January 2009

by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

This book covers reserch on how to make your ideas stick. They start off with several very compelling urban legends, and then analyse several of them to see what succesful stories have in comon. And with succesful, one means ideas/lectures/stories that stick and people remember for some time. In a nutshell, these are the important ingredients for anything to stick:

1. Simplicity: get to the core, don’t forget about the curse of knowledge (commander’s intent).

2. Unexpectedness: get people’s attention, maybe through a surprise element, hold people’s attentions by creating interest. Create a gap in people’s knowledge, or at least awareness of the gap.

3. Concreteness: talk about people, instead of data (e.g. use a more journalistic style).

4. Credibility: external (who is the authority?), internal (details that can be checked), make sure the credentials in the storie can be tested.

5. Emotional: make people care, appeal to the self-interest of people, to their sense of identity

6. Stories: get people to act, to inspire them.

While you don’t need all of the above to make something stick, stories tend to be more sticky when several elements are covered. Definitely a book that reads easily, and the authors also mention that they were influenced by the style of Malcolm Gladwell. Although they don’t make it to Maeda’s ideal of a 100 pages (i.e., my copy has 257 pages without the notes), it’s very possible to chop the book in smaller pieces and read more piecemeal.

Recent events have made me consider that maybe accepting some professional help isn’t such a bad idea to help with stress management. CompanyManager has indicated that for such things VagueCompany can arrange for a coach to help you. Yes, there is also a psychologist, but what I would prefer in that case is a behavioural therapist. So, would a coach be really the direction to go? Also, are they bound to not tell CompanyManager anything? Because obviously this works better if there aren’t too many inhibitions when trying to formulate my thoughts on stress management, and stress-factors.

Still debating these factors, while at the same time trying to not stress out too much about it. It seems somewhat silly to get stress out about somebody helping you with stress management. It probably also means that it’s time to get help :)

One of my co-workers recently inquired into the planning of my PhD and actually gasped when I answered no the question inquiring whether I was writing already.

FSP style, this conversation went something along the lines of:

CW: So when does your contract end?

FAW: End of october, why?

CW: So you’re already writing, yes?

FAW: Well, that depends on what you mean. If you mean the actual thesis, then no.

CW: GASP. But then when do you plan to defend? Not in october, no?

FAW: Well, no. Besides I already have 8 publications and I’m busy with a journal paper.

CW: So who are your supervisors?

FAW: CompanySupervisor2 and UniversitySupervisor.

CW: You don’t mind me asking, do you?

FAW: Well, today is really not a good day to discuss this, no.

He seems to have gotten the idea that the PhD students in our group can use some of his advice and time, but frankly most of the time all he does is waste my time because he likes to phrase things in very roundabout ways and “provocative comments”. The conversation was quite ludicrous, but alarmed me enough to warn CompanySupervisor2 of its occurrence – forewarned is forearmed, right?

When CS2 suggested that maybe I did prefer CW, I threatened to withhold the chocolate I bought for her birthday. I think that conveyed my sentiments most appropriately.

Or what to do when you co-supervise? I’m used to my students being co-supervised by somebody from the university, but not that somebody from Vague Company is actually sitting in on the meetings and tries to push through their own agenda.

Really, what we planned to do was to discuss this beforehand. Obviously, both of us miserably failed to remember this, which may have resulted in a confused student. Maybe the confusion was good for his soul, but it didn’t really convince me.

We’ve now hashed out which is who’s responsabilities and who should say something when, but bringing this to the meeting table might require more practice than a 20 minute discussion. I understand my co-worker wants to be closely involved, the student is working for his project after all. On the other hand, if I have to stop him from starting to write out my student’s problem statement something hasn’t been communicated well. Indications for important on content, yes. Brainstorming for topics, yes. Actual writing out? No, that’s the student’s responsability as far as I am concerned. How will you learn to take your own notes from a meeting when you can assume somebody else will do that and actually email you the results? Students should learn to bring their own external memory.

Likewise, my co-worker has a number of side-deliverables he wants to see – but how crucial they are and how feasable is entirely unclear right now. I’d rather the student planned for the main focus first, and then take a look at how / whether to achieve those other deliverables. I wonder what other people’s take on student responsability and co-supervision are?

Recently, while sitting at the airport with two friends who’ve already obtained their PhD, we were discussing current research plans and opportunities for the future. While announcing that I officialy had gotten a co-lecture position for a course on cognition, one of them looked at me and said “You volunteered to teach?! But that’s the last thing a self-respecting academic should do!” Half-joking, half-serious, that remark, I could tell, but still serious enough to make me want to stand still and reflect.

Yes, I volunteered to teach (not just TA), because teaching makes up quite a big chunk of life in academia. If trying teaching now gives me chance to find out whether I like it or not, why shouldn’t I do so? So far, supervising MS students is the other experience, and that has also proved to be invaluable. Mostly, with regard to the selection and management process (I really detest micromanagement!), but also with regards to insight into the kind of questions really interested students ask.

So, spring semester of 2008 I helped out in a course on cognition, gave 3 lectures myself, came up with exam questions for said lectures, graded the exams, helped with coordinating discussions and graded posters. The only thing it did was make me hungry for more, give me ideas on how to reorganize, which other books to use, find more articles for examples to make the students as curious about the world of cognition and psychology as I am.

As a result, the lecturer in charge asked me to cooperate again with him this semester, and gave me responsibility for a group-based actions of the students. He won’t claim responsibility for it either, and I get my share of the evaluations. I think, if I survive this semester, it will have given me a good grounding in how to prepare a syllabus (how to write one up to) and hopefully I’ll still love teaching. Also, this might very well steer my decisions about post-docs. Ideally, my first post-doc would give me a couple of years experience abroad and let me test my hands more fully in the waters of academia: i.e. not only research and publications, but how to share the research with students, be the undergrad or graduate ones.