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.
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Here’s the scene at Lake LBJ southeast of Kingsland. Texas Game Warden Search-and-Rescue teams are involved in air and water rescues along the Llano River. Calls for service coming are coming in one after another. Heed local warnings as flooding will continue. See our Insta Story for more views of #TexasFlood. #TexasParksandWildlife #TexasGameWardens #txwx
The flood that raged down the Colorado last month was a startling reminder that the river isn’t just a nice recreational centerpiece for Austin. It is the defining geographical feature of the entire Central Texas region. And disastrous flooding isn’t just part of history. It’s the risk we take every day for the privilege of living in this location.
I got interested in the Austin Dam Disaster of 1900 a few years back because I saw the parallels with the Austin I had grown up with and resided in today. It’s one of the great themes of Austin’s existence to be a city on the move and on the make. But occasionally, Mother Nature administers a dose of humbling reality. Watching these events unfold over the last couple of weeks was like watching the 1900 flood come to life—fortunately, the consequences this time were far less permanent.
Austin was chosen as the capital of Texas in part because of the potential water power of the Colorado. But for the first century of the city’s history, the river was more of a foe than a friend. It may come as news to Austin’s many newcomers, but Central Texas happens to be the most flood-prone region of the entire United States.
The reason? Austin sits at the intersection of the Gulf, Pacific, and Plains weather systems—a recipe for rain events of incredible magnitude. Pair that with hilly geography, thin soil, and shallow creeks and rivers. Well into the 1930s, Central Texas was subjected to devastating flooding on a regular basis. And as we saw last week, even the full capacity of the six dams and lakes operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority can only mitigate a major flood event, not prevent it altogether.
As in 1900, the 2018 flood began with an unusual series of rain storms that soaked Central Texas with the wettest September on record. On October 8, a rain bomb over the small Hill Country town of Junction dumped 12 inches into the Llano River in just a few hours, rampaging through an RV park and sweeping four people to their deaths. It was the LCRA’s job to move this water carefully through Wirtz and Starcke dams and into Lake Travis, which was specifically built to protect the city of Austin from flooding.
A week later, a weekend of heavy storms climaxed with a strong cold front. This time, the Llano came out of its banks even more disastrously. Most dramatically, the FM 2900 bridge at Kingsland was carried away by the force of the waters, and Kingsland, Granite Shoals, Marble Falls, and other lakeside communities endured major flooding. For the first time in history, all six of the Highland Lakes dam were open in a remarkably orchestrated ballet of floodgate operations. Lake Travis reached an astonishing 143% of capacity—the fifth highest on record.
Several people have asked me if the dams were ever in any danger of failing, as the “Great Granite Dam” did in 1900. Fortunately, the answer is no, that is not a realistic fear. The river is far better understood than it was in the 1890s, and the Highland Lakes dams are infinitely better designed and constructed. The LCRA performs frequent upgrades on the dams to keep them current—in fact, the river authority began work in August to replace the floodgates on Tom Miller dam at Lake Austin, one of the most extensive modernizations the dam has ever received. I believe the success of the Highland Lakes system is the most significant (and under appreciated) component in the exponential growth of Austin over the last 70 years.
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Lake Travis and Mansfield Dam stand guard over Austin. Forecast: more rain. The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900 from @arcadia_publishing #austindam #austin #atx #texana #coloradoriver #books #disasters #txwx #atxwx #texasflood #Repost @instagramtexas with @get_repost ・・・ Morning y'all, this morning's feature comes from @beeabove showing a very very full Lake Travis behind Mansfield Dam. Tag your photos and adventures #igtexas to be featured here and try and stay dry this weekend. Brought to you by your host @roamingcamera
The fallout for the city of Austin in 2018 was far short of the death and destruction wrought by the 1900 disaster. However, the city did not escape unscathed. On Monday, October 22, the unprecedented amount of silt contaminating the city’s drinking water supply caused Austin Water to issue a citywide boil water notice that remained in place for an entire week. For a short time, it was feared that the city’s water pressure might drop below the level necessary to supply the fire hydrants. Our 1900 counterparts didn’t have it so easy. Back then, residents digging out from the dam disaster had to haul water, and it was nine months before any basic utility service returned to the city.
Want to know more? Check out my book The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900, available on Amazon or at your favorite Austin bookstore. It also makes a great gift for the Austin history lover or the engineer in your life.
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?
When was the last time you truly connected with something that you read or heard? In my last blog, I wrote about the spadework it takes to craft a piece that conveys your point. This time, I want to take it a step further and talk about how you can write a piece your readers will actually remember and maybe even treasure.
This time, I thought I’d try something a little different and illustrate the point through something we can all relate to — the classic Bob Dylan tune “Blowin’ in the Wind.” A song has many of the same components as any piece of writing. For example, a few years back, I wrote an online exhibit about the Texas Railroad Commission, a state agency that for most of the 20th century, regulated the oil and gas industry in the Lone Star State. Sounds really exciting, right? Actually it was!
As it turns out, the story of oil and gas in Texas embodies some of the biggest and most complex ideas around, such as economic freedom and personal liberty, but through a story with all the high drama of novels like Giant. Don’t believe me? I can tell you that one of the greatest compliments I ever received came from a man who told me he read the exhibit whenever he felt lonely and depressed. He said it connected him with the power and majesty of something larger than himself.
And while not every piece of business writing tells this kind of story, it is possible to be much more memorable than most of the content being pumped out on a daily basis. What makes “Blowin’ in the Wind” so creative and relevant 55 years later, while its contemporaries like “Surf City” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” are gathering dust in the oldies bin? It starts with putting the pieces in place before you ever start putting words on the page.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” asks the listener a series of hard questions, and challenges the idea that the constant babble of opinions holds any answers. In fact, the song tells us that we will not find any solutions if we keep hiding behind our fixed positions. Most people first heard the song as it was performed by Peter, Paul, & Mary at the 1963 March on Washington. It invited people to face reality, put aside their differences, and work together for a better country. Pretty powerful stuff.
To be memorable, you need to find an idea that actually matters—not just to you, but to your audience. To find that idea, think about what your audience is talking about out there in the real world. What questions are they asking and what emotions are they feeling? Is there an issue they are scared, mad, or confused about? How can you shed light on that issue with real stories and examples? Here is where you will find your idea.
2. Believe in it.
These days, people are used to hype and wise to the ways of being sold. This is why companies like Nike are succeeding by standing for something. Regardless of whether you think it is the right thing, it has resonated with people looking for authenticity. It is interesting to learn that Bob Dylan himself became cynical about “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but Mary Travers never did. Her vulnerability and sincerity demonstrated passion, love, and commitment and was critical to the success of the song. The same is true for your piece. Once you have found your message, think about how you can convey your commitment to it in a way that is accessible to the audience and includes them and their concerns.
3. Find the emotional heart of the story.
Once you have found a good idea that you can commit to, it is time to put on your writer’s hat. How can you convey the message in a way that taps into the emotions of the audience? Funny or touching stories are great, but to be truly memorable they need to fit into an overall narrative that leads the audience where you want them to go.
In the Railroad Commission piece, I structured the narrative around dramatic turning points and played up the stakes with historic quotes like this one from the French oil minister at the close of World War I: “As oil had been the blood of war, so it would be the blood of the peace.” In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the entire song hinges around the simple metaphor that an abstract concept (answers) can blow in the wind like leaves—something everyone can relate to.
But there is more to the song’s structure than that. Instead of hitting us with everything all at once, the song asks us to think about some simple matters:
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Before leading us on a journey where the questions become increasingly uncomfortable, ultimately asking us:
How many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
As with getting your point across, creating a piece that is truly memorable starts with a thoughtful approach. Solid writing techniques such as storytelling, analogies, quotes, and imagery will give you punch, but if you don’t have a solid idea as the foundation of your piece, ultimately your words, my friends, will be blowin’ in the wind.
Have you ever been excited to pick up an article or report that seemed like it was going to be full of great nuggets, only to find it was mostly fluff? Or so disorganized or dense with jargon that it was a chore to wade through? Have you ever reached the end without coming away with a single action item or one good takeaway?
What’s worse is knowing you’ve written one of those pieces. Writing is a time-intensive endeavor. No writer sets out to write something that is going to be ignored. So why is it so hard to develop an idea into a point? What’s the difference between a powerful, vigorous piece of writing and one that fails to convince? The secret lies in doing the groundwork up front.
Look at it this way. You wouldn’t host a backyard cookout without deciding first who to invite, would you? How many people are coming? Will you need iced tea, soda, lemonade, beer? Is it a potluck or are you making everything? How will people know when to arrive? Have you been to the grocery store yet? How much meat will you need? Are any of the guests vegan? Where is the ring toss set? Where is everyone going to sit? What if it rains?
Even something as simple as a small barbecue needs quite a bit of planning before you actually start to “cue.” The same is true of writing. A lot of the process takes place before you actually start slinging nouns and adjectives onto the grill. Try these four steps to sharpen your idea into a point with real impact:
A final thought—these days, most of us are drowning in content. To set yourself apart, invest the time and effort up front to craft a powerful and worthwhile message, and see what a difference it makes in your writing.
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!
In my last post, I gave some tips on how to gather great feedback. Today I’d like to share a technique for evaluating and incorporating the feedback once it’s in. It isn’t always easy to distinguish feedback that is tough but fair from the inevitable potshots from the peanut gallery. How do you work in the comments and questions raised by your reviewers so that your content actually becomes stronger and more valuable?
Author Mark Murphy of Leadership IQ offers up a valuable framework with what he calls the FIRE Technique. It’s a great way to evaluate feedback with a growth mindset. To learn more, check out Murphy’s book Truth at Work: The Science of Delivering Tough Messages.
FIRE stands for Facts, Interpretations, Reactions, and Ends. The process works like this. A fact is something that is objective and verifiable. Obviously, you want to incorporate corrections by your subject matter experts. It’s also your job to discard any errors introduced by reviewers. I once had a reviewer who tried to overrule Strunk & White on the matter of further and farther!
Frequently, you’ll receive feedback that reads initially as opinion, such as “too many big words!” or “put a positive spin on it!” Take the time to dig in and look for the factual component behind these comments.
What is the right reading comprehension level for your company’s pieces, anyway? Has it ever been discussed? Are your customers experts or laypeople? Is the piece technical or does it provide more general information? Run it through a readability calculator and see what you find out. Maybe your material really is coming in an expert level when it needs to be more basic. This gives you the facts you need to simplify your sentence structure and replace some of your favorite three-dollar words (every writer has ’em!) with some two-cent words.
And what about the “spin” comment? Is your piece about an industry danger and the consequences? Even if your company is providing the answers, maybe a rewrite could present the same information while focusing on solutions and ways customers could be proactive. This feedback can be objectively analyzed and then addressed through skilled rearrangement of story structure and word choice. Taking the time to understand it and correct it is well worth the effort.
Let’s face it, though—not every comment warrants the same level of consideration. For example, sometimes you’ll get feedback such as “It didn’t grab me.” This is non-factual and subjective. If this is an isolated comment, it isn’t particularly valuable unless it’s coming from a decision-maker, in which case follow-up is essential. Vague or emotional reactions (either your own or those of a reviewer) should be stripped out or pursued to their factual basis, if any.
Finally, as Stephen Covey so wisely taught in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, keep the end in mind. In this case, the end is a readable piece that will be valuable to customers and represent you and your company well. By conducting a review cycle and then analyzing the feedback for factual, actionable improvements, you can incorporate valuable changes and produce a final piece that the whole team can stand behind.
It is impossible to sharpen a pencil with a blunt axe. It is equally vain to try to do it with ten blunt axes instead. – Edsger Dijkstra
In my experience, one of the most dreaded phases of any communications project is the feedback stage. Sometimes it seems like no matter how carefully you get buy-in at the inception of the project, and no matter how thoroughly you edit and proofread at the end, there is always some fly in the ointment during the final stage of technical review.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With thoughtful management and prioritization, you can get great feedback from your expert reviewers that actually improves your case study, white paper, or article, instead of bogging it down in pointless scope creep and rework. Here’s how.
In my experience, a successful feedback stage starts with establishing clear ownership for the project. Usually, this includes two people: the writer or marketing specialist who is responsible for the words, and that person’s manager or director with final say over the project. The reviewers are then selected to give input in their area of expertise; for example, you may want feedback from the technical staff, executives, the design team, and the sales team about how the piece works for them.
You will want to allow enough time for reviewers to read the piece and send you helpful, useful comments. A week should be enough for a short piece, while up to three weeks might be necessary for an ebook, website, long white paper, or the rollout of a new initiative. A word to the wise—longer is not always better. Most reviewers are diligent, knowledgable, and want to help, but they’re still busy and human. That means that more often than not, they’ll wait until the last minute before even taking a look! A shorter deadline (while your project is still “hot”) can sometimes result in better feedback than a long one.
Most reviewers stay in their lane and offer comments on their specific area, though it’s not unusual for concerns to overlap or for a new concern to surface during the review process. That’s OK—that’s what the review process is for! Approach the comments with a growth mindset and see how they can be incorporated to improve the piece.
There’s no doubt that it can be tough to receive negative feedback. But setting aside emotion and being open to a critical response can often result in a better piece in the long run. However—there will be times when you find a suggestion conflicts with your professional judgement. Usually, communicating with the reviewer that there are factors they might not have considered is enough to resolve the issue. If not? It’s time to seek a ruling from that manager or director designated with the final authority over what the piece should say.
Did you notice? I glossed right over the “how” of incorporating reviewer feedback. That’s a major task in itself that requires care, thought, and professional judgement. And it will be the topic of my next blog post.
It’s easy to be self-righteous about plagiarism. After all, how hard can it be to acknowledge your sources and put forth original ideas? In reality, it’s not as simple as it sounds. After all, we all study our fields to see what ideas are current. Where do you draw the line between responding to trends and playing follow-the-leader? Where does the line fall between research and wholesale lifting of other people’s thoughts?
Let’s break it down. According to Merriam-Webster, plagiarism is the act of passing off someone else’s words or ideas as your own, without crediting the original source. So first things first: giving credit to your sources is not only the right thing to do, but it boosts the credibility of your own content. Your customers know which industry sources are high-quality and credible. You can work your research into your pieces gracefully by using quotation marks, footnotes, or phrases such as “A 2016 study by the Institute of Peanut Butter Science uncovered a startling fact.”
Citing your sources is essential, but it is not enough. A good rule of thumb is that your paper or case study should be at least 85% original material. In my experience, the most common cause of unoriginal ideas occurs when organizations decide to create content, but won’t do the heavy lifting upfront to generate some original and thought-provoking ideas.
My take: The kind of long-form materials I specialize in, such as white papers and case studies, work best when they spring from your own experiences. It helps to approach each project as part of a focused dialogue you are having with your customers. Invest some time in thinking deeply about them, what they want to learn about, and what you have to offer that is unique. Your customers want to read a good story about how you solved their thorniest everyday problems. And there’s nothing unoriginal about that.