Showing posts from 2012

Three Ways to Avoid Surprises When You Organize an Event

Organizing events is complex and inherently risky but most unpleasant surprises can be anticipated and avoided. With experience most people can see where things are likely to go wrong, but there are also three techniques that make this easier:

1. SEE IT FOR YOURSELF. People who work in hotels, conference centers and other venues are probably not going to lie to you deliberately, but when you ask if they have something their answer might be inaccurate simply because they don't remember and don't check. The only way to be sure is to check for yourself or send someone who you trust to do this reconnaissance for you. Want to know if there is easy parking? Go look. Want to know if there is cell phone coverage in a basement room  Go try for yourself. Want to know if there is a projection screen? Go look, and try the button that makes the screen come down to make sure it does.

2. TALK TO THE PEOPLE WHO DO THINGS. Very often you will be talking to a representative who should pass on yo…

Five Reasons Why Turning Off The Internet is a Bad Idea: Practical Advice for Busy Dictators

According to news reports Syrian President Bashar al Assad has apparently unplugged his country from The Internet. If you are a desperate despot I can see why you might be tempted to reach for that OFF switch when you get a few dislikes on Facebook. But as a communication consultant I don't recommend this for five reasons.
1. MORE NEGATIVE PRESS.  Turning off The Internet gets you some seriously bad press. I don't recall anyone ever writing a neutral-to-positive piece about this. You are probably getting some negative coverage anyway for other unpleasant things, but you don't mess with The Internet and get away with it.
2. DRIVES ANGER TO THE STREETS. Turning off The Internet can have the entirely unintended effect of encouraging more direct action. People are still angry and maybe they were venting their anger online, posting negative content on social media. Without this outlet they have little choice but to turn off the computer, hit the streets and throw hard, heavy stu…

Online Brand Protection: Why You Need to Register Your Brand on Social Sites

In December 2009 four Eurostar trains were trapped in the tunnel under the English Channel for many hours after melting snow caused electrical failures. Passengers trapped in the trains looked to the @Eurostar Twitter account for information but soon discovered that this account belonged to a student in Shanghai. According to a Techcrunch article at the time the only Twitter account controlled by the company was @LittleBreak, a promotional account.  Eurostar has learnt from this experience. They now own the @eurostar account and use it to engage with passengers, but it seems that many other businesses have still not learnt this lesson.

Few companies today would ignore Twitter, Facebook or YouTube completely, but many have a confusing presence with multiple official and semi-official accounts. It can be hard for consumers to distinguish between these and fan sites. On second tier sites like Pinterest many brands are completely absent. Maybe you are thinking that your company doesn…

Event Hashtags: Practical Tips for Organizers and Attendees

One of the best ways to follow a conference or meeting you can't attend in person is through Twitter. You can find out who is there, what they are saying and what people think about it. For the people at home this gives near real-time to the highlights  for organizers it raises the profile of the event and maybe attracts a few more physical visitors to the next session. It also provides valuable feedback.

But the Twitter experience of any event can depend very much on how effectively the organizers and attendees use hashtags. If everyone uses the same hashtag then it is easy to find relevant tweets and much easier to monitor the activity, but to make that happen there are a few practical things you need to think about.


A HASHTAG FOR EVERY EVENT. You should define a conveniently short hashtag for every public event or meeting that you organize. It doesn't need to be a different hashtag every time. For major events like an international conference a hashtag …

Why Consensus Decision Making is Usually Most Effective

In some cultures consensus decision making is the norm. Others prefer the majority wins approach. Everyone else is somewhere in the middle, accepting majority decisions but at least trying to make this decision more acceptable to the others.

Proponents of the majority rule argue that it is the fastest way to reach a decision. Indeed it is. Yet there is a significant drawback: a decision taken quickly that is opposed by many will not be so quick to implement. The people who never agreed in the first place can delay and obstruct the implementation in every way possible, at least by a lack of enthusiasm.

This is one of the reasons I always preferred a consensus approach to decision making..Then I realized that it also has the advantage of being effective in a wider range of cultures making it especially useful for global organizations.

Now I learn  that there is another very compelling reason to prefer consensus decision making. Recent research at Brigham Young University and Princeton …

Office Politics: How to Become Credible in Your Workplace

One of the cornerstones of an influencing strategy is to establish your credibility in some area of competence; you have to convince people that you are an expert, or at least competent in the field.  Once you are recognized in this way people will listen when you talk about that topic. This sounds challenging but is actually much easier than you might imagine.

First of all you need to actually develop above-average knowledge of your chosen field  This is easier now that it has ever been thanks to the easier access to knowledge the world-wide web provides, but it takes some skill and experience to do this without spending an excessive amount of time on it.

Luckily there are some techniques for keeping up to date in any field that require only a modest effort. First of all you need to manage news sources efficiently so that you are always the first to know about new developments. Google's RSS reader is one essential tool, allowing you to scan headlines from many publications in on…

Attention to Details: How Police Academy Hurt Technology Demo

Recently Hitachi demonstrated a technology that allows data to be stored in blocks of glass that could last 100 million years. The concept was appealing and the demo very impressive. Up to a point. What undermined the entire event was the choice of sample data for the public technology demonstration. The data they chose to preserve for 100 million years was the entire series of Police Academy movies, in all their 1080p high-definition magnificence.

You might think that this choice might lead to some ridicule in the media and you would be right. Even the pro-business magazine Business Week mocked the choice in Live Blogging Hitachi's 100 Million Year Data Test in the 26 September 2012 issue.

Having worked in large organizations I can see how this could happen. First of all the people who arranged the demo might be technical experts who have a deep understanding of the technologies involved but understandably don't know how the media and other observers might view their efforts…

What Romney's Jet Window Story Teaches About Jokes in Public Speaking

One of the most common mistakes people make in public speaking is to try too hard to be funny. You don't need to be funny to be a great speaker and unless you are a professional comic it is surprisingly difficult to get a laugh, even when you have good material. Writing comedy material is also far from trivial and best left to experienced writers.

What reminded me of this key lesson in public speaking was the media coverage of an episode where US presidential candidate Mitt Romney was ridiculed for apparently not knowing why airplane windows can't be opened. You can read the whole story in this LA Times article of 24 September 2012 Romney Mocked for Comment About Jet Windows

One of the reader comments points out that every child knows why airplane windows don't open and since Mr Romney was once a child we can probably assume quite safely that he does know. The most likely explanation for this bizarre statement is that he was trying to be funny -- a very dangerous game for…

Dear Best Regards: How to Start and End Your Emails

Last year I wrote that to make your email more effective you should put meaningful content into the subject line, keep your messages short and consider other channels (see Three Timesaving Tips for Email). I also wrote some guidelines about common culture problems when email crosses borders (see Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email).

But there is one other question about international email that comes up regularly in workshops: how should you start and finish? Do I use "Dear", "Hi",or "Hello" to start with? What do I do if I don't know if the person I am writing to is a man or a woman? "What is the difference between "Best regards  and "Warm regards"? This is a question that puzzles many people and a while ago it stressed me, too. But the answers to these questions are perhaps easier than you imagine.

DEAR MR/MRS WHATEVER. First of all, at the start of a mail you probably have some sort of salutation. How do you know which …

Working with The English: Three Things You Need to Know

Most people underestimate the difficulty of working with English people. Americans are often misled by the similarities to assume that it is going to be easy. Neighbo(u)rs in mainland Europe are likewise fooled by the proximity; if someone is so close how can they be so different, they ask.  But in fact there are some significant yet non-obvious differences in English culture that can easily derail your attempts to do business with English people.

You are not going to master the entire culture of a nation after reading a single article, but there are three key concepts that tend to cause the most problems. In workshops and coaching on this subject they are the most frequent sources of misunderstanding I have encountered over the years.
INDIRECT COMMUNICATION. One of the most difficult facets of English culture for outsiders to understand is the reliance on indirect communication. Some people take pride in their plain and direct speech, saying what they mean and meaning what they say. Th…

Why plain packaging for cigarettes is unlikely to have much effect

Plain packaging for cigarettes is widely seen as a way to reduce the number of people smoking (see Plain packaging for cigarettes would help Britain kick its smoking habit The Guardian 10 August 2012). Both the EU and the UK government are now considering this move, already adopted in Australia. But the notion that selling cigarettes in logo-free dull green packages will deter smokers fails to take into account both human nature and the way brands work.
Advocate of plain packaging believe that smokers and aspiring smokers will be repelled by unattractive plain packages.  I doubt that this will have much effect. Nobody smokes because the packages are cool; people start smoking because smoking is cool – at least in their eyes. 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 p…

Upstart Brings Personal Funding to People With a Vision

Just when you think they can't think of any more awesome ideas for websites along comes another one. This time it's a startup founded by a group of ex Googlers called Upstart that brings funding for people rather than businesses, projects or whatever.

Upstart's concept is simple enough: you can raise capital from backers by promising them a small percentage of your earnings for ten years. This isn't funding for your movie project or for your startup idea; it's funding for you personally to make your dream real. It's available to students or recent graduates of five US colleges for the moment.

To become an "upstart", as the company calls them, you start by building a profile where you describe yourself and your goals. Using income statistics Upstart then calculates how much you can raise per % future income you can commit. You then decide how much funding you want to ask for.

Backers can then fund you in increments of $1000. Some might also choose to …

Social Media's Unicorn: Networks Without Effort

Unless you are a spy, a recluse or in a witness protection program you need to be on at least the most important social networks. You need this for networking, to establish an online reputation or simply to protect you brand. But maintaining a presence even on a handful of major sites can take time. After "do i really have to do this stuff" the most common question I hear is "isn't there a tool that does all this automatically?"

No there isn't and there never will be. There will always be tools that do part of the work -- we will look at these in a moment -- but there is not going to be a tool that can create and maintain accounts across all the important sites without any effort on your part. You are no more likely to find one than you are to find a unicorn in the woods. But while you are searching you will find plenty of things that might not be so flashy but at least they exist.
Why is automation so hard?  To begin with the social network landscape is alw…

Why "PIN Number" is Wrong, Right and Avoidable Anyway

Many people dislike expressions like ATM machine, PIN number and LCD display, where there is an apparent repetition of the last word of the acronym. ATM means "Automatic Teller Machine", they argue, so it makes no sense to say "Automatic Teller Machine Machine". This view is very common; you find it in the Wikipedia page for PIN and in many respectable writing guides like DailyWritingTips.

Actually in a way they are all wrong. Somebody who writes "PIN number" is not writing "Personal Identification Number Number", they are writing "PIN number". Through their use acronyms acquire an identity of their own that replaces the original meaning, usually to the point where few people know what they once stood for. LCD was perhaps originally an acronym for Liquid Crystal Display but now "LCD" has just become descriptive of a type of display, like OLED, plasma or TFT.  

You should, argue the language mavens, just say ATM, PIN and LCD. …

Here Be Dragons: How Culture Affects More Than You Think

There is a persistent myth that map makers used to write Hic Sunt Dracones -- "here be dragons" on the parts of the world they knew nothing about. This is actually not true since there are no authentic old maps marked in this way and hic sunt dracones appears just once, on the Lennox Globe made at the beginning of the 1500s. [Update 23 August 2013: a second globe marked Hic Sunt Dracones has now been discovered. New Scientist Article.]

Yet the idea of territory so unexplored that it might as well be populated with dragons describes very well our understanding of other cultures. Most people are aware that people in other places are different -- even if it is only from TV comedy and cartoons like Disney-Pixar's Cars franchise. Very often, though, this understanding does not go much beyond surface differences like the way people greet each other -- visible signs that are almost immediately recognizable. Most people also focus on the unusual and the bizarre in other culture…

The Creation of Levi's and Why Writers and Speakers Should Always Check Facts

Back in the pre-Internet days fact checking was not something you did lightly. Except for some basic facts you could find in an encyclopedia, most questions required a trip to the library and hours of work leafing through musty books or scrolling through reels of microfilm. Not surprisingly when people were on deadline to write an article or prepare a speech they often skipped this step, so many stories were copied from one work to another without verification. People sometimes blame mindless copying on the world-wide web, but in reality it happened long before the web was invented.

Today I was reminded of this when I went to check the story about the invention of Levi's jeans. You have probably heard the popular story that Levi Strauss was selling dry goods to miners in the California gold rush of the mid 1800s when he noticed they were wearing out their clothes in the rough mining work. He took some brown canvas, made it into jeans and added rivets to strengthen the joints. Min…

Why the New Top Level Internet Domains Are Pointless

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is presenting another 1410 proposals for top level domains, the final "dot-something" suffix at the end of Internet domain names (details in the Guardian). These proposals still have to be discussed and voted, so many will not actually be adopted, but any addition to the 300 or so top-level domains already in use is largely a waste of time today, for three reasons:

1. HOW OFTEN DO YOU TYPE ADDRESSES ANYWAY?  Most of the time when I visit websites i am not typing anything, I am just following links. They might be links on a social media page, in an email or in some document. Be honest. how many of you reached this page by typing in the address? If the server stats are to be trusted most of you clicked on social media links and the rest came through search engines.

2.EVEN IF YOU DO YOU DON'T NEED THE COMPLETE ADDRESS. Modern browsers have a single window for typing addresses and searching. This means that if yo…

Love it, Fancy it or Pin it? Rivals Start to Challenge Pinterest

Just two years ago if you had pitched a startup idea like Pinterest to investors they would have asked why you think anyone would want it. Today nobody asks who wants a visual social platform but they will ask what you do that's different. In this scenario it is no surprise that there are rivals coming to market, each with its own twist on the basic formula.

At least two of these rivals already have a usable product available for testing so we can compare them with Pinterest: Fancy, open for public beta testing, and Loveit, still in private beta. Both are conceptually so similar to the original that any Pinterest user can sign up and start "fancying" or "loving it" immediately without looking at the help page. At the same time both also have some interesting features that differentiate them from Pinterest.

Fancy appears to be designed from the outset to support businesses, who can offer special deals to users who "fancy" their products and other part…

Singly's $10K App Challenge: How the Real Winner of Hackathon is Singly

Today's rich ecosystem of software apps is possible because the people coding them build on the work of the coders who came before them. Tools like Flipboard are only possible because they build new levels on top of existing products like Facebook and Twitter. And finding things like the physical location of users is trivial today because the coding work has already been done.  This brings two huge benefits to both developers and users. First of all, the time taken to build a new app is much less. Second, it allows people to implement creative new app ideas without getting bogged down in coding basics.

Singly is a startup that makes the development of social-network-based apps even easier because it provides a standard interface for Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and other networks. Instead of having to learn the API interface details for each of them, a developer can send standardized requests to Singly, which takes care of the rest.  This is already an interesting idea but what r…