Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Model United Nations & Negotiation Skills

While my experience in Toastmasters at AU has been extremely helpful in improving my speaking skills, it is not my first foray into communications. When I was an undergraduate at Wright State University in Ohio, I participated in another great organization: Model United Nations. In many ways, it helped me learn to communicate long before I had ever heard of Toastmasters.

Model UN is an organization where each person represents a country to solve an international problem. Each delegate addresses the entire committee to make the case for his country’s policies, then negotiates with the other countries until a policy agreement can be reached.

I enjoyed this organization because it taught me one of the most valuable skills in business communications: The art of negotiation and diplomacy. This is especially difficult when the person with whom you are negotiating may not have the same goals in mind. My favorite topics to address were international security issues, precisely because they were the most contentious and most likely to spark intense negotiations among the delegates.

In many other situations, good negotiation skills can result in major successes that may not have been possible otherwise. I found that one of the most important elements of negotiation is the one that people seem to forget the most often: respect. People are much more likely to compromise if they feel that you understand their point of view and respect their goals. While respect may not always be enough to resolve complex differences, it goes a long way. The business world is governed by a different set of priorities than international politics, but this rule applies to both. While this may seem obvious, I have seen this rule of negotiation broken more than any other during my time in Model UN. The results are predictable. As soon as you view your negotiation partners as opponents to be defeated instead of potentially valuable allies, they are much more likely to dig in their heels and refuse to compromise. When instead you start from a view of mutual respect and cooperation, you are much more likely to get more of what you want.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mathematics of Spam

My computer scientist and mathematician friend Brian Hayes has been tracking his spam for years and writing about it from a mathematical standpoint. His most recent
blog on the topic (reporting on Chris Kranich et al's experiment) makes one question the cost-effectiveness of spam:

"The bottom line: 28 “sales” (no money actually changed hands, and no products were delivered) with an average purchase price of about $100. This is a conversion rate of less than 1 in 10 million, which leaves some doubt about the profitability of the operation."

--though, of course, as Brian points out, "the mere continued existence of spam argues that the actual costs must be much lower."

Brian also issues an interesting challenge to those who spam while using the "comment" feature--wonder if he'll get any takers?

Any Kogod marketing students out there who are studying spam?

Monday, February 8, 2010

But For Whom?

The Winter 2010 issue of The American Scholar includes a talk that William Zinsser gave to an incoming class of international students in Columbia University’s graduate journalism school. In it, he outlines four principles that he thinks makes for good writing: clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity.

Some of you may have read Zinsser’s book, On Writing Well, in undergraduate or even high school classes. It’s one of the most popular writing guides, and for good reason.

His advice is great, and for most of us it applies. One arena that seems to be an exception, however, is academia. If you’ve ever read a scholarly article, you know what I’m talking about. Part of this has to do with trade language. I once got into a debate with a political scientist over the need for the use of the word “ontological.” I thought it was jargon. She felt it was the best and only word she had to talk about metaphysics.

This is the gap Zinsser doesn’t address in the article: audience. In other words, to what extent should our audience dictate how we speak and write? Alternatively, should we be telling our audience how to read and write through practice?

Zinsser might argue simplicity above all. A PhD candidate setting down to write her dissertation about the Politics of God might argue something quite different. I’d love to hear what you think.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Digital Nation

PBS ran a documentary on Frontline called “Digital Nation,” that explores how technology is changing the way we communicate...not always for the better. Although we’ve had the internet for nearly 20 years and cell phones for 10, it’s only been in the last year or two that our technology has become an all-encompassing platform for communication. This trend shows no sign of stopping, meaning we will probably spend evermore time immersed in technology instead of interacting directly with people in the next decade. Wouldn’t it be ironic if all of our new gadgets and programs, touted as a way to revolutionize the way we communicate with each other, ended up impeding our ability to communicate face-to-face?

The usual suspects – Facebook and Twitter – are notorious for facilitating procrastination among college students, but what is mentioned less often is that they may actually be reducing our “face-time” with the people we care about. For example, I broadcast the details of my life on these platforms far more often than I actually discuss them with people in real life. Some people even consider it a social faux pas to bring up a topic in real life that they read on a friend or colleague’s Facebook feed. I sometimes wonder if we would be better conversationalists if we didn’t have the ability to instantly broadcast any thought that enters our heads to hundreds of people.

On the other hand, our programs and smartphones enable us to keep in touch with people who would otherwise fall off our radar screens, and to share our ideas with strangers who would otherwise know nothing about us. They allow us to communicate more easily with colleagues from across the globe, reducing the need to live geographically near our workplace. And of course, they offer us incredibly diverse perspectives into world events that would not be possible by merely talking to our real-life acquaintances.

Clearly technology is a mixed bag when it comes to communication. Personally, I think the positive aspects are overwhelmingly more important than the negative. What do you think?

Watch Digital Nation if you have time. It’s very interesting.


Friday, February 5, 2010

Case Competition Update

Unfortunately, the 2010 Kogod Case Competition had to be cancelled due to the imminent blizzard. However, I’d like to share my group’s thought processes and ideas. The most important things to focus on were plausibility and creativity. While it was important to address the obvious, we also tried to develop suggestions that would set us apart from other groups.

The case was about a family-owned corrugated box manufacturer in Morocco, called Box-It. The father, Mr. Abdul, started the business in the 1980s. His son, Hassen, has been working there for three years and is in charge of day-to-day events in the company. He has a harsh management style, but it seems clear that he is slated to inherit the company.

My group (Terra Firma) identified three critical issues in the case:

· Box-It’s financial situation is too confusing to its owners
· There is the potential for expansion that is not being utilized
· The chain of command is unclear

The short version of our recommendations include:

· Contact the customer Box-It recently lost. Inform them that box prices have been reduced from $1.10 to $0.88.
· Mark up prices for Moroccan customers, so Box-It can maintain its desired profit margin after haggling.
· Don’t build recycled paper plant; pay down debt instead.
· Sell the 6 least efficient transformation machines; use this money to buy multicolor, bleaching, and waxing machines.
· Form a strategic partnership with TelePizza, a potential high-volume customer, to make pizza boxes.
· Plan for Mr. Abdul’s retirement at least three years in advance, and agree on a succession plan.

My verbosity makes it impossible to condense our entire case analysis into a single blog entry. Fortunately, I have created a blog for just such purposes. If you are interested in Terra Firma's entire analysis of the case, presentation strategies, and explanations of our recommendations, please click the link below.
Terra Firma - Case Analysis and Recommendations

Any feedback on our ideas is most appreciated.


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Kogod Case Competition

The Kogod Case Competition starts tomorrow, and I couldn’t be more excited. This will be a great opportunity to develop my public speaking and presentation skills, and I feel that my groupmates are very talented communicators.

The mini-case competition, which was held during MBA orientation week, was a great practice for this. My mini-case group was fortunate enough to be one of the winning teams during that exercise. The most important lesson I drew from that experience is to always be prepared for any question the judges (or clients) are likely to ask you. One of the most effective moments during our mini-case presentation came during the Q&A session. One of the judges asked us where the money was going to come from to pay for our recommendations, and our group quickly shifted to a backup slide in our PowerPoint with a full budget. I think this was more effective than simply including the budget in our presentation would have been, as it showed the judges that we were able to anticipate their questions.

As illuminating as the mini-case competition was, this week’s case competition will undoubtedly be much more difficult. I think this will be my most challenging business communication experience of the school year. We have three days to analyze a case, formulate our recommendations, write a PowerPoint, and present to the judges. While I am sure it will be a great experience and a lot of fun regardless of the outcome, I am in it to win it.


Monday, February 1, 2010

The Simple Things

Do any of you listen to This American Life? It’s a radio show piped in through NPR. I subscribe to the free podcast. Recently, I uncovered an episode they did on the mortgage crisis. They had two reporters, Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson, explain what happened in lay terms.

The response to that episode was so overwhelmingly positive that they did a number of other episodes focused on the current banking crisis. They manage to decode the entire debacle in less than an hour!

The connection I want to make here is no matter how complicated a topic, there is always a value in clarity. It would seem that one can’t talk about credit default swaps or TARP reform without using a lot of jargon. In fact, the host of This American Life, Ira Glass, opens one episode with tape of the head of the FDIC dropping phrases like “mark-to-market accounting.” Glass says the obvious: it’s too confusing. As a result, we don’t know what’s going on.

When you have an important case to make, make it clear. Crystallize. Distill. Come see us. We can help you do that.

And check out This American Life.