The best question you can ask: How fascinating! What can I learn from this?

As part of the Nokia Smarter Everyday program myself and some members of the Brilliant Noise team were lucky enough to sit in on a coaching session with the clever and inspirational Caroline Webb, founder of the McKinsey leadership practice and CEO Seven Shift Leadership. Caroline is an expert on emotional intelligence and applying cognitive science to our working days.

She described a technique she learned from conductor and author, Benjamin Zander. Every time he found himself in a stressful situation, he would stand up, raise his arms in the air and exclaim “How fascinating! What can I learn from this?”ZZ3590D6F3

Image: Benjamin Zander demonstrating his “how fascinating!” approach to failures (also useful in any stressful situation)… 

The reason that this is useful, Caroline says, is that the question/exclamation switches you from an “away state” – sense of threat, fight or flight, worry etc. – to a “toward state” (open, interested, curious, engaged).

Releasing yourself from fear you become more likely to solve a problem or at least find something useful and feel a little more in control of the situation. Stress levels drop, you smile and get on with the work with a clearer head.

I started using it straight away – it works every time. Also. everyone I have shared it with so far has said it works brilliantly for them. We’ve started to hear it in Brilliant Noise team meetings a lot too. It’s a nice thing to share. (Hence the blog post, I suppose…)

Try it for yourself – wherever possible with the action of standing up and throwing your hands in the air.

I’ve known for some time that you need to interrupt negative thoughts and look at them objectively to rob them of their power. It’s a part of mindfulness and is applied in cognitive behavioural therapy. Perhaps it is the charming quality of this “how fascinating” question and the physical cue helps that process, makes it easy to talk about and turn into a habit.

Situations I have applied this in so far have include mental blocks while writing against a deadline, being delayed on a journey, being admitted to an ER room in Canada, difficult meetings, frustrating conference logistics, and recently being periodically incapacitated by a kidney stone (the outcome of that visit to Canadian ER).

That last example of intermittent incapacitation by renal colic is a good example. I’m currently awaiting treatment and exist in a state somewhere between extreme pain and being fluffily useless due to the painkillers used to manage that pain.

It means that I have about two or three hours of quality brain time per day – and even then not 100%. Outside of that there is no chance of me writing an insightful post, outlining a plan or developing an interesting presentation for client.

With the help of caffeine I have no problem delivering presentations and can sometimes read, highlight and comment on articles. But there’s no chance of squeezing in 90 minutes of quality writing, or of developing a creative or strategic idea. That kind of cognitive heavy lifting is beyond my reach outside this two to three hour window (usually in the morning).

How fascinating. What can I learn from this?

By throwing up my hands and asking the apparently magic question I have managed to stop feeling sorry for myself and found a bright spot in this situation. Firstly I’m probably getting some much needed rest, but that’s by the by. The really interesting thing is I can only pick one project to make some significant progress with each day.

Much of the evidence from cognitive science and anecdotally from coaches suggests that this is always the case anyway – if you can get four hours of focused work (no not emails and meetings) then you’re doing really well. Yet somehow I usually will try to squeeze into or three major projects into any given day.

What I have learnt from the pain is what it is like to have the complete discipline of only doing one meaningful piece of work a day. It is therefore both focused and slightly liberating to be trapped in this condition.

As I say, try the trick yourself and let me know how you get on. Tomorrow, I’ll be getting zapped with ultrasound shockwaves which should get rid of the pain problem. Should be an interesting experience – wonder what I will learn from it…

: : Bonus link: At 6:40 in this video you can see Benjamin Zander describe the technique to a conference of headteachers – but do watch the whole thing if you have 14 minutes – he’s great…

The joy and inspiration of revisiting great books – Kindle Daily Review

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I’m about three-quarters of thew way through Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think, a book about how we work with technology. It is so brilliant I could quite happily blog about things it has got me thinking about for a whole week, if the pesky matters of business and family life were suddenly absent.

The book is really complementary to the work and research I’ve done over the past few years about ideas around digital literacy (it all began with this talk at TEDxBrighton).

One really practical thing I have to share from it is a tool which has been under my nose for years, but I’ve never noticed: Amazon Kindle’s Daily Review feature.

Every time you highlight a passage of a book on your Kindle, it is saved to your profile. Primarily its something I’ve used as a crafty workaround for cutting and pasting passages I want to quote elsewhere (ludicrously you can’t cut and paste from books you have bought in Kindle, you have to copy – you know, like a medieval monk).

Click on the “Daily Review” link at the top of your profile page,however and a miraculous thing happens: you can use your highlighted passages as flashcards to start committing them to your long term memory.

Here’s the official explanation:

Daily Review is a tool to help you review and remember the most significant ideas from your books. It shows you flashcards with either your highlights and notes or the Popular Highlights from one of your books.

 

Only books that you have marked as “read” are eligible for review, and Daily Review will take you through all of your read books, one per day.

Actually, you can look at highlights from more than one book per day, by clicking on the “Next Book” link.

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Amazon uses an the Ebbinghaus curve to work out how many times to expose you to the passage before it gets stuck in your mind. Amazing!:

The periodic review of ideas makes it easier to remember them. This works better if you space the reviews over increasing time intervals, a “Spacing Effect” that was first identified by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. Depending on how many books you have marked as “read”, you will see a particular book again in the Daily Review in roughly 1 week, 1 month, 3 months, 6 months, and thereafter annually. You’re not limited to reviewing only one book per day; at the bottom of the flashcard you can select “Review another book”.

 

I’ve combined this tool with an insight from the Design Your Day work the Brilliant Noise team did for Nokia. A bad habit for many of is to check our email or social networks the moment we wake up. This is not a good way to start the day: you are putting yourself on the back foot immediately, letting others set the agenda for you, potentially increasing your stress levels before you have even got out of bed. You start the day in an “away state”, basically jolting yourself into conscious with a dose of fight or flight.

A much better habit to grow is to have something interesting to read while you wake up. Well, the Daily Review is perfect – you remind yourself of the best bits of the best books you’ve read over the past few years. I tried this out last week and noticed two big benefits.

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First, it put me into a “toward state” –  I was being reminded of useful insights, learning and recalling insights triggers this positive state. Instead of being defensive and stressed, your first moments of the day are open, curious, interested, engaged. Second, I enjoyed a moment of brilliant serendipity – about to set off for a workshop on digital literacy I came across the perfect quote from John Hagel’s Power of Pull – something I had completely forgotten since reading the book a couple of years ago.

I’ve made the Daily Review link into an icon on the front page of my devices – it’s also a great alternative to email or social media as something to take a look at when you have a few spare moments.

Even cyber-criminals have web shadow issues

The investigation into the “dark web” drugs marketplace the Silk Road is deeply fascinating on several levels. For instance, the details of how FBI investigators tracked down one of its founders.

Even the most technically literate, security aware, necessarily paranoid individuals can apparently fall foul of investigators looking for traces of their web shadow – or digital shadow as this BBC article calls it…

In the months leading up to Mr Ulbricht’s arrest, investigators undertook a painstaking process of piecing together the suspect’s digital footprint, going back years into his history of communicating with others online.

This guy was using Tor (and encrypted way of browsing the web), internet cafés and false identities trying to cover his tracks – but even a few mistakes left traces allowed investigators to track him down.

Turning down the distraction on our devices

Apps. When did they get so needy?

Like newly hatched chicks they chirrup and gawp, those little red dots having a similar cognitive effect on us to a chick’s open beak does for its parents – except we cough up some some attention instead of food.

When we get a new phone (or a new OS upgrade on one) there’s usually some mucking around to get the settings how you like them. Most people turn off the sound alerts for most things – few of us need a whooshing sound to let us know that set an email has indeed left the device, nor do we feel the need to annoy anyone in our vicinity with micro-clicky noises indicating we have successfully hit a key on an on-screen keyboard.

When it comes to turning down the volume of distractions coming out of mobile devices, we are left with some fairly basic, binary functions: you can turn on flight mode or some variation of “do not disturb”. As soon as you decide to be fully online though, it is apparently open season for any of the tens of apps you have installed to interrupt you with such vital news as they have a new feature, update or just – for goodness’ sake – that you haven’t used them in a while.

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The author of Your Brain at Work, Dr David Rock, says that the habit of checking mail – and we can infer any other social app or icon on our devices which sees fit to display a red dotted plea for attention – can be so strong that we literally see the signal, open the app, scan the mail and begin responding before we have had a chance to think about it.

The science: experiments have shown that the brain prepares us  to act *before* we make a conscious decision, especially when we have a strong habit or instinct. Unless we can find a way to short-circuit a habit, we have almost no choice about what we do next.

One other thing we learned about habits when creating Design Your Day and Mobile Mastery books for the Nokia Smarter Everyday programme was that because of this incredible resilience in the neural pathways you have built around a habit, trying to break them is a fool’s errand. Instead you need to introduce new behaviours and repeat them in place of the old – *growing* a new habit is a useful way of thinking about this process.

So how to avoid the red dots and attention traps of mobile devices? I use three devices on two ecosystems – each loaded with admittedly too many apps, so I’m an extreme case. My first move was to remove apps with red dots and alerts from my home screens altogether – leaving just things for reading or listening to music and podcasts there.

Recently I have gone further – removing the red dots and number of new messages from everything except texts messages and phone calls (the channels of urgency and last resort – either closer friends and colleagues or people who need to get in touch quickly will try these). Nothing gets to call for my attention until I am ready to see what’s going on in the world of that app, network or channel.

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Perhaps we need to be more considerate about interrupting ourselves, allowing ourselves to be distracted…

Phone calls in the middle of movies or dinners or meetings are disruptive and – unless there’s some real urgency to them – extremely antisocial. When mobile phones came along it took us a little while to work this out, but soon turning them to silent and generally resisting the temptation to answer them became norms. When it comes to email and social media of various kinds, we may still be working out those social norms and the parameters of acceptability and usefulness.

It’s not just about social situations, though, it’s about the effect of these devices and apps on our ability to think clearly, focus on important things and manage our emotional well-being (constant connectivity can burn you out, raising your allostatic load – the stress hormones in your body).

There’s a useful question we’ve started asking since we started looking at all of this: who responds fastest when the other shouts for attention – you or your phone? Who in that relationship is the servant and who is the master?

I hope we’ll see device manufacturers offering an addition to airplane mode and do not disturb: low distraction mode – a selection of levels to tune in to how open to being interrupted we are. I’ll tell my phone when I want to look at email, Twitter and Facebook updates, thanks.

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Meanwhile, although it is a little bit fiddly – you need to delve into too many apps’ settings – I highly recommend modifying your device to be low-distraction – red dot-free, as it were. Give yourself a little more peace, allow yourself to develop the habits that work for you around how you use these amazing connected tools we have suddenly found ourself using.

There’s a metaphor lurking about how a healthy diet of information and communication requires discipline and new habits. Like the past few generations of people in the West who have suddenly had access to literally all-you-can-eat sugar, saturated fat etc., we are having to come to terms with information-rich, distraction saturated, dopamine-firing, fascination on demand.

The result of all this de-distraction-ing of my devices was apparent immediately. They feel calmer, there are fewer triggers for bad habits or giving too much attention to Twitter etc (gorgeous as it is). It helps me to be more purposeful in my use of apps and my mobile device (“purposeful” being one of the three themes of Mobile Mastery we’ve been exploring at Brilliant Noise).

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The most important part of this equation for me is mindfulness, combined with a sense of personal responsibility. If things aren’t feeling right, if you’re feeling stressed or anxious when you’re using social media or any technology, you need to acknowledge that and do something about it – take a break, declare email bankruptcy, try growing some new habits and ways of working. The responsibility is with  each of us as the user to make sense of the amazing opportunities to learn more, think faster, connect more ideas that the web and mobile devices offer.

Thinking about Diigo (and some useful tips)

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If there is one online tool that I would recommend anyone who thinks for a living, it’s Diigo.

The new version of Diigo, launched a month or so ago is absolutely amazing. It’s worth noting the ways you can find value in it I think of these into levels. So I thought I’d write some thoughts and tips about this most important of my personal online tools…

Ways of thinking about Diigo (and Diigo-like tools)

Here are three themes I’ve been mulling about Diigo…

1. Immediate and emergent benefits: The way explain the value of online bookmarking services is to say they have enough immediate value to get you hooked long enough to appreciate the deeper or emergent value you can find in them. The immediate value is all about never having to lose or misplace a favorite or bookmark again. I have a record of all the websites, posts and articles I have found interesting about anything since about 2004.

2. Outsourcing memory: In Smarter Than You Think (which I highly recommend by the way) Clive Thompson talks about how humans have always outsourced memory to lighten their personal cognitive load:

In a sense, this is an ancient story. The “extended mind” theory of cognition argues that the reason humans are so intellectually dominant is that we’ve always outsourced bits of cognition, using tools to scaffold our thinking into ever-more-rarefied realms. Printed books amplified our memory.

Partners remember things for each other, groups rely on experts on topics to remember things, we have used notebooks, diaries and then mobile phones to remember dates, telephone numbers and other bits. These days we rely on Google to remember things a lot, but increasingly we want our personal databases to store stuff in – Evernote is of course amazing for this, but Diigo (and other bookmarking sites) allow us to remember in public. We can search our memory, our record of good information sources, then people who are interested in the same things.

3. Creating latent knowledge:  When I wrote about social networks in Me and My Web Shadow, I wrote about the people further out in our social circles, people we may not have much to do with day to day but we are connected to on LinkedIn or Twitter as our latent contacts. We can call upon one another when there is a possible shared interest, because the social network has remembered the connection for us and made it easy to pick up the relationship again. The things I store in Diigo aren’t my knowledge – I’ve not read and re-read the information to make it mine yet, but I’m keeping it available, in my reachable network of relevant facts, data, connections, resources.

Useful things to do with Diigo

All my colleagues at Brilliant Noise now use Diigo to store and share useful links. We have started using it with some clients too – both as a practical tool and as a way of introducing concepts like digital and network literacy. This has made my own use more sophisticated, as I’m reminded of some of the service’s features.

Here’s some things I recommend trying…

  • Sharing research or noteworthy links in a group: People emailing each other interesting stories and links is nice, but an inefficient way of sharing. It adds to the email deluge and can mean that useful reading gets missed as it is culled along with other non-urgent messages. I recommend this: set up a group in Diigo, get everyone to save relevant links there and people can request a daily or weekly digest email of all the useful reading.
  • Browser extensions: When you are using a desktop browser, most will have an extension or app you can install so that a Diigo window will appear for saving, adding notes and tags. Makes it really fast and easy to save things you might want to refer to again some day.
  • The iOS browser. There’s a dedicated Diigo web browser for iPads which is kind of useful for bookmarking and reviewing (although with some fiddling you can add a bookmarklet to Safari or Chrome. (There’s an Android one too.)
  • Emailing in your bookmarks: Actually most mobile browsers are good for Diigo, but a new feature may be even easier – you can email links and tags to your library. Really simple and fast – which is how I like my reading/bookmarking workflows.
  • Highlighting. The feature that really sets Diigo apart from other services for me is the ability to highlight text. This makes reviewing research, even just for a blog post easier, as you can see all the bits you found most interesting without going into the original article again. (NB: there is a limit of 1000 free highlights per year, then you need to go Premium.)

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  • Syncing with Delicious. I keep my Delicious account active, partly for sentimental reasons and partly just in case it gets good again. This used to be simple and straightforward, but then someone at Yahoo! cut the API cord and I have IFTTT automatically cross-post there for me. (Here’s my IFTTT recipe if you want to copy it for yourself).
  • Syncing with an Evernote Notebook. Another IFTTT trick I use is to assign a certain hashtag to a folder in my Evernote. This is useful for research projects – for instance I was preparing a weekly trends briefing on the retail sector for a client for a few months. Since I read a lot in my feeds and on Twitter that will be relevant for something like this I just add a tag specific to that project and when report writing day rolled around I simply opened up the folder and started pulling out the highlights and stories – I’d distributed the research part of the workflow across the whole week and was able to go straight into analysis mode when the time came. Here’s the IFTTT recipe for that too, if you want to try it and amend it to your own nefarious purposes…
  • The premium option. It has become clear in the slightly darker, post-Web 2.0 world, that if you really love something, it is a good idea to pay for it. So I’ve gone premium on Diigo, in part to support them but also to access a really cool feature – page caching. Diigo will cache pages that you bookmark so that if they are deleted or the links broken you will still have the useful information you wanted to keep handy. It’s $40 a year – which when it is as valuable to me as Diigo is, is amazing value

By the way – my Diigo profile is here if you want to have a look at what I’ve been reading. Let me know if you have any tips to share and add to those here.

Back to PR and the future

A week or so back, I was at the PRCA conference The Future of PR, as part of a panel discussing how agencies are changing.

Danny Whatmough had invited me to take part in a panel discussion following the presentation of a survey of PR agencies and clients.

Technically, I left the PR industry in 2006 when I joined Spannerworks and founded what would become a social media and content practice at iCrossing (after the latter bought the former). Now I’m working with the Brilliant Noise with team creating an integrated digital marketing model of which PR is an important element and I’m also a non-executive at Liberate Media, an online communications agency that is built around PR as a discipline. It feels like a completing circle – PR’s back on my mind.

The story I was telling myself about PR in 2006 when I left and she remains the same in 2013. Because of its management consultancy aspects, the fact that it sees itself as a management discipline as well as a marketing discipline and its expertise in earning attention through content and distribution networks PR can be a leader in the marketing mix.

One delegate said to me after the panel that the conversation felt similar to the one the industry had been having since 2008. It was characterised by questions about how PR could grow and self-doubt and criticism of its failure to claim bigger budgets and a more central role in the marketing mix. How can PR grow and evolve? How does it need to adapt to a world where social media can be as important as traditional media?

These are tough questions, but they may be the wrong questions for PR professionals and agencies to ask themselves.

There are two paths open to in-house and agency professionals alike. They can lead from a strategic point in the mix, or they can become an expert discipline in media relations and integrate tightly with the other aspects of the marketing mix i.e. SEO content UX social media etc. The key to success will not be competing with other elements of the earned media mix, but collaborating with them.

It becomes increasingly unhelpful to ask which of marketing-communications disciplines has primacy as they each depend on one another fro success in earning the attention of customers and being part of an integrated approach.

In the survey which Danny Whatmough of Ketchum presented there was a fascinating question about whether the term “PR agency will still exist in 5-10 years time. Almost 40% of respondents felt that there would not be.

There was also a telling quote from one client: “The [agency] offer needs to be across communications and engagement and all its disciplines – not just narrow PR.”

I felt it was important to point out to the audience that there was also no certainty that there would be any such thing as an SEO agency, a digital agency, or what state of media agencies would be in, as their business becomes automated, assimilated into Google (and other “stacks”) and large clients increasingly look building media buying capabilities in house.

When there are pitches these days PR agencies find themselves up against creative, digital, media and any number of other disciplines. As Alison Jeremy, director of communications at the NSPCC said – “I’m just interested in who has the best idea.”

The upshot is that all of the communications and marketing mix are up for grabs – as is all of business. The disruption of the web is not localised to something that we call PR – it is disrupting every aspect of business commerce and culture.

The stakes that we are playing for are as large as we want them to be. If we talk about innovation in an incremental way – slightly better PR, slightly better advertising, slightly better promotions – then will we’re all missing the real opportunity. The opportunity is to reinvent how organisations talk to the customers.

That may not involve any think all PR or marketing or SEO or advertising in ten years time. Of course it may well do, but the power balances the way that organisations think about this process of engaging with the customers will be radically different.

Is the future bright for PR? The future for the people and the organisations that service the public relations needs of clients today are as bright as they want them to be. Danger and opportunity – you get to choose how you see the current great disruption.