Mario Sundar

LinkedIn's 2nd PR hire. These are my thoughts on products, public relations, and startups.

Hacking Time and To dos

To dos, like New Year’s resolutions, are a Herculean challenge that most of us have tried and failed. Nothing works. Paul Ford), former editor Harper’s Magazine, thinks we repeatedly waste time building to-do applications with no serious solution in sight:

One of the systems Victor talks about is in that speech is Doug Engelbart’s NLS system of 1968, which pioneered a ton of things—collaborative software, hypertext, the mouse—but deep, deep down was a to-do list manager. Since then the world of technology has never hurt for personal productivity tools.

Every year or two there seems to be a new hotness: it was Remember the Milk for a while, and OmniFocus, and TaskPaper, and Asana. Asana’s tagline is “Teamwork without email.” And of course there are tons of productivity technologies that don’t involve a computer, including the “Getting Things Done” system, which tore through the Internet like wildfire for a few years—Inbox Zero is its legacy.

That said, I believe we are at the cusp of upcoming technologies like speech recognition, the evolution of notifications, and a renewed focus on what I’d like to call “life management” (think wearables) that will finally put a dent in the way we manage our lives, to dos included. A couple of examples that have attacked this problem with some level of success have been “Mailbox” and “Google Now” to cite a couple of examples. Sure, these are early attempts at fixing email and to-dos, but I see this as a harbinger of the future.

The Challenge with To-dos

The biggest challenge with time management apps is the fluid requirements of To do apps. They have to scale from the micro (staying focused on the immediate task at hand) to the macro (that needs perspective with other apps like the calendar, ideally with notifications); the simple to the complex, the one-time to the repetitive (like habit tracker @liftapp); the important & urgent to the trivial; and so far we’ve just had blunt instruments with which we’ve been trying to hack away at this complexity called life.

All this complexity also has to be handled with little input from the user, or you risk losing them at the get-go should you try to gather much information from them. And the input medium has to be as simple as possible, not forcing the user to be typing away with difficulty on their smartphones. That’s where Google Now becomes more and more magical, as they delight their users by surfacing information users might have missed. This will be the future of To-dos. Read through Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan’s post comparing predictive search to digital assistants:

However, there’s no question that Google Now has proven that there are some search needs that can be predicted. These are often especially tied to location. That’s why — in retrospect — it’s not surprising that predictive search has emerged as more a smartphone feature rather than a search engine feature. We got Google Now for our phones long before we got it for our desktops.

Indeed, predictive search may even develop into an essential smartphone feature. We may come to expect every phone to have it, just as we expect our phones to have cameras or notification areas. And just as people might not buy a phone deemed to have a bad camera, they might also pass over a phone with poor predictive search in favor of one offering better.

The other major challenge with to-dos is handing off some of their actions to apps like email and calendar. Like some to-dos, that are important or urgent, could very well be a unit on your calendar. Now how does one hand that off across apps?

[Update: Since the writing of the post, Khosla VenturesTimeful App launched on iOS this past week, and seems to do a terrific job thus far. More on that in an upcoming post]

Now if only there was a way to dumb down this process to its fundamental basics, where the user does none of the heavy lifting but experiences the benefits of (feedback loop) of such a system, we might have a start. Granted we do not have a single solution that is cross-application and cross-platform, yet.

Hacking To-dos with Siri

This past weekend, upon transitioning to Apple’s latest OS X Yosemite, I feel I may have a quick fix, at least for now that might ease my time management. [This post was written before the launch of Timeful, so expect a sequel shortly.] Two of the biggest improvements in Yosemite, besides the mobile iOS influenced look-and-feel are Notifications (at a swipe) and Reminders that (finally!) syncs across mobile and desktop.

And the secret sauce to make this time management hack work is Siri. In its most recent avatar, Siri is a pretty good note taker, transcriber, and so removes the biggest obstacle with Reminders, which is the act of opening an app to type in your to-do, now all you’ve to do is say it out loud and it’s integrated into a giant catch-all. Let’s call that folder: “Do.”

In addition, I’ve created a bunch of often repeated categories, which range from Groceries (which I turn to when I shop at Google Shopping Express or Instacart), to Chores, which I’d rather not turn to, but gotta. At the end of each day, I review the “Do” folder and either assign a time / date for completion, either / or a folder that I can turn to “Later.”

The missing piece to all To-dos is Timing. Notifications (across mobile and desktop) can really make this work, unlike all past attempts at To-do apps. The good news with the new Mac OS’s is that Notifications are integrated cross-platform and a cursory viewing is just a swipe away under the newly redesigned OS X on the right hand of the desktop.

Frankly, this is as good as Reminders are gonna get for now, but I bet there are ways to further do the thinking for us, as Google Now has shown.

The Future is Brighter

With my experience with Timeful these past 24 hours, it’s clear that time management can be hacked on mobile and desktop in a way we haven’t been able to do thus far. And with increasing tie-ins with the mobile OS and the world of notifications (check out Naveen‘s (Partner, Expa) essay on how “notifications are becoming the app itself”) and predictive search, we just might be able to crack this case.

Also, notifications will allow time management apps to interact with the user on a project to project basis in a way that task managers haven’t been able to in the past. The benefits of such one-click incremental interactions (task done or task moved forward) in future OS’s will bring about a sea change in the efficiency of to-do apps.

When we can interact with our data in short bursts via notifications, we make remarkable efficiency gains, especially on tasks that we perform again and again. Apps will become more about information and communications; we’re going to think of them as services instead of as windows onto our data. The things that can make best use of single click efficiency will soar. A whole new world is up there waiting for us at the top of the screen. We just need to pull it down.

Finally, one of the time management fads talked about in Paul Ford’s piece was David Allen and his until recently ubiquitous Getting Things Done (GTD) craze in the nerd community. Even comedian Drew Carey outsourced his time management to Allen to fix this problem and learned this:

[It] turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan.

And that plan needs to be made in concert with the big picture, without which the minute next steps mean nothing. Curious what David Allen thinks of the new wave of time management?

How do you track time in your life? Curious if any of your time hacks beat the version I outline above. Tweet me @mariosundar or just leave a comment below.

Filed under: HOW-TO Use Social Media, New Products, What's New in Social Media

The Secret to Effective Communication: Being Heard is not Enough

Communication is underrated and vastly misunderstood.

The larger the audience, the more cliched and tiresome our communication becomes. Worse still, we seem less wary of the impact of our words when we write for larger groups.

Corporations tend to be the worst offenders in this category especially when they get tied down in their inane press releases and top-down missives. The problem is even more acute during trying times, when a CEO needs to rally his troops behind a common cause.

I give you, Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella’s recent missive around the organization’s future direction.

Rather than poke holes in Nadella’s tired cliches, I’d like to share the secret sauce on how anyone can communicate efficiently to large groups of people.

And there’s no better story to illustrate this than Steve Jobs’ trial-by-fire return to Apple at Macworld 1997 when this had happened.

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There was something dramatic, almost Shakespearean, about Steve Jobs’ return to Apple. A humbler, self-deprecating leader, whose second act was laser focused on first getting Apple out of the red. To do that Jobs would have to rally his troops, inspire them, yet give them a dose of real talk; a delicate balance he pulled off with style at Macworld 1997. Here’s the secret sauce to doing that.

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1. Be Upfront

Always, be honest with your troops – both internally and externally. This doesn’t mean you have to share all but you’ve to find ways to address the elephant in the room. And once you do, the ultimate segue would be to find a way to inspire confidence and hope amidst the burning embers.

Jobs gets into it right away, highlighting the three complaints leveled against Apple and how he sees it:

“Apple’s not as relevant as it used to be everywhere, but in some incredibly important market segments, it’s extraordinarily relevant.”

“Apple’s executing wonderfully on many of the wrong things!”

“Rather than anarchy, people can’t wait to fall in line behind a good strategy. There just hasn’t been one.”

He agrees with the accusation, does not gloss over the facts, but spins it in a way that inspires confidence. It’s his own way of saying “It’s not you, it’s us” which goes down well with the audience. A lot of executives seem to forget they are talking to a bunch of rational, smart folks and try to ignore the obvious sword hanging in the air. They avoid the elephant in the room, and lose their trust. Lose their trust and you lose your audience.

Every time you write, visualize a skeptic you’re trying to persuade. Convert her and you’ve won them all. Instead I’m loathe to find myself reading press releases and corporate missives that sound like this:

We live in a mobile-first and cloud-first world. Computing is ubiquitous and experiences span devices and exhibit ambient intelligence. Billions of sensors, screens and devices – in conference rooms, living rooms, cities, cars, phones, PCs – are forming a vast network and streams of data that simply disappear into the background of our lives. This computing power will digitize nearly everything around us and will derive insights from all of the data being generated by interactions among people and between people and machines. We are moving from a world where computing power was scarce to a place where it now is almost limitless, and where the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.

You lost me at “mobile-first, cloud-first world.” Most people don’t know what the heck the cloud is; just ask Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz.


Nobody understands the cloud. It’s a fuckin’ mystery!

So get to the heart of the matter with simple words. Think like a blogger, not like a novelist.

2. Talk Normal, Write Simple

Corporations sure think they are people, but turn on a press release or a camera and they sure as hell sound like corporations. As Anil Dash suggests, I’m sure Nadella and team write normal when they email each other but turn on the spotlight and it turns weird; like this scene from Talladega Nights:

I’ve seen this Deer-in-Spotlight phenomenon in many an executive, but I’ve also seen some of them overcoming it over time. Writing makes it worse, since there’s no immediate feedback to your original missive. But if Nadella and his PR team are seeing the tweets or posts since, they should know this could have gone better.

Sure, most of Nadella’s speech might have avoided the obvious hard truths but worse still, there was no letting up on the esoteric:

A few months ago on a call with investors I quoted Nietzsche and said that we must have “courage in the face of reality.” Even more important, we must have courage in the face of opportunity.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s words say it best: “The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.”
Even True Detective makes more sense now:

Someone once told me time is a flat circle; where everything we’ve ever done, we’ll do over and over again.

The reason I insist on simplicity, is comprehension – the ultimate goal of all communication. In our attention-deficit world, the disparity between being heard and listened to is huge. The importance of your words lies solely in its ability to drive action and that cannot happen with the incomprehensible. This ain’t about you, the writer.

It is always about the reader.

3. Be Precise

Now to the heart of the matter. Rhetoric teaches us that in order to drive action, you need to persuade. And that happens with clarity of vision. Flashback to our 97 Macworld and here’s how Jobs set the stage for the future; inspirational, and on hindsight, prescient:

“We have the makings of a really healthy company, with some really talented people that need to come together and execute on a great plan.”

“What’s the fundamental problem? Declining sales.”

He then dives straight into how they are gonna overcome that in 5 concrete steps:

  • Board of Directors (calls out people but does it in a very subtle manner)
  • Focus on relevance
  • Invest in core assets
  • Forge meaningful partnerships
  • New product paradigms

Actions speak louder than words. And to back up those words, he clearly spells out actions like installing a new board of directors, one which includes the legendary Bill Campbell (who just today retired, after 17 years on Apple’s board), Steve Jobs’ close friend, Larry Ellison, among others.

”The confidence starts with a really clear vision. Then you take that vision down to strategy. People have to look at it and say “Yes”, they can do that. The past has been failure. The new board inspires hope.” – Bill Campbell

It’s just that Jobs makes what seems impossible for any CEO to do, seem easy: calling out past mistakes honestly and focusing on what needs to change, boldly and precisely.

One more thing: Bolt of Lightning

Towards the end of the presentation Steve Jobs says something that kinda gave away the mainstay of rhetoricians:

“Sometimes points of view can really make you really look at things differently.”

“For me when I was looking at the statistic and it hit me that Apple is the largest education company in the world, that was like a bolt of lightning. That’s huge.

“What an incredible base to build off of.”

“Another bolt of lightning is that Apple and Microsoft equal 100% of the desktop market.

And so, whatever Apple and Microsoft agree to do, it’s a standard (laughter). I think you’ll see us work more with Microsoft because they’re the only player in the desktop industry. And I think you’ll see Apple work more with Microsoft more because they’re the only other player in the desktop industry.

I hope we have more cooperation in the future because the industry wants it.”

Art of Manliness points out the third rule of persuasion – Appeal to Reason:

Finally, we come to logos, or the appeal to reason. Aristotle believed logos to be the superior persuasive appeal and that all arguments should be won or lost on reason alone. However, he recognized that at times an audience would not be sophisticated enough to follow arguments based solely on scientific and logical principles and so the other appeals needed to be used as well.

In The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle states that appealing to reason means allowing “the words of the speech itself” to do the persuading. This was accomplished through making inferences using deductive reasoning, usually in the form of a formal syllogism. You’ve seen these before. You start with two premises and end with a conclusion that naturally follows the premises.

Jobs had to conclude that speech with a convincing call to arms. The troops were still skeptical but his conclusion hits at logic, while earlier in the speech, he tackled emotion:

Microsoft + Apple = 100%
What we do together = the desktop standard
The industry wants it.

The conclusion of Nadella’s letter reads:

Rainer Maria Rilke’s words say it best: “The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.”

We must each have the courage to transform as individuals. We must ask ourselves, what idea can I bring to life? What insight can I illuminate? What individual life could I change? What customer can I delight? What new skill could I learn? What team could I help build? What orthodoxy should I question?

With the courage to transform individually, we will collectively transform this company and seize the great opportunity ahead.

Confusing quote, followed by rambling ideas (“What orthodoxy should I question?” Uh?) ending with more meaningless blah.

Let me clarify, this is not a dig on the writing style of one CEO over the other. It’s a reminder that most of us, myself included, sometime gets sucked into the “more is better” mentality, as a writer. And that’s just a bad place to be in, if the goal of your writing is to communicate effectively.

Conclusion

Every leader should be writing for the audience’s collective cynic, not to their internal sycophants. And I notice CEOs oftentimes do the latter. And don’t get me wrong, any decent PR effort can help broadcast this mindless jargon across the airwaves and social media, but then all you get out of that is awareness.

Communications, in my opinion, is far bigger than PR-as-Marketing and it involves converting people over to your line of thinking and this happens only with strong beliefs and convincing rhetoric. And to do that just follow the rules I outline above.

 

Filed under: Crisis Communications, Public Relations, Public Speaking, Steve Jobs

Time has come to change how we read

Google Reader is dead. Long live reading.

If you are from the real world and happened upon posts from any-and-every tech blog, you wouldn’t be mistaken in assuming that today marks the demise of the written word, now that Google’s offed Google Reader.

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Image Source: Business Week

But as Joe Coscarelli of New York Magazine, notes, most people don’t know Google Reader from Google Currents, less so care about its disappearance:

As a blogger this might be blasphemy, but the online echo chamber when beloved products, however esoteric, change or shut down is out of control. Worse, it might convince us, through repetition, that these things matter. Regardless of what your social media circles might indicate, the universe will not mourn Reader because the amount of people whose job (or even hobby) it is to consume and process news is actually minuscule. Thankfully.

As a matter of fact, in their rush to tease out the minutiae, I fear we have missed the big picture. There is a fundamental disruption happening in how news is consumed.

Many apps (Digg, Aol, Feedly) are scrambling to jump on the RSS bandwagon by touting their next Google Reader but fact is we are already seeing attempts at more efficient ways to consume news.

And RSS is only part of that story.

What’s the New TiVo of News?

Matt Buchanan of The New Yorker, writes of the problem that ailed Google Reader:

But a feed reader still represents a fundamentally different vision of gathering information than the social model that has gripped the Web. It is largely a single-user enterprise—a digital monk diligently scanning feeds. And it is intensely focussed on the Web sites most important to the user, rather than the omnivorous grazing that characterizes scanning news on social media, as links are surfaced by the people the user follows.

Fact is most of the sites I recommend below have moved away from the RSS-only model while curating social content, in many cases with a lil help from an expert – a trait most successfully used by Gabe Rivera and his trinity of popular news aggregation insider sites Techmeme (Technology), Memeorandum (Politics), and Wesmirch (Celebrity).

As Matt says:

Everybody consumes the Web differently, so it’s hard to imagine a single reading service that works for every person. But it seems reasonable to think that one combining a person’s deep and abiding interests with the serendipity of social media could work for most.

But the future for news readers is brighter than ever and here’s not one, not two, but five different reasons why:

1. Flipboard

The one news app I cannot live without today would have to be – without doubt – my Flipboard.

Flipboard pulls together the disparate threads of news that course through our ubiquitous social media world and makes gorgeous sense of it. Everything from your LinkedIn to Facebook updates, YouTube to Instagram (even SoundCloud), and most importantly, your Twitter followings are displayed in an elegant magazine like format. It’s the kind of design one normally expects from Apple, and Flipboard’s attention-to-detail here is impressive (Follow their designer, @craigmod).

The important distinction to make here is that Flipboard is primarily a consumption device. Though it provides you options to tweet or update your status on any of your social accounts, the beauty of Flipboard is its visual clarity and the ability to on-board you with great news right away.

2. Feedly

For those hard-core Google Reader users who fret-and-fumed since the announcement-to-shutter was made, Feedly has been a god-send. Not only has Feedly invested the most in making this a smooth transition for users, they have also made the most gains among the same user base (up to 3 million users now). In addition, they now support lost RSS reader tools (like @reeder and @newsify) stay alive.

From a user perspective, what feedly has done is provide a quick replacement for Google Reader with a blazing fast cloud service, which you can find at Feedly Cloud. What’s most shocking to me in this whole scenario is why Google didn’t transition those influential Google Reader users to Google Currents – their Flipboard wannabe – the same way Flipboard did!

What Feedly does with its aggressive push into the Google Reader space remains to be seen, but I’d watch out for what they have up their sleeve next.

3. Newsify

All great news consumption apps start on mobile. Flipboard set the standard and, believe it or not, Newsify and Reeder are two similar apps with similar credentials.

RSS subscriptions, unlike the real-time ephemeral nature of social, add up pretty fast in an inbox and what you found is that you had to declare news bankruptcy pretty soon, deleting days worth of RSS content.

What you need is a pictorial, almost Pinterest-like, visualization that allows you to skim through hundreds of posts while picking out the ones that seem most interesting. If it’s 4.5 star app rating is any indication, Newsify seems to have nailed that experience for the iPhone and the iPad.

4. The Modern Op-ed: Quora and Medium

What Huffington Post successfully started, Quora and Medium have tried to emulate. The goal: to find and amplify excellent sources of authoritative analysis, with topics ranging from breaking news to expertise across varying categories.

While Quora is focused on news-via-experience, Medium seems to have perfected the art of the modern op-ed, democratized it while still maintaining its quality.

But what all these sites do is take the traditional news model and flip it on its head by finding commenters, whose comments are the starting point to creating worthwhile reading, and giving these individuals a platform to write and a community to pontificate.

5. Social News: Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Finally, the elephant in the room. Social.

Let’s not forget that all of the above innovation rests on social.

What would Flipboard do without Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and LinkedIn feeds. Would their pages be as interesting or even exist?

Most of what I follow on Flipboard are Twitter lists I’ve created. Most of what most people follow on Flipboard are also built around links shared on social sites. With LinkedIn already showing how a successful social news product should be built around relevance and Facebook clearly showing its cards with what could potentially be a social news engine, we can see the direction that social news is gonna take in the coming years. And it’s gonna be a game changer.

So let me leave you with a question:

How do you get your news today? Is it on Yahoo News or Flipboard or Twitter? Do you read news primarily on your phone as you are boarding the train or on your desktop once you get to work or with a New York Times subscription while you drink coffee in the morning.

Leave me a comment.

Filed under: Curation, Facebook, Journalism, Medium, Quora, Social Media Tools, Tumblr, What's New in Social Media

Quora’s Big Problem

I haven’t been on Quora in a long time.

I used to be there every single day, so much that many Quora users’ feed was filled just with stuff I curated. But that was months ago.

Slowly but surely as Liz Gannes from AllThingsD suggests in an interview with co-founder Adam D’Angelo, “it can be easy to forget to visit Quora, with its random jumble of writings on topics that are interesting but not crucial.

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So as a friend of Quora’s (I even hosted a Quora meetup at my digs last week) and an obsessive about how startups communicate in today’s social media world, I carefully read through the article to figure out if it had clues to where Quora may be headed but was disappointed. Here’s the where and the why:

Paint a picture

I’d love to do a Kara Swisher style deconstruction of the answers but frankly it’d get repetitive here, so let’s just cut to the chase and address the big questions and what they lacked.

Where’s Quora now and where are they headed?

Adam: We’ve become more data-driven. When you’re small, you have to do everything on intuition, but now we’re at the scale where we have a lot of users, so we can run experiments. We have a data team that’s pretty big, actually.

What do you use the data for — is it personalization?

Adam: No, it’s more about to make decisions about what to build. We’re looking at whether something’s going to be a good investment of resources. When you’re small, you can say, “I use the product myself, and I’m annoyed by these things, so let’s change this.” Now we can say, “Twenty percent of our users have encountered this issue that makes them less engaged or more engaged,” so we can test it. That’s really important, because then you don’t have to centralize the decision making. So it doesn’t all go through me.

I think one of the challenges with operational details is that it detracts from the bigger picture and introduces more questions with room for confusion. Wonder how it’s done?

Mark Zuckerberg and the folks over at Facebook, have figured out a way to code every announcement (even ones as mediocre as their recent Facebook Home announcement) in broad strokes compliant to a grand vision:

Mark: At one level, [Home] is just the next mobile version of Facebook. At a deeper level, I think this can start to be a change in the relationship that we have with how we use computing devices. For more than thirty years, computers have mostly just been about tasks, and they had to be–they were too expensive and clunky and hard to use, so you wouldn’t really want to use them for anything else. But the modern computing device has a very different place in our lives. It’s not just for productivity and business, although it’s great for that too. It’s for making us more connected, more social, more aware.

Home, by putting people first, and then apps–by just flipping the order–is one of many small but meaningful changes in our relationship with technology over time.

It’s always about people first. And, Zuckerberg has truly come a long way and learned well.

Words matter. And, ideas matter even more. This is an area where Quora absolutely needs to spend some time articulating their vision, and they gotta do it now.

Now show it works

How big is Quora? What are the most important metrics to you — volume of content, how many people use it?

Adam: We look at people who use it. We don’t share the particular numbers, but it’s pretty big, and it’s growing.

Nah. Not good enough. From a communications perspective, this is the worst answer one can probably give but some startups do it and think they can get away with it. Guess what? No one’s buying it.

You’ve got to come up with metrics that are understandable to the public and it needs to be framed the right way. When I joined LinkedIn, we were close to 5 or 6 million members on the site  and from my first day there, our vision was always clearly framed around the world that we operated within (5 million professionals on LinkedIn vs. 25 million folks on Facebook). Likewise, with Quora, there’s a plethora of factors they can make a great case with to show growth in relevant areas, the most obvious being the number of questions answered each day the world over by knowledge workers in specific topics and categories. Instead, it falls flat when you say: “we’re pretty big and growing.”

Always, show, don’t tell.

Let me give you another example, this time, more relevant to Quora’s size. Take Flipboard for example, which has done a good job of framing their metrics around Flips. How many articles are being flipped, read and therefore shared in their magazines. I’ve created three magazines on Flipboard and psychologically it’s a great feeling when I have 100s of thousands of flips even when my readers number in the thousands. Either way, it’s good for the user and the reader to know where things started, and how it’s doing right now relevant to that start.

Even when Apple was floundering, Steve Jobs always painted a clear picture of the future. This needs to be done; without which everyone’s lost. Moving on…

The elephant in the room: Purpose

You’ve introduced a bunch of new content types in addition to Q&A. What’s working?

Adam: So we have answers, blogs and now we have reviews. The area we define as what Quora’s good at is long-form text that’s useful over time, and where you care about who wrote the text. Not that you need to be friends with them, just that they’re someone trustworthy.

Their introduction of boards was the first time I stepped outside the fan circle and re-evaluated my enthusiasm for the product. And since then I’ve noticed a deterioration in the quality of the Quora feed. Things never been the same since.

But this question leads to clarity in the mission which also should answer why I should use Quora. But instead it led me to thinking of the reason why I’ve dropped out of Quora oddly similar to the reason Liz gave in the early paragraphs: “it can be easy to forget to visit Quora, with its random jumble of writings on topics that are interesting but not crucial.

Every product mission should have a purpose in the lives of their users that makes the product irreplaceable. Take LinkedIn, whose mission to transform the lives of all global professionals led to – jobs. Helping users find a better job, a dream job.

It may not be what LinkedIn talks about all the time, but as a user, it’s this promise that keeps bringing you back for more. It’s this tacit understanding that leads you to update your profile, build your connections and maybe share articles you hope your future boss will “like.” But it all starts and ends with that purpose for a user: what’s in it for me?

Once that reason exists in the users mind, is articulated and is based on reality – it creates a compelling reason to return over and over again. A compelling reason to contribute. Frankly, I think Quora’s unique strengths may lie not just in gathering, sharing and building that knowledge graph (since there are so many others building that graph) but rather in the application of said knowledge towards intelligence and skills that will give it a purpose it so sorely lacks.

But, what do you think is Quora’s purpose? 

Thoughts? Leave a comment.

Filed under: Public Relations, Quora

BREAKING: Can we put Journalism back together again?

This is an attempt at deciphering the happenings of the past week in Boston and the way we follow news today. What are some of the learnings from the past days and what must we avoid. And most importantly, how has social media, Twitter in particular, forever changed the way we consume real-time news.

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The photo acquired via a LetsRun forum that gave us a closer look at Suspect #2 (with white hat in left corner)

This was our generation’s OJ Simpson – Broncos chase. This time, instead of 21 helicopters hovering over the infamous slow-speed chase, we had hundreds of thousands of us refreshing our Twitter feed in real-time as the Chechen brothers evaded, assassinated, and ran over their way into infamy. This time, we contributed and participated our way into the history of media.

Journalism isn’t dead. We’re just reinventing it.

Let’s refresh our memory on a few of the biggest on-air and online human errors the media bungled:

1. CNN who rushed to call that an arrest had been made when none had and other too eager networks like Fox who repeated the nonsense.

Well no one pokes fun at CNN better than Jon Stewart, so here goes. This should give you a sense for the continued hits that CNN has been taking as a sub-standard bearer of mediocre news these days.

2. NY Post: No one expects much from this tabloid, the second Murdoch outlet that screwed up the Boston coverage by pointing fingers at bag men who weren’t Suspect 1 nor Suspect 2.

3. Reddit: Aah… where would we be if social media weren’t a part of these screw-ups.

Yes, there may have been some smugness from social media folks when they thought some of the internet sleuthing pin-pointed the suspects but as was the case, they were way off-base and have apologized profusely since. And I regret being a part of the RT mafia that was a lil too eager to beat our chests a lil too early; a culpability we now share with mainstream media. But for every Reddit fiasco, there’s a LetsRun success and that’s why the “wisdom of crowdsworks and is here to stay:

In places where reporters could not tread because of police restrictions, local residents filled in some of the audio and video gaps. From their front stoops and through their windows, they posted videos of an early-morning shootout and photographs of a vehicle said to be involved in a police chase. The material was quickly scooped up by local television stations and Twitter users. On NBC’s “Today” show, Savannah Guthrie was able to interview two Watertown residents sheltering at home, thanks to a Skype video connection. The residents showed images of bullet holes in their walls, presumably from the shootout.

Farhad Manjoo of Slate Magazine goes as far as hyperventilating:

Next, pull out your phone, delete your Twitter app, shut off your email, and perhaps cancel your service plan. Unplug your PC.

Finally, load up your favorite newspaper’s home page. Spend about 10 minutes reading a couple of in-depth news stories about the events of the day. And that’s it: You’ve now caught up with all your friends who spent the past day and a half going out of their minds following cable and Twitter. In fact, you’re now better informed than they are, because during your self-imposed exile from the news, you didn’t stumble into the many cul-de-sacs and dark alleys of misinformation that consumed their lives. You’re less frazzled, better rested, and your rain gutters are clear.

Breaking news is broken.

Molly Wood of CBS suggests:

It’s not. We have more information, but it’s a morass of truths, half-truths, and what we used to call libel. It’s fast, but it’s bad. And bad information is a cancer that just keeps growing. I’d argue the opposite of Ingram: that the hyper-intense pressure of real-time reporting from Twitter, crowdsourcing from Reddit, and constant mockery from an online community that is empirically skewed toward negativity and criticism is actually hurting journalism. It’s making all the news worse.

I beg to differ. Bad journalists make specious judgments with or without social media.

  • Social media had nothing to do with John King’s judgment to call that an arrest had been made.
  • Social media had nothing to do with the New York Post broadcasting two innocent young men’s photographs from the rooftops.
  • Yes, Redditors, did get their facts wrong, messed up, fessed up and now have offered to help find the poor young man who’s been missing and was falsely accused by them as a potential suspect but it’s the last in a string of bad judgments made this past week.

It’s easy to blame social media for all the ills ailing journalism, but fact remains good journalism will always be about an objective interpretation of verifiable facts. And it’s the responsibility of the world’s largest media institutions to uphold these standards. Not CNN their way into infamy.

None could have said it better than Alan Gregg, former director of Medical Sciences for the Rockefeller Foundation in this excellent post on the Art of Observation:

“Most of the knowledge and much of the genius of the research worker lie behind his selection of what is worth observing. It is a crucial choice, often determining the success or failure of months of work, often differentiating the brilliant discoverer from the … plodder.”

The Boston incident is not an isolated incident. Increasingly we find news outlets choosing to be held captive to the ever quickening news cycle. It was true during the Kennedy assassination, it worsened during the OJ trial, and it’s running a mile a second in today’s social media world.

  • It is the journalist’s job to be the discoverer, not the plodder.
  • It is the journalist’s job to urge caution and call out the plodder.
  • It is not the journalist’s job to be the plodder.

Thoughts echoed by one of the few journalists who proved his value in this melee of real-time nonsense:

But I’d like to go one step further and point out that social media can be a huge asset to journalists in doing their job better. And that job is keeping the rest of the country (that’s on edge) posted on the latest in an unnerving string of attacks. And, if Twitter is the best medium to get that information out, then journalists have to figure out the best way to use it. And some did.

And as the @Boston_Police (now with over 330K followers on Twitter) found out this past week:

“Nothing has really changed,” Bar-Tur, a social media and law-enforcement consultant says, “just the medium has changed.” That might be enough for a new model manhunt to emerge.

And, that exactly should be the takeaway for journalists today.

The medium has changed. Journalism will evolve with social media.

(To be continued…)

Filed under: Crisis Communications, HOW-TO Use Social Media, Journalism

Give me that reason. A reason to write.

I am 35 years old. Today.

Feels odd, since I haven’t shared that on Facebook and here I am for the first time sharing this with all you guys – my readers.

But this post is about you and me.

And, Justin Timberlake. Ha.

About Me

Sometimes the past 5 years seem like an achievement.

Other times, I look forward to the next 5 years and given my unique predicament (I’ll tell you about it someday), I’m filled with trepidation.

But 6 years ago, right around the time I should have packed my bags and gone back to India, I chose to stay. And it worked out great.

So there you have it.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

And that truly made all the difference.

Bonus: There’s nothing like hearing Robert Frost read the poem himself.

About You 

Right around the time I should have packed my bags and begone, the world saw the democratization of writing with blogs.

We finally had an opportunity where writer met reader and talked. The key was talking. Like Humans Do.

With that I started my blogging. I know I may have neglected you at times, but now that I’ve picked up the pen again; it feels natural. Like riding a bicycle after a hiatus.

This time the words flowed more freely.

The motivation followed:

I had one of my most successful posts – on writing – that has already seen tens of thousands of views, and hundreds of shares on Twitter, Facebook, and over a hundred upvotes on Quora.

People who care about good writing and whose writing I love, shared it – Daniel Pink, Chris Brogan and Marc Bodnick (on Quora) – and it found an even bigger audience.

It’s moments like these that give you the motivation to write more.

For your applause. Your retweets. Your likes.

Keep me writing… creating. 

So thanks for your feedback! For reading, for sharing, for commenting on my writing. Writing which at times may seem to make sense only to me.

But if you don’t do the above, I won’t have a reason to write.

So thanks for giving me that reason.

And for the birthday wishes, guys!

Filed under: About Mario Sundar, Writing, , , , , , ,

Writing slow-motion

Check out this instructive video on how you can slow down time in your stories?

Some of you may have done it without realizing it was possible; at least the good writers among you.

But it’s as simple as providing more details and amplifying the excitement of a decisive moment in your story, or blog post or movie.

This Ted-Ed video does a better job of explaining that.

You’re welcome.

Filed under: Writing,

Handling a personal crisis like Letterman

We’ve seen this before. An executive’s fall from grace over a workplace dalliance. The world loves stories like this and the media just can’t have enough of it.

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The tech world, which is usually insulated from such drama, just saw earlier today the second of such stories in recent times. Keith Rabois, second in command at Jack Dorsey’s Square stepped down in his role as COO because of sexual harassment claims.

There’s definitely gonna be a lot of “He Said, He Said” over the next few weeks but Keith’s response to these allegations both on his blog as well as on his Twitter page, is a textbook case immediate response in crisis communication. It reminded me a lot of David Letterman’s handling of a blackmail over dalliances he had with his employees. Here’s Letterman addressing those allegations:

The key is authenticity. Letterman address was precise:

“The creepy stuff was that I’ve had sex with women who work for me on the show. My response to that is ‘Yes, I have.'”

“And would it be embarrassing if it were made public. Yes, it would. Especially for the women!”

Keith’s response has been somewhat along similar lines, though a tad more nebulous:

“In May 2010, I met someone via mutual friends. With increasing frequency, we hung out, drank wine, and I helped prepare him for interviews with tech startups. As our friendship deepened, we spent more time together, and our relationship became physical. We regularly worked out at the gym, occasionally hung out at my home, and exchanged intimate, personal information, as people in similar relationships often do.

Several months after our relationship began, I recommended that he interview at Square. He went through the interview process and was ultimately hired. I had no impact on his potential success at the company. At no point did he ever report directly to me, and I have seen his work product less than a handful of times.”

This may not be as cut-and-dry as the Letterman example, but the immediate response in all such cases is the same: an honest appraisal (see above) and a sincere apology (see below).

I deeply regret that I let my personal and professional lives to become intertwined, and I apologize to my colleagues and friends (at Square and elsewhere) who I’ve let down, and who will bear the brunt of some of the unnecessary, negative attention this situation will likely bring.

You may think it’s easy but very few people have been able to handle these situations right (Just ask Bill Clinton) and it takes a lot of courage to watch your dirty linen washed in public.

But at the end of the day, people are willing to forgive and forget as long as your work counts for something.

Just ask Bill Clinton of the Clinton Foundation, or David Letterman who was recently honored at the Kennedy Center for his contribution to pop-culture.

Filed under: Crisis Communications, Leadership Communication, Public Relations, ,

Write like the President’s Speechwriter

Remember, President Obama’s triumphantYes, We Can” speech, or the hopeful New Hampshire concession speech or most recently the comforting Newton tragedy speech

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Words matter and a President’s words carry meaning to hundreds of millions of people; it helps sooth, comfort, and uplift a nation.

So there’s a lot we can learn about writing from the President’s young speechwriter Jon Favreau (not the guy who brought you Iron Man). This past week Favreau crafted one of his penultimate speeches for the President and shared some of his secrets gleaned while writing for the President.

First, nail the theme

One of the biggest mistakes you can make while writing an essay or a blog post is to blah, blah, ramble on relentlessly towards an unspecified goal in the far distance. Smart writers always get the theme right first, which helps with Act 1 and 3 of the piece, and then work around it to get Act 2 right – usually the toughest part.

The President’s working style with Favreau is no different.

“We wanted to make sure that we were going to pick one theme and not go all over the place. And the president said, “Look there’s the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and for 200 years the American story has been about making those promises real,'” recalled Favreau. For an underlying theme, they settled on the notion that “alongside our rugged individualism, there’s another strand of American belief which is that we’re all in this together e pluribus unum, out of many, one.”

Keep it short, keep it real

For cryin out loud, please keep it short. Everybody’s got ADD (thank you, Twitter!) these days, so holding their attention is gonna be your biggest challenge.

As Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s speechwriter, said about JFK’s speeches:

No speech was more than 20 to 30 minutes in duration. They were all too short and too crowded with facts to permit any excess of generalities and sentimentalities. His texts wasted no words and his delivery wasted no time.

And, boy did Kennedy’s speeches work because of that very fact:

For he disliked verbosity and pomposity in his own remarks as much as he disliked them in others. He wanted both his message and his language to be plain and unpretentious, but never patronizing. He wanted his major policy statements to be positive, specific and definite, avoiding the use of “suggest,” “perhaps” and “possible alternatives for consideration.”

Yes. Always be specific.

“Write drunk; edit sober.”

Nah, I wouldn’t recommend that rule because not all things that work for Hemingway work for mere mortals. But, Hemingway was right about one thing – relentlessly edit your work till its worthy of public consumption.

Editing is an art form with the structure depending on how you choose to approach it. In some cases, logic will be the guide:

“He’s known for his rhetoric, right?” said Favreau. “But he’s also got a very lawyerly, logical mind. And so the thing he always does best is putting every argument in order.”

The night before the inauguration, Obama was done editing. All that was left were words to underline so that they’d get proper emphasis in the delivery. The president did a read through in the map room of the White House that night.

And, in other cases, reason will dictate the contents of a speech as Ted Sorenson describes JFK’s goal with his speeches:

At the same time, his emphasis on a course of reason –rejecting the extremes of either side –helped produce the parallel construction and use of contrasts with which he later became identified. He had a weakness for one unnecessary phrase: “The harsh facts of the matter are . . .”–but with few other exceptions his sentences were lean and crisp. . . .

But regardless, if there’s one thing I’d like you to takeaway from this post, it’d be edit, edit, and edit until your post is worthy of being seen by people. Or as Hemingway said to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934:

“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,” Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

Put it in the wastebasket, not on your blog.

Filed under: Best-of, Leadership Communication, Public Speaking, Writing, , , , , ,

Is Facebook’s Graph Search a Giant Killer?

Will Facebook’s “Graph Search” be a threat to Google, LinkedIn, Yelp, or Foursquare asks a question on Quora?

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No, No, No and Definitely Not. Yet.

The key is expertise.

Beneath the obvious user delight, Facebook is betting a lot on Graph Search’s core ability to connect people with what they’re looking for accurately and immediately. And obviously as the middle man, they stand to gain. Fair enough.

But will Facebook’s imminent functionality be a threat to well established vertical searches like Google, Yelp, LinkedIn and Foursquare?

All of the four kinds of search you can do today: Photos, People, Places and Interests, bear commercial implication. But the most immediate remain People and Places, which as bloggers speculate may pose a threat to Yelp, Foursquare, Google (Places) and LinkedIn (People). So, let’s take simple examples and compare Facebook Search with the other four searches.

Facebook vs. Yelp

I started with a simple search for “bars,” something I presume will be a common search on any local product. Here’s what I got with Facebook. For starters, along with actual bars it also pulled up law and bar associations or offices which was a bit odd.

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Now try the same with Yelp and you see how right away, they try to segment that query into the different types of bars you’re potentially searching for.

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Once you get a set of results, Yelp then allows you (and this is the most useful feature on yelp currently) to convenience sort by “rating,” “proximity,” “price,” “open now,” or even better by neighborhoods.

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I’ve gotta tell you; if you go out often, this filter is magical. But again, the filter is by utilitarian ratings by foodies and not by friends around you. More on that in just a second.

But before we leave Yelp, the third most useful feature on Yelp is their surfacing key elements of the review. So you’re at a restaurant and you’re wondering what’s the best thing on the menu. In days past, you’d have had to ask the person serving you but now you can rely on “the wisdom of an expert crowd” what’s the best food here and it works. Like magic.

Photo Jan 19, 6 51 23 PM

Facebook vs. Foursquare

Back to the topic of friends which is Facebook’s biggest competitive advantage. If you do wanna take into account which restaurants your friends are frequenting (ignoring the fact that expertise is the key), then try Foursquare.

The first thing you’ll notice yet again is the structured data (categories like Bar, Sports Bar, Salon) right up front (similar to Yelp) that Foursquare now provides you; though not as in depth as Yelp, can still be a tad useful.

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Digging deeper through the results, you’re gonna find them sorted by Foursquare’s own proprietary “Zagat number” that they conjure based on multiple data points.

Foursquare comes up with its score by looking at tips left by users, likes, dislikes, popularity, check-ins and it also weights signals more heavily for local experts.

They also show you a self-selecting group of folks who you know. Chances are most of these folks are more prone to bar hop than your other friends. But still Yelp really nails it with their community that they have nurtured for many many years who continue to write meaningful reviews that makes a world of difference when it comes to local search.

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Facebook vs. Google Local

While on the topic of a Zagat number, Google recently bought restaurant ratings site Zagat which now powers their Google Local ratings.  Zagat which originally started off compiling restaurant ratings of the Zagat’s friends, does something very similar to Yelp and the model here is yet again – expertise.

Photo Jan 19, 7 22 43 PM

Facebook vs. LinkedIn

Shifting gears to people search, Facebook’s people search is three years after LinkedIn launched its faceted people search. I know because I helped launch it at TechCrunch Disrupt where product manager Esteban Kozak demoed it right before CEO Jeff Weiner went on stage. (Disclosure: I no longer work at LinkedIn and don’t own any stock either) My mind was blown when I first saw what we could do with faceted search on LinkedIn both from a user experience perspective and I’m sure recruiters have found even more value from it.

Take a look at this demo video we shot in 2009 that shows you the plethora of signals a site like LinkedIn uses to hone in on the right professionals in a search. Easier said than done, and much like with Yelp, these signals have been gathered over many many years and such a search isn’t something you can turn on willy-nilly.

In all four instances the quality of Facebook’s search is insipid today compared to the robust community based expertise that the four sites have either built or bought .

The key is expertise. 

Now granted there are many things Facebook could do to build or buy their way into each of these verticals but the key point is that strength in local search across People and Places is not “friend” related, but rather “expertise” dependent and it takes years to build that. And frankly, I’d go with the critical reviews from experts in these fields and that’s an area that Yelp, Foursquare, Google and LinkedIn have Facebook beat.

Filed under: Facebook, Google+, Linkedin, LinkedIn Features, Local Search, Location, Mark Zuckerberg, , , , , ,

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