Wednesday, September 18, 2013

September 19 - International Talk Like a Pirate Day

If you haven't been paying attention, September 19 is International Talk Like a Pirate Day! What started as a silly idea among friends is now an internationally celebrated "holiday," thanks to humor columnist Dave Barry and countless others who helped to spread the word. It's a fun, irreverent way to be a bit different, if just for a day. Plus, who doesn't like pirates? (clearly, we’re referring to our swashbuckling, romanticized version of pirates. Not today's actual pirates of container ships, first-run movies and mp3s).
It got us to thinking… Why do we get such a kick out of them? Think of the childhood tales of Long John Silver and Blackbeard, or Disney’s Pirates of the Carribean ride. In fact, it was the very ride that inspired Johnny Depp (and his kids, I'm sure) to lobby Jerry Bruckheimer to play the role of Captain Jack Sparrow.
That last story may not be true. But that’s how we remember hearing it, and just like a pirate, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
The pirates of these tales are clever. They don't play by the "rules." They're charismatic leaders who can rally their crew in the face of incredible challenges. They are bold. They don't follow the herd.
Aren't those the characteristics we laud in our business leaders? Think about Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk. Certainly Jack Welch. Even Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have a bit of pirate in them. We recognize leaders like this because they were bold enough to make choices that were not necessarily status quo. 
In fact it was Steve Jobs who, when creating the Apple Macintosh computer, told his team: "why join the Navy when you can be a Pirate?" He wanted people who thought in different ways. Sometimes, to really make a difference, you really have to be different. 
Now, we’re not saying that everyone should (or even could) be a pirate all the time. The world needs navies! But we believe it's the independent streak, the willingness to be bold and audacious, that we should strive for.
So we propose, in honor of today, that everyone make a Pirate decision. Think about your work, your customers, your industry, or your personal life. What can you do to stand out from the crowd?
Make it honest and authentic. Make it bold. Arrgh! Today, mateys, ye shall all be pirates!

Monday, March 11, 2013

The 87%: content uncovered

After years of giving, critiquing, and developing good presentations, we at SquarePlanet have found that content, design, and delivery make up 87%, 13%, and 13% of presentations, respectively.

As you hopefully noticed, those numbers do not add up to 100%. That extra 13% doesn't need to be included, although the more pizza the better. You can give a perfectly good presentation without it. You may be surprised to know that that's the design portion. Indeed, you do not need it; with solid content and wicked delivery, pretty slides are bonus material. (We all know that beautiful slides can really enhance a presentation. They're important, but not essential. We try not to bring this up frequently around the SquarePlanet designers...) That means that you should spend the vast majority of your time developing your content. What does that entail, exactly?

As we've posted before, great content is built with great stories. Your presentation can't just be facts, facts, facts, smile, facts, and a tacked-on invitation. That would be terribly dry. In the best case of that scenario, your audience would walk away well informed for a few hours before they forgot everything you said. In the worst case, they would feel like gouging out their eyes from boredom and hold you personally accountable for their feelings of existential doom. Neither of those situations are ideal. You want your audience to walk away feeling informed and moved. If you can get your audience to feel moved, it's more likely they'll remember your message and take action. And stories make people feel things.

Humans have a long history of storytelling, which works out for you and us because that means there are a variety of stories we can steal if we can't come up with our own. It's best to think of your own, though--it'll make you feel more passionate and invested, making your audience more passionate and invested. Maybe your material grew naturally from personal experience to begin with. If not, try to think of ways you can relate your material to your own life. If you can't think of any, go ahead and search the interwebs for inspiration and stories. Keep your beliefs and purpose in mind. Other tried and true resources for stories are books, magazines, and newspapers. Those things tend to be chock-full of stories. Once you've got a story that can be tied to your material, you can start adding in your facts (what we call the "know") because your audience has been properly primed to listen.

Two additional tools for making your facts relatable and understandable are metaphors and similes. Especially if your facts aren't particularly evocative, metaphors/similes offer a nice escape from convention. Metaphors and similes are also a good tool if you're trying to come up with an idea for a visual aid (not that you should care about visual aides at this point). Throughout this entire content development process, you should constantly be trying to simplify, so when you're thinking of a good metaphor/simile, make sure you're not using a difficult one lest you shoot yourself in the foot.

So those are the basics of content development: stories, feelings, facts, metaphors, and simplicity. That's a lot of stuff, and that's why it makes up 87% of presentations.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

It's Not About the Slides

We develop memorable presentations. Yeah, we design cool looking and even animated slides, but that's not the lynchpin of a great presentation, regardless of what Microsoft's new ad campaign would like you to believe. Actually, your slides don't matter.

That's not entirely true. Maybe I should say, "your slides aren't what your audience is there to see." Your slides, if hard to read or understand, can do more damage to your communication than good. In reality, yes, they can help you and support your message, but if your projector or laptop battery dies minutes before a big presentation, what else do you have?

The answer is, your story. Without your story, your presentation is useless. Without your slides, your presentation is still going to happen. And you had better be prepared to deliver.

So here's the deal. Whether you like it or not, when we say that your presentation sucks and you need help, we're not necessarily only talking about your craptastic slides or your rambling and incoherent delivery. What we are mainly targeting is the entire structure and development of your story. Yeah, we can pinch & polish your bad slides and make them look killer, and we can most certainly work with you to make you more comfortable in front of onlookers, but there is something that you need to consider long before these things.

The development of your story.

The development of your story is absolutely the most important part of your presentation. Long before you open up your favorite side presentation program, long before you ever start dumping bullet points into a word processor, you should be building the story. That's where we start, and so should you.

After thinking that the process was really three important, equal and integrated parts, we realized that it wasn't an equal process. As much as I would love to have a bunch of new clients to develop great slides for, the reality is that more so than just slides, the process needs to be build from the front end, not in reverse. Remember, slides are support vehicles and not the main vessel for your message. If they are, you are doing it wrong.

Slides are not your script. I can read, so you don't need to narrate your bullet points to me. If that's all you are going to do, send me an e-mail and save us both some time and effort. The second you turn around to read off of your slides is the second I tune out. That's the moment you lose an audience.

So how much should you develop your story? It's a big percentage of the process, actually. Let's say, 87%, to start.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Drinking From a Fire Hose

I know we have probably mentioned this before, but MAN, it really can't be over-stated. The easiest way for anyone to communicate more efficiently and in a manner that makes people engaged is to simply SIMPLIFY. What do we mean by that?

Easy—if in doubt, leave it out.

We don't need to hear about everything you know. We know you are the expert, that's why we're listening to you. You don't need to prove to us how smart you are. Stop talking.

The most effective way to simplify your communications is to answer these three ridiculously easy but crucially important questions: 1) what do I want my audience to KNOW? 2) what do I want my audience to FEEL? 3) and, what do I want my audience to DO?

Answer these questions in their simplest of forms before you ever start crafting your message, and the message will craft itself—and it will be as simple and effective a communications tool as you can make.

Remember, drinking from a fire hose is never a good way to hydrate yourself, so why would you ask your audience to intake tons of data and information in the same manner?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What is the price of YES?

When Brian and I started SquarePlanet, we both engaged in the business having been in positions in the past to call our own shots. It was obvious from day one that this company was different, and it had its own very obvious ethics and reason for existence. We have very strong beliefs about SqP and the kind of work we do. It's extremely important that our clients have the same beliefs, too, as it means that we're all pulling the rope in the same direction.

We worked with a client recently who didn't believe what we believed. It was a ridiculously painful experience, too, for everyone involved.

SquarePlanet was contracted to create visuals for a corporate keynote presentation in grand scale, but it was done so without any care for the audience, telling a story, communicating a message or even just doing something that wasn't regurgitated corporate speak. We didn't have a good feeling right from the beginning, and on more than a few occasions we felt that it was in our best interests to walk away from the job. As it turned out, our gut instincts and intuitions were dead-on right. We should have recognized that the client was never going to listen to anything we had to say, and that the process would be ignored and abused from the first day. We were right.

So, we took the new job with this rather large international client hoping that it would lead to bigger things, and in-roads within the company that would allow us to teach and retrain a better way to communicate corporate ideas. That was so far from reality it wasn't even close. This company just wanted us to turn some wrenches, crank out some pretty graphic with almost no information to go on, say, "yes sir, thank you sir," and not create anything that resembled corporate (or human) communication. They would have been happy with a college grad designer with a few skills with After Effects and a willingness to work for peanuts.

The client blew every internal project deadline by weeks, and sometimes over a month. They barely communicated with our team to even tell us what they needed, and really behaved in a way that made us feel sorry for their internal creative department.

See, they didn't get it, and they will never get it. Presentations aren't about baffling the audience with flashy bullshit, strobe lights, loud music and LEDs. Business communication—no, human communication—is about connecting with people on a human level. It's not about throwing up the same cliches that they have used for decades, and not about pandering to an audience because they think they know what the audience wants to hear. The Marketing department didn't get it. They never will. Their communications team won't ever get it. The CEO and the Board of Directors will NEVER get it. They can just continue to churn out gerbils on a stationary wheel, and everyone will be happy and applaud and agree with everything the CEO says, because it's awesome.

And they will continue to broadcast mountains of white noise to their employees and customers, and everyone will go on being happy.

But they absolutely won't be our clients again, mostly because they don't believe what we believe.

The price of saying "yes" to any project or any client just because you want the work can be ultimately very expensive. Not just in man-hours lost, but the emotional toll taken on employees, morale, your own sanity and morals, and the stress that working for clients who don't "get it" can be overwhelming. Then include the fact that we also have clients that DO understand why we do what we do and appreciate what we can bring to the game. When we take jobs that are bad for us, it effects everything else we do—unfortunately including sometimes at the expense of the clients we truly love working with. We can't let this happen, for many reasons.

In the end, this job was a losing result. Not just because we had more forced hours into it that the client's budget afforded, but because by the end of it, we couldn't wait for it to be gone forever. That's not how we want to do business, not what we want to create for our customers, and certainly not why we started this company.

Sometimes it can be difficult to turn away from clients or projects that you know are not in your own best interests. For the sake of your own sanity and the good health of your company, it's a necessary evil in today's creative business. Doing work that has a negative affect on the company is bad for everyone, and accomplishes nothing except stressing everyone out.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mini-Shamu makes a HUGE impact

For this blog post, I’m going to ask you to please follow me down a long and twisted path for a moment, I promise it will lead to a real conclusion.  Okay, here goes...

In advance of a large event we’re producing this fall, the SquarePlanet team recently flew down to Orlando, Florida.  The express purpose of our trip was to thoroughly investigate the hotel ballrooms and function spaces where the event will be held.

Logically, we start the day at O’Hare International Airport.  One of the busiest, biggest airports in the country.  Thousands of people walking through, massive security lines, countless retail and food options abound.  Eventually we board a United Airlines A320, a large, sold-out plane carrying a couple hundred passengers.  

The flight is your standard amalgam of khaki-wearing business people, excited families with overly-eager kids, employees clanking carts that carry assorted beverages while people watch iPads, play games on cell phones, read books or Kindles, watch movies overhead or simply sleep the hours away.  Add in the monotonous hum of engines, the ever-changing view out the window and the assorted announcements from the captain and you’ve got yourself a whole lot of stuff to internally process.

Finally in Orlando, we drive through central Florida’s billboard alley, where every billboard is more outrageous than the other.  From Disney to Universal, Goofy and Harry Potter to Ron Jon Surf Shop and the Kennedy Space Center.  It’s a feast for the eyes and unfortunately even more to distract the already sketchy drivers currently occupying the road.  

Our first stop is the lovely JW Marriott Grand Lakes.  Manicured and beautiful, it boasts Tuscan-style decor, extensive and expensive landscaping, lovely fountains, attentive, friendly staff, about 800 guest rooms and a huge series of ballrooms.  Name-badge wearing meeting attendees scurry about, even semi-celebrity types are seen, specifically Olympic champion hurdler Edwin Moses who’s there to speak.

As planned, we conduct our business, and after a few hours, we head out, driving another 10 minutes to Marriott’s Renaissance at Sea World.  We pass by a huge, land-based clearly fake Shamu that appears to be flying, a large swath of typically American retail (think T-shirts, hamburgers and other assorted sundries) and even a pack of turkey vultures who’ve decided to plop themselves in the street, forcing traffic to slow to a creep and proceed around them on the road’s shoulder.    

Once inside the twenty-story atrium, we get a pleasant tour of their space.  Along the way, above the centrally located bar, we see a huge HD display featuring videotaped shots of coral reefs, colorful schools of fish and even a shark or two.  The ballroom is bursting with activity as a large trade show is moving in.  Huge crates, booths in various states of near completion, beeping mechanical lifts hoisting men high into the air to hang large signs and people gingerly walking though the cluttered landscape.  

The activity throughout the entire hotel is palpable.  In fact, the entire trip thus far has been nothing less than sensory overload.  From sheer scale and color to motion and activity, our brains have been bombarded with impressions.

Finally, after much work, we check into our rooms.  From the elevator, we peel off one by one.  First it’s the 3rd floor.  Another on 6.  Me?  I hear the ‘ding-ding‘ on the seventh floor, signaling my departure.

After a long walk down a long, beige hallway, I get to my room which is at the very end; it’s a special corner suite.  I walk in and am immediately surprised by the vastness of my guest’s huge!  Easily half the size of my actual home and way too large for one guy over one night.

The decor is new, modern and actually quite lovely.  A large, arc shaped sofa snakes around one corner of the room.   Fluffed with pillows, anchored by a large table and a big bucket of ice and water bottles, the sofa area is just plain ‘ol cool. 

Mounted on the wall is a large flat screen television, right next to the spacious work center.  A large closet is dwarfed by a huge marble and chrome bathroom.  Two sinks, huge shower, enormous soaking tub, separate commode; basically, bathroom nirvana.  This is the kind of space where I’d like to party with friends; drinking Crystal and ‘making it rain’.  Of course, I’ve never done anything like that, so I’m not exactly sure what that means.  

Just like the other parts of my day, all my senses are working in overdrive.  This should be just another hotel stay, one of the thousands I’ve done in 20 years of business travel.  But then...something happened.  I notice a little something on the rim of the bathtub.  Something small, but it caught my attention and made me stop, look and walk towards it for a closer inspection.

A broad smile quickly comes over me, as what I’m looking at is a little Shamu.  It’s a toy Shamu!  Think size and material like a rubber duck, yet here at Sea World, it’s now mini-orca-mascot Shamu.  I’m a grown man, but this silly little toy has instantly given me child-like joy.

In a day filled with a full feast for the senses, the one thing that really moved me?  A tiny toy whale.  The little Shamu was cleverly left there by the hotel; this is an intentional move.  And moreover, they WANT you to take him home, they practically dare you to take him home.  This is the stuff of genius folks.  Once he's at your home, you'll always fondly remember where he came from.  Brilliant!! 

Literally millions and millions and millions of dollars are poured into the market to get us, the consumers, to notice and enjoy all of the amazing things that happen in Orlando and yet at the end of the day, I noticed a $.10 toy.

I left little Shamu behind for the next guest, but now I know this with certainty, sometimes it’s the smallest things that makes the biggest impact.  

Monday, April 9, 2012

Oh, oh, oh... we're talking contrast!

Even if you've never picked up a golf club in your life, it's likely you're familiar with the legendary golf tournament called "The Masters". This is the home of the green jacket, the no-women members policy, the spectacular scenery along the course itself, the time-tested traditions of golf's immortals, and now, 2012 Masters Champion, Gerry "Bubba" Watson.

At SquarePlanet we believe and loudly broadcast the power of contrast all the time. It's the thing that sets you, your message or your product apart from everything else.

Well, ol' boy Bubba just created some serious contrast in the golf world!!

His story sounds like it's the stuff of Hollywood scriptwriters. For example, he owns the original "General Lee" from the Dukes of Hazard TV series. Seriously! He's never taken a golf lesson. He plays with a bright pink driver and did I mention he's in a music video wearing nothing but bib overall's?

Each one of these fun little factoids does not inherently develop contrast. The contrast occurs when Bubba's position as a Masters Champion is compared to the rest of the more conservative golf community. Sure, the Professional Golfers Association and it's players have been more and more interesting over the last few years, but all in all, Bubba is a true original.

As the keepers of contrast, SquarePlanet salutes Bubba Watson on an incredible victory.

Yee-Ha! (please insert your best "Dukes of Hazard" style Southern drawl here).

Monday, March 12, 2012

Start Strong

Here at SquarePlanet we get lots of questions that can be loosely classified as the "WDID" questions. We know what you're thinking, WTF is a WDID? Well, it's a large and ever-popular series of questions we field that always start with "what do I do?" You can just about predict what these questions sound like:

"What do I do with my hands?"
"What do I do when I forget what I'm talking about?"
"What do I do if people look bored?"
"What do I do to close my presentation?"

And one of the most common, "what do I do to start my presentation?"

Wanna know the answer? GREAT! Then watch the video. To find out the answers to the above and many others, give us a holler and we'll gladly tell you. Or, come back to our blog with regularity and we'll provide the answers.


Monday, February 13, 2012


We have said it a lot before, and lately, it has become an all-too-familiar marketing catch phrase (and don't talk to us about the 2010 Chicago White Sox). The words "ALL IN" refer to gambling and putting all of your chips in the center of the table on one, big, risky gamble. Winner-take-all, so to speak. Leave nothing in the tank. The whole nine yards. How many more cliches do you want? Yes, it's a one-shot proposition, where you give it everything you have. The results are you win big or you lose big—nothing else.

We are consistently watching LARGE companies with real budgets and important events not take seriously the opportunity to give a presentation on ANY subject, internal or external. No matter how many times we remind them or insist on putting forth a complete, planned out effort, we are regularly disappointed with a lack of care or concern for live, critical corporate communication on a human level. We're not talking about print ads, websites, e-mail blasts, Twitter accounts, or even annual reports—which everyone seems to take fairly seriously—we're talking about someone standing in front of other people and talking about something they feel is important enough to gather together a group of busy humans.

You know what they say about first impressions—you never get a second chance, right? So why do so many people in important, influential positions in big companies drop the ball completely when it comes to giving a key presentation?

That's easy. They are stupid.

Harsh? Maybe, but really, if you have an opportunity in front of you that is a game-changer—something that can change the way your business runs, operates, or even change the mind-set of your company—and you fail to put in 100% effort, then you are stupid and deserve to crash and burn.

We can't stress this enough. You absolutely MUST prepare your presentation fully—development of the story, design of the visuals and practice the delivery—if you are even going to come close to successful communication. Tweaking the slides minutes before you go live or writing notes on 3x5 cards on the plane ride out to your keynote will NOT cut it. You are preparing to fail and doing your audience a massive disservice. Why waste their time if you are just going to wing it? Send them an e-mail with your 3x5 notes in it and be done with it. You're going to get the same results either way.

We just finished up a few rather large events complete with the requisite annual meeting corporate slide decks. A few very smart people planned out their attack months in advance, but most had speeches and slide decks that were afterthoughts. You could tell the difference visually, and in seconds of listening to them talk. It was completely obvious who was prepared and who crammed the night before.

Who do you think had the biggest impact on their audiences?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What Station is the Superbowl On?

Someone asked me the other day if I knew what channel the Super Bowl would be on this weekend. Amazingly enough, I knew that the "big game" this Sunday is on NBC Sports at 6pm Eastern and 5pm right here in Chicago and throughout the Central time zone.

Why does it matter? Well, it doesn't, but in today's world of internet search engine optimization, we'll stand on a corner with a monkey and an organ grinder to get traffic to our blog. Blatant pandering to Google searches also works, too.

Go Bears!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Size Does Matter

Watching a beautiful high definition NFL broadcast this weekend, a little contrast jumped out at me in one of the commercial breaks. A company that spent a LOT of money to advertise in a prime time Sunday afternoon pro football broadcast during the holiday shopping season, threw a big-time commercial on my picturesque widescreen in STANDARD DEFINITION in a 4:3 aspect ratio! I was surprised to see a cropped, low quality commercial during an HD football broadcast. It jumped out at me because it was SO different from everything else, and not in a good way.

Those of us enjoying HD broadcast television have come to be comfortable with commercials and programs recorded in HD, and in the proper 16:9 HD aspect ratio. It's just the way things are done now. When was the last time you saw a 4:3 TV at a retail store? Years ago. It's rare to see a commercial nowadays in old, low technology. Anything made in the last few years has no excuse to be in proper contemporary formats. Are they still answering their rotary phones, too?

For anyone who isn't familiar with aspect ratios or video formats, here's the simple Cliff Notes version. 4:3 aspect ratio, commonly called "four-by-three" derives from 35mm film used in silent era cinema, as well as 35mm still camera film. Simply put, it's the length and the width of the screen in a ratio. We know it more as the squareish shape of the old console CRT television tubes. When television was birthed, the format was adapted from the movies at the time—a simple transition so that movies potentially viewed on TVs would all look the same as the theater. Makes plenty of sense.

This is a standard 4:3 proportion screen:
High definition TVs and current day movies are produced in what is known as 16:9 (sixteen-by-nine) aspect ratio, sometimes known as widescreen to movie junkies.

This is a typical look of a 16:9 widescreen format:
This has been a transition for broadcast television as well as computers for years, and makes the old 4:3 format from the 40s a relic. If you continue to use this format for your presentations, it makes YOU look like a relic, too.

By default, unintelligent programs like Powerpoint and Keynote blindly default to a historically standard 4:3 aspect ratio, usually a 1024 pixels x 768 pixels framed canvas. These work great on your 10 year old CRT monitor but not so great on any new laptop or widescreen HD television, which are the norm now, and not the exception.

Building your new presentation into the default settings from the second you open a program already puts you into 1940s video technology. Is that where you want to be? Is that the first impression you want your audience to have of you?

So here's a tip. The first thing you should do when you are preparing your presentation slide deck is find out what the final technology will be. If it is an old school 4:3 projection screen or an iPad, keep the proportions set to the default 4:3, and let 'er rip. If you are showing on a laptop, HD TV or monitor or any contemporary projection hardware, make sure that you head into your page or canvas setup and select the 16:9 options. We prefer 1280 x 720 sizes when putting together 16:9 presentations as a good balance of file size and image quality.

If you are using 4:3 slide proportions and showing them on 16:9 screens, you are not only losing out on valuable slide space and real estate, but those black bars down the sides make you look like an amateur and unprepared. When you want to look polished and professional in every way, make sure the slides behind you are up to the task, as well.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Chicago Ideas Week 2011: onto 2012

Brad Keywell is the visionary leader behind some amazing things. The guy is one of the founding partners of Groupon, he owns and operates Lightbank, a VC organization, he co-founded TEDxMidwest and is driving force behind Chicago Ideas Week. Just to name a few.

What's Chicago Ideas Week? Well, it's a series of amazing session by amazing presenters across a wide spectrum topics. In 2011, the week long event was held in 40+ venues and included people like President Bill Clinton, Dean Kamen, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Kevin Bacon, David Gregory, Ronnie Lott, and MANY more. Additionally, SquarePlanet was honored to partner with CIW as a Platinum Sponsor and presentation provider in 2011.

So, what do you care? Well, the lesson in today's blog comes directly from Brad Keywell.

Today we received a very complete and honest assessment of the week-long event. While likely written by a team of people, the 20+ page document goes into great detail about the good, the bad and the downright ugly...and it's signed by Brad himself. In essence, it's his report card on his event. This is powerful stuff!!

Nobody questions his's quite obvious. Additionally, most people understand that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette, meaning not everything he touches will turn to gold.

But think about his report card idea for just a second longer. The concept of candidly and accurately reporting on your own performance is something most us wouldn't be willing to do. Sure, all of us know in our heart of hearts how we perform in certain situations, but Keywell made his assessment of his performance public. By choice!

The ugly truth is never easy. Kudos to the entire CIW team and Keywell for embracing the realities of a situation. The next time you present, try following his lead. Honestly critique your performance. Consider what you did well, what you did poorly and what you can do to improve before the next opportunity. Use a simple scoring system, pick a few essential categories to judge yourself and use the information to force improvement.

Thanks Brad, and by the way, we give you an A!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What I Learned From Steve Jobs

from Guy Kawasaki, cult of Apple evangelist and entrepreneur...

What I Learned From Steve Jobs

Many people have explained what one can learn from Steve Jobs. But few, if any, of these people have been inside the tent and experienced first hand what it was like to work with him. I don’t want any lessons to be lost or forgotten, so here is my list of the top twelve lessons that I learned from Steve Jobs.

Experts are clueless.
Experts—journalists, analysts, consultants, bankers, and gurus can’t “do” so they “advise.” They can tell you what is wrong with your product, but they cannot make a great one. They can tell you how to sell something, but they cannot sell it themselves. They can tell you how to create great teams, but they only manage a secretary. For example, the experts told us that the two biggest shortcomings of Macintosh in the mid 1980s was the lack of a daisy-wheel printer driver and Lotus 1-2-3; another advice gem from the experts was to buy Compaq. Hear what experts say, but don’t always listen to them.

Customers cannot tell you what they need.
“Apple market research” is an oxymoron. The Apple focus group was the right hemisphere of Steve’s brain talking to the left one. If you ask customers what they want, they will tell you, “Better, faster, and cheaper”—that is, better sameness, not revolutionary change. They can only describe their desires in terms of what they are already using—around the time of the introduction of Macintosh, all people said they wanted was better, faster, and cheaper MS-DOS machines. The richest vein for tech startups is creating the product that you want to use—that’s what Steve and Woz did.

Jump to the next curve.
Big wins happen when you go beyond better sameness. The best daisy-wheel printer companies were introducing new fonts in more sizes. Apple introduced the next curve: laser printing. Think of ice harvesters, ice factories, and refrigerator companies. Ice 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0. Are you still harvesting ice during the winter from a frozen pond?

The biggest challenges beget best work.
I lived in fear that Steve would tell me that I, or my work, was crap. In public. This fear was a big challenge. Competing with IBM and then Microsoft was a big challenge. Changing the world was a big challenge. I, and Apple employees before me and after me, did their best work because we had to do our best work to meet the big challenges.

Design counts.
Steve drove people nuts with his design demands—some shades of black weren’t black enough. Mere mortals think that black is black, and that a trash can is a trash can. Steve was such a perfectionist—a perfectionist Beyond: Thunderdome—and lo and behold he was right: some people care about design and many people at least sense it. Maybe not everyone, but the important ones.

You can’t go wrong with big graphics and big fonts.
Take a look at Steve’s slides. The font is sixty points. There’s usually one big screenshot or graphic. Look at other tech speaker’s slides—even the ones who have seen Steve in action. The font is eight points, and there are no graphics. So many people say that Steve was the world’s greatest product introduction guy—don’t you wonder why more people don’t copy his style?

Changing your mind is a sign of intelligence.
When Apple first shipped the iPhone there was no such thing as apps. Apps, Steve decreed, were a bad thing because you never know what they could be doing to your phone. Safari web apps were the way to go until six months later when Steve decided, or someone convinced Steve, that apps were the way to go—but of course. Duh! Apple came a long way in a short time from Safari web apps to “there’s an app for that.”

“Value” is different from “price.”
Woe unto you if you decide everything based on price. Even more woe unto you if you compete solely on price. Price is not all that matters—what is important, at least to some people, is value. And value takes into account training, support, and the intrinsic joy of using the best tool that’s made. It’s pretty safe to say that no one buys Apple products because of their low price.

A players hire A+ players.
Actually, Steve believed that A players hire A players—that is people who are as good as they are. I refined this slightly—my theory is that A players hire people even better than themselves. It’s clear, though, that B players hire C players so they can feel superior to them, and C players hire D players. If you start hiring B players, expect what Steve called “the bozo explosion” to happen in your organization.

Real CEOs demo.
Steve Jobs could demo a pod, pad, phone, and Mac two to three times a year with millions of people watching, why is it that many CEOs call upon their vice-president of engineering to do a product demo? Maybe it’s to show that there’s a team effort in play. Maybe. It’s more likely that the CEO doesn’t understand what his/her company is making well enough to explain it. How pathetic is that?

Real CEOs ship.
For all his perfectionism, Steve could ship. Maybe the product wasn’t perfect every time, but it was almost always great enough to go. The lesson is that Steve wasn’t tinkering for the sake of tinkering—he had a goal: shipping and achieving worldwide domination of existing markets or creation of new markets. Apple is an engineering-centric company, not a research-centric one. Which would you rather be: Apple or Xerox PARC?

Marketing boils down to providing unique value.
Think of a 2 x 2 matrix. The vertical axis measures how your product differs from the competition. The horizontal axis measures the value of your product. Bottom right: valuable but not unique—you’ll have to compete on price. Top left: unique but not valuable—you’ll own a market that doesn’t exist. Bottom left: not unique and not value—you’re a bozo. Top right: unique and valuable—this is where you make margin, money, and history. For example, the iPod was unique and valuable because it was the only way to legally, inexpensively, and easily download music from the six biggest record labels.

Bonus: Some things need to be believed to be seen. When you are jumping curves, defying/ignoring the experts, facing off against big challenges, obsessing about design, and focusing on unique value, you will need to convince people to believe in what you are doing in order to see your efforts come to fruition. People needed to believe in Macintosh to see it become real. Ditto for iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Not everyone will believe—that’s okay. But the starting point of changing the world is changing a few minds. This is the greatest lesson of all that I learned from Steve.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Fundamentally Flawed

On November 7th, 1940, the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge (or "Galloping Gertie" to it's own construction workers) in Puget Sound, Washington, whipped about violently just prior to its collapse due to heavy winds. The condition known as aeroelastic flutter caused the bridge to snap apart like a Lego model. Falling into the Puget Sound only 4 months after it was opened, it is now studied widely by engineering and architecture students as a fundamentally flawed design.

It was destined to fall apart before it was ever completed.

We have a strong belief that the typical business and educational presentation is also fundamentally flawed, right from the opening default page of your favorite presentation program.

The problem with 99% of presentations is that the basic blueprint is completely wrong. In fact, in most cases, the blueprint doesn't even exist. Therein lies the beginning of the presentation aeroelastic flutter. Your presentation is destined to collapse—not because of a bad design or blueprint, but because of NO plans at all.

We have grown accustomed to following blindly a default of Arial typefaces, white backgrounds, bullet points, cheesy pre-built templates and pie charts and graphs that cannot be easily disseminated. Why? Because there has never been a good formula on how to build these structures, and we have all historically been left to our own devices to figure it out on the fly—usually under duress.

The fact is, most of us have never been trained as a speech writer or developer, nor have we probably been formally taught how to give a business speech, and very few people are skilled and experienced graphic designers. In all honesty, there are even fewer resources that you can find that are capable of helping you accomplish your goals of being at the top of your game. And here's the rub... to do a fantastic piece of communication, you need to be acutely aware of ALL of these facets of presentation development.

We call them the "presentation BLT," or the THREE Ds:
  • Development
  • Design
  • Delivery
It's absolutely imperative that you focus on all three aspects of your presentation to hit the proverbial home run. Drop the ball in any one of those three sectors of the job, and you'll lose the game. Ok, enough with the sports metaphors and cliches...

Here's the great thing, though. When you start with the development of your presentation, you construct the blueprints of a really solid, memorable and effective communication tool. It's not a complicated process when you do it in the right order, and make sure you cover all the bases (sorry).

So how do you develop a complete and impactful presentation before you sit down in front of PowerPoint and start dumping in content? Well, we have a proven formula for building a fail-proof structure. Before you even touch a computer, you MUST ask yourself THREE simple—but not easy—questions.

But I'll save that for a future blog.