“I’m Not Creative.”

Let’s put this to rest right away. You may think you’re not creative, but trust me, you’re creative.

Many people assume that “being creative” means the same thing as having the skills or talents that a painter, musician or playwright posses. To me, these two things are very different. If you have the ability to make associations, concoct games, solve a puzzle, or amuse yourself when you’re on line at the Motor Vehicle Bureau, then you’re creative.

Invariably, when I teach my Breakthrough Thinking class, some participants walk in sheepish, feeling that they’re in over their heads. Yet as soon as we begin, many of those same people demonstrate a willingness to ask questions, listen, explore ideas, be spontaneous and keep digging until they can get to the root cause of a problem. Interestingly, others see these people as creative, but they don’t see themselves that way.

As Henry Ford said, “If you think you can, you can. And if you think you can’t, you’re right.” Creative people think they’re creative. Do you?

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Tut, Tut, I’m in a Rut

A few years ago we had a leaky faucet in our upstairs bathroom. After about three months of gentle reminders, my very patient wife suggested that if I wasn’t going to repair it, then perhaps I should call the plumber. Again, months passed and the drip, drip, drip continued. Eventually Mary took matters into her own hands and called the plumber herself.

The day after Pete the Plumber fixed the faucet, I went to use the sink and discovered that Pete had reversed the threads on one of the handles which meant that when I needed hot or cold water, I had to remember to turn my hand in the opposite direction than I was used to.

I wasn’t happy.

Well, since I’m always challenging my clients to try changing their habits, I decided to see how long it would take me to reprogram myself and learn to turn the handle the new way. Any guess how long it took? (Drum roll please.) It took six weeks!

If you want to become better at breakthrough thinking, you’ll need to begin by challenging yourself to break some of your old thinking habits. It won’t be easy. To get you started, here’s an exercise that will really challenge you to break some of your thinking habits: Start a friendly conversation with someone you don’t like. (It could be a neighbor or a co-worker.) When you talk to that person, see if you can find something you actually like about him or her and then give them a genuine compliment. You may just find that they aren’t as bad as you thought and that it’s possible to reprogram yourself.

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Fear Not

I once coached an executive who, at a very young age, had risen to V.P. at a major financial services company in Manhattan. I asked him what he attributed his success to and he told me, “I’ve never been afraid to tell people what I think.” How many of us don’t tell the higher-ups what we think because we’re worried how they’ll react?

It’s important that you appreciate that you’re a smart person who has a unique perspective that deserves to be heard. If you find yourself backpedaling and testing the winds before you speak, then are you providing as much value as you could be?

For those of you who feel held back by fear and anxiety, I highly recommend Susan Jeffers’ book, Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. Dr. Jeffers gives specific methods for managing anxieties. If you’re hindered by the fear of failure or the fear of speaking up, this book is for you.

Keep in mind that it takes courage to speak up and ask questions in public. Lots of times we fear that those around us may think our questions are dumb, but the odds are that somebody else in the room is thinking the same thing.

Go for it.

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What Is Breakthrough Thinking?

A few years ago during one of my workshops, a participant had a problem that he wanted the class to help him with. The issue had to do with the disposal of wastewater in the plant where he worked. He and his operations team had been wrestling with the issue for many months. It was a tricky matter that had the potential to cost his company millions of dollars and significant goodwill. Things looked bleak.

As the engineer explained the problem to us, we sat there befuddled so we just began asking questions. One question lead to another which lead to another and so on. After about 15 minutes of Q&A, his problem still wasn’t apparent so he drew a diagram on a flipchart.

With the benefit of the visual aide, the group quickly grasped his predicament and what had led up to it. Moments later, one of the participants simply said, “Why don’t you reverse the flow of that pipe over there?” The engineer stood quietly for a moment, looked at the diagram, looked back at the class and then shouted, “We have been working on this problem for almost two years and no one has ever suggested that! Do you know what this means? This could solve our problem!” It was truly a Eureka moment and one that the engineer subsequently called a “watershed” event for the project.

The next day I spoke to the man who had suggested reversing the flow of the pipe and I asked him how he had come up with such a brilliant idea. He answered, “I don’t know.” Well that wasn’t too useful because it’s my job to understand how breakthrough thinking works and then to teach other people how to do it. So I persisted, “Something must have sparked you. Can you remember what it was?” After considering it for a few more moments he said, “Well in China, where I grew up, our government had a similar problem, but in that case, it had to do with the two great rivers in China, the Yellow River and The Yangzi River. This looked like the same problem, so I just suggested that he solve it the same way we solved it in China, by diverting the flow of one river into the other.”

 To me, that conversation was critical because it reaffirmed that breakthrough thinking isn’t about unexplained flashes of brilliance (although it can be). More often, breakthrough thinking is about asking questions, getting clear on the problem and then, finally, making connections to what you already know.

 Having spent 17 years in the advertising business, I’ve come to realize a few things. The first is that everyone is creative. The second is that lots of people don’t think they’re creative. And the third is that creativity (or what we’ll call breakthrough thinking) is a skill that anyone can develop.

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Life’s a boomerang!

The Law of Reciprocity is quite simple. Essentially it says that people react to us the same way we act towards them. In other words, human emotions and behaviors are contagious. People automatically reflect back the way they are treated (or perceive they are treated). If Denise believes she’s being respected, she, in turn, gives respect back. If she feels she’s being dismissed, she’ll become dismissive. Reciprocity has been bred into us over millions of years and is an instinctive human trait. Road rage is an example of the negative side of reciprocity. Exchanging gifts is the positive side.

So what does reciprocity have to do with helping you make your point? It’s simple. Making your point has as much to do with how you say something as it does with what you say.

When you work in concert with The Law of Reciprocity, you realize that you can have an invisible, yet profound effect on how well you communicate with others. Non-verbal cues such as a smile, eye contact, standing upright and all those other seemingly superficial little things can have an amazing effect on how persuasive you are.

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Ease up on facts and figures.

Ah, the dreaded data dump. We’ve all been victims of this all-too-common type of communication. And perhaps a few of us have even been perpetrators. (You know who you are.) A data dump happens when a speaker does a boatload of research and for some reason feels compelled to share all of it with his listeners. Most often it’s in the form of dastardly PowerPoint slides loaded with numbers, or, in white collar parlance, “metrics.” But data dumps can even happen in one-on-one conversations. The problem with the information overload approach is that it’s boring, it’s confusing, it’s unwanted and it’s often useless.

Ease up on the numbers and connect with your listeners. Don’t just give them data; tell them what all the data means to them and their business. Add value.

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The essence of your message

 Ever notice that when you’re sitting on the couch watching TV, about ten minutes before the news comes on the network tries to grab you with a real quick promo? It happens all the time. The networks know how to package the half-hour news into a very short 15-second “grabber” that pulls you in. They do the same thing for their sitcoms, talk shows, dramas and reality shows. And they’re really good at it.

When I coach my clients, we do an acid test with them and challenge them to articulate their entire message in less than 15 seconds, almost as if it were a TV spot. We want them to be able to succinctly state two things in that very short period of time: First, what’s their main topic? And second, why should their listener care? If our clients can give an effective 15-second promo, then we know they have a well-focused message.

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What do you want them to do?

 A very common pitfall with spoken communication is that the speaker leaves the listener hanging. In other words, the speaker doesn’t specify what they would like to see happen next. Rather, they stop at the conclusion stage and assume that the listener will know what to do. Unless you state clearly what you want to occur next, you can almost assume that nothing will happen, or the wrong thing will happen.  As one of our client’s once told us: “If at the end of your presentation you don’t owe somebody something, or somebody doesn’t owe you something, then what was the point of your presentation?”

We suggest you try the “So what?” test. It’s essential that you put yourself in your listener’s shoes and ask: “So what does the speaker want me to do?” If you do this you will become much more conscious of what you’d like your listener to do and therefore you’ll state it clearly. Don’t assume that what’s obvious to you will be obvious to them.

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Make Your Point!

When giving a presentation, remember, your conclusion is critical. The conclusion serves as your key takeaway. Said another way, if there was one thing your listener should remember, it’s your conclusion. A conclusion is a tight, well-focused distillation of everything you’ve talked about, so be sure to keep it brief. A conclusion that goes on for five minutes doesn’t sound like much of a conclusion does it? Try to keep it to one sentence. Here are four examples of conclusions:

“You can get a first rate lawyer every time you need one if you’re willing to check his or her references.”

“The employee who is most likely to succeed at this company is the one who gets the highest customer satisfaction ratings.”

“Des Moines has seen the lowest rate of unemployment in nearly three decades due to the influx of technology companies.”

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Support and prove your assertions

The presentations you make, whether formal or informal, long or short, are laced with assertions. Assertions are the life-blood of communication. “I can do the job.” “This program is sensational.” “We’re going to increase profits.” “We really know your industry.” And on and on. But why in the world would anyone believe these hollow claims, unless you provide the facts (evidence) to support them?

So when you make assertions in the body of your presentation, construct “proof points” that provide the evidence for those assertions. This is what will make up the substance of your sub-topics.

Don’t just tell me that you have experience in my industry. Back it up. Cite examples of programs you’ve run and specific experiences you’ve had. Statistics are next. Use numbers as proof points. Don’t say “We do a lot in that marketplace.” Say, “We have a 62% market share.”

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