Effective Explanations

Effective Explanations

June 18, 2013  |  Architecture  |  No Comments  |  Share

A guest post from Lee Lefever:

You probably know the famous scene in the movie Glengary Glen Ross where Alec Baldwin’s character tells his team to “Always be closing.” I wish it were that simple. These days closing the deal, or even getting close, comes with more prerequisites — the biggest of which is understanding. People will not buy what they do not understand. Quality explanations are the key to getting prospects to become customers. I suggest a new motto for today: “Always be explaining.”

We rely on explanations so often that we rarely consider how to make them better. Our explanations just… happen. Unfortunately, these organic explanations can fail, especially when we’re explaining a complex idea. Often the problem is what Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Made to Stick, call “The Curse of Knowledge.” We ourselves know so much about our product or service that we can’t imagine what it’s like not to know. The curse causes us to make inaccurate assumptions about our audience’s level of understanding. The terminology and references that sound right to us come across as confusing jargon to others, and our explanations fail.

Understanding the basics of explanation can serve as a remedy for The Curse of Knowledge and help us think differently about how we explain ideas. This is especially true in the sales process. Whether it’s on the convention floor, in the executive suite, or during a product presentation, honing your explanation skills convinces your audience that you understand their needs.

As a professional explainer — I’ve worked with LEGO, Ford, Intel, and Dropbox to make ideas, products, and services easier to understand — I’ve spent the last decade digging into why business explanations so often stymie customers and send prospects running. What I’ve found is that most people have never considered what makes an idea easier to understand or how to approach the process of explaining ideas.

To help, I’ve provided seven tips to create effective explanations that will work for prospective customers:

1. Make Your Audience Feel Smart, Instead of Making Yourself Look Smart
We want others to think we’re smart because in most cases that’s rewarded. But when it comes to making an idea easy to understand, simple trumps clever. Fancy vocabulary and extensive background information might impress customers — but, more likely, will just confuse them. Stop trying to look smart and start making your audience feel smart by building their knowledge and confidence. Dazzle them with clarity; it’s another kind of brilliance.

2. Explain the Forest, Not Just the Trees
Focus only on features and you’ll miss an opportunity to invite your audience to see the big picture. Prioritizing the details of this year’s coolest product features isn’t an explanation. Customers won’t care about the bells and whistles if they don’t understand why your product exists and why it matters to them. By zooming out and focusing on context at the beginning of an explanation, you can build a world around your product that enables it to make more sense.

3. Add Details Sparingly
Has this happened to you? You’re meeting with prospects about a new product and it’s obvious that they just aren’t getting it. They stare blankly and stop asking questions. No problem, you think, you can still bring them around with a few more points. It’s a tempting move. After all, sometimes one small detail turns that lightbulb on, right? It may seem counterintuitive, but more information won’t help someone who’s already confused. Imagine being lost and having someone give you directions that include every possible route and landmark to your destination when all you want to know is north or south, left or right. The antidote to confusion is often less information. Don’t add detail; come back to one or two big ideas you know they’ll understand. Once their heads are nodding again you can proceed, but with caution.

4. Write Less Copy, Use More Visuals
Prospect not getting it? Write more marketing copy, right? No. Jon English said it best: “words are not enough.” We’re communicating in the YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram era to audiences who are more visually literate than ever. Though often more difficult and expensive to produce, infographics, videos and diagrams can do the heavy lifting of making explanations work. For example, the popular crowdfunding platform Kickstarter encourages every new project to use a video to explain their idea. The company has established that projects with video have a better rate of success (30% vs. 50%). Videos offer potential funders a simple and compelling way to understand a new idea and why it matters.

5. Remember Your Audience is Human
If you think stories are for campfires, not your state-of-the-art product, then you’re forgetting that your audience is human. Stories provide a way to see how a product works in the real world, with real people. And you don’t have to be a storyteller to make stories work. In fact, the most effective stories simply illustrate a person in pain who found a solution and now feels relieved. These simple stories offer a way for the audience to empathize and imagine themselves solving similar problems.

6. Focus on Why
The best explanations answer one question: why? Why does this idea, product or service make sense? Why should I care about it? Why does this matter to me? By answering the “why” early in a meeting or presentation, you create a foundation for understanding on which to build more complex ideas. Think of an explanation like a recipe. Recipes are usually focused on “how” to create a dish. The list of ingredients and instructions work, but you may not know why. By understanding why yeast and baking powder are used, for instance, you can start to see the process from a new perspective and make the next dish your own.

7. Your Job is to Inform Smart People
No one likes to be talked down to, and if you approach explanation with the wrong attitude, it can be destructive. Science writer Steven Pinker once shared advice he got from an editor concerning condescension. She told him to treat his audience as if they are as smart as him, just not as informed. Use this important point to set the tone of your explanation. Your job is to inform smart people, not help the slowest people catch up. Remembering this will help you achieve an informative, not condescending, tone.

Follow all of these steps and you too can enlighten clients and win prospects. The first real step in creating great explanations is realizing that improvement is possible. You can become a better explainer and use explanation skills to solve problems and motivate others to care about your message. By employing the tips above, you’ll be well on your way to making explanations that work.

Of Doubt, Discouragement and Despair

Of Doubt, Discouragement and Despair

May 13, 2013  |  Life  |  6 Comments  |  Share

I have come to the non-revolutionary conclusion that life is hard. Furthermore, life has difficulty, disappointments and, oftentimes, despair. Undeniably, life also has fantastic high points and moments of unequivocal joy and satisfaction. Still, it seems that the disappointment and discouragements of life often send us careening off course and to make rash decisions.

I had one such occasion with my wife the other day. In spite of what you may see from the outside, my life is not without disappointments, discouragements and, sometimes, despair. As my wife and I discussed a particular disappointment she sat quietly for a moment and then said “Perhaps we are not supposed to be here.” I, quizzically, asked “where” she meant, to which she replied “perhaps we are not supposed to be here in Las Vegas.” I can’t say that is a surprising statement, I have thought it before and heard it from many acquaintances and friends. Still, I was concerned for my wife’s reaction to this disappointment and how the doubt was turning to discouragement which would eventually lead to despair.

Like any half-decent husband, I am slowly learning (after over 15 years) that it is a fruitless and vain exercise to ever believe that you can lecture your wife. A husband may talk, may have good ideas, but a lecture is never well received. Not that my vanity doesn’t still get the better of me and I try, vainly, to solve and examine problems for her; I am just learning that this is not the best way. So, in hopes that one day when the pains of disappointment have subsided and the loneliness of fear has ebbed, that she might read this; I thought I would post some thoughts on how I intend to cope with disappointment, my discouragement and ultimately on how I keep my fears, and the snarling teeth of despair at bay.

I am sure that I am not alone. We all deal with disappointments and doubt. I am sure that those few readers who stop here to read are dealing with recent or current disappointments. Hopefully, some of these thoughts will also help you along your way.

Life is full of global calamity and reasons for despair. Politics, war, energy, kidnappings, shootings and a myriad of current societal ills would be enough to ruin any happy day. These global issues remind me of a statement made by WC Fields, who said “smile first thing in the morning and just get it over with!” I have felt this way, but, today, I am not talking about discouragement and despair caused by these issues. I wish to address the fears that might make you wonder about your place in life and the value of your contribution, if any, and make you wonder where you are going and if you are ever going to get there.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said “Trouble has no necessary connection with discouragement. Discouragement has a germ of its own; as different from trouble as arthritis is different from a stiff joint.” We each have troubles, but the “germ” of discouragement is not in the trouble — it is in us. This germ, while small, can become a habit; a way of living and thinking, and there the greatest damage is done. It will take an increasingly severe toll on our character and our souls. It will erode our basic character and finest traits of faith, hope and charity. We begin to look inward and downward and these greatest virtues are damaged or at the very least impaired. We become unhappy and, soon, we make others unhappy; and before long, we are no longer ourselves and our progression is halted.

So, what to do and how to avoid this downward cycle? Dante wrote “the arrow seen before cometh less rudely.” John F Kennedy said “the time to prepare the roof is when the sun is shining.” My Eagle Scout training taught me the simple maxim “Be Prepared.” There is a common verse in my religion that reads “If you are prepared, ye shall not fear” this is more than fine words and must be put into practice to be understood. Preparation and prevention is the greatest weapon against discouragement and self-defeat.

Financial Trouble
Oftentimes, our discouragements are related to financial issues (my current ones, thankfully, are not) but almost all of us are worried about financial issues at some point. Studies have shown that financial issues outnumber all other marital issues combined by a nearly 3 to 1 ratio. So, if you discouragement’s are financial, take heart, you are not alone! I have been there often and certainly will find myself there again. Still, some of these discouragements can be rectified through simple preparation and planning with a budget. “The arrow seen before cometh less rudely.” I do not wish to imply that budgeting is easy or without sacrifice; in fact, almost always a budget will reveal that we must decide between things we want and things that we need. Plan, prepare, budget, work, save, sacrifice and spend on things that matter. Although you may find yourself in almost desperate financial straits, there is a way! These times may be burdensome and the sacrifices may be hard; but these times need not lead to doubt, discouragement and despair. In the words of Henry David Thoreau:

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only dispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. [Walden (1854), 1, “Economy”]
Love your life, poor as it is. . . . The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode. [Walden (1854), 18, “Conclusion”]

The trouble need not lead to discouragement, we can find happiness and peace in any circumstance. “Love your life, poor as it is.” “If God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 6:30).

Work Trouble
Work can also be difficult and lead to discouragement. Details, deadlines, and impossible work loads seem to be the order of the day in the architecture business. This lifestyle is often punctuated with moments of supreme dread about where the next project will come from and how will we ever get back to the “good life” of details, deadlines and impossible work loads. Any employ will have its difficulties and challenges. These discouragements can also lead to despair and self-defeat, but it need not be so! A little preparation goes a long way!

As an architect, I find that if I work conscientiously at the early part of a project then I can work much more cheerfully at the end. I have spent many overnights at my desk in my office working to finish deadlines that I had known about months in advance. This not produce excellent work, although it does produce strained relationships at home and poor decision making. Often times those brief hours of extremely hard work lead me to be discouraged and disappointed in myself as I watch the sun rise over the mountains in Las Vegas. I think of missed goodnight kisses with my kids, or perhaps a moment where I could have been a listening ear for my wife at the end of a long day. I feel utter disappointment that my failure as an architect has lead to a failure as a husband and father. I discouraged me. I disappointed myself. “remember, dear Brutus, the fault is not in our stars, it is in ourselves” (Shakespeare) This is the worst kind of despair: the kind of self-despising that eats at our image and crushes our hopes. It isn’t the client, it isn’t the company and it isn’t the project; it never is, I should have done it better. I could have worked better early. I could have prepared for the deadline that I knew was looming.

“The point is the same with school as with money or marriage or profession or any hope and dream. Prepare. Plan. Work. Sacrifice. Rework. Spend cheerfully on matters of worth. Carry the calm, and wear the assurance of having done the best you could with what you had. If you work hard and prepare earnestly, it will be very difficult for you to give in or give up or wear down. If you labor with faith in God and in yourself and in your future, you will have built upon a rock. Then, when the winds blow and the rains come—as surely they will—you shall not fall.” –Jeffrey R Holland

Of course, as with our most recent disappointment, some things are not under your control. Some disappointments come regardless of your effort and preparation, for God wishes us to be strong as well as good. I have muttered this to myself throughout the day today as I try to cope and understand that there is a larger plan than the plan I see or comprehend right now. So, I repeat “Love your life, poor as it is.” Drive even these experiences into the corner, painful though they may be, and learn from them. In this, too, you have friends through the ages in whom you can take comfort and with whom you can form timeless bonds.

Thomas Edison devoted ten years and all of his money to developing the nickel-alkaline storage battery at a time when he was almost penniless. Through that period of time, his record and film production was supporting the storage battery effort. Then one night the terrifying cry of fire echoed through the film plant. Spontaneous combustion had ignited some chemicals. Within moments all of the packing compounds, celluloid for records, film, and other flammable goods had gone up with a roar. Fire companies from eight towns arrived, but the fire and heat were so intense and the water pressure so low that the fire hoses had no effect. Edison was sixty-seven years old—no age to begin anew. His son Charles was frantic, wondering if he were safe, if his spirits were broken, and how he would handle a crisis such as this at his age. Charles saw his father running toward him. He spoke first.

He said, “Where’s your mother? Go get her. Tell her to get her friends. They’ll never see another fire like this as long as they live!”

At 5:30 the next morning, with the fire barely under control, he called his employees together and announced, “We’re rebuilding.” One man was told to lease all the machine shops in the area, another to obtain a wrecking crane from the Erie Railroad Company. Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, “Oh, by the way. Anybody know where we can get some money?” (Paraphrased from Charles Edison, “My Most Unforgettable Character,” Reader’s Digest, December 1961, pp. 175–77.)

Virtually everything you now recognize as a Thomas Edison contribution to your life came after that disaster. Remember, “Trouble has no necessary connection with discouragement— discouragement has a germ of its own.”

No matter our concerns: I’m not popular, I am inadequate, I am too poor, too rich, too fat, too thin, too poorly spoken, I talk too much, there is, in fact, nothing that we can not overcome though perseverance and preparation. I do not wish to be Pollyannish about the daunting nature of discouragement, doubt and despair. The effects are real, the fear can be very debilitating; but I know in my heart that we are not hear to succumb to these emotions.

Looking back on my life I cannot separate my discouragements from my triumphs when I try to decide which events in my life made me who I am today. I have had many days on both sides of that fence; but I would not trade the man I have become for any past day to be a little brighter. Can we separate our lives to say that we are who we are in spite of the problems? I believe that the truth is more likely found in the statement that it is because OF our discouragements.

To feel untalented, incapable and inferior is a common sentiment that were we able to poll those around us, in honesty, we would find that most feel the same. Remember that the world has been lead and changed by those who felt untalented, incapable and inferior at some point in their lives.

Today I have been greatly touched by a hymn that even many non-Mormon friends will know because of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

Gird up your loins; fresh courage take;
Our God will never us forsake;
And soon we’ll have this tale to tell—
All is well! All is well!
[“Come, Come, Ye Saints, LDS Hymns, 1985, no. 30]

The trouble in my life and the opportunity for discouragement still exists, but I choose to keep my fears and despair at bay by seeing the long-term and keeping my hopes in things larger than the temporary discouragement.

I hope to return to this long string of consciousness that I have shared here at times when discouragement may be getting the better of me and it is difficult to avoid despair. I may be the only person ever to read this from beginning to end. I hope that one day my wife stumbles upon it and finds encouragement beyond any concern that weighs upon her mind. I also hope that my children, should they be far from me (geographically or emotionally) will find solace and healing words to bind the wounds caused by disappointments and discouragements that will be part of their lives.

Today I choose to “Love my life, as poor as it is” with the knowledge that I will never be forsaken. I choose hope.

Urban Sketchers - Salt Lake

Urban Sketchers – Salt Lake

May 6, 2013  |  Architecture, Urban Sketchers  |  No Comments  |  Share

There are great civic and religious structures in Salt Lake and the surrounding communities. I have wanted to capture as many as I can into my sketchbook. Each has a different story or a different character to reveal. Each of them are an important part of the community they serve.
I love to sit and sketch them and to study the way in which the light changes them throughout the days and seasons, they are very dynamic places!

Urban Sketchers - Washington DC

Urban Sketchers – Washington DC

May 3, 2013  |  Architecture, Urban Sketchers  |  No Comments  |  Share

Washington DC is one of my favorite places to visit. I have had the opportunity to visit with my service to the American Institute of Architects a number of times over the past few years. It is one of my favorite places to sketch. There are great buildings and great details at every turn. Too often, I find myself in Washington when it is too cold to spend extended periods of time out of doors and I am not able to sketch as often as I would like to do. Still, on those sun-filled spring days when the sun warms your back, there is not experience quite as great as sketching in Washington DC.

Here are a few sketches from the last few trips.

Urban Sketchers - San Francisco

Urban Sketchers – San Francisco

May 1, 2013  |  Architecture, Urban Sketchers  |  1 Comment  |  Share

My wife and I took a trip with our good friends, Ryan and Susie Carson, to San Francisco in 2009. I brought my sketchbook along to hopefully capture some images of the city while I was in town. We did the standard tourists things and saw a good part of the city together. I would try to find a few minutes while we all sat on a bench or had a snack to sketch some portion of San Francisco. These images are the moments I was able to steal…

Urban Sketchers - Salt Lake Residential

Urban Sketchers – Salt Lake Residential

April 28, 2013  |  Architecture, Urban Sketchers  |  No Comments  |  Share

I travel to Salt Lake for work quite a lot for my work. When I travel I often fill the time between meetings by sketching in a 3″ x 5″ moleskin sketchbook that I keep in my travel bag. Since I grew up in the Salt Lake Area I know of a number of neighborhoods and buildings that I want to include in my sketchbook. I am never far from an opportunity to put 20 minutes of sketching down into my sketchbook before moving on to the next meeting. Sketching some of these buildings opens my mind and eyes to the neighborhoods and portions of the community that I knew so well as a youth, but never really saw. It also helps to clear my mind as I process through all the work issues floating around in my head. These issues somehow find resolution as my pen creates lines and shades.

Many of the residences were built with pioneer hands and labor as families fought to create a community high in the mountains of the Wasatch. They brought ideas from the homes they knew back east or in Europe and set them down among the aspens and scrub oak of Salt Lake. Some are passed down from generation to generation like heirlooms. Some are homes to new families that long for pioneer values to hopefully become instilled in their children through proximity to pioneer craftsmanship. I think they are beautiful.

Urban Sketchers - Places Near and Far

Urban Sketchers – Places Near and Far

April 26, 2013  |  Architecture, Urban Sketchers  |  No Comments  |  Share

Sometimes opportunities to sketch just happen. Sometimes we plan to sketch and the opportunity never presents itself. Some of these sketches were happy surprises in a time or place that I had no intention of finding time to do anything. It seems that when these opportunities arise, I am more prepared to truly draw what I see in front of me. It is strange how our eyes and hands do not always see or feel the same things…

Urban Sketchers - Las Vegas

Urban Sketchers – Las Vegas

April 26, 2013  |  Architecture, Urban Sketchers  |  No Comments  |  Share

We have had a few sketch crawls in Las Vegas now with our Urban Sketchers group. It is fun to see parts of the community in a different way. Normally, we zoom around Las Vegas in cars without ever stopping to notice the details and character that makes Las Vegas. Here are a couple images from our recent work.

Urban Sketchers

Urban Sketchers

April 26, 2013  |  Architecture, Urban Sketchers  |  No Comments  |  Share

I have had a number of great teachers and professors in my life. I have been quite lucky to be associated with passionate individuals who love to teach. I would like to talk about two of my favorite professors today; Bob Scott and Matthew Brehm. The former was the first professor to convince me that I could draw. Not that I couldn’t pull off a decent dog or race car drawing before I met Bob Scott, but he showed me I could create professional level drawings and renderings. He taught me tips and tricks to get my hands to depict what my eyes actually saw, he opened a whole new world of possibility to me. After one semester with Bob, I was able to produce the drawing below:

When I decided to attend the University of Idaho for my degree in Architecture, I did so because the education at Idaho was based in the “Art of Architecture” and I had a strong desire to acquire that skill-set for my career. Matt Brehm was a professor at the University of Idaho that helped me refine my sketching techniques and introduced me to watercolor, and some solid pencil and pen techniques. In one of Matt’s classes we spent a couple mornings a week actually walking around campus and sketching what we saw. We would then reassemble as a group and talk about our drawings. I was able to see what others had done successfully, hear tales of what was “tried but never worked” and heard some great feedback about my own work.

I have been able to keep in touch with Matt since I left school and was excited to hear about an organization that he was a part of: Urban Sketchers. This group apparently did exactly what we had done in our course at the University of Idaho by sketching on-site and then sharing ideas with one another. I had always carried a sketch book with me when I traveled the country or when I want to meetings; sadly, the only real time I spend sketching was when I was actually far from home and wasn’t pulled a million directions by the daily grind. I missed the association of like minded sketchers and artists. I missed the feedback and new ideas from others; but I didn’t yet know how to “scratch that itch.” Learning about Urban Sketchers was like a north star breaking through the clouds, I had a direction.

I was able to find a small but committed group of professionals that were interested in starting a Las Vegas Urban Sketcher group with me. We are still a fledgling group and we are hoping to gain more friends over the coming months, but we are committed to getting together to sketch our world. As part of this group’s mission, I will begin sharing my sketches here on my blog. I often regret not being able to write for my blog as often as I could, but by adding these sketches I am hoping to share another creative side of myself that you might not be acquainted with yet. Feel free to leave feedback of what you like or don’t like, or even to offer tips or tricks that you might know. I also invite you to come out and join us during one of our monthly “sketch crawls” around Las Vegas. You can follow the Las Vegas Urban Sketchers Facebook page by clicking HERE.

The Importance of Thanks

The Importance of Thanks

February 27, 2013  |  Life  |  No Comments  |  Share

The last time I posted here (it has been longer than it should have been) I spoke about the Importance of Compliments. I still think that compliments are under-utilized in the modern world and I further believe that our lives are the poorer for their absence. Today I want to focus on a little different area, the area of giving thanks.

Thanks is often a topic discussed with some regularity around the later months of the year (November and December). During these months we are brought to a realization of all that we have been blessed with, given, offered and achieved throughout the year. Compounded by the holiday season, we often dwell on being thankful at those times. I was reminded of the importance of sincere thanks during the past weekend as my family gathered in the living room to watch the Academy Awards.

Anybody who has ever watched an awards program on television knows the eye-rolling that is often induced by celebrity acceptance speeches. We are so calloused towards these often insincere offerings of gratitude that we relish watching these celebrities getting “played off” the stage before they have completed their remarks. A similar phenomenon occurred in our house on Sunday night. As various celebrities that we didn’t know came across the stage to accept awards; unbeknownst to them, they would be greeted by a muttered “hurry up!” or “enough already.”

I don’t blame the reactions to these speeches that came from my family. If you consider the shotgun approach to gratitude that is employed at these events, it is difficult to place true value on the statements and sentiments offered. As humans I think we have a pretty consistent gratitude radar. That is, we know honest thanks when we see it.

With this in mind, I was recently reminded of one of my favorite acceptance speeches from a celebrity. It was offered in 1997 by Fred Rogers (1928-2003). You may remember Mr. Rogers and his sweater changing ways from your youth. I spent many hours with Mr Rogers, Lady Aberlin, Mr. McFeely, and King Friday XIII. Mr Rogers received his award at the Daytime Emmy’s, you can catch the whole speech and presentation here thanks to the wonders of YouTube.

I was living in France at the time of this awards ceremony (not that I would have likely been watching anyway) but I remember a friend of mine brought up an article from Esquire that described the acceptance speech in beautiful prose. This was written by Tom Junod:

“Mister Rogers went onstage to accept the award—and there, in front of all the soap opera stars and talk show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence.”

And then he lifted his wrist, looked at the audience, looked at his watch, and said, “I’ll watch the time.”

There was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch, but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked.

And so they did.

One second, two seconds, three seconds—and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier.

And Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said softly “May God be with you,” to all his … children”

I loved that the Mr Rogers I knew from my childhood mornings was the real Fred Rogers that loved his wife, appreciated his friends and after all that life had offered him, remained thankful. So, today, I ask those who happen to read my little blog to think about gratitude. Consider those to whom you should be thankful. There are so many in each of our lives who have “loved us into being.” I am thankful to so many friends, mentors, and family members. Although I may not have the ability to thank them all here, rest assured, thanks to them my heart is full today.