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930: These Charting Mistakes Undermine Your Communication with Nick Desbarats

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Nick Desbarats breaks down the surprisingly common mistakes we make when visualizing data–and shares basic principles for communicating data more effectively.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why most charts are confusing or ineffective
  2. The top three mistakes people make with charts
  3. Why a “neutral” chart is an ineffective chart 

About Nick

As an independent educator and author, Nick Desbarats has taught data visualization and dashboard design to thousands of professionals in over a dozen countries at organizations like NASA, Visa, Bloomberg, Shopify, and the United Nations. He delivers main-stage talks at major data conferences and is a guest lecturer at Yale University, and his new book, Practical Charts, is an Amazon #1 Top New Release. 

Resources Mentioned

Nick Desbarats Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Nick, welcome.

Nick Desbarats

Thanks. I’m really delighted to be here. To be honest, I’ve been listening to the show, and it’s kind of an honor to be here. It’s a fantastic show. I’ve really been enjoying it.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, thank you. Well, I’m honored to be chatting with you. I’ve been loving your book, Practical Charts. First, I just want to ask, you’re a very sharp guy, and I want to know. Of all the places you could be investing your energies to enrich the world, why have you decided to go deep on charts?

Nick Desbarats

That’s a good question. My career path, can be summarized as circuitous, as in very indirect. I started out in software, and as a software developer, I got kind of bored of that, and then kind of moved around software organizations for a bit, doing some sales, marketing, that kind of thing, product management, product design.

And in my 30s, I kind of stumbled on to a lot of research around from the field of psychology, Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, cognitive biases, psychology perception. I was just smitten. I just inhaled that information, which I figured was kind of a sideline interest to my kind of real job. But then I went to a workshop, a data visualization workshop from Stephen Few, who’s one of the big gurus in this field in 2013, and it’s just mind-blowing. It really just opened up a whole new kind of field for me that I really wasn’t aware of, and that combined my two major interests, which were basically psychology and data.

Because, as I think it will come out probably in our discussion, there’s a lot of psychology when it comes to designing charts. And so, I just went whole hog into that and I, actually, started teaching these workshops in 2014, and it was a huge privilege, and I did that for a number of years. Steve then retired in 2019, and then I used that as kind of an excuse to start developing my own courses and workshops. And I’m still extremely interested. I have not gotten bored yet, that’s for sure.

Pete Mockaitis

All right, Nick. So, I get the memo that you absolutely love this stuff deeply and dork out over it, as do I. Tell us, what’s really at stake for the professional in terms of whether they become Master Jedi-level with their charts versus can fumble their way through PowerPoint just fine like the rest of us?

Nick Desbarats

Well, I’m not sure I would agree with that last part of your sentence, fumble through PowerPoint and sort of be okay just like the rest of us. I think, to be honest, if you haven’t had some formal training, basically, in this kind of thing, then you’re probably hitting a lot of problems and a lot of which you might not even be aware of. You might be leaving your audience, for example, with an incorrect understanding of the data, or they’re confused but they won’t say anything because they don’t want to look stupid.

Or the problems could be more obvious. They might actually be complaining about your charts, and saying, “This is just unnecessarily complicated,” or, “I don’t get it,” or, “What’s the point of this chart?” I like to compare it to sex and sales because these are two other things that people think you are kind of born knowing how to do, it’s like, “Well, what’s the big deal? Creating charts, how hard can it be? Select the data in Excel, and hit Make a chart, and Bob’s your uncle. There’s your chart.”

But like both of those other things, if you haven’t actually kind of learned the basics of how to do it, you’re probably not doing it very well. We’ve all had bad experiences with bad salespeople, for example, and it’s just because they just didn’t know how to sell very well. And it’s kind of the same thing with charts. There’s more to it than I think most people realize.

In fact, I kind of think of data visualization, i.e., kind of the process, or the expertise of making charts, as kind of almost like its own language, and until you’ve learned the basic kind of spelling and vocabulary of that language, you’re probably not communicating very well, whether you realize it or not. And so, many of the charts that I see are full of these kinds of basic, what I call, kind of spelling and vocabulary problems with charts, which are things like poor chart type choices, scales that are too wide or too narrow, poor color choices, and just a whole host of other problems.

And so, reading a chart like that from the audiences’ perspective is kind of like reading a poorly written document, a document that’s full of spelling errors, and grammatical mistakes, and weird word choices. And so, it’s going to be really hard for them to read it, which means they, oftentimes, are just going to skip it, they’re not going to read it. Or, if they do, they could be very confused by it, or, worse of all, come away with an incorrect understanding of the data.

And this is something that happens a lot more often than people tend to realize. And we’ve all seen charts that deliberately misrepresent data, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that this also happens accidentally way more often than people realize. And so, if you had some training in the sort of spelling and vocabulary of data visualization, you’re going to avoid all these problems, and then you’re going to create charts that are just way easier and quicker to read and understand, and, ultimately, way more likely to sort of accomplish whatever purpose prompted you to create a chart in the first place.

We don’t create charts for no reason. There’s always a reason. We’re trying to explain something to somebody, we’re trying to persuade them to do something, or make them aware of something, and all of those things are much more likely when the basic kind of spelling and vocabulary of your chart is competent, is done well, just like a document that’s written well.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, well said, Nick. Okay. So, if you don’t have some formal training in charts, and you think you’re doing fine, you may very well be accidentally misleading people, and they could be murmuring behind your back about how bad your charts suck. Or, even then, maybe if the people you’re presenting…

Nick Desbarats

Or, to your face.

Pete Mockaitis

Or, to your face. I guess, even if the people you’re presenting your charts to are not as sophisticated and able to discern what’s jacked up about your charts, I think I like that analogy to writing is it’s sort of like they might just meet your data with a shrug, like, “Yeah, okay.” Sort of like a piece of writing can be riveting like a page-turning novel, like, “Oh, my gosh, what’s going to happen next?”

Or, just like, “Okay, I guess,” and you’re just sort of tuned out, so it’s like folks aren’t even able to receive what can really be, and I guess I’m a bit of a dork here, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say, if you understand the story some chart sequences are telling you, they can be heart-thumpingly thrilling. I mean that in all sincerity.

Nick Desbarats

Hey, man, yeah. You’re in my tribe.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And so, if you’re thinking, “Yeah, Pete, I’ve never seen one like that,” I’m thinking about some of the folks who I think do it amazingly well that are available for view might be Andreessen Horowitz at A16Z. They’ve got a number of slide presentations that were on SlideShare and still, I believe, publicly available, which really do, they take you through a story, and you’re like, “Oh, wow, so that’s what’s going on with whatever tech sector, or investment, or whatever. And I really feel like I’ve read a novel, except in the artform that is a sequence of charts.”

Nick Desbarats

Yeah. Well, I mean, data storytelling is a big buzz term right now. Like, over the last few years, it’s just really taken off. And I think it deservedly so. I think, though, what has gotten maybe less attention but is still really important is, like I said, that sort of basic spelling and vocabulary, because a lot of what I see is sort of data stories are kind of torpedoed because of really basic chart design problems.

Because, oftentimes, a data story essentially consists of a series of charts, just like you were describing, but the chart types are wrong, the scales are too wide, the colors are weird, the labeling isn’t precise enough, and so users don’t actually even understand what the numbers in the chart represent correctly. They’re just having to think too hard, having to read a 45-degree or a vertical text, and so the way I sort of look at it is, yeah, storytelling is great, and it is a skill that I think a lot of people should be developing but before you do that, learn the basic language first.

You can’t tell great stories, you can’t write great essays or great novels if you can’t spell. And I think that there’s a lot more awareness of that now than there was, like there is a spelling and vocabulary to this. And if you haven’t really mastered that, then your stories are going to flop. You’ve got to kind of walk before you can run, essentially.

And, unfortunately, a lot of people, well, a lot of people do realize that, but lots of people don’t. And so, they’ll jump straight into courses or books about storytelling and data storytelling without having really mastered the basics first, and then they wonder why their data stories aren’t working.

Pete Mockaitis

Beautiful. I want to hear, and so we talked about these basic fundamentals, and I think you did such a fine job of coming up with the nuanced distinctions in your book, Practical Charts. And starting from the very beginning, I think you say we even start with the wrong question, which is, “Okay, I got a bunch of data,” and you think, “Okay, what’s the best chart type.” And you say, “Hold up. That is not the ideal first question.” Set us straight, Nick, what should we be asking ourselves?

Nick Desbarats

Well, you’re right, of course. Typically, when we sit down to create a new chart, we ask ourselves, “What is the best way to visualize this data?” And I think when you’re sort of maybe starting out, that is the question that people often have, but I think once you start to develop more experience, more expertise, you start to realize that, “Actually, the question I should be asking is, ‘Do I know why I’m creating this chart? Is there a problem that I’m trying to make the audience aware of? Am I trying to persuade them to do something? And if so, what is that thing? Am I just trying to explain something to them? And if so, what is that?’”

Because, until you’ve figured that out, you can’t really make any design choices. You can’t really choose chart types. It’s even hard to know even what data you should even be showing? Should you be showing the last six months of data or the last 12 months of data? All of these things depend on what I call the job – the job of the chart.

And so, really, I think that’s one of the things that I try to accomplish in the book, and also in the Practical Charts Course that I teach, is by the end of the book, you should be thinking of charts as graphics for doing a job, and not visual representations of data. Because if you think of charts just as visual representations of data, well, then even really bad charts would be fine because they are visual representations of data, but only good charts do their job. And so, you want to aim for a chart that does its job.

And so, at the end of the day, ultimately, that’s all that matters. People tend to get hung up on this sort of secondary characteristics, like how precisely people can estimate the values in a chart, or how fast they can read it, or how much information they can recall when the chart is hidden from view. I mean, they’re important but they’re not the thing that, ultimately, matters. What, ultimately, matters is, “Did the chart actually do whatever thing you wanted it to do? Did it do the job that prompted you to create that chart in the first place?”

And it might sound a little obvious but it requires a huge mental shift, and I can see it happening during my course just by the way that I’m teaching it in person. It lasts two full days, and it takes about that long to really fully make that leap to that sort of new way of thinking.

Pete Mockaitis

So, charts are graphics for doing a job and not mere visualizations of data. And so, I think when it comes to jobs, maybe you could lay out the menu for us. Because I think, sometimes, I find that the job is, “Okay, we’re being persuasive. We are trying to make a sales pitch, and the goal is that, whatever graphics we’re including will make the point that we are really awesome,” or, “This market opportunity is a big deal, so okay.”

But I think other times, in the course of day in, day out working with colleagues, they might say something like, “Hey, Nick, how about you put together a presentation to give us an update on where we stand?” So, it feels kind of vague or generic or broad or general, just like, “Show us what’s the state of things right now, or over the last month.” And so then, how do you think about choosing charts for that kind of a job?

Nick Desbarats

Yeah, you’re right. There tends to be a lot of focus when you look at different books and courses on data visualization, articles. They tend to kind of assume that we’re always trying to persuade people or something. But you’re right, you’re absolutely right. That’s not always the case. In fact, very often. We’re just trying to explain something to somebody, make them aware of some interesting trend, for example.

And so, yeah, and I try and sort of address that in the book and in the course as well to say it’s important to understand that these charts can have a very wide variety of different kinds of jobs. And, in fact, sometimes we’re creating charts just for ourselves, like charts that no one is ever going to see. We’re just using the chart for analysis. We’re using it to discover new insights and patterns in the data. And that is just a completely different use case than something where you’re abusing storytelling, for example.

And so, one of the things that I find is a little bit sort of, maybe even a little frustrating, is that people think that, “Oh, every chart has to tell a story. Everything is a data story.” It’s like, “No, some things are data stories but not everything.” We’re not always trying to persuade people to do something. Sometimes we are but sometimes we’re not.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay.

Nick Desbarats

And, by the way, sometimes when we get those kinds of requests that you were talking about in terms of, like, oftentimes, we’re just not even asked for an update; we’re just asked for data, where, “I need to see a breakdown of expenses by department for the last 12 months.” And those are actually very tough situations because the obvious next question that I think you should be asking is, “Well, why? Like, are you worried that there are certain departments that are spending too much? Or, do you want to see how they compare to their budgets?” There could be all sorts of ways to respond to that request.

And, unfortunately, a fair amount of the time, if we try and get that information, we can’t, it’s like, “Well, it was the CEO who asked, and they’re really busy, and so just give me a chart.” And it’s like, “Oh, crap, now I’m in a position where I have to try and create a chart, and I don’t know why I’m creating it.” And so, I have a whole section in the book about how to deal with this, and I have a technique that I call  spray and pray, where you, essentially, create multiple views of the data, and you make some guesses about what question they might have in mind, or what they might be wanting to know, and you build different visuals for those three, sometimes even four, different potentials reasons why they’ve might asked you for that information. And you hope that one of them is going to hit.

Pete Mockaitis

Nick, I think that’s so great, is that often it’s just a clarifying question away in terms of, “I want a status update of how things went over last month.” And if you ask a couple follow-up questions for clarification, it can be quite illuminating, it’s like, “Yes, I’m looking for cost savings opportunities within our operation.” “Oh, okay. Well, then I’m going to think about things differently,” versus “I want to see what looks weird, or different, or off, or broken so that I can allocate my energies to preventing a problem before it gets worse.”

Or, “I want to see what might be some of the most compelling opportunities that we need to go after in the subsequent months.” Any of those very different directions could spring forth from a, “Hey, just give me an update.”

Nick Desbarats

Yeah, exactly. And so, we’re lucky in those situations where we can actually ask those follow-up questions and get that follow-up information. And the first step, of course, realizing that you need that information in order to design your charts in the first place. But there are times when we ask and we don’t get answers, it’s like, “No, just give me an update,” or, “Give me expenses for the departments, and don’t ask me any more questions.”

And so, I think it’s important to know how to address both of those, but, really, the key thing that I think is, the step that people miss, is that step of figuring out, “Okay, why am I creating this chart in first place?” And that’s a crucial step. Because if you don’t know, if you don’t have some kind of insight that you’re trying to communicate, or some kind of question that you’re trying to answer, most of your chart design choices will be random, and your chart will end up communicating random insights, which is not helpful.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, I’m going to get into some very particulars, but before I do that, I’d love to get some general principles in terms of what are perhaps your top tips, or principles, or mistakes you observed as folks are trying to do this kind of thing?

Nick Desbarats

One misconception that I see a lot, especially amongst people who have more experience, who have more expertise, is that they believe that creating a chart or getting good at data visualization is just something that sort of requires experience, and trial and error, and intuition that’s developed over a long kind of period of time. And that’s what I believed for a long time as well.

But what I realized through teaching Steve’s courses, and now my own courses, is that it’s actually possible to distill a lot of these guidelines into surprisingly precise guidelines that don’t necessarily rely on having years of experience. And so, that was sort of the impetus, really, for me creating my course, and then the book that went along with it, is I was a little bit frustrated by the fact that people said, “Well, if you’re showing the breakdown of a total, sometimes it makes sense to use a pie chart, and other times a bar chart, and other times a stacked bar chart. Use your judgment. Do what feels right.”

And I was like, “Hold on a second. No, actually, these chart types are not interchangeable. There are specific circumstances under which it makes sense to use one or the other.” And so, really, that’s kind of, I think, a bit of a different approach that I brought to the field, and it is kind of, in some cases, it’s a bit controversial to say, “I think that we can actually sort of codify or formulate a lot of these guidelines in ways that can be applied by people who have even very little chart design experience.”

And they can follow steps and have a number of decision trees, in the course, and in the book as well, and you can just follow through the decision tree, and it will point you to the right chart for the right situation, the right design choice, or an expert-level design choice, anyways.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, Nick, I love that so much, and that really conveys that same analogy I’m reminded of, of like writing, in that some folks are just like, “Well, it takes a lifetime to really refine your writing style and to make it excellent.” And then you got Strunk & White, The Elements of Style who just dropped, “Remove unnecessary words.” And, like, that’s really a pretty good rule almost all the time. And it’s like, “Oh, okay, just by doing that, my writing is better.

Nick Desbarats

Yeah, exactly. And that’s actually, coming back to that language analogy, sometimes the way I describe sort of at least a lot of the books and courses that I’ve seen about data visualization is that imagine English as a second language, or you don’t speak English, and you’re trying to learn the difference between “they’re,” “their” and “there” the three ways to spell “there.” And your textbook says something like, “Well, this is actually kind of a nuance. It’s sort of ca omplex question. And over time, you’ll develop intuition which will sort of help you figure out what is the best spelling.”

And so, it makes it really hard and slow to learn the language, but as native English speakers, we know, it’s like, “No, actually, I can give you very simple guidelines which you can learn in, like, 60 seconds, which will point you to the correct choice every time.” But I think the difference with data visualization is that formulating those sorts of simple-looking guidelines and decision trees was actually really hard. It’s like the hardest thing I have ever done. And so, it’s not surprising, I think, that it’s taken a long time for those kinds of simple-looking guidelines to emerge about data visualization.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Nick, could you maybe give us top three guidelines in terms of this makes a huge difference, and mistakes happen all the time?

Nick Desbarats

Yeah, probably number one is chart type choice. The most common problem I see in charts is something that was a line chart when it should’ve been a bar chart, or it was a stacked bar chart when it should’ve been a pie chart, for example. And I forgive people for making these kinds of, what I consider to be, mistakes, anyways, because there are a number of considerations that go into those kinds of choices.

But because it is so tricky, and there are so many factors to take into consideration, like, for example, if you’re just trying to figure out how to show the breakdown of a total, there are at least eight things you need to take into account in order to decide between sort of the five major chart types for doing that: your pie charts, bar charts, stacked bar charts, etc. And so, yeah, that’s probably the most common mistake that I see, and the solution is, well, you’ve just got to get a bit of training to know how to do this.

Probably the second most common type of problem that I see are problems with quantitative scales. So, these are the scales of numbers that you see in charts, like the number of employees, or dollars, or whatever. And I have a whole section in my book about that, and it kind of surprises people, because they’re like, “Isn’t that pretty straightforward? Like, why not just go with the default scales that come out of Excel, or Tableau, or whatever?”

And I’d say probably, maybe a third of the problems that I see with charts are related to quantitative scales, scales that are too wide, too narrow, start at zero when they shouldn’t, don’t start at zero when they should, have too many stops on them, for example, or not enough. And so, there’s a lot to learn about quantitative scales. And so, again, if you haven’t had that training, then this is a very common way that charts, essentially, misrepresent the underlying data.

So I guess the third most common would be labeling problems, usually insufficient labeling, or insufficiently precise labeling. And so, these are situations where you see a chart, it’s maybe a line chart, that says the quantitative scale is just labeled with transactions, and maybe it’s for over 12 months or something like that. Okay, is that like successful transactions, or successful and failed transactions? Is it accumulative total of transactions running throughout the year? There could be all sorts of ways of interpreting that.

And so, with inadequate labeling then, once again, the audience might assume that they’re looking at numbers that aren’t the actual numbers in the chart. And I would also kind of put in that labeling of key insights. This is sometimes controversial when I say I’m a big proponent of actually putting messages right in the chart, “We have a problem because transactions have been declining since July,” and actually putting that, like write it as a collar, or maybe even as the title of the chart. People tend to shy away from that but I think that there are good reasons to actually be really explicit about, “If I had a reason for showing you this chart, I might as well tell you what it’s for.”

Pete Mockaitis

Nick, I totally resonate with that. And it’s intriguing when I trained on this sort of thing, I’ve been accused of having sensational slide titles or headlines, I was like, “Wow, if these are sensational then you are accustomed to very, very boring…” I’m not swearing, I’m not using extreme language. I’m just saying things like, “Sales of this segment have dropped radically since this quarter.” It’s like, “Huh?”

And I guess that is sensational but I guess what’s really driving it, and my observation, is fear. And so, like, “You’re basically saying that the guy in charge of that thing over there is a screwup and a failure.” I was like, “No, I didn’t say. I’m just commenting on the most noteworthy thing that is to be gleaned from these data.” But it seems that folks are often, in many cultures, quite shy about calling a spade a spade because it has all sorts of emotional implications under the surface.

Nick Desbarats
Yeah, I think that there’s really kind of two ways that that problem surfaces. The one is what you just described, where you’re basically saying something that’s kind of maybe politically sensitive. And that happens, unfortunately, a lot. As the people who handle the data, we’re often the first to see the bad news. We’re the canary in the coal mine. We’re the deliverer of bad news.

But I think that there’s another kind of knee jerk or inherent objection that people have to putting any kind of interpretation in the chart at all. 

A lot of people think that that’s actually kind of unethical, that we’re biasing people’s interpretations of the data, and that charts should be these kinds of neutral interpretation-free, just the numbers kinds of representations of the data. And this all sounds great. It sounds perfectly noble. I don’t think it’s even theoretically possible though because this kind of relates to what we’re talking about before. When you create a chart, you have to have a reason for creating it in mind, a question you’re trying to answer, an insight you’re trying to communicate, an action that you want somebody to take. It’s baked into the chart.

Because if you don’t have that in your mind, you don’t have some specific job or thing that you’re trying to accomplish with the chart in mind, then you don’t get a neutral or unbiased chart. You get a chart that produces random insights, essentially. And so, because our interpretation of the data, and why the audience needs to see that data is baked into the chart, anyway, it’s in all of our decisions, it’s what we based the chart type choice on, it’s what we based our color choices on, it’s what we based our scale ranges on, and a whole slew of other choices, we might as well just tell them, “This is why I think you needed to see this data.”

They may disagree with it. They may have a different interpretation of the data, and that’s fine. Then you sit down and talk about it, and say, “Okay, we seem to have different views of reality in this situation. Let’s figure it out together then.” But the solution is not to try and produce these sorts of very generic “interpretation-free” charts because, like I said, that’s not even theoretically possible.

Your charts will always have your interpretation of the data built into them anyways, so you might as well kind of save the audience a bit of brain cells and just tell them, “This is why I think you needed to see this data.” And, like I said, if they disagree with it, that’s fine. Then you talk about it and try and get on the same page.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, Nick, I want to challenge you if we could have the rapid version of thinking about chart type and axis scale matters. Could I have the two-minute version of when is the absolute best and absolute worst conditions for using a pie chart?

Nick Desbarats

Yes. So, if you’re not very familiar with the data visualization field, you might be surprised to learn that pie charts, they are very controversial. The community is split. You have people who are violently opposed to pie charts, and those who think that they are just fine. And I’ve been in both camps. I used to be an anti-pie charter but then I sat down a couple of years, I had a long hard look at my reasons, and realized, “You know, there are valid use cases for pie charts.”

Pie charts have a couple of unique properties. The first is that they allow us to perceive fractions of the total much more quickly and precisely than any other chart type. Compared to a regular bar chart or stacked bar chart, I can immediately see, “This is about a quarter of the total,” “This is about two-thirds of the quarter,” “These two parts together represent about three-quarters of the total.” This discussion can get a lot more nuanced though, and, in fact, I just wrote a 3500-word article in the journal of the Data Visualization Society last month about this, and it went pretty viral because it is a big question.

But ultimately, that’s what I think is a major point that people miss around pie charts, and people who don’t like pie charts, is that they allow people to perceive fractions of the total much more quickly and precisely than any other chart type. Plus, the fact that it’s a pie chart immediately tells the audience that they’re looking at the breakdown of a total before they would’ve read anything. They don’t have to read the chart title or the labels or anything. They immediately know they’re looking at the breakdown of a total.

Whereas, with a regular bar chart, for example, they actually have to read the chart title, and the labels, and figure out, “Oh, these parts of a total. They’re not, for example, values over time” Whereas, the pie chart, it’s like, “Bang!” It’s instantaneous. So, they do have some unique properties that make them, I think, the best choice in specific situations. But knowing what those specific situations are requires a bit of training.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. All right. So, that’s the thing. It’s like if what we are all about is quickly and intuitively conveying the proportion of one segment relative to the whole, the pie chart can do that pretty intuitively. But if we’re venturing into other territories, like, “Let’s see how these proportions have shifted over time,” then maybe the pie chart is not going to be our friend.

Nick Desbarats

Yeah, or if, for example, you want to compare the parts very precisely, say, “Okay, here’s a breakdown of our sales by region.” But the main point of the chart is to show that we sold more in the West than we did in the South. Well, especially if those values are very close to one another, you should use a bar chart because one of the weaknesses of pie charts is that they don’t allow the parts to be compared very precisely to one another. But if your main insight is that, for example, the West plus the East accounted for more than a third of our sales, well, that’s going to be a lot more obvious in a pie chart than it will in a bar chart.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And what’s the top thing we should never do with our axis scale?

Nick Desbarats

That’s a tricky question because, as I mentioned earlier on, there are a lot of mistakes that people make all the time with quantitative scales. If I had to pick just one, I’d probably say that it’s starting the scale at zero when it shouldn’t be started at zero, or vice versa, not starting at zero when it should’ve been started at zero.

And this, again, is one of those questions that people tend to think has a really simple answer but it doesn’t. Like, I have a whole section in the book on how to make that decision. It’s not as straightforward as a lot of people think. And, by the way, that’s kind of the case with a lot of these design choices. People tend to think that they can be made very simply. Like, for example, when it comes to choosing chart types, a lot of people think, “Oh, well, if you’re showing data over time, always use a line chart. Or, if you’re showing the breakdown of a total, always use a pie chart.” But unfortunately, those are simple, yeah, but you’ll often make bad design choices.

And so, whenever I see very simplistic rules, like, “Always start the scale at zero,” or, “Never start the scale at zero,” unfortunately, they’re just too simple. You’re going to end up making bad design choices all the time if you rely on those very, very simple rules of thumb. It doesn’t have to be really complicated but it can’t be that simple. It needs to be a little bit more complicated.

Pete Mockaitis

All right, tell us, what would be a horrible context situation for us to start an axis at zero?

Nick Desbarats

So, I guess the classic example here would be body temperature. Let’s say we’re in a hospital and we’re tracking the temperature of a patient over time, and whether you’re working in Celsius or Fahrenheit, if you start the scale at zero, well, first of all, it’s going to be hard to see small shifts that could be very meaningful. If you’re going from, I don’t know…

Pete Mockaitis

Ninety-eight point six Fahrenheit to 102.

Nick Desbarats

Okay, yes. Or, 37° Celsius, choose your methods there. But if it just goes up two or three degrees, of course, that’s often very meaningful from a medical perspective, but you’re not going to see it very well if the chart starts at zero. And there’s another wrinkle in that situation as well, which is when you’re talking about something like temperature, at least on the Fahrenheit or Celsius scale, zero is kind of a meaningless number.

Zero degrees, Fahrenheit, for example, is not the absence of heat energy. That would be zero degrees Kelvin, which is something that’s totally different. And so, I would say that, yeah, in a situation like that, starting the scales at zero would be a huge mistake.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Thank you. Well, now you mentioned earlier, before we’re recording, that you have a bit of a reputation as a chart type killer, which feels like that needs to be a lyric in a rap song or something.

Nick Desbarats

The nerdiest rap song ever. I would listen to it.

Pete Mockaitis

And so, I noticed in your book that there was nothing, there was no mention of the Marimekko, or Mekko, and when I was in consulting, we were utterly infatuated with the Marimekko or Mekko. And we’ll link to this in the show notes if you all never heard of it. Sometimes it’s used as, for example, a market map. So, we might have on the X-axis, maybe we’re talking about different kinds of computing processors.

And so, on the X-axis, we might have phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, servers, and so we see, “Okay, so that’s the relative proportion of different segments of different devices that use processors.” On the Y-axis, we might see how much penetration percentage a given player in that field has, like, Apple versus AMD versus Nvidia.

So, we like to use that in consulting to show, “Hey, Nvidia, look how you’re doing nothing in tablets,” for example, “But all your competitors are. Maybe you should, too.” That’s often how that goes on but you’ve got a different point of view. Let’s hear it.

Nick Desbarats

Well, yeah, so I don’t discuss Marimekko Charts in the book because I tend to find that…well, maybe sort of coming back to one of the basic principles that I have. I’m a big advocate, of course, of showing the data in the simplest way possible that still communicates whatever it is that the chart needs to communicate.

And in my experience, it’s very, very rare that the simplest way to say what you need to say about the data is with a Marimekko Chart, which is kind of a complicated chart type. There’s a good chance you’re going to be needing to explain it to people, and there’s a lot of kind of moving parts to it. You have the heights of the bar segments, as well as the widths of the bar segments, and so it tends to be kind of hard on our working memory, the part of our minds where we do all of our thinking, which is actually very small. We can only think of a very small number of things simultaneously.

And so, if I’m thinking of using a chart like that, I always look for “Are there simpler chart types?” It might even be a combination of charts. I might have two or three charts but that are going to be sort of simpler to consume, and yet that say the same thing about the data. And so, I’m not saying never. It is possible where the simplest way to say what you need to say is a Marimekko Chart. It’s just in my experience it’s usually not. Usually, there are simpler alternatives.

I do mention chart types, though, like box plots, for example, and connected scatterplots, which I think are virtually never the simplest way to say what you need to say about the data. And this has generated a certain amount of sort of response when I’ve published articles about why I don’t use box plots anymore, for example.

But I’ve just found that things like strip plots, jittered strip plots, stacked histograms are virtually always much easier for audiences to understand because box plots are pretty abstract, if you even know what it is. A lot of your audience probably won’t even know what a box plot is, and they require lots of time to explain, and there are virtually always simpler ways of saying what you need to say about the data.

And so, I wouldn’t necessarily put Marimekko Charts in that category in terms of, like, they’re never the simplest way, but there often are simpler ways of communicating the information. 

So, yeah, there are a couple of chart types that I think fall into that category of never the simplest way. Like I said, box plots, connected scatterplots, and bullet graphs, for those who know what those chart types are. There are virtually always simpler alternatives. And I have articles about all of these. Maybe we can link to those in the show notes as well.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, that’s really resonating on a couple dimensions when it comes to box plots. I think the first time I encountered the concept of a box plot, I had to think about it for, like, 20 minutes and look at the box plot and then the percentiles. But then once I did, I was like, “Oh, okay. Cool.” It’s sort of like I had to do that hard work of understanding the concept of a box plot. And then when I saw them later, I appreciated them. But if you haven’t done that, then it’s going to not resonate. It’s, like, you’re in a different language.

And, likewise, with the Marimekko’s, I remember I was on a consulting project, and we were sort of showing a number of employees by country on the X-axis, and by function on the Y-axis, so we were using these Marimekko’s. And we had a client who hated the charts so much, he forbade us to make another one. And then I had a colleague who made one, nonetheless, and shared it with the manager, who said, “Didn’t you hear the guy? He said no more Marimekko’s.” And the consultant passionately pleaded, “It’s the best way to show it.” And so, he was shot down because the client tends to win these sorts of debates.

So, yeah, point taken. We can fall in love with a thing, and in so doing, lose connection to the audience and where they’re at.

Nick Desbarats

Yeah, that’s a great point, too. I wrote a blogpost with a very clickbait-y title called “My favorite chart type.” It was I guess about two years ago, where I basically argued that “This is actually something we should try to move away from, like having favorite chart types,” because, really, that can only make our chart type choices worse. We’re going to be biased towards using certain charts, even when they’re not necessarily the best choice.

It’s kind of like people who have their favorite words, and they tend to use those words all the time even in situations where it’s really not the right word. And so, I think one of the marks of somebody who’s gotten really good at this is that they don’t have favorites. They just use whatever chart type is most appropriate for the situation.

The catch is that it just takes some time to learn when to choose from these various chart types. In my course, I cover 50 chart types because I think that all of those are needed in kind of everyday, when you’re making everyday charts for reports and presentations. And it takes a while to learn when to use them all.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, tell me, Nick, anything else you want to make sure before we hear about your favorite things?

Nick Desbarats

I think, really, the point that I was hoping that was going to come out in the discussion, and I think it really did, is to encourage people to really start thinking about charts as graphics for doing a job rather than visual representations of data.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Nick Desbarats

There’s one that I really like from an American journalist called HL Mencken, who’s active in the 1920s. And he said that, “For every complex problem, there’s an answer that’s clear, simple, and wrong.”

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Nick Desbarats

I think pretty much anything by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the sort of godfathers of the study of cognitive biases. That has just informed my thinking in innumerable ways since I first came across it. It’s well-summarized in Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And maybe that is a favorite book. Any other favorite books you want to highlight?

Nick Desbarats

Yeah, actually, but I’m going to cheat. I’m going to give you two. One work-related, which is How to Measure Anything by Doug Hubbard. It’s an absolutely brilliant book.

And then in terms of kind of general kind of books about living a good life, there’s The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Nick Desbarats

My website is PracticalReporting.com, all one word. And if you go on the top nav to the Contact/Follow page, then there’s my email form and where to follow me on LinkedIn. And I invite people to do that.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Nick Desbarats

I think it’s really important to develop this basic skill, like the spelling and vocabulary of data visualization. There’s a very rapidly growing awareness that this is something that a lot of people probably need to learn because, of course, so many of us are now handling data as part of our job. And, really, to me, that’s kind of the starting point. Before you start learning about data storytelling, or anything like that, learn the basics of the language first.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Nick, thank you. This is fun. I wish you many fun charts.

Nick Desbarats

Thank you. Yeah, I really appreciate it. Fantastic discussion.

926: The Five Codes that Make and Break Trust with Jeremie Kubiceck

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Jeremie Kubicek shares how to end misunderstandings with the five codes of communication.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The root of every misunderstanding
  2. The simple trick to consistently meet people’s expectations
  3. How to repair damaged relationships  

About Jeremie

Jeremie Kubicek is a powerful communicator, serial entrepreneur and content builder. He creates content used by some of the largest companies around the globe found in the books he has authored: The 100X Leader; 5 Voices, 5 Gears; the National Bestseller, Making Your Leadership Come Alive; and The Peace Index. His new book, The Communication Code, co-authored with his business partner, was released last November.

Jeremie is the Co-Founder of GiANT, a company that certifies coaches and consultants that serve companies and their employees. Jeremie has started over 25 companies while living in Oklahoma City, Moscow, Atlanta and London.

Resources Mentioned

Jeremie Kubicek Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Jeremie, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Jeremie Kubicek

So good to be here. Always good to be with you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I want to hear about your book The Communication Code. You’ve done a lot of research on humans, relating, communicating, interacting. Any particularly noteworthy discoveries or learnings you have on all these lately?

Jeremie Kubicek

Yes, I do. In fact, we basically have a tool that we’ve used for eight years in our GIANT business, our community. But I’ve just done a lot of research around the idea of, “Why do people miscommunicate? And then, “How does miscommunication affect relationships? And what does it actually do?”

And so, the big aha that Steve Cockram and I had in this is every communication has an expectation attached to it. And every expectation has a code word, a clue. And if you can figure out the code word of what the other person is inferring or expecting, you’ll unlock that communication, that transmission of communication will get unlocked.

And when that happens over and over again, you’ll build healthier relationships, you’ll build more camaraderie, you’ll lower miscommunication, which will impact the other person. And so, how many people have relationships in their life?

Pete Mockaitis

I do.

Jeremie Kubicek

Yeah, everyone. And how many want those to be the best it possibly can be? Well, if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be good if you knew what the code words were? And wouldn’t it be great if you could figure them out before they told you, or the other person could tell you what the code word is? And that’s what we figured out.

We saw, like, “Oh, my goodness, there are five code words. If you figured out those five code words, it will unlock that communication, that one transmission of communication, which could then unlock the relationship.”

Pete Mockaitis

That’s so cool. And what’s coming to mind for me is I remember I had a really sweet woman, and mentor, her name is Marilyn Holt. Shoutout to Marilyn. And she just thought it would be kind of fun to get some students together to meet up with this billionaire friend of hers. She just thought, “Oh, I think you’ll probably learn some things from him, have some fun.” She’s like, “Hey, Ron, I think it might be great to get some students that I’m working with together to meet with you.”

And so, he just said immediately, “What do they want?” And she said, “You know, Ron, I’m sorry. You probably have everybody always wanting something from you. We just thought it’d be fun to get together and see a little bit about your story and journey, and have a cool experience for these kids.” Like, “Oh,” so he’s like surprised, like, “Oh, yeah, okay, let’s do that.” Because we do, we have this expectation which is formed by any number of things, and part of it could just be what most people tend to want when a stranger is calling up a billionaire.”

Jeremie Kubicek

That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis

And he’s like, “Oh, that’s probably what these guys want, too, is something in the world of what I could do for them with, I don’t know, jobs, or internships, or investments, or something.”

Jeremie Kubicek

And, in our case, we figured out this the really hard way. Steve Cockram is my business partner, he’s British. I was in London, we were meeting, I had just celebrated closing a strategic partnership, it was a pretty sizable partnership, and I was super excited about it. And I’m like, “Dude, we got to go to lunch. I’ve got so much to share.” That was a code, that was a clue, of like, “I want to celebrate.”

We get to lunch, and I start sharing the details of what I was excited about. And, again, I’m expecting celebration, high five, “Let’s have a great time. Let’s celebrate in this for a minute,” and he begins to critique. And the critique was, “Well, why did you do it that way? That’s not how you said we were going to do it. And what about this? And didn’t they provide this? And haven’t you…?” And I start turning green and red, Hulking out.

And, all of a sudden, I’m like, “What are you doing? Why can’t we just celebrate?” and I freak out. And he’s like, “Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to celebrate?” I’m like, “Wasn’t it obvious I wanted to celebrate?” And what we realized was, in this whole encounter, that Steve’s tendency is to critique in the form of collaboration. He wants to collaborate but it can come across as critique. My aha was I wanted to celebrate, or I wanted to at least clarify beforehand, and that was the game that we’re playing. I was trying to express my celebration, and he was bringing his full critique, and we missed, and we realized, “Oh, my goodness, how many times does that happen?”

So, I took this executive team recently through this exercise. They’re all married. I said, “Think about your spouse and what they tend to communicate, and what do you receive, and what do you communicate, and what do they receive?” And eight out of eight missed it. They wanted different things, “I want care,” or, “I want you to clarify.” “What do you get?” “I get critiqued or collaboration” “I want collaboration and celebration but I only get care and I don’t really need that.”

In each case, they missed. So, then I reversed it, and I said, “What about you? What do you tend to do to them? And what does your spouse want?” And only seven out of eight were wrong. One of them got it right. My point was, “How many people are missing it every single day?” So, what happens when you miscommunicate? You begin to put up walls. You begin to move back. You pull away. You begin to infer, “Oh, yeah, you know, Pete. That’s just how he is.”

And then we work around people because we know how they’re going to respond. And then, over time, relationship expectations go down. You begin to not expect much and just kind of live with it.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah. It is funny how we do make these assumptions, like, “Wasn’t it obvious I wanted to celebrate?” And it’s obvious in our own minds and yet we can get it wrong all the time. So, lay it on us, you’ve got five flavors here, each one starts with the letter C. Can you start by giving us what are those five C’s?

Jeremie Kubicek

Yeah, so celebrate is the desire to express what you’re excited about. Care is the need for wanting to make sure that you’re taken care of. And clarify, clarity is really to clarify, “Is this what you’re saying, Pete? Let me make sure before I go in another direction. Let me make sure that I understand what you’re saying.” And then collaborate is the idea that you want me to help you. We want to work on this together. And then critique is you’re going to hold something up, I’m going to make it better. I’m going to show you where it’s wrong so that it can be right.

So, if you think about those five, that most of our interactions, the expectations are tied to those. So, if I’m going, like Steve example, I wanted to celebrate, and I wanted him to either clarify but he said, “You didn’t tell me. Why didn’t you just tell me?” And I’m like, “Why didn’t you just get it? It was obvious.” So, in this case, now I will go to someone, like in that case, I would say this, “Hey, Steve, I am so excited. I want to celebrate a few things. So, today is all about celebration, but then if you don’t fully get it, clarify. Ask me any questions. That’d be awesome.”

And I’ve given him two codes but the main one is, “I’m here to celebrate.” Or, he might come to me, as he does often, he goes, “Hey, Jeremie, I want to collaborate. I really value your input on such and such. I know you care for me. I’m not really here to celebrate. You can clarify if you want, but I really want to collaborate.” I’m like, “Cool. Got it.” So, now, I’ve been given the open door. I’ve been given the code word, and so I should be able to meet expectations. When we don’t meet expectations, that’s when all friction comes into relationships.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, this is good. And so then, collaboration, it seems like…well, I guess they’re all pretty big categories. Collaboration seems like just about anytime we’re trying to do a thing, it would fall into the collaboration zone, like, “I want to sell you something,” or, “I want to buy something from you,” or, “I want to figure a thing out together.” Then all that’s in the collaboration zone.

Jeremie Kubicek

That’s right. And it doesn’t have to be so rhythmic where you have to say it every single time. You get good at it over time. I can now figure out expectations. By even asking a few clarifying questions, I can figure out what they need. But sometimes with my wife, we’re set in a hot tub and we’ll talk at night, and it’ll be like, “So, what do you need tonight?” And she’ll be like, “I just need you to listen.”

That’s care. Got it. That means she doesn’t need my critique, she doesn’t need any collaboration, she doesn’t want to celebrate. She just wants me to listen. That’s care. So, showing her care is different. Now, her showing me care might be a little different than hers. I need to talk out loud so I need her to listen in a different way, so there’s nuances to it but we get the gist of it.

But to start out, Pete, if you and I were in a meeting, you’re like, “Hey, Jeremie, I really trust you. I’m almost finished with this presentation. Critique it, man. Blow holes in it so that I can make this really, really tight.” Great. You gave me the communication code to know what to do.

Pete Mockaitis

And it is so handy when you know. It’s funny, I think critique is among the most dangerous. It’s like, “I am not looking for a critique.” And we’ve had some other guests say that one of the best things you can do when you’re offering feedback is to, first, ask for permission to provide some feedback, or I guess you’re getting clarification there.

Jeremie Kubicek

That’s it.

Pete Mockaitis

It’s like, “Oh, you know, I’ve got some ideas for improvement. Would you like me to share them?” And then for the other person really has permission to say, “You know, not today. We’re not in the headspace for that, but other days you are.” And it can be so valuable. Like, when you’re really wide open for it, it’s so huge.

I’m thinking about I was listening to Mr. Beast, the famous YouTuber, as to how he got so huge. And he said, “Oh, I had a number of friends and we would always just get together. We would just roast each other’s videos.” And I like he used the word roast because roast is sort of like a funny thing, comedians do a roast. So, it almost sounds fun and celebratory, and yet what it consists of is being told all the things you’re doing wrong in your videos and how you can make them much better.

And so, you’re right. If you’re not feeling that, it’s just like you’ll get way mad. You’ll get way mad at that person, like, “Hey, shut up, jerk. I’m out of here.”

Jeremie Kubicek

It’s not helpful. Right, because what happens is critique is different than being critical. Critical is when it’s negative, “So, you’re against me.” Well, if we’ve done communication really well, if we’ve used a communication code, we’ve built up really good communication, expectations are being met, that means I trust you. I know that you’re for me, you’re not against me. If I know that you’re for me, I’m probably going to be more open to your critique than if I feel that you’re against me, it’s going to feel like you’re critical and you’re always critical. So, constructive criticism, those words don’t go together.

It also, though, plays out to different personality types. So, we have something, I think, last time I shared on the five voices, which is our personality system that is so, so scalable and potent, but we have thinkers and feelers. Well, thinkers, the thinker voices are going to be pioneers and guardians. They’re going to be way more open to critique than the feelers, the nurturers, the connectors, some of the creatives, because they live in logic, and they live in just the thinking mindset, so they’re fine, “Sure, shoot holes in it.”

So, they go, “Hey, what do you think of my idea, Pete?” and they shoot holes in it, and they go, “Okay, great.” They leave and then they come back, “What do you think now?” “Oh, it’s great.” “Perfect. Thank you.” The feelers take an idea, and they go, “Hey, Pete, what do you think of my idea?” and they put it right over their heart. And, all of a sudden, you shoot at it, and then there’s blood, and they’re like, “Oh, dude, why did you put it over your heart? What were you thinking? Move it.”

And so, the feelers have a harder time, and I’m one, have a harder time. We have a hard time with anything that feels negative towards us. So, that means we have to really build up the right rapport, the right relational trust with another person, and that takes time. And that’s what we’ve done, is we just built tools that make leaders more relationally intelligent so that they can not miss. They can actually hit what the expectations of the other person are.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, Jeremie, this is sort of your knack, is you present something, it’s simple, it’s like, “Well, of course. I should just do that and we’ll all be better off. Cool. Cool. Cool.” Tell us, Jeremie, what are some the nuances, or the tricky parts, or the sticking points, like, “That sounds easy enough. How about we all just go do this, declare what C we’re in, we’re looking for?” Where do things go wrong?

Jeremie Kubicek

Yeah, it goes wrong because you need to think about your past. Every single person has a past with you. So, what’s it been like on the other side of you for the last five years or the last 25 years? So, it’s one thing if you’re like, “Oh, great. Figure out a new technique. Here we go,” and I start practicing it on someone. Like, well, wait. They’ve experienced you in a negative power test. They’ve experienced your domination where you brought low support and high challenge to them. You’ve been critiquing them for 15 years.

You can’t just change overnight. You actually have to get through a process of like, “Oh, my gosh, Pete. I’ve read this book, and I think I’ve realized I’ve been dominating. I didn’t mean to. I’ve been critiquing the entire time. I’m so sorry.” Stage one. Stage two is, “I’m going to practice The Communication Code.” But you’re going to have to do it for a long time for them to realize this is the new norm.

Because if you’re in a negative power, if you’re in a negative situation with someone, then it’s been an abuse of power, an abuse of your personality, abuse of your communication style, and that’s worn the other person out, and maybe their walls are so high. So, you got to let them drop their walls a little bit so they’ll actually begin to trust you again. That’s a nuance that people have to realize. If they want to experience true relational change, then they have to go back in the past and clean it up, which can be hard.

Pete Mockaitis
So, could you maybe give us a sample of what that conversation might sound like in practice?

Jeremie Kubicek

Yeah.

Jeremie Kubicek

“So, Pete, man, I’ve been reading this concept called The Communication Code, and I think I’ve realized in the first two chapters, it talked all about the negative power test. I think sometimes my personality is so overbearing that I feel like I probably don’t give you the chance to breathe or talk, or I think I’ve noticed also that you probably feel my critique more than you feel my celebration. Is that true?” And then I give you a chance to share.

And if you’re like, “Oh, yeah, that’s it.” It’s like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry, man. I probably didn’t realize that was just naturally happening. So, if you’ll give me a chance, I’m just going to work on some things. So, I’m going to ask you a question whenever we get together. What do you need right now? Do you want celebration? Do you want care? Do you want clarity? And then I’m going to start there. If you want me to collaborate or critique, I’ll let you tell me but I’m going to try to work on clarifying first or celebrating a little bit even though I’m not very good at it.” That’s an example.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Yeah, that seems like it’d be lovely to hear on the receiving end of that.

Jeremie Kubicek
That would be nice.

Pete Mockaitis

You might be met with some skepticism, like, “Okay, Jeremie, let’s see how long this will last till you’re onto your next flavor of the month.” So, you might get some skepticism but it’ll be a hard time imagining a strong negative reaction. There’s a scene from Brooklyn Nine-Nine which cracks me up where they get an amazing new captain that they’re skeptical of, and they say, “Oh, she wants to meet with us and talk about our goals and our strengths. Like, what’s she up to? This can’t be good.”

And so, that makes me chuckle in the professional development space. But tell us, how are some ways that might be perceived negatively that we should be on the lookout for?

Jeremie Kubicek

Yeah, so it’s what you said, it’s being consistent. Consistency is the key to great leadership. If you’re consistent, and people know this isn’t the flavor of the month, this is something that you’re doing, and then you’re using the language consistently, then you’re going to probably work around it. We use language and tools at GIANT that get embedded in the water system. And over time, it creates common objective language versus subjective, subjectivity.

And that common objective language is a real source of help. So, that’s what we’ve experienced is if you can do that really well, just by practicing, that’s it. Just keep being consistent. And then, over time, it will break the other person down, and then they’ll start using the language. And it’s not crazy, right? We’re saying people have expectations. What if you met their expectations? See how that relationship will change.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, all right. Well, I’m curious then, if folks feel a little weird using the lingo, it’s like, “Jeremie, do I have to use the words care, celebration, collaboration, critique, and clarification? It doesn’t feel like me.” Are there any other ways you recommend flexing or adapting it?

Jeremie Kubicek

So, the way that I do it, I do it now. I’ll meet with somebody, and they haven’t read The Communication Code, or they don’t know the language. I’ll just ask, like, “Hey, can I ask you a few clarification questions?” if I feel like it needs to. And they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, sure.” “Great. So, in this case, are you saying this or this? Because I want to know, do you want me to…? Like, I’m ready to celebrate. Or are you looking for me to collaborate?” So, you can naturally weave it in almost like a decision tree, “Are we going to go left or are going to go right?”

So, by weaving it in naturally, it didn’t have to be crazy. If you sense someone just needs you to listen, you don’t have to say, “Do you need me to care?” You can just say, “Hey, do you just want me to listen? Would that be the most helpful?” “Yeah, it’d be great.” Because you have to train other people because they’re not used to sharing expectations either. Think of it, most of us don’t know how to share our own expectations. So, you have to give expectation and you have to pull expectation, and that’s ultimately what we’re trying to get people to do.

Pete Mockaitis

Now, I’m curious, when you mentioned one flavor of caring is listening, are there a few core subtypes or subcategories you might put in each of these?

Jeremie Kubicek

It’s based on personality. So, like a pioneer, which is a thinker, they would be someone, like in a Myers-Briggs, an ENTJ. They’re very type A driven, care for that person. It might mean that you’re listening to them and being a sounding board, and giving them a chance to vent or share their frustration. It’s getting the poison out so they don’t blow someone else up. That’s actually showing care.

Very different then to a nurturer because they want you to care for the things they care about. So, it’s just the idea of understanding care. And in the book, I go through each chapter. So, care, if you don’t know how to care, and here’s all the nuances, here’s all the subparts of care. The same with celebration. If you don’t know how to celebrate, what is a celebration? What’s it not? It’s not people looking for a parade. Just teaching people how to do these things that aren’t natural.

Pete Mockaitis

I’d love to get your hot take on sort of a couple of these details in terms of what is something that’s really high impact for folks, and that they tend to get wrong a lot?

Jeremie Kubicek

It’s interesting, and I think if you’re listening to this, you probably know this too. It’s almost like this Brooklyn Nine-Nine thing. There’s a cynicism that’s in culture. And when people hear buzzwords, they’re like, “Oh, he wants to celebrate. Oh, what does he want? Does he want us to throw…?” And they go off on these long tangential misnomers. And it’s like, “No, the guy wanted to high-five.”

So, here’s what we realized. There’s a custom communication code. There’s a general communication code, “Okay, hey, I want to celebrate or care, whatever.” But when I’m talking directly to Steve, for instance, and he’s talking to me, I can now tell him exactly what I want. Whenever we meet, “I want some care because you live across the pond. It can feel transactional if we’re only doing Zoom. Let’s text each other. Like, how is your weekend? How is your sports teams?” It’s just that we’ve been business partners for 10 years, so let’s make sure there’s some camaraderie. That’s showing care for me.

Then I want to be able to celebrate. But when I celebrate, I don’t want to celebrate me. I want to celebrate us. So, it’s nuanced, it’s specific of each word. I want to celebrate the whole dream team, the Avengers we’ve put together. I’m not looking for a personal celebration. That’s the way I roll. So, that’s what it means to being in third, and fourth, and fifth.

He did the same thing, he goes, “Jeremie, I want to collaborate with you. I want you to know you have freedom every single time to collaborate, which means I want to collaborate with you, too.” So, we went through each of them and we actually created a custom communication code. Oh, my goodness, the depths of like, “Oh, that’s what you want.”

So, now, imagine every marriage, every partnership, every friendship, every coworker, those that you spend the most amount of time with, let’s say the top three to five people. Imagine if you knew the custom communication code for everyone of those people. The chances of you communicating well will go up. The chances of your relationship to thrive goes up.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, that’s intriguing. And I’m thinking about with my wife in terms of critique. It’s like there’s a time and a place and a zone in which I really am, I’m eager, I’m hungry to hear, to learn, to understand. And I’ve even asked explicitly, directly, “What can I do that will help you feel most loved?” which is funny because that’s me. That’s my heart as a husband and as a strategy consultant at the same time.

Because it’s true, “We have finite time, energy, attention, resources, like I really do want to know what’s going to have the most bang for the buck, but it’s because I care about you, not because I’m an optimizing robot.” So, there are times in which I’m really hungry to know that, and there are times in which, like, “You know what, I’m really not in the mood to hear that right now. I don’t recall asking for your input on how I made this popcorn.”

Jeremie Kubicek

That’s right, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis

And so, yeah, I guess there’s an example right there with my communication code for a critique, is I don’t want the critiques to come unexpectedly, impromptu, out of nowhere. I want them to come in a, “Hey, let’s do some reflection about where we can improve and grow and do better.” And then it’s like, “Game on, yeah.” I’m anxious, I’m raring to go in those contexts. But when I’m thinking about something else, I have a set of expectations, I’m quite irritated by it.

Jeremie Kubicek
That’s right. Yeah, you just said it. And the better you get at it, the more you try, it becomes natural. It doesn’t become so rhythmic. And so then, it just kind of weaves itself in. And then sometimes I’ll say to my wife, “Hey, remember I’m needing a little clarity before a critique.” So, now I’m just giving a little hint, like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, you’re right. You’re right. Okay. So, let me ask it again.”

Because, again, it comes back to, “Are you an external processor or an internal processor?” So, that you’ve got extroversion and introversion, you’ve got thinking and feeling. All of these dynamics are at play between two people. Add in kids, add in a team, now the complexity is there. And if you can create common language, and you start realizing every communication has an expectation, and every expectation has a code, “Got it. What is the code?” Solve the code, solve the relationship.

It does not always work out that way when it comes to mother-in laws, or people who have narcissism, or other issues, but it’s still the idea that it makes relationships better.

Pete Mockaitis

And I like the way you said that in terms of, “Hey, it’s a reminder. I’m looking for this and then that,” which comes across as much more friendly than, “Um, I think what you meant to say was this.” It seems like you can provide that input in a very gentle, kind, friendly, non-accusative kind of a way which will, hopefully, be received fairly well most of the time, I’m guessing.

Jeremie Kubicek

Totally. That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, Jeremie, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Jeremie Kubicek

I think we’re great. It’s been fun to be with you, Pete. Appreciate it.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, yeah. You, too. All right. Well, let’s hear about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jeremie Kubicek

“Don’t despise small beginnings.”

Pete Mockaitis

And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Jeremie Kubicek

I’m doing research right now on fear-based performance. And what fear-based performance does inside teams, organizations, but also fear-based living, and what it does to your body, and where most of our health problems are coming from, from heart attacks, to arthritis and so forth. It’s very interesting.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite book?

Jeremie Kubicek

The book I’ve re-read, it was The Second Mountain by David Brooks. It was a really good book. The concept is there’s a first mountain that everyone is trying to climb. And most people, once they get to the top, they’re like, “Was that it?” And then there’s a second mountain. It’s maybe my age. I’m 52. I believe that 55 to 72 are the influence years of life. For a productive individual, those are the most influential years. So, I’m preparing for that 55 to 72 run. And The Second Mountain gave me a really good context for that.

Pete Mockaitis

And a favorite tool, something you use that helps you be awesome at your job?

Jeremie Kubicek

I do this thing every day, it’s called The Examen. I do it at 5:30 every day. On the way home, usually from work or wherever I’m at, and what I do is I do three things. I look backwards, and go, “What was I grateful for today?” I’ll text that person usually. Second, “Where was I off? Where was I not at peace today?” And I radically go after it, “What was my tendency? What’s my pattern here? What happened? Why did I wake up on the wrong side of the bed?”

And by doing that, I’ve figured out I have 32 tendencies, and they’re interesting. Being defensive, oversharing, tendencies to namedrop, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And what it’s done for me is it’s allowed me my evenings to go better because I keep short accounts, and I don’t let things build up any more like I used to.

So, every single day, I’m kind of like, “Yup, good. I’ve put that to bed.” And then I think about my schedule the next day, “Am I ready for it and prepared for it?” That’s the last thing I do. So, that has helped me tremendously be at peace at night, sleep better, I wake up more energized. That’s my tool.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Jeremie Kubicek

Yeah, it’s something I always say to people, and it’s really about limiting beliefs, and it’s, “Who says you can’t?”

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Jeremie Kubicek

JeremieKubicek.com. J-E-R-E-M-I-E-K-U-B-I-C-E-K.com. That’s my speaking site. Or, GIANT Worldwide, so GiantWorldwide.com is what our main business is.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jeremie Kubicek

Yeah, I think for each of you who are learning today, it’s like realize communication is a process, it’s a journey. It’s not a one-time transaction. If you want to get really, really good at it, you’ll start to think about the other person more than just yourself. What is it that they need right now? What are they wanting? What’s the expectation? Use the code words. When you do, you’ll start seeing breakthroughs happen. And just keep staying consistent at it, and that’s what I’m excited about.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Jeremie, thank you. This is fun. I wish you many lovely communications decoded.

Jeremie Kubicek

Thank you, mate. Appreciate you, Pete.

913: Upping your Influence with the Five Principles of Captivating Stories with Karen Eber

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Karen Eber shares neuroscience insights to help you maximize attention and impact in your communications.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why storytelling dramatically increases your influence
  2. The five factory settings of the brain
  3. The key to creating memorable stories

About Karen

Karen Eber is an author, leadership consultant, and keynote speaker. She has a TED Talk on storytelling and recently published, The Perfect Story: How to Tell Stories That Inform, Influence, and Inspire, with HarperCollins.

As the CEO and Chief Storyteller of Eber Leadership Group, Karen helps Fortune 500 companies build leaders, teams, and culture, one story at a time. She’s a former Head of Culture, Learning, and Leadership Development at GE and Deloitte.

Resources Mentioned

Karen Eber Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Karen, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Karen Eber
Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m pumped up to hear about some of the gems you got for us in your book The Perfect Story: How to Tell Stories That Inform, Influence, and Inspire. And I’d love it if you could start us off with an example of a perfect story or a super memorable gripping story that exemplifies a perfect story in action.

Karen Eber
I’ll tell you the opening story in my book, which is about my eyes. I was born with blue eyes, like most babies, and at about the age of four months, they start to change to different colors, so I have a brown eye and a green eye. And I’ve always loved this. Why have one eye color when you can have two? And it’s a special thing but, as much as I loved it, I would come to recognize the exact moment when people would notice it for the first time.

And their words would slow in the middle of a dialogue and I could see them moving back and forth, almost like their brain was in a negotiation, trying to think like, “Which one do I look at?” And they would eventually stop mid-sentence, and say, “Do you know you have two different color eyes?” to which I would usually go, “No,” because what do you say to that?

And then I would brace myself because the following script happen just about every time, of, “I know a dog that has two different colored eyes.” I’m like, “Okay, thank you.” “David Bowie, he had two different color eyes,” which he didn’t. He had an accident and dilated pupil. And then it would turn into, “Well, do you see the same colors out of both eyes? And what color are your parents’ eyes? And do your eyes give you special powers?”

And this thing that I love suddenly became this burden because I was now this weird thing where they would call other people over and there would be 10 faces trying to get a viewpoint of my eyes, and I hated it. I didn’t love the way I was treated for the thing that I really enjoyed about myself. And one day I decided that I was done with it.

And so, once I got the “How did that happen?” I told them how I was born with brown eyes, and, “One night, when I was about four years old, I was in my room coloring, and you know that big box of crayons that everybody has where you’ve got the broken ones, and peeled ones, and the perfect ones? Well, I reached into that box and I pulled out a green crayon and I sniffed it, and it didn’t really smell like anything but I took a nibble and kind of liked the texture and so I ate the green crayon, and I like it so much I ate all the green crayons in the box. And the next day I woke up, and my eye was green.”

And then I would be quiet, and you could see whomever I told this to, there would be this internal negotiation going on of, “Is she for real? Like, there’s no way this story is real but she said it so straight, I can’t really tell. Like, what do I say? What do I do?” And I would let them off the hook. But what happened was this shift in energy, where I went from this thing and this weird person and weird, weird thing on display to a moment of connection.

And most of the time, people recognize they had been asking me all these silly questions, and they kind of made me not human, and that this was something that actually made me more relatable and more human. And it created a shift that not only was memorable because I’ve had people tell me decades later that they remember this. But that it created a connection that we probably wouldn’t have had had this not happened.

And so, for me, this was the perfect story to start with because it shows stories aren’t just about giving a presentation. They can be a moment of connection, or shifting energy, or shifting circumstances so you can get into a different type of conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool, yes. And what’s nifty there is you have a lot of reps in terms of, okay, this happens to you repeatedly so you can sort of experiment and see how things go and what works. And, sure enough, you’ve transformed an experience which is sort of annoying and a burden to deal with into something fun that you can laugh with and roll with.

And that is cool. There you have it. Stories transforming what’s going on with our brain experiences. And in your TED Talk, you mentioned just that, is that our brains kind of mirror each other, the storyteller and the story receiver. What is this science fiction, Karen?

Karen Eber
Yeah, it sounds almost too fake to be true. There’s a neuroscientist out of Princeton, Uri Hasson, who put people in MRI machines, and the first person, first group, goes in, and they are listening to an episode, or watching an episode of a show on the BBC, and they are measuring their brain activity. And when they take them out, put them in a second time, and this time, those people are told to recount the episode that they had just watched.

They then record the brain activity during that. And then a new group of people are brought in. They go into the MRI and they listen to the recounted episode of the people that were in the MRI machine. So, you have three different instances of watching, recounting, and listening to the recounting. And what they found is the activity was the same.

It didn’t matter if they had experienced it, if they were the ones recounting it, or they were actually listening to the recounting of it, that neural activity was very similar, which means that stories almost gives you this artificial reality because, as you’re listening to it, your brain is imagining and seeing and placing you in the story, and it then lights up as though you were in it, which is why we go to the movies, and our heart is racing because James Bond is running across the rooftops but we’re not moving because our brain is saying, “You’re in this movie,” or it’s imagining what it would feel like, and you can feel that amped feeling.

Or it’s also why this time of year is where there’s often a lot of horror films and things that people pay attention to. That’s why you get so amped and surprised, it’s because your brain is, like, “You are here about to have someone jumped out at you.”

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, that’s wild. And now that gets me thinking in terms of the emerging proliferation of fMRI type devices with kernel or neuro link or others in terms of if all of our brains are doing the same things in response to the story being told or heard, it seems that it may not be so fanciful to think of a world in which technology can decode what’s happening in our brains to relay that story.

Karen Eber
Let’s give an asterisk next to it because I’m not trying to suggest that it’s like propaganda and we can brainwash everyone into it, but what does happen is that your brain, your senses are starting to engage as though you are the character there and you’re having some of the experiences. And so, it is a more dynamic way to interact with stuff.

It’s not quite propaganda at scale though but part of the reason why this is increasing in interest and popularity is that in the past 15 years, our understanding of the brain has just become so much more. There are just so many more discoveries and understanding and experiments have been done to help us be more savvy, but what is really happening from how we are communicating, consuming, deciding, all of these things are just we learn so much every day.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, with that said, can you share with us, what’s sort of the big idea or main message behind the book The Perfect Story?

Karen Eber
It builds on the science of storytelling but in a relatable way. So, this won’t have you be putting on a lab coat and breaking out test tubes and beakers. The idea is that it’s not enough to tell a story the way you tell a story is going to make a difference in the experience with the listener. So, there are certain ways that our brain is going to respond to information but it’s the way we put together that information to put in the unexpected events to engage the senses to build tension in the story.

It’s the orchestration and the choices that we make that cause the brain to pay attention and be immersed in it or not. If you think of a movie that you tried to watch and didn’t get very far in, it’s because your brain just said, “This is not worth the time or the calorie spend.” And so, the book gets into, “How do you understand what’s happening in the brain when you tell stories?”

But, more importantly, what do you then think about when you are putting your stories together so that you can create an immersive story? And then it takes you through the full process of developing and telling stories, telling stories with data, and making sure that they don’t manipulate while you navigate the vulnerability.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very cool. And before we get into the particulars of how that’s done, could you share with us a little bit of the why in terms of what’s ultimately at stake for professionals if they do this well or not so well? What kind of career trajectory impact do you think that makes between folks who tell okay stories from time to time when they remember, to those who consistently take the time to craft the perfect stories where they can?

Karen Eber
I think it comes down to attention, and the greatest gift any audience they can give you is their attention. It is a precious commodity. And we have choices to make of “Are we going to talk at people?” If we’re in a business setting, are we going to pull out the PowerPoint quilts of slides then just pick and choose, and just dump things at people and put up the 10-point font, and say, “I’m not going to read this,” and then proceed to talk at people where no one remembers it ten minutes later? Or are we going to be thoughtful about how we’re using that attention and really trying to connect people to information that’s going to inform their world and help them think differently, or maybe reach a different decision?

If you take the time to really build these muscles and then you become faster at it, you are always going to be winning the hearts and minds, you’re going to be connecting with people and being relatable, you are going to see how to motivate individuals on an individual level. The more that AI and automation comes in, the more we need to be able to leverage individualization at scale. And so, storytelling and really communicating are just a really dynamic way to do this and maximize the attention that we get.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that end, let’s dig into how it’s done. You’ve got a fun turn-of-a-phrase, you say we’ve got five factory settings of the brain. Tell us, what do you mean by that? What are these settings? And how do they impact how we tell stories?

Karen Eber
If you think of a phone that you unbox, it comes with a factory setting. There are certain apps and programs, and anytime you restore the phone, it’s going to go back to those basic settings. It’s like, “Here’s the core things that run it.” There’s something similar in the brain when you communicate. There are basic ways that we’re going to respond to information and communication. And so, I call them the five factory settings of the brain.

And they get into different things, like the first one is that your brain is lazy. It is meant to be the broker of calories in your body. The number one job of the brain is to keep the body alive. And part of that is making sure you’re safe. Part of that is also regulating how you breathe, move, digest, all of those things but it’s also, “How do I need to set my foot down if I’m going to be walking downstairs?”

And so, the brain is using 20% of the body’s calories for these things, and the majority of these calories are going to these predictions for like, “How do I move around?” And that means it always wants to have a surplus of calories because it never wants to go bankrupt. The goal of the brain is to respond to stimulus to be able to be ahead and anticipate and make predictions versus to react because by predicting, you’re making a guess and you’re doing something, and sometimes you’ll get it right and sometimes you’ll get it wrong.

But if you’re reacting every time, it’s a much bigger energy drain. So, what this means in terms of stories is that because the brain is lazy, it’s not meant to be deeply immersed in everything all the time, and it looks for moments for when it’s going to be able to step back and conserve calories. These are the nights that you binge your favorite show on TV that you’ve seen several times, or maybe you put in a movie that you could recite the dialogue because you have that moment of, like, “I just don’t want to think.” That’s your brain saying, “Let’s conserve some calories.”

The same thing happens in meetings and stories when you notice you’re drifting off. That’s the brain taking a natural pause and conserving calories. The way to overcome this in a story, though, is to put things in that make people have to spend calories, put in the unexpected events, be building the tension, be engaging the senses so that the brain is there, interested, ready to go.

So, that’s one. There’s five more but these are starting to help you understand, “Okay, I get it.” There are certain things that the brain is going to be doing, and that then gives me different choices as the storyteller to then play with and see how immersed I can make the brain.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. I’m reminded, there’s a marketing book called Don’t Make Me Think, and I feel that when I’m interacting with webpages or any number of things, like, “Okay, oh, this isn’t going to be quick and easy. Ah, never mind, maybe later.”

Karen Eber
Right, and that’s fair. I even joke, like it’s our attention span, and some of it is. Our attention spans have definitely changed, especially through COVID, but it’s also there is, at the bottom of this, a whole internal wager, like, “Is this worth the attention and the calorie spend?” and sometimes it’s not. Or, if we’re tired or hungry, that it gets diverted and it makes it even harder.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Let’s hear the other four factory settings.

Karen Eber
The second is that we make assumptions. So, the brain hates for things to be incomplete. It’s always going to be making predictions and trying to anticipate because it wants to respond and not react. So, the faster it makes an assumption or a prediction, the faster it can say, “All right, we’ve done this. Now, we can conserve.” Maybe we have to course-correct every now and then but we know.

And what this means is this is why you try to guess the ending of the movie, or the book, or you’re in a meeting and you’re trying to anticipate what the person is going to say, or the show starts, and you’re like, “Yeah, I know where this is going to go. Forget it. I don’t need to be paying attention to this.” And what you want to do when you’re telling stories is either slow down these assumptions or you want to lean into them.

So, if you lean into, if I said to you, “He gave her the passcode to his phone,” what does that bring to mind for you?

Pete Mockaitis
I recently saw an Ashley Madison documentary so I’m thinking about infidelity. You’re right. I filled in a lot of gaps there.

Karen Eber
You did. That’s really fine, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Apparently, during the romantic relationship and there’s trouble in paradise.

Karen Eber
Yes, completely, right? And then there’s someone else that’s going to be making an assumption, they’ll might say, “Well, he trusts her.” So, there’s many different things. But just by that one sentence, your brain is already trying to make assumptions and fill in the gaps because this is what we naturally do. So, sometimes in a story, you want to lean into what those assumptions might be and let the brain finish a thought. And sometimes you want to disrupt them, you want to put in an unexpected event or detail that makes them pause because you want to have their brain hit the proverbial speed bump, and say, “Wait a minute. What? That’s not what I expected.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. Sometimes you go with the flow with what they expect, and sometimes you don’t. I’m thinking about how in casinos and video games, they very deliberately finetune the percentage of time you receive your variable rewards. Do we know, Karen, is there a range of percentages in which we want to give them what they’re expecting versus something totally different?

Karen Eber
No, it’s all choices and experimentation. While I’m giving you steps, it’s really not formulaic. It’s really more like here are a whole bunch of ingredients, and you can make a Mediterranean dish, you can make a Thai dish, you can make an Italian dish. It’s up to you on the combinations that you put it together with, depending on what you want for that audience.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, it’s also making me think about comedy in terms of, I guess that’s what makes jokes, jokes, is that, “Oh, you’re expecting one thing then, surprise, we get you with the other thing.” And I guess I’m thinking about the comedy I love the most is a little weird, like, I don’t know, Key & Peele or Nathan for You, and it’s because, for me or my taste, it’s like they crank it up even more, like, “Whoa.”

Karen Eber
Comedy is such great storytelling because what they’re doing is they’re forcing your brain to spend calories. They’re building the tension because you think you know where it’s going to go, and your brain is guessing what this joke is, and then, zing, you get the punchline and it went in a different direction. And then you’re like, “I did not see that. That is so clever,” and you remember that joke, and it’s because it challenged your assumptions and it helped your brain spend some calories. And so, now it’s become a part of your experience and your long-term memory. Same thing can happen in stories, too.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Let’s hear more of these factory settings and implications.

Karen Eber
Third one is that we have this library of files in our brain. So, if you take a photo on your phone, and you swipe up on it, you’ll see the F-stop, the date, the location, the megabytes, like everything that was used to take the photo is stamped on it. And something similar happens to our senses that is a metaphor. So, as you’re taking in information through your senses, and you’re having these experiences, they get stamped with emotions and stored in your long-term memory the same way that this photo has.

So, when your brain is going to make these predictions and these assumptions, it’s going through this library of files of things that you know, or things that are related to what you know, or maybe sometimes it’s like, “Yeah, we’ve got to open a brand-new file for this one. We’ve never experienced this before.” And these are all going to be different because we all have different experiences. But when you’re telling a story, you want to connect to what people know because you get a very different imprint.

So, if I say to you, “The incision was small,” how big do you think that is using centimeters or inches or some type of measurement that is helpful to you?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny, when I’m imagining a small incision, it’s between half an inch to two inches is a small incision.

Karen Eber
Yeah, right.

Pete Mockaitis
Not that I know anything about surgery but I’m just going to declare that for a small incision.

Karen Eber
Right, exactly. Your brain is going, “What is small?” and you’re not even thinking. This is all happening subconsciously. But if I say to you, “The incision is the size of a paperclip,” you immediately see it, you immediately know how big it is, and I’m now taking up free real estate in your brain because that just gave you, and often I can build on it, and you are not even having to think about it.

And so, when you’re telling a story, you want to put in some of these things that are going to immediately connect to what people know and give that visualization so that the person isn’t even having to connect the dots. You are taking over their brain and putting this fully-formed idea or image in there, and you’re getting instant cognition from it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And what’s the fourth one?

Karen Eber
The fourth one is that we…actually let me ask you. If you walk into a networking event and you didn’t know anybody there, what would be your thought process for who you want to go talk to?

Pete Mockaitis
It’s funny, it varies a whole lot based on my overall mood and objectives but, generally speaking, I find the safest move, this is what it feels safest, is to go to the one who is adrift, lonely, isolated, looking at their phone, as oppose to those who are like huddled up and like deeply engaged, leaning in in a conversation, like, “Okay, I’ll let them lie but that person looks like they might appreciate having me into their world.”

Karen Eber
Totally. And what your brain is doing, is they’re going, “Who is that person or that group that I can walk up to that feels safe?” Exactly what you just described. So, that is like, “This is going to be my person for the next five minutes or maybe for the whole event. Who knows?” and it’s the in group. This is the group that we share something in common, maybe it’s values, or beliefs, or experiences, or even aspirations, and say, “We feel a sense of kinship with this group.”

It also categorizes things into outgroups, so that group that’s huddled together really tightly that looks like it’s too hard to break into, it’s like, “Yeah, I’m not a part of that group. I could go over to that group, I could try, but I don’t really feel a part of it.” And outgroups are where we notice differences. And so, when you’re telling a story, you want to be thoughtful of, “Are you trying to have the audience feel like a member of the in group, feel like some group that they feel a part of, or that feels safe to be around, or are you trying to have them notice or feel the experience of being a member of an outgroup, which charities do this?”

A natural disaster happens, and you see a charity spotlighting an individual that lost their home, has no electricity, is struggling to get clothing, food. Meanwhile, you’re sitting in electricity and have food and running water right next to you, and you recognize how different your circumstances are. So, some of what you want to think about is, “What is the experience you want the audience to come away with? Do you want them to feel a part of something or a connection to the idea in your story? Or do you want them to notice how different they are?”

And neither are right or wrong, these are just some different ingredients you could choose, which brings us to the last one, which is that, at our most simple level, we seek pleasure and avoid pain. We’ve got this cocktail of pleasure neural chemicals which are serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin. These are mostly released in moments of connection, so you can’t wield them, you can’t command them. It’s truly when someone feels that bond, that connection, that they are shared.

There’s also a cocktail of adrenaline, or epinephrine, or cortisol, and it’s released when the brain says, “Okay, you need to focus. There’s something here that’s potentially not right. You might be in danger, so we’re going to give you these.” And what happens in a story is that we see increases in some of these neurochemicals as a result of the story.

So, when your heart starts racing because there is something that happens on screen, or someone jumps out and surprises you, and you feel that wave through your body, that’s adrenaline. That’s your brain saying, “Focus. There’s something happening.” And the story that gives you goosebumps or makes you maybe well up with a tear or two, that you’re getting different pleasure neurochemicals.

And so, some of what you want to think about is what is that experience. So, are you intentionally telling an uncomfortable story, or are you telling a feel-good story, or maybe both? And so, now you start to look at these five and you recognize you have choices and where you’re making the brain pay attention and spend calories, and where you are leaning into assumptions, or slowing them down, and how you’re taking advantage of what the person knows by putting fully-formed ideas in their head.

And then thinking about, “Am I trying to have you feel a member of the group or different than a group? And am I having you or both? And am I trying to have you feel like a member or have that feel-good experience or an uncomfortable experience, or both?” So, now you start to see, “Okay, these are all choices, and I might not choose all of them in every story, but I can start to see where these are going to make a difference in the experience that someone has of this story.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Thank you. Well, now could you give us a demonstration perhaps of a lame story that fails to take into account these ingredients, and then that same version hopped up with some goodness? But, yeah, it’d be really fun to see these in action.

Karen Eber
I think what I would love to do is an activity with you, if you’re open.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Karen Eber
Let’s take a basic story and then show how we build it. Are you game?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Karen Eber
Okay. So, I want you to think of a vacation experience that you don’t mind sharing with people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I went to the Dominican Republic with some friends once. It was an all-inclusive resort.

Karen Eber
Amazing. Give us the 30-second version of it. Don’t worry about the five factory settings or any of that. Just tell us a little bit about this vacation.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure. It’s very lazy. It was warm. There was a beach. It was all inclusive. There was much food and beverage and water. Chilling. Talking. Eating. Yup, just relaxing stuff.

Karen Eber
Amazing. Okay, so now I’m going to have you tell the story again. So, we’ve got a basic story, “We’re in the Dominican Republic, we’re on vacation, all-inclusive.” Your brain is in lazy mode, for sure, on this vacation. So, now I’m going to have you tell this again, and this time I want you to describe the colors as you’re telling the story. Make us feel like we’re there seeing some of the things that you’re seeing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. There were white sands, palm trees with brown trunks and green leaves, bright blue water, some oranges and pinks in the sky during the sunrise and sunset times.

Karen Eber
Yeah, so now we went from this kind of bland landscape that we can’t necessarily picture to, now we’re picturing this. We can the seascape, we can see a sunrise and a sunset with the colors. So, now, I want you to tell it again, and this time, I want you to bring our senses into it of what are you hearing? What does it smell like? What is, if there any taste involved, what are some of those things? Tell it again and make us feel like we are there experiencing it beside you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, for the sounds, we can hear some seagulls, we can hear some ocean waves, we can hear, I remember, there was this very colorful fellow who ran this sort of water aerobics course twice a day, and he would yell out nice and loud, “Aqua gym!” And I remember there was this repetitive baseline, like, “Dit-rit, dah, dit, dah, dit” whenever the “Aqua gym!” was happening.

Karen Eber
I’m going to pause right there. Dear listeners, I hope you see what just happened. We never would’ve started there but now we can see this moment, and this Aqua gym and the music, like, amazing. So, I hope you’re seeing as well, this is now, we went from this basic story to now we’re there and we’re feeling it, and our brains are, whether we like it or not, our brains are there thinking those things and seeing it. Amazing.

I’m going to ask one more iteration. So, this time I want you to describe your emotions on this. Like, tell us, as you’re hearing Aqua gym and the music and all that, like give us the emotional experience of what did it feel like being there.

Pete Mockaitis
It felt very carefree in the sense of we didn’t have to rush, we didn’t have to worry about what time it was, or what day it was, or what needed to get done. It was just being with friends, like, “Hey,” and just let that sense of carefree timelessness, and it’s very peaceful.

Karen Eber
Amazing. So, if we put it all together, I want you to tell the story one last time of just pulling some different things of you’re on this trip, and it’s carefree, and you’re painting the scene on the beach, and we’re hearing this sights and sounds. Just pull a few of the things in from each of the iterations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, sure thing. And I imagine, with iterations, with the time available to think right, revise, etc., we’d come across a whole lot smoother, but, I’d say, for a story, I had an amazing time on vacation at the Dominican Republic. I had some of my best friends with me. We’re in an all-inclusive resort situation. Beautiful white beaches and blue skies with some nice oranges and pinks during sunrise and sunset.

Bright blue water, fun sounds of seagulls and the seashore, and this fun fellow who would proclaim twice a day, it was time for “Aqua gym!” and play the “Di-dah, di-dit, dah” tunes as a subset of folks on the beach would run with big goofy smiles to participate in the Aqua gym without a care in the world. And we, too, didn’t have a care in the world in terms of what we had to do, or accomplish, or where to be, or what time it was, and it was just very, very peaceful and relaxing and restorative to bond with those guys on that trip.

Karen Eber
Amazing. Amazing. So, in three-ish minutes, we took the basics of a vacation and now we’ve been there with you, and we can see and we get the sense of what it’s like. That’s the difference of you start to make choices and, first, you’re doing this on the fly and doing it amazingly. And thank you for playing along because I appreciate that’s never quite easy to do on the moment. But it shows that you can make different choices to play with different things to pull people into it.

And now I’m going to have Aqua gym stuck in my head.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Well, so now I’m curious to know, so those are some general principles that can serve us well. Can you perhaps zoom into any particular do’s and don’ts as we’re trying to pull this off? Like, we’re in a professional setting, we want to be persuasive, we think, “Okay, storytelling is cool above and beyond just charts and graphs and data.” What are some pro tips and things to do and things to not do as we’re trying to integrate some of these principles?

Karen Eber
Well, let me start general, and if you want to dig into story time with data, we can get more specific. The biggest mistake, I think, people make is that they think, “Okay, this is an opportunity to tell a story. What story can I tell?” and they focus on the story. You always start with your audience. Every time you tell a story, even if you know the idea you want to tell, you want to center on who you’re telling it to because the story is in service of the audience, and there’s something that you want them to know, think, feel, or do after.

And if you don’t start there, if you don’t ground yourself in “What do I want the audience to know, think, feel, or do? What is their mindset today? And what might be an obstacle?” you risk the story not landing or connecting with the audience at all. Starting with that, you start to picture who you’re talking to and you can make sure that you’re making it relatable to them.

So, that’s the biggest thing of whether it is storytelling with data, or in a meeting, or presentation, or even a story you’ve told many times, you want to stop and just really be thoughtful of “Who is this group I’m telling it to? And what is it that I’m trying to do after?” because that is what’s most important. When you don’t, it’s like the uncle at the holiday table that’s just telling the same story on a loop, that you don’t even need to be there because he just says the same thing over and over.

He’s not saying it for you. He’s saying it for him. It doesn’t matter who’s there. He’s just telling the story. And those moments are always so grating. Same thing that happens in any setting if you don’t start with your audience.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And anything else?

Karen Eber
The biggest thing from there is to put a structure to your story. It’s tempting to just go and let the story meander and not really worry about how you’re structuring it. But when you put a basic structure in place, it’s not only going to be easier for you to tell. It’s going to be easier for the audience to hear. So, once you figure out the audience, you’ve figured out what you want them to know, think, feel, or do, their mindset, and what might be an obstacle, you then want to come up with the four-part story structure.

First one is the context. What’s the setting? Who’s involved? And, really, why should the audience care? Write one sentence out for that. Not every detail, not every plot point, but write a sentence that summarizes the context. Write a second sentence for the conflict. What is there to be resolved in the story? What is the tension and the fuel for the story? Maybe it’s between two people or a person and themselves but you want to get really clear on that conflict that’s going to be the heart of the story.

The outcome is what is the result of the action? What happens as a result of whatever that conflict is? What’s done? And the last is the takeaway. What is it that you want the audience coming away thinking? Because the takeaway should connect back to what you mapped for the audience. So, if you take five minutes before a story to plan out your audience, and then you take another five minutes to plan out a basic story structure, in 10 minutes before the meeting, you can have a more cohesive story that is going to better land with the audience.

Now, there are still all these other things that we would want to do and add to it with time that get to engaging these senses and emotions and counting for the five factory settings. But if you can ground yourself on these things, you’re going to have a better structured story to tell and it’s going to be easier for the audience to listen.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Karen, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Karen Eber
Is there anything that is a burning question that’s helpful to make sure we touch on?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s take professional settings, stories, data, how do you imagine them working together well? Or, is there a time where you will want to lean more story, more data, right down the middle, story and data? How do you think about that?

Karen Eber
It’s story and data. So, data never speaks for itself. If we go back to the second factory setting that we make assumptions, we are each going to make different assumptions because our assumptions are based on this library of files, all these experiences that we have, and yours are different than mine. So, if I put up a slide that is a simple chart, it seems like there would be no room for a different deciphering, but what really happens is we’re making different assumptions, and we don’t even know. So, then we try to get to a discussion, and we’re not talking about the same thing.

So, recognizing data doesn’t speak for itself, what you want to do is guide people through the story of the data so you can have a common starting point even if people disagree with it. I think there’s this myth or a bias that data are fact and story are not, and that is not true. One is not anymore important than another. Together, I think, they come together to make really helpful understanding and ensure that you can have a discussion and make sure everyone is starting from the same place.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Karen Eber
It is by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, who is a neuroscientist. I just heard her say this, and I keep thinking about it. She says that emotions are the recipe for action. And I just keep thinking about what an interesting statement. And we know data doesn’t change behavior; emotions do. But I love thinking of these emotions are the recipe for action, especially I think at work when we’re often encouraged to leave emotions out of it. Like, they’re part of everything that we do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Karen Eber
I just read this book that is a memoir, it’s called The Many Lives of Mama Love. It is by a woman by the name of Lara Love Hardin. So, I just finished writing and publishing a book of my own, and I now am finding I have time to read for fun again. And I met Lara at TEDWomen and was really intrigued by her story of someone that had a really hard life and struggled with drug abuse and built her way back to this really incredible story. So, I really enjoyed that quite a bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Karen Eber
Google Keep is my external brain. I dump everything into it from story ideas to to-dos, to a running list of where I need to be. I can access it on any device, and it saves me from trying to remember. It’s like if I’m on a walk, it goes into Google Keep, and it works so well to keep me on track.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Karen Eber
Use Google Keep. It really is, actually, part of what works for me is spending time every Friday planning out a couple weeks of where is my time going, and where do I want to free up space for thinking time or writing time. And then I do go into Google Keep and use that to prioritize and make sure, because I have free today what my priorities are and shifting around. I am an introvert and I like to have good chunks of thinking time for working on things but also for resilience after a full day of speaking. And so, I am continually calibrating my calendar to make sure that I have the right balance of what I need.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Karen Eber
The statement that data doesn’t change behavior but emotions do, I think, is something I said it in my TED Talk, and people, random strangers will send me messages on social media how that stood out to them. And I think that we are in a data-rich era but, as one of my friends said, but we’re insight-poor. And I think the more that we can connect to things in a different way, the more powerful they can be.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Karen Eber
My website is the best place. It is my name KarenEber.com.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Karen Eber
Embrace stories. Don’t be afraid. Don’t wait for someone to invite you to tell one. Don’t think that you can’t tell one because you have to present data. Stories have compounding interest and they earn you the ability to tell more of them. And they honor the most precious thing that people can give you, which is their attention.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Karen, thank you. This has been fun. I wish you much luck and many enjoyable stories.

Karen Eber
Thank you.

899: How to Speak Smarter When Put on the Spot with Matt Abrahams

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Matt Abrahams outlines six steps to improve your spontaneous speaking skills.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to feel more comfortable speaking on the spot
  2. Four tactics to keep speaking anxiety in check
  3. The easy formula for great self-introductions

About Matt

Matt Abrahams is a leading expert in communication with decades of experience as an educator, author, podcast host, and coach. As a Lecturer in Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, he teaches popular classes in strategic communication and effective virtual presenting. He received Stanford GSB’s Alumni Teaching Award in recognition of his teaching students around the world.

When he isn’t teaching, Matt is a sought-after keynote speaker and communication consultant. He has helped countless presenters improve and hone their communication, including some who have delivered IPO roadshows as well as TED, World Economic Forum, and Nobel Prize presentations. His online talks garner millions of views and he hosts the popular, award-winning podcast Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. He is the author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You’re Put on the Spot. His previous book Speaking Up without Freaking Out: 50 Techniques for Confident and Compelling Presenting has helped thousands of people manage speaking anxiety and present more confidently and authentically.

Resources Mentioned

Matt Abrahams Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Matt, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Matt Abrahams
Thank you so much for having me back. I’m excited to chat with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited, too. It’s been five and a half years.

Matt Abrahams
You can tell by the lack of hair and the more gray I have that it’s been a while.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. Well, way back in episode 253 when the show was but a pop was when we covered that. I’m curious, in your world of research and communication, have you discovered anything new that was surprising and striking to you?

Matt Abrahams
Yeah, so I’ve spent a lot of time since we last spoke thinking about several concepts: how to be more engaging, how to be more concise, and with the new book I have coming out, really, an amalgamation of those, combining those, and the notion of how to speak more effectively in the moment. A lot of our communication happens spontaneously. Yet, if we ever receive any kind of training or spend time thinking about it, it’s always for planned communication – pitches, presentations, meetings with agendas. And, yet, most of what we do in our personal and professional lives happens in the moment and on the spot.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And that’s just a great title here for your book Think Faster, Talk Smarter. And you’re bringing back some fond memories for me when I was in a high school speech team. Impromptu was my jam, although you still got, I think we had to divide eight minutes of prep and talking, and, ideally, it’d be about less than two minutes of prep with your notecard, so it’s still not quite on the spot. That’s more time than, “Hey, Pete, what do you think about this?” than you get in most circumstances.

Matt Abrahams
I love that you did impromptu speaking in high school. There was a time when I left High Tech before I started what I do today where I taught high school, and I actually coached some kids in impromptu speaking. And it’s a great way to learn how to be better on your feet, for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then, tell us, when it comes to Think Faster, Talk Smarter, overall, what’s the big idea here?

Matt Abrahams
Well, first and foremost, I think the most counterintuitive idea is that you can prepare to be spontaneous. That’s the big thing. And then the second thing is that many of us feel that there are people who are just born with the gift of gab, and they can communicate effectively regardless if it’s planned or not. And I’m here to tell you that you can actually learn to get better at it.

And most people can improve dramatically by taking some time, putting in some practice, and adjusting their mindset to do this in a way that they might not have thought to do it. So, really, you can practice to get better. Everybody can do it. And the book and the process that I teach has six steps to it. The first four are really around mindset, and the last two are around what I call messaging.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m excited to dig into these six steps. Maybe before we do that, can you share with us a cool story of someone who felt pretty flustered when they were called upon to speak, and what they did, and the transformation they saw?

Matt Abrahams
Yes. So, I have worked with a great number of people from seasoned executives down to just everyday people, students, for sure, and there are numerous examples of people who have been put on the spot. So, one that comes to mind is an individual who was attending a meeting, he was just an engineer in the company. He was going to learn about the future releases of the product and different people around the table were sharing their pieces.

His boss, who was supposed to share his work, you can see where this is going, didn’t show up. It turned out that his boss’ wife went into labor, and he was obviously doing what was most important for him, but that left the person who was working with me in a moment of utter panic. He had to now represent his whole team’s work without having prepared to do so.

He did okay. It wasn’t the end of the world but he was definitely stressed out about it and a little bit traumatized, and that’s what brought him to do some work with me. And when I walked him through the methodology I introduced just a few moments ago, he later had a subsequent situation, not the same situation, but another situation where he had to step up and speak.

His team was doing a tribute to that part of the project he represented several months prior. They were celebrating what they did, and he was put on the spot by his boss to stand up and say something as a way of congratulating the team for their success, and he was able to do it with much more confidence and it came out much better.

So, just in a few short months, he developed the ability to speak better on his feet. He felt really, really good about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. All right. Well, let’s hear what are these six steps?

Matt Abrahams
So, when we start, we first have to start with mindset. And the very first step in mindset has to do with managing anxiety. Regardless if it’s planned or spontaneous, anxiety looms large in communication so we have to first take steps to manage our anxiety. The second step has to do with the way we strive for perfection. Many of us want to get it right when we communicate. I make the argument that there is no one right way to communicate. Certainly, better ways and worse ways but no one right way.

Step three has you reframing the circumstances you find yourself in. Many of us see these situations as threatening, we’re put on the spot, we have to defend our position, and that can actually make it very difficult for us. Step four in the mindset category has to do with listening. It sounds ironic but some of the things that help us best communicate in the moment is to listen more deeply and better.

And then we switch from mindset into this notion of messaging. So, I am a huge proponent of structure. I think frameworks help us in all communication but, especially, in the moment when we have to speak on the spot. And, in fact, the whole second part of the book is dedicated to different frameworks and structures you can use for different situations, like introducing yourself, making small talk, answering questions.

And then the final step, step six, also has to do with messaging, how to be clear and concise. One of the big problems when we speak spontaneously is we ramble because we’re discovering our content as we are speaking, and we tend to say more than we need to. So, being focused, clear, and concise is critical in all communication but, especially, spontaneous communication.

So, those are the six steps: mindset and messaging.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, maybe let’s tick through each one of these. For the step one, what are the top do’s and don’ts for managing anxiety?

Matt Abrahams
So, when it comes to managing anxiety, we have to take a two-pronged approach. We have to manage both symptoms and sources. So, symptoms are what we physiologically experience. Some people feel their heart really pounding, others sweat and blush, some shake, and there are some things we can do to manage those symptoms. I’ll give you examples in a moment. But we also have to think about sources. Those are the things that initiate and exacerbate our anxiety.

So, when it comes to sources, let me give you three quick things we can all do. Number one, take deep belly breaths, the kind you would ever do if you’ve ever done yoga, or tai chi, or qigong, where you really fill your lower abdomen. And, interestingly, what’s most important is the exhale not the inhale. So, you want your exhale to be twice as long as your inhalation.

Second, and this is a mental thing, remind yourself that you are speaking in service of your audience. Often, when we are asked to communicate, it is because we have something of value to provide to those that we are speaking to. If we really listen in to our self-talk right before we speak, we say lots of negative things to ourselves, like, “You better not screw up,” or, “You should’ve prepared more,” or, “That person who just went is far better than you are.” So, if we can remind ourselves that we actually have value to bring that the audience can benefit, that can cancel out some of that negative self-talk.

And then, finally, what we need to be thinking about is our body and how our body is reacting. So, if you blush and perspire, you need to cool yourself down. If you shake, you need to do some purposeful movements, like stepping in if you’re standing up. To cool yourself down, holding something cold in the palm of your hands will reduce your core body temperature. The palms of your hands are thermoregulators for your body. So, those are some just quick tips of what we can do for symptoms, and there are many others.

The second side of the equation is sources, and there are many sources of anxiety. One source is that we’re very nervous about not achieving the goal that we’re trying to accomplish. So, if you’re an entrepreneur, maybe you’re trying to get funding. If you’re one of my students, maybe you’re trying to get a good grade. If you’re working in an organization, maybe you’re trying to get support for your cause.

What makes us nervous is we start thinking about what will happen if we don’t achieve that goal, and that can make us very nervous. So, what do we do? We have to get present-oriented because worrying about a goal is worrying about something in the future. So, becoming present-oriented can short-circuit that. For example, you can do something physical. Actors and actresses will shake their body out. You can walk around the building. If you get in your body, you’re not in your mind.

Second, you can listen to a song or a playlist, it helps you get very present-oriented. A very simple way to get present-oriented sounds silly is to say a tongue twister. You can’t say a tongue twister right without being in the present moment, and it warms up your voice. So, lots of things we can do to manage symptoms and sources to help us with the first step of the spontaneous speaking methodology.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Manage anxiety, understood. We got the symptoms, we got the sources, and that’s handy. In terms of getting present, I’m intrigued, are there some additional ways that you recommend folks get into their body as opposed to their mind?

Matt Abrahams
Yeah. So, a great way, if you have an opportunity, is to connect with people, have conversations. So, if I’m ever in a physical space with other people where I’m presenting, maybe I’m running a meeting, or I’m giving a presentation where I know I’m going to get Q&A, and it’s appropriate, I’m out talking to the people, just getting to know them. It’s very hard to have a conversation with somebody and not be in the present moment. So, I’m listening, I’m connecting, that helps.

Another simple kind of fun way is to start at some hard number and count backwards by an even harder number. So, start at 100 and count backwards by, let’s say, 17s. That can be very challenging. So, there’s a lot that we can do to get ourselves present-oriented.

Pete Mockaitis
Seventeens.

Matt Abrahams
Yeah, try it. you can do the first one, that’s 73. Oh, I’m sorry, 83, and the rest are really hard.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And now let’s hear about the second step when we’re thinking about striving for perfection.

Matt Abrahams
Yes. So, when many of us speak, our goal, we feel, is to do it right, to say the right thing, to be perfect. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Society doesn’t help. If you ask people, “Who’s a really good speaker?” they will typically pick people who are professional communicators. They’ll say some TED speaker from doing a TED Talk, some politician, actor, actress, and that sets an incredibly high bar for the quality of what communication should be like.

Now, we seem to forget that these folks have been trained, and coached, and practiced a lot. In the case of TED Talks, sometimes they’re even edited. So, we need to be thinking about the criteria we use to judge and evaluate our communication because we set the bar really high. That said, we try to achieve it and we want to be perfect and right. And we can disabuse ourselves of that.

I start my Stanford MBA course every quarter I teach with this saying, I say, “Try to maximize your mediocrity in your communication.” And let me tell you, Pete, these folks’ jaws drop. They’ve never been told in their lives to be mediocre. But the value of this is when you strive just to get it done, you put less pressure on yourself, which actually boils down to cognitive load.

Your brain is like a computer. It’s not a perfect analogy but it works. And you know on your laptops and or phones when you have lots of apps or windows open, your system performs a little less well. It’s not performing at its top speed because it’s doing too much at once. The same thing is true with you when you communicate. If I’m evaluating and judging everything I say, that means when I communicate, I have less cognitive focus and effort in what I’m actually saying.

So, you can reduce that by just telling yourself, “Hey, dial down that judgment and evaluation.” I’m not saying never judge and evaluate. You should. But if you dial that down a little bit, you can just focus on getting it done. And when I explain this to my students, I end the class by saying, “Maximize mediocrity so you can achieve greatness,” and they get it. They understand that the pressure they’re putting on themselves actually works against them.

So, that’s step number two. Just get the communication done. And, in so doing, you’re likely to do it very well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. And how about the third one, service as an opportunity?

Matt Abrahams
Yes. So, many of us, when we think about our speaking situations, and we think about, “Oh, you’ve got to answer questions on the spot,” for example, or, somebody asks you for feedback, or to introduce somebody in the moment. Many of us don’t say, “Oh, this is a great opportunity.” We think, “Oh, my goodness, I’m going to screw up. I can’t believe I’m in this situation. I have to defend myself or my position.” So, we get very defensive.

And that affects not just how we hold our bodies. We get tight and tense. Our tone gets more curt. Our answers get really short and brief. We can adjust that by reframing the circumstance even in the most difficult spontaneous speaking. Let’s imagine a Q&A session where somebody is just coming at us, fast, furious, spicy. We can still see that as an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to connect, an opportunity to potentially find areas to collaborate, and, in so doing, it will change our approach.

We become more open in our body posture. Our answers become more detailed. Our tone becomes more collaborative. All of that will help us do better in the interaction. So, reframing these situations not as hostile and challenging but as opportunities can fundamentally change how we approach this.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Let’s hear about listening.

Matt Abrahams
Well, so I host a podcast called Think Fast, Talk Smart. I’ve not done nearly as many episodes as you’ve done. We’ve just come up on our hundredth, and it’s all about communication. And across these hundred episodes, what has been very clear to me is that listening is critical. We absolutely have to listen better. Most of us do not listen well. We listen just enough to understand what the person is saying so we can then respond, rehearse, evaluate, and judge. We need to listen deeply.

I once heard a video where somebody was talking about jazz and jazz music, and he talked about a teacher he had. And the teacher told him that when he’s listening to jazz music, to really understand it, he has to listen until he sweats. And I love that. When you listen to really connect and in the moment with somebody, you have to listen intently. Listen until you sweat.

So, when it comes to listening, I have a framework that I borrowed from a colleague of mine at the business school, his name is Collins Dobbs. And he talks about, in crucial conversations, three things. And these three things apply to listening beautifully, so I borrowed it – space, pace, grace. To listen truly well, you have to give yourself pace, space, and grace. By pace, I mean slow down.

All of us move so quickly and we have so much going on, we distract ourselves, so we need to slow down so we can really listen. We need to give ourselves space, not just physical space. Move into an environment where you can listen well, but also mental space. We have to give ourselves space in our minds to really focus, be present, and pay attention.

And then grace, we have to give ourselves permission, not only give ourselves pace and space, but to listen internally to our intuition. So, when somebody says something, if you said to me, “Hey, Matt, I’m doing great,” well, the words might say one thing but my sense is the way you said them might mean something else, and I need to give that some credence, and then act upon that as well.

So, the ability to listen minimizes the likelihood that you will respond poorly in a spontaneous speaking situation. For example, you come out of a meeting and you look at me, and you say, “Hey, Matt, how did you think that went?” And, all of a sudden, I hear, “Feedback. Pete wants feedback. Well, Pete, you did this poorly. You could’ve done this better. This should be different next time.”

But if I would’ve really listened, I might’ve noticed that you came out the back door, not the front door, that when you asked me, you were looking down, your tone of voice was very different. What you really wanted in that moment was support. You didn’t want feedback, and I missed it, and I made it actually worse not better. That’s why we have to listen really well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then when it comes to some of your frameworks, what is the framework for introducing yourself?

Matt Abrahams
Well, let me give you an all-purpose framework first, and then I can give you a specific one when you do an introduction toast or tribute. So, my favorite structure in the whole world is three simple questions: what, so what, now what. The what is your idea, it’s your product, your service. It could be the person you’re introducing, including yourself. The so what is why is it important to the people you’re talking to. And then the now what becomes what comes next.

So, if I were introducing you, Pete, I might say, “I’m really excited to introduce you to Pete. He’s a very talented person. He does many things, including host a podcast. In talking to Pete, you’re going to learn so much from his vast experience. Now, I’m going to turn the floor over to Pete.” Did you see I just did what, so what, now what as a way of introducing you?

Now, if you’re doing a toast or a tribute, where you’re introducing an idea, a product, maybe a group of people, another structure can work really well, and that is what I call WHAT. What is, “Why are we here? What is the event?” The H is, “How are you, the person doing the introduction, connected to the event?” The A is an anecdote or story you might tell that’s relevant and appropriate for the group. And then the T is some kind of thanks or gratitude.

So, imagine you are the MC, the master of ceremonies at a wedding. You would start, you wouldn’t have to necessarily say why you’re all here. People can figure that out as they see everybody all fancy dressed and probably came from a ceremony. But you might want to explain how you’re connected. You might say, “I’ve known the bride and groom for 10 years. In fact, I introduced them.” And then you would give an anecdote or story that’s relevant and appropriate, and then you would thank everybody, and then maybe bring up the next speaker.

So, the WHAT, why are we here, how are you connected, anecdote or two, and then thank you can be a helpful way of introducing people or an event.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, could you show us that in action? Let’s just say there’s a project kickoff, everyone’s getting together, and they’re going around introducing themselves. Matt, could you show us the introduction of self in action?

Matt Abrahams
Yeah. So, I hate the, “Let’s all go around the table and introduce ourselves.” I think there are so many better ways to get to know each other and names. But if you have to do that, so what I like to do, I do a slight variation of what, so what, now what, in that I start with something provocative. Rather than saying, “Hi, my name is…” That’s boring. Everybody sort of tunes out.

So, I’ll start by saying, “I’m somebody who’s passionate about communication. My name is Matt, and I am a podcast host, an author, and a teacher. And I look forward to sharing with you what I’ve learned about communication and, more importantly, learning from you what you know about communication.” That’s how I would introduce myself. It’s a little more engaging. It allows me to animate and demonstrate my passion. And it really sets up the next step of the interaction.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And now let’s talk about being clear and concise.

Matt Abrahams
Many of us, when we speak spontaneously, we discover what we’re saying as we say it. So, we say more than we need to. My mother has this wonderful saying that really helps get to the crux of this. And I know she didn’t create it but I certainly attribute it to her. And her saying is, “Tell me the time, don’t build me the clock.”

Many of us are clock builders. We say way too much either because we want to demonstrate how much work we’ve done, or how smart we are, or just so into whatever it is we’re talking about, we give way more information than people need. And, in so doing, we can bore them, we can cause them to get confused, we can lose our place and where we’re trying to head. So, really being concise is critical, and there are lots of ways to be more concise.

The two that I like to start with is, one, you have to know your audience. You have to understand what’s important to them. The more relevant you can make your content, the more likely you can focus it on the needs of your audience. That’s number one. And number two, you really have to think about your goal. Whenever you communicate, you have a goal, and you have to think about that goal such that it will help you focus.

And, to me, a goal has three parts: information, emotion, and action. In other words, what do you want your audience to know? How do you want them to feel? And what do you want them to do? And even in the moment, when I’m walking into a situation where I have to speak spontaneously, I can quickly say what I want them to know, feel, and do, and that helps me focus what I say.

I bet, when you were doing impromptu speeches in high school, at some point, before you started speaking, you would think to yourself, “What is it I’m trying to accomplish here?” And whatever that answer was helped you focus your communication so you were clearer and more concise.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Matt, this is quite a lovely rundown here. So, those are our six steps. And so, I’m curious then, maybe we’ve done all that prep, and yet, still, someone puts us on the spot, we’re drawing a blank, what do we do?

Matt Abrahams
Yeah. So, the number one fear people report to me is, “What do I do when I blank out?” And we can reduce the likelihood of blanking out by having a clear goal, thinking about our audience, and leveraging a structure. Because, if you think about it, a structure gives you a map, and if you have a map, it’s hard to get lost.

So, I might know, not remember, or know exactly what I want to say next, but if I’m using a structure like what, so what, now what, and I know that I’ve just covered the what, I know that so what has to come next. So, it helps give me directionality. So, we can avoid blanking out by, first, really leveraging a structure and knowing our audience.

Now, let’s say the worst happens. Even though you’ve got a structure, even though you’re feeling good about your communication, for whatever reason, you blank out. In that moment, there are two things I recommend you do. One, go back to go forward. Repeat yourself. When you repeat yourself, often you will get yourself back on track.

It’s like when you lose your keys or your phone, what do you do? You retrace your steps so you can find your way. Same thing works. Second, if that doesn’t work, distract your audience. You just need a few seconds to get yourself back. Here’s how I do it.

Pete Mockaitis
“Look over there.”

Matt Abrahams
Not so much that way. Not the smoke and mirrors distraction. But here’s what I do. When I teach, I teach the same strategic communication course multiple times a year at the Stanford Business School, and sometimes I’ll forget, “Did I say that in this class? Have we covered this already?” And I just need a moment to collect my thoughts.

So, I’ll just stop wherever I’m at, and I’ll say to my students, I’ll say, “I want to pause for a moment. I’d like for you to think about how what we’ve just covered can be applied in your life.” And when I say that, my students don’t think, “Oh, Matt forgot.” My students think, like, “Oh, how could I apply this. It’s important. We should apply it. It’s nice that he’s giving us time to do that.”

I think all of us can come up with a question that we could ask pretty much anywhere in our communication that would give us just a few seconds. So, imagine you’re in an update meeting, a product meeting, you could pause, and say, “What’s the impact of what we’ve just discussed on our timeline or on the product we’re coming up with?” People will think about it, and in that moment, you can collect your thoughts.

So, if the worst happens, repeat yourself. If that doesn’t get you back on track, ask some kind of question, assert something that gets people thinking in a different way, and that gives you time to rethink what you’ve got to do.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool. And then I’m thinking of the project management or project kickoffs setting, it might be any number of great things to prompt people to think about it. Now, I guess in some ways, if the question is too far afield from what you were talking about, they’re like, “Huh? Why were you asking us to do this now?” Like, “I’d like for you to anticipate some of the sticking points as you imagine this playing out in process.” Like, “Really, you’re telling us about the financial projections? I don’t know why we’d do that now.”

Matt Abrahams
Yeah. Well, of course. So, of course, there are certain constraints but you could certainly say in the midst, you can say, “Now I want everybody to think back to the previous project. What were some of the sticking points that got in the way? Or, what are some of the financial issues?” Depending on whatever it was, people will start thinking.

And you could even say, “We’ve got some new people on the team. They don’t remember what it was like last time. I’d like each of you to just turn to somebody and share what a big issue it was for our last release, and then we can start talking more about where we’re going.” I don’t think a single person would question that at all, and it will help you be more effective.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, Matt, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Matt Abrahams
Yeah. So, I would just like to re-emphasize the fact that everybody can get better in their communication. The process I’ve delineated might sound intimidating, might sound like hard work. It’s not. You can do it in bite-size pieces. You can practice. The reality is this: the only way you get better at communication is the way you get better at everything else in life – repetition, reflection, and feedback.

If you’ve ever played a sport, a musical instrument, you had to practice. And then you had to reflect, “What’s working? What’s not working?” And then, finally, seek advice, guidance, and support from others so you can get better. I’ve seen it in my own life, I’ve seen it in the people I teach and I coach. You just have to take the time. You take small steps forward and it makes a huge, huge difference.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Matt Abrahams
So, a quote that I love, Pete, and thank you for asking this, is a quote by Mark Twain, and it’s got a little tongue in cheek here but it proves a point that I just made about how we can work to get better at spontaneous speaking. And Mark Twain said, “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”

And the point behind this is you have to put in work. You have to practice to get better at spontaneous speaking. Mark Twain knew it a long time ago. It still holds true today. And it puts a smile on my face every time I think about it, and I think it helps others understand what’s possible when it comes to spontaneous speaking.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And now could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Matt Abrahams
I have lots of favorite research points but I’ll share some research from a friend and colleague, her name is Alison Wood Brooks. She teaches at Harvard Business School. And a while back, she did some research that looked at how we can reframe our anxiety around speaking not as something that makes us anxious but as something that excites us.

It turns out that our physiological response to excitement and anxiety are exactly the same. Our bodies have one arousal response and we can reframe that and relabel it. So, instead of saying, “Oh, I’m so nervous,” we could say, “Hey, I’m really excited to do this.” And we can attribute those symptoms we’re feeling to excitement. And it actually ends up with us performing better, that is we feel better about how we did. And the audience sees us as doing better. So, I love that research.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Matt Abrahams
So, one of my favorite books of all time is a book called Improv Wisdom. It’s a book by Patricia Ryan Madson. I know Patricia, I’ve gotten to know her over the years. A very skinny book but it’s got lots of life changing advice that comes from the world of improvisation.

There are very few books that I have read where, upon closing the book, I have fundamentally changed my life based on what I’ve read. And this is one of those books, and it’s a book I return to often. So, it’s called Improv Wisdom Patricia Ryan Madson.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Matt Abrahams
So, I’ve already alluded to a few, there are two. Actually, you know what, there are several that I use. Let me share the most useful tool I think I use, and that is paraphrasing. I think paraphrasing is the Swiss Army knife of communication. You can use it for so many things. As a podcast host, I use it to really clarify what I heard my audience members say, my guests say.

I also use it as a tool to distribute airtime in a meeting. So, if somebody’s talking too much, I’ll paraphrase and throw it over to somebody else to talk some more. And I also use paraphrasing to clarify in my own life what it is I just heard somebody say. So, if one of my teenage kids, or somebody else in my life says something, and I want to validate that I heard it, and make sure that I got it right, I’ll use paraphrasing. So, that is the single most useful tool I use to be awesome at what I do.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Matt Abrahams
Well, first and foremost, I invite people to listen into Think Fast, Talk Smart, that’s a podcast I host. It’s short episodes all about communication. Definitely consider checking out the book Think Faster, Talk Smarter. I’m not that creative with my naming. It’s all about spontaneous speaking. And then if you go to MattAbrahams.com, you’ll find a whole bunch of resources I’ve put up there for all things communication. And if you’re a big LinkedIn user, feel free to link in with me as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Matt Abrahams
I challenge everyone to think about the impact communication has on the work that you do, and on the others that you work with, and I encourage you and challenge you to work on your communication so that you can be a better version of yourself, a better colleague, a better partner, a better parent. Communication will help you do that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Matt, this has been a treat. I wish you many fast thoughts and talks.

Matt Abrahams
Awesome. Pete, it’s been great to be back with you. Keep doing the good work that you do. Keep thinking fast and talking smart. Thank you.

862: How to Create and Choose Better Solutions with Sheena Iyengar

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Sheena Iyengar reveals the secret to how the world’s best thinkers come up with their biggest ideas–and how you can do it too.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How the world’s best ideas come to be
  2. How to identify what the actual problem is
  3. Where emotions fit into the creative process

About Sheena

Sheena S. Iyengar is the S.T. Lee Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School. She is one of the world’s experts on choice and innovation.

In 2010, her book, The Art of Choosing, was ranked by the Financial Times, McKinsey, and Amazon as one of the Best Business Books of the Year. Her recorded TED Talks have received a collective 7 million views and she regularly appears in top tier media such as The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The New Yorker, The Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek, CNBC, CNN, BBC, and NPR.

She regularly appears on the Thinkers50 list of the Most Influential Business Thinkers. In 2012, she was recognized by Poets and Quants as one of the Best Business School Professors for her work merging academia with practice.

Iyengar holds a dual degree from the University of Pennsylvania, with a BS in Economics from the Wharton School and a BA in psychology from the College of Arts and Sciences. She received her PhD from Stanford University.

In her personal life, as a blind woman, Iyengar intuitively used Think Bigger to find her calling and strives to inspire others to do the same.

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, Sponsors!

Sheena Iyengar Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Sheena, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Sheena Iyengar

Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I’m excited to dig into your book Think Bigger: How to Innovate but, first, I want to get your take. So, you’re regarded as one of the leading experts on choosing. I’d love to hear about one of the trickiest decisions you’ve ever made and how you thought through it.

Sheena Iyengar

Wow, the trickiest decision I ever made. Well, I would say there were two really big choices I made in my life. The first was what was going to be my career. And I would say the best choice I ever made was to study choice. It wasn’t an easy choice, and it was a long path and, in many ways, I used…at that time, I didn’t know I was doing it, but I, essentially, created Think Bigger as I created that choice for myself. The second tricky choice I made was that I ended up getting divorced after 18 years of marriage, and that was not an easy choice to make.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, I bet. Wow. And thank you for sharing. And to the extent that you feel comfortable digging into that, how does one make such a choice?

Sheena Iyengar

Well, I, actually, in many ways, used my learnings in my own research to help me make that choice. I kept asking myself the question in lots of different ways. I kept looking at my own data, as in “What would be the worst-case scenario for me if I did X versus Y? What would be the best-case scenario? How would I handle it?” And I looked at what had happened to other people. And so, what did the science show about the consequences for other people?

And then I would ask myself, “If those consequences were to happen to me, what would I do about it?” And I found that no matter how I asked the question and how I framed it, I kept coming back to the same desire. And so, then I realized that I didn’t really know how it was all going to work out but that was enough to tell me, after about two years of going back and forth on it, I realized that I had made the choice.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, thank you for sharing that, and that’s certainly thought-provoking.

Sheena Iyengar

But you don’t want to make a decision like what career are you going to do for the rest of your life, or whether you’re going to get a divorce in a second.

Pete Mockaitis

Certainly. Well, so now let’s hear about your book Think Bigger. Any particularly striking discoveries here that have really stuck with you?

Sheena Iyengar

I would say that the most important thing about Think Bigger for people to understand is that, up until now, everything we’ve been taught about how to innovate, how to come up with your best ideas, is old, it’s outdated. What Think Bigger does is takes advantage of recent research in neuroscience for the last 20 years that, literally, tells us how the mind works when it forms thoughts that we haven’t been leveraging it to help us actually become better ideators.

And Think Bigger is the first book that does this. It brings together neuroscience and cognitive science to give you a new way of ideating. And so, for most people, the go-to method, when they need to solve a problem, or when they want an idea, is they engage in some form of mind wandering, or they say, “Look, I’m stuck. Let’s get a bunch of people together, and let’s do a brainstorm.” And Think Bigger says, “You know what, you can do better.”

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, so I’m intrigued. Fundamentally, is there a key factor, or factors, that distinguish those who come up with amazing ideas from those who don’t? Is it just about the practices they’re engaged in?

Sheena Iyengar

You mean what distinguishes the people like the Einsteins and the Bezos and the Bill Gates, so to speak?

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah.

Sheena Iyengar

I would say, yes, we tend to think that the great innovators were special people that happened to be in special places or in special moments. And while you can often tell a lot of people’s stories that way because those are really good narratives to tell, I think, in truth, when you look at all the great innovations throughout history, there is actually a common denominator as to what the method is.

Until now, the great innovators did it subconsciously but we actually know how they did it, and having that knowledge enables anybody to do it. And that’s, essentially, what Think Bigger is. It shows you the framework and it gives you the toolkit so that whatever problem you have, you can actually just, in a very disciplined way, go about and come up with an idea. So, think of Think Bigger is offering the alternative to brainstorming, or sort of uninhibited or uncensored mind wandering.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, so I’m eager to go into each of the six steps here for a bit of time. First, maybe could you kick us off with a cool story of someone who did just that, they walked through the process and saw some great stuff at the other end?

Sheena Iyengar

So, one of my favorite examples is Nancy Johnson mainly because we don’t really talk about her very much and, yet, she actually produced one of those rare products that is universally liked. It’s very hard to find somebody who doesn’t like what she put together. It’s accessible whether you’re rich or poor. And it’s hard to find anybody that hates it.

So, Nancy Johnson was the one who made it possible for every single person, no matter where you are in the world, to have ice cream. In the early 1800s, ice cream was very expensive. In fact, George Washington paid $200 for ice cream. That’s expensive today. Just think how expensive it was back then.

Pete Mockaitis

And it rotted his teeth so he had to have wood ones.

Sheena Iyengar

Exactly. And so, Nancy Johnson lived in Philadelphia. She was a woman in her 50s. She was the wife of a chemistry professor. She was also an abolitionist, so she was part of the underground railroad. And so, she’s noticing how ice cream is being made, and why it’s so expensive. And so, back then, they would have a big bowl, they would fill it with ice, and then they would put a smaller bowl in there, fill it with cream, and they would stir, stir, stir, stir, stir.

And while they were stirring, the ice cream would start to melt, and it would also form lumps, and it was also backbreaking labor. And so, here’s what she did. And, in fact, I’ll describe to you the story in a way that also essentially gives you the method. So, she said, “Okay, how do I make the process of making ice cream easier and, essentially, cheaper? Well, what’s getting in my way?”

“First, it’s backbreaking labor. Second, how do I keep it cold as we’re stirring it? And third, how do I prevent lumps?” So, those are the subparts of her problem that she needs to solve for in order to solve for the bigger problem. Well, how do we keep it cold? You take a large water pail that had already been around for 400 years, you fill that up with ice, and then you find something that you put in it that knows how to keep things cold.

Well, what was something that people regularly used to keep liquid cold? In the taverns where she was, as a woman, not really allowed to go, they would serve beer in pewter mugs. Well, what about putting the cream in pewter? So, now you have a pail filled with ice, and the inner bowl made of pewter. You put the cream in there.

Now, how do I make the labor of stirring it not as arduous? What if we take a grinder, a hand grinder that was used for making coffee, for grinding coffee or spices? Now, how do we prevent the lumps? I’m going to attach to that grinder spatulas that have holes in them. So, one of the things that she learned from the runaway slaves that often came from the sugar plantations was that when making molasses, they would have to stir really hot liquid that could easily form crystals.

And what they found was that if you put holes in the spatula, the liquid would go through and it would be less likely to form crystals. Why not do the same thing with a cold cream? You put these elements together – the pail, the pewter, bowl, the hand grinder, the spatula with the holes – and you have a new technology that was deemed a disruptive technology in 1843 by the Library of Congress.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. There you have it.

Sheena Iyengar

I happen to love ice cream and I love the example of Nancy Johnson.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, that’s a cool one, for sure. And so, I did see that outline, we got six steps. Step one, choose the problem. Step two, break down the problem. Step three, compare wants. Step four, search in and out of the box. Step five, choice map. And step six, the third eye. So, I’d love for you to elaborate on each of these a bit. But, first, I’m just going to say, I noticed none of the steps, nor in the story, is there a, “Oh, have a eureka moment in which a thunderbolt of insight arrives out of nowhere.” Where does that fall into the things?

Sheena Iyengar

We love eureka moments, and I certainly want you to continue to have eureka moments because they’re powerful in terms of helping us keep motivated. But when you actually look at people and you follow them over the course of weeks, whether they’re a scientist or an artist, it turns out that about 20% of your ideas happen as eurekas, about 80% happen not as eurekas, they’re just happening during your work.

We tend to initially love those eureka ideas because they feel special somehow and it happens in your dream or when you’re doing a jog. Over time though, most of those eureka moments are less likely to actually be adapted. So, we do tend to overweigh the aha moments. That doesn’t mean that they’re irrelevant because those aha moments can help us in reframing the question, and they just remind us why we care.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah. Okay. Well, so if it’s not a eureka moment, then is the moment in which the new idea appears more like, “Oh, let me try this. That didn’t quite work out. Maybe if it were a little bit longer or maybe if it had holes in it”? Is it more like that, “So, let’s make a modest adjustment to this thing I just tried”?

Sheena Iyengar

So, that’s when you’re talking about being purely experimental. You can actually be more strategic and more deliberative about that. A great idea is “I’m having a problem with X.” So, let’s say in my case, I am blind. I remember when I first started to teach, nobody knew how you could have a blind person get up and start teaching. Nobody had the answer to that, like, “Well, I don’t know, you can’t engage in eye contact,” or, “You’re not going to see people raise their hands,” or a gazillion things came up as to what a blind person could or could not do.

And so, the way you frame the problem is you say, “Okay, how would one engage an audience if you can’t see them? What would you do?” Well, what does an audience want? And what other kinds of people can help you with that? So, for example, you couldn’t give them eye contact, but what are other things, that other kinds of entertainers, different from teachers, use? And so, I actually learned quite a few tactics from actresses, from personal trainers, from comedians, and that’s how I pull together a teaching style.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, now I want to know. What do they do? And what do you do?

Sheena Iyengar

What do I do?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Sheena Iyengar

Oh, well, lots of things. For example, I had an actress that taught me things like body language and hand gestures. Rather than having people raise their hands, I’ll often have them clap their hands, “If you agree with me, clap your hands. If you disagree, now clap your hands.” And then I’ll let them tell me which side was louder. It’s actually, in some ways, better than having them raise their hands.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, cool.

Sheena Iyengar

Those are just two examples.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, so, yeah, let’s hear about each of these steps here. Step one, choose the problem. That sounds pretty direct and straightforward. But is there some nuance here, Sheena?

Sheena Iyengar

So, most companies end up, about 72% of companies end up failing in their solution because they end up discovering, after they’ve created the solution, that it’s actually the solution to the wrong problem. We’re terrible at actually defining our problem right. As Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to save the planet, I would spend the first 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution.”

And there’s a lot of wisdom in that statement because a lot of your solution really depends on defining that problem well. We either define our problem as too vague, or too big such that it’s unsolvable, or so trivial or irrelevant that nobody cares. It’s really defining it in a way that’s both concrete and meaningful. And you want to define it in a way that’s a question rather than embedding a solution in it because it’s only when you define it as a question that you’re going to be open-minded.

Pete Mockaitis

Can you give us some examples of well-defined problems versus their poorly defined counterparts?

Sheena Iyengar

Oh, that’s a great question. Okay. Well, “How do I solve the problem of climate change?” Terrible question.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay.

Sheena Iyengar

“How do I create a car that’s affordable?” That’s a doable question.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. So, the first one is just so huge.

Sheena Iyengar
It’s just too big.

Pete Mockaitis

It’s not getting us anywhere helpful from an innovation perspective.

Sheena Iyengar
“How do I know if somebody is passionate?” Not a good question. Too vague.

Pete Mockaitis

And then what would be the better version of that?

Sheena Iyengar

“How do I find something that I want to spend many hours doing?”

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And can you give us some better versions that are climate-adjacent to sharpen the contrast?

Sheena Iyengar

Sure. “How do I create a substitute for meat that people want to eat?” And we already see companies doing that.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, let me get your take on this one. “How do I create market incentives for automakers to reduce their emissions?” How’s that feel? Pros, cons.

Sheena Iyengar

So, for that one, you have to first know, “Is the problem emanating from the car companies or from the buyers?”

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, got you. Yes, so there’s a solution or assumption embedded in it.

Sheena Iyengar
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So, it sounds like choosing the problem, we’ve got to do some homework before we can even hope to make a statement that is a good choice. Is that fair to say?

Sheena Iyengar

You’re going to do a lot of work, and you’re going to probably keep tweaking and tweaking and tweaking the problem you’re trying to solve till the very end.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay.

Sheena Iyengar

It’s just like writing a paper. You often write your first sentence at the very end.

Pete Mockaitis

Understood.

Sheena Iyengar

Although you knew what it was, generally speaking, at the very beginning, and you keep writing towards it, but you’re still tweaking.

Pete Mockaitis

Okey-dokey.

Sheena Iyengar

So, then just like Nancy Johnson, after you’ve defined the problem, you then break it down into its most important subparts. Now, every problem has many, many layers, so you’ve got to be able to identify the most important ones. And I say somewhere between three and five, sometimes I let you go up to six, but beyond that it’s cognitively paralyzing so you’re not going to do a good job. You’ve got to make this doable.

Actually, the way to think about Think Bigger is that there are, essentially, two tools. The first is a choice map, and the second is what we call the big picture, it’s where you compare wants. And so, the choice map is where you define your problem, you break it down. And then for every subproblem that you have, you then go search. You search first in industry, and then you search across to many other industries that have nothing to do with your industry, but you’re searching for the way in which they have solved for an analogous problem.

“What other objects do people use to keep liquid cold?” for example. “What other sorts of backbreaking labor is there that has the problem of things getting lumpy?” Another example. So, you look in totally different industries that have to deal with an analogous problem, and you see what they’re doing, and then you obviously have to, in some ways, adapt or edit their tactic but you’re importing it in.

And so, you do that for every subproblem. You’re searching. So, we often think that the part of ideation is just sitting there and reflecting. I’m not doing that. I’m saying the actual ideation process itself is its own exercise, a mental exercise. And so, you create a choice map where you have your problem, you break it down, and for each subproblem, you find ways of solving it that has worked in the past. And now you combine those tactics, just like Nancy Johnson did to create a machine. That’s how you have your greatest innovations.

That’s true whether you’re looking at Nancy Johnson’s ice cream machine, or Henry Ford’s car, or Netflix, or Amazon, or Paul McCartney’s great song “Yesterday.”

Pete Mockaitis

That’s intriguing. So, songwriting, you follow the same process.

Sheena Iyengar

It’s the same thing, yes. Most innovators though are not being as deliberative as I’m saying. Most innovators are doing what I’m talking about subconsciously. What Think Bigger is about is making you more conscious so that you can do it whenever you want. You can do it on command, and you can practice it and get better and better and better at it.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I’m really intrigued with the example of a song. Can you walk us through how those steps apply when the innovation doesn’t feel so much like a patent or invention but a work of words put together?

Sheena Iyengar

Let’s take something that’s a little more visual that might be easier to explain. So, let’s take, say you want an example from, say, Picasso or Lady Liberty, let’s take Lady Liberty since that’s a piece of art that everybody, no matter where in the globe, would have seen. So, everybody knows the Statue of Liberty.

And we love the Statue of Liberty for all that she stands for and what she means, etc. Now, we assume that the person who made her was a genius, and certainly what he did and what he created, ultimately, is a masterpiece. But how did Frederic Bartholdi get the idea? So, I’m going to strip away, I’m not going to tell his life story, I’m not going to tell you all the hardships and struggles he had. I’m just going to answer the question, “How did he get his idea?”

So, he loved the massive sculptures that were guarding the Egyptian tombs so much so that we have seen earlier drawings of a big lady dressed in robes, carrying a light that he wanted to be made for the Suez Canal entrance. So, Lady Liberty kind of has that feeling to her. There was, at the time, when he was building Lady Liberty, a very famous painting in Paris by a painter by the name of Lefebvre called “La Verite,” “The Lady of Truth.”

There was also Libertas, the Roman goddess who was on every five Franc coin at the time when Frederic Bartholdi was making Lady Liberty. And so, you now have Lady Liberty, the posture which we get from “La Verite,” Libertas, which was how he get the crown. Now what about the face? The face of Lady Liberty, there’s many poems written about those eyes that are inscrutable yet kind. That face was that of his mother.

So, what does every person do when they generate a solution, whether they’re an artist, whether they’re a scientist, whether they’re someone who’s making a new patent or product, whether they’re just trying to come up with an idea? They are combining elements that they have come to become aware of, and they’re combining them in a new way, and that’s what makes them creative and unique.

Now, of course, it’s not mere combination because many combinations are clunky. And so, there is an artfulness to the combination where the whole has to feel greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, that’s cool. Understood. So, combination, that’s what makes it creative. And then the steps are means by which that unfolds.

Sheena Iyengar

That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, yeah, could we keep cruising here about step three, compare wants.

Sheena Iyengar

So, compare wants is where you get away from the choice map or you get away from the gathering of information that’s both in your industry and out of your industry. Compare wants says, “You know what, let me also ask, what is it that I want the feeling to be like if I were to come up with a solution? What do I, the creator, want? What would my customers, or whatever, my target audience want? And who might be my gatekeepers and allies? And what would they want?”

And so, think of these as those emotions. So, emotions don’t go into your choice map, which is where you’ve got your problem, your subproblems, and your strategies. The big picture, the compare wants, is where you are really highlighting, “Okay, I, as the ideator, I want to be famous. I want it to be used by everybody. My customers, well, they want it to be affordable. They want it to make their life feel more luxurious. Gatekeepers, might be, ‘Well, how do you deal with competitors that might try to thwart you?’ Allies. Well, who else would care about this and want to help me make this happen? So, what do they want.”

And so, once you collect up the desires of all these different entities, what you do is you now look at your various solutions that you’ve created, and you ask yourself, “Which one fits the most number of these desires?” and that’s how you pick.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And then, I’m curious, within the choice map, do we have a specific picture, diagram, document that that looks like?

Sheena Iyengar

Yes. So, I know we’re doing a chat here on audio but, yes, we do have. I think of the prototypic choice map as a five by five where you have, let’s say, on average, five subproblems, and, let’s say, on average, per subproblem, I really try to get people to at least get five different ways to solve that subproblem because you need choice, and only one or two of them can be within an industry. The bulk of them should be out of industry because that’s how you get out-of-the-box ideas.

And so, what you then do is you now, let’s say, have a five-by-five matrix filled out, and now what you do is you take one tactic per row, and you line them up in your head, and you ask yourself, “What could I imagine doing? How would I combine these?” That’s how choice mapping works. I have different strategies by which I teach people how to imagine and how to take strategies that you wouldn’t ordinarily combine together.

So, there’s also like a random component to really get you to come up with some really unusual solutions. But in a five by five, you can generate about 3,125 unique solutions. That’s actually far more than your typical brainstorming session.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. So, could you give us an example there in terms of what might be five columns and then five rows, and then a couple combinations?

Sheena Iyengar

Okay. Well, that’s going to be quite a bit to keep track of. So, let’s imagine Netflix. So, when Reed Hastings, so what was the problem he was trying to solve when he initially got started, “How do I make movie-watching more pleasant at home?” That was his irritation. And so, he had the first was, “Well, how do I make it so that I don’t have to lift my butt and go down the block to return a movie every day, otherwise I get a late fee?”

“How do I reduce the cost of, say, the inventory of actually having a store at every block, that actually cost money in terms of rent? And I also want to, while I’m at it, increase the number of options that people have.” So, let’s just take those two. So, let’s say the first, like, “How do I reduce the inconvenience of having to raise my butt, move my butt?” Well, he could have it in every building, maybe have it as a soda pop machine, but now you’re going to give people movies. That could be one solution.

Or, he could do what Bezos was starting to do, which was, well, he was sending books to people, vis-à-vis, online. So, any one of those tactics could be used. In fact, there is a company that sells videos, or you can go rent videos using a soda pop machine. “How do I create a fee structure that isn’t annoying because I really find it annoying to have late fees?” Well, there are other options that you could use other than late fees to make sure you get enough revenue.

“Well, it could be that I use the gym membership model where you can use it as much as you want, and you just have a flat monthly fee. Or, I could say, ‘Look, I’m only going to give you a certain number of movies per week.’” The list goes on in terms of how many different ways in which you could create your fee structure but you had to go out of industry. At that time, it was unheard of to do anything other than what Blockbuster was doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, I’ve got some specific tactics that can meet the no travel or no late fees.

Sheena Iyengar
Yeah. And so, ultimately, what did Reed Hastings do? He takes the fee structure of gym membership, plus the no inventory cost, and yet a lot of movie selections, or not no inventory, less inventory costs and yet a lot of variety through going online. And then he takes advantage of a brand-new technology that had just come into the market called the DVD, and that creates your first mail-order movie. People often forget that it actually started with mail-order movies.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So, the Netflix as a whole is the combination of several tactics that each are solving a key subproblem.

Sheena Iyengar

Yes. And so, Netflix, when it first got started was just a combination of Planet Fitness plus Amazon, plus the DVD.

Pete Mockaitis

And I’ve heard that, is it called the high-level pitch or the concept pitch, which is often how a lot of things are explained? Like, “It’s like Airbnb, but for your car.” It’s like, “Oh, okay. I understand what you’re saying.” And then, in a way, that concept of pitching or summarizing an idea is just sharing the combinations that are popping for the choice map.

Sheena Iyengar
Yeah, you’re extracting the most relevant tactic but you’re not, like, stealing all of Amazon, you’re not stealing all of Planet Fitness, but you’re extracting the most relevant tactic that applies to your subproblem. And so, yes, analogical thinking is relevant. You’re absolutely right.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And then step six, the third eye. What’s this about?

Sheena Iyengar

So, the third eye, a lot of times people spend a lot of money once they have an idea, and they decide they’re going to either pretotype or prototype, and they end up prototyping a lot of mediocre ideas. And I don’t think you need to rush to do that. There’s actually very inexpensive and fun way to actually learn how your idea will be perceived because we all have that feeling where you’ve got an idea, and you think it’s great, and yet you go describe it to your spouse, and they’re like, “Huh?”

And so, what the third eye is it’s a unique way of learning how others will perceive your idea. I call it the good way of getting feedback but it’s not getting feedback by asking people, “Hey, I’m going to describe this to you. Tell me what you think.” No, I never ask you what you think because that’s actually not helpful to me to know if you like or hate it. How is that useful to me?

What I really need to know is, when I describe my idea to you, what questions do you ask me? If I were to ask you how you would describe my idea back to me, how would you describe it? Because that’s how I learn what you heard and what you’re seeing, and what stuck out at you and what didn’t, and what were the gaps. And that then helps me to further flesh it out.

And so, to give you an example, if that would be helpful here, let’s take Paul McCartney’s legendary song “Yesterday.” If you read the folk stories about it, it’ll say that he just woke up one morning with the tune in his head, and the rest is history. It’s true that he woke up with some tune in his head, and he immediately got up and he wrote it down, but he didn’t actually know whether it was a good tune or not.

He had that insight to understand that he just had no idea if he had just reinvented the wheel or what. By the way, most of the times when we have a new idea, it is often redundant with whatever is already out there. So, that was actually a very useful insight on his part and a useful worry on his part. But what he did was he created some nonsensical phrases to just hold the tune in his head. And he started to just hum the tune to different people, and say, “Hey, have you heard this before?” He didn’t ask them, “Do you like this?” “Have you heard this before?”

“No, no, it sounds familiar but, no, I don’t think I’ve actually heard it.” And every time he plays it and he hums it, he starts fleshing it out a little more, “Hey, have you heard this before?” “No, no.” Eventually, after he’s built it out enough, he realizes, “Hmm, let me start putting some real words to this.” And he put some words, and then he takes a guitar.

And he was lefthanded but he was given a righthanded guitar, and he just played it with the wrong hand because, in part, he just wanted to hear how it was sounding, and let other people hear so that he could see whether they were hearing what he was hearing. Was it a song? And so, that’s how, little by little, he’s forming the song.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, Sheena, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention about innovation, key steps, best practices before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Sheena Iyengar

I think, too often, we think that creativity is like magic, and that it’ll just happen. Like, when you least expect it, it’ll happen in this flash of a second, and that it’s kind of out of your control, it happens to special people or in special moments. And I guess what I most want people to take away is the idea that it actually is not magic. You can train yourself to do it, and you actually do get better and better with practice, and it is something you can practice doing.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Sheena Iyengar

Well, my favorite quote is by Bob Dylan, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s not about finding anything. It’s about creating yourself.”

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Sheena Iyengar

I still really am surprised at how good the jam study was that I did so many years ago. I didn’t realize how important a study it was even when I did it. But if you show people six jams versus 24 jams, when they see 24, they’re more likely to get curious and stop and sample it than when they see six, but they were 10 times more likely to buy a jar of jam when they encountered six than when they encountered 24.

And that, I did in the year 2000, and I didn’t know that it was actually a moment, it was a tipping point that we were actually entering a world where we really were having exited the amount of choice we had in the ‘90s was high but that it was really going to get even higher. And so, yeah, I think that ever since, if anything our world has become more complex, more information, more choices, and that understanding that we do have cognitive limitations, so that the best way for any of us to get the most from choice, to get the most from life, is to actually be very mindful about what kind of choices we want and for what.

In fact, the choice map that I was describing to you, it’s a tool you can use for ideation but it’s, ultimately, a decision-making tool. You can use the choice map to help you discern which choices are better and worse, to help you figure out what are the most important criteria you need for any choice that you’re looking at to fulfill. So, it’s not just a choice-creation tool, it’s also a picking tool, choice-selection tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Sheena Iyengar

I suppose whenever I need inspiration, and I’m feeling down or anything, I always love, one of my go-to books is The Prophet. I also really love Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Sheena Iyengar

My favorite tool then probably is my Apple Watch. It keeps me on time. It has actually made my life a lot easier. And actually, this might surprise you, it’s now old fashion to use paper and pen. The equivalent of that for a blind person is Braille paper and a stylus, like slate and stylus. It’s like handwriting Braille, almost no blind people will handwrite Braille anymore because your Braille, just like give a laptop for normal typewriter, you have that for Braille. But I still find being able to hand-Braille to be really, really useful. It just helps me think better.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Sheena Iyengar

Every single day, the first thing I do when I wake up is I ask myself, “What are the three most important things I need to do today?” And that helps me reduce the clutter because there’s so much coming at you every single day.

Pete Mockaitis

And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Sheena Iyengar

To get the most from choice, you have to be choosy about choosing.

Pete Mockaitis

And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Sheena Iyengar

Well, you can find me on LinkedIn. You can come find me at the Columbia Business School where I’m a faculty member. You can email me.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Sheena Iyengar

Never feel that you can’t make your life better. There’s a lot of times we have dreams, and not all our dreams get fulfilled, but the great thing about dreams is they come in in endless supply pack. And if you’re able to pick other dreams and figure out which dreams you can make come real, do it.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Sheena, this has been a treat. I wish you much fun and many big thoughts.

Sheena Iyengar

Thank you.