Why don’t we write like this anymore?

So when this guy was president, doctors were already becoming aware of the dangers of smoking. But they just said it so much more eloquently. Here was Charles R. Drysdale’s recommendation on secondhand smoke:

“Women who wait in public bar-rooms and smoking-saloons, though not themselves smoking, cannot avoid the poisoning caused by inhaling smoke continually. Surely gallantry, if not common honesty, should suggest the practical inference from this fact.”

Somewhere between the late 19th and the early 20th century, the mode of writing shifted to today’s simplified, less ornate manner. But just read some old Thomas Paine tracts and the writings of America’s founding fathers, and see if you don’t wax poetic.

I assume this is the result of extreme literacy moving from the hands of the extraordinarily wealthy to the basic mass literacy we have today. That’s good, I guess, but we’ve lost some of the magic. Plus, in marketing, you’re told to write to about a 6th grade level, which is teetering on the Orwellian vision of Newspeak.

If anyone has more information about this shift (books, etc.), let me know; it’s a topic that captivates me.

Required Viewing

If you’re not watching Mad Men on AMC, you probably know from the Emmy Awards that you’ve been missing out.

If you do any sort of marketing and haven’t been watching, keep a notepad out while you watch. Don Draper, while not a believer in psychology or psychotherapy, has a mastery of the psychological underpinnings of marketing and advertising.

It’s a brilliantly-written show: moving, resonant, with lots of little in-jokes for marketers. Drop it in your Netflix Queue and thank me later.

A great clip:

Looking into the outage

Oops! I haven’t even finished setting up my theme, and I’ve already had my first “too many connections” MySQL overload.

Based on the fact that I haven’t touched it in the last 24 hours and none of my other hosted sites were affected, it looks like a DDoS attack on this blog only. 

While it’s probably a coincidence, I have posted some inciting comments lately…

I’m looking into what happened, and will get the blog to 100% shortly.

Are You Emulating The Worst Blog On The Internet?

The best blog on the internet is Boing Boing, which probably goes without saying.

The worst blog on the internet should also go without saying, but you probably haven’t heard of it. Luckily, I’ve got a lot to say about it.

It’s That’s Fit. And if your blog suffers from any of the 4 things I’m listing below, you’re next on my list.

Those that know me well know this blog fills my daily rage meter to boiling. I’ll quickly run down the reasons, and again, if you’re guilty of this kind of stuff, cut it out! And if you write for That’s Fit, that goes doubly.

I first saw That’s Fit as the AOL network was pimping it heavily on other blogs like TUAW and Engadget a few years ago. As someone who periodically blogs about fitness, I added the RSS subscription to my NewsGator feeds.

Since then, I have wanted to post the following comment after every entry: “Shut up! What’s wrong with you?”

I could go through a post-by-post rebuttal of their writings; they’re that stupidly-written and wrongheaded. Instead, I’ll list 4 things that indicate your blog is doomed to obscurity’s hell:

1. You preach to, rather than relate with, your readers.

This may seem hypocritical in a post telling you your blog is going to hell, and so what if it is? I’m more referring to the fact that the phrase “my children” appears 707 times in the blog.

What does that mean? Let me offer a couple of examples:

“Gold medal phenomenon Michael Phelps never stumbled at the 2008 Olympic Games, but what was he thinking when he signed the Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes sponsorship agreement? A cereal high in sugar, low in fiber, made with mostly refined grains. One of the last meals I’d feed my kids for breakfast.”

“Parents just have to get on board, too, and save soda for the rare treat or avoid it altogether.”

“[My son’s teacher] banned candy from her classroom. I thought it was wonderful. The kids will still be allowed to have candy on special occasions such as Valentine’s Day. But on a day to day basis, my son’s teacher is promoting good nutrition that will give them the energy they need.”

“…parents need to answer the nationwide Help Wanted ad for Gaming Gatekeepers — now. This is especially relevant for our family at the moment, based on watching my seven-year-old’s new, disturbing behavior after receiving his very first, high-tech video game a month ago.”

“Your loving online Fitzness Expert (me) who has extremely high standards on what I put in both my children’s mouth and my own can spend a day at the Magic Kingdom or EPCOT and eat as well as I would in my own home.”

This begs 2 questions: First, how did every blogger on That’s Fit achieve the position of “World’s Best and Most Responsible Parent”, especially considering the fact they take the time to post to the Web while uttering phrases like “high-tech video game”? The second question is:

2. Oh, you’re an expert at what? What the hell is a Fitzness Expert?

This irks me to no end. I work with highly respected experts and authors, highly regarded in nutrition and exercise, and they blush at being called “experts”; such is the humility of the true expert.

The credential-less jabberers at That’s Fit actually altered the word Fitness to accomodate their names! This Fitz K character is seen wearing every piece of sporting equipment she can get someone to take a photo of her in (not to mention the fact that her posts are intolerable name-dropping garbage). If she’s clamoring for fame, she should probably be doing it on a blog whose readership is larger than it was last year, not smaller.

It’s fine to be an expert, guru, or Zen master, but earn the title, rather than self-assign it.

Speaking of “FitZness”:

3. Un”BEAR”able headlines

Pun-based headlines? Sure! Painful and trite? Absolutely. And nonsense? You bet.

“Drinking water for weight loss: Is it a ‘waist’ of time?” — Hilarious, and topical!

“Get cut like your fruit” — Oh, I get it. No, actually, I don’t.

“Think Healthy.” — It may not be original, but it’s also not grammatically correct.

“BODYFLOW yourself” — WHAT. Did you just tell me to…

“Row, row, row your back” — What pudding-brain thought this was good to post?

“How Many Calories … in an IHOP omelet?” — From the “Burning Questions” category, I guess.

And that’s not counting the “5 ways to blah blah blah” and the “8 foods that blah blah blah” posts. If you aren’t clever, don’t try to be.

Come straight at me with your intentions, and I’ll be less likely to want to cut myself just to make sure I still feel after reading your post.

And most importantly, if you have this, you are going to have all of the above:

4. An impossible-to-care-about purpose

Choose a blog topic that people have an interest in! How hard is that? Not so easy, actually. Most blogs are self-indulgent to an insane degree. It requires a lot of discipline to focus on things other people find interesting.

It doesn’t have to be for everybody. My sister maintains a blog about her dog, her adorable husband, and her adorable life. It’s perfect for her readership of loved ones.

But as soon as you start blogging for the general public, no one cares about your children’s wise eating choices. Educate me. Entertain me. Make me laugh. Point me to something interesting somewhere else. Just don’t write to fill space.

A fitness blog is a misguided choice. New information relating to fitness comes up once or twice a week, at the most. So you start filling space with opinions, meaningless stories, largely-unrelated news items, calorie counts from take-out menus, and other regurgitated and painful-to-read stuff.

So there you have it. A recipe for failure, from the blog that is the Julia Child of EPIC FAIL.

More fail:

Are your communications morbidly obese?

Much of the reason I’ve been sparsely populating this blog over the past week is that I’ve been laboring on a 10,000-word marketing opus for my day job.

That was about 7,000 words too many, and now it’s a process of “killing babies” until it gets there.

It doesn’t matter whether you write for a living every day or not; the fact is that everyone is a writer, and more so if you’re in marketing.

When you’re in high school, writing assignments are padded to reach a certain word count. After high school though, overly verbose writing is the hallmark of the lazy. George Orwell’s rule is, “If you can cut a word out, always cut it out.”

This goes for emails, blog posts, and especially ad copy: you can take the easy way out and write so much that you wind up diluting your original message, or you can spend time trimming fat and condensing it into something potent.

How do you know if your communication is overweight? I use these guidelines:

  1. Did you say everything you wanted to? Great, but that’s exactly twice as long as it should be.
  2. Think it should stay? Delete it first, and see if you miss it. Chances are, you won’t.
  3. Stop thinking about what you want to say, and start thinking about what you want to get across.

No one likes cutting up their own communication, it’s time-consuming and ego-deflating. But, much like sharpening a pencil (or losing 500 pounds), you won’t miss what you lose and you’ll be much happier with the result.

Listening for your Cassandra

I had a coworker remind me recently, when confronted with some negative talk, to not be too dismissive of our “Cassandras”. I am not intimately familiar with Greek mythology, so I had to look up the reference.

Cassandra is the story, in Greek myth, of the woman who received the ability to see the future, only to be cursed that no one would believe her. This would be an exquisite form of torture that all of us, at some point, have the unfortunate ability to relate to (particularly those of us that have attempted to advise teenagers of the rocky shoals ahead).

In today’s society, as in those before us, we tend to be dismissive of those that approach us with such negativity. We’re conditioned never to bring up problems without pointing out a silver lining, for fear of being perceived as naysayers.

As I was perusing The Consumerist today, I was reminded that some of us just didn’t get that message:

Jim Cramer 1 year ago

And a year later, unlike Cassandra, he can recall his prescience to those that called him crazy 1 year ago.

Now the Consumerist calls this “gloating”, but if you watch the follow-up, you’ll see more of a general feeling of frustration that people ignored and still aren’t fixing the underlying problems that caused our current economic meltdown.

It was a sobering reminder that all too often, when we hear the voices yelling for us to stop the line because we’re walking into disaster, we dismiss them as “tactless”, “negative”, or “crazy”, and push forward with our admirable exuberance.

I understand that if we spent all day pondering the doomsday prophecies coming from society’s fringes, we’d never sleep or get anything done. But we’d do well to at least consider these viewpoints from time to time.

How do you listen to find your Cassandra? The nice thing is that you don’t have to look too hard, as they’re usually vocal enough to attract attention to themselves. If you’re working on a project and someone predicts impending disaster, it tends to stick out a bit.

Rather than dismiss, correct, fire, or ignore them, it might be in your best interests to indulge them for a moment and let them explain their reasoning. You can teach them tact later.

Silence is golden. Seriously, shut up.

So many of our problems as marketers and (and as coworkers, and as spouses…) stem from just being too vocal.

Here’s a tip: Are you “endearingly opinionated”? That means you’ve actually got a big mouth and are in constant, mortal danger of destroying your career and relationships (trust me on this one).

But there’s help! This lesson was driven home to me today when I found out that Metallica had a new album.

Remember Metallica? They’re the band that whined their way into cultural irrelevance. Instead of sitting back and seeing where the “digital revolution” was leading, they reacted immediately and harshly, passing judgment (literally) on those that dared reach into the candy bowl labeled “OMG FREE MUSIC”.

In one PR blunder, one to go into history, they were able to turn their enormous success into a tremendous amount of anti-Metallica fervor. Suddenly, fans and casual observers alike watched in delight as the band started to tear itself apart (on camera!), culminating in the loathsome musical atrocity St. Anger.

Metallica pissed off the entire Internet. There’s no coming back from that, right?

But today, I heard something remarkable: I heard samples from Metallica’s new release, and it didn’t suck. It specifically did not suck.

And you know what? I was glad for them. Glad? I’d assumed there was no end to the well of schadenfreude I had reserved for them. But I found myself glad to see them succeed. I’m not the only one; mark my words, you’ll see a surprising pro-Metallica sentiment arise in the next few weeks.

Rather than chalk that up to our generation’s short attention span, I hope this underscores the forgiving nature of people, even among the digital masses.

More significantly, it underscores the importance of just shutting up and letting a product speak. Where was the massive marketing campaign? The self-indulgent documentary? The angry tirades and lawsuits following its early release?

Whether architected this way or a lucky coincidence, the plan is genius in its execution. By not saying anything, they let community members tell each other about the quality of the album, rather than generating resistance by offering cringe-inducing promises that the band “is sorry” and “has returned to form”. Good show.

The lesson is: not every problem requires a full mea culpa. Often, silently getting your act together is the most effective way to repair a tarnished reputation. Except for your wife. Always, always apologize to her.

Welcome back, blogger

It’s been many years since I’ve maintained a weblog for anything other than professional reasons. I’d like to keep this semi-casual, since it’s just you and me here.

Watch this space. I’m going to highlight, as only one who is this prematurely ornery can, the truly great and truly awful marketing tactics that are designed to trick you into parting with your hard-earned cash.

I set up WordPress just infrequently enough to forget what a pain it is to get set up, so I will have to reserve my vitriolic rant/award for The Worst Blog On Earth for tomorrow.