My Go-To Trick For Getting Shit Done
“Instead of changing your words, try changing the order in which you say them.”
There’s a well-established joke that technologists are some of the worst communicators on the planet. Think for a moment about the characters in shows like The IT Crowd or Silicon Valley, and you’ll come up with people who are smart and competent in their fields but struggle to explain even the simplest concepts to others.
Some might say that they don’t need skills of public speaking or communication as long as they have their technical ability, but in our world of rapid startups and billion dollar ideas, clear and engaging communication is as indispensable as any idea or skill if you want to succeed.
“… I call it, ‘The Ask, the Reason, and the Context'”
Take A Look At These Two Short Emails About The Same Problem, And See Which One Your Prefer
Hi Dave, I've had this ongoing problem with my workstation that's been happening for the last couple days. I tried resetting it and even IT wasn't able to figure it out. Well, after a lot of trial and error (it only happens when I'm trying to run some of our new code) I realized that it wasn't actually a problem with my computer, but possibly the code itself. I'm not really sure, because it's crashing everytime I try to run the assessment protocol we added, but since I don't really know the coding that went into it I can't figure out if something is wrong. I was thinking that we should ask Anna to look into it, since if it's the code and not my computer that's the problem we should figure it out before the project gets too far. Thanks, Jay
Now Let’s See The Same Ideas Presented In A Different Way
Hi Dave, Could you ask Anna to look over the new assessment protocol code, checking for any errors that could lead to a system crash? I have had a repeated issue with it, and after two days without being able to fix it, it's delaying my parts of the project. It has already taken a look and we've been unable to find the cause. Since I'm unfamiliar with the code that went into it, I've been unable to find an error myself, and would appreciate you requesting her team take a look as soon as possible. Thanks, Jay
The Second Email Was Much Clearer, Right?
Not only did it eliminate non-vital information, it began with the main point: the request. It’s rarely effective to explain the context first (the details supporting the request), or the events as they happened.
The Whole Trick and Nothing But The Trick
Before you communicate with another person, ask yourself these questions:
- What do I want? (The Ask)
- Why am I asking right now? (The Reason)
- What do I already know? (The Context)
As a Product & Technology Officer, communication is the core of my work, and learning how to communicate my ideas and problems clearly was one of the most important steps in my professional career.
When I started working with CEOs, I quickly noticed their impatience and irritation with the way I communicated; I took too long, wasn’t clear, and lost their interest. I seemed unconfident in my ideas and abilities, and because of this my managers would ignore my suggestions, CEOs and board members didn’t respect me, and my employee’s work would suffer because I wasn’t able to direct them well.
So, I figured out a solution. I call it “The Ask, the Reason, and the Context.” This trick measurably changed my life, and can do the same for you, which is why I made it one of the first topics on my new blog.
Our Brains Need Anchors
“When we fail to name our question at the outset, the person we are communicating with doesn’t know what is important…”
Those of us that work with complex problems everyday are used to learning every important fact and detail that relates to our work. But, when it comes time to discuss and explain our thoughts, many of us make the mistake of introducing the details around a problem before we explain the problem itself. After all, we think, the person we are speaking to won’t be able to help us until they know what we know, right?
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.
When we fail to name our question at the outset, the person we are communicating with doesn’t know what is important or relevant. Our brains need structure to make sense of information, and if you throw information at someone without a frame of reference, it’s likely they won’t process most of what you say.
“When we begin with the central idea, our listener is able sort the information we give them into folders, instead of trying to hold each thread of information at once.”
Think back to school, when you first learned to write essays. The most important part of any essay is the thesis, which is placed at the start. Once the reader understands the point a paper is trying to make, they can go on to the body paragraphs, which fleshes out and supports that central point. Imagine reading a dozen pages of ideas before discovering what the author meant to prove. Even if you understood every word up until that point, you would have to read back over the entire paper for the significance of those points to become clear.
Why It Works
- We signal to other people that the thing we are about to talk about is important when we clearly describe our “Ask” at the outset.
- Next, we signal to other people that this matter is urgent when we quickly describe why we are communicating about this right now.
- Only after these signals are sent will the other person be focused and prepared to pay attention to your problem, knowing that everything to follow will be focused around your “Ask.”
This technique is all about focusing our ideas and accounting for how we process information to construct meaning. It can be an important and underlying framework in every situation where you communicate. I use it for sales, digital marketing, and even personal relationships. When we streamline our ideas, we are more effective, engaging, and improve the quality of the relationships we build.
Be sure to keep step three (the Context) to a couple of sentences when working with people who don’t solve complex problems regularly or who are short on time (such as investors and executives). I often struggle to write and say less, wanting to provide as much context as possible, but I know that by saying less I am not only being more concise and effective, but that I’m being more compassionate by not burying the other person in unnecessary jargon and details.
Some Important Situations To Consider Applying This
- Selling something and want to catch someone’s attention.
- Working on a problem and need help.
- Trying to improve a relationship, and want another person to engage.
P.S. Checkout Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff, a phenomenal book that explores the biology of our brains that makes this technique so impactful.