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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Make simplicity your top priority

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?

Limiting choice can improve response

First, I apologize for my absence over the past three weeks.  I’ve been building a new website, Consultant Launch Pad, which is designed to help new consultants and people whose job searches may be at a point where they have to think about alternatives to pay the mortgage.  We have a lot of resources on the site to help you make your decision, set up your business, and get customers.  I invite you to come take a look.  Let us know what you think, suggest resources we don’t currently have, and join the Forum and ask — or answer some questions.  I think you’ll particularly like the 30 Second Launch Pad feature.

Anyway…

Too much choice can be paralyzing

I’m one of those people who believes that if you hear a good idea from three different sources, it’s probably worth paying attention to.   Today’s idea is Limit Choice.

It started with coming across Groupon, which is one of those businesses where customers are a great deal on a single item.  The deal depends on either a certain number of people taking it or it’s there until the supply runs out.   I signed up and while I haven’t bought anything yet, it’s true that the deals are great and I anticipate I will participate before too long.

A few days later I was listening to an interview where Gary Vaynerchuk, the author of “Crush It,” was offering some advice to start-ups.  He’s a bit over-the-top, but one of his pieces of advice had to do with simplicity and limiting choice.  Gary was talking about how he had tested the “Groupon” model in one of retail wine story by replacing a rack near the front that held 10 bargain wines with just one.  The result?  “We’re crushing it,’ he said.  “We’re selling these bottles at a staggering rate, one that trumps residual loss of not selling many products in that space.”

All this reminded me of one of the key “rules” we followed when offering credit-cards through the mail in a previous life.  We tested everything and inevitably found that Choice Suppresses.  The more variations on a card offer — different designs, different pricing, different value propositions — the fewer responses we received.

The reality is that people are overwhelmed these days.  We bring a lot of that on ourselves — travel teams, dance classes, and the like — but at some point businesses decided we needed more and more choices.  So that’s why today I can walk into a store and find razor blades with four, five, and even more blades when one can really do the trick (at a fraction of the price).

Think about places where you might be offering excessive choice to customers and what impact that might be having on their buying decision.  Are there opportunities to reduce the choice — perhaps by careful targeting of benefits — and actually increase response?

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.

‘Creative confidence’ trumps historical indicators of future career success

Photo: Associated Press

As one group of students prepare to leave college and another batch of high-school seniors prepare to take their place, the importance of technical knowledge takes center stage.  Whether you’re talking about undergraduate or post-grad admission offices or potential employers, GPAs and test scores that demonstrate students’ abilities to get the one “right” answer are seen as the primary determinant of future potential.

David Kelley — the IDEO chairman, not the legendary creator of great TV dramas — recently energized the Stanford d.school during the opening of the design school’s new building by arguing that while technical knowledge has its place, it is far more important to teach our future leaders how to work on solving challenging problems where nobody knows the answer.  As Bob Sutton, a Stanford d.school professor who attended the speech explains it, the Stanford d.school teaches creative confidence — “the ability to keep pushing forward, observing the world and the people in it, identifying unmet needs, brainstorming solutions, and trying to develop prototypes that work and failing forward through the disconcerting process.”   He went on to say that the d.school process — which I discussed in a January post on its publication of the Bootcamp Bootleg — encourages people to “have the energy and will to keep pushing forward, to be undaunted when ideas don’t work, to keep trying new ideas, and even when the deadline for the project comes and they do not have  a decent solution, to believe that if they just had another few days, they would have come up with a great solution.”

Kelley has added a great personal-branding phrase to our lexicon.  Even without the benefit of a Stanford d.school education, I think there are a lot of people with have struggled to describe a similar skill set on a resume or interview without the benefit of the “creative confidence” phrase.   It’s a skill that many displaced corporate executives are using as they look at consulting or 1099 contract work, whether they use the phrase in the sales process or not.

But Kelley’s Not Alone In This

Yale’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel imagined what he’d say if asked to speak to this year’s class of graduating seniors in a posting on the Huffington Post.  He also speaks of looking beyond the GPA and the job that awaits and judging oneself on a different set of criteria that mirrors this concept of creative confidence:

“What matters, and this is the heart of what I want to say today, is not how I might assess what you have done, or how your professors graded you, or what your friends and family might say, or even how a professional school or employer is going to view you, but rather how you would now evaluate yourself.

I wonder if you have thought to do this as yet, to measure yourself by standards that you would have to justify and explain, not to us, but only to the man or woman in the mirror. Not only are you the only one in a position to make a full and candid assessment, but you are the one to whom the assessment ultimately matters.”

He goes on to list some questions that might help in that self-assessment; most focus on the intangible.  It’s a right-brain approach, which as Daniel Pink and others have argued in recent years is taking on increasing importance over the fact-based left-brain emphasis that has driven business for many decades.

All this resonated with me because I believe creative confidence is a more elegant way — with a bit more structure — of saying Bulldog Simplicity.  I believe schools and corporations both need to spend more time focusing on developing creative confidence.  And for those who have it, they need to spend more time documenting it as a skill and how it enables them to make a difference in their companies’ or clients’ success.

Simple questions can get (or keep you) on track

Too many piles...

I’ve written before about focusing on that “one thing” that will remind you what’s important.  I found myself recently trying to get myself organized (the catalyst for this is usually my wife telling me to get the piles off the dining room table).

I spent a bit more time on this exercise than usual (the piles often just get moved out of her sight) so I found myself asking what I could do to actually follow the principles of this blog and basically simplify everything, rodeo style.  This required me to focus on my one-page project list and trash more than a few folders with articles and project ideas that I wasn’t going to get to in the near (or distant) future.

But then I realized it was more than that.  I needed to start asking some tough questions that apply to just about every business — and most likely each of you.  These are not questions with yes or no answers — the best questions rarely are.  But as we near mid-year, it’s worth carving out some time to sit down, write down the answers, and then commit to focusing on execution.

  1. What’s the one thing I can do to improve my business and what are the specific actions I should take to do it?
  2. What’s the one thing I can do to improve my own performance/productivity and what are the specific actions I should take to do it?
  3. What messages am I failing to hear (or confront) in my business and personal performance and what are the specific actions I should take to overcome them?
  4. Why should someone hire me (or our company) over the competition?  If you can’t be specific and passionate (and brief), you need to spend some time thinking through your answer.

This last question is a good one to ask the people who work for you.  In fact, these are all good questions to ask the people around you about you.  The inability to receive and process feedback is a critical barrier to success.

What questions do you ask yourself to help you get back on track?