How to Gather Great Feedback

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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.

 

How to Avoid Plagiarism

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.

Announcing My New Book, “The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900”

5cec2c9c-8ee7-4e23-b0ae-0fc4781c6f9cI am so pleased and excited to announce that my new book, The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900, is now available! Pre-orders are underway and the book’s release day is January 29–next Monday!

Part of the Images of America series from Arcadia Publishing, this book tells one of the great forgotten stories of Austin history–how a little town of 15,000 people built the largest dam ever constructed in the 19th century, anywhere in the world. It’s a story about dreams, and hubris, and Central Texas weather. Most of the research was conducted at the Austin History Center, and the book contains dozens of historic photos from the Austin History Center, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Texas State Archives, and the Briscoe Center for American History, among others.

As a lifelong Austinite, I grew up in a city still celebrating the taming of the Colorado by the Highland Lakes dams. Aquafest attracted thousands each summer to celebrate the existence of Town Lake. A few years back, I learned that Red Bud Isle, now a beloved dog park, was formed from the wreckage of the old Austin dam. As I delved into the subject matter, I discovered that the Austin dam disaster of 1900 not only illuminated the journey of Austin from dusty frontier capital to modern-day tech magnet–it embodied the ambition and hubris that even then characterized the city.

I’ve always been fascinated by our unique weather, and the drama of the dam’s failure is the centerpiece of this story. I’ve learned over the years that people really do love to discover their own history. This was something I had never heard of, and it has so many fascinating aspects–politics, engineering, geology, disaster, and the sheer grit it took for our city to come back from a catastrophe that was as much self-inflicted as it was an act of God.

In 2016 I learned that Arcadia Publishing was looking to add some more Texas titles and I approached them with the idea of this book. The City of Austin and the Austin History Center gave permission to use their material, which makes up the majority of the images, and we are grateful for their generosity.

I hope you will enjoy this book as much as I did putting it together. The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900 is available on Amazon, directly from Arcadia Publishing, and will be available at your favorite Austin bookstores including BookPeople, Book Woman, and Barnes & Noble.

Please check out the events calendar! I would love to see all my friends at the book launch party on February 18 at BookPeople or any other of my upcoming “book tour” events! There are several more in the works, and I am actively seeking more local speaking engagements–feel free to reach out.

How to Sound Like An Expert

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The wisest have the most authority. – Plato

These days, we’re all swimming in more content than we can possibly consume. Like the rest of us, your customers have become adept at filtering out the noise and junk. So how do you ensure the content you’ve worked so hard to create doesn’t just get thrown out with the trash?

One way is to write with authority. Naturally, you know what you’re talking about. But do your words support your message, or get in the way? In this article, I’ll share five tricks writers use to signal readers that what they are about to read is believable, genuine, and worth their time.

  1. Create action. Even if your subject matter seems dry—say, regulatory compliance—you can put the action at the center by using active voice. After the incident, the drugs were placed behind enhanced physical security is passive. The compliance team did all that work and doesn’t even get any credit! To make the sentence active, try After the incident, the compliance team worked overtime to beef up security, putting drugs with street value “behind bars.” Notice how the second sentence describes the people and scene precisely, and even hints at the organization’s values and vision. The information seems real—and therefore, reliable.
  2. Involve the reader personally. Back in the day, the voice of authority spoke without the personal pronouns (I , me, we, and you). The information revolution and the need to be user-friendly broke down that barrier in all but the most formal business reporting. Try picturing the one person most likely to read your article or white paper—then address them as “you.” Example: Our latest tomato-sorting technology lets you sort and rank each tomato by color and freshness. Your customers will be happy and you’ll avoid costly spoilage.
  3. Show your work. To create the sense of authority, it’s essential to include some solid research and quotes from subject matter experts. Depending on the scope of your effort, you can use the Internet and online databases to credibly weave in facts about the problem you’re addressing and how other organizations have tried to solve it. For longer pieces (such as lengthy white papers), consider expanding your research to books and journals in your field.

And regardless of scope, take the time to interview at least one expert. These chats take preparation. For example, just to create a simple case study, you must determine the right person to interview, prepare yourself and your expert on the subject matter and scope, conduct the interview, transcribe your notes, and then select quotes that support the point of your case study. But the payoff in authority is well worth the effort.

4. Choose specific words. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—Mistakes were made. Doesn’t sound very authoritative, does it? Now consider this one: The outage began on Monday at approximately 3PM PST and affected three of our installations. The problem was patched at 8:15 PM PST. About 20% of users will need to download an additional patch; if you are one of the affected users, you will receive an email with detailed instructions.

The revised text uses words that are precise, clear, and specific. When in doubt, refer back to the old journalistic maxim, and be sure you tell the reader who, what, where, when, why, and how. The more specifics you can include, the more the reader will perceive your piece as authentic and genuine.

5. This one is a real writer’s secret! Most people like to be consistent in their ideas. If you want to persuade your reader to take action or change their minds, create a piece that starts with ideas that are widely accepted in your field. Once your reader has bought in to agreeing with you, you can introduce your points that are more controversial or that involve taking action or spending money.

In the end, writing with authority is all about respect for the reader and for your own message. With time and energy, your content will build loyalty, extend your influence, and ensure a long-lasting relationship with customers who embrace you as a trusted resource.

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!

How to Win Influencers

This week it was my privilege to moderate a panel discussion with three master Toastmasters on the subject of crafting relevant and compelling presentations, and I got some great ideas for applying the same techniques to business communications as well.

Sometimes as marketers we’re so busy sharing tips and tricks that we forget that it’s the fundamentals of great writing that win the eyeballs and hearts of busy influencers. First and foremost is understanding your audience. What do they care about? It may not line up exactly with what you want to “sell” them, so consider carefully what your goal is with the piece you’re developing. Is it an article that will build your credibility? Is it a white paper that gives them ideas on how to solve a thorny business problem? Is it a case study that shows them specifically how one of your solutions works? In every case, be outward-looking and customer-focused as you hone your message.

Secondly, you can spend a lifetime just mastering the basics. Does your piece have a title that grabs the interest of your target audience? Do you lead with a strong opening that speaks to their concerns? Do you distinguish each point and develop it carefully and with respect for the readers’ time? Do you wrap it up with a strong conclusion and call to action?

Whether your presentation is spoken or a written piece such as a case study, white paper, or ebook, you’re communicating, and you want your message to stick. Spending most of your time thinking and wordsmithing may not look that glamorous, but it’s the way to go to craft a message that sticks with your audience. And some of us actually enjoy it!

Today’s laugh:

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A League of Their Own

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.

Creativity Secrets of Les Paul

“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.

Today’s laugh:

Photo Apr 19

Today’s links:

Did you know cavemen were already dealing with “Big Data” issues?
The Human Factor: Cybersecurity’s Forgotten Conversation

Being Nice is a Skill

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.

  • Thoughtful. In today’s collaborative environment, a cutthroat operator can wreak havoc on a project. Look for someone with an encouraging and supportive mindset. A thoughtful person is respectful from the beginning and a good listener who is focused on solutions and moving the project forward, not directing the spotlight onto themselves.
  • Generous. Even in a hard-charging environment, you’ll want to bring on board people who share (rather than hoard) their ideas and wisdom, and are generous with praise, thank-yous, and recognizing the contributions of the entire team—those “below” as well as “above.” One big red flag: someone who puts conditions on their cooperation.
  • Funny. Don’t get me wrong here. When I was on the hiring team, I steered clear of would-be standup comics and their thinly-veiled aggression. On the other hand, having a good sense of humor is a huge asset. All projects benefit from a person who is positive, light-hearted, curious, and knows how to laugh and smile.

What do you think makes for a nice addition to a work team—someone you actually want to work with on a repeat basis?

Today’s laugh:

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Case Studies: How to Get in the Right Mindset

Have you ever gone to a conference and had to sit through endless presentations that were badly disguised sales pitches? Then, instead of relaxing and networking with your peers at the mixer, you were button-holed by salespeople from other companies, all hoping you were their next hot prospect. Let’s face it—it doesn’t take long before you just grab a few more cheese cubes and head for the elevators.

Many companies have turned to case studies to better demonstrate their value to prospects and customers. A case study puts the spotlight on a customer and how you solved their problem. But how can you make sure that you don’t fall into the sales pitch trap and end up boring or alienating your audience? For the right mindset, keep these three points front and center:

  • You’re the expert—not the hero. With a case study, you can demonstrate what made you uniquely qualified to solve a problem without coming on too strong. The spotlight’s on the customer, and you play the role of the mentor in their journey—a trusted authority that comes along at the right time to help advance the action.
  • Emphasize one value proposition. Was the client facing budget cuts? Geographic challenges? Inadequate data to make decisions? Whatever the challenge, center your case study around the process your customer undertook to find you, but don’t overcomplicate it. Outline in concrete terms how their partnership with you solved one key issue.
  • Be professional. A great case study isn’t a task you can knock out in your spare time or delegate to an intern. A professional writer knows how to zero in on the problem and the solution using the customer’s own language. The result is copy that is direct but never desperate, and not reliant on industry jargon or spin. A great copywriter knows how to distill the features and benefits of your interaction with the customer into a story that resonates with prospects facing a similar challenge.

A final tip: most people are tired of being sold, and wise to the tricks of the trade. Don’t sugarcoat your case study in sales language. This is the time to be real.

Today’s laugh:

Photo Apr 20