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Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category

Business Writing Can Be Better

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Let’s Worm Backwards to Walk Forward

Our goal is to say or write our idea more clearly.

Along the way we’ve picked up this notion that there might be more to communication than us just delivering thin slices of thought from head to mouth (or pen/keyboard)to our boss’s brainpan. We’re starting to think the process of communication does a bit of turbocharging to the idea and to the people on either end of the idea.

Reopen your own Thoughtfulness Shop to communicate well.

Take It From a Copywriter

That turbocharging is exactly what James Webb Young counted on. Young was an advertising copywriter who lived and wrote in the last century. His goal was to express ideas for money—he marketed products. So old ideas, cliched ideas, worn-out words and weary images—none of that would do. All that dated content was the same as saying, “Let your eyeballs slide past—you’ve seen this before and it doesn’t matter.”

Young held a particular fascination for two phases of pre-writing: preparation and organizing. His love of revision may not have been far behind. He thought new ideas were just recombinations of old ideas, so he did his best to fill his brain with all he could find out about a new product or new project or new assignment. Part of the copywriter’s role in the world is to ask the most elementary questions, because forcing experts to simplify can reveal profound truths. He wanted to know everything, much like British copywriter Tony Brignull.

Asking questions, getting information, and then stripping ideas and combining and recombining ideas and then joining ideas that are impossible to join and then splitting ideas that are fused—all this until exhaustion sets in. And then the walk-away and then, if all goes well, the “Eureka!” Read more in Young’s book A Technique for Producing Ideas.

Why Business Writing Sucks

It’s because writing is not our job. We’re engineers. Or scientists. Or physicians. Or managers. Our job is that noun or verb in our title, not writing. We’re doers, dammit! But we’re also humans, and humans learn by telling and by listening. It’s our time-honored way of becoming less stupid.

But because our work-time is focused on the important stuff of our job, we miss the important stuff of being human together. So we pick words and images from the last decade to express our new idea and then slap them on paper or PowerPoint as quickly as possible to stop the pain of writing. And then we wonder why no one cares and why the boss with the budget won’t listen.

Good communication means digging deep into why something matters. Often that involves self-revelation which also might call forth emotion. These are things humans use to communicate.

Worm Your Way Back into Your Process

To communicate in powerful ways, we must prepare ourselves and our message.

If we expect it to just happen, if we expect to throw-together some presentation, we doom ourselves to ready-made clichés and images, which are guaranteed to be ignored.

Powerful communication means going back to gather information, to ask what we want to accomplish, to think about our audience, to combine old ideas to get new ideas, to worry these ideas on paper until a fresh, revealing communication portal opens.

Along the way, expect a turbocharge that changes the idea, that changes the thinker (you), and might possibly change your relationship with the person at the other end of the conversation.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

I want to write. Am I doomed to be a barista?

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Check out my post at the University of Northwestern.

Written by kirkistan

April 28, 2017 at 4:13 pm

Wes Anderson Christmas Spot

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2 Reasons You Should Watch This:

#1–It’s charming.

#2–See #1

Certainly someone was selling something in there.

Via Adfreak

Written by kirkistan

November 28, 2016 at 9:50 am

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

How to Wait Like a Boss

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Where does Fallow Fit in Your Work Calendar?

You’ve pulled all your levers, called in your favors, phoned the usual suspects and still, nothing.

You’ve checked and rechecked your inbox.

Nothing.

This is the freelancer’s periodic plight: No matter how busy you were last year, last month, last week, today is a different day—subject to the vagaries of clients, markets, time and creative flow. And there’s nothing you can do about it except wait.

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Waiting is not the worker’s lot. Employees have no end to work and the seeming ability to remain busy. It’s only when the busy employee steps away from a job (voluntary, lay-off, fired) that she or he realizes that they might have benefited from stepping off the treadmill earlier. A bit of perspective may reveal their busy productivity didn’t really add up to much they can take with them.

Waiting is also the job-hunters dilemma. The job-hunter taps her toe waiting for the wheels to turn, for the right people to review the resumes and the interviews to be scheduled. Waiting for an offer. Waiting for a “thanks-but-no-thanks.”

No one likes waiting. You want productivity 24/7 and let’s start being productive this instant.

Waiting is a complete waste of time.

But is waiting a complete waste time?

In fact, waiting pulls back the curtain on our fallow ground.

Kathleen Norris, in her book The Quotidian Mysteries, wrote about the infinite prairies to which she returned to focus on writing. All that land—miles and miles—seemed so unproductive. And that unproductive land was also a reflection on her mood. It took time, but she eventually saw that there was actually pretty big stuff happening in those fallow fields—all largely unseen. Norris learned to sit with her own fallow, unproductive times knowing that hidden gears were turning and new avenues were opening:

No small part of the process of writing is the lifting up into consciousness of what has long remained in the basement, hidden, underground, as in a tomb.

Maybe you are crazy busy and fallow/unproductive/waiting time has no place in your schedule. Please reconsider. Take that vacation. Rethink your time between jobs. Look deep into the underground and pull out the life what was entombed years ago.

That’s how you wait like a boss.

 

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Image credit: 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

The Joys and Sorrows of NeuroMarketing

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My Will be Done—in Shops as it is in SpreadsheetsNeuroMarketing-2-20160705

If you wonder why the prolonged absence from posting, it’s because I’ve been trying to write and submit articles and short stories to various markets. Since last year’s NaNoWriMo, I’ve fallen into the great fun of writing stories.

I’m currently writing “The Joys and Sorrows of NeuroMarketing™” in less than 2000 words. I’ve also been writing to find out what happened to the neurosurgeon, the failed theologian and the copywriter in The Naked Copywriter. Sadly, a medical device marketer in that story has gone rogue to develop a neuromarketing app.

In case you wondered.

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

You and Joe and Industry 4.0

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Can we grow the ways we talk together?

Some say Industry 4.0 will be about Cyber-Physical systems, the Internet of Things and the Internet of Services. But I cannot help but wonder if, along the way, some genius with a high EQ will also find ways to bring out the best in people and unearth fresh ways for us to work together.

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As hierarchy gives way to connecting mission with ideas and tasks, as people learn to bring their whole selves to work (emotion + logic + ethics + spirit—because they are rewarded for it), as people exercise agency and autonomy and ownership at work—things will look different.

Buber: Come on, folks: It’s “I/Thou” not “You are my tool.”

Buber: Come on, folks: It’s “I/Thou” not “You are my tool.”

Maybe these geniuses, with the ginormous EQs, will help us understand what happens as we form ever more confining boxes around employees. Maybe they’ll show us that using metrics that note every eyebrow twitch and hand movement, metrics that reward those movements that fit the company goals, those metrics actually measure the wrong things and defeat innovation before it is even begun. Maybe these geniuses will notice that our levers of control over employees also inhibit the very thing we most need to move forward.

I imagine stepping into the office of one of these high EQ geniuses and glancing at the portrait of Martin Buber on the wall—their patron saint of collaboration. I imagine being lectured by these geniuses on strategies around deep listening and meetings that matter and how to disagree with each other productively and how they aggressively eradicate authority-rhetoric & boss speak because it is so demotivating to be reminded that someone owns you. And it is also, by the way, not true.

Let industry 4.0 grow to include people.

Please.

 

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Dumb sketches: Kirk Livingston

Hey—You Can’t Say That

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On Students Subverting Form

Some of my copywriting students were eager for more direction on how to use the forms of communication. Some were eager to go species-by-species and list out the formulas for producing them: How to write a print ad. How to write a direct mail. How to script a broadcast ad. How to write and then say the magic words that get you hired.

I taught that class a few years back. It was all about working through the various forms of corporate communication and learning to write in just that style and toward just that end. I taught it for years until I realized everything inside me was shouting for students to run, to break with the form and find a new way to say what they need to say.RarelyFollowedRules-20160506

For today’s copywriting students I was able to point to my beloved copy of Alastair Crompton’s The Craft of Copywriting (long out of print, I believe). Mr. Crompton offered lots of rules that probably worked well in 1979 and some of which still apply. Various copywriters have offered sets of rules over the years. Some stick. Some don’t. Bernbach, Burnett, Ogilvy and Reeves all visited our classroom from time to time in written and oral form. They each had a golden rule or two. And, of course, James Webb Young’s old Technique for Producing Ideas.

In truth, there are some general notions and guidelines and, well, forms (if you must) that apply. But over the years I’ve thought of those as only the receptacle of the really important thing: the idea. It is the idea I’m fixated on and I tried to communicate that to students. Ideas come from grappling to combine something old and something new, something borrowed (from an audience need or desire) and something that can woo. As far as I can tell, there are no formulas for producing ideas, only the setting up of conditions that may lead to ideas.

But, you know, no guarantees.

As many of my students said, “You can’t manufacture ideas.” To which I would always respond, “Or can you?”

Forms and formulas are there and they can be useful. But forms and formulas don’t carry much life. And mastering the forms and formulas, for a beginning copywriter, seems like a starting point. But is it a good starting point? I don’t think so.

The writer’s task is to breathe life into an old form or subvert it or discard it. The key is always and forevermore to put life on a page.

Forms and formulas will always bow before life on a page.

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

May 6, 2016 at 8:01 am

On Kathleen Norris and White Space

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Rethinking your mundane

[No, this is not a racist rant about white anything.]

My client frequently talks about “white space.” What they mean is that extra computing capacity available with many of their industrial tools. The tools are designed to accomplish some process over and over again, but it turns out there is a mini-computer buried in each tool that can do other things as well. I’ve been writing about the other things those mini-computers can do—they bring a sort of intelligence to ordinary tasks.

The whole discussion has me thinking about Kathleen Norris and her defense of the time we spend doing dishes or laundry or brushing our teeth. She claims those are more like sacred moments than they are boring time wasters. That’s because in those moments where we go on auto-pilot as we do that same old thing yet again, our minds are actually free to play or to make connections between the bits of life we’ve been experiencing. To Ms. Norris’ way of thinking, that daily floss may well lead to epiphanies—even connecting with God—if approached with openness.

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As a writer, Ms. Norris depends on those automatic moments as well as the fallow moments:

“But I do detect in the quotidian…[meaning daily or ordinary], rhythms of writing, a stage that might be described as parturient, or in labor, about to produce or seems almost unbearable, stretching out  before me like a prison sentence, when I seem most dead inside, reduced to mindlessness, bitter tears or both, that what is inmost breaks forth.”

If there is a birthing process for thoughts (full disclosure: as a male my closest experience with birthing is watching our kids get born), I’m pretty sure it has something to do with staying open during our mundane boring moments. If we fill up our mundane moments with entertainment and Facebook and Twitter, we risk staying in that fallow place.

In the delightfully-readable book A Philosophy of Walking, (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2014) Frederic Gros writes short essays about writers and thinkers who wrote while walking. Like that great dark cloud Nietzsche, who scrambled up mountain trails and paused to scribble his gloomy reveries. Or Thoreau or Rimbaud or Kant—writers and thinkers accustomed to spooling out the thorny stuff while ambling about. These writers made a habit of using the mundane to tease out the thoughts they were working on. Because when you are walking, you really can’t do anything but put one foot in front of another foot. And your own personal white space (in your own personal brain pan) is free to think thoughts and connect dots.

As we move deeper into this constantly-connected age, I wonder if the wise among us will learn how to preserve their mundane tasks precisely because that’s where meaning keeps coming from.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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