Where are you from?

Technically, I'm from here. But how true is that?

Technically, I’m from here. But how true is that?

After a lifetime ‘abroad’ and unable to speak any language with a proper native accent, I’m still learning how to be a foreigner gracefully. Maybe I’m simply more immature and rootless than many other people. It still bothers me when I’m in a certain country where English is not the main currency, and people assume I’m no good at speaking their language and insist on talking to me in English no matter how many times I respond in their own.

It also still bugs me when people ask me, “Where are you from?” This is often expressed as, “I hear some kind of an accent, but can’t quite place it… where are you from?” Usually, when I’m at home in Seattle and dealing with clients or professional associates, I respond as politely as I can, but don’t really know what to say.

I’ve noticed similar reactions in other long-term foreigners. It seems natural that everybody is from somewhere. But, really, where are you from? Why is it so hard to just answer the question? To start with, the assumption is that you are not from here, and an unwelcome exclusion may be implied. People put you in a box, take you out of another one, and so forth. It can be confrontational and create distance where no distance is wanted.

Also, the facts are not all that easy. I was born in Germany, never felt at home there, and left as soon as I was able to. I resided in a certain country, then lived and traveled in a couple of other ones, and eventually found my way to Seattle, where I mostly liked it and also realized I was tired of roaming. I’m still here. There really isn’t an easy answer for me to “Where are you from?” Yes, at some point I came from somewhere, Cologne, which I recall as a lovely city that didn’t really belong in that strange and cruel country, but the Cologne I remember doesn’t really exist anymore. I yearn for it sometimes, but that doesn’t bring it back. To respond with “Seattle” doesn’t seem quite truthful, especially when I’m having one of those days where I’d rather be anywhere than here. It gets complicated very quickly. I must have responded hundreds of times to the follow-up question, “But your name doesn’t sound German…?” Even though listeners’ eyes usually glaze over when I do.

Other foreigners tell similar stories. You live and travel a bit, and a few decades later you realize you’re not coming from or going to anyplace in particular, you don’t feel a lot of loyalty to any place or country, you’re from Earth and hope to be a decent person. Try giving that as an answer to “Where are you from?” and prepare for some severe irritation.

But there’s another way to listen and reply to the question “Where are you from?” My advice is to minimize any chat about the facts, because, shockingly, nobody actually cares. The questioner has noticed a difference, or something you nonetheless seem to share with her. What she is likely asking is, “What do you and I really have in common?” Now, that is something you can explore with her in a much more interesting conversation than anything to do with distant, mythical places. You can get the trivial details out of the way and move on to a more meaningful exchange. Once or twice I succeeded with something like, “I’m originally from Germany… and I really love baking bread and making pasta at home.” This approach tends to be more satisfying and truthful—bread and pasta are much closer to me than Germany ever was or will be. Most people like eating one or the other, so the risk of starting a completely inappropriate conversation is low. But you should adjust for context. In a professional environment you might want to direct the talk more towards the skills or issues you want to focus on. “I grew up in France, where people celebrate the twentieth year of SMS communications this month.”

So, fellow foreigners: Please experiment, and be patient with your conversation partners and yourselves.

And you, dear natives: I’m curious—where are you from, really?

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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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On the Summerland trail, ten years later

It took me ten years and a couple of weeks to come back here. I last walked on the Summerland trail at Mount Rainier National Park in September 2002. This was on a week day, and my Civic was the only car in the parking area when I arrived at about 8am. Roughly three miles in, one crosses a one-log bridge with a sideways-leaning railing. After walking about a quarter of a mile on the other side, I saw a small black bear on the trail, doing who knows what, thirty feet or so away from me. While I waited for him to move away, I took a picture that didn’t turn out because I was not holding the camera still. Then, much closer to me, at about half that distance, the bushes rustled and a much bigger bear emerged, looked at me, and started moving in my direction. I panicked and ran, my heart beating in my ears. My memory insists that I flew down the steep, rocky trail at cheetah-like speed until I got back to the bridge.

Water and ice at Summerland

Since then, I’ve not been back to the Summerland trail. It’s one of the most popular in this National Park, which millions of people visit. The crowd-free periods, after the thaws in late spring until summer takes off, and from fall until it snows again, are quite brief, and there are only so many weekends. From Seattle, it takes about two to two-and-a-half hours to get there, much of it on tedious freeways and suburban roads. But yesterday, I had a Saturday to myself and decided to go.

I got to the White River entrance on the Park’s east side in under two hours without even speeding—there wasn’t much traffic yet. I paid a $15 entrance fee, which allows me to return for seven days. Considering how breathtakingly amazing and lovely the place is, this is a good deal, even if one only visits once. When I used the restroom close to the entrance, I realized how chilly it was. I was delighted—at this point, I find Seattle’s endless warm temperatures and cloudless blue skies depressing.

After crossing Frying Pan Creek, one parks across from the trailhead, about three miles’ distance from the Park entrance. I was glad that some other people were already there and had set out before I did. Maybe the bears would understand that it was better for them and us not to meet. The trail to Summerland is about 4.2 miles one way, ascending with almost every step. Most of the gentle, first three miles take you through forest. Lots of tall evergreens, some fallen trees, small shrubs, and unusually few mushrooms, because it’s been so awfully dry the last few months. I enjoyed feeling cold until I forgot about it as I was climbing. The sun blanched the tops of the trees, but rarely came down to my level.

With less and less sun and light, these blue flowers at Summerland hang in, although many of them are already looking tired

However, as soon as you cross that bridge, the scenery changes. The trail rises more drastically. You face dramatic views of the mountain, glaciers, and outlying formations. Tall trees eventually give way to shrubs and clusters of shorter trees. Before, in the forest, smells were dry, dusty, and clean. Here, it smelled like being in a huge wine cave, sweet and pleasurably rotten. I took my time to appreciate mossy rocks, patches of frost on ground shrubs, icicles dangling off rocks, and small blue flowers.

Up at Summerland

Eventually, after a hike of about two hours, I got to Summerland, a large subalpine meadow. Signs ask you to stay on the trails and not ruin the land any further, but some hikers merrily took off for their picnics right in the middle of it. But there weren’t enough of them to spoil the experience. Here, one feels close to the mountain’s strange, quiet life. Hues of blue and green on the rocks, together with the warm greens, yellows, and oranges of the vegetation, make the place look playful. The moon was still in the sky. Patches of clear ice covered rocks. Small ice formations lingered along creek beds and in other shady spots. After a break, I continued for another mile or so, until the trail got too squirrelly for me and the ice patches were too large to navigate comfortably.

Ice art by a small creek

The way down took me much longer. For one thing, I was sad to leave. Also, the trail was bone dry, with lots of treacherous, rolling rubble, and I had to pay attention, which always slows me down. My walking stick saved me from falling many times. On the return hike, I finally heard a few birds. Other than them, the only wildlife I saw was a few insects and some chipmunks. A woman explained to a group of teenage girls, “Many of the chipmunks carry the plague. You must avoid them at all costs.” But no bears. No little bear, no big bear. I was happy about that.

No bear this time!

I had much time to reflect on then and now. In 2002, I was 49, living off my stock options and drawing unemployment after having been laid off at Veritas Software, which was eventually bought by Symantec. In 2012, I’m doing freelance work after having been laid off at the small marketing company where I spent most of the time in between the two Summerland hikes. In 2002, I used email and regularly visited some of the same news sites I still go to today, but social media was not in the picture. Back then, I weighed a bit more. But now my knees are getting creaky and I can feel twinges of arthritis in my hands and feet. In 2002, our neighborhood was much more troubled than today, and we were going to have a home invasion in early 2003. Today, different people live across the alley; trouble still abounds but crime seems more under control. There were certain things I didn’t know in 2002—for example, that my heritage is part Jewish. Or that the wars that had just gotten started would still go on now, with no realistic end in sight, no matter what official verbiage suggests.

Today, more so than ten years ago, I wonder how much time I still have to go on walking the Earth. Will I get back to Summerland anytime soon?

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Urban Hiking: A Way to Grow with the Power of Attention

In most of our cities, you find areas you don’t know much about, even if you live there. When you travel through them in your car or on public transport, you don’t pay much attention to them. They just don’t look all that interesting or attractive. Maybe they’re not entirely safe. Walking there may be unpleasant and difficult because of intense traffic, missing sidewalks, freeways and rail lines cutting off access, or a lack of intersections where pedestrians can cross safely.

At home and when we travel, we should pay more attention to these places. We surround ourselves with exquisite, complex environments and infrastructures, but we don’t always know what’s there. The people working or living in these overlooked areas don’t always like it there, either. They may be too poor or uninterested to take pride in their neighborhoods, and let properties fall down and streets be strewn with refuse. If their work takes them there, they probably know exactly how to get in and out while paying minimal attention to what they don’t want to see. As a consequence, many cities include neglected and forgotten districts with large populations.

I think the best way to learn about these areas is to walk through them. It gives you a chance to see the faces, breathe the air, see the sights, without escaping the moment. You never know what you might find. In many years of exploring cities in different countries, I have always found the forgotten districts to be worth the time, risk, and effort it takes to get to know them. Sure, by all means, visit the historic centers, parks, waterfronts, and lovely neighborhoods. But take time out to walk through the no-man’s lands.

If you have a good map of the city you’re in, take a look—how much of it do you actually know or come through with any frequency? How much of it is undiscovered country? Does that make you a little curious? Are you wondering how people live in certain parts, where they go shopping, what their houses, markets, and community bulletin boards look like?

Start with a good map of the city you want to explore. Digital and printed maps are both fine.

I find what often works well is taking public transport to the last station and walking back from there toward the center of town or a neighborhood I know. I recommend this especially for cities that have a roughly circular layout, such as Paris or Cologne. Elsewhere, maybe you need to ask somebody to drop you off with a car. Or, if there’s enough unknown territory to get to know, pick a district and traverse it in a number of directions.

What did I find by doing this kind of hiking? Lots of things tourists don’t see. Niche neighborhoods where people never expect to see an outsider and therefore don’t treat you like a tourist, but like a real person. I will never forget the friendly faces and small interactions in a horribly poor and unhealthy neighborhood at the fringe of Mexico City. There are cemeteries that give you insight into histories and mind sets. Green areas where nature reclaims the territory and settles it with a surprising variety of plants and animals. Fantastic views of city landmarks from new angles. In some older, industrial cities, an amazing wealth of lovely bridges. Post-industrial landscapes, some rotten, some lovely. Commercial buildings, factories, port facilities, train yards, and pocket parks with powerful esthetic appeal.

What do you need for this? Good shoes and comfortable clothing. A sense of adventure and curiosity. An open mind that lets you set your expectations and limitations aside for a few hours. A good map, honestly—not one of those hotel-issued travesties that just show you the downtown core. ID. Some cash to pay for a snack or transportation, but not too much. Your camera, but use it respectfully if you take pictures of people or their private property—get permission when you can. Some paper and a pen, or a recording device, to take notes. This kind of adventure doesn’t cost much except time and attention. Of course, it is also very sustainable as long as your body holds up: Your environmental impact will be minimal.

And, what can you get out of it? That depends on who you are. You might make a new friend. You might fall in love with a forgotten waterfront, a building, or an old bridge. You can tell stories. You might want to take action on a social or environmental situation you become aware of.

However, what I think is best about urban hiking is that it gives us a chance to re-soul districts that are part of our world, but we have numbed ourselves to their existence. Expanding consciousness is always preferable to shrinking it or keeping it the same. Attention is a marvelous, powerful force. If enough people give attention to something, it can change and grow. And so can we, the walkers.

In another posting, I might make some suggestions for walks in cities here and there. Please tell me if you have any you would like to 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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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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BC: Before Cleveland

Tomorrow, Evelyn and I will get on a plane from Seattle to Houston, then on another one from there to Cleveland. We didn’t find any practical, affordable direct flights to get there, although we managed that for the return trip. Many flights route you through nearby Detroit or Chicago. When we went to Cleveland the last time, ten years ago, thunder storms caused our plane to be parked on some distant Chicago runway for a few hours, with us sweating inside. When we got there, a lot of construction around the airport made getting around difficult. The African-American gentleman who managed the crowded line for the rental car shuttle joked in a way that still made me squirm. But I suppose it is possible that he was actually being sarcastic in response to a (white and white-shirted) business traveler’s obnoxiousness.

Back then, downtown Cleveland seemed mostly quiet.

What will Cleveland’s Terminal Tower complex and Public Square feel like tomorrow, I wonder?

You could make a U-turn on Euclid Avenue, the main thoroughfare, without waiting for traffic or bothering anybody. Splendid old department store buildings were boarded up and had obviously been so for many years. Public Square in front of the Terminal Tower was mostly empty of pedestrians. People moved around in their cars; I don’t think I saw a single bicycle commuter. Some innocuous public art didn’t much alleviate the sense of loneliness at the center of the city. Yes, at the Terminal Tower lots of people changed trains, caught buses, and rode elevators up into their offices, but very few of them seemed to walk anywhere from there. The theater district only came alive at night. Except for a few restaurants and drinking places, the place was dead after about 5:30pm.

And, you know what? Everybody was incredibly, genuinely friendly. It wasn’t like the “Seattle nice,” where people smile at you while they’re often seething in their skin. Folks were engaged, ready to have conversations, and helpful; they reminded me of people in Italy, where you never know if the next person you meet will be one of your best friends and patron saints. They didn’t try to run you over when you were crossing the street, the way I see it here at home all the time. The most passive-aggressive driver behavior I saw, if that’s what it was, was a slow, barely noticeable roll forward while waiting for red lights.

Huge areas of the city felt like stony deserts, with barely maintained residences, potholed streets, and almost no retail outside of gas stations and depressing convenience stores. Somewhere in the east 40s, I remember leaving an old-fashioned Czech or Slovak restaurant and seeing a bunch of black kids up the street throwing rocks at cars and windows. They didn’t look aggressive or angry. I think they were just bored. Just a few driving minutes away from them, there was the excellent art museum (which also had wonderful air conditioning, a huge asset). On a weekday, very few visitors had come to see the collections.

The communities right outside the city—Cleveland Heights, Parma, Shaker Heights, Garfield Heights, and so forth—that’s where middle-class and wealthier people seemed to make their homes. Bonus points for any place name with “heights” in it, of course. I expect that hasn’t changed, but maybe now a few more people actually live in downtown? I also have high hopes for a district called Ohio City, just west of the Cuyahoga River. In 2002, it had a wonderful indoor market, surrounded by a lively, intriguing neighborhood. Throughout Ohio City, many residents had obviously moved in recently and were working hard to maintain their homes and gardens beautifully. The area was still a little incoherent and somewhat intimidating then, but I get the impression that much has happened since. It sounds like many more people have taken advantage of inexpensive housing and were willing to get to work. The district now boosts a huge variety of artisan businesses, restaurants, and services for residents. I’m looking forward to spending some time there.

When I talk with Seattle friends and colleagues about visiting Cleveland, they quickly volunteer a few clichés, probably much like people elsewhere have at hand about Seattle. I don’t think any of these pat statements, about any place, are ever true anymore, but maybe there was a notion of some actual perception in them a few generations ago. It seems that hardly anybody is disposed to like Cleveland, but they have no idea why. We really need to get out of the house more.

I might not get to the blog while I’m traveling, but will report again when I’m back, late next week. Please visit again!

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