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).
Favorite 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
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.
Once upon a time, it was a big deal to publish a white paper. Not only did it have to be researched and written by someone like me, but it had to be designed, typeset, printed, and then mailed to the recipients. A white paper wasn’t mere “content,” a word that wasn’t in use then. It was an event. After all, there was no point in going to all the trouble of publishing this paper unless you had something important to say.
These days, I’ve noticed that my white paper clients are aware that their words are getting lost. The Internet is sloshing with throwaway content. Who has time to read any of it? My clients are turning their backs on puff pieces and looking to bring real talk back to the white paper. But as a society and business culture, we still don’t seem to be there.
Recently, one of my clients wanted to produce a paper on an extremely controversial issue facing their industry. All of their customers know that this issue exists. It is one of their primary concerns right now. It has even migrated from talk among insiders to the general public. Fear and misinformation have undermined confidence in the industry. Yet with every pass through the editorial process, the white paper was watered down. The original language surrounding the issue, gleaned from interviews and input from the company’s own subject matter experts, was “too hot to handle.” The language was massaged, softened, and made vague.
Finally the central point was removed altogether. The white paper spotlighted a non-controversial solution to the issue, which by the end was only obliquely acknowledged. Instead of a meaty discussion, customers were served yet another word salad, initially attractive but with no protein, no takeaway, and no action items.
As a pro I’m happy to create what my clients want. But I sometimes wonder where our business culture is going to find the courage to be authentic. Companies want to provide valuable information to their customers, but then let fear and distrust prevent meaningful engagement on even the most well-known challenges and difficulties. Too often we choose to write on high levels about the big picture, rather than grapple with the nitty-gritty reality that is right under our noses.
Why publish a paper if you have nothing to say?
Earlier this year, I set some fitness goals and joined the YMCA to help make them happen. But let’s face it—riding an exercise bike indoors might be a great way to beat the Texas heat, but it doesn’t give the mind a whole lot to chew on. And most of the music I love is country and Americana, which isn’t written with workouts in mind. So these days, I listen to podcasts, and now the time flies by because I’m learning and having fun.
Here are some of my favorites. I’ve included the podcast’s capsule description from Overcast (where I subscribe) and a little bit about recent episodes and why I like the podcast.
A Way With Words. A fun weekly radio show about language seen through culture, history, and family. Recent episodes tell about why we say you bet your boots and up your alley. It’s fun and funny for word nerds and would also make a great listen with your kids.
Tides of History. Everywhere around us are echoes of the past. Those echoes determine the boundaries of states and countries, how we pray, and how we fight. The most recent series was on the Hundred Years War in Europe. I am learning so much about the ancient and medieval world from this down-to-earth but substantive show!
American History Tellers. The Cold War, Prohibition, the Gold Rush, the Space Race. Every part of your life—the words you speak, the ideas you share—can be traced to our history. The most recent series was about the American Revolution as seen through the eyes of six very different people, from an Iroquois chief to a famous mistress. A new series has just started about the national parks. I love this podcast for its great depth and amazing story-telling techniques.
Backstory. A weekly public podcast hosted by U.S. historians explores a variety of topics in a fun way. Recent episodes took a look at Reconstruction, the atomic age, and climate and weather in American history. The topics are often somehow tied in with the news, but the approach is to bring you fresh, surprising, and enlightening stories, not to preach.
Stuff You Should Know. If you’ve ever wanted to know about champagne, satanism, the Stonewall Uprising, chaos theory, LSD, El Niño, true crime, and Rosa Parks … look no further. This show for those of us with curious minds has recently offered episodes on pterosaurs, voodoo, and hotel fires. So much fun variety and always something different and unexpected to chew on!
The Jungle Room. All things Elvis Presley, for Elvis fans or just fans of good music. Everyone knows how much I love the King, and I really enjoy this podcast with musings on Elvis topics such as recent episodes on the 1968 Comeback Special and Elvis’s dad, Vernon Presley. If you like Elvis and want to learn more about him, put this one in your rotation.
Do YOU have any favorite podcasts to recommend? I also love them when I’m stuck with a long commute or bad traffic. Say, I’m starting swimming lessons at the Y soon … maybe I should invest in some waterproof headphones!
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.
Favorite 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
How many of you remember the great movie A League of Their Own, starring Tom Hanks and Geena Davis? The movie concerned a group of women who became baseball players during World War II, a time when the male players were serving in the military. Tom Hanks plays Jimmy Dugan, the washed-up manager who finds his love of the game again through these unlikely champions.
I was thinking the other day about what I’ve learned since I started working with my freelance clients and how I could expand my offerings. Right now, my best clients already have pretty great baseball teams with experienced players. In my case, this means they have writing projects with specific goals, and resources lined up with the information they want to communicate. In that case, I’m the Geena Davis character—the pro who knows how to execute.
But what about clients at the level of the rest of the Rockford Peaches? These farm girls are pretty great players, too. But they’ve never done anything like this before, and they’re not quite ready to put it all together. There’s some behind-the-scenes spadework that needs to be done. This summer, I’ll be putting on my coach hat and working on some more effective ways to do that (i.e., packages) that make sense for me and for potential clients looking to take it to the next level.
What I love about A League of Their Own is that Jimmy Dugan doesn’t start out as a great coach. He isn’t really much of a leader at all. As the story unfolds, he grows into the role. He accepts his situation and begins to believe in the abilities of his players. He begins to offer them the positive feedback and constructive criticism they actually need, instead of just screaming at them. He tunes into their values instead of his own. Working together, he and the players find a way to work together and make their dreams come true.
In the end, it all comes down to the improved results on the baseball diamond. But the scoreboard is only a crude measure of success. The real story is the humility, compassion, and communication that develops between the coach and the players.
Have you ever worked with someone who made you pay a toll just to answer a question or give their input into a project? I think most of us have our war stories about that insufferable or arrogant colleague. I’ll never forget the guy who wouldn’t taking his turn washing dishes in the break room, explaining to the rest of us, “But I have a PhD!”
The truth is that people who are passive-aggressive, bad-tempered, or just full of themselves can take a surprisingly large toll on a project. Back when I used to interview candidates for my company’s technical writing team, I was known for my questions that tried to elicit the candidate’s temperament along with experience and skills. These days, as a freelance professional, I’m usually on the other side of the fence—and I’m more convinced than ever that being pleasant and sincere is a valuable skill all freelancers should work to cultivate.
Here are three assets that I think define that special something.
What do you think makes for a nice addition to a work team—someone you actually want to work with on a repeat basis?
In a conversation last week with other freelancers, one fellow writer said, “I’m looking for a client who sees a writer as a revenue generator to be maximized, rather than a cost center to be minimized.” I wondered—what would happen if we reframed the way we look at all of our business relationships. What if we stopped thinking of people as risks and liabilities, and thought of them as allies and assets instead?
As with many questions, I haven’t come up with any answers—only more questions.
In the end, I’m not sure that money, status, or titles work as goals, even in the short run. I have a lot of admiration for people who do good work and treat their fellow human beings with respect, care, and appreciation, no matter what the circumstances.
Most people prepare for the known knowns— that is, the problems we already know about —and the known unknowns—such as what projects your customers will dream up next, or what your competitors might bid against you. The most haunting problems are the unknown unknowns—the things that blindside us, the problems that are coming our way that we don’t even know about yet.
How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns? Let’s take an example everyone knows about: data scientists blew the predictions about last fall’s election, while one astute observer (former president Clinton) got it right. What did he know that that all the data scientists didn’t know? What combination of knowledge and experience led him to sound the alarm while others thought the election was in the bag? And most importantly, what could we learn from it in our own businesses and lives?
As a writer who helps people explain complex products and services, I think it’s important to remember that no matter how good it is, any analysis is just a simplified way to think about a thing—not the thing itself. Sometimes people are so in love with their own explanation that they forget that!
Former president Clinton, an old-school politico, didn’t use an analysis to predict events. If I had to guess, he reached his conclusions via full immersion in his ecosystem, taking in information from multiple sources on a constant basis. He had a baseline, sure, but he kept tuned in as costly and irreversible events unfolded. To this day, I’m always amazed how many IT projects go off the rails because the people in charge don’t want to spend the time to involve their employees and customers and tap into the storehouse of knowledge right at their fingertips.
Usually, it turns out that so-called unknowns were known to plenty of folks—just not the ones who “mattered” when the decisions were being made. Think “connect the dots.” If you don’t map all the dots, you probably won’t get the right picture, no matter how clever you are or what you decide you see in the dots that you do have.
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:
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.