Never regret saying ‘no’

On August 15, 2021 the world woke up with the news about the fall of Kabul.

Reading the headlines about the chaotic evacuation of Western citizens and their local allies from Afghanistan and watching the horrifying images of the suicide bombing at Kabul airport, it came to my mind that, about six months ago, I received a LinkedIn job proposal for a marketing position with a telecom company. The most surprising part of this lucrative offer definitely came at the end of the recruiter’s message: “Job location: Kabul, Afghanistan”.

While I’m, generally speaking, open to discussing a once in a lifetime opportunity, I decidedly said ‘no’ to this one. Adding tongue in cheek that Kabul is not the most inviting place to work. Today ― excuse my understatement ― I still don’t regret my decision. You may guess why.

Image: Kabul International Airport in 2008 by Carl Montgomery (CC BY 2.0)

One of my favorite columns by Seth Godin is titled Saying ‘no’. In this only 120 words long post, the American thought leader and author discusses the choice of making the people with the loudest requests temporarily happy vs. changing the world by saying ‘no’ often.

Every decision gives you an opportunity to take control of your own life. If being capable of saying ‘no’ is paramount, then not regretting your decision is possibly even more important. QED.

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!

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.

The bird watcher

This weekend, while I was walking in the park with my dog, I ran into a guy taking pictures with a huge 600mm lens. Based upon the professional look of the equipment he was holding — and even more upon the fact that he was pointing his telescope at an apparently well-chosen spot in a tree top — I concluded that I was facing a full or semi-professional ornithologist who had spotted some rare species. When I posed him the possibly most obvious question that one can ask at such moment, “What are you targeting?,” the man’s reply was straightforward but also unexpected: “… Birds …

As I implicitly assumed that the bird watcher in the park was a seasoned expert, his word(s) sounded poor and disappointing. To be honest, I had anticipated to hear him disclose that an exotic bird had visited my home town, complemented by a myriad of details about the species, and why this was really such a special encounter. Would you get excited when a software designer reveals you that he’s writing “programs”, a Ferrari dealer tries to sell you “a car”, or a tech company exec announces a “machine that does ping”?

(photo courtesy of Mavani-Photography)

The guy in the park was either an over-equipped amateur, or a badly communicating subject matter expert. In my personal logic, none of these combinations makes good sense.

Post scriptum: about two minutes before I bumped into the (would-be?) ornithologist, I heard a very nearby rattle in the woods. And now I’m still wondering if I’ve missed a black, a green, or a spotted woodpecker…

If you’re rather a people watcher than a bird watcher, you may also read this unrelated post:

Right pitch, wrong shirt

Know your audience before you start talking… This is not only the title of one of my earlier posts on this blog, but even more a piece of good advice for anyone who’s speaking in public. A group of people that also includes a growing army of young entrepreneurs, pitching in front of venture capitalists and potential investors to obtain the so desired initial funding to realize their dreams.

Not so long ago, I had the honor to be part of the jury for a (try-out) pitching session organized by a local business incubator. Among the 6 jury members were representatives of a regional business angel network, a few technology professionals (like me), and an investment expert from a major bank.

During the event, one of the startups was pitching a social app they developed for sports clubs. In an effort to accentuate his message visually, and probably to charm the audience and the jury too, the presenter-on-duty entered the stage dressed up in a colorful soccer shirt.

rsca_shirt

A great idea. Theoretically. The young guy made one wrong choice: the club shirt he was proudly wearing displayed in large letters the name and the logo of… a large bank. Unfortunately, not the one of the sixth jury member’s employer. But rather the one of its fiercest competitor in the market place.

Shit happens. The presenter delivered a great pitch for a nice product. But he won neither the hearts nor the (virtual) money of all jury members (guess which one wasn’t convinced?) A mistake that could have easily been avoided by conducting some quick, upfront research on who would be in the audience and in the jury (actually, the speaker should have known; the event was held at the bank’s HQ premises.)

Penne all’amatriciana

Last week we returned from a vacation in Italy. During our stay we were confronted with the breaking news about the devastating 6.2-magnitude earthquake that rocked the center of the country. One of the hardest-hit towns was the beautiful comune of  Amatrice, with 80% of the historic center destroyed and nearly 200 deadly casualties.

As we were safe and sound, visiting a region of the country hundreds of kilometers away from the quake’s epicenter, we heard the dramatic testimonials of disaster-stricken residents and saw the images of rescue teams digging through the rubble delivered via the local media.

In addition to all the dramatic facts and figures, we also learned that Amatrice is the birthplace of the bacon-and-tomato flavored all’amatriciana pasta sauce that was accordingly named after the severely hit mountain town. This factoid turned out to be an ideal context for Italian food blogger, Paolo Campana, to launch an appeal on Facebook in which he asked restaurants to put pasta all’amatriciana on their menus and donate 2 euros per dish sold to the Italian Red Cross.

Amatriciana

When we went for dinner on the last night of our Italian holiday, we found out that the restaurant had also appended a solidarity penne all’amatriciana item to their menu. So, guess what we chose as the primo piatto of our meal? And, actually, the food was  delicious, but the knowledge that we were supporting the earthquake victims with a symbolic donation made it taste even better…

My apologies for using some inappropriate terminology in this dramatic context for my conclusion, but the above anecdote is proving once again that combination of an emotion-touching story (the sauce that originated in the earthquake-hit town,) combined with an excellent product (a perfectly flavored pasta dish,) and an engaging cause (supporting the earthquake victims) is a powerful marketing and communication tool.

You may also have a look at these other posts about the value of brand storytelling:

Size matters!

Here’s another true story, possibly even an Oscar candidate in the “wrong answer to a good question” category.

One of my colleagues – let’s call him John – was recently presenting at an industry seminar. With more than 200 experts and potential customers in the audience, the speaker had a great stage for promoting our company’s vision and portfolio. The event turned out to be a big success and John’s message was well received.

Actually, the content of his talk was outstanding. But, during the after-event debrief, there was this one comment about “too much text on the slides and too small font sizes.” As I was sitting in the back of the room, I can acknowledge that a pair of binoculars would indeed have been a good thing to bring along.

eyetest

When confronted with the poor readability of his visuals, John’s reaction was unexpected and wrong:

“Well, when we come back next year, we should probably ask the organizers to install a larger projection screen…”

In my humble opinion, a more straightforward – and easier solution – might have been to put fewer words on the slides, and to increase the font size of the remaining text. And to follow Guy Kawasaki’s advice:

“The reason people use a small font is twofold: first, that they don’t know their material well enough; second, they think that more text is more convincing. Total bozosity. Force yourself to use no font smaller than thirty points. I guarantee it will make your presentations better because it requires you to find the most salient points and to know how to explain them well.”

Size matters, John, also for your presentation fonts!

The making of Guernica

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction” – Pablo Picasso

Last week I visited the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, renowned as the home of Picasso’s Guernica. The famous mural-sized, black-and-white painting was created in 1937 after the devastating bombing on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, and is considered one of the most powerful visual political statements ever made by an artists.

The painting was impressive indeed. Its visual message overwhelming. Undoubtedly the work of a genius.

Guernica

After intensively and extensively admiring the masterpiece, a series of small black-and-white photographs caught my attention. Posted on the wall opposite the canvas, they depict the making of Guernica. The snapshots were taken by Dora Maar, Picasso’s muse in those days, and show the consecutive development stages of the artwork.

Thanks to these historical pictures I could witness how some key components of the composition, like the bull, the horse, and the (light bulb) sun, were created, destructed and recreated by the Spanish painter.

While observing the metamorphosis of Guernica, I had to think of Dale Carnegie’s quote about delivering a presentation:

“There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”

Just like Picasso’s masterpiece evolved during its inception, conception and creation, your presentation’s messaging, storytelling, and visualization may change over time – although an act of destruction is seldom required.

More reading:

Cut the crap (enterprise edition)

More than two years ago, I published a post on this blog with a not so very nice title: “Cut the crap.” In that article I fulminated against the corny, poorly designed, and –above all– unwanted canned PowerPoint Shows (appearing as PPS or PPSX attachments) that filled up my personal mailbox.

Today, I’m writing the Enterprise Edition of this indictment. Denouncing another kind of scam that hits my work inbox with an almost daily frequency. No, I’m not talking about the real spam, like the recommendations for places on the web to buy pills, the discrete sex offers from cheating housewives, the generous donations from Nigerian billionaires, the free Amazon gift cards, or the not-to-miss opportunities to acquire booming stock. There’s actually a softer kind of trash that is invading my mailbox.

As a B2B marketer, with my job title visible on the web and on social media, I am unintentionally but effectively exposing myself as an easy target for direct marketing campaigns and unsolicited mass mailings that sound like:

Hi Dave,

On your website I found out that your company provides content and video delivery network solutions.
Would you be interested in receiving a sample of our email lists? We have a comprehensive database of 42 million viewers of popular American horror films, such as:
* Assault of the Killer Bimbos
* Cannibal! The Musical
* Slime City Massacre
* Spooks Run Wild
* The Velvet Vampire

Thanks and looking forward to having a call with you.
Steve

PS: if you wish not to receive any more emails from us please reply with “leave out” in the subject line

Even if the content and the wording of the vast majority of these emails look the same to me, some of the senders seem to fail dramatically in conducting basic research on their addressees, or in personalizing their message.

  • One of my colleagues recently got an offer that was intended for somebody else. Though I’m not sure that a salutation like “Dear <firstname> <lastname>,” (with the placeholders not filled in) is a good way to avoid such naming mistakes.
  • As a potential (meuh, not really…) customer I can also confirm that phrases like “on your website I found out that …” or “we have identified you as an employee of …” don’t make a very good impression.

What I find most contradictory is the fact that all these mails are sent by people trying to convince me of the quality and the effectiveness of the address databases they sell – while the content of their message is actually telling me the opposite.

email_list

Most senders of such mass mailings get a unique – and equally impersonal – reply from me: “leave out”. Only the ones that, like in the example above, manage to attract my attention through their incompetence get an original and personalized reply from me, e.g.:

Dear Steve,

thank you very much for your email.
Unfortunately, my company doesn’t distribute any content, my name is not Dave, and I don’t like horror movies at all. As a fellow marketer, however, I’m impressed by the errors in your address database, as well as by the lack of customization and personalization of your message.
As a result, I am not interested in receiving a sample of your data, nor in having a phone call with you. May I kindly ask you to remove my address from your mailing list, and stop sending me unsolicited scams.

With regards,
Marc

Outbound marketing – even when delivered through a digital channel like email – is so 2000-ish. My dear B2B direct marketers, please cut the crap. Stop wasting your time, my mailbox space, and the internet’s bandwidth. There are lots of better ways to fill your sales funnel, and to make leads and prospects connect with your business. Consider this rant as a plea for better digital marketing. For a real data driven approach. For social selling. For decent content. For more personalization. And for an outstanding customer experience.

(Note: the email example I quoted above was fictitious, but the movie titles are too hilarious not to be true. You may consult this Wikipedia page to discover more juicy American comedy horror films…)

Slime_City_Massacre_FilmPoster

The triggerfish

I have just returned from a relaxing vacation on the Azores, the beautiful green Portuguese archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. One night, my wife and I went for dinner at a small seafood restaurant on Faial island.

When we asked for the menu card, the young waiter told us: “My father-in-law went out fishing this afternoon. What about trying his catch of the day? Have you ever tasted triggerfish?”

Then he started talking about local fishing practices. So we learned that Azorean coastal fishery is still mostly artisanal and carried out by family crews, with 90% of the boats less than 15m long.

And finally, he dug up a small book, the “Consumer’s Guide to Azorean Seafood,”  that visualized the local fish species and provided us with some welcome information about the fresh peixe-porco or grey triggerfish on offer. On each page of the guidebook there was also a colored icon, that labeled the endangered species with a red fish and the sustainable-to-eat ones with a green one.

triggerfish

As you may expect (otherwise I wouldn’t bother writing this blog post), we ended up ordering triggerfish fillets for two. Of course combined with a nice glass of local Frei Gigante wine. Let me tell you that this was the freshest and most tasty seafood dish I have eaten in years (and the green icon in the book assured us that local stocks appear to be healthy.)

And while we were enjoying our meal, we noticed that the waiter repeated the same process with all new customers that entered the restaurant — probably until there was no peixe-porco left to recommend.

Our experience in the fish restaurant was yet another proof point of the power of a good story. By introducing us to the catch of the day, and visually documenting it with the guidebook, our restaurant host truly created a win-win-win situation for his business, for his father-in-law’s, and a for couple of hungry Belgian tourists too.

Yes, went back to the same place the following night. For more peixe do dia.