Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Chip Heath

Brian Williams and Core Priorities

Values clarification.

Values clarification.

In their book Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath write about the need to honor our core priorities when making decisions. They write that “An agonizing decision … is often a sign of a conflict among ‘core priorities’ … [T]hese are priorities that transcend the week or the quarter … [including] long-term goals and aspirations.”

To illustrate their point, the Heath brothers tell the story of Interplast*, the non-profit organization that recruits volunteer surgeons to repair cleft lips throughout the world. Interplast had some ”thorny issues” that caused contentious arguments and internal turmoil.

One seemingly minor issue was whether surgeons could take their families with them as they traveled to remote locations. The argument in favor: The surgeons were volunteering their time and vacations. It seems only fair to allow them to take their families. The argument against: The families distract the surgeon from their work and make it more difficult to train local doctors.

The argument was intense and divisive. Finally, one board member said to another, “You know, the difference between you and me is you believe the customer is the volunteer surgeon and I believe the customer is the patient.”

That simple statement led Interplast to re-examine and clarify its core priorities. Ultimately, Interplast’s executives resolved that the patient is indeed the center of their universe. Once that was clarified, the decision was no longer agonizing – surgeons should not take their families along.

I thought of Interplast as I read the coverage of Brian Williams’ situation at NBC. In much the same way as Interplast, NBC had to clarify its core priorities. The basic question is whom does NBC serve? Is it more loyal to Brian Williams or to its viewing audience?

In normal times, NBC doesn’t have to answer this question. It can support and promote its anchor while also serving its audience. In a crisis, however, NBC is forced to choose. It’s the moment of truth. Does the company support the man in whom it has invested so much? Or does it protect its credibility with the audience?

Ultimately, NBC sought to protect its credibility. I was struck by what Lester Holt said on his first evening on the air: “Now if I may on a personal note say it is an enormously difficult story to report. Brian is a member of our family, but so are you, our viewers and we will work every night to be worthy of your trust.”

Holt’s statement suggests to me that NBC’s core priority is credibility with the audience. I certainly respect that. It also struck me as being very similar to the question Interplast asked itself.

Clarifying your core priorities is never a simple task. Indeed, it may take a crisis to force the issue. But once you complete the task, everything else is simpler. As my father used to say: Decisions are easy when values are clear.

Here are links to two articles from the New York Times that report on how NBC executives reached their decisions regarding Brian Williams. (Click here and here)

*Interplast has been renamed ReSurge International. Its website is here.

The Curse of Knowledge

You know too much.

You know too much.

Long ago, when I was a product manager at NBI, I gave a speech on local area networks (LANs) at a customer conference. LANs were just becoming popular at the time and industry analysts were debating which standards would prevail.

NBI was betting on a standard called CSMA/CD. IBM was betting on token ring. The objective of my speech was to persuade the audience that CSMA/CD was the better choice and, therefore, more likely to prevail in the long run. Token ring, on the other hand, was risky and might become a dead end product – much like IBM’s OS/2 operating system.

I knew the technology cold and I gave a great speech if I do say so myself. I highlighted the technology advantages of CSMA/CD. I set criteria around the key functions that CSMA/CD could perform and token ring couldn’t. I know that most audiences admire IBM so I didn’t take any cheap shots at Big Blue. A cheap shot would weaken my credibility, not theirs.

At the end of the speech, I was busy patting myself on the back when a very nice woman came up and asked a simple question: “What’s a LAN?” Throughout my speech, I had defined an array of advanced technical concepts but had forgotten to define the basics. My face turned red as I realized that I had just made the rookiest of rookie mistakes. I had asked the audience to come to my house rather than going to their house.

In the trade, this is known as the curse of knowledge. I knew the audience wouldn’t know the finer points of CSMA/CD but I assumed – erroneously – that they grasped the basics. I didn’t need to explain them. I never even thought about it.

In Made To Stick, the Brothers Heath tell the story of “tappers” and “listeners” which was the subject of Elizabeth Newton’s dissertation in psychology. Tappers received a list of popular songs and were asked to tap out the song on a tabletop. No whistling or humming allowed; just tap on the table. Listeners were supposed to guess the song.

Tappers were confident that they could convey the song successfully at least 50 percent of the time. But, in fact, listeners guessed the song correctly only 2.5 percent of the time.

Why were the tappers so confident? Because they could hear the song in their head. They heard the taps but they also heard so much more. As the Heaths point out, “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”

When I gave my speech on LANs, I could hear the entire song in my head. I knew how it sounded. I knew how to orchestrate it. I knew where to pause. I knew where to put in jokes. I knew it cold.

The only thing I didn’t know was what was in my audience’s head. That’s the curse.

Presenting Decisively

chip heathThe other day, Suellen and I saw Chip Heath give a presentation on the key messages of his new book, Decisive. Heath is on tour to promote the book and Denver was a well-promoted stop along the way.

I’ve written about the book in recent weeks and plan to write more in the near future. It’s a simple, clear synopsis of recent research on decision-making.

Today, however, I want to focus on Heath’s presentation style – he reminded me of many lessons I’ve learned in public speaking. Here’s a summary.

Establish rapport and credibility – a large audience turned up in Denver and Heath commented on it immediately, saying, “It’s clear that the people of Denver are intellectually curious. In fact, I’d say that they’re four times more curious than people in Austin and eight times more than people in Los Angeles.” It was funny but it was also a nice compliment. We loved him right away. Best of all, it wasn’t canned.

Slides as hooks not as script – Heath used a lot of slides. He advanced to new slides regularly; no slide stayed up for more than a minute or two. Each time he advanced, the audience “refreshed”. Most of his slides had fewer than ten words on them. Many had only an image. Heath told the story; the slides illustrated it. The text on the slides helped you remember the key points; they didn’t steal Heath’s thunder.

Tell a story, not an abstraction – Heath told a lot of good stories about decisions gone right and gone wrong. They were stories about flesh-and-blood people whose experiences illustrated key ideas about decision making. Every now and then, he would state an abstraction to summarize a point.  He never said, “the moral of the story is…” but he could have.

Humor — he wasn’t rolling-in-the-aisle funny, but he had a dry, wry sense of humor that helped hold our attention. We paid attention partially because we didn’t want to miss a laugh line.

Parallel construction – Heath’s book has four major messages – the WRAP process. Heath covered all four and each section was structured in exactly the same way. We always knew exactly where we were in the narrative. We never got lost.

Finish early – Heath finished about ten minutes ahead of schedule (at least, ahead of the schedule that I had in mind). Giving 500 busy people ten minutes of their life back is a nice contribution to our mental welfare. We appreciated it.

Practice, practice, practice – it was clear that Heath was a polished presenter and that he had given this presentation before. That didn’t make it boring. Rather, we concluded that he respected us enough to make good use of our time. If he respects us, we can respect him.

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