Finally got around to reading Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, a straightforward, mostly serious consideration of his formative years. What struck me most, aside from the occasional hilarious deadpan observation, was how he described being aware of developing in his craft even when he wasn’t successful or even very good yet. But now that the book is done, I wonder whether Martin is accurately reporting what he felt about his process at the time — or if he’s making sense of his development in retrospect. When you’re in the middle of getting good at something, but not yet good at it, do you know how everything fits? Or can you only look back at that?
I’ve enjoyed my latest two-year stint running The Vineyard Group. Nearly all of my clients, large or small, established or startup, treated me to challenging and rewarding work — and each client’s needs have been sufficiently different so each day has delivered surprises. Earlier this year on this blog, I shared some lessons I learned from my client work (Make it new again, On providing editorial services to noneditorial professionals, Business casual: an editorial manifesto, and Editing as strategy — and why it’s not the same thing as editorial strategy) and I hope to share more here soon, although now I’ll be doing it from a different perch.
One of those clients has been the consultancy Collective Next. I became aware of the company from working alongside its founder and CEO, Matt Saiia, as a fellow curator for TEDxBoston. (This year’s event is next Tuesday. It’s long since sold out, but you can either watch the livestream or listen to it live on WBUR.) I found in Matt someone fun to argue and develop ideas with, and a good guy to stand next to at Gorillaz and Hey Ice Machine shows. Then I found out, one by one, that the company was stuffed with people who consistently (a) made me think harder and (b) cracked me up. Collective Next specializes in helping companies collaborate better, and even the briefest visit to Collective Next HQ would show you how they live what they teach. I’ll be doing a lot of different things for Collective Next: client work, developing new products and bringing them to market, and the usual publishing and editorial work.
One of the biggest things I miss from my last job is getting to work every day in a big, open room stuffed with creative, brilliant, challenging, hilarious, likeminded people. I think I have that again. Joining Collective Next has been like joining a gang — in a good way. The hazing has been limited (so far) to good-natured spreadsheet-hacking. I’m ready for a big long-term challenge and Collective Next seems like the ideal place for me to share what I know, learn from people with different skills and passions, grow, help other people grow, get into creative trouble, and fight our way out of it together. Onward!
I’m tightening the ideas and removing the crap from a presentation workshop I’m running on Monday. It would be bad, after all, to give a bad presentation about giving good presentations. While doing so, I realized I wasn’t emphasizing audience enough: understanding who you’re presenting to and what they need, focusing on their needs and not yours. Whenever I want to show clients the value of obsessing over what the audience wants and needs, I call in a great quote that you can find in Nancy Duarte‘s outstanding and welcoming HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations. In her book, Duarte quotes Ken Haemer, presentation research manager at AT&T:
“Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it ‘to whom it may concern.’”
Think about that the next time you’re in front of other people. Or the next time you’re writing or doing anything for other people.
Help my 17-year-old see Beyonce’s sister (in which Jimmy begs for help in an uncharacteristically direct fashion)
Hi Internet friends. It’s Jimmy. I need your help. Again.
You helped me once before. Back in late 2008, I wrote Ida Maria and how the Internet might be able to help me make a 12-year-old girl happy, in which I begged for ideas on how to help my daughter Lydia get in to see an artist we love, Ida Maria, even though Lydia was nine years too young to get into a 21-and-over gig. We got some advice from friends and from kind strangers at Idolator, and eventually a high-level meeting of two wonderful singers took place.
Four-and-one-half years later, Lydia wants to see Solange Knowles at the Paradise next week. Alas, she is 11 months too young to get into the show, which is 18+. I had heard of a state law asserting that those under 18 can get into 18+ shows as long as they’re accompanied by a legal guardian. I asked a manager at the ‘dise about this and she said no way. I’ve asked some friends and friends of friends who work or worked at various clubs around town; some say they vaguely remember the rule but can’t cite it definitively. Google, for once, has not been helpful.
In some ways, it’s easier to get a club to let a 12-year-old into a show she’s much too young for than to let in a 17-year-old who’s only a bit too young. The various attempts to get her in — not all of which I’ve listed here — have not worked. If anyone has any ideas — and if anyone is owed a solid from someone at the ‘dise or Live Nation — please get in touch with me. It would keep my daughter’s faith in me and my faith in the Internet. So, Internet friends, any ideas?
I will post major progress here and minor progress on the Twitter. As my buddy John Lennon used to shout, Help!
UPDATE: We got in!
This is the fourth in a series of posts covering some lessons I’ve learned as an editor. You can read the first entry here, the second entry here, the third entry here, and a list of all the posts in the series here.
Question Jimmy gets asked regularly after he explains to people what he does for a living: So that means you do editorial strategy?
Answer: No. I don’t work on editorial strategy so much as I work on editorial as strategy.
Follow-up question: What?
And then a conversation begins. The difference in wording is subtle, but I think the difference in approach is a big deal. Here’s an attempt at a longer (but still brief) answer to the “what do you do for a living” question.
When you’re developing and executing an editorial strategy, your job is to solve problems. Maybe it’s a media or publishing company and the projects you’re working on are core to the business. Maybe it’s not and your focus is on some internal or external communication effort that supports the core business. Either way, your day-to-day work is centered around short-term questions: Are the topics I’m covering relevant? Am I presenting them in a way that my audience can understand and act on? Do the author/presenter and audience have conflicting needs? Is what I’m publishing or presenting helping my audience get great at something they need to be great at? On good days, you come up with good answers to those questions. But they’re short-term answers that change as conditions change.
When you think of editorial as strategy, you’re considering a company’s business through an editorial lens. That means using tools commonly associated with the editorial process to build a more coherent and precise strategy and make better decisions to support it. It means, for example, being brutal to every idea, while being kind to the people expressing those ideas. It means creating a series of rules that an organization will live by no matter what, while marking off the areas in which it’s good to get weird. Style guides don’t say to use a serial comma unless it’s difficult to use one; they say to use a serial comma. Similarly, while there are areas in which businesses can and should improvise, explore, and experiment, there are also areas in which there must be agreement to move forward. It’s much easier to advise people to stick to the plan if there’s a well-vetted plan. I suppose it’s similar what Clay Christensen said in a different context in How to Measure Your Life: it’s easier to stick to well-thought-out rules 100% of the time than it is 98% of the time. And it’s especially easy to do so if you’re clear on where you have to drive straight and where it might be fun to swerve and see what happens. By viewing a business’s strategy through an editorial lens, with all the editorial tools for structure and iteration at your disposal, you can see things that both traditional strategy consultants and meme-of-the-moment consultants miss.
Editorial strategy is, of course, part of editorial as strategy, and I don’t want to suggest that getting a corporation’s editorial strategy together is anything but a good thing. But if all you’re offering is what you’re packaging as “editorial strategy,” chances are that your work is tactical and will have only a limited impact on the organization you’re trying to influence. You can best help a client think big by thinking big yourself.
I tend not to trust ideas when they come too easily. While I sort-of buy the Allen Ginsberg notion of “first thought best thought,” I believe that getting where you want creatively takes practice. John Coltrane’s off-the-top-of-his-head improvisations were masterly precisely because he’d been testing such ideas for years. His “first thought” in a solo was built on millions of thoughts before it. (This was the way Ginsberg created, too, if you get past his famed aphorism.) But one offhand term I blurted out at a meeting last summer has turned out to help some of my clients develop their editorial and strategy, so I’m sharing it here.
I get nervous when nonwriters talk about “voice” and “tone,” in part because it turns out oftentimes that they mean something different from what my editorial colleagues mean when they use those words. But there I was, in a meeting with people who hadn’t taken an English course since they got freshman comp out of the way (yes, I checked), talking about the best way to describe something to the employees of a large firm.
The existing document and presentation described a coming change in a manner that was off-putting, because it was stuffy, and I said so. I went from “stuffy” to saying “you sound like a stuffy butler in a tight tuxedo” to “what you need to do is communicate this in a way that’s less stuffed shirt and more business casual.” I hadn’t intended to use the term “business casual” before I opened my mouth, but the people around the table acted as if I was dispensing some well-worn wisdom so I decided not to challenge that reaction. I’ve thought more about applying the term “business casual” to editorial and strategy and I’ve heard clients start using the term, so I’ve accepted, reluctantly, that there’s something there and I’ve developed the idea far beyond what I can convey in a brief blog post. But here are some quick notes about viewing editorial and strategy through a “business casual” lens.
The notion of business casual in the American workplace annoys me. It merely replaces one uniform with another, identical suits replaces by identical khakis, and I’ve worked or consulted at places where a “business casual” or “casual Friday” policy was enforced pitilessly.
Yet the metaphor works. Everyone knows what business casual means, which is a key to quick understanding. A business casual voice is serious but light, focused on ease, deliberately avoiding the stuffy. Business casual is more interested in what it is doing for the audience than the writer or performer. Business casual is about communication, not obfuscation. Some may find this approach as limiting as being forced to wear well-pressed jeans on Friday, but it’s the sort of limitation that will result in more effective communicating. I’ll leave it to you whether you want a business casual clothing policy at your business, but I’ve seen that a business casual editorial approach can reshape the way people in many different kinds of businesses tell true stories with impact. When it comes to communicating, khakis are the way to go.
Much of the consulting work I did over the past year was more about strategy than pure editorial, helping companies with processes as well as product. But I was able to do a lot of editing in 2012, nearly all of it with people whose job was never to be a writer or journalist. I had the opportunity to help nonwriters get better at the writing craft, with the understanding that I was there to help them create effective documents and presentations that satisfied their current business demands, not to help them get their petrarchans into The Paris Review.
Since I was dealing with people who were more familiar with Samuelson than Strunk and White, I expected different issues would come up while I was helping them find and tell their stories. I was wrong. It turns out that editing these people is not all that different from helping fellow pros or aspiring pros improve their work. Here are three guidelines I’m trying to follow. They may help you manage the needs of nonprofessional writers — or nonprofessionals in any areas when you are the only pro in the room.
Meet them where they are. Terms like “lede,” “nut graf,” and “TK” don’t mean much to people outside the editorial world. Just as jargon is bad in the documents and presentations you’re helping people present, it’s bad in your interactions with these people. Talk their language; help them understand the tips you’re giving them in the language most familiar to them.
Focus on audience. I once attended a launch party for a magazine, back when there used to be launch parties for magazines. I remember the founding editor at the microphone telling the publication’s origin story. “I woke up one morning,” he said, “and I realized there wasn’t a magzine for me.” Of course that magazine didn’t last; it was an overfunded vanity publication. Any editor or writer needs to have a firm idea of who she is publishing for. Asking nonpro writers who a document or presentation is for makes it much easier to tell the story that matters the most to that audience. The work is for the audience, not the author.
Focus on focus. In business, documents and presentations are designed to have impact. They’re supposed to lead to better decisions and outcomes. The best way to do that is to tell the most relevant story for a particular as clearly and concisely as possible. The job is to persuade, but that doesn’t mean making things up. There’s nothing more messy than the truth, but there’s also nothing more persuasive than the truth. One of the great pleasures of this work is helping someone develop an idea until it’s bulletproof and than help someone present that idea in a way that the audience can’t help but nod along to. Keep the focus on what you want your document or presentation to accomplish; anything that doesn’t serve that goal directly should get cut.
This is, with few significant alterations, the same advice you’d give “real” writers. The incentives are different, but the goal is the same: clear, precise, authoritative communication. So, editors, don’t treat your nonwriters differently. Why shouldn’t an editor’s nonprofessional writing clients get the same quality of advice we give self-identified writers and journalists?