating others.

Here's more:

Map of the Human OS
How we learn

Everyone is welcome to the conversation: please, share your thoughts.

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