Thursday, November 26, 2009

12 Books You May Enjoy

I offer here a dozen books I've read over the past year that you may enjoy. I list them in no particular order. I have included fiction and non-fiction, business books and books about books. I promise that each is well written and interesting.

1.) War Dance by Sherman Alexie. Alexie writes mainly from a Native American point of view and this collection of stories continues that theme. Regardless, he writes with passion and precision and makes us see the "Indian experience" from a whole new perspective. If you have no interest in Indians, you will nonetheless enjoy the flow of this great writing from a man who has won major writing awards, even for a children's book.

2.) The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Bartlett. If you love books, you will love this story of rare booksellers trying to catch a thief who specializes in rare books. They get him, he gets away, he never stops because of his obsession for books as he and his pursuers share much in common.

3.) Hunting Eichmann by Bascomb. Adolph Eichmann, Nazi war criminal and functionary responsible for "managing" the deaths of millions of Jews during the Second World War, eluded authorities for years, living in South America. Almost by accident his location is revealed and as we read along with this terrific story we wonder if he will be caught, even as we know he was!

4.) Sway by Branfman. Ever wonder how we influence each other? This book reveals how pilots, and many others, have learned to question authority so that they diminish errors based on appeals to authority. Anyone in sales or marketing should read this small, but, well written, book.

5.) Yes! 50 Scientifically proven ways to be persuasive by Goldstein, Martin and Cialdini. Anyone who sees the name Cialdini knows he or she is in for a useful and enjoyable reading experience. Robert Cialdini is, of course, the guru of influence and persuasion. As a co-author of this small book, he influences the fine writing and storytelling to deliver much useful information on persuasion. If you are in business, read this little book.

6.) Columbine by Cullen. Most Americans remember the tragedy of Columbine High School. Cullen, a Denver reporter, was there through the whole tragedy. In his book with the skill of a mystery writer, he takes us through the lives of the victims and perpetrators as we watch the whole ugly thing unfold.

7.) Zeitoun by Eggers. Dave Eggers is a well known and accomplished writer, editor and cultural phenomenon. In this fascinating book he follows the tribulations of a Muslim man, an immigrant to America who builds a business in New Orleans only to see it threatened by Hurricane Katrina. Zeitoun decides to stay in New Orleans, even after everyone is ordered out of the city. He is then arrested and the story becomes more intense and ultimately uplifting.

8.) Book of Genesis by R. Crumb. Need I say more? Whatever Crumb writes/draws demands attention. When the subject matter involves the first book of the Christian Bible, we must sit up and take notice. Crumb doesn't disappoint us as he draws a surprisingly sensitive rendering of the Christian notion of the world's origins.

9.) Buy-ology by Lindstrom. This researcher takes us inside the human mind to show why we buy things and why we may be at risk to the companies who also know why we buy things.

10.) Let the Great World Spin by McCann. This just won the National Book Award which tells you it's not too shabby. If deals with the aftermath of 911 and is a pleasure to read. It proves itself worthy of this country's big writing award.

11.) Tears in the Darkness by Norman. WWII had its share of atrocities and agonies but probably none greater than the Bataan Death March. Norman shows the horrors of that tragedy by following an American from the Mid-West as he is imprisoned and forced to be a slave laborer as thousands die around him.

12.) The Tyranny of E-Mail by Freeman. This delightful book traces the development of e-mail and our addiction to it. The book begins with the telegraph and brings us to our great dependence on electronic communication, the tool that some call indispensable while others call "e-vil mail"!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wanna Read a Great Book?

Get yourself a copy of "The Chaos Scenario - Amid the Ruins of Mass Media, the Choice for Business is Stark: Listen or Perish" by Bob Garfield.

I know the title sounds HEAVY and it does discuss some very serious topics, but this book is a joy to read. Garfield, who writes for Ad Age as an editor-at-large and co-hosts NPR's "On the Media", writes with simplicity and humor that border on brilliance. The book is really fun to read.

Garfield says early in the book that he considered naming it "Listenomics" but that the titles "Wikinomics" and Freakonomics" made him re-consider. In any event, he proves in 300 pages that the "Digital Revolution" is really a revolution. And, he didn't need to persuade me. I have watched over the last few years as everything I knew about PR, for instance, changed. Garfield discusses and proves this paradigm wittily.

He calls his first chapter "The Death of Everything"! In it he shows how traditional media are slowly fading with fewer audiences, fewer revenues and many more competitors. This reflects Garfield's theme of nothing less than "...the re-ordering of media, marketing and commerce triggered by the revolution in digital technology."

Now, I guess most of us knew this was happening, right? But, Garfield quotes many who should know better who have their heads up their $%#s who don't seem to think there's any urgency to the problem. In proving his points in the book Garfield visits You Tube, Lego, Barack Obama, the Dallas Morning News, Rupert Murdoch, Jesus, Satan, Vista and a hundred other media, moguls and movers-and-shakers to prove his points, all of them entertainingly.

To TV executives, Garfield days, "So long boob tube, hello You Tube" and he does everything but call CBS CEO Les Moonves an incompetent. In proving our need to change things and listen better, Garfield cites Jim Stengel, retired CMO of P&G, who, in discussing where to spend P&G's $6 billion marketing budget, said, "The old model is broken."

In another chapter, "The Post-Advertising Age", that will surely capture the attention of his employer, Garfield quotes Randall Rothenberg, CEO of the Internet Advertising Bureau, who says, "Today the average 14-year old can create a global television network with applications that are built into her laptop." And, so it is. Have you ever watched "Fred" on You Tube? If not, check it out!

Proctor & Gamble serves Garfield well and often in the book. He quotes P&G CEO A. G. Lafley who said, "We need to reinvent the way we market to consumers." (A. G., hear me; give up using "market" as a verb). To make the point, Garfield tells the story of Six Flags who wanted to celebrate its 45th anniversary by giving away 45,000tickets to the place. They told their agency, OgilvyInteractive North America, to do whatever needed to be done. (Agencies love to hear that.) But, someone in interactive put the tickets on "Craigslist" and they disappeared in five hours. Ogilvy took little solace (and less commission) on that.

As in the Six Flags example, agencies aren't sure what exactly to do. Media are going out of business, agencies are going out of business or trying to figure out how to be of any service to anyone, and we, the Great Unwashed, are being put in charge! And, to top it off YouTube, Facebook and the rest have no revenue models. Interesting times we live in! A real Chaos Scenario!

But, whatever Garfield discusses, he does it with humor and a voice all his own. For instance in talking about viral messages and SEO, Garfield tells us about the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty "Unilever and Ogilvy had waged the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, with website, ads (online and off), Dove Self-Esteem Fund and an ongoing education campaign aimed mainly at girls, to inculcate them with a sense of confidence and worth. They weren't lectured that beauty is only skin deep, and that what really counts is our inner selves; children aren't that stupid, and they know that how we all look matters in ways large and small. But, they were told, and presented with many lovely examples, of physical beauty that doesn't conform to the freakish standards of Hollywood and the fashion industry. From the beginning it was a fascinating exercise.

"From one perspective, all involved were vulnerable to massive eye rolling on basic hypocrisy grounds; Unilever also makes Slim Fast, which encourages yo yo dieting. And it sells Axe and Lynx, body sprays advertised to young males as surefire means to get in the pants of steamin' hot babes, who, of course, look like human Barbie Dolls. As for Ogilvy, in a bit of horrifying/delicious irony, it is the ad agency for actual Barbie Dolls."

The book is full of such funny and meaningful examples with Garfield romping through anybody's garden, trampling on our rosebuds and tearing the blinders from all of us who think the King still has clothes on. He does it with wit, sarcasm, and none-to-subtle stabbing at the most sacred of our cows. If you want to learn and prepare for the current chaos, read Bob Garfield's "The Chaos Scenario". You will have one helluva good time doing it.

Did you ever watch yourself?

I was recently invited to teach a lesson in communication at a Heinz College course for future consultants. I was invited by the associate dean of the Heinz College School of Information Systems Management, Andy Wasser. When I went to the classroom, I saw that Andy was wearing a microphone, which he transferred to me after he introduced me. Then, of course, I saw the video camera in the corner of the room.

I lectured for about 30 minutes, aware that the camera was following my every move while animating myself as much as possible. If I were going to be taped, I thought, I wanted to make a good impression.

It wasn't the first time I had ever been taped. As a long time PR guy, I had seen my share of TV interviews, mostly for a minute or two. I had seen my name in newspaper quotes and heard myself on brief radio snippets. And, I have taught for five years on the Internet, knowing that the sessions were being recorded. But, this was the first time I had ever been videotaped at length, and taped doing the thing I thought I was good at, teaching.

When Andy sent me the link to the taping, I watched it, cringing at every mistake. At times, I actually felt as if I were watching someone else. It's spooky! "Who's that old guy?" I wondered. "He needs to learn to face the camera and not turn to reveal his bald spot." For all the enthusiasm and energy I thought I had, I didn't see enough. It awakened me!

I suppose I should have done this long before. My colleague at Heinz College, Chris Labash, tapes his students in his Professional Speaking classes all the time. And, he provides them one extremely valuable service; he tapes them in a mock job interview. I strongly suggest to anyone looking for a job to be taped in a mock interview. You will see yourself as others see you and you may be surprised. In fact, you may be aghast!

If you're not looking for a job but have a public position as a salesperson or customer service representative, or any other role that puts you routinely in front of others, you need to do this. You will see yourself as your customers and colleagues and others see you. And, you may not recognize that person!

I wasn't aghast, but I wasn't thrilled, either. Even so, I asked my colleague, Bob Taylor who handles Internet stuff at Heinz College, to put the link to the video on my website for my friends and family to watch. I also put a link to an interview I did for the Voice of America (the TV version of VOA). I have to say that I felt better about that performance. It was subsequently translated into Urdu and gave me a good laugh watching my lips move while someone else spoke in a language very foreign to me (the link on my website is in English).

So, I invite you to watch me at and I STRONGLY encourage you to get yourself taped. Call Chris Labash; he does this kind of work as a consultant. He'll help you improve your presentation. And, you'll get a look at yourself that will be both interesting and enlightening!

Pittsburgh City Planning Strikes Again!

A few years ago, the Department of City Planning in Pittsburgh managed to frighten many homeowners with a badly written letter about a new zoning initiative called "Map Pittsburgh." The letter used lots of jargon, passive voice, long words and sentences and a demeaning tone. Homeowners who tried to read the letter, like my (then)86-year old mother-in-law, thought they were breaking the law. Many of these people complained to the City and the letter had to be re-written and re-sent (your tax dollars at work).

That letter served me very well in my role as writing teacher to public policy and public management graduate students at the Heinz College of Carnegie Mellon University. I have used the Map Pittsburgh letter in my classes for years as an example of how not to write. I'd share it with you here, but I have another, a 2009 version of equally awful, bureaucratic writing. This one arrived, again, at my mother-in-law's house, and she had no idea what it meant. I offer it here for your enjoyment:

"Dear resident:
A bill has been introduced in City Council and referred to the Planning Commission for a report and recommendation. The bill proposes a text amendment to the Zoning Code that revises sections in the Code governing uses permitted in the UI, Urban Industrial District; GI, General Industrial District; and EMI, Educational/Medical Institution District. The proposed amendment would require that a number of uses in those districts be permitted as conditional uses. A copy of the proposed text amendment may be reviewed at the Zoning Office on the 3rd floor of 200 Ross St., Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m.

The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed text amendments on: Tuesday, December 8, 2009 @ 2:00 p.m. John P. Robin Civic Building, 1st Floor 200Ross Street, Pittsburgh, PA.

Testimony presented by individuals will be limited to 3 minutes each. Testimony presented by a spokesperson representing an organization will be limited to 5 minutes each, and the spokesperson shall provide a “Letter of Authorization” from the appropriate officers. Prepared comments may be presented in lieu of testimony, and testimony should not be read from a prepared statement but may be summarized as testimony with the prepared statement handed to the Commission for their review."

Is that a beauty of bureaucracy and befuddlement, or what!? Can any of you tell me what that first paragraph says or what it asks a (now) 94-year old widow with an 8th grade education to do? I read it a few times and had little understanding. Because I know the area, however, I had a clue. It involved the following language: "uses permitted in...Medical/Educational". I had a sense that Allegheny General Hospital had something to do with this zoning business since my mother-in-law lives half a block away from AGH.

But, really! Is this the way to communicate with people? Does this sound like "newspeak" from the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's Oceania? If nothing else, it borders on the kind of messages sent to the Proles by Big Brother in the novel "1984." That language was meant to conceal, not reveal. It depended on passive constructions where the doer of action is anonymous and buzz words are empty of meaning.

I copied the language of the city's recent letter into a Word document and then did a readability scan of it. My computer, using the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Index told me that the writing is 50% passive with 26.1 words per sentence (15 is recommended), a grade level of 14 and reading ease of 31.3 (100 is best). Many newspapers recommend a grade level of 8-11 because, despite gains in literacy, people do not read well. In fact the New York Times published an article recently stating that "Literacy Falls for Graduates from College."

A letter such as the city's, if it is to be mass mailed to blocks of residents, must aim for the 8-11 grade level readers. Hell, I have a Masters degree in English and I have little idea what the letter says. Whatever the reading levels, our democracy depends on the free flow of information between government and its constituents. We must know what our public servants are doing and we must easily understand what they are telling us. Of course, this isn't possible in the anonymous letter above sent by the Department of City Planning to "Bloc & Lot: 23-H-151 Welty Dorothy F."

The recent letter was not signed (even Patrick Ford, despite his failures, signed the earlier letter). I don't blame the City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning writer (likely a lawyer) for being anonymous in this year's version. I wouldn't want anyone to know that I had written it either.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Shame on the New York Times!

An article in the New York Times today announces, "How To Market Your Business with Facebook ". Check it out at this link:

The writer tells us how to use Facebook to interact with our customers and in one place says, "It's not about selling." That's right! It's not about selling. But, it will always be about selling until we learn to use the "M" word correctly.

"Market" is not a verb (or infinitive). As long as we treat it as such, we will make all of the errors associated with product and service failure. When we discuss "How to market our businesses", we link back to the old days of creating products and services and waiting for customers to fall in love with them. Or, we morph back to the days when we threw dollar after dollar at the promotion of our beloved products and services only to find that no one else loved them. Then we threw up our hands and said we didn't "market" them enough!

David Ogilvy said, "Marketing is objectivity." We need to think about how someone might use our products or services not how beautiful we think they are. Philip Kotler said, "Marketing begins long before there's ever a product or service." We need to have a bias for research. Peter Drucker said, "A business only has one purpose: to create a customer." As long as businesses live by the mistaken notion that "If we build it they will come", we will have product and service failures. As Kotler said, "Marketing senses, serves, and satisfies the wants and needs of customers." As such, it must start with the sensing part.

As long as businesses say, "We need to market this more" we will have wasted promotional dollars. We will be selling. And, no amount of selling can move a product that no one wanted or needed in the first place.

Writers, like the one who wrote the aforementioned Times headline, are well advised to substitute, "How to understand your customer better with Facebook." That's what the article suggests anyway. That is, listen to your customers on Facebook, enter a dialogue with them, ask them about their wants and needs. Then, create a product or service to satisfy those wants and needs.

I know. It borders on a pet peeve. But, our actions follow our words. Our words reflect our values. And, many marketing sins are committed because creative types are busy using their favorite colors, typefaces and poetic language so as to win awards while not focusing on the customer. Too many workers are too busy gazing at their navels and delivering no, or poor, customer service. When things start to go bad, they turn to their old language and say, "We needed to market this better", as if more promotion will answer anyone's needs. Geez, even Don Draper understood the notion. On a Season One episode of Mad Men he exhorted a copy writer to "focus on benefits, not features."

So, all of you marketers out there, when you catch yourself using "market" as a verb, send me a dollar. We'll put the money in a safe place and give it to a worthy cause at the end of the year, "The Old Marketers Retirement and Travel Fund." Believe me, the dollars will add up quickly and we'll all be able to vacation in Rome!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How did Abe do?

We took the boys and my sister Dianne to Gettysburg a few weeks ago (or should I say, she took us). Anyway, the battlefield, the new cyclorama and the new museum impressed us.

If you visit the museum, you will see displays that include General Robert E. Lee's gloves and buttons and many other very interesting artifacts. As you leave the museum, you come to a room with a wall-sized photo of Abe Lincoln and his famous Gettysburg Address. (I took a photo of my son Alex in front of Abe and posted it on Facebook if you want to see Abe in scale).

As you sit in this small room, you will hear a recorded version of the Address by a famous actor. It's very impressive and moving. I highly encourage everyone to visit the new museum (especially on a weekday in the Spring when school's in session an it's warm).

In any event, the visit started me to thinking again about the speech, famous for its directness and simplicity (especially as compared to the other speeches delivered that day). And, I've been talking to my classes about readability and the use of the readability tool on their (and your) computers.

If you go to spellcheck and click on "options", your computer will give you a list that includes the readability tool. I encourage you to do that. It provides you with a measure of the readability of any document. It measures readability according to the number of words, the number of sentences, the amount of passive voice, the length of words and sentences. It does this with the (correct) assumption that short words, sentences and paragraphs are easier to read.

So, I copied the famous Gettysburg Address into Word and checked the readability. Here's what I found: It has 271 words; those words use 1196 characters; it has only three paragraphs and 10 sentences for 3.3 sentences per paragraph. The speech has 27words per sentence and the words average 4.2 characters. It has 20% passive constructions and has a reading ease of 65 (100 is best). Finally my computer tells me that the grade level required to understand the speech is 10.9. All of this is according to a system devised by Flesch and Kincaid.

What's to be said, then, about the readability of the document that is acclaimed as a masterpiece of directness and simplicity? Well, it is brief and it expresses profound thoughts in a direct way. It uses mostly short words and keeps the passive voice to a minimum. But is has some shortcomings.

I couldn't find literacy or grade level statistics for 1865, but I'm inclined to think they were lower than they are today. In fact, literacy is at 99% in America but the New York Times recently said literacy for college graduates in the US is falling! So, how many Americans in 1865 understood a speech delivered at an 11th grade level? I am most bothered by the 27 word sentences. The Kansas City Star did a study that said readers' comprehension falls when sentences are over 15 words.

Ultimately I like the speech (except for the "Four score" part) but I have a masters degree and can figure out Abe's sentiments. And, I'm not saying it is a bad speech (and, it was meant to be heard, not read). But, I'm also not surprised that the speech generated so little attention at the crowded cemetery that day. Abe was an intelligent, self-educated guy. He wrote mostly very direct messages, messages aimed at his intellectual equals, those most likely to be decision makers or those most likely to be concerned with those decisions. He wrote a poetic and moving passage that day at Gettysburg but few of the poorly educated in the audience knew it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Interviewing for a job?

Or, do you know anyone who is interviewing? If so, you might want to send them my FREE book, "Ask the right questions; Get the right job." I wrote the book, got myself a New York agent and a publisher. But, the agent and the publisher wanted 20,000 more words (bigger book, bigger price tag). I didn't have that much more to say, so I'm giving the book away. I posted it on my website as a pdf under "books" at this link: Go there! Read the book. Give it to your friends who are interviewing. The book will show them how to make a conversation out of an interview. That will help them have a meaningful and successful interview!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Don't you just love words!

Did any of you get a flu shot? A vaccine? Did you get the swine flu vaccine? If so, you might be interested to know that you received, in a manner of speaking, a cow shot! How so, you ask?

The word vaccine comes from the Latin word "vacca" meaning, you guessed it, cow! Long ago, like three hundred years ago, a Dr. Jenner noticed that milkmaids were immune from small pox but getting cowpox, so, for some strange reason, he used the pus (yuck) from a milkmaid's cowpox blister to inject into a child who became immune to small pox. He called his creation a "vaccine virus". And, there you have another reason to thank a cow the next time you see one!

You can find this word information and other word curiosities on line at or or If you poke around a little, you'll find that "seminary" comes from the Latin root "semen", yep, that semen! Men constitute the "seed" that is planted to form a priest. (Notice that I used the word "form." Rectors resist the word "train" since men are "called" to become priests!)

If you look around the Internet sites some more, you'll see that the word "varsity" actually comes from the abbreviated form of "university", that is, "'versity" (with an apostrophe) and over the years 'versity came to be varsity.

"Assassin" has an interesting background (or etymology). It seems an Arab bandit, Hasan Sabah, and his followers liked to kill public officials, including priests! Before the killers left to perform their dastardly deeds, these men often smoked hashish to get their minds in an appropriate killing place. They became known as "hashishiyun", the men who smoked, ate or otherwise ingested large amounts of hash. We know these men as assassins.

I like to remind my friends from India that much of our language can be traced to their country. Linguists call the original language "Proto-Indo European". For example, we can understand words like "juggernaut" if we understand India. In this wonderful and exotic country, many Hindus celebrate the feats of Jagannath", the Lord of the World, aka Krishna and Vishnu. In any event, during their festival, some of the believers place a huge statue of Jagannath on a movable cart and parade it through the town. Occasionally, the very devout threw themselves under the cart in self-sacrifice (no doubt the ones who had ingested a little hash). The cart didn't stop and the unstoppable force came to be known in the West as a juggernaut!

Not all words have such negative origins. If you look up the etymology of the word "enthusiasm", you will fall in love with this term that comes from the Greek and means "with God". It comes from the prefix "en" (with) and "theos" (God). And so, we rightly call the enthusiastic people we know the ones those who are with God!

I find all of this fascinating and revealing. A better understanding of the history of words helps us understand better what we are saying. It gives us a deeper understanding and richer. Don't you just love words!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What were they thinking?

The Colorado Restaurant Association recently announced a promotion to encourage more people to eat out. What slogan are they using? "Fork the recession." Do you find that clever. Is that likely to make you want to run out there and spend some money at a Colorado restaurant? Do you find the slogan witty? Maybe, maybe not.

Maybe you'll be looking for a place to take the kids. How about Burger King? The hamburger also-ran is pushing a promotion featuring that lovable spineless character, Sponge Bob Squarepants. In his TV spot Sponge Bob dances while a re-mix of Sir Mixalot's "Baby's Got Back" plays. The message, of course, says that Sponge Bob has the ultimate back; I'll accept that. But, really....

Maybe you'd rather stay home and eat cereal. If so, and you're a man, you might be moved by the Post cereal Grape Nuts campaign, featuring the witless slogan, "That takes Grape Nuts." The slogan identifies arduous male tasks and implies, well, you know, something about the male anatomy. When I told my classes about this campaign, one of the young men said, "I'd rather have Big Boulders" than grape nuts.

Maybe we should contact Ralcorp, owners of Kraft Foods, and volunteer to create promotions for them. They're putting over $100 million into the campaign to try to dent the almost $9 billion cereal market, and they may not be reaching their target audience.

Doesn't it make you wonder at the power of words. Doesn't it make you wonder at the foolishness of people, ad writers, creative types and their business colleagues. Doesn't it make you wonder what they were thinking?