The Hollywood Rule: 5 Reasons To Always Accept A Drink During A Meeting

The company I worked for my first year after college was producing a commercial, and my boss sent me and a coworker to meet the head of the production company we’d hired to film it. The man was, according to the online bio I read before the meeting, a “former Hollywood guy”… whatever that means.

When we got to his office — a nondescript building in a small industrial park — he invited us into his conference room and asked if we’d like a drink. As I took my seat, I politely declined the drink.

He sat down across from us, leaned back in his chair, shook his head in mock-disapproval, and said, “Clearly neither of you two know the Hollywood Rule.”

“The Hollywood Rule?” my co-worker asked. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“The Hollywood Rule,” the production head explained, “is to always accept a drink when someone offers one at the start of a meeting.”

If I could travel back in time to that moment, I would have asked him why. But, at that moment, it didn’t occur to me. Instead, I’m pretty sure I meekly asked for a water, and then we continued with our meeting. As a result, I’ve spent the next 15 years wondering why, in Hollywood, you’re always supposed to accept a drink when offered one during a meeting.

Even though I don’t know why I’m supposed to, ever since leaning the Hollywood Rule, when someone offers me a drink in a meeting, I always accept it. Plus, when I meet with someone and offer a drink, I get a little annoyed if they don’t accept it. I think it’s a useful piece of advice, so I’ve come up with my own reasons why.

Reason #1: Demonstrate Absolute Comfort

Maybe you’re meeting with a powerful investor. Maybe you’re meeting with a potential customer who, if you win the deal, could propel your business to massive success. No matter how important the meeting is, or how nervous you are, by accepting a drink you’re demonstrating absolute comfort in your environment. Why? Because people who turn down drinks are people who don’t want to feel like they’re imposing or causing trouble. But people who close big deals are people who never worry about imposing.

Reason #2: Get Used To Your Environment

Thanks to millions of years of evolution, when entering new environments, humans are naturally focused on their surroundings. Sure, this comes from having to worry about things like saber toothed tigers unexpectedly leaping out at you, and you’re not likely to encounter many of them in a conference room, but instincts are difficult habits to kick. As a result, when entering a new space ahead of a meeting, some part of your mental energy will be tuned to your surroundings.

By accepting a drink at the beginning of a meeting, you’re giving yourself a few minutes to acclimate to a new environment. During that time, your hunter-gatherer subconscious can do its thing, which means it’ll stay out of your way once the meeting starts.

Reason #3: Cool Down

Even low-pressure meetings require some level of additional effort beyond what you expend staring at a computer screen. That additional effort leads to things like breathlessness, an inability to focus, and, in some cases, sweat. Lots and lots of sweat.

An easy way to avoid being the kind of person who sweats through your shirt during a meeting is to accept a cold beverage. You probably won’t realize how much it’s helping you stay cool, but maybe you’ll notice the lack of pit stains.

Reason #4: Make Your Host Feel Good

While you might think you’re creating extra work, accepting a drink is actually an easy way to make your host feel good for doing something nice. Making your host feel good will put that person in a more receptive state of mind, which may come in handy if you need to make any kind of “ask” during your meeting.

Reason #5: Establish Control

Conversations are about control. Do you like to be the driver of your conversations, actively pushing them in the directions you want them to go? Or do you tend to be a passenger in your conversations, going wherever other people want to take them?

Being passive during conversations isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there are plenty of scenarios where you should let the other person lead. However, if you need to control a conversation, accepting a drink is a good way of doing so because it immediately makes you the beneficiary of the other person’s effort.

If you want to establish even more control, request a drink before you’re even offered one. A simple “Could I trouble you for a glass of water?” as you’re walking in the door is a polite way of taking charge at the beginning of a meeting.

And, for those times where you want everyone in the room to know you’re the “alpha,” request a drink the other person surely won’t have:

        Person You’re Meeting: “Before we get started, would you like something to drink?”

        You: “As a matter of fact, I’d love a Mountain Dew Code Red if you’ve got one.”

        Person You’re Meeting: “Umm… I don’t think we have that.”

        You: “Then let’s just get down to business. So… what can I do for you?”


What Bad Startup Founders Have In Common With Bad Drivers

You’re driving down the road and the car in front of you suddenly slows down. You quickly step on the breaks to avoid hitting him. Five seconds later, he turns into a parking lot. What a jerk!

Once he’s out of the lane, you punch down on your gas pedal a little harder than you need to, perhaps hoping he somehow hears the anger in your revved engine, and you annoyedly mutter: “Nice turn signal, a$$-hole.”

In that type of situation, your anger is justified. A driver who doesn’t use a turn signal is ignoring the simple fact that his turn signal isn’t for his benefit. Instead, he should be using his turn signal to communicate what he already knows — his impending slowdown — to the people around him so they can respond appropriately. By not properly communicating with others around him, he’s expecting people to respond to his actions based on information only he has. That’s what makes him a jerk.

While everyone knows people who don’t use their turn signals are jerks because they don’t properly communicate all relevant knowledge during an interaction, unsuccessful startup founders do the same thing all the time. Of course, nobody calls them jerks. Instead, they get praised for “trying hard,” and the people giving that praise placate themselves with lazy cliches like “startups are hard” and “most startups fail.”

Are you using your turn signals?

Although entrepreneurs and investors will name dozens of reasons why most startups fail, they only really fail for the same reason accidents happen when people don’t use turn signals: poor communication.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the five most common reasons startups fail according to CB Insights:

1) No Market Need – Companies that failed because they weren’t good at communicating how their product solves a market inefficiency.

2) Ran Out Of Cash – Companies that couldn’t communicate their value proposition in a way that convinced customers or investors to give them money.

3) Not The Right Team – The team never figured out how to communicate effectively with each other.

4) Get Outcompeted – Their competition was better at communicating a value proposition that was functionally identical.

5) Pricing/Cost Issue – Companies that were bad at communicating the value of their products, so they couldn’t charge enough to cover their costs.

The linked CB insights article lists 15 other common reasons startups fail. We could go through all of them, plus dozens of others, and see a direct link between the supplied reason for a company’s failure and poor communication. Any other reasons failed founders might give for why their companies shut down are actually just symptoms of poor communication. Trust me, I’ve failed plenty of times, and I’ve had to explain my failures a lot. While I, like most failed founders, prefer to shroud my shortcomings in more noble-sounding descriptions, every reason I give is just a byproduct of poor communication.

Why don’t people use turn signals?

Some people don’t use turn signals because they truly are jerks. However, most people simply forget. They’re so focused on themselves and what they have to accomplish they forget that other people around them aren’t thinking about the same things. When they approach their destinations they’re too busy thinking not just about the turn in front of them, but also everything they have to do once they make that turn: go into the store, buy some bread, buy some fruit, don’t forget the milk this time, etcetera.

The same is true for startup founders. Founders perform so many different jobs that, when speaking about their work with other people, they often forget how much more knowledge they have about their companies than the people with whom they’re talking. This results is poor communication of information.

In essence, a startup founder who neglects to consider the differences in knowledge between herself and the people she’s talking to is no different than the jerk who doesn’t use his turn signal. In that jerk’s mind, he knows exactly when he’s going to turn into a parking lot and what he’s going to do after the turn, and he doesn’t care if the people around him can’t possibly know those things or be prepared to respond appropriately.

If you’re struggling as a startup founder, ask yourself if you’re doing the same thing.


A Pro-Grammar Nerd: Beautiful Code Makes Beautiful Language

A Note from Aaron: I published this post on my old blog when I was in my 20s and thought I knew more than I did. When launching my new site, I could either trash old content like this or port it over. I decided to port it over as a personal archive and reminder of my own evolution. In other words, sorry it sucks.

For my birthday, my RocketBolt cofounder, Matt, sent me a $20.00 Starbucks “eGift” card.1 Take a look at the notification email:

Do you see the error? I noticed it immediately because, in addition to being a developer, I’ve spent six years teaching Freshman Writing, and it’s an error my students constantly make. Let me break out one of my giant red pens in the hopes that, just like my students, both you and Starbucks might learn to hate me appreciate my constructive criticism.

Because Matt Hofstadt is one person, he can’t be the antecedent of a plural pronoun like “they.” The sentence doesn’t make any sense, and the mistake is surely damaging the “high quality” brand Starbucks cultivates in order to sell $5 coffee. If Starbucks is lucky, one of its employees is reading this blog post and correcting the problem right now. If not, I can’t help but worry that poor use of the English language is causing Starbucks to alienate the pretentious-douchebag-grammar-nerd demographic.2

Speaking of pretentious-douchebag-grammar-nerds, allow me to explain the evolution of the “I’m going to refer to a singular noun with a plural pronoun” linguistic phenomenon. It’s a product of increased gender equality. People used to generically refer to everyone as males, but you guys probably already knew that, right? As women (rightfully) began to take offense to always being referred to as dudes, a writer could either refer to gender-neutral, singular nouns with a clunky “he/she” type of construction, or he/she could opt for a less-awkward-to-write but absolutely wrong “they” or “them” pronoun. If you’re wondering what option writers tend to prefer – even though it makes no sense – scroll back up to that image of a Starbucks email.

Despite what this post might imply, I’m actually not the kind of guy who believes writers should unquestionably adhere to every grammar rule. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, strict adherence to grammatical rules simply for the sake of following rules is the sort of English up with which I will not put.

I don’t care if you end a sentence with a preposition. I don’t care if you put periods inside or outside your quotation marks. And I certainly don’t care if you start a sentence with a conjunction. However, even in a digital world where text without professional editing is globally accessible and likely to have errors — including this post — I don’t think I’m being unreasonable by suggesting we maintain the grammar practices that computers actually make easier.

Luckily, we still have time to fix a grammar problem, and the programmers of the world can help. By using programmatic logic when we code dynamically generated text, we can determine which gender a noun is referring to and then fill in the pronoun accordingly. It goes something like this:

[if $person == female :  return she ; else : return he ;]

In a case like the generic email I got from Starbucks where the gender of the purchaser is likely unknown, the solution is even easier. Try this little programmatic trick:

[$first_name] [$last_name] wanted to make your day so [$first_name] sent you a $20.00 USD Starbucks Card eGift to spend on your favorite beverage.

Wasn’t that easy? And yet, every day I witness discussions about the importance of beautiful, efficient, semantic code that never mentions outputting proper sentence structures. Why is it OK to harp on things like “semantic css classes” but it’s not important for dynamically generated text to use proper grammar? Let’s not forget that the end result of beautiful code is more than functionality and design. The code we write often dynamically outputs the words our users read, which means no matter how much you hated your Freshman Writing instructor, he or she probably taught you a lesson that could improve the quality of your code.


This post made the front page of Hacker News because people apparently have some very strong (and in some cases) strange notions about both grammar and morality. Anyhow, I should do what I always tell my students. If the structure of the sentence causes so much controversy that it distracts from the meaning, change the sentence. Allow me to offer an alternative that solves everything:

Matt Hofstadt wanted to make your day by sending you a $20.00 USD Starbucks Card eGift to spend on your favorite beverage.

Wasn’t that even easier?

Intellectual Property Lawsuits — What Would Bill Shakespeare Do?

A Note from Aaron: I published this post on my old blog when I was in my 20s and thought I knew more than I did. When launching my new site, I could either trash old content like this or port it over. I decided to port it over as a personal archive and reminder of my own evolution. In other words, sorry it sucks.

We all know the story: Two young lovers meet. But there’s a problem: They’re from feuding families. Despite the animosity between their families, the lovers get married. But before they have a chance to enjoy their happily ever after, one of the girl’s relatives kills the boy’s best friend, then the boy kills the girl’s relative, the authorities want to punish the boy, he flees, a plan is devised for the couple to be reunited, but something goes tragically wrong and the two lovers end up dead.

Yes, the story I’m referring to is the famous verse poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet published in 1562 by Arthur Brooke.

Wait… that’s, not the story of two star-crossed young lovers you thought I was describing? My bad. You must have thought I was referencing the very similar tale published a little later in the 16th century by that famous man named William — Palace of Pleasure by William Painter.

What? That’s still not the story you thought I was describing? I guess I can’t really blame you. Those other works are a bit obscure, and as 21st century readers, you can’t be expected to know every story published in the 1500’s. Clearly, the story I’m referencing and I expect everyone to at least have heard of is none other than that famous Broadway musical, West Side Story.

Why bring up West Side Story in a blog that explores the impact of the digital age on society? Reason number one: I’m not afraid to admit my appreciation of Broadway musicals in a public forum. Reason number two: West Side Story remains one of the most beloved and respected Broadway musicals of all time despite being an unapologetic copy of arguably the most famous love story ever told.

Isn’t this the 21st century? Where are all the cries of plagiarism? Where are all the intellectual property lawsuits? How can we, in good conscience, let such violations of basic principles of individuality and proprietary ownership go unpunished? What kind of morally reprehensible lessons are we teaching our children?

I’ll tell you what kinds of lessons West Side Story teaches our children. It teaches them the Human Condition is universal. It teaches them feelings of love, feelings of betrayal, feelings of lust, anger, confusion, indecision, idealism, and hope were as important to a 16th century Italian peasant as they are to a 21st century American schoolgirl. It teaches them ideas are not commodities to be defended with courts and lawyers, but instead, ideas best serve the world when they are shared, expanded upon, and recontextualized to inhabit spheres of use in which they otherwise might never have benefited some of those very people they were designed to enlighten.

So tell me, what lessons are we learning from the ever-mounting pile of intellectual property lawsuits for digital technologies? Are we meant to think a touchscreen interface with logo-labeled applications is a technological privilege only to be enjoyed by people able to spend $500 on a phone and an additional $100 every month for service? Should we believe, within a world of exponentially increasing archived information, an algorithm specifically designed to help us better find the information we most need can best serve us so long as it’s only made available by one company? Can we be convinced a regularly updating list of information created by our friends and family is the property of the company helping us create that list?

Maybe that’s exactly what we should believe. Maybe a visionary like Steve jobs invented the best possible example of a smart phone, and while other companies might be able to alter the concept, they can’t improve it. Maybe a company like Google can successfully filter the Internet only by hiding how its filter operates. And maybe the tool that enables content generation should rightfully deserve some claim upon that content. I honestly don’t have a “who’s right” and “who’s wrong” answer for the alarming explosion of technology IP lawsuits.

What I do have, however, is history. Before the European Enlightenment, the concept of plagiarism didn’t have the taboo it carries today. But sometime during those years of philosophical exploration, people began to see their thoughts as valuable property. And property, as we all know, is often followed closely by theft.

Walls began to go up around ideas. The old models of learning through imitation that had so well served folks like Benjamin Franklin, Sir Isaac Newton, Shakespeare, da Vinci, Chaucer, Cicero, Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, began to be replaced with academic models encouraging “unique” ideas. The model also created our modern conception of plagiarism as a despicable act of immorality. As a result, few non-violent crimes are considered more reprehensible than the theft of an idea.

Take a look at those names again: Benjamin Franklin, Sir Isaac Newton, Shakespeare, da Vinci, Chaucer, Cicero, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates. They represent nine of the most significant contributors to Western culture, and every one of them relied on, as Mr. Newton so eloquently phrased it, “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

By the way, Isaac Newton didn’t invent that phrase. It dates back to the writings of a 12th century French Neo-Platonist philosopher named Bernard of Chartres.

I can’t sanctimoniously preach the ideals of the past while knowing full well if I write the next Harry Potter or invent the next Google I’ll have half a dozen patent and trademark applications filed before lunch. But I can wonder if protecting my ideas from others will, in the grand scheme of things, do more harm than good. Just take a look at that list of names again and ask yourself, would you rather a few million dollars worth of licensing fees, or would you rather see your name alongside Franklin, Newton, Shakespeare, and Socrates?

I suppose the answer to that question is different for everyone, and I don’t know yours. Heck, I don’t even know mine. The only thing I do know is if my dad ever becomes a king, I need to keep an eye on my uncle because there’s a good chance he’ll try killing my dad to steal his wife and take his throne, leaving me to act like a brooding prince seeking revenge with help from my two best friends . And the only reason I know that is because I saw it in the Lion King.

Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Keyboard

A Note from Aaron: I published this post on my old blog when I was in my 20s and thought I knew more than I did. When launching my new site, I could either trash old content like this or port it over. I decided to port it over as a personal archive and reminder of my own evolution. In other words, sorry it sucks.

Before my students begin writing their papers, I try to remind them of the importance of establishing their ethos. I also spend an entire class period discussing what the heck ethos is, but since I don’t have that luxury here, I’ll summarize by explaining that ethos is the reason your audience should care about what you’re saying. It’s why when Mitt Romney speaks, people listen (whether or not they agree), but when Sarah Palin speaks, everyone chuckles and thinks she’s backwoodsy-adorable. Romney has the ethos of being credible, intelligent, learned, and successful, Palin has the ethos of being… well… backwoodsy-adorable. (For the record, I’m using the Romney/Palin example not because I agree or disagree with either of their political ideals — that’s partially why I chose two politicians from the same party — but because, deserved or not, the mainstream media has assigned them very distinct brands.)

Why bring up ethos? Because I’m about to break the number one rule I tell my students: you should never have to explain your ethos; let your argument establish your ethos for you.

Now I’m going to ignore my own rule (and hope none of my students are reading). You should care about what I’m going to explain because before I retreated to the Isengard-like-safety of the Ivory Tower, I was a copywriter at a small Internet marketing company. I realize this professional claim is, to most readers, extremely dull and nowhere near as ominous as I’d like it to be. But to the few folks who read my former job title and thought “I’m not sure I like where this is going,” you’re damn right — that’s exactly where I’m going. As for the rest of you, I’m about to pull back a tiny sliver of the Internet’s proverbial curtain. If you don’t want to learn how the magic happens, stop reading now. Look at some adorable puppies instead.

In my seven years since graduating from undergrad, here’s a brief glimpse at the many, many, many expertises (my ethoses) I’ve shared with the World (Wide Web):

  1. Fitness Guru: I’m not necessarily fat, but the only successful diet I’ve ever created I lovingly referred to as “The Pizza Diet.” To be fair, eating one pizza a day and nothing else did help me lose 20 pounds; still, I hardly think it qualified me to be the lead blogger for a fitness website with thousands of users.
  2. Blushing Bride-to-be: You may laugh, but wedding blogs are big business. So when a client needed a wedding blogger, guess who wrote it. Oh-by-the-way… I’m a dude.
  3. Stock Analyst: Want to know an industry where you absolutely shouldn’t believe anything you read? Penny stocks. In this case, it’s not just because guys like me can do the writing. In fact, you’d be lucky to read something I wrote because I actually cared enough to make sure everything I produced was triple-checked by former SEC attorneys to avoid the potential for legal “actionability.” How many attorneys do you think are verifying “next hot penny stock” newsletters being written in Cyprus? Or India? Or Pakistan?
  4. Philanthropist: I’m actually proud of this one. I run a charity… we try to do good in the world. But still, writing copy for a charity is a far cry from the next example.
  5. Serial Dating Website User: If weddings are big business on the Internet, dating is HUGE business. Plenty of companies are trying to capitalize on all the online-dating traffic, and SEO-rich blogs are a key component. Someone has to create those blogs; can you guess who’s been one of those “someones”? Fun fact: I’ve never used a dating website and I’m married. Am I the guy you want giving you your online dating advice?
  6. Mommy Blogger: This time last year, mommy blogs were the new industry darling. As I posted about taking my kids to soccer practice and defeating diaper rash, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other mommy bloggers didn’t actually have children. Plus, like I wrote before… I’m a dude.

Those are some of the bigger projects I’ve contributed to, and while I could certainly list more, you hopefully get the picture. Also mixed in were things like nutritionist, extreme couponer, ticket broker, and, one of my personal favorites, neighborhood blogger (in six different cities around the country, none of which I’d ever lived in).

The point is, the Internet is big business. When there’s billions of dollars at stake, the only thing you can be sure of is that companies will do whatever they can to legally (and sometimes not-so-legally) get you to click a link, watch an ad, or, the holy grail of all web marketing, capture your credit card information.

To be fair, capturing your credit card information isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Online marketers aren’t outright thieves (most of them, anyway) and the last thing any successful online marketer wants to do is get a credit card chargeback. Too many chargebacks means losing the ability to process credit cards, and losing the ability to process credit cards means they can’t make money. However, it’s their goal (and it was my job) to convince consumers to take certain actions based on a website’s content. Who created the content didn’t matter so long as the readers felt like the content was genuine.

I realize for many readers my revelations won’t come as a shock. For the record, I actually hope they don’t. But there’s a difference between not being shocked by things (e.g. the media is biased, high fructose corn syrup is bad for you, the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire), and having to be reminded to be aware of such things as you engage with them. The Internet is flooded by millions of websites and the barrier for entry to creating a website is incredibly low. I have no idea how to tell whether a website not belonging to one of the 500-or-so universally recognized name brands is actually a valuable resource, and I’m not sure anyone else does, either. Sure, you can argue “that’s what search engines are for.” But I’ll argue back, “I used to get paid good money because I was great at tricking search engines.” In other words, trust search engines at your own risk.

Still not convinced? Consider my current ethos. I’m claiming to have a PhD in English literature who also happens to be an entrepreneur and have an extensive background in web development and Internet marketing, plus… I’m a dude. Regardless of whether or not that persona is true, you have to admit, it’s certainly not the same as being a mommy blogger. Unless I’m Chaz Bono, I physically can’t be both. Maybe I’m neither. The point is, you’ve never met me, so how do you know which, if either, is true?

Perhaps just as importantly, does it matter?