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From design to meaning: a whole new way of presenting?

Pink My favorite book of the summer is Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind.  A simple book in many ways, and a most profound and well-researched one as well. At 267 pages (in paperback), it's a quick read. In fact, I read it twice, the second time underlining, highlighting, and taking notes as I went along. "The future belongs to a different kind of person," Pink says. "Designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers — creative and empathetic right-brain thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn't." Pink claims we're living in a different era, a different age. An age in which those who "Think different" may be valued even more than ever.

" age animated by a different form of thinking and a new approach to life — one that prizes aptitudes that I call 'high concept' and 'high touch.' High concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative....High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction..."

                                              — Dan Pink, A Whole New Mind

Brain The whole left-brain (L-directed thinking) and right-brain (R-directed thinking) exploration put forth logically enough in the first part of the book is highlighter-worthy, even if it's nothing really new for many of us who keep up on this stuff (my mother survived  a very serious stroke on the left side of her brain ten years ago; I have read a good deal and learned a lot about this subject since then). What I found particularly valuable in Dan Pink's book were the "six senses" or the "six R-directed aptitudes" which Pink says are necessary for successful professionals to posses in the more interdependent world we live in, a world of increased automation and out-sourcing. You can quibble over parts of his book if you like, but I think there is no denying that these six aptitudes are indeed more important now than they ever have been. Mastering them is not sufficient, of course, but leveraging these aptitudes may very well be necessary for professional success and personal fulfillment in today's world.

Now, Pink is not saying that logic and analysis, so important in "the information age," are not important in "the conceptual age" of today. Indeed, logical thinking is as important as it ever has been. "R-directed reasoning" alone is not going to keep the space shuttle up or cure disease, etc. Logical reasoning is a necessary condition. However, it's increasingly clear that logic alone is not a sufficient condition for success for individuals and for organizations. "Right-brain reasoning," then, is every bit as important now  — in some cases more important — than so-called "left-brain thinking." (The whole right-brain/left-brain thing, of course, is a metaphor based on real differences between the two hemispheres; a healthy person uses both hemispheres for even simple tasks).

A whole new way of of presenting?
The six fundamental aptitudes outlined by Pink can be applied to many aspects of our personal and professional lives. Below, I list the six key abilities as they relate to the art of presentation. The six aptitudes are: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. My discussion is with presentations (enhanced by multimedia) in mind, but you could take the six aptitudes and apply them to the art of game design, programming, product design, project management, health care, teaching, retail, PR, and so on. (I purchased the Japanese translation of A Whole New Mind yesterday. The Japanese translation of the six aptitudes (left) are as they appear in the book, though I added the English word below the Japanese.)

Design_1 (1) Design. To many business people, design is something you spread on the surface, it's like icing on a cake. It's nice, but not mission-critical. But this is not design to me, this is more akin to "decoration." Decoration, for better or worse, is noticeable, for example — sometimes enjoyable, sometimes irritating — but it is unmistakably *there.* However, sometimes the best designs are so well done that "the design" of it is never even noticed consciously by the observer/user, such as the design of a book or signage in an airport (i.e., we take conscious note of the messages which the design helped make utterly clear, but not the color palette, typography, concept, etc.). One thing is for sure, design is not something that's merely on the surface, superficial and lacking depth. Rather it is something which goes "soul deep."

"It is easy to dismiss design — to relegate it to mere ornament, the prettifying of places and objects to disguise their banality," Says Pink. "But that is a serious misunderstanding of what design is and why it matters." Pink is absolutely right. Design is fundamentally a whole-minded aptitude, or as he says, "utility enhanced by significance."

Design starts at the beginning not at the end; it
's not an afterthought. If you use slideware in your presentation, the design of those visuals begins in the preparation stage before you have even turned on your computer (if you're like me), let alone fired up the ol' slideware application. It's during the preparation stage that you slow down and "stop your busy mind" so that you may consider your topic and your objectives, your key messages, and your audience. Only then will you begin to sketch out ideas — on paper or just in your head — that will soon find themselves in some digital visual form later. Too much "PowerPoint design," as you know very well, is nothing more than a collection of recycled bullets, corporate templates, clip art, and seemingly random charts and graphs which are often too detailed or cluttered to make effective on-screen visuals and too vague to stand alone as quality documentation.

Story_3 (2) Story.
Facts, information, data. Most of it is available on-line or can be sent to people in an email, a PDF attachment, or a hard copy through snail mail. Data and "the facts" have never been more widely available. In this context, says Pink, "What begins to matter more [than mere data] is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact." Cognitive scientist Mark Turner calls storytelling "Narrative imagining," something that is a key instrument of thought. We are wired to tell and to receive stories. "Most of our experiences, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories," Turner says.

Story_1 "Story" is not just about storytelling but about listening to stories and being a part of stories. We were all born storytellers (and story listeners). As kids we looked forward to "show and tell" and we gathered with our friends at recess and at lunchtime and told stories about real things and real events that mattered, at least they mattered to us. But somewhere along the line, "Story" became synonymous with "fiction" or even "lie." "Oh, he's just telling you a big fat story," they'd say. So "Story" and storytelling have been marginalized in business and academia as something serious people do not engage in. But gathering from what college students tell me, the best and most effective professors, for example, are the ones who tell true stories. My students tell me that the best professors (from their point of view) don't just go through the material in a book but put their own personality, character, and experience into the material in the form of a narrative which is illuminating, engaging, and memorable. My hardest course in graduate school was an advanced research methods class. Sounds dry — and the textbook was dry — yet the professor told stories, gave example after example, and engaged the class in conversations which covered a great amount of important material.

In the end, we can all benefit from increasing our appreciation for Story and becoming both better listeners and storytellers. Story can be used for good: for teaching, for sharing, for illuminating, and of course, for honest persuasion.

Symph (3) Symphony. Focus, specialization, and analysis have been important in the "information age," but in the "conceptual age" synthesis and the ability to take seemingly unrelated pieces and form and articulate the big picture before us is crucial, even a differentiator. Pink calls this aptitude Symphony:

" the ability to put together the pieces. It is the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair."

                                         — Dan Pink, A Whole New Mind

The best presenters can illuminate the relationships that we may not have seen before. They can "see the relationships between relationships." Symphony requires that we become better at seeing, truly seeing in a new way. "The most creative among us see relationships the rest of us never notice," Pink says. Anyone can delivery chunks of information and repeat findings represented visually in bullet points on a screen, what's needed are those who can recognize the patterns, who are skilled at seeing nuance and the simplicity that may exist in a complex problem. Symphony in the world of presentation does not mean dumbing down information into soundbites and talking points so popular in the mass media, for example. To me, Symphony is about utilizing our whole mind — logic, analysis, synthesis, intuition — to make sense of our world (i.e., our topic), finding the big picture and determining what is important and what is not before the day of our talk. It's also about deciding what matters and letting go of the rest. Audiences are full of busy, stressed out professionals with less and less time on their hands. A symphonic approach to our material and our ability to bring it all together for our audience will be greatly appreciated.

Empathy (4) Empathy. Empathy is emotional. It's about putting yourself in the position of others. It involves an understanding of the importance of the nonverbal cues of others and being aware of your own. Good designers, for example, have the ability to put themselves in the position of the user, the customer, or the audience member. This is a talent, perhaps, more than it's a skill that can be taught, but everyone can get better at this. Everyone surely knows of a brilliant engineer or programmer, for example, who seems incapable of understanding how anyone could possibly be confused by his (or her) explanation of the data — in fact he's quite annoyed by the suggestion that anyone could "be so thick" as to not understand what is so "obvious" to him.

We can certainly see how empathy helps a presenter in the course of a live talk. Empathy allows a presenter, even without thinking about it, to notice when the audience is "getting it" and when they are not. The empathetic presenter can make adjustments based on his reading of this particular audience. You may have had the experience of "changing gears" during your talk with great success. You may have also suffered along with others in the audience when a presenter seemed not to empathize with his audience at all, even droning on past his allotted time, oblivious to the suffering he was causing. The presenter with empathy — who empathizes with his audience — will never go over time, and in fact may finish a bit before his time is up.

Play (5) Play. In the conceptual age, says Pink, work is not just about seriousness but about play as well. Pink quotes University of Pennsylvania professor, Brain Sutton-Smith who says, "The opposite of play isn't work. It's depression. To play is to act out and be willful, exultant and committed as if one is assured of one's prospects." Each presentation situation is different, but in many (most?) public speaking situations playfulness and humor can go along way. I do not mean "jokiness" or clown-like informality. But many of the best business presentations or seminars that I've attended over the years have had elements of humor. As Pink points out, "Laughter is a form of nonverbal communication that conveys empathy and that is even more contagious than the yawn..."

Surf_play Indian physician Madan Kataria points out in Pink's book that many people think that serious people are the best suited for business, that serious people are more responsible. "[But] that's not true," says Kataria. "That's yesterday's news. Laughing people are more creative people. They are more productive people." Somewhere along the line we were sold the idea that a real business presentation must necessarily be dull, devoid of humor and something to be endured not enjoyed. And if you use slides — and God help you if you don't — the more complex, detailed, and ugly the better. After all this is serious business, not a day at the beach. This approach is still alive and well today, but I hope in future that this too will become "yesterday's news." It's possible. Remember, for example, that twenty years ago or so business — especially big business — rejected the idea of a graphical user interface for "serious computing" because business should be "difficult" and "serious," ideas that seemed incongruent with a mouse (how cute!) icons, pictures, and color, etc. Today, of course, almost every serious business person users a computer with a GUI.

Meaning (6) Meaning. I don't want to put too fine a point on this, but making a presentation is an opportunity to make a small difference in the world (or your community, or your company, or school, church, etc.). A presentation gone badly can have devastating impact on your spirit and on your career. But a presentation which goes insanely well can be extremely fulfilling for both you and the audience, and it might even help your career. Some say that we "are born for meaning" and live for self-expression and an opportunity to share that which we feel is important. If you are lucky, you're in a job that you feel passionate about. If so, then it's with excitement that you look forward to the possibility of sharing your expertise — your story — with others. Few things can be more rewarding than connecting with someone, with teaching something new, or sharing that which you feel is very important with others.

Frankly, the bar is often rather low. Audiences are so used to death-by-PowerPoint that they've seemingly learned to see it as "normal" even if not ideal. However, if you are different, if you exceed expectation and show them that you've thought about them, done your homework and know your material, and demonstrated through your actions how much you appreciate being there and that you are there for them, chances are you'll make an impact and a difference, even if it's just in the smallest of ways. There can be great meaning in even these small connections. Take the time before the presentation to meet people, linger afterwards to speak with as many as you can. This is where the relationships are really formed and where a difference can be made.

Many people find a great deal of meaning by volunteering their time and "giving it away." Think about volunteering to present for free to non-profit groups, schools, etc. When it comes to "meaning" these have been some of the most rewarding speaking opportunities. It's an opportunity for you to share your knowledge and wisdom, broaden your own network, and it serves as good practice for you. What could be better?

The slide builds in six stages beginning with Design. The vector images are from iStockphoto with some extra editing on my part.The content is adapted from pages 65-66, "Introducing the six senses."

Design. Story. Symphony. Empathy. Play. Meaning. These are not the last word on the aptitudes needed by the modern presenter, but mastering these along with other important aptitudes such as strong analytical skills will take you far as a communicator in the "conceptual age."

Daniel Pink's blog
Revenge of the right Brain by Dan Pink (Wired)
Dan Pink interview with
Changing world is leaving the SAT behind by Dan Pink (USA Today)

Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself (2002) by Dan Pink.
The World is Flat. A good companion book to A Whole New Mind.
Love is the Killer App. I kept thinking of this great little book while reading A whole New Mind. Good advice for the "Conceptual Age" man or woman.



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