Friday, September 30, 2011

Business Writing: What We’ve Lost

I've been involved in a research project for the last eight months that has allowed me to spend time in one of the finest corporate archives in the world.  The documents I've read span the last 110 years, back to the turn of the twentieth century.  The first 40 years are particularly fascinating because they comprise the correspondence, memos and field reports of the seven entrepreneurs who founded the company.
Six of the seven men were college-educated engineers.

After a few months of work in the archives, here’s what struck me most: All seven men were superior writers.  I mean really, truly good writers.  A couple probably could have made a career of it.  Their correspondence with one another and their customers, their technical reports, and their marketing and sales literature were all impeccably authored, powerful, sometimes funny and occasionally biting--and an absolute joy to read.

It took me a couple of months of wading into the material to understand how remarkable this was.   These were not English majors.  They were often dealing with dense, technical topics.  But there was nothing sloppy or short-cut about how they expressed the written word.

It reminded me of a sports radio program I like.  It features two hosts.  Both hosts are knowledgeable, but I realized recently that I found myself gravitating more to the opinions of one over the other.  That’s when it donned on me: The host that consistently offered the more cogent, nuanced arguments also happened to be a long-time columnist for one of the local newspapers.  Two or three times, week in and week out, this “host-columnist” writes a thoughtful piece designed to argue some point of view.  While the “sportscaster host” certainly isn’t dumb, I can hear a clear difference in the way he assembles and delivers his opinion.

The act of writing is meaningful.

I was at a presentation last week that relied on a set of PowerPoint slides.  It was a very strong deck and accomplished what was intended. Still, I wondered what we may have lost in the transition from business memo to PowerPoint over the last ten or twenty years.  Maybe just a slew of needless conjunctions?  Certainly a bunch of atrocious English.  In fact, perhaps PowerPoint, email and text have leveled the playing field so that the entrepreneurs of 1911, forced to give up their memos, would sound very much like the entrepreneurs of 2011.  Good ideas would win out, undeterred by poorly concocted prose.

I’d be the first to admit that I like PowerPoint because it’s a whole lot easier than writing a full business memo.  There’s no part of me pining for the days of quills and penmanship.  But my sense is that we’ve lost something by not forcing ourselves to lay out ideas and to build arguments in prose.   I can’t prove that, but I don’t think anything has come along to replace the disciplined thinking that we’ve given up.

I suppose, too, that I’m expressing future sympathy for the business historian of 2111 who will, a century from now, try to paint a picture of the fortunes of the successful company launched in 2011.  Instead of the beautiful prose I found in my archives, he or she will be left with a thousand mind-numbing PowerPoints, 100,000 terse emails, and a million ungrammatical text messages.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Hasn't Margarine Always Looked Like Butter?

In 1998, Beloit College launched its first Mindset List, designed to give faculty and staff insight into the worldview of the incoming freshman class.  It turned out to be startling.  We were told that the class of 2002 couldn’t sound like “a broken record” because it had never owned a record player.  It did not remember the Challenger blowing up, the Cold War, or a world before AIDS or MTV.  Jay Leno had always hosted the Tonight Show,

If you don’t have a clue how strange that all sounds, then you likely graduated after 2002.  If you want a sensation similar to the one I’m feeling, however, this year’s list points out that the class of 2015 has always been able to get American tax forms in Spanish, free music downloads and rides in electric cars.  Ferris Bueller could have been their fathers, and--what’s that you say?-- Amazon is a river in South America?

Needless to say, the Beloit list caught on like wildfire.  Today, the site gets a million hits a year.

The list demonstrates just how quickly the modern world is moving.  But the authors, Professors McBride and Nief, have done us one better in their great new book, The Mindset Lists of American History.  For 150 years, from 1880 to 2030, they simulate the phenomenon of present-mindedness.  “Every chapter,” they note, “is written as though it were composed during the summer following that class’s high school commencement.”  It’s fun and funny, but more than anything, demonstrates that surprising and often radical change has been part of the American experience since the nineteenth century. 

For example, the members of the class of 1898, born in 1880 (including Douglas MacArthur and W.C. Fields), always knew machines that talked, believed that the frontier was closed, saw cities as sewers with omnipresent manure (and untrustworthy Roman Catholics), viewed typewriters as the new “literary pianos,” felt how traumatic Garfield’s assassination was to the country, believed North-South marriages might be slighly acceptable and, unlike their parents, did not find all darkened theaters to be morally unacceptable.  The class of 1898 knew the sweetest whistle in the world was the one that marked the end of the factory day.

There are 50 items in all in this list, with interesting text, but suffice to say that the world of the class of 1898 was remarkably and radically different from that of their parents.

How about the class of 1931, born in 1913?  This would include Richard Nixon and Rosa Parks.  These kids could always make telephone calls across the country, knew the Titanic only as history, played with erector sets, and understood people went to Detroit to make cars.  Their parents were attending a new thing called a “cocktail party” and jazz gave them a most colorful vocabulary.  

For the class of 1970, born in 1952, margarine has always looked just like butter, and many didn't believe they could trust anyone over 30.

The authors highlight ten classes, closing with the class of 2030, born in 2008.  For them,  daily mail is dead.  They have never seen a folded road map, a printed phonebook or a check.  Keys are found in museums.  They may never set foot on the campus of the college they attend.  And, in the cruelest swipe of all, the authors tell us the class of 2030 has never seen the Cubs win the World Series.

Good stuff.  A reminder that we’re not the only generations living with change.  A measure of how fast things are happening, and always have.  And news that even the most popular stars eventually fade.  Just ask Mary Bickford.   Heck, ask Johnny Carson.

For you, class of 2002, he’s here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sometimes It's Marketing, But Sometimes It's Just Plain Reality

It’s hard not to appreciate and occasionally even quote from Ted Levitt’s 1960 Marketing Myopia, in which he challenged leaders to define their businesses around the customer, not the product.  Levitt led his essay with a classic example of the railroad, saying:
The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because the need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, even telephones), but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry wrong was because they were railroad-oriented instead of transportation-oriented; they were product-oriented instead of customer-oriented.
I have long taken this critique of the railroad as a matter of faith.  Yet, even now as I write it, I wonder: the very industry that taught the rest of the world how to operate a successful big business apparently did not understand it had to compete with autos and planes for passenger traffic?

Could it be, as Levitt suggests, after decades of dominance that the railroad was suddenly asleep at the switch?

The other day I was thumbing through a couple of early-1950s editions of the Saturday Evening Post and was struck by what I saw.   Here, for example, was what Pullman was advertising:

Yes, it’s stereotypical to the point of being racist—welcome to the good old days.  But, what does the Executive Secretary of the National Association of Oil Equipment Jobbers say?  “Recently, I had to go to St. Louis for a meeting.  Instead of flying, as I had been doing for the past four years, I decided to take an overnight Pullman.  It happened to be raining when I left.  No matter. The train was exactly on time, and what’s more, I didn’t get drenched before boarding.”

Our Oil Equipment Jobber goes on to admire the big, comfortable seat, the ability to get work done, the privacy, the great night’s sleep, the wonderful breakfast, and the unwrinkled suit.

How could an ad be any better defined around the customer?  Pullman seemed intent on fighting for its share of passenger traffic.

(By the way, sorry the images are clipped.  I tried to define my home scanner as a “full-sized Saturday Evening Post color delivery solution” but, alas, it insists on being a simple home scanner.)

But that wasn’t all.  Next, the Southern Pacific, “America’s Most Modern Trains,” invited passengers to see the Pacific Coast while dining in a car fashioned after Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood, viewing scenery through oversized windows and walking through feather-touch doors to their reserved Chair Car seats.

Are you confused?  Isn’t this the industry maligned for fifty years because it wanted to haul freight, not passengers?

Here’s another clue as to how competitive the railroad was: watch how it gets positioned in competitive ads.  In fact, there appeared to be a rock-em sock-em, three-way battle going on among the train, auto and plane industries for passengers.  The babies were booming and everyone wanted a piece.

Here’s a great example from a 1953 Post. The top panel of this ad is incredibly effective.  It shows a scene from 1911—the distant past—and a gleaming Pierce-Arrow.  Even then, the Ethyl Corporation suggests, the automobile was king.   In fact, that old plane has crashed, which undoubtedly played on a widespread public fear of 1950s airline travel.  And in the background?  That’s a train nearly consumed by its own smoke, a dirty, wretched beast of the Old World.

Today, of course (glance down!), there’s only the auto to consider, and “it isn’t unusual for a motorist to drive from New York to California in seven or eight days.” 

The airplane was no shrinking violet in this battle.  This 1950 ad shows motorists stuck in the snow while (top left) the American Airlines plane flies “above ground-level weather.”

And just to complete this wonderfully vicious advertising cycle, here United Air suggests that the poor old train is a topic of humor because “you can look down and laugh at icy roads, drifts of snow and long-delayed ground transportation.”

The truth is, the battle for passengers was fully engaged, with the railroad pitching as hard as the automobile and the airplane.  And, I no longer buy Professor Levitt’s assertion that the railroad defined itself poorly.

Sometimes, the limits are simply not in the definition but in the reality.  From Boston today I would take a car to Portland, Maine, a plane to San Francisco, and a train (if there is any way to avoid the airport) to New York City.  Each industry may define itself anyway it likes, but the reality is that there’s more definition being provided by schedules, body searches, cellphone access, weather, time and traffic than most anything Marketing can offer.

We might as well argue that the Rolodex would still command a huge market share if leaders has defined it as a networking solution.  The phonograph would be competitive with the iPod if marketeers had only thought of itself as an "entertainment delivery system."

Sometimes it's Marketing, but other times its just plain reality.  In any event, I’m done beating up the railroad.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

10 Years After: How We Remembered

10 Years After, 2011: New York City will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with a ceremony at the World Trade Center site on Sunday, when the nation pauses to grieve for the dead and reflect on the decade since terrorists toppled the Twin Towers, damaged the Pentagon and crashed a jetliner in rural Pennsylvania.  President Barack Obama and his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, will be among the eight current or former elected officials to deliver readings at the ceremony, which is set to begin at 8:35 a.m. with the sound of bagpipes and drummers. Mr. Obama, the first sitting president to attend the annual ceremony, gave the green light earlier this year for the military mission that killed Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the deadliest foreign attack on American soil.  While most of the attention will focus on New York's ceremony, there will also be events at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, plus many smaller observances in communities across the country, from a stair climb in Seattle to a 9/11 memorial dedication in Sarasota, Fla. (September 10, 2011)

10 Years After, 1996: At a mournful, 10-year remembrance today, a rumbling flyover of Air Force jets at the precise moment of Challenger’s last liftoff gave way to 73 seconds of silence.  The silence, matching the doomed flight’s duration, was punctuated only by traffic and the screams of sea gulls. . .Across the United States, people remembered as though it were yesterday.  (January 29, 1996)

10 Years After, 1973: About 300 persons gathered in a cold wind at Kennedy Memorial Plaza today for 30 minutes of music and prayer to eulogize President John F. Kennedy one day ahead of the 10th anniversary of his assassination.  . .Ten years?  Sometimes it seems like only yesterday. . The time has been too short to suppress the chill that still overtakes me when someone’s question brings back that awful memory. . .Sometimes it seem that was another century.  The Presidency was a noble instrument of progress then.  Politics was a proud profession. . .Young people volunteered for the Peace Corps and Government service. . .The White House was a different place then.  It was filled with confidence and humor.  (November 22, 1973)

10 years After, 1951: Ten tremendous years have passed since that terrible Sunday of Pearl Harbor which President Roosevelt described as “a day that will live in infamy.”  If you are thinking in terms of Eastern standard time we may clock the anniversary of the entry of the United States in the Second World War at approximately twenty-five minutes after one this afternoon.  At that moment the hurrying tide of history washed over the last pinnacles of our isolationism.  It was no longer possible, and has not since been possible, for us to deny our historic mission in modern history.   (December 7, 1951)

10 Years After, 1925: If a historian were to attempt to determine the exact day and hour upon which the outcome of the World War was decided he might, perhaps, fix upon May 7, 1915, at ten minutes after 2 in the afternoon. It was at this moment that a torpedo, fired from the German U-boat 20 by Lieut. Capt. Schwieger, struck the steamship Lusitania.  Eighteen minutes later the vessel had gone to the bottom, carrying with her 785 men, women and children. . .The spot where the Lusitania went down, off the coast of Ireland, is passed by ships today with a sense of hush and sadness.  As the ocean grave is pointed out, passengers line the rails and gaze, while the tragic story lives again, in fragments of remembering, upon many lips.  . ."We were sitting at lunch when we felt a violent shock and broken glass from the portholes flew all about us.  Of course, everyone got up and started for the deck.  There was no pushing or crowding.  One of our party kept assuring everyone that there was no danger.  The ship was already listing.” (May 3, 1925)

10 Years After, 1908: The destruction of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor ten years ago today was recalled by the firing at noon of 21-minute guns at the Charlestown Navy Yard and at the forts in Boston Harbor.  Flags were also lowered to half-mast at the Government posts. (February 15, 1908).  And although that hoped-for time when the “war drums cease from throbbing” seems now even more remote than it did when just prior to the enactment of that tragedy in Havana Harbor parochialists were preaching of the obsolescence of war, Washington wires bring word that the Congress has cut the navy appropriations bill in half and that it will probably further “economize” by cutting it in half again. . . .(February 16, 1908)

10 Years After, 1881: Ten years have passed away since the great Chicago fire. . .Before the bricks of the buildings which had burned had cooled off, Chicago with characteristic nerve and energy began to rebuild, and the world looked on with memorable sympathy. . .No monument has ever been erected to commemorate the event, and really Chicago needs none but herself.  A slab was recently put in the window of a store built on the corner of De Koven and Jefferson streets, to show where the fire began. . .While that awful calamity of October 9, 1871 still has its dismal shadows in many homes, the retrospect on the progress made by the city in the past decade is very encouraging, and is a promise of still greater and more rapid progress in the future. . .(October 12, 1881)

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Real Sign

. . .of the times.  Recently spotted in Scotland, but could have been almost anywhere.  Thanks to friend Matt.

Friday, September 2, 2011

If You’re Comparing, You’re Probably Losing

Last century I rooted for the Red Sox.  I’m still a fan, but last century in particular they lost habitually to the Yankees.  This went on for most of a hundred years. Consequently, the conversation in Boston was always about the Yankees.  Why we were really better than them last year.  Why we are better than them this year.  Why we will be better than them next year.

If you’re comparing, you’re probably losing.

Last century I went to school at Brown.  Now, Brown is a great college, and I had a great experience, but (at least) when I attended folks spent a lot of time worrying about what was going on at Harvard.  Why our professors were better.  How we were more collaborative.  Why our exam schedule made more sense.  How we had better chances of getting into grad school.

If you’re comparing, you’re probably losing.

Needless to say, when I lived in New York, nobody talked about Boston.  Ditto Harvard and Brown.

This week the New York Times reported that “It seems to be a national obsession in India: measuring the country’s economic development against China’s yardstick. . .Indians, in fact, seem to talk endlessly about all things China. . . .”

Again I would submit, if you’re comparing, you’re probably losing.

BMW did not spend years arguing that it was better than Infinity.  

When you visit the Smiths and they are neurotically comparing their home, car, and vacation to the Jones down the street, well. . .

Benchmarking is good.  Shooting to overtake a competitor is noble.  But obsessively comparing is a sure sign of rank.

Here’s the difference in Boston between 1980 and 2011: We don’t talk much about the Yankees anymore.  But we sure do compare ourselves endlessly to Silicon Valley.

Like I said. . .