Raymond Wlodkowski1 did extensive observations of student behavior, cataloguing student time in and out of seat as well as the types, instances, and severity of student disruptions. In particular, he researched a strategy called "Two-by-Ten." Here, teachers focus on their most difficult student. For two minutes each day, 10 days in a row, teachers have a personal conversation with the student about anything the student is interested in, as long as the conversation is G-rated. Wlodkowski found an 85-percent improvement in that one student's behavior. In addition, he found that the behavior of all the other students in the class improved.
Martha Allen, an adjunct professor at Dominican University's Teacher Credential Program in San Rafael, California, asked her student teachers to use the Two-by-Ten Strategy with their toughest student. The results? Almost everyone reported a marked improvement in the behavior and attitude of their one targeted student, and often of the whole class. Many teachers using the Two-by-Ten Strategy for the first time have had a similar corroborating experience: Their worst student became an ally in the class when they forged a strong personal connection with that student.
This can be counterintuitive. But the students who seemingly deserve the most punitive consequences we can muster are actually the ones who most need a positive personal connection with their teacher. When they act out, they are letting us know that they are seeking a positive connection with an adult authority figure and that they need that connection first, before they can focus on learning content.
The teachers whom Paul Kilkenny mentors in East San Jose regularly use the Two-by-Ten Strategy with their challenging students. "Not only does it help with the toughest students," says Paul, "but also it helps the teachers remember their humanity as they attempt to survive and thrive in the classroom."
1 Wlodkowski, R. J. (1983). Motivational opportunities for successful teaching [Leader's Guide]. Phoenix, AZ: Universal Dimensions.
Leading with Humility
July 12, 2017
Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real -- Thomas Merton
When I was a principal, a teacher reported that a student in her class with a history of stealing had taken a $10 dollar bill from her pocket book. This also happened to be at a time when our school was having a book fair. We were almost certain that he had taken the money. We were also certain that we knew his motive: He did not have the money to buy books and felt bad when he saw his classmates buying them.
I had a good relationship with the student, so I approached him with kindness but also with a determination get the truth from him. I used all of my principal skills and strategies to teach him what he needed to learn; it was for his own good. I pointed out his history of taking things and acknowledged his motives for doing so. I had learned over the years that consequences alone don't teach lessons, so I de-emphasized any punishment he would get if he told the truth. I even gave him a pep talk about how we all sometimes do the wrong thing and how it takes courage to admit it.
Despite all of this, he denied taking the money. Trying to give him some space and time to reflect, I said I would check with him later to see if his "recollection" changed. Bottom line: I tried to make it as easy as possible for him to finally tell the truth.
I checked back with the student (with confidence that he would have seen the light) and I got the same denial as before. As I sat in my office trying to figure out what to do next, the teacher who had reported the theft came into my office with a very distraught face. She expressed how terrible she felt to have discovered that she was mistaken about the missing $10 dollars. She failed to thoroughly search her pocket book and found it in another spot. We looked at each other and shared our mutual pits in our stomach. It was painful to think about what this student had to endure because we were so certain: We told him that he stole the money and was lying about it.
I immediately went to the student and confessed my serious error. I acknowledged how difficult it must have been for him to be accused of stealing and lying. I offered him my sincerest apology. He paused, looked at me and said, "That's okay we all make mistakes." He offered his hand for me to shake and we did.
In that one unforgettable moment, he became the teacher, and I the student.
He gave me a tremendous gift. I thanked him, but I don't think he heard me as he hurried down the hall to his next activity.
Looking back I realize now that he taught some important lessons that helped me become a better principal and person in the years to come:
Invest time and energy in building trusting and respectful relationships with every person you lead.
The saying "people don't care about what you know until they know that you care" should guide all leaders. When relationships are based on trust and respect, mistakes and problems become opportunities for growth. Wise leaders create environments where people lead each other; learning is a two-way street.
Don't let your position of authority let you think you know more than those you lead.
Leaders who think they know more that those they lead deprive themselves of the collective wisdom and knowledge of the community. In addition, leaders who rely on a "power over" approach, suppress honest feedback and risk taking from those they lead.
Don't be afraid to say the following: "I don't know," "I made a mistake," "I am sorry" and "Please, forgive me."
Many leaders fear that their vulnerability will diminish their authority in the eyes of those they lead. In practice, people admire and emulate leaders who have the strength and courage to admit their mistakes and ask for help. Leaders who are "human" promote greater ownership and responsibility from those they lead.
Learn the difference between control and influence and choose the latter.
Organization status and authority are a very weak substitute for moral authority. Leaders, who articulate clear values and principles and follow them in word and deed, create strong social norms that allow people to collectively guide each other toward the greater common good.
Recognize that leaders who are humble/human give those they lead the gift and freedom to grow into their true selves and to be fully human.
Leaders who tightly control and micro-manage very often get mini versions of themselves from those they lead. People who primarily devote their energy to pleasing the leader don't have the opportunity to develop their own unique talents and abilities. Wise leaders believe in the great potential that resides in everyone they lead.
That one dramatic lesson in humility helped me shed my conception of what a leader had to be, so I began to discover similar, less dramatic lessons in humility on a regular basis. My job was never easy but it did become less stressful and more rewarding.
For example, I remember a parent once criticizing a decision I made and expecting me to defend myself. I simply responded with "maybe you're right about that, but it was the best decision I could make at the time. Hopefully I will learn from this and make a better one next time; thanks for the feedback." The parent who was expecting an argument suddenly became an ally and our subsequent discussion was mutually beneficial and productive.
Being humble can be liberating, however, I only wish I had learned that earlier in my tenure. I share my story so you might learn this leadership lesson sooner rather than later.
Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin)and the picture book, Okay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).
Staying Calm During Difficult Conversations: How do you restore your rationality?
John R. Stoker
July 10, 2017
Recently my college-age son hit a large piece of asphalt while driving our 1997 Toyota Avalon down a country road at night. The impact against the undercarriage caused the airbags to deploy and shatter the car’s windshield.
Thankfully, except for a concussion, my son was not seriously hurt. Days later, when talking with him about the accident in person, my initial feelings of gratitude turned to worry about the cost of fixing the car and disappointment and anger over his lack of judgment. During our conversation, I found myself becoming angrier by the second. In fact, I had to excuse myself from the interaction for fear of saying or doing something that I would regret later.
Being somewhat surprised by my own reaction, I was reminded that no matter how emotionally intelligent we may think we are, there will be situations that will test us.
Here is a list of tips that you might consider putting into practice when your negative emotions start to seep into your interactions with others.
1. Breathe. When we have an emotional reaction, the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, becomes engaged and starts to shut down more logical thought. We stop breathing normally and the lack of oxygen makes it more difficult for us to respond rationally. Slower and measured breathing oxygenates the brain and helps to restore our rationality.
2. Get physical. Physical activity short-circuits the neural network that is reinforcing the emotional reaction. Try climbing some stairs, doing pushups, taking a brisk walk, tapping on your forehead with your index finger, chopping weeds or hitting a punching bag. The physicality of your actions will shift you out of the protective-reactive state you are in.
3. Visualization. Create a visualization of what typically happens in a certain situation with this person. Once you have envisioned the situation and how it normally occurs, rewind the picture in your head and change how you would typically react. Take the time to change your thinking, feelings, and responses as you imagine and revisit that situation. Practice the same visualization until you begin to respond differently when the situation actually occurs.
4. Finish sentences. Tasking yourself with completing different sentences allows you to surface the thinking often hiding in your subconscious. Try finishing the sentence, “I’m angry because…,” as many times as you can. This is the tip that I used to increase my awareness of why I was so angry with my son for wrecking the car. What I discovered was that I was upset because I would have to spend my time and resources to fix the car because, as a college student, he had neither the resources nor the time, as he had to be at a summer job in a matter of days.
5. Do a rationality check. Everyone is rational from their own perspective. Unfortunately, we often fail to see the reasoning behind the behavior of others. When others behave in ways that defy your expectations, ask yourself, “What would logically explain his or her behavior?” If appropriate, you can ask them to identify the reasons for their actions.
6. Identify your contribution. Candidly identify what you did or didn’t do that contributed to your current situation. Rest assured that your action or inaction played a role in the present results. This requires real honesty and a willingness to admit your part in the outcome.
7. Drink a glass of water. This is another interesting way of short-circuiting your emotionally reacting neural networks by forcing yourself to concentrate on a different task. This activity also generally requires you to exit the current situation and go in search of a water source. Sometimes, excusing yourself from a volatile situation is the best course of action.
8. Watch for biased and projective listening. If you find yourself becoming emotional, listen to how you are responding in the situation. We often engage in projective listening as we process information from our own view or perspective. This type of listening says more about us than the person to whom we are responding. Projective listening occurs as we project ourselves into the conversation or take personally whatever the person is doing or saying. You know you are engaging in self-projection when you hear yourself evaluating, defending or offering advice to the individual.
9. Go barefooted in the grass. This is another effective way of activating another group of senses rather than allowing a negative emotional interaction to continue. You might also remove your shoes and socks while sitting at your desk. Interrupting the reaction cycle by forcing our attention to something physical keeps our emotions from hijacking our responses.
10. Give yourself compliments. For at least 60 seconds, give yourself a full round of compliments. You can do this out loud (if alone) or in writing. This forces you out of the negative thinking that is driving your emotional reactions. Consequently, your emotions will dissipate as you identify some reasons that you are a fantastic human being.
11. Engage empathy. Ask yourself this question, “What would a person have to think and feel in order to say or do that?” Then follow with, “How would I react if I felt that way?” Notice that these questions force you to identify with the other person rather than observing the situation solely from your own perspective. Putting yourself in someone else’s situation fosters understanding.
12. Hire a coach. Sometimes the quickest way to overcome a long learning cycle is to hire someone you respect and trust to provide you with feedback and give you an objective perspective. They can suggest how your behavior may be negatively affecting others and sabotaging your results. If possible, it is good to find someone who has successfully managed emotional-intelligence issues themselves. They will possess greater insight and be able to identify skills that worked for them.
Becoming more emotionally intelligent requires that we understand how our feelings and actions affect our personal and professional relationships. Using tactics such as these, which re-engage our thinking processes and employ the use of our other senses, can quickly help us regain control of our rationality and produce more effective and positive outcomes.
John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. He has been in organizational development work for over 20 years helping leaders and individual contributors to learn the skills to assist them in achieving superior results. He has experience in the fields of leadership, change management, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked with such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, and AbbVie. Connection with him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.
Out of the Comfort Zone by Kimberly Hinton
Kimberly Hinton is a special education teacher at Insight School of Washington, an online choice school by K12, where she and her students use the 7 Mindsets SEL curriculum.
July 11, 2017
In my experience as a teacher in a virtual environment, online students have some distinct advantages over students in traditional “brick-and-mortar” schools. In addition to a myriad of services, virtual schools let teachers monitor their students’ class work and assignment completion in a closer, more comprehensive way. They can better help students keep up or catch up with their schoolwork. For students who have experienced bullying, a virtual school is an emotionally safer environment. The wall of privacy works to level the social environment and helps students enjoy more equity and safety.
However, this same wall of safety can easily result in students being isolated from their peers and contact with their communities.
At Insight School of Washington, we have implemented a special social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum to teach students the valuable skills they need in order to face life’s challenges and connect with people. The curriculum leads the students through the seven mindsets found to be the driving factors for many highly successful people. After each lesson, it assigns journal writing for students to reflect on implementing the concepts in their own life.
In addition to the journal assignments provided, this year I decided to give my students an assignment to raise money or donate time to a cause they felt passionate about. The assignment was to identify the cause they wanted to help, then contact the organization to set up a meeting with a lead person. At the meeting, they were to ask what the organization needed most and once they knew, to find a way to fill the stated need. I had felt inspired to do more service by the curriculum and I began to think that community service was an essential part of implementing and practicing the seven mindsets. Students can learn so much from service, and it would give them time away from their computers and get them deeply involved in their community.
The kids were on board as soon as I assigned their new challenge. One student collected dog food for the local animal shelter; another student collected money and purchased new pillows for a homeless shelter. The students who participated found the service enriched their lives. They felt good about what they were doing and looked for more ways to serve.
One student, however, struggled with the entire concept. He had developed a social life that circled entirely around the computer. I had to keep encouraging him to find his cause. This was not easy for him, but he recently found a cause and started volunteering. He now goes to a retirement home twice a week and teaches the people to set up email and social media like Facebook in order to connect with their families and friends. He loves doing it, and the people are enjoying working with him.
Because I wanted to be a good example to my students, I also picked a cause I felt was worth supporting and began to raise money for them. I was concerned about the education of the millions of children who are Syrian refugees, so I researched and found an organization called Small Projects Istanbul (SPI) This organization pays the school fees, buys the school uniforms, and hires language tutors for Syrian refugee children in Turkey. The first fundraiser I organized was called “A Very Syrian Thanksgiving.” A chef prepared a scrumptious seven-course meal of Syrian food. During the supper fundraiser, a musician and a voice artist played songs and read poetry and stories from Syrian authors. The event raised enough money that SPI added ten more children to their services. A second fundraiser, a concert, is scheduled for May 20th. The joy I feel helping this cause cannot be measured.
The joy my students feel is also obvious. I have seen increases in self-confidence, and often an uptick in their participation and success in their own education. Many of my students have experienced social anxiety or feelings of failure because they had been unsuccessful in public schools all their lives. As a result of these negative experiences, many had started to believe that living virtually was the best way to interact with others. Now, however, they go out into the community and, because of the service they are doing, they are complimented for their work and supported in socially encouraging ways. I keep in touch with their service supervisors and delight when I get photographs of them doing service as well as letters telling me how wonderful it is to have them. My students feel great about what they are doing, and I can see them moving towards a better assessment of themselves and a brighter vision of the possibilities for their lives.
Students choose online schools for a variety of reasons. I have met students with social anxiety issues, students with autism, students with department of justice issues, student athletes, student celebrities, and many homeschoolers. In the online environment, everyone is equal. Now, because of the SEL curriculum and the community service projects we have chosen, my students and I are connecting with our communities and engaging in inspiring ways. In service to causes we love, both my students and I have discovered joy and purpose that has expanded our lives and our world views in beautiful ways.
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How to Keep Mutiny from Sinking Your Change Effort by Lee Ann Jung
Adopting a norm of "disagree and commit" allows schools to try out promising new practices even if some teachers harbor doubts.
"You will either step forward into growth, or you will step backward into safety." —Abraham Maslow (in Tracy, 2010)
The usual narrative of school change is so often repeated that the story is familiar to nearly every educator. First, a teacher or leader attends a conference session or reads a book and becomes excited about a new research-based practice. An idea for school change is born! That person involves others, and discussion about the idea evolves either informally or as a part of a committee or professional learning community. A group of early adopters may even be identified to start implementing the new practice. Eventually, the leadership team agrees to try to spread this practice schoolwide, and a new initiative is presented to the faculty. Everyone behind the idea has studied—and invested significant time in—the new, research-based practice. They're enthusiastic about pushing it forward for the good of all students in the school. What could go wrong?
This story of school change would be simpler, although possibly less interesting, if the whole faculty agreed before the school adopted the practice, and then learning in the school improved. In fact, that kind of fairy tale ending rarely happens. Instead, as buzz generates about the policy or practice being considered, some degree of mutiny often begins to form in the school, and the shiny bubble of enthusiasm bursts. Teachers say or think things like: "It's just one more thing to do, and I don't have time." "What's wrong with the way we do it now?" "It's only a trend. I'll wait for the pendulum to swing back the other way." "Will this really help students? I don't see it." It's a well-worn path.
Sometimes, families even get into the conversation and oppose the well-intended change. Social media offers the perfect outlet for parents to band together and publicly oppose a new effort, garnering support from other families. The mutiny gains momentum. Disparaging comments and discussions online (easily seen by anyone) can become a source of embarrassment for leaders, who feel they have failed. In the most heated situations, school boards become involved. Thus, a promising effort can be thwarted before it ever gets off the ground. The once-enthusiastic change agents retreat in defeat, wondering what went wrong.
The Case for "Disagree and Commit"What can teacher leaders and administrators do to prevent this kind of creeping rebellion from taking down potentially effective initiatives? There are many points at which an attempt at change can go wrong. After all, leadership and the change process are complex. In this article, I want to address just one point—how to prevent a mutiny from undermining a change effort. In doing so, I'll draw on lessons from the field of business, in particular from tech giants Intel and Amazon.
In Praise of SkepticismAs educators, we want our students to be critical thinkers—to question and show skepticism. We teach them to cite data to support their opinions and to test theories and hypotheses for evidence that supports a claim. But when it's time to implement school change, we often don't appreciate these same qualities in our colleagues. Wouldn't it be better if all teachers just followed suit, never offered any criticism, and made the job of the leaders easier?
Actually, if our fellow teachers are questioning our ideas and making change efforts difficult, someone along the way has done an excellent job of promoting critical thinking and skepticism in those teachers. But how do we both value constructive critique and move an initiative forward at a pace that leads to implementation in less than a decade? The key may lie in what Intel calls "disagree and commit."
How It Works at Intel and AmazonAt Intel and Amazon, when a new idea is on the floor for consideration, employees are invited to share their opinions, including their concerns. Disagreement at this early development stage is considered healthy and helpful to the process (Heath & Heath, 2010). After all, having many people engage and bring forward their individual ideas about a project can lead to significant improvement. An important part of Intel's culture is that all concerns and disagreements are brought forward publicly. Agreeing in the meeting but then disagreeing privately within small groups is unhealthy—a breeding ground for mutiny.
At some point, the newly proposed idea takes shape, and it becomes clear that the group behind it or the leadership is moving in a particular direction. At this point, Intel employees are encouraged to agree or disagree with that decision, but to commit to implementation. Often a person in the meeting will raise his or her hand and say, "I disagree, but commit." Others follow suit until there is universal commitment. Once the decision has been made to implement an idea, everyone recognizes the importance of getting behind that idea and doing their part to make it as successful as possible.
Fuel for Data-based Decision MakingWhy might the disagree-and-commit approach be healthier than continuing to debate until there is universal agreement before implementation? Shouldn't a school wait to move forward until it has buy-in from everyone? Or at least a critical mass of buy-in?
In part, yes. We can't push an initiative forward without some level of agreement. But this doesn't mean we need everyone's agreement that the initiative is the best idea. What we are asking faculty to do, once a direction is determined, is to give it their best, to implement the initiative with their full commitment.
Agreement and commitment to implement aren't the same thing. Jeffrey Bezos (2016), founder and CEO of Amazon, suggests the wording, "Look, I know we disagree on this, but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?" He argues that without trying the new idea, no one really knows for certain whether it will work.
But why would we want school faculty to commit to implementing something they don't agree is the best direction to go? Quite simply, we want to fuel the school's ability to make data-based decisions. For every initiative we select, we are to an extent guessing that a research-based or promising practice will have a positive impact on our school. In reality, this is an empirical question that can only be answered after we implement the initiative and examine our data. There is, however, one certainty: If there is mutiny and the initiative is carried out only halfheartedly or with resentment, it will likely fail—and not necessarily because it was a bad idea.
By establishing a culture of disagree and commit, we create opportunities to test initiatives in our schools and to have honest discussions about what the data reveals after implementation. We can use that data to inform subsequent decisions. But to be able to prove or disprove our hypotheses about a new practice, we must have implemented it with fidelity. Real buy-in happens when teachers integrate a change and then see the positive effects in students.
Grading reform, to take one example, is an excellent opportunity to use disagree and commit. Subgroups of families or teachers often believe that traditional ways of grading are fairer, easier to use, and—as a result—better left alone. There may also be groups who feel the specific language being proposed for report cards or in policies to guide classroom assessment isn't quite right. In some schools, this debate goes on for years before any change is put into place. In other schools, however, decisions are made with purposeful input from stakeholders, new grading practices are implemented, and the school collects data.
I recently worked as a consultant with a school in which the leadership brought a representative team of teachers together to make initial decisions about grading policy and the documentation used to report students' learning. There was disagreement even in this small group. Two teachers felt that, for the language arts reporting categories, reading nonfiction and fiction should be reported separately. Others felt that the skills were transferable and that they didn't need to report those as distinctly separate categories.
In the end, although disagreement remained, the team chose to keep the categories separate and revisit the question the next year. From their data and reflections, they will be able to make decisions on how to revise or finalize their procedures. But debating for years would have left the school with no new information on which to base their decisions, and would have delayed or derailed implementation of grading reforms.
Five Initiative-Saving Steps
What can school leaders do to get staff members to disagree and commit to implement an initiative? Try these five steps.
1. Establish the protocol of school change. Describe the disagree-and-commit model and the rationale behind it to the faculty. Impress on them the need for full commitment to implementation of ideas that are going forward, even when there isn't universal agreement about the practices, so the school can learn from data and grow. Invite disagreement and honest, open communication in public forums—while discouraging private mutiny, for the health of the school.
2. Involve families early on. Families are often informed about a significant school change after that change has been made. Understandably, schools sometimes don't want to ruffle parents' feathers until all the kinks in a new initiative are ironed out. Many times, however, leaders can avoid massive turmoil by involving families earlier in the process. We can provide information on why we are considering a change and create opportunities for parents to voice their opinions on some of the negotiable aspects of the initiative. Most parents aren't experts in education, but they care deeply about the outcomes of their children's schooling. Many want to have an understanding of bigger school changes. Intentionally inviting families into conversations can be a wise investment in an initiative's success.
3. Be clear where the choices are—and aren't. When presenting a new idea or practice to faculty members, it's important to be clear on what's fixed and what's flexed. That is, be honest about what has already been decided and what aspects you're still seeking input on. There is nothing more frustrating than being asked for input after a decision has already been made. That's not a good use of time, and it burns serious social capital with your faculty. Instead, as you present the initiative, describe the nonnegotiables (what's already been decided) and open up the floor for discussion on the components for which you're still seeking input.
4. Be prepared to shift from discussion to commitment to implementation. As the discussion of the change initiative reaches the point of saturation and all points seem to have been considered, take a barometer of the group, summarize the discussion so far, and move forward. We want to give the faculty plenty of time to consider an initiative and ensure that we have everyone's feedback, but we don't want the discussion phase to carry on for months, or worse, years. Leaders must be prepared to close the discussion, make a decision with the input they've received, and call for commitment on whether to move forward with the initiative. Without a doubt, there will still be those who disagree, but this is the time to remind the group why implementing the change wholeheartedly and with fidelity is necessary.
There will, of course, be times when a small group pilots an initiative. The size of the group implementing the change is unimportant; what's important is that everyone in that group does so to the best of their ability.
It's also important for school leaders to remain open to changing direction as a result of the discussion of a change initiative—for example, because an overwhelming majority of teachers find the direction to be ill-advised and are unwilling to commit. Certainly, if a group finds the direction conflicts with a legal provision or a fundamental value held by the school or individuals within it, teachers can't be expected to commit. If the leadership team receives this kind of information from the discussion, they should reconsider the initiative.
5. Take data and make adjustments as you go. Just as we do in the classroom, we should gather formative data on the effect an initiative is having, share that data, and make adjustments along the way. For more contentious initiatives, we may need to revisit our culture of disagree and commit regularly throughout the implementation period—and openly applaud the efforts of those who've made the decision to disagree and commit for the betterment of the school. Certainly, it's difficult to find yourself in a position of implementing an initiative the group has decided to take on that you don't fully support.
School Leader: Be Nimble
Educational leaders are in the challenging position of shepherding forward school change, often in the face of heated opposition from faculty members or families. But shying away from school change is not the answer if we want to have progressive schools that respond quickly to the research and recommended practices from the field. We must remain actively engaged with the research and nimble enough to respond to it in our own schools. School leaders must also have the skills to guide difficult and productive conversations about implementation with faculty members. The disagree-and-commit approach, situated within the context of data-based decision making, offers leaders one more tool for successfully implementing difficult school change.
Bezos. J. (2016). 2016 letter to shareholders, Amazon.
Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Made to stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck. New York: Random House.
Tracy, B. (2010). How the best leaders lead: Proven secrets to getting the most out of yourself and others. New York: AMACOM.
This is an article about better PD presentations, but I think that it really underscores the genius of Meghan's 3 Rs for this year!
Thursday, July 6, 2017
Playing by the Brain’s Rules to Make Communications Stick
Guest post from Tim Pollard:
Despite the fact that the stakes of business communications are often high, it’s sad reality that most are really not very good. Survey after survey reveals that only about one quarter of internal business presentations are rated as good or better by their audiences, while 75 percent languish as mediocre, poor, or terrible.
And for those critical sales presentations that companies make to customers, the score is no better. Data we’ve gathered shows that while companies self-assess the quality of their solutions on average at 8.1 out of 10 (where 10 is excellent), those same companies self-assess the quality of their solutions messaging at only 3.9/10. It’s little short of tragic to battle to finally get that elusive customer meeting, only to deliver a 3.9/10 presentation.
Which raises a fascinating question. Given that communication is such a high-stakes affair, why are we so poor?
We have all been subjected to some mind-numbing PowerPoint deck where the speaker toiled through an endless series of slides, and in our gut we know that this can’t be the right way to do it. But while it’s tempting to simply blame PowerPoint, that is missing the point completely. The real problem is far more interesting than the poor use of a software tool. It’s all about the poor use of an audience’s brain.
Here’s the real problem: the human brain is wired in very particular ways in how it wants and needs to take in information. When communication aligns with how the brain wants to consume information, incredible, breakthrough effectiveness is possible. But when you misalign with the brain, you are guaranteed to fail. It is certainly true that dense, excessive, poorly sequenced PowerPoint slides are doomed to fail, but the reason is how badly that approach misaligns with the way the brain works. The key isn’t prettier slides. The key is understanding what the brain really wants.
For example, at a cocktail party you are introduced to a random stranger. Three minutes later you’ve completely forgotten his name. The reason this happens tells us something critical about how the brain stores information.
The brain stores information contextually. When presented with new information the brain looks for context – for something to attach that information to. If it can find it, the information can be stored. But if no context is found, it can’t be stored. We call information like this an “intellectual orphan.”
Why does this matter to communicators? When you create any argument that simply moves from point to point – “That was point 3, let’s look at point 4” – but where there’s no logical flow BETWEEN those points, you are presenting intellectual orphans and your argument is destined to be forgotten within minutes. And it’s what most presenters do most of the time.
So what’s the solution to this particular problem? You need to take the substance of the argument and create a logical sequential narrative, because sequence creates the context that the brain needs. When you read a book, chapter 6 makes perfect sense because of chapter 5. But if you read the chapters out of sequence it won’t make any sense at all, even though it’s exactly the same content. It’s the context that creates comprehension.
This is just one example of the relationship between brain wiring and communication, and it’s the reason why most people communicate badly - because they have no idea what the brain’s rules are.
Based on 15 years work and research, I’ve identified six critical brain violations that show up in almost all communication, and a six-step process for message design that solves for these. And when communication is built using this model, whether it’s a sales pitch, a TED talk or a CEO message to the troops, impact and effectiveness skyrocket. (One client saw a sales conversion rate for one solution jump from 15% to about 90%, simply because they finally learned how to tell this complex story in a much simpler way.)
So, in the spirit of giving you a really valuable and practical takeaway, let me share the biggest lesson, and the most valuable thing you will ever learn about the way your audience’s brain works.
Your brain and mine operate at the level of ideas. If you were to sit through a long presentation, even a great one, and afterwards, I asked you “what was that all about?”… automatically, without even knowing you were doing it, you would reduce that hour to one or two big ideas. It’s how our brains work. They are reductionist. They traffic in ideas. They do NOT traffic at the level of facts and data (especially lots of fact and data).
Do you immediately see the problem? The overwhelming majority of communicators take an approach that is thoroughly at odds with this reality. We bombard our audiences with as much fact and data as we can, usually thinking that we are making the best case we can, when in fact we are likely making the worst.
In the famous OJ Simpson trial of 1993, the prosecution presented a mind-numbing seven months’ worth of fact and data. And yet, history clearly suggests that this was all undone by ONE simple idea of eight words…. “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit”… and the fact that most of you reading immediately recognized the phrase (even after a quarter of a century) is huge testimony to the incredible brain-stickiness of an idea.
In almost any presentation I see, the big ideas are murky at best, or completely hidden at worst. Indeed, in most “decks” you can’t find the ideas at all. Next time you are building any communication, go and apply this principle by asking this question: “What are my 2-3 big ideas?” Then build around them. Make them clear, prove them with your best data, not the most data you can, and strip away everything else that’s secondary.
And watch what happens.
Tim Pollard, author of The Compelling Communicator: Mastering the Art and Science of Exceptional Presentation Design (Conder House Press, 2016), is the founder and CEO of Oratium, a communications firm helping organizations from Fortune 500 companies to law offices hone their presentation and messaging skills.