Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Have Done List: March

Rather than writing a to-do list, here's a list of things I did do in March:
  • bought two seasons of Angel incredibly cheaply at the dump shop
  • discovered (and developed a crush on) The Big Bang Theory
  • used TV Gorge, before it folded
  • started a game of Bad Family on Google Wave
  • won poker (and 10 packets of Girl Guide biscuits)
  • entertained a three-year old with a talking rabbit
  • went body-surfing in Lyall Bay
  • drove up and back to Auckland
  • saw the Pixies perform Doolittle
  • drove around Auckland by myself

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Music: February

Neko Case @ Henry Fonda TheaterImage via Wikipedia

Pearce lent me Neko Case's album Blacklisted.

Stand-out track for me so far is Deep Red Bells, which is all haunting and yearning.

... Whoa: according to Wikipedia, Deep Red Bells is inspired by her memories of growing up in Seattle while the Green River Killer was still at large.

So, yeah maybe less yearning and more melancholy.

I'm in love with the drive and intensity of this new track from Massive Attack - Babel. Here's a live performance in Moscow

Fluxblog has been posting links to Animal Collective for a while, but I'm only now starting to really let their album, Merriweather Post Pavillion, sink in. My Girls is obviously awesome, but the track I get drawn back to is Summertime Clothes.

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Two changes to the blog

I've freshened up the look of the blog using the new Template Designer.

Also, you can now get to the blog via It only took me four years to realise that Openhost has a free option to redirect a url. No longer do I have to tell people to go to "multi hyphen dimensional dot blogspot dot com". Think of what I can do with all the time I'll be saving.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Made to Stick: Do you believe me? Am I Credible?

Cover of "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas S...Cover via Amazon

What makes someone believe an idea? In Made to Stick, the Heath brothers propose a variety of things that can make a message or an idea 'credible':
  • people we know and respect believe it
  • the idea matches our own experience
  • we're told it's true by an authority
  • we're told it's true by an anti-authority (see below)
  • we take it on faith
  • the message stands on its own merits and is inherently believable (it has 'internal credibility')
  • the message contains vivid details that make it easier to visualise the point you're making
  • statistics ... but ONLY IF they're phrased in human, everyday terms
  • you use an example that definitively proves the point you're making (aka 'The Sinatra Test')
  • the message challenges you to test the truth of it for yourself
It's worth going into more detail about a few of these sources of credibility.

Get the endorsement of an Anti-Authority

You can get someone to deliver your message who has personal experience with what you're saying. Someone who has lived through the experience your message is conveying, someone who's 'living proof' that what you're saying is true or works.

Someone like Pam Laffin, for instance.

We're all aware of ads that try to seem credible because they use a celebrity endorsement from someone we want to be like, or a fronted someone with a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness (or an actor dressed to symbolise honesty and trustworthiness). Sometimes a message is delivered by an expert (like an academic or a professional).

These are all forms of credibility because they use an 'authority' to present the message. But Pam Laffin started smoking when she was 10. She's an anti-authority; she has credibility because she's real. Or rather: had credibility. Pam died on 3 November 2000 at the age of 31.

Use vivid details
Weirdly enough, simply using a vivid detail or two can make your message more believable. But these details need to be truthful, meaningful, and they need to add to your argument.

The Heath brothers cite a dance company who demonstrated how much they value diversity by letting people know that they had a 73 year old former mailman who danced with them.

Statistics (tend to make your eyes glaze over)

Statistics may sound impressive and seem like a good source of credibility, but they aren't particularly great at showing people what you mean.

I'm sure you can think of examples where people have quotes stats at you, and you've thought "These are just numbers," or "I don't understand what these numbers mean." I get baffled by stats all the time, primarily because it's hard to visualise these numbers mean in everyday, human terms.

But statistics are a good method of illustrating the relationships between things. If, rather than throwing numbers at your audience, you focus on describing that relationship in everyday, human terms you'll find people remember and understand your stats - which will make them more credible.

The Heath brothers illustrate this by quoting a series of statistics from Stephen Covey's book The 8th Habit, where a survey of employees in various companies revealed the following information:

+ Only 37 percent said they had a clear idea of what their organisation was trying to achieve and why
+ Only one in five employees said they were enthusiastic about their team's and their organisation's goals
+ Only one in five said they had a clear 'line of sight' between their daily work and their organisation's goals
+ Only 15 percent said they felt their organisation enabled them to fully execute their key goals
+ Only 20 percent said they fully trusted the organisation they worked for.

To me, that's a whole bunch of information that's pretty difficult to assimilate. So, instead, Stephen Covey provides an analogy that puts less emphasis on these numbers, and more on illustrating the relationships and meaning of those statistics using an everyday, easy-to-visualise concept:
If, say, a soccer team had these same scores, only 4 of the 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. Only 2 of the 11 would care. ... And all but 2 of the players would, in some way, be competing against their own team members rather than the opponent.
Statistics are a good source of internal credibility but they aren't inherently helpful. They're only helpful if we understand them in human, everyday terms (which helps us get an idea of their scale and context).

The Sinatra Test

"If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere."

-- New York, New York
(as sung by Frank Sinatra)

Passing the Sinatra Test is shorthand for saying that providing just one example is enough to establish your credibility (as long as it's the right example). For instance:

"I'm in charge of security at Fort Knox," means you can get a security job anywhere.

"Our company promptly and securely delivered the final Harry Potter book to every bookstore in America," means you can get any couriering job in America.

Test it yourself

You can challenge the person who's receiving your message to test it for themselves.

Made to Stick cites the example of the Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" ad. I'd heard about this for years, but never seen it till now. So, let's go back to the year 1984 and take a look:

The point here is that you can go into a fast-food store and test for yourself whether you're eating a bigger or smaller beef patty than you'd get at a rival store.

Figuring out a way of making it easy for your audience to establish that your message is credible for themselves, is a powerful source of credibility.

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

What's coming up

Hi. I'm changing the posting schedule of the blog again. Posts are going to appear once a week until my life calms down a bit.

I'm looking forward to the next few months on multi-dimensional. This series on Made to Stick is almost over, and once that's done I'll be doing two things:

1) Summarising all the books on story creation I've been reviewing over the last year into one big post - which will bring closure to the journey that started with my dissatisfaction with the way Presentation Zen covered this subject

2) I'm going to try applying the Made to Stick principles to a few topics. If you've got any messages you want to work on communicating better, I'd like to help - so I'm inviting you guys to offer up topics you'd like to cover and we'll work through them together.

I'm also going to start a new thing where I pitch some story ideas on the blog. I am sick of developing stories in total secrecy - partly because it makes it difficult to get the benefit of everybody's ideas, but mostly because of this: an effective story is one that people want to share with others, and I won't be able to tell if you want to share it with others unless I share it with you.

That'll probably start in May. In the meantime, that's enough blogging - I'm off to enjoy the sun!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Links of Interest: February

Here are some of my favourite links from last month on my Google Reader's shared list:

JP talks about the implications for National Standards (Part One, Part Two). A great consideration of what they might mean for students.

I investigated and got annoyed with Google Buzz. Here's how to disable it permanently.

Axe Cop! Written by a 5-year old. Illustrated by his dad.

Seth Godin talks about the importance of devising ideas that spread. Favourite post of the month.

The showrunner of Bones discusses what's involved in creating a show that millions of people watch. One lesson: reinforce mainstream cultural expectations.

Fred Hicks describes what's involved in building an online community, in a series of practical easy-to-apply steps.

And three links from January:

Alex Epstein at Complications Ensue points out that you can use non-fiction as the basis for a screenplay without needing to buy the rights to that piece of non-fiction. He contends that the process of creating your story will completely change the way the underlying facts are represented. Alex is not a lawyer (as far as I know) but his point makes me feel much more confident about where I can get my inspiration from. (Not sure how this applies to biographies, though.)

Seth Godin links to a MOMA exhibition of the works of Tim Burton, and observes the vast number of Burton's failed projects. Seth's conclusions: finish projects, get them out the door, and get on to the next project. Don't be afraid to fail.

Seth also speculates about the future of libraries, and proposes that they shift their focus from 'providing information' to training people in how to:

a) find and use information
b) connect with and lead others.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Made to Stick: Make it real; make it Concrete

Made to Stick is a book about what makes ideas memorable, and what makes people want to tell your ideas to other people. So far, Made to Stick has talked about making sure your ideas are:

+ simple
+ unexpected and surprising

The next quality it recommends is 'concreteness' - describing your idea as something you can see or something you can do. Make your idea vivid and easy to imagine.

For instance, compare these two goals.

Goal 1: We will build the best passenger jet in the world.

Goal 2: We will build a passenger jet that seats 131 passengers, can fly non-stop from Miami to New York City, and land on Runway 4-22 at La Guardia International Airport.

What's the difference between these two goals? What are the different things you still need to know after reading them? Imagining you're an aircraft engineer, what would your next action be after receiving those goals?

What are the benefits of concreteness?

Making something concrete means that everyone has the same clear idea of what to do. Concreteness improves your ability to co-ordinate people, and make sure they're all working in the same direction.

Also, when something is concrete, it gives us something to focus on – a symbol, a representation, a known environment we’re all familiar with. As an example of this, Made to Stick describes the creation of the Palm Pilot. When they were designing it, the creator of the company would carry around a block of wood that represented the finished Palm Pilot. He wanted to avoid the failing of previous attempts to build a handheld organiser, which he saw as the tendency to keep packing as many cool features as possible into the palm pilot. So when a tech would come up to him with a new idea and say “How about we add this?”, the company's creator would pull out his block of wood (which he carried with him everywhere) and ask where this new feature would fit.

How can you tell if something's concrete?

+ You can examine it with your senses
+ You can see someone doing it
+ You can talk about it with someone, using terms and concepts that are familiar to them
+ You can use an example to describe it.

The opposite of concrete

The opposite of concreteness is abstraction. We talk abstractly when we use buzzwords, professional jargon, and ideas and descriptions that don't have any relevance to the real world.

When something is abstract, it makes it harder to understand and remember an idea. Abstraction also encourages people to interpret your idea in different ways

Unfortunately, it's extremely easy for us to slip into describing things abstractly. I'm sure you can remember a time when you were explaining a subject you know a lot about to someone who knew very little, and you realised they weren't following you. When I do that, I often find that I've:

+ forgotten to explain an important piece of information, assuming they already know it
+ used a word that means a lot to me, but means nothing to a casual audience
+ summed up a complex idea in a pithy sentence, rather than explaining in step-by-step, real-world terms what I mean.

It’s easy to forget that we’re experts or knowledgeable in something, and we have to actively try and remember that the more expert we are, the less natural it is for us to talk like someone who knows nothing about the subject.

The upshot: if you're passionate and knowledgeable about a subject and you want other people to know about it or care about it, then you're going to have to get concrete.

How do you make something concrete?

Made to Stick recommends that you spend some time visualising your customers or the people you're trying to influence. The book uses the example of the Saddleback Church in California which seeks to recruit and convert people they call 'Saddleback Sam'. They describe Saddleback Sam as:

+ not currently attending a church and skeptical about organised religion
+ in his late 30s or early 40s
+ has (at least) a university degree
+ married with two children
+ happy in his job, and content with his life

In fact, the Saddleback Church goes into even more detail than this, but the point is that once you have a clear idea of who your customer is, you start to figure out what their needs are. What do they want? What don’t they want?

That helps you figure out what messages will appeal to them. You can make your ideas concrete in ways that meet their specific needs, and you can figure out the best ways to deliver your message. For instance, Saddleback Sam works hard and wants to spend time with his family, so tele-marketing to him at night is probably a very bad idea.

So now you're explaining your idea in a way that people can easily visualise. How do you make them believe you?

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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Games: February

Cover of "Cold Print"Cover of Cold Print

I took UnSpeakable, the HP Lovecraft supplement for InSpectres, for a test drive with my Tuesday night group. The results for the first part of the adventure have been spectacular. As a group, we've worked together to create a mood and I've gradually been putting the characters under more and more pressure. I'm quite proud of the sense of unease I've helped create, and of my description of the abomination that Jenni's character discovered in the bedroom.

The adventure situation was inspired by a Ramsay Campbell short story from Cold Print, called - I think - Voices on the Beach. Each of the characters had a relationship with a writer, Micah Brody, who lived in a beach house on the east coast of America and had recently written them a series of disturbing messages before disappearing. Into that mix, I threw a possibly racist sheriff (Micah and his brother, portrayed by one of the players, were African-American) and some non-Euclidean geometry. Based off the players succeeding in their investigation rolls, it became clear that an invasion from another universe was underway - with the beachhead being peoples' dreams.

UnSpeakable has a great narrative device built into its rules: the game can't end until one player's character has gone permanently insane. This encourages the person who's running the game (in this case, me) to really throw details and events into the story that unnerve, dismay and (ultimately) unleash madness into the universe. I took about a session and a half to get really comfortable with this but it was extremely late at night by the time we reached a point where the players were being confronted by a series of scenes of unspeakable madness on a regular basis - we had a player who had to catch the train home and I had begun to tread water with the stuff I was inventing. So we called it a night around the point that three of the characters had to burn down a church and euthanise a kindly chaplain in order to escape the horror, leaving the fourth (African-American) character to face the town's wrath.

Which left us totally disturbed without invoking the permanent insanity rule that'd mean one of the players would have to make their character start acting as the villain.

A group of us are beginning to organise a long run of Bliss Stage (my favourite game of the last 6 months). We met up after a series of emails to do some brainstorming about which teenage survivors in a ruined future version of Wellington we'd be playing and what the alien menace they'd be trying to defeat would look like. This brainstorming session was really interesting - for most of us, there were at least one or two other players we hadn't met before, and I could actually feel the trust being built between us as we learned to listen to each others' ideas, learned how to disagree with each other, and started learning how to talk through potentially difficult subject matter. One of the rules of Bliss Stage is that each session needs to begin with a bit of hanging out and connecting with each others' real lives before starting to play the game - that feels particularly wise in this situation.

We've created a nice tightly-wound situation where the teenagers are living in the tunnels under Wrights Hill, trying to learn how to farm and starting to play the next (first?) steps in their war to drive off the aliens. First session is tomorrow night!

Read Over the Edge by Robin D. Laws. I have wanted to really study a copy of this ever since one slipped through my fingers when I was working at Mind Games. In reality, this game about Naked Lunch style conspiracies on a Mediterranean island would have been great when I was gaming in the 90s. Now it feels a little too ... full. Of setting details. Of rules details (which is odd for a legendarily light game). In all, an interesting read and a great step in the career of an excellent game designer.

Finally unlocked the second-to-last level of my cellphone poker game.

Tried to play the Flash version of the Torquemada game from Dice Man. Got irritated and quit when (a) my character accidentally killed his own wife, and (b) I realised I couldn't cheat.

Played, enjoyed, and gave up quickly on Scrambled - a great idea for a path-finding game where you guide a robot through a series of obstacles.
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Friday, March 05, 2010

Made to Stick: Using Suprise

To deliver your message successfully, you have to get the audience's attention and then hold the audience's attention. One way of doing this is through using surprise and the unexpected.

Unexpected ideas inspire us

In a speech to Congress in 1961, President Kennedy clearly summarised a new goal for America:

(Transcript, here.)

Kennedy's idea is huge, surprising, and (obviously) provoked reactions like "Is this worth it?", and "Why should we do it?" Kennedy clarified the reasons America needed to embark on this endeavour in a speech at Rich University in 1962.(*)

(*) Let's leave aside discussion of the real motivations for the Apollo project for now.

(Transcript, here.)

Get the audience's attention

You can get your audience's attention by surprising them. This works because we tend to think we're good at predicting what's going to happen next; we think we have a good understanding of the world around us. Surprise heppans wehn taht understanding fails us; when things occur that we don't expect.

After experiencing something unexpected, we then start paying extra special attention - trying to understand why we failed to predict what was going to happen (which is something I've hopefully just demonstrated).

Surprise means we've failed to predict what's going to happen, which causes us to pay attention so that we can make better predictions in the future.

So, how do you create surprise when you're trying to design and deviler a message?

In the previous post, I talked about identifying the core of your message. I used the example of 'time management', and narrowed my message down to the core of: Only do stuff that adds to you being the person you want to be.

To surprise people you need to explore what's counter-intuitive about your message's core. What are its unexpected implications? The authors of Made to Stick, the Heath brothers, have a nice turn of phrase about this: "Uncommon sense". Things that are common sense are obvious, and therefore easy to ignore (because we'll have guessed what's coming and won't be surprised). It's the part of your message that makes uncommon sense that will "break your audience's guessing machine".

In an attempt to illustrate, I will try and figure out what's counter-intuitive about "Only do stuff that adds to you being the person you want to be." I expect this will be reasonably hard - consider what's about to follow to be a bit of a brainstorm, rather than a final draft:

+ Without time management you'll never be happy
+ The person you want to be needs to be deliberately created
+ Creating yourself involves sculpting in time - paring away the bits that aren't you
+ Doing whatever you want is like junk food for your soul

I like that last one. I could think a bit harder and come up with more options, but let's go with that for now. So my counter-intuitive example is this:

Not using time management is much like eating a king-sized block of chocolate every day. Regularly eating junk food is a bad idea if you want to be healthy. In the same way, doing whatever you want, whenever you want, without thinking about it, tends to stuff your life with things you don't really want or need. And the end result is you don't end up with enough time to do the things you really want or need to do.

Hold the audience's attention

Curiousity comes from recognising that we have gaps in our knowledge. Apparently we have a psychological need to fill those gaps (as the number of morning tea conversations I have that involve me consulting Wikipedia will attest).

The process of raising audience's awareness that they have gaps in their knowledge leads to them wanting to stick around until you fill those gaps with answers, facts or stories.

Made to Stick outlines a bunch of ways you can create these gaps in your audience:

+ make them publically predict something which they get wrong
+ make them realise that they disagree about the topic with other audience members
+ provoke their interest with something unfamiliar
+ highlight their current knowledge and then point out some specific knowledge they're missing
+ make them realise they need your facts.

Made to Stick highlights a principle here that's also true in screenwriting: shift your mindset away from "What information do I want to convey?" to "What questions do I want them to ask?" People will stick around to find out the answers to questions that interest them, and (according to Made to Stick) they'll even stick around to find out the answers to questions that don't.
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Monday, March 01, 2010

Movies: February

'CoverCover of Marebito

I can tell February was busy because of the small number of movies I watched.

I got through the first third of Marebito, a J-scare from the director of The Grudge and Reincarnation. I actually ended up napping instead of watching, and still haven't gotten to the point where the story actually kicks off ... I'll probably go back to it and give it another 10 minutes, but so far it seems less solid and more pretentious than Reincarnation.

Doctor Who: The End of Time (Part 1) was a nice 'moving the pieces into place' episode with a great scary kick at the end of the episode that absolutely makes me go "What the hell is the Doctor going to do?" *and* may give me some closure on Donna Noble.

Doctor Who: The End of Time (Part 2) made me cry. An effective payoff to the "He will knock four times" set-up, and a series of scenes that provided closure on a number of Russell T Davies plots. This part was less about the plot and more about the emotions, and I choked up as David Tennant finished his run. I think I'll miss his Doctor about as much as I miss Tom Baker's.

Started watching my favourite film, The Insider, but had to go do something else. Even watching the first 20 minutes though has reminded me how good this script is. An expanded review is definitely coming.
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A Nightmare on Elm Street played like a sit-com to me. The last half hour of this movie consists of idiot cops and ultra-violent pratfalls as Freddy Kruger falls victim to a series of booby-traps that Nancy has set up in her home. An odd, hilarious movie.