Communication is one of the most critical skills for any employee, manager, or executive. Yet, despite its importance, few executives write with clarity and boldness. On this episode, top industry analyst and author, Josh Bernoff, shares his secrets for great executive and marketing writing.
Josh has been a professional writer since 1982. He has co-authored three books on business strategy, including Groundswell, which was a bestseller. And he is passionate about clear, brief, fascinating communication.
For 20 years at Forrester Research, he wrote and edited reports on the future of technology. He learned to do kickass analysis of business strategy, then taught others to do so. In his last five years there, as Senior Vice President, Idea Development, he identified, developed, and promoted Forrester’s most powerful and influential ideas. He gave hundreds of speeches around the world, got quoted in every news source you can name, and gave strategy advice to countless clients from the world’s largest companies and tech vendors. Josh Bernoff also created Technographics, the segmentation that launched Forrester’s highly successful consumer survey business.
At Forrester he edited two books by other analysts: Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business (New Harvest/HMH, 2012) by Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine and Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation (Amazon Publishing, 2013) by James McQuivey.
Before Forrester Josh Bernoff spent 14 years in technology startups writing everything from product definitions to online tutorials to press releases. He studied mathematics in the Ph.D. program at MIT and was a National Science Foundation fellow.
Josh Bernoff is also the CEO of wellnesscampaign.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to the pursuit of wellness through changing habits. He likes recreational biking and cracking wise in front of audiences.
Writing without Bullshit, with Josh Bernoff, Author and Analyst, Without Bullshit
Welcome to episode number 175 of CXOTalk. I’m Michael Krigsman and you know in technology seems, well, seems really tough sometimes and today we’re going to be talking about writing without bullshit.
(00:24) I’m talking with Josh Bernoff who was one of the top industry analysts in the world working at Forrester Research before he left. And I should say he wrote bestselling books. So he left Forrester Research and he recently published a book called Without Bullshit. His company is called Without Bullshit and the book is Writing Without Bullshit, and so today we’re going to be talking about writing and communication without bullshit. Josh Bernoff how are you
(00:54) I’m doing great. It’s great to be on the program here.
(00:56) Hey thank you so much. So Josh, tell us about your background and most importantly tell us about your new book.
(01:04) Okay, so I spent 14 years in the startup scene here in Boston. And after that I joined Forrester Research 20 years ago and was an analyst there for 20 years, and what a great place that was to be able to learn about how to really understand what was going on in the technology world, and how to analyze things with an incisive and unbiased perspective.
(01:35) And also as I got near to the end of that time, I realized that not only had I accomplished most of what I set out to do including writing some books as you mentioned, I said I need to do something different. And I looked around me and realized that everywhere in corporate America, in press releases, and the way people communicate in email that we are surrounded by this tide of bullshit of meaningless communication. And there’s so much of it that we don’t even realize that it’s happening.
(02:07) So I decided to set my goal after I left Forrester to be to rid the world of bullshit or at least explain how to communicate appropriately without bullshit. And that was the origin of the book. You said it was published. It will actually be coming out in September, but I have a pre-release version right here, Writing Without Bullshit and that’ll becoming out from Harper Business in September of this year.
(02:33) So Josh I guess if we get right to the heart of the matter what do you mean by bullshit in this context? What is writing with bullshit?
(02:47) Well obviously people have a colloquial perspective on what bullshit means. There is actually a guy named Harry Frankford, a philosopher who wrote a little book called On Bullshit, where he tried to define it.
(03:00) But my definition is very precise; bullshit is the opposite of meaning. So if you look at a piece of communication, say a press release. Everything that actually means something is content. And everything else, the jargon, the passive voice evasion, all of the buzz words, the weasel words, the superlatives that don’t mean anything, all of that is just meaningless blather. That’s what I mean by bullshit.
(03:29) And when I talk about writing without bullshit, what I basically mean is we’re in a world now where people read everything on a screen; on a computer screen, on a mobile phone screen. They’re surrounded with information at all times. And unless your communication; your email, your press release, unless what you write is extremely pointed, gets to the point quickly and spends every bit of all of the words you’ve got explaining something with meaning, then you’re wasting your effort.
(04:03) So you’re giving us a lot of information, and we’ll need to unpack it. But you said one thing. You said you spoke about weasel words, so what do you mean by that? What is that?
(04:17) Well weasel words are word that appear to intensify communication but actually don’t have a meaning. So let’s just say for example if I were to say, ’CXOTalk is an excellent programme’. Okay, well that’s a statement. You can agree with it or disagree with it.
(04:37) Now I’m going to say, ‘CXOTalk is a very extremely excellent programme.’ It sounds as if I’m intensifying what I’m saying but in fact because there is no metric associated with that, it’s actually weaker. And if you read a press release, things are always deeply improved, or vastly better than they were before, or you know really excellent, you know people are very concerned.
(05:12) And these words like ‘very’ and ‘deeply’, words like ‘billions’, lots of adverbs and adjectives don’t actually have any meaning. And I call them weasel words, because people use them to try and evade precision in what they’re doing.
(05:30) Just one other example here. People don’t like to make definitive statements like developers prefer to have independence. So they say things like, ‘Most developers usually and typically like to have independence.’ And by doing that you qualify the statement to the point of where it’s meaningless, and those exceptions, while they might make you feel better by covering your ass don’t actually communicate anything.
(05:58) Well isn’t there when you use superlatives isn’t there an emotional communication that you’re making with the person who’s listening?
(06:09) You might think so, but one superlative might do that for you, 26 has exactly the opposite effect. And when you read a press release that’s just one superlative after another you just think its bullshit. A great example which I took apart on my blog was the statement that Chipotle made after they had had the incidents of food poisoning at their restaurants.
(06:39) And it was full of these heartfelt adjectives of what they were going to do, but the more you read about how they were going with the most stringent programme in the industry and how deeply they were concerned, the more you said they’re just making it up; I can’t believe anything these guys say.
(07:00) But you know, it’s all nice what you’re saying but in our world there are lots of grey areas and few absolutes. So when you give the example of qualifying instead of making an absolute statement say, well most or typically, isn’t that a reflection of reality? So how do you deal with that, how do you deal with that reality?
(07:29) So you can’t get rid of every qualifier, that’s just the nature of things. But my recommendation in the book is that when you see these weasel words in what you’ve written, you have to go back and create precision.
(07:41) You can do it by putting in a statistic instead of saying, ‘Most developers prefer independence’, maybe you find out in the survey that 78% of them do.
(07:53) You can qualify things with some precision. You can say, ‘The older the developer is, the more likely it is that they are to prefer independence.’ Or you can say, ‘People in the financial services industry believe X or believe Y.’
(08:10) It’s these vague qualifications, and not just one or two but the piling up of them that results in vague communications that doesn’t have a precise meaning. I understand that precision is not possible at all times, but you pile this stuff up you just end with things that are meaningless.
(08:29) So is the lack of precision the key issue or one of the key issues here?
(08:37) I would say that there are a whole lot of key issues. My book has got 25 chapters in it and each chapter is very short, and that’s because this is a problem that’s very complex that’s made up of a bunch of simple pieces.
(08:52) So there’s three things that I would say contribute to bullshit in writing and if you remove them you’re much better. The weasel words which I talked about pass a voice which hides who’s responsible for things. And then jargon which makes it difficult for normal humans to understand what you’re saying.
(09:09) But beyond that people should have a focus on writing as short as possible. They need to frontload things so that the first thing that you see has the answer in it instead of slowly getting to the point. They need to use graphics appropriately. They need to use statistics appropriately. They need to add structure, bullets, and subheads to make things more skimmable. All of these things taken together will increase the meaning of a piece of prose even if you reduce the amount of words that it takes up.
(09:42) One of the challenges I know I speak with a lot of enterprise software companies and it seems that universally they suffer from these three points that you’re making. But in addition, they’re watching each other, and so for example if you look at many ERP companies, the marketing messages that they put out are more or less carbon copies roughly of each other, and there’s very little differentiation. And so what’s your take or analysis on that kind of situation.
(10:20) Well what you’re describing is not a failure of communication, but a failure of products. So if your product is the same of everybody else’s, then you’re going to have a problem as describing it as being better because it is exactly the same as everybody else’s.
(10:37) What’s interesting is in these technology markets, what happens when there’s a disruption. The disruption is usually because something very simple happens or becomes possible, and then you suddenly realize that all of the buzz word compliant, you know everybody the same as everybody else, stuff they were all competing in the wrong market.
(11:01) So when an Uber comes along it’s very simple to describe. You just go on this app and push a button and then a car arrives and it could be anyone driving it. But you know, he’s okay because he’s got a rating for other people. That’s east to describe, and the problem was with the taxi industry, not with the way the taxi industry described itself.
(11:23) If you look at companies that are powerful and direct, companies like Google and Apple, they communicate in powerful and direct ways that anybody can read and say, okay I understand what these guys are doing.
(11:37) And I know that you have analyzed those communications, so can you give an example of a company like Amazon or Google communicates in a direct way, and what are the takeaways for us so we can learn from them.
(11:54) So I love for example looking at mission statements and purpose statements. You go and look at how a company describes themselves, and if you look at Google’s mission statement they say that they’re there to make all the world’s information universally accessible, and anyone can understand that and that’s an extremely and powerful way to talk. And no one would say that Googles’ not a very sophisticated company. the sophistication is how they do it not in how they describe it.
(12:28) Another masterpiece of this communication was Tim Cook’s statement about not wanting to crack the iPhone on behalf of the justice department. That’s a very complex issue because they’re trying to explain, that in this one case it might make sense but you don’t want to create a precedent to have a backdoor, and if there is a back door nasty people will eventually get to it. And yet Tim Cook to that very convoluted situation and described it in powerful simple terms, even though what he was fighting was the perception that Apple is on the side of terrorists.
(13:06) Now you mentioned Amazon, Amazon is certainly they’re capable of clear communication when they need to. But these companies are often at their worst when the chips are down. And if you look for example at Amazon’s response to the New York Times article that described their workplace as being a sort of a hellhole that ground people into dust. His response was full of none statements and weasel words and generalities. And the reason is because he didn’t really want to get into it because obviously there’s a lot of truth to what the New York Times had found out.
(13:51)Shelly Lukas makes the comment on Twitter, she links all of this into trust, and I think that trust is such a key issue. She said can you connect this and link this back to trust for all of this.
(14:04) Yes of course I can. That’s central here and it’s interesting they bring that up because it’s not some point I’ve made explicitly in the book. But I think that when someone makes a statement and has a high density of meaning to you. When they say something that you can evaluate the truth of it like you know google will say that its pages will load instantly. Well, we all use Google and we can say do they? Well I guess they do, well I guess I can trust them but a least so far as that statement goes.
(14:41) The more buzz words and qualifiers you add into a statement, the harder it is to trust that company. And I want to point something out here, a lot of people have criticized passive voice, but I go a little bit deeper. The reason that people write in the passive voice is because they don’t want you to know whose is doing something.
(15:03) So when they say something like, ‘Our software has been evaluated by experts that determine to be the most cost efficient.’ Well the question of who evaluated it and how did they determine it that’s all been pushed to the side. And as these passive voice sentences pop-up in any series of statements, somewhere in the back of your mind you’re thinking how this is a liar I’m talking to here. They’re not actually telling the truth, and the reason is you can’t tell who’s actually is doing this stuff.
(15:35) So again it comes back down to precision and clarity. What happens if you want to have this precision, this clarity and you have a message but you don’t have all of the data and you want to get it out there what do you do? And you don’t want to use these weasel words, what do you do?
(15:57) Well there’s always something you can say. You limit yourself to saying the things that you actually can say and stand behind. And this is part of what I’ve seen. If you look at people who communicate clearly like the people at Virgin for example, they make a simple series of statements about things that are true and they don’t get into detail attempting to justify things that are bullshit and that’s I guess what I’d say.
(16:30) I want to bring this down to a very personal level for the kind of people who listen to this broadcast here. Think about your email inbox okay. When you get a statement from a colleague or a subordinate, where they’re attempting to justify something that happened, but they’re trying to soften it or misdirect you. It’s full of these sorts of deceptive statements, then it’s really easy for the person on the other end reading it to say, this person’s not honest. I can’t trust them.
(17:06) It is much better – especially if you have bad news to communicate to say listen, this is important, this happened. This is why it happened and this is what we’re doing to fix it. Now the manager who gets it is like, okay, yeah Bob made a mistake and at least he owned u to the mistake. I can see what the solution is and now my inbox is not full of this self-serving crap tha the other people are saying.
(17:32) So again the power comes from paring back to what you can actually prove or you can demonstrate. Is that another way of saying it?
(17:45) I’d say that the most important way to say it is to be direct. So I recommend strongly that people use words like ‘I’ and ‘We’ and ‘You’, not just in personal communications but in things like articles and blog posts that they write.
(18:03) Imagine if you wrote your press releases using ‘We’ and ‘You’ in it instead of this sort of made up third person wat of doing things. And infact that’s what Google does now is write their press releases direct from the management there.
(18:20) so that’s really what I’m trying to get across is that bold, direct, frontloaded communication is how you stand out in the workplace. And how the stuff that you write when other people read it they’re going to say, this persons different. This person is communicating in a direct way. I can trust this person. I am so refreshed that I’d like to work with someone like that.
(18:43) So again being direct and being bold leads very clearly to increasing trust.
(18:53) Yes that’s exactly right.
(18:58) You’re an analyst and been doing research for decades and you did some research about the level of frustration that readers have with poor communication.
(19:10) Yeah that’s right, this is going to be coming out in a few months, it’s called The State of Business Writing, and there’s some fascinating statistics in here. My favorite one is this. I asked people, so just so you know who we’re talking about here I surveyed 547 people who classified themselves as business writers. So this I not just people who wrote as their work but anyone who wrote at least two hours per week for work outside of email writing. So managers, analysts, all sorts of people were in there.
(19:51) One question that I asked the most interesting was that I said was, looking at everything that you read, how effective is the material that you read or write rate on a scale from one to 10. And when I asked people about the material they read, they rated the average effectiveness of what they read at 5.4 which is pathetic; right in the middle. But it’s fascinating to me when I said, how would you rate the material that you write they rated it as a 6.9. So they’re like the people in Lake Wobegon right, and all the children are above average. All the writers that I surveyed are clearer.
(20:33) And that persists. When I asked people, what’s the number one problem in the material that you read - too long; 65% said too long. What percentage said that the stuff that they write is too long, 45%.
(20:49) Very close on the heels of that poorly organized; the material that I read is poorly organized 65%, 16% said the material that they wrote was poorly organized. So I don’t know whose creating all this crappy stuff that they’re reading but obviously the people who took the survey think it’s not them and that’s actually the point here.
(21:07) And what is the kind of lesson take away from that?
(21:12) Well I asked a lot of processed questions. It’s clear the need for people to understand these problems, and when you look at the problems that other people have and the material that they read, those are the problems that you need to fix in your own writing, whether you recognize it or not, so that’s one takeaway.
(21:33) I also asked a bunch of process questions, and a lot of people agreed with the statement, that they get ahead in their career based on bold and clear writing. So they are believers in what I’m saying. Now I want to be clear, this is not an unbiased sample. These are people I found through my blog and other places that are more like they do agree with me. But when I asked people in particular about their process, one thing that people complained about was revision.
(22:10) So when I said do you have a process for getting feedback and managing it appropriately, only 34% of the people agreed with that statement. So one thing I’m definitely seeing is that it’s the revisions that come in the material that you write and then your ability to manage them, that’s really where a lot of the bullshit creeps in. and it’s a lot of last minute comments from people that contradict each other. You end up throwing it all in there, and you end up with a result that’s a lot crappier than it would have been otherwise.
(22:42) So you end up with a kind of jumble of perspectives but therefore having no direct point of view.
(22:50) That’s exactly right, and in the book there’s in addition to the specific advice about things like passive voice, writing shorter, and using numbers appropriately, there’s a section on process. People don’t understand how to prepare properly is something I very much learned as an analyst. Have to spend the first half of your time doing research, how to create a fat outline which is sort of like a treatment for what you’re going to write, which make it much easier for viewers to get an idea of what you’re going to write even before you’ve written it. And then how to allow appropriate time for revisions, and the key control of the soul of what you’ve written, even as the revision is coming in and dealing will all of your different reviewers.
(23:35) So one of the key challenges that’s facing many of the people who are in the audience today is there companies are undergoing some type of change, transformation in response to becoming digital. So we hear the terrible buzz word digital transformation which has come to mean almost nothing. But, whatever digital transformation means we know that it involves change, and many innovative leaders are or want to be change agents, and of course communication is a key part of that. And so what advice do you have to people who want to be a successful change agent from a communication standpoint?
(24:21) That’s a fascinating question. I think internal communication especially around change is a big challenge. I have some great examples of how to do that really badly in the book. My favorite is a Stephen Elop’s email, an 1100 word email. So Stephen Elop was the CEO of Nokia and then was in charge of the division and included Nokia when Microsoft acquired them.
(24:47) And he sent this very long email around about all of the priorities that they were going to have. and about three quarters of the way into the email they said, by the way we’re eliminating 12,500 positions. Holy crap! I mean come on. Talk about burying the lead.
(25:07) When I talk about managers communicating with tier staff, which I definitely describe the best ways to do that in there. The most important thing is to develop a regular caviness of communication, so that when the email comes in people aren’t shocked, it’s like ‘Oh God the boss sent an email. What’s it about?’
(25:28) No you know every month, every quarter, whenever the timing is you want people to say, okay there’s the message and I’m going to see what’s important. And it is inevitable that when a manger speaks to their employees that there will be buzz words, because every corporation has these buzz words that they need to rally around and if you don’t use them you get yourself in trouble with the management.
(25:50) But if you keep that to a minimum, and you communicate in a more direct way, you know, ‘Here’s the biggest challenge that we’ve got. Here are the milestones that we’re trying to head toward. This is what Sally did over here and that’s why that’s good. Over here in this department they’re having a challenge and this is how we’re going to solve that.’ That sort of direct no bullshit communication will go a long way towards getting the staff that you’ve got to actually understand the priorities and act on them.
(26:19) So Jill Rowley, who is one of the world’s top experts on social selling just commented on Twitter. She posted from your LinkedIn page, and your LinkedIn page says the following of your description “My name is Josh Bernoff and I hate bullshit. And after 40 years in academia and the corporate world I’ve had my fill. So have you. So now I’m going to do something about it on my blog and my upcoming book…” And so what have you done there and what can we learn?
(26:55) Well I’m obviously not the only person who is capable on clear communication. On the other hand if I don’t exemplify this myself well then I’m in big trouble. I want to point out a few things. I use the word ‘I’ and I use the word ‘You’. Now people have criticized me in the past for having a big ego, and they’re probably right. But you know the amount of ways that you use the word ‘I’ is not necessarily related to your ego. On a page that’s about me I’m allowed to use the word ‘I’. Let’s not fool anyone about who’s speaking here. I’ve been saying this is what I’ve done and I’m going to do it for you.
(27:35) I also use clear and simple words, and I speak directly to my audience, and in that case it’s people reading the LinkedIn page and presumably people would be interested in following my blog or reading my book.
(27:49) Every communication has an ‘I’ and a ‘You’. One of the things that I recommend as a sort of Rubric for doing this is what I call the ROAM method; four steps that you should do before writing anything significant to get yourself in the right frame of mind.
(28:09) The R is Readers, who’s your audience. The O is Objective, what are you trying to do, what is the change you’re trying to make in the minds of the people who are reading. The A is Action, what are they going to do as a result as when you read something and you say, well okay what am I supposed to do with that, that’s a failure. The M is Impression which doesn’t start with M but I needed to make the acronym work. The impression is what will they think of me after that’s done. And unless you have gone through that exercise of R-O-A-M for any piece of writing that you’re doing, you really don’t know who you’re talking to. You don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish and it’s going to fail because it doesn’t have a clear sort of perspective on what it’s trying to do.
(28:57) We have another comment or question from Arsalan Khan on Twitter, and he raises an interesting point. And he says, how do you strike the balance – he’s talking now about IT people, but I think this is very highly generalizable. How do you strike the balance of being direct and just being rude? Right if you’re too direct and you push people off and there’s no communication because they will simply turn and walk away from you.
(29:28) That’s absolutely true. I’m in favor of directness; I’m not in favor of rudeness. I got a question from a webinar I did. Someone said ‘Is please a weasel word?’ I’m like no, please is a wonderful word. It’s not a weasel word if you want someone to do something for you the word please is extremely helpful.
(29:53) And when you’re going to be direct with someone, that doesn’t mean you insult the personally. This is where you say, ‘I read that code you created. It sounds as if you put a lot of work into it. I think this is not going to accomplish the goal that we’re trying to accomplish, so here are three reasons why I think it has fallen short. Let’s look at this metric here, which we can agree is good and that will help us determine what we need to do next.’
(30:20) Now that is very different from ‘You’re a stupid idiot and you’re a failure’, which is not going to get you what you want. But in the cloud based environment which we all work, approaches to quality must obey the 6-sigma process – snore; I mean let’s get to what’s actually happening. And I think whether in the IT world where your communicating with people in person or virtually, you have to be polite but you can’t dance around the issues.
(30:54) I like that, be direct but not rude, and boy do we see a lot of rudeness online, a lot of Ad hominem in text as well as well. We have another question from Shelly Lucas who asks, will really good writers with clear original thinking and expression be devalues with AI and scaling content.
(31:20) I think the opposite is true. Let’s just take the contradiction of that. so if you believe the opposite of that what you’re saying is in a world in which AI can create content the way for human beings to standout is they do bullshit better. Now, I’m not going to agree with that!
(31:45) No, AI is capable of putting words together. It’s capable of putting ideas together. It’s capable of generating insights. That’s all great, but it is the human ability to see patterns that are not visible anywhere else that I think will continue to make humans stand apart.
(32:05) The other thing is that humans will be making the decisions. So if I’m communicating with you Michael and I’m trying to get something across, my ability to persuade you is likely to be better as a result of being direct, being human and using appropriate vocabulary, not dancing around things not using meaningless jargon and so on. So I don’t know, maybe there will come a time when AI can write better than me but I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.
(32:34) So let’s talk a little bit about the analyst business because you were an industry analyst for 20 year. You were one of the top analysts at Forrester Research and just in general and communication of course for an analyst, that’s an analyst in stock and trade, so what are the changes you’re seeing having worked for a large analyst firm and now being independent on your own out of the analyst business. What are the changes and going on in the analyst industry that you have observed?
(33:09) So let me start by talking about what I think the analyst business does well. And I want to be clear, there’s no way I could be in the position I’m in now without having been gone through the Forrester Research process and really having learned a lot of the things that I’m now sharing.
(33:08) the best parts of that are complete emphasis on facts. Objectivity is the watch word of the analyst, you may get it wrong but you can be certain they haven’t been bought by somebody. And expressing it in writing, if you’re an analyst that doesn’t count unless you’ve written it it in a report and I think that that’s positive. And those reports have gotten shorter over the years as people have become more impatient. So those are all positives.
(34:01) The challenges have to do with the industry. So the first challenge and believe me I lived through this over the last 20 year is to do with how do people get information. So if you want to find information, and you want answer to a question, the obvious thing you do is you go to Google and you search on it.
(34:21) And the quality of the answers that you get back there is highly variable, but an analyst company, a research company is basically saying, hey we have better research more high quality answers than you’ll get if you just go and look on the internet. And that I think has been a real challenge for the industry, and the whole is to continue to communicate that value.
(34:50)The part of the way that they react to that is to provide more personal interaction between analysts and vendors, between analysts and clients, and it is that give and take I think which is difficult to replace and certainly you can’t get that from a search engine.
(35:07) The other really challenging element is that it’s now possible for smart people to make a living in various ways without being part of a research company. And if you look at people like Jeremiah Owyang and Charlene Leave former colleagues of mine who have done very well on their own, there’s a definite path here for star analysts to go on and excel on their own. And that ability to retain talent is a challenge. Here in Massachusetts there’s none compete agreements with can help with that. but in California holding onto that sort of talent can be difficult for a research company.
(35:52) One of the challenges that many analyst firms have faced is the analyst firm wants to retain the brand equity in the name, but now there are many top analysts who are able to establish their own very strong brand identity. And from the analyst firm point of view that devalues their own brand and pulls the center of gravity away from them.
(36:20) It’s a problem in any industry with stars in it, and I said part of the value that the research companies create is the relationships between the individual analysts and the clients and the vendors well, those relationships are relationships that individuals have and you can’t say, oh yeah, you know so-an-so is a really valuable and important asset to Gartner. And then when they leave say no, no, no, we can just substitute somebody else in there, they’re all generic; you can’t have it both ways.
(36:59) I’ll tell you an interesting story. So when I was writing the book I got to this point that I got to in many things that I’ve written where I would normally go to Forrester’s very extensive survey research group and say, what do we have on the amount of time people send on mobile. Or, what do we have on the way that people will do mobile commerce. And that’s very expensive what a company like Forrester’s does to collect that data, but it’s extremely valuable in backing up a point that you’re making.
(37:38) And here I was out on my own, and I was like okay, what am I going to do I don’t have any data. So I said I wonder how hard this would be. So I started a survey. I wrote it myself because I know how to write surveys from having worked for a research company. I feed it to people on my blog; that wasn’t sufficient. I bought some advertising on Twitter and got some people to click through that way. I got some other people to post about it. and over a period of three months I got over 700 people who respond which 547 met my criteria. And then in terms of analyzing it you know, I had Survey Monkey and I could put things into spreadsheets and analyze them.
(38:24) So I sort of using very inexpensive tools I was able to get enough data to actually draw some conclusions. Now is that a statistically valid sample the way as far as Forrester’s technographic is? Absolutely not, but I got data and this is part of the challenge with just the tools that are available now and people can get stuff, it’s not as high quality as what they can get from quality research, but they can make a substitution like that.
(38:52) The quality is good enough for their purposes in other words.
(38:56) Well I think when I tell you that 65% of the people I surveyed said that the material they read is too long, you say, I think there’s something to that. Now if I did a statistically accurate survey of all business people who read things that would cost you know, $15,000 and maybe I’d find out that it’s 69%. But intuitively you say all right there’s something to that. And the fact that everyone thinks they write better than the stuff that they read I think that’s a real effect that would not be any different if you had a professional sample going on there.
(39:37) Josh we have about five minutes left, so in this final time, I know we’ve covered this but can you summarize your advice for powerful communication, and especially powerful communication for marketing purposes because that’s what a lot of people care about is that they want to sell more. So please kind of share your summation of your wisdom on this topic.
(40:08) So if you’re going to change things there has to be a reason to change them and here is your reason from me. the reason is that your audience is reading what you write on a screen, probably a smartphone screen or a computer screen, or tablet, and as a result they have much less a validity to concentrate. And your messages have to be extremely [powerful and efficient to punch through that.
(40:34) The bold, powerful communication that succeeds there is going to be short. It’s going to be frontloaded. That is the titles, and the first few sentences will carry much of what you’re trying to communicate. It’s going to be direct. You’re going to use the first person ‘I’ or ‘We’ speaking to ‘You’ and it will eliminate those elements of bullshit that I described; the passive voice, the weasel words, the jargon. Just cut through all of that crap and speak in a very direct way. And when you look at the communication that hit’s its target it tends to be written that way.
(41:09) So people should recognize they need to write differently to succeed in that online environment, and try and strip down and be more direct with their communication to do that. And that very much is what I dedicated the last year or two. A million people have now read my blog within the first 12 months. And that’s because it’s dedicated to that kind of direct no bullshit communication.
(41:30) So a million people have read your blog in the last month, and what takeaways do you have for all of us who want our blogposts to be read widely and want Twitter followers and so on?
(41:45) Okay, so let me just correct what you said. It was a million people within the last 12 months. If I get a million a month I’d be doing much better, but I’m not quite there yet. It’s more like 200,000 a month at this point.
(42:01) But for people who want to succeed with a blog, I mean I have a lot of advice on how to write blogposts. The headline has to be direct. Forget SEO; write something that says that people want to read. The first few sentences should say what’s in the blogpost because that’s what appears in Google search results. It’s what appears when somebody posts it on Facebook. and then you want to use graphics and subheads to make a direct a point that you possibly can.
(42:35) I guess the last thig I would say, and it’s interesting because if you look at my posts that have been so successful the one that by far was the most successful than any others was called 10 Top Writing Tips and the Psychology Behind Them and that was successful because it’s a really useful compact piece of information.
(42:56) All the rest of the ones that were really popular were based on news events. So when you read something that’s happening in the world and you say, oh I have something to say about that, write about it immediately and then you will rank higher on search results and people will share it. Luckily for me communicating about bullshit, there’s this thing going on called the 2016 presidential election. There is so much bullshit involved in politics, so there’s always opportunities for me to have commentary about how people communicate and what they’re really trying to say.
(43:34) Where’s the source of your traffic? Is the source of your traffic from word of mouth or from search engines?
(43:40) Some of it is from search engines. For example the top writing tips post is now number three on Google for writing tips, and that generates 200-300 views per day at this point. The piece I wrote recently about the worst slide in Mary Meaker’s internet trends presentation, that’s had a bout a week’s worth of continued visibility and I think it must be because people are searching on Mary Meaker worst and finding my stuff. But while that helps a lot of it comes from word of mouth, and in particular from viral spread or on Facebook or on Twitter and LinkedIn to a lesser extent but very much on Facebook. so when I have a lot of traffic it’s usually a result of people sharing things on Facebook.
(44:39) Okay, well we’re just about out of time and this has been a very interesting conversation. We’ve been talking with Josh Bernoff who was one of the top industry technology analysts in the world and he left and he recently wrote a book called Writing without Bullshit. Josh, thank you very much for being with us today.
(45:04) Thanks, it’s been great to be here and if people want to follow what I’m doing go to withoutbullshit dot com every day, every weekday I post on there and you’ll see all of my tips and research and analysis right there.
(45:17) And everyone you have been watching episode number 175 of CXOTalk, come back again next week and thanks a lot. Have a great weekend everybody. Bye bye.
Companies mentioned in today’s show:
Forrester Research www.forrester.com
Harper Business www.harperbusiness.com
The New York Times www.nytimes.com
Without Bullshit www.withoutbullshit.com
Preorder Writing without Bullshit: Writing Without Bullshit