Walking and talking: with Nilofer Merchant

The business innovator, author and speaker on the fine art of multi-tasking.

Known as "the Jane Bond of innovation," Nilofer Merchant is highly regarded for the unique strategic contributions she's made to companies such as Apple and Adobe. She is a published author, a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review and, most recently, has landed herself on the pages of the September issue of Vogue — a testament to her fashion prowess. But above all else, Merchant has become known for her recent TED Talkwhere she introduced the simple, yet revolutionary concept known as the "Walk and Talk." The gist: Trade seated board room meetings for outdoor strolls, because, as she says, "...fresh air drives fresh thinking." Here, more on her multi-tasking movement:

How did the TED Talk come about?
"I was at a TED conference, and I was supposed to meet with a woman who actually curates the speakers for TED, and I said, ‘Hey, it’s a gorgeous day outside. Instead of standing in the conference room, why don’t we go around the block?’ And we went. I didn't think a thing of it because I did it often enough. She then started doing the same thing with other people, and I realized I was kind of becoming the propagator of this idea. So she asked if I would give a TED Talk, and I found it very funny because I’m really an expert in the other stuff I do — not this. I was sort of amazed it was viewed by 750,000 people in the first month."

So, would you say you "invented" the Walk and Talk?
“You know it’s really funny. I've done research on this and Gandhi actually did all of his negotiations with the British Prime Minister during a walk and talk. Mark Zuckerberg, who learned it from Steve Jobs, has adopted this practice too."

How is the Walk and Talk more effective than, say, your standard seated meeting?
“When you’re sitting across the table from someone, it’s an interesting, very subconscious thing that you are apart from each other. When you’re on a walk, you’re problem solving together with side-by-side body language. The way you’re talking about things suggests something, right? Which is, we’re facing this problem together, we’re on the same side, and it puts it in a different frame. I think that’s so important to how we actually start fixing real problems — to realize we’re all on the same side of it.”

What kinds of surprising outcomes have you had from walking meetings?
“I have a lot of entrepreneurs come to me for advice, and so often we’re talking about their dreams or their visions — just a whole series of very complicated business issues. Being in that outdoor setting feels more free, and it seems to me that people share more deeply what they really care about. I have had more than one party — men and women — cry. I don’t think you’d do that if you were in a coffee shop; I think you’d be much more self-aware.”

How about the health benefits?
"It is really an interesting way of doing two things at the same time. I always viewed fitness as the thing you did after you got all your other stuff done. I really struggled with incorporating fitness as a daily activity. So for example, today I did 25,000 steps. I had a morning nine o'clock meeting, a one o'clock post-lunch walk and talk, and a three o'clock walk and talk. People have really come to adopt it because as soon as you do it, you realize you can actually accomplish two things at the same time. It’s such a truth that until we find a way of looking at any problem in a creative way, we actually just keep doing the same old thing."