Dear CMO:
Why is it that we always need to see things for ourselves? Why do we never trust other people? Are we all so distrustful of others that we can’t take anyone’s word for it anymore? Maybe this is a by-product of our hyper-connected, e-enabled world. We have too much information so we trust none of it.
Here’s an example. Back in the day when I was working at Plantronics (oh, I wish I still had the video), I was riding down the street with a local sales rep in Sao Paolo, Brazil, talking about the headset market. He explained that half the market for mobile phone headsets was “informal”, which meant “black market”. As we rolled to a stop, he pointed ahead to a guy walking down the street plunking two-sided signs over each car’s rear view mirror. On it was the offer — roughly $5 for a headset. His partner walked a few car lengths behind him with about a hundred corded headsets over his arm, selling them window to window. Behind him, third in line, was a guy collecting the signs as the cars rolled (slowly) past the intersection.
I caught the whole thing on my digital camera. The retelling of the story is fine, but the video told the whole story. The rain, the guy, the sign, the poor fella holding the arm load of corded headsets like having a rasta in a headlock, and the green trees in the background. Everyone who saw the video back in Santa Cruz got it in 30 seconds. Explaining the market situation would have taken too long and would have been fraught with misunderstandings and a lack of context.
How would you have reacted to the Yum Brands NYC rat store had you only heard the story? “Hey, there’s this fast food restaurant somewhere in lower Manhattan that’s completely over-run by rats! Really!” Who cares? It’s almost a cliche. Watch the video, and oh, my. It’s a different story.
Sometimes you just need the right stream of consciousness. In Shanghai, I captured a few moments of a Sennheiser distributor booth in an electronics mart. We talked to their people and discovered that they were selling more computer headsets out of a single 10 foot by 10 foot booth in Shanghai than we were out of about 300 Best Buy stores. Look at the video and you get it. Tell the story and it just washes over you. (And I’d be happy to embed the video and show it to you if I knew how Blogger did this… search their “help” section, as euphamistic as that expression is, and you get a digital “huh?” instead of an answer. Here’s at least a still from the vid to prove I was there).

Running a digital camera out your taxi window to show the street life in Hong Kong, or Shanghai, or Tokyo, or Brazil just helps people back home get the vibe of how things go way out over there. Pre-conceptions begin to fall away. There are fewer, “look, let’s just send them the US version,” comments — there’s more introspection and wonder. If I were a tad more poetic, I’d tell you that it’s really quite beautiful to see.

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Key Takeaways:

> We need to see it for ourselves to process it and make it our own. Why do I say this with such conviction? Beats me. But it’s true, so don’t argue.

> Shoot video of everything — people, packaging, cities, and everything else. If you’re shoot in a retail store, ask permission only when you need to. And if you’re not allowed to, do it anyway and apologize later while backing out the front door. If you’re shooting people, it’s always nice to talk to them about why you’d like to (“… excuse me, I see you’re doing something like playing a game on your cell phone — can you show it to me, and can I take a picture for my gaijin friends back in my office in America?”); this makes it an interview and much less creepy.

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Why, though? Why do we need to see things to get the context and move on past our own pre-conceptions? This may be a right-brain integration thing. We can hear someone tell us stories all day long, but we need the balance to completely “grok” the point. Or, possibly, we’re locked in a territorial defense automechanism. We need to make the story our own — we can’t accept it coming from someone else — before we can occupy that mental real estate and make our own judgments. Possibly, we need to bounce the visual stimuli off our own “whole brain” consciousness so that the new input is cross-referenced against the other 90% of our past experiences, deep metaphors, and sense-making machinery. And it could be something else, too. But whatever it is, it’s very important.

If you’re telling a story, show it. Take your camera everywhere and shoot everything. Dump it all on your laptop at night and start fresh in the morning. Power Point is lovely, but showing video moves people rapidly into your frame of reference. This lets you move on quickly. And while time is money, understanding and credibility is priceless.


Copyright (c) 2007 Stephen Denny