Corporate Writing Doesn’t Need to be Bad Writing

14 Jul
George Saunders is a great writer, but we should take his stories of corporate culture as cautionary tales, not something to which to aspire.

George Saunders is a great writer, but we should take his stories of corporate culture as cautionary tales, not something to which to aspire.

Satya Nadella isn’t a household name, but when he did his best Jerry Maguire impression last week— writing a long missive and sending it to everyone in his company—he set a certain, nerdy corner of the internet astir. (That’s the kind of thing that happens when the memo implies business decisions that would require big layoffs and the guy writing it is CEO of Microsoft.)

However, as you might expect from the tech company that is most closely associated with the stereotypes of corporate America, the language he used to try to get people excited for whatever his vision for the future of their company is left a lot to be desired.

According to former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gasse, it didn’t need to be that way. Gasse’s response is more than just a(n appropriately) concise prescription for how Nadella’s language could have been improved—it’s also a quick look at some of the root causes of poor communication in corporate speak. (Spoiler alert: He thinks muddled language is often the result of muddled thought.)

It’s interesting, it’s well-worth a read, and it just may help keep us from living out a George Saunders story in real life. Read it on Monday Note.

This Might Be The Best Job I’ve Ever Had (At The Very Least, It’s A Refreshing Change Of Pace)

23 Jun

When I tell people I meet at parties that I work for a church, they respond with polite confusion. And I get it. I don’t come off as a pastor or a church mouse.

I’m saturated in culture and pop culture. I speak quickly, loudly and without patience for small talk. If we’re talking about the latest season of Hannibal and the conversation can’t veer into how the show engages your worldview, I’m likely to suddenly realize I have to go check in with someone across the room. I have a New Englander’s lack of pretense: If we’re talking about what fiction you’re reading and I don’t approve of the author, I’ll probably forget to hide my disgust.

I also have a New Yorker’s obsession with professional excellence: I’ve gotten a congressional district to switch parties, I’ve written ad copy for products that cost more than most Americans make in a year and I have a hard time settling for messaging that isn’t as clear and compelling as it could possibly be.

GDCSplash

Pictured: Splash page for the three churches. (New logos in development.)

So why do I love working for a church? They aren’t usually known as bastions of cultural relevance and creative expertise.

It’s not just because I’ve gone three years without trying to make people angry or get them to give me money (though that’s usually the first thing I bring up when people ask me how I enjoy my work). And it’s not just because I have flexible hours (though for a night owl with ADHD, that is a tremendous benefit).

Campaigns were more exciting. NGO work was more academically engaging. Copywriting let me write a whole lot more. But over the past three years, I’ve overseen the launch of websites, blogs and proprietary social platforms. I’ve written social media strategies and overseen the development of print pieces from concept to final distribution. And I’ve never once had a meeting dedicated to increasing click-through rates.

Using the tools of branding, design and communications on behalf of a family of churches has demanded that I subject my skills to a level of philosophical interrogation that campaigns or NGOs have never matched.

When you’re working for a campaign or for a non-profit, your end goal is always very clear: More. Get more press coverage. Guarantee more votes. Secure more donations. And that’s the direction toward which almost all of the advice about how to use the tools of marketing and communications is bent.

But my operating mandate working for this group of churches hasn’t been more—it’s been better. It’s been clearer. Not once in the last three years have I been asked, “How can we get more readers?” or, “How can we attract more followers?” The questions driving my work have been more along the lines of: How can we more clearly and practically explain ourselves? How can we help people who are on the margins feel safer and more welcome? How can we help those who are deeply engaged become better neighbors, better friends, better parts of our city?

Figuring out how to use tools that are traditionally used for the sake of “more” toward the end of “better” has been rewarding and refreshing, and our strategic roadmap shows that there’s still a lot of exciting potential ahead, yet I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to keep working here: Being a one-man department is taxing; the fact that increasing our revenue stream isn’t an institutional priority means my budget will always be frustratingly small; and the faster pace of work elsewhere in this city is bound to tempt me away eventually.

But if someone in marketing, PR or communications ever asks if they should consider working for a church, I’d say yes without hesitation or reservation. I’ve been working full-time since I was 14, and this just might be the best job I’ve ever had.

Food For Other Thought: Marriage, Urbanism and the Next Great Migration

1 Apr

Today has been the highest-ever traffic day for Vision of the City, a separate blog I maintain for the sake of occasionally tossing out conversation fodder for folks who like to think and talk about the intersection of Christian faith and civic life. If that sort of thing is your bag, then head over to Vision of the City for some quick thoughts on a telling transition a Christian radio figure recently made between two topics.

For everyone else, I’m finally going to watch the How I Met Your Mother finale tonight, so I’m sure some thoughts on that will be coming your way later this week.

eWriters: The Future is (Almost) Here

18 Mar

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 8.59.23 PMThe paper notebook is one of the best technologies ever developed: You can mind map, outline, write, sketch and more—all within one high-resolution, immediate-response interface. Being able to do all of that on a computer requires several suites of programs and specialized hardware. (I use OpenOffice, MindNode, Scrivener, Adobe Illustrator, a Wacom tablet and more.)

What pen and paper offer in flexibility and freedom, though, they take back in access and convenience. I can’t carry all of my old notebooks with me at all times. If I’m at work and want to remember something from a project I worked on a month ago, I’m out of luck—by now, that notebook is tucked away on a shelf behind my desk at home.

The go-to solution for a lot of people is Evernote—it’s the darling of most people who want on-the-go access to their information. And it does offer great access to your information from anywhere at any time. However, Evernote has a cumbersome interface for creating new notes compared to the simple, flexible elegance of pen and paper. And entering information directly into Evernote also locks you into a linear, rich-text-based interface—sketches, charts, diagrams and mind maps aren’t an option.

There have been a few attempts to marry the flexibility of marking up a sheet of paper with the convenience of on-the-go access to your old notes, but they all fall short. Smart pens, sensor-loaded notebook cases and page scanners all let you still use a pen and paper, and then offer systems for downloading digital copies of each page in your book. But these tools generally require adding too many extra steps to the process between using your notebook and having local, digitized notes. And even when you use them as intended, you still blow through notebook after notebook in quick succession.

What we really need is a way to automatically make our hand-written notes and hand-drawn sketches available on the go that doesn’t add extra steps to a workflow. We need a way to build a digital archive of notes and sketches with a process that’s as simple as “Take out your pen and write.” And if we can do it without burning through notebooks, that would be a plus.

Enter the eWriter

A month ago, I ordered the Boogie Board Sync, the flagship of Improv Electronics’ “eWriter” line.

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 8.53.07 PM

Improv Electronics’ Boogie Board eWriters are built around a bi-stable LCD display, similar to the Kindle’s e-ink screen. It’s a static physical display rather than a constantly refreshing electronic display, so looking at it is as easy on the eyes as looking at a page in a book.

Using a stylus, you sketch or write on the Boogie Board Sync’s e-ink display like it’s a sheet of paper. (Unlike a sheet of paper and because of the current limits of the technology, you’re writing white-on-black instead of black-on-white. Improv Electronics says they’re working on changing that.) When you’re done with a page, you can save it to your Boogie Board Sync’s memory and sync your work to the Boogie Board app on your phone or computer.

Syncing your work to the Boogie Board app is the only way you can view a page once it has been saved and cleared off the screen. This is a technical limitation inherent in the type of display technology these devices use. It’s not terribly inconvenient, as I almost always have my iPhone with me, so I can always flip through my recent notes there.

You can also easily set your app up to automatically dump all of your Boogie Board notes into a dedicated folder on Evernote, essentially creating a virtual Moleskine that you can access from anywhere.

Trying out new technology is often difficult—just dabbling in something new is often a guarantee that you’ll end up clinging to the old out of inertia. So when my Boogie Board arrived, I told myself that I’d give it a fair shot by putting my Moleskine away and going a full week using the Boogie Board 100% in place of my normal legal pads and notebooks.

A month later I still haven’t touched a legal pad or a Moleskine again. I haven’t felt like I’m this deep into the future since the first time I used an iPhone.

What’s Great About the Boogie Board?

When I first took the Sync out of its box, I thought that the form factor would bother me: The bezel seemed larger than it needed to be and its gentle curves could have risked making it unsuitable for professional settings. But it turns out that when you hold the device one-handed, the scalloped bezel hugs your palm and arm like a painter’s pallet. This frees you from the need to either have a stiff-backed notebook or else always be near a flat surface to write or sketch. Jotting notes in bed or doing quick sketches on an elevator has become easy and comfortable.

Writing on a Boogie Board Sync is a really tactile experience, albeit slightly smoother than pen on paper, somewhat like using a ballpoint pen on an acetate. Because you are making strokes on the page through a physical process rather than an electronic one, the page is perfectly responsive to your pen: Your strokes get heavier and thicker as you increase pressure. Unlike with the host of handwriting apps on the iPhone and iPad, there is no lag between making the stroke and having it appear on the screen.

Anyone who cherishes the physical sensation of pen on paper (or who cares about the fact that writing longhand engages your brain differently than typing does) should have no problem using this. I’m a staunch pen-and-paper user—and had even switched to fountain pens in the year leading up to trying out the Boogie Board—but I was quickly sold on the experience of writing on a Boogie Board.

Having that ongoing archive of all of my notes that’s not restricted by the notebook’s page count is a dream come true. And at only $80 on Amazon, the Boogie Board is already well on its way to paying for itself. Even if I didn’t value the time I spend looking for my current notebook amidst a stack of used ones and looking through older notebooks to find a particular note, I’d make up the $80 in just a couple months by no longer buying Moleskines, pens and legal pads.

As an added bonus, you can also use your Boogie Board Sync as a pen-style mouse for your computer (like a downmarket Wacom tablet) or you can use it to turn your computer or smartphone into a virtual whiteboard.

Syncing and Evernote Implementation: A Mixed Bag

Evernote is good enough at doing a lot of things, but the only thing Evernote is actually great at is holding on to a whole bunch of stuff and letting you get to it from anywhere. The process of actually entering, categorizing, tagging and sorting through all of that stuff can be a chore.

The most visible genius of the Boogie Board Sync is the freedom it offers through its great pen-on-e-ink interface. But just as genius is the way the Boogie Board Sync leverages that interface to take advantage of Evernote’s biggest strength without subjecting you to some of Evernote’s biggest weaknesses. By allowing you to still act like you’re using pen on paper, the Boogie Board doesn’t force you to adapt to a whole new way of producing and storing information. Digital technology is finally adapting to you, rather than asking you to adapt to it.

The Boogie Board Sync’s sync system is good when it should be great. The device allows you to automatically download your sketches and notes to your computer or smartphone and then automatically dump the downloaded pages into Evernote, but you need to keep the Boogie Board App open for those processes to run. The option to run all of those processes in the background rather than staying parked on the Boogie Board app would be an improvement. An option to streamline the process even further and save storage space by having the sync app skip local storage and copy the files on my Boogie Board straight into Evernote would be even better.

But what would really make the Boogie Board Sync a must-have for everyone who has been reluctant to loosen their grip on pen and paper would be grouping pages written in quick succession into single notes when uploading to Evernote. At the moment, your Boogie Board pages all go into the same notebook, but each page is its own note within that notebook. For students taking notes in class, professionals hopping from meeting to meeting or journalers scribbling down their thoughts on a subway ride, lumping together pages produced in quick succession would probably save time and stress. Adding this clock functionality could mean adding hardware as well as firmware, which could mean increasing the price or shortening its week-long battery life, but that extra little courtesy to the user could go a long way toward building good will.

The Verdict

The Boogie Board doesn’t need to be in everybody’s hands yet, but it should at least be on everybody’s radar.

I’ve been using mine for a month to journal, take notes at meetings, sketch design concepts and conduct interviews. Every time I pull it out, I get the same reaction: “What is that?” No one who has seen it has heard of it before. That needs to change.

Techies, productivity nerds, journaling fanatics and creative professionals: This device is ready to go and will suit your needs. I can’t see any reason for you to not have already placed an order for one. This is potentially a game-changer for you—and at the very least it’s already a paper-saver.

We’ve always known that smart pens and Evernote’s branded Moleskine are really just half-measures in our attempts to marry the best parts of analogue and digital, but the Boogie Board Sync finally gives us something better to measure them against. This should be the foundation for the way people bridge digital convenience and analogue flexibility.

Improv Electronics has plainly been refining the idea behind its Boogie Boards over several iterations. It has improved rapidly, and I’m excited about the direction in which they are moving. In just four years, Boogie Boards have gone from glorified Etch-a-Sketches to the gift from the future that is the Boogie Board Sync. Their ambitions for the technology are clearly aimed in the right direction—we just don’t get much articulation of their long-term goals for the technology from any of their marketing or PR.

I’ll probably do another post taking a look at the way they describe their products publicly versus messaging that would position them for faster adoption some time soon. In the mean time, though, here’s hoping Improv Electronics can step up their marketing and PR, because you really shouldn’t have needed me to explain what something this good is.

Ugh! Seriously? Enough With The Photoshop Already!

30 Jan

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Scarlett Johansson:

SJRedCarpet

Image courtesy of wherever it was I pulled it from via Google Images.

You may recognize her as a very attractive woman. Just posting this image is probably giving some impressionable readers undeserved body image issues.

This is Captain America: The Winter Soldier:

You may recognize it as a movie about a spy who really likes America fighting against…um…a soldier? Who really likes winter?

This is what Scarlett Johansson apparently needs to look like in order to promote Captain America: The Winter Soldier:

Image courtesy who the heck cares? It's free publicity for their movie, this is exactly what they wanted.

Image courtesy who the heck cares? It’s free publicity for their movie and that is exactly what they wanted when they put this image online.

The question isn’t, “What the heck is wrong with that woman’s waist?,” because by now we all know the answer to that. The question now is, “Who the heck really said, ‘A woman who probably has a team of full-time employees training her to keep her body looking a specific way doesn’t give people an unrealistic enough expectation of a woman’s body, so let’s just puppet warp her midsection all to hell!’?”

Enough with this crap.

Reliving The Horror

1 Oct

I’ve been watching Daniel Anthony Torrance suffer for nearly seventeen years.

As a child, Danny was beaten by his alcoholic father, who then locked him and his mother in an empty hotel secluded in the Colorado Rockies. For months, Danny and his mother suffered horrific threats. They were forced to view violent, sexual and torturous images. Repeatedly. Nearly continuously. And after every means of communication with or access to the outside world was cut off and there was no longer any hope of outside intervention, Danny’s father attempted to kill his wife and child with a hammer.

This is the story of Stephen King’s The Shining.

When I was twelve years old, I took in Danny’s story in the form of a TV miniseries, a classic horror novel, and Stanley Kubrick’s unsettling film. I honestly have no idea how many times I’ve lived through the story of that horrific winter in Colorado.

Copies of Stephen King's The Shining and Doctor Sleep

Shock and aw.

But when I began reading Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s long-gestating sequel to The Shining, and I began reading about Dan Torrance’s dissolute adulthood, I started to cry. I didn’t realize until this weekend just how badly I had wanted the little boy from The Shining to be okay, how hard I had hoped over the last seventeen years that the same psychic gift that allowed Danny to survive that horrible winter in the Overlook Hotel would also offer him the emotional and psychological resources to recover from it.

Instead, Doctor Sleep shows us an adult Dan discovering that drugs and alcohol don’t just help him bury his memories—they also help him tamp down his psychic gift and shut himself off from the world. Reading the new book’s opening chapters and watching Dan circle the drain, committing as much violence against his body and his future as his father ever did against his mind, my heart sank.

But the book goes on, and as it does, so does Dan’s life. He finds Alcoholics Anonymous, stops drifting, and, in a plot thread that provides some of the book’s most lyrical and humane moments, earns the book’s titular moniker while working at a New England hospice.

I mention lyrical and humane moments. At their worst, King’s hordes of imitators resort to schlocky shock-horror to get a reaction from their audience, pummeling the reader with violence for violence’s sake. But King himself has, believe it or not, always excelled at well-observed human moments. We all have split-second thoughts that we would never want to share—moments of anger, disgust, self-aggrandizement, lust and condescension to which we’d never admit. King’s talent for finding those fleeting thoughts, diving into them, exploring them in depth is unparalleled in popular fiction. (Maybe even in literary fiction.) And at his best, the supernatural elements of King’s stories have always served as our entry point into exploring very real, very present anxieties that plague our modern life.

I’m pleased to say that, despite the body-swapping and the roving horde of psychic vampires, Doctor Sleep belongs in the rolls of King’s best.

The book is filled with what seem at first to be (somewhat clumsy) artistic flourishes, like the almost on-the-nose metaphor of a young Danny learning to bottle up his demons. In other places, King seems to be giving his audience a sly wink: A young girl’s habit of rubbing her mouth only seems justified as an in-joke for those of us who remember Dan’s father in detail because we grew up squeezing our copies of The Shining hard enough to leave finger dents in the pages.

But most of what I thought was clumsy in the first half turn into important plot points later in the book. (Spoiler in white text: Adult Dan learning to release those demons and be rid of them is key to the final resolution of the plot.) And even the parallels that looked like in-jokes turn out to matter in the world of the story, too.

King sometimes has a tendency to contort narratives into happy endings that feel forced. With a book like this, that seems inevitable: Despite the horror of the story, forty years of readers have grown to love The Shining. The tendency to let all of that good will seep into the fabric of the sequel must have been incredibly insidious. But by the time Doctor Sleep crescendoes on the site of the old Overlook hotel where The Shining took place, that one big, heart-warming plot twist that felt too convenient by half one hundred pages earlier actually feels earned twice over. Maybe it was just the decades of good will I have built up for the property, but I reached the end satisfied.

As I finished the book, I couldn’t help but think of the beautifully animated interlude in the middle of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows about three young men who struggle to come to terms with the reality of death.  After all these years, Danny’s life is complete, and we can bid farewell to the ghosts of the Overlook, waving to them the way one waves off an old friend.

This Could Be The Year That We Save The World

17 Sep

Story is an essential component of human society: Story is how we get to know one another, how we come to understand the world, and how we decide on and live out shared values.

From the moment Thespis first stepped out of the chorus and became the first actor to speak words in a play, drama has been the way many of the stories most important to society get told. From Aeschylus’ The Persians to Norman Lear’s All In The Family to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the most popular drama reflects and comments on the ways we are responding the questions our context pose to our essential humanity.

And as societies changed over time, the general trend of cultural and technological development has been to place greater and greater emphasis on drama’s visual elements: Changing architectural trends made it possible for larger audiences to have clearer views of the stage; the ability to project giant glowing images on darkened walls gave every audience member the ability to see an actor’s every expression; televisions invited actors into an audience’s living room for family scrutiny.

Now, during an era when technology allows people to pour themselves into TV shows on noisy trains, stare at their screens while waiting in line and cradle movies in their bed as they fall asleep, dramatists often rely on actors having a specific look to make a certain point about their inner character or to explore a certain theme.

In order to continue producing the kind of drama that we need to develop, refine and evolve our culture, we need talented, inspired writers and directors who are empowered to produce the best work they possibly can. Until recently, when story-tellers needed an actor to portray a woman with dark hair, fair skin and light eyes, their options were limited, and the most prominent of them was Zooey Deschanel.

And I hope we can all agree that that should never happen.

ZD

No dramatist should be reduced to that. I don’t know Zooey Deschanel personally, so I have no idea whether she’s a nice lady or not. I assume that she is, because I don’t have any evidence to the contrary. And she has a nice voice. And a very striking, very specific look. A look that I can understand a director wanting or even needing in specific roles. However, when you give her lines to memorize and then recite as though for the first time, she becomes a personality vortex that drains the life out of any scene she’s in. She makes it harder for other people around her to act.

For example, in a film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that featured a charmless Ford Prefect and a Zaphod Beeblebrox whose second head was hidden beneath his neck, Zooey Deschanel as Trillian was the big problem. Believe it or not, she was the worst thing about Tin Man, a mini-series created to punish people with indiscriminate taste. Even in movies that are otherwise good—movies like Elf and Almost Famous—her performances are jagged blemishes in otherwise polished, beautiful feats of entertainment.

The thing is, this isn’t 2004 anymore. This is 2013. Zooey Deschanel isn’t the only dark-haired, fair-skinned, light-eyed actress in Hollywood: Alison Brie exists. Lizzie Caplan exists. Alexis Bledel keeps disappearing for a while then popping back into the world again. Hell, Silver Linings Playbook proved that, in a pinch, we could also just dye Jennifer Lawrence’s hair and put her in a movie instead of Zooey Deschanel. There are plenty of better options for finding a female actor who fits the part. Any part.

Alison Brie, Lizzie Caplan, Alexis Bledel, Jennifer Lawrence

Q: Which one is a better actor than Zooey Deschanel?
A: All of them. All of them are better actors than Zooey Deschanel.

There are plenty of actresses with dark hair and light eyes now—there’s no need to keep putting Zooey Deschanel in movies and on TV.

And please, for the good of future generations, don’t watch New Girl. You’ll only encourage her.

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