Predicting Outliers… Or Not

Collins Good to Great Great to Gone

The Collins Trilogy

In the wake of Hurricane Irene, which came near but not over my part of the world this past weekend, I’m thinking about predictions, and control, and how very much we like to think we understand the forces at work in our lives. Hurricanes, however, don’t take orders from the National Weather Service. While business people may read books about what makes any individual business successful at any moment in time, the overall economy, state of innovation, and more factors than I can begin to understand conspire to make any explanation outdated almost as fast as its ink dries.

When asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman, or the biggest reason governments didn’t implement their election-year promises (you find the words attributed to a number of leading questions albeit always to the same person), Harold Macmillan replied: ‘Events, my dear boy, events.’ The same could be said about any individual business’ current success. It’s easy to see why some companies didn’t make it, and sometimes it’s possible to see what their successful rivals did differently, but it’s never possible to know exactly what made the difference. Except that’s not what we want to believe. We love certainty. We love thinking that “Because they did THIS, THAT happened.”

Why didn’t Irene wash out in Florida? Why did it skip over (metaphorically) NYC and dump all its rain in Vermont? If State Farm knows, they’re not telling. I did storm prep this time, as did most of my neighbors, because it’s a decision I have to make at least 12 hours in advance of need, at least with a storm that will make landfall in the dark. Most of us will tell you, “Doing storm prep makes the storm stay away… Every time I don’t do it, I’ve been hammered.” That, we can see, is magical thinking, but it’s really not very different at all from what we do with our businesses. (Fact is, it’s never a bad idea to clean up the yard and haul a load of junk to the dump, and it’s simply the storms that give us the incentive to do it today rather than tomorrow, when the boards might come through the window.)

Do what you know to be right. Read about other people’s / business’ experience, and if it makes sense for you, implement. But don’t think any one explanation is a magic bullet that can make your business as good as Circuit City was in 2001… unless you’re also willing to sign up for the same outcome, less than eight years later.

Components of a Decision Support System

Traditionally, the term “decision support system” is used to describe tools with some computer component to help people, usually managers, identify and evaluate options when faced with a complicated decision.  However, you don’t need a computer to use all the components of a decision support system.  A number of brain-based ways of thinking about decisions can be useful and are often much more accessible.  What you need is a way to systematically think through possible outcomes of your choices and compare the relative benefit of each.

10 Minutes, 10 Months, 10 Years

Suzy Welch’s book, 10-10-10, helps you think about the future outcome of decisions you need to make:  what will the outcome be in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years?  (Mixed reviews on Amazon; I found the book helpful.)  Many times, what appears to be more important in 10 minutes (finish the assignment) has a different outcome in 10 years (get more exercise).

Some of the books reviewers think this system is nothing but common sense, without acknowledging that “common sense” is the least common of all the senses.  Other reviewers, including me, realize that regularly thinking through the long term outcome of any of our daily decisions can be a discipline.

Her system gets a little complicated if you have to decide between more than two options or a “go-don’t go” situation.

Round the Clock

When I read Peter Bregman’s post about Visualizing Failure on the HBR blog this morning, I was reminded of another, brain-based, decision support tool I use called “round the clock.”

To use the Round the Clock system yourself, draw a circle on a blank sheet of paper.  Mark at least the quarter hour positions, at 12, 3, 6, and 9.  Now, close your eyes and imagine the best outcome possible for the decision you face.  Make a note of that outcome at the 12 position.

Next, imagine, per Visualizing Failure, the worst possible outcome, given the realistic facts of the choice you are considering.  This outcome goes at the 6 position.

Next, imagine two, different, outcomes, halfway between best possible” and “worst possible.”   One is more good than bad, one is less great and a little more difficult, but neither should be a total failure of the concept.  These outcomes belong at the 3 and 9 spots, respectively.

If your facts and imagination will accommodate you, keep going–differently successful, or un-, outcomes at each of the numbers on the clock face.  However, many decisions only need the major four positions covered, before you understand what course of action you need to take.

If you’re still not sure, give yourself a day to think about the worst possible outcome that you can imagine.  What exactly would that be like?  What warning signals would the situation provide to you, that could indicate a need for a change in plan?  Is it true, like one commenter suggested (admittedly as a very unlikely outcome), that:

What if you quit your job to start your dream company, and you fail, lose all of your money, can’t get another boring job, lose your house, can’t support your family, your family disowns you, you end up on the street, you acquire some deadly disease, and are homeless.

Equating “not starting your dream company” with “homelessness” is an awfully big leap.  Very few people make that leap in one step.  Very few people wind up homeless, as a result of entrepreneurial failure alone, although sometimes stories about business failure make for better cardboard signs than stories about other causes of homelessness.

If you’re pretty sure that your family would not disown you, or that you would find some job any job if your business could not provide the income you needed, then your “worst case outcome” is NOT homelessness, and “living on the street” should not be in the 6:00 position.

You may want to make a note of any warning signs you thought about as you imagine the worse case scenario.

Outcomes are Unknowable

The truth is, any outcome reasonably far into the future, involving other people, is pretty much unknowable from the start.  If it were a 100% sure thing, you wouldn’t need to put your idea through the components of a decision support system, by evaluating individual steps and outcomes against what you know about the world.

We know from research in a number of fields that people are pretty bad about predicting accurately.  However, most people are actually reasonably good at responding to out-of-the-blue unexpected events.  What hurts emotionally are the events that are completely predictable, that we didn’t predict, often because we became too attached to one potential outcome too quickly.

When you do a round-the-clock exercise, you have an opportunity to consider and document the warning signs that could appear along the way, telling you that your path is leading to a 6:00 outcome rather than the noon version in your best dreams.

Similarly, if you regularly practice 10-10-10 thinking, it’s much less likely that you’ll turn around on your next “0” birthday and say, “I sure  wish I’d exercised more…”  At the very least, you’ll understand that you made decisions in favor of some other outcome along the way.

Make a decision to decide…

Big decisions can be intimidating.  Using the components of a decision support system, even with pencil, paper, and your imagination, can cut a big decision into much more manageable parts.   All you need is a way to systematically think through possible outcomes of your choices and compare the relative benefit of each.



Daydream Believer

Daydream Believer

Several days ago, I saw a request on the HARO email asking about business owners who daydreamed and how forced themselves to quit daydreaming and get to work.  IMO, “daydreaming” and “work” are not mutually exclusive.

I don’t know how businesses get created without a dream.  Business starts with an idea, and any way you label it, “ideas” aren’t too far from “daydreams.”

The trick, which is probably what was driving the reporter’s question, lies in turning the idea into reality.

For me, the first step between a dream and reality is writing.  Some people have their best ideas in the shower.  I have my best ideas with a pen in my hand.  Once I recognize I’m in a “day dream” (and, of course, not driving at the same time), I’m writing.  It helps that I write for a living, and paper and pencil are never far out of my reach.  Write the story.

  • What is it that I am thinking about?
  • What do I want to have happen as the outcome?
  • Who’s starring in the latest drama?
  • Why have I cast the story with these players?

Sometimes, simply writing a daydream is enough.  I’ll see, “Oh, I’m still processing XYZ______,” and make a note to discuss the issue next time I talk with the person involved, and poof, the story is gone.

Sometimes, however, I’ll see something bigger.  “Hum,” I thought, the last time this happened, when I found myself dreaming about teaching a class on a topic I know well but never thought to teach. “If she’s never thought of that approach, (this particular “she” is an expert on developing and implementing goals), then maybe this IS new material and maybe I should follow up on it….  Maybe this is a new way of looking at the problem!”

After I write out the story and identify the core elements, the daydream transforms itself into one more business idea.  It needs to be worked into my project list and acted upon, and grown into something that can be sold.  David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, made his fortune working in this space.

The Universe Baits its Hooks with Daydream Bait

One way to explain daydreams is “universe bait”—God, maker, source; your choice of name—wants to have something created, and dangles hooks baited with ideas in front of our minds.  Those ideas first present as daydreams.  What if …?  Wouldn’t it be great if….?”  I wonder what would happen if …?  If we don’t actually take the bait, the idea moves on, and someone else takes the hook, implements, and turns an idea into reality.  In business, that usually means income.  When that happens, we’re left on the sidelines, saying, “But I had that idea last year!”

I have to admit, I used to be someone whose air castles stayed evanescently in the air, never descending to intersect with my real ilfe.  “Wouldn’t it be perfect if…”, I could go on for hours.  I’d exhaust myself.  Once I started writing out the stories, it wasn’t long before I noticed ideas starting to grow in new directions.  When I committed a train of thought to paper, the next step would appear.  I saw a knitted rug in a book and thought, “I could make that,” and I did.  I’ve since made 72, and sold 40.  Similarly, a thought that ran, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could take this Chatlist outside into my carving tent?” turned into the book Carve Smart a year later.

Two new books are cued up and waiting for me to take the next step.  The goad that will get me over the “it’s too hard” hump is imagining how irritated I will be if I see those ideas, written by someone else, on the shelf at Barnes & Noble.

When I hear people talking “air castle talk,” I don’t suggest they stop. Instead, I ask, “what does the foundation look like?”  They look at me with a blank stare, so I go on.  “What’s the first thing you would need to do if you wanted to live that life?”  A rock-star wannabe girlfriend needs to take guitar lessons.  Her dream of performing in Madison Square Gardens may never happen, but she’ll be a whole lot closer when she knows four guitar chords.  It may turn out that she’s called to be some very different kind of performer, and the universe only dangled the rock concert in front of her because it knew she’d jump at that bait.  She won’t know until and unless she learns to play.

Daydreams outlast dreamers

Ten years ago, a friend was forced to leave her new house because of Black Mold.  She had an agonizing two years of health problems, followed by two moves and attempted remediation, before the problem was solved with a new house.  She dreamed of telling her story on Oprah.  She contacted the producers of the show, but she never heard back.  One woman, one house?  Oprah likes to hear from movements, not individuals.  It’s possible that a different first step—a notice in the grocery store, or Craig’s List, looking for other people affected by mold, suggesting a meeting, self-help, activism–could have been the start of a national movement.  She’ll never know.  Her life moved on.  I just checked today, and there is a “Moms Against Mold” website, started by someone else, several years after my friend’s story.  The idea was in the universe, waiting to be developed.

There are two paths away from “not daydreaming:”

  • Not dreaming
  • Implementing the dreams and making them real

Only one of them has any value.  I can’t stop daydreaming.  I can learn to become faster at taking the hook and building foundations under my air castles.  It’s a nice life.

Powerball or a powerbook, any book

I bought a Washington State lottery ticket when we were on vacation, while we were waiting for the ferry in Friday Harbor.  It cost $1 and offered payout of $1.8M, which seemed “enough” at the time.  It was the last real day of vacation, and I was entertaining the fantasy of being able to call in to the office and say, “I’m not coming back.”

Of course I didn’t win.  I would be writing a different post if I had.  I know someone who knows someone who won, once, and then lived on the income for 20 years, and now finds herself 20 years older and out of income and unskilled.  This is not a good place to be.

I also know someone who buys a ticket for every drawing.  He plays the same number every time, a pair of easily-remembered birthdays, and buys 52 tickets at a time, the maximum allowed.  He only has to check the website twice a week so his effort investment is minimal. I am tempted by his arguments in favor of the outgo being an entertainment expense; a cheaper fantasy trip than going to the movies.

But we are different people, with different brain patterns and different cash flows.  Every time I dip my toe in the “what would I do with all that money” pool, I come out covered in a nasty slime.  My thoughts turn to the winnings and how more money would change my life, and away from what it will take to change my life with the skills and gifts I have available to me today.

We came home to truly difficult news about my job; the rumored merger was going to happen; massive uncertainty affecting a huge global workforce.  I think about buying my way into relief with lottery tickets.  This is not a good way to think.

On the way home from a day filled with swirling rumors of imminent unemployment, I stopped at Borders, looking for a copy of the latest What Color is Your Parachute (41st edition is on the market.  Am I that old? I used the 1980 edition in college…).  I stopped at a bargain table of books marked at $2.  This is almost less than the cost of gas needed to get to the library.  I bought You Call the Shots by Cameron Johnson.  Amazon reviews confirm this book will not  make me rich anytime soon; suspect the value of a $2 book about making money.

However:  two dollars.  A book about business, or a week of powerball tickets.  Even if all I get out of the book is the opportunity to add one more review to my Amazon list, I’ll have more to show than I get for two losing powerball tickets.

For those times Borders isn’t selling books at $2, there’s the thrift shop.  Not long ago, someone retired and dumped an entire collection of best-selling business books into the Habitat Restore, where they eventually sold at $1 for a bundle of five.  Lots of information for not very much money at all.  Vastly higher ROI (return on investment) than powerball.

Caveat:  It’s not just the idea.

If you get one good idea per week, my friend Paul told me, it’s worth it. If you apply that idea, I can’t even guess how much it would be worth.

(Steph quoting Ramit Sethi)

I can do way more with a good book, much faster, than I can with any fantasy about winning the Powerball.

Gratitude, 2010

I wrote a list of 50 Things I’m Grateful For (not counting the freedom to let my participles dangle as much as I want) for Thanksgiving release on, so I’m not going to try to double up and create a different list here.  John Forde, of Copywriter’s Roundtable, sent this post out today.  I like his take on the challenge.  Sometimes, looking at a list of problems I don’t have can feel like “cheap” gratitude, but it’s still gratitude, and that’s good.



November 23, 2010

Pull Up a Plate and Feast:  A Cornucopia of Copywriting Delights

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”

– William Arthur Ward

In the States, this Thursday is a time of Thanksgiving.  Your ovens will bulge, the relatives will descend, the wine will pour, the belt buckles will loosen.

At least, let’s hope so.

I’m a sucker for sentimentalism and tradition.

Which is why, I guess, I felt inspired just a second ago to sweep aside the generic copywriting insights I had lined up for  you today, to instead dig up our CR message from two years ago.  You’ll remember, that was just in the wake of a worldwide financial meltdown.  And you guys were about edgy as a 30-lb. turkey locked up overnight in an ax factory.

So what did we do?

The same thing we’re about to do again, which is glare right into the business end of those worries until they cough a little wonder and light.

As follows..

  • Thank merciful God for procrastination. Can you imagine how many busses you never stepped in front of… or how “sure-thing” investment flops you’ve missed… simply because you were “too late to the party?”
  • Show some thanks too, toward that love of your life who dumped you back in college or high school or maybe kindergarten. Think of the people you never would have met, the places you never would have gone, or the family you might never have had if she/he hadn’t.
  • Kudos to the heavens for giving us November drizzle and icy winter blasts, a month or so ahead of schedule.  How else would we remember how great it is to feel warm and dry and to have a roof over our heads? Everyone should be so lucky.
  • Thanks, too, for the politicians who make mistakes… the loved ones who irk us… and the bone- headed strangers who blunder through their lives, as reported on the nightly news. Some of us would never know what it is to feel like geniuses, if it weren’t by comparison.
  • Let’s heap up some hefty helpings of heartfelt indebtedness to crying children, honking cars, and men with jack-hammers too. How else would silence sound so sweet? Not to mention what it’s done for iPod sales and my shares in Apple.
  • Let us honor, too, the hordes that descend on houses during holidays (say that six times fast) and stay for dinner. How much worse would you feel if they didn’t want to come?

And if I can get little more serious now (at this point, imagine the champagne glass — half full — held high as we bring the toast in for a landing)…

Thanks in endless waves to our mentors and colleagues, and our customers and friends — in all cases, a confluence in both definition and generosity, not just this year but in all those years that have preceded this moment.   Thanks to family. Thanks to our children, who make everything about waking up worthwhile. And thanks to my wife — all our spouses — for everything they do to hold it all together.   Most of all, again, sincere thanks to you, for reading these issues and writing in with comments. It goes without saying, I couldn’t and wouldn’t have done it without you.

Thank god for our health.

And thanks especially to all you who made donations to my family’s “Movember” drive to raise research money to fight prostate cancer.

(I know who you are, because your name pops up right there on the site… seriously, I’m deeply grateful.)

If you’re in America and about to celebrate Thanksgiving this week, I hope it’s a feast beyond feasts and the best of your living memory.

If not, well then, go out and hit a McDonald’s… or a top run restaurant… and have a great (and grateful) night anyway.

Happy Thanksgiving!

P.S. This is the last full week of “Movemember,” the anti prostate cancer fundraiser I’ve told you about.

So far, we’ve raised $1,220.

I hope we’ll manage to raise more. And a lot of that, of course, might depend on you.

If you haven’t given yet and you’re inclined too, make sure you stop by and sign up here.


THE MISSING LINK: The Stories that Shape You

Not to get all schmaltzy, but here’s something worth doing, now that you’ve got family coming to town.





Oh, and this…

Efharisto poli.

P.S. Everything Between the %%%% (above) and the %%%%%% (below) is © 2010 by John Forde.

BY THE WAY, if you ever want to reproduce one of these CR articles in a blog, in an email, in a book, on a milk carton… or on one of those banners they hang on the back of airplanes at the beach… GO AHEAD!

You’ve got my blessing.

Just promise you’ll make sure you’ll include a link back to my website and encourage your readers to sign up for $78 worth of free gifts.


John’s emails are useful if you write for a living, BTW.  You might want to sign up for his email list.

What’s on your gratitude list this year?  Let me know in the comments.

One grammar mistake you should always make

“And” or “but”

The two great conjunctions.

“Or, yet, for, nor, & so” are the other five.

“Yet” is a useful word, and I’ll come back to that one later.

Yesterday morning, I was writing something about business and I found myself saying, “I need to do more networking to find out what people want to know about hiring, but I have the right attitude,” meaning, at least in rough draft form, that “at least I knew what I needed to be doing, which was half the battle.”

Only, just as my pen was reaching to start the top of the “b” in “but,” I caught myself, and changed the word to “and.”  “And I have the right attitude.”  In most cases, when I’m thinking about business or self improvement or any kind of change or betterment, “And” is the more useful word, even if “but” actually expresses the situation more accurately.

“But” is an ender, a thought-stopper, an argument.  “And” extends thoughts, allows for new ideas, encourages brainstorming and creativity, and awards accomplishment.

When I used to do Big Sister work at the local women’s prison, the women I worked with were allowed three “yeahbuts” a conversation (of course, only after we discussed and understood how this worked).  I was always able to work with “I hear what you’re saying and I don’t understand how it applies to my situation.”  When I heard “Yeah, but,” the sentence always goes on to end with “it’s different with me and that’s not going to work,” in the sense of “no point in trying.”

The Glaser-Kennedy marketing machine says the biggest objection they hear, even from members, is “yeah but, my business is different.”  Different audience, same response.  Just as trapped by their own language.

Whenever possible, I try to create a sentence that uses “and” rather than “but,” even if “but” may be immediately true.  I don’t mean this to be an exercise in positive thinking over accurate thinking.  I do mean that working to see possibilities and expressing them in written content has helped my brain to stay open to new ideas.

Not Yet, rather than I Can’t

In one of my other lives, I teach and re-teach adults to huula hoop.  I frequently hear, “I can’t do that,” even when someone is clearly keeping the hoop rotating.  (Once they get the hoop going, they’ll start in with the “I can’t do those tricks.”)  My response is, “Not yet.”

“I don’t know how to do that yet” is much more powerful than “I can’t.”  “Not yet” allows for the possibility of a different outcome in the future.  “I can’t” sounds like forever.

Back to writing style

Sometimes, the sentence simply demands a “but,” and rather than write that word, I’ll use a period and start a new sentence that goes in the new direction.  There’s a benefit to this practice:  I get shorter sentences.  This is a good thing.  When I look at my own writing on paper, one of the most common edits I make is to shorten sentences that go on and on and on, generally correctly written but way too long to read out loud (always the best test of length).  Therefore, working to get “buts” out of  my content has an added benefit:  it makes my content better.

Try it yourself, and let me know how it works in the comments!

Creating High-quality Audio Files

I drive about 500 hours a year, and I listen to audio files most of the time I’m in the car, especially when I’m on the longer legs of a journey.  I listen to lots of “how to be in business” content, as well as the occasional fiction; recently, I discovered college classes available for free from Open Yale.  At 500 hours a year, a body gets a feel for what makes a good audio file and those courses from Yale crystallized my thinking. Here are some suggestions that can make your audio files easier to listen to, and perhaps, therefore, easier for your listeners to recommend to their friends.

File naming

Remember that MP3 players sort and display by the Title field, while many people work with their files by file name. Ideally, the two should be the same. If you are selling a series of files to your listening audience, it can be helpful to select file Titles that alpha-sort in the correct replay order. If you want your listeners to be able to select your file from a list in their player, you may want to think about including your name (or business name, or series name) in the file name. We your listeners are more likely to remember that we wanted to listen to “that latest download from John Gold” than we are to remember exactly what he called it.
We have the length of a red light to find the file. You can help us find your file, or not. We’ll listen to whatever comes next on the player when the light turns green if we haven’t found your file yet. (In addition, if your listeners are likely to be wearing reading glasses, they may not be able to see the display clearly anyway. The shapes of names we know are more easily recognized than the shapes of words in a title we don’t remember.)

Technical tweaks

  1. Repeat the name, host and basic identification information of the call after you start the recording. It’s disconcerting to be dumped into a conversation with no way to verify which file queued up next in the MP3 player, esp. when your listener may have loaded a dozen MP3 files onto a player at one time, and be driving on the highway while listening.
  2. If the call belongs to a series or package, identify its unit within the package.
  3. If the call has any kind of seasonal content, identify the at least the month or time of year during the introduction.
  4. Please please please put a large audience on auto-mute. Unless audience members have practice participating in large corporate conference calls, your call-in audience hasn’t learned to keep their own phone on mute. We, the listeners of your recorded product, do not want to hear you asking users to “press *6” a dozen times as people turn away from your content to address their own lives. I decided against purchasing a collection of one vendor’s products because the vendor managed “group mute” so badly on the free example audio files.  I lost access to her content.  She lost access to my $250.
  5. Lock your own dog up.
  6. Make sure the conference call software does not audibly announce hangups. It’s embarrassing to hear people drop off in the middle of the call and the speakers working not to pay attention to tones announcing that one more person got bored and left the call.
  7. Listen to the prompts your conference call software gives when you put the audience on and off all-mute. “Presentation mode enabled” takes eight syllables to convey two syllables of information: mute on.
  8. Consider your vocal volume, particularly for female speakers. The older your audience, the more likely they are to have some hearing loss. Please adjust your recording volume so that they can increase the playback volume on the audio file, if needed. More than one MP3 file is inaudible in parts to me because the speaker allows her voice to get very soft.  (Few files recorded by men have this problem.) I am already have the volume cranked all the way up. (People who sell much more product record at a louder volume, and I am able to adjust the volume on their files downward.)
    Note: It turns out that some conference call software has trouble with the volume for “remote hosts,” that is, when the voices of two people in different locations both matter to the quality of the call. (This is less important in a Q&A setting, where the host can always (and should) repeat the question.)
  9. About those Umms and Uhhs: listen to yourself before you distribute the call. You will give a better impression of your expertise if you edit them out. Better yet, learn how not to use filler words and phrases in the first place: See the post, “Umms in Public Speaking” for a simple and easy-to-implement fix.

Content considerations

It’s highly probably that the worst offenders will not see themselves in the following items, in part because they have never given the matter serious consideration.  Here’s a hint:  they call it content for a reason.

Fill your audio file with CONTENT.  Real information, steps, facts, your experience, perhaps even stories.  Dale Carnegie teaches the “incident, point, benefit” model for public speaking and it works.  Following any of a number of similar models helps speakers stick to the point.  Read Made to Stick and check your transcripts against Chip and Dan Heath’s six factors.
Get the “I love us all, aren’t we great” welcome messages out of the way before you start the recording. I don’t want to hear very much at all about how fantastic, unique, special, devoted, determined, or any other adjective describing the audience, we all are for having the wisdom, good sense, foresight, judgment, or lack of productive alternatives to be on the call today. Chances are, I couldn’t make the live call and I’m listening to the recording some months later anyway.

Consider carefully before veering off into opinion or advice that you are not linking to a specific situation or incident.  Very few speakers are skilled enough to deliver useful opinions into the ether.  (I might add that few professional commentators are, either, but I don’t buy their files and they don’t read my blog.)

Interviews are particularly vulnerable to this problem.  The host says, “tell us what you think about creating products….” and the guest goes off into, “Well, you have to work really hard to figure out what your audience wants…” and “then you may not sell very well if you don’t get your launch right…” and “people want to do joint ventures with me but they don’t bring a good game to the table…” and on and on and on.  I yearn for a audio file transcript that I could edit with a red pencil, crossing out entire paragraphs of rambling opinion that fails to educate.

Here’s another hint:  I don’t care what you think.  I care about what you know, and about what you did, and what happened, and possibly about what you would do differently next time, as long as you can point to the reasons you would try something different.

I grew painfully conscious of rambling in audio files after listening to Kelly Brownell at Yale talk about food politics for semester.  In 30 hours of audio downloads, Dr. Brownell and his guest speakers don’t waste a sentence on unsubstantiated opinion; every lecture is full of tangible facts and real information about food as we produce and consume it around the world today.  Similarly,  Ben Polak, although inclined to a few filler words and phrases, manages to deliver his understanding of Game Theory week after week without diverging into unsupported opinion.

I came back to “amateur” audio files with a shock as I found myself daydreaming not long into a call.  I couldn’t have told you what the host and guest were saying.  The third time it happened, I caught on.  The speakers weren’t saying anything–that was the problem.  It was just opinion, and advice, and telling us to work hard, and be original, and this, and that, and other rambling.

Phooey.  Give me Game Theory if you can’t give me real marketing.  At least Game Theory can explain elections.

Knowledge, or Imagination?

New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

Albert Einstein

Why is it that the man known for his art and imagination reveres knowledge, while the man known for his science and knowledge reveres imagination? A quick search of the first pages of Google failed to turn up the text of the original Saturday Evening Post article (“What Life Means to Einstein: An Interview by George Sylvester Viereck,” October 26, 1929, The Saturday Evening Post) which carried the interview with Einstein. I’d love to read the question that prompted his reply. It’s quoted everywhere; IMO, by people who could stand to invest in a bit more knowledge that supported their imagination. Wikipedia doesn’t hesitate:

In various spheres, however, even imagination is in practice limited: thus a person whose imaginations do violence to the elementary laws of thought, or to the necessary principles of practical possibility, or to the reasonable probabilities of a given case is regarded as insane.

Umm… Uhh…

There’s a simple solution to the non-words “umm” and “uhh” in public speaking*:  it is virtually impossible to “umm” and “uhh” when you are making eye contact with a specific person.

Umms and uhhs happen when you look at your notes, the wall, the ceiling, the floor, or a crowd = collective, not crowd = individual therein. They never happen while you are looking directly at another person’s eyes. Try it for yourself. Observe how people make eye contact when they speak, or don’t, at the next meeting you attend.

If you’re on the phone, look at a picture of a real person. (Caveat: make sure the person in the picture is someone who elicits appropriate vocabulary for the call. You don’t want to accidentally slip into baby talk during a marketing presentation.) In a pinch, speaking to a drink bottle or a coffee cup, pretending it has eyes, will do, but a picture of a real person is better.

*Some people in the online business community don’t realize that recording a teleclass or webinar to create an audio file for subsequent sale is effectively the same thing as public speaking. While a live audience may forgive Umms and Uhhs and the doubleplay “umm and,” people who listen to the content while driving find the filler words slamming into their brain like bricks. Look at a picture of a business colleague. SPEAK to that picture. The number of filler words in your audio file will decrease dramatically. (See the post, Creating High-quality Audio Files, for additional tweaks that will make your files sound more polished and professional.)

You can substitute your dog for a person; dogs cooperate more than cats. Fish are useless.

The first time you try to make eye contact with a real person when and every time you speak, your eyes will hurt by the end of the day. Then, you’ll start noticing how few people make eye contact all the time.

Spread the word. Make eye contact when you do it.

We discovered this solution in Powerful, Persuasive Speaking, a two-day class presented by Alan Hoffler of Mills Wyck Communications. If being more persuasive would help you be more effective in your work or vocation, we cannot recommend this class enough.  In my session, one professional (NSA) and one pretty good amateur speaker both observed marked improvement in delivery skills.  People with no prior training in public speaking made amazing improvements.

Leadership in Science

I went to hear Robert Langer from MIT speak at the Carolina Innovations Seminar tonight.  His bio spells out the awards and papers and degrees.  I followed a lot of the science, and most of the discussion that follow at the free-beer-and-pizza mixer after the speech.  It’s been a while since I was in the lab.  The science, while important and interesting, wasn’t really what caught my attention.

Dr. Langer mentioned 20 or 25 former post-docs and graduate students, and to a person, they were introduced as the “Endowed Chair of the XYZ Department of this major school” or “Dean of the School of Medicine at that prominent university” or CEO or CTO of a biotech company recently sold for $12B or …  I lost track.  If I’d known I was going to be writing about what he said, I would have taken better notes.

At the mixer afterward, a young man who had also noticed how Dr. Langer mentioned his former students wondered how all those smart people came to be in the same place.  I think it’s the other way around.  Those grad students and post-docs were successful because they were in that place, working with and being encouraged by a real leader, as opposed to someone who was merely the “director of the lab.”  Jack Welch had a similar effect on people who worked for him–more Fortune 500 CEOs came out of GE during his time at the company than from any other company ever.  Similarly, I recall reading that everyone at the top of GE had, at one time in their careers, worked for one man who sent each of them on to bigger jobs.

Is it that all the smart business people went to GE, and all the smart biotechies went to MIT?  To a certain extent, yes.  But I have also seen the opposite behavior.  I worked for a boss who, to the best of my recollection, never promoted anyone above himself.  I could have missed someone, of course; again, if I had known I would be writing about it these many years later, I would have kept better notes.

Dr. Langer mentioned that all the students whose grant applications were rejected in the course of tissue engineering progress had gone on to positions of significant influence in the field, while the people who rejected the applications were still reviewing, and rejecting, grants.  Funny how that turns out.  Most of us who didn’t get promoted have since left the company and gone on to interesting new opportunities.  I wonder how the manager explains that to himself?