Category: writing

This is a brilliant tip for whatever you’re writing. And it is very powerful.

Think about writing emails. You might have an issue that you’ve been trying to fix. There may be a dozen or so people copied in on the email. Some are high up in the organisation, some are lower down. Everybody has a lot of emails to wade through every day.

But you find a fix for the issue. It make sense to you when you’re telling everybody to go through it in a methodical way – the kind you learned in science lessons at school. Apparatus, Method. Results. Conclusions. It’s the way we were taught to do it. And it’s part of the scientific method. At least, as far as we understand it.

So you start talking about the problem, how it first appeared, the trouble-shooting process, the things that definitely weren’t causing the problem, (we turned this off, tested again, tried another thing, tested again) and then finally say how you found the issue and fixed it.

What you should do is start your email saying “We found the issue and fixed it”. More than half the distribution list can then ignore the rest of the message. Problem solved. The ones that care enough can read through to the end, find out about your trouble-shooting process and, if they’re that way inclined, can replicate each step for themselves.

The science we’re taught in schools is quite separate from the way professional science works. At school, we’re taught to put important bit at the end. But if you ever read any kind of scientific paper, you’ll see that they tend to have the conclusions up at the beginning. Why? Because it makes it easier for science journalists to write headlines. And, although summing up scientific research in a headline may not necessarily enhance the greater understanding of what is going on, headlines tend to lead to more research grants. And scientists like research grants.

More broadly, journalists will always put the important bits at the beginning of a story. If you look at any big story in a paper it will break down into three parts – here’s a thing that happened – here’s why it’s good or bad – here are the facts. It’s always worth reading past the opinion and getting to the facts because they often change your understanding of the story. For instance – “House price rises cause cancer”, the headline may scream. “Thousands of Britons are putting themselves at increased risk of cancer as they work ever longer hours to meet high mortgage payments. This is a terrible indictment of our society, blah, blah, blah”. Tucked away at the end of the story though will be a fact about the survey, which is actually about the health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle. If you just read the headline and the opinion you’d never understand that.

So start off with where you want to get to and write backwards from there. “In the future retailers will send boxes of groceries directly to a customer’s door on miniature flying robots”. Then talk about how and why.

But where do you want the end to be?

“The End” as it relates to this tip can simply be the conclusions that you want to reach. The flying robots. You can take it a step further, though, and think about “The End” as being the effect you have on the reader. “I want the reader to have their mind blown after they’ve read this”. “I want the reader to laugh out loud six times as they read this”. “I want the reader to quit their job and go and live as a hermit in the Himalayas”. It’s kind of similar to the idea of selling to your customer’s customer. Aim through your target.

This tip works really well with presentations. If you want to give a confident presentation, before you start putting it together imagine the warm applause at the end, or the handshakes and congratulations that come when you’ve finished. If you see that as the end of your presentation, you’ll be more confident about giving your talk, because you’ve already decided that it’s going to end in a nice place. All you have to do is put together and deliver a talk that will get you to your destination.

I offer here the notes I made when putting together my talk for Interesting North.

“Interesting North talk idea

Nothing of what follows is true. Unless you want it to be.

In 2000, I was talking at an analyst event in London that had been convened to discuss the future of mobile technologies. A guy from Nokia was on stage before me and showed the sales projections that Nokia had built it’s handset business on. The graph was a typical corporate hockey-stick.

“We thought that by now (2000), there would be 5 million mobile phones in use world wide.” He declared it an “upside miss”, meaning that sales had massively overshot projections. This massive overshoot, which caught all the manufacturers and network operators by surprise was caused by millions of kids discovering that they could keep in touch with each other by sending texts. The companies were anticipating voice traffic and had largely forgotten that SMS existed at all.

Kids leapt on SMS because it was a blank canvas. They weren’t being told what to do with it. They weren’t even told that it existed, except by their friends who had stumbled on it by chance.

Just imagine for a second. Imagine being the first kid to discover that you could text your mates. There must have been one. One single kid who just happened on this ‘Text Message’ function in his new phone and thought, what the hell does this do? Then typed a message and clicked ‘Send’. Imagine how cool that kid must be? There’s a children’s book in this – ‘The boy who clicked Send’. That one kid started a revolution. And we’ll never know who he is. And, worse, we’ll never know how the first recipient felt. Of course, we can be pretty certain that he also discovered the ‘Text Message’ feature pretty quickly. And he must have typed something like “What the hell is this? Who the hell are you?”, otherwise texting would never have taken off like it has.

Now imagine what would have happened if that second kid had looked at that first text message and just thought, “Wow! That’s odd”. DELETE. The first kid would have gone to school the next day, told his friends of his discovery and everyone would have just thought that he was making it all up.

“Hey! I sent a text message last night!”

“Yes, of course you did. Wierdo!”

It’s simple acts like this – clicking ‘reply’ to your first text message – that change the world.

Fast forward twenty years.

We all know Twitter. Most of us are only here because we heard about this on Twitter. I can assume that you’re all pretty Twitter-literate. So let’s fast forward 20 year to San Francisco – California. 14th of September 2010.

Twitter announces a whole load of new services, brands the updates New Twitter and describes itself as “A News Service”.

At home, just outside Sheffield, keeping up with the event via Twitter’s old service I laugh out loud. Not ‘lol’. I didn’t ‘lol’. In fact, I never ‘lol’. I’m not of that vintage. No, I actually real-world laughed out loud.

“It’s happening again”, I thought. “The service owners are so close to what they are doing and so busy looking for ways to make money that they are missing the point!” However, the message from Twitter Towers remained consistent. “Twitter is a news service”.

No, no, no, no, no, no, NO!

During the ‘New Twitter’ announcement, I was reminded of a vignette on William Burroughs’ Dead City Radio album from 1990 called ‘Apocalypse’. I’d like to read an extract. I won’t do the voice.

“Consider an apocalyptic statement. “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”. Hassan-I-Sabbah, tho Old Man of the Mountain. Not to be interpreted as an invitation to all manner of unrestrained and destructive behaviour; that would be a minor incident that would run it’s course. Everything is permitted BECAUSE nothing is true. It is all make-believe, illusion, dream, art.”

Let’s not forget, Twitter was built on SMS – a blank canvas. The original aim, as I understand it, was to cludge together a kind of ‘reply-all’ function for texts sent to a group of people. Twitter is a blank canvas that was built on top of another blank canvas. It’s not a news service – it’s whatever we want it to be. It’s make-believe, illusion, dream, art.

There used to be rules about what you could do with a blank canvas. It used to be that you were only allowed to paint religious scenes on them. Then you were allowed to depict powerful people – kings, queens, lords and ladies – as well. Then the landscapers came along, and the romantics, and the modernists, and the post-modernists, and the cubists, Dadaists, surrealists and the Saatchi-ists. And now you can do pretty much whatever the hell you like with a blank canvas. Blank canvases are incredibly powerful things. Blank canvases change the world.

When I first started using Twitter, about three years ago, there were rules. Lots of rules. Not official rules, but rules that were made up by people trying to come to terms with the enormous blank canvas that Twitter offered. The rules were made by people claiming themselves ‘experts’ in a thing that nobody understood. These people quickly gathered thousands of followers and adherents to the ‘Twenty-five rules for using Social Media’ school of tweeting.

These people are the same who, 500 years ago would have happily issued an edict about what art could depict. Personally, I struggle to come to terms with it, but we’ve all seen the drivel they espouse.

They love verbless sentences and banal calls-to-action. “75 stunning examples of typography”, and similar drab nonsense, which makes up an alarming percentage of the 100 million daily updates. Dullardry of the worst water. And the weird thing is that those doling out this lethargic drivel often have 10,000 followers and more.

But let’s not be too harsh. Blank canvases are scary.  We need to fill the void – it’s a basic human need. Present anyone with a blank canvas and they’ll feel the need to smear paint over the whole thing. Literally AND figuratively. But don’t worry too much. The world being what it is, the rate of progress is enormous. I believe we’re already through the ‘religious’ phase – all the Social Media guru’s are now busy locking themselves away in conference rooms around the world, charging each other higher and higher speaking fees to trot out their hack-kneed nonsense. “It’s a bubble, guys! A bubble! And it’s going to burst any second now!”

We’ve also seen the rise of ‘the depiction of the powerful’. Celebrities on Twitter with millions of followers. Now, real celebrities seem to be departing Twitter in their droves. Dead and fake celebrities are in the ascendant. And, frankly, they can’t last long. Yes, some of them are funny, but it’s a fad.

What’s coming next will be a terrific splintering in the way Twitter works. Just as the art world shattered into dozens of modernist groups with distinct and dogmatic ideas about what it meant to be an artist.

The way Twitter works now, following someone isn’t as important as it used to be. Because of the ReTweet, trends, real-time search and the enormous number of users, if someone says something interesting there’s an incredibly good chance you’re going to find out about it.

But what’s interesting to you may not be interesting to me. The important thing is that we all get to find out the interesting stuff regardless of who we follow. One of the interesting things that came out of Twitter at the New Twitter launch is that Twitter is useful even if you don’t follow anybody. That’s ground-breaking. It’s permission to do anything.

There’ll be no need for ‘opinion formers’ building great, burning stars in the Twitterverse. Stars of course have powerful gravitational fields. But as they fade and die, people will be drawn together into small, self-forming galaxies of mutual interest. Interesting things, you see, also have a gravitational field. Look around at any party or social gathering – people will naturally be drawn together by their interests; political, philosophical or sexual. And the strongest manifestation of “interesting gravity” appears in our use of language. Everyone is drawn to a storyteller just as the swearing, drunken hobo in the corner repels them.

When you get lots and lots of interesting people saying lots and lots of interesting things, they will naturally be drawn together. So the next phase of Twitter’s development will be dominated by language. Think about that when you’re posting your next update. Don’t be afraid to use vibrant language. Allow yourself to play around with metaphor, adjectives and made up nouns and verbs. Remember, nothing is true. Everything is permitted. It is all make-believe, illusion, dream, art.

irkafirka, my pet project and the reason I’m here, is a celebration of language. We exist solely to celebrate people’s vivid use of the written word. And it’s not just Twitter that will be dominated by language. The entire web is moving away from trying to impress a machine (notably Google’s search engine) and towards impressing each other.

But then, none of this is true either.”

Here’s the thing.

Business communication is like a pop song. Trust me about this.

In any given lifetime, your audience will grant you two minutes and  thirty seven seconds in which to acheive two (2) things:

First – sing your song

Second – get everyone else singing your song, too.

For this to happen, your song has to be individual enough to be worth remebering. But it also has to fit within a style that is easy to recognise and accept.

Unfortunately, singing takes a lot of talent and a lot more guts. Not everyone can do it. Which is why most business communication comes over as a terrible dirge of confused ideas and lame cliches.

Applying the principles of pop to your business communications is not easy, but it works.

To start off with, you need a hook – a neat little riff or idea that is easy to grasp and even easier to repeat. Then you need to back this up with three other elements – a verse, a chorus and a middle-eight. Verses should be short and sweet but provide background, depth and colour to your hook. Maybe a handful of web-pages, maybe some of your staff tweeting around a theme, perhaps a revamped set of business cards with individual designs. The verse should lead into the chorus – this is where you can let rip. Your chorus should get you, your staff, customers, partners, the press and everyone else in the world screaming your virtues at the top of their voices. A simple statement that sums up the true value of you and your company. I’m going to repeat three words from that last sentence: simple, true, value. Simple. True. Value. That’s your chorus.

The middle-eight links your verses with your chorus. This may be the look-and-feel, or the tone of voice. The style of delivery, or the medium for delivery. A key point here is that nobody every listens to a song because it has a great middle-eight, but plenty of songs are left mediocre and forgotten because they had a weak middle-eight.

Of course, pop music has been constantly evolving, from Muddy Waters picking up an electric guitar to the Beatles harmonising with a string quartet, from Brian Eno’s synthesised noodlings to acid fuelled raves and warehouse parties, from Iggy Pop’s flailing nudity to Jay-Z’s tailored suits. So once you have your song down pat, you have to drop it and come up with something new. That’s why we’re here and why we keep coming back.

All together now, after 4…

PowerPoint is like a BMW – a great piece of kit that is usually driven by idiots.

I’ve driven a few BMW’s in my life and I’ve always been struck by how appallingly badly other drivers react on simply seeing the badge. The same is true of PowerPoint users. As soon as the projector is fired up, audiences are used to settling in for an hour or two of complete boredom.

PowerPoint suffers so much from over-familiarity. And, while it is packed with features, standing in front of even the most beautifully crafted slide-deck is a limiting experience. Explaining ideas usually works best when is framed around a loose kind of story telling. PowerPoint, though, demands a strict narrative structure with beginning, middle and end tightly connected to each other. Moving between different story elements is extremely clunky and far too many presentations end up stifled. Presenters will often flick back and forth between slides as they clamour for clarity.

Those of us who present for a living are therefore looking for alternatives, a vehicle for our ideas that won’t be maligned for simply existing, and one that allows a more natural flow for explaining ideas. And thankfully there are plenty of alternatives available.

Prezi is a tool that has the design conscious drooling. The swirling visuals and deep dive zooming are enough to pep up even the most jaded 3 day conference crowd. It also gives the speaker the chance to engage in ‘non-linear’ discourse. In other words, while there may be a pre-planned route through a story, Prezi lets you take detours and fly off at tangents before coming back to your main thrust.

Prezi is very easy to use. Spend an hour playing with the tool and even the modestly techno-phobic will be comfortable with the main features. There is also plenty of scope for collaboration with some nice synchronisation between the desktop client and the online hosting service.

That said, while it is visually stunning, there is very little scope for self-expression with colours and fonts. Undoubtedly this will improve over time. As will the need to use highly visible borders around graphics and text to make the animations work. Output comes in the form of a flash file, so don’t expect Prezi on an iPad anytime soon.

Another intriguing PowerPoint alternative is the Visual Understanding Environment or VUE. This is a project from Tufts University and it wears its academic heritage on its sleeve. And there has clearly been a lot of beard-tugging going on in its design. The idea that makes VUE unique is the way it builds layers of information – a ‘mind mapping’ layer to help organise thoughts, a pathways layer to link thoughts together, and finally a presentation layer that pretties everything up in a PowerPoint kind of way.

What VUE lacks in visual immediacy is more than made up for by the flexibility afforded by these layers. Where PowerPoint may require a separate mind mapping tool to organise thoughts and then a labourious process of transcribing ideas into slides, VUE takes care of all of this. And what’s more, the ‘Add Most Relevant Flickr Image’ function takes care of the time consuming picture-editing process that is the heart and soul of a good presentation.

While not as intuitive as PowerPoint or Prezi, VUE is a real breath of fresh air for those looking for a new way of presenting. The concept is fantastic, allowing for linear and non-linear presentations with complete control over look and feel. The layers are strong but flexible and provide a direct link between original ideas and the finished presentation. Output to pdf puts notes and images alongside each other, akin to PowerPoint’s handouts.

Florence Nightingale did a great many things for the world. Cleaining up hospitals was principle among them. Inventing the pie chart was another.

When she first presented the pie chart to the Royal Statistical Society it caused a sensation. Even today, pie charts cause a sensation – usually one of torpour.

Information is extremely powerful. Look at any one of a thousand powerpoint slide decks and you will see charts and graphs aplenty outlining everything you could possibly want to know. Unfortunately for the presenter, their audience will instantly forget every single piece of data.

The trick is usually to tell a story about your data to bring it to life and make it memorable. Or, even better, make your data itself tell a story. Here is a remarkable example of what we mean:

Visualizing empires decline from Pedro M Cruz on Vimeo.

Next time you contemplate putting a pie chart into your presentation, please think long and hard. It has hard a long and useful life, but would be far more usefully left to die quietly.

A new trend is emerging that is threatening the very existence of email, and could threaten the way many of us shop, vote and learn.

To be completely clear from the outset, email is shrinking in importance. There are now so many ways to communicate and collaborate that messages that could once only have been sent via email are moving onto other mediums. And while POP3 and IMAP still make up a huge proportion of the application traffic on a company’s network, the term ’email’ is slipping from popular usage. People now use protocols developed for email to send each other ‘notes’.

The ‘e’ prefix, once so ubiquitious, has had its day. This is a trend that we believe will continue. After all, it is no longer interesting that things are electronic. To a 45 year old, perhaps it is still a marvel, but to a 25 year old it is taken as read. So farewell e-mail, e-commerce, e-government and e-learning. And watch your backs VoIP and IPTV. Where being electronic is now taken as read, so the Internet Protocol is no longer so amazing. And no body ever really understood it anyway.