"If you already know what recursion is, just remember the answer. Otherwise, find someone who is standing closer to Douglas Hofstadter than you are; then ask him or her what recursion is."
HAD I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet,
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams
As Sir Ken noted in a related TED talk, everday our children spread their dreams beneath our feet. We should tread softly.
One of my favorite truisms: it's not what you say that matters, it's what your audience hears.
Your audience reads, hears or sees you through a filter constructed over their entire lifetimes, aggregating inputs from their individual cultures, politics, languages, values, locales, experiences and so on. The words chosen by you with a certain intended connotation are heard by them through this filter. What they interpret from your words (and other non-verbal clues such as tone, body language and so on) may be quite different from your original intent.
It's easy to underestimate just how diverse and active the filters of those with whom you wish to communicate actually is. I propose an experiment. It's based on observing information flow in the opposite direction, inbound toward you rather than outbound to your audience, but I believe it illuminates the question at hand. Here's how…
If you're reading this, you likely have an account on one or more of the popular social networks: LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter. (If you don't, get them; they're at worst painless and you can retreat to passivity or drop your account at your pleasure. Maximizing the experience while avoiding the pitfalls is the subject for a future post.) While this experiment can work on any of them, I believe it does best on Twitter, because of the frequency of posts and the way in which the 140 character limit condenses a certain "essential" aspect out of the authors' thoughts.
To do the experiment, you'll need to end up with a "Following" list that looks something like mine: a relatively large number of "discovered" / random participants beyond those that you've chosen because they're in your close circle of friends. It's the former group that's of interest. (For a while now I've been ignoring the "how to get ahead on Twitter" advice to keep your following list shorter than your followed list — which strikes me as silly, and adding a follow to just about any user that seems remotely interesting. I do avoid the online hookers, but even they would be useful for our purpose if they posted more than that one pathetic tweet!)
Now, finally, the experiment…
Take a half hour or so and watch the Twitter stream from your followed community. Look at the diversity of the posts, in terms of style, language, esthetics, topic, frequency, bellicosity and so on. Then try to peer through the patterns of those posts to the personality, character, interests and values of those people… As I've done that, I've found a cast of characters that include:
- A young female writer at the New Yorker whose every other Tweet is peppered with profanity (what would Eustance Tilley think?);
- A writer for the NY Times whose posts signal that his interests revolves around racial issues;
- A famous pioneer in computer networking whose posts alternate between a logging of his current weight and aspirational goal (automated, via a WiFi scale no less) and conservative critiques of the Obama administration;
- A well known IT marketer and pioneer blogger who's automated his tweets so that each hits three times, at eight hour intervals, so as to maximize the efficiency in driving readers to his blog (it seems to work, albeit at the cost of annoyance to some);
- A health and fitness guru who informs us of her every workout completed, blueberry pancake breakfast consumed, departure for and arrival at work, and on and on;
- The sports nut;
- The narcissist twenty-something;
- The expat transplant to an exotic corner of the Far East;
- A significant number of aggressive "ReTweeters" who scour the blogosphere and social network domains for interesting posts, and then send those out to their followers (so as to add value to their online presence);
I think you get the picture…
As you're watching your Twitter stream, ask yourself, "would I post those tweets, in just that way, with those words?" I suspect that you'll answer "no" in a large number of cases. Well, they did. There's a difference somewhere, right?
Now, thinking about the following list you've been watching, imagine that you're behind a podium, and that these folks are your audience. Can you imagine how differently each will perceive your message? Do you see the challenge here to effective communication? Can you see how easy it is for people to talk past each other, and for misunderstandings to occur, expand and fester? And, without veering off into politics, how the current distressing levels of polarization in our country are grounded in this phenomenon?
So, what to do about this?
Well, even the simple awareness of this filter effect will make you a better communicator, by instinct. You won't as easily as before assume that your audience is made up of folks "pretty much like me" that hear my words and get my intended meaning.
Beyond simply being sensitive to differences, I believe that there are a number of specifics that can help:
- Use simple and direct language. (It's good practice anyway, but it also has a lower probability of being misunderstood.)
- Excepting when in a known homogeneous group of peers, beware of language that is tied to your particular industry, country or culture. It might not be in their dictionaries.
- Consider communicating your most important points in several different ways: straight exposition, example and / or story, graphically.
- Test your draft communication by imagining yourself a particular member of your audience — how does it sound?
- Solicit feedback, real time if possible (easier in small meetings than in large groups or in writing), to confirm that they "got it", really.
Do you have other ideas that might help? If so, leave a comment here. Also, please feel free to let me know if I've fallen short of my own advice in this article. (Wouldn't be the first time.)
And remember, if you want to be a great communicator, you don't want to be heard… you want to be understood.
The way to start writing is to start writing. Not so much to take a first step toward a destination, as to begin a process.
Writing (as in art or any other creative pursuit) derives most of its value to the author in the doing, not in the final product.
In the thoughts and feelings that must be conjured, evoked and arranged.
In the discovery of fresh ideas whose seeds were always there inside you, latent and available, but that are only brought to flower with the application of effort to share some related thoughts with an audience.
In the sweat and toil of it, overcoming inertia, uncertainty, laziness, fear.
In striving to construct an architecture of ideas expressed in language that is honest, clear, compelling, complete and reaches for a measure of grace.
In learning how to advance your craft.
In learning something about yourself by exposing yourself to an audience.
In learning something about your audience by challenging yourself to know them well enough to ensure that what they read into your words is as intended.
In the satisfaction of doing something hard.
In answering the call, shared by each of us, to express and connect.
In the letting go that must come when it's time to put down the pen and allow your little creation to escape and succeed or fail on its own.
Well, in my experience, it's true, and powerful.
The trick, of course, is what teaching something forces you to do before you get up at the lectern, in preparation. (That's assuming of course that you take the teaching assignment seriously enough to prepare.)
Let's look a little deeper, starting with why this works.
1. Teaching forces a focus on relationships and patterns, not just stand-alone facts.
To teach something well, you'll need to go beyond simply relating the "atomic level" facts or ideas involved; you'll need to explain out how those building blocks form patterns, sequences and relationships.
True understanding of something is achieved when individual instances can be abstracted to general truths. By first parsing your subject into major blocks of knowledge, then arranging them into logical sequence and pointing out key patterns and relationships (cause and effect…), you'll not only be preparing to present the material in a manner best able to be absorbed by your students, you'll be teasing out new insights that will deepen your understanding.
Finally, this organization of ideas into a logical framework renders it much easier to remember. (It's how our mind works.)
2. Teaching challenges you to identify and use Analogies and metaphors.
People learn best when they can relate new ideas to things they already know and understand. So, you'll want to use them in teaching your subject. Which means you'll have to find or invent them. Which in turn forces you to think about those patterns mentioned above yet again, from a fresh perspective. All of which will result in a further deepening of your understanding. If you can't come up with compelling analogies to get across your ideas, chances are you'll need to dig into the topic a bit deeper to find those underlying patterns and relationships.
3. Preparing to teach identifies gaps in your knowledge.
If you go about your preparations with care, you'll likely find that your knowledge of the subject is complete in some areas, less so in others. In effect, you'll be forced to take inventory of your own understanding. Gaps will stand out, and can be filled with study or further thought.
4. Teaching engages more of your mind.
While I'm not a cognitive scientist, I've done enough reading on the subject to claim with confidence that the sort of active information processing the brain does when organizing information per the above, and again when actually presenting it verbally, graphically or both, engages parts of our mind not engaged in more passive activities such as reading.
5. Teaching creates positive and negative incentives toward learning.
Nobody likes to be embarrassed, a state all-too-easy to find yourself in if you get up in front of a class to teach something and aren't prepared, or can't answer questions in a satisfying manner. When we're agree to teach something, we instinctively get this, and so are motivated to put in the effort required to do a great job.
A Tip: regardless of the sophistication of your audience, when you're finished preparing your lecture, ask yourself if the main ideas are presented so that an audience of bright thirteen year olds could understand them, and be engaged by them. If not, you still have more work to do in distilling down the concepts and finding compelling ways to present them.
One of my favorite fellow bloggers, David A. Brock (@davidabrock), recently called attention to the physics lectures given by Richard Feynman, as exemplary of how very complex (and potentially dry) ideas can be presented so as to achieve both understanding and emotional engagement. I first read and listened to them a couple of dozen years ago. David's spot on, and this standard of excellence is one to aspire to reach.
By the way, these same learning benefits accrue whether you teach a course, write a serious paper, article or blog post (I'm learning something this way every time I do one of these) or step up to do some intensive one-on-one coaching for a promising team member.
Regardless of which vehicle you choose, in addition to deepening your understanding, you'll realize a powerful set of side benefits. You'll:
- Improve your communications skills
- Enhance your standing in your peer group, industry or community
- Gain the satisfaction of helping others
- Have fun!
So, next time you want to learn something, find a way to teach it. It'll be good for you.
Want to invent the next iPod? Then don't try too hard. We may be able to train our minds to be better at generating ideas, according to recent thinking on how we think, and often the best way to foster a brilliant idea is not to push it.
Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman used to visit a topless bar, sip a soda and scribble quantum mechanics on a napkin. Einstein's theory of special relativity came after he imagined himself a child riding on a beam of light.
And Greg Swartz, director of innovation at the golf company Ping, says he has come up with 36 ideas for better tees and loftier drives by looking at the stars. After immersing himself in his subject matter, he'll go to his backyard at night and let his mind settle into what he calls a "hyper state" when it is firing on all cylinders. He says it's as if he can almost feel the rush of gamma rays that are said to emanate from the right hemisphere when an idea is born.
Brain scans have revealed that when you think you're not thinking, your unconscious mind may be doing wind sprints searching for a perfect solution. As a result, answers sometimes seem to appear out of nowhere. In reality, that "nowhere" is beneath your consciousness. In studies, these out-of-the-blue insights are more frequently associated with novel, creative solutions than those derived from concentrating hard, according to cognitive neuroscientist Mark Jung-Beeman, of Northwestern University.
I agree with this insight entirely. The mind is complex, and its workings are not intuitively revealed through simple introspection. According to at least one credible theory, our conscious thoughts are post-facto "explanations" that our left, verbal, brain invents so as to provide a rational narrative explaining what our left, creative / emotion-driven brain, has already decided to do or worked out as a solution to a problem within an entirely different cognitive framework.
I'm reading Edward Tufte's "Beautiful Evidence" at the moment. It's rich with content and possible application that initiates multiple threads of thought. I find myself pausing, literally putting the book down every page or two, just to allow those thoughts time and space to percolate. Only a small fraction of them have bubbled up to the surface of conscious awareness. Many others are down there, brewing, likely to pop up when I least expect them.
Want to bring your best, yet-to-surface thoughts up to where they can do some good? Here are some ideas I've found to work:
- Change of venue: Get up, get out, put yourself in a different setting. Listening to the Dead's Truckin' right now, I'm reminded of the time in my senior year at SUNY Stony Brook when, after a whole day and evening struggling to debug the compiler I had designed, I said, "That's it" (or something to that effect), got up, walked across campus to James Pub, and ordered a pitcher. Truckin' Sample
Sometime later, somewhere in the middle of the third serial playing of Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), loud, the solution to my problem popped up, out of nowhere. I was thinking about the young lady across the room, not software.
- Draw it out: I often use mind mapping software to sketch out my ideas. By doing so, I'm sure that my left brain gets engaged in ways it wouldn't if I only used words (although outlining also works well for me in the case of problems where the broad idea is already at hand). I like MindManager.
- Collaborate: Sometimes your best thinking is done alone, but often the creative interplay that happens when you brainstorm with others brings out ideas that otherwise would not emerge.