Jan 23, 2009

Simple, visually pleasing explanations

I discovered a company called Common Craft today. They use a mix of paper, drawings, and video to explain concepts "in plain English." The idea seems simple, but in fact, is rather difficult to do. As I explained elsewhere, distilling your expertise into a language that even a layman can understand is a daunting task, at best. However, the people at Common Craft do it exceptionally well. Here is an example which explains what Twitter is all about:

Simple explanations, visual support that enhances the information and captivates the audience, bite-sized and digestible quickly. That's what great information does. And you don't need PowerPoint!

If you're interested, I also have a Twitter account: http://twitter.com/lduperval.

Jan 20, 2009

Obama: a speech for the times, maybe someday for the ages

As I watched the inauguration ceremony for Barack Obama, I was in awe of the entire operation. It felt more like a rock concert than an inauguration. The crowd of thousands chanting “Obama! Obama!” waiting to see its hero. Anticipation was palpable. All around the world, people watching, eagerly waiting to hear the first words of the 44th president of the United States of America.

Anyone expecting a rah-rah-rah speech must have been sorely disappointed. This was a down-to-earth, accountability- and responsibility-filled speech. Barack Obama pulled no punches and delivered a rousing, but difficult speech. He did not shy away from the fact that times are difficult and the American people have a lot of work to do, in order to get out of the current mess.

Rating his performance, I would give it a 9.5 on content and 8.5 on delivery.


Obama's delivery was nearly flawless. There were a couple of hesitations, but nothing major. Martin Luther King stumbled slightly also in his “I Have A Dream” speech.

Obama spoke in a deep, soothing voice. He did not move much, he did not rush the speech, he was poised. His tone was conversational. He was at ease and he put his listeners at ease.

His delivery, sing-song at times, reminded me of Martin Luther King as he spoke to a throng of supporters on the Washington DC steps.

So why 8.5, for such a great speaker? Maybe because my expectations were so high. However, there were two elements from his delivery that perturbed me. One was purely mechanical, the other was emotional.

Mechanically: I HATE that teleprompter! He looks like a Bobble Head when he's constantly switching from the left to the right. Furthermore, he does it multiple times in the same sentence. It is hugely annoying. I never recommend that people write out their speech and read it during delivery, but at times I wondered if that wouldn't have been better for him.

He never looked at the camera nor did he look at the crowd. The only time he tried to make contact with his audience was when he thanked George Bush for his service to the nation. At that moment, he briefly turned away from his text but returned to it immediately after.

I am not sure why Obama so heavily relies on his text to deliver his speeches. Is it because he cannot remember it all? Is it a crutch he uses? Or is it the equivalent of PowerPoint in business presentations: a necessary tool that everyone feels the need to use?

He needs to ditch the teleprompter completely, or find a better way to use it because it affects his effectiveness.

Emotionally, I was constantly expecting the Big Explosion. Something outstanding, a defining moment in the speech. There were a few, somehow, they didn't stand out from the rest of the speech. Obama did not put more emphasis on one part of the speech, than another. All of it seemed to be of equal importance. Yet, in most great speeches, there is an emotional nugget that is carried on for generations:

  • We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

  • Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

  • I do not know that woman... oops, no, that's a different speech!

While there are many good moments in the speech (as we will see in the content), he did not use any of the tools that make a speech memorable: alliteration, repetition, the rule of three, just to name a few. That made the speech less appealing emotionally: it's the Moment that really defined the speech.


What was so good about the content? At what is considered a defining moment in America, Obama's words were timeless and deeply rooted in the nation's history. He named no names, he named no nations. His words could be spoken again, almost verbatim, at another time, and they would still have the same power. Words such as:

  • “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. ”

  • “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

  • “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

  • “Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

When analyzing the words, you can see that the speech was inspired by some of the greatest American speakers. One line stuck out for me, one that could have been uttered by John F Kennedy: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”

His speech contained beautiful imagery: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

That image is also an excellent example of the inclusive language used by Obama. He has promised to bring people back together, and his words are tailored to that effect:

“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”

Obama shows that he definitely understands American history, that he knows where the nation needs to be headed, and that he will get it there albeit with the help of friends and “former foes” alike. He shows that he expects hard work, sacrifice, ambition and creativity from everyone, including himself.

His speech needed to get that message across clearly and simply.

It delivered.

Obama's speech: lessons for all speakers

Many preparation and delivery lessons can be gleaned from studying Obama's inaugural speech. Here are just a few:

  • It's OK to be nervous. When Obama first appeared on screen, you could tell from his pursed lips that this wasn't a walk in the park for him. As others before him spoke, he clenched his jaw and often closed his eyes. These are typical behaviours of someone who is a bit nervous before speaking. It took him a while to shake those jitters but they seemed to have disappeared by the time he delivered his speech.
  • Writing is important. You cannot come up with phrases like “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” You can't. This has to be written, rehearsed, and re-written. If you are aiming to deliver a powerful speech, think of writing it out.
  • You can make mistakes. On a couple of occasions, Obama had a slight hesitation in the speech. Notice that he did not apologize, he did not become flustered, he did not lose his composure. He just kept on going. His biggest blunder, though, occurred before the speech when he messed up the words during his swearing in (to his defence, the chief judge messed up first). What did he do? He smiled and kept on going. He will be picked on a bit by the comedians, but that's it.
  • Converse with the audience. There was not a lot of fanfare during his delivery. He did not jump up and down to make a point. He remained poised and calm throughout, as if speaking to more than one million people in his backyard. That helped make it more effective.
  • Don't lie. Obama pulled no punches. To summarize his speech: times are hard, we made errors in the past and everyone is paying for it today. Everyone has some responsibility for the current mess and everyone is going to work together to fix it. This was not your typical rosy, rar-rah-rah, "You can do it!" speech. It was somber and set the tone for what's to come. It won't be fun, but it's got to be done. A great speech will set the tone for the changes to come, but if you lie to the audience it will come back to bite you.
Obama's speech may have longer-lasting impacts on oratory style, but that's for another discussion.

Jan 8, 2009

RCMP leadership

An interesting article this morning about the leadership at the RCMP in Quebec. While I have yet to see the full report, some interesting information emanates from this article:
  • All of the information emanates from the employees. It seems like the researchers did a form of 360-degree evaluation, where they asked all sorts of questions to the employees, in order to get a real portrait of their life at work.
  • Competition for promotion gets in the way of real work. I was asked recently if competition in the workplace was a good idea or not. I think most of the time it is, but there are instances where it is not. For example, if it gets in the way of corporate objectives. Another is if there are limited resources available and too many people are competing for the same resource. With the RCMP, it seems to be the case on both these counts.

    Without knowing how things work internally, it looks like the criteria for success are incorrect. They seem to be pointing to personal victories instead of victories that benefit the whole of the organization. Hence the complaints that "careerism" is favoured.

  • Lack of training for senior officials. This one, unfortunately, is rampant. It isn't something that is specific to the RCMP. Too many senior executives do not have, nor take, the time to properly develop and update their people skills. They often lift their nose at the concept, thinking that the bottom line is the most important part of the business, and that people should just understand this and follow along. Men, especially, are guilty of this.

    What they often fail to realize is that the human aspect of a business is often its most important and costly. Just take a look at what is happening at the Detroit Big Three. Our skills with people are constantly put to the test and what used to work, may not work as well today. In the case of the RCMP, it seems that conflict management does not work properly at all, since there is no crackdown on dubious behaviours.

  • Image polishing at all costs. According to its employees, the RCMP seems more interested in the image it projects than what is really affecting its operations. Managing one's image is fine, but at some point in time, you can no longer tame such a beast. Madoff tried it and failed. Satyam tried and failed. Now the RCMP seems to be failing also. At some point, to re-establish an image, you have to eliminate the previous one. Trying to hide issues at all costs, especially in a government agency, can only bring about charges of lack of transparency.

    I don't advocate full disclosure at all levels. However, given the choice between addressing a serious issue that can portray an unflattering image in the media, and sweeping an issue under the rug in the hope that it will disappear, I recommend the former.

  • Management doesn't listen and doesn't have a clue. Once again, that is not limited to the RCMP. It is amazing how often I will speak to the employees of a client who tell me of all sorts of issues that they see in the company, yet when I speak to the senior executives, they tend to dismiss it as "employees who are never happy." While there is some of that, when the same issues get reported over and over again, by multiple employees of varying responsibility levels, it's time to listen and act.
In another article, the RCMP made a list of resolutions for 2009. Many of them had to do with operations and infrastructure. But if they want to keep on "getting their man", let's they don't forget the human side.

Jan 5, 2009

Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark?

In December I participated in a fun interview:

Entrepreneur.com: Who Is The Better Entrepreneur: Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark?

Not all of my answers appeared so here are the other answers I provided, but that were not published:

Who would you rather work for?

WayneCorp. I'm not big on munitions. Wayne Enterprises has a social focus which I prefer. I'd rather find different, useful ways to help my fellow man/woman rather than focus on more innovative ways of destroying him/her.

Who had a better strategy for building up his company?

You got me. I need to study their histories better.

However, it's important to know that Wayne Enterprises was already a gigantic operation when Bruce Wayne inherited it. I think that Stark Enterprises was still iin growth mode, though I'm not sure.

The skills needed to manage a mature, centuries-old company are somewhat different than a constantly growing, relatively young company.

And some other comments:

  • Bruce Wayne has one trusted advisor (Alfred) who he listens to periodically. He is willing to admit that he may be wrong and will try to correct the course before disaster strikes. He does more planning than reacting. Tony Stark, on the other hand, trusts himself to make all the right decisions all the time. He will head right into disaster and figure out a way to get out of his mess. Somehow, he always does, but it would be much less of a hassle for him and for his entourage if he took more time to plan ahead. Executives need trusted advisors, and need to listen to them even if they don't agree.
  • Both are highly innovative and resourceful which is essential in a world of rapid change. They both have the ability to act under constant pressure (usually) without a complete breakdown.
  • Both have demons they are constantly battling with (depression, substance abuse, womanizing, etc.) Fortunately for them, the wear and tear on their psyches and bodies are strictly limited to the written page. For any executive, any form of abuse needs to be dealt with and eliminated as much as possible. Executives have a responsibility toward their company, employees and other stakeholders. Substance abuse affects mood and judgment which are critical to effectiveness. Therapy, for both of them, is essential. Many high-powered individuals may not seek help because they feel they are constantly in control and therapy is a sign of weakness. It is actually the opposite: it takes a strong person to admit they need help and cannot do it alone.