From the Creatively Oblivious to the Self-Aware

Never underestimate the power your mood holds over your creative work. I put mood up there with inspiration and incentive. Good moods lend themselves to producing good work, great moods for even better work. However, bad moods not only lead to poor work, but unfinished and post-deadline deliveries, and that’s why you need to take notice.

Self-awareness is a valuable attribute for anyone producing creative work. It should be part of the standard art school curriculum alongside other relevant subjects including psychological health and well-being, placed at the same level as Art History and Aesthetics. A holistic approach to a positive mindset can mean the difference between success and failure in the creative business.

Artists carry a stigma of brooding and general moodiness in American culture. An unfortunate contradiction to the celebrated and enlightened artist found in other cultures around the world. Perhaps this is because their efforts go unnoticed and under-appreciated in our society where hype is valued above integrity. Think summer blockbuster films and the huge overpriced video game releases each holiday season. The brooding artist stereotype does a wonderful disservice to creative folk of all types, as any other stereotype does. It will only change if enough artists consistently present themselves in a more positive light.

In the spirit of giving, because that’s the popular phrase to toss around at the moment, here are my suggestions on building your self-awareness to avoid becoming creatively oblivious. All actions that I have found to work well for me and I hope will benefit you too. By the way, I wasn’t intending to turn this into a touchy-feely confidence-boosting self-help thing; that would be so out of character for me.

You can’t change the people around you, but you can change whom you are around.

If someone else’s actions or behaviors are negatively affecting yours, do yourself a favor and remove yourself from the situation. Be respectful and respectable. Don’t pick a fight or complain. Don’t even consider trying to change the person to meet your immediate needs. If another person inquires about your removal from a situation, respond honestly about your needs with everything else in this paragraph in mind. Do not unload your frustrations unless you’re itching for a fight.

I bet you didn’t already know any of this. Right? Maybe in a different context. Or it has gone forgotten.

Recognize that you have full control over yourself.

Don’t be an ass towards others about your creative needs. Respect is key here too. Treat others no different than you expect them to treat you. This is groundbreaking advice you should have learned in kindergarten and from the people who raised you, even if wolves raised you.

Establish your creative space.

You need your quiet alone space. An environment you have complete control over where you can shut the door and not be disturbed. Where you can blast the Dropkick Murphys, Rihanna, or the Boston Pops when the mood hits. Where you can write by candlelight and an open window during a thunderstorm or paint under a full spectrum balanced floodlight rig. Whatever works. You’re full in control, and if you complain, do yourself a favor and punch yourself in the gut and stop complaining.

Pay attention to the quality of your work. Always.

Now you don’t want to enter the bad practice of editing as you create, that will stunt your flow and productivity. It’s expected that a first or rough draft is far from perfect, so let it happen, be shameless. However, as you revise and edit, take notice of how the work is shaping up. Is the quality sub-par in comparison to your usual output? If so, take a look at yourself; chances are the problem lies in your outlook. Straighten it out before you get back to work. Remember, you are in complete control. The same applies to writer’s block or other analogous scenarios in any medium.

Don’t spend your energy venting frustrations to others, use that energy for your art.

You woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning? That’s nice. No one wants to hear about it at work or the coffee shop or the bar. Seriously, no one does. Don’t bother trying. Refocus that kinetic energy toward your creative work. Take that anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, whatever; fashion it into a galvanized six foot spike and drive that passion into your art so hard the room is splattered in a colorful array of your creative juices. It feels great!

Whether you choose to take my advice or run amuck with your brooding self, just remember: the quality of your work is effected by how you feel.

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On writing in business: 5 Steps to avoiding tone-deaf emails

going 2 lunchSince I’ve been writing about work-related communications on this blog lately, I thought I would touch on a subject that makes my teeth hurt – tone-deaf emails. Now I know the proper usage and definition of tone-deaf, but I find its concept applicable to this subject on a multidimensional scale.

Tone-deaf emails are simply emails written with a total disregard to the tone, or emotion, the message conveys. I have received a lot of them in my professional life, I’m sure you have too. There are the gratuitously angry messages like, “you NEED to do this NOW!!!” in the subject line with a blank body. And there are the five words or less messages like “thanks – got it” or “can you do it????” They seem harmless enough, but consider receiving them several times an hour – all day every day. The sheer quantity of these simple messages adds up to piles of resentment and gnawing frustration as a complete lack of humanity grows apparent.

We all need humanity in our relationships with other people; communication, emails included, is a critical element in all relationships. But you already know this. Thing is, this applies to business relationships too, they are no less valuable than one with a spouse, child, or parent. So why treat business relationships as lesser status?

Here are five steps that should take up residence in your subconscious to avoid being tone-deaf in your work emails.

1. Mood is everything.

Think about the emails that piss you off. You feel like the sender is a nasty, ego-centric ogre who shows no gratitude or respect for your valuable time. These emails suck. They throw off your mood. Don’t be one of these tone-deaf senders. Don’t be an ogre.

The solution is actually quite easy, it just requires care and attention to detail, and an extra minute of your time for review, to avoid a tenure of acrimony. Start by maintaining professionalism. Be cheerful if appropriate, but don’t ever spew anger or frustration in an email. Simply stated, be nice and respectful. Even if it’s to communicate a negative topic. It makes the recipient more likely to cooperate rather than throw a chair at your head at the next meeting.

2. Timing is everything too.

You have full control over the time when composing an email. There is no prize for clicking that send button quickly. Save a draft for later if you’re in a hurry. Review, revise, and edit what you wrote, you can avoid mistakes that would otherwise lead to several back-and-forth question and answer sessions clarifying what you originally wrote – how annoying is that? I’ve seen it happen to people I work with, it becomes stressful on both ends.

3. Be decisive.

It’s incredibly unnecessary to include your thought and decision-making processes. No one wants or needs to read, “hmmmmmm … let me think about this … maybe … not sure … well, okay …… yeah … let’s go with it.” Be decisive and direct, leave out the garbage.

4. Brevity counts, but only if it’s clear.

Like my examples in the introduction, those five words or less messages can lead to many questions wasting a lot of time. “That project from a few weeks back – status?” does not accomplish clarity, especially when considering the average person has several concurrent projects at any given time. Going back to mood, it’s easy to be ambiguous. What you may consider a good-natured message may come across as negative to a recipient who is having a bad day.

Keeping it short is fine, generally a good thing, but be specific in message and mood. Humanity matters here.

5. Good grammar and punctuation shows you care.

Just like good manners at the dinner table, good grammar and proper use of punctuation show you care about what you do, that you care about others, and how you want to be perceived. Sadly, I see a serious decline in all forms of online and digital communication. I cringe at ninety percent of the content I see on Twitter and Facebook.

There are thousands of articles on this topic available online, so all I will say is this: think about how you want others to see yourself before sending a message like: “Hey, r u going 2 lunch at 1??? Ill prolly b late.”

Take a minute to look at what you wrote before hitting send.

It’s the difference between being a good communicator or a tone-deaf pejorative you don’t want people calling you behind your back.

On writing in business: Stop overdoing it!

I read a book recently that went to great lengths to describe a point. I’m talking several long paragraphs to convey what should have taken a few sentences, maybe a few more. And this exhaustive technique occurred repeatedly throughout each section in chapter. My patience withered as my attention span changed channels; I had to stop. I skimmed the remaining six chapters as I was able to pick up the points from the first few pages of each. Why the author chose this route is anyone’s guess. Unfortunate because it held a lot of great advice.

Have you ever receive work emails in the same vein? I’m talking about lengthy, dense texts with way too many superfluous words laced with jargon to sound impressive: “In an effort to better optimize our production levels and synergize our teams….” I bet we share a similar disdain for openers like that.

For those of you who struggle with brevity and clarity in your work emails and other similar communications, I’m here to offer my help. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and lost at seas when trying to compose a simple message containing a lot of important information.

1. Keep it simple and concise.

That’s fairly straightforward, I think. Remove extra words that don’t relay the message. For example, no one needs to read your thought process in an email as portrayed by the trivial “hmmmmmmm…..” It’s an email, not a live conversation. You have time to make decisions, to research your thoughts, to edit and re-edit before you hit Send. Use that time wisely. You have complete power over what your email will say.

2. Avoid jargon and buzzwords.

A recent article I found on Ragan’s PR Daily, “13 responses to ‘dumbing-down’ writing” was probably written with the same attitude as this blog entry. Author Clare Lynch brings to light an important point I wish everyone I’ve ever worked with understood – “use jargon, and 74 percent of people will think you don’t understand your own words.” I jokingly used jargon in my above email opener sample because it has become so ubiquitous. And that is the sad part. I see words like leverage heavily misused along with redundant phrases like circle back.

My point is this: use simple English – or any other language you speak – to communicate your messge. Choose your own words, the words that reflect what you are thinking and feeling about the topic at hand. That is how you will communicate most effectively. Honest simplicity. Not the meaningless jargon everyone in the office has copied to death.

3. Proofread and revise.

I know, proofing and revising was such a pain in high school. It was annoying extra work, especially for lovers of the first draft – another blog topic entirely. As annoying as it was to slave away at revisions under your whip-yielding English teacher’s direction, that was a lifelong critical skill for improving your abilities to interact with others, assuming you live in a society among other humans.

As I stated earlier in point number one – you have complete control over your communication. There really is no excuse to send an email filled with errors or a wrong message. You have full control over when you release that message, so take the extra few minutes to read it over; correct grammar and punctuation, confirm your statements are accurate, and remove anything that will get you in trouble. What’s it take – an extra two minutes? It can save you hours or weeks of problems at work.

4. Watch your tone.

Email, memos, and other similar communication methods are emotionless by nature. You are in control with how your message comes across based on your word choices. It’s easy for a joke to come across as an insult, so avoid that altogether. I have often received emails in which the sender seemed angry and accusatory without any reason for it. Yet, that same person on the phone was pleasant and easy to work with.

Words always matter. Read what you wrote aloud. Remove words that sound harsh or sleazy. If you’re not sure, replace it. Ideally, you want to come across as confident, succinct, and likable. Those qualities will help improve working relationships with your colleagues.

5. Be direct.

Last point of this blog for tonight. Don’t talk in circles, don’t overload your message with superfluous information, don’t offer asides and personal anecdotes. If the backstory you started to write has nothing to do with the reason you are sending this message, delete it. If you have included extra details that may confuse the recipient, kill them.

Directness is terribly important, yet I see it overlooked far too often. Try it. You’ll feel better about emailing your colleagues. Remember, good manners matter.

 

I know there are plenty of other recommendations from communication pros out there. Feel free to share them in the comments below. It would be great to hear from you.

Social Media for Small Business & Writers: Organic and Human

Norwalk River, Spring 2013One thing I’ve encountered countless times while working for a marketing and advertising agency in the mid-2000s was that small businesses, non-profits, and self-employed individuals had a lack of knowledge when it came to self-promotion. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into a new client situation and view a history of bad advertisements, low-grade television spots, malfunctioning websites, and other underperforming efforts, usually self-produced by a family member with an interest in computers mid-way through their first year of college.

I understand the desire to save money, particularly for these small-scale entities and sole proprietors. Covering overhead month-to-month is critical. You do what you have to do. And I respect the DIY attitude – Do It Yourself for those who don’t know – as a hyperactive DIY streak courses through my circulatory system. I do know how to recognize, however, when I need the help of a pro, especially when it becomes an investment in the business. Chances are, the work a professional produces will outperform any low budget attempt and earn back the expenses at an exponential. The key is to continue the endeavor: a marketing campaign is only effective for as long as it lasts.

This is where social media comes in to play, as an affordable (free) DIY undertaking. Guidance by a professional marketer or advertiser will help if the funds are there to support it, but any small business or organization has full access to this broad medium.

Twitter was born during my final year at the agency. At that time, it wasn’t even a consideration as a marketing tool. If the term social media was coined by then, I don’t recall anyone ever using it. It certainly wasn’t part of the discussion at work beyond a colleague once telling me, “you haven’t heard about Twitter? You have to check it out!” Facebook was not available to the public yet, MySpace was enjoying its short-lived heyday, and LinkedIn was an up-and-coming professional networking tool. For the purposes of our clients, however, there didn’t appear to be anything in this realm worth investigating.

Fast forward six years, and I’ve spent that time working in a corporate position, managing corporate communication, and more recently transitioning to ecommerce. Social media has become a crucial medium in both disciplines. Even though I work in a corporate setting now, I still keep the small business mentality in perspective, it’s where I come from, after all, and I always want to see them succeed. And the first step in using social media to do this is to use it.

Whether we are talking about a two-person design agency, a local non-profit providing care for AIDS patients, or a freelance writer, building awareness is critical to developing new business. A web presence is standard for any business or organization that wants to be found. Not a yellow pages listing, not a classified ad in the local weekly paper, and definitely not an illegible paper sign taped to a lamppost at a busy intersection; an easy to find web presence is the norm. That’s how consumers look for services they require now, how they conduct competitive research, read first-hand customer reviews, and compare prices without leaving the couch. Consumers aren’t necessarily customers; they can be potential patients and students. And to use this to your advantage, you need to be easy to find.

Easy to find means having proliferated your web presence in various social media channels sharing interesting and insightful information relative to the services offered. More importantly, is your development of thought leadership, achieved over time and by example, through sharing knowledge and insightful information on blog posts, articles and other web media that establish a level of confidence and trust in the researching consumer. You want that potential customer to read or watch your content and feel they found exactly what they were looking for, and more.

Small organizations have a unique advantage in the realm of social media over larger corporate entities. Being small, the human factor is always prevalent. The individuals behind the business are not separated from the customer by automated phone services and faceless product websites. As a result, they are able to capitalize on their individual uniqueness made up of the services and the humans involved in providing them, not to mention local community involvement and level of volunteer commitment for the non-profits. These intrinsic human assets provide the strength and empathy required to build relationships with others who hold shared interests – as a provider or recipient – critical in developing a following to spread awareness and grow the business.

Regardless of what type of small entity I’m talking to, the rules are the same in social media. After a thorough presence has been established – an uncluttered website emphasizing your prowess, which can be achieved through a blog if you’d prefer – the second major step is relationship building. That is what social networking is all about, building relationships. There are several ways to do this; here are some I recommend based on my own experiences and successes:

  1. Join conversations. When you see a discussion topic on a social network, blog, or forum, join it. Offer your perspective rooted in your area of expertise. Be wary of offering opinions or statements you cannot back up, however, particularly in discussions with high emotions and sensitivity. Your goal is to win friends and influence others, to borrow from Dale Carnegie, not fall into arguments. Overall, maintain professionalism. And use your true identity with links back to your web presence. You’ll build credibility and potentially earn a few new followers.
  2. Share relevant and interesting information. Occasionally you will stumble across a current event that relates to your area of expertise – share it on all of your social networks. You will be surprised at how many in your audience (potential customers) appreciate reading articles they might not have otherwise encountered. This puts you in the know, you become a centralized resource for aggregating this information with a human touch, not an automated script sitting on someone’s web server delivering stories that match keywords.
  3. Insert yourself in the story. Take a page from marketing and public relations guru David Meerman Scott. In his eBook Newsjacking, Scott describes a marketing niche of inserting your perspective into a current news story. That is, you release an article, a blog post, or other communication that answers the situation at-hand in the current event, such as offering a free service to help the subject in need, or to immediately position yourself as the authority on the topic. Two important details cannot be overlooked: authenticity is a must, and timeliness is everything. The longer you wait – we’re talking minutes, maybe an hour – the sooner another will grab the opportunity before you can. It’s aggressive, but it can yield a ton of free publicity in the form of syndication by other blogs and the mainstream media, including follow-up interviews from reporters covering the event. As long as you are confident in handling what surprises come your way, newsjacking can open some major doors through social media at no cost.
  4. Be yourself. You are human. Your audience is human; they can detect the difference between authenticity and nonsense without much more than a gut feeling. Developing credibility in social media is a necessity in growing your business. Therefore, be honest and sincere, don’t exaggerate facts, and don’t speak in hyperbole. And don’t put on airs.
  5. Consistent activity is key. Setting a cadence in publishing content to your social networks and blog helps develop reader loyalty. Readers come to know your rhythm quickly, such as expecting to see a new blog every Sunday morning. There are automated tools that can help you maintain a publishing schedule, though I prefer to do it manually because it feels natural to allow some variance in the hour of day I publish. And that lets readers know I am actually performing the task, not automated software.
    You cannot forget the operative word activity in this matter; there is nothing worse to a loyal audience than a social media account or blog that has unexpectedly become dormant for a long period of time. It implies you’ve lost interest, have nothing more to say, you’re out of business, or other more tragic matters. Should a business closure occur, keep your social media presence alive, continue building your reputation, and make sure your loyal audience knows where to find you after the business closes. And if you’ve decided to discontinue your blog, give your audience the courtesy of knowing.
  6. Silence is the worst kind of response. Since social media makes businesses directly accessible to customers, feedback is bound to occur. Whether positive or negative, you need to respond in a relatively short time. Sometimes a simple message of gratitude is all that’s necessary to let your customer know you are listening and care. The same applies when a customer voices a negative response – offer to help that customer resolve the situation by replacing the product or whatever remedy is most appropriate. An unhappy customer who receives argumentative or apathetic responses is likely to share that negative experience with his or her own network. And negativity has a tendency to spread much faster on the web than positivity, an unfortunate truth.

No matter what your profession is, the size of your business, or the role you play in it, all of these guidelines are applicable. Building and maintaining relationships with your potential and existing customers is now the standard method of doing business. Once you begin this endeavor it becomes a commitment, and a valuable piece of your business growth.

Lastly, have fun with it. The best kind of work is produced when you enjoy doing it. Post content you like to write about or read. Help others by answering questions and offering suggestions. The concepts of karma apply here, through basic humanity and goodwill. Social media is an organic process; it is as human as you make it.

On writing aesthetics: inferences and implications

Child of God by Cormac McCarthyHere I am recovering from another great Cormac McCarthy novel trying to figure out my take on aesthetics for this week. I finished reading Child of God the other day and I’m still piecing together what exactly it is about his writing I love so much. His style holds an intriguing dichotomy of illustrative scenery that grabs all senses juxtaposed with minimalist storytelling.

When I say minimalist, I mean it in the proper sense; McCarthy’s prose are not at all over-simplified, rather, they are tight and methodical. Every word of action and dialog is intentional, including every word he leaves out forcing the reader to engage. There is no room allowed for flowery superfluous language to gently carry the reader downstream. Such a passive reader would be lost on the first few pages blindly tripping over the gaps.

I had originally thought it was the lush environments and creative word choices I was enamored with. After deeper introspection I realized it was this minimalist technique inducing reader engagement. I like to be challenged as a reader, to connect implied situations to each other and draw conclusions, not once being told what to think.

McCarthy is a genius in this regard. I cared about the pathetic life of Lester Ballard – an uneducated 27-year-old cave-dwelling psychopath – despite his vile behavior and despicable actions. I don’t recall a single redeeming instance in this character’s life, yet I was vested in his day-to-day survival living on the fringe of a rural community.

Not once did McCarthy tell me I am supposed to care about the protagonist, nor did he tell me to hate him. In fact, most of what I learned about the character was indirect. Small details were leaked throughout the novel revealing just how screwed up this guy was, wearing the ill-fitting clothes and stitched-together scalps of his victims while collecting their corpses for his pleasure. Gruesome on every level. Only a few actual violent acts are fully depicted, yet the reader can infer these acts occur frequently at similar magnitude.

She was lying in the floor but she was not dead. She was moving. She seemed to be trying to get up. A thin stream of blood ran across the yellow linoleum rug and seeped away darkly in the wood of the floor. Ballard gripped the rifle and watched her. Die, goddamn you, he said. She did. (p. 119)

He’d long been wearing the underclothes of his female victims but now he took to appearing in their outerwear as well. A gothic doll in illfit clothes, its carmine mouth floating detached and bright in the white landscape. (p. 140)

Perhaps that is the root of McCarthy’s hold over me as a reader – the inherent aesthetic beauty of his writing – the fact that he produced for me subliminal responses on top of the conscious conclusions I was formulating. But there are multiple other levels to appreciate, beautifully crafted sentences and careful word choices to minimalistic story-telling.

Old woods and deep. At one time in the world there were woods that no one owned and these were like them. He passed a windfelled tulip poplar on the mountainside that held aloft in the grip of its roots two stones the size of fieldwagons, great tablets on which was writ only a tale of vanished seas with ancient shells in cameo and fishes etched in lime. Ballard among gothic treeboles, almost jaunty in the outsized clothing he wore, fording drifts of kneedeep snow, going along the south face of a limestone bluff beneath which birds scratching in the bare earth paused to watch. (pp. 127-128)

Was he cognizant of this capability to induce multiple response levels when writing the book forty years ago? Perhaps, I recall a similar reaction to reading The Road. I plan to read more of his work to find out.