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June 3, 2010

How Walt Whitman Changed The World of Poetry & What You Can Learn From It

In the early 19th century, poetry rhymed. Period. End of story. Free verse didn't exist yet, and anything that didn't descend from a long line of European traditions dictating style, content, and form was quickly dismissed as commoner's gobbly-gook. It might be called sentimental, perhaps moving, but not poetic.

Walt Whitman changed all that. The ideal American poet, according to Whitman, did not elevate himself above the common man. He didn't hold fast to tradition for tradition's sake. And, above all, he did not identify with Europe, it's land, people or society. He was American through and through.

Whitman wasn't preaching to the choir; his high-minded ideals directly contradicted everything about modern American poetry and American poets. He was preaching equality and free verse to sonnet-clinging elites. Moreover, while the Good Gray Poet is now known world-over as the father of free verse, when he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 he was a nobody.

But Whitman's audacity knew no bounds; he wasn't content with coming out of the woodwork to call out the literati, and he wasn't content to take risks with his style. At the age of eleven, Walt left school to begin a career that included stints in teaching, printing, publishing, and journalism. He learned how to set type, and he acquired a feel for popular culture and, in a sense, marketing. In turn, this would lead to his ultimate show of panache -- the promotion of his own work.

Upon the debut of Leaves of Grass, Walt sent complimentary copies to a number of prominent literary figures (now a common promotion tactic, then a rare move of boldness). And when Ralph Waldo Emerson responded favorably to the copy he received, Whitman took the liberty to publish the response in the New York Daily Times without asking for Emerson's permission. He even went so far as to anonymously publish reviews of his own work in several newspapers. There would be no shortage of praise for Walt Whitman.

But Whitman and his poetry were not well-received by all. His poetry was regarded by many as obscene, and he was frequently perceived to be arrogant beyond belief. When it came to light that Whitman had published a number of self-written reviews, needless to say, people were not pleased. And in 1882 the sixth edition of Leaves of Grass, by now his life's work, was prohibited from being published in the city of Boston on grounds of obscenity. However, despite, or perhaps because of, all the controversy surrounding him, Walt Whitman accomplished a feat that most poets and authors do not: he lived to see his work rise to prominence.

Regardless whether you enjoy his poetry or agree with his methods, Whitman's audacity serves as an inspiration to us all. He's a reminder that sometimes you need more than talent; you need a bit of chutzpah, too.

image via Marcelo Noah

May 24, 2010

What Did You Leave On Your Desk Today?

We've all heard: "Live each day like it was your last." But, for some reason, we never associate this idea with our lives at work. Recently at LessConference, Cammeron Moll recounted a great story about a husband and wife couple who owned a design agency (if you know the original source of the story, please share in the comments).

One day, the husband died. It was sudden and unexpected. The wife was grieving her husband, she walked into his office and she started to clear off his desk. Sitting on top of the desk was a collection of all his recent works. The work left on his desk was some of the best he'd ever created. He'd died at the peak of his creative work. She found comfort in the fact that when he died, he was still as passionate, and creative about his work as the day they first met. She could see her husband in the legacy of his work. She knew he would be proud of the work he left behind for them to discover.

If you were to die suddenly, what would be your legacy? As you leave your office, ask yourself, what did you leave on your desk today? Is it something you'd be proud of?

May 19, 2010

Why Autonomy At The Office Isn't Enough

Studies have shown that autonomy, self-governance, is a crucial factor in determining how much enjoyment people derive from their work. When bureaucracy makes your efficient work inefficient, you get upset. When your boss won't let you take projects in new directions, you get upset. Eventually, a lack of autonomy creates depressed, unmotivated employees.

But it's easy for this simple truth to yield a defeatist mentality that doesn't help employees at all. Instead of anything useful, it provides a scapegoat. My work place is stifling my creativity! The bureaucracy is unbearable! This kind of attitude ignores the fact that we all have choices to make, for better or for worse.

When it comes to our work, or anything for that matter, the only way to get better is by practice, and the truth is that no work place provides enough time for practice  -- there's too much work to be done. You have to choose to practice on your own time. As much as employers need to grant autonomy at the office, employees must choose discipline at home.

The real challenge isn't finding a place to work that let's you shine (there are actually more of those than you might expect), but choosing to shine no matter where you work.

May 12, 2010

What A 20th Century German Philosopher Can Teach You About Building Better Web Apps

Martin Heidegger, the 20th century german philosopher, theorized that people relate to tools differently than they relate to other types of objects. He called this the Ready-to-Hand principle.

Ready-to-Hand is a term he invented to describe what happens when people become one with their tools. His insight was that people don't notice their tools while using them. Instead, they are focused on the desired outcome. Imagine a person driving their car on the highway. The driver isn't thinking about his car -- he's thinking about how to get to Mom's house in Decatur. He's not focused on his tool. He's focused on his task.

Since a web application is a type of tool, it adheres to the same principles Heiddeger described for physical tools. When using a web application it should be Ready-to-Hand. It's use should feel as natural as waving your arm. While this sounds simple, the reality is a bit more complex. The psychological connection we have with our tools is very fragile. If something doesn't respond as expected, then the connection breaks.

When this happens, we react like a carpenter with a suddenly broken hammer. Curse words fly, and we lose focus on our task. The tool is no longer a tool, it's an object that has to be fixed. The reason people hate slow applications is because of their lack of responsiveness (AKA lag). Our mind is awaiting a timely response that never comes. We can't become one with our tool.

And while speed is a common cause of frustration, the Ready-at-Hand principle really applies to the entire user experience. An otherwise perfect user experience can be ruined with a single flaw. If a hammer slips out of your hand, or a web application has a confusing navigation scheme, then you lose focus on the task at hand. You suddenly become acutely aware that the tool isn't really a part of you. The result is pure frustration for the user.

May 6, 2010

5 Tips to Avoid Writing that Reeks

I hate spam, but not just because it's uninvited and I get a lot of it, though both are true. I hate spam because of the way it reads. Whether it's spam email, snail mail, web copy, or otherwise, spam stinks. It reeks of falsehood. When you read spam, you think, "No one talks like this." And it's true, they don't.

But normal people, people who hate spam just as much as me, often write words that read like spam. Even if those words don't come uninvited, they still irritate our senses because they have that same malodorous, unnatural quality as spam.

Writing that is imprecise, stiff, or awkward is a guillotine ready to snuff the life out of our messages. As individuals and as marketers we cannot afford to be anything but clear, honest, and compelling. Fogginess and facade are both deadly, and will bore your readers as much as spam.

Whether you're wrestling with articles, web copy, emails to clients, or blog posts, here are five simple tips that will keep your writing fresh and fragrant -- ready to impress, persuade, and make amends on your behalf.

  1. Read it aloud. If it doesn't read well aloud, it doesn't read well period.
  2. Avoid jargon, words you wouldn't normally use, and long sentences.
  3. Write for your audience, not for you.
  4. If you're unsure of the mood, shoot for business casual.
  5. Pick up a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style; consult it often.

These tips will help you avoid the smelly quagmire of inhuman writing and propel you towards a place of clear, compelling communication.


Bonus tip from Hemmingway (hat tip to Copyblogger): Recognize that 90% of what you write needs to be rewritten. Don't be afraid to take the time and effort to thoroughly edit everything, even emails and internal memos. Put the shit in the wastebasket.

April 29, 2010

One to One Doesn't Scale, And That's Okay

The internet has done a lot of good things for brand communications. Talking to and hearing from your customers has never been easier. But faster, easier communication isn't a one way street. You get to reach customers faster and easier, and customers get the same. Sounds great, right? But there's a threshold after which this trade off can no longer be maintained at a one-to-one exchange. The good news is, despite what many social media gurus will tell you, one-to-one dialog is not the holy grail of marketing communications.

Social media is a powerful tool for one-to-one communication, but it really only works that way for small businesses. Brands like Saddleback Leather who intentionally limit their audience and establish a premium position are primed to take advantage of using social media as a conversation mechanism. Larger businesses can't keep up with the size of the conversation, and so they really have two options: pretend to be one-to-one, or stop worrying about trying to talk to everybody.

Brands like Apple, Delta, Google, or Coke have no need to use social media to have conversations with all of their customers or potential customers; they're much too busy building better products, increasing awareness, and making sure their companies are ready for the future. These companies use social media to provoke conversations amongst their customers (customer-to-customer, not customer-to-company) in order to increase awareness. They also use social media to listen to the market, finding problems and opportunities in their marketing strategy and in their products. What they don't do is try to respond to every brand mention.

In between the small business and the mega-brands are a slew of mid-sized businesses who are also trying to figure out how to use social media. If you're not Saddleback Leather and you're not Coke, then there are still opportunities to use one-to-one conversations (customer support, rewards programs, expanding into new markets), but there is also significant value in letting your customers do the talking for you; whether you unleash a creative engagement to stir something up or simply monitor the pre-existing social media landscape, there are plenty of opportunities to benefit from the one-to-one conversations your customers are having without being a chatterbox yourself.

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