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:

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Making an Impact

When you’re busy, it’s easy to get so caught up in the details of what you’re doing that you forget the whole reason you’re doing it. Recently I was looking back on the customers I’ve served the last year or so, and it was fun to thinking about making a difference.

I’m a pretty practical person with a lot of experience in traditional businesses. Most of my work comes from companies that offer IT solutions that solve practical, real-world problems from detecting fraud to checking out library books to managing local elections. As you can see, the end users of these solutions are experts in their fields, not computer geeks. My actual customers are usually marketing managers and directors in charge of content, marcom, or demand generation. They need to offer these end users real, substantive information, and the projects are usually pieces like white papers, case studies, or trade articles.

However, IT companies are not the only organizations that need writers. Because of my unique background in the cultural heritage arena, this past year I did two major projects for government. My largest single project of the year was writing a very extensive e-commerce catalog for a public museum. I also did a large research project for the 100th anniversary of the Texas Department of Transportation. My government customers have varied titles, but are concerned with outreach that is accurate, inviting for the public to read, and controversy-free.

Finally, I work on book projects, which I’m hoping to expand in 2017 and beyond. I worked closely with an old Austin family to create a corporate history of a legacy Austin business—a great project for a company anniversary or to celebrate the retirement of a founding executive. I also contributed research and editorial services for several book projects. Want to propose or submit a chapter to a business anthology? I can help with that, too.

As a one-person shop, I can generally handle only about 3-5 clients at any given time. I’m currently scheduling into the summer and looking for 1-2 new clients. I’d love to talk to you about your writing needs.

Today’s laugh:

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How to Bring a Freelancer Into Your Company Culture

Are you a marketing manager who is swamped with content writing needs?

Um, does the bear live in the woods?

Odds are that you’re always playing catch-up to generate the blog posts, newsletters, trade articles, and white papers that would really connect you with customers and some great leads. But you might still be hesitating about bringing in a freelance writer like me to help generate some of your content. How could a freelancer possibly get up to speed on your products and customers? How could she understand what makes you special? Wouldn’t it just be more trouble than it’s worth?

The truth is that it’s all about communication—the very thing that got you where you are today. Here are a few ideas about how to find the right freelancer for you.

  • Have a chat about your company’s values, goals, and objectives and see if he or she gets it. The same freelancer that fits a hip downtown company creating apps may not be the right fit for your 50-year-old family-owned manufacturing firm, and that’s OK.
  • Look for someone who asks the right questions. When I first meet a new prospective client, usually by phone, I ask a lot of questions, such as “What is your first project? Who is the target audience? What are their hot buttons? What’s unique about your product or service? Who is your competition?” and many more. When the freelancer asks good questions, you can be sure that their quote or estimate for what it will take to do the work is well informed.
  • Look for a long-term asset. Companies often make the mistake of looking for the cheapest way to solve a short-term problem. By doing so, you’re missing out on the best part of hiring a freelancer, and that’s developing a long-term relationship with someone who understands your business and is as loyal as any employee. Plus, because they generally work with multiple clients, your freelancer is likely to be exposed to approaches, ideas, and ways of thinking that you may not have considered.
  • Embrace the difference. A freelancer is a different animal from your employees. Freelancers are entrepreneurs who have voluntarily assumed the risks and rewards of running their own businesses. You’re bringing in a person who is motivated and innovative. It also means they may be booked at times with other clients. When you find a great freelancer, consider a retainer fee for the hours you need each month, or work together on a communication plan to make sure she can always jump in and help as needed.

With good communication and clear direction, bringing a freelancer into your team may feel like the best decision you ever made. Want to know more? Give me a call. I’d love to see your project on my summer calendar.

Today’s laugh:

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