Manager Toolkit: You Talk, I Type

Learning disabilities are pretty common in my family. I have several relatives with dyslexia, ADHD, or other challenges that made traditional school hard for them. My sister, for example, has dyslexia. She’s one of the most intelligent people I know, but reading and writing are more challenging for her than for the average person.

When I was little, my parents talked to us about dyslexia and other learning differences using phrases like “everyone’s brain works differently” and “different people need different tools to be successful.” For example, my sister might listen to a novel instead of reading it on paper. Someone with ADHD might use a watch alarm to remind them to feed the cat. A tool people with dyslexia sometimes use is scribing (from the word scribe), where they dictate something and another person writes what they say. My sister would use this technique to speed up the creation of rough drafts for essays and term papers.

When I became a manager and began supporting people on their career journeys, I started reaching back to the things I saw and learned growing up to help peole with “different brains.” I’ve tried many of the tools and techniques I learned, but the one I turn to the most is scribing. The word scribing can be awkward, so instead, I refer to it as “you talk, I type.”

I mostly use this technique in one-on-one brainstorming meetings, especially around strategy. I’ve also used it to help when someone has many projects in flight and wants my help prioritizing them. In general, I reach for this tool if I get the impression that a situation is complex enough or stressful enough that it is difficult to simultaneously come up with ideas and record and organize them. And while I have neurodiverse folks on my team, I’ve used this technique with everyone at some point. It is another example of the curb cut effect, something I learned in the context of accommodating disability can benefit everyone.

I’ve developed some general guidelines about how I run a “you talk, I type” session based on both scribing and pair programming best practices. For example, I offer to write while someone else talks, but I don’t insist. I also offer to share my screen if it makes them more comfortable seeing what I’m typing in real time. Everyone needs to be comfortable for this technique to be successful.

I break from traditional scribing in that I don’t write down things verbatim. I also don’t expect complete sentences and paragraphs from the talker. When I type, I use a lot of bulleted lists, and I paraphrase or summarize to make ideas more concise. For me, the goal isn’t a word-for-word record of what is said. The goal is to get all the ideas out of their head and into a form where we can organize thoughts, address concerns, and generally make sense of a situation.

If the talker stalls or says they have nothing more to say, I’ll ask a few questions to ensure we didn’t miss anything important. My favorite question to keep things going is, “What else?” I’ll repeat that over and over as long as it keeps the ideas flowing. I’ll also bring up edge cases like “What do we need to think about for folks outside the US?” or “What events do we have coming up?”

Once we’re satisfied all the ideas are on “paper,” we can start grouping related ideas, organizing by priority, rephrasing things, and whatever else we need to do to accomplish our original task. I’ll often highlight related items in the same color to avoid moving them around the page. Sometimes, I’ll ask the person I’ve been collaborating with to review what’s written and identify any patterns or groups they see. I try to let whoever did the talking lead this part of the process so that they have ownership of the final result.

I’ve been asked, “How is this different than just taking notes?” There are a lot of similarities, but for me, it feels much more like driver-navigator pair programming. I’m acting as an input device. I’m largely silent, only speaking up when I need the other person to clarify something, change their current level of abstraction, etc. In a normal meeting, there’s much more back-and-forth discussion, and ideally, one person isn’t doing all the direction setting and supplying all the ideas. When I do “you talk, I type,” nearly all of the ideas and information come from someone else, and I’m just writing them down for us to work with later.

I’m curious if others do something similar with their direct reports or peers. I don’t think we recognize how hard it can be to simultaneously express new ideas and write them down. I’m frequently amazed that by eliminating the need for someone to write or remember things they can suddenly come up with many creative solutions to problems and awesome ideas for future projects.