Things I Learned From Working With A Marketing Advisor

Epistemic Status: Opinions stated without justification

I’ve been getting a bunch of advice and help at LRI from a marketing/strategy expert, and it’s been an education. She’s been great to work with — she kicks my ass, in a good way.  Basically, she takes my writing, rips it apart, and helps me put it back together again, optimized to make the organization look better.  Every kind of writing, from professional emails to website copy to grant proposals, gets a makeover.  I’m thinking of the experience as something of an introduction to the conventions of business/promotional communication, which are very different from the kinds of writing norms I’m used to.

Here are some of the general patterns I’ve been learning about, stated in my own words (and maybe mangled a little in translation).

Discretization

“People hate reading,” she tells me.

Seriously? You’re going to rip up my nice, fluent, carefully-written essay explaining my rationale and replace it with a table?

Yes. Yes we are.

She’s not wrong, though. I’ve had the experience of meeting with executives after sending them a two-page document, worrying that I should have written something more comprehensive, and finding they didn’t even read the two-pager.  I learn best through text, but clearly not everyone does. So promotional content needs to make allowances for the skimmers, the glancers, the reading-avoidant.

Hence: tables. Headers. Bolding key phrases.  Bullet points. Pictures and graphs. Logos. And, of course, slide decks.

Layout matters. If you cross your eyes until the page turns blurry and don’t read anything, how does it look? Is it a wall of text? If so, you need to break it up.

The principle of discretization is things should be broken up into separate, distinctive, consistently labeled parts.

What things? Everything.

Your website has parts. Your five-year plan has parts. Your value proposition has parts.

LRI doesn’t have a “product”, but in companies that sell a product, your product has parts called “features.”  Even when the “product” is sort of an abstract, general thing like “we produce written reports”, in order to make them legible as products, you have to have a list of distinct parts that each report contains.

Once you have parts, you need to get obsessive about matching and parallelism. Each part needs to have one, and only one, name, and you have to use the same name everywhere.  If your organization has Five Core Values, you don’t use near-synonyms to talk about them — you wouldn’t interchangeably talk about “single focus” or “narrow mission”, you’d pick one phrase, and use that phrase everywhere. Matchy-matchy.

You match your website navigation links to your page headers. You match your website to your grant proposals, your slide decks, your email phrasing, everything.  You put your logo on every-fucking-thing. It feels repetitious to you, but it just looks appropriately consistent to an outside observer.

When I was a child, I was into American Girl dolls. My favorite thing was the parallelism. Each doll had five books, with matching titles and themes — “Changes for Felicity”, “Changes for Samantha”, etc.  Each book came with its own outfit and accessories. The accessories were even parallel-but-unique  — each doll had her own historically-accurate school lunch, her own toys, and so on. Even more than I liked actually playing with my doll, I liked reading through the catalog and noticing all the parallels.  Ok, maybe I was a weird kid.

Anyhow, marketing is full of that stuff. Separating things into parallel-but-unique, hyper-matchy parts.  Same principle as tables of correspondences.

I suspect that what you’re doing is reifying your ideas into “existence.”  (In something like Heidegger’s sense).  You translate a general sort of concept (“I think we should test drugs to see which ones make animals live longer”) into something with a bunch of proper nouns and internal structure, and I think the result is the overall impression that now your organization exists, as a…thing, or a place, or a personage.  Like, the difference between an idea (e.g. the general concept of lifespan studies) and an agent (LRI).  It activates the “animist” part of your brain, the same part that believes that Facebook is a place or Russia is an agent, the part that feels differently about proper nouns from improper nouns.

(Proper nouns, btw, are another big thing in themselves, because of social proof. Just naming people or institutions in connection with your work — whether they be advisors or partners or employees or customers or collaborators or whatever — is legitimizing.  And proper nouns are, themselves, “discrete parts.” )

All this discretization imparts a sense of legitimacy. After discretizing my writing, it feels much more like “LRI exists as a thing” rather than “Sarah is proposing an idea” or “Sarah is doing some projects.”  Yeah, that’s a spooky and subjective distinction, but I think it’s probably a very basic marketing phenomenon that permeates the world around us. (Maybe it has a name I don’t know.)  I feel slightly weird about it, but it’s a thing.

Confidence + Pleasantries = Business Etiquette

One thing that came as a big surprise to me is how confident language you can get away with in a professional, non-academic context.

For example, not phrasing requests as questions.  “I look forward to hearing back.”  My instinct would be to worry that this was overly forward or rude; you’re essentially assuming the ask; but people don’t seem to mind.

Or removing all uncertain language. All the may’s, mights, and coulds.  How can you do that without making overstated or misleading claims? Well, it’s tricky, but you can generally finagle it with clever rephrasing.

I’m used to assuming that the way you show respect is through reticence and reluctance to ask for too much.  Especially when communicating with someone higher status than you.  To my surprise, really assertive wording seems to get better results with business types than my previous, more “humble” email style (which works great for professors.)

So, how do you keep from sounding like a jerk when you’re essentially bragging and making big requests?  A lot of pleasantries. A lot of framing phrases (“as we talked about in our last conversation”, “circling back”, “moving forward”, etc).  Wishing them a good weekend/holiday/etc, hoping they’re doing well, etc.

I’d previously noticed in office contexts how vital it is to just keep your mouth making words smoothly even when there’s not a lot of information density to what you’re saying.

Business “jargon” and “buzzwords” are unfairly maligned by people who aren’t used to corporate culture. First of all, a lot of them originally referred to specific important concepts, and then got overused as generic applause lights — e.g. “disruptive innovation” is actually a really useful idea in its original meaning.  But, second of all, it’s honestly just handy to have stock phrases if you need to keep talking fluently without awkward pauses.  People respond really well to fluency.  Palantir’s first exercise for all new employees is to give a software demo, which taught me that it is really hard to speak in public for five minutes without pausing to think of what to say next.  Stock phrases help you reach for something to say without appearing hesitant or afraid.

I was trained on writing style guides from literary or journalistic contexts, like Strunk & White, which teach you to be relentless in removing cliches and using simple short Anglo-Saxon words wherever possible.  Business language constantly violates those rules: it’s full of cliches and unnecessary Latinate locutions.  But I suspect there may actually be a function to that, in making you sound smoother, or setting the scene with comfortable and familiar wording before introducing new ideas.  “Good writing” is original and vivid; a good (i.e. effective) business email may not be.

 

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Fasting Mimicking Diet Looks Pretty Good

Epistemic status: pretty much factual.

CW: diets, calories

One of the odd things about working on longevity is that now people ask me for lifestyle advice.

Or they ask me what I, personally do to live longer.

Mostly my response has been a lame “um, nothing?”

There are, as of now, no interventions shown to make humans live longer or slow or reverse the human aging process. And, of the interventions reported to make animals live longer, many are doubtful, and many are too risky or unpleasant to make the cost-benefit tradeoff look good for healthy people.

Also, as a personal matter, I’m just not very interested in my own “lifestyle optimization” for the most part. My motivation is about helping people, not especially staving off death for myself; I think I’m more mentally prepared for death than most people my age. Certainly I’ve thought about it more concretely. (BTW, if you too like to know all the gory and technical details about how people die, this blog by an ICU nurse is gold.)

And “lifestyle optimization” turns out to be heavily about diet and exercise, and…I confess, diet culture really creeps me out.  Not at all my thing.

That said, there is a lifestyle intervention that seems pretty evidence-based and also pretty low on risk and inconvenience: the Fasting Mimicking Diet, developed by Valter Longo of USC.

It’s actually been tested in a clinical trial on 100 healthy participants, where it improved a bunch of biomarkers related to aging and disease (reduced IGF and blood pressure, though no change in glucose, triglycerides, cholesterol, or CRP.)

The really good results are in mice, where it rescues both Type I and Type II diabetes as well as a mouse model of MS, reduces tumors by 45% and dermatitis by 50%, increases mesenchymal stem cells by 45x, improves motor and cognitive performance, and results in an 11% lifespan extension.

So, what is the FMD?

It’s a 5-day low-calorie, low-carb, low-protein diet, followed by a period of eating however you would by default.

Caloric restriction (reducing calorie intake about 1/3 from baseline or ad-lib) is probably the most replicated lifespan- and healthspan-extending intervention in animals. It’s about 30-40% life extension in mice and rats.  In monkeys, it extends lifespan little if at all, but delays age-related disease and hair loss.  However, the side effects are nontrivial — humans on CR experience weakness, lethargy, depression, muscle wasting, and neurological deficits. (Undereating also stunts growth in children and adolescents, and underweight in women causes infertility, miscarriage, and preterm birth.)

Mice seem to get most of the benefits of CR, including an equally extended lifespan, from an isocaloric but low-protein or low-methionine diet. Low-protein diets are safe for humans and might not be as damaging to quality of life, but they do definitely inhibit physical fitness/performance.

Alternate-day fasting in mice has a bunch of benefits,  including lifespan extension of 10-30% depending on mouse strain, as well as reduction in cancer incidence, and lower levels of neural damage in mouse models of Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and acute brain injury.  In a randomized controlled trial in humans, alternate-day fasting caused weight loss but no improvement in metabolic/cardiovascular parameters.

The FMD seems like the least amount of dietary restriction that is still known to cause life extension. 5 days/month of low calorie intake isn’t that big a commitment.

Valter Longo sells patented packaged foods for the FMD, but they’re pricey ($300 for five days).

What I find more aesthetic, and cheaper, is an adapted version, which I’m trying now:

For the first five weekdays of every month, eat nothing but (non-potato) vegetables, cooked in fat if desired.  The rest of the time, eat whatever you want.

It’s low-calorie and low-protein while containing vitamins, but it skips the calorie-counting and allows you to actually cook tasty food.

Since I’m breastfeeding, which is about a 500-calorie daily expenditure, it’s a little harder on me than it would be by default, so I’m adding the modification of if you feel weak or lightheaded, eat a fat source until you stop feeling that way.  I expect this is probably a good conservative measure for people in general.

This ought to be generally safe for healthy adults under 65.  The clinical trial reported no adverse effects more serious than fatigue.

It’s definitely not a good idea for children, diabetics, pregnant people, or people with disordered eating.

If you basically believe the science that periods of little or no food promote good metabolic processes (autophagy, reduced inflammation, increased neurogenesis & stem cell production) but you don’t want the nasty side effects of prolonged caloric restriction, some kind of intermittent or periodic fasting seems like a sensible thing to try.

I don’t think there’s any direct evidence that the FMD is better than intermittent fasting for health, but it seems easier to do, and maybe a bit better in terms of results from randomized human trials.

If you (like me) really don’t like the aesthetics of dieting — “special” pre-packaged foods, appearance insecurity, calorie counting, having to make excuses to the people around you for eating “weirdly” — a homebrew FMD is pretty ideal because you are spending very little time “on a diet”, and you are eating normal things (vegetables).  Also, it’s not necessarily a weight-loss diet, and you can conceptualize it as primarily about health, not looks.

don’t expect it to have nontrivial lifespan effects on humans, but it might be good for healthspan or disease risk, and that seems worthwhile to me.

Reflections on Being 30

Epistemic Status: Personal

I haven’t written a lot of personal stuff here recently, because I’ve been doing a lot more private contemplation, and been busy with life things. (Nonprofit and baby, among other things.)  But I thought I might want to put out some thoughts about what growing in maturity means to me and what I’ve come to believe — since I still believe firmly in the blogging medium and the practice of transparency.

Prudence

There’s a transition that a lot of people go through as they get older, that has to do with “practicality” or “prudence.”  They no longer want to do things that will predictably fail.  They are no longer as willing to deal with people who will predictably fail at life. They are no longer as interested in ideas that can’t stand up to practical tests.

I’ve noticed more of this spirit in myself as I get older, but I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about it.  I like interestingness.  I want to avoid the natural tendency to stop exploring as I age.  Meeting new people, learning new things, having new experiences, expanding my boundaries, are still important to me.

On the other hand, I’ve really enjoyed becoming more adept at the “practical” or “operational” side of things — schedules, housework, childcare, managing a small organization, etc.  My identity up until now has been “talented mess” — so much so that I got an ADHD diagnosis quite by accident, and am now exploring the very different world of practicality and detail-orientation and organization.  It’s strange. It’s very calm, and it’s a satisfying challenge to keep up with things and bring more order to different parts of my life, and it’s completely non-narrative.  Life becomes a series of tasks, rather than a story.  I’m continually marveling that this is how some people have been living all along.

Of course, the real reason for being more prudent in your thirties or as a parent is hard necessity. You have less energy, and more responsibilities, and so you have to be more cautious with resources and time.  This isn’t something I really want to spin as a good thing — it’s scarcity, plain and simple.

You have to give up something, and the cheapest thing to give up is being a dumbass.

want to have an “abundance mentality”, to be generous and spendthrift with my time and energy; but sometimes I come up against irreducible scarcity.

A friend advised me last year to “have an ego.”  He meant it in Freud’s sense of the “rational self-interest” part of the psyche.  An ego is an institution you build around yourself, like the Republic of Sarah, or Sarah Incorporated.  Your household, your career, your reputation, your health, all these structures around yourself that you build and maintain and use to interface with the world.

So I did that.

I do a lot of adjusting and updating on these structures; in a sense that’s most of what I do all day long.  Taking care of my work, my family and household, my physical body, etc. Like a hermit crab, the little soft emotional creature that is me is hidden within all this prudence and structure.  I notice it works better. I notice people like it better.  But I’m a little melancholy about it.

Humanism

One value I still hold very firmly is something I call “humanism”, or being “pro-human” or believing in the worth of the human spirit.  I don’t think that has to go away with age.

The whole human mind, which is a general intelligence, which can learn anything and create anything, is a beautiful thing and not to be destroyed.

This is in contrast to some people who become traditionalists or authoritarians when they hit the age where they realize they need prudence. The temptation is to believe “people just need to be kept under tight enough control that they can’t do dumb shit, because the consequences of doing dumb shit are tragic.”

The thing is, I don’t think that controlling people actually is a feasible way to prevent tragedy.

A child prevented from making mistakes isn’t a perfect child, but an underdeveloped child.

If you manage to control someone’s behavior well enough to “keep them out of trouble”, there’s a good chance you’ve damaged their ability to problem-solve, and — I don’t know how to say this any other way — injured the sacred thing that makes them human.

People who say “autonomy is a figment, some people need to be controlled for their own good” are sometimes the same people who do actually really bad things to human beings, by dehumanizing them.

As I get less easily susceptible to opinions I hear, and more interested in the boring-but-true over the hot take, I become more humanist, not less so.  It’s not naive. It’s actually looking at what people are, and noticing that they are a lot more complex and able than cynics give them credit for, that “people aren’t all that special” or “some people aren’t really people” is a brute’s excuse.

You can totally be a mature person, or a parent, and still believe in humanism and autonomy.  People have been doing it for hundreds of years.