What Novels Show Us About The Way People Talk To Each Other

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Tuesday, 5.40am

Sheffield, U.K.

An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind. – Mahatma Gandhi

What happens when two people talk to each other in a novel?

Take a detective story, for example – there are characters you will come across again and again.

There is the pompous, overbearing and arrogant superior.

And there is the fiercely independent protagonist, haunted by the ghosts of her past.

How do you build that story, show the conversation?

Dialogue in a story is built on conflict

A novelist throws away all the real-life words, all the “ums” and small talk and leaves in the dialogue that matters, which the characters shoot at each other like arrows from a bow.

Each line is meant to pierce, to wound, to provoke a reaction.

If the lines didn’t make you feel angry at one character and sympathise with the other the novel would be dull and lifeless – the conflict is what wakes you up and draws you into the story.

Behind every well crafted line, behind every armour piercing delivery, is an unspoken aftershock of implied intent.

The clueless person in charge, for example, has total belief in their own competence, has manoeuvred their way into a position of absolute power in that situation and acts with what they believe to be good intent towards others which, for them, is the same as what’s good for them personally.

The tortured hero, has a history of her own, with a background and experiences that makes her distrust people like the person in power – people who have betrayed her in the past.

And so she keeps things from the questioner, responding to questions with questions or carefully veiled answers, which in turn causes the person in charge to get angry and push further which in turn causes more resistance – and now you have conflict and the start of a story.

Does this mirror what happens in real life?

Making your point

Have you ever been in a meeting where a lot of people had a lot to say?

The topic was an important one and different people had different approaches and ways of thinking about it.

Each one barely listened to what others had to say, they were too busy waiting for their turn to say what they thought.

And, wherever possible, they were quick to point out flaws they thought they saw in the arguments of others.

This is perhaps the norm rather than the exception with meeting.

People often talk to win, not to share and listen and learn.

Decision is reached based on what the people who control the levers of power think, rather than what kind of consensus is reached.

The person with the loudest voice or the most dominating personality often carries the day.

This approach, it has to be said, is a masculine one, focused around the idea of winning.

But the opposing approach, a feminine one, has issues of its own.

A feminine approach may be better at talking and listening, letting people say their piece without leaping to conclusions.

But it’s not necessarily non-judgemental, politics and gossip and relationships will play their part in how the levers of power are distributed and how decisions are taken.

Unsaid or implied conflict is still conflict, whether aired in a masculine or feminine way.

Does this kind of conversation really help us understand each other better, or do we instead get better at arguing our own point of view?

Take your position and dig in

This conflict ridden approach to communication is the one we see most often all around us – from the home to the workplace to the people who run the country.

The process of debate and argument is supposed to lead to better, mutually agreed outcomes but all too often leads to simply showing you who is powerful and who is not.

Think about the last discussion you had with your child, for example.

Was it resolved through the peaceful use of a negotiated settlement or was it ended through exercise of power – with you imposing your will or them walking away and refusing to engage?

A refusal to cooperate is also a power play – one that people with less power can use quite effectively.

In fact, politicians these days have learned that their objective is not to do what is best for their people.

Their objective, as professional politicians, is to win.

So, they only talk to the people who will support them anyway, who agree with their views, and to people on the fence.

The other side is of little importance.

What matters is that you fortify your position – you dig in and stick to your guns, your arguments, whatever the attack.

But what do you do if you actually want to understand the other person’s point of view?

We’ll look at that next time.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Do We Tame Our Brains?

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Monday, 5.36am

Sheffield, U.K.

Everything we do, every thought we’ve ever had, is produced by the human brain. But exactly how it operates remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries, and it seems the more we probe its secrets, the more surprises we find. – Neil deGrasse Tyson

What do we know about our brains?

Dedicated people have spent and will spend lifetimes trying to understand that, working to generate science about what happens in the brain and how it works.

But there are some things that we can see for ourselves.

There is clearly something about the human brain that is different from most animals – we have extra bits that do things most animals don’t seem to bother about.

If we know there is a difference, how does that helps us understand the way we communicate?

Animals and their responses

The natural world encourages its inhabitants to focus their attention on developing the ability to stay alive.

In the wild most creatures learn to develop a healthy distrust of anything new.

They spend time looking for food, avoiding predators, marking and defending their territory and finding a mate.

Many species evolved to live in groups and some developed the ability to use sound to signal intent.

Birds sing to attract mates, monkeys call to warn others of approaching danger and lions roar to warn off contenders.

It’s tempting to superimpose human feelings – fear, anger, lust – onto animals but whatever it is they actually experience what we can see is that they use sound to express themselves.

And that sound making is not about reasoning and thinking but about making it clear what their feelings are about the situation – there’s danger approaching, I’m ready to mate, you’re in my space.

Realising that sound is first and foremost about feelings may help explain a whole lot about how humans miss the point when they talk to each other.

And you can first see this happening with children.

Children and their responses

A child’s brain comes with the newer components that make up a human brain, but at the beginning they’ve not been programmed yet.

A child responds instinctively from the moment it’s born – seeking food, crying when scared or hungry or tired, and quiet when it feels safe.

Once again, sound is inextricably linked to feelings in a baby and it that strong link remains as the child grows up.

If you have children you will know that you spend most of your time trying to help them get better at managing their feelings – and you know how they feel because their volume levels go up.

The few moments after a child wakes up, you as a parent wait for the first request to come in.

“Can I watch TV?”

If you say “No,” there’s an instant emotional reaction – a foot stamp, a frustrated outburst, maybe tears.

Children aren’t shy about showing you how they feel.

As we get older, these feelings don’t disappear – but we get better at hiding the way we feel from others.

Adults and their responses

We help our children and spend our time as adults working on taming our brains, managing our reactions to things that cause us to feel in certain ways.

We learn how to do this from others, from society.

We learn by watching what the adults in our lives do, modelling their behaviour.

Often, however, do we learn to manage our reactions or do we just learn how to hide them better under learned patterns of behaviour?

We learn, for example, that if someone attacks us we should call the police instead of fighting back.

That doesn’t stop us feeling angry and wanting to attack – but the layers of socialisation, the programs we have loaded into our brains over time help us respond differently.

As adults, we may learn how to mask our feelings with a veneer of behaviour – and the way we do that is often through language and habit.

Societies have developed habits over the years like having norms for what they consider good habits.

They’ve also come up with language that helps them express themselves more effectively.

But we still can’t control the kind of reactions and feelings people have when they see what we do or listen to what we say.

For example, you may have grown up with the idea that it’s good manners for a gentleman to hold a door open for a lady.

A modern, independent woman, however, may feel like she doesn’t need any man to open a door for her – that’s a patronising way of saying that she can’t do it herself – and gets angry at the gesture, which was intended to be good manners.

Or take a statement like, “Pass the salt.”

For a native English speaker, that’s rude – where’s the please?

People who speak languages where there is no separate word for please – where politeness is built into the structure of the language itself – find it hard to understand that they’ve caused offence simply by translating what they want to do into the equivalent English form.

With communication, feelings come first

If you want to get better at communicating with others and, in particular, getting better at listening, you have to realise that the sounds we make show the feelings we have first and foremost.

The thinking and rationalisation comes later.

The right word, the right reaction can cement a lifelong friendship while a stray word, the wrong gesture can permanently dent a relationship.

And the only way we can really understand the others around us, from our children to our co-workers is to take the time to listen to them.

And there are very few models that tell us how to do this effectively.

We should start looking for some.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why What You Hear Changes The Way You See The World

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Sunday, 6.35am

Sheffield, U.K.

The basic premise that children must learn about emotions is that all feelings are okay to have; however, only some reactions are okay. – Daniel Goleman

The course of my life changed with a word.

Just one word, a choice I made, between saying “can” and “may”.

I was asking a teacher if I could do something and I started my request by saying, “Can I…?”

I was reprimanded, told in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t.

A little while later, the teacher asked if I knew why permission had been refused and said it was because I hadn’t said, “May I…”, and was being rude.

That happened a long time ago and it doesn’t matter if it was right or wrong – words and usage evolve and the grammarians have mixed views.

But what did happen was that I avoided that teacher, in the process not taking courses where I might have to be taught by that person that were a more natural fit for my interests and aptitudes – ending up closing off options for particular careers and going down a different road.

I have had an expensive education but I am not sure it has been a good one.

Some people have teachers that inspired them, ones that stood out and that helped them make something of themselves.

I can’t remember any of those – they were good people, doing a good job, but I am not sure any of them were life-changing in that way.

I took more from seeing how my parents did things.

I wake up early in the mornings and write and work because my father does and did that, like his father before him.

When I was struggling with studying my parents sent me to a friend who taught me how to keep notes – introducing me to ideas that I still use today.

And, above all, books have been my teachers – words that thoughtful people have set down to illuminate their thinking about a subject.

In the beginning was the word

We often think that communication is about what we see – the belief that most of it is non-verbal.

That view is popular but not what the research actually says – what is said is just as important as how you say it.

As is what is heard.

The thing that makes humans different from animals is not our ability to communicate but our ability to think about what is said and respond.

How can I prove that statement?

I can’t really, so at this point it’s worth a digression into how I plan to explore the ideas that I’m going to write about in these posts.

For example, how would we think about biology and language?

Language is clearly not something restricted to humans, not if we take language to mean a form of communication.

Birds tweet, bears growl and whales sing – they’re all communicating.

The topics they’re talking about are fairly essential ones – there’s danger coming, you’re in my space, call for a good time.

Humans do this kind of talking as well, probably most of the time.

But we’re also able more complicated thinking, the kind of stuff that seems uniquely human – like what is language and how does it work and why is it different.

Why do words matter so much and how can we learn to use them better?

Creating models of what’s going on

Now, we could look at the structure of the brain and learn about the layers that are involved – learning about the actual biological basis.

Or we could come up with a model that helps us explore the idea.

For example, we could think of the human brain as an animal brain with an extra bit stuck on that does the “human” specific bits.

That animal part is the older bit, the bit that in us as a result of millions of years of evolution and the human bit is the newer bit – added more recently.

Something like a high-powered graphics card you insert into your older PC to make it work better.

When information comes in it’s processed by the animal part and the human part – and what happens next depends on how that processing goes.

Let’s look at this model as an object in itself for a minute.

It’s built using common sense – stuff that you can see and think about for yourself.

And there’s a little bit of research in there – stuff you might have heard about or the kind of brain science introduction you might read in a magazine.

You could be quite pedantic about it – do the information signals flow to the animal brain first, and then the human or the other way around, or do they both get the data at the same time?

And if you know the answer then it can help with how you refine the model – but even if you don’t you can still use the model to ask questions and see if it helps you to make sense of what seems to be going on.

The model is a temporary structure, a transitional object, an intellectual device – something that helps us think and talk about what is going on.

Its job is not to be right – we’ll leave that to the scientists.

Its job is to be useful.

As we progress through this Listen book project, this is the approach I will use to make sense of the ideas I come across and try to explore in these posts.

And we’ll start by looking at novels and why they are bad examples of good communication.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Introduction to the “Listen” Book Project

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Saturday, 6.30am

Sheffield, U.K.

So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it. – Jiddu Krishnamurti

Two days ago, on the 6th of August 2020, I finished the first draft of my first book project.

Yesterday, I tried to reflect on the experience, thinking about what went well, what didn’t and what I would do differently.

And today I wondered… what should I work on next?

The art of listening

As I looked through my files I found a folder of slips that I had been collecting around the idea of being a better listener.

The art of listening seems to me to be one of the most important skills that we could learn or teach our children.

Being able to understand and empathize with others will help you become more successful at whatever you do.

But are you sure you even know what the word empathy means?

I was confused about it for a while.

Many people think that empathy is the ability to feel what other people feel – but it’s not – that’s more akin to sympathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand how someone else sees and thinks and feels about their world.

You don’t need to agree with people to have empathy with them.

You gain empathy through listening and asking questions and reflecting on what you’ve heard.

Human beings are the only creatures we know of with this ability, and we use it in a variety of ways and in a variety of fields.

For this project I plan to draw on fields including biology, history, journalism, teaching, child-rearing, law, psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, religion, negotiation, sales, philosophy, anthropology, language, culture, engineering, design thinking and systems thinking – and any others that may be helpful in learning how to listen better.

Planning another book

I felt like I raced through my first attempt at writing a book, going over things quickly and talking about things rather than talking through them.

I think this will show up in the edit.

I think I will come across passages where I talk about something without having introduced or explained it first.

I tried to link the various posts as I went along, referring to the previous one and talking about what came next, a technique I learned from a YouTube video series, but I’m not sure it was the right approach to take.

Instead, I think I might try and think in terms of “nuggets” or “information blocks” – each post containing a self-contained class of ideas and methods that you can call on when you want and combine them in an order that works.

In case you missed it, that’s an object oriented metaphor from programming, which could be a novel way to look at structuring a book – something else to explore later perhaps.

When the individual classes/nuggets/blocks are done I can link them together following the structure of the book and add any linking information needed to bind it all together.

The act of rushing through the writing, trying to get it all down in one sitting has also led to longer posts – posts that are harder to read and probably will be harder to edit.

I feel like it’s probably worth trying to cover less but go deeper with each post – because what I want from each post is for it to be useful for someone reading it in its own right – rather than having you go away and read ten more to figure out what it’s talking about.

And that’s going to take some practise and perhaps more planning up front to distil the essence of the idea into what I need to cover.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve given myself a million words to get better at this writing thing, and so far I’m on 866,659 words, so there’s still 150,000 or so of practise time left – about a year’s worth of writing.

Research methods

The other thing I’d like to do with this project is get better at managing the research around the book – becoming more intentional about the sources I use and how I use the ideas that are in them.

This relates to the epistemology – the means to gain knowledge that are used here.

I started life being trained to see the world as an engineer – full of problems to be solved.

I have since learned to see the world as complicated and confusing, but one where we can make a difference if we take the time to understand one another.

Logic alone will not help us do this, maths won’t, technology won’t.

If we want to address the little and big problems in our lives – from the kinds of relationships we have with our spouses and children to the challenges of climate change – we will have to do that by understanding other people better.

And that starts with being able to listen, really really listen.

Listen

So, the working title of this book is “Listen: the art of understanding others” and over the next sixty to eighty days I’ll be working through the first draft in these posts.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Reflecting On The Process Of Writing A First Draft Of A Book

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Friday, 5.46am

Sheffield, U.K.

We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience – John Dewey

On the 26th of May 2020 I set out my intention to rough out a first draft of a book in blog posts over the next sixty to eighty days.

On the 6th of August I wrote the final post.

I now have a body of work, 60 posts exactly with 69,979 words written over 72 days.

At this point, it makes sense to stand back and reflect on the process I’ve followed, what’s gone well, what’s gone badly and what would I do differently the next time.

Having a plan makes it much easier

I have always struggled with structure and outlines – I find that having to do something in a certain order is constricting and takes the joy out of just writing.

But if you just sit and write then you struggle with focus and what you come up with ranges all over the place – it’s like shooting in the dark.

In the days before I started writing I wrote about slips of paper, and I started working on the book by jotting down topics on these slips.

A typical non-fiction book runs to 45-50,000 words and might have 30 odd chapters, so I needed at least 30 slips to tell a story.

I’ve done this using a mind map or made lists on a single sheet of paper before but those ideas didn’t really go anywhere after that, they remained locked on that sheet of paper.

But having them on separate pieces meant I could just put things down as they came to me.

Once I had a pile of slips it was pretty easy to put them in order – you pick up two slips and ask which comes first, following the advice of Pirsig in Lila, and the answer is usually obvious.

And then you pick up the next slip and compare again and pretty soon you have it all organised.

Writing down the slips took a couple of days at most and I used a cut up cereal box to keep them in, as you can see in the picture below, which also has one of the first slips I wrote about.

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Having this box of slips definitely made it easier to write – all I had to do was pick up a new slip every day and sit down to write.

Writing at the same time every day works

I used to write in the mornings, then I switched to the evenings and then switched back to the mornings.

For three years I’ve tried to write a blog post every day – and the only that’s been possible is to have a routine.

My routine is quite simple, I start with freewriting – three paragraphs of anything to warm up – and then I start the main piece.

I did wonder whether I should use a different time to write and keep the blog time to do the kind of thing I’d been writing so far – but I don’t have that much time so I decided to go with the blog posts.

It does seem like it’s made it harder for some readers – the posts are longer, and perhaps less interesting in themselves because they fit into this overall book structure rather than being self-contained pieces.

Still, this is something I’ve had to do, work I needed to get done so I decided to do it this way.

And it works, day after day you move forward slip by slip.

The early days seem slower and there is a lot to go through but steadily, inexorably, relentlessly, you can move from start to finish and end up writing the first draft you wanted.

That is perhaps the biggest benefit from having the structure and box of slips – it takes much longer to write than to think – and if you get some of the thinking out of the way you can just get on and do the work.

It’s when you have to think and write at the same time that it gets exhausting – and I didn’t find that with my writing.

It helps that I gave myself three years to practice writing and find some kind of voice – find a way of writing that was natural and flowed rather than something that was stilted and flowery – where you write because it’s the way you think you should write rather than writing the way that you actually think and feel.

The other thing with a first draft is just to write – when you’re stuck write about feeling stuck and eventually you’ll get past that and get to the good stuff.

Later, in the edit, you can simply delete the stuff you don’t want to keep from the beginning.

But is it any good?

Every creative person, every writer, feels like what they’ve done is rubbish.

When I talk to friends about the book and they ask if they can just read the posts – well, of course they can, it’s all online.

But I feel the need to explain the book, apologise for the content.

And that’s natural.

But here’s the thing – the content needs to stand on its own, I can’t always be there protecting it from the world.

Everything that needs to be said needs to be in the book – and that’s what the editing process is for.

In fact, all the problems with your first draft are things that you can address in the edit.

I don’t feel like there is enough research, enough stories, I’m concerned about the structure, whether the chunks of information are right, whether there is enough detail or too much detail.

Writing in a blog format is different from a book – you tend to use sentences like individual bullets in a blog rather than a coordinated burst as a paragraph in a book.

Should I have edited as I went along?

I now have a file with nearly 70,000 words that I need to cut down to a normal book size.

Should I have edited as I went along – would that have made life easier?

I’m not sure about that – the structure of the book hasn’t changed much from first structure that went into that box of slips.

But I have gone back and looked at how the topics relate to each other, building up models of the content.

The models I’m talking about are conceptual ones – this paper on reflective practice has more details on the approach I take.

It’s hard to do that without having enough content there.

What I did do is write some programs to help with the editing process.

We’ll see how that goes but that’s for the next time.

What would I have done differently?

The first thing to do is take better notes when I read – follow the ideas that you will find if you look at things like commonplace books and zettelkasten.

This is the idea that as you read you pick out the best bits and save them for later use – which is really all about getting better at organising the research and ideas you find so you can better use them in your work.

The other thing that I would do is to perhaps think harder about what goes on each slip of paper.

For example, a single sentence might get you to write a thousand words – but they might not quite hang together.

There is a reason why you have things like a beginning, middle and end – the structure helps the reader get through the material and get something of it.

That thing they get – the outcome – could be clearer in each slip, and so make it easier to write in a way that helps that outcome to happen.

Then again, this is something you can fix in edit – as you go through the material and see if all fits together, taking out stuff that doesn’t and patching in stuff that’s needed.

Which is why it perhaps does make sense to get the first draft out, put it aside for a while, and then come back to it.

It’s giving yourself some time and space so that when you next read the material it’s like reading someone else’s work and your job is now to edit and improve it, not to defend it.

Final thoughts

If I were to write a first draft again, which is going to happen because I plan to do this for the next few decades, what are the steps I would take?

  1. Take good notes – get better at collecting and organising research
  2. Use slips of paper to plan and structure the book
  3. Write at the same time every day
  4. Look at the structure and how the ideas are related as you go along, but don’t edit for content yet.
  5. Keep writing, even if you feel it’s rubbish. It’s a first draft, it doesn’t have to be perfect or good – it just needs to come into existence.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Do You Know When You’re Done With The Getting Started Stage Of Your Project?

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Thursday, 5.39am

Sheffield, U.K.

Om shanti, shanti, shanti-hi – The words that end Hindu teachings asking for peace of mind from disturbances that are due to acts of god, external factors and internal factors.

Why do you want to get started on a project – start a business, write a blog, create artwork – what is it that you’re trying to achieve?

Money is not the objective

When you look at people who have become rich through starting businesses it’s easy to assume that what they were trying to do was become rich by starting a business.

If you get started on your project because you want to become rich then it’s worth taking a step back and questioning whether you are sure you know what you really want.

The thing about money is that it’s usually a byproduct of doing something else or a necessity for doing something you want to do.

Some of those ways of getting money including stealing it, inheriting it and marrying into it.

We’re not really concerned with those approaches here.

You can also borrow money.

And it makes it easier to borrow money if you have an idea that creates value for other people – value that they are willing to pay for.

The amount of money you get from others will depend on kind of value you create and the amount you can borrow depends on how much you need to create enough value to satisfy demand.

Money in your life is like blood in your veins – you need it to flow through you, but it is not the reason why you exist.

What you really need to understand is what you want out of having money – what is it you’re going to do if you have it.

For example, if the reason you’re starting a business is to become rich so you have employees who do what you want and loads of free time to live a luxurious lifestyle – then you’re going to want to revisit that.

Anyone who manages someone else usually has to do three times the work to keep on top of everything.

Once you start a business you have much more to think about – from getting in sales to operations and hiring and firing people.

Most business people are stressed, work long hours and have far more to do than they have time.

And even when they’re on holiday they can’t turn off their phones or relax entirely – because they’re the ones that make the decisions.

And this can go on for five, ten years, as you carefully grow your business and eventually get in the resources and teams that mean you can step away and the business will run itself.

So why do people still start businesses and embark on something that’s going to dominate their lives for a decade or more?

It’s not for the money.

It’s because they’re driven to do it, it’s something they believe in and something they want to do.

Perhaps you really want to be in control of your own life, or you’ve spotted a niche that you think is under-served or you’ve come up with a service that you can’t do within your existing firm.

What you’re doing is trying to get started on the project – to see if this is the right fit for you and if it’s something you believe you can do successfully.

What does success look like for your project?

Success is something that emerges when you get things right, when you get all the parts of your business working well together.

You cannot really be successful if you focus on one aspect of the business alone.

For example, you may be great at operations and logistics, but if you can’t sell you haven’t got a business.

At the same time if you’re a master salesperson but haven’t got a great product or the ability to provide a quality service then you’re going to run into problems.

It all has to work – not just part of it – and the biggest challenge for most people is getting the various bits of their business to operate well together.

In a nutshell, you have to get yourself in a position where you do something that creates value for someone else in an efficient and effective way.

That simple statement is the capstone, the principle that holds together the various elements of this book project and the strategies that you can use.

You have to draw on your past, your capabilities, your learning to be able to do something better than most other people – and do it in a way that is effective and efficient.

That’s operations in a business – it’s what you do and how you do it.

It’s only worth doing, however, if there is a market for what you do – if you can apply it a way that creates value.

And value is not defined by what you think – you may believe that you have a great idea for something that will transform the world but you need others to agree with you and hand over money in exchange for the thing you’ve brought into existence.

Value is defined by other people – it’s what they believe they get from you.

You can have endless strategy meetings, interminable discussions with your team and suppliers and go round things again and again as you build your business, and it will often come down to these elements – what do you do, why is it good and who is going to buy it?

How will you know when you’ve got it right – when you’ve made a success of it?

Having peace of mind

It comes down to you – how you feel about what you’ve started or created.

Are you at peace with yourself?

This is a concept that’s rarely discussed in a Western context – but it’s central to eastern, especially Indian ways of thinking.

What you do should result in peace of mind – mental contentment – freedom from worry.

Think of an artist – someone who creates something – a painting, a book, a sculpture.

You could go on tinkering forever, adding a dash of paint here, editing there, chipping away at a rough edge.

But at some point you have to step back and say it’s finished.

And only you know when that’s done – you know the point at which you’re willing to stop doing any more.

Because you’re content with the result, you have peace of mind.

And the act of getting started on a business or any other project is no different when it comes to act of creation.

The strategies outlined in this Getting Started book project, from examining where you are at the start, looking back to understand where you came from and setting out in a direction that works for you are all designed to help you get alignment and purpose – to get you started on a path that is right for you.

And you’ll know it’s right because you’ll be content – because the work you do is work you’ll feel is the right work to do.

Unlike money, peace of mind is not a byproduct – it’s the end result.

And the hope I have for you, the wish that that I would make, is that what you choose to do brings you peace of mind.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Do A Good Customer Interview That Helps You Sell Your Product Or Service

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Wednesday, 5.34am

Sheffield, U.K.

As a professional journalist, I’ve been interviewing people for almost thirty years. And the one thing I’ve learned from all those interviews is that I am always going to be surprised. – Hector Tobar

The biggest mistake you can make as you get started on your business is to assume that you know what people want.

And the biggest defence you have against making that mistake is to get really good at listening and asking questions – interviewing your customers to understand their situation and what they really need to check your own beliefs – and change them if needed.

How do you go about doing that?

Start by being genuinely interested in them

You may have spent months, even years working on your ideas, your proposition, and are eager to tell everyone about what you do and how they can buy from you.

Don’t.

Think about the dynamic that exists when you first talk to a prospect.

They may know you very well or they may have agreed to speak with you because you’ve reached out to them or been introduced.

But you probably don’t know a great deal about them and their background and what interests them and what they’re trying to do.

The traditional approach is to start telling them all about yourself, all the things you’ve done and the types of products and services you have.

When you do that you start selling yourself – and it’s too early for that.

You need to first understand what they need, what they’re trying to do, what their purpose is.

If you understand their purpose you can talk about what you do in terms of how it helps them achieve their purpose – and you can make it more relevant and therefore more persuasive.

Now, you’re not trying to understand them just so you can sell to them – that’s not the best attitude to take.

You need to start by wanting to learn more about their situation, their business, what they do – because when someone has spent years doing something that is a genuine opportunity to learn and understand and appreciate a situation that you may be unfamiliar with.

It’s like being an anthropologist.

Every time you go into a new business, a new environment, you’re in the position where you’re studying and trying to appreciate a new culture – a group that do things in a certain way and have certain attributes, when it comes to power and politics.

You need to let go of your own assumptions, your beliefs and immerse yourself in the situation in front of you – as the saying goes, first seek to understand and then only to be understood.

And you start doing this by listening and asking good questions.

How to listen and ask good questions

When you listen to someone you need to do so actively, immersing yourself and picking up on as much as you can.

You can’t do this by sitting passively in a chair.

Get out a notebook, get on a whiteboard – take hand-written notes because the research shows that you’ll retain more information this way.

Write down what you can, draw concepts, connect ideas – you’re trying to capture the detail of what’s going on in someone else’s head – and the way in which you take notes is an important part of that.

Your note-taking helps you to pick out important ideas and reconstruct a narrative in your own mind that you can play back to your prospect to show you understand what they’re trying to do.

And you help those ideas to surface by asking good questions.

So, what makes a good question?

Some people talk about how you should as open questions rather than closed ones – but the research doesn’t really suggest that those distinctions make any difference.

Instead, I’d suggest that the one thing you don’t do is ask a leading question.

A leading question is one that tries to also contain the answer that you want to get.

For example, if you have spent three months creating a product that helps people to clean windows – you might ask something like, “Would you use this product to clean your window?”

The answer you want is implicit in the question – you want the listener to say “Yes!”

And they probably will – after all, it’s a hypothetical question about possible future behaviour, they don’t want to hurt your feelings and it costs them nothing to say what you want to hear, given the way you’ve asked the question.

Instead, if you ask them, “How often do you clean your windows” and the answer is, “Can’t remember the last time” or “The cleaner does it” that tells you a lot more about their buying habits in the past.

What they’ve done in the past is a much better indicator of what they will do in the future than what they say they will do in the future.

This is an important concept to grasp – past behaviour is probably the best indicator of future behaviour you can get.

If someone has a need for the kind of thing you’re selling and has bought something similar in the past – that’s a good sign that they will buy something like that in the future.

The other kind of information you want to ask questions around is the context – what’s the situation that existed when those decisions were made.

Why did you take that decision in that way at that time?

You will learn about what’s happening around that decision making process, the ideas, the people, the characters, the pressures involved – all the external elements that constrain and limit the possibilities and buying behaviour of your prospect.

These contextual factors probably still exist – people and culture change slowly.

The ways of working that you see modelled by three professions are ones that I find useful to keep in mind.

These are lawyers, journalists and anthropologists.

Lawyers are looking for the facts, what happened and when it happened and what the truth is about a situation.

Journalists are looking for the narrative, the story, the thing that links together the facts – and the way in which the people involved think and feel about what is going on.

And anthropologists look at the culture and dynamics of the situation – how the people in there act and why they act the way they do – they try and empathise with them.

If you get the facts, understand the story and have empathy – you now have a powerful basis on which to construct your own pitch.

How to pitch yourself

If you listen and ask good questions and get a genuine understanding of what the person you’re talking to is trying to achieve, what their purpose is, you can talk about what you do in relation to how it helps them achieve that purpose.

The bad way to do this is in a manipulative fashion.

If you’ve memorised your sales pitch and the features of your product and you try and link what you do to what you’ve heard without actually realising that they don’t fit together without someone changing something you’re going to fail.

For example, I once took a sales call where I explained that what I wanted was to work with partners who would introduce us to prospects directly.

The sales person wanted to sell me a marketing subscription service and pitched it as being able to do that direct introduction.

And instead of listening the sales person tried to use pressure and force a sale through persuasion and argument, which is both tiring and irritating for the listener and eventually I hung up on the person.

If someone has taken the time to tell you about their world it gives you an opportunity to look at what you do and see if you can adapt it for them.

If you can get your product or service fit their purpose then you’re in a good position to talk about working together.

If you can’t or you haven’t got the discretion to do so, then there isn’t a fit and you won’t get anywhere by trying to force one.

Find someone else who is a better fit.

Really, once you understand what’s going on you have two choices.

Change what you do or find someone else who needs what you do now.

And the biggest advantage you have when getting started is that you can change quickly, you can adapt what you do to what you learn people need – as long as you’re open and listen and learn.

If you use this approach you’ll find very quickly that you’re no longer selling.

What you’re doing is creating products that are fit for purpose – products that have a market and consumers want.

And then consumers will start to pull those products from you – you still need to get it in front of them but there will be a better fit and your chances of making sales will increase significantly.

The last thing you have to do is get yourself ready to do all the other stuff – construct the value chain that gets things into the hands of your customer.

We’ll cover that as we come to the end of this Getting Started book project.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Create Your Unique Business Model By Combining Different, Simple Elements

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Tuesday, 5.45am

Sheffield, U.K.

Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else. – Margaret Mead

How do you set yourself apart from others – show how you are different and unique?

Is it about the way you dress, the brand you create, the story you tell?

And how can you select an approach that works for you?

Being unique on the outside

The first way many of us look at differentiating ourselves is by working on what’s on the outside.

This comes down to the saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

The idea that what you see first has a huge influence on how you perceive that thing leads to you making certain choices.

Your choice of colour and font, for example, can indicate whether you are playful or serious.

In the comedy series Yes, Prime Minister the characters talk about how if you have nothing to say, as a politician, you should stand in front of an exciting backdrop while if you are announcing a lot of change you should be in front of a staid and traditional backdrop.

You manage the environment and your image to manage you message – and this kind of approach makes up the vast majority of the approaches most people take.

We try and get across how we are unique by trying to show it on the surface.

Most of the time, however, what we end up doing is less about showing how we’re unique but showing what bucket we fit in, what genre we’re in or what style we follow.

Managing image ends up helping the person viewing you make a quick decision about what you are similar to rather than what’s unique about you.

Think about that in the context of clothing, for example.

If you want to look different from anyone else on the street, there are quite a few options to choose from, described by words like goth, hipster and punk.

These are about setting yourself apart from the mainstream but at the same time identifying with a culture – they’re not unique in that sense.

Instead, they’re defining, they tell the world what you are about and what you are not.

That’s a useful start, but you have to go deeper.

Being unique on the inside

While what you show on the outside is more about whether you’re in or out of a particular group, what’s on the inside is unique to you.

It depends on your own journey, your family experience, where and how you grew up, the opportunities and obstacles you had and what you did with them.

We all have a unique path we’ve travelled to get to this point where we have become us.

And that’s a scary thing to reveal and show to the world.

It’s much easier to hide behind a constructed exterior, something that’s what we want the world to think of us rather than open up and show who we really are.

When you do open up, however, and talk about and show your own journey then you have something that is unique, a story that no one else can tell – a story that others can listen to and see you for who you really are.

You have an opportunity to be authentic.

Now, of course, trying to use this as a marketing tactic ruins everything.

You will hear lots of people using their story in a way that appears manipulative.

These days it’s for reasons like trying to skew the algorithms that decide how to monetize content on platforms.

And while your particular journey is unique to you that doesn’t mean it adds value.

Lots of people may have a similar story – a rags to riches journey of their own.

Sometimes you see people apologise because they didn’t have a struggle growing up and life was pretty easy.

So, when you think about it if you grew up in a culture and followed a similar path to most others – yes you had a unique experience but it is something unique that you can offer someone else?

In most cases probably not.

Think about your resume – it lists all the things you’ve done but it’s possible to compare that with the things other people have done and decide who is a better fit.

So your story probably isn’t enough to give you an edge – so what will?

Combining things to create something unique

The two approaches described so far, trying to be unique on the outside or unique on the inside are like trying to pick what colour you are all the way through.

It’s like being a single thread which might be different but not very strong and easy to discard.

Another approach to consider is by looking at the value of combining things to create something unique.

One way to think of this is how you might combine spices.

Simple individual spices create amazing combinations of flavour – something you wouldn’t get from one spice on its own, however wonderful it is.

For example, let’s say you want to start a business in construction.

But you’re a woman.

And from an ethnic minority.

Those three things are just simple facts about you, but when you put them together you get a construction business run by a woman from an ethnic minority background.

In this day and age that’s still unique and something that will get you attention and press coverage and pretty good marketing.

This approach extends to the things you do rather than what you are.

You could be funny, like drawing and understand how engineers think.

Put those together and you have Dilbert, a wildly popular comic strip.

Now, it might take some experimenting to find a combination that works for you.

But, the more you work on this the more likely it is that you’ll come with a combination that’s unique not just in the sense of being different but being unique in the sense of adding value.

Take two photographers, for example.

One takes a range of pictures and is clearly competent at what she does.

The other specialises using drones to take pictures of historic buildings from unusual and eye-catching angles.

You manage a museum and want get some pictures for your marketing.

Which one are you going to choose?

The thing about using combinations to create something unique is that you are going to limit the market for what you do.

At the same time you’ll make it easier for people who need what you provide to make a decision.

And the increased success you have at getting business from a smaller but better defined market can often offset what you might have made by targeting a wider market where there is more competition.

Specialisation is a good thing – it helps attract the right people and makes it easier to convert them from a prospect to a sale.

It still needs to be a large enough market to support you – and finding that balance between the right level of generalisation and the right level of specialisation is something you will do through trial and error in your field.

But when you create combinations it doesn’t mean you can’t do the individual elements – it just means that you can also do something specific better than most other people.

In the photography example above, the specialist photographer can also probably show examples of more general shots, but the generalist will probably have few examples of the eye-catching building pictures the specialist has.

Look for ways in which you can combine what you already do to create a niche for yourself, a space where few others compete.

It’s often easier than you expect – and once you find that space make it your own, occupy it and focus your content and marketing on showing how you can do that better than anyone else.

Often, however, you need to be certain that the niche you’re going to occupy is one that can help make you a living before you commit to it.

This is particularly the case in service businesses, ones that depend on helping others do something they want to do.

You first need to get good at finding out what people want to do – and that starts by talking to them.

We’ll look at the art of doing that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Are You Going To Show The World What You Do Better Than Anyone Else?

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Sunday, 6.32am

Sheffield, U.K.

It would be better for everyone if we deleted everything by default and saved the things that are important to us. – Evan Spiegel

In the last post we looked at how you should make it easy for people to do business with you.

One important part of that is how you look when compared to the competition – how easy is it to find someone else who does what you do?

What is your moat?

If you’re going to spend a significant amount of time and money getting started on a new project you want to make sure that you have a sustainable competitive advantage.

That doesn’t mean just being a little bit better or providing the same thing everyone else does.

If what you do can be widely found and easily compared, then you are operating in a commodity market, and price setting is done by the market.

The advantage you have to have in that situation is in your ability to keep costs low and market your product effectively.

Or you can be content with a smaller market share.

For example, if you open a market stall you’ll be in a space competing with other, similar food businesses and your income will depend on the level of demand in any given period.

If you’d like to have more control, however, you need to start building a moat, something that acts as a barrier to entry for other people wanting to compete with you.

That’s why you’d build your castle on top of a big hill, surrounded by defensive walls, with a moat and spikes to greet people.

What you want to do is make them stop and think again, look at what you’ve created and decide that maybe it’s best not to compete with you.

Using content to set yourself apart

Think about your business idea – the thing that you want to do.

What is it that sets you apart these days?

It’s not pricing or service – the world is full of national service providers who can provide anything anywhere faster and cheaper than a startup can.

What they can’t do is provide you – you as an individual.

If you try and compete on the basis of stuff – it’s quite likely that you’ll come up against competitors that have more and better stuff than you.

If you compete on the basis of you – well, that’s unique, there’s only one of you and you have her or him.

So the first thing you have to do is think about how you can make your business about you, about your team.

This can be a difficult concept to accept because most people feel like they would like to separate their business from themselves – as if it could be run and delivered by anyone.

And you can do that – but you won’t have an advantage over the other identical, anonymous services out there.

The kind of advantage you have when you work on building a personal connection with others in your market.

And these days you do that through content, by creating material that shows the world what you do.

And if you create enough of it you start to create your moat – you build this collection of material that showcases how well you do what you do and how you go about doing what you do.

The trick with content is keeping it focused, making it easy for yourself and working in the same space day after day.

Select a format and stick with it.

When I started this blog, for example, I settled on a format that worked for me: a hand-drawn image that captured the essence of the concept, a relevant quote, and then a piece of text that explored the concept further.

The topics have been wide ranging, but within the realm of management and the improvement of situations that people consider problematic – and in my field and for the people I work with, it helps to establish my capability at doing what I do.

When you look around for examples of people who do this, the best ones are not necessarily the most popular content creators.

With popular content, the audience that watches is actually part of the creator’s product – their market is actually the advertisers who want to reach that audience.

The best examples for a business that’s getting started are the ones that create content that is relevant and helpful to their customers and helps them achieve certain outcomes.

But it’s hard to start with what’s in your customer’s minds – so it’s best to start with what’s in yours.

And work out a way to express and publish that.

Selecting where to publish your creative work

There are a bewildering array of choices out there for how to get your content published.

It depends on the nature of your business, your ability to use the technology, your comfort levels with opening up to the outside world.

There is no one best way – there is only the way that works for you.

Ask yourself what you find easy to do that other people find hard.

If you like writing, then long form blog posts may be the way to go.

If you are happier speaking but don’t like being in front of the camera, then try out podcasts, screencasts or narrated presentations.

If you like video, then talk to camera.

The important thing is to pick an approach that works for you, your personality and your ideas, and work on creating content.

You build your defences by first piling up everything you can and then you can build your castle on top.

You can publish on every platform out there or pick a few and let people find you.

In the early stages, treat what you do as a learning opportunity.

You’re learning if you can create content in this way, day after day, without burning out.

You’re learning if you like doing what you’re doing – life is too short to spend doing tasks you hate.

But if you’re creating content on topics that interest you using methods that are easy for you to use – then it’s really simple to accumulate that material you need – the material that will eventually help you stand apart from everyone else.

But it helps if what you do has something unique about it.

And creating something unique is easier to do than you might think.

We’ll look at that next.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why You Should Make It Very Easy To Do Business With You

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Saturday, 5.42am

Sheffield, U.K.

Easy reading is damn hard writing. But if it’s right, it’s easy. It’s the other way round, too. If it’s slovenly written, then it’s hard to read. It doesn’t give the reader what the careful writer can give the reader. – Maya Angelou

When you’re getting started on a new business opportunity, perhaps setting up for the first time, it’s tempting to think about what you’re going to charge, how you’re going to make money.

Here’s the first thing you need to realise.

How much money you can charge isn’t based on what you think – it depends on what the market does.

And what the market does is create demand for what you do – so let’s start with that.

Understanding demand

The word “demand” in a business context means that there are consumers out there who are willing to buy what you are offering and have the ability to pay for it.

The price of your product is one element, but there are other important ones too.

Tastes and preferences matter, budget matters, the prices of alternative products or services matter, expectations of what will happen in the future to prices matter.

You also have to think about how many consumers are out there and how many units of product they want.

For example, let’s say you want to start a social media services company.

The demand for your service will depend on how many consumers are out there that need help with their social media and have a budget for outside support.

There are a number of companies that offer this kind of service, so their tastes and preferences will influence their choice – do they like your work, do they like you personally, do they prefer a local service, is there something unique you do that appeals to them?

Can you supply what they need. For example, if you are a one-person company and they need at least three people working on their account you’ve got an issue.

There are other factors specific to the situation that can also affect demand.

For example, if the weather is hot you’ll sell more ice cream – but you can’t control the weather, you can only respond to it.

Make it easy to service demand

Look at every aspect of your business and see how easy it is for someone to do business with you.

People don’t like taking risks, they’re wary about taking leaps of faith, they’re concerned that they’re being scammed.

So an essential part of your business development strategy is to find ways to put your prospects at ease – show them that you can do what you say you can do.

That means having proof – a portfolio, existing customers, references and examples of completed work.

One of the first challenges someone starting up has is to get over the idea that as the person doing the work they have to be seen as an expert, as someone with trade secrets.

That kind of thinking is around fifty years old.

These days you have to show people everything – be as open as possible with what you do and how you do it.

The more you show about yourself and your process and your approach the more information they have to work with.

And some people won’t like what they see and will walk away and that’s ok – you wouldn’t have worked with them anyway.

But at least you made it easy for them to decide.

Often you have to provide some free consultancy to show that you can do something.

For example, a client may book a free session with you to see what you can do.

If they ask for another one then you might offer that for free if it looks like that’s going to lead to a sale.

If they ask for a third free one, you need to be wary – they’re starting to look like the kind of person that will take what they can and then walk away.

So, tell them there’s going to be a charge, let them walk away if they choose to, and to make it easy for yourself the next time, start by telling people that you do two free sessions and then the next ones are chargeable.

Simple things, like building a portfolio, a library of resources that you can point people to, and doing low risk, low cost sessions that are as much about qualifying if a customer is serious as about doing the work are all part of your strategy to surface demand where it exists.

The only people that matter to you are they people willing to buy what you do – and everything you do should make it as easy as possible for those people to find and trust you.

Go where they are, advertise where they hang out, create offers that will draw them in, show your work and provide as much proof as you can and the demand will inevitably come in – if it exists.

You need to be clear-eyed about this – if there is no demand out there you don’t have a business.

But if it does, make it easy for them to compare you with others, see the value you bring.

Put guarantees in place, money-back offers, no-risk trials.

Create the capability to let your prospects experience what you do at no risk and no up-front cost.

The strategies you use will depend on your field – but content is a big part of that now.

Write, publish, create videos, document what you’re doing and put it online.

They days of experts who hide their knowledge are done.

It’s a little like how the book business is changing.

Once upon a time if you wanted to read a book you had to buy it.

Nowadays, more and more authors put the whole book out there for free in formats that cost them nothing.

And if someone wants to read it in a traditional format, buy a book or support the author in a different way then they can – if they want to.

And that’s the goal you should have for your own business model – create a business where people work with you because they want to – not because you have to push them.

Now, this is not easy for you to do.

The easy thing to do is print out a flyer listing what you do and the prices you charge.

Creating something that makes it easy for your prospect to buy from you is hard, challenging work as you create content and offers.

But that’s the work that will set you apart and help they decide they want to work with you, if they can afford to.

How to set your prices

Once you know there is demand out there you can meet it – at a price.

And pricing is actually quite simple – you start at zero and you keep raising it when you find there is more demand than you can supply with the resources you have.

For example, if you currently have no customers and no portfolio – the only logical thing to do is work for free.

That may seem a difficult thing to do if you have no money and need income to live.

If you’re in that situation then you don’t need to start a business – you need a job and need to work on the business on the side.

For free.

Even if you have no customers.

For example, if you want to start a consultancy business, start writing about your industry, doing small projects for friends or volunteering your time.

Do what needs to be done to build your skills and experience at practising and delivering your service.

Each time you do a project you’ll be adding to your portfolio – making something you can show later as proof of your capability.

Once you’ve done a few of these then people will ask you what you charge – and you charge what the market will bear.

If you have ten slots a month, for example, and you find they’re being filled quickly then raise your prices.

Double them for the next project and see what happens – you can always discount them back to the old price if you find that the buyer starts to squirm.

But if you really understand what they want and what their budget is, you can price the work to fit their budget.

But to do that you need to understand what they want and what their constraints are.

But before we do that let’s look at a few strategies to supercharge how you show your work over the next few posts.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh