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GET SMART: A CONVERSATION WITH BRIAN REMER (PART 3)

Posted by on August 23rd, 2012 with 0 Comments

Brian Remer is creative learning director of Interactive Learning Expert Brian Remer of Firefly GroupThe Firefly Group, specialists in the use of interactive learning strategies to help businesses and other organizations achieve their goals. Brian blends information, discussion, games, and participant input to insure involvement and commitment from everyone. He has consulted with organizations affiliated with the state of New Hampshire, and served on the Board of Directors and as chairman and president of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association. 

Brian is the author of “Say It Quick: 99 Word Stories about Leadership, Learning, and Life“, has drawn comparisons to haiku and led to him being called an ‘Aesop’ of management. Over four weeks, Brian and I will discuss when, why, and how you should  ‘Say It Quick’ when you want to create deep, powerful learning.

Read PART ONE or PART TWO

Part Three: Are 99-Word Stories SMART as Hell?

Glenn: In the SMART as Hell project, I’m looking to improve the quality of goals that people write, using the SMART criteria. Additionally, I believe that when people apply those criteria to decisions, communications, and products, they are more successful.

In the SMART acronym, ‘S’ stands for ‘Specific’. Your introduction to the book uses your friend Sarah to raise an interesting argument that sometimes the urge to be specific leads to confusion…

Brian:  Yes, Sarah was brilliant in many ways but I think she was fearful of making mistakes.  For this reason, she was always emailing people to clarify the details for her projects.  When given an answer, she would probe further offering hypothetical examples to test the rules or procedures.  This would cause delays as people scrambled to research answers for her.  And sometimes, Sarah would end up with less flexibility in her project because she had forced people to define unnecessary limits.

I do think it’s good to be specific but maybe that means being clear about the big picture.  Sometimes it’s more helpful to be specific about the spirit of the law and let people figure out the letter of the law for themselves.

Glenn: It sounds like you’re saying that rules, processes, and procedures may have a place, but visions, values, and principles are often more effective? Is that an underlying notion to your stories?

Brian:  Yes, I think it is.  Some people would like a rule or policy to guide them in every situation.  But you just can’t come up with some answers until the questions hit you.  Because my stories come from everyday situations, I’m kind of saying, “Here’s something that hit me in the face and here’s an underlying principle about it that might help in the future.  What do you think?”

Glenn: In this case, your 99-word limit reminds me of a common piece of advice in writing books – to drop adjectives and choose more powerful nouns. Don’t say ‘yellow bird’, say ‘canary’. Do you find that happening as you write your stories?

Brian:  I don’t target adjectives, specifically – I’m kind of partial to them, actually – but once I get the basic story and message on paper, I spend a lot of energy creating more powerful word combinations.  And in many cases, like your example, more powerful ends up being shorter.

Glenn: Right, this ‘adjective’ test was useful for me. In my first revision, I wrote ‘walked into’ and ‘small house’. They became ‘entered’ and ‘cabin’.

Your 99-word structure clearly satisfies the ‘M’ in SMART – Measurable. How hard is it to reach that 99-word target?

Brian:  It’s easy as hell – if you practice like hell!  Seriously, the first step is simply to get your story down on paper without worrying about length.  Then it’s a matter of editing.  Cut what’s repetitious, hunt for ‘yellow birds,’ and replace them with ‘canaries.’

Glenn: I can see that repetition would make this easier. I had 130 words in my first pass and wasn’t finished with the story that was in my head. Well, more accurately, I was done – because of the word limit – and didn’t know it. At the same time, that 99-word limit is liberating. I knew, at 130 words, that I was done writing. Now I just needed to edit.

Brian: Yes, and maybe you also were one third of the way to your second 99-Word Story!

Glenn: [laughing] Great point!
A strong goal is “Aggressively Attainable”. That is, it’s difficult enough to be challenging, but easy enough to allow success. Like in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Flow’ model, it neither bores nor frustrates. I suspect that the 99-word target gives you a feeling of momentum, as you near the target. Can you describe that experience?

Brian:  Typically my first draft comes in at 105 to 120 words.  The editing can be difficult because you’re trying to make the story better by using fewer words.  So after each change, no matter how minor, I’m always checking the word count.  A few times I’ve hit 99 words in the first draft.  But I still always make some changes.

Glenn: And at the end, when the 99th word is written, it’s like the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle snapping in?

Brian:  Yes, I do my little victory shout!

Glenn: I had that same feeling. The 99-word limit provides – to use today’s jargon – a ‘gamification’ aspect to the writing experience. To further this game metaphor, do you often ask groups to write on a common topic and then share the results? Or have team writing sessions? I think it would be interesting to write in a pair.

Brian:  Unfortunately, in most sessions we don’t spend very much time writing.  Usually, it’s enough to share the 99-word concept and have people experience ways to use the stories for learning or discussion.  When we do write, I give people the option to write alone or with a partner.  It’s been successful either way.  For those who haven’t done a lot of writing, a buddy can help them get rolling.

Glenn: As you know, ‘R’ in SMART stands for Relevant. I would propose that your 99-word stories promote relevance in two different ways. First – they get people to edit – to stick to important content. This happened to me. I had included Thoreau’s quote “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” and really wanted to keep it. Because the 99-word limit forced me to question my choices, I quickly saw that the quote was unnecessary to my story – though I love it – and, as a result, eliminated it.

Secondly, the format creates relevance because it creates stories that are open-ended so that readers can map their own relevance. I assume this is intentional?

Brian:  Yes!  Personally, I think my ideas are brilliant – but I don’t think everyone else believes that!  I want to hear what other people think because then I learn something too.  Besides, I know people are more invested in their own conclusions than mine so I want to give them a chance to make some connections that have more resonance and “stickiness” for them personally.

Glenn: Your 99-word stories, as demonstrated in the book title, “Say it Quick!”, clearly fit the SMART criteria of ‘Time-bound’. What’s the value or intention of ‘saying it quick’?

Brian:  Between Twitter, multitasking, and texting, we seem to be conditioning ourselves to shorter message bursts.  But to get beyond a sound-bite society, we need to reinvent the concept of the conversation.  Say it quick and you not only make your point but also open the door for others to make a point too.  And it’s always fun to see how a very short story can lead to a long, deep conversation.

Glenn: Thanks Brian. We’ll continue our conversation next week!

Learn more about Brian’s work and other resources in this interview below:

 

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