Category Archives: business

How to write badly (6): Creating a terrible case study

Back in June 2012, I started an informal series of blog posts about the skill of writing badly. Given all the effort so many writers invest in ensuring a dismal outcome, it is unfortunate that there is only very little helpful guidance available to them. Most of the resources available single-mindedly and with a degree of thoughtlessness focus on making writing better. Two comments: They work as well as the bumper stickers that advocate for “Free Tibet” or other good causes. Also, very few people want that. Evidence shows that far more writers have an interest in truly awful results and would benefit from practical support in achieving them, especially in the fields of corporate and technology writing.

Take the time to prepare and don't shy away from using all your bad ideas on one project. There will be more where they came from.

Take the time to prepare and don’t shy away from using all your bad ideas on one project. There will be more where they came from.

It might be helpful to treat some typical output formats more thoroughly. Consider the business case study (as opposed to the medically flavored alternate, which has its own opportunities for badness). Go ahead and skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re familiar with the darn things. Companies spend many millions to produce case studies. Most often they are the result of a writer’s intuitive misapplication, although there is also a burgeoning video channel for them. For the most part, a case study is intended to impress upon readers that real customers use a company’s products or services to their advantage. Project managers and writers work hard to identify and interview willing customers, shepherd them through an interview, obtain approval for the drafts, publish them online, print them on paper if their budgets are too large, and try to keep them alive before they become obsolete. Case study writers often obsess over representing the authentic voice of the customer and truthfully portraying how a service or product helps a company achieve something worthwhile.

As regards infernal writing, the case study industry is generally in fine shape. Many of the stories companies publish—usually expensive and requiring lots of effort—are terrible. They sound alike and canned, are not convincing, show redundant repetitiveness, and insult readers by patronizing them. Many writers, however, are not aware of the many worst practices available to them, which needlessly restricts their effectiveness. Here are some tips and tricks you might want to try.

Misdirection. Many writers send their respondents a list of questions or even a full-fledged questionnaire to prepare for the interview. To make sure the interview does not become overly productive, let them have the questions beforehand. But don’t mention them in the conversation. Ask your respondents about other topics and hope they did not prepare for them.

Stuffing. Boring the reader to tears gets you well on the way to abysmal awfulness. Good for you that case studies offer lots of opportunities to do just that. Many case study writers already know that blatantly bland statements about industries and markets are very effective. “Like many businesses in its industry, XYZ Company found it needed to grow through change in order not to lose customers and market share.” You can get much worse by discussing the people you interview and quote. Nobody cares where they went to school, which degrees they have, what organizations they belong to, how old they are, what they wear, where they worked before, and whether they like Zinfandel better than Zappa. As the born bad storyteller you are, you can make use of all that padding. If you’re really clever, you sneak it under a section heading that promises more relevant content, and readers won’t even know what happened to them as they pass out.

Aggressive foreshadowing. In an early part of the story, you talk about issues and challenges the company faced. Later, you repeat the same content, but now you modify the statements to say that they achieved or resolved these things with your client’s product or service. If you stay as close as you can to the original description, nobody will believe a word, because they know you’re tailoring your facts. Perfect!

Uninteresting and unhelpful quotes. When you quote people, try not to make them sound too real or specific, because that would add credibility and interest to the case study. You can go over the top in at least a couple of ways, by including overly enthusiastic as well as negatively trending statements.

Too positive assertions are annoying to read, make company and customer look silly, and prompt readers to groan. So use them. Some customers have natural talent for this. All you have to do is make their words sound a little more pretentious. If, “The new accounting software helps us avoid errors and stops us from losing money, which means we won’t go bankrupt,” is too mild, tart it up: “At the end of the day, our magnificent new accounting solution enables the company’s strategic viability for the long term by facilitating comprehensive error prevention and eliminating the dramatic losses we experienced in the past. People simply love working with this product.”

If you feel like adding a dash of sobriety to such excessive enthusing, you get bonus points for having quoted parties insinuate that the product or service wasn’t all that. “We believe the product helped us become more effective in our customer outreach, although we were not able to measure any results,” is not bad. Something like, “We gave the service a try and it delivered well for a while, but then our needs changed and we dropped it,” also has its attractions. If you are more of a risk-taker, try to incorporate some outright negativity. “The cost of the software was quite high, and some people never got the hang of it, but it gave us much of what we looked for.” Or: “The asset maintenance service was often prompt, but we still had a few unexpected breakdowns.”

Badmouthing competitors. Few things ruin a company’s and its customer’s standing and credibility faster than a complete misstatement regarding a competing offering. If the customer discusses a leading financial software product and you can get away with a quote to the tune of, “We considered [name of competitor product, but found it couldn’t do many of the complex calculations we need,” that’s golden.

Frivolous descriptions. If you want to beef up the word count and make the story a little less interesting, you can always describe random details of the product or service the customer used. It helps make things worse if they are not in any obvious relationship to the customer’s issues or achievements. If a software or hardware product was deployed, you can create some additional confusion around the process, how long it took, and how well users took to the new tools.

Horrendous results. Some good customers spend their budget on an expensive product or service and cannot point out that anything meaningful has changed. These case studies practically write themselves. However, most companies accomplish something or other. You may need to get creative here, because this might be the most interesting and convincing part of your story. What works well to achieve a bad outcome is if you can highlight minor achievements, such as small savings of time or money. “We save a couple of hours every quarter using this product,” will do nicely, for example. Also, try to direct attention toward irritating, irrelevant aspects of the story. “The outsource IT service employees wear elegant, branded shirts, which helps identify them to employees, and they have created mostly positive relationships with our people,” is reasonably bad. If you cannot get around pointing out significant improvements, you should try to temper them. “We achieved 100% return on investment in six months, although not everybody agrees with that—some people always resist change,” shows the right touch. “We found many new efficiencies in our processes, although many of those were well underway before we got [product]”: nice job. If the customer did not need certain employees anymore because of the fabulous new efficiencies, don’t worry about “reassigning resources” or the like. The case study will be much worse if you simply say people were fired.

If you follow all or most of these simple worst practices, your customer success stories will always be bad enough to infuriate readers. Promise!

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Filed under bad writing, business, communications, content marketing, customer evidence, marketing, story telling, writing

The executive profile: Get past the clean shirt to what’s really interesting

A while ago, I posted a few entries to help you write badly—many people try very hard to accomplish this, but good instruction is not easy to come by. At the time, I completely forgot about an area where bad-writing skills come in very handy: The leadership profiles on many companies’ about-us pages. Many businesses miss a fine story-telling opportunity here.

What do we usually learn in visiting these pages? Executives always wear clean clothes and many of them know how to knot a tie. In some companies, the same shirt and jacket actually seem to follow everybody around to their photo sessions. shirt and tieExecutives understand how to let a smile appear but not let it go too far. They generally have some sort of education. With rare exceptions, they worked in a variety of jobs and accomplished things—founded, led, bought, and sold companies; developed new ideas, products, and services; served customers and headed teams. For the most part, these people sound very much alike, and maybe that’s what writers and website managers hope: They try to follow a covert standard for respectability and cautious neutrality, as if most of the execs were planning to run for pope soon. Much of the language in executive profiles is dry and pale, and makes executives sound unapproachable and not very interesting. They add value, make a difference, pursue innovation, listen to customers, thrive on teamwork, articulate and pursue strategies, sit on boards—that sort of thing. Companies want to give the impression their leadership is competent and effective, and avoid ruffling anybody’s feathers or making any negative impression.

Unfortunately, interest and credibility fall by the wayside. Too often, we have no idea what these business leaders really care about, what motivates them, and what their goals are. We don’t know which experiences they learned from the most, what inspires them, or what they enjoy about their jobs.

I don’t want to disparage what companies are doing with their leadership portraits. I understand where they are coming from. But what we are left with is an anesthetizing uniformity. If business leaders don’t write and publish books and blogs, give speeches, or are otherwise public figures, they generally remain anonymous.

When I had the opportunity to meet business executives, I found that they are usually much more interesting and engaging than what the company says about them in the online profile. They have convictions, ideas, values, insights. Some of them are funny, others downright charismatic and fascinating. Even from a simple marketing perspective, companies should want their execs to be interesting and at the very least have a profile that syncs with the company value story, if nothing else.

Much of the responsibility lies with the writer or website manager who needs to create and publish the executive portraits. Often, the execs provide you with their own content. I know you may not be in a position to argue with them. But maybe you can tell them that you want to make their profiles as interesting and compelling to read as possible, and for that it would be best if you could interview them for a few minutes. If you get that interview, you need to be really on and establish a good rapport in the first few seconds.

Here are a few recommendations that can help develop lively, interesting executive profiles:

  • Have the brief interview face-to-face if at all possible. If you can’t do that, try for Skype or some other visual communication.
  • In the interview, ask questions that likely stimulate interesting comments. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Some sample questions: What recent insight from a customer surprised you and helped you rethink the way you see the business? Where do you see your industry headed, and where do you wish it would go? When you mentor people in the company, what is the one thing you always try to contribute? When you come to the end of a weekend or vacation, what do you most look forward to about returning to work? Can you talk about your strategies in working through challenging moments in business relationships with colleagues, trading partners, or customers?
  • As you follow up, get at least one nugget of insight or innovative, creative thinking that is unique to this person. You can’t usually get at this directly, and you probably should not try to glean it at the beginning of the conversation. Some ways you can try asking: If there is a piece of advice you wish you would have had at the beginning of your career, what would it be? What do you think most observers and analysts of your industry are missing? Are there any valuable technologies, business strategies, or organizational practices you consider completely and unreasonably underrated? When you talk or work with customers, what is the one thing you hope they take away from a conversation with you?
  • If you can feature your executive in a short video where she shares her vision, by all means do so. If you can’t, an audio segment of the interview may be good to use. If you have no other way to introduce the execs than through written words, be sure to include at least one interesting, well-shaped quote.
  • Executive profiles should align with what one finds elsewhere on the company website about products, services, and the organization. But they should not replicate that content in the same words. It will make them sound shallow and irrelevant.
  • Education and past accomplishments may not have much to do with who the person is today. If you can connect prior achievements to somebody’s current role, that’s great. If not, mention it very briefly or leave it aside.
  • Include some content about the person’s personal life and interests, but be careful not to be overly cute, repetitive, or message-driven. In some companies, everybody apparently loves to cook, travel, and volunteer. Elsewhere, they all spend their free time thinking about customers. Keep it believable, individual, and very brief.
  • Portrait photos should reflect the personality of the people depicted and the culture of the company. Don’t use formal portrait shots unless your industry absolutely appears to demand it. Much better are professional images taken in less disconnected situations such as customer and industry events. But also avoid having the pictures look like they were taken at a party, unless that’s what the company is about.

Get the best source material you can, write the strongest content you can draft, and good luck in getting it reviewed and approved. Your website visitors will appreciate it!

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Saints, heroes, villains (5): Angry always, forgotten quickly

The first thing you noticed about Josef Peuster was that his shiny head was tiny for how tall he was, and he looked to be at least seventy-five. Peuster ran a duplication machine at Bayer Leverkusen, where I worked for a few months after returning from my first trip to Paris. (See previous installment in this series.) My job was to learn how the machine and related processes worked so I could fill in for Peuster when he went on four or five weeks of vacation.

To get to work, I had to get up at about 4am and catch a tram and a bus and another bus to Leverkusen, one of the most polluted, unhealthiest environments in the world. Sometimes, when I went to lunch or ran an errand to a distant building, I took a company bicycle and rode through spectacularly human-hostile areas, where yellow and black, foul-smelling steam spewed from gigantic pipes and made it hard to see and breathe.

Peuster, the duplication machine, and I were in an office with six engineers who were part of the equipment maintenance organization. This work environment was all-male, all-white. Work orders would come in large cardboard folders, often with architectural drawings attached, for some sort of planning. Peuster and I would get copies of the documents and duplicate certain forms that were routed around other departments for signatures and approvals, material requisitions, or other bureaucratic routines. The work was simple—we didn’t even have to think about which forms went with which work order. Check marks on a yellow sheet told us all we needed to know. We picked the right forms, ran them through the duplication machine to copy certain basic information onto them, crammed them into their folder, and put all the folders to rest in our outbox, where a messenger retrieved them.

Peuster’s mission in life was to slow the process down and make work as miserable as possible for everybody. He let folders sit instead of processing requests, telling people inquiring about the slowed flow they were tyrants and slave drivers. On Monday mornings especially, but also at other times, he would insult anybody who came across him. “You need lots of paper because you put out so much shit,” he’d say. Or, “That’s too much paperwork to cover up the fact that you don’t have balls.” And so on. When he felt friendly, he said, “What is this crap, you don’t really need this, do you?” When somebody got impatient or irritated, he would say, “What’s the matter with you… she didn’t let you do it?” He went on long breaks, during which I would catch up. He told me why he hated people—somebody had made a joke at his expense ten years ago, somebody else always seemed to look at him in an unfriendly manner, another colleague was a socialist and active in the union, and so forth. Peuster didn’t like anybody. He tolerated me because his job needed to be done while he was gone. He didn’t mind when, after a couple of days of training, I just did the work and let him sit around for a few weeks until his vacation started. Somebody must have listened to Peuster describe how complicated and demanding the job was, because that lengthy training was not at all necessary. Or maybe they just heeded his request so he wouldn’t be even more of a pain to be around.

He always talked while I worked. Peuster was in his late fifties, but already had severe health problems that he complained about. Once I was familiar with his repertoire, the conversation was entirely predictable. Without any need for me to chime in, he simply spouted all day. “The damn doctor told me to quit smoking,” he said. “That idiot doesn’t know anything, he’s too young. He doesn’t understand what it’s like when your wife won’t let you sleep in the same room because she misses it and you can’t do it. I often have a hard-on in the morning, but it’s just because I have to piss. It’s nothing that works. The damn drugs don’t help, either. I get exhausted when I go upstairs to the bathroom. Damn these glasses, I can’t see anything in this crossword puzzle. Look at those idiots, do they think we’re machines? They’re just stacking up those folders like they expect us to stay until midnight. The hell with it. I’m too sick to work so hard. Another couple of years and I can retire, if I live that long. Look, there’s the chief engineer, pretend you’re busy, or he’ll be on my case, that damn jerk. Sheesh, what a stupid face he has, like a sheep…”

And so on, eight long hours every day. Eventually, Peuster went on vacation. While he was out, I managed to do the work in about four hours every day and spent the rest of the time reading and smoking. I still had to be there for eight hours, because somebody could need forms to be duplicated any time.

When Peuster returned to work, he was worse than before. His face was always red, probably because he was so angry. He would curse people and everything else. He had lost weight and looked unhealthily thin. He fixated on the chief engineer, a much younger man who never got upset with Peuster’s antics. Complaining about this man took up much of Peuster’s day.

The chief engineer’s last name sounded almost like the German word for “cripple.” One afternoon, when the chief engineer’s office was empty, Peuster shouted across the area, “Time to stop pretending you’re doing anything, boys. The damn cripple is gone.”

Except he wasn’t. The chief engineer was behind his desk, looking for something on the lowest rung of a bookshelf. He glanced our way and did not say anything.

Peuster was back at work the day after, but then he was gone. Somebody had persuaded him to take retirement early. Peuster had spent almost twenty years plaguing his colleagues, but his memory and shadow did not linger. Nobody ever mentioned him. I worked for another week or two, and then my time was up and I started taking courses at the university.

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Nutella defends itself in France

A while ago, I took a look at the different flavors of Nutella marketing in different countries. (Disclosure: I eat the stuff. I know it’s not good for me.) Currently, I’m spending a few weeks in Aix-en-Provence in France. Nutella is in the news and finds itself under attack from food and health writers because of its use of palm oil and its somewhat sketchy record as an actual food item. The Ferrero company, which owns the brand, took out a very expensive, two-page ad in Le Monde today (see illustration).

Ferrero, the owner of the Nutella brand, took out a two-page ad in the print issues of Le Monde from Saturday, November 17.

The sign being held on the left says, “Nutella is delicious, but why does it contain palm oil?” The ad copy talks about responsibility and choices, and states that the attacks on Nutella because of its use of palm oil are unfair. It explains why Ferrero uses palm oil—supposedly, because it allows the manufacturer to avoid hydrogenating fats and the possibly resulting trans fats. Palm oil used in Nutella, the copy says, comes from sites in Malaysia and New Guinea, and is meant to be entirely sourced from sustainable production by 2015, after which year no forest will be lost because of it.

Then the ad tells us that, “contrary to received ideas and certain opportunistic communications,” palm oil is not dangerous if eaten as part of a balanced diet. It’s better than butter, the writers mention, which isn’t saying much—many things are better for your health than butter, including (probably) most dirt. And, we can review a little table that compares the nutritional demerits of a Nutella tartlet with comparable products. Nutella comes out a little better.

The problem is that nobody eats just one little bit of Nutella and then does it again in a couple of months. Consumers, and especially their children, really like this product a whole lot. Forget it about a balanced diet. They suck it right up. While they may be factually correct, Ferrero’s statements are disingenuous—I’m sure they understand how consumers consume, just like the tobacco companies probably have a good sense of how and when smokers smoke.

Not to be all down on Nutella and Ferrero, the website they refer you to, mangerbouger.fr, educates people on some of the basics of nutrition and health with sections such as “Why move?” or “What does eating healthily mean?” Some of the recipes are very nice and sound healthy, too. The site is not affiliated with Ferrero or Nutella, but with the French Programme National Nutrition Santé, a government initiative to bring healthful thinking and practices to food and everyday life that’s been around since 2001. But, if you want more from the Nutella folks, there’s nutellaparlonsen.fr, “Let’s talk about Nutella,” which expands on the content of the ad.

Le Monde itself complements or maybe even balances the ad with a short article on page 28 of its weekend magazine (see illustration).

On the same day, Le Monde published this little Nutella-themed article in its weekend magazine. You need to know one key fact from the article to understand the costly two-page ad.

We learn that 105 millions of jars of Nutella are sold in France every year—imagine—and that “France’s youngsters have fallen into Nutella.” France is the world’s biggest market of Nutella consumers, and 75 percent of French households buy the product. The government is thinking to quadruple the tax on the use of, you guessed it, palm oil, which is not considered sustainable or healthy. Writer Jean-Michel Normand jokingly talks about a “Chocolate Party” similar to the American “Tea Party,” and notes the planned tax might be a tad high. But he also mentions that Nutella is a “caloric bomb” and that the label on the jars, somewhat mendaciously, doesn’t list “palm oil,” only “vegetable oil.” And, as he mentions, Ferrero has stated in any case that it will never change the composition of the product.

There you have it—your Nutella news from your French correspondent. If you eat it, do so responsibly, just a little bit today and nothing for the rest of the week. Of course. I knew you didn’t need reminding.

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Aha! From traditional thought leadership to insight delivery

When you hear a subject-matter expert or a company claim thought leadership, what is your reaction? Are you intrigued and curious? Or does this set the expectation that the ideas involved may be interesting, but maybe not at all practical? And that a certain sense of gravity and authority may possibly put you off?

Judging from my own recent experience, talking with business and technical people in a variety of companies, it looks like thought leadership fatigue is setting in. People still get excited about their own thought leadership efforts, but somebody else’s? Hardly ever.

If this is the sort of thing that comes to mind when you think of thought leadership…

However, as a content category, thought leadership is blooming and fertile. People in all kinds of companies offer materials that are meant to reflect their thought leadership. Some company websites include eponymous tabs, where you can read such content. Content makers like me happily produce white papers, presentations, and other pieces that express our clients’ thought leadership. They are often enjoyable to work on, because they go beyond the more mundane and familiar notions and materials one deals with.

Are all these efforts really worth the cost and time? I don’t doubt that issue experts and smart people can share interesting insights that may open the eyes and minds of their readers and listeners. But, unless you’re in a retreat, sheltered from your daily tasks, enjoying some downtime, or procrastinating on what clamors for your attention—who has time to do more with thought leadership content than to give it a quick glance and nod it away?

I suggest we refresh thought leadership with a complementary approach. Let’s call it AhA marketing, because, at its best, it delivers aha moments of insight. How is this different from thought leadership? From the audience’s perspective, AhA marketing is…

  • Practical: You get something you can use in your work, right now. Or something you can tell a colleague, who can apply it. All you need to do is spend a few minutes with the content. Thought leadership, on the other hand, may take a long view into future developments—interesting, but not always relevant, and often hard to substantiate.
  • Surprising: AhA marketing doesn’t waste your time by warming over statements you have already heard. At the time it’s published, it shares new, original ideas of people who know what they’re talking about.
  • Brief: If you have time to read one or two pages or view a couple of minutes of video, you’ll get something out of this. The content goes straight to the point. You don’t need to sift through white papers or presentations that are stuffed with irrelevant or light material, with the most worthwhile nuggets carefully stashed.
  • Collegial: AhA communicators and marketers wear their expertise lightly. The idea or story they share is its own evidence. They don’t attempt to impress you with their credentials or the fact that they did valuable work sometime in the past. At the same time, they don’t patronize you.
  • Considered: It’s revealing today and still meaningful tomorrow. AhA marketing’s approach to issues is so well thought out that you can still get something from it tomorrow and the day after.
  • Fun:The best insights can come from a joke, a fine graphic, or an interaction you observe. AhA marketers have a passion for creating memorable, intriguing vehicles for their ideas.

    …maybe try a different approach and achieve a completely different result.

From the point of view of the content creators, AhA marketing is also quite different from thought leadership. You accomplish more by doing less. With your understanding of the audiences and communications skills, you can let your creativity play. Your focus is on the result—the experience you enable. You can happily leave aside needless expectations and conventions that apply to standard thought leadership marketing. Does that sound like a good time?

Some companies are already making headway with successful AhA communications. Much of it is in various social-media channels and other, more flexible and less conventional vehicles. Some people have a good idea of what they want to accomplish and how to go about it, while others are mostly uncomfortable with the done thing and are looking for a fresh flavor in how they communicate. For the most part, communicators are being cautious—they provide aha moments along with the more tried-and-true white papers and traditional thought leadership pieces. Some practice segmented approaches—AhA marketing in social media, conventional thought leadership on the website and in print.

I’m certain that there are marketing vendors who will offer you the templates, metrics, and consulting hours that will never make up for a lack of good ideas and innovative spirit. Unfortunately, some people won’t stop trying!

In the meantime, if you know of any good examples for insight moment marketing, please share.

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Grinning Idiot at the edge of disaster

Have you seen him? He stands by and watches, often with an eyebrow raised and the hint of a smile, when horrible things happen to other people. I’ve come across him way too many times.

When I went to school in Germany, violence and bullying were pervasive. Until I grew out of it, I was an obese child and mercilessly bullied for it. Grinning Idiot always stood around when people were beaten or otherwise abused. He never said anything, never participated, and never lifted a finger to stop what was going on.

When we students demonstrated against the Vietnam War or marched for other political causes, Grinning Idiot could be right there with us, as if we had dragged him along. Or, he stood on the sidewalk, watching. He didn’t start smiling until the police started arresting people. But then he hung around until it was all over and the vans hauled folks off to the precinct.

Later in life, I was sometimes in workplaces where groups of people were laid off at the same time. Grinning Idiot sat around doing work or screwing off, trying to figure out who would remain. He never showed any empathy for people who were let go and didn’t have any critical or other comments to share. When it was time for lunch, he ate.

Grinning Idiot can hide in a large crowd, finding comfortable anonymity…

I’ve seen Grinning Idiot many times in pictures and news footage. He stands around when the Nazis beat up on Jews, communists, gays, and other trouble-makers, for example. Never takes part unless forced, never helps anybody. Just watches and smiles a little. He seems to love watching people being loaded into railway cars—that’s when he shows up in a crowd, feeling safe because it wasn’t his turn. Of course, for him a crowd to disappear in can be as small as three or four people.

Which reminds me, have you seen photographs of lynchings in the United States? There are the perpetrators, who often stand and laugh proudly next to a dead black man, hanged or beaten to death on the ground. Grinning Idiot is right there, just a little off-center, often looking slightly away from the camera’s eye, with his little smirk.

In groups of friends at dinner, a party, or some other event, Grinning Idiot never provokes a conflict or disagreement, but doesn’t mind when somebody else does. He keeps quiet and watches what other people do. As soon as he has figured out who is on the winning side in an argument, he nudges over there to share that person’s shadow.

Do you know who I’m talking about?

…or in a smaller gathering, like at a lynching. Take a look at people’s faces, if you would.

If you know Grinning Idiot, how do you relate to him? Are you his friend, neighbor, trusted interlocutor? Have you ever been this person?

Sometimes it seems as if much of the world’s trouble would be impossible without Grinning Idiot standing by and letting it happen. He provides the silent chorus of approval for misery. He’s done this for many centuries. Isn’t it time we got rid of him, one by one? Even if he is you or me?

Grinning Idiot is not brave or smart, and often he knows that. He never leads and never starts a song. Sometimes you can shame him, send him packing, or provoke him into taking a stand. Whatever you do, you need to account for him, because in his idiotic way, through sheer inertia and ineptness, he is extremely powerful. Don’t ignore him, or he’ll stand and smirk when calamity comes for you, not the least bit inclined to help. You don’t want to wait that long.

Do you know of any good ways to deal with Grinning Idiot?

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PC: Post-Cleveland, or: Visit Cleveland now, before the crowds catch on

I mentioned a few days ago that Evelyn and I were headed to Cleveland and didn’t quite know what to expect. Ten years ago Cleveland was beautiful and tough to love, with lots of potential.

The news is mostly good. You can’t do a U-turn on Euclid downtown anymore. There’s too much traffic and now a dedicated bus lane with elegantly designed stations goes all the way out to Case Western Reserve, where you find some wonderful museums, a fine university, Severance Hall, marvelous architecture, and a whole district occupied by the ever-expanding Cleveland Clinic, one of the best healthcare facilities in the world. People milled across previously dormant Public Square every time we came through. And those department-store buildings that were boarded up and looking like demolition would come next? They have all been renovated and are full of commercial and residential tenants. One of them, right by the Terminal Tower, houses a casino, which opened a few months ago. I hear the casino plays a key role in bringing people, cash, and investment to downtown. I’m all for it. Maybe in time, there will be some other businesses and venues doing their part, so the downtown area doesn’t become too dependent on the casino.

The old-school Italian deli and grocery store, Gallucci, at Euclid and 66th, boasts a renovated location with picnic tables outside. In the Cleveland area, they’re still one of the best resources for cooks and people who eat. The neighborhood around them used to be a waste land of rusting industrial properties and falling-down warehouses. It’s turning around and becoming interesting again. A Slovenian restaurant not too far away is re-creating itself for different times, with live-music and other events. Cleveland State University is expanding slowly toward the deli; more and more faculty, administrators, and students will find out what value they can get for a small handful of cash.

Looking toward downtown Cleveland from Tremont: Magic even on a rainy Tuesday.

Ohio City, celebrating its centennial this year, sparkles with lovely homes and lots of new businesses. I like that it’s not all about food and drink, although there’s a lot of that, too, especially around the Westside Market, which now rivals the market at San Francisco’s Ferry Building and Seattle’s Pike Place Market for outstanding, local vegetables, fruit, bread, fish, meat, and other edibles, in a spectacular setting. Real-estate prices are still extremely reasonable—do the research with a soft towel around your chin in case your jaw drops. Right next to Ohio City, the Tremont neighborhood is worth your time, too. I found it once again extremely hard to get to—lots of roadwork and misleading detour signs on top of the already difficult access caused by the freeways that effectively make this place an island—but I’m glad I persevered. A while ago, a restaurant called Fat Cats was just about the only nice spot to eat there. Now they have a bunch of others and, just like in Ohio City, many artisans and craftspeople set up shop there. A small farmers’ market offered lots of fresh produce; I hope it gets enough traffic to make it worth the vendors’ while. There are so many catholic, Russian orthodox, Greek orthodox, and other churches there, I find it hard to believe they are all viable as the population changes—will the younger people moving there (very affordably, yes) maintain the traditions? Who will take the place of the older residents from East European communities that are quickly melting away? I hope the lower-income folks who now live in Tremont and Ohio City don’t get gentrified out of their homes and environment—they must be included in whatever creative developments happen over the next few years.

Speaking of, Cleveland could really use some more interesting businesses to add diversity to its commercial portfolio. It should be the perfect location for biomedical entrepreneurs. Or software companies that draw on the talent among local youth who need something worthwhile to do after graduation. How about some Microsoft Dynamics partners who could bring ERP and CRM systems to local businesses and help them be more successful at what they do? Directors and producers, take note—Cleveland is full of fascinating, old-industrial and post-industrial environments and intriguing vistas. The view from Tremont toward downtown, for example—that’s magic.

Sure, a lot of work remains to be done, just like anywhere. There are still huge green fields where properties burned during race riots in the 1960s, but the areas surrounding them are much more livable now than even ten years ago. Huge industrial wastelands on both sides of the Cuyahoga river are fascinating to me because I’m like that, but they aren’t really an asset. One could redevelop some of these areas as parks, with walkways along the river, even, maybe with a few contemporary businesses locating nearby. It’s simply intolerable to have these huge areas that are so hostile to human beings.

Elsewhere, Lake Erie is still mostly cut off from the city by freeways and commercial development. It’s too bad, but will be hard to change. I think it will probably be easier to bring the Cuyahoga back into the city, inch by inch. The Flats aren’t enough, but their areas of influence are growing, especially east of the river. We should remember and appreciate that the businesses and people who took a chance on the Flats were brave and, largely, successful. A food-and-drink place there, Shooters, is 25 years old in 2012. To most people now, it’s nothing all that special, but when they opened back in 1987, they took a huge gamble on a trashed part of town. Nobody could have reasonably predicted that they would pull it off and bring along a handful of follow-on businesses. Still, there are even today large parts of the Flats nobody seems to care for or remember that they own it, which is too bad.

For our few days there, we had a lovely and very inexpensive house, courtesy of Shaker Rentals, in Shaker Heights, and it was interesting to learn about that community and its history. It was nice to see that Shaker Heights, except for a few fat-cat stretches along Shaker Boulevard, is mostly integrated. On one sunny Sunday morning and the rainy Tuesday that followed, we spent a few hours at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which has for years added to its building as well as its already outstanding collections. When the new atrium opens (it’s a bit reminiscent of Foster’s re-built British Museum), there’ll be a huge splash in the media. People will go on about how Cleveland is making a turn for the better and is getting back on the map. But really, it’s been splendid for a long time.

If you’re more traditionally minded, there’s Little Italy, in spite of all the fake-y folklore a real community with strong ties to the old country, and the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the world’s best. Of course, lots of live theatre. And the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. I won’t go on—do a simple search and you’ll find buckets of things to interest you.

Anyway, visit and love Cleveland now, before the tourist crowds catch on and rub their sweaty hands all over the bloom. Autumn and spring are beautiful there. Winter can be harsh, gorgeous in its own way, and summer is hot, but you get spectacular thunder storms to help you cool off and disrupt the languid mood. Enjoy!

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Golden revenue opportunity: Enable vacationers to take time off from digital living

Many of us, when we go on vacation, move our bodies from place to place, but our attention remains as attached as ever to the devices that connect us to our social networks, news, email, and work-related online resources. We become traveling digital ghosts, much like the walking ghosts who are so absorbed by their smartphones that they stroll straight into traffic accidents. Digital ghosts can be everywhere in what we used to call cyberspace, but they are really nowhere in conventional reality. Or at least, they’re not aware of being in the older world. They may have lots of digital fun, but find it hard to relax. Vacation stresses them out, because the risk of being disconnected from digital life is much higher than when one is at work and in high-bandwidth environments. They return fatigued and grouchy, but quickly forget about this when they are once again completely connected and distracted. After years of this, the mind crumbles, the body screams for relief, the family moves on, and the dog goes for a lonely walk.

Help is on the way, however. In the next few years, hotels, resorts, timeshares, and travel agencies will offer a new type of travel. It’s a little like joining a nudist camp, only digitally. Your vacation service provider (VSP) will make it possible for you to take a complete break from your demanding digital life—and nobody will need to know! To your followers and all the world online, you will be as clever and connected as always. Maybe even more so. If your VSP’s digital concierge knows what she’s doing, she will keep up your Twitter stream, Facebook updates, LinkedIn status, photo and video shares, and other online presences with the brilliance you wish you could maintain all the time.

If you want to go a step further, you can park your smartphone, laptop, and other devices with your VSP for baby-sitting while you enjoy time off in the old world. Of course, the VSP will contact you if there’s an emergency, unless you paid her not to do so. If you are miserable in digital withdrawal, you can book a session with the concierge to review your postings and get the highlights of what’s new with your followers and friends. If you lose your job during your vacation and your boss tells you so through email or a Facebook message, you can at your discretion rely on the concierge to keep this news hidden from you until your non-digital off-time is over.

Bed-and-breakfast places will offer their own, homespun and charming versions of disconnected vacationing. Your children will be able to go to special offline summer camps. Once the business and civic leaders in the areas tourists flock to understand how much revenue the spending from VSPs and their out-of-touch guests can generate, they will do what they can to support the business. You can expect entire districts of Rome, Paris, or Barcelona to go non-digital for entire weekends during tourist season to enhance their visitors’ experiences.

Mt. Angel Abbey in Oregon and other monasteries offer you a retreat from your digitally demanding life. But VSPs will catch up with the opportunity soon.

Some of us feel shy to admit our desire for disconnection. Others are already signing off at times. Monasteries are leading the way for VSPs by offering retreats where you can take a break from the digital avalanche of your day-to-day life. The Monastery of Christ in the Desert (which, years ago, thrilled the world with one of the coolest and most beautiful websites ever) will gladly welcome you. So would Mt. Angel Abbey in Oregon. At the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, you can even stay close to an urban environment. The level of tolerance and generosity in these places is very high—you don’t have to be a believer. Other monastic and faith communities are no doubt offering similar opportunities and will increase their capacity soon. They should really patent and copyright their offerings today, before VSPs catch on.

In the beginning, VSPs will be able to charge a premium for taking their guests’ lives offline. If you’re interested, you should get into this line of service right now. Eventually, digital ghosts from all walks of life will be able to disconnect a least for a few days. But don’t worry, some travelers will always pay for valuable services, such as a complete mental download of all the memories of an exciting trip—without having to go anywhere at all. That, too, is coming.

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Qualifying evidence customers: When the love isn’t there

Certain things you never want to hear from people. When a sales manager explained to me, “I’m a numbers guy and judge a lot from the dollar results I see,” I knew I was in for harangue about my poor performance. And when a boss asked me, “How can I help you,” I could see that this was the kiss of death in our relationship.

When you are managing and creating customer evidence, you never want to hear a customer ask, “What’s in it for me?” Sure, you can try to answer the question. If your brand is strong, customers might like to be associated with it. They might enjoy telling their story and seeing it published. Although, if that were the case, they probably would have thought of it themselves. If you hear this question, you are likely talking to the wrong person at a bad time.

I have managed a lot of evidence projects and written many case studies myself, as you can see in my portfolio. If customers don’t feel so enthusiastic about your product or service that they will gladly offer to support a case study, a video, or whatever it is you want to produce, they should not be in your evidence program. More often than not, the projects will fail. They never really get off the ground, stall in reviews, or the customers will have so many change requests that the result is watered-down and worthless. Really, you only want to produce evidence with customers who would never even think to ask, “What’s in it for me?”

Your customers don’t feel like this about you? Don’t even think about evidence. Make them happy first.

I know life isn’t really like that. Too many evidence managers are under pressure from their bosses, the marketing group, or the sales organization to produce a certain number of case studies, videos, podcasts, or what-have-you, often within a short timeframe. They get barely qualified evidence leads from the field or the channel partners. They may not have time to have an in-depth conversation with the customers, who don’t always know what to expect. Then it’s time for the case study writer or video producer to start working, and there is the question you don’t want to hear. Consider the project over. Find a graceful way to let it go without making the customer feel bothered and bewildered.

Companies spend many millions of dollars on producing customer evidence that doesn’t pay off because the results are just not all that interesting, credible, or fun to read and watch. Some enterprises make participation in evidence projects part of the sales contract, but that does not necessarily mean the outcome is any better. It’s just more difficult for the customer to turn down a request.

You really want evidence only from those customers who see so much value in your offerings and the relationship with your company that they will love you for asking them to support an evidence project and can’t wait to meet with your case study writers or video producers. It’s much better to have one or two credible, enjoyable evidence pieces than a dozen that lack strong proof points or sound like PR releases. If you’re an evidence manager, your job satisfaction will go way up. The customers will be even happier than before. And your company saves the exorbitant costs of producing poor evidence.

It’s not a dream, is it? We’ll talk more.

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Let your content include obituaries

I always read the obits. Article-length obits in the Guardian and the New York Times are usually very well-written, although the paid obits in the NYT are usually as pretentious and badly put together as anything you will see in a small-town paper. The Guardian’s other lives obits feature wonderful portraits of notable, relatively unknown people. The Seattle Times generally does a decent job and encourages people to get creative with pictures and stories in paid obits (which thereby become more profitable). When I’m away from home, I always buy local newspapers and magazines and, yes, I’ll read the obits every day. If I wouldn’t have paid attention to the obits, I still wouldn’t know about such incredible people as Patrick Leigh Fermor or Horacio Coppola.

A German “notification of death”

In other countries, the obits tell you a lot about how people feel about death and dying, who they love and what they fear. There’s nothing like the tense emotion, expressed in few well-chosen words, of the “Todesanzeige” (notification of death) in German newspapers. In Italian cities, you see obit posters on billboards and walls, often next to advertising, often with heartfelt messages and beautiful photographs of the deceased.

But when it comes to companies? Nothing, really. You find pictures, bios, and lists of the leadership group, key people, or even the entire team. Sometimes, a notice may commemorate a founder or past CEO who is no longer living. For the most part, nobody seems to die at work, or if they do, it’s a tragedy of which you don’t want to remind anybody. That’s too bad.

If I were apply for a job or wanted to choose a product or service, I would definitely read a company’s obits first. In doing so, I would look to get a sense of how the organization treats and values people. After all—let’s get real—people do die while they have jobs, and it will probably happen more and more. By choice or because of necessity, many of us will still be employed when we die, although probably very few of us will have this happen to them while we’re in the actual workplace—although that, too, is not uncommon.

So, why not publish obituaries along with your other content?

Italian billboard obits

They should be part of the “about” section. Recent obits would stay up for a certain amount of time, say 90 days. After that, they would be in an archive, where one could still access them. As employees get older and are not ready to withdraw from the workplace, you might even bring up the subject with them—maybe they would like to write their own. I know I’d take the opportunity.

What should be included in an employee obit? Here are some suggestions:

  • Basics of the employee’s biography and family
  • Role or roles at the company
  • Special accomplishments and awards, including unique contributions to the company
  • If you can state it authentically, how the person felt about working at the company—what the engagement meant
  • The employee’s unique style in leadership, communications, building relationships, serving clients and customers, designing innovation, and so on
  • How the deceased mentored and supported other employees
  • Quotes from colleagues and customers about this person
  • What the employee was known for—creativity, tenacity, sense of humor, efficiency, warmth, and other qualities
  • A photo portrait from early in the life of the employment relationship, and one from later

If you have a writer develop the story of a deceased employee with respect, elegance, and good taste, and publish it, I promise people will appreciate it—not just the employee’s family and colleagues, but also the customers and business partners you deal with. While death is a taboo subject for many of us, we all know it will happen to everybody without exception, it doesn’t help pretending otherwise, and we actually appreciate some assistance in facing reality. And, not to be crass, there is a business advantage to offering great obits on your site. If you honor your people in a beautiful, written appreciation, you will definitely stand out from the many companies that would never consider doing so. It shows that you are more mature, caring, realistic, and thoughtful than they are. Who knows, maybe even your products and services are more deserving of consideration than theirs.

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