A (wo)man needs a plan

Yesterday I saw the following tweet from J.K. Rowling passing by on my twitter feed:

The tweet was part of a conversation about her upcoming crime novel “Lethal White” that is to be published under the British writer’s Robert Galbraith pseudonym.

Although January is just ending, Rowling’s observation already gets my “quote of the year 2018” award. The glass is never full or empty. Each challenge holds an opportunity, and vice versa. Whether you are writing a book, preparing a business presentation, or building a house, nothing comes without effort. All these activities require reflection, planning, and preparation.

As such, I was also not surprised to read in related @jk_rowling tweets that she plans a lot.

I wrote in one of my older posts about “inspiration and perspiration” that it’s the mere 10% of upfront creativity that’s shaping success, while one needs a good dose of self-discipline to keep the following 90% of the process flowing. And, whether your blank page comes from a notebook, the back of a napkin, a roll of wall paper or a Microsoft Office file, a good storyboard, a mind map or a (color-coded) table will help you to light up your mind and fill that sheet.

Doing a bit more research, I stumbled upon this picture of Rowling’s spreadsheet plot for “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”:

(Image source: Mental Floss)

Ever since I read the first episode of her Harry Potter septology, I’m a J.K. Rowling fan – with great respect for the author as a writer, a storyteller, and an engaged human being. Yesterday’s tweet sequence is yet another confirmation of that for me.



More than three years ago, I wrote about Robert Cialdini’s 6 principles of persuasion, and what it takes for business presenters to appear convincing, credible and trusty in front of their audience. The six principles are labeled: reciprocity, liking, authority, social proof, commitment, and scarcity.

When asked in an interview, 30 years after publication of his list, if he still thought that it was complete, or whether there was room for adding a number seven and number eight, Dr. Cialdini replied that

“… the majority of the most effective [practices] seem to fall into one or another of those categories.”

Well, never say never. About six months ago, in Cialdini’s latest book “Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade,” the author writes:

“But now I believe that there is a seventh universal principle that I had missed – not because some new cultural phenomenon or technological shift brought it to my attention but because it was hiding beneath the surface of my data all along.”

And the newborn principle is called… unity!

“[Unity] is about shared identities. It’s about the categories that individuals use to define themselves and their groups, such as race, ethnicity, nationality, and family, as well as political and religious affiliations. A key characteristic of these categories is that their members tend to feel at one with, merged with, the others. They are the categories in which the conduct of one member influences the self-esteem of the other members. Put simple, we is the shared me.”

Photo: Where’s Wally World Record by William Murphy

Thinking back of most of the B2B conversations I’ve participated to throughout my professional career, I must admit that unity has always been present in some way. When I discuss job-related issues with my colleagues, or when I present to an audience of technology people, product marketers, or business decision makers, we’re (almost) always sharing a common technical background, a mutual understanding of our industry’s challenges and opportunities, as well as a common jargon and visual language – with lots of subject-specific acronyms, architecture diagrams, and data visualizations.

So, yes, unity has always been, and will continue to be part of my marketing toolbox. A means to tell my story, to make my arguments more credible, and to persuade my audience.

Marketing lessons from Sun Tzu

The Art of War” is an ancient Chinese military handbook written during the 5th century BC by Sun Tzu. Probably only few people have read the entire book, but there are plenty of great takeaways in it for business leaders, executives, and strategists.

And though a customer should never be your enemy, and a sales presentation should never be a battle (not even with yourself), Sun Tzu’s enemy may be regarded as a metaphor for a business opportunity to pursue, and the war as the process of conquering your audience’s heart, mind, and wallet.


Below are a handful of my favorite Art of War quotes (taken from the 1910 English translation by Lionel Giles), and how yours truly interprets and applies them in his daily job as a corporate marketer, business developer, and B2B storyteller.

First, always make sure you know your customers, the environment in which they work or live, and the opportunities and challenges they face prior to addressing them:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.” (from chapter 10: Terrain)

As Sun Tzu clarifies at the beginning of his treatise, “Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons,” and “Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.” But also, know your own strengths and weaknesses as they may set limits to what you can tell, do, or commit to.

Based upon this knowledge – of both your audience and yourself –  you can then adapt your sales strategy and customer value proposition properly:

“Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.” (from chapter 6: Weak Points and Strong)

Preparation is key. It’s all about you being ready to face the market and the customers. Build a message house, define your pitch, craft your presentation, and plan your meeting carefully.

“The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.” (from chapter 8: Variation in tactics)

Support your presentation with proper visuals and multimedia testimonials (a.k.a. gongs, drums, banners, and flags)

“On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough: hence the institution of banners and flags.” (from chapter 7: Maneuvering)

But, always remember – as I have emphasized many times before in my blog posts – look and feel matter! Be direct and indirect. Be creative and consistent. Be subtle and clear.

“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.” (from chapter 5: Energy)

“There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.” (from chapter 5: Energy)

“There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.” (from chapter 5: Energy)

Finally, always choose your battle and don’t waste your (or your customer’s) time if there’s no real opportunity for growing your market or creating new business.

“The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. The preparation of mantlets, movable shelters, and various implements of war, will take up three whole months; and the piling up of mounds over against the walls will take three months more.” (from chapter 3: Attack by Stratagem)

“Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.” (from chapter 6: Weak Points and Strong)

“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.” (from chapter 7: The Attack by Fire)

I realize that making connections between ancient warfare and today’s business environment is not straightforward. Still I see Sun Tzu’s Art of War as a timeless and priceless masterpiece that may help marketers and sales people to develop successful strategies, make better decisions, run effective campaigns, deliver powerful presentations, and consequently generate more business.

Start with a book

When delivering a talk, it’s utterly important to grab your audience’s attention from the first moment on. In an earlier post on this blog, “Begin the beginning,” I gave a few examples on how you may surprise, intrigue or provoke them with an opening statement or poll. And in another article, “Titles, ” I elaborated on using original presentation titles.

Here’s yet another great jump-start for the beginning of your speech: tell the people in the room about a book you read that’s relevant to the subject of your presentation. You may even consider bringing a hard copy with you: a tangible artifact that your audience can see, touch and browse through.

In my day job as a high-tech marketer and communicator, I’m involved in conversations with customers and opinion makers about how broadband internet, connected devices, and Internet of Things (IoT) applications are changing the way we live, work, and do business. So, after reading the summaries below, it should be no surprise that I picked these three  – fiction, non-fiction, and science fiction – books for introducing some of my speaking topics.

Blackout – tomorrow will be too late” by Austrian author Marc Elsberg, is a techno-thriller about a large-scale power outage in Europe, caused by a cyber attack. While the digitization of the energy sector, and the move towards distributed power generation, smart meters, and internet-connected appliances are creating a number of opportunities, new technologies can also open the door to cyber threats.


As no-one wants to experience the scenario that’s described in this book, I mentioned it at the start a lecture about smart energy grids and cyber security. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of an English translation of the book.

In “The Zero Marginal Cost Society,” American social-economic theorist and activist Jeremy Rifkin describes how new technologies, such as 3D printing, green energy, and the Internet of Things, are speeding us to an era of nearly free goods and services (and, according to the author, the eclipse of capitalism.)


Billions of sensors are being attached to natural resources, production lines, energy grids, logistics networks, recycling flows, and implanted in homes, offices, stores, vehicles, and even human beings, feeding Big Data into an IoT global neural network. Prosumers will be able connect to the network and use Big Data to accelerate efficiency, increase productivity, and lower the marginal cost of producing and sharing a wide range of products and services to near zero…

In another post on this blog, “Back to the future,” I wrote about why it may be a good thing for a sales or marketing person to make speculations about the long-term future. Some of the best forward-looking statements –of which a number really materialized– about technology and the evolution of society were written many years ago. Take for example George Orwell’s “1984,” or Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot.”

The book I sometimes refer to when touching the topic of smart cities and a technology-powered society, however, is a less known work by French science-fiction author Jules Verne. Marketed on the cover as the lost novel, “Paris in the Twentieth Century” was originally written in 1863, but it took more than one hundred years before his great-grandson discover the handwritten manuscript.


The work gives a staggering prediction of Paris of the nineteen-sixties. The author depicts a city in which industry and commerce have triumphed, and creativity and art have become obsolete. Just like Villemard did in his 1910 postcards, Verne predicts automobiles, the subway, fax machines, and more things to come.

For those interested in new technology and its impact on our (future) society, here are a few links to presentations I have given over the past years about the subjects mentioned above:

Ten hundred words

A picture tells more than a thousand words. But what if you would reduce your vocabulary to not more than 1000 words? This is the starting point of Randall Munroe’s new book “Thing Explainer“.


I already mentioned the creator of xkcd before in an earlier post when I referred to his previous work “What if?” in which the author gives serious answers to absurd hypothetical questions.

In his latest publication, Munroe explains complicated things in simple words – from ballpoint pens, over data centers, to the solar system. The picture below (courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) shows an example of how the former NASA employee describes an iPhone using only the 1000 most common English words.


(click to enlarge)

While writing this post and trying to simplify my prose, I realized that for many topics the stripped-down vocabulary may be too restrictive. That the languages I know are too rich and too beautiful to prune their lexicon so dramatically. And that Munroe’s ten hundred words list may be just a gimmick. But, on the other hand, a real expert doesn’t need difficult language to make his point. Albert Einstein rightfully remarked: “if you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

As a technology or business presenter you’d better invest in your story than in your vocabulary. Use simple words, striking examples and compelling metaphors to explain complicated concepts and hi-tech products. Create an emotional liaison with your audience, rather than blow them off their feet with complex expositions, specialized language and sophisticated jargon.

More reading:

In sweet memory of Aldus Manutius

While cleaning out my closet, I dug up an original 1987 printed copy of the Aldus Guide to Basic Design by Roger C. Parker. It dates back from the early days of affordable laser printers and desktop publishing, when Aldus Pagemaker was one of the most popular applications in this area. For the trivia lovers: the software package was named after Aldus Manutius, a Venetian renaissance printer and publisher who lived between 1449 and 1515. Aldus and PageMaker were acquired by Adobe in 1994, and the final version of the software was released in 2001.


In the second half of the 1980’s, when I was teaching a Desktop Publishing course at Apple Computer, I used this publication as a reference to tell, show and instruct my pupils about the basic rules of page layout. And, well, the booklet’s content is still more than relevant today.

It starts with a simple-but-great customer-centric definition of graphic design:

“The purpose of graphic design is to make it as easy as possible for readers to understand your message.”

No, I’m not going to repeat all the guidelines Parker is giving about margins, columns, fonts, headlines, quotes, images, etc. You can buy a 2nd hand copy of the book online for a few cents – which, in my humble opinion, is still worth a thousandfold in value.

As a teaser, here’s a summary of the advise provided in chapter one:

  • Be willing to experiment. Creativity often beats experience, and a great design is usually the result of many alternate attempts.
  • Be flexible in applying the rules. Graphic style and content always need to be adapted to a publication’s purpose and audience.
  • Consistency helps to organize information. Be consistent in the way you handle the various layout elements, within a page, within a section, and within a document. (Note: this is what I introduced in an older posts as “Don’t feed the chameleons.”)
  • Let the style of your publication develop according to the placement of its elements. Style is defined by a combination of your personal ideas, skills and experience, and the document’s specific requirements.
  • Recognize design appropriateness for symmetric and asymmetric balance. The layout you create may guide a reader’s eye movements over a page. One can use design elements to create an asymmetry that attracts visual interest.
  • Organize each page around a single dominant visual element. Putting a dominant visual element (like a headline or an image) on a page provides both a focal point and a resting spot for the reader’s eyes.
  • Design your publication in terms of facing pages. Two pages that may look good on their own may be difficult to read when presented side-by-side. This problem can be handled by constructing facing pages as a single entity.

Although the Aldus Guide is addressing the authors and editors of written publications, all the above rules (except for the last one) are good for presentation designers too. In case you’re looking for more tips and tricks for creating better slides, you may also reread my post about “Why look and feel matter in business presentations”.

Keep your audience coming back for more

In the era of content, communication, conversation and customer experience (coincidentally all starting with a “c”,) a marketer’s or sales person’s capabilities to create a decent message house, translate it into a captivating story, craft a compelling presentation, and use it to engage with a specific audience are essential.

As Richard Branson once said in Entrepreneur magazine:

“Good speakers aren’t just talented or lucky – they work hard.”

This is why, over the past 3 years, I have written 127 articles about the principles of storytelling, and about mastering the 3 P’s of presenting: your pitch, your preparation and your presentation.

You’re currently reading my last contribution before the summer holidays. And, as I’m getting short of inspiration – some would call it a writer’s block –  it may be also the beginning of an extended period of lower activity on this blog.

As I have done for the past two years, I have bundled all the pieces I wrote between September 2014 and June 2015 in an e-book. You may download PDF compilations of all past B2B Storytelling posts by clicking on the images below.

eBooksSo, well, here’s a final advice from your humble servant:

“Each time you deliver a presentation (or in this case write a blog post), ask yourself at the end if you left your audience wanting more.”

To all followers of this site: thank you for reading my posts, and please come back from time to time. Because I will occasionally (but probably less often than before) publish a new story when something worth writing about comes to me (so feel free to suggest topics I could or should blog about via the contact tab on top of this page…)

Happy reading and enjoy your (and my) vacation!

The comic toolbox

“The class clown tells jokes everyone gets while the class nerd tells jokes that only he gets.” – John Vorhaus in the Comic Toolbox

The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not” is kind of a reference book for comedy script writers, written by John Vorhaus in 1994. The author, who is also known as the screenwriter of success series such as “Married… with Children,” is a rare example of someone who has dived into the foundations of humor, who is able to explain (and illustrate) how a joke actually works, and offers helpful suggestions for using it.

Personally, I find the subtitle a bit misleading, as the writer doesn’t force you at all to be funny. What he does, however, is provide a comprehensive and reproducible framework for creative thinking, character-building and storytelling.

Humor is subjective, but the principles underlying humor are not. And even if you’re not writing sitcoms of comic novels, there’s a lot of wisdom to find in this oeuvre. The techniques and exercises can bring value for any business speaker, technology presenter or corporate spokesperson ― they will teach you how to become the class clown instead of the class nerd.


Let me share a few quotes I found interesting, and explore how they could be used in your daily life as a B2B storyteller…

The very first chapter is about truth and pain.

“You often don’t have to tell a joke to get a laugh; sometimes you just have to tell the truth.”

The example given by Vorhaus about airplane food is quite illustrative:

“When a stand-up comic makes a joke about bad airplane food, he’s mining a common vein of truth and pain. Everyone can relate. Even if you’ve never flown, you know airplane food’s, shall we say, ptomainic reputation. You get the joke.”

I have used this combination of truth and pain many times in my business presentations. If you introduce your audience to a painful situation or confront them with an uncomfortable problem (preferably one they have experienced themselves), they tend to be much more open to listening to the solution you’re going to present.

Another section I found extremely useful is the one in which the author maps the three classic types of conflict, man against nature, man against man, and man against self, onto comic situations. Let me focus only on the first one, which

“[…] is the conflict between people and their world. The conflict can be that of a normal character in a comic world or a comic character in a normal world.”

The book illustrates the first case by “Back to the Future” protagonist Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox), and the second one by the personage of Michael Dorsey (portrayed by Dustin Hoffman) who becomes Dorothy Michaels in the movie “Tootsie.”

As a business or technology presenter, this global conflict is almost a natural state of conflict to exploit. Aren’t all your customers struggling with some small of big problems in their “comic” ―which is often also their real― world, when they come listening to your presentation? If you can manage to find their sweet (or sour) spot you’re probably off for an interesting dialogue.

A next paragraph (in chapter 12) I’d like to elaborate on is the following one:

“When dealing with story problems, you need to think in terms of two kinds of logic: plot logic and story logic. Plot logic is outer logic, the sequence of events that you, the writer, impose on your story. Story logic is the inner logic of your characters, the reasons they have for behaving the way they do. All of your story moves must satisfy both plot logic and story logic. In other words, your characters must do what they do to move the story forward, but their actions have to make sense to the characters themselves.”

Now, think of the plot logic as the structure of your talk, and of the story logic as the main concerns of your listeners. Your presentation must satisfy both too. In other words, your speech and your visuals must follow a plot that conveys your key messages, but the vocabulary and the tone of your content should be adapted to the needs and expectations of a specific audience.

There’s still a lot more in this book to reflect upon, that I may come back to it in a future post on this blog. In the mean time, you may go to your (online) book store, order the Comic Toolbox and look for my favorite quote on page 133:

“The best lines in comic writing do three truly marvelous things: They tell the story, tell the truth, and tell a joke, all at the same time.”

Wow! Isn’t this what all of us presenters and storytellers dream about at night?

If you don’t have time to read the book, you may also start by watching this video recording of a lecture given by John Vorhous at the Norwegian national television.

And here’s another inspirational movie to help you make it through your day. A proof that one can be a good presenter and be funny at the same time. Watch this “Life after Death by PowerPoint” video by American comedian Don McMillan. I wonder if he has been reading the same book as I did…

You may also read this other article:

The importance of fika

Do you fika? Fika (fee-ka) is the Swedish word (used both as a verb and as a noun) for a coffee break that’s more about socializing than about drinking coffee. According to the “Fika Report 2013” the Swedish spend 9.5 days per year on coffee breaks, during which they share information and comment on what’s happening.


Most business presenters will agree that sharing information with the people listening to you is (one of) the objective(s) of delivering a presentation. But there’s actually more to achieve. Each time you address an audience, you get a unique opportunity to “make them think” and help them create new knowledge.

English writer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) described knowledge as “a subject we know ourselves, or one we know where we can find information upon.” Let me illustrate this with a contemporary example from everyday life:

  • You may open any encyclopedia or launch a search on Google and you will quickly learn that a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable – so this is the information you can find.
  • You may however ask every housewife or hobby cook if they have ever mixed (cherry) tomatoes in a fruit salad and expect them to stare at you as if you were coming from a distant planet. The fact that you DON’T put tomatoes into a bowl of fruit salad is an example of information that is (probably only) available in the mind of the beholder.

This premise that there are two types of knowledge is also one of the fundamentals of Japanese professor Ikujiro Nonaka’s knowledge spiral (also known as the SECI model), as described in his book about “the knowledge-creating company.”

  • Explicit knowledge is the objective, factual and rational knowledge that can be expressed in words, numbers and formulas. Bits of information that can be easily synthesized onto slides. Such as “tomatoes are fruit.” Full stop.
  • But each single member of your audience also holds a massive amount of so-called tacit knowledge. The subjective and experience based (and often also context-based) soft-facts that are stored in people’s minds and memory. Tacit knowledge may also include mental models, cognitive skills and technical skills, such as know-how and how-to. “No right-thinking human being would ever put tomatoes in a fruit salad.” Which planet are you coming from?

Information can be converted into knowledge, and each type of knowledge can be transformed into the other one: tacit knowledge can be made explicit (externalized), and explicit knowledge may be absorbed (internalized) and combined into new tacit knowledge. Nonaka models these handovers into a spiral, as they are facilitating a continuous learning process within a community of people, a company or an organization.

This is why you need to take time for fika. When you, as a public speaker, limit your interaction with the audience to externalization, i.e. standing in front, delivering your talk, and doing a Q&A at the end, you’re going to miss every opportunity to socialize with them.


So, break up your monologue from time to time and join the people who have listened to you for coffee breaks and networking drinks. Because each of these breaks may power a new cycle of the knowledge creation spiral. Fueled by a cup of coffee, with – if you don’t mind – some sweets on the side.

Some background reading related to this post: