Ditch the essay. Find the story. Hook the reader.

Like a good story, good thought leadership shifts the way readers see the world. It plants a seed that grows long after the words are forgotten. It opens readers to new possibilities and starts new conversations.

The ultimate goal of thought leadership is to show the audience that you’re a credible partner. Stories can help you do that, but there’s a more directly compelling reason to use stories in thought leadership: They keep people reading.

Think about the lead. There’s a good reason journalists call it the hook. It’s the most important part of an article because it determines whether the reader will stick around. Many journalists like the anecdotal lead because it draws readers in. It presents a protagonist with a problem that the reader identifies with.

Harvard Business School’s case study guidelines suggest that the “worthiness of the protagonist” who has tried to “overcome high barriers” will increase the odds that readers will “relish the challenge” of engaging with same issues as the main character.

If you’ve been to business school, you may remember being picked up and carried along by the first words of a Harvard case study. For instance, the case study “Can Nice Guys Finish First?” starts with:

Adam Baker had been bothered all day by the blunt message his boss and mentor, Merwyn Straus, had delivered to him on the phone that morning: Adam was not the right guy to lead their company’s latest venture.

“That door isn’t open to you” was how Merwyn had put it. It was one of those comments that sting a bit at first but inflict much more pain as time passes.

We immediately identify with Adam. We know from the title that he’s a nice guy. But he has just heard something that would bother anyone: he’s not good enough. We’re already in his corner, ready to join him in his struggle. Even better, we don’t know the outcome yet, but we want to.

You’ll look far and wide before you find an anecdotal lead in B2B services thought leadership. More typical is the essay-style lead, which starts with a description of the situation or problem.

A typical lead is: “The past few years have witnessed widespread change in the manufacturing sector.” Or a report might begin, “Overseas travel by high-net-worth consumers is expected to grow, fueling increased demand for luxury goods.”

The information may be valuable. It may establish the authors as experts in their field. But it’s unlikely to read by more than a handful of executives.

Consider this: According to Google, the average bounce rate across all web pages is about 40%. Of the readers who stay, only 22% scroll to the bottom. Many don’t even get to the halfway mark. (Slate made fun of short attention spans in a piece titled “You Won’t Finish This Article.”)

How do you plan to keep your audience reading? We all have a “story reflex.” Any whiff of a story and we want to know what happens next. Think about how to use that reflex the next time someone propose a thought leadership initiative.

(Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on The Marketing Strategist, the IT Services Marketing Association blog.)

Thought leadership vs "always be closing"

In "To Sell is Human," psychologist Daniel Pink redefines the sales acronym ABC: Always Be Closing, as Alec Baldwin shouted so memorably in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Pink has a different idea. He says that ABC stands for a kinder and more effective method of selling: attunement, buoyancy and clarity.

  • Attunement is a message that resonates with the audience.
  • Buoyancy combines straight talk with a positive outlook.
  • Clarity is the ability to make sense of complex situations.

Pink's ABC isn't a bad description of what thought leadership should be. It's not sales material in the conventional sense. Instead, it's a top-of-the-funnel awareness- and credibility-building message with a vision and viewpoint that resonates with customers and helps them address the challenges they face. Customers are “sold” as they learn valuable lessons. 

Think of thought leadership as a way of enabling every customer and prospect to talk to an expert with deep understanding, a positive outlook and a desire to help. There are such people. But most customers don’t get to talk to them. There aren’t enough to go around.

In early-stage companies, anyone a customer talks to is an expert because a small core of founders does everything. As companies grow, silos emerge. Sales, marketing, and subject matter specialists form their own tribes. Customers who want insight and expertise often get pitches instead.

The term "thought leadership selling" refers to the way buyers, especially buyers of B2B services, want to be sold to: with compelling ideas. It’s a useful term because it links thought leadership to revenue. But it’s also easily misunderstood because “selling” brings to mind boiler rooms rather than conference rooms.

As part of the process leading to a decision to buy, however, thought leadership is very much part of selling. And although salespeople will never become pure subject matter experts, a little bit of expertise goes a long way—especially when true subject matter rock stars are in short supply, billed out to existing customers and wearing a dozen different hats.

How would your customers react if salespeople became subject matter experts in their own right? It’s not impossible. Becoming an expert is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Think of the one-eyed man—and remember that we’re all one-eyed men, flanked by the blind on one side and the fully sighted on the other.

In some situations, your salespeople may already be subject matter experts. In others, a little help from marketing—a 15-minute presentation at the sales meeting, a script, a few slides in the deck—can help salespeople take the conversation further and build more credibility with customers.

Of course you can do a lot more to help salespeople elevate their conversations. The point is that there’s an entire range of subject matter expertise. Perfect is good. Better is best. To the extent you build bridges between full-blown thought leadership content and sales conversations, you’ll be helping salespeople become better at engaging customers.

Aristotle taught that persuasion requires credibility, logic, and emotion (ethos, logos, and pathos). Thought leadership selling provides all three: the credibility that comes with targeted knowledge, the logic of a resonant argument, and the emotional connection that comes with personal engagement. Helping salespeople achieve all three may be the highest form of sales enablement.

21 data viz lessons from David McCandless

In April I spent a half-day at a hotel in Soho listening to David McCandless, the London-based data journalist, designer, and author of Knowledge is Beautiful and Information is Beautiful. The workshop was a bit pricey, but tax-deductible for self-employed folks like me, and when I listened to David and talked to the creative directors and data geeks around me it was clear that I had found my tribe. David's manner is open, low key and thoughtful. This is a guy comfortable in his own skin, nothing to prove, no need to hear the sound of his own voice, plenty to show and say, doing his best to be of service to the audience.

I took notes. Not very good notes, but from them came this list of 21 tips from David:

Rules for visualizations

1. The word media comes from mediate. That's what a good visualization does: mediate between facts and audience.

2. A good visualization has four hooks: trust (which comes from data), interest (from the story), a goal or purpose (which cuts extraneous detail and makes the visualization efficient) and impact (which comes from the design).

3. Four more elements: the what (the data or information), the "exactly what" (the concept), the why (goal or purpose) and the how (the design).

Finding your story

4. Start building your visualization with a question. (Here's one: Do horoscopes all say the same thing? It led to scraping text from horoscopes and doing a 12-sign word cloud in the shape of wheel, with the shade and size of the text indicating amount and frequency of the advice.)

5. The biggest story is always fear. (It's that fast thinking again.)

How to

6. The sequence: First an idea or question, then a concept (idea rounded out and made explainable), then an iterative circle of sketching, researching and designing.

7. Start the design with a sketch, the rougher the better. Keeping it rough allows you to iterate without fear.

8. Stay in sketch mode as long as you can.

9. Even if the type of chart seems obvious, sketch your data in different ones. The star chart. The bar chart. The bubble chart. The cycle diagram. Keep on going.

10. To make the data more interesting, ask more questions. Add more layers. Repeat as necessary.

The data

11. Once you understand the data, the rest is easy. 80% of the work is the data work. (It's 90% in the suffering-statistics-storytelling breakdown I wrote about here.)

12. When you have data left over, consider how it could be encoded and added to what you've already got.

13. Amounts may be interesting. But comparisons among amounts is where the story lies.

14. Six dimensions, often conflated, of what people call "big data": gathering, handling, structuring, examining, discovering and delivering.

The qualitative data

15. Use concept maps for qualitative data. (Concept maps have the advantage of being able to hold contradictory ideas.)

16. Visualizing quantitative data is all about finding a structure. Once you've found a structure, you can visualize it.

The image

17. Consider which variables map to which elements of visual language (color, shape, position, pattern, frequency, proximity, opacity, etc.).

18. Anything that requires a legend to explain is unnatural. No legend, natural. Unnatural isn't bad, but take it too far and the visual becomes distracting decoration.

19. Think about where you'll want to zoom in (for detail) or zoom out (for context and comparisons).


20. Learning is all about playing. Playing is all about trying things out.

21. Play. Play. And play some more.

The promise of D3

I've used Tableau to create visualizations for years. It's a great tool, but there are problems with it. It takes a long time to render in the browser. The learning curve is steep for some of the mapping and network visualization things that I want to do. As with many menu-driven point-and-click programs, an interface designed to make things easy actually makes it hard to see what's happening beneath the hood. Enter D3:

D3 ia a JavaScript library for manipulating documents based on data. D3 helps you bring data to life using HTML, SVG and CSS. D3’s emphasis on web standards gives you the full capabilities of modern browsers without tying yourself to a proprietary framework, combining powerful visualization components and a data-driven approach to DOM manipulation.

D3 renders in the browser almost instantly, at least for simple charts, and it has given rise to a burst of creativity the developer community. Here's my first attempt: a chart showing the frequency of use for each letter in the alphabet, based on the WordPress-d3 For Dummies  tutorial for the WPD3 WordPress plugin.

[d3-source canvas="wpd3-914-0"]

Catfish tempura

A few months ago I saw the Jon Favreau movie Chef. The parts that stood out were the food truck mashups. As Favreau drives from Miami to LA, he incorporates local ingredients to make new dishes. He starts out Cuban - mojo-marinated pork shoulder - and gets more Mexican as he passes through Texas. Yucca fries with banana ketchup. Tostones with chile vinegar. My contribution? Japan meets the Mississippi Delta: catfish tempura.

Catfish tempura



Conversations with cyborgs

You can optimize a sales script just like the Democratic National Committee optimizes the subject lines on its fund-raising e-mails. A-B testing on a mass scale. If everything goes according to plan, that optimized script works great. But sometimes a script is useless or even harmful. I was delivering a talk in a workshop. There was pushback from the audience. I had to change direction. If I had stuck with the script, I would have lost them. It wasn't comfortable for the audience to watch me scrambling for a new direction. It was even less comfortable for me. But once I found a new angle, we were able to continue and salvage a useful discussion.

That's the idea behind new call center software that lets you play a script that you've prerecorded, then switch to the real-time you when the person on the other end asks an unexpected question, raises an objection, or simply won't follow your script. If you've pre-recorded scripts for the most common questions or objections, you don't even need to switch to the real you. You can just tap a key and pull up hugh grantanother script from your playlist.

The real-you part is how you normally talk - stumbling and inarticulate but flexible and authentic and ideally even charming. The Hugh Grant thing. It's for the transitions between the pre-recorded pieces, which are optimized for maximum persuasive and emotional impact.

In other words, your call-center rep isn't quite human anymore. She's part human, part machine - a cyborg carefully evolved to take care of your problem, get you off the phone quickly, and possibly charm you in the process.

The game before the game

For a lifelong east-coast guy, a big draw of Friday Night Lights is the anthropology - West Texas city modeled on Odessa, Texas, oil is almost gone, everyone wants out, football is God, lots of emotional hardship and pathos. The Buzz Bissinger book was a dark,  anti-sports book - and the TV show, while not as dark, still subverts the sports genre. Every episode starts on Saturday morning and progresses through eight acts: seven days of the week and the game on Friday night.

But Episode One is different. It doesn't show the game. The first seven acts show the preparation through the week. The final act is 30 seconds: a kickoff, the ball suspended in the floodlights, and then the credits. We don't know who won.

The writers are telling us that the game doesn't matter. It's the process leading up to the game. It's the systems-vs-goals discussion from the Scott Adams book How to Fail at Everything quoted on Eugene Wei's Remains of the Day. Put one foot in front of the other. Do the work. Follow the steps. Leave the outcome to God.


Don't put your people into an idiosyncratic niche

Instead, give them what they need to grow and succeed in the larger world. Of course your organization is unique. But for individual employees, learning unique skills and tools carries a price. That price is overspecialization, cognitive overload, and the inability to join larger communities of users. A few examples:

  • Your organization has its own stylebook. All stylebooks are somewhat arbitrary, but yours is both arbitrary and unique. Follow the AP Stylebook. Or the Chicago Manual of Style. Or the New York Times. Don't force your people to follow rules that aren't used anywhere else.
  • You bought a little software package that fits your own personal style of working. That's fine. Don't force everyone to use it. SPSS is dying? Adopt SAS or R. Accounting uses homegrown Excel forms built with VBA? Replace them with a QuickBooks add-on.

Choose platforms that are widely used. Follow rules that are widely held. Your employees will thank you.

How we outsource suffering

We send our garbage overseas. It can be real garbage or it can be shitty experiences, like call centers where foreigners listen to us complain, and read a rote script in response. Or manually parsing data - tedious, endless, Sisyphian. That's one kind of outsourcing. Another kind is getting angry at others. Talking down to them. Feeling good by making them feel bad. Outsourcing our feelings of inadequacy by pushing them onto other people.

The "out" in outsourcing is closer than we think. Abusive parents produce children who abuse their own kids. Bullying bosses lead to subordinates who bully. Abuse leads to more abuse. Shit rolls...and keeps rolling. When you try to outsource feelings, they sometimes come back to slice you like a boomerang.

Simple words: a straight shot into the minds of others

Like the words in the headline, which passed the test of the Upgoer Five Text Editor. It tells you when you've used a word that isn't in the ten hundred most frequently used words of English. (The word "thousand" isn't in the top thousand.)  I'm addicted to this editor, which I heard about from my niece. (Here's a description of her PhD thesis.) Simple words cut the cognitive distance between ideas and audience. People shouldn't read something and say, "Wow, that's good writing." Instead, they should say, "Wow, those are great ideas," or "Wow, I want to try that. " Simple words help you mainline your ideas into the brain of the reader. I like elegant usage as much as the next guy. But what I like more is racing through a post and coming away energized and inspired. Simple language is one key to doing that.

The other key? Compelling ideas expressed passionately. I've got a formula for that too. Maybe in another post.

Scary names

Scary Names These jokey, conceptual scatterplots never get old. I notice there is now one in The New York Times Magazine every week:

To me, they're so overly clever that they aren't funny. It's the Times trying to pretend that it has readers under the age of 50.  Or that the readers actually know what's on TV other than Mad Men and PBS.

We are what we are studying

I find Andrew Gelman inscrutable when he talks about multilevel models and annoying when he talks about data visualization, but he's always interesting.  Today, in a post on the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins,  he captured my aspirational worldview on matters political:

"What struck me is the relevance of this 'anthropological'  mode of thinking to political science, where we must have understanding and sympathy for a wide spectrum of political opinions ranging from opposition to interracial marriage (supported by 46% of respondents in a recent poll of Mississippi Republican voters) to support for the nationalization of the means of production (still a popular position in many European countries, or so I’ve heard). As a political scientist studying public opinion, I have certain tools and academic experiences. But I am fundamentally the same kind of object as the people I am studying. It’s an obvious point but still worth remembering."

As much as we divide ourselves into tribes, we're all pretty much the same. Step back, take a breath, and remember that our variations are small and our commonality is big. There is no 'other.' The other is you.

Scripted interactions turn people into automatons

Scripts are a great way to learn. We get scripts from our parents and our peers. We repeat, internalize and refine. Kids with Asperger's couldn't function without scripts. But if you're going to tell employees to read verbatim from a script, you might as well automate the whole process. Because rather than pay a person to use a computer, you're paying him to be a computer. Says David Heinemeier Hansson at 37Signals:

Most corporate customer service departments seem to have been reduced to call scripts of apologies with no power whatsoever to actually address the problems they encounter. That’s the conclusion I’m left with after dealing with three business bureaucracies this year: Comcast, Verizon, and American Airlines.

PhoneRobotThe only reason to talk to a  person is that a person can solve problems that a machine can't. Generalized scripts are great: These are your options, this is what I can do, here are some alternatives. Then the general script gets translated into human-speak: open, immediate, smart, honest, and informal. It starts as a script and a person makes it human. And even if the problem can't be solved to the customer's satisfaction, most customers - not all, but most - will walk away from the call feeling better for having touched someone.


A New Yorker's Rosetta Stone to Boston neighborhoods

When I moved to Boston a few months ago, I didn't know anything about where to live. My friend Sam Knox over at CFO  offered to put Boston into terms that I could understand. Here is his guide.

Boston New York
Beacon Hill Murray Hill
South End West Village
Back Bay Upper East Side
Kenmore Square The upscale Village near NYU
Dorchester Bronx
Mattapan Harlem
Brighton Woodside Queens
Alston Woodside, Queens
South Boston Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Archie and Edith would be right at home.  Now gentrified.
North End Little Italy.  Touristy Italian food.  No parking.  NO street crime.
Brookline Village, Upper West Side, Chelsea.  Coolidge Corner is wonderful.
Quincy Queens. Was Irish and FOB labor for shipyard.  Now many Chinese and Brazilians.  All reasonable. some very nice.


Where did I end up living? Well, I had to commute to Lexington out beyond 128 every day, so it wasn't like I could live in Dorchester. I ended up in Arlington. Sam's take:

Boston New York
Arlington A dull, cheap bedroom community. At least it's not Belmont.
Belmont The upscale Arlington (now featured in Charles Murray's "Coming Apart" - and not kindly)
Other suburbs Stay inside 128. Don't ever go outside it.



Work for the machines? Not if I can help it

This article in Wired describes what happens when the QS (quantified self) movement meets workflow automation. I'm about to launch a survey on marketing automation and this idea is very relevant. As in, if you're not working for the machines now, you will be soon.

Emissary from SkyNetIn a way it's more insidious than SkyNet - at least you can blow up SkyNet, or you could if it weren't distributed.

We were talking about this last night at a professional meeting, though not exactly in these terms. You go to a website. A box pops up and asks if you found what you're looking for. If you say no, it tries to get you to chat with customer service. If you say yes, it sends you to Amazon or Yelp and tries to get you to leave a positive review.

As a customer, you end up feeling manipulated, violated and turned off.  Just because you can automate something doesn't mean you should. Especially when you're talking to people with choices, people you don't want to alienate, like customers.

If it's employees that you're manipulating, you've got more power. But that still doesn't mean it's a good idea. The effects may not be visible in the short term. Employees will grit their teeth and go through the motions. But when the revolution comes, you know where the guns will be aimed.

The power law of art schools

It's amazing the number of prominent artists who taught at or passed through the Art Students League on West 57th Street. It's not a particularly prestigious school. Anyone can take classes. My father did in the 1940s, when the Upper West Side was an Irish slum. But just look at this list: everyone from Frederic Remington, Winslow Homer and Norman Rockwell to Georgia O'Keefe, Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi and Maurice Sendak. (I didn't compile this, just counted it. The source is Wikipedia.)

Powered by Tableau

The Art Students League has a big edge because it has been around since the 1880s. Lots of time to accumulate artists, especially early in their careers. It's part of the New York art cluster (hello, Richard Florida). And anyone can take or teach a class. But what strikes me is how much the U.S. art world has not been centered on New York. You've got to go down to No. 8 to find another New York school - Parsons - and the next one, NYU's well-endowed Tisch, doesn't come up until No. 13.

Are Wikipedia entries the best way to gauge an artist's prominence? Sure, as long as you don't confuse prominence (which you can measure) with quality (which you can't). The best thing about Wikipedia entries is that you can count them.

The Economist as the center of the magazine world

A few years ago - in 2006, to be exact - I wrote a scraper to crawl Amazon.com's affinity links for The Economist. Think of affinity links as the basis for Amazon.com's recommendation engine. They're the links at the bottom of each page with headings like "People who subscribe to The Economist also subscribe to..." These links give you a recommendation: If you like The Economist, you're also likely to be interested in, say, Foreign Affairs or The New Yorker rather than Guns & Ammo or Mother Earth News. I wrote the spider in Perl (though since then I’ve moved on to Python, executing my scrapers on the great ScraperWiki site). Once I had the data, I put it into Pajek – a wonderful network visualization program out of Slovenia's University of Ljubljana – and gave the resulting diagram to an artist over at The Economist. People who read The Economist... The board of directors over at The Economist loved this diagram because it showed their magazine as a bridge among high-end specialist publications. (Just avert your eyes from Wired, which has a similar claim.) It’s exactly what a sophisticated general interest newsweekly should be.

But much more came out of this exercise than a flattering diagram for The Economist. How is Martha Stewart Living connected to Soldier of Fortune? You’ll have to talk to me to find out. Or maybe dig a little through the older posts of this blog.

The party of the rich? They're all rich.

The other day on a Dutch blog I saw an offhand statement about the Republican candidates being a bunch of plutocrats. It made me curious about who the rich presidents - and presidential candidates - really were. An annual income of about $380,000 puts you in the 1% nationally. In Washington, where most of these guys live, it's more: about $520,000 per year, says the New York Times.

Of course it's dangerous to conflate net worth and income. But the net worth data is easier to get. A site called 24/7 Wall Street has gathered the data and adjusted every president's net worth to its equivalent in 2010 dollars. (Because a number of early presidents made and lost fortunes, net worth is measured at its peak.) And a few Google searches yield the same information for recent presidential candidates like McCain, Kerry and Gore.

The result? Look at all the blue in the chart. Leaving aside the Virginia land barons like Washington and Jefferson, the Democrats have an edge in raw wealth. The richest Republican aside from Romney was Teddy Roosevelt, who wasn't exactly a Tea Partier. Back then, the Democrats were corrupt and the Republicans were the reformers. The next richest Republican? Herbert Hoover, with about $70 million.

The 15 presidents not on the chart had a net worth of close to zero. Lincoln, Grant, Coolidge, Truman, Taft - all frugal civil servants.

In general, though, forget about the parties. The presidency is a rich man's game - no matter what party you're from.

Why is this so funny?

I love the 2x2 matrix: a scatter plot with a four-square grid imposed over it. But as a visual metaphor, the matrix is overused. It's also laden with jargon. Each square gets its own catchy phrase, like "cash cows" or "problem children." Instead of revenue growth vs market share, try pineapples vs seedless grapes. I'll take easy and tasty. From xkcd, courtesy the heroic and hilarious Barry Ritholtz. The 2x2 matrix: Popularized by Bible salesman turned management consultant Bruce Henderson, founder of Boston Consulting Group.