Monday, October 13, 2014

Three Questions for Conspire, the Email Traffic Analysis Networking Site

Conspire is a very interesting new networking tool that uses email traffic analysis to determine how strong are the connections between two people. Using this information it can determine the strongest connection path between a user and anyone else.

This approach addresses a well-known weakness of the market leader in professional networking, LinkedIn. Though one of your connections might be connected to someone interesting it sometimes happens that they do not really know each other. Some people are careful to only connect with people they know -- I do this myself -- but there are many others who send and accept random connections. Conspire does not rely on self-declared connections, determining from the frequency of contacts, if and how fast the person responds and other factors to measure the strength of a connection.

When you sign up for Conspire it asks for access to your Gmail account and analyzes this data using only message headers, so it does not store your message content. Once this processing has been done you can type in any name and then you will see the most efficient connection paths between you and the target. This is certainly an interesting idea, but there are some questions about the way it is currently implemented that could make some potential users wary.

PEOPLE DON'T LIKE GIVING ACCESS TO EMAIL ACCOUNTS. My business emails are not terribly exciting to outsiders, but like many people I am reluctant to give access to my email accounts unless there is a very compelling reason. I do not fear government surveillance but I do have a healthy concern that every additional access I grant gives criminals another weakness to probe. Even major software companies like Adobe have had their security compromised so we have to assume that everyone is potentially vulnerable. In the case of corporate business email accounts it is also quite likely that your company forbids allowing access in this way.

MOST PEOPLE USE MORE THAN ONE ACCOUNT. On a typical working day I use four separate email accounts for my business contacts. Most people have at least two addresses because they need to separate work from private or just to have a stable account for when they change jobs. At present Conspire only tracks my Gmail account so it misses most of my connections. For one partner in Europe I have also been assigned an email in their domain so all connections through that company are invisible to Conspire. You can see the results of this when you search for someone you have regular business contacts only to be told that there are no paths.

MANY OF MY GMAIL CONNECTIONS ARE IRRELEVANT. I often use email to exchange information with tax authorities and other organizations that are not related to my work. It might be true that I have regular contacts with the business account adviser at the bank or the international taxation experts at the French department of public finance. These people also have strong connections with other business people but I can hardly use them as stepping stones to approach other business people.

There are also some nagging doubts about the damage to your routine self-deception since Conspire, like Google Now, uncovers the stark reality of your relationships with other people rather than the way you prefer to see them. James Carmichael wrote in the Atlantic about this problem recently in Google Knows You Better Than Yourself, drawing attention to this growing problem. Maybe not all of our LinkedIn connections are as strong as we would like but a little self deception is good for your self esteem.

Conspire is still very new and I expect that some of these questions will be addressed in future upgrades, but in the meantime these uncertainties offset the brilliance of the idea and could deter many users. Corporate users in particular will be less than enthusiastic and this weakens the strength and utility of their social graph. On the other hand people questioned the value of LinkedIn in 2003 but now it has more than 300 million accounts and it has become almost indispensable for career minded people.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching & Writing

For lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing on this and other communication topics you can contact me by email at, through my website or by phone on 0046 730 894 475 or 0033 6 79 61 42 81.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Talko Is Useful for Workgroups But Won't Replace Plain Old Telephone Service

Of all the new iPhone apps I have tried in the last year Talko is probably the one that impressed me the most -- a good idea, well executed, easy to use and actually real-world useful.

Talko is the latest brainchild of Ray Ozzie, the person who gave the world Lotus Notes, the de facto standard for collaboration in pre-web days. What the app does is to reinvent the telephone using all the possibilities modern smartphone technology brings that Alexander Graham Bell could never have dreamed of.  You can have one-to-one voice conversations, you can have group calls and you can send spoken recordings to people. You can also switch seamlessly from recording to live and vice-versa. Better still, you can also illustrate your calls by tapping the camera icon as you talk, sharing an image of what you are seeing, and you can tag parts of a call and send them to others.

Where Talko will be most useful will be in enhancing the communications of project teams. You just can't beat spoken communication to quickly solve many problems and the extra features of the app compensate for the limitations of a voice-only medium. In this scenario an organization can simply decide that the team will use this app and just make sure everyone is equipped. But outside of this space Talko will not replace plain old fashioned telephone service simply because not everyone has the app and not everyone has an iPhone to run it on. With a regular phone call I can call from any telephone to any other telephone in the world and be sure they can hear me. With Talko you first need to find someone else that has the app, and quite likely they don't want to talk to you.

In my iPhone Talko joins dozens of other apps that are functionally excellent, but not as useful in practice just because they are not global standards like telephony or email. It's a product and one that will never be available to everyone. It reminds me of GoogleWave and many other neat ideas that never went mainstream because there was nobody to talk to. After creating a Wave account I understood how Bell must have felt, sitting watching the first telephone and wondering why nobody called.

Some kind of Talko-like functionality would be useful in a second-generation telephone network but I don't think that will ever happen with an individual product; it has to be the fruit of a standards-based solution that can be implemented by anyone. Meantime, though, if you have a team of people working closely together on a project a bunch of iPhones with the Talko app is going to make them work better than plain old conference call technology.

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For lectures, workshops, coaching and writing on this and other communications topics contact me by email through, by phone on 0046 730 894 475 or 0033 79 61 42 81. You can also contact me through my website and you can, of course, also reach me using Talko.

Friday, September 26, 2014

How to Make Sure Journalists Quote You Correctly

People who have been interviewed by journalists are often disappointed by the results. Sometimes they are misquoted or quoted out of context but this is not always the fault of the journalist. The person who is being interviewed can also minimize the risk of being misquoted by making it easier for the journalist to capture their ideas accurately. 

Since I have been both a freelance journalist interviewing other people and also an expert being interviewed by journalists I have seen this problem from both sides. I have learned that there are some simple best practices to follow to get the best results. These work with both face to face and telephone interviews.

Prepare before the interview. Never go into an interview unprepared. Think about the messages you would like to give, make a list of points and check the facts that you plan to use. If it is a phone interview you can have your notes in front of you; if it is a face-to-face interview check your notes just before you go in. Some people use the bathroom for this last-minute preparation if there are no other quiet spaces.

Speak slowly and leave pauses.  You have to speak slowly enough for the journalist to keep up with what you are saying and leave some pauses so that the journalist has time to write what you have said. Watch what they are writing and don’t start on a new explanation if you see that they are still scribbling the last thing you said. One of the most common problems is to keep talking quickly without leaving any gaps so there just isn't time to keep up. Then it is hardly surprising if you are misquoted.

Always give answers that are complete.  A good answer is one that is complete and will work without the question. This makes it much easier for people to quote you accurately. When the interviewer asks, for example, “What should you do to be quoted accurately?” a normal conversational answer might be something fairly unstructured like “Well, pauses. And slow down. Time to catch up, you know…”. This kind of response works fine in normal conversation but it is unusable in an interview. A much better response would be something like “If you want to be quoted accurately in an interview you should speak not too quickly and leave some pauses when you see the journalist is busy writing.”

Think before you answer.  Don’t rush to answer before the question is finished. Take your time, think first and then state your points as coherent thoughts without rambling. If you find yourself rambling consider restarting the answer. If you give a very messy answer it will need to be reworked more and this process can introduce changes in emphasis that you would call mistakes. 

Talk in a normal conversational tone.  Speak in a normal conversational voice and avoid sounding like advertising copy or a bad press release. When your answer sounds like advertising it can't be used without some twisting so it is very likely to be ignored or distorted. So, for example, if someone asks "Why has become so successful?" never answer with something like "World leader in enterprise grade acme's, has been voted the world's most voted acme provider for three consecutive years and...". Just answer the question. You're not writing a press release.

Spell out acronyms, names and other unusual terms. If deadlines permit consider sending an email with the names and technical terms spelled out but ask the journalist first. And be especially careful when you are using a common acronym in an unusual way. To most people B2B means business-to-business though some people now use it to describe brain-to-brain communication. Spell out your own name very carefully and give the journalist a card to help them get your name right. This is not just about your pride; it is also important so people can find the interview with search engines.

Radio/TV only: Never talk over the questions. When you are being interviewed on radio or TV be very careful to start talking after the question is finished. If you talk over the question you make it much harder for the person who is editing the interview to separate the question from the answer. Maybe they wanted to use an answer but because of this problem they use another part instead or just drop your piece from the show. 

Follow these best practices and you will find that you will be more satisfied with the results, but the only sure way to make sure that your quote is never mangled or used out of context is never to do interviews. Just like a cyclist knows that sooner or later they will fall off the bike, every interviewee knows that there is a downside risk. You can minimize that but never eliminate it completely. Learn to manage both the way you respond and also to recognize what a successful interview looks like. Maybe some parts make you cringe but perhaps to others it is clearer than the way you would have written it.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

For lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing on this and other communication topics you can contact me by email at, through my website or by phone on 0046 730 894 475 or 0033 6 79 61 42 81.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why Email Isn't Dead or Dying Anytime Soon

Five years ago the Wall Street Journal declared the end of the reign of email in the article Why Email No Longer Rules...  They were not the only people to announce the death of email. At the time everyone thought that email was finished and that soon the stuffy old timers who persisted in using it would see the light and move to new tools. Some said that we would all be using new communication tools like GoogleWave, launched with great fanfare in 2010 as the future of mail but then shut down three years later. Others said that we would all use Facebook, Twitter or other social sites. They were all wrong.

Now more than forty years after it was introduced email shows no signs of going away and indeed there is no credible alternative on the horizon. You could, people argue, use Facebook messenger instead, except that not everybody has Facebook messenger. You could, others say, use WhatsApp, except that not everyone has WhatsApp. You could use instant messaging, a few argue, but there are dozens of incompatible messaging systems and the lack of a permanent "paper trail" makes them unappealing for business use.

And therein lies the problem.All of the common alternatives to email are products that you can only use if you install the client or the app. In most cases they can only be used with a limited range of hardware -- try, for example, installing WhatsApp on a Linux desktop or an old Windows laptop. Most if not all also rely on a single service provider that might go out of business or simply discontinue the service, as happened to the now-defunct Shortmail service.

Email is different. It is and never was a product. It is instead a suite of standards -- like the World-Wide Web -- that simply define how messages should be exchanged between computers. As long as your email software respects these standards it can communicate with any other device that follows the same standards. This means that you buy hardware from any vendor and install software from any vendor and you will still be able to communicate with everyone. As an added bonus you have the time-machine effect that equipment from different eras can also communicate thanks to these standards.

You can send an email from an old Windows desktop to a new MacBook Air. You can send a message from an old Handspring PDA to your iPhone 6, or even to wearable devices not yet on the market. And you can, of course, send your mails anywhere in the world and at least one off-Earth location -- I understand that the International Space Station is equipped to send and receive standard Earth emails.

No "walled garden" single product is going to replace this standards-based approach. And today's email standards have such a large user base that it is going to be extremely difficult to replace it with a newer standard -- every single device will need at least a software update. This means that we are effectively stuck with email as a universal mean of exchange for quite a while yet, though in the meantime we can use better tools to contact the people around us. Effectively email has become another of these immortal standards like QWERTY that could have been replaced many years ago but never will because of inertia.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching, Writing

These thoughts about the immortal life of email are taken from a workshop Writing Effective Emails in a Global Business where I teach people how to use traditional email is the most effective way possible. This is available in half and full day versions plus a shorter lecture format. For details of this and other communication workshops, lectures, one-to-one coaching and writing you can contact me at, through my website or by phone on 0046 730 894 475 pr 0033 6 79 61 42 81.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Practical PR Tips: Ghost Writing for High-Level People

When you work in communications you will probably have to ghost write a quote for a press release, a blog post, a social media comment, an article or maybe a speech for a top-level manager in your organization. Often it must be approved by the manager you are ghosting but you have limited access to them; you might also be uncomfortable trying to be the voice of someone you don't normally interact with.

Luckily there are some simple techniques you can learn to make this task easier and faster, minimizing the stress and optimizing the results.

LEARN THEIR STYLE. Before you attempt to write something in the style of someone else you need to learn how they talk and write. Prepare by reading things that you think they wrote themselves and watch them speak to get a feel for the style and tone they use. You don't have to identify all the style markers because your brain can automatically learn to recognize someone's style.

IMAGINE THEM SAYING THE WORDS. When you have written something try imagining the person you are writing for saying the words out loud. Does it sound like them? Or does it sound more like you or, worse, like PR speak? Revise your draft to make it sound more authentic, using a style, words and expressions that the person is known to use.

GIVE THEM MULTIPLE CHOICES. When you are just writing a short quote for a press release or a critical social media post it saves time to offer alternatives. If you write just one version and the boss doesn't like it you will have to start another cycle and each cycle takes time. I often provide initially five different alternatives, adding that they can mix pieces from these, giving many more choices. This way you can usually get approval in one cycle. Most people also appreciate having this choice. Watching which alternatives they choose also gives you more clues about their preferred style.

MAKE THE DRAFT EASY TO READ. Try to find out how they like to have the draft. Do they want to read it on their tablet? Do they want a paper copy? Do they use markup? Do they want to just tell you what to change? The first time you might get this wrong but there is no excuse the second time. And if they do ask for a paper version make sure that you choose a large enough font. Sometimes people struggle to read small fonts in an uncertain light and don't like to be reminded of this all the time.

Ghost writing for important people is just part of the job when you work in communications. At the beginning this prospect can be a source of anxiety, but the upside of this is that you will get more access to senior people than many people in the organization that outrank you. If nothing else this is good for your network and also a useful learning experience. Being able to talk to busy leaders is a useful skill to acquire.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching & Writing

For lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing on this and other communication topics you can contact me by email on, through my website or by phone on 0046 730 894 475 or 0033 6 79 61 42 81.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Using the Source: When it's Important to Use Source Documents, Talk to Authors

Though every person with Internet access has the possibility to check facts without a trip to the library I still see old myths being repeated in articles, lectures, workshops, videos and TV shows. Hardly a day goes by without me seeing someone saying that we use only 10% of our brains, or how only 7% of communication is in the words, or the old myth about Henry Ford and the "faster horse". Two years ago I wrote about this problem in The Creation of Levi's: Why Writers and Speakers Should Always Check Facts. In this piece I recommended that everyone should at least run a quick Google check before repeating these myths. In search results the popular mythbusting sites are always on the first page. Wikipedia articles usually debunk common myths, too.

But there is another technique careful writers and speakers can apply to avoid repeating or even creating myths and misinterpretations: go to the source. I was given this advice as a student. Some professor whose name I have long forgotten once suggested that the best way to avoid misunderstanding research is to bypass all of the secondary interpretations and to read the author's original work.

Many sources, for example, have reported that science-fiction author Arthur Clarke invented the communications satellite. When you read his original October 1945 article in Wireless World magazine you discover that this is not exactly true. What Clarke envisioned was not a communication satellite in the usual sense but a satellite for direct-broadcast TV, something which did eventually emerge. And by satellite he meant what most people would now called a "space station", since he envisaged that the men on board would be needed for maintenance.

Another common misunderstanding is the oft-repeated claim that words only contribute 7% to any communication -- the other 93% being body language and facial expression. You can easily demonstrate to yourself that this is plainly nonsense by watching a TED lecture with the sound turned down. This myth is, in fact, a horrible distortion of research conducted by Albert Mehrabian in the 1960s and his conclusions were not that 7% of communication is in the words but that 7% of feelings or attitudes -- likes and dislikes -- are linked to the words. You can read about Mehrabian's original 1967 experiments for yourself in Decoding of Inconsistent Communications, Mehrabian & Weiner and Inference of Attitudes from Non-Verbal Communication in Two Channels, Mehrabian & Ferris.

Reading original papers is an excellent way to avoid repeating misinterpretations of research results, but there is also an even better way that is often available: ask the author of the original paper what it meant. This is much easier than you might imagine yet it is a very effective way to verify facts.  Recently I found an old question on the Quora question and answer site that asked "Once a culture becomes totally advertising friendly it ceases to be a culture at all: Do you agree."  Several people had attempted to answer the question but without really being sure what the quote meant.

A quick Google search revealed that this quote comes from Mark Crispin Miller, Professor of Media, Culture and Communications at New York University. Google also provided more context in the form of the complete quote but to be sure of the meaning I asked Professor Miller by email -- his email address is on the university website. He very kindly sent me an email explaining exactly what he had meant by that quote:

"In any case, a culture that's totally advertising-friendly would be one in which all contrary or dissentient content, whether it be news, art or entertainment, must be suppressed or forced out to the margins; since advertising is a form of propaganda, whose makers always want, and do their utmost to create, "a good environment" for their output. That means no contradiction, and no contiguous material that might somehow detract from the appeal. Thus the force of advertising makes itself felt not just positively—i.e., through its overt stimuli—but also negatively, through the censorship it necessarily entails."

Myths and distortions are easy to avoid. You can read the source documents for almost any claim simply by googling them and in many cases you can also ask the author what he or she meant. There is no excuse today for people to repeat the same myths again and again, yet they still do. Check everything, even the things you think you are sure about, and remember that in cases where secondary documents are not convincing you can always use the source.

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For lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching or writing on this or other communication topics you can reach me by email at, through my website or by phone at 0033 6 79 61 42 81 or 0046 730 894 475

Monday, July 21, 2014

Unintended Consequences: Why Plain Packaging for Cigarettes Didn't Work

Plain packaging for cigarettes is widely seen as a way to reduce the number of people smoking, but the notion that selling cigarettes in uniform, logo-free dull-green packages covered in health warnings will deter smokers fails to take into account both human nature and the way brands work. I wrote about this two years ago in Why Plain Packaging for Cigarettes is Unlikely to Work but in a way I was wrong. Not only did it not deter smokers it actually had the opposite effect, but for reasons that nobody seems to have predicted.

Advocate of plain packaging believe that smokers and aspiring smokers will be repelled by unattractive plain packages.  This doesn't happen.  Nobody smokes because the packages are cool; people start smoking because they believe that smoking is cool and they continue because they are addicted. Existing legislation also ensures that people are not going to pick up a packet of cigarettes from a supermarket shelf because it looks stylish; they ask for a brand they have already chosen and they are influenced more by the image of the brand rather than the packaging.

Even if smokers were discouraged by ugly packaging it would not take long for people to realize that you could easily slip an attractive sleeve around the package, making the retail package more like a refill. Regulating these covers would be very complex if at all possible. The move might also lead to the emergence of a market for third party covers, like for smartphones.  It could even prompt the return of elegant, Bertie-Wooster-style cigarette cases. This has not happened in practice, confirming suspicions that smokers are not at all repelled by the new packages.

What has actually happened in Australia is that after 18 months of plain packaging smoking has not declined, it even increased slightly as reported in this article in The Australian. As many expected, smokers were not deterred by the packages but there was one effect that nobody predicted: smokers switched to cheaper brands, so they could either spend less or smoke more for the same price.

What is happening here is that packages used to be important to signal to other people which brand you smoked, and many people clearly chose a more expensive brand merely as a social display. Once all the packages are the same this no longer works so people simply buy the cheapest they can find. This might hurt the tobacco companies slightly, since it reduces sales of premium brands, but it does not do any good for the smokers.

Reducing the number of people smoking and, most importantly, the number of young people starting is a key public health goal, but we need to find some other solution than plain packaging, which can never be more than a small part of the answer.

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For lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing on this and other communication topics you cam contact me through my website, by email at or by phone on 0046 730 894 475 in Sweden  or 0033 6 79 61 42 81 in France.