Poker has had a resurgence since its heyday, and it shows up in popular media.  Sophisticated and cool on the big screen and even popular on TV, with cameras fixed on baize tables and the sedentary bodies perched at their edge. Some would find it a tedious spectator sport of course. But part of the reason this s/low action TV drama compels millions of fans has got to be the intense action behind the action. Figuring out who’s bluffing, who’s got the goods, and how will they sweat out this game of “I dare you” until the pot is big enough to snare. Now, that’s pretty juicy drama, on a big screen in your living room.

‘Did that sunglassed stoneface at 12 o’clock twitch an eyebrow twice in a row?’ or, ‘What’s behind that blustery persona at the far end of the table? Didn’t she blurt something out like that the last time he had a full house?’ That drama teaches the spectator, who sees everyone’s hand on the screen, how to read “the tell,” the involuntary physical behavior that belies the truth about the competitor’s actual strength. Let’s not waste the opportunity to transfer that skill to the rest of the room.

In the casino that is capitalism today, “tells” can be useful tools, too. After all, the stakes are high — think global financial meltdown, public companies failing overnight — and the players are rewarded for hiding their apparent vulnerability. Even from themselves. So how would an investor, or an employee, or a buyer of their products and services actually know the truth of a company’s position on an issue, or ability to ensure the safety of its operations to the well being of all they touch? Look for the tells.

For example, Hendrick Hertzberg found a ex post facto Tell in 2008, which hinted at the dark, hidden chasm between insiders and marketers:

“A.I.G.? OMG!  September 21, 2008

Sorting through my junk mail yesterday, I came upon a silvery envelope marked CONFIDENTIAL. Then I noticed the return address: A.I.G.

Not just A.I.G., either, but something really special: “A.I.G. Private Client Group.”

The envelope contained a tasteful card, sort of like a Christmas card, with a lovely picture of a huge, Hamptons-y mansion shot at purple dusk, with warm lights winking reassuringly from within. Captioning the picture, in white letters against a black background, were these words:

Some Insurance Companies Respond to the
Financial Consequences of a Disaster.
We Help You Avoid Disaster Altogether.

Inside the card, under the flap, was an important personal message. But I have to admit I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.”

Read more

Here is Tell training 101. A repository for signals either of deeper systemic problems that we realize in hindsight we should have listened to, or of signals that may well portend a crack in a foundation wall.

At first, we won’t discriminate much, but just use this space to warm up our Tell antennae. All of us. So it’s more like Tell brainstorm. Let no potential Tell go unturned.

I think with some practice, our community will get bored with the Monday puzzle and
jump right into Wednesday or even Friday, to use a skill-building-by-habit metaphor of crossword puzzling. And I’m guessing that the fastest route there will be how quickly we turn to our internal antennae, our gut, as the truth barometer. Maybe. We’ll see. I don’t want to discourage your own process.

But there are two parts to Tell expertise: first is what we just said. Smelling out the incongruity. The second is when it becomes more than puzzle-solving: when we use that awareness of incongruity between what an organization presents and what it does to pinpoint what that gap might mean to us as its stakeholders.

Don’t worry if part two doesn’t interest you yet. That’s for later, after you’re hooked on finding the daily Tell in our business backyard.