Monthly Archives: December 2015

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“Motor-babbling” baby steps

Thinking of a new venture for the New Year? What can we learn from babies?

Babies in the womb – and some very clever robots – learn about their bodies by making tiny random movements and then observing the consequences. This is called “motor babbling”, apparently meaningless twitches that actually grow our motor skills and self-awareness. This process of trial and error is also called “goal babbling” – isn’t science brilliant?

So what could we learn from this? I doubt many of us would admit to babbling our way through our day jobs. But what about baby steps, tiny bits of trial and error with a sharp eye on the consequences?

Every time I hear a new idea I start asking “how could you pilot this? What is the low cost, low risk, pop-up version? How can we try, (maybe) fail, learn and repeat?

3 steps to avoid the bull

Why do so many smart people in business and public service write and speak so badly? A UK judge recently accused a social worker of writing in such dense bureaucratic terms she might as well have been speaking a foreign language. What did “imbued with ambivalence” and “having many commonalities emanating from their histories” actually mean? And how did this help anyone decide if a child should be taken away from its mother?

If you’re writing bull, here’s three steps to help you sound more human.

Step 1: Work out why you write so badly.

It’s probably down to fear. Many of us are afraid we don’t belong, afraid someone will tap us on the shoulder and say “I’m sorry, there’s been a terrible mistake. We’ve just realised you don’t know what you’re doing, please leave.” So we copy the language and manners of those around us, the better to fit in.

Then there’s the fear that what we need to say is unpleasant and will upset the listener. So we reach for euphemisms like “downsizing”. The pain is still there, but with added confusion and mistrust.

Keep an eye out for these fears when you sit down to write, they are red flags predicting bull.

Step 2: Be sure of what you want to say and why.

What do you believe in? What are your values? How do they inform what you’re trying to do? In the case of the social worker, I bet she believes in giving vulnerable children the best chance of happiness. Does that mean sometimes making tough, painful decisions? Yes? Then say so. Explain why your values make you act the way you do.

Think about your listener. What are their values? Do they trust you to be honest? What language do they feel comfortable with? You owe it to them to be as clear as you can – on their terms, not yours.

Step 3: Re-write, with help from the masters of 20th century prose.

Write down everything you want to say. Read it back and underline all the moments you felt fear. Underline any section where you’re not sure about the values behind it. Chances are this is where you’re writing bull.

Now re-write, with advice from three masters of 20th century prose: Winston Churchill, George Orwell and David Ogilvy.

Churchill: “Short words are best and the old words, when short, best of all.” So engage in a process of extinguishing, eliminating, de-prioritising… No, try to strike out any long, modern word and use old, short words instead.

Orwell: “Never use the passive when you can use the active.” Passive is a fudge, allowing responsibility to be evaded. “Concerns were raised…” No, tell me who raised concerns about what and who responded.

Ogilvy: “Write the way you talk. Naturally. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, attitudinally, judgementally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.” Enough said.

For more tips on great prose writing:

Five writing tips from Winston Churchill’s “finest hour” speech.

George Orwell’s five rules for effective writing.

And David Ogilvy’s 10 tips on writing clearly.

99 problems (but my pitch ain’t one)

  • Any lingering doubts about your pitch will come out in the first 30.
  • The next 40 will reveal any patterns.
  • The last 29 will be unusual and could contain useful insights.

When you’ve completed your list, highlight any urgent problems. Turn these problems into “How could we….?” questions to brainstorm solutions.

So why does 99 Problems work – and won’t it discourage me?

It’s much better to spot a potential problem before the person you’re pitching to does. That way, you can address it before you go through the door, or at least show you’re aware of it.

Don’t worry that deliberately looking for problems will dishearten you.

Ironically, the harder we have to search for evidence of something, the less likely we are to believe it. If I asked you to find just two problems with your pitch, that would be so easy you’d suspect there must be more out there.

You’ll struggle to find 99 problems, and so you’ll instinctively feel your pitch is stronger. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls this the “availability heuristic.”

Try it out. You’ll have 99 Problems, but your pitch ain’t one.

Try the original List of 100 technique here:

For more on the availability heuristic, see chapter 12 of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow (Penguin 2011).