How did Paul McCartney write the tune for Yesterday? He awoke one night with it playing in his head, perfectly complete. Immediately he got up and went to the piano so he would not lose it. American Woman “just happened” out of a random riff and suddenly the band was belting it out fully formed. Tennessee Waltz was composed and written on a matchbox while the musicians were driving their equipment truck to the next town. In the morning the producer changed only part of one line.
Nearly all of us have awakened in the middle of the night with a complete solution to some daytime conundrum. Similarly, we may awaken with a key question or a troubling analysis related to some important professional or personal issue. Our subconscious is busy taking care of business while we sleep.
Take a tip from Sir Paul-- get up and record the thought so you don’t lose the benefit. Nothing is worse than waking up in the morning with a vague recollection that you had “nailed something” during the night, but can’t remember what or how. Granted, many midnight solutions look pretty silly the next day, but many turn out to be pure genius. Why waste the good ones?
Many of us do our best thinking in the shower. Others report flashes of inspiration while they are driving, hiking, rolling paint or stacking wood. No matter when or where, take the time to write a “memo to self” before the gem is lost. (Well, OK, maybe you should focus on your driving, but at least stick your chewing gum on the mirror as a reminder!)
All kinds of stuff has been written about these intrusions of “the other” into our consciousness. Some say it is divine, some say you can thank the ghosts of your ancestors, others believe you are channelling the ancients or perhaps having a memory of some previous existence, or you keep a rabbit’s foot or copper amulet under your pillow. Perhaps.
But ever the spoilsport, let me suggest a more mundane explanation. For a professional communicator, it’s also more useful. Ready? Here it is: You have a whole other life about which you know very little!
Nearly everything you have ever seen, heard or otherwise experienced remains filed away in your subconscious. There’s probably more data in your brain than on all of Google’s servers. Some of it is recorded accurately. Some has been over-written somewhat to make it more palatable. Often the actual memory and the edited memory are both still on file, one just buried a little deeper than the other.
But all these bits of information are not static. Your mental hard drives are spinning all the time while your brain visits and revisits “long forgotten” data, constantly trying to make sense of it, trying to make the pieces fit, somehow, into your personal life legend. Your brain races feverishly, day and night, processing all the bits to see how they might connect and how they could be made useful.
Fortunately for most of us, all this activity occurs below the surface and is further obscured during our active waking hours by the noise of our surroundings and our intellectual activity. If you could actually hear all this subconscious activity it would sound like a thousand noisy dining halls and you would go crazy.
From time to time your subconscious has done some stellar analysis and has something really important to tell you. During the day, or while your conscious mind is too focused on matters at hand, little attention will be paid to the rather quiet voice of the subconscious. But when you are sleeping, showering or peeling potatoes, the subconscious mind can make a delivery.
This understanding is of critical importance to students of communication. Why? Because your important message will be received, perceived and remembered at both the conscious and the subconscious level. Particularly if you want to impact long-term behaviour, you need to be speaking to the subconscious.
Whether you are teaching calculus, raising kids, leading an organization or selling services, you are doing much more than simply transmitting information. You are trying to bring about behavioural change (yes-- learning calculus is a behavioural change!), and behavioural change is something which evolves deep within the individual mind and heart, beginning at the subconscious level.
Let’s use an analogy: making wine. The vintner will decide which grape, picked when ripe or over-ripe or frozen, with or without skins, and which yeast and additives are to be used. Once the yeast is pitched, a process begins which will take months, perhaps years, to complete. Converting sugars to alcohol is just the beginning, after which long storage, often in oak barrels, allows hundreds of complex chemical transformations to occur. While a little bit of luck may be involved, the initial input of the vintner is what produces a marvellous wine years down the road.
In exactly the same way the great communicator serves up the correct mix of ingredients in his messaging, knowing that these will continue to ferment and blend until the desired effect is achieved.
In planning a presentation or a campaign, a lesson or a heart-to-heart talk, remember to provide hooks to allow the subconscious to make desired connections. Parable and analogy are powerful in this regard. You will also want to provide the listener some square pegs and some round pegs, knowing that there are some square holes and round holes in his current experience, and that some day at three in the morning, his still-busy mind will make the fit.
Never forget that, particularly for the really important impact you may wish to make, the listener’s “Aha!” moment may not occur while they are listening to you, but next month when he is mowing the lawn. Your job is to set up for success, and let time work its magic.
Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.