June 07, 2023

Leslie Shannon on finding nuggets, storytelling for synthesis, the five Fs of sensemaking, and visual filing [REPOST] (Ep66)

“Information can pass through your head all day long, but unless you can capture it and put it on a shelf somewhere, it didn’t mean anything. It’s the capturing and putting on a shelf so you can find it again, that’s the important part.”

– Leslie Shannon

Robert Scoble
About Leslie Shannon

On this episode, we learn from Leslie Shannon, Head of Ecosystem and Trend Scouting for Nokia based in Silicon Valley. Her work involves examining new technologies and how they will converge through this decade. She is a five-time undefeated winner on the US game show Jeopardy and racked up many successes on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

LinkedIn: Leslie Shannon

Twitter: @lshannon45

Facebook: Leslie Shannon

What you will learn

  • What Leslie Shannon’s typical day looks like at Nokia… (02:03)
  • …and as a collector of trivia (03:04)
  • She uses flashcards and PowerPoint to remember stuff (04:13)
  • Her PowerPoint presentations can go as large as 400 slides (07:59)
  • Sometimes it doesn’t happen the way she expected and that’s ok (11:21)
  • Every new solution is the kernel of the next problem (12:43)
  • You always have to ask new questions (13:38)
  • A lot of technology is looking for a problem to solve (14:16)
  • Find, Filter, File, Familiarize and Formulate (16:10)
  • Leslie’s routine that involves a lot of unsubscribing (20:57)
  • It’s an exercise in imagination…(23:58)
  • …and connections (27:48)
  • Find the system that works for you (31:44)

Episode Resources


Ross Dawson: Leslie, it’s awesome to have you on the show.

Leslie Shannon: Ross, it’s lovely to be here. Thank you much for asking me.

Ross: You are definitely on top of lots of new information, both as in your job, as a professional trend scouter for a global organization, and also as a very successful competitive trivia person. How do you do it?

Leslie: It does take a lot of mental discipline. Just to explain a little bit about both the job and the trivia side of things, in my role as a trend scout, I’m physically located in Silicon Valley, and my role is to look for new technology. I’m in the telecommunication space, so new technology that will come at some point in the future requires some kind of telecommunication support. I find all these little nuggets of things that small companies are doing, big companies are doing, then I think of them as building blocks, and then I weave them together to build these imaginary castles of what’s going to be possible in the future. If this company is doing that, and that company is doing that, and this other company is doing that, we can imagine a future in which this amalgamation of all of these different new things is possible. Then I tell that to the people within my company, so they can plan what’s coming. I tell that to our customers as well, so they can plan how to design their networks for what the future is going to bring.

Then on the trivia side, constantly, every single day, my antennas are up. What is the fact that I didn’t know? Then I note it, and again, in order, to remember it, I have to weave it into something. If it’s historical, some narrative that my brain has for the history of the world, or I have to have some mnemonic, I have to hang some kind of tag on it, so I can retrieve that information later. Weaving it into the stuff that’s already there is the easiest way. Both of these methods require finding information, filing it in a way that I can retrieve it, and then using storytelling or some kind of synthesis to make sense of it, and then communicate that sense to others.

Ross: Wow, it sounds like a fun life.

Leslie: It actually is. The thing with trivia is that you need to review it constantly to keep things fresh. There’s an app on the smartphone, it’s a flashcard app that a lot of people in competitive trivia use. Every time I see something new, I make a flashcard about it. I’ve got over 20,000 flashcards now. The key is actually to keep revealing them and to keep reviewing them. Similarly, when I find a new innovation, that I think, oh, okay, that’s really interesting, I make a PowerPoint slide out of it, because my means of communication is PowerPoint presentations, either internally or, to others. A picture is worth 1000 words. If I’m talking about new technologies and if I’m just talking, people will go, yeah, whatever; but if I’m showing a picture of the thing that I’m talking about, oh, that’s concrete, maybe that really is going to happen.

To keep reviewing the actual slides that I have, in both cases, I have a file, I’m continually reviewing what I have, continually refreshing the narrative in my head, and refreshing my understanding, so that it doesn’t get old, it continues to stay fresh, and the new information is continually assimilated, and incorporated, which also means continually questioning my own assumptions, which is actually very important as well.

Ross: That is beautiful. Let’s look at the PowerPoint slides. I have two questions. Is there a particular format for the slides? What information have you got? Have you got a picture?

Leslie: Yes, always a picture. The bulk of the slide is the picture, and that’s really to communicate to the audience that this thing is real; this thing is going to happen. One of the ones that I just made yesterday, I saw that the University of Basel in Switzerland was using augmented reality on smartphones to help people deal with arachnophobia through exposure therapy. The idea is that you’re using your camera on your smartphone to place scary-looking spiders in your environment so that you get used to seeing scary-looking spiders. You stick your hand there, you look at your hand through your camera, the app puts a giant hairy spider on your hand, and then you get used to it. It turns out that people who have had that exposure through the augmented reality app are much calmer when they encounter a real spider.

For that one, absolutely a picture of the hand with the camera and the giant hairy spider. I can talk about it all but as soon as you see that, the big hairy spider on the hand, you get it. You are going to remember it much better than I will. So yes, the picture is the main thing, then a little bit of descriptive text. Here, the thing is, the slides can go traveling; I have had slides stolen by other people, and then presented as their own. I don’t put the whole story in the text on the slide, but just enough to indicate there are some interesting things here. I always have the source in the note section. If you have any credibility at all, or in order to have any credibility at all, you’ve got to be able to point to where this came from.

Ross: With those PowerPoint slides, you’ve got a certain format to them. What are the merits of getting the PowerPoint slide? How do you cross the threshold to say, it merits a PowerPoint slide.

Leslie: Within my industry, it needs to be something that our customer base could ultimately somehow make money from. My customer base is the phone companies of the world. What is something that a phone company could conceivably offer to their end-users as a service or something? There’s a lot that goes into that. That’s the first level of criteria. Then the second is how earth-shattering is this? Because the spider thing is cool but that’s not very earth-shattering unless you have crippling arachnophobia, in which case, it could change your life. But in general, the sliding scale, however, sometimes it’s hard to know what is a standalone thing and what is ultimately going to be part of a bigger story; chaining together several things from different sources, you can tell the story of a much bigger development.

I have a massive one right now, it’s about 400 slides. Here’s my index, and I have categorizations, so I make the slide, I slot it into my categorization. Then I have a short version that’s my master story. That’s what I’m telling at any given time, and that’s about 50 slides. There are different levels of criteria; first of all, do I care about you at all? Then it’s like, okay, apply criteria, will my customers care? Can they do something with this? The second level of criteria, do you make it into the giant file? Oh, the highest, do you actually make it into the small file? And then you actually get presented out to others.

To make it into the small file, it’s got to be part of the overall story that’s being told. Right now that’s a story about how head-mounted displays and mixed reality glasses are ultimately going to be displacing smartphones by 2030. That’s the big story that I’m looking at. There’s a lot of little stuff that goes into that. If I come out and say that to you right now, “No way”, something in your brain is saying, “she’s nuts, that’s completely never going to happen”. It’s up to me to assemble the facts that I have, to assemble the different bits of evidence that I’ve gleaned from all these different areas, to assemble that in order to tell the story, to show this is how I came to this conclusion. Okay, now at the end of the 50 slides, what do you think? Generally, at that point, people go, oh, okay, that’s not crazy, maybe that is going to happen. It’s about telling a story, and it’s about persuading others that all kinds of crazy science fiction-sounding things actually are going to happen.

Ross: You have a thesis, I suppose, is that accurate?

Leslie: Yes, I do have a thesis. That’s actually the thing that I need to keep revisiting.

Ross: I was about to get to that. The intent is to persuade them of your thesis, and I agree with you on this particular thesis, but it’s not a certain one.

Leslie: Right. Lots of variables. Lots can happen. Lots can change. Lots can go wrong. I have been doing this for a while and some of the things, for example, five years ago, I was looking very hard at what Google and Facebook were doing in terms of alternate ways of bringing connectivity to rural markets. They were doing all kinds of things with free Wi-Fi, they were looking at drones, and Google’s Project Loon, the balloons and everything, and I was saying these guys are serious about disrupting the way that connectivity is delivered, we need to pay attention to that.

Now the story’s not over but that has not developed the way that I thought it would. My industry breathes a sigh of relief but the people in rural markets, it’s like, Hey, we’re still underserved here. Another thing that I do, and this isn’t much about information gathering, but a way to test my thesis is to look for gaps. Places, where there are gaps in terms of technology, are the places where the innovation is most likely to catch hold. Innovation for innovation’s sake, nothing, worthless, doesn’t mean a thing; innovation that solves existing problems are where there is a gap in what we’ve got today. If there is a match between an innovation and a current gap, or a current problem, then that’s when I think it’s going to get traction, which is why I think, finding new ways to connect the people in the world who are not yet connected, and finding a lower-cost way to do that, that problem is still out there and something’s going to come in and do that.

Maybe it’s going to be the satellite technology, I don’t know. Within every new solution is the kernel of the next problem, so it’s never-ending, we’re never done here. My smartphone lets me do all kinds of fabulous things but now, where do I plug this thing in? That’s the new problem. It’s always rolling forward.

Ross: It puts on to get us towards, so you’re spotting your innovation, part of the filtering, that is to say, does this meet an existing gap? Does this have relevance? Is this useful?

Leslie: Right, does it fit the gap, it’s how significant is this, how big is the gap? How big is the problem that needs to be solved?

Ross: Does that mean you’ve already mapped out the gaps? The ones which you are looking for solutions to?

Leslie: Yes, there are. However, again, there is complacency. You can’t just say, Oh, I have my list of gaps and I’m done. You always have to be open to questioning. What am I assuming that might be wrong? What are gaps that I was not aware of? I was not aware of the gap in arachnophobia exposure training. Now I know about that. The guys at the University of Basel, seem to have filled that. Sometimes when you see something that’s when you become aware of the gap, oh, look, here is a solution to that, I can totally see that’s a good thing.

One of the problems in this industry, especially with trend scouting, is way too often there are technologies in search of a problem to solve. I remember once I was talking to the CTO of a major Oceania-based telecom service provider, and he was saying, I need a blockchain app. I’m like, oh, okay, well, what problem are you trying to solve? What’s the issue that you need to address with blockchain? He just looked at me, he’s like, I need a blockchain app, and I’m like, okay, I hear what’s going on here. His board or somebody above him said, Oh, blockchain is cool, we need some headline around blockchain, go make it happen.

It’s ridiculous how often that kind of thing happens. It’s the use of a new technology; it will only find fertile ground if it is actually in service of an existing problem. You need to start with a problem and see what technology that leads you to, and then you’ll find something that’ll take root and grow. If you’re trying to force blockchain on people, guess what, whatever ideas you come up with are probably not going to be good ones.

Ross: Let’s move on to scanning. That’s part of the job, you guys scan, look around, see what you see. You obviously see a lot, so what do you scan? How do you scan it? What are your tools? What’s your process? What’s your routine?

Leslie: I subscribe to lots of industry newsletters, both in my own industry and adjacent industries. Every day, I look through all of them and I go really fast. I’m looking for keywords.

Ross: Does your email have newsletters?

Leslie: Yes, it has been the email newsletters, absolutely, online. If something’s interesting then I’m like Okay, this is great, I pull it over, I drop it to an Excel spreadsheet, and then every single day I try to make at least one slide out of something from my Excel spreadsheet. My target is 20 slides a month. I don’t always make it but that’s the volume that I’m looking for, a cadence of about a slide a day. Scan quickly but also just be aware for anything. If I happen to come across a trivia point, then I’ll just drop that to my flashcards and keep going.

It’s really Find, Filter, and then File. That is the input hopper. Then once you have the file, familiarize, by reviewing; and reviewing to make sure that you haven’t forgotten anything either on the trivia side or what are interesting elements of my story here; because sometimes I put things in the giant 400 slide deck and I forget that they’re there, so when I’m just reviewing those, I’m like, Oh, that was interesting in the past but now it’s important, I’d forgotten about that one, bring it in. Then formulate, formulating the story that I’m going to tell whether it’s an external story to convince people about the credence of new technological developments and the importance of those or formulating a story so that I can remember key bits of information and random bits of information that I happen to come across. It’s the five F’s, Find, Filter, File, Familiarize and Formulate.

Ross: You made that up?

Leslie: I did.

Ross: Good, write a book about it.

Leslie: It works for me, your results may vary. It’s important in all of this to find a methodology that matches your own brain. I was extremely lucky in terms of the game show success that I’ve had. I have a reasonably well-organized brain. I can retrieve things very quickly because of the way that I’ve consciously filed them, and I happen to be just naturally a fast person. Fast on the buzzer? Sure, no problem. Create something where you pay money for people to remember things quickly. Okay, that just happens to suit me.

The same way that somebody who’s very tall and has great reflexes, Oh, guess what? Basketball is the sport for you. I’m just lucky that my own way of approaching the world is rewarded in this crazy game show way. Different methods work for different people and it really depends on how your brain is organized. I’d say lean into that as opposed to say Well, there’s this method that I heard about from this other person; no, lean into it, discover your own method, that is what I say to other people.

Ross: Just coming back to the Find, newsletters, you find better than scanning publications?

Leslie: Yes, basically I’m paying somebody else except the newsletters are free, I’m paying somebody else to do the scanning for me because I only need the keywords, because I know very strongly that what it is that I’m looking for, so all I need is a couple of words. Okay, that’s worth pursuing, not, not, oh, that’s worth pursuing. If somebody else has actually gone through and read the original articles and extracted the keywords for me, absolutely I’m going to make my time more efficient by piggybacking on their labor. Then I’ll go and I’ll actually read the full article before I make the slide, and absorb the deeper knowledge which will then make it more memorable for me, but having somebody else to do that initial abstraction is invaluable.

Ross: Do you have any routines in terms of times of day that you go through your scanning, your note-taking, on your reading the articles?

Leslie: There are multiple daily and weekly email newsletters that I get. I’m in California, which is the worst time zone; my headquarters are in Europe and I’m 10 hours behind my headquarters. By the time I wake up in the morning, most of my colleagues, their business day is done. When I wake up in the morning, my inbox is full of everybody else’s day, and it’s actually quite wonderful. I can just stay in bed, and just go through the emails and read them all very quickly on the phone, delete the stuff; okay, nothing, nothing, nothing, save the ones that I want to look at more in-depth. Then when I get to my desk, I’ve already cleared out the dross from my inbox, the things that I have left, these are the things that I’m going to attack today. Then I can put my focus and attention on them directly. That’s the daily rhythm that I have for that.

I’m also critical of newsletters. I don’t have a hard and fast timing, but if I have not gotten any nugget from a newsletter in about two or three months, I’m not measuring it exactly, but if I get the feeling like, well, it’s been a while, unsubscribe. I’m an unsubscribe monster, stuff that ends up in my inbox, I will look at everything once. Sometimes random stuff comes to you and it’s good. It’s like, oh, here’s a marketing message from somebody, okay, unsubscribe; here’s an ad for a call, unsubscribe. I try to keep my inbox as information-focused, and information that I care about focused as possible. There was a New Yorker cartoon years ago about the unsubscribe-a-mole, like whack-a-mole except unsubscribing, that’s the way it is; being ruthless so that the things that come into my inbox, I know are things that I want to pay attention to. That’s part of it as well.

Ross: When you take notes, do you note the source, as in the newsletter source just to keep track of that?

Leslie: No, I do not keep track of the newsletter unless the newsletter itself has done the reporting. I need the initial source. I will use the newsletter as a stepping stone to the initial source. Sometimes that’s a little unfair on the newsletter creators because I’m not giving them the publicity that they probably deserve.

Ross: I was thinking more about just being able to track where you got the information; which were the most useful newsletters?

Leslie: Yes, it’s original source for sure.

Ross: You used this delightful phrase in the beginning around imaginary castles of pulling these things together? What’s that process? How do you pull together all of these snippets, insights, innovations, and things that you see to build these building blocks together to create these imaginary castles?

Leslie: It’s funny because, in my education, I actually have a Master’s degree in the history of art. My undergraduate degree was in neuroanatomy, where I cut up a lot of rat brains. I have a biology sciences background, but then I did my graduate studies in the history of art. The thing that the history of art teaches you to do is to think nonlinearly, to think visually, and to think beyond the spreadsheet. It’s an exercise in imagination. For me, a lot of it is visual. What is it to use these technologies? And also putting myself in the shoes of these things, and always asking myself what problem does this thing solve? What problem does this thing create? Then that thinking about it that way, you end up with this three-dimensional puzzle piece that’s got various shapes on the outside of it. Then when you see something else that has a reciprocal shape, you can just put them together. That’s very much the way that I think. That’s not so useful for other people.

Ross: Do you use anything visual to take notes, write or draw things to piece things together in your mind, or is it all just an imaginary construct?

Leslie: It’s all just an imaginary construct.

Ross: Does it have dimensions? Is it in two or three dimensions? Or as in this shape?

Leslie: Thinking about the new technology, that’s actually quite amorphous in terms of the way it’s represented in my head, but thinking about the trivia that is actually quite solid. I’m closing my eyes and I’m looking at the timeline for the 19th century in my head right now. That’s important because I’ve always got new things to put in. As opposed to the technology work that I do, it’s up to me where I put stuff, it’s like, oh, I think this might go with that, that’s really interesting, look what you could do with these two things putting together. For the trivia stuff, you have to file it in the right place; you’re not going to access it again. That is very visual, particularly things with history, things with dates, and geography. Now I’m seeing the world and the different countries that are lighting up in the information that’s the tagging off of the different countries. That filing system is very visual for me.

Ross: Right, though it is a filing system more than a tool of synthesis in that case?

Leslie: No, because I like to think of it as individual categories, or like Christmas trees. Now when I closed my eyes, I saw the world, actually just looking at the globe, Brazil is the country that’s right in front of me here. What do I know about Brazil, it’s actually like decorating a Christmas tree. The more that you know about something, the easier it is to hook more on and the more decorated, and shining the Christmas tree becomes. Now when I close my eyes, I don’t actually see a Christmas tree but I see Brazil is glowing a lot more brightly for me than Bolivia is. Bolivia is dark because I don’t know as much about Bolivia, as I know about Brazil. The more that you hang on the Christmas tree, the more brightly it glows. The more you put on, the easier it is to put more stuff on and then access it again later.

Ross: Because there are more connections?

Leslie: Yes, because there are more connections. I remember one of my favorite TV programs when I was a kid was Connections, hosted by James Burke, a British guy.

Ross: Several of my guests have mentioned it!

Leslie: Oh, my God, the book to that show was like my favorite book. That was probably the thing that taught me as a teenager, connections are important when they cross, divide, you don’t have to stay in the same groove all the time, you’re not locked into a lane here. One of the things that stuck with me out of connections was James Burke’s point, whether it’s correct or not, I don’t know, but the Renaissance was not triggered by the printing press, the Renaissance was actually triggered by the invention of the index, and the ability of people to find information, once they had filed in a book somewhere, and that I totally agree with. Information can pass through your head all day long but unless you can capture it, and put it on a shelf somewhere, somewhere where you can find it again, it didn’t mean anything. It’s the capturing and putting it on a shelf, so you can find it again, that’s the important part.

Ross: I do have to ask for your compact with the story, how did this start? I love those jewels, degrees, those are wonderful compliments, so you’ve obviously found your path, how did this happen?

Leslie: The fundamental thing is I was trying to figure out how people work? What’s going on? Also, I love doing stuff with my hands. I stumbled into cutting out rat brains, experimenting on rats, making changes in their brains, and see what happens. I was doing my undergraduate degree, but then at the beginning of my junior year, the third year of university, I am like, I need to be a well-rounded person, so I took Art History 101, just the basic art history. By the end of the first day, of the first class, we were looking at the cave paintings of Lascaux in that very first class, I was suddenly just blown away. It’s like, oh, my God, I’ve been cutting up rat brains, and I’m no closer to understanding the human mystery, what makes us tick. In this one day of looking at the product of human beings in a particular time and place with their limitations, you can deduce and understand so much about the society that produced something far more than you can by cutting up a rat brain.

I instantly reworked everything so that I could double major in both art history and neuroanatomy. I ended up going to graduate school in the history of art. It’s not just limited to art. Any object tells the story of the society that made it and the time that produced it if you only look. Learning the history of art taught me to look, to not make any assumptions, to look and to be open to what does this event, what does this new development, what does this object has to tell me if I’m open to reading it? Lucky me, I had a degree in the history of art, and that has turned out to be an excellent way to become a technology trend scout, X decades later, who knew.

Ross: Fantastic story. It doesn’t need to be brief but to round out what would you advise to someone who says, All right, I’ve got lots of information, how do I make sense of it? How do I keep on top of that? What’s your summary advice?

Leslie: Find the system that works for you. People will suggest things like index cards or I don’t know what. When something clicks, like people recommended the flashcard app on my phone a bunch of times before I really tried it, I started using it like, oh, this is the one, so if you haven’t found a system yet for organizing information in your life, keep your eyes open, keep your mind open, listen to what other people are saying works for them, and try it. You never know until you actually try something, whether it’s going to work for you.

Again, try to get rid of any assumptions you might have, and give it a go because the most unlikely things might end up being the things that work. Sometimes it is, what is the thing that’s going to solve your problem? What is the problem you need to solve? I need to not only take the information that I take in about my trend scouting, but I need to then present it to others, so making a PowerPoint slide, two birds with one stone, I’ve now got this record of this thing that I found, that I can instantly present it to anybody else, so that kind of thing. What are the multiple problems that you have? What’s the most efficient way that you can do it in a way that actually matches the way that your mind works? There’s something out there for everybody.

Ross: That makes a lot of sense. In a way what you’re suggesting or perhaps I’m reading too much, but you’re implying that the problem is the way of being able to structure or make something of what it is the information you encounter.

Leslie: Exactly. Why is it that you’re gathering information? What is the information for? If it’s just for you, like the flashcards, then something that is just for you; if it is something where you need to turn it around and present it to others, something that will actually get you down that path in terms of the presenting it to others, whether it’s a PowerPoint or a book or whatever. Efficiency is also something that’s near and dear to my heart, so try to cut out inefficient steps, that’s another part of maximizing your time.

I try to touch information as little as possible. That’s why it’s like, the first cast going through the emails in the morning, okay, yes, yes, no, no, then straight into the Excel spreadsheet. Then I’m going to make a slide today, okay, yes, I’m going to do that one, oh, no, that one looked good at the time, no, toss. Don’t spend too much time agonizing. It’s a little bit of that Marie Kondo. If this piece of information sparks joy, hang on to it, it’s important. If it doesn’t, don’t worry about it, off it goes, and keep curating the things that spark joy for you.

Ross: Fantastic, Leslie. Our conversation was not just instructive, but also entertaining and inspiring.

Leslie: I hope not too overwhelming.

Ross: Absolutely. It has been delightful. Thank you so much, Leslie. It’s a real pleasure to talk to you.

Leslie: Oh, Ross, as always, terrific questions you’ve been asking. Thank you. You really made me question and query my own processes in a way that I hadn’t done before. Thank you for that. I’m actually now much more conscious of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

Ross: Fantastic.

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