Presenting your message

Reading is a big hobby of mine and a good vehicle for me to better-understand the motivation behind some books is to attend a certain reading series here in Toronto.  I won’t name it because it’s irrelevant to the example I will describe to support my point, and the naming of it would be unfair (all such series have imperfections) and would only serve as a distraction.  I recently attended an event in the series and it spotlighted two authors dealing with the same broad topic.  Their respective books attacked the topic from different angles but they were basically in agreement about the core issue.  The monthly events are very well-attended and held at a large downtown hotel, which I suspect are strong factors, despite the ample amounts of wine served, for inducing nervousness in the authors.  Many writers do well during their 20 minutes at the podium, speaking clearly and engagingly about their story and reading interesting and representative excerpts from it. You need to know that I’m a person who can be won over by people who do this well and often buy their book afterwards. By and large, almost all the authors do a good job at the readings but on occasion a writer will climb up on the stage and appear to wing it.   Sometimes it works… that particular night, not so much.  Here’s why I thought the writer was unsuccessful at the event (and why I didn’t buy the book):

  • Lack of preparation: I’m guessing he was confident that his reputation as a good writer would afford him currency with the crowd, or that his immense knowledge of the topic would provide him with riveting talking points.  As a presenter, this is a fatal trap too often fallen into.  Nothing is a substitute for a bit of prep work when asked to talk about a topic.  Frame the talk, itemize what you want to cover, and then flesh it out with short, interesting examples or anecdotes.  Rehearse it.
  • Self-absorption: This is a killer in presentations, particularly in a rigidly formatted one like a reading (speak, read, sit for moderated Q&A).  Getting sucked into one’s mind while on stage is dangerous because although it can convey confidence with the material, it’s too easy to lose track of the audience and how they are responding.  In that evening’s case, the author blew past the time boundary for speaking and reading and just kept going on and on and on.  The audience?  Let’s just say it was as if knockout gas had been pumped into the ballroom.

What did I learn today?

A quick, silly post today….

We’ve all asked ourselves that question but maybe we should be asking it of ourselves each and every day. By making it a conscious effort to assess on a daily basis how we were able to advance our knowledge in even the smallest of ways, there is the potential to affect our outlook without much effort at all.  I’ll start.

I learned these things today (or yesterday in the case of the first item, but I wasn’t chatting with you about this yesterday). They aren’t life-altering but I think they are interesting:

  • Detroit’s population dropped 237,500 (25%) over the last decade.  Startling for me to observe, especially since I grew up across the river in Windsor and remember Detroit when it ranked #5 in America, in terms of size.  It’s now #18.  The reasons for this shrinkage are well-known (vanishing manufacturing, crime, poor schools, etc).  It’s the number that’s the new information. 
  • A significant amount of rock and pop music of the ’60s and ’70s was recorded NOT by the artists on the album covers but rather by guys in a band called The Wrecking Crew.  I really don’t care though.  Afterall, music has always been a huge business and so it should not come as a surprise that folks who put their money on the line wanted to make sure the final product was polished. What were we thinking anyway to imagine those skinny kids could play instruments as well as they sounded on albums? 

Losing sight of the mission

One of my favorite websites is the one for the fabled Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). If you want unvarnished, un-embellished, and unadulterated leading-edge information about some element of science, this is the place to look.  A recently published article called dueling algorithms described how two fictional software companies fought to see who could produce the most effective algorithm. The moral of the story is they lost sight of their mission, to meet the needs of their customer.  The exercise morphed into a battle to see who could best the other, a battle that through great effort shunted the customer to the sidelines and resulted in diminished returns. 

Having been on both sides of the customer and vendor equation, I can say that feature/function leap-frogging is usually a silly game.  If one company has a clear advantage in that regard, it is only true for a brief period of time. Many times (as a vendor) we tried to pitch our feature advantage and sometimes it sounded impressive; we were all sold on the notion that the customer could really gain an edge by selecting our solution.  But the truth is, when we won, we won not only by convincing the customer our solution met their needs but that we would be there to help get the thing up and running and to support them onwards. Given similar relative technical capabilities between solutions of two software companies, the important and lasting differentiator for the winning vendor should be the ability of its front-line staff (sales and support) to make personal connections with customers and convey a high level of trust.  How does one do that?  There’s no escaping the conclusion that the old-fashioned method of employing a highly credible and respectful communications style works best.  People essentially want to be treated well, not with special favors (because they can be seen through and they often sour) or showmanship (because the ego is too apparent), but with honesty, consistency, and the belief that their needs are front and center.

Connecting not-so-random dots

The nuclear reactors crisis in Japan has shoved that entire industry into the sort of spotlight they assuredly hoped to forever avoid.  As countries around the globe now dutifully reexamine their plans for nuclear energy, much discussion and debate is ensuing about how best to supply energy to our voraciously electric and gas-charged societies.  An article by Thomas Homer-Dixon, published in today’s Globe and Mail, made me think of a couple of things.  Well, it actually made me think of lots of large and small things but for the subject of this blog post it made me think of the author, the institution where he works, and the community in which it is situated.

Homer-Dixon has a long and storied history as one of Canada’s more eloquent big thinkers. His writings never fail to educate the interested and to challenge conventional ideas.  They force a stretching of the mind, pushing the reader, or radio listener, to consider in detail something about which perhaps he or she had never, prior to that moment, even given a single thought. Today’s article presents an idea of tapping into the earth’s core for thermal energy to generate steam with which we could power turbines.  I suppose for some people the idea is not brand-new.  I also suppose that I might possibly have heard or read of the idea before. Perhaps it is due to the nuclear crisis of today or perhaps it is due to Thomas Homer-Dixon having written about it but the idea has a certain shine for me and will almost certainly be written now to my brain’s hard-drive. Call me simple but urgency and eloquence can trigger a permanent memory.

As Mr. Homer-Dixon’s biography states, he holds the Centre for International Governance Innovation Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs (BSIA) in Waterloo, Ontario. Waterloo is where Research in Motion (RIM) is headquartered and where a burgeoning cluster of high-tech firms are thriving.  The cluster is likely benefiting from the proximity of BSIA and of that other arguably more famous institution, The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.  The latter is also the home-away-from-home for Stephen Hawking, the one person who, regardless of who else was in it, would most certainly be the “smartest guy in the room”.

I don’t have data or irrefutable evidence that proves clusters of like-minded firms do better than firms that stand alone.  But we’re reading, hearing, and seeing bright ideas from folks in Waterloo, advanced ideas that are complicated but helpful, sometimes obvious and sometimes revolutionary.  These people presumably lunch together on occasion.  Maybe that’s what gets things started.

Crowdsourcing 101

If you’re like me and surprised how little you know about social media, I recommend you listen to this CBC podcast.  In about 12 minutes you’ll learn most of the terms and societal ramifications of the phenomena.  The focus of this interview between the CBC’s Nora Young and Queen’s University media professor, Sidneyeve Matrix, is Crowdsourcing.  It’s sort of a catchall phrase for the seemingly spontaneous and chaotic group behaviors we witness on the Internet, whether they be for good (like response to natural disasters) or for retribution (against celebrities and public figures saying the wrong thing) and vigilantism (against alleged criminals). But the interview goes broad as well and in an easy and relaxed manner portrays social media as a general force for good in the world. 

I think we’re still at the early stages but it’s hard to argue at this point that society is not better off now that we have ubiquitous connectivity and mass participation.  Groups can at times be scary but groups that make room for individual expression are not.

Enduring value

Seth Godin writes a really original blog.  Mostly random and radical thoughts that, while firmly opined, challenge conventional mores around marketing.  They require the reader to think because he seems to strive to NOT provide all the answers.  A good example is his most recent post called Bring me stuff that’s dead, please.  If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you might recognize almost immediately as you read Seth’s post why I am attracted to much of what he writes. He hints at behaviors that have fallen out of fashion.  An appreciation for the long view, patience, careful consideration of an idea, circumspection, exploration with thoroughness….it seems these are not often-practiced, well-respected, or well-honed traits and skills these days.  That’s part of my interpretation of his blog post and Seth refers to the people he derides as the “drive-by technorati”.   That’s a clever and a punchy moniker, but I prefer another phrase to refer to people who need to jump on the latest device/app/platform before everyone else and then when their curiosity is satiated, declare as “dead” that very thing they were once so enamoured of.  It seems to me they are missing something and so I refer to them as, “people in need of a more well-rounded life”.  It’s less Hollywood-y and probably wouldn’t make them smirk with pleasure quite as much.  Nevertheless I think we agree, Seth and I, that real value isn’t always what’s apparent right away.  The enduring value of any particular thing is, when through its use or appreciation over time, positive change occurs.  It almost always requires exploration, experimentation, careful consideration of alternative ideas, and patience.  Enduring value is usually out of reach of people with limited attention spans.

Good messages in the time of noise

It’s been going on for some time and increasingly it’s being seen as the defacto standard for demonstrating the features and functionalities of software for a wide audience.  Working with industry media to film product demonstrations, wrapping them with a good interview, which is then published in an online journal is a very popular method for quickly getting your message out there.  All companies are employing the tactic to varying degrees and it’s becoming clear that the differentiator comes down to not only how well-crafted is the message, but how extensively and credibly it is pushed out by employees of the company whose product is being showcased.

Shameless plug to follow….

Take the company I work for, as an example.  As my profile states, this blog reflects only my point of view and has nothing whatsoever to do with CA Technologies.  However, I will use them here to support my point.  Cloud Connect is a conference that took place this week in Silicon Valley.  Its purpose was to provide a forum for attendees and the industry media to learn about the direction of Cloud Computing and the vendors, products, and services available to help move forward.  CA Technologies was a Silver sponsor at the show and in this Information Week article you can see what I mean.  A professional interview which includes a member of our company conducting a demo is an extremely cost-effective way of disseminating a critical message (for us) to a potentially much wider audience than was reflected in the attendance figures for the conference.  I said “potentially” because although Information Week is a widely read industry magazine, the number of viewers of this interview and demo can increase quite dramatically if people like me push the message out there.  I’m not referring to pushing it out on my blog.  I’m referring to pushing it out to my customer community via other means, such as the monthly newsletter that I write. This is one half of the equation of the power of new social media.  We are today participating in a tremendous convergence of various media, traditional and new, (voice, video, email, tweets, and blogs) which allow us, if we choose, to reach our personal network of business contacts more rapidly and with, often, more professional content. 

The other half?  For all the promise and potential of that convergence, the odds of success for having that message received in the way one hopes are still only as good as the credibility and personal connection between the last sender (me) and the receiver (my individual customer).  If I haven’t made a personal connection prior to sending that converged message, the recipient will treat it with no more consideration than he or she does with all the other noise they hear everyday.

Customer service stories

Good customer service is not that difficult.  All you have to do is remember to ask yourself two simple questions.  If I was on the other side of the equation: 1) what would be my expectations of the interaction?, and 2) are those expectations reasonable? To complete the interaction, deliver the service with pride.

IT departments get a lot of bad press for customer service but I don’t think they’ve cornered that market.  Poor service is democratically spread across all industries, across all levels, and across all types of people.  I’ll cite a good example of customer service and another where work is obviously required.

This blog you’re reading is written on an application called WordPress.  It was reported in the media this week that they were the target of a DDoS attack that slowed, and briefly made unavailable, service on the platform.  They also experienced another slowdown that was self-inflicted and was due to a software maintenance issue. What I appreciated was that we WordPress users were sent an email in which the company owned up to and explained the problems, and how they were dealing with them.  Good customer service.

The second example is very local for me and should have been incredibly easy to avoid. I live in a condo with a property management company that is supposed to take care of  all common areas of the facilities. It’s a relatively new building so they’re still getting their feet wet figuring things out. However, remember what I said was the first question you should ask yourself…. what would be my expectations of the interaction?  In the case of working with a property manager, I expect totally transparent communications and I expect smartly logical planning of work.  I think those are reasonable expectations.  Afterall, we pay a considerable sum of money each month for maintenance.  Should intelligence and courtesy command a surcharge? Evidently, they do. Our parking garage was in desperate need of a cleaning and the property management company scheduled the work, and announced the dates and the procedure (move your cars out for two days) to the residents. The work was executed (poorly, but that’s another blog post) and everyone put their cars back in the garage. You can imagine our surprise and frustration the next day to see new construction being carried out in the garage, with clouds of dust and debris blanketing the cars and the parking surface. No explanation forthcoming from Property Management, no communication whatsoever, bad customer service.

People, it really is not that hard of a job.  Use your head, plan logically, communicate with honesty, and….apologize if you know in your heart that you screwed up.

Multitasking: a mug’s game?

We like to think of computers as devices with an astounding ability to do many things at once but the truth is, for single CPU computers, tasks are performed one at a time. The illusion of multitasking is handled by a very fast scheduler that facilitates the constant swapping in and out of various tasks. It’s a very effective trick of basic physics and because of the incredible speed with which it operates, for all intents and purposes the device is accomplishing many things at what seems to be the same time, even though it is focusing on only one task at any particular point in time.

The human brain is the same and I was reminded of this restriction yesterday while I attended the Communitech Tech Leadership Conference in Waterloo, Ontario. A strong roster of industry thought leaders (Geoffrey Moore, Scott Berkun, Watts Wacker, among others) was what attracted me and although they each delivered on the promise, I had to struggle a bit to get the value because their keynote presentations were deflated by a strange decision by organizers. The stage was flanked on either side by large screens that alternated between showing close-up views of the speaker (good, since the room was large) and flashing real-time snapshots of the tweets of the attendees (bad). The intended effect of the organizers to have tweets displayed so prominently while someone was speaking could only possibly have been one thing…to distract the attendees away from the presenter and focus on what we the attendees were saying.  Huh? What good could come from that strategy? What also baffled me was that the keynote speakers didn’t demand that the organizers shut down those tweeting side screens for it really was the height of rudeness. I know modern opinion is that younger generations are so good at multitasking that what might appear to be distractions to older folk are instead just examples of how the young are able to accomplish more tasks by juggling many things at once. I don’t buy it.

Setting aside the fact that not giving the speaker their attention was poor mannered and disrespectful, the truth is that by focusing on crafting a 140 character slice of wisdom the tweeters were missing the message of the talk. The human brain, like a computer, can only perform one task at a time. See this study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that describes the nature of multitasking with different media (TV, iPods, reading, etc) and how the brain actually processes the associated tasks. In it you’ll find research showing that while humans can perceive two stimuli (a speaker’s words and images of tweets in the example of the conference I attended), they cannot process them simultaneously.  “When the two channels convey semantically different information, viewers can recall less information, and often successfully focus on one channel only.”  As our parents used to tell us, turn the TV off while doing your homework.  And as an aside, tweeters, really, what is the rush to get stuff out there? As I said in an earlier blog post, there is no winning in that.