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Archive for the ‘Audience’ Category

“You Should Care” Versus “Why You Should Care”

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Just Say No to this Toxic Assumption

This Sol Stein quote on high-powered facts failing to invite others in reminded me that we are at our best when we express our passion as an invitation. The best teachers are the ones excited about a topic. Their excitement is itself an invitation into the topic. The best salespeople are those humans who use the product and love it—which is why word-of-mouth remains the most sought-after form of advertising. The most persuasive evangelists are those whose lives have been altered by faith or by an Apple product (which is itself a kind of religion).

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Alternatively, the worst college classes, the worst business meetings, the worst seminars are those where the professor/supervisor/speaker assumes you care as much as she does. That assumption leads immediately down deep into depths of details without painting the larger picture. And many of us are desperate for the larger picture. We want to see how our work or faith makes a difference in the rest of life.

A basic truism of life as an insider is that we stop talking about why we are here (in this company or department or group or church) because we’ve heard other people’s stories and we don’t need to go over that ground again. Pretty soon we assume we are all on the same page with the meaning of our activities together. Every once in a while the boss of your boss may say something about why we are here and why its important. But day-to-day it is largely assumed.

The outsider knows nothing of this.

The outsider comes to a group not with a blank slate so much as a slate marked by other groups he has dealt with. The person on the fringe trying to understand the group wants to hear the big meaning statements, the “Why we are here” stuff. And this is precisely where corporate talk falls flat. Corporate talk about meaning and mission and purpose is often vapid precisely because there is no human behind it.

But when the outsider makes contact with the insider who is properly enthused about the meaning-making activities of the company or group, that is a very different story. Mission and purpose come alive when demonstrated by another life being altered.

So—two things:

  1. Don’t assume the people around you are insiders.
  2. Keep talking about why we are here doing these things together. These orienting, meaning-making discussions help everyone. It is too important to leave to the VP of mission.

 

More takes on “transformation” here.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

When Truth Sounds Like a Lie

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And the lie that turns out true

Let’s make up a new term: the “aspirational lie.”

The aspirational lie is that thing that falls from your mouth before you can stop it.

  • It is not quite true—that’s why you almost didn’t say it.
  • But it is not quite false—something about it is true. Which is why you did say it.

That happened to me when talking to a writing class of business students. My professor friend let me come in and chat about freelance copywriting. She wanted her MBA students to see some different shades to how work gets done. In the course of our discussion we talked about how one prepares to write and about how one does the work.

I told one truth that sounded like a lie.

And I told a lie that turned out to be true.

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The Truth That Sounded Like a Lie

The truth that sounded like a lie was that I make a bunch of stuff up for my clients. “How so?” wondered the class. It’s like this: the writer’s work is to think forward and then tell the story of how all the parts fit together. Whether writing a white paper, a journal article, an advertising campaign or refreshing a brand, writers do what writers have always done: make stuff up. They grab bits and pieces of facts and directions and fit them into a coherent whole. As they move forward, they gradually replace false with true and so learn as they go.

That is the creative process.

You fill up your head with facts and premonitions and assumptions. Many are true, some are false. But the process itself—and the subsequent reviews reveal what it is true. Writing is very much a process of trying things on for size and then using them or discarding them. And sometimes we used facts “for position only,” as a stand-in for the real, true fact on our way to building the honest, coherent whole.

 

The Aspirational Lie

We also talked about backgrounds and how one prepares to write. I explained how degrees in philosophy and theology are an asset to business writing. Yes: I was making that up on the spot. But not really, because I have believed that for some time, though had never quite put it in those words. Pulling from disparate backgrounds is a way out of the narrow ruts we find ourselves in. Those divergent backgrounds help to connect the dots in new and occasionally excellent ways. Which is also why we do ourselves a favor when we break from our homogeneous clubs from time to time.

Comedy writers do this all the time. I just finished Mike Sacks excellent Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers (NY: Penguin Books, 2014), and was amazed all over again at the widely different life experiences comedy writers bought to their work.

The more I’ve thought about the aspirational lie that philosophy and theology contribute to story-telling, the more convinced I am it is true. That’s because I find myself lining up facts and story bits and characters and timelines according the rhythms and disciplines I was steeped in during school. In philosophy it was the standing back and observing with a disinterested eye. In theology it was the finding and unraveling and rethreading of complicated arguments—plus a “this-is-part-of-a-much-larger-story” component.

Our studies, our reading, our life experience—all these help line up the ways we hear things and the ways we connect the dots. Our best stories are unified and coherent because of this.

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Here’s the Story of a Man Named Quady

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Who was living with three alloys of his own

Yesterday I met Quady* for coffee. I was impressed all over again by the executive function of his brain: how he seems to effortlessly order complicated systems and businesses and talented people and even his own life. Quady** told me how he was weaving consulting with business acumen with creativity. I could not help but be impressed with the forward motion the guy exuded.

…and here’s the dumb sketch you ordered.

…and here’s the dumb sketch you ordered.

In fact, it was about ten years ago I met Quady at (yet) another Dunn Brothers on another side of Minneapolis to talk about how he grew the business he was running at that time. He was president of a firm that placed creative people in creative positions and his firm was on fire (that is, busy). At the time he gave me some solid advice which I resisted for years until embracing it fully: make a daily/weekly habit of reaching out to make contact with varieties of people.

And listen to them.

These days Quady is weaving together a consulting life that draws on his outsized executive function and his creativity plus a desire to walk alongside people. He’s a kind of CEO-for-hire and he’s currently working some high-level gigs. It’s the melding of these three threads that seems to open doors for him: the organizing gene plus the creative gene plus the people-smarts gene. Because he understands the moving parts of business, he can give solid, real-world advice to people. He gives the kind of advice that encourages from some deep place: the sort of advice like,

“Look. You’ve got this. It’s a stretch, but you can do it.”

And who doesn’t want to hear that?

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Dumb sketch: Kirkistan

*Not his real name.

**His real name was Markothy.

 

Write Alone And Send To Collect. (Copywriting Tip #11)

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Except for Bill Holm

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Bill Holm, by Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

The late poet and writer Bill Holm spent his days teaching at Southwest Minnesota State University. In the context of daily teaching, he was too busy to write his own works. But when class finished for the semester, he wrote his poems and stories and memoirs long-hand on the back of the memos he received at school. Interestingly, he was a gregarious soul who often welcomed people into his house but continued to write at the kitchen table even as he engaged in discussions with visitors.

But for many of us, writing is a solitary activity. Oh, sure: ideas pop in conversation. Careful, committed writers take note of the idea on whatever scrap they have handy. And that scrap becomes useful when the writer is, yet again, sitting before blank screen or page.

Unless you are/were Bill Holm, it is the typical writer’s fate to sit alone.

This is not to say writers must be loners or introverts. Those are not necessary conditions, although they do often fit together.

But creating is only one part of writing. Yes, it seems like the biggest part of writing, doesn’t it? Creating and the aura around creating are certainly the most celebrated bits of writing.

But another part of writing is reading. Specifically, getting read. And that requires publishing, in one form or another. At its essence publishing is getting read by someone else. And for all the (quite true) advice about “just sitting down and writing” and “writing = butt-time-in-chair,” it seems to me there is still a missing piece: the reader at the other end of the writing. Written words need to find and land on their audience.

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Here is a place where writers might learn something from copywriters. Copywriters have deadlines. They have people who expect copy at a certain time and quite often that copy is delivered verbally—often read aloud by the copywriter to the client.

Something happens when writing is read aloud to an audience. The text itself tends to shape and reshape and the writer hears it differently because of the people listening. The writer cannot help but see things differently when another person is also hearing the copy.

Many will say that some of their best writing happens during revising. I agree. Especially after having read something aloud to someone else and seen their reaction. It can be thrilling. Or depressing.

Butt-in-chair time is essential for writing. But sending your writing out—scary though it might be—is equally essential to hear how the ideas land and to revise with creativity and gusto and possibly increased motivation.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston, Brian Peterson/StarTribune

The Talking Part of Writing

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Talking Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

When it comes to brand new, unpaged ideas (that is, not yet written), J.K. Rowling is right:

But at some point every idea needs to make contact with an audience. Writers want their idea fully-formed with beautiful plumage before they exhibit it to anyone (lest someone call my baby ugly). Copywriters know this is not possible when it comes to collaborative writing—writing that serves some mission or purpose for an organization or cause—which needs client eyeballs as a part of the process.

Because Lillian Hellman is also right:

And Nora Roberts is especially right:

There’s the writing. And then there’s the fixing. I often think of the fixing as equally creative as the original writing. Great and wonderful things happen at the fixing/revising stage.

There is a point in every copywriting project where it must be discussed. It must be read aloud. And the key is—especially with new clients—fail faster.

I recently made a category error with a new client and I’m wondering how high a price I’ll pay. Rather than insisting on an early reading and sharing first thoughts when the bar was low, I let my content slide through several holidays until the deadline is an approaching storm and the bar is high for the copy to be right on the first reading.

Which it isn’t: it’s full of questions.

Which is almost always the case with a new client. Especially if the topic has a lot of moving parts.

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So lesson learned (again): insist on failing faster and earlier.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Kotter: Why do leaders fail at transmitting vision?

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“a gallon of information…dumped in a river of routine communication”

John Kotter’s Leading Change (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996) does an excellent job explaining the difficulty of vision moving through an organization. A guiding coalition may take hundreds of hours to study a situation and come to conclusions. But as they do this intellectual work, they are also doing the emotional work of “letting go of the status quo, letting go of further options, coming to grips with the sacrifices, coming to trust others….” (88)

This is all part of the process and when that guiding coalition finishes and forms their conclusion they naturally feel their work is done.

Their work is not done.

That’s because nobody outside the coalition has done any of this difficult intellectual and emotional rejiggering. In fact, most will be blindsided because they’ve been hard at the tasks they always do. They don’t have a clue what is coming.

This is typically the point of failure. Someone from the coalition gives a speech or authors an article in the company newsletter. Or maybe a series of three articles. Here’s Kotter, very bluntly:

So a gallon of information is dumped into a river of routine communication, where it is quickly diluted, lost, and forgotten.

John P. Kotter, Leading Change (89)

John P. Kotter, Leading Change (89)

Compacting and condensing and boiling down the intellectual and emotional journey is essential before anyone else can or will sink their teeth into the vision. But who budgets time or money for that piece of the process?

Those who understand vision needs legs and motivation to run through an organization.

Transmitting vision must be an intentional invitation.

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Image credit: John Kotter, Leading Change (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996)

Richard Rohr: “be prepared for much resistance”

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Maybe real wisdom first helps others see the path and potential obstacles.

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And maybe real wisdom also listens for the additional perspective.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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