K Street Newsletter :: Directions

April 2019    |    VOLUME 17, ISSUE 4

The Rise of the Machines

As big data gets bigger and processors get faster, we're approaching the point where computers will be able to take on tasks that so far have only been do-able by human beings. They may not actually be thinking in the same way we do, but they'll be doing a pretty good approximation. It might even make humans unnecessary for certain jobs, perhaps increasing productivity but at the risk of greater income inequality. The invention of industrial machinery initially put a lot of people out of work. But as companies grew larger and production increased, more jobs were created over time.

What's happening now is that computers are taking on tasks that require complex analysis, subtle judgments and creative problem solving. They can learn from experience, performing trillions of calculations a second and tapping into the contents of huge databases. They have better voice recognition software, with natural language interfaces and the ability to understand conversational context. So it's not hard to imagine a time when companies may include computers on their work teams, working alongside their human counterparts. No more keying in search queries, but simply asking and answering questions. Think HAL 9000, although hopefully with a happier ending. If you can imagine that, how long will it be before the computers take on the manager's job?

The Pareto Principle 

The Pareto Principle is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who in 1896 observed that 80% of the country's land was owned by only 20% of the population. It's also called the 80/20 rule or the law of the vital few, and has been recognized to have broad applications in economics, sports and even computing. Microsoft noted that by fixing the top 20% of the most-reported bugs, 80% of the related errors and crashes in a given system would be eliminated. To put it another way, 20% of the code contained 80% of the bugs. In politics, 80% of campaign funding comes from 20% of the donors.

It also applies to communications. There's a good chance that just 20% of your audience accounts for 80% of your readership. That's a baseline average, and there are things you can do to improve it. You can drive that 20% higher if you reduce the content length, increase the frequency and increase the use of images. All three of those things can drive up readership. You can also increase engagement if you try to write from the audience's perspective. People want to know what's in it for them. They'll pay more attention to things that explicitly explain the benefits at a personal level.



Street Smarts 186: Be better at email.

Email has been a fact of business life for over 20 years, so it's a little strange that people are still writing articles about proper etiquette. We've probably written a half dozen in Directions over the years. However, this collection of bad practices is worth a quick read. The truth is that email has evolved and is still evolving. Just about everyone now understands that writing in all caps is the email equivalent of shouting. That's a no-no. The advice today is more subtle.

For example, don't include too many people, and only use the TO field for folks you want to address directly. If you're asking for a response, direct that ask to just one person. Anyone else who needs to be informed can sit comfortably in the CC line, knowing that they're not expected to respond unless they have something to add. Today, it's also common for people to have more than one email address. Be sure to check the Send From field before you launch. Many people start new conversations with you by opening the last message they received. That means you may never be able to untangle the threads if you accidentally introduce your personal email account to the mix. And avoid the use of generic subject lines like "Here you go." Keep them short, but make them informative, too. You want to help your readers by giving them useful metadata.


The Psychology of Email

While we're talking about email, it's worth mentioning that the style of your writing has a lot to do with how well your message will be received. We're talking about a level below the tips and tricks offered in this month's Street Smarts. An email that comes across as rude or condescending may produce a snarky reply, and even damage a relationship. How a given note is received has a lot to do with the existing relationship: family and friends will be more forgiving than co-workers. And strangers may have no time for you at all if you get the tone wrong. First impressions matter.

According to this article, there are a few things worth doing. It's better to be too formal than too casual, especially if you don't know the recipient personally. Always use an appropriate greeting, and don't make excuses if you're asking for a special favor (or more time to complete a task). It appears that opening content is more important than closing content, but it's still important to say thanks. Just don't get carried away with it.

Better Presentations

There is no escape from business presentations. You're going to see lots and lots of them in your career, and will likely be called upon to deliver a few as well. The odds are good that these presentations will be developed with Microsoft PowerPoint, since that's the industry leader. It has an estimated 95% market share. Despite its dominance of the presentation development space, the typical PowerPoint deck is something most viewers would like to avoid. Microsoft has tried its best to design eye-friendly, practical templates, but it puts the tools for development in the hands of people who may have no sense of visual design and no gift for storytelling. The results can be crowded, cluttered and virtually impenetrable. Decks are often too long, and the audience has to struggle to stay focused.

If you're developing a presentation, the best advice is to think about your objective before you launch the app. What idea are you trying to drive into the heads of the audience? Do you want to inform, or motivate? Try to complete a sentence that begins "This presentation will be a success if..." What does the audience likely know about your topic already, and what aspects of it will they find most interesting? Don't start building slides until you've thought through those higher-level questions. It could be that you don't need PowerPoint at all. You might find that it's a good way to set up an agenda, and then use individual slides only as a content architecture. You can use them to define major sections of your talk, or launch short videos, in a way that's engaging and interesting to the audience. And a final tip from a showmanship perspective: start on time and end early. That's like giving your audience a special gift.




Directions is an electronic newsletter about things related to KM & Communications, published on the second Wednesday of each month (check out the current issue above). It’s a double opt-in system, which means you’ll receive an email asking you to confirm that you really want it. Once you click on the link in that mail, you’ll be signed up. You can always unsubscribe using the same link (or by using the link provided in every issue). We will absolutely not give your address to any third parties. What are we, crazy?

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