Archive for March, 2010

Contrast Derived From Old World Versus New World

I enjoy a story that depends on a contrarian bent.

If someone revealed that Steve Jobs prefers Bad Religion on vinyl or that Michael Arrington leads a Bible study group, I would read those stories.

So naturally, I gravitated to the piece “A hammer — yes, that low-tech tool — helps mold noses of Japan’s bullet trains” in The Washington Post.

Is there any image that screams high-tech more than the Japanese bullet train?

japanese bullet train story

As The Post points out, “Decades of computer-aided engineering have gone into those curvaceous snouts.”

Which leads to the entertaining payoff:

It is a shock, then, to learn that they are banged out — one piece at a time — with a hammer you can buy at the Home Depot.

The banging happens here in Kudamatsu, a small factory town at the southern end of Japan’s main island. Eight craftsmen use hammers to bend and twist thin sheets of aluminum, which are then welded together to create the graceful swoops of metal that cover the front of a bullet train.

The next time I’m at Home Depot, I’m asking for one of those.

The narrative then takes us to Kiyoto Yamashita who, 56 years ago at the age of 17, started the only company in the world that hammers out bullet train noses.

storytelling washington post hammer

Here, we encounter the first of several anecdotes.

How do you think Mr. Yamashita earned a living before train schnozes came calling?

Listen up, Hollywood. He worked for an auto body shop applying his magic on Hondas, Toyotas and the occassional Beemer to rid them of unsightly dents.

There’s also a prodigal-son-returns dimension to the story.

After being told he couldn’t cut it in the family business, Master Yamashita left Kudamatsu for Tokyo to attend business school and then took jobs in Australia and Europe.

But three years ago, the parents had a change of heart, asking him back to run the operation.

Since taking over, his greatest challenge has been dealing with an aging workforce, a genuine quandary given that it takes a good 10 years for a newcomer to be anointed “bullet train nose jedi.”

As Master Yamashita puts it:

“It is not easy to find people to do this work because most Japanese have never even heard of this skill.”

I suspect most Americans, Italians and Slavakians, etc. haven’t heard of this skill either.

Global issues aside, I don’t think this YouTube video is the answer to attracting the youth of Japan:

Another recruitment idea implemented under Master Yamashita involves creating cellos and violins out of hammered aluminum to create awareness for the company and its unique craft.

I don’t know.

Do 17-year-old kids who favor string instruments have the right demeanor for this gig? Before jumping on me for stereotyping, take a look at how these disparate areas are linked at Kids Web Japan.

I rest my case.

But here’s an idea -

Create a new line of aluminum baseball bats.

Now there’s a connection to Japanese youngsters that would trigger buzz.

I can see The Washington Post revisiting this story in 10-15 years with the feel-good angle, baseball players who can’t achieve Pro Yakyu find satisfying career in the bullet train biz.

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Essay Makes Case For More School, But Student Writing Skills Seem Just “Fine”

writing student languageAn essay in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal makes an argument that U.S. students need to spend more time in the classroom.

We learn that kids in China attend school 41 days a year more than their American brethren.

The author, Chester E. Finn Jr., goes on to roll out stat after stat – the typical American youth spends 53 hours per week on TV, videogames and the Internet versus 30 hours in the classroom; required courses in France took up 3,280 hours versus 1,460 hours in the U.S., etc. – with the upshot being our kids need to spend more time in school.

I think Mr. Finn’s sour disposition would perk up if he was aware of the literary “prowess” being developed in America’s high schools.

Back in January I posted on a listing of metaphors and analogies purportedly from high school essays, which didn’t exactly pull in the readers (to put it kindly).

With this in mind, I thought I’d take a second shot, pulling out of my favorites for Mr. Finn:

“She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.”

Shrewd to align storytelling with a timely topic like food contamination. But why Canadian beef? If you’re striving for the exotic angle, should have gone with Argentinean stuff.

“She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.”

The blending of Lauren Bacall and Old Yeller makes for narrative you don’t see every day.

“Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.”

On one hand, you shouldn’t feel like you’re taking the SAT to figure out a love story. On the other hand, the ambiguity pulls you in because you can’t be 100 percent sure when the lovers will actually collide.

“He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River.”

You don’t often see young authors pursue the mafia genre. While not exactly Mario Puzo, the personification of the East River shows promise.

“It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.”

You have to admit, fathers armed with chainsaws and the like deliver stronger imagery than men running around with wood paddles.

Back to the big picture, would this storytelling be stronger by spending more time in the classroom?

Let me study essays from those kids in China who spend 41 more days in school and I’ll get back to you.

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The Wall Street Journal Prints Lame Name-calling Article

sherlock holmes investigative journalismYesterday’s Wall Street Journal included an article that caught my attention.

Titled “New Google Hire Takes Aim at Apple,” the piece – can’t bring myself to call it a story – recounts how a Google employee ( Tim Bray) recently poached from Sun used his personal blog to say nasty things about Apple’s mobile phone strategy.

“It’s a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers,” Mr. Bray wrote on his personal Web site. “I hate it.”

Can you imagine?

A company criticizing a competitor.

Perhaps with Madoff fading into the background, The Journal has a surplus of investigative bandwidth.

Let’s put it this way, John Letzing’s digging wasn’t exactly Woodward and Bernstein.

Because a proper investigation would have showed that on December 3, 2007 the said Tim Bray wrote a post on his blog called “Hate Apple Day.”

That’s right.

His hate for Apple has nothing to do with joining the Google gang. The emotional torment has been going on for some time.

But it gets better.

It turns out Mr. Bray hates other things as shared on February 9, 2007:

I so hate Aeroplan, Air Canada’s frequent-flyer program. I have many hundreds of thousands of points, but in recent years it became increasingly impossible to use them.

I could go on, but I don’t want to show up Mr. Letzing.

Maybe there’s now a beat at The Journal called raking blogs.

After all, Mr. Letizing wrote an article last week that started:

The former chief executive of Sun Microsystems Inc. wrote on his personal blog Tuesday that Apple Inc.’s (AAPL) Steve Jobs once threatened to sue the company in 2003.


The Power of Saying “We Blew It”

dominos pizza ad business storytellingThis headline in BusinessWeek was so good, I decided to borrow it.

Writer Patrick Lencioni, head of management consultancy The Table Group, chronicles the Domino’s Pizza ad campaign that takes introspective to a new level.

In short, Domino’s falls on its rolling pin, publicly sharing focus group opinions that call out the pizza maker for “a crust that tastes like cardboard and a sauce that’s like ketchup.”


We haven’t seen this type of contrarian story in advertising since Bartles & James leaned on two geezers to hustle wine coolers to the youth of America.

The video below delivers an extended version of the Domino’s TV ad.

Domino’s and its ad agency Crispen Porter + Bogusky deserve credit for classic storytelling.

Yes, the self flagellation plays in Peoria.

Sure, authenticity comes from showing real people as the characters behind the scenes, not actors.

But the reason the story elevates the pizza to heroic heights is Domino’s willingness to expose the very same pizza at its all-time low.

We see a defenseless, albeit, tasteless, pizza pummeled by the likes of “Alice from Bakersfield” and “Timmy from Tallahassee.”

Instead of getting defensive – hey, we get the dang pizza from order to your doorstep in 30 minutes and you want taste too? – Dominos does two things that endear any business to its customers.

It listened.

It took corrective actions.

But the ingredients for drama don’t come together if Domino’s isn’t willing to show its vulnerability, a trait that gets a bad wrap in business as pointed out by Lencioni:

Vulnerability is often seen as a weakness; Its actually a sign of strength. People who are genuinely open and transparent prove that they have the confidence and self esteem to allow others to see them as they really are, warts and all. There’s something undeniably magnetic about people who can do that “

The lesson from Domino’s isn’t for companies to re-cut deadly focus group videos for public consumption. (What’s the opposite of viral?)

The lesson lies in the power of the mea culpa and how it creates a springboard to telling a story with a happy ending.

It goes back to the Kurt Vonnegut storytelling tip No. 6:

Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Awful things did indeed happen to this pizza.

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The Economist Showcases the Anecdote as an Art Form

cash register pr blogI’m a big fan of The Economist.

The writers have perfected storytelling for a business audience.

Of course, the writers toil in relative obscurity with a no-byline policy that leaves readers to wonder “Who the hell wrote that piece?

So I can’t tell you who penned the masterpiece called “A Different Game,” addressing data storage in the context of business intelligence (or BI for those acronymiaks) and data mining.

Not exactly a topic that quickens the pulse.

But look at how The Economist jumps into the story:

In 1879 James Ritty, a saloon-keeper in Dayton, Ohio, received a patent for a wooden contraption that he dubbed the “incorruptible cashier”. With a set of buttons and a loud bell, the device, sold by National Cash Register (NCR), was little more than a simple adding machine. Yet as an early form of managing information flows in American business the cash register had a huge impact. It not only reduced pilferage by alerting the shopkeeper when the till was opened; by recording every transaction, it also provided an instant overview of what was happening in the business.

What a terrific anecdote.

I always wondered why cash registers had bells.

Also enjoy the way the reader is left to connect the dots that Mr. Ritty’s employees were stealing him blind.

After pulling in the reader with the Dodge City history, the story fast-forwards to today:

Sales data remain one of a company’s most important assets. In 2004 Wal-Mart peered into its mammoth databases and noticed that before a hurricane struck, there was a run on flashlights and batteries, as might be expected; but also on Pop-Tarts, a sugary American breakfast snack. On reflection it is clear that the snack would be a handy thing to eat in a blackout, but the retailer would not have thought to stock up on it before a storm. The company whose system crunched Wal-Mart’s numbers was none other than NCR and its data-warehousing unit, Teradata, now an independent firm.

pop-tarts business storytellingI believe we have a sighting of symmetrical anecdotes.

But do we really need a definition of a Pop-Tart?

For the powers that be at The Economist, I can assure you that your readers – even those who sip sherry with an upright pinkie – know what a Pop-Tart is.

Furthermore, characterizing the Pop-Tart as “sugary” is a cheap shot. A little homework would have revealed flavors such strawberry are now made with “real fruit” and only 17 grams of sugar. Geez, a fuji apple rings in with the same 17 grams of sugar.

On the positive side, using Pop-Tarts as a bridge to explaining the benefits derived from business intelligence resonates:

Analytics—performing statistical operations for forecasting or uncovering correlations such as between Pop-Tarts and hurricanes—can have a big pay-off.

To gain a true appreciation for The Economist’s storytelling, check out a trade book’s story on business intelligence in which lines such as:

“For sure, BI analytic apps and dashboards are hotter than a recent Tiger Woods photograph.”

serve as “colorful” fodder.

The Economist piece goes on to share how heavyweights ranging from Nestlé to Wal-Mart to Li & Fung have got the sift-data religion before closing with one final quantifiable burst:

Visa, a credit-card company, in a recent trial with Hadoop crunched two years of test records, or 73 billion transactions, amounting to 36 terabytes of data. The processing time fell from one month with traditional methods to a mere 13 minutes. It is a striking successor of Ritty’s incorruptible cashier for a data-driven age.

Naturally, the story concludes with the “incorruptible cashier.”


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