Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A metaphor is a gift

Pardon the self-referential title, but every so often you come across a turn of the phrase in a novel that forces you to stop, take notice and say to yourself - yes, that makes sense. I know exactly what he means, and I've noticed it before, but I've never thought to put it quite that way.

Here is quite a nice way found in The Good Luck of Right Now. Matthew Quick's narrator Bartholomew describes the sacred, irreverent, and troubled Father McNamee:
If he were a house, one of the windows would have been smashed and the door would have been ajar. It was like he had been broken into and robbed. I wasn't sure what was missing just yet, and I knew I would eventually have to go inside Father McNamee and take inventory, if that makes any sense. 

Yes, it makes complete sense. And it was my good luck to find this metaphor, one gift among many in this nice read.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

No foolin': retired at age 15

A headline about a Silicon Valley prodigy? Hardly.

Rather, it's a lead-in to brief story of a newspaper route, a certificate - and my first retirement.

Yup, that's mine. An oh-fish-all certificate that you need to see firsthand to fully appreciate. Its quality and heft confirms the honorable discharge of my duties as a carrier for The Cleveland Press.

It's the sort of item you find while sorting through boxes and drawers and memories while cleaning out your childhood home. And although part of you says, "Oh, this is silly," and you really should place it in the recycling pile, you instead add it to the "I'll make a decision on this later" box. A few years pass, another round of examination and purging, and suddenly an old piece of paper transforms into something different.

It was an impressive expression of a once venerable operation. Someone made the decision that it was good business practice to produce and present an acknowledgement like this. Alas, no series of good business decisions could save the publication. The victim of changing public preference for a morning newspaper and competition with evening television news, The Press ceased operation and "retired" in 1982. 

All of us "retire" many times in our lives: from courses of study, from personal relationships, from one city or house or apartment, from episodes of "How I Met Your Mother" and of course from one job or another. It took an even dozen jobs (paper carrier for two dailies, library page, dishwasher, retail clerk, machinist, playground supervisor, house painter, bartender, teacher, editor, advertising sales) before I was given memorable occupational advice:

"This probably won't be the last job you have. Work hard, learn as much as you can, and get ready to use what you learn in your next job."

I'll save other goodies for the upcoming ebook:

Everything I Needed to Know About Life I Learned on My Paper Route.     

So place your pre-order today, and I'll send you a certificate.

April Fools. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Left or right: does it matter?

This is not a rant about political leanings - plenty of blathering forums will serve that purpose. Instead, just a quick reflection on far deeper issues: aging, handedness, copy editing - and the potential negative impact when a nagging "something doesn't seem quite right" impression weighs on your audience.

First, if there's one constant it's that every day (if we're lucky), we're getting older. In fact, falling birthrates world wide may mean that overpopulation is an overripe fear. Instead, we may need to concern ourselves with "overaging" as fewer babies are born to become working people - and care givers - to support an older population.

Consider these sage words, from an expert:
 "Aging is occurring nearly everywhere, and it's happening faster than many people think," says Babatunde Ostimehin, executive director of the United Nations' population program.
Wow. Seems people everywhere are. . . aging. Perhaps weather is occurring everywhere, too.

So, it's a worthy notion - as well as a sound business practice - to provide your audience with relevant information on that ubiquitous "aging" topic. 

And that's just what the Cleveland Clinic did recently in a cover story in its quarterly custom publication. "The Art of Aging Gracefully:" who doesn't want to do that?

Left, or right? Good to get a second opinion.

Relevant topic, attractive graphics and layout, well-written information (e.g., diet tips, recipes, exercise suggestions, maintaining a healthy mental attitude, etc). But somewhere, something didn't seem quite right. And the magazine lingered on our kitchen counter for a day or two and then - aha!

My eyes focused on - Karen.

There she is on the left, pretty and pensive at age 25, and forty years later, buoyant and still beautiful at age 65. And not only has Karen aged well physically, she's apparently quite talented and agile. She's still a skilled painter - so skilled, in fact, that she now paints with either hand.

That's "right:" In 1974, Karen painted left-handed, one of the approximately 10% who consider themselves left-handed. Now, right handed. As opening day approaches, a switch-painter

So is this flopping a very big deal? Of course not. Graphic artists always make choices to orient a picture to adjust to page configurations or work best to tell the story, and that's fine. But many studies show that introducing confusion, even if it's minor and not even recognized at the conscious level, can hinder the teliling of your story.  

So do yourself a favor - grab a second (or third or fourth) pair of eyes to look over your work. And you know who not to ask: the person who offers suggestions like, "I really think the shade of blue would be better." For substantive advice, instead find your own personal copy editor who can give you the backup you need. He or she will buff up your language and cross your Ts and dot your Is, of course.

But the main benefit is that they will ask silly but important questions ("how can I check this fact?") and give a fresh perspective that can help catch flops like this. A good copy editor can make the difference between your materials being right and wrong.

Or right and left - and confusing and clear.      

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Those two four-letter words

Your mother doesn't read this post . . . so it's safe to come clean. I'm betting that some time, in the past couple of months in particular, you've said these two four-letter words, back-to-back.
#staywarm ?

Someone, possibly a total stranger, probably also said them to you. And when they did, you gave a wry little smile and probably muttered, "You, too."  And maybe you felt a little better, but didn't really know why. Those two words?

"Stay warm."  There- now I've said them, too.

Over the past few months, during this winter of wonder, we've all heard it said lots. At the coffee shop or the reception desk, on the phone with a client or my aunt, or in an email or voice mail sign-off, "stay warm" has become a seasonal replacement for "have a nice day." Of course you can't have a nice day - the wind chill is umpteen degrees below zero and you're performing yet another reverse winter striptease (boots, coat, gloves, scarf, hat - bada bing!). Scrape your windshield for the third time today, get out the parking lot, gravity-defying snow hurtles sideways, and a trip that should take 15 minutes takes 45.

It all adds up - and it all takes a little bit away, too. While preoccupied with tasks necessary to just go about your business, it's hard to "have a nice day."

But you can work to keep warm - for most of us, it's not as if we're on the street, fighting to survive (but for those who are out there, the sentiment - and the danger - is very real).

Mostly, though, our intent seems to wish that others fare well in making it through the day and the rest of the winter. To "stay warm" is to stay healthy, to "take care" to not slip and fall (and "crack your head open") and to not become involved in a multi-car accident on the Shoreway.

As with the many of our routine greetings, the connection has been broken between the words and the genuine sentiment behind them. When we say "Gesundheit," "hello,"  "goodbye," and "farewell," it's a rote exercise instilled in us by culture and family members.

So if you strangely feel a little more connected when someone tells you those two little words, you may just have your mom to thank. She's likely the one that bundled you up with scarves and mittens and genuine concern for your daily welfare.

And she's the one who most sincerely wished for you to, "Stay warm."

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The three minute AT&T invoice

The transition of media has always evoked equal parts fear, loathing, and excitement. The evolution of long narrative oral and lyric forms to the novel was considered vulgar to many ("Prose? Simply barbaric.") Silent movies, talkies, jazz, radio, television, violent video games, the web, rap and so on  – media and art forms spontaneously form, mutate, blend together, and fade to the background in a process that has accelerated to dizzy rates.
The latest twist? An email, with a detailed explanation from AT&T of an invoice for voice, internet and TV services . . . through a link to a personalized video.

In other words, a video invoice.
While video delivered via the internet is well over 15 years old, it really was made broadly accessible by the birth of YouTube on Valentine’s Day, 2005.  At first, web video was all about skateboard tricks, cute kittens, and a 4 minute lesson on the evolution of dance.

Telling stories, explaining concepts, getting elected, entertainment. Got it.

However, this detailed cinematic explanation of my father-in-law's monthly $100+ AT&T bill was the first I've seen. The video is just under three minutes, the traditional length of popular songs — coincidence? "Hey, play me that direct payment again, will ya?"

So is all this useful? Necessary? Don’t know.

A bit odd?


Would have liked to be in the meeting when some brave soul suggested committing corporate resources and reputation to this media. But I’m not dismissing the effort – it may be wildly popular with AT&T customers and imitated by competitors.

Who knows? Maybe as media, technology and art forms evolve and mash-up, the result could be stories such as these :     

  • “LED searchlights draw spectators who 'crowdcontrol' color selection via smartphones”
  • “Drones selected by Ohio to administer capital punishment”
  • “Robots now primary creators of social media content.”
That is, if the robot writer's guild isn't above a little self-promotion.      

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

10 Commandments of Pitching
a Story to a Reporter

Individually, each of these ten prescriptions for success might provoke a response such as "doesn't everyone know that?" But in 2014, many who seek to enjoy the attention of a professional reporter seem to have never learned the basics of sound media relations.

Hats off to Mark Dodosh of Crain's Cleveland Business for crafting these and illustrating them with great anecdotes during a panel discussion.

Here's a printable PDF and below is the simple text version:

The Ten Commandments of Pitching a Story* 

I.    Thou shall know thy audience (i.e., who are you trying to reach?)

II.    Thou shall understand thy media outlets (i.e., who do they reach and what are their needs?)

III.    Thou shall be precise and concise with thy pitch

IV.    Thou shall be prepared to make the right people available to a reporter

V.    Thou shall be satisfied with singles and doubles, rather than expect to hit home runs

VI .    Thou shall not pitch “angles”

VII .   Thou shall not make a promise of exclusivity to more than one media outlet

VIII .   Thou shall not present false, misleading or unsubstantiated information in thy pitch

IX .   Thou shall not expect the story to be tailored to thy specifications

X .    Thou shall not pout if the answer is “no” (i.e., “”Sorry, but we’re not interested”)

* as handed down from the Almighty to Mark Dodosh, Editor, Crain’s Cleveland Business