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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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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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Why Companies Don't Like You to Google and Xerox Things

Some products are so successful in the marketplace that their trademark is widely used as the generic name for all products of that type. Google is the most common of these. People often talk about "googling" things or say "let me google that for you". There are many others: Xerox has become a synonym for photocopy, Hoover for vacuum cleaning, Jet Ski for acquatic motorcycles, Frisbee for flying disks or Jeep for compact sport utility vehicles.

Outsiders often see this as a sign of success and wonder why the companies who own these trademarks are apparently unhappy about the situation and try to discourage the use of their trademarks as generic names. There is a good reason for this. In the US and some other jurisdictions you can lose your rights to a trademark if it becomes generic and if the owner has not made sufficient effort to stop this.

This is not paranoia. Many famous trademarks have been lost by their owners precisely for this reason. Aspirin used to be a registered trademark of Bayer but it was successfully challenged in the USA where it is now generic. The Otis elevator company registered "escalator" as a trademark but they failed to protect it and it too became generic. The same happened to cellophane, thermos, dry ice, heroin and even videotape -- originally a trademark of the company that invented videotaping, Ampex.

You can't stop consumers using "google" as a verb but what trademark owners can do is to ensure that they always use trademarks correctly in their own publications. Look carefully at everything published by companies and you will rarely find a trademark used as a common noun. Instead of "escalator" nowadays the company would write "Escalator brand moving staircase". It is precisely because Otis used escalator like elevator that they lost it. Most companies also try to educate media and publishers so that they also use the trademarks correctly.

No company can require you to say "escalator brand moving staircase" in conversation, nor can they require publications to do the same. What they can do is to create brand awareness campaigns so that they can demonstrate their efforts to protect the mark. If anyone ever challenges a trademark in court these efforts will be very important to prove that the owner of the trademark made every effort to avoid it being used as a generic name.

In spite of the downside risks many companies are actually thrilled when their brand becomes the generic name for a product. They just have to make sure that they do everything they can to protect the mark by training their own staff and by trying to convince media to use the name appropriately. And that explains why part of your training at many companies is about how you should use the company trademarks. They just want to avoid adding their name to the already long list of genericized trademarks.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Why Politicians, Celebrities Should Beware of Touch Screens

After all his troubles with Twitter in the past, you might think that former US representative Anthony Weiner would be more careful, but he is in the news again for favoriting a tweet about sexting. According to the Slate article about this story, he claims that he did this by accident, touching the star symbol while scrolling the page.

This happens all too frequently when you are using apps on a touch screen device. Almost every day I inadvertently view someone's profile on LinkedIn while I am scrolling through updates one handed. I can easily imagine that someone could also like or favorite posts that they don't actually intend to endorse.

When my fingers slip on a touch screen the consequence are insignificant -- at most I leave someone wondering why I am suddenly interested in their profile -- but for politicians, celebrities and other high-profile social media personalities these mistakes are much more serious. As Anthony Weiner has found to his cost every slip on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or whatever will be seen by someone. Even if you quickly delete or reverse the action there is always someone quick enough to screen capture the evidence and post it on their blog. I have a collection myself of social media mishaps that were corrected in seconds but not fast enough to stop me capturing a permanent record.

So what should high-profile users do to avoid these problems? Here are five practical solutions:

AVOID TOUCH SCREEN DEVICES. To minimize the risk of accidents one approach is simply to use traditional mouse-and-keyboard computers as much as possible. This is awkward on the road but in the office there is no reason why you can't do this. Right now I am sitting with two laptops (one for typing; one for Spotify) and an iPhone. It's tempting but unnecessary for me to check social media on the phone.

USE TOUCH SCREENS CAREFULLY. When you are travelling and really have to use a phone or tablet then use them with great care. Use both hands and be careful where you place your finger to scroll the screen. Never try to scroll one handed while you are doing something else. Definitely never do it while you are driving for safety reasons.

CONSIDER APPS LIKE HOOTSUITE. Instead of using the Twitter, Facebook and other apps directly try using a single social-media management app like Hootsuite. With Hootsuite you can still select a post accidentally when you are trying to scroll but you need to click again to actually like or favorite a post, giving you a chance to hit cancel instead.

BE CAREFUL ABOUT WHO YOU FOLLOW. When you are in politics, sport or entertainment you should in any case be careful about which accounts you follow, but being especially careful in this area also reduces the chances that you accidentally like, favorite, repin or retweet something that will cause you embarrassment later. If you need to watch something controversial for information the best plan is to have a separate, anonymous account for this activity. You might, for example, want to be watching extremist party accounts to keep track of what they say, but you don't need to use your public account for that.

NEVER TWEET UNDER THE INFLUENCE. Using social media is like driving or piloting an airplane. If you are too drunk to drive you are too drunk to use Twitter or Facebook. After that first glass turn off the phone or tablet and leave it with the car keys in a safe place. It's easy enough to make an embarrassing mistake sober. Don't make it harder.


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Friday, May 23, 2014

When You Should and Shouldn't Use Your Real Name on Social Sites

People like me who teach online reputation and networking take it for granted that using your real name on social sites is a good idea, but a recent question on Quora reminds me that this is not as obvious as it seems.

An anonymous user asked Did you provide your real personal info to Quora when your user account was created? and explains that he or she avoids using their real identity to thwart data mining. There might be cases when this is a good idea but for most people it is actually better to use your real name because it boosts your online reputation.

When people hear about you or meet you for the first time they are likely to Google your name to see what comes up. This test will only find web pages that use your real name because Google cannot know that the owner of the username SqueakyPencil87 is actually John Smith. Some of the people googling your name will just be curious colleagues and friends, but quite often they could be potential employers or business partners and if the result of the search is inconclusive this can hurt your ability to find work, get accepted by schools or close a business deal.  If you do not have many real-name profiles on serious websites then Google will return whatever it can find, which could be embarrassing old blog postss, dating profiles or even unsolicited profiles on content scraping sites that look like you created them though the information is unreliable.

Creating a solid online reputation is actually very simple. All you need to do is create and maintain personal profiles on popular websites like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube and Quora. But to get any benefit from these profiles you have to use your own name and, once you have chosen the real-name policy, you need to manage your content to reflect the way you want others to see you.

WHEN YOU DON'T WANT TO BE FOUND. But there are cases where you would like to participate in social activities without being visible to anyone who searches for your name. You can achieve this by setting privacy settings so that your pages are not visible to anyone, but a much safer alternative is to use a real-sounding but false name for these profiles. In this was Google will never find these pages. Many people use this approach on Facebook, which they reserve for private conversations with friends. Some people also choose to avoid using their real name on Quora for the same reason, usually because they want to answer questions about topics unrelated to their work and fear a dilution of their online reputation.

But for most people the benefits of a real-name profile outweigh the disadvantages. Having relevant and interesting content on respectable sites makes your first page of search results look much more positive. People will see this and they will be impressed, yet it costs very little effort to achieve it, simply to be aware of the consequences of using your name and when this is a good idea.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

What Speakers can Learn from Rock Guitar Solos

Turning a good speech into a great speech is a challenge. There might be writers who can draft a perfect speech and there might be actors skilled enough to perform it convincingly. But for everyone else the best way to make a compelling speech is to focus on structured ideas and improvise the actual words.

Once the basic outline of the speech is defined one of the best ways to take it from the good to great level is to evolve the content. Test the first version with an audience and note their reaction, especially the parts that resonate and the parts that felt flat. Now try making some changes to the parts that didn't work and do another test run with a different audience, noting again which parts worked well and which need work. Keep repeating this process until all of the parts resonate with the audience and you feel that the entire speech is at your best level.

This approach to evolving content works find when you have plenty of opportunities for testing. This could be the case when you are perfecting some kind of standard pitch. The startup founder pitching to investors will get plenty of opportunities to test their ideas on real audiences and can evolve their pitch quickly. But there are also situations where you need to design an effective talk for a one-off presentation, like a TED or TEDx talk. In this case repeated testing is not so easy and this is where the rock guitar solos come in.

THE ROCK GUITAR SOLO TECHNIQUE.  Rock guitar solos are based on improvisation, but in the recording studio many guitarists actually record several different improvised solos then edit the best parts together to make an ideal solo based on these improvisations. The guitarist then learns the edited version so that it can be repeated in live performances in the way that fans expect.

Speakers can polish the content of their talks in a similar way. Once you have defined the messages and structure of the talk simply improvise a first version using your notes and record it. Note which parts worked best. Then try recording another version and again note which parts worked best. By repeating this process after a few iterations you will have all the pieces you need to put together a version that is compelling from start to finish. At this point just make some notes of the key words and start practicing to make sure you can deliver this content effectively.

This is a method I have used myself for years and I have used it when coaching other speakers. It is not a technique for beginners, but for anyone who is already a good speaker but aiming to be even better it is the most effective way to craft a talk that people will remember.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Three Tips for Responding to Angry Emails

One of the most common sources of workplace stress is dealing with angry emails from customers, colleagues or even managers. These messages can be extremely annoying but there are some tricks for dealing with them effectively and painlessly. Sometimes you can even turn the situation around 180 degrees, turning an infuriated adversary into an ally. There are many proven methods you could use, but here are the three most important.

1. WAIT TILL YOU CALM DOWN. It's a natural human instinct to get steamed up when you receive a provocative message. If you reply immediately you are likely to send an equally angry response that is unproductive and escalates the situation. Wait a few hours and your perspective will change. Wait a day and the anger will often be gone completely. By this time your neo-cortex will be able to assert it's authority over the amygdala regions of the brain that are useful in an emergency when time is short, but sometimes provoke emotional responses that are inappropriate in civilized society.

2. MAKE SURE YOU READ IT CORRECTLY. Some messages are plainly as rude and offensive as a YouTube comment. Others are perhaps just misinterpreted. This is especially common when the other person is from another cultural background. What seems to you rude and provocative might actually be normal in their context. Even when sender and receiver speak the same language and have the same cultural background there can be misunderstandings. Someone once sent me an email that began "I resent the last message..."  At first I read this as resent in the sense of feeling indignation. After a puzzling exchange I finally understood that it was meant to be "re-sent" as in sent again. Another time I was annoyed by the tone of an email and almost drafted an equally vicious reply but luckily I realized at the last minute that it was not even addressed to me, I was just in copy.

3. ANSWER THE SUBSTANCE NOT THE TONE. After you have calmed down and after you have made sure you understood everything go back through the message and try to find out what the person actually wants, ignoring all the sarcasm, insults, innuendo or ridicule. Rephrase the same question or request politely in your own mind and answer that, politely and respectfully. This avoids escalation, it looks good if the thread is ever seen by management and sometimes it will make the person who sent the original angry message regret that they sent it.   

This last point is perhaps the one that is least obvious but believe me it works.  In one job I was asked to deal with an angry email from a furious customer. Reading between the lines I found that what he wanted was software drivers for another version of Windows. The rest was abuse, mostly in capitals, aimed at the company, its management and their families. I sent a very simple reply saying thank you for the request and here is a link to the driver download page.  The next day I received a very polite response apologizing for the rant and expressing admiration for the professional attitude of the company. De-escalation not only avoids aggravating a conflict it can even turn an adversary into a friend, or at least someone who doesn't hate you anymore.

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