Everyday I write the book

“Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” ‒ Margaret Fuller, American journalist, editor, critic, and women’s rights advocate (1810 – 1850)

It has become a yearly practice to publish the articles that appeared on this blog in an e-book during my summer holidays. So, here’s the 2019 update! It bundles more than 200 posts that I wrote between September 2012 and today into one single 490-page (!) document.

You’ll get the PDF version for free via the download tab on top of this page.

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To be or not to be an expert

“Filmmaking is not about the tiny details. It’s about the big picture.” – Ed Wood, American filmmaker (1924-1978)

The fast evolution of technology and the explosion of knowledge has led to an age of specialization. As a result, more and more of my tech industry colleagues carry the title ‘expert’ on their business card.

I have mixed feelings about this trend. Of course, knowledge is power, we’re all trying to be the best in our jobs and we’re all experts in our own little niches. Just the fact that I have written more than 200 posts on this particular blog, makes me kind of a business communications expert, I guess… I leave it up to the readers of to judge if this is true or false.

But, there’s also a popular statement that says that an expert knows more and more about less and less until he or she knows everything about nothing. As difficult it may be to become a respected expert in a specific domain, as easy it is to be an accomplished specialist in your own field but a blithering idiot in all other matters. Many languages even have a word describing this type of person: ‘vakidioot’ in Dutch, ‘Fachidiot’ in German, ‘fakki-idiootti’ in Finnish, ‘専門バカ’ in Japanese… Much to my surprise, really, there doesn’t seem to be an English or American equivalent for this term.

Image: Nick Youngson, Alpha Stock Images (CC BY-SA 3.0)

I have been working in high-tech companies for the past 25 years and though I have developed a huge respect for all the subject matter experts around me, I am convinced that in science, technology and business we need more people who can communicate the broader picture in a compelling and comprehensive way. You may call us generalists, evangelists or storytellers. As I wrote in a previous post, I’m not a big fan of the over-used thought leader term.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. And, if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old (or to your mother-in-law, in case you have no young children around) you don’t understand it yourself. Although it is questionable whether this words really came from Leonardo Da Vinci and Albert Einstein, the wisdom behind is indisputable.

If you’re writing a paper or creating a presentation about some expert topic, here are a few tips for making your content broader, simpler and better digestible:

  • Get the big picture. Always start by understanding the problem space. Selling or promoting technology because it’s sexy or new doesn’t make (economic) sense. What’s wrong or missing in today’s world? What can or needs to be done better?
  • Research your audience. Identify a specific problem or compelling use case. Where and how does your technology, product or solution fits in. Remember that value only exists in the eyes of the beholder. So, what’s in it for your readers or listeners?
  • Make abstraction of the internals (the inner workings) and the interface (the part ‘users’ get to see or interact with). Focus your communication on the latter one. This is where, ultimately, the value resides.
  • Reduce the number of details. Less is more. Separate the ‘need to know’ from the ‘nice to know’. Make your audience only remember what really matters to them.
  • Fill in the gaps. As an expert, some details may sound trivial to you, but may not be known by your audience. Make sure you give them the complete picture. Covering technology and business context.
  • Watch your language. No acronyms. No difficult words. No long sentences. Refrain from technology, financial or business jargon. Avoid complex drawings (but don’t make the too cloudy either).
  • Be practical and concrete. Examples, real-world use cases and live demonstrations will help you explain the problem, show the solution and convey its possible value.
  • Tell a story. A good story can put your whole brain to work. It makes the complex simple and the message more memorable. People tend to forget figures, lists and bullet points. Stories help to persuade where facts can’t.

If you found the above tips interesting, the following posts on this blog may be worth reading too:

A report from the zoo

I participated to a business strategy meeting this week. And while taking notes, I realized how many animal idioms we’re actually using in our daily conversations at the office. Here are a few notable ones I picked up from my colleagues’ interventions:

  • Don’t poke the bear. When poked during their hibernation, bears may become quite angry. You shouldn’t poke a bear for your own well-being. As such, poking a bear stands for provoking someone into becoming upset or angry. You may have seen an alternative version, never tickle a sleeping dragon (draco dormiens nunquam titillandus), in Harry Potter as the motto of Hogwarts.
  • Pour blood in the ocean and the sharks will come. Sharks can detect a single drop of blood in the ocean from a mile away. As most of you have probably seen the movie Jaws, you wouldn’t want to attract sharks to share your swimming pool, right? And I’m sure you don’t want to expose your or your company’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities to a competitor either.
  • Like a bull walking into the customer. When someone is like a bull in a china shop, he/she very clumsy and careless in the way that he/she moves or behaves. So, you can imagine the outcome of a salesman walking like a bull into a meeting with a possible customer.
  • Gaining consensus is like herding cats. Cats are not known to be the easiest animal species to manage or control. As such, herding cats is an idiom used to say that trying to organize something, or to control or align a group of people (like students or a company team) can be very difficult. BTW, The Herding Cats is also the name of a fantastic cover band that I saw perform a few times in the past.

It was a good meeting and I’m sure that the mountain didn’t give birth to a mouse. The latter is an expression that we use in Dutch (actually, it has its origin from Horace’s Ars Poetica). Its English equivalent rather sounds like making a mountain out of a molehill.

The Nokia office I work at, when I’m not traveling, is located near the Antwerp Zoo. Next time I am preparing a business meeting or creating a customer presentation, I might pay an inspirational visit to my animal neighbors next door…

PS: there’s another animal idiom (which I kind of invented myself) that I have often used on this blog. If you don’t remember why a business presenter should never feed the chameleons, then have another look at this post:

In the air tonight

I’m a fan of authentic communication and storytelling that builds upon the history, culture or identity of a company. Four years ago, I wrote on this blog about Air Malta’s inflight safety movie. The post, titled “the knight on the plane”, described how the airline operator’s video capitalized on the Maltese Islands’ rich history and their famous Knights.

Today, I am writing this new post on a plane flying from Singapore to Perth. I’m not a frequent traveler anymore in that part of the sky (though my CO2 footprint is already big enough to become a non-honorary member of the flygskam movement) but Singapore Airlines is still one of my favorite carriers. Because of its impeccable service – even in economy class – and, I admit, its elegant female cabin crew.

Photo courtesy of Singapore Airlines

Earlier tonight, I was really charmed by the airline’s safety briefing video. The movie, produced in partnership with Singapore’s tourism board, iterates the various passenger safety instructions and projects them onto scenes of daily life in the city-state. The beautiful images, of which not a single one has been taken inside an airplane cabin, manage to achieve one of the hardest communication challenges: making your audience listen to a set of boring instructions (which some passengers may have heard a gazillion times before) and keeping their undivided attention.

Now, take your seat, enjoy the safety video and have a wonderful flight with me…

The shapes of stories

Already in 2015, I wrote a blog post about the five elements of a story. Almost all novelists and movie directors rely upon character, setting, plot, theme, and style to ensure a consistent story, allow the action to develop and let the audience emotionally engage.

A few days ago, a tweet by Dutch mathematician and science communication professor Ionica Smeets brought a video under my attention with a lecture about the shape of stories.

The presentation is given by the American writer Kurt Vonnegut (1922-1977), probably best known for his controversial – the book was banned in various US libraries and schools – anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five. A graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago from 1945 to 1947, Vonnegut’s master thesis about “The Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tasks” was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun (as he wrote in his autobiography “Palm Sunday”).

In this brilliantly funny talk, the writer draws a graph on which any story can be plotted. The vertical axis represents the good and ill fortune the characters experience, while the horizontal axis represents the timeline from the beginning to the end of a story.

Have a look at the video and enjoy the lecture…

For those interested (or provoked, surprised or intrigued), there’s also a recording or a longer version of the lecture on YouTube.

Between customer intimacy and digital marketing

Many sales people (and few marketers) only have a handful of intimate customers. But they’re able to build out a long-lasting and rewarding relationship with them. Customer intimacy goes beyond frequently talking to buyer groups. It’s all about creating, nurturing and cherishing a two-way connection and conversation with individuals.

Image by Tobias Wolter (CC BY-SA 3.0)

On the other side of the marketing spectrum, there’s a tendency in marketing to create as many as possible digital touch points to generate as large as possible numbers of qualified sales leads (although a majority of them may remain unqualified forever). Today’s technologies like data analytics and cognitive computing allow to identify the most lucrative opportunities and maximize their conversion rate but the personal touch is often still missing.

Note that I don’t have much experience with the latter, but some digital marketing campaigns feel like having online sex. Being a target of internet marketers and teleprospectors myself, I’m almost always missing (yes, you may take this literally) the personal touch, the two-way interaction and the genuine intimacy. Resulting in superficial, impersonal and fleeting B2B contacts – or most frequently just in an opt-out request (I just love GDPR!)

Of course, one can start nurturing his or her digital leads, but there’s always a risk of becoming annoying for rather than intimate with your audience. There’s only thin line between being informative and getting intrusive. Few people appreciate spam emails or unsolicited calls. And, if your content or message isn’t appropriately personalized, marketing investments may result in a negative experience for the customer and in a WOMBAT for you. Read, for example, the enterprise edition of my “cut the crap” post.

So, where’s the golden ratio between one-to-too-few intimate customer contacts and one-to-too-many digital interactions? Between trying to understand the needs and desires of (prospective as well as existing) customers and making them feel assaulted?

Neither loyal followers or casual readers of my blog should be surprised that speaking and demoing at customer and industry events is one of my favorite marketing outreach alternatives. These events can take different forms and be public or private. But their overall goal is to bring current and potential customers together to network and learn from each other – and of course from you. The fact that people are attending a specific event is already a proof of their interest in the topic and/or your solution. Obviously, you shouldn’t deliver a pushy product presentation. As listed in my five do’s and don’ts for speakers at B2B events, the audience is not travelling lots of kilometers, and probably paying lots of money to get a hard sales talk, a product pitch or a promotional speech for your company.

Events will also give you an opportunity to connect face-to-face with (future) customers, as a first step towards creating intimacy. Even a digital pioneer like Salesforce.com considers bringing current and potential customers together a powerful tool: in his book “Behind the Cloud,” Marc Benioff’s reported how Salesforce’s City Tours enabled the company to close deals with 80 percent of new prospects.

And, last but not least, existing customers will have the opportunity to network with peers while they may recommend your products or services the newcomers. There’s no better coffee break than fika, there’s nothing wrong with talking to real people, and there’s no better (and cheaper) marketing tactic than word of mouth…

Older posts referenced in this blog:

The sense and nonsense of dry runs

Just as I have done for the past 10 years, I spent the last week of February at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Four long days in a row representing my company, talking to customers, demonstrating exciting new technologies, and telling the same story ad infinitum. To my feeling, at least a few hundred times.

The team started with the preparation of this monster event (see the list of earlier blog posts that I have written about MWC at the bottom of this page) months ago. We invested hours and hours in creating our pitch, elaborating our story, and preparing our demo. We built message houses, crafted storyboards and wrote scenarios. And we went through many dry run sessions.

After having returned from Barcelona, I can only observe and conclude that what I told the booth visitors on day 4 was completely different from the story we prepared for day 1, and from what we had rehearsed so many times. Actually, each time I gave our demo, my narrative sounded more balanced and seemed to be much more appreciated by the audience. So, why didn’t we think of this particular detail or include that specific use case already months ago? Well, because repeating your story in front of a real-life audience is so much different from rehearsing it in front of your direct colleagues or giving a virtual sales briefing via a conference call. Each time I presented the demo – live! – to yet another customer group the messaging became more stable, more fluent and more sophisticated. Yes, I’m the guy on the picture below with the blue Nokia shirt and the (high-tech, though silly looking) brainwave-sensing headband. While delivering my pitch, I discovered what worked and what didn’t. Being able to experience the body language and getting feedback signals from your listeners at a meter’s distance is what really made – and makes – the difference. It’s really not about what you prepared or rehearsed, but about how you deliver your story. And about how your customers react to it. And about the face-to-face Q&A and discussions you have with them afterwards.

So, what’s the use of going through a long preparation and rehearsal process and what’s the sense of doing dry-runs, if after only one day at the Fira you’re delivering a completely different and better demo than the one you arranged for? And is all this preparation effort then really a waste of time?

Certainly not. Any good public speech starts with knowing your audience, defining your pitch, building your storyboard, and creating your presentation. I’ve explained this in my post about the 3 p’s of a professional public presenter. All this upfront activity is useful, needed and necessary. But, at the end of the day the proof of the pudding is in the eating – by the people who came to your booth. And their reactions on our latest Barcelona demo have been great!

Here are the links to other posts I have published during, after or about the Mobile World Congress:

The cheesy details

Yesterday night, my wife and I had dinner at a fancy restaurant. Near the end of the meal we ordered a selection of cheese. The young waitress pointed at the plate and gave us the following details: “These are grapes, figues, nuts, raisin bread and quince jelly. And this is er… er… (silence…) the cheese.”

(picture courtesy cheeseplate.org)

Fortunately the girl could also tell us that one of the pieces was Italian, blue, and that we had to pay 5 euros extra because we had the cheese platter instead of the dessert. The cheeses tasted fine (actually the blue variety turned out to be dolomitico), and although I hadn’t expected the full Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch, I felt like I had missed some essential information and paid for some undefined items.

When presenting technical or even non-technical matters to your audience, they often like to hear the tasty details. Well, sometimes even the cheesy ones.

Champagne corks and factfulness

We just welcomed another new year. And while opening a bottle of champagne at midnight, I had to think about this JFK quote:

“We celebrate the past to awaken the future.” – John F. Kennedy (1960)

Because, that’s exactly what we do each New Year’s Eve. At our home, we even keep the champagne cork as a souvenir for the future. As such, my family has already gathered a few dozens of corks, cherishing memories of past New Years, anniversaries and life events. Precious keepsakes of our wedding day, my wife’s first positive pregnancy test, or the birth of our children – just to name a few.

Predicting, awakening, or even shaping the future is never easy. I don’t want to make any statement about whether the past was better than the present. Or whether the future looks gloomier than, say, 10, 20, or 60 years ago. We’re living in a different era today, with a different zeitgeist, and with different challenges. Though I must admit that I’m not too excited about some of today’s (geo)political, economic and social evolutions, the world may be in a much better state than we often assume.

At least, that’s the message I retained after reading “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling. The book, subtitled “Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world, and why things are better than you think,” is the perfect antidote to negativism. Diving into statistical data of over 80 global trends, like population growth, poverty, girls’ education and child mortality, it shows us the positive changes that have taken place over the past years. If you haven’t read the book in 2018 yet, it’s recommended reading for 2019!

So, I keep looking at the bright side of life. As the late Leonard Cohen sang: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” Let’s be positive about the future. Let’s think opportunities and not challenges. And while valuing the corks of the empty bottles, always make sure there’s a full bottle of bubbles in the fridge!

Happy holidays! here’s your pocket presentation planner

Here’s a small new year’s gift: a checklist that will help you deal with your next presentation challenge. A booklet that addresses the 3 P’s of a public presenter: your pitch, your preparation and your presentation. It summarizes the tips and tricks I wrote about on this blog, and it gives you templates for building a message house, mapping your audience, calculating the number of slides you need, anticipating Q&A, and much more.

Download the PDF version of your Pocket Presentation Planner now. Right-click the image above, save the linked file and send it to your printer.

Happy holidays, happy reading, and happy presenting!