Why writing is like solving a puzzle – and why that’s good news for you

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There’s a very logical reason so many people are terrified of writing. Fortunately, they’re wrong to hold this fear. I’ll explain it this way.

The only profession I’ve ever held other than writing was as a real estate appraiser. Actually it was more of a paid hobby than a profession. But I loved it. Here’s why.

Appraising is like solving a puzzle. You pull together all sorts of details about the property you’re valuing, as well as details on similar properties in the area, to arrive at a data-supported estimate of your subject property’s value.

You subtract a few thousand dollars from your subject because a nearby home has a pool, and your subject doesn’t. You add a few thousand because your subject has an extra bathroom or hardwood floors, and the other properties don’t. Slowly, a picture emerges of what the property is worth, and why. It really feels like solving a puzzle.

Not so with writing. Writing feels so… linear.

It’s our training. In school, our stories had to have a beginning, middle and end. Our reports and essays required an introduction, followed by a body, and finally a summary and conclusion.

And if you’ve ever taken courses or read books on business writing, you’ve probably learned the key is to take your reader smoothly from one thought or idea to the next, in a clear and logical order.

Yes, the output of writing is linear.

And I think that’s why it scares people, why so many of us freeze when we’re faced with a blank page. If I don’t have my very first thought for this report, we reason, how can I write the second thought? Or the eighth? Or the 37th or the 100th?

But that’s wrong. Writing is solving a puzzle. If you can think of it that way, it’s a whole lot easier to get started — and you might actually find the process fun.

How? Start with your 18th idea.

If you have an idea about a list of items that should go somewhere in your presentation, start writing them.

If you have an important insight or argument you know belongs somewhere in your report, just write it out. You can move things, add, delete and embellish later. For now, just start placing your puzzle pieces on the board.

Yes, if you really needed to have your first thought composed flawlessly before you could to move to your second, writing would be horrific. You’d feel paralyzed after completing every sentence.

But you don’t have that problem. Writing does not need to be a linear process. You’re solving a puzzle. Start with piece 18.


A Simple Way to Deal With Stage Fright (That You’ve Never Heard Before)

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I’ll say something stupid. I won’t be able to speak. They’re going to hate me. I’m about to make a fool of myself. Having to speak in public, especially in front of our colleagues at work, can cause many of us crippling stress and terror.

And sometimes that terror is so debilitating that it wrecks our performance. “Good Matthew, everyone. My name is afternoon.”

But no one – not even the most terrified of public speaking – should have to suffer from stage fright. The most effective cure I’ve found might also be the simplest: a positive and relaxed conversation just prior to the public talk.

According to a well-known principle in sales, the best time to make a sales call is right after you’ve made a sale. Why? Confidence.

A salesman will be at his sharpest and most articulate when he’s fresh off of a successful sale – because then he can relax and just have a positive conversation with his prospect, without giving off any indication that he’s desperate or unsure of himself. That confidence comes across, and it will put his prospect at ease as well – which in turn will make the salesman even more comfortable during the sales call.

And that leads to a principle similar to the sales strategy: the best time to give a public talk is right after you’ve had a great private talk.

Imagine the scenario. You’re about to give a presentation to your agency’s senior management. You stand just outside the door to the conference room, waiting, while a colleague introduces you to the attendees. You stand there, alone, silent, listening to your introduction, maybe pacing a little, just waiting to walk into the room.

Even if you’re outgoing and generally comfortable speaking in public, that doesn’t sound like a fun moment, does it? And how relaxed will you feel – and look – walking in?

Now imagine you’re about to give the same talk, but this time you’re in the hallway with a close friend, chatting. You make a joke; she laughs. She says something witty; you laugh. Then as you hear your cue and head in, she wishes you good luck. You walk into the room smiling – a genuine smile rather than one you’d otherwise have to force. You feel good about that conversation, and you’re probably more relaxed because of it.

Of course, you can’t always bring a friend or colleague to chat backstage with you or wait with you in the hallway before you give a speech. That’s okay. If you know you’ll have to speak in a meeting later in the afternoon, maybe you can arrange to have lunch with a good friend. The key is simply to have a positive, uplifting conversation as close as possible in time before your public talk.

Even if you’re not afraid of standing in front of a group and giving a talk, this strategy can still help you improve your public speaking. When you’re relaxed, you’re more likely to be fluid and articulate in your speech, more dynamic and engaging in your presentation, and more able to think fast on your feet and respond to unexpected moments.

In the broad way I’m defining the concept, all of us have to do some “public speaking” in our careers. We have to give an update in a department meeting. We have to introduce ourselves to our new team after a transfer. We have to give a training session to new staff members. When you’re called on to do these sorts of talks in front of people, it’s a great idea to grab a close colleague or friend just before the spotlight is turned on you – and enjoy a relaxed, upbeat and confidence-inspiring chat.

“Thank for your time you. Nightgood.”


The Ugly Side Effect of Tracking Your Accomplishments

Now that we’ve officially reached late January, I’m rushing to come up with a new set of New Year’s Resolutions. It’s my annual second chance after breaking every resolution in my first set, which I did this year by January 8.

(Note to self: Top 2016 resolution should be not to smoke all year. Because I’m not a smoker, this should be an easy win.)

So here’s one resolution I’m going to try, and which you might want to consider as well: Stop tracking your accomplishments.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to step back every so often, take stock of the things you’ve accomplished, and enjoy that moment. Go ahead and recap the successes you’ve had at work, creative projects you’ve tackled, things you’ve gotten done around the house, time you’ve spent with the kids — that sort of thing. My wife and I have an informal “year-end recap” ritual like this every December. It’s fun.

But I’m talking about something different: Tracking your accomplishments as you go, making scorekeeping a part of the process. This could be a bad idea. Here’s why.

A few years ago, I read what sounded like a brilliant suggestion in a book I still recommend, called The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life. The author, Steven Leveen, is the guy who founded Levenger, which sells high-end work accessories like leather journals and fancy pens.

Leveen argues in the book that one way to push yourself to read more is to keep track of every book you read — to keep a journal (hmm, maybe one you could buy at Levenger) where you write down each book after you’ve finished reading it.

I took Leveen’s advice starting about 10 years ago, and sure enough, for the next few years I found myself reading a lot more books. I’d count up my books-read total at the end of the year, and the number — sometimes 30 books, sometimes 75 — was a big source of pride for me.

I even got a little adrenaline rush every time I finished a book, because I could head over to my journal and write it down — to add it to my “score.”

But then I noticed a few things about the process that troubled me:

  • I was reading articles less often. After all, they didn’t count in my book tally, and they were taking away from my book-reading time, which would hurt my score.
  • I wouldn’t start a book I wasn’t sure I would finish.
  • I actually looked for shorter books. Not books I’d enjoy or that could teach me new things. Just books with fewer pages or a lower word-count.
  • And I wouldn’t re-read books, even the ones that I really enjoyed or found interesting the first time. Those wouldn’t count toward my score, either.

In other words, my scorekeeping was actually undermining the very reasons I wanted to read in the first place: to learn new things, to get exposed to different ideas, to go back and enjoy my favorite books.

So this year, I’m going to scrap the scorekeeping altogether. I’ll read when I can, when I find a book that moves me (no matter its length), and if I feel like re-reading it I’ll do that too, without the guilt that it won’t “count” the second time.

Taking note of your accomplishments is a great practice. But I’m not sure identifying yourself with your accomplishments, and the constant pressure that comes with it, is as healthy.


Astronomical Irony

Unbelievable story intro from C-SPAN:

President Obama spoke at the Copernicus Community Center in Chicago, Illinois about his executive action on immigration.

Incredible. So a place called the Copernicus Community Center invited a speaker who thinks he’s the center of the solar system?


How to Write Better Emails

A few years ago the publication FedSmith.com ran a piece I wrote offering suggestions for writing more effective emails. And a few days ago someone who had apparently only recently found and read that article emailed me to say thank you for the advice. The Internet is amazing.

I re-read that article, and all of my email tips still hold today. So, assuming you didn’t see that FedSmith.com piece, I’ve included the email tips here for you. I hope you find them helpful.

To your writing!
-Robbie

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Why Do Our Politicians Misuse Words?

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I can’t take it anymore.

For months now, our political representatives and major media outlets have been going on an on about something called “income inequality.” It’s terrible, they tell us, and responsible for much of what’s wrong in Western society today. So we’d better do something to end it, soon.

Now, unless I’m misreading the phrase, income inequality means simply that people have different incomes. Um… duh.

But President Obama tells us income inequality is the defining challenge of our time. Former labor secretary Robert Reich (an economist who should know better) argues income inequality is the real reason for our terrible economy.

And in the most despicable of these public statements, Hillary Clinton actually calls it a cancer.

I beg your pardon, Madam Secretary? Cancer?

What does any right-thinking person want to do with cancer? Adjust it? Weaken it a bit? No. They want to destroy it, annihilate it, kill every last diseased cell.

Okay, and how exactly would we destroy, annihilate and kill the income-inequality cancer? By replacing it with income equality? As the kids would say: WTF?

Let’s think about this.

As radio host Dennis Prager points out, there are indeed places around the world where incomes are more or less equal among the populace. So we can actually view how income equality plays out in a real society. Know where those places are? North Korea. Cuba. Or any of the wonderfully prosperous Communist paradises throughout history where a good percentage of the citizenry has lived pretty close to starvation.

But back to income inequality.

Let’s say you make $80,000 a year and your boss makes $160,000 and your organization’s chief executive makes $1,000,000 a year. That’s a pretty big set of inequalities. But does the fact that your boss earns twice your salary harm you? Does your CEO’s $1,000,000 harm your boss, or you?

Put another way: Let’s say you had two choices. Increase your own pay by $25,000 a year or reduce your boss’s salary by $80,000. Reducing your boss’s pay would decrease the “income inequality” cancer a lot more than raising your own salary. But would you really choose that option? Would any of these loudmouths screaming about income inequality want their own incomes to go down, to help close the income gap?

Or put still another way: Imagine your income goes up. Yay! But your CEO’s goes up too — and a lot more. That actually increases the total income inequality at your organization. But does it hurt you? Or are both you and your CEO better off?

What I’m saying is that from whichever angle you examine the phrase income inequality, the arguments against it fall apart instantly. Worse, the “cures” for it are horrific.

Let’s say Hillary Clinton, President Obama, Robert Reich, The New York Times and all of the other influential progressives get their way, and we’re able to fix income inequality. What would that mean? That an entrepreneur about to max out his credit cards to develop an important new product will be limited by federal law to a new mandated annual income? That the surgeon who someday will save your life on the operating table won’t be allowed to earn more than 10% above the nation’s median salary? Would you bet your life that this surgeon will stick around under those circumstances? Actually, you are betting your life.

Do you think that by enforcing “income equality”— as our politicians are telling us in no uncertain terms they wish they could do — we’ll have as many entrepreneurs, innovations, new products, doctors? Or will we have a lot less?

And do you want to live in a society like that? Or do you want the risk-takers who bring us new products and services rewarded for their innovations? Won’t that encourage more people to innovate — and improve the quality of our lives?

Can you explain to us, Madam Secretary, exactly what your cure would be for this particular cancer? The cancer that I prefer to call “economic freedom?”

Hillary Clinton is a lot things that I am not fond of. But stupid isn’t one of them. She’s methodical and calculating in her public comments. She chooses her words carefully.

So why choose cancer to describe the simple economic reality that a surgeon earns more than the person who delivers packages to the surgeon’s hospital?

There’s only one reason: It’s a cynical attempt to turn you against me, your supervisor against his supervisor, entire organizations against their senior executives, and everybody against “the rich.”

When stripped of all political implication, the phrase income inequality means nothing more than the obvious fact that in a free-market economy people earn different amounts of money based on how much value society places on their skills, expertise and labor.

But people like Hillary Clinton don’t want such words stripped of their political implications. They want such words loaded with political implications, especially if those implications can create confusion, then resentments and ultimately politically exploitable divisions.

Words matter. Shame on all of you public figures who intentionally misuse them for your own agendas.


My article on Lifehack

The kind folks at lifehack.org were gracious enough to publish another of my articles — this time about how to secure talent for your business venture, even on a tiny budget.

You can find it here. I hope you enjoy it.

-Robbie

 

 


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