Every Communicator Needs a Real Photographer

Leica M9 and prosecco

This recent post by Vocus – Every Communicator Needs a Real Camera – highlights how important photography is for business. We depend on photos for blogs, web sites, brochures, tweets, Facebook posts and other kinds of marketing collateral.

Photos are a kind of shorthand, selling a product more effectively than a hundred lines of copy. They communicate who you are and what your brand stands for. Photos are essential to sharing your message with the world.

Despite this, photography is an unappreciated medium. Because free photos are widely available on sites like Flickr, and because anyone with an iPhone can take a picture, many organizations pay little money or attention to their photo needs. Yet, a compelling business case can be made for paying for photographers and photography.

A couple of examples:

1. At a company I worked for, the CEO received a major award at a trade show. We wanted to run a story on the web site about it. But the only photo we had was a blurry iPhone shot from fifty feet away. Without a good photo, we couldn’t do the story.

2. I was the photo coordinator for the DC Shorts Film Festival, responsible for managing a volunteer army of photogs who captured images of film screenings, crowded parties, red carpet arrivals and VIP events. This is an awesome event that you should attend. But don’t take my word for it – check out the photos and decide for yourself. In addition to helping attract attendees to the festival, these photos demonstrated to sponsors how their products were being enjoyed, were included in the annual report and were widely shared in social media.

The Vocus article states that communicators need a good camera. But a camera is just a tool. You need someone who knows how to use it. That person is a photographer. Look for one in your organization. Don’t make photography “other duties as assigned” but give them the time, money and equipment they need to tell your organization’s story. Invest in photography the same way you invest in web site hosting, email marketing and social media.

And if you don’t have a photographer, hire one through a group like APADC.

In this digital age, digital photographers are essential. Don’t miss the important moments in your company because no one had a decent camera. Hire a photographer to create images that you’ll use for years to come.

The Up Side of Down by Megan McAardle

The Up Side of DownMegan McArdle has failed. By her own admission, she has failed multiple times, from her love life to her career choices. Which makes her the perfect person to write the book on failure.

The Up Side of Down argues that we all must learn to fail a little better, a little faster and to, most importantly, learn from the experience. There is no growth without failure, whether we’re talking economies or individuals.

McArdle bolsters her case with examples from business, medicine, physchology and economics. Discussing everything from the learning styles of children to the Solyndra debacle, she offers a kaleidoscope-look at the varieties of American failure.

And she makes a really important point on failure – we’re a nation founded by people who couldn’t hack it in the Old World. It wasn’t comfortable lords who built this country but starving peasants willing to risk a sea voyage for the opportunity to start anew. These failures created the greatest nation on earth.

One of the best chapters in the book discusses the plague of long-term unemployment, a problem once unique to Europe that has become an American scourge. McCardle writes with great compassion about people who have been unemployed for longer than a year, and the cruelties of the job market that keep them that way. She likens unemployment to a dark room that you’ve stumbled into. The people who get out are the ones who keep moving, pursuing multiple opportunities in hopes that one of them will pay off.

The Up Side of DownMcArdle’s career illustrates this principle. An MBA who was jobless following 9/11, she (among other activities) started blogging, which led  to positions at The Economist, the Atlantic and Bloomberg View. Blogging was just one of several different options that she pursued during unemployment.

It is to our benefit that she found success as a blogger. McArdle is one  of the best explainers of economic ideas (far better than the needlessly wonky and overrated Ezra Klein). She takes the dismal science and puts it into terms anyone can understand, using examples from her own life.

For example, her desperate pursuit of a man who didn’t want her illustrates the idea of “sunk costs.” She had put in too many years to give up, having invested too much emotionally to just walk away. The failure was so devastating that she left NYC, moved to DC, and found her future husband – an example of the positive aspects of failure.

Interestingly, she cites surveys where many people cite failures – getting fired or divorced -as the best thing that ever happened to them. These calamities prompted people to try new things and find love elsewhere. We are “failure machines,” willing to try different solutions until we find the one that works. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

We need more failures. Like Steve Jobs. Prior to the Macintosh, he failed with the Lisa, an overpriced personal computer that no one wanted. And before the success of the iPhone, there was the ignominy of the Newton. Jobs kept iterating, coming up with new ideas and new products, undaunted. Taking lessons from each failure enabled Jobs to find his way to success

McArdle discusses young journalists who sabotage their own careers by just giving up. So afraid of turning in a lousy manuscript, they write nothing. But a terrible first-draft can be fixed; one that doesn’t exist cannot. McCardle tells writers that they have permission to suck, realizing that this simple bit of advice is key to unlocking creative potential.

America needs to regain its taste for failure, something we have lost in the malaise of the Obama Economy. Risk-taking needs to be encouraged once again. Failures are learning experiences. Failures indicate confidence in the future – we’re willing to try new things, to make investments, to take chances.

“We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.” I love this quote by Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines. It perfectly expresses the optimism and can-do nature of the American spirit. We’re going to keep trying things until we find what works. Even if that means failure. Especially if it does.

The Up Side of Down is an overview of failure. We must embrace failure, treasure it, and, most importantly, learn from the experience. The secret to success is rooted in the hard lessons of failure.

Storytelling: The Most Powerful Communications Tool in History

We are storytelling animals. It’s what differentiates us from our primate cousins. We are literally Homo narrativus. We use stories to assign meaning to our lives, transmit vital information and communicate with future generations. Without our storytelling ability, we would never have evolved out of the jungles of Africa.

Human history begins with stories, like The Bible, the Odyssey and the epics of India. These stories were so important that they were memorized and passed down countless generations prior to the written word.

Storytelling is an ancient and powerful tool that we all possess. The ability to process, remember and share stories is man’s oldest and best trick.

But we live in a dreary age of PowerPoints and TPS reports. Why can’t you remember anything from yesterday’s HR briefing? It’s not your fault; it wasn’t a story.

Lead with a Story

Paul Smith addresses that problem in Lead with a Story, a guide to using this ancient tool in the modern world. Storytelling is a skill that’s increasingly being adopted by major corporations trying to break through the clutter of messages that we’re all deluged with.

In a talk at the annual Federal Digital Communications event, Smith explained the power of stories to an audience of government communicators.

Storytelling is a skill that we can all learn. We literally grew up with it. What makes a great story? Great stories are:

1. Simple. What is the plot of Lord of the Rings? While it sprawls over hundreds of pages, the plot is really simple: destroy the One Ring. Great stories are simple, with a clear problem for characters to solve.

2. Timeless. Fads come and go, but the great stories are timeless. Boy meets girl, whether it’s Romeo and Juliet, or the latest Hollywood romcom, is one of the oldest and most commonly told stories.

3. Universal. While you may not speak ancient Greek, you can understand the desire to get home after a tough day (or decade). This is why a classic like the Odyssey is a universal tale.

4. Viral. Someone tells you a funny joke in the elevator and you immediately want to share it. Jokes were viral before the cat videos of YouTube.

5. Memorable. The story of Noah and the Great Flood doesn’t just appear in the Old Testatment – it is also a part of ancient Babylonian texts. Why? The whole world being wiped out with one survivor? That’s a great story.

6. Inspirational. We long for inspirational stories. While other ages had saints, we have business profiles of inspiring figures like Oprah, Steve Jobs and Howard Schultz. We read these stories of perseverance and success because we want to be inspired, looking for motivation to act upon our own dreams.

Good stories engage audiences. Rather than showing people a slide full of numbers, tell them what the numbers mean. Tell them how they matter to one person. Connect with your audience with stories of how people use your product or service.

For example, I had a job where I had to tell actors to be on time for a performance. I could’ve just yelled at them. Or just repeated the call-time over and over again.

Instead, I told them a story – The Tragedy of the Late Actor. The year before, one of actors was late. We replaced her. She didn’t get a chance to perform.

None of the actors were late. They remembered my message (don’t be late!) because I expressed it in the Tragedy of the Late Actor.

The reason is the human gift for narrative. Stories are how we remember information and direct our lives.

The next time you need to communicate something, whether it’s an article for the corporate newsletter or a message to your significant other, think about how you can make it a story. Write a beginning, a middle and an end. Have a clear protagonist, with a  problem for them to solve.

Tap into the ancient gift of storytelling – our most powerful communication tool.

Update: check out the slides and notes from the day’s presentations.

 

 

How to Lead a Fascinating Life but Make No Money: My Year in Writing

Lawless poster with Tom HardyThe more interesting the work, the less it pays – that’s the rule I uncovered in 2012. It’s the reason why technical writers are paid well (you want to write a help guide for Sharepoint?) while film reviewers are paid poorly (you get to see movies!).

However, it was a great learning experience to meet so many creative folks. Truly inspiring to meet people who had written books, made movies and created web sites.

The highlight of the year was the work I did for On Tap, the free monthly entertainment magazine in DC. There’s still a special thrill to see your name in print that no digital facsimile can replace. I wrote about Lawless, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Dark Knight Rises, V/H/S, Mansome and The Sessions. Continue reading “How to Lead a Fascinating Life but Make No Money: My Year in Writing”

Find Small Business Success with The Pumpkin Plan

The Pumpkin Plan

Around this time each year, you’ll see a news story about a farmer with a record-sized pumpkin, one much bigger than anything grown by his neighbors. How did he do it? How did he find success in the pumpkin patch?

He did it by nurturing his best pumpkin, a principle that can be applied to any small business. That’s the message of The Pumpkin Plan, a new book by Mike Michalowicz.

To make your business thrive, you must weed your garden, like a good farmer. This means removing the pumpkins that are too small or not worth your time, so as to focus on the one great gourd that can grow bigger than all the others.

In other words, the Pareto Principle. 80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients. The key to growth is to focus on the most profitable activities of your business.

(I satirize this idea in my novel Don’t Mess Up My Block, where my narrator chooses to eliminate all distractions – even family – to concentrate on getting rich.)

The most interesting section of The Pumpkin Plan is where Michalowicz talks about failure. So many entrepreneurial titles gloss over the hard work of building a business – yet, this is the norm. Each year Americans start one million new businesses, nearly 80 percent of which fail within the first five years. Michalowicz frankly discusses how his company was eating him alive, consuming every waking hour and ruining his family life. Only by concentrating on what he did best was he able to escape this trap. He learned to weed out the activities that weren’t worth his time so as to focus on his best customers.

Michalowicz is a serial entrepreneur who started his first business at the age of 24, moving his young family to the only safe place he could afford – a retirement building. With limited resources and no experience, he systematically bootstrapped a multi-million dollar technology business, sleeping in conference rooms to avoid hotel costs. After selling his first company, Mike launched a new business the very next day, and in less than three years, sold it to a Fortune 500 company. In the Pumpkin Plan, he describes his life story as well as the stories of similar entrepreneurs.

This is not a book of theory. It’s chock-full of real-world examples from people who have had to sell products, make payroll and keep themselves sane. Chapters expand on the Pumpkin Plan concept, with checklists on how to discover what you do best and how to get back on track if you stray.

What’s your Great Pumpkin? This Halloween, find out with The Pumpkin Plan.

The $100 Startup – Chapter One: Unexpected Entrepreneurs

Some books deserve a closer read. One of these is The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau. Follow along as I delve into the book, chapter by chapter. I’ll breakdown each chapter, providing a sort of Cliff Notes summary. And I’ll include what you can’t find in the book, such as links to the businesses he discusses, ideas for additional reading and my own thoughts.

I’ll post my breakdown of each chapter every couple days. Get the book and follow me on Twitter at @joeflood as we read The $100 Startup.$100 Dollar Startup

I’ve been a fan of Chris for years, being an avid reader of his popular blog and his earlier book, The Art of Noncomformity. He writes about escaping from cubicle nation and leading the kind of life that you want – a heady dream in this time of chronic recession.

What makes him different from a hundred other authors selling this idea?

Practical – He is one of the best writers on the practical details of being a freelancer or running a small business. In his books and blogs, he writes about the sometimes painful aspects of running a business, from getting publicity to organizing a product launch.

Realistic – Chris does not promise to make you rich. His work is filled with examples of everyday folks who have managed to improve their lives. The $100 Startup includes stories of real businesses, with dollar figures attached to them. Some are impressive, but others are quite modest.

Honest – I distrust books which only talk about success. Chris is honest about what’s worked and not worked in his entrepreneurial journey. The $100 Startup contains stories of disaster, as well as triumph.

But enough about Chris. What does his book say?

Chapter One: Renaissance

This first chapter sets the stage. It begins with a sadly typical story – a veteran sales professional gets unexpectedly laid off. What happens next is like a quirky episode of Portlandia. This salesman goes into the bedding business, and pioneers the industry’s first-ever mattress delivery by bicycle.

This story (and related case studies) introduce the idea of micro-entrepreneurship, an idea which has been around for centuries. These are one-person businesses. And they can be setup for less than $100. (The $100 figure is a bit arbitrary. Some of the businesses discussed in the book cost more, some less, but the point is that you can set up a business no matter how little money you have.)

The best part of The $100 Startup is that it is grounded in real stories. These case studies come from Guillebeau’s study of “unconventional, accidental entrepreneurs.” His subjects were interviewed and required to submit financial data. For the book, he profiles a wide range of “microbusinesses” that are successful and low-cost.

They were also created by people who decided to follow their passion. But they did more than just that – they found the sweet spot between what they were interested in and what the market will pay for. These businesses build upon skills that people already have. This is illustrated by the wonderful example of Scott Adams. He took his modest art skills, sense of humor and business experience to create Dilbert.

The basics of business are very simple, according to Guillebeau:

  1. Product or service: what you sell.
  2. People willing to pay for it: your customers.
  3. A way to get paid: how you’ll exchange a product or service for money.

This, of course, is the hard part and where most business books falter. They say “you can change the world!” but skip over the bothersome details.  The rest of The $100 Startup will closely examine these three concepts, down to the dollar figures of other microbusinesses.

The chapter ends with a touch of the quaint – James Kirk (really?) leaving his IT job and crossing the country to start Jamestown Coffee in South Carolina. His quote makes a nice coda to the chapter:

There was one moment very early when I realized, this is what I want to do, and this is what I am going to do. And that was that. Decision made. I’ll figure the rest out.

This theme of action bias is a constant one in Chris’s writing, the idea that it’s better to take action today rather than defer your dreams endlessly.

Summary

In this first chapter, Chris has explained the idea of microbusiness, teasing the case studies of ordinary people that he’ll examine in greater detail in the rest of the book. These inspiring tales of doing what you love are grounded in the reality of finding something fun that people will actually pay for. And owning a quaint coffee shop is the perfect story to close with, since it personifies the American Dream, 2012 edition.

Check out the video trailer for the book for more inspiration and to see what a yarn entrepreneur looks like.

Next Up: Chapter Two – Give Them The Fish, or the surprisingly uncommon idea that business should meet the needs of consumers.