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Monday, December 26, 2011

Getting to the Core

During the next few weeks, I will primarily be discussing effective communication strategies.  Many of these ideas will be referencing a book called "Made To Stick" by Chip and Dan Heath.  Effective, memorable, and powerful ideas often have similar characteristics.  However, there is no all-encompassing "formula" that fits all situations.  Having said that, there are still lessons to be learned and "ideal" characteristics to strive for when crafting a message.  One such characteristic is SIMPLICITY.

Striving for simplicity in an idea does NOT mean "dumbing it down." Simplicity in this case means getting to the "core" of an idea and relentlessly cutting down and prioritizing information.  If you had to pick the most important 1-2  points in your idea, which would they be?  That is the path that this strategy takes.  You are aiming to keep the most important insight in what you are trying to communicate.

To put another way, imagine you are the head of an organization with hundreds of employees working under you.  There are many departments and you need a central message that you want your employees to refer to when they are making decisions.  You want their behavior and actions to be shaped by a compact yet powerful idea that is able to provide guidance.  THIS is the kind of thought process you should be going through even if you're NOT the head of an organization.

Forced prioritization like this is especially difficult for experts and intelligent people because they "recognize the value of all the material.  They see nuance, multiple perspectives-- and because they fully appreciate the complexities of a situation, they're often tempted to linger there."  Under most circumstances, this urge must be fought back because the more complex and dense an idea is, the less likely it is to affect people.  You aren't trying to create a technical reference manual for experts and academics, you are trying to create a powerful and easily graspable idea that can guide people's decisions in an "environment of uncertainty.  They will suffer anxiety from the need to choose--even when the choice is between two good options.  Core messages help people avoid bad choices by reminding them of what's important."

The simplicity concept can be applied in countless settings.  For instance, imagine yourself as a supervisor or as a colleague giving instructions for a project to others in your organization.  You need everyone to be on the same page so the final product and everyone's individual pieces of the project are as consistent as possible.  How do you do it?  One clearly effective option would be to get to the core of the project.  For example, if the task is to create a marketing strategy for a new product that your client wants to sell then you can emphasize the most important goal of your client.  You can gravitate towards ideas such as "Even a child should understand what this product is for" or "If your're listing a bunch of statistics, you're doing it wrong."  These ideas instruct your group to focus on simplicity and to avoid confusing people with math and stats.  Whenever they make a decision, they have these simple core ideas to constantly reference and not to veer off track.

Another setting that the simplicity concept can be applied in is in sustainable behavior.  For example, you are trying to communicate the importance of water conservation to your audience (in California).  Do you list rows of stats and long-winded water-shortage scenarios or do you communicate a simple idea such as "Water, you WILL in fact die without it" or "Remember, you live in a desert"?  Shorter and prioritized phrases are memorable, easy to grasp, and as a result, effective.

So, the next time you are trying to communicate an idea and make it stick, PRIORITIZE, PRIORITIZE, and PRIORITIZE some more.

Friday, December 16, 2011

"My actions can't make a difference"

I often meet people that have a variant of this excuse: "Well.. what I do individually probably means nothing when you look at the whole."  In an energy conservation setting, this person would most likely be the one that doesn't try to reduce his energy use because his tiny killowatt reductions mean absolutely nothing when the city as a whole is possibly using energy on the gigawatt scale.

Here is what I believe is the problem with such thinking in nearly ANY setting. If you are viewing YOUR energy conservation measures at an individual scale then you are going about it in the wrong way. Yes, if you look at energy reductions at the INDIVIDUAL level then the reductions are so minuscule that you can probably discount them. You just can't view the situation in such a manner. You have to view your reductions as part of a group effort that includes many other like-minded individuals such as yourself that are ALSO reducing their energy. Taken together, this group of individuals can be making a big dent. 

The same concept can be applied in a green buildings setting. One building getting LEED certified and going green might not make much of a difference in a city-wide setting but if a GROUP of buildings do this or if you add up all the green buildings together in a city then you realize how big of a difference that building, as part of the larger group, is making. 

What I am trying to get at is that in issues such as these, you have to view your improvements and behavior in context and consider yourself as part of an overall GROUP and community effort. Viewed in this context, your actions DO matter because if everyone thought the way you did then everyone would say "well, it doesn't matter and I personally can't make a large dent" and basically not even try. If this ever happened, environmentally conscious behavior would be non-existent.

For instance, I am starting a drought resistant garden and I am going to remove our house's front lawn and replace it with drought-tolerant plants.  This new setup is going to save hundreds of gallons of water per year.  If I look at these savings in an individual context, I am basically doing NOTHING because California uses up water in the billions (perhaps trillions) of gallons a year.  But, I realize that there are MANY others like myself who have replaced their lawns and are saving hundreds of gallons as well.  Add up enough of these people together and you have already reached hundreds of thousands of gallons in savings (or perhaps more).

Another way to consider the situation is to look at the effects your behavior might have on others.  Once again, you aren't operating at an individual level.  In my example, my neighbor might see our new front lawn and come admire it.  Perhaps he never realized that drought-resistant gardens could look so beautiful.  At this point, I would share the benefits of having such a garden and how he can conserve so much water every year.  I have now hopefully made him consider doing something like this as well. In the future, what if HIS neighbors or relatives who visit his house ask him the same question and are also struck by how appealing such a garden can look? And on and on it goes...

When it comes to making a real difference, YOU are NOT alone.  You are part of a group of like-minded individuals that want to do good things.  You can also cause a chain reaction and affect other people's behavior and increase the size of your group even further.  Viewed in this context, your actions DO matter because if everyone thought in the same defeatist way, then nothing beneficial would ever happen.

Monday, December 12, 2011

LinkedIn post about communication and persuasion

I am going to start making posts on proper communication strategies because I am going to re-read a book called "Made to Stick."  This book discusses effective communication methods that can be used by someone seeking to become much more persuasive and a better communicator whose ideas are memorable.  In the near future, I will be sharing the ideas discussed in the book through several entries.  In the meantime, I wanted to share a post I made in a LinkedIn discussion thread.

The author of the discussion asked:

"If you were in charge of a media campaign to encourage the public to save water/change their attitude, how would you go about getting message over?"

To which I replied:

"I would first consult the communication literature to see which kinds of ideas are the most effective and "sticky." The book "Made to Stick" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath outlines numerous ideas on how to make your ideas convincing and memorable. For instance, one way of making an impression on your audience is eliciting an emotional response through the use of humor, shock, sadness, or any other kind of emotion you can utilize. By tapping into people's emotions, you will be able to connect to them on a deeper and more visceral level. This will allow your message to be that much more convincing and effective. 

That is just one tactic for effective communication. There are many more out there. But, the underlying principle still stands. To be an effective communicator, you must first consult the vast effective communication literature. This will allow you to be well versed in being as persuasive as possible.

From my own personal research on communication aimed at changing environmental behavior and attitudes, I have found that fear and a sense of danger are effective emotions, AFTER you have localized the problem for your target audience. For instance, you can't simply say "global warming is causing havoc all over the world." You have to localize it to your audience and say something like "here is what we think are the local effects of global warming in the area YOU live in." This makes it much easier for your audience to identify and connect with the issue. The problem is no longer a vague global issue that they feel they can do nothing about. The problem's effects are now local and your audience hopefully realizes that their local actions will have an effect, even if in reality the effect of local measures might be minuscule on a global scale. But that's kind of the point when it comes to environmental behaviors, you can't view your actions in an individual setting, you have to view them as part of a bigger whole. 

I live in California, so I will use the water issues there as an example. To get people to conserve more water, I would focus on the dangers of droughts and how extreme the situation can get if there is a prolonged doubt. To survive through such periods, conservation measure must be top notch and additional programs must be in place to conserve and have water stored for emergencies. I would emphasize how individual water-wasting has negative effects in the audience's own State and how such behavior, if common among the population in general, can have disastrous effects on water supplies as a whole."

What I have attempted to do here is start applying some of ideas covered in the book "Made to Stick."  I will discuss the authors' ideas in further detail and more directly in future posts.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Who or what are you citing? Where is your data? Where is your evidence?

I have noticed that I often rant at individuals that form arguments devoid of quantitative data, qualitative evidence, or both.  When asked for example, I fail to think of any individuals that perpetrate this type of thinking or situations where this kind of reasoning arises in. Therefore, I have decided to make a post every time I see this topic come up.

The latest example of this stupidity was recently covered by an NPR article titled

"GOP Objects To 'Millionaires Surtax'; Millionaires We Found? Not So Much."

The article can be found here:

The article covers Congressional Republicans' rejection of a surtax on millionaires.  Before I say anything, please realize that I am neither fully against increasing taxes nor decreasing them.  I can't look at situations in such a manner and make ideological, political, or policy blanket statements.  I consider each case individually and try to see if there is legitimate data to back up any particular stance that I decide to take.

The authors of the article went to find ACTUAL small business owners who gross more than a million dollars a year through their business.  They asked the business owners about their views on the potential tax and whether it would affect their hiring decisions.  After reaching out to Congressional and Senate Republican offices to get in touch with such folks, the authors were met with constant failure since all of them failed to produce individuals that could be interviewed, even anonymously.  Finally, NPR resorted to facebook and found several business owners that were willing to comment about such a tax.  Here is a snapshot of their comments:

""It's not in the top 20 things that we think about when we're making a business hire,"

"He says his ultimate marginal tax rate "didn't even make it on the agenda."

"Yankwitt [the business owner] says deciding to bring on another employee is all about return on investment. Will adding another person to the payroll make his company more successful?"

"If my taxes go up, I have slightly less disposable income, yes,"  "But that has nothing to do with what my business does. What my business does is based on the contracts that it wins and the demand for its services."

The republican response to such commentary DIRECTLY from business owners?
"Those I would say were exceptions to the rule," responds Thune. "I think most small-business owners who are out there right now would argue that raising their taxes has the opposite effect that we would want to have in a down economy."

Yes, I am singling out republicans in this case. But, the political ideology of the person making the argument doesn't matter.  It's the strength of your argument that matters.  In this case, Republican politicians are speaking for a constituency from whom they can't even muster up ONE individual, ONE, to honestly speak for them and make the case that this tax increase will stop them from hiring and as a result, stop them from promoting economic growth.  

We learn to form proper arguments while learning to write essays in HIGH SCHOOL.  When you make a statement, you back it up DATA, FACTS, or any other kind of legitimate EVIDENCE.  I am just amazed at how these Republicans can be *SO* adamant about an issue without providing any real evidence to support their views.   For instance, is there historical data showing that when taxes were increased on rich individuals or small business owners, there was a a clear drop in employment?  Is there data from other countries showing a drop in unemployment as soon as a new tax on businesses was initiated?  Is there ANY kind of evidence to support the view that Republicans hold in this situation?  I understand that it's problematic to make causal statements like this since there could be a variety of alternative explanations for sagging employment numbers but in this case, SOME evidence is better than no evidence at all.

As I originally stated, I have NOTHING against someone being against raising taxes. What I DO have a problem with is someone making a claim about the economy-killing side-effects of raising taxes and failing to provide any real data or qualitative evidence to back up their claims.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

in love with our stuff

I am always perplexed by how much people LOVE their possessions and how they seem to have an almost "unhealthy" attachment to them.  I put the word unhealthy in quotes because I am making a judgement call here and some might view such behavior as normal or even beneficial.

I would like to share a recent journal article that I read about this topic.  The ideas discussed by the authors were really interesting and they made me reconsider my own ignorant views on the matter. The article is from the Journal of Consumer Research:

"Truly, Madly, Deeply: Consumers in the Throes of Material Possession Love."
Author(s): John L. Lastovicka and Nancy J. Sirianni
Source: Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 38, No. 2 (August 2011), pp. 323-342

The authors study the relationships individuals have with their possessions and provide hypotheses on why certain individuals get so deeply attached to their belongings.  The possessions considered are automobiles, computers, bicycles, and firearms.  By using interviews and quantitative analysis, the authors arrive at several conclusions for answering the all important WHY question.  Individuals get attached to items to make up for what the authors call "social deficits."  Lonely individuals that lack true friendships or a romantic relationships compensate and cope with their loneliness by getting attached to their possessions and forming "relationships" with the items.  They nurture and take care of their products by spending time, energy, and money on them.  The relationship with the items brings them happiness and a more favorable alternative to loneliness.

The authors believe that we have an innate "need" to value and to find things or people that we can care for.  When we attempt to fulfill this need through people, either through friendships or relationships, we have the chance to be rejected. This rejection can lead to loneliness, pain, disappointment, and social isolation.  Perhaps one way of dealing with this is channeling that energy towards inanimate objects instead.  After all, objects are "safe" and they can't reject us. This can provide comfort and ease.  Additionally, objects can become anchors for a person's identity and as a way of projecting that identity for others to see.  Possessions can also provide a sense of control since they can never talk back or reject you

I used to have a negative view of such "obsessed" people but the authors touched upon ideas that made me reconsider.  Consider the alternative to dealing with rejection and isolation.  Individuals can turn to drugs, alcohol, even further isolation, and anti-depressant medications with unknown and risky side-effects.  Additionally, is being attached to objects really that bad?  From an environmental standpoint, such behavior can actually be beneficial and promote sustainability.  We might actually throw away less stuff and promote a culture of constant reuse.  Also, what about meeting OTHER people that have similar passions and love for prized possessions like you do?  This can directly fight against isolation and allow an individual to meet and connect with others like him.

Personally, I get attached to objects because they bring back memories or they are associated with people that I care about.  There is nothing inherently special about the object itself, it's the kinds of memories that the object triggers. These memories can bring me joy, pride, sadness, and numerous other emotions.  For me, losing the object is almost like losing those memories or losing the person that object is associated with. It's irrational and emotional but it allows me somehow stay connected with people that I care about but rarely get to see.

Ultimately, this issue isn't as black and white as I originally thought. I guess that's the common theme with a lot of topics before we actually do some research and consider new perspectives.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Carrying out proper conversations

I have consistently been told that I ask too many questions when I am having a conversation.  Until recently, I was mentally beating myself up over this. However, this issue frustrated me enough that I started taking mental notes during all my conversations.  I realized that I ask questions to keep the conversation MOVING.  I was blaming myself for the inadequacies of the person I was speaking to.

From my personal experiences, there are two main ways to keep a conversation flowing.  First method is to ask questions.  For instance, person A asks "How was your day?"  Person B replies "Oh.. pretty good, just the usual."  Now, at this point, person B hasn't done HIS part and asked the question "What about yours?"  Sure, one can argue that person B isn't in a talkative mood and wants to be left alone and this is why he didn't ask anything in return.  One can also assume that person A might be an awkward creeper and person B wants nothing to do with him.  All of these issue aside, when someone is making the effort to get you to talk and he is interested in the conversation, you should return the favor and ask him questions in return so he has something to work off of as well.  Once again, this is assuming the person you are talking to isn't someone you actively avoid.  This is perhaps a big assumption.

The second method to keep a conversation moving is to comment on something the other person has said.  For example, person A says "I am really pissed off at my colleagues, they are always trying to use me to get ahead."  Person B replies "I've had similar experiences with my coworkers, they don't seem to care about friendship, just career advancement."  At this point, person A can comment on what person B has said or person B can finish his statement with a question and person A can continue from there.

Given these two methods, I observed my own conversations.  I noticed that I seem to ask a lot of questions when the person I am speaking to is NOT asking me anything and is also not responding specifically to something I have said.  As a result, I am forced to keep asking questions to keep him/her talking and it becomes an unpleasant experience because I get the feeling I am interrogating the person instead of having a healthy conversation.

So please, if someone is asking about you, RETURN THE FAVOR!  However, you have to first make sure that the person you are speaking to is actually giving you a chance to ask questions instead of cutting you off with more and more questions without giving you the opportunity to ask anything.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A few thoughts on the Occupiers

I would like to point out before I write anything that I have not personally attended any of the Occupy protests.  I have simply been following the issue through the news, interviews of protesters, and through friends that know more about the subject than myself.

I have one main criticism of the movement itself, the lack of CLEAR goal(s).  The excuse for not having set goals is that it would splinter the movement and decrease the numbers.  I think a smaller group with clear goals is MUCH better than a bigger one with no goals at all.  The protesters are currently ruining their image and coming off as pot-smoking pissed off people that don't even know what they want.  The public will lose more and more respect for them in the long run and the movement will turn into an annoying whimper.

Don't get me wrong, I have respect for an individual who is angry about something AND is willing to ACT on his feelings in some way such as protesting.  Most individuals just complain and fail to do anything about it.  Individually, each protester at the Occupy protests has a specific issue they are protesting for and I can respect them for this.  But, once you pull all the protesters together, all the voices get merged together into an incomprehensible and jumbled mess.  In this case, I don't believe the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Furthermore, I don't actually believe setting clear goals will greatly damage the movement.  For instance, given the types of people attracted to these protests, would a large number of them be against a goal such as "Create more stringent laws to limit the amount of money corporations can donate to campaigns"? Or what about "Create greater transparency measures in Congress"?  These examples are still rather generic and they can be modified and made more specific. However, these goals are a start and they could start a discussion among the protesters to see how many of them would actually support goals such as these.  

Ultimately, the protesters  are wasting their potential and destroying their public image.  Part of the reason why protests in Egypt were successful was that the protesters had a clear and central goal that the majority of the supporters could get behind.  Who they were protesting against also CLEARLY understood what the protesters wanted.  Such clarity, which seems to be so essential for effectiveness, is missing in the OWS movement.  If you ask people what they think the OWS is about, they will either shrug at you or give you an answer that is some variant of "they are a bunch of angry people that can't decide on what they actually want."

Monday, November 21, 2011

The power of reminders

I am fascinated by human behavior and how we make decisions. I am interested in studies that look at how humans make choices under different circumstances.  In behavioral economics, and economics in general, the view that humans are "rational" and "calculating" decision-makers is slowly being tossed out the window.  We are guided as much by emotion, irrationality, and poorly thought-out decision making as we are by logic and proper weighing of the costs and benefits of a particular decision.

As a result, there are researchers out there that are trying to figure out ways to gently "nudge" people towards making better decisions.  "Better" in this context would mean things such as healthier eating habits, conserving energy, reducing waste, exercising more, saving more money, and making better-informed investment decisions.  The list of "beneficial" behaviors is vast and that was just a small sample.  One of the many ways to nudge people towards these goals is through the use of reminders and feedback on their past behavior.  This is the focus of this post and I will be referencing a research journal article called "Nudging With Information: a Randomized Field Experiment on Reminders and Feedback" by Giacomo Calzolar and Mattia Nardott.  For additional reading on the topic of Nudging in general, I recommend reading a great book called "Nudge."  Refer here for more info:


The premise of this paper is whether people can  "be helped with sticking to their plans with a little help from information."  The authors test whether students can be motivated to attend the gym more without the use of monetary incentives and they show that "by means of a randomized field experiment, simple weekly reminders induce users of a gym to substantially increase their levels of physical exercise."  The students that received the "treatment" (weekly reminders about exercising) were more likely to attend the gym than the "control" group of students that did not receive such reminders.  The treatment students increased their gym attendance rate by up to 25%.  Before the treatment, both groups of students exhibited "very similar behaviors in terms of monthly attendance."  As soon as the reminders stopped being sent, both groups started to become similar again.  I won't bore or confuse people with the mathematical details but the authors ran a regression analysis and used statistical models and formulas to show that the results were statistically significant (i.e. legit) and not just random variations due to measurement error.

The main takeaway point here is that desirable behavior in people can be induced by using an inexpensive but effective method such as informative reminders.  We like to think that people know they should be going to the gym or doing other activities they want to be involved in and that sending reminders won't do anything since they are rational and are already aware of what they need to be doing.  But, as is usually the case, actual data, analysis, and observations from experiments show otherwise.

However, even though these results look promising and robust, we should be careful when assuming similar successes can be achieved in other contexts.  This study took place in a specific area, using a particular sub-set of individuals, and it only looked at gym membership rates at one gym.  As always, great care should be taken when extending the results to other situations, activities, and people.

But, it is certainly nice imagining the possibilities of such policies in contexts such as energy and water conservation.  For instance, what if water and power utility companies sent text and email reminders to their customers about turning off unused lights, appliances, and only watering their lawns at specific times?  We certainly know that we should be doing all of these things regardless of reminders.  But then again, the students in this particular study certainly knew they should be going to the gym and staying healthy as well, even without the aid of reminders.

Of course, we can always claim that such methods of affecting people's behavior is "manipulative" and can be used for questionable and controversial goals.  We don't need "big brother" pulling the strings from behind the scenes and affecting our behavior without our conscious knowledge.  This is true and I am sure corporations and large companies use such tactics in their advertising to manipulate customers and reap even more profits.  But, this certainly should not stop us from using such behavioral-nudging methods for beneficial goals such as promoting environmentally conscious behavior and getting people to exercise more.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Respect for the introspective

The thoughts in this post were inspired by a recent article I read in the Huffington Post:

The article is written by a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal.  She talks about her experiences and how the Peace Corps taught her the true meaning of failure and learning to accept it as a normal part of life.  Here are some thoughtful quotes from the article itself:

"One benefit of the program that is never trumpeted (and likely never will be) is that it produces a group of young Americans who understand failure."

"Americans are immature when it comes to honestly accepting failure and maybe that's why so many of us lack the emotional depth to make sense of it" 

"Our hyped-up expectations of success are often quashed--we learn quickly that smaller is better." 

"I survived two years in the Peace Corps. My proudest accomplishment during my time in Senegal, one that can't be expressed on a résumé, is how much I grew up."

The focus of this post is NOT to comment further on the author's ideas and provide my own thoughts on the meaning of failure (perhaps this is a post for another time).  My focus is on the author herself and my respect for individuals that are able to live through an experience and be an ACTIVE and analytic participant. What I mean by this is that in addition to going through an experience, such individuals attempt to take a step back and analyze what actually happened.  They ask questions such as "Why did I act in such a way?", "Why am feeling so ashamed or sad or satisfied with myself right now?", "Why did this person react the way they did towards me? Was their reaction justified or irrational and out of my control?" and "What could I do differently the next time I find myself in a similar situation?"  These are just examples and there are numerous other questions and thoughts that can go through this individual's head.  The overall theme here is that this individual is being introspective and attempting to analyze and think about what occurred. He is not being a passive participant of what is happening to him.

For instance, in the posted article, this particular volunteer could have simply made a laundry list of her failures and described her experiences at a superficial level. She could have made no attempts to draw out lessons learned or the potential effects of her experiences on her personal growth and ideas. From personal experience, A LOT of people are satisfied with such low-level descriptions that lack analysis or introspection.  I don't think there is anything wrong with such an approach but an individual is not reaching his full potential if he stays passive like this his whole life.  Sooner or later he has to realize that he needs to challenge himself and actually THINK.

Ultimately, this is why I respect introspective story-tellers.  They go above and beyond simply reporting the facts.  They analyze.  They think.  They provide hypotheses. They dig deeper.  They actively attempt to learn from what they go through.  

I learn immensely from such individuals and I truly am lucky to have such people in my life.  I hope I continue to meet such thoughtful and analytic folks and grow as a person in the process. 

Why I'm doing this

Over time, I have come to realize that as much as I like to bash my own ideas and not think much of myself from an intellectual standpoint, I DO have thoughts that are worth putting down and dwelling upon.  I don't read as much as many people out there but I enjoy following current events, blogs, and articles from pretty much any field ranging from finance, human behavioral research, to astronomy and space exploration.  A lot of times, I am intrigued or moved by a certain idea that I see in an article, or video talk, or a book and I have the urge to write something about it.  However, I have stopped myself and not pursued this desire for no legitimate reason that I can think of.  Starting today (and hopefully for a long time to come), I am going to change that and actually force myself to more intimately explore my thoughts.

If anything, doing this will help me fulfill my introspective desires and improve as a writer in the process.

I would like to note that if a thought or idea is inspired by someone I know, I will not be listing their names or revealing anyone's identity.  Unless they specifically request me to that is.

Let's see where this little experiment takes us.

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