Are You Using Tricolons in Your Rhetoric?

If you’re a presenter, or simply someone wanting to convey information in a memorable way, you have probably inadvertently or intentionally used the rule of three.  The rule of three is a teaching, writing or presenting device where a key concept is broken into three easy to remember pieces.  Does the rule of three apply to the fields of technology and business? Let’s dive a little deeper to find out.

By Don McCullough. Creative Commons. Courtesy of Flickr.
By Don McCullough. Creative Commons. Courtesy of Flickr.

Financial Times columnist Sam Leith offers executives a few hints on how to make business presentations and documents more interesting. He says that by using a rhetorical device called a “tricolon”, anyone looking to influence or persuade can make their ideas easier to consume and comprehend.

What’s a good example of a tricolon? How about Thomas Jefferson’s prose in the US Declaration of Independence where he writes; “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Notice the tricolon; “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and how easy is it forget the first part of the sentence and remember the second. Why is this?

Leith advances the concept that humans accept and retain information better when the Rule of Three is used.  “For reasons that remain neurologically obscure, the human mind adores things in groups of three: tricolons sound strong, memorable and coherent,” he says.

Tricolons are found in all types of rhetoric from political speeches to children’s books. Take a look at this gem in Quentin Blake’s Angelica Sprocket’s Pockets:

      “There’s a pocket for mice,”

      “and a pocket for cheese”

      “and a pocket for hankies in case anyone feels that they’re going to sneeze”

Here we have three pockets, but we mostly remember what is supposed to go in them, namely mice, cheese and hankies.

We can use this rhetorical device in our business presentations and messaging for better conclusions.  For example, most readers of this column know that I have marketing duties for Teradata Cloud.

While there are many compelling aspects of this particular solution,  I’ve boiled the ocean down to “fast, flexible and powerful”, where deployment in the cloud is faster than you’d expect, flexible enough to meet your needs for a little or a lot of analytic capability and powerful with the availability of three analytic engines. While it’s terribly tempting to create a longer checklist of all the benefits of this solution, I’ve intentionally limited myself to only three (and arguably even these require more refinement!).

Want to make your next presentation more compelling? And added effect of the tri-colon is that it can provide a rhythm to our discourse.  Rhythmically, we can use tricolons to break up the monotony of an otherwise bland presentation (especially ones that technology executives are prone to deliver!).

Going forward, let’s be sure to use more tricolons (i.e. Rule of Three) in our training materials, internal presentations, customer whitepapers, conference presentations and more. I’m pretty sure by doing so; we’ll end up much more interesting, memorable, and effective.

Real-Time Pricing Algorithms – For or Against Us?

In 2012, Cyber Monday sales climbed 30% over the previous year’s results. Indeed, Cyber Monday benefits both online retailers as they gain massive Christmas spend in one day, and consumers can shop at work or home and thus skip holiday crowds.

And yet, underneath the bustle of ringing “cyber cash registers”, a battle brews as retailers now can easily change prices, even by the second, using sophisticated algorithms to out-sell competitors. Consumers aren’t standing still though. They also have algorithmic tools available to help them determine the best prices.

Christmas ballLet’s say you are thinking about buying a big screen television from a major online retailer.  The price at 12 noon is $546.40, but you decide to go get some lunch to think about it. An hour later, you check back on that same item and now it’s priced at $547.50.  What gives?  Depending on your perspective, you’ll either end up being the beneficiary of algorithmic pricing models or the victim.

A Financial Times article notes the price of an Apple TV device sold by three major online retailers changed anywhere from 5-10% daily (both up and down) in late November. Some HDTVs changed prices by the hour.

These up to the minute changes are made possible by real time pricing algorithms that collect data from competitor websites and customer interactions on their own sites, and then make pricing adjustments based on inventory, margins, and competitive strategies.

An algorithm is really just a recipe if you will, codified into steps and executed at blinding speed by computers.  Thus, a pricing algorithm may be using inputs from competitor websites and other data sources, and then based on pre-defined logic, churn out a “price” that is then posted on a website. Typically this process is executed in seconds.

Thus, it is increasingly common –depending on the specific item, day, hour, or even minute—that prices of online items change in a moment’s notice. If keeping up with rapidly rising and falling prices seems like a shopper’s nightmare, you’re right. However, consumers also have tools to fight back.

The same FT article points out that some consumers are using websites such as Decide.com to determine the best if not the most “fair” price points. Using either Decide.com, or Decide’s convenient smartphone app, for an annual fee of $30, a consumer can access pricing predictions of items based on Decide’s predictive pricing algorithms.  Simply look up an item, and Decide.com gives its best prediction of when to buy an item and where.

Today, we take for granted that grocery store prices generally don’t change within the hour, and that prices at the gas pump (while sometimes changing intra-day) generally don’t change by the minute. As data collection processes move from overnight batch to near real time, expect more aggressive algorithmic pricing, coming to a grocer, gas pump—or theater near you!

Digital Design: Instagram and the Pursuit of Beautiful New Things

For some Silicon Valley companies, the mantra is: “Slap code together, design a quick user interface, and get it to market.” And above all, as Mark Zuckerberg would remind us, “Keep shipping.”

In the very near future, such talk will probably give Instagram founder Kevin Systrom heartburn. That’s because Systrom thinks designing software code should be an inspired effort, just like the delectable creations of top chefs around the world.

When it comes to digital products, the idea that form follows function is being tossed out the window. As a New York Timearticle describes, it’s no longer necessary to simply examine a digital device or application to discern what it does. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a sense of beauty and simplicity necessary for digital products. In fact, the goal for software engineers designing best-in-class digital products is to build instinctive and intuitive applications and devices.

Perhaps that’s why Kevin Systrom’s Instagram was worth one billion dollars to Facebook. As noted in a Financial Times article titled, “The Aesthete of Silicon Valley Who Makes Photos Beautiful,” Systrom is obsessed with building things that are inherently beautiful.  Systrom says great chefs who painstakingly labor over their creations and add high-quality ingredients despite potentially higher costs inspire him. “The things we’re creating solve a need,” he says, “but in the meantime, they should be visually stimulating and fun to interact with.”

An obsessive personality, Systrom would likely have been a better disciple of Steve Jobs rather than of his new boss, Mark Zuckerberg. “Kevin notices the details that most of us don’t notice,” says Clara Shih, a friend of Systrom. “He’s a slow walker and lets himself get distracted. He takes time not just to smell the roses but to analyze the roses and think about the detail.”

Technological advances are coming so fast that it takes us a long time to assimilate all the benefits of each product and service. For example, software companies are notorious for rolling out hundreds of new features in each release, only to have customers use very few.

As our digital lives get inevitably more complicated, there will be an insatiable customer requirement for simplicity and aesthetic beauty. And as user interfaces get more cluttered, clarity in purpose and design will drive market share (as Google can attest). Indeed, the elegance of a single search box—unencumbered by advertising—is one reason Google has the lion’s share of search requests.

Instead of focusing on additional features that users will probably never use, digital companies of all stripes perhaps should aim for a crisper design and greater ease of use.

Ultimately, making digital products easier to use takes a long time in discerning and studying user behaviors, capturing those learnings, and using them to design better and more intuitive devices and interfaces. However, much like how top culinary chefs take the time to use better ingredients and obsess over the tiniest details in presenting their creations, digital creators will need to endeavor to stress the small stuff.

For digital consumers, naturalness, comfort, and fit will matter more in the near future. And thoughtfulness in terms of design and ease of use will be the next generation of differentiation for digital companies.

Finally, there’s been a bit of stress for Instagram users now that Facebook has purchased the company. Despite Facebook saying it will run the company independently, plenty of users fret that Instagram will lose its touch. However, wouldn’t it be something if Systrom didn’t end up leaving Facebook after all and instead became the company’s Jonathan Ive? It could end up being a “magical” pairing.

What Placebos and Mexican Coke Teach Us about Customer Expectations

The power of placebos continues to confound the medical community. How is it possible in double blind clinical trials that sugar pills provide as good or better treatment results than actual medications?  A lot of it has to do human biology and how our brains perceive the benefits of a product or service – even before we use it.

Creating self-fulfilling prophecies first starts with understanding customer expectations. Dr. Gary Small, Director of UCLA’s Longevity Center and co-author of The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program cites research confirming how our brain neural circuitry drives our choices based on prior experience and expectations. The frontal lobe or “thinking brain” as it’s sometimes called seems to determine these perceptions he says.

What we expect to happen often actually does. And that’s why marketing is so darn important in identifying customer expectations and then designing a plan to deliver or exceed those very expectations.  Read Inc Magazine article

The Murky World of Paid Online Reviews

One sure fire method of garnering positive comments for your product or service is paying for online reviews. And with plenty of companies and services available to assist in this questionable strategy, there’s surely temptation to create an instant halo effect for new product launches. However, consumers are getting savvier in spotting fictitious reviews, and such an approach ultimately harms more than helps your brand.

Link to Inc Magazine

Has Personalized Filtering Gone Too Far?

In a world of plenty, algorithms may be our saving grace as they map, sort, reduce, recommend, and decide how airplanes fly, packages ship, and even who shows up first in online dating profiles. But in a world where algorithms increasingly determine what we see and don’t see, there’s danger of filtering gone too far.

The global economy may be a wreck, but data volumes keep advancing. In fact, there is so much information competing for our limited attention, companies are increasingly turning to compute power and algorithms to make sense of the madness.

The human brain has its own methods for dealing with information overload. For example, think about millions of daily input the human eye receives and how it transmits and coordinates information with our brain. A task as simple as stepping a shallow flight of stairs takes incredible information processing. Of course, not all received data points are relevant to the task of walking a stairwell, and thus the brain must decide which data to process and which to ignore. And with our visual systems bombarded with sensory input from the time we wake until we sleep, it’s amazing the brain can do it all.

But the brain can’t do it all—especially not with the onslaught of data and information exploding at exponential rates. We need what author Rick Bookstaber calls “artificial filters,” computers and algorithms to help sort through mountains of data and present the best options. These algorithms are programmed with decision logic to find needles in haystacks, ultimately presenting us with more relevant choices in an ocean of data abundance.

Algorithms are at work all around us. Google’s PageRank presents us relevant results—in real time—captured from web server farms across the globe. Match.com sorts through millions of profiles, seeking compatible profiles for subscribers. And Facebookshows us friends we should “like.”

But algorithmic programming can go too far. As humans are more and more inundated with information, there’s a danger in turning over too much “pre-cognitive” work to algorithms. When we have computers sort friends we would “like”, pick the most relevant advertisements or best travel deals, and choose ideal dating partners for us, there’s a danger in missing the completely unexpected discovery, or the most unlikely correlation of negative one. And even as algorithms “watch” and process our online behavior and learn what makes us tick, there’s still a high possibility that results presented will be far and away from what we might consider “the best choice.”

With a data flood approaching, there’s a temptation to let algorithms do more and more of our pre-processing cognitive work. And if we continue to let algorithms “sort and choose” for us – we should be extremely careful to understand who’s designing these algorithms and how they decide. Perhaps it’s cynical to suggest otherwise, but in regards to algorithms we should always ask ourselves, are we really getting the best choice, or getting the choice that someone or some company has ultimately designed for us?

Question:
*  Rick Bookstaber makes the case that personalized filters may ultimately reduce human freedom. He says, “If filtering is part of thinking, then taking over the filtering also takes over how we think.” Are there dangers in too much personalized filtering?

Shock and Awe: FDA Takes Wrong Approach to Influence Smokers

Will a picture of an autopsy or a bloody skull persuade smokers to stop puffing away? Governments around the world are convinced more obscene and graphic warnings are necessary to scare smokers away from their cigarettes. However, these efforts seem far and away from decision triggers that psychologists like Robert Cialdini might suggest.

What’s next for cigarette warning labels? It seems warnings from the U.S. Surgeon General haven’t been all that effective, and now the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) needs to “tell the truth” about cigarettes with offensive pictures of blackened teeth and tracheotomy patients on death’s door. And it gets worse in other countries, where governments have taken to shock and awe tactics of showing a baby’s corpse lying in a pile of cigarettes or bloody skulls to show that cigarettes may cause strokes.

These techniques add up to a bunch of hogwash, says Financial Times columnist Christopher Caldwell. He says these warning labels won’t educate anyone, and in fact, will do the opposite and scare people. “The pictures (on the cigarettes) are obscene and exploitative,” he says. “They show naked, vulnerable people to whom violence has been done.”

A quick review of Robert Cialdini’s Principles of Influence seems to support Caldwell’s points. When trying to gain compliance, Cialdini suggests using decision triggers of reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, scarcity and authority. While not all of these decision triggers may apply to the efforts of getting smokers to quit, there are definitely some that could work.

Take for example the principle of social proof. Cialdini writes in Influence that “social proof can be used to stimulate a person’s compliance with a request by informing the person that many other individuals are or have been complying with it.” So in this instance, instead of scare tactics, what if messaging was devised around how 80% of U.S. citizens don’t smoke? Or something along the lines of, “Just about everyone has quit smoking, you should too.”

The FT’s Christopher Caldwell worries that eventually these new scare images will lose their power to shock and then require even more graphic images. Are we traversing down a slippery slope? Marketers, weigh in, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Questions:
• Are smokers “uneducated” about dangers of lighting up? Will these new shocking photos have their intended effect?
• Caldwell argues that plenty of other things like sex and even driving could kill people. Do these products that support these activities deserve graphic warning labels, too?