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July 20, 2014

If I were Shakespeare…

Well, here’s what I would do if I were Shakespeare & Co., a theatre company in Lenox, Massachusetts of which I am inordinately fond, as consistent readers of this blog know (hi, Mom!).

Yesterday my wife and I went to an open rehearsal of a scene from Henry IV, Part 2, Scene 2. For about an hour we watched Malcolm Ingram (Falstaff), Kevin Coleman (Shallow), Ariel Bock (Silence) and Michael F. Toomey (Bardolph) being directed by Jonathan Epstein, who has abridged and combined the two Henry IV’s. The rehearsal started out fascinating and got even better from there.

The actors in Shakespeare & Co. rehearse before they’ve learned their lines by being shadowed by someone who whispers their lines to them. That way (as Kevin Coleman explained) they can rehearse while looking at the person they’re talking to instead of looking down at a piece of paper. The result is an early rehearsal in which the actors can act together and experiment.

Jonny Epstein is an actor and a highly collaborative director. He interceded occasionally to punch up a reading, and always kept an eye on the audience’s interests: We need a gesture to understand what “bona-robas” are (high quality courtesans — literally “the good stuff”); Falstaff should turn to the left while pointing to the right so that both sides of the audience are involved, etc.

But as the scene came to a close, it took a turn towards the awesome.

It’s a short and humorous scene in which Justice Shallow is greeting his old friend Falstaff. There’s funny business about rounding up men for Falstaff, which in this abridged, small-cast version had the actors pointing into the audience. Very amusing.

The scene ends with Shallow inviting Falstaff to dinner. They’re about to wander off, in a convenient scene-closing way, when a memory from fifty-five years ago pops into Shallow’s mind. “O, Sir John, do you remember since we lay all night in the windmill in Saint George’s field?” This becomes a chat about old acquaintances who now are old or dead.

The first time through, the actors played it lightly: a bunch of old folks remembering their lusty youths. But Epstein then suggested that they stop their funny business. Just stand there and talk. Without further direction, the actors changed everything: posture, cadence, expression, diction, interaction. And it became a scene about age and youth that touched me deeply.

It was, in short, a moment of transcendence. I got yer magic of the theatre right here.

  


Shakespeare & Co. is a great company, but it rarely plays to full houses. If I were them, here’s what I would do:

1. Video every lecture they give and put it on the Web for free. In fact, do more lectures, at least one for every play they produce. These lectures have been consistently fascinating. I want people to get used to looking up the Shakespeare & Co. lecture before going to see a Shakespeare play performed by any group.

2. Video a performance of each play presented, and post it for free on the Web. Have some of the summer interns do it. No one who comes would have stayed at home if they could have watched a video of it, especially since the company doesn’t have the resources to do studio-quality video production.

3. Post a second version of these videoed performances with a director’s track. Have the director and some of the actors explaining both the play and their decisions about it. We want teachers to play these scenes when introducing students to Shakespeare, and we want people who just saw a performance to then see the thinking behind it.

Now, there may be Actors Equity rules that prevent this, which would be a shame because videos like these would help expose the actors’ talents more broadly. And I suspect that Shakespeare & Co. may have reservations about posting content that’s not of the highest professional quality. If so: get over it! It’s the Web! Trust comes from imperfection.

In any case, when you’re in the Berkshires, do come. And bring the kids.

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April 7, 2014

Cluetrain meets Reddit

Cluetrain touted the rise of customer voices. We see through the marketing bullshit and we tell one another about it.

Fine, but there was always the problem that if you’re a consumer products company, you only need 1% of customers to make it look like your products are godawful because a corner was dented. “You totalz Suck PRocter/Gambel!!”

So, here’s a post by an alarmed passenger on a United flight. OMG the window is half out!

But because it’s Reddit, the customer’s concern is answered by someone who knows how planes are constructed. No, the popped-out window isn’t a danger to the integrity of the plane. Customer conversations can help customers get things right.

(By the way, United, you might want to fix that window. It’s upsetting the passengers.)

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December 12, 2013

How to introduce a change in its user agreement

Reddit shows us how to introduce changes in a site’s user agreement. The agreement itself is admirably minimally jargony, but the discussion with the community is a model of honesty and respect.

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October 6, 2013

Holes, not drills

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

This gets quoted a lot by marketers. Usually it gets attributed to Theodore Levitt, an economist at Harvard Business School, but he quite explicitly [pdf] attributed it to Leo McGinneva, about whom I can find out nothing other than that he was a “businessman.”

This quote has the salutary effect of focusing marketers away from what they’re selling and on what customers are buying. So, I find it useful. But also irksome.

I’m irked first of all for the small reason that people don’t actually buy quarter-inch drills to drill quarter-inch holes. The buy a quarter-inch drill bit to drill a quarter-inch hole. A quarter-inch drill is a drill that accepts drill bits with a maximum of a quarter-inch shank. And, yes I know I’m being annoying.

The more important reason this formulation bothers me becomes clear if you use something other than a tool as your example. “People don’t want to buy a towel hook. They want a _____.” How do you fill in that blank without it being simply redundant: “They want a hook to hang a towel on.” It’s not just that it loses its rhetorical punch. Rather, it becomes clear that you have to go further into the customer’s value system to make sense of it. Why do they want a towel hook? Because they like dry towels? Because they want to impress their new in-laws? Because they repainted and the old towel hook is now the wrong color? Because they want a place to hang a dress so that the shower will naturally steam it? Because their shower rod is coming loose? Because their pet ferret is getting old — poor Ratface! He can barely see! — and is soiling towels left on the floor?

So, people don’t buy holes. They buy something that helps achieve a goal that is particular to them and is part of the larger set of interests and values that make them who they are. The hole example helps but doesn’t go far enough.

We all know this. So why does the “drill/holes” example keep coming up, and keep feeling like an insight? To me, this is evidence of just how much we take for granted the misalignment of the interests of businesses and customers — the great business tragedy of the Age of Massness.

But that’s a different story.

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September 27, 2013

[2b2k] Popular Science incompetently manages its comments, gives up

Popular Science has announced that it’s shutting down comments on its articles. The post by Suzanne LeBarre says this is because ” trolls and spambots” have overwhelmed the useful comments. But what I hear instead is: “We don’t know how to run a comment board, so shut up.”

Suzanne cites research that suggests that negative comments on an article reduce the credibility of the article, even if those negative comments are entirely unfounded. Thus, the trolls don’t just ruin the conversation, they hurt the cause of science.

Ok, let’s accept that. Scientific American cited the same research but came to a different decision. Rather than shut down its comments, it decided to moderate them using some sensible rules designed to encourage useful conversation. Their idea of a “useful conversation” is likely quite similar to Popular Science’s: not only no spam, but the discourse must be within the norms of science. So, it doesn’t matter how loudly Jesus told you that there is no climate change going on, your message is going to be removed if it doesn’t argue for your views within the evidentiary rules of science.

You may not like this restriction at Scientific American. Tough. You have lots of others places you can talk about Jesus’ beliefs about climate change. I posted at length about the Scientific American decision at the time, and especially about why this makes clear problems with the “echo chamber” meme, but I fundamentally agree with it.

If comments aren’t working on your site, then it’s your fault. Fix your site.

[Tip o' the hat to Joshua Beckerman for pointing out the PopSci post.]

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September 4, 2013

Guess who lost the right to complain about Yelp reviews?

Yeah, I’m talking to you Scrub-a-dub.

ScrubADub offering 50% off if you like them on Facebook

Way to corrupt the system.

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April 20, 2013

Subverting ads

I’m a sucker for ads that comment on the dishonesty of ads. For example, I laughed at this one from Newcastle Brown Ale:

I also really liked this one as well:

I do have a duck-rabbit disagreement with Piper Hoffman’s reading of it at BlogHer. I took the ad as a direct comment on the sexism of beer ads: if you’re not an attractive woman, beer companies won’t include you. But Piper raises an interesting point. [SPOILER ALERT] She’s right that if the pronoun had been “she,” the point would have been less ambiguous. But it also would have been a bit crueler, since the ad would have had Newcastle calling their brewmistress unattractive, and it also could have been taken as Newcastle agreeing that only attractive women should ever be shown on in an ad.

While I enjoy a meta-ad like this (at least as I take it), I also feel a bit meta-fooled: What does that have to do with whether their beer is any good? I’m not looking to be friends with a beer.

I get more enjoyment from viewers subverting ads. For example, I saw an ad for KFC about some new boneless chicken product.

I wasn’t paying attention, in part because it was a commercial, and in part because I haven’t eaten anything from KFC since I became a vegetarian 1979 but I have not forgotten the sensation of eating chicken that’s been so close to liquefied that it’s held together only by a layer of deep-fried cholesterol. But I saw the hashtag #iAteTheBones and checked it out on Twitter.

Bunches of the tweets praise the commercial as amusing. (It was directed by David O.Russell, who also directed the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook.) But prominent in the list is this:

Well, not as far as I can tell. But the tweet made me look.

And a heavily-favorited tweet is quite savage:

Someone in the KFC Marketing Department has already written an email to senior management explaining why this is a good thing for KFC. But, um, it’s not.

Neither is this:

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January 28, 2013

Unstartling presentation

Oy. I fell for an ad today because it promised to tell me four startling things that happen to you before you get a heart attack. The video, which has no pause or fast forward button, is a grating infomercial, with a heavy emphasis on the “mercial.” So, here’s the startling information Dr. Chauncey Crandall so selflessly is imparting to us:

The four things are:

Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.

Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.

Shortness of breath. Often comes along with chest discomfort. But it also can occur before chest discomfort.

Other symptoms. May include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness To prevent heart attacks, cut back on fat intake but most importantly, cut back on sugar.

Yeah, these are the symptoms you will find listed anywhere that discusses heart attacks. For example, try a little place I like to call “Google”: top hit for “heart attack”.

It takes Dr. Crandall forever to get even the slightest piece of information — first promoting himself and pitching his newsletter etc. — that I gave up. So I quoted the above from trogdor1 on a discussion board. Thanks, Trogdor1, for taking the hit for the team.

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December 2, 2012

For your convenience…

sign explaining that your shopping cart will lock its wheels if you try to take it too far

No it’s not.

From our local Shaw’s grocery store.

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August 2, 2012

Three vendors and/or products to love: Computer parts, music, electric toothbrush

I wanted to replace the smashed screen of a white MacBook, and found what seemed like a very good price from Wegener. The new screen arrived very quickly, and was exactly as described. But when I started to strip down the MacBook, I discovered I had ordered the wrong screen. It’s surprisingly easy to do.

So, I sent an email to Wegener and quickly got a reply, followed by a phone call. The support person said they are happy to send me the right screen, for which I have to pay a little more because it’s a more expensive part. They’re sending it even before I return the old one. So far, the experience has been terrific: Quick responses, friendly people, good return policy.

Then they told me that in the carton for the replacement part I’ll find a postage paid mailing label. I reminded them that the problem was entirely my fault, and thus there’s no reason for them to pay for shipping. Yikes, that’s some good customer service! (I went ahead and returned the first screen on my own dime.)

It’s amazing how powerful an experience it is to be treated like a human being by a business.


HumbleBundle is a fantastic way to sell indie games and music. You name your own price, you can divvy it up among the creators and among charities, and today I got a message that they’ve added more songs for free for anyone who purchased the most recent bundle.

Yo, Humbles, I already bought the product. You don’t have to entice me any more. On the other hand: You’ve made me love you even more, and you’ve helped some musicians spread their music just a little wider.


I thought it had been 6 months since my last dental check up. Since I now routinely multiply any past intervals by two, I figured, correctly, that it’s really been a year. Usually, the hygienist has to put on waders and go at me with a pickaxe and a trowel. This was the first time in my life that a dental hygienist has marveled at my teeth. Gums are strong. No tartar, except for a little around a couple of teeth. Some healing of a couple of “pockets.”

There’s been one major variable that I know of: I switched from a Braun electric toothbrush to a Philips SoniCare.Why? Because the Internet told me to. I believe that the correlation is not accidental (see what I did there?), but of course it is just one data point.

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