To find the right words, you need 15 degrees of separation

15 degreesHere’s what I’ve learned: for great writing, you need minds that don’t think alike. They have to think similarly, but there must be a bit of space between them.

People come to me to find the right words. I especially like working with leaders of small organizations. They know who they are (or think they do). They’re looking for the tag line, the purpose statement, the unique value proposition that will inspire and focus them and their customers.

To start, I need to get them to stop collaborating for a minute.

By email, I ask them seven questions. What words describe your organization? How would you tell somebody in a bar what you do? What’s your vision for the future? Crucially, I insist that they respond separately, without showing each other their answers.

The results are fascinating.

Partners don’t sing in unison. But they’re still singing the same song. They harmonize, each singing a different part that contributes to the whole.

Leaders of the same organization have described their clients as “curious,” “frustrated,” “worried,” and “needing help to convince skeptics.” These descriptions are compatible, but not the same.

One tells me her organization is “irreverent” while the other calls it “inspirational.”

One says his company’s differentiation is that it’s “based on rigorous research,” while his partner says it’s “showing people how to do strategy.”

Their visions of the future are often quite divergent.

But these people are not disagreeing. It’s very clear to me from what I read that they are (lovingly) describing the same thing. It’s only the perspective that is different. If I plotted their perspectives on a compass rose, they’d be about 15 degrees apart — close enough to see and appreciate each other’s point of view.

Here’s how I help them. First, I find the core. It’s not that hard to pick out the solid, common purpose. I make sure we’re all in agreement on that.

Then I highlight the differences in perspective. This leads to a thoughtful discussion. At the end of that discussion we reach a higher-level, more profound unification of ideas (not a compromise). Analysis, then synthesis.

Throughout this process, I listen for powerful, unique, evocative, and interesting words. Those words go up on a whiteboard or into a Google Doc. Some of them just lie there, but others intrigue. We riff on them. I use thesaurus.com to find more variations and we try them on like new clothes. Most don’t fit, but some look great.

From those words, in some magical way that I can’t completely explain, emerges the inspiring, differentiated statement that everybody can get behind.

In this process, I’m a catalyst. My role as an outsider, listener, analyst, and word guy is necessary, but not central. What’s crucial is the difference in perspective. Parallel lines never meet. Perpendiculars just get farther and farther apart. But with 15 degrees of difference in perspective, viewpoints align in the middle distance. The view from there is breathtaking.

Photo: Alpha Bunny via Flickr

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