Distill Your Message for Maximum Strength

NINETEENTH-CENTURY CIVIL SERVICE EXAMINATIONS IN CHINA were so difficult that they played an indirect part in the death of more than twenty million people. Hong Xiuquan failed them repeatedly. Finally he had a breakdown, and instead of working for the Qing emperor, he lead the Taiping rebellion.

Among the requirements, candidates had to write poetry. One sardonic business writer saw an advantage to this: “It was known, finally, that it is virtually impossible to find an order of merit among people who have been examined in different subjects. Since it is impracticable to decide whether one man is better in geology than another man in physics, it is at least convenient to be able to rule them both out as useless.”

It occurs to me that the ability to write poetry may not have been such an odd qualification for a civil servant. If the poetry had to be flowery and verbose it wouldn’t help, but the skill of writing something like haiku could definitely be useful for communication, not just in government but in any organisation, and especially when talking to customers.

Less Is More
Being able to find words that evoke feelings is a talent that not everyone possesses. Another skill in short form poetry (which can be learned) is to throw out words that don’t add anything. Compare it to a distillery. At the beginning of the distillation process, there’s a lot of water in the mix. As it is removed, the whiskey gets stronger.

We get older and learn to handle “ten dollar” words. We know how to build long complicated sentences. We’re tempted to display our skill, but writing is like playing a musical instrument. Just because you can fill the air with notes doesn’t mean you should. What’s left out often makes the difference.

So it’s as simple as that? Was there really a story here? Well, if your writing doesn’t have the magic of poetry, perhaps it’s “anti-poetry”, unmusical and prosaic, repelling your readers instead of attracting them. If you don’t pay attention to your writing style, you could get into the habit of using jargon (as distinct from technical terms which have to be used in specialist fields). Jargon replaces ordinary words. It sounds more impressive – that’s the purpose – but doesn’t add meaning.

Words Beat Jargon
If you’re busy, do you really have to talk about “bandwidth”? Is there any need for the word “ideation” – do we get ideas nowadays in some new way that can’t be expressed in English? No – and yes, if you search other posts in this blog you may find that I’m guilty of jargon too – we all have to prune it back constantly. Jargon impresses naïve hearers or readers, but others will be annoyed. Some will wonder whether you’re covering up your insecurity. Why alienate part of your audience? Showing off with words is like showing off your money – it can be fun but it won’t make you real friends.

The more you distill your message the stronger it will be.

You Need Trade Gossip about Technology – Here’s Where to Find It

Several decades ago I started working in tech, expecting to be among calm people who would gather data, carefully assess it and make reasoned decisions which would be correct most of the time.

Yes. It wasn’t like that; but with improvements in testing and in the ease of gathering information it can be more like that sometimes. So uncertainty is vanishing? Now we get all the facts in order and make a systematic, reasoned choice? All the time?

No. Technology has exploded. Your knowledge increases, but it’s a smaller proportion of the total. You have far more decisions than you can ever research properly. Of course, you’ll work hard on the really important ones, but there’ll be plenty of others that are less important, but can still bite you if you get them wrong. What to do?

First: collect information as you find it. Don’t wait until you need it. When decision time arrives, a great article you looked at a few months ago is no help if you can’t find it (how to store and retrieve information effectively is a topic for another time).

Second: If it’s not a key decision, pass it to somebody else if you can. You’re thinking about a product. Someone tells you it’s nothing but trouble, and it’s being eclipsed by some other technology. It may be hard to find people who can work with it. If that’s an informed opinion, save yourself time and look at something else. Perhaps you must have that product, in which case you’ll know that you have to work around certain problems.

You don’t have technical experts on hand just when you need them? Collect trade gossip; if you’re up to date on what’s being said about companies and products you may be able to make a good decision on instinct. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than “paralysis by analysis”.

Good Quality Gossip

A good discussion-format podcast doesn’t just cover the main topic; there’s a lot of value in the passing remarks about products and companies. They’ve helped me make decisions that I’ve been very happy with. Two podcasts you might consider are:

  • RunAs Radio: Richard Campbell has loads of technical experience, a practical approach, and is also a businessman
  • Hanselminutes: Scott Hanselman covers everything from social enterprise to tech topics.

It’s worth listening even when the subject isn’t of immediate interest. Don’t be intimidated by the technical jargon. Part of the benefit of these shows is that some of it will eventually make sense, and you’ll have “tech cred” when your people realise you understand it.

Another source of useful trade chat is networking. Many networking forums put you in touch with “people like you”. Business is tough sometimes, and that kind of networking is fine for emotional support, but more concrete benefits may be limited.

Networking at a professional association is different. It’s one place where you can talk freely with people you probably couldn’t reach during working hours. If you’re a startup you might try the BCS Entrepreneurs Specialist Group. Their events calendar is here.

Drucker’s “Seven Sources for Innovative Opportunity”

Apparently some authors get really annoyed if you ask them where they get their ideas. A similar question hovers over many discussions of entrepreneurship. Instead of causing offence it often leads towards inspirational quotes from tycoons, or talk of the “entrepreneurial personality”, as if tinkering with your own character traits is the route to success.

What I like about Peter Drucker’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship is that it takes an analytical look at entrepreneurship. His list of seven “Sources for Innovative Opportunity” should make it easier to search out opportunities, or at least help you avoid missing them when they present themselves. They are:

  1. The Unexpected (unexpected failure/outside event)
  2. Incongruities: the difference between reality as it actually is and reality as it is assumed to be or as it “ought to be”
  3. Process Need: Successful innovation based on process needs requires:
    • A self-contained process
    • One “weak” or “missing” link
    • A clear definition of the objective
    • That the specifications for the solution can be defined clearly
    • Widespread realization that “there ought to be a better way”
  4. Industry and Market Structures: as well as an opportunity, change here can be a threat to existing players
  5. Demographics (population change)
  6. Changes in Perception: can’t be quantified, and timing is of the essence, so start small
  7. New Knowledge (scientific and non-scientific)
  8. Drucker helpfully ranks the above in order of reliability and predictability, so profiting from “the unexpected” typically has a greater chance of success than building an enterprise on new knowledge.

    You have to read the book to put flesh on the bones. It was written years ago so the examples aren’t bang up to date, but the book is published in a “Classic” series and that’s what it is.

New Direction

This blog is waking up as something different. I’ve been doing less coding, spending more time writing marketing copy and working with an early startup which should launch soon. So there’s going to be business as well as technical content, and the view on tech will be from a higher level.

I’m glad the old technical posts are still being read and I’ll leave them up. People who find them useful will probably be less interested in the new material, but I hope others may like it.

Whichever group you’re in, thanks for reading this.

“Design By Document”

I’ve only used this once but it worked perfectly. I was developing a function based on a regulatory document specifying how to build a calendar for regulatory reporting.

Normally you take a requirement and translate it in your mind to a convenient “shape” for coding. This is fine for most purposes. I started developing my procedure that way. Unfortunately the rules on how to handle holidays and non-working days were so complex I soon lost control. Continue reading “Design By Document”

Mastering Cloud Vocabulary

Vocabulary is a problem when you start working with Microsoft Azure, or any cloud service offering. There are so many new terms to wrestle with. I was considering blogging my own glossary but Microsoft now have several web pages giving very useful information. Here are the links: Continue reading Mastering Cloud Vocabulary

Googling for Fun and Profit

Do you feel embarrassed about Googling answers to problems instead of working them out for yourself? Well don’t: if you’re a working programmer who has to answer for time spent, you’ve got to make use of other people’s work. As long as you don’t believe everything you read, it’s simple efficiency. Continue reading Googling for Fun and Profit

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