In defence of “It Depends” (vs. “Maybe”)

“It depends” is one of those really important concepts that not many people use. Perhaps because it lives in the uncomfortable, ambiguous territory between “yes” and “no”.

Image of a die with "maybe" and "yes"
Maybe “maybe” isn’t actually as bad as I make it out to be. But it depends…. image by jepoirrier via flickr

Sure, “maybe”, too, lives in this ambiguous territory. But “maybe” doesn’t commit to saying that ultimately a proper answer exists. “It depends” does.

“It depends” is like the classic if/else statement in programming. If [Condition A] is satisfied, then [Outcome A], otherwise [Outcome B]. The outcome rests on the information available – if [Condition A] is unknown, there cannot be an outcome.

“Maybe” is a lazy way of thinking because as soon as it is uttered thinking stops (or can be stopped without much repercussion). “It depends” forces the user to think of the conditions and its subsequent outcomes. Once “it depends” is uttered, a “depends on what?” rebuttal is instantly assumed.

“It depends” is a phrase that says to the listener, my answer is ultimately “this”; ultimately “that” –but without additional information I cannot commit to an answer.

One of the reasons why “it depends” is so seldomed said is because it is not easy to say. Listeners want “yes” and “no” answers because it cuts out all ambiguity, and most speakers give in to their listener’s wants to establish rapport and build a following.

A person who doesn’t want to take a stand on anything isn’t interesting. And any leader who dares utter “it depends” in public would be seen as indecisive.

peng prata
Man making roti-prata. It’s like pizza, but a lot more slamming involved. “Peng” is a dialect (hokkien) term for “bake”.

Pity the great leader who, after receiving more information, decides to overturn a popular decision because it no longer made sense. A less stellar leader would ignore the new information, not wanting to risk being known as “flip flopper”, or in local parlance someone who “peng prata” (see image).

Government policies that work well for a developing nation do not necessarily work well for a developed one. Different circumstances and different times call for different measures. As new information comes into play, new courses of action have to be made.

You’d think this was common sense. Still, you’ll hear of citizens complaining about 40-year-old policies being overturned, wondering why the government can’t ever seem to ever make up its mind (too many babies then; too many babies now; what on Earth is going on?)

“It depends” is not a dirty phrase. It says to the listener, “hang on, I don’t have all the information, but here’s what will happen if I did.”

Embrace it, and use it.

Adoption of technology: Sell the benefits, not the features

I suppose it’s a saying as old as marketing itself, but when trying to persuade people to take up an idea, sell the benefits, not the features. And yes, for you involved in technology adoption in a corporate setting, this includes you as well.

Let me explain with a story. I gave my dad my old Olympus digital SLR yesterday. I didn’t have much use for it, and since he was retired and didn’t have much to do I thought it might give him a little hobby to pass some time with.

Photo of Olympus E-420 that I gave to my dad
The Olympus E-420 that I gave to my dad

As he picked up the camera, he had lots of questions. “What’s this button do?”, “And the up button?”, “And this scroll?”, “How come the picture’s not taking?”, “Is this a zoom lens?” and so on.

I explained the ins and outs of ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and what the manual function did. I told him that in order to take a picture he had to hold the shutter button down for it to focus before the picture took. I told him yes, it was a zoom lens, and that yes, the “up” button was for the menu, and that… you get the idea.

He looked happy to have the new toy in his hands. But something was missing. I couldn’t tell him what types of pictures the camera was capable of taking. Nor was he sure how to work the camera into taking pictures that he envisioned in his mind. In other words, I couldn’t sell him the benefits of having a digital SLR, as opposed to a point-and-shoot. (The benefit of having a point-and-shoot was in the name itself: that it was simple to use. So simple, in fact, that all you needed to do to take a photograph was to point. And shoot.)

Photo of a bokeh created from lights of a Christmas tree
Bokeh created from the lights of a Christmas tree, courtesy of Wikipedia.

I remember back when I was a camera newbie (I’m now a serious hobbyist), looking through pictures in glossy magazines telling myself that one day I going to get myself a camera and take those pictures.

Imagine my disappointment when my first digital point-and-shoot –a 4.3 megapixel Fujifilm digital camera that cost S$1400–couldn’t produce proper blurred backgrounds or beautiful bokeh. (Bokeh, by the way, is one of the most amazing things I’ve learned about photography. If you’ve never heard about it, click on that link above and learn about it–you won’t be disappointed!)

The manual that came with my Fujifilm camera contained within its pages a section on aperture. In that section, there was an image of a girl with a magnificently blurred background and directions on how to get that effect. I followed the directions to the tee, but no matter how I tried I couldn’t replicate.

It wasn’t only after years later, when I started getting a little more serious and doing more research on the internet, like on wonderful sites like Digital Photography Review, that I realised it wasn’t really a case of knowing what to do, but was rather a case of knowing what your camera can do.

For years I stayed away from purchasing a new camera because I simply wasn’t sure if it could deliver. If only I knew.

Actual Sample Photographs

Then one day, I went into a Courts store and picked up a booklet showcasing samples of Samsung’s flagship mirrorless digital SLR cameras. And what a joy it was! In it, I saw creatively-taken pictures that had great bokeh and macro shots that made me salivate.

You mean it’s possible for me to take those pictures? I asked, and Yes, it answered.

Information on the camera and its settings the photographer used were printed on the images, allowing me to see that if I wanted to take that photograph, all I had to do was to pick up the camera. These were the images that were exactly what I had wanted to take back in the day. The images that were in the glossy magazines.

The booklet didn’t just tell me that the camera had a aperture setting that went as low as 1.4, and that it had an optical image stabaliser.

It told me that because the aperture went that low, blurred backgrounds were more easily achieved; and a low aperture combined with an optical image stabaliser it meant that photographs in low light conditions looked better than the competition. And not only that, but they showed actual sample images to prove their point.

I so wished that the digital SLR that I passed my dad had something like that. To give it to him and let him see the possibilities. I didn’t want him to use the digital SLR like any other point-and-shoot simply because he wasn’t aware of what it could really do.

Technology adoption: Sell benefits, not features

I suppose it’s the same with trying to push technology adoption of any kind People may know about the technology, but not about what it can do. Because they don’t know what it can do, they just use it in any way they know how, which is often not very well. Disenchanted, they fail to adopt the technology.

I’d been using MS Office for years without knowing about these things called macros and VBA. Years. After I learned about them, and picked them up as part and parcel as my development as a analytical professional, it’s been part of my analytical toolkit ever since. And I’ve started using MS Office much more often than before (as opposed to its open source or free alternatives).

If only someone had showed me what macros and VBA could do when I first started out. Sure, I may not have thought it was useful then, and not learned it straight away, but it would have been something I could consider whenever I encountered some problem that could have used it.

Sell the benefits, not the features. Let people know what something can do for them, and they’ll become users, fans, and influencers of adoption.

How to make sure your e-mail gets read

To make sure your e-mail gets read, write less.

People have a tendency to read something when it’s short. It doesn’t give them an excuse to read this later.

To ensure that your short e-mail contains all the points that you need to put across, consider using the inverted pyramid, making sure that your most important points are said before anything else is.

Keep things as short as they possibly can, without losing any information. Learn about Occam’s razor, and apply it to all your writing.

Proof? I’m guessing that you read this post was read in its entirety, didn’t you?

Always overestimate the difficulties of simple projects

I’ve worked in plenty of projects, at school, at work, and at play. One thing I’ve learned is to always overestimate the difficulty of a project. Especially if it appears easy.

A friend and I are currently working on building a website for a local B2B (business-to-business) company during our spare time. When we first took on this job we were both quite confident that it could be done quickly and without too much effort.

The requirements were simple, if a little vague (*project-management red flag alert*): build a website that’d showcase this company in a good, professional light, and that would encourage other business owners and decision makers to work with them.

We could this in a day. Or so we thought. The problem was that we thought this project was so easy

  • that we didn’t have to do proper planning;
  • that we didn’t have to prepare before we dove right into actual development; and
  • that we could do it in a day.

The fact that we thought it was so easy should caused us some concern.

Imagine our despair when just the other night we sat staring at the screen, debating over what image (if any) to use for the homepage. We picked some. But they were: too dark; too light; too cartoony; too inappropriate; too corny; too [name your own adjective].

We did this for hours. With an end-result of:  .

Yup: Nothing. This wasn’t as easy as we thought.

So we thought, okay, let’s work on other things first. We decided to work on some of the copywriting that went on the site. That part was fine, except that we realised that we had far less material on the company that we had thought.

We had requested for it, and they had given it. We just thought it was more substantial. Not a few paragraphs of half-baked mission statements and product descriptions that looked like they were written as filler text. Which they were.

In the end we settled down, got our thoughts together, and started planning with the assumption that this was going to be a difficult project. No more complacency. Just plain and proper project management.

Projects are never as easy as they seem. Especially if they seem easy.

The IT-Marketing Divide

I’d heard and read plenty of stories about the IT-Marketing divide, about how IT people don’t really see eye-to-eye with the “business” people. But I never really believed it because I’d never experienced it.

As a business/marketing analyst I interact with both sides quite a bit of the time. So if it was so common, shouldn’t I have experienced it by now? Well I guess I had been lucky.

Because my luck ran out, and it happened to me.

I was speaking to an IT person discussing the pros and cons of several types of reporting software and approaches. The technical knowledge he displayed was extraordinary, and his enthusiasm was as contagious as the flu – before long my nose was running and I wouldn’t wait to delve into the software he was talking about.

Then we wandered into the area of report distribution — the way reports are put into the hands of the “business users”. And that’s where our ideas diverged. (By the way, some background here on myself: I’m a Marketing Analyst, interacting more with Marketing than IT, but quite a fair bit either way.)

Marketing perspective: Create special intranet site for business users. Encourage business users to visit this site regularly, if possible have it as their homepage so they see it the moment they open a browser window. Have a “reports” section on this site where they can browse through links to reports under their business unit and/or to relevant “business” headings, like “Sales” or “Inventory”. By clicking on a link to a report, they are brought to the report on the Corporate Intranet site.

IT perspective: All reports in the company are placed into a [virtual] folder on the Corporate Intranet site. Business users should be going to this site to get all the reports they need.

The IT person disliked how business users had to “jump through hoops” (in Singaporean lingo “go one big round”) in order to get their reports. For him, requiring business users to first go through the Marketing Intranet, instead of just giving them the link to where all the reports were stored, was inefficient and a waste of time–for both business users and the poor people maintaining the Marketing Intranet.

What he couldn’t (or refused to) understand was that inefficiencies brought about by having an additional layer of navigation–via the Marketing Intranet– was more than offset by the reduction in search costs. The Marketing Intranet made looking for a specific report faster and easier. And it also allowed similar and related reports to be placed together, giving visibility to reports the user might not have known existed.

What is more, reporting was not the main purpose of the Marketing Intranet. It was only an extension to it. It acted as a portal for users to view announcements, SOPs, Excel templates, and more. Being able to have reports distributed through the Marketing Intranet helped to make it more “sticky”, so if we were to have moved the distribution of reports to the generic “reports” folder on the Corporate Intranet it would be sacrificing a great opportunity.

But the IT person never saw it this way. Not because he wasn’t smart enough, but because in his world these things are simply not part of the consideration. There’s a saying in my company that goes something like this, “if it doesn’t get measured, it doesn’t get done.” Paraphrasing this saying, you can say that because it wasn’t part of his mental model, it didn’t exist.

IT people tend to be really good at looking at how to make a process run faster and more efficiently. But they have a habit of forgetting about the people. They think that if you can make a process take 3 seconds to run instead of 15 seconds that’s all that matters, even if you have to sacrifice usability and make the process less intuitive. But clearly that’s not the right thing to do. After all, technology’s only useful if there are people using it.

I’m not saying that the Marketing or “business” people are always going to be right. God knows they aren’t. But IT needs to understand that there is more to technology than simply being the most cost-effective, or most-efficient, or any other numbers-driven statistic.

Why you need to learn MS Excel

Just five years ago Microsoft Excel was as alien to me as table manners is to a two-year-old child. Then during my university summer break in 2007 I got a job at a bank that changed all that. I learned that

  • Excel makes calculations of complex formulas easy;
  • Excel works great as a basic reporting tool; and
  • Excel is used extensively by just about everyone at work.

What I couldn’t understand was that if Excel was this useful, why wasn’t I taught it in school? Then it dawned on me that I probably was. But because I didn’t know exactly what it did or how it was used for, I never really cared. So I never paid attention. And I never learned.

I now know what Excel can do and how useful it is. So I’m writing this now, hoping that you will read this and go, wow, I need to learn Excel now. And my husband/girlfriend/child. Heck, my dog needs to learn Excel.

When I say Excel, I really mean a spreadsheet program. And when I say learn, I mean really learn. As in “deliberate learning” (as opposed to learning by accident).

There are really only two things that I want to emphasise here: that Excel’s used by many different people in many different ways; and that mastering it will enable you to get much more done.

MS Excel is used by everybody in so many ways

If there’s one big reason why you should be learning Excel it’s this: Excel’s used by just about everybody and in so many different ways. 

One reason why I probably never paid attention in school if they had taught us Excel was that there wasn’t any real benefit. Sure, we needed to do some basic financial modelling and play around with “what-if” analyses (e.g. what would happen to our revenue if our product costs 20% more to make? How about if it cost 10% more to make?) during business classes.

But who actually does this sort of thing in the real world? I’m going to be a teacher/housewife/writer/scientist, not a business owner or financial analyst. So just how often do we get to use this in the real world anyway?

Well, pretty darn often. Just about every single field out there makes use of some sort of analysis:

  • A teacher trying to figure out how your students are doing as compared to their peers
  • A small business owner wondering which product to keep and which to retire
  • A scientist trying to figure out the homogeneity of a dataset
  • A housewife keeping track of household expenses and determining if it’s a good idea to send her children to $1000/mth tuition classes
  • A Donn Lee trying to see the relationship between his weekly running mileage and his (unfortunately heavy) weight

You get the idea.

Mastering MS Excel lets you get home on time

My current company lives and breathes spreadsheets. But we still have people, newbies and veterans alike, who aren’t especially well-versed in it. One thing I’ve noticed about these people is that they tend to work longer hours because even though they know what to do analytically (they can explain it to me using plain english), but they don’t know how to do it efficiently (or sometimes at allin Excel.

Every once in a while I’ll get a call from one of them asking me to help them with a spreadsheet. So I’d walk to their desk and they’ll show me what they were having a problem with and I’d fix it or otherwise advise them on it. Sometimes, the answer would be a “you can’t do that in Excel” — and this after they’d been trying it without success for the past few hours.

Many times I’d also fix something else “by the way”: spreadsheets loading too slowly due to formulas linked to external workbooks with tens of thousands of lines; inefficient use of nested formulas; and sometimes, in the more serious cases, formulas used incorrectly and returning the wrong numbers — if these were presented at a managerial or external meeting it’d be disastrous.

Would you love to be able to work through spreadsheets like magic? I cannot say enough how freeing it is to be able to have an intuitive idea of what you want to do in Excel, and be able to execute that idea through a mastery of the tool. Learn MS Excel, and go home on time, please. Your family will thank you.

If you haven’t already, go to your local library and pick up a book on Excel, or do a search on Google and YouTube for Excel tutorials and learn from there. Plenty of free resources abound.

Some external resources to get you started:

Two versions of edonn.com

The wife tells me she doesn’t find my latest posts interesting. Well, I say to her, of course not. They’re not meant for you.

Which is a little of a lie, because for the most part I do want her to read what I write. I’ve got no stronger supporter; to lose this one would mean a hit of 50% of the reader base I’m reaching out to.

She says that I ought to have two versions of edonn.com: one for the “professional” me, and one for the “personal” me. Though at first thought I laughed off the suggestion, thinking/knowing she was saying it out of jest, I later came to realise that it could make sense.

Just change the home page, she said, so I can choose to just read the personal you.

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. My dear, stay tuned, because that’s just what I’ll do.

How to write effective e-mails to persuade and inform using the Inverted Pyramid

To write effective e-mails always assume readers are starved for time. Start with the most important points you want to put across whenever you write e-mails that are meant to inform or persuade.

This ensures that as soon as your readers read the first few sentences of your writing they’ll know what it’s about. And even if they skim or skip past the rest, you’ll have told them what you wanted them to know.

Take this article for example. If you had stopped reading after the first paragraph, you’d still have gotten it’s main idea: start with the most important points.

The Inverted Pyramid

Image of the inverted pyramid
The inverted pyramid — use it to write effective e-mails.

One useful tool to help you visualise how you should write starting with the most important points is that of the Inverted Pyramid. The inverted pyramid is a tool that’s traditionally been used to great effect by journalists and is a visualisation tool for writers to remind themselves that their most important points should go first (i.e. the biggest part of the pyramid) followed by everything else, in order of importance.

Though perhaps an invention that mostly benefitted editors, since it made it easier for them to chop off less important bits of the articles journalists submitted, it has also been immensely beneficial to readers. Especially the time-starved and impatient ones. And who isn’t?

With the articles following the inverted pyramid rule, readers can read the headline and first few paragraphs to get the most important bits of the story. Those who are still interested can continue to read on, while those who are not can move on to the next.

Using the inverted pyramid rule to write effective e-mails

Most e-mails are written to either inform or persuade. To make sure that they are effective, apply  the inverted pyramid rule to them.

If an e-mail is to inform a reader to do something (i.e. an e-mail with a call to action), put any action you need your reader to take at the top or as close to the top of the e-mail as you possibly can. This should be considered the most important part of your e-mail, since without it your e-mail wouldn’t have been written in the first place.

If an e-mail is to persuade, your most important bits would be to put the benefits of whatever you’re trying to persuade your reader about at the top. And remember, the benefits should be framed in terms of your reader (e.g. a faster hiring process or less time taken to process expense claims). Everyone wants to know what’s in it for them.

By putting in the benefits at the top you encourage the reader to read on. You want your reader to think something like this: Now I know that if I do as instructed by the end of this week the hiring process will be smoother and much faster. What exactly is it that I have to do? Ah, here it is in the second paragraph, the steps listed nicely for me.

If you had put what your reader had to do at first, your reader could have just flagged the e-mail as a to-do and left it to be forgotten another day.