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Posts Tagged ‘northwestern college

Wait—English Majors Win in the End?

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Start Writing Your Own Future

  • Announce your goal to lose weight and chances are better the pounds will flee.
  • Sign up for NaNoWriMo and chances are better you will actually write that novel (no matter how badly it turns out).

What we tell each other has a way of happening. What we tell each other about our preferred futures has a way of guiding next steps.

  • Write a letter to your collaborative, inventor friend about a business idea and find yourself planning concrete marketing and distribution steps at Spyhouse Coffee.
  • Write a business plan for your startup and suddenly remember your friend who became a venture capitalist. And then remember the friend who bootstrapped her idea.

See the pattern? Each step forward started with communication. You may say,

“No. the idea came first.”


Create in real time as you go.

Create in real time as you go.

But consider: the communicated idea created a spark. And—given the right collaborative conditions—the spark lit a fuse. And the fuse burned, gathering other ideas until the explosive, disruptive future no one had considered.

What if English majors learned entrepreneurship and began to see their talent for orderly, persuasive, deeply-rooted writing as a way to help themselves imagine new futures and chart forward-movement for others? What if they learned to solve real-world problems with story and emotion and analytics? Their solutions would drop-kick the spreadsheet & PowerPoint crowd. What if some English majors created Lake Wobegon while others created the next Google?

What if English majors learned business lessons alongside the standard fare of reading and writing? What if they were expected to serve up the occasional business plan or marketing strategy along with the usual essay, short story and poem?

If that happened, English majors would connect earlier in life that art and work and commerce and fiction and meaning-making all fit together in the same world. And they would begin to write their own future vocation.

By the way: 16 Wildly Successful People Who Majored in English


Caveat #1: I was never an English major.

Caveat #2: I teach English majors. They are smart, innovative people.

Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Gay Marriage and the Desperate Times/Desperate Measures Argument

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People of faith can do better

Amy Bergquist’s powerful editorial (“This man shouldn’t get the last word on gay marriage”) in today’s StarTribune makes a strong argument about treating people as adults. Read the comments (59 as of 10:10am, 135 as of 2:50pm) and you’ll be reminded of what a lightning rod issue this is for our culture. Setting aside the lightning and the working parts of Christian conviction in a multi-religious nation for a moment, I believe Ms. Bergquist is exactly right about Frank Schuber/Schubert (The Strib printed his name both ways) methods:

By contrast, Schubert’s template is simple, yet has proven remarkably effective. He works stealthily, through churches and sympathetic groups for most of the race, waiting till the end, when he unleashes a blitz of television ads that often feature rosy-cheeked children bounding home to tell their parents they learned in school that “a prince can marry a prince.”

Running emotion-driven ads at the last minute does not give room to debate, discuss or even engage one’s mind. It’s all visceral. It’s all knee-jerk reaction—which is the point: We all know that every institution and cause, from the Axis to AIDS, has played on emotion to move people to action. We each tune out countless of these messages every day.

As a copywriter and a student of persuasion and a Christian, I question Mr. Schuber/Schubert’s tactics: while his ads may move the vote, they do not promote transformation. Transformation happens as people engage with an issue and think it through and talk it through (and pray it through). On a personal level, it is one-on-one conversation that makes things happen. The notion of ambush communication tactics may give short-term gains in Jerry Falwell’s culture wars while leaving the nation’s current inhabitant’s thumbing their fact-checkers as they walk away.

I know these tactics well as a copywriter. But anyone can see that advertising and marketing communications are moving away from the trick-you-into-buying mentality. The marketplace is much more conversational and becoming more so every day.

As a sometime faculty member at Northwestern College where Mr. Schuber/Schubert was interviewed weaving his emotional magic, I wonder if the faith community that supports the college can call for better, more mature, truly Christian communication. I doubt the college sanctioned Schuber/Schubert’s particular work, though clearly the marriage amendment would have a lot of support from the evangelical-minded folks aligned with Northwestern College. But I would challenge the community to find ways to engage people in conversation—sort of like Jesus and Paul did—rather than supporting more rapid-fire emotional outbursts.

Let’s grow up.



Image Credit: Famous Movie Quotes via thisisnthappiness

Copywriting Tip #5 for English Majors: Why Voice Matters

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The human voice will always reign as king of communication.

words contextualize our presence and vice versa

I recently talked with a pastor who opted out of social media. Entirely. If he wanted to connect with someone, he picked up the phone.

“That seems anachronistic,” I said.

“No—that’s how I connect,” he said. “I talk with people.”

And then I realized: Yes! The sound of the human voice will never go away entirely. People may joke about removing the phone app from their phone, but that remains a joke. There’s something about the human voice that demands a response and always will. The human voice has a directness that goes beyond any technology, whether text or tweets or simple words on a piece of paper or images scattered on a cave wall. When our advertisements don’t get through, when our emails fall short, when our Facebook message goes unanswered, we go stand in front of someone and ask our question.

The human voice will always reign as king of communication–it says “I’m here. I’m present.”

Students in my professional writing classes at Northwestern College wander the web with ease. But they are loathe to pick up the phone to talk with people about potential job prospects. This is, perhaps, a pitfall with pursing writing. But perhaps the pitfall itself can show the way forward.

As copywriters we try to use that voice. We mimic it by writing in a conversational manner. With short sentences. We try to “sound” like the voice—“sound” because the sound is in a reader’s head (so—not really a sound). The more our writing sounds like the human voice, the more invisible it becomes—with the goal of messages that get into one’s mind without someone remembering they just read something. Kind of like how you drive to work everyday.

Unconvinced? Check out this German ad (and below) about organ donation. The pathos in the voices is unmistakable, even if you don’t speak German. But the voice is magnified by the dialysis chair. In the train station. It’s a bit of theater that amplifies the voice.

Context switching—from hospital to busy platform—becomes that platform that makes the human voice all that much more effective. The voice, plus the human before them—hard to resist. And emotion is a definite part of this.

Moral: “Write like you talk” is good advice. And not easy to achieve.


Image via thisisnthappiness

Written by kirkistan

May 9, 2012 at 5:00 am

What Makes Something Remarkable?

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Old Volkswagen Station Wagons never die.

In several classes at Northwestern College we’ve talked about what makes something remarkable, as in, “Hey, let me tell you about this thing I saw….” The Heath brothers tried to parse out the secret of remarkable in Made to Stick, and did a good job noting six principles that make something sticky. But in our Social Media Marketing and now in Freelance Copywriting classes, we’re noting “remarkable” is less science and more art.

Was this ad remarkable in 1966 when DDB’s Marvin Honig wrote it for Volkswagen? Maybe. It is remarkable now because of the nostalgic, iconic bus—just look at the shape of that thing! But for me it is the story telegraphed from inside the bus and at the center of the image: the small businessman waiting to sell you some chili. The copy plays out the story benefit by benefit. Sure—you know you are being sold, but you’re willing to walk right into the story for the 26 seconds it takes to read the copy.

The ad is remarkable in retrospect because of the place this vehicle took in American culture. The story is in the ad, and the story in the ad played out in real life. Surely “remarkable” has something to do with reflecting real life. That’s where things get sticky.

Read the copy here.


Via copyranter

Written by kirkistan

March 15, 2012 at 9:15 am

Wait for It (And Resist Checking Your Phone)—Dummy’s Guide to Conversation #8

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Anyone who writes for a living or who must regularly produce creative solutions knows the best ideas are typically not the first ideas.

I’m about to begin teaching a freelance copywriting class at Northwestern College and I’m guessing there will be some who will submit copy they’ve done at the last minute: something thrown together to meet the assignment requirements, but just barely.

don’t rush me

I hope college students don’t remember college as the place where they learned to do the least at the last minute to see how much they can get away with. This is not a great attitude to take into the workplace. And it is a fatal if you work on your own, because it leeches craftsmanship (and joy) from the work itself. And craftsmanship—care for the work itself—is one of two key elements in meaningful work. The other element is learning how to serve someone else’s needs and finally get over yourself.

When I brainstorm for an ad or a bit of copy I fill up pages and pages with pure dreck. Worthless stuff that only serves to get my keyboard moving. And then, at some point, one bit of dreck solidifies into a line that is sort of ok. Or a direction that makes sense. But that only comes after the pages of dreck. Occasionally it comes first, but I need the pages of dreck to help me realize any possible or potential brilliance.

How does that work in conversations? Same way. The first stuff we way say is obvious and not that interesting. The first conversations of a cross-country car trip have a vanilla flavor. But by the time you’ve arrived at New York to catch a flight to Europe, you know the deep hurts and high joys of everyone in your car, and you’ve somehow settled on a series of jokes about fast food restaurants or particular car types that leave you all gasping for air because they are so funny. It takes time and sustained attention to get to that place where the good stuff comes out. It’s almost like you invent the context for familiarity as you go.

This is the way for lots of satisfying things. And it is the way for ordinary conversations. I’m learning to dwell in a conversation. To not rush it. To give myself and other space to breathe so that they (and I) feel free to let come what may. And that can be uncomfortable because silence is awkward for us. Soap opera stars lock their eyes in those silences. In a cross-country car ride you look out the window. In a conversation, you just…look…and wait. But the silence works to lube thoughts. Resist the urge to move to the next thing. Resist the urge to pull out your phone. Wait for it. Because eventually something will come along that changes everything.


Image Credit: Langdon Graves via thisisn’thappiness

Written by kirkistan

March 12, 2012 at 5:00 am

Risky and Risqué Reading for Christian Copywriting Students

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Reading is dangerous. And profitable.

On Tuesday I start teaching Freelance Copywriting (Eng3316) at Northwestern College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. These are junior and seniors largely from the English department, but also from Journalism, Communications and Business. They are generally excellent writers and engaged students—people eager to take their faith into the street. We’ll use a few thought-provoking texts that deal with the business side of copywriting, along with the what to expect as a copywriter and how to get better at producing salable ideas (Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer, Iezzi’s The Idea Writers, Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas). But I’ve become convinced the real-time critiques of working copywriters around the web are just as helpful if not more useful than our texts. It’s just that the language and images used in the critiques often veer outside the lines of nice and polite, though I would argue the critiques follow the line of conversation Jesus the Christ encouraged with regular people like me.


I’ve devised a warning:

Question: Is this overkill? My goal is to help prepare thoughtful writers who fold God’s message of reunion into their communication work and live it out in a world that operates on a very different basis. I think students will understand. I’m not sure the administration will.

What do you think?


Image Credit: Chris Buzelli via 2headedsnake

Verbatim: Tell Other People’s Stories

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In which I learn from my students

We see better together

We just finished our Social Media Marketing class at Northwestern College. One of my favorite assignments was when the students critique their own social media efforts: their Facebooking and Tweeting and especially their blogging. Each student established their own direction at the beginning of the class complete with written goals and objectives. All for the purpose of establishing a community in just a few short weeks.

Students learn great lessons. They learn about how details and minute specificity can help their work be found by search engines (that is, by people using search engines). There is always a moment of triumph when they get their first non-class participant. They learn that a number in a headline pulls in readers. They learn how commenting on other people’s work is another way of polite conversation that also helps expand their reach. Of course I am being reminded and learning afresh all the same things. My favorite learning this time:

“I began by writing about what interested me, but I’m learning to let my audience guide the topic choice by what they comment.”

This is a mature understanding. She went on:

“I’m realizing that this blog is not about what I know and can provide, but about what the community of writers can share with each other.”

Writing our commonality has a way of inviting others in. It is a way of telling a story together. We talked about “psychic income,” which we defined as the intrinsic reward we get from helping someone else and how that helps others participate to build the story and the community.

Her comment also speaks directly against the notion of a self-absorbed generation. Here’s a person learning to put the needs and interests of others ahead of her own. Not that she was any more self-focused than any of us: we’re all struggling to fathom how to set aside our personal, angsty issues to see what’s going on in others. Telling other people’s stories is precisely the beginning of drawing together a community.


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