It’s all just media

Did you see Conan on 60 Minutes this week? It was good — go watch it.

Anyway, Steve Kroft asked him about his decision to choose TBS (a cable station) over a broadcast deal.

Conan said:

I do not look down my nose at cable.  And I think anyone who does isn’t paying attention to television these days.  ‘Cause it is– this world is changing very quickly.

He is so right about that.  Cable has been pretty widespread since the late 80s.  Meaning anyone under the age of 25 doesn’t really remember a time before cable.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  What’s the difference between an ebook, a whitepaper, a brochure? Does it matter if you blog versus doing an email newsletter?

It’s all just media, it’s all just content, and we are all publishers.

Welcome to a brave new world.

Death by PowerPoint. Literally.

Last week The New York Times had an interesting (and much-commented-upon) article about how PowerPoint is misused in the military.  This is actually a longer version of the article PowerPoint Makes You Dumb from the New York Times Magazine 2003 Year in Ideas.  The idea is that rather than illuminating, the slide program makes it easy to obfuscate. With, the article suggests, deadly consequences.  The article includes a screen shot of a particular impenetrable graphic slide. A military leader is quoted as saying, “When we understand that slide, we’ve won the war.”

The consequences in the business world are, generally, much less dire. But PowerPoint is no less problematic in terms of creating more confusion than consensus.

I came to PowerPoint relatively late in my career. I started out in book publishing where PowerPoint was (at least then) unheard of. I literally don’t think I’d ever even seen it. I moved on to web editorial work at iVillage. I’m sure people there used PowerPoint, probably people in sales or biz dev. But in the editorial department we worked in Word or Excel.

When I arrived at Return Path to work in consulting I had to learn how to use it, fast. Fortunately, the people I worked with had ideas about how to use PowerPoint that went beyond the 7 X 7 rule. But my ideas about how PowerPoint could be used changed radically when I found this presentation on SlideShare as part of their “Best Presentations” contest four years ago. At first I was blown away but also intimidated. No way could I do something like that.

But then, one day, I did.

This is the “Dolphin Deck.” I used a simple analogy to tell a complex story. It’s not perfect, but it was light years ahead of anything I’d ever created before. It was quite thrilling.

At the end of the day, the problem is not the software (it never is, is it?). The problem is the way people use it. PowerPoint can actually be helpful for telling a story. But you have to have a good story to tell. If you don’t — well that’s when you end up with dozens of slides filled with scores of bullet points yet devoid of content.

The next time you need to write a presentation, do yourself a favor. Before you even open up PowerPoint, figure out what your story is. I recommend beginning in Word and writing an outline (but I’m a writer, so that is how I think). Once you know what the story is then you’ll know how to tell it.

* Want to see another one? Here’s an example of a presentation I did last year to showcase our company’s email certification product.

*Another great resource is the aptly named “Death by PowerPoint.” Key takeaway: one point per slide. He makes the point — and it’s obvious, but aren’t the best ones always thus? — that the extra slide is free. There is zero cost for adding slides, so why are you stuffing the information onto slides like sardines in a can? Spread ’em out!

Why Traditional Media Will Die (And Maybe Should)

<b>WARDROBE</b>: Check your closet to ensure that you have appropriate professional attire, including shoes, ready for interviews.

Through a link on Facebook I got introduced to career blog by Penelope Trunk. It’s quite brilliant and I quickly became obsessed. The writing is fresh and interesting. More importantly the advice is great. Penelope offers truly innovative ideas for managing your career and your life.

Now let’s contrast any random post on Trunk’s blog with this column from the Sunday New York Times. This piece is so insipid it actually makes me a bit angry. I can’t believe the Times wasted resources on it. First, the advice is so obvious that I have a hard time believing anyone who has been looking for a job would find any value here. Second, the advice also feels hopelessly out-of-date. Resumes? Cover letters? Sure, these are still tools that job hunters use — and making them as good as you can <i>is</i> important — but is this what people really need to be focused on to get a job in today’s economy? Finally, the advice is so superficial that it is nearly useless.

Take, for example, this gem:

Not very helpful, right? Contrast that to any one of these four blog posts by Penelope. Fresh, interesting, not-obvious and actually helpful.

Top dogs in old media companies love to downplay blogs and talk about the superior quality of their content. They bemoan the “unfairness” that they invest so much in their content and stupid consumers don’t appreciate the difference.

I think consumers DO appreciate the difference. And, at least as this column shows, new media mavens are winning because — not in spite of — the value difference.

Brilliant Example of Data-Driven PR

I’ve written before about data-driven marketing. Here is a great example from By giving the New York Times access to web traffic data, AllRecipes got a plum front page story.

Notice, by the way, that this story didn’t go to, owned by Conde Nast. There may be many reasons for this, but I think one reason is that “new” media companies think in a fundamentally different way than traditional media companies. (As an aside, Conde Nast is likely still reeling from the closure of Gourmet, a distraction that can’t be helpful to them in advancing PR into food media outlets.)

New media companies think of data as an asset and use it in creative ways.  Also, new media companies value the voice of their community — because that is what this story is really about.  Old media is all about elite editors telling the plebes what to think, read, watch, cook, eat, wear and buy.  New media is about tapping into what the community is thinking, reading, cooking, eating, wearing and buying and then sharing that information with the rest of the community.  It’s a fundamental shift in thinking — and one that points to the true future of media, news and publishing.

NYTimes Op-Ed Column: Plain English Is the Best Policy

I loved this column in today’s New York Times about the gobbledy-gook that passes for English in most health insurance information.

The best part of the column is that the writer offers examples of actual health insurance policy language, which is generally written at a college or graduate-school reading level, and rewrites it into plain English.  It’s very illuminating.  Why can’t all information be written in this straightforward, simple way?

Let’s be clear about something: if you are in the communications profession then your job is to communicate.  If the audience that you are communicating with does not understand what you write, say or present then you have failed.  Period.

I think this gobbledy-gook phenomenon falls into two categories, and how you, the communication professional, respond should be considered accordingly:

Category 1: The gobbledy-gook is intentional.  The goal is NOT to inform and communicate, but to confuse and obfuscate.  If you find yourself working in a job where you are being charged — implicitly or explicitly — with creating content that is purposely confusing there is only one thing to do.  You have to quit.  Life is too short.

Category 2: The gobbledy-gook is unintentional.  In this scenario you and your colleagues are really, really smart about something and you want the whole world to know how really, really smart you are.  Or you are all swimming so deep in your own Kool-Aid that the jargon and acronyms actually make sense to you.  The cure for this is two-fold.  First, if you as the communications person recognize the lack of clarity you need to fight it at every turn.  You need to simplify, simplify, simplify, while still being complete and accurate.  Easier said than done, but that’s your job.  Second, if you are deep into the subject such that you don’t recognize the lack of clarity then you need to get outside perspectives from the intended audience.  Ask current clients if what you’ve written make sense to them.  Even better, ask prospects.

Either way, commit to plain English, always.

Don’t Be Afraid to Suck

In my post Advice on Corporate Blogging I offered the tip to “edit lightly” so as to let the real voices of your company come through.  Blogs are held to a different standard than other kinds of marketing communication.  Trying to make your blog conform to the same standards is not a great strategy — it wastes time and resources and diminishes the true power of blogs.

A corollary to that is my new tip: Don’t Be Afraid to Suck.

Not every single blog post will be a masterpiece and that is okay.  Honestly, the so-so blog post is 10x more helpful than the unwritten one.

When you are blogging, especially early on, your mantra should be to post a lot.  As much as you can stand.  Every day if you can swing it, at least three to five times per week if you can’t.

Here are some reasons why blogging early and often is good for you:

1. The more you write, the better you get: Write every day and you will find after about a month or so that your writing is better, more cogent, livelier.  Practice may not make perfect, but it sure makes better.

2. The more you write, the easier it gets: I can sometimes bang out 500 words in about 20 minutes.  And they are 500 good words, too.

3. The more you write, the more ingrained the habit becomes: Write often enough and it eventually becomes automatic.  You no longer have to “make time” because the time has built itself into your routine.  Plus, it gets easier and you get better and that is a self-reinforcing loop that makes the habit fun.

4. The more you write, the more readers you will have: Attention is the scarcest resource today, and readers will quickly lose focus if you aren’t publishing often.

5. The more you write, the more content you have for other stuff: Part of the beauty of blogging is that you are creating a repository of content that you can re-use and repurpose.  Even mediocre posts may one day come in handy and can be turned into something great.

Ultimately, your blog will be judged by the overall quality, not the quality of each individual post.  As long as most of your posts are good — and a few are excellent — the occasional dud won’t doom you.

For a different, but complementary, perspective on this idea read The Most Horrible Blog Post Ever on Copyblogger.

Advice on Corporate Blogging

I’ve been in charge of my company’s blog for about three years now.  I’ve learned a lot in that time.  Here are three key tips for anyone who is running a company blog:

Edit lightly: There is an argument to be made that blogs don’t even belong in the corporate communications or marketing department.  But I think marketing professionals can play a very productive and important role in corporate blogging by instilling discipline, offering guidance and coaching and filling in the gaps when no one has the time or inspiration to write.  But trying to run a blog the way you create other marketing communications is a fool’s errand.  You are wasting your time rewriting stuff that is perfectly acceptable and squashing the real voices that are what make blogs interesting.  I focus on grammar and spelling and try to take a very light touch otherwise.  If a post has a message I think isn’t good for our brand or if the post is confusing I will make suggestions back to the writer.  And I will reject a post I think isn’t going to work, but do so very rarely.  Most of the time I post ’em as I get ’em.

“Corporate” isn’t a dirty word: Having said that, corporate blogs can be interesting and be well-written.  Sure, there are companies that have success with what I call “unplugged” blogs that are run by the employees vs. living within corporate communications.  But that doesn’t mean buttoned-up blog that is a bit more polished can’t work.  As long as you focus on your audience and let writers have their voice (see previous tip) you can have an interesting blog that is also high quality.

Consistency is key, but don’t be a slave to a schedule: I have minimums (at least one post per week) and maximums (haven’t hit it yet, but I wouldn’t post more than five posts in a week), but I long ago gave up the idea of a schedule or a certain number of posts per day/week/month/quarter.  It’s a blog, not a newspaper.  You definitely need to post more often when you are getting rolling in order to build your readership.  But once you’ve got it going you can be opportunistic and publish as you get content and not drive yourself crazy.  If you can’t keep a baseline of consistency then you probably have a different problem.

A frenemy by any other name

It’s well known by now that Merriam-Webster added the word “frenemy” to its venerable dictionary.  Discuss amongst yourselves whether this word warrants inclusion.  I’m more curious about the official definition, which is “ one who pretends to be a friend but is actually an enemy.”

I’ve always used this word more in the second sense that is reported by Wikipedia: “a partner who is simultaneously a competitor.”

I guess there is room for both meanings, but they seem very different to me.  One suggests that the friend is not a friend at all.  Whereas the second definition, which admittedly speaks more to corporate relationships, suggests a relationship that is more nuanced, where there is both good and bad.

There are no new ideas under the sun

One of the tricky things about working on the web is that your work sometimes feels very ephemeral. I started my career in book publishing and books just feel very solid and substantial. It’s a bit of a mirage — books go out of print all the time. But it feels more “real.” The web, by contrast, makes newspapers (the physical stuff, not the industry) seem substantial. Here today, gone tomorrow. Sure, we have the Wayback Machine, but it’s not the same.

And yet, stuff on the web can live on and on and on. I was the food editor at iVillage back in 2002. Much has changed since I left — they got bought by NBC, re-designed more times than I can count and even launched a new logo. But bits of my work live on. I was just surfing around and I found this: What’s Your Cookie Personality?

If you think Facebook invented quizzes then you are either very young or you have been asleep the past 10 years. iVillage learned pretty early on that women love quizzes and will take endless numbers of them. Of course the gals at Cosmo knew that long before iVillage was a twinkle in Nancy Evans’s eye. What’s old is new and old and then new again.