Category Archives: Communications

Dear Marketing: Stop Putting the Template Ahead of the Story

I’ve always thought that if marketers wrote newspapers, the famous New York Times headline of August 8, 1974 would have looked like this:

nixon1

Instead of how it actually looked, which was:

pinsdaddy-richard-nixon-resigned-as-us-president-40-years-ago-this-week

What’s the difference?  While both of the above presentations are structured, the newspaper doesn’t let the template get in the way of story.  The newspaper works within the template to tell the story.

I think because marketing departments are so often split between “design people” and “content people,” that (1) templates get over-weighted relative to content and (2) content people get so busy adhering to the template that they forget to tell the story.

Here’s a real, anonymized example:

agf1What’s wrong here?

  • There is a lot of wasted vertical space at the top:  all large font, bolded template items with generous line spacing.
  • The topic section gets lost among the other template items.  Visually, author is as important as topic.
  • There is no storytelling.  There is effectively no headline — “Latest Release of Badguy Product” takes no point-of-view and doesn’t create an angle for a story.
  • The metadata is not reader-first, preferring to remind Charles of his title over providing information on how to contact him.

But there is one, much more serious problem with this:  the claim / rebuttal structure of the document lets the competitor, not the company, control the narrative.

For example, political affiliations aside, consider current events between Trump and Comey.  Like him or not, Trump knows how to control a narrative.  With the claim / rebuttal format, our competitive bulletin would read something like this if adapted to the Trump vs. Comey situation.

Competitive Update:  Team Comey
Trump says:

  • Comey is a coward
  • Comey is a leaker
  • Comey is a liar

But, don’t worry, our competitive team says: 

  • Comey isn’t really a coward, but it is interesting that he released the information through a colleague at Columbia Law School
  • Comey isn’t really a leaker because not all White House conversations can be presumed confidential and logically speaking you can either leak or lie, but you can’t both at the same time.

Great.  What are we talking about?  Whether Comey is a leaker, liar, or coward.  Who’s controlling the narrative?  Not us.

Here’s a better way to approach this document where you rework the header and metadata, add a story to the title, recharacterize each piece of the announcement on first reference (rather than saying it once “their way” and then challenging it), and then providing some broader perspective about what’s happening at the company and how it relates to the Fall17 release.

agf2

This is a very common problem in marketing.  It comes from a lack of storytelling and fill-in-the-template approach to the creation of marketing deliverables.  Avoid it by always remembering to put the story ahead of the template.

Just likes blogs and newspapers do.

Blocking the End Run: Eleven Words to Reduce Politics in Your Organization

People are people.  Sometimes they’re conflict averse and just not comfortable saying certain things to their peers.  Sometimes they don’t like them and are actively trying to undermine them. Sometimes they’re in a completely functional relationship, but have been too darn busy to talk.

So when this happens, how do you — as a manager — respond?  What should you do?

“Hey Dave, I wanted to say that Sarah’s folks really messed up on the Acme call this morning.  They weren’t ready with the proposal and were completely not in line with my sales team.”

Do you pile on?

“Again?  Sarah’s folks are out of control, I’m going to go blast her.”  (The “Young Dave” response.)

Do you investigate?

“You know my friend Marcy always said there are three sides to every story:  yours, mine, and what actually happened.  So let me give Sarah a call and look into this.”

Do you defend?

“Well, that doesn’t sound like Sarah.  Her team’s usually buttoned up.”

In the first case, you’re going off half-cocked without sufficient information which, while emotionally satisfying in the short-term, often leads to a mess followed by several apologies in the mid-term.  In the second case, you’re being manipulated into investigating something when perhaps you were planning a better use of your time that day.  In the third case, you’re going off half-cocked again, but in the other direction.

In all three cases, you’re getting sucked into politics.  Politics?  Is it really politics?  Well, how do you think Sarah is going to feel in when you show up asking a dozen questions about the Acme call?  She’ll certainly consider it politics and, among other things, there’s about a 98% chance that she will say:

“Gosh, I wish Bill came and talked to me first.”

At which point, if you’re like me, you’re going to say:

“No, no, no.  I know what you’re thinking.  Don’t worry, this isn’t political.  It’s not like Bill was avoiding you on this one.  He just happened to be talking to me about another issue and he brought this up at the end.  It’s not political, no.”

But can you be sure?  Maybe it just did pop into Bill’s mind during the last minute of the other call.  Or maybe it didn’t.  Maybe the reason Bill called you was a masterfully political pretext.  Can you know the difference?

So what do you say to Bill when he drops the comment about Sarah’s team into your call?  The eleven words that reduce politics in any organization:

“What did Sarah say when you talked to her about this?”

[Mike Drop.]

# # #

(Props to Martin Cooke for teaching me the eleven words.)

Unicorn Tears, Beyond Ultimate, and the Silicon Valley Hype Mentality,

Back in the day we working on a press release and I was a CMO.

Me:  “Somebody, get Randy (the PR director) in here.”

Me:  “Randy, what is this press release calling our new offering the ultimate in business intelligence?”

Randy:  “Yes and the problem is?”

Me:  “The problem is it’s not the ultimate, it’s better than ultimate, it’s beyond ultimate … there must be a word for that … I don’t know, maybe penultimate.”

Randy:  “Chief,” he said sheepishly after waiting a minute, “penultimate means one less than ultimate.  Ultimate means ultimate.  There is no word for one more than ultimate.”

Me:  “Oh.  Well, God damn it, go make one up.”

It was at that moment that I realized I’d been fully sucked into the Silicon Valley hype machine.  Just as unique means unique and requires no modifier like “amazingly,” so does ultimate means ultimate.

Speaking of “amazing,” during my tenure at Salesforce, I used to count the number of amazing’s Marc Benioff would say during a speech.  You’d run out of fingers in minutes.  But somehow it worked.  He was a great — no, amazing — speaker and I never got tired of listening to him.

This is Silicon Valley.   The land where one of my competitors can still peddle a cock-and-bull story about how he, as an immigrant limo driver with $26 (and a master’s in computer science), sold a company (where he was neither founder nor CEO), worked as (a member in the office of the) CTO at SAP, and is growing stunningly — no, amazingly — fast (despite a rumored recent down-round and rough layoffs).  Fact-checking, smact-checking.  If it’s a Man Bites Dog story, people will eat it up.  Blog it, hit publish, and move onto the next one.

Maybe I should pitch the equivalent story about me:

Lifeguard and Self-Taught Programmer Who Arrived in California with Only $30, a Red Bandana, and a Box of Bootlegged Grateful Dead Tapes Becomes CEO of Host Analytics

“Dude, I was guarding by the pool one day and this wicked thunderstorm hit and, flash, like totally suddenly I realized the world needed cloud-based, enterprise planning, budgeting, modeling, consolidation, and analytics.”

And we could discuss how I “hacked” on paper tape back in high school:  “the greatest part about hacking on paper tape was you could roll bones with it when you were done and literally, like, smoke your program.”

It would be a roughly equivalent story.  I’m sure they’d eat it up.

Silicon Valley is a place, after all, where we can create a metaphor for something that doesn’t exist — a unicorn  — and then discover 133 of them.

Is our reaction “bad metaphor?”  No, of course not.  It’s “wow, we’re special, we’ve got 133 things that don’t exist.”

Unicorns (generally defined as startups with a $1B+ valuation) are mostly of a result of three things:

  • The cost and hassle of being a public company, post Sox.  Why go public if you don’t have to?
  • The ability to raise formerly IPO-sized rounds (e.g., $100M) in the private markets.
  • A general bubble in late-stage financing where valuations are high enough to create the IPO-as-down-round phenomena

As the late-stage financing bubble appears to be near popping, you increasingly hear new terms for unicorns.  For example, Good Technology, a “onceacorn,” sold earlier this month for $400M.  Since I love words, I’ve been tracking these new terms closely with some amusement:  formercorns, “just horses with birthday hats on,” usta-corns, dying unicorns, and unicorpses.

So, hopefully, as the financing fuel that’s stoking the fire starts to die down, the hype bubble will go with it.  Until then, enjoy this tweet, which captures the spirit of Silicon Valley today just perfectly:

vape

Stop Making the #1 Mistake in Presentations

Ever hear this story?

VP of Sales:  “Hey, how did the sales training on the new presentation go?”

VP of Marketing:  “OK, well, you know, pretty good.”

VP of Sales:  “Why are you hemming and hawing?”

VP of Marketing:  “Well, I could tell they didn’t love it.”

VP of Sales:  “Do you know why?  I do.  They told me it was a great looking set of slides, but it felt more like an analyst pitch than a customer presentation.”

What’s gone wrong here?
It’s simple.  Marketing made the #1 mistake that managers of all ilks make when it comes to creating presentations:  they start with what they have — instead of starting with what’s needed.

What does that mean?
Marketing probably just came back from a few days of analyst briefings and when they needed to make a revision to sales presentation, they re-used a bunch of the slides from the analyst deck.  Those slides, created for analysts, talked about company strategy, positioning, and messaging.  Customer slides need to talk capabilities, benefits, and customer testimonials.

The slides, never designed to be used with customers, are thrown into a deck, and marketing feels great and super-efficient because they’ve re-used materials and presumably even increased message consistency in the process.  #wow

But it’s a #fail.  They broke the first rule of presentations:  it’s all about the audience.

Know thy audience
Presentations are all about the audience.  The first step in creating any presentation should be asking:  who I am speaking to and what do I want to tell them.

It’s not about you; it’s about them.  Which brings to mind one of my favorite quotes from Frank Capra, director of It’s a Wonderful Life.

“I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.”  — Frank Capra

It’s not just about marketing
While I started with a marketing example, this isn’t just a marketing problem.  Here are some other favorite examples:

  • Making a board presentation from an operations review deck.  Yes, they both have a lot of data and analysis about the business, but the ops review deck is created for an audience of your peers, for people who want more detail and who are far closer to the daily operations of the business.  One great way to hang yourself in a board meeting is to paste a bunch of slides from your ops review deck “to save time.”
  • Making one sales presentation from another.  This might work if the two customers have a lot in common, but if they don’t it will be a disaster.  My favorite quote here comes for a story about an Atlanta-based salesrep who kept referencing Coca Cola to Delta Airlines.  “Stop telling us about Coke.  We are Delta.  We fly airplanes.”
  • Making a product introduction presentation from a product management presentation.  You instantly doom yourself to feature-itis.
  • Making a vision presentation from a sales presentation.  Sales presentations about motivating benefits and differentiation.  Vision presentations are about what’s wrong with the status quo and how to fix it.
  • Making a roadmap presentation from a product planning deck.  Not only will you forget to pad the dates, but you will likely end up turning your product vision into a laundry list.

I could go on and on.  But the key mistake here is simple.  Instead of starting blank-slate with what’s needed based upon the audience, you start with leftovers.  What you have lying around from a prior presentation or meeting.

The road to Hell
Don’t have the good intentions of maximizing re-use when you make presentation.  Instead focus on your message and your audience.  That means starting with what’s needed instead of starting with what you have.

What’s the trick?
Most people condemn themselves at the 5th second of the presentation-creation process by double-clicking on PowerPoint and then hitting “open.”

Don’t do that.  Never do that.

Instead hit “new” and “blank presentation.”

Then think about the audience.  Think about your message and start roughing out an outline to achieve your goals and the slide structure (often just titles) to do that.  Let it sit for a while.  And then do it again.  Put your early energy into the structure of the presentation, not the slides.

Then — once you have a clear outline for what you want to say and how you want to say it — and only then, should you go looking for existing slides that will help you say it.

Career Advice: Simplifiers Go Far, Complexifiers Get Stuck

“If you can’t explain it to a six year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”  – Albert Einstein

There are two types of people in business:

  • Simplifiers:  who make complex things simple
  • Complexifiers:  who make simple things complex

Quick joke
Question:  What does a complexifier call a simplifier?
Answer:  “Boss.”

Somewhere, somehow, some people decided that in business you need to make everything complicated and speak using business jargon.

Well, that’s an interesting proposal and I’m not necessarily opposed to it, so let me run it up the flagpole so we can kick it around as a strawman.   Since I hear the idea has some traction in the field, let me reach out to the guys upstairs, and we’ll see if we have the bandwidth to go forward with this.  If the cost is North of $100K, I may have to backburner it, because we need to keep some dry powder pending the results of the strategy meeting — where I know we’re considering a pivot.  Right now, the long pole in the tent isn’t marketing but strategy so let’s keep lines open.  Kudos to the team for coming up with a such a great value proposition, but for now I’m afraid can’t lean in on this one.

That’s one way of hiding behind complexity: making yourself flat incomprehensible.  While that may impress your peers, your subordinates will mock you and your superiors will ask to speak to someone else.  As I argued in this post, when dealing with senior people you need to speak clearly and, above all, answer the question.  In most organizations, while jargon and doublespeak may be prevalent in middle management, they are nearly absent in the boardroom.

The other way of hiding behind complexity is not linguistic but conceptual:  always finding an upstream or bigger-picture issue that will block progress at the lower level.  Consider this statement:

I’d like to cut over to the new process, but we haven’t completed the training yet.

Is this, as it appears, a valid reason for not making progress on moving to the new process or is it passive resistance disguised as a reason.  For example, I don’t want to move to the new process so I keep “having trouble” scheduling the training.  Or is bona fide complexification?  If the training can be boiled down to one page that everyone can read in 5 minutes then just cut over.

Remember the old saw:

When you ask the time, some people will tell you how to build a watch.  Others will tell you how to build a Swiss Village.

My test for spotting complexifiers is look for the following pattern:

  • Slow progress on results
  • Blamed on everything being difficult or complicated
  • With a tendency to find artificial prerequisite activities that sound plausible, but on further examination aren’t.

Things are as complex as we want to make them. Most of the time complexity is an excuse for either not wanting to do something or not knowing how to do something.

My advice:  strive to make things simple.  Seek to understand them.  Struggle to find apt metaphors for them.  If you’re not burning real energy trying to simplify things for you audience, you are most like a complexifier.  If so, the next time you’re about to explain to someone why something take so long, is so complicated, or requires 5 steps to be completed before the start, ask yourself — do I really believe this or I am making it complicated because I either don’t want or don’t know how to do it.

A Simple Trick to Reduce Cross-Cultural Confusion

Have you ever been to a business meeting that felt like this?

I love communications.  Back in the day, I spent hours learning the comprehensibility of different typefaces on the theory that you shouldn’t fumble the ball on the two-yard line by building a great message, only to put in a typeface that people can’t understand.  Yesterday, I just started The Sense of Style, a manual that one-ups Strunk & White by providing research-backed rules driven not just by elegance, but comprehension.

When working with non-native English speakers, it’s easy to blame language as the source of miscommunication.  But language problems are pretty easy to identify — “Huh, what did you say?”  The scary situation is when everyone leaves a meeting thinking they’ve agreed to something, but no one actually agrees on what that is.  And that can easily happen even when everyone speaks fluent English.

That’s where culture comes in.  Most big miscommunications — the kind that derail projects and cost people their jobs — are driven by culture, not language.

If you work with India, trying to communicate without Speaking of India is like trying to trying navigate Mumbai without a map.  Living in France (as I did for five years) is greatly aided by French or Faux, which has nothing to do with language and everything to do with culture.

I’ve always found it interesting that the literal translation of jihad is “struggle.”  I often feel like communicating is a jihad in this sense:  an ongoing struggle to understand each other.

Having been to too many meetings where a false agreement was reached, I have come up with two different tricks that help minimize confusion among teams:

  • Real-time minutes.  Allocate a material chunk of the meeting to present the minutes of the meeting while it is still occurring.  But putting key decisions and action items on the screen somehow grabs peoples’ attention and gets them to focus.  Hey, we didn’t agree to X.  Or, that’s not what I meant by Y.  This trick works well for most groups, particularly those where both language and culture are not a real impediment.
  • First-draft-by-you minutes.  For more difficult situations, where miscommunications are frequent and important, I have found that it is incredibly useful to find out “what you heard” through the minutes as opposed to me simply re-writing “what we said.”  Thus, one great trick is to pick someone on the remote team and ask them to write the minutes and send them only to you, so you can see clearly was heard as opposed, perhaps, to what was said.  Once you identify and close any gaps with that one person you can then rollout the revised minutes along with someone on the ground who can explain them.

That’s it.  Two easy tricks to reduce miscommunication in the workplace.