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I'm putting my money where mouth is on this challenge

I'm putting my money where mouth is on this challenge

June 07, 2012

Do you want a challenge you can win? Then read this closely.

Remember the Pepsi Challenge? People could have tested Coke and Pepsi in their own kitchens but in city after city for almost 10 years people were lining up to take the challenge. Boxing promoters love a challenge! It creates incredible drama and excitement. And it's rare for someone to back down from a challenge.

Any time Burger King or Wendy's challenges McDonald's, its game on!

But have you heard about this one?

Challenges, such as the Marshmallow Challenge are a great way to tell a story and turn your business into a compelling company.

It's The Marshmallow Challenge. It's gone viral and I'll show you why and how to make your own so more people will be talking about you too. Plus, I'm finally prepared to issue my own challenge and create one for you ' at no charge. Read on for more details...

Challenges are a great way to tell a story and turn your business into a compelling company.

What do I mean? Every challenge is trying to answer a question: Is Coke better than Pepsi? Will the underdog upset the world champion? Who really has the best hamburger?

And whenever you ask a question it creates a vessel ' that has to be filled. This article has two tracks:
1. Learn how tell a more compelling story.
2. Learn a couple principles from this particular challenge.

I'm sure you're wondering what's the big deal about The Marshmallow Challenge. This was originally made famous by Peter Skillman, a designer who came up with the Palm Pre, and The Marshmallow Challenge is now seeing resurgence thanks to another designer, Tom Wujec of Autodesk.

Here's the challenge: build a freestanding tower in 18 minutes using 20 sticks of spaghetti (uncooked), one yard of tape, one yard of string and one marshmallow that sits atop the tower. The tallest tower wins.

Sounds easy, right? Not so fast

Can you build a free-standing tower with just spaghetti sticks, tape, string and place a marshmallow on top of it?

It's a great team building exercise that you can use in just about any business and among any groups of people. But it sounds so simple, right? Take some tape and spaghetti sticks and some string and build a little tower and put a marshmallow on top. What's the big deal? It's NOT easy at all. Not many people can do it ' and you'll be surprised to learn which groups of people are among the best at it.

But the reason why you need to study this is because its genius is HOW he tells the story and positions himself and his company as the experts. Here's the first take-away.

What do you know that most people don't?

Lesson #1: As an expert in your field you know things very few people do. In this case, Wujec knows how difficult it is to design something using even very simple tools like tape and spaghetti. But until someone actually tries to do it themselves they don't realize just how tough it is.

Here's where it really gets interesting. Every good story has a surprise to it that you'll remember long after you hear the story. In most projects like this a team would orient themselves to figure out how to approach the challenge, plan, build it and then ta-dah! It's done. Most don't work that way. Most teams scramble to try to put the marshmallow on top of the tower only to see it collapse in an uh-oh moment.

The surprise is who performs consistently well and who performs consistently poorly.

The key to every great story

Recent business school graduates performed among the worst in The Marshmallow Challenge. Who performed among the best? Surprise! Recent Kindergarten school graduates! Why? Because they understand the importance of what I call "iterating" - testing and building prototypes.

Warning: Don't get hung up on the concept of actually producing a famous challenge. But do focus on how you can use these 5 steps to create a more compelling story to grow your business or organization.

Lesson #2: Every great challenge has a surprise ' a counter-intuitive idea that sticks with you. The Pepsi Challenge was so popular because time and time again, Pepsi knocked off the world's best-selling soft drink. In The Marshmallow Challenge, the groups that performed the worst were recent business school graduates. Who performed among the best? Kindergarten students!

Yup, you read that right. Kindergartners did better than business school graduates in The Marshmallow Challenge over and over. Why? Because they understood the value of iterating ' testing and trying out ideas before actually building their tower. It's also why engineers and architects did the best. They understand the importance of testing first.

But what if the team's were offered a $10,000 prize for the tallest tower? Would they be more motivated? You may be surprised to learn what happened!

They did worse! Just throwing incentives at the problem doesn't help. It just made things worse. Why? Because the teams that didn't have the skills to build the tower couldn't overcompensate by just trying to win a prize.

What's your 'A-ha!' moment?

What I also love about this presentation is how Tom Wujec uses graphics and illustrations to tell the story. Here, we see that engineer and architects performed the best in the Marshmallow Challenge -- thank goodness! But here's another surprise - CEOs did better than average, but they did even better when working with an administrative assistant.

Lesson #3: Every great story has an 'A-Ha!' moment. This is the take-away or what you want people to learn from the challenge. It's your secret for solving the challenge.

What's the 'A-Ha!' moment in The Marshmallow Challenge? It's the value of iterating.

We constantly work with our clients to test ideas in their marketing ' test messages, offers and even different products. Most will try it once and if it collapses, never do it again. But using the process of iterating you can test small and see what works and what doesn't before moving into the building phase.

That's why the Kindergartners and engineers were so successful ' and why the business school graduates were NOT!

Pictures tell a thousand words

Lesson #4: Show, don't tell. I'll show you Wujec's presentation in a moment but he does a terrific job of using charts and graphs to tell his story. Pictures really do tell a thousand words and it's always much more powerful to use images to tell your story.

Why? Because people can remember images ' and then make the connection to your story.

Lesson #5: Challenges get people engaged. What I love about a challenge is that it's a fun way to get people involved in your story. Think about The Marshmallow Challenge.

You can tell people how important iterating or prototyping is but they'll never really understand just how critical it is until they experience it for themselves in a fun exercise.

So how can you create your own challenge? This same idea can be done in any industry and with any product. Here are just 3 examples:

1. Real estate investing. We worked with one of our clients to create "The Extreme Real Estate Challenge" where our client said you could drop him litterally ANYWHERE in the US with only $100 and two weeks and he could help a newbie investor find, buy and make a $10,000 profit on a house. A videographer followed him along with thousands of people online and in videos as he taught everybody how.

NBA and Olympic star Michael Redd couldn't believe a mouth guard could help improve his strength, balance and flexibility -- until he took the challenge and tried it himself.

2. Mouth guards. There are hundreds of different types of mouth guards available to athletes but only Power Balance claims its mouth guard can help improve performance. How? The theory is that with a properly fitted mouth guard, your jaw and spine can be properly aligned keeping a stronger posture and ultimately providing improved athletic performance. Several professional athletes didn't believe the scientific studies supporting the claims and took the challenge to experience it for themselves and now promote the product in endorsement videos.

One of the toughest challenges for Hall of Fame football player Emmitt Smith was dealing with the foot pain while competing on Dances with the Stars. So he put a pair of Good Feet Arch Supports to the test and the pain went away. He's now the company's spokesman.

3. Arch supports. You may have seen the infomercials or spotted them at a trade show. People who never thought of buying arch supports in the past stop along a busy street to take the challenge. They complain of sore joints or aching feet. Then, they take the balance test. Standing with their arms out they try to resist pressure first without the supports and then while standing on the supports. Most are shocked to learn how much better balanced and stronger they are WITH the supports. Result: the pain is gone. Some are so incredulous they say "try that again" then get the same results. And yes they sell a lot of arch supports this way. They never would have believed an arch support could help them if they didn't take the challenge.

Listen, I'm betting you can create your own challenge too. Ask yourself these questions:

1. As experts in our field, what do we know that most other people don't? Look for small things.
2. What can we say that would surprise people? Make a list.
3. What's the solution to the problem you're trying to solve? What's your 'A-ha' moment?
4. How can you tell your story with images or graphics?
5. How can you engage people in your challenge?

I'll even prove it to you with my own challenge

This really can be done for any product or service. Still not convinced? I'll even prove it to you with my own challenge.

Here's the challenge I'm offering: I'll help create a challenge for 3 companies ' at no charge.

We will select 3 winners Tuesday, June 12. You see so many people say, "But we can't do that I'm in ...finance, landscaping, food, biotech"...look it doesn't matter. Everybody has a compelling story or challenge and I wan to help you find it. I'm so convinced that we can do this for any business, any product and any time that I'll prove to you ' FREE! So take me up on my offer and lets spot your compelling story.

But you must enter to win. To enter the contest, GO HERE.

To see Tom Wujec's terrific presentation as it appeared on TED, click here. I've also included a pdf of The Marshmallow Challenge as well, which you can download here.

Always taking you from where you are to where you want to go,


Jon Goldman, President