Wednesday, October 30

Where Would We Be Without Words? I Can Imagine.

Literacy
Years ago, when John Corcoran told me that almost half of his students were not able to read beyond a third grade level, I didn't want to believe him. And yet, I believed him.

I believed him because third grade was a pivotal year in my education too. It was the same year that my grandmother made the decision to have me repeat the third grade outside of the public school system. Had nothing changed, I would have landed on the wrong side of a statistical division.

According to the John Corcoran Foundation, two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Not all of them do. Corcoran was a teacher.

He learned to cheat, but only cheated himself. 

As Corcoran progressed through school, he became more and more resourceful in hiding his illiteracy behind his natural aptitude for math, athletic prowess and deep friendships. He hid it so well, in fact, that he taught bookkeeping, social studies, and physical education for several years.

Living this lie wasn't easy for him, he told me, but it was not nearly as painful as not being able to help students who faced a similar problem. They could not read and he could not teach them.

Corcoran eventually did learn to read, but not until long after he left teaching and entered real estate. He was 48 years old at the time and an exception to the rule. Most people never learn to read.

A brief look at the growing literacy problem in the United States.

Literacy
There is a growing literacy problem in the United States and our self-confidence, much like Corcoran's self-esteem, makes us blind to it. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 14 percent of adults in the United States cannot read (the same number of people who do not use the Internet) and, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), this number swells to 40 percent when counting those who only possess level one reading skills (marginally functional).

High school graduation is not an indicator. As many as one in five students graduate without being able to read. About one in four graduate without being proficiently literate. One recent study, OECD Skills Outlook 2013, placed the United States 16th in literacy proficiency (among 23 countries).

The same organization warned that the U.S. was the only country among 20 OECD free-market countries where the current generation is less well educated than the previous one. It published this finding as part of the National Commission on Adult Literacy in 2008. It's not any better today.

Individual career paths aside, literacy is a family matter. 

Any time I step on stage or in front of a classroom, most people cannot imagine me as anything but a writer. Even with other occupational titles, writing has provided my career with a strong foundation. I write approximately 10,000 to 15,000 words a week (excluding email and social networks), which is the equivalent of a novel every other month (and the reason I don't write a novel every other month).

Ironically, I can imagine my career path without ever becoming a writer. From the onset, I wasn't very good at it because strong writing is indicative of being a strong reader. I wasn't a strong reader.

Reading came much later for me. I didn't learn to appreciate it until seventh grate. Writing came even later. My skill sets were only passable up until my freshman year. Both have stories for another time.

Teaching To Read
The point is that I can imagine it because I had to imagine it. But what I could not imagine would be the inability to help my daughter when she needed it most. She reads with confidence now.

While it has been an amazing journey transforming my daughter into a strong reader during the past six months, I can't help but wonder what might have happened without intervention. What if I didn't know how to read well, let alone teach? How long could she have hung on as a struggling reader?

Three days this week with literacy. Maybe you could connect to one.

All Hallow's ReadThursday is All Hallows Read. Most people pass out candy, but Neil Gaiman continues to make the case that people could pass out books instead. He calls the campaign All Hallows Read, a program that inspires more stories and less sweets for Halloween.

I wrote about the program last year, including five titles that have always conjured up an appropriate spirit for the season. Feel free to add The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, written by Gaiman. Coraline is another family favorite. The film is part of my family's Halloween lineup.

NCFLFriday is National Family Literacy Day.  The National Center For Family Literacy (NCFL)  is hosting a fundraising challenge for literacy. Proceeds from the campaign will help the center continue its work, which has helped more than one million families make educational and economical progress.

The reason family literacy is so important is that children's reading scores improve dramatically when their parents become involved and help them learn to read. This isn't possible without literate parents so the program goes a long way improving the household. The NCFL is my friend Geoff Livingston's account and he is raising funds along with hundreds of others. They have a "thunderclap" scheduled.

Cegas Valley Book Festival
Saturday is the Vegas Valley Book Festival. The Vegas Valley Book Festival is the largest literary event in Las Vegas, bringing together hundreds of writers, authors, artists, and illustrators to celebrate literacy and creativity. All programs and events are open to the public. Admission is free.

As social media director for AIGA Las Vegas, I have been overseeing elements of the social media campaign, including an event schedule on Facebook. If you are in Las Vegas this Saturday, there isn't a better way to promote family literacy and art appreciation. There is also an event kick off tonight with Catherine Coulter as this year's keynote.

One last thing for my own curiosity: What are you reading and why? I really would like to know. It's important because you never know who it might inspire next because words inspire lives. They inspired mine.

Wednesday, October 23

Content May Be King, But People Want Experiences

If you have invested any time as a communicator working in or with social media, there is a pretty good chance that you've heard the declaration that content is king at one time or another. There is some truth to the concept too, which was originally proposed by Bill Gates within a context that might surprise you.

Sure, we can all argue the finer points well enough or be cute and crown the audience, but the truth is that content will reign in one form or another. It's the crux of how we communicate our concepts, ideas, and observations. It's how we educate, inform, and entertain others in the world in which we live.

It doesn't even matter how that content is presented, as long as it is presented well. Write a post or white paper. Shoot a video or record a podcast. Share a picture or create a television series. It's all content.

Content appeals to the immediate but experiences set a plate of permanence.

While teaching Social Media For Strategic Communication at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, last Saturday, we spent a considerable amount of time talking about content and the constant pressure to produce more and more easily digestible content. Almost everybody does, right?

If you believe like most people — that influence and conversions can be quantified by counting actions — then you could make the case that more posts, more tweets, more stuff that people can act upon somehow counts. In fact, this was the thinking that many direct mail houses adopted ten years ago.

If your direct mail campaign has a two percent return from some list, then all you have to do is increase the frequency (or the list) to generate more revenue. Right? Well, maybe not, even if this thinking does explain why online lead generation is overpriced.

If you ask me, I think all these tactical formulas are detracting from something stronger. And this something is tied to a question I asked in class — if more content more often produces results, then why does one sentence from a book read one time or one scene from a movie screened once or one comment made by a teacher one time stay with someone their entire life? And this something can best be summed up by experiences.

Novels work because our brains see them as experiences. Movies work because our heads are hardwired to attach emotion to sensory perception. Social networks climb to the top of traffic charts not because of the content they provide but because of the sensation of experiences we feel. It's not my social media deck that holds anyone's interest in my class but rather the way I present it and how we experience it.


This communication blog (or journal) is no exception. A few months after writing about radio host Bob Fass and my attempt to make this space more indicative of an open format, more people have visited. In fact, more people have visited despite my efforts to undo blog "rules."

I stopped concerning myself with frequency, making this a weekly as opposed to a daily. And, at the same time, tossed out short content in favor of writing something more substantive. The result has been eye opening in that topics that used to have a one-day shelf life now have a one-week shelf life or more.

While I am not proposing this would be the case for every content vehicle, it does provide an explanation tied in part to the question I asked in class. Even when I wrote daily, the most successful posts or series of posts had nothing to do with "Five Sure-Fire Ways To Get More Traffic!" They had to do with the cancellation of a television show or two, the coverage of a crisis communication study or two or twelve, the involvement and participation of people in things that matter (even when it feels personal), and experiments that involved thousands of people besides myself. Good content? Maybe.

Good experiences? Absolutely. As fun as it has been to write satire at times, the gags rely less on writing and more on experiences. People remember because they were part of something.

The future of the Internet doesn't rely on mobile as much as experiences. 

I used to tell students that technologies in social media mean software. With the advent of Google glass, increasingly immersive projection displays, and the encroachment of the online world into the offline world, I no longer can offer up any such disclaimer. All of it — the hardware, software, and people driving the content and devices — help create the experience and even alter it.

Consider, for example, short stories being published at a pace of 140 characters at a time, characters who suddenly open their new accounts, and one project that included a dialogue and storytelling exchange between four or more accounts (each characters talking from their unique point of view). There are more examples, well beyond Twitter, but the point remains the same. Storytelling creates experiences. Technology creates experiences. Person-to-person interaction on a one-to-one, one-to-some, and one-to-many scale creates experiences.

And the rest? That content without experiences? It still has a place in the world, sure. But the future of social media isn't in producing ever-growing reams of information to get people's attention. It will be to elevate the content into a form of communication that creates a shared experience, online or off.

Can you see this future? And if you can, how might it change your own marketing strategy away from tricking readers into sampling content into some compelling experience that they want to become part of and participate in? The comments are yours to share, your experiences or, perhaps, propose an entirely new conversation. I look forward to it.

Wednesday, October 16

Do Hardships Make Us Human Or Is The Air Of Success Better?

The first time I saw the crowd funding video for Yorganic Chef, I was pleased with the finished product. The run time felt long, but Nick Diakanonis made up for it with his authenticity. He's telling his own story. It only made sense that he would drift off script and elaborate.

I noticed something else the second time I watched the video. There was one segment missing and it left me wondering whether it made a difference. The script, along with the campaign page, left out a story segment. It's the hardship part. 

Another side to the Yorganic Chef crowd funding story. 

There is a good chance that you won't see this segment of the story elsewhere. It was one of the elements left behind after several team members thought the hardship part was a negative. They want to be upbeat and bright. And maybe they're right. Or maybe they're not.

So yesterday, after receiving permission from my friend Nick, I considered the contrast. You see, Yorganic Chef was scheduled to open last year and Nick had already achieved his dream.

That is, he had achieved his dream until something unexpected happened. Two weeks before opening in Los Angeles, the person who owned the facility and packaging equipment gave him an ultimatum. Either Nick would sign over the business and become an employee or there would be no launch. 

Imagine. For the better part of three years, you invest your entire life in one solitary idea — to create a line of non-frozen, ready-made gourmet meals from the ground up, including a direct-to-customer delivery system that required the invention of a patented state-of-the-art thermal bag. You're two weeks from opening. Your dream is about to come true. And then, suddenly, everything is swept away.

What do you do? Do you sell out and become the manager of your own concept (and leave everyone who has supported you behind)? Or, do you undo the last six months of progress and try to start all over? Many people would have been tempted to sell out, but Nick isn't like that. 


As I mentioned before, the video doesn't include anything about the crisis that Nick had to weather. And there is a good chance most of the stories about the campaign won't ever touch upon it. 

But it makes me wonder. Do we have to be perfect to succeed?

Perhaps more than any other kind of person, business professionals and politicians tend to be most concerned about their image. They want to convey an image of perpetual success. They never lose. 

My life has never been like that. Most people have a mixed bag. Sometimes there are great runs when everything seems easy. Sometimes it feels like standing in sludge, with every inch of forward motion requiring the greatest amount of effort possible. It's a given. Some of us share it. Some of us don't.

Sure, some hardships can become victim stories, saddling some people with excuses to never succeed again. But I'm not talking about those. I'm talking about the hardships people face and find a way to overcome, much like Nick is trying to do. He isn't just a successful culinary entrepreneur. He's a culinary entrepreneur who is hoping to rebound from a rotten turn after doing everything right. 

Does that little bit of detail make a difference? Some people seem to think so, believing that the story is more upbeat without mentioning the hardship. Others might disagree, not seeing anything negative in the full story. If anything, they see it as the clarifying detail in starting the Yorganic Chef crowd funding campaign.

The money being raised by Yorganic Chef has a purpose. It's Nick's chance to replace what was lost — the facility and equipment — when someone he trusted revealed a different agenda. If that hadn't happened, Yorganic Chef would already be serving Los Angeles and looking to open in a second market.

So how about you? When you see crowd funding stories like the one launched by Tinu Abayomi-Paul, does it make a difference that she has a need? Or do you prefer a different kind of back story, one that scrubs away the blemishes no matter how relevant they might be? Or maybe it all ties back into those topics we've explored before — perception matters (but not really). Either way, I'd love to know what you think. The comments are yours. 

Wednesday, October 9

How Simple Decisions In Social Media Make Big Differences.

social media
Social media can be a mean sport in some arenas. It can be so mean that sometimes the media overreacts, like Popular Science. The publication will abandon comments, claiming that a politically motivated war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on "scientifically validated topics."

They don't want to be part of that, even if they still will be (whether they have comments or not). They might even have it wrong. The whole of science is not to continually reinforce "scientifically validated topics" but to investigate the known and unknown. After all, more than one scientifically validated topic has been turned on its head. There are things we don't know. But that's a topic for another time.

Do comment sections really make a difference? 

My interest in this topic was inspired in part by Mitch Joel, who suggested websites could turn comments off, at least until someone develops better technology to keep them free and clean. His point was that online conversations have evolved. Comments are anywhere and everywhere nowadays.

Specifically, people are more likely to share a link and/or add their thoughts elsewhere — Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Medium, or some other platform — than they ever will be to leave a comment at the source. Let's face it. Websites and blogs haven't been the center of the social universe for some time.

Today, social media requires significantly more elasticity and adaptability and the conversations that revolve around content are much more hyper-extended. They are smaller, shorter, less formal and more fragmented discussions about articles and posts. It's as if all of social traded sharing for substance.

This is vastly different from the days when bloggers used to covet comments as a measurement (despite never being able to explain why Seth Godin could succeed without them). Years ago, there were primarily three ways to respond to an article or post — you left a comment, wrote a rebuttal (on your own blog), or shared it as a thread in a niche forum. It made things orderly but also exclusionary.

Fragmentation
That is not the case anymore. Now, some articles can sport a dozen mini-conversations within the same platform, initiated by people who might have little or no connection to each other. It's fascinating and fragmented stuff, which is why some pros like Danny Brown look to close the loop on fragmentation.

Livefyre sounds like a decent solution, but not everyone cares for it despite going a bit beyond what Disqus "reactions" used to offer before they discontinued them. Other emergent comment solutions worth exploring include Google+ comments or Facebook comments. They draw mixed reactions too.

For me, I think the issue is something else beyond nuts and bolts. Errant comments, like those that Popular Science complained about, are manageable. Moderating comments by setting permissions isn't as hard as some people make it sound. And if fragmentation is a concern, Livefyre might mitigate it.

All that sounds fine, but it never gets to the root issue. You see, there is only one fundamental difference between comments at the source and comments away from the source.

Do you want comments to be part of the article or about the article?

Comments made at the source become part of the article. Comments made away from the source, even if they are ported in by a program, might relate to but are largely independent of the article. The difference is that simple, and this simplicity is deceiving.

science and faithIt's deceiving because when someone comments, where someone comments and to whom they comment to all have a bearing on the content, context, and character of that comment. It's deceiving because people tend to write to the author at the source (or other commenters) while they tend to write about the author or source material (sometimes slanting the intent to serve their purpose) away from the source. And it's deceiving because comments away from the source will never have the same kind of physical attachment or quasi permanence that those comments closer to source seem to achieve.

Right. Most people do not search for reactions when an article is older than a week. Few have the appetite to scroll long lists of link shares that aren't really comments, whether they are ported in or not. And, unless there is historical or outlandish content, even fewer read comments bumped to page 2.

So when Popular Science made the decision to abandon comments, they didn't just make a decision to suspend spammers and people they fundamentally disagree with on topics like climate change and evolution. They made a decision to disallow different viewpoints from becoming part of an article. And they more or less told told readers to write about the content but not to the authors of that content.

In a few weeks' time, their decision will likely be sized up for its pros and cons. But make no mistake, it was still the wrong decision. Silence is no friend of science.

You see, neither science nor faith need to shirk at a politically motivated war on their mutual expertise. The truth is that they are not nearly as polarizing as some would have you believe. Science and faith are like brothers in attempting to understand the unknown, often inspiring the other to stop and think.

What Popular Science could have done instead was create a white list of commenters better suited to scientific discussion, perhaps with differing but conscientious viewpoints. Such an approach might have moved their content forward, leading to breakthroughs or a better understanding of science.

But what do I know? I've adopted a different outlook altogether. Comments, I think, work best when they are treated like someone who calls into a radio talk show. If you could talk about anything you want, what do you want to talk about today? The comments are yours or we can chat in person at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on October 19 during a 3-hour social media session.

Wednesday, October 2

Teaching People To Write Requires A Contradictory Approach.

"I have known writers who paid no damned attention whatever to the rules of grammar and rhetoric and somehow made the language behave for them." — Red Smith 

Red Smith was one of the finest sportswriters in history. Not only did he receive the J.G. Taylor Spink Award from the Baseball Writers Association Of America, but he was also the first sportswriter to win the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Even more notable, he is the Red Smith for whom the Red Smith Award from the Associated Press is named. Ernest Hemingway even immortalized him in a novel.

"And he noticed how the wind was blowing, looked at the portrait, poured another glass of Valpolicela and then started to read the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune. 

I ought to take the pills, he thought. But the hell with the pills.

Then he took him just the same and went on reading the New York Herald. He was reading Red Smith, and he liked him very much." — Ernest Hemingway, Across the River and Into the Trees 

But that's not why I quote him in every writing, editing and proofreading class I teach. I quote him because he is right. And I quote him as a reminder to myself to never become a pompous ass about the trade and craft. There are too many writers who do, claiming they know this and that about writing.

Editing And Proofreading Your Work at the University Of Nevada, Las Vegas. 

It's always a challenging prospect — standing in front of varied students who range in age, interest and experience — for a three hours on some random morning or afternoon when the subject of the day is editing and proofreading. (It will be a morning session this Saturday.)

What makes this class especially daunting is that I have one chance to help people become better writers, editors or proofreaders. It's not like Writing For Public Relations at all, with writing assignments (and the rewrites of those assignments) being passed back and forth for ten weeks.

No, this class is a one-time shot, taught only once in the spring and once in the fall (occasionally once in the summer). And while I always present myself in a suit out of respect to those who attend, the class itself remains informal. I invite students to stop me cold, ask me questions on the fly, and otherwise test my respectable but finite knowledge about the written language.

Sometimes it takes awhile to visualize their hypotheticals and every now and again I have to research their questions after class because they stump me on the spot, but otherwise I manage well enough. Even the few times that I didn't think I managed well enough worked out for the best. I love to learn too.

Some of my lessons from previous classes even become part of my future classes. One of my favorite stories includes how I used to use "website" as an example of English being a living language until one student pointed out the Associated Press insisted it be spelled "Web site." So, I changed my class (providing the Associated Press explanation) only to be schooled by a different student when the Associated Press changed its ruling a week prior to my class (and without my knowledge). Figures.

The day someone thinks they've mastered writing is the day they aren't worth reading.

When I was younger, I used to sweat the outlandishly difficult questions or insistent but mostly wrong students. Nowadays, I'm more inclined to laugh about it, regardless of who is proven ignorant.

I attribute that to Smith. He knew better than most: telling someone how to write is futile. You can only show them how to write better. He was not alone in believing it.

Beyond the more obvious industry hacks like David Ogilvy, William Bernbach, Leo Burnett, Shirley Polykoff, I've learned a few things from authors like Ernest Hemingway, Allen Ginsberg, Ray Bradbury, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Wambaugh (to name a few). Except for Vonnegut (sort of), none of them believed a formula could make anyone a great writer.

Instead, you have to see writers as people in various stages of aptitude, ranging from the novice who doesn't realize there are "rules" to the experienced "blow hard" who lives for the rules (or is delusional enough to think he/she is better than any rules). Once you do, you guide them from one layer of aptitude to the next until they understand that being a better writer isn't very complicated even if it is contradictory.

You want to write straight, honest prose that can touch a human being. Nothing more or less. 

That's the easy part. The hard part is that there are a thousand different ways to do it. There are a million different things that can get in the way of doing it well, which is why every word, sentence, paragraph, chapter, plot and story needs to be tested against whatever the writer already knows.

You dust off those "rules," filters, and suggestions and then ask an honest question: Would this concept make it better, worse, or about the same? Oversimplified, you might ask: Does starting this sentence with something unconventional like "And" make it better, worse, or about the same.

As long as you have a good reason to do or not do something (and not as a defensive justification or cop out), you can break with standard, style, format or the so-called rules any time you want. Of course, this also assumes you know the rules you want to break and understand what's behind them.

This is probably why people who teach writing sometimes seem like they burn the candle at both ends. We want, or at least I want, to lay out some rules for people to try on and then encourage them to wear those that fit and dismiss those that don't fit. It's how you become a better writer, and you will never stop doing it (ever). Anyone who tells you differently is either too busy trying to imitate or perhaps too busy trying to justify why they can't imitate.

What about you? Do you have any rules, techniques, or tips that you've found useful? I'd love to read them or check them out. Just drop them in the comments Or, if you would rather talk about something else all together, please do. The comment section is an open forum around here.
 

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