Occam’s razor shaves better

Yesterday, my company Alcatel-Lucent combined with Nokia. Two industry leaders joined forces, and their combination will profoundly change the technology market. But the Finnish touch may also change our corporate communication style.

In the brand starter kit that my new employer distributed, I read that “we bravely refine and simplify,” that “our communication is clear, honest and free of the unnecessary — yet still warm,” and that “each sentence should be meaningful and valuable to the audience.”

As a long-time fan of crisp and clear communications, I can do nothing but warmly applaud these guidelines. And I’m looking forward to applying Occam’s razor

Also known as the lex parsimoniae (Latin for law of parsimony,) Occam’s razor is a problem-solving principle attributed to the Franciscan monk William of Ockham (1287–1347.) The principle, as originally written, states that:

“When one is faced with competing hypotheses, he or she should select the one that makes the fewest assumptions,”

or simply said:

“Don’t make things more complex than they are.”

The term “razor” is used as a metaphor for cutting apart two similar conclusions or shaving away unnecessary material.

Scientists have adopted the principle of parsimony to synthesize research data into actionable insights, and medical practitioners use it to deduct a viable diagnosis from a set of illness symptoms.

But Occam’s law also applies to corporate messaging and presentation design. Simplicity always works, though it often requires a thorough understanding of the complex details. Keep your messages short, sweet and simple. Cut your slides down to the information your audience absolutely must absorb. Be consistent in what you tell and what you show.

Occam’s razor shaves better. Cheers to the new Nokia and its pure communication style!

Nokia

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What if?


Following yesterday’s horrific events in Paris, I dedicate this blog post to all cartoonists in the world.

charlie


How does one present a high-technical product portfolio to a non-technical audience?

The company I work for, Alcatel-Lucent,  recently organized an open day and I was asked to present my employer, our activities and our products. These were a few of the challenges I was confronted with:

  • We are an IP networking, cloud and ultrabroadband access specialist. Most of the solutions we develop and sell are complex and high-tech in nature;
  • We deliver communications technology to service providers, industries and public institutions. As such, our products (and consequently our brand) are not really visible to end-users and consumers;
  • The presentation was to be given to a broad, local audience of all ages. Most of these people are not familiar with any network gear, related jargon and acronyms;
  • With a guided tour of the venue scheduled each 10 minutes, the time budget to present our rather extensive portfolio was very limited;
  • I had given a similar talk during a past edition of the same event. As part of the audience might have attended that one, I had to craft a brand new pitch.

As reported in an old blog post of mine, “Highway 61 revisited”, this previous presentation was built upon the theme of a jamless (information) highway. At that time, I got lots of positive feedback from the management as well as from the audience: “an original and compelling corporate narrative”, “my parents understood your presentation” and “my kids thought you told a cool story.”

So, how could I be successful (again) with without retelling the same story or reusing the same highway metaphor?

What if?” is a bestselling science book by former NASA employee Randall Munroe (who is also the creator of the popular xkcd web-comic) in which serious answers are given to absurd hypothetical questions such as: “What if you tried to hit a baseball that was moving at 90% of the speed of light?, “What if I took a swim in a nuclear fuel pool?” or “What if a Richter magnitude earthquake were to hit New York City?”

There’s also a popular Emmy-awarded comedy show broadcasted on Belgian television, in which every sketch begins with a “what if?” question. What if Jesus was a politician? What if taxi drivers didn’t like driving? What if life was an R&B clip? …

This is why I proposed to build a company pitch around the theme of “What if there was no communication technology?” and illustrate the possible consequences of this unlikely assumption with a series of cartoons (created by the cartoonist about whom I already wrote in my “Mr. Watson, come here!” post).

Here are the visuals we presented (with a transcript of what was said ― sorry for the promotional tone, but it was a company presentation after all…)

What if you wouldn’t have fast internet access at work or in your home? No digital TV to watch your favorite movies? No wireless network to make calls and surf on your smartphone? No access anymore to email, FaceBook, YouTube, NetFlix, Dropbox, Skype or WhatsApp?

Slide1

As a worldwide leader in communication technology, Alcatel-Lucent provides products and innovations in IP and cloud networking, as well as ultra-broadband fixed and wireless access to service providers and their customers, that allow and enable all these applications ― and many more ― to function properly. Our people contribute to the telecom solutions for today and tomorrow.

Did you know that our company has been recognized by Thomson Reuters as a “Top 100 Global Innovator” and MIT Technology Review put us in the “Top 50 Most Innovative Companies in the World”?

Slide2

We can’t imagine a world without broadband internet any more. To search for information, to communicate, to shop … or just to watch a movie on digital TV, Netflix or YouTube.

Alcatel-Lucent enables service providers to offer fast internet and to bring digital video at the highest quality in your living rooms. You can browse the web or watch movies on every screen: TV, tablet or smartphone.

Did you know that ADSL (or fast Internet over telephone wire) was invented by Alcatel-Lucent in Belgium? And that we, as a technology company, received an Emmy Award for our contribution to the development of digital TV?

Slide3

Internet is everywhere. So we think it’s only normal that we can call anywhere mobile and can surf at high speed in the park, in the station, in the car …

Alcatel- Lucent’s 4G wireless networks and Small Cells offer ultra-broadband access to the mobile internet whenever and wherever you want. To find your way around town, to watch YouTube on the bus, or simply to communicate with your family and friends.

Slide4

Most of you probably own a Facebook or a Twitter account. Or maybe you are an occasional or frequent Skype, YouTube or WhatsApp user. Did you ever wonder how it’s possible that all these apps (most of the time) run smoothly on your PC, smartphone or tablet?

Obviously there is an important role for the Apples, Samsungs, Microsofts and Googles of this world to play, as well as for their respective application developers. But it’s too often forgotten that the network also plays an important role.

Without Alcatel-Lucent ‘s communication technology, your smartphone suddenly wouldn’t be that smart anymore and all these popular apps would sit idle on your devices, not able to talk with their servers or with each other.

Slide5

Increasingly often you hear colleagues and friends say that they are “in the cloud”. Do they mean that they are living with their heads in the clouds? Certainly not! Cloud simply means that your emails, music, movies, business documents or applications are stored on a server that’s attached to the network. As such, they are always accessible. You can throw away your hard disk drives and servers, because a fast Internet connection is all you need!

At Alcatel-Lucent, we know that cloud computing is an opportunity for service providers and enterprises, and that a secure and high-speed access is important for end-users. That’s why we are investing in research and development of new technologies and products ― such as Software Defined Networks, Network Function Virtualization and CloudBand ― for faster, more robust and more flexible cloud solutions.

Slide6

So, the Internet has become an integral part of our daily lives. What would you do without? At school, at work and in your spare time. Imagine a day without the world wide web, no email, no Facebook, no YouTube, NetFlix, Skype, Snapchat or WhatsApp …

Did you know that 90% of the information that we use today was collected in the past 2 years? And that the traffic in that period increased by one-third?  With a PC in our living room, a tablet on your lap and/or a cell phone in your pocket, we are all travelers on the information highway.

To make your trip as comfortable as possible, Alcatel-Lucent keeps investing in the evolution  of broadband and IP networks. In transporting data over fiber, in routing and switching, in wireline and wireless internet, and in cloud platforms to offer voice, video and multimedia communications services. At high speed and with the best quality of service.

All our employees are giving the best of ourselves to invent new products, and to develop and commercialize communications solutions to make your internet faster, safer and more comfortable. Day after day.

Days after I created the presentation, I found out that Nissan is also running a “What if” advertising campaign.

Note: the cartoons above were created for and paid by my employer. If you want to reuse some of them for non-commercial purposes, you must acknowledge Alcatel-Lucent as the source and copyright owner of the image(s) ― which I am also doing by writing this sentence.

Your story is your brand (and vice versa)

The relationship between brands and customers often draws upon love and respect. A mix of ethospathos and logos. Isn’t that exactly what storytelling is about? As such, storytelling is probably one of the most powerful tools for brands and companies to communicate their core values, win more customers, and differentiate from competition.

Below are a few examples of how companies have used stories to take their customers on a journey, connect with them emotionally, or position their products and services beyond functionality and price.

Let me start with a quite recent one. When Amazon introduced their first smartphone last June, the invitation for the launch event they sent out was accompanied by CEO Jeff Bezos’ favorite children’s book “Mr. Pine’s Purple House.” As the book tells a story of being special, standing out from the rest and inspiring others, it was a perfect teaser for the Fire Phone – which, after launch, turned out not to be a big success.

My favorite brand story, however, is without any doubt the video that Apple created for launching the Macintosh in 1984. In exactly one minute, the company managed to articulate its mission, introduce its new product, and tell an unforgettable story – that contained all thinkable elements of good storytelling: suspense, emotion, metaphors, antagonist and protagonist, …

Another famous Apple branding example is the “Think Different” blitz, about which Steve Jobs said afterwards that “it took maybe 60 seconds to re-establish Apple’s counter-culture image that it had lost during the 90s.”

Similar ‒ but more controversial ‒ to Apple’s Think Different advertising is Johnnie Walker’s “Walk with Giants” campaign that shows videos featuring running legends Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat.

In an older post on this blog, I have written about a series of Hollywood-style movie trailers we created in Alcatel (today, Alcatel-Lucent) to pitch our portfolio of broadband solutions. “The Convergence Factor” was probably the most impactful, but certainly the most fun business presentation I created and delivered in my whole career.

Two other of my favorite brand stories come from FMCG giant Unilever. Ask any woman what Dove stands for, and she will tell you about the “Real Beauty” campaign, showing non-stereotype women, in different ages, shapes and colors, with real curves, wrinkles and spots.

Dove-firming

A memorable video published in the Real Beauty campaign reports on an experiment in which a forensics artist draws sketches of different women. A first one based on each woman’s personal description of herself, and a second one based on the description given by a stranger. Experience the movie and understand what makes it so powerful….

The “Lifebuoy” campaign, also by Unilever, hits the storytelling spot too. It addresses the necessity to change the hand washing behavior of one billion people in developing countries – and as such help reduce respiratory infections and diarrhea, the world’s two biggest causes of child mortality.

As can be learned from the Unilever examples, sustainability stories are often good recipes for success. A growing number of eco-, local– and fairtrade-labeled products succeed in seducing consumers with the promise of contributing to a greener, healthier and fairer world. Read also my post about “the good life”, which tells about a farm in Denmark that manages to sell eggs at three times the market price thanks to a “happy chickens must lay delicious eggs” message.

Another example of a sustainability message comes from my own employer’s “Campus in the Cloud” project that aims to bridge the knowledge gap for those who have no or little access to education by leveraging our in-house skills, talent and communications technology. Alcatel-Lucent employees share their knowledge by creating short (10-15 min) educational videos, which are made available to children and young adults.

Here’s one more. “Nike Better World” tells us how sports contribute to developing the next generation of youth with skills such as teamwork, determination, self-confidence, creativity, resilience, and physical and emotional health.

But not only big multinationals are good in story marketing. Belgian communication agency Mosquito introduces itself on LinkedIn with: “We believe that, whoever claims that his behavior cannot be changed by a small thing, has never slept in a room with a single Mosquito…”. You’ll never have to guess again about where the company’s name came from – or what it stands for.

More reading on stories and brands:

Playing at a theater near you

In this week’s post I’m writing about what was probably the most impactful, but certainly the most fun business presentation I delivered in my whole career. A genuine example of transmedia storytelling, even before the concept and the term were widely used.

In 2005 –in-between the burst of the internet bubble and the demise of Lehman Brothers– when there was still corporate money to spend on single-customer marketing campaigns, my company (at that time pre-merger Alcatel) organized a solutions showcase for a major UK customer. To generate interest and create an upfront hype, we organized it as a private event near the customer’s London headquarters and promoted it as a Hollywood blockbuster movie: “The Convergence Factor”.

tcf

The Convergence Factor theme was chosen to highlight the effect that the availability of broadband technologies and the convergence of telecom services (fixed and mobile, voice and data, communications and entertainment, …) could have on people’s every day lives. Consequently, the script of the showcase was emphasizing on the business value of these converging technologies, the opportunity to create new applications, and the unprecedented user experience they were enabling – rather than doing a sales pitch on our products or solutions.

A tagline “Life Held Them Prisoner, Until Convergence Set Them Free” complemented the title to suggest drama, and intrigue and engage our target audience. All campaign elements such as direct mails, teaser trailer, web portal, event signage and give-away gadgets were also branded with the Convergence Factor identity.

The presentation itself was delivered as a transmedia mix of three distinctive, on-stage narratives with live demos, interspersed by tailor-made Hollywood-style movie trailers produced by Twist & Shout, a UK-based communications agency.

Instead of doing one single performance in front of a plenary audience, we decided to present intimately to groups of 5 to 10 people, who could freely register for a session depending on their availability.  As such, my colleague and I gave 15 presentations over a period of 5 days, and reached out to an audience of almost 150 customer executives.

Have a look at the trailer and the movies, and try to imagine what the presentation might have been like. I’m sure our customer still remembers…

Highway 61 revisited

Last week, I had to prepare and deliver an Alcatel-Lucent company presentation to a broad, local, and non-technical public of all ages. That’s quite a challenge indeed. How do you explain high-tech concepts, products and solutions such as optical transmission, IP routers, ADSL, 3G and 4G mobile networks, customer experience management, etc. to the mother of your colleague or to a 10-year-old child? After some reflection, I decided to use the metaphor of a highway as the lead theme of my story.

Metaphors are great tools for storytellers. As they create an implied comparison between seemingly unrelated objects and/or concepts, they offer us a creative means to convey much more content compared to only talking about the naked topic of your presentation. Furthermore, well-chosen analogies are understood cross-culturally and cross-functionally and so they appeal to all audiences.

So, here’s how I educated, entertained and engaged the crowd on how Alcatel-Lucent ensures that there are no traffic jams on the digital highway… (view the full presentation on SlideShare)

I started with an introduction, unwinding the fact that the global population will create, consume and communicate about 2 zettabytes of digital information in 2012. A quick poll among the people in the room (“Who of you owns a smartphone? A tablet? Has an internet connection? Watches digital TV? …) identified each single one of them as an active contributor to the imminent data storm.

Two zettabytes – two sextillion bytes, or a 2 followed by 21 zeroes–  is the amount of binary data that can be stored on 137.5 billion iPads. If you stack all these devices into containers and transport them by road, you’ll get a 9000 kilometers long colonne of trucks. Reaching from Antwerp to Shanghai. And still there are no traffic jams on the digital highway!

As such, I had laid the foundation for the rest of my talk. Building upon the figure of speech of a jamless highway, I could comprehensively introduce my company’s communication technologies, product portfolio and R&D activities in a way (that turned out to be) well understood by most.

  • Assuming a digital highway section is about 10 Gigabits per second wide, an optical fiber –which is thinner than a human hair– can contain almost 900 of these high-speed tracks;
  • IP routers are like super cloverleaf junctions, interconnecting up to 1600 incoming and outgoing freeways. All (data) traffic can merge onto intersecting roads without having to slow down or stop;
  • Wireline and wireless broadband access technologies, such as xDSL and 4G LTE mobile networks, provide the entrance and exit ramps. Over the past decades, access speed has increased by a factor of 2000;
  • Driving a vehicle is about the comfort, safety and convenience of drivers and passengers. Customer experience solutions help service providers closing the gap between customers’ expectations and experience;
  • Highway infrastructure needs to be planned, constructed, maintained and serviced. This is why professional services are needed to make the (road) network work;
  • Research on new technologies and applications is necessary to anticipate with a changing market demand for eco-sustainable and connected cars. In the near future, drivers and passengers will no longer have to carry any content but get it streamed to their vehicle while driving.

People liked the story and grasped the message. I got lots of positive feedback: “my parents understood your presentation” and “my kids thought you told a cool story.”  Are there any greater compliments a technology speaker can get?

Some guidelines for finding the right metaphors to spark your presentations and using them effectively can be found in these Way Beyond Ordinary and SOAP Presentations blog posts.