Mario Sundar

LinkedIn's 2nd PR hire; I led their social media efforts from 2007 past their IPO. These are my thoughts on tomorrow's social products, today.

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

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.

esq-sex-scandals-012213-iZnR9L-de

 

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, ,

Bad Communication, according to Larry Page

I’ve written about great communicators like Steve Jobs, I’ve called out lame attempts by Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos who tried copying the master and failed, and I now gotta write about bad communication, courtesy of Google CEO Larry Page.

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Scott Edinger’s recap of Aristotle’s three rules of rhetoric helped me pull together the three elements of Larry Page’s bad communication skills.

1. Lack emotion and logic

Aristotle’s rules of rhetoric are credibility, emotion and logic. While credibility is a given with folks like Page and Zuckerberg, it’s emotion and logic (!) that these CEOs stumble upon.

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Let’s take Page’s comments on Google+, an area that’s obviously not Google’s brightest spot today. In Dec 2012, this is how Page addressed its “success“:

Fortune: It is a big bet. What’s most important to you? Is competitive with Facebook (FB)? Is it about weaving identity across all of Google’s products? You’ve talked about adoption being higher than you expected. What’s the measure of success going forward?

Page: I think it’s gone pretty well. I’m very happy if users of Plus are happy and the numbers are growing because that means that we’re on to something. We’ve got a huge team actually in this building. If you walk around, you see everyone’s excited and running around and working hard on it. I think that they’re doing great stuff. They’re making it better and better every day. That’s how I’m measuring it.

That made no sense. After months of touting meaningless numbers to showcase Google+’s “success”, the past couple of months have seen Page just bullshitting us with nada.

Take a another example just a few days ago, in Wired Magazine:

Wired: What’s your evaluation of Google+?

Page: I’m very happy with how it has gone. We’re working on a lot of really cool stuff. A lot of it has been copied by our competitors, so I think we’re doing a good job.

Now, obviously there’s no way in hell this is how Google (one of the smartest companies on the planet) measures success for a key product, ranging from “excited employees, running around, working hard, doing great stuff” to “lot of is copied” so we’re doing good.

Now who does this kind of talk remind me of: Dubya!

He answers questions like an 8 year old does when they didn’t read the book.

He just describes facts.

People always say: “President Bush. I think he’s stupid.” He’s not stupid. When you listen to him you realize, he talks like he’s talking to someone stupid.

And that in essence is how Larry Page sounds most of the time. Especially when he’s talking about Google+.

Wanna know how it’s done right? I can give you so many examples of Jobs’ masterful answer to tough questions.

Jobs was one of those rare leaders who was able to combine both emotion and logic in his answers, much like he presented Apple at the intersection of Art and Technology. Even when heckled, Jobs knew how to respond to it with a unique blend of emotion and logic.

intersection

As I’ve mentioned earlier, the key here is to earn the respect of your audience.

2. Badmouth your competition

An unwritten law of communication is to not badmouth the competition, but somehow Larry Page sounds either condescending, like a douche (more on that in just a second) or plain clueless.

Wired: One area where people say that Google is indeed motivated by competition is the social realm, where in the past two years you have been working hard in a field dominated by a single rival, Facebook. That’s not the case?

Page: It’s not the way I think about it. We had real issues with how our users shared information, how they expressed their identity, and so on. And, yeah, they’re a company that’s strong in that space. But they’re also doing a really bad job on their products.

The part that really gets to me, is you can’t just throw stuff out like that without getting examples! It’s a whole other problem that the interviewer didn’t ask the obvious question: which Facebook products are you referring to? Wouldn’t that have made for a fascinating follow-up.

And it ain’t just Page; others in his “L Team” (yuck!) have done it earlier to which Jobs responded:

Just because you’re a competitor, doesn’t mean you have to be rude.

3. Sound like a douche

Finally, as I said earlier, you don’t wanna come off as condescending to your competition (or worse still) sound like a dick about your users.

Fortune: While the company has touted the success of Google+, its answer to Facebook, many analysts say they see little activity on the social network.

What you should want us to do is to really build amazing products and to really do that with a long-term focus. Just like I mentioned we have to understand apps and we have to understand things you could buy, and we have to understand airline tickets. We have to understand anything you might search for. And people are a big thing you might search for.

And so we think about it somewhat differently. We’re going to have people as a first class object in search. We need that to work, and we need to get started on it. If you look at a product, and you say the day it launched, “It’s not doing what I think it should do.” We say, “Well, yeah. It just launched today.” Part of this is you have to interact with it and you have to claim your name and make it work for you. And so I think for me I didn’t have any issues around that. I think that people weren’t focused on the long-term. And I think again it’s important if we’re going to do a good job meeting your information needs, we actually need to understand things and we need to understand things pretty deeply. People are a component of that.

As you can see in both instances people always seem to be “a component of” Google’s “need to understand things pretty deeply.” People are a necessary cog in Google’s need to “understand apps and things you could buy and they have to understand airline tickets.”!!!

Jobs on the other hand always began with the user in mind. Even in the example I gave above, he says:

One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve gotta start with the customer experience and work backwards the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re gonna try to sell it.

And as recently as with his last interview at the D Conference, this is a word cloud of his responses and as you can see “People” figures quite prominently.

steve-jobs-d8-wordcloud

So if I can leave you with two last words, two more lessons from Jobs, it’d be transparency and consistency. Transparency because every word you say on stage has to be backed up by your product actions not the other way around. Consistency because what you say today should match with what you say in your last interview.

And that’s something we can all learn from Steve Jobs. Especially if you are a CEO of a multi-billion dollar company.

Filed under: Best-of, Larry Page, Leadership Communication, Public Relations, Public Speaking, , ,

The magic left the building with Jobs

I remember the moment Steve Jobs scrolled through his music and uttered those magical words – “scrolls like butter” – while illustrating the beauty of the original iPhone.

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It’s moments like this that you lived for, as a technology obsessed professional in Silicon Valley. And with Jobs we got to watch the Michael Jordan of technology, courtside, at his best. iPods, iPhones, iPads, the hits kept coming and Jobs made them look great.

So, it’s a pet peeve of mine these days when companies try to rip off Steve Jobs’ launch style. Not Apple’s style because the new PR machinery at Apple leaves a lot to be desired. But what Jobs created, no one else can put together, because it was and will always be classic Jobs.

Jobs in the above video is the same age as Zuckerberg is today. Incomparable!

Why “Public Relations” sucks?

Kevin Roose writes of the Applefication of Facebook PR in light of today’s Facebook press conference.

I’m sitting in the Facebook headquarters, in Menlo Park, in a room filled with the symphonic clicking of keys produced by hundreds of tech bloggers, all writing the same stories and updating the same live-blogs on identical Apple laptops.

Go on…

Zuckerberg has long departed — he was disappeared from a teeming pile of reporters and cameras and out a back door like a sitting president — so now it’s just us and the PR Borg. Oh, the PR Borg. Facebook’s communications staffers are paired up with reporters at demo stations, showing off Graph on a series of computers. The spares are milling around the room. There must be 50 of them — a phalanx of fresh-faced professionals with smiles on their faces and carefully scripted responses to our questions in their hip pockets.

These are today’s news factories. These are things I’d hoped would change with social media but frankly the hand that runs the machine continues to operate with an old playbook. And that sucks…

But wasn’t social media meant to change these things… Hold that thought.

Because no company can ever be Apple with Jobs 

I never went to an Apple event in the Steve Jobs era, but I gather that the pitch is nearly identical: the charismatic founder, the well-paced presentation, the subtle way that certain media outlets are subtly given preference. (This time, major news outlets — this one not included — were given off-the-record briefings about Social Graph.) It’s all drawn from a playbook that was developed a decade ago and has been used to transform a smallish computer company into the largest corporation in the world.

Not so fast. This playbook copied by every large company from Amazon to Facebook forgets three key elements for this communication to work: killer product, charismatic founder, real user values.

The magic with Steve Jobs was his effortless communication. A passionate user himself whose demos communicated his wonder around Apple products that truly changed the way we interact with technology.

Yes, Apple had their PR machinery but the difference was Jobs.

  • The difference was in backing up those missives by publicly sparring, evangelizing and winning over developers or journalists when they called him on it.
  • The difference was a holistic approach at communicating openly to users by treating them as adults.

Wasn’t that the utopian goal of social media? To help companies talk one-on-one with their users. Instead here we are, still mass producing press releases around giant product announcements, trying to reach the lowest common denominator at the lowest possible price. In some cases, at the ridiculously low price of $100.00!

Welcome to the future of social media communication.

[Disclosure: I own public stock in Facebook, I do not own stock in Apple. This blog holds my my personal thoughts on all things marketing and communications since 2006.]

Filed under: Best-of, Facebook, Public Relations, Social PR, , , ,

Zuck & Bezos: LEAVE JOBS ALONE!

Problem with the game now, there ain’t no innovation
I see my shit all in your shit, we call that imitation
And they say that’s flattering, but I ain’t flattered at all
Matter fact y’all need to practice that more
- J. Cole, Cole World

I’ve been planning to write a post ever since I watched Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote (where he launched Timeline – more on that later). But, then just last week I saw this and it creeped me out. So, Jobs, steps down as CEO and every Zuck, Bezos and Harry decide to literally rip off the presentation style of Steve Jobs. That’s just not cool.

But, I digress. Let’s catch some make-believe as CEOs try to play Steve Jobs.

Zuckerberg as Jobs

WTF! 7 minutes of Andy Samberg introducing a tech conference. You know that even in SNL segments we can’t take Samberg in more than 3 minute bytes. And, what’s with all the awful “humor” (I’m Zuckerberg, he’s Andy Samberg, and we couldn’t have Eisenberg here, so I’ll mimic Eisenberg). C’mon, guys. This ain’t high-school no more.

What’s worse is that this is a bit that Jobs introduced in his keynotes. First, in 1999 when Noah Wyle (who played Jobs in “Pirates of the Silicon Valley“) played Jobs on stage before Jobs’ adoring fans. Noah’s intro was less than a minute long. That was it. Well timed humor about the movie and a joke or two about Jobs temperament – for another minute. And, he’s gone. That’s how it’s done.

And, Jobs himself has overplayed that shtick. More recently, PC guy (played by the ever-adorable “The Daily Show” “reporter” John Hodgman) did a “I’m Steve Jobs” shtick and it was funny, short, and poked fun at Microsoft. Who doesn’t like an anti-PC ad, eh?

Bezos as Jobs

So, in short. The Samberg shtick was pure Jobs imitation. And, more importantly, it wasn’t funny and was way too long.

Things got a lil’ creepy when Bezos, whose maniacal laughter I fear, decided to jump on the “I’ll present as Jobs” world. This is him introducing the new Kindle at Amazon World or whatever it’s called. What’s with the deliberate stilted pacing that’ll make any viewer go nuts. C’mon, be yourself. Smile a little during your presentation. Don’t take yourself so seriously. And quit ripping off Jobs’ style. Trust me, it ain’t flattery.

One of the comments on the above Youtube video nailed it.

I love how dramatically he reveals things a la Steve Jobs to none of the cheers typical of an Apple presentation.

mgaums 1 day ago

This one’s even better…

and not a single fuck was given that day.

That crowd seemed so unimpressed it was almost sad.

TADA KINDLE FIRE!!!!!

yeah and?

MegatronSmurf 1 day ago

Please leave Jobs alone

As Jon Stewart would say: Zuck, meet me at Camera 3 (y’know, for a 1:1) – you’re a smart guy and developers love you. I know that for a fact cos they hate to see you embarrassed. I remember what a hard time they gave Sarah Lacy when you did a terrible job answering simple questions at SXSW.

They idolize you, the same way Mac fanatics adore Steve Jobs. There are very few folks in our tech world, who commands that adulation. You’re finally creating products that restore a sense of childlike wonder (more on Timeline later).

That doesn’t mean you can replace a black turtleneck sweater with a North Face jacket, sneakers with Adidas flip flops, Noah Wyle with Andy Samberg and turn into tech world’s great Houdini.

So, stick with creating great products, figuring out what works best for you on stage in your own unique way (it takes a while) and don’t let your handlers play you around.

And, I’ll let Jobs himself describe why a f8 or Amazon presentation will never be a Jobs presentation.

The problem with Microsoft is that they just have no taste. Absolutely no taste.
In a sense that they don’t think of original ideas.
So, I guess, I’m saddened not by their success. I’ve no problem with their success.
They’ve earned their success.
I have a problem that they make really third-rate products (replace with presentation).

There’ll never be another Jobs. You know that. So, quit trying.

Filed under: Best-of, Jeff Bezos, Leadership Communication, Mark Zuckerberg, Public Relations, Public Speaking, Steve Jobs, , , ,

The Larry Summers Show: Straight Talk. Served Angry.

Yesterday, Larry Summers, whose words have landed him into trouble on more than one occasion was interviewed by Walter Isaacson (Aspen Institute President and Steve Jobs biographer) at a Fortune conference. Of course, the blogosphere was abuzz, but I felt the interview was interesting on a couple other areas on CEO communications that I’ve spent quite some time talking about here.

Three more tips on being interviewed in public ensues… right after the pic.

BTW, I couldn’t embed the video here because WordPress sucks at embedding flash files (they cite security but what’s good for Tumblr’s good for me) on their posts and don’t give any other option either. Thank you very much! But, I digress.

1. Speak your mind. Don’t mince words. Not Angry.

Love him or hate him. You’ve got to give it to Larry Summers for speaking his mind — no matter, how controversial it is — and no matter how he is perceived at the end of the interview. Of course, he seems to get away with lecturing the audience in his professorial tone given his past history.

Why so serious?

The very first question was about a scene from the Social Network that portrayed him being dismissive of the Winklevii twins (I’m not gonna get into the details, but if you’re reading this blog, I guess you’ve watched the movie). Here was his no-nonsense answer to it.

I’ve heard it said that I can be arrogant.

If that’s true, I surely was on that occasion.  One of the things you learn as a college president is that if an undergraduate is wearing a tie and jacket on Thursday afternoon at three o’clock, there are two possibilities.  One is that they’re looking for a job and have an interview; the other is that they are an a**hole.

This was the latter case.  Rarely, have I encountered such swagger, and I tried to respond in kind.

Of course, not everyone can pull this off, but for someone with Larry’s notoriety this was a great start to an entertaining interview.

2. The power of simple metaphors

I’ve said it before (while describing Steve Jobs’ style) and I’m gonna start collecting more examples of leaders who are effective at using simple metaphors to get across a point during interviews. In my opinion, this is the only way to communicate effectively to your audience. For instance, I thought Larry Summers probably made the simplest description of the debt ceiling debate in this interview:

Look, if we default on August 2nd, it’s going to be what happened after Lehman collapsed on steroids.  It’s going to be financial Armageddon.

The idea that adults who have some agenda, whatever the merits of their agenda, are really prepared to threaten sending the United States into default, to pursue their agenda, is beyond belief.

You know, I have had arguments with my college-aged children about spending, and sometimes we discuss whether they should spend less, whether they should pay, whether I should pay.  We don’t entertain the option that because we can’t resolve our argument, Visa should get stiffed

3. Got Stories? Share it.

I think one of the key reasons people watch keynote interviews is to learn something new but more importantly, to just hear some “exclusive” stories they’d normally not hear elsewhere. It’s kinda like one of the key reasons people read blogs instead of press releases.

My favorite moments from this interview were surely an answer on the different leadership styles of the two Presidents Summers has worked with: Presidents Obama and Clinton.

You’re working for Barack Obama.  If you have a meeting scheduled at ten o’clock, there’s a 25 percent chance that the meeting will begin before ten o’clock, and there’s a — you know what’s coming, and there’s a 70 percent chance that the meeting will have begun by 10:15.

If you wrote Barack Obama a memo before the meeting, it is a virtual certainty that he will have read it.  If you seek to explain the memo you wrote to him during the meeting, he will cut you off, and he will be irritated.  If he, as the leader of the meeting, will ask one or two questions to kick the tires, but will basically focus on how whatever subject you’re talking about fits with the broad vision and approaches of his presidency.

He will basically take the attitude if you’re his financial advisor, that if you can’t — it’s up to you to figure out whether preferred stock or subordinated debt is the appropriate financial instrument for your bailout, and that if he doesn’t trust you to figure it out, he’ll get a new financial adviser, but that is not the question on which he is going to spend time.

So it’s a very focused executive, big picture guidance, disciplined approach.  At the appointed time, his secretary will come in and will bring a card that says it’s time for his next meeting, and you will be out of that office within five minutes.  It is a certainty.  That’s working for Barack Obama, and it is a wonderful experience.

Working for Bill Clinton is also a wonderful experience.  It is a different experience.

(Laughter.)

And, here’s his experience working with President Clinton:

The probability that there is compensation for the fact that your meeting will begin late, it is virtually certain to end late.  Bill Clinton has a 30 percent chance of having read your memo before the memo.  Bill Clinton will, however, with near certainty, have some set of quite detailed and thoughtful perspectives to offer on your topic.

He will say things like “I was in the White House library reading the Journal of Finance, and there’s some really interesting thinking about the role of dividends in the system.”  “I went to a conference at the Brookings Institution 11 years ago, and do you know that there’s a really interesting experiment with providing credit access in Tennessee?”

“Did you read the latest issue of — the Asian edition of The Economist?  It had a perspective on Thailand that you might want to think about.”  There was a stunning, I mean you know, while he wasn’t reading your memo, it wasn’t that he wasn’t doing anything about it.

I’ve a couple more interesting themes on corporate social media I’ll start covering shortly as I continue my fluency of writing posts on here. In the meanwhile, follow me on Twitter.

Filed under: Leadership Communication, Public Relations, Public Speaking

Steve Jobs as Luke Skywalker. Circa 1987.

Rockstars are made, not born. They practice tirelessly; honing their craft at every given opportunity, and with the help of Jobs’ 1987 Playboy interview, I’d like to shed some light on the early stages of Jobs’ communication savvy and the communication consistency that he has now perfected into an art form.

Jobs In 1987. p.s. What’s up with the bow-tie.

Fine tuning the metaphors:

Nobody hits a home run on Day One. Some have an in-born talent but it’s always a work in progress. Steve Jobs’ D8 presentation, his keynotes, his Stanford commencement speech — is the culmination of years of assiduous practice. I’m gonna walk you through three examples of Steve coming up with metaphors to describe nascent technology that most people (at the time of the interview) didn’t grok.

Let’s see how his thinking and his metaphors are fine-tuned over time.

Let’s take his earliest interviews, the Playboy one in 1987 is a great example, and look at his response to what is a computer. I know. Bear with me here. The year is 1987 and people still don’t get the PC revolution that’s gonna hit them. It’s amazing how hard it is to impress upon the reporter what a game changer the Mac is gonna be.

His first attempt to describe computers is kinda rambling:

Computers are actually pretty simple. We’re sitting here on a bench in this café. Let’s assume that you understood only the most rudimentary of directions and you asked how to find the rest room. I would have to describe it to you in very specific and precise instruction. I might say, “Scoot sideways two meters off the bench. Stand erect. Lift left foot. Bend left knee until it is horizontal. Extend left foot and shift weight 300 centimeters forward…” and on and on. If you could interpret all those instructions 100 times faster than any other person in this café, you would appear to be a magician: You could run over and grab a milk shake and bring it back and set it on the table and snap your fingers, and I’d think you made the milk shake appear, because it was so fast relative to my perception. THat’s exactly what a computer does. It takes these very simple-minded instructions––”Go fetch a number, add it to this number, put the result there, perceive if it’s greater than this other number”––but executes them at a rate of , let’s say, 1,000,000 per second. At 1,000,000 per second, the results appear to be magic.

That’s a simple explanation, and the point is that people really don’t need to understand how computers work. Most people have no concept of how an automatic transmission works, yet they know how to drive a car. You don’t have to study physics to understand the laws of motion to drive a car. You don’t have to understand any of this stuff to use Macintosh––but you asked [laughs]

Wow! Quite verbose. It’s got the early stages of his story-telling but it’s definitely too technical for a reporter and not impressive since he asks him again the same question. Steve takes a second shot at it, which goes…

A computer is the most incredible tool we’ve ever seen. It can be a writing tool, a communications center, a supercalculator, a planner, a filer and an artistic instrument all in one, just by being given new instructions, or software, to work from. There are no other tools that have the power and versatility of a computer. We have no idea how far it’s going to go. Right now, computers make our lives easier. They do work for us in fractions of a second that would take us hours. They increase the quality of life, some of that by simply automating drudgery and some of that by broadening our possibilities. As things progress, they’ll be doing more and more for us.

Meh. Kinda there, but he’s hinting at the potential it possesses as a revolutionary, incredible utility. Still not convinced, the journalist asks him a pointed question on computers for business and Steve ends with:

There are different answers for different people. In business, that question is easy to answer: You really can prepare documents much faster and at a higher quality level, and you can do many things to increase office productivity. A computer frees people from much of the menial work. Besides that, you are giving them a tool that encourages them to be creative. Remember, computers are tools. Tools help us do our work better.

Still not there, and as you can see, reporters are always going for the pithy answers that even a 12 year old will understand. But, then in a later interview (video after quote), Jobs gives a far more succinct metaphor to evoke the possibilities of a computer.

One of the things that separates us from primates is that we’re tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in a third of the way down the list. But, Scientific American tested the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle.

And, a man on the bicycle blew the condor away; it was completely off the top of the charts. And, that’s what a computer is to me. It is the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.

To me this is one of the early stages where you can see the power of the evocative metaphor being used by Jobs. Fast forward to 2008 where Jobs, yet again, takes a stab at explaining a new product that Apple’s betting on big – the iPad.

I’m trying to think of a good analogy. When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks cos that’s what you needed on the farm. But, as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, and America started to move towards them. Cars got more popular and innovations like power steering, etc. happened.

And, now, maybe 1 in every 25 vehicles is a truck where it used to be like 100%.

PCs are gonna be like trucks.

As you can see, no technicalities on what an iPad does well, no reference to a study by Scientific American, nothing. Just a nuanced metaphor on trucks and cars that everyone in America and the world will understand.

Read the rest of the article here.

Hope you’re having a great Sunday. Say Hi on Twitter!

I’ll leave you behind with a behind the scenes video of a young 23 year old Steve Jobs prepping for a TV interview. Young Luke Skywalker.

Filed under: Best-of, Public Relations, Public Speaking, Steve Jobs,

So, you’re on Live TV! Now what?

I’ve written a couple of posts (just in recent memory) on tips for you to glean some presentation secrets from Steve Jobs. Thought I’d rewire my blog timing with a simple post along similar lines that didn’t garner too many votes on Quora.

I’m sure at some point of time in your lives, you’re probably gonna face a camera to talk about your work. At those times many of us fail to impress, cos it’s not something we practice regularly. So, I thought I’d jot down 3 key tips to really excel in those situations. Hope you find this helpful. And, feel free to share your personal experience either in the comments or @mariosundar.

Live TV interviews can sometimes be like this…

Here’s a couple more thoughts to ponder — this is true for most interviews — but with live TV the challenge is exacerbated since you’ve got to perform flawlessly (in one take; if you will).

1. Take your time to answer: The biggest problem I notice with individuals being interviewed is their urgency to respond to the question and get it over with. So, they blurt out a quick PR planned response only to regret it later.

Steve Jobs is the best at giving a thoughtful, well articulated response that’s both thought provoking and (frankly) entertaining. Here’s how he’d answer difficult (really tough one here) question in front of thousands.

2. Build a rapport with the interviewer beforehand: Establish a camaraderie with journalists and media personalities, way before you have to be interviewed by them.

One of traditional PRs biggest shortcomings is treating journalists as a carefully “managed” entity while keeping CEOs and executives away from them.

Welcome to the new world of social media.

Proactively, find journalists and media personalities and follow them (on Twitter and Quora). And, most importantly engage with them. You’d be surprised to find you share a lot with them in common. And, should an opportunity arise to be interviewed by them — you won’t be tongue tied — because you understand each other well.

3. Practice makes perfect: It’s tough to perform on command. That’s why actors get paid the big bucks. If you don’t wanna suck at interviews, start practicing at events and panel sessions.

Start with panel sessions (easiest) but go with a plan (in terms of what you’d like to communicate). A good way to prep would be to write a blog post about your panel session (before or after) the event. You’ll find that writing a blog post on your upcoming session clears your mind and helps you organize your thoughts. Follow that up with a tweet linking to the post and chances are the journalists you follow or connect to on LinkedIn may read that as well.

Graduate to solo presentations (to audiences of increasing size), and before you know it, you’d have internalized your responses to a degree that will make you sound fluent and sharp when in front of a camera.

And, just practice.

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

Zuckerberg ain’t Jobs. 3 Ways to Try.

This post has been a long time coming. As someone who earns a living in the PR space and one who obsessively follows the unique craft of tech CEO presentations, I had to concur with CNN’s recent piece on Mark Zuckerberg’s recent product announcement and why it was a giant FAIL compared to a Jobs presentation!

C’mon. Comparing Zuckerberg to Jobs is like expecting Shia LaBeouf to act like Marlon Brando. While Transformers may sell $750 million in box-office receipts — that doesn’t a Brando make. This seems like a perfect time to finally share my thoughts on Steve Jobs’ virtuoso D8 interview – yet another instance of Jobs’ public speaking savvy.

Here are three of the Jobs’ unique speaking skills that you can glean from his presentations — seemingly simple but tough to emulate:

Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field can be emulated. 3 Simple tricks below.

If you’re telling a story, make it gripping:

There are a million boring ways to tell a story. Just ask Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer (don’t even get me started), but Jobs has a penchant for telling an elegant story that hooks you from the get go.

Juxtaposing Jobs’ d8 presentation with Zuckerberg’s presentation would be interesting, but if you ran a word cloud through Jobs’ presentation, here’s what you’d have seen. It’s all about people.

His very first anecdote about Apple’s resurgence (overtaking the market cap of Microsoft) recounts the bygone days when Apple was down in the dumps to highlight what a glorious triumph this is:

Well, Apple was about 90 days from going bankrupt… (Boom!) in the early days. It was much worse than I thought when I went back.

But there were people there (I’d expected all the good people would have left), and I found these miraculous people, great people and I asked them as tactfully as I could: Why are you still here? And, I’ll never forget. A lot of them had this phrase: because I bleed in six colors. (Note: I remember having a “Apple bleeds six colors” poster on my cubicle wall a few years back)

You know what this reminds me of:

Don Draper, Season 4, Episode 1 (Public Relations). After learning the craft of telling stories to reporters, Don is asked if he’s the definitive entity in his newly formed ad agency. Here’s the story he relates:

Last year, our agency was being swallowed whole. I realized I had two choices: I could die of boredom or holster up my guns. So, I walked into Lane Pryce’s office and I said: Fire us! (Boom!) — Cue Background Music.

Two days later we were up and running at the Pier Hotel, within a year we had taken over two floors of the Time Life Building.

Again, start with the nadir of the story to pique the viewer’s curiosity and build up to the finale. The cadence of story-telling between the two quotes is uncanny but good story-telling always remains the same.

Use evocative metaphors that ring true and wise:

Throughout history, all the great teachers have spoken in parables. More importantly, when asked questions use plain speak metaphors from every day life that each and every one of us can relate to. Before you frame your answer, ask yourself: would a 12 year old understand what I’m about to say? And, go…

Here are a couple of examples from Jobs (from just this interview):

On why they ditched Adobe: Apple is a company that doesn’t have unlimited resources (Reality Distortion Field in effect). They way we do that is by looking at technical vectors that have a future. Different pieces of technology kinda go in cycles: they have their springs and summers and autumns, then they go to the graveyard of technology.

We try to pick things that are in their springs. And, if you choose wisely you can save yourself an enormous amount of work rather than trying to do everything. (true and wise)

To a question on whether the tablet will eventually replace the laptop:

I’m trying to think of a good analogy. When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks cos that’s what you needed on the farm. But, as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, and America started to move towards them. Cars got more popular and innovations like power steering, etc. happened.

And, now, maybe 1 in every 25 vehicles is a truck where it used to be like 100%.

PCs are gonna be like trucks.

Such a nuanced answer that yet again, aims to simplify and would communicate effectively to any 12 year old in the audience.

Here’s one more from the past on how computers are like a bicycle for your mind. Watch the video.

Clarity and consistency in thought and messaging

I recently read an essay on “Politics and the English language” by George Orwell, 1946, that I’d recommend to anyone with a fleeting desire to revisit their usage of the spoken and the written word. The essay culminates in 6 simple rules for clear writing and I think that can be extended to clear speaking as well.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article.

If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.

I think Jobs best defines this in every single interview he’s done. I could go on. But, let me pick an example from D8′s interview for his thoughts on privacy – an area where every company from Google to Facebook have had their fair share of stumbles but I think the clarity and simplicity of Jobs’ definition of privacy is startling.

We’ve had a very different view of privacy. We take it very seriously.

Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for… in plain english, and repeatedly.

I’m an optimist and I believe people are smart. Some people want to share more data. Some people more than others do. Ask em. Ask em every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them.

Let them know precisely what you’re gonna do with their data.

And, finally speaking of consistency of values that shines through every single interview Jobs has done, was this quote:

You know (long pause). When this whole Gizmodo incident happened, I got a lot of advice, that said: you’ve got to let it slide. You shouldn’t go after a journalist because they bought stolen property and they tried to extort you.You should let it slide.

And, I thought deeply about this. And, I ended up concluding.

That the worst thing that could possibly happen as we get big and gain a little more influence in this world, is if we change our core values and if we started letting it slide.

I can’t do that. I’d rather quit.

We have the same values now as we had then.

And, that consistency is true of Jobs impeccable communication skills. Watch the entire D8 Jobs interview here.

Filed under: Best-of, Facebook, Leadership Communication, Mark Zuckerberg, Public Relations, Public Speaking, Steve Jobs, , ,

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