“That nails it,” I told myself as I turned to the Twitter feed on my phone and the Facebook timeline on my tablet.
Such were the hazards of occupying newly blown mine-craters that, according to George Coppard, “Before starting a twelve-hour shift in a crater, each man had to complete a field postcard for his next of kin, leaving the terse message ‘I am quite well’ undeleted.”
Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory
In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital. The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.
[Srini Pillay, Harvard Business Review]
We’ve all experienced it. We grind away at a problem until we give up. When we leave our grindstone in despair and forget that it exists, inspiration strikes. If you’re like me, at that moment you ask yourself: “Why didn’t I think of that sooner?”
There’s a simple answer. You didn’t lose focus fast enough.
It turns out that neuroscience is giving us permission to drop our focus. If we let our brain’s “Default Mode Network” take over, we can relax while it “activates old
memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas.” It’s like having a mental butler serve up ideas while we engage in positive constructive daydreaming, pretend to be someone else or take a nap. [Pillay]
Science has spoken. Besides, who would want to argue against naps and creative play?
If you don’t live by every word that falls from the lips of neuroscientists, there are other, more entertaining sources to confirm your bias that napping and play are good for you.
James Webb Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas made the same point in 1939 without the arcane references to the inner working of the brain. In the space of 5,600 words (only 280 20-word tweets for those who live on Twitter-sized crumbs) he told advertising executives how to generate ideas: do the detailed research about your product and then drop the problem. When the idea interrupts your relaxation, write it down and get back to work, refining and testing the idea.
Maybe Young got his idea from Proust. (Trigger warning: Remembrance of Times Past is the equivalent of nearly 60,000 20-word tweets.)
In trying to force his mind to recall something he wanted to picture, Proust’s Marcel failed ten times in succession.
And each time the cowardice that deters us from every difficult task, every important enterprise, has urged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the worries of to-day and my hopes for to-morrow, which can be brooded over painlessly.
And suddenly the memory revealed itself.
In the same way, he struggled to recall the appearance of towns he had visited, people he had met, music he had heard. Almost always, the recognition returned when he stopped dredging the river of his memories.
Filing away memories worked in a similar way. Here’s how Marcel came to internalize music he listened to:
…with regard to works we have heard more than once, we are like the schoolboy who has read several times over before going to sleep a lesson which he supposed himself not to know, and finds that he can repeat it by heart next morning.
So take heart. Developing ideas, remembering, and learning all benefit from diversion and loss of focus. Need convincing? Skip the neuroscience and advertising executives. Lose yourself in Proust. Nap with his book in your lap. Your creative genius will thank you.
Lists! Is it even possible to live without lists? From shopping lists to checklists to bucket lists, lists drive our lives.
You can barely browse a website without meeting a “listicle“, a list masquerading as an article. From today’s Google search for “listicle”, here are two examples: “8 Tips For Writing A Listicle That Will Get Published” and “5 Reasons Listicles Are Here to Stay, and Why That’s OK“.
As the years run short, I’m beginning to think that one list should be at the top of my list of lists: the “Never Again List” of things I won’t spend time on anymore. Things like:
- keeping track of the dime-a-dozen celebrity circus;
- paying attention to the social media outrage machine;
- sitting on committees that meet but do no work.
Getting the “Never Again List” right is the first step in simplifying and focusing my life. And I’ll start by not searching the internet for ready-made lists of activities to avoid.
Is Ottawa really the city fun forgot? You might think so, if you read USA Today.
Fans back in Canada’s capital are of course thrilled about the victory, but for one group of fans, they didn’t go overboard celebrating — no breaking the law for these people.
I think this group of fans got it right. Just a bit of fun is called for because the big celebration is still two nasty series wins away. No doubt the big-city fun will break out if the teams goes all the way.
I have to admit, I have a hate-on for mosquitoes. Growing up on the prairies, I used to look forward to mosquito-free winters, when the sting came from a lesser evil—frostbite.
In the time of West Nile, Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases, dealing with the pests is a serious business. But what’s business without a little fun?
… given the dour threat of the diseases the insects carry, perhaps a little dark humor at their expense is warranted. As Conlon puts it, “Killing mosquitoes is one of life’s simple pleasures.”
For a quick survey of bug-zapping gadgets,check out Do Mosquito Zappers Protect People From Disease? – The Atlantic
If you want a dose of humility or need practice with your presentation skills, I have the audience for you: seven-year-old children, in the evening, preparing for First Communion.
My parish asked me to lead the preparation course this winter. I didn’t say no because, after all, how hard could it be?
I did manage to teach the kids a few things. Mostly, though, they taught me some hard lessons about public performance.
- If you live by the technology, you’ll die by the technology. One evening, I presented a Brother Francis video from Herald Entertainment on the topic of the Eucharist. Naturally, my DVD player acted up and, as I was fiddling with the system, one of the young lads called out “You’re wasting our time!” He was right. I had prepared and tested everything in the afternoon and again just before the presentation. Still it went wrong at the moment of truth.
- You can’t deliver the message if you don’t hold their interest. It was amazing to see children who didn’t know each other become fast friends as they tied and untied their shoes, kicked the kneelers, yawned in unison and turned their rosaries into lariats whenever the presentation dragged. (At least they weren’t stealing glances at their cell phones.)
- Calmness is the golden key. Picture getting 28 youngsters, each with a lit candle, to form a line for a solemn procession. Nothing could go wrong, could it? Do you see the children milling around, fascinated with fire, bumping into each other; harried volunteers getting them back into line and relighting the candles they had blown out; parents distracting their kids with baffling hand-signals? Yet there they go, down the aisle, decked out in their finest clothes and angelic smiles.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. The kids are the best teachers and there’s so much to learn.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that I learned everything I know about business from walking behind a herd of beef cattle. But the experience taught me lessons I still use.
My father and uncle operated a mixed grain-livestock farm when I was growing up. They had a herd of approximately 100 Hereford cows, most of which produced a calf in late winter. In early spring, we would drive the cattle seven miles over country roads to a Community Pasture operated by the federal government. The cattle would be boarded at the pasture during the grain-growing season and led back home after harvest.
Twice a year I got to follow the herd, on foot, over gravel and dirt roads, across a highway, through ditches and sometimes across fields. It was a great adventure. Looking back, it was also a useful training experience for business, politics and volunteer activities.
Here’s what I learned:
- The herd has a leader. We didn’t lead the cattle—we followed. One of the older cows, which had made the journey several times, headed down the road and the others fell in line. Occasionally, the leader set a pace that was too fast for the calves. At other times, we had to stop the leader from taking a shortcut through a neighbor’s field. On the whole, though, it was a member of the herd that brought the others along. In any group of colleagues—paid or volunteer—I’ve found that there’s always at least one natural leader who instinctively knows where the group should be heading. Working with the natural leaders makes the journey a lot smoother for all concerned.
- Good relations with neighbors eliminate many problems. Our cattle walked alongside fields belonging to several landowners. Naturally, they were drawn to water or fresh grazing, regardless of who owned the land. My father and uncle were known to be generous with their help, so the landowners did not complain about the odd bit of trampling. In the work world, we experience equipment breakdowns, weather emergencies, illnesses and dozens of other challenges. Working well with neighbors, competitors and suppliers will save us when we least expect that we will need help.
- Approaching a problem obliquely is usually better than head-on. When a calf or young steer strayed from the herd, it was my job to bring the animal back. It didn’t take long to learn that going straight after the stray would frighten the calf and trigger a long run over rough ground. Approaching obliquely would allow me to gently guide the calf back to the herd.
In the working world, the head-on approach may pay off with certain people or in a limited number of situations. Always, it leaves a festering memory and erodes trust. Better to set boundaries and let the “stray” find the way back.
- Scale matters, until it doesn’t. When the herd arrived at the Community Pasture, the professional cowboys took over. Large holding pens rapidly filled with herds coming from the neighboring farms. The calves were led through a set of chutes to be examined, vaccinated, branded and castrated. The cows were sent through another set of chutes to be examined, vaccinated and tagged. Our herd would have been processed in less than an hour. At home, all those tasks might have taken a couple of days. On the other hand, when the cows needed individual attention during the calving season, my father’s personal touch was irreplaceable. So it is in all things. Matching the method to the need is an underestimated talent.
- Experience counts. I was on my school’s track team during the last years I tended the herd, so my endurance was better. I could walk or run for long periods without tiring. But physical conditioning wasn’t the major source of improvement in my work. Having traveled that road several times before, I had come to know what to expect. I could anticipate when a calf would stray, pick the right angle to approach it and get it back to the herd with minimal effort. I could position myself ahead of time to direct the lead cow away from the shortcuts. Whether in business, politics or voluntary work, raw skills are helpful but not sufficient. Experience builds the confidence to take on the large tasks and breeds the anticipation that heads off errors and false starts.
Walking behind a herd of cattle is about as far away from my current work as I could have imaged on those spring and fall mornings. For one thing, my shoes are cleaner now. The mud and weeds, the persistent bellowing, the occasional cloud of mosquitoes—all these surface details set the herding apart from office work. But beneath it all, the underlying shape of the two experiences has surprising and instructive similarities.
The demand for more and distinctive marketing content chews through a writer’s time and energy like a cloud of grasshoppers devouring a wheat field. Calls for tweets, blog posts, LinkedIn updates, landing pages, emails, flyers, ads, RFP responses — they ride in on the west wind and take bite after bite until the content calendar is shredded.
The agriculture industry has learned how to fend off grasshoppers. Marketers? Still learning. When not writing, marketers can often be found reading about writing. We check tweets, blog posts, ebooks and courses that promise to help us advance in our craft. Instead of giving us powerful tools to hold back the swarm, much of the advice goes like this:
- create awesome content
- create jaw-dropping headlines
- create out-of-this-world images
- capture the “wow” factor
The west wind keeps blowing in the grasshoppers, so we need resources that will help us write faster, better, more consistently. Fortunately, there’s good material to be found. Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes fills an important need and should be on every active marketer’s reading list.
Everybody Writes delivers well-organized chapters in a reference book divided into six parts:
Part I. Writing rules: how to write better (and how to hate writing less)
Part II. Writing rules: grammar and usage
Part III. Story rules
Part IV. Publishing rules
Part V. 13 things marketers write
Part VI. Content tools
The book is notable for its generous spirit. Ann Handley not only shares her own experience and advice but shines a spotlight on other resources. In doing so, she has created a reference book that artfully serves as a springboard for writers eager to learn more about their craft.
I turn to Part V often. It provides useful tactics for Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, email, landing pages, infographics, blog posts and annual reports. A copy of the chart “The Ideal Length for Blog Posts, Podcast, Facebook Posts, Tweets, and Other Marketing Content” sits beside my keyboard.
In every book, there’s a passage or idea that flashes a green light to continue or a red light to set the book aside. The green light began flashing in Chapter 28, “Deadlines are the WD-40 of Writing,” when I read :
Do the best work you can by the deadline you’ve set, and then consider your writing project finished.
Over the years, I’ve learned that no matter what type of work I’m called upon to do, the same rule applies: deadlines are the ultimate constraint. Usually, deadlines are imposed by an external party.
- In politics, issues have to be dealt with in time to head off bigger problems.
- If RFP responses aren’t delivered to the purchasing agent by the deadline, the response won’t be opened.
- In the printing industry, the customer’s deadline sets the scheduling in motion.
If left to create their own deadlines, undisciplined writers are doomed. The urge for perfection undermines their schedule. Their writing seizes up like a rusted piece of farm equipment. The grasshoppers swarm the field and leave behind devastation until the WD-40 puts the equipment back into the field. In Handley’s words, “… give yourself a hard deadline. And then strictly adhere to it.”
[Ann Handley. Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2014. Follow Ann Handley on Twitter: @annhandley.]
First there was George Carlin alerting us to the seven words you couldn’t say on TV. Now Coke blocks 3,415 words from user-generated content.
Do I hear you asking, “What’s user-generated content”? Here’s how it works, in this case:
An accessory for Coke’s newly launched “Taste the Feeling” global ad campaign, GIF the Feeling is a website that allows visitors to fashion Coke ads by combining a stock clip with user-provided tagline. The result can be posted to social media or downloaded as a GIF—that au courant looping animation image format.
What would you say in a Coke ad? Would you describe a positive emotion? Or create digital graffiti? Would you try to use Coke to promote your political cause? Or would you try to subvert the product? Given human nature, more than one person would try to troll, deface, subvert, coarsen or impair the campaign. Hence, the “Profanity API” — a technology intended to ward off foreseeable misuses of the advertiser’s brand.
“Profanity” doesn’t capture the full range of the technology’s activity. It blocks words in many other categories:
- drugs and alcohol
- politics, race and religion
- brand names and proper names
- violence, crime, abuse and insults
- business and enterprise
- health, medicine and chemistry
- food and drink
- soft drink terms
- negative connotations
- miscellaneous words
For a thought-provoking review of what is blocked and why a company would subject its brand to so many potential indignities, check out Ian Bogost’s fine article in The Atlantic.
Incidentally, I’ve seen at first hand what can happen when a “profanity API” is not in place. Years ago, I was part of a team that provided services for a telecom manufacturer. We had been invited to discuss integrating some of our services with a business card ordering system the manufacturer had purchased. Our host beamed as he showed us the easy-order feature which eliminated the need for HR staff to approve the content of the card. His face darkened — from a mix of embarrassment and anger — when he opened the dashboard to show us the cards that had been requested. In more than 70 instances, employees had entered the CEO’s name and assigned him a derogatory job title.
More recently, I worked on a project for a cell phone reseller which aimed a product at the teen and young adult market. Customers were invited to manage their account online and leave brief testimonials about the product. You can guess what happened. When we received the data file for a mailing, we discovered that offensive or derogatory comments littered not only the comments field but also the address fields in a high percentage of the records.
User-generated content is a rough neighborhood. Hats off to Coca-Cola and other brands who venture out, trusting in their “profanity API”.