Thursday, October 31, 2013

Got lots of history to communicate? Be an exploratorium, not a museum

In Homicide and Treme writer David Simon's keynote at the recent Communications Network annual conference in New Orleans, he spoke with feeling about his adopted city's sense of history and culture--but was quick to say that, while New Orleans holds on to its past, it isn't a museum, but a city worth exploring.
An enticing alley cafe in New Orleans
After a few days' worth of roaming around New Orleans, I understood what he meant. It's not full of glass-encased precious objects like a traditional museum. It's more like an exploratorium, one that encourages you to get your feet moving and your hands on different experiences, from stomping and clapping to zydeco and Dixieland jazz to drinking cocktails in the same bars frequented by Hemingway and Faulkner to eating food cooked from time-honored recipes. As a tourist, I'm much more intent on having experiences than buying up souvenirs, and those who can offer me experiences to explore are more likely to draw me in. It's part of the inspiration for Simon's book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, an effort to show the drama and characters that can be found on a New Orleans street corner.

That's true, too, on social media, where history shines when it's done well. When you're sharing your history on social media, is it more like a museum or an exploratorium? People of Color in European Art History is a Tumblr that shares images of non-whites in western European art, a lens that shows just how common the uncommon images were. The Rikjsstudio site from the Netherlands' Rijksmuseum makes its collection of art available to you in high-res images that you can remix, print,'s opening up a trove of 125,000 art masterpieces. By letting you not only explore but share, these two sites are making it easy for users to draw others into these "exploratoriums." There's a built-in, user-based incentive for exploring here.

Another favorite example of mine uses the diary entries of George Orwell in blog form, posting his domestic and political thoughts 70 years to the day later. If you started at the beginning, you can see the history of World War II unfold, and it's magical because you know the end of the story, but initially, he does not. Things we notice in hindsight were not as clear in real time. Here, the exploratorium slows you down to make you a contemporary of Orwell, seeing things through his eyes but in the modern format of a blog, day after day after day. I'd love to see someone do this with other archival collections of letters and diaries.

If you're not making use of your historic information on social media, you're missing a ready-made source of content with a built-in set of audiences, from historians and history buffs to students, tourists and more. (They're all good traffic builders, those audiences.) What kind of historic content could you use to make an online exploratorium?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Communicators share 10 of their go-to writing reference books

You like old-school writing references? Try this one on for size: An ancient writer must have really needed a ready reference to take the time to chisel this very-hard-copy Mesopotamian list of synonyms. I found it when I was roaming the halls of the British Museum on my visit to London last month.

Recently, I asked readers on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter what their go-to writing reference books include these days--and I'm sharing a couple more I learned about at the European Speechwriter Network conference I chaired in Brussels this fall. You'll find a nice mix of old- and new-school scribe resources here:
  1. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition was Dom De Bellis's nomination. It strongly recommends, among other things, the Oxford comma.
  2. The Associated Press Stylebook 2013 (hardcopy and online) was nominated by Meghan Dotter and by Karl Leif Bates, who added, "Oxford commas be damned to hell!" (Happy to facilitate this conversation, gentlemen.) Andrew Overton gave the stylebook a resounding third recommendation. I'll just note you can follow the stylebook on Twitter, too.
  3. Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, 3rd Edition was another of Dotter's fine suggestions.
  4. The Word Finder, an old J.I. Rodale treasure, was suggested by humor writer and speechwriter Fred Metcalf, a longtime writer for the late Sir David Frost, in an interview in this edition of The Speechwriter newsletter. Metcalf notes that this gargantuan book--put together without the help of the Internet--includes descriptions for "forty ways of laughing" and "two hundred ways of describing a book." It's the volume he'd grab and take with him in a house fire, quite the endorsement. You're more likely to find a used copy these days, or try its companion volume, The Synonym Finder
  5. The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically, suggested by Leslie Brunetta. That is, I'm suggesting the abridged version. She may have meant the much larger multi-volume comnplete dictionary.
  6. Webster's New World Dictionary and Thesaurus, 2nd Edition also made it on Brunetta's list. There had to be more than one dictionary, of course.
  7. Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus, Third Edition (21st Century Reference) wasn't the precise edition suggested by Crystal Borde, but a thesaurus is on her must list.
  8. The Elements of Style was first on Andrew Overton's list. And mine, by the way. I include here a link to the well-loved version by Strunk & White, although you'll find many recent reprints of the original Strunk version.
  9. Google. Brave Emily Culbertson admitted, "This is a hack, but Google. I am constantly checking definitions of words to see if they do what I want them to do, and I use the Web over dictionaries, I hate to say." Hey, I do that, too. Like having one great big Mesopotamian tablet in the cloud, don't you think?
  10. Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft was the suggestion of Kate Eidam. Far from being scary, it's a loving look at the work of writing.
Friends and colleagues of writers, any of these are wonderful thank-you and holiday gifts for your favorite scribe. Writers: Did we miss your favorite go-to writing reference book? Add it in the comments, please...

It's nearly the end of the year. Are you leaving professional development or training money on the table? Email me at infoATdontgetcaughtDOTbiz to schedule individual or group training in public speaking, presenting, or social media; to prep for your upcoming TED or TEDx talk; or a communications retreat.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The weekend read

You've been charging your batteries all week for the weekend, right? Before you unplug, calm down and grab the current from Twitter, where I found and shared these great reads, leads and ideas. I guarantee that mental light bulb will light up a few times after you read this collection:
It's nearly the end of the year. Are you leaving professional development or training money on the table? Email me at infoATdontgetcaughtDOTbiz to schedule individual or group training in public speaking, presenting, or social media; to prep for your upcoming TED or TEDx talk; or a communications retreat.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

"He's the stupidest reporter ever!" Or is he?

Recently, I was training a group of top-notch scientists and using an anecdote from a top-notch science reporter to help make my point about communicating clearly for a non-technical audience.

"That's all well and good," said one. "But I've talked to him and he is, without a doubt, the stupidest reporter ever," said one researcher, complete with eyeroll.

"That lets me let you in on a secret," I said. "That reporter is among the many who ask questions that sound stupid to you, in order to get you to explain complex concepts simply--in ways their audiences can understand."

I've worked with lots of scientists who get caught up in reacting to media interview questions like these, rather than responding to them, and it's a surefire way to wind up on the cutting room floor--and miss your mark. When you're reacting to the question, or to the interviewer, you're failing to hear the question and failing to think about the audience that the reporter ultimately wants to reach. Let me let Ira Flatow, host of NPR's Science Friday, explain it for you from the reporter's vantage point:
You have to be able to continually ask the same question over and over again, and not be afraid to sound stupid. I had one scientist who almost threw me out of his office during a television interview. I was challenging him on one of his theories and asking him to go deeper into his research. He said, “You’re not smart enough to be asking me these questions and I’m going to throw you out of the office.” But we did finish it. My advice? Don’t insult the interviewer.
McClatchy's Robert Boyd puts it this way: "I use a mental yardstick: the scientist is at one end, the reader at the other end, and I want to be nearer to the reader than to the scientist." They're among several interviews with reporters I did for the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Communicating Science website, a resource for scientists and engineers who want to learn more about communicating effectively with public audiences...and with reporters. I'd much rather see you react as evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson does in this interview with On Being's Krista Tippett (you'll find it as they conclude the unedited version of their interview). He tells her they've amassed a large chunk of marble during their conversation, and that he looks forward to seeing what she sculpts from it. Aim for that, next time...

It's nearly the end of the year. Are you leaving professional development or training money on the table? Email me at infoATdontgetcaughtDOTbiz to schedule individual or group training in public speaking, presenting, or social media; to prep for your upcoming TED or TEDx talk; or a communications retreat.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

*Now* is it time to consider Pinterest? 8 new features, uses, ideas

Pinterest continues to confound marketers, businesses and organizations--in part because it's so clearly user-driven. And with 70 million users who share boards full of ideas, wishlists and products (many of which they can buy right from the site), I've said for some time that Pinterest's worth a look as a marketing tool. Now, with its growth and more funding, Pinterest is expanding with new partnerships and tools for advertising and posting, and even more sectors are finding success on its boards. Take a look at the new features, data and use cases on Pinterest, and ask yourself: Is it time now?
  1. Upending email: Pinterest users are share-stars, sharing almost as much content on Pinterest as they do on email. That would displace email as the third-biggest sharing mechanism, right behind Twitter and Facebook. Do I have your attention yet?
  2. Adding to your content:  Don't just consider boards on Pinterest. Spread that content around by embedding your Pinterest boards on your own blog or website.
  3. Small business savvy ads: Now that promoted pins are being rolled out, Inc. magazine looks at the best Pinterest strategy for your business using promoted pins. Want to go further? HubSpot shares hacks for generating leads on Pinterest. Businesses can learn about the potential for Pinterest advertising here--remember, the site's users rank highest in e-commerce.
  4. Nonprofit nirvana? Check out this list of nonprofits that are nailing Pinterest, including one that's using it as an organizational website.
  5. SEO seekers, rejoice: Search engine Bing just upped the ante by including pinned images in its image search results. Here's how to optimize your pins so your images show up in Bing searches.
  6. Book author bonanza: If you've written a book at any point, go search for it on Pinterest. You may be surprised to find that your readers like sharing what they're reading or books that are especially meaningful to them--and the book jacket was made for showing off on Pinterest. The Book Designer weighs in here with ways to promote your book on Pinterest.
  7. Blogger's delight: If you have a blog to promote, Pinterest just made that process easier by introducing "rich pins," which auto-load your blog name and the title of the post along with the relevant picture when you or a reader pins the article. I love this feature--a real time saver for bloggers. If you were on the fence before about pinning your blog posts, this might just make the difference.
  8. Need to pin on a global map? Pinterest has a new partnership witTelefónica, so its Android phones sold in Latin America and Europe will come pre-loaded with the Pinterest app. The move represents a massive expansion worldwide for Pinterest, which also has begun hiring international employees, another good sign. The extra bonus internationally? Pictures speak their 1,000 words across all languages.
Find these and other good examples, data and news about Pinterest on my board, Great ways to use Pinterest.

It's nearly the end of the year. Are you leaving professional development or training money on the table? Email me at infoATdontgetcaughtDOTbiz to schedule individual or group training in public speaking, presenting, or social media; to prep for your upcoming TED or TEDx talk; or a communications retreat.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The weekend read

Let's put a pin in the voodoo doll that was this week, shall we, and wish for the weekend. Instead of incantations, try reading these great finds I made and shared on Twitter. Who knows what magic you'll find?
Make a wish for this comms job: New York University's Langone medical center needs a PR writer/editor.

Pin this to your boards: I'm so glad you make your way here on the weekend. Let's let the good times roll....

It's nearly the end of the year. Are you leaving professional development or training money on the table? Email me at infoATdontgetcaughtDOTbiz to schedule individual or group training in public speaking, presenting, or social media; to prep for your upcoming TED or TEDx talk; or a communications retreat.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Helpouts by Google: A new tool for entrepreneurs, advisers and coaches

I'm looking forward to trying out the latest tool from Google: Helpouts by Google, which combines Google+ Hangout technology with a payment system, allowing entrepreneurs, advisers, coaches and other pros to earn money online when they interact with customers.

You might be a chef teaching knife skills, a yoga instructor, an IT help desk pro, or, hmm, a speaker coach and social media consultant. You can answer calls immediately, or schedule them, and you can indicate when you are and are not available. You'll have a shared screen option so you and the caller can look at the same images live. Calls may be recorded, and there are age limits on users and which callers may be recorded. There's even a refund option.

The service is in test mode, so you need to apply for an entry code and there's a wait. Mine just arrived last week, so I'm eager to get started. My initial thought is that this might offer speakers a simple way to get feedback from me on videos of themselves speaking, but I'll be brainstorming more ideas, and welcome yours. The video below offers a tour of what's possible while you're waiting for your code to arrive....

It's nearly the end of the year. Are you leaving professional development or training money on the table? Email me at infoATdontgetcaughtDOTbiz to schedule individual or group training in public speaking, presenting, or social media; to prep for your upcoming TED or TEDx talk; or a communications retreat.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Communicating when everyone thinks your problem has been solved

In the city of saints and fortune-tellers
On the first morning of this month's Communications Network conference for philanthropic and nonprofit commuicators in New Orleans, I tagged behind a woman headed toward breakfast. We introduced ourselves on the escalator with first names and generic basics: "I'm Denise, a consultant from Washington, DC." "I'm Sarah, from a nonprofit based in DC, but I live in Washington State."

Which nonprofit? When she told me, I stopped and put my hand out: "I'm a founding member of Funders Concerned About AIDS," I told her, both of us surprised. Not many people remember that my work with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation began on the program side, helping to create a $20 million funding program for community-based AIDS prevention and services at a time when even the federal government was doing nothing. It's still the work of which I am most proud in my career. Only after that did I move to the foundation's communications shop, directing media relations. (You can read about the program in an essay I wrote for the foundation's 1987 annual report, starting on the PDF page 14 here.)

Sarah Hamilton, FCAA's program and communications director, filled me in on the group's current challenges, 25 years into its charge of marshalling philanthropic support for the AIDS epidemic. (You can check out the group's progress in the 25-year timeline it has published on Issuu.) Her biggest communications hurdle? How and what to communicate when everyone thinks your problem has been solved.

We want to believe that we've solved health care problems in general, and the AIDS epidemic in particular. AIDS is and always has been a complex topic, not fun to talk about and easily pushed aside as audiences pretend they're immune, so to speak. I came home from New Orleans thinking about what I'd advise in this case, and kept coming back to the precepts in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die:
  • Go for the concrete: Made to Stick co-author Dan Heath likes to say, "Nonprofit language ain't concrete." It seems natural for aspirational nonprofits to push the dream, and the dream-spinning language that goes with it. But if your message is framed in concrete words, research shows it will be more persuasive. The more specific, the better. Use data, examples, and active verbs to push your ideas, whether you're pushing them back onto the agenda or getting them there for the first time.
  • Watch your jargon: Check out the Communications Network jargon finder, here waxing eloquent on the word "access" in healthcare. The words you use as shorthand are not shorthand to the rest of us. 
  • Find and share the surprise: In the case of the AIDS epidemic, the problem might just be the surprise, alerting audiences that the issue isn't as solved as you might think. Earlier in the epidemic, the surprise was that it affected a wider population. I shared with Hamilton the moment when an RWJF trustee put my 27-year-old self on the spot, asking, "Why do you care so much about this epidemic, Denise?" I didn't hesitate to answer that I could die of AIDS, that friends of mine were already dead, and that I wanted to live through the most productive years of my life--years that were still ahead of me. The surprise in that exchange was that I looked to him like an unlikely candidate, and I knew that. 
  • Look for the early indicators: Since leaving the foundation, I've had the privilege to work with some leading AIDS researchers, and they have long told me privately that the current mix of drugs that have worked so well to keep people with AIDS and HIV alive will, at some point, stop working. Since we can already see this early indicator of problems to come, let's get that out on the table publicly to make the case for prevention and care.  
I don't know that this is an airtight formula, but the people who tilt at windmills like improving healthcare and battling AIDS are used to working without such a thing. Let me invite smart communicators reading this to share ideas in the comments, and we'll keep talking about it.

I was going to call my meeting Hamilton serendipitous, but it wasn't. Communications Network executive director Bruce Trachtenberg, himself a former foundation communicator, has cultivated that network one person at a time. Making the network a welcoming place has been, for him, a personal effort as much as a professional one. The network's board announced that Trachtenberg will be leaving his post after having revived the organization. I have to say my encounters at the recent meeting were all a result of the groundwork he's done over the past several years. I'm looking forward to finding out which lucky or smart organization will take advantage of his talents.

It's nearly the end of the year. Are you leaving professional development or training money on the table? Email me at infoATdontgetcaughtDOTbiz to schedule individual or group training in public speaking, presenting, or social media; to prep for your upcoming TED or TEDx talk; or a communications retreat.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The weekend read

Praline bacon sounds too good to be true. So does the weekend--but it's here. I tested the praline bacon last week at Elizabeth's in New Orleans, where I was attending the Communications Network conference. Now let's test out the weekend by reading the great finds I made and shared on Twitter this week:
Always happy to see you in this social media diner every Friday. Thanks for being a regular...

It's nearly the end of the year. Are you leaving professional development or training money on the table? Email me at infoATdontgetcaughtDOTbiz to schedule individual or group training in public speaking, presenting, or social media; to prep for your upcoming TED or TEDx talk; or a communications retreat.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Shutdown your message: Can it stand alone?

My heart and head are with my federal colleagues this week, because I know from a shutdown. As the Deputy Associate Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in charge of communications, education and public affairs, there was no way I wasn't working the two--count 'em--two federal government shutdowns during the Clinton Administration.

Tense and tough don't begin to describe this waiting game. Congressional staffers would call our skeleton crew, pretending to be reporters asking for the day's press releases (like reporters do that, ever). It was just one of many efforts to catch us committing the act of spending federal money we didn't have. Citizens would call, expecting help we couldn't offer. And in this time of a fight or even for everyday purposes, we had no communications tools: No websites, no releases, and in that era, no social media. Forget media monitoring services. Our parents were mailing us press coverage from our home states.

But something surprising happened midway through that second shutdown. We began to see editorials, letters to the editor, even cartoons making it clear that people didn't want their environmental and public health protections to stop, even in parts of the country you might think were against such things. The swell of support--people making our message clear for us, while we could not--was a direct reflection of how well our messages stood up even when we were shut down.

I was reminded of that episode last week while talking with a foundation communicator at the Communications Network conference in New Orleans. She was concerned that the reworking of her foundation's core message--expressed in its mission statement and taglines--was getting too incomprehensible, thanks to aspirational words and grandiose phrases. I suggested she and her colleagues take a look at the message standing alone, with the branding, graphics, web features, active pitching, printed materials, public appearances, speaking gigs, tweets, status updates and other outreach stripped away. Once you remove the branding, context and Christmas decorations, you might find that your mission statement or core message says everything to all people...and nothing to anyone specifically. Rooting your message in concrete words will help persuade people and move them to respond to your call to action.

At EPA during the Clinton-era shutdowns, the groundswell of public support led the White House to hold up the budget negotiations until our agency got its full budget back. So I can attest that it's worth it to take the time to craft a message that's concrete and persuasive--and to put it to use well before you have a real emergency. Go ahead, even if you're not affected by the shutdown. Take your message out of its packaging and see whether it can stand alone.

(Photo courtesy of Martin Kalfatovic's photostream on Flickr.)

It's nearly the end of the year. Are you leaving professional development or training money on the table? Email me at infoATdontgetcaughtDOTbiz to schedule individual or group training in public speaking, presenting, or social media; to prep for your upcoming TED or TEDx talk; or a communications retreat.

Friday, October 04, 2013

The weekend read

This is not a drill: The weekend's upon us. Time to sound the alarm, since it's time to read the great data, finds and leads I've collected for you from my shares on Twitter this week:
I'm on fire about having you stop here on Fridays and the weekend. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Out of the park: Is that where your metaphors land? @maxatkinson explains

Max Atkinson speaking at the European Speechwriters
Network. I'm in the chair's chair at left.
"That was wonderful. You really hit it out of the park."

I'd just finished a talk to a small group, and one of the attendees leaned over and said that to me as we were getting ready to part ways. Normally, I'd be delighted. For the baseball fan that I am, "out of the park" signifies a crowd-pleasing hit, an automatic and dramatic type of home run because the ball can't be caught. But we were in London and the attendee was British, so I was mainly confused. I love a baseball metaphor, as you know if you've seen Ivan Oransky's TED talk on over-medicalization, one in which we worked out a comparison to the baseball movie Moneyball. London was simply the last place I expected to hear "out of the park."

Turns out I shouldn't have been so surprised. A couple of days later, I chaired the European Speechwriters Network conference, where British communications researcher Max Atkinson cited the growing use of metaphors involving baseball in his country. Speaking on "How well does English really work as a common language of communication?", he confirmed the trend and pointed out that sports metaphors can get us in trouble even in a supposedly shared language:
....metaphors do sometimes need handling with care, especially in the case of sporting metaphors.
As a native speaker of British English, I often find myself bemoaning the fact that we have imported so many baseball metaphors from American English, even though it’s not a game that's played or understood by most British adults.
But that doesn’t stop us having to listen to fellow British presenters telling us about “Going up to the plate” or “getting past first base”.
Cricketing metaphors may be fine for speakers of English in Australasia, the Caribbean or the Indian sub-continent, but they're not much use in the USA, or indeed in the rest of Europe.
I'm glad to know my instinct was correct. I may not speak what my British friends call proper English, but I know that baseball metaphors don't belong in a British sentence.

Sports metaphors can be incredibly useful tools, particularly when you want to describe movement (advance down the field, kick it over the goal posts), progress (hit it out of the park, score, touchdown), victory or defeat. Baseball as a metaphor can help you describe in shorthand matters of time (extra innings), it being a game famous for having no time limits. But when you don't consider the audience, as with any metaphor, the meaning and significance of phrasing your message may well be lost. If the metaphor's dated, out of sync with the age group or language of your audience, or just incomprehensible, your efforts are for naught. (I could have said "you'll strike out" there, but you see the problem with that, don't you?) With multilingual audiences on the rise and a global communications network available, attention to our shared values and pastimes is even more essential when deciding whether to use a metaphor.

I sent Max this Jason Sudeikis video, in which the actor plays an American football coach who has taken over coaching a British football (soccer to Americans) team; the video was done in honor of NBC bringing non-American football to prime-time sports viewing in the U.S. It  underscores how effortlessly and thoughtlessly we toss sports metaphors around. Max's next open course on speechwriting and presenting with impact will be in London on October 10 and 11, and you can learn much more from his book Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations.


Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Who's a journo? New proposal aims to exclude bloggers...again

I've been covering the issue of press credentials for bloggers for some time now, and this time, the "no" vote is coming from none other than California Senator Dianne Feinstein. She wants to specifically omit citizen journalists and bloggers from protection under a federal shield law, and in the process, to define who can be considered a journalist.

Her real social medium of concern is WikiLeaks, but her fellow committee member Senator Dick Durbin also has been inquiring about "the legitimacy of nonprofit investigative reporters," Popular Resistance reports.

The federal version of a shield law is an important protection. Ironically, it is supposed to help ensure that many voices can be heard on difficult issues, and yet here, the government is seeking to tell us who belongs in a free press and who does not. Hmmm. Whatever your views are on the issue, this is an important case to keep in your sights if you handle media relations and blogger outreach.

And if you are a reporter, blogger, news photographer or citizen journalist, take note: Nieman Lab is conducting a survey about press credentials, to "develop a nationwide overview of credentialing practices over the last five years, in order to identify emerging norms and systemic issues in how credentials are used by government entities and private organizations to control newsgathering activity." Please take the survey if you're a news-gatherer, and stay tuned for the results if you're an issuer of credentials.

Go here to see all my posts on the issue of press credentials for bloggers to get a sense of how this issue has been progressing over time. Considering that courts at the state level and even, on occasion, the Supreme Court of the United States have credentialed bloggers, you'd think those precedents might carry some weight. I'll keep you posted as this amendment progresses.

(Photo from Brett L.'s photostream on Flickr.)