Monthly Archives: June 2011

Thong Bikinis for Writers

A compelling metaphor, but where is it most properly applied?

Screenplays here.

In screenwriting, you have to cover a lot of ground with very few words (a mentor of mine once described it as “the thong bikini of writing.”) Instead of spending a half page describing a character, I have to do it in a sentence. And it better be a good sentence, specific and vivid enough to help everyone from a casting director to a costume designer bring that person to life.

Obviously, the number of words and their strategic placement connect to the metaphor. A few right words, like a well worn thong bikini on the right body, make the effect in a screenplay.

Thongs metaphors stimulate thinking.  Consider.

Compare Emily Dickinson’s poetry to almost everyone else’s poetry and every screenplay ever written and you must give the metaphor to her.

Zounds, Emily Dickinson in a thong bikini?

And, then, what is advertising copy? Yet, if a screenplay already wears that thread, what’s the dress for Just Do It?

A g-string?

Hmmmm, thongs.

Say less only when it reveals more.

But that requires a comely topic like Venus or Adonis. So write thongs when presenting an inherently and obviously beautiful idea.

But, can’t hot writing make beautiful the homely?

There are limits – just look around at WalMart – but can’t you use thong writing to make Venus’s less pretty sister or Adonis’s less pretty brother seem more attractive? So write thongs to hot up cooler ideas.

Thong writing for hot topics, less reveals more.

Thong writing for cool topics, reveal a little to hide a lot.

And, again, sorry.

No pictures.

No way.

Human Capital . . . Is That All There Is?

Organizations thrive on their People.  Hey, without people the organization wouldn’t succeed, baby.  Where would you be without me?

Human Capital, that’s where it’s at, Jack.  The knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs – geez, I’m having a Fed flashback) of The People make The Organization.


Let’s do a meta analysis.  The abstract gives it up.

Theory at both the micro and macro level predicts that investments in superior human capital generate better firm-level performance. However, human capital takes time and money to develop or acquire, which potentially offsets its positive benefits. Indeed, extant tests appear equivocal regarding its impact. To clarify what is known, we meta-analyzed effects drawn from 66 studies of the human capital–firm performance relationship and investigated 3 moderators suggested by resource-based theory. We found that human capital relates strongly to performance, especially when the human capital in question is not readily tradable in labor markets and when researchers use operational performance measures that are not subject to profit appropriation. Our results suggest that managers should invest in programs that increase and retain firm-specific human capital.

How about that?  Human Capital “. . . relates strongly to performance.”  Of course, “strongly” is a word that refers to a quantity.  What’s the quantity of that strong effect?

Pearson r = .17.

Thus, correlate 66 different measures of Human Capital and 66 different measures of Organizational Performance and you get .17.  That’s a Small Plus effect, a Windowpane of 42/58.  That’s just about the same size as the Buxom Blonde effect for server appearance and tip size.  Kids, let’s Prove It!  Now, realize that each data point is a correlational study, not an experimental study.  That means you’ve got lots of those convenience samples with lots of self report.  Further realize that there’s no Comparison here with other factors that might effect Organizational Performance (patents, copyrights, access to capital, and on and on).  The only Comparison here is within levels of Human Capital, those beloved KSAs.  This is a pretty loose test of the Human Capital produces Organizational Success hypothesis.  And what’s the effect?

r = .17.

Color me a little surprised.  Given all the methodological weaknesses within each study from this meta, it’s probable that this estimate is . . . generous.  Everyone is using different indicators of the key variables, drawing convenience samples, no manipulation or control.  This is a lot of that epi Tooth Fairy Observational Storytelling and the best story they can deliver is r = .17.

It seems more likely here that you have to have a minimum level of competence in your people and past that, there ain’t much bang for the buck.  Certainly you need superstars in key positions, but the Human Capital argument pleads for All Stars at every position and r = .17 doesn’t hit me as All Star.  Hey, I’m a pharma with a blockbuster drug, offshore factories, and ironclad patents; how much Human Capital do I need?

Of course, I’m being a jerk who doesn’t get it.  This meta is a phenomenal verification of Human Capital and that Small Effect is exactly what you’d expect if you’d read Robert Abelson’s classic analysis of the Variance Paradox:  When A Little Means A Lot.  Hey, look at his example of the effect size for great hitters in Major League Baseball.  The difference between excellent hitters (average over .300) versus poor hitters (.220) is only a Small Effect.  Pretty much the same size as the Human Capital effect, you knucklehead.

Well, if you put it that way, my fiery friend, let me revise my remarks.  Human Capital, upon further reading and reflection, is a very good thing and I’d like to call together all the members of our family here at Engulf and Devour, LLC.  Let me stand before you, humbly, and express my appreciation and respect for the valuable and ineffable KSAs each of you brings to our table.  Without your Ks and your Ss and especially yours As, I’d be a lonely and unsuccessful man here at Engulf and Devour.  You bring inestimable value and worth every day and deliver the performance E&D needs to excel.

We are you!

Hey, persuasive speeches cut down on the turnover rate AND hold down bonuses!  Or else it’s really the Human Capital.

P.S.  Let’s get out of here with Peggy Lee and her classic hit, Is That All There Is.  Contemplate the Variance Paradox, Small Effects, and Human Capital as you enjoy Ms. Lee.

P.P.S.  The Variance Paradox applies at the extreme top end of human performance.  At the World Series, a little means a lot.  At the Beer League Championship, a little means small beer.

Wowser, statistics and Shakespeare.

Crook, T. R., Todd, S. Y., Combs, J. G., Woehr, D. J., & Ketchen, D. J., Jr. (2011). Does human capital matter? A meta-analysis of the relationship between human capital and firm performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(3), 443-456.



Walt Whitman, Art and Sincerity

Walt Whitman is esteemed as one of the great poets of the ages. Even one brief poem illustrates his power.

283. A Clear Midnight

THIS is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.
Night, sleep, death, and the stars.

Now, contrast this against the only major poem Whitman published with a fearful commitment to rhyme and meter.

193. O Captain! My Captain!

CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

This in response to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Now, consider another attempt on the same theme. The opening stanzas.

192. When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d

WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

O powerful, western, fallen star!
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d! O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul!

In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle……and from this bush in the door-yard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.

In these three poems we see the poetic comparison and contrast of my Rule, All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere, as adapted from Oscar Wilde’s Bloom amended, All Bad Poetry Is Sincere. Whitman’s great poetry as evidenced in Clear Midnight and Lilacs follows a subtle structure, an unplanned plan that makes poetry shimmer with art. Then cringe through the marching thump of Captain Oh Captain and observe every trick, move, and cry.

The art and skill of poetic persuasion hides any sincerity no matter how deeply felt. It’s what you do to the Other Guy, not what It does to you.

Tackies – Creativity for Hemingway

It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day.  That way my subconscious would be working on and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped, learning, I hoped, and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it.  Going down the stairs when I had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris.

Ernest Hemingway, Moveable Feast, page 13

Tackies – Screams from the Observational Tooth Fairy

It is simply too easy to obtain a p value below .05 and to subsequently publish the result . . . When researchers publish ambiguous results as if they were real and reliable, this damages the field as a whole: Time, effort, and money will be invested to replicate the phenomenon, and when replication fails, the burden of proof is almost always on the part of the researcher who, after all, failed to replicate a phenomenon that was demonstrated to be present (with a p value between .01 and .05).  Thus, our empirical comparison shows that the academic criterion of .05 is too liberal.

Ruud Wetzels, Dora Matzke, Michael D. Lee, Jeffrey N. Rouder, Geoffrey J. Iverson and Eric-Jan Wagenmakers  (2011).  Statistical Evidence in Experimental Psychology:  An Empirical Comparison Using 855 t Tests,  Perspectives on Psychological Science May 18, 2011 vol. 6 no. 3 291-298.

doi: 10.1177/1745691611406923

Retirement Dimmer

I’ll just cite one example, this WSJ story, about an emerging fantasy in the public imagination.  Its lede reveals the nightmare.

For all the benefits of retirement – less stress, fewer obligations, finally the time and money to travel the world – new research paints a somewhat bleaker picture.  Without careful attention and some preventative steps, retirement, it turns out, may take quite the toll on our faculties.

If you spend anytime viewing the pop press, you’ve seen this same idea expressed with different words.  Retirement makes you stupid.

Except if you read the scientific literature you discover that there’s no good science to support this assertion.  Only glib, facile, and young epidemiologists reading the tea leaves.  Like this one.

Here’s the abstract.

Background Occupational work involves many factors capable of protecting cognition. The ‘disuse’ hypothesis suggests that removal of such factors at retirement may increase the risk of cognitive decline.

Objective To examine whether retirement is significantly associated with cognitive change after adjusting for preretirement cognitive function, personal, social, health and lifestyle factors, work characteristics and leisure activity.

Methods Participants were from the Whitehall II study, a prospective study of London-based Civil Servants. Short-term memory, the AH4 Part 1 (a test of inductive reasoning), verbal fluency and the Mill Hill Vocabulary Scale were collected at ages 38–60 years, and again, on average 5 years later, at 42–67 years, providing pre- and postretirement cognitive functioning assessments for 2031 participants (470 retired and 1561 working). Linear regression was used to test the association between retirement and cognitive performance adjusted for preretirement cognition.

Results Mean cognitive test scores increased between the two assessments. However, after adjusting for age, sex, education, occupational social class, Mill Hill score, work characteristics, leisure activities, and indicators of physical and mental health, those retired showed a trend towards smaller test score increases over 5 years than those still working, although this only reached 5% significance in one test (AH4; β=−0.7, 95% CI −1.2 to −0.09) and did not show a dose–response effect with respect to length of time in retirement.

Conclusions This trend is consistent with the disuse hypothesis but requires independent replication before it can be accepted as supportive in this respect.

Editor’s Note:  Insert the Dancer’s Laugh About Here.

If you read the literature on Retirement Robs Your Mind, you know this study is hey diddle diddle right down the middle.  Convenience sampling.  Huge numbers of cases.  Lots of adjusting (and in public no less!).  And what do you get?

Despite analyzing multiple indicators of cognitive function, jimmied, shaken and stirred with adjustments, and using the most lenient and misleading marker of “significance,” the researchers find only one test that reaches the 0.05 alpha level.  Cue up the Small Pitiful Effects drum roll.  Worse, there is no dose-response finding, meaning that the effect does not change over time even though that what the Nightmare asserts.  Thus, researchers using a shotgun filled with double ought buckshot fired multiple rounds at the broadside of a barn from a distance of five feet and just nicked a plank with one pellet.

Yet, they write.

This trend is consistent with the disuse hypothesis but requires independent replication before it can be accepted as supportive in this respect.

Editor’s Note:  Insert Dancer’s Laugh Here Again.

If you want to understand declining cognitive effects and what you can do for yourself, for someone you love, or for callow epidemiologists, please consult the work of Tim Salthouse.  And, if you don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s the Headline:  Aging Beats Everything.  The rock of your body is rolling downhill and if you are doing NYT crossword puzzles at work, the effect is only psychological.

Okay, so science says we’re all getting older and we will get that narrator quote at the start of Citizen Kane (at 8:45, “. . . as it must to all men, death came to Charles Foster Kane.”).  What’s this got to do with persuasion?

Well, of course, All Bad Science Is Persuasive.  Yeah, that’s obvious.

And, now, consider the persuasion opportunities for selling Longer Minds.  Man, if you thought it was shooting fish in a barrel with Lifestyle and Mortality, think about the persuasion spaces for Puzzles and Cognition!  Even young people worry about losing their minds, so this isn’t just a Boomer or BoomerPlus generation thing.  In fact, I suspect the persuasion box here is easier with the under 60 crowd.  Old Boomers have already seen the dimming of the light even with all those NYT puzzles.  Kids don’t know it yet, but still fear it.  All you need to do is read the epi literature on aging and cognition to find The Cure.

This is too easy.

P.S.  The Dancer’s Laugh is heard at the end of this Paula Adbul YouTube video.  It’s the expert’s mark of derision.

Exploiting the Health Bubble

I could do this everyday – which would provide a steady stream of PB posts and also destroy my will to live – but here are two stories that illustrate the possibilities for persuasion mavens.  Lede with the Big picture first.

Healthcare spending will represent nearly one-fifth of the U.S. gross domestic product by 2019 . . .

Now, Telling Detail from a fighting MD who is also a journalist.

Smoking cigarettes is the cause of so much preventable, deadly disease.  But now new research shows sitting for long stretches of time may be just as dangerous.

In a country where people can and will spend 20% of their income on one area and where experts in that area can’t understand their own research, you know you are in a target rich environment.  As Butch Cassidy would say to the Sundance Kid, it’s easy, ripe, and luscious.

Begin as always with the expert in the news.  Kim Mulvhill, MD, has proof that smoking and sitting kill at pretty much the same rate and to her credit provides a link to a research study to support that assertion.

She provides that link certainly to build her credibility by citing other experts, but certainly not to build her argument because if you read the abstract you quickly see the research makes no comparison between smoking and sitting, but only looks at sitting.  And guess what?  The Observational Tooth Fairy finds a highly adjusted Small Effect Windowpane under the pillow you’re sitting on.  The effect probably does not exist given this data and it definitely is nowhere near the range of effects for smoking (which range from Medium to Large Windowpane increases depending upon the outcome variable).  Dr. Mulvhill can misread and misunderstand to her heart’s content and still write in public without fear of laughter, derision, or lawsuit.  She shouts Death in a crowded sitting room without consequence.

And, she does so because people have dialed down their WATTage to a flicker.  When you’re giving away 20% of your GDP on something you can control with common sense and a little self control, it’s obvious you are not a High WATT worker toiling on the Central Route, building long, dense, and deep webs of elaborated thoughts about your health.  You’re skipping polished stones over an ocean of thought, a Cue kid laughing on a Peripheral Route beach.

As a persuasion maven you cannot observe this scene without smiling a toothy grin.  Hello, Little Girl. Experts are falling over their own incompetence to help Other Guys and the Other Guys are making automatic payments in a subscription model called Forever Young.

Right now everyone is happy.  Everyone believes that their life and health is increasing every year and they are willing to pay more and more every year for that belief.  Their beliefs about life and health have become psychological assets that are worth more and more without regard to reason, reality, or reservation.  That’s a Bubble.

Persuasion in health is so easy it is almost hard.  In an orchard of nothing but low hanging fruit which one do you take first?  Wipe that grin off your face, chose the one you find personally easy, ripe, and luscious, and get busy.

This Bubble will burst someday.  Not soon.  Not if there is a conservative revolution in 2012.  Maybe 2020.  When my Medicare bill is half of your income.

Until then it is easy, ripe, and luscious.


Bill Gates, Persuasion Maven

Bill Gates continues his health oriented charitable work with a new initiative in China aimed reducing tobacco use.  He’s teaming with a Chinese Internet leader, Baidu Inc.’s Robin Li, to start a new campaign.

Focusing on the harmful effects of exposure to others’ smoke, the initiative will aim to help smokers quit and encourage nonsmokers to ask people not to smoke around them.  At a news briefing the two billionaires donned green T-shirts reading “Say no to forced smoking” in Chinese.

Please focus on the T-shirt slogan: “Say no to forced smoking.”  Gates clearly understands the persuasion literature and is not following the zealots’ course here.  The slogan demonstrate two smart persuasion plays and one smart strategy.  Plays first, then strategy.

First, note the Say No phrase provides an active TACT instead of the novice negative TACT (Don’t!  Stop!  Desist!).  To a novice the difference between Do This versus Don’t Do That seems unimportant, but mavens have read the research and realize active TACTs are easier to persuade.  Points to Mr. Gates on this subtle play.

Second, now realize the artful Reactance finesse from the Forced Smoking phrase.  Typically you find a finger shaking Marm scolding naughty kids to Stop! Quit! Don’t!  This move, while satisfying to the Marm in all of us – doncha just love bossing your little brother or sister – frequently backfires for reasons explained with Reactance Theory.  Perceived unfair restrictions on your behavior provoke that oppositional, You Can’t Make Me! response you get from your kid brother when you go into Boss Mode.  Even if the Marm is correct, that unfair restriction activates an automatic and natural Reactant response.

You see how Reactance kills persuasion.  The Other Guys stop listening to your persuasion plays and at best actively resist you not on the merits of the persuasion, but because of Reactance.  At worst Reactance can turn the Other Guys into your enemies for life, killing future persuasion plays.  Reactance is a bad thing, a predictable thing, and when it arises, it only proves:  You are no Persuasion Maven.

Realize that the Forced Smoking phrase shifts the source of the unfair restriction from the Marm to that rude smoker sitting next to you.  He’s the one who’s messing around with your freedom of action with his blue cloud.  Say No to That Guy!  Thus, this slogan captures all the Reactance inherent in this moment and redirects it to the smoker through a positive and active TACT from you.

Finally, consider the strategy inherent in this slogan.  Instead of making direct attempts to end tobacco use (Ban Farming!  Ban Manufacturing!  Ban Distribution!  Ban Sales!  Ban Smokers!), this slogan aims at nonsmokers and developing in them attitudes and beliefs that will then move that society over the long and winding road this change requires.  Gates and his partners realize that tobacco attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in China are approximately like those in America in the 1960s.  While there is scientific evidence about the harms, that evidence is not widely distributed throughout Chinese society.  It’s going to take a very long term commitment in China to change basic ideas about tobacco.  Just think about the fact that in 1960 a little more than 50% of adults in America smoked; 50 years later we’re down to about 20%.  Gates and crew clearly are taking a long term view and building a strong base with this focus on nonsmokers.

I’ve admired Gates and his persuasion skill before and my respect continues with this report.  He knows what he’s doing.

Japan Persuades to a Green Stone Age

The Japanese government seeks a 15% reduction in national energy usage and not because of the problems with that tsunami struck nuclear power plant, but as the new national policy.  And that’s not efficiency as in getting 15% more use out of a lump of coal, gallon of gas, or rod of uranium.  No, this is reducing as in cutting the piles, puddles, and stacks of the stuff by 15%.  What to do?  Hit the New New Thing persuasion play:  a YouTube video.

Set your thermostat to 82 degrees.  That’s the ticket.  And, line up the fashion players to design new clothes.  The fashion folks are hot for this because people will need to buy new clothes, cool clothes, supercool clothes, in fact.  Nice play.  How about something like this, fellas?

Of course, setting thermostats at 82 and showing a little leg won’t make that 15% reduction goal.  That will likely require negative growth in the Japanese GDP.  Most folks call that a recession, but if it’s in the name of Green, we’ll try SuperCoolBusiness instead.

Remember when Japan Inc. was in our rear view mirror?  They generated a real estate bubble in the late 1980s that made them Masters of the Universe until the bubble burst creating even more damage than our 2008 real estate bust.  If you ever wondered what happened to Japan just look at their equivalent to the S&P 500, the Nikkei 225.

They lost all growth through the 1990s and since then are just limping along with virtually no economic growth.  Their financial markets are at the level they were in the early 1980s just before their bubble.  A 15% reduction in national energy use is not going to make things grow, but everyone will be cool, SuperCoolBusiness cool.

Persuasion is a great tool when the Other Guy is dying and you want to keep it a secret.

P.S.  Did the same folks who came up with the Grand Rapids, MI video consult with the Japanese government on this one?



All Persuasion Is Local . . . Hamlet and Othello

Aristotle calls rhetoric the art of discovering the available means of persuasion.  So too my headline Rule connotes the same process; persuasion depends upon what’s lying around on the scene. The maven takes what the situation provides and shapes it to her goals. She’s never the ridiculous economist shipwrecked on a desert island with a case of canned goods, “. . . assume a can opener!” She’s grateful for who and what is on the scene and works from that without assumptions, fantasies, or projections.

To prove the Local, consider a thought problem from two Shakespeare plays, Hamlet and Othello. Imagine both plays occur as they are – the Local – but we swap protagonists. Hamlet appears as the General in Venice and Othello, the Prince of Denmark.

Without effort we see what happens as each man sizes up the situation and seizes upon the Local. Subtle Hamlet measures Iago after their first scene then devises double plots for Iago’s manipulations that have the passed over Lieutenant screwing himself into the ground by Act II. So too with direct Othello in Denmark. He hears his father’s Ghost then slaughters Claudius in the next scene and perhaps smothers his adulterous mother, Gertrude, too. An early Curtain.

Each play ends now merely through the switch of one character and how each sees, takes, and acts from the Local. Where Hamlet in Denmark can never resolve his problem given the Local, and where Othello in Venice can never see his problem given his Local, merely transposing each character shows what the Local always provides to the person who knows how to look.

Whether in Venice or Denmark, Mavens can play Hamlet on Wednesday and Othello on Friday. Persuasion is repertory acting!

P.S. The character switch with Hamlet and Othello is noted in Harold Bloom’s Ruin the Sacred Truths.