conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Archive for the ‘Writing to build community’ Category

Dubious Conversation Skills: Skepticism and Fault-Finding

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Pivot Your Conversation on Some Fresh Hope

One dubious skill I learned early in corporate life was that skeptics and fault-finders earn respect at a conference table. If you are not presenting the idea (and thus less invested in making it work), you’ll win experience-points with others by blowing holes in whatever the group is discussing. Finding fault won’t cost you much and could win you a more exalted place in the world of that organization. Plus: you need know next-to-nothing about the idea or context to find some loose thread to pull and hope for collapse.

Please walk this way

Please walk this way

Yesterday I sat around a conference table with a group of skilled, opinionated, driven people who had a brand new idea. All around the table were invested because they had been working different parts of the idea for some time. The hero directing the conversation skillfully wove a bit of verbal fabric above us by hinting at how these disparate work groups were—quite possibly—creating some brand new category. I’ll not be more specific because of non-disclosure agreements, but what was remarkable to me was the intent of the verbal dreaming and the way it resonated with a group that could have been contentious.

Yesterday’s meeting reminded me that fresh hope is a disarming thing to bring to a group of seasoned people.

 

By the way, my book ListenTalk: Is Conversation an Act of God? is moving through the publisher’s proofreading department toward an actual physical presence. Chapter 2, “Intent Changes How We Act Together” highlights the work of the late University of Chicago rhetorician, Wayne Booth, who showed three different ways our intentions derail conversations. He ended up developing a way of talking that could unite conversation partners—much like the hero in my story above. You can put your name on a list [here] to be notified when the book is available.

Randomized, double-blind studies indicate that people who put their name on that list live happier, more thoughtful lives. I just made that up. But you can–and probably should–put your name on that list.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

English: I still believe in you.

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Get in that job-machine, mister.

More dire news for university English departments: from the University of Maryland, English majors are bailing like mad. And faster and faster.

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The humanities have been getting a bad rap for, oh, half a dozen decades or so, because they don’t lead directly to a slot in a job machine. And, as the thinking goes, without the job machine you fail at life. Or at least paying for life’s good things (like a huge TV and plenty of Lean Cuisine) (Or rent and clothing).

We’ve certainly seen this coming. We’ve wondered: Why go into college debt just to be a philosophy-talking barista? We’ve lamented the pitiful conditions of adjuncts. Colleges in my area cut budgets and then cut more, from fat to bone. And now wholesale amputation to accommodate the demands of producing souls for job machines.

True: English departments that focus solely on esoterics need to undergo change. I’ll argue that any academic program (or any institution, frankly) that promotes the inward-gaze as the end-all, top-function of the human condition is currently being rudely awakened.

Smart English departments are tuning in to this—just like businesses have been realizing people don’t really care about their product all that much. Even churches are starting to realize there is a world of people living and working just outside their doors—people not interested in joining the club but crazy-interested in the meaning of life. Speaking of churches, we used to call it “evangelism” when we invited others in. Business evangelists understand all too well the benefit of going where people are and adapting their product to current conditions.

But reaching out to the rest of humanity—that’s where the action is.

It’s because we’ll always need to reach out, to communicate something to someone else, that I’m optimistic about English, if not exactly English departments. Rather than an either-or approach (deep-thinking/creative expression or assembly line training), we need both-and: deep-thinking and creative expression that leads to more conscious assembly line work. And perhaps that thinking will help us move beyond assembly lines entirely.

As I prepare my next set of writing classes for college English majors, I am beefing up the entrepreneurial end. Because the way out of a soulless slot in a job machine is to invent your own job machine.

That’s something we should train writers to do. And some of those writers will be English majors.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Writers at Work: “How do you imagine that will unfold?”

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Seeing Need and the Power of Imagination

The leader’s peculiar gift is to help followers imagine how their work makes meaning. The leader makes personal how the organization’s work helps others, solves a human problem, makes the world better/more beautiful/safer, for starters. From that position of ownership (note that leaders may appear anywhere in an organization, position does not equal leadership) the leader imagines the next steps needed to move the organization forward. The leader acts on that vision and invites others in.

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If you accept that the writer’s art is at least partly a reimagining or reordering of life, then you may be willing to consider the work of writing in business. Can writers in business look forward to how next steps unfold and then follow that thread backward to make those steps happen?

I say, “Yes.”

But not just because I do this for a living. [Full disclosure: I do this for a living]

It’s because writers in training are blind to this side of the life/work/art equation.

That’s a premise I’m toying with as I consider how entrepreneurship and professional writing fit together. I’m working through an entrepreneurial focus to the next Freelance Copywriting class at the University of Northwestern—Saint Paul, and I want to help English students see beyond self-focused essays and creative writing. A necessary starting point is inviting them to use their writerly tools to imagine life from that leadership/ownership/need perspective. I believe this can shift ownership to the writer and provide useful insight for right now.

Julian Sanchez’s tweet as the Senate report on CIA torture was released gets at this very concept:

Imagine forward and trace backward to locate solid actions. That is the leader’s gift—and possibly the writer’s.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Wait—English Majors Win in the End?

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Start Writing Your Own Future

  • Announce your goal to lose weight and chances are better the pounds will flee.
  • Sign up for NaNoWriMo and chances are better you will actually write that novel (no matter how badly it turns out).

What we tell each other has a way of happening. What we tell each other about our preferred futures has a way of guiding next steps.

  • Write a letter to your collaborative, inventor friend about a business idea and find yourself planning concrete marketing and distribution steps at Spyhouse Coffee.
  • Write a business plan for your startup and suddenly remember your friend who became a venture capitalist. And then remember the friend who bootstrapped her idea.

See the pattern? Each step forward started with communication. You may say,

“No. the idea came first.”

True—maybe.

Create in real time as you go.

Create in real time as you go.

But consider: the communicated idea created a spark. And—given the right collaborative conditions—the spark lit a fuse. And the fuse burned, gathering other ideas until the explosive, disruptive future no one had considered.

What if English majors learned entrepreneurship and began to see their talent for orderly, persuasive, deeply-rooted writing as a way to help themselves imagine new futures and chart forward-movement for others? What if they learned to solve real-world problems with story and emotion and analytics? Their solutions would drop-kick the spreadsheet & PowerPoint crowd. What if some English majors created Lake Wobegon while others created the next Google?

What if English majors learned business lessons alongside the standard fare of reading and writing? What if they were expected to serve up the occasional business plan or marketing strategy along with the usual essay, short story and poem?

If that happened, English majors would connect earlier in life that art and work and commerce and fiction and meaning-making all fit together in the same world. And they would begin to write their own future vocation.

By the way: 16 Wildly Successful People Who Majored in English

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Caveat #1: I was never an English major.

Caveat #2: I teach English majors. They are smart, innovative people.

Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Should a Doctor Blog?

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Only if they want to grow their practice. Or connect with other physicians. Or with patients. Or provide thought-leadership.

Greg Matthews, author of Missing the Forest for the Trees, has been studying the online presence of physicians for years. He’s found that the credibility of their position and the connections within that position can translate to large and devoted followings today.

But all that was counter-intuitive in 2007.

Back when Mr. Matthews was formulating his questions about physicians online.

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Back then he was sure—we all were sure—that talking about health information online would never fly. It’s just too personal. What kind of nut would diagnose and prescribe in public/online?

Plus, well, HIPAA.

But some physicians found a way to talk with regular folks (that is, us non-experts who live on the web) about pressing topics. Diagnosis and prescribing on the web was a non-starter, but presenting topics in a way that made sense to regular people did happen. And as we all took to the web to sort our maladies, these authoritative, personal voices became trusted sources of information.

According to Mr. Matthews, today 61% of physicians access social media weekly, 5000 physicians post daily to blogs and Twitter, and 50 physicians are followed each by more than 500 other physicians.  Some physicians even feel “ethically obligated” to share on the web.GregMatthewsReport-10222014 Download Mr. Matthews PDF for more stats.

In this blog (conversation is an engine) we talk about conversation. We’ve noted how conversation is a two-way street: not just in words exchanged, but actually causing conversation partners to go and do different stuff. We leave our best conversations changed and with new resolve for the most important things facing us. It’s a sort of speech-act theory for anyone willing to take a dumb-sketch approach to life.

And even physicians and even patients can gain from this. And what they both gain is far more than mere information.

It makes me wonder what paths might open for collaborative conversations in lots of different work settings.

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Groundswell Plus: Please Write a Plus-Sized Book about Today’s Social Media Opportunities

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Beyond Li & Bernoff’s Groundswell03282014-book_gs_lrg

Groundswell was published by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff in 2008 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing). I’ve used it a couple times to frame this new opportunity and give social media marketing students a sense of the possibilities of communication beyond liking a snarky comment, link or photo on Facebook. I’ll use the text again but I’m also prowling about for newer texts.

Groundswell is a grandfatherly text by today’s standards. Published (counting fingers: 9-10-11-12) more than five years ago and much has changed. I like the book for the authors’ optimism about building and maintaining communities. And that is precisely where it is starting to wear thin. It turns out building communities is a much more complicated endeavor that works best when flesh and blood people talk with flesh and blood people. The social media piece is a nice and useful add-on, but students need to see a larger picture.

I’ve got other texts that give details about best practices and content strategy. We’ll certainly discuss the disciplines of editorial calendars and fine-tuning their understanding of their audience and tightly defining what their audiences need/want. And, as always, we’ll write and share and write and share and learn what works for ourselves.

Groundswell is firmly focused on taking full advantage of business opportunities. That’s why I first started reading it and it may be why I end up with something else next time. My students tend to be a devoted bunch: they attend this Christian college and their writing (most are English students with a professional writing focus, plus a few journalism and business majors) bubbles up from deep theological streams. Many will say they have no interest in business right up to the point where they realize they actually have to pay off their school loans. That realization attenuates their post-college work vision. One my teaching goals is to help students start to see just how much those deep theological streams can pour through the world of work with all sorts of happy results (an income comes to mind, but also making a difference in real life).

What I’d really like is a Groundswell Plus. I’d like a version of Groundswell that paints a larger picture of the community-building opportunities. Perhaps Groundswell Plus tells stories from the Arab Spring (for instance) or Ai Weiwei and points readers toward organizing for social change. Maybe this plus-sized version of Groundswell could point readers toward unearthing social problems (along with business opportunities) that might respond to collaborative energies.

Because in the end, students want to give themselves to things that matter.

Just like the rest of us.

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Why We Need a Science of Collaboration

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Whatcha talkin bout Willis?

When I assign a report that must be completed as a team, my college writing classes get very still. When I explain the assignment will be graded as a team, I hear barely audible groans and see ever-so-slight grimaces. (These are polite writing students, after all.)

It is much simpler to be an individual contributor than a collaborator. The fun of writing is in the discoveries you make as you write. Collaboration seems to negate all that.

So many unknowns in collaboration: will my team care the way I care? How will we divide the work? What if that slacker is on my team? Who will lead this group?

(“Please let it not be me.”)

(“Please, not me.”)

(“Please.”)

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Elegant work from Ogilvy, Honduras

And yet working together—collaborating—is one of the essential skills our business communities (and academic communities and faith communities) desperately need. This story from the Association of Clinical Research Professionals (via the ACRP Wire) highlights just how big the stakes might be for future collaborations:

An essential new way to move discoveries forward has emerged in the form of multistakeholder collaborations involving three or more different types of organizations, such as drug companies, government regulators, and patient groups, write Magdalini Papadaki, a research associate, and Gigi Hirsch, a physician-entrepreneur and executive director of the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation.

The authors are calling for a new “science of collaboration” to learn what works and doesn’t work; to improve how leaders can design, manage, and evaluate collaborations; and to help educate and train future leaders with the necessary organizational and managerial skills.

Part of the problem is that we think collaboration will just happen on its own.

It doesn’t. Someone needs to organize the task. That organization can look like top-down authoritarian leadership or it can look like colleague-helping-colleague asides. Both approaches have their place, as well as the infinite variety of other ways to help a team move forward. People who study and practice these things are my heroes.

I can’t help but agree with Papadaki and Hirsch in calling for a new science of collaboration.

And for those of the writing persuasion, I plead for patience with group work.

Because sometimes the lightning bolt of writing also strikes in a conversation.

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