Thursday, May 29, 2008

Twitter in Space?

Are you looking for an interesting, Web 2.0 approach to promoting you're product? What if you're JPL, the Jet Propulsion Labs? Welcome to next generation space exploration -- the Phoenix Mars lander has a Twitter feed.

FYI, in case you didn't believe it was real, here's the page on their site pointing to the feed.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What Makes An Interesting Presentation?

If you don't read it regularly, you've really got to check out Techcrunch -- it is truly one of the best sources for what's happening at the leading edge of technology and in the start-up world. But you can find a lot more than just tech on Techcrunch.

Just the other day I came across this post about a start-up that was focused on 'Identity' solutions for Web 2.0. The post was focused on Dick Hardt, the CEO of the company, but it talked about his dynamic presentation style and included the video that I've also included here.

Even if you don't watch the entire video, you can get a flavor of the presentation by watching just a couple of minutes. One thing that is also interesting -- as noted by Dick's responses to some of the comments on Techcrunch, he is still presenting a variation of this presentation and his slide deck is now up to 1000 slides.

If you haven't already jumped ahead and watched the video, then the first thing that is probably going through your mind is "1000 slides?" Once you see the video, you'll get more of a sense of how the whole thing works. For me, this presentation got me thinking a lot about about presentations, presentation structure and style. In recent years, I find myself more and more in environments that seem to demand a very classic, rigid presentations including the mandatory 'Agenda' slide followed by a bunch of slides with lots of bullets and lots of text. I've also heard complaints from people if they "don't know where the presentation is supposed to be going." These comments are echoed in the comments on Dick's presentation. I think we can blame the widespread use of Powerpoint for part of this.

With Dick's presentation, what I'm reminded of is the very old days of slide presentations, when 'slides' were actual 35mm slides. In that way, it's sort of a Retro-style presentation. For those of you who don't go back that far, in the days before LCD projectors, we used to render Powerpoint files out as 35mm slides, and your deck was an actual cassette full of slides -- no animation, no movement (maybe some synchronized music), but each slide really only captured an idea. What's more, the overhead projector -- and overheads -- almost implied more of a collaborative, text-heavy meeting or discussion. Even in the world of overhead projectors, I remember one woman giving a presentation using overheads that she had written in crayon -- it was actually quite artistic.

So, what makes a good presentation -- is it one that follows a set structure like a college essay or does it keep you guessing from one slide to the next? Is it packed with text or is it a sparse, one concept per slide approach? Can it be presented by anyone, or does it only work for you?

For me, I think that the content, the performance and the audience are intertwined. While it's difficult to say for certain based on the video, from the soundtrack you get the sense that Dick's audience laughs at the funny parts and is engaged in the presentation that he is giving. He is connecting as a performer and his presentation informs. From that standpoint, I really do think that it's a good presentation -- a slide presentation. But, in the same way that this keynote video would be painful to watch if he used a text-heavy, overhead-style engineering meeting approach, I don't know that this presentation style would resonate with his engineers in a detailed feature iteration meeting.

What does your audience expect? How can you excite them and, at the same time, keep them in touch with their existing frame of reference without boring them with the same old stuff?

Oh, and don't forget that agenda slide!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Inside the Inside Steve's Brain Book

I've started reading Inside Steve's Brain by Leander Kahney. I first picked it up based on this recommendation from Brand Autopsy. When I first picked the book up in the bookstore, I noticed that I've already seen a lot of the content posted in bunch of recent articles and extracts across the web -- you may have noticed a recent burst of articles or interviews on how Apple manages the design process and how Steve Jobs manages the business.
This is a great book. Not only is it an easy read, but it leaves you with a number of those "why can't I do that" or implement that or work in an environment that approaches things that way. It's that way of making something unique and intangible feel like it's within reach.
In keeping on the recent creativity theme, I thought I would pull these two excerpts from chapter 2 in the book.
Creativity in art and technology is about individual expression. Just as an artist couldn't produce a painting by a focus group, Jobs doesn't use them either. Jobs can't innovate by asking a focus group what they want--they don't know what they want.

Whitney said Sony would never have invented the Walkman if it had listened to its users. The company actually conducted a lot of research before releasing it. "All of the marketing data said that the Walkman was going to fail. It was unambiguous. No one would buy it. But [founder Akio] Marita pushed it through anyway. He knew. Jobs is the same. He has no need for user groups because he is a user experience expert."
Something to keep in mind as you try to balance creativity with the lowest common denominator.
Oh, and on that note, here's one more -- this one is from chapter 3, quoting a 1996 interview with Steve Jobs in Wired magazine:
Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works... To design something really well, you have to get it. (emphasis mine)
I recommend it!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Juice: The Creative Fuel That Drives World Class Marketers

Here is another book recommendation and another trip down the creativity thread. The book is Juice: The Creative Fuel That Drives World-Class Inventors. This one's about inventors, inventions and inventive thinking, but what's really going on here is an exploration of the addictive nature of creative energy and some of the structure and process around creating and inventing. The book is part technology history, part business book, and part recipe, but it's a great read.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

More on Creativity and Tolerating Ambiguity

In writing my most recent post -- combined with some quick Google searches -- lead me to some interesting links. Here, presented without much comment, are some of those links:

Study finds left-wing brain, right-wing brain - Here's a link to the LA Times article about how self-declared "Liberals" are more tolerant of ambiguity than self-declared "Conservatives". I remember when this study came out, there was a lot of discussion about whether this whole thing was politically motivated or that there was some specific message that was being shaped by the study.

Mac-users are more tolerant of ambiguity than PC-users
- the element of this story that took hold in the media was the idea that Mac users are snobs, but I think that it's worth noting both how popular the Mac is within the creative industry and some of the other demographic information that they attribute to Mac users. Can you use this type of demographic data to help you anticipate whether an audience will be comfortable with your concepts? UPDATE: the link that I was trying to use to " TV" didn't work - it was a video that was put together, but everytime you clicked the link, it would load a different video that the Mac one. You can find the video if you search the site, but here is a summary of the news story.

Beyond Black & White: Learning to Tolerate Ambiguity - Here's an interesting blog written by a couple of doctors (husband and wife) that post on neuro-learning and childhood development. There are some interesting diagrams of the brain, some interesting discussions about tolerating creativity, and some good links at the bottom of the post.

Mind Flexors
- this link is one that I went followed from the bottom of the previous link. There are some great creative "Mind Exercises" and some interesting ways of seeing the world through a creative lens. This one is worth following!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Good Ideas and the Lowest Common Denominator - What Do You Do When They Just Don't Get It?

What happens when you have one of those ideas, those concepts that are so revolutionary, so innovative, that the people you work with just don't get it? Do you hold on to it? Do you let it go? And how about the people that you work with -- how do they handle new ideas and concepts? Do they question anything new? And how about your corporate culture -- are you rewarded for innovative ideas? Is there an organizational path for digesting and implementing innovation?

One of my favorite books about creativity is Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving With Grace by Gordon MacKenzie. Gordon worked for many years at Hallmark, and the book is a wonderful exploration of the challenges of dealing with creativity in the corporate world. I love the Hairball book, but my real life experiences tell me that most business cultures are not particularly receptive to fostering creative environments. In practical terms, what this means is that, as an idea engine, most of us frequently wind up in situations where the wheels are spinning but the idea doesn't advance. And if your work environment is a consensus culture, you probably won't get traction until you reach the lowest common denominator in terms of shared vision -- and that threshold may actually equate to the death of your concept.

Before you throw in the towel, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:
  1. Ideas that are impossible to implement may not be good.
  2. Your idea may improve during the process of explanation, analysis and consensus building.
  3. Lowest common denominator doesn't necessarily equate to dumbing your idea down -- it may simply require one bridge across a single gap in understanding to gain a wider grasp of the vision.
Remember, when you are looking for a shared vision, it isn't necessary for everyone to see the goal from your eyes, all that is needed is to see the goal, even if their vision comes from a different angle -- once you have a shared vision of the goal, you are simply debating about implementation.

If you come up with unique ideas, then you already understand that this process is never easy. In that moment of your idea, what you are essentially telling your audience is "here is something that you didn't know, that you didn't think of, or that you need to figure out how to interpret and understand." If the disconnect is like a joke, most people don't want to be the guy who doesn't get the joke, it's much better for them if the real problem is that the joke just sucks. And to make matters worse, they probably have a lot more at stake personally than whether they laugh. So, as you try to bridge these gaps in understanding, one key point is that the fewer number of conceptual leaps your audience needs to make, the more receptive they are likely to be.

To bridge conceptual gaps, it's important to understand where the gaps come from. One way of visualizing an idea is like a patchwork quilt. In your mind, you have connected one conceptual piece of cloth with another and another, forming a much larger fabric. The threads that tie those pieces together and the order that you have connected them are something that has taken place inside your mind. This is the magic of your unique idea. As others try to grasp your idea, they may be missing thread, they may be missing pieces of cloth, they may be missing the order -- or in some cases, they may actually see the whole quilt but think that it, like your joke, sucks.

The more of your vision that the audience already has inside of their head, the greater the likelihood that you'll be able to bridge the idea gap. So, if you are dealing with an audience of people who have a shared experience, it probably isn't a stretch to find commonality across the topic of that project (eg. 'maybe we should add an FAQ section to this document'). If, on the other hand, your concept is outside of those perceptual frames, you're asking your audience to assemble your conceptual quilt with a lot of missing pieces. This type of conceptual alienation is particularly easy to create when you're dealing with specialized topics or drawing from personal or cultural references.

Another big factor in bridging concept gaps is uniquely audience-based. Some people are more tolerant of ambiguity than others. I'll probably touch on this more in a later post (there are a wealth of great resources about this topic out there), but it suffices to say that tolerance for ambiguity is a key part of creativity, and that also means being able to make the leap to understand your concept. What this means is that, to find commonality, you have to understand your audience's ability to tolerate ambiguity enough to be able to shape how you guide them across conceptual gaps. This may mean adjusting your presentation or withholding chunks of information to avoid overwhelming your audience with too many points to connect. To add to the challenge, while creative people tolerate ambiguity, business tends to prefer organization and structure. This means that, as a marketer, you must constantly balance the business order with the creative chaos and translate the whole thing into simple elements with limited variables.

Finally, one other thing to keep in mind as you try to find common conceptual ground. The strongest ideas that people have are going to be the ones that they discover and experience on their own. Rather than presenting the entire structure of your idea, if you can help bring your audience to the point where they can turn on the light themselves, their belief in and endorsement of the concept will be much stronger.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Free Music Downloads, Customer Experience, and a bit about Marketing

Hardly a day goes without another news update from the ongoing war between the music industry and the consumer over music sharing and digital property rights. Beyond the back and forth over the issues surrounding intellectual property or the strange nature of this conflict between a business and its customer base, one of the more interesting aspects for me is what this says about the "what is the product and how does that connect with the customer" aspect of marketing.

What is the product? Music is the obvious answer, but when you drill down:
  • What is the core of the product? What makes that musical experience a unique, productizable commodity? What is that elusive thing that the audience is chasing?
    - Is it who performs it? How they perform it? Where?
    - Is it a duplicate or an iteration? What's repeatable?
    Put in the context of food, if you were eating at a famous restaurant with a famous chef, does it matter if the chef is there, does it matter if the chef cooks your food, does it matter if menu is exactly the same as last year, does it matter if the ingredients in your dish are different or if it's seasoned differently than the last time? Is it the food or the restaurant? Would it be the same if the chef opened a new restaurant?

  • Is it the song or the performance?
    - Is it the recording, that temporal snapshot of a moment? The living experience of the performance?
    - Is it the written chords and lyrics or the interpretation through performance?
    Is it the recipe, the actual meal that you have at the restaurant, or is it the pre-packaged version of the restaurant meal that you purchase in the supermarket?
For some musicians, music sharing was an issue before their was an internet. Long before file sharing, the Grateful Dead established a policy that allowed their fans to record their live performances and share those across their community of fans. While this is only one aspect of their unique connection to their passionate fan-base, there are some who site this a key contributing factor in building that community. Keep in mind that, in contrast to a broad range of pop music performers, the Grateful Dead received little promotional benefit from traditional music promotion vehicles such as frequent radio play. The Grateful Dead were Long Tail before there was a Long Tail.

But to that point, what made "The Grateful Dead experience" unique? A large part of it was the concert experience itself. Consider the difference between the Grateful Dead touring concert experience and a typical pop music performance. With most pop music concerts, the tour is organized around a specific show that travels from city to city. The show doesn't change, only the venue. If multiple dates are scheduled in the same venue, it's to accommodate more people in that area, not audience repeats. In contrast, the Dead would arrange a tour through multiple cities, sometimes scheduling multiple dates in the same city. A percentage of their tickets were sold through a mail order system that enabled passionate fans to arrange multi-city, multi-show tours. Fans would frequently attend multiple shows, sometimes on consecutive nights. While their concerts maintained consistent structural patterns and was stylized through their interpretation (it sounded like the Dead), no show was a repeat, because it wasn't a show, it was a musical performance. In this way, a recording of a live concert was nice to have, but, like a photo of your grandmother, it was simply a static snapshot of a dynamic experience that only captured a small portion of the larger experience. And with a Grateful Dead concert, there was the music and the sound, but beyond that there was a participatory and experiential element to the community and the show.

With most pop music shows, the show itself is a disposable experience. In a broader sense, the music is like nicotine, crafted and addictive earworms that are designed to drive unit sales of records, CDs, or other associated products. Consider some memorable moments in recent pop music performances -- Janet Jackson's "Superbowl performance" or the MTV Music Awards program that featured Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera. While these performances may be memorable as a cultural milestone of some type, do those specific musical performances have any unique replay value? From music and a customer experience perspective, most pop music performances are about as unique as a MacDonald's hamburger -- infinitely repeatable, in part because they lip-sync to the same studio recording every time.

But rather than diving down a path that might be construed as a musical preference post, consider what these artists and the industry would do without the established barriers to protect it -- media formats, etc. For many companies -- as the economy has become more global and new low-cost competitors become an increasing threat -- building close, trusted, customer-centric relationships with their audiences is becoming essential. Increasingly, companies are using CRM and customer-focused strategies in an attempt to predictively understand their customer's requirements and their expectations, then exceed those expectations. The quality of customer experience becomes a key competitive differentiator and a core value-add.

At it's most local level, live music thrives on this type of personalized customer experience. For most bands playing in small venues like bars, parties, or the occasional national guard armory, personalizing the performance for the audience is a requirement. Whether it's a birthday song, jokes, or even just an extra-long pause in "Good Lovin," when performers are face-to-face with their customer, it's difficult for them to ignore their customer's interests. It's when you start changing the scale, decoupling the performer from the audience, that you begin to lose touch with the audience -- like a large corporation that loses touch with their customer base. In the "business" of music, this kind of thing has been going on for a long time -- with the industry "telling the audience" what they would like. This is partially why, over the history of rock and roll, you have these 'breakthrough' revolutions of musical style -- the Beatles, Punk, Grunge -- that emerge like the voice of the customer, the voice of the audience rejecting the existing 'manufactured' product line for something more 'organic'.

The internet changes everything. With Google, the democratization of publishing and the web, individual consumers have been shout out, gaining voice and visibility and becoming "Consumer Vigilates" -- channeling dissatisfaction with businesses into published conflicts and negative PR. It's this kind of thing that helped drive Dell to change their approach to customer interaction, to leverage tools like, 'IdeaStorm', and computer support forums to stay engaged with their audience.

And in the world of fickle fashion, where people change music and clothes and favorites in weeks and seasons, it's important to remember the powerfully deep, passionate connections that get formed in the Long Tail -- the Grateful Dead delivered the same type of musical product to committed audiences for over 30 years.