Thursday, June 10

Being Creative: Five Tips To Find Inspiration

I might be teaching "Editing and Proofreading Your Work" at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, this weekend, but past experience tells me to expect one off-topic question. It makes sense, I suppose.

Despite my adopted style for blogging, which leans more on journalism, students tend to notice how much acrylic I've accumulated for creative work. (That was before I grew tired of dusting symbols of affirmation and stopped entering.)

"How do you find inspiration?"

I never really liked the question. Or, more accurately, maybe I never liked my answer. Since I have hundreds of techniques that work for me, but not necessarily for you, the best answer always seemed to be that it becomes part of your nature. And chances are, if you are going to be any good at it, it's already in your nature. Yeah, I know. Sounds like a cop out.

So this year, I decided to craft an answer and share it here first. Hope it helps. Or, if you're so inspired, offer something better.

Five Tips To Find Inspiration.

Embrace Pop Culture. Advertising can be, but doesn't have to be, like original literature. It often blends in pop culture or builds upon what is already resonating with people. Keep tabs on the top ten everything: books, movies, television shows, recording artists, plays, fashion, trends, politics, etc., etc. It's the single best way to gain insight into millions of people.

Trust me. The movie The Blind Side (2009) was a hit for a reason. It's a story of hope, honesty, and perseverance. We need some of that nowadays. It's also quite the contrast with Apocalypse Now (1979).

Find The Fringe. You can't always rely on what is popular. You have to pay attention to what is bubbling below the surface. Stuff that never quite makes it to the mainstream, but has an undiscovered quality that is unmistakably refreshing or long since forgotten.

More importantly, you have to consume content well beyond your personal preferences. I usually have a long list of things on my future reading list. Some are are recommended by friends. Others are just shots in the dark. Books aren't the only tool. The fringe can be found anywhere. You know, stop ordering the same sandwich at your favorite restaurant for once.

Listen Everywhere. If you want to know what people are thinking, take some time to listen. I touched on the difference between hearing and listening yesterday. Don't limit yourself to online conversations. Listen to how people interact: in a grocery store checkout line or in a restaurant.

The real advantage to the skill is that most people don't even hear other people, let alone listen. They are too busy talking. Trust me on this. If you're always talking, you'll never learn anything.

Experience Life. Go out and do things. I tend to adhere to a rather rigid schedule. There have probably been too many weeks in my life that blurred together. Even so, I try to sneak in some random stuff every now and again. For example, I'm not a ballet buff by a long shot, but I was happy to go when my wife suggested our kids could use some culture in a city not known for it.

But there are plenty other things out there if ballet doesn't strike your fancy. I've done a lot of different things, ranging from rafting to horseback riding (in search of wild mustangs no less). My family tends to plan vacations the same way. We take at least two small vacations every year. At least one of them is someplace we've never been. And even if we have been someplace before, we load up on sights and experiences we've never done before.

Become An Insider. This has practically become pat in my Writing for Public Relations course. Stop hanging out with communicators all the time and hook up with the people in your industry. You'll often learn more from them anyway.

I once met a communicator who worked at a utility. He always told me that he had a hard time relating to the non-corporate side of the company. (Utilities are cool. They have two very different cultures in one company.) It was fair, I suppose. The non-corporate guys had a hard time relating to him too. Me, on the other hand, I toured every power generation plant in southern Nevada. And when I needed to interview anyone, I did it in person. (It was a great excuse to get out of the cubicles and hang with dynamic and sometimes salty people).

Maybe my initial answer wasn't a cop out.

Looking back over the list, I suppose my answer wasn't such a cop out. If you do those five things, creativity will likely become part of your nature. If you follow some of the more popular advice, on the other hand, you'll likely kill it.

At least, that was my conclusion on those the heaviest hit by inspirational advice posts. One suggests stealing ideas outright. Another pointed toward finding purpose in life. And yet another was just a big long list of my first tip, expanded to include blogs, quotes, and all that.

Those tips are so far away from the truth, I couldn't bring myself to link to them.

Real creativity isn't an exercise in transposing things on top of one another. It's much harder than that. You have to see beyond the surface and focus in on what really makes things tick. Simply seeing an abundance of floral patterns and deciding floral patterns are "in" is not enough. You have figure out why floral patterns are in and then work from there.

Or better yet, try those five tips on for size. Like I said, if you do them enough, you probably won't have to look for inspiration. It will already be bottled up inside you, waiting for the right moment. At least, I think so.

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Wednesday, June 9

Listening: The Most Important Lesson In Communication

Yesterday, Nevada held its primary elections. If you were listening to pundits, it was a night filled with surprises. If you were listening to the public, most races played out exactly as expected. And despite a few upsets, some people still aren't listening.

Listening isn't only about politics. Listening is about business too.

There are dozens of studies and hundreds of surveys making the rounds right now. All of them are hoping to catch a snapshot of how consumers might behave. Most of them have useful data, but most people don't listen. They only "hear."

There are several developing stories that underscore the point. It's why Utterli died. It's why Digg is struggling (but probably not dead). It's why the BP oil spill response has eclipsed Hurricane Katrina as the worst response in American history. It's why not everyone is cheering Santa Clara, Calif., for banning Happy Meal toys. And, there are dozens of more examples.

Politicians are "hearing" constituents. Business executives are "monitoring" social media. But few are "listening."

Utterli heard Utterz turned some people off at a glance, but they didn't listen to how people came to love their enduring cow mascot. Digg heard that being allowed to share content among a Digg network fueled some spammers, but they didn't listen to understand that people love to share social media while tuning out spammers anyway. There are several other social networks in jeopardy too.

BP and the Obama administration hear that people don't think they did enough, but they are not listening closely enough to understand the public wants them to admit their mistakes and that they don't have anything under control. Santa Clara elected officials that heard parents wanted something done about childhood obesity, but they didn't listen to responsible parents who consider McDonald's and Happy Meal toys a once-every-few-months treat. They can make decisions about Happy Meal toys with their own pocketbooks.

Even researchers are becoming deaf nowadays. There is another portion of the Harris Interactive poll I mentioned yesterday that proves the point. Harris Interactive couldn't understand why 70 percent of Americans gave the Constitution high marks, but low marks to the government (43 percent) and political system (23 percent) it empowers. They heard, but didn't listen.

Most Americans think that the political system to driving government is operated well beyond the Constitution, which was originally written as the people's contract with its government. This also set the stage for a volatile election cycle because people don't believe politicians are meeting their commitment to protect the Constitution.

How a lack of listening undermined several campaigns in Nevada.

If you want to understand how this all played out in Nevada, never mind what the pundits say. Sue Lowden, who is a dynamic business woman I had the pleasure to do work with years ago, didn't lose the primary because of her chicken comment. The gaffe could have easily been corrected, but her campaign didn't know how (we did, ho hum).

But what really underscored the race was that she wasn't listening. Candidate Sharron Angle was listening. People are tired of hearing about what establishment representatives want to do for them. They want elected officials to represent them.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid isn't listening. Almost immediately after Angle won (he'll face her in the general election), Reid's campaign launched a release attempting to label her ideas as "wacky." Someone didn't think to tell his staff that the block who voted for her might be put off by it. At least she's representing Nevada, some might say.

The story played out the same in the gubernatorial race. Gov. Gibbons could have turned his time in office around, but he consistently didn't listen. It wasn't the economy that cost him his incumbency. It was how he handled the economic downturn. While he made some of the right decisions, he only "heard" people didn't want tax increases. That's true (they can't afford them). But what he didn't hear is that they wanted him to demonstrate leadership. By the time he did, it was too late.

In the one race I was engaged with, it was much the same. Tim Williams was an underfunded underdog. His opponent was "anointed." Some insiders were so convinced that he could not win that they advised him to directly attack his opponent. He refused. The public is tired of games. Williams listened.

Are you listening or are you hearing?

Whether it is a political campaign or consumer product, the public is much more sensitive to who is listening and who is not. Generally, you can tell the difference in whether they react to what they hear or respond because they are listening.

Case in point: the Obama administration thinks that they didn't communicate their response to the BP oil spill clearly enough. So, he reacts by defending what the government did do. He's not listening. People don't care about what they did do or whose "ass" he intends to kick. They want someone to clean up the spill. Use hair. Use hay. Use air filters. Just clean it up and stop making it worse.

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Tuesday, June 8

Writing Skills: Public Trust In Education Falls Short

Harris Interactive, one of the world's leading custom market research firms, recently conducted a poll to determine how Americans feel about 16 quality of life issues across the country. What was especially striking to me was that colleges and universities ranked high (65 percent), but the public school systems ranked low (32 percent).

Keeping in mind that SAT and ACT scores are not meant to test for achievement and are generally taken only by students considering college, the public might have a case. We took a look to see how well the brightest students were performing.

Between 1990-91 and 2008-09, SAT test scores peaked between 2003-05 and then began to decline. Writing has steadily declined since 2006 across the board. Contrary, ACT scores peaked sharply in 2007, before declining again in 2008.

2009 SAT Test Scores

• National Critical Reading Average 501
• Nevada Critical Reading Average 501

• National Mathematics Average 515
• Nevada Mathematics Average 505

• National Writing Average 493
• Nevada Writing Average 479

2009 ACT Test Scores

• National English 20.6
• Nevada English 20.5

• National Math 21.0
• Nevada Math 21.4

• National Reading 21.4
• Nevada Reading 22.0

• National Science 20.9
• Nevada Science 21

Specific to my state, Nevada has consistently dropped in SAT performance, with 42 percent of the students taking the test last year. And while it scored 21.5 on the ACT, only 30 percent of students took the test. This represents a relatively low percentage of college bound students, especially when compared to some states where up to 70 of students test.

Is The State by State Public School System Broken?

Some people think so. In fact, the public school systems rank low enough in public opinion that national initiatives, such as the Common Core State Standards Initiative, are working toward standardizing the educational system on a national level on a voluntary state-by-state basis. I'm not writing about this in depth today. It's a complex issue. At a glance, I can say I had no issues with the recommended literature.

More to the point, people in Nevada clearly feel the school system is broken, particularly in Clark County. And from my own perspective as a parent with a child in the public school system, I've noticed the best teachers tend to deviate from the system that is currently in place. The least effective tend to adhere rigidly to the system. So do systems really work?

In addition to being a parent, I also teach a few educational outreach classes part time at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In most university settings, teachers are generally free to teach the subject matter any way they would like. And from what the students tell me, the educational process is hit and miss as a result. Some teachers lend nothing to the experience. So maybe the real problem is the teachers?

Modern Solutions For Teaching Education.

It seems to me, much like any communication program, you need to balance educational goals and needs. You need a solid system; but you also need teachers that know when to deviate or supplement that system based on the needs of each class.

This Saturday, I will be teaching a half-day program on "Editing and Proofreading Your Work." The class is designed to improve clarity, consistency, and correct usage in your personal, literary, commercial, or business writing. The class was constructed from scratch, but I deviate from the material every year based on in-class feedback. The result is a program that never repeats.

It seems to me that the structure of the class works much the same way modern education works best. While much of the foundation is built upon grammar basics, the class is adapted toward communication, integrating the Associated Press Stylebook and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (among others).

For example, given the limited time I have with students, I might mention subordinate clauses, independent clauses, antecedents, etc. in passing. But that is not the focus of the class. I really want students to be able to apply the instruction on a daily basis by thinking about the sentences they write. Memorizing terminology or rote memorizing rules tends to be less effective than learning to analyze a single sentence for clarity and by exercising critical thinking skills.

Over the years, however, I found something else. Students that learn to apply the examples tend to learn the grammatical terms anyway. So, it allows the students, especially those that lack proficiency in writing, to learn by application as opposed to memorization.

In other words, if this was a class in a public school system, they would first learn to write better essays and then learn what an antecedent is through the application. The problem with many systems today is they attempt to do it backward, stressing the importance of the antecedent first.

Think of what we're asking student brains to do with traditional instruction. It requires us to strip a sentence of comprehension, overlay unrelated semi-memorized terminology, reconstruct it, double-check with comprehension, and then repeat. Instead, I like to teach students to recognize when a sentence lacks clarity, pinpoint the problem, and correct it based on style suggestions. In the process, they learn the terms anyway.

Anyone interested in the class can register online or call 702.895.3394. You can also contact Michelle Baker if you have any questions (check the class listing for her contact information).

But, in closing, I'd rather leave people with a different thought. Public education is failing if the majority of high school students score just better than 1,000 on an SAT, and 21 on the ACT. Most colleges won't accept those scores. So we might prize our universities, but what good are they if only about 20 percent of all students can be admitted without an educational handicap? Your guess is as good as mine.

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Monday, June 7

Growing Businesses: Slow And Steady

If you are looking for any signs of economic recovery, think small. Small business is continuing to grow at a slow and steady pace despite economic challenges and some uncertainty over the impact of the financial overhaul bill that serves as a contrast to the Federal Reserve's call for increased small business lending.

According to the 2010 Small Business Scorecard/May by SurePayroll, small business hiring continued to increase slightly in May (+0.3 percent over April), bringing the year-to-date increase in hiring to 3.7 percent. The reason is simple enough. There is a psychology behind the optimism.

Small Business Scorecard By Region

• Midwest, up 4.3 percent with Illinois leading growth
• Northeast, up 2.3 percent with no distinguishable leader
• South, up 3.5 percent with California leading growth
• West, up 3.9 percent with Texas leading growth

In most states, the trade-off for improved employment is smaller salaries and slightly diminished optimism (down from 68 percent to 63 percent from April to May) as small businesses accept greater risks to take their companies to the next level.

One Quick Tip For Developing Businesses

As small businesses grow, owners quickly learn they have to wear many hats. Most of them serve as human resources director, purchasing agent, sales agent, bookkeeper, etc., etc. In fact, the number one complaint I hear from many business owners is that they eventually feel pulled away from the passion that prompted them to open their business in the first place.

Even with marketing, social media may have opened up a low cost opportunity that is being readily adopted, but relatively few really have time to follow the "owner online" model prescribed by some social media experts and authors.

Likewise, most small business tips smack of common sense that still can't be executed, e.g., avoid distractions, limit e-mail usage, organize time slots, and tackle the big rocks first. Sure, such tips work but only on a tactical basis. But to succeed strategically, business owners should focus on two things: what they love to do and their overall vision for the company.

Sure, they need to learn some basics across several subjects to ensure they hire the right people and outsource to the right consultants or small businesses. But they don't have to wear all those hats. They only have to wear one, besides whatever it is that they love to do, and that is the hat of an executive who is capable of hiring people who take on dual roles within the company. It's a strategy worth detailing later this week.

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Saturday, June 5

Pretending At Freshness: Fresh Content Project

In the film industry, most producers know that you can have a good script and still produce a bad movie. However, if you have a bad script, you can't hope to produce a good movie. Communication works much the same way.

You cannot spin bad actions into positive perception. You can, however, change negative perception by communicating positive action. Even then, it's still hard work. In fact, it can be extremely hard to change public perception when the communication is grounded in truth and results are self-evident, never mind trying to paint a smiley face on sludge.

Ergo, you can adopt social media and still come up short when the focus is on creating the perception of a following (without actually having one). You can give customers every product choice under the sun and gain nothing more than overstocked inventory. You can attempt to spin away a crisis, but all it does is add more fuel to slipping public trust as the oil washes on up on southern beaches.

Best Fresh Content In Review, Week of May 24

Social Media in Small Business is Anything But Small.
Brian Solis recaps the Small Business Success Index (SBSI) by the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business with Network Solutions. The study reveals that social media adoption by small business has doubled in the past year, with an emphasis on social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. The primary reason is to identify and track new customers, but several small businesses are looking to do much more in terms of understanding customers and engaging them.

Four Reasons Your Social Media Marketing Campaign Sucks.
While small business is adopting social media, it doesn't mean everybody is adopting it right. Dave Fleet pulls together four of the most common reasons social media doesn't always work for business. His list includes investing too little into the effort, scrapping programs too soon, misidentifying the environment as a paid medium, and treating it as a one-way communication tool. He's right. In an effort to establish a presence, businesses assume they can attract an audience too fast with very little effort.

What Will Top Kill?
At the 36-day mark of the BP oil spill, Geoff Livingston provides a balanced accounting of BP communication efforts. He notes that while its communication improved, much of those improvements occurred too late in the crisis to be effective. The result has been a loss of public trust not only in BP but also the Obama administration, which allowed the company to control most of the communication. Eventually, the administration learned that while the public blames BP, they expected more than oversight from the administration.

Cut Products, Boost Sales
As someone who writes with a focus on neuromarketing, Roger Dooley frequently hits upon little known facts within the communication and marketing field. While some people are content to attempt to cater to customers by giving them an infinite amount of choices, the science behind the marketing shows the opposite might be true. By reducing the number of selections, sales actually increase. However, Dooley also does a great job in balancing out the analysis. Some low volume products are supported by highly engaged and passionate consumers.

BP: 2010’s Most Irresponsible Corporate Citizen
After BP claimed it acted responsibly in its attempts to correct the spill, Geoff Livingston analyzes whether or not it can own that statement. Of course it can't. In a virtual repeat of what Toyota did wrong earlier this year, BP was too slow to shore up its crisis communication but too fast in proclaiming a success to stop the problem. Livingston pinpoints seven examples of why the BP communication not only failed but also served to make the public even angrier.

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Friday, June 4

Planning For Disaster: Communicators And PR Must Step Up

While my grandparents were poor by most definitions, my grandfather would go to great lengths to protect one of the last remnants of his family's possessions in the north woods town of Minocqua, Wisconsin. It was a summer cottage, for which he mortgaged his city home in Milwaukee every year in order to keep and maintain it until he retired. My uncle also owned a nearby home.

As one of the few four-season families in the area, my uncle was a natural leader. In addition to being to a small business owner, he served as a volunteer fire chief, mayor, and led teams to mark snowmobile trails across the partially frozen lake every winter. My grandfather, who was a former engineer and seasonal painter, was much the same.

Both men had experience in disaster planning. Coming from a small somewhat isolated community, it was a skill set that could not be left to other people. I even remember my grandfather putting his skills to good use when tornadoes interrupted a Boy Scout paper drive in the heart of Milwaukee. People immediately turned to him to lead.

Nowadays, there are fewer men like my uncle and grandfather, especially in urban areas. Disaster response tends to be left to professionals. But in considering the Gulf Coast catastrophe, it seems we need more citizens to understand response.

In fact, looking back on my recent guest host conversation on The El Show with Geoff Livingston, I think we might have invested some time on disaster planning beyond discussing how communicators can address unethical behavior. Communicators, even public relations professionals, need to establish a role within any disaster planning. It's vital that they do.

The Four Basic Tenets Of Disaster Planning.

1. Mitigation. Mitigation focuses on long-term measures to reduce or eliminate risk. These might include technologies or policies, set in place by companies or government.

2. Preparedness. Planning, organizing, training, evaluating, and improving activities that will ensure the proper coordination of efforts during a disaster.

3. Response. Response includes the mobilization of all necessary emergency services and first responders in the disaster area. Organized response requires a structure (leadership) and agility (creativeness).

4. Recovery. Recovery aims to restore the affected area to its previous state before the disaster. This almost always occurs after a disaster; it is the opportunity to assess where mitigation, preparedness, and response broke down.

Where Disaster Planning Broke Down With The Spill.

1. Mitigation. It seems obvious that neither the government nor BP (and subcontractors) had properly mitigated the potential for such a disaster. While policies were in place, it seems clear the regulatory agency did not have the technical expertise to oversee the procedural breakdown that led to increased risk at Deepwater Horizon.

2. Preparedness. To date, it seems obvious that the preparedness is almost non-existent. While the initial response saved most of the crew aboard the rig, neither BP nor the federal government has a plan for a large-scale coastal disaster. While this incident seems to have been caused by negligence, it strikes me as appalling that the government is largely unprepared for such a disaster.

3. Response. Given the failure of emergency response in the wake of Katrina, which was largely due to a complete breakdown in communications technology (I know because I've worked with the National Emergency Number Association, among other emergency response associations), it is perplexing that a new administration consisting of people who were hypercritical of and capitalized on Katrina would have done nothing to improve their ability to respond to a crisis. There is no communications technology breakdown this time. But there is a complete breakdown in appropriate federal leadership and agility over the response.

4. Recovery. Recovery is not simply litigation as our government has recently demonstrated as the answer for every problem ranging from the border issues in Arizona to the Gulf Coast oil spill. There is an apparent need to understand where the government's disaster planning continues to break down, not only with this administration but also prior administrations. The fundamental responsibility of any government is to protect its people — not from themselves — but from threats beyond the control of citizens. This time around it seems negligence played a role in the breakdown, but what about next time?

Where Any Communicator Can Effectively Play A Role.

Communicators, along with public relations professionals, have a real opportunity here to place a greater emphasis on tangible skills over manipulating public procedures. But to do it, they move beyond push marketing and puffery and embrace the much harder work that used to fall to people like my grandfather and uncle.

In many cases, they won't learn these skills from a textbook or building social media communities. It requires an ability to move from behind the desk, meet with and appreciate the men and women on the front lines, collect their input and consolidate it into a workable plan that anyone can follow.

More importantly, through their investigative work, communicators need to provide the oversight within their companies to point out where mitigation, response, and recovery is especially weak. Nothing needs to be smoothed over. If anything, people tasked with this work need to be as hard as nails, providing proper assessments to the executive team.

As I mentioned last week, bad PR is only a symptom of bad planning, I hope this helps move the conversation away from understanding and toward proactive responsibility. Communicators need not only be internal reporters, they can cut themselves from the same cloth as my grandfather and uncle.

Where Any Citizen Can Effectively Play A Role.

I might offer up the same advice to anyone. It seems apparent that while many local governments and some state governments have disaster response plans that we can count on, these plans are not scalable in the face of a disaster such as Gulf Coast oil spill, the aftermath of Katrina, the border breakdown in Arizona, or even the flooding in Tennessee.

Once they become too big for local and state agencies, the federal government is ill-equipped to respond beyond providing oversight. That means there is a greater need for citizens, each and every one of us, to have enough skills — like my grandfather and uncle did — to protect ourselves and our families in the wake of a disaster.

After all, if I was writing a family disaster plan today, the most obvious conclusion I would have to draw upon from the recovery efforts so far is that there are organizations doing all sorts of things that increase the risks to our health and happiness. And when their own mitigation breaks down, they do not have a plan to save you. We are on our own.

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