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?


Nike’s Tiger Ad: Simplicity with an edge

I just finished The Art of Simplicity by John Maeda, who boils simplicity down to being about “subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.” 

Nike “relaunched” its sponsorship of Tiger Woods today with an ad that subtracts any mention of its footwear or clothing, color video, music, or sight of Tiger hitting one of his extraordinary golf shots.  It instead uses a single zoom shot of Tiger looking incredibly sad with background audio of his dead father talking about responsibility.

So there’s no question the ad is simple.  But is it effective?  For those who haven’t seen it yet,  Tiger’s dad (who likely wasn’t talking about his son’s sexual indiscretions when he was recorded) is heard saying, “Tiger, I am more prone to be inquisitive, to promote discussion. I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything?”

I’d like to know Tiger’s answer to the question.  Based on his decision to approve using his father’s voice in this way I’d say no.  Did Nike achieve its goals?  Everyone’s talking about the ad, so the answer there is probably yes.  And it’s consistent with some of its previous ads focused on the personal branding of their spokespersons.  Remember Charles Barkley and his “I am not a role model” ad?  That was Nike too.

Tiger said during a press conference on Monday that he was just looking forward to getting back and playing golf.  This ad undermines that goal and leaves many thinking it’s all about the press coverage for Tiger and Nike.

The ad is simple.  The motives are not.  I doubt many of Nike’s target audience will change their buying habits as a result of this ad.  But the consistency of the brand message and subtly reminding people they didn’t drop Tiger may be enough. Not that it matters all that much, but I don’t see this ad as helping Tiger’s efforts to restore his brand, unless you want to view it as further penance.

Getting back to John Maeda and his Laws of Simplicity, I don’t believe Tiger and Nike satisfied the second half of his core law.  The obvious was subtracted, but very little meaning was added.  Perhaps a simple shot of Tiger juggling a golf ball at the end of a club, apologizing to fans and saying he’s back and committed to re-earning the trust of his family and fans would have been more appropriate…and more consistent with the Just Do It brand.

Remember the Rule of Three with the three-legged stool

Keep the three-legged stool in mind when making your case.

I was helping someone with his personal elevator speech (or 30-second commercial, if you prefer) and after working through his headline image (he now “plugs leaky buckets” rather than retaining base sales), we started talking about the supporting information that demonstrates how he plugs leaky buckets.

Now the Rule of Three is nothing new when it comes to communications.  Google the phrase and you get 152 million hits (really).  Peter Bregman recently wrote about it in a different context in his weekly Harvard Business blog, and Copyblogger Founder Brian Clark explains the history in a great blog from back in 2007.

I use the three-legged stool to help remember my three points.  If you use it as a lead-in to your explanation, it’s also memorable for the person you’re talking to.

As a credit card executive, we used the three-legged stool with a number of audiences to outline our approach to student lending — Fair Price, Treatment, and Financial Literacy (Education) — with additional detail under each.  Quick and memorable, and something our alumni-association partners could use when explaining it to their school administrations or the press.  And it was tailor-made for reporters who need to provide their readers with context.

This works with any type of communication where you have a thesis and supporting details.  Presentations.  Talking points for the media.  Job interviews.

Where will you use the three-legged stool next?

The argument for surrounding yourself with great people

Nice interview on Wednesday’s edition of Mike and Mike in the Morning on ESPN Radio with St. Louis Cardinals Pitcher Adam Wainwright, who won the MLBPA Players Choice Award as the National League’s Outstanding Pitcher.
carpenter wainwright
Chris Carpenter (L) and Adam Wainwright made each other better in 2009.


Wainwright (19-8, 2.63 ERA, 212 Ks) beat out Giants P Tim Lincicum and teammate Chris Carpenter for the award, but his comments about Carpenter are what will stick with me as I talk to people who continue to fear for their jobs and worry about how they compare to their co-workers.

“In the beginning of the season I really battled and was constantly having to get out of a lot of jams,” Wainwright said, explaining that he sat down with Carpenter for a “big-time film session” that resulted in him adjusting some things and having everything “fall into place.” 

When asked about how he got along with Carpenter — who got more publicity during the season because he was coming back from surgery last year, Wainwright responded  that Carpenter “was a pacesetter…he’s a special talent…the great thing about Chris is he’s so talented but he is also a really good teacher and finds ways to help other pitchers…He’s got a great eye for it…he can watch a bullpen session and notice something different pitch to pitch and he just helps you get locked back in.  And his pitching was solid every time out.  He sets the bar and makes you want to be right there with him. 

Wainwright went on to give props to a third pitcher in the rotation, Joel Pineiro, for his role in helping the other two perform well.

The message:  Seek out the best people in your company and work with them.  Competition brings out the best in people. 

And if you take a look at Carpenter’s 2009 statistics — 17-4, 2.24 ERA, and 144 strikeouts — and Wainwright’s comments, you’ll also see that it is possible to be both a top performer and a great mentor.  Give it a try.

Simply put, “I’m not a moral-victory guy.”

I keep a notebook on my desk where I capture great quotes for presentations and other uses.

“I’m not a moral-victory guy” got added to the book during the 49ers-Cardinals game yesterday.  I Googled it this morning.  Apparently, San Francisco coach Mike Singletary showed up at a State of the Franchise meeting in San Mateo back on Feb. 16 and laid this one on the crowd.  For the past few years, San Francisco has looked for rays of sunshine in otherwise dismal games (e.g., close games, goal-line stands, great individual performances).  When asked about this, new coach Singletary responded,  “I know you don’t know me real well.  I’m not a moral-victory guy.”

The crowd erupted and a new ad campaign was born.  Travel around the Bay Area these days and you’ll find quotes like “I’m not a moral-victory guy.” and “I want winners.”

The 49ers marketing department concedes the campaign is a bit of a high-wire act, since it implies a promise of a return to winning ways.  But Singletary has brought a whole new attitude to the team.  And attitude often paves the way to better execution and bottom-line performance.

And Bulldog Simplicity has a new favorite coach.

Embarassment is not the way to lead a team

When do people perform at peak efficiency?  Management consultant David Maister says it’s when they are excited about their daily tasks.  That’s why I was surprised to read a quote in the midst of an otherwise very positive New York Times story about Lego’s recent success from its CEO, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp.

“We needed to build a mindset where non-performance wasn’t accepted,” Knudstorp told the Times.  OK, so far so good.  But he went on.  Now, “there’s no place to hide if performance is poor.  You will be embarrassed, and embarrassment is stronger than fear.”

I hope that managers who go on to read the rest of the story focus on the specific ways that Knudstorp has aligned strategy and tactics, redirecting some of the long-held beliefs of the company’s founders to take a far more bottom-line approach.  Or that they recognize that this turnaround is still in its infancy.

I’d hate to think they’re going to decide that the best way to drive change is to “embarrass” their managers.  I’d prefer to think — given all the other good things that Knudstorp has done — that something was lost in translation with the reporter.  That Knudstorp shares Maister’s view that excitement has nothing to do with strategy, systems, process and operations and everything to do with managers who are credibly perceived to have an ideology (that isn’t rooted in embarrassing them).  Otherwise, I suspect we’ll read a follow-up story in the years to come that focuses on Lego’s short-lived success and long-term failure.

What do you think?