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Why Honesty is Catnip for Collaboration

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In Class Today: Here’s Where I Failed

I first encountered “fail faster” in Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody. In that book it started to make sense to me that getting something right was a goal, but perhaps not the first goal. Maybe I saw traces of “fail faster” in The Cluetrain Manifesto. As a writer I knew I had to write many (verily: many, many) drafts before I started to approach the thing I really wanted to say. I also knew that the work of moving toward that thing I wanted to say was built on failure after failure, and that each failure left me with something closer to what I intended. Each step in the work shaped the next step in the work And each step in the work also shaped the one doing the work.


motivational pictures

In our Social Media Marketing class last week students presented their critique of their community-building activities (we publish content to define and attract the student’s desired target audience). Midway through these presentations I remembered why I love this day so much. There is an honesty to it. Students describe what they’ve used blogs and Twitter and Facebook (and Instagram and Pinterest and Reddit) and other tools to create for the past six weeks. They show successes. They describe failures. They talk about what they would do differently. In some cases they reimagine the entire exercise for themselves and their team. And sometimes I can see the seeds of a much larger purpose. Sometimes it is quite clear that this person’s passion will push them toward building this community for a long, long time.

And then we discuss failure. Truly, these are fascinating moments in the Q&A that follows each presentation. The great news: everyone fails. Not the course, but in building the grand vision they set out to build. Six weeks in they realize how they could have adjusted their purpose, how they could have set more clearly defined metrics to reach very specific goals. Some realize they did not give it their best shot but instead rushed through and sort of wasted their moments of contact with their target audience. Some realized they could make a solid point with 350 words when they came into the class needing at least 1000 words. Some realized their target audience lived over in an odd unlit corner of the Interweb and this other particular tool would have faithfully delivered them to this audience.

The Big Reveal: It isn’t until you try to actually build something real, with real people  and real purposes toward a real end, that you realize life doesn’t not just coalesce around your pet purpose. In fact, this shouting into a crowded, noisy concert hall that is social media must be very deliberate for even the smallest thing to happen. And I mean even the tiniest purpose to move forward.

And as we detail our failures together (I have my own dozens of examples to share), new ideas pop to the surface and classmates who had not talked with each other are now offering ideas and are engaged in the purposes of this other community.

It’s the honesty bit that pulls in collaboration—the telling it like it is. The missing the high mark in a major way that when shared, evokes collaboration rather than pity.

That seems like a solid life lesson to me.




5 Ideas that Will Change How You Talk Today

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3 Philosophers, a Rhetorician and a Social Media Expert walk into a bar…

Since writing ListenTalk, I’ve continued to hear these voices echoing in my conversations at work, at home, at church, in the street, at the curling club (I made that up. I don’t curl. Nor do I hurl.).


Here’s what these voices say:

  • We have responsibility for others. That’s why we greet people and learn names and acknowledge presence. Our responsibility can do deeper—or not. But it is there from first sight and we all know it. (Emmanuel Levinas)
  • People are not objects. So when we treat people as objects, we devalue them and strip ourselves of excellent relational opportunities. People becoming objects can happen in the workplace: it can happen when the CEO looks down on the vast army of minions. It can happen in the home. But it shouldn’t and we do well to defy this narcissistic pull. (Martin Buber)
  • Words have incredible power. We can say things and, behold, it is so. Like pronouncing a marriage. Or deciding on a goal. This may not seem so, given the river of words we issue, the mundane, seemingly meaningless conversations that make up 99% of any particular day. Despite the great volume of words avalanching through our lives, they do—at times—hold incredible power. That’s why we hang on the last words of a dying person. That’s why we want to hear the words behind our favorite writer—we want to hear them explain how their story or argument came about. You can probably recount a handful of life-changing words right now, words someone spoke to you at just the right time. (JL Austin and John Searle)
  • Our best talk comes when we’re not out to win a conversation. Humans are persuasive beings—we’re constantly trying to convince each other of things. But our best thinking and talk comes when we listen as well. And our worst conversations look like monologue—when someone preaches at us without listening. Those also tend to be short conversations. (Wayne Booth)
  • Say what you will. Unless you live in North Korea or Russia, you generally have the capacity to say what you want. Yes, the current Facebook effect seems to be to say only what our tribe wants to hear, but we can find and build new tribes using social media. This is very important, because the old institutional voices are veering from truth more and more frequently. We need those new voices. We need your voice. (Clay Shirky)

Do you see how any one of those five ideas might impact your conversations today?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

“ListenTalk: Is Conversation an Act of God?” Get it at Amazon.

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How do ordinary conversations change the course of your life?


Now available at Amazon and other book sellers.

The smallest things you hear and say have the power to alter the trajectory of your life.

But you know this—just look back at a few of the most innocuous conversations you’ve had—the ones that led to a school and a life partner, or to the career you love, or to breaking with some substance.

ListenTalk rereads some old Bible stories for what God expected in conversation with women and men. A few wily philosophers show up in the book to quiz God—and us—about the power and promise of ordinary talk.

Read ListenTalk and  you’ll come to look for and expect big things from even the most ordinary conversations that populate your day. Because ordinary conversations lead to far deeper connections than you’d imagine in your wildest fever dreams.

Feel free to give the book a 5-star review at Amazon.

Take me to Amazon this very instant with this link so I can order this odd but interesting book.


Can we finally reject being defined as “Consumers?”

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How about “citizens” or “persons”? Maybe not “fleshists.”

Must everything in U.S. life be about ingesting?

Eating. Watching TV. Shopping. Listening to music. Watching movies. Amassing tablets and apps that allow us to consume more and faster and on-the-go. Talking about what we are eating/watching/buying. These are our pastimes. These are the things that define us. None are bad, many are necessary, but should they be at or near the core of our essence?

Is this why we landed on the planet?SoapFactory-2-05072014

I like all these things as much as anyone, if not more. But I wonder if my rush to consume has blinded me to other definition-inducing activities? Consuming is good for brand managers because they can play on this emotive, definitional piece of life and squeeze money from our attempts to be a certain kind of person. We buy this car or those dungarees or those shoes (or watch that show) because of certain aspirational desires. If we own that property, then we become that person. Yes?

In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky makes the cogent point that watching TV is very like a full-time job for many of us. It consumes our hours outside of work like nothing else. I understand why: many of us are so busy at work, spending so many hours, stressed about so much that all we can muster—all we can look forward to—are those blessed, mind-numbing moments on the couch before the screen.

I’m right there. That’s me, too.

Shirky’s book goes on to point out example after example of people banding together in groups small and very, very large to accomplish things that would not otherwise exist. Wikipedia comes to mind, along with open-source software. As social media allows us to connect, I wonder if our collaborative selves will beckon us from the couch more and more often. It’s not some new magic of social media I’m talking about, it’s the very old and known quantity of human connection. Relationship stuff has always motivated our species.

But we’ll need to step away from constant movement and blessed numbness to get back to seeing ourselves as co-creators and collaborators. Relationship-builders rather than consumers.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

There’s Power in Connecting. Yet Most of us Remain Spectators.

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The Stakes are Higher to Trigger Action

It’s easy to get all optimistic about how social media can changes things. That’s where Clay Shirky was when he wrote Here Comes Everybody. He cited (among many examples) how people organized using social media to demanded accountability from the Catholic Church hierarchy as the priest sexual abuse scandal opened (turns out the 60’s were to blame, and the church is all beyond that now, thank you. Somebody bought some great research!). Shirky’s book carried an optimistic tone that continually wondered at what was possible when we start connecting.

And many of us are training ourselves to read reviews of products before we buy. The thinking is that the opinion of several people we don’t know is more accurate than product advertising issued by the marketer. So smart marketers are learning to plant negative reviews along with positive.

And, of course, we’re watching people organize in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria to oust the corrupt leaders. So it’s just one small step to thinking about the awesome power we have when we connect: power to overthrow decades old monarchs, power to hold authority accountable, power to see through marketing hype.

But Groundswell by Li and Bernoff helps cool that optimism to a more realistic pitch. Their Social Technographic Profile lets you pick a demographic and get a hint of how they interact with social media. And what you’ll see is that most people are spectators, independent of demographic profile. Most of us watch. From the sidelines. Which surprises no one: take any organization and you’ll find most people watching.

The lesson is not to despair of our tendency to be spectators. The lesson is to find and create an irresistible magnetic pull around the things that are most important.

The stakes are much higher for getting and retaining attention.


Passion is the Preferred Communication Tool

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"Hair cut? Meet you in your parking lot in 15."

"Haircut, please." "Meet me in your lot in 15."

Clay Shirky, writing in “Here Comes Everybody,” argues effectively that with the lower transaction costs for forming groups (caused by social media), there are more possibilities than ever to pull a group together for most any reason. Dan Pink wrote yesterday of a social media-driven mobile hair-cuttery he saw at Google headquarters. Whether your focus is major profits, minor prophets or mingling in Provence, there are all sorts of new opportunities for banding together around a passion. All it takes is strategic use of the tools freely available, plus the willingness to reach out.

I’m asking my Writing for Community class to brainstorm the contours of the opportunity before them as they seek to build communities. With a passionate leader encouraging group sharing, what sorts of things are possible? We’re already seeing examples every day, from the high-schooler who tried to get released from being grounded by amassing thousands of fans on her Facebook page (her parents remained unimpressed) to the seemingly spontaneous “I’m with Coco” protests.

Depth of passion may well be the limiting factor. Just what am I willing to do to make my point? How far out will I reach?


What’s Your Favorite Book on Social Media? Please Retweet! #WriteForCommunity

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Here they come!

I’m researching and writing lectures for my class “Writing to Build Community using Social Media” at Northwestern College, a Christian liberal arts college in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The class will be composed of college juniors and seniors who are writers, communicators and folks focused on doing ministry after they graduate. My curriculum includes on overview of the changing face of marketing and communication, the newly generated opportunities to hear and be heard, bits about the kind of leadership required to build communities today and tomorrow, as well as a brief theology of communication and solid rhetorical strategies and tips for writing for interactive media, including blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

I like Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody for a whole bunch of reasons, including how he encapsulates the new opportunities and attitudes surrounding how we connect. He makes clear how the social tools make organizing easier, which helps me make the case for strategic copy that engages. The original The ClueTrain Manifesto (by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger) amazed and provoked me. Today I’ll go find a copy of the 10th Anniversary edition. What Would Google Do (Jeff Jarvis) continues to provide useful fodder for thought, as does Seth Godin’s Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us

What books about social media would you recommend for these students?


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