Have you read anything that clearly explains what the heck British Petroleum was using to implement its failed Top Kill strategy?
Here’s how the New York Times described the material being used to force-feed mud down the throat of the blown-out well: “The mud has been ‘weighted up’ by adding dense powdered minerals so that it weighs 16.4 pounds per gallon. Additives have been mixed in to improve the flow and prevent the formation of icelike structures of gas and water called hydrates.”
To the reporter’s credit, he did describe it in the lead of his article as having “the consistency of a half-melted milkshake,” which actually isn’t too bad.
You can often simplify difficult-to-explain concepts by channeling how a teacher might explain it to a classroom of kids. Authors Chip and Dan Heath (Made to Stick) urge presenters to be Concrete and use Stories (or in this case, Visuals). As the Heaths point out, a sticky idea is understood, it’s remembered, and it changes something. The half-melted milkshake analogy may hit one or two of those standards; Bill Nye hits all three once he sets the stage for what the mud does. He went far enough to make his explanation Concrete, and therefore sticky.
Maybe this points to the inherent disadvantage the print media has against the electronic media, but you have the same advantages in a conference room or in front of an audience.
What kind of examples or visuals have you used to explain something more complex?
In the midst of some new projects and designing a new website that has a real chance to impact people’s lives, I’ve gotten to thinking about whether my personal-branding materials go far enough to explain what makes me different, whether I’m adequately reinforcing the “bulldog” brand on my personal website and elsewhere.
I’m not sure I’m being in-your-face enough, because that’s one of the things that makes me different from other communicators. So I’m taking a second look at my website to get away from trying to make my message appeal to everyone who visits my page (or my LinkedIn profile) and appeal to the people who are actually looking for what I have to sell.
It was with that mindset that I came across Dan Pink’s posting from earlier this week and realized that this ad for the DC Metro truly reflects the “bulldog” mentality that I need to more fully embrace…
As way of background, the Washington, D.C. subway system bans eating on its trains. There are many different ways you can reinforce this message, but this is about as visceral as it gets.
Pink (who wrote Drive and A Whole New Mind) notes that he likes to highlight advertising that is emotionally intelligent (i.e., it either encourages empathy on the part of the viewer or demonstrates empathy for his or her situation), this one falls into the category of advertising that just “shocks and awe(s) us into thinking — and occasionally into action.”
I view it from a slightly different perspective, as someone who has embraced a goal of identifying ways that we can “subtract the obvious and add the meaningful” in business and our personal lives. I can imagine DC Metro officials listening to their agency pitch this ad and saying, “you want to use a picture of what?” in our new campaign.
It’s bold. It eliminates the obvious (statistics or a reminder that there are rules against eating on the trains) and gets right to the meaningful.
We need more of that in our writing — visceral images that make a clear and compelling point.
Here’s another view of the PowerPoint debate , thanks to Jon Stewart of the Daily Show. Stewart offers a behind-the-scenes look at military’s greatest heroes who use PowerPoint to get their troops motivated for battle.
This obviously provides a bookend to my posting on the subject earlier this week and hopefully brings a smile to your face.
If your new tires fell off after installation, whose fault would it be — the mechanic or his tools?
If you’re a U.S. general, you blame the tool. At least that’s what they’re doing in an article in today’s New York Times about the military’s use of PowerPoint. Lost amid all the jokes and criticism of a “tool that has spun out of control” is a simple fact: PowerPoint done right enhances rather than undermines the quality of communication.
Great PowerPoint presentations seek to persuade rather than dump information. Great presenters crystallize their message long before they sit down to design slides. I was a multi-bullet, heavy-copy PowerPoint people in my previous life, but I now find myself spending more time thinking through the message and the appropriate visuals. I think about the story, the audience, the decision-making journey, and how to make my points as simply as possible.
It’s a joke to see these senior officers moan about the quality of presentations and the time wasted delivering them. As you read the quotes from the “PowerPoint Rangers” about the time spent preparing slides, ask yourself whether the generals delivering them had anything to do with crafting the message…or whether they even looked at their decks before delivering the presentation.
Hey, generals! Fixing this problem is simple:
- Limit the number of slides you can use in a given period of time. General McCrystal, you’re the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, for God’s sake. Tell your people that their slide limit for a 30-minute briefing is five. Period.
- Teach junior officers the right way to present. Start them at West Point, in ROTC classes, and at Officer Candidate School. Highlight the people who do it right; re-educate those who don’t. Reinforce the message at the senior-officer schools.
- At the beginning of a presentation, ask presenters to explain their objective. If they can’t communicate it quickly and briefly, send them back to the drawing board.
- Teach junior officers — and their bosses — how to WRITE clearly and persuasively. There are times you use PowerPoint and times you use memos. My high-school English teacher prevented us from graduating until we could put together a well-reasoned essay (thank you, Mrs. Banikowski). Our children hit college (and eventually the work world) with expertise in Twitter (how persuasive can you get in 140 characters?) and IM’ing. Ugh.
- Know your audience. I’ve spent time with Tyler on his college essays over the past few months and if he’s learned nothing else from our calm, collaborative sessions (he would characterize those conversations differently), it’s that you have to consider who is reading your paper (or listening to your presentation). I hope he brings the memory of our time together to college with him this fall.
Of course, these tips don’t apply only to our soldiers in Afghanistan. You can use them on your own personal and corporate battlefields. Click here for other posts I’ve written about bringing brevity, clarity, and simplicity to your communciations.
What advice would you give the generals?
My son Tyler has narrowed his college choices to two. How he got there gets to the heart of the importance of “sticky” presentations and why a two-day trip to two schools put one on the finalist list and took one pretty much off his radar.
We started at Syracuse on a chilly October morning. This part sticks with me because the presenter tried to make light of the weather from the moment we hit our seats. Maybe it’s just me (and keep in mind, I actually went to the school and grew up in Buffalo) but cold weather should not be on the list of key selling points.
The presentation was dry, and the presenter was not particularly dynamic (although she seemed very nice). She started with a video featuring famous and semi-famous alumni and appeared to have been made by an advertising firm that didn’t realize it was talking to teenagers. Did Admissions forget that its communications schools is a selling point and that it has not one but two solid film schools? Why not have a student film competition to highlight the school’s strengths.
The rest of the presentation was more informative than memorable, with no real sales focus (I seem to remember a lot of bullets). The worst part came as she dismissed the crowd by school for individual sessions. She’d call out the name of the school (e.g., Newhouse) and then start highlighting the merits of the program as her target audience struggled to their feet, grabbed their bags, and headed out the door.
The tour wasn’t much better and I honestly think Tyler would have crossed Syracuse off his list then and there, had I not been along to talk about concerts on the Quad, Dance Marathon, games at the Dome, and late-night snack runs to Marshall Street.
So we left Syracuse and headed to D.C. and our tour of American University.
Things were different there. A 20-something admissions person (and alum) talked about her experiences. Trick or treating at embassies. She illustrated her point about the high percentage of international students by talking about political science classes on Middle Eastern politics with students who lived through bombings and fighting in the streets. She actually made the pursuit of dual majors interesting. Last week — yes, five months later — I asked Tyler what he remembered and the kid who can’t remember to turn off his lights or stop texting while doing homework rattled off a number of memories from the presentation.
American has been the leader in the clubhouse since that visit. A recent visit to Drexel made it a two-horse race for a similar reason: The head of the film department sat down with Tyler to talk about her vision for the program, talking about her ability to “see beyond the curve” of the road. Once again, passion carried the day. She also had a great story — no deck, but a great ability to communicate the path — and that, combined with outstanding facilities and equipment and the willingness to put a camera in his hands from Day One, means it’s now a two-horse race.
I’ve posted here before about a story-driven, bullet-light approach to PowerPoints. Dan Heath is in Fast Company magazine this month talking about “sticky” presentations and has some great resources on his website (links are in the FC article). And both Nancy Duarte (slide:ology) and Garr Reynolds (Presentation Zen) have great presentation-centered blogs and are passionate advocates of storytelling.
I suspect many of you have had similar college-admissions experiences. Take some time to think about your story, your audience, and your message. What will you do differently the next time you have a presentation that’s designed to capture someone’s imagination or ignite their passion?
A few years back, I led a change to the way MBNA America — at the time the world’s largest affinity credit-card lender — negotiated with its partners (and ultimately with each other inside the bank). At the heart of it, we learned to prepare more effectively and taught people that the best way to get what they wanted was to help the other side get what it wanted (for both internal and external stakeholders). It’s my primary accomplishment…and a key component of my professional narrative.
Since being laid off 15 months ago, I’ve focused on consulting while still looking for a challenging full-time position. The reality is the job market is awful and there’s a growing trend toward building a portfolio career of 1099/consulting projects. I’ve been helping companies sharpen their brand and strategic messages, primarily through the creation and/or refining of value propositions, RFP responses, and annual reports. But I keep running into executive-level job seekers — many of them terrific, talented former peers — who are worried that their biggest success is behind them…and feeling their self-esteem slipping away in the absence of traction in their own job searches.
I invite you to watch this video in its entirety — it’s about 20 minutes and talks about dealing with these kinds of concerns, about wondering whether your best is behind you and about channeling your creativity in a positive way.
I’ve long believed that one thing that distinguishes successful people is their ability to consistently ”show up.” I also generally believe in the ”daemons” that Elizabeth Gilbert describes. I do believe you need to put distance between yourself and your creativity — partly because believing in daemons makes it difficult to give yourself too much credit) and partly because I don’t want to run the risk of alienating them.
Over at ChrisBrogan.com, Chris is talking about the importance of story in people’s lives, urging readers to read Donald Miller’s new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. For me, I harken back to A Chorus Line: “I’m a dancer…And a dancer dances.” The foundation of my story is my ability to communicate quickly and clearly (my ongoing challenges to simplify my own personal brand notwithstanding). Blogging — something I never had the time to do before leaving the bank – enables me to do what I love…and the research and effort to generate ideas helps me work through my angst. On my professional side, it can be challenging (but gratifying) to create for someone else, to capture their true voice and deliver something that the client can “hear” and feel as if they could have written or said it. And yet the thing that led me away from business journalism in the first place was my sense that I could be just as effective in business as the people whose lives I was chronicling.
But how do you keep delivering? How do you surpass your past successes? If I didn’t appreciate one thing before the past 15 months, I certainly do now: Creativity takes order and process. You need to eliminate distractions to give the “daemon” room to enter your consciousness.
There are times when I miss the hermetically sealed corporate offices where I used to work. As I sit at home today, it’s 80 degrees, sunny, with a nice breeze flowing through my home office. I’m resisting the urge to stop typing to go shoot some baskets or kick a soccer ball with my kids because I have deliverables.
The truth is, I probably will not resist those urges. But that break will enable me to create something better this afternoon because I freed my mind and let the daemon in. I now keep a little notebook to write down ideas when they hit. In my current situation, I don’t sit through long, pointless meetings and I can try to turn neat ideas into business opportunities (although that poses its own sort of distraction away from the dual goals of feeding my family and doing something meaningful).
I have always worked in a world of real-life deadlines, budgets, and conflicting goals. I’ve always been successful at balancing multiple priorities and executing on great ideas. But life is different today than it was 15 months ago and I have a much greater respect for the process. I thank Elizabeth Gilbert for reminding me that my greatest successes are not behind me…that the path to even greater ones requires me to keep showing up, respecting my daemon, and seeing them when I see them.
How about you? How do you maintain your confidence that your next great success is just around the corner?
Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly just posted a 12-page summary of last night’s episode of Lost (the Richard Alpert episode). You can read it here if you have nothing better to do or need someone else to theorize what’s going on.
I hope Lost is not going to turn out to be as complex as this guy — and others — make it out to be. I think it will turn out to be a relatively simple ”good vs. evil” story where the resolution hinges on which of two character (Jacob or the Man in Black) is evil and who among the castaways is going to step up and be a hero (Note: I’ve thought the island is Purgatory from about the third episode). And where all of us feel the journey and investment of time was worth it.
Regular viewers will need to feel their questions have been answered and that the key moments from the show are consistent with the answers provided in the last few episodes. It will also be critical that you don’t need a PhD in literature or the willingness to Google each and every plot reference to understand the show.
The show’s executive producers claim they’ve know where they were headed from Day One. If true, that’s impressive. They’ve done a great job of storytelling, but then they’ve been granted the time to do that by loyal viewers
Even if Lost has a simple core and a simple resolution where everything ties together, their approach probably won’t work with your presentations or business writing — even if you know where you’re headed from the outset.
How many viewers have left the show out of confusion or because they feel the production team thinks they’re smarter than everyone else? The ratings indicate that that number is high. Even if all the loose ends are headed toward a single strand, your audience won’t stick with you if they don’t believe the payoff will be worth the time invested.
I’m struggling with a couple of presentations right now for two reasons. First, I need to crystallize my core message. What’s my “one thing,” which I’ve referenced on these pages before? I want to keep the message simple, using stories and examples to make my case, and I’m trying to strip it down to achieve that. Second, I need to ensure my slides (and my stories) don’t take my audience down seemingly divergent paths. I can’t have too many strands, even if they lead back to that single point, or I’m going to lose my audience.
As communicators in search of simplicity and clarity, we often walk a thin line between the Lost approach (trust me, and I’ll get you to a great place) and the 24 approach (trust Jack Bauer, and he’ll get you to a great place but he’ll need a bunch of implausible plot twists). We can’t get so familiar with our subject matter that we forget the audience doesn’t know where we’re going and isn’t emotionally invested enough to stick with us.
What do you think? Is Lost an example of great storytelling and are there lessons that great communicators can take from the producers’ approach?
I have a well-deserved reputation for “writing long” at times. I’ve edited documents and provided suggestions that make the original significantly longer. But does that mean I’m less clear than someone who writes “short?” Absolutely not.
Mark Twain is remembered for apologizing for the length of a letter by saying it would have been shorter if he had more time. Having the time to edit is a great thing. But it can also be frustrating to deal with critics who are poised like raptors to point out that your e-mail directive asking for feedback or input is longer than the size of their computer screen — as if that’s a mortal sin.
In many cases where clarity is an issue, the problem is not too much information, it’s just poorly organized. Dictionaries work because the words are in alphabetical order; change the organization and a dictionary is pretty much useless.
Length in and of itself is not a determinant of clarity or simplicity. Cutting content may eliminate wordiness, but it may also eliminate critical information that helps readers understand the actions or gain perspective that the writer wants.
Warren Buffett’s annual letter to stockholders is a great example. It’s long — 18 pages — but readers flock to it for its insight (how his businesses have dealt with the financial crisis), its humor, and its views of where the economy is headed. I’ve never seen a word of complaint about its length, because the content is so valuable.
My advice is to worry less about the length of your e-mails, PowerPoints, and other writings and more about how you’ve organized them. Here are a few suggestions on ways to drive clarity, even if it is at the expense of brevity.
- Use bullets, particularly for action items. Length isn’t important if your reader clearly understands what you want them to do…and by when.
- Consider your audience — who should get it and perhaps more important, who shouldn’t. I’ve found that the people who whine the most about length are the ones who are least likely to respond anyway.
- Use subheads where appropriate. This includes tables of content, indexes, and other navigational aids. Vary your type (size, color, and boldness, not typeface) for emphasis and to draw the eyes to key points.
- Proofread. Between what Twittering and IMs and the like have done to people’s ability to communicate (particularly as it relates to spelling, punctuation, and word usage) and the desire to “publish” quickly, clarity often breaks down in the absence of the final “attention to detail” step. If you have time, ask someone else to read your document and tell you what you are asking the reader to do. Revise as necessary.
- Add a fourth word to those ABC’s mentioned above: Euphony. Making the document flow and sound or read in a pleasing, agreeable manner is a key component. It may take a few more words, but it’s well worth the effort.
Bulldog Simplicity celebrates clarity over brevity (although clear and short are certainly preferable). Your goal should be to ensure that everyone understands their responsibilities and their next steps and that it’s written in such a way that boredom or indifference doesn’t lead them to stop reading before the end.