Introduction To A Community That Protects Your Freedom To Use Computers

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Saturday, 6.24am

Sheffield, U.K.

The free software movement is one of the most successful social movements to arise from computing culture, driven by a worldwide community of ethical programmers dedicated to the cause of freedom and sharing. But the ultimate success of the free software movement depends upon teaching our friends, neighbors and work colleagues about the danger of not having software freedom, about the danger of a society losing control over its computing. – Free Software Foundation

I’m trying to remember when I first tried out free software. Did I do it because it was free, as in it cost nothing? Was that all there was to it? Or was there something deeper, a pull that went beyond the basic issues of a computer and convenience to the core of what it means to be able to be free rather than have free stuff.

For many people these issues may seem irrelevant. After all, think about every computing service you use. It’s all free, isn’t it? Yes you pay for hardware, your laptop, your phone, your tablet, but then pretty much everything you use costs nothing or it’s a subscription, something you pay as long as you use that service. It’s free, it’s easy and that’s all there is to it surely? Or is it?

The Right to Read

In 1997 Richard Stallman published a fictional article called “The Right to Read”. It projected a future where you weren’t allowed to read anything unless you agreed to be monitored and followed the rules set by those in power, typically governments, corporations and institutions.

Think about this for a minute. It seems farfetched. Is there anything you do today that doesn’t require you to agree to be monitored? For example, I wanted to use the word “dystopian” to describe Stallman’s article. But I wasn’t sure about the meaning. Now, quick, how would you check what it meant?

Perhaps you are one of those people that still have a physical dictionary on your desk. I do have one, but it’s currently in the loft, behind piles of things that need sorting out. So, no help there. How would you check the meaning of that word without agreeing to be monitored in one way or another? Google it? Of course you could, but you’re going to be tracked and you’ve had to sign up to an agreement to use their site anyway. If you don’t use Google, perhaps there is a different search engine, like DuckDuckGo, which protects your privacy, that will lead you to an online dictionary, one that will have its own conditions that you have to agree to in order to access its content.

Well, you argue, that’s no bad thing. At the end of the day you can find out the meaning of the word you’re looking for and having to agree to follow the rules is a small price to pay for the ease and convenience of being able to search for something and find it instantly. It’s easy and convenient and like air and light and electricity you only notice how important it is when you haven’t got access to it any more.

Now, that won’t happen, will it? But if you imagine the worst possible situation that could happen, well, that’s dystopian. And I found out what that means by installing a piece of software called dico that asked a dictionary server what it meant. I still had to agree to the terms of the software before using it but the one difference is that the terms are ones that protect my freedoms, not terms that take it away. There is a community out there, founded by Richard Stallman, that operates with a set of principles that will protect your freedom to use computers and read, a community called the Free Software Foundation. One that supports almost all of the tools I use for my own work, and one that I should probably do a lot more to support. But why?

The pen and the sword

As you know I’m trying to work through a book project here, and I’m finding this one a lot harder already than the first two, mainly because it’s hard to work out what you can and can’t do, what’s right and wrong and if it’s right or wrong.

For example, I am writing these words in a text editor on a Linux computer. I can keep doing what I do if the Internet is turned off, I don’t need to sign into Microsoft or Google or Apple or any of the other big corporations that provide computing services to the vast majority of people. I’m writing in plain text, a format that will last as long as computers last. I’m also using a terminal, a command line. It’s black and white, no mouse involved. The technological experience is decades old, not that far removed from a typewriter with a few improvements. So, why do I use this approach to create text, why not just use a word processor, an online tool, something easy and convenient?

There are two reasons for this. The first is practical, the tools I use are better for a whole host of reasons. They don’t try and tell me what to do, correct grammar or spelling or suggest different ways of doing things. They let me get on with my work. The second is more important, and has to do with my freedom to write and say what I think because in this world of ours your ability to document your thoughts is the way in which you protect your freedoms.

The United States is perhaps the preeminent example of this, a nation state founded on a document, a Constitution. Of course, you can point to the Magna Carta as the ancestor of it all. I would also argue that the Indian constitution, which gave 300 million people their freedom, had the largest impact of any single document in history. These political documents mattered, they were a contract that set out the rights of people and those rights still need defending even today.

How do you defend your rights? With words, of course. And so the tools you use to write your words are just as important as any other tools you use to defend your freedom. Once upon a time you would have reached for a weapon; in many parts of the world that’s still a first recourse. But for more and more of us these days you reach for your computer and start writing your message of hope. History teaches us that words have power and if someone has power over your ability to create words then they have power over you.

I have a deep, visceral need to be free to write and the Free Software Foundation’s mission is one that I can sign up to. It’s a community with which I share values and ideals. So, while I might use non-free software if I am working for others on their systems I will use free software to do the things that matters to me.

Exploring the model

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, hopefully you understand that people can have points of view about things that you didn’t even realize were an issue. And before you write me off for that, what you should notice is that you and the people around you will their own causes, the things that they find important and that they want to defend, whether it’s the right to bear arms or their religions beliefs or an activist movement looking to stop climate change.

What I’d like to do tomorrow is carry on with the Free Software Foundation. Today has been about its mission and why I think it’s important. Tomorrow, let’s look at how it operates in practice and see if there are elements there that we can identify and see how the various parts are working.

What Is It That Makes A Community A Community?

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Friday, 6.36am

Sheffield, U.K.

There is but one Church in which men find salvation, just as outside the ark of Noah it was not possible for anyone to be saved. – Thomas Aquinas

If you had to build an ark and save all that was important, but only had a certain amount of space, who and what would you take with you?

Your immediate family is probably an easy choice. Your parents? Grandchildren? Animals? If you were required to. How about extended family? Neighbors? People from further down the street? From the next village?

Noah’s ark is an apt image for the rushed construction of a community, a bringing together of people and creatures that would not normally be together. The have to live together for a while, follow rules and try and survive the flood that washes over them. And when it’s all done they disperse across the world when released from the walls of their boat.

The single, overriding characteristic of the ark metaphor is that there are two places to be inside the ark or outside it. If you’re inside, you’re safe. If you’re outside, you don’t matter.

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The origin of the word community lies in the concept of having something in common with others, where you are, perhaps, what you have, what you care about, or how you think about things. You can be born into a community or join it, with or without a choice in the matter. You experience can be good or bad, pleasurable or horrifying. There is nothing that says a community has to be good or right or fair. All that needs to happen for a community to exist is that its members have something in common with each other.

But what we’re interested in is precisely those value judgments that help us understand what good community is and what bad community is and how to tell the difference. There are communities everywhere we look, thriving ones and struggling ones. You have communities that have endured over centuries and others that come together for an evening. What is it that makes communities viable and productive and how do you tell the difference between one that looks wealthy and prosperous on the outside but is rotting away on the inside and one that is struggling to survive but that contains the essential elements that will help it live, if it can just survive the flood washing over it right now.

The thing about community, then, is that its essential quality is dynamism, renewal and rebirth. It is alive. Unless it’s not, in which case it’s no longer a community. It’s a memory, consigned to history. It’s difficult not to think about a community as an organism, as a living thing. And living things can be vital and healthy or sick and diseased. At the same time, if one that looks at communities from a social point of view rather than a biological or economic one, which makes no judgment other than suggesting the fittest survive, then should we try and ensure all communities survive, even “bad” ones?

So far, all we have are questions and perhaps we need to set some ground rules before we explore too much further. The purpose of this book is to help us engage with the world around us in a way that is “good”. But what does that mean? It’s very hard to define good. Sometimes it’s easier to start with what we think of as bad. But it always comes down to a point of view. For example, is an influencer who reaches millions of people and tells them how to live doing a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on your point of view, and some people will see what’s going on as empowering and others will see the same thing as degrading or controlling. When you look at the world out there what should you aspire to be? What are the images most of us see, how does that influence the aspirations we have and what is the reality we are likely to face? Are there fundamental principles that can help explain what goes on in the situations we see out there.

As someone who runs a business or is a creative professional do you have a right to a living wage or do you have to fit into the way the world works? Is there room for individual freedom and self expression or do you have to comply with the prevailing view or be punished for stepping out? After all, you can’t always rely on a god to come along and help you. Sometimes you have to help yourself. But how should you go about doing that?

It’s not easy finding a place to stand and start thinking about these things. Should we look at the research and try and understand what academics mean when they use big words and design research studies and write papers hidden behind paywalls? Or should we look at the material that’s out there. Should we look at specific examples of how people did what they did or is that a waste of time. After all, you hear about someone because they’re famous. But are they famous for being well known or is there something they did that, if you do it too, you can also be famous? Every time. Or should we create models of how things might work and test them on our own lives?

I think perhaps we need to start with ourselves. We all know how we live, what we’ve experienced and how we approach the world. We’re less aware of how others do this and it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that it’s all down to them. We often excuse our mistakes because we see all the factors that led to the decisions we made but with others it’s very tempting to see it as down to individual choices.

And maybe what I do need to do is start with an example, a community without which I wouldn’t be able to do anything that I do right now. A community with which I should really engage a lot more because of all that I have received from it. A community that is perhaps the exact opposite of the ark, where the purpose is not to save those who deserve to, or who can afford to be saved but to give each person the freedom they ought to have. One that follows a model that looks a little more like this.

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But, to be fair, you could argue it either way, as always.

But I’ll start with that tomorrow.

Cheers, Karthik Suresh

Introduction To My Third Book Project – Community

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Thursday, 6.57am

Sheffield, U.K.

The future of every community lies in capturing the passion, imagination, and resources of its people. – Ernesto Sirolli

Yesterday I wrapped up my last book project, Listen, and today I start a new one.

Over the next sixty to ninety days I will work on the draft of a book a blog post at a time, following a rough outline but also feeling free to follow trails wherever they may lead.

Before we begin

I want to make life a little easier for myself – the one thing I am not a fan of is hard work. Or, more precisely, unnecessary rework.

For example, I have written several blog posts in the way that I thought they ought to be written – a sentence at a time. I’m not sure where that rule came from or whether it actually makes it easier for you to read. It might make it easier to write in a conversational style but easy writing does not necessarily make for easy reading. Where it causes a problem for me is that these disconnected sentences eventually need to be pulled together into paragraphs – a repetitive and unpleasant task. Maybe a task that should have been done right the first time?

So, I’m going to try an experiment with this set of posts. Instead of standalone lines which I then need to sort into paragraphs, I’ll try writing in paragraphs from the start. I’ll also work on sectioning and structure as I go along. All of which means, hopefully, that editing will be easier and I won’t need to do major structural work and can focus on finish and snagging instead.

But I’ll save my one sentence bits for the inevitable angst and introspection that accompanies work like this – but using a method of literate writing I can comment them out later and you won’t see them in the final draft.

But enough of this, let’s introduce the project.

Community

In my first project I explored the idea of getting started, which I think I will eventually title “Start”, and then, in the second project, the idea of listening in “Listen”. Both projects are loosely anchored in the practical world of business and personal development, aiming to help you work through making something of yourself and become a useful, productive force. The first book helps you work out who you are and what you have to offer. The second book helps you listen to the world around you and understand what they need.

My third book project is going to be called “Community” and, in these posts, I am going to explore the idea of what it means to engage with the world around you. Think of it as part marketing and part anthropology; I’m going to borrow models from management, social science and biology and take a critical look at some of the prevailing ideas, beliefs and fads around us today. In the same vein as my first two projects I’m not aiming to find “truth” in an objective, scientific way. Instead, I’m trying to develop conceptual models, making ways of thinking visible, so that you can see the argument for yourself and work out what you think, whether you like it or not and how you can try it out for yourself.

Why do we need a book like this?

We live in a world where we swim in information, with chattering voices chattering away telling us how they think we should think. In such a world you have structures, hierarchies, networks, communities – features of the landscape being created in our collective minds. If you look at this collective landscape you’ll see every shade of opinion, from people who differ on questions of politics, of social justice, on the environment. People are different and they believe in different things.

So what brings them together? Is it a shared belief in something, do they have a common passion, something at the centre that they all share? Do they coalesce around a charismatic leader, the “cult of personality”? Or is it about shared institutions, social spaces they once occupied and the virtual spaces now being created to house everyone in their own safe space?

I’d like to explore these ideas and see what kind of models explain the world out there and how we can fit into it. How do we create our own communities or join existing ones. Is the idea of community changing? How do our jobs and allegiances to employers work in this new world? Is there a difference if you own a business that does knowledge work and one that is in the traditional businesses that create wealth? I don’t know where this is going to go but I know I want to find out because I need to know if we live in a world that is going to be worth engaging and participating in, one where we can make a difference, or whether we should just find a quiet corner and get on with the knitting.

The structure of the book

I don’t quite have a structure yet but I suppose it will need to have a beginning, a middle and an end.

In the beginning I should look at what we think about when we look at the word “Community” and explore its origins and the forms in which we see it. We should also try and look at the underlying structures that support community and make each one viable or unstable.

Then I think we should look at how we engage with communities, what it means to participate and contribute and how we can do that in a way that is balanced, where we give and get. Or perhaps it needs to be unbalanced, perhaps you first need to give without any requirement to get, and eventually it will all work out. I don’t know, let’s see where that takes us.

Then we should close by looking at how to create a community, what we must do to build and secure a group of individuals who want to make a difference in whatever way they see best. We should probably look at what happens when groups go bad, and what you can do in that situation. Do you keep your head down and try to survive or do you speak up and risk everything? What does bad look like, what does good look like, and what does right look like, for you.

And we’re off

I should point out that I am not an expert writing from the point of view of an expert. These are subjects that I have thought about but I still have everything to learn and these writing projects are as much about teaching myself as presenting the ideas to you. As a result, if you take the trouble to read this and find there are ideas that are wrong or believe there are ideas that are better please let me know and I will consider them. I’m not writing to a market or for a publisher or for money. I’m writing because it’s what I want to do and I know that the only way to get better is to write. And read, and think, and revise, and all the other things that go into any project.

I hope you find some of these ideas interesting and perhaps even useful.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Learning From My Second Book Project

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Wednesday, 6.36am

Sheffield, U.K.

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. – Terry Pratchett

Let me tell you a little bit about myself and what I am doing with this blog.

I have always wanted to write and I think if I were given the choice again I would choose to do something that involved writing and history and drawing as early as possible.

As it turned out I studied engineering instead and, while I learned little to nothing in school, I suppose I learned enough about computers to be useful and entered the world of work and made a living and learned about business and picked up some useful skills.

But there’s always been this hole, this thing nagging at me saying that I’m not really doing something that I want to do.

My first response to that was to go back to school to study business – and what I ended up being really interested in was how the theory I was learning in class could be used to explain the experiences I had during my first decade of working.

You see, most of the time we think that what we learn at university is going to help us do something in the future.

But there are two kinds of learning at least.

The first is learning how to do something – change a tap washer, use an application, make the bed.

The second type of learning is why we do something – why washers exist, who needs the application, what’s the difference between a blanket and a duvet.

In a sense, you can only do the second type of learning after you have spent some time doing the first.

It’s like going across a land with a guide or a group.

Initially, you look at what’s around you and start to pick up knowledge about the terrain and what look like easier ways to go.

Eventually, once you’ve done the entire route and then perhaps done a few other routes you come across a map of the land or perhaps draw your own.

That’s what going back to school did for me – the theory I learned was like a map that helped explain the experiences I had – the “aha” moments where I realized that a situation panned out the way it did because of these factors.

All this can be summed up in Kierkegaard’s pithy line “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

20 years after I left school, more or less, I decided that I wanted to write again.

But I also knew I wasn’t ready, I hadn’t done the apprenticeship necessary and really was starting from the beginning, going back a score of years.

I figured it would take ten years and I would need to write a million words before I started to do anything that was any good.

So I started.

After all, the best time to start is ten years ago.

The second best time is now.

And you know, time does go by and things happen if you do them one day at a time.

Let’s look at the statistics.

The first post on this blog was on 26 December 2016 and I thought I would write about my professional work.

From December 2016 to June 2017 I wrote sporadically, a few posts a month.

Then, in June 2017 I thought about setting the 10 year, 1 million word targets and decided to try and write every day.

Now, what counts as a million words?

I write in a two stage process.

First, I do a little freewriting, a few paragraphs of warming up just to get my fingers moving and the initial crud out of my brain.

And then I write about the topic – with a vague idea in mind and then starting at the first sentence and seeing where things go.

Let’s say that the words that count are the ones that are published, the ones that make their way onto the blog.

That total stands at 909 posts and 642,554 words.

So, three and a half years later I’m nearly two-thirds of the way there.

A point I think I’d make from this is that there are no shortcuts to skill, you have to take the time to do the work.

When I first started writing I was stiff, pedantic, trying to lecture and appear knowledgeable.

It took time just writing to relax and start to find a voice, get to a point where I could speak without feeling that I was trying to prove something or had to meet certain standards.

And that took years, not days, not months.

You can’t go to a course and learn how to do this, you have to do the work and then the work will change who you are.

After several hundred posts on individual topics I finally started, earlier this year, to try and focus on a subject at a time and try to build up content that might work as a book.

You find me now in the middle of that experiment – just finishing off the second book draft.

In 49 posts I have written just under 60,000 words.

My writing rate has crept up from under 500 words a post in 2017 to nearly 1,000 words a post now – which is a lot to read and I apologize to anyone who would like to read this stuff and finds it too long.

A friend once suggested that I should keep things short and another friend’s eyes just bounced off this wall of text and the look of polite boredom he gave me was interesting.

But here’s the thing – I’m not writing for anyone else.

I’m writing because I want to write, I need to write, and if what I write is useful to you then that’s a huge bonus but it doesn’t really matter whether anyone reads any of this or not – because it’s about the practice, about the work, about the experience of doing something that is, for me, worth doing.

So, about this book then.

Here’s how I write. I’m going to go over this briefly just to work through the process myself and perhaps I’ll be able to explain it better later if anyone wants more detail.

I spent some time cutting up used A4 sheets into A6, creating a pile of slips of paper with a blank side – a little like index cards.

When I start a book project, I begin with a title idea and start scribbling down questions and content ideas, one to a slip.

In an hour or so I can come up with 20-40 slips.

Then I take a break.

Then, I take the slips and sort them into three piles, ones that look like they should be in the beginning, the middle and the end.

A three part model – I’m going to try a five part with the next project actually.

Then I take the smaller stack in each pile and go through the slips, comparing each one with the others and putting them in an order that seems to flow.

When I’m finished I have an outline, something that can guide the next 40-60 days of posts – and I know now from the first two projects that I will end up with 45,000 to 70,000 words, ideally closer to 70,000 which I can then cut back to a book length.

Each evening I look at a slip and think about the kind of image that will capture the essence of what I’m trying to say and draw that.

In the morning I aim to get up at 5am and write until 6.30, doing any research that’s necessary to write the post.

Because I’ve now done this eight hundred and eighty two times so far I know that I can do it again today and tomorrow and the day after.

As an aside, I do all my writing in a text editor, ed for normal writing, emacs for the blog post because it has org2blog and that makes it much easier to send stuff to WordPress.

Write. Publish. Done.

Except I’m not.

I have to edit the stuff, the tens of thousands of words that I’ve created the first time around.

And that’s hard, very hard.

And I don’t like hard, I like to make things easy for myself – and so I have been trying to work through how to do that.

One thing is to write some small programs that help me reduce the complexity – if there is any interest in this I’ll write about it in more detail another day.

But it effectively lets me do the kinds of things I suppose you would use apps like Scrivener to do but in a console using an approach that was cutting edge forty years ago.

But it’s fast and works for me and will work for the next forty years without needing a subscription or upgrade, so that’s that.

Editing is @!%&$ hard and it’s because you need to think about the big picture and the detailed words as you go along, see if the bits fit together and if they work.

I haven’t solved this problem yet but I have a few ideas that come from my programming experience.

The first issue is that when you write a blog post, you tend to write in sentences, in bursts of words.

But you have to join these together in a book in paragraphs or it doesn’t look right – what works in a web browser looks rubbish in a book.

So I have to glue the sentences together and make them work in that larger chunk.

Then I have to glue the paragraphs together so they make sense in sections and chapters and so on.

And around each chunk is the meta-stuff – why is something here and why isn’t it there.

Now, one way around that is to use a literate programming approach where you weave comments and code into the same file.

In the case of a book you’d weave the editing comments and the book content together, something like this.

@
Write about a bear in this section.

@c
A bear is different from a fish
in more ways than I can explain.

And then I’d extract just the book part for the publication – which is pretty trivial to do if you know your way around a terminal and some basic scripting.

Not that easy if you use Microsoft or an app or anything like that though, so it’s not for everyone.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself now, going past where I am with the writing to what happens next – which is fine and something I can do but let’s talk about that when I’ve done it.

Coming back to now.

The thing with doing anything is that you have to do it first before you can do it better.

A little more planning does help – my slips and piles of paper have helped me go from thinking about a post on a day to day basis to thinking of a collection of posts that could go into a book.

It makes the writing harder because you are constantly referring to the previous and next one and it probably makes reading it more confusing as well on the blog, which is not a good thing.

So, perhaps one improvement is to try and still write in self-contained post packets but keep in mind that you have to glue them together later.

Inside a post, however, rather than writing a sentence at a time it’s worth thinking about how each sentence relates to the one before and after – planning for the paragraphing that’s going to happen later.

If you’ve made it this far then here are some suggestions – as much for me as for you.

The planning at the beginning helps.

Keep it loose, the nice thing about slips of paper is that you can add new bits and rearrange as you go along if you need to.

Think in terms of structure and break up your piles of slips – it’s much easier to compare 10 slips that all look like they’re in the beginning than 30 slips that make up the whole book.

Now… I could talk about research and how I’m doing that but I won’t because this is long enough and I should start on my next project – the next book, which I’ll talk about tomorrow and get myself motivated to edit the first two before they overwhelm me.

But here’s the thing.

I’m still learning and practicing – working towards the million and all this is just what needs to be done on the way to keep moving forward.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Do You Know Why You Are Doing What You’re Doing?

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Tuesday, 6.08am

Sheffield, U.K.

The whole point is to live life and be – to use all the colors in the crayon box. – RuPaul

Many years ago, in another life, I used to teach dance.

You wouldn’t think it to look at me now but I was young and it seemed like something that I should learn – and I found that I was very bad so I kept trying and eventually I learned it and then I could dance it and teach it and then when I was done I left it all behind and moved on.

But during those years there was always one thing that puzzled me, one thing that still puzzles me about the way people approach things.

Getting serious about the thing

Why do you think people learn a social dance like Salsa?

If you look at dancers in a club you would be forgiven for thinking that the point is to go into the floor with a partner and then do your thing – break into some fancy moves and really show everyone else how good you are.

That’s what most people did – became really serious about how good they were at the moves.

They got good but they also missed the point of the whole activity.

The point of a social dance is to be social – to have a chat in an environment that allows you to talk to a range of other people.

It’s a place where you can meet a girl or a boy and have a dance and get to know each other – see if you get along.

And who knows where that will lead to?

But you can’t jump straight from not knowing how to do anything to being able to lead or follow around a floor while also talking about your favorite books.

You first need to get good.

Getting good at the thing

For the first six months you’ll be stepping on other people, looking down at your feet, trying to work out what to do with all the seemingly uncontrollable parts of your body.

And then, one day, you’ll start to get it – if you have a good teacher and access to resources and spend time practicing.

All that boring, basic stuff that you have to do to get to the point where you can participate in the first place.

At the same time, if you find it boring and basic then maybe you aren’t doing the right thing – you need something driving you.

Sometimes it’s easier to stick to things you find hard to do than those that are easy but which need you to spend time doing if you want to get better.

I think that’s the price of entry, being able to do something to a certain standard – to the point where you are pretty good at what you do.

And I think you know you’re there when you reach a point where you start to become serious about the thing – and that’s where you need to catch yourself and see if you’re still centered, if you still have a soul.

Why do you do this?

Over the last 47 posts I’ve been working through the content of my Listen book project and I thought I was at the end yesterday.

I’d talked about why listen, how to listen, how to make sense – there is material in there that I can work with and shape.

But I think there is a little bit that I still need to explore – and it has to do with the point of developing listening skills – skills of any kind really.

For example, if you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ll notice that I draw an image to start the post – it’s something that tries to capture the idea I want to get across in the text that comes later.

When it comes to drawing you have many options.

There is the direction of fine art – and I think art is perhaps something that someone presents as an object in itself – something that is an end.

It’s easy to see that with a painting or a drawing – you get that painting and hang it on your wall and it makes you happy.

Somewhere before that are the sketches, the preparatory work, the rough lines, the research.

And before that is the practice, the training, the learning.

Somewhere on the track that connects the rough stuff and the finished art is a branch line that leads away to a place where the stuff I draw helps me do something else.

For example, if you have come across sketchnotes you’ll know that there are some fabulous examples of sketchnote art – where people make really nice looking notes.

But if you really want to learn what those notes show you’ll probably need to create your own – and you can do that with a ball point pen.

You can draw images and create a scene and make something memorable with a few scratched lines – just as memorable as the really arty ones.

Watch children at work – they really get this.

I have one behind me right now, drawing away, seeing through the scratchy lines to the reality behind.

Their reality.

So why do you do what you do?

Making a difference

Somewhere along your journey you’ll realize that what you do makes a difference.

It first makes a difference to you – you get better, more confident, you’re able to produce something of value with the skills you have.

Reading and writing and math and drawing have helped me personally and professionally in ways I could never have imagined in the tedium of the classroom.

I use them in a particular way now – to explore situations with other people and figure out what to do.

And I watch other people do the same in their own way – I try and learn from them and I also try and avoid going down paths that don’t seem right for me.

The path that works for me is the one where what I do makes a difference to other people – where what I am doing is seen as a good thing to do, something that is helpful and valued.

I think the real end to my book project on Listening is to point out that the reason why you listen to someone else is to understand, and the reason you try to understand them is so you can help make a difference.

You can make a difference to one person or to many.

You can make a difference in a community.

And I think understanding community is going to be the next book I start to work on, after perhaps a wind up tomorrow.

Until then,

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

The Difference Between Talking And Writing And Why It Matters

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Monday, 5.38am

Sheffield, U.K.

If you were all alone in the universe with no one to talk to, no one with which to share the beauty of the stars, to laugh with, to touch, what would be your purpose in life? It is other life; it is love, which gives your life meaning. This is harmony. We must discover the joy of each other, the joy of challenge, the joy of growth. – Mitsugi Saotome

I am pretty much at the end of this Listen book project, nearly 60,000 words in the draft to work with.

I’ve also taken ten days off from writing, so I’m coming back to it with a few thoughts, and I need to get those out of the way before moving on.

So, this is part retrospective, part ending, and, in general, inconclusive.

But here goes.

This project has meandered along a little differently from the first project, Getting Started.

I started with a basic structure, a pile of slips of paper, with elements that I thought should go into the draft.

Then, I wrote day by day, picking up a slip and writing and then, some days, following a trail suggested by what came up in that day’s writing.

In that way the draft maps the territory of thought, illuminating spaces as I go along.

There is still uncharted land or water out there but you don’t know what you don’t know until you do.

Now I have a pile of words, the bricks of a structure represented by those slips of paper and I’m not sure what to do next, how to enter the editing process.

And maybe this is because writing has changed and there is something about what we do now that is worth recognizing for what it is.

I recently finished Glut: Mastering information through the ages by Alex Wright and there a few points in there that are relevant for this book project.

The technology we use mediates how we express ourselves

The way you communicate will depend on the technology you use.

Without technology of any kind, what you can do is talk to each other – that’s the essential quality of being human.

Once you start using technology – from the pigments used for cave paintings to what we have today – what you say and how you say it starts to change.

And there have been three great stages in the technology of talking – and by extension, thinking.

The first is writing, which developed from drawing images to represent what we saw to drawing images that represented sounds.

That, it turns out, was an invention of the Phoenicians, from whom we get the concept of the phonetic alphabet, which was enthusiastically developed by the Greeks and led to the way we write today, with characters that represent sounds.

When we wrote in scrolls and books we drew and wrote, with the freedom that comes from being able to wield a pen.

Then came the age of printing and the ascendancy of the printed word.

Images were harder to create in print and so people did what was easy and did everything using words, which became more complex and flowery as they tried to capture word images of what was going on.

And we learned that this was the right way to do things, to write in prose – that was what you got with a classical education and learned arguments were made in print.

And then the Internet and computers came along and we are starting to enter a world where you can use all kinds of media to express yourself, with the freedom of a pen with the mass production of print and the ability to use text and images and audio and video and augmented reality and virtual reality.

But what has all this enabled us to do?

Well, it’s actually brought us closer to being able to talk to each other even if we are far away.

And that is important – it marks a shift from fixed knowledge, fixed in print, to something more dynamic, discovered, co-created, re-created knowledge.

So what we’re increasingly doing is talking to each other through these technologies and that starts to affect how and what we write.

For example, we tend to think of books in that sort of fixed way, as containers of truth.

But, as the amount of information out there increases, no book can capture everything and their function changes from being containers for truth to being containers of useful material culled from the vast mass of stuff around us being produced every day.

And if you want to take things one step further the Internet seems to organise information in much the same way that our brains might do.

Instead of fixed, unchanging information the web has links to information, links that can break and links that build, where you get accretions and build up around some ideas and decay and disuse around others and where the more people think about things the more content they create and, just like a brain laying down chemicals in the brain, we develop a global memory and local communities.

The retrieval system is based around Google and the only problem is that it works on the basis of popularity at the moment – that will probably adapt and change to become more useful over time.

What this means for my projects and the editing process is that the technology I use, this way of writing blog posts to explore a space and then seeing if the content that I create can be encapsulated in a useful book form, is going to mediate the product that emerges and comparing it with existing print based approaches may not be the best way to think about what I’m creating.

Instead, each book is a collection of useful ideas explored with drawings and discussion, presented for the reader’s critical review and considered adoption.

It’s part of the picture, and the test it needs to pass is whether it is useful or not.

Is this useful?

And that brings us to a second line of thinking I’ve discovered in the last ten days.

Much of my writing is about understanding the big picture, the whole system, the requisite variety.

But it turns out that the whole is not necessarily all there is.

There are terms that capture the idea that a part of something can represent the whole of it.

Metonymy is when something is used to represent a related thing, and synecdoche is when a part of something is used to represent the whole of it.

For example, the image above shows the ways in which I have drawn representations of humans in this blog.

Some figures have fewer lines, others more.

Some are static, others dynamic.

None of them are exact representations, but they may be enough to get a point across, to make sense of something.

And that’s the same thing with listening to someone – trying to capture everything they say, record it exactly, does not mean that you’ve understood what they’ve said.

Making sense of things means being able to capture it with a minimum of lines – as much as you need and no more than necessary.

I could spend a lot more time trying to draw realistic figures without creating any more insight than can be found with a stick figure.

And when it comes to listening, the equivalent is capturing the stories people tell you at a level of detail that is sufficient.

All this is imprecise for a reason – the minute you start setting targets for what needs to be done then people focus on hitting the target and miss the point.

When you listen to someone the tools you use are there to help, and the point is for you to see how the person you are talking to sees the world.

In Glut, Wright refers to the work of linguist Walter. J. Ong who looked at the difference between oral and literate cultures – talking to each other versus writing to each other.

When you talk to each other and listen closely what you are doing is building on each other’s thoughts, empathizing with the other’s perspective and diving into the situation and context.

When writing you are stepping back, becoming more analytic and abstract and distancing yourself from the situation to look at the big picture.

And clearly it’s not a choice between one approach and the other.

You have to do both.

And you won’t get better by reading about how to do it.

You need to get some paper and a pen and get busy listening.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Do You Do When You’ve Made Your Best Argument And They Still Don’t Listen?

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Thursday, 5.39am

Sheffield, U.K.

A man convinced against his will Is of the same opinion still – Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

You know the old saying about how you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink?

Most people don’t need what you’re selling.

So, you have to ask yourself two questions.

  1. Are you selling the right thing?
  2. Are you selling the right way?

You can only get the answers to these questions if your prospect is doing most of the talking and you’re doing most of the listening.

And that’s the main point of this Listen book project – to step away from the idea that you need to be a super-extroverted, loud-talking, flashy salesperson to get results.

They might make good characters in films but I have yet to see a flashy salesperson that has actually delivered a worthwhile project.

In my experience, the best closers have been the professionals, the people who know what needs to be done to solve a client’s problem.

Then again, salespeople are also professionals, so that’s a little unfair.

Instead, let’s think of it as two extremes on a line.

At one end, you have someone who is entirely client focused – that’s the salesperson.

At the other end you have the person that is entirely focused on the work.

Salespeople who don’t really know how the work is done tend to be poor performers – they think their job is all about getting the client to the table and that’s it.

After that someone else takes over and does the boring stuff.

People who focus just on the work seem to end up spending a lot of time solving problems that aren’t really all that important.

And they get fussy if you ask them to do anything different.

Being a professional is about stepping away from these extremes.

It’s not necessarily about being in the middle either – about maintaining a balance between being client focused and work focused.

Instead, it’s probably about being able to switch from one mindset to the other.

You need to be able to listen to the prospect, to ask questions, to clarify what their problems are and what they’re trying to do and who is involved and how they do stuff and how they make decisions.

All this takes time – you have to switch off the part of your brain that’s jumping to solve the problem and take the time to really explore your prospect’s world view, their perspective on the situation.

If that horse doesn’t want water – well, that’s because it has something else on its mind.

Perhaps it’s wondering about that patch of grass, or looking longingly at a clump of nettles.

Or perhaps there’s a puddle of water on the track that’s reflecting the light and horses seem to get spooked by stuff like that.

It’s difficult and frustrating when people don’t do what you want.

And it takes effort and discipline to force yourself to calm down and ask “Why?” without judgment and follow the answers to where they go.

We do this all the time with family, with the ones closest to us.

When someone doesn’t respond in the way we want – when someone close to us says “No.”, our immediate response is one of aggression.

The word “Why?”, in that context, is more like “How do you dare to try and stop me?”

We don’t usually do that in a business context although I have had calls where the salesperson has become aggressive when I’ve said I’m not interested in what they’re selling.

Rejection is hard, but wouldn’t you rather talk to someone who said “No.” quickly than someone who strung you along for months only to then tell you that there is no opportunity here?

One of the benefits of spending more time listening than talking is that your prospect has fewer points at which they can say “No.” to you.

After all, they’re talking about themselves and what their situation is – and everything that comes up is important to them in some way.

Then again, is it important enough to take action – is the pain great enough to take some medicine?

Some people love to talk expansively and go off in all directions and pull in lots of related ideas and information.

And that’s fine – let them talk.

Some people will focus, get to the point and tell you what they think.

Which is actually less fine – get them to open up and talk around the issue in more detail.

The first thing you want to do is open up the conversation.

For example, I know that I will often say that this is what I want – put down a clear specification for someone quite early on.

A good salesperson will try and draw me out, ask for more detail on what’s happening, what I’m trying to do, what I’ve tried before, whether that worked or not?

It’s about getting the balance right – too little information and you might be heading in the wrong direction.

Too much information and you might be lost in the complexity.

In both cases you’re trying to get the right strategy to emerge from the conversation – understand what direction is the right one.

You might have a conversation that is rich and expansive and touches lots of areas but where the prospect gets skittish and nervous as you talk about specifics and what needs to be done and whether there is a budget for the work.

Or you can have conversations that start off with a very clear scope but as you ask questions the prospect starts to realize that perhaps it’s not as clear cut and they need to consider a few more options.

In both cases you’re looking for the tipping point, the point at which it makes sense to do something.

Sometimes you can’t reach that and you have to walk away and that’s okay – you shouldn’t expect to make every sale.

What’s important is that when you reach that tipping point you’re able to get the deal done.

That means you need to be flexible as well – you’ve managed to get the prospect to talk about and realize what they need and what they’re willing to pay for – and it might not be something you already have in your product stable.

If you only think of yourself as someone that sells what’s in the box then you’re going to be stuck.

As a professional, however, you should be able to work out whether you can make what the prospect needs – do you have the ability to create products in addition to selling them?

I started this post with two questions – about selling the right thing and selling the right way.

If you develop the ability to listen to your prospect then those two questions will evaporate away.

If you listen, you won’t have to think about selling.

The prospect will work out what they need as they talk through their situation with you – and then, at the point when they realize that they know what they want, you’re in front of them, showing them how they can get that thing in a way that works for them.

As Zig Ziglar said, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.”

That’s what you will become great at doing if you just take the time to master the art of listening.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Write Better Proposals And Win More Business

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Tuesday, 5.38am

Sheffield, U.K.

I spent as much time writing proposals in ’98 and ’99 as I did writing scripts. – Mark Millar

In my last post I wrote about how you have to understand the way people do things and the way they make decisions in addition to understanding what they need doing.

As we come to the final stages of this Listen book project let’s briefly look at what the last 45 posts have been all about.

Many of us work providing services, not products – and when we provide a service we have to recognize that understanding people is an essential part of what we do.

If we don’t see their world from their point of view then we can’t really suggest how we can serve them in a way that will work for them.

The posts so far have been about developing that capability in you to listen to someone, to get to a point where you understand the situation they are in and what needs to be done to improve it and how you can help.

That last bit, how you can help, is almost always then wrapped up and presented in a proposal and we’re going to look at how you can be more effective at that last stage – because it’s the time at which a client accepts your proposal that you’re in business.

Why do you have to write proposals?

A prospect may have enjoyed spending time with you and talking through their problems but in order to engage you they will ask for a proposal.

We’re not taught how to write good proposals or what goes into them.

All too often, we start by thinking that we need to explain everything about us and make sure we tell the prospect about every single detail of our business.

I used to do a lot of this in the early days of my career, create long documents filled with information – the thicker the proposal the more value it contained.

Or so I thought.

But the thing I didn’t know or think to question was why the client was asking for a proposal in the first place.

No one is really interested in you and your problems and your point of view.

Not really.

What comes first is their own point of view, their own problem, and what they’re looking for is a solution to their problem.

The point of your proposal is to propose a solution – and any content that’s not related to that solution has to justify being in there.

That means you usually need to be ready to write two kinds of proposals, for different reasons.

A proposal that summarizes your agreement

After a few years of writing proposals that contained everything about everything, I was starting to realize that something wasn’t going well.

I was writing these documents but it was hard work and it didn’t seem to make a huge difference in our win rate.

It just means that every time we were asked for a proposal I had to set aside a couple of days to work on the document.

And then we had a project where I had to talk to a lawyer – we were thinking about a particular opportunity and we were considering engaging some legal support.

These lawyers were expensive, polished, professional.

They listened to what we said and asked some questions and then said they would send over a proposal.

And what they sent over astonished me.

The bit that mattered was extremely brief – a covering letter, a summary of our discussions with bullet point deliverables, fees and timescales and that was it.

They were lawyers, so you did have twenty additional pages of terms and conditions, but the important part of the document was short and to the point.

I liked that approach so much that I tried out instantly and found that clients really liked it.

After all, no one wants to read any more than they have to – your proposal is not a novel or bedtime read.

It’s a business document and its length needs to be only as long as it needs to be.

If you’ve had a good conversation, listened carefully and agreed the outlines of what needs doing and have a good idea of how the client is going to view your proposal and make a decision – then all your proposal has to do is summarize that information.

A single paragraph describing the scope along with a bulleted list setting out what you will do is often enough.

This is what you might call a short-form proposal, something that summarizes what you’ve already agreed and is used simply to formally accept your offer.

The beauty of this approach is that you can create a short form proposal in minutes rather than days.

And clients love it – it’s short, to the point, and they can say yes or no quickly.

And if you’ve done your job correctly, they’ve already said yes verbally and this proposal simply seals the deal.

So, when do you ever need to create a longer document?

A proposal that ticks the boxes

The only time you need to write more is when a prospect has to make sure they’ve followed a process of some kind.

For example, you may have a prospect that really wants to work with you but who has to go to tender, invite competing bids for the work.

In that case you have to make sure that the proposal you put in front of them is one that they can evaluate easily.

And evaluation almost always comes down to a set of questions that have to be ticked off and scored.

And that means you need to design your proposal to answer those questions clearly and in order.

In my early career I would look at a proposal and put everything into it – the more content the better, I thought.

I didn’t often think of it from the point of view of the person evaluating my proposal.

For example, let’s say they had twenty questions.

They have my 70 page document in front of me, in which I have included content that answers all their questions.

But, can they quickly work out what section of the content answers each question?

You need to take the time to make it easy for them to mark.

If they can go down each of their questions and see the corresponding answer material in your proposal then they can tick that off.

And if your answer is a good one, that has assertions and evidence they can give you a high mark.

But if you put material all over the place or just copy and paste in stuff that you’ve written before then you’re making them do work to find out what’s relevant and where it is.

And that means they’re doing more work and, more often than not, they’ll score you down.

So it makes sense only write long form proposals for opportunities where you think you have a good chance of winning.

In fact, because long form proposals take so much time you really need to ask yourself whether they are worth doing.

If the prospect you’re talking to is a client you really want to get and the business you’re bidding for is something you know you can deliver and that you have a good chance of winning – then go ahead and write your proposal.

But how do you know whether you should pitch at all?

Deciding whether to pitch at all

Now, if you’re using the methods I’m suggesting in this Listen book project then in many cases you’ll only need to write a short form proposal – which takes minutes and simply formalizes what you’ve already agreed to do.

But if you need to go through an evaluation process where you need to write a long form proposal then to decide whether to bid or not ask yourself two questions.

  1. On a scale of 1-10, how much do I want this client?
  2. On a scale of 1-10, how likely am I to win this business?

If you score over 8 to both questions that’s when you should go for the business.

Write a long form proposal and, in fact, you should aim to write the best proposal you can.

You are better off spending three times as much time on writing proposals for business with clients that you really want and that you really believe you can win than spending a couple of days on less attractive opportunities.

The point is not to write a proposal – the point is to win business and you need to focus your time on the projects you want and know you can win.

You are better off winning 90% of the 10 bids you put everything into than 10% of the 50 bids for which you do the bare minimum.

My preference, in almost all cases, is to go with the short form approach.

Use the long form only when you have to, and when you do, do it better than anyone else.

After all, if it’s not worth doing it’s not worth doing well.

Next steps

We are nearly at the end of this project – I think the next post or two will wrap things up and then I’ll put this draft aside and start working on the next project.

I’m also finally starting to edit my first draft, it needed some time and distance before I could work out how to approach that material and it’s probably worth reflecting on that sometime as well.

But for now, until later,

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

The Key To Getting Your Ideas Approved – Understanding Culture And Politics

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Sunday, 7.13am

Sheffield, U.K.

One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. – Plato

Whatever you do is art – it’s the thing you produce through your work.

Your art is an intensely personal thing.

You may not realize it, but it’s what you will do all your life and it’s what you will leave behind.

But your art is also created in a society, in a group of other people, and that constrains or amplifies your work depending on how you engage with that society.

So, how should you look at this situation and what can you do to deal with it in a better way?

There are layers at work

There aren’t all that many situations where it’s just you involved in the real world.

If you’re working on a book, painting a picture, sculpting – then yes, it’s you and the medium.

But in the world of business and commerce, if you’re working on a piece of marketing content, creating a spreadsheet model or designing a technical solution, you’re really trying to improve a situation where some people see that there is a problem.

So, we always start by trying to understand the situation.

A situation is a collection of things and relationships and people.

For example, you might have a number of manufacturing plants that operate as individual profit centers run by a team of managers that share technical knowledge and compete for resources allocated by a central senior management team.

Whether you work in the business or are brought in as a consultant, your initial focus is on understanding the things and relationships and the problems seen by the people.

For example, you may talk to a manager who is looking at upgrading a collection of aging equipment and is talking to you as a possible supplier.

so, you practice your art – you walk around, take notes on the equipment, ask about the infrastructure and support services and generally collect enough information so you can come up with a plan.

Is that enough?

Have you done what you need to do to get a sale?

Probably not.

How do you do things around here?

From a buyer’s point of view is not just about delivering a product – in any complex sale people are interested in the result, not just the delivery of a piece of kit.

And it’s vital that you also try and understand what the result looks like and what kind of organization you’re working with.

For example, in many large organizations, especially public sector ones, you have to go down a tender process to win any business.

You might have a great idea, amazing insights into just exactly how to resolve the situation quickly but you still need to go through a formal RFP and tender process so that the organization can justify engaging with you.

That’s the culture that exists and that’s what you have to work with.

In other organizations you will have a different approach – if it’s smaller, for example, managers may have more discretion in coming up with an approach.

It all depends on what you’re selling but it makes a lot more sense for you to do something that no one else can do rather than provide a commodity product that can be ranked on price alone.

But it’s not easy to show how you’re different.

You can’t just talk about why you’re different, you need to have a way of demonstrating that during the time when you engage with the manager to understand the situation.

Now, the culture is something you can pick up on, but it’s also something you can explore if you remember to ask the right questions.

Too many people look at the situation, the presenting problem, and then walk away to come up with a plan.

What you should ask is questions like, “What’s stopped you from sorting this out already?”

Some people are afraid to ask that because they don’t want to lose the chance to pitch their product.

But you’ll learn a huge amount about culture by asking about what’s happened and what’s not happened and why.

For example, why hasn’t this aging collection of equipment been replaced five years ago?

You might learn that the organization is cash rich but all the cash is siphoned off to pay for a new business or to pay dividends.

Or you might learn that there are very quick payback times required for project approvals and that tends to stop any suggestions from going ahead.

Take the time to explore these areas because if you don’t then when it comes to the time when you present your ideas you’ll run into the same blockers that stopped those other ideas in the past.

And it’s simple questions like, “What projects have been recently approved and what made them attractive?” that will give you an insight into the culture of the organization so you can see how things are done and tailor your approach so that you’ll have the best chance of success.

But that’s not enough, you also need to understand who has the power to say yes or no.

How are decisions made on projects like these?

Around the solid core of a situation you have the mesh of culture, people interlocked in a structure that tells them what they can and can’t do.

But all around the culture you have the air of politics, the unwritten, unsaid happenings that show who has power and who does not.

You can have the greatest idea the world but if you have a board member who is pushing their pet project or friend’s company you’re not going to get selected – and there’s nothing you can do about it.

And that’s why it’s important for you to understand, right at the very beginning, how decisions are made, who has power and decides whether to say yes or no to your proposal.

You see, you have your art and you can do the work but before you spend days and weeks working on your proposal you should spend fifteen minutes, half an hour, deciding whether this is worth doing or not.

It’s rare you come across bad people in business – truly bad ones.

Most of the time problems arise because of a lack of clarity, misunderstandings about what is possible and what is not.

For example, you will come across innumerable situations where a prospect wants to do something, but isn’t quite sure what and needs your help to work it out and then also needs your help to sell it to the business.

But, after you’ve spent all that time helping them out they have to go through a tender process because that’s company policy and they can’t do anything about that.

As long as you’re clear that that’s what you’re doing then it might be okay, but it can be very disheartening to spend weeks and months developing a conversation only to find that you are now competing for that business with ten others who haven’t had to do that but are bigger and better resourced than you are and are probably going to win the business.

You have a choice too – whether to work with this prospect or not and isn’t it better to spend fifteen minutes working out whether they can make a decision or not rather than spending weeks on your plan only to find they can’t?

Developing your proposal

Once you understand what needs to be done, how things are done in this business and how decisions are made, you now have enough information to pull together a proposal.

Let’s look at how to think about that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Do You Do When It’s Your Turn To Start Talking?

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Saturday, 6.54am

Sheffield, U.K.

When I get ready to talk to people, I spend two thirds of the time thinking what they want to hear and one third thinking about what I want to say. – Abraham Lincoln

I’m 42 posts and 51,000 words into this Listen book project – and it’s getting to the point where I need to wrap up.

This has been a less thought through approach than my first book project – and but a structure has emerged over the course of writing.

There’s a three part order to what you need to do – prepare to listen, collect and take notes on what you hear, and make sense of it all.

And we’re in the closing stages of the sense-making stage, where what you need to do is talk through your understanding of the situation and what you can do to improve it.

Seeing the big picture

Think of it like taking a long walk and finally getting to the top of a hill.

You’ve had a conversation with a client, talked through what’s in their mind and taken the time to explore and clarify their situation, constraints and needs.

You can now see the landscape – get a rich and full and wide picture of what is going on.

Now it’s time to add your bit, your point of view, your advice.

But, you have to make sure that you do this at the right time.

Wait. Wait. Hold it.

The single biggest challenge you will face when talking things through with a client is stopping yourself from jumping in too soon.

Think back to your last client discussion or, better still, watch a colleague in action the next time you have a meeting.

There’s you, your client and perhaps your star salesperson.

I can think of many, many first meetings where the salesperson, the person leading the presentation, opens up their deck and then talks, non-stop, for 45 minutes.

Let’s take all those meetings and put them to one side – we’re not going to learn much from them.

A better approach is to get into what the client is interested in as quickly as possible, and the way you do that is by getting them to talk as much as possible.

So, you ask questions, ask for clarifications and, at some point, they will describe a problem they’re facing and talk about why what they’ve already done hasn’t worked and you will know the answer and you will know exactly what to do and you will be unable to stop jumping in and saying something like “Have you tried doing this?”

Now, the next time this happens try and watch the client’s reaction.

They’re in full flow, describing a problem, talking through this thing that’s been a pain, really venting a little, letting themselves go.

And then you jump in with this point – this thing that’s your solution.

When you watch them closely, it’s like they’ve just run into a brick wall.

They’re going in one direction and your intervention throws them off – they stop in mid-flow, collect their thoughts, try to think about what you’ve said and, because people are usually polite, stop talking about their problem and try to address your solution instead.

You might not know it yet, but you’ve just increased the amount of time it’s going to take you to make that sale.

Instead, sit on your hands, pinch yourself, do anything but blurt out your solution.

This really hard to do – it’s like Wellington at Waterloo, saying hold, hold, hold.

Wait until you can see the whites of their eyes.

But why?

When is it the right time?

You need to wait until the speaker has exhausted themselves, when they’ve talked it all through, laid it out.

Any questions you ask should encourage them to continue, to draw them out, to get them to explain things more clearly.

And it’s when they’re done, when they have unburdened themselves – only then will they look at you expectantly and welcome your ideas on the matter.

Practically, I find this takes around an hour.

You need to allow that much time for a prospect to get through what they’re thinking and now you’re in a position where they’re open to hearing what you have to say.

In the next half hour, you can pull the strands together – describe what they’ve said to you, what the problems appear to be and the kind of approach you’ve taken to solving them in the past.

I’ve described my own method for doing this in this paper – and you will need to develop your own approach.

If you’re the kind of person that can keep everything in your head and talk it through, then great.

I need paper and pens and all the help I can get – either with a whiteboard or preferably with software.

But, however you do it, you’ll find that if you wait until your prospect is ready to hear rather than jumping in when they’re still talking, you’ll have a much better reception.

Because you’ve waited until you can see everything before you start talking about possible routes through the landscape, the discussion becomes one of what approach to take rather than whether you’ve got the right viewpoint.

The point is to agree the route to take

What happens at this stage is that you and your prospect agree what the plan is – what the path through the problem looks like it might be.

That’s what you should aim for at this point in your discussion – you’ve listened, seen the big picture, added your thoughts and proposed a way that the situation can be improved.

If you’ve followed the steps and taken your time your prospect should now be nodding and agreeing that, in principle, this is the way forward.

There are often two next steps.

One is that you’ve agreed that this is the approach to take but you need to get others to buy into it as well.

And the other is agreeing the commercials of the approach, what’s going to go into your proposal and how it will be judged.

At this stage you know what needs to be done – but still need to work out how.

I’ve already written about presentations for persuasion in other sections of this blog, so I might spend a post pulling those together, seeing if I can use that material to fill out a chapter on presentation approaches.

But the very next thing to talk about is how to construct a proposal that has a good chance of being signed off.

Let’s talk about that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh