Kurt Vonnegut on the Shape of Stories

In the Cornelsen coursebook I’m writing, and in my classes, I warn my students against turning their presentations into straight pitches. Robert McKee, the Hollywood scriptwriter, has pointed out that the audience doesn’t really engage with and is not convinced by a presentation that tries to sell only strong points. People aren’t dumb. They’ll instinctively know that the presenter is giving them only half of the story. Instead, McGee says, presenters should use the typical shape of stories for their talks, and take their audience through all of the highs and lows.

According to McKee, all stories follow a basic pattern: “Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes. It begins with a situation in which life is relatively in balance.” But then an event occurs that introduces a complication. The plot thickens as the protagonist tries to restore balance, working with whatever means are available and taking action in the face of risks.

KVstoriesNow, that may be true for the basic pattern, but there are clearly variations. In this lecture, novelist Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You Mr Rosewater) presents three such variations along a line from B for Beginning to E for… Electricity.

Also see below one of the last interviews with Vonnegut. It showcases his full life and his signature phrase: “And so it goes.”

The GoldieBlox Rube Goldberg (Anti)-Princess Machine

I support GoldieBlox www.goldieblox.com, a toy startup dedicated to introducing girls to engineering through a combination of building toys and stories. That is, I bought 3 or 4 boxes of their first product from the USA on blind faith. The combination of hands-on building with hard and soft materials, abstract building materials and concrete characters,  and a storybook in relatively simple English, is really nice for 4-8 year-olds, whether or not they’ve been born into playing in English.  I do think the storybook is a bit dim, I’m afraid, but the concept and the toy itself is fine. So I have these boxes of the GoldieBlox Spinning Machine sitting around my flat, waiting for my favorite little girls to pick them up. GoldieBlox has produced a followup toy, as well.

The GoldieBlox venture is more idea than toy, at this point. CEO Debbie Sterling is using social media to create a community to empower girls.”In a world where men largely outnumber women in science, technology, engineering and math…and girls lose interest in these subjects as early as age 8, GoldieBlox is determined to change the equation. Construction toys develop an early interest in these subjects, but for over a hundred years, they’ve been considered “boys toys”. By designing a construction toy from the female perspective, we aim to disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.”

This advertisement was created by GoldieBlox to enter into a contest for broadcasting rights at the Superbowl. The Rube Goldberg machine employs mechanical components that come with the toy set, and just a few more doodads you might find around the house. Unfortunately, it was not built by the girls acting here, who are however power-users and testers of the toy. The ad is intended to inspire others.

PS: The video has gone viral. 2,796,595 hits in 2 days.

PPS: GoldieBlox is sueing the Beastie Boys. Oh, no.

Zara’s logistics

I’m writing a book for business English, Basis for Business C1. When I was putting the unit on logistics together, I was initially thinking of using Inditex, Zara’s parent company, as the main example. But it’s already been used in several other course book, including Cornelsen’s Career Express, and I’m trying to be as original as possible. Still, Zara and its model of “Fast fashion”, i.e. turning around what sells into a new product and getting that to the store in 2 weeks, is one of the most inspiring companies to look at when you’re studying logistics. Right now their production is centered in North Africa and Europe, but they are planning a thrust into Asia, opening over a 1000 stores in China. It will be interesting to see whether they create a completely new center there. The NYT last year published a lovely video on Zara.
Also see the video by The Apparel Logistics Group below for excellent logistics vocabulary.

Branding: Smells, tastes, feels like home

New exciting challenge. Learning about branding for a company I’ll be teaching at. So here’s my first exploration. Bill said: “Branding is about managing how people instinctively react to your ideas and identity.” Interesting. He’s sent me an ad for an insurance company that the company has branded, made by a separate agency. So one look, and you recognize, hey, this is a reference to “High Fidelity“.

They’re turning what Rob loves about Laura into what your average twenty something wants to love about insurance. Smells and tastes like home. A very convincing ad concept.

John Cusack was wonderful in High Fidelity, and I could see how an insurance brand would benefit from channeling the honesty, integrity, quirkiness and human realness of his character. So does the commercial communicate that to the viewer?

They’ve chosen a very different man, obviously. It’s a tough call to cast for a German TV audience. But going at it from my world, after the first two viewings I’m not so sure I like the guy. The problem is (for me) that the monologue sounds too learnt by heart. Has this Berliner really had nothing but trouble with insurances? Recognizing the scene, I’m expecting an authentic rant or declaration of love here. We’re so tuned into authentic emotion these days, it’s very hard to fool us. If you’re selling personality, but you don’t have a star everyone can relate to, it’s going to be risky. Star quality is elusive. I’m trying to think of a German actor I would have cast here… Maybe Jürgen Vogel? Big fan here.

They’ve taken Nora Jones “Sunrise” from “Feels like Home” as the music, which makes perfect sense. She is a true star. Everyone understands her, and she’s here to stay. Just like your coverage. Hopefully.


Kickstarter is a website that helps crowd-source funding for creative projects. So they invite finite enterprises with specific goals that need concrete financial backing. It’s not primarily geared to companies, and it’s also not for charity, it really comes down to supporting the arts, where the performance, the product or the outcome is not expected to generate revenue.

The site forces creatives to articulate their story (first and foremost in a video) and to define their specific funding targets. The public is invited to pledge money to back these projects, and in exchange they are promised some sort of reward connected to the level of funding. For instance, a woman who sailed around the world alone provided those who were contributing money a polaroid from every harbor she stayed in. Or in the case of GoldieBlox (which first got me started on this topic), backers received a combination of magnets, stickers, a copy of the game etc.

So overall, the model falls someplace in between commerce and patronage.

If the financial target is met within the specified time, all of the funds are released; if not, the project is dropped. It’s all or nothing. In the interview with Rocketboom moderator Ella Morton, Kickstarter co-founders Yancey Strickler and Perry Chen explain that people procrastinate unless they have a specific goal to work toward (and don’t I know it!), so forcing people to focus their energies this way helps projects succeed. The tipping point for a project to succeed, they say, is in fact raising about 25% of the funding goal, and once that is reached, 90% of the projects work out.

The successful projects share certain traits: They have a real and passionate story to them, and (on the technical side) they have a good video and interesting rewards going for them. So, for daily good news on the scope of creativity on our planet, check out the Project of the Day.

Charles Ferguson

I watched Inside Job the other day, the Acadamy Award winning 2010 documentary about the 2008 financial meltdown, directed by Charles Ferguson, and had a bit of a meltdown of my own. As the blurb to the posted interview with Ferguson states “the film makes the powerful case that an out-of-control finance industry took advantage of a deregulated atmosphere and purposely sought to get rich at the expense of others.” …”Ferguson crossed the globe to find proof that the financial industry intentionally engaged in unethical behavior. His gripping account of the global recession is sure to evoke feelings of disgust, anger, and concern that this all may happen again unless our regulatory system is changed.” That I can confirm. The thing is that nobody minds if banks get rich, as long as everyone else does ok. But they don’t, clearly, and the banks have become more powerful than ever, through the consolidation after the crisis. And Ferguson shows that unfortunately President Obama hasn’t done much to resolve the real issues. (despite Dodd Frank he gives Obama a C-minus overall).

Charles Ferguson is an impressive guy. After majoring in math at UC at Berkeley, he got a PhD in Political Science at MIT, then did postdoc work at MIT on the intersection of high tech and global policy and  advised federal agencies. He then went on to found Vermeer Technologies, the company that developed FrontPage, which he sold to Microsoft to begin his career as a documentary filmmaker. His first documentary was about the Iraq war. And then came Inside Job.

Nothing about the featured interview and the film is new – I’m a full year behind the loop – but if you, too, didn’t catch the film last year, watch it. And watch this interview. It’s an hour well spent.