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Archive for the ‘consulting’ Category

How To Rip The Top Off Your Club

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Work or church or bowling: It’s easy to mistake why we’re here

First a quiz:

  1. My company exists to give me a job. True or False?
  2. My church exists so I can feel better about myself once a week. True or False?
  3. I’m part of a bowling league so I can practice bowling and maybe get better. True or False?

Lately I find myself using “club” to describe those organizations that have turned so inward they have forgotten their purpose. Sometimes clients forget they got into the business to help customers live better lives. Sometimes they spend their days fixated on managing up. Sometimes pastors think all these people show up to take direction, fill the offering plates and carry out the pastoral vision. Sometimes parishioners show up thinking this hour will medicate me—I’ll be inoculated from the mundane horror of daily life for about a week.


Of course, none of this we say out loud. We also try not to say these things to ourselves. But our attitude gives us away.

When I teach college writing classes and we talk about finding jobs, we spend a lot of time talking about how work is thing we do together for others. Work is not a thing set up for the sole purpose of getting money. If you think the former (work is about helping others) you’ll have an enduring, meaning-making attitude that will help you accomplish stuff in the real world. If you think the latter (work is for me to get money/fame/prestige), you will never be satisfied. Might as well trade derivatives on Wall Street.

It is true that we each stand at the center of our world. Philosopher Robert Sokolowski calls that stance our “transcendent ego.” And that’s just how we experience all there is to experience in the world. But it takes a maturing person to step away from the giddy, teen-age fiction that all of everything revolves around me for real.

Is it time to call your club back to the central purpose—the purpose that people signed up for in the beginning—making a difference in the world? If it is, you’ll likely have uncomfortable conversations with your friends in the club. You may even cause current programs to jump the tracks. But that’s ok: that’s what happens when we refocus on the bigger purposes of why we are here.

That is a work that helps all of us in the club.



Image credit: Kirk Livingston


No, Really: What does a Philosopher do?

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When Adjuncts Escape

Helen De Cruz has done a fascinating and very readable series of blog posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) tracking the migration of philosophical thinking from academia into the rest of life. As low-paid, temporary workers (that is, “contingent faculty” or “adjuncts”) take over more and more university teaching duties (50% of all faculty hold part-time appointments); smart, degreed people are also starting to find their way out of this system that rewards increasingly narrowed focus with low pay and a kick in the butt at the end of the semester.

Ms. De Cruz has a number of excellent interactions with her sample of former academics (at least one of whom left a tenured position!). I love that Ms. De Cruz named transferable skills. What would a philosophy Ph.D. bring to a start-up? Or a tech position? The answers she arrives at may surprise you.

Why the Nichols Station Apartments look different.

Why the Nichols Station Apartments look different.

I’ve always felt we carry our interests and passions and skills with us, from this class to that job to this project to that collaboration. And thus we form a life of work. Possibly we produce a body of work. We once called this a “career,” but that word has overtones of climbing some institutional ladder. I think we’re starting to see more willingness to make your own way—much like Seth Godin described his 30 years of projects.

The notion of “career” is very much in flux.

And that is a good thing.

Of particular interest to me was the discussion Ms. De Cruz had with Eric Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan found his way out of studying phenomenology (and philosophy of language with advisor John Searle!) at Columbia and UC Berkeley to writing television comedy (Letterman, Flight of the Conchords, and Big Bang Theory, among others). If you’ve watched any of these, it’s likely you’ve witnessed some of the things a philosophical bent does out loud: ask obvious questions and produce not-so-obvious answers. And that’s when the funny starts. It’s this hidden machinery that will drive the really interesting stuff in a number of industries.

Our colleges and universities are beginning to do an excellent job dispersing talent. That thoughtful diaspora will only grow as time pitches forward.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Anxiety is the experience of failure in advance–Seth Godin

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There is no better apologist for freelance than Seth Godin


If you find yourself asking “What is my work?” listen to this interview with Seth Godin:



Via Brainpicker

Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

May 22, 2014 at 8:35 am

Let’s get visceral: Choose your signal before you gut-punch

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What forms say before we know anything

I recognize a business card because of the shape and size. I recognize a sermon more by a particular tone and rhythm (which signals a certain intent) then I do the presence of a pulpit or podium. I know a joke is coming because Letterman is on stage and it is 10:37pm. I know the joke will have a setup and a payoff. Or perhaps the third of three statements will be funny. I am ready for the joke because of these forms.


Before we know anything we recognize a form. Our brain sorts how to react to that form, and then, once that is settled, we process communication content. Long before I hear any content, I know what category to place each of those communication events. It is the context that prepares me: when I see X, I know Y is not far behind. My nervous system anticipates the next piece.

But what if the form is out of whack?

What if I hear preaching on a street corner? What if a clever copywriter uses a rubber stamp instead of a business card (“Here, give me your hand and I’ll stamp my contact stuff on you palm.”). And what if Letterman was serious? He has been a few times: right after 9/11 his serious tone—entirely uncharacteristic—began a bit of national healing.

I tell my copywriting students to follow the forms at times and to bust the forms at other times. For instance, we must make our ideas as easy to understand as possible, and so we present our ad concept to a client in a form that is immediately recognizable—even if the idea itself is challenging. And sometimes one thumbs one’s nose at the form on purpose, just to bust through (that is, the communication gut-punch).

In any case, following the form or busting the form is a conscious decision.

And the form is not God (not even a god).

By the way, Dan Pink has a great story about the Pixar way of presenting a concept here.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

What happens when we say stuff?

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An Epistemology of Writing

I just realized I run my college writing courses in ways possibly dissimilar to how others do it. We have texts, of course, and readings. We have my dry lectures, which I try to turn to discussion (with limited success). We have examples of excellent copywriting and we talk about why they work and when they don’t. We have questions. We have answers (some from me, many from the class). We have cordial fights and the occasional snark (more remains unsaid, I think). We have yawns and longing looks at the clock.

And we have assignments.

You have my attention.

You have my attention.

A portfolio addition due ever Saturday night, five minutes before the stroke of midnight. Way to ruin a perfectly good weekend, right? (Ahem: for the record, one need not wait to start an assignment until 10pm on Saturday night).

It’s the assignments—these portfolio additions—that are the real teachers. I try to direct. I try to offer my small ways of thinking, but the real work of this education happens deep in a student’s brain pain: where sparks fly and catch the dry tinder of panic: “What do I say—and how?”

So it has always been with me: I learn as I write. I often don’t know what I think until I write it. Or say it. Just ask Mrs. Kirkistan. But when I research a topic and begin writing about it, all sorts of synapses fire and connections meet and angels sing and the sun shines on my keyboard, where doves and baby deer have collected. Especially after three cups of coffee.

And this is what I depend on in my class: that the threads of our discussion will come together in the doing thereof—the writing of copy. This capturing of a brand, or a dream. The useful words that direct and possibly encourage as they launch into a reader’s mind.

But this: just doing an assignment dampens the angels singing. This class is less about getting my grade and approval and more about creating something you will proudly show to Ms. Creative Director or Mr. Small Business Owner who can hire your magic for their capitalistic endeavors. I can already see those who get this concept. Their work shows it.

Bless them.

And bless all the rest of us, too.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Why Name a Problem?

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“They won’t recognize a great solution until they see how big the problem was.”

Along the way to becoming a copywriter one must learn to name problems. This is an essential skill for anyone trying use their creativity out in the world of real people and real issues. Because when you present your bit of inspired copy to a prospective client (as one does when planning for serendipity), they will not see how inspired it is until you tell the problem the copy solved. Once they understand the problem, they can begin to appreciate the genius of the solution you created.


Naming a problem is best done in story form: there was this nasty condition and people worked around the nasty business in this way, which was inconvenient and bad. But we saw that this could be done, and so I created this. Which seemed to work and everyone was happy. Problem solved.

But naming a problem can sometimes be uncomfortable. Not usually after the fact, when everyone can easily see that it was a problem. But before: if you are the first one to notice a problem it takes a bit of courage to say it out loud to others. What if you got it wrong? What if you just don’t understand? If you name the problem, will you be responsible to fix it?

Here’s where a lesson from work fits back into real life as a human: naming a problem is the first step toward fixing it. That is true with my clients and it is true with students and it is true in all sorts of relationships and life situations. To name something is to register that a problem exists. It puts the problem on the radar and communicates to others that there may be an issue.

Until you name a problem you have very little opportunity to address it.

Naming is a bridge to fixing.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston


Boss: With this ping, I have now pled

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Think Globally. Act Tactically.

Sometimes we just do our job.

Sometimes we think bigger thoughts and help our boss sort out what next—long before being asked.

I maintain our best work comes from that place where we think strategically and act tactically. Our best work comes from big thinking harnessed to this moment’s need.

Today in our copywriting class we talk about relationships with clients. My line on this is to cherish, honor and protect your client—which starts to sound like a marriage—not quite the right analogy.

Then again, maybe it isn’t far off.

Clients are people who trust us to handle their message. They’ve hired us to do something they cannot do. This is a privilege. Our favorite clients know the best work comes from well-articulated need and parameters followed by the freedom to go and do. And sometimes our clients depend on us to help articulate those needs and define those parameters—simply because we get very close to the need.

This is where the copywriter’s outside perspective helps immensely. It’s also where we deploy our skill of listening into the deep waters of what our client eats/sleeps/breathes/knows. Because sometimes what seemed like only tactical work can turn into an opportunity even the client didn’t realize was before them. And we need to say so.

Such is the opportunity with collaborative teamwork and trusting work relationships. And that’s why it is important copywriters always think Grande or even Venti rather than Short.

Here’s to clients! (Jaunty raising of the ice water glass)

Long may they…, well. Hire.


Written by kirkistan

March 27, 2014 at 9:38 am

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