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December 2005
January 2006

2005-12-02 »

IBMese and People Hacking Revisited

The other day, talking to some people from IBM in Raleigh, I learned a bit about businessspeak. You know, the strange language involving "paradigm shifts" and "issues" and "core competencies" instead of the normal things that normal people talk about. I finally figured out what businessspeak is good for. Yes, I realize that I could be kicked off Advogato for saying that, but I'm going to tell you anyway.

As you might imagine, people from IBM know an awful lot about businessspeak. IBM is also massively rich, big, and powerful, so they're doing something that works, whatever it is. Here are some specific businessspeak lessons they taught me:

  1. (You've probably heard of this one.) There is no such thing as a "problem." Problems are bad. Some people would say there are "issues," but that's still a bit negative sounding. The proper term is "challenges." Everyone has challenges. And challenges are, of course, good. What would your job be like without challenges?

  2. (An impressive new discovery.) No product can be described as a "something something killer." This is only true after the something something has already been killed, at which time there's no real need to describe it that way. Instead, it can be a "something something fighter."

Why are these two examples interesting? Because I finally found the common theme: "non-arguability." I just made up that word, which in retrospect has about the same meaning as "non-controversial," but I didn't really understand what non-controversial really was until I thought of it this way. It's not that you don't argue with it because everyone agrees; it's that you can't argue with it because the person making the statement wins by default.

Try these:

  1. "You know, marketing this software to schoolchildren in Africa, who have neither computers nor electricity, is going to be a real challenge." Even if you think it's possible through some incredible new space-age technique, nobody's ever going to deny that it's a challenge. Conversely, "You're going to have problems selling this software to schoolchildren in Africa" is inviting someone to explain how no, really, it's possible, and it might be hard but it won't be a problem.

  2. "This thingy is going to be a real something something fighter!" The person saying that is only saying that your thingy is going to go up against the something something, which is always true in some respect; you're both in the same marketplace, and someone might buy one, the other, both, or neither. If they buy just one or the other, then I suppose one or the other won. Meanwhile, if you say, "This thingy is going to be a real something something killer!" you invite argument. Perhaps the something something will kill the thingy. Wouldn't you look silly then!

Okay, so why would you want to be non-controversial? Well, as an engineer, you wouldn't. That's why engineers who insist on calling their bugs "issues" drive me crazy. I'm sorry, but engineers don't gloss over problems: they state them as clearly as possible, and then they either solve the problem or agree that it's not worth solving.

But sales - and by extension, people hacking - is different. In that case, you're messing with someone's emotions with the goal of getting them to agree with you and eventually do something for you (eg. buy your stuff). And the biggest barrier to sales is (ironically?) defensiveness: the feeling that someone is trying to sell you something. Being non-controversial helps avoid making people defensive.

Here's where I'll add my own bit of spin. The most basic form of non-controversiality is the above: making all your statements more bland in order to keep the recipient from becoming defensive. The good news for salespeople is you actually can do this by memorizing a few simple words and techniques. Unfortunately, blandness also prevents your customers from becoming interested. In fact, controversy results in a lot of emotion, and emotion keeps people interested. Boring, neutral TV news shows don't get any viewers; controversial news shows on either end of the spectrum get lots of viewers.

So here's what you do. If you're really good at this, you can say only controversial things that the person listening will agree with instantly. You have to be really good to pull it off, because you need to really understand your listener. If you misread them and say the wrong thing, they get all defensive, and you're worse off than if they were only bored.

And then, if you're really really sneaky (or perhaps just dumb), you can do what I realized I've done for a long time: you can say mostly non-controversial things, then every now and then throw in a fake controversy. This is either something you can teach them about and they'll like in the end, or something that you can just turn out to be joking about. This is the "just seeing if you were listening!" technique, and used correctly, it can really make a difference in the interest level of your presentation, without causing defensiveness. NITIites who have seen my presentations will probably be able to remember some cases of this from me if they think back.

Now, if you agree with the things I've just said, see if you can find any instances of those techniques in the article I just wrote.

Travel Notes

After visiting Raleigh, NC, which smells nice, I now find myself in Portland, Oregon, home of the Transformers. Take that, mich!

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