Courage, Belonging, Ambiguity and Data: How to Design Your Communication for Success
In this episode, we dive into four different themes that will help your message stand out.
All communication comes from a place of creativity, and creativity is rooted in design. In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, strategic communications lecturer and podcast host Matt Abrahams interviews four authors from the Stanford d.school. Each conversation challenges conventional approaches to communication, whether visual, physical, or verbal.
Listen to hear more from Ashish Goel, author of Drawing on Courage; Susie Wise, author of Design for Belonging; Carissa Carter, author of The Secret Language of Maps; and Andrea Small, co author of Navigating Ambiguity.
Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.
Matt Abrahams: The word communication comes from the Latin to make common or to share. In other words, communication is about relaying our ideas, feelings, and thoughts to others. The goal of our speech is most often what I jokingly refer to as our communication F word. No, not that F-word, but rather fidelity, which means the accuracy and clarity of the messages we share.
Today, we are going to visit with four designers who can help us make our communication hit the mark and make sure that it’s designed with our audience in mind.
Hello, I’m Matt Abrahams and I teach strategic communication at Stanford graduate school of business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast.
I am really looking forward to how we can increase the fidelity of our communication and make sure our messages resonate with our audiences, be it one-to-one communication, meetings or presentations, spoken or written in-person or virtual.
In my many years at Stanford, I’ve learned that if I want to find innovative ideas for solving complex problems, a great place to go is Stanford d.school, the d stands for design. And the d.school is world famous for many things, including teaching Design Thinking.
Recently the d.school released a series of four guide books, one on courage, one on belonging, one on ambiguity, and one on visualization. These topics apply to many domains of our personal and professional lives, and they also directly relate to communication. In this episode, I’ll introduce you to the authors of each book and ask them to help us apply their expertise in design to our communication.
To learn more about each book, check the links in our show notes.
My first guest is Ashish Goel. He is a designer and a former teaching fellow at the Stanford d.school. His book is Drawing on Courage.
As many of you listeners know, I’ve written a book, studied, and help people develop courage and confidence in their communication. So it’s nice to find someone else who’s very interested in this topic as well. Ashish breaks down courage into four components. I started by asking him what they are and how this typology helps us to be courageous.
Ashish Goel: Let me first ask you, Matt, what is something you did recently that took a little bit of courage.?
Matt Abrahams: So, as many of the listeners know I have teenagers in my house and, I had to step up a little bit and give some pretty constructive feedback. And that took a lot of courage.
Ashish Goel: So you know courage can be something like a journey that can last just a few hours, which it might have taken in your case, or it can last months. Let’s say choosing to start a business, you have been mulling over. And I think all courage journeys have four stops: fear, values, action, and change.
The first stop is fear because you don’t know how things will turn out, which is why it takes courage. The second stop is your values. There is a reason why you’re choosing to do this in the first place, that’s because you value what lies on the other side. The third stop is action. That real moment of courage and the fourth stop is change, what happened after you acted with courage? I think this typology can help people be more courageous first because it helps you diagnose: Where are you stuck? Are you scared about the risks ahead? Then you can reduce them. If you are not clear about why this matters to you, have you clarified and committed to your values?
Have you done both of those things, but it’s just that moment of action when you’re chickening out? Or, you have acted with courage and now you’re just grappling with the consequences. So these four components to me, help you diagnose, and then rectify, which stop of the courage journey you may be struggling with.
Matt Abrahams: I really appreciate delineating the different aspects that go into courage and then how they can help us create an action plan to accomplish the task that we have. I really appreciate that and wish that I would have deployed that kind of thinking when I had to talk to my son. So, next time, I and I fear there will be a next time. So thank you.
Ashish Goel: And then there are moments when you don’t have the time to reflect so, you can always reflect back on something, on a moment when you did or did not act with courage. So that’s a way to use this typology as well.
Matt Abrahams: Certainly, and I will definitely leverage it to think about how things went and how they could have been different for the next time. When it comes to actually thinking about and thinking through the messages, those challenging messages that you need to give, any advice on how best to muster that courage to actually do the delivery?
Ashish Goel: One idea that I love is actually from a class at the GSB, Interpersonal Dynamics or what they call “Touchy, Feely,” where they’ve talked about the net. So there’s a net and you’re on one side, you know, your feelings, what happened and why you felt the way you felt. But we often assume intentions on the other side of the net.
So one thing that can help you act with courage is to use that conversation as a learning conversation, you get to share your side of the net and you get to learn more about what their side of the story was. And that can make it less about delivering critical feedback or engaging in the conflict, and more about figuring it out together.
Matt Abrahams: I really love that collaborative approach and seeing the value that it has for you, but also for the other person to deliver that message. And we have had previously on the podcast, both Carol and David, who were instrumental in architecting the Interpersonal Dynamics class and they did talk about the net a little bit and you added good value to their conversation. So thank you.
Matt Abrahams: Having the courage to share our ideas, feelings and thoughts is the starting point for all effective communication. We can’t clearly communicate if we aren’t confident in our message and confident in our ability to communicate it. Next, we need to consider how we bring the audience along with us.
We can’t just talk at our audience. We must make our content meaningful and relevant. Focusing on the concept of belonging can help us in this endeavor.
My next guest is Dr. Susie Wise. Susie is a designer and teacher who directs the K-12 Lab Network for the Stanford d.School and is co-creator of Liberatory Design. Her book is Design for Belonging.
Susie. I’m curious, how do you define belonging and why is it so important?
Susie Wise: Thank you. So I define belonging as an essential human need, first and foremost. We need to know that we belong in order to show up and share our skills, our talents, our abilities, our identities, our personalities, all of who we are.
So belonging is the feeling that lets us know that that’s possible. It might look like being invited and welcomed. It might look like being able to provide critical feedback. It might look like being able to contribute.
Matt Abrahams: How can we help others to feel a sense of belonging? What can we do as friends, as colleagues, as managers or leaders to invite that feeling of belonging?
Susie Wise: The frame that I’m using right now is designed for belonging. The idea of. Belonging is of course it’s a feeling, so anyone’s going to have it themselves in whatever way they do. So as leaders, as managers, we’re looking to create the context to design the context where belonging can emerge, and that can be and look any number of different ways. So what I try to do, is offer a framework around feeling, seeing, and shaping belonging. The seeing belonging really matters. What kinds of moments are you creating, where people are feeling like they’re able to show up and be themselves. It also means feeling and seeing into moments where belonging isn’t really what people are feeling and seizing those as opportunities to create change.
Then you open up the toolkit of design, you’re able to shape it. And that looks like, not just sending an email, but thinking about how space, or role or ritual, how new kinds of communication, how many different, I like to call them, “levers of design,” but that’s really just a fancy way of saying things that you can create, help people to come together and comfortably share who they are.
Matt Abrahams: I love the seeing, the feeling, and the shape. Excellent. I’m curious, do you have some specific advice for both our personal and professional communication for how we can foster that sense of belonging? Are there things we can say or shouldn’t say? Anything in our communication that you can help us with?
Susie Wise: So communication is a huge lever for belonging. I like to think about communications and how it relates to belonging a lot. In the book, I actually call out communication as one of the levers to design with. And that’s in part because representation and authentic storytelling are some of the ways that we get cues for when and where we can belong. And that is really important.
It’s also very true that one of the things that a leader can do to invite more belonging is by creating more mechanisms for storytelling, more places where you can show up and share more parts of yourself. That you can come together and actually share stories of things that people don’t know about or might not be precisely germane to your position, but actually matters to you. Sharing what matters to you and sharing how you can contribute is a huge part of belonging. Storytelling and communications are natural human ways that we can share some of that.
Matt Abrahams: I love that advice for leaders to provide opportunities for people to share their stories and to bring who they are to their communication. That’s fantastic.
Being driven by an empathetic audience centric approach that fosters belonging, especially when paired with confidence, can allow us to better craft meaningful, high fidelity messages.
And in order to make our messages clear, we need to address ambiguity and become comfortable with it.
I’m excited to be here today with Andrea Small, Andrea is a design leader, strategist and educator. She teaches at Stanford’s d.school and leads storytelling and design strategy for Samsung Research America’s R & D innovation team. Andrea has worked with some of the most iconic brands in the world. Thanks for being here, Andrea.
Andrea Small: Thanks for having me.
Matt Abrahams: Awesome. And your book is super exciting. It’s titled Navigating Ambiguity, Creating Opportunity in a World of Unknowns. And I have to share with you, ambiguity is something that really spurred my whole interest in communication. I’ve always been fascinated by how we use ambiguity to actually manage some really important communication needs, like being polite, like trying to convince people of what we’re trying to convince them for. And little known to many people. I actually think it’s fascinating how it plays out in flirtation. And that’s some research I did way back in the day.
So let’s begin: ambiguity is the topic of our time. And people have strong discomfort with it. How can we design our communication in a way that creates calm and even encourages creativity and progress?
Andrea Small: Yes, that’s a big question. And the way that I think about designing our communication to create calm is to keep it organized, which might be the opposite of ambiguity. Not all of our communication should be ambiguous particularly if you’re say the CDC and you’re communicating mask mandates or something, you need to be exceptionally clear. We can design communication that encourages creativity, that encourages people to bring themselves into that.
By creating space, we allow people to kind of see themselves in what we’re saying. And we’re not closing all of the loops for them. We’re not necessarily telling them how we think they should react to that. We’re allowing for that to happen.
Matt Abrahams: So in many ways, it sounds like providing structure and guidelines can help people manage through this creativity and feel more comfortable.
We’re often told that we need to be very clear in our communication yet. Some of our most important in risky communication is purposely ambiguous. I’m curious to get your thoughts on this tension of ambiguity versus clarity.
Andrea Small: Ambiguity is navigating those tensions. Tensions allow for creativity to exist and design really thrives off of tensions.
So that tension between clarity and uncertainty or the known and the unknown, the in-between is where creative ideas can really flourish and come to life. I feel like the need for clarity and communication is really context dependent. You know, it depends on what you’re saying and who you’re saying it to and when.
We use ambiguity in the book a little bit to invite the reader into what we’re trying to say, and we don’t necessarily fill in all of the blanks. We leave places for there to be ambiguity. If you’re too ambiguous, it’s confusing. You could lose people. We don’t want to be so esoteric and our communication that people have nothing to grip onto. So grounding it in some places, being clear, being direct, is really important so that you can have that freedom to explore or leave things open-ended. So the structure and the openness is really a balance.
Matt Abrahams: Excellent. So I had this image in my mind of a bowling lane and bumper guards in, so the ball never misses. I think that’s really helpful because as managers, as leaders, we want to create spaces and time for people to play with the tensions and ambiguity and then develop communication that supports that. But at the same time, we need to meet deadlines and we need to make sure that we’re achieving our goals.
So really interesting and I think a lot in the corporate world is “let’s be super clear, let’s meet the deadline.” And, and then what I hear you say is we have to set up space for those tensions to live and the ambiguity that comes with it.
Andrea Small: Yeah. It’s difficult because in innovation, for example, working in advanced technology, we don’t have all of the answers, and all big risks involve stepping into that ambiguity. So a lot of my job as a strategist is then risk mitigation for the leadership to help them feel comfortable in the leaps that we’re taking, because we’re looking at things much further out into the future. And they’re not things that can necessarily be measured today. So a lot of it is kind of that anxiety and anxiety management.
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. Absolutely. You said something that really resonated with me that innovation is really stepping into ambiguity. That I think is very profound. I think I need to think about that some more, but I love it. And I love that people do what you do to help people feel comfortable with that.
I find the tensions between clarity and ambiguity, both fascinating and helpful. They force us to clearly think about our communication intent as well as impact. With this focus, we can then begin to map out and visualize our stories in the information they contain.
My final guest is Carissa Carter. She is a designer, geoscientist, and the academic director at the Stanford d.school. Carissa drives the d.school’s pedagogy and teaches courses on the intersection of data and design. Her book is called The Secret Language of Maps.
Is there research or in your own experience, are there things that help data be more easily processed by people? So people actually take the message more quickly. Use of color, use of space? Is there advice or guidance you can give us in terms of best practices?
Carissa Carter: Yeah, I would say. Know your audience in the way that they want to take in information. So we actually map our audience before creating something for them. So what’s the context? Context is a component of craft. What’s the context is going to be viewed. Are you going to make something that should be laid on the big table in a library and we all have to be really quiet while we look at it. Or are you putting something in a, in a board presentation and people are going to be sitting around a table looking at a screen? Or are you going to plaster something on the side of a building in the middle of a city and people are going to be walking past it?
If you know the context it’s going to, you can then think to, well, what do I need to include in it in order to make it really land with that audience?
Matt Abrahams: I think that’s a really important point. We’ve talked a lot on this podcast about knowing your audience in terms of your messaging. I think a lot of us just default to standard slide creation tools, or just bullet points when it comes to taking the data and the information that we’re trying to present visually and not really applying those same principles of “how’s the audience going to receive it, what’s the context in which they’re going to receive it,” and that can really help. So thank you for sharing that. I think that’s a, that’s taking a lesson we know in one domain and applying it to another, that can be really helpful.
Carissa Carter: Yeah. I mean, you’re actually describing that, that creative tension between data and craft right there. Right? You may want to be making something that lands in a really soft, gentle way with your audience. But if all you know is the default blue that outputs on PowerPoint, that’s just not going to work. So evolving your tools to meet the needs of the message you want, is something we aim for.
Matt Abrahams: That’s a really important point: evolving the tools to meet the way you want your information to land. Very, very, very important.
Without misleading or being deceitful, how can we design communication to help us achieve our goals? For example, convince people to agree with us, to hire us, to support our ideas or projects?
Carissa Carter: Well, we can be really in tune with what our agenda is. Is our agenda to invite others in to explore a topic, to see all of the information? Is our agenda to tell you a point? Is our agenda to create an aha moment?
Or, do we really want to convince to manipulate? And if so, that’s where we’re tugging on the levers of what information to include, what data to include, what craft to use, which way to present. If you are genuinely making a map or an infographic that you want people to change their behavior about, it comes back to knowing the cultural context of the audience that you’re working with. The needs that they have at any given moment, what they’re hoping for, from the communication too.
Matt Abrahams: The point about having a clear agenda and using that to drive the choices you make is really important. I often find in my own life when I’ve got to use some data, and I know it’s going to help me leverage a goal or achieve a goal I have, I just rush to get it done, because it’s usually the last thing. And the point I’m hearing you say is I have to step back, really reflect on the agenda and then use that agenda to help decide what tools and approach I use.
Carissa Carter: You do. Right. Your agenda, right? That’s the story.
Matt Abrahams: Is it possible to use some of these data mapping ideas that you’re talking about to help us actually craft the narratives and stories that we tell?
Carissa Carter: A thousand percent. Okay. I call it exploring before you explain. In the same way, that if you were going to go out to a concert, you probably would try on three or four different outfits to see what looks good before you choose what you’re going to wear. We want to explore. With our data with our agenda, our story with our craft before we land on the final output.
One of my favorite ways to do some of that exploring before we explain is to use a continuum. Now, a continuum is as simple as a line with two arrows. I think of it as the most elegant map that exists. And you can think of a continuum as a timeline, a transition, attention from then to now from, solid to liquid. From strengths to weakness, right? You can find those in any story. And if you find the timelines that transitions the tensions in the story that you want to tell, then you can find the data that is going to support those stories. Then you can figure out ‘what is the craft,’ how do you want to wrap that story in a visual language in order to meet the needs of your audience?
Matt Abrahams: I love the idea of exploring before explaining, and I’m really excited to apply this because it really. Turns on its head, have your story first, then figure out how to use the data. You’re actually saying, use the, the, the data techniques, the mapping techniques to help you find your story. And I think that’s really fun and exciting.
Carissa Carter: Absolutely. You can explore before you explain, you can start your exploration with story. You can start your exploration with data, or you can start your exploration with craft, right? If you know that you want your story, your data story, to appear at the big retreat you’re going to have with the whole organization, maybe you want to present a visual that’s on the water bottle that everybody’s going to give out. I used that context, that water bottle context, as a constraint. So what could be revealed slowly as somebody spins it in their hand. So you start there, you could explore with craft first, and then figure out the story, and then figure out the data.
Matt Abrahams: Thank you. That’s amazingly illuminating and really, really helpful.
How can we spot visual data or communication that’s trying to persuade or perhaps even mislead us?
Carissa Carter: Well, I’ll start out by saying, I don’t think most people are trying to mislead us, but it happens unintentionally all the time. My trick for you is to watch out for limp data.
Matt Abrahams: Tell me more.
Carissa Carter: Limp data is exactly what it sounds like. For whatever reason, the data doesn’t stand up. When you’re looking at a visualization, is it clear where the data came from? What were the boundaries of it? The boundaries of data are never clear cut.
And let me give you an example of that. If I said Matt, how many dollars are in your pocket? What, what would you say, literally right now?
Matt Abrahams: Uh, 23.
Carissa Carter: Right? So $23 might be the cash you have in your pocket, but do you have a credit card too?
Matt Abrahams: I have a couple. Yeah.
Carissa Carter: Okay. When I say dollars, does that extend to your credit card balance you might have on that card or your credit limit?
Matt Abrahams: Sure, but that’s not what I first thought.
Carissa Carter: Right. But what, what is included? What isn’t? The boundaries of what data is or what any, any terminology, anything that we’re measuring are. The person that made that made some decisions, right? They decided dollars might be just cash. They decided that dollars may extend all the way into the mortgage you might have on your home.
Matt Abrahams: Limp data is a great example of using language, to represent a concept in a, in a visual way, just like you’re talking about it. And it leads me to think that there is this synergy that happens between the visual realm and the wording that you use that, when congruent, can actually be much more powerful than either separate.
Carissa Carter: That is such a great point. The words on our visualizations, they matter so much too. Let’s say I have a bar graph that is showing me the number of leaves of different types in a forest. If you title that, “number of leaves of different types in the forest”, I don’t know. Is that interesting if I title it with a very scientific sounding title, it’s clear it’s for a scientific audience. If I instead title it, “Things that made lots of noise as I walked today,” it welcomes in the casual observer. Right? So the words matter.
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I, I love that visual that is created in our mind by the language that you use.
A big, thank you, Ashish, Susie, Andrea, and Carissa. Each of your insights, all related to design and communication are so useful and clear. I hope we can all apply them to our communication. And as with every show, I asked all four guests the same three questions we end each episode with. We’re going to play one answer from each of my guests.
If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be?
Ashish Goel: Don’t fold your arms.
Matt Abrahams: Tell me more. Tell me more.
Ashish Goel: I actually learned this from Dan Klein, who I’m sure you know, who teaches improv at Stanford University. I had him do a workshop in a d.school class and each time he would tap someone if they had their arms folded. It answers a way about being defensive. So when you open your arms, your body shapes, it’s like a stance with which you operate. It’s about dropping your defenses, staying open.
So it allows for more appendix and honest back and forth to happen rather than when everyone is just folding their arms and keeping themselves safe.
Matt Abrahams: First. We’ve had Dan Klein on the podcast before, and he’s fantastic. And I love this note. I love this notion of how you show up physically matters.
And there is a distancing that happens when you fold your arms and not only does it have an impact on the people you’re communicating with, it has an impact on yourself as you alluded to, it changes the way you approach the communication. I love that and we have never had anybody give an answer that was non-verbal in that way. So thank you.
Here’s Susie with one communicator she admires and why.
Susie Wise: So you shared this question ahead of time and I really liked it and so I was thinking about it in the book. I have a set of what I call host heroes. So I was thinking about some of those folks. Some are famous, like Brene Brown, but the person I thought I wanted to share today is a professor at Stanford.
Her name is Aleta Hayes. She teaches dance. That might seem an unlikely way to think about communications or being a communicator, but what she invites people to do. And at the d.school, we partner with her a lot for executive education programs for different experiences for students.
And what she does is invite everyone to dance, but she does it in such a simple and slow way that you find yourself surprised that you’re actively in a dance. You wouldn’t have signed up to dance in the atrium of the d.school, and yet there you are. And it feels incredibly moving and motivating. So I think of that as an essential kind of communication and a great reminder to embody our thoughts and our feelings and recognize that as communication as well.
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. The embodiment of communication is really important. And we have spent some time on this podcast talking about how we use our body, but that’s a great reminder. And. It seems very scary to me that I might be dancing in front of others, but I can see it as a very freeing and fun activity.
Susie Wise: That’s kind of her brilliance, she brings you slowly into it. Um, and really her communication is, is what lets you take those steps. So she breaks down tiny pieces that get added up. You start by just imagining you’re walking down the street and New York City, for instance.
Matt Abrahams: Right. Interesting. So she moves you, so you get moving.
And here’s Andrea and Carissa’s answers to perhaps my favorite question. What are the three ingredients in a successful communication recipe?
Question number three. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?
Andrea Small: Passion. Differentiation. And humor.
Matt Abrahams: I love passion and humor. Make a lot of sense. Talk a little bit more about differentiation.
Andrea Small: I think in, at least in the corporate world, we have started to align people to a certain specific way of speaking or doing or acting or leading. I think differentiating yourself from everybody else, finding your own voice, being honest and true to yourself, versus trying to fit into a mold that somebody else created, is very important.
Back to the risk management and ambiguity, when we have more differentiation, when we have more diversity, we’re opening ourselves to even more unknowns. I would want to encourage people to find what makes them stand out in a sea of other people communicating. What is the thing that will make you different?
And that may be, you know, again, context dependent on what, what it is you’re presenting or what it is you’re speaking about. Differentiation.
Matt Abrahams: I love the idea that we all need to find our unique offering in our communication and really focus on that, it separates some of the noise from the signal there.
Thank you. I appreciate you unequivocally helping us disambiguate ambiguity. Thank you so much.
And finally here is Carissa with the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication.
Carissa Carter: I’m going to present you my recipe in the form of a Venn diagram.
Matt Abrahams: Very appropriate.
Carissa Carter: In one circle, I have map your audience, know the needs of who you’re meeting. In another circle I have know your own intentions. Like what drives you? What inspires you? And then in the third one, what’s the content, what’s the material. And is that, that place in the middle of all three of those, that’s what you should talk about. There’s always more you could say or ways you could be, but just hone in on what comes in the middle of those three circles.
Matt Abrahams: So that’s the aim, the audience, the intention, and the material, and it’s that overlap that makes for the best recipe.
Carissa Carter: It’s all about the overlaps.
Matt Abrahams: The topics, tools and tips our four guests shared provide some of the key building blocks to how we approach and execute on creating high fidelity messages. I know if we all apply these ideas of confidence, belonging, ambiguity, and mapping to our communication, we will be more successful in sharing our messages and increasing their fidelity.
I invite you to check out the show notes, to learn more about the d.school guide books.
You’ve been listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart, The Podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Podium Podcast Company, Jenny Luna and me, Matt Abrahams. Find more resources, follow and join our conversation on LinkedIn by searching Think Fast, Talk Smart.
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