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Persuade Me

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But Not With Your Dumpster Words

Academic journals are near the top of our list for credible sources of information. The work of Retraction Watch (along with Professor Carl Elliot’s snarky Fear and Loathing in Bioethics) has helped me understand that peer-review processes are fallible and can be gamed. Still, the intent of providing transparent work that smart people can discuss seems a solid route to truly reliable knowledge.

Promotional copy is on the other end of the continuum. As a copywriter, I try to use reason and logic to engage readers. And I’ll bring in emotion to tell my client’s story. But I want a discussion, not a manipulative parlor trick. Good copy addresses humans with reason, logic, and emotion that honors our humanness without resorting to manipulation. After all, that’s how humans talk with other humans.

A Continuum of Believability

Further down the continuum of believability is sales talk. It’s the kind of stuff we hear from the used car salesman and telemarketers or our 45th president: “best,” “tremendous,” “today only,” “you’ve never seen anything like this.” These are dumpster words that signify active lying or passive disinformation. You can tell by the lack of specificity. The words are in-credible, that is, not believable and we should turn away from them.

Somewhere in the middle of the continuum of believability are persuasive commentaries and editorials that are biased and meant to convince. Their authors acknowledge their bias straight on and early in their communication. We see their bias and take that into account as we read. Even nearer the middle of the credibility continuum is instructional words that aim to help the reader accomplish something. That’s what my current class is about—helping readers take some action out in the world.

If we are aiming toward credibility in our communication (a typical goal for sane people), we’ll pull from the tools and building-block thoughts that are well-vetted with facts and citations from other credible sources. We’ll also grab from the piles of words that invite further reflection and discussion. The more credible we want to be, the more we’ll direct our typing hands away from the sales talk words, those dead-end, short-circuiting, dumpster words that deceive and misdirect as they are spoken or written.

Smart People Discuss for Credibility

It’s how we sort most everything in life. By talking together about a book or a movie or a social problem or a new idea, we can often get to credible and truthful statements. Statements that we can believe and act on. But to get to that place of belief, we need to think critically about the pop-up slogans and pre-conceived notions that our ideology or brand-preference have placed in our brainpans. If we resist those clichés and talking points and instead look for words from our own experience, no matter how messy or awkward, we have a chance of getting to the truth.

Credible information withstands questions and discussion by smart people. Credibility is a way forward.

I am eager for our culture to develop a taste for credibility.

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Image credits: Kirk Livingston

You hate to write. I get it.

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3 Reasons Humans Should Look Forward to Writing

Writing feels like an interruption.

You’ve got all this work to do and writing a report or summarizing your diagnosis or conclusion takes you away from what you get paid to do. Writing is yet another duty added to a full stack of duties.

But are there things about writing you may have missed? Bear with me while I argue that writing should be an essential part of most jobs that require humans to work at their peak humanness.

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Writing Reason #1: I Get to Reflect

Reflection—that process of slowing to examine something you or someone else has done or said—can have a healing effect. Slowing triggers a meaning-making mindset. You come to better understand things when you step aside to reflect: how your life works. How other people’s words work on your consciousness. Reflection helps you put things in order: just how much authority do I give the troll on Twitter? (Hint: very little). How can I grow as a husband/wife, friend, mother/father/sibling, colleague? These are the kind of human-scale questions that bubble up from reflection.

Reflection via writing is a dialogue with yourself about what is important. It must be so: because you must choose your first word to type. And then you must choose the next word, and then each word that follows. This can be painful, but it becomes less painful with practice. It becomes less painful as we understand that our small dialectical choices are an exploration of who we are. It is an exploration that is wrong, and wrong again, and wrong yet again until it is suddenly right and we ourselves with a fitting set of words.

Reflecting when we write makes us more human.

 

Writing Reason #2: I Did Not Know I Knew That

You’ve been in that odd conversation where a complete stranger asked a question and you convulsed an answer that you did now know you knew. Maybe something about the situation made you reveal a deeply held secret (“I’ve always hated applesauce!”) or a hidden desire (“I’ve always wanted to be a street mime.”). But something moved from a hidden place in your brain to your lips and out into the air. And there it sits between you and this other person. The silence around your declaration makes you think, “Wait—that is exactly right. That’s true!”

Writing does this all the time. By starting a conversation with yourself on paper or screen, your work of filling the paper/screen with neat lines of words has the effect of revealing what you know. It also has the effect of revealing what you don’t know.

I like to ask writing students to start writing when they don’t know nothing. Writing from the vacuum of nothing-knowing triggers curiosity, which is a primary tool for humans to solve problems and connect with other humans. After we choose words that tell what little we know, pertinent questions start to line the road to knowing. And then, if all goes well, our will gets engaged and we start to care. Along the way we discover things we didn’t know we knew. In a month when we read again the paragraph we wrote, we might say, “Huh. Yes. That seems right. I should act on that.”

Dialogue with other humans, even when simulated on paper via writing, is a deeply human activity and a route to knowing.

 

Writing Reason #3: I’ll Just Step Aside. And That Feels Good.

Today we start a class in communication. The class is full of very smart software graduate students. One thing we’ll learn is how to get out of the way of our message.

A lot of our past writing has been about proving to some instructor we know this about that. Our grade depended on this act of persuasion, so we conjured knowledge from bits we heard in class and from readings, and then we made things up. Some of our past business writing has been to convince a boss or executive committee that a certain course of action was necessary. There too we pulled from what we heard, from what we read, and then made things up. Both bouts of past writing had something to do with getting someone to feel a positive vibe toward us. We used our writing to show how smart we were so we could get the grade or promotion or plumb assignment.

But some writing out in the wild benefits from the author getting out of the way. In this class we’re aiming toward writing that is so fast, so easy to digest, that the reader knows new things before they realize they were reading. This is partly because we’re moving toward a post-literate society and reading a block of text is too big a commitment for many of us. We’re also writing this way as an antidote to those classes that taught us to always communicate with a personal, clever, word-garnish. Probably the teachers of those classes didn’t intend that lesson, but that’s what I heard and it stoppered my writing for years.

Getting out of the way to allow a bigger message to accomplish a larger purpose is a mark of human growth. Taking ego out of our writing is an act of love (which sounds strange) and an act of caring. It’s a kind of caring that can show up in our work-world, where there are not so many examples of caring.

Caring is a human thing to do.

Making time to write may just have a humanizing effect on us.

I hope it does.

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Image: Kirk Livingston

Must Your Story Always Be About You?

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Content today: Your story in context.

“Here’s where we show we care about what they care about,” I said. “For sure you get to tell your story. But 75-90% of the time your eye is on what your audience cares about. With social media we take off the loud salesman jacket and relax in an easy chair, ready to talk.”

For years I’ve talked with clients about teeing up conversations rather than selling copy. It’s a matter of committing to topics and copy that meets an audience need, day after day. Only my most forward-thinking clients listened without a glaze covering their eyes.

That’s changing.

One reason is organization-specific content has become a more easily-definable task. Buying content is becoming a bit more like buying advertising—though with a few key differences. You bought advertising with parameters and metrics in place: Buy your media and Bam! Targeted eyeballs and open pocketbooks follow.

At least that’s how we told the old advertising story.

Now we see that advertising model was all about interrupting, catching attention with brand hyperbole and hypnotizing dumb viewers to buy. And pronto.

Which hasn’t really worked for years.

What my clients now see is they can stay in touch with old and new and potential customers by telling what they know in a whimsical way. Not browbeating, but inviting them to think together about a shared interest. Staying in touch means many touch points along the marketing funnel, none of which are a salesman’s pointed jab. This means knowing what customers care about, what their problems are, and naming potential solutions to those problems.Marketing funnel-20160808

Creating content will seem circuitous to the hard-boiled marketing manager in her late 50s. And it is. But it isn’t. Creating content shows leadership and care as it sweeps up the concerns of our target audience and addresses them one by one, parsing out that copy over time so that we seem like we care.

And here’s the crazy thing—by creating content, we find ourselves actually caring.

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

3 Ways to Strengthen Your Next Think-Piece

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Leadership is an emotional action storyStairs-2-story-20160713

Most of my clients see themselves as thought-leaders. These clients really are leaders in their industries: their scientists and engineers labor to create new ways of approaching old markets even as they open new markets. A think-piece is an outward-facing story of their leadership in the light of a market problem or need.

Some clients assume their brochures and web copy can be repurposed into a think-piece. One of my tasks is to help them understand that a think-piece takes a position on a problem, spins out a story that shows the problem resolved in an emotionally satisfying way. That is typically a larger frame of reference than their current brochure or web copy.

Other clients want to say something without revealing anything. They worry about competition in their tight market. But they don’t realize how a generous spirit is another kind of selling (especially in this sharing economy), and giving something-not-everything away is a mark of true leadership. But it’s just too big a task (they say) and it will “only distract our scientists and engineers.”

Sharp clients understand that thought-leadership presents a story that is immediately recognizable, universally understood (by their target audience) and easy to digest. They also understand that the best stories carry a useful thought with an emotional element.

My favorite thought-pieces typically have these three elements:

  1. Story: A story is threaded together with real people doing real things. There is emotion in a story—just like life—and real people talk in human rather than PR speak. Real people with real problems that unlock real emotion both before and after the solution appears.
  2. Visual: There’s no question that words simply take too long for most of us. We still read, of course, but our short attention spans move us toward images and video. Some say visual is the primary way social media will present in coming years. We can put that visual bias to work today with words that paint pictures. That has always been the novelist’s forte: creating scenes. That ability must find a home in today’s think-pieces. Gone are the days when an interested audience member might happily read your brochure. Now you have to catch them when they are not looking or thinking about your product or industry. This is not an easy task, but the more visual the better. Visual also has the advantage of being immediately understood.
  3. Speak Human: Every discipline has its own secret words. Every industry uses lingo and code words to show they know their stuff as well as out of sheer laziness. It’s just easier to say the same things as everyone else. Plus it’s a badge of the tribe, so why wouldn’t you? But insider language is inherently toxic for anyone outside. It’s a buzz kill for an outsider looking in. Speaking human means words cleansed of jargon, words that can shine through a clear story.

The best think-pieces don’t appear to be think-pieces at all. They can be read so effortlessly that we take every step with the author to the intended conclusion. And we find ourselves happy to be there, taking action with the hero.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Spain Lottery Commercial

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Cyber Grand Prix at Cannes

Despite the lottery being a complete waste of money and attention, this is a fetching commercial.

But how about that soundtrack? Wow.

Written by kirkistan

June 23, 2016 at 10:46 am

Trump 2016–Japan Inspired

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Something to look forward to.

Written by kirkistan

June 16, 2016 at 9:53 am

The Lies We Love

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How to Believe the Preacher’s Story

Let us now name this category of lie: The Preacher’s Story.

We’ve all been here: sitting in church or a political meeting or even in class. The preacher/politician/professor behind the lectern tells a story that illustrates her or his point perfectly.

Too perfectly. And we think:

Wait-that sounds almost too good to be true. So then it must be… false. But who cares? I agree with the point and I’m in agreement with that way of looking at the world. I’ll just check the “true” box for that story.

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The Preacher’s Story is a quasi-factual tale the congregation wants to believe and will believe. The point of the story isn’t whether or not it is true, but whether the story advances our cause. We’ve gathered to stoke our fires and that semi-truthy story works just fine for that purpose.

I’m putting most Trump talk in the category of “The Preacher’s Story”: though demonstrably false, still believed because it stokes the tribe’s purposes. Trump’s not alone in this, of course, his preacher’s stories are just the most recent potent poison.

Writers continue to try to make sense of evangelical support for Trump.  The last few days have produced several articles citing similarities between the current batch of authoritarian presidential candidates and the authoritarian leadership style many megachurch pastors exhibit (for instance, Katelyn Beaty’s opinion piece from The New York Times). Authoritarian leaders depend on the willing to turn off their fact-meters as they absorb the preacher’s stories. Evangelicals are possibly more willing because of close familiarity with this rhetorical tool.

Can we now name the downside of “The Preacher’s Story”? It appears we’ve been groomed to be gullible.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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