How NOT to Write a White Paper

New York Zoological Society - Picture on Early Office Museum Public Domain File:Monkey-typing.jpg Created: 1 January 1907

Your client has amassed a wealth of evidence in support of purchasing Solution A. The problem: you don’t offer Solution A. You have Solution B. You’re faced with having to engage the client in a dialogue about the results of their research and analysis (which speaks against your Solution B) to somehow steer them into reconsidering their impending decision.

You opt for what many B2B firms do in this situation: scramble to create some thought leadership that portrays your company and your products in the most attractive light possible, given the circumstances.

At this point, you recruit a few colleagues to launch a response –a white paper– the go-to format because, hey, it even sounds impressive.

Here’s what NOT to do.

Start with a tired metaphor

Relate every element of the client’s situation to some unoriginal and unentertaining other situation that conveys corporate inspiration. Classic example? The race car. Whether you go for Formula 1 or Nascar, it’s got all the elements of business imagery: competition, teamwork, engineering, high performance and so on. Because when clients look to solve real life business problems, they prefer to do so while imagining themselves as Speed Racer.

If you’re feeling more creative, reach for something more imaginative. If you’re offering cloud computing, why not a Jack and the Beanstalk metaphor? I’m sure there are clouds in that story. Even seemingly apt metaphors can be considered groan-worthy depending upon your audience. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to revitalize Japan’s economy rely upon ‘three arrows’ which come from a folktale–variants of which are found throughout the region, sometimes replacing arrows with chopsticks.

If those are too mundane, aim for the non-sensical. I’ll never forget one piece that read ‘it remains to be seen whether the proposed regulations will become an all-singing all-dancing cabaret.’ Not particularly meaningful, but certainly memorable.

Stack the deck

The devil is in the details, so weigh them in your favor. Provide a perfunctory sketch of Solution A, then devote most of your time explaining the inner workings, advantages and benefits of Solution B. Yours will seem more tangible. Even better, introduce a few permutations of Solution B –let’s call them Solution C and Solution D– and then compare all four options. The amount of discussion dedicated to Solution A will shrink considerably. Whatever you do, avoid an apples-to-apples comparison of Solution A and Solution B. Switch out one of the apples for a banana, a pear and a kiwi.

Cloud the issue

Your client has set out a chain of logical steps supported by evidence that point them to a clear destination. Create diversions and set up ambushes at each step along the way. Plant a field of straw men. Pile irrelevant information and spurious relationships into a big, messy heap. Do anything you can to turn their road map into a jumbled maze. Put lots of focus on the least important elements–particularly if they play to your strengths.

Go on the offensive

You’ll want to put forward your own analysis–something that sounds good without committing to any claims that could be challenged. This will require you to stay vague. Couch any claims in broad generalities or use conditional language to deliver purely hypothetical scenarios. Imply unsubstantiated facts or buttress your own view with ‘common sense’ applied to a technical field where it likely doesn’t belong. Minimize the preponderance of quantitative evidence with infinitely sparse counterexamples to cast doubt on Solution A. Because even if the expected results have an incredibly high likelihood of occurring –let’s say 99.1%– there’s a miniscule chance — the remaining 0.9%– that something else happens; for example, that the results disappoint. Play to that uncertainty. If that doesn’t work, invent unlikely consequences of Solution A and embellish every gory detail. Remember, so long as you’re exploring hypothetical cases, you cannot be proven wrong.

Appeal to emotion, not reason

To the greatest extent possible, you’ll want to avoid precise construction of logical arguments. Since you won’t have numbers that speak in your favor, it’s best to hammer on emotional appeals. Wield flattery, indulge your audience’s overconfidence (e.g. how a large majority of people consider themselves better-than-average drivers which is statistically impossible), and then scare the daylights out of them with what could be the most effective emotion in B2B sales: FOMO, the fear of missing out. Remind your audience of all the theoretical benefits of your Solution B and how horrible it would be for them if someone else had them first. This plays to the herd mentality that underpins decision-making in more than a few sectors. Alternatively, exaggerate their initial acceptance of Solution A into a forever-binding, static commitment that locks them into an eternity of inflexibility and disadvantages galore. Or, on a lighter note, when possible create a ‘cool factor’ that makes your Solution B more awesome than Solution A.

Sell your product, not your ideas

You never want to miss an opportunity to sell. Your sales team will probably discuss this white paper with the client, so make sure to pack all the key features of your product(s) into the document AND talk about your firm’s capabilities. Make it all about you. Be sure to throw in the copy from your last ad campaign–because repetition is an effective tool. An effective tool. Repetition.

But seriously

Why would anyone write a white paper as disastrously described above? Good question. Unfortunately, plenty of firms cram (sometimes desperate) sales content into a white paper format and, in doing so, frustrate their clients. It doesn’t have to be this way. White papers and other thought leadership materials are meant for firms to demonstrate their expertise and help find solutions–not to sew confusion.

Tips to keep in mind when writing a white paper:

  • A tired metaphor shows lack of originality and can distract from the matter at hand.
  • Stacking the deck by skewing the arguments in your favor can stray too far from the objectivity required to match a business need to a solution.
  • Your audience expects clarity, so provide it. Clouding the issue undermines your apparent mastery of the topic and makes you less credible in their eyes.
  • Try to avoid emotional appeals (they’re cheap and difficult to fit into organizational decision-making), or at the very least, balance the rational and emotional appeals.
  • Avoid selling. Audiences will shout out commercial messages–particularly where they don’t belong.

How to Relaunch a Flagship Publication in 8 Steps

As content marketing continues to dominate B2B marketing discussions, many firms are reviewing their preferred tactics and key messages in order to reinforce their content marketing effectiveness.

A few years ago I was tasked with formally reviewing a firm’s flagship print publication–a notable example of content marketing launched with the right intentions, objectives and support from top management. Here’s a series of eight steps to relaunch a flagship publication based on that experience.

Despite a 6-figure annual budget and dedicated headcount, the publication had languished since initial launch–unable to gain traction with its intended audience and increasingly recognized within the company as a required, if not painful, exercise.

Weighing in at more than 100 pages per issue, the print publication appeared erratically several times per year, in part due to production lead times of up to 5 months. It had few fans and plenty of critics–both inside and outside the firm. It was a classic white elephant, commanding prestige while incurring costs far in excess of the value it delivered for the company.

Here are the steps I took to assess, re-position and relaunch the publication.

1. Get a baseline reading on inputs and outputs

With a recurring publication, it’s fairly straightforward to measure the inputs–what it takes to bring the thing into existence. Total hours spent and budget are common metrics. The goal here is to mark a starting point so that you have a basis for comparison later on. This was helpful to me since I was new to the project, hence unfamiliar with some of the elements set out years ago.

If you want to be more sophisticated, you can breakdown the cost per hour along the various production stages in order to get an indication of where it may be most effective to outsource parts of the process.

2. Check the publication’s objective and target audience

Dust off the documented purpose/objective of the publication and its intended audience. Make sure that these still match the company’s strategy. In my case, these were not document. If these are not written down, talk with those at the genesis of the project and document that understanding. Then share these notes. I found that this can help clarify the aims of the project and garner support, especially when you can demonstrate how the project’s objectives coincide with a stakeholders’ aims.

3. Ask the audience

After establishing a baseline for production and confirming the goal and target audience, look at how the readership reacts to the content. Website statistics offer a good starting point. The crucial determinant of success is whether anyone wants to read your content. The easiest way to find out? Ask them. For the publication I conducted a readership survey that allowed respondents to answer online or by post (postage paid, of course). The challenge here is to make participation as frictionless as possible for the readers: if it’s in any way difficult or frustrating to provide feedback, response rates will suffer accordingly. Also, solicit feedback from your internal stakeholders. Having them complete the same questionnaire can be an eye-opening way to show that perceptions inside and outside the firm can vary significantly. In this case, I found it valuable to get the sales team’s input as well.

Results from the readership survey revealed that the audience was interested in more accessible, shorter pieces of RELEVANT content–e.g. that the content address their needs and interests. It also provided an indication of what kind of topics they expected the company (as a service provider) to cover.

4. Set an editorial policy

Your editorial policy will encapsulate information from the earlier steps including the objective, intended audience and writing/production guidelines. In a way it can be thought of as an agency brief that can be handed over to someone else for execution. The more clarity and detail a policy provides, the better. I prefer editorial policies that include quality standards or a checklist for contributors–though these may not be necessary if your organization already has writing guidelines or an editorial approval process.

In a medium or large sized organization, it’s wise to convene an editorial board that governs the editorial policy and meets regularly to review performance. The board can then assign daily implementation of the editorial function to an individual or a team.

The upfront work of setting an editorial policy will help improve the quality and relevance of your content over time.

5. Review the ‘look and feel’

Some people mistakenly focus all their attention on the content–what’s being said or written–or that design is merely an artistic consideration. All of these strawmen are wrong.

While content matters a great deal, it’s not the only thing that matters. Contrary to the old adage, many people do judge a book by its cover. So make that cover appealing. Use it to entice readers to turn the pages.

For the relaunch I conducted, the production work proved incredibly expensive, because the dimensions of the 100+ page documents were so costly to print and ship. Scaling down to a sleeker, more attractive, look and feel for the publication not only matched what the audience asked for in the readership survey–it also cut production time and shipping costs by 35 percent. To lock in these savings, guidelines on size and weight were set.

A few more design tips:

– Use image and color to set the tone

– Build out multiple levels of reading that allow readers to skim and then ‘dive in’ where they see an interest

– Avoid stock photos

– Consider how the work will appear in print and onscreen

6. Set a schedule

While technically your publication’s frequency (daily, weekly, monthly) should be contained in the editorial policy, publishing frequency is only the tip of the iceberg–the visible part of the production process. What’s hidden is the production time–which can range from a few hours for a blog post to several weeks or even months for an article or white paper. Your publication schedule will help you to sort this out. Update this often, share with stakeholders and build in some flexibility (i.e. swap publication dates of different pieces or have a backup piece prepared) in order to avoid excess anxiety over deadlines.

Adhering to a schedule–rather than publishing when a piece is completed–will help set your audiences expectations. Further down the road, if you are successful, your audience will anticipate and look forward to upcoming publications.

7. Deliver multiple formats

Your audience receives and consumes content in a variety of ways. In some countries, it’s preferable to hand-deliver print publications, which requires engagement from your sales teams. In other places, postal delivery is difficult or unreliable–so electronic delivery is preferred. A print publication can have a whole new life online. Here, it was necessary to revamp the website, update the email delivery process leveraging a state of the art emailing tool, initiate a social media campaign and create a smartphone app that offered readers their choice of ways to consume the content–all in addition to the print publication.

The key thing to bear in mind is that moving from long form (article-sized) to short form (social media) content requires additional effort and that the storytelling takes place in a more open (shareable) though confined (140 characters or less) space. Allocate the necessary resources to make this run smoothly, rather than treating it as an afterthought.

8. Measure effectiveness

A successful relaunch doesn’t end when the ‘new and improved’ version is unveiled. It’s a milestone that marks the time to step back review the ground that has been covered. The editorial board is a great forum for this discussion. Gauging your audience’s reaction requires conducting a second readership survey, along with analysis of web statistics, for comparison of the before and after results. In this particular case, audience engagement indicators–how much time was spent reading the material and how often the content became a part of discussions with clients–more than doubled. This can largely be attributed to the editorial policy and design work. In addition, the roll-out of multiple electronic formats allowed sales teams in some markets to increase their audience reach by 800 percent.

Give yourself time to succeed

Overall, this particular relaunch resulted in higher audience engagement, greater audience reach, quicker production times and lower costs. But not all of these benefits come immediately. It takes time for an audience to recognize improvement. (Incidentally, it presents the opportunity to run a relaunch marketing campaign if you want to play up transparency around the effort).

Relaunching a flagship publication can be a time-consuming effort. Given the potential benefits, along with the opportunity to forge a stronger connection between you and your audience, it’s an exercise worth considering. With these steps in hand, the effort should be that much easier.

The Key To Marketing From A Head of Sales

I asked the head of a 200-person strong sales department of an asset management firm operating in about two dozen countries across the globe: “What do you need marketing teams to produce in order to best help advance discussions with prospects and clients?”

The answer was instructive, if not straightforward: produce high-quality, educational content.


Making the Most of Corporate Academic Sponsorships

Many firms find it useful to partner with academic institutions for a variety of reasons, including: to commission research, to advance a field of study, to identify a stream of potential recruits, or to promote brand awareness, just to name a few. While the combination of corporate capital and scholastic brainpower would seem unstoppable, there are plenty of circumstances that conspire to prevent corporate-academic partnerships from reaching their full potential.

In this post, I look at how for-profit corporations can better identify and collaborate with academic institutions (though the academic side is no less interesting and deserves to be addressed, it is beyond my experience set and hence better left to others).

Don’t jump at the first opportunity

A corporate academic partnership that goes bad can be a nightmare for all those involved–with countless hours wasted and frustrations aplenty–particularly when multi-year contractual obligations oblige. I’ve actually seen a company sign a multi-year agreement with the very first academic institution that came knocking at the door. It didn’t go very well. Do your due diligence. It’s better to identify a short list of potential candidates and use agreed criteria before selecting a partner institution and finalizing an agreement. Of course, this requires academic sponsorship program to:

Have an objective

It sounds straightforward, though it can easily be overlooked. A corporate academic sponsorship involves time and resources. It should have an objective and –ideally– metrics to measure the results just like any other effort. Setting an objective internally will help you to explain your vision of the sponsorship to the institutions themselves, helping everyone to have greater clarity from the start.

Document everything

In an extreme example, an individual at one firm signed the deal and then left the firm a short time later. This person’s replacement then left the firm within 2 years, meaning that they were unable to find back the relevant contracts, could not identify the objective of the sponsorship, had no short list to fall back on. Avoid this mistake.

It may be as simple as taking notes and making them accessible to your team. Alternatively, it may entail an internal communications campaign to raise awareness of the program and get more buy-in from stakeholders. While it may seem like extra paperwork, it’s crucial for organizational memory. If the person in the corporate lead role changes positions or leaves the firm, those notes will help the firm maintain continuity over time.

Match their scope to your ambition

Key factors in identifying appropriate potential partner institutions include: the academic entity’s notoriety, specialization, track record regarding sponsorships, personnel and value proposition. Each firm’s needs are different, so these considerations have to be weighed accordingly. A company that leads its sector would likely favor the most prestigious schools. However, a firm may want to select a school with less overall notoriety if a particular branch has a strong reputation in a given niche that is relevant to the industry–whether it’s agriculture, media or economics, etc.

Identify your full contribution upfront

A sponsorship requires time and money. But is that all? A while back I attended a seminar hosted by an academic institution that had a clearly defined approach to sponsorships, and understood the benefits they bring to the school. The school systematically applied a ‘business check’ to the output of their sponsorships. Essentially, they asked their sponsor firms to enter into a dialogue regarding the subject matter and offer the ‘real world view’ from industry practitioners. Yet, not every corporate sponsor was aware of this approach, which really amounted to a missed opportunity for everyone. How do you know what a school wants from you? Simply ask.

Weigh the pros and cons

In some jurisdictions, academic partnerships get beneficial tax treatment. That one advantage alone does not constitute a well-conceived sponsorship program. Take a holistic view of the effort, and make an evaluation based on a clear-eyed assessment that allows for the possibility that the program could have poor, average or good results.

Anticipate an adjustment period

Academia and corporate worlds operate differently. And it’s a different type of relationship than one with a supplier, client or external agency. Especially if this is your first corporate academic sponsorship, plan to learn as things go along in order to allow all parties to acclimate to the new relationship.

To conclude

A firm’s decision to launch a sponsorship program should not be taken lightly. Corporate academic sponsorships can be beneficial to both parties–though they sometimes leave room for improvement. Bearing in mind the above set of guidelines can help steer the corporate-academic connection towards a better outcome.

5 Signs Your Content Machine Is Underperforming And How To Fix It

The relentless rhythm of content production and publishing can be demanding for content marketers, writers and authors of all stripes. Take a quick step back from the whirring engine in order to make sure that your content machine is firing on all cylinders.

Here are a few signs that your content production is underperforming, along with ways to address any hiccups:

  1. The compliance approval is the longest stage in the process.

In most organizations, it takes a good amount of time to plan, prepare and vet good content. Getting compliance sign-off–especially in financial services–is crucial. But it shouldn’t be the limiting factor.

Action: sit down with your review and compliance stakeholders to check the agreed service level, identify and address bottlenecks. Make this a regular thing.

  1. The four-eyes principle applies only to nerds.

The four-eyes principle means that one person writes, another person reviews. Surprisingly, a marketing head at one firm I spoke to admitted to me that they do not check what they produce before it’s published. Unsurprisingly, that firm’s communications often have spelling mistakes, translation errors and poor grammar.

Action: hire an editor, or–at a minimum–implement peer review inhouse. If you don’t bother to read your material, why should your clients?

  1. Your content never made it out the door.

I’ve actually seen a department in one organization deliver ‘finished’ content to internal teams (without a compliance check)–simply hoping that it would be pushed to the outside world by others. It wasn’t. As a result, no prospects or clients ever actually saw the content.

Action: The 80/20 rule does not apply to reaching your audience. Go the full distance. Diffuse content in various formats across an array of communications channels for maximum impact.

  1. You cannot remember the last time you discussed topic ideas with colleagues.

Sadly, some firms hire people to produce content without managing the content process–e.g. no editorial calendar, no key topics, non-existent or constantly revised key messages. While this makes the content producer’s job rather easy (little oversight, vague objectives), it makes achieving success quite difficult.

Action: make content production an organization-wide effort. Good content is a team sport. Your colleagues will have different views and suggestions for improvement that boost the quality of your content.

  1. No one reads your content.

The most severe warning sign that your content machine is underperforming is also the most difficult to resolve. Perhaps you have good content in the wrong place and thus need to adjust the channel mix. Or maybe the messaging doesn’t relate to the audience. Or the tone is off.

Action: Conduct a full review of your content marketing program, from objectives and process to result measurement and analysis. If everything appear to be in good order, use market research techniques (panels, surveys) to gain more insight directly from your target audience. If all else fails, find new ways to integrate existing content into your organization’s activities and look for feedback through that route.

Recap: Digital Innovation, Social Media, Mobile Marketing and More

The other day I was fortunate enough to attend a presentation on digital innovation by Josef Mantl, an Austrian communications entrepreneur and CEO of the eponymous Josef Mantl Communications.

The evening, hosted by the the Austro-American Society in Vienna, provided the perfect backdrop for Dr. Mantl, a Fulbright scholar and Al Gore Climate Leader, to talk us through some of the largest milestones in the digital world over the past decade.

He outlined the importance and overwhelming presence of all things digital in today’s society–including its importance for businesses, political organizations and academic institutions in connecting with audiences and building success. In fact, the digital world has become crucial to success, and no successful organizations forgo the web these days.

Yet, there are other reasons to care about digital. According to Dr. Mantl, digital has fundamentally changed consumers themselves–who no longer simply purchase a ready-made product/service from a company (or not). Rather, the digitized consumer is multi-dimensional, and can potentially playing a role in product design, review and brand stewardship, among other things.

Here are a few key takeaways from the discussion:

– The rise of digital has increased the pressure on organizations to provide high quality content.

– 64% of CEOs and opinion leaders read their email on mobile devices.

– People’s need and ability to share makes social media an integral part of today’s marketing campaigns.

– Social platforms from publicly-traded firms face greater pressure to monetize traffic, putting marketers in a situation where must cough up ad spend to be visible.

– The digital environment favors short, emotional messages with strong visuals.

– New technology is a key driver in this space. Look for augmented reality, near-field communications and wearables to be the ‘next big things.’

For those interested, these themes and more will be explored at the upcoming Mobile Marketing Innovation Day event in Vienna on May 28, 2014 (in German).

Asset Managers’ Ongoing Quest to Build Marketing Muscle


It’s a phenomenon known to many in the investment management industry: a weak marketing function that essentially amounts to sales support. Without a doubt, marketing should work closely with sales, but the two functions are complementary. Weak marketing–which boils down to order fulfilment–does a disservice to sales teams and hinders a firm’s business development efforts.

Sadly, not everyone in the industry has a clear picture of the role and capabilities of a strong marketing function.

May I take your order, please?

Many asset management marketers will recognize the model OppenheimerFunds’ Chief Marketing Officer Martha Willis describes whereby marketing consists mainly of fulfilling sales requests for brochureware, down to the last detail. Sales teams who “told us exactly what the brochure needed to say, the type font—everything about it.”

A familiar feeling

The challenge for many asset management firms is to break from this request fulfillment model and add greater value to the organization. Over the past decade, many firms have confronted this challenge. Some have tackled it head on, while others have been less quick to adapt. Competition has become more intense, with greater fee pressure, an uptake in passive strategies by many investors, and flourishing digital technologies–all of which accentuate the  need to upgrade marketing’s role in the organization.

Then and now

Chief Marketing Officer at United Capital, Gail Graham, characterizes the old way of marketing:

“Years ago, you needed one or two “smart” people, maybe an outside writer, and the marketing communications channels from print to digital. In retrospect, it was pretty simple and a level playing field if you had some good ideas to publish.”

She goes on to outline the ‘new’ marketing operating system:

“Today, for small and mid-sized businesses, this is a whole new approach requiring strategic marketing and curation skills, time to maintain the quality and cadence of content, and technology to not only publish but manage the program and measure your results. For instance, in financial services, we have to link CRM, publishing, compliance, digital analytics and other functions to even get started.”

Locating the roadmap

For OppenheimerFunds, evolution towards a strategic, integrated marketing function focused on three areas:

  1. Acquiring digital know-how
  2. Incorporating product development
  3. Content creation–especially thought leadership (“when the piece that you’re creating changes someone’s behavior and makes them ultimately better at what they do” says Ms. Willis)

The path will look different to each organization, depending upon the starting point. I’ve been a part of the shift from weak to strong marketing in several instances. In my view, the rewards of embracing organizational change are worth the potential anxiety and risk. New ways of working offer the opportunity for greater creativity–particularly where new digital tools and content creation overlap. What’s more, taking the time to discuss the purpose and objectives of the marketing structure can help build consensus and direction. The shift does take time–it’s a long process measured in years, not weeks or months.

The firms that prove able to build strong marketing functions and deliver ‘true thought leadership’ should be best positioned to play a key role in business development–setting those organizations apart from the herd.

TED Talks Offer Tips for Content Marketing Success

The other day I was shown the WORST online TED talk I’ve ever seen. But since the individual who shared it with me has a real passion for the topic and is genuinely interested in delivering high quality content, I could not resist jumping in and uncovering a few choice insights about giving a great TED talk. Along a journey of discovery I found some incredibly valuable lessons for anyone interested in effective communications techniques, storytelling, content marketing and thought leadership.

If you’re not familiar with TED, it’s a nonprofit ‘devoted to spreading ideas’ according to its website, holding annual events for more than a decade. Though not without its critics, TED has single-handedly industrialized the purveyance of insight, with experts skillfully delivering interesting presentations in 18 minutes or less. The key question is, what makes a TED talk great?

The short answer: it’s about public speaking

Sam Leith, in a well-written review of Carmine Gallo’s Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, paraphrases the 9 ‘secrets’:

  • Be passionate about your topic
  • Engage the audience by telling stories
  • Treat your speech like a conversation
  • Tell the audience something it doesn’t know
  • Include a few jaw-droppers
  • Use humor
  • Keep it brief
  • Engage all the senses by painting word-pictures
  • Be authentic.

There are a few more tips. As Leith points out, acting plays an important role, too. Delivery relies on good body language, voice control and a ‘a sweet spot of about 190 words per minute.’ Why 190 words per minute, which is at the high end of normal speech? According to at least one speech communication professor, Stephen D. Boyd, “[p]sychologists have found that speakers who deliver at a rate of 190 words per minute are more likely to seen as credible, objective, knowledgeable, and persuasive as compared to slow speakers.”

Kelly Stoetzel, TED content director, puts a lot of emphasis on rehearsal and preparation. In particular, you should ‘expect something to go wrong.’ That’s why it’s crucial to ‘know your material backwards and forwards.’ Importantly, you should construct your presentation for those who are listening. As Stoetzel notes, ‘the best type of speaker is one who is constantly thinking about the audience.’ For me, that last point should act as the overarching guideline to keep in mind–above the list of tricks and tips.

The long answer: it’s more than public speaking

Chris Anderson, TED curator, is in a unique position to weigh in on successful public speaking. In this video, he explains how to get the  best ‘substance’ (read: high quality content + strong delivery) to room full of TEDx conference organizers–coaching the coaches of TED speakers across the world. If you have 20 minutes, it’s worth watching in full. If you don’t have time, just keep reading.

Here’s what I take from Chris Anderson’s talk:

Every journey begins with a single word

The “very first thing that must be done in a talk […] is to pick a journey.” Anderson refers to each presentation as a step-by-step journey along which the speaker guides the audience. He describes a journey as a process of discovery and persuasion that can (but doesn’t have to) have the structure of detective story. Start with a question, a riddle, or an unexplained observation. Then start down the path. Along the way show clues. Sprinkle in ‘aha’ or eureka moments to taste.

The journey metaphor works because there’s a starting point and a destination. I think this is particularly powerful because it implies a purpose: you have a motivation or objective to achieve — and it involves getting your listeners’ brain gears churning along the lines you set out in the direction of your target aim. That’s why Stoetzel’s admonition to be ‘constantly thinking about the audience’ holds so much weight.

Plan a few pit stops

“Talks can’t advance difficult ideas without populating them with these rich examples,” says Anderson. Big concepts fly over people’s heads rather quickly if there’s nothing tangible or compelling to back them up. Likewise, anchoring the speech to several key examples helps fix the distance you’re able to travel with the audience. There are only a certain number of steps you can take in 18 minutes. Some speakers try to go too far. Anderson reminds that “in an 18-minute talk, trying to give more than three big examples is pretty hard.”

Jettison jargon

Anderson examines what works–and what doesn’t–for TED talks. One barrier is the speaker’s fog of unclear communication: “language that, in the context of a speaker’s worldview, makes total sense–but it isn’t where the people are.” This means using accessible language and avoiding jargon.

It also signals something important about the journey: it begins from your audience’s starting point, not yours. Technical experts need to strip down messages to simple, lay terms. Put yourself in the listener’s shoes. Assume your audience has an average education level and low awareness of your topic–then adjust these assumptions as needed.

Strike the right chords

“People think they have cracked the TED code with emotion” Anderson says, seemingly unconvinced–leaving the impression that this is not the best route to follow. First of all, it’s not that straightforward. “Inspiration is not something you get by targeting directly,” but rather a combination of authenticity and the sense of possibility, he adds.

When wielding emotion as a speaking tool, there is at least one ‘no go’ area. “Too much ego on stage is a bad thing,” notes Anderson. As listeners, “[w]e don’t like arrogance […] we start to shut down. The opposite of that is vulnerability.” A number of successful TED speakers have highlighted vulnerability as being the emotion they sought to convey. Vulnerability is powerful. Speakers willing to take a risk and ask the audience to join them on the journey create a human connection that makes people want to get involved in the conversation.

On humor, Anderson equivocates. Use humor, if you can. Not everyone can do humor, he adds. His most concise tips may be the most meaningful. “Be authentic. Don’t sell.”

Ask for help

Identifying your story and shaping it for an audience means that you’ll confront several critical questions. Anderson has identified the most challenging ones: “Is this person a leader? Do they have an idea the world needs to know about? Have they found a  way to make it accessible? Is this idea, or the scope of their work possible to fit into eighteen minutes? If not, what is the angle?”

Convincing others that your topic is fresh and it matters is, according to Anderson, “the single hardest thing to do.” He adds that “this is where speakers need help. It almost takes a journalist.”

The good news: it can be learned

As Chris Anderson wrote in ‘How To Give a Killer Presentation’ for Harvard Business Review:

“Since we began putting TED Talks online, in 2006, they’ve been viewed more than one billion times. On the basis of this experience, I’m convinced that giving a good talk is highly coachable. In a matter of hours, a speaker’s content and delivery can be transformed from muddled to mesmerizing.”

For those of us looking to deliver great presentations, that’s reassuring.

What do you think? Are there other keys to delivering a great TED talk or presentation?


Infographics Infiltrate Asset Management

As content marketing sweeps the asset management sector and the inescapable social/digital wave finally takes hold, some investment firms have taken the plunge and begun to produce infographics: web- and social media-friendly nuggets of visual splendor that convey complex information in accessible or unusual ways.

Here’s asset management firms along with a few consultants and industry groups that are using infographics. Jump in and add any others you can find. Voting-enabled, so choose your favorites.

No More Bad Finance Books, Please

The appreciation of art–and here I put an emphasis on literature–is a subjective exercise. One person’s cover-to-cover page-turner can be another’s doorstop. While it’s difficult to please everyone, a high quality book will get recognition from a good number of people. According to this Bloomberg article there are more than 11,000 business books published annually. A significant portion of those titles undoubtedly cover finance and investment topics–though not all of them do it well.

Bad finance books are happening

The reason I raise the topic of finance books–and bad ones in particular–is that in the span of one single day I heard multiple horror stories of vainglorious book projects wrapping up or already completed in several countries. Several top executives on both sides of the aisle–asset manager and institutional investor–had spent 12 months or more and a significant portion of time to produce works that were described to me as ‘awful,’ a ‘train wreck’ and ‘merdique.’ Ouch.

There are lessons to learn

No one contends that producing a book is either easy or straightforward. But the tales recounted to me touched on a number of things worth mentioning:

  • Books created solely to feed an author’s ego make the world a sad place.

  • A book project can be a distraction–for the author–or a disruption in the workplace–especially if the heavy lifting is delegated internally.

  • Quality content serves a purpose–e.g. a book must have a reason to be read.

Luckily, these points can be addressed by working with a content marketing coach, journalist or ghostwriter to help identify your objective and shape your story. Writing a book is a rather hefty undertaking. Having a coach help to bring structure to your thoughts and flush out your voice can make the process more efficient. Writing a bad book takes just as long, if not longer, than writing a good one.

On a more positive note

To pay forward some positive karma, I’ve compiled a list of good finance books that I think have particularly effective storytelling elements. This list is voting-enabled, so please jump in a vote for your favorites, or add titles that I may have missed. Also, please add comments below to share your feedback on bad finance books.