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How to drive big changes with better stories (Review of Alex Evans’ The Myth Gap)

myth gapThis review first ran in the Jan. 26 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough?The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough?

By Alex Evans

Eden Project Books

$21.99

Who are we?

What do we believe in and stand for?

Where are we at?

How did we get here?

Where are we trying to go?

And how will we get there together?

These are the stories told during crises and transitions that galvanize movements and drive change, whether at work, in our community or across and beyond our country.

“Myths are the most fundamental narratives of all,” says Alex Evans, a Senior Fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, political advisor and climate change expert to the United Nations. “Myths don’t just explain the world; they explain us too.”

Not telling these collective stories leaves us with a gap, warns Evans. That gap gets filled by prophets of doom who profit by stoking fear, anger and division with anti-myths. They tell us it’s us versus them zero-sum world of winners and losers.

This is how we end up with political and business leaders who tell us that climate change is fake news and a hoax. Fighting it will be a recession-triggering tax grab so let’s pay no mind to the estimated $54 trillion cost associated with a world that’s warmer by 1.5 degrees Celsius or the $551 trillion tab for a 3.7 degree increase.

Arid technocratic jargon, pie charts on PowerPoints and appeals to rational self-interest are not the stuff of compelling stories that counteract anti-myths.

The same goes for enemy narratives that stoke shock, outrage and polarization and shift blame and responsibility to anyone or everyone else but us.

And then there are the self-fulfilling stories that traffic in collapsitarianism and dystopian nightmares. It’s the end of the world as we know it, there’s nothing we can do, all hope is lost and we’re all doomed.

But in the face of existential threats to our lives and livelihoods, we’re hungry for stories that give us hope for the future and that unite, rather than divide, us around a common purpose.

“The stories and myths that we reach for in such moments are what determine whether we use those moments creatively or reactively, for a larger or smaller us, for a longer or shorter now, for a better or worse idea of what constitutes a good life.”

Evans makes the case for telling stories about restoration, regeneration, rebirth and repairing the breach. “I think that tales of restoration are just about the most powerful and resonant kind there are. They speak directly to a profound yearning in all of us, an instinct that while the world may be broken, it can also be made right again, and that this may at some level be what we are here to do.

“As we relearn how to tell myths about where we are, how we got here, where we might be trying to go, and who we really are, we will discover extraordinary new capacities for creating the kind of future that we yearn for.”

It’s time we start sharing and filling the gap with better stories at work, in our communities and on the world stage.

Jay Robb serves as manager of communications for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books since 1999.

How to fool people into giving you nearly a billion dollars (Bad Blood review)

This review first ran in the Jan. 5 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

By John Carreyrou

Alfred A. Knopf

$38.95

Let’s be thankful that investigative reporters aren’t among the people who can be fooled all or some of the time.

Lots of smart and successful people lost their minds and nearly a billion dollars to Elizabeth Holmes. More concerning were all the people who trusted her with their health and well-being.

The 20-something founder and CEO of Theranos was Silicon Valley’s first female billionaire tech founder. Holmes was heralded as the second coming of Steve Jobs and even dressed the part in black turtlenecks.

The college dropout with two semesters of chemical engineering courses was promising the iPod of health care with a revolutionary blood testing device.

With just a painless drop or two of blood, we could quickly, easily and cheaply test our blood from the comfort of our home or while buying groceries and picking up prescriptions.  Drug companies saw the technology as a way to drive down the cost of clinical trials. The military saw life-saving battlefield applications.

holmesHolmes graced the cover of Fortune magazine (“This CEO is out for blood”), appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, USA Today, Inc., Fast Company and Glamour and did star turns on NPR, Fox Business, CNN, CBS News, Charlie Rose and Jim Cramer’s Mad Money on CNBC.

She was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people. President Barack Obama appointed her a US ambassador for global entrepreneurship and Vice President Joe Biden toured the company and called it the laboratory of the future.

Holmes stacked the board of directors with former cabinet members, congressmen and military officials, including former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and former Marine Corps general and secretary of defense James Mattis.

Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who controlled the Wall Street Journal’s parent company, personally invested $125 million.

Walgreens and Safeway planned a nationwide rollout of the blood testing system in their grocery and drug stores.

But then a skeptical blogger tipped off the Wall Street Journal’s two-time Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter John Carreyrou.

The first in his series of stories ran in October 2014, revealing that Theranos couldn’t deliver reliable test results. The company was putting lives at risk and soaking investors.

“Holmes and her company had overpromised and then cut corners when they couldn’t deliver,” says Carreyrou. “It was one thing to do that with software or a smartphone app, but doing it with a medical product that people relied on to make important health decisions was unconscionable.”

To his credit, Murdoch personally rebuked Holmes when she wanted Carreyrou’s story spiked. The Journal’s editorial team also didn’t try to save face after running a favourable profile two years earlier that had served as Holmes’s coming out party.

“My newspaper had played a role in Holmes’s meteoric rise by being the first mainstream media organization to publicize her supposed achievements,” says Carreyrou. “It made for an awkward situation but I wasn’t too worried about it. There was a firewall between the Journal’s editorial and newsroom staffs.”

Despite a line-by-line bullet-proof review by editors and lawyers, Holmes, her lawyers and PR firm tried to discredit the reporting, smear Carreyrou as a misogynist and intimidate whistle-blowing ex-employees.

Carreyrou’s stories became the talk of Silicon Valley and opened the floodgates on critical coverage by other media outlets.

Theranos would be forced to void or correct nearly a million blood tests. The company agreed to pay $4.65 million into a fund to reimburse 76,000 people for their blood tests, settled a $43 million case with an investment firm and a $25 million Walgreens lawsuit. Back in March, Holmes and her company were charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission for conducting “an elaborate, years-long fraud.”

How did Holmes lose her way? “A sociopath is often described as someone with little or no conscience,” says Carreyrou. “I’ll leave it to the psychologists to decide whether Holmes fits the clinical profile but there’s no question that her moral compass was badly askew.

“I’m fairly certain she didn’t initially set out to defraud investors and put patients in harm’s way. But in her all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs amid the gold rush of the ‘unicorn’ boom, there came a point when she stopped listening to sound advice and began to cut corners. Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference.”

While Holmes’ Silicon Valley unicorn was all smoke and mirrors, Bad Blood shows why investigative journalism will always be a smart investment that pays life and money-saving dividends for us all.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

The one question marketers must answer first (Review of Seth Godin’s This is Marketing)

godinThis review first ran in the Jan. 19 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See

By Seth Godin

Portfolio / Penguin

$32

The question isn’t how much money you can make and how fast you can make it.

It’s not how big you can build your brand and how many real and fake followers you can find or buy online.

It’s not how to game the system by using the latest search engine optimization hacks.

Instead of all that, it’s only this -“who can you help?”.  Market nothing until you have a definitive answer.

Whether you’re looking for customers, clients, subscribers, students, audiences, donors, funders or voters, Seth Godin says this must be your first and foundational question.

Godin is the author of 18 bestsellers, a member of the Marketing Hall of Fame, tech company founder and former Yahoo VP.

“Marketing is the generous act of helping someone solve a problem. Their problem.  Sharing your path to better is called marketing and you can do it. We all can.”

Godin uses a lock and key analogy. You could make a key and then run around hoping to find a lock. Or you could start by finding the problem – a lock that needs opening – and make the key.

“It’s easier to make products and services for the customers you seek to serve than it is to find customers for your products and services.”

You don’t use people to solve your problems. You’re in business to solve their problems.  Successful marketers “have the empathy to know that those they seek to serve don’t want what the marketer wants, don’t believe what they believe and don’t care about what they care about. They probably never will.”

Godin says there are five steps to marketing a product, service or idea:

  1. Invent something work making, with a story worth telling and a contribution worth talking about.
  2. Design and build it so a few people will benefit greatly and care deeply. Identify your smallest viable market. You can’t change everyone but you can change someone. “What’s the minimum number of people you would need to influence to make it worth the effort?”.
  3. Tell a story that lines up with your customers’ hopes, dreams and desires. Say what people need to hear. This is how you earn attention, trust and action.
  4. Start spreading the word, ideally by the people you’re serving. “What you say isn’t nearly as important as what others say about you.” Have a product or service that’s worth talking about and searching for beyond a generic search.
  5. Show up regularly, consistently and generously year after year after year. Deliver on your promise.

You have a choice with your business, organization, non-profit or personal brand. You can be marketing-driven or market-driven.

Marketing-driven is a dead end, says Godin. “When you’re marketing-driven you’re focused on the latest Facebook data hacks, the design of your new logo and your Canadian pricing model.

“When you’re market-driven, you think a lot about the hopes and dreams of your customers and their friends. You listen to their frustrations and invest in changing the culture. Being market-driven lasts.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.