Books People Technology PR Web/Tech

Dan Roam’s “Back of a Napkin” approach to visual thinking (and how I bought the book).

Dan Roam’s “The Back of the Napkin” book about visual thinking is a novel approach to problem solving (and deserves a blog post all of its own)

Informative blog too.

However, I thought it worth examining how I went from not knowing a thing about Dan Roam at midday on Saturday, to understanding a lot more about him and buying his book nearly 11 hours later – as well as finding out a few other interesting things along the way.

Here’s the text based version of events (the diagram above is my own pen and paper effort based on Roam’s tips).

1. My wife buys a copy of The Guardian on Saturday. Leaves me the Sport, Money and Work sections.

2. I look at the front page of the Work Section. Feature entitled “Sketch It Out”. I read about Dan Roam’s book The Back of The Napkin – all about visual thinking and how to use drawing as a highly efficient aid to problem solving (Key message: you don’t need to be able to draw). Note: Guardian offers book to readers for £14.99 – I decide to do more research before committing to buying – and will certainly check Amazon first before buying.

3. Intrigued, I decide later that evening to Google Dan Roam. Top result is for Digital Roam, his own company. Spend a few mins looking at website – then check out his blog. Some very interesting posts

4. Download some PDFs of his visual thinking toolkit – Napkin Tools.

5. Watch Youtube video of Dan Roam presenting to Google staff.

6. Subscribe to Dan Roam’s RSS Feed

6. Decide to buy book (£9.99). Go to to purchase. End up buying another book – Garr Reynolds Presentation Zen – purely on the back of Amazon recommendations (and because I was in book buying mood).

7. Via Dan Roam’s blog, go to Hans Rosling’s and video – now that’s how to present data!

You may think this is an extraordinary effort to decide whether or not to buy a book. But it is only when you detail all the various elements that went into this particular buying process that you begin to understand some of complexity of PR and marketing today.

And Dan Roam and Garr Reynolds both got a book sale out of me – although the routes to each one were very different. And Hans Rosling’s work was a revelation. What a wonderful world we live in.

Books General PR People Technology PR

How the 80/20 principle dominates PR, social media and life

Richard Koch’s book The 80/20 Principle was first published in 1997 and went on to become a cult business classic (500,000+ copies sold. He later wrote the 80/20 Way which extended the approach to life generally).

I only properly read both books recently as a result of the suggested reading list in Tim Ferris’ Four Hour Work Week (it made me realise what a big debt Ferris owes to these earlier works – in many ways, the 4HWW philosophy is a practical application of Koch’s 80/20 approach).

So what is the 80/20 Principle? In short, it is an extended application of Pareto’s Principle (Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist, 1848 – 1923, was looking at patterns of wealth and income in 19th century England. He found that 20pc of the population enjoyed 80pc of the wealth – he also found that you could reliably predict that 10pc would have 65pc and 5pc would have 50pc. The key point is not the percentages, but the fact that the distribution of wealth across a population was predictably unbalanced).

Koch’s insight was to apply this predictable imbalance across a whole host of business and life phenomena. However, reading his books made me realise that although the 80/20 concept gets bandied around a lot, people often miss the subtlety of what Koch was getting act. For example:

80/20 is simply shorthand – the ratio could be anything 90/10, 70/30, etc. In fact, it doesn’t need to add up to 100 eg 70/20. The key point is that a 50/50 relationship between two sets of related phenomena is the exception rather than the rule. And yet, we naturally act as though the norm is a direct correlation between input and output or effort and reward.

The principle is thus counterintuitive. As Koch points out: “High performers are not 10 or 20 times more intelligent than other people – it is the methods and resources they use that are unusually powerful.”

Take some of his examples: Less than 20pc of all recorded music is played more than 80pc of the time; Fewer than 20pc of clouds will produce 80pc of rain, etc.

Let’s look at the world of PR and social media (I have no scientific evidence for these examples – I suggest them as possible ratios – why not analyse these in your own business and see what results you get:

20pc of agency employees do 80pc of the work clients value

5pc of companies gain more than 80pc of press coverage

Less than 1pc of press releases generate 99pc of press interest

Less than 10pc of your press contacts generate 100pc of the press coverage

Less than 10pc of your blog posts generate more than 90pc of the blog hits

I’m sure you can come up with many more. The point Koch would no doubt make is that in many cases, people will carry on behaving as though there is a 50:50 relationship in the above examples.

As Koch says, the world is resolutely non-linear. By focussing on and analysing the 20pc of inputs that generate the 80pc benefit in all cases, you should be able to obtain significant gains. Less is more.

Books Technology PR Web/Tech

How to guarantee a successful career in PR for $30

I’m willing to bet that if you spoke to most people working in PR today, the name Avinash Kaushik would mean nothing to them. Even amongst the PR 2.0 digeratti, I suspect he is largely unknown. At best they might be aware he is Google’s Analytics evangelist. Those who have read his 400+ page book on Web Analytics could, I’m sure, be counted on one hand.

Well, I’m now one of them. And what a revelation. This book works on so many levels. First, it is easily the most practical and informative book on the subject of web analytics. Which would make it valuable in its own right. But perhaps more than that, he outlines a practical blueprint for a data driven, outcome based approach to business generally. Which by definition includes PR.

In many ways, he provides the real world road map for Davenport and Harris’ Competing On Analytics. The basic argument of this book is that those companies investing unreservedly in building competitive strategies based around data driven insights will significantly outperform those companies that don’t. The secret sauce here is the use of analytics: sophisticated quantitative and statistical analysis and predictive modelling. Some nice case studies too.

And hard to disagree with their arguments – however, they didn’t really provide a hands on, practical way to begin implementing such a strategy. And being selfish, I couldn’t quite see how it would work in the world of PR.

Kaushik provides the missing link. It is a huge book – and nearly every page contains some great insight – it is also helped by the fact that he is a marvelous writer. He has a great gift for explanation and a witty, illuminating phrase. I have enough material for 100 blog posts rather than just one, but I thought I’d highlight a few things that really bought my eye:

The 10/90 rule: according to Kaushik, in the context of web analytics, you should allocate 10pc of your budget for tools and 90pc on paying for human beings with analytical skills. This in many ways mirrors what I and Mr Waddington have been banging on about recently – that the cost of tools to support the job of PR are now trending to zero – and that client money should be spent on value added skills. However, Kaushik’s book made me realise that skills in data analysis will not be confined to web analytics. Businesses will increasingly demand people who can justify PR and marketing recommendations on the basis of real data and genuine analysis.

Line of sight metrics: How connected are PR metrics to genuine business metrics? While the industry still seems to be floundering around trying to develop an acceptable standard for PR evaluation, the Web analytics industry can now potentially offer the ability to connect PR value to real business outcomes. There is no reason why PR campaigns can’t now be built that can be measured and evaluated in the context of metrics that really matter to a business rather than busted flush approaches like advertising equivalence.

Statistical significance: How many people working in PR today have a grasp of statistical significance? Even those who are more advanced in evaluation and analysis probably don’t apply it as a matter of course. To use a trivial example, compare the results of two press releases you sent out – how do you know whether there is a valid statistical difference between the results of the two. Guess what. There are free tools available that will tell you.

A culture of testing and experimentation: the world of web analytics lives by tests and experiments. The world changes so quickly that you have to test and learn on a daily basis. Again, how many PR companies have an ingrained culture of testing and experiment? While debates rage about the social media press release template, why not just get on with it and test different types of approach and see what works and what doesn’t. Why are we getting hung up about the need for a template when all we should bother about is whether something works for the people it is aimed at (and why the case studies for SMRs are thin on the ground).

How many useful free tools are there out there? Loads. And Kaushik lists most of them. I’ll save a complete list for later. But here’s one that made me think. Microsoft AdCenter has a pile of free tools for SEO. Admittedly its only based on MS search results rather than Google, but it gives you a clue as to where the world is going. One of these tools not only tells you what keywords people are searching on, but it makes a prediction of future trends. Imagine. Not only can you test your PR messaging today, but you get a sense of whether those messages will become more or less relevant in the future. That’s mind blowing.

I could go on. But that’s probably enough for now.

So. Buy the book. The future of PR is yours for $30.

Books tech pr Technology PR Uncategorized

Why journalists ignore most press releases. And why they will continue to do so.

Press releases suck says Sally Whittle.

She lists five reasons why most press releases get deleted:

1. Your sentences are too long

2. Your client descriptors make no sense.

3. Your quotes come from robots.

4. Jargon, jargon, jargon.

5. You sent it to the wrong people.

Read Sally’s post for the detail behind each of these. She says: “I can’t help but think that something has to change.”

Sadly, things probably won’t change. In fact, she nails the reason why in a comment to her own post: “The problem is that nobody dies when this stuff happens, and nobody is really offended.”

Journalists have simply come to regard poor press releases as a necessary evil – a constant background noise. Like tinnitus.

Clients still approve copy. And PR firms still get paid.

Can it really be that hard to follow some basic rules of copywriting?

For want of a few pounds spent on reading the books of David Ogilvy or Alastair Crompton, an entire industry could pull its socks up.

(One of Ogilvy’s many memorable lines was: “Always give your product a first-class ticket through life.” So why do so many clients and their PR advisors allow 4th class press releases?)

However, I suspect there is a much deeper reason for why press releases will continue being deleted in droves by Sally and her colleagues.

Any fule knos that a headline should contain a benefit statement – whether an ad or a press release. Scan SourceWire or ResponseSource and see how many headlines contain a discernible benefit.

Not many, eh?

And whether a journalist receives a press release via e-mail or RSS, the headline is the route to success. Given the dire standard of headline writing, is it any wonder so many releases get ignored.

Why is that?

It must be either:

a) The PR company hasn’t done enough homework to work out what the benefit should be. Or the client hasn’t briefed the PR well enough to allow a benefit to be discovered.

b) There are no real distinctive benefits.

I suspect in most cases, the answer is b).

That would explain reasons 1 – 4 on Sally’s list. Long sentences are usually a sign that you have difficulty in clearly articulating what you want to say – because there is nothing to say.

Or attempting to obscure the fact you have nothing to say.

Client descriptors make no sense because again they are attempts to make the mundane sound new and interesting – but with no basis in reality. Robotic quotes exist because they have been constructed like Lego. If the person writing the release actually uttered the quote aloud, they’d soon realise that no one of sound mind would pay any attention to it. And jargon is of course another example of trying to dress up mutton as lamb.

The fact is, many press releases should never have been written in the first place – but press releases levels are probably going to continue unabated – and no one will bother.

Then again, perhaps it leaves the field clear for those who can write good headlines and great body copy.

Books Current Affairs digital pr Web/Tech

“The digital revolution is over”: Nicholas Negroponte in 1998

Douglas Adams once described Nicholas Negroponte as someone who: “writes about the future with the authority of someone who has spent a great deal of time there.”

After re-reading his 1995 classic Being Digital and collected Wired magazine columns, I think that is a very valid description.

Being Digital is best remembered for his distinction between bits and atoms – but second time around it made me appreciate how uncannily prescient he was on a whole host of things: mash ups (commingling), the current travails of the music and media industries and the rise of Chindia for example).

But it also made me realise there were lots of other gems he uncovered. One was regarding MIT faculty member Mike Hawley who had looked at the challenge of cramming more music on to a normal CD. As Negroponte described it, the music industry was tacking the problem in a very incremental manner: “by changing the laser from red to blue.” Hawley looked at recording a piano piece as an example – and noticed that the gestural data density, the measurement of finger movement, was very low. In other words, by storing this on the CD and using a MIDI interface, you could get around 5000 hours of music on a single CD.

According to Negroponte: “By looking for the structure in the signals, how they were generated, we go beyond the surface appearance of bits and discover the building blocks out of which the image, sound, or text came. This is one of the most important facts of digital life.”

PR and marketing is still very much about signals (messages) – though as Negroponte stresses: “interaction is implicit.”

Or consider his Dec 1998 Wired column in which he pronounced: “The technology is already beginning to be taken for granted and its connotation will become tomorrow’s commercial and cultural compost for new ideas. Like air and drinking water, being digital will be noticed only by its absence, not its presence.”

A trip through Negroponte’s past writings thus still holds valuable guidance for today and the future.

Books Media SF

Iain M. Banks, Charles Stross and Andrew Bruce Smith: One Magazine

One Magazine - Issue 3

The latest issue of the Edinburgh-based literary and culture magazine One is now out. Excellent interview by Andrew J. Wilson with Iain M. Banks. And SF author (and one time Computer Shopper columnist and Linux guru) Charles Stross has a good piece on his recent trip to Japan:

“They’ve got our future, damn it! It’s not the shiny future of jet packs and food pills—oh no, that’s not what Japan is about—nevertheless, they’ve got it and they’re living in it.”

(Charles’ latest novel, Halting State, is now out – and seems to be generating some good reviews).

And before I forget, there are a couple articles by me in there too: Orwell’s Sound Of Silence and Orwell and the Scots. As ever, writing these features maintains my enduring respect for professional journalists who have to do this kind of thing day in, day out.


Four Hour Work Week (4HWW) – excellent summary

Tim Walker has an excellent summary of Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week – well worth a read.

Books Technology PR

The Low Information Diet (Tim Ferriss)

Tim Ferriss’ book, The Four Hour Work Week, is clearly the business/lifestyle title du jour. Having now topped the New York Times and WSJ best seller lists, he is gaining a cult following over here in the UK and Europe.

In simple terms, it is a book about "lifestyle design" – or how to do the things you really want to do in your life and earn enough cash to do them without having to work 80 hours a week-  and wait until 60 to retire.

There’s obviously a lot more to it than this – he’s very cleverly taken a lot of themes from existing business books on things like the 80/20 rule and wrapped them up with some original insights of his own.

One of the cornerstones of his approach is what he describes as the "Low Information Diet". A common theme running throughout the book is the call to minimise the amount of information input you have to deal with – and focus on maximum output. For example, in terms of e-mail, he recommends an auto responder that says you will only check e-mail twice a day – once at 11am and once at 4pm. If people really need to call you, then you give them a mobile number – according to Ferris, this drastically reduces the number of so-called urgent disruptions you get in a day. (Wonder how many PRs or journalists could get away with this?)

However, he has an even more radical approach to reading newspapers and magazines  – namely, not reading them at all. He claims to have not read a newspaper in 5 years. He devotes a couple of hours per month to reading one trade mag. And according to him, it has had no negative impact on his life or ability to generate income whatsover. In fact, quite the reverse.

From a PR and publishing perspective, this has some interesting implications. His book is clearly very popular. So what if people start adopting Ferriss’ low information diet in great numbers? Will magazine and newspaper circulations begin to fall further as people take this credo to heart and ignore virtually all printed mattter (or other media)?

To be fair to Ferris, he does suggest trying the low information diet for a week or month to see if you can truly remove your addiction – would be interesting to see how many PRs or journalists could get away with adpoting this approach – but perhaps we can indulge in a mass experiment to see if our lives are significantly changed in any way by doing it……


Jargon Watch – more plus ca change

While we are on the subject of books that fell down the back of the filing cabinet, here’s another little pocket book from 10 years ago – Jargon Watch – a pocket dictionary for the jitterati. (Also available on Amazon for 1p.)

The dot come era certainly proved a fertile period for neologisms (coinages) – and interesting to see how some first came about and how they have mutated into current day usage. For example, we are all familiar with the term flashmob – but I hadn’t realised the term was originally "flash crowds" – and this in turn had come from a Larry Niven short story of the same name. In the story, riots break out when thousands of people our out of teleportation booths to see major social events.

Other phases appear to have dropped by the wayside of lexical history (but perhaps we ought to bring some back). A particular favourite of mine is ‘dustbuster’: a phone call or e-mail message sent to someone after a long silence just to "shake the dust off" and see if the connection still works.


Never Confuse A Memo With Reality

During a recent office tidy up, I stumbled across a small book I’d bought about 14 years ago. It’s called Never Confuse A Memo With Reality (and according to Amazon you can pick up a copy for as little as 1p).

It’s simply a series of pithy business aphorisms – and if anything exemplifies the idea of "plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose", this is it.

Here’s a few worthwhile nuggets:

124: Give presentations that tell stories, not just provide data.
135. Spend your department’s (or client’s) budget as if it were your own.
150. Never go to more than two meetings a day or you will never get anything done.
168. Use metaphors to convey your point.
169. Be the first to use technology  don’t fight it. People talk about the Luddites, but they’re history.
171. Being good is important; being trusted is essential.
199. The size of your office is not as important as the size of your pay check.
342. Career planning is an oxymoron. The most exciting opportunities tend to be unplanned.