Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Elmer Fudd Rule

Are you thinking of distinguishing your firm by trademarking a new word?

It's a tempting path - or should I say "iPath"?  But for every neologism that breaks through to become part of the collective consciousness, there are thousands of clunky, derivative attempts that fall far short of the mark.  If yours falls into the latter category, you'll distinguish your firm alright, but for all the wrong reasons.

But if no one can talk you or your marketing folks out of the idea, then please for the love of language, follow one simple rule.  I call it the Elmer Fudd Rule.

You remember Elmer, he of the bald pate and the oversized hunting cap; he of the inability to pronounce the letter R - which was impossible to avoid, as his favorite quarry was the "wascally wabbit" Bugs Bunny.  While out hunting, Elmer would often turn to the camera and advise the viewers to "be vewwy, vewwy quiet."

I know, I know - when you're creating a new word you don't want to be quiet about it.  You want to make as much noise as possible, to trumpet your firm's creativity far and wide.  But if you can't be quiet about it, to paraphrase Elmer, "be vewwy vewwy caweful" - um, careful.

Elmer's adventures in hunting always ended up making him look like a fool. He knew how to dress like a hunter and arm himself like a hunter but (fortunately for Bugs Bunny) he didn't know the first thing about being a hunter. Likewise, we all use words daily, but that doesn't mean we're qualified to make new ones.

Two of my pet peeves:
  • Shackling together two (or more!) words - the result is often clunky and not euphonious.  
  • Slapping an "e" or an "i" on the beginning of a word - unless your company's name is Apple, you have no claim to the "i" prefix.  And at this point, "e" is so last century
Elmer Fudd succeeded only in making his audience laugh. Unless that's your goal, don't try to create new words. Instead, concentrate on making the most of the ones we already have.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Who shot the serif?

Maybe it's because I'm a word person, but I've always been interested in typography.  I may not know the name of any given font I'm looking at, but chances are I can describe how it's different than another one.

This week, a friend directed me to the graphic on the left (which comes from this blog) and then another friend alerted me to "I Love Typography," a blog I expect to be visiting whenever I need a break from creating content. And I can't wait to get to this book on my wishlist: Just My Type - a history of fonts.

As our culture moves further away from handwriting, fonts may be one of the few ways to personalize personal writing.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Creativity & Focus

I read some very heartening research the other day.  Apparently, scientists wanted to track people's level of distractability.  After all, in the cubicle farms that pass for offices these days, you'd better be able to tune out Muriel's bitchin' from across the row and Joe's fantasy football conversations a couple of partitions to your left.  Given the working environments most companies put their people in, it stands to reason that they would want to hire people who can focus even in the midst of a hurricane.

Those kinds of people exist.  Only problem is, it turns out they're not particularly creative.

I'll pause for a moment while you picture my grin slowly spreading from ear to ear when I read that.

C'mon, you're grinning too, aren't ya?

Let me quote from the essay I read, "Don't Pay Attention" by Jonah Lehrer.  I'm guessing that some version of this essay will form part of his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works; I read it in an essay collection called End Malaria (so named because the proceeds from the book's sale go to a nonprofit whose mission is got it).

Anyway, here's Lehrer describing the results of a test administered to 86 Harvard undergraduates - hardly an underachieving bunch:
"The test was designed to measure their level of 'latent inhibition,' which is the ability to ignore stimuli that seem irrelevant, such as the air-conditioner humming in the background or the conversation taking place in a nearby cubicle....Those undergrads with low levels of latent inhibition - who had a tougher time ignoring unrelated stuff - were also seven times more likely to be rated as 'eminent creative achievers' based on their previous accomplishments. (The association was particularly strong among distractable students with high IQs.)  According to the scientists, the inability to focus helps ensure a richer mixture of thoughts in consciousness."
So that's an interesting problem for Corporate America, isn't it?  Hiring smart, creative people is a laudable goal - but if you want them to stay creative (presumably they'll always stay smart), don't plant them in a cube farm.

Maybe treat them like grownups and let them work wherever it suits them.  It's one of the joys of being self-employed.  That, and having a window next to my desk that I can look out of whenever I please. Though my office isn't a completely distraction-free zone: my cat sometimes snores.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Of Starbucks & Speeches

I was waiting for my chai latte at Starbucks yesterday when the barista came over with a plastic cup full of thick, green glop.  My reaction: "Yuck!  Who would drink that?"

Then she swirled some whipped cream on top and I thought, "Hmm...I should order that sometime."

Whether you're delivering a speech or a Green Tea Frappucino, the whipped cream makes all the difference.

The thick, green glop of a business speech - lists of accomplishments, data points, facts - becomes much more palatable when paired with something the audience can relate to, like a story or a metaphor. 

Too many speakers shy away from the whipped cream.  They're afraid it'll make them seem less serious. The truth is, it's what makes them memorable.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Adam Gopnik School of Writing

Adam Gopnik may be my favorite living writer.  (If I think about that more I could probably add some qualifying adjectives like "nonfiction" - but why bother?)

One of the reasons I love his work is that he effortlessly links things that really ought not to be linked at all.  His piece on geopolitics in this week's issue of The New Yorker leads not with Kissinger or Spengler but with Paul McCartney and the Beatles.  A few paragraphs later, he even throws in a sly Yoko Ono reference.

You'll just have to trust me on that: The New Yorker has hidden all of this sparkling prose behind its firewall; all you get for free is a just-the-facts-ma'am abstract.  But do whatever you need to do to read the whole article. It's a great lesson in how weighty subjects need not be dull, and how a good writer can lighten them up without dumbing them down.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Monkeys' Business

Blame it on the infinite monkey theorem: The contention that if you sit enough monkeys in front of enough typewriters, they will eventually hit the right random selection of keys to create a Shakespeare text.

Apparently the infinite monkey theorem traces all the way back to Aristotle, long before the typewriter was even invented. Bad ideas die hard, I guess. 

Some clients - perhaps subscribing to the infinite monkey theorem - think writers are a dime a dozen. And some writers may be. Hire them and you get what you pay for: a vendor who deals in words rather than office supplies.

But what if you want writing that soars, that consistently captures the reader's attention?  Ah, well then you need an artist. 

Thank you, Seth Godin, for articulating the difference between an artist and a vendor.

I've been treated as both and I'm here to tell you, Godin is right on target (no surprise): When my clients appreciate the creativity that goes into the work, I become a more engaged, more loyal, more fulfilled ally.  Now my level of fulfillment may not be the client's concern, but my engagement and my loyalty should be.

Creativity can be scary - I'll grant you that.  An artist will have ideas of his or her own.  Some of them might not work for you and an artist with any good business sense will throw those out.  But some of them may work, and may help you look at your company's challenges in a new light.

So if you want predictability, hire a vendor.  If you want something memorable, hire an artist.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Park at the Park

Each time I visit San Diego, I find something else to fall in love with.  Last year, I wrote about the Martin Luther King walk.  This trip, it's Petco Park.

Petco was my first love in San Diego. I still get emotional when I try to describe the way I felt on my first visit two years ago. Retired players' numbers aren't painted on the side walls, as they are at most ballparks. Here they're three-dimensional objects - lit from within - and at night they glow amid the lights of the downtown skyscrapers so the city itself becomes part of the ballpark and the ballpark part of the city.

What can I say? I'm a sucker for inclusivity.

Well, I'm back in San Diego and walking past Petco a couple of nights ago I saw a strange signboard: "The Park at the Park is Open."

In New York, "the Park at the Park" would be some sort of overpriced garage, right?  Well, in San Diego it's an actual amenity nestled behind left field. If you miss your Padres while they're on the road, head to the Park at the Park to watch the out-of-town game on a big screen TV with fellow fans while lolling on a grassy hill. Or play a couple of innings on the Little League-size field, presided over by a bronze statue of "Mr. Padre," the great Tony Gwynn.

In plenty of other markets, you'd be paying a hefty admission fee for a space like that. And there'd be concessionaires trying to sell you $10 hotdogs. In San Diego, it's free. It feels like the team's gift to the city. And there's nobody selling anything. It's just a lovely space.

I'm a big fan of any kind of art - whether it's architecture or writing - that draws you in, invites you to participate in an experience. Petco Park does that better than any other ballpark I've seen. 

The Padres are back in town tomorrow. Who cares that they're terrible this year? I can't wait to catch a game.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Read, Memorize, Use

The best writing advice I know, succinctly laid out by the invaluable Seth Godin.  Rather than just posting a link, I'm reprinting the entire blog post - but feel free to click on the link and read it in Godin's format, if you prefer.

Come to think of it, you should click on the link anyway and subscribe to his blog.  He's always got something useful to say.

Writing naked (nakeder than Orwell)

Here are Orwell's rules, edited:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. You don't need cliches.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do. Avoid long words.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active. Write in the now.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. When in doubt, say it clearly.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. Better to be interesting than to follow these rules.
The reason business writing is horrible is that people are afraid.
Afraid to say what they mean, because they might be criticized for it.
Afraid to be misunderstood, to be accused of saying what they didn't mean, because they might be criticized for it.
Orwell was on the right track. Just say it. Say it clearly. Say it now. Say it without fear of being criticized and say it without being boring.
If the goal is no feedback, then say nothing. Don't write the memo.
If the goal is to communicate, then say what you mean.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Hi! This is Amanda, your Account Manager"

Every quarter or so, I get a call from Amanda, my Account Manager.  She's a proactive young woman, always wanting to know how she or her company can better meet my company's needs.

Seems like a breath of fresh air, doesn't it? You almost never see personalized customer service like that, except in stuff like It's a Wonderful Life - and that movie is 65 years old.

But here's the catch: Amanda works for Large Office Supply Company and my office is not large enough to need much supplying.  Seriously.  I go through printer ink like nobody's business, but a case of paper can last me over a year.  Throw in a couple dozen file folders and a pen or two and that's pretty much it.

I used to feel sorry for Amanda when she called.  I mean, I don't know how many accounts she manages but if they're all like mine, it must be a pretty boring job.  But now I'm edging closer to "annoyed."  She's good enough at her job to remember things I've told her in previous conversations, but sometimes I get the feeling she doesn't believe me.  Really?  Paper and ink, that's all you buy?  It's like when you hear about those Hollywood starlets who claim to subsist on nothing but celery and vodka.

Still, I talk with Amanda when she calls. And not just because if I don't, she'll call back. If Large Office Supply Company weren't paying her to call me four times a year, maybe she wouldn't have a job at all. Then again, if she were really good at her job, maybe I would have hired extra staff by now, and let Amanda outfit them with the latest in paperclips.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Could it possibly be that teaching is teaching, no matter what forum it occurs in?

Gearing up to create my final presentation for my Online Instructional Design class - in which I would have to fill 20 minutes of dead air with something resembling education - I was surprised to find that my focus was on the pedagogy.  What were the learning objectives? What steps would the class have to take in order to achieve them?  These are the same questions I would be asking myself in preparing to teach in a traditional classroom setting.

Of course, in a traditional classroom setting I wouldn't have to worry about being suddenly transported out of the room in mid-sentence (which would happen if my internet connectivity went down).  And my students wouldn't need to leave the room to access the handouts, they'd just need to extend a hand and perform a familiar grasping motion with their fingers. 

For the first seven weeks of class, I was focused on the strangeness of the technology and the frustrations that always seemed to attend it.  It wasn't until the final week - when we got to the teaching - that I finally understood that the technology is just the medium.  Teaching is teaching, whatever the forum.  Go figure.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

"and finally..."

If you're giving a 24-minute speech, please do not use the words "and finally" at minute 13. 

Now, I know what the speaker was doing.  He was presenting the final point of the subject he was discussing.  But the audience doesn't know that.  For an audience the words "and finally" are a cue to put down the fork and prepare to clap.  If the speech was particularly good, they're a cue to ready one's thigh muscles to stand.  And if the speech was particularly bad, they're a hopeful ray of light at the end of a vast tunnel of boredom.

However good a speaker you are, don't say "and finally" until you mean it.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Just sayin'...

I passed a car today - "Student Driver" sign on the top, with the name of the school emblazoned on the side, an outfit called the Internet Driving School.  Apparently it's a misnomer as they offer hands-on instruction.  Driving is one of those things, like brain surgery, that I would not care to learn through the internet.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

What do students miss with virtual education?

A friend sent me this article from ZDNet about the lack of socialization in a world of virtual education.  It's funny to me because I don't think of myself as an incredibly social person but I do find, four weeks into my first virtual class, that I'm missing physical interaction with my fellow students.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Managing the Class

After I'd plunked down tuition on my first training class at NYU but before I had actually begun said class, I had the opportunity to spend a day shadowing a trainer who was doing exactly what I wanted to do - teaching writing in a corporate setting.  The writing session was a one-day component in a weeklong training for up-and-coming businesspeople who had just been promoted at their company. 

You'd think they'd be eager to hone their skills so they would be able to perform at the higher level required by their newly elevated status.  You'd be wrong. 

These 30-something professionals were as sullen and uncommunicative as a roomful of high-schoolers.  Sitting in the back, I could see them web-surfing and working on spreadsheets. They stirred to life a bit when the trainer broke them into small groups, but snapped right back into inattention at the end of each exercise.

It didn't take long for me to wonder just what I was getting myself into.  By the time lunch rolled around, I was the proverbial deer in the headlights.  And all I had to do was sit in the back and listen to the class.  Why in the world, I wondered, had I ever thought about leading one of these things?

Which is to say that classroom management skills were high on the list of things I wanted to learn when I began my training program.  Several classes in, I no longer felt like a deer in the headlights.  And then I encountered this strange beast called the online class. 

Given the experiences I've had in this, my first taste of synchronous online learning, I would say that the greatest challenge in classroom management is that there is no classroom, there's only technology.   And if the technology fails, as it has done to some extent in every one of the four sessions we've had so far, it compromises the classroom experience. 

Where an instructor in a live classroom has a number of ways in which to corral students whose attention begins to wander, an instructor who is booted out of an online classroom due to technical difficulties loses the students entirely.  For how long depends on the duration of the tech blackout and the patience level of the students. 

If I had not already amassed a reservoir of goodwill for my current teacher - based on two experiences with her in live classroom settings - I might have left the class long ago.  But not every student in an online class will have that background to draw on.  So "technology failure" has officially replaced "student apathy" as my biggest teaching-related fear.