conversation is an engine

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Archive for the ‘philosophy of work’ Category

How You Say: Not Just “What” But “When”

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A word is a fuse. Light the fuse.

I’m teaching a freelance copywriting class at the University of Northwestern—St. Paul. Yesterday was our first day and I wanted the students to begin the shift from writing papers for professors to writing words to make a difference. I maintain that excellent copywriting is the very opposite of spewing malarkey and hype. Especially today, when anybody who can read and/or listen and absorb marketing messages has their BS meter set on high all day long.

The best copy doesn’t call attention to itself. The best copy is nearly invisible and absorbed without realizing it. The best copy latches on to or illustrates a larger idea and leads the reader to the idea threshold. The best copy is emotive and rational. If it can be silly too—all the better.

We talked about the differences we perceive in writing for non-profit, mission-driven organizations and for-profit organizations. At first glance we might think one organization is all about mission and the other is all about money. But that is a mistaken notion: for-profit organizations can be all about mission and non-profits can be all about fundraising. Examples abound in each category.

One of the things I love most about teaching these particular students is the sensitivity to mission. They are cool with the notion of using your writing skills to help others. Many are considering starting work with non-profits, but that is not unusual for many studying the liberal arts. These particular students are often eager to trace their motivations for helping others back to some of the ancient texts that drive much of this school’s mission.

But one thing that is not so clear is that mission-driven work exists in both non-profits and for-profits. One’s mission comes largely from within. Our job—that thing we get paid for—is an outward-focus of the mission we bring with us. A copywriter with a sense of wanting to help others can find a home in any number of organizations, whether for-profit or not-for-profit. And using that copywriting skill to bring a reader to a life-changing realization can be a primary motivation for the whole task of writing.

I would like to see more copywriters with that motivation.

My go-to example is the quiet laugh from the writer in this four-minute film. Listen for the laugh. Think about what that laugh says about delivering the right words at the right time:



I love the smell of failure in the morning

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Fail faster!

Reading student critiques of their social media experience is a highlight for me.

Everyone fails.

It’s impossible not to.

No one achieves the thing they set out to do, mostly because what they set out to do was so vaguely defined as to be well, impossible.

Which is perfect.

The class succeeds exactly because everyone fails. Not failing grades (mind you), but failure at achieving some vague world-altering purpose. It’s safe, convenient and inexpensive to fail in this class.

And worth every penny.

Because the lessons learned from trying something and hearing a target audience respond (or not, silence teaches many lessons as well) are entirely applicable to most any job these students will look for post-graduation. By trying and failing, they’ve learned lessons about specificity in word choice, the need to set a realistic purpose for engaging an audience, that social technologies can be fun and frustrating and that those tools require guidance and vigilance. They’ve learned a bit about what it takes to get heard in a crowded room and they’ve each had the joy of getting a response from out of the blue. Which, of course, makes a writer’s heart sing.

We’re coming away from failure quite optimistic, because we’ve counted the cost (to quote the biggest failure who succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams) of influence and we know the tools and all of us have a sense of exactly how we’ll pick up those tools next time. We’re also coming away optimistic because we’ve exercised our passion in putting words around ideas that make us hum. And that is thrilling stuff.

To recap: fail faster so you can begin setting realistic steps to tackle your world-changing proclivities.



What Would a Thick Startup Conversation Look Like?

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Collaboration from the Get-Go

We’ve been tracing social technologies back to where they hit command and control cultures. But what if a startup determined from early on to fold in their customers—not just as buying machines but in limited partnership? A tweet from Sherry Reynolds (@Cascadia) captured a poignant plea for healthcare startups to be truly collaborative. I am eager for the same thing.

Entrepreneurs who avoid collaboration may find themselves shunted off to the side.

A recent conversation with an agricultural/big data startup is a great example: they already have the Ph.D’s, the science and the published research papers in their pocket. That part is done. What they don’t have (yet) is the conversations with customers. Traditional marketing efforts might focus attention first on raising awareness, highlighting the problem farmers face and the benefit provided by the startup. That goal would be to get farmers to plunk down the cash for the startup solution.

But what if this startup began with thick conversations that pulled potential customers toward them? Certainly economic motivators would be part of the conversation. But a first-phase of talking and listening and talking and listening (typical conversation stuff) may grow the audience as well as provide clues as to the next steps for the startup. I think we routinely underestimate the power of being heard and the vision of building something together. Of course, this startup will need to decide just how far they will go in terms of partnering with conversational customers.

Their use of Facebook will be all about stimulating conversations. Only it will be for real—not a guise for just shouting marketing messages. Facebook would be the major communication vehicle for the short term. And movement would be powered by conversation.

What else would help a startup be collaborative from the get-go?



To My 19-Year-Old Self: Embrace the Timer

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This Permission Tool Will Calm and Kick You

Look—I know you get all fidgety about the stuff you’ve got to do: the papers to write, the group projects to complete, the hours at work and the woman you’re trying to work up the nerve to ask out. Finals coming—have you even read the chapters? Plus all the pressure to assemble a plan for the rest of your life. Get on that! (Ha! Here’s a hint: your plans will scatter like water on a hot skillet. Again and again. But you still have to plan.)

That’s why I’m writing, lo from across these many decades.

Behold: the timer.

Like an egg timer only with more time and without the eggs.

The timer is a permission tool you can employ today. The timer will grant you focus and peace of mind. The timer will calm your fidgety, anxious self. The timer puts an end to the ridiculous argument that you can do several things at once. You may find this hard to believe, but in the decades to come people routinely kill others while driving and opt out of deep life-changing conversations because they “multitask” (big word in twenty years). Wacky, right?

Here’s how the timer works:

You’re not gonna believe the free stuff on this thing Al Gore invented called the “Internet.” Oh: buy Apple stock.

  1. Look at the big pile of stuff you’ve got to do.
  2. Pick the most important thing. Just one thing.
  3. Set the timer for 60 minutes.
  4. Start the timer.
  5. Do that one thing.
  6. Do that thing for 60 minutes. Don’t get coffee. Don’t talk to your roommates. Don’t daydream about that beautiful woman. Don’t stare out the window. Do the one thing.
  7. When the timer rings, get up and do all that other stuff.
  8. In fifteen minutes, pick the next thing, set the timer and repeat the process.

Sound simple? It is!

Listen, Mr. 19-year-old Kirkistan: this is how you are going to get stuff done for the rest of your life. Even enormous projects tremble when the timer shows up. Almost everything in life can be broken into manageable segments.

And this: You emerge a happier person when the timer goes off. Because you actually did something.

I think you have a timer on that big plastic watch of yours.

Try it.




Written by kirkistan

February 28, 2014 at 9:44 am

When will Your Mission become Mutiny?

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Look Boss: It is Written

One of my favorite bosses, when privately presented with a wallet-sized card imprinted with the corporate mission and asked what he thought of it, pretended to use it to wipe his derriere.

Was my boss in open rebellion?

Not in the least.

My boss was responding to a ridiculous communication tool. At that point in the history of that particular medical device company, it was all mission and everyone knew it. Patients and physicians were front and center and no one needed reminding. We were all directly involved in the mission and to think otherwise was to dismiss the conscious and vocal choices people made to work there.

Then again, perhaps the communication tool was a bit prophetic. It wouldn’t be long before many in the firm started taking their eyes off the mission to focus instead on quarterly profit goals to the exclusion of patients, physicians and common sense. These things happen when big bonuses are at stake.

But it need not be that way and you may well be the one to say so.

Unless you simply wanted a job and any job would do, you likely joined your firm because of mission. You found yourself in some level of agreement with the firm’s vision and wanted to help move this thing forward. For many of us, the mission is a motivating and ennobling force, even if we may not think of it constantly.

We know that even the best-intentioned organizations stray from their intended goals and go rogue with evil intent. This happens at high and public levels. It also happens at day-to-day levels, in quick decisions and in small furtive meetings among colleagues. For-profit companies do it. Non-profits do it. Churches do it. Hobby clubs are also capable of it.

That’s when any of us needs to come back to the mission and openly ask whether this quick decision or that furtive meeting is accomplishing our shared mission. Sometimes our best and smartest move is to reprise the mission openly, verbally and with gusto. We all need reminding of our purpose and mission from time to time.

If you care about your organization’s mission, you may need to lead a mutiny today. You’ll want to count the cost, of course, because mutiny can be very expensive.



Written by kirkistan

February 24, 2014 at 8:32 am

The Problem with Collaboration: Can’t Touch This

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You talk. We listen. (Not so) Simple.

Let’s trace social technologies backwards and watch them infiltrate the organizations that launched them. Social technologies carry with them an implicit demand to be heard—if not an outright demand for action.

That demand, from those voices, will—sooner or later—run smack into the command and control mentality: the top dogs who always delivered the monologues. The higher-ups and muckity-mucks who get their way.

This is a problem.

Is this a problem?

Because this problem may be the starting line for any company culture that wants to change. It won’t be pleasant. Because the kind of people that help facilitate the change are a different sort than the ones willing to tell everybody else what to do. There’s a happy move today, currently gaining cultural muscle, to identify the boss-bully in the corner office and make them play nice. This even as people throughout organizations are getting a vision for collaboration vs. command and control.


Letting employees and customers (and possibly congregants and constituents) into the smoke-filled rooms where big decisions are made. What a concept.

Groundswell offered the example of, their Idea-Exchange and the grass-root effort to excise an annoying banner that always appeared. The company denied themselves, kept listening, and eventually removed the banner they loved and their customers hated.


The problem with collaboration is really an opportunity to become adept at identifying the things that cannot/must not change and holding the rest with an open hand.



Collaborate Starts S l o w

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Catch me if you can

One must slow down to understand.

Way back: I’m thinking back to a statistics class in college. The theater-seating room in the Psychology building at UW-Madison was packed with well over 200 people. And at the last possible minute the professor would make a grand entrance, rushing down the side of the room with flowing scarf, his cologne preceeding him and wafting across the room. Then he talked nonstop for the next 50 or 75 or 100 minutes. In my mind a bell rang at the end, but I may have imagined that. He took no questions. His purposes were served to assume everyone was with him.

Few were, naturally.

Teaching assistants did the actual work of slowly going through the ideas and problems sets. They were the ones taking the time to tee up concept after concept and watch as some statistics-averse philosophy student slowly worked it out. That’s how a multi-layered idea passes between people: slowly.

Today: Sometimes Mrs. Kirkistan will ask how teaching went today. I consider teaching a success when we have had a robust discussion about the central concept for the day. When people bring in stories and draw connections—usually there is laughter—that is what engagement looks like. It is satisfying. Once upon a time I thought if I got through my slides in time that was success. Today I believe slides are the least important thing—because delivering slides to an audience largely absent is one of the more vacuous activities on the planet.

Tomorrow: My smelly, scarf-toting statistics professor from way back didn’t care about engagement. But that attitude won’t get anyone very far in a culture pivoting toward collaboration. Broadcasting an aroma and putting on a costume scarf doesn’t actually carry all that much weight for those interested in slicing and dicing a subject. What does carry weight is passion for a topic that slows and shares enough to bring others up to speed. Collaboration takes time while we each catch up and synchronize our language. But slowing to a human scale of understanding is worth the effort.



Written by kirkistan

February 6, 2014 at 8:01 am

Create a Conversation Zone Today in 3 Steps

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Make Talk Work at Work

If it’s been a while since you’ve had a truly collaborative conversation at work, take some steps toward that today. Collaboration is starting to register on the radar of many leaders in organizations. Collaboration is the love-child of the free speech we tout in social media and the world of work. Collaboration is freed speech working its way backwards through organizations.

Create a conversation zone in 3 easy steps:

  1. Acknowledge the human in front of you. “What?” you may say. “That’s pretty obvious stuff.” Not so fast: how many times a day does your mind go dark when the janitor says something, or the clerk—or the boss? It’s the automatic assumptions that run ahead of those conversations that poison the water. Start with this basic thought and you may be able to strip away some of the power distance that ruins conversations before they even begin
  2. Listen with your eyes. Eyeball to eyeball. No listening happens when my eyes are focused on my Samsung Note II. Don’t fool yourself that you are listening—you aren’t. Not really. Multitasking does not count when it comes to human relationships. I’ve taught enough college students to know instantly who is paying attention, and 93.2% of that is eye contact (6.8% of students have mastered the art of eye contact while entirely absent).
  3. Expose yourself. Really: tell what you honestly don’t know and what you wonder. Stupidity is endearing when offered without guile. Be the stupid guy. Ask the dumb question. Let it be known that you don’t know.

Good things will happen if you take these three steps today.

Oh, and report back, will you? What happened in your conversation today?



Written by kirkistan

February 5, 2014 at 9:42 am

Hey: Where did that voice come from?

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Don’t be stung by inauthenticity01242014-tumblr_mzl4dzAHhH1qczwklo1_500

Some in my class are English majors and don’t mind wading into the waters of how words work. So when Content Rules (Handley and Chapman) talked about voice, a close reading ensued. Handley and Chapman lobby for authenticity in voice: voice is your own way of corralling point of view and word choice and rhythm (meter?) and pressing it all into service. Voice is making language work to express your words in your way. Voice is what you sound like when you talk (and we’re aiming for conversational writing in this class, so writing and talking sort of blend).

But voice is also something that gets companies and organizations all hepped up. To give your brand a personality by adopting a particular point of view (which leads to word choices/meter and etc.) is what companies and organizations seek these days. Voice helps a brand stand out from the crowd.

And one must stand out.

But this:

How can you write with an authentic voice when you are adopting the voice of the brand?

Good question, English-major-friend. Two answers come to mind:

  1. Sometimes we use voice in the service of some larger purpose. So we might submit our voice to the larger brand purposes and adopt as best we can the machinations of the brand voice. Some people may naturally embody a brand voice. The rest of us have to work at it. This adding and adopting is part of serving the larger goal you believe in (at best. At worst: you adopt voice to make coin for rent). This is the collision of craft, faith and service.
  2. If you find yourself stinging with inauthenticity as you write for your brand—look for a different job.

I’ve maintained all along that when people add their voice to a project, new things happen. Sometimes a new voice provides new electricity and a new approach to a time-worn topic. Even old-timers can learn stuff from new voices.

Of course, people must voice up.

If you don’t say what you’re thinking, the new thing just around the corner will sit there in silence—just around the corner.


Image credit: red-lipstick via 2headedsnake

Working Together: A Final Frontier

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Talk Inc. Buries the BS Meter01172014-tumblr_inline_mvvm6xmVFy1qj79oe

Collaboration is hard for a lot of reasons. One reason is the power distance between people in a company. How can I say what I really think when I know my boss disagrees? Can I have a real conversation with an automaton who spouts corporate messaging and controls my salary?

Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power their Organizations by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind starts with good intentions: to lay out this new challenge of interacting with employees as if they had something worthwhile to say.

But I should back up: old styles of management were about command and control: I’m boss so I’ll tell you what to do. And you’ll do it. New ways of thinking about the work of leadership and managing tout a more generous and collaborative approach to personal relationships. But these collaborative ways still have a hard time sifting down through the ranks of gatekeeping managers who intuitively see their mission as that of controlling others.

Talk, Inc. has a terrific vision, but the first section (three chapters on intimacy) is off-putting in that it quotes CEOs and VPs and various bosses at length, each talking about all they are doing to encourage collaboration. 01172014-bs-meter-1But Groysberg and Slind may have done better to start at the other end: giving voice to employees who have been given a voice. As it stands, the first three chapters are a difficult slog because anyone who has spent time in a corporation will recognize the smarmy PR tone of the program-of-the-quarter. My corporate BS meter kept pinging into the red.

The book gets better, but all the way through I struggled with the “trusted leaders” part of the subtitle. For a book that intends to talk about the power of conversation, there is still an awful lot of command and control monologue. Whether it was the suits from Cisco or Hindustan Oil talking, it was hard to take their comments seriously.

01172014-Talk-9781422173336_p0_v1_s260x420Talk, Inc. is, however, smartly organized into four sections (Intimacy, Interactivity, Inclusion and Intentionality). Each section has a chapter that plays out the vision, followed by a chapter that shows a company trying to carry out that particular part of the vision, followed by a “Talking Points” summary that helps the reader play it forward. The Inclusion and Intentionality sections offer more thoughtful reasoning and vision-casting for changing corporate culture so real conversation can happen. Groysberg and Slind offer solid examples of organizations that work hard at listening. But this is a story that really needs to be told from the “newly-voiced” perspective.


Image credit: Bill Domonkos via 2headedsnake


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