How To Transform Your Business – Slowly


Saturday, 7.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Doing your best is not good enough.You have to know what to do. Then do your best. – W. E. Deming

We live in a world of soundbites and quick responses.

In case you haven’t noticed there is currently an election campaign going on.

One of the parties has come out with a pledge to offer free broadband for all.

When I first heard this I wasn’t sure what opinion I ought to hold.

My first reaction was that it sounded strange, weird – what sort of thing is that to worry about?

The response of almost everyone else seemed the same.

The leader of the other party called it “a crazed communist scheme”.

At which point I started doubting myself – because that particular chap is not known for his grasp of the truth – and I have personally heard him say something on the lines of we’re going to give everyone gigabit broadband which “I understand is a good thing.”

I am not convinced that he would know the difference between a broadband connection and a can of baked beans.

And, after seeing a couple more tweets I’m starting to think the whole proposition is actually quite a sane one – everyone should have access to broadband – not just people like us who can pay for it.

Now, the purpose of this post isn’t really about the politics of this one issue but it is about what it means to improve something – your business, public policy or your personal life.

And the one thing that’s worth understanding is that it’s not a quick fix – none of these can be simply improved by having the right goals, working harder, buying more stuff or throwing money at the issue.

So, where should you start?

W. Edwards Deming, writing in Out of the crisis, describes how the chain reaction above “became engraved in Japan as a way of life” and how every meeting with top management had this in front of them.

If you have one aim for yourself, or for your business, aim to improve quality.

And that’s quality without caveats – quality at any cost.

Only quality matters, nothing else is worth tracking or studying or having an opinion about.

Okay, maybe that’s too extreme.

The chain reaction describes what happens when you don’t give the customer defective products – you get to keep making a living.

And, weirdly, when you improve quality – when you make fewer mistakes, get things right more often – the customer stops paying for all those mistakes and gets more value.

Maybe you can lower prices and be more competitive – make them even happier.

It’s a strange way of thinking to many – what we think we should do is raise prices for the same stuff all the time.

But what if you could provide better stuff AND reduce prices?

Would you, as a consumer, like that?

Or does that sound like another crazy communist idea?

This post doesn’t really have the full solution to transforming your business.

This blog has parts of it, however, in different places.

But really it’s not that hard – because while the detail depends on what you do and the situation you’re in – you know that transformation is going to take time.

And you now also know where to start.

Start by improving quality.


Karthik Suresh

How To Master The Art Of Writing Advertising Or Direct Response Copy


Thursday, 8.50pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If you are in need of truly world-class copywriting… You Are Probably Going To Have To Learn To Do It Yourself! – Gary Halbert

I’ve had a few conversations recently that reminded me of the work of Gary Halbert.

You’ll find his stuff all over the Internet and it’s well known amongst a tribe of direct response marketers.

I’ve found the work of Halbert and his friend John Carlton always readable, direct, in your face and really what’s needed when you need to come back to earth every once in a while.

As you probably know, if you read this blog, I like theory – ideas and approaches and models and possibilities.

I like theory because a good theory has the ability to explain what has happened – it helps you make sense of the past.

A theory is not the same as a method – it doesn’t tell you what to do but why things are the way they are.

So, if you talk theory with people they will often look at you with polite puzzlement – wondering why they should care.

After all, when you need to get something done you need some rather more hardboiled advice.

And that’s what you get from the likes of Halbert.

Take, for example, his approach to writing copy.

It’s all laid out here, almost – but here is the nutshell version.

Start with the quote above – if you really want to explain what you do, then you’re going to have to spend some time working on it yourself.

Start by creating a fact sheet that lists every thing about you, your business and your product or service.

Write down as many points as you can – the idea is to go on and go on and then go on some more.

Create pages and pages if you can.

Then, when you’re wiped out start restating the facts as benefits.

Go through each point and explain it in a way that make it clear why it’s a good thing.

For example, some time back I was looking for a way to capture what I spent a lot of time doing – something that is described by a particular approach called Soft Systems Methodology.

Using this term is stating a fact – it’s a tested methodology with a modelling language and useful characteristics.

Do the last two paragraphs, however, really explain anything to you?

The benefit of using this approach is that you can “make good choices”.

That’s the benefit.

One benefit, anyway.

Moving on, once you’ve got your list of benefits the next thing to do is craft an offer.

An offer has two components – price and value.

Price is what you pay and value is what you get.

For example, pay be $1,000 and I’ll give you half a day’s consulting.

That’s a starting point.

Now, you need to make the offer a strong one – something that pulls together the benefits you’ve identified with a commercial deal that gives the prospect a huge amount of value at no risk whatsoever.

This takes some thinking – because you have to deliver REAL value, not just some made up stuff, and really get rid of any RISK – because without doing that your prospect will stay scared and refuse to buy.

The next thing to do is go through your swipe file – your collection of headlines and advertisements and editorials that you’ve saved – the examples that remind you how things are done and where others put their money.

If you haven’t got a swipe file then create one.

Once you’ve filled your head with all this information it’s time to take a break.


Step away for a day or so.

Have a long nap, go for a walk, do anything else.

Give your subconscious time to work.

At this point, frustratingly, Halbert’s letter ends and he talks about writing copy the next time.

So, let’s borrow from the end of this letter about editorial style ads.

Find and read some rave reviews of products and services.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a reporter wrote up one of those for you?

But that’s unlikely so you’re going to have to do it yourself.

Write it like you’ve just discovered this fabulous product or service and just can’t wait to share what you’ve found with the world.

Talk about the benefits starting with the most powerful and work your way down.

And, at the end tell the reader where they can find and buy this amazing thing.

And write it in a way that an editor would be happy to see in their paper – something that is fact checked and robust and strong and verifiable and authentic and truthful.

If your business isn’t any of those things, you’ve got some more work to do first.

You know that saying about polish and it’s effect on a turd.

But if you do have something that a customer needs – then this is the way to tell them about you.


Karthik Suresh

How To Get Better At Listening And Understanding Without Judging


Wednesday, 9.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening. – Larry King

I’ve been thinking for a while on how to get better at listening – and what kinds of models might help.

But first, why bother with something like that at all?

There are a few reasons.

Let’s start with Zig Ziglar’s maxim that “You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”

But understanding what other people want is not as easy at it sounds.

Many situations we end up in are actually quite complex – they have multiple stakeholders with multiple points of view, a range of pros and cons that need to be evaluated and often a choice between a worse outcome and an equally bad one.

What we’re trying to get at is what Peter Checkland called a “rich appreciation” of the problem situation – a picture that is “as rich as can be assembled in the time available.”

And this is something different professionals have much experience doing – although from their own specialist points of view.

A journalist, for example, wants to know more – wants to know the detail and the back story and they’re looking for what is new, what is newsworthy.

They ask questions to do this – questions that probe and push and all too often stop being useful.

For example, I heard an interview the other day where a reporter was trying to show that a leader of a major political party would not use the armed forces under any circumstances.

He pointed out that the person in question had always voted against military action.

He then went on to ask whether the interviewee knew differently – quoted the various wars that the person had voted against and generally suggested that the person’s approach was “A Bad Thing.”

But is that really the case?

Is it so bad to believe that war is absolutely bad, that sending people to die should be avoided – that wars often make things worse rather than better?

Is it always better to have a jingoistic leader who is happy to send your son or daughter to fight and die in a far away land while their own children sip champagne by the sea?

The person being interviewed didn’t really have any good responses – but the point really is that the whole thing was shoddy journalism – something that was stretched out to make an unnecessary point rather than to critically examine the issue itself.

So we probably shouldn’t look to journalists for best practice here.

What about therapists – people who listen professionally?

I had a look through Learning ACT : an acceptance & commitment therapy skills-training manual for therapists to see how they go about it.

The problem with our common sense approach to problems, the authors write, is that we try and “fix” things.

When something bad happens we try and avoid the events that started everything or push away the bad thoughts that come with them.

Doing this, unfortunately, often makes things worse.

If your friend let you down when you were a child and as a result you stopped trusting people and never made any more friends that is probably not the outcome you had hoped for in the beginning.

The book talks about an approach that is more about looking without judgement at what is going on and accepting it – to then move on.

What a therapist will do listen to you – listen to your presenting problem, the thing you say you have.

Imagine you’re a small business owner and want to grow but are struggling to win new clients – that’s your presenting problem.

The therapist will then ask what you’ve done so far – what solutions you’ve tried.

As you talk through these she’s trying to do two things.

The first is to divine the purpose behind your actions.

What is it you want from this growth?

Is it more money? The ability to sell? Thoughts that you can employ people and free up more time for your family?

The second is to understand how well things are working or not working.

Have the things you tried worked?

Have the things you avoided helped?

Have you tried joining networking groups?

Have you tried cutting down on TV and spending more time connecting on social media?

The thing is that you wouldn’t be in therapy if everything was working.

But the therapist has to listen to you talk about your solutions and how they’ve panned out until you realise for yourself that they’re not working.

All the things you’ve tried, the bag of tricks, the hacks and shortcuts and routines, the investment, the sales teams, the email campaigns – none of them are getting you the results you want.

It’s hopeless.

Creatively hopeless.

That’s a good point to reach.

Because that’s when you can open up to new possibilities, new approaches that are perhaps more in line with the purpose that sits underneath what you do, a purpose that might not have been fully visible to you until it was pointed out.

The thing is that any response by the therapist during this process that gets judgemental, argumentative – that tries to fix things will backfire as the other person stops, gets defensive and attacks or retreats.

They don’t make it through to that all important point where they realise that things have to change – where they have to be done differently to move on.

And they stay stuck.

That’s a kind of stuck that keeps you in place – things just haven’t worked again.

Creative hopelessness has a chance of getting you moving.

And the possibilities can suddenly be endless once again.

And you made that happen.

Because you listened.


Karthik Suresh

Some Very Good Reasons To Show Your Work


Tuesday, 8.08pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity – Dalai Lama

I was working on a presentation when I came across Austin Kleon’s commentary on a HBR article by Ryan w. Buell on operational transparency.

Kleon points out that the overall message from Buell resonates with his idea of “Show Your Work”.

It’s worth looking at why, however, in a little more detail.

The image below is an extract from the presentation and shows what Buell found when he looked at how people reacted to different levels of operational transparency.


When you can’t see what someone is doing for you then you tend to think that they must be putting in less effort.

For example, you probably don’t think that Google works all that hard to get you a result – but behind that microsecond response is a gargantuan machine.

You don’t get appreciated that much when you’re invisible.

Let’s say you’re locked away in a backroom beavering away on a client’s account – if you spend a week doing something and no one knows about it how much are they going to appreciate your service?

How much are they going to value what you’re doing?

Buell found that people who couldn’t see what was going on were less satisfied with their suppliers.

But things get worse.

When what you do is a black box, when it’s opaque then people trust you less, are less loyal to you over time and don’t really want to pay for what you do.

Now, how many times have you heard service professionals moan about how their clients don’t want to pay them.

It’s especially common in sectors where there is a hard-charging, sales-driven mindset.

Although, arguably, all sectors have that to some degree.

Let’s take a few examples.

How many of you think that estate agents or recruitment consultants are worth what they’re paid?

The chances are that you get messaged every so often by a recruitment firm – someone who wants to charge you 20% or more to find you an employee.

What do they do for that money?

In my experience few agencies actually take the time to explain what they do.

The ones that do are more likely to be given a chance.

Many service professionals are, however, reluctant to give away too much – seeing value in their secret or proprietary methods.

But the days of such approaches is perhaps behind us.

Before the Internet perhaps you listened to people who claimed to have knowledge that no one else did.

Now, that’s unlikely.

Having secret knowledge, that is.

What Buell found is that showing people what you did – increasing operational transparency – helped improve the score on how customers thought and acted about you.

And this fits in with an emerging trend in the world of work and business.

If you get better at designing your service around the real needs of your customers – and if you collaborate with them in an open and transparent way they are more likely to want to work with you.

The value of things like trust and loyalty cannot be overstated.

In today’s world whether your business survives at all will probably depend on whether you get that.

Maybe we should refer to the old days as BI – Before Internet.

AI is here to stay.


Karthik Suresh

Why You Should Spend Your Time Looking At The Real World


Monday, 7.32pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. – Philip K. Dick, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon

I caught a bit of a conflict resolution podcast and what caught my ear was how the same principles lie at the heart of defusing an argument, whether it’s a hostage negotiation or a dispute between children in school.

In addition, some much overdue tidying uncovered a copy of the Psychologist which had a special collection on how people communicate.

The introduction to the papers, by Elizabeth Stokoe, introduces you to how powerful words can be.

In a hostage negotiation, for example, the objective is to keep talking until the situation can be resolved.

Each “talking” encounter is like a pass in a football game – a series of successful passes is needed to get the ball to where it needs to be to score.

When Stokoe and her her colleague, Rein Sikveland, looked at the recordings they found that when the negotiators used the word “talk” the negotiation often broke down – the bad guys didn’t want to “talk”.

But they would “speak”.

One explanation, perhaps, that the word “talk” has been so overused over time that people have become resistant to it.

Parent’s want to “talk” to you, teachers bring you up to their desks for a “talk” and managers set a time for a quick “talk”.

You often don’t end up feeling better after that.

“Speak” has fewer of those associations, so maybe people react less poorly.

The thing, Stokoe points out is that you’d never have seen this if you hadn’t listened to the real thing – the actual recordings of the encounter.

Too many people study things that describe the real thing – what Stokoe quotes Roy Baumeister as calling “proxies” – surveys, questionnaires and the like.

What we should be doing is spending more time pushing through the force field that separates us from the real world and looking around.

Doing what’s called “naturalistic observation.”

It’s not easy to do, clearly, and it’s hard to pass off as science.

But it is – it’s anthropology, action research, grounded theory and gemba.

Think of it like this.

You could look at any place on earth now and probably find a picture and descriptions and videos and recommendations.

But would you still learn something new if you went for yourself?

I think the answer has to be – almost certainly.



How To Spot When Things Are Going Wrong Before It’s Too Late


Friday, 7.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Who lets slip fortune, her shall never find: Occasion once past by, is bald behind. – Abraham Cowley, Pyramus and Thisbe, XV.

Every once in a while it’s worth spending some time thinking through all the ways in which you can fail.

That might not be seen as a very positive thing to do – surely you should be setting big, hairy, ambitious goals and focusing on daily rituals and looking up and ahead to where you want to be.

Except that if something trips you up it’s probably going to be down there on the ground.

So, when you’re ready to actually do something and start a journey towards that distant, better future, you ought to consider taking a look at what the road looks like.

These ideas are explored in Adrian J. Slywotzky’s book The upside: The 7 strategies for turning big threats into growth breakthroughs.

The book is about strategic risk – the kind of thing that can sneak up on you when you’re not looking.

Slywotzky argues that we’re familiar with certain kinds of risk – risks like those from natural hazards, financial risks from markets and operational risks to our organisations.

We’re less familiar with strategic ones – things that change the game we’re playing.

I’ve selected six ideas that seem useful from the ones he presents in the book – ideas that seem worth testing against your business or even your career.

And the way to test them is to ask questions. Questions like:

What makes you unique?

This is actually quite a hard one to answer.

Lots of people come out with generic answers – we’re nice people, we are passionate about service.

But most people could say that, and most would find it hard to point to any evidence that they were unique.

What makes you unique might actually be that you are oddly passionate about – or you’ve worked for a long time and developed a certain skill.

Or it could come from combining two or three things that are themselves ordinary but together create something unique.

As Scott Adams did, combining cartooning, engineering and humour to create Dilbert.

How well do you know what your customers need?

This is something that is very easy to forget.

If you’re an employee your manager is your customer, not your boss.

If you don’t know what they need then how will you serve them effectively?

Too many people wait to be told what to do rather than finding out what their customers need and creating it for them.

And businesses do that all the time – they start by being interested and then, over time, get complacent and forget about customers.

Who then move on.

Are you obsolete?

The fact is that things become obsolete all the time – especially things you know.

Who needs cassette tapes in a world of on-demand media?

If you aren’t learning all the time then you’re in trouble – and heading for the scrapheap.

One of my favourite questions is “When do you stop being a promising young person?”

Hopefully you’ll still be one well into your nineties.

Is there a mega competitor out there?

Amazon anybody?

Retail is being shaken up by Amazon and Ebay in no small way – it’s transforming the way transactional business is done and how we get goods we don’t need at prices we don’t mind paying.

When someone like Amazon enters everybody selling tat has to shut up shop because Amazon can sell more tat 24/7 than you can.

Does anyone know what you do or did any more?

We’ve all got those people in the workplace – the ones who do something but we’re not quite sure what.

Some businesses are like that as well, they were once promising but now they’re fading – perhaps never to return.

Is your market going nowhere?

Are you stuck in a career or business that has no growth, no development?

You don’t make enough to invest and create new capability or get new customers – but you still have enough to get by and survive – but it’s a poor deal.

It’s no fun being trapped in a situation – one you can’t get out of.

The time to act… was some time back

The thing about risks like these is that once you can see what’s happening it’s often too late to do anything about it.

It’s going to take time to sort out the situation – dig yourself out of the hole you’ve unwittingly fallen into.

The solution, according to Slywotzky, is to get better at designing for risks – being aware of and preparing for risks – perhaps even being ready to profit from them.

I’m not so sure about that.

Often the risk that comes along and derails everything is not the one you’ve prepared for.

As they say, armies spend their time training to fight the last war.

What’s important, perhaps, is a healthy sense of paranoia.

Run scenarios where things go wrong – and think through how you would respond.

Train and learn and learn and train.

And, as the Scouts would say, Be Prepared.

Some Strategies To Deal With Frustrating Situations


Wednesday, 9.37pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes its built on catastrophe. – Sumner Redstone

When I started this blog I described how it built on things that I learned trying to communicate with children.

As the kids grow older, the lessons become harder to learn – because how we, as adults, need to act may conflict with how we naturally act.

For example, we have thoughts about rules and discipline that we take for granted – we have views on whether children that act badly are doing it for attention or to manipulate us.

And we don’t question these beliefs.

But we should because it’s something that repeats not just with children but with coworkers, with politicians and society at large – after all, when do we stop acting like children inside?

Ross W. Greene’s book The explosive child sets out some ideas that are worth considering – and perhaps they will help in one situation or another.

One of the things Greene talks about is the need to understand how a request to a child progresses to a “meltdown”.

Let’s say the kid is watching TV.

You ask him to stop and come and eat breakfast.

The child is enjoying the show and enters an “early lock”, saying he want to finish.

Now you as the parent are at a crossroads.

Do you insist that he stop or do you leave it?

If you insist it goes into an “advanced lock” where the child is now frustrated and angry

You both go head to head with an argument – perhaps you shout and demand that he listen.

And then you have a meltdown.

This is something that many parents have experienced with their children.

And you don’t need to look far, especially among the current crop of global politicians, to see the same behaviour.

The problem that we face is that we are trying to get a child to move from his or her agenda, Agenda A, to our agenda, Agenda B.

And this change can be jarring, like changing gear from sixth to first – causing your engine to, as Douglas Adams out it, “leap out of your hood in a rather ugly mess”.

So, you need to figure out how you can get someone to shift agendas – and that requires working the gears in between the two extremes.

But how do you do that?

Well, there are two rules to remember.

The second, Greene says is to think clearly in the middle of whatever is making you frustrated.

The first rule, however, is to stay calm enough to do rule number 1.

These rules are not limited to parents.

How many managers have you seen fly off the handle at their staff – and how is that a useful way to act with other people?

Now, how can you deal with these situations?

The first thing to realise is that you need to be watchful – as a lifeguard you need to be looking out at the sea to spot someone that needs saving.

The earlier in the process you intervene the more likely it is that you’ll have a good result.

And that means working on the request, early lock and crossroads stages – to adapt and change your behaviour to empathise, distract and engage your child before the locks set in, engage and he loses control.

But clearly you can’t be perfect and understanding all the time.

That’s why you need three baskets.

A is for stuff that’s unsafe – you’ve got to do something about these behaviours, or at least change the environment to minimise the chances of them happening.

B are the things you choose to work on – the areas where you can actually work with your child to improve how they make choices.

And C – leave those alone – they don’t matter and you can come back to them when they are important.

Greene starts his book by quoting Brownowski who said you “master nature not by force but by understanding.”

The key to working with your child is developing understanding.

And that’s the key to working with everyone else as well.


Karthik Suresh

Understanding Variety: The Key To Delighting Customers


Tuesday, 7.15pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Indian religion has always felt that since the minds, the temperaments and the intellectual affinities of men are unlimited in their variety, a perfect liberty of thought and of worship must be allowed to the individual in his approach to the Infinite. – Sri Aurobindo

If I were to pick out one book that has affected the way in which I have analysed problems over the last decade or so it would be Understanding Variation by Donald J. Wheeler.

Wheeler is an expert on statistics – especially the bits that tell you how to figure out when something is really happening and when it’s just random – where there’s a signal and where there is just noise.

Having a framework based on understanding variation helps you in two specific areas.

One is when you’re trying to understand whether a particular sequence of numbers is telling you a story or not.

Is it possible to figure out when you should do something and when you should just wait and sit on your hands?

The answer is, arguably, yes.

For example, it’s quite useful knowing how to use technical analysis or being able to have an approach to trading cryptocurrencies.

If you have an understanding of what is sometimes called a mean-variance framework you can make decisions that, over the long term, will probably deliver good results.

The second area where understanding variation helps you is when you make things.

Things like bread and cars and keyboards.

Everything you see, really – all the products that help you live the way you do.

The key thing to understand here is that the people who make products want to minimise variation.

If you go to the supermarket and pick up a loaf of bread you want to know that it’s the same as every other load of bread with that packaging.

For example, a Kingsmill 50/50 loaf needs to look like the love child of white bread and brown bread.

It can’t have seeds in there, or decide that some slices should be longer than others or perhaps triangular.

That sort of variation is not going to make you happy.

This is something that’s so obvious and taken for granted that we don’t really think about the thinking behind this.

Once upon a time you went to a tailor and had clothes made for you.

Now you go to a shop and pick up a size that fits – and you expect that there is an order to things – a waist size of 36 means just that – not 40.

Although that said – it looks like manufacturers have realised that they sell more jeans to men if they label the ones that have a waist of 40 with 36 – but the point about consistency, whatever the measure, still stands.

Now, variation is all very well when you’re dealing with impersonal things like things and numbers but it’s very different for situations that involve people.

It’s just that no one told us that.

If you go into any office there will be someone trying to standardise and writing policies and procedures and insisting that a System be used to record everything.

New managers think that this is their role – to monitor and control and structure and tell.

Administrators and auditors and support services try and make things follow a Process – creating forms and templates and libraries of things.

All of which sounds very sensible when you come from a world where managing variation leads to good things.

Surely, if you all do things the same way then you’ll deliver great service and the customer will be happy?

It will not surprise you to learn that the answer is no.

Which is why in the next few decades I expect to increasingly draw on the work of Professor John Seddon and the books and papers he has authored in which perhaps the most important point is the one he makes on variety – leaving the world of variation behind.

When you’re making things you want everything to be the same – you want to reduce variation.

When you’re serving people what you want is to be able to deal with variety.

Now, this is something that is hard to explain to people who aren’t ready to hear it.

People who want control, who want to install a CRM, who want a sales process or who want to create job roles and descriptions – these people aren’t going to listen to you.

Because they know they’re doing the right thing.

Even though they aren’t.

Now, here’s the extreme version of this argument.

Think of a society that once wanted everyone to confirm to a particular idea of the perfect.

Anyone who didn’t fit was eliminated.

Remember what happened?

The thing about people is that they are different – individual and unique.

If you want to serve them then you need to understand them – deeply.

And that’s difficult to do.

But all the literature has the same underlying message.

If you want to talk to kids, first learn to listen to them.

If you want to help someone going through a tough time listen to them.

But more than that – learn not to judge and correct and direct.

But to see.

What they see.

And it’s probably the hardest thing to do, for some of us anyway.

But if you do it’s like going from seeing films in black and white to colour – it’s not something you’ll ever go back from.

You won’t put people in boxes or processes or structures or roles.

Instead you’ll collaborate with them, work with them and learn more together.

It’s a big shift, moving from selling boxes to understanding your customer in their full technicolour dreamcoat variety.

But if you take the trouble you’ll have no problem delighting them with what you offer.


Karthik Suresh

The Art Of Selecting, Studying And Analyzing The Facts


Monday, 9.01pm

Sheffield, U.K.

History is made every day. The challenge is getting everyone to pay attention to it. – Adora Svitak

I’m browsing through After the fact: The art of historical detection by James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle – an introduction to how historians work and how they painstakingly construct a story from fragments of fact.

What they do is dig – dig and dig and select and discard and keep – like archaeologists except in libraries and collections rather than in mud and dirt.

This idea of digging is interesting – something that applies to anything worth doing.

The more I read and learn the less I trust the idea of shortcuts and hacks as a way to do things.

Many people probably disagree and point to how they have successfully leapfrogged everyone else to become rich/famous/powerful using tricks and strategies they are willing to teach you as well for a modest fee.

But the truth is that to get good at anything takes time – it takes effort and it takes perseverance.

Which is why a culture that focuses on speed and movement may miss the point altogether.

In fact the whole thing has echoes of the Hare and Tortoise story.

As I write this election fever is gripping the nation.

And as it does the stories come out, the news and soundbites and revelations that affect how we think about what is going on.

For a few years now governments have been worried about interference in elections by other states.

People are concerned about rising levels of fascism, racism and antisemitism.

Environmental regulations are being eroded and pollution is getting worse.

Well, that’s what we get from the news and social media anyway.

Now some of this might be true and some might be false and much may actually be at some point in a continuum.

The problem is that most of us don’t know or don’t have the time to get to know properly.

So, should the ones who do know fight fire with fire – fight misinformation with misinformation?

Or should they counter with education and information – put the record straight?

It turns out that most approaches have their complications – and they aren’t really the answer to these problems.

The best way to prevent the extremes that result from shallow, fast thinking is to have an educated, literate population in the first place.

And this comes down to being able to critically analyse what is going on.

Davidson and Lytle give an example of how historians analyse text.

What is written, they argue, tells you as much about the person doing the writing as what’s on the page.

They suggest taking a text through four stages of analysis.

First, read it for what it is – for what it says on the surface.

Then, examine it for what it doesn’t say – something quite hard to do if you haven’t got the drafts that were created previously.

If, however, it puts forward a point of view without examining alternative ones you can question whether it’s balanced or not.

Anyone can put forward an argument but it takes someone who is very sure of their position to set out both sides of a case.

The next step is to look at the intellectual context of the document – what is the reasoning that underpins it.

Finally look at the social context of the document – who is the audience and what is it trying to do?

Right now, for example, there is a lot of focus on how the Liberal Democrats are using statistics in their campaign literature.

On the surface this says that they are running a two-horse race against the Tories – no one else is in sight.

What it doesn’t say is that the argument is based on responses to a rather tortured question – although the question is printed in small type.

What’s the intellectual context here – perhaps that they need to be seen as one of the larger parties rather than a tiny minority?

And what’s the social context – is it that they want the media and the public give them an elevated standing and status because of their position and stance on Brexit.

All the parties face similar issues – as they put out one sided material designed to shore up their core support and appeal to those on the fence.

At the same time who do we trust?

For example, with Labour constantly accused of antisemitism, can we trust the entry in Wikipedia that has nearly 400 sources giving you the facts but not a clear answer?

Or do you focus on a line that suggests that coverage like this is an attempt to use the media and “weaponise it against a single political figure just ahead of important elections”?

The thing with media today is that it’s tribal and fierce and raucous and vicious.

That doesn’t make it right.

Davidson and Lytle’s essays on slavery are especially hard to read – stories that remind you just how badly people can treat other people when they are given power.

Politics is, more than anything else, about power.

And the only thing that can defeat power is the truth.

Which is why you and I must get better at finding it among the facts.


Karthik Suresh