The practice of writing takes practice

I came across this article talking about how content strategists are becoming too much about the strategy and not enough about the content. In case you’re not familiar, basically, ranking well in search requires that you demonstrate that other people want your content. This means you need to a) make content people want and b) make sure they can find it. A content strategist is someone, usually in a marketing department, who has skills to do both.

The article was arguing that a lot of the time, content strategy is seen as being the idea person, not the one who actually writes words or creates pictures. 

I think this is a bad idea.

On the first day that I teach a writing class, I always tell my students that they’ll write a lot because writing is like playing basketball. I can stand up and give them 40 lectures about the theory of optimum basketball playing, but if I then take them to the arena and hand them a ball and some opponents, it won’t be pretty. It’s a skill, and skills require practice. 

Making great content is a skill, too. And if you want to get and stay good at it, you need sustained practice. Here’s why:

Practice makes you accountable. When I was in college, I went through DJ training at the campus radio station. At the time, this started with learning all of the FCC rules governing the airwaves and how to not break them. Being generally eggheaded, I was really good at that part. I got the highest score to date at the school on a test on the rules. But, when you put me in the studio and I was actually accountable for getting the technologies to work together to avoid dead air and for not overmodulating and for pronouncing the call letters correctly, it was a disaster. I could come up with rules and plans, but I couldn’t do it when it came right down to it. And I haven’t been in a studio in many years, so if you put me in one now, I’m sure the same thing would happen. 

Practice means understanding. Expertise is developed through experience, so if you want to make content people that people want, you need fresh experience. This is particularly true when the ways and technologies people communicate with are changing rapidly. 

Keeping your hand in actually creating content makes a difference in its effectiveness. So, go write something. And then write more somethings. 

Attitude and reaching a global audience

Through my work with the International Collegiate Programming Contest, I get frequent reminders of how communicating across cultures has special challenges and rewards. But, it’s not just me. If you write things that appear online, you may well have a global audience. 

This week, I am getting ready for a research seminar on global education, so I’ve been doing a lot of reading to get ready. A big topic of interest is intercultural competence – essentially the ability to neutrally evaluate a culture other than yours and act appropriately within that culture. As a communicator with a global audience, I need that with respect to what messages i communicate and how I present them. If I fail, I miss a reader, a customer, a friend.

One interesting article gave some ideas for qualities that let one become culturally competent. 

  • Self-awareness - This is knowing what your own culture holds and values, and recognizing that these are cultural factors, not essential truth. 
  • Openness - This is an attitude of curiosity and a willingness to believe that others are different from you. This might include trying to meet people who are different from you or using media from people different from you.
  • Respect - Your attitude that things that are different are just that: different. It’s a lot easier to understand something if you can see that is has value and is, therefore, worth understanding.

Having these qualities can help you reach your audiences better. 


Why journalists must care about money

I am mostly through the big annual conference for professor types in my field. Major topics of discussion include what we should be teaching students?

  1. Social media is a thing and you have to deal with it.
  2. The advertiser-supported model has changed and you have to deal with it.
  3. Big and bigger data is here, and you have to deal with it.

In my mind, these all fall under the same umbrella – if you want to get paid for what you do, you have to have an audience and prove you have an audience. Not too long ago, a major ethical concern in journalism was not letting the ad department influence news content. (This is still true, although definitions are getting stretched in some disturbing ways.) But as the audience  now finds your content mostly in ways other than picking up a paper from the front porch or tuning in 11, the journalist needs to be adept at selling his or her own messages.

Social media is a thing

I was really surprised yesterday to see conference tweets suggesting things like “Students should learn to use Twitter professionally”. Of course they should. If you are a writer, you must. The deconstruction of news caused by search means that audiences follow stories, not news brands. And they need help to have important stories pop up above the huge amount of noise caused by the “everyone can publish anything” online environment. So help them. Share what is important. Your work, and the work of others too (because sometimes they share back). You have to deal with it.


The advertiser-supported model has changed

Drops in advertiser support mean shrinking news staffs and fewer jobs for our students. Don’t despair. We still live in a mass-distribution economy, and purveyors of goods and services still need to reach potential buyers. And seeing it in conjunction with trusted content from a news organization probably works better than expecting people to join a Widgets-R-Us community or follow Soapy Soap on Facebook. But here’s the thing: You have to be able to prove that the advertising works. Works means gets people to buy things. When that connection is made online (where most news is today), you can measure that. Return on investment is an emerging area in digital marketing. It’s different than charging an advertiser based on impressions, or views or even clicks, and right now, it’s being defined. If you are a news organization, you need people who understand this. If you are an individual producer of content (like a student developing a portfolio), it’s a kind of knowledge you need to have. Analytics-driven media is here to stay, and you need to deal with it.


Big and bigger data is here, and you have to deal with it

Most journalism students are quite grumpy about dealing with numbers. Ask around at this conference, and you will find many faculty who have to review 6th-grade math concepts in college classes. But we need to get over that, if we want to have value in the marketplace of ideas. It’s time to train students to focus on their unique selling proposition as professional journalists. One component is professional ethics. This is hugely important, but I think by and large we do a pretty good job of teaching about that. The other is stories you need a professional to tell, and increasingly, those are data-based stories. Interview-based stories are ok, but they are also relatively easy to do. My students are reasonably good at it after a single course. Bloggers can do relatively easy things, too. So we have to be better. Instead of relying on the  bureaucrat to tell you about the growing or shrinking STD rate in your city, you can get the data yourself, see what is really happening, and ask much better questions. Skill in locating, analyzing and interpreting data is something most people don’t have, and can be a reason people read your stories. Numbers tell stories, and you have to deal with it. 

If you read this post, you probably came here from social media. And I’ll be using analytics to learn some things about you that will help me to write better content in the future. If you are a writer, these are things you’ll want to deal with as well. 

How to get what you need out of a conference

I am presently sitting on a train chugging across Canada to Montreal, where the AEJMC (the egghead journalism professor society, for those of you who aren’t academics) will have its annual meeting. What makes driving/flying/training to another country worth my time and money?

Academic meetings are usually a combination of hearing about research, hearing about developments in the field, and meeting up with people. Back when I was in graduate school, I got some great advice about how to have a productive conference from my adviser, Dr. Geri Gay. Over the years, I’ve found her advice wise for both professional conferences and academic ones. 

She said over the course of a meeting, you should have 3 goals:

Learn something new. This can be learning about a new technology, a new idea for teaching or working with others, a new technique, or a new piece of evidence for a theory. Conferences are often where ideas are first shaped, and learning something new can keep you ahead of the curve.

Get a new idea for your own work. Consider the new information you are getting in the light of what you are already doing. Come back with something that will let you do what you do better.

Meet one person who can help you. This doesn’t have to be the keynote speaker or the most luminous person there, and maybe it’s better if it isn’t. Use the meeting to begin a relationship with someone who cares about what you and whom you can share ideas or even collaborate in the future. 

Learn more

Are you a speaker? I am presenting on research on the use of social media to convey breaking news. I found this post by Bryan Alexander helpful in putting my thoughts together. 

Perhaps you’ve heard. Perhaps you’ve heard wrong.

Sometimes you can’t win. That was the case for Tim Torkildson, a social media specialist who made news after his post about homophones cost him his job for “creating the perception that the school followed a pro-gay agenda,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune.  Torklindson’s boss at the private ESL school where he worked in Provo, Utah, said the school would be known for supporting homosexuality, according to the newspaper account.

Instead, the school is known for ignorance on the part of its administration about the very subject they teach – English language. Interestingly, the Tribune, which is close geographically to Provo, was careful to interview the boss, who said the sacking wasn’t about that particular post. And in a more nuanced interview in Newsweek, Torkildson said the boss was actually more concerned that the post would confuse the students, English learners.

But the social media forwards, and there are many of them, are largely missing this nuance. What do I take away from this?

  • It’s hard to capture nuance in 140 characters
  • It’s worth it to check things out before sharing/retweeting/etc. This goes triple for the media, many of whom went with the misleading account.
  • It’s more fun to tell an inflammatory story. That doesn’t make it ok.
  • If you are the boss, it’s worth it to look things up yourself. 

How to learn new things

Contrary to popular belief, most college professors don’t take the summer off. It’s time for research and also for catching up in the field. In a fast-changing field like mine, it’s important to be deliberate about gaining new knowledge. 

The worst way to do that? Read stuff once. This rarely works because it doesn’t exploit the ways that your brain likes to retain information in a way that you can recall it again. 

What’s the best way? 

Look at the information in multiple ways. This can mean taking in the information by reading an article and also watching a video or listening to a podcast on the same subject. It can mean talking to an expert, or listening to a speech. The more ways you see something, the more memorable it is.

Feel something. Emotion is a powerful memory catalyst. When you can associate information with a feeling, you have a much better chance of remembering it. For factual information, seeing entertaining accounts as well as dry ones can be useful. So, for example, reading a historical novel and comparing the presentation of history to a factual account can help you retain the factual account.

Seek connections. The more new information is related to things you already know, the better a chance you have of remembering it. If you are learning a new word, how is it like words you already know?

Use it so you don’t lose it. Remember when you were in class and the teacher could show everything on the board and you understood perfectly. But you got home and the problem set didn’t seem to make any sense at all? Figuring out how to do the problem set is your better option for learning. If you want to learn how to style mobile sites, reading about it won’t get you very far. Until you get your hands dirty and write code and try it out, you won’t really understand how to get it done. Give yourself small projects that will help you to learn concepts in a hands-on way. 

Be the beautiful; follow the ugly

If you want to build and keep an audience, you can take a lesson from Mimi. My tall, classy great-grandmother wouldn’t step out the door of her house (even to the mailbox!) without earrings and lipstick. Her rationale? People are always watching and judging you when you are in public. If you are a communicator, your work is always in public. Here’s how to be beautiful.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder - sayings aside, it’s up to your audience to decide what’s good to them. Are they the types who want in-depth rationale and example, or is a quick listicle really going to catch their collective eyes?      

Use language correctly - Jokes about grammar nazis aside, people definitely judge you on your mechanics. Spelling ALWAYS counts. Usage and punctuation are important as well. Basically, if you can’t be bothered to look up if it is who or whom, why should I think you bothered to get the facts straight?

Pay attention to aesthetics - Sorry, but looks matter. Learn and use the principles of contrast and white space. If you use images, use good ones. 

Take the time to be elegant - This is going to vary depending on your audience, but a general rule of thumb is to be simple and short. Whenever possible. (As I was writing that sentence, I almost used the word “heuristic”. Bad choice – not simple. Edit for ease of reading. 

Pro-tip: Follow the ugly

When you go to professor school, you spend a whole lot of time following the ugly. Reading tough, twisted writing. Sometimes spending days nauseated in front of or inside a microfilm machine. It’s painful. But a lot of the best ideas come from the ugliest sources. Much like monks wear robes as a sign that they are concerned with higher things, many great thinkers don’t bother with concerns like being readable, as a sign that they are focused on the ideas. BUT, a lot of times the ideas are some of the best. So, as you do your own reading and research, take the time to look past the aesthetic and to struggle through the wording when the content is worthwhile. Most people don’t bother, so you just might end up a little bit smarter than everyone else.