“For sale: baby shoes, never used.”
—(complete) short story by Ernest Hemingway
The most useful thing I learned in high school—at least, the most useful thing that was part of the curriculum—came in senior English, as taught by Ms. Edith Pratt (Patty) Masterson: the “précis.”
In case you were spared such torture, a précis (pray-see) is a condensed version of an essay. Not notes, not commentary, not interpretation. Just a condensed, readable version that captures the essence of the original in a fraction of the words, without quoting.
And trust me, it’s hard.
But short is hard. Writing “long” is easy. Wandering logic here, purple prose there. When you have unlimited pages, you have the freedom, and space, to take your own sweet time getting to your point.
But that wasn’t the goal of the exercise. Bat (as she was known to students and colleagues alike) gave us word limits. So, for example, we had to reduce a 5,000-word essay or short story to 250—and still maintain its essence.
And then she’d make us write a précis of the précis, and get it down to 50—and still maintain its essence.
I hated those assignments. But from them I learned to read through words to see the point.
Six words, 140 characters, a tagline, a name. When was the last time you had to take something down to its essence? Did you?
Categories: Strategy and Management
I consider myself a tolerant person, perhaps even bordering on overly PC. Sure, I’m not perfect, but I genuinely cringe at the malicious use of any racial slur and personally support legislation that restricts organized “hate speech.” Of course, that’s a controversial legal stance to say the least. Where does freedom of speech end and sanctuary against persecution begin? Likewise, are there differences between positive and negative freedom that need be taken into account; even in a society founded on the principles of liberty? Perhaps, but this blog post isn’t about that.
What this blog post is about is, in no small part, my favorite NFL team: the Washington Redskins. I think you see where I’m going with this…
There are few things I enjoy more on a Sunday afternoon than Clinton Portis busting his way in for a touchdown. Moreover I grew up around DC, and watching the ‘Skins play reminds me of being encapsulated in the culture of my youth (not to mention a place with a much milder winter than Boston). I may go as far to say the team holds the same sentimental value as a keepsake or heirloom from my old house. Indeed, I don’t think I became a true fan until after I left.
Despite all that, it is undeniable that the franchise name, the foundation for its brand, is completely and utterly derogatory on an unacceptable level. The term “Redskin,” though its exact origins are vague, is widely thought to be a byproduct of European colonists in the 18th and 19th centuries. As one might guess, it probably wasn’t used in the most friendly of circumstances (Note: understatement). In contemporary times, it’s the sort of thing you would be shocked to hear someone call any member of any tribe, particularly to their face. It’s the equivalent of calling an African American “Colored” or referring to someone of Southeast Asian descent as “Yellow.”
And yet the brand has withstood the collective tests of time, law, and finance. It was coined in 1933, back when the team was coincidentally located in Boston; and inspired by the then “Boston Braves” baseball team. It’s rumored that coach William “Lone Star” Dietz came up with it (his mother may or may not have been Sioux). Likewise, past success on the field has brought the team a loyal fan base, keeping ticket sales high and the seats at FedEx field filled. Lawsuits by individuals and civil rights organizations alike have born no fruit.
So naturally, from a business standpoint, there is little incentive to change the name. Thousands of hats, jerseys, and various other pieces of paraphernalia embellished with the brand sell like hotcakes. The fans don’t seem to mind it, and no major authority inside the league or otherwise has condemned it in any forceful way.
Needless to say, though, if a new team were to start today with a name like “The Dallas Blacks,” it’s highly unlikely that there wouldn’t be justified outrage. So I’m left scratching my head as to why the football team of our nation’s capital gets away with it. Perhaps it’s a lack of education, or too small a push from those the name actually may offend; or perhaps it’s the same justification we often use for many of the sillier things we do: tradition.
Then again, maybe the problem is me. After all, in spite of how I feel about the name, I’m still a fan of the team. Food for thought.
P.S. And at least our logo isn’t as bad as Cleveland’s “Chief Wahoo.”
Two weeks have passed since we introduced the “Designing Dissent: Advocacy Advertising Series” project to a senior-level class of graphic designers at New England Institute of Art. Two weeks since the class was charged with selecting a theme and finding an actual organization that could serve as a potential client for their campaign. Two weeks to THINK about concepts, ways in and ways back out into the world.
Today is the day that they’re scheduled to present work-in-progress to myself and my colleague, designer Kerri Augenstein, for some professional consulting.
My knee-jerk reaction is to rush in and fix things, but my goal today is to impart knowledge, inspire thought, and offer ways to THINK about solving problems rather than solving the problem for them.
Here are a few ways that help me help these students think:
What were YOU thinking?
The students had been instructed to select a topic that they felt a personal affiliation with. Asking them how they made that decision serves as a kind of a mental limbering or stretching exercise hopefully easing them into think and speak mode.
THINK like your client.
In order to get them to think like their client I continue on a line of questioning as if I’m their client—and not their art director or teacher. This takes them out of their own heads a little and helps them think more objectively. It becomes less about “this is what I did” and more about “I did this because….”
THINK like your client’s clients.
Sometimes the biggest hurdles are the clients themselves. Clients are often burdened with lots of internal issues and concerns that can fog their vision. As communication professionals part of our job is to help lift that fog. Thinking like the client’s target audience(s) can help you leap right over that hurdle. Anticipating the audience is paramount to solving a communication problem and it’s the best platform for articulating your solution. So who are your audiences and what do they need to know? What will grab them, persuade them, convince them to act?
Okay, so you have a good concept. Maybe even a great concept. You have a safety zone. Now set it aside. Shake it off. Take yourself out of that safety zone and try to approach the problem from another direction. You may come up with something even stronger.
In three weeks Kerri and I go back to critique the student’s final presentations. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Meanwhile, spend some time thinking about how you THINK. Or at least THINK about it.
Lets call a spaniel a spaniel. The reason some small companies allow dogs in the office isn’t just because they have a desire to provide a more productive, collegial work place. It’s because dogs simply can’t be left home alone any longer than small human creatures can without a host of unhappy consequences.
We cats, on the other paw, are perfectly content to stay home and do our own thing while our roommates go to the office, or wherever it is they go, and do theirs. We don’t require constant attention, walks, treats, or bathroom breaks. We don’t look sad or act betrayed every time you leave the premises and leave us behind. We rarely even notice you’re gone. We’re far more self-reliant, and far less needy of petting and constant validation. Have you ever heard of a professional cat walker?
The truth is, cats are just too cool for school—or for work.
Categories: Quadrupedal Posts
Did you know that, by giving people three options to choose from, you’re actually encouraging them to choose the worst alternative?
Yeah, that surprised me, too—especially since this post actually started out as an explanation of why the Rule of Three is so prevalent.
First there was this video, which spawned a (typically great) post by Seth Godin about needing more Guy #3s. Then there was the Ed McMahon / Farrah Fawcett / Michael Jackson celebrity death trifecta (upon which the universe apparently acted NOW and got Billy Mays for free!). A little bit of research also turned up the fact that three is the optimal number of answers on multiple choice tests.
On top of all that, I had two conversations with two graphic designers—one our very own Kerri—about three being the “magic number” of design alternatives to show a client.
All of which made me wonder: Is three really the magic number?
Well, actually, no. It turns out the old adage is true: “two’s company, three’s a crowd.” (And yes, four on the sidewalk is still not allowed.)
First, consider this example from Chip & Dan Heath’s masterpiece on messaging, Made to Stick.
Imagine…that you are in college and you face the following choice one evening. What would you do?
- Attend a lecture by an author you admire who is visiting just for the evening, or
- Go to the library and study.
Studying doesn’t look so attractive compared with a once in a lifetime lecture. When this choice was given to actual college students, only 21 percent decided to study.
Suppose, instead, you had been given three choices:
- Attend the lecture.
- Go to the library and study.
- Watch a foreign film that you’ve been wanting to see.
Does your answer differ? Remarkably, when a different group of students were given the three choices, 40 percent decided to study—double the number who did before. Giving students two good alternatives to studying, rather than one, paradoxically makes them less likely to choose either. This behavior isn’t “rational,” but it is human.
Now aside from thinking the test was flawed for excluding the most likely option (“stay home and watch TV”), you might walk away from that bit of information, as I once did, thinking that by giving people three choices you’re in effect encouraging them to choose the best / most responsible option.
But you’re not. You’re forcing them to choose the status quo.
The conclusion of the study in which that example was originally cited was this:
“The introduction of additional options can increase decision difficulty and, hence, the tendency to choose a distinctive option or maintain the status quo.”
Because here’s the thing: to make change happen, you have to be dissatisfied with the status quo. If you’re generally satisfied with how things are, you’ll either not change at all, or choose the option closest to the status quo.
More options don’t matter, because you didn’t want to change in the first place. To quote the multiple choice test study, “The number and quality of wrong options is irrelevant to the subjects who know the answer.”
In other words, you’ll never convince an atheist to choose a different religion.
If you’re in the business of making change happen, either for clients or within your organization, this is massively important. It means that, if your client really doesn’t want to change, it doesn’t matter how many options you give—they’ll end up choosing the one closest to where they are right now.
If you’re keeping an eye on the best use of time and resources, then two is the optimal number of choices. (There needs to be a choice, but anything more than two represents wasted time and effort.)
If they’re absolutely sure they want to go a different direction—they’re an evangelist—then less choice is best: no more than two options, with each being a distinct departure from the status quo…and each other.
And if they’re not sure—they’re agnostic—then it’s still two: one that evokes the status quo, and one that represents a departure.
So, is two the new three?
Some common fatherly advice you hear when buying a product or service that comes with a warranty or some other type of contract for the first time is: “be sure to read the fine print.”
Typically, the “fine print” refers to a disclaimer or other content that the manufacturer or service provider really doesn’t want you to pay too much attention to. Therefore, they intentionally made it hard to read.
So why on earth would you use 8 point type, or less, on anything that you really do want someone to read—like for instance your business card, client list, mission statement, etc…?
Sure, tiny type can be elegant and demure and appropriate when you want to whisper, but if you want people to hear what you have to say, why not splurge and go for 10 point or more?
To report any flagrant violations of type please contact us immediately. Together we can slow and possibly even reverse the proliferation of senseless and profane type choices simply by exposing it for what it is – criminal.
The beauty of any good designer is an ability to provide range. Clients need options and different visual perspectives. And if I were a client, I would expect the same.
Yet by definition an option is the power or right of choosing and for most of us, only one entree makes the order.
Imagine a restaurant that decided to prepare each meal for every patron that sat down. No need for menus, the plan is to order right from the served appetizers. For any one order, each of the other preparations would be tossed. Repeat for entree, dessert, coffee, etc.
Of course this is crazy talk: aside from the amount of garbage pileup, wasting food so carelessly is unethical.
When “cooking” design, we know a lot of our work, might—for lack of a better phrase—get smelled, but not digested. It’s our job to work, and rework, and rework again, until you get a logo that melts in your mouth. In fact, some of the best designers can end up with a 3% success rate or less, on any given project.
But this is usually not the case at all. Based on this drastic rate of potential failure it is of utmost importance a designer fine tune many other skills to assist their “DBI” (designs batted in). Great designers must also be great listeners, communicators, mind readers, and—occasionally—recyclers.
All in all, a designer knows a lot of work may never hit the press or html pixel. But since ideas don’t stink or mold, they can be used over and over again. (And luckily there aren’t any ideas like garlic, so one idea won’t permeate the bunch to make them all taste the same.)
The true success in design is about making the failures that make new ideas.
Two questions. Three social networks. One lesson.
A little over a month ago, I needed to do some research to help Roger, our fearless leader, prepare for a BusinessWeek Small Biz Smart Answers podcast. Looking to add to a list we had already started, I wanted to know what brands (a) had created a subculture—or tapped into an existing one—with which it quickly became synonymous (think Harley-Davidson or Apple) or (b) were considered socially or environmentally conscious (think American Apparel or Method).
That’s not a question easily answered with a Google search, because it’s a little like finding a needle in a haystack: Google’s great at finding keywords, but not so great at finding somewhat complicated concepts, nor at finding Long Tail answers (those that go beyond the “easy” ones like the examples I gave above).
It is, however, a question you’d ask a group of colleagues or friends whose opinion you value and respect. In other words, it’s a question perfect for what social networks are supposedly about.
So as an experiment, I posed the question on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. And Facebook won.
Twitter: The number and quality of answers relates directly to number and quality of followers. It’s simply a matter of scale. By asking the question to my (then) 200 or so followers, I was counting on a significant number being online and paying attention at the time I asked the question. Not many were, so Twitter was largely a bust, but a couple of my friends answered. And my mom. In contrast, New York Times tech columnist David Pogue and his 630,000 followers were able to write a book together over two months simply by @Pogue asking questions that his hordes of his followers answered—instantaneously. At any given moment, he has a pretty good chance that enough of his followers will be online and paying attention to get good answers fast.
LinkedIn: I really like LinkedIn, particularly what they’ve been doing lately to make sure it isn’t mostly populated by people looking for jobs. I got more answers there (through their “Answers” feature) than through Twitter, and unlike Twitter, I got answers from around the world (a few folks cited south Asian brands that fell into the category). But the answers don’t come from people you know, nor, by and large, do they come from first-level connections, so I still was left with the idea that I was engaged in a transaction. Helpful as these folks were, they were looking to get as much from the exchange as they gave. The answers also trickled in over several days—not useful in a case where I needed the information within hours.
Facebook: As opposed to the other two networks, on Facebook I had a ton of answers—great answers—within minutes. Lists and lists and lists of them from people who not only seemed to genuinely want to help (these are, after all, people from my life that go back to at least middle school), but didn’t expect much, if anything, in return. In fact, they seemed to legitimately enjoy the exchange.
As with any good experiment, you need to retest, and conveniently this week I had another needle to find: I was trying to pry from my sieve-like brain the source of a pretty random piece of information. As I ultimately posed it on Facebook:
Seriously: does anyone have any backup for why having three options makes for better decisions than having only one or two? I’m going crazy trying to find this.
I’d been trying on and off for weeks to find the answer. I had resorted to pulling down all the books I’ve read over the last three years and thumbing through them (and when I couldn’t find them, using Google book search—lovely tool, that.) I didn’t bother posing the question on LinkedIn—that’s not the type of question Answers is built to answer. But I did pose it to my now-400+ followers on Twitter and to my Facebook Friends.
Twitter: again, nothing (I asked the question in the late evening, which meant that the office-based Twitterers had long ago gone home).
Facebook: It took asking the question two different ways, but I got my answer—and in only an hour and 11 minutes.
So the lesson? To get the most out of social media, you need to make friends—real ones. The people you know—and who know you and how you think—are the ones most likely to help you, whether that’s answering a question, or buying your product, or supporting your organization. So engage with others who talk about and care about what you do.
Have relationships, not transactions…and you’ll get by with a little help from your friends.
Categories: Digital Media