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Posts Tagged ‘marketing communication

How to Anticipate a Thaw

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Sometimes life mirrors fiction

My client needs a strategy for their online presence.

They know their presence appears text-heavy and pedantic, making them less attractive to the new audience they seek. My client’s online presence must quickly inform the querying audience why they should care, but this message needs to be packaged with a color palette and intuitive organization that say “Come in!” long before the audience gets to the headlines, let alone body copy.

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All sorts of off-the-shelf tools can make that happen these days. WordPress has a number of themes that can invigorate tired old websites.

But what I’m interested in is the engagement-promises my client can make that are deeply true. The organization itself is on the cusp of change and their online presence is a first new thing to present a refreshed vision. As such, their presence needs to be aspirational (“Here’s who we want to be”) but also rooted in long-held values. Their new presence needs to reflect the hard-won, chiseled facets they have come to love—facets that may just present new ways forward.

When I get stuck writing a piece of fiction, I go back and see what my characters have already been saying and doing. And then I retrace their steps along a new trajectory. And that is exactly what my client needs.

This is a team effort situated in real life. And this team effort will retrace and map and begin to outline a new trajectory. This team hopes to generate a conversation that precipitates a thaw after a long winter. We hope this conversation will pull in those who have long been hibernating.

 

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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

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

Writers at Work: “How do you imagine that will unfold?”

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Seeing Need and the Power of Imagination

The leader’s peculiar gift is to help followers imagine how their work makes meaning. The leader makes personal how the organization’s work helps others, solves a human problem, makes the world better/more beautiful/safer, for starters. From that position of ownership (note that leaders may appear anywhere in an organization, position does not equal leadership) the leader imagines the next steps needed to move the organization forward. The leader acts on that vision and invites others in.

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If you accept that the writer’s art is at least partly a reimagining or reordering of life, then you may be willing to consider the work of writing in business. Can writers in business look forward to how next steps unfold and then follow that thread backward to make those steps happen?

I say, “Yes.”

But not just because I do this for a living. [Full disclosure: I do this for a living]

It’s because writers in training are blind to this side of the life/work/art equation.

That’s a premise I’m toying with as I consider how entrepreneurship and professional writing fit together. I’m working through an entrepreneurial focus to the next Freelance Copywriting class at the University of Northwestern—Saint Paul, and I want to help English students see beyond self-focused essays and creative writing. A necessary starting point is inviting them to use their writerly tools to imagine life from that leadership/ownership/need perspective. I believe this can shift ownership to the writer and provide useful insight for right now.

Julian Sanchez’s tweet as the Senate report on CIA torture was released gets at this very concept:

Imagine forward and trace backward to locate solid actions. That is the leader’s gift—and possibly the writer’s.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Don’t use that (brand) voice with me

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Brand Voice Should Invite Not Forbid

My friend Dimitri* asked leading questions.

They weren’t the impossible questions like “What is the meaning of life?” or “Why five toes? Why not four or seven?” where you could speculate together and combine ignorance.

No, Dimitri’s questions were contrived and assembled to manipulate your emotions and response. In conversation with Dimitri, you knew he was looking for some specific answer. But he would never tell what he wanted. He engineered his question so the one plain answer was what he wanted you to say. Then he could launch into a lengthy response. That game left us weary, frustrated and eventually vetoing most of Dimitri’s questions.

Lots of firms play Dimitri’s game: their communication is guided only by a desire to sell (which is, after all, the point of corporations and not necessarily bad). But when the only conversation a company will entertain is one that leads you to buy their product, that looks more like monologue. People veto those conversations and/or walk away.

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No one wants to be reduced to a number on a spreadsheet or a statistic. That’s why the used car salesman with the plaid jacket is a favorite target in our culture. It’s also why manipulative sermons and boring lectures are easily dismissed. Of course, some brands are famously annoying, like the “Save Big Money” voice of Menards and we tune it out—except for when we remember it because we want to save big money.

There is more opportunity today to invite participation instead of hijacking it. And invitation, while harder because it requires thinking about someone else’s need or desire, has the advantage of building relationship.

Monologue and the preachy/lecturey voice have limited shelf-life.

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*Not his real name. His real name was Smitty.

Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

November 24, 2014 at 1:22 pm

Can Hospitals and Medical Device Companies Ever Be Friends?

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Maybe. If conversations start with shared goals like reduced readmissions

 “…days of relying on glossy brochures while hiding unpublished clinical data are fast disappearing.”

Image by Glen Stubbe/StarTribune

Image by Glen Stubbe/StarTribune

And so Suzanne Belinson, executive director at BlueCross BlueShield, took the medical device community to task at the recent LifeScience Alley annual meeting, at least as recorded in yesterday’s Star Tribune (“In era of growing risk, emphasis grows on medical device data,” by Joe Carlson). The sin of selling will no longer be tolerated and hard data trumps happy smiling faces, so don’t be coming round with your “marketing presentations” and corporate pens with clever logos.

We will not be swayed.

Actually, the days of relying on glossy brochures have been gone for decades (and perhaps such “reliance” existed only in the fever dreams of ad agency execs). Most physicians have long demanded data and journal articles, most company representatives knew this. Of course, baddies in the mix will always re-interpret data (published and unpublished) to fit their promises to sales managers or shareholders.

So…data it is.

And the bigger the better. That seems to be a theme everywhere these days, from politics to education to fast food. We are gonna get to the truth of things by sifting the data. Because data does not lie: especially if your group “lives and breathes data.”

Of course, there will always be persuasion. If not glossy brochures, then the recommendations of thought leaders or interpretations and caveats of naysayers. There will always be data sources we pay attention to and data sources we dismiss. But we’ll be the judges as we do the numbers.

Two things strike me:

  1. We (the big collective we, as in everybody) need to pay attention way more than we do today to do an adequate job on the numbers. Can we all dive into the data to properly satisfy ourselves? Not likely. Life is just too busy.
  2. There must be trust at some point. Even those doing the numbers need help doing the numbers. And so we come to trust the white-smocked number-keepers to tell the truth. Do we really have time to not trust?

Maybe this is a place for “both/and” not “either/or.”

Let’s do the numbers as best we can and learn to trust, too.

And here’s a step toward trust: reducing hospital readmissions together is one very obvious data point.

The ACA penalizes hospitals if too many patients “are readmitted with 30 days after being hospitalized and discharged.” As hospitals and medical device firms approach the same goal, each from their perspective, we’ll find that “sharing risk” is likely to cause each party to spill a bit more of what they know. It is the transparency we foster in our conversation, as we both move toward the same goal, that will build trust.

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Image credit: Glen Stubbe via Star Tribune

Thought Leadership Takes (too much) Time

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And don’t be deadly-boring

In content-creation, I talk with clients and potential clients about telling their story in a way that promotes them and their business as thought leaders. Most clients have a business expertise that is poorly understood outside their niche or industry. And that is always the way: who really knows or cares how someone else spends their day?

One of the big challenges with our social appliances (Twitter, for example, and blogs) is telling the details of our story in a way that, a) shows we know what we are talking about, and b) communicates something not-deadly-boring to a casual passer-by. This is a huge challenge because most of us are interested only in what we are interested in.

Telling what we know in a way that engages the passerby is the challenge. That’s why I often use the metaphor of talking with the stranger or telling something to a ten-year-old. When eyes glaze or when they simply walk away, then you know you’ve not told your story well.

The thing is, our social appliances do not let us off the hook with the casual passer-by. Yes, we write our messages to our core audience, those are the people we seek to help and serve and engage. But those messages still must have enough hook to stop and (possibly) engage the conscious human passing by our web page/tweet/handmade sign. Building our brand, whatever that looks like: whether marketing a medical device, marketing a specific line of knowledge about medical devices/healthcare or marketing your own book—all these require that we tell our story in a way that keeps detail in focus while showing why it all matters to life on this planet.

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Of course, the best way to do this is to know your topic well. Once you know your topic, mix in notions of how a stranger or passer-by would react and adjust accordingly. I find that knowing a topic and then adjusting the topic to the needs and interests of a particular audience has a miraculous effect of providing something I simply must say:

And that is a beginning of thought leadership: building out from what you know, day after day. It is very time consuming but if you are passionate about a topic, product or service—or a particular way of looking at life—than you can hardly keep from building the topic anyhow.

 

By the way, whether you write or not, everyone on earth should follow Jon Winokur’s tweets (@AdviceToWriters). His tweets should make anyone eager to create.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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