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Infinity Plus One: Top 5 Over-Promise Claims

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Under-promise and over-deliver, that’s what management guru Tom Peters suggested. And it’s fine advice.

Today we’ll look at the ‘promise’ side of things, in case you’re planning a new business presentation any time soon.

One of the great things about our language is its precision. One little word can compress a lot of accuracy, like the word best.  As the dictionary says, “surpassing all others in excellence, achievement, or quality.”

By definition, there is no better than best. But not for people who like to over-claim, using the technique we all used in the schoolyard. Just think of an accepted scale, and go one beyond it:

“Oh yeah? Well I’m infinity plus one times better than you!”

Continued into adulthood, this becomes downright cheesy. In my experience, anyone who uses lines like these is highly unlikely to actually deliver. Here’s our Top 5.

1. Giving 110%
Today, anyone who delivers a mere 110% is a puny underachiever. Sports people lead the field in this, with some sportsmen (it’s always men) apparently pulling out 190% and beyond for the big occasion. And business is always quick to pick up sports schtick, in its constant quest to step up to the plate, kick some goals and knock it out of the park.

2. Seven Sigma
Six Sigma is a popular business system for eliminating defects. The term is based on statistical stuff that we won’t bore you with here, but the idea is that if you can achieve 6 Sigmas, you get 99.9997% efficiency. That should be enough for anyone, if only because amid all that perfection, you’d actually enjoy an occasional tiny error just to give you something to talk about at work. But in this crowded field of excellence, how do you stand out? Just award yourself a bonus Sigma without any statistical justification.

3. Six or Seven Star Hotel
External ratings of hotels go up to five stars. Beyond that, it’s self-bestowed by your marketing department. And look how well self-regulation worked on Wall Street over the last few years. Speaking of which…

4. Zero Risk
There is no zero risk. Even if you lock the doors to your home, hide under your bed, and keep your money in a suitcase buried deep underground, you may still be hit by a meteorite.

“It is hard for us, without being flippant, to even see a scenario within any kind of realm of reason that would see us losing one dollar in any of those transactions.”

Joseph J. Cassano, former A.I.G. executive, August 2007

85 billion taxpayer dollars later…

5. 25/8
24/7 is bad enough, because the kind of people who claim it tend to be chronic under-deliverers. Try this test – next time someone tells you how 24/7 they are, call their office at 6.03pm and try to get some help. And say hello to their voicemail for me. But then to take it to a whole new plane of meaninglessness, “because 24/7 is no longer enough”, we have this. Get a grip, people. Concentrate on doing a good job for 8 or 12 hours, and go home and see your loved ones. And get some sleep.

With all these terms and others like them, you end up with Promise Hyperinflation, where nobody believes anything and your claims carry no more value than Zimbabwean currency.

Of course, this whole subject was dealt with 110% better by the immortal Nigel Tufnell of Spinal Tap, owner of the only guitar amp that goes up to 11.