Are you the Next Twinkie? Creative Destruction for Writers

We are entering a period where the slow, the inflexible and the bureaucratic, will find themselves extinct in record numbers, according to Chris Zook in his Harvard Business Review blog.

Zook asks if it is just another example of Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction; an expected and profitable culling of businesses, enterprises—and people—that can’t keep pace.

Are we all that close to going the way of the Twinkie?

Image of a Package of Hostess Twinkies

It’s a little frightening to contemplate. Especially when it seems like your seasoning as a professional writer might be more comfortable camping out on the cozy little cottage side of the lake than the pull up the stakes and move out this afternoon, rustic tent sites.

It’s no secret that technology has dramatically changed the way people communicate, so when creative destruction talk surfaces, it is easy to assume that’s what it’s about.

Sometimes I feel like Drew Barrymore’s character in “He’s just not into you” who, while trying to decipher the success of a recent date, complained so heartrendingly: “And now you have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies. It’s exhausting!”

Image of cell phone text with computer screen of facebook, twitter and Linkedin open

Zook says that probably isn’t what is holding you back.

He believes organizations aren’t innovative due to slow cycles of decision and adaptation. In other words, it may not be a keeping up with technology thing so much as the general ability to adapt to rapid changes at all.

Nothing gums up moving forward more quickly than a bunch of unproductive complexity whether it’s in processes or decision-making.

Put simply, leaders need to find ways to focus and simplify their organizations.

What does this mean for communicators?

Focus your content.

Look for three or four things you can clearly articulate that your organization has that others don’t. Apple’s comeback in the late 90s began with the simplification of their product line down to just four products.

That’s no accident, Zook points out.

Apple’s comeback also was about a renewed focus on the user experience. They made industrial design a strategic tool and a marketing point, not only for the computer industry but also for everything! They modeled success by only making a few things, but making them really, really well.

Apply that lesson to your messages. Before you start worrying about how many tactics you can take on or which ones you should creatively destroy, make sure you’ve got messages that people want and can easily grasp.

Stress your organization’s strengths: the niches where you do things better than your competition.

And don’t try to push too many messages at once. Concentrate on the pillars of your brand.

There’s nothing slow, unresponsive or out of date about that.

Painstaking Craftsmanship

“…always grab the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, sink your thumbs into his windpipe in the second and hold him against the wall until the tag line.”
— Paul O’Neil, former Time Inc. reporter

George P. Hunt, managing editor of Life Magazine, once penned an Editor’s Note about staff writer Paul O’Neil in which he noted that O’Neil “liked to think of himself as, among other things, Attila the Hun”; that “the excellence of Paul’s stories is the result of painstaking craftsmanship, a fine ear for phrase and a lot of experience.” He called the quote above: O’Neil’s Law.

That was in 1964, nearly fifty years ago. But it all has a lot of relevance today.

0789

People with a true passion for writing don’t write things and share them just because they are paid to do so. In 2013 you don’t have to be one of the chosen few writing for Life Magazine to start gaining that “lot of experience.”

But with so much content out there, readers have become overwhelmed…and more discerning.

While writers can publish more easily now than ever before, that also means you compete with CNN, youtube, your kid’s math teacher, illogical ranting political hacks, amateur movie reviewers, a guy who doesn’t like the toaster he bought last month, and someone with 9537 Facebook friends. Good writers have an incentive and an imperative to produce stuff not that grabs the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, but in fact does so in 140 characters or less.

As everyone, everywhere increasingly fights for our attention richer more relevant content is trumping quantity. The rush to chuck trash into the cavernous Web simply to fill it up as quickly as possible is over.

Quality is now much, much more important than quantity. And that’s precisely where painstaking craftsmanship comes in to play.

What does this mean for you?

Focus on quality—not quantity. Aim to create and produce only top-shelf content. Spend more time on less volume.

Pretend your writing will determine whether or not you get the career opportunity of a lifetime; that President Obama will see your next blog; that you’ll wake up to 12 million hits; that your worst elementary school nemesis, the one who snaked your prized Nike sneakers over a telephone line, will read your next published article and finally will be sorry. Whatever it takes to bring out the painstaking craftsman in you.

Work on developing that fine ear for phrase.

I’m no Paul O’Neil but I do know this. The best writers are the ones who can tell a good story. They know how to find the right details to make it human and interesting. And they know their way around a metaphor or two.

Developing that kind of skill takes practice; practice that will greatly increase your chances of grabbing the reader by the throat.

2013’s Buzz Words Every Writer Should Know

The fact that there are always new words is among the many things I love about American English. Any noun is fair game to become verb. We allow popular use to change grammar rules. We adopt words and phrases from every other language on the planet.

Spoiler alert: the downside of all this freedom trending now is that this is the time of year when English word-watchers everywhere list their pet peeves in word use. While some of them get a bit self-righteous, the lists are generally good reminders of words to avoid.


Misused, Overused or Generally Useless

Lake Superior State University recently published its 38th annual List of Words to be Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness, based on nominations submitted from the United States, Canada and beyond.

Among the dirty dozen that made this year’s list is “trending” of which Kyle Melton of White Lake, Michigan said “A trend is something temporary, thank goodness; however, it is not a verb, and I’m tired of news stations telling me what trite ‘news’ is ‘trending.’”

20475592_BG1

Melton has a point in terms of overuse, but his assertion that a trend is not a verb is so ten seconds ago. (Please feel free to submit “so ten seconds ago” for next year. I already checked and it’s not on the list yet.)


Buzz Kills

Yesterday Ragan.com posted “10 Industry Buzz Words That Need to Die.” Mobile topped the list.

And a few weeks ago, British PR agency Twelve Thirty Eight released Buzz Word Report: January 2013, an annual review of the PR jargon and practices that inflame journalists, as determined by surveying British journalists.

buzzwords

Among the words that presumably cause British journalists to suffer near internal combustion is ‘iconic’. Admittedly, when applied to everything from Kate Middleton’s hair to Colleen Rooney’s platforms as they suggest, I can concur with their recommendation: “Please can we allow this word the respect and privacy it deserves at this special time so that it can recover its true meaning?”

And it sheds a great deal more understanding on the puzzling cynicism by some British partners of my university who insisted that I refrain from using the word iconic in talking points for the opening of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum.

broad-art-museum-e1326995218322

Take a look at the museum (and where it is) and tell me that architecture doesn’t recover the true meaning of the word iconic.


For the early 70s retro chic amongst us

Despite my iconic experience, I think I like Twelve Thirty Eight. Their website claims: You’ll never hear us say “awesome”, “circle back”, “ping me”, “super-exciting” or “reach out”. We’ll never start a sentence with “So,….”. We don’t have a boardroom filled with double beds, a pool table, a company bar, a pinball machine, a vintage caravan parked in the middle of the office, fake grass on the floor, pet monkeys, sponsored dogs or an organic goats milk decaf latte maker. Our holiday plans are unlikely to leave you feeling inadequate.”

They say their average age is 41 (which they call “early seventies retro chic”) and that most of their ideas “end up in the bin.”

And I really liked their advice that writers should try to write in English. Specifically, that we should read back what we are sending out to see if we could imagine a real person ever saying it out load.

They illustrated it with one random example of a chief executive’s quote:

We are entering a new global paradigm in business whereby operatives are no longer satisfied with having a physical office in which all deals must take place. Enterprise is expanding beyond the four walls of the company headquarters and businesses therefore need tools that facilitate a much more mobile and fluid sales team. As we infiltrate new markets around the world, we expect to roll out our offering on a wider scale and enable businesses to benefit from our market leading product.”

Buzz word-laden jargon like that makes using iconic a relatively petty concern.

One million strong, Gangnam Style

According to Oxford Dictionary online English most likely has more words than any comparable language.

The impossibility of determining the exact number of words in English didn’t stop Global Language Monitor from publishing their 13th annual estimate (1,019,729.6 as of January 1, 2013). GLM also declared ‘Gangnam Style’ as the top phrase of the year and noted that ‘Frankenstorm,’ Superstorm Sandy’s colloquial name, “went from a meteorologist’s lips to a globally recognized neologism within a few hours.”

frankenstorm-huriicane-sardy-noaa

I don’t particularly like Frankenstorm. But the fact that one person could create a globally recognized neologism in a couple hours is kind of amazing.

There will always be curmudgeons ranting about the overuse of phrases, the use of meaningless words and the like. If you take a look at the lists, you’ll be sad to notice some you’ve used, but, now properly shamed, probably won’t use again.

It’s a good idea to consult these lists.

But, I also will take a moment to appreciate a language that puts at my disposal more than one million words, and counting. Not to mention that it offers the possibility that any one of us could create a globally recognized neologism of our own. But hopefully, a better one than Frankenstorm.

Who’s Afraid of a Little Evaluation?

If producing spot-on, graphically appealing, dynamic messages is the cherry on top of every professional communicator’s list of things they love to do, measuring results is the pit inside it.

But as Yogi Berra once said:

You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”

maze-palace-williamsburg-5

If you want to claim you are a strategic communicator—and what communicator doesn’t—showing a relationship between your efforts and your organization’s success is essential. Once upon a time, communicators might have gotten away with saying their goal was to produce XYZ communication on time and under budget. But this implies that the purpose of communication is simply to exist. And it’s not.

The purpose of your efforts is to affect your organization’s mission—whether it’s selling more widgets, gaining more members or curing cancer.

When you start to look at measuring what matters, process indicators can help you learn how internally efficient you are, activity indicators can tell you how much communicating of what types of messages you did and relationship indicators can tell you something about the ongoing level of engagement you have with key audiences.

But the real sticking point lies with results indicators. This is where you hope to show that your communication efforts helped your organization to achieve its goals and objectives.

For most communicators, especially those of us in nonprofit organizations, establishing a direct link between your communication products and the organization’s achievements is messy if not impossible. You can point to easily attainable social media metrics like Klout scores. But you don’t want to just measure what you can measure. For example, tracking lots of website hits is a great way to assess whether people came to your pages, but it doesn’t tell you if their visits were of any strategic value.

UMagazinology blogger and John Hopkins magazine editor, Dale Keiger, nailed it when he wrote: “This month’s most overworked meaningless statistic: Number of mentions something related to the school received on Twitter. Nothing says you’ve assumed your rightful place in the upper tier of the world’s academies of higher learning like 1,547 retweets.”

To combat this, you can go down the road of surveys, personal interviews and focus groups. Certainly there are instances when the time and expense for these kinds of evaluation tools can and should be justified. Even then, when it comes to showing cause and effect, communication efforts are more likely to influence attitudes or merely trigger the conditions in which a behavior or action can occur, than to be found directly responsible.

Directional alignment may be your answer.

Caroline Kealey, in her recent Communication World article “Real Value”, suggests that it is enough “to show that your communication efforts have been directionally aligned with other factors that collectively led to the achievement of a corporate goal.” She believes that an alignment of factors can imply a plausible causal connection.

stock_graph_up_green

My department is involved in fundraising. So, a primary goal of all our communication strategies is to boost the number of gifts and givers. But the influence of a myriad of other strategies, from gala events to informal visits to countless hours spent on building one-to-one relationships, play their roles at the same time. According to Kealey, this is nothing to worry about. She believes communicators can make a compelling case that communication has contributed to organizational success with a well-presented set of directional alignment indicators.

In other words, we probably won’t ever be able to say that our communications caused a donor to make a gift, but we can probably make a case for the more we do X (say, communicate how our organization makes a positive impact on the world), the more we see Y kinds of results (say, donors who make inquiries about funding our programs).

But that doesn’t mean all of your measurements must be quantitative. Qualitative efforts such as the tone of an event or of media coverage, can point to communication success too.

As author and social media expert Philip Sheldrake says in another Communication World article “A Measure of Influence” (Yes, the January/February 2013 issue themed around Measuring What Matters was chockfull of great stuff!): “Reputation management does not actually mean managing reputation and brand management does not actually mean managing a brand. They mean actively attending to the business of influencing and being influenced such that the resultant beliefs or opinions held about us and our products are conducive to our achieving organizational objectives.”

Or as Albert Einstein once said:

Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

Sadly, most communicators spend nearly all of their time and energy executing communications. A very small amount of effort goes into planning and of that almost none of the planning is spent on developing performance indicators. I believe this is primarily because we communicators are not particularly drawn to accounting. And traditional evaluation can start to look like a whole lot of bean counting in a hurry.

But, perhaps it doesn’t need to be so complicated, or onerous. Look at your organization’s mission and set a few simple result indicators to help you learn whether you helped it move the needle.

Evaluation does matter. Done right, it guides our efforts, helps us justify our results and gives us a place to start for the next trip.

What’s your opinion? Do you think directional alignment indicators would be enough for your organization to acknowledge a link between communication efforts and your organization’s accomplishments? Could it be enough to help you define and assess your strategy?

Storytelling Redux

Last week I blogged on the importance of taking the time to gather the details to tell good stories, but not a lot on how to pull it together. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to circle back.

Andy Goodman says before you launch into a story, you first should ask yourself: Who’s the protagonist?

If you think that sounds like a middle school English literature lesson, you are not too far off base.

Not unlike good literature, your audience needs a protagonist—a person to relate to—in order to enter the world of your story. Besides you need a real person to drive the action. By the way, your story needs to have some action too; but more on that later.

Audiences bore easily so mostly you need to stir up emotions. You can have great statistics, facts and figures, but people have to feel something before they will take a serious look at those numbers. As Goodman points out “nobody ever marched on Washington because of a pie chart.”

In his book, Storytelling as Best Practice, Goodman claims the average nonprofit would retell the story of “The Wizard of Oz” something like this:

wizard_of_oz_dorothy

Youth learns importance of community

  • An at-risk youth from a blended family in the farm belt is rendered unconscious during an extreme weather event. When she awakens, she undertakes a long, hazardous journey in which she is aided by several emotionally-challenged individuals, while also being pursued by a vindictive woman. Upon reaching her destination, she realizes her journey was only a dream yet she gained a newfound appreciation for the positive role of family and community in her life.
  • Kept you on the edge of your seat there, didn’t it?

    If you think for one minute that professional writers wouldn’t be that flat, I invite you to check out Monsters University. Apparently intended to promote the next Monsters, Inc. movie, the site also is an embarrassingly accurate parody of the typical website promoting our nation’s institutions of higher learning.

    You will find pages and pages of mediocre—albeit clever—writing but not a single compelling story. The MU “students” are made to contribute tediously nonspecific things like:

    MU was my dream school. I had many fallback schools, but I secretly hoped I’d get to slither the halls of Monsters U. And now, four years later, I still can’t believe it.

    MonstersU

    Contrast that with these student stories on Spelman College’s “Change. Means. Action.” campaign website. The stories are conveyed in video, but writers will get the idea after listening to Octavia Ferguson (middle student in the banner below). She chronicles her life in the foster care system; from not being allowed to do homework at home—getting in trouble for reading a book instead of taking care of her five younger siblings—to a glorious first day at Spelman.

    There is a clear protagonist with a problem to overcome. Remember when your English teacher said there is no drama without conflict? The tension certainly rises as she quietly admits she was more on a path to prison than a journey to any college campus. Predictable stories are boring. Look for the surprises where the story gets interesting.

    Octavia’s victory is almost palpable in the final scene, which in expert storytelling fashion shows instead of tells, as she grabs her suitcase from the trunk of a car and is swept into a welcome brigade of upperclassmen. Talk about an emotional hook! What’s more, the meaning couldn’t be more obvious.

    spelman

    Certainly everything you write cannot be a story but we do need to tell stories somewhere in our publications, websites and social media. I believe you can retrain yourself to be a better storyteller. Your readers will appreciate it, your organization will be strengthened and you might learn something.

    It is worth noting that taking the time to get the story may be only half the battle. Actually publishing it takes bravery: on the part of your subjects, you and your leadership.

    Your subjects have to trust you and be willing to go beyond the canned quotes and corporate boilerplate they are probably all too accustomed to. True stories show people as human, less than perfect.

    You have to be brave enough to pitch it. And sell it.

    And the leadership behind you has to be brave to. They have to be willing to take a few chances. It’s easy to fall back on bland and vague when it means nobody gets in trouble.

    I’m hoping to be a better storyteller. Awareness is key. A desire to be a good storyteller is key. Courage is key.

    The First Wonder of Writing: Storytelling

    I feel I should apologize for the hiatus I’ve taken from this blog. First, I was buried in work and something had to give. Actually a few things had to. But this blog was one of the ones I missed the most.

    The work barrage lifted eventually, but then there was this terrible backlog of things that also needed doing—like laundry, preparing for the holidays, enjoying the half dozen yearend concerts and performances my kids were involved in, and going to the dentist.

    By the time I felt caught up, I had a strong desire to curl up in front of the fire, crochet myself a snuggie and re-watch the first and second seasons of Downton Abbey and/or play mindless word games, for at least a month.

    But now I am refreshed, reenergized and ready to blog like crazy.

    So I decided to kick off with a positive spin. A trade publication I get recently ran a “Seven Deadly Sins of Organizational Writing” series.

    It’s fun to read and helpful but, the negativity got to me. Don’t we business and organization writers ever do anything right? Have we nothing to celebrate?

    And thus came to be this first installment of what I’m calling the Seven Wonders of Writing. To me, there is something pretty inspiring, and yes even wonderful, about the opportunity to tell a story so I’m putting that as he first wonder I’ll write about, because it really is that important.

    Bottom line, you want to be read. You want to write well. And moreover, you’ve got something to communicate. With any luck it is something important and meaningful.

    But it’s a challenge since each and every one of us speaks our own personal language based on our age, stage, wage, gender, race, education, life experiences, id, ego, baggage, filters and favorite breakfast cereal.

    If there’s one thing no one can resist, no matter whether he or she wakes up to fruit loops or oat bran, it is a good story.

    Robert McKee, the award winning Hollywood screenwriter, in Story writes that stories are our most prolific art form. Just consider the daily stream of prose, films, shows, broadcasts, online legends, water cooler anecdotes, office sagas, bedtime children’s tales, barroom bragging, social media gossip, and more that we take in each and every day.

    Why? McKee says we can’t get enough because stories are the most accessible way we have of trying to answer the ever elusive question of how we should lead our lives. In other words, stories give us insight or as McKee writes:

    “(Stories are) but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.”

    In another life, I was a student teacher in high school English. Teens aren’t an easy audience. I learned quickly that the surest, fastest and most effective way to get every one of those adolescent eyes on me was to tell a true, personal story.

    So what gets in the way of telling stories when we write?

    Mainly, it takes time. Too much is written from behind a computer screen. To get a great story, you can’t do all the research and interviewing by Internet and phone. You can convey all the essential information very accurately, but you won’t get the story behind the story, the surprising tales that pop up when people relax and get to know one another.

    A few weeks ago I wrote a piece on a family who made a significant gift to further research on autism. It was great news. A nice story. The family lives in my state but on the far side of it, meaning more than an hour’s drive for me, one way. What’s more, the only time they had to talk to me was late on a Friday.

    I already had a boatload of material. I could have phoned them for a few additional answers and followed-up with email. I’m glad I didn’t do that.

    It wouldn’t have been much of a story. I wouldn’t have heard firsthand about their journey with a grandson with autism. When the grandfather recounted the day he heard his grandson say “Grandpa” for the first time in seven years, the storyteller within me said wow. I’ll never forget it. It’s the kind of detail I know that readers will remember to.

    And It might just help someone sort out the anarchy of existence.

    Yep, story telling can be pretty wonderful.

    Infographics: A scenic overlook for readers

    When you’re cruising down a curvy highway at 75 miles an hour in the middle of a long trip, it’s nice to come upon a place where you can pull over for a break.

    Anyone in marketing is aware of the demands on people’s time. No matter how fun new media can be, it also adds to the relentless onslaught of information everyone is trying to process. As a result, communicating more rapidly through visuals has never been more important.

    If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I work on a print magazine. Within such a conventional vehicle, it is always a struggle to come up with the right combination of text and graphics to communicate our key messages.

    So I always do a “flip test” before putting any publication to bed. Basically I take a final look to see if someone in our target audience didn’t read a single word but simply flipped through and glanced at a few things, would they still get the big picture?

    Because I work with an incredibly talented art director the answer is always yes. Invariably, he’s already done a fabulous job with art directing our photography and creating compelling and visually appealing design. I try to do my part with edgy headlines, captions, subheads, pull-out quotes and so on.

    But it seems like it is time to step up our game to really engage our increasingly information-fatigued readers. To go beyond the flip test and actually get more of them delving in, really understanding and becoming advocates for our institution.

    Recently, that led me to infographics.


    What is an infographic?

    The best way to explain an infographic is with an infographic.

    This is an infographic on infographics from visual.ly which states: “Using Lego blocks and photography we wanted to show that a good infographic is simple and requires very little text.”

     

    What is an infographic?


    Is this just a trend?

    Major publications have featured infographics for decades at least in the forms of pie charts, bell curves, Venn diagrams, bar graphs and the like, as well as in-depth, complex illustration to communicate information that would be unwieldy in text form.

    In fact, the concept is anything but new. You could argue that the earliest humans invented infographics when they drew on cave walls.

    But infographics have been repurposed in a social media context as profound, creative and absolutely fascinating ways to visualize data.


    Where does writing fit in?

    While infographics clearly put graphic designers and artists in the lead, the need for good writing and editing will still be an important component.

    Marketingprofs.com offers this advice on infographics:

    “Edit, edit, edit. Your infographic tells a story, and like any story it benefits from a careful editing process. The end result should be a clear narrative that flows logically from beginning to end.”

    So if you were starting to think this infographic stuff has little to do with writers and editors, think again!

    Any successful marketing communications should follow a simple three-step process: entertain first, engage second and educate (or sell) last. Done right, infographics can do all of that, becoming a universal language for telling a story with one look.

    But that doesn’t mean that clarifying the purpose, researching the content and operationalizing the concept won’t require a good writer/editor.

    I liked this infographic on renewable energy by Carrington College which illustrates using a lot more text, but still in a fun, colorful way. Just like the visual.ly one above, they provide the code to make it easy to share/embed their infographic on your own site (And, that’s a good tip for encouraging your constituents to share too.)

    Renewable Energy - Infographic

    [Via: Carrington College's Renewable Energy Degree Program]


    Need more convincing to give infographics a try?

    The status quo approach can be a difficult life preserver to sacrifice when one is afloat in a vast, cold ocean, unsure of a new tactic.

    Consider that according to Customer Magnetism an internet marketing agency, high quality infographics are 30 times more likely to be read than text articles. Social media experts will tell you that infographics in websites are way more likely to be shared than text. The growing popularity of visual content platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram pretty much confirms that people crave eye candy.

    While I know better than to concur with the seemingly popular notion that no one reads anything anymore, I’d have to put on a pair of coke-bottle-thick, rose-colored glasses to believe that people will read everything we put out.


    Where to start

    Lest you think as a mere writer that you’d have to employ a new graphics team to use infographics, there’s plenty of inspiration on the web as well as plenty of tools for creating your own infographics.

    Marketingprofs.com suggests the following for your toolkit:

    Many Eyesbuilds infographics based on your data, or on public datasets.

    HoHli produces charts with the flexibility to customize their look and feel.

    Wordle word cloud generator. You can see an example from yours truly on the about page of this very blog.

    The web is also a great place to find tips on creating the best infographics.

    But before you go there, you should begin the process with a rough outline of what you want to present. Infographics should answer questions, provide compelling data, or demystify a process. And while an infographic can poke fun, the content must be researched and fact-checked. Not to mention, that you need to know your goal–which should not be simply to produce something cool.

    So, that’s what I’ve learned about infographics. My next step is to gain more experience. Let me know what you’ve tried and especially any inspiring examples you create or come upon.

    I’ll report back on my progress in a future blog.

    I don’t know about you, but giving my audiences and me a chance to pull over to enjoy a scenic overlook sounds pretty good right about now.