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Imagine you are getting on an elevator in a hotel and actor Matt Damon joins you with his family. That would be a great story to share with others, right?

Presentations expert Nick Morgan counters that it's missing the critical ingredients of a story and is instead merely a factoid given artificial significance by the celebrity involved. He uses the incident, which happened to him and his wife, to explain storytelling – a seemingly simple but sometimes mystifying practice that is considered crucial to making your presentations memorable.

To turn a fact into a story, you need conflict. That conflict could be between somebody and Mr. Damon. For example, he suggests, imagine if this happened: "One of his children was cranky and wanted some candy. Matt was all for giving in, but his wife glared at him and said, sotto voce, 'Don't spoil her.' Matt rolled his eyes and withdrew the proffered candy, causing the kid to wail and everyone in the elevator to be embarrassed."

That introduces conflict and resolution – another important aspect of storytelling. But it's trivial, and we don't really learn anything from it. Also, nobody changes, which is another important story element.

So here is how Mr. Morgan says you can improve your stories:

  • Without some tension between at least two characters, your audience won’t see the possibility of anything interesting happening.
  • Make the stakes high and the conflict interesting. “You can’t just offer us the clichéd father-kid-mother-candy situation if the only reason to pay attention is that a celebrity is involved. That’s not enough. We not only need something at stake; we need something important at stake,” he stresses.
  • Ensure the hero learns something or changes by the end of the story. Character growth is key to good stories, and he says it’s the other thing that’s almost always left out.
  • Avoid having to tell your audience: “fast-forward to …” That means you haven’t started the story in the right place. Start later.
  • A good story has a point or moral. It’s not always explicitly stated, but it often is. If you can’t clearly state it, then you haven’t thought enough about the story – why you’re telling it, what its structural logic is, and where it’s headed,” he writes.

Think of Matt Damon getting on an elevator next time you decide to tell a story.

Start the day by sending five e-mails

We know it's best to start the day with real work – our priorities – rather than e-mail. But productivity consultant Craig Jarrow, who calls himself the Time Management Ninja, urges you instead to send five e-mails before tackling other duties.

"Why five? It's an easy number to manage and should take you only five minutes or so to send," he writes on his blog.

It has these advantages:

  • You will be at the top of the recipient’s inbox. He says it’s strange, but almost everyone reads e-mail from the most recent one to arrive, rather than first in/first out.
  • Sending your messages early in the day lets your e-mail get things done while you go about your day. Your e-mail prods the recipient to certain actions, and you are more likely to get a response later in the day.
  • E-mail is a great tool for accountability in conversations. “It is easy to ignore or forget verbal conversations, but when you put it in an e-mail, both sides have a record of what was discussed,” he notes on his blog.
  • It’s quick. A few seconds can save you a phone call or even a trip.

"E-mail doesn't have to be something that wastes your time," he concludes. "Send five productive e-mails each morning and you can multiply your efforts while you are busy going about your day."

Let there be real light – but not too much

Considerable attention has been focused on how the open-office concept can dampen productivity through distracting noise. But a new study suggests light can also have an impact and that introducing optimal daylight – not too much daylight, not too much artificial light – allows people to shine.

The study, by Alan Hedge, a professor in the department of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University, was sponsored by View Dynamic Glass and compared offices with auto-tinting "smart" windows to offices with normal light. The findings below suggest we need to pay more attention to light in our working spaces, seeking the right blend.

  • More natural light translated to more alert employees. Workers in offices with the variable glass reported a 56-per-cent decrease in drowsiness.
  • Workers sitting close to smart windows with optimized daylight exposure reported a 2-per-cent increase in productivity.
  • Workers in offices with optimized natural light reported a 51-per-cent drop in the incidence of eyestrain and a 63-per-cent drop in the incidence of headaches.

Canadians might assume this is primarily of value in sunny southern U.S. offices. But the angle of the sun can be critical. Brandon Tinianov, vice president of View Inc., says during the winter solstice the sun is 20 to 30 degrees lower on the horizon and therefore the glare of the sun penetrates deeper into a typical office building. That's when we pull down the blinds, but absence of daylight is not helpful. The Canadian site tested in London, Ont., had better results than the four in the U.S.: Fifty-six per cent had no eyestrain, compared with the average of 22 per cent, and 74 per cent reported no headaches, compared with the 26-per-cent average.

Test your intellectual humility

How humble are you? Here's an intellectual humility test from Tenelle Porter and Karina Schumann at the University of Pittsburgh. Read the nine statements and rate yourself from one to seven; one for strongly agreeing and seven for strongly disagreeing. If the statement is followed by (R), however, that means that greater agreement is a sign of less humility.

  • I am willing to admit if I don’t know something.
  • I like to compliment others on their intellectual strength.
  • I try to reflect on my weaknesses in order to develop my intelligence.
  • I actively seek feedback on my ideas, even if it is critical.
  • I acknowledge when somebody knows more than me about a certain subject.
  • If somebody doesn’t understand my ideas, it’s probably because they aren’t smart enough to get it. (R)
  • I sometimes marvel at the intellectual abilities of other people.
  • I feel uncomfortable when someone points out one of my intellectual shortcomings. (R)
  • I don’t like it when someone points out an intellectual mistake that I made. (R)

Quick Hits

  • Replace your status update meetings with a Goalfest On a shared spreadsheet, everyone sets and shares their goals for the following week and scores themselves on a one-to-five scale on how they fared with last week’s targets. Joel Califa, who developed it at cloud computing platform DigitalOcean, says it holds people accountable, while making the meeting belong to staff.
  • Or try the all-hands meetings that online music shop Reverb holds for its 200 staffers on Thursday afternoons: Everyone gathers for a stand-up session and three or four people randomly jump into the centre and share something top-of-mind that contains advice others can use in their daily work. Beyond the advice, people get to know each other better.
  • British brand consultant Harry Lang says the five most elusive emotions in advertising, which you should learn to use effectively, are happiness, nostalgia, fear, anger, and love.
  • When you are meeting someone and are not sure if you have met them before, say, “nice to see you,” rather than “nice to meet you,” which may expose your failure to remember.
  • If you want to move text in Microsoft Word without changing the clipboard, highlight the text you want to move, place your cursor in the document where you want the information moved, and then hold the Ctrl key while right clicking.

Mark Mortensen of INSEAD discusses his findings about teamwork and how knowing what teams others are on can improve workflow

Special to Globe and Mail Update

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