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Date: Tuesday, 14 Jan 2014 18:19

The Seattle Social Media Club is hosting me to speak next week about Free Speech and Social Media. They hosted me in 2010 to speak on Calling BS on Social Media Gurus (slides and notes) and it’s good to be back.

I’m very excited about this talk: the history of the collision of free speech and technology is a subject I’ve studied for a long time. I’m honored to get a chance to talk about these important issues. Here are the details:

  • Title: Can free speech survive the social media mob?
  • When: Wednesday January 1/22, 7pm
  • Where: Seattle City Hall, 600 4th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98104
  • Tickets: $15 (appetizers are served at 6pm)
  • Livestream? I don’t know but I’ll update when I do.

Description: The disturbing trend of online mob “justice” continues to grow. Has the unprecedented power of social media made us more or less free to express ourselves? What can we learn from how social media handled controversies and events like the Justine Sacco firing, The Boston Marathon bombing and the A&E Duck Dynasty debate? This entertaining and challenging talk explores these questions, providing clarity and advice on how media experts and ordinary citizens can make a difference.

You can help me develop the ideas that will be in this lecture by participating in this thread.

You can get tickets on eventbrite now. Hope to see you there. And you’ll earn that appetizer with a good pre-lecture workout by climbing the famous city hall stairs.

Author: "Scott" Tags: "On Tour, Seattle"
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Date: Saturday, 11 Jan 2014 00:50

Three on my books are heavily discounted on Kindle today. $3.49 for some of them.

I have no idea how long they’ll be on sale for (Amazon works in mysterious ways), but grab them quick if you’ve been waiting to grab them.


I’ve heard some reports the sale is U.S. only but I can’t confirm that.



Author: "Scott" Tags: "Books"
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Date: Thursday, 09 Jan 2014 19:31

On Tuesday 1/28 I’ll be doing a free, live webcast about public speaking, hosted by O’Reilly Media.

In Confessions of A Public Speaker I explained how to deal with 17 difficult speaking situations:

  • You’re being heckled
  • Everyone is staring at their laptops / phones
  • Your time slot gets cut from 45 to 10 minutes
  • Everyone in the room hates you
  • One guy won’t stop asking questions
  • There is a rambling question that makes no sense
  • You are asked an impossible question
  • The microphone breaks
  • Your laptop explodes
  • There is a typo on your slide (nooooooo!)
  • You’re late for you’re own talk
  • You feel sick
  • You’re running out of time
  • You left your slides at home
  • Your hosts are control freaks
  • You have a wardrobe malfunction
  • There are only 5 people in the audience

Would you like me to cover any of these in the webcast? Or are there other situations you want to learn to handle better?

Leave a comment and I’ll consider covering it in the webcast. Thanks.

Author: "Scott" Tags: "Public Speaking"
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Date: Wednesday, 08 Jan 2014 23:36

I was invited to speak at Seattle’s Social Media Club on Wed 1/22 (registration here) on the topic of Free Speech and Social Media. I’m inviting your opinions to help me sort out my own. It’s a subject Iv’e followed for a long time, but it’s complex enough I’d benefit from opening the floor here on the blog.

The initial premise of “Does social media help or hurt free speech?” is definitely a false dichotomy, but false dichotomies are useful in laying out a general landscape so I’m sticking with it for now.

Clearly there are so many facets to this wide question that both are true: social media improves people’s ability to make their speech visible, meaning the ability to publish, but it can simultaneously make the consequences of speaking up harder if more people pay attention to what you publish than you expected.  Mob justice, harassment and vigilante behavior have different dimensions online and the combination has some very destructive consequences.

Among other research I’m reading Tom Standage’s book Writing on the Wall: The first 2000 years of social media and it’s excellent so far. We have had social media for a long time and despite what the laws have said about speech, plenty of people have chosen to speak freely anyway (often at their peril). We have much to learn from look backwards.

I have 6 questions I’m exploring:

  1. How has new media changed access to expression?
  2. How has this made things better?
  3. How has this made things worse?
  4. What new challenges are we facing? (and what can we learn from how we adjusted to previous media innovations?)
  5. What implications does all this have for individuals?
  6. What implications does all this have for leaders, corporations and governments?

Here’s the list of articles and perspectives I’ve been reading recently. Suggestions welcome:

Opinions welcome. The floor is open. I’ll reference useful comments in the talk itself. Thanks.

Author: "Scott" Tags: "politics, Pop Culture"
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Date: Wednesday, 08 Jan 2014 17:56

Hi there. Just wanted to drop a short note to let you know there have been performance issues with scottberkun.com. Most of it is increased traffic and some of it is wrestling with Mediatemple, my host, to sort out what can be done.

I’ve been posting every day this month, but those of you who get posts by email may have not received emails. You can see the list of new posts here of course.

I didn’t post yesterday as the site was having enough issues without adding more content.  If you have trouble accessing pages or other issues leave a comment here. Otherwise this will be resolved over the next week as I’m likely switching hosts.

Apologies for the inconvenience. Have a nice and issue free day. 

Author: "Scott" Tags: "this site"
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Date: Tuesday, 07 Jan 2014 02:46

It’s rare to get heckled when giving a lecture, yet it’s a top fear for many people. My own advice on dealing with hecklers is in the what to do when things go wrong chapter of Confessions of a Public Speaker.

In short the best approach is to acknowledge them briefly, and politely ask them to hold their comments until the end and that you’ll respond to their comment then. Then continue. The audience is on your side, even if they laughed at what they heckler said. They came to see you and not the heckler – so they always support you continuing on.

Jerry Seinfeld has similar advice but goes much further. Here’s an excerpt from his recent AMA interview:

Very early on in my career, I hit upon this idea of being the Heckle Therapist. So that when people would say something nasty, I would immediately become very sympathetic to them and try to help them with their problem and try to work out what was upsetting them, and try to be very understanding with their anger.

It opened up this whole fun avenue for me as a comedian, and no one had ever seen that before. Some of my comedian friends used to call me – what did they say? – that I would counsel the heckler instead of fighting them.

Instead of fighting them, I would say “You seem so upset, and I know that’s not what you wanted to have happen tonight. Let’s talk about your problem” and the audience would find it funny and it would really discombobulate the heckler too, because I wouldn’t go against them, I would take their side.

In all cases always remember you have the microphone and whoever has the microphone has all the power. No one can talk over you unless you stop talking.

Author: "Scott" Tags: "Public Speaking"
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Date: Sunday, 05 Jan 2014 19:35

This month I’m posting every day, taking the top voted question from readers and answering it.  With 37 votes, today’s winner was:

How do you decide what to read?

From what I can tell, you are a voracious reader. Do you read just one book at a time, or multiple books at a time? Advantages or disadvantages to either?

I read 20 to 30 books a year, sometimes more if I’m working on a new book and there’s research I need to do. I don’t worry much about what I read. I keep a big supply of good books around and what I read on a given day is driven more by whim that anything. If I buy good books, which one I’m currently reading doesn’t matter.

I read primarily on my iPad through Kindle. It’s convenient given that I travel often, it’s easy to buy new books on the fly, and I like their highlighting system. But I’m not particular: I read print books often too.

I try hard to read one book at a time. It’s very tempting not to, but like all multitasking you waste energy when you switch as it takes time to recall everything that was in the book up until the point you reached last time. If I switch away from a book it’s a good sign I should abandon it completely. If I’m not convinced by the 50 page mark I will abandon a book with no regrets. I used to have 3 or 4 partially read books around but I’ve gotten much better at avoiding that trap.

As long as I’m reading frequently I don’t worry much about what the particular books are. But if you forced me to make it into a formula it’d be something like this:

  1. Books I should read. I’m interested in writing books that will be read long into the future and I read old books that are still read today to learn something about how it’s done. I read many books that were published decades ago and largely avoid trendy topics or bestsellers. There’s plenty of classic literature I’ve never read and I try to knock off one or two of those a year. Some books are purely recommendations from friends who know the kinds of books I love.
  2. Books related to a book I’m thinking of writing.  I have a table in my office with 5 piles of books, each pile represents a future book project. I don’t know exactly when I’ll get to these projects, but I do look for books that line up with future ideas I have for my own projects. Sometimes I put them aside, other times I bump them to the head of the queue.
  3. Books in different subjects. My strength as a thinker is I have wide interests and I grow that strength by reading books in many different subjects. The last few books I’ve finished include Glittering Images by Paglia, The Origin of Satan by Pagels, A Drive Into The Gap by Guilfoile, and Broken Music by Sting. I rarely read books about management or creativity anymore as I have far less to learn in those subjects than I do about art, religion, sociology and dozens of other ways of looking at the world. I also believe I become a better expert at what I already know by reading different subjects as there are always ideas from one field that can be applied to others and that’s where many  breakthroughs come from.
  4. I rarely read bestsellers and seek more challenging books. The bestseller list is conservative in the kinds of authors and topics that will be widely popular immediately on the book’s release. Plus it’s not a level playing field, which is a surprise to most people. I prefer more ambitious books that are too challenging to ever see this kind of popularity. Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity or The Great Big Book of Horrible Things are good examples. I love books where a smart expert who writes well takes on a big subject without ever claiming a gimmicky solution to all the world’s problems (a sad cliche of the non-fiction bestseller lists).
  5. I read good writers. I sometimes read books purely because of the talents of who wrote them or the approach they took. Writing is a craft and I want to learn from other craftspeople. I’m a regular reader of The Best American Essay series since it’s an easy way to find new writers and essays are short enough that if I don’t like one I can just skip to the next one.

You can see My Favorite Books and Why I love Them for more on what I read and why.

Author: "Scott" Tags: "ask berkun, Books, Writing Well"
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Date: Sunday, 05 Jan 2014 02:36

This month I’m posting every day, picking the top voted reader question and answering it. With 37 votes, submitted by Andrew Holloway, is:

When do you know that you have something worth saying or teaching?

I often find myself caught between two competing thoughts: that I don’t know enough to help anyone, and that I should help anyone I can by speaking/writing to others about my experiences or how to do something. As a speaker and writer, was there a point where you felt you were “qualified” to speak or write? Did it evolve over time, or arrive at a moment?

The French Coin Drop is the easiest magic trick in the world to learn yet I never run out of people who have never learned how to do it. Even the most basic unit of knowledge will be new to many. In that case look around: if you’re the only one at the dinner table who knows the trick, guess who the best possible teacher is? It’s you. Worth is relative. If David Blane shows up yield the floor, but otherwise everyone is looking to you. Put simply something is worth teaching if the person learning it thinks it’s worthwhile.

The fear inexperienced writers have is that everything has been said already. Even if this is true, no one has read it all. You may be the first person that offers to teach them a specific skill, or tells a story in a way that they connect with. It’s Ok To Be Obvious since the person reading your work probably does not know everything you or your peers do. Oddly enough, there is always the largest market for people who can teach the basics in any skill, or tell stories that strike at the universal themes of heroes, love and loss. Experts and snobs complain about books that are too basic, but they’re in the minority on this planet. You don’t need to write for everyone, you need to write for your audience and you can’t find your audience until you start writing.

Personally I know I might have something worth saying when an idea resonates with me and stays in my mind. It could be a critique of something I heard, a powerful story, or even an interesting quote. I keep a notebook with me at all times and write these small observations down. The ones that stay in mind end up as drafts and it’s in the process of trying to write a draft that I learn if I really do have something worth sharing or not. I throw away many drafts and have many half written ones that maybe I’ll return to, but maybe I won’t. Creation is messy and accepting the mess is the biggest challenge for many people who want to make things.

I’m interested in writing and speaking about important things that go unsaid. I like to demystify, debunk and critique sloppy thinking and I try to be brave in taking on subjects that many people think are wrong but are afraid to speak up about. Even something as straightforward as How To Write A Good Bio is a radical simplification of the stupid things I constantly see people do. I try not to be a cynic, and even my critical posts like How to Call BS On a Guru are intended to elevate the reader’s thinking and not just tear down someone else’s thoughts. Even when I rant I work hard to offer an alternative.

My advice is to write and speak anyway even if you have doubts. It’s only through writing and speaking that you’ll improve your thinking and invite feedback from other people. That’s the only way to improve your judgement and craft further. I’ve been doing this a long time and if you like what I do it’s explained more by commitment and effort than talent. The worst that can in writing is no one will read what you have to say. So what? Most writers aren’t widely read, including successful ones. But it’s through publishing and calling something finished that you invite the most useful feedback and that’s the only way to learn better judgement about both what’s worth writing about, and how to write about those things well.

Author: "Scott" Tags: "ask berkun, Public Speaking, reader's ch..."
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Date: Friday, 03 Jan 2014 21:56

This month I’m posting every day, picking the top voted reader question and answering it. With 41 votes, submitted by Carey, is:

What is your advice to a guy who truly DON’T feel a calling/urge/nudge to be any other than an average Joe who loves his family?

My interest in this question is based on the fact that there are people who are pretty average and are meant to be. They are the blue collar glue that holds society together. With all the “you can be extraordinary” hype that is flying around these days, I wonder sometimes what those kind of folks take away.

In America we’ve perverted exceptionalism to mean something selfish. Much like the obsession with productivity, we’ve inflated people’s ambitions to the point where everything thinks they can be amazing at anything. There is an unavoidable arrogance in wanting to be great, an attitude of “Get the hell out of my way, I’m trying to be exceptional!” To which everyone around says “yes, you are an exceptional asshole.”

Exceptionalism is not necessarily good. Many of the worst people in history were exceptional, that’s why they’re in history books: they were exceptionally evil. Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pat, or even Madoff all did horrible, hurtful things to other people with their exceptional talents. They were also productive, shedding light on another value we’ve twisted into meaninglessness. Exceptional and productive people contribute only if they create positive value for others. Earning vast personal wealth or being a star-athlete doesn’t make you a good person, especially if your success has come at the expense of others. There are many examples of over-achievers who were assholes to their families and friends, as their obsession with becoming exceptional blinded them to their the destructive power of the own narcissism. For the fate of humanity, it’s better that you’re mediocre at doing the right things than exceptional at doing the wrong ones.  It’s ok to be average if you’re using your averageness for good.

If I were stranded on a desert island I wouldn’t want “exceptional people” as companions. There wouldn’t be enough space on the island for their collective egos. I’d want ordinary, good natured, honest, hard working people who were reasonable to deal with, had faith in collaboration, and wanted to build a community more than a shrine to their individual achievements. It’s folks with blue collar attitudes who have had the most resistance to the hype of over-achievement. It’s people who felt comfortable with themselves without a world record to their name or a fancy car to drive that provide the basis for civilization at all. Most all-star teams fail: there’s too much ego. In most kinds of work you don’t need that many exceptional people to do the work a team needs to do. At a certain minimum level, talent is less of a problem than attitude.

It has always been the salt of the earth among us, like firefighters and teachers, that make the largest sacrifices for the smallest rewards, for the greater benefit of the people around them. They don’t do it to be on the cover of a magazine, they do it because it seems the right thing to do. They are the highest form of exceptional people in that they don’t demand attention for their contributions. They’re more interested in living in a loving family, a great neighborhood, or an amazing country, than any personal achievement, which fundamentally changes the way they apply their talents and who they hope to help with them.

We are a social species and it’s clear what matters most to our own personal well being are our bonds with friends, parents, children, coworkers and neighbors. It’s our ability to share our daily experiences with them that defines a fulfilling life more than anything else we do while alive. And it’s this that is the greatest tragedy of people in pursuit of the exceptional: they believe it is their achievements that will win them the love and respect they need to feel whole, when the opposite is true since wholeness can’t be won. It’s only through the small, ordinary, humble participation in the lives of people around us that fulfillment can be found.

Author: "Scott" Tags: "ask berkun, reader's choice"
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Date: Thursday, 02 Jan 2014 20:34

This month I’m posting every day, picking the top voted reader question and answering it.  With 50 votes, today’s winner, submitted by Peter Colligan, was:

 Software Ethics – When is it acceptable to ship a low quality product?

I develop enterprise software. Sometimes the decision is made to ship when quality is low and more time is needed for R&D. However, I have as a professional software engineer no ethical recourse to such actions. Sometimes the direct impact is not death but extreme inefficiencies that cause overspending and unstable workforce conditions for customers of such software…which could be damaging. Other professions such as medicine, drug research, etc have a professional guild that extends beyond direct employment boundaries. Is this really a problem?

The short answer is there are no short answers on ethical questions.

If you sell something as “low quality” and the person buying it wants a cheap low quality product, what’s the problem? If both parties feel they got what they asked for, there is no ethical challenge regardless of quality (for addictive drugs or products producing toxic waste there may be communal ethics, but that’s another discussion). The rub then is what a product promises to do vs. what it actually does which leads to marketing ethics (e.g. are  infomercials ethical? What about alpha or beta-software?) 

Deciding when something is finished is highly subjective. The Brooklyn bridge was designed by Roebling to have cables 6x stronger than necessary, a very high engineering standard. This level of “quality” is rarely used in modern engineering work. Is this lower standard ethical? Or was Roebling unethical in wasting so much in city resources to build a “wasteful” bridge? Subjective indeed.

Quality, as the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance painfully explores, is hard to define. Creators and consumers often have widely varying standards for what good and bad mean (see Why Software Sucks). McDonald’s, the fast food restaurant, has nearly 2 million employees world wide. Is it unethical to work there because the quality of food is so low? Even if the quality is low, is it ok to sell low quality things if people want them anyway? When is it ethical to publish low quality writing? Could you win a law suit against a musician because you thought the song you bought was poorly sung? Is it wrong to post grammatically incorrect status updates on Facebook every day about your favorite socks? Objectivity in ethics is hard to find.

The simplest place to start is to spend as much time as possible with people who share your ethics. Does anyone else meet your standards? Can you find people who want to pay a premium for your higher quality work? If the answers are yes then your problem is solved. if the answers are no, then your standards might be too high.

The standards for many kinds of products are often set by the market. Progress often happens by companies making superior products rather than a committee decreeing a new higher standard. Sometimes there is a role for government to solve certain market limitations, e.g. automobile seat belts or fuel economy regulation, but that’s more of an exception than the rule.

The birth of medical malpractice and professional negligence as legal concepts are also worthy of study. The ISO had its first standard in 1951 and that standard was for… getting engineers to agree on how to measure things. Certainly an important development, but not a triumph of product quality. Professional associations are slow and even when they create good standards they mostly impact the reduction of the worst malpractices. The ACM does have a software engineering code of ethics but until doing research for this post I’d never seen or heard of it before and I bet most makers and consumers of software haven’t either.

It’s most germaine element for our interests is:

3.01. Strive for high quality, acceptable cost and a reasonable schedule, ensuring significant tradeoffs are clear to and accepted by the employer and the client, and are available for consideration by the user and the public.

The statement ensuring significant tradeoffs are clear is great advice for anyone making anything. In your case the decision to ship a lower quality product might be the best choice to balance out all of the clients tradeoffs. Software, unlike bridges, is easy to upgrade allowing for quality to be improved over time.

And in this notion of tradeoffs is perhaps the real answer you’re looking for. Improve your skills at selling the positive trade-offs of high quality work. Express how much clients will gain in the long term if they’re willing to invest more in quality work upfront. That’s an important skill that has nothing to do with design or engineering.

Author: "Scott" Tags: "ask berkun, Design, Software/Web develop..."
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Date: Wednesday, 01 Jan 2014 15:30

This month I’m posting every day, picking the top voted question from readers and answering it.  With 54 votes, today’s winner was:

How do you overcome cynicism in an environment determined to maintain it?

You overcome a toxic environment by walking out the door. Unless you happen to be a powerful person in the organization, it is not your fault that the environment is cynical, broken, dysfunctional, toxic, demented, twisted or incompetent. Managers and executives are paid a great deal more than the average employee and the main thing that comes with that pay grade is accountability. If the place depresses you, look upwards: the people in power make it this way. It’s uncommon for people in power to be motivated to make big changes since they like being in power.

On a personal level, cynicism is for cowards. To be alive in this universe of mostly dead space is a miracle. To be born on this planet in a time and a country with clean running water, electricity and public schools is an additional miracle. To even be able to read and write and think well enough to have a professional job to complain about is a third. When it comes down to it, cynics are simply not paying attention. While I am all for skepticism, and by that I mean the intense challenging of of assumptions, I am an unrepentant optimist about the opportunities we have, simply because we are alive. We can do almost anything. The problem is most of the interesting things take significant effort to do and it’s far easier to be cynical and not try than to put effort in the uncertainties of change. In the worst of all cases I’d rather be Sisyphus walking up that hill every day, than the nameless guy next to him doing nothing at all for all eternity.

If you do have a powerful ally, talk to them. Come up with a plan. You can offer to do most of the work, but you will need their support to defend what you do, provide resources for you, and convince their peers to follow along.

If you are powerful, you can only change a culture one person at a time. See how to fix a team for advice on how to lead change. All change starts small. It must be grown, not constructed.

If you have no power, there is no shame in quitting. It’s brave to quit in our culture and we should do it when we’re convinced nothing is likely to change. Only by quitting a lame situation do  you give yourself any real chance of having the time and energy to find a great one.



Author: "Scott" Tags: "ask berkun, reader's choice"
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Date: Monday, 30 Dec 2013 22:04

There are always surprises in which posts earn the most attention and which are ignored. I’ve learned it’s hard to predict which posts will do well: some well written ones with great title hooks get little attention, and some throw-away quickies do really well. I don’t know any blogger that isn’t frequently surprised.

I don’t worry about traffic much, certainly not on a per post basis. I try to write for the long term, picking topics that will be relevant a year or more from now. I rarely chase headlines for this reason since the effort expended won’t pay off much in the long term. I want much of what I write to still be read a long time after I write it.

With all that said, here are the ten posts I published in 2013 that earned the most traffic:

  1. Changing Your Life Is Not a Mid-Life Crisis
  2. How To Run A Good Workshop
  3. Should You Always Trust Your Gut? (No)
  4. The Ten Myths of Innovation: Best Summary
  5. How To Write a Good Bio
  6. How To Get From An Idea To A Book
  7. The No UI Debate Is Rubbish
  8. How To Design a Great Book Cover
  9. The Great Gatsby: Book Review
  10. Why You Should Pick Your Own Boss

The big surprise is my book review for The Great Gatsby. Most of the others are advice oriented, which make for easy twitter and Facebook fodder. The review somehow found a good home in google searches before the film came out and never fell off. Like I said, luck is a big factor in which posts pick up attention and which don’t. There are compounding effects too: once a post is popular, it ends up on top ten lists like this one, further ensuring it’s locked in place.

You can also see my best posts of all time, by category.

Author: "Scott" Tags: "this site"
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Date: Monday, 30 Dec 2013 21:09

I love writing by assignment, especially challenges that test my limits. I’m grateful to you readers for helping me out over the years, as many of the 1400+ posts here were responses to questions you asked (see reader’s choice to see them).

This year I created an easy way for you to submit questions and vote on previous submissions, called Ask Berkun. Its been great, except for my end of the bargain: I’m far behind, with over 30 questions in the queue.

To catch up, I’ll be posting every day in January (M to F) until I’ve caught up.

I’ll decide at the end of January about how to handle Ask Berkun requests in the future, likely returning to the originally planned weekly schedule. Please place your votes and add a question.

Thanks for reading, commenting and asking questions. I’m glad you’re here.

Author: "Scott" Tags: "ask berkun"
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Date: Monday, 23 Dec 2013 19:28

Mikhail Kalashnikov, the primary inventor of the AK-47, died yesterday in Russia. His invention is possibly the most popular weapon ever made, as the design has been reused and modified to make more than 100 million weapons (an estimate, as no one really knows how many there are).


I’m not a fan of guns, nor of the unavoidable ethical challenges in designing for killing. However there are still lessons any designer can learn from the AK-47′s unusual story of success.

  • Simplicity can win.  The AK-47 is not the best at any particular task rifles are asked to perform: there are rifles with better accuracy and lighter weight. However its simple, reliable, cheap to produce design has driven its popularity.
  • Focus on the common frustrations. The iconic curved metal design of the the AK-47 magazine both reduced jams and improved reliability (its heavy case is harder to damage). It’s a strange aesthetic for a weapon to have one element facing the opposite direction and it makes a good example of Sullivan’s adage form follows function. Many similarly motivated design adjustments, often at the expense of total weight and even accuracy, reduced common frustrations found in other weapons, or reduced the need for training to use, repair and construct the weapon.
  • Small markets can provoke designs that do well in large markets. The history of OXO Good Grips is they were trying to design kitchen tools for people with arthritis and other co-ordination issues. They discovered later their designs were valuable to everyone. The AK-47 was not designed with a plan for worldwide use. It was designed after WWII as a the basic service rifle for the Soviet Union. Because it was cheap to make and copy (in part because of failures to license the product successfully) the design was adopted by many other countries, and modified for dozens of different purposes. The Soviet Union used the AK-47 as its standard issue for arming allies, which helps explain the long history of the rifle’s success.
  • Dominant design matters. For many poorly funded armies the AK-47 has become the dominant design. Even when better rifles are introduced the switching costs of learning how to use, repair and construct can seem prohibitive, as it requires losing some of the major advantages of the AK-47. Much like the QWERTY keyboard or English measurements, some designs once adopted are hard to replace even when  better alternatives exist as the psychological and economic costs to switch outweigh the perceived improvement.

Related: Lessons From The Best Vehicle Of All Time


Author: "Scott" Tags: "Design"
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Date: Thursday, 19 Dec 2013 19:35

If you were having an important conversation with a friend at a restaurant, would you pull out a projector and put your slides on the wall while you talked to them? They’d think you were crazy (as would the people at other tables). Rather that look into your eyes or give full attention to your words, they’d have their minds divided between you and the images you were showing at the same time.

Which raises the question: why use slides at all? Most important conversations you will have in your lifetime happen without slides.

In the history of presenting, slides are a very new idea. Look at any list of the best speeches of all time and you won’t find a single use of slides or other props. Of course slides and presentation software hadn’t been invented then so it’s unfair to make a direct comparison. Yet the question is easy to ask: would these speeches have been better if they were narrated over slides?

In many cases, no. You’d have to listen carefully to figure out when ideas would be better presented visually rather than with words alone, which is the secret for thinking about your own presentations: when do I truly need a visual image to express an idea? And when would I be better simply letting our voices speak alone?

Speaking without slides seems more challenging because:

  • You feel naked without the familiar crutch of slides behind you
  • It may require a different way to prepare
  • It demands more thinking and refinement of your ideas

Speaking without slides is sometimes better because:

  • Audiences grant you more attention and authority over the room
  • You have no fear of slide or A/V malfunctions
  • You can never become a slave to your slides
  • It forces you to clarify and improve your ideas

But slides do have some advantages, including:

When is it best to speak without slides?

If I’m asked to speak for 20 minutes or less I often go without slides. More than 20 minutes and the dynamics of attention are more complex and I typically use slides, though less than many speakers do. I give the same advice to others: the shorter the talk, the simpler your presentation should be.

How to prepare a slide-free presentation

In Chapter 5 of Confessions of a Public Speaker (“Do Not Eat The Microphone”) I provide a simple, well-tested method for preparing talks of any kind.  In short it looks like this:

  1. Take a strong position in the title
  2. Think carefully about your specific audience (why are they here? what do they already know?)
  3. Make your 4 or 5 major points concisely (from a draft outline of 10 or 12 points)
  4. Practice making your points without a single slide.
  5. Revise #3 and repeat #4 until done.

This approach works with or without slides, but in all cases it forces you to develop your ideas into a solid outline and practice delivering it before you’d even consider making a slide. If you want to go entirely without slides, you’re already prepared for that. And if you decide as you revise that you need slides to best make your points, then add them, but only after you’ve proven their necessity by trying to present without them.

If you want your ideas to take center stage, the slides should come late in the process so that they are used only to support what you’re saying, rather than the other way around. Even if you are a visual thinker and need something to look at to develop your ideas, develop your ideas and rehearse assuming the slide deck is scaffolding you will remove. Don’t fall into the trap of polishing your slides and tweaking fonts when you should be revising your thoughts and practicing how you’re going to express them.

Given a choice between a great talk with lousy slides, and a lousy talk with great slides, what do you think most audiences would choose? Prepare accordingly.

What do you put on the screen if presenting at a slide-dominant event?

I simply put together a slide with my name, the title of the talk and the basic contact information I want to provide. There’s an argument that only having a single slide does far more to make you accessible to an audience interested in your work as the way to contact you is visible the entire time you’re speaking, instead of just at the end. Here are two examples from two different events:

economist-berkun title-slide

How do you get over the fear of forgetting something?

Many speakers use slides to mitigate fear. Slides used for this reason often come at the audience’s expense. It’s common to see speakers reading their own slides, or facing their slides as they present, clear signs they made their slides first, rather than constructing the presentation first and using slides to support their thoughts. Slides should be for the audience, not for you.

If you work hard to have clear points, and you practice it’s unlikely you’ll forget anything important. Even if you did forget something, only you will know. Since there are no slides, as the speaker only you know what you planned to say. You could skip an entire point or express it in a completely different way than you intended and no one will know but you.  Slides can lock you in and if you are a true expert on the subject you’re speaking about you may find advantages in flexibility.

The notecard

When I speak without slides I usually have one small piece of paper listing my 5 main points. For my recent keynote at Warm Gun 2013 on The Dangers of Faith in Data, here’s what I brought with me on stage:


This notecard is short and simple. Since I’ve thought hard about this topic and have practiced the talk, all that I need the notecard to do is remind me of the next point, and the overall structure. I cheated on #5 as it has sub-bullets, but I simply found while practicing I couldn’t recall all three, so I wrote them down. Churchill and some other famous speakers used similar lightweight systems for their speeches.

You can see the notecard on the conveniently transparent lectern:


What about the handout problem?

If I prepare my talk as described above, it’s easy to write up a blog post with the same structure.

Here’s the blog post, titled The Dangers of Faith In Data, which I wrote in less than an hour while the ideas were still fresh in my mind.

Watch the actual talk based on the above

Now that you know how I prepared and practiced, you can watch the actual talk and judge for yourself. You’ll see me look down at the notecard,  but it’s typically while I’m silent and trying to let the audience digest what I just said, while I collect myself to lead into the next thought.

Free Checklist For Great Talks (with or without slides)

You can download a handy, comprehensive, printable checklist for giving great presentations here (PDF) based on the bestseller Confessions of a Public Speaker.

Author: "Scott" Tags: "Public Speaking"
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Date: Wednesday, 18 Dec 2013 22:18

It’s common in December to see lists of “best of the year” for books and films. I read 20 to 30 books a year but rarely do I read books published in the current year. I don’t have anything against new books, I certainly buy many of them, but I’m drawn to books that have been around awhile and still interest me. Perhaps these books ask deeper questions and provide deeper answers? Or maybe I’m merely trying to combat the cultural pull towards neophillia and the rejection of things purely because of their age.

Since most people read only a handful of books a year it’s silly not to include books simply because of when they were published. Odds are high that even if you check out the NYTimes best books of 2013, you still haven’t read most of the books they recommended from 2012, or 2005, or 1905.

With this  in mind, here are the three best books I read in 2013, regardless of when they were published:

The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, by Matthew White (2011)  - It sounds like a children’s book, but it’s far from it. With great style and flair White takes an unconventional approach to explaining the history of civilization. He uses the worst atrocities, from genocides to wars, to explore the history of the World. My world history has always been spotty and I found this book to be a tour de force, making  a laundry list of facts and events I’d never understood comprehendible and fascinating. The lists of his rankings of the worst atrocities, and their most frequent causes (religious wars? politics?) are worth the price of admission alone (my full review).

We Learn Nothing, by Tim Krieder (2013) – This collection of essays, with a few illustrations, does what all writers wish they could do: invite just about any reader into an intelligent, conversational exploration of some universal themes like friendship, belief and identity. It’s the kind of book you can give to just about any adult and they’ll respond with stories of their own and new questions about various notions they’ve held close, but unexplored until now. (my full review)


Brave New World, by Aldus Huxley (1931). I am a big fan of dystopian novels, and although I’ve read 1984 many times I’d never read Huxley. I was surprised to learn Brave New World predated 1984, first published in the 1930s, more than a decade before Orwell’s book. It was a true surprise how bold and prescient Huxley was, even though I knew many elements of the story through literary osmosis. And although the structure of BNW can be challenging at times, I’ve found myself thinking about it often since I read it (Related: this fantastic comic comparing the predictions of 1984 with BNW)

Author: "Scott" Tags: "Book reviews, Books"
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Date: Thursday, 05 Dec 2013 19:38

u-s-repeals-18th-amendment-80-yearsToday is the 80th anniversary of the repeal of the American prohibition of alcohol, and it serves as an excellent example of unintended consequences. For 13 long years alcohol was illegal, but early in prohibition it was clear the law change didn’t have the intended effects. Alcohol became more powerful in many ways, and since the mechanisms by which people obtained it were illegal, some of the cultural problems prohibition was expected to solve got worse.

Most bans in free countries today regard media: books, films, music and ideas. In most cases the announcement of a ban is free-PR for all of the people who are probably interested in the thing being banned who might not have heard of it if the ban didn’t happen. Most media love telling the story of things being banned, since it earns intense interest from both the people who agree with the ban and the people who are upset by it. Every time a parents group bans an album, or a religious organization bans a film, the film itself becomes far more powerful. Rather than a ban being a bad thing for an artist, it can often be a catalyst for their ideas and you can often see artists deliberately trying to manipulate this cycle to their advantage.

The same principles holds true among parents and children, or managers and employees. The more something is withheld, the more power and meaning it gains. For the powerless in these situations the banned item becomes a symbol of their lack of control, and their interest in it can only grow. Banning something gives that thing a personal meaning beyond whatever attributes the thing inherently has. Forbidden fruit often only tastes better than regular fruit because of what’s in the mind of the person eating it, rather than what’s in the fruit itself.

A ban is lazy policy. It’s a failure to examine causes and effects of human behavior, including the history of the causes and effects of banning things. It’s entertaining to learn the earliest known prohibition of alcohol was by Yu The Great in China in 2100 BCE, and surprise: his son ended the prohibition when he took over. Had Yu been great enough to develop a more mature and reasoned policy, his son might have embraced it.


Author: "Scott" Tags: "history, politics"
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Date: Wednesday, 04 Dec 2013 00:40

I enjoyed this recent post, 14 Ways to Tick off a Writer, because many of these things have happened to me.

My deepest thought however is that writers are a cranky bunch anyway. We’re arrogant enough to think the world needs our thoughts, despite all of the things about writing that make clear how far the supply of writers exceeds the demand. Even before a writer finishes a poem or a book they’re already cranky, or if not cranky, so loaded up with a cocktail of ego, exhaustion and expectation that they can’t possibly be described as sane.

I wrote How To Write A Book in 2007 out of desperation for hearing the same questions again and again, despite my at best modest amount of writely fame. And the kicker is if you read the 1000+ comments on that post you find that many of those people didn’t bother to read the post itself, setting off the loudest and most desperate irony alarms our species has yet to invent.

I am completely aware these are luxurious frustrations. No one told me or any other writer to quit more lucrative and less frustrating professions to write. In fact most writers are surrounded by people, animals, forces of nature, signs from the gods and omens of all shapes and sizes expressing in every language known to our species that we should not be writing. When people open a word processor it should say, Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here, or, perhaps more optimistically, Enter At Your Own Risk. But sometime tells me, like warning labels on cigarettes, we all know what we’re getting into before we start. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

Here’s some of my favorites from the article:

1) Go on Amazon and give the book one star because “the plastic wrapping was slightly ripped when it arrived from the seller.”

2) Ask what the new book’s about. After the writer answers, say, “Oh, that sounds exactly like that T. C. Boyle book that came out last year. Have you read that? You have to read it! Yours sounds exactly like it!”

4) Email saying you want to be a writer too, and you notice the writer lives in the same city, and you wonder if he could spare two hours sometime soon to have coffee and fill you in on how this whole writing thing works. Do not give any indication that you have ever read the writer’s work or care about it in any way. Do not address the author by name. Just cut and paste.

7) Read ten pages of the author’s book. Realize that it’s absolutely not for you: you thought it was a zombie story, and it’s actually historical fiction about Alexander Graham Bell. Go on Goodreads anyway, and give it one star for not being a zombie story.

And you should read the entire article for more.

Alternatively, you can take the same ideas and convert them for good use. It’s surprisingly easy to help authors and here’s a list of what you can do.

Author: "Scott" Tags: "On Writing"
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Date: Saturday, 23 Nov 2013 03:19

Here are the notes from my Warm Gun SF 2013 keynote, based on one of the stories from The Year Without Pants (An Amazon.com best book of 2013). Thanks to folks that were there for being a great crowd.

  1. The Data Paradox. No matter how much data you have, you will still depend on intuition to decide how to interpret, explain and use the data (See: Amygdala). Intuition is also used to pick samples, design queries, chose statistical models and define what outliers are. Underneath all of our rational intellect is intuition, which influences our “rational” behavior far more than we admit. Often data yields unavoidable tradeoffs where two or more options are equally viable and someone must make a judgement call beyond the data. (In strict paradox form: the more data you have the less you know).
  2. No team or organization is Data-driven. Data is non conscious: it is merely a list of stupid, dead numbers. Data doesn’t not have a brain and therefore can’t drive or lead anything. At best you want to be data influenced, where (living) decision makers have good data available that they can use to help answer good questions about what they’re doing, how well it’s being done and what perhaps they should be doing in the future. All data has bias and blind-spots and a truly data-driven organization will drive itself into the ground chasing the illusion of purely objective truth.
  3. Data is a flashlight. Data gives you specific information about a singular vector of information. Data, like a flashlight, is only as useful as the person wielding it and the person interpreting what it shows. It has no magical powers. To get good information you want multiple sources so you can triangulate information and compensate for the inherent biases each kind of data has. For example A/B testing can tell you things customer interviews can’t and vice versa.
  4. Ban the phrase “The data says.” Data can’t say anything for the same reason it can’t drive anything: data is inert. People, including data experts or growth hackers, can never speak singularly for the data. At best they are interpreters, offering one interpretation of what the useful narrative story derived from the data is (if there is one at all). Better experts yield better interpretations but never is their interpretation the only one available. If every anyone utters “the data says” they are pretending data can have a singular interpretation which it never does, and this false faith prevents the asking of good questions, such as: is there an equally valid hypothesis based on this data that suggests a different conclusion than yours? (The answer is often yes).
  5. Cognitive Bias pollutes our view of data. We know our brains are kludges, vulnerable to optical illusions. We also have blind spots in our cognition called cognitive biases. The most common one regarding data is confirmation bias, where we seek only to validate our preconceptions and stop doing analysis as soon as we have a singular hypothesis that supports our assumptions. Another dangerous bias is narrative bias, which is our attraction to stories. We love stories that are easy to understand, easy to say and that make us feel good, and will project these stories into data compulsively.
  6. Cui Bono -”who benefits?” Who paid for this data? What was their reason for paying for it? What ambitions do they have? Certain outcomes of data benefit the people asking for the data and the people who capture the data, biasing the results. In political elections it’s common to see competing campaigns find very different data for who is in the lead, each finding their own candidate in front. Another example is how company founders will select data that makes them sound the best when pitching for funding (And VC firms will listen for the kinds of data they want to hear). Generally in life when you’re confused about why a strange decision was made, or there is grand incompetence, or nothing is happening at all, ask cui bono?

Also see: Data Death Spiral

You can watch the actual keynote presentation below:

Author: "Scott" Tags: "Year Without Pants"
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Date: Wednesday, 20 Nov 2013 17:14

I’ve previously written about how covers should be designed (See How To Design A Great Cover).

My fifth book, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and The Future of Work, has the most polarizing cover of all my books. Many people love it and many hate it.  Here’s the behind the scenes story of how it was designed.

Round 1 

The design of a book cover naturally follows the title of the book itself. The odds of a a strong cover rise when you have a strong title to work with (See The Truth About Book Titles for my approach to choosing book titles). Stronger titles are simple, clear, short and attract attention.

Most publishers, and not authors themselves, lead the the cover design process. It’s a surprise to most readers, but often authors have little say about the covers their books get. I’m always very involved and it’s something I’ve earned with four popular books and a design background: I always make sure the publisher knows, before I sign, that I’ll be centrally involved.

From How To Design A Great Cover, I reused the four principles in the cover design discussions:

  • Bet big on one visual concept
  • Title should be readable in online thumbnail / 10 feet away
  • Simplicity wins
  • Be bold: it’s better to have some people love it and some hate it than be bland and have no one care at all

Once the title was chosen I made four quick and deliberately rough mock-ups to get the design conversation started.

The first one has an image from No Pants Day, an annual event around the world. The last two use an amazing photo by Paul Zollo, who was kind enough to let me use it in chapter one of Confessions of a Public Speaker. I wanted a design that was playful and put nudity or the notion of being naked in a funny and social context, rather than in a sexual one.

no pants 1
no pants 2
no pants 3
no pants 4

Round 2

Adrian Morgan was the lead designer from Jossey-Bass, and he generated most of these mockups and did the final version of the design. He did an excellent job of exploring widely different directions, which is the only way to arrive at something strong. The biggest mistake in the early rounds is only considering a narrow range of similar options.

One challenge the titled created was it was about the absence of something: The Year Without Pants. The challenge, as fun as it was, was to figure out how to show the absence of something. Here’s the first round of mockups with brief commentary from me.

round 2-D

This was good, until you notice where that left hand is.


We liked this, and eventually made many variations of it, but there was always something creepy about the figure. We tried to do something more like the cover of Naked Statistics, going for cute rather than creepy, but it never quite worked.


This was interesting, but had little to do with pants or any other concept really (why is this on the back of a shirt, other than it looks interesting?) It didn’t take enough advantage of the opportunities for fun or surprise that the title provided.


The grey, yellow, white palette is strong, and surprising in a positive way for a business book. This was a strong candidate. It did hint at the smell of old gym shorts, but since the underwear was a background element, rather than in the foreground, it worked.

round 2-E

This one made me laugh the first time I saw it. And it still does. What kind of mad man wears bright red underwear? (I’d learn later you you can buy them here). It’s provocative, simple, bold, polarizing and raises questions, all things the book itself does.

round 2-C
round 2-A
round 2-B

Round 2 Voting

I often invite readers to vote on big decisions. It’s useful even if I don’t end up going with the most voted choice, as you folks always offer thoughtful comments and help me think about what I’m trying to do.

This time I picked 5 of the options with my editors at Jossey-Bass and let people vote.  367 people voted and the red briefs came in first by a small margin.

Round 3 (WordPress logo)

One direction we wanted to explore was incorporating the WordPress logo into the design. Since the book is about working at WordPress.com it was natural to try. We experimented with a few options, including swapping the red briefs, which I knew some people hated, for the safer option of blue boxers. I pitched it to Matt Mullenweg, but he made clear the logo was a trademark and basically impossible to use in a context like this.

Forgetting the book for a moment, I think WordPress boxers would be a big hit in the WordPress swag store, don’t you?


This last design was far too July 4th (red, white and blue) but it was a worthy experiment, and then very worthy of killing.

Round 4 (Refinement)

With the logo out of the running, we returned to the red briefs and refined the details.

We abandoned putting “WordPress.com” in the waistband as the design was cleaner and stronger without it: the white waistband almost underlines the title. We cleaned up various leading, kerning and spacing bits (Matt Thomas, Creative Director at Automattic at the time, gratefully lent me his eyes) and made the main title heavier, with tighter spacing.


I also mocked up different sizes which made clear a smaller object in the center worked better (We went with the middle version).


Round 5 – Final

And here is the final design.


Impact: The cover contributed to the movie

I’d planned to do a movie trailer for the book and the cover design gave us plenty to work with (watch to the end):

Impact: General

If you have a theory of what a good cover is, you’ll be disappointed at how little impact covers seem to have on the success of books. Go look at the top selling books on Amazon.com - you won’t find any consistent cover design theory at work here. Many books with bad covers sell well, and many books with great covers don’t. We love to argue about cover designs, but in reality we buy books because of our trust in who recommended it to us more than anything else.

But of course I do think design matters. These behind the scenes posts take time to put together, and more importantly they illustrate how much effort I put into thinking about the book covers themselves. It’s a singular image that will be reused thousands of times to represent the book.

By using the design four principles:

  • Bet big on one visual concept
  • Title should be readable in online thumbnail / 10 feet away
  • Simplicity wins
  • Be bold: it’s better to have some love it and some hate it than be bland and have everyone not care at all

It has been much easier to have fun with branding and promoting this book than any of my others. Even at the book launch party it was easy to invite friends and fans to have some fun, and reuse the briefs, the colors and the ideas from the book in all sorts of crazy and entertaining ways and I expect that to continue.

I’ve had people tell me they’re afraid to read the book at work, or give it to coworkers, because of the cover, which is fascinating. It’s just a pair of ridiculous underwear! We are all wearing underwear right now (one hopes) in all workplaces across the globe. If your organization can’t handle a bright red book, or is terrified of the existence of undergarments,  I doubt the challenging stories and ideas about management, work culture and creativity in the book itself will go over well either, which perhaps suggests the cover is doing its job of representing what the book is and who it might be for. But it’s hard to know: what do you think?




Author: "Scott" Tags: "Writing Well, Year Without Pants"
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