Archive for the ‘Communications basics’ Category
Originally published in December 2012 Auctioneer magazine
By Carl Carter, APR
Years ago, when there were still Volkswagen beetles on the road, I saw one on which someone had installed a Mercedes hood.
It made me laugh, but the image has stayed with me, because it strikes the balance we all need as we brand and communicate ourselves and our businesses. The guy wasn’t trying to be somebody he wasn’t. But he was signaling the world that he intended to be something bigger. I never actually met the owner, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up driving a real Mercedes.
Most of us face tough choices in communicating our businesses, but my most reliable guide over the years has been a bit of advice I got from my dad as a kid: Be who you are. We want to present our best face to the world, but it still has to be our face, or we may regret it later.
It’s not an easy principle to follow. We see a piece of business that would really put us on the map, and we worry that “who we are” won’t be enough to get it. We’re tempted to reinvent ourselves, even if that means turning away from what’s always worked. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for evolving, growing, and updating our image. But I’ve learned over time (sometimes the hard way) that the best way to build an identity is to make sure it reflects the reality.
Here are a few checkpoints to help you put the “Be who you are” principle into practice:
Know who you are. Step back and get the big picture to understand what you do best, how you’re perceived, what works for you and what doesn’t. Being an SEC football fan, I’ve enjoyed watching the rivalry in recent years between LSU Coach Les Miles and Alabama Coach Nick Saban. Between them, they’ve won three out of the last five national championships. But their styles differ markedly. Miles earned his nickname of the “Mad Hatter” because he loves to run trick plays and flake kicks. He’s good at it, too. Saban, on the other hand, has little patience with that sort of thing. He’d rather have his guys run straight at you, and when he tries a gadget play, it frequently has a tragic outcome. Two great coaches, each doing what he does best, and winning a lot of football games by being who he is.
Check your alignment. Once you have a handle on who you are, assess whether you’re communicating that or something else entirely. (You may be surprised.) Spread your brochure, web site content and other marketing pieces out on a big table and ask, “Is this me?” (I’ve even been known to scatter them all around the floor of a big room and walk around until I was convinced I had a handle on it.)
Don’t fake it. I’ve never seen a company prosper over the long run by misrepresenting itself. (I’ve seen quite a few make a big splash and vanish into thin air.) Folks do some funny things to try to match the swagger of a competitor. I’ve seen them rent fancy cars (locally) and hire temporary workers to look busy when a prospect is coming to visit. I even knew of one who chartered an airplane just so he could say he “flew private.” Give your prospective seller a little credit. If he sees through the fakery, you’re probably dead in the water. On the other hand, if you’re up-front about your track record and resources, he may be just wise enough to take that into account.
Don’t let your reach exceed your grasp. You don’t want to end up looking like a cocker spaniel that’s caught himself a truck, so don’t promote capabilities you don’t have. If you’re going after a piece of work and you’re not really sure you can pull it off, consider letting somebody else have it. But if you’ve done the homework and you’re sure you’re up to the task, don’t be afraid to step up in class and go for it.
Don’t worry too much about your competitor. Of all the mistakes I’ve seen — and made — one of the easiest is to get off the playbook by overreacting to what we perceive as a competitor’s advantage. When we do that, we’re letting the competitor dictate the rules of the game, and that’s a good way to lose. Play your game, and let him play his. If you’re better, you’ll win more often than not.
Make a commitment. Expand the “be who you are” principle to your entire business, even beyond your communication. If “flash and dash” is your style, don’t try to be the buttoned-down executive type. By contrast, if your success comes from low-key hard work, make sure your brochures, web site and proposals reflect that. If who you really are isn’t enough to sell the prospect, he’s probably not going to be happy with you anyway, and you’re better off moving on to more fertile ground.
Be who you are.
Copyright 2012 National Auctioneers Association
For at least a couple of years now, I’ve been getting calls — sometimes monthly, sometimes weekly and occasionally daily — from a company called GlobeNewswire, a NASDAQ-owned firm that’s in the business of distributing press releases. I expect a high level of behavior from those who serve this particular market, because I like to think that my fellow public relations professionals are more aware of the rules regarding marketing communication. On my most optimistic days, I like to think that PR pros show more respect for the unofficial rules of good communication.
So it has continually surprised me that this ostensibly respectable firm apparently maintains no “do-not-call” list and does not follow the email guidelines set out in the CAN-SPAM Act.
I’m pasting the latest email — and my reply — as an example of what not to do. It is worth noting that there was no “unsubscribe” link, and to my knowledge I’ve never had any communications with this particular person. If I had, he’d know that I had requested no further communication.
From Global Corporate Solutions:
I trust you are well and a great weekend. I know it has been some time since our last communication, so I wanted to reach out to you in regards to your press releases.
As discussed previously, NASDAQ Globe Newswire offers you the most competitive rates in the industry (averaging 30% less than our competitors), while maintaining the same, if not better distribution than the other tier one wires (Business Wire, Market Wire and PR Newswire).
I would like to offer you a significant discount on your next release, in order to give you the opportunity to experience our exceptional distribution and services.
Your first 3 releases will be at a 30% discount; State, Regional or National.
Below is a link for you to register with us: (There are NO FEES or obligations when registering or fees or obligations to try our services)
Please feel free to contact with any questions. Thanks for your time and I am looking forward to working with you. J
You people have badered me to the point I’ve begun trashing you on Twitter and considered turning you in to the FCC, since I get calls almost weekly despite always giving the same response: “Put me on your do-not-call list.” Obviously, you have legions of commission-only salespeople who have no respect at all for the preferences of the people they’re trying to sell. It is also clear that you either do not maintain or reference a DNC list, or that you have a total disregard for such. Please advise me as to how I can convince you to go away away and leave me alone?
I am not kidding at all about the possibility of an FCC complaint.
Note that your email was sent to “—-@—.com” - an address I haven’t used in years. By emailing you from this address, I am NOT giving you permission to put me on any mailing list, print or electronic.
This morning, Mashable published a story about how Forbes writers are now writing and posting their own stories, without the benefit of editors. This afternoon, this Forbes story showed up on my screen:
Money that is disbursed will almost certainly be dispersed as well, but the two are not the same thing. If Forbes can’t afford editors any more, maybe they should at least pop for some dictionaries.
It’s time to lay off the photo filters.
Seriously. Just say no. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the photofinishing business, where everybody went to great lengths to produce pictures that faithfully represented reality. Maybe it’s because I’m color blind, or because I’m just old-fashioned. But whatever the reason, I’ve hit my saturation point with pointless sepia tones, fake embossing, drop shadows, torn edges and other “enhancements.”
Most of the enhancements I see these days look like the heat damage we used to get when somebody left their film in the car on a hot July day. Or when they found a roll they’d left in a camera five years ago and sent it in for processing. In those days, our term for it was “stupid photography,” not filtering.
We seem to hit one of these fads every year or so. In the 1990s, “Shockwave” (a predecessor to Flash) appeared and made it easy to put animated images on web sites, and suddenly we all thought we had to do it. Later, we saw Flash all over the place. Then Apple had a lover’s spat with Adobe (which makes Flash), and decided not to allow it on the iPad. Now the world’s beating a path to the doorway trying to get rid of it. Every time a new version of PowerPoint comes out, we get a new set of wipes, dissolves and other transitions, and everybody who gives a presentation seems to feel a need to use them all.
These days, the obsession with photo filters seems to be driven by Instagram, a social media service that makes it easy to color everything yellow (or gray, or blue, or …) and upload it for use on Facebook, Twitter and other social sites. There’s nothing wrong with the service itself, and I use it now and then. Just get over the compulsion to mess with the photos.
Take good pictures. If the color is a little off, use Photoshop or some other tool to tweak them. But if you have to “enhance” every photo you take, you need to either get a better camera or get better at using it. Or maybe take pictures of prettier things.
If everything’s “special,” nothing is.
The wrong question to ask: “Why not?”
The right question: “Why the hell would I?”
One of the most perceptive TV commercials I ever saw was for a television manufacturer. “Here’s the demo,” the announcer said, “but remember: You’re watching it on YOUR TV.”
That was a long time ago, but it illustrates the futility of using the wrong medium to carry your message. Even Jesus warned against putting new wine in old wineskins, though hardly anybody knows why. (Hint: It’s about fermentation and CO2 emissions.)
About four hours into a delightful morning of judging entries in a national social media competition, I had an “Aha!” moment when I realized that we were judging social media efforts (all of which were designed to be seen online) by looking at paper printouts stuffed into three-ring binders.
It’s bad enough to have to fool with paper under any circumstances, now that we’re all addicted to digital media. Sitting around a conference table without a computer in sight, I found myself frustrated with entries that included 200-character URLs leading to YouTube videos and web sites. (As an aside, this was one of the few times I’ve ever actually wished somebody had thought to use QR codes, so I could have at least looked at the links on my phone. But not a single entrant thought to do that.)
In retrospect, it would have a made a lot more sense (and been a lot less expensive) to have the entries submitted to a secured web site, where judges could see the materials in their native ecosystem. But we’ve always used paper-stuffed binders for contest entries, so naturally that’s what we used.
Because of the confidentiality of the judging process, I can’t say much about the entries themselves, except that they ranged from the truly awful to the startlingly creative.
We saw a ton of contests and giveaways to generate online buzz. A lot of these are already starting to feel like trendy tactics that will fade quickly. (Some things that looked really clever in early 2011 just look like spam today.) It also seemed everybody and his/her mom was targeting the “mommy bloggers” who write about things like food, sneakers, coupons, diapers and snotty noses.
Oddly, there wasn’t a single Kleenex campaign. Oh well.
Lean, finely textured beef doesn’t sound so bad, does it? At least not unless you’re a vegetarian. According to Penn State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences, it’s lean meat that used to go to waste.
Pink slime, on the other hand, sounds downright … well, you know.
The terms refer to exactly the same thing. The “pink slime” moniker was coined by a USDA whistleblower named Gerald Zirnstein.
Here’s what it actually is, according to Penn State’s Edward Mills. We’re always looking for ways to avoid wasting food, and there’s always been lean beef that remains on the carcass and can’t be removed with a knife, so it has gone to waste. Now it is removed in a process that involves heating minced trimmings to about 100 degrees, then putting the material into a centrifuge to separate the lean from the fat. To make sure it doesn’t carry any dangerous pathogens like E. coli 0157:H7 or salmonella, it’s briefly exposed to ammonia.
“There is not a safety issue here,” said Mills, quoted by Western Farm Press. On the other hand, he said, “if you are offended by something that is sticky and gooey and red, and in addition you know that it came from meat, you might find it disgusting,” he said.
Then again, a lot of the stuff we eat is equally disgusting if you look at it closely at the wrong stage of its production. We may love a good brat, but we really don’t want to know what’s in it. We don’t fret over organic carrots and potatoes that are buried in the dirt and fertilized with cow dung. We pay extra for them.
As with nearly anything these days that can be talked about in the limits of 140 characters, pink slime has become a big deal. Almost overnight, we’ve had a barrage of back pedaling fast food chains, school systems and others. The Agriculture Department said last week that schools can stop putting it in food next fall. Chalk up a big loss for the beef cattle industry, mainly because of a label.
Hardly anybody complained about lean, finely textured beef, but who wants to eat pink slime?
A healthy humility is good, but our English teachers set us up for trouble when they came down so hard on putting other people first in our writing. Everybody knows it’s best to say “My wife and I went out to eat,” rather than the crude and self-centered “Me and my wife went out to eat.” But if the wife and I are the objects in the sentence, it’s all about “me:”
They invited my wife and me to the event.” (It’s not “the wife and I.)
The easy way to tell is to see how it sounds without the wife. Nobody would say, “They invited I.” At least, I’ve never seen it happen. So like I said, it’s all about “me.”
Let’s move on to my other favorite whipping boy: Using “myself” when you real mean “me” or “I.” Here’s how it looks when we confuse them:
Somebody brought over some chicken for Eddie and myself. (It’s “Eddie and me.”)
Eddie and myself proposed a compromise. (It’s “Eddie and I.”)
This is an easy one. If you don’t use “I” earlier in the sentence, it’s almost never correct to utter myself.
In short, it’s:
Somebody brought over some chicken for Eddie and me.
Again, the easy way to check yourself is to take out the words in between. I’ve never heard anybody say “Somebody brought over some chicken for myself.”
Golfers are the biggest suckers ever. Most will drop $500 or more on a new driver without batting an eye, when the real problem is that they don’t know how to swing it. Empires are built around the typical golfer’s obsession with finding a magical new gadget that will lower his handicap.
When it comes to communicating our businesses, we’re wasting far too much time and money on new tools when we need to get better at using the old ones. In the late 1990s, a client wanted to rename his company to a dot-com name, even though its only connection to the Internet was that it had a website. Another a client wanted to go “all in” on the synthetic world of “Second Life,” because that was the shiny new toy. More recently, a very smart fellow asked what I thought about his beginning to use “Bitcoin,” an experimental digital currency.
We have too many choices, and we catch ourselves doing things just to show that we’re “hip” and on top of the new technology.
But nobody cares if you’re hip, especially if your business has poorly trained people who can’t explain what they’re selling. They don’t care of your website has the latest and greatest coding if they can’t find their way to the information they need. They don’t care if you’re using the latest hot social network if they can’t understand what you’re saying.
Fortunately for golfers, the rules only allow 14 clubs in the bag. Otherwise, some would be carrying so many that their carts would sink in the ground.
If you really want to communicate better, here’s a much better plan than shopping for new toys:
- Inventory the tools you have. You may be shocked at just how many things you’re doing — poorly — already. One of my favorite tools is the communications audit, which is especially useful in large corporations.
- Ask yourself what you can quit doing. Don’t try to cut back across the board. Look for things to cut out entirely. More isn’t necessarily better.
- Write out your communications goals and define the desired outcomes in terms of action. Publishing a newsletter isn’t a goal. Getting appointments with six people because of its content is.
- Distill your core messages into five or six simple sentences, e.g., “YA Widgets have the longest warranty in the business.” These should be messages that, if you can communicate them well, should accomplish your communications goals and bring you more business. If you can’t do this, you’re so unfocused you shouldn’t try to communicate anything at all until you figure it out.
- Decide how to translate those messages into content that your prospective customers will welcome and gladly consume. Give them advice. Track trends. Connect the dots in their industry. Tell success stories.
- Select your tools and use them. I’ve found it helpful to think in terms of “carrying capacity.” I commonly use newsletters and blogs for longer content, such as analysis, advice and case studies, and use microblogging services (Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Facebook) for pointing people to them. If you need to show something visually, consider using video and embedding it on your blog.
I don’t know if anybody’s noticed, but Twitter’s about to turn six. Facebook’s eight, if you count the time it was open only to students. But as a place everybody could go, it’s also about six.
And in those six years, it’s quite possible that more uninformed nonsense has been written — with greatest of authority and confidence — than in the previous 60. There are lots of reasons for it, but one of the biggest is that there was no defined body of knowledge to start with. We’ve been making this up as we go along. So any idiot could declare himself a social media expert, and plenty of imbeciles did.
A major problem the experts share (I don’t pretend to be one, by the way) is a lack of balance. They suffer from what I call the Hammer Syndrome (when you have a new hammer, everything looks like a nail). Eyes get wide and the experts go all utopian on us, presenting Facebook and Twitter as the answer to every marketing question.
That’s why I’ve been enjoying the rare perspective of Scott Stratten in his book, Unmarketing. Let me point out that except for less than 280 characters of Twitter exchange, Scott and I don’t know each other. I bought the book the old fashioned way, from Amazon. All I’m getting out of this little plug is the pleasure of maybe helping you do a better job of connecting with your customers, prospects or first grade chums.
With that out of the way, I’m free to say that Stratten’s a pretty smart guy who understands that life is bigger than Twitter. Bigger even than Facebook. Best I can tell, he actually lives in the real world.
I’ve been saying for 30 years that that nothing good happens until somebody talks to somebody. It may happen on the phone, over lunch or at the gym. At their core, Facebook and Twitter are another way to talk to each other. That’s easy for me to understand, because I lived blissfully in a Twitter-free world for 52 years. That’s not to say we didn’t have our own social media. Way back in the 1980s — well before the World Wide Web appeared in 1994 — we had 300-baud dial-up modems and DOS-based systems like PCBoard and RBBS, which let us create bulletin boards that worked about as well as anything we have today. I hung out on several of them and even ran a couple. (A side story: One of the local boards in Birmingham, run by a deputy sheriff, was called America Online. He sold the rights to the name for a few thousand lousy bucks. You can probably fill in the blanks.)
Whether online or in person, we had conversations.
Scott’s word for it is engagement, and it’s as good as any. I like it because it reminds us that Facebook and Twitter aren’t just places to dump a stream of our blather out into the world in hopes that somebody will see it and come rushing to buy from us or our clients. Social media is just one way we engage. Others include the ones we’ve known and ignored all along — great service, listening, and finding ways to help other people get what they need.
This is good, balanced, common-sense stuff. Communications basics, combined with the very best advice I’ve seen on how to use social media effectively.
Buy it. Read it. Find the balance.
What would you say if I told you there are nearly 12 million Republicans who react positively to the term, “liberal?”
OK, I can’t prove any of that, exactly. I’m committing the statistical sin of projecting some results of a recent Pew Research survey onto the 2008 presidential election results to make this point: Our assumptions about what various words mean don’t always reflect the real world.
Pew found that 20% of Republicans surveyed responded positively to the word, “liberal.” Just for fun, I went back to the 2008 returns and found that there were 59,948,000 Republican votes cast for president. If indeed 20% of those reacted positively to “liberal,” that would come to 11,989,600.
Would that affect how we choose and use our words? Keep in mind that it’s 2.4 million more than the 9,550,000 votes that swung the election.
Here’s another shocker from the other side: 47 percent of the liberal Democrats react positively to the word “libertarian,” even though today’s Libertarians pretty much advocate dismantling every big government program with which liberals are identified.
The Pew organization’s findings serve as a challenge to all of us to avoid assuming that our own attitudes, definitions and reactions match those of the people with whom we’re communicating. This is especially true in light of our increased tendency to seek out people and sources of information that support our views, and to avoid those that don’t.
Consider that among the three major TV news networks — Fox, MSNBC and CNN — only CNN even pretends to be non-partisan. Talk Radio, likewise, seems polarized. There doesn’t seem to be much demand for “down-the-middle” commentary.
Even Facebook promotes this. We “friend” people we like (these tend to be folks we agree with), and within that group, Facebook tends to highlight posts from people who, in the computer’s mind, seem to express views similar to our own. We think we’ve got an ear on the world, when it may be just an echo chamber.
(Digressive note: How did we let “friend” morph into a verb, anyway?)
We communicators work with words. Sometimes we write them, sometimes we speak them. We may even sing them.
We say a picture’s worth a thousand of them, and that can be true, especially for persuasion. The entire Civil Rights Movement turned on a few images of dogs and fire hoses. Images of self-immolating Buddhist monks and bodies at My Lai hastened the end to the to the war in Vietnam. And no image of our lifetime has carried more emotional punch than those of the World Trade Center coming down.
But for communicating critical and complex messages, we’re pretty much stuck with words. (Infographics are hot right now, but they’re just a combination of words and images.)
So it’s not a bad idea to pick the right ones, and that’s a lot harder than it looks. Everybody starts by looking up a word in a dictionary, as if that proves anything. Dictionaries never come close to keeping up with the day-to-day use of many of our terms. The lexicographers can give us an idea based on its use historically. But they are terrible guides to the emotional impact of various terms. They tell us what a word denotes, but rarely what it connotes.
The Pew survey focused on political words, but the message applies to nearly everything we say. I recommend reading the full report.