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Try this simple 5-step approach when you want to learn new things fast

Don’t panic: it doesn’t mean abandoning Google. Once you gain the key learning coordinates, you can gain deeper knowledge than ever before.

Try this simple 5-step approach when you want to learn new things fast
[Photo: Michael Blann/Getty Images]

When people want to learn a new topic, internet research alone is not enough.

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In Gong‘s early days, one of our biggest hurdles was learning about speech-to-text technology. We knew we needed it to analyze phone and video conversations, but we had no idea where to start. Had we just typed “speech-to-text” into Google, we would have gotten over 780 million results, with no way of distinguishing valuable guides from marketing blogs.

Company blogs can be shallow, SEO-driven, and part of an ulterior agenda. Top-quality SEO costs tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars per month. So, what you often see in top search results (and let’s face it, how many of us browse beyond the first page or two?) come from high marketing budgets, not necessarily top expertise.

Instead, start by drilling one level below that: Reach out to someone in your network who knows what they’re talking about.

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It’s the first step in what I call the “Spiral Method.” The Spiral Method consists of 15-20 meetings with actual human beings and refers to the steadily deepening info you get as you go. Importantly, it doesn’t mean abandoning Google. Once you gain the key learning coordinates, use Google as a supplemental tool, refining information that you gather from meetings.

Here’s how the Spiral Method works.

Five steps of the Spiral Method

Step 1: Identify your topic and reach out to knowledgeable people in your network.

Once you know your topic, head not to Google, but to your close circle or LinkedIn.

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Chances are, you know 50 people personally who know more about the topic than you do. (Not to mention 5,000 more people one degree out.) Once you’ve identified a handful of knowledgeable people, reach out, and ask them if they’re willing to have a short conversation with you about your topic.

Step 2: In your first meeting, prioritize high-level information.

The objective of your first meeting should be to identify primary concepts, which you’ll dig into as the spiral deepens. You’re trying to become a little bit smarter, a little bit more informed. The full contents of the first meeting may go over your head. If they do, don’t worry. Your goal isn’t to digest all of the information right out of the gate.

Among other concepts, my first speech-to-text meeting introduced me to the concept of “word error rate,” a main metric in evaluating the quality of machine translations. Armed with this and other concepts, I took a more informed stance in subsequent meetings.

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Step 3: Ask them who else you should talk to.

As with any networking process, the Spiral Method depends on turning one connection into many. In the course of your conversation, other names will naturally arise. Don’t be bashful about respectfully asking for intros.

Step 4: Repeat this process until you’ve spoken to 15-20 experts.

In between meetings, use Google to refine concepts that you culled from the previous meeting. Once I had “word error rate,” I could search specifically for that, learning how it worked, what constituted a “good” one, etc. I did the same for “acoustic models,” and other key concepts in speech-to-text technology at the time.

Your initial network likely does not have industry experts, but as you progress through the series of meetings, you’re able to be able to reach true experts. By that time, you’ve developed a good understanding of key terminology, challenges, and market perception, and can have a deeper dialog with them.

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One thing you’ll learn from experts that you cannot learn on the internet on your own is where the market, or certain technology, is trending. The internet will contain information about the past, the present, and all available futures. But experts who live and breath in the field can usually tell where it’s heading—and even if their viewpoint is subjective, you can sense the general direction.

Step 5: Measure your progress by asking yourself how much new information you learned from each conversation.

If you’re doing this well, your learning rate naturally declines with each subsequent meeting. By the fifth meeting or so, maybe 60% of the information you gather is new, while you’re able to converse intelligently on the other 40%.

In my speech-to-text spiral, I hit a point around meeting #15 where we discussed 20% new information and 80% concepts I already knew. By meeting #20, I didn’t learn anything new. When meeting #21 felt the same, I knew I’d maxed out my non-professional learning. I’d gone as far as I could go without getting a degree in the subject. By that time, I knew where we needed to head, and, most importantly in that case, who I would need to hire to make it happen.

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Tips for a successful Spiral Method

How you conduct these meetings is equally as important as what you learn from them. The Spiral Method essentially means asking people—a lot of people—for favors. So a successful spiral depends on a respectful, professional approach.

1. Be respectful of other people’s time (ask for short meetings)

Informational meetings should last, at most, half an hour. Recognizing that you’re going to spread the learning process across 15-20 meetings, make it your goal to learn a few new things in each meeting, keeping them at a convenient length for your connections.

2. Ask specific, relevant questions

Instead of asking, “Hey, can you tell me about speech-to-text technology?” I asked people specific questions that they were qualified to answer. Nowadays, entrepreneurs often come to me for help. When they ask questions about topics within my realm of expertise, great conversations follow. When they ask questions not remotely related to my professional experience, I can tell they haven’t done their research, and the conversations feel like a waste of time.

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3. Be courteous and grateful

Say “Thank you.” Send thank-you notes. Even consider sending a gift, if it seems appropriate. Gratitude leaves a lasting positive impression on people — especially people who did you favors.

By the end of this process, you will have made several significant achievements:

  • Gained deep knowledge on a new topic
  • Enabled sensible, intelligent business decisions
  • Strengthened your network of relevant professionals

It’s crucial that you pay it forward — even when the people reaching out to you are distant connections. If people demonstrate the same traits that made your Spiral Method successful, help them along in theirs. Humanity improves through mutual aid — through numerous interlocking spirals.

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4. Don’t hesitate to use it outside of work

I’ve used this method not just for work, but in personal projects as well.

For example, before starting Gong, I was involved in setting up a new local public elementary school. As a group of parents, we wanted to influence the school’s pedagogic direction to be more fit for the 21st century. But, we didn’t know anything about public education. So, we started by talking to teachers, then to school principals, then to education administrators and academic experts. We ended up understanding that project-based learning was the right approach for our community, and we were able to influence the city administration to head in that direction. Our ability to make an impact hinged on our ability to develop expertise on a topic we did not have a clue about at the beginning of the process.

So, next time you find yourself interested in a new topic or idea, try the Spiral Method instead of internet research alone. What happens just might surprise you.

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This article originally appeared in Minutes and is reprinted with permission.

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