Posted tagged ‘thinking’

What’s A Word’s Worth?

February 5, 2008

Back, about what seems like a hundred years ago, I ran a newspaper rewrite desk that was charged with helping the paper make the transition from broadsheet to tabloid. Because this was a difficult switch for most reporters, the desk used to go through regular training exercises aimed at constantly finding the right word that would resonate with many meanings.

Our model was what, to my mind, was the best sentence ever written — “Jesus wept”. Two simple words that carried immense meaning.

This wasn’t because we were particularly religious — hey it was a newspaper — but because those nine letters resonated far beyond the actual words used.

Using the word “Jesus” instantly brought dozens of concepts to mind: whether you were a close follower or not, you probably knew the story of Jesus, and so could bring many thoughts to the word. Jesus was a leader, a prophet, God, a wise man, a healer, a thinker, a preacher, a miracle worker, etc.

The word “wept” conveyed almost as much. Why did Jesus weep? For us, because we were frailer than he was; because mankind didn’t understand his mission; because the Romans were taking him away to be crucified; because it succinctly summed up the theory of Christianity; or all of the above?

Two simple words that told a powerful story and so were worth far more than their size. And that’s what every marketer and communicator has to keep in mind today.

Back in the day of the transition from broadsheet to tabloid writing the concept of a short story was considered sacrilegious, but rapidly became the norm. And writing has progressed continually since.

We’re now in an era where social networking style of writing is the most common style used. Acronyms, short forms, mobile messaging, flaming, punchy and to the point writing rule. Try using newspaper style in a PR 2.0 press release or a blog post today and you’ll quickly spill out all over the place. Worse, your message will probably disappear into the morass.

Today, when you write (and think), you have to get to the essence all the time. There’s no room for vague and fuzzy; no time or space for bringing in vaguely interesting, albeit extraneous, concepts.

You have to know the worth of every word.

There are so many messages, so much information transferred visually or aurally, so many demands on attention, that there is no room for the big, sweeping style of communication that was once so common. Neither is there room for the kind of fuzziness so favored by corporate communicators whose objective was to obscure more than inform.

In a sense, today, you have to think in headlines and taglines all the time. Or at least in bullet points. Whatever has multiple meanings and psychological triggers.

So, whenever you sit down at the keyboard, slow down and think “Jesus Wept”.

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Meet the Media Types

January 17, 2008

Despite all the hoopla about user-generated content, citizen news and other new media, traditional media is still the main target for most marketers and communicators looking for a little promotion. Plus, they’ve now been joined by hundreds of other content publishers who are for all intents and purposes mini-news operations. Technology has changed formats –most traditional media operations are also new media now — but the underlying journalistic principles remain the same.

That’s probably why media training is still an essential part of marketing and communications, even though it has changed slightly. For example, as was highlighted in my previous post about Hacks and Flacks, the days of shotgunning messages — the blast and pray technique –to the media are over.

It’s even truer today that if you’re going to work with the media — in whatever form — you have to understand who you’re working with. That means you have to do a little more research on the particular media person you’re hoping to contact.

Following is a handy guide to some common media personality types. Not everyone fits each exactly, and often each denizen of every newsroom has touches of all of them. But one personality type usually dominates.

Also, with many newspeople, different types can dominate at different times in their careers. So, when dealing with a news person, it’s up to you to figure out which personality is dominant at the moment.

1. The Careerist. The careerist is climbing the journalism ladder and so is much more concerned with his or her career or business than your story. At their best, careerists unearth the nuggets that are hidden within your story; at their worst, they are pompous connivers who treat you as mere fodder for their career arc. The upside: They’re usually consummate professionals. The downside: Too often, they look for the most sensational elements that will get them — not you — noticed.

2. The Journo. Been there, done that, and all the t-shirts have faded. The journo has been kicking around for some time and long ago stopped worrying about his or her career. As sharp observers of societal trends (and of their superiors’ or advertisers’ quirky wants) journos tend to concentrate only on the story, finding, fixing, and filing it professionally and quickly before heading off to the next one. The upside: Journos’ loyalty is only to the tenets of journalism, so you’ll probably get a fair hearing. The downside: A lifetime of isolation from anyone but their media brethren means they can be very cynical and distant.

3. The Squirrel. All data is good data to squirrels, who are really closeted engineers or researchers, most commonly found in technology journalism. These information gatherers take great pride in knowing more details than anyone else and occasionally snowing you under with their knowledge. The squirrel will unearth obscure reports, 100-page studies, and interview 25 industry experts, all for a 300 word story. The upside: Boy, are they thorough. The downside: They often get lost in their own information; your story will too.

4. The Explorer: It’s the journey not the destination that is important to the explorer. Explorers are hunter-gatherers who want to understand what underlies everything. But since it’s the process of understanding that gives them the thrill, once they get there, they rapidly lose interest. Upside: They’re very collaborative if you can keep them stimulated. Downside: If you or your story aren’t interesting, they’re not interested.

5. The Rebel. Because journalism provides one of the few jobs in which they can continually give the finger to everyone, and at the same time subvert the system from within, rebels tend to move into the media when they’re young. Also, journalism creates a channel that allows them to cross social and class distinctions and connect with (and sometimes frighten) people with whom they wouldn’t normally mix. Upside: Rebels love the “afflict the comfortable” part of the old journalistic rule and so make great advocates. Downside: Too often, everything is fitted to a very narrow range of thinking, usually along the lines of Us vs Them. They don’t see a lot of gray.

6. The Project Manager. If there’s only one way to do things, project managers always know what it is, because they’re most comfortable in well grooved paths. If your story breaks one of the rules, i.e. government bad, little guy good, look out. They’ll also dismiss your press release or messaging in a second if it contains some obvious error, muddled thinking, over-the-top or obscure language, or mispellings. Upside: They make great editors and story assessors because journalism is essentially a rule-based business, and they know all the rules. Bow to their wisdom and you’re in. Downside. Make a mistake, lack logic, fail to back up your claims, or sell too hard, and they’ll brutalize you.

Dreamtime: You Need It To Work Best

January 14, 2008

You’re a marketer for an agency or in a corporate setting; or you’re a small business trying to handle your own marketing and communication.

I bet I can describe your day: Rush in, fire up the computer, check your schedule for the day’s tasks; have a meeting; get rolling on the stuff that’s piled up since you last left. Grab a quick lunch. Maybe read some back stuff that’s been untouched for a while. Back to work.

Suddenly it’s over and you’re joining the commute back home.

Any dream time in there? Not likely.

But here’s a business secret I was given by a business exec a long time ago before people talked about such things: Take some time each day and spend it dreaming.

Every day he (in those days, they were always a he), would close the door, tell his secretary to refuse all calls, lay down on a couch and just dream for an hour. Nothing else. Just random thinking. This guy was at the top of his game, and said that was why.

I’ve tried to follow his advice ever since, with mixed success. I’m not perfect and there were too many times when I let tasks take over from my real work, which was creating ideas. But I always went back to it.

You should too. Unless you’re performing some physical labor, ideation, problem solving, thinking, mulling — dreaming — is what your job is really all about. The rest is all just implementation and follow through.

Here are several ways to build dream time into your daily life:

Self hypnosis: This is extreme relaxation that allows the subconscious mind to go to work, usually in a very visual way that’s almost like a movie running in your head. The beauty of it is it can be directed to a specific problem or subject. In self hypnosis, you create a special place in your mind, and pose a problem to yourself. Usually, someone or some thing, a kind of mental avatar, comes along to your place and starts telling you a story that helps you work it out. If you do this, it’s best to be hypnotized first by a professional so you can get into a hypnotic state quickly.

Meditation: Lots of people like this, especially now that yoga’s popular again. Meditation is in a sense the opposite of self-hypnosis in that it lets you “empty your mind” so that thoughts can just bubble up to the surface. You’ll never completely empty your mind, of course, because the mind doesn’t like to be empty: it’s wired to solve problems, so will immediately work on anything that’s bothering you. Just let the thoughts come.

Exercise: Lots of people do this, picking a time during the day when they can run, walk, work out, or whatever they do for exercise. But not many convert it to dream time. It’s suited to it though, because in most exercise you are going through repetitive actions that don’t require thought, which frees up your mind for other things. I’ve known several poets, writers, and others who do their best work when they’re exercising: all have shared one thing. They direct their mind to a specific task. So stop watching others while you’re working out, and start dreaming.

Creativity techniques. I’ve referred to these in a previous post. There are many creative thinking techniques that can be employed if you simply let yourself use them. To do so, you have to put yourself in a creative state: calm, uninterrupted, and open minded. This is what the athletes call in the zone, or what cognition experts call a state of flow.

The main thing with any of these methods is consistency. It’s difficult to dream at first because you’re not used to it, but like any muscle, the brain responds much faster if it’s used regularly. So, yes you’re probably busy, but you have to keep using your dreaming muscles if they’re going to work.

You’ll find after a while that it responds quite rapidly when you’re ready for your dream time.

Next-Year Planning: The W6 Process

December 23, 2007

Probably because we’re at the end of the year, I’ve recently had a spate of calls from companies that suddenly realized they need to form marketing plans and/or business plans for the next year.

Often these cases involve simple facilitation: they feel they can write them in house, but would like some outside guidance as they move through the thinking process that goes into it.

Usually in these cases, I begin by going through a W6. This is a one-page plan that ask questions to elicit answers that sum up a business or personal life. This could describe a life plan, a project plan, a marketing plan, or a plan for an entire business.

It’s not simply a goals list, which are so popular at this time of year. It’s your story, encapsulated so as to burn itself into your brain and always be in the forefront of your thinking as you go about daily work.

Because so many people want to jump right into tasks or take shortcuts, it’s important to remember one thing about the W6: The process is not a replacement for a real plan. It is, however, a summary — preliminary and final — of all aspects of a plan that forces planners to be extremely precise in their thinking. You compose a W6 by thinking on a much larger scale and then reducing that thinking to its essence.

A W6 is both a beginning and an end. Initially, it acts as a kind of map for the planning. You go through a W6 at the start, expand in a real plan, and then later go back and do another W6 to ensure you’ve eliminated all fuzzy thinking and imprecisions.

Once you have completed a W6, print it and stick it on a wall where you will constantly see it. If it helps, put it into a visual form such as a mind map. The point it to always be aware of its aspects and how your daily life can cling to it and advance it.
Here are the basics of a W6:

  1. Who are you? For businesses and individuals, this is how you’re perceived by whatever community is important to you. This is a self-identity that answers questions such as what’s your character and how would you like your business or yourself to be judged? (For example: As the lowest price provider, or as a skilled high-end provider? As a deliverer or a collaborator?)
  2. What do you do? This is a summation of your core business or yourself, a kind of very small elevator pitch that acts as a guide to all our business or personal functions. It’s your passion. (For example: “we make software that does X”, or “we provide X services to the Y industry”. )
  3. Why do you do it? This is your mission in a sense. I believe it’s the most important part of the plan, because all endeavors should have a purpose, and this describes it. In planning terms, this is equivalent to outlining the business opportunity that you’re pursuing. (For example: There is an unfilled need for X among the Y consumers or businesses). In personal planning, it’s simply a description of where you what you want to be.
  4. Who do you do it for? This is the heart of your marketing planning. Who you do it for should precisely describe your target market. Again it’s useful to put this in very personal terms. (Example: A too busy working mother with X problems.)
  5. What way do you do it? This describes your business operation. Are you a web-based company; bricks and mortar, combination of both? How do you make and deliver your product and service?
  6. Where do you do it? Nationally, regionally, or internationally? In what verticals? In what locations? (Example: In a store; in the customer’s location; by mail order?) Each is going to require a different understanding of markets.

As an extra to the Where, I’ll add When? This simply means when do you do it — 24/7/ regular hours/part time, etc.? (Example: on-demand software, which would mean 24/7)

A W6 is a very useful tool for charting a course. Much discussion and brainstorming might be required to complete it, but if you really focus on it, you’ll have a very good road map to guide your business in the coming year.

Been There, Done That Marketing

November 12, 2007

A fascinating article in Wired regarding the discovery that an ancient coded book that has confounded scientists for years is actually a hoax highlights a problem in academia that could also probably be applied to any discipline, including marketing and communicating.

A UK researcher called Gordon Rugg identified something called the “expertise gap” common among experts in any field — an expert being identified as someone with 10 years experience — that causes them to shortcut their thinking. As these people become more experienced in a field of knowledge, they become farther and farther removed from core problems, and more and more focused on their own particular methodology to arrive at a solution.

But psychological and neuroscience studies suggest that these experts aren’t any smarter than anyone else. Instead, they have lots of experience, which they employ in an analysis shortcut called “pattern-matching”.

When they see a problem or situation that requires a solution, they call upon the patterns with which they’re familiar, and noticing similarities, form a conclusion. For example, if a doctor notices you have most of the symptoms of mumps, he or she will likely conclude you have the mumps.

Pattern matching is much more efficient than rigorous testing and wide, cross-discipline thinking. Most of the time it’s right. Problem is that’s most of the time, but not all the time. So pattern matching methodology can also often lead to false conclusions.

How does this apply to marketers and communicators? Well, since marketing is an essential management function, many organizations today look for marketers who are expert in a particular field (just like they look for a specialist in financing, IT, and other areas). The reasoning is that this been there, done that kind of marketer won’t be fazed by the new kinds of marketing problems that are showing up with increasing rapidity today.

But perhaps these organizations should also determine whether these marketers are also too reliant on pattern matching. Is there too narrow a focus, or does this marketer explore other areas of expertise to acquire cross-discipline knowledge?

And if you’re a marketer or communicator, are you continually adding to your knowledge base in other, unrelated, areas? We’re not talking about looking at other areas of marketing — a B2B marketer studying consumer marketing techniques, or entertainment marketing, for example — but true other disciplines. Scientific methodology. Or Art. Or even sports and finance, both of which rely heavily on statistical analysis.

It’s all part of rounding out the expertise base. It’s also using both your left and your right brain so as to beef up both your intuitive type of thinking (often favoured by marketers and communicators) and your logical, scientific-style of thinking.

We used to call these people renaissance people — they have wide ranging minds that are interested in many things. Today, unfortunately, the renaissance person is too often dismissed as an unfocused dabbler while the narrow-focused expert is revered.

But if you’re simply a been there, done that marketer, your lack of bandwidth might be shortchanging your clients, your organization — and yourself.