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October 27, 2005

Business Poeple Speaking Like Idiots

Today I went to a talk at Microsoft by Chelsea Hardaway and Brian Fugere, authors of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots.

The basic thrust of the book is that people in business engage in all kinds of nonsense talk about synergy and positive re-energizing and cross-group harmonicas and the like. Hardaway and Fugere are out on the road hawking their book, but they decided to take the opportunity to tell Microsoft what it needed to do to "get to the next level". This was perhaps the first warning sign, that the authors of a book about eliminating lame-o business-speak would use the content-sparse phrase "get to the next level".

Still the talk started out encouragingly with the claim that what Microsoft was missing was "personality", which caused us to fall into the "anonymity trap". OK so why are we lacking in personality? Well, it seems that Google has those cool logo mashups, and Apple has nice packaging for their products. Microsoft doesn't have this stuff, so we are doomed to run in place. Plus Apple put Rosa Parks up on their homepage when she died, and would Microsoft ever do that?

OK, the Google logos are cool. I even believe Brian's claim that he uses Google as his search engine solely because of them, but that's considering the source. And Apple does have cool packaging, and they happened to have already used a photo of Rosa Parks on a bus in their "Think Different" campaign, so it made sense to post it on their homepage when she died. But does this really mean that these companies have a fundamental "personality" that Microsoft lacks?

It's funny because at first Fugere was making some sense. He talked about the book A Whole New Mind and how people are affluent enough that they can start looking for notions like meaning, beauty, experience, story, uniqueness, authenticity, and humanity when they buy things. Examples are the Michael Graves toilet brush and Starbucks coffee. OK, that makes some sense. Then he claimed that Microsoft should switch from left-brain analysis/data/logic thinking to right-brain persuasion/narrative/empathy thinking. Sure. Take off the propellors and put on berets, I can buy that. It seemed like this presentation might be the start of something big at Microsoft.

But his examples were terrible. For example he doesn't like our "dinosaur" ads for Office. OK, so he doesn't like them...that's one person's opinion! Someone pointed out that the ads were tested and he groaned (metaphorically anyway) and explained that if we had the right personality we would not need to test our ads, they would just come out right...basically if we ran everything by him first, we'd be good to go.

Then he showed the press release about our recent reorg and said he would bet all the money in his wallet ($183, to be precise) that the executives had not written that. This might be good theater but I actually think the executives DO write those things--the problem, if there is one, is that they either feel the need or have the natural inclination to write them in bland corporate language (someone else was kind enough to raise their hand and say it looked like people who wrote that way did pretty well for themselves at the company, so maybe we should all be learning to talk like that?).

But where he really made no sense was when someone asked about bloggers. He talked about how you should talk in a natural voice, not be so formal, have a personality. Individual employees should try to stand out from the crowd. Chelsea even quoted from The Cluetrain Manifesto...and then someone asked what he thought of Microsoft bloggers and his response was that Robert Scoble was "crap" and he couldn't believe we paid him to criticize the company (Scoble picked up on this; don't worry, Robert, they don't have a clue). So I was like WTF? First of all he obviously hasn't grokked Scoble, but more importantly he wants all that debate to go on internally and the external stuff should be focused on helping customers only. So scratch all the stuff with personality and a natural voice...at this point I raised my hand to challenge him but it seemed like he had lost the audience anyway, so I figured why bother.

Despite this I think the book itself--ignoring the random opinion on Microsoft that occupied most of the talk--looks interesting. They pointed out that Microsoft's site is full of SGPs (Stupid Generic Photos) which is true. Our recruiting site--key for the future--looks bland and uninviting compared to some other companies. The book probably has other good ideas in it. So maybe buy the book, but skip the talk.

Posted by AdamBa at October 27, 2005 09:43 PM

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Very interesting points. Here is what I am wondering, just because he is "publishe" doesn't mean he has anything of substance to say. Peronality is a subjective issue that can be hard to measure. That being said, MS unlike other firms has plenty of personality and character.
Believe me when I say that, in the Small Business World, MS is the hero. Without their exponential development, small business would not enjoy such technologically advanced position.

Posted by: Kamyar Shahmohammadi at October 28, 2005 11:20 AM

So you don't like his Scoble comment... whatever. But your whole post shows that you don't understand the idea of personality at all.

Sorry, but Google and Apple don't just have a good illustrator and rights to a black and white photo. They are driven to express a personality and do so.

Microsoft tries to assimilate a personality by copying other companies' successful advertising.

And I don't care if some people in Microsoft who do like the dinosaur ads or if they were tested, I have tested people and they are universally reviled as demeaning. For 2 months I asked random people on BART platforms, what they thought of them. The general and number #1: "They're calling me a dinosaur? It's their software that sucks! They aren't going to get me to upgrade to a product with cheezy task panes (that still have the bugs) by insulting me?"

If they were tested, these lecturers are right: fire your ad agency.

Additionally, I see his point: Scoble has been doing little to challenge the company of late. Many of us view him as a shill. Not a free-speaking voice. Scoble loses credibility everyday he claims he's willing to criticize Microsoft but ignores obvious and significant issues like the attempt to thwart rival software from media players and the threat of pulling out of South Korea. The outside criticizes you much better than you guys do for yourself. ...Unfortunately, you still don't seem to listen or get it.

Posted by: Goebbels at October 28, 2005 11:57 AM

It sounds like the authors took a left turn at communication and went into product design during their talk. Some of our stuff has great personality. Using OneNote rocks. On the other hand, I sure hope the SQL server folks are more concerned about availability and reliability than personality.

Perhaps a more useful exercise is to get at why consumer's like 'personality'. Donald Norman's 2004 book "Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things." does a good job of explaining the issue so an engineer can understand. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0465051359/102-0734431-4704937?v=glance

It's not as a good as "The Design of Everyday things", and the last half of the book wanders off. However, the first part can give a framework to understand why people enjoy design that has personality, and what it takes to create those designs. It also may shed some light on where Chelsea Hardaway and Brian Fugere were coming from, with their Google, and Apple examples.

As for their Scoble comments ... did they confuse him with mini-microsoft? Perhaps I missed it, but I just don't see the problem they do.

Posted by: Steve Steiner at October 28, 2005 04:59 PM

G: I undertand the value of personality. As he started talking about it I got excited. But I did not think his examples were convincing, and then the part about Scoble turned me off.

But personality certainly is important. How much of a role did Solitaire play in the success of Windows...more than you might think.

SS: No, he was talking about Scoble...but I don't know where he got the idea that Scoble spends his time criticizing the company.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at October 28, 2005 08:35 PM

'people' ;-)

Posted by: at October 28, 2005 08:46 PM

One things for certain, its sparked off a barrage of debates on some of the internal DL's - which is always a great thing.

Posted by: anonymouse at October 29, 2005 12:03 PM

This one of the best Google logo maker that i have seen in the web: http://googlefor.com

This site creates myown google Search page http://googlefor.com/Joseph.aspx

Create your own personal search engine!!

Posted by: Joseph at November 1, 2005 07:56 AM

It's never easy to hear criticism. "They don't get what we do!" Well, that's his complaint: if the personality of the company was adequately communicated, people *would* get what you do, and even get excited about it.

Aside from the MS bloggers, who really communicates the passion that, certainly, a large bunch of the internal team feel for their work?

I think the Bullfighters are right; the ad agency isn't doing it. This is why, in the general public's mind, they have a generally negative perception of Microsoft as a monopolist, the makers of things that BSOD on them, or require hourly security/antivirus/etc. updates. And in this dinosaur ad example, greedy, too.

It's simply a bad ad, chiding you for using an older app (which may work fine, esp. if you have an older computer, can't afford to upgrade, etc.) rather than focusing on the positives of upgrading.

Here's another example of personality. I don't think people associate the cool stuff - like Xbox, Microsoft PC peripherals (surprisingly well designed), or the up-and-coming IPTV with Microsoft, Ballmer or Gates. When was the last time Gates stopped a presentation to talk about a new optical trackball?

But Steve Jobs can devote a third of his keynote to the new Mighty Mouse, discuss the thinking that went into it, show it, give them away, and otherwise display passion about it that gets people rabidly talking about an otherwise only slightly innovative device! That's a seamless part of the Apple personality; they care about the little details. Microsoft prefers the Big Picture, the Road Ahead, and leaves the little details to others. But it's those details that matter!

Focus groups really tell you almost nothing of value; I'll reveal that to you right now. Anyone who asks for your money for focus group testing is planning a Caribbean vacation. All you need to do is ask the right questions of the right types of customers or users. In the case of software, it's simply iterate and test (using proper testing methodology, timed tasks, eye tracking, etc.) and improve.

Similarly, bland PR-speak is carefully crafted to say nothing. It is a comfortable noise that corporations make to get people to trust them, a kind of reflex mimicking of speech that sounds "business like" or contains buzzwords.

Trust me - the executives don't write it, they pay the marketing department or a PR firm to do it; they might ask for changes, and then sign off on it - but they have little to do with its actual creation. Having written a few thousand in my time, I feel I can say that with authority ;)

Posted by: aj at November 1, 2005 10:12 PM