June 16, 2021No Comments

What should I say at a funeral? | Lessons from rural Kenya

This is the story about my mother, a funeral in East Africa, and the failings of the English language.

When I went to my first visitation as an adult, I was just barely an adult.  An adorable high school cheerleader that I had known since daycare had been killed in a car accident.  I was so young that I had to ask my mother, “what do I say when I see the family?”  My mom looked at me with a pained expression and gave me what I thought was terrible advice.

I was so frustrated with her answer that I left the house dejected.

The funeral home was just up the street, so I walked up there by myself.  I found my friend Sam standing in the long line of mourners.  Together, we shuffled up to the casket, paid our respects and then turned to be received by the grieving family.

I remember that moment as violent panic.  I had no idea what to say that would console her family in this time of tragedy, so I did what everyone else was doing; I reached out my hand to her youngest brother, shook it and said, “I am so sorry for your loss.”

He received my handshake with a downward nod, and said “thank you.”  My heart broke.

I shuffled further down the line and shook hands with her other younger brother.  “I am so sorry for your loss,” I said.  Again, he thanked me.

I shuffled even further to her father, repeating my mantra.  By the time I reached her mother my empty words tasted bitter in my mouth.  I bowed my head and stood there speechless.  Instead of offering my consolation, the mother stepped forward and hugged me.  Her mother just whispered in my ear “oh Vance!” as though she somehow understood the message I was there to convey.  It was a calm and quiet moment filled with meaning.

But that moment of quiet evaporated in my walk between the end of the reception line and the parking lot where my friend Sam was waiting for me.  In its place, fury had filled me.

I spit and rambled for hours after the reception.

I was shrouded in dark mixture of confusion, sadness, and frustration.  How was it possible that in the English language the only words we had to offer during such a tragedy was “I’m sorry?”  To add insult to this woeful inefficiency of our language- we force the mourners to say “thank you” as though we deserved gratitude for offering such a hollow consolation.

It would be years before I could even think of that visitation without being bitter.  I was just so angry that I had nothing to say that would make the situation better.  I wasn’t “sorry” for their loss; I hadn’t done anything wrong.  I was “sad” for their loss, but that felt so wrong to say.  I hated that the visitation of Lindsey revealed that there were emotions that I could not use words to bargain with.  I was left with no other option but to imitate others during their moments of sadness.  I began to hate the words “I’m sorry.”

I started to hear the words as a cheap substitute for saying something of value.  And the more I listened, the more I heard the phrase cheapened.  We used the same words for showing up ten minutes late as we did for asking for forgiveness after breaking something precious. We used the words “I’m sorry,” to cover over minor infractions, and we use the words as a salve over real wounds we caused.  Slowly, I began to resent people who told me they were sorry for something small, and I rejected genuine apologies as lacking in substance.

Fortunately, I didn’t have another visitation to attend for almost 10 more years.

I was living as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Kenya.  I had only been living in my mountain village for a few days when my counter-part Daniel came knocking on my door.  He invited me to the funeral of a member of his family.  He said they lived in a village on a nearby ridge that was “just there,” implying that we could easily make it to the funeral and come back with time to complete my work for the day.

I had just completed two-and-a-half months of Peace Corps training.  I was relatively comfortable speaking Swahili, and I thought I understood the value of going to community events so that I could integrate into the community.

One of the most important of ways to integrate into a community is to go say, “pole,” (pronounced poll-eh) when someone is sick or has experienced hardship.  Almost as soon as we got off the plane we were taught that going to say “pole” was roughly translated to “I’m sorry.”  It is not uncommon for an entire family to come and “say pole” when they find out your child is sick, or for a mama to bring you some chai (tea) when she learns that you have gotten some bad news.

When Daniel invited me to the funeral he was actually asking me to “say pole” to his family.  I recognized that even though it would be uncomfortable, it would be a cultural experience and it would help me to get to know the people I was living among.

Kenyans are not well known for accurately estimating distances, or perhaps my interpretation of “just there” was very different from Daniel’s.  We walked down one side of our mountain, crossed a river, and then walked through dense green underbrush up the other side of the mountain. It took three hours, and my clothes were filthy by the time we entered the gates to of Daniel’s family compound.

The funeral looked like a typical Sunday afternoon on a family compound.  The men sat by some tables under a blue tarp while the women were crouched over the fire and pots making food and tea. No one even looked up when we came in, despite the fact that I was likely the first 6’4” white man they had seen at a family funeral in quite some time (if ever).  We didn’t say anything; I just followed Daniel to a seat under the tarp.  As soon as we sat down the women brought over steaming plates of food and filled cups with sugary chai.  We were inundated with food and drink.

The men who spoke Kikuyu (a tribal language I had yet to learn) talked quietly; I picked up bits of conversation about the weather and crops while I awkwardly ate boiled chicken and ground corn stew (githeri). By the time I finished my food we had been at the funeral for over an hour.  I assumed that Daniel was waiting for me to finish to go “say pole,” to the grieving mama who was making food along with the other women.  Instead, he just kept chatting - he even cracked jokes that made all the other men howl with laughter.

I squirmed uncomfortably on my bench made from the stump of a tree.

I was becoming severely over caffeinated because I had started to chug my tea, hoping that when Daniel heard the telltale clink of an empty tin cup he would realize I was ready to go.  I knew that all we had to do was walk over to the mama, say “pole” and then we could bolt back down the mountain, cross the river, and up the other side, then I could get back to work.

Instead, a young house girl would hear my tin cup clink and would rush over with a full tea pot and re-fill my cup despite my broken Kikuyu pleading that I was full.  I was too preoccupied with leaving to realize that finishing all of your food or drink implies to a Kenyan that you want them to give you more.

I had over a dozen cups of chai that day, when finally out of the blue Daniel stood up from his seat, brushed himself off and motioned that it was time to go.  I looked up at him bewildered as he headed for the exit of the compound.

“Daniel!" I whisper yelled at him once we were out of earshot.  “Daniel- you forgot to say pole.”  He looked back at me with a confused grimace on his face.  “Daniel! We didn’t say anything.”  He swatted his hand at me dismissively and started to lead the way down the mountain.

I was furious, I had wasted an entire day walking up and down mountains, crossing a river, and eating mountains of food- and we weren’t even going to get credit because Daniel forgotten to say pole!

I made my frustration palpable, loudly swatting away branches that leaned over the path, and rushing right on Daniel’s heels making sure he knew that he had wasted my time.

Suddenly, I tripped over an exposed root.  Daniel whipped around and caught me before I hit the ground.  “Pole, pole,” Daniel said as he helped me stand upright.  I looked at Daniel quizzically, why was he apologizing?  It had been my fault; I was the one that was rushing.

In an instant, I knew that I had been a fool.

You can use the word “pole” to mean “sorry,” but that is a very narrow interpretation.  When Daniel said “pole, pole” he was giving me an instruction- he was telling me to slow down because the true meaning of pole is “to be slow.”

It all became crystal clear; my mother’s advice from ten years earlier hadn’t been terrible at all; in fact it held the wisdom of hundreds of years of African tribal culture.

When I had asked my mother for her advice before my first visitation, she had offered an astoundingly simple observation that I was simply not ready to understand. “Vance, no one will ever remember what you said, they will only remember that you were there.”

That is what the Kenyans had known all along.  Daniel was humbly offering the only thing that could matter to a grieving mama; he was offering to be slow with her.  He offered his time and his presence.  He knew there was nothing he could say.

When I look back on that moment with Lindsey’s mother; when I stood there speechless; that was all I could offer.  Now, when I go to a visitation, or I try to console a friend during times of tragedy I no longer say, “I’m sorry.”  Instead, I say “pole,”... and sometimes I use words.*

*My mother said that I am not allowed to take credit for the "sometimes I use words" phrase… apparently Saint Francis used it before me.

The era of social media has given us the illusion of being connected, but we all feel something missing from the way we used to be in touch. We've lost the spontaneous collisions at the store, the unexpected letters from longtime friends and the feeling that comes from helping other people get connected.

So I built a program to give you a reason to reach out to people in your network, to recognize people that have made a difference in your life, and to prompt you to help the next generation get ahead in life. It's 100% free, all you need to do is join the weekly email list.

May 19, 2021No Comments

3 Ways to Tell Your Story Better

First Impressions are critical, we know this. Recently in the Articulate Ventures Network, we ran a cohort that lasted a month with one goal: Improve an introduction.

Whenever I've given introductions in the past, I had one of two problems, I'd give too much detail or I hyper simplified. My background is complex, but aren't we all? Depending on the setting, I may say that I build software or run a cleaning business or produce a podcast or write blogs. Worse than picking one of the above, I would sometimes try to squeeze in all the above.

We all want to believe that we're special. The bridge to getting others to understand what is special about us can be a frustrating one to cross, but the models I learned in this cohort helped me to create a digestible narrative for my background that feels leaps and bounds above my previous introductions in quality.

Here are the 3 takeaways from that cohort that helped me the most.

Don't let details cloud clarity.

This was perhaps my biggest problem coming in whenever I would branch beyond over-simplification and attempt a full introduction. I aim to be precise by nature and so when I'm explaining something in any domain, much less my own background, I have a natural tendency to over explain at the expense of the understanding of who I'm talking to.

One week in the cohort, we talked about a famous psychological phenomenon known as "Miller's Law", which in short suggests that the human mind can only retain 7 ± 2 details, facts, etc from an idea dump or exposure to other data. Beyond 7 or maybe 9 details for some high throughput individuals, it is not a slow decline to what we can retain and what we cannot — it's an absolute drop-off.

This totally changed my default perception that the increased description and detail added value to someone I was speaking to when in fact, it's the opposite.

Categorization = Understanding

The next thing that helped me level up my introduction game specifically was when we discussed the idea of making ourselves categorizable.

The human mind naturally categorizes people and ideas.  Rather than fight this tendency (because we are all more than just simple categories) we learned that we should use this to be able to describe yourself in a unique but understand able way.

The best categorizations happen when you take two things that don't seem to go together, but when you explain them, suddenly make you both relatable and interesting to think about.

I was able to use this idea of blended categorization to make sense of how I am a tech CEO, but also the executive producer of a podcast among other things.

  • "I build things that connect people and ideas"
  • "WAND is a mobile app to connect customers to cleaning suppliers"
  • "The Vance Crowe Podcast connects it's audience to ideas that are 'up-the-graph'"

The clarity I achieved by doing this was orders of magnitude higher than if I had attempted to layout all the details of what I do in various domains.

Only Stories that Can Be Retold Matter

When we came to this concept in our speaking gym cohort, I loved it because it was the touch of clarity needed to create a fuller understanding of how to have a better narrative as a whole. What is it that makes a story retell-able? Vance brought this idea to the group with the context of the different patterns for an introduction that I'm going to botch a bit by comparing to the Mandarin language intonations.

Vance pointed out that there are 4 different types of introduction that are ironically very similar to the intonation patterns above:

  1. The 'Everything is always Perfect' Trap
  2. The 'Everything just kept getting better and better' Rise
  3. The 'I woke up and it was all down hill from there' Fall
  4. The 'Root for me' Conflict/Resolution Arc

#3 and #4 are flip flopped from the above image, but the main idea is to tell a story like #4 that features a opening state that is interrupted by a challenge, then describing how you overcame that challenge and are on an upwards trajectory that those listening should root for.

For me, I opened with the broader intro I mention above but then go on to note the conflict I faced with WAND at the start of Coronavirus and how we overcame this challenge by repurposing our infrastructure to connect people and ideas in other domains.

Those familiar might appreciate drawing the comparison to elements of fiction arc here seen here:

I can tell you first hand that the ideas presented here have the potential to change how you give introductions now and forever. If you found these ideas useful, we cover them in more detail and many more in a course we created after the cohort to teach others these same ideas. You can check that out if you're interested HERE.

April 30, 2021No Comments

The Coming Cultural Wave

Last night I attended an indoor party. Change is coming.

Read more

April 22, 2021No Comments

The Most Important Part of an Introduction

Endings are the most important part of your introduction

The entire reason you want to deliver a great introduction is to empower the right people to come up to you afterwards and talk with you. A great ending doesn't have to be complicated.  Also if for some reason you got lost in the middle of your introduction, your ending can help you salvage your intro and still allow some great results.

If you have done a great job in your introduction, ending your presentation well will make you memorable and someone that others want to come talk with.  

Signal the end

People should know when you are getting to the last few moments of your introduction.  You want to signal to the room that you are wrapping up so that if for some reason their attention has wandered, you can grab it back as you wrap up.

Examples of ways to signal the end:

  • "This was maybe the long way of saying something simple, 
  • "All of this is to say, I thought X
  • "So, I hope that I made it clear that my passion is about connecting things together..."
  • Everyone's real work-story is difficult to summarize, but mine comes down to,"

Catch the beginning

If you started your story off with a statement, categorization or story, the ultimate payoff comes if you are able to reference where you began so that people can see the whole thing tied together.  There is a sort of cathartic release that comes from the referencing something that the audience didn't realize would be connected to the end.  

Examples of ways to catch the beginning:

  • "When I look back at the worried little girl wondering what she could do to help her dad struggling to do the right environmental thing..."
  • "When I was in college, I never dreamed I would spend my days back on the farm, but I also never dreamed I'd ever have this much ability to shape ag policy..."
  • "Nobody tells you that earning fancy ribbons at the state fair isn't the best feeling in the world, instead we've learned that it is getting calls from people that don't know anything about cattle, except that it is the best beef they've ever tasted." 

What are you curious about?

The culmination of a great introduction is the way you make it easy for people to come speak with you afterwards.  Most of the time, people don't come up to you even if you are interesting because they are afraid that you will think their question, idea or thing they want to talk about is either not worthy, or won't be accepted by you.

To help people get over that fear, it is good to pre-load a question or topic that people can come up to you to discuss afterwards.  The challenge is if your request is too specific people will feel excluded ("I love talking about PCR machines and the backend coding to make them work') or if you make them too general they will not know what to approach you about ("I love people").

So the best way to handle this is to think about what you would be curious to hear about from people in the room? The closer you get the subject to something you are curious about, then the easier the conversations will be when people take you up on your offer to talk about the thing you suggested.

More Examples of ways to catch the beginning:

"So if you talk with me afterwards... know that I love hearing stories people have of what they thought they would be and how it didn't work out, but they are doing something different now."

"I think of my own pain problems as puzzles to be solved.  So if you have a new pain, I'm always interested to see if I can figure out what is causing the new pain, so come talk to me if you don't mind me working on your puzzle!"

 "I love coming up with creative marketing ideas; it is about the most fun I can have at a party. So if you have a group of people you are trying to reach with something you care a lot about, come talk with me, nothing makes me happier on the drive home than giving away napkins filled with creative ideas for people to use.

I've introduced myself thousands of times, in front of tens of thousands of people. In just over 60 minutes of video instruction, I've taken that experience and created a course where you will learn how to create an introduction that is flexible enough to fit any situation and that you feel confident delivering when the pressure is on. 

To learn more or purchase the course, click HERE

April 8, 2021No Comments

How to Get Better at Introducing Yourself

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Children readily reply with simple answers: fireman, nurse, doctor, priest, astronaut… To a child what you do is who you are.

But as you reach adolescence, the complexities of life begin to crowd in.  You begin to realize:

Being a priest means you can’t be a dad… 

Becoming a doctor means you have a LOT of schooling ahead…

Astronauts have to be good at math…

Being a nurse may mean you have to clean up… a lot of gross stuff…

Every adult discovers that as you age, the question evolves and can become more difficult to answer. “What am I now that I am all grown up?”

We can ignore this question, right up until the moment we are asked to introduce ourselves to a small gathering.  

We either submit to an overly simplified answer, mumbling “a marketing guy,” “a salesman” “an orthopedic surgeon” “a farmer” knowing it satisfies the question, but feeling like its wrong.  Or we pile on the details that describe the many aspects of our lives. By the time we finish we realize that everyone is politely smiling through their confusion or has given up listening entirely and try to not make eye contact.  

We all hate to be put into categories.

Categories are confining, they couldn’t possibly describe the multitudes that are me!  As soon as I begin to say “I am a BLANK…” I think of all the people that are in that category I either don't measure up too. Or I hope that people don't think I am like the other people in that category!

But the cold truth is that our brains work in categories.  Even though I am a special snowflake, if I refuse to let other people categorize me, then I will remain an amorphous blob in their mind. Dismissed and forgotten because I am neither a tool or an obstacle, to help them achiever their goals, I am instead something to be ignored.

The great trick of introductions: You aren’t one category you are the overlap of two.

To circumvent this problem of categories the best thing to do is to think of two categories that you are somewhat comfortable being described as, and let the overlap be the thing that makes you both unique and memorable.

  • Aerospace Engineer turned Physical Therapist 
  • Former Peace Corps Volunteer turned corporate spokesman
  • Electrical engineer that raises cattle
  • Environmental hippie turned farm agronomist

The overlap is what tells the story that makes people better able to understand you. 

This is a key thing to understand as you are mentally drafting an introduction you will give at a business meeting or networking event. There are a few key mental models that if you learn, you will be able to craft an amazing introduction that will captivate your audience, feel authentic and prompt the right people to come talk with you afterwards.  

I've introduced myself thousands of times, in front of 10s of thousands of people. In just over 60 minutes of video instruction, I've taken that experience and created a course where you will learn how to create an introduction that is flexible enough to fit any situation and that you feel confident delivering when the pressure is on. 

To learn more or purchase the course, click HERE

March 25, 2021No Comments

Lessons Learned from 1 Year Working with Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality is still in the early adopter phase; so when most people use it they don't see it's raw potential. After holding dozens of events, even interviewing one of the most important tech CEOs of the modern age- we have seen what will make VR more powerful than a Zoom call could ever be...

Last Thursday on The Vance Crowe Podcast, we published our first interview recorded in virtual reality, set in our own custom environment. We interviewed Jim Rutt. Jim was the CEO of Network Solutions during their fifteen billion dollar acquisition, a former chairman of the Santa Fe Institute, and current head of a movement called GameB. With that interview live and us now at a peak in our exploration of the virtual reality space, we have the opportunity to talk about some things we've learned so far. We explore virtual reality as part of the work we do surrounding the podcast. We host our monthly book club in VR, office hours with Vance and meet-ups between listeners and even past guests.

About a year ago when colliding with others in physical spaces became drastically more scarce, we started exploring ways to connect virtually. Like many others we were quick to hop to Zoom to connect with our audience and Articulate Ventures Network, but this medium lacked the spontaneity that comes from break off interactions in it's pass the mic for audio format. We eventually found, and in Vance's case, rediscovered, VR. Having already had a headset and messed with a few apps solo, Vance was adept with the technology. It was when we were invited to coordinate a custom experience in VR and I too got a headset that we were blown away by the social difference between connecting over VR and video/voice chat.

Physical Space

The initial reaction to the idea of connecting with another person in a virtual space using an animated character might be that it's more novel than genuine. This is 100% the opposite. If you jump inside VR to connect with someone socially via an app like Mozilla's Hubs, work with them over a productivity app like ImmersedVR or anything in-between, you will surprise yourself by how quickly your suspension of disbelief lets you see your peer through their animated character.

Observing hand gestures, body language in head and torso movement and perhaps especially the subconscious instinct to follow personal space norms all build the sense of immersion gained through connecting with someone through the medium that- even though you can see someone from a flat bubble, just isn't replicated over zoom.

Audio Proprioception

Audio proprioception is one of the most amazing things about connecting with others in VR. Because the format on Zoom and other video platforms is pass the mic to talk, there is no need to break volume to add a layer of depth, you simply watch and listen to the person speaking at full volume.

In VR, advanced meeting environments alter the volume of others in the space at a rate relative to how close you are to them physically. This is one of the main reason that we've built our AVN Underground Bar over Mozilla Hubs. Audio proprioception in our bar lets us hold a meeting with 10, 15 and often over 20 guests and attention of the group can be focused on more than one speaker.

The layer of depth added by connecting one on one with friends and small groups in VR is one important reason to take note of audio proprioception. It is another dynamic entirely to observe and take part in small breakout groups throughout the space. The ambient noise of others communicating paired with the local conversation with a handful amongst a large group creates a dynamic that is not far off from similar engagements in the real world.

Architecture and other Important Nuances

Many people building in VR think by default to build large, open spaces. We've learned that in order to cultivate conversations more like a group in the real world, it's better to build a smaller, somewhat tighter space to squeeze people together.

Vance and Jim talk about this idea and more nuances to think about when building in VR in this clip from their full interview —

Are you looking to explore VR but don't know where to start?

Individual —

Consider joining the Articulate Ventures Network. We hold regular events in VR as well as 'VR filed trips' where we set aside a block of time to discover something new together.

Corporation —

We build custom experiences to show thought leaders in a company the value of Virtual Reality. The format is a 1 hour Zoom meeting followed by an immersed experience for up to 7 internal team members.

February 15, 2021No Comments

The Well-Actually Graph: How Ideas Spread into society, and where new ideas can be injected.

For five years I worked for the agriculture company Monsanto. At the time, Monsanto had a reputation for being an evil company. Even I had that perception prior to working there and really only took the interview for the job because I thought it was like getting a tour of North Korea… as long as you got out alive- you would have a hell of a story to tell.

But I realized when the position was offered to me, that one of two things was true- either this company was as evil as everyone said that it was, in which case I would have an inside view and after a short time could write the greatest tell-all-book of all time. Or, that this was a deeply misunderstood company and even though they were growing food more bountifully than in the history of civilization, people were afraid and angry about how their food was being produced, and no one knew how to change that perception. Meaning that I had stumbled upon one of the most important communication problems in the history of modern civilization.

Regardless of the conclusions I reached about Monsanto, something became very clear to me early in my tenure. People had received opinions about the company that were so deeply embedded in their thinking, that almost no one could recall when they came to their conclusions about the company, they believed it as though it were something they had always known.

So I began to wonder how ideas spread into a society, and over time began to develop a hypothesis that I would draw for scientists and engineers when I would visit them, to explain how I thought Monsanto developed the reputation that they had and what I was proposing that we should do to change that reputation.

Everyone had a dry erase board in their office at Monsanto so it was a good way to talk through my hypothesis.

It begins with two axis

On the y-axis we will say that all ideas have some discreet amount of value.

On the x-axis we will plot it against the number of people that “know” that idea.

So let’s imagine you are at Monsanto doing really hard core R&D and PING you discover something totally new about seed genetics. The number of people that know that idea is very low, but the value of knowing the information is high because of what you can do with that information. (Fig 1)

But just like a stock tip, the value of knowing that piece of information is most valuable to trade on if very few people know it, so as the information spreads out to more and more people the value of knowing that idea earlier than other people goes down. (See branching illustration)

And we can watch it go down until I get a phone call from my 70 year old mother and she says “Vance I was listening to CNN/FOX/MSNBC and I heard about this new seed technology.” (Fig 2)

When I am presenting this hypothesis in person here is where I usually take a break to tell about the time I showed this graph to an old grain trader. He stopped me, stood up and took the dry-erase marker from my hand and said “you know what Vance, you are right, and as a company when bad news comes out about us, we usually wait until here, to respond to these ideas….” And he drew a line all the way to the very edge of the white board. (Fig 3)

The old grain trader was exactly right. This graph was true on how people learned good things about the company, and how stories about how evil the company was spread into society. By waiting until the information had spread into every recess of culture the company was now in the position of having to change what people “knew.”

So we needed to develop a strategy that allowed us to go up-the-graph and get ideas into society that were different. Now, if we only go back up the graph as far as CNN/FOX/MSNBC and we try to buy advertisements or get on those shows, we have to realize that we are competing with literally everyone else in the world that wants my mother’s attention.

This means that trying to change opinions so far down the graph was extremely expensive because you are competing with Tide clothing detergent, political candidates, cookies and crackers and everyone else that wants to imprint an idea on anyone in the general population.

Although Monsanto was the largest seed company in the world, there was virtually no marketing budget for “culture change,” because the real money was being spent selling seeds and herbicides to farmers. We could not compete at the bottom of the graph with advertising dollars and so we had to adjust to create a strategy that placed us where competition for attention was lower and yet would still eventually reach mass audiences that were “down-the-graph.”

The only decision is to move “up-the graph” to outlets with smaller audiences. We invited Vice News in (that went poorly), Mother Jones, Intelligence Squared, and a Reddit AMA. While moving up-the-graph the audience got smaller and smaller but the depth with which the audience wanted to understand the idea got deeper and deeper. (Fig 4)

The curve is a Pareto distribution, and at the point where the the slope of the line goes begins to orient straight upwards is the next point that I like to mark on the graph. It is here where I illustrate the inflection point between when an idea is tribal (only known by a relatively small group or groups of people that share similar values, concepts and information) and the large masses of people that are receivers of information.

This inflection point is something you have felt hundreds of times before when you are at a party talking about whatever the news of the day is. There is always that one person that is listening to what everyone is saying waiting for a pause in the conversation when they can break in with a “Well-Actually” where they use whatever information they gleaned from higher up the graph to explain to others their perspective. This “well-actually” person is arbitrating the value of ideas they heard from a smaller, deeper source and spreading it out to others further down the graph. (Fig 5)

This “well-actually” role is a good marker for the point that you must get above if you are to disseminate information that you want to reach society. From here you can get ideas high enough up the graph, they will tumble down as individuals try to arbitrate value. We call this “up-the-graph.”

However getting too far up the graph is as self defeating as trying to inject ideas too far down the graph because you can get into pockets of experts that are so obscure that it is unlikely that you can successfully identify what will be propelled down the graph to a wider societal audience.

Now when I was delivering this to corporate audiences I would stop at this point in the presentation. It was a compelling argument; focus on small audience news outlets and use that as a way to get information circulators to push your ideas into the world. The horse was sold, permission granted so that I could try atypical strategies and not be held to traditional metrics. It was a smart strategy and it allowed me to think more in guerrilla tactical terms.

Instead of trying to land large numbers of people I focused my time on an r/science Reddit AMA (that ultimately got more views than a Super Bowl ad our advertising team ran that same year, I spoke to twelve journalists attending the Knight Science fellows at MIT, and became a guest on podcasts across the spectrum that later got me invited on a speaking tour across Europe. We focused on smaller but deep audiences, and before long started seeing our ideas down the graph below the “Well-Actually” point.

The biggest challenge to describing this graph is that once you get above the “Well-Actually” point, is that the reality is, there is not a single mountain to where information is magically discovered and resides, but instead you are heading up one of an infinite number of peaks. The Well-Actually point marks something more akin to being in the foothills, most people are incapable of venturing up above the tree line and cannot distinguish one peak from another.

From here the discussion would turn towards which tribes would be the most likely to find value from engaging with us. I will describe this part, which we called the “Tribes Strategy” at another point.

February 10, 2021No Comments

Persuasion requires that you look individuals in the eyes.

Judgement. When most people are giving a speech they willfully ignore or are ignorant of the response written on the faces of every single person within earshot.

It is much easier to look out on the crowd, parsing the audience not as individuals but as clusters of people that you are vaguely pointing your message towards.  This is a mistake. To truly communicate, you must look directly at an individual within the crowd. Look them directly in the eyes, for just a phrase or two and speak directly to them.

They will look directly back at you, your eyes locking, and, in that moment, you will be able to read the judgement of your message directly on their face.

Their judgement will give you exactly what you need to know; am I saying something that captures their interest? Am I saying something they understand? Have I crossed some personal or cultural line? Do they want to know more?

Each person, whether they want to or not, will have their evaluation of you in real time and if you can force yourself to look at the scary dragon of another person’s judgement you can adjust, not necessarily to make them like you or what you have to say, but adjust to make certain that you are making your message understood.

The crowd can give you feedback, but the judgement written on the face of the individual will tell you everything.

Here's a Clip from my interview with communications expert Paul Axtell about the importance of eye contact —

February 10, 2021No Comments

If you want to reach other people, learn to draw your ideas.

A few years ago, I was invited to address a room full of graduate students studying agricultural sciences at the University of Kentucky. One of the students, a man studying seed breeding from Iraq, asked me a very simple question about reaching people that don’t study farming. “What is one skill we can develop to help people understand what we do?” I thought about it for a moment, and pointed to the dry erase board on the wall.

“The most important communication skill I have ever developed, is the ability to draw my ideas.”

All of us are vulnerable to thinking that the way we describe a complex idea in words are understood by others. We’ve all experienced frustration when co-workers, peers, friends or family just don’t get what we are saying. Our automatic response is to think that they were not listening, or they were not trying hard enough.

The problem, of course, is that the words that the speaker uses, the intonation used for emphasis, or the context that is brought to the conversation does not automatically align with another person’s mental model. We could discuss at length the reasons for this - culture, vocabularies, interest etc. but that does little to counter the sense of alarm we feel when you realize that ideas are being dismissed before they’ve even been fully explored.

As a communicator working on behalf of Monsanto, I speak to the work that our sciences and engineers use to address extraordinarily complex problems. I am not a scientist, but anyone asking me a question will expect that I understand and can translate entire domains of scientific study. I need to balance between learning enough of the details of a subject so that I can evaluate its integrity while simultaneously building accurate metaphors that help me understand and explain to others. Too much detail and people won’t listen and if the metaphor is too loose, no one learns anything.

I have learned over time, that everyone benefits when the teacher and then the student draw their ideas. What do I mean by drawing ideas?  I mean build diagrams using words, stick figures, arrows, maps, anything that crystallizes your meaning into a physical form so that you and your audience can begin to build a shared meaning.

Visual representations offer you an additional dimension through which you can encode your ideas, but by drawing them in the moment, you get to control how much information is presented and in what order. Drawing puts you at the helm of what information others are paying attention to, and if you can learn to throttle your message to an optimum speed, you can keep the focused attention on what you think is most important. You are building a mental model in others’ minds and once you have a structure built, people want to react to it. When I am done I usually hand the marker to another person and give them the option to add to what I drew, or circle the parts they don’t understand.

If you have brought people along with you on your drawing explanation, you will now have an idea crystallized in front of everyone. Crystallized ideas are tangible and it is much more difficult to dismiss them without solid reasoning. While I am speaking with the public, I have found that even people that are suspicious of the messenger are much more open to building upon an idea that has been drawn. People are optimized to work together. If you learn to draw your ideas you will reach others who will want to work together to make your ideas better. The act of drawing is a powerful tool for harnessing the wisdom of others and giving them a new way to understand the world.

Most people start out feeling awkward when they draw their ideas, but it isn’t about how straight your lines are, or even how cleverly you shape the idea. The power comes from the experience you share with others. As you develop the skill of drawing, you will find yourself drawing your ideas all the time; on napkins, on glass, in meetings, and even while out with friends. The more the skill develops the more you will want to use it.

Looking for other ways to develop and communicate your ideas? Consider joining the Articulate Ventures Network.

We are a patchwork of thinkers that want to articulate ideas in a forum where they can be respectfully challenged, improved and celebrated so that we can explore complex subjects, learn from those we disagree with and achieve our personal & professional goals.

February 3, 2021No Comments

How to say something valuable in a speech.

When I am asked to give a speech, I try to think about this question: what is one truth that no one agrees with you on? No matter how many times I answer it for myself, the question forces me to think deeply about saying something valuable to an audience that has invited me to hear my thoughts.

This question is the paradox that venture capitalist Peter Thiel asks potential job candidates, and it creates a genuine challenge for anyone that tries to answer it. If you say something that people readily agree with, you have failed the paradox. If you answer it truly, you have created a new problem for yourself, you now have to persuade the audience of the correctness of your view which they by default do not agree with you on.

At any given moment, an audience member could pull up his or her phone and access any piece of digital information in the entire world, more knowledge is at our fingertips than ever resided in the Library of Alexandria. Not only is the information available, but the very best speakers in the world are waiting to give their most intriguing speeches at the push of a button on YouTube. When you are speaking, your value is that you have something to teach, share or expose, and if you abdicate that responsibility, you will have wasted the chance to change the world in some small way.

The value of speaking in-person is that you can hone your message to be something that the group needs to hear, but would not find if you were not there. You must think deeply about what you are going to say when you get invited somewhere. Opportunity resides precisely in the place everyone else has neglected. If you can’t think of a truth that no one agrees with you on, then perhaps you are only entertainment, or only delivering a message that many other people could have carried.

If you genuinely attempt to say something true that no one agrees with you on, you will get to feel the passion that comes from searching for meaning, it will make you feel fully alive. It is in those moments where you push the boundaries of what others think, and testing if your model of the world is as accurate as you imagine. This is the edge of chaos; the place between the known and the unknown. Speak that truth and you will discover something new.

What is the one truth, that you know, that no one agrees with you on?... yet.


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