What children can teach us about communicating effectively

I have been thinking a lot recently about how people communicate effectively to large audiences. Conventional wisdom suggests that the key to landing such messages is “levity, brevity and gravity”. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is only 272 words long but in those words he was able to tell the story of the past, present, and future of America.

When the message we share with an audience does not lead to the action/reaction that we desire, we generally react in one of two ways. We either become frustrated with our audience for not understanding the message or we become frustrated with ourselves for not communicating clearly enough. Unfortunately we often opt for the former.

When I was a teaching in rural Japan, I would join some of my classes for lunch. During our classes I would insist the students only use English but at lunchtime I would encourage them to speak in whichever language they preferred. It helped our discussions to be more authentic and interesting.

One particular lunchtime, my 6-year-old students had just finished a science class. One of the students was really excited to explain this exciting new concept that he had learnt about. He tried to explain the concept in very fast Japanese and I had no idea what he was talking about.

The group of students started giggling as I struggled to understand this concept. They could not believe that a teacher had not heard of this new thing that they had just discovered.

I tried to understand for a few more minutes but I could not. I explained that I likely was aware of the concept that they were talking about but I just could not understand the explanation of this concept in Japanese. I challenged them to find a way to communicate this concept to me in a way that I would understand.

They sat in silence pondering my challenge. After about 3 minutes one of the students had an idea. She pulled a tennis ball out of his bag and let it roll off the desk. I started to guess a few things but the children did not understand the English words that I was frenetically expelling from my mouth.

Another student then pulled out his textbook and showed me a picture of Isaac Newton. The two of them pushed the ball to the edge of the desk once more and then started thrusting a picture of Isaac Newton into my bemused face.

Aha! This magical new concept was of course “gravity”. I laughed and told them I was really impressed by how they managed to find an alternative way to communicate this concept to me.

I recounted this story recently to a startup CEO I was coaching who was having trouble explaining the merits of his intended change in strategy to his board. Great disagreement would occur as both parties were more interested in refuting each others arguments rather than really understanding what each other really meant. We talked about the principle of charity and whether the arguments both parties gave were presented in the simplest possible way with little room for misinterpretation. We came to the conclusion that there was a definite lack of simplicity in the communications from both parties. I asked him to think about how he could make a change. To bring the exercise to life, we practiced what this communication would 1. look like if it needed to convince a 6 year old to agree and 2. how a 6 year old would explain these arguments to a group.

So in response to my original thinking about how to communicate to large audiences, I have challenged myself to think more about how the delivery of a message is better suited to what the audience want rather than what I prefer. I am finding this is much more productive and constructive than getting frustrated at the audience and myself on occasions when the message is difficult to land.

How do you deal with this challenge?


The Hardest Thing about being a New Dad

It is 6.33am on a rainy Friday morning in Singapore. I am in the back of a taxi heading home after a 15 hour flight. As I look through my messages, I realise I will need to book flights quickly for another work trip the following week.

When I did this same flight a year ago, I raced home and slept until I woke up again naturally. Today my routine will be a bit different. About 5 months ago, our lives changed significantly. We made the decision to trade our carefree existence of champagne brunches, photography tours and museum exhibitions (ok ok, I mean Nandos, Netflix and salacious Daily Mail headlines) for breast pumps, teething rings and a constant stream of neon-yellow-poo-explosions.

When you have a new baby, you spend a lot of time being awake at ungodly hours. You are waiting for kettles to boil, washing cycles to spin and sphincters to stop doing their best impression of a contraband Chinese firework. If like me you have the attention span of a Ritalin-starved 5-year-old, your mind starts to question and hypothesize. When you are awake at 4am trying to prevent an errant phallus from destroying your soft furnishings for the nth time, you begin to question why any logical person would have children at all.

The first three months are tough. You have no clue what you are doing and you are as paranoid as a dictator with a high-speed internet connection. You have less time to do things like eat, sleep, shower and other stuff you like. You have less money for holidays, treats and other experiences you love. If people had the option to try being a parent before really committing to it, I wonder how many people would upgrade the one month free trial and sign up to the 18+ year commitment. Alas you don’t even get a free iPhone as a welcome gift!

But despite the change in lifestyle, the worst thing about being a new parent is not the “having to do new parental things”. After 3 months, you learn what to do and how to do it. The “new parental things” become a pleasure as your child develops and responds to your affection. The worst thing about being a new parent is the “doing the new parental things a lot and then suddenly not being able to do them for a while” part. Allow me to explain...

I see many of my peers transform very quickly from “single with no responsibilities” to “parent with lots of responsibilities”. In a short space of time, they take on bigger jobs, start families and suddenly have their own parents and other dependents to start taking care of. A big number of significant things happen in a small number of consecutive years. As every year passes from the early 30s to retirement, their responsibilities mount up exponentially. Free time becomes a scarce resource and is very carefully allocated.

As people progress in their career, work competes with family for time and attention. At the heart of this is a need for regular face-to-face interaction between people who live in different countries. The value of a productive worker in our information economy is less about the widgets they create and more about the decisions they make, the consensus they drive and the relationships they build. Technology has yet to remove the need for in-person discussions.

So if you go to any major airport on a Monday morning, you will see countless numbers of adults dressed in business casual attire tapping away furiously on smartphones and sipping on overpriced cappuccinos. Commonly known as “road-warriors”, this tribe spend a large part of their waking hours from Monday to Friday in a location away from their family. Each of them will have a story of a missed first smile, a postponed birthday party or a bruised knee that they could not kiss better. They will have made a deal with themselves to trade an inch of career progression for an inch of family harmony.

Yet despite the large number of people who maintain this lifestyle for months or years at a time, I’ve never heard anyone around me complain about it. It just seems to be a trade-off that people have made peace with. Like somehow it is logical to spend up to 70% of your week away from the people you love the most.

I casually interviewed a few people about this from both genders to check I wasn’t going mad. Each of these people shared a coping mechanism or some elaborate system to deal with the fact that their work would require them to be away from home. Some have enlisted a third-party to help run their household and help raise their children. Some have decided to divide and conquer responsibilities between partners. Some people maintain a very strict schedule so they can read a bedtime story via Facetime every night.

But no-one grabbed me by the shoulders and said “OMG, you are so right, how do people do this for years at a time? I thought I was the only one who was struggling with this!”. Secretly I was hoping one person would do that. Mostly so it would validate the feelings I find myself developing lately. As a new parent who will now travel a lot for work, this is a trade-off I never realized people had to make until I kissed my son goodbye and started the outbound journey of that 15 hour flight.
For many new parents, the feeling at the core of the trade-off is guilt. The guilt of leaving a partner to deal with issues at home. The guilt of not being there for bath-time. The guilt of not dealing with the crying + poo explosion combo at 3am. The guilt of missing the first smile or the first giggle.

A mentor of mine advised me to worry less about the guilt and focus more on the good example you can set to children when you demonstrate a strong work ethic and a determination to pursue a career passion. Good advice I guess; but probably relevant later on when baby becomes an impressionable child. Other advice included “taking the family along on some trips where possible” and organising “special coming-home activities” after every week away from home. These seem like very pragmatic ideas but are the exception rather than the norm. You cannot do these for every trip. I wonder if these efforts really help absolve the feeling of guilt many people feel as they kiss their kids goodbye and wheel their suitcase out of the house week after week.

I am curious to see how future generations will deal with this situation. I wonder if technology will make this trade-off more or less of a challenge? Imagine a world where teleporting and virtual reality removed the need to get on a plane and interact with customers and colleagues in person? Conversely one could foresee a world where technology further decreases the ability of humans to connect on a personal level. This would increases the need for more episodes of deliberate, distraction-free and in-person interaction.

If you travel a lot for work and have a family, how do you deal with this trade-off? Is this something that different genders feel differently about? Is this feeling just a natural part of being a new parent? Will it subside over time or does it become even harder over time to manage the trade-off? Do you know of people who have made an extreme commitment in either direction i.e. “committed workaholic” vs “retired out of the rat race”?

I guess this feeling is yet another thing we learn about ourselves during the crazy experience of raising a newborn child. I guess the feelings change over time too. Everyday I have a hundred questions and I am sure my son has a hundred more. I don’t have any answers and am not necessarily looking for any but I think it is important for people to think through this trade-off carefully!


Helping Entrepreneurs to Thrive and Sellers to Sell

Since I was old enough to understand them, I have been fascinated by marketplaces. Buy and sell. Supply and demand. When people can buy and sell as they please, they create opportunity for one another. In particular, I have always enjoyed helping sellers and suppliers create opportunities for themselves and others around them. I love seeing entrepreneurs overcome the odds and thrive.

My career started as an English teacher in Northern Japan. As a “seller” of education to an often unwilling pool of “buyers” (teenagers!) I enjoyed thinking of ways to engage students and keep them motivated. During a brief stint as a marketeer at Accenture in the UK, I loved devising creative ways to help our senior executives sell their consulting services to large corporations.

Over the last 9 years at Google, I have had an incredible opportunity to learn how advertisers and publishers buy and sell advertising real estate at mind-boggling scale. The last 4 years in Singapore have been spent building a superstar team who advise executives around building digital businesses for the next billion people coming online. I have loved collaborating with my team to enable our partners to build revenue streams. These revenues are used to finance the creation and distribution of localised content and services for South-East Asian internet users.

During my recent paternity leave, I had some time to pause, reflect and think about what I should do next. I made the difficult decision to leave Google so I could go and learn about a new type of marketplace. In September I will start an adventure with Airbnb in the Asia Pacific region. Airbnb provides millions of people around the world with an opportunity to be rewarded for providing hospitality. I am very excited to help hosts (the sellers of hospitality) across Asia to become as successful as possible in providing unique and memorable experiences for travellers.

The last 9 years at Google helped me to identify and develop my passion for coaching entrepreneurs and building strong teams. I was extremely fortunate to work with and learn from some very talented colleagues and partners. I realised that I am at my happiest and most content when I have the opportunity to help people build and execute a plan to be the most successful version of themselves and to realise their entrepreneurial instincts.

I am excited for the next adventure and grateful to be alive in an era where:
- Technology allows me to earn a living and provide for my family by doing something I love
- Entrepreneurs are able to build and scale great companies with cultures that encourage collaboration and learning
- 2 guys at Stanford gave me a job and created a service where I can type “monkey salesman” into a search bar and be watching a video of it within seconds ;)

Thank You Google :)