Think of the last time you were going about your business and someone came along with advice about a problem you hadn’t even been thinking about. And then he was grandiose enough to tell you the solution. How did that go over?
Then, think of the last time someone really moved you to make some decisive change in your routine or your situation. I bet you were moved because you were given room to consider among alternative courses of action. When I think of moments of insight like that in my life, I think of times I either felt suddenly pissed off about something I had previously accepted or awoke to an inspiring opportunity. The Power of Moments, by Chip and Dan Heath, is broadly about two things:
- Why certain moments define us even more than the passage of months or entire years, and
- How you can engineer those moments to positively influence the world. (I might be putting that a bit more idealistically than the authors but that’s how I see it.)
The Heaths talk about four kinds of moments: Moments of Elevation, of Insight, of Pride and of Connection. All of this stuff is super interesting, but moments of insight really relate to my beliefs about writing and leadership.
Wait, did you just say “writing” and “leadership” in the same sentence?
Yes, damn you—quality writing and effective leadership have a lot in common. I would argue that these are a few common principles:
- It’s more important to appear engaged in the discussion than to flaunt your intelligence. Ask questions, listen and tell stories.
- Don’t promote specific solutions—at least not with a bullhorn.
- People respond to sales pitches and top-down directives with skepticism and discomfort.
- When you’re framing a challenge or discussion, set aside your preconceived ideas about how a situation should be handled.
Guide/facilitate, don’t direct!
Leading people to recognize or accept uncomfortable truths is one of the great challenges leaders face now and then. And that requires engineering a flash of insight—a tripwire that illuminates a problem situation.
“Tripping over the truth is an insight that packs an emotional wallop,” explain the authors. “When you have a sudden realization, one that you didn’t see coming, and one that you know viscerally is right, you’ve tripped over the truth. It’s a defining moment that in an instant can change the way you see the world.” (emphasis added)
Tripping over the truth is often about recognizing a state of affairs you’ve long accepted is not acceptable—a “crystallization of discontent.” Whether you want to lead people to a “positive” or “negative” insight (all these insights are in fact positive because they force people to recognize an opportunity or at last recon with a problem that needs to be dealt with), you can engineer moments of insight rather than hoping in vain that they’ll happen serendipitously.
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And as with so many forms of persuasion, one thing is really key when it comes to igniting insight: “The ‘aha!’ moment should always happen in the minds of the audience.”1
Houston, we have a problem
The idea of selling things—even when those things are ideas—makes most people a little uncomfortable. Having to first convince your audience that they have a problem greatly compounds the problem. But as the Heaths point out, “You can’t appreciate the solution until you appreciate the problem.” While I generally avoid placing myself in this situation, there are circumstances where people feel duty bound to illuminate problems their audience is oblivious to. The Heaths tell two such stories: one in the context of humanitarian aid in Bangladesh, one in the context of corporate America.
Set in dramatically different contexts on opposite sides of the world, these examples bear two essential things in common:
- First, there’s a leader/facilitator with a clear sense of what he wants to share and why it matters.
- Second, it’s abrupt. It takes minutes, maybe hours. “Tripping happens quickly.”
I’m not going to summarize the case studies for you, ya bums. 🙂 But reading Chapter 5, “Trip Over the Truth,” is a pretty great way to pass part of your morning. Better yet, read the whole book. I’m halfway through and just as engaged as I was on page 1.
This is the essence (not synopsis) of the discussion:
By demonstrating problems, in a way that isn’t exploitive,2 you help lead people to their “own” solutions. Or you come up with solutions collaboratively. That’s a classic principle of effective leadership—empowering people, getting buy-in, getting people to feel invested in their own affairs.
Top-shelf content marketing is in many cases about the same principles.
Show, don’t tell.
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- The authors continue: “This three-part recipe—a (1) clear insight (2) compressed in time and (3) discovered by the audience itself—provides a blueprint for us when we want people to confront uncomfortable truths.” (p. 105).
- That’s my corollary, although I don’t think the authors in any way suggested otherwise.