It’s time to talk to yourself: The Guardian’s Chris Clarke shares his technique for problem-solving
Whether it’s a big, new brief or a small issue you keep tripping on in your work, we all know what it’s like to feel creatively stuck. What do you do? In this extract from online community The Monday Morning Club’s latest email, The Guardian’s editorial creative director, Chris Clarke, shares an unusual technique that has helped him solve many a creative problem – talking to yourself! Designed to tap into what Chris calls “the delightful clumsiness of everyday conversation”, here, he shares some of the insights and steps that allow him to find fresh solutions.
I’m writing to you – well, talking to you – from a voice memo on my phone. What I’m doing is an exercise in talking to myself – one that I first started over 15 years ago at university.
The reason I do it is to solve problems. I do this by speaking the problems through with different personas: my wife’s 96-year-old grandfather; my old course lecturer; my nephew and so on. For each one I adopt a different conversational style, each one helping to shape and refine the problem, the idea and ultimately the solution.
There are a couple of reasons why I find talking to myself not only helpful, but a cathartic part of the creative process:
A chance to say what you really think
Our brains have approximately 100 billion neurons, capable of processing information within as little as 13 milliseconds. Unsurprisingly, that means that the brain can become a cacophony of daily tasks and noise. Talking to yourself can briefly silence any other intruding thoughts that might be distracting you from really tackling the issue.
Plus, the way you speak (in comparison to writing) is incredibly important, as it allows your brain to say exactly what it wants. This brings warmth, energy and the delightful clumsiness of everyday conversation into your process. I also find that the best solutions have a human sentiment at their core; conversation.
“The way you speak (in comparison to writing) is incredibly important, as it allows your brain to say exactly what it wants.”
Banish blank page syndrome
We’ve all found ourselves tied to a desk, falling prey to procrastination and hoping the hours left will spark an answer. Staring at a blank page is intimidating – removing this from the equation is liberating.
Often the best ideas pop up when your brain is idle, so it can also be helpful to try talking during other more routine moments, like when you’re traveling to work or school, or on lunch breaks. Listen back to the recordings when you’ve set time aside. You’ll be surprised by what you find.
An opportunity to check in with yourself
If you’re having an off day, talking can help you to understand what you’re feeling and recognise signs you might otherwise brush off. Record yourself during positive moments too – nothing brings an endorphin hit like hearing your own excitable voice communicate in an upbeat moment.
Plus, with mobile phones making it no longer socially awkward to be talking to wireless headphones, it couldn’t be easier to talk to yourself. Below are eight steps to help you get started (and talking).
How to start your first conversation with yourself
I would like to underline this isn’t a replacement for real, human interaction. There is nothing more valuable than speaking with people, and building a group that you feel is nurturing, challenging but importantly safe to discuss themes and subjects with.
I also recognise this approach isn’t for everyone, though I encourage you to give it a go and take the elements that resonate with you. You’ll be surprised how natural it becomes after a few goes.
The important thing when trying this for the first time is not to force it. Keep trying it in different ways, environments and for different kinds of problems.
📱 Step 1: Set yourself up
Grab your phone or a recording device. Put on headphones if you need to and then, find somewhere you’d be comfortable to start talking. Consider standing so you can move more, or heading out for a walk.
👨🦳 Step 2: Pick a person to talk to
Think of someone you know – this could be anyone from your grandmother to a colleague. Try imagining them in detail, how they respond and their mannerisms.
Then begin talking with them as you would usually; imagine being on a phone call, or in conversation at work, in a coffee shop, or in their living room. The important thing is to choose a place where you’d normally talk to this person.
Sometimes an imagined person isn’t appropriate and you simply just want to record yourself. That works too.
🤔 Step 3: Ask the The 5 Ws (and 1 H)
The 5 Ws and 1 H are the basics in any information-gathering, they are:
- How ?
These are all open questions that can’t be answered with a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and are the bait to gently persuade your mind to delve further. Pose them to the creative problem you’re trying to solve.
🗣 Step 4: Speak freely
Ask yourself questions, repeat parts of your persona’s answers back as you record. Respond as the persona with phrases like “I know why you would feel like that, however I suggest that…[Insert their suggestion]” or “Have you thought of it like... [insert challenge or new perspective].”
🔤 Step 5: Simplify your language
Imagine you’re explaining your thoughts to someone with no knowledge or experience of the subject, or a child. If you’re brilliant enough to speak in another language, do that too. The restriction of vocabulary helps refine your thoughts and language down further, making the ultimate solution one that’s digestible for the majority.
🎧 Step 6: Listen back and pay attention
It’s time to listen. I mean really listen. It is incredibly powerful to hear the emotion in your voice; the words you use and most importantly – the words you don’t. Listen back for the cues; how long you pause for, or how you emphasise certain words. All of this will be integral in helping you rationalise your thoughts and communicating them powerfully, with clarity.
🖼 Step 7: Notice repeats and patterns
By listening back you may realise you’ve said the same things slightly differently, repeating the same word or phrase. This is vital as it makes you take a step back from the canvas and see the full composition. The idea was there all along, you just didn’t see the patterns or connect the dots.
If you get stuck, start again with the same line, like “The idea behind the project is…” and then repeat again.
👥 Step 8: Talk to other personas
As I mentioned before, I speak to different ‘people’ as it is really important to have a diverse range of perspectives helping you mould and shape exactly what you’re trying to say, each time sharpening the focus and the reason – especially with particularly chewy challenges. It’s your chance to break from your own agreeable echo and really challenge the curiosity and inquiry these people may bring.
A note to (your)self
Remember: don’t force it, if it’s not coming to you naturally then it will only hinder you from exploring this approach in the future.
As you get comfortable with the exercise you’ll find yourself doing it in different scenarios, even ones you feel uncomfortable in – a busy bus stop, a packed coffee shop. It all helps to add a different flavour to what you’re telling yourself.
Over time you’ll be able to gain clarity quicker, understand problems in a deeper way and challenge your ideas for better outcomes.
Written (spoken) during a walk to the park with my son Rudy.
The Monday Morning Club is a community which shares modern, practical ways to be more self-motivated. Each month, members receive a “powerful email” with an exercise on subjects ranging from time-management to problem-solving. This month, it’s all about using an unusual technique to overcome any challenge you might be stuck on – by talking to yourself.
If you'd like more of these exercises in your inbox each month be sure to join The Monday Morning Club mailing list.
Written by Chris Clarke
Mention The Monday Morning Club
Illustration by The Monday Morning Club