Three Big Rocks

What can you really achieve as a public speaker? If you’re lucky or skilled or both, you may be able to connect with your audience and leave them better educated on the issue of the “Three Big Rocks” and avoid the problems of the “Condom Test”.

In the UK, the typical audience member will remember only three things. At the end of seminars I have a habit of asking some of the ordinary audience members “what are the three things that stood out from that talk”? On one memorable occasion (many years ago) I was an ordinary delegate at an upmarket event in the posh part of Berkshire, and I remember afterwards asking three people in succession about the “Three Big Rocks”. Each and every one of them failed to articulate even one single message that the seminar had sought to deliver. I don’t know if that was a failure of the speaker, the delegates, or the UK education system.

Front cover of The Green Skies Report featuring a twin engined passenger jet and seom plant life in the foreground

On Thursday 7 September 2023 I went to the “in-person” launch event of the UK Green Skies Report. It appears that the “Three Big Rocks” philosophy is something unfamiliar to the chair, the moderator, and the experts on the panel. In most presentations, the audience will remember the first thing you said, the last thing you said, and will forget everything in the middle. For this reason I open my speeches with the “Three Big Rocks”, and close them with the “Three Big Rocks”. In the middle I tend to expand the discussion of each key issue, and attempt to avoid the introduction of any new material which is tangential to my objectives. If I want my audience to remember one thing, then that one thing gets headline billing at the start and the end of my talks.

I have a style guide for my speeches and it starts with “when I get to the end of this meeting, how will I know if I’ve had a good meeting”? My early draft of any presentation then lists the “Three Big Rocks” that I want to focus on. I have objectives, written down in black and white. Once drafted, I apply the “Condom Test” to my scribbly notes.

If you have ever worked in marketing, you may already know about the “Condom Test”. Take any piece of marketing copy, remove the name of the product (say) “Time Machine” and in its place substitute the word “condom”. It works like this . . .

“Our time machines put you in control of your own destiny.”

. . . becomes . . .

“Our condoms put you in control of your own destiny.”

If the sentence still makes sense, in ordinary English, then the sentence is telling the consumer nothing about your product. It’s word soup. It’s a collection of wasted space on a page. It’s a missed opportunity to educate your prospect about the value of your offering, and instead bore them to death with platitudes.

I tried the “Condom Test” on the first couple of pages of The Green Skies Report. For example:

Government should heed the advice of industry experts and public bodies and introduce price support schemes, such as a Contracts for Difference scheme, for Condoms, to provide price stability to the market and support inward investment into a domestic Condom industry.

That sentence still makes sense, in ordinary English, and tells the reader nothing about the product, only that there is a desire to conduct political lobbying, but the validity of the “should” statement has not been articulated.

Had I written it, it would have said something like:

There are compelling reasons why the Government should implement these three industry panel recommendations:

  • Recommendation A – Reason 1, 2 and 3
  • Recommendation B – Reason 1, 2 and 3
  • Recommendation C – Reason 1, 2 and 3

No platitudes, three big rocks, each backed up with three reasons!

This particular “Green Skies” event was attended by a few dozen industry insiders, and a couple of dozen industry outsiders. As an outsider, I felt lost within minutes of the start. The chair began with “we are delighted to be delighted today about delightful things and this delights us”. No big rocks yet!

a modertaor and two experts seated on stage

The moderator then asked the first panel expert a question which was six questions in one, to which the panel expert replied “that seems to be six questions in one”. No big rocks there either! At the start of the discussion there was no meaningful introduction of the subject, certainly nothing that would have educated an industry outsider, and there was no opportunity for either of the experts to have (say) 60 seconds to introduce themselves.

A bad start was followed by a short formal discussion, mainly about lobbying and about how allegedly “brilliant” the UK is on the subject of “condoms”, and that lasted only 15 minutes. I for one did not have time to pick up the report beforehand and read it, and I was surprised that the short discussion omitted any clear indication of what the report said. It was an exercise where three people on stage engaged in mutual back scratching. I also gained the impression that they thought everybody in the room was an aviation expert and/or sustainability expert. The ordinary Joe Public was completely overlooked. There then followed a very long Q&A with the audience. Some of the questions were not questions. A two way dialogue between Panel Expert A and Overt Insurance Lady enabled her to say “insurance” several times.

When BigWig in the audience (from BigCo Airline) hijacked the discussion and started a long-winded comment, not a question, followed by a two way self promotional dialogue with the moderator, I pictured in my head this cartoon which I have often seen in the past:

cartoon - expert on stage - moderator addressing audience saying - we have time for just one long-winded, self-indulgent question that relates to nothing we have been talking about

In this case, it was more a long-winded, self-indulgent non-question, tangentially on topic but designed to raise the profile (and improve the public perception) of BigCo (which has a bad reputation). I walked out when it became clear that BigWig was not being shut down, and was getting more than his fair share of air time. This was not an audience Q&A session, but a sales fest for unashamed boasts.

The “Three Big Rocks” is a concept which Stephen Covey introduced in his book “The 7 Habits”. Today, what were the “Three Big Rocks” that the organisers wanted the audience to take away? I have no idea! This was not a presentation for an audience, and certainly not for an audience of outsiders. It was an industry event staged for the purpose of preparing a press release which in the next few days will be touted around national and international press outlets. That’s what lobbyists do. And I had been caught in a trap which I ought to have foreseen. They wanted press coverage, and they demonstrated little interest in providing informed debate for the delegates.

The biggest rock I took away from that talk is that I won’t be going back again.

The Viral Toot

The viral toot, or the nearest thing I have ever had to a viral toot, was a humorous comparison of Windows, MacOS and Linux labelled “How To Fix Any Computer” which I posted on 4 Aug 2023.

The Toot

The joke leaflet image was something I found many years ago. And, recently whilst searching my image library for something else, I stumbled across it again. So I put it up on Mastodon.

joke leaflet - see full text in the blogpost

The Alt text is:

How To Fix Any Computer

Windows – Reboot.

Did that fix it? No? Format hard drive. Reinstall Windows. Lose all your files. Quietly weep.

Apple – Take it to an Apple store.

Did that fix it? No? Buy a new Mac. Overdraw your account. Quietly weep.

Linux – Learn to code in C. Recompile the kernel. Build your own microprocessor out of spare silicon you had lying around. Recompile the kernel again. Switch distros. Recompile the Kernel again but this time using a CPU powered by refracted light from Saturn. Grow a giant beard. Blame Sun Microsystems. Turn your bedroom into server closet and spend ten years falling asleep to the sound of whirring fans. Switch distros again. Abandon all hygiene. Write a regular expression that would make other programmers cry blood. Learn to code in Java. Recompile the kernel again (but this time while wearing your lucky socks).

Did that fix it? No? Revert back to using Windows or a Mac. Quietly weep.

The Response

Within a couple of hours, my post had already exceeded 40 interactions on Mastodon. About a month ago I discovered that stops reporting more than 40 notifications and just says 40+. This is the best example I can provide right now, just imagine it says 40+ and not 26.

a mastodon info panel reporting 26 notifications

I also learnt that when you have a viral toot your timeline becomes tediously unmanageable. A few dozen replies, a few hundred boosts and a few  hundred more favourites. The first handful of replies (mainly from people I already know in real life) where in character with my humorous intent. Once you have many interactions it actually becomes difficult to scroll down the page, spot the ones with text rather than boosts of the image file, and read them all,

The Fallout

Then over time, the replies increasingly went toxic! As if I alone was singlehandedly responsible for the entire ecosystem of computer operating systems and the adverse effects that it has on some users.

Around 24 hours after posting I gave up examining any of the responses. And the comments, the boosts and the favourites continued at quite a pace. This screenshot from my mobile phone shows more than 1,000 interactions in the first 5 days. Some of those 45 replies have still not been read and never will be.

screenshot of a mobile phone - as at 9 Aug 2023 - showing the toot with 45 replies 473 boosts and 696 favourites

What I did learn is that popular people with Mastodon accounts (like Stephen Fry) will simply not have the time to check all the interactions, and (assuming the responses become toxic) will not even want to. That has been my experience.

Here’s another example:

screenshot of a Stephen Fry toot promoting the play Bleak Expectations

As soon as I saw that toot I booked tickets. Two weeks later my family and I had a splendid night at the theatre, with Stephen Fry and others.

Later on, back on Mastodon, I scrolled through some of the replies to Stephen’s toot. The 3rd reply and the 9th are basically “Oi, Stephen, Alt text, do the Alt text!”

Yes, it’s nice to have Alt text. I have been building websites since 1997 and I use Alt text. However, on social media platforms the ability to add Alt text is a relatively new innovation. Give us time to adjust please! Especially older folks like me and Stephen Fry. In any case, the text in Stephen’s toot largely explains the image file, and that’s acceptable to the Mastodon community on GitHub. If the toot already tells the user what’s in the image, then users who have screen readers do not need to hear the same thing said twice.

Neither Stephen Fry nor I need brutal replies. We’d like to contribute more to social media in general, Mastodon in particular, and make it a nicer place. Not a toxic swamp like the one that bird site has become.

The Result

On 31 Dec 2021 I stopped using Twitter (18 months ago). More recently I gave up on LinkedIn (mid July 2023). I had been posting to LinkedIn roughly once per week (business tips, health and fitness tips, etc) and I was getting toxic replies. I don’t need that! I deleted all my LinkedIn posts and I won’t be adding any more.

The next time I have a viral toot (assuming I ever have another viral toot) I will stop checking the interactions. Human nature made me do it the first time. Those toxic interactions have ensured that I will now carefully pick and choose the intensity of my online communication. I want Mastodon to be a better experience than the others.

The Weedkiller Letter

This is a story which I regularly tell clients, and occasionally I have had the chance to present it to an audience during  some meetings of the Tech Community.

The story can be variously referred to as:

• The weedkiller letter
• The 80 20 rule (the Pareto law)
• Ditching the D clients
• The Soho film production company

It used to be on AudioBoom (formerly AudioBoo) until they changed their business model a few years ago. Originally I posted it (during the festive season) on Monday 20 Dec 2010 and the audio track is here for anybody who prefers a 4 minute podcast.

And if you want the quick version in plain text, this is it:

There was a small Soho film production company, with 2 directors, a total staff of about 10, and a client base of around 40, which offered services to people who wanted 30 second TV adverts, 30 minute training videos, and 3 hour blockbuster movies to rival Hollywood. They didn’t get many of the latter, but they did get a lot of the other two.Every year, on the day of the office Christmas party, the full team would gather in the main production room, sitting on the few chairs, on the tables, and wherever they could, and listen to the directors give an informal annual review. These were the days before the internet and digital systems, so everybody worked in the same place. As part of the “what’s been good” and “what’s been bad” discussion, the staff were allowed to speak freely. Each year, something like this would happen:

• Staff A: “Remember Tom, and the perfume advert, he was a nightmare.”
• (The other staff all make confirmatory noises.)
• Staff B: “And Dick’s training video! He was trouble!”
• Staff C: “So was Harry, with his documentary!”

The two director’s, sensing the sentiment in the room, agreed. “Tom, Dick and Harry . . . OK, we’ll send them the weedkiller letter.”

And the staff knew exactly what that meant. On the 31st of December, a Special Delivery letter would be sent to each of these separate customers. At its core the letter had this basic message “Dear Tom, it’s been lovely working with you this year. We can see that your approach is a bit different to ours, and we think that you would be better served by a different sort of film production company next year. We wish you all the best for the future.”

Nothing derogatory. Simple facts, simple dialogue, and a clear message that we do not want your business.

This happened every year, on the day of the office Christmas party, and every year the staff go out and have the most marvellous Christmas party ever because they know that next year they won’t have to work with Tom, Dick and Harry.

It is said that you get 80% of your satisfaction from the top 20% of your clients. And you get 80% of your aggro from the bottom 20%. If you could slice off the bottom 20% of your client base you would lose 80% of your aggro. Perhaps 20% is a bit drastic, but as with the Soho film production company, maybe you could dispense with 5% or 10%?

The best gardeners in the world do not keep a patch for the weeds. In business, should we?

a nice garden

Fish & Chips

There are only three things I can tell you about the great British institution that is Fish & Chips. This is what I learnt when I attended the Kings College London inaugural Impact Reception earlier this week. It was a unique evening highlighting six specialisations, and featured three presentations by leading academics. The focus was on “doing some good in the world” and we explored:

Global Affairs
Education for Displaced Persons
Women’s Leadership

And three niche areas of medicine where KCL excels:

Simulation and Interactive Learning
Virtual Reality Research Lab
Surgical & Interventional Engineering Lab

I have never been in a room so full of intelligent people doing good! Later in the evening, when I was chatting with Professor Richard Trembath (Health & Life Sciences) the discussion naturally turned to Fish & Chips.

traditional fish and chips in a takeaway container

Fact One

Until the advent of the Chinese Takeaway (at some point in the 1970s) the only enduring fast food outlet was the local Fish & Chip Shop. McDonalds did not arrive in my corner of the UK until 1980, and I do not recall ever having a pizza until one day in London in 1982 when I discovered that there are Pizza Restaurants in London. The same thing goes for kebabs. In London, in 1982, I found a kebab shop (a kebab van to be more accurate). I had never seen one before! Hence the humble Fish & Chip Shop was the standard which all UK kids encountered if they grew up before 1980.

Fact Two

Fish & chips are generally doused in vinegar and smothered in salt. That was standard practice in the 1970s before the government was pressured to legislate about salt and sugar intake. I spent most of my childhood in the Sixties and Seventies eating anything I felt like, regardless of the salt and the sugar content. And I was slim! We were all slim (except for, roughly speaking, one kid in every class). So what happened? Why is the population now so overweight and why is Type 2 Diabetes so prevalent?

Fact Three

In 1970 the overweight/obese proportion of the UK population was about 15%. It is now 64%. Type 2 diabetes more than doubled in British men between the 1970s and the 1990s and it continues to increase. There is a reason for this and it’s not caused by fish & chips. Fish is a natural food, it turns up in your traditional Fish & Chip Shop in its natural, raw state. So do the potatoes. With a focus on “being a miser with time, and being a miser with money” your local chippie will do the minimum preparation necessary to make some batter, slice some chips, fry it all and quickly get it into your hands in exchange for payment. A minimum of fuss and processing. That’s not the case with modern fast food.

Consider . . .

How many calories and additives are there in your traditional fish & chips? And in your Big Mac and large fries?

Moreover, having a take away meal was a rare treat in the 1970s, and the choice was simply between fish & chips and Chinese. Nowadays, vast swathes of the population will gorge processed food as often as they like . . . several times per week! Processed food is the culprit, that’s why the nation is so overweight. Legislation on sugar and salt content does not address the root cause of the problem . . .  additives in processed food!

Nowadays fast food outlets are everywhere, and cycle couriers will do the leg work for you so that you can just sit there and sloth. Poorer people tend to spend a disproportionate amount of their income on cheap fast food. According to Tedstone one third of the country’s fast food outlets are in the most deprived areas of our towns and cities. If you’re in London go and walk around Chelsea, and then walk around Lewisham. Try it in your own home town, walk around the upmarket neighbourhood, and the downmarket one. How common are the cheap fast food places?

What are you doing to ensure that you get some authentic real food on a daily basis, and avoid the gloop?