Power drill demo

This is from an email that I want to frame and put above the mantle:

I am the president of a power tool company. I read your book on Monday on a flight from Charlotte, NC to San Jose, CA. I had a customer meeting on Tuesday and had to completely change my pitch. Instead of our typical power point telling the customer how much better our tools are, I decided to be “concrete”. I disassembled our power drill and a competitor’s drill right in the middle of the meeting to show the customer how our product stacks up to competition. They loved it.”

Unexpectedness via Calvin and Hobbes

Matt from Olin College emailed us and said that the stuff in the book about unexpectedness — keeping people enthralled in your topic through mysteries and curiosity gaps — reminded him of an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. (Sorry, couldn’t find a link to the pic)

CALVIN: “I’m not going to do my math homework. Look at these unsolved problems. Here’s a number in mortal combat with another. One of them is going to get subtracted. But why? What will be left of him? If I answered these, it would kill the suspense. It would resolve the conflict and turn intriguing possibilities into boring old facts.”
HOBBES: “I never really thought about the literary possibilities of math.”
CALVIN: “I prefer to savor the mystery.”

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.