So I’m behind on my business reading because of all these fascinating conversations with strangers this summer. But one book I just finished is a wow because it can help you solve problems, find new ideas, have that “aha” marketing or sales breakthrough. And its advice is simple and easy for anyone to do.
The book is “Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight and Content” by Mark Levy. Mark’s view — which I can attest to — is that by slamming down your ideas on paper within a short time frame, say 12 minutes, you can find insights, get unstuck, and find ways to express your business or yourself that are genuine to who you are. (I believe that when this “realness” happens, you begin to like doing marketing and sales because the message means something to you.)
Mark’s book explains the freewriting process and shows how to put it to use for practical business and professional purposes. By writing out your thinking on paper really fast, you push aside that ego lizard brain and tap into deep seated ideas, which are often both startling and right on. The speed of the writing pushes away the conscious editor that usually filters those wacky, odd ideas and thoughts.
I’ve used freewriting for the last 18 months and it has opened up tremendous creative thinking and strategic ideas. (And brought more value to my clients.) When there’s a gnawing big opportunity or potential obstacle in our work one of my executive clients now says, “Lois, why don’t you go off and do some of that narrative writing.” (Note, though, that most freewriting isn’t to be shared publicly; it’s a way of privately figuring things out.)
This approach also helped me finish my book “Be the Noodle.” For four months the manuscript sat because I couldn’t figure out what wasn’t working with it. I used one of the techniques in Mark’s book and did a Q&A with myself, wrestling in writing about the creative standoff. I speed wrote a question, and then wrote a reply. No thinking. Just slamming it down, keeping the pen moving and never leaving the page until the alarm rings. (Part of the trick is setting an alarm and writing fast before times up.) The answers led me to a new book title and format change and within two weeks the book was finished and a publishing deal was put to bed.
Here are some of the things that I’ve highlighted in “Accidental Genius”:
- Prompt your thinking: prompts are helpful way to jump start your thinking and writing. Mark includes an extensive, helpful list of short, open-ended prompts like: “I’m scared by….This sounds insane, but my organization would be 500 percent more productive if….I’d like to tell you a story about…”
- Be open to what shows up: “When you freewrite the page is alive. The ideas that appear on it will change radically, if you let them. You must be open to the truth of the material as it shows up.”
- Marathons: “Each time you formulate a starter thought, demand that it sends you in a new direction…Force yourself into uncharted waters, even if doing so seems artificial or uncomfortable. Pursue novelty and uncertainty; head toward anxiety.
- The fascination method: Mark asks people he works with to make an inventory of everything that has fascinated them at any point in their lives — any ideas that have energy for them, whether or not they “fit” with the person’s business or book concept. The fun starts by putting the ideas together and seeing patterns and insights. “From these places of energy,” he writes, ” we find the book’s premise and much of its supporting material. This material comes from an honest place within the client. It comes from the spot in their brain where they keep things they can’t forget.”
There’s so much more in the book. I hope you find it as valuable as I have. When in doubt, write it out.
A few months ago I read a book by leadership consultant Margaret Wheatley — Turning to One Another — in which she suggests an experiment:
Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
- Talk to people you don’t know.
- Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear.
- Expect to be surprised.
- Treasure curiosity more than certainty.
Trust that meaningful conversations can change the world.
When traveling on planes and trains I’m usually head down, checking email, writing strategy documents, catching up on business reading. But for the past few months I’ve intentionally engaged in conversations with strangers, following Wheatley’s advice. And what a few months it has been, from learning, meaning and networking perspectives.
I had an amazing three hour conversation with a Hollywood producer on a train, where we talked about business models, managing talent, fantasy jobs outside our current fields, packing tips for traveling, creative and challenging things we do for our own professional development, fear of aging, sisters, and books and movies. I learned that executives in any business have the same issues — cash flow, talent, customer satisfaction — and that executives in any business are people with hopes and fears, aspirations and restlessness.
A kind, gentle woman from Louisiana talked to me about her faith, and how being born again with Jesus has made her life one of serenity and comfort. She gave me a Bible and pointed out passages that someone who has never read the Bible might like. I asked her why a compassionate Jesus would discriminate against gays, as her Church does. She hesitated and carefully considered the question. “Maybe we need to rethink things there.”
A rollicking Amtrak conversation with a biomedical engineer who designs heart replacements and an executive coach and documentary company executive was all about bad decisions and lessons learned — managing real estate property and tenant problems, marriage — knowing when it’s time to change career directions, and the surprising kindness of strangers.
The African American documentary director shared the story of how a member of the Seagram’s family changed her family’s history. Her father was a shoeshine boy at a country club in St. Louis. One of the Seagram’s got to know her father and said, “Henry, you seem like a smart young man. Why are you shining shoes?” Her father said he didn’t have the money to go to college. The Seagram’s founder gave her father the money to go to medical school, with one stipulation: he had to pay back every cent, which he did.
So this is a summer of surprise, and conversations that matter. Look up from your reading and be curious. These real life stories are better than anything in the 20 books waiting to be read on my Kindle.
One of the things that struck me about the fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary about Vogue Magazine (“The September Issue”) are the different behaviors of a decision maker — editor Anna Wintour — and the creative director, Grace Coddington.
In one scene they are both in a car driving into Paris. Wintour is heads down on the phone or on her Blackberry, checking emails. Coddington, on the other hand, is looking out the window, taking in the world. Wintour is very much about commanding an executive presence. Coddington, dressed simply in black without makeup, is about finding ideas.
The IBM Institute for Business Value’s recent study of 1,500 CEOs identified “creativity” as the most important leadership quality. But can we be genuinely creative when we’re tethered to devices, status, best practices and corporate politics?
Grace Coddington looks up and is of the world. Maybe this is one of the simplest and most elegant ways to find the inspiration to create new corporate cultures, business models, and services and products.
Or maybe it’s a Friday afternoon in the summer and I’m wishing you all a weekend to look up and beyond business. I think it’s both. Enjoy.
A few years ago at a conference I sat next to the head of the AIDS research organization AMFAR. Our conversation was about just how tough it is to get medical and public health information to people who really need it. We talked about all kinds of outreach ideas, but neither of us had a big “aha.”
Well here is the aha. The Hollywood Health & Society program, part of the Lear Center at University of Southern California, provides free medical and health information to television and film screenwriters and producers. The goal: make sure that television shows and movies accurately convey health facts.
Physicians and medical experts donate their time — ah, the allure of show business — and writers find fascinating story lines in the realities of medicine.
People watching networks like Telemundo, soaps like General Hospital, All My Children, Desperate Housewives; cop shows like Law & Order, and the fictitious television doctors like Dr. Greg House, are not just being entertained, they’re getting accurate, helpful information about all kinds of issues, from AIDS and organ transplants to child abuse and strokes.
There’s been so much marketing buzz about product placement on television shows. It nice to hear about television also serving as a public health educator, albeit in some very cool story lines.
There’s a piano art installation in New York City — Sing for Hope — where 60 pianos are on street corners and in city parks, inviting people to sit and play. The stories of how people are lured to the possibility of the pianos, and then sitting down and playing their favorite piece, some basics like “Chopsticks,” some Broadway hits, and some serious classical works.
Imagine if companies were to do a similar installation. Maybe around strategic planning time? Or the end of the fiscal year when the tension is stultifying? The image of what might be possible in a different approach to employee engagement makes me smile thinking about the possibilities.
I shared this thought over at The Employee Engagement Community and one of the community members from London shared this story about a similar piano installation and how the public piano was for a employee motivation and determination lesson.
Funnily enough, I was on an away-day last week with a great ‘facilitator’, and we learned to sing a song (in three groups) that worked in the round. Once we had come together and sang it once, the facilitator said, “right, that’s good enough. Now let’s go to Liverpool Street station, and do it in public”. Argh!
All but two of us went with it, and we found one of these pianos tethered to the station entrance (there’s a similar installation in London, currently). So we struck up an impromptu performance, caused a lot of smiles, and went back to the session, 30 minutes after we were first shown the music, realising what we can accomplish together in a very small space of time, with the right spirit of commitment. Very strong experience, despite the ‘happy clappy’ factor.
Last week I received an RFP with a key question: what is your organization’s mission and beliefs? I love that question because it will help the evaluators get a sense of the firms in a way that the factual questions can not.
However, many firms struggle in answering this question. Or they play it safe. Or answer in bland language. Having reviewed hundreds of RFPs my advice is to answer this question passionately and genuinely, in language you would use in talking with someone.
This RFP question is designed to help the evaluators get to know the personality, people and passion of your firm. Don’t waffle. Be bold, be true to who your organization is, and use language that brings you beliefs alive.
Also, make sure your Web site includes your belief ( or purpose, or mission, or point of view; they’re really the same) And that everyone in the firm knows it and understands how it guides your work every day.
Stuck? Get your people together and have a thoughtful conversation around this question: why does the world need our organization now more than ever?