There you are staring at the blank screen. What do I say, how do I say it? Where do I start? If you're like many of us, having to communicate in high stakes situations can really zap your creative juices. Finding inspiration and catalyzing your creativity can really help. Hi, my name is Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast. Talk Smart, the podcast. Today I am thrilled to be joined by Tina Selic, who is a professor of the practice in the Department of Management, Science and Engineering at Stanford University.
She is also a faculty director at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. Tina teaches courses on creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the author of many books, including Creativity Rules Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World and Ingenious A Crash Course on Creativity. Tina is a passionate, student centered teacher who is just a dynamo to learn from.
Welcome, Tina. It's a pleasure to be here. Shall we jump right in? You bet. How can people develop a more creative, innovative approach to their communication?
This is really, really important. I know that you think about this a lot. And when I'm going to tell you, probably it's something that you think about all the time. But my world opened up dramatically when I realized the power of storytelling.
Sure, I saw people who are great communicators, but what I didn't realize is how they were using storytelling to really effectively get their message across. So at this point, I teach storytelling tools and techniques and the power of storytelling in almost every one of my classes, because no matter how exciting your idea is, if you can't tell a story that truly engages other people and make people feel excited about the idea, the whole thing is going to fall flat.
So what are one or two of the things you teach in that storytelling that really can help everybody listening in?
Great. So I'm a huge fan of the story spinn. Are you familiar with that? I am, but why don't you share with others?
So the story spine is super simple. It starts out like this once upon a time and every day. And of course, that sounds familiar, but essentially sets the stage for where you are now. You know what's about a time and you describe the problem and the consequences, the problem. And then after that is until one day. And that is your intervention. That's what you are going to do. That's going to change the plot. And after that, it's because of that.
Because of that and because of that. Because of that, you can have as many because of that. That's essentially the consequences of your intervention. And it ends with. And ever since then, OK. And so it then paints a picture of the world after your intervention has essentially been adopted by the world. So it goes once upon a time and every day until one day. And because of that. Because of that. Because of that. Until finally and ever since then.
Now it sounds really, really simple, but it's actually quite difficult to do. And so I give my students I'll give them an opening prompt like there once was. A girl who dreamed of flying is a problem. Like there are 500 million people in the world who suffer from some ailment. And I set the stage for a problem and then have them tell a story. And it's really amazing to see them start mastering these skills that allow them to then communicate the ideas.
They come up with class, the ideas they come up with in class to really share those ideas in a really compelling way.
I really like leveraging the story spinn in that way. I use the story. Spinn is an example of the power of structure in communication in general. And what's so cool about the story spinn is that it really invites that creativity from the get go and it requires you to really stay focused on your audience and their needs. To my mind, one of the most important things of any storytelling is making sure that you engage the audience and make it relevant to them.
And that approach that you take puts that at the forefront. So that's really powerful.
Yeah. I also one of the other things I think is extremely important is to think about the hook at the beginning of the story and there's so many ways to have a great hook. It could be a really surprising fact. It can be something funny. It can be a question. In fact, I usually like to start with a question, a provocative question, because it very clearly engages the audience in thinking about, well, how would I answer that question?
That's a really provocative question.
So I am literally picking up my soapbox. I am putting it down and now standing on top of it because you just touch something that is so important to me. I am on a personal mission to have people stop starting their presentations in meetings with Hi, my name is and today I'm going to tell you about that is so banal, so boring. And what you just mentioned about how to start in a provocative, engaging way can dramatically change an interaction of communication.
And it certainly helps in storytelling. So thank you for giving me an opportunity to share that, that we have to change the way we start, because it just it puts people in a position of passiveness and disengagement if we don't do it right. I completely agree.
In fact, here's a fun thing that you might want to try in your classes as well. Just a couple of years ago, we started a new program and the students would go around the room and introduce themselves. And they do this like I'm Joe Schmo and I study this. And my research is that and everybody's snoring. So we switched around. One of the students started using a different framework and it caught on. And this is the framework. She started out saying, imagine a world where and then she would talk about, you know, imagine a world where we travel to space as frequently as we get on an airplane.
And then she'd say, and my name is so-and-so. And this is what I'm excited about and this is what I'm studying that's going to help me get there. And so we now do that. In all the introductions, the students all have to start out with what they're passionate about. Imagine a world where and then they have to start with that before they tell anyone who they are or what they're studying.
I love that. I love that. And it dovetails nicely with what I teach, which is start like you're an action movie. All action movies start with action, and then you learn the title of the movie in the credits. And what you're doing in those introductions is the same thing. Start by getting people passionate, engaged, and then you can introduce yourself. I love it. I love it. So my next question has to do with what we spoke about in the introduction to this podcast about feeling stuck, about how and where to start when we create a high stakes communication.
What advice and guidance do you have for sparking our creativity and getting us started in on our communication?
Yeah, that's a really good question. As with most problems, the best place to start is with a real really understanding the needs. And this starts with asking questions. So sparking communication starts with asking why or what or how. And so having a mindset of curiosity opens the door to good communication. And the more questions you ask, the more you learn, the more engaged you will be with others.
Yeah, I think a lot of us go into these things saying, I have to say all this or this is my time limit and I feel a lot of pressure. And I really like this idea of asking questions. Do you have do you have other advice on questions asking?
Oh, my goodness, I spent a lot of time in my classes teaching students how to ask questions. The question you ask is the frame into which an answer will fall. And this might sound like, what are you talking about? But I can give you some really interesting examples that hopefully will just like blow your mind and make you realize how powerful this is.
I would love for you to think I'd love to hear some examples because that statement about the frame sounds very Zen like. So I'd love to hear what it is.
Actually, it's it's it's so core to everything we do. I can give you several examples. And let's start with a simple example, OK? I could ask you to build a bridge and you can go off and build that bridge or you could come back and say, well, Tina, why do you need a bridge? That's all I need a bridge to get the other side of a river. And you go, wow. Well, there are lots of ways to get to close to the river.
I mean, what not how many other ways are there to get to the other side of the river? What can you do?
I could think of three or four different ways right away. Get a boat, swim across things like that. Right, exactly.
A tunnel, a hot air balloon, all sorts of ways to get across. So if I ask a question, do you want to. I had to get across the river. It's a really different solution set than how do you build a bridge. But my favorite example is when I use in my classes where I have the students come up with all the things I hate about their suitcases. Oh, not as many suitcases right now, but probably as much.
But what are all the things? And they quickly make a list of oh, it's too heavy. The clothes get wrinkled, the wheels get locked, the handle doesn't work. All sorts of things. You know, it's not the right size. And so I go, OK, wait, go design now a brand new suitcase and they come back with all these new fancy suitcases, with all of these new features. And I think they've done a good job until I say, did we ask the right question?
Hmm. Because the real question is why?
Just like, why do you need a bridge? You know, why do you need to go across a river? The question is, why do you need a suitcase? Ha ha.
The initial answer, people think I'm just being flippant and they go, well, you know, carry my stuff. But that's actually not why you here use a suitcase. Nobody likes to carry a suitcase. We use a suitcase. Despite the fact that we hate packing it. We hate dragging it around. We hate it getting lost. And yet we use it and we assume that we need a suitcase. But the real reason, when you start going down that rabbit hole, you start realizing the real reason you use a suitcase is to have the things you need.
At your destination? Mm hmm, sure know how might you solve that problem and they look at me and go, wow, well, that's kind of interesting. How might I solve that problem? And I urge them to think not just today, but what could you do in five years or 10 years or 50 years to solve this problem? So you could say, well, what if I had 3D printed clothes in my closet? I had a virtual closet in the cloud.
So when I get to my destination, I go, gosh, I really wish I had a jacket. I'm going to print out my down jacket or I really wish I had a hiking boots and I'd print them out. At the end of your trip, you can melt them back down. They go back up in the cloud. Or maybe there is Airbnb for clothes. Right? You go somewhere and you rent all your clothes and then you give them back or maybe your suitcase.
Maybe they have one suitcase that travels around the world independent of you. You just go online, it's a suitcase, go to Paris, take it to Rome. How is it so that the fact is that you need to question the questions you ask. And this is one of the most powerful things you can do to unlock really, really innovative solutions.
Well, first, I'd love to live in that reality because I hate schlepping suitcases. But second, the idea that we have to question our questions to spark creativity can help in not just creating communication, but I think in lots of facets of our life. Thank you for sharing that. As you've just demonstrated, you're a master teacher and I know you have embraced virtual teaching, as many of us are having to do. Can you share best practices you've developed that can help all of us as we communicate more and more remotely?
You bet. I think about this a lot. It is a really different learning environment and a virtual classroom is quite different than an in-person class. I'm trying to figure out how do I make that experience as powerful as possible for the students? And one of the first things you have to think about is setting the stage right. And when you go into a classroom, it's one of the reasons I teach at the school is that the space is so great and I can set the stage for a class.
But since I can't do that online, how can I set the stage? And so I do it in a number of different ways. One is I always start my class up playing music and I play some upbeat music so that everyone starts out actually sort of like dancing, you know, everyone around before we start the class, it sets the stage. It sort of allows us to know we're now moving into the classroom and then we turn off the music, we start.
The other thing is I often have the students. We all decide where we're going to go. Like, OK, this week we're going to meet in Antarctica and everybody changes their backdrop to a picture from where we're going to go to New Zealand. And so there's just a fun way of getting everyone in the States and you sort of set the stage, the fact that you're together, you ball and listen to the same music, you have the same background and you're now ready to dive in.
Also, I think it's really important to change activities really quickly, like every 10 to 15 minutes. I almost feel it's almost like Sesame Street. Yeah. Warry ten, fifteen minutes. You need to change. You're watching a video to doing an activity to breaking into small groups. You folks get bored looking at a screen if things are static. So you need to plan a lot in advance. I view myself as more of a producer when I'm planning an online class.
There's a tremendous amount of thought that goes into essentially scripting the whole experience.
So the point about setting atmosphere up front, I think can make a really big difference. You're doing it with music and common backgrounds, but just taking time to think about how do we set the tone for what we want this communication experience to be like is really important. And your colleague Bob Sutton and I talked very similarly about switching things up every ten to fifteen minutes. And that's really important. And that notion you mentioned actually was just something I highlighted recently when I was asked about teaching and presenting virtually on that notion of being a producer.
So we often think, hey, I just have to focus on my meeting contribution or the agenda or my presentation. But when you're presenting virtually, you have to have this other task to focus on, which is the production aspect, the timing of it. When do I do things? Do I have things lined up so it can be an added burden? But if done well, it can really change the engagement and the whole interaction can be much more powerful and memorable.
Exactly. One of the other things I do is I always have a check in with the students. That's interesting. I used to do it in my classes where we stand in a big circle and everybody would say a sentence about what's going on in their life. And it might be, Oh, I'm going to go to Yosemite this weekend or I've got a big exam after this, or I just have a job interview, whatever it is. But guess what?
I can do this now on a Zoome whiteboard and it happens really efficiently. Everyone can kind of populated. I can ask a different question like, what are you the. Looking forward to what's your best quarantine treat and people will quickly populated and you get this wonderful snapshot of where everyone in the class is at the moment, I again, it's bringing people into the into the room, setting the tone in the mood.
And you and I were talking about just before we started recording this podcast, this notion that people are so focused on on the deficiencies and the things we're missing in the virtual environment, when, in fact, there are some things that can actually help in that notion of using a tool like a whiteboard that's collaborative is something that would be really hard to do in person. Yet virtually we can do it. So taking time to embrace what this environment can allow us to do, I think is also very important.
I couldn't agree more. There are some things that actually work much better online than they do in person. And of course, there's some things that have been sacrificed. But to look at the things that work well as opposed to things that do.
Absolutely, you know, you have had amazing opportunities to interview and work with lots of entrepreneurs. Do you have any key insights or takeaways that you've gleaned over the years that you could share with us that we could benefit from?
Oh, sure. There are so many when that comes to mind is that failure is a normal part of the journey and that if you're doing something that's really innovative, really hard that no one's done before, there are bound to be false starts and missteps. So you need to be prepared for setbacks and you need to think of failure as an opportunity to redirect your energy and attention. And that's really important is having a mindset of resilience and bouncing back. Another one is in the end, all you have is your reputation.
If others don't trust you, if they don't find you to be authentic, then it's going to be really difficult to bring your ideas to life. You need to make sure that you spend time thinking about your values and make sure that you hold them so that you can build a community that really supportive and trusting and works really well together. And my favorite lesson is that there is a huge benefit in seeing problems as opportunities. And with that mindset, the world is opportunity rich.
It's full of possibility. Essentially, entrepreneurs are ultimately optimists who are able to see and seize opportunities that others don't immediately see. In fact, if you come to our office at the Stanford Technology Ventures program, you'll see painted on the walls and very big letters. Every problem is an opportunity. The bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity. And on another wall, it says entrepreneurs do much more than imaginable with much less than seems possible. And these are the mindsets, I think, that are extremely important and that very successful entrepreneurs have embodied them.
Wow. Those are really powerful lessons. And they echo very nicely some of the topics that we've covered on the podcast in terms of failure and reputation and reframing things not as problems, but opportunities in all of us can benefit from reflecting on that and using those as a way to guide us as we are entrepreneurial in whatever our endeavors are. So thank you for sharing those before we end. I'd like to ask you the same three questions that I ask everyone who joins me.
Are you up for that? You're excellent. All right. Well, question number one, if you were to capture the best communication advice you've ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would that be? Wow, that's so interesting.
I'm going to hearken back to what we talked about before, and I would say no, your first and last words. When you are giving a talk, you should know where you're starting and nail it and have that opening line of the opening story completely set. And you should know the last words. You end up really engaging people in a way that they know where you are, they know where you're going, and they're with you until the end.
That is such profound and useful advice. A lot of people get nervous, so they really focus on what they want to say first. But many people just figure when I get to the end, I'll just know how to wrap it up. And I'll tell you in all my work that I do, the most frequent ending I hear is I guess we're out of time.
Exactly. Ridiculous. Or they just sort of trail off at the end and turn around and walk off the stage. Right.
So so that advice very sagely, not not only should you, you know, the first words, but also those last words. Great. Let me ask you a question number two, and I'll be very curious to hear your answer to this. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?
I think the most compelling speaker I've heard on our stage is Sal Khan Academy. He is the only speaker in the series that has ever received a standing ovation.
Wow. His. Storytelling ability is incredible. He's super funny. He's really humble and you such motivating examples that everyone is sitting on the edge of their seat, I have to say I just aspire to being such a masterful storyteller and communicator as he is very cool.
I have seen him speak and I completely agree. And I have to fess up to something. He actually exercises at the same gym that I belong to and I have wanted to go up to him, but I am way too intimidated.
So humble. You should just go say hello. But I'm often really sweaty anyway.
But now he's he's a great he's a great speaker and a great guy said I told you to do OK.
I'll say Tina told me. And I've learned in my life, Tina, that if I follow your advice, good things happen. So thank you. All right. Question number three, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe? Well, you know what's interesting?
I do a lot of public speaking, and I did a little exercise a couple of years ago, a project called 60 Weeks to 60. And in the 16 weeks up until my 16th birthday, I gave myself different challenges. And one of them was that I went to a professional speaking coach and she was amazing. She watched videos of my talking and some of the most important things I learned from her were to stand tall, you know, just hold the space sometimes.
I mean, there's a tendency to want to rush through what you're what you're saying and to kind of be feel like somehow you're taking up people's time. But they're there to hear you say you want to stand tall, slow down and tell a story.
Those three bits of advice are fantastic, helpful and direct. And many people, if they were to take time to watch their videos and have others give them feedback, would note exactly what you learned, that these are things that that we often don't do and yet they make a big difference. Stand tall, slow down, tell a story. Great advice. And Tina, the whole conversation was fantastic. Your insights and ideas about creativity and communication were spot on.
Very helpful in everyone listening can benefit from taking the bits of advice you shared into practice and really thinking about how they themselves can be both creative and innovative. Thank you so much. Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
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