Fun fact: No matter how many times I stay at a Holiday Inn Express, I can’t seem to magically turn into a data scientist. It turns out the “sexiest job of the 21st Century” is not my calling, and I know better than to confuse punting around in databases with hardcore analysis.
Another, maybe even less surprising fact about me is that my blog's audience is smaller than Tony Robbins’ – he of the motivational seminars, best-selling books, and late-night infomercials. He may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but his status at one of the world's most successful motivational speakers and life coaches is undeniable (his client list is also an interesting and eclectic mix of individuals).
So what do data scientists and self-help gurus have in common, aside from not having much in common with me? Both help people by breaking down big, complex ideas into manageable categories.
The Power of Categories
After watching Tony Robbins’ TED Talk, I watched a few other clips of him speaking. One thing you notice quickly about Robbins, which Guy Raz also brought up in the TED Radio Hour on NPR, is how frequently he relies on numbered lists to break out a concept. He rapidly introduces topics like the “four kinds of love”, or “six human needs”, or “five steps to financial independence” before breaking out each sub-category. It’s kind of an unusual structured way of talking to an audience, especially compared with how politicians and comedians meander across topics and dive into stories when they address big groups. Full disclosure: I have never been in the audience for one of his events nor read any of Robbins' books. But having watched a few of his talks and interviews, l don't think it's a stretch to postulate that much of his rhetorical appeal stems from reducing a concept like "fear" to something people can get their arms around more easily, and then help people conquer those - through fire walking, if necessary.
The cold shores of data science would seem to have little in common with the touchy-feely land of self-help, yet data scientists fill the same need for businesses that self-help gurus do for their audiences. Data science makes really big, hard problems more tractable for businesses by breaking them down into smaller ones. Age-old questions like, "How do we get customers to spend more?" become mere classification problems. Data science enables insights like, for example, visitors who view three or more products on your web site are 40% more likely to make a purchase than those who don't. That knowledge, enabled by math and computation, turns an amorphous challenge (find great customers) into a smaller, easier one (find customers who viewed more than three items). By reducing customers, sales orders, or site visits to numbers and categorizing them at massive scale, data science techniques help us manage businesses more effectively.
Categories help us make sense of the world around us. Once we can place something in a known category, we automatically understand much more about it. When we can't place a new observation in a bucket we already understand it feels uncomfortable. We all rely on people to help us categorize things that are new and unfamiliar. Whether they do it alleviate our anxieties or simply save us more work, we end up trusting the people who clarify the world for us. And as I've written before in this space, trust is one of the most essential ingredients of success when you're just starting your career.
Build Credibility by Organizing Peoples' Thoughts for Them
The ability to create the categories people need to understand something comes down to structured thinking - one of the more valuable skills you can have. Structured thinkers can balance multiple ideas coherently in their heads at once without being overwhelmed. It allows them to be creative on top of being productive. Not only is it intellectually stimulating to work with such people, it's also just easier. Their ideas come out so well-formed that it's not only clear what they're thinking, it actually helps you organize your own thoughts more clearly. When you're working through something really complicated, people who help you clarify your own thoughts are worth their weight in diamonds. You want to be one of these people.
The great thing is, organizing other peoples' thoughts is also among the most learnable skills. You can do it in your everyday interactions just by always making it easy for people to understand and remember what you're telling them. And because most business writing is often terrible, whether written by individuals or by companies, it's an easy way to stand out from your peers with some practice.
So, without further ado, here are the building blocks of how to communicate in a way that helps organize peoples' thoughts for them:
- Wherever possible, draw pictures. Whether you do it on a whiteboard in someone's office, in a power point slide, on a napkin...whatever: if you can diagram what you're trying to explain, do it. A clear block diagram or flow chart is often the easiest way for people to understand a process. I've also written before about the benefit of capturing your mental model of your industry, and others like Scott Brinker and Luma Partners take this to extremes. When you give someone a diagram, you also demonstrate that you thoroughly understand something. Even if you have known gaps, you can call them out in a diagram easily. (Bonus tip #1: A prior manager of mine was convinced that block diagrams that have connecting lines with right angles, rather than curves, look ten times more professional. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.)
- Minimize Text Fatigue with Numbered Lists. There's a reason why listicles dominate digital media these days. This isn't to say that I 100% like what listicles have done to journalism, but there's a reason they're so popular: they're easy to read. When you're writing your boss an email, easy-to-read is good, especially when you're explaining something complicated or that has a lot of moving parts. This is where you become Tony Robbins. Make it easy for people to get what they need out of your communications, by breaking out big topics into smaller topics and sub-topics until they're easily explainable. Don't force them to wade through unnecessary text. That's what blogs are for, after all. (Bonus tip #2: This one you're reading aside, numbered lists are better than bullet points, because it's easier for people to respond to individual points if they're numbered. Having to manually count down to find which bullet you're referring to is irritating - with a nod to Sid Mansur).
- Give your ideas a "handle" to make them easy to remember. This one might take a little bit of practice, but it is a great "hack" for making your ideas stick. You'll notice that in the list you're reading right now, I'm not merely writing out bullets - the main idea in each block of text is bolded and put in front. It makes it easier for the reader to scan the document and pull out your main points, even if they don't have time to read it thoroughly. Even better is when you can coin a phrase or come up with some other label that makes it easy for your audience to remember and refer to your idea. I tried to do that in some of my prior blog posts here, here, and here, and I've been consistently rewarded by it: the posts in which I created labels for people to remember the ideas generated the most feedback and shares on social media. Great labels make big ideas portable and easy for people to discuss. The more distinctive the phrase you coin, the more you become associated with the idea.
Remember, we trust the people we see as best able to make sense of the world. Use categories to organize your thoughts and labels to make them compact, and not only will you see ideas take hold more easily, but you'll build the trust of the people whose guidance and help you'll need as you build your career.