October 09, 2013

Improving Communication

Some people figure things out by speaking aloud, others by writing. Me? I think with my hands.

When I want to understand or remember something, I’ll observe and then draw it. If I want to work through a problem, I’ll make something or take it apart and rebuild it until it works. My personal sketches, diagrams, and models are often fast and messy, but they help me focus and process what’s going on.

One of my goals this year is to not only get better at developing ideas, but also improving communication of those ideas. I want to be able to express and communicate them in ways that others can clearly understand.

A lot of excellent designs or solutions to current problems already exist, but they sometimes fail just because of the way the product is presented rather than the product itself. For example, the Danish school system designed a chair that was supposed help alleviate the harmful effects of sitting for extended periods of time during the school day. Years later, when the now-grown schoolchildren were informally surveyed, they revealed that nobody had ever shown them how to properly sit on that chair, completely negating any possible health benefits. The design intention was there all along, but it just wasn’t passed on in the right way.

In order to get my ideas across clearly, I need to be able to communicate visually, verbally, and in writing. Oftentimes, speaking more direct and effective. Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes it’s easier to just say “potato” instead of playing Pictionary when you’re trying to get a point across.

My preference for visual thinking often leaves me speechless, quite literally. Ever come up with a well-crafted response to a question, but only two hours too late while you’re sitting on the train? I spend far too long trying to turn my thoughts into words, especially when talking to people I’ve just met. I often wish conversations had a pause button so I could wait until my internal progress bar has finished loading.

It’s an ongoing process, but here are a couple things I’m doing right now to improve my written and verbal communication ability:

Improving Communication: Write More and Get Feedback

If I want to get better at articulating sentences aloud, I should start by learning to organize my thoughts on the page. This monthly blog and my personal newsletters have already forced me to write so much more than usual and also be open to revisions and feedback (rewrote this post multiple times already). This includes working on how to use words as a common ground to bring people into the visual world.

Improving Communication: Improv or Acting Experience

We had an improv session during our first meetup, where we played a lot of games that involved quick responses and silly situations. In one game, we had to solve nonsensical problems (such as “too much toe hair”) just by saying the first thing that popped into our heads while the rest of the group would reply with a resounding “Yes!” and continue from there. Some of the things we said were ridiculous, but it also helped me be more comfortable just speaking up and thinking on my feet.

Improving Communication: Taking Apart these Situations

There’s always an overwhelming amount of information when approaching a scene to draw or a design engineering problem to solve. The key is breaking the whole down into smaller components so you can understand each piece, control for it, and then distill the information you need. There are situations where I am uncomfortable and tongue-tied, but there are also those confident moments; I need to define the differences between the two. Was it the subject matter? The audience? The setting? If I can recognize these factors, both good and bad, and translate them into everyday practice I can hopefully minimize these belated “train epiphanies”.

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