Wednesday, June 3

The Educational Ecosystem Plays A Role In Writing Challenges

Ever wonder why high school students struggle with college writing assignments and college students seem ill prepared for business writing as they enter the workforce? Me too, even if the answer turned out not to be much of a mystery. It's surprisingly simple.

Most people struggle with writing assignments during those transitional periods (between high school to college or college and careers) because they are neither prepared nor practiced for the style, form, and function they need to succeed. It's not their fault. Most are only taught how to write for one specific ecosystem.

In high school, this means sharing and supporting opinions, providing summations, and remixing content from a variety of sources. Most of it is in a short-format essay form, under five pages, sometimes conveyed in first person, and rarely seen anywhere beyond high school with the possible exception of personal blog posts.

College demands something different. Students are more often asked to define problems and propose solutions, conduct analysis and criticize arguments, and provide some evidence of original thought that is tied to quantitative and qualitative evidence. The papers they write are significantly longer.

After graduation, the specifications change again. There is greater pressure placed on writers in the workforce to write shorter format objective-oriented communication that considers industry standards, corporate filters, and greater sensitively to the needs of an audience — a consideration that is not always present in college papers. Even more challenging, for those who enter communication, recent graduates must navigate an entirely different set of organizational models, attention-grabbing introductions, and recapping conclusions that meet an objective and have a call to action.

Educational ecosystems play a role in undermining effective communication. 

Every year, I tell students who enroll in any editing or writing class I teach about the various pupfish that populate the least likely places in Nevada. One of them, the Devils Hole pupfish, for example, only lives in Devils Hole, a geothermal pool located within a limestone cavern.

It's the smallest population of desert pupfish species in the world and it is amazingly specialized to only live in this one location. As long as they are there (and there are no substantial environmental changes), they thrive. When they are removed, not surprisingly, they die.

When it comes to writing, students are very much like pupfish. We teach them to adapt to writing for  a specific educational ecosystem for four years and then marvel at their inability to conform to a new one. We don't do this one time. We do it twice or more, without ever revealing the process behind it.

If we did, then more students would be keener on the diversity of style, structure, and form while also adhering to the consistent application of editing rules and proofreading practices. By teaching students a variety of styles, structures, and formats, they will become better practiced in the presentation of the material and, in some cases, might have more fun doing it.

What do I mean by that? What if ...

1. History students had to write an infomercial on joining the Roman Empire?

2. The next report on Sylvia Plath was written in poetic form mirroring The Bell Jar?

3. Rather than an opinion essay, students wrote a short story conveying the opinion like a moral?

4. We skip the standard problem/solution paper in favor of a presentation deck that does the same?

5. Students chose two historic figures with differing viewpoints and compose dialogue between them in the form of a podcast?

My long-time friend and colleague Ike Pigott has a fondness for saying "good writing educates and great writing elevates." He's right, which is why it is so unfortunate that great writing is becoming so scarce that people don't even know to look for it anymore. They'd rather skip a sentence for the pic.

Or maybe not. Maybe writing is just like baseball in that it relies on youth sports. The more people who have had at least some play time are much more likely to appreciate it for a lifetime. I'd like to think so because pictures tend not to stick with us as much as words that ignite our imaginations.

It's one of the primary reasons that on Friday afternoon (June 12), I'll be investing a few hours to help students and working professionals brush up on some skill sets. Editing & Proofreading Your Work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is a long-standing half-day program designed to help people understand the essentials of style, usage, punctuation, and other mechanics. Hope to see you.

Wednesday, May 27

What Could A Leaner P&G Teach Us About Marketing?

It's a new discussion that isn't new. Every few years, someone wants to break up Proctor & Gamble, which is the largest publicly traded personal products company in the world. With a market capitalization of $220 billion, it's also one of the largest companies in the United States.

Some of the reasoning is tied to sales. The company recently reported 3 percent growth in organic sales, but its CEO suggested that growth could have broken 4 percent if it had split off some brands. Specifically, the idea is to keep the top 70-80 products that generate about 90 percent of its sales.

About 23 of those top brands boast sales ranging from $1 billion to $10 billion, and 14 with sales of $500 million to $1 billion. All those would be kept, even if some stakeholders think the time might be right to break it up in bigger chunks rather than shed smaller assets like Duracell.

Some of the reasoning is psychological. Big companies rarely capture double digit growth rates. They are also prone to job cuts and restructuring, which can take a toll on employee morale. Most people see them as threatened by smaller and much more nimble competitors, especially those with a keenness for innovation — something P&G has tried to keep by developing a new model for R&D much like it did for marketing, which led the company to embrace digital at a deeper level.

How a leaner P&G could produce a better marketing model.

From a marketing perspective, breaking P&G into three or four big chunks doesn't make as much sense, especially after the company successfully retooled its marketing division to think more like brand managers and less like corporate number crunchers. The result has been mixed, with the lackluster launch of Tide Pods but the iconic #LikeAGirl campaign that people still talk about.

Perhaps all the company needs to do to reinvigorate growth is to even out those marketing efforts by reimagining a hybrid between its old and new models. Once the company successfully diverges some of its non-core brands, P&G could develop a brand partnership model that provides each brand manager more market insight, consumer data, negotiation power, and creative co-ops that cross over from one brand to the next. (e.g., #LikeAGirl might not be confined to a single brand.)

There are times where P&G succeeds in developing collaborative strategies. As an Olympic sponsor, the company successfully promoted several brands as part of one package. Its sentimental Thank You Mom campaign during the 2012 summer Olympics, for example, resulted in a $500 million sales boost and prompted an encore for the winter games. (The company was ready with 38 different YouTube commercials before the Olympics even started.)

Even better than the immediate return, any P&G converts will deliver a lifelong return for the company. It's this kind of forward thinking that continually leaves a positive impression. Now all the company has to do is start thinking beyond a singular event to bind its brands. Spontaneous crossovers could go a long way, especially for a company that reinvests more revenue into marketing.

Such a move by P&G could reinvigorate marketing. 

Much like the company already directs regions and media, P&G could be on the verge of a much more versatile marketing machine, one that is worthy of a case study. Such a program could be built with individual brand campaigns with the most successful providing crossover opportunities and uniting themes (combined with bigger buys) for the others. It would reinvigorate some marketing theory, even for small companies willing to partner with complementing and non-competing businesses.

Such a move would also quell the idea that P&G needs to be broken up into three or four big chunks, given the resilience of flexible marketing comes from a bigger network of brands (not a smaller one). Sometimes the brand could market itself (with shared research, etc.) but other times build off something another brand has built or reinforce each other's reach by sharing a proven theme.

What do you think? In an era when consumers appreciate smaller companies rather than the giants of the past, some people believe it is too late for any behemoths. Others disagree. They see some of today's giants rewriting the playbook while their pockets are still deep and revenues large. And with the company vested in innovation, such as 3-D bioprinting, no one really knows what could be next.

Wednesday, May 20

How Social Automation And Social Absenteeism Are Different

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of social automation. I generally advise clients to mostly avoid it, with "mostly" being the operative word. There are opportunities when social automation can be effective.

So why do I advise clients to mostly avoid it? Because the advice isn't meant to frighten them away from automation. It's to make them keep thinking so their automation doesn't turn into absenteeism.

How social absenteeism made social automation a dirty word. 

Social absenteeism can be defined by all signs Danny Brown listed it in his article about automation. He included bots that burp out content followers, communication shifts from conversation to broadcast, and a constant number crunching addiction that appeals to less social savvy companies.

In all three cases, it isn't automation as much as it's absenteeism, with all of it disrupting the value of social media. But let's be clear here. It doesn't disrupt it entirely. Social still drives more than 30 percent of web traffic, with Facebook dominating the top platforms, while search continues to slump.

Those numbers provide a proof of sorts. Search used to be the go-to answer for everything, even finding love as illustrated by this classic commercial about an American finding love in Paris.

While this spot is fun and clever, it doesn't always hold true anymore. Nowadays, people want to be told what to find as often or even more than they want to find something. In essences, we've seen a  social shift that makes search the go-to when you know what to ask and social the go-to if you don't.

The point was punctuated in a modernized version of Parisan Love. It features a man who is stuck someplace for a few days. Rather than sulk, he asks his social network friends what he should do. They offer up suggestions and he loads clips of his daily adventures drawn from their ideas. It's a clever commercial, proving that even accidental vacations are more fun with input from friends.

The spot represents the best of social media: interaction, engagement, inspiration, reciprocation, and reward. Social absenteeism, on the other hand, would have produced something else entirely because absent automation has no context for circumstance. It doesn't know where you are, what you need, or what you are doing. It's scripted regularity that points to the same products or people or places.

Unchecked, you can easily consider it a cousin to black hat SEO and email spam in that the objective of the communication isn't designed to help anyone except the broadcaster. It's their method of getting clicks, capturing followers, maintaining a presence, and executing content formulas. What's in it for the customer or consumer? Not too much. It favors a marketing agenda over customer experience.

Absenteeism doesn't require automations. Humans can be boring too.

There is a sandwich brand that asks its followers what sandwich they like (or some such variation of the question) every day. No matter what anyone says, the brand affirms they made the right choice. It's monotonous. Most people only follow the account for coupons. The rest they put up with to get them.

Most people would be surprised to find that the account is managed by a human, given that there is nothing human about the communication. It's shallow and empty, celebrating the brand not the fans.

It's not all that different from sending out blind pitches to journalists or sending out a discount on jeans just after the customer bought five pairs. Both examples are empty actions, contrary to some of the suggestions offered up by Brown. Content testing to improve communication, scheduling tests, action tracking, list culls and dead account purges are all smart automation tactics because they are all designed to enhance the customer experience and not detract from it. The difference is in the intent.

It isn't even confined to social media. Automation runs the risk of becoming absenteeism across all communication disciplines with content formulas, empty actions, and unjustifiable frequency. And in a world where the communication has become part of the product, for better or worse, you can't really afford to cheapen it by thinking the solution to every problem is an apple just because you sell them.

Wednesday, May 13

What Is Happening To Having A Passion For Education?

Two million Americans will earn a bachelor's degree in the coming weeks and join the work force or head to graduate school, notes Emory English professor Mark Bauerleiny in a column he penned for The New York Times. But as large as that number sounds, it's not the one that lingers with you.

It's the number that he never gives — how many connections do students make with their professors — that will haunt you. That number, he asserts, has become minuscule over the decades. 

As more and more professors act more like proctors, treating their students like peers as opposed to the pupils they are contracted to challenge, so has their role as mentors or thinkers diminished. Students think of them as customer service representatives, passing out and collecting assignments for class. Almost 43 percent of them, in fact, will receive an A grade, up from only 15 percent in the 1960s.

It's not the students who have mostly changed. It's the coursework, class size, engagement, and objectives that have changed. Student recruitment and revenue has become a driver, with an emphasis on catering to students who experienced the same sort of mentor absenteeism in high school or, perhaps, their entire educational career. The institutionalism of education almost assures it.

The prerequisite missing from students, teachers and administrators is passion. 

Different people have different explanations for what is wrong with education today. Some say it is because we are in the midst of a transition — from a localized industrial model to a global technological model. Some say it is the core curriculum, moving at the speed of a Jell-O elephant. And some say the problem is where the money goes, without considering sports as part of the equation.

This doesn't account for finger pointing either. Some blame teachers. Some blame parents. Some blame administrators. And the blame game is not just here in America. It is everywhere nowadays.

Maybe there is some truth to any or all of those expectations. Maybe there isn't. Maybe the problem can't be traced to a person or thing as much as an attitude. It seems hard to keep passion in education.

Administrators are being asked to control "bad" teachers, level the playing field to ensure standardized test success, and reduce spending while increasing profit margins (or budget surpluses of specialized administrative positions). Teachers face more and more policies and paperwork, less educational freedom in favor of rigid curriculum, and an increasingly large and distracted body of students. Students face more standardized rote memorization, flat and distracted instructors, and a bombardment of relatively bleak messages about their future (including unwieldy student loans).

All of it seems to assail the one critical element needed to succeed in eduction — a love for learning or a passion for education. Administrators won't develop it unless they are asked to free teachers from  the shackles of global standards. Teachers won't retain it unless they own part of the curriculum they teach. Students won't develop it unless they are challenged and then succeed in the face of those challenges — mastering skill sets and then being able to apply them outside the classroom.

Nothing will change until we plug the growing passion gap in eduction. 

Ask psychologists and most will agree. Not only are high achievers driven by passion, but everyone relies on it for their substantial psychological well-being. It's this thinking, in fact, that prompts most career coaches to tell others to find out what they love and then give themselves permission to succeed. It's a concept that works for many people too. Sylvia Plath is an exception.

Except, she really isn't an exception. It's increasingly impossible for someone to stumble into a passion (or even an activity that will lead them to it) no matter how hard people try. There are too many choices; many more than we even know about when someone asks us to pick a path out of high school or college. And nowadays, it's even tricker to know. As technology propels the world forward, there is a very good chance that one person's passion might not exist for another decade (or perhaps it does now but will blink out of existence in that amount of time).

Maybe the solution is stop looking for an activity or position to fuel your passion and start putting passion into everything — no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. Ergo, high achievers don't look for things that they have a passion for as much as they find a passion for whatever they do.

And if we want to infuse this thinking into education, then we need to ask administrators to allow teachers more flexibility in their method of delivery and students more opportunities to not only learn the material, but also understand it and feel challenged by it. Cookie cutter core curriculum can't do it.

After teaching for more than 15 years and volunteering as a youth sports coach from time to time, I've learned a few things about teaching. Professors have to bring a passion with them into the classroom, be prepared to adapt its delivery to best suit the audience in front of them, and then invent individualized assignments that challenge students to go beyond the course requirements.

Looking back, it's no accident that I learned this to be true either. Every teacher who inspired me (whether listed or not) was not content in teaching their classes as prescribed. They challenged me to do more and in doing so made their passion a contagion. I came away having a passion for many things, which later served me as a communicator across many industries. Nothing needs to be boring.

Sure, I understand the appeal in thinking that leveling the educational playing field is good thing. But there comes a point where leveling the playing field labels every advantage as somehow unfair and then goes on to strip teachers and professors of their passion, creativity, and classroom flexibility — which robs every student of their creativity and passion in turn. We can't afford to lose any more.

Inspirational stories aren't made from making everyone level. They are made by people who find the will to do more, despite any disadvantage, adversary, or adversity. And it always starts with passion.

Wednesday, May 6

The Real Price Of Public Shaming On Social Media

Years ago, I worked with a film and television producer who brought me in as a senior copywriter for several dozen of his accounts, including American Greetings and McDonald's. It was fun and challenging work with considerable visibility. The scripts opened countless doors in my career.

One of the things that always struck me about his home office was a plaque that hung prominently by his front door. You couldn't leave the house without seeing it. Neither could he. That was the point.

The plaque unapologetically warned: "Be careful what you think for your thoughts become words, your words become actions, your actions become habits, and your habits become your destiny."

If you search for it, you'll undoubtedly find several variations. Most of them don't have any attributions, largely because the variations were built around Proverbs 4:23. It warns to be careful what you think because your thoughts run your life. It's an idea that was shared by Buddha too. 

Public thinking might be a worthwhile prerequisite for social media. 

More and more, people have been caught sharing any number of thoughts online with reckless abandon. But what they sometimes don't consider is that they aren't sharing their thoughts online. They're sharing words, some of which invite people to interpret them and predict future actions. 

That is what happened to a 27-year-old single mother who lost her job over a Facebook post. She posted that she was happy to start a new job at a day care, but added that she hated being around kids. 

The outrage that followed eventually landed in the laps of her new employers. They let her go. 

There are scores of other stories just like it. Victor Paul Alvarez was fired for making jokes about Congressman John Boehner. Adam Mark Smith had to sell his home after posting a YouTube video. Justine Sacco regretted her joke too. She was fired after a single tweet on Twitter. It goes on and on.

It goes on so often that people aren't always sure who is the real monster. Is it the person who made the offense, internationally or not? Or is it the mob that follows? And what about the people who relish jumping on the public shaming band wagon? Or bullies? Or those with thin skins?

The truth is that it is all of those things and none of those things at once, mostly because we haven't quite adapted to an environment that provides plenty of borders but very few barriers.

What I mean by that is that we build most social network platforms around our friends and colleagues much like we have always built social circles — based on proximity, similarity, ideology, special interests. The only difference is that the Internet removes all physicality and invites in the world. 

The whole world includes millions of people who have absolutely nothing in common with us. They have different dreams, needs, beliefs, backgrounds, feelings, experiences, prejudices, and tolerances — so much so that their entire reality is completely different. They don't even have to live half a world away. Living in an urban, suburban, or rural community is enough to create a polar opposite.

So when someone says something that would have otherwise been relegated to a coffee klatch with a few friends — people who have an entire context of who that someone is — to the entire world without any such context,  they can expect very bad things to happen. They're no longer thinking out loud or within the safety of a few friends who may either chuckle or politely correct their ignorance. Instead, you're making declarations (no matter your privacy setting ). So choose your words wisely.

If you don't, there is a better-than-average chance to find yourself in the crosshairs of public scorn. It's a weird place to be, especially because retaliation doesn't adhere to the same sensitivity it demands from those it persecutes. Read the comments after any public shaming session and see what I mean.

The comments are generally vile, often even more so than the initial infraction. Some of it is even penned by people who are bullies with a temporary permission slip to threaten, ridicule, and demean someone else. In fact, I would not be surprised if the majority of children who have been bullied online earned their bruises from being publicly shamed. Some of those kids go on to consider suicide.

How to manage a successful social network presence, semi-private or fully public.   

Proverbs 4:23 is even more right on the Internet than the era in which it was written. Your thoughts run your life and your public thoughts invite others to run it for you. Think before you post it and think twice before you pile on. What you contribute says more about you than anyone else anyway. 

Never build a network for numbers unless you're a professional, preferably one with some public relations training. Instead, build your network based on your level of tolerance. The more tolerant, patient, and forgiving you can be, the bigger your network can be. Sure, being thick skinned can help too, but mostly in connection with and not as a substitute for those other three traits I just mentioned. 

Of course, as much as we would like it to be, tolerance is not a two-way street. Appreciate it, but never expect it. Unless you pretend to be someone else, there will always be those who will dehumanize you and others over differences or disparage your ideas as a means to affirm their own. And no, I don't get it either.

Then again, after blogging for the better part of a decade, I no longer see the price of public shaming to be the corrosion of culture or even a threat to an individual's reputation as some might claim. The real price of public shaming is giving ourselves over to it by allowing the initial offensive remark or the public pile on to change our thoughts, words, and actions into something completely unrecognizable. 

Absolutely, criticism can be healthy but only when we remember to take on the behavior and not the person. Try to contribute something positive instead because, after all, your thoughts are words and actions online — actions and words that can determine your destiny. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, April 29

Five Takeaways For Writers From My Comic Con Panel

Meeting up with several dozen aspiring and published writers was a real treat at Comic Con. And true to my word too, I told them to stop aspiring all together as soon as I had the opportunity. Writing isn't an isolated spectator sport. It's as active as your prose should be. Get out there and do it, every day.

Sure, there are some exceptions in history, but most professional writers — including panelists Genese Davis, Maxwell Alexander Drake, PJ Perez, and myself — all agree. And we aren't the only ones. Creative designer Sean Adams said as much last year. You have to be in it to win it, he said. Daily Monster designer Stephen Bucher said it as well, just a few months ago: Starting is harder.

You have get on with the business of doing. And if you can get on with this business every day — even those days you don't feel like it — then you slowly but surely train yourself to be the professional that you always wanted to be, even if you're surprised that it's not all about writing.

Five takeaways for writers that have little and everything to do with writing.

• Connect. While many aspiring writers think of writing as a solitary practice, professional writers see it as a sociable profession. Even those who are introverts at heart recognize the need to live life away from the keyboard and make it a point to meet new people to maximize opportunities that range from friendship and inspiration to collaboration and contract work. Many creative fields are surprisingly small professional niches where everyone knows everyone. Build a network.

• Diversify. When one of the panelists asked the room full of aspiring writers about their passion, almost all of them chose prose — writing fiction that may some day become a published book. The panel saw it differently, with Perez pointing out how commercial work had challenged him to become even more creative by adhering to different styles. I concurred, noting how writers can learn alliteration from poetry, dialogue from radio, and visualization from film.

• Learn. Professional writers never stop learning. In addition to enhancing writing skills (e.g., avoid passive voice), writers must continually immerse themselves in their genre, subject matter, fields and industries, financial affairs, and the publishing world. Classes, workshops, interviews and independent research are all part of the educational mix for most professional writers. Suffice to say that you can't write about what you don't know and you can't submit unless you know where to send it.

• Communicate. When one of the attendees asked how to know whether to accept or reject feedback, Drake suggested thinking of their work as two stories. There is the story in your head and there is the story you put on paper, he said. When your readers don't understand what you've written, you have to ask yourself whether or not what is in your head really made it on the paper. That said, Davis added that feedback is always appreciated as long as the author is able to remain true to their vision.

• Share. Nobody will ever discover your work if you keep it in a shoebox. Digital media makes it easier than ever to share samples, sections, or even scraps (as I call shorter-than-short stories on my Facebook fiction page) with an ever-increasing audience. But even if a writer doesn't want to share their work outright, they can always look for writers groups or other meet-ups where creative people get together. You never know when sharing your work will eventually come full circle.

Few jobs are as rewarding as those that allow you to share some creativity. 

While I never intended to become a writer, I have always been a creative. And once you commit to being a creative, the rest of it will shape up nicely, depending mostly on your career path and a few surprise circumstances that you could never dream up when you started out.

It's true. You never really know until you do it. Maybe you will find a home in film or photography, design or the written word. Or maybe, if you are like me, you will discover you have some talent for all of it, even if one form of expression dominates most of my time than the others. The point is that how you share it will hardly matter as you are doing it, preferably every day. The panel all agreed.

With that, unless someone has some specific questions about becoming a writer, those five tips are among the best that could be pulled from our panel. That and, as always, good night and good luck.

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