conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Posts Tagged ‘Writing for Community

Who We Are Who We Aren’t.

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A lot rides on identity

  • We aren’t torturers, that’s for sure. Except for…wait, it looks like we are (read the report here).
  • We believe in the rule of law, unless we’ve been violated. Then we stand above the law.
  • We believe in the level playing field, where everyone has the same opportunity. Except bankers and corporate boards and Wall Street and race are exposed nearly every week as rigging the game and handing big money and privilege to the rule makers.
  • We’re not a police state, except for when we are. And it looks like we are building in that direction.


The personal and local and national conversations we need to have are getting harder and much less comfortable. Maybe that’s because we’ve put them off so long and been in denial for so long. Maybe it is because we remain afraid of talking with people unlike us.

But we need these conversations. These are the conversations that help us figure out who we are. These are the conversations that help us move forward.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Writers at Work: “How do you imagine that will unfold?”

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Seeing Need and the Power of Imagination

The leader’s peculiar gift is to help followers imagine how their work makes meaning. The leader makes personal how the organization’s work helps others, solves a human problem, makes the world better/more beautiful/safer, for starters. From that position of ownership (note that leaders may appear anywhere in an organization, position does not equal leadership) the leader imagines the next steps needed to move the organization forward. The leader acts on that vision and invites others in.


If you accept that the writer’s art is at least partly a reimagining or reordering of life, then you may be willing to consider the work of writing in business. Can writers in business look forward to how next steps unfold and then follow that thread backward to make those steps happen?

I say, “Yes.”

But not just because I do this for a living. [Full disclosure: I do this for a living]

It’s because writers in training are blind to this side of the life/work/art equation.

That’s a premise I’m toying with as I consider how entrepreneurship and professional writing fit together. I’m working through an entrepreneurial focus to the next Freelance Copywriting class at the University of Northwestern—Saint Paul, and I want to help English students see beyond self-focused essays and creative writing. A necessary starting point is inviting them to use their writerly tools to imagine life from that leadership/ownership/need perspective. I believe this can shift ownership to the writer and provide useful insight for right now.

Julian Sanchez’s tweet as the Senate report on CIA torture was released gets at this very concept:

Imagine forward and trace backward to locate solid actions. That is the leader’s gift—and possibly the writer’s.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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

Should a Doctor Blog?

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Only if they want to grow their practice. Or connect with other physicians. Or with patients. Or provide thought-leadership.

Greg Matthews, author of Missing the Forest for the Trees, has been studying the online presence of physicians for years. He’s found that the credibility of their position and the connections within that position can translate to large and devoted followings today.

But all that was counter-intuitive in 2007.

Back when Mr. Matthews was formulating his questions about physicians online.


Back then he was sure—we all were sure—that talking about health information online would never fly. It’s just too personal. What kind of nut would diagnose and prescribe in public/online?

Plus, well, HIPAA.

But some physicians found a way to talk with regular folks (that is, us non-experts who live on the web) about pressing topics. Diagnosis and prescribing on the web was a non-starter, but presenting topics in a way that made sense to regular people did happen. And as we all took to the web to sort our maladies, these authoritative, personal voices became trusted sources of information.

According to Mr. Matthews, today 61% of physicians access social media weekly, 5000 physicians post daily to blogs and Twitter, and 50 physicians are followed each by more than 500 other physicians.  Some physicians even feel “ethically obligated” to share on the web.GregMatthewsReport-10222014 Download Mr. Matthews PDF for more stats.

In this blog (conversation is an engine) we talk about conversation. We’ve noted how conversation is a two-way street: not just in words exchanged, but actually causing conversation partners to go and do different stuff. We leave our best conversations changed and with new resolve for the most important things facing us. It’s a sort of speech-act theory for anyone willing to take a dumb-sketch approach to life.

And even physicians and even patients can gain from this. And what they both gain is far more than mere information.

It makes me wonder what paths might open for collaborative conversations in lots of different work settings.


A Tale of Two Meetings

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Collaboration in person and on paper

Meeting #1: The entire department was gathered at tables shaped into a horseshoe, to facilitate discussion. Twenty to thirty of us waiting for the director to come in and explain his vision. And his vision was that the creatives needed to become analysts. Art directors, designers, copywriters, production personnel—everyone an analyst. Everyone focused on metrics. Give away the creative to outside agencies.

The director talked for 30 minutes and then asked for questions.

Not a single question.

Meeting #2: The entire group was gathered at tables shaped into a horseshoe, to facilitate discussion. Twenty to thirty of us waiting for a series of speakers to come in and explain their vision. Speaker after speaker explained their vision, the metrics they used to decode that vision, and the outcomes they experienced.

Each of the seven speakers spoke for a few minutes and then paused and waited for responses. Then they spoke again and waited. The entire group learned quickly that each speaker truly sought interaction.

Every pause elicited questions. Tangents were followed despite time constraints. After all, the point was the responses.


In my social media marketing class we spend time talking about how to get interaction and comments from the communities we are building. At first it is discouraging for the students, their work feels like shouting treasured thoughts into a hillbilly hollering convention. Nearly impossible to be heard.

But gradually a few people show up at each student’s attempts. And we learned to treat comments from these few with great care: responding immediately. Thanking those who show up for reading. Engaging the thoughts of the people who showed up. Then the students learned to go visit others building similar communities and listen and comment. And soon they found their community growing (in the social world, people follow back those who show up). And they learned not just to put questions at the end of diatribe but to design pauses in the middle of their thoughts so people could respond. And they learned to break up a lecture into a series of engaging posts. And they learned to let their thoughts be shaped by what the people who showed up said.

Those two meetings had key differences: In Meeting #1 each audience member reported to the director so there was very little debate. Debate in that particular firm seemed not too far from mutiny. But in Meeting #2 (same company, oddly enough), the audience was composed of potential customers. And as each speaker spoke, they did their best work with verbal and body language to engage the audience. And each of the potential customers spoke freely, calling “BS” when they heard it, disagreeing vocally, undaunted by executive titles.

Our verbal collaborations point to our literate collaborations. Pauses in copy, short copy, even shorter copy, copy that talks about what people are interested in—all of these allow collaboration. But the key is how you think about the audience: do you really want their response? People are not stupid: they know when someone is lecturing. And lecturing is a sure-fire way to shut down collaboration.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Loose Lips Link Scripts

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Open(ish) access for tight-lipped companies

Technical people can learn something from advertising people.

My creative director friend presented advertising concepts by first showing how his agency team came up with the idea. His presentations took a bit more time, but along the way he restated the problem, showed visuals of how competitors attempted to solve the problem and then revealed stumps of ideas that never really worked. Then he got to the solutions he hoped the client would pay for.

My friend’s process placed his solution in a context that helped those around the conference table understand why the solution made sense. As he spun out his process, he verbally brought these people with him so they were nodding “Yes” long before they signed off on the solution.

The boardwalk protects fragile land while providing access.

The boardwalk protects fragile land while providing access.

Many of my clients guard their proprietary information with fierce protections. And rightly so: their processes keep things running and bring in the coin that satisfies employees, stakeholders and shareholders. But in a search and share economy where like-minded people find each other more and more often, is a firewall surrounding all information really the best way forward?

The right information presented at the right time (that is, just when someone needs it, which typically coincides with a search for that information) affects buying decisions and brand loyalty. Interestingly, your technical people are right now busy working through the context that, if properly presented, would draw others to your product.

People are searching for your information.

If only they could find you.

My more innovative clients are finding ways to help their problem-definers and solution-makers talk more publicly. And as these discussions move outside the corporate walls, they best ones are finding ways to combat the PR department temptation to suck meaning from the words. Because sharing useful information happens person-to-person. And useful information will always have something of an unfiltered quality to it.

How is your organization preparing to share details with those who can help you move forward?



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Hey: Where did that voice come from?

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Don’t be stung by inauthenticity01242014-tumblr_mzl4dzAHhH1qczwklo1_500

Some in my class are English majors and don’t mind wading into the waters of how words work. So when Content Rules (Handley and Chapman) talked about voice, a close reading ensued. Handley and Chapman lobby for authenticity in voice: voice is your own way of corralling point of view and word choice and rhythm (meter?) and pressing it all into service. Voice is making language work to express your words in your way. Voice is what you sound like when you talk (and we’re aiming for conversational writing in this class, so writing and talking sort of blend).

But voice is also something that gets companies and organizations all hepped up. To give your brand a personality by adopting a particular point of view (which leads to word choices/meter and etc.) is what companies and organizations seek these days. Voice helps a brand stand out from the crowd.

And one must stand out.

But this:

How can you write with an authentic voice when you are adopting the voice of the brand?

Good question, English-major-friend. Two answers come to mind:

  1. Sometimes we use voice in the service of some larger purpose. So we might submit our voice to the larger brand purposes and adopt as best we can the machinations of the brand voice. Some people may naturally embody a brand voice. The rest of us have to work at it. This adding and adopting is part of serving the larger goal you believe in (at best. At worst: you adopt voice to make coin for rent). This is the collision of craft, faith and service.
  2. If you find yourself stinging with inauthenticity as you write for your brand—look for a different job.

I’ve maintained all along that when people add their voice to a project, new things happen. Sometimes a new voice provides new electricity and a new approach to a time-worn topic. Even old-timers can learn stuff from new voices.

Of course, people must voice up.

If you don’t say what you’re thinking, the new thing just around the corner will sit there in silence—just around the corner.


Image credit: red-lipstick via 2headedsnake

Do a Dumb Sketch Today

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Magnetize Eyeballs with Your Dumb Sketch

As a copywriter, I’ve always prefaced my art or design-related comments with, “I’m no designer, but….” I read a number of design blogs because the discipline fascinates me and I hope for a happy marriage between my words and their graphical setting as they set off into the world.

But artists and designers don’t own art. And I’m starting to wonder why I accede such authority to experts. Mind you, I’m no expert, but just like in the best, most engaged conversations, something sorta magical happens in a dumb sketch. Sometimes words shivering alone on a white page just don’t cut it. Especially when they gang up in dozens and scores and crowd onto a PowerPoint slide in an attempt to muscle their way into a client’s or colleague’s consciousness. Sometimes my words lack immediacy. Sometimes they don’t punch people in the gut like I want them to.

A dumb sketch can do what words cannot.

I’ve come to enjoy sketching lately. Not because I’m a good artist (I’m not). Not because I have a knack for capturing things on paper. I don’t. I like sketching for two reasons:

  1. Drawing a sketch uses an entirely different part of my brain. Or so it seems. The blank page with a pencil and an idea of a drawing is very different from a blank page and an idea soon to be fitted with a set of words. Sketching seems inherently more fun than writing (remember, I write for a living, so I’m completely in love with words, too). Sketching feels like playing. That sense of play has a way of working itself out—even for as bad an artist as I am. It’s that sense of play that brings along the second reason to sketch.
  2. Sketches are unparalleled communication tools. It’s true. Talking about a picture with someone is far more interesting than sitting and watching someone read a sentence. Which is boring. Even a very bad sketch, presented to a table of colleagues or clients, can make people laugh and so serve to lighten the mood. Even the worst sketches carry an emotional tinge. People love to see sketches. Even obstinate, ornery colleagues are drawn into the intent of the sketch, so much so that their minds begin filling in the blanks (without them realizing!) and so are drawn into what was supposed to happen with the drawing. The mind cannot help but fill in the blanks.

The best part of a dumb sketch is what happens when it is shown to a group. In a recent client meeting I pulled out my dumb sketches to make a particular point about how this product should be positioned in the market. I could not quite hear it, but I had the sense of a collective sigh around the conference table as they saw pictures rather than yet another wordy PowerPoint slide. In fact, contrary to the forced attention a wordy PowerPoint slide demands, my sketch pulled people in with a magnetism. Even though ugly, it still pulled. Amazing.


What is Remarkable—in Your Industry?

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Connect the Dots for Your Clients and their Customers

tumblr_mdl72y52mw1r21i5xo1_500-12072012Over at the Same Rowdy Crowd, Joe Loveland wrote about the best and worst of the Blogosphere. One of the points Loveland made is that the blogosphere is less about creating and more about aggregating. Nothing new there: we’re all curators today. But in aggregating, we are also connecting the dots for ourselves and for each other. This actually is a value-add: because I get to see how you are thinking about life today. Which also points to the ephemeral side of social media. Like tweets, blog posts are mostly of the moment. Meant to be read and discarded, much like verbal conversation: as we announce something, it is gone. That is the nature of sound.

Blogging and tweeting (and etc.) are simply tools of remarking. My working definition of “remarkable” is that a thing is remarkable when I choose to tell someone about it. Bear with me: there’s more to this. If I remark on something to someone, I think they’ll care. And I think they will find it interesting. I won’t remark on something to a friend if I think they’ll not care or if I think they will find it boring (like my 10-year-old friend thought me yesterday).

So the work of social media, in many ways, is that of connecting the dots by remarking on things we think people—our audiences—will find interesting. And along the way we show our expertise (or reveal our shallowness) even as we invite our audiences to think with us about one slivery facet of a topic. One small thing. One small thing that is of today.

It is this one small thing, this one slivery particular that has the power to pull in the outsider. This is because we can become fascinated by the inner workings of someone else’s world. It is the momentary pulling aside of the curtain that both reveals what is inside and draws others in.

Over at Clarity Coverdale Fury they are running a series of posts on the conscious consumer. Rob Rankin remarked about how his wife rented a dress for a Christmas party rather than buying one. He called the organization she used the “Netflix of fashion” and went on to hint at how this model of commerce will intrude into yet another industry. That is interesting and remarkable and a nice connection for most any audience.

One challenge of communication today has to do with finding those remarkable things you can share with insiders—and industry outsiders—which they will find interesting. It’s a language challenge. And a focus challenge. But since the days of monologue and the bully pulpit are long gone, this is our invitation.


Image credit: via Frank T. Zumbachs Mysterious World

Written by kirkistan

December 7, 2012 at 7:54 am

What does a “social” church look like?

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What Does a Social Anything Look Like?

hey-let's unlock our solipsism

We talk a lot about “social” but often marketers and corporate communicators practice the same old monologue and one-way messaging characteristic of the last century—they just shrink and divide their messages into packets of 140 characters and broadcast them through the channels people happen to be listening to at the moment.

For most of us “social” means only broadcasting through relatively new channels. We mostly don’t get the listening part of dialogue. This deafness comes from a deep place: this human tendency to see ourselves and our thoughts—our messages—as the axis for all that happens in the world. How could it be otherwise, given that we experience every part of life through our senses: the world comes to us as images, sounds, tastes, feeling and odors?

Certainly that is the case with profit-seeking entities like corporations. We monologue because we want people to buy our stuff. Same with churches: leaders broadcast what they want followers to hear and act on. Same with any organization.

3 Lessons and a Revolution

I’ve just finished my third run at teaching Social Media Marketing at Northwestern College and yesterday was my favorite day: when the students present what they learned from their social media excursions and community building activities. They learned:

  • That the most tautly-orchestrated rhetorical strategy falls apart pretty quickly in the face of the opinions and interests of their audience. Students become completely captivated by hearing others respond to their words and ideas. These responses are especially enticing after years of writing papers only for the professor’s eyes.
  • Try-Fail-Adapt was a motto we took from our texts and nearly universally adopted. This is the way forward with building communities using social media.
  • That vague “interesting” titles and headlines don’t pull readers nearly as well as solid simple titles and headlines. And that putting a number in a headline produces a bit of magic. Something women’s magazines have practiced for decades.

One notion that threaded its way through the presentations was this subversive, revolutionary aspect of working with social media. When you look beyond today’s tools as just more broadcast channels and see that people are given a voice, the world starts to tilt differently. People with a voice. A voice that agrees with leaders. Or not. Voices that speak back to power. We’ve already seen those voices collecting around the Arab Spring, Putin’s Russia and our own Occupy movements. What will that look like as people slip into ownership of the church? Because it is sure to happen there as well. Will leaders learn to lead collaboratively and by pulling people toward them? Or will leaders rely on pulpits and authority structures for their power? And how long will that tactic last?


Image credit: Neatorama

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