New Choice!

Ever tried to explain something to someone only to be met with a blank stare? Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end, listening to an instructor or hearing a pitch from a vendor, only to have no idea what they are talking about. It can happen to even the best communicators. Especially those of us who work in fields in which ideas are somewhat complex – science, engineering, technology, public policy to name a few.

One of the ways to improve your ability to be a better communicator of complex ideas is to have a number of “choices” at the ready; and be able to quickly make decisions on your feet (even when you are sitting!) as to which options to try.

This notion of making choices “in the moment” is a fundamental of improvisational acting. One of the frequent exercises in improv classes is called “New Choice!” In the exercise a scene is being improvised and a performer might say a line like, “I’m going to the kitchen for some milk” as they make a move to an invisible refrigerator on stage. The workshop leader, or even audience member, might shout, “NEW CHOICE!” and the performer will sort of rewind and make a choice to say and do something other than head to the kitchen for milk. Often, a person new to improv might alter the choice only slightly, substitute “juice” for the word milk for instance.

A good improv workshop leader might challenge them to make a more dramatic choice. The performer might decide to head to a different room to do something completely different or even stay right where they are. As you can image, these kinds of choices will likely take the scene in a different, sometimes completely different, direction – “I’m going to the garage to get an axe!”

As a scientist, an engineer, a technology professional, or someone with some other sort of expertise, you likely know a lot about your subject, much more, probably, than those with whom you are talking. In the course of a conversation you will have many, many different choices to make about how you present your ideas or solutions.

As an example, a few years ago Ed Morrison was talking with a group about the ways in which our economy was transitioning. He explained it as a “shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge-based economy” and that language didn’t really seem to resonate. He recalls looking out, in this case, to a room full of mostly people who were fifty-plus years old and added, “it is a shift between your grandfather’s economy to your grandchildren’s economy.” That did it! Light bulbs went off over the heads of the audience members.

Whether your work is at macro-economic level Ed’s or your looking at what’s going on at the molecular level, or somewhere in between, pre-thinking about some of these kinds of language choices before you get in the room and being able to come up with new ones in the moment might help make the difference between connecting with your audience, recruiting new collaborators, or even closing the sale.

This is one of the key skill areas we teach in our new workshop at the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab. We call this workshop CommPlexity: Communicating Complex Ideas. We conduct CommPlexity several times each year on campus here at Purdue and we can also offer customized workshops for your organization. If you are interested in learning more about how to further develop your skills in communicating your ideas, we hope you’ll reach out to connect with us. Hope to see you soon.