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Posts Tagged ‘corporate life’

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to imagine the scale of the catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. My friend sent me this link, which is certainly helpful in visualizing the size of the spill. (Not for the faint of heart.) But even that graphic representation doesn’t do justice to what’s actually going on. After all, tens of thousands of gallons of oil are continuing to pour forth, befouling the water, the shore, the wildlife, and the image of the mere mortals who are futilely trying to staunch the flow.

Forgive me, but at times those efforts — at least as they have been characterized by the media — have seemed like profoundly simplistic tactics, especially when compared to the sophistication of the techniques used to extract the oil.

They’ve tried lowering a big — and then a small – dome over it. The top hat? Please. Then filling it with drilling mud and — though they didn’t get that far — old golf balls and tires. Finally,  they thought maybe they could just run a hose down there and suck that nasty oil right up to a waiting ship. When the word got out a few days ago that the feds and BP were including Hollywood director James Cameron in a group brainstorming possible solutions, it was almost enough to make me laugh out loud. Almost. (Cameron has since criticized the “morons” who wouldn’t hear him out.)

Whether or not James Cameron is smarter than everyone else, what’s obvious by now, and what is not the least bit laughable, is that there is not a single soul who understands what the best next step should be. There is not a single soul who envisioned this calamitous failure of man’s ingenuity.

And why should they have imagined it? After all, consider for a moment what a feat this kind of thing is. Most of us know that the wellhead is a mile beneath the surface of the ocean, but the oil bed itself is far, far deeper. BP was authorized to drill 18,000 feet below the seabed, but some reports suggests that they, in fact, drilled much deeper. Some say 22,000 feet. Think on that. That’s more than four miles beneath the surface of the earth. One commentator on NPR described it — in terms of the sheer bravado of its engineering — as no less remarkable than landing a man on the moon.

That we can locate oil at that depth is amazing enough. That we can drill down into it from a semi-submersible oil rig some 50 miles offshore and bring it forth to be commodified is, certainly by human measures, nothing short of a miracle. It’s certainly clear that BP felt that was the case. We know now that just before the rig exploded, a group of executives from the beleaguered firm were on board to celebrate the Deepwater Horizon’s safety record and its pending conversion from an exploration rig to a oil-producing rig. We all know what happened next.

Back in high school, my English teacher taught me about hubris with illustrations from classical literature. Achilles. Icarus. Macbeth. And for many years, I carried those examples around with me, imagining them to be pertinent only in the rarefied context of literary analysis. What I know now, of course, is that history is littered with examples of man’s folly, of his overbearing pride, and of his contempt for what the consequences of that pride may be.

According to this MSNBC story, BP’s chief executive office Tony Hayward told The Financial Times of London that it was “an entirely fair criticism” to say the company had not been fully prepared for a deepwater oil leak, going on to call the disaster a “low-probability, high-impact” accident.

Low probability. Right.

Thanks, Icarus. I feel so much better now.

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Is it just me, or is anybody else feeling the boundaries of their personal and professional lives becoming more porous? My friends are my colleagues, my colleagues are my contacts, my contacts are my peers, my peers are my friends, and so on and so on. Smarter folks (like Julien Smith and Chris Brogan) call this the blending of social constructs, but no matter what you call it, I think it’s critical if you want to get anything out of social media.

Okay, scratch that — maybe not anything. After all, I suppose some folks find value in simply staying connected in these new ways. It’s kind of fun to know what my cousins in Atlanta are up to, and what my old high school friend did over the Fourth of July weekend. Either of those would certainly fall under the category of anything. But I like to get a bit more out of it, frankly.

Take Twitter, for example. I don’t follow a ton of people, but those I do follow are pretty interesting folks. All day long they are cluing me in to websites I should check out, pointing me to some new trend in my business or my profession in general, or guiding me to a pertinent news story. These folks aren’t selling anything. They are simply giving me a small 140 character window into what they are thinking at that moment, and since many of us are in similar businesses or professions, I often find these tiny windows surprisingly illuminating. Perhaps that’s because, like most folks, I tend to build my networks around similar interests, and so those networks are often rich with pertinent information.

True, my network sometimes tells me things that may not be so illuminating — at least not in a professional way (though I do reap great benefit from my friend Laura’s irrepressible optimism). Some of the folks I follow on Twitter, like comedian Tim Siedell, are simply good for a laugh at random moments throughout the day. And some of my Twitter feeds are straight up news. (For my money, there’s no better way to get on-the-spot news.)

But here’s what intrigues me — it all seems to add up somehow. This blended stream of incoming information seems to create something unlike anything else I’ve known. If it were all professional all the time, I’d process it with some corner of my brain that holds the “you-have-to-read-this-because-it’s-good-for-you” reflex. If it were all personal all the time, I’d process it with my “well-that’s-interesting-but-probably-not-particularly-useful” reflex. And in either case, I’d be missing out on something.

Also — lurkers, take note —  it’s worth pointing out that until you jump in, you quite likely won’t understand how this confluence works. That’s another matter I’ve been giving some thought to, and will be doing a presentation on at the fall College Communicators Association conference.

So thanks to all of you, my personafessional friends/colleagues/contacts/peers. Keep me posted.

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Here’s a little story about a day my world shifted, and how it may be shifting again.

Years ago, I was a bit of a Deadhead. Okay, maybe more than a bit. I usually caught somewhere between six and ten shows a year. Maybe 50 to 60 shows when it was all said and done. I did it for the music — partly. To paraphrase Bill Graham, the Grateful Dead weren’t the best at what they did. They were the only ones who did what they did.

But I also did it for the crowd. Back then, it felt like belonging to a tribe. A tribe of misfits, maybe, but a tribe nonetheless, with its own code of conduct. Over time, as the tribe got larger (and the band became more popular) things started to change, and you could no longer count on the code holding up. The whole scene was more widely accepted, but its standards were not more widely shared. A lot of the newcomers had different ideas about what was okay and what was not.

And then one day, in a mall in middle America, I stumbled upon a Grateful Dead tee shirt in a tacky gift shop — you know, the kind that sell the ersatz lava lamps and blacklight posters. That’s when I knew it was over for me.

You see, part of the appeal of the whole experience was that I could feel securely outside the mainstream and still operate within the comfort of a set of shared values and assumptions. Now that the scene had so clearly become mainstream, it had taken on those mainstream values and I didn’t really want much to do with it. (In fact, it wasn’t long afterward that the scene pretty much collapsed of its own weight, but that’s a different story.)

For some reason, this is what I thought of when I read this Newsweek piece about some trends in the blogosphere.

Look, I’m as aware as the next person that an obscene number of people are blogging, so it’s not as though I imagine it as anything but mainstream these days. But still, one of the reasons I’m drawn to both reading them and writing one is that the medium manages to carry a sense of personal connection despite its broadcast delivery. This paradox — a personal touch in a broadcast medium — is, I think, at the heart of the success of all social media. Even if I’m one of a million followers of Pete Cashmore’s smart smart Twitter feed for Mashable, I still feel like he’s talking to me.

But when I’m confronted with evidence that forces me to acknowledge that what I’m reading is not so personal after all, I’m left feeling a little skittish. What if the review I’m reading isn’t a true review, but the work of a corporate shill? What if the advice I’m seeking to resolve a computer problem is simply an effort to guide me to a particular product? What if choosy blogging mothers don’t actually choose Jif, but are paid to say so in their endearing mommy blogs? Blech.

The web is democratized, and that’s a good thing. But democracies don’t guarantee fairness, only access. Those who know best how to game the system, win. (And if you don’t believe that, then explain our political system to me.) Maybe we — legitimate users — will find a way to preserve what’s good about the medium, or maybe we’ll simply move on to the next thing that satisfies our need for personal connection in an increasingly disconnected world.

Either way, I’ll be looking at certain Twitter feeds, blogs, and websites with an even more cynical set of eyes. And no one paid me to say that.

Promise.

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Okay, bear with me here: a couple of decades ago, I found myself standing on the banks of the Nantahala River at the tail end of a wet spring, getting ready to climb into a canoe. I’d only been canoeing a half-dozen times or so, mostly on flat water or slow, lazy rivers. In front of me, the water was moving faster than any I’d ever seen, sucking white foam into eddies behind mammoth rocks. From downstream came the noise of a thundering waterfall. My partner was waiting for me to climb in. I did, and he pushed us off. Immediately the canoe lurched forward, as if on a rail. The river grabbed us, and propelled us forward. We steered as best we could, but there was no turning back.

When I think about social networking, I’m reminded of that feeling. The river is moving fast, and many of us in the communication business are dipping our toes in the water. Some of us have already pushed off, and are being carried downstream, navigating with varying degrees of success. Others are still on the shore, wondering a) if we really want to go where the river will lead us, or b) where the heck we’re going to use for a paddle.

There’s a certain sense of inevitability in the air. We all know how much these kinds of networks have grown, and we’ve all seen evidence of how powerful they can be. So, of course we are all tempted to jump in. After all, how long can you stand there watching your competitors barrel past you?

But before you shove off, I think it’s worth remembering that while you can guide your canoe — often quite deftly — that doesn’t mean you can go anywhere you want in it. You can’t pick a spot directly across all that white water and say “There. That’s where I’m going.” It’s just not going to happen. The current is going to pull you downstream, whether you want to go there or not.

In the end, I think it’s just like me standing on the banks of the Nantahala all those years ago. At some point, you just have to push off, hang on, and go.


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Okay, I’m in. And apparently I’m a bit late to the party. I just read an article on CNN that said that in the last year — that’s February 2008 to February 2009 — the number of Twitter users jumped from 475,000 to — are you ready for this? — seven MILLION. That’s an increase of 1374 percent, according to their math. That’s a whole lot of tweeting going on.

And, if you are in the business of creating and spreading messages, a network with seven million users gets your attention.

So I’m in, but I’m not in because I’ve figured how I’m going to make it work for me.  Frankly, I’m not convinced that anyone has quite figured out exactly how it should work.

Yes, I know the success stories. The celebs with thousands of followers, the web 2.0 thought leaders who wax eloquent in 140 characters, the guy who broke the news to the world that a plane had gone down in the Hudson from his iPhone and Twitter account.

But I’m not a celeb, nor much of a thought leader. And my communications  have little to do with breaking news. They are communications that require context and demand depth, and whatever Twitter’s strengths may be, I hope we can all agree that these capabilities aren’t among them.

Still, I’m intrigued by the thought of discovering more, of learning how this techno-tsunami will change the way I must work. Can I use it to build audiences and strengthen communities? Can an organization establish and hold these audiences in the same way an individual can — all while using 140 characters at a time? Or does its chief value for me lie in its ability to carry a link out to all who are following my feed, a link that will pull folks into a longer form story on the web, a story that has the context, the depth, and the call to action that I need?

Frankly, I don’t know a thing about the future of Twitter. As the CNN article posits, perhaps there’s a backlash brewing. That wouldn’t be too surprising, would it? Usually if something grows that much that fast, there’s always a bit of a backlash. (Can anyone say Crocs?)

I suppose that’s because what makes such a thing gain traction — its coolness, hipness, and web-geeky kind of cred– is horribly diminished when when guys like me get a hold of it. (Just today, I had to resist the impulse to tweet something like “It must be really spring. I just saw a bluebird.”)

I may be late to the party, but at least it’s still a party — for now. Maybe I’ll see  you there.  If not, I’ll tweet and let you know how it is.

How are you using Twitter personally? What about professionally? What do you see as its chief strength? Is it working for you? Share your thoughts in the comments (and use as many characters as you want.)

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I can’t even begin to estimate how many hours I’ve spent in the last few weeks trying to help people tell their own story, and tell it in a way that will be compelling to others. I’m amazed sometimes at how hard this can be, even for people who have great stories to tell.

I’m not speaking, of course, about the kinds of stories that we tell one another as friends about how our weekend went, or what happened on our trip to the beach, or the funny thing that our son/daughter/neighbor/boss said. Most folks seem to manage those tales pretty well, though I’d wager we all know some who can’t. I can’t help them, and — thankfully — it’s not my job.

No, I’m talking about organizations that have to try to communicate what they are all about to a public that may or may not care. This is a far different  task, and generally speaking, there’s much more at stake. So why, then, do so many organizations have such a hard time with it?

My hunch is that it’s because they just can’t see themselves from the outside in. Many of the folks I’ve been working with lately are at the pointy end of the pyramid for pretty large organizations. One would think that such a vantage point would offer them a pretty good view of what’s around them, but my experience tells me that the opposite is normally true. These folks normally look straight down, and as a result, they are often consumed with the nuts and bolts of their organizations. They think much about how things work (or don’t work) and little about how their goods and services are actually experienced by those who use them. So, when asked to tell their stories, they can talk all day about the features of their organizations — we have this, we have that, we have a good program in this, we have this many options available in that.

But in the long run, customers are more readily persuaded by benefits, not features. What’s the difference?

Well, think of it this way –suppose I’m trying to sell you a load of firewood. I could tell you that it’s seasoned. That’s a feature. But I could also tell you that it lights easily and burns clean. That’s a benefit. I could tell you that I’ll deliver and stack it. That’s a feature. But I could also tell you that you won’t have to waste time, money, and energy to get the wood where you need it. Just step out your back door, and there it is. That’s a benefit. See the difference?

Many many moons ago, a mentor clued me in to a pretty blunt instrument that helps a lot of folks make this translation. Simply name a feature, then tack the phrase “which means that” on to the end. When you complete that sentence, odds are pretty good you’ve isolated a benefit.

For a house painter: I use only premium quality paint (feature) which means that you can put off repainting for a much longer time (benefit).

For a web designer: I’m up to speed on the latest technology (feature) which means that your web site will look and work like those of the big boys (benefit).

For a … ahem … freelance writer: I have nearly twenty years of experience across all kinds of business sectors (feature) which means that you won’t have to worry whether or not I can tell your story (benefit).

If you want someone to truly understand the value of what you offer, be sure to take this extra step. Don’t think only about what you offer — think about what benefit that conveys to your clients and customers.

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I’m not here right now. Well, technically, I suppose I am here — here being a busy Panera Bread in a town about forty miles or so from my house. I’m waiting for my kids to finish up some lessons, something my wife and I both seem to do a lot. But I just checked my email to find a note from someone I freelance for, and that got me thinking about what I’ll need to do when I get home to get that project done, so really I’m there. Not here.

My phone is sitting on the table next to me because I expect my kids to be calling soon to tell me they are done. Once that happens I’ll be, well, there — that is in the car on the way to pick them up and get them home and get busy on that looming project. On the way home, I’ll probably remember something that I need to take care of in the office tomorrow and I’ll call and leave myself a message which will automatically go to my email which I’ll check first thing and then … it just goes on and on and on.

I find that increasingly my life is like this. I’m always elsewhere. Commitments, deadlines and responsibilities — both personal and professional — are always pulling me forward, out of the here and now and into the there and then. Most folks I know are like this, too. I think the logic is that if we stay connected to everything and everybody, we’ll be better able to manage our time and our lives. This is the same logic that convinces us that multitasking is smart and efficient. Frankly, while I can see that we have little choice but to adopt this thinking, I’m not sure it actually works in the way we’d like.

Still, I’m seriously considering an upgrade to a smart phone and a data plan, so I can have  web, email, and phone all bundled into a device that I never leave home without. And then, of course, I’ll add Facebook and Twitter apps, and I’ll be set. I’ll have it all mastered. I’ll be cool, calm, and connected. And finally … FINALLY… I’ll be —

Uh-oh, phone’s ringing. Gotta go.

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