Friday, 31 May 2013

Practise detachment to gain success

  1. Identify, perfect and repeat your winning habits.
  2. Use your winning habits knowing that over time they will bring you consistent and great success.
  3. Detach your winning habits from the specific results you achieve at any given instant.
  4. The evidence will tell you that repeating your winning habits gives you huge and consistent success over time. It is this that matters, not what might or might not happen at any give instant of any given day.

I was in my last year at music college. I had spent three years honing my trumpet playing skills, developing my technique and adopting good playing habits.

The day of my final recital was swiftly approaching and I decided to give a public performance in a local church, as a kind of dress rehearsal.

It did not go well. The pianist accompanying me could not play his part. Even the acoustics in the hall seemed to work against me, making my playing seem distant and thin in tone. In addition, it was a very hot day and the church doors had been left open to let in the fresh air -- and the sound of heavy traffic from the main road. Not unsurprisingly, my concentration was upset and my playing adversely affected. The experience was in no way a good preparation for my final recital, quite the reverse in fact!

I finished playing. A disconsolate blend of half-hearted applause and traffic noise accompanied me as I left the stage. I quickly left the church and went to the local pub to drown my sorrows.

The next day I described the experience to my trumpet teacher. He listened, expressed his sympathy and concern and then said, 'All your hard work and carefully developed technique and habits have obviously deserted you then, and you have become a bad player overnight! Might as well give up!'. Importantly, he said this with a smile on his face, and I immediately got the message.

Over the next week I focused upon consolidating and developing the good technique and habits that my teacher and I had been working on over the years. As the hours and days went by the unpleasant memories of my last recital began to fade from my mind, and as they became more distant I was able to view them with detachment. It was a bad experience, but there were specific reasons why it had happened, reasons I could learn from. 

And, importantly, my good playing technique and habits were still strong and intact.

The day of my final recital arrived. I trusted in my carefully developed skills and habits.
The performance went well. When it had counted, my winning habits had provided me with the success I sought.         

Sometimes, however hard we work, circumstances work against us and we do not achieve the results we want or need.

But if we concentrate on doing the right things and developing the right habits these situations will be the exception to the rule. We will tend to have more successes than failures. At the very least we will be able to get up more times than we are knocked down!

So, when developing a new skill or addressing a challenge that is important to you remember the four points given above. Develop your own set of winning habits. Detach them from the results you achieve at any given instant of any given day; focus on the bigger picture. Trust that your carefully developed habits will win through in the end.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Lose the piano

When Prokofiev wrote his ‘Classical Symphony’ it was the first time he had composed without the aid of a piano.

Whilst writing, straight from head to page, he would have conceived the symphony in purely orchestral terms, unencumbered by the mediation of the piano and the constraints of its keyboard. It is highly likely that this change of compositional approach contributed significantly to the work’s immediacy of style and brilliantly colourful scoring. 

If you want to enhance your approach to problem solving, or indeed anything else that matters to you, practise doing it without the aid of the crutches you have formed the habit of relying upon for support. If preparing for a presentation forgo the pre-prepared script. If you are writing a report put your usual template aside for a while. If attempting to solve a problem loosen and then remove the shackles of your habitual problem solving approaches.

Explore how it feels to do things in a different, more immediate way. Allow your mind to engage directly with the task before you, rather than via the medium of your well-worn tools, methods and approaches.

Make your thinking quick and nimble and your ideas bright and sharp. Lose the piano. Identify those things that weigh heavily upon and constrict your thinking. Work at heaving them out of the way. It will feel difficult at first, but as you persevere you will gain the confidence and strength to grapple directly with the problem at hand and go straight from head to task.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Smart practice involves four steps: here is the fourth and last

Early on during my final year at music school I went to my weekly piano lesson. My teacher greeted me. I sat at the piano and took out the pieces I had been practising and put them on the music stand. She pushed them to one side and put another piece in front of me.

The piece seemed to go on forever; it was a very fast ‘dance study’ and every bar was packed full of notes. I gasped and said, ‘This is impossible, there is no way I can play this!’
My teacher smiled and said, ‘I know, but by the end of this year not only will you be able to play it, you will include it in your final graded recital.’

I did, eventually, learn to play it, and yes, I did include it in my final recital, where it made
quite an impression on my examiners. To this day I am amazed that I managed to perform it!

4. Set yourself initially unachievable goals

If you set yourself goals that you know you can achieve you are saying to yourself that you already have the skills and attributes needed to attain them. Therefore the possibility of you developing new skills or even enhancing existing ones is very limited. Also, it is very unlikely that you will produce any outstanding, memorable or ground breaking results.

When setting yourself goals for what you want to achieve and the skills you want to develop create ambitious goals that will demand that you learn to do new things and deliver what was previously impossible for you. This way, even if you fail to achieve your goal you will still make more progress, learn more things and gain more skills than you would have done if you had avoided risk and aimed at easier targets.

For example, if you set yourself a goal of presenting a subject that is new to you in a way that is different from your usual approach, say more participative rather than lecturing in style, you will have to learn new knowledge and new participative techniques. You will also need to do plenty of deliberate and focused practice in order to become familiar and comfortable with the techniques and implement them to a consistently acceptable standard.

Obviously the first few times you use the new knowledge and techniques it will feel somewhat strange, and perhaps the presentation will not be as polished as it would have been if you had played safe and presented in a way more familiar to you, but the gains to your development and the enrichment of your skills and abilities will far outweigh any initial difficulties or drawbacks experienced. It is also likely that the ambitious approach of your presentation will make it much more memorable and influential than would otherwise have been the case.            

Speaking personally, I was offered the opportunity to deliver a high profile presentation about creative problem solving to a very large audience made up of Civil Servants from all over the country and from very many different Departments.

The goal I set myself was to create a presentation that was engaging and participative even though the audience I was presenting to was very large, in excess of 300 people. I had to find new examples of creative problem solving that were very memorable, engaging and also relevant to the work and activities of my audience. In addition, I had to find new ways to demonstrate creative problem solving techniques that would make them clear and understandable to everybody in the audience. Lastly, I had to find new ways to get such a large number of people involved and participating in my presentation.

This all seemed very daunting. At the outset of my preparations I was not clear about how I could achieve any of it. However, as I did my research and my work progressed I did find additional examples, ideas and techniques that would enable me to gain participation, engagement and understanding from my audience.

I became familiar with the examples, ideas and techniques and thought carefully about how I would use them. I also carefully and repeatedly practised and rehearsed their use.

On the day, my delivery of the presentation went well. My preparation and rehearsal paid off, with the vast majority of the audience responding very positively.

There were areas, especially with regard to gaining participation and engaging with my audience, that I could have done better, but this was to be expected given that this was the first time I had presented to such a large number of people and I had not used some of the approaches and techniques in front of a live audience before.

Overall the positives far outweighed the negatives. Taking on the challenge and setting myself such an ambitious goal forced me to learn and do new things that I would not have learnt or done otherwise, and they will be of great use to me in the future when I deliver more presentations to large audiences.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Smart practice involves four steps: here is the third

A young pianist could play with great dynamism and vitality, but occasionally her performances were marred by technical inaccuracies and mistakes. The pianist’s teacher loved the passionate playing and encouraged it, but also wanted to add some crystal clear, laser - like clarity to it. The teacher asked the young pianist to deliberately concentrate upon certain scales, arpeggios and studies that challenged her technique, to carefully practise them until her playing was consistently accurate and crystal clear. The pianist was then asked to play a piece she knew well and concentrate upon being not only dynamic and vital but also crystal clear in her execution.

Her dynamism caught fire! 

3. Create developmental synergy by integrating newly developed skills with existing strengths
Having built upon strengths and addressed weaknesses by developing new skills, the next stage is to assimilate or integrate the new skills with existing strengths, so that they become an integral part of your unique mix of skills and attributes. Again, to be effective this needs to be done in a methodical, logical and specific way that involves plenty of practice. A good, practical technique that can be used to achieve this is the 1+1=3 Technique.
The 1+1=3 Technique involves taking a specific existing strength and a specific newly developed skill and finding a way to create a new skill that incorporates aspects of the two existing ones.
For example, one of your existing strengths may be your in depth, expert knowledge of a subject. A new skill you may have developed could be the effective use of presentation notes. A way to combine these two attributes would be to use the notes to remind yourself of examples and illustrations that are familiar and relevant to your audience. This will create the third skill of being able to speak not only knowledgeably but also practically and understandably, of being able to use examples and ideas that an audience can engage with and comprehend.
Another example could involve your existing strength in the use of PowerPoint and a recently developed ability in effectively fielding and dealing with questions from an audience. A way of combining these two skills would be to use PowerPoint to structure, prompt and pace question and answer sessions. This would build on your ability to field questions by adding a third skill of being able to manage and pace question and answer sessions and even influence the types of questions asked and the order in which they are presented.
A third example could involve your natural enthusiasm and energy and a recently developed skill in using participative techniques. You could combine your enthusiasm and energy with participative techniques to create a third skill of being able to encourage reciprocal enthusiasm and energy from your audiences.
The key to using the above 1+1=3 Technique is to work at forcing an existing strength and newly developed skill together until you find a third useful outcome. It is also important to keep an open mind as to how the two aspects could combine or influence each other.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Show people what you mean

There is a passage in Rimsky Korsakov’s orchestral piece Capriccio Espagnol that is pure musical theatre. One of the movements is in the style of a Spanish gypsy song and during one memorable passage the violin and viola players remove their instruments from under the chin and begin to strum them like guitars (quasi guitara). The effect of seeing so many people playing their instruments in this novel way is stunningly memorable and it enhances the Spanish flavour of the music greatly: really conjuring up the image of Spanish guitar players strumming away in the village streets and cafes of Asturian Northern Spain.
Visually demonstrating something can be a very powerful way of making meanings, consequences and intentions clear. How can you most graphically demonstrate the nature and consequences of your problems and/or the appropriateness and effectiveness of your ideas for dealing with them? What will really grab people’s attention, keep their gaze and help them clearly see what you mean?
Try some of the following: 
  • Create a picture, diagram or cartoon strip of your problems and/or your ideas for dealing with them. 
  • Create a colourful and memorable story that describes the background to your problems and how your ideas for dealing with them were thought of and developed.
  • Let people see your problems at first hand and show them your suggested solutions in action.
  • Encourage people to physically experience the problems and/or the possible solutions by acting them out.

    Friday, 3 May 2013

    Smart practice involves four steps: here is the second

    A study of young violinists attending a musical conservatoire found that those that developed their playing skills most effectively did not necessarily practise more than anybody else; they practised smart.

    They were deliberate in their approach, focusing carefully and systematically upon the aspects of their playing they needed to enhance. They also did more high quality practice, maintaining high levels of energy and concentration over shorter rather than longer sessions. They also took plenty of breaks.
    More than any other aspect, this smart, deliberate approach to practice marked the difference between those violinists that achieved the best playing results and those that did not. Quality rather than quantity of practice was what counted the most.

    Step 2. Engage in deliberate and concentrated practice to develop the skills you need

    As well as consolidating and continuing to develop your strengths it is vitally important to identify weaknesses and the additional skills you will need to develop to overcome them. The process for doing this is very much like that one you used for identifying strengths. The key questions to ask are:

    • What weaknesses do you feel you have exhibited and how do you know they are weaknesses? What evidence do you have that confirms they are weaknesses?
    • What feedback have you gained from others about you weaknesses and areas for development? 
    • Have you tested that your apparent weaknesses are in fact weaknesses? Sometimes unique approaches can be interpreted as weaknesses when in fact they are potential strengths and advantages. Have you analysed the consequences of your apparent weaknesses to confirm that they are having a negative rather than positive impact? 
    • Have you made a note of the areas you need to develop and what you wish to achieve by doing so?
    For example, if you wish to address any current weaknesses in your presentational approach you could review your performance during presentations and analyse any feedback obtained. What comments indicate a pattern of weaker performance and in what specific areas does this take place? In addition, what personal feedback have you obtained from specific audience members, co-presenters, colleagues or managers to confirm these areas of weakness?

    Once you have identified feedback about apparent weaknesses in your current presentational approach you are than able to test the impact of their consequences. For example, you may be perceived as overly challenging and confrontational in your presentation style, or you may be thought of as overcomplicated in your delivery, concentrating too much upon details at the expense of the bigger picture.

    On the face of it these are definitely weaknesses, and in many cases they obviously are. However, there are situations when a challenging and confrontational style is exactly what is needed. Similarly, there are occasions when the devil of the detail must be dealt with, however dry and unpleasant this may feel.

    On these occasions those on the receiving end or observing can attribute their discomfort with the confrontational message or the difficult demanding detail to shortcomings in the presenter’s style, when in fact, because of the nature of the presentation and the context within which it is delivered, their discomfort was unavoidable and perhaps even necessary.
    In these situations the true consequences of an apparent weakness are not what they at first seem. Yes, you may have received some negative feedback about your style, but if the key messages had not been forcefully made or the detail not made absolutely plain, perhaps the consequences would have been much worse. In these cases, despite the negative personal feedback from various sources, your ability to be challenging and confrontational, or careful about the detail, can be viewed as definite strengths rather than weaknesses.

    On other occasions, however, the consequences of a challenging presentational style or one that is overly attracted to detail can be very damaging. If this is found to be the case then you will need to take steps to deal with it. You can make a point of softening your approach from time to time, or you can remind your audience (and yourself), of the bigger picture once in a while.

    This process of getting to know what your real weaknesses are and being clear about the actual consequences of them is a corner stone of effective personal development. It ensures that any steps taken to improve performance are targeted at the right areas and will achieve the desired effects.

    Once, with the help of others, you have clarity about the true nature of your weaknesses you can take steps to address them effectively. This needs to be done in a deliberate, focused and repetitive way. The key questions to ask are:

    • What specific aspects of my performance do I need to address and how am I going to do it?
    • What do I need to start doing differently? What are the specific steps I need to take and what do I need to practise doing differently?
    • How am I going to structure my time so that I give myself sufficient space and opportunity to develop my new skills?
    • What opportunities am I going to give myself to use and build upon my new skills?
    • What is the ultimate benefit to me and others of addressing my weaker areas? What rewards will I gain and how can I ensure that I gain and enjoy them?
    • How will I know I have improved my performance?
    For example, when delivering presentations you may experience the tendency to ‘worship the PowerPoint’. Rather than looking at the audience or the notes you have prepared, you may find yourself, in a mistaken attempt at gaining a sense of security, avoiding eye contact with the audience and looking at the PowerPoint, almost reading the prompts it provides word for word, mentally checking each point off as you go, leading to a nodding effect in the direction of the slide, thus the ‘worshipping’ effect. In the worst of cases this can lead to you developing the habit of almost completely turning your back upon your audience, which is obviously not the best approach to take.

    Having identified this weakness the next step is for you to decide, specifically, what you will start doing differently. This is not merely a matter of telling yourself to look at your audience. You will need to think about the precise steps you are going to take to change your behaviour and then you need to start doing it.
    In this case you have several options. You can use the touch, turn, talk technique when presenting. This entails touching the remote or computer to reveal the slide, turning purposefully to the audience, making eye contact with them and then speaking. This simple behavioural technique, if consistently practised, can replace the habitual worshipping behaviour with more open and engaging behaviour.

    You can also practise preparing and using your presentation notes so that they become an aid rather than a hindrance to engaging with your audience. For example, you can prepare notes pages that use telegraph sentences and key words, so that you are not inclined to look down towards your feet and present as if reading from a script. You can also put your notes on the top two thirds of the page, keeping the bottom third clear. This will encourage you to keep your eyes up and look over the top of your notes towards your audience.
    Next, having decided what skills you are going to develop you need to create time and opportunity to practise using them. You need to allocate sufficient time for the preparation of your notes and then find opportunities to present to an audience, so that you can practise the touch, turn and talk technique and the use of your ‘top two thirds’ presentation notes.

    Notice that the practice is focused upon a couple of specific areas. Also, remember that for it to be highly effective it needs to be concentrated within short sessions separated by short breaks.

    Having done this you then need to check your progress and whether or not you have successfully converted yourself away from ‘worshipping’ PowerPoint. You can do this by asking for feedback from your audiences.

    Lastly, you need to be clear about the advantages and rewards you have gained as a result of changing your behaviour and developing your new skills. You may gain in terms of personal credibility and prestige or in terms of greater influence with key stakeholders, etc. You may also begin to enjoy making presentations, so adding a feeling of fun to a significant aspect of your work. This sense of gaining some sort of reward is important because it motivates you to continue seeking opportunities to develop new skills and build upon your strengths.