The ROI of Relationships

I recently overhead a consultant talking about the need to stay in touch with contacts, even if they never turn into clients. I completely agree. But then I winced when I heard how she described her thought process: “I know I’ll never make any money off her, but…

Words matter. The words you say out loud matter and, perhaps even more importantly, so do the words you say to yourself. And what you say in your head often winds up being reflected in how you act and the words you do choose to speak. When we let ourselves think in crass terms, even in jest, we reinforce the worst of being in business – seeing everyone as a mark, as nothing more than how much we can make off them.

As I reflect on the colleagues I really look forward to seeing at an event or just going out for coffee with, I can’t even imagine a dollar figure attached to any of them. I probably do get referrals from some of them, and I may directly do business with a few of them. But my goals when I’m spending time one-on-one with someone isn’t ever to cultivate a client. It’s to expand my mind, to challenge my ideas, to spark a new thought. As I think back on the conversations I’ve had with contacts over the past month, I can attribute all the following to people “I’ll never make any money off”:

  • I learned how my information-vendor clients perceive themselves and their competition and what their biggest concerns are
  • I got new ideas on how to structure my web site to better highlight my service offerings
  • I was reminded by example of the value of following instincts and strategically taking risks
  • I brainstormed ideas for a conference presentation I’m developing on informational interviews
  • I learned how a colleague successfully reached out and sold five-figure packages of services to a new market

Ultimately, I will profit from every one of those conversations by having a better perspective, better marketing strategies, and fresh ideas, none of which I would have gained merely from participating in social media or attending a webinar.

Of course, there are some activities I do evaluate primarily on whether I’ll make money from them. If I have to invest significant preparation time (say, over 5 or 6 hours) or spend more than a few hundred dollars, I ask myself what my tangible take-aways will be and how I can maximize my time. Can I focus on making contacts with people I wouldn’t have found any other way? If I am giving a presentation, can I leverage my exposure by adding subscribers to my newsletter or selling copies of my books? Can I set up a meeting with someone I admire and would like to get to know better? Or would this time be better invested in writing a newsletter article for my clients, pitching a presentation idea, or working on volunteer responsibilities?

I don’t tend to give away a day’s time just to be nice, but I will happily spend non-billable time if I see a payback — either directly or by enhancing my professional value in other ways. And after any meeting, whether one-on-one or a group setting, I run through an informal checklist to make sure I get the most value from my time. I ask myself:

  • Did I enjoy the meeting? Would I want to meet with this person or group again? Did I feel like it was time well spent?
  • Did I learn something new, or at least a new perspective on something I’m already familiar with?
  • Can I share what I learned — in an article, a blog post, or in a presentation?
  • Do I have a way to stay in touch with the person or people I met? (While there’s nothing wrong with handing out my business card, I consider it much more important to collect others’ cards. That way, I can follow up afterward with a personal note, a link to a resource we discussed or an invitation to subscribe to my newsletter.)
  • What could I do next time to get even more value from my time?

While there are always practical business considerations when solopreneurs invest their time and energy in face-to-face meetings, it’s important to look beyond the bottom line to find the full value.

Mining the Ngram Viewer

Google Books Ngram Viewer is a nifty tool that analyzes all the text of all the books Google has digitized (over 25 million and counting) and lets you see the relative frequency of words going back to the 1600s.

What isn’t immediately obvious to most people is what you can do with Ngram Viewer — what kinds of insights you can glean from analyzing the text within books. I don’t have an easy answer, but here are a few ways to search Ngram Viewer. Leave a comment and let me know what you’ve been able to do with this intriguing research tool.

Compare the relative popularity of concepts over time.  For example, you can compare the frequency of the words progress, tradition and innovation over the decades. To make this more intriguing, note the different results when you limit your search to British English or American English.

Search for any word that appears near a specific word. If, example, you were researching the nursing profession, you might want to see what words most commonly precede the noun “nurse”. Using the syntax *_NOUN nurse, you can note the spike and subsequent drop in frequency of “head nurse” in the middle of the 1900s.

Compare the prevalence of a concept in fiction against all English-language text. If you want to see how frequently doctors and nurses are mentioned in fiction, the query nurse:eng_2012,nurse:eng_fiction_2012,doctor:eng_2012,doctor:eng_fiction_2012 will show you that doctors get the most press.

Granted, the syntax requires you to channel your inner programming nerd, and it takes some creativity to figure out how to use the Ngram Viewer. If you want to dig even deeper into all of its capabilities, check out the advanced search page.

Is Google feeding confirmation bias?

snippetIn its ongoing effort to answer the world’s questions (and sell ads), Google has been putting increased emphasis on its “featured snippets” – the little boxes of text extracted from whatever source Google has calculated to be most relevant. If I want to see whether my dogs can catch the flu, I can quickly see that, yes, it’s possible.

However, a recent Wall Street Journal article (“Google Has Picked an Answer for You—Too Bad It’s Often Wrong“) looked at the increased frequency of these quick answers that appear at the top of search results. (Note that these are not the Knowledge Panels, which are sourced from Wikipedia and other neutral sources.)

According to a study commissioned by the WSJ, these featured snippets are often excerpted from unreliable or biased sources. Google’s algorithm favors a web site with text that most exactly matches the query; as a result, the researchers found that the extracted text was more likely to come from a less-authoritative, biased or dodgy clickbait site.

Worse yet, since featured snippets are designed to closely match the query, they can feed confirmation bias. The featured snippet for the query “is milk good for you” says “Milk can be good for the bones because it provides vitamin D and calcium…” The featured snippet for the search “is milk bad for you” says “Animal milk has long been claimed as the go-to source of calcium by the dairy industry, but as it turns out, milk is bad for you .”

Since most people have been trained by Google to trust the first answer that appears, it’s even more important to practice some information hygiene before relying on the first answer from a search engine.

Do you trust that news?

skeptical woman looking over her glassesIn its ongoing efforts to address the scourge of misleading and false news, Google recently announced a new feature that helps readers evaluate a news source they may not be familiar with. Now,  when you search for a particular publication, the Knowledge Panel – that preformatted answers box that often appears at the top of search results – includes information about that publisher.

Depending on the publication, that can include awards they have won, the topics they cover most extensively and their political alignment. If content from the publication has recently been reviewed by an authoritative fact-checker, those items are also featured in the Knowledge Panel. [UPDATED: This seems to work in Google Chrome and Safari, but not Firefox. Thanks, Pam Wren, for the heads up!]

So, for example, if you Google “Wall Street Journal”, your search results page will include a Knowledge Panel like this:


You’ll see a one-sentence blurb from the Wikipedia article about the newspaper, links to professional awards for reporting, and a summary of the topics they have recently covered — in the case of the Wall Street Journal, that’s the Federal Reserve, advertising, sales and taxes… about right for a newspaper described as business-focused.

And if you Google “Breitbart”, your search results page will include a Knowledge Panel like this:


If you click the link for “Writes About”, you’ll see that Breitbart has recently covered Donald Trump, Barack Obama, the Republican Party and Hillary Clinton… what you might expect from what the Wikipedia article describes as a “far-right American news, opinion and commentary website”. But note the “Reviewed Claims” tab, highlighting reported facts that were then determined to be false by fact-checkers like Snopes, Politifact and FactCheck. This stands out as a concern — most news sources’ Knowledge Panels don’t include lists of reported facts that were questioned and reviewed by fact-checking sites.

This is a great way for librarians and information professionals to instill a little FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) when their clients assume that whatever they see on their Facebook feed is reliable. And check out Vanessa Otero’s infographic, What, Exactly, Are We Reading?,  a nice chart of where various media sources fall, both in terms of reliability/fabrication and liberal/conservative.

For Google, it’s location, location, location

I know… all Google is trying to do is help you get “better”, or at least more relevant, results from a search. And Google has assumed that you are your location — that where you are searching from really matters. Much of the time, that’s great. But for us professional searchers who search outside our own country, Google has just made a change that will significantly affect our search strategies.

Until now, if you wanted to focus your search on results from the UK and you were located in the US, you would go to the UK version of Google at And yes, you’d always get different results than when you ran the identical search in However, according to a recent Google blog post, this trick will no longer work.

Now the choice of country service will no longer be indicated by domain. Instead, by default, you’ll be served the country service that corresponds to your location. So if you live in Australia, you’ll automatically receive the country service for Australia, but when you travel to New Zealand, your results will switch automatically to the country service for New Zealand. Upon return to Australia, you will seamlessly revert back to the Australian country service.

There’s a workaround; go to Settings and select Advanced Search. Scroll down to “Then narrow your results by…”, pull down the Region menu, and select the country you want to use to focus your search.

step-1       step-2

I tried this out with a search for Brexit, first searching in, then in with the Region set as United Kingdom. And, just curious to see if it would make a difference, I tried a third search in after setting my VPN to connect in the UK. And I got different search results from all three searches. Below are the top search results, highlighting the results that only showed up at the top of one of the three searches. Note that each search turned up results that weren’t in the top of the other two.


Bottom line: I’ll now be doing three searches when I’m using Google to find information from a specific country or region. Thanks, Google…


Super searching tips

I just got back from Internet Librarian 2017 (in beautiful Monterey, CA — tough assignment). Among the insights I’ve brought back are:

Google Image search is focused more on matching meaning than matching images. If you want to search for instances of an image (to watch for usage of your organization’s images or to find mentions of a chart or graph in a report or article, say), you’re better off using a reverse-image search tool like TinEye instead.

A use of reverse image search I don’t often remember is to see if you’re looking a legitimate profile in social media or a fake. Right-click the person’s image, copy the URL and search for other instances of that image. If it’s a fake profile, it’s likely that whoever set up the profile used an image that appears elsewhere on the web, often a stock photo.

Remember Google’s undocumented (i.e., not in Google Help) prefix searches.  You can use intext: to look for words in the body of the page, intitle: for words in the title, inurl: for words that appear in the URL itself; and inanchor: for the words that appear in the anchor text (the text that’s highlighted in a hyperlink). Remember that you can’t have a space between the prefix and your search term — use intitle:asteroid to find web pages that have the word asteroid in the title, for example.

And I just learned about a new top-level domain – .graphics, so you can look for web pages specifically pertaining to computer and data graphics by searching for site:*.graphics.

When researching a topic, consider whether you want to search by process (how do I do this activity/thing?) or outcome (how can I get this result?). You’ll use different words and find different results based on which perspective you take.

You can also see my slide decks from IL2017 — Super Searcher Strategies and (ROI) Truth to Power.

“You’re charging WHAT?!?”

Shocked and surprised childYou’ve probably had this happen to you at least once… You have what seems like a perfectly normal conversation with a prospective client, you send what you think is a perfectly reasonable proposal, and your client responds with shock at how expensive you are.

It’s easy to react badly in this kind of situation; you know how much value you bring to any project and you know you’re worth what you are charging. (If you’re not sure that you’re worth that, go read the Harvard Business Review article, “Why You Should Charge Clients More Than You Think You’re Worth,” and Mary Ellen’s Amazing Hourly Rate Calculator.)

At the beginning of my career as an solopreneur, I took this kind of response badly; I assumed that either I had vastly overrated myself and my value or I had utterly failed because no one saw what I had to offer.

Fortunately, I’ve adjusted my attitude and now have a more positive approach. When I’m told that I am too expensive, I run the Internal Entrepreneurial Translator™ in my brain and hear them saying that they simply don’t currently have the budget or need for my expertise and level of service. I also remind myself that, while they aren’t hiring me now, situations change. People change jobs, and talk with their peers. Organizations suddenly find available funds. Priorities shift. All of these are reasons to treat any rejected proposal as simply not a good match at this time, for this client, in this situation. The bottom line may just be that their organization has different priorities for their resources at this time. That’s OK; the interaction can be respectful and positive. They’re just not at a place where they need your level of service.

And I use these experiences as opportunities to look at how I’m presenting myself and my skills. I ask myself if I’m focused entirely on outcome or if I’m talking about activity. Am I focused on what my client values the most and how I can help them achieve that goal, or am I talking about what I’ll do and what my hourly rate is.

I make sure I’m not talking about how I “need” to be paid $X because I have a mortgage/rent and other expenses to pay. Because, frankly, clients don’t care about what our expenses are. All they are about is receiving high-quality services that address their needs. I focus on making sure that my price reflects the outcome my clients will see.

The Public Speaker’s Secret Weapon

Eyes Behind Red Curtains On Wood StageAlthough I’m pretty comfortable speaking in front of a crowd now, I wasn’t born that way. In fact, I remember being absolutely terrified for at least the first few dozen presentations I gave. I managed to get the terror under control but it took many years before I discovered the secret weapon that has completely turned around my experience speaking in public.

You’re probably familiar with the problem of confirmation bias – the human tendency to look for, recognize and remember information that confirms our preexisting beliefs and theories. As info pros, we have to be on guard against confirmation bias; it can blind us to relevant information that could challenge the entire premise of our research.

But for public speakers, keeping this human default setting in mind can be very reassuring. Remember, people chose to come to your presentation, join your webinar or attend the meeting you are leading. That means they all have a vested interest in confirming to themselves that they made a good decision to spend their time listening to you. They’re not secretly counting up your grammatical mistakes, judging your choice in footwear, or wondering why your hair looks like that. Rather, they are looking for evidence that they made a good choice.

Once I realized this, I developed a quick little ritual that I now practice before every presentation I give or meeting I lead. I find a quiet space (and yes, it might just be a bathroom stall), close my eyes and take a couple of deep breaths. I imagine the room filling up with people, each of whom is – subconsciously at least – rooting for me. I conjure up a feeling of gratitude that every person in the audience is on my side; they are confident that I’ll do a fine job and they know they will be glad they chose to spend time with me. I smile, even if I have to force myself, and take one more deep breath, inhaling gratitude and exhaling a calm confidence that I will show up at my very best.

Yes, it sounds woo-woo, but this technique has changed my experience of public speaking. The people who have joined me for this event are my allies, not something to be feared. They’re more than willing to forgive me when I suddenly lose my train of thought, as long as I get myself back on track and keep going. They won’t focus on whether or not I have a particular degree or so many years of experience; they just want to come away knowing more than they did before.

I still feel that adrenaline rush as I’m being introduced and I walk to the podium, but it’s not immobilizing. I recognize it as a tool to help me think on my feet, and I look at it as confirmation that I’ll give a great presentation.

Try this approach and see how it works for you. Public speaking may never feel completely natural, but you can hone your skills in managing and channeling your initial anxiety.

Killing the Task Monsters

I’m a great list-maker. I have to-do lists everywhere; they have been compiled carefully, organized strategically, color coded and tagged. But when it comes to actually getting all those listed things done, it’s another matter. Some I can get done right away, and virtuously check that item as DONE. Others I look at, think “ugh, that’s going to take time”, and skip over, day after day. Pretty soon, they become big ugly Task Monsters, glaring at me reproachfully, daring me to take them on.

I finally realized I could slay the Task Monsters the same way you eat an elephant… a bite at a time. I have gone from to-do lists to to-do index cards, and that has transformed how I approach projects both large and small. Whether it’s managing a complex client project, re-imagining a web site, developing a new marketing plan or scoping out a home renovation job, everything has its own pile of cards.

The magic is that I sort the cards based on how long I think the task will take. There are 15-minute cards for items like “Reach out to Anne to schedule informational interview” and “Email graphic designer re: logo”. There are half-hour cards for “Scope out options for new fridge” and “Sketch out upcoming webinar on big data”. For the tasks that I know will take more attention, I have 2- to 4-hour cards for jobs like “Write proposal for speaking opportunity at 2018 SLA conference” and “Outline new web page flow”.

Sure, it takes some time to chunk out all my projects into index-card-sized jobs, but I consider this time well spent. Now, when I have 20 minutes to spare before my next appointment, or a meeting was unexpectedly postponed and I have two unscheduled hours, I go through my cards to see what I feel like tackling.

The magic of these cards is that they’re so easy to pick up when you find yourself at the end of one task and not sure what to do next. While it might feel daunting to open up a folder labeled “New Marketing Plan”, it doesn’t take much to flip through some cards and choose one small item to take care of. Before you know it, you’ve made a significant dent in that daunting project. Take that, Task Monster!

ADDED: Joann Wleklinski suggested color-coding the cards – using a different color for each time category. Brilliant!