Off the Shelf: Vuja De

Reading Adam Grant’s Originals yesterday, I came across the phrase “vuja de.” As Grant writes, “Déjà vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we’ve seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse—we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.”

In the endnotes, Grant cites Bob Sutton’s Weird Ideas That Work, in which Sutton defines “the vuja de mentality” as “the ability to keep shifting opinion and perception. It means shifting our focus from objects or patterns in the foreground to those in the background. … It means thinking of things that are usually assumed to be negative as positive, and vice versa. It can means reversing assumptions about cause and effect, or what matters most versus least. It means not traveling through life on automatic pilot.”

This is all quite relevant to speaking. As I note several times in The Science of Speaking, it’s often the case that your audience has never considered your topic before. In this case, it’s your job to both interest and inform them. But it’s also true that the reverse is often the case—that your audience has considered your topic many times before. In this case, it’s still your job to interest and inform them. And you can do so by creating a sense of vuja de.

Rather than approaching the same old topic in the same old way, see how you can approach it in a new and innovative way. When you find a new angle from which to present an old topic, your audience will be much more likely to be interested (and informed).

But how can you find a new way to present it? For a comprehensive list of suggestions, I recommend that you read Originals, which presents many great ways for seeing things creatively. But for one easy way, try using an analogy. By mashing up an old topic and a new context, you can often unlock innovative insights and unleash the power of vuja de.

Note: Over the years, many other definitions have been proposed for this phrase. For example, comedian George Carlin defined vuja de as “the distinct sense that, somehow, something that just happened has never happened before.” And in The Vujà Dè Moment, Simon T. Bailey defines it by saying “you’ve never seen it, but you intend to flip the status quo and create it.”

Between the Lines: Human-Scale Statistics 

In The Science of Speaking, I note that when numbers are very large or very small, it’s often good to present them by using an analogy. For example:

The accuracy required to land a spacecraft on Mars is like Steph Curry throwing a basketball from the three-point line of the Oracle Arena (in California) and hearing it swish in Madison Square Garden (in New York) just as the buzzer sounds.

In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath present a similar analogy along with data to back up its utility. Compare the following two examples, they say:

  1. Scientists recently computed an important physical constraint to an extraordinary accuracy. To put the accuracy in perspective, imagine throwing a rock from the sun to the earth and hitting the target within one third of a mile of dead center.
  2. Scientists recently computed an important physical constraint to an extraordinary accuracy. To put the accuracy in perspective, imagine throwing a rock from New York to Los Angeles and hitting the target within two thirds of an inch of dead center.

When presented with the first analogy, 58% of people thought this feat was “very impressive.” When presented with the second analogy, 83% of people thought so!

The key, then, is not just to use an analogy, but to use an analogy that lives at the human scale, placing numbers on a scale that we can wrap our heads around. As the Heaths note, this can take some finessing. In both analogies, the distance from California to New York is still a bit intangible. “The problem,” they explain, “is that if you make the distance more tangible—like a football field—then the accuracy becomes intangible. ‘Throwing a rock the distance of a football field to an accuracy of 3.4 microns’ doesn’t help.”

As another illustration of human-scale statistics, the Heaths present an example taken from Stephen Covey’s The 8th Habit, in which Covey presents the findings of a survey of 23,000 employees from a variety of industries. Here are the findings:

  • Only 37 percent said they have a clear understanding of what their organization is trying to achieve and why.
  • Only one in five was enthusiastic about their team’s and their organization’s goals.
  • Only one in five said they had a clear “line of sight” between their tasks and their team’s and organization’s goals.
  • Only 15 percent felt that their organization fully enables them to execute key goals.
  • Only 20 percent fully trusted the organization they work for.

As the Heaths note, this is “pretty sobering stuff. It’s also pretty abstract. You probably walk away from these stats thinking something like ‘There’s a lot of dissatisfaction and confusion in most companies.'” But “then Covey superimposes a very human metaphor over the statistics.”

If, say, a soccer team had these same scores, only 4 of the 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. Only 2 of the 11 would care. Only 2 of the 11 would know what position they play and know exactly what they are supposed to do. And all but 2 players would, in some way, be competing against their own team members rather than the opponent.

As the Heaths note, “the soccer analogy generates a human context for the statistics. It creates a sense of drama and a sense of movement. We can’t help but imagine the actions of the to players trying to score a goal, being opposed at every stage by the rest of their team.”

Whenever you are presenting statistics, see what you can do to humanize them, either by shrinking them (or blowing them up) to a human scale, or presenting them in the context of a human story. By doing so, you’ll make your numbers even more impactful.

Note: This advice is a nice practical supplement to yesterday’s post about how great leaders appeal more to emotion and intuition than they do to logic. By humanizing your statistics, you can begin to transform logic into emotion and intuition, making your appeals even more effective. For a good example of this in action, see Hans Rosling’s TED talk about the magic washing machine.

In the News: Understand to Remember (Updated)

In a recent post on Quora, republished by Inc., Denis Matei explains Elon Musk’s strategy for remembering things. In simple terms:

Don’t try to remember, but try to understand; when you understand, you will remember automatically.

This is an important insight for speakers, relevant to both the speaker’s memory and the audience’s.

In our classes at Stanford, we require our students to speak without notes. At the beginning of the quarter, our students often wonder how this is even possible: how can you speak eloquently without a script? Musk and Matei’s insight sheds some light on this. When you truly understand what you want to say, you can easily speak without a script because your brain naturally creates the words on the fly. On the other hand, if you don’t understand exactly what you want to say, it will be extremely difficult to come up with the words.

This insight is also relevant to the other side of speaking, i.e., the audience’s. If you can get the audience to truly understand what you’re trying to say, they’ll have no problem remembering the key points. But if they don’t understand what you’re trying to say, there’s no chance they’ll take away anything of value.

While it’s important to think about how you’re going to remember what to say, and how you’re going to get the audience to remember what you said, it’s even more important to make sure you understand what you’re trying to say, and that you get the audience to understand it as well. Where there is understanding, memory will follow.

In addition to this major insight, there are a few other tie-ins to The Science of Speaking in Matei’s post.

First, the importance of first principles. In the context of speaking, this means giving your audience enough background information to understand what you’re talking about. In Musk’s words:

Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

Second, the effectiveness of analogies. To further improve your understanding, Musk suggests asking “What does this remind me of?” and “Why does it remind me of it?” The answers to these questions will generate potential analogies that can help you and your audience understand your topic.

Update (2/12/17): Tech in Asia has turned these ideas into a video, which highlights another connection to The Science of Speaking.

One useful technique for deconstructing these big ideas is to look at contrasting cases. Suppose we want to deconstruct the letter “J.” What makes a “J” a J? We could approach this in two ways. One, look at contrasting cases—a combination of different J fonts. Or two, look at the same cases. That is, study the same “J” over and over again. The first approach is better. Because once we identify the common characteristics of all “J”s, we can create our own versions of the letter. Understanding concepts thoroughly then helps us apply our knowledge.

This sounds a lot like the overarching philosophy of The Science of Speaking, which is to help you understand the fundamentals of effective speaking in order to help you create your own unique style of effective speaking.