Improspectives

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Review: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating

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In addition to blogging here, writing books, and creating online training courses, I’m also the editor and lead reviewer for Technology and Society Book Reviews. Here’s my most recent review.

Title: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating

Author: Paul Oyer

Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-1-4221-9165-1

Length: 256

Price: $25.00

Rating: 89%

I purchased this book for personal use.

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating, written by Paul Oyer and published by Harvard Business Review Press, takes a friendly approach to teaching basic economic concepts. The book covers topics including search, signalling, selection, and network externalities, in an approachable and personal manner. Oyer tells the tale through his own experiences in online dating. As someone who met his wife through online dating, I found myself rooting for the balding economist trying to find love while going through an unhurried divorce.

Light-Hearted, but not Lightweight

Paul Oyer is a professor of economics at the Stanford graduate school of business, so he is used to explaining economics to graduate students. It’s not a simple undertaking to translate that knowledge into terms that can be understood by the general reader. Yes, I understand that anyone who would purchase a book published by Harvard Business Review Press is probably not your average reader, but the book’s title and in the author’s writing style make it clear that this is not a weighty academic tome. If you want one of those, see if you can find a copy of The Economics of Electronic Commerce by Choi, Stahl, and Whinston, which I reviewed on this site in 1998.

Online dating is an interesting process. You go to a site such as Match.com or OkCupid, fill out a profile or answer questions, and let the computer code running in the background show you who it thinks you might be compatible with. It’s a combination of many economic activities: advertising, search, signaling, and network effects among many others. And, just as economics is often called the “dismal science”, online dating can take on an air of despair when you’ve been at it for a while but haven’t found anyone to spend time with.

Of course, some of this frustration can be self-inflicted. On page 12, the author cites an online dating profile published by a graduate student in China:

Never married; master’s degree or more; not from Wuhan; no rural ID card; no only children; no smokers; no alcoholics; no gamblers; taller than 172 cm; more than a year of dating before marriage; sporty; parents are still together; annual salary over 50,000 yuan; between 26 and 32 years of age; willing to guarantee eating for dinners at home per week; at least two ex-girlfriends, but no more than four; no Virgos; no Capricorns.

I hate to say it, but I think the guy she’s looking for is already married.

Economics and the Online World

I’d imagine that most of my readers will be familiar with at least some of the economic concepts that Oyer discusses in this book. That said, even though I have spent quite a bit of time with the popular literature discussing the economics of online commerce, I learned a few things from reading his book and was reminded of quite a few more concepts that I hadn’t encountered for a while. I also like that the author summarizes the economic concepts that he discussed in each chapter with a series of takeaways at the end. He lists a key insight from economics, a valuable or important empirical finding by economists, how dating compares to the concept discussed in the chapter, and a bit of humorous dating advice that puts a button on the chapter. In the chapter on signaling, for example, he gives this dating advice: “If you want to prove you are rich, burn a big pile of money on the first date.”

I enjoyed the author’s take on economics through the lens of online dating. He writes in a familiar, personal style, and ties the economic concepts he wants to explain into his personal narrative seamlessly. I’m just guessing, but I bet his first draft was pretty good. His editor, Tim Sullivan, certainly helped bring the manuscript together into an enjoyable, coherent whole.

Conclusions

I recommend Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating to anyone who is interested in contemporary economics, either as a casual reader just digging into the subject or as a more experienced hand who would enjoy a good-natured review.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created over twenty online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.

Improspectives at ASTD-Cascadia 2013

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I had the very good fortune to present an Improspectives session at the annual conference put on by the Cascadia chapter of the American Society for Training and Development last Friday. My room was pleasantly full and the participants were willing to engage with me and their colleagues in a series of exercises (interspersed with bits of lecture).

The conference’s theme was Collaboration, so I focused on listening, game play, and storytelling. I broke the topics down this way:

  • Prerequisites for effective improvisation
  • Five types of listening
  • Games and game theory
  • Building narratives as a team

After my introductory remarks on what it takes to improvise effectively, I led the group in exercises to reinforce skills described in the listening, play, and narrative sections. We laughed, we talked, we pondered…but most of all, we had fun and learned together for an hour.

Book Review: The Gamble, from Princeton University Press

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Cover graphic for The Gamble

Title: The Gamble

Authors: John Sides and Lynn Vavreck

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Copyright: 2013

ISBN13: 978-0-691-15688-0

Length: 322

Price: $29.95

Rating: 93%

I received access to a preview copy of this book via the NetGalley site.

The popular media covers U.S. presidential campaigns like announcers calling a horse race, highlighting every move, nuance, and setback as if it could determine the winner. Why? Because not doing so would give viewers tacit permission to watch something else, drive down the networks’ ratings, and cost them advertising dollars. One journalist from Mother Jones identified 68 unique events the press labeled “game changers.” Were they, or was it just meaningless hype?

Approach

In The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election, authors John Sides and Lynn Vavreck analyze the race’s twists and turns in measured tones, emphasizing the role “the fundamentals” (especially the economy) play in presidential elections. Sides is associate professor of political science at George Washington University and the coauthor of Campaigns and Elections. He cofounded and contributes to The Monkey Cage, a politics blog. Vavreck is associate professor of political science and communications at UCLA. As academics, they had to strike a balance between writing for a general audience versus writing for an academic audience.

Books without sufficient analytical rigor might not be considered during tenure evaluations, so the authors took a bit of a risk by writing mainly for laymen. I thought they struck a clever and useful balance by dividing the book into two sections: commentary text, where the authors summarize their findings in the main body of the book; and appendixes that present their data and analyses in more depth. The main text contains plenty of facts and figures, but the appendices extend the analysis by including summary statistics (such as standard deviation and standard error) and other measures of interest to professional academics.

Analysis

So, did the various campaign gaffes, missteps, blunders, and revelations make a difference? Sides and Vavreck conclude that, in the long run, they did not. The American electorate is more or less evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans with only a small percentage of persuadable voters for each election. Seemingly substantial missteps such as Mitt Romney’s statement about the (alleged) 47% of Americans who pay no income tax and Barack Obama’s (real) horrific performance in the first debate caused a momentary blip in the polls, but the candidates’ results settled back to the predicted norm within a few days.

The Republican primary season provides an even starker example of how Mitt Romney kept his forward momentum as challengers such as Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum were “discovered” by the media but ran off the road due to policy mismatches with the electorate, poor debate performance, or personal issues the press uncovered. The fundamentals of Romney’s campaign didn’t guarantee him the nomination, but the odds were ever in his favor.

So too with Obama, who could rely on an (albeit slowly) improving economy to lift his campaign. Sides and Vavreck point out that even a general sense that things are getting better makes the incumbent very hard to overcome. Just as most Vegas odds makers give NFL teams a three-point edge for home field advantage, improving economic times provide a lift to sitting presidents.

Of course, campaigns and independent organizations do their best to overcome these limitations through voter outreach (aka the vaunted Obama “ground game”) and advertising. The authors’ analysis confirms previous work that ads shift opinions for a short time after viewing, but the effect fades quickly. The Romney campaign tried to leverage that fact by buying a lot of advertising in the days just before the election, but the Obama campaign had done a good job of maintaining their candidate’s presence and prevented the Romney campaign from succeeding.

The Gamble also addresses what the Obama win implies for American politics. Did his win, which was by a reasonably substantial margin, constitute a mandate and indicate a liberal trend in the polity? Recent votes in favor of legalizing gay marriage and marijuana seem to argue in favor of that interpretation, but Sides and Vavreck found that the electorate tends to equilibrate by moving in opposition to the winning candidate’s views. In other words, a liberal candidate’s win results in a more conservative electorate and vice-versa.

Conclusion

When it comes to U.S. presidential elections, the percentage of the electorate that will vote for their preferred party’s candidate regardless of attempted persuasion is so large as to render most campaigning moot. The campaign machines are so well-tuned, the authors argue, they cancel each other out over the long run. The fundamental elements, especially the economy, are far more relevant. I find that aspect of The Gamble comforting.

Before I close, I’d like to give a quick shout-out to the cover designer. I didn’t see the designer’s name in my preview copy of the book, but the cover image uses the point of the “A” in “Gamble” as the fulcrum of a dynamic balance between red and blue, which is a terrific touch. It makes a good book that much better.

 

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created over a dozen online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.

Improspectives Session at ASTD-Cascadia this Friday

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I’m preparing to lead a concurrent session at the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) Cascadia chapter’s annual conference this Friday, October 4. I’ll feature some of the core concepts from my book Improspectives and offer my participants a wide range of exercises they can take back to their workplace to help develop their teams and build narratives for their organizations and customers.

I’ve divided my presentation into four sections:

  • Fundamental Theorem of Improv
  • Listening
  • Playing games for fun and profit
  • Developing narratives

I hope to see some of you there!

Always Be Ready

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Performers should always be ready to go. If another group doesn’t show up or someone gets sick, you can step in.

I did the regular show with the ComedySportz Portland group last night, during which our referee hyped an after hours show by another group. Unfortunately, that group had cancelled their show, but the message didn’t get to anyone in the show that night. We had a significant portion of the regular crowd stay for the after hours show, but there was no one there to do it.

Most of the players in the ComedySportz show had had long days, but they were willing to hang around and do a show for the folks who stayed. I always carry the materials I need to do Magic of the Mind (and my wife’s out of town visiting family), so I volunteered to do the after hours. Part of the team stayed to do a quick Q&A session with the fans while I set up, but after those five minutes it was business as usual. Well, as usual as it can be when you’re doing a show in a t-shirt and cargo shorts.

As an aside, I actually have two emergency Magic of the Mind kits: one in my ComedySportz bag and another, more complete set in the trunk of my car.

If you’re a speaker, you should always have a digital copy of your slide deck with you in case a scheduled speaker isn’t able to go on. I recommend preparing three versions of your talk: 50-minute, 25-minute, and 5-minute. The long version works for conference presentations, the middle for a half-slot, and the short version as program filler or for a quick presentation during a break. You can use the Ignite conference series model to create your 5-minute piece. Ignite presentations consist of 20 slides displayed for 15 seconds each. The slides are on auto-advance, so the presentation lasts exactly five minutes. The format requires some extra rehearsal, but it’s great for boiling your presentation down to its essential elements.

If you have a few minutes of down time in an airport, on a plane, or in your hotel room, take a few minutes to flip through your slides and notes to review your talking points. Stepping up to help a meeting organizer and delivering a polished, professional presentation is good for everyone and can lead to future speaking opportunities.

Gamification: Deploy the Appropriate Tools

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My previous set of posts described elements of gamification (such as meaningful choices and conflict) and how to incorporate them into business and improv. Kevin Werbach and his coauthor Dan Hunter also identify six steps to gamification (For the Win, p. 86), which I think provide an excellent framework for business and theatrical endeavors. I took a wild stab at designing for fun in my last post. In this post, I’ll talk about deploying the appropriate tools.

As a quick review, the authors’ six D’s are:

  • Define business objectives
  • Delineate target behaviors
  • Describe your players
  • Devise activity cycles
  • Don’t forget the fun!
  • Deploy the appropriate tools

Deploying the appropriate tools is where the cool concepts you’ve brought together become a system you can poke, prod, enter data into, and get feedback from. If you’re measuring data entry, you can automate the process. If you’re measuring geographic information or activity, you might program a mobile app to capture the data automatically. Otherwise, you need to create a system that combines automatic data collection with user entry. The specifics will change based on your environment and resources, but bear in mind that almost any system will require a significant investment of time, money, or both.

In an improv context, deploying the appropriate tools occurs in the context of creating your show and presenting your product. How you present your performances, from your venue to your costumes and format, shapes your audience’s expectations and reactions. Much improv comedy happens in restaurants, bars, and other spaces where the performance is secondary to the venue’s revenue stream. The venue often provides the space in exchange for a little rent or in the hope that the performers’ friends will eat and drink during the show. All the performer needs to do is put on their dark colored top, jeans, and soft-soled black shoes to get going. Troupes with dedicated spaces must pay attention to audience seating, bathroom access, and availability of snacks, drinks, and swag to buy at the performance.

You also have to create feedback mechanisms for the audience and performers. As I’ve said in other contexts, the audience isn’t there for the performers’ sake — they attended the show to have an enjoyable night out. Even your best friends wouldn’t see more than one show if the experience was so dire they didn’t enjoy themselves. You can get feedback from troupe members sitting in the audience and, in addition to watching the show, paying careful attention to the audience’s reaction. It’s easy to develop “laughing ears” where every reaction, regardless of how small, seems like a standing ovation. A teammate in the seats can help you see and hear what the audience really thinks. It’s your job to listen.

I’ll close out this section on gamification with a look at ethical considerations. Is it possible to use game mechanics to oppress your workers? Oh, yes…

Five Ways to Avoid Performance Burnout

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Performers of all kinds, whether you’re a keynote speaker, sales presenter, or actor, can fall into ruts. You’re especially at risk of getting bored with your material if you have to deliver the same content multiple times over several days. Even improvisers, who make up scenes as we go along, are prone to repetition. When you find a bit that works, it’s easy to keep going back to it regardless (or in spite of) the audience’s suggestion.

I’ve found these hints, culled from various other speakers and performers, to be a great help in avoiding burnout and boredom.

  1. Emphasize different words in a sentence. If you’re pitching a design service, you might start with “Our designers have more than 20 years of experience in the industry.” Next time, change the emphasis to say “Our designers have more than 20 years of experience in the industry.” Even this little change helps break the rhythm you’re used to, which keeps things fresh.
  2. Change the order of your topics. If you can rearrange the contents of your presentation, and if it makes sense for you to do so, change the order in which you deliver your material. You should consider applying this technique when you identify a client’s pain point and feel you should address it earlier rather than later in your talk.
  3. Take advantage of interactions outside of your performance or presentation. Too many actors and presenters walk into a room with their head down, ignoring everyone else and focusing on hooking up their computer, grabbing a bottle of water, and powering through their material so they can go to lunch. Human interaction helps you connect to your audience and, more importantly, lets them connect to you. Don’t ignore or dismiss them–they’re the reason you’re there in the first place!
  4. Allow questions in the middle of your presentation. Speakers usually leave 5-10 minutes for questions at the end of their presentation, but doing so robs you of the opportunity to get feedback from your audience. You should know your material well enough so taking time out for questions doesn’t throw you off your game.
  5. Focus on your audience, both in your attitude and your material. Your audience cares what’s in it for them. It takes more work to customize your message for each audience, but it’s worth the time. They’ll appreciate the effort and will often provide additional information you can use to make your message even more effective.

Dialogue and Cooperative Play

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Success at improv and business requires the clear communication of ideas and a willingness to incorporate others’ contributions into your work. This interchange doesn’t just happen verbally…among architects, this type of exchange happens on paper. In an opinion piece published in the September 2, 2012 New York Times, architect and Princeton professor (emeritus) Michael Graves wrote about an unspoken dialogue he had with a colleague during a boring faculty meeting:

While we didn’t speak, we were engaged in a dialogue over this plan and we understood each other perfectly. I suppose that you could have a debate like that with words, but it would have been entirely different. Our game was not about winners or losers, but about a shared language. We had a genuine love for making this drawing. There was an insistence, by the act of drawing, that the composition would stay open, that the speculation would stay “wet” in the sense of a painting. Our plan was without scale and we could as easily have been drawing a domestic building as a portion of a city. It was the act of drawing that allowed us to speculate.

Players from the ComedySportz Portland improv group love the game of Paper Telephone. The idea is that you write a starting line at the top of a piece of paper, then pass it to a friend. Your friend reads the first line, writes a second line, and then folds the paper so only the most recent line is visible. You continue passing the paper around until there’s no more room, then unfold the paper and read the story. A fun variation is to have as many pieces of paper as there are players so you get lots of stories. The results are often hilarious and the similarities among stories can be eerie.

If you haven’t played Paper Telephone, you might have written stories with a friend, trading off after every paragraph. I’ve found this method works well for developing business presentations. Sit down with two or three of your colleagues and take turns telling a story or building an outline one line at a time. Don’t worry about coherence or order yet — all you want to do is get the information down so you can revise it later. This type of cooperative play helps you get beyond the creative person’s nightmare: a blank page.