May 27, 2014
A while ago, Bloomberg BusinessWeek ran a piece title “Why Bezos Bought The Post”. It contains a lesson for presenting your competitive intelligence findings. Brad Stone, the author, observed that
“[a] decade ago, frustrated with the pace of meetings at his company [Amazon], Bezos banished PowerPoint and proclaimed that all future Amazon meetings would begin with the presenter passing out a narrative document that outlined the topic being discussed. The first papers were endless, spanning dozens of pages, so Bezos decreed a six-page limit. Many of his colleagues still thought this managing-by-writing approach would fade. It didn’t.“
The lessons here are several:
First, PowerPoint is not the only way to convey information at a business meeting. In fact, there are those that argue, in my words not theirs, PowerPoint serves less to communicate than to conceal. So, master other ways. Or at least practice what you want to say, relying on PowerPoint only as a reminder – to you of what you want to say and to the attendees of what you have said.
Second, present your case the way that senior management wants, simply because they may pay less attention to your message if they are not comfortable with the way it is delivered. If that means PowerPoint, it means PowerPoint.
Third, whatever means you employ, master the subject before your presentation. At the actual meeting, you may not be able to present what you want, when you want, and/or in the order you want. The form of your presentation is a tool; the content is the key. A corollary to this is that you should avoid presenting where the presentation and the work behind it were largely (or exclusively) done by someone else.
Fourth, shorter is almost always better than longer. Longer presentations may be more detailed, but that risks losing attention – as well as actual attendees.
 By Brad Stone, August 8, 2013, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-08-08/why-jeff-bezos-bought-the-em-washington-post-em.
 For more on that, see Edward R. Tufte, Beautiful Evidence, Graphics Press, LLC, 2006, p. 181: “Our comparison of various presentation tools in action indicate that PowerPoint is intellectually outperformed by alternative tools.”
May 19, 2014
Conan Doyle, through Sherlock Holmes, also spoke about the right and wrong ways to approach analysis.
In two of his stories, he warned about jumping to conclusions, particularly before completing the necessary research:
“It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts.” “The Adventure of the Second Stain”
“I had…come to an entirely erroneous conclusion which shows…how dangerous it always is to reason from insufficient data.” “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”
We have to recognize that in doing any research, we almost always start with a working thesis of what we expect to find, or even worse, a conclusion which we are trying to support. Either way, we are already in trouble. Certainly, we cannot clear our mind of everything, but we can at least recognize that we almost always have a preliminary thesis, which we should try to challenge, and not merely try to support.
In terms of preparing your analysis, Holmes suggestion from “Silver Blaze” is right on point:
“I shall enumerate them [the essential facts of the case] to you, as nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person….”
In other words, sit down, without your notes, without access to working drafts, documents on your computer, etc. and tell someone else, in as few sentences as possible, what it is you think you know. Doing that forces you not only to (re)organize in your mind the research that you done, but it also forces you to verbalize conclusions that you may or may not have felt comfortable drawing.
Another way to approach this is to turn your research assignment into a single question, or at most two or three questions. Then, using a program such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, dictate a short answer to each question. Again, you are relying on your mind to cut through all the research you done to get to the core answers.
5/12/2014 Returning now to Arthur Conan Doyle, A Treasury of Sherlock Holmes (Nelson Doubleday Inc., 1955), we find that Doyle, through Sherlock Holmes, has something to say about secondary or “desk” research and as well as work that you have done earlier, or that someone else has done for you, and about applying your analytical skills to each. The first is from “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”. There, talking to Watson, Holmes observes that
“[t]he Press…is a very valuable institution, if you only know how to use it.”
Here he is actually referring to reading the press’ reporting. And press reports can be extremely useful. I’m not referring to national wire service reports on public corporations, but rather to trade publications, the local business press, and local newspapers. These sources can be invaluable, not just by covering things such as the expansion of a competitor’s manufacturing facility, as noted in the proceedings of the local zoning board, but also in their listings of job openings and promotions, whether within the industry or locally. In addition, there are always the local and trade reporters. These men and women can be invaluable resources, so long as you are honest with them, and respect their needs. Their needs? They want to be able to report news, so it is probably useful if you can agree to become a resource for them in the future or even provide them with some background information that they currently do not possess. In addition, in “The Adventure of the Silver Blaze”, Holmes observes that the problem before him
“is one of those cases where the art of the reasoned should be used rather for the sifting of details than for the acquiring of fresh evidence.”
In other words, if you are presented with research that has already been done, and you feel you can rely on it, at least to some degree, take a few minutes and (re)read it. Actually, more precisely, you should read it, skipping all conclusions or analyses by the author. It is not that the author is necessarily wrong; it is that you’re reading it to understand the facts, and not the author’s reasoning abilities and eventual conclusion.
May 5, 2014
The Wizard of Id cartoon recently featured the Wizard over time being given the “truth”, including milk is good for you, but eggs are bad (at age 6) and later that milk is bad for you, but eggs are good for you (age 100). The strip ends with the profound catch line: ”In all my years, I’ve learned one thing: no one knows what they’re talking about.”
The point is well taken. The Economist’s columnist Lexington recently took on this topic in “When facts are weapons”. He noted, in the political arena (and what is not eventually there) that while some experts are “sincere” in their efforts to explain aspects of the world, others are “partisans in disguise”.
So? Well, for those of us trying to understand an issue of importance when doing our competitive intelligence, we sometimes look for a “report” or “study” to help provide context, background, or just to educate ourselves in a novel area. Be very careful of what or who is the ultimate source of your “facts” or “study”, and, more importantly, why they even active are in that arena of ideas.
In other words, keep in mind two (cynical, but accurate) observations:
“In today’s politics everything is a weapon, with which to club the opposition. Why should facts be different?” Lexington.
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” – attributed to Benjamin Disraeli by Mark Twain.