Category Archives: content

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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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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How to hire a good writer

When content is important to you in making the world aware of your products, services, and company, you need to figure out where it comes from. You can syndicate, crib, copy, and cross-link only so much. Sooner or later you will need your own content. That means you have to find a writer. I’m sorry to hear that.

Writers are easy to find, but it can be so hard to gain any certainty that they are a good fit for what you need. Throw a metaphorical blank page in the air and dozens of them will rush to fill it with verbiage. Independent, hungry contract writers beat the pavement, looking for clients like you, claiming to deliver great quality for minimal cost. Talent agencies promise to hook you up with the best in the industry, carefully vetted and background-checked.

And yet. With all this abundance of talent, much published writing is an embarrassment. It’s far too easy to find poorly written web pages, white papers, case studies, blog posts, and more. Most anybody I talk to can share bad experiences with writers who didn’t understand what the client wanted, became upset at feedback, lacked any flexibility in voice, tone, and style, and had the social graces of a hung-over porcupine.

This is probably not what you want in a writer.

I once worked in an agency where writing was the mainstay of everybody’s paycheck. We hired writers from time to time and tried very hard to figure out who the best candidates were. To that end, we developed a writing test. Most candidates went through this step onsite in the office. Some of the tests were simply bad. If that was the case, one thanked the people, wished them well, and hoped they wouldn’t be upset. Other tests were great. With minimal source material and in a short time, some hopeful writers produced a nice page of technical marketing content. Unfortunately, even the best tests were no reliable predictors for performance on the job. Some writers who tested well went to become fabled contributors. In other cases, the test was the last good piece of work one ever saw. At least once, a writer delivered a very fine test piece, got the job, and quickly realized that writing was no longer of interest to him. Another time, a well-testing writer showed up for the first day, and we never saw him again after that. We spent many hours evaluating candidates and their tests, but we were never able to rely on a meaningful outcome.

At another company, portfolios were important. Writers dutifully brought them in or provided the links to them. When these people applied themselves to what we did, the results could be all over the map. Eventually, I understood that a portfolio simply shows a person has done certain work in the past (unless they faked their show pieces, which is pathetic and happens more often than you think). A portfolio, however stuffed with neat samples, has nothing to do with what a writer will do next. In fact, there are lots of people looking for work who simply don’t yet see that it’s time to move on and that for one reason or another, writing is no longer what they can or should do. It’s too bad, but don’t feel obliged to hire them because you feel sorry.

A good writer personality is more like this – engaging, resourceful, committed, and with a sense of humor.

You gather I don’t recommend testing or judging from portfolios. But how can you be reasonably assured that somebody you interview can come through in a writer role? Here are some suggestions.

  • Creativity and innovation. Take a look at what your potential writer does on her blog and website, and on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and in other social media. Does she come up with interesting ideas to make white papers, presentations, case studies, and other workhorses more interesting and valuable? Does she sound like somebody you would like to hear more from? Somebody you might like to collaborate with?
  • Ability to connect audiences and writing technique. Everybody will tell you that they keep audiences in mind when they write. They know it’s expected. But many writers will draft in the same style, using the same voice and tone, almost all the time. Ask your writer candidate to discuss a couple of portfolio pieces and show you how exactly she reflected the interests of different audiences.
  • Engagement. What happens when you disagree with your writer candidate? Does she engage in a civil, professional manner, or does she get upset or withdrawn? You need your writer to be an articulate, pleasant conversationalist even when challenged (or edited), or she will not be able to work with people and accommodate different perspectives. How much does she share in the conversation, and to what extent does she react to your statements and questions?
  • Fun and caring. What does it feel like when your writer candidate talks about her work? What does she like about it? Do you find that believable? Do you get a sense that she enjoys her work, or is it just a passion-free way to pay the bills? Do you get the impression she has the enthusiasm to work with you and your people and write, day in and day out? Does she do any writing of her own, just because she loves it?
  • Subject-matter expertise. This should be easy to ascertain. Presumably, the writer has some level of experience with your industry or the type of products and services you offer. Get her to talk about that. How does she see the industry changing? What are the most challenging problems, the most interesting new developments? Does she pay attention to how other writers and their companies in your industry communicate? Does she volunteer any of this, or do you have to elicit it?
  • Questions. Never, ever pursue work (or anything else) with somebody who does not have questions. Such people are just not there for you. You should avoid them, no matter what else they say or how smart they seem to be.

If you get a good response on all or most of these points, good luck to you and your new writer! I’m sure you can accomplish some valuable, enjoyable work together.

(By the way, if you need a writer, might you require editorial assistance as well? We discussed that a while ago.)

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How to write badly (5): “Let’s make up some bland quotes!”

We carry on with our master class on writing badly, which commenced not too long ago and has intermittently continued since then.

As a bad writer, you may find yourself in a bit of a quandary when you have to quote people. You’re supposed to include the voice of the customer in marketing case studies and press releases. You might need to quote the CEO or other executives and won’t get a chance to talk to them. In the company blog, you have to quote business partners that comment on your products and services. If it’s news you need to perpetrate, readers will expect that you give them an impression of what victims, bystanders, offenders, fans, crooks, and thought leaders are saying. The problem is that people usually don’t speak nearly as horribly as you write. They can be lively and interesting, whereas your inclination is toward the bland and predictable. That means you have to make up properly bad quotes, or you will have to explain the odd quality gap between quotes and other copy. I understand this is work and therefore unwelcome. To make your life a little easier, here are a few standard quotes you can use with minimal adjustments.

People talk. For you as a bad writer, this presents so many opportunities to ascribe lame, warmed-over quotes to them.

When you use these quotes, be careful not to insert too many specific references. Their charm largely depends on vagueness and intimation. Busy readers will appreciate that they can scan over a couple of lines without missing anything. You save time that way, too. But you still need to apply your restrained, unmistakable touch. Have you heard that silly story about the joke club, where people have simplified joke telling by calling out the numbers of known jokes instead? A visitor wonders why anybody still laughs if the jokes are so familiar. “It’s in the way it’s told,” somebody explains. It’s like that with these quotes. With practice, you will be able to slip them into your copy as if they came naturally.

About a technical product or service

  • “[product or service name] is an end-to-end solution for the issues we were facing. I would recommend this to anyone.”
  • “[product or service name] stands out because of the innovation incorporated in it. Its rich feature set makes it extremely valuable.”
  • “I don’t know what I would do without [product or service name].”
  • “[product or service name] is a best-in-class offering that will add value for years to come.”

About a company

  • “[company name] demonstrates true leadership by innovating in its industry.”
  • “[company name] leads the pack of comparable vendors because of its track record.”
  • “We are proud to partner with [company name] in advancing innovation in our industry.”
  • “Risk-taking innovation and thought leadership are in [company name]’s DNA.”
  • “[company name] has practically re-invented [category].”

About a person in a new role

  • “[name] expects to hit the ground running and deliver results rapidly.”
  • “Her leadership experience makes [name] a great fit for this challenging role.”
  • “As a natural communicator, [name] will not have any problems in meeting the expectations of [people in whatever roles].”
  • “Numbers don’t lie. [name] has delivered strong results in her last position and we expect her to do so again.”

About a problem

  • “We welcome the opportunity to address this challenge with confidence.”
  • “Circumstances are never quite fair. But we will address the concerns promptly and get to a satisfactory resolution.”
  • “[problem] has been blown out of proportion. While we don’t expect that [problem] will cause any issues for our customers, we are closely monitoring the situation.”
  • “[problem] came at us out of the blue, but we’re ready to take action. We will face this issue with resolve and resourcefulness.”

About something horrible somebody did or said

  • “A diligent review of all the facts will present a very different course of events. In the meantime, I should refrain from commenting further.”
  • “I always strive to maintain the highest standards of integrity. I apologize if some people have the impression that I may have fallen short in this situation.”
  • “I regret if I offended anybody. That was certainly not what I intended.”
  • “I’m reviewing the situation and will have more detailed comments presently.”

About a murderer

  • “He usually kept to himself, but seemed like a nice guy. We didn’t know him well.”
  • “He seemed like an angry guy and always had arguments with people. We didn’t know him well.”
  • “This clearly shows the need for strengthening gun control.”
  • “This clearly shows the need for empowering more law-abiding citizens to carry guns.”
  • “He gave my wife a strange look the other day.”

About a weather-related or natural-disaster situation

  • “I knew we were in for something terrible.”
  • “This is really too bad. We all feel the same way.”
  • “When we were young, we never had events like this happen.”
  • “We will pull together and get through this just like we did through other situations like it.”
  • “We are getting desperate and very concerned this might get worse. We’ve never seen anything like this.”

You’re welcome! More soon.

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How to write badly (4): Rocking the flow

We continue our summer class on writing badly, which started to minor acclaim quite recently.

Good writers always make a big deal of sequencing their thoughts just so a reader can follow along easily and a paragraph is a sort of organic entity that becomes part of a larger, beautiful whole, like a leaf on a tree. Well, if you’re aspiring to bad writing, it’s always fall for these leaves, and they’re dropping off the trees in an unpredictable manner.

Have you noticed how the truly righteous, when they go on and on about something, leave out the vital connections between their thoughts? That’s part of the quality we’re looking for when we disrupt the logical flow of your writing. You can find many good examples in letters to the editor. It doesn’t matter whether the topic is political, religious, cultural, or food-related—most highly opinionated writers are having a hard time keeping up with the syntax and logic, because they have so much to say, so quickly. They usually feel that smart folks like themselves will understand well enough, because they have a strong message to share.

If you place the equivalent of verbal rocks into your flow of copy, readers will stay with you and only eventually realize how confused they are. You need to exercise restraint in this practice.

The problem with such disrupted writing is that it often goes overboard. You lose the reader altogether instead of seeding gradual confusion. Don’t be heavy-handed—the right touches will knock the flow of the copy sideways and your audience will follow along for paragraph after paragraph. For example, if you change just the right word in the right place, you will ensure reader fascination along with befuddlement. Try a “what’s more” when you are really not continuing a line of thought. If you feel sure of your steps, use a “however” when you are not actually expressing an opposing concept. To soften the impact, you might experiment with “as well, however…” Even the occasional “also” inserted in completely inappropriate locations will advance the obscurity of the copy.

Reader still with you? You can pile it on. Try frivolously switching tenses in the middle of a paragraph. If you use a compound tense, such as the relatively rare past perfect, the flow will slow—I guarantee it! A fine trick is using the future tense for something that is going on right now. A lot of presenters and public speakers love doing this. Most listeners eventually catch on, but initially, yes, this is very confusing and will distract from what you’re actually talking about. It works perfectly well to make written copy more nebulous.

Assuming your readers are tenacious, you can mine your content in a more texturized manner. For example, consider demonstrative pronouns without clear antecedents—such an innocent, every-day practice. But this can work wonders in your bad writing. You can try obfuscating with personal pronouns if you dare, especially if you could refer to more than one person of the same gender. Who knows what she was trying to tell me, or who this was.

Finally, and I see this done gracelessly and very often in user manuals and other technical documentation, even in cookbooks, and in the recipes the newspapers crib from them. It works like this: Write perfectly fine paragraphs without using any of the simple tricks we just mentioned. Then, when you’re almost done, cut a sentence here and there. Don’t overdo it, or you’ll give yourself away. A missing statement every four or five paragraphs or so will do the job. People will read and follow along, maybe even try the steps you describe, and then—kapow! The conceptual trap door opens and it’s a steep drop down.

Just a few simple hints that help you rock the flow. If you like, you can work them in just like the last bad practice—write beautifully, then edit down. That way, you will avoid making the copy too obviously poor.

More soon—I promise.

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Tell good stories that don’t end too soon, and manage non-narrative content separately

Since “content marketing” became popular during the last two years or so, it may seem as if content makers—copywriters, videographers, photographers, and, to a degree, designers—are simply conspiring to influence marketers to allocate their entire budgets to their services. Companies have hopped on the content train, hiring content strategists and giving high visibility to content-marketing efforts. Thousands of consultants offer their insight regarding what content marketing is, how it relates to social media, and what one can accomplish with it. Some organizations have an actual content strategy or at least carefully plan what kinds of content they want to produce in different channels and media. Others don’t.

As a writer who stands to benefit from my clients’ and employers’ content marketing, I should be all over it. I do appreciate the work! I like that marketers seem to appreciate content more than ever.

But I also think companies are producing far too much content and too often appear to react to a perceived urgency to publish more and keep it updated and lively in social media. Slow down and hang on to your budgets for a moment.

Take an inventory of the types of content materials you have recently published and the ones you are planning for the next few months. More than likely, some of your content includes a story about a customer experience, a business partnership, an innovation discovery, or an initiative of your organization. Other content doesn’t feature a narrative—documentation, fact sheets, some white papers, even some online content may just be noting facts that you want your customers and collaborators to know.

To a degree, you should decouple story content from everything else and manage the two areas on almost-separate tracks. Link all non-story content planning to product releases and other events when facts change. Support the publication of this type of content through the social media where the people you want to reach spend time.

Story-telling guides usually recommend that you need to have a hero, a problem that gets resolved, an emotional connection, and a happy conclusion. This is not always good advice—if you follow it, you may end up telling similar stories over and over again. Maybe that is the case, given your industry or business model, and you need to broadcast the best of these stories as effectively as possible.

How to captivate your audience? Tell a great story that doesn’t end too soon.

As much as you can, focus your narrative content development on those stories that carry on, as opposed to the ones that end soon, even happily. Tell stories that don’t have an ending, or at least not soon. Maybe you have customers who use your products or services to achieve efficiencies or other results over several years. Check in with them from time to time and publish updates on their successes. To support an innovative product or service offering, or an important company initiative, develop an ongoing story that keeps getting more interesting. You build social-media continuity for that story in the channels that best align with your brand and where you have the strongest presence with potential customers and markets you want to get close to.

Your story and non-story content management tracks need to align, of course. You will want to keep the branding consistent, for one thing. Especially when you plan new product releases or major events, stories and facts should reflect the same good news. But if you remove non-story content from the breeziness of rapid publishing cycles driven by social media and focus on never-ending stories in your story content marketing, you can achieve more satisfying results from your spending and reduce the wear and tear on your marketers.

What do you think?

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How to write badly (3): Accomplish verifiable pretentiousness

We continue our exploration of bad-writing skills, which began with such promise a few weeks ago.

Ingrained pretentiousness makes your bad writing much worse. To achieve true pretentiousness, you have to do some pretending, of course. That means the Potemkin villages of your spotless mind need to find a colorful reflection on your patient screen. If you do this right, it’s very likely that a lot of your pretentious blather will get past the editor, who can stand only so much and is not paid to rewrite your entire production.

If you dress up your poorly written copy just so, it can become truly, horribly awful. Accomplishing this needs practice and perseverance.

Practically, conning the reader into thinking there’s more there than meets the mind is a matter of word choices and some other good habits you should make your own. There are very many ways to go about this. Here are some of the easier ones:

  • Verbum latinum bonissimum. If you can replace a one-syllable noun with a more elaborate noun phrase, especially one with an expression of Latin derivation, you should go for it. You don’t choose, you make a selection. You don’t just catch up on work that your client expected the day before yesterday, you provide retroactive deliverables. Forget about having a drink. Ingest a beverage instead. Get it? This might take some practice and creativity. If you read your draft aloud and find that it’s just not compatible with natural speech, you’re probably onto something.
  • Nobility moves conceptual mountains. Take this a little further and enjoy undisciplined verbosity in a tone that is just a bit elevated above your ordinary speech. The moment is not now, it’s at this time. You don’t ask inside, but inquire within. You disembark instead of getting off the ferry, of course. Naturally, you don’t do things differently just because it’s more efficient or less costly to do so, but also because you ensure strategic alignment in compliance with stakeholder expectations. I think this is the one I excel at, if I may say so.
  • Blandness becomes flavorful. Give your prose the right flavor of determination by sprinkling in mostly meaningless filler terms such as “certainly”, “explicitly”, “decidedly”, “clearly”, “highly”, “extremely”, “definitely”, “unmitigatedly”, and the like.
  • Actions are taken. Use passive voice to obscure who did what and make it sound like more agents and forces were involved than there probably were. Add irrelevant detail to increase the level of reader perplexity. It’s not that the baker made bread. What happened was that, after all the ingredients were procured, they were mixed in the proper proportions, and then loaves were shaped, left to proof, and eventually inserted into the heated oven, where they were transformed by means of elevated temperatures into almost painfully delicious offerings.
  • Obfuscation should be respectful. When you quote people in your article, you introduce them with their full name and title. Nothing pretentious about that. But once you’ve done that, you should refer to them as Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms., not just their last name. This is particularly effective if you can cite several persons. Speaking of quotes, it’s nice if they’re pertinent. But in the interest of bad writing, if you can include an additional, confusing or completely irrelevant statement, you’re way ahead. “We doubled our sales volume in the last quarter,” said Mr. Crux-Levander. “More sales team members achieved a new level of sustained effectiveness.”

Now, on to practice! Find a good book, pick a paragraph, and rewrite it poorly, using these bad practices. Put your results in the comments, if you please. Fine if you wish to use an assumed name.

As always, I shall close with the threat: More soon!

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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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Spontaneity and sharing vs. control and dominance: Project Glass, augmented reality, and where we’re headed

In his recent Disruptions column about Google’s Project Glass, Nick Bilton from the New York Times points out the potential of this technology in getting out of the way of real, shared experience. Sergey Brin, Google co-founder, and the verbiage used on a Google page about Project Glass also use the same expression. Project Glass involves a display unit that is mounted on a frame that resembles conventional glasses. By means of this apparatus, wearers can record images and events, then transmit and share them through the cloud, or view data related to the people, artifacts, buildings, or natural phenomena they see.

Bilton enthuses about the potential role of the technology in story-telling. Without a person having to hold a camera, the capture of events or scenes can be more immediate. In some cases it will be possible when it would not have been without the technology. The video of sky divers on the Google site illustrates nicely what this might look like. So does the video of the mother and her baby, which also points in a very different direction. If Project Glass succeeds in making the devices very small, they may not necessarily be affordable, but they can be pervasive. Almost anybody will be able to record almost anything, in almost any situation, and transmit it anywhere. Intimate statements and moments might or might not be so. In addition to happy families and people capturing special experiences, benevolent and malevolent researchers and spies will enjoy a new level of visibility. Or invisibility, if you like. The smaller the devices become, the more regulation and legal action we will see in relation to them. Some people, authorities, and countries will find ways to control the technology, punishing the users and usages they object to.

Consider the augmented-reality aspect of Project Glass,

Sharing of an experience with Google’s Project Glass… (photo copyright 2012 Google)

the ability to overlay the ordinary visual reality with contextual information that tells you what you might not be able to see—the layout of a building, the dimensions of a tumor, the capability of a weapon, the components of a material, the manufacturers and costs of a certain item in your warehouse. How will this play out when people receive training?  Will some of them receive less training than they would today, because the device they wear can to a degree make up for a lack of education? What would it mean for the military and first responders working in dramatic, threatening situations where the right kind of information might make it possible to make the right decision in a life-and-death situation? Less dramatically, how will this technology help travelers find their way, speak the right word in a foreign language, and understand their surroundings? Or will it add yet another barrier to their experience, much like the DK Eyewitness Travel guides many people hold in front of their faces as they ostensibly find themselves in an interesting locale far from home? Where are they really, and where will they be then?

The U.S. military is already exploring what AR can help it accomplish. Private enterprises will find many applications for it, especially if an entity like Google popularizes the concepts and technologies behind it. There are two movements at play here: the spontaneity and immediacy in the recording and sharing with Project Glass. And the data-driven task and decision support, control, and ability to overcome the merely natural that AR makes possible. In the coming years, we will watch the potential of both tendencies unfold.

…vs. AR and an increased ability to control, decide, and take action.

As a writer and content person, I can see that story tellers might be able to tell more direct, involving, emotionally powerful stories with something like Project Glass. I can also see that some story-telling might disappear and that sharing of actual experience might take its place instead.

With Project Glass, as the enthusiasts say, technology might get out of the way. At the same time, it becomes the way. It is both the vehicle and the journey we go through as our sense of self changes. For today, I choose to hope that the immediacy of the shared experience will help us to be more empathetic, compassionate, and involved with the people and animals with whom we share the world.

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