30 January 2006

A simple recipe for effective communication

Alberto with one of his "recipes"

My friend Alberto Boin taught me a simple way to think about communication that is especially helpful when giving instruction or training materials. He uses the concept to design software, but it's applicable to any kind of learning design.

Whenever you want to capture a work flow or "how to do something" you just think about it as if it were a recipe. And think small -- could you fit it on an index card?

It's as easy as 1-2-3:

1. Headline
Your headline is the Result: What you want the person to learn or do. Example: "Chocolate Cake" or "How to write a memo."

2. Ingredients
What are the necessary components that you must have in order to do the thing? Example: Milk, eggs, etc., or "Working knowledge of C++."

3. Recipe
Step-by-step instructions that describe "how to make it" or "how to do it."

You will be surprised how useful this little concept is whenever you set out to communicate, especially in business environments when you want to get people to do things!

As usual, the key to success is simplicity.

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Find your own path

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27 January 2006

26 January 2006

Share your espresso experiences

I travel a lot and stay in hotels fairly often. I also like espresso in the morning. In the US this leads to disappointment more often than not.

Many hotels don't serve espresso, but what really irks me is those that say they do but really don't. Instead they serve some kind of watered coffee drink with foamed milk. It tastes worse than regular coffee to me.

If anyone knows of hotels that serve good espresso please add a comment. Help me -- and all those other espresso lovers out there -- get off to a good start more often!

Please include:
- City
- Name of hotel
- DO or DON'T?

Some of my recommendations:
- DO: Any downtown San Francisco hotel is close to many excellent espresso experiences. I particularly like Cafe Bean on the corner of Sutter and Jones for ambiance as well as espresso.
- DON'T order espresso at the Doubletree in Redmond, WA
- DO order espresso in any Microsoft cafeteria
- DON'T order espresso at the Paris hotel in Las Vegas

Depicted here is an excellent espresso prepared by the Soulard Coffee Garden in St. Louis.

Please share your espresso experiences. Our taste buds thank you!

P.S. Do you see a ghostly face in my espresso or do I have Pareidolia?

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25 January 2006

How to write a marketing story that sticks

Are you trying to get a message through, to an audience that's hard to reach?

Maybe they are distributed around the world; maybe they don't see your mission as a priority; and maybe they are just busy, but whatever the reason you are finding it hard to break through.

It could be the story that you are telling. There are three main elements to crafting a story that will get traction in difficult communication environments:

Your story must be

1. Relevant: People care about things that are relevant to them and their situation. To make a story relevant you need to get inside your audience's heads. The more you understand how they see the world and what they care about, the more relevant your story will become.

2. Unique: The benefits you describe need to be unique to you and available nowhere else. If your benefits aren't unique, you will become commoditized, and people won't why they should come to you. You might have a great story that gets great results for someone else!

3. Memorable: The story must not only hold people's attention, it's got to be easy to remember. You can't always control the timing, so you need to be sure people can recall the essentials at a later date. You also want a story that's interesting enough to pass on to others, and easy enough to tell that people tell it consistently.

A story that meets these criteria will get results for you more often than not.

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24 January 2006

Visual thinking practice: Memory

Whether or not you are an artist, you can use drawing as a method to record and recall things that you think are important. The very idea that you might draw something will cause you to notice more about it, just like the idea that you might teach something will force you to pay attention when you are taught.

Remember the adage "a picture is worth a thousand words?" A drawing -- especially when enhanced by your written notes -- can capture more information, and more meaning, than words alone.

Learning to draw from memory can help you improve your visual note-taking skills, and can also enhance your visual memory. When I was in grade school I set myself a mission to draw a side view of the bus that took me to school every day. I hadn't learned to carry a sketchbook yet, so all my drawing materials were at home.

Every day when I got off the bus, I would look back at the bus and try to remember as much information as possible. There is a lot to remember about a school bus: the number of windows, the words on the sides, the details of the wheels, and more importantly, how all those things lined up with each other.

When I got home (about a five minute walk), I would erase and adjust my picture to incorporate the new things I noticed -- and I would also discover new "unknowns" -- things I hadn't noticed but needed to know to complete my picture. Those items would form the list of things I wanted to notice the next day.

This project went on for weeks, and in the process I honed my visual thinking skills.

Visual thinking is the practice of using pictures to enhance your ability to solve problems, think about complex issues and communicate effectively. Are you ready to work on your visual thinking skills? You don't have to be an artist. Pick up a pen or pencil and try the following exercise:

1. Choose a subject:
Find something that is sufficiently complex that you have a hard time remembering all of its details. It can be anything, but it should be in a different place than the place you typically sit down to draw or work. It could be something you see out the window on your drive to work in the morning. It could be something in the cafeteria where you have your lunch. It could even be your neighbor's dog.

2. Observe your subject carefully:
Whenever you see your subject, try to notice something you hadn't noticed before and hold it in your memory. Some of this will be details, but some of it will also be proportions: the relative sizes of the various elements, and how they align.

3. Record your observations:
In a time and place where your subject is not visible, record your observations. Keep a record of those "unknowns" -- questions you have that you intend to answer the next time you encounter your subject.

4. Iterate:
Continue to observe and draw in an iterative fshion. Over time you will become very familiar with your subject, so that you can draw it completely from memory. You will also find that your powers of visual observation will become more acute and refined, and you will notice more of what's around you than others do. This can be a helpful skill in life and business.

For more about visual thinking, visit visual thinking school or please consider joining our visual thinking group on Flickr and showing us your drawings!

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23 January 2006


One of my favorite things about this blog is the ongoing dialogue that happens in the comments that accompany each post. If you don't read the comments you are missing out on a huge part of what makes this blog worth reading.

The idea of a blog as a hub for rich conversation, where the blogger operates like a talk show host, to set the themes and moderate the tone, is one of the things that got me blogging in the first place.

Charlie Rose is one of my favorite interviewers, because of the themes he chooses and the tone he sets. He is an erudite yet humble man; he talks to interesting people; and he asks them thought-provoking questions.

I have always aspired not only to emulate him, but to be interesting enough myself that he might want to interview me someday.

For those of you who have commented on this blog's postings, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your thoughtful commentary -- it keeps the blog alive. For those of you who prefer simply to listen and learn, you are welcome and keep coming! And please consider joining the Communication Nation conversation.

And now for the theme of the day:

One thing that many people find difficult about communication is the challenge to remain positive; it can be too easy to slip into "complainer mode" and hard to stay focused on what's working or on making things better.

How do you keep yourself out of the negative zone? And when someone else is complaining, what kinds of things do you do to boost the conversation into a more positive arena?

As always, please share your thoughts.

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22 January 2006

Strange feeling while walking in the woods

I wanted to spend some time by myself, so I took a walk in the woods. The whole time I had this funny feeling, like I was being watched.

I took some photos while I was walking. Do you notice anything strange? Or do you think it was just my imagination?

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20 January 2006

Dave Gray interview

Chris Brogan lives in northern Massachusetts. He writes about self-improvement, from fitness to nutrition to leadership and relationship-building. He's also got a lot of diverse interests from technology to design and visual thinking.

Chris just interviewed me for his blog. Here are his questions:

- Tell me about founding XPlane. What came before, and how'd you make your move?

- What does a typical Xplane engagement look like?

- What's your work and skills background?

- You recently started up the Visual Thinking School. What was on your mind?

- What has most surprised you about the Visual Thinking School Project?

- How much of your networking, your connecting to new people, are you accomplishing through these online venues like Flickr, Squidoo, and the other places you're hanging your work?

- What's up for Dave Gray in 2006?

- If someone were interested in getting involved in Visual Thinking or Visual Communication, what are some tips and advice you'd give them?

- Anything else you'd like to add?

Read my answers.

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I wonder who designed this?

Sign, originally uploaded by dgray_xplane.

I wonder who designed this sign. It looks like the little stick man got screwed -- literally.

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Communication practices for work, love, and liberation

"Imagine a personal discipline for learning communication and cooperation skills, using the routines and errands of everyday life as our classroom. It's all free because it's outside the money system entirely. But it can help us make a living, avoid trouble, improve personal relationships, and work together for a better world. In an age of arrogant and abusive institutions, we can learn skills to take back more control of our lives.

For example, many people have difficulty asking for help (asking for what they need), especially when they need it most. But they can learn by practicing first in easy cases, like asking for street directions -- while focusing on ease, style, or technique more than on the information they seek. They can practice hundreds of times if necessary for mastery. If they have issues about asking for help or deserving it (due to past experiences obscuring current realities), they can start working on them here. Later, as they advance to increasingly important requests (such as seeking assistance on the job), they build competence to ask effectively and strengthen relationships even in critical or intense situations.

This practice works like martial-art training, but for skills we use all the time in everyday life. While it can be competitive, it's usually about cooperation -- not winners and losers, but larger outcomes we build together. "

Read more -- and join the email list -- at Communication Practices for work, love, and liberation.

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19 January 2006

Don't laugh

It's getting harder and harder to break through and get your message seen, heard, or read. This is one of the best ways I know to ensure that people are exposed to your message. I assume you'll need to reach women too, so you'll have to also apply the principle to the backs of stall doors. It may seem silly but it works!

The low-budget version: Get your message on a piece of paper and tape it to the wall. Odeo does it -- why not you?

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17 January 2006

How do you engage people in a sustainable way?

Here's a problem you have probably experienced if you have ever been in charge of a major change at work:

You are rolling out a change initiative or implementing a new process or program. You know that it's hard to get people's attention, so you launch the change with a big splash event to get everyone's attention. You create training manuals or maybe even quickstart guides to get people up and running. You might have workshops or training sessions, either online or in person, to support the rollout.

But ultimately you are unable to overcome the organizational inertia: the change doesn't stick. People revert back to the way they were doing things before -- back to their "comfort zone."

This is the risk of any change program. Today I don't have answers but questions:
1. Once you have momentum on a change initiative, how do you keep that momentum?
2. As a communicator, what are the most effective ways you have found to keep people's attention on the things that matter?
3. How do you engage with people in a long-term, sustainable way?

What I am looking for is your best practices: How you use your communications not just to launch things, but to reinforce and sustains the kinds of behaviors that you -- or your organization -- really wants; the behaviors that drive success in the long term.

If you have ideas please, please share them! If you haven't replied to a post before, maybe now is the time to share your insights.

Thanks in advance!


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15 January 2006

Visual thinking practice: Thinking spaces

Visual thinking is the practice of using pictures to enhance your ability to solve problems, think about complex issues and communicate effectively. Are you ready to work on your visual thinking skills? You don't have to be an artist. Pick up a pen or pencil and try the following exercise:

See if you can capture your best thinking and creaive experiences in each of the following categories:

1. Solitary spaces:
Make a list of the places and times that great ideas seem to come to you when you are alone. Where, when and how do you do your best thinking? Does a window help inspire you or does it distract? Do you like to be indoors or outside? Music or silence? What are the characteristics of a great solitary thinking space? How can you make these spaces better for thinkig visually?

2. Community spaces:
What groups or communities do you like to think and create with? Who inspires you? What are the "watering holes" where these people tend socialize or congregate? How can you make them better visual thinking spaces?

3. Informal spaces:
Think back to the most interesting conversation you had recently. Where did it happen? Is there anything about the space that helped spark the conversation? What were the key attributes of the space? How can you make such spaces better visual thinking spaces?

Now see if you can draw the spaces that you want, by making a sketch or plan-view diagram. Do your drawings generate any further ideas? If not, show them to a friend and see what ideas it sparks for them.

Read more in visual thinking school.

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11 January 2006

09 January 2006

Making your work space work

Look around you -- is your work space the kind of place you look forward to going? Do you have the tools you need to be productive and inspired?

Your work space isn't just your desk -- it's any place you work. A good work space helps make you happier and more productive. Do you like a space that's full of stuff, with everything you might need within reach or easily visible? Or do you like a clean, uncluttered space that offers few distractions?

I was curious: What can you do to make it a more enjoyable and productive place for you to spend your time?

Last week I set up a Flickr group and asked people to share photos of their personal work spaces. I asked them to add notes to the photos to explain what they did to make their work spaces happier or more productive. I was astounded at the response: In just a few days more than 100 people have shared -- and explained -- their work spaces.

One of Tango_hui_voine's work spaces. To see what all the dials and levers do, click here.

Here are some of the work spaces people submitted:

- A train engineer's cabin (see above)
- A personal animation studio
- One of the least cluttered work spaces I have ever seen
- A musical composer's work space
- A garret studio in Paris
- A photography studio
- A physical therapist's office
- A TV control room
- A wall-mounted desk

Take a look and you'll see how people use their walls, floors, windows and even carbonated drinks to remain inspired throughout the day. Here's one of my favorite personal work spaces.

Or you can just go to the group's home page to see everything.

Here are a couple of other work space links:

A 360-degree view of artist Edward Gorey's work space (thanks to Ninth Wave Designs for sharing this).

Read more about work spaces in the visual thinking school module: visual thinking spaces.

If you are already on Flickr, please take a moment to document your workspace in a photo and share it with the group.

If you're not on Flickr yet, consider joining. It's free, and it's a great place to store your public and private photos, categorize them into sets, and share them with your friends and family.

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08 January 2006

No time to read?

Too many books on your shelf? No time to read them all? Worry not. Say hello to Matt Vance of Austin, Texas. Matt reads a lot of books, takes copious, excellent notes, and -- lucky for you and me -- posts them on the web.

Here are some of the books Matt has read, along with links to his notes:

22 Immutable Laws of Marketing
Conversationally Speaking
Finding Your Passion (from audio book)
First Break All The Rules (from audio book)
Getting Things Done
Hiring Smart
How to Be a Star at Work
Making it Happen
Now Habit
On Writing Well
Organizing From The Inside Out (from audio book)
Power of Full Engagement (from audio book)
Primal Leadership (from audio book)
Ready for Anything (from audio book)
Simplicity Survival Handbook
What Smart Students Know
A Writer's Guide to Getting Published in Magazines
Brag (from audio book)
Breakout Principle (from audio book)
Breathing (from audio book)
Crucial Conversations (from audio book)
Design for Community
Emotional Intelligence (from audio book)
Fish (from audio book)
Five Dysfunctions Of A Team
Get Clark Smart
High Five (from audio book)
Hire With Your Head
How Full Is Your Bucket
How To Delegate Work (from audio book)
How To Get Anyone To Do Anything (from audio book)
How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends (from audio book)
How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci (from audio book)
How to Work a Room
How to Write Irresistible Query Letters
Jump Start Your Business Brain
Knockout Presentations
Magic of Thinking Big (from audio book)
Man's Search For Meaning (from audio book)
Medici Effect
Multiple Streams Of Income (from audio book)
Non-Designer's Design Book
Nonviolent Communication
Now Discover Your Strengths
Optimal Thinking
Orbiting the Giant Hairball
Purple Cow
Renegade Writer
Secrets From An Inventors Notebook
Secrets of Learning a Foreign Language (from audio book)
Smart Mobs
Stand Up For Your Life (from audio book
The Art of Exceptional Living (from audio book)
Tipping Point
Treasury of Tips for Writers
We Were Soldiers Once (from audio book)
What Women Want Men To Know (from audio book)
Who Moved My Cheese (from audio book)
Wiki Way

See the full list at MineZone Wiki - MVance.BookNotes.

Thanks Matt!

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06 January 2006

A personal journal of the American road

In 1979, Kevin Kelly -- later to become the founding editor of Wired magazine -- rode his bike across the United States, starting in San Francisco on August 1 and ending in Westfield New Jersey on October 31.

He kept a journal along the way, where he drew an ink sketch and wrote a haiku for every day of the 5,000-mile trip.

He's published the journal under the title "bicycle haiku" and now you can buy it here.

A previous post about Kevin Kelly.

Kevin Kelly's website.

[Update: Mike Rohde pointed me to Kevin's story about how he got to the point of riding a bike across the US. In this recording his story begins around 4:20 minutes in.]

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05 January 2006

Visual thinking practice: Attention

How much do you really use your eyes in a typical day? Do you really notice what's around you, or do you hurry from meeting to meeting, deep in thought about that next appointment or the to-do list in your back pocket?

Researchers have estimated that your eyes generate more than 10 million bits of visual data every second, but your brain only digests about 40 bits, and by the time you pay conscious attention, you fully process only about 16 bits.

That's 16 out of 10 million. What are the chances that those 16 bits are the right ones?

Attention is not an accident, it's an act of will. You can improve your visual acuity by choosing to pay more attention to your environment. This will help you heighten your visual sensitivity, and will also give you many moments of unexpected delight.

Here's an exercise that will help you heighten your attention, and improve your awareness of your surroundings:

1. Get a digital camera or sketchbook. If you don't have either one, you can use a stack of index cards and a paper clip. The digital camera is my favorite for this: one of the reasons I love digital cameras is that there's no such thing as wasted film -- you can take a thousand pictures for virtually the same price as one.

2. Choose a subject -- something you intend to notice that day. Your subject should be something you will be likely to see several times during the day, but that you rarely pay attention to. It could be windows, or letters of the alphabet, or triangles -- anything that you can search for in your immediate surroundings.

3. For the rest of the day, keep your eye out for your subject. Whenever you see it, take a close look at it and see what you notice. If you have a camera, take a picture of it. If not, draw a quick sketch or make some notes about what you noticed.

You will find that if you choose a new subject each day, you will quickly become far more finely tuned to your surroundings, and you will notice many things that other people simply don't see.

The phenomenon of not noticing your surroundings has been called "plant blindness" -- scientists think that the brain is finely tuned to things that move, that are brightly colored or otherwise conspicuous, and to ignore everything else. In other words, your brain is alert to notice anything that might pose a threat. This is definitely helpful when crossing the street, but maybe less so in many other situations.

There's other research that says that you pay more attention to everything in your environment when you are actively searching for something (Think about the last time you lost a contact lens or set of keys). So by searching for circles, or windows, you'll improve your ability to notice everything else.

Practice noticing the things that surround you. You will improve your visual thinking skills, and may find an unexpected treasure or two. Here are some of the treasures I've found:

- St. Louis water meters
- A day in the life of a shed
- Leaves

Visual thinking is the practice of using pictures to enhance your ability to solve problems, think about complex issues and communicate effectively. Are you ready to work on your visual thinking skills? You don't have to be an artist.

For more about visual thinking, visit visual thinking school or join our visual thinking group on Flickr.

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04 January 2006

How do you do your New Year's resolutions?

I am still working on my resolutions for 2006. I have talked to a few people out there, and some of them have very interesting ways that they go about this. I'd like to hear from you, too. If you do yearly resolutions, I have a couple of questions for you:

1. How do you do it?

2. How well does it work?

I'll summarize the responses in an upcoming post. Please share your approach!

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02 January 2006

Paper notes in a digital world

2006 is a blank sheet of paper -- what will you write?

The back to paper movement gains momentum in 2006.

From an interesting new blog called paper notes in a digital world:

"In an age of blogs (like this one), blogs about blogs, online publications of all kinds and everything digital, I still celebrate the journal kept in a notebook, bound books, magazines, a good newspaper and the literary world of old."

The mainstream media is catching on too. The San Francisco Chronicle quotes Merlin Mann:
"PDAs and desktops, laptops and a constant flow of information can create this Byzantine world, but if you're more aware and more mindful in thinking about which kinds of tools will be the most elegant help ... for a surprising number of people, that turns out to be paper.''
(Thanks PaperNotes!)

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Visual thinking practice: Randomness

Randomness can be inspiring.

Leonardo Da Vinci used to find inspiration by looking at stains on the wall:

"I cannot forbear to mention ... a new device for study ... which may seem trivial and almost ludicrous ... [but] is extremely useful in arousing the mind ... Look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones ... you may discover a resemblance to landscapes ... battles with figures in action ... strange faces and costumes ... and an endless variety of objects ..."

Here's an exercise that will help you use random patterns for inspiration and hone your visual thinking skills. You'll need a deck of index cards and a cup of tea.

1. This one has a nice start for a Monday morning: Make yourself a cup of tea.

2. It's always a problem to decide how to dispose of the tea bag, right? Keep an index card near your desk or wherever you drink your tea. Place the tea bag onto the index card and let the card soak up the excess tea.

3. When the card is dry, look at the tea stain and see if you can find inspiration. What do the random shapes suggest?

4. Now follow your inspiration and make a simple drawing on the card

This could be a good way to make inspiration and creativity a natural part of every day. This can be a regular activity. Try placing the tea bag in different positions to create different patterns. Each morning you can have a cup of tea and sketch a little drawing from the previous day's index card. At the same time you can start a new one for tomorrow.

Imagine being able to look through a stack of index cards with a year's worth of inspiring drawings.

How about making it one of your resolutions for 2006?

If you don't like tea I'm sure you can find other ways to create interesting random patterns on an index card.

Here's an example of a tea stain drawing.

Visual thinking is the practice of using pictures to enhance your ability to solve problems, think about complex issues and communicate effectively. You can learn more about visual thinking in visual thinking school.

[Update: You'll see some great tea stain exercises in the visual thinking art blog (scroll down)]

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01 January 2006