Sorting and Labeling

Communicating without making connections

Joseph is overseeing the development of a multi-billion dollar piece of hardware. As project manager, he’s responsible for keeping this seven-year enterprise on schedule and on budget.

Every week he delivers a status report to the division executives. And he’s driving them crazy.

Joseph has a deep knowledge of the hardware and understands how all the different elements interconnect. But he’s stumbling badly with the executives because he’s not making those connections clear to them.

So I taught him the tool I call “Sorting & Labeling.”

In my 17 years of coaching, this tool is the one my clients most often tell me is transformational. You can hear the tool demonstrated (the most powerful way to learn this tool) here.

Tappers & listeners

Communicating without “Sorting & Labeling” makes you like a tapper in Elizabeth Newton’s PhD study at Stanford.

People in her study were either “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers were given a list of 25 well-known songs and asked to tap out the rhythm of one song to a listener. Tappers said they could clearly “hear” the song—complete with lyrics and musical accompaniment—as they tapped away. When asked how well they thought the listeners would do figuring out the song, tappers felt they were setting a pretty low bar by guessing fifty percent. After all, the song was clear as a bell to them.

But it turned out that listeners were able to discern the song only three percent of the time. Three percent! If you’ve ever played this game as a listener you know that three percent is actually quite an achievement. To listeners, the taps are just disconnected dots of sound.

What’s important about this story is the gap between what the tappers think is easy to discern and what the listeners actually experience.

In those weekly meetings, Joseph is a tapper. All his data points are clear as a bell to him. But to the executives, they’re disconnected dots of data.

I’m sure that when you speak, your data is obvious and understandable—to you! But it isn’t automatically that way to your listeners. It is your responsibility to sort and label your information so they can understand and organize it.

The four steps of “Sorting & Labeling”

To sort and label your material successfully, do these four things:

  1. Create a headline of no more than six words
  2. Sort your ideas into a specific number of folders
  3. Label each folder
  4. Transition from folder to folder with clarity

Here’s how to apply those parts.

Joseph showed me a complex slide that illustrated the correlation among the release of funding, meetings with major vendors and the development of software.

In order to sort and label his material, he first had to give this complex model a headline of fewer than six words. Not an easy task. I asked him to think of the headline as simply a high-level indicator, a mere point on a large map.

After some consideration, he decided to call it “Software Development & Funding.” That’s a great, high-level headline.

Next, he had to decide how many ideas he wanted to introduce. This is the “sorting” part of the exercise. The goal in this step is to arrive at a number.

He decided that the meetings with the vendors didn’t actually need their own folder. Good sorting. So there were only two ideas to introduce.

Next I asked him to “label” the two folders he’d created. (Labels should be even shorter than headlines. One, two or three words max.) This went quickly: “Funding” and “Software development.”

Gliding from folder to folder

Then we discussed how many points were in each folder. As he explained his ideas, I often stopped and asked, “Are we still in the ‘Funding’ folder?” He’d say, no, he had jumped to the “Software development” folder without telling me.

Jumping between folders is not unusual. The problem is that you know you’ve done it but your listeners don’t. If you fail to tell me which folder you’re in, all your Sorting & Labeling work is for nothing, because I’m trying to put the information I’m hearing into the wrong folder.

Clear, simple transition statements serve the purpose of closing one folder in your listener’s mind and opening another. They let me know where you are in your material so I can keep your information organized.

Transition statements aren’t long. They can sound like this: “That’s everything about funding. Now I want to talk about software development.”

One folder closes and another opens. Simple as that.

Those are the four steps of “Sorting and Labeling.”

In addition to the four major steps, here are three elegant refinements of this tool.

Refinement 1:  Sort & Label at every level

When I deliver my keynote speeches, they’re all sorted and labeled. The whole ninety-minute piece is sorted into three big sections. Then each of those big sections have their own folders.

And often those folders have sub-folders. As long as I’m clear how many sub-folders are within each folder, and as long as I use good transition statements, it’s easy to lead people through the multiple levels of folders.

I might say something like this:

“One major issue I coach on these days is something I call ‘managing relationships.’ I see that people need help managing relationships with three different groups—managing relationships with their direct reports, their peers and their managers.“Of those three, I’d like to talk about the first one: managing direct reports. When people are managing their direct reports, I find they often need help developing three specific skills: One, holding people accountable; two, giving feedback; and three, what I call talking at the right altitude.“So let’s talk about those skills in order. First, holding people accountable. This is a very simple four-part model…”

Can you see how I laid out the hierarchy? If I were going to sketch it, it might look like this:

090609-web-diagram

If you had heard that with no illustration, I believe you’d know exactly what you were about to hear (“holding people accountable”) and how it connected to the big picture (“managing relationships”).

The point here is that you can sort and label at every level of your information. You can sort at the highest level, like the table of contents of a book. You can also sort at the micro level, for example, bullet points on a slide.

What I’ve found, and what people tell me who use “Sorting & Labeling,” is that it’s incredibly helpful for staying on track and knowing where you are in your own material. And of course it helps your listeners, too.

Refinement 2:  Highlight your labels

In the example above about managing relationships, did you notice the repeated use of words like, “what I call…”? This was the first sentence: “One major issue I coach on these days is something I call ‘managing relationships.’”

If I don’t use the words “something I call,” you might not hear the words “managing relationships” as a headline. But I need you to hear it as a headline.

Don’t be shy about using phrases like, “this is what I call…” or “we refer to this as…” Those phrases get us to hear your words as a headline or a label. Your words suddenly become important and memorable. And the more you repeat the words, the more important and memorable they become. That’s refinement number two: use phrases that draw attention to your labels.

Refinement 3:  Use numbers: they make you sound expert

The third refinement is about numbers. (Good transition statement, huh?) “Sorting & Labeling” lends itself to the use of numbers and this is where the tool becomes particularly elegant.

Here’s one way I used numbers in the example above: “When people are managing their direct reports, I find they often need help developing three specific skills.”

The instant you hear that number, you create three mental buckets and get ready to receive the information. That makes the data more understandable. Also, using a number makes me sound like an expert. I wouldn’t know there are three parts if I weren’t an expert, right?

When you use numbers, you sound more credible and your information becomes more understandable. That’s a big gain from a little technique.

An offer—for free!

I believe strongly that “Sorting & Labeling” can improve the way people experience you as a communicator. I really want you to be able to successfully incorporate this tool into your everyday style at work.

I’d like to send you the illustration that depicts “Sorting & Labeling.” I think it’ll help you adopt this tool more easily. Hit the reply button and ask for it. It’ll be my pleasure to send it to you.

Recap: 4 steps & 3 refinements

So here are the four steps in “Sorting & Labeling:”

  1. Create a headline of no more than six words
  2. Sort your ideas into a specific number of folders
  3. Label each folder
  4. Transition between each folder with clarity

Here are the three refinements:

  1. Sort and label at every level of information. Put folders within folders.
  2. Draw attention to your labels with phrases like, “we call this…”
  3. Use numbers. Tell us how many folders are within that folder.

Here’s the final beautiful thing about the Sorting & Labeling tool: you can use it all the time!

Use it…
…in every slide in every deck you present from now on;
…in your emails and voicemails;
…when answering essay questions;
…when reporting at a staff meeting;
…any time people need to understand complex concepts.

When wouldn’t you use it? Well, you wouldn’t use it when telling a story. (Look at the “tappers & listeners” story. No sorting there.) “Sorting & Labeling” will speed you down the road that I call The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

40 Comments

  1. Beata on November 2, 2014 at 3:53 am

    Dear Tom,

    Could you please send me more info on
    Sorting and labeling.
    Thank you in advance

    Greetings from Austria,

    Beata

    • Tom Henschel on November 3, 2014 at 5:07 pm

      Beata,
      Thanks for being in touch. And thanks for the greetings from Austria!
      I’ve sent the “Sorting & Labeling” PDF via email. I hope it’s helpful. I think it’s a fantastic communications tool.
      It’s great to hear from you. Let me know how else I can support you.
      All the best,
      Tom

      • Praveen on March 21, 2015 at 8:35 am

        Could you please send me more info on
        Sorting and labeling. I am struggling a bit on making connections and transitioning

        • Tom Henschel on April 24, 2015 at 8:38 am

          Praveen,
          First, sorry for the slow response. My apologies.
          Second, yes, of course, I’m happy to send the “Sorting & Labeling” PDF. I will send it to your email address.
          Let me know if you’re still confused once you see it and listen to the podcast again. I’m happy to help.
          All the best,
          Tom

    • Alexis D on October 26, 2017 at 7:33 pm

      I don’t know if it’s too late to ask for this but I somehow just discovered your podcast, and as an introverted young professional in the nonprofit sector who’s highly ambitious, I need all the help I can get!

      • Tom Henschel on November 9, 2017 at 9:01 am

        Alexis,
        No, absolutely, it is NOT too late to ask for the Sorting & Labeling PDF. I’m happy to share it any time.
        I hope it’s helpful.
        Funny, I was just talking with some friends this weekend that I’ve never written an Executive Coaching Tip about introversion in the workplace. Maybe it’s time!
        Thanks for being in touch.
        Tom

  2. Lisa Freeny on November 10, 2014 at 11:17 am

    Hi,
    I’ve subscribe to your podcasts in iTunes. I listen to them during my 1 hour communute to work. I would like a copy of the sorting & labeling illustration. I frequently have difficulties with communications. I either tell too much or not enough.

    • Tom Henschel on November 24, 2014 at 6:16 pm

      Lisa,
      I hope you received the PDF of “Sorting & Labeling.” I’m so glad to share it with you. It’s such a great tool. I hope it’s helpful for you.
      Let me know how you’re doing with your communication. Sounds like you’re working on it!
      All the best,
      Tom

  3. Meegan on November 13, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Hi could you please send me the info on sorting and labeling.

    Thank you!

  4. Michael on November 23, 2014 at 8:09 pm

    Hi Tom.

    Really love the podcast. Concise and meaty. I always walk away satisfied 🙂

    I’d be grateful for a copy of the sorting and labelling illustration.

    Many thanks in advance.

    Michael

    • Tom Henschel on November 24, 2014 at 6:21 pm

      Michael,
      Great to hear from you. Thanks for the feedback. I like thinking of the podcast as “meaty” and “satisfying.”
      I’ve sent the PDF to you for “Sorting & Labeling” via email. Glad you asked. Let me know if you don’t receive it.
      Thanks for being in touch!
      Tom

  5. Jason on January 20, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    Please send me more information on sorting and labeling

    • Tom Henschel on April 24, 2015 at 9:21 am

      Jason,
      I’m concerned that you may not have seen my reply. I am going to send you the Sorting & Labeling PDF to your email address. If this is the first response you are receiving, I apologize.
      Tom

  6. Lisa Dunnigan on April 11, 2015 at 10:30 am

    Dear Tom,
    Thanks so much for the podcasts. I am “folder hopper” and am definitely interested in using the technique described in this podcast to create clarity when presenting information. Could you please send me the Sorting and Labeling PDF you referenced in the podcast. Thank you!
    Lisa

    • Tom Henschel on April 24, 2015 at 8:36 am

      You bet, Lisa. Thanks for asking! Glad to share the “Sorting & Labeling” PDF. My pleasure. I’m sending it to your email address.
      Thanks for being in touch.
      All the best,
      Tom

  7. Ali on July 4, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    Hi Tom,

    You Are the Man. I love your broadcast & real life lessons . I would love to have your secret weapon PDF in Sorting and Labeling.

    Best Regards
    Ali

    • Tom Henschel on July 9, 2015 at 3:26 am

      Ali,
      Great to hear from you. Thanks for subscribing to the Coaching Tips. I’ll send the Sorting & Labeling secret weapon right away.
      Tom

  8. Wyndi Anderson on November 16, 2015 at 7:44 am

    Dear Tom, Just found your website today from the podcast and I love it! Just what I have been needing. Can you send me the pdf on sorting and labeling? I believe it will be key in communicating the creative ideas! My directs and colleagues will be thrilled!
    Wyndimarie

    • Tom Henschel on December 2, 2015 at 4:12 pm

      Windi,
      So glad you’ve found the website. Glad if it’s helpful.
      I’ve sent the Sorting & Labeling PDF to your email.
      Let me know how else I can support you.
      Thanks!
      Tom

  9. Shelly S on March 28, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    Hi Tom, You are simply amazing ! I use podcast to hear your work. Can you please send the sorting and labeling PDF via email.

    Many thanks
    Shelly

    • Tom Henschel on May 18, 2016 at 10:46 pm

      Shelly,
      Amazing? I’m glad you think so.
      I’m sending the sorting and labeling template via email. Let me know if you don’t get it.
      (By the way — I’m so sorry for the delay. This comment didn’t show up for a while. Don’t know why.)
      Tom

  10. Ciara on June 13, 2016 at 5:44 am

    Hi Tom,

    I have been listening to your podcasts on the way to work while sitting in D.C. traffic! You have helped me build so many skills and I will be forever grateful.

    I would love to have a copy of the sorting and labeling PDF via email.

    I used the sorting and labeling technique in a recent briefing and my manager told me she was very impressed with how I performed in the meeting! I am enthusiastic about perfecting this technique and adopting it into more of my communications. I really appreciate you sharing this tip!

    • Tom Henschel on June 13, 2016 at 6:07 pm

      As someone who lives in the thick of LA traffic, I commiserate. You and I could probably trade stories about traffic horrors. I’m glad if I’ve helped you build your skills — and perhaps taken your mind off the gridlock.

      I will send the Sorting & Labeling PDF to your email address.

      Congratulations on using it and getting such positive feedback. It really is a wonderful tool, isn’t it?

      Watch your in box for the PDF.

      Great to be in touch with you, Ciara.

      Tom

  11. Ben on July 5, 2016 at 7:03 am

    Hi Tom,

    could you please send me the info on sorting and labeling.

    Thank you!

    • Tom Henschel on July 7, 2016 at 1:57 pm

      Ben,
      Thanks for being in touch.
      I’ll send the Sorting & Labeling PDF to your email.
      Thanks!
      Tom

  12. Krysti on October 26, 2016 at 9:36 am

    Hello Tom, Orange county listener here, I’d like to see the PDF on Sorting & Labeling please!
    Thank you!

    • Tom Henschel on October 31, 2016 at 8:43 am

      Krysti,
      I sent the PDF via email. Check your in box.
      Tom

  13. Maggie on March 13, 2017 at 6:42 pm

    Hi Tom!

    Could you kindly send me this PDF as well?

    Thank you

    • Tom Henschel on April 3, 2017 at 11:17 am

      Maggie,
      I’ve sent the PDF to your email address.
      Let me know how else I can support you.
      Thanks for being in touch.
      Tom

  14. Leo on June 7, 2017 at 7:15 am

    Hi Tom,

    It’s Leo, from Brazil.
    Could you kindly send me the PDF illustration on Sorting & Labeling?

    Thank you in advance!

    • Tom Henschel on June 12, 2017 at 6:08 pm

      Hi, Leo.
      Good to hear from you.
      I will send the Sorting & Labeling PDF to your email address.
      Thanks!
      Tom

  15. Rusty Clarke on July 11, 2017 at 7:05 pm

    Hi Tom,

    Could you please send the Sorting & Labeling PDF? Thanks for the support!

    Rusty

  16. Chris on September 12, 2017 at 3:48 pm

    Great tips! could you please send me the sorting and labeling PDF?

    Thank you and keep up the great work!

    • Tom Henschel on September 15, 2017 at 9:45 am

      Chris,
      I’ve sent you the Sorting & Labeling PDF to your email.
      Thanks for reaching out!
      Tom

  17. Chad on October 21, 2017 at 11:09 am

    Hello Tom,

    After hearing you mention sorting and labeling in multiple podcasts, I finally went back and listened to this episode. This is a great metaphor. I would appreciate seeing the PDF you mentioned. Would you please email me that?

    Thanks for serving us so well with this content, Tom.

    Onwards!

    Chad

    • Tom Henschel on November 9, 2017 at 8:58 am

      Chad,
      The PDF is in the mail!
      Great, as always, to be in touch with you.
      Tom

  18. Mark on October 25, 2017 at 1:49 pm

    Tom, thank you so much — I can really improve by using these ideas! And I’m looking forward to exploring your archive of podcasts.

    Would you also please send me the PDF? I’d really appreciate it.

    – Mark

    • Tom Henschel on November 9, 2017 at 9:00 am

      Mark,
      The PDF should hit your in-box.
      Thanks for being in touch.
      Tom

  19. George on November 5, 2017 at 8:31 am

    Hi Tom,

    Great podcast on sorting and labeling. Can you send me the PDF. I would love to share with my peers and also encourage them to listen to your show.

    • Tom Henschel on November 9, 2017 at 9:05 am

      Hello again, George!
      I’ve sent the PDF. Feel free to share it with your peers. The more folks who know about it, the better, right?
      All the best, George.
      Tom

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