Two simple tips for practicing simplicity

Twitter is the new Mark Twain.

You’ll recall Mark Twain apologizing for the length of a letter, saying he’d have made it shorter if he had had more time.

Well, I recently started Tweeting as part of my new Consultant Launch Pad site (if you’re interested in following me, I’m @consultantlaunc) and it’s helping me think more about my messages.  I’ve found that 140 characters isn’t all that much to express an idea (even if you’re just tweeting a quote or a link to another article or blog post), but if you want your message to get forwarded, you need to take that character count down below 120.  That’s because a “retweet” also includes the name of the person forwarding it and that 120 characters needs to be even shorter if you want to give them space to make a short comment.

You’ll get a pretty good idea of how good or bad you are at communicating your message succinctly by the number of retweets and/or the number of people following you.  One way to practice is to Follow a number of people and enter into a dialogue with them.

Elevator speeches become "the 118"
Faster elevators now give you less than two minutes to sell yourself

Tip No. 2 has to do with a new book out on the elevator speech called The Mirror Test by Jeffrey Hayzlett, Kodak’s former chief marketing officer.  For now, I’ll point you toward an interview with and a mini-profile of him (they’re both short) but think his concept of what he calls “the 118” is pretty actionable.

Here’s an excerpt: “The 118 comes from the 118 seconds you actually have to pitch: 8 seconds to hook me and up to 110 seconds to drive it home — less than two minutes with only seconds to spare. The first eight seconds is the length of time the average human can concentrate on something and not lose some focus. It is also the length of time of one of the toughest rides in the world: a qualified ride in professional bull riding. In these first eight seconds, you must be compelling, strong, and focused to be successful. You must hold on as one of the meanest, toughest animals in the world tries to throw you off – just like any good prospect will. Make it those 8 seconds, and I’ll give you 110 more to drive your message home with no bull. But if you have not sold me at the end of the 118, I will start to tune out. At that point, we are moving forward to a sale or not.”

To summarize today’s two tips for a Twitter world:  2 Simplicity tips: Keep your Tweeting <120 charact and buy Jeffrey Hayzlett’s The Mirror Test.

And after attaching a TinyURL of this post, that’s 120 characters.  On the nose.

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Visuals bring simplicity to complex explanations

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.

Now try this explanation from Bill Nye the Science Guy.

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?

Rats! to taking a conservative approach to branding

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.

The Military and Powerpoint redux, Jon Stewart style

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.

Generals miss the point on PowerPoint

Death by PowerPoint is no joke in the military

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?

Taglines: Is yours a home run?

Tyler chose his college on Thursday.  He’s headed to Washington, D.C. this fall to American University and its terrific film school.

At the risk of oversimplifying, American has a great tagline — Media That Matters — and a group of passionate people who believe the mantra and communicate it consistently.

From the academic counselor to the professors to whom he spoke to the School of Communication’s materials, the message is consistent and to the point.  Had I had my work hat on, I’ll bet I could have stopped anyone involved in the Film and Media Arts department and heard the theme (or a tight variation on it). 

Tyler wears his heart on his sleeve…and his eyes don’t lie, and both his mother and I knew the moment he made his decision.  It was when he heard “Media That Matters.”  He wants to make a difference.  He wants to make documentaries and touch people’s lives.  His path could change over the next four years, but I kinda doubt it.  The medium could change — film, Internet, or something else — but the direction and passion won’t.

As good as the tagline is, American backs it up with strong supporting messages…a great story, if you will.  Where better than Washington if you want to get involved in effecting change? If you’re interested in documentaries and environmental film, we have Centers devoted to those disciplines and we work closely with National Geographic, Discovery, the Smithsonian, and so on.  We have professors who work in the business and are looking for passionate students looking for experience.  You get the idea.

Media That Matters.  Three words that resonate with a kid like Tyler.  Three words that tell a story.  That ignite passion.  That change lives.

What’s the tagline for your business or your job search?   Is it simple enough?  Does it tell your target audience who you are and what you do?  Do you support it with all your other marketing materials, from your resume or company fact sheet and collateral to your LinkedIn profile?  And perhaps most important, does your tagline tell the person who’s reading it how you’re going to “scratch their itch” (i.e., solve their problem or address their needs)?

If it doesn’t, it won’t matter how terrific you actually are.  You just may finish second to someone who gets it right.

Sticky presentations require a great story

Syracuse squeezed itself out of the competition for Tyler

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?