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Posts Tagged ‘northwestern college

Wait—English Majors Win in the End?

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Start Writing Your Own Future

  • Announce your goal to lose weight and chances are better the pounds will flee.
  • Sign up for NaNoWriMo and chances are better you will actually write that novel (no matter how badly it turns out).

What we tell each other has a way of happening. What we tell each other about our preferred futures has a way of guiding next steps.

  • Write a letter to your collaborative, inventor friend about a business idea and find yourself planning concrete marketing and distribution steps at Spyhouse Coffee.
  • Write a business plan for your startup and suddenly remember your friend who became a venture capitalist. And then remember the friend who bootstrapped her idea.

See the pattern? Each step forward started with communication. You may say,

“No. the idea came first.”


Create in real time as you go.

Create in real time as you go.

But consider: the communicated idea created a spark. And—given the right collaborative conditions—the spark lit a fuse. And the fuse burned, gathering other ideas until the explosive, disruptive future no one had considered.

What if English majors learned entrepreneurship and began to see their talent for orderly, persuasive, deeply-rooted writing as a way to help themselves imagine new futures and chart forward-movement for others? What if they learned to solve real-world problems with story and emotion and analytics? Their solutions would drop-kick the spreadsheet & PowerPoint crowd. What if some English majors created Lake Wobegon while others created the next Google?

What if English majors learned business lessons alongside the standard fare of reading and writing? What if they were expected to serve up the occasional business plan or marketing strategy along with the usual essay, short story and poem?

If that happened, English majors would connect earlier in life that art and work and commerce and fiction and meaning-making all fit together in the same world. And they would begin to write their own future vocation.

By the way: 16 Wildly Successful People Who Majored in English


Caveat #1: I was never an English major.

Caveat #2: I teach English majors. They are smart, innovative people.

Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Gay Marriage and the Desperate Times/Desperate Measures Argument

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People of faith can do better

Amy Bergquist’s powerful editorial (“This man shouldn’t get the last word on gay marriage”) in today’s StarTribune makes a strong argument about treating people as adults. Read the comments (59 as of 10:10am, 135 as of 2:50pm) and you’ll be reminded of what a lightning rod issue this is for our culture. Setting aside the lightning and the working parts of Christian conviction in a multi-religious nation for a moment, I believe Ms. Bergquist is exactly right about Frank Schuber/Schubert (The Strib printed his name both ways) methods:

By contrast, Schubert’s template is simple, yet has proven remarkably effective. He works stealthily, through churches and sympathetic groups for most of the race, waiting till the end, when he unleashes a blitz of television ads that often feature rosy-cheeked children bounding home to tell their parents they learned in school that “a prince can marry a prince.”

Running emotion-driven ads at the last minute does not give room to debate, discuss or even engage one’s mind. It’s all visceral. It’s all knee-jerk reaction—which is the point: We all know that every institution and cause, from the Axis to AIDS, has played on emotion to move people to action. We each tune out countless of these messages every day.

As a copywriter and a student of persuasion and a Christian, I question Mr. Schuber/Schubert’s tactics: while his ads may move the vote, they do not promote transformation. Transformation happens as people engage with an issue and think it through and talk it through (and pray it through). On a personal level, it is one-on-one conversation that makes things happen. The notion of ambush communication tactics may give short-term gains in Jerry Falwell’s culture wars while leaving the nation’s current inhabitant’s thumbing their fact-checkers as they walk away.

I know these tactics well as a copywriter. But anyone can see that advertising and marketing communications are moving away from the trick-you-into-buying mentality. The marketplace is much more conversational and becoming more so every day.

As a sometime faculty member at Northwestern College where Mr. Schuber/Schubert was interviewed weaving his emotional magic, I wonder if the faith community that supports the college can call for better, more mature, truly Christian communication. I doubt the college sanctioned Schuber/Schubert’s particular work, though clearly the marriage amendment would have a lot of support from the evangelical-minded folks aligned with Northwestern College. But I would challenge the community to find ways to engage people in conversation—sort of like Jesus and Paul did—rather than supporting more rapid-fire emotional outbursts.

Let’s grow up.



Image Credit: Famous Movie Quotes via thisisnthappiness

Copywriting Tip #5 for English Majors: Why Voice Matters

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The human voice will always reign as king of communication.

words contextualize our presence and vice versa

I recently talked with a pastor who opted out of social media. Entirely. If he wanted to connect with someone, he picked up the phone.

“That seems anachronistic,” I said.

“No—that’s how I connect,” he said. “I talk with people.”

And then I realized: Yes! The sound of the human voice will never go away entirely. People may joke about removing the phone app from their phone, but that remains a joke. There’s something about the human voice that demands a response and always will. The human voice has a directness that goes beyond any technology, whether text or tweets or simple words on a piece of paper or images scattered on a cave wall. When our advertisements don’t get through, when our emails fall short, when our Facebook message goes unanswered, we go stand in front of someone and ask our question.

The human voice will always reign as king of communication–it says “I’m here. I’m present.”

Students in my professional writing classes at Northwestern College wander the web with ease. But they are loathe to pick up the phone to talk with people about potential job prospects. This is, perhaps, a pitfall with pursing writing. But perhaps the pitfall itself can show the way forward.

As copywriters we try to use that voice. We mimic it by writing in a conversational manner. With short sentences. We try to “sound” like the voice—“sound” because the sound is in a reader’s head (so—not really a sound). The more our writing sounds like the human voice, the more invisible it becomes—with the goal of messages that get into one’s mind without someone remembering they just read something. Kind of like how you drive to work everyday.

Unconvinced? Check out this German ad (and below) about organ donation. The pathos in the voices is unmistakable, even if you don’t speak German. But the voice is magnified by the dialysis chair. In the train station. It’s a bit of theater that amplifies the voice.

Context switching—from hospital to busy platform—becomes that platform that makes the human voice all that much more effective. The voice, plus the human before them—hard to resist. And emotion is a definite part of this.

Moral: “Write like you talk” is good advice. And not easy to achieve.


Image via thisisnthappiness

Written by kirkistan

May 9, 2012 at 5:00 am

What Makes Something Remarkable?

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Old Volkswagen Station Wagons never die.

In several classes at Northwestern College we’ve talked about what makes something remarkable, as in, “Hey, let me tell you about this thing I saw….” The Heath brothers tried to parse out the secret of remarkable in Made to Stick, and did a good job noting six principles that make something sticky. But in our Social Media Marketing and now in Freelance Copywriting classes, we’re noting “remarkable” is less science and more art.

Was this ad remarkable in 1966 when DDB’s Marvin Honig wrote it for Volkswagen? Maybe. It is remarkable now because of the nostalgic, iconic bus—just look at the shape of that thing! But for me it is the story telegraphed from inside the bus and at the center of the image: the small businessman waiting to sell you some chili. The copy plays out the story benefit by benefit. Sure—you know you are being sold, but you’re willing to walk right into the story for the 26 seconds it takes to read the copy.

The ad is remarkable in retrospect because of the place this vehicle took in American culture. The story is in the ad, and the story in the ad played out in real life. Surely “remarkable” has something to do with reflecting real life. That’s where things get sticky.

Read the copy here.


Via copyranter

Written by kirkistan

March 15, 2012 at 9:15 am

Wait for It (And Resist Checking Your Phone)—Dummy’s Guide to Conversation #8

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Anyone who writes for a living or who must regularly produce creative solutions knows the best ideas are typically not the first ideas.

I’m about to begin teaching a freelance copywriting class at Northwestern College and I’m guessing there will be some who will submit copy they’ve done at the last minute: something thrown together to meet the assignment requirements, but just barely.

don’t rush me

I hope college students don’t remember college as the place where they learned to do the least at the last minute to see how much they can get away with. This is not a great attitude to take into the workplace. And it is a fatal if you work on your own, because it leeches craftsmanship (and joy) from the work itself. And craftsmanship—care for the work itself—is one of two key elements in meaningful work. The other element is learning how to serve someone else’s needs and finally get over yourself.

When I brainstorm for an ad or a bit of copy I fill up pages and pages with pure dreck. Worthless stuff that only serves to get my keyboard moving. And then, at some point, one bit of dreck solidifies into a line that is sort of ok. Or a direction that makes sense. But that only comes after the pages of dreck. Occasionally it comes first, but I need the pages of dreck to help me realize any possible or potential brilliance.

How does that work in conversations? Same way. The first stuff we way say is obvious and not that interesting. The first conversations of a cross-country car trip have a vanilla flavor. But by the time you’ve arrived at New York to catch a flight to Europe, you know the deep hurts and high joys of everyone in your car, and you’ve somehow settled on a series of jokes about fast food restaurants or particular car types that leave you all gasping for air because they are so funny. It takes time and sustained attention to get to that place where the good stuff comes out. It’s almost like you invent the context for familiarity as you go.

This is the way for lots of satisfying things. And it is the way for ordinary conversations. I’m learning to dwell in a conversation. To not rush it. To give myself and other space to breathe so that they (and I) feel free to let come what may. And that can be uncomfortable because silence is awkward for us. Soap opera stars lock their eyes in those silences. In a cross-country car ride you look out the window. In a conversation, you just…look…and wait. But the silence works to lube thoughts. Resist the urge to move to the next thing. Resist the urge to pull out your phone. Wait for it. Because eventually something will come along that changes everything.


Image Credit: Langdon Graves via thisisn’thappiness

Written by kirkistan

March 12, 2012 at 5:00 am

Risky and Risqué Reading for Christian Copywriting Students

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Reading is dangerous. And profitable.

On Tuesday I start teaching Freelance Copywriting (Eng3316) at Northwestern College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. These are junior and seniors largely from the English department, but also from Journalism, Communications and Business. They are generally excellent writers and engaged students—people eager to take their faith into the street. We’ll use a few thought-provoking texts that deal with the business side of copywriting, along with the what to expect as a copywriter and how to get better at producing salable ideas (Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer, Iezzi’s The Idea Writers, Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas). But I’ve become convinced the real-time critiques of working copywriters around the web are just as helpful if not more useful than our texts. It’s just that the language and images used in the critiques often veer outside the lines of nice and polite, though I would argue the critiques follow the line of conversation Jesus the Christ encouraged with regular people like me.


I’ve devised a warning:

Question: Is this overkill? My goal is to help prepare thoughtful writers who fold God’s message of reunion into their communication work and live it out in a world that operates on a very different basis. I think students will understand. I’m not sure the administration will.

What do you think?


Image Credit: Chris Buzelli via 2headedsnake

Verbatim: Tell Other People’s Stories

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In which I learn from my students

We see better together

We just finished our Social Media Marketing class at Northwestern College. One of my favorite assignments was when the students critique their own social media efforts: their Facebooking and Tweeting and especially their blogging. Each student established their own direction at the beginning of the class complete with written goals and objectives. All for the purpose of establishing a community in just a few short weeks.

Students learn great lessons. They learn about how details and minute specificity can help their work be found by search engines (that is, by people using search engines). There is always a moment of triumph when they get their first non-class participant. They learn that a number in a headline pulls in readers. They learn how commenting on other people’s work is another way of polite conversation that also helps expand their reach. Of course I am being reminded and learning afresh all the same things. My favorite learning this time:

“I began by writing about what interested me, but I’m learning to let my audience guide the topic choice by what they comment.”

This is a mature understanding. She went on:

“I’m realizing that this blog is not about what I know and can provide, but about what the community of writers can share with each other.”

Writing our commonality has a way of inviting others in. It is a way of telling a story together. We talked about “psychic income,” which we defined as the intrinsic reward we get from helping someone else and how that helps others participate to build the story and the community.

Her comment also speaks directly against the notion of a self-absorbed generation. Here’s a person learning to put the needs and interests of others ahead of her own. Not that she was any more self-focused than any of us: we’re all struggling to fathom how to set aside our personal, angsty issues to see what’s going on in others. Telling other people’s stories is precisely the beginning of drawing together a community.


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Sight isolates. Sound incorporates.

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What do we lose when we don't hear?

We talk endlessly about community but find the doing thereof problematic. It’s not just because we like the idea of people better than actual people, it’s that context sometimes stands in our way. Reading Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (NY: Routledge, 1993), I’ve come to wonder if technology divides us. Not any highfalutin technology like iPhones or mobile apps or Twitter or any of the current batch of ones and zeros in our pockets. I’m talking about a very basic technology that we all take for granted and is mostly invisible: writing and, in particular, reading.

When I was a kid, before I spent so much time reading, I was fascinated by my parents’ and grandparents’ conversations. “Fascinated” is too strong: there were moments of fascination, especially when they told some story of their life growing up. Or when they described some mistake they made—especially if it was funny. I had to listen carefully for those stories because mostly their talk was boring, about money or work or gardening or real estate or…well, you’ve listened to these conversations. The interesting stuff poked out every once in a while and that’s what kept me hanging around. It was entertaining to hear the stories. And they were stories I would not know of if I did not hang around.

Sight isolates. Sound incorporates.” That’s Ong’s concise statement about what happens as we attend to our different senses (71). I think he’s right. Reading, for me, is mostly an individual thing. It’s rather private. I read all the time, and when I read, I am drawn into myself. I actually begin to resent when someone talks to me when I am reading because—limited person that I am—I cannot continue reading while they address me. And yet often I would rather keep reading then enter into conversation.

This is not a judgment on reading and writing and seeing. It is a simple statement of truth: sound, since it is an event (Ong describes sound as something we experience only as it stops or goes away), it is something “we” experience. It is shared. Sight pulls us into ourselves. Reading, in particular, pulls me in and makes me ponder stuff. The pondering goes on deep in my brain, even while I look up from my book as you address me. I’m listening. Kinda.

Here’s the thing: those conversations with parents and grandparents and loud uncles were truly an event. I recognize that now. And we responded as a “we.” We laughed. We cried (occasionally). We responded with an urgent “That’s crazy!” But it was what “we” did.

Not so with reading.

I’m preparing a class for Northwestern College to help writers write to build community using social media. My definition of community must expand beyond those folks that are physically nearby to include those who share common interests. Laura Gurak, in Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace: the online protests over Lotus Marketplace and the Clipper Chip (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), says the concept of community is rooted in place and in common values (8-9). Building community puts a priority on the sharing of those common values. But in this case, the building of community happens as individuals sit (or stand) and read. They read on their own.

I think of a church service. We listen to the preacher. We listen to a text read. It affects us together. We discuss it as we drive home and as we sit eating lunch. I wonder if those first people experiencing “church,” way back when the gospels were being written, way back when Paul was writing his letters (letters now incorporated between the leather-like covers of the book I own), shared a sense of wonder at the event of hearing. That shared event brought them together in a community, where they just had to talk about it. Because by talking about it they experienced it all over again. We have the same opportunity, but our technology calls us away. My book (or blog list or The Onion) calls me away from conversation. Perhaps it calls me away from community. But not necessarily.

What do you think?


Addendum: I mean no disrespect for those unable to hear. I am more targeting the shared experience of responding to something we’ve all experienced, which is open to all.

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?


Is It Time To Start A New Magazine?

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What's old is new.

Um…no. Or would that be, yes? In a world where old is suddenly new, the correct answer is: Maybe.

Gordon Atkinson (Real Live Preacher) talks about Generate, a “yummy beautiful” magazine to which he actually—yes—subscribed (sounds like he purchased it with cash money, right?). Glancing through the sample pages he shows made me think, “Hmm. Yes. I want to look at that.”

And that is just the way with old stuff that comes around again with a post-modern twist. Sort of like Pink Martini, old music from my parent’s generation recast for today (or maybe tomorrow). I listen to be reminded of melodies and words long forgotten. But I also listen because I get the joke: it’s old but there is something of today happening in the connective tissue of the music. And I listen because no one sings like China Forbes.

In the writing classes I teach at Northwestern College, we’ve been talking about how old communication vehicles can suddenly become extremely effective when composed today with a vigorous nod to today’s aesthetic. Pamphlets are finding their way back as a short form of communication. Brochures and Slim Jims can be repurposed so they suddenly don’t fit the category you thought they did when you picked them up—possibly resulting in not a small amount of delight. And who can keep from actually reading through a personal letter delivered by the postman (I don’t mean that generically—ours really is a guy).

Starting a magazine when most are dying doesn’t sound like a winning endeavor. On the other hand, one of the lessons of social media is that audiences can be found and they can find our project if it is repurposed to become ”yummy beautiful.”


Written by kirkistan

October 27, 2009 at 3:08 pm

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