David Pogue’s iPhone 4S review isn’t that great

There’s nothing wrong with the review, nothing at all.  It’s absolutely fine.  Anyone at all (especially non-techies and even non-iPhone users) who reads it will learn what’s different about the new iPhone and why she should be excited by it (spoiler alert: iMessage and speech recognition, called Siri).

But there’s nothing in there to make it the most emailed article on the NY Times site, viewed millions of times.

The thing is, the review itself doesn’t matter much.  People care what David Pogue is going to say about the new iPhone because David Pogue is David Pogue.  What’s more interesting is how he got to be David Pogue (for mass consumers, the authoritative voice, along with Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, on tech gadgets that are relevant to our lives): by writing for years and years about things that generally weren’t as interesting or as sexy as the iPhone: the Kindle before anyone cared, wireless speakers, the IBM Thinkpad and the Microsoft Zune.  He earned the right to be the person whose article you had to read on the coolest tech device in history (maybe not this iPhone but the iPhone) by spending years writing about devices that, by and large, weren’t that cool and that most of us will never buy.

You probably don’t want to be David Pogue, but you might want to be David Pogue about something.  You’d love to share your ideas and have people listen.  So how do you make that happen?

It might be counter- intuitive, but you get there by starting at the edges, meaning (if it were tech) not by writing about iPhones (only) but by writing about all sorts of obscure stuff too, like which is the best pre-paid cellphone plan or, better yet, which are the best pre-paid plans for college kids in rural Mississippi.

(Taking this a step further: if you care about yoga, you begin by staking your claim to extra- extra-hot yoga; if you care about veganism, you dive into organic, pesticide free local veganism.  Etc.)

My guess is that there are two things holding you back: you’re not sure you know exactly what your “thing” is today; and you feel like you have about 10 days’ worth of exciting, interesting things to say about that thing, not 10 years’ worth (which is what you’ll need to become the David Pogue of your thing.)

Fortunately, you’re wrong.  You have a lot to say.  The problem you need to crack isn’t figuring out everything you’re going to say.  The problem you need to crack is starting to say things.

Take this blog: when I started it, I knew that I had something to say about fundraising in the nonprofit sector.  That’s why I wrote my Manifesto for Nonprofit CEOs.  But I quickly discovered that I didn’t have a post to write every single day that was directly about fundraising.  That realization alone – it came early and it came often, I promise – tempted me to stop writing or, more pernicious still, tempted me to censor posts that felt off-topic.  I’m so glad I didn’t.  It’s only through the act of keeping on that I discovered what a blog post is, that I discovered how all the pieces could fit together, that I discovered my voice.  The topics will change, the blog will evolve, but through the act of doing I learned what it was I was doing, not the other way around.

If you’re expecting that you’re supposed to have all the answers before you start, you’ll definitely talk yourself out of jumping in, which would be a shame.  Get the scariest part out of the way by starting, and be prepared for the hardest part, which is shouting down the voice that will scream “this isn’t good enough!”  How could it be?  You’re just getting started.

There are only two non-negotiable prerequisites: dogged persistence (to keep at it) and passion for your topic.  Chipping away at the proverbial stone (to reveal the sculpture that lies within) is a daily undertaking, and only by sticking it out over a long period of time will you build up your expertise, your voice, and, eventually, your audience.


If you heard a Bell in the subway, would you stop to listen?

On a recent January day, commuters coming through the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station at 7:51am in Washington DC passed by a street musician playing the violin.  Most walked by, a few stopped to listen.  Young children stopped more than others.  After playing for 45 minutes, the violinist had collected $32.

Not a bad take except that the musician was world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell, who just a few days earlier had sold out Boston’s Symphony Hall at more than $100 a ticket.  And, to put the $32 in perspective a little more, Joshua was belting out Bach’s Partita in D Minor on a $3.5 million Stradivarius violin.

Joshua Bell was playing as part of a “social experiment about perception” run by the Washington Post.  So what do we learn from this?

There are two takes on this story, both valid.  The first take is that there is beauty all around us, every day, that we walk by, head down and disconnected.  The world and our lives would be better if we stopped not just for street musicians but also to look others in the eye and learn about what makes them special.  (If you read the Washington Post article you’ll see that almost every little kid stopped to listen.  So either children recognize transcendent beauty more than others, or they just care more about what’s in front of them than about their schedule.  Either way, we have something to learn here.)

The second take is that the experiment makes for a great story but lousy experimental design.  Put another way, I love the experiment, but I don’t think it answers the question it was set out to ask, which, roughly, was, “Will genius be spotted anytime, anywhere?”

What kind of genius?  Genius to whom?

Consider this:

  1. The audience of people who love and appreciate classical music is small.  (I come from a family of classical musicians and played piano seriously for 20 years, so I say this with regret).  If it had been a world-class rock band or rap artist or dancer, more people would have stopped.  I’m sure of it.
  2. People pay for the whole experience.  The theatre is theatre for a reason – you’re paying for the spectacle, the atmosphere, the whole wrapping around the performance.  You don’t get to extract the “genius performance” from the stage and compare apples to apples.
  3. If people aren’t ready to hear your message (wrong time of day, wrong frame of mind), your message is going to be lost
  4. Pitching a specialized product to everyone gets you nothing.  If Joshua had played at the 66th and Broadway subway outside of the Julliard School of Music, I’d wager he’d have gotten a bigger crowd

As the world gets bigger and more complex, it’s increasingly unlikely that your story is relevant/interesting to everyone.  Putting the right context around your story and telling it to the right people in the right way is more important than ever.

Still, this makes for a great story.