When bored, work on something else

I don’t stare at blank sheets of paper. I don’t spend days and nights cudgeling a head that is empty of ideas. Instead, I simply leave the novel and go on to any of the dozen other projects that are on tap. I write an editorial, or an essay, or a short story, or work on one of my nonfiction books. By the time I’ve grown tired of these things, my mind has been able to do its proper work and fill up again. I return to my novel and find myself able to write easily once more. Isaac Asimov

This reminds of a Nassim Taleb idea on book reading: always be reading many, many books. If you get bored with one, just move to the other, and keep rotating.

Millions of words

When I was about nineteen, a professor in college sat me down once with a sad look on his face and said to me, almost like he was giving a cancer diagnosis, “You’re going to be a writer.” If you’re old enough to read this, you probably already know if this is your fate, too.The only rule is you have to write millions of words continuously until your death. If you have no problem with that, you’ll probably be fine. Conversely if you can imagine not doing that, you probably shouldn’t try to be a writer.

Source: Behind the Books with Matt Taibbi

Journaling at 750 words a morning

Hey, these little types of gimcracks are always fun:

Every morning, soon after waking, you must write 750 words—equivalent to about three full pages longhand. The idea is to start while your brain is too bleary to censor itself, so you can write more freely. In general, filling three pages takes about a half hour.

When asked if it’s really necessary to do Morning Pages by hand, Cameron says yes. She says the inconvenience of handwriting compared to typing is worth it because “we get a truer connection—to ourselves and our deepest thoughts—when we actually put pen to page.”

Morning Pages aren’t supposed to be high art, according to Cameron. You write whatever comes to you. You might grumble about the weather, confess to feeling nervous about a party that night or talk about how messy your living room is. Cameron says she wakes up grumpy and tired most days, so that’s how her Morning Pages start. Cameron writes about however she’s feeling, what she sees in front of her—nothing is too banal. And if her pages say “I’m tired and grumpy” when she starts each morning, that’s okay.

But Morning Pages also push you to go beyond the superficial, because three pages is a lot of blank space to fill. According to Cameron, “the second page-and-a-half comes harder, but often contains paydirt.”

Source: This simple morning ritual uses writing as a form of therapy and meditation

The media doesn’t know what they’re talking about w/r/t Yahoo, a study in i-banker rhetoric

The notion that some in the media – who usually have no specific knowledge about Yahoo – have recklessly put forward that Yahoo is “unfixable” and that it should be simply “chopped up” and handed over for nothing to private equity or strategies is insulting to all long-term public shareholders.

This presentation is an example of many things we discuss on Software Defined Talk around large, struggling companies and the way they’re covered. Among other rhetorical highlights:

  • Check out how they make their case
  • Use visuals and charts
  • The informal nature of their language, e.g., they use the word “stuff” frequently
  • Their citations, e.g., citing themselves (I always love a good “Source: Me!”) and citing “Google Images”

These things, in my view, are neither good or bad: I’m more interested in the study of the rhetoric which I find fascinating for investment banker documents/presentations like this.

Not only that, it’s a classic “Word doc accidentally printed in landscape.” The investment community can’t help themselves.

As another note, no need to be such a parenthetical dick, below, to prove the point of a poor M&A history, just let the outcomes speak for themselves, not the people who do them.

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They actually do a better job in the very next slide, but that kind to pettiness doesn’t really help their argument. (Their argument is: she’s acquiring her friends.)

This is a type of reverse halo effect: we assume that tree standing goofiness has something to do with the business: an ad hominem attack. But, I think most billionaires probably have picture of themselves in trees, wearing those silly glove shoes, roasting their own coffee, only eating meat they kill themselves, or any number of other affectations that have nothing to do with profit-making, good or bad.

In praise of “backup slides”

I knew that the creation of slides was important from a communication standpoint. However, it was only after being there for some time that I realized the importance of writing (and the creation of slides) for the analysis and thinking process. Each week we were producing decks to share with clients — however, I noticed that some of the slides we were creating never made into the client presentation. When I asked one of the partners on our project whether these slides were wasted work, he responded with what I would later hear from time to time as a McKinsey maxim: “Writing clarifies thinking.”

Sure, that’s a thing. You bet. And I think it frustrates people who don’t realize there’s a collaborative writing process going on when you’re “wasting time” on those “excess” slides. Or it’s just thrashing. That happens too and is built into the overall model that run the types of situations that most “decks” are created in.

Using writing to clarify your thinking is an excellent tool. As the author explains it can be helpful to just write purely for yourself to figure out what you’re thinking. I often do this for presentations, or after spending several days verbally spelunking through a complex problem. This written product can be especially useful in a group setting to basically say “so, is this what we all just agreed on?”

In praise of “backup slides”

Here’s a writing thing that I suspect a lot of people don’t know about me. Everything starts with a Zero Draft. Every comics script starts as a Notepad file. Notepad is raw and unformatted and gives me permission, frankly, to be shit. Everything in my head about the job can just be vomited into monospace type, where it cannot possibly be sent out as finished work. Once I’m empty, the file gets copypasted into OpenOffice, which is where I write comics scripts, and I can start arranging stuff and picking at it and seeing what’s wrong with it. Everything from that point happens in OpenOffice, and the process forces me to write two drafts of everything.

The return of story telling with splash of booze

“Tony is an incredibly strong storyteller—he tells stories through food and travel and a little alcohol mixed in,” says Zucker. “Really, that’s what CNN should be about. I learned as much about Israel and the Palestinians from Tony’s hour on Jerusalem as I did from any reporting that I’ve seen.”

I think there’s something magical in that statement. As the Boomers disappear into retirement and the next generation starts running things, I sure as shit hope that framing takes over media and “story telling.” That Cronkite-cum-PC, “everything is clean and tidy and yet culturally balances” has been stifling.

Which is to say: gonzo, hopefully it’s back.

The return of story telling with splash of booze

How to write an executive strategy memo

When you’re asked to write an executive memo, you need (to learn how) to be concise and to the point. When I was at Dell, working in strategy, I wrote many “executive memos.” One of the senior executives, including Michael, had a question about entering a market, buying a company, etc. and wanted our input on it. It was one of the more fun tasks we did, often in a quick half day, at most taking two days. If you strip away all the “politics” that can be layered into these memos (some executive wants you to advocate or shoot down an acquisition they like or don’t like), there’s a certain nicety to the format.

Preparation Process

Here’s the general process and format I general used (and still do when this comes up as an analyst).

Let’s say an executive asks you what they should do about software defined networking, SDN.

First, make sure you understand what they’re looking for. “Tell me about SDN” is shit request, get more details: “do you want to enter that market, buy a company, or what?” If you can’t get more clarity, assume they want to figure out how they can make money by “doing SDN” (either using it or selling it).

Second, research the topic and get lots of citations from third parties (like the us at 451 Research – our content is almost purpose built for this type of research). No one will trust (enough) what you think so you can’t do the old “Source: my brain” as a credible citation. It’s stupid, I know. Just live with it. Use these facts and figures (market-size and growth) in your memo and cite them.

Rough Outline

With that, plan a two to four page memo that follows this format, again using SDN as an example:

  1. What it is – define SDN, most importantly how it differs from alternatives (“hardware defined networking”?)

  2. A summary of what it means money-wise for the audience – usually this is sizing up the market and how “we can win” (read: make money) selling SDN. You want to dust of your Porter and beyond and figure out what assets you have as a company that will allow you to charge a premium price for the offering…or if it’s a bad idea, outline why you’re company will fail at it or that the risk is too high.

  3. The landscape, enemies & frenemies – What parties/vendors/etc. are involved that you’ll compete with, partner with, and maybe acquire one day.

  4. Suggested next steps, e.g., “sell SDN” or whatever – mostly an extended explanation of #2. (Also often included “do nothing, this is not profitable for us.”) Here you detail out the reasoning for #2. For example, in SDN, your company might have trust with a large enterprise customer base that would want SDN, you’re not beholden revenue wise to anti-SDN offers (no risk of self-cannibalizing), you can bring SDN to market at a lower price point than others, you can access different markets (with Dell, it was often “mid-market”) than SDN rivals can, etc.

Of course, if you wanted to be all orthodox Minto, you’d switch the order of #1 and #2 above.

Wingdings and emailing

Diagrams, charts, and other stuff are just icing on the cake. Also, when you email it, write a part that can put plunked into the email itself so people don’t actually have to open the attachment (yeah, your memo will probably be a Word doc). Most of your audience will skim your summary on their phone during some boring meeting, maybe opening the document then, and perhaps actually reading it later.

Cut out the teaching fluff

One last mental hack you have to do is cut out “throat clearing,” as Jason Snell puts it. In this context, the reader is not really interested in learning the subject to much, hearing the history, or anything that isn’t core to the question “is this a something I should be interested in business wise.” All that will come later if the memo leads to next steps.