Search This Blog

Get Real

I watched the Biden-Ryan debate like everybody else, with intense interest in the election. But there was one part I noticed almost more than any other: the exchange about abortion.

There sat two men, each potentially the leader of the free world, neither of them with a uterus. And it was their job to explain why they were or weren't in favor of females having control over their own bodies, their own pregnancies, the course of their entire lives with respect to becoming mothers.

Mothers are the ones, overwhelmingly, who tend to the crying and wipe the spit and change diapers. Not men.

Afterwards my daughters asked me if I was "pro-choice or pro-life" and I replied angrily, "What a false choice - there is no difference between the two."

Because a mother knows that there are only difficult choices, and that birthing a child who is almost sure to know deprivation and abuse lifelong is not mercy.

Among the majority of technology producers who are male, Steve Jobs was rare in that he understood the human factor: People are the ones who buy, upgrade, recommend. Others are more fascinated with IpV6 or whatever. Who cares, until it's real?

Not that it's bad if a $400 Dyson can pick up ten pounds of animal hair from a shaggy carpet. But maybe a $59 Dirt Devil will do for most uses.

Like Mr. Miyagi said in The Karate Kid, "Focus, Daniel-San. Wipe on, wipe off."

Most people only use a microscopic amount of the technology in Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook. They don't need it. They don't care.

I set up a training class for Google Docs the other day. Somebody said, "It's great technology. But if the link doesn't work when I click on it, then I'm done."

Sharepoint users say to me, "I don't want to learn Google Docs. I just learned this." Meaning how to open a document, make changes, and then close.

We overthink and overestimate what people want in product features. A car does not have to feature ten different kinds of apps in the dashboard, just one: A map that gets me there.

I don't need an orange juice loaded with fifteen kinds of vitamins. Just fresh would be great.

And when I buy shoes I don't care if they have spring-loaded insoles. I just don't want my feet to hurt at the end of the day, or for the sole to wear ragged in two months.

And I would love it if doctors treated the whole person rather than attack the isolated symptom as if it were a cell sitting at the bottom of a microscope. A theory, a case, a specimen.

When you're selling things to people - or services or ideas - get real. How will they use it? Can the average person understand and will it make their life better?

Simple - not abstract - utility. Feeling free. Or a little less miserable. That is what most people want.

What Makes a Debate Performance Work?

When it comes to communication, real-world examples are better than any textbook because you can see what works - and what doesn't - in action. Plus you can predict outcomes for the future. 

Here's a quick slide that uses a brand analysis framework to think about last night's debate. (It's online here.)  Feel free to re-use it, with attribution.

In Marketing, Trivia Is Not Trivial

Woody Allen does not consider movies his finest accomplishment. He speaks far more lovingly about being in a jazz band and enjoying sports. Early in his career he was a standup comedian and is a published author too.

Still, most people know him as the old guy who married his adoptive stepdaughter. A few, a dedicated few, lionize his films.

People like trivia. A colleague once told me about a well-respected, high achieving woman she knew. The colleague didn't know much about her career. But she remembered the flower in her lapel. The one she wore every day.

I like to go to the movies. But I don't just notice the main event - the show. I notice things like how much the candy costs, how clean the restrooms are. The stand-up movie posters in front of the doors.

Once I had a boss the memory of whom is fairly dim. But what sticks in my mind are all the minutes and hours she kept me waiting. She'd call me in ostensibly for a staff meeting, line me up in a chair seated next to my colleague, and type away, make phone calls, etc. I remember the view through her window.

I don't remember high school graduation. I do remember the dress.

I remember once a nice house we saw with a stone roof, and that day someone threw a rock through a plate glass window of a Jewish store and we didn't move there.

We remember small things, because the big things are too much to capture.
That is why car ads should be shot from inside the car looking out (VW, Subaru), or even hanging out of the car (Kia Soul) not outside looking in. You want the target to see themselves, personally, inside the vehicle. Inhabiting it.

When you sell things to people, especially major things - car, house, etc. - you have to think small. As in from the perspective of what a single, simple mind can handle. You put freshly baked chocolate chip cookies at the entrance to rhe Open House.

The same holds true in elections. People vote for who they like - who they'd want a framed picture of themselves with - not for a theory or plan.

Trivia is the essence of marketing and life - a very big deal.

5 Ways Executives Think & How To Communicate Accordingly

1. Don't Waste Their Time

Executives try to cram a "success" activity into most every minute. Whatever activities they do are somehow related to upward mobility. Versus most people don't really think about managing their time, except that they're too busy. Which is why executives get very irritated when they feel that you are wasting their time. Therefore, use their time sparingly and give them the summary first.

2. Be Prepared

Executives can always answer that question. They seem to be able to tackle any question no matter how far it is from their top of mind. Versus most people tend to be a little vague. Have a project dashboard online that you regularly update; attach key documents (like Sharepoint). Be ready to answer seemingly random and detailed questions, often with a time lag.

3. Align With Their Priorities

Executives trade in multiple interconnected forms of capital: power, influence, status, connectivity, celebrity, intellectual, information, gossip, and of course money. To navigate this maze they develop minds like chess players. Their calculus is sophisticated they depend on trusted people to understand their priorities and get them accomplished. Understand your place in the ecosystem by respecting the priorities of your executive. Either get on board and get it done, or get out.

4. Hold Yourself Accountable

Every day executives are on the hot seat for about a million different reasons. They hold themselves accountable, they are held accountable, and so they will hold you accountable. When an executive gives you responsibility, guess what? You've just adopted a starving pet. Feed it, nurture it, and grow it until it's self-sustaining and you can focus on something else.

5. Stay In Their Moment

Executives are very focused people. It's important to align with their thinking in the moment and not distract them. When they determine it's appropriate to discuss weekend or holiday plans, for example, do that. When interested in developments on a particular issue, stay with that. And so on. If you want to introduce a topic not on their mind or on their plate, determine the channel they use for "new issues" and bring it up that way. In general, stay attuned to them and follow their lead.

Communication, Reputation, and Business Results (Simple Graphic)

10 Critical Lessons From: "Corporate Branding & Corporate Brand Performance"

"Corporate Branding and Corporate Brand Performance" (2001, Fiona Harris and Leslie de Chernatony) is a little difficult to wade through but it offers a few really good nuggets for students of brand.

The most important thing to learn from the article is that brand is not a thing-in-itself but rather an intangible that yields measurable results.

1. Brands start with 
  • Purpose (vision)
  • Principle (values)
2. Purpose and principle lead to positioning - "what the brand is, who it is for and what it offers." 

3. The brand has two layers:
  • Base layer is functionality - the "what." 
  • Secondary layer is personality - the "how."

4. Personality yields relationship - internally between employees and externally with customers. It is critical that the business model incorporate specifications around what types of relationships are wanted.

5. Relationships are formalized in presentation, meaning the structured ways in which the organization interacts with the public. These can be divided into two kinds of categories:

  • Advertising
  • Customer interaction with employees

6. Presentation yields image, or the symbolic meaning of the brand. This is temporary and fluctuates over time.

7. Reputation is the more lasting form of image. It's the aggregate of:
  • A single brand's image over time
  • A range of stakeholder views about the brand
  • (One would assume - DB) multiple brand images over time
8. A positive reputation yields improved business results.

9. It is critical that the organization's brand builders are aligned with operational staff.

10. At the end of the day, business results are significantly affected by reputation, which are in turn affected by brand, which are in turn driven by corporate culture. Therefore the importance of this factor should not be underestimated.

On The Benefits Of Eternal Cluelessness

Episode One
When my older daughter was born, everything was fine in the hospital. The nurses handled mostly everything. They knew what to do.
Back at home, for me, it was like "The Hunger Games" without a bow and arrow.
Some of it was obvious - food and fresh air and sleep.
But most of it was very much not. 
Tick, tock. Eight o' clock at night. We put a pretty onesie on her and lay her in her crib.
There she was.
There we were.
It was time to sleep. 
We just watched her. 
Until suddenly she started crying. Do we let her cry?
I voted yes along with Dr. Spock. My husband voted no, citing meaningless cruelty.
Then she resolved everything by throwing up her dinner.
Monday he went back to work. I called him bright and early.
"What do I do now?" I said.
"What do you mean, what do you do?"
"What am I supposed to do with her? I don't know what to do." I looked out the window, blinking, confused.
"Take her to the park, I don't know."
"Oh," I said. Couldn't I have thought of that?
"Just establish a routine. It'll be fine." 
I hung up the phone and considered. We had a huge, $300 Perego stroller. I put her in it. She squirmed and cried. 
I lifted her out and put her in a knapsack, the Snugli. She calmed down. 
I didn't take it off for six years, until my older one started preschool.
"Everybody" said to put them in the stroller; that I was crazy; that I was going to hurt my back. But eventually I figured out that I had to learn what they needed for myself. As long as they wanted the Snugli, they got it.
I dumped the Perego and got a cheap umbrella stroller for $19.99, packing it mostly with groceries and library books.

Episode Two
This one takes place a few years ago, as the older one was coursing through high school.
More studious than I ever was, I found her sitting up in the kitchen at 10:30 at night studying a Hebrew PowerPoint full of what looked like gobbledygook.
"What is this?" I asked her.
"It's from the substitute teacher," she said. "We're being graded on it."
When I went to yeshiva, I also got out at 5:30 p.m. But the teachers were Jewish wives and mothers teaching us to become the same. My kid was in some kind of decathlon.
I tried to dismiss it as just a crazy incident. School is full of them, right?
Another day she comes home, another problem. "The history teacher is teaching us from one textbook, but the test questions are coming from somewhere else."
Again, looking back at my high school, we studied history too, but my life was not about memorizing test books and test banks. It was about subjectivity, and the red pen. No the teacher wasn't always right. But most of the time, you learned.
Meanwhile my younger daughter had a lot of questions in Talmud class. And the rabbi, a very learned and beloved rabbi, put her off all the time. We used to joke that we would get him some flipcards. Then, instead of saying "not now," he could could just lift up the one that suited his particular choice of phrase.
You hate to be the problem parent, but finally I called. 
Three times. 
I felt clueless, because I wasn't there, and times had changed, and maybe I just didn't understand the educational process. 
Until that one response, dismissive, cold: "We have many students here, and most of them do just fine. I need to know the specific data points that support your complaints."
Data points?
It was right then and there that I knew: This was not the right school for them. 
And we began the long, slow, agonizing process of breaking away from the mold we had been raised in for decades, the mold our parents expected us to stay in, the mold we were told was the right one. And put them in a private secular school which honors their faith, nurtures their hearts, and respects their diversity as individuals.
We couldn't admit we were clueless about the right school for them. Because we were so sure that there was only one right path and we had to learn to conform to it. 
But when we decided to follow the logic of ignorance - that we don't necessarily know what's right, and so we need to be open to learning - a different universe opened up for our children, and for us. 
When our older daughter graduated high school, it was awesome - a model U.N. where the nations actually got along (well, mostly). I looked at the young people, so obviously relaxed and happy, and I could not stop crying for the time we wasted worrying about breaking with the past. 

Episode Three
Throughout my career in government communication, the #1 thing executives tell me is that people want "just the facts, Ma'am." The standard narrative goes that people are "drowning in information" and "just need to know where to find things." That our job is to give them that information and walk away.
That's all true - but only partly.
It's partly true because the government normally does a very poor job of organizing information, particularly information that "outsiders" need. Keep in mind that "outsiders" can be defined as employees - anyone who lacks the many years of experience, and/or the professional network, that can tell them "where the bodies are buried." 
"Insiders," in contrast, know how to find obscure information.
Compounding the problem is the fact that, unless you are a subject matter expert in just about everything, you will eternally be clueless about the technical issues surrounding the particular mission of your particular agency. There is no human way that communicators can be "in" on every conversation, schooled on every subject, up-to-date on every single pertinent article and research and report. 
So it will happen that you find yourself immersed in situations where the technical ebb and flow is going on. And you are surrounded by people who are in effect speaking a foreign language. And you get the sense that there is an over-emphasis on all the technical detail. 
It is almost like listening to your father and mother go back and forth about the minutiae of homework and finances and family, and there is a conversation happening at that level, but a meta-conversation maybe is happening too. And you find that because you are almost blind and deaf to the substantive conversation, your eyes and ears become more attuned to the meta-conversation.
At that level you say to yourself, in all your cluelessness, "Is the communication optimal here? Or is something else happening, something to block it?" And maybe you can't literally "prove" anything is awry, but you can sense it in the air.
Which leads to the conclusion that I have come to about organizational communication - in government or elsewhere. And that is that the #1 thing people want is meaning. They want to belong to a mission that counts. They want their work to make a difference, to be worthwhile. 
Yes, they need the facts sufficient to do their jobs.
Yes, they need to know where to find things.
Yes, they need to know they're getting paid.
But what people are starving for, what they don't get often enough, is meaning - feeling - passion. Communication that comes from the heart. That includes them in the professional family, in the network, in the community, in the team. 
How do you learn the most important things in life? It's not from cold, distant, glossy brochures. It's not from a book. It's not from a teacher. 
Learning happens when you are in the situation. And you are thinking critically, and attuned to your own emotions.
You can't learn unless you first accept that you are clueless. It's an embarrassing feeling not to know. It makes you feel vulnerable, and weak.
But there is no other way to live, to learn, and to grow except to accept that cluelessness, and if you can even to embrace it.
So listen to what your not-knowing is telling you. In the end you find out a lot. Strangely, even, that you're stronger when you admit your own ignorance, and weaker when you pretend to know it all.