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    A Review of Reviews

    Wednesday, January 14, 2015
    Read/Review

    As a buyer, how do you use customer reviews? As a businessperson, how do you feel about reviews of your own products?

    Personally, as both a buyer and a businessperson, I love customer reviews. They strike me as more valuable overall than professional reviews (and I say that as someone who wrote professional reviews during the 1990s).

    The Value to a Customer

    As a customer, I tend to browse the 1-star reviews first. My goal is to pinpoint potential deal breakers before I buy. It’s easy enough to skip the horribly written reviews, and the off-target ones—those that complain about the mail, or a particular retailer’s policy, or anything else not related to the product itself. (Consider these “25 One-Star Reviews People Actually Left For Famous Tourist Attractions.”) If I find a common theme about a particular product feature, however, I can decide before buying whether that feature applies to my own intended use.

    Next, I browse the 5-star reviews. In this case, I’m hoping to discover the very best features of a product. Again, it’s fairly easy to skip the thoughtlessly gushing reviews (which, frankly, are sometimes the work of shills). If a common theme about a particular feature is repeated, however, that’s something to consider in relation to my own expected use of the product.

    Lastly, if I haven’t yet made a purchasing decision, I spend some time in the 4-star reviews. These tend to be more well-thought-out and better expressed than the 1- and 5-star reviews. They’re also often longer, requiring more time to consider.

    In my experience, the 2- and 3-star reviews are generally too non-committal to be of much value. They don’t often reveal anything damning, nor do they offer much helpful advice. Frankly, I’m not sure why people bother posting them.

    The Value to a Businessperson

    As a businessperson, I have pretty much the same feelings about reviews of products I’m involved in. Those 1-star reviews aren’t threatening, because they so often disqualify themselves from serious consideration by the quality of their writing. But if many of them point to a similar disappointment, that’s something worth considering in future production of the product. Similarly, the 5-star reviews are valuable only if they point out a common praise. The 4-star reviews tend to be what I learn most from, and any 2- and 3-star reviews are of dubious value.

    Let me add that I generally think a large body of reviews averaging 4 stars is more valid and convincing than just a few, glowing 5-star reviews. It’s better to have an honest debate among customers than just a few devoted fans.

    The Trouble with Professional Reviews

    Think about “At the Movies” with Siskel and Ebert, or Ebert and Roeper. How often did these reviewers agree? Sure, watching them could be entertaining, but how much did it affect your choice of films to view?

    Again, speaking as a former professional critic, I’d suggest that these sorts of reviews are more concerned with art than pragmatism. Professional reviewers tend to be people with strong opinions about a subject. Those opinions often color their reviews, leading them to write about how they wish something had been, rather than actually evaluating the thing as it is. As Mignon McLaughlin put it, in The Neurotic's Notebook, “A critic can only review the book he has read, not the one which the writer wrote.”

    This is why even on a review site like CNET, I’m prone to weigh the “User Reviews” more heavily than the “Editors’ Take.” Frankly, users spend more time with a product than professionals can, which means they learn its “ins and outs” more thoroughly.

    Next Up, How to Write a Review

    The one advantage professional reviewers have over the average customer is writing experience. That need not be a problem for customer reviewers, however. Watch for our next blog post, in which we lay out a tried-and-true formula for quickly putting together your own most helpful product reviews.

    —Lester Smith

    The Geometry of Communication

    Monday, December 22, 2014
    Red Pyramid

    At its core, any communication has three main elements: sender, subject, and receiver. (Issues of medium and context also affect communication, but let’s focus on those central three for now.) This is sometimes referred to as the “Communication Triangle.” 

    As sender, you’re trying to get something from inside your head into another person’s. That “something” is the subject, and that other person is the receiver.

    As simple as this may seem, it’s worth some scrutiny, because any of those three elements can introduce fuzziness into the equation.

    Sender

    Let’s face it, if human beings fully understood themselves, less miscommunication would occur. Our wants and assumptions aren’t always clear even to our own minds. Writing to ourselves can help to shed some light, which is why some people keep diaries or journals, and why other people blog. Even talking out loud when no one else is around can help. This is also why we draft a message before polishing and sending it: a draft is a rough picture, helping us to better envision the whole. Simply put, we can write to learn what it is we want to say.

    Message

    Working out a draft touches on the next part of the triangle, the message. Frankly, trying to write about an unfamiliar topic is tough. Studies have shown that even college English professors writing about topics outside their field experience decreased accuracy in grammar and spelling. Their minds are so occupied grappling with the subject that there’s not enough brain power left over for correct language. Again, writing in stages can help, starting with a rough draft, then polishing it, before final editing. That process also reveals any gaps in our knowledge of the topic, which makes this a valuable part of a research process. In other words, we can write to discover what we know and have yet to learn.

    Receiver

    Psychologists say that most human brains don’t develop the ability to step outside their own perspective and into someone else’s until about age twenty-five. That complicates communication. Until we can imagine someone else’s reaction to a message, we can’t craft it to their needs. So everything we say is all push, sending information outward in terms we understand and relying on the other person to translate and comprehend. On the other hand, once we can actually imagine an audience and predict its responses, we can better tailor a message to their words and their understanding. It’s the difference between a pointing finger and a beckoning finger.

    Achieving Balance

    A balanced triangle is one of the most stable shapes in existence. (Which is why the pyramids, Old World and New World, are among the oldest surviving structures.) By paying careful attention to each part of the communication triangle—our desires as sender, our understanding of the message, and the needs of the receiver—we can use best achieve this balance in our writing.

    —Lester Smith

    Message in a Bottle

    Wednesday, December 10, 2014

    "cf_message_in_a_Bottle" photo by Tony Persunis licensed under CC BY 2.0 and has been cropped.

    This weekend my daughter who teaches English in Belgium told me about a conversation with a student, which went something like this:

    Student: “You like to write, don’t you.”

    Daughter: “How did you know that?”

    Student: “Oh, you’d be surprised what someone can discover on the Internet. [Laughs.] I read your blog, and was especially touched by the entry about…” That led to further discussion, and a warm human connection.

    The exchange made me think about why anybody writes anything, from blog entries, to advertising copy, to business plans. It isn’t merely to express ourselves, but rather to reach out for a connection.

    To illustrate, let me turn to the 1979 song by The Police, “Message in a Bottle,” with these lines of the chorus:

    I'll send an SOS to the world…

    I hope that someone gets my

    Message in a bottle

    and these first lines of the third verse:   

    Walked out this morning

    Don't believe what I saw

    A hundred billion bottles

    Washed up on the shore

    The point of the song, according to its author, is the comfort of recognizing that we’re all alike in trying to connect—to communicate.

    I believe there’s a deeper lesson to be learned. It has to do with intent.

    In the chorus of the song “Message in a Bottle,” the intent is inward focused. It’s all about “Hey, look at me.” However, in the third verse, the focus becomes outward focused. It’s the sudden realization of “Hey, look at all of you.”

    If the flood of media gushing from the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that “Hey, look at me” doesn’t accomplish much. It’s just more noise.

    “Here’s something for you,” on the other hand, accomplishes a lot. Metaphorically speaking, a sea full of bottles with the same “Here I am” messages is unremarkable, especially to another castaway. But imagine opening a bottle and finding a recipe for coconut soup, or instructions for building a raft and navigating back home, or even just a note saying “I know you feel alone, but we’re all in this together.”

    The point is this: To really stand out, be helpful. When the rescue ships sail, they’ll look for the person with the coconut soup recipe first.

    —Lester Smith

    How to Write About Big Data

    Wednesday, March 26, 2014

    Big data is big business.

    Major industries—from health care, to energy, to retail—shell out billions of dollars for data collection and analysis.

    If information is the “new oil,” then reserves are booming. Amazingly, 80 percent of the world’s data was generated in the last two years alone.

    Distilling such a massive volume of numbers into meaningful and actionable chunks is a formidable challenge, one that this humble blogger will leave to statisticians and data scientists.

    But big data presents a unique challenge to communications professionals, too. For collecting and analyzing big data is one thing. Communicating what it means is an entirely different undertaking.

    Data is the centerpiece of much workplace communication, including annual reports, market analyses, executive summaries, and other correspondence. All these forms share something in common: they will be read by a mostly non-technical audience. Yet this same audience may include stakeholders who have to make important decisions and take actions based on the data.

    When reporting data, your goal is twofold: (1) Make the data “digestible” and (2) explain its significance. Your communications should focus less on the method of analysis and more on the big-picture results. Accuracy and clarity are paramount.

    Organize for Clarity

    Your data-based writing can achieve clarity by focusing on one main idea.  Following a three-part organizational pattern similar to SEA will help you develop this idea. This method states the main idea first, follows with details to support it, and ends by calling the reader to action.

    When writing about data, use a similar three-part structure:

    • Opening: Introduce the main idea. The main idea is the “big idea,” or insight, that comes from the data. The idea could be an emerging trend, a data-based prediction, a meaningful comparison, a consequential outlier, or something else of value. You should be able to state the idea in a single sentence.
    • Middle: Support the main idea with data. You can do so by pointing out high and low points, changes over time, and other pertinent numbers. If you include tables or graphics, make sure to explain what they mean.
    • Closing: Restate the main idea to show how it impacts your audience. If appropriate, make recommendations based on the data.   

    For more complex data analysis, secondary results may need reporting. Highlight these in the middle part with separate supporting paragraphs for each new insight. These paragraphs should follow a modified version of the three-part structure: 1) Begin by identifying the insight; 2) support the insight with data; and 3) close with a conclusion based on the insight.

    The middle part is also where you should report and respond to any data that differs from or contradicts your main idea.

    Simplify Word Choice

    Another way to clarify your data-based writing to simplify your words. Do so by:

    • using plain language;
    • removing unnecessary jargon and complicated language; and
    • defining acronyms and technical terms.

    Notice the difference in word choice in these two examples:

    A)     By deconstructing numerical research of the wood flooring industry, one can conclude revenue does not necessarily flourish in connection with MBF. If you direct your attention to the MBF and revenue patterns in West Virginia in Table 1, you will infer that the region is a bullish market for sales ($94 million) and a bearish market for production (45 MBF). Meanwhile, Georgia produces 215 MBF annually, while generating less than $27 million in sales. The proposition of a regional production-to-sales correlation is a falsity.

    B)      Our analysis of the wood flooring industry fails to show a geographic correlation between sales and production. Table 1 shows that West Virginia is the second leading market for wood flooring ($94 million annual sales) yet is home to only four manufacturers producing 45 million board feet (MBF) annually. Conversely, Georgia floor manufacturers produce upwards of 215 MBF but sold just $26.93 million within the state in 2013. This data suggests production does not drive revenue within geographic regions.

    Can you see why the second example is clearer to a general reader? It uses plain language, defines acronyms, and cuts unnecessary jargon.

    Adding Visualizations

    In discussing how to communicate data, it would a foolish to neglect visualizations. A visualization is a graphic representation of data, such as a bar graph, time lines, or information maps.

    Visualizations are powerful communication tools. They often reveal the “big idea” of a data set more clearly than words, helping the audience digest the information. Not surprisingly, visualizations are also more engaging than numbers and words. Some are downright beautiful.   

    Thankfully, it doesn’t take a graphic design artist to create an engaging visualization. Many easy-to-use visualization tools are available for free online. Applications like Google Charts, Many Eyes, Tableau, and Visual.ly are a great place to start.

    If you decide to build a data visualization for publication, keep in mind these helpful tips from the Data Journalism Handbook:

    1. Focus on one big idea. Your visualization should reflect the “big idea” of the data set. Think about the one impression you want to leave with the reader. Enhance that idea by removing unessential data or information.   
    2. Design for two types of readers. The visualization should be easy enough to understand at a glance, but also offer something of value that will invite the viewer to study it more closely.

    As with any communication, accuracy is vital. The final step to writing about data, or creating a visualization for publication, is having one or more trusted individuals check and revise your work.

    Good communication is good business. That doesn’t change in our increasingly numbers-driven world. Wherever people are busy crunching numbers, someone needs to communicate what it all means.  

    —Tim Kemper


    Lessons from a News Writer

    Wednesday, February 05, 2014

    A few months ago, I attended an excellent book reading by pop-culture author and essayist Chuck Klosterman. During the Q&A portion of the reading, a journalism undergraduate expressed frustration with the inverted-pyramid structure of news writing, an organizational method placing the most important details of a story up front. The student felt this upside-down approach stifled his creativity.

    “I’m more interested in writing feature stories, with interesting, non-linear organization,” the student addressed Klosterman. “What advice can you give me?”

    “You’re not going to like my answer,” Klosterman responded. “But I’m a supporter of the inverted pyramid; it makes writing accessible. It helped me greatly in my early career.”

    I imagine this response surprised the student. Why would a skilled feature writer like Klosterman endorse such a simple approach to sharing news?  

    Klosterman explained how he started his career at a small-town newspaper, writing stories in the inverted-pyramid style until the task became like clockwork. Doing so helped him focus on reporting the most important information and fulfilling the needs of his audience.

    This exchange connects to business writing in a number of ways.

    First, delivering information in a direct manner is often the best approach in business. A direct approach saves the reader time and highlights the most relevant information. Just as most news stories follow the inverted pyramid, most business correspondence should lead with the main idea, using the SEA organization method

    The exchange also highlighted the payoff of practice. Klosterman honed his writing skills through the day-to-day grind of writing and reporting stories, using the inverted pyramid. In the business world, each new writing task presents a similar opportunity. Take something as routine as responding to email. By replying to every email clearly, carefully, and correctly, you will find it easier to draft more complex writing forms. 

    Finally, the student’s frustration unearthed a common misconception about writing—that simple, straightforward writing is unskilled writing, that it doesn’t showcase an author’s abilities. This attitude can lead to unintended consequences.

    Consider a similar scenario from the business world:

    Jerry is assigned to write a proposal at work. He knows his supervisor will read it, and he wants to make a great impression. So he asks himself, “How can I make my writing unique?” “How can I ensure my effort gets recognized?” “How can make sure I stand out?”

    You can probably see a problem emerging. Jerry is focusing is on himself, rather than the ideas he needs to communicate. He’s focusing on style before substance. This approach is unlikely to yield the results he desires.

    Jerry would be better off asking: “What ideas are essential to this proposal? How can I make sure my readers understand these ideas? How can I simplify my writing to improve its readability?”

    The main purpose of business communication isn’t to stand out; it’s to be understood. The best writers in business and journalism shine a spotlight on ideas, not themselves. They write with the needs of the audience in mind. And they organize their ideas in a manner that’s easy to understand.

    Klosterman learned these lessons early in his career. And they opened the door to new and more creative opportunities, just as they can improve your own writing and standing in the workplace.

    —Tim Kemper