Strategy. Innovation. Brand.


How much can you say in a 30 minute presentation? How much should you say? What should you say? In what order? The issues that surround content include quantity, quality, and structure. The posts in this category explore these issues.

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Donna Shalala and The Boom Boom Theory



Donna Shalala spoke at a breakfast meeting at the University of Denver (DU) the other day. She seems to be one of the most connected people on earth. She’s the former president of Hunter College, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Miami. She also served for eight years as the Secretary of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration. Perhaps most impressive (to me at least), over ten years at the University of Miami, she raised three billion dollars in voluntary contributions.

Our chancellor, Rebecca Chopp, interviewed Shalala before an audience of some 300 faculty, alumni, and students. The conversation soon turned to inclusive excellence (IE), which is a fundamental initiative at DU. We define IE as, “…the recognition that an … institution’s success is dependent on how well it values, engages and includes the rich diversity of students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni constituents. … The goal is to make IE a habit that is implemented and practiced consistently throughout …” the university.

Chancellor Chopp asked Shalala what advice she could offer to build an inclusively excellent university. Shalala’s answer reminded me that multi-channel communication is fundamental to multi-cultural success.

In a diverse community, Shalala noted, people have diverse communication styles. They may use the same word for different concepts. Or they may describe the same concept with different words. Further, they may well be tuned in to different channels.

Given the varying communication styles, Shalala argues that leaders of diverse communities need to deliver the same message multiple times, in multiple ways, through multiple channels to make sure it reaches all audiences. Shalala’s staff called this the Boom Boom theory of communication because one message (“Boom”) gets repeated across multiple channels.

It’s a good reminder that we need to repeat ourselves, perhaps more often than we think. I’ve written before that redundancy is not a sin; Shalala argues that we need to actively promote redundancy. Coupled with a concept like the sponsorship spine, the Boom Boom theory can produce effective communications in even the most diverse organization.

And what about those three billion dollars? Shalala says there’s no secret to fundraising. It requires a lot of patience and listening. Find out what your contributors are interested in and deliver it.

But patience and listening only take you so far. Shalala also reminded us of the value of good old-fashioned story telling. At fundraising events, she doesn’t talk about abstract concepts or programs or buildings. She simply tells stories. She admits that some of her stories “leave ‘em weepy” – they’re touching and effective. She wants her contributors to reach for their wallets. So first, she has to reach for their hearts. Combining the Boom Boom strategy with the leave-em-weepy tactics seems to be a killer combo.

We’re Doomed!

Republican or Democrat?

Republican or Democrat?

As I survey the American political scene, I’m encouraged to find one topic that both the left and the right agree on: We’re doomed!

The right seems to think we’re doomed because of a looming debtpocalypse. We’re guilty of living high on the hog and now it’s payback time. We’re in over our heads, the economy is about to crash, inflation is about to skyrocket, and oh by the way, our foreign policy provides clear signs that the end times are nigh. All the more reason not to strengthen our gun laws; we’re going to need all the guns we can get to fight off moochers and looters.

The solution (apparently) is to vote for Republicans to balance the budget and avert catastrophe. However, the last Republican president to balance the budget was Dwight Eisenhower so I’m not sure how much expertise the GOP can claim in the matter.

The left seems to think that the world will end (soon apparently) in an ecotastrophe. We’ve eaten all the low-hanging fruit, lived off the fat of the land, and now we’re going to have to pay the piper. We’re guilty of living high on the hog and now it’s payback time. And, oh by the way, the growing inequality in wealth is a sure sign that the end times are nigh.

The solution seems to be to vote for Democrats who will make us healthier, happier, and more equal. However, Democrats have dominated the federal government for much of my life and, though we’ve gotten much richer, we’ve also gotten fatter and less equal. So I’m not sure that Democrats can claim much expertise either.

I suspect that all this doomsaying is the reason that zombie books and movies are so popular recently. Clearly the world is ending, so let’s imagine how it might happen. We also love being scared. The Russians are coming! No, the Chinese are coming! No, the secular humanists are coming! No, the zombies are coming! Annie, get your gun!

Traditionally, churches were the primary producers of guilt. We were sinners in the hands of an angry God. Recently, our political parties have stepped into the breach as the leading guilt creators. You eat too much! You spend too much! You pollute too much! You whine too much!

Frankly, I’m not buying it. Here’s why:

The purpose of political parties is to make people angryanger is the one emotion that promotes action. Action creates votes and votes create power. Just as bad news sells newspapers, it also creates votes. Political parties have always predicted doom and gloom. It’s how they win elections. Both parties are doing a very good job of making people angry now. So what? That’s what they do.

Things have gotten better – since 1960 per capita wealth in the United States has tripled. Sexism and racism – though still evident – have abated dramatically. Our rivers no longer catch fire. Our air is breathable. Violent crime has dropped significantly, especially since 1990. Even those things that threaten us have gotten less awful. The Soviet Union could have wiped us out. Terrorists can’t.

Do we have problems? Of course, we do. We always have and we always will. So let’s calm down a bit. The way forward requires thinking, not screaming. If you want to be scared, don’t listen to politicians. Just go to a zombie movie.

Moderating the Extremes

It’s complicated.

Your friend, Mary, avidly and vocally supports a national flat tax. Or maybe she’s convinced that free trade is the only sensible way to stimulate the world economy. Or maybe she actively supports more government programs to ensure equality of opportunity.

Let’s also assume that you disagree with Mary. You’d like her to see your side. But she’s so convinced that she’s right — and everybody else is wrong — that it’s difficult to have a conversation with her. Your attempts at dialogue just devolve into long-winded diatribes.

So how do you move Mary? Here are two different communication strategies:

  1. Ask Mary why she thinks her position is correct.
  2. Ask Mary how her ideas would work in the real world.

If you pursue Strategy 1, Mary will simply launch into her “pre-recorded” sound bites and positions. Strategy 1 does not require Mary to think. It merely requires her to repeat. She continues to convince herself. As a result, Mary’s position will likely become even more extreme.

Strategy 2, on the other hand, requires Mary to think through a variety of complicated, real-world issues. A common feature of extreme political positions is that they’re over-simplified. By requiring Mary to think through complicated issues, Strategy 2 often reveals weaknesses in the logic. It’s not so simple as it seemed. As a result, Mary’s position often becomes more moderate and more nuanced.

The effectiveness of Strategy 2 derives from the “illusion of explanatory depth”. In their article on the phenomenon (click here), Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil explain that, “People feel they understand complex phenomena with far greater precision, coherence, and depth than they really do; they are subject to an illusion—an illusion of explanatory depth.” When you ask people how their ideas would actually work, they start to bump into the limits of their illusion. They don’t understand it nearly as well as they thought. As their explanation falters, so does the certitude of their position.

In this final week of the presidential campaign, many people are stating extreme positions. If you want to have a substantive discussion with another person — as opposed to a battle of sound bites — don’t ask why they believe something. Rather, ask them how it works.

Branding: B2C versus B2B

Most of my client are business-to-business (B2B) companies. They make things — mainly software — that help other businesses perform more effectively. Some of my clients want to emulate the “flashier”, “sexier” communications of the business-to-consumer (B2C) world. They ask, “Why can’t we be cool like the consumer companies are?”  My answer is that they can be totally cool but they have to remember the differences between B2B and B2C branding. A B2C company can deliver emotional, product-centric messages. While a B2B company can also play on emotions, it needs to do more. It also needs to deliver a logical, financial message and many more company-centric messages. B2B requires a more complicated branding strategy.

The first big difference between B2B and B2C is when the benefit is delivered. In the B2C world, the benefit is often delivered at the same time as the purchase decision. You buy a soft drink (purchase decision), you drink it, and you immediately get the benefit (sugar high). In the B2B world, on the other hand, the benefit is often delivered months after the purchase decision. That’s certainly true in enterprise software. Your messaging still needs to convince the buyer that the product is right. But it also needs to convince the buyer that your company will effectively deliver the benefit many months later. Thus, you need far more company-centric messages than a B2C company would.

The second big difference is the number of decision makers. In B2C, it’s often one person. I don’t need to call a committee meeting to buy a soft drink. In B2B, on the other hand, many buyers get involved. Years ago, I learned a “buying influence” model originated by the  Miller Heiman consulting group. According to Miller Heiman, there are three buying influences: the user buyer, the technical buyer, and the financial buyer. In the B2B world you need specific message for each group. To learn about these messages, take a look at the video.

If It’s Not on the Internet, Does It Exist?

I like to read books. Lately, however, it’s making me feel old.

No longer relevant?

I recently submitted an article to an online magazine that I occasionally write for. I made what I thought was a provocative argument about tall buildings and mental illness. The gist of the argument is that people who live in tall buildings are often isolated from others and become depressed (or worse). The point: get out more often and mix it up with fellow human beings — it’s good for you. I based the argument on research published  in 1977 in a book called A Pattern Language which is often described as a classic in the design literature. My son, the architect, recommended it to me. Despite its powerful provenance, my editors rejected the piece because they couldn’t find anything on the Internet to substantiate the argument.

So I went back to my copy of A Pattern Language, scanned the appropriate pages with the relevant citations, and sent them to the editors. They still rejected my article. As they pointed out, 1977 was a long time ago. Things may have changed. If the basis of the argument were still true, it should be somewhere in the Internet.

I’m now wondering what to do with all my old books. Should I toss them out? Are all my old Dave Barry books no longer funny? And Jorge Luis Borges — was he just a ficción of my imagination? I’m just now re-reading A Clockwork Orange — it’s the 50th anniversary. Should I just assume that it’s no dobby chepooka and brosay it into the merzky mesto? Wouldn’t that be horrorshow?

I’ve always wondered, how do we know what we know? Perhaps we can simplify the rules now and say, for something to be known, it must first appear on the Internet. That would simplify our lives — and our education systems. What’s your opinion? When does old information become irrelevant information?

By the way, I re-purposed my original article and published it here.

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