Posts Tagged 'Mad as hell!'

Selling empowerment by the pound

no lack of power here

If you’re lacking power, don’t worry. There are a lot of people who can sell you something for that. At the time of writing, about 80 press releases in the last week were promising some form of empowerment.

Whether it’s from the ambitiously named Empower MediaMarketing (“Understanding is the bottom line”), which among other recent empowerments organised a Discovery Channel Shark Week promotion for Long John Silver Fish Tacos, or the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association (“to inspire, empower , educate and entertain by showcasing the best golf professionals in the world”), or even the Center for Applied Identity Management Research‘s ongoing efforts “to empower and engage with clients in combating identity theft crimes and mitigating fraud”, there’s a lot of empowerment available – if you can pay for it.

Which isn’t really the point of a word that once described how you give victims of discrimination or poverty the ability to change their lives. Empowerment had an ethical and political meaning, which doesn’t have much relevance to tacos or golf.

The releases that mention empowerment on PR Newswire confirm that empowerment in 2009 usually involves a commercial transaction. It’s empowerment in the sense that if you buy a pair of jeans from me, I empower you to wear some new trousers.

Or, rather: “Possession of the Talk Normal LegRight Solution (TM) empowers the global community of potential denim-wearers to actualise our jeans dreams!” See? We can all get into the action.

According to Factiva, quite a few businesses are getting into it. Empowerment went almost unmentioned until recently, but not now:

I get it: it’s no longer enough to sell us a product, we have to buy a better life. Marketers have hijacked the idea of empowerment to do this, because it’s a no-risk proposition. “We don’t make promises,” these empowerers tell us, “we just sell you something to help you change yourself.”

They don’t make you happy; but they are willing, for a fee, to claim they empower you to achieve happiness. It’s not their fault if you’re too stupid, ugly, poor (or powerless) to make the best of it.

Commercial empowerment: if it works they take the credit. If it doesn’t, that’s your problem.


Post-PowerPoint stress disorder

It’s not exactly pushing the boundaries to say you don’t like PowerPoint. Our common dislike has even become a sort of business non-apology apology. When someone says “I know the last thing you want is death by PowerPoint ha ha”, what they are really saying is, “Sod you. You’re getting 20 slides whether it’s the last thing you want or not.”

I was trying to work out how much of my life I have spent looking at PowerPoint slides. Over the last 15 years, as an absolute minimum, I have spent at least three hours a week looking at presentations. If I spend 12 hours a day awake and get Sundays off to sit in the corner crying softly, that’s two weeks of every year. When I got involved with the exciting worlds of business and technology, sitting in room trying to work out why I am staring at pictures of two racially diverse men shaking hands wasn’t how I saw my future.

I earn some of my money presenting webcasts, where often the preparation time includes the following conversation:

Me: What does the slide with the man punching the air in front of the graph with the line going up next to the cloud inside the interlocking oval shapes balancing on the three pillars mean?
Vendor: (consults notes) It means we add value.

I’ve collected three examples of the type of slides that have been quietly making me crazy in 2009. I know the last thing you want is death by PowerPoint, but I could make that into three bullet points, maybe add a flow chart of my slow descent into fatal madness, perhaps some clip art of a doctor strapping me into the straightjacket…

First category: What the hell are you looking at? Or: why have so many slides got pictures of casually-dressed self-consciously ordinary people looking into the middle distance on them? Like this one from Cap Gemini:

If you’re wondering what the bland expression on the face of the data centre manager is meant to imply to us, I have discovered that he’s thinking these batman pyjamas are comfortable. I offer you this as evidence: recognise the expression?

(Click on the picture to buy the pyjamas. They’re top value at £22 from Great Universal. I’m hoping for commission).

Second, if you need three paragraphs to explain the diagram then you didn’t draw the bloody picture properly. Note to IBM: when you show your diagram to people and they tell you it needs some explanation or it looks like a lot of blobs with arrows coming out of them, don’t make the explanation even more opaque than the picture:

And third, what are you graphing against what? I’m talking about diagrams with the structure of something along the bottom and then two different categories up the sides and then layers of other things at the top and then lines across the middle and then some extra blobs that don’t relate to the graph in the top corners. Best done using bright colours or 3-D shapes so that no one notices.

I know the last thing you want is death by PowerPoint but this next one might just kill you. Combining elements of all the above, here’s one from Big PowerPoint itself that just makes no sense at all:

If you created this slide, I’ll enable one more business imperative for you: I’ll give you a mug if you can explain what it means to me. If the rest of you have any slides that you think deserve an unsympathetic audience, you know who to send them to.

I take comfort in the knowledge that, though I have lost months of my life looking at these crimes against communication, I’m better off than the poor sap who spent years training as a graphic designer and then ended up having to draw them.

Happy Gifting Season!

Don't let small children see this picture

It’s that time of year again: the time when the press runs stories about how loony councils are stealing Christmas. Evidently, it’s political correctness gone mad. Every year you have to start your Christmas rant earlier to beat the rush, and so I discover that the Bishop of Lichfield kicked off the annual they’re stealing our Christmas season more than a month ago.

Religion looks like it is on the way out here, but tell it to the Pagans: they will tell you that no one gets to keep the Winter holiday for ever, you just get to mind it for a while until someone takes it by rebranding it as their own celebration.

The classic scare story is that Birmingham tried to rebrand Christmas as Winterval so that non-Christians wouldn’t get upset. Then there’s Luminos in Luton, for example, which regularly gets remembered as the council’s attempt to take the Christ out of Christmas.

Let’s get this straight: the stories are dangerous rubbish.

Winterval’s a pretty silly name, but you try and find something catchy to call the Winter Solstice, Christmas, Hannukah, Diwali, Eid, and all the other festivals at this time of year. Not to mention, for example, the Pagan holiday called Yule.

Our quaint British War on Christmas worries is small beer compared to what’s going on in the weird mind of Bill O’Reilly at Fox News in the US, where such happenings are part of secular progressive agenda that includes legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage.

That’s one hell of an office party.

If you want to find out who is doing the rebranding, loony councils and crazy teachers are an easy target. But I’ve noticed a charming phrase that’s popping up in news stories and even more in press releases: it appears December is becoming Gifting Season. I can’t find a mention of the phrase before the mid-1980s, and around two thirds of all the mentions of Gifting Season I could find in the press have occurred since 2006. It’s really the only phrase that conveys the profound and committed consumerism of:

The Container Store™ Thinks Outside the Box with the Selection of CashStar’s Online Gift Cards, or

Carphone Warehouse’s 21 new mobile phones.

The Gifting Season may be shallow and cynical, but it is also a profound and spiritual phrase for the marketing communications enthusiasts among us, because you get to have it both ways: on the surface it promotes the spirit of giving, but it has never been used without some mention of how you should spend your money.

But you won’t find irate Gifting Season articles in the press this year. In this economy newspapers and networks know better than to turn their fake outrage on the greatest Seasonal Gift of all: the gift of advertising.

Worse than nothing

reliabilityFor a feature I’ve just written for Research Magazine I’ve just been chatting to David Spiegelhalter, Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge about how we present statistics. He admits he shouts at the TV when they use statistics that scare or confuse you without helping you.

There are plenty of stats that use percentages or relative likelihoods to compare stuff (before versus after, or this versus that), without really giving us a clue. An example: if you drive 10 miles to by a lottery ticket, you are between 3 and 20 times more likely to die in a car wreck than win the lottery.

The answer to this is not, as my mum pointed out, that you can buy lottery tickets online these days. Comparing the risk of driving (from which, every time you don’t die, you usually get a benefit) and the reward for buying a lottery ticket is like comparing a gun with a gnu because they use the same letters.

The professor would rather we stuck to presenting statistics, where possible, as what would happen to a set of people (10, 100, or for rare events, 1000): for example, according to the Office for National Statistics, for every 1000 people who died in 2008 around 330 died from circulatory (heart) disease – and only five in transport accidents. This might imply that overweight gamblers might be better off walking to buy a lottery ticket than driving. Unless you really, really like living dangerously.

I don’t understand why magazines and newspapers – and marketing departments and think tanks – don’t have a house style on how statistics are presented – for example, insiting that spokespeople qualify “up by 20 per cent” statements with what the expected outcome would be in terms of death, or Euros, or gnus (plus a confidence limit). Newspaper style books have pages about the correct title for a judge and whether you can use aggravate as a synonym for irritate, but I’ve never seen one with instructions on comparative statistics. Maybe it’s because the people who compile style guides know a lot about the meaning of words, but less about the meaning of numbers.

It’s not as if the “for every X people” stat isn’t visual enough. For example, I can give you the interesting (and true) statistic that for every 10 people who come to Talk Normal from a search engine, two have searched for either naked or naked people:

Two from ten

Try this article from Joanna Blythman in The Herald called Scientists must not dictate on public health matters (better leave that job, it seems, to Joanna Blythman). While complaining about Professor David Nutt, she tells us that scientists think their knowledge

is superior to other types of knowledge we might bring to bear on our decisions, such as intuition, experience, observation, or even common sense.

Even when they have used all four, plus scientific method too. She’s a skilled polemicist:

The huffing and puffing of Nutt and his indignant allies has obscured the fact that whatever the rest of society thinks or knows about cannabis…

Note: thinks or knows. As in, if Joanna Blythman thinks something, and has used intuition etc, then she knows it, so it must be better than anything a scientist has boiled up in a laboratory. Especially if she agrees with you.

It doesn’t stop her throwing around a few stats at the end to make her point that the only scientists who know about statistics are the ones who produce statistics she likes. For example:

Now we learn, once again from bona fide scientific research, that pregnant women taking folic acid supplements are up to 30% more likely to produce babies with asthma. Yet still the folic acid lobby is arguing that we should press on regardless with blanket fortification of bread and continue to advocate supplements during pregnancy…

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how to use statistics to confuse people. Quite apart from the fact that she neglects to point out that the research isn’t from a random sample and shows a weak correlation, that a lack of folic acid causes spina bifida and other problems, we don’t have a chart that shows the effect of this up to 30% as an outcome for 1000 babies born today. We can’t draw one, because so far this research doesn’t tell us enough with enough certainty. On the other hand, we know a lot about the damage caused to babies by poor nutrition during pregnancy.

One of the problems with the presentation of statistics in the press is that you can always slice the results to be more dramatic then they really are, and that suits a speak-your-branes columnist like Blythman. Even journalists who don’t know much about numbers know how to do this. And so I can’t help thinking that in-house standards for newspapers on how they present statistics about are far more important than pages of rules on how to refer to the wife of a marquess or an earl*.

* marchioness and countess, respectively. Pointless as it is, the second one’s good for pub quizzes.

Please let it be over soon

To mark the launch of Windows 7 I’ve raised the bullshit alert level to CrapCon 1 today, its maximum possible setting. Everyone dedicated to Talknormalism should be very alarmed. I’m not saying the world was better in my day – I grew up in Scunthorpe in the 1970s and Scunthorpe’s a hole. But when Microsoft’s marketing department can describe what’s essentially a small upgrade to a failed operating system as a sexy experience, all I can conclude is that they have not had much sex recently.

Scunthorpe: even less sexy than Windows 7

Scunthorpe: even less sexy than Windows 7

If any reader who is currently in a sexual relationship with a member of the Microsoft staff would care to email me to compare the quality of these relations with the erotic power of Windows 7, I will respect your anonymity and send you a Talk Normal mug. Then at least you can have a nice cup of tea instead.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance

amber lightFrom time to time, in order to protect ourselves from those who would subjugate us with needless conference calls and kill our spirit with pointless blue sky thinking, we need to be aware of imminent and terrifying threats to Talknormalism. That’s why I’m raising the Talk Normal Crap Defence Readiness Condition to CrapCon 2 this week, its highest level yet. Well, the only level yet. It puts us on guard that there are people who would destroy everything we stand for to achieve their aims. That’s why there is a little amber light in the column on the right. Ha! Take that, world.

The reason, of course, is the imminent launch of Windows 7 and the marketing drivel that accompanies it. Most software launches contain their fair share of meaningless aspirational twaddle spoken by paunchy men in casual shirts, but Microsoft has always outperformed the market in this respect. Older Talknormalists will recall the launch of Windows 95, which included displaying the Microsoft logo on the Empire State Building and sailing a four-storey-high Windows 95 box into Sydney Harbour (a feat of self-regard copied later on the Thames by Michael Jackson. Draw your own conclusions).

This is an image from that era which will haunt me for a long time:

You make a grown man cry. Indeed.

Fast forward 12 years, and for the launch of a product like Windows Vista most sensible companies would have coughed gently and stared at their shoes. Microsoft parked a stage in the forecourt of the British Library and put on a concert by The Feeling to Crank UP the Wow! (their emphasis on “up”) as fearful academics cowered inside and waited for guys in branded polo shirts to sod off.

You’d have thought that the evidence from the Windows 95 video would have warned the PR company not to do anything to encourage Microsoft employees to dance. Maybe permitting them to jig about self-consciously is less embarrassing than letting them speak? We’ll soon have plenty more evidence to help us decide. Until then, I wish you luck in the dark days to come.

Thought followership

As one of the blogosphere’s true thought leaders, I was wondering who else claims this atttribute. In my mind I imagine the world of thought leaderhip is something like this graph, where the people who think the most talk the most about thinking, and the circus chisellers who haven’t had an original idea in years mostly shut the **** up about it:

First stop: the top 10 of the BusinessWeek Most Innovative Companies 2009. Searching for mentions of thought leadership on their corporate web sites I was sadly disappointed. Toyota, Nintendo and Nokia had no mention of thought leadership at all. Google, a company that often seems so enthusiastic about its cleverness that it could eat itself, had but a single mention, as did HP. Research in Motion managed four thought leaderships. Apple clocked up 32 mentions – but then I found out that they were all the titles of iTunes Podcasts, and so they don’t really count. Microsoft upped the average with 96 mentions.

Only IBM goes big on claiming thought leadership, with 887 mentions of the phrase – but that’s because it’s a job title in IBM. But cut IBM some slack! That’s only one mention for every five patents the company was awarded in 2008 (the most patents in the US for the gazillionth year in a row), or 177 for every Nobel prize an IBM employee has won. That’s quite a lot of thought with which to lead, I think we can agree.

I note also that, while innovation leader number 10 Wal-Mart couldn’t find any actual mentions of thought leadership on its web site, it helpfully suggested partial matches – the top one of which was an excellent Transformers Revenge of the Fallen Autobot ($35 plus postage, in stock). We can only marvel at its desperation to make a sale, no matter how irelevant, to absolutely anyone who visits its site.

So, to reliably find people who will claim thought leadership, I needed to look further down the innovationary league table. I went to the natural home of the barely innovative: that’s right, I searched for thought leaders in the last couple of days of posts on PR Newswire. Bingo! You can keep your Nobel prizes IBM, here’s the motherlode. A few highlights:

You’ll be delighted to hear that thought leader Bentley Introduces Timely Value-Creative Subscription Innovations to Help Sustain the Infrastructure Professions.

When we think about thought leaders in pharmacy benefit management, of course we think of Prime Therapeutics LLC, which Receives 2010 TIPPS Certification for Adherence to High Transparency Standards.

If you are a thought leader in the hotly-contested wound care field, the newly-announced Systagenix Medical Advisory Board is for you.

The comprehensively-named Everything Channel has announced that it will launch a new sub-group group within Channelweb Connect. “We hope that this new group will help drive conversation with thought leaders in the solution provider community,” it says. A must for fans of sub-group groups.

So you might find this graph of innovation against claim to thought leadership is a more accurate reflection of the world in which we live:

Note that I’ve marked an area which combines minimum thought and maximum bragging as the STFU zone. If you’re in this zone and are thinking about farting out another press release about thought leadership, take the hint.

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