Tag Archives: Wall Street Journal

Can You Teach A New Dog Old Tricks?


Newspapers are dead, according to common belief in 2015. (Just don’t tell that to the people who drop off the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Wall Street Journal and New York Times at my house each morning.)

Certainly the transition to online communication from ink on paper is continuing full steam ahead (full lithium battery ahead?) and is revealing that some purveyors of online content don’t know when to stop.

A key component of a successful newspaper, for at least the last century, has been the columnist who shares opinion and information with a personal writing style. Newspapers have traditionally limited the amount of space on the page a column may occupy. Tight editing allows more space for ads and other content.

In an online context, however, a writer has an almost infinite amount of space to spew his or her thoughts. If you consume a large amount on online content, you have certainly encountered articles that run too long. You may have slogged on to the end and breathed a sigh of relief when you got there.

You have also read articles that kept your undivided attention from start to finish and, occasionally, left you wanting more.

Though the initial reason for limiting newspaper columnists may have been conservation of valuable space on the page, writers and editors have learned over the years that there are optimum lengths for columns that ensure reader engagement. These may vary from paper to paper and section to section, but a good columnist will develop the ability to compose her or his content within established parameters.

How can these old newspaper methods apply to today’s new communicators? These “new dogs” can read columnists from today’s major papers and take note of their “old tricks.” Practice self-editing. Check for redundancies. Read your prior posts and consider how you might have made them tighter. Ask your readers and associates for candid feedback.

If it takes too long to read through the piece you have written and posted, your reader may check out halfway through and move on the next article on his/her agenda. Know when to say when.

(photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/81881849@N00/2089122314 via http://photopin.com, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)

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The Truth About The Truth


  1. My version of The Truth is different from yours. Take note of testimony regarding recent local cases, the JFK assassination and other events witnessed by many. My version of The Truth is filtered through all my life experiences including prejudices I’ve felt and prejudices I’ve been subjected to.
  2. The Truth is subject to manipulation. In PR/marketing/advertising, what’s generally shared is a portion of The Truth. Look at ads for movies containing critic blurbs. You’ll see “laugh-filled romp” but you won’t see “tedious drivel.”
  3. The Truth is subject to revision. E.g., Santa Claus.
  4. The Truth can be subject to doubt. Have you ever actually seen a water molecule? Probably not. You likely believe, however, that it’s The Truth that it’s composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom in a certain structure. But are you sure?
  5. A good documentary film supports an advocacy position. This does not mean such a film is untrue. It is a version of The Truth.

I’ve been thinking a lot about The Truth lately. I recently read The Night Of The Gun by David Carr. In writing his memoir, he went back to people who were in his life in prior decades for The Truth about episodes that had become blurred through the fogs of addiction and time.

Following questions about The Truth of the movies Selma and American Sniper last winter, I’ve seen two recent movies, True Story and While We’re Young, that examine The Truth and its manipulations. Articles this past weekend in the Wall Street Journal (click HERE) and The New York Times (click HERE) consider the importance of The Truth in reporting.

I strive to deliver The Truth in all of my messaging. Communicating my messages and those of the people and organizations I work with involves versions of The Truth. By necessity, when one simplifies a message to make it easier to consume, one must be selective about what stays in and what is edited out. As Oscar Wilde said (and David Carr quoted in his book): “The Truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

(photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/62518311@N00/11155039524, http://photopin.com, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)









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Have I Got A Story For You!

My daughter, born in 1994, is a huge fan of 80’s music. We heard a 1987 song by Pet Shop Boys called It’s A Sin last week on Pandora. I struggled to recall the song while Anne pointed out that the song reminded her of Wild World by Cat Stevens, a 1970 hit. As I listened, I noticed she was right! Although very different in feel and texture, the late 80’s song does have a melody similar to that of the 1970 hit.

Just as I, who played 80’s music on radio throughout that decade, can gain new insight from my teen daughter, you may be able to take guidance from the CEO of a major U.S. company.

In the July 8 Wall Street Journal, Disney head Bob Iger wrote an op-ed piece titled Have I Got A Story For You. The gist of the piece was that with all the technological advances made by Disney animators (drawing by hand and using computers), they have followed Walt Disney’s directives to tell compelling stories.

“Great storytelling still remains the bedrock of great entertainment,” writes Iger.

Telling a story can be a strong way to begin a speech or other presentation. Even if your punch line or analogy is not overly strong, an entertaining story can engage your audience. (When a minister begins a sermon by unexpectedly telling a story of his hike into and out of the Grand Canyon, it may merit closer attention than opening with the reading of scripture.)

When a guest sits down on a talk show host’s couch, one of the key elements of those segments is a story. (Each show’s producers do “pre-interviews” to help determine a guest’s best stories.)

When you run into business associates be ready to share stories of things you did this weekend, where you went, what you ate, what a family member said, what you saw on TV. Storytelling is a large part of how we communicate with one another.

My own story about my daughter’s pop music smarts may or may not strike a chord with you. But I think it may be a better way to open today’s post about storytelling than just launching into the paragraph about Mr. Iger and Mr. Disney.






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Copied, Clipped and Saved: Useful Advice For Writers

Back in the 80’s, I copied several pages from Larry Wilde’s 1976 book How The Great Comedy Writers Create Laughter. The book has several ideas that I figured would serve me well whether I was writing comedy or non-comedy material.

“The first thing a writer has to learn is an economy of words. Too many words convolute a thought.” This advice comes from writer Mort Lachman and applies to a wide range of written content.

“For audience attention, the use of simple English is invariably best,” says Sherwood Schwartz, creator-writer of The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island. “If a strange word is used, it takes their minds away from the thought at hand.” I know I’ve been distracted when reading magazine or newspaper pieces that use egghead words, when an everyday word would’ve worked just as well.

“If you want to be a writer, you have to really like to write.” This comment from writer Stan Dreben may seem obvious. However—I often encounter young people who tell me they would like to be writers. I ask, “Do you write much (other than school assignments)? Do you have a blog?” They generally tell me no.

My favorite piece of writing advice from the book is attributed to writer Stanley Ralph Ross who says, “Writing is rewriting and don’t ever forget it. When you’ve cut all the fat away, attack the meat. Then slash at the bone.”

In 2011, I clipped an essay from the Wall Street Journal by Katie Wech. She offers, “In screenwriting, you have to cover a lot of ground with very few words.” She quotes a mentor who describes the craft as “the thong bikini of writing.”

Regarding the economy of words and aggressive editing in her work, she writes: “I’ve thrown away exquisite pieces of dialogue, set pieces that made me giggle, characters I’ve lived with for months, because at the end of the day, they weren’t necessary to the story.”

She ends the piece (and I end this post) with these words: “I have cultivated… a keen love for the most powerful tool I’ve found as a screenwriter: the delete key.”




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Rewriting Your Own Story

Is your LinkedIn profile factual? Have you overstated certain accomplishments? Did you stretch the stated tenure at one job on your resumé so there would be no time gap between it and your next one? Have you ever constructed your own personal “creation myth?”

In the wake of allegations that Jack Dorsey didn’t invent Twitter all by himself (click HERE) and that Captain Phillips wasn’t quite the hero that the new movie presents him to be (click HERE), how important is it to be precise and accurate when telling your professional life story?

Although Scott “Dilbert” Adams writes about the value of failure in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal (click HERE for the link), you probably don’t want to play up your failures when telling your story. It’s okay to include your less than successful jobs on your resumé, but sharing details of your shortcomings is not advised.

This is not being deceptive; this is being prudent. As the old song goes, accentuate the positive.

Also, eliminate that which has no relevance to your current career path. In my case, people who look at my resumé or LinkedIn profile, may like to know that I have a lengthy background in St. Louis radio. But they likely don’t care about those months I moonlighted as a DJ in the bar at the Erie (PA) Ramada Inn.

Editing for length may require simplification of work duties. If you worked for a company for three years in the 90’s in several different positions, do you need to specify that you were in X position for seven months, Y position for nine months, etc.? Probably not, unless you went from the mail room to the C-suite.

In 2013 when online information can reveal such info as when you bought your house (and how much you paid for it), when your divorce became final, the outcome of your hearing at the courthouse and other vital details, fudging the story of your professional career is not a good idea. Even though companies don’t generally provide details of work performance, they may confirm work dates. And in specialized businesses with a small talent pool, information can often be obtained through back channels.

Bottom line: Even if you don’t tell your whole story, don’t mislead.


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How Much Do You Charge? The Arbitrariness of Pricing for Services

The best answer to the above question, of course, is how much can you pay?

Is a press release for which a client pays its writer $300 necessarily better than a release written for $50? Is web content for which I pay $10 a month necessarily better than that which I obtain free? Should I have to pay that serviceman who comes to my house the minimum $85 hourly fee if he solves my problem in two minutes? No, no and yes.

When you pay a premium rate (such as for the $300 release), you are not only paying for the current output, you are also paying for training, experience and track record. You are paying for the comfort level you enjoy from knowing you have hired someone whose work is more likely to yield a positive outcome.

Because of their enterprise reporting and overall writing talent, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times can command payment for their online content. But can a person be relatively well informed without paying to access their web work? Yes, certainly.

Can my neighbor Ron help me with water heater pilot light issues? Yes, he can. (And he has done so.) But for more serious problems, I call an experienced pro.

A veteran free-lance writer was recently asked to rewrite an article to be published on The Atlantic’s website. He was told that he would not be paid, but his work would receive good exposure. He chose not to do it and complained publicly.

When services are given away, they are, in my experience, frequently undervalued. My pro bono PR work, for example, extensive in the past, is now limited because some organizations fail to appreciate time spent and results achieved.

Fees are not always determined by market conditions or by an etched-in-stone rate card. As indicated above, the best indicator of a proper fee for services may be a client/customer’s budget. My cousin, who owns a same-day dentures company in Alabama, bases his fees on a patient’s ability to pay. It works well for his patients and for him.

The discussion of pricing for services is one that is likely to be ongoing. But if customer/client and service provider are both happy with the work and the fee, that’s a good indicator that the price is right.

Happy spring break! Next post here on 3/25/13.


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Nuggets of Information: I Love ‘Em!

Who is responsible for info coming to us in easily digestible nuggets? Those items that run just a sentence or two or three, but tell us the main facts we want/need to consume.

Was it the “three dot” newspaper columnists back in the first half of the 20th century? They wanted to get as many names in bold print as possible and the best way to cram several names and events into finite page space was via the well-edited nugget.

Was it New York magazine in the 1970’s? The mag’s fresh design layout allowed for numerous nuggets to be sprinkled throughout each issue, among their longer pieces.

Was it TV news consultants in the 1980’s? They told local stations that the key to ratings wins was “high story count.” This method had been shown to be effective a couple of decades earlier by top-forty radio, which presented news with energy and excitement.

Was it PowerPoint users in the 1990’s? Having a presentation on your laptop was quite impressive 20 years ago, but required reducing longer text paragraphs into bullet points.

Was it text messagers in the 2000’s? Texters have taken minimalism to an extreme, but have shown us that information can be communicated with a single letter and/or punctuation mark: k?

To all who have played roles in condensing info into nuggets, I thank you. As do others.

The St. Louis Business Journal’s page two “Shoptalk” column is its most popular feature, filled with nuggets. The Wall Street Journal’s “What’s News” on the left side of its front page has basic facts—via the nugget—and lists the page where the full story is printed. Many of the emails in my inbox each day consist of nuggets with links to details, should I want more. Twitter allows quick and easy scrolling through nugget after nugget. Another popular form of communication in 2012 is the “infographic,” with simple illustrations and lots of nuggets.

In common usage, a “nugget” can refer to something that’s bite-sized or to something that’s golden. In the world of communication, a nugget can be both.

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