May I let you in on a secret? There’s a memo going around the “in” crowd, and I think you might be in. It’s about highlighters. Highlighters are magical weapons. But it’s not the highlighter itself that is magical. It’s just a couple of plastic tubes, a felt tip, and some see-through ink. What’s special is the way it is used.
At some point you will enter a meeting to discuss human resource metrics. You will be handed a printed page full of numbers. For those just getting started with this skill, there may be a flood of emotion. These pages may look like a blur, like scrambled eggs, or a junkyard, or an ancient text in Linear B. You recall vivid memories of that schoolteacher who didn’t tell you that you could become good at math. Maybe you made a big mistake with math one time (don’t worry, everyone did).
But you have a secret weapon. You have a highlighter. Take a deep breath, maybe two. Now, un-sheath your highlighter, and put the cap on the opposite end, to keep it all together. Make clean, swift movements, like you do this every day.
You are hereby granted permission to mark the page with highlighter. It’s funny, right? You weren’t sure if that was okay. So just go for it. Maybe test the pen in the corner or something. There, now you’re ready. You are the boss of this piece of paper in your hand.
Now look in the bottom right-hand corner of the page. It’s usually some kind of total. Highlight the total. Say the number out loud. Look at the title in the upper-left of the page. Does the number you highlighted reflect the title of the page? It should. If it doesn’t, then someone other than you is confused.
“This number, what does it mean?” Just keep it simple. Don’t apologize. You see, you are the client. You are allowed to ask questions. And this pristine piece of paper with the fancy characters… has just been marked up by you, deciding for yourself what is clear, what is interesting. Listen to the answer you get. Make the math people use their words. Don’t worry, they’re happy you are engaging.
Now, you should have a dry feeling in your mouth. You’re not nervous. You’re hungry. Spend the next few minutes in silence, marking the page. Find the biggest number on the page. Then the smallest. Find things that don’t make sense. Find things that aren’t what you expected. Just briefly, consider a new way of thinking. Catch a typo, and be nice about it.
Now talk about what you found. Compare notes with others. You’ll probably get it half-right.
And that’s it. You’re done with first steps. But just remember, you can’t do it if you aren’t using your highlighter. Because a highlighter is a magical weapon that defeats intimidation.