Let’s face it—a lot of business and technical writing can be pretty dry. To keep the audience engaged, there are all kinds of tricks a writer can deploy, from storytelling to active language to the now-overused listicle format. Fun pop-culture references have long been another way to make technical concepts more relatable. Recently, I was working on a white paper that described security as a castle or citadel. To jazz it up a little, I wove in a couple of light-hearted Games of Thrones references.
The client liked the references but ultimately didn’t keep them. They were worried that instead of making the piece more relatable, the pop-culture analogy sounded like an attempt to seem cool—which was hardly the point of the white paper. It was a minor point for this project, but my curiosity was aroused. What makes for a good pop-culture reference these days? And in today’s fragmented cultural landscape, is it a device that ought to be retired?
Perhaps tellingly, I’ve never actually seen an episode of Game of Thrones myself. But for years the memes, references, and buzz pieces about it have saturated the internet to an unavoidable degree. In my research, I learned that although 16 million viewers watched the finale of GoT, the majority of viewers were males under 30. My client’s instincts were right. The target audience for our think piece was senior professionals, age 40+. Within their industry, only about 15% of the end users are under 30. Our target audience would be far more likely to connect with a snappy reference to The Voice or This is Us.
But the issue is more complex than age demographics. While 16 million may sound like a lot, it actually reflects the slicing and dicing of our popular culture into specific interest groups. Back in the 1980s, 120 million people watched the finale of M*A*S*H. Today, even the top rated shows reach vastly fewer viewers than they once did. Gone are the days when everyone got an immediate chuckle of recognition from “Beam me up, Scotty,” “Party on,” or “Festivus.”
My Toastmasters club has a theme for each meeting, and a while back a member used the theme of “The Sound of Music.” In its day, the classic musical was one of the biggest box office hits of all time, and was broadcast annually on television at holiday time. Everyone knows “The Sound of Music,” right?
Not so fast. It turned out the film, the songs, and the characters were unfamiliar to our group’s younger members and even more of a mystery to our many members who hail from outside the U.S. Since 1990, the percentage of the population that is foreign-born has doubled. Today, over 44 million people living in the U.S. are immigrants to this country. Our pop culture is not only fragmented. It’s increasingly self-referential, an in-joke that is unrepresentative and irrelevant to the actual day-to-day culture being lived by millions of Americans.
I’m glad this issue came up. I’m starting to think that the use of pop culture references in business communications is dated. Spending time and energy on more creative and inclusive approaches to lively pieces would be well worth the effort.
“Your boy, Lester, will never learn music.” So wrote a teacher to the mother of Lester Polsfuss of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Years later, of course, that boy was Les Paul, the world-renowned guitarist and inventor who revolutionized music by pioneering the electric guitar and inventing modern recording techniques, including multi-tracking. In fact, it’s hard to imagine what modern recorded music would be like if Les Paul (or his mother) had internalized that teacher’s “can’t-do” attitude.
Instead, the boy spent his days trying his hand at the guitar, harmonica, and banjo, begging for lessons from any local person who would give him the time of day, and building his own crystal radio set and later, his own amplifiers. By the time he was a teenager, he was in a country band. Hungry for more, he moved to Chicago and spent every off-hour on the South Side of Chicago with that city’s jazz musicians, learning everything he could about music.
I learned all this and more recently from a great documentary, Les Paul: Chasing Sound. What struck me the most about it was how Paul’s creativity was fueled by his continual thirst for learning. Undoubtedly, Paul had natural abilities that were beyond the imagination of his childhood music teacher. But without the desire to pursue them and willingness to be a beginner, they never would have developed. And Paul kept on playing music and experimenting well into his 90s. Eventually, he became the only person to be inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
There are some pretty off-the-wall concepts about creativity going around right now. One of the most destructive is the idea that a creative person comes up with mind-blowing ideas out of thin air. In reality, a true creative is forever a learner, focusing both on specific skills but branching out into a wide range of related concepts that pump more excitement and energy into the learning. Occasionally, I’ve run across people involved in the creative arts who weren’t learners, and they ended up as “wannabes.” It takes a combination of self-confidence and humility to admit you don’t know and seek out those who do.
Right now, I’m working on a white paper for a client about a piece of legislation that affects their industry. The client apologized for the boring subject matter! But no subject is boring if you have the chance to take apart the ideas behind it and experiment with fitting them back together—like Les Paul and his life-long quest to understand sound.
Whether business or pleasure, what do you want to learn about next? Whatever it is, give yourself permission to be the beginner. You never know where it might lead.
Yesterday I was involved in a great discussion about networking for introverts. It was interesting to find out how many people who are introverts also wrestle with perfectionism and procrastination. I don’t think anyone is immune from deferring a sticky problem in hopes it will somehow just go away!
Introverts like me love to immerse ourselves deeply in our work. The reward is the opportunity to create outstanding work. However, the challenge is letting go so the work can fly out of the nest! Whether I’m doing work for myself or a client, I do like to fuss over the details, and make sure everything is accurate, correct, reads well, and is “just so.”
Luckily, I’m grounded and action-oriented by nature. One tip I can share is to set deadlines and commit to them. This lifts the burden of over polishing from your shoulders and lets you move on and apply the lessons learned to the next project, rather than remaining immersed in the same one.
And as for procrastination, I’ve been dying to share about a great little app called Forest. If you’re like me and find yourself frittering away time on your smartphone, Forest is a fun way to cut back. Through a game-like interface, you can grow trees and create your own forest by tying up your phone for anywhere between 10 minutes to two hours. If you use your phone during that time, your trees die. If you stick with it, you can earn points to unlock new species of trees, and end up with quite a forest each week before the game starts over. You can even save up your points and contribute them towards the planting of real trees. Give it a try!
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To control your cow, give it a bigger pasture. — Suzuki Roshi
How often do you go searching for information about a company or its services, only to have to wade through the same old boring, know-it-all corporate-speak? We treasure unique voices in the fiction we buy, from the muscular prose of Clive Cussler to the lyricism of the late Maya Angelou, but somehow when it comes to talking about our own products and services, we try to sound just like everybody else. What if your website, newsletters, white papers, and other content reflected who you are and what makes you special? What if people actually wanted to read them?
If we sat down and started talking about your business, I bet you wouldn’t start telling me stories about the elegant and clean world you live in, where you have all the answers. As Robert K. Greenleaf wrote, “The able leaders I know are all sharply awake and reasonably disturbed.” We’d probably talk about rude, messy, real-world problems, where you were confronting a range of issues and pressures. And that’s just the parts you’d be willing to reveal. Deep inside, you’d probably be thinking about how difficult it is to maintain your organizational effectiveness these days. You might be wondering how to meet the (ridiculously) high standards of your customers and prospects. In real life, that elegant and clean “website world” would look a lot more complex — at times, even baffling.
In his book The Art of the Start, the great business writer Guy Kawasaki writes about how it is better to have a smaller group of fiercely loyal and committed customers than try to please everyone by hitting that lowest-common denominator. This doesn’t mean being controversial just for the sake of creating “buzz.” Instead, it means being willing to present questions to your customers and prospects for which you might not have all the answers. It means acknowledging that in a constantly changing world, people will not all hold the same beliefs. This is a good thing!
When you engage with a bit of vulnerability, you open the door to an open-ended conversation with your customers, one that allows for genuine dialogue. For example, you might write case studies or articles that acknowledge that your product or service addresses issues with ambiguous causes and unpredictable outcomes. Worst-case scenario? You open the door to dialogue and discussion, which is the prerequisite for innovation and creativity–which are prerequisites of action!
David Bohm, one of the most unorthodox and ground-breaking physicists of the 20th century, said, “Human beings have an innate capacity for collective intelligence, based on dialogue.” You can leverage this capacity in your marketing collateral and corporate outreach by shifting the focus from yourself to the larger community of your customers, prospects, and your industry as a whole. Here are a few ways to get the creative juices flowing for new pieces:
Once you have an idea for a new white paper, article, or presentation, decide on its purpose and direction. Remember to be inclusive of all of the points of view you have discovered, even those you disagree with. Chances are if one customer is saying something that seems negative, others are thinking it. Answer their questions even if you are moving in a direction that some of your audience hasn’t considered and is reluctant to take. Your appeal will be powerful with the courage of your convictions behind it. Remember, no one likes being strong-armed or forgotten–but most people respond to content that has a strong sense of need, appeals to their need for control or achievement, or stresses the ideals that attracted them into their business or profession in the first place.
Bland, bloviating marketing communications can actually deplete the trust and caring you are trying to build with your community of customers and prospects. There is no substitute for sharing your knowledge and learning from that of others. With time, energy, and sustained attention, you can build a community of shared purpose with your customers while communicating a clear sense of identity and who you really are.
So what’s the story behind the painting? According to Dean M. Anderson, the resident “cow whisperer” at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, modern-day cattle are descended from a species of wild oxen called aurochs. These fiercely independent beasts coexisted with ancient wild bison and woolly mammoths. Anderson is working on new technology that controls cattle on “animal time,” respecting them as individuals with their own thoughts and desires. Anderson says, ” It’s like doing a job the way you know it should be done, but letting your bosses feel like it was all their idea.” Learn more at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.
P.S. A warm welcome to my newest customer, Slide UX!