This week, I’ve decided to papillonner. Yes, I know I’ve advised against using foreign words, but this is different (no, really). Papillon is French for butterfly, and papillonner is what they do: they butterfly. They flit randomly from one thing to another. It’s so much more fun than concentrating on a single subject, but like chocolate, it’s best in small chunks and only as a treat. So what have I come up with? Well three ideas struck a chord – mainly because they sound toe-curlingly familiar.

1. Don’t forget to think one step ahead

Have you tried Google Alerts? It’s a great little service that scours news, blogs and websites to find keywords you specify. Want to know what Kylie is up to? Or Bill Gates? Or even yourself? (That’s called narcissurfing, by the way.) It’s great – when it works. Some time back, I set up several alerts. Days later, I’d received nothing. And then, by chance, I checked my Gmail account online. If you’ve got a Gmail account, you’ll know that Google has cleverly decided to intercept spam at the server level. So even if you’re downloading your mail using their POP3 service, you still have to log on every so often to see what the spam filter has trapped (and to see a few ads, naturally). And then the mystery was solved. For there, sitting forlornly in my spam filter, were my alerts. So let’s get this straight: Google’s Gmail spam filter had trapped Google Alerts emails. What a triumph of technology.

2. Don’t get too clever

It’s happened twice to me recently. I’m filling in a form, and the last step is one of those randomly generated collections of letters and numbers. All you have to do is type it into the box, to prove you’re a real human being. And that’s when the trouble starts. Is that 8 or S? Or maybe a 3? It’s distorted, squashed up next to something that could be a question mark, or might be 2. Your guess is as good as anybody’s. So you have a go. Wrong. You try again. Wrong. And then you give up. So something that was designed to avoid automated completion ends up repelling all boarders. If you find this frustrating, you’re not alone. Somebody’s even set up a site called I Hate Word Verifications (don’t worry, you don’t have to type anything to access it).

3.  Don’t let your fingers take over from your brain

Or, put another way, watch out for your blind spots (note to self: that line might need reworking). Many years ago, I did a roadshow to launch some Microsoft products. My presentation was pretty straightforward, all scripted, timed and double-checked by the demo boffins on the mother ship in Redmond. It was what we called a seminar in a box – just add one presenter, and stir vigorously. At one point, in Microsoft Word, I had to type a line that included the word t-shirts. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever had to type and talk in front of 1,000 people, but it does funny things to your brain. And with my fingers disconnected and thinking for themselves, t-shirts came out more often than not without the r. Not my finest hour. In the end, I had to substitute the word sweater, safe in the knowledge that I could mangle it without audible gasps from a startled audience. We all have blind spots. It’s one of the reasons I proof-read three, four, even five times before I send out any copy. And I’ve invented all sorts of ways of shaking it up to make sure I see the copy afresh:
  • print it out
  • change the font
  • use coloured paper
  • use coloured text
  • read it out loud
  • use a pen under each word and read out loud (make sure you’re alone)
And guess what? Shaking it up works. I might even recommend it to the journos on the UK’s Daily Telegraph. If they’d used it, they might have included the letter l in public the first time round in this article online (ouch – they’ve since corrected it).

And finally, one thing you shouldn’t forget

OK, before we finish butterflying, why not flit on over to the TED site and catch David Pogue’s presentation? He’s the technology correspondent of the New York Times and his talk, entitled Cool new things you can do with your mobile phone, is entertaining, engaging and…cool. Make sure you catch his iPhone song to the tune of My Way. Happy flitting.