Slowing Down Through Sentence Structure

When I was in seventh grade, my English teacher (Hi, Mr. Grabarek) assigned my class a complex sentence to diagram each week. During these tween years, this was by far the worst assignment of the week. I thought, “I know how to write and I know the difference between a noun and a verb, why do these diagrams matter?”

It wasn’t until recently when I began to think about parts of speech once again, and those tedious sentence diagrams. As a public relations professional, I am constantly writing. Whether it’s an email to a coworker, press release for a client or text message to a friend, I’m always creating content.

We’re currently living in an era where instant gratification feels like success. “What can I do right now to get ahead,” is constantly on our mind; however, this mindset comes at a cost. There is a continuous struggle between instantly getting something accomplished and producing well thought-out deliverables. Blasting out a pitch to an editor will get you and your story nowhere if you’re sending a generic email to cross something off of your “To Do” list.

Realizing that speed is not always the way to go, I began breaking down each message into three parts:

  1. Who am I speaking to?

  2. What am I trying to say?

  3. How am I trying to say it?

Just like the seventh grade sentence diagrams, breaking down a message can procure great benefits in accomplishing a long-term goal.

Although I’m not sure he knew it at the time, Mr. Grabarek was teaching all of his students more than just sentence structure, but also a very powerful lesson by giving us a week to accomplish each diagram. At first glance, it’s easy to see something a certain way, yet after digesting the information, the thing you first saw could turn into a completely different animal.

My advice to you is to slow down and realize the full potential of each message you deliver, no matter how big or small. Your thoughts (and your colleagues) will thank you.

Learning to Put Pride Aside & Love Your Editor

There’s a certain satisfaction that writers derive from publishing unedited content. It’s the ultimate sense of validation; a reinforcement that it’s possible to be both compelling and grammatically correct. It separates the good writers from the great writers.

That’s what I used to think. If a mentor, peer or professor left my work untouched, it was fantastic. If they edited or made changes, it was complete garbage.

In grade school, I’d relish at the return of a term paper with no marks except for a red “A” at the top. During my college internships, I’d draft articles that would get published with no edits or changes. After I graduated from college, I began writing for the technology section of a web-based publication. I was allowed back-end access to the website and was encouraged to immediately publish what I had written, no editor necessary.

When I began working as an account coordinator at Griffin two and half years ago, I volunteered to draft any copy I could get my hands on (after all, I was used to publishing my own content without a second pair of eyes). With previous experience in technology, journalism and public relations, I over-confidently expected the same treatment from my new employer.

I have never been more wrong. The agency’s President & Founder Bob Griffin, a thirty-year-old industry veteran, had many edits and plenty of changes. He’d re-arrange my introduction paragraphs, question my sentence structure, and ask me to rewrite my headlines. I couldn’t help but think that all previous validation from professors and publications were serendipitous coincidences; falsities that confirmed a deluded sense of purpose. His edits made me question my own ability.

During those first few months, my mindset was clouded by years of ego inflation. It was juvenile to believe that a 22-year-old did not need an editor; but through my education and previous work experience, I was indirectly taught that edits meant imperfection. Edits did not lead to a perfect A. Edits are for people who need them. 

This mentality is harmful and extremely limiting. I know now that every writer, no matter how experienced, skilled or talented, needs an editor (and better yet- they should love their editor). Their editor is the reason they improve. In life, there’s no change without pressure and the same goes for writers. Without an editor, there is no improvement. How can a writer hone their skills without a critical reader explaining what does and doesn’t work?

And beyond the writer, an unedited piece is simply not as good as it could be. Every piece of writing, no matter how big or small, cannot reach it’s full potential without edit. Unedited writing is like a natural-born athlete who never bothered to train. Yeah, it’s good, but it could be great. With effort, it could be the best there ever was. So, if a writer’s true purpose is to create beautiful, moving work, then they should embrace whatever feedback, edits and changes (no matter how harsh, abrasive or offending) make it better. Pride needs to take a backseat for the sake of our work.

I’m thankful for honest edits, and I am severely skeptical of any publication or website that doesn’t edit their writers. I am a much better writer than I used to be thanks to Bob’s edits, and in a few years, I know that I will look back and say the same about today.


The Importance of Questioning

As children, our insatiable curiosity manifested itself in the persistent asking of “Why?”. This was often, if not always, met with the definitive, “Because I said so.” Hearing this answer repeatedly throughout our formative years taught us not to question authority – be it parents, coaches or teachers. While this blind adherence to authority may have kept us safe as children, it all too often remains persistent throughout adolescence and adulthood – either consciously or subconsciously.

However, if we as marketers want to innovate in this industry, we must break this cycle of accepting answers at face-value by adjusting our mindset and questioning every strategy or process with the same curiosity and zeal of a child. We must remember that just because words exist on the page of a best-selling marketing book, they are not facts. We must remember that just because a process has been established by the coworkers before you, it is not without flaw. We must remember that just because a manager provides instruction, it does not need to be blindly followed.

Instruction and company “status quo” are all merely hypotheses constructed by authors, coworkers, and managers that are based on life experiences and various forms of research. Like any scientific hypothesis, these too need to be questioned, scrutinized, and refined.

Read and listen with intent, but don’t blindly absorb and abide. Question continuously. That which doesn’t pass your inquisition, discard immediately or suggest an improvement. That which does should be followed with complete, unwavering confidence.

Elon Musk attributes his ability to redefine two of the world’s most established industries, automotive and aerospace, to his willingness to question that which others accepted as fact. He built Tesla and SpaceX upon a foundation not of industry assumptions; but rather, of First Principles – statements of truth that he arrived at after continuous, persistent, and honest questioning.

As marketers, we must do the same. Read 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Ries and Trout; attend industry seminars; and listen to mentors, managers, and colleagues, but do so with a mental sieve firmly in place, releasing quickly that which doesn’t pass our line of questioning, while holding tightly the gold nuggets that do.

And then, with the nuggets, we build our future.

The New Era of Social Isolationism

Well, it’s official.  If we didn’t already know it for a fact, this recent New York Times business story predicting that digital advertising will surpass television advertising by the end of 2017 confirmed it.  We’ve become a society of isolationists.  Not political isolationists, but Social Isolationists.  We’ve become a society of individuals who spend more and more of their time isolated in a world unto themselves, absorbing content in highly customized ways on our laptops, tablets and smartphones.

I can’t even begin to contemplate all of the implications this transformation poses to future generations of Americans and their families.  Say what you will about television and its harmful effects (God knows the Baby Boomer and Gen X generations grew up hearing about the long list of evils associated with too much television viewing), the fact of the matter is that television was and is an inherently social medium.  For most of us, television exists in the “family” room where some or most of the family congregates to watch a movie, a show, or, more likely, a special entertainment or sporting event. 

To be sure, I’ve watched my own children, nephews, and nieces (Millennials through and through) watch less and less television and more and more content on their laptops, tablets, and smartphones, but I guess I thought that the television, (with all of the hype over 3D, OLED, HD and Ultra HD), would always find a way to maintain its central position in the modern lifestyle. 

Perhaps it will.  Perhaps the New York Times story is wrong.  Perhaps the digital advertising spend cited in the article includes television on-demand.  I hope so, because, as much as television can be a vast wasteland of mindless programming, its decline speaks volumes about where we are headed as a society of Social Isolationists.

Sharing is Good. Speaking is Better.

Those of you who chose to connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Facebook know that, for the most part, I’ve maintained a pretty low profile over the last four years.  That doesn’t mean that I haven’t checked in or that I don’t notice your posts.  It just means that I’ve been watching, observing, and even studying what the vast majority of us do on all social media platforms.

We “share” a lot.  Perhaps we share too much.

When I was in college, I had an English Literature professor who challenged us on a weekly basis to “read critically” and be prepared to come to class to discuss what we thought about the work.  Many, if not all of us, read the work and boned up mightily on the body of critical thought available on the work.  When we came to class, we were all very good at citing references, cross-referencing them, even assessing the merits of each critic.  I remember the professor listening to us go on and on and before he would bang the book down on his desk and bring the class to stunned silence.  Then, looking at us over his round frame glasses (this was after all the early 1970s), he would nearly shout, “Ah, but what do YOU think?”

Ah, yes.  What do we think?  That’s been the question following each of us since we first started on this journey — and long before the Age of Social ever became a Social Phenomenon.  But the Age of Social has really put a new, more powerful urgency on the importance of finding our individual voices.  We all have one, but so many of us are afraid to use it.  We don’t have enough confidence in the rightness of our own ideas.  We prefer to half present a voice in the guise of “liking” something or “sharing” something that someone else has said. 

It seems to me that if the Age of Social is ever going to become truly meaningful and absolutely transformative, the individuals who are a part of it have to find the courage to speak with their own voice about issues that matter the most to them. 

It doesn’t mean that you still can’t “share.”  It just means that more people might “share” what you have to say.

The Importance of Creativity in an Age of Clutter

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the role creativity plays in a communications era that is becoming increasingly decentralized, democratized, and, by definition, digital.  Seemingly, everything about communications is changing from the time that I first suspended my fingers over the keyboard of an “electric” Smith Corona “typewriter” and prayed mightily that the right words would come to me. 

Media platforms have changed and broadened.  Publishers have expanded to include everyone —and I mean everyone— with a point of view to express.  Traditional media outlets have cut their staffs and raced to embrace the new era of “sponsored content.”  Suddenly, it seems, we are living in a new world where everyone is an expert, everyone has an opinion to share, and everyone has an outlet through which to express their views.

And that brings me to a truth that all of us in communications need to remember.  If everyone is an expert, then no one is an expert.  It’s as simple as that. Yes, platforms have changed, as they always have and always will.  Yes, technology has empowered more individuals to position themselves as publishers and media outlets.  There’s nothing any of us in communications can —or should— do about the accelerating proliferation of platforms or outlets — except to master them with the one thing that has always counted the most, and always will count the most.  Creativity.  The big idea.  The right word.

In fact, in an age where everyone is an expert, the importance of creativity has never been greater.  Now, more than ever, it is critical that marketers work with agencies who know how to define the value of a client’s product or service and present it to all of their target markets in a way that is creative, concise, and compelling.  Clutter Cutting is critical to the success of any marketer in this new age of communications.

We should all take heart in that fact.  Now let’s get to work!