Archive for the marketing and selling Category

I wish I had more time to spend on marketing research.  I keep thinking of things that need measuring but never seem to find the time to develop the metrics.

Take the term I use in the title of this post:  “time to cliché”.   It may be a WOT (in both “Wade original term” and “wot?????” senses), but I’ll leave to those less lazy than I the task of  searching for prior use.

I get an awful lot of email that isn’t technically spam, but might as well be for all the likelihood of my opening the messages.  (For me, the technical definition of spam is something like “unsolicited, without offering double-opt out, etc.”)  It might as well be spam because the subject line tries to pull via cliche.  Using phrases like:

?    ”free web summit”
?    ”"double your …”
?    ”the secrets to …”
?    ”official notice”
?    ”save up to…”
?    ”how to … Now!”
?    ”you’re invited…”
?    ”only XX hours left”
?    ”I don’t usually do this, but …”
?    ”I blew it…”

And the same is true for the teaser copy on the snail mail solicitations…
?    ”urgent update”
?    ”final
?    ”official correspondence”

And so on.

Now, I understand that these cliches are used because they worked in the past.  And, direct response being what it is in the Internet age, abandoned when they don’t pull enough.  That I’m still getting all of the above means they probably are still working to some extent.

But it’s amazing how quick they become tired and unproductive.  Take the first one.  I’ve been offered more web summits than there are peaks in the Rockies, Himalayas, and Andes combined.  “double” and “secrets” and all the others — instant trashing.

And it happens faster and faster all the time.

And I don’t think its just me finally developing better bullshit filters.  I’m still pretty gullible, after all.  But I think individual pieces of language are getting worn out faster and faster.  Scroll down your inbox (if that’s where you keep your clutter), or though your email trash before you hit “empty” — look at all the phrases that bring forth that delete key in your mind….and think about how recently it was that the same subject line phrase would have pulled you into opening the email.

For years I’ve taught about the dangers of cliché in writing.   But a hidden assumption of that teaching was that it takes awhile for something to become a cliche, a while during which the word or phrase has social or economic value.  How should one approach the use of cliche when the half-life of meaning begins to resemble that of a transuranic element.

I don’t think the answer is obvious anymore.


I’ve remarked briefly before about my changing business model for Iterative Listening. Part of the story lies in my realization that, for lots of reasons, I wasn’t interested in having “direct mail/emaill copywriting (business-to-consumer)” at the center, as it was in the original plan.  One reason:   I’m just not convinced that the “tried and true” of direct response will work with the various Gen Y-related demographics I’m most interested in..

It isn’t that Gen Y won’t respond to some direct mail/email solicitation.  They have, they do, and they will continue to.

But their information filters work very, very different than older direct response demographics, and that makes some of the DR marketer’s traditional techniques highly problematic.

Think of it this way:  any given marketing activity can engender three types of “response”:  (i) positive response (leads, sales, other conversion goals); (ii) non-response (the most frequent, call it “send it to the trash” response; and (iii) negative response.  This last is the most dangerous, and the kind that an awful lot of direct mailers simply seem to ignore.

I call it the “pissed-off percentage”.  People in group (iii) don’t just trash your letter or email.  They remember.  They take umbrage at your wasting their time.  They remember, and they spread the word.  And the word is not good.

As long as the positive response is “big enough,” traditional direct mailers have always been happy.  (And so are those who write copy for them, by the way, since copywriter fees/royalties are directly a function of the copywriters ability to “pull”.)

And it’s worked.  I can point to dozens of copywriters whose own financial success (and their clients’ financial success) is directly related to their ability to pull.  Focus on making group (i) as big as possible.  Period.

Look closely at the demographics.  These successful writers get their  greatest successes with whom?   How often are they aiming at Gen Y?  Or even Gen X?  How many of them are focusing on Boomers.  Seniors?  Super-seniors?

Or they’re writing B-to-B copy.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that B-to-B copy looks different than B-to-C copy, and pretty much always has.  Business buyers — well, they just don’t have the time or the patience to deal with those things that work in many B-to-C markets:  constant upselling, daily autoresponders, telemarketing.  And their “piss off factor” is very high.

And Gen Y is the same way.

Take up-selling.  Nothing wrong with it.  Gotta do it.  But do it “too much,” and the recipient stops reading you completely.  They see the envelope from the Upselling Institute, and it goes immediately to the trash.  They see UI is the sender, and one click removes the message from the inbox.

And if they keep seeing UI, and you make them scroll down to the unsubscribe button — well, they don’t see that as “easy”.  They see that as someone wasting their multi-tasking time.  And they’ve joined the pissed-off percentage.

And guess what?  A lot of those Gen Yers on your mailing list?  The ones who haven’t unsubscribed yet?   You might think they’re still warm or semi-warm prospects.  But they are colder than cold.  They’re as cold as a bath of liquid nitrogen.

They’re illustrations of the Klingon/Sicilian proverb about revenge.

Okay, perhaps that’s stretching the point — since most of them simply aren’t going to be bothered to waste any more time with you.

But they are going to talk about you.  Because they don’t like being “just a customer.”

By the time you identify how to transplant your upselling strategy and “discover” a new marketing channel like Facebook or Twitter, they’re already living their real internet lives somewhere else.  Somewhere else where they’re spreading negative vibes about you.

You’ve violated the authenticity principle.  You’ve entered the realm where the best that you can hope for is that they ignore you.  And the worst — they spread the word about how your only interest is your revenue stream.  They don’t mind you wanting to be rich.  But they do mind you only wanting them for their money.

Whether they should have such a view of the marketplace is beside the point.  The fact is, they have it.  And they live it.

They’re not into “doing business” (at least not when they’re behaving as prospective buyers).  They’re into relationships.  And they’re not interested in relationships with people who see them only as prospects.

It’s basic marketing, really.  Learn the psychology of your market first.  Then choose from your box of tools.  Not the other way around.

That hasn’t changed.

What has changed are the consequences if you don’t do it.

These prospects have choices beyond “yes” and “no.”

And they know it.


Been a while since I’ve posted.  Various personal and professional stuff pushed blogging to the bottom of the to-do list for a couple of months.  Today’s post will be short (for me), but the next one — well, I expect it to be one of the longest ever.  So be warned.  :)

In particular I’ve found myself testing the principles of iterative listening in my role as VP for marketing for the Economic and Business Historical Society.  (Actually, the official title is now “VP for marketing and membership”, but that’s another story for another day.  And both titles are horribly inapt:  EBHS is a very small organization (under 150 members), zero marketing budget.  I’m marketing guy now, because, well, I’m the one who rants about the need to market.)

In any event, I’m just back from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the organization’s 34th annual conference. I have no regrets — the experience has been invaluable and, as always, I had a good deal of fun at the conference — but it sucked up time.  A lot of it:  in the 6 weeks prior to the conference alone I probably spent 200 pro bono hours on EBHS stuff.

And the conference was exhausting.  Just three days, but I was in Grand Rapids for seven, starting early and working past midnight most days.  Had planned the extra days for “relaxing,” perhaps a bit of cold-calling with an Iterative Listening promo package and my business card.  But didn’t make a single IL call.

And relaxing?  Well, I did treating myself to a couple long and expensive dinners.  (If you dig top-end dining, Grand Rapids’ 1913 Room, the only 5-diamond restaurant in the state of Michigan, is worth every penny. Menu is here.  I’ve never had a better meal than the two I took at the 1913.  Not even close.  Of course I’ll be paying for them for a couple months using the Visa plan.)

It’s actually only the second time I’ve been involved on the “organization” side of a conference, and as with that other time — way back in graduate school — I really wasn’t necessary to the process.  Mostly I just eavesdropped on the conference organizers as I tried to figure out what my most important tasks as “marketing guy” were.

Now, to the marketers in the audience, this will have sounded weird.  How can a guy who claims to have “marketing” in his business description not know what he’s supposed to be doing?

But, you see, that’s one of the disadvantages of the Iterative Listening paradigm — you’re more likely to have to start near ground zero.  Listening first can mean a lot of listening first.   And its especially so when, as here, you’re coming in on the ground floor.   Until I was elected last April in Montgomery, it never even contemplated having a need for someone focused on marketing.  The organization is 99% academics, busy ones.  And so I’ve been educating as much as marketing this first year.  Which means getting inside the org values and practices in a way that, well, takes a lot of time.

More on the marketing side later, though.  As I’ve been processing the conference and getting back to work on the “Barriers of Faith” book, though, I’ve come up with the following question, with which I’m going to end this post:

How is successful teaching like putting on a successful conference?

In my next post, will be my own book-chapter-length answer.  An answer that, I’m sure, will annoy a lot of my colleagues in higher ed.

But, in the meantime, though, what do *you* think?


Sometimes you just, well, lose it.

The other night we went over to our neighbors’ house for dinner.  As always there was much interesting conversation.  As we came to dessert, the conversation moved to the needs of higher education in general, and the needs of Luther in particular.

I was trying to explain the need for niche marketing and what strategies niche marketing might require of the college.  I claimed that, no matter how much I might agree with him about the college being a place of “high quality liberal arts education,” success in the 21st century would not come by selling it as such.  That just being high quality was not enough for a school operating under the limitations imposed by a middle-tier endowment.

And I simply could not get my points across.  And, eventually, passion got the better of me.  My volume rose, with the tone of my tone increasingly reflecting my frustrations.  Oh, I didn’t start throwing things and leave in a fit of rage.  There was no screaming, no gratuitous ad hominem attacks.  We parted on the usual good terms, neither of us unhappy or angry, our friendship unaffected.

But the experience got me thinking, because the last few weeks have been one of those periods in my intellectual life where I’ve seemed to have more trouble than usual getting people to listen.  More trouble getting people to see what I’m really saying, whether it is in regard to marketing, to higher education, to the future of organizations I’m devoted to, like Luther or of the Green Bay Packers, or in regard to the listening paradigm in general.

I expect it’s a kind of period that everyone goes through from time to time, a period when everyone seems particularly dense and no one seems persuadable.  When no one seems willing to listen to things worth listening to.

And when the non-listening has nothing to do with secret agendas, or bad people who don’t care about what we have to say, or because they’re stupid, or because they’re too dense to listen to reason.  None of those apply to my neighbors.   Not generally, and not last night. They aren’t that kind of people.  They weren’t being bad or stupid or dense last night.  And nor, come to think of it, have been most of the people who have been frustrating me of late.

And it my inability to persuade isn’t because I’m making bad arguments or because I’m not providing evidence they value.  It’s not because I’m wrong or because I’m stupid or because I’m dense/

No, there’s something else happening.  Something else happening preventing persuasion.  Something else preventing full listening.

And that something else?  It’s a kind of faith.

Oh, not capital-F Faith in the manner of Christians believing in salvation through Jesus.

Not even small-f faith in the manner of economists believing in the value of “everything else the same” assumptions when talking about demand.

But it is faith.  A subscript-f kind of faith.

One (or more) of those unacknowledged (and sometimes unacknowledgable) deep triggers that shape our thinking in fundamental ways.

I’ve always liked the Habermas term, “pre-judging.”  It gives part of the flavor, and avoids at least part of the negative connotation that goes with words like “prejudice” and “bias.”  We come to places of our disagreement — be they political places, intellectual places, moral places, whatever — with pre-existing conclusions already shaping our practices of speaking and listening.   Deep triggers that shape not just our conclusions, but the manner of our thinking itself.

Yet these prejudgings, whether erroneous or not, being deep underneath, are extremely hard to get a handle on.  Unlike the garden variety biases that come from secret agendas, stupidity, and such, are very difficult to even ackowledge, because they’re very, very hard to see.  We, and those seeking to persuade us, are all in the position of the sightless person trying to perceive the difference between royal blue and aqua, of the deaf person trying to perceive the difference between a dog’s growl and a cat’s meow.

These are the most deeply buried of our faiths.  Capital-F Faiths are easy to see, as easy to feel, as the cross I wear around my neck.  Small-f faiths are easy to pull out in reasoned discussion with bright and earnest people willing to point out “hidden assumptions” and the like.

But subscript-f faiths?  Subscript-f faiths aren’t.

Subscript-f faiths go to why my neighbor doesn’t understand the criteria of marketers.

Why my non-economic colleagues persistently look at the same empirical evidence that I look at, but cannot see the value of placing emphasis on economic growth as I would have them do.

Why *I* can’t stop myself from letting my passion and frustrations get the better of me.

Subscript-f faiths go to why some people — students, colleagues, clients, good people — don’t listen to our ideas as we want them to.

No matter how good our ideas.

So, how do we get each other past the barriers of our subscript-f faith?


In the world of direct mail marketing, someone who can consistently write copy that generates a five percent response rate will soon be making well into six figures.  Think about the fraction of your junk mail that you open, much less bother to respond to the offer included therein, and you see why.   Five percent is huge.

Being able to write that kind of copy is rare.  Not only do you need a command over the language that dwarfs that of the average professor of English, you must be able to identify and pull upon people’s deep emotional triggers.  If you want to hire one of those established high-response copywriters, you’re likely going to have to wait a while before they get to your package.

And positive response does not necessarily mean conversion.  Not all direct mail is designed to sell directly — some is designed primarily to get the prospect to provide contact data and “request more information.”  And even those solicitations seeking immediate sale must deal with returns and cancelled orders decreasing the total.

But 5 percent is usually going to be considered an excellent response.

Yet even a five percent positive response means 19 out of 20 people have a negative one.  19 out of 20 don’t order.  19 out of 20 don’t listen to the message.  And when the product being sold is an innovative one, 19 out of 20 don’t change their lives.

Direct mail can thrive on 1 out of 20.  (Actually, it can thrive on a good deal less.)

Even with increasing postage and printing costs, even having to pay royalties to the copywriter (most of those 5% copywriters are going to demand a royalty on every letter mailed, not just on the one’s that actually get a response), even with all the other costs incident to using the U.S. Snail, the cost of sending junk mail remains pretty cheap.

Take just postage, one of the two biggest costs of any direct mail campaign (the other is printing).  The most expensive per-piece mailing I’ve seen are some of those sent by political fundraisers who get the benefits of “nonprofit” subsidies and the distribution of federal election funds.  Fancy mailing tubes, clear plastic envelopes showing a crisp new dollar inside, enclosing return first class postage.  My mother (the elderly are natural prey for such variations) actually has received solicitations sent by certified mail!

But these are the exception.   The USPS rate for bulk mailing of a letter via standard mail by a for-profit enterprise can be as low as 14.6 cents.

Now, compare direct mail’s world to that of higher education.  The direct mail copywriter’s job is tough — identifying and pulling on deep emotional triggers of the prospect.  Most people aren’t that good at reading others.  But if educators are doing what I claim they should, and striving to aid students in developing understanding (as opposed to just acquiring knowledge), they are trying to change those deep triggers, a much more difficult job.

And, not unsurprisingly, the per-student cost of that educating is far, far larger than the few-dollars-per-item of even the most extravagant direct mail campaign.  And not even the most wasteful of nonprofits, the ones who mail my mother one or more letters almost every day, are will spend per person in a year what it costs to provide a year of college-level education.

Which brings me to the kicker:  Given their difficult task, given the orders-of-magnitude-greater costs of educating, what are higher ed’s response rates?  What would be a good response rate?  What would a bad one?

Each of these proves to be a bit of a trick question, because as far as I can tell, no one knows.  Unlike direct mail, we simply haven’t developed the “metrics” needed.  When it comes to the productivity of education, terms like “response” and “conversion” are little more than (perhaps) useful abstractions.

Consider, for example, the five possible routes we might have for getting the answers needed.  Each of these represents “evidence” that some people look to when trying to evaluate the performance of institutions or teachers.  In practice, each of them is at best pretty bad at actually assessing how institutions or teachers enable understanding.

Method 1:  Look at the bottom line.  Institutions that are doing well are presumptively providing sufficient value to their customers because their customers are paying more than the education costs.  Institutions that run on red ink are not.  Market success is evidence of market value.  As an economist type, I have a good deal of sympathy for such a “revealed preference” argument, but most in higher education — lacking my “bias” toward markets — are going to reject such a claim out of hand.

And in one significant way, they are correct.  Education isn’t just about satisfying current needs.  It isn’t just about providing students (or their parents, or their scholarship granters) with what they want.  It’s about shaping their ways of thinking so their ways of wanting can evolve.  Internet pornographers satisfy wants, but they aren’t particularly good at education are they?

Method 2:  Look at student evaluations.  These are higher ed’s version of the “customer satisfaction survey.  Several months ago I ranted here about the evil surveys inundating our e-mail and popping up on web sites.  Compared to the way in which colleges and universities typically collect information about student satisfaction, however, those emails and pop-ups represent cutting-edge information gathering.  Survey design is very difficult and time consuming — and the faculty committees that design student evaluations simply lack the time (and sometimes the quantitative understanding) to be very good at it.

But even if overnight all student evaluations magically became the epitome of quality survey design, they would still be problematic in measuring the development of “student understanding.”  Understanding isn’t revealed by what people say after an educational experience, it’s revealed by how they think and do in the rest of their life.

Method 3:  Look at alumni giving, especially at the giving of those more distant in time from their graduation.  Alumni have had time to reflect on the value they have received.  If after 5 years or 10 years or 20 they have decided to give, that says something about how valuable they see their education as having been.

Though I’m not sure whether an annual gift at the level of a car payment or two reflects a high or low perception of that value.  And I’m certainly not willing willing to say that the differential rates of alumni giving between Harvard University and the average liberal arts college reflect in any significant way a greater development of student understanding over the years.

And, more importantly, I’m not at all clear on how one goes about connecting levels of alumni giving to claims about what happened years before on the level of individual faculty member working with individual student.  Even if we accept the debatable premise that economic affluence is neatly correlated with greater understanding, how are we to tell that affluent alums “grew” because of their educator’s efforts or despite them?

Method 4:  Look at letters faculty receive from former students.  Every faculty member I know has received this sort of letter.  They’re wonderful to get, and valuable.  They invariably say that your efforts have paid off.  That all the crap you deal with as a teacher is “worth it.”  That some are listening and learning and developing better understanding.

And the responses are generally quite detailed and specific, so one can get some real meaningful feedback on what might have happened inside the writer’s mind as a result of your teaching effort.

Only, this kind of evidence has two problems.   Big ones.

First, every faculty member who has taught for any period of time gets these letters from time to time.  Even the bad ones.  (Indeed, in my experience, some of the teachers who keep the best track of such letters, as in being able to pull them out of their file drawers in bunches as opposed to leaving them as part of general office clutter or tossing them out shortly after receiving them,  are among the worst teachers in the academy.)  And so there is a real problem in correlating the comments with “best teaching practices.”

Second, the rate at which these letters trickle in (over a period of years and decades, not days weeks like the feedback from direct mail packages) is well under 5%.  And we don’t really know how to interpret the 95%.   We don’t know whether the non-writing former students consider us to have been wasters of their time and money, or whether they learned so much that they are simply too busy to write.

Method 5:  Essay exams.  Since teachers are in the business of giving exams, you would think they could design exams that tested understanding as well as knowledge transmission.  But can we?

Yes, we can evaluate the quality of their response to our questions.  (Assuming we can figure out the correct questions to ask, which itself is easier said than done:  questions that truly test “understanding” of the economic way of thinking that can be answered in a take-home essay, much less on a timed exam,  as opposed to ones that test the ability to “think like the professor,” prove very, very difficult to write.  Writing and grading a “List and explain the causes of the Civil War” question is straightforward.  Writing and grading a “Discuss the importance for us of the causes of the Civil War” is a far different matter.

And using an exam to dig deeper still, to evaluate the development of an ability to ask questions? To evaluate the ability to decide whether an economic or historical way of thinking should be applied in a particular case?   Well, many dedicated teachers I’ve talked to about are so skeptical of exams in this regard that they see no point in trying.

Alas, any current methods for measuring the response we ought to be looking for remain rudimentary.  We in the education business will learn a lot if we look at the practices of direct mail marketers, for at this moment in time they have developed sophisticated methods we have barely explored.  Ultimately, however, we need measurement tools that will go far beyond theirs.  Tools that measure responses most marketers, direct mail or otherwise, don’t need to be concerned with.


A couple weeks ago I spoke of the requirements of a listening mindset.  About how one can’t truly listen, either as a teacher or as an innovation marketer, unless one first recognizes that one’s audience does not see your questions as the questions of importance.  About how you can’t solve your problems with others not listening unless you are willing to bear the lion’s share of the listening cost burden.

About how one can’t truly listen well unless one ASSUMES that the audience has GOOD reasons for not listening to you.  That regardless of whether you think listening to you is more important to your student or prospect than anything else, your student and your prospect don’t agree.  That they consider those other things to be valuable and that, when it comes to getting them to listen, theirs is the only opinion that matters.

Today, I want to speak of the remaining requirement for a listening mindset, iteration.  Or, as my company motto puts it, “Listen.  Think.  Repeat.”

Listening cannot be something one does once, before moving on and starting to talk/sell again.   It has to be done again and again and again.  No matter how good a listener you think you might be, you aren’t going to hear well the first time.  Your own biases, prejudices, your own “usual suspects,” aren’t going to let you.  You’re going to hear the other guy’s words, but the meaning you ascribe to those words is going to reflect your values, not his.

Nothing wrong with that, per se.  You’re entitled to your values, and listening is not about changing your values.  It’s not about your values at all.

Listening is about hearing the other person’s values.  It’s about what Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments called “sympathy” or “fellow-feeling.”  It’s about what the literary critic Kenneth Burke called “identification.”  It’s about mentally walking a mile in the other person’s shoes.

And then walking another mile.  And another.

Teachers and those who would market innovation share one character trait — they tend to be very passionate about their subject.  I teach economics because, deep in my bones, I believe that the world would be better off if more people used the “economic way of thinking.”  Larry Page and Sergei Brin started Google because, deep in their bones, they believed that a new approach to online search would change the world, and change the world for the better.

Teaching is about changing the world and improving people’s lives.  Innovation is about changing the world and improving people’s lives.

But if you’re out to change the world, it’s easy to forget that others aren’t interested in changing.  That they’ve got very different notions about what improves their lives than you do.  As a teacher, as an innovator, you’re a true believer.

And true believers need to be extra attentive in finding ways of short-circuiting their own brains.  Ways of keeping their passions from reducing the effectiveness of their listening.

And part of doing that short-circuiting is repetition.  Make yourself listen again and again, and the varying contexts of your listening will lead you to hear better.

But iteration is more than mere repetition.

It’s not just asking the same question of your audience again and again.  It’s asking different questions.  It’s asking the same question in different ways.  It’s asking the question in a way that prompts a short answer and then asking it in a way that prompts a long one.  And then asking it a third time in a way that brings out an answer that contradicts one or both of the first two.

Iteration is repetition that adapts.  Iteration is paying attention to how people respond to your actions, and then changing the way you do things.  Changing how you listen.  It’s asking the question a fourth way, even though you’re pretty sure you understand where the other guy is coming from after the first three.

And it’s not always going with what works.  When it comes to listening, nothing works every time.  There is no simple system that, if you memorize its steps, will always get you listening more effectively.  Any “five steps to effective listening” is just going to wire particular thinking patterns in your brain; and listening is about subverting those thinking patterns, not replacing one hardwiring with another.

Iteration is about toggling your brain.  It’s not about finding ways of removing constraints or thinking outside the box.

It’s exactly the opposite.  It’s about recognizing the way(s) in which you process incoming information, and then forcing yourself to choose different ways.  It’s about constraining your thinking more rather than less.

This is part of the genius of Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats”.  By providing a method where you can switch from “emotional” (Red Hat) to “pointing out problems” (Black Hat) to “collecting information (“White Hat”) modes of thinking and so on, you subvert the usual suspects that “gut feeling” and “critical thinking” and “research” might otherwise draw you to naturally, even as you still reap the benefits of each.

But much as I like the Six Hats method, I don’t always use it the same way.  And I don’t always use it.

Sometimes I’ll substitute one of the thinking methods of Genrikh Altshuller’s TRIZ.  Or I’ll do a heavy dose of Socratic method in the manner of my law school teachers.  Or I’ll just do an open-ended one-minute class assessment.  (“Take one minute and a piece of paper, and answer the following question:  what’s working in class, what’s not?”)

I love mind-mapping, and so I often use it as a note taking method while I’m reading a student paper or conferencing.  But I don’t always use it.  Sometimes I’ll strive to put everything in a nice linear outline.  And still others I won’t use keyboard or pen at all, instead just focus on leaning toward or away from the speaker.

It’s not about always going with the gut and taking things on faith.  It’s not about always using the scientific method.  It’s not about always being linear or always being nonlinear.

It’s about sometimes choosing to emphasize particular thinking muscles as you strive to listen and sometimes choosing others.  And it’s about being very aware of your own preferred ways of thinking and interacting with students/prospects, and then being aware about when you use each of them.

It isn’t about thinking in the right way.  It’s about always being aware that, despite the particulars of your hardwiring, you can still choose which mode of thinking to emphasize at a given moment.  As long as you regularly make thinking about how you are thinking a conscious part of your thinking.

“Always” is the enemy of effective listening.  Any always will just privilege different usual suspects.

“Sometimes, and sometimes not, and being conscious of which it is at the moment” — that’s the key.


Look closely at what I have written over the years, online or off, and you’ll discover I’m rather passionate about questions.  About which questions we are asking.  About which questions we should be asking.  About the questions beneath the questions, the questions we think we are asking and about the questions we are really asking.

Whether it’s what I’ve written here since starting Iterations last May, what I’ve written in my scholarly papers, or my comments on computer boards and blogs elsewhere, I’m always going on about “which question?”  And I’ve lost count of the number of mini-lectures I’ve given to students over the years on the importance of getting the questions right.

When it comes to effective listening, getting the questions right is absolutely critical.  You can’t truly listen to someone else if you are not able to understand the question(s) they are purporting to answer.

And if you want to get someone else to change their mind, to get them to agree with you in a way that has the kind of consequences you desire (their choices about purchasing, voting, or religious belief), you need to make sure they are listening.  And making sure *they* are listening means *you* must be sure they care about the same questions you care about.

Yet for all its centrality, “Which question?” is not something people want to think about very often or very deeply.  Because, for most of us, most of the time, the questions are “obvious.”  We don’t even contemplate asking about them, because, well, we already know what *the* questions are.  They’re so obvious that when someone like Wade comes forward and suggests we take a re-look, his suggestion not only gets rejected, it may not even be noticed.

*     *     *     *     *

The need to get people to think about “which question?” is how the educator’s task is typically harder than that of the traditional marketer.  A marketer must plug into the prospect’s core values; but an educator must strive to change those values.

It isn’t that the marketer’s task is easy in any absolute sense.  Far from that.

A marketer still has to identify the questions that matter to his prospects and then provide an answer to those questions.  And that can be very tough.   Potential prospects for the next good or service, or for the last one, rarely run around announcing what they care most deeply about.
Marketers must identify the our deep-seated desires, and then appeal to those core fears, hopes, and aspirations to influence people’s buying behavior.  If it were easy to identify the deep-seated triggering questions of “what makes me happy” and “what makes me sad,” there would be no need to pay top marketers the big bucks they command.  Anyone, ahem, could do it.

No, marketing is not “easy”.

However, speaking as someone with toes in both fields, the educator faces a still bigger task.  Like the marketer, the educator must be able to identify the triggering questions that matter to his students.  But where, having found those questions, the marketer can next proceed to provide answers, the educator’s first persuasive task is finding a way to get the student to change the questions asked.

Education isn’t just “putting things in terms they can understand”.  Education isn’t just appealing to their interests and values.  It’s getting them to ask about new terms and new ways of understanding.  It’s about changing their interests and changing their values.

One task is all about appealing to pre-existing beliefs.  The other is all about subverting and blowing up those beliefs and replacing them with new ones.

*     *     *     *

This difference between “finding the questions” and “changing the questions” is also why the most innovative products often get outsold by less innovative ones.  It’s particularly easy for the innovator to get caught up by the beauty or the excitement or the “revolutionary change” character of her innovation and assume that her customers have the same core emotional triggers.

And it’s made worse by the fact that the innovator cannot simply identify and appeal to core emotions in the usual way of marketers.  The innovator must also convince her customer to ask new questions.

For example, scroll back in time to the iPod moment.  Selling the iPod wasn’t just providing a new answer to the old question of “What’s the best solution to people’s need for portable music listening?”   It was getting people to ask a new question, a “What’s the coolest way to listen to my tunes?”  sort of question.

And jokes about midlife crises aside, “being cool” isn’t always the core emotion for a lot of the 45-year-old suburban men and women who have become a big part of the iPod market.  An appeal to “Cool” might have been sufficient to convince early adopters of Gen Y, but Apple wasn’t going to get all those late Boomers unless they first found a way to convince them that Cool was cool enough.

*     *     *     *

So, if one is an educator or an innovation marketer, how does one get the questions right?  And assuming that one manages to get one’s own questions right, how does one persuade others to do the same?

/begin commercial

Well, for $100 an hour, 5 hour minimum, you can hire the services of Iterative Listening, LLC.  Just drop me an e-mail at, and we can get started.   :)

/end commercial

Seriously, though, what I want to do today and over the next several weeks is explore in some detail how both teachers and innovation marketers can get their “customers” to change the questions they care about.  To explore several particulars of what I call “the listening mindset.”

Today, I want to mention two.

The first key to developing a listening mindset is to truly recognize the problem.  If you want your listener (your student, your customer) to care about your questions, you must first recognize that those questions are not yet the questions they care about.

And I mean really recognize this.   It’s sad to say, but the great majority of college professors, even many otherwise lauded as “great teachers,” fail in this regard.  Because it’s not enough to merely acknowledge the existence of a generation gap or a disciplinary gap or cultural gap.  Like it or not, the teacher must be the one crossing the gap first.

It’s not enough to say, “Here’s my different thing and its what I’m going to be talking about and what you’re going to be tested over.”  Older generations (Boomers and older, even Gen X) may have been willing to defer to experience and give the teacher the benefit of doubt.  Gen Y isn’t.  Gen Y isn’t going to listen and consider the teacher’s new questions unless the teacher first justifies the importance of those new questions.

Personally, it would make my job easier if they didn’t make such a demand.  And so I can dream.   But it isn’t going to happen.  Gen Y can’t be made to listen.  They can only be persuaded to listen.  Stop complaining about it, and deal with it.

Why am I so harsh, even though I greatly admire most teachers as teachers?  I’m so harsh because what teachers have to communicate is so important.   The teacher who says to the student “you need to know this, not because of the exam coming up, but because you need it to be successful and life and be a good citizen” is, much more often than not, absolutely correct.  I’m so harsh on my fellow teachers because their students really do need to listen.

But to get them to listen, to get past the listening gap, requires very different pedagogic choices.  It means the teacher must assume the lion’s share of the costs of listening.

Which brings me to a second key component of the listening mindset:  Assume that the other guy has good reasons for not listening.   Your students, your customers, they are not here on Earth to follow your path through life.  They’re here to follow theirs.  They’re not listening to you because they’re sleeping.  They’re not listening to you because they’re busy listening to someone or something else.  Someone or something that also is valuable.

If you want to get a student or a prospective customer to listen, you need to assume that they almost always have good reasons for not being interested in the questions you’re interested in.

If you’re a teacher, a holder of the “terminal degree” in the discipline you’re teaching, this is often very hard to do.   You’re in the business of correcting the errors of those who haven’t done all the work in the field you have.  You’re the expert, after all, the one with the superior knowledge and experience.

It’s also hard to do when you’re selling innovation.  As the innovator, almost by definition you have unique information and experience with your product’s features.  It’s going to be horribly tempting to go off and talk about the whiz-bang benefits you see Feature A providing.

But in both situations, the temptation must be resisted much longer than you think.  It must be resisted until the student or the customer is well and truly hooked.  Until the student or the customer has been convinced, not only that you are speaking to their questions, but also that your questions are important to them.

And if you don’t start by assuming that their current choices have good reasons, if you don’t start by assuming that those choices aren’t simply ones of ignorance, you’re going to succumb to the temptation far too early.  You need the assumption — even if that ultimately proves unjustified, even if their current decisions actually prove to have been ones of ignorance.  You need to assume they know what they are doing,  because without that assumption you won’t short-circuit your own anti-listening thinking patterns and you won’t have the mental jiu-jitsu techniques to short-circuit theirs.

For everything there is a season, says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes.  And, by inference, there is for everything, a time that is out of season.

When it comes to teaching, there is a time when the teacher must resist the temptation to correct error, and resist it over and over again.

When it comes to the selling of innovative products and ideas, there is a time when the marketer must not be pointing out innovative features.


Ain’t nobody listening
Just yelling, “Come jump in my rut,”
It’s mud is nicer than yours.

© 2008 Wade E. Shilts



One of the annoying parts of the Internet age is that good things can disappear without any warning.  All it takes is a webpage revision.

One of my favorite web locations over the years has been LaissezFaire Books.  I haven’t visited it for several months, but that’s only because my cash inflow took a serious hit when I started an unpaid year-long leave from my teaching gig last year.  For a free-marketer like me, whose interest in markets is scholarly as well as everyday, LaissezFaire Books was always a wonderful adventure.  Even if I went just looking for one book, I invariably would buy several whenever I visited.  I rarely spent just five minutes on the site.  It was usually a solid hour or more.

So imagine my chagrin a few days ago when, inspired by Bill Greene’s comment here and by a visit to his website here, I paid a visit to LFB’s website at  Apparently, LFB has been purchased by an organization called the International Society for Individual Liberty (ISIL).

Now I have absolutely nothing against ISIL.  Indeed, I suspect that when I dig a bit farther, I will find myself very much simpatico with ISIL’s goals, aspirations, and activities.

If I dig farther, that is.  For, to tell the truth, I find myself curiously disinclined to doing so.

Because even though I am an educator and a free marketer/libertarian/individualist anarchist, and so presumptively interested in “educational projects” that “spread the message of liberty”, that wasn’t what I went to Laissez Faire Books for.

I went to Laissez Faire Books because it did one thing very, very well, and its website focused 99 percent of its effort on that one thing.  It provided a place where people like me could find, and find easily, a lot of books on “liberty and free markets”, without being distracted by anything else.

I expect anything I could get at LFB I could get through Amazon, but I still used LFB because, unlike Amazon, it didn’t require me to sort through certain kinds of chaff written by those who purported to be friends of liberty (Congresscritters, New York Times journalists, and the like) who were anything but.  I didn’t consider everything LFB published to be worth reading, but I knew that everything LFB published would truly be centered on liberty and freedom.

But while LFB’s URL is still there, the web shop I loved appears to have disappeared.  The landing page ISIL has there now tells me they will be offering a larger selection of titles, but right now, it looks like they are not offering much of anything.  Oh, there’s a link to “current specials on books we are offering” that allows you to open a PDF of Volume 1, No. 1 of Laissez-Faire News and Review, and in that there’s a procedure for ordering books via a very clunky process of email and PayPal.

But it’s a serious step in the wrong direction.

Look, I understand that transition of ownership means there are probably lots of things that need to be worked out.  But had the people at LFB and ISIL been approaching this the way you would expect them to, the transition would have been a lot more seamless. Because, as much as I liked the old LFB, it was never the only place to buy books on liberty.  It was the easiest, and to my mind, the best.  And I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out if there was a better place to go.  I didn’t have to.

But, LFB/ISIL, you’ve just made my task more difficult than it used to be.  I read a lot of editorial comment on a daily basis, and I enjoy reading pro-liberty editorializing, but not when I’m strolling the aisles of a bookstore.  I’m interested in activity to educate and promote liberty, but not when I’m strolling the aisles of a bookstore. When I’m in a bookstore, I’m looking for interesting books, and I don’t want that other stuff yelling in my ear and making my book-buying decisions harder to concentrate on.

ISIL, you’re marketing badly. People who type in are doing so because they are already well-qualified book-buying prospects.   Sell them books, for Pete’s sake.  Don’t greet them with an invitation to go to the prom.  They aren’t in prom-going mode.

Make our jobs as book buyers easier, not more difficult.  Because I can guarantee that it isn’t just Steve Bezos and Amazon out there who are concentrating on making it easier to buy books.  And I can guarantee that lovers of liberty are no more interested in having their book-buying made more difficult than anyone else.

If we wanted our lives made more difficult, we’d be lobbying for government “help”.  Not buying books on liberty.

I have no idea why the old LFB is gone.  And maybe this change offered the best overall solution to some business or financial problems LFB was having.  Or maybe what I valued from LFB is not what others valued.

The only thing I know is that I’m going to be looking for book buying alternatives, alternatives that, had I not visited your new, buyer-unfriendly, landing page, I wouldn’t have known I needed

And, because I believe in markets, I have to believe I’m going to find a replacement.

And it’s the replacement that will get to go to the prom.



This is going to be a short posting.  (Yeah, right, says the reader familiar with my tendency to go on and on about anything).

But this one will, primarily because I’m not anywhere near ready to have a coherent opinion on this subject.   But it is something I’ve been wondering a lot about recently.

Here’s the question:  Does the hard sell have a future for people selling products or ideas to Generation Y (the cohort of people roughly aged 18-30 or even Generation X (those aged roughly 31-48).

The hard sell has been pronounced dead before, and lived to prosper at ever greater levels.  But I can’t help thinking that this is part of what the last two generations have changed.  I’m not sure if either generation is truly patient enough to sit through the hyperbole and manipulation that hard sell institutions like direct mail and autoresponders are made for.

I’m interested in anything anyone has to say on the question, be it tight empirical evidence, near-comprehensive scholarly study, an anecdote or two, or just a personal rant.   Because while I’ve been working a fair deal trying to get a handle on the question (and I’ll share some of that research of mine as we go on), I’m not at all convinced that it’s really been examined suffiently as yet.  Certainly I know my own ignorance level on the question is too high.

Thanks in advance.

All content of this blog, except comments added under names other than "Wade," are copyright © 2008, 2009 Wade E. Shilts