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Comfortable language

October 14, 2017
Monroeville courthouse

Photo: Andrea Wright (CC)

The courthouse in Monroeville, hometown to Harper Lee,
author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”

One of my all-time favorite books continues to provoke modern audiences. Harper Lee’s masterpiece “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been removed from Biloxi Junior High School’s reading list as of last week.

District vice president Kenny Holloway says, “There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable, and we can teach the same lesson with other books.”

That’s a shame. While I get that books often use words we might avoid in casual conversation so as not to unnecessarily hurt others, they inspire discussion about who we are and what we could be. Context makes a big difference: Does the author intend to illuminate the human condition, or merely poke blindly at people’s sensitivities?

It’s a purely subjective exercise. One district’s standards might not represent every parent in the area. Certainly not when it comes to evaluating literature and language and decency.

Students from that school won first place at the National Beta Club Junior Convention in June in Orlando in the Book Battle. The competition involves an hourlong written test on 12 books, including Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” and Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief.”

I should note that both of those books have also faced upset parents and removal from curricula around the country.

While some students thrive when presented with challenging literature, others will never the know the joy of Lee’s insightful writing, the pain of a community ripped apart by fear and hatred.

We as writers must choose our words very carefully. Not so much as to avoid censure or offense, but to connect with our audience, even in unsettling ways. That is the human condition.

Our language must ring true, even if the ideas presented make for an uncomfortable audience.

• • •

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What’s the next big social media network?

October 9, 2017

Photo: (CC)

Social media is where the money is at, right? So rather than passively wait for the Next Big Thing, I’m going to build my own.

I call it Doodad.

Because hundreds of social networks already exist, mine will need to stand out somehow. The huge selling point for Doodad will be passivity. What could be simpler?


Photo: Fdecomite (CC)

A tiny implant in your forehead will take care of everything. Just place the Doodad on a table or other flat surface, then bang your head rapidly onto the device for installation. Easy!

Because you’re lazy, you don’t have to go through a cumbersome registration process. Doodad will crawl through your existing social media profiles, create your account and log you in automatically.

Doodad’s forehead cam captures every moment of your day, including photos, selfies (every time you pass a mirror), video, infrared (for nights) and X-ray (people behind walls should be transparent). Your best (and worst) moments will upload to the network for everyone to see. Bonus: Start livestreaming whenever, wherever — in 3D and 4K using 5G.

Checking Doodad requires nothing more than blinking: Your timeline feeds directly into your brain, with images and sound available during blinks and whenever your eyes are closed.

Stop fretting over composing updates. Doodad scans your thought patterns and posts them in Outbursts. Hate the driver who took your parking space? Worried about your hair? Crushing on your bartender? Panicked over a persistent mole? It all goes online in milliseconds.

Even replies and comments no longer need your conscious effort. By scanning your brain’s lizard impulses, along with thousands of previous comments, Doodad formulates the harshest retort before you can form an opinion and posts it in your friends’ updates. Finally, all of the digital shouting and bickering without wearing out your keyboard.

The EgoBoost option allows you to target your updates to those who dare disagree with you. Automatically share your platitudes on hunting, child rearing, nuclear power, GMOs, charter schools, that neighbor who leaves the curtains open, water rights, taxes and millennials to those jackals who really need to hear it from you.

Play games, watch crazy viral clips, send private messages and creeper notes, gasp at everyone’s ugly kids, take in a few (hundred) ads, complain, beg for Likes and shares, subtweet. Best of all: It’s completely free.

And if you have privacy or security concerns about Doodad, don’t worry. It will post those publicly as well.

Doodad is the perfect social media channel for you because it does all the work. All you have to do is breathe.

Sign up today!

Weird but fun places to blog

October 2, 2017
Space Needle

Photo: Oran Viriyincy (CC)

People blog in the weirdest places.

They probably wouldn’t even call it blogging. But it is, even if few recognize the genre.

A friend of mine evacuating Florida with his family (and a neighbor family in tow) took time out from driving for hours to update all of us on Facebook. He wrote long posts, he answered questions, he received Likes and comments.

He’s blogged before, but has moved on given the limits of his schedule. Still, a lot of people found themselves reading his ad hoc posts from the road.

You blog where you feel like it.

Certainly many Twitter users have composed threads (complete with photos, links and videos) that — when combined — make for a … blog post. I liken it to a Tumblr post chopped into so many pieces.

You blog where you feel like it.

I’ve seen long essays contained in one or more screenshots, then shared on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. That’s a blog post, too, albeit one that’s not searchable.

You blog where you feel like it.

When users string together photos and videos (really short ones) into Instagram Stories and Snapchat Stories, guess what? I had Instagram power user Russell Hooks document August’s Y’all Connect conference on our Instagram channel, and naturally, he put together a great Story with glimpses of the day.

I would count that as a blog post, one that I would’ve stumbled over trying to film and share it.

You blog where you feel like it.

These corners of the Internet are worth exploring. They open up even more options for companies that want to reach fans and customers in different ways. A lot of corporate blogs are stiff and no fun — but sharing ideas and information through these alternate channels could be the spark badly needed.

Crafting a great message is important. How we deliver it is as well. Let’s take a closer look at those weird spots and understand how we can best infiltrate them.

Where to start blogging right now

• • •

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Raised on radio

September 25, 2017

Photo: Robert Ashworth (CC)

What is radio?

If you had asked me growing up, it would’ve been a handful of local stations on AM and FM, with a few extra AM stations at night. Every house had multiple radios: portable ones, clock radios, giant stereos, factory models in cars, even pocket-size ones with optional earphone.

For a lucky few, listeners could pick up nearby pirate radio stations (I still love to watch “Pump Up the Volume,” a 1990 Christian Slater flick about a high schooler’s secret basement broadcasts). The 1990s gave rise to satellite radio, with Sirius and XM providing hundreds of channels of music by genre.

The early days of the World Wide Web provided a new DIY format: Internet radio. Listeners could use an app such as RealAudio or connect directly to streams from all over the globe. Nowadays, we can connect through our computers, phones, tablets, car wifi, smart personal assistants (Alexa, Google Home), smart watches and probably a few other devices I can’t remember.

Radio is also:

  • Recordings of broadcasts made with an app.
  • Podcasts by anyone.
  • Podcasts of radio broadcasts and shows.
  • TV shows of radio programs.
  • Streaming services (Pandora, Spotify).
  • YouTube streaming.

I ask about radio because it makes us think about how communication technology grows and evolves. Terrestrial radio may be the original, but many of us listen to music and talk throughout the day on formats never imagined in decades past.

What is television? What is texting/instant messaging? What is blogging? We’ve seen this newer channels transform into unexpected variations.

We may not be able to pin down a simple definition for radio, but we can adapt to the formats. We can come up with creative ways to monetize the formats, through advertising, sponsorship, membership and more.

As long as people have ears, they can tune in. Are we tuned in?

• • •

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In the beginning: Revisiting blog posts for fun and profit

September 18, 2017

Photo: Mon Œil (CC)

I’ve lost count of my blog posts. It’s probably around 7,000, but the exact figure doesn’t matter.

I should go back and read what I’ve written.

I spent a week reading through a friend’s blog in chronological order. She started in 2004, a year before I did. It’s fascinating to see this glimpse into her life, preserved online for as long as she keeps it open.

Failing to heed my own advice to re-read our own old posts, I will devote reading time to my library of posts on multiple sites. I may cringe, I may find typos, but it’s an exercise in measuring growth as a blogger and finding the gems among the dross.

What are the benefits for brands revisiting their old posts?

  1. A training exercise for new blogging team members.
  2. Compile for white papers and ebooks.
  3. Share in social media as evergreen info.
  4. Inspiration for new posts, including updated best practices.
  5. A hearty laugh.
  6. An evaluation on whether posts reflect the brand then and now.
  7. A closer examination of all reader comments.
  8. A renewal of our vow to serve readers, fans and customers through better blogging.
  9. Creating permanent pages for the most visited posts.
  10. A re-evaluation of marketing strategy based on past performance.

Be fearless and dive into the archives. Bloggers should invigorate their institutional memory. After all, we did it all for posterity, right?

P.S. For WordPress bloggers, this simple hack makes it easy to read in chronological order from the very beginning.

• • •

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Communicating intent in customer service

September 10, 2017
gas station

Photo: Mike Mozart (CC)

I think about customer service. Like, all the time.

I consider it from the receiving end, talking with company reps, chatting online, dealing with clerks in person. Each encounter tells me this brand cares about me (and often, does not care about me).

And I consider the customer service I give. Is it meaningful? Does it reflect my brand? Are my intentions clear?

I’ll use an example most of us deal with on a weekly basis: gas stations. Most of the customer service we experience at these stations is average: We show up, we pump gas, we pay, we leave. We might grab the receipt, we might run in for a beverage, we might squeegee the windows.

Our customer service isn’t shaped by full-serve attendants (except New Jersey and Oregon) or really much human interaction at all. But we have clues all around us.

When I must run inside to get a receipt from the clerk, he’s friendly and accommodating. But it’s still an inconvenience, especially when the same station consistently has a broken receipt printer at the pump. Where is the love for the customer?

When the squeegee bucket is bone dry or missing the actual squeegee, what does this tell the regulars? Or a screen blaring infotainment and ads while we’re pumping gas?

People aren’t dumb. We know when we’re considered suckers who need gas vs. human beings who want to spend money with the best businesses. We pick up on subtle indicators to understand our role as customer and exactly how brands hold us in esteem or contempt.

As brands, we may not always understand how our customer service relies on every touch, every encounter — from the moment a customer pulls up our website or walks past our display window. But we must try.

Customer service, like reputation, takes a long time to establish well and only one little mistake to ruin. We communicate it through our signage, our facilities, our greeting and our follow-through.

Let’s spend a little more time thinking about how we communicate that service intent and how we can improve in all the little things.

• • •

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Exercises for keeping writing skills sharp

September 4, 2017

Photo: Laura Blankenship (CC)

Writers who focus on specific areas of writing need ways to keep their skills sharp. If all we write are grant proposals or marketing emails or white papers, we may stumble when having to switch up.

As a former newspaperman, I had opportunities all the time to write in different ways: newsroom memos, headlines, photo captions, employee assessments, committee report, opinion piece, teasers, briefs and more. It’s good training and forces writers to think about their audiences and their needs and expectations.

Alas, I don’t have a rag to publish these days, so I’ll have to push writers to come up with exercises to practice their craft. One game is “Six-Word Stories”: Participants craft a good story using exactly six words.

  1. Threat of hurricane ruins beach trip.
  2. Old dog thinks he’s a pup.
  3. Nuclear warriors worry their weary citizens.
  4. The football bounced between the players.
  5. He popped the question. She squealed.
  6. Bored pupils awaited the ringing bell.
  7. Zombies killed time more than brains.
  8. Self-driving cars sped along without passengers.

I gave myself 5 minutes and came up with eight stories. (I kept tripping up because I’m used to counting syllables, not words, for my daily haiku.)

Writers don’t need specific assignments, just a blank space to fill with words. They take the time to hone their craft, even when merely exercising their creativity.

Keep writing, and tell me about the best writing exercises.

• • •

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Tweet tweet! Live-tweeting with style and substance

August 28, 2017

Live-tweeting an event is deceptively easy. Many do it, few excel at it.

We see it during popular TV shows and awards shows, about football games and breaking news. The best live-tweeters provide context and multimedia content that’s easy to follow and digest. I insist on having a designated live-tweeter for events I hold — it’s basic customer service.

To do it right at a conference or meeting, follow these tips.

Jen Barnett

Jen Barnett takes a break from live-tweeting Y’all Connect
earlier this month to share an update on Facebook Live.

Be prepared. Have a schedule of the event on hand, plus a list of speakers including Twitter names and links to their resources. Keep a charger and backup battery on hand: Live-tweeting may give few opportunities to charge up, and no power means no more tweets.

If you’re serving as the official conference social media rep, set up a back channel with organizers to share event news, such as changes in schedule and rooms or announcements about wifi and breaks. Log into the event’s Twitter account (and other social channels if needed) to test everything.

Pro tip: Have a text file with a few canned tweets and schedule if needed. These copy-and-paste nuggets can thank sponsors, mention upcoming sessions, promote sales and so on.

Tweet selectively. It’s easy to fall into transcribing a talk, but it’s better to summarize or snag the most helpful tips. If followers want a play-by-play, point them to a livestream.

This forces live-tweeters to pay attention and make judgments about what to share. It also opens up some good options. I’ve tweeted interesting slides; links to articles, videos and books mentioned; even editorialize on the information given by the speaker.

Pro tip: I’ve found it easier to live-tweet from a computer rather than a phone. It allows me to have multiple tabs open, and do quick Google searches for resources mentioned by the speaker. Plus, I type faster than I text.

Help with hashtags. Following the event hashtag yields plenty of tweets available for retweeting. Elevating the other live-tweeters in the room is important: It shows they are being heard and puts other perspectives front and center. I also use retweeting to give myself a little breather during sessions.

Naturally, use the event hashtag for all your tweets. And include other relevant hashtags.

Pro tip: In addition to following the hashtag, monitor other key searches, such as the event name, event Twitter handle, replies and DMs. The live-tweeter has an opportunity to answer questions about the seminar as well as basic event info (where the bathrooms are, if slides will be available, etc.).

Have fun. Live-tweeting is a tremendous opportunity to talk with a lot of people at once. We can provide needed info to both people who couldn’t attend as well as guests sitting next to us. Having fun can be infectious.

It also allows our personality to shine (even when tweeting officially on behalf of the event). Live-tweeting shows that we care enough to put the info out there and field questions in real time.

The tradeoff is that it requires focus and discipline, which takes quite a bit of mental energy. We’re almost always on duty, which limits our chance to network. And it requires finesse, balancing all the information and opinions with the needs of followers.

Try live-tweeting, and see if it doesn’t help you earn new followers and elevate your own status. Yes, it’s an ego boost, but service is really the key component. By sharing what we see and hear, we can amplify the lessons online and provide a record of any event worth documenting.

• • •

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Video: Let’s share our why-how-what

August 21, 2017

Video: “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” by Simon Sinek

A simple inversion of how we sell our brands can lead to much greater success.

So argues marketing consultant Simon Sinek in his 2009 TEDx Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” He takes the basic elements of how we define our companies — what, how and why — and explains how they resonate with customers.

Using the Golden Circle, Sinek points out that starting with why defines a purpose: “People don’t buy what you do — they buy why you do it.”

Golden Circle

I could tell you that I’m great at blogging and digital marketing, or I could share my why: I want to help companies communicate smarter and more efficiently.

Those brands that believe in smart and efficient communication will find me. Then I can show how I do it and what the results are.

Watch the video and try it out with your own marketing plans.

• • •

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your company’s goals? Contact me today …

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Auto-play videos are (still) ruining websites

August 13, 2017

Photo: C.J. Sorg (CC)

You know how many gas pumps have auto-play video screens because you’re trapped filling up?

That’s how I feel about auto-play videos on your site.

The user experience is terrible, as though the user never enters the equation. What gets the brand clicks and views outweighs how the user interacts with the site.

I’m slightly more forgiving of sites that auto-play videos muted, including Facebook and Twitter. It’s almost an art form creating compelling videos that work well with the sound off and the captions on. But it still causes data usage problems for users. Thanks, Mark Zuckerberg.

Consider how you set up your site for users — desktop and mobile — and whether it’s meant to attract or repulse them. Are you making decisions to help the user or the brand?

I feel trapped when I need to read an article, and one (or more!) auto-play videos attack, whether at the top of the page, somewhere in the sidebar or even in an embedded ad. I can either click away or try to shut down those infernal nuisances.

What video in the universe is so damn important that it must be playing the moment the page hits your screen?


500 posts!

August 6, 2017

Wade Kwon

I tend to forget celebrating victories, big or small. I couldn’t even remember if I had done any milestone posts on this site (I had, for No. 400).

So, a brief pause to mark 500 posts in 8 years. Hooray!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future, and my place in it. What do I want to create? What’s the best way to get there? Is blogging more a habit, a chore or something else?

I’m fortunate to have some room to choose. I’m lucky that I like to plan ahead. And I love to dream big.

I don’t know what’s around the bend, for my work, for my life, for my soul.

I won’t stay too long on this little hilltop. The journey continues, and I can’t wait.

Is ‘17776’ the future of storytelling?

July 30, 2017


Summer can be a slow time for football fans, but perhaps the perfect opportunity to wow them with a nice story.

Meet “17776.”

SB Nation writer Jon Bois put together this terrific piece of writing and digital media for a 25-part serial. That’s right, a serial, a practice not seen since the ancient ages of newspapering and Charles Dickens (unless we count comic strips).

Netflix releases entire seasons of shows at once. Many news sites publish their longform stories and multi-part series at one time. It seems almost audacious in 2017 to release such a story over an 11-day period in July.

Certainly, we’re all familiar with the magazine-style format of long stories on the Web: images that span the width of the screen; dynamic auto-play videos and images; breakout charts and quotes; clutter-free design with a single center wide column of text. The chapters of “17776” invent their own format: easy to take in, yet not quite the usual scroll-and-read wall of words.

The surprise novella has been a hit, scoring 700,000 unique visitors and 4 million page views in under 2 weeks. Who would’ve thought a work of fiction would garner such a huge following on a site devoted to sports news and commentary?

Without giving too much away, “17776” is a sci-fi take on our world almost 16,000 years in the future. Blend sentient machines, a love of spectacle and equal parts humor and pathos, and present in a combination of text dialogue, videos and gifs.

I encourage everyone to check it out, even those who don’t care for football. It shows that with a little imagination, a great story can be told in great ways. We have barely begun to tap the multimedia capability of our sites.

Reading “17776” not only gives us an insight into humanity’s possible future, but also our gift for sharing ideas creatively in the present.

• • •

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Let’s go to Y’all Connect 2017!

July 23, 2017

Wade Kwon, Y'all Connect 2015

Forgive me if I’m a little distracted these days, but my conference is coming up in less than 3 weeks.

Y’all Connect 2017 will be here in Birmingham soon, and I’m working overtime to get ready. I hope you’ll join us.

We have seven speakers — five of whom are returning favorites — to talk about digital marketing and more. I’ve got lots of fun stuff on the agenda, and not a lot of time left to put it in place.

It’s Aug. 11 at Rosewood Hall in Homewood, just $149 for the day ($249 for VIP tickets). Feel free to ask me anything in the comments below or through the contact form.

(And I’ll be on ABC 33/40’s “Talk of Alabama” to talk about Y’all Connect. Catch me between 9 and 10 a.m. Wednesday.)

 Ticket sales end Friday, so order today …

Register Today

No excuses

July 17, 2017

Harry Leslie Smith

Meet Harry. World War II vet. Author. Speaker. Traveler. Podcaster.

At 94, Harry Leslie Smith (shown above) has taken his activism to the Web with a podcast started in April called “Harry’s Last Stand” (after his 2014 book of the same name). He uses his platform to share his political and social beliefs, to rally young voters in Britain to his cause.

Audio: “Harry’s Last Stand: Ep. 7, Austerity has
the blood of Grenfell Tower on its hands”

If a survivor of the Great Depression and the Second World War can take up podcasting, what’s our excuse?

I mean, I hear a lot of excuses from people regularly about why they can’t blog, why they can’t invest in social ads, why they can’t update their website, why they can’t make videos.

I’m tired of their excuses. Heck, I’m tired of my excuses.

Excuses don’t cut it, so let’s stop making them. Let’s instead search for ways to move from ideas to action.

It won’t be easy. It might not always work as planned. It might even … fail.

But we can’t use excuses to sabotage our own communications efforts. Not when the technology is available to all. Not when the costs keep going down. Not when the answers to most of our questions are so easily within reach.

Harry uses technology to reach new audiences, and he already has built-in audiences through his books and his talks. What are we waiting for?

The Globe and Mail: “Why a 94-year-old war veteran
started a podcast to save democracy”

• • •

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Hard questions about Facebook, from Facebook

July 10, 2017
Facebook app

Photo: Eduardo Woo (CC)

If you ran Facebook, what would you change? And would that make the social network better on the whole?

Let’s find out.

Facebook has launched its Hard Questions outreach program, looking for answers on complex issues, such as fighting terrorism and hate speech. The company has also posted articles on how it currently handles these areas, including techniques and drawbacks.

Anyone can email their responses to the questions to I’ve offered my solutions below — feel free to weigh in on the comments.

1. How should platforms approach keeping terrorists from spreading propaganda online? Reddit faced this challenge for years. After a laissez-faire approach, the company decided to crack down on troublesome groups — for example, /r/The_Donald.

I would advocate a two-stage approach. First, label all propaganda as such, but allow it to remain visible on Facebook. If that approach appears to fail, move on to the second stage: Removing it consistently.

2. After a person dies, what should happen to their online identity? The profile is amended with a note that the user is deceased (after verification by staff member) and locked till ownership is determined by probate or local applicable law (which probably doesn’t exist yet in most places).

3. How aggressively should social media companies monitor and remove controversial posts and images from their platforms? Who gets to decide what’s controversial, especially in a global community with a multitude of cultural norms? Companies should respond to flagged posts/images in a timely fashion, using local teams to make the call. They should also offer users the option to toggle between access to safe, moderate or all posts, giving us the power to pre-filter content (with all users younger than 18 set to “safe”).

4. Who gets to define what’s false news — and what’s simply controversial political speech? Facebook once had in-house editors to make these decision, as news organizations do. Bring them back. And as a backup, conduct regular polls among volunteer users who identify their political affiliations.

5. Is social media good for democracy? It’s neither good nor bad — it’s a communications channel. Political movements use phones for polling, push polling, propaganda, voter drives and more.

6. How can we use data for everyone’s benefit, without undermining people’s trust? Be transparent and be skeptical. Show everyone how the data is collected, analyzed and used. Trust people to evaluate those methods and the data. Always ask questions about the integrity of the data and the methodology — blind faith leads to poor decisions and outcomes.

7. How should young Internet users be introduced to new ways to express themselves in a safe environment? I’m not a parent, but isn’t this something that parents, teachers, pastors and coaches already do? Don’t we teach children how to express themselves positively and effectively, whether it’s online or in real life?

Facebook has been lax in reigning in damaging content. While it’s important for the network to listen carefully to users, it’s more important for it to take action and share the results.

I’d rather see the fringe users flee than everyday users like you and me.

What do you think? Share a comment below.

The minimalist blog

July 3, 2017

Let’s declutter. Simplify. Clear out. Focus.

Minimalism isn’t just for the real world. Blogging has embraced simpler aesthetics, too.

What does minimalism mean when it comes to blogging? Do Facebook Instant Articles, Accelerated Mobile Pages and Apple News format count as minimalist? What about responsive themes that handle desktop, tablet and phone screens with a flexible design?

I think about design a lot. We all do, usually when it fails us, oh say, for example, looking at an article on a mobile screen. Because, it’s just … terrible.

sample mobile page

What good is “content marketing” if the content is so hard to see?

Even desktop versions can taunt us with pop-ups, gigantic headers, ads that foul things up behind the scenes with JavaScript, persistent navigation/sharing bars and antagonistic design (to favor advertisers over users).

No wonder so many bloggers are considering and implementing minimalist templates.

Zen Habits post

Zen Habits has been doing minimalism long before it became trendy. Look at the post above: no ads, no color, one font, no comments, no images(!), short paragraphs, simple headline. Even the URL is clutter-free:

That site tells us a lot about blog minimalism beyond the design. Focus on a single idea. Write a clear, succinct headline. Use simple, easy-to-grasp sentences.

Putting a minimalist blog together requires two goals in every aspect: Removing everything that doesn’t belong; and keeping focus on the mission, not on what could also be added. They seem like easy tasks, but they require a ruthlessness against bloat and ego.

iPodIt’s like one of the early versions of the iPod: five buttons, one click wheel, one hold switch. That’s all the controls needed to pick an album, a song or a place in the song. Getting to that version required discipline at Apple to keep the interface as simple as possible.

Can we keep that up every day on our blog? We start with an uncluttered design. We have no plugins except for the extremely necessary (Akismet anti-spam, SEO).

We add posts that have a straightforward layout, good readability and clear point of view. If we use an image, it’s sized as small as needed. We stick to a simple publishing schedule: Mondays and Thursdays. We spend much more time editing and paring down than we do writing.

We make it easy for new visitors to find out more information about the site and how to contact us.

That about do it? Anything we’re missing?

Minimalism is a trend and also a state of mind. It’s a love for the reader so deep that we’re willing to take extra steps to make it appear clean and approachable. That means diligence against adding one more thing, and a merciless attitude to taking things out.

Expert Marie Kondo has guided many people in making life easier through this decluttering process. We could be happier bloggers if we took a similar approach to our beloved sites.

• • •

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The virtue of brevity in writing

June 26, 2017
church sign

Photo: Au_tiger01 (CC)

Write tight.

It’s a skill that pays off repeatedly. And it wins audiences over for respecting their time and their attention span.

Journalists learn that skill through trial and error. Those on the print side write captions, headlines, briefs, teasers and other teeny morsels where a few words must convey as much as possible. Those on the broadcast side write scripts that must hit short time limits, plus chyrons (the onscreen labels) that appear for a few seconds.

Bloggers face no such restrictions. Armed with unlimited real estate, they ramble to their hearts’ content. Pity the poor reader who stumbles into a thicket of asides and unformed thoughts.

Brevity isn’t the happy accident of a taut first draft. It’s the rigorous application of a writer’s least favorite tasks: editing and revising. Editing asks what can go and what doesn’t belong in the first place. It also interrogates each sentence for meaning and clarity. Revising forces us to take what we think is a perfectly fine turn of phrase and try again (and harder, dammit).

It’s OK to be wordy in that first draft. Better to embrace flow than to stumble over starts and stops.

We see our writing, faults and all, more clearly through the process of editing and revising. We learn how to get to the point quicker. And that helps us in media new (memes, tweets, hashtags) and old (bumper stickers, billboards, commercials).

The old 5 B’s rule for speeches applies to writing: Be brief, brother, be brief.

Poynter: “How I stopped worrying and learned to murder my darlings”

• • •

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An ongoing dilemma: Facebook as a news source

June 18, 2017
reading the phone

Photo: Seniju (CC)

I get a lot of news from Facebook. Some of it directly from peers (a dog is loose in the neighborhood; a wreck is blocking the interstate). Some of it from media outlets and brands, and most of it via links to outside sites.

I don’t recall when I signed up 12 years ago if I expected it to become a primary source of news for me. But here we are.

Having worked in the news biz, I’ve paid close attention to how people stay informed, and how a certain percentage simply isn’t interested in the news (current events, financial markets, international incidents, celebrity gossip and the like). We’ve had newspapers, newsletters, magazines, television, radio, websites and email bulletins. Now, we have apps, text alerts, social media, comedians, bots, foreign agents, forums and groups, podcasts, content farms and fake news purveyors.

These are confusing times.

Singling out Facebook is easy: It’s the biggest platform and still one of the busiest, even if the average age of users continues to climb. Depending on who you ask, it shaped the 2016 U.S. elections (many people) or had no influence whatsoever (says founder Mark Zuckerberg).

Certainly, bloggers and news outlets have tried time and again to leverage the channel to build traffic and to make money. It’s made Facebook very rich and left most of us struggling for everyone’s attention.

We can’t rely on Facebook to police the news feed. It goes against the company’s economic interests, and its record is spotty at best, whether relying on algorithms or humans or both. We can’t rely on each other: We all have connections who lack common sense and critical thinking skills.

And we can’t rely on ourselves. We lack perspective. We live in filter bubbles. We have confirmation bias. We misjudge our intelligence and gullibility.

Here’s what we can do:

  1. Stop using Facebook, or at least, stop relying on it for news.
  2. Stop watching 24-hour cable news.
  3. Read a book. Preferably one that expands our horizons or challenges our most deeply held beliefs.

Facebook is simply a new twist on an old problem: Consumers staying informed while weeding out the junk. The platform makes it easier to share, but we’re still stuck with sorting out what matters, what rings true and what harms everyone.

More on Facebook’s efforts to reform.

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Talents and blogging

June 12, 2017
drawing lessons

Photo: Lakshman (CC)

To be a successful blogger, these are the talents most helpful to the job:

1. Organization: Many corporate bloggers are solo acts. As chief writer, editor, marketer, photographer, tech support professional and janitor, a blogger must keep many plates spinning. And that’s in addition to other regular duties.

2. Creativity: Anyone can crank out blog posts. Most are dull and uninspired. It takes imagination to discover interesting angles and new approaches to excite readers, fans and customers.

3. Courage: Waiting for the perfect idea encourages apathy. Securing all the approvals can kill momentum. Yes, it’s often mandatory, but we hold ourselves back even when no one else is.

4. Flexibility: Interviews fall through. Drafts go missing. A blogger deals with setbacks that journalists face, but not necessarily with all the resources of a news organization. Being improvisational can go a long way in turning that lemon into lemonade.

5. Competitiveness: The right motivation can push us to climb mountains or master ice sculpting. Sometimes, a competitive spirit can fuel a blogger’s drive to write more, edit more, rewrite more, promote more and network more.

A successful blogger gains these talents:

1. Writing: The more I write, the better I get. Before I came to blogging, I was a reporter, columnist and editor. Blogging gave me an outlet for more topics, more formats and more experiments. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without 7,000 posts under my belt.

2. Speed: Working online gives a blogger a sense of urgency, turning around ideas into posts more quickly. Jumping on trends, shooting out social media promotions, teaming up with partners — they all require speedy reflexes.

3. Connectedness: Reaching out to bloggers on similar topics can aid a blogger is so many ways: new ideas, different perspective, piggyback audience and more. Calling upon them as peers is a true mark of success.

4. Expertise: What better way to learn more about a subject than to blog about it every week? It requires curiosity as well as an attentiveness to customer questions and needs. Blogging makes us smarter.

5. Authority: People can recognize when someone knows their subject matter — and sniff out phonies when they don’t. A blogger can become a leading authority in their industry, and a highly visible one at that.

With blogging, we can succeed with a modest set of skills. And we can reap a whole new set of talents.

The 2-minute panelist

June 4, 2017

Panels suffer from a number of problems. We don’t hear enough from stronger panelists. They’re not very diverse. They’re poorly moderated. They can be a snooze if all panelists share similar answers and ideas.

The last few times I’ve served as a panelist, I gave myself a time limit of 2 minutes. I wanted to be fair to fellow panelists (not every moderator keeps long-winded participants or even questioners in line). I also wanted to get to the damn point.

I’m as guilty as anyone of long-windedness, my golden voice ringing gloriously in my ears. This would be a fix.

I set a 2-minute timer on my phone and kept an eye on it while weighing in. It forced me to be succinct and punchy. After all, if I wanted to make an impression, I needed to make those 120 seconds memorable.

(I didn’t bother timing the other panelists — but they went way over 2 minutes, not that any such restriction was in place.)

Trust me, 2 minutes is more than sufficient time to answer a reasonable question thrown at a panel.

I found audience members would come up to me afterward and quote my best responses. That’s great feedback.

Try it sometime, even if you’re not bound for a panel. Putting care into our answers makes us more engaging and more ready to listen to someone else’s followup.

• • •

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