Wednesday, June 26

Three Mechanics For Stronger Multidimensional Writing

"The hardest thing in the world is the writing of straight, honest prose about human beings." — Ernest Hemingway 

Hemingway was almost right when he wrote it, but there are harder things a writer can do. He or she can try to write straight, honest prose to human beings while convincing someone else to foot the bill and leave well enough alone. 

But most clients aren't like that. They can't leave it alone.

It's not their fault, exactly. Somewhere along the way the communication industry became so miffed over how they might produce enough persuasive content to fill the infinite blankness of the Internet that they began to confuse "content creators" with "writers." They might share some similarities but they're not exactly interchangeable. 

One of them can burp out three pages of content in an hour for $25 and never lose a minute of sleep when their client insists on capitalizing titles like foreman and manager. The other one finds such style breaches akin to squeaky thumbscrews. The only thing worse has three letters. SEO. 

Sure, some writers have no choice but to acquiesce. It's either that or they'll come up short on the mortgage — something writers a few dozen decades ago wouldn't have cared less about. But that's another story. This story is about something else — it's about the hardest thing in the world.

The hardest thing in the world is teaching someone how to write straight, honest prose to human beings. Some writers insist it can't be done. Maybe they're right and I'm just a masochist. 

The reason most of them are skeptical is easy enough to understand. There is a fundamental difference between being able to write (create content) and being a writer. And generally, most people who call themselves writers can only write (and some of them don't write very well). They only think they can.

It's easy enough to see the difference even if the person can't see it themselves. The former can fill page after page of with one-dimensional prose, anything from a postage stamp-sized tweet to a business card book. The latter, on the other hand, captures a sometimes subconscious process of multidimensional thinking that is equally concerned with the mechanics of writing as much as the art of storytelling

What is this space? Most writers can't even articulate it, which is why great writers — people like Hemingway or Allen Ginsberg or William Saroyan — were always more inclined to tell aspiring writers that either you feel it or you don't. And if you don't feel it, they might insist you don't bother. 

I disagree with them a bit. As long as you care enough (and you have to care), you can capture that elusive feeling and learn how to write too. You can be a writer who never sees the job as a boring chore.

The mechanics of multidimensional writing. 

Outside of the storytelling, the mechanics of multidimensional writing primarily can be thought of as three considerations that occur seamlessly and simultaneously — mass, space time, and gravity. The terms weren't chosen by accident. They best describe three of layers I mapped out during a class. 

multidimensional writing diagram by Rich Becker

Great writers are concerned with the mass (format), space time (consistency and speed), and gravity (connectivity) of everything they write at the same time. If you want to be a better writer, you will too. 

Mass. You can size up any writing assignment any way you want, but everyone eventually concludes that there is only a beginning, middle, and end. The genre doesn't even matter. Copywriters create advertisements. Journalists flesh out articles. Fiction writers craft chapters. All three want to capture people's attention up front, tell a story, and finish with a call to action or compulsion to read more.

Space Time. As odd as the term might seem applied to writing, space time fits especially well. Writers are concerned with the flow and consistency (condition of adhering together), the relative pace and speed that the reader takes in the content, and some writing essentials whether mine or something more eloquent. All of these qualities make reading the content worthwhile.

Gravity. While some writers (especially the greats) argue they only answer to themselves, it isn't exactly true. They still have to find a voice (organizational or personal), apply a style with suitable linguistic or industry standards, and consider the audience because we all speak and write differently to our mothers, fathers, wives, friends, colleagues, and children.

If you couldn't see the difference between writing and being a writer before, perhaps you can now. It takes a little more than gathering up a pretty pile of words and putting them in order. Real writers consider everything at once and then run back through every word, sentence, and paragraph afterward. 

You can tell when they don't. You can tell when I don't. But can you tell when you don't? It could be the best question you ask before you hit publish or send something to print. Every little bit of it counts.

Wednesday, June 19

This Too Shall Pass Unless It Doesn't

Six weeks isn't that long of a time. It's about 42 days, a cut above 1,000 hours. Online, it feels like forever. It's such a long time that I tell audiences they only need twice that amount to change the world.

Right. Ninety days was the ideal benchmark I created for Bloggers Unite when I coordinated some of its biggest campaigns. The biggest with Amnesty International changed American foreign policy in Darfur.

I still believe in a 90-day benchmark. As long as you have a base in place, it's the right amount of time to do a campaign without feeling like the task is insurmountable or the outcome too far out. The same can be said for personal goals too. You can rock out a lot in 90 days. I'm around 45 right now.

The two most critical moments for anything: the start time and halftime.

If I stopped today, I would feel pretty miserable. Six weeks only covered the recovery period after my surgery to move from the cancer column to the cancer-free column. The next six weeks matter more.

As careful as I was (and I was careful), I put on an inch or two around my waistline after surgery and lost more definition than expected. It's the price paid for having a forced semi-sedentary lifestyle. I was given explicit orders not to lift anything over ten pounds, be mindful of twists, and no vacuuming.

If I took a snapshot today, most people wouldn't notice unless I had my shirt off. If I did have my shirt off, they might make some pretty crazy assumptions. Specifically, they might think I'm out of shape (me too). But they would also be wrong given a bigger context.

This is what Chris Brogan was driving at as a topic in May. You can find it again in another piece by Geoff Livingston. I've written about it before, talking about how people need to be the verb, not the noun.

My condition is temporal. In six more weeks, I'll be in a different place. These six are all about starting at half my exercise set weight and gradually increasing the amount until I am eventually back or better than pre-surgery. The first two sessions went well, even if I was tired after both.

The next one will be the bigger tell, as it directly includes abdominal muscles. Steady as she goes.

That isn't all there is to it, of course. I'm mindful of my diet and try to find time to walk (as it was the only recovery I was approved to do prior). I make sure I get enough rest. I try not to overdo things.

But the point is pretty simple. A snapshot forces permanence on things that are otherwise ephemeral.

People are easily hung up on snapshots. It's motion that matters.

As individuals or en masse in social media, most people see snapshots as permanent, which is the primary link between my article on the potential failings of isolated big data and the Livingston expose on mean tweets. It proves effective for this article too because ephemerality makes everyone wrong over time.

What most people don't know about any crisis event is that it only represents a moment in time when everyone agrees something bad has already happened. Everything from that point on is malleable.

Barring criminal charges and other liabilities, business executives have a choice to turn things around or close the doors. A personal crisis isn't much different: the crisis event is the moment you realize your company is in decline, your marriage in on the rocks, or your physical condition puts you at a health risk. Any or all of those things might feel like the end of the world. But they aren't, unless you're dead.

The realization is simply your cue to make your next move. You have a choice to do nothing (which is stasis, akin to losing ground at a pace too slow to notice until it's too late), give up (accelerate the bad), or reverse direction and mediate the challenge (have a plan to make things better). There are no other options, no matter how loud any spectators might become.

Right. The loudness of it all doesn't matter nearly as much as people think. Any negative sentiment is more akin to a symptom. Any closure is more likely to link to the disease — bad practices, bad ideas, or bad reactions. And that's why social media and isolated big data based on social media aren't accurate predictors. It's like a poll. It can show you a plot point in the near past, but the future is still wide open.

In other words, the reality of it reads much more like the title. This too shall pass unless it doesn't. Or, as I wrote several weeks ago: when bad things happen, there is very little you can do except find solace in the storm. You find your peace. You let it happen. But once the bad is done, you look for potential.

You make a plan. You press ahead with a positive trajectory. And as long as you set that plan in motion and then double check yourself at halftime, it's nearly impossible to become stuck in the moment or sliding backward. Today, I'm about 45 days better than I was the day I left the hospital and my momentum suggests than every day will be better ahead. How about you? What's your direction?

Wednesday, June 12

Big Data Will Be The Blind Spot For Marketers

It's almost frightful how big big data will get. It's valuation is expected to reach $47 billion by 2017. It seems to me that estimate is too soft. Big data is like a boom town. I don't mean that figuratively.

The $4 billion Utah Data Center will eventually turn Bluffdale, Utah, and surrounding communities into boom towns. It's not the only place it will happen either. Government isn't the only player in big data.

Everybody wants an inside scoop on how individuals, groups, and mass populations operate for predictive and manipulative reasons. They want to uncover the non-existent philosopher's stone of human behavior so they can tell when someone who scratches their nose has malicious intent. They want to guess the direction of the public like they might plot the expected path of migrating geese. And they, marketers in particular, want to know which 140-character combination will not only get attention but also drive sales or, at least, pick up a follower that might buy a product within the next 100 tweets.

Some people will read that paragraph and feel spooked out. Some people will read it and salivate. It seems to me either might be an overreaction, but sometimes it's hard to tell. What is easy to tell is that big data will eventually lead to more blind spots than spoilers.

Analysts are too busy tracking online activity without concrete outcomes. 

Part of the problem, especially for marketers, is that they measure the wrong information. Forrester, ISTMA, and VisionEdge Marketing recently conducted a study that demonstrated precisely that.

What they found was that marketing performance management is operationally proficient but strategically stalled. The problem is exactly what you might think it is. Marketers are measuring marketing activity and not business outcomes, message effectiveness or predictive insights.

What does that mean? Marketers are too busy trying to prove performance to justify their efforts. They point to CRM and marketing automation to create dashboard reports that show how many people visited, shared and traveled down the sales funnel. They make decisions based on those measures too, and most of them revolve around the numbers they think matter, tying it to things like platform popularity.

It's not enough and I'm not the only one saying it. According to the analysts, only nine percent of CEOs and six percent of CFOs rely on marketing data to make decisions. In other words, most marketers have online clout and not the real stuff.

Big data will be rendered useless unless marketers measure on multiple levels. 

Less face facts. Although online sentiment can be useful, it's doesn't tell the whole story no matter how much money you throw at it. If it did, BP would not have survived the Gulf oil spill. If it did, JC Penney wouldn't be desperate after being right. In both cases, big data was off the mark.

Data needs to happen across every public, not just the public. Data needs to be discovered with multiple methods, not just one method. Even some of the most visible social media crisis events have been largely forgotten. Others were online loud, but many people never heard they happened.

You might find something different when you talk with people as opposed to react with them.

• Interviews. With the right interviewer, nothing beats a series of interviews. It's how some of our major clients have tapped my firm to write white papers. They work in other ways too. Once I interviewed 40 employees at a company that believed nobody saw the company like they did. I found out that they all saw the company the same way despite that belief.

Focus Groups. Brainstorming sessions and focus groups made up of trusted stakeholders or select demographics can transform reaction captures into think tanks. For example, when I conduct core and strategic sessions, the first 50 responses are often the least important. Once a group hits closer to 100, they start thinking about vision instead of what's expected.

Vetted Surveys. Instead of self-selected surveys, sometimes slanted with leading questions, try objective surveys (and control groups) with people who are solicited based upon belonging to a specific public or stakeholder group. Find out what they think of an organization, industry, and what's missing from the equation — not only what they expect but what they never thought to expect.

Big Data. As I mentioned before, big data has a place. Just remember that sometimes you have to distinguish between the public and customers. One example that comes to mind was the initial launch of the iPhone without physical buttons. The quieter majority of customers didn't care. They didn't seem to care that the USB port was left off their iPads either. Never-customers cared much more.

After you're done, don't forget that inside out is just as important as what's being said outside.

• Employees. No matter how great you think your organizational brand might be, it isn't all that if your employees don't believe it and protect it. Most social media crisis events happen because one employee forgets just how important every branded piece of communication can be.

Stakeholders. When working with the National Emergency Number Association (9-1-1), I was privy to some very intelligent ideas on improving emergency communication because the association's stakeholders included several dozen thought-leadership companies that had glimpses of future tech. Do you need another reason to talk to vendors, partners, shareholders, etc.?

• Customers. There is plenty that can be tracked when it comes to customers and there is much more to consider than a single click. The value of the lifetime customer is more. It's one of the reasons most major companies jumped at affiliate programs. Their marketing jumps in after one buy.

The Public. Looking at the public makes sense, but with obvious limitations. Listening to the public en masse can sometimes be a good thing because it often serves as a commonsense barometer. Other times, it isn't nearly as good because it can be manipulated by catfish or implied wrongdoing.

Doing all this work takes more time, which means you can't turn on a dime with every decision. But then again, if an organization could turn on a dime then its brand relationship must be pretty thin. Or maybe the better way to say it is: isn't it commonsense to talk to people if you want to understand them?

Wednesday, June 5

Being A Big Fish In A Small Pond Works Until The Drought

Big Fish
Say what you will about statistics that claim people have as many as seven careers in a lifetime. I've seen studies that claim anything from five to 11, and wonder what might skew them.

The most common explanations offered up by researchers and reporters — job hoppers, immigrants, and young people — don't account for everything. The simplest answer is job evolution. A worker might make the move to management, opening up new career opportunities. Another employee might be moved from one department to another as a means of keeping them. An expert in one field might retire.

There are dozens of different reasons, but all of it points to one thing. The metaphor about becoming the biggest fish in the pond is rather pointless. It's a myth perpetrated by motivational coaches, training instructors and academics because they are in the business of selling skill sets that suggest expertise.

Careers don't work like they did in the 1950s. The job market has evolved.

The biggest fish in the smallest pond analogy only worked under the most pretentious and restrictive notion of the American dream that led people out into the suburban sprawl. The general concept was pretty clear cut. You graduated from high school, earned a degree for a career, accepted an entry level job, and then stuck with it until somebody promoted you to management, which eventually led to your retirement with a pension and gold watch. My stepdad had one of those dinosaur jobs, sort of.

After escaping foundry work for the airlines industry during its heyday before deregulation, he worked in telephone reservations before transferring to become a passenger services agent, a job track that lasted 40 years through no less than four or five buyouts and mergers while avoiding management.

Why did he turn avoid management? Managers didn't survive mergers. He preferred job security.

The chances of finding a one-track career job like he did (and being happy if not content doing the same thing like he was) is pretty slim. Most of his friends couldn't do it either. They all moved on.

Even if they could do it, there were no guarantees. Careers vanish all the time. Big fish travel agents, postmen, and meter readers have been watching their ponds shrink for some time. Architects, journalists, and visual artists like photographers and videographers are all struggling in the short term.

You can't always count on job trends either. Health care administration is hot right now, but it's anybody's guess what might happen after the aging population doesn't have a bubble. Government jobs remain hot despite the latest rounds of layoffs caused by tax shortfalls, but its growth is not sustainable. Anything in alternative energy has a ton of buzz, but the field is surprisingly erratic given its diversity.

The communication industry as a whole is in kind of a system shock too. Social media might have been exciting for some people, but it has left several disciplines in a state of confusion. Convergence has left people wondering whether public relations, advertising, marketing, social media, etc. are the best tracks to enter the industry. Most of them are disappointed to hear the truth. Almost none of them, exclusively.

In a world with unpredictable rain, it pays to be an amphibian. 

Amphibian Evolution by Rich BeckerThe modern market requires a different kind of thinking, even if human resources and headhunters have been equally slow to embrace the obvious. There are no degrees that are a waste of time. All of them provide skill sets that overlap, provided the student or working professional can enhance them.

The objective isn't to become a specialist anymore. And I'm not suggesting you become a generalist either. The answer lies somewhere in the middle, where you can weave together adaptive skill sets.

Once you have a foundation, through education or experience, look toward enhancing parallel skill sets as they become obvious. This has been the cornerstone of my career course over nearly three decades and it places me in an interesting position if I call recent events an intermission between acts.

The interwoven disciplines of advertising, business, journalism, and psychology have opened up any number of opportunities. Some only require a nudge if I was inclined to make a course correction.

As a stakeholder in several businesses, I have roles ranging from product development to executive management. As a communicator, I have experience as a strategic planner, creative director, journalist, copywriter, author, and some undeveloped talent in design. As an instructor, I could take a turn toward education and write instructional books. Or, if I wanted to, I could always dial back to pick up two classes for a degree in psychology (which has its own growing niche in business modeling). And there are several other skill sets, ranging from hobbies to oddities, that I won't bore you with.

I'm hardly the only one. Chan Luu managed her clothing boutique before becoming a fashion designer. Paul Gauguin was a stockbroker before becoming an artist. Charles Bukowski worked as a postman. Leonardo daVinci was an artist turned scientist, engineer and inventor. Benjamin Franklin was an author, printer, politician, and scientist (among many other things). Most founding fathers had woven careers.

The truth is that until the 1950s, multiple careers were more common than unusual. You almost have to dial back to the dark ages to find lifelong careers or family trades being prized as a profession. And in America, the concept was exceptionally foreign. Most people left Europe to escape the class system.

In fact, until suburbia entered the picture, few people wanted to be stuck with such a low glass ceiling. And nobody really wanted to make it worse with a dramatically tiered tax system either or mandatory social services based on the assumption that they would never make enough to pay for it. That came later, along with the big fish concept that suggested people find smaller and smaller ponds to feel important.

Make no mistake about it. If you recently graduated, your education has only started. Your goal isn't to become indispensable — the proverbial big fish in a small pond. Your goal is to become adaptable — the fish that can walk to the next closest body of water anytime the pool there feels a bit shallow.

The only way to do it is to create a braided career that includes one or two major areas of practice and several closely related minor skill sets that can become areas of practice on relatively short notice. Along with those skills, it also helps to learn something about the stock market. The 401 (k) is not enough to rely on for retirement like pension plans several decades ago.

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