The proof is left to the reader

If you’ve taken an advanced course in mathematics, physics, or economics, you have likely encountered a form of the following statement in a textbook somewhere, and you may have thought about what’s behind it.

The proof is left to the reader.

Translated, this means one of two things:

1) It’s trivial, and wasting my time explaining it to you, noob, is beneath me.

2) It’s complicated, and you wouldn’t understand, and explaining it will distract you from the more important point I’m about to make – so, just take my word for it.

"I think you should be more explicit here in step two."

courtesy of S. Harris, sciencecartoonsplus.com

As condescending as that sounds, tech marketers try to get away with it all the time. Leaving the reader to connect too many dots risks losing them. To be believable, a story has to flow in a logical manner with a building line of proof points that make things look easier, not more complicated, but doesn’t skip things or present obvious hand-waving.

There are a couple great examples of the blatant misuse of this concept in current events this week. I present the following for your reading pleasure, and keep in mind I’m neither invested in or sponsored by any of these fine companies I’m about to mention.

Episode 1:
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, was asked on a conference call to comment on the
convergence of PCs and tablets.

“I think anything can be forced to converge. The problem is that products are about tradeoffs, and you begin to make tradeoffs to the point where what you have left at the end of the day doesn’t please anyone. You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user.”

That elicited this indirect direct response from Microsoft:

And this hilarious parody account, which opened with this and has a few more gems in the timeline so far:

Love it, I’m a huge Futurama fan. But, back to reality … Apple is trying to completely dismiss the Microsoft vision of Windows 8 by saying PCs and tablets won’t converge, so the PC guys should stop trying.

The Microsoft vision *is* complicated. Trying to glue together a PC, a phone, a tablet, and two major microprocessor architectures, plus a gaming strategy, into one scalable operating system isn’t trivial. They have to make it look simple. Cook’s approach is to make it look hard. By trivializing the idea, seizing on one dimension of it, and dismissing it rapidly in a pithy quote, he forces Microsoft to burn watts to respond, officially or unofficially.

It’s fun press conference and social media theater, but it’s not exactly pertinent to innovation on either side, is it?

Episode 2:
When you get a bunch of big execs with lights and cameras, it gets really good. Barry Diller, CEO of IAC/Interactive, Paul Misener of Amazon, and Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters dropped in on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation for a hearing on video streaming.

The timing couldn’t be better, right on the heels of Netflix announcing their earnings (or lack thereof compared to expectation) related to streaming. (A really good explanation, if you’d like, is in this Forbes article.)

With the microphones on, this cast of characters went after everyone in one series of shots: cable companies, wireless carriers, and broadcasters.

Diller, who’s an investor in Aereo, went right after the cable folks and broadcasters who not coincidentally he’s tied up in litigation with currently:

… but these [cable companies] actually are in a system where there is no air. There’s no air because it’s completely closed.

That’s true from the perspective that setting up a cable company and the infrastructure needed in a geography is really expensive, and to make that a viable investment it has to be protected by regulation. Diller’s choice of words … air, Aereo, over the air broadcast … is really meant to draw a mental image of cutting off the air of innovation.

Misener went after the wireless guys:

… immutable or unrealistically priced data caps [on broadband] … could hinder or prevent competitive products and services made possible by video online.

Well, wireless companies don’t like unlimited because it jacks up their infrastructure if everyone decides to go that way, so yes, they are dampening demand using pricing to keep the YouTubers from eating the spectrum. But if the content is any good, won’t people pay for it? There’s a whole line of discussion on transmedia and exclusive online content.

At least the Senate brought the broadcasters to defend themselves. Wharton said they love online video but there are problems in protecting copyrighted content. He also said something really curious: Internet and mobile providers can be incapacitated during an emergency. (Really? Ask me about the best use of social media in the utility sector so far: the San Diego power outage of September 2011. The broadcasters were totally incapacitated, but the mobile users weren’t.)

These are fine examples of the opposite approach: make something look really complicated and undesirable, and then make your point of what you want done about it which may or may not address the actual problem, if it even exists. Of course IAC and Amazon have an agenda here, and the NAB is defending the status quo.

I’m not trying to take sides on this. Everyone I’ve mentioned is trying to innovate in terms of new technology and usability models. It’s just the hand-waving marketing I’m questioning.

I help clients avoid these kinds of mistakes in their content. I’m working with a software company right now with a very different, innovative approach. They say their library can be compiled for anything, but never answered the question what OS they’ve actually targeted it to in their user manual. It leaves a huge, unanswered question, and makes their approach sound risky compared to the tried-and-true alternative. We’re working to close that gap.

Tech marketing is short on facts and high on quotable snippets sometimes. If you’re a marketer, help connect the dots to build credibility and avoid your position unraveling. If you’re a reader, dig deeper and do your own investigating before making a decision based on what might be a biased assertion without a strong proof point.

All I want is the truth. Just gimme some truth. ~ John Lennon

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  • Ford Kanzler

    Come on Don. Everyone knows when tech (or other) CEOs have the mic, you can bet its always going to be about business politics, marketing and creating desired perceptions. Attempting to reposition your competitors is their favorite indoor sport. Given today’s digitally-induced attention spans, sloppy logic and unsupported claims are SOP.
    Telling a clear, well-supported technical story without leaps of faith or arm-waving is up to others like you and I to help management make the point that will withstand a closer look.