You may already be an expert

Is it just possible you could quit hoping for approval, begging for business, apologizing for your rates, or worrying about whether you’re providing enough value? Is it possible that you are, in fact, much smarter, cooler, and more valuable than you realize? An interesting little mindset dance . . .

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If everything were sold like iPods

“How much is that leather couch?” “Six hundred dollars for sitting.” “Ha, I’ll probably just end up napping on it.” “Eight hundred for napping, actually. And another six hundred if you still plan to sit as well.” “Okay, $1400 and everyone can sit and nap.” “Up to four people.” “I think I could fit five.” “Five would be piracy.”

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Gripping your reader

Istock_000003602212xsmall I found an excellent new blog today, skelliewag.com (Oops, sorry, it’s skelliewag.org.)

I liked this post on creating gripping content and design, but everything I’ve clicked on has been good. She gives specifics on what to do, links to solid examples, and provides direction for how to fix stuff that isn’t working. I’ll be reading skelliewag regularly.

"If your site isn’t gripping, your other actions are wasted. Your articles might be top-notch, but if few visitors are gripped enough to read them from start to finish, you’ll never see the rewards those articles deserve."

(Hmmm, what can I fix here at remarkable communication?)

Just how evil is Bill Gates?

Teenybopbill A month or two ago, Seth Godin linked to this brutally embarrassing video of Bill Gates hanging out with Napoleon Dynamite.

Bill Gates is an interesting guy.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged more than $3.2 billion to improving health in the developing world. According to a speech Melinda Gates gave recently, "The reality is this: Every year, more than 10 million children die before they turn five, most of them from conditions we know how to prevent or treat."

(Maybe it’s Melinda who’s the real hero—the person who suggested a different compelling problem for Bill to spend his energy solving. Since I don’t know the Gateses, I’m making that story up. Kind of convincing, though, isn’t it?)

The Gates Foundation gets a lot of pushback from other players in the nonprofit community for a hard-nosed, rather cold attitude. But they’re also trying very hard to stop 3 million child deaths caused every year by preventable stuff like tetanus, measles, diarrhea, and hepatitis. And you know, they might succeed.

So Bill Gates is very probably the most universally hated person ever to try and save the lives of 3 million children a year. And, while they’re at it, fix education for the underclass in the U.S., develop an AIDS vaccine, and lift 2.5 billion people out of poverty. After the launch of Vista, that should be pretty easy.

So close . . .
The thing that fascinates me about this video is that it almost works. It has a completely believable premise. Based on Bill Gates’s public persona and mannerisms, it’s very easy to think that he’s basically a Napoleon Dynamite guy. A person with a grating lack of social skills who happens to be preternaturally good at something. (For Napoleon, it’s dancing; for Bill, it’s ruling the universe.) No one likes Napoleon Dynamite, but we figure he can’t help it.

The ten-car-pileup happens, as they so often do, in a matter of seconds. In the middle of this excruciating hymn to dorkdom, Bill takes a moment to update a character’s version of the Microsoft Office suite.

Crash
All of of a sudden we see the little man behind the curtain. We see that unappetizing moment of corporate self-interest, when so far we’ve been buying the story that Bill is just a lame goofball with a surprising talent.

I believe in what the Gates Foundation is doing (and how nice of them not to need my money to do it), and I applaud them for it. I think it might be easier for them to do their work if Bill Gates wasn’t a synonym for arrogance and evil. Which is why this video makes me sad and not just disgusted.

Know what you’re trying to say, and why you’re trying to say it. Don’t let anything get in the way of that.

Make yourself easy to find

I’m in the middle of trying to make a connection with a woman who has an amazing nonprofit project. Her project offers tremendous benefit to people who really need it, and I would love to help her get the word out. (I hope I can make a posting here tomorrow.)

Unfortunately, the only connection I’ve been able to make so far is on a MySpace page (for which I had to create a new account). There’s contact information here and there, but none of it quite works.

Remember that if you’re asking for help, especially for help on behalf of others, you need to make it incredibly easy. Make yourself easy to find. (This would be a great use for a gmail account.) Check your email pretty regularly. Create a simple single Web page that gives folks the basic information–what they can do to help and where they should send a check. Deliver a good old-fashioned call to action (for example, “Please send a check today to Johnny DoGood, at XYZ address . . . “).

You don’t have to spend a lot of money or a lot of time on this–there are a million great services that can help. I found this project on Squidoo, which is a terrific spot for it. Tumblr would also be excellent. Just make sure that you’re not putting up any barriers to letting others give you exactly what you want.

Donna, if you’re out there, I’d really love to reach you!

Tending your Web presence garden

window box with flowers
Flickr Creative Commons image by Sukanto_Debnath

“The greatest fertilizer is the shadow of the gardener.”

I’ve been a passionate gardener for many years. I heard that quote a long time ago, and it’s the mantra I live by for my garden. The more attention I put into it, the better results I get. It’s not a question of hovering–the seeds germinate and the plants develop at their own pace. But daily attention lets me capture small problems before they get big, notice my successes so I can create more of them, and create the right environment for my garden to flourish.

Can you sense a metaphor coming on? (Gardening is one of those great uber-metaphors–it works for everything.) The same daily attention that lets my garden flourish also helps my Web presence to grow organically.

(OK, metaphor veering into bad pun territory, sorry.)

Start with the soil

You won’t be able to grow anything more interesting than dandelions if you don’t understand your soil. Know (and fix) its deficiencies whenever you can. Understand what it’s going to grow well and what it will probably never be able to support.

To translate this to your Web presence, your “soil” is probably your understanding of your market. This doesn’t have to be commercial–your market could be your customers, your nonprofit donors, your church, your PTA–whoever it is that you want to influence and create a relationship with.

Notice that it’s your understanding of those folks that matters. You need to know what they want, what they worry about, what they value. If you don’t have that, any other work you do will be hit-or-miss, with more misses than hits.

That said, there’s not a gardener worth his salt who will wait until the soil is perfect before he starts planting. Soil is never perfect, and neither is understanding. Know when to get them to “good enough” to get started, and then keep amending.

Remember, too, that different soil is good for different plants. If you have alkaline clay and brutal sun, like we do here in most of Colorado, your desire for rhododendrons is going to be a painful and labor-intensive one. Try and communicate with folks you already have a feeling for. I’m never going to excel at the mass market or the ultra technical. That’s completely fine. I can reach millions of people with the messages that come most naturally to me.

Don’t plant a monocrop

Creating different Web points of contact is like planting different plants.  There are dozens if not hundreds of options now. Blogs, e-newsletters, static Web pages, Squidoo lenses, HubPages, ezine articles, Gather articles, Facebook, Tumblelogs.  Create a nice assortment to get the cross-pollination you need.

Remember not to create more sites or touchpoints than you can take care of. Each little content corner you create should be visited regularly, spruced up as needed, tested for broken links, and generally given some love and attention.

Different content types have different needs. Once your ezine (or Gather, or any of the other similar sites) article is written and published, you need to check it for errors that were introduced in the process, and then it will pretty much live on its own. You might check it every six months or so for broken links, but that should do it. On the other hand, to stay effective, you need to keep feeding your favorite article sites with new content, to build and maintain a reputation as a worthy authority on your subject.

(On that subject, I don’t recommend submitting the same article to multiple sites. Google discounts duplicated content. You can write dozens of articles on the same subject—just develop new examples and new metaphors. You can borrow the gardening analogy any time you like.)

Squidoo lenses do best with a fertilize-and-prune every couple of weeks. Add a content module, consider removing one that’s not performing, or update some of your links with fresher, more exciting stuff.

Contributing to social sites like Facebook or forums depends on developing trust with your friends–you probably want to check in at least once or twice a day. Twitter, of course, practically begs for a dozen-times-a-day updates.

And opinions differ about how often you should post on your blog, but once a week is probably the minimum, and most successful bloggers post at least once daily.

Always have a flat of seedlings to plant

I got this particular method from Ed Dale over at Thirty Day Challenge: create Google News, Google Blogs, and Technorati watches on the subjects you like to write about. Subscribe to all of these in an RSS reader. When an interesting story comes up, clip the most relevant points into a product like Backpack or Google Notes. I like to create a text file with 3-5 possible points I want to cover, and any juicy quotes or connections.

You’re a lot less likely to get shut down by writer’s block if you have plenty of irresistible idea seeds just waiting to be grown into solid content. Dale uses these to create tiny articles–just a few paragraphs–but the idea works just as well if you’re long-winded like I am.

For another source of ideas to develop, make a habit of tucking a few blank 3×5 cards into every book you read, whether for work or for pleasure. Copy down quotes (and identify them as such with very clear quote marks and a page number–you don’t want to become an accidental plagiarist). Scribble ideas, especially any connection you can make to something else. Every day, take your 3×5 cards for the day and transcribe them into your online tool. Paper is magnificent, but bytes win this one hands down.

And always credit the book where you originally found the idea–it’s just good manners, and it enhances your credibility. No one expects you, especially in the 21st century, to grow all your own ideas from the ground up.

Related viewing:

Darren Rowse’s nice video post on how blogging is like growing a lawn.

Do you make these common Web design mistakes?

I found this fabulous set of Web design mistakes over at Dosh Dosh. In addition to being a rant that gets the exact right level of sputter, it summarizes just about everything that doesn’t work on 95% of Web sites.

Each of these mistakes comes down to forgetting that your Web site isn’t about you, it’s about the people whose behavior you want to influence.

If any of this resonates at all, I have a homework assignment for you. Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think outlines everything you need to understand (and act on) to make your site work the way it should.

Whether you’re selling anything, buying anything, processing anything, selling anything bought or processed, buying anything sold or processed, processing anything sold, bought or processed, or repairing anything sold, bought or processed, you need Krug’s book.

Profuse apologies to John Cusack.

How to tell a story

Frogprince_crop Stories lie at the core of human nature. They're as important to our humanity as language and opposable thumbs. Storytelling doesn't belong to an exclusive group of novelists and screenwriters. We all tell stories, but some of them work better than others.

Persuasive stories have a long history. In the 70s, soap operas emphasizing family planning were broadcast in Mexico—leading to lower birth rates in the areas where they were shown. Similar soap operas have been produced around the world to promote birth control, AIDs awareness, the status of women, and better treatment of children. In the 80s, U.S. television writers were asked to work anti-drug storylines into sitcoms and dramas. And in the 21st century, Rupert Murdoch will be asking writers for his television shows to think about storylines that warn against global warming. Many writers hate didactic fiction, but it's probably as old as human language—certainly predating the bible and Aesop.

Today I thought I'd unpack a couple of tools used by professional writers to create stories that are memorable, engaging, and satisfying.

Protagonist
You probably know that the protagonist is the actor in your story. More specifically, the story happens as a result of the actions he takes. Readers in the English-speaking West have virtually no patience for protagonists who don't take concrete action.

Whether you're writing an ad, a 600-page novel, or an interesting blog post, the reader must empathize with the protagonist of your story. Typically the protagonist of an ad is some version of the customer. Very often in a story told by a nonprofit organization, the protagonist is the client—the person helped by the organization. But the reader still has to put himself in the shoes of that protagonist. This gets challenging when your typical donor is a multimillionaire and your typical client is a mentally ill homeless person wrestling with addiction. Stories are, in fact, probably the only vehicle powerful enough to make that kind of psychological transition.

There, but for the grace of god
Your protagonist does not, despite what many people think, need to be likeable. The reader needs to be able to empathize with the protagonist, but might not like him.

A tremendous example of this is found in the movie Monster. While you probably wouldn't want to invite Aileen Wuornos to a dinner party, the filmmaker constructs the story so that you can understand how she got there. If you have an unlikeable protagonist, you need to work out the "there but for the grace of god" factor. Find the storyline that we can relate to, even if our lives are very different.

Desire
Protagonists don't act until they want something. There is a gap between what they really, really want and what they actually have. The actions of the story move them closer or farther away from the object of that desire.

Taut, exciting stories usually spend a good chunk of time keeping the protagonist tantalizingly close to reaching her desire, then moving it just a little farther away. Stories tend to be most satisfying when the protagonist's strengths move her toward her desire and her weaknesses move her away from it.

To create the archetypal happy ending, your protagonist should achieve her heart's desire when her central strength overcomes her central weakness. Again, it's all a matter of empathy. Aren't those the most triumphant moments of your own life?

More resources
The craft of telling stories takes time to learn; the art takes a lifetime. Here are four exceptional resources if you want to explore more:

  • Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting is probably the most important storytelling manifesto you'll find today. (You might remember McKee as the writing guru in the movie Adaptation. I would say "fictionalized writing guru," but in fact the character was spookily spot-on.) McKee has exhaustively analyzed how good movies work, and boiled the important factors down for thousands of wannabe and successful screenwriters alike.
  • Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. This is a close second to McKee, outlining elements from myths and fairy tales that endure in popular stories of all kinds. Special bonus: you'll be able to annoy your friends while watching DVDs as you call out the by-now inevitable steps on the hero's journey. "Look, he's Refusing the Call! Hey, why are you throwing Doritos at me?"
  • Seth Godin's All Marketers Are Liars: The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World. Godin provocatively uses "lies" for "stories," which probably sold ten times as many copies of the book. He walks you through how stories can be used in a marketing context. My favorite quote from the book: "Fraud is marketing with side effects."
  • Chip Heath and Dan Heath's Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, an amazing list that describes what makes some stories (like urban legends) so much more likely to be passed around and remembered.

If you found this post useful, subscribe to my free email class on creating better content!

Do any of you ever look at your own tag clouds?

It’s like taking stock of what’s on the conveyer belt at the grocery store. Sometimes it’s fresh fruits & veggies and I feel virtuous; sometimes it’s a big pile of pop tarts.

I really like my cloud today.

It’s a remarkable day in the neighborhood

Frcrop Maureen pointed me to Steve Pavlina, who blogged about an amazing video of Fred Rogers addressing the U.S. Senate in 1969.

(Note, too, a good commentary at humorpower.com, also referenced by Pavlina.)

Pavlina uses it to show the power of tremendous authenticity. And yes, it’s that, but it’s much more than that. Tommy Lee is authentic–an authentic chucklehead.

Authenticity alone will not take you all the way to remarkable.

If you want to learn what it means to speak from a place of perfect integrity, passion, and sanity, make a study of this video. Take special note of the way Rogers effortlessly cuts through the environment of irony and cynicism.

I have to confess, my family wasn’t big on Mr. Rogers when I was growing up. He was too square, too buttoned-up. We were more a Sesame Street & Electric Company household–urban and sophisticated. Plus, Lady Elaine Fairchilde gave me the serious willies.

Now that he’s gone, I wish we still had Fred Rogers around. We really need him.