Rapoport’s Rules to Criticize Someone Constructively

'Intuition Pumps' by Daniel Dennett (ISBN 0393082067) In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, philosopher Daniel Dennett lists Anatol Rapoport‘s rules of constructive argument and debate:

Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent’s case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view—and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harboring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack. But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody’s time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament).

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said).

This comports with the following sage advice gentle art of criticizing people effectivity:

  • “If you disagree with somebody, you want to be able to state their case better than they can. And at that point you’ve earned the right to disagree with them. Otherwise you should keep quiet.”
    Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner (see this article)
  • “The man who can hold forth on every matter under debate in two contradictory ways of pleading, or can argue for and against every proposition that can be laid down—such a man is the true, the complete, and the only orator.”
    —Roman Orator Cicero (see this article)
  • “I have yet to find a more efficient and reliable way to probe the depths of a person’s knowledge and seriousness about an issue than asking them to explain the other side’s perspective.”
    —Entrepreneur Ben Casnocha (see this article)
  • “If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet.”
    —Philosopher Anthony Weston in Rulebook for Arguments (see this article)
  • “When you think you can nail someone with your argument, take a breath & see if you can phrase it as a face-saving question.”
    —Career Coach Marty Nemko

20 Reasons People Don’t Change

They Don't Want to Change

If you have trouble getting people to change, perhaps one—or more—of the following reasons are to blame:

  1. They don’t want to change … they find reassurance in the status quo
  2. Their environment is holding them back
  3. They’ve tried to change in the past, failed, and have given up
  4. Your coaching / feedback is garbled … the benefits of change are unclear
  5. They don’t react well to criticism
  6. They’re suspicious of your motives (i.e. fear of manipulation)
  7. They see little incentive to change
  8. They don’t know how to change
  9. They have no role models
  10. There’s no support (or resources) for change
  11. Change threatens their self-image
  12. They can’t tell what’s really important
  13. They don’t feel courageous enough … i.e. they fear failure
  14. They don’t feel enough pain yet
  15. They’re overconfident or arrogant
  16. They fear their weaknesses will be exposed
  17. They’re too lazy and undisciplined
  18. Change requires giving up something they presently value
  19. They resist change that’s imposed from outside … i.e. they’re not intrinsically motivated for change
  20. Change undermines their self-confidence

Idea for Impact: Temper your expectations of others. Old habits die hard. Even Einstein’s doctor couldn’t get the great physicist to quit smoking despite his deteriorating health.

Be realistic about changing others’ hearts and minds. If you can learn to accept them for who they are and let go of your conceptions of their perfection, your relationships become more richer.

What it Takes to Be a Hit with Customers

  1. Be Trustworthy. One of the most important aspects of being effective at work is earning and upholding others’trust through your actions, not through your words. You earn trust slowly but can lose it in a moment—as Warren Buffett often reiterates, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Idea for Impact: Earn trust by making and honoring your commitments. Do what you commit to. Act with integrity. Do the right things for the right reasons.
  2. Responsiveness in Customer Service: Respond immediately to requests unless there is a judicious reason to wait Be Responsive. We live in a time and age of “instantaneous gratification.” People want immediate results—without delay or deferment. They don’t expect to wait. And if they have to wait on you, their resentment grows. Alas, responsiveness affects how people perceive you. If you’re slow, your customers will suppose you are indifferent or incompetent. If you respond promptly, they’ll assume you’re proficient and on top of your work. Idea for Impact: Respond immediately to requests unless there is a judicious reason to wait.
  3. Be Strong, But Flexible. Respect the rules and traditions but be adaptable to changing conditions. Be watchful and absorb from whatever you can learn—as General Electric’s celebrated ex-CEO Jack Welch once wrote, “The desire and the ability of an organization to continuously learn from any source—and to rapidly convert this learning into action—is its ultimate competitive advantage.” Idea for Impact: Flexibility with rules can be pragmatic in its own right. Learn to make rational decisions by balancing facts and emotions.
  4. Be Realistic, Not Overly Optimistic. Self-help gurus and the media have endlessly touted optimism as the “winning formula to success.” This obsession with cheerfulness has reinforced a false sense of realism and pragmatism. Optimists tend to overlook the reality—they develop a false sense of hope and become too attached to the possibility of positive outcomes. Unfortunately, realists are branded as skeptics and skeptics are quickly shunned as outcasts. Idea for Impact: Take an honest and levelheaded view, no matter what the problem. Embrace the possibility of failure. Plan for the downside. Don’t get caught up in trivial details.
  5. Be Likeable and Interested. Highly competent but unlikeable people do not succeed as well as their fairly competent but likeable counterparts. The American poet and memoirist Maya Angelou aptly said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Idea for Impact: Be pleasant, enthusiastic, and friendly—make eye contact, smile, and say ‘hello’ more. Listen. Be open and approachable. Appreciate the individuality of people. Try to be interested, not just interesting.
  6. Be a Good Salesperson - Much of success in life is really about selling yourself Be a Good Salesperson. Much of success in life—from getting a Starbucks barista to make a special no-whip, extra-foam latte with half a packet of Splenda to finding a spouse—is really about selling yourself. Every selling situation involves making a connection with an individual who likes and trusts you. An anonymous sales guru once said, “All things being equal, most people would rather buy from somebody they like… and that’s true even when all things aren’t equal.” Idea for Impact: It is useless to work hard and be creative unless you can also sell what you create. Learn to be persuasive. You can’t just talk people into things.
  7. Be Visible and Communicate Candidly. How you identify and respond to a problem or a crisis is the ultimate test of your character. If you do not communicate frequently, people will develop their own perceptions of the problem and its implications. Knowing when to step up your communications efforts to the right levels during difficulties can be a powerful tool in problem solving. Idea for Impact: Keep your eyes open for customers’ inconveniences, difficulties, and troubles as creative problems to be solved. Focus on problem solving. Be visible. Communicate and lead from the front. Learn how to handle upset customers.

Postscript: This Harvard Business Review article argues that, more than anything else, customers want just a reasonable solution to their expectations. Delighting them by “exceeding their expectations” hardly enhances customer loyalty.

How Starbucks Brewed Success / Book Summary of Founder Howard Schultz’s “Pour Your Heart Into It”

I recently finished reading Pour Your Heart Into It, the personal story of how Starbucks founder, Chairman, and ex-CEO Howard Schultz built a major consumer brand and a stellar business model anchored in passion and values. He proclaims, “Success should not be measured in dollars … It’s about how you conduct the journey, and how big your heart is at the end of it.”

An Iconic Leader Built a Coffee Empire with Unyielding Attention to Customer Experience

'Pour Your Heart Into It' by Howard Schultz (ISBN 0786883561) Howard Schultz’s Pour Your Heart Into It (1997) begins with his formative years as a poor German-Jewish boy in Brooklyn and ends with Starbucks’ post-IPO journey to becoming a well-respected and recognized global consumer brand.

In 2000, three years after Pour Your Heart Into It was published, Schultz assigned Jim Donald as CEO and became Starbucks’ meddling chairman. In 2008, following quarter-after-quarter of disappointing sales figures during the Great Recession and a “watering down of the Starbucks experience,” Schultz returned as CEO in 2008 and led the company to commendable growth and profitability. His turnaround memoir (my summary here,) Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul (2012,) discusses how he restored the essence of the Starbucks experience during his second stint as CEO.

Earlier this month, Schultz entrusted a deputy with CEO responsibility, but remains chairman. In the same way as in 2000, he hasn’t left the company and focuses on developing Starbucks’ premium Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room stores.

Starbucks Created an Industry through High-profile Cafés That Promise a Lifestyle Experience

'Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul' by Howard Schultz, Joanne Gordon (ISBN 1609613821) In fact, Schultz did not start ‘Starbucks.’ When working as a plastics salesperson in 1981, he happened into Starbucks—then, a chain of six high-quality coffee retail stores based in Seattle. He immediately fell in love with his experience at their Pike Place Market store. Schultz recalls, “A heady aroma of coffee reached out and drew me in. I stepped inside and saw what looked like a temple for the worship of coffee. It was my Mecca. I had arrived.”

In 1982, he joined Starbucks as head of marketing and retailing. On a business trip to Italy, he witnessed the allure of Milan’s café culture. He was specifically fascinated by the passionate connection that the Italians had not only with their coffee, but also with their coffee bars—an integral part of their country’s social life.

After returning to Seattle, he could not persuade the original Starbucks’ proprietors to open similar “coffee bar experiences.” Schultz then quit Starbucks and opened his own Il Giornale chain of coffee bars. Three years later, when Schultz was all of 34, Il Giornale purchased Starbucks and adopted its name.

Starbucks founder, Chairman, and CEO Howard Schultz

From Rags to Riches: Starbucks Became A “Company with a Conscience” While it Brewed Worldwide Success

The rags-to-riches account of Howard Schultz is one great American entrepreneur success story. Schultz grew up poor in Brooklyn’s subsidized housing projects. At age seven, Schultz was deeply upset when his father suffered after breaking an ankle. With no health insurance or other benefits, the senior Schultz (a blue-collar “beaten man”) worked very hard at dead-end jobs to atone for medical expenses and offset his lost pay. That incident left a profound impression on Howard. “As a kid I never had any idea that I would one day head a company. But I knew in my heart that if I was ever in a position where I could make a difference, I wouldn’t leave people behind,” he avows.

CEO Howard Schultz: From Rags to Riches Starbucks Brews Success Subsequently, Howard Schultz wanted to create an enterprise that treated staff with respect and nurtured them. He writes, “If you treat your employees as interchangeable cogs in a wheel, they will view you with the same affection.” Starbucks offered health benefits and stock options to all staff (called “partners”)—including part-timers—to demonstrate “that a company can lead with its heart and nurture its soul and still make money.”

The essence of Pour Your Heart Into It is that the Starbucks marvel is not only about economic growth and brand success, but also about its socially conscious corporate ethos: “We never set out to build a brand. Our goal was to build a great company, one that stood for something, one that valued the authenticity of its product and the passion of its people.”

A Well-respected Global Brand and A Grande-sized Ego

Schultz’s gracious and inspiring account in Pour Your Heart Into It, however, is speckled with lofty assertions and self-congratulatory superlatives. For instance, when recounting his epiphany of discovering the allure of Milan’s café culture, Schultz states, “it was so immediate and physical that I was shaking.” He labels a prospective joint venture with Pepsi an “earth-jolting paradigm shift.”

Schultz takes credit for turning coffee into a “national obsession” in North America and declares that his founding purpose was to give North Americans the opportunity to savor the “romance and mystery” of Italian espresso bars. When featured on the cover of Fortune magazine for an article titled “Howard Schultz’s Starbucks Grinds Coffee Into Gold,” Schultz writes that he felt “proud but, frankly, a little embarrassed at all the attention. It’s always been hard for me to celebrate success.”

Like I wrote in my summary for Onward, Schultz’s account of his 2008 return as CEO, his flamboyant tone is demonstrative of a fiercely passionate entrepreneur and a brilliant corporate cheerleader. Under his leadership, Starbucks has used its narrative of being a noble torchbearer of altruistic capitalism to brew global success. Schultz writes,

Starbucks was attempting to accomplish something more ambitious than just grow a profitable enterprise. We had a mission, to educate consumers everywhere about fine coffee. We had a vision, to create an atmosphere in our stores that drew people in and gave them a sense of wonder and romance in the midst of their harried lives. We had an idealistic dream, that our company could be far more than the paradigm defined by corporate America in the past.

CEO Howard Schultz and Starbucks's Race Together Campaign Over the last few years, Schultz has been increasingly politically active and has used the platform of his office at Starbucks to share views on matters that are peripheral to Starbucks’ business and operations. In 2015, for instance, Starbucks got into hot water after launching a bold “Race Together” campaign in the aftermath of the Ferguson racial unrests. With his characteristic flair, Schultz encouraged baristas to discuss race with customers at Starbucks stores “under the belief that it’s a critical first step toward confronting—and solving—race-related issues as a nation” according to this USA Today article. Alas, Schultz’s idea backfired and Starbucks called off the initiative.

More recently, after President Trump’s executive order excluding refugees from specific countries, Starbucks announced its intention to lead a global effort and hire 10,000 refugees globally by 2022. Trump supporters promptly boycotted Starbucks.

Schultz is speculated to be considering running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Lessons on Employee Engagement from Howard Schultz's 'Pour Your Heart Into It'

Recommendation: Read Howard Schultz’s “Pour Your Heart Into It”

Howard Schultz’s description of how Starbucks transformed an entrenched commodity into a value-laden brand and a differentiated experience makes Pour Your Heart Into It an absorbing story of entrepreneurial success. Schultz portrays himself as a passionate, dedicated, and visionary entrepreneur. But then again, he appears impulsive as a manager and brash as a capitalist—often in little doubt that his own preferences for the Starbucks experience will reflect of those of its customers.

The significant take away lessons from Pour Your Heart Into It are,

  • Develop a close relationship with your customers through the quality of your product and your customer service.
  • Continually reinvent your product and your business, even when you are experiencing success.
  • When you start a business, work hard to instill values and beliefs. Set the standards and build the culture.
  • Any consumer business is only as good as its customer-facing employees. When an organization’s employees sincerely believe in its product, service, and business, they will care about the customer, perform at higher levels, and eventually increase the company’s value of the organization.

Coffee snobs—especially Starbucksaholics—will love Schultz’s impassioned portrayal of “the romance of the coffee experience, the feeling of warmth and community people get in Starbucks stores. That tone is set by our baristas, who custom-make each espresso drink and explain the origins of different coffees.”

12 Sensible Ways to Realize Self-Responsibility

12 Sensible Ways to Realize Self-Responsibility

The French-American essayist Anais Nin (1903–77) wrote in her diary (from Diary of Anais Nin Vol. 5,) “We cannot always place responsibility outside of ourselves, on parents, nations, the world, society, race, religion. Long ago it was the gods. If we accepted a part of this responsibility we would simultaneously discover our strength.”

Self-responsibility is recognizing that you are responsible for your life—that you are the sole master of yourself. Responsible people take charge of themselves, their conduct, and the consequences. Here’s how to live self-responsibility and approach work and life proactively:

  1. Accept that no matter what happens, you’re not a victim. Never feel sorry for yourself or engage in self-pity. What’s important in life is not what happens to you but how you react to what happens to you.
  2. If something bad happens in your life, don’t let it define who you are. Don’t make it your excuse for not moving ahead. Don’t brood over it without end. Understand it, learn from it, and get on with life. Make it be a part of you without letting it being who you are.
  3. Don’t look back too often. Dwelling on the past deprives the present of its joy and prevents you from enjoying each day to the fullest. Open yourself up to today’s new opportunities. The ability to rebound quickly from failures and disappointments is one of the key differentiators between successful and unsuccessful people.
  4. Life is what you make of it. You are solely responsible for the choices in your life. You cannot blame others for the choices you have made. You alone are responsible for what you choose to think, feel, and act.
  5. Don’t engage in wishful thinking. Face reality and make the right choices based on that reality. Learn to play the hand you’ve been dealt. Anticipate and plan—the best time to change is when you want to, not when you have to.
  6. Be willing to let go of the life you’ve been hoping for. Challenge your beliefs about what you can and can’t do. Life the life that is waiting for you.
  7. Don’t operate life on the assumption that the world ought to be fair, just, and objective. You are neither entitled nor not entitled to good treatment. American comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said, “I tend to accept life as it is. … I’m not one of these ‘Life isn’t fair’ people. I tend to accept whatever the limits are, whatever the rules are.”
  8. You do not have as much control in life as you would like to have. You cannot influence or affect people and events. You have power over only your life and the choice of your attitudes and actions.
  9. Care less for what other people think. Listen to your friends and loved ones, but don’t become dependent on what they think of you.
  10. You are your best cheerleader. Surround yourself with kind people who love you and encourage you. However, do not depend on others to make you feel good about yourself. Protect and nurture your physical, mental, emotional, and social well-being.
  11. Take an honest inventory of your strengths, abilities, talents, virtues, and positive points. Pursuing your strengths is the key to becoming productive and happy. Identify the limits of your abilities and your time and say ‘no’ to things you know you can’t do well.
  12. When stuck, be grateful for everything that life has offered you. Turn your focus from something you don’t want to something you do want. Take a baby step forward—consistently acting in small ways toward your goals will give you a sense of possibility, power, and accomplishment.

Idea for Impact: Inefficacious People Can’t or Choose to Not Own Responsibility for the Choices They Make

In the words of the American martial artist Bruce Lee (1940–73) (from the essay “The Passionate State of Mind” in the compendium Bruce Lee: Artist of Life,) “We can see through others only when we see through ourselves. … There is a powerful craving in most of us to see ourselves as instruments in the hands of others and thus free ourselves from the responsibility for acts that are prompted by our own questionable inclinations and impulses.”

Take Responsibility for YourselfDespite everything you have to do in life to fulfill your obligations and discharge your responsibilities, anything and everything you do is your choice.

Notwithstanding pervasive external constraints and impositions, you are free to choose your action and carry out your ends.

You are the only one in control of your life. Take responsibility for yourself. This is a very powerful idea.

Lessons from Charlie Munger: Destroy Your Previous Ideas & Reexamine Your Convictions

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger at Berkshire Hathaway's 2016 Annual Meeting (Screenshot from Yahoo! Finance webcast)

Reexamine your deep-rooted ideas

Here is one of the many nuggets of wisdom from the 2016 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting. At the 4:39:39 mark in the meeting’s webcast by Yahoo! Finance, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger discuss an effective strategy for persuasion and argumentation:

Charlie Munger: We try and avoid the worst anchoring effect which is always your previous conclusion. We really try and destroy our previous ideas.

Warren Buffett: Charlie says that if you disagree with somebody, you want to be able to state their case better than they can.

Charlie Munger: Absolutely.

Warren Buffett: And at that point you’ve earned the right to disagree with them.

Charlie Munger: Otherwise you should keep quiet. It would do wonders for our politics if everybody followed my system.

Actively seek counterarguments to consolidate your arguments

Munger’s advice comports with the following wisdom on using critique for reasoned judgments and critical thinking:

  • 'A Rulebook for Arguments' by Anthony Weston (ISBN 0872209547) Professor Anthony Weston, a contemporary exponent of critical thinking, wrote in his Rulebook for Arguments, “If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet.”
  • The great Roman philosopher and orator Cicero wrote in his influential work De Oratore (55 BCE, Eng. trans. On the Orator,) “The man who can hold forth on every matter under debate in two contradictory ways of pleading, or can argue for and against every proposition that can be laid down—such a man is the true, the complete, and the only orator.” [See my previous article on how to argue like the Wright brothers.]
  • Advocating observable evidence and rational investigation, the great English natural philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in his Novum Organum (1620,) “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else-by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate.”

You cannot effectively argue for your side if you don’t comprehend the arguments of the other

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) Once a belief is added to your collection of viewpoints, you indulge in “intellectual censorship”—you instinctively and unconsciously protect and defend it. You cling to your beliefs instead of objectively reassessing and questioning them. Moreover, owing to confirmation bias, you seek narratives that convey to you what you want to hear, substantiate your beliefs, and entitle you to continue to feel as you already do.

An important constituent of critical thinking is taking your beliefs and opinions apart methodically, analyzing each part, assessing it for soundness by means of arguments and counterarguments, and then improving it.

When you stop arguing against an opposite perspective and try arguing for it, that is to say when you can switch your point of view briefly, you will witness a profound shift in your thinking. Your own convictions may look different when seen from the opposite perspective. Justifying the counterarguments can help you reinforce your own beliefs and attitudes.

Idea for Impact: Only when your deep-rooted convictions and viewpoints are challenged by contradictory evidence, will your beliefs actually get stronger.

Don’t Be Too Helpful at Work

Agreeableness Can Go Too Far

Consider the case of Sherry, a discontented claims adjustor at an insurance firm. She is a star employee and an excellent team player. In a bid to be seen as obliging, Sherry always agrees to do everything she is asked to do by her supervisors and her colleagues. She ends up taking on a lot of extra work.

Sherry gets much praise for helping out as much as she can. However, she feels constantly overworked. This excessive dedication has left her with neither the time nor the energy for leisure or family. Her discontent materializes from the fact that her inability to say “no” is actually holding her back from some of her primary priorities.

Don't Be Too Helpful at Work

Too Much Congeniality Can Be Counterproductive

We live in an era in which self-interest is contemptible. People who aren’t generous and altruistic are branded as uncaring and greedy—even evil. At work, one mark of a high-performing employee is the ability to bring discretionary effort at work. This implies willingly dedicating energy and attention beyond the basic requirements of the role. Employees who are agreeable and helpful are much favored to those who are not so obliging.

Nonetheless, as a whole, there are dangers of being too helpful in a workplace. Employees like Sherry frequently find themselves overloaded with tasks that aren’t really part of their responsibility, tasks that are difficult to execute well, and tasks that that others don’t want to undertake because they are uninteresting or low-status in the organization. These supplementary tasks may stop obliging employees from doing their own work to the expected standard. Eventually, they get branded with humdrum work and may even be overlooked for higher-status work assignments or for promotion to senior roles.

If you’re one of those employees who is accommodating or strives to be seen as such, curtail your impulse to say “yes” to whatever people ask you to do. Don’t change abruptly from being a friendly, accommodating employee into an obstinate, unhelpful person.

Be judicious in undertaking extra work if it is only desirable in light of your priorities and the personal image you want to sustain. If the prospective task conflicts with your priorities, you are within your rights to say “no” (see my previous article on nice ways to do so.)

Idea for Impact: There is a Limit to the Results Being Nice Will Get You

While it is virtuous to think of others first at both work and home, devoting all of your time for others can stand in the way of caring for yourself. Your work-life balance can suffer.

Addressing your own needs first is not only incredibly beneficial for your well-being, but also vital to your ability to care for others. Be prudent. Stand up for yourself. Be mindful of your priorities. Be attentive to your own needs. Practice saying “no.” Learn to be assertive.

How to Speak Persuasively and Influence Others

How to Speak Persuasively The University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research conducted this study on how different speech characteristics influence an audience’s decisions during telephone surveys. The conclusions of this study suggest certain patterns of persuasive speech.

  • Those who talk fast are seen as fast-talkers out to pull the wool over our eyes.
  • Those who talk slow are seen as not too bright or overly pedantic.
  • Those who use pauses in their speech are seen as more persuasive than those who were perfectly fluent. However, those who pause too much are seen as inarticulate.

Idea for Impact: The results of this study suggest that to persuade others, you need to speak moderately quickly, pause often, and not be too animated. In addition, you need to speak slowly and clearly to sound more thoughtful and less nervous.

Lessons from Amazon: ‘Mock Press Release’ Discipline to Sell an Idea

If you have a brilliant idea at work, the modern workplace demands that you distill your ideas into a killer PowerPoint presentation to enlighten, entertain (with animations and special effects,) and convince your audience.

As I mentioned in my previous blog article, presentations may make ineffective communication tools. They tend to promote “a seductive laziness of thought that is anti-rigor, anti-elegance, and—most damaging—anti-audience.”

'The Everything Store' by Brad Stone (ISBN 0316219266) Amazon’s corporate culture agrees. In Brad Stone’s The Everything Store, former Amazon executive Jeff Holden commented that “PowerPoint is a very imprecise communication mechanism. It is fantastically easy to hide between bullet points. You are never forced to express your thoughts completely.”

Instead of PowerPoint presentations, Amazon uses a narrative format called the ‘Mock Press Release.’ According to this disciplined approach, for every new feature, product, or service that employees intend to pitch within their divisions, they must produce a press release-style document wherein a hypothetical Amazon customer would first learn about the feature.

Amazon contends that if something isn’t interesting enough for a customer and can’t be eloquently expressed in a mock press release format, Amazon probably shouldn’t invest in the idea. Brad Stone’s The Everything Store mentions,

Bezos announced that employees could no longer use such corporate crutches and would have to write their presentations in prose, in what he called narratives. … He wanted people thinking deeply and taking the time to express their thoughts cogently.

Bezos refined the formula even further. Every time a new feature or product was proposed, he decreed that the narrative should take the shape of a mock press release. The goal was to get employees to distill a pitch into its purest essence, to start from something the customer might see—the public announcement—and work backward.

Amazon’s famously customer-oriented culture argues that this disciplined innovation forces all ideas to be rationalized from the customers’ perspective. Therefore, Amazon encourages it’s employees to write these mock press releases in what’s internally called “Oprah-speak” (how the idea would be explained plainly on The Oprah Winfrey Show) rather than in “geek speak.”

Jeff Bezos of Amazon

Rather than have employees present their ideas using PowerPoint decks, attendees receive copies of multi-page narratives (as opposed to the one-page format used at Procter & Gamble) and study the ideas before ensuing debate and decision.

On Quora, former Amazon executive Ian McAllister argued the advantages of this narrative form:

We try to work backwards from the customer, rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it. While working backwards can be applied to any specific product decision, using this approach is especially important when developing new products or features.

McAllister also provided a sample outline for the Amazon mock press release,

  • Heading – Name the product in a way the reader (i.e. your target customers) will understand.
  • Sub-Heading – Describe who the market for the product is and what benefit they get. One sentence only underneath the title.
  • Summary – Give a summary of the product and the benefit. Assume the reader will not read anything else so make this paragraph good.
  • Problem – Describe the problem your product solves.
  • Solution – Describe how your product elegantly solves the problem.
  • Quote from You – A quote from a spokesperson in your company.
  • How to Get Started – Describe how easy it is to get started.
  • Customer Quote – Provide a quote from a hypothetical customer that describes how they experienced the benefit.
  • Closing and Call to Action – Wrap it up and give pointers where the reader should go next.

Also see:

Lessons from Procter & Gamble: ‘One-Page Memo’ to Sell an Idea

In effective communication, less is often more. Brevity can communicate ideas more clearly.

Procter & Gamble (P&G) Logo Based on this idea, Procter & Gamble (P&G)’s corporate culture uses a powerful discipline called the ‘One-Page Memo’ for clear and concise communication.

P&G’s corporate culture requires any idea or proposal to fit onto one side of one piece of paper and must follow a predictable format. According to Charles Decker’s excellent book Winning with the P&G 99, the one-page memo consists of the following narrative elements:

  • Statement of Purpose: An introductory sentence that concisely and succinctly states the reason for the recommendation. Provides a context for the memo as a whole.
  • Background: Factual analysis that connects the purpose of the memo to the strategic objectives of the company or the brand. Also provides facts in relation to the problem the recommendation is supposed to address.
  • Recommendation: The specific proposal on how to solve the problem or exploit the opportunity detailed in the background section.
  • Rationale: The reasons for the recommendation, and the logic by which the recommendation was reached.
  • Discussion: Details of the recommendation, anticipated questions or areas of concern, risk assessment, identification of other alternatives, details of the recommendation.
  • Next Steps: Who will be following through on the recommendation, what target dates they would be working towards, what actions they would be taking to execute the recommendation.
  • Supporting Exhibits: Other supplementary information as applicable.

The last item, the supporting exhibits, provides additional data to validate the rest of the one-page memo.

Charles Decker states, “If you can learn to write a P&G memo, you can learn how to think. The memo becomes a knowledge codification tool, a way to present ideas, arguments, and recommendations in a language and style everyone at P&G understands.”

Winning with the P&G 99 also quotes an advertising agency executive: “P&G seems to have figured out that if you structure information certain ways, people will readily understand it, good ideas will emerge, and bad ideas will be exposed. I really think that is what has made them so successful. They make fewer mistakes because they find mistakes before they happen.”

Additionally, P&G’s renowned salesforce uses a Persuasive Selling Format (PSF) narrative that is structured along similar lines.