All posts by Glen Gonzalez

About Glen Gonzalez

Glen is a Partner and Senior Consultant at Smith. Contact the author directly

Make Your Message Obvious

(and How to Play a Cmaj7)

Guitar Tablature Tells People What to Do, Not Just What to Know

About eight years ago, when I finally decided to give my teenage dreams of learning to play guitar a chance, I dreaded the thought of learning to read music. To me, musical notation looks like a lovely foreign language; but I wanted to spend my limited time actually playing music, not deciphering a code. Luckily, I quickly discovered guitar tablature.

Intuitive Instruction

While musical notation gives you important information (notes, tempo, key, etc.), guitar tablature describes action. It tells you exactly where to put your fingers. In tab, if you see the number 2 on the third line from the bottom, you put your finger on the second fret of the third string. If you see an X, you don’t play that string. If you see an O, you play that string without fretting it. That’s pretty much it. All you really have to know is that the bottom line of the tab corresponds to the top string on your guitar. Of course, you’ll need to practice, but at least you’ll know what to practice. 

Musical notation, on the other hand, requires learning abstract symbols. A dot on the third line from the bottom doesn’t mean you put your finger on the third string. Before you can tell your hands what to do, that dot has to travel into your mind where it meets with a stored piece of knowledge. If you don’t have that stored knowledge, the notation is worthless. 

A good guitar tab is a good piece of communication:

  • It’s obvious (It clearly tells you what to do, not just what to know.)
  • It’s visual (You know what to do just by looking at it.)
  • It’s intuitive (It makes sense. It matches the player’s expectations.)

Of course, people who learn to read music can eventually do so just as quickly as someone can read tab. And, once you learn musical notation, you can appreciate just how packed with useful information it is. But ask yourself what’s more appropriate for your audience. If you want them to play a Cmaj7 on a guitar, do you need to show them this:

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Hold on, I’m going to get all emotional on you …

A few years ago, a client asked me to help them promote workplace safety to employees. During site visits to two of their production facilities, I quickly realized that they were already doing plenty of communication about safety. Upon driving up to one of the facilities, I was greeted by a 20-ft billboard bearing a brief, charmingly scripted safety message. 

Safety messages were everywhere. One facility even conducted daily safety briefings. What in the world could possibly be left to say? 

Face-to-Face Discovery Matters

After speaking with managers, supervisors and employees, I realized that these people cared very deeply about safety and about keeping others safe. One manager even choked up while relaying to me a story from earlier in his career about a co-worker who was badly injured on the job. I think I saw his eyes tear up. 

On the plane ride home, while I pored over my notes, that story kept popping up in my mind along with the image of this otherwise burly man getting weepy on me. That’s when I realized what was missing from this company’s communication about safety: emotion.

We’re People, Not Computers

The workplace is the domain of logic and data. You have to back up what you say with proof and facts. You have to be in control of yourself. You have to be poised. You can’t let your true feelings poke through. But we are human; humans have feelings, and feelings are a way we communicate with each other. They are a cunning way our inner selves let the truth slip through our well-crafted facades. 

The reason the manager’s story was so memorable was not because it was a particularly unique story, but because of the way it made him feel. I could see he was passionate about safety, and I needed to let employees see that passion.

During that trip, I just so happened to pick up a book called Neuromarketing: Understanding the Buy Buttons in the Brain. Chapter 17 was “Impact Booster #4: Emotion.” 

Back in my office, I flipped through another of my other favorite tomes: Made to Stick. Chapter 5: “Emotional.” 

Then, I watched a brief video clip of a speech delivered by another client’s new president and CEO. He stood before his company’s sales force and, while extolling the company’s competitive advantages, he paused. He seemed to get choked up. Then he said, “I am proud of you.” If it weren’t so sincerely stated, it could have been an eye-rolling moment. I’m not a salesman, but his passion made me want to jump up and sell something!

Emotion Is Part of the Message

Emotions help us form memories. They are like a bookmark in the mind for a passage of time that has particular meaning for us. The authors of Neuromarketing say that emotions communicate directly to the decision-making center of the brain. 

An emotion drives you to act, and you can’t argue or debate with emotion. It’s immediate and real. Just think of our reliance on emoticons in text messages. We already know that our audience needs the additional context of our emotions to really understand what we’re saying. 

Communication in the workplace is no different. Employees are like any other audience; an emotional appeal will help get their attention. It also will help your message squeeze through their cynicism and doubt. And later, when they’re driving home or having lunch, they’ll remember the passion and the sincerity (sincerity being key). It will stir their own feelings, and their feelings will influence their behaviors.

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Steering into Happy Accidents

Don’t Be Afraid to Get a Little Peanut Butter on Your Chocolate, or a Little Chocolate in Your Peanut Butter.

There was a TV ad campaign back in the ’80s that portrayed Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as the result of some kind of happy accident. 

In the spots, one character would be strolling along, engrossed in a huge bar of chocolate. Around the corner, another character would be snacking from a jar of peanut butter. (Of course, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone walking around an office feasting on spoonfuls of peanut butter from a jar, but let’s suspend disbelief for just a moment longer.) Anyway, at the corner, the two snackers – and their snacks – collide. 

“Hey, you got your chocolate in my peanut butter,” moans one. 

“You got your peanut butter on my chocolate,” whines the other. 

Not fazed by the random cross-contamination, each person takes a bite of the new chocolate/peanut butter mash-up and a new taste sensation is born. The point, perhaps, is that no sensible person would ever think to blend chocolate and peanut butter. The only plausible explanation was an accident.

Get the Pigeons Out of Their Pigeonholes

What got me reminiscing about this ad campaign was stumbling across an old article in the Personal Journal section of The Wall Street Journal (“The Most Awkward Meeting”). The article is about elevator technology that can sort employees in a building according to their security badges. Employees who share a floor are corralled onto the same elevator. Executives are sequestered from the “rank and file” and shot directly up to their top floor suites. 

A benefit of such a system is increased efficiency, but a downfall, I think, are all the missed opportunities that can arise when you mix different kinds of people in random ways. One loss is the famed “elevator speech.” I’m sure C-suite occupants are subjected to bizarre pitches and awkward moments with employees all the time, but isn’t it worth hearing what’s on people’s minds? Who knows, maybe there’s a young go-getter out there with a fabulous idea. The elevator may be her chance to shine through the bureaucracy.

This trend of grouping and isolation goes beyond elevators. Technology seems to be trying to pigeonhole us more and more all the time. Think back to the ’80s when you might have seen that classically goofy Reese’s ad. There were only three major networks. The television was like a large national campfire. The next day in the office, there’s a good chance that those who actually watched TV had common experiences. 

With a few exceptions, TV these days is less national campfire and more pocket lighter. If you want comedy, there’s a channel for it. If you like sci-fi, there’s a channel for that. Music, sports, independent film, history, cooking … they all have their own channels. Even golf has a channel! 

Viewers no longer have to be exposed to things outside of what they think their interests are. Although there are some benefits to this specialization, I think we lose the blessings of surprise, of the happy accident, of being exposed to fresh ideas from other disciplines and from other points of view. 

Although I’m the type of person who can sit next to you on an airplane for three hours and never even see what you look like, I’m often gratified when a fellow passenger strikes up a conversation. It’s a rare moment of warmth in a crowded and sometimes cool world. It’s also a chance to see things a different way or to learn something new. These are key to creativity, innovation, community and self-evaluation, and who couldn’t use a little of all those things? 

Although I’m pretty content with my big bar of chocolate, it’s the happy accident that encourages me to force myself into the land of the peanut butter eaters.

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Status Bar

A Simple Answer to One of Life’s Nagging Questions

Are we there yet?

Wouldn’t it be great if more things in life came with a status bar? I’m sure my parents would have loved to have one during our long-distance road trips. As we nagged from the backseat, my dad could have pointed to the windshield where a little bar slowly filled in, indicating our progress. (Of course, Waze and Google Maps serve that function these days.)

Are we there yet?

They’d also be great at cocktail parties. Let’s say you get stuck in a pointless, one-sided conversation. As the other person drones on, a little bar floats above him, slowly filling in, letting you know how much longer you’ll have to wait before you can politely excuse yourself to freshen your drink.

Are we there yet?

Nonprofits and elementary schools have been using status bars since before they became commonplace on computers, smartphones and websites. They were the big thermometers that slowly inched up with every donation collected, every pledge made. These signs were a brilliant way to recognize achievements while reminding everyone just how much farther they had to go.

Are we there yet?

The question of just how much farther one has to go nags us all. At work, maybe we watch the clock ticking down to the end of a shift. Maybe we’re wondering how much more we have to do to bump up a performance rating from a 3 to a perfect 4. Or maybe we want to know how close we are to meeting a sales number, revenue goal or some other quota. A status bar could be the answer.

Are we there yet?

Status bars remind us to complete our LinkedIn profiles. They tell us not to wildly punch keys on our keyboards as our computers download files or open applications. They tell us not to stop, and give us a reachable goal. They nudge without nagging. They address the anxiety that comes from not knowing whether we’re making any progress. Imagine going to work every day and seeing an array of status bars that indicate your progress on personal goals and the organization’s progress on business goals. These cunning little graphics can help keep us all focused, patient and motivated by answering a simple, notorious question …

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