1 Story, 3 Lessons

1 Story, 3 Lessons

In our most recent working session we helped Brooke prepare a ‘quick’ storyline. Even though on the surface this story appeared straightforward, it turned into an onion.

The more we layered into it, the more we found we needed to think through.

There were enough layers, in fact, to lay the foundations for at least two weeks’ worth of emails so your weekly emails over the next few weeks will focus on our learnings from this session but of course you are welcome to devour them all right now as well!

Here are the three lessons I want to share with you. 

  1. What to do if you have more than one purpose?
  2. How to decide if the story should be a grouping or deductive?
  3. How to slice and dice ideas into a strong hierarchy that resonates with your audience?

You'll find the recording of this working session at the bottom of the page.


Lesson 1: What to do if you have more than one purpose?


I’ll start at the start and share insights from the early parts of our discussion regarding the notion of ‘quick and easy' as well as the purpose.

Firstly, when you become bogged down with questions preparing your ‘quick and easy' communication, slow down. Don’t keep trying to smash through.

We began this working session optimistic that we would help with two pieces of communication, one for Brian and one for Brooke.

However, as we started probing and attempting to smash our way through Brooke’s story it became evident that this wouldn’t work.

Every time we thought we had something right, another question would arise that made us ask more questions.

We may have kept pushing for too long as we really wanted to make time for Brian's story, but it was an interesting exercise.

The eight or so people in the room could all see that we needed to slow down and stop smashing it out.

If you watch the recording, you will see what I mean.

Regardless, listen to your instincts and slow down when your drafting starts to feel ‘tense’ and ‘off’.

Secondly, avoid compound purposes and instead favour using the higher order action.

This single sentence provided a remarkable amount of discussion for what was in the end a fairly simple script for a presentation.

I have attached the four draft purpose statements we crowd sourced in the chat from our call along with my commentary.

The bottom one provided some extra useful debate around the right verb to use.

Did Brooke need endorsement, approval or support … or all three?

We landed on support as it required stakeholders to both endorse and approve.

If she asked for endorsement or approval, then there was no guarantee they would offer practical support.

If they committed to support, however, they would by implication be endorsing AND approving.

So, such a lot of discussion for such a small thing but very instructive all round.



Lesson 2: How to decide if the story should be a grouping or a deductive?


In this lesson, we continue unpacking Brooke's presentation by drawing lessons from our journey solving the top-line story structure.

As we wrestled with Action Jackson and then Watch Out, the nature of the reasoning required emerged as the decider.

We chose Watch Out as the reasoning was relevant to the whole story, not just one section. Let me unpack that for you here.

We firstly explored the Action Jackson pattern

In Brooke’s story, we initially thought we could use an Action Jackson story to explain the impending changes, as follows:

This story structure worked until we learned two important things. Stakeholders were under the impression that all forms would be migrated to the new platform by October. These same stakeholders could cause delays if unhappy that not all forms would be migrated immediately.

In other words, the mini deductive chain under the discussion about the second top line point related to the whole story, not just that section.

So, what to do?

We elevated the reasoning to the top line and quickly flipped to Watch Out

We flipped into a Watch Out pattern to provide room to explain why an interim solution was needed. Here is where we landed: 

We thought Watch Out built with what would be comfortable and easy to agree to. It confirmed that high-use forms would be migrated as they knew before setting them on the path to wonder what would happen to other lower-use forms.

Once they were ‘warmed up’, we could then explain why those other important forms would not be migrated to the new platform as quickly.

Assuming this persuaded them, the natural question then would be around the implementation, which we discussed in the third, therefore point.

Lesson 3: How to slice and dice ideas into a strong hierarchy that resonates with your audience

In this lesson, we look at how to structure the supporting elements for the ‘therefore’.

There were a few considerations here that I hope will help you in your own storylining.

The key takeaway relates to how we slice and dice ideas into a strong hierarchy that also resonates with your audience.

We agreed that we had some choices about how we organised the actions at the end of the storyline (under the ‘therefore’). We could categorize them by type of query, by type of solution or perhaps by frequency of use within the ‘medium use’ chunk.

So, we started by ordering them by type of form with the type of workaround for each kind of form nested underneath, as follows:

Therefore, we propose to use existing systems for these queries

  • Access general maintenance forms in system X (paper workarounds, digital forms, redirects to existing systems, etc)
  • Access loan forms in system Y (paper workarounds, digital forms, redirects to existing systems, etc)
  • Access account management forms in system Z (paper workarounds, digital forms, redirects to existing systems, etc)

This however, proved unsatisfactory was too general and didn’t connect to the stakeholders’ current working processes. They may be left asking “but … how do I do that”.

So, we fixed the situation by explaining how to change their process rather than ‘what to do’. Here is where we landed:

Therefore, we propose to use existing systems for these queries

  • Use ‘a different’ pathway to access the same general maintenance system for XYZ queries
  • Swap paper forms for the ‘bla bla system’ to access loan forms
  • Swap temporary digital forms for ‘this’ system when solving account management queries

Please excuse our creativity around masking specific details … I hope you can see the point lurking beneath them.

You can see where this section fits in the overall story below.

I hope you have found this series of lesson learnt from Brooke's Watch Out story helpful.

I have included the recording of the session below in case you would like to watch it.

Talk soon,



Making time work FOR us not AGAINST us

Making time work FOR us not AGAINST us

Do you always have too much to do?

It's not entirely surprising since our only finite resource, time, is at the heart of the challenge.

Unsurprisingly, this is a pretty constant topic when coaching people on their communication.

How do we find enough time to think through our communication? How do we know when to prioritise thinking through a particular piece … or when ‘smashing it out' is the right strategy?

It's also top of mind for me as I head off for a month away on Tuesday. Yes, a month.

So, today I wanted to focus on ‘time' and share some ways to help us all take advantage of it rather than be held hostage to it.

I'd like to suggest we can ‘hack' time to enhance our work and our life by harnessing two thinking modes.  This might be an odd idea, but let me give you the high-level first and then work through it in three parts.

  1. Two familiar thinking modes that we already use to allow time to do our work for us.
  2. Several modern writers offer ways for us to capitalise on the under-utilised ‘diffuse thinking' mode to enrich our work and life.
  3. So, with that background I'd like to share some of my own thinking on taking advantage of these two thinking modes in work and life

I'll now expand on each of these further.

Two familiar thinking modes that we already use to allow time to do our work for us. Let me introduce them both:

  1. Focused thinking, which is what we commonly imagine as ‘working'. This involves diving deeply into a task and as the name suggests, focusing on it. This is when we are actively reading, thinking, solving something specific. It can play out as time alone or time collaborating with others to complete a task.
  2. Diffused thinking, which I suggest most of us don't make nearly enough use of. This is the thinking that happens while we sleep, are out walking the dog, cooking dinner or perhaps in the shower. It's those non-focused times when our brain is processing in the background. It's also the times when breakthrough ideas often emerge. How often have you had the ‘aha' moment at a seemingly random point?

I first learned about these from Barbara Oakley in her Coursera course, Learning How to Learn. You may also find this free course enjoyable.

Several modern writers offer ways for us to capitalise on the under-utilised ‘diffuse thinking' mode to enrich our work and life.

Without necessarily using this language, they all seem to me to be taking advantage of diffuse thinking mode.  

Greg McKeown has written two excellent books on this subject. The subtitles for each sum up the key ideas:

  1. Effortless: Make it easier to do what matters most 
  2. Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less 

Cal Newport of Deep Work fame offers ideas to avoid distractions so we can focus properly when at work and switch off when not. There is overlap between his work and Greg McKeown's, but I have found both to be great reads.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang takes the ideas further and discusses the increasingly popular shorter work week. Again, his title and subtitle are instructive: Shorter: how working less will revolutionise the way you get things done. 

His thesis is that if we focus harder during a shorter time period we are forced to change the way we work which he says is a good thing.  This will force us to become both more efficient and more effective. We will change the systems we use, the way we use our time and help us deliver more over all.

He reinforces the idea that the extra time off helps us be happier and healthier. The beauty is that our time away from the office allows our ideas to ‘marinate' while we aren't ‘working'.   

These are not the only people talking about these issues, but ones that I have read and enjoyed. All offer ways to rebalance their use of focused and diffused thinking in their lives.

So, with that background I'd like to share some of my own thinking on taking advantage of these two thinking modes in work and life.

Firstly, in work, particularly where problem solving and communication are involved.

Many of my clients leave thinking about their communication to the last minute. They want to finish their analysis first and then are understandably squeezed as the deadline looms. Or they don't have enough information about the communication context to start and so leave it until they have no choice but to begin.

As an alternative, I suggest this five step strategy to help us start thinking early so we can take advantage of these two thinking modes.

  1. Start very early with a roadmapping session. This is where you think through the purpose and audience at some depth and possibly also start mapping out the high level story structure. You may do this alone or preferably with leaders who have greater visibility over the strategic context around your work than you do.
  2. Follow with short bursts of focused activity to draft the one-page storyline. One Clarity First member sets 30 minutes at the start of the day to get as much as he can done for major papers. Then he leaves it until the next appointment he has made with himself. This way he makes progress, isn't stressed by the deadline and can allow the ideas to marinate in the background.
  3. Iterate around the one-pager until the messaging lands. This can not only take some time but be counterintuitive. Our natural inclination is to dive into the details and start writing words on a page or preparing charts and diagrams. This, however, is time consuming and leads to redundant work.
  4. Finally, prepare your doc or deck. Once the messaging lands this is very easy to do quickly. It does, however, require some confidence in your ability to land the messaging earlier!

Secondly, in life. Now, this one is going to be different for everyone as demands on us and our life stages vary. I could be general here, but the authors I mentioned have offered good quality advice on the subject so I'll avoid that.

Instead, I'll explain why you won't be hearing from me for the coming few weeks. I'm taking July as a mix of holiday and sabbatical.

My husband and I are heading away for a month to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary and to catch up with our 22 year old who has recently moved to New York.

We'll be taking the first couple of weeks away as a ‘proper vacation' and then using the second half of the break as a sabbatical. This will give us time and space to reimagine our life and work.

On my side, I'll be thinking about two things in particular:

  1. Progressing a project around ‘big picture thinking' and ‘synthesis'. A group of advanced Clarity First members and I have been working on practical tools to help people make the leap between summary and synthesis. Taking this to the next stage will require both focus and ‘marination'!
  2. Optimising the Clarity First strategy. The intensity of my workload during the covid period has not allowed for much of this kind of thinking and planning. I am very much looking forward to thinking more deeply about the way forward for the business. It has been an exciting couple of years as my online programs have become more interesting to clients. I want to capture the learnings and optimise the program further.

So, during July I will send you weekly emails as always, however they will be scheduled before I go.

Have a great few weeks and I look forward to seeing you on the other side.

Kind regards,

One important consideration for progress updates

One important consideration for progress updates

As always, my week unearths an interesting conundrum that has some useful insights buried within.

This week's insight came from helping a team update their Board on their progress over the past year.

Here's my number 1 takeaway that I want to share with you also.

Your ‘update' will be more useful to you and more interesting to your stakeholders if discuss what you delivered rather than what you did.

I have included the before and after below to illustrate what I mean while also offering three suggestions.

Firstly, you may note that the ‘after' uses a variation of the Traffic Light story, which I think is very useful for this kind of update.

This is where we focus the storyline around the different measures for success, or KPIs if you will.

Secondly, the supporting points in the ‘after' are again skeletal, but follow a useful pattern. They enable us to explain what our own view is on our performance and then support that by offering external validation.

Thirdly, ‘sketching out' a storyline in the way we have for the ‘after' is just the start. This helps surface the broad themes. The real value comes in being highly specific and drawing out a message for each point as a fully formed thought.

I hope that helps. More next week.

Kind regards,

PS – We will have a working session this coming week. Do register on the Sessions Registration page . We will offer only one during July as I will be taking some time away. Sheena will, however be on deck to help with any logistical questions you may have.



Diving Deeply into Big Picture Thinking and Synthesis

Diving Deeply into Big Picture Thinking and Synthesis

Over the first half of 2022 a small group of us have been working on a conundrum: what process can we use to synthesise ideas?

We observe that this is a huge challenge for people when communicating and solving problems that storylines and issue trees help solve.

 However, in making full use of them we need more.

 So, we resolved to meet monthly, use the problem-solving tools discussed in the Clarity in Problem Solving course as a process map and work on it.

 This is the third discussion in that series which might start to be useful for those outside the sessions themselves. Do let us know if you would like to join the working group.

Why thinking into a doc is dangerous

Why thinking into a doc is dangerous

I was reminded this week how we must get our thinking straight in a one-pager before we prepare a document.

In using client material to prepare some exercises I had to work backwards from a document into a storyline.


It is so incredibly easy to miss the thinking errors in a document, especially in a PowerPoint deck.

I have pulled out the main problems I gleaned from this example which would have been more easily avoided if the author had prepared a one-pager first.

I have described the top-line first and followed with three prominent errors I saw throughout the deck.

Spotting the top-line problems was easy as it was neatly laid out on an executive summary page. Take a look below to see what I mean. How many problems do you see?

The confluence of factors affecting the market have created significant uncertainty

0. Spot and futures prices are high relative to historical benchmarks and have increased significantly from uneconomic lows only 18 months ago

1. The are many internal and external factors influencing current market outcomes

2. The impact for energy companies has varied and one of the key differentiators has been plant performance

Finding and fixing errors in the supporting pages was difficult as the language and links between ideas were at best muffled. Here are three traps that I drew from the top and supporting areas of this story for your inspiration.

Ban meaningless words … say what you mean! Look at how general the language is and how lacking in specifics. There are very few descriptive words and even fewer numbers.

Follow through when you set up with a frame … Point 2 above references internal and external factors influencing (how???) market outcomes (meaning???). If you are going to introduce concepts like that, use them to group the ideas below.

Avoid repeating higher level ideas within sections … I commonly see people repeat the idea above in the same or similar words. Most often this will be the last point in a list. Be careful to avoid that sort of repetition within your storyline. These sorts of ‘tell them what you told them' tactics can be useful in a document, but muddy the thinking within the storyline itself.

I hope that helps and look forward to bringing more to you next week.


PS – A warm welcome to our new members.

I have opened the doors to Early Birds and at the time of writing we have half a dozen who have joined today alone. We look forward to working with you!

If you are enjoying the program, please do tell your friends and colleagues about it so they can join. Download the brochure here to share with them.