conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Posts Tagged ‘Teaching writing

Hey—You Can’t Say That

with 7 comments

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.

###

Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Advertisements

Written by kirkistan

May 6, 2016 at 8:01 am

Why Honesty is Catnip for Collaboration

with one comment

In Class Today: Here’s Where I Failed

I first encountered “fail faster” in Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody. In that book it started to make sense to me that getting something right was a goal, but perhaps not the first goal. Maybe I saw traces of “fail faster” in The Cluetrain Manifesto. As a writer I knew I had to write many (verily: many, many) drafts before I started to approach the thing I really wanted to say. I also knew that the work of moving toward that thing I wanted to say was built on failure after failure, and that each failure left me with something closer to what I intended. Each step in the work shaped the next step in the work And each step in the work also shaped the one doing the work.

epic_failure-20160229

motivational pictures

In our Social Media Marketing class last week students presented their critique of their community-building activities (we publish content to define and attract the student’s desired target audience). Midway through these presentations I remembered why I love this day so much. There is an honesty to it. Students describe what they’ve used blogs and Twitter and Facebook (and Instagram and Pinterest and Reddit) and other tools to create for the past six weeks. They show successes. They describe failures. They talk about what they would do differently. In some cases they reimagine the entire exercise for themselves and their team. And sometimes I can see the seeds of a much larger purpose. Sometimes it is quite clear that this person’s passion will push them toward building this community for a long, long time.

And then we discuss failure. Truly, these are fascinating moments in the Q&A that follows each presentation. The great news: everyone fails. Not the course, but in building the grand vision they set out to build. Six weeks in they realize how they could have adjusted their purpose, how they could have set more clearly defined metrics to reach very specific goals. Some realize they did not give it their best shot but instead rushed through and sort of wasted their moments of contact with their target audience. Some realized they could make a solid point with 350 words when they came into the class needing at least 1000 words. Some realized their target audience lived over in an odd unlit corner of the Interweb and this other particular tool would have faithfully delivered them to this audience.

The Big Reveal: It isn’t until you try to actually build something real, with real people  and real purposes toward a real end, that you realize life doesn’t not just coalesce around your pet purpose. In fact, this shouting into a crowded, noisy concert hall that is social media must be very deliberate for even the smallest thing to happen. And I mean even the tiniest purpose to move forward.

And as we detail our failures together (I have my own dozens of examples to share), new ideas pop to the surface and classmates who had not talked with each other are now offering ideas and are engaged in the purposes of this other community.

It’s the honesty bit that pulls in collaboration—the telling it like it is. The missing the high mark in a major way that when shared, evokes collaboration rather than pity.

That seems like a solid life lesson to me.

###

 

 

Is it Better to Sound Smart or to Communicate?

with 4 comments

Please stop me before I commit an act of literature.

We had this discussion in class. A literature student was talking about how writing for social media was different than, say, literature. Popular writing—so our discussion went—is aimed at a different audience (here we picked our way around classist terms), and is not as, well, interesting, as literature. All her other classes required a compacting of ideas into sentences that grew rather long. Sentences that required a fair amount of attention. Sentences that required grappling with theologically heavy terms, or the whimsy of philosophers who felt compelled to make up words for their new ideas. Or writers who committed acts of literature in the most tortured fashion.

BridgeBuild-20160210

 

I maintain that writing for social media requires that we let go of jargon and the complex sentences that shout “College!” or “Graduate School!” At our best, our writing is nearly transparent: leading right into the topic without stopping to say “Look at me.” Does that mean we use dumbed down ideas and language? I’ve said no to this several times. Erasing our jargon so smart people from different disciplines can understand us is not the same as dumbing down. And, in fact, when we do the work of translating our tribe’s jargon into regular English, we are poised to find a certain elegance and cadence that sounds more human, more fresh and less like the forced and predictable tribal language.

Respecting the reader is central to this project of communication—this bridge-building activity. If you think the reader is an arse, that comes through in your word choice. If you think the reader cannot be trusted, that shows. If you think the reader is intelligent and can handle the topic in words any human would understand, your reader will know.

One irony of the discussion is that many of the writers we celebrate as having written literature were themselves seeking for the simplest way to say things. Countless writers talk about kill your darlings and omit needless words and how nearly anyone can write to confuse. But the real artist takes a meaningful notion and makes it clear to someone else. And this: we are more likely to say something memorable and possibly even elegant the farther we get from our tribe’s insider language.

Will you commit an act of communication today?

 

###

Image credit: Kirk Livingston

How to be an Object of Pity

with 22 comments

Hint: Grow a gray beard and present folding-money

Twice now young women have bought me coffee at the coffee shop on the campus where I teach. Just standing in line like everyone else—minding my own business—I pull out my $2 (cash-money) and the young woman in line behind me says, “Just put it on my card.”

I resist: “No! I wouldn’t hear of it,” I say. “You can’t. You must look after yourself with that—or at least spend it on your friends.”

I went on in that vein, until the cashier reached past my $2 (cash-money) for the woman’s card.

“She’s not going to spend it all anyway,” said the cashier, repeating what the woman said.

So. Free coffee. Thanks profusely offered.

Yesterday: same thing. I pull out my $2 (cash-money) and the young woman behind me says, “Just put it on my card.”

I resisted. This time with less velocity. Free coffee. Thanks profusely offered.

WPRMug-2-03022013I’ve puzzled over this phenomenon. What I know for certain is that the students here are some of the kindest people you’d ever hope to meet. And earnest. Looking around I also see that I have landed from the planet “old guy.” Though I know even recent grads feel that way when revisiting their alma mater. Still, it’s been a long time since I was an undergrad.

But I think it’s the folding money that triggers the pity. What kind of a person uses cash-money on campus? Clearly someone in need and, frankly a bit out-of-touch. We all use cards.

You must not be from around here.

“Let me help you.”

The other day a student reflected on her community-building work in our social media marketing class:

“It’s also important to create a presence that encourages interaction,” she said.

I can’t get her comment out of my mind, partly because of getting two free coffees and partly because of the riddle of how to write in a slightly-unfinished, slightly-needy way. columbo1-20160205Like how Columbo conducted investigations: you pity the unkempt, needy fellow until you realize he is canny like a fox.

I’ve long puzzled over the magnetism of a dumb sketch. Stepping up to the white board and drawing something badly as a way of explaining an idea is a sure-fire way to invite others in. And they step up—not to correct, just to collaborate.PlaceByRiver-2-20160121 Because it’s sorta fun to draw badly and without the pressure to create art. And it can be fun to think together. And, like presenting folding-money in debit card economy, you clearly need help.

What are you willing to leave unfinished to draw others in?

###

Image credit: Kirk Livingston, The-Toast.Net

Start at the Top. Again. (Copywriting Tip #10)

with one comment

Tell Yourself the Story

Imagine holding a long piece of tangled fabric. You hold it high above your head because you want gravity to gradually unravel the twists and tangles. Maybe you shake it. Probably you smooth it out: starting at the top again and again and work your way down the length to get the fabric straight or flat.

Many threads to unravel.

Many threads to unravel.

What works for fabric also works for a complicated idea. Sometimes the only way to unravel a complicated topic is go back again and again to the beginning, flattening and shaking out the twists and turns as you retell the story.

I’ve recently finished up a complicated article about our changing health care system. The article had lots of moving parts. It was not a long article, just dense and in need of translation: from jargon-filled, industry-speak to human.

Time and again I found myself stuck in the middle and staring at the screen: so many bits and pieces to fit. Absolutely stuck and wondering how to line these parts up so they make sense (and so they are sorta interesting for the target audience). Because in the end we read one word after another. We read in a linear way, even though the story may compose itself in our brainpan in non-linear chunks.

The only way I could get myself unstuck was to start at the beginning again. Back to that very first paragraph, and work my way through. Sometimes I would modify that paragraph to fit what was next. Sometimes I would modify what was next to fit the lede. But the only way forward was through the beginning.

During National Novel Writing Month I found myself doing this, mostly as a way to find out where the story was going and how it could possibly move forward. It was a way of telling myself the story hidden in the words already written. There are one thousand ways to write the story and some will present as we retell it to ourselves. And so we pick one.

Sometimes retelling the story again and again is the only way forward, because it leads to understanding:

By the way, a wonderful book about locating the story of your own life is Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak. Check it out.

###

Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

January 13, 2015 at 9:27 am

How You Say: Not Just “What” But “When”

with 3 comments

A word is a fuse. Light the fuse.

I’m teaching a freelance copywriting class at the University of Northwestern—St. Paul. Yesterday was our first day and I wanted the students to begin the shift from writing papers for professors to writing words to make a difference. I maintain that excellent copywriting is the very opposite of spewing malarkey and hype. Especially today, when anybody who can read and/or listen and absorb marketing messages has their BS meter set on high all day long.

The best copy doesn’t call attention to itself. The best copy is nearly invisible and absorbed without realizing it. The best copy latches on to or illustrates a larger idea and leads the reader to the idea threshold. The best copy is emotive and rational. If it can be silly too—all the better.

We talked about the differences we perceive in writing for non-profit, mission-driven organizations and for-profit organizations. At first glance we might think one organization is all about mission and the other is all about money. But that is a mistaken notion: for-profit organizations can be all about mission and non-profits can be all about fundraising. Examples abound in each category.

One of the things I love most about teaching these particular students is the sensitivity to mission. They are cool with the notion of using your writing skills to help others. Many are considering starting work with non-profits, but that is not unusual for many studying the liberal arts. These particular students are often eager to trace their motivations for helping others back to some of the ancient texts that drive much of this school’s mission.

But one thing that is not so clear is that mission-driven work exists in both non-profits and for-profits. One’s mission comes largely from within. Our job—that thing we get paid for—is an outward-focus of the mission we bring with us. A copywriter with a sense of wanting to help others can find a home in any number of organizations, whether for-profit or not-for-profit. And using that copywriting skill to bring a reader to a life-changing realization can be a primary motivation for the whole task of writing.

I would like to see more copywriters with that motivation.

My go-to example is the quiet laugh from the writer in this four-minute film. Listen for the laugh. Think about what that laugh says about delivering the right words at the right time:

###

 

%d bloggers like this: