‘Think about your audience. What stones do they have in their shoes? And what possibilities do they dream of?’
And with this great advice from his editor ringing in his ears, Mark Burns and his co-writer Andy Griffith planned, wrote, rewrote, tested, revised and edited their way to their final manuscript – and investing in their own personal and professional development in the process.
In a fast-changing world, people and organisations that don’t learn well don’t perform well. Learning really is an imperative across every sector, but how do you convince employees and managers to accept the levels of trust, vulnerability and struggle that involves? You engage their emotions.
‘Metaphor and story are really powerful ways in which people can empathise, connect. And when people say, “That’s me. That’s just my problem,” that then gives them a route. You’ve sold them the art of the possibility.’
The Learning Imperative site: www.learningimperative.co.uk
The Learning Imperative on Twitter: https://twitter.com/learnimperative
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Alison Jones: Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. I’m here today with Mark Burns, who was a teacher for 12 years. Since then, he and his team have worked with primary and secondary teachers using video analysis to improve the quality of teaching and learning in their classrooms and helping school leaders overcome the barriers to effective learning of both adults and their students.
He’s the author of Engaging Learners and Teaching Backwards. And more recently he’s moved into working with organisations in both private and third sector to develop effective learning in order to improve performance, motivation, and the well-being of staff. And his latest book, The Learning Imperative, which was written with Andy Griffith … Do you know what? In my intro here, I’ve written “has been shortlisted for the Business Book Awards.” But there was this moment when I got in touch with Mark and said, “I think we should postpone this,” and said no more, because at that point, I knew, and he didn’t, that he’d won in category. So congratulations, Mark.
Mark Burns: Thank you, Alison. Thank you. I should have suspected something when you cancelled so unprofessionally at the last minute, but I was too busy to sit down and contemplate and second-guess things.
Alison Jones: And of course, yes, that’s sort of a superstitious thing that if you think it, it won’t happen.
Mark Burns: Oh, absolutely. I would’ve spent weeks writing the acceptance speech and bored everyone wretched with the whole process. So yes.
Alison Jones: But surely you spent hours preparing your acceptance speech just on the off chance?
Mark Burns: Well, I’d love to say I had done, but many of the events I’ve been to before, Alison, they get you up to the front, they give you the award, and then they get you off stage before you bore everyone rigid for half an hour making some kind of some Oscar-like, self-indulgent speech. And so unfortunately when they announced … I think you described the book that had won, and I thought to myself, “This sounds really, really familiar.” And then my wife turned to me, and when they announced it, she said, “You’ve won, you know. You’ll have to think of something.”
So I was a little like a footballer being substituted whilst his team are winning one nil in injury time, I walked so slowly from the very back of the room to the front just to give me some time to think about something I could say that other people would be interested in. It was a wonderful, wonderful evening. The organisers did a brilliant job. And I’d encourage anyone to try and get their books submitted for the shortlist the next year.
Alison Jones: And let’s just explore that a little bit. Was it your decision to submit a book? Was it the publisher’s idea?
Mark Burns: Well, it was one of these serendipitous events. I was at the World of Learning Conference in Birmingham. And I was standing on the stool chatting to folk about the book and chewing the fat over learning, and the barriers, and their sources of pain. And a guy came over. I think his name was Kasim, and he said, “You have entered this for the Business Book Awards, haven’t you?” And fortunately my publisher was standing right next to me. I turned to him and said, “David?” He said, “Okay, we will do. Of course.”
So without being there, whether we’d have entered it, I don’t know. But it was fantastic. And it was great to meet so many really wonderful people both on our table and during the evening. I learnt so much from the people around me. So I think that’s the essence of it, and that chance to connect, not in a kind of shallow network-y kind of way, but to chew the fat about the struggles everyone has writing and the way they do things because it’s quite interesting how different writers have very different approaches to the process.
Alison Jones: Yes, and that’s what this podcast is all about as well. So we will dig into it a bit more about that, actually. But I think it’s interesting as well so many of the winners of the Business Book Awards have had this similar sort of story: “And so I didn’t really think about entering, and then this thing happened…” And I’ve said to all the publishers, and I just say to people, “If you’ve written a business book that’s been published in 2019, for goodness sake, submit it for the awards because you’ve got nothing to lose except the entry fee, which isn’t huge. And you can’t win it unless you’re in it.”
But also, as you say, even… especially if you get shortlisted but even just entering, you get the exposure and you get that sense of being part of something. And I don’t know what holds people back, and I suspect part of it is, “My book, my book won’t win, I feel a bit … Who am I to enter my book for Business Book Awards?” And I do sort of wonder about the psychology of it. But you know, just do it. Get over yourself.
Mark Burns: Yes, I totally agree. And it was fascinating because of the winners on the evening, there were people who advised people in the White House and the British government. There were other folk who were running small businesses. There was a whole array of very different individuals from loads of different context and cultures. But there was, I thought, and some of the speeches, it really made me think about the power of writing books in that somebody said, one of the early speakers talked about how someone may just read one line of your book, and that may change their whole mindset, their whole thinking process and open up possibilities and help them to overcome problems in a way you’ve never thought.
And sometimes people do reach out to you on social media, and sometimes at conferences people come up, and if they do say something nice, I always say, “It takes a year.” For me, it takes a year to write a book. I’d love to be like Roald Dahl and totter down to the bottom of the garden to my potting shed, write 50 words, have a glass of sherry and fall asleep. But unfortunately sales of books, unless you’re selling millions, you have to do something else.
So they’re written in Travelodges, they’re written on trains. Sometimes when your energy levels aren’t at a level that’s going to lead to anything particularly inspiring going out, and you’re working to ridiculous deadlines, as for someone to come up and compliment me on just one small aspect of a book, it’s almost like someone coming up to you and saying something nice about the politeness of your children or something like that. It’s such a personal thing because you’ve put so much into it.
And when we signed up with the publishers for this third book, my wife leaned over the kitchen table and said, “Mark, why do you do this to yourself?” because it’s exhausting, it’s very rarely exhilarating, and you expose yourself to a level of vulnerability with respect to your editor. Often in my day-to-day job, I don’t experience that. I’m doing something, and even with the third book, I wouldn’t profess to be an expert, and therefore it takes iterations to get things right. And for me, even if the book never sells anything, I get two things: One, there’s a distillation about the ideas in the book, which I will have been talking about to audiences and with people for three or four years. But through writing I get that, a depth of clarity I don’t get otherwise.
So for me, it’s a form of, it’s my investment in my own professional learning. And the second thing, it connects me up with what it is to be truly open to learning and the vulnerability, and the effort, and the struggle that you encounter. And it reconnects you up with other folk who are learning to improve their own performance and realise it’s not an easy job. I think the danger is when you’re working with folk and you’ve done it a lot of times, you think, “Why don’t they just do x?” But actually there’s a whole journey there that could be underestimated.
Alison Jones: That’s a brilliant answer. Is that the answer you gave your wife?
Mark Burns: Er, no. I’m not sure what I gave her. I’ve spent weeks writing down what I’m going to say today regarding your questions, got a list of them all to … No, and it is a family affair because Dad disappears every night to the back room to write. And my wife is very supportive and reads drafts of the chapters and gives me very wholesome feedback, which is really, really helpful. So it is a team game.
My sister works in global learning. She’s reading drafts of it. Other folk, leaders I respect, read things, and you draw in on that feedback to help you distil the ideas. So it’s not a solitary pursuit for me.
Alison Jones: No. I love the way you described that. It’s much more … The time was well spent, Mark, because that’s much more articulate I think than most people could say, “That’s really hard work, but it’s really good.” But what I want to dig into as well is – because learning is your thing and of course the book is all about learning, you’re so used to helping people learn and delivering content, delivering information, and helping people think in person in the classroom – how does that translate to doing it in a book? What did you struggle with, and what did you discover about those different modes?
Mark Burns: I think when you’re working face to face with individuals and consciously or unconsciously, I think you have to connect and build trust before communication is then valued and openness occurs. And I think in a book, for me, my editor, Nick Owens, fantastic, and he kept saying, “Mark, think about your audience. Think about your audience. What stones do they have in their shoes? And what possibilities do they dream of?”
Alison Jones: That’s a great phrase.
Mark Burns: Well, I stole it from a wonderful book by Peter Block called Community. And in it he talks about people have choices. Do we dwell on the problems or do we talk about possibilities? And people, I think sometimes I think we live in such a pressure time, such a stress time that the idea, too often we talk about problems and not actually say, “Well, what would beautiful look like for you as a human being, as a professional?” And we struggle along, and we’re very transactional. But that’s an idea of is this what beautiful represents for you? And if it isn’t, what change would you like to …
And then we talk about the how. But I think the key bit is the why question, isn’t it? It’s why would someone read this? What are they hoping to get out of it? And therefore what we’ve done both in the first two books when we’re writing for teachers, and this book too, we’re reading the theory and the background information and the evidence base. And then we’re trying to distil it and into a form and give people focus on the practical solutions and ways to do it because I think the people who read the theory and the evidence base, they often can solve their own problems, but a lot of people are too busy to go into that depth.
Alison Jones: And it’s interesting as well because when you’re focusing on giving people research or informing them, when you’re giving them instruction, it’s kind of imperative, of course it’s called the imperative form. So you’re using the imperative form quite a lot. And you do that well. And I love your REFRESH model, by the way. I’ve written it down, as I knew I wouldn’t remember: resilience, frequency, feedback. Oh, see, I can’t read my writing. Revising, effortful, sharing, and habitual. And that’s a lovely framework. I do like that. But you also add in stories. So you’ve got that narrative. And of course that’s where you really engage people at the emotional level as well, isn’t it? So I thought you blended those elements really well, because it can’t all be stories because then – how does this really impact on me? But it can’t all be instruction, because we get tired of that. Our brains just kind of tune out after a while, don’t they?
Mark Burns: I think we have to emotionally connect with the issue. So I think for the reader, as for the delegate or the conference attendee, the metaphor and story are really powerful ways in which people can empathise, connect. And when people say, “That’s me. That’s just my problem,” that then gives them a route. You’ve sold them the art of the possibility. I think that, to me, through all our books, we’ve tried to look for narrative in a story. And sometimes it’s a story around someone who’s struggling, and they get a eureka moment. And sometimes it’s a story of journey and possibility.
And I think for me, because leadership and management can be written in such a dry way, and I just think people have got their own stories in their head. I’m like, we hold stories about colleagues who we work with, and some of those stories limit possibilities for our own and their change too. So I think that challenge of story is a good one.
Alison Jones: And you’re so right about the ‘me too’, the power of that, because I think particularly in a space in which you’re learning, you are by definition not a master of, it’s very easy to feel uniquely inept and that you’re the only person struggling here. And it’s incredibly powerful to feel that connection. And as you said, that then suddenly opens up possibilities and puts you in a different space.
Mark Burns: And that’s really from 12 years of working in organisations, I mean, you referenced that the work we’ve done with teachers. The uniqueness about that work, it’s completely confidential. With video, teachers, many of whom who’ve never seen themselves perform on video in a professional sense, and because of that relational trust, they open up with the problems, the issues, the things they’re struggling with.
And then when I started working in third and private sector organisations, I thought so the same narrative, narratives around, “We’re just too busy to do this. We’ll just manage a level of performance and all. Things are okay. We don’t need to change.” And then you see those organisations struggling in two years’ time when change has overtaken them. The technical language is different, of course. But the-
Alison Jones: The people aren’t different-
Mark Burns: Yes, those same issues are still there. And-
Alison Jones: And I love the way you talk about relational trust is the glue in your … I mean, it’s such a powerful metaphor.
Mark Burns: And if we want true learning, if we want deep learning and maximise the possibility of learning, we have to, you and I have to build a level of trust where we don’t hold anything back. And if you give me feedback, and this is, the whole thing about the book, I’ve tried to live the REFRESH principles through writing it. So when my editor gives me, and it’s wonderful, but he doesn’t sugar-coat it, he tells it as it is. And I love that. And my wife, when she looked at one particular piece of feedback said, “That’s really unkind, unfair.” I said, “No. Nick is telling … I’d rather get it from Nick because I want… If it needs three more drafts, it needs three more drafts. I want it to have the most impact.”
I don’t want my ego to get in the way of the book being as good as it can be because you and I both know once it goes out there, that the world of Amazon reviews can be ruthless, can’t it? But for me, it’s my ego’s one-sided. It’s about the crafting of this book to be the best it possibly could be. So if I suddenly don’t live those principles, then the whole thing’s limited, isn’t it?
Alison Jones: Yes. And it’s also a real lesson for people listening about who you give your manuscript to. Don’t just give it to the safe people, the people who like you, want you to feel good, because they’ll be really kind. Give it to the people who aren’t going to be afraid or hold back. And also get some professional input as well, not just … we always encourage people, we send the book to the development editor for the professional deep development editorial review, but we also say, “Send it to people in your field, to potential readers, to peers, to people who can really speak to the content as well. And be prepared for that feedback,” because it’s much better, as you say, much better there than in the Amazon reviews.
Mark Burns: Yes. And I think in my professional work, I’m still keen to learn. I’m always seeking feedback from others on how to improve my performance. But I’m conscious that my writing skills are not as advanced because however much you do it, there’s still feedback I get from my editor that I didn’t know was a problem.
And so it’s a bit like walking across an icy, a frozen lake: I put one foot in front of my other, but I’m never sure whether I’m actually going to fall through. And almost masochistically, I actually quite enjoy that process because it reminds me of the vulnerability of being alone and the uncertainty and actually saying, “Well, you know what? Maybe I shouldn’t write this book.” But I’d learned so much from working in organisation, I thought, “The stuff in here, I think can help people.” And you’re right: I spent a year travelling the country with leaders or respected leaders who’s made massive changes in their organisations, and I interviewed them. I said, “What do you do?”
And many of them just said, “Well, I’ve always done it this way.” So actually, these people are unconsciously really effective. And you can’t write a book on that, you have to then deconstruct what they’re doing. And then I went back to them. And I agreed in advance. I said, “Listen, I don’t want you to blow smoke up my whatever. Tell me what’s wrong with it. Tell me how it needs to be improved.” And all of those conversations have played a massive help in getting that clarity. And-
Alison Jones: That’s a brilliant example of just the positive experience of really inviting other people into that process. That’s brilliant.
Mark Burns: Yes. So actually the process, for me, is as valuable as the book at the end. And the award was wonderful, but in itself, the process, I don’t know if the word autotelic is the right word, but the process in itself was as rewarding as the outcome. And-
Alison Jones: Yes. Even at the time it has its moments of misery. There are hard yards in there.
Mark Burns: Oh, absolutely, there are, but having been down those hard yard before, it’s a bit like marathon runner training: You know it’s going to hurt, but you know that at the end of it, in a way, if it doesn’t hurt, then you’ve not exposed yourself enough, and you’ve not pushed as hard as you could do. And the deadline is the deadline. But first draft in my book is never the best version. It takes iterations of these things.
Alison Jones: Yes. And let’s dig a bit more into the writing process. Obviously you’re not a writer. You’ve written several books, but it’s not your kind of primary profession. So what does writing look like for you? And also when you’re writing in collaboration, with Andy in this case, how does that work?
Mark Burns: What I’ve learnt from this now being the third book is the more planning you put in up front, the smoother the journey. And it’s interesting because things evolve as you start writing them. But planning the target audience, thinking about the pains they have, the gains we’re hoping to help, that they’re hoping to gain from it, and thinking that, and constantly stress testing because the danger is you deviate often off a cul-de-sac based on your own professional interest.
Or Nick very often would say to us as we’re writing, “Remember your audience.” When it became a bit theoretical, he said, “You can put that in a footnote. And I know you’re fascinated by John Sweller and cognitive load theory. But these people have not got the time for this. And you already told them about cognitive load theory.” And that, and then planning the what seems to be very small when you’re writing becomes massive when you start digging into it. We’ve tried to have almost like a metastructure for some of the chapters and to try and ensure that there’s when you have two people writing together, that can provide the additional tension, so having that metastructure for key chapters really helps.
Alison Jones: You had a kind of macro, a structure within each chapter where you had the introduction, that kind of thing…
Mark Burns: Yes, absolutely. And while you’re in the planning phase, you might say, “Well, we’re a little bit light in this area.” And making sure, of course, that chapters, you don’t have a 90-page chapter and a 10-page chapter. And so as you have the plan on the wall, and as the plan develops and you start … Sorry, I used to work in IT, start coding the chapters, start writing them, you then start thinking about … because a lot of these concepts, which are about the analogy of a three-legged stool and for trust and processing capacity, and accurate self-perception, but the things are interlinked.
And when you’re talking it, it’s easy because you can jump from one thing to another, but when you’re writing it, it has to be that linear referencing. I think that can be quite challenging when you’re co-authoring something. Where does one thing stop and another thing start? So yes, I think the key thing is planning and planning and planning rather than just … because the temptation is just open a file, start chapter one and start writing.
For me, I need that scaffolding. That’s been really, really helpful. And the first book, we didn’t do that and, boy, was that a struggle. I mean, it came out great in the end, but at the time, we seemed to be going around in circles at times.
Alison Jones: Yes, and I like the way you get that balance there between doing all the planning, almost to free you up to write, because then you know what you’re doing and you can just crack on with it, but also holding that plan quite lightly because the whole thing is, as you write, you understand better and you realise where things have to go. So it’s about that tension. It’s between having a plan, but treating it, holding it quite lightly and being able to let that evolve as you write.
Mark Burns: Yes. I mean, it’s probably a little bit like sailing. If you want to sail around to Santander, you might say, “Well, let’s use the route.” But the wind’ll take you in particular directions, and you got to respond to that. And I think, I don’t know, but speaking to many other authors I’ve worked with, this common theme, something you talk about day to day that you think, “That will make a decent book,” when you start writing it down, you suddenly go to greater depths, and then you say, “Hang on. The way these connect, I can connect them in a better way that’s more coherent for the reader.” And you write. So then I think it’s a series of Post-it notes that got moved from one area to another.
Alison Jones: Do you know, I can’t tell you the number of times Post-it notes come up in these conversations. We should have “Extraordiary Business Book Club, sponsored by…”
Mark Burns: Yes. And I would encourage you to choose very well-made Post-it notes, because there’s nothing more depressing than going into your office in the morning and finding your book plan on the floor because the central heating temperature changed and the adhesive isn’t working anymore.
Alison Jones: I’ve found that satin paint also is not good…
Mark Burns: Oh goodness, yes, yes, yes, yes.
Alison Jones: …I learned that the hard way. Yes, brilliant. So I’m going to ask … I mean, you’ve given us so many tips here, actually, Mark, but I’m going to ask you, if somebody’s listening, they’re kind of at the early stages still at their first book, what would be the single best tip that you could give them?
Mark Burns: I think for me, it’s road testing the ideas and the concepts, the big ideas out there and road testing them with the people you see is going to be your potential audience, because by interacting with them, you gain a huge load of feedback about what they’re good at already. I mean, classic thing, I was talking to them yesterday about coaching, and a particular industry was talking about there are five million different definitions of what people believe to be coaching.
And it’s digging, digging, digging, and I’m a big believer in trying to deal with causes of problems rather than the effects and because we grow to a new level if we do that. And, for me, writing a business book or a book for teachers is, is this going to help people overcome pains? And is it going to lead them to inspirational gains that are going to make them keep turning that page?
And by doing that, what my experience is, then people push on because there’s so many books get bought, but I don’t know how many of them get read. And I was taught a few years ago about paying Kindle royalties based on the number of pages read in a book. And I’ve got tonnes of books. Every time I talk to someone, they recommend their book, and I buy it on Amazon. And there’s stacks of unread books in my house—they’re like fire hazards. But it’s trying to, for me, the purpose of writing is the personal learning, but also I’m hoping that someone somewhere will pick up the book, turn over a page, and it help them, it’ll help them professionally, personally, because I think that’s what the best books do, they give you a new insight into your own world.
Alison Jones: Yes. And that’s a great tip. And it also implies you have to know who that person is, which is fundamental as well, isn’t it? It’s kind of where we start here.
Mark Burns: Yes. And because without that, if you haven’t got a clear idea of your reader or your reader groups, you may write too generally and that lack of tight focus. I remember reading a book a few years ago, which I won’t name. And it was meant to be about prioritisation, organisation, and actually the book, I got really frustrated with it because it was really disorganised, and in the end, I just thought … And that to me, it’s thinking about what people’s needs are, a bit like you would do if you were running a conference or a professional learning event. You’d do a needs analysis, and you’d try and identify how you can help people gain what they’re seeking from the session or the series of sessions, thinking about it in that sense.
I mean, either way is we always have the house-building metaphor. And we use it in the book in terms of designing fresh learning. It’s which room are you going to take the reader into when they arrive at your book, which is a house? My grandmother would always take you into the front parlour because that was the nicest room in the house. And it’s thinking about, it’s that you want people to get through it to get the whole message, so how can you motivate, engage those busy people to keep turning out page?
Alison Jones: Yes. I thought that was a lovely metaphor. I liked the pictures of the house plan. Great. And if you were to recommend one business book, apart from the Learning Imperative, obviously, assume that as read people, but what business book would you recommend that the people should immediately go out and buy and read?
Mark Burns: When I saw this question, I thought to myself, “Well, actually a lot of the business books, a lot of the books that have helped me in business have not been explicitly books on business.” And-
Alison Jones: We have quite a catholic description of-
Mark Burns: Yes. I think, to throw two out there, I mean, I read a book by Peter Block a few years ago called Community. And essentially it’s about empowering communities to take ownership of the possibility of the future. And we set up in inner city communities in North America about saying, “Well, do we just wait around for the government to solve our problems, or do we as a collaborative, have we got power ourselves?”
And as I was reading it, I thought, “Actually, this speaks to me in my own organisation with the team I have.” It speaks to me when I work in schools and private sector organisations, because actually there is too often when morale is low in organisations, people don’t realise the potential and the possibility if they build that collaborative. And there’s some wonderful questions in there, questions like, “What’s my contribution to the problem I’m trying to solve?” that just gives you that sense of empowerment.
And I think we live in difficult times economically, politically, but I think too often we’re looking for other people to solve our problems. I think what I’ve learnt over the years is we’ve got huge amount of potential and power within ourselves. And that power of collaborative, that’s why sharings in that REFRESH acronym, because I think through sharing, through collaboration, I think the Learning Imperative’s an example of it.
It’s come out, I’m proud of it, it’s because of … It’s the strength has come through collaboration, and so that book to me. The other one is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I just love.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s ace, isn’t it?
Mark Burns: It just points you to be more thoughtful, less judgmental because we’re so prone to unconscious bias. And I just see too many leaders I work with who are struggling. It’s because they only do thinking fast. And the power and possibility of thinking slow is wonderful. I think both those books touched me on multiple levels—I think the best books do. They touch me as a parent, as a husband, as a son, as a friend, as a work colleague.
So that legacy of when we go our separate ways over time, how are we touching each other emotionally? That legacy I think is really powerful, powerful idea. So they’d be the two I think I’d take to my death it’s the [inaudible 00:30:15].
Alison Jones: Well, I don’t know Community, and it’s always lovely to get a recommendation that you don’t know, but, yes, I couldn’t endorse Thinking, Fast and Slow more. I love that book—brilliant. Excellent recommendations. Thank you. And, Mark, if people want to find out more about you, more about the book, where should they go?
Mark Burns: Well, we’ve a website at www.learningimperative.co.uk. I’m at various events. I’m at @learnimperative on Twitter and on LinkedIn as well. I’m at various events over the next few months. I’m at the festival education at the very prestigious Wellington School in Berkshire on the 21st of June. I’ll be at the CIPD Festival of Work also in June, on the 13th of June, and hoping to go to the World of Learning Conference on the 15th and 16th of October. So if any of you are coming along, that’d be great to connect up either electronically or face to face.
Alison Jones: And you’ll be waving copies of your book around all of them, right?
Mark Burns: I’ll have a wheelbarrow full of them…
Alison Jones: Never miss an opportunity.
Mark Burns: Absolutely.
Alison Jones: I enjoyed talking to you so much. Thank you.
Mark Burns: Thank you very much, Alison. Thank you for having me on.