The Death of the Business Card

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What’s the point of business cards?

Do you still carry them and give them out at meetings?

Do you ever look at the business cards you’ve collected?

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I don’t think they’re needed anymore. If they’re not actually dead, at the very least they’re on life support, offered only during those brief encounters on the plane or train that we hope might turn into a multi-million deal (which never happened to me, even when I did have my business cards to hand).

Surely it’s more useful, nowadays, to embroider your email address on your clothes (rather than wearing Hugo’s, or Giorgio’s or Gianni’s name), or to tattoo your email address on your forehead. An email address is everything, the be all and end all of identity. It’s both necessary and sufficient in the business world, and it doesn’t need to be printed on a card.

In any case I keep forgetting to carry my business cards (I’m useless with accessories and have never been able to hang on to an umbrella for more than a week) but no one seems to mind if I don’t have one.

It was different two or three decades ago, and I remember how much it meant to me when I was given my first pack of smooth white cards. I’d just been promoted from programmer to consultant at Hoskyns, back in the mid 1980s, and one of the privileges of this promotion was the printing of a pack of business cards bearing name and job title. Perhaps for me, given that I cannot drive, it was more alluring a benefit that the company car that I could expect two promotions later. I was suddenly someone and I had a small rectangle of stiff white card to prove it. And the company was endorsing me by putting my name next to their logo and their place of business. I belonged.

Over the years I learnt to carry them wherever I went. You never knew when it might be sensible to hand one out. In Asia I learned to offer them (as one must offer anything of value) with two hands rather than one, and in the Germanic world I learned to bow slightly and click my heels. Card giving was the prelude or coda to every important business meeting.

When I started my own company in 1992 I remember being told by a wiser older entrepreneur that you should never throw away a business card, so I kept them in their hundreds and thousands, and once a year I used to organise them alphabetically into business card folders or rolls, but I have never looked inside them since. I regularly passed on the same advice and am still, out of habit, prone to mutter to my junior colleagues, ‘Don’t forget your business cards’, as we set out for a meeting.

Twenty-three years of hoarding business cards

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But I don’t think they matter anymore. And they don’t have the same status-conferring appeal. Or if they do, I still don’t see the point of them. They were principally a means of conveying name, address and telephone number, then fax number, then in more recent times email address and website. They had brand implications too. You could choose a heavier, more expensive card, or try to do something imaginative and cool. But everyone I nowadays meet already knows who I am, what my name is, and how to get hold of me, or can very easily find out without adding my card to their dusty stack.

There are Apps, too, for the harvesting of identities at conferences (reading data from those tags you’re forced to hang from your neck) and there are a dozen other ways of keeping track of the people you’ve met. Cards play a minor, disappearing role.

But still, I won’t be throwing away my pile. I am a hoarder by nature, and, who knows, one day there’s a card in the pile that might prove useful.

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My Homeopathic Dinner Party

Unlike Prince Charles I am no friend of homeopathy. It strikes me as implausible that a substance so diluted that no molecules of the original material can be found in the final solution can be effective, and as far as I understand, no well-controlled experiments have ever demonstrated anything more powerful than the placebo effect. Homeopathy, I feel sure, belongs to the world of pseudoscientific make believe, like Uri Geller’s telepathic spoon bending. Perhaps it’s harmless fun, a brand of quackery that doesn’t hurt, but raising false hope is surely harm of a kind.

So, I was initially sceptical when friends started raving about Madame Anastasia Blavatnik’s homeopathic dinners. Madame Blavatnik has recently arrived from Georgia and has been preparing and serving homeopathic dinners in Prague for the last eight months, apparently with spectacular results. Arguing that like cures like (the Latin phrase similia similibus curentur is often used to lend a spuriously scholarly feel to this nonsense), she firmly believes that the effect of overeating and drinking can be treated with more food and drink, albeit diluted thirty or so times.

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Just for fun, and to amuse my friends, I gave it a try last week. For once I was able to promise that my infamously heavy dishes would, on this occasion, be lighter, even if also more lightly flavoured.

Anastasia’s is an out-service. She finishes and serves her dinners in your own home, bringing all her dilutions with her to be heated or chilled. As host you must provide only a ‘succussion’ device to be used just before serving (succussion is the process of firmly striking each container of diluted material a number of times to render it active).

I called her to discuss menus, this being complicated by the fact that one of my friends doesn’t eat meat.

‘To be most effective,’ she said, ‘you must choose courses with the heaviest and richest ingredients. This will counter the effect that such heavy foods in their undiluted form would normally have on you. We must attack the miasms in the stomach, where they lurk. Heavy wines is good too, I find.’

She persuaded me to order a cream of mushroom soup, followed by boeuf bourgignon for the carnivores. I suggested fried lemon sole for the fish eaters but she thought lemon sole might be difficult to find in Prague, substituting cod in a white wine and cream sauce. Pomme dauphinoise and broccoli would be served alongside both main courses, and a strawberry cheesecake with a hot raspberry sauce for dessert. A heavy claret would be offered with the first two courses, and a sweet white wine with the cheesecake.

Madame Blavatnik arrived at six to make her preparations, my guests being due at seven-thirty. The first surprise was her monumental size, though she explained to all of us later that she’d actually lost half her body weight since embarking on her homeopathic dinner regime in Tbilisi just a year ago. Indeed, she had some pictures to prove it, though these seemed to me a little blurred from overuse.

Fortunately she had made all the dilutions in her own kitchen already, and when she unloaded her crates they appeared to contain only flasks of still water. This was no surprise, of course, since homeopathic remedies are considered even by homeopaths to consist entirely of solvent, solvent that has ‘remembered’ the original molecules of the diluted substance. All Madame Blavatnik needed from me was a set of saucepans to heat the soup, main courses and vegetables. These, each in a separate flask, were labelled very carefully to avoid confusion.

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Meat and fish, together with succussion device

‘We do not want to mix up our carnivorous dishes and our fish,’ she said, with what I almost thought was a wink.

When my guests arrived, I introduced Madame Blavatnik, and as we drank a diluted aperitif of what had once been vodka, she explained the ideas behind our dinner. I assumed she would dine with us but she had  already imbibed hers and preferred to concentrate on the exact preparation of ours.

‘Do not expect these dishes to taste of the original ingredients,’ she warmed us. ‘You will have to imagine the beef, the cod, the vegetables and the wines, though the water, I can assure you, will have remembered them.’ There was a slightly wistful look in her eye at this point, and for a moment I suspected that she, too, remembered them.

‘What did you do with the beef, the cod, the mushrooms and the wine,’ I asked, a little mischievously.

‘They are lost in the process of dilution,’ she said, rather firmly and decisively.

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No need for a knife or fork

The dinner was a surprising success, and no one left in a stupor of over-satisfaction, or, in the customary way, muddled by drink. Sadly, the diluted Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1976 (we drank two bottles apparently) had not remembered its alcoholic origins in a way that was useful to us, but we were jolly enough.

‘Do not be afraid if you are hungry at the end of my little dinner,’ Madame Blavatnik announced as we consumed the last of the cheesecake. ‘Eating can do you no harm now. The miasms of greed are defeated, for the moment. I must tell you, though, that one Blavatnik dinner is not usually enough. When I return to feed you once more?’

Indeed, I have yet to feel and see the effect of our homeopathic feast and I will be a reluctant convert even if I do lose a little weight. There are dieticians who say that drinking water before a meal is sufficient to deplete the appetite and thus cause weight loss. And Anastasia Blavatnik does not come cheap. She charges for the full list of original ingredients, and a steep service charge for the dilution and succussion process, even if the latter is done with her host’s assistance.

I will not embarrass my guests by mentioning how much our homeopathic dinner cost, but I must now save carefully if I am to call on her skills for the Christmas party for fifty my partner and I will give in December.

Rare and Precious Creatures

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I had lunch today with a former colleague. She was, when she worked for LLP Group, one of the best business IT consultants in the world, at least in the world I knew and know, which wasn’t small then, and isn’t small now.

She was, and is, meticulous, imaginative, extremely clever, pragmatic, and determined. She knows what can be done and how to get people to do it. When she worked for me, and on some projects with me, she travelled to Asia, to the Middle East, to Latin America and elsewhere, and learned about cultural sensitivity too. Of course, she wasn’t perfect, but I’ve long since forgotten the imperfections.

In the end, she was too good for us, and we were too small for her, and she left us to work for a large bank in the Czech Republic. There she manages enormous development and implementation projects.

Not my former colleague, I can assure you….but equally rare and precious.

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From time to time we meet for lunch to catch up on family things, world affairs and, because they still interest us both, professional matters too. Amongst other things we talked about how hard it still is to find those rare and precious creatures in our profession who are really good at designing good business software systems.

The problem is in bridging the gap between those who have the business ideas and the business vision, and those who understand the precise world of IT systems and know how hard it is to go from idea to system. The job of the systems analyst lies between these two worlds, but finding good people who understand both sides of the chasm is really hard and I see no sign that it’s got any easier in the last twenty years.

A good analyst must grasp the essentials of what the ‘business’ wants, and what a system must be like to be usable by people who are not IT nerds. Such people are most easily found in the ranks of business tacticians or those who work in business operations.

A good analyst must grasp the essentials of what IT systems can do, how rigorously the rules must be defined, how information can be stored and transmitted from one place to another, and how difficult it is to program software. Such people are most easily found in the ranks of IT specialists.

Rarely can you find someone who isn’t very much more one type of good analyst than the other.

To mitigate this problem practitioners have adopted more flexible methods of development and design, such as the ‘agile’ method, whereby ‘users’ and ‘developers’ are more frequently brought together so that what one side thinks it’s understood, and what the other side thinks it’s asked for, are more frequently compared. The old ‘cascade’ method of finding out what’s wanted, building it in a remote laboratory and then bringing it back, finished, just doesn’t work. Probably even less successfully nowadays because business systems have become ever more complicated, and must be ever more easily usable by ordinary people.

But although ‘agile’ methods are better, they don’t eliminate waste. With iterative design and development procedures you move ten steps forward and then three steps back, so there are plenty of costly steps that you wish you hadn’t taken. A good analyst will save you perhaps two of these wasted steps.

I don’t see a better solution than finding the best possible people for the job, and neither does my former colleague. Method only gets you so far.

So where can we find business analysts who understand how to design good business systems? The skill can’t be taught. You can’t itemise it on a CV. Some recruits can’t even learn these skills from experience. It seems to me that it’s a matter of talent, of art. You might as well try to identify a good pianist from some words on a page.

Such people are rare and precious creatures. Hold on to them tightly..

Getting Paid. Can You Appeal to Your Debtor’s Conscience?

There are moves afoot in the UK (Late Payment Tsar) to make it easier for small companies to persuade big companies to pay their bills on time. Whilst there are, of course, many wonderful advantages in running a small company, getting paid quickly isn’t one of them.

Some large companies, especially those in the retail trade, even demand a fee from their suppliers for the privilege of being a supplier, and payment terms when you do business with big corporations are not always kind, and whatever they are, they are very often breached. We accept this troublesome behaviour because we need these big companies to be our customers, not only because they enhance our reputation, but because business with them, if we do a good job, can grow and grow.

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Fortunately, most of the international companies LLP Group works for are reasonable and fair, but there are sometimes exceptions. One of them is a global company that owes us a very large sum that should have paid at least three months ago. The sum covers software ‘maintenance’, and it is properly contracted, with fully agreed terms.

The difficulty currently lies in finding the people who can authorise payment. You must jump through hoops to win a deal, more hoops to sign a contract, and finally, when it comes to billing and getting paid, you can’t even find the hoops to jump through. Furthermore, people come and go in large international organisations and it’s often difficult just to find out on whose desk your invoice is sitting and who can sign it off.

But what can you do? Do you suspend services, do you threaten legal action, do you become unpleasant or moralistic?

In the case we’re wrestling with, we’ve already paid half the amount to our software supplier, who is ultimately responsible for software corrections and debugging. They’re a large and tough company too, and our contractual terms with them demand that we pay them even if we haven’t been paid ourselves. So we’re caught in the middle.

In recent days I’ve discussed the issue with our managing director, who’s responsible for the relationship both with the customer and our supplier, and we arrived at two slightly different views as to how to put pressure on our customer. I take the view that ‘moral obligation’ can be persuasive, and that if we tell our customer that we’ve already had to pay our supplier on his behalf, our customer will feel moral pressure to pay. I somehow trust to good nature. He, on the other hand, believes that if we tell them we’ve paid our supplier, then they will no longer feel they need do anything at all, since software ‘support’ has been bought, albeit by us, not them.

Does it depend on the nationality or the culture of the debtor? Perhaps. I may be old-fashioned in believing that business has a moral dimension, but I think it’s something one can and must occasionally point out.

Liberty, Equality and Fraternity on the Beaches of the Cote d’Azur

I was amused by this article about Saudi King Salman’s visit to the Cote d’Azur, and surprised to read that even in the land of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, expediency and commercial opportunity trump the rights of the ordinary beachgoer.

Beach Closed for Saudi Visit

King Salman is travelling with an entourage of about 1,000 and a stretch of beach will be closed to enable him to enjoy himself in ‘privacy’. He and his companions will arrive on two Boeing 747s, some to stay in the King’s villa and the rest to be put up in hotel rooms in Cannes. A thousand people for three weeks at the peak of the holiday season must cost the royal family well over three million pounds. Trickle-down theorists will point out, in his defence, that some of the money will trickle down to those locals who are denied a swim at their favourite beach.

King Salman

The balancing of individual rights against a wider commercial advantage isn’t something amenable to an automatic moral algorithm, sadly, but with the French leading the charge against economic inequality this pandering to the wishes of one rich foreign family is rather unexpected.

But what strikes me as most odd about this story is not the closure of the beach, but the idea that you might travel to a foreign country with so many of your own countrymen that the very foreignness of the place you’re visiting is entirely obliterated. If I travel to France I want to be with the French, to eat French food, to be insulted for my language skills, and perturbed by French hauteur, not to be surrounded by my own countrymen.

I’m reminded of a time in Sofia more than fifteen years ago, when one of my visits coincided with a state visit by Bill Clinton, then President of the United States. He, too, arrived with an entourage on two Boeing 747s, and took over most of the city’s hotel rooms. I shared a dining room at one hotel with the Presidential hairdresser. Most of the city was closed for the 36 hours of his stay, not just a single beach. But in practice we can’t demand equality of world leaders, whose security must trump the rights of the rest of us, for a time at least. The wheels of diplomacy and international relations must turn, however expensive that may be. The holiday visit of a Saudi King is another matter.

The Art of Consulting – Presenting

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As consultants we spend much of our time thinking, researching, calculating, designing, devising, writing, and doing other tremendously serious, but usually solitary, things. There comes a time, though, when we must present our findings to our clients and make our case. We sometimes do this through a report (which I’ll blog about separately) but very often we must present our findings in person, at a meeting, either through informal discussion, or formally using a ‘presentation’, often a PowerPoint presentation, full of bullet points, graphics and other tricks of the trade.

Presenting

A presentation must:

  • Inform as to facts
  • Advance an argument (with stated assumptions)
  • Persuade as to a course of action, or clearly lay out choices

It’s not so different from selling, in that whilst serious substance is undoubtedly necessary it is almost never sufficient. People buy from people they like. Similarly, people are persuaded by people they like.

Oddly, this is true also of musical performance. LLP Group used to sponsor an instrumental competition (I am an oboist myself) and I attended every competitor’s performance. After a while I could predict an interesting and successful performance before the music even began. It was a matter of how the musician moved, engaged with the audience, and so on. There are, of course, some notable exceptions to this rule, not least Susan Boyle, whose dowdiness gave no hint of her glorious voice. But the point is that presentation isn’t just about substance, it’s also about style.

As for PowerPoint presentations, I am one of the world’s worst audiences. PowerPoint has made us all dull. It fools us into thinking that it’s what’s on the screen that matters, not how we present ourselves.

I attend software conventions all over the world and after more than thirty years in the business I feel almost physically sick when the lights go down and the bullet points start rolling. If I can, I sneak out of the auditorium and fortunately I’ve never had to sit an examination on the content.

So, whilst cogent argument and succinct presentation of the salient facts are essential, you must also entertain. Never be dull. Presentations are a performance and must be approached as such. This doesn’t mean knock-about humour. Rather, it means being brief, being personal, being enthusiastic, being yourself and above all it means engaging with the audience.

Not everyone is initially good at this, but these skills can be acquired, and practised, and perfected.

I’ve often suggested that a PowerPoint presentation should never be longer than ten minutes, but I regularly exceed this limit myself. The important thing is to try to make it as short as possible and keep it simple.

What are the important questions to ask yourself and things to think about when preparing and presenting a PowerPoint presentation?

  1. Who are your audience? What are their expectations? What style do they expect (in Zurich they’re formal, in Naples they’re not)?
  2. Who are the most important members of your audience?
  3. How much time do you have? Always check with the audience before you start.
  4. Adopt a simple structure that reflects the logical structure of your argument (for example, scope, assumptions, facts, options, priorities, recommendations).
  5. Start your presentation by saying what you’re going to present (so that the audience knows your direction of travel), present your case, and then end your presentation by saying what you’ve said. People remember structures and shapes more easily than facts, so if you make the shape of your presentation clear, they might even remember some of the detail that hangs off it.
  6. Don’t present detail if it can’t be grasped immediately. You can always provide detail separately, later.
  7. Don’t be repetitive.
  8. Never write long sentences on your slides
  9. Never read what’s on the slide, especially if you’re presenting detail. Your audience is probably literate and can read for itself. For example, you can just say, ‘Here are some facts relevant to my argument,’ and then leave a few seconds for the audience to read them. Your bullet points are for talking around, not for reading verbatim. How often I’m in an agony of boredom whilst a presenter laboriously drones through bullet point after bullet point when I’ve already read them.
  10. Use simple graphics where possible but don’t cram them with detail. They must make sense from the back of the room.
  11. Be consistent in your use of fonts and styles, and make sure everything is visible to everyone in the room.
  12. Don’t be tempted to use too many clever effects – bullet points that bounce, screen transitions that resemble shutters, etc. Such things were fun fifteen years ago, but nowadays they are tedious.
  13. Never turn to look at the screen. Check that the technology is working when you’re setting up, but then trust it. Better to look at your audience if you can see them, and, when you need to, at the notebook in front of you that’s running your presentation.
  14. Communicate with your audience. Force reaction to your most important points by looking your audience in the eye, and even asking for feedback. Ask, ‘Is that clear?’ from time to time before moving on from one point to another.
  15. Don’t be derailed, if you can avoid it. If there’s interruption or heckling from the audience, then engage with the speaker briefly and then ask that discussion be postponed until you’ve finished. ‘Let me just get through what I wanted to say, and then I’ll happily discuss what you’ve said in more detail.’ Or, ‘I’ll get to that in a few minutes, so please just bear with me for a while.’
  16. Talk simply and as if you’re talking one-to-one, as if it’s a conversation. Leave pauses, when you must. Rapid panicky patter is disastrous.
  17. Be amusing if that comes naturally to you, but don’t tell jokes if that’s not something you naturally do well. Be yourself.
  18. Reinforce your company branding, values and guidelines, or, at least, don’t breach them.
  19. BE BRIEF
  20. BE CLEAR
  21. DO NOT BE DULL

If you follow some of these guidelines there’s a chance that something from your presentation will stay in the minds of your audience.

See also:

The Art of Consulting

The Art of Consulting – What’s the Role of the Consultant?

The Art of Consulting – Impartial, Honest and Independent

The Art of Consulting – The Essential Skills

The Art of Consulting – Listening

The Art of Consulting – What’s a Good Question?

The Art of Consulting – Representation and Analysis

The Art of Consulting – Writing Simply

The Art of Consulting – Designing (Completeness & Simplicity)

The Art of Consulting – Designing (Pragmatism)

The Art of Consulting – Designing (Affordability, Flexibility, Maintainability, Elegance)

The Art of Consulting – Judgement

13th Annual Children’s Theatre School – Shiroka Laka

Around a hundred children took part in the final performance of the Children’s Theatre School in the village of Shiroka Laka on Saturday afternoon. Some were from Shiroka Laka, from the ever-diminishing orphanage (children are nowadays fostered instead of being placed in a single large institution), some were from the nearby towns of Smolyan and Devin, and some came from orphanages and schools much further afield. The performance followed nearly three weeks of arts workshops with the children.

An audience of around 300 watched performances that included flamenco dancing, Rhodopean bagpiping, singing and dancing, yoga, music, martial arts and the presentation of two folk tales, one Bulgarian and one African.

The Children’s Theatre School is the main annual activity of the Artists for Children foundation, directed by Bulgarian theatre director Elena Panayotova. Artists for Children provides children at risk (very often Roma children) with extra-curricula educational activities that involve the arts, seeking to build confidence, discipline and skills, as well as to provide fun, and to combat prejudice.

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Elena Panayotova

LLP Group is the main sponsor of the Children’s Theatre School.

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