Bounce-hit: the art of precise language

Thank you to Sarah Ball from Bondholder Balls2Marketing for this wonderful account of the Dave Alred event, as part of Derby Book Festival.

As a grandparent, the words four-year-old child get me every time. This is because my oldest grandson Alfie, is precisely this age. It immediately puts me into super listening mode.

Children, and the way they learn, were at the centre of a superb talk today by Dr Dave Alred MBE. Before his talk, I'd not heard of him, or his work. What attracted me along with 150 other members of Marketing Derby to University of Derby was the parallel he made between sport and business. 

Dave’s talk was part of the Derby Book Festival and he was brilliant. He had all the examples of a highly successful coach and mentor for when things go brilliantly well, but it was his explanation of when things don't go so well that made his talk exceptional.

Take a four-year-old child. He's playing tennis, which Alfie does, and he's told - keep your eye on the ball. Positive language, that's always good, but without direction it's pointless. As Dave so astutely said, the child can be following all the rules but simply watches the ball fly past his racket. Is the child wrong? Of course not, they’re following the instructions to the letter.

I had a recent experience of this with Alfie. Taking him on a cycle ride my husband Andy asked him to go around the potholes. The first he managed brilliantly, a full 360 degrees around it, but the second he looked up and said: Pops there's not enough space to go round this one. Andy and I laughed so much because he had completely understood the instruction and carried out exactly what he was told, but his understanding of 'going around' and ours was very different. 

To coach someone well according to Dave, is the precision of the instruction. You want to remove any doubt from the action you want someone to take. Take Rob Andrews the former rugby player for example, Dave's instructions to him were to look at the stitching on the ball. Why? Because it's difficult to think of anything else while you are concentrating to that level. What happens is the task becomes all-consuming and whether you're doing it on the practice field, or in the final of an international competition, is almost irrelevant. 

I've made it sound rather simple. And I'm not convinced it's complicated. What I think is that it takes a special person to explain this. Dave started his talk with a quote from Rudyard Kipling: The most powerful drug known to mankind is language. 

Dave didn't use jargon or talk about a system he's created. He keeps everything he does simple. Negative language highlights the exact opposite of what you want. If I want someone to take a positive action, I cause confusion if I start talking about what I don't want you to do. So keep your arm straight is better than don't bend your arm. Anyone in the room today would have gotten the importance of this instruction as it was the example we put to the test. 

The task was to find a partner and put your hand on their shoulder facing up. The other person had to try to bend the straightened arm. Sounds simple, and it was. We all managed to follow the instructions. Then one from each pair was asked to leave the room. The remainder were given a technique to make them stronger.

The second time around it was much more difficult to bend the persons arm. We were then all let in on the secret. The placing of the feet, the core connected, look past your opponent, the fire in the belly and the pointed finger to the wall all played their part. We had to concentrate to do it, but I'm sure the trust we had in Dave also helped. 

I have taken three lessons away from today. First I will help Alfie with his tennis. I will use the bounce, hit method where you say bounce as the ball bounces and hit as your racket connects with the ball. At four Alfie is already better than me at this, but I reckon using this technique I can say bounce and hit at the right times. I'll keep you posted! 

The second is to use language that's more precise and positive. We love language. We like words just because they're beautiful. But humans love negatives, they dwell on them so positive actions sometimes get overlooked. For marketing we are always aiming to simplify messages so that they're relevant and pertinent to readers, and that's what Dave was saying. 

The final lesson is to maintain focus, you need to be occupied. This additional business means that you can concentrate on the task in hand. I'm writing this. I'm on the train, and every time there's a stop or an announcement it takes me away from my task and my train of thought (sorry about that one!). When I come back to focus I continue. My environment is creating confusion and it affects my performance. It's good to know because I can see there are times in the office where I allow myself to be distracted, and I can do something about it to make myself more effective. 

I know that we already use these techniques because working with many technical products and components means we have to distil the tech speak into language for humans. We spend a lot of time creating these messages so we really understand the theory and we see this as an important discipline within marketing. Now, having listened to Dave, I need to extend this to the rest of my life...