Zipf’s law

In some older posts on this blog, I have written about Moore’s law, Metcalfe’s law, Fubini’s law, Occam’s law and Murphy’s law. Maybe you still remember what they are all about.

Today, I want to introduce you to yet another law, which is called Zipf’s law, a.k.a. the Brevity law.

The American linguist, George Kingsley Zipf, formulated this law in 1945. It states that the more frequently a word is used, the shorter that word tends to be, and vice versa. Such negative correlation between the frequency of words and their size can be found in almost any natural languages. Zipf also called it a ‘principle of least effort.’ As humans tend to be inherently lazy (or more positively said, they try to be energy efficient) they prefer to take the path of least effort or resistance. Whatever (English) text you analyse, you will always get the same top-5 of short words and their associated frequencies: the (about 6.5%), of (2.8%), to (2.6%), a (2.4%) and and (2.3%).

Some of the shortest words that public speakers often use, however, won’t show up in these statistics: the innumerable uh’s, um’s and er’s. I recently had a video recorded of one of my presentations, and when I replayed it afterwards, I was embarrassed to hear myself saying these nasty filler words. I really thought I had eliminated them from my professional vocabulary…

In another blog post, I wrote about hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, or fear of long words. Well, this time I felt more like a micrologophobia patient. But there’s some good news: like most phobias there are some cures for the latter one too…

  • Listen to yourself: this is something I hate doing, but it’s an important first step in acknowledging your bad habits and ridding yourself of those ugly words;
  • Slow down: if your mouth moves faster than your brain, you’re going to stumble a lot;
  • Punctuate: imagine periods and commas in your speech while you’re talking;
  • Pause: some speakers use fillers to avoid silent gaps, though silence may be much more powerful (read also my “P+R” post)
  • Transition: try using transition statements like “let’s now talk about…”, “on the next slide you’ll see…” or even “and now for something completely different…”;
  • Make eye contact: when you’re making eye contact with one or more persons in your audience, it will become much more awkward to say um or uh to them;
  • Be self-confident: when you spend too much time worrying about your words, you’re going to lose the focus of your presentation and… become even more muddled;
  • Practice: practice your presentation as often as possible before you give it. The better you know your narrative, the more confident you’ll be and the less you’ll stumble.

And if you still let an um or an er slip out from time to time, just think of them as a natural part of speaking. Most of the time, your audience won’t even notice. Maybe these short words should have been included in Zipf’s law after all.

Presenting behind closed doors

During the summer of 2017, I started creating infographics for some of my blogs.

Working from home because of the COVID-19 lockdown, hopping from one web meeting to another, I remembered an old post I have written, “Your audience may be virtual”.

And, then I spent a few hours creating a new visual with tips for presenting at a webcast or a webinar. Here’s the result. I hope it will help you deliver your message more effective from behind closed doors.

Virtual audience infographic L2

You may download the file through the download tab on top of this page.

When a virus goes viral

While the COVID-19 virus is spreading around the world, a video clip conquered the internet even faster.

At a press conference, a Santa Clara County health officer offered a simple advice on how people can stop the novel coronavirus from spreading: “Today, start working on not touching your face because one main way viruses spread is when you touch your own mouth, nose, or eyes.” And then… she brought her hand to her mouth and licked her finger to turn a page in her notes.

Video coverage by the Washington Post

The above video reminds me of a similar event I experienced myself long time ago. When I was attending a pedagogy course at the university, the professor in front told his students to “never wipe the chalkboard while pupils are still reading the content on it.” And then… he turned his back to the audience, took the board wiper and started erasing everything he had written during the last few minutes.”

Well, I remember quitting the aula and never returning to that pedagogy course.

For a long time, the subtitle of this blog page has been “keep your audience coming back for more”. I expect the above video will show up in many media trainings and communication courses. But when a speaker or a teacher loses credibility, his/her audience unfortunately will never come back!

Why your business presentation is a moment of truth

In 2005, A.G. Lafley, the Chairman, President & CEO of Procter & Gamble introduced a concept known as Moments of Truth:

A ‘moment of truth”'(MOT) is the moment when a customer/user interacts with a brand, product or service to form or change an impression about that particular brand, product or service. Moments of truth represent important touch points along a customer’s buying journey that affect his or her buying decision.

The number, types and application of MOTs have slightly changed over time to better fit the evolving consumer and technology environment, in which digital is now playing a more prominent role.

Today, five different types of moments of truth are often addressed by marketing people.

  • The first moment of truth (FMOT) is when a potential customer is first confronted with a brand, product or service, by reading or hearing about it, either offline or online. It occurs within the first few seconds of a consumer encountering the product and it is during this time that marketers have the capability of turning a browser into a prospect or a buyer. As one never gets a second chance to make a first impression, these few seconds will have a major impact on the remainder of the sales process.
  • The second moment of truth (SMOT) occurs when a customer experiences what a company is offering. This may happen before purchase, e.g. when experiencing a hands-on demo, or after the purchase, when the buyer experiences the product’s functionality and quality after it has been delivered. There may be multiple SMOTs, every time a product or service is used, and they can have a major impact on buyers’ satisfaction – and consequently, their continuing relationship with a brand.
  • The third moment of truth (TMOT), also known as the ultimate moment of truth (UMOT), is defined by the customers’ feedback or reaction towards a brand, product or service. It expresses a vendor’s capability to fulfill end-user needs and provide an overall positive experience. During the TMOT, users may become brand advocates that write favorable online reviews, share their experience via social media, or promote your brand through worth of mouth to family, friends and colleagues – possibly creating a Zero Moment of Truth for future buyers.

The internet has changed the way consumers are interacting with brands, products or services. Nine out of ten people conduct online research before actually buying something. Travelers read at least 6 to 12 TripAdvisor reviews before choosing a hotel. And 20% of purchasing decisions tend to be influenced by Facebook. That’s why Google introduced a new MOT in 2011…

  • The zero moment of truth (ZMOT) refers to the point in the buying cycle when the buyer researches a product prior to purchase, often before the seller even knows that they exist. While companies are not able to control online reviews (though sometimes they will try), they can positively influence their online reputation through appropriate interactions with their audience and by delivering on their marketing promises.

About 5 years ago, yet an earlier moment of truth was introduced in marketing literature:

  • The less than zero moment of truth (<ZMOT) is defined by something happening in a person’s life that causes him or her to start looking for or researching a product or service. Such events are opportunities for a company to actively reach out to a customer via social media, email marketing or target advertisements – even before the potential customer starts searching for information. Such a proactive approach will require data collection, advanced targeting and monitoring of customer activities on social media, but it may drive a candidate buyer to your website instead of your competitor’s.

I’m sure, as new business models emerge and technologies like predictive analytics and AI further evolve, there will be even more MOTs to come.

Image by Tim Reckmann (CC BY 2.0)

Let me now, in-line with the topic of the other posts on this blog, explore how your business presentation or public talk may address, support or influence one or more moments of truth for your company’s brand, products or services.

  • Each time you deliver a memorable presentation that contains lots of information, use cases and evidence, you may be anticipating to a <ZMOT. When, in the near or further future, a member of your audience enters in a specific situation, he or she will certainly remember your capability to address the problem and provide a suitable solution.
  • Connecting emotionally with your audience through storytelling will create brand awareness, as well as appetite for your company and its offering. The information you present about your company’s vision, products and customers will guide them to your website at ZMOT time.
  • The quality of your presentation, as well as the authenticity, authority and experience you show as a speaker will create a feeling of understanding, trust and confidence with your audience. Even the first few seconds of your talk may be determining for the FMOT.
  • Even if you won’t be able to provide your audience with a real SMOT, you may enrich your presentation with a live demonstration or a product video.
  • Putting customer quotes on your slides, playing user testimonial videos or having one of your buyers co-presenting with you on stage are all powerful means for sharing TMOT feedback with your audience.

If you want to learn more about engaging your audience and influencing their buying behavior, you may read my blog post about rhetoric, storytelling and persuasion.

The sound of breaking glass

Something embarrassing happened yesterday to Elon Musk, when he introduced Tesla’s long awaited electric pick-up truck, a.k.a. the Tesla Cybertruck, and demonstrated – or at least, tried to demonstrate – the futuristic vehicle’s armored windows.

I have seen quite a few don’t try this at home videos on YouTube – some of which ended well and others which were, eh, less successful. Well, the one below fits in the second category.

No doubt that the demo was well prepared and that in earlier tests the window didn’t break. “We threw wrenches, we threw everything,” Musk said. “We even literally threw a kitchen sink at the glass.” But, beware: the Demo Devil is always luring around the corner! Each time you’re doing a live product presentation, something can go wrong (a dude called Murphy even claims that it will go wrong). And every well-intended and well-prepared product demo holds a risk of backfiring on the presenter or on his/her company. That should be no excuse, however, to not invest in live demos .

When the other guy, Tesla’s head of design, threw the steel ball a little too hard, the CEO eloquently said: “Oh my f****** God,” the audience had a good laugh, and Tesla will certainly fix the issue in post. And the Demo Devil, who’s second name is Schadenfreude, hit the road for his next guest appearance…

Postscriptum: As is often the case, any publicity is good publicity. The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Tesla Cybertruck pre-orders neared 250,000 less than a week after its chaotic launch event. QED.

Related posts:

Bring on the CX magic

“Customers want their choices to align as much with their feelings and senses as with their values and ethics. The rational approaches taught at most business schools — offer customers more value for money, add features, make service more efficient — are not enough.” – Stefan Thomke, professor at Harvard Business School

The Magic That Makes Customer Experiences Stick” is the title of a research paper that appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of MIT Sloan Management Review. Intrigued by the title and eager to find out what this magic is all about, I started reading the article. And, frankly, the answer to the question didn’t really surprise me: the missing ingredient in today’s customer experience design is… [drum roll] emotion.

In the article the author of the paper, Harvard professor Stefan Thomke, describes how he discovered the power of emotion in consumer experiences in the classroom. When he asked his students for their most memorable experiences as customers, they replied with phrases that reflected emotional impact: made me feel special, showed empathy, really cared, trusted me, surprised us — instead of using with the expected terminology functional value, efficiency and cost-value analysis.

Thomson identifies five ways for companies to infuse customer journeys with emotion:

  • Stimulate the senses, and trigger emotions such as surprise, trust, joy, and even anticipation;
  • Turn disappointment into delight. Be prepared to transform negative experiences into positive ones;
  • Plan to surprise. Thrill your customers again and again through continual innovation and unexpected solutions to problems;
  • Tell compelling stories. Companies that infuse stories into the customer’s brand experience can provoke an emotional response and create sticky memories;
  • Run controlled experiments is all about understanding your audience and making sure to trigger the right emotions during a customer’s journey.

I’m not a business school professor (not counting a few guest lectures I’ve given), but still I have written about the power of pathos or emotional appeal in almost any post I published on this blog. And about how storytelling techniques help marketing and communication professionals to get their audience engaged beyond the rational and make them connect emotionally. Not only consumers, but also business customers.


Zan Zig performing with rabbit and roses, magician poster, 1899
(source: Wikimedia Commons)

In my humble opinion, the magic that makes customer experiences stick and that keeps your audience come back for more has been perfectly articulated by American author and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, when she said that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel…”

Related posts:

  • Almost any of the 200 other articles I have published on this blog.

Think global, talk local

Close to the place where I work at in Antwerp is an American hamburger chain restaurant. The place is ornamented with big newspaper quotes like “Heaven on a Bun” by the Tampa Tribune and “Willy Wonkas of Burgercraft” by the Washington Post. Very impressive.

But remember, this is all about a local franchise in Antwerp … Belgium … Europe. Almost 13 flight hours away from Tampa … Florida … United States and 6200 kilometers from Washington DC. Many of the Antwerp passers-by may never have heard about a US city called Tampa or a local newspaper named The Tampa Tribune. (In the reverse case I would even have written most of them.) And the posters don’t teach me anything about the origin of the quality of the food served in this local affiliate.

What’s the use of spending lots of communications money on quoting big titles from sources that don’t resonate with a large part of your audience? Or of including exotic case studies from overly remote customers in a business presentation? Local markets may be different. Customers may speak a different language. And audiences may have a different frame of reference. In an old post, “If the world were a village,” I gave the example of a financial presenter who talked about “blood red stock markets”… in front of a Japanese audience. While on the Tokyo stock exchange, upward trends are marked in red and downward trends in green.

I have repeatedly written on this blog about exploiting the power of storytelling to connect with people on an emotional level. To connect emotionally with your audience, however, the least you should do is adopt your stories, your words and the examples (or case studies) you use to the (local) audience. Capitalize on local successes, local heroes and local values. Your business presentations will be more impactful and better serve your local and, consequently, your global business. Even when you’re representing a global brand or an internationally renowned company.

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:

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: 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 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:

Stop Capitalizing Every Single Word In Your Titles

First, note that the statement in this blog’s title reflects my personal opinion. Capitalization rules for (slide) titles do exist (see e.g. I simply prefer not to use them. Here’s why…

To me, projecting an over-capitalized slide is similar to using pluralis majestatis, a.k.a. the royal we. It’s like speaking formal language rather than prose. It may (or may not) make a presenter look more important, but it will never camouflage bad content or a lack of presentation skills.

The situation becomes even worse when people start capitalizing all words in bullet points or isolated words in the middle of a plain text (unless you’re writing in German, of course). And I even don’t want to think of people who use ALL CAPS on their slides (or in their tweets) If Capitalizing Words Is Like Using The Royal We, then WRITING IN ALL CAPS IS LIKE SHOUTING AT YOUR AUDIENCE.

So please use the shift key sparsely and thoughtfully. Always be consistent in your style: don’t feed the chameleons. Vary your slide templates and avoid wordy texts or long bullet lists. As I mentioned in an earlier post on this blog, full-sentence assertions are often better than short catchy or meaningless headlines. And, remember that it’s sometimes also good to use a plain graphics slide with no header text at all.

Related posts: