How to prompt others to remind you about your goal

carry a visually dramatic prop to draw attention to your goal

I had no idea how many little conversations I have every day until everyone started talking to me about the same thing. Then I discovered that walking with crutches is a lot like going out with a baby, a devastatingly cute dog, or an unusual bicycle. All of them provide social grease, a safe place to start, so people can find a way to talk to each other for a few minutes.

Since we’re social creatures, talking to other people feels good. It doesn’t usually even matter what the topic of these conversations are because the goal is simply to bond briefly with another human being. But the topic does matter if that conversation is repeated many times a day and you are present for all of them. In these deceptively simple, even shallow encounters, you are simultaneously inventing and hearing the story of yourself being told and retold, woven through interactions with co-workers, family, barristas, neighbors, clerks, and strangers in elevators. So to you, over time, it does matter very much what the topic is because the sum total of all those small conversatations becomes your own narrative.

Over the course of the last four months almost every person I’ve encountered has talked to me about my injury (or worse, theirs). Each of them has been kind and well-meaning, and the first few times it did feel good to tell the story. But these conversations occur at least a dozen times a day. Others have performed silent acts of kindness, such as holding doors and elevators, which of course is their very best angel self coming to my aid. But frankly that too has been kind of a problem. Over time these constant reminders have both kept my attention on the injury and contributed profoundly to the distressing shifts in my identity that I discussed last week in Create a brand for your goal: decide how to position your change.

Yet the more intriguing interpretation of this experience is the discovery that if I create a very noticeable visual cue it gives other people a social hook to begin conversations with me about that topic. Although I don’t want to be talking about my injury all the time, there are things I DO want to talk about. One of the tenets of personal marketing is that we try to put systems in place to remind us about our goals automatically, without requiring any further action on our part. Perhaps the experience I’ve been having with the crutches reveals a powerful tool that we can harness to enlist the people around us in our marketing campaigns, if we can figure out how to direct the topic.

The Small Talk hack

The Small Talk hack uses one or more props to disrupt your visual presentation in a way that makes others feel safe, sympathetic, helpful, interested, or just curious enough to voluntarily begin conversations with you about a goal you have chosen. These conversations will remind you about that goal several times a day, cause you to return your attention to it, and give you the opportunity to reinforce the idea as you talk about it.

Ideally the prop should be something that both attracts attention and puts others at ease. Frankly the crutches are a hard act to follow, because they’re a nearly perfect prop for this purpose:

  • They’re always with me – regardless of the time, location, activity, weather, or dress code
  • They’re highly visible – it’s impossible to miss their presence
  • They’re unusual – a definitive signal that something different is up with me
  • They’re non-threatening – even total strangers seem to feel safe starting a conversation
  • They create sympathy – which helps people overcome their shyness as they step forward to help me.
  • They suggest an obvious topic for us to talk about – what happened, how long I think it will be, a similar experience they’ve gone through, etc.

Try to choose something for your prop with several of the properties above. If you need help thinking of something, last week’s positioning exercise will probably help.

My implementation

The goal I chose for the current ad campaign is to walk. In last week’s installment I decided to position my mobility problems as a sports injury, and to reinvent myself as an athlete.

The first thing I did to implement this strategy was to change my answer to the many inquiries I still get every day. Now when people ask about the crutches I simply say “I hurt myself running”. That’s actually true; I just leave out the all the details about the complications during the intervening year. I noticed immediately that this answer generates a different flavor of conversations, so that’s good. They’re still focussing on the injury, though, so I need to give them something else to talk about.

There’s a water polo team I want to play on, so one way I could do this hack would be to order a t-shirt or hat from the team store. That would certainly generate a few inquiries from the people who know me. But my experience with the crutches suggests that it may be even more effective to use a prop that’s weird enough to generate inquiries from strangers, too. For example, I could carry a water polo ball with me wherever I go. The less appropriate the situation, the more conversation it should stimulate. Perfect! So I’ve ordered a ball from, and as soon as it arrives I’ll start carrying it around with me. I’m going to see how many spontaneous conversations it can generate in 30 days. Each one will help to reinforce my new identity as an athlete.

Your action steps

  1. Think of a prop that will offer people the opportunity to ask you about your goal.
  2. Take the necessary steps to acquire that prop, such as finding, buying, or making it.
  3. Carry it with you all the time for the next month and count how many times people ask you about it.
  4. Optional: upload a photo of your prop to your Flickr account and tag it tbyb so we can all appreciate your brilliant idea. Check out the Examples page to see those photos.
  5. Please record your results in the comment section below.

(Note: it seems to take a couple of days for newly tagged photos to show up in our Flickr stream.)

Other articles in this series

  • Week 1 – Choose a goal
  • Week 2 – Do market research on yourself
  • Week 3 – Write a slogan for the campaign
  • Week 4 – Take a picture of yourself having the outcome you want
  • Week 5 – Analyze the competition
  • Week 6 – Decide how to position your behavior change
  • Week 7 – Choose a prop to enlist the people around you to talk about your goal
  • Week 8 – Look for opportunities to simulate the experience/outcome you want
  • Week 9 – Make and deliver your personal ad
  • Week 10 – Project wrap-up

Related articles

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  1. Splodge
    Posted November 4, 2008 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    I’ve only been reading your blog for a short time.

    I think you’re onto something here that I can really use.

    I have a disability, I sometimes need a mobility scooter and/or a walking stick. Unfortunately, I need people to notice the stick because otherwise they might not see the degree of leeway I need. But I don’t wish to be defined by it, or to have to explain myself all the time.

    I knit. I like that I knit, and I like my knitting. The couple of items I have made for myself have gotten compliments when I have worn them.

    So…I think I need to knit up a few more items for myself that I know will get compliments, and make sure I’ve always got one such item on or with me.


  2. Lynn
    Posted November 13, 2008 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Week one results: The ball has generated 24 conversations about water polo in the first 7 days.

  3. Lynn
    Posted November 20, 2008 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Week two results: Just 12 conversations this week. I got lazy and carried the ball in a bag across my back. Much less visible (and socially weird) that way. It seems to make a big difference to carry it in a location where people see it coming so they start to wonder what you’re up to before the conversation starts.

  4. Posted June 10, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Hiya Lynn, great blog concept! I just read it all, every post! This idea of carrying a conversation starter is inspired! Your best.

    My only quarrel would be with the posts where you talk about buying things as personal advertising successes. They may be successes for you but for the reader they blemish the offering.

    But posts about overcoming injury and motivation are superb.

    Keep up the good work! Mat

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