Tag Archives: Tactics

Five more random acts of kindness for readers

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been reading and editing a lot of project reports and documents lately.  As I have, I’ve been keeping a running list of suggestions, errors and missteps to consider when embarking on a new writing assignment. Here are the latest additions. (Previous list is here.)  I’ll add to the list as my editing marathon continues.

  1. Define in your mind who your audience is and what you want them to do as a result of reading what you’ve written.  Consider making that definition a part of the document you’re writing to help readers better understand how they may benefit from or act upon what you’re written.
  2. Based on your intended audience, examine what you’ve written to determine whether an intended reader will know or understand every term of art or technical word/phrase.
  3. A declarative statement or editorial comment should be bolstered by proof points; without them, readers often judge such pronouncements as naive or obvious.
  4. When presenting  lots of information, think about using a matrix to organize and summarize material for the convenience of readers. 
  5. If you are discussing items in a series, present the same kinds of information for each item.  Deviations from item to item will stop readers in their tracks as they try to divine whether an omission is an error, an attempt to manipulate a conclusion or something entirely different.

Four ways to break up a coalition

If you’re in the business of building formal or informal coalitions to get things done, you know that you are going to run into people who are working just as hard to undo your good work.  As I’m currently working on a legislative initiative, I’m seeing that dynamic in action.  Here are just a few of the many potential ways that opponents try to peel away supporters (be on guard):

  1. Allege that the proposed action is insensitive at best, unethical at worst, while attacking the motivation of the proponents. Few people want to be evil, and this will cause supporters to at least temporarily question their involvement. Response: Make sure coalition front organizations are recognized positive advocates for change and that communication facts and analysis as to who is affected and how are bulletproof.
  2. Claim that the effort, while perhaps not unethical, is certainly illegal or unconstitutional, especially for obscure or highly technical reasons.  Leave a whiff of litigation threat in the air. People are so skittish about getting sucked into the American legal system that some will start to flee.  Response: Come prepared with legal precedents and analysis that the proposed change has/can withstand legal challenge.
  3. Suggest that the proposed initiative is unneeded because existing entities or organizations can make the changes under their current framework or rules/statutes.  Standing pat is a comforting position for many folks and will sap their drive, ignoring the fact that change wouldn’t be in the air if those groups had done something already.  Response:  Prepare timeline of worsening conditions and/or failed opportunities to previously address needed change.
  4. Agree that change is needed and then propose a complex administrative or funding scheme for making the change happen. The more intricate the problem-solving approach – often offered under the guise of “if we’re going to fix it, let’s get it right the first time” – almost always guarantees failure.  It ensures that the effort will likely collapse under its own weight and inertia. Or it creates a situation in which there are so many things, each hated by one person or group, that the coalition driving for change falls apart.  Response:  Stay focused on solving only the precipitating need and, to use the cliché, harvesting the low-hanging fruit first.  Further change can be pursued when successes have been established and everyone wants to be on the winning side.

10 random acts of kindness for readers (and editors)

I’ve been reading and editing a lot of project reports and documents lately, and as I have, I’ve been keeping a running list of common errors and missteps shared by many writers.  Here are ten in random order; I’ll add to the list as my editing marathon continues.

  1. Use the real state abbreviation when writing.  Postal codes – MO for Missouri – are only used in address blocks.
  2. Capitalize only first word and proper nouns in headlines.  Don’t cap every word or, god forbid, every letter; there’s plenty of research to show that landscape capitalization is far easier to read.
  3. Use “more than” or “less than” when talking about numbers or quantities, not over or under. More describes a numerical relationship; over a spatial relationship. 
  4. Scan the document – every occurrence of “to … ” signals an opportunity for using a more active voice. “The project will prompt economic growth”; not “the project is designed to prompt economic growth.”
  5. Lead virtually any organizational email, letter or document with a call to action, then build the case and context for taking the action, not the other way around. Doing so helps orient the reader and makes for more succinct, tighter writing. 
  6. Explain why you are introducing new information and why it matters.
  7. Link images with body text. Caption all images.
  8. If presenting a series of items, make clear whether it is a rank order list, alpha list or organized by some other principle, or if it’s a random list.
  9. Avoid acronyms.
  10. Construct bullets or lists throughout the document in a parallel fashion. Don’t start one bullet with a verb and the next one with a noun.  Pick one style and stick with it, as is the case with this list.

The 7-step quick-and-easy presentation outline

When consensus building, last-minute opportunities pop up to talk with specific interest groups and attempt to elicit their support.  Often these groups have such specific interests that a standard “stump speech” just doesn’t cut it in terms of content and focus. 

The time and effort involved in producing a tailored presentation for these groups can be reduced, however, by thinking about the mental map of those you are trying to reach.  That is, what questions will they have in mind as they decide whether to attend your presentation, pay attention and give you a fair hearing?

When faced with this kind of last-minute, one-off presentation situation, I think about how I will answer these questions that I believe most potential audience members have as they decide whether and when to pay attention:

  1. What’s the problem or opportunity generally speaking?
  2. Why should I care?
  3. Who are you that I should pay attention?
  4. What are the specifics of the issue/opportunity?
    1. Why is it a problem now?
    2. How much does it affect me?
    3. When will it affect me?
  5. What are the solutions?
    1. Why won’t the status quo handle the issue?
    2. What are the “easy” answers and why won’t they work?
    3. What/who will fix the problem and what are the pros and cons of each solution?
  6. What do I need to do?
    1. What are the specific things you want me to do, when and in what sequence?
    2. What resources are available to help me do this?
    3. How will I know when I’ve succeeded?
    4. Again, why do I need to do this as opposed to someone else?
  7. How will the world be different if I pay attention to you and do what you’ve asked.

 

Location-based services open engagement tracking, educating opportunities

The growth of location-based services by companies such Facebook and Foursquare bring us closer to tracking, responding to and educating high-frequency public meeting participants. With long-term, sustained tracking and rewards, it may be possible to groom “super stakeholders” who are proven to be familiar with and well-educated about long-range policy issues.

Face to face still #1 in neighborhood communication

Coalitionists looking to get the word out about their endeavors abandon or minimize face-to-face community communication at their peril, according to a Pew Internet poll.

Although electronic communication continues to grow in importance, personal contact (face-to-face and phone) is three times more frequently used than Internet tools, at least in terms of neighborhood issues..

What the “Superstar Effect” may mean for stakeholder engagement

There’s an interesting piece below from the Frontal Cortex about how “superstars” can depress – rather than inspire – performance among those around them.

The question for coalitionists is whether this may also apply to the task, advisory or working groups that we often use to study issues, develop solutions or build consensus.

There’s always a lot of discussion in engagement efforts regarding group composition to get a balance of interests, experience or willingness to participate.

But seldom, if ever, is there a discussion as to whether high-quality participants – stakeholder superstars – may in effect suppress the quality of thought/participation by others.

If the “Tiger Woods effect” is universal, perhaps we need to add another filter layer as we construct our engagement groups, one that attempts to group people of comparable levels of ability, if we want to maximize participation and creativity.

The Superstar Effect: ”

I’ve got a new essay in the WSJ about Tiger Woods, the hazards of playing against a superstar, and why we choke in high-pressure situations. The subplot of the piece is the positive feedback loop of success, or why winning in the past makes us more likely to win in the future. Every underdog, it turns out, has to rage against the natural insecurities of the mind (take note, Butler):

Competitors playing a match against Bobby Fischer, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, often came down with a mysterious affliction known as ‘Fischer-fear.’ Even fellow grandmasters were vulnerable to the effect, which could manifest itself as flu-like symptoms, migraines and spiking blood pressure. As Boris Spassky, Mr. Fischer’s greatest rival, once said: ‘When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive.’

Recent research on what is known as the superstar effect demonstrates that such mental collapses aren’t limited to chess. While challenging competitions are supposed to bring out our best, these studies demonstrate that when people are forced to compete against a peer who seems far superior, they often don’t rise to the challenge. Instead, they give up.

The negative effect of superstars has been most clearly demonstrated in professional golf, which for the last decade has been dominated by Tiger Woods. Next week, Mr. Woods ends his self-imposed exile from the game and returns to the PGA Tour at the Masters Tournament, in Augusta, Ga. It will be his first competition since November, when he won the JBWere Masters in Australia.

According to a paper by Jennifer Brown, an applied macroeconomist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Mr. Woods is such a dominating golfer that his presence in a tournament can make everyone else play significantly worse. Because his competitors expect him to win, they end up losing; success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ms. Brown argues that the superstar effect is not just relevant on the golf course. Instead, she suggests that the presence of superstars can be ‘de-motivating’ in a wide variety of competitions, from the sales office to the law firm. ‘Most people assume that competing against an elite performer makes everyone else step up their game and perform better,’ Ms. Brown says. ‘But the Tiger Woods data demonstrate that the opposite can also occur. It doesn’t matter if the superstar is an athlete or a corporate vice president. After all, why should we invest a lot of energy in a tournament that we’re probably going to lose?’

Ms. Brown discovered the superstar effect by analyzing data from every player in every PGA Tour event from 1999 to 2006. She chose golf for several reasons, from the lack of ‘confounding team dynamics’ to the immaculate statistics kept by the PGA. Most important, however, was the presence of Mr. Woods, who has dominated his sport in a way few others have.

The numbers back up the legend: When Mr. Woods’s break from golf began, in November, he had a World Golf Ranking score of 16.169, which was nearly twice the total of the next two players. He has more career major wins than any other active golfer, and has been awarded PGA Player of the Year a record 10 times.

Such domination appears to be deeply intimidating. Whenever Mr. Woods entered a tournament, every other golfer took, on average, 0.8 more strokes. This effect was even observable in the first round, with the presence of Mr. Woods leading to an additional 0.3 strokes among all golfers over the initial 18 holes. While this might sound like an insignificant difference, the average margin between first and second place in PGA Tour events is frequently just a single stroke. Interestingly, the superstar effect also varied depending on the player’s position on the leaderboard, with players closer to the lead showing a greater drop-off in performance. Based on this data, Ms. Brown calculated that the ‘superstar effect’ boosted Mr. Woods’s PGA earnings by nearly $5 million.

The analysis is really an investigation into economic tournament theory, which looks at competitive situations in which success is based on relative performance, and not absolute metrics. (It’s the difference between a sports game and a standardized test.) Modern management practice assumes that the best way to maximize employee performance is to institute sports-like tournaments, in which people compete directly against each other. Consider, for instance, the competitive structure put in place by former CEO Jack Welch at General Electric. He instituted what became known as the 20-70-10 rule: the top 20% of employees got generous financial bonuses, and the bottom 10% were ‘managed out.’

There is little doubt that, in many situations, such incentive structures lead to motivated employees, working hard for the top spots. But the presence of a superstar can reverse this dynamic, so that instead of trying our best we accept the inevitability of defeat.

According to Ms. Brown, the superstar effect is especially pronounced when the rewards for the competition are ‘nonlinear,’ or there is an extra incentive to finish first. (We assume that the superstar will win, so why chase after meaningless scraps?) Just look at golf: Not only does the tournament winner get a disproportionate amount of prize money, but he or she also gets all the glory.

Ms. Brown cites the competition among newly hired associates at a law firm as another example of a nonlinear incentive structure. ‘The lawyers know that most of them won’t be retained,’ she says. ‘They either win the competition, or they’re let go.’ The problem with such competitions is that when a superstar is present–when one of the legal associates is perceived as the clear favorite–every other lawyer is less likely to exert maximum effort. Because we assume we’re going to lose, we decide to cut our losses, which leads to an overall decrease in employee effort. The cutthroat competition made people less competitive.

Here’s the link for more.

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(Via The Frontal Cortex.)