The Cost of Vice

Last week I visited my hometown of Winnipeg. Following a long walk along lovely Wellington Crescent to the city’s sprawling Assiniboine Park I stopped at a Starbucks. My small Pellegrino, a grande coffee and oatbar totaled north of CDN$10.00. No big surprise.

While soaking up the sun on the patio I spotted a gent who purchased a venti-something. He carried a bag containing two or more bottles from the provincial liquor retailer (we have a different system of selling in Canada). He wandered off the patio to smoke a cigarette at a respectable distance (it was Canada after all). I absently wondered what his annual spend was on these three habits or vices.

I don’t smoke, never have. Starbucks is a once-in-awhile thing, I have never been hip to the vibe. When it comes to drinking that is a different story, in a bar graph my bar and booze spending would spike. This is no morality tale. I am not preaching the cut of one habit or vice over the other. I am in no position to do so.

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How Blogging Has Influenced Writing

It is hard to comprehend that a new blog is created every 7.4 seconds. Nearly 3,000,000 posts are made public every day. Over 10,000 updates take place each hour. These statistics come from Technorati and prove that there is a hell of a lot of content in our world.

The Internet and social media democratized writing. Unfortunately, so much of it is poor. The content tends to be unoriginal, dumbed-down, misleading and misinformed. Other issues persist including the regurgitation of the same content and the writer lacking credibility. There seems to be a need to pump out more, for more’s sake, rather than providing real thought, real value.

These issues impact the profession of writing and the efficacy of blogging. For those with a formal education in writing the vast majority of blogs provoke cardiac arrest. The very basics of writing are missing; structure, spelling, tenses, storytelling, and grammar. Too many blogs fail to include a unique point-of-view and a motivating call-to-action.

It is fair to say that the very nature of blogs is sloppy. They are opinion pieces lacking interviews and research, they are short compared to articles and papers, the content is built around SEO keywords, the style is casual, and, as covered, good writing is optional. Every single blog post would benefit from proofreading and editing.

Writing is an art form. Blogging must correct the ‘quantity over quality’ mission it currently pursues. Here are ways to make that correction.

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The Right Place to Write

Tyler Moss, Managing Editor at Writer’s Digest, inspired me with a tweet today. Tyler shared this photo of Roald Dahl from 1979. It shows the author in the garden shed where he wrote many of his books—including Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. I was struck by the image. It is obviously far from opulent given locale and decor. In fact, Dahl is dangerously fending off the cold in a sleeping bag all too close to portable propane heater.

There is plenty more to observe and enjoy. Two rotatory phones, a steamer trunk for a footrest, wastebasket full of discarded writing, a homemade writing table resting on an older chair. Beyond the tangible items I had to ask myself, could the space be any less inspirational? But to each his own and I cannot argue with Dahl’s prolific output. It worked for him so I thought where do other notable writers ply their trade and love?

Sebastian Faulks wrote Human Traces, Engleby and Devil May Care in this space. He has noted that the window and its view provide helpful respites from the page. It is tight and focused. There is precious little decoration but comes with the advice to “Carry On”.

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Intended Messages Do Not Always Arrive As Intended

In 1906, O Henry penned his short story, By Courier. It runs just shy of 1,500 words, yet, it is packed with entertaining and fascinating lessons in communications. I am not talking about the craft of short story writing but rather O Henry’s lessons on how intended messages are not always received as intended. If you care to, I recommend reading the story prior to absorbing what follows or enjoy the synopsis. Here is a link to the story.

By Courier features a man and woman sitting on different benches a distance apart in a park. They use a young boy to run messages to each other. These messages get twisted and turned for many reasons. The man initiates the back and forth with his own subjectivity. The boy relays it in less refined language and different emphasis. The woman absorbs the message with her own interpretation. There a couple of to and fro’s that further confuse. Eventually the tale ends with a fun and ultimately clear resolution.

Of course, clear resolution or even understanding does not always take place in our interactions and communications. We make assumptions, embrace subjectivity, lack empathy, fail to grasp key points, and hear-what-we-like-to-hear among other issues.

Communication comes in many forms. There is written, spoken, visual, gestures, non-verbals and more. All communications share the same steps. O Henry’s story captures these beautifully:

  1. Motivation or reason for communicating
  2. Message composition
  3. Message type … digital data, written text, speech, pictures, gestures and so on
  4. Transmission of the message using a specific channel or medium
  5. Natural forces and human activity that influence the message in sending
  6. Message reception
  7. Interpretation and making sense of the original message

These steps come across as rather clinical, if not, linear. If you think about it, they are far more dynamic especially in our sped-up, always-on, technology-driven world. When I communicate or design communications for clients, I try to build this complex “sandwich” by first focusing on the bread. The bread are numbers one and seven of the steps.

If you concentrate on your motivation and reason that will add intended clarity. Then you have to mentally ‘hop-over’ and think as the recipient. How will they receive, interpret and decode your message. This will further refine the message. You will never get it perfect because other elements come into play. However, that effort will pay off in greater accuracy of intent and, often, appreciation by the recipient for you having taken the time to think and communicate from their perspective.

Let’s close off with The Blind Man and the Advertising Story. This is well- and oft-told tale in business schools. You will find many lessons in it as well. The biggest is wrapping a fact with personal and emotional relevance. I invite you to note the others.

An old blind man was sitting on a busy street corner in the rush-hour begging for money. On a cardboard sign, next to an empty tin cup, he had written: ‘Blind – Please help’.

No-one was giving him any money.

A young advertising writer walked past and saw the blind man with his sign and empty cup, and also saw the many people passing by completely unmoved, let alone stopping to give money.

The advertising writer took a thick marker-pen from her pocket, turned the cardboard sheet back-to-front, and re-wrote the sign, then went on her way.

Immediately, people began putting money into the tin cup.

After a while, when the cup was overflowing, the blind man asked a stranger to tell him what the sign now said.

“It says,” said the stranger, ” ‘It’s a beautiful day. You can see it. I cannot.’ “

The Perils and Pleasures of Public Speaking

“There are certain things in which mediocrity is not to be endured, such as poetry, music, painting, public speaking.” Jean de la Bruyere

This piece can be read below or download the nicely designed PDF and share around (PublicSpeaking).

I recently spoke at a client’s retreat and it marked the 125th time doing so. This does not include pitches and client presentations, guest lectures at schools, and media appearances. There has also been a large number of webinars, seminars, and panels. Along the way I have witnessed thousands of presentations representing the absolutely brilliant to the unbearably bad (I count some of my own in both camps).

Every conference provides old and new lessons in public speaking. Whether these events are valuable, necessary evils, boondoggles, idea stimulators, fiascos, ego-fests, networking opportunities, money grabs, or highly entertaining – one can take away something to apply when your turn to present comes up.

Given the experiences and observations accumulated, I have compiled ideas and lessons that work. In so doing, I avoid the obvious and well-stated ones. What follows should be extremely helpful when your turn at the podium comes up. Read more

Parrot: A Bespoke Collection of Business Quotes

We invite you to download this collection of quotes that goes beyond the well-known. Just hit here (Parrot) for over 40 pages of cool and inspirational thinking.

Top-Drawer Business Books of 2016

Too many business book lists are narrow in definition. As Robert Weider said, “Anyone can look for fashion in a boutique or history in a museum. The creative person looks for history in a hardware store and fashion in an airport.” The Top-Drawer list is less traditional. That is why the list includes, and is sometimes dominated by, books not categorized purely as “business”.

We always avoid books promising four-hour workweeks because they are fables, over-simplified and prescriptive how-to works that are vacuous and dangerous, and so-called inspirational books that are trite, lite and ineffectual. These are all tossed aside when one experiences the blunt adversities found in actual commerce.

There are no shortcuts or magic panaceas in business. We have to do the work even when reading. As John Locke stated, “Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” We encourage you to read the selections here and make the knowledge yours.

The list includes books released in 2016 that are top-of-mind, notable, relevant, well written, applicable, thought-provoking, and innovative. Our last bit of criteria makes the selections tougher to determine and that is timelessness of content. We love sharing the Top-Drawer list because so much of success in business is predicated on great storytelling and these selections exemplify that skill.

This year 13 make our list and are presented in no particular order. For the first time, fiction efforts are included for the amazing lessons they carry if one is open to the education. For fun, we have included a separate list of 8 timeless business novels.

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Marketing’s Golden Rule Ensures Relevance

Recently, I was named one of the 50 Over 50 Marketing Thought Leaders by Brand Quarterly. Beyond enjoying the honor and sharing my age with the publication’s entire readership, I was stumped by a bit of the process. BQ asked me to provide my “marketing mantra” and how it makes better marketers. It seemed like an easy request at first glance.

Then I got it into and quickly discovered I subscribed to many. Perhaps too many. So I sorted through them to see if there was commonality. I also looked for something fresh but compelling and by no way contrived. In the end, I brand-quarterly1landed on the notion of the Marketing Golden Rule. It is a representation of what I have witnessed and experienced as both marketer and consumer. The Marketing Golden Rule speaks honestly to the relationship between buyer and seller.

What is Your Marketing Mantra?

Always ask, “How would I like to be marketed to?” I don’t want to be fooled. I am not looking for false promises. I do not want to be entertained for entertainment sake. I am seeking fit with a brand. This modified ‘golden rule’ keeps the focus on reciprocity. Marketing is a relationship, a two-way street, a process to achieve mutual benefit between people and brands. People expect marketing but do not want to be sold. They want to be valued, heard, and feel special. This makes the profession and practice a profoundly human activity.

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How does Following this Mantra Make Better Marketers?

Marketing facilitates sales by respecting and helping people make the best decisions concerning what, how, and when to buy what they need and want. David Ogilvy said, “The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife.” He was imploring marketers to truly know who may buy what is being sold. This demands an understanding of an individual’s situation and personal motivations to provide an objective rationale and honest justification for every purchase.

Marketing is the study of human behavior and our behavior has not changed in centuries. It has been consistent from ancient open-air markets to modern online exchanges, from Pompeii to eBay. We are both rational and irrational, and we frequently confuse our needs with our wants.

This makes marketing an amazing profession. It is a mix of psychology, data science, pop culture, history, sociology, music, consumer behavior, design, neuroscience, writing and literature, mathematics and so much more. This complex cocktail does not set out to overtly sell, it strategically and creatively promises and proves.

Increasingly marketing is technology-led and data-driven. Marketers are overwhelmed by reams of information. Every brand I work with is inundated with data. It is not making them better at marketing. T.S. Eliot got it right, he asked, “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Data is great if it produces human insights that incite. It sucks when a spreadsheet replaces intimate knowledge of a customer.

Marketing connects on a human level. Consumers expect brands to market to them. Equally so, they expect brands to empathize and understand them. Marketers that hide behind vague, lofty claims or attach inordinate emphasis to dispassionate technology or fail to prove their promises will facilitate few sales because in this there is no relevance, honesty, value or humanity.

Broadly speaking there are two types of people in marketing. There are those who like to fool people and there are those who like to serve people. It is time our profession cast off the old-school, jaded types who believe marketing is about creating myths and trying to snow people with them. We need to celebrate those who know it is about finding a truth that connects people and brands for mutual benefit. All of this starts by asking, “How would I like to be marketed to?”

Cheers, Jeff Swystun

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The High Cost of Poor Business Writing

Hello dear reader. It is important for you to know that I labored over every word in this post. Oliver Wendell Homes said, “carve every word before your let it fall.” For tone-of-voice I strove for “friendly academic and passionate advocate”. Then I asked, “What do I want the reader to remember?”

I love to connect with people through writing. I do a great deal of business writing and have been encouraged of late. This skill and practice is under scrutiny. Its poor quality leads to inefficiency and ineffectiveness. I am encouraged because we are beginning to recognize the magnitude of the problem.

Josh Bernoff recently wrote in The Daily Beast a piece titled, Bad Writing Costs Businesses Billions. Bernoff has been a writer for 30 years and just published, Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean. The article grabs with an amazing statistic. It seems that bad writing is costing American businesses close to $400 billion every year. That is a staggering number.

Bad writing is costing American businesses close to $400 billion every year.

Bernoff writes, “Think about it. You start your day wading through first-draft emails from colleagues who fail to come to the point. You consume reports that don’t make clear what’s happening or what your management should do about it. The websites, marketing materials, and press releases from your suppliers are filled with jargon and meaningless superlatives.” The last sentence resonated with me. I am on a mission to ruthlessly, creatively and intelligently improve my own writing. This is a demonstration for to do the same.

American workers spend nearly a quarter of their day reading. Much of that is wasted because the material is poorly written. Bernoff has done the math, “American workers spend 22 percent of their work time reading; higher compensated workers read more. According to my analysis, America is spending 6 percent of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material. Every company, every manager, every professional pays this tax, which consumes $396 billion of our national income.”

The websites, marketing materials, and press releases from your suppliers are filled with jargon and meaningless superlatives.

Bernoff illustrates the problem with this mind numbing job description example: “The Area Vice President, Enterprise Customers will develop and manage a sustainable strategic relationship that transforms the current commercial model by creating joint value that results in the ongoing reduction of costs, continuous process improvement, growth and profitability for both partners with the ability to export key learnings.” Such language is poor and embarrassing but it also grates.

Kaleigh Moore wrote an article on business writing in Inc. earlier this year. It examined a related aspect of poor business writing. She makes the case that communication “is an essential skill for any business”. This seems obvious even fundamental but apparently it is not given the sad state of the skill in the business world.

She cites a study from CollegeBoard, a panel established by the National Commission on Writing. It shows that “businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion on remedial writing training annually. Of this budget, $2.9 billion was spent on current employees–not new hires.” This is not attributed entirely to our early years in the education system because “even a college degree doesn’t save businesses from the effects of poor writing skills.”

A report from the Partnership for 21st-Century Skills notes that 26.2 percent of college students had deficient writing skills. These educated folks “also lacked proper communication skills across the board.” This should come as no surprise. Writing makes you a better reader and conversationalist. It can also improve your presentation skills. Writing, reading, conversing and presenting all contribute to knowledge and confidence. That makes for a much resilient, more innovative and efficient workforce.

Carolyn O’Hara is the Managing Editor of The Week and tackled the subject of business writing in Harvard Business Review. Her piece, How to Improve Your Business Writing, is practical. She paraphrases Marvin Swift who said, “clear writing means clear thinking.” Swift wrote a touchstone essay on business writing in a 1973 issue of Harvard Business Review.

Kara Blackburn, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management is quoted in same piece, “You can have all the great ideas in the world and if you can’t communicate, nobody will hear them.” That is so true. I have witnessed too many of my clients making the mistake of not only assuming they have been heard but that they have also been understood. Too frequently, neither has taken place.

Too many of my clients making the mistake of not only assuming they have been heard but that they have also been understood.

O’Hara lays out sound advice:

Think before you write: don’t start writing on the spark of an idea. Talk it through in your own mind before words flow on paper.

Be direct: make your point right up front. It will guide everything after. I think of this as a thesis statement to be proved or disproved.

Cut the fat: avoid the unnecessary and build up the necessary but not with more words. Do it with more emphasis…there is a difference.

Avoid jargon and $10 words: I used to believe I was paid by high-sounding words. I know now it is about being convincing and not trying to impress.

Read what you write: I agree but recommend reading it out loud. I am often embarrassed when I hear the words. Equally so, I am happy when they are edited for greater impact.

Practice every day: We write something every day but I also advocate walking away from that book, article, blog, or report. After all, athletes do not train the same muscles each and every day.

Josh Bernoff has his own advice for better business writing. He suggests “The Iron Imperative” where you “treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. To embrace it means that every time you send an email or write a document, you must take a moment to structure it for maximum readability and meaning. We are lazy; we’d rather save our own time than someone else’s.” That is very true. It is far too easy to press “send” than to edit again.

It is far too easy to press “send” than to edit again.

He recognizes that smartphone or computer screen reading “reduces attention spans and concentration” so it “demands a radical rethink of the way you communicate in writing. In this environment, brevity must become a core value.”

I am not a proponent of this in a strict sense. Most social media is soundbite-like but exists to compel people to investigate and learn more. That eventually demands long-form business writing. Bernoff’s mantra of ‘clarity, brevity, and plain language’ misses the opportunity to be creative, inject personality and tell a rich story.

Let me summarize what we have covered in hopes of compelling and convincing you of my thesis. First off, poor business writing costs businesses big dollars in inefficiencies and lost sales. Second, everyone needs help to be a better writer.

This means you. You can always improve and if you do you will be contributing to your career, your company’s success, and the entire economy. If that was not enticing enough, you will be incredibly proud when you press send on that next e-mail or text or when your article appears in Fortune or Bloomberg BusinessWeek or when your marketing materials convince a customer to try your offer.

Famous advertising professional, David Ogilvy, had it right, “People who think well, write well… Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.” We are taking writing for granted. It is just something we do, not do well. That has to change.

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What’s Happening in Brand Storytelling?

Storytelling has its sceptics and detractors in the business world. I fear the word and practice is both being overused and misapplied much like “business design” and “branding”. The only way to conclude its effectiveness is to give it a try. That starts with understanding by reading the latest thinking on the subject.

Moving From Fiction to Non-Fiction
Many brand and product stories “are just pretty commercials made to wear beat up sweatpants to try to boost authenticity and believability”. Jay Baer recently admonished such efforts saying, “Storytelling has to shift from an emphasis on the story to an emphasis on the truth.” He goes as far to suggest that this “will be the big content and social story in 2017.”

The Resurgence Of Storytelling
Devishobha Ramanan writing in The Huffington Post suggests that oral storytelling is needed in company leadership. Her introduction is an eloquent example of storytelling, “Stories are powerful. imageThey can teach us to be moral or immoral. They can help us cut through a situation analytically. They make us cry for someone else we didn’t know. They make us happy for someone we only wished we had met.” She calls for business leaders to draw on ancient practices. India’s Harikatha is an oral storytelling tradition with a primary storyteller and two other storytellers in support. China’s Shuosh and Japan’s Rakugo are other examples whose use can motivate and educate audiences.

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