Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Finding the Bottom Line

On the last night of the Imagine Cup[1] presentations, the judges gathered after each round to discuss what we saw, what was memorable, and what was missing.  We all took notes during the student talks and demos, and we asked as many questions as we could.  We wanted to be sure we understood the project details, why it would be successful, and what impact it would have. It was hard work, and very rewarding work.

Imagine Cup Winners, Lincoln Center, NY

An Idea in a Sentence

Between one of the early rounds, one of my fellow judges suggested asking the students if they could describe their core idea in one sentence.   We agreed.  During the Q&A for the next team, he posed the question, and got a long run-on sentence in reply.  It was not memorable.  Why is it so hard for the twitter generation to sum it up in a few words?

The Tag Line Game

During my consulting days, we developed and exercise to write a mission statement on a bumper sticker (the manual version of about half a tweet).  During the exercise, we called out memorable tag lines for products and asked the team to reply with the company name.  Here’s an updated version of the quiz for US readers to try; can you name the company?[2]

1) Think outside the bun.
2) Can you hear me now?
3) I'm lovin it!
4) Think.
5) Think Different!
6) Like a good neighbor...
7) 15 minutes can save you 15 percent ...
8) You’re in good hands with...

The interesting thing about this game is how quickly the group can name the company, and how fast the list grows with other memorable tag lines.  Can you say the same for your organization’s mission statement?

The Elevator Pitch

I recently learned of the Elevator Pitch Competition that a number of universities run.  If you search YouTube for that title, you’ll find a dozen entries.  The one that caught my eye was the 2010 Utah State winner, Josh Light.   In less than two minutes, he presents a clear and compelling business case, with the why, to whom, the how, and for how much. Brilliant!

What do you do…in seven words

A new LinkedIn group caught my eye the other day.  It asks members “What you do in exactly seven words.”   The answers are interesting:

“Helping senior executives to achieve more” (6 words),
“Develop strategy, realize benefits from outsourcing/off-shoring”
And the tongue-in-cheek stab at reductionism:
“Avoid summing myself up in seven words”

My friend and colleague James Mapes has an exercise where he asks his audience to list 15-20 qualities about themselves, and then cross off 5, then 5 more, until you are left with the one you value most.  This is less about reductionism than it is about gaining the focus of what is most important among the good.

The Umbrella Word

A few years before, another friend asked me “what’s your word?”
“My word?”
“Yes, your word.”
She said, if you had to choose a word under which you could talk about who you are, what you do and are passionate about, what would that word be?

I’ve told this story to a few colleagues and it was clear that the question is a provoking one.  Martha ran from the table saying “I need to go to the ladies room to think about it!”  When she came back, she sat down calmly and said “words.”  What I do is about “words,” finding out what people’s stories are.  She is owns an executive recruiting firm.

I wrote about this umbrella word exercise under a pen-name in 2007.  For me the word is connections, which you can read about in the article comments.

Strategy on a Page

IFRC is a writing culture.  In addition to the leading work we do on the ground and mobilizing communities of volunteers around the world, we produce thoughtful papers on ideas, research, case studies and strategy.  When I joined the organization, I sat down with my boss and outlined a series of “IT Think” papers to start the dialog about technology strategy. From that came a 30-page vision paper, and a 30 page strategic plan.  But when it came to engaging the senior management team, what caught on was a one-page summary of Q&A’s about the strategy.  It became my strategic flyer.

Tweet the Suggestion

Returning to the Imagine Cup, judges are asked to give the students written comments as part of the scoring.  This is an opportunity to tell the students how you think their presentation could improve. This form of coaching is one of the most important things we do. Student teams have come up to me later in the competition and asked "what did we do wrong?" "What was it the held us back from the next round?"  Some judges write paragraphs while others write a few lines.  In the early rounds, the judging captain needs to extract a few lines to pass on to the teams moving on to the next round.  It's a tough editing task in the early going.  18 teams move on to round two, and each have seen 4 judges. Do the math.

Software Design Judges, Imagine Cup 2011

Taking a cue from the web generation, our captain asked us to tweet him our best suggestion for each team. That helped. And it shows an important point that is memorable for students and judges alike: what's the most important thing you want your audience to remember? To act on? When you do this well, you both win.

[1] My 2011 Imagine Cup Blog entries start here: http://eghapp.blogspot
[2] The answers are,
1)       Think outside the bun.... Taco Bell
2)       Can you hear me now?.... Verizon
3)       I'm lovin it!.... McDonald's
4)       Think..... IBM
5)       Think Different!.... Apple
6)       Like a good neighbor.... State Farm
7)       15 minutes can save you 15 percent.... GEICO
8)       You’re in good hands with... Allstate

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

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