August 29, 2012
Words mean things, very specific things, and we should choose them with forethought and care. Almost every word we use is loaded up with connotation — all that baggage we attach to words through their context and common usage. For example, would you rather be called “slender” or “scrawny”? Strictly speaking, they mean the same thing — below average weight. But I’d be hard-pressed to find a person who would prefer to be called “scrawny,” which carries connotations of weakness, unattractiveness, and an underdeveloped physique.
As the U.S. political season comes into full swing, the power of words becomes ever more obvious. Small fumbles in word choices can become national news, and a particularly clever or powerful turn of phrase can move crowds of thousands to cheers or tears. I analyze rhetoric all the time; I can’t seem to help it. So I pay attention to what candidates on both sides are saying out of pure fascination for the ways powerful people use rhetoric to move nations.
Back in 2008, we saw one of the more effective campaigns, rhetorically speaking, of recent decades. With the simplest of ideas and slogans — “Hope,” “Change,” and “Yes we can” — the Obama campaign moved the political needle with strong appeals to pathos (emotions) that helped propel their man into the White House on a tide of positive feelings and goodwill. It occurs to me today, though, that despite its success, the “Yes we can” slogan suffered from a flaw that has emerged only in retrospect.
The word “can” should have been “will.”
It’s exactly the same as the evolution I went through in my understanding of the children’s story of The Little Engine That Could. As I got older, wiser, and more experienced, I decided that, instead of “I think I can,” the Little Engine should have been saying, “I can! I can! I can!” I realized that “I think I can” is very unsure and self-sabotaging at its core. If the purpose is to use the power of positive thinking to achieve goals, then take out the ambiguity of the “I think” part.
Continuing that line of thought, it dawned on me that even “I can!” is not strong enough to translate into success. Of course I can. But being able to do something and actually executing it are two very different things. I decided that the Little Engine likely would have had even greater and faster success if he had chanted, “I WILL!” That’s not just a warm, fuzzy feeling. That’s actual resolve. That’s a firm intention that is far more likely to lead to action and desired outcomes. Yes, the Little Engine made it over the mountain. I just have to wonder if it would have been nearly as stressful an ordeal if he had just done it with less talking and hand-wringing involved.
Consider the rhetorical difference between “Yes we can” and “Yes we will.” They’re very different in meaning, aren’t they? Just because we can do something doesn’t in any way mean we will do it; and if we stop with “We can,” we may never have the opportunity to say “We did.”
Would things today be different if the message had been “Yes we WILL”? Can a single word change the fate of nations and the world? I don’t know the answer to that with certainty, but I’m inclined to say that yes, it can. I certainly believe that word choice can change my own ability to achieve my personal and professional goals. I catch myself all the time — ALL the time — trying to psyche myself up for a challenge by telling myself, “I can do this!” And then I actively shift that thinking to “I WILL do this.” I find that it completely changes my mindset in a way that raises my chances for success exponentially.
May 23, 2012
My husband told me last night that my last post, “My Mother’s Purse,” was a great post, but he wondered what it had to do with the stated purpose of this blog (improving rhetorical skills). If anyone else was wondering, “My Mother’s Purse” was me practicing what I preach. It was a post that allowed me to be reflective and push my own comfort level just a bit in terms of being vulnerable and authentic. I have to work at using my own voice because I wrote for textbook publishers for more than 15 years, and that pretty much ironed my voice out flatter than a pancake. So, as I tell participants in my workshops, it takes practice, and it takes making conscious choices about how you use your voice, style, and point of view in your writing to really be the writer you want to be. I’ve been a professional writer for almost 20 years, and I still have plenty of room for improvement in my wordcrafting. I never want to stop learning, practicing, and sharing.
So that’s why I wrote “My Mother’s Purse.” It was cathartic to write and well-received by readers, so expect more where that came from.
May 22, 2012
My mother passed away in 2006 at the age of 69. She had Alzheimers, so she was gone long before she was gone. You folks who have lost someone to dementia know what I mean, and the rest can probably imagine and empathize. It’s a terrible, slow loss of the person you love, until all that’s left is a confused and empty shell. Anyway, after she died, my father gave me several things of hers that were just too difficult for him to deal with; one of those things was my mother’s purse. He couldn’t even open it, much less empty it, go through it, or get rid of it. He asked me to take it away, and so I did.
My mother’s last purse was a red canvas Land’s End bag with her initials embroidered on the flap. It was bulging and heavy from the pressure of its overpacked contents. I couldn’t imagine what was in it. When I got home, I set it on the bed and just looked at it for a few minutes, not sure if I was up to going through its contents either. I did, though, because ultimately the curiosity was just too much. Why was it so astonishingly heavy? What the heck had she thought important enough to carry with her everywhere when her mind was a broken and faded remnant of itself?
I sat on the bed and slowly began to take things out, one by one. A rubber-banded bundle of crochet hooks. A Samsonite luggage key from a long-gone set of luggage. A hairbrush. A purple velvet Crown Royal bag with random objects in it (a belt buckle, a makeup brush, some rubber bands, a single cufflink, a coin from South America). A Cross pen with her name engraved on it in flowing script. Another belt buckle, this one a large Western-style brass oval with a horse on it. An Avon Christmas ornament still in its box from 1981. A baggie full of buttons. A photo of my son as a baby. Dice. A carabiner. An Altoids tin filled with mismatched cheap earrings and pins. About ten different lipsticks. An unopened bottle of Carnet de Bal Parfum. Another hairbrush. Measuring tape. Another bottle of perfume. A small black address book, completely blank. Two large cloisonné pendants. A snapshot of my father. A Wonder Woman hand mirror that had been mine when I was a child. A hand-written recipe card for peanut butter cookies. Half a dozen plastic disposable razors, two packs of dental floss, a tube of Lotrimin, a small decorative porcelain plate, and various other pursey detritus.
If you’re like me, some of those things made you smile because they’re just so nonsensical. She was like one of those birds that collects shiny objects for its nest, with no sense of the use of the items in question. But I felt compelled to try to figure out what, if anything, some of these objects represented in her poor fragmented mind. Pictures of her loved ones are easy enough, but why did she, in her dementia, believe it necessary to cart around a baggie full of mismatched cheap plastic buttons? Why the huge brass Western belt buckle? Why so many razors, brushes, and lipsticks? What do the objects important to someone almost completely lost in the fog of Alzheimers mean, if anything? I struggled for some time, coming up with a few reasonable answers. The recipe card represented her love of cooking and some vague sense that that was important to her at one time. The personal care items indicated her desire to continue being able to take care of herself for as long as possible – grooming ourselves is one of our first acts of independence, after all. The various pieces of costume jewelry, the Christmas ornament, the luggage key, and other shiny bits were probably just a basic attraction to pretty and sparkly things. Other objects in the purse, like the proliferation of hardened yellow rubber bands, the dice, or the blank address book, will never make sense to me I guess.
But my mother’s purse reinforced a simple life lesson for me. We carry things around with us, whether they be physical objects, emotions, relationships, scars, or other things we acquire throughout our lives. Good stuff, bad stuff, everything. The things add up and get heavy on our shoulders, but we stubbornly refuse to put them down. Maybe we should put them down, and maybe we shouldn’t. But we should certainly examine and evaluate the things we carry around with us, frequently and with honesty, so that we can live with greater purpose and meaning. My mother couldn’t help the confusion that caused her to lug that heavy bag around with her for her last couple of years, but I can do something about the things I carry around with me every day. I can examine the things I feel are important, prioritize them, and lighten my load. How about you?
May 19, 2012
So my answer to the question of my last blog post, “Has Content Been Dethroned?” has evolved. I’ve now landed on the idea that content is still king, but it’s a particular kind of content now: relationship-driven content. So it’s not that relationships are now king and content has been dethroned; it’s that the kind of content that rules the Internet has gotten more specific. Relationship-driven content is content that invites and encourages sharing, commenting, forwarding, and other forms of interaction.
Content in speaking or in writing that gives the audience a voice has more power than static content.
(Photo credit: Flickr user JDHancock)
May 15, 2012
Back in 1996, Bill Gates published an article in which he famously asserted that “content is king.” This has been the Golden Rule of the Internet ever since. As a content creator, I myself have strongly agreed with and lived by this rule. I have passionately made the case countless times that all brands need interesting, shareable, well-written content.
But last week I attended the Word of Mouth Crash Course, a one-day marketing conference in Austin, Texas. At that conference, Spike Jones said something very interesting that has had me pondering ever since. He said that content is no longer king–relationships are. The funny thing is that I wasn’t even in Spike’s breakout session; I was in the one next door. But I read the hashtagged tweets of several other conference attendees who were in Spike’s room, and that’s all it took to set me off. I’ve actually been on this track for some time myself, considering what real engagement is and how to build genuine relationships in a world that is on one hand more connected than ever before while at the same time suffering from an odd lack of authenticity that is difficult to pin down. I’m not the only one grappling with this. There are tons of books, articles, blogs, presentations, and marketing guides out there steeped with the ubiquitous buzzwords of “authenticity,” “vulnerability,” “relationship-building,” “interactivity,” and “connection.” But despite a seemingly pervasive awareness of the need for real relationship-building in our communications, few individuals or brands are carrying it off, and fewer still seem to be genuinely taking actions that lead to relationships.
In education, there’s been a sustained movement to get away from the “sage on the stage” mentality in order to engage learners more actively and meaningfully in their own learning. The “new” paradigm (there have been evangelists of the new paradigm for decades, making little discernible progress) is the educator in the role of the “guide on the side.” This type of thinking, which forces the holder of knowledge to become a facilitator of innovation and creative problem-solving rather than the imparter of wisdom and tester of comprehension, has proven difficult for those who have long controlled the valuable currency of information to relinquish. The same is true in the world of business and marketing. Those who seek to create ever more content without giving their audiences a voice and the ability to contribute meaningfully risk falling behind in the new interactive marketplace. Which is more likely to move individuals or organizations to action and change? Content or relationships? As a long-time content creator, I’m loathe to admit it, but I believe it’s the latter. We’ve collectively created more content now than any single human being could ever consume in a lifetime. Anyone can find out virtually anything in moments. We seem to be poised to move beyond the currency of information and into a world built on relationship capital.
So what do you think? Has content been dethroned?
Are relationships the new “king”?
(Image credit: Flickr user zoonabar)
April 30, 2012
Here’s the introduction to my upcoming book, PowerPointless: Interactive Presentation Strategies That Can Free You and Your Audience from the Chains of PowerPoint.
Think about the last ten presentations you attended. How many of the presenters had PowerPoint slideshows that accompanied their talks? Chances are, all of them. We’ve become almost completely dependent on PowerPoint or similar presentation software in our business, training, sales, and educational interactions that we almost can’t conceive of a conference or classroom without the ubiquitous projector, screen, laptop, and remote.
I’m the first person to say that technology is a wonderful thing. I loved, loved, LOVED it when we all switched from terrible hand-made visuals—or somewhat better ones made at Kinko’s at midnight—to electronically-generated slideshows that looked so much better than the hand-made stuff ever had. Even in the hands of design hacks like me who relied far too heavily on bad clip art and Star Wars-like transitions between slides, slideshow software made it possible for everyone to make decent visuals, even on short notice and with no budget. It was a fantastic revolution, and I don’t mean to put down its value in the big scheme of things at all.
Unfortunately, as with most good things, we went too far with it, got too dependent on it, and lost touch with what we were trying to do with it in the first place. We give and attend presentations to connect with each other and build relationships, skills, and knowledge in meaningful and transferrable ways. These days, though, most people’s idea of a good presentation is a slideshow with some schmo blathering beside it. It should be the other way around! The slideshow should simply be a tool that enhances the speaker’s message, not the focus of the show. Too often, the audience ends up reading bullet points off the screen instead of listening to what the speaker has to say about each point. They’re staring at the screen instead of looking at the speaker, whose message is often punctuated by gestures, facial expressions, and other body language cues, as well as anecdotes and insights that are the real heart of the talk. If the slideshow is the primary focus of the presentation and any old speaker could click through and read it, attendees may as well just stay home and download the slideshow; they’d get the same value out of it.
So why do organizations continue to hire real people to speak to their companies or associations in person rather than simply downloading a whole slew of lovely slideshows? They want the speaker’s expertise, experience, and insight. They want the personal connection of a human being interacting with their employees, members, or attendees. They want the emotion, the anecdotes, and the humor a good speaker brings to the room. They want a relationship.
Relationships: I think that’s really what people sense is missing from too many of our modern interactions with each other. We “connect” all the time in networking events, conferences, in social media, and more. But those connections, more and more often, fail to go beyond an exchange of business cards, a mutual follow on Twitter, and a quick add on LinkedIn. We “connect” in these superficial ways, and then we forget about each other for the most part. Most people who attend business or association conferences say that their number one reason for attending is to network. They are seeking more than a pile of business cards and social media friend requests, though. They want real relationships—meaningful ones that lead to mutual benefits for everyone. When relationship-building is a meeting attendee’s primary purpose, the presentations they attend are actually a huge impediment for them, and they enter the room already distracted and wishing the presentation were over before it begins so that they can go back to networking. PowerPoint adds to this problem because it forces the audience to sit quietly, staring at a screen, listening with half their attention at best to the speaker’s words, while at the same time forcing the speaker to stick to a predetermined script, regardless of the needs of the particular audience in the room.
The way to solve this is, clearly, to turn off the projector. When there is no giant screen to focus on, the audience focuses on the speaker and is far more likely to engage with him or her. And when they engage, they’re far more likely to interact. And when they interact, they form relationships with the speaker and each other. This helps new knowledge and concepts to become transferable to their real lives, which means they are more likely to take action and gain true value from the presentation.
PowerPointless presentations aren’t just speakers without slideshows, though. These presentations are highly interactive in nature. A PowerPointless presentation requires the speaker to relinquish a great deal of control to the audience. The speaker must view herself as a facilitator rather than a “sage on the stage” who has all the great ideas to be bestowed upon the empty vessels in the audience. A PowerPointless presenter is prepared to fill the entire time herself, but she hopes she won’t get to say all of her own ideas because her audience is so eager to share their own brilliance with each other. In a way, it’s a crowd-sourced presentation. PowerPointless is an audience-centered, relationship-driven philosophy of in-person communication that’s both old-fashioned and modern in its approach. It uses old-school hands-on techniques, combined with judicious use of technology and online tools, to engage audience members and speakers alike by tapping into their visual, auditory, and tactile learning styles in equal parts. PowerPointless presentations, if done well, are different every time, are genuinely customized to each audience, and usually lead to the speaker learning as much as the attendees. PowerPointless presentations also facilitate those all-important personal interactions and connections that most audience members are seeking.
April 28, 2012
I’m at BlogathonATX today, learning a ton and getting inspired to post here more regularly (we’ll see how that works out in reality).
Right now, Crystal R. R. Edwards is discussing long-term blogging, including changing one’s voice, keeping an editorial calendar, and dealing with burnout. I’m particularly intrigued by the question of voice. In fact, I’m developing a workshop on developing a distinctive online voice for WordCamp Austin 2012 (May 19th).
Crystal emphasizes that there’s a difference between point of view and voice. Point of view is where you’re coming from, the sum of all you are and understand about the world. Voice, on the other hand, is the style and tone and attitude that you bring to a particular piece of writing. It’s what readers “hear” when they read your work. Voice is not set in stone–it evolves and shifts to suit different audiences or your changing point of view. But voice also has a core of “you-ness” to it that remains consistent. It is the thing that comes out of the natural rhythm of your personal style of thinking and communicating. It is distinctive and identifiable on a very subtle level. So, just like you might feel different and take on a different attitude when you’re wearing a sexy little black dress and stiletto heels than you do when you’re wearing your favorite comfy jeans and a faded t-shirt, you can slip on a different voice in your writing and still be very identifiably you.
It behooves us as writers to analyze our own writing often to discover what that core voice is in order to embrace it and build on it so that readers feel the authenticity of the writing and become loyal to our work. “Authenticity” is an overused buzz word right now, as is “personal branding.” But there’s a reason for that; social media is bringing us all closer together while in a way pushing us farther apart. There’s a difference between true connection that leads to action and relationships and a brush-by in a crowd. To a degree, our personal and professional lives cannot be separated in an online, highly social world. All some people will ever know of me will be my online presence–the words I type or the videos and photos I post. My online voice, therefore, is my most powerful tool for making connections and gaining new clients.
In other words, voice is an under-appreciated piece of personal and professional branding that needs attention and nurturing in the same way as every other aspect of one’s presentation to the world does. If you spend days or weeks carefully setting up a logo, a web page, headshots, graphics, business cards, marketing collateral, and more, why wouldn’t you spend a similar amount of time and attention on your voice? Don’t lose clicks and customers by putting sloppy copy out there in your name, on any channel.
April 19, 2012
When I was a senior in high school, the school counselor gave me and my classmates a career interest assessment test to help us choose our college majors. At the time, I was certain that I would be a music major and would become a band director. I therefore answered all the questions in the test instrument with the express purpose of having it confirm the preconceived outcome I had in mind. To my intense surprise, “Band Director” was nowhere in my top five career recommendations; nor was “Musician” in any form. Instead, the top five were “Writer,” “Attorney,” “Journalist,” “Speaker,” and “Teacher.” I’m sure you see the connection among the five; I didn’t at the time because I was so set on my chosen path that I didn’t stop to analyze this now rather obvious outcome. Convinced that the assessment was a useless piece of crap, I tucked it into a folder to be forgotten for many years.
As you can guess, that career interest assessment was right on target, and I knew next to nothing about myself and my true talents at the tender age of 18. I was a music major for a whopping ten days before running screaming from the windowless dungeon of the dusty basement practice rooms in the music building and changing my major to English. In the almost 25 years since I took that career test, I have made a living as a writer, journalist, speaker, and teacher. I even almost became an attorney as well; I took the LSAT and was accepted to law school when I was 39, but I did not go because I was ultimately unwilling to incur almost $100,000 in student loan debt to get a couple more letters after my name.
The moral of the story is that we all need to assess ourselves honestly and often. Toss away preconceived self-perceptions and career outcomes and consider the idea that who and what you think you are is not in fact the entirety of who and what you really are. You may even be entirely wrong! How delightful would that be? Imagine the enchantment of reinventing yourself at whatever age you are now, with the same feelings of excitement and discovery you had when you were just starting out. Perhaps it’s time to find a career coach and take one of those career assessment tests again.
April 10, 2012
I have many students in my college classes who are acquiring English while taking college classes in English. I really have to admire what they’re doing because English is a jerk. Many English language rules are senseless to begin with, and then we break them with great gusto on a regular basis. Learning English as an adult must be like playing Battleship with a cheater who sneakily moves his ships around whenever his opponent scores a hit.
April 4, 2012
What’s your social media philosophy when it comes to how you use each channel and whom you let in? Some people have a different purpose and a different audience for each channel–Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Foursquare, LinkedIn, etc.–carefully segmenting their social media presence and vigilantly monitoring privacy settings to keep the walls between audiences solid. I have a “WYSIWYG” (pronounced “wizzywig”) social media philosophy: What You See Is What You Get.
I don’t have a significantly different persona in my personal life than I do in my professional life, and so I don’t have a problem letting anyone into my social media world, in whichever channel or channels they’d like to connect. Yes, I kick it up a notch for clients in real life. I do avoid friending students on Facebook while they’re in my classes. And yes, I try to avoid talking about politics or religion in my social media. But that’s nothing more than I’d do in a restaurant where anyone might overhear and be offended. Social media for me is pretty much like having conversations in public places. I am myself; I am genuine; but I’m mindful of others’ presence as well. So I’m just not inclined to do all the work it takes to keep everyone in my life segregated in my social media through selective friending/following/filtering.
My social media presence is a part of my personal branding. As a speaker, writer, and communications strategist, I am my product. Therefore, it’s important to me that people know that I am authentic and that what they see is what they get, not something that I’ve carefully packaged up for them.
What do you think? What’s your social media philosophy and why? I’m genuinely curious about people’s perspectives on this.