Truth, beauty, purpose

noun_82995What makes for compelling communication?

Whether it’s a data visualisation, a written story, or a Hollywood movie, you need to create something of lasting value.

I think that comes down to three things:

  • Truth
  • Beauty
  • Purpose

That sounds unbearably pompous, even as I type it, but should it? Most of us are conditioned not to talk in such grand terms, but it’s by creating work that has, in its own small way, those attributes that we create value for others and find value for ourselves.

Thinking deliberately about all three helps us to make the most impact with everything we do. Let’s look at each in turn…

Truth

Authenticity and trust are essential for your audience to give what you’re saying credence. That means being clear on what’s fact, what’s opinion, and what’s vision. Do your own actions support what you’re saying? Have you got the right experience to make your case?

Sometimes it means proving your argument, but it always means making sure you’ve tested your case properly. Do you know the margin of error for your data? What was the response rate?

Truth is not the opposite of lying, it’s the opposite of bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt’s classic “On Bullshit” explains. It takes work.

To be true, a story must be:

  • Honest
  • Credible
  • Built on solid foundations

Beauty

Aesthetics provoke “oohs” and “aahs”, but they’re not simply a case of style over substance. Beauty attracts attention, makes your message memorable, and creates value in its own right.

As John Heskett points out in “Design: A Very Short Introduction“, the idea of form versus function has led us to undervalue the importance of design as a deliberate act of creating meaning for users. Utility (what something does) and significance (what it means to us) are much more helpful concepts, and remind us that value is always embedded in culture.

One of the best ways to make your story memorable is to find a beautiful image, metaphor, or phrase that captures its essence. Bobette Buster, in “Do Story” calls this the “gleaming detail”.

To make your story beautiful:

  • Polish and refine your first draft
  • Remove anything superfluous
  • Encapsulate the truth in a “gleaming detail”

Purpose

Great stories are not just a sequence of events, they have a universal quality that makes them stand for more than themselves; they have purpose. The opposite of purpose is the dreaded “so what?” which you must pre-empt if you want your message to land.

Start by being clear on what you think the central point is. What is the heart of your message? What’s your product for? Boil it down to an elevator pitch or tweetable length, and polish that until you’re totally sure about it. Ask yourself what you would do, if you were in your audience’s shoes.

Be ruthless in removing anything that doesn’t contribute to that central message, however interesting or even insightful it might be, but spend time to explain the “why” as well as “what” of your message by sharing a passionate vision of the future.

To be purposeful:

  • Focus on a clear central message
  • Be clear about the action you want your audience to take
  • Paint a vivid picture of the future you’re striving for

Value

Truth, beauty, and purpose are the attributes which connect the disciplines I am most interested in aside from understanding customers—design and storytelling. Good stories and good designs are those which use all three attributes to add value to the world.

They’re not alone in relying on truth, beauty, and purpose. Anything we create, and I believe nearly all work should be creative, comes down to those three things. That’s why they’re as important for our own sense of value as they are for the recipient.

Everyone in the world of customer research talks about “actionable insight”, and that’s where I think this way of thinking is invaluable. Insight gives you truth, but it can’t do the rest on its own. You need to team insight with storytelling and experience design to drive action.

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User stories & customer journey mapping

noun_1213168A big mistake that many organisations make when they try to map the customer journey is that they stick too close to their own perspective.

The result may be a customer view of their process map, but it’s not a true customer journey map.

Why not? The tell-tale problems are:

  • Too much detail
  • Ignoring context in customer’s life
  • Focused on products, processes & touchpoints
  • Starting too late in the journey
  • Finishing too early in the journey

How can we overcome this tendency to let the inside-out view dominate? The best way is to use qualitative research and allow customers to lead the creation of the journey map.

User stories are a really useful tool to make sure you approach the journey with the right mindset. They’re normally written in the form

As a__________ I want to__________in order to__________.

Doing this will allow you to stretch your view of the journey, so that you start when the customer became aware of their need, not when they first got in touch with you. This more accurately reflects the customer experience, and opens up opportunities for innovation.

It also puts the customer’s goal (not your product) front and centre. This helps you to make sure that the experience you design is addressing the right problem, and opens you up to the possibility of solving it in new ways.

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.”

—Theodore Levitt

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Van Halen were design thinking pioneers

noun_106427Van Halen used to insist on a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown sweets removed as part of their rider. It’s a story often used to illustrate what absurd primadonnas they were, usually as a precursor to Dave Lee Roth smashing something up if the request wasn’t complied with.

It’s probably not the first thing that comes to mind as an example of design thinking.

According to Dave Lee Roth himself, there was method in their madness. Van Halen’s staging was huge, complex, and unusual. The demand for “M&M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES)” appeared towards the end of a multi-page contract specifying the exact technical requirements of their stage show.

It was there as a test.

If the band arrived to discover brown M&Ms, they knew that their contract hadn’t been read properly. What else might have been missed? Were the girders strong enough? Was the floor? If the brown M&Ms were there, then there was a good chance some important, and potentially dangerous, technical errors were too.

It’s a great example of design thinking because it combines an understanding of human psychology (people are too lazy to read the contract) with an innovative solution. It’s simple, pragmatic, and effective.

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Pros shoot sequences

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If you want to understand visual storytelling, watching TV is one of the best places to start.

It’s research, honest.

If you start watching with an analytical eye, particularly during news segments, you’ll see some of the techniques that the professionals use to engage the audience and tell a story. One of the most important is the principal of shooting sequences.

When we’re new to visual storytelling, we tend to see the camera view (or slideshow, or website, or piece of paper) as an essentially static “stage” on which to present our vision. That’s understandable, but it makes for boring and one-dimensional results.

Good video journalists shoot sequences using patterns such as the Five Shot Sequence, which is explained in detail in this great slideshare deck. That gives you a systematic approach to telling the story in an engaging way, without forgetting essential context.

I’d recommend using the five shot sequence, or something like it, every time you shoot video. It’s also worth thinking about how you can apply the same principals to other forms of visual storytelling (e.g. presentations).

Remember: pros shoot sequences.

 

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Response rate: the elephant in the room

noun_14049“What’s the sample size?”, you might get asked. Or sometimes (wrongly), “What proportion of customers did you speak to?”. Or even “What’s your margin of error?”.

Important questions, to be sure, but often misleading ones unless you also address the elephant in the room: what was the response rate?

Low response rates are the dirty little secret of the vast majority of quantitative customer insight studies.

As we march boldly into the age of “realtime” high volume customer insight via IVR, SMS or mobile, the issue of low response rates is a body that’s becoming increasingly difficult to hide under the rug.

Why response rate matters

It’s too simplistic to say that response rates are directly correlated with nonresponse bias1, which is what we’re really interested in, but good practice would be to look for response rates well over 50%. Academics are often encouraged to analyse the potential for response bias when their response rates fall below 80%.

The uncomfortable truth is that we mostly don’t know what impact nonresponse bias has on our survey findings. This contrasts with the margin of error, or confidence interval, which allows us to know how precise our survey findings are.

How to assess nonresponse bias

It can be very difficult to assess how much nonresponse bias you’re dealing with. For a start, its impact varies from question to question. Darrell Huff gives the example of a survey asking “How much do you like responding to surveys?”. Nonresponse bias for that question would be huge, but it wouldn’t necessarily be such a problem for the other questions on the same survey. Nonresponse bias is a problem when likelihood of responding is correlated with the substance of the question.

There are established approaches2 to assessing nonresponse bias. A good starting point for a customer survey would be:

  • Log and report reasons for non participation (e.g. incorrect numbers, too busy, etc.)
  • Compare the make-up of the sample and the population
  • Consider following up some nonresponders using an alternative method (e.g. telephone interviews) to analyse any differences
  • Validation against external data (e.g. behavioural data such as sales or complaints)

How to reduce nonresponse bias

Increasing response rate is the first priority. You need to overcome any reluctance to take part (“active nonresponse”), but more importantly “passive nonresponse” from customers who simply can’t be bothered. We find the most effective methods are:

  • Consider interviews rather than self-completion surveys
  • Introduce the survey (and why it matters to you) in advance
  • Communicate results and actions from previous surveys
  • Send at least one reminder
  • Time the arrival of the survey to suit the customer
  • Design the survey to be easy and pleasant for the customer

Whatever your response rate is, please don’t brush the issue under the carpet. If you care about the robustness of your survey report your response rate, and do your best to assess what impact nonresponse bias is having on your results.


1. This article gives a good explanation of why.

2. This article is a good example.

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Audacity and leadership

noun_219178Three things happened this week that  reminded me how important audacity is.

1) Johnny Sexton kicked a game-winning drop goal in Paris, taking the responsibility on his own shoulders rather than asking his tired forwards to gain another few yards.

2) The Philadelphia Eagles won their first ever Super Bowl, thanks in part to this incredible decision by head coach Doug Pederson on 4th down.

3) SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy had a successful test launch, watched live by over 2 million people. Elon Musk has made commercial spaceflight a reality, through huge personal investment, but estimated (in public at least) only a 50% chance of success.

What can we learn from these stories? Firstly, that there are times when you need to be bold. Secondly, though all three are team achievements, the crucial ingredient for an audacious win is an individual taking responsibility. Leadership, in other words.

I think this quote captures it well:

“If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.”

Thomas Aquinas

Organisations tend to become risk-averse as they grow. One of the crucial skills of a leader is to accept the responsibility to make bold calls from time to time, otherwise the real danger is that you end up moored forever in port.

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Why do we forget the storyteller?

noun_21051We talk about storytelling a lot.

There is, unquestionably, a lot of hype around storytelling at the moment. It’s fair to be a bit sceptical. Is it just another fad?

Not in my view. I believe stories are tightly bound up with the way we humans think. They always have been and always will be the most effective way to persuade nearly anybody of nearly anything.

Something I’ve noticed is that, just as I’ve done in those few paragraphs, people often slide between talking about stories and talking about storytelling.

Stories are powerful because of their structure, because of their ability to touch our emotions, and because of the patterns we recognise in them. But most of all, stories are powerful because they are told.

This week is National Storytelling Week, an annual celebration of the art of oral storytelling. The power of telling stories is something that good leaders tend to intuitively know, but it’s something we often forget when it comes to using “storytelling” techniques in other areas such as research and insight.

What does a good storyteller do? Amongst other things:

    • They’re vulnerable, willing to share their own emotions
    • They understand the truth at the heart of the story they’re telling
    • They’ve found a way to bring that truth to life with a “gleaming detail”1

If you want to tell compelling stories, put away the keyboard for a while and start talking.

 


1 “Gleaming detail” is a phrase from Bobette Buster’s excellent book “Do Story

 

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Editing as storytelling

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It’s said that “writing is rewriting”1. In the same way, you could argue that filmmaking is editing.

Editing is a laborious, highly skilled, largely invisible process. Those of us outside the industry rarely get to see how important editors are.

That’s why I enjoyed this Youtube video essay so much:

I think there are several important lessons from the essay that we can apply to storytelling in general:

  • No one gets it right first time. I tell people on our Storytelling workshop to get used to the idea of shitty first drafts2. A good story will evolve as it is being put together.
  • The lone genius is a myth. Star Wars may have been George Lucas’ vision, but he relied on a team to realise it alongside him. The editors role was crucial, including creating key elements of the story in the edit.
  • Order is important “Scenes” derive their power in part from their order and context. Don’t just stick with the order in which you discovered your story, or the order in which a customer told you it, think about the most effective order for your audience.
  • Less is more Editing isn’t just about ruthless cutting, but pruning to the essentials is always a good starting point.

It’s surprising just how much more powerful a well edited story can be, and how rarely that opportunity is properly used in business storytelling. Take the time with your next story and you might have the next Star Wars!


1. Incidentally, I looked up that “writing is rewriting” quote. Apparently it’s been said a lot. I found quotes, amongst others, from…

Hemmingway: “The only kind of writing is rewriting.”

Truman Capote: “Good writing is rewriting.”

E.B. White: “The best writing is rewriting.”

Roald Dahl: “Good writing is essentially rewriting.”

Robert Graves: “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”

Michael Crichton: “Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten.”

2 “Oh, we’re great at those“, someone once replied.

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The Creation of Meaning

noun_1144514Lev Kuleshov was a Soviet filmmaker of the early 20th Century, one of the thinkers behind the Soviet montage theory of film making.

This argues that films work because of editing. The content of each shot is important, but it is the way shots are juxtaposed and strung together in sequences that allows a filmmaker to convey powerful emotional and intellectual ideas. Yes, even Michael Bay.

Kuleshov is remembered in the “Kuleshov Effect“, an interesting example of the montage theory. By pairing a neutral expression with, in turn, an empty plate, a dead child, and a beautiful woman, Kuleshov showed that an audience’s reading of the actor’s face was strongly dependent on the shot it was edited together with. They “saw” the actor expressing three different emotions, but actually the same footage was used in all three cases. You can watch the video to see how it works.

I think the Kuleshov effect is profoundly important when businesses are talking to customers and employees. The meaning for the audience is created by the juxtaposition of the organisation’s content with the surrounding “shots” that create context for it.

That’s why it’s so jarring when businesses get their tone wrong, notably when they’re responding to a PR crisis. Think of the United Airlines incident in April this year, when Dr Dao was filmed being violently dragged off an aeroplane. Oscar Munoz’s initial reaction was universally panned for what Jimmy Kimmel called “sanitized, say-nothing, take-no-responsibility, corporate BS speak“. Quite.

What I found fascinating was this interview with Munoz, in which he reflects

That first response was insensitive beyond belief. It did not represent how I felt.”

What? If that’s true, it strikes me as remarkable. If Munoz had used his feelings to communicate in a natural and human way, the whole incident would have been much less of a crisis for United.

The content of your communication is less important than the meaning it creates from juxtaposition with its context. Sanitised, say-nothing, corporate BS wouldn’t be anywhere near as damaging if it wasn’t, effectively, cut together in a montage with a customer being concussed and having two teeth knocked out.

It’s not what you say, it’s what your reaction shows me about you.

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Fully understanding employee engagement

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I’ve been speaking today at a joint event with Avensure on the subject of Employee Engagement.

In my talk I covered why engagement is so important, how to go about measuring it, and a case study of one of our clients who has done a great job of building a culture of engagement.

I also spent quite a bit of time defining engagement, which can mean a lot of different things to different people.

Cause, effect, or something else?

I argue that to use the concept of engagement properly, it’s essential to understand and measure the state itself as distinct from the culture and management practices that cause engagement and the beneficial staff behaviours that result from engagement.
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You need to know the causes of engagement (so that you can improve) and you need to know the outcomes (so that you can prove it’s worth improving), but it’s a mistake to mix those three things together in the measurement or analysis. Be clear about what you’re measuring, and why.

Engaged with…what?

The other subtlety of measuring engagement is that you can be engaged with your job, but not to your employer, and vice versa. Both types of engagement are important, but they can have very different causes and effects. If you love what you do, but hate your employer, what’s to stop you leaving to do the same job somewhere else? We’d expect role engagement to correlate less well to retention than organisational engagement.

On the other hand, you might get on great with your manager and colleagues, but not feel inspired by your role. Employees can be satisfied and engaged with the organisation, but reluctant to fully engage with doing the best possible job for customers. Role engagement can correlate better with productivity and customer quality.

Most jobs have some element of drudgery and some opportunities for self-expression and challenge. It’s those challenges that make roles engaging for the right people, so the importance of organisational engagement is greater for businesses with employees who have limited opportunity for self-expression. If you can’t make them love their job, you can at least make them love you.

A complex picture

To understand the full importance of employee engagement, you need to understand it in all its messy glory. That means having clear, separate, measures of:

  • The causes of engagement
  • Role engagement
  • Organisational engagement
  • The effects of engagement

Put all those together and you have the basis for a sophisticated understanding of your people, and a clear way forward if you choose to invest in building a culture of engagement.

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