thought leadership

READING OLD NOTES: gaining insight through reflection

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I keep a stack of moleskine notebooks and serviceable knock-offs on a bookshelf in my writing studio. They are filled with meeting notes, doodles, writing prompts, sketches, and lists of peculiar word pairings that I imagine using in future pieces. There’s also some wise advice I’ve picked up and scribbled into the margins during this work-and-life journey.

I admit that once these notebooks are filled, I rarely pick them up or thumb through them again.

That is until recently.

I had been feeling anxious about a writing assignment and a personal project. I was struggling to start, to finish, to find the right words. They weren’t coming. More than writer’s block, it was a questioning of my abilities to perform my core work.

So I began thumbing through old words. Past projects. Thing that at one time seemed daunting. Things that felt important to commit to paper.

I wasn’t looking for anything particular. I was simply revisiting and reflecting on past experiences and old ideas.

And it made me stop and think: why is it that we scan old photo albums (or file folders) with a sense of wonder and excitement? Why does Facebook send us anniversary milestones of friendships? Why do we painstakingly curate playlists in Spotify from the 80s or 90s when there’s so much new music across any genre for us to enjoy? Why do we show up and honor, in our own special way, those whom we’ve lost?

 

Because we need to be reminded.

 

Reminded of what’s important and what matters;

what we’re striving for and what keeps us in the game;

what gives us life and purpose, hope and joy.

 

Looking for the right words and answers continues to be an imperfect and ongoing search. If not now, then assuredly later. And you, I’m assuming, will have your own specific search that demands resolving – from the mundane to the monumental challenges.  

As I thumbed through some old notes, I found some words of advice and inspiration, and a few that served as a kick in the pants to keep going, to pick ourselves up, to get better, and to never stop.

In some cases it was as if I was reading these points for the first time. For others, I had a different perspective thanks to the experiences I’ve has since I first scrawled the words.

Maybe these words – forgotten and tucked away in a notebook on a shelf, from writers, creators and, more importantly, doers – are exactly what I need to reflect on when the load feels heavy. And maybe you, too. Maybe these words needed some light thrown back on them to push us forward. Perhaps new eyes on these once-written, spoken and acted-upon words can breathe new life into whatever it is we need to do but haven’t.

I hope they are helpful, encouraging, or a kick in the pants. If they are, then write them down. Put them in a notebook. Add to them. And consider revisiting them from time to time.

Traveler, there is no road;

you make your own path as you walk.

As you walk, you make your own road,

and when you look back you see the path

you will never travel again.

– Antonio Machado // poet

 

 

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

– Annie Dillard // writer

 

 

“When we are merely competent, the value of our work is diminished until it can eventually be outsourced to the lowest bidder – making us a dispensable commodity.” (Don’t be merely competent. Be unmistakable.)

– Srinivas Rao // business author, podcaster

 

 

CRITICIZING IS EASIER THAN CREATING.

(shut up and get to work.)

 

 

The trouble with comparing yourself to others is that there are too many others. Using all others as your control group, all your worst fears and your fondest hopes are at once true. You are good; you are bad; you are abnormal; you are just like everyone else.”

– Sarah Manguso // poet

 

 

Emotion before evidence. Otherwise data will kill a good story on contact.

– Todd Henry // writer, creativity consultant

 

 

“Keep being curious. Keep being a student.

As soon as you stop doing that, as soon as you stop playing,

you stop creating great things.”

 – Matthew Luhn // writer, Pixar Animation Studios

 

At the end of my suffering, there was a door.

– Louise Glück // poet

 

 

If you listen to everyone, you will lose yourself.

You were hired for your expertise. Deliver that.”

– Ruth Carter // costume designer for Black Panther

 

 

But what if I’m not a real writer/artist/entrepreneur/etc.? Just sit down and do it.

What if my idea isn’t any good? Just try. Do it anyway.

What if nobody sees it? It’s not about who sees it, it’s about why you did it.

What if I’m stuck? When you’re at an edge, push through it.

What if this was a gigantic waste of time? Trust that it won’t be.

 – Allison Fallon // writer, coach, adapted from perspectives on writing

 

 

DARE. MIGHTY. THINGS.

Then do the work to achieve those things.

 

Fear is opportunity in disguise

When the landscape is unfamiliar, fear can set in. I  t's also where opportunities to discover and grow kick in. (  Illustration credit: Jon Klassen) 

When the landscape is unfamiliar, fear can set in. It's also where opportunities to discover and grow kick in. (Illustration credit: Jon Klassen) 

 

Your work.

It’s probably something you're great at, some place where you shine bright.  

Which is to say – you do what you know and you do it well. 

With that kind of knowledge, chances are you tend to stay in your lane.

And you stay there in order to champion your expertise (that’s a much easier narrative).

The inverse of this is fear of the unknown.

Or, in a results-driven world, fear of failure.

But what if that so-called fear was just opportunity in disguise?

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

What if you hinted at the idea that among all of the things you could possibly deliver, discovery just might be the most important?

Instead of loading your pitches for clients and customers with buzzwords of the best-in-class variety you showed a bit of vulnerability, perhaps even came clean by revealing that you didn’t have a trademarked approach to guarantee predictable results from rote formulas.

Instead of issuing the next RFP (or responding to it) with restrictions that actually stymie creative solutions, what if it went like something like this:

Here’s our challenge. We’re ill-equipped to solve it alone. Admittedly, we don’t know what we don’t know. We’re asking for your insight and expertise based on a track record of solving similar challenges. Might we talk?

Confront what you’re really afraid of: is it being vulnerable? Being perceived somehow as less smart or running out-of-step with a crowded field of thought leaders? Are you content faking it until you make it – or, worse, get found out?

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been there and done that.

And so you’re veering outside of your lane, taking some calculated risks, and embracing a journey filled with insights that provide an interesting and highly viable set of outcomes that are all but impossible to predetermine in a plan. (Because plans change and course correction is necessary. Which is why you’re more interested in roadmaps that provide multiple avenues -- and unexpected detours too -- that help you get to your destination.)

Perhaps you’re finding out fear isn’t that scary after all.

Maybe fear is just another four-letter word.

You're considering it as a prompt that really means ‘get ready, this is going to stretch you.’

And by embracing fear for what it is, perhaps you’re starting to realize that your comfort zone is really your complacency zone.

Complacency: shouldn’t that be your fear?

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

If there is anything else to be afraid of, perhaps it is being average.

Or not realizing your potential.

Or intentionally foregoing meaningful experiences and new relationships because they are unfamiliar.

Or blending in to the point that you’re indistinguishable from the crowd.

If fear is your opportunity to grow, then you must equally consider what it means to play it safe.

 

POSTING & PUBLISHING: confronting the challenges we all face

As a content creator, I am aware that I am in constant violation of many of the rules that lead to success: what to post, when to post, how often to post, the right channels to post on, visual vs. text, and if the latter, knowing how long is too long and what is too short. 

Here's a confession: I struggle with this notion of posting and publishing.

It's not just about keeping up with the frequency demand and aligning with these purported best practices, but also the content merit of any post. Do I really have something that interesting, that urgent, or that profound to share with the world? I doubt I'm alone in my uncertainty. But one thing is certain: I don't bemoan anyone who is nailing the aforementioned rules and enjoying wild success. I'm just not on that page yet, and I question when or if I will.  

I'm also confronted with this reality: as a writer and a communicator, and as a strategist with marketing sensibilities, is it blasphemous to avoid (or recommend avoiding) publishing and posting on social? Wouldn't that be socially unacceptable in any 2016 marketing strategy? And, by the way, shouldn't I do a better job of leading by example? 

Before answering those questions, consider these thoughts from an interesting interview with contemporary American writer George Saunders where he responds to a variety of societal hot-button issues, including his decision to refrain from on social media. Here's a relevant excerpt from that interview:  

"I’ve found that my first drafts are not so special. But the more I work on them, the better they get. They are more unique and defensible. So that makes me averse to jotting things down and sending them out, when I know that my only chance at any kind of depth or profundity is to linger within the story, trying to make it distinguish itself. I’ve also found that trying to be active with social media changes my moment-to-moment perceptions. Instead of feeling, “What’s the deepest version of what’s happening here?” I start to feel, “How can I use (or “claim”) this?”

"The bottom line for me is that life is short and art is long — and I don’t love the way that being engaged in social media makes me feel, or the way it seems to shape my thinking."

Let's be honest: few of us are novelists or essayists. We're often writing copy about services and business solutions, not books. Some of us wouldn't dare claim our work as an art form. The approach Saunders takes is unique to him and by no means are hard and fast rules for, let's say, the OEM supplier or the not-for-profit organization. But Saunders hits on things that resonate with me as a strategist who leverages the power of words and ideas. In particular, this: 

"The more I work on them, the better they get. They are more unique and defensible."  

Isn't this what developers of content, consultants and agencies should strive to deliver on behalf of clients? Shouldn't we be in constant pursuit of those clutter-cutting ideas, those anti-listicles that impart more than a checklist?

So back to the earlier questions:

  • Is it blasphemous to avoid publishing and posting on social? There's a place for all of us to utilize our voices for good on social. I embrace the power of compelling storytelling, so there's always opportunities to utilize these platforms we've been given. I would like to believe that when I publish and post, it's because I have something to say that might provide a different perspective or point of view. 

  • Shouldn't I do a better job of leading by example? Indeed I could, but can't guarantee I will.  

Because, like Saunders, I find that the longer I linger with the story (e.g., the client's story, my own story), the more clarity and focus I get. The stronger the word choices become. This only happens when you and I invest the time and become deeply familiar with our subject matter, seek out points and counterpoints, and stew over the myriad of ways to say it -- whatever "it" may be.

Not everything benefits from hours of wrestling with what to say. The point isn't to navel-gaze, but to take the time to hone your thinking, know your voice and be true to it.  

Audiences rarely care that we miss a regularly scheduled Tuesday post or bi-weekly update. They care when they realize they miss the meaningful content we're providing, not the date or time it arrives. By easing our self-imposed time constraints, we afford more time to focus on creating better content.  

When we choose to publish and share our thoughts, we should slow down and take inventory. In doing so, we are banking on thoughtfulness and contemplative work over immediacy, of writing and refining versus the mere act of posting and sending, of eschewing the easy post for the one that requires more of us.

The end result isn't perfection or guaranteed success via likes and shares. It is the knowledge that the contribution is purposeful and hopefully unique. The belief that it matters and we will not regret the post at some point in the future. And the hope that perhaps we've found a way to say the interesting thing, the urgent thing and, if we're fortunate, the compelling thing. 

"Likes" and "shares" are nice. They're measurable and a quick barometer of interest. But analytics cannot measure the heart.

Perhaps the more heart we put into our work, the more likely our content will resonate with others -- which may or may not translate into a metric-measuring action. The question we must ask is: can we live within that reality and outside of the vanity metrics?

If so, cut yourself some slack. Take a bit more time if necessary. Be intentional. And if you feel so bold, embrace a positive definition of what it means to be socially unacceptable with your content strategy. 

 

Links & likes: could they be ruining your reputation?

Perhaps you’ve seen the online quote attributed Abraham Lincoln – the one that goes "you can’t believe everything you read on the internet."

As absurd as this mash up is, its point is well taken and should make us consider the veracity of content marketing and thought leadership we receive. It also should make us check our own practices as we try to keep pace in a furious sprint to create new and fresh content.   

Stop and think: are you taking the advice, tips and counsel that permeates your inbox, LinkedIn or Twitter feed at face value? Are you clicking through the links – the subtle signposts of an expert at work – to see if what is being cited is accurate and reputable? Beyond intuition and personal experience, how do you decipher between what is brilliant and what is bunk? 

Recently, I took up the link-verifying approach while reading an online article regarding website development in a highly regarded publication. This bold subheading caught my attention:

"94 percent of comments in a recent study said that people mistrusted a website based on its design elements over its content."

As someone who relies heavily on design partners to frame the messaging and content I create, this seemed noteworthy – and perhaps shareworthy (a driving purpose behind content marketing pieces like this). Intuitively I know that good design plays a significant role in positioning content and shaping the user experience. But 94 percent?

Prior to sending the post to a design colleague, I felt compelled to dig deeper – and I’m glad I did.

By following a link related to the 94 percent stat, I was directed to a Forbes article published a year ago, which in turn linked to the original research study. That’s where I learned the truth about this stat and just how focused the research was:

  • The study was specific to health websites
  • It only observed 15 people
  • All participants were women
  • All participants “faced a risky health decision”
  • All participants lived in United Kingdom
  • The study was published in 2004 

Each of the six bullets challenge the credibility of the bold generalized statement I read. Then there is the rapid change in how we define the online user experience 12 since the study. Certainly the participants in this study did mistrust website design, and perhaps there are universal truths to be made about design and trustworthiness. However, this isn’t the link to use to make the case about web design, in general, in 2016.   

 

WHAT WE WRITE + SHARE MAKES AN IMPRESSION (FAVORABLE OR NOT)

Just like you, I read plenty of content and often have the impulse to react, share or shed light where I think it could be helpful to others. When we read articles in what we believe to be reputable publications, we make assumptions about accuracy and fact checking. We don’t have time to read all of the links and citations to validate the author as a trustworthy thought leader. We see the author is well published and a regular contributor, which signals some level of subject-matter expertise.

As the age of DIY and brand journalism plows forward with platforms that thrive on new, self-published content, the journalism institute Poynter has been documenting the rapid decline of editorial professionals in newsrooms over the last few years here, here and here. The point is that with significantly fewer fact-checking professionals ensuring what we read is accurate, we must become more diligent and critical readers. 

As content marketers and thought leaders, we must earn the trust of our audience so they return to us with regularity. That means we owe it to them to take the time to be thorough and accurate. That may seem counter-intuitive given the perceived simplicity and speed in which new content arrives and the recommendations on how often you should post content (advice from content marketing thought leaders, of course). Keep in mind: 

  • If it’s worth writing, then it’s worth writing well. Take your time, edit and revise.
  • If it’s worth publishing, then tell your best story. Your reputation as a thought leader requires it.

Our reputation and credibility are always on the line – whether we create the post or decide to pass along the commentary of others.

 

HELP RAISE THE BAR BY BEING AN ALLY

Mistakes will happen – even among the most reputable journalists and publications. Be helpful and alert content creators to a possible issue or correction that would improve their piece. When we nudge respectfully, authors should see that we’ve taken the time to improve rather than attack their piece.  

When I reached out to the author suggesting the article was intriguing but this data point was misleading, the author responded with gratitude and quickly changed the article. Now readers get a better story and the author has a credible piece of thought leadership where the opinion remains unaltered and misleading links no longer exist.