Best of 2018

Happy-new-year-2018

This year was a rollercoaster, with some great personal high points—my dream trip to Scotland and the publication of The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900 chief among them. On the downward side, I never realized that acting as the executor of my dad’s estate would be a full time job for much of the year! Fortunately, that is just about behind me and I am looking forward to a new and different life in 2019!

It is time for the annual “Best of” lists. I never see any of my favorites on the lists, do you? Here are the best books, movies, music &c. that I discovered in 2018. I would love to hear your favorites. (They don’t have to have been new this year, just new to you).

book-cover-passage1Favorite book: This year I got back into my favorite genres—history and biography. It is my passion to learn in-depth about the people and times that made our world what it is today. My favorite book was The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson 4), by Robert A. Caro. This biography is one of the best books I have ever read. It focuses on a difficult time in LBJ’s life—the vice-presidential years and the first months of assuming the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination. An incredible page-turner of angst, tragedy, and superhuman determination.

Runner up: The Accidental President: Harry Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, by A.J. Baime.

Favorite movie: Darkest Hour – an amazing performance by Gary Oldman highlights this historical drama about Winston Churchill and how he saved the world from Nazi tyranny with his masterful words in the critical weeks of May 1940. One of the best dramatizations of the writing and creative process I have seen—and the stakes couldn’t have been higher.

Runners up: Free Solo, Coco, The Greatest Showman

 

Favorite TV show: The Alienist – gritty historical crime drama about an elite team of sleuths hunting a serial killer on the mean streets of 1890s New York. Superb and engrossing.
Runner up: Lodge 49, the sweetest,screwiest show since the old days of Northern Exposure

 Favorite album: Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real (self-titled) – with the release of his first album and his role as musical director for A Star is Born, Lukas Nelson has transcended his status as Willie’s son to become a sensitive and wise artist in his own right.
Runner up: A Long Way From Your Heart, by The Turnpike Troubadours

Favorite song: According to Spotify, the one I listened to the most was Nobody’s Lonely Tonight, by Chris Stapleton. Runner up: Something to Hold On To, by The Turnpike Troubadours.

Favorite live event was Booth’s Richard III, an historic play produced by the Hidden Room Theater here in Austin. This was just so unique—a time travel experience into 1860s theater where the tragic twists of “blood and thunder” in Richard’s story mirror those left to history by the lead actor who made the production possible—none other than John Wilkes Booth.
Runner up: The Average White Band at One World Theater

Your turn!

Best of 2017

Lead

This summer and fall brought my share of curveballs. My dad entered the last stage of his life, and helping him through took precedence over just about everything else. He passed away in October, and I miss him very much.

There is a lot of exciting change and some big, fun announcements coming up in 2018. To focus on the positive, I thought I’d reactivate the blog with something fun and light. The end of year “Best of” lists have started to appear. I never see any of my favorites on there. How about you? I would love to hear about your favorites, too – books, movies, music, etc. that you discovered in 2017. (They don’t have to have been new this year, just new to you).

These are the things that helped me make it through a very challenging year.

51d0qnu4wsLFavorite book: I used to love to read mysteries but in recent years I can never find any that I like – most are either gory and depressing, or too dumbed down. My best innovation this year was to go “back in time” and start picking up classic series that I had never read. Years of reading pleasure ahead!

Favorite new author/series: Robert B. Parker and the Spenser series, about a hard-boiled Boston PI with a heart of gold
Runner up: Dick Francis and his horse racing series

Favorite movie: Murder on the Orient Express – Hercule Poirot, the world’s greatest detective (Kenneth Branagh),  must solve a murder that took place on a moving train in the middle of nowhere. I haven’t loved the reinvention of a classic so much since Daniel Craig took on James Bond.
Runners up: Wonder Woman, Hacksaw Ridge

 Favorite TV show: The Son – harrowing, engrossing Texas historical drama about Eli McCulloch (Pierce Brosnan), a family patriarch with many secrets, and his troubled family.
Runners up: Genius: Einstein, Manhunt: Unabomber, Victoria

 Favorite album: God’s Problem Child, by Willie Nelson – beautiful and wise new music from the 84-year-old master of his craft.
Runner up: Tell the Devil I’m Getting There As Fast As I Can, by Ray Wylie Hubbard

Favorite song: According to Spotify, the one I listened to the most was Shame by my secret boyfriend, Adam Lambert. Runner up: Sure Fire Winners by Adam Lambert. (I guess it isn’t really that much of a secret.)

Favorite concert was Queen + Adam Lambert in Dallas. Brilliant and captivating rock show in the real old style.
Runner up: Ray Wylie Hubbard at the Paramount

Your turn!

Decision Fatigue

After he retired, my grandfather wore the exact same outfit every day for the rest of his life: a blue short-sleeved shirt, gray trousers, black socks, black walking shoes, and a gray tweed stingy-brim hat, all of which he would buy at JC Penneys.

A practical man or a creature of habit? Most nights, Grandpa served himself his dinner from the crockpot and watched the Huntley-Brinkley report. He got his in-depth news from TIME magazine and belonged to a mystery book club. At the end of each day, he turned in with Johnny Carson and a shot glass of bourbon.

But wait! There was a method to my grandfather’s madness. By eliminating unnecessary decisions, he freed up his energy for the things he really enjoyed and wanted to do. He spent his days hiking in the woods and swamps, searching for rare wildflowers and ferns. In his retirement, he authored two guidebooks about the plants of Delaware and the Eastern Shore, where he made his home. He also traveled extensively in Central America and in Spain to pursue his passion for rare plants (he was a retired agronomist). The sunny front room of his home was given over to a huge variety of cacti, many of which he collected when he visited us in Texas. In his garden, he grew roses and the most delicious corn and tomatoes you ever tasted, which he shared with his friends all over the state.

These days, the sheer variety of choices available to us can be overwhelming. We have millions of songs, thousands of movies and TV shows, and hundreds of cable channels. We have a constantly refreshing social media feed clamoring for attention. In a large city like Austin, we have many choices about hip and cool things to do and decisions to make about how to get there and where to park.

In their book Willpower,  John Tierney and Roy Baumeister write about decision fatigue and how the variety of decisions in our culture is exhausting us. According to their study, your willpower is like a muscle that becomes fatigued in the course of a day. If you wear it out agonizing over what to wear, what kind of latte to order, or what to read next, you don’t have much brainpower left for the things you actually want to do.

Yet another invitation to live mindfully! Put your most important work first, and simplify your life so you can do just that. Turns out Grandpa was on to something.

Today’s laugh:

Photo Mar 20, 8 11 33 AM

Today’s links:

Empathy Bad, Rational Compassion Good
Fake News: The Insidious Side of Content Marketing
B2B Content Marketers Continue to Find SEO a Challenge

Badass Culture War

Certain slang words seem to sweep through the business world every few months. Right now, “badass” is having another day in the sun. Badass women in particular are everywhere these days. They’re kicking in doors, shattering stereotypes, inspiring future generations, making noise, changing the game, and oh yeah—not appearing in your history books. You get the picture.

In that light, it’s interesting to consider the origin of the word. Badass is 1950s slang for a puffed-up, macho bully, the kind of guy who overcompensated by acting tough, even though everyone knew that he wasn’t.

How many of you have read Disrupted, by Dan Lyons? In this book, the tech journalist writes about the “bro” culture he encountered when he worked at HubSpot. What he describes is brutal, dehumanizing, and hostile to outsiders—which include women, older people, people with families, and anyone else who can’t conform to the aggressive subculture that pervades much of the tech industry these days.

I realize that when people celebrate these so-called badasses, they’re merely trying to even the score a bit. But I don’t think putting on a false face and emulating everything that has gone wrong in our corporate culture is the right path forward. It’s true that coarse, tough,  insensitive types make great competitors. But how about celebrating some of the other personality types for a change? Who knows—just maybe some of these people might be useful in business, too. I’ll suggest a few:

  • gifted
  • intuitive
  • curious
  • conscientious
  • imaginative

A fighting spirit comes naturally to some of  us. A healthy society would foster it without posturing, while still recognizing the women and men among us who have other gifts, such as working in harmony, boosting morale, taking care of the customer, ensuring great quality, and tending the flames of vision and creativity.

Today’s thought:

Photo Mar 08

Today’s links:

Life After the Robot Apocalypse
61% of Orgs Infected with Ransomware
Give Back in a Big Way

 

The Dip

Does anyone else remember the old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?” It’s about a woman struggling in the face of many regrets. This morning I was thinking about how projects (and lives) get off the tracks. Sometimes as professionals we can get so focused on accomplishing a certain goal that we can lose sight of what the whole enterprise was supposed to be about in the first place.

My business coach gave me a great little book—The Dip by Seth Godin—that contains a lot of wisdom about questions like these. Our society makes a fetish out of “winning,” but the truth is that real winners quit on things all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.

At the beginning, when you first start a new endeavor, it’s fun. You could be taking up golf, or beginning acupuncture treatments, or starting a new job or your own business or beginning a new initiative with your work. It’s interesting and everyone is cheering you on. Over the first few weeks and months, it’s easy to stay engaged.

Then “the Dip” happens. You’ve harvested all the easy wins. The long slog to getting lasting results has begun. Perhaps you have 40 pounds to go, or three years on your degree, or you have two tiny clients and none of your sales prospects will return your phone calls. Your acupuncturist poked you full of holes and you’re still in pain.

It turns out there’s a secret to success in this all-too-familiar scenario, but you have some analysis to do. Suppose you have the idea to become a great snowboarder. You’ve left the fun, awesome bunny slope and now you are falling on your butt a lot. You have three choices:

  • Tough it out and become a great snowboarder.
  • Realize early on that you’ve encountered a Dip too wide and deep to cross with the resources at your disposal. Perhaps you simply don’t have the physical capacity to be good at snowboarding. Or perhaps your motivation slips away when you realize how tough it’s going to be. Write off your losses, swallow your pride, and move on to something you’re truly passionate about.

As Seth Godin writes, either of these choices is valid and constructive. But far too many people choose option three:

  • Stupidly invest a lot of time and money trying to get good. Then quit in the middle of the Dip before it pays off.

How many times have you done that to yourself? I sure have—lots of times.

When you are in the Dip and you know what you are doing is truly worthwhile and has potential—if you know that the pain would be worth it if only you could somehow get there—then that’s when you don’t quit! That’s when you rededicate yourself to it, with all the energy you’ve freed up from bailing out of those dead-end activities. Shedding that sunk cost will invigorate you. It’s a different way of thinking, and that helps you change the game.

Today’s laugh:

photo-feb-13

Today’s links:

Stepping Back is the New Going Forward
The Hard Truth About Lost Jobs: It’s Not About Immigration
Push for a Point of View

 

 

Growth Mindset

This morning I read a wide-ranging interview with Neha Narkhede, the CTO of Confluent, the makers of the data stream platform Kafka. The whole interview is worth a read, but I especially loved her emphasis on developing a growth mindset—which I took to mean flexibility, resilience, and the willingness to change when things don’t go as planned.

I can’t think of a more important trait to cultivate in oneself or try to instill in our young people than this growth mindset. I remember reading an interview with a youth probation officer who said he could identify the juveniles who would “make it” vs. those who would spiral into a life of crime. It all hinged on the seemingly simple ability to work towards a goal. For example, suppose a young man had the goal of owning a motorcycle. In order to achieve the dream, he would be motivated to focus on the many tasks that are necessary to get the money, find and maintain the bike, manage details such as registration, insurance, and licensing, and find places to ride it and people to ride it with. Out of such small things a productive life is launched.

So it is with those of us plugging away in business. By setting goals and maintaining a positive outlook, we build skills both large and small, along with the self-confidence to dust ourselves off and keep going when we make mistakes or life gives us some hard knocks. Plus—have you ever worked with someone who makes excuses, complains, or cries victim when adversity strikes? It’s a lot more fun to work and play with someone who “rolls with the punches” and remains happy and positive.

January was great with a very well-received white paper project for one of my best clients. And I stuck with my “resolutions” about exercise and practicing a daily meditation–not bad. So what’s on deck for February? This week, I’m finishing a large catalog project. I’m actively seeking a new client or two, so I’ve got marketing to do. Plus a large project that will be under my own byline … about which more at the proper time.

Today’s laugh:

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Stuff Your Eyes With Wonder

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I’ve been reading some future-casting this week about the coming virtual reality. I see a lot of potential in this technology and a lot of fun, too. For example, who wouldn’t want to have an all-immersive concert experience with their favorite artist? Imagine enjoying all the action from your front-row seat, endlessly repeatable and all without having that annoying person yakking in the background during the ballads, or having to clean gum off your shoes afterwards?

At the same time, I can’t help being reminded of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which interpersonal relationships (much less books) were being replaced by what he called “parlor walls”—gigantic big-screen TVs that filled entire rooms. The whole novel remains a brilliant and eerily prescient take on modern society:

The television is ‘real’. It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!’

I’m leery of spending too much time consuming the products of other people’s imaginations. What would our lives look like if we  took more time to think our own thoughts instead?

Today’s links:

Our Lives Will Soon Transcend the Laws of Physics
10 Ways You’re Making Your Life Harder Than It Has To Be
Four Reasons You Hate Networking and What To Do Instead
Why Failure is Essential to Innovation

How to Come Up with Topic Ideas

Panda Photographer

Photographer Bert Hardy’s son, Mike Hardy, being photographed by Ming the panda at London Zoo, 1939 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Getty Images)

Whether you’re just starting to delve into content marketing or you’ve been doing it for a while, you’ve faced the challenge of coming up with a creative idea for that next blog post, trade article, case study, or white paper. In their book Made to Stick, science and engineering writers Chip and Dan Heath identify five factors that you can use to help brainstorm for new ideas to get the word about your product or service.

1. Simple. These days, we all live in a cluttered, noisy world, full of ideas clamoring for our attention. I read recently that for a young person to fall in love with reading, they need to be steered to books where they already know 96% of the words. Why would your busy customers be any different? But take note: a simple idea is far different than a dumbed-down sound bite. Take this phrase that I recently spotted on Facebook:

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Simple words and concept, yes—simple-minded, no.

2. Unexpected. As you consider your next piece, allow your mind to wander from the boring and obvious. What has happened recently with your customers that surprised you—or them? A case study I recently wrote for a client was all about a great project that began when their customer told them their contract was about to be terminated! What’s being talking about at conferences? What’s making the news with your suppliers? Have you had any unexpected wins (or losses) lately? Whatever has made you think may be a good idea for a new content piece.

3. Concrete. The best ideas are ones you can develop from concrete, real-world examples. Suppose you want to write a piece that focuses on how your company truly goes the extra mile for its customers. Example: One of my clients had to swing into action to help a customer make a drop-dead date just weeks after the customer lost all their equipment in a catastrophic fire. Not every article can be that dramatic. But you can take almost any abstract concept, from return on investment to data analytics—and make it come alive with practical, real-life stories.

4. Credibility. Especially when developing a long-form piece such as a white paper, you need to be a credible source of information. It’s dead certain that your prospects and customers know their stuff. Information that is honest and objective will win their respect.

5. Emotion. In B2B marketing there is seldom the chance to pen a real tear-jerker or tickle someone’s funny bone. But there is still the chance to use emotion to powerfully convey your idea. Customers want to hear about how they can do their jobs faster or better, and they love stories about how people just like them saved the day.

Once you have your idea, try these pro tips:

  • Pare your message down to the essence. You can re-purpose the extras into blog posts or other pieces.
  • Try skipping the “synergy,” “value-added,” “core competencies,” and other trite jargon.
  • Get real instead!

Bear Necessities

How many of you have seen the delightful new Disney version of “The Jungle Book “? I mentioned it to my 88-year-old father and he got the biggest smile on his face. “Mowgli? Baloo the Bear? And the snake?” It seems that when my dad was small, his mother read Rudyard Kipling’s jungle fables aloud.

Imagine writing something so original, so vivid, and so powerfully observed that it will be remembered with delight 80 years from now!


What’s hot!

  • White papers
  • Case studies
  • Trade articles
  • Corporate histories

Thought of the month

If a poet touches your soul, he gives you a sense of universal connection with the rest of the universe. Must he have table manners as well? – Theo Van Gogh in “Vincent”

How to Interview Your Customers for Case Studies and Articles

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Finnish radio report Alexis af Enehjelm interviews a man fixing a car, 1930s

Very often, the best source of information about your products and services isn’t you—it’s your customers. Many times, when I work with my clients on putting together case studies and articles, I interview both customer liaisons and selected clients. After all, who knows more about the business challenges in the industry than real customers?

A good interview goes deeper and has more advantages than sending e-mail questions or calling up for a quote. Here are a few suggestions for crafting a good interview:

  • Determine the purpose of your piece and the intended audience.
  • Set expectations with your customer as to the length of the conversation and the subject and purpose of the piece you are preparing.
  • Have a clear series of questions that gives a structure to the discussion.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Allow room for answers you may not have anticipated and time to develop unexpected points.
  • With your client’s permission, record the conversation so that the discussion can flow more naturally without too many pauses for note-taking.

An often-overlooked point: choose the right person to conduct the interview. Not everyone has the skills needed to be friendly, approachable, and good at listening. Your interviewers must be focused, able to keep the discussion on-point, and objective enough to encourage the openness that form the basis for great content.

The benefits of interviewing your clients can go far beyond the article you are preparing. You may be able to repurpose the content for blog posts or use good quotes in a variety of other pieces. More importantly, a good interview gets you thinking and creates an opportunity to really understand the customer’s point of view. Your clients may bring up issues you hadn’t considered, which could lead to more ideas for marketing pieces or even improvements in the way you do business.


It Doesn’t Just Happen

I want to share with you a couple of great e-books by Bob Mayer. When some disaster overtakes a project, have you ever noticed that some people shrug their shoulders and say fatalistically, “S**t happens.” It drives me crazy because nothing could be further from the truth!

Mayer calls failure a gift that allows us to learn from our mistakes. By examining disasters such as the Titanic, Custer’s Last Stand, and the Donner Party, Mayer shows how each seemingly inevitable disaster had many points at which it could have been averted. For example:

An organization needs Cascade Stoppers. People who can step up and put the brakes on when a leader’s ego is driving everyone into an abyss. One of the greatest safety devices in an airplane is a co-pilot who is willing to speak up to the pilot.

Custer needed such a co-pilot.

Each disaster illustrates a different aspect of failure. There is so much here that applies to ordinary projects and plans that end up in the ditch. Highly recommended!

It Doesn’t Just Happen, by Bob Mayer (Volume 1: Titanic, Custer, Apollo 13, and more)

It Doesn’t Just Happen, by Bob Mayer (Volume 2: Challenger, Pearl Harbor, the Andes “Alive!” plane crash, and more) 


What’s hot!

  • Book editing and ghostwriting
  • Corporate histories
  • Case studies
  • Trade articles
  • Blogs

Thought of the month

When you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. – Mark Twain