Less is more

Today I undertook an exercise in trying to get a complicated message across in just two PowerPoint slides without resorting to smaller fonts.

The slides had to stand alone and persuade the senior management audience without any voiceover. What made this challenge more significant was that my original presentation was 14 slides.

We are bombarded with data every day, and we can be tempted towards information overload when given the unlimited canvas of PowerPoint, so maybe two slides isn’t such a bad practice?

What did I learn in the process?

  • two slides did get the message across and it was easily digested
  • I had to be creative with the slides
    • coloured panels (to separate thought group)
    • brief bullets (three or four words is a challenge, but can create powerful statements)

More than the obvious, I learned that it is possible to abbreviate without losing sense, to condense without losing meaning, and to reduce without losing impact.

Detail rightly has its place – and yesterday’s blog was all about ensuring complete communication – but in other places I am now convinced that less can certainly be more.

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A clear desk

I once saw the quote “a clear desk is the sign of a twisted mind”, and others have said that it’s the sign of a tidy mind.  But the whole subject was woken in my mind by a blog I read yesterday: Happy Clean Off Your Desk Day.

I can honestly say that the only paper on my desk is a scratch pad and a tear-off calendar.  There are no memos, no reports, no expense receipts – and I don’t feel the need for my desk to be cluttered in that way.  But rather than rest on my laurels I’d like to share the steps I have taken to get to this point:

  • if a document exists electronically then I only want the electronic version – and pretty much everyone I work with has learned that this is my way of working;
  • if I have to have a piece of paper then I’ll either make it electronic (scan it) or file it and add a note to the relevant file or to-do list;
  • expense receipts are recorded on a spreadsheet and filed as soon as possible after I incur the expense, and they sit in my laptop case (following my filing ethos); and
  • finally, there are a few things which I need to refer to regularly, and these (very few) documents, along with my current meetings notebook, live in my laptop case.

Overall, it’s not difficult but it is a step-change for some people.  It just requires a step-change in attitude, and a very determined effort at filing (electronic or otherwise).  I can’t be that different to everyone else in terms of how many reports and documents come my way, so what will you do to create a clear desk?

Passwords – and what is secure enough?

As I returned to work this morning after ten days off, I took a moment to see if I could remember my password.  As it happens, I was successful and (unlike a few others) logged in first time.  But this got me thinking about passwords – and whether we set them sensibly.

If I can make a fundamental assumption that no everyone can remember long, complex passwords, then there are three basic areas I’d like to consider:

Appropriateness

Like pretty much everyone else, I have a variety of userids and passwords.  For example, I have one set for my bank, another for an online game, yet another for wordpress.  Would anyone disagree that the password which protects my money is more important than the one which guards an online game? Which should be more complex, and which should I protect more diligently?

The security level of the password used for any purpose should be commensurate with the damage which could be caused if it were compromised – more damage to my bank account than to a game which I could recreate, for example.

How, I hear you cry, can I determine the security level? I’m glad you asked … Continue reading

My (almost) paperless office

In case anyone else wants to try the paperless – or very nearly paperless – experiment I mention in a couple of other blog posts, I thought I’d dedicate today’s blog to a quick summary of the technology that I’m using.  Everything is commercially available, although I’m going to make no guarantees that my plan will ultimately be successful – for that, time will tell.

The basic configuration is very simple:

  • a computer: pretty much any computer would do the trick.
  • a scanner: I’ve got an all-in-one device, but any scanner (with appropriate management software) which will deliver a PDF will work nicely.
  • a shredder: paranoia reigns, so if I’m getting rid of sensitive paperwork then I want it to be as far beyond recovery as possible using good cross-cut shredder.

On top of this, I’ve selected two cloud-based service providers for different purposes:

  • Evernote: this stores most of my scanned documents, clipped web pages etc. Excellent for searchable notes (and making PDFs searchable), not good for editable files. All files are replicated on my laptop, in the cloud, and on my phone.  (I’ve been using Evernote for about nine months – and now I’m going to make better use of it.)
  • Dropbox: for storing files I want to edit (eg Word, Excel) from multiple locations. Great as a ‘portable’ drive, not so good for clipping web pages etc. All files are replicated on my laptop, in the cloud, and on my phone.  (This is also my preferred area for sharing files with other people.)

Then I’ve added a couple of extra niceties to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic failure (or sleepless nights):

  • Backup device: makes an incremental backup of my laptop every hour.
  • External boot device: in case my hard drive fails – boot from the device and then restore from the Time Capsule.

That’s how I’m going to be doing it, and so far it seems to be working.  Of course, there is the question of security, and perhaps I’ll muse on that another time.

All of this technology is available to pretty much everyone with a computer – so I have to pose two questions:

  • why did it take me so long to decide to do this?
  • why isn’t everyone doing it?

Company car or car allowance?

I was faced with this decision a couple of months ago and, as I calculated, there’s no such thing as a free car.  Let us start from the premise that a company is either willing to contribute £x towards a car from a corporate leasing scheme, or pay me £x to source my own car.  It is probably perfectly possible to get a tiny car within the £x such that the tax man’s share is covered by any remainder – but I wanted a bigger car.

So, as well as considering the obvious (company car tax on the one hand, income tax on the other; insurance, tax), I also added in tyre replacement, service, a provision for repairs (especially scuffed alloys!) and recovery.

And, on the side of the allowance, is the potential for a tax claim on the difference between the mileage rate paid by my employer and what HMRC think is reasonable.   Fortunately, I had no overriding principles to sway me one way or the other, but I recognised that “peace of mind” may lean towards a company car, even if more expensive; and, equally, the desire for flexibility may mitigate in favour of a self-arrangement.

Create a fairly simple spreadsheet, plug in a few numbers, and I had my answer – it was actually pretty close based on a guesstimate as to the cost of a private purchase.  But that was only my opening position with the car dealer – and I might have made one side look a bit less favourable than the other for the sake of a competitive edge.  The challenge, therefore, was for the dealership to source the car I wanted at a price which tempted me away from the company lease scheme.

Free servicing for three years, sir? Free recovery? Paintwork protection? As with many negotiations the deal was ultimately down to the items which didn’t hurt their bottom line too much but did affect my spreadsheet.  I did get the car for a very good price (seems the manufacturer wanted to make a “contribution” too, and they happened to have pretty much the car I wanted “pre-ordered”), it was exactly what I wanted, and I’m £150 per month better off than had I opted for the company scheme.

So what did I do that anyone else can do?  Work out the options fully, add a little incentive, and then set a challenge.  The worst case is already known and so the challenge is simply to beat it.  I may have been lucky with the manufacturer contribution, and perhaps with the convenient car in the right place, but I would have got a deal anyway.

If you don’t ask then you don’t get – and isn’t it better to have the money in my pocket?