5 Reasons Why the White House Response to the Death Star Petition Was Genius

January 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Back in November 2012, someone posted on the White House’s “We The People” site petitioning the federal government to secure funding and resources to build a Death Star by 2016. We The People is an online petition website that allows any citizen to make a suggestion, and if it receives 25,000 votes, the White House will issue an official response. The Death Star petition reached 25,000 votes in December and one month later, the White House issued their response.

Picture of the Death Star from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

The Death Star would cost how much? Yikes

Here are 5 reasons why I thought the response was brilliant:

1. They Played Along

Kudos to the White House for embracing and adding more Star Wars references. There were mentions of

  • Blowing up planets
  • Having a flaw that can be exposed by a one-man starship
  • Luke’s robotic arm
  • The power of the Force

How many government agencies would have responded with “we are not familiar with the term ‘Death Star’ and therefore are unable to properly respond to this petition.” Probably a lot.

2. It was Informal

One lesson from social media is that it’s okay to be informal sometimes. People like interacting with other human beings more than a dry, soulless organization. It’s refreshing to see government be clever, witty, and funny.

The second paragraph begins with “…look carefully and you’ll notice something floating in the sky – that’s no Moon, it’s a Space Station!” Reading this sentence makes you feel like the author is actually talking to you.

Not only was it written with a playful voice, they even linked to a photo of President Obama wielding a toy light saber.

3. It was Informative

Not only was the response witty and playful, it was also very informative. The author saw this as an opportunity to educate the reader with relevant articles and programs. There were several links to government and non-government projects to get the reader excited about what is currently happening in space. I bet most readers learned something new.

4. They Promoted Others

Another important lesson from social media is that it’s not always about you. The White House was happy to promote other programs that they thought the reader would find useful, giving readers a more complete picture of what is happening in the industry. In addition to the many NASA programs, they also link to a private sector project with a mission to put more humans on the moon and DARPA projects to build floating droids.

There’s even a reference to a study that estimated the cost of a Death Star to be more than $850,000,000,000,000,000.

5. They Ended On a Positive Note

It’s difficult to draw something positive out of such an outrageous petition that was obviously a joke, but the White House pulled it off. Instead of just listing evidence to why this is a terrible idea, they ended with an encouraging message.

The second to last paragraph says “We are living in the future! Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field.”


Despite the brilliance of the response, there is something that doesn’t sit well with me: I couldn’t find the article on We The People. Of course, if you use a search engine, the article shows up at the top and there are plenty of technology and government blogs that link to it, but if you start from the We The People homepage, it’s very difficult to navigate to the response (I couldn’t do it but someone else probably could). It’s as if the White House is purposely trying to hide it from accidental visits.

Even the title of the response is extremely vague. It’s called “This Isn’t the Petition Response You’re Looking For.”

Despite the fact that it’s hidden, I still have to applaud the author for a brilliant and refreshing response. This is a great example of what government can be: clever, in-touch, educational, and inspiring all at the same time.


City of Houston Produces Video About Surviving Workplace Shooter

August 1, 2012 Leave a comment

Last week, the City of Houston’s Office of Public Safety, with grants from the Department of Homeland Security, posted a video called RUN. HIDE. FIGHT: Surviving an Active Shooter Event as part of their Ready Houston initiative. It’s a professionally done, six minute instructional video about what to do if someone were to open fire at the office.

The video was actually produced two weeks before the movie theater incident in Aurora, CO that took the lives of 12 civilians and wounded many more.  Soon after the shooting, Mayor Annise Parker and Dennis Storemski, the Director of the Office of Public Safety, had the video posted within a week, stating that “knowledge is power in a situation such as Aurora.”

I have to admit when I first saw the video title I recoiled, wondering “have we come to this as a society?” But within a second, I had to stop what I was doing and watch the video, because I needed to know. Then I had the feeling to share it with all my coworkers. Then I had the feeling to blog it on the internets.


What was your reaction when you learned that a city is promoting tips to survive a workplace shooting? Have you ever considered what you would do if you were ever caught in this kind of situation? Should the government sponsor initiatives of this kind, or is it going too far?

In this digital age with social media, we rely on people at the scene to provide us with up-to-date information during extreme situations. Then we rely on creative and technically-skilled people to create tools to present data in a meaningful way. Then we rely on social media influencers to distribute the knowledge to rest of us. But all of this happens AFTER the emergency. Perhaps it’s the government’s role to empower us BEFORE anything ever takes place?

Make Your Presentations More Tweetable

May 3, 2012 2 comments

A few weeks ago, I wrote an entry for speakers about analyzing their tweets to improve future presentations. Since then, I’ve had a few people ask “how do you get people to tweet about you in the first place?” That’s an excellent question.

Whenever I attend a session, I’m always looking for something tweetworthy because it’s a great opportunity to share valuable or interesting information with my followers. A few years ago, watching your audience hunker over their device probably meant you’ve lost them and they’d rather check email or play solitaire (bad). These days, it might mean they’re especially engaged and are hurriedly trying to tweet you (good).twitter bird

Some speakers may care less about being tweeted, which is perfectly fine. This post is for those that would like to be more twitter-friendly for the audience. Here are a few tips:

1. Speak in Plain Language

If you’re the type of speaker that likes to wax poetic with ornate balladry, your audience will swoon at your brilliance, but you won’t get many tweets. I had college professors who lectured as if reciting Shakespearean metrical compositions, but I can’t remember a single lesson and half my notes ended with …

Get straight to the point with plain language and leave the superfluous adjectives at home.

2. Prepare Sound Bites

The best tweets from presentations are prepared, short sound bites. No need for the audience to paraphrase and possibly misinterpret; if it’s short enough, it will be tweeted verbatim. Less is definitely more when it comes to tweetable sound bites.

3. Repeat Important Takeaways

Nothing conveys importance like repetition. I repeat, nothing conveys importance like repetition. If your audience missed it the first time, they sure won’t miss it the second. Say it moderately slow, keep it relatively short, and say it verbatim. If you want your audience to tweet a point, it’s worth saying twice.

4. Put Important Takeaways on a Slide

Make it even easier by showing the important sound bite in plain language on a slide as you repeat it twice. Some people are much more visual than auditory. If they see it prominently displayed (large font, stand-alone, and plenty of negative space), their natural tendency is to write/type it down.

5. Give Audience a “Break”

It’s good to let your audience catch-up if they’ve been frantically clacking away. The best kind of “break” is not silent reflection; it’s okay to pause, but go longer than two seconds and it gets uncomfortable. The best break is to talk about something less important, such as an example, anecdote or funny story. Whenever I hear a speaker follow an important point with “let me tell you a quick story” or “recently, I read this article,” I breathe a sigh of relief because I know I can keep typing in the tweet without missing the next important point.

6. Use Lists, Numbers, or Quotes

These three tactics work especially well on slides. Whenever people see an organized list, numbers/statistics, or an insightful/humorous/thought-provoking quote, they tend to jot it down.

If you’re presenting a list of items, start with the whole list first and give people time to write them down. So many times speakers will just dive right in and minutes later, I’ll hear “the third reason why such and such” and I’ll wonder whatever happened to the first two. After running through the items on your list, it’s a good idea to show the list on a single slide again.

As for numbers, a speaker is 74% more likely to get positive reviews if he/she uses statistics. Actually, I just made that number up. But it caught your attention. It’s always good to pull in statistics to exemplify your point. If I say “it’s astounding how many IT projects fail,” I might get a reaction. But if I say “68% of IT projects fail according to a survey from IAG Consulting,” my point is strengthened so much more. However, be judicious with your stats and always reference the source.

Quotes are another great way of illustrating a point. Especially when it’s on a slide, people are likely to write it down or tweet it if it’s not too long. Make sure it’s from someone with authority on the subject. Quoting others also strengthens your point because it shows your idea is aligned with an expert in the industry.
Keep these tips in mind when preparing for your next presentation. Getting tweeted by the audience is great for increasing your reputation and brand. It establishes you as an authority on the subject and increases your following. Help yourself by helping your audience promote your presentation.

How Did Caine’s Arcade Get Famous?

April 18, 2012 Leave a comment

By now, you’ve probably heard of Caine Monroy, a nine year old boy who built a carnival-like arcade out of cardboard boxes in his dad’s auto shop. The short documentary was viewed more than 4.5 million times in just a week, netting him a $152,000 scholarship, a non-profit foundation to help kids reach their dreams, and a real pinball machine for his arcade.

If you’ve seen the 11 minute video, you probably teared up when you saw him surprised by the big crowd at his arcade. It was truly a heartwarming, feel-good story that inspires hope and creativity in all of us.

Caine Monroy and his cardboard arcade

So how did this little guy get so immensely famous?

Because he’s a genius?
There’s no doubt Caine is a special kid who is highly intelligent for his age. Many instances in the film that displayed his intelligence:

  • he built a drop-the-claw game out of a box, hook and string
  • he would hide behind a box and feed tickets through a slot
  • he recycled a toy from a pizza restaurant and turned it into a game

But did he get famous because of his ingenuity? I would argue no. Caine is a smart cookie, but that wasn’t the reason why his story went viral.

Because he’s persistent?
As inviting as a mini basketball hoop taped to a box may sound, Caine didn’t have any customers for a while because his father’s auto shop gets very little foot traffic. His dad actually told him to go play outside, but Caine never gave up. This is definitely admirable, but persistence and determination is also not the reason he became famous.

Because he thinks like an entrepreneur?
Caine could have just invited his friends to play, but he treated his arcade like a business. He charges $1 for 4 tries and $2 for a Fun Pass, which is good for 500 turns. He also made a shirt that says “Staff” on the front and “Caine’s Arcade” on the back. Make no mistake, he took his business very seriously, which is also a rare and admirable trait. But that’s not what made him famous.

Being intelligent, persistant and business-savvy are all key ingredients to achieving some amount of success in life, but to get viral on the internet requires something else. How 5 million people came to know Caine’s Arcade has nothing to do with anything Caine did himself.

The reason why Caine went viral is because his first customer was a filmmaker who understood the power of social media.

The documentary was created by Nirvan Mullick, a filmmaker who needed a car part, wandered into the auto shop, discovered Caine, and decided to make a film. More specifically:

He created an event
Getting people excited about a kid’s cardboard games is one thing. Getting people excited about a kid’s carboard games AND inviting them to a flash mob is completely different. What made you tear up wasn’t Caine’s brilliance, it was the giant crowd of supporters surprising him at the end of the video.

When it comes to mobilizing people, the best way to build a following is to offer a specific action. Don’t just get excited about a proposed city ordinance; join us two hours before the town hall meeting next Thursday and help us make some signs. You have to give people an actionable task if you want tangible results.

He promoted the event for a month
Many times we think of videos going viral as an overnight sensation, setting the internets afire in seconds. That may be the case for some internet memes, but in this case, it was a methodical and calculated effort by Nirvan. He understood the importance of promotion using social media, creating a Facebook Event, a twitter account, a website and posting to Reddit.com, and being very active to promote the event a month before the date.

He managed the logistics
When you invite the internet to a surprise party, you have no idea what will happen. Perhaps nobody cares and nothing happens, or way too many people show up and chaos ensues. There’s no way Caine could have accommodated a large crowd by himself, especially when $2 gets you 500 turns.

Nirvan was very active to set expectations, handle logistics, and answer questions. If his message was “come check out a boy genius’ cardboard arcade, best $2 I ever spent,” there would be people showing up to play, wait in long for hours, lose patience, and leave. No, the message was always “come show your support about an amazing kid and I’m shooting a film about it.”

Also, whenever there was a question or comment, he’d address it right away. He took care of issues such as

  • where to park
  • what to do if you show up early
  • whether or not to contact the media
  • why there won’t be a bouncy castle
  • how to volunteer
  • how to make a donation

He even asked a friend to continue answering questions on the Reddit page because he was going camping for his girlfriend’s birthday and didn’t want to lose momentum planning the flash mob. This was definitely a case of someone who knew where to find people on the internet and how to manage a large event.

Overall, the story of Caine’s Arcade is amazingly brilliant, and will go down as one of the top internet stories of the year. There are many takeaways from the documentary, not just about creativity and persistence, but about the ingredients needed to create a well-organized, public event over the internet. Caine’s flash mob teaches us the importance of planning an event, allowing plenty of time to prepare, and managing the logistics – all using the power of social media.

Use Twitter to Improve Your Next Presentation

March 8, 2012 1 comment

Thanks to Twitter, conferences are more social and open. A few years ago, if your audience is looking down at their mobile device, it probably meant that you lost them and they were checking email. These days, audience members clacking on their devices might mean they’re tweeting something meaningful that you said. Tweets from the audience benefit in at least four ways:

  • memorializes the important points from your presentation
  • expands your reach to folks that aren’t in attendance
  • promotes you as an authority on the subject
  • builds a relationship with the audience

Picture of a speaker

As a presenter, these benefitscome without any effort on your part. But why rest on your laurels, letting the tweets to fall to the ground? Analyzing your presentation tweets can help you improve and fine-tune your material for future opportunities.Here are five ways to use Twitter to improve future presentations.

1. What was tweeted/retweeted the most?

Which part of the presentation got the most tweets and retweets? These were the nuggets that came out of your presentation. This might not be what you thought was the most valuable, but that’s what the audience thought, which is what matters most. Review these tweets and see if they match what you thought were the most important quotes. If there’s a disconnect, fine-tune your presentation to make your nuggets more tweetable.

2. Where are the gaps?

Most likely, not everything you say will be valuable to your audience. There will be periods where no one is tweeting. Since tweets are time-stamped, you can estimate the lulls and figure out what you were saying during the long pauses. This doesn’t necessarily mean the material was boring or unimpressive. It could also mean that you were speaking too fast or tried to say too much at one time. There have been many times when I, as an audience member, tried to tweet something, but lost my thought halfway through because the speaker already moved on. When that happens, that’s a lost opportunity for the speaker.

3. Are people paraphrasing too much?

One of the drawbacks of twitter is that you have no control over what your audience is tweeting.  Sometimes, if you’re point is not clear and concise, your audience can begin the tweet with your words but end with their own. Of course, the audience is not purposely trying to twist your words, but if you speak too fast or have too many thoughts at one time, the audience might accidentally misinterpret or misuse your words. If there are many paraphrased tweets, you might want to chunk up your ideas or simplify the language the next time you present.

4.  Do you encourage your audience to connect with you?

Most likely, your audience will have questions. Many times, only a few are asked because 1) some people are too shy to ask in front of a crowd, 2) the questions don’t come until they digest the material later, or 3) you take too much time answering a question that people are afraid to ask another.

Remind your audience during the presentation to contact you if there’s a question. If you know your audience, you know which topics will generate the most questions. The interaction doesn’t have to be limited to the time in the conference room. Encourage them to engage with you after the conference and give you feedback on what was most/least helpful to them.

5. Is your presentation available online?

The most common question is probably: “can I get a copy of your presentation.” Why not put it online ahead of time and  announce the URL during your presentation? Once it’s online, you get the web traffic analytics, allow comments, enable sharing, and you have a web presence for your presentation to live on in perpetuity. Have a coworker or friend tweet it while you’re speaking.

Twitter is an integral part of trainings, conferences and educational events. If you are a speaker, don’t waste the opportunity to review the tweets about your presentation to improve for future opportunities.

Who Else Does SOPA Affect?

January 26, 2012 Leave a comment

On January 18, 2012, thousands of websites such as Wikipedia, reddit.com, and WordPress joined a concerted effort to protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). These websites were voluntarily blacked out to demonstrate the impact of what these bills could do if passed. The federal government already has the authority to force a website to take down pirated content on its site, but the proposals in SOPA extend their authority to require Internet providers to block access, disabling search engines to link, and preventing investors from funding these sites.

The activities on January 18 turned out to be the largest online protest in history, resulting with the Legislature putting the bill on hold for now. Even President Obama showed his support.


Wikipedia blacked out their pages on Jan 18 to protest SOPA

Wikipedia blacked out their pages on Jan 18 to protest SOPA


However, it seems like almost all the focus is drawn to one place. FAQs and What-You-Need-To-Know-About-SOPA do a great job of explaining SOPA in plain language, but the focus is just on websites. I wonder if there will be any attention left for the other stakeholders affected by SOPA.

I’m not a lawyer so I’m not going to pretend to understand every word of this bill, but there were two sections that really caught my attention.

1) In Sec 205, it clearly states that the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Commerce shall “ensure that adequate resources are available…to ensure…aggressive support for enforcement action against violators of the intellectual property rights…”

What exactly does “adequate resources” and “aggressively support” mean? In our current economic climate, how do we come up with the funding to aggressively go after copyright offenders all over the world? What if it’s a country that doesn’t care about our copyrights? How does this affect our foreign policies and relationships in the international community? It would take A LOT of money to go after copyright infringers all over the world.

We got a taste of this last week, when the Department of Justice worked with New Zealand police to arrest executives from Megaupload.com. This might be the first domino to fall, but the way it’s written in SOPA is very clear: we’re going to commit to fighting piracy by opening up our pocketbooks.

I hope the next version of SOPA elaborates on this Section to clarify what this means.


2) In Sec 202, there is a provision for those that “intentionally traffic in goods or services and knowingly uses a counterfeit mark on or in connection with such goods and services”

To be more specific, “labels, patches, stickers, wrappers, badges, emblems, medallions, charms, boxes, containers, cans, cases, hang tags, documentation, or packaging…the use of which is likely to cause confusion, to cause mistake, or to deceive…”

Growing up in Southern California, there were plenty of flea markets, swap meets, and street vendors that sold designer brand products at ridiculously low prices. Walk through the city and you’ll see plenty of fake baseball caps and handbags. During the Super Bowl in 2011, federal agents seized $3.56 million worth of fake Super-Bowl related memorabilia.  I’m sure there are existing laws against the trafficking of counterfeit goods, so what is SOPA adding that doesn’t already exist?

I’m not advocating the preservation of cheap, fake goods, but I recognize there are a lot of people who make their living selling these products. I’m just curious to see how the next SOPA affects this community.


Overall, all signs point to SOPA to be completely revamped. Based on what we’ve seen so far, the majority of attention, at least from the mainstream media, is paid to large websites with user-generated content. It’ll be vey interesting to see how the international community and the underground economy are affected in the next iteration of the bill.


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Pinterest for Government

December 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Lately, there has been a site called Pinterest that has skyrocketed in popularity. The basic concept behind Pinterest is an online pinboard; a virtual space for sharing images from all over the web based on specific themes. It’s a way to discover new ideas and get inspired. People use it for home remodeling, wedding planning, arts and crafts, cooking recipes, and any other theme that allows creativity, innovation, and fun.


This is an example of sharing images about different types of architecture on Pinterest


Is this something that government can use to engage their citizens? I think there are some agencies that could benefit from sharing ideas for very specific themes. Too many times I come across government photosharing sites and see things like buildings, agency heads accepting awards, historical landmarks, or office parties. Unfortunately, most citizens don’t find that particularly interesting. But what if we had a site that allowed us to share content worth a thousand words to reach a specific target, such as…

Designing new buildings: wouldn’t it be great if citizens had a chance to suggest ideas for the design of new buildings? There are so many innovative architectural designs all over the web. Why not let the citizens share some of their favorites with you.

Being more green: There are so many ways to be more green at the office without having to spend a lot of money. Ways to create heat, enhance natural lighting, simple redesigns to increase space, creative ways to reuse waste, etc.

Redesigning websites: Many agencies are looking to refresh their official website. Get fresh ideas from the community on what they like to see. After all, they’re the ones that have to use it.

Decorating public spaces: Share ideas for decorating parks, making improvements, or finding new ways for celebrations like holidays and parades

Integrating art from schools: Kids make the most inspiration and endearing art. Why not find ways to creatively showcase them in our public buildings?

Designing new marketing materials: How often does government spend on pamphlets, posters, and flyers that look unattractive and boring? Get design ideas that would make a stronger impression on your audience


Granted, Pinterest has its limitations, since it wasn’t designed for organizations to solicit ideas from others as much as it is to show off what you find on your own. But there is a collaboration feature that government could turn on to invite others to create content. Or just instruct citizens to mention you when they come across something related to your pinboard.

Either way, it’s a great way to be inspired, discover new ideas, and build relationships.

Keep in mind that as government, we have to be extra careful with areas such as accessibility, record retention, terms of service, and others. Make sure your agency is covered in these areas before you get started.


Overall, I think there are many public agencies that can use Pinterest as a powerful business tool. Yes, there will be some that sigh at the notion of jumping on yet another social networking site (“last year you told us to get on this site; what a big waste of time that turned out to be”). Chances are, many agencies will try and get little to no response. But if you have a business reason to try it out, why not give it a shot?