Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Middles Are Always Muddy

In a technical training class that I co-led last week, the learners were becoming agitated.  For days they had been absorbing new, painfully complex information.  The course material was dense and daunting -- almost overwhelming. People were scared. They didn't think they were getting it.  I could look around the room and read their restless anxiety.  

So I confronted it.  

Asking for everyone's attention, I stood up, faced the group , and told them the following story.  It made a difference with them.  I hope it makes a difference with you, too.  

Middles Are Always Muddy

I want to quote to you one of my favorite mottoes. It is this:  'Middles are always muddy.'  In my experience, this is true whenever you're in the middle of learning a new skill.   It always seems about to fall apart terribly -- just before it all comes together beautifully.  

Picture yourself on a hike.  You come to a wide stream that you need to cross.  It seems doable enough.  You start to wade in, and at first it's not too bad.  Then you start to hit the deeper water, where the current swirls around your legs. Your feet sink into the muck, and clouds of stirred-up murkiness spread out around you.  You're almost losing your balance now.  You really think you can't go much further.  You feel sure you will capsize.  But even as you think that, a funny thing happens.  You start to realize that it's getting shallower. The muddiest part is behind you now, and you can see your feet sloshing forward again.  Before you know it, you're standing on the far bank.  You made it.

In the same way, anything worth learning or achieving is going to have a middle stage of confusion and discouragement.  When that happens, take heart.  You're just at the muddy part.  You know you're supposed to be making progress, but you feel as though the pattern of it all is slipping away.  

The very fact that you feel panicky and worried at this point is a testimony to your intelligence.  You fret that you're not where you need to be.  Of course you're not there yet. Of course you have a ways to go.  Your awareness of that fact, and your discontent with your present state of confusion, are catalysts that help you persevere.  

In the middle of fording a stream, you wouldn't stop in the deepest part, turn around, and slog back the way you came, would you? After all, you've invested a lot of effort up to this point.  It's just as far to go back to where you started, and you would wind up wasting all the wading you've already done.  

Neither would you throw off your backpack, and collapse, despondent, in the deepest mud, refusing to move onward. Why not?  Because then you know you would be in over your head. 

Instead, you dig in, and press on.  Maybe you find a stick to help you keep your balance, or a rock to rest on and catch your breath, or a friend who can throw you a rope.  Or maybe you just keep feeling your way, little by little, stepping more slowly than you'd like, but making progress all the same.  

That's exactly how you get through the middle of daunting subject matter.  You don't give up.  You keep finding your way. Your human brain is a fantastic learning tool.  It's far, far better than any man-made computer. It's an expert mapper and an intuitive problem-solver. Right in the middle of the muddy confusion, it's already hard at work: making subtle connections, working out solutions, charting your way to success.  Trust your brain to help you maneuver through the muddy middle and navigate to solid ground.   

Middles are always muddy. 

Think of the many streams you have already crossed that were muddy in the middle.   

This is just one more.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

For Big Ideas, Place Landmarks in Your Landscape

Quick! What city skyline is shown here?  Don't have a clue?  That's okay.  Read on... all will be revealed.  

You know the feeling.  At a social or business gathering, you drift into a clump of talking people.  The flow of conversation is going something like this: 
     "She told him that?  Was he surprised?" 
                                           "No, I think he knew all along."
 "I never would have believed she had it in her."
     "Well, he'll bounce back -- he's a pro at that game." 
                        "Not always.  Remember last year in Albuquerque?"
                       (Hearty chuckle) "Oh, yeah!  That was crazy!"
                                             (Nervous titter)"So those rumors were right, after all?"                                                                                     "Yeah - she never saw that coming! "

 Who are they going on about?  What happened last year? At this point, your pleasant mood is being replaced by anxiety and confusion.  You discover that you can't relax until you decipher the thread of this dialogue.  Yet somehow you're reluctant to ask for clarification.  It may be the simple social stigma of not wanting to sound stupid. It may be a creeping suspicion that you're being purposely excluded.  Either way, you keep straining for clues.  Eventually, if it keeps up, you're likely to wander away resentfully, in search of a less opaque conversation.  

Here's the point: if you are presenting a message to make an impact, and if your message doesn't include enough firm details and precise explanations, then your listeners will eventually wander off, too.  They'll leave you in the dust -- even as they stay in their seats and stare at you glassy-eyed. As we have stated before, humans hunger for context.  If they don't get it, they either will supply their own -- and probably not the kind you intend! -- or they will just stop listening.  Your audience goes elsewhere, and your message goes nowhere.

Context is key.  Don't assume people know the Who, What, Where and Why.  Regularly give them steering points so they can get your message right. 

Now, let's take that idea of context and ratchet it up a bit.  Let's talk about, not just any messaging, but Big Idea messaging -- the kind of vital communication that goes way above the level of cocktail party chit chat.  A Big Idea is an idea that is meant to convey vision, unite the hearers, and take everyone to someplace new.  

Sooner or later, every communicator needs to craft a Big Idea message.  

A Big Idea's landscape is new, its urgency is now, and the context you supply cannot merely be composed of incidental details. Context must take monumental proportions.  Your message needs at least one contextual landmark by which its audience can begin to define the new landscape.

We've mentioned the strategic use of sound bites before in this blog, but this is something even more durable.  In the world of astronomy, a contextual landmark is a star or galaxy by which the speed and placement of other celestial bodies is mapped.  In medicine, magnetic resonance imaging equipment automatically identifies contextual landmarks within a region of the body -- anatomical constants such as heart valves or bone structure -- to detect and measure other, more ephemeral conditions such as inflammation or tumors. 

In messaging, a contextual landmark is a well-articulated, easy-to-understand, concrete word or phrase that helps people come to grips with an abstract idea.  A contextual landmark helps people:
   a. organize the idea -- map how it relates to what they already know
   b. internalize the idea --  understand how it relates to them personally
   c. symbolize the idea --  assign value, emotional depth and meaning   

Here's another way to look at this concept.  Think of the most iconic big cities of the world. They all have at least one defining architectural distinctive. Whether it's Rome (the Colosseum), Paris (the Eiffel Tower), or London (Big Ben), we all know the one silhouette jutting up from the skyline that proclaims, "You are here."  These visual orientation points come to define the spirit of a city as much as its shape. 

By contrast, the city skyline in the photo above does not have an iconic, imagination-stirring landmark.  Its cluster of tall buildings just says "city."  The contours might be familiar to its nearby population, but they're foreign to the rest of us.   Even some  Floridians who live in or near Tampa may not identify it as their own skyline -- much to the dismay of their city planners and Chamber of Commerce.  Somehow, a city without a recognizable skyline doesn't capture our focus, our sympathy, or our trust. 

Contrast this with the city I call home.  One glimpse of the Empire State Building, and you know you're looking at Manhattan.  A "New York City" file folder instantly pops up in your inner archives. A scene from a favorite movie may replay inside your head, or the chorus of a song, or footage from a fateful newscast.  And  with all that flood of association, some kind of emotion comes bubbling up, too.  (Fondness or fear, I wonder?)

In the same way, any message about a Big Idea needs to have a landmark image or phrase that serves as an orientation point for listeners.  

  • If the Big Idea is tied to tradition, the contextual landmark can function as a familiar reference point and a trusted guidepost that points to the newer concepts on the horizon.  
  • If the Big Idea is a break with tradition and entirely new, the contextual landmark becomes a point of embarkation from which the audience can begin to explore the new landscape and develop positive associations.

We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of one of the biggest of all Big Idea speeches.  As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the masses convened at the Washington Mall, his landmark phrase was, "I have a dream."  The word "dream" kept rising up from the verbal architecture of his message, a defining feature that could not be ignored, a distinctive one-syllable mantra that took on a new and textured meaning as the crowd listened, spellbound. This is true, it said.  This is what we must understand together, it said.  This is where we must go.  

In the classic news photograph of that day, the throngs are shown listening to Dr. King with the Washington Monument looming in the background.  Stern, unbending, and blindingly white, up to that point it may have seemed to some to be a forbidding, exclusionary landmark: a symbol of power, a monument to the status quo.  But in that photograph, its background bulk is somehow transformed into a symbol of something new. This dream, Dr. King extolled, is for everyone.  This dream is a link to our past, and a promise for our future.  This dream is not about anyone needing to earn his equality.  It is about everyone needing to yearn for equality. 

Words, like monuments, can have enduring emotional power. 

Have you ever experienced a Big Idea expressed with words that seemed as big and powerful as marble edifices?  I have.

The Biggest Idea that I've ever encountered is one that I consider to be far bigger than Dr. King's dream -- in fact, Dr. King based his dream on it. And this, my personal Biggest of all Big Ideas, has as its key contextual landmark a word that is far simpler than "dream."  Its key contextual landmark word is actually just: "the Word."  

"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us..." those opening lines from the Gospel of John have stirred millions of hearts, and transformed millions of lives, throughout the centuries.  For me, they rise like a landmark pointing the way to deepest meaning and fulfillment.  They stand like a timeless archway through which I see, and comprehend, and navigate, my whole life.  

Yeah, the right words can do that.

What about your message?  It can make an impact as majestic as the Manhattan skyline... or it can seem as generic as the towers of Tampa.  Your choice.  

 If you have a Big Idea to convey, choose a landmark word, phrase, image or concept that can do it justice.  Make it one that can spark understanding, fuel purpose, and embed inspiration into your listeners.  Then inlay it into your message as a constant theme.  Approach it from different angles. Build more meaning into it each time you present it.  Craft it as the center point of your message of change. Don't merely use it as context to capture your listeners' attention.  Harness its symbolism to capture their hearts.   

 In the landscape of your message, what landmark will your listeners recognize  instantly, and know they have come home?