Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Check Your Sources

Bubbie: The National Institutes of Health has never studied the attention spans of goldfish.

This is one of those "alternative facts" cited almost hourly by lazy writers.

Take your pick: You can blame perpetuation of the factoid on the marketer who fabricated the statement; or on Microsoft, which once cited it in an e-book; or on all the thousands of writers who have since recirculated it.

Enough with the attention-starved goldfish, already.

"Strong research is the backbone of strong copy," says copywriter Tom Wall. Strong copy requires writers to stop sourcing:
  • Personal blogs and Tweets (particularly the president's)
  • Unregulated contributor websites
  • Wikipedia
  • Unauthorized biographies
Without strong research, Wall says, "there is nothing anchoring your words to the truth."

NOTE: While truth isn't, opinions are my own.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Young at Art

This world is a dream within a dream; and as we grow older, each step is an awakening.
— Sir Walter Scott

We don't appreciate how formative youthful pursuits can be. They can shape not only the adult, but whole industries—even the whole world.

William Hogarth at 16 apprenticed to a London engraver, who taught him to design business cards and invitations. Whenever he had time off, Hogarth would amuse himself by wandering the nearby streets and sketching the odd characters he saw there. Within seven years, he was able to open his own business, engraving coats of arms, advertising handbills, and plates for booksellers.

Beatrix Potter at 14 began to keep a diary in which she wrote short stories, recorded impressions, and sketched pictures of her favorite pets, including rabbits, mice, frogs, lizards, snakes and bats. Although she never attended school, she learned to develop her skills in observation and draftsmanship from a private art teacher, Miss Cameron. 

Alfred Hitchcock at 15 enrolled in engineering school, but quit when his father suddenly died to take a job at a company that manufactured electric cables. Hitchcock worked in the advertising department there, writing copy and designing ads, all the while moonlighting as a title-card designer for the local silent-film studios. Within six years, he landed a full-time job with one of them.

Woody Allen at 16 held an after-school job with a New York ad agency. Every weekday, he would ride the subway into Manhattan from his high school in Brooklyn, all the while scribbling jokes onto pieces of paper. The agency's executives would place the jokes in the newspapers, attributing them to their clients. Woody's daily output of 50 jokes quickly landed him his first job as a comedy writer, for the TV personality Herb Shriner.

Bob Dylan at 12 would stay up every night until 3 am listening to Southern radio stations that played Muddy Waters, Hank Williams and Jimmy Reed and fingering their tunes on his guitar. While at summer camp in 1954, Dylan met a kid with his own high school doo-wop group. He formed a double act with the kid and, not long after, Dylan wrote his first song, a homage to Brigitte Bardot.

Roger Deakins at 18 enrolled in art school to study graphic design, but quickly discovered he preferred photography, and transferred to film and television school. After graduation, he found work as a cameraman, landing within seven years in the hot, new field of music videos. His music videos eventually earned the attention of the Coen Brothers, who asked him to shoot Barton Fink.

Steve Jobs at 18 audited a college course on calligraphy in which he learned about type design. He became so obsessed with typography, he began to look for a way to build a computer capable of printing multiple, variable fonts. He said of the course 22 years later, “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. Ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me."

HAT TIP to Ann Ramsey and Lucy Smith for inspiring today's post.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Headline I Wish I Wrote

HAT TIP to Seth Godin

Road Closures

You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth 
may be the best thing in the world for you. 
— Walt Disney
Business setbacks haunt those unequipped for adversity.

That's just about everyone.

You slave over relationships and infrastructure, only to find the universe doesn't want another product like yours (at least, not enough to pay for it).

So you accept the lesson and move on, sadder but wiser. Or you:
  • Don blinders and blame the customers
  • Get angry and blame the employees
  • Get stoned before lunchtime
  • Keep beating the dead horse
  • All of the above
Limited information, skills and equanimity all get in the way of clarity and acceptance, especially during business setbacks.

The best way to deal with them is to reconnect with your "why" (why did we start this venture in the first place?) and remind yourself of everything you accomplished along the road to failure.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Website Bogged Down?

In the past 150 years, peat farmers in northern Europe have found about 1,000 so-called bog men, those accidentally mummified curiosities now thought to have been failed kings.

Your customers have a better chance of finding a bog man than they do your website, if your site's outdated.

That's because Google feeds on freshness, says Michael Brenner, CEO of Marketing Insider Group.

And because freshness equals relevance to Google, you have to keep your site fresh. You need to:

  • Attract new backlinks from other (authoritative) sites.
  • Add new pages to your site (20-30% more each year).
  • Publish new content consistently.
  • Freshen up your old content regularly, revising outdated statements, fixing broken links, adding new visuals, etc.
  • Encourage and respond to comments.
When ranking your site, Google loves to see steady increases in click-throughs and dwell-time. You won't earn those, unless you keep your website fresh.

Your old content may once have been king. Today it's just a curiosity

Friday, February 24, 2017

Give and Take

There are only two types of speakers in the world: the givers and the takers.

Why the takers don't "get it" mystifies.

You can plug your ears and still spot a taker by observing his audience. Everyone's mobile comes out within the first 120 seconds.

"Reputation is everything," Chris Anderson says in TED Talks.

"You want to build a reputation as a generous person, bringing something wonderful to your audiences, not as a tedious self-promoter. It's boring and frustrating to be pitched to, especially when you're expecting something else."

TED actively discourages speakers even from subtle pitches, such as mentioning a funding shortfall or using a book as a prop.

Anderson compares the encounter with a taker at a conference to the coffee break you agree to have with a friend who within minutes reveals she wants to tell you all about her "must-invest time-share scheme."

Giving, on the other hand, evokes a response. Delivering stories, insights, humor and revelations leaves audiences ready to buy.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Content Precedes Connection

Before the web, organizing a successful B2B event was child's play, as easy as saying, "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!"

But content shock has made event organizing hard. 

Really hard.

If you want to attract a content-shocked audience today, you'd better get your own content right, says Ricardo Molina, cofounder of Bright Bull. 

"Marketing B2B brand events is basically impossible to do successfully unless you have this step done right," Molina says.

Your ability to identify content that connects can only come from one place, as Warwick Davies, owner of The Event Mechanic!, says: "Knowing what’s going on in your market from a DNA level."

"Imported" knowledge of your market won't cut it.

Scratch any failed B2B event and, under the skin, you'll likely find the organizer got the content wrong.

"Get your event content straight," Molina says. "Make sure it's the kind of stuff people want to hear about. Make sure you're offering something that's definitely going to drag them away from their desks and into a room with you."

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

9 Easy Ways to Increase Your Conversion Rate

Sarah Smith contributed today's post. She works for an online resource for beginning bloggers, StartBloggingOnline.com.

There are lots of reasons your website draws traffic that doesn't convert to sales. 

One is content. You might think you have the best website out there: it looks good, is colorful, and has all the necessary images and videos. But none of that matters, if visitors don’t get anything of value from your site. Visitors need not just information about your products, but about their benefits. Simply labeling them isn't enough. You need to explain their advantages and lasting impact, and prove why visitors should open their pocketbooks.

Another reason is staleness. You need to keep updating your site with fresh information. You can’t feel complacent just because you have gone live and the site looks amazing. You need to keep providing useful updates, and interacting with visitors to make them feel like you appreciate their visits.

Here's an infographic with more tips for converting traffic into sales.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Storytelling Trifecta

How often do you encounter content posing an idea, but nothing else?

An idea for a story isn't a story, says writing coach Larry Brooks, "unless you juice it with some combination of the Trifecta elements."

Each single element of the Trifecta "stands alone as a potential windfall;" all three combined are "pure gold."

Intrigue. "A story is often a proposition, a puzzle, a problem and a paradox," Brooks says. Intrigue arises "when you (the reader) find yourself hooked because you have to know what happens… or whodunnit… or what the underlying answers are." But intrigue need not depend on drama or mystery. "Sometimes intrigue is delivered by the writing itself. A story without all that much depth or challenge can be a lot of fun, simply because the writer is funny. Or scary. Or poetic. Or brilliant on some level that lends the otherwise mundane a certain relevance and resonance."

Emotional resonance. A story provokes a feeling, Brooks says. "It makes us cry. Laugh. It makes us angry. It frightens, it seduces, it confounds and compels. Every love story, every story about injustice and pain and children and reuniting with families and forgiveness—name your theme—is dipping into the well of emotional resonance for its power."

Vicarious experience
. A story takes for a ride we'll remember. The juice of a story "isn’t so much the dramatic question or the plucking of your heart strings as much as the ride itself," Brooks says. "The places you’ll go, the things you’ll see, the characters you’ll encounter, the things you’ll experience." A story gives you "
an E-ticket on the Slice of Life attraction."

Monday, February 20, 2017

Microcontent Do's and Don'ts

Web guru Jakob Nielsen doesn't push ideas he hasn't lab-tested.

So you'd do well to heed his advice on microcontent, those phrases and fragments that mean so much to sales.

"Microcontent should be an ultrashort abstract of its associated content, written in plain language, with no puns, and no 'cute' or 'clever' wordings," Nielsen says.

"Although it can be punchy, most importantly it must deliver good content, keep people’s interest alive, and provide value."

Page titles help search engines index your web pages. They're also what customers read in search results. When you write them, be sure to:
  • Put keywords up front to catch customers' attention
  • Include keywords that boost the content’s ranking
  • Omit unnecessary words to improve scalability
Headlines are "pick-up lines," in two senses. They create a first impression; and they're often picked up and displayed in news feeds, social media streams, and blog posts. So be sure yours make sense out of context. Be sure also to:
  • Tell customers something useful
  • Tell customers something specific
  • Avoid teasers and click bait
Taglines communicate the value you provide, the problem you solve, or the mission you fulfill. Taglines assure customers know what you do. Be sure to:
  • Be brief
  • Be simple
  • Be specific
Subject lines, to resonate with customers, must address a need or be phrased as a benefit. In addition, they must grab customers' eyeballs. So write short, put keywords up front, and be sure you explain what your emails are about.

Cards provide customers "shortcuts" and present chunks of copy they might not otherwise read. When well written, they can also prompt customers to read and comprehend long pieces.

Hints and tips can function as live customer-service agents who anticipate customers' questions and addresses them in context. Web usability tests prove they increase conversions. Keep them short and sweet.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Fat, Dumb and Happy. But How Long?

Complacency—the silent business killer—might finally do in associations.

They've been in free fall since the Great Recession, shedding people and programs left and right, as they watch the membership pool evaporate.

It may be only years until they go the way of pay phones, folding maps, and dot matrix printers.

Association executives' self-interest may be the cause of the failure ("No matter the cost, let's preserve my bloated compensation"). Or perhaps it's the fault of hidebound boards.

Whatever the cause, one place that complacency shines is member on-boarding.

A case in point.

Precisely one month ago today, I joined American Society of Association Executives. Since then, I have received nothing from ASAE but for two lame auto-responses confirming my $470 payment.

Do I feel buyer's remorse? You betcha. I wonder:

  • Does anyone inside ASAE even know I'm a member? 
  • Will I ever be contacted before I receive a renewal invoice in 12 months? 
  • Will I derive a single benefit from ASAE, or are my dues merely a charitable donation? 
  • Why did I ever part with my money? 
  • What am I missing? 
Okay, maybe I'm naive.

In The End of Membership As We Know It, Sarah Sladek writes, “For hundreds of years association memberships have been cut from the same cloth. With few exceptions, people paid dues once a year for access to a full year’s worth of membership."

So maybe my dues payment was simply a toll.

If it was, I've taken the bridge to nowhere.

"Scrappy" for-profits know there are two milestones a new customer must reach:

  • She must sign up for the product. 
  • She must achieve her first success with the product. 
Customer churn occurs when the second milestone is never reached. To minimize churn, for-profits focus on on-boarding. For example:
  • Xero asks new customers to watch a "getting started" video when they sign up 
  • PropserWorks mails new customers a handwritten note 
  • Trill puts cards on its on-boarding website that explain how its product works 
  • Etsy provides a "progress meter" for new customers setting up a shop 
  • Dropbox helps you upload your first file 
It may be too late for association marketers to up their game by mimicking their for-profit peers.

But should they at least feel an urge to learn new tricks, I'd recommend signing up with Chris Brogan.

Meanwhile, I'll work on getting my dues refunded.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Doing the Wrong Thing

Nothing is funnier than confidently 
doing the wrong thing. 

— Adam McKay

Why do so many business leaders get it so very wrong, so very often?

For four reasons, says Dartmouth professor Sydney Finklestein:

  • Experience (when the experience doesn't matched the situation)
  • Self-interest (often unconscious)
  • Pre-judgments (hasty decisions that stick)
  • Attachments (undue influences)

Among my clients, I witness operator-induced train wrecks all the time. 

The five red flags are:

  • Obsession with sacred-cow marketing tactics
  • Fixation on "bright and shiny objects"
  • Readiness to heed the advice of charismatic nincompoops 
  • Hyper-focus on waste, instead of growth
  • Bias for copying competitors and using low-price as strategy

It's easy for an outsider (like me) to spot when experience, self-interest, pre-judgements or attachments are driving decisions; far less so less for an insider.

As people in recovery like to say, "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."

Denial enables business decisions to feel right, even when they're wrong.

That's because, as Professor Finklestein says, "Decision making is not a rational, step-by-step process. It’s much more emotionally driven."

HAT TIP to Steve Dennis for inspiring this post.

Good Writers Read Good Books

Erik Deckers contributed today's post. Eric is the president of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing agency with clients throughout the US. He is also the co-author of Branding Yourself and No Bullshit Social Media.

Whenever I attend a networking event, I like to ask questions usually not asked at one of these things.

What’s your favorite sports team? Who was your idol growing up? What’s the last book you read?

I can always spot the sales alpha dogs in any networking crowd. When I ask about the last book they read, or their favorite book, it’s always the same thing.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, someone will say.

Zig Ziglar’s Born To Win, says another.

The Art of War, says a guy with slicked-back hair and a power tie.
How to Crush Your Enemies, See Them Driven Before You, and Hear the Lamentations of the Women, says an unusually-muscled guy with a funny accent.

And I can spot the content marketers too.

Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes! someone will say.

The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing, says another.

“I don’t read books, I only read
Copyblogger,” says a third.

But the writers—the good writers—will tell me about the books they love. The books they read over and over again, not because it will help them get ahead in life, but because it stirs something within them.

Those are the writers who are more concerned with their craft than with their content. Those are the writers who will produce some of the most interesting work, regardless of their employer. (What’s sad is their employer has no idea how lucky they are to have this wordsmith in their corner, and will wonder why the sales funnel got a little emptier after they left.)

Content marketers: as writers, you should understand and build your craft as much as, if not more than, your understanding of your product, or big data, or SEO, or the right number of items in a listicle, or A/B testing.

Good writers are good content marketers, but the reverse is not true. It doesn’t matter if you’re the leading expert in your particular industry, if you can’t make people want to learn more about it, you’ve failed.

If you can’t make people care about your product, they won’t buy it. If you can’t stir basic human emotions, they won’t care. And if you can’t move people to read your next blog article, or even your next paragraph, it doesn’t matter how much you know.

You will have failed as a marketer and as a writer.

The best thing you can do is focus on improving your writing skills.

That all starts with reading.

Stop Reading Business Books

Content marketers—at least the writers—need to stop reading business books and content marketing blogs. They’re no good for you. At best, you don’t learn anything new. At worst, they teach you bad habits.

As British mystery writer P. D. James said, “Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.”

Read for pleasure instead. Read outside the nonfiction business genre. Read books from your favorite writers. Read mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, or literary fiction. Read history, biographies, creative nonfiction, or collections of old newspaper columns.

But. Don’t. Read. Business Books.

This is input. This is how you become a better writer. You read the writers who are better than you, and you skip the writers who aren’t.

That means business books. As a business book author and reader, I can tell you there are plenty of business books that will never be accused of being “well written.” They’ll teach you plenty about the subject, but they won’t teach you about the craft of writing. Sure, you need to study the science of content marketing, but that should be a small portion of your total reading, not the majority of it.

So you study the best creative writers who are considered masters of the craft, and practice some of their techniques.

This is why professional football players watch game film, not only of their opponents, but of players who came before them.

This is why actors watch old movies by the stars and directors from 50, 60, 70 years ago.

It’s why musicians not only listen to their idols, but their idols’ idols, and even their idols’ idols’ idols.

And this is why good writers constantly read the masters of the craft. This is why several writers have
must-read books and authors they recommend to everyone.

My friend,
Cathy Day, a creative writing professor at Ball State University, and author of The Circus In Winter told me once, "Reading a lot teaches you what good sentences sound like, feel like, look like. If you don’t know what good sentences are, you will not be successful as a writer of words."

Stephen King, who is not a friend of mine, said something similar: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

What’s on Your Bookshelf?

There are only so many effective headlines you can write, so reading the 87th article on “Five Effective Headlines You Need To Use RIGHT NOW” is a waste of time.

There are only so many ways of creating buyer personas that yet another “How to Build Your Buyer Personas” isn’t going to make a difference.

And when you really get down to it, Jay Baer is channeling Harvey Mackay who’s channeling Zig Ziglar who’s channeling Dale Carnegie. 

There’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to business books and content marketing blogs. (Although I love Jay Baer’s bravery when it comes to wearing those sport coats! And he’s one of the few good business writers I admire.)

But there’s a whole world of books out there that have nothing to do with business, nothing to do with marketing, and will make you a better writer than any business book ever will.

Read Ernest Hemingway’s short stories to learn how to write with punch, using a simple vocabulary.

Read Roger Angell’s Once More Around the Ballpark to learn how to make people passionate about the thing you love.

Read Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None to learn how to hook people at the start of a story, and keep them until the very end.

Identify three of your favorite authors, or at least authors you’ve heard good things about, and read one of their books. Identify passages, sentences, and techniques that move you and make you go “I wish I could do that.” Write them down in a notebook, and then practice replicating them in your everyday writing—emails, blog articles, notes to friends, special reports, everything.

Once you finished those three books, read three more books. And then three more. And then three more.

When you run out of an author’s work, find a new author. When you run out of authors, ask a bookstore employee or librarian for recommendations. Or join Goodreads and ask your friends about the books they love.

Content marketing is
facing an avalanche of mediocre content in the coming years, and the only way you’re going to stand out is if you can be better than the avalanche. That means being better at your craft, not producing more and more mediocre content.

It means reading more stuff by great writers and less by average writers. It means realizing you’re better off reading another mystery novel than yet another article that promises “Five Content Marketing Secrets.”

It means focusing on your craft and becoming a master of language and stories. And it all starts by reading the work of the artists who came before you.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Freedom Fighters

Only after reading Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life five years ago did I realize how remarkably ambitious, courageous and forceful a fellow was the Father of Our Country.

No wonder he was admired by his white contemporaries.

His 153 slaves may have held a different opinion of him.

When he was president and living in Philadelphia, his wife Martha's maid Oney ran away in the middle of a fancy dinner party, escaping by boat to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Washington—as he always did with runaways—took Oney's flight as a personal affront.

He placed ads in newspapers offering $10 for the return of “a light Mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy hair.”

And when he learned Oney was in Portsmouth, Washington dispatched a federal customs officer to fetch the her—breaking a fugitive slave law he himself had signed.

When the customs officer located Oney, he got her to agree to return voluntarily to the president's household, provided she be freed on her mistress' death.

Washington called the demand "totally inadmissible."

Fearing riots by Abolitionists, the customs officer refused to return Oney to her master.

Washington next tried to get her back by hiring his nephew to kidnap her. But the runaway was tipped off to the plan and went into hiding until Washington's death.

She lived for another 50 years as a fugitive in Portsmouth, raising three children on the wages of a house servant.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Neither Captious Nor Weasly Be

When it comes to customers, don't be captious. Niggling gets you nowhere.

How many times have you contacted sales or customer service, only to be informed you've called the wrong line? Or told to fill out some online form first? Or made to feel a fool, because you don't know if you have Version 4.2?

When conversing with a customer, be sensible and humble. To show off your knowledge blunts your effectiveness.

And when it comes to customers, don't weasel. Weaseling destroys trust.

If you need to make a point with a customer, make it clearly, concisely, candidly.

How many times have you contacted sales or customer service, only to be informed the price isn't actually available, the product doesn't really work, the warranty is never, ever applicable? "You'd have known that, if you'd seen the fine print."

When conversing with a customer, be sincere and straightforward. To squirm out of every promise makes you a weasel. And the weasel is a threatened species.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Writers on the Big Screen

Hollywood routinely returns to writers for characters because, unlike superheroes, they're observant, witty, flawed and vulnerable—qualities a main character must have to woo an audience.

While it's easier for Hollywood to realize other creatives (artists, musicians and dancers, for example), the absurd and scary nature of the writer's life never loses appeal.

My list of the top movies depicting writers (in chronological order) comprises: 

The Lost Weekend (1945). An alcoholic writer's weekend plans are dashed when he decides to drop into Nat's Bar.

In a Lonely Place (1950). Screenwriter "Dix" Steele can't manage his anger. His mean streak make him a murder suspect, when a pretty coat-check girl is found strangled. 

Beloved Infidel (1959). A gossip columnist falls for F. Scott Fitzgerald, who's working in Hollywood so he can afford the asylum where he's put his crazy wife.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Holly Golightly drags her neighbor, the writer Paul Varjak, into her crazy life.

The Front (1976). Blacklisted TV screenwriter Alfred Miller persuades his bookie to sign his name to Miller's scripts in exchange for a percentage.

My Favorite Year (1982). TV scriptwriter Benjy Stone tells of the summer he met his idol, swashbuckling actor Allan Swann.

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). A foreign correspondent assigned to Indonesia gets caught up in a political coup. 

Out of Africa (1986). Memoirist Karen Blixen discovers what matters, while she learns to run a coffee plantation.

Stand by Me (1986). Author Gordie Lachance recounts a trip with three childhood buddies over a Labor Day weekend.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). The family and romantic entanglements of three sisters, one a budding writer, unfold between two Thanksgivings.

Barton Fink (1991). A playwright's Broadway hit propels him into a $1,000 a week job in Hollywood.

Shakespeare in Love (1998). The Bard struggles with his new comedy, Romeo and Ethel, and falls for a wealthy merchant's daughter.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). A drug-addled journalist is assigned to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race.

Wonder Boys (2000). A drug-addled novelist attends a writer's conference with his agent and two students from the college where he teaches.

Adaptation (2002). A high-minded scriptwriter asks his twin brother to interview the author of the book he's desperate to adapt.

As Good As It Gets (2003). Best-selling novelist Melvin Udall discovers a waitress may be the only person in New York who can stand him. 

The Human Stain (2003). Novelist Nathan Zuckerman receives a visitor one dark night. The stranger, a down-on-his-luck college dean, wants him to write a book about his life.

(2004). An aspiring writer joins his soon-to-be-married former college roommate on a road trip through California wine country. 

Finding Neverland (2004). Scottish writer J.M. Barrie meets a widow and her four young sons in Kensington Gardens and a friendship begins. 

Capote (2005). A writer's masterpiece also proves his undoing.

The Squid and the Whale (2005). Husband and wife novelists decide to call it quits. Their divorce doesn't go over well with the kids.

Miss Potter (2006). Spinster Beatrix Potter becomes an international celebrity and falls in love with her publisher.

HOWL (2010). Poet Allen Ginsburg's colorful verses land his publisher in court, charged with selling obscene material.

Midnight in Paris (2011). An unfulfilled screenwriter vacations in Paris, where he discovers that a 1920 Peugeot lets him travel backwards in time. 

Saving Mr. Banks (2013). P.L. Travers resists the Disneyfication of her creation, Mary Poppins.

Papa (2015). A young journalist goes to Havana to meet his idol, Ernest Hemingway, on the eve of the Cuban Revolution. 

Trumbo (2015). Hollywood's top screenwriter finds himself in deep kimchi for his pinko leanings.

The End of the Tour (2015). David Foster Wallace goes on a book tour with a Rolling Stone reporter. 

Genius (2016). Novelist Thomas Wolfe finds he desperately needs an editor; Max Perkins complies.

Paterson (2016). A bus driver records his responses to the beauty that surrounds him in poems he keeps secret.

Their Finest (2017). A scriptwriter adds "a woman's touch" to a teary propaganda film during the Battle of Britain.

Rebel in the Rye (2017). J.D. Salinger loses his mind, but finds his voice.

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2018). Desperate for cash, Charles Dickens tries his hand at a ghost story.

Loose Lips Think Slips

Even Napoleon had his Watergate.

— Yogi Berra


When politics turn puerile, it's okay to turn a slip of the tongue into news.

But according to psychologists, for every 1,000 words spoken, one or two slips of the tongue occur. Given the average pace of speech, that's at least one every seven minutes.

Hardly newsworthy.

Sigmund Freud called slips of the tongue Fehlleistungen ("faulty actions") and insisted they were meaningful, because they reveal unconscious thoughts.

He was certainly right, to a degree.

I remember greeting two dinner guests, a married couple, at my front door one evening. It was wintry, and heavy topcoats were in order.

The moment the doorbell rang, my wife (now ex) whispered, "Listen, if they act tense, it's because they're both having affairs." I ran to the door, opened it, and announced, "Hi! Come in and take your clothes off!"

Similarly to Freud, psychologist Daniel Wegner contends the unconscious is constantly mulling worst-case scenarios, so we can spot and prevent them. The more the conscious mind resists those thoughts, the more the unconscious revisits them. On occasion, the unconscious sabotages the conscious mind, and a dark thought just rolls off the tongue.

But not every slip of the tongue is Freudian.

According to linguist Gary Dell, thoughts, words and sounds are linked through three networks in the brain—the semantic, lexical and phonological. Speech arises from their interaction. Every so often, one of the networks simply misfires, and a slip of the tongue results.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sam I Am

When white Vaudevillians complained about having to share dressing rooms with dancer Sammy Davis, he'd tell his young son to ignore them. "They're just jealous 'cause we got a better act."

Because he traveled from the age of three with his dad's act, Sammy Davis, Jr. was kept out of school, and thus sheltered from Jim Crow-style segregation.

It was only when he turned 18 and joined the army that Davis realized his color was a handicap. But when he was removed from latrine duty and assigned to entertaining fellow troops, he also realized talent was powerful.

"My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight," he once said. "It was the one way I might hope to affect a man's thinking."

Talent, in any walk of life, is the only power most of us—not born into wealth—possess.

Davis exploited his to mount the pinnacle of the entertainment profession—even winning membership in the original hipster supergroup, The Rat Pack.

Along the way, he broke down more racial bars than did many other, more dignified black luminaries of the day—in 1972, even kissing Archie Bunker.

How about you? Are you using your talent to break down bars?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Does Content Produce Oxytocin?

A recent survey by PwC shows one in two CEOs think lack of trust threatens company growth. They have good reason: Prerequisite to any purchase is trust. And trust is a rare commodity these days.

Why do we trust each other, anyway?

Researchers in California asked test-subjects to choose any amount of money they wished to, and transmit it to strangers via computer. But first, they told the subjects that the money they sent—whatever the amount—would automatically triple in value, after they sent it. They also told the strangers they could keep the money they got, or share it with the senders. Before and after each transmission, the researchers measured the amount of oxytocin—the brain chemical responsible for "social bonding"—in both the senders and receivers.

The researchers found the more money recipients got (money being the gauge for trust among senders), the more oxytocin their brains produced; and the more oxytocin their brains produced, the more likely they were to share that money with senders (money also being the gauge for trust among recipients).

The researchers' conclusion: Oxytocin reduces our fear of trusting a stranger.

I'd like to encourage the Content Marketing Institute to fund a comparable experiment to prove my pet theory: Marketing content produces oxytocin.

If the Institute is unwilling, you can send me money (via computer), and I'll fund the experiment.

It'll be money well spent.

Trust me.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Hobbes vs. Locke

All differences of political opinion boil down to the differences in the philosophies of Hobbes and Locke.

Hobbes believed we're at war with one another, all the time, “every man against every man.” We need government to keep us from killing each other over property. Without it, life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Locke believed we want to live in peace with one another, all the time, and are governed by "natural law." We don't annihilate each other because self-preservation is basic to natural law. We need government only to act as a referee when we disagree over property.

Hobbes advocated for absolute monarchy; Locke, for representative democracy.

How about you?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Knapsack of Nouns

A "team of lawyers" and a "herd of buffalo" exemplify the figure of speech we call the collective noun, which names a group of people or things.

Many were first recorded in the 15th century in manuals known as "Books of Courtesy," written to keep aristocrats from embarrassing themselves while on the hunt.

These nouns often evoked the behavior of the things named. So, for example, we say:
  • A pride of lions
  • A leap of leopards
  • A burden of mules
  • A murder of crows
  • A gaggle of geese
  • A stud of horses
Other collective nouns evoked the jobs of the people named. So, for example, we say:
  • A tabernacle of bakers (a "tabernacle" was a merchant's stall)
  • A misbelief of painters (artists created illusions)
  • A stalk of foresters (these guys tracked down poachers in the woods)
  • A sentence of judges (who spoke in legalese)
  • A faith of merchants (meant ironically, since most were cheats)
  • A superfluity of nuns (the convents were overcrowded)
To keep you from embarrassing yourself on the next hunt, I recommend these up-to-date collective nouns:
  • A keep of recyclables
  • A fancy of food trucks
  • An annoyance of pop-ups
  • A vanity of celebrities
  • A swamp of congressmen
  • An embarrassment of commanders in chief
HAT TIP to resident medievalist Ann Ramsey for suggesting this post. Opinions are my own.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Getting Even

Boy, if life were only like this.
— Woody Allen

In a 2005 interview in TV Guide, comedian Jack Carter described his run-in with Woody Allen.

"He was one of the top writers on The Gary Moore Show, where I was a regular," Carter said. "One day I was on a panel show with Woody and Mickey Rooney, and Woody was picking on Mickey unmercifully. I came to Mickey's defense and attacked Woody, and when we got back to The Gary Moore Show he wrote me out of it quickly. We've been enemies ever since."

Boy, if only you could write people out of the show. Revenge would come easy.

The year before Jack Carter's interview, scientists at the University of Zurich proved revenge doesn't have to come easy to be sweet.

They PET-scanned test-subjects' brains while they played a game. The game involved exchanging money, and the rules allowed any player to penalize another player if he made a greedy move. However, according to the rules, penalties came at a cost to both players.

The scientists found most players penalized selfish ones, even at their own expense.

The PET scans showed penalizing another player activated the dorsal striatum, the part of the brain involved in joy. They also showed a correlation between the strength of that activation and the size of the penalty imposed. Players with strong activations were willing to incur great expense to penalize others who were greedy.

The study suggested that activation of the dorsal striatum reflects an anticipation of joy in punishing people who misbehave. The greater the activation, the more willing you are to get revenge—even at your own expense.

Monday, February 6, 2017

7 Steps to an Authentic Brand Voice

Voice, writers say, is like a shirt: you choose the one in your closet that's best matched to the occasion.

If you're a brand marketer, that occasion is a "eureka moment" for your customer: either her first inquiry, first request, first purchase, first problem, first return, or first exposure to your ads.

"Writing is branding," says Matthew Stibbe, CEO of Articulate Marketing, by which he means voice is everything.

Voice, for a brand, lets you connect with customers like an actual person. Whole Foods is a professor of healthy living. Apple is a smug techie. Mailchimp is a stand-up comic. T. Rowe Price is a wise uncle.

If you haven't yet donned your brand's voice―haven't chosen the right shirt from your closet―you're not branding.

To do so, Stibbe recommends seven steps:

Conduct interviews. Speak face to face with leaders and learn their views on your organization and its values, employees, products and customers.

Analyze competitors. Learn what not to do by studying your competition.

Review your content. Look for an "accidental style guide" that might suggest precedents. Figure out, tone-wise, what the organization wants and tolerates.

Create a branding guide. Write a guide that makes clear your aspirations, and include examples of typical uses cases (the more mundane, the better). List examples of other voices you want to emulate (The Economist or Rolling Stone, for example.) and words that are required or forbidden.

Deploy. Put your style guide on an intranet site and promote it internally.

Train. Develop and deliver a training course in house. Train any outside writers, as well.

Proofread. Edit and proof everything.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

I was eight when I decided to distrust government. 

Since I was not particularly precocious, distrust of government must have been something adults bred in kids in those days, the same way they bred healthy teeth in us.

Maybe my distrust came from an additive in the water. Or maybe it came from watching Duck and Cover in the school gymnasium.

There were troubles at the time with the Russians in Cuba, and our principal decided we should assemble each morning in the gym for an air-raid drill.

My elementary school was less than 10 miles from the Empire State Building, well-known from TV news as a target for the Russians' missiles.

As we watched Duck and Cover for maybe the tenth time one morning, my pal Mookie—a walking encyclopedia of esoterica—leaned over and said, "The movie's really stupid. It acts like you can hide, but when the bomb goes off, in six seconds we all turn into jelly."

I knew Mookie's data was always indisputable, and thus I learned to stop worrying, love the bomb, and distrust government.

Still do. 

And you? What's your story?

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