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.

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)