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January 2008

From Hollywood to Bay Street: Success is Defined By The Story You Tell

Writers1Recently I purchased a book called "The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters." The book is different from others in its genre as it doesn't just look at what highly successful people DO, it digs deeper and looks at how they THINK.

What's striking about the content in the book is its similarities to challenges found in the business world. Whether you're an aspiring screenwriter, entrepreneur or corporate CEO, your challenges are quite similar. At some point in your career, success will depend on how well you can sell your story to people prepared to buy it.

David Brown, a Hollywood producer, says that "Nothing counts as much as the story, because it is the story that will attract the director, the actors, the studio, the money. The story is the thing." It's the same in business. If you're the CEO of a public company, you better have a compelling and engaging story to attract shareholders and investors. Money begets money, and one way to get it is to have a good story. People tend to gather around a good idea, so make your story compelling and find an innovative way to help solve someone else's problem. Make yourself indispensible and they won't be able to get enough of you.

From the glitz and glam of Hollywood to the driven financial core of Bay Street, success is defined by the story you tell. You have to have something of importance to say, something that's different and cuts through the clutter. You have to tell your story in an engaging way, and develop nerves of steel and dogged determination to be sure your story is heard by the right people, at the right time. Your career will be full of rejection, but successful people are able to take that criticism and constructively use it to get their own story heard.

So take your talent, and hone it through intense dedication to your craft. Feed your passion, and develop the skills needed to effectively present and sell ideas to people who can benefit most from those ideas.

Don't give up. The world is waiting for a good story. Let yours be the one everyone starts talking about and your world will open up in ways you never dreamed possible.

What other similarities do you see between the challenges faced by people in creative industries - and those faced by people who work in the corporate world? Do you think all successful people share the same traits? If so, which ones?

Negroponte's XO Computer: Why Simplicity Can Be A Good Thing

Xo_intro_v2_8By now you've probably heard of MIT Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte's $100 XO laptop computer. Negroponte is part of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation whose mission it is to : "stimulate local grassroots initiatives designed to enhance and sustain over time the effectiveness of laptops as learning tools for children living in lesser-developed countries."

The raison-d'etre of OLPCF's initiative and brainchild of Negroponte's initative is the XO laptop - a $100 (or so) laptop built to the needs, interests, climate and culture of children in developing countries. At first glance, it's pretty amazing to see so much technology jammed into such a small and inexpensive machine. The laptop offers some pretty cool features that allow kids to use it in some pretty harsh climates (the keyboard is waterproof and the casing designed to withold dust), as well as technological features such as a 360 degree hinge that allows the XO to be converted into a tablet for eBook applications.

Besides the ingenuity behind Negroponte's initiative, what's perhaps more interesting is the laptop's focus on simplicity. Ryan Bigge, in a recent Toronto Star article called "Road-testing the $100 laptop's 'appropriate technology", states " an era where the all-in-one gadget rules, sometimes the few-in-one device isn't such a bad thing...we all want to be part of the technological conversation. But sometimes, being a "smartperson" means recognizing that the multiple options of flashy smartphones and laptops actually makes it more difficult to communicate."

How true. Many say that technology makes it easier for us to become part of the conversation, but is the increased focus on splash and gadgetry drowning out what technology was supposed to help us with in the first place? When was the last time you walked into a phone store and were able to find a phone that allowed you to JUST make a phone call? As Bigge's suggests, at some point, is the focus on technological features working against what they were supposed to do in the first place - and that's communicate something to someone - somewhere?

Time will tell what happens to Negroponte's $100 invention. But it makes me wonder whether, at some point, the design of technology will outlive its usefulness. Once the gadgetry outlives its initial period of usefulness and excitement, things will revert back to more simplistic technology. I call this the "law of diminishing usefulness." The law is impacted by two things -the time it takes for the initial excitement phase surrounding a product to diminish and the degree of usefulness a product is able to keep in meeting its owners initial purpose and intention.

At some point, what we'll need are just computers that can help us write, research, and communicate with each other more effectively, so we can do what human beings have done for centuries - communicate with each other through words and stories.

Do you think technology is getting too complicated? What is the prime purpose of having technology in your life? How could technology be better designed so we could get more joy out of using it?

Why I've Always Wanted to Work for Pixar

Nav_about_charEver since I can remember, I've always loved animation. There's something about the ability of a drawing or computer generated image to make me laugh or cry that's pretty powerful. Years ago (before the onset of animation graphics), I took an animation course at a local college. I loved the idea of dreaming up imaginative characters and placing them in some sort of plot. The task was reminiscent of what I thought movie directors or screenwriters would go through - develop engaging stories used to inspire an audience.

Years later, the art and science of animation would enter a whole new era and a little company called Pixar was born. Now a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, Pixar was the brainchild of ex-Lucasfilm employees John Lasseter and Dr. Ed Catmull. What's so striking about Pixar is the amount of creative thought that goes into the process. Through curiousity, skill and creative vision, Lasseter and his tremendously talented team are able to see the world through the eyes of the characters portrayed in their movies. We see "A Bug's Life" through the eyes of a bug and "Cars"...through the eyes of an animated car. Their world becomes our world as the movie plots unfold.

According to their website, Pixar's objective is to: "combine proprietary technology and world-class creative talent to develop computer-animated feature films with memorable characters and heartwarming stories that appeal to audiences of all ages." How cool is that?

Besides having an imagination worthy of earning the title of "Principal Creative Advisor, Walt Disney Imagineering", Lasseter has shown that he also does his research. To prepare for the hit film "Cars", Lasseter and his team travelled Route 66 (central to the movie's theme) to get a better idea as to what the characters would "experience" during the movie - both visually and emotionally. This hands-on experience helped craft the visuals and story behind the movie. The result was a story that touched our hearts, and added a sense of reality to what could have simply been a story of nothing but "talking" animated characters.

However much technology advances, it will still be important to audiences that animated characters invoke some sort of emotion in a story. In the November 2000 edition of Scientific American, John Lasseter was quoted as saying "an animator is just that special kind of talented actor who can make us believe that a collection of colored polygons has heart, gets angry and outfoxes the coyote." Whether the coyote and roadrunner are created using cell animation methods or modern day animation software isn't as important to the story as whether or not the audience is able to sit there and wonder whether the coyote will EVER CATCH the roadrunner. It's this emotional play that keeps us coming back for more.

What's important to a digital film's success isn't so much drawing ability or knowledge of computer modeling techniques, but acting skill since (to quote Alvy Ray Smith the author of the Scientific American article "Digital Humans Wait in the Wings") "an actor on stage or screen is an animator of his own being. He makes us believe that the body, voice and mind we see are those of an entirely different person..." This is true of all engaging immersive environments - their ability to transport us outside of reality to a world of another making.

I've always been fascinated by people who are lucky enough to make a living using their imagination. It is my hope that I too will some day hold this honour, and spend my days creating characters and stories that bring joy to millions.

What do you still want to do in life, that for whatever reason you haven't had a chance to do yet? What legacy do you want to leave behind? What story do you want to tell?


Ultimate Profits: Why Can't Science and Business Just Learn to Get Along?

"If technology doesn't work for people, then it doesn't work" - Kim Vicente Ph.D., P.Eng. - Founding Director of the Cognitive Engineering Laboratory at the University of Toronto


I used to attend meetings for usability professionals at the University of Toronto. For the most part, usability professionals work on developing better ways of having humans interact with technology. In theory, if web developers followed the rules already proven in science, then the amount of frustration with poorly designed websites would be minimized, and people would probably buy more online.

I've always seen the benefit of taking an integrative approach to business, one that incorporates scientific thinking and research with social science and psychology. So why is it that, in most cases, there seems to be an "us vs. them" attitude between the worlds of science and business? Could a more joint approach not benefit both disciplines?

Computer scientists and usability professionals often feel websites are doomed to failure once marketers get involved. As a marketing communications professional and former account manager who has worked on large scale web projects in the advertising industry, I have to say that there is quite an amount of truth in that. All too often, companies focus on the "glitz" factor behind their brands. Homepages are built to dazzle prospects and customers, and video clips are added to describe the latest and greatest products or services. That's all nice and fine - but if a website doesn't give you the information you need at the time in the decision making process when you need it the most - is it really of any value to anyone?

Scientists from numerous disciplines have already told us how to make technology more effective and easy to use. Social scientists have told us the secrets behind building effective relationships - secrets that, in spite of advances in digital technology - are still the cornerstone of any successful business.

Scientists turned authors such as Bill Buxton, Kim Vicente, Jakob Nielsen, Donald Norman and Nicholas Negroponte have already told us how to make technology, business systems and consumer products easier to use. Computer Science professors such as Ron Baecker, Bell Chair in Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Toronto have realized that success in the software industry involves not only a keen understanding of technology, but depends on strong business skills as well. In light of this fact, Dr. Baecker introduced the popular course "The Business of Software" to the computer science program at the University of Toronto.

It's time for business to stand up and listen. As technological advances and information systems become more complex, let's not lose sight of the customer. What we really want is to be able to use technology and/or products in a way that doesn't frustrate the heck out of us. Now that's not just good science, that's good business.

Have you been frustrated  by websites that don't give you the information you need? Do you feel that Flash is a good thing, but can sometimes be overrused on websites? What else do you think business can learn from the science world?