Making a correlation into a story

If you have a burning interest in the correlation between health and education, you are a nobler, higher-minded person than me. But notice how Gina Kolata, in the NYT, grabs our attention:

It was 1999 and a Columbia University graduate student, Adriana Lleras-Muney, was casting about for a topic for her doctoral dissertation in economics. She found an idea in a paper published in 1969. Three economists noted the correlation between education and health and gave some advice: If you want to improve health, you will get more return by investing in education than by investing in medical care.

It had been an inflammatory statement, Dr. Lleras-Muney says. And for good reason. It could only be true if education in and of itself caused good health.

But there were at least two other possibilities.

Maybe sick children did not go to school, or dropped out early because they were ill. Or maybe education was a proxy for wealth, and it was wealth that led to health. It could be that richer parents who gave their children everything, including better nutrition, better medical care and a better education, had children who, by virtue of being wealthy, lived longer.

How, she asked herself, could she sort out causes and effects? It was the chicken-and-egg problem that plagues such research.

The answer came one day when Dr. Lleras-Muney was reading another economics paper. It indicated that about 100 years ago, different states started passing laws forcing children to go to school for longer periods. She knew what to do.

â??The idea was, when a state changed compulsory schooling from, say, six years to seven years, would the people who were forced to go to school for six years live as long as the people the next year who had to go for seven years,â? Dr. Lleras-Muney asked.

All she would have to do was to go back and find the laws in the different states and then use data from the census to find out how long people lived before and after the law in each state was changed.

â??I was very excited for about three seconds,â? she says. Then she realized how onerous it could be to comb through the state archives.

Notice what Kolata is doing here: First, she “primes the pump” — she gives us a tidbit of information about the potential link between education and health care. Then, she sets up the key mystery: How can you tease out the effects of education (on health) from other variables? Then, she gives us the revelation (unfurled slowly, so that we have a moment of snap-insight like the researcher) that THE RIGHT DATA EXISTS! And finally, before we get too comfortable, she tells us that the research task is going to be onerous…

This is good writing, but not just good writing. It is a great example of how to structure and sequence ideas to build interest. There is a little dash of Grisham in this piece. Kolata is building a “knowledge gap,” a term coined by the behavioral economist George Loewenstein. Loewenstein said that when people point out gaps in our knowledge, it actually causes us discomfort, like an itch that we want to scratch. (See the “Unexpected” chapter of the book.) Kolata is luring us along by telling us just enough to make us want the answer to something, then giving us the answer (almost), then setting up another mystery, etc.

If Kolata can do this for health care correlations, you should be pretty confident about your ability to do it with your own ideas.

A teacher making a difference

What a great story in this Jay Mathews article: Lisa Suben, a fifth-grade math teacher in DC, wrote her own math curriculum for low-income children. One comment in particular stuck out to me: “Understanding is built by making connections between as many strands of knowledge as possible.”

Sticky ideas make use of what’s already in the heads of the audience. Sticky ideas make reference to ideas you already know, they tap into different kinds of memory, they use familiar story structures. There aren’t many details in the story about specific elements in the curriculum — maybe when we get a chance we’ll call up Lisa and ask her more. Sounds fascinating.

Google’s hiring process

Saul Hansell has an interesting NYT piece on Google’s use of unorthodox interview techniques, like challenging applicants with brainteasers and asking people, “Have you ever made a profit from a catering business or dog walking?”

There is a brief mention in the piece of an earlier recruitment campaign that Chip and I think was ingenious Here’s the challenge for a recruiter: How do you lure in the right people while deterring the wrong people? One way to do that is to talk: “Google is looking for the brightest, most motivated technology whizzes in the universe!”

A better way to do it is to tease. Imagine a black equation on a white billboard (better seen than described). More precisely, an equation + a “.com” text string. No other markings. No clue as to why there’d be an equation on a billboard, or who was responsible for it. The “.com” ending hinted that if you could crack the equation, and then add a “.com” to the end of your answer, you’d be rewarded somehow. This is a great example of making an idea stick via a “curiosity gap.”

The answer led to another riddle. Eventually, having made the cut, you’d find out that Google was behind the mystery, and you’d arrive at a page where you could submit your resume to Google.

What a smart way of enticing the right people–people sufficiently analytical to solve a rather tough riddle–while remaining invisible to the wrong people.

Diversity, felt

In Made To Stick, we talk about situations where communicators had to make people experience something, because talking about it was inadequate. We talk about an elementary school teacher who made her students experience prejudice. We talk about how HP got its engineers to experience the value its technology could bring to Disney. We talk about how the NBA made players experience the risk of AIDS.

The WSJ’s Phred Dvorak writes about the innovative training efforts of the French food-services company Sodexho Alliance. The training mission: To inspire respect and appreciation for diversity. Don’t roll your eyes yet. You haven’t heard this one before:

TWO YEARS AGO, Rod Bond, an executive at a U.S. unit of French food-services company Sodexho Alliance SA, accompanied female colleagues to a meeting of the Women’s Food Service Forum, where he was a rare man among roughly 1,500 women.

“That’s a profound experience,” says Mr. Bond, 57 years old. It prompted him to wonder how women managers of his generation had felt when they started their careers amid a sea of men. “I can begin to feel what it must have felt like to be different,” Mr. Bond says. …

Ms. Anand [Sodexho’s Chief Diversity Officer] asked Mr. Bond to sponsor the affinity group for women employees when it formed about four years ago. Mr. Bond, who runs the Sodexho division that serves public schools, says participating in the group helped him appreciate the concerns of women employees. One of the group’s first requests was for a lactation room at headquarters, where new mothers could pump breast milk. “It’s just one of those things I’d never thought about,” says Mr. Bond.

Working with the group also made Mr. Bond more sensitive to women’s feelings, he says. Recently, he found himself annoyed by a TV comedian making jokes about divorce, all at the wife’s expense. Mr. Bond says he has also changed the social activities he plans for his colleagues, arranging excursions such as dinner cruises instead of golf outings, which he thinks appeal primarily to men.

Being the only man in a conference of women. Contributing to the plans for a lactation room. That’s the way you make the value of diversity stick.

Non-sticky titles

Phil Dusenberry, an advertising luminary, wrote a book that, by all accounts, was well-written, insightful, and full of fascinating industry scuttlebutt. It should have been a big hit. But first the book had to be titled. And, after a long series of negotiations and compromises, the parties involved decided to name the book “Then We Set His Hair On Fire.” And they used an illustration on the cover that looked like a cartoonish version of the top half of George W. Bush’s head.

This is cleverness that isn’t core. “Finding the core” is something we obsess about in the Simple chapter of our book. The title of a book is a great example of a message that should be core (i.e., it should be symbolic of the most important message the author wanted to communicate). An opaque title can kill interest in a good book.

So what do you do when you get an idea wrong the first time? You fix it. The happy ending: In the paperback version, the publisher nixed the Bush-esque illustration and renamed the book, “One Great Insight Is Worth a Thousand Good Ideas.” Which book do you want to read?

Here’s John Moore’s take on the before & after. Don’t forget to read his Money Quotes.

P.S. It was called “Then We Set His Hair On Fire” because of the Michael Jackson – Pepsi incident. No doubt you already made that connection. Ahem. And the graying white man on the cover may or may not be Phil Dusenberry, but either way, it seems weird, because unless you’ve made the Michael Jackson link, you kind of expect Phil’s hair to be on fire.