One of the great challenges in business communications is making a computer-generated letter sound personal and still achieve its goal. It’s not easy to make a collection letter feel like it was written to an individual, to walk a line between friendly and firm and recognize that many of the recipients are embarrassed to be getting letters like that. I was asked to do that a few years ago, overseeing a project where we rewrote more than 700 letters of various intents to credit-card customers.
Despite positive feedback, we were told to change them back a few months later because many of our internal constituencies didn’t think friendly and empathetic was the right approach. Sigh.
That’s why I particularly liked this Ted talk from branding pioneer Alan Siegel, whose corporate tagline is Simple is Smart. In this speech, Siegel describes simplicity as “a means to achieving clarity, transparency, and empathy, building humanity into communications.” And he practices what he preaches…delivering a speech for what is normally a 15-to-20-minute time slot into just over four minutes.
Siegel is behind the YMCA’s new rebranding strategy, changing the name to “the Y” to reflect the nickname everyone has used for generations, although somewhat inexplicably, the Y is asking newspaper editors to refer to individual branches by the old name (e.g., the YMCA of New York City). This could be described as a “Twitter strategy,” where companies like National Public Radio and Kentucky Fried Chicken have now become NPR and KFC to fit into what some analysts describe as “a bite-size space.”
Siegel’s message is simple, yet few have embraced it. What can you do in your daily actions to make clarity, transparency, and empathy into a national priority? How can you overcome the barriers that the lawyers and the politicians often put in place to make that goal such a challenge?
I’m in a terrific new program that networking guru Keith Ferrazzi (Never Eat Alone, Who’s Got Your Back) is running and a recent exercise asked participants to describe ways they’ve kept their teams (and themselves) accountable. My submission got some positive feedback and it’s pretty simple, so I thought I’d share it.
I had a team of account executives in remote offices, each of whom managed a number of alumni-association partners. We weren’t always their highest priority so executing on a long list of initiatives wasn’t always easy. I started a 20-minute Daily Huddle (first thing in the AM-if you couldn’t make it, no problem) and gave each person two minutes to list their biggest accomplishment of the previous day, what they wanted to accomplish that day, and what they needed from me or someone else on the call. I kept track of what each person wanted to accomplish and asked the next day (and for a number of days after, if need be) what was getting in the way of completing that task. One benefit of the daily call was that other team members often offered advice based on having dealt with a similar problem with another school and very often someone would volunteer to role-play or help in some way to get the goal accomplished. In addition, having to outline your goals in front of others led to more tangible goals that would have a real impact on the team’s results.
As a result of this and some other execution-focused initiatives, we renewed 100+ relationships (with no losses), protecting $250 million in revenues and significantly reducing the sponsorship fees we were paying, while increasing group-satisfaction scores by 20%. We also surpassed our goals for launching our Affinity Checking product by 200% (endorsements and accounts). All because we spent a little bit of time every day focusing on initiatives that would move the needle.
Interestingly, someone in the class responded to my submission with the observation that people probably worked that much harder to complete tasks and come up with good objectives for the day because they didn’t want theirs to pale by comparison to other team members. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s probably true
To be effective: Keep it short. Keep it focused. And try to have it at the same time every day — first thing in the AM.
How do you help your teams — or yourself — be more accountable and execute more effectively. Please share!
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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.
A few days ago, someone asked me to explain what made me a “good marketer.” I had never heard the question phrased quite that way before and stumbled through an answer.
Later on, I realized I built a class around that very question 11 years ago. So I headed down to the basement and pulled out the class handout. We had spent more than three months asking that very question of some of the best marketing minds in the bank and organizing their answers into what turned out to be eight categories.
Times change; economies ebb and flow. Millions of trees have died in the search for answers to that question. But the answer never really changes. I won’t list all the tactics that made up the bulk of the class, but here are the principles, tweaked a bit to apply to everyone:
- Always remember that we’re in business to (Fill in the Blank). In our case, it was Make Good Loans. For others, it might be Sell Computers, Attract New Donors or Drive Traffic to Your Website.
- Be absolutely committed to knowing everything about your Target Audience. We were affinity marketers who worked with alumni associations, sports teams, professional groups, and a host of other partners. The most successful marketers went beyond being credit-card experts to being experts on their groups and the group’s constituents. That’s more difficult for marketers with a broader target audience, which makes No. 3 even more important.
- Everything begins with the “list” (or audience). Having a great product doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t know where to find the buyer. It’s OK to have multiple lists with different messages.
- Design compelling offers with a simple creative message. Two of the most important messages here were Offer is More Than Price and Your Great List Won’t Mean Much if the Offer Isn’t Clear and Valued by the Customer.
- Try lots of things. Test in a disciplined manner… Basically, remember that if there’s no control there’s no test and behavior is more important than opinion.
- …And keep what works. Measure your results. You need to share successes and failures. I was reading a book the other night where the author was criticizing another author who had focused only on his big successes. We often learn more from our big failures…and those lessons learned are even more important if we share them with others.
- Challenge everything. Never stop trying to make things better. Pay attention to the details. Part of this is about a commitment to “publishing.” I doubt there’s any such thing as the “perfect test.” Get to market quickly. Mail less more often. Make sure the affinity is “in” the package.
- Spend wisely. It’s real money. This may have been a bigger deal back in 1999 when marketing money flowed more freely, but this is really about putting some analysis behind your decision to test. What do you hope to achieve and what’s the cost in your best-case and worst-case scenarios?
I have followed these principles over the years, and made sure that the people who worked for me did the same. And that should have been my answer when I was asked what makes me a good marketer. I’m disciplined and I make sure I know my audience.
Did we miss something that doesn’t fit into one of these categories? Please let me know if you’d like me to elaborate on these strategies in future posts.
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.
I was recently asked to write a plan outlining how I’d approach my first few months in the job I’m interviewing for. A few people (a couple of recruiters among them) commented on how unusual the request was, but I think it makes a lot of sense.
The interview process can be a beauty contest, with its emphasis on scripted answers and connecting with the interviewer. This task requires the writer to demonstrate an understanding of the role (which probably requires that he or she did a good job asking questions during interviews) and of organizational needs and priorities. It also tests your writing and organizational skills and also provides some insight into your leadership and management style that may not come out through your scripted responses. I kept mine to two pages, so I was forced to balance the creation of a simple, easy-to-understand strategy with the desire to give the hiring manager a sense that I understand the scope of the challenge and will hit the ground running.
The process will also help me in future interviews with this employer — assuming I get one — because I now have additional questions that I will bring to the table, because I’ve thought through ways I’d approach different problems the organization faces, and because I will have better examples of ways I’ve resolved similar challenges that I might not have come up with in a conference-room setting.
One tip: There aren’t many good templates for this task, but Harvard professor Michael Watkins has written a great book on this subject called The First 90 Days, which provided me with a great starting point.
All in all, I will use this in the future when I’m trying to choose between qualified job applicants who want to demonstrate their ability to help us achieve our goals.
Readers, how about you? Have you been asked to do a 90- or 100-day plan? How did you approach it and what impact did it have on your candidacy?
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?