Monday, April 22, 2019

Trashing Recycling

Evidence has been building for years that recycling programs are inefficient and not cost effective. It’s reached a head now, with many cities suspending their curbside recycling programs. In fact, many have already been sending the recyclables they’ve been collecting to the landfill. You can read what may be surprising details here, here, and here.

But this blog is about communication, so I will focus on that aspect. We have long been encouraged, indoctrinated, even badgered, to recycle. Municipalities have gone to great lengths to make recycling part of everyone’s daily and weekly regimen, providing special carts, placing receptacles in public places, and educating the public on both the importance and the process of recycling.

Last summer, I was at a city-wide Fourth of July celebration held in a park in a nearby suburb. Temporary trash and recycling receptacles were everywhere, set up to clear the detritus from dozens of picnics. As I kept an eye on the receptacles, I was bemused by the number of people who dutifully approached the multiple containers (marked “Landfill,” “Plastic,” “Paper,” “Compost,” and “Cans”) and stood there in option paralysis. They might still be standing there if it hadn’t been for the “Recycling Nazis.”

These helpful folks, dressed in brightly-colored recycling - but not recycled - T-shirts, instructed the befuddled on the right - and terribly wrong - choices that faced them. They were quite single-minded - even zealous - about their duties. More than once, I saw them burrowing into the containers to correct a wrongly-placed plate or plastic utensil - having been too late to catch the actual perpetrator.

Let’s face it: all of the recycling education and indoctrination has failed. The public is confused, the cities are abandoning their recycling programs, and the researchers are nearing surrender. I can easily imagine someone leaving a protest to save the earth and tossing their coffee cup out of the car during the drive home. As always, common sense is the best guide for how to proceed. I was a Boy Scout (I guess I still am), and we learned to respect nature, to not litter, and to leaving a place in better condition than when we found it. Instead of beating a dead horse about recycling, we simply need to be exhorted to clean up after ourselves.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Is It Really "All About Me"?

For a very long time, I have corrected my children (now all adults) when they put themselves first in a list of people, as in “Me, Bob, and Susie.” It was drilled into me through decades of English classes that we always put ourselves last in such cases. “Bob, Susie, and me!” I would insist. It does feel like a losing battle, though. And when you look at our culture you can see why: this “error” is part of the vernacular.

I’m going to engage is some very amateur psychology – or sociology, or even theology - here, so feel free to take my proposition with a grain of salt. We can point to the failed “self-esteem” efforts in schools that resulted in participation trophies and contributed to poor grades. I suggest that the focus in our society on self and selfishness has infiltrated our language, and I would argue that much of this is due to our abandonment of God. Yes, God. The bible speaks clearly on this subject:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
-          Philippians 2:3-4

Does this not go against everything we hear today – in conversation, on social media, on television? I swear that every other commercial I see says they have something I “deserve.” (I guess advertising has never really changed, has it?)

I think the world would be a better place – and pretty quickly, too – if we just followed the admonition to put others before ourselves. Maybe forcing ourselves to say “Bob, Susie and me” would remind us.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Snackable Content. Empty Calories?

In the 1960s, there was an ad that said, “It’s not how long you make it… “It’s how you make it long!” Double entendre and the fact that they were advertising cigarettes aside, there’s a message here today for communicators responsible for content creation.
The idea of “snackable content” has been around for a while now, and “rules” on limiting website and YouTube videos to 1 to 2 minutes (or 3 minutes, or 30 seconds or less, or…) abound. But is this a new concept? The most ubiquitous form of “snackable content” remains the television commercial (preceded by the radio commercial, of course). 60-, 30-, 15-seconds long - or less. We’ve been exposed to them our whole lives. But, now, anyone can create a “commercial.” Along with that explosion of content “producers” comes a demand for advice, for statistics, for rules.
And there’s been no lack of advice, statistics, and rules. The infamous 2015 Microsoft “study” that found the average human attention span had now become less than that of a goldfish has been effectively refuted on several bases. The BBC has weighed in on this, and, as Andrew Porterfield points out in his excellent article for the Genetic Literacy Project, “the problem with our apparent distraction may not be attention, but multitasking. Our brains focus for a reason.”
Most of the pressure is brought by marketers and those serving them: those who (rightly) focus on the share of eyeballs and the payoff from proving you’ve reached them. The long-form vs. short-form debate will continue, but there is now research pointing to pushback against this “shorter is better” movement. There is an increase in the popularity of long-form content like podcasts, tv series binging, and books – particularly among millennials.
What’s the bottom line? Professional communicators should trust their training and experience. Go with your gut. How long should this communication be? Long enough to get the message across. Short enough to leave them wanting more. Compelling enough to keep them engaged. And quality matters. Sound a little like Communication 101?

New ways for consumers to read, interact, and engage with content will continue to be developed (artificial intelligence, virtual reality, mobile-first consumers coming of age, and so forth). But story-telling will remain the same. You may not have read this far in this article, but, if you did, was that more up to me than it was you? It’s not how long you make it. It’s how you make it long.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Quest for Joy

I finally got around to watching “Inside Out” the other day. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a Disney/Pixar animated movie that personifies the emotions within one particular girl and how they affect (rule?) her life. It is quite clever and very amusing.

Two things about this movie really stuck out for me. The first is that Joy was the only positive emotion within the “cast.” The others consisted of Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. It was always Joy’s job to counter the others, to hold them back, to negotiate with them. It does seem that negatives easily outweigh or outnumber positives in our lives. It is our constant battle – if we choose to take it on – to put on a happy face.

As a Christian, I was particularly fascinated that the producers of “Inside Out” chose Joy and not Happiness for the name and attributes of the character. And I think they actually presented a very Christian perspective in the film – whether they intended to or not. I have learned that happiness is conditional: it depends on the circumstances. Joy does not. One can remain joyful in the most depressing or fearful situations. The character Joy struggles to do just that through the movie.

The other major observation I had was how the plot of “Inside Out” paralleled classic literature: someone starts out happy, loses something, then goes on an adventure to recover that something, encountering interesting/scary characters who may help or hinder the quest. In the study of literature, in fact, it is called The Quest, one of what are considered the 7 basic plotlines. The “something” is almost unimportant, what Hitchcock would call a MacGuffin. “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Odyssey,” and “The Lord of the Rings” are examples of quest tales.

I don’t usually do movie reviews in this blog, but this one definitely caught my attention. Within the promising structure of a classic adventure, “Inside Out” provides an amusing glimpse into the inner world of our emotions and our memories. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Is Sarcasm Endangered?

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence.”
-          Oscar Wilde
What do Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Chandler Bing, and Doug Piranha have in common? Maybe a lot of things, but what I have in mind is sarcasm. Sometimes wicked, dripping-with-irony sarcasm. I’m a big fan of sarcasm. And satire. I grew up with Mad magazine, the National Lampoon, and Monty Python.

What’s the difference between sarcasm and satire? Do a Google search, and you will uncover a firestorm of blogs and comments arguing the semantics of these two words. But, I want to focus on sarcasm, which is generally defined as a verbal, off-the-cuff remark directed at an individual.

A study (oh-oh, another study!) performed by and described by Francesca Gino in Scientific American finds that sarcasm actually increases creativity in both the expresser and the recipient.  How does it increase creativity? By engaging abstract thinking, making the brain work harder. Of course, the sarcasm has to be “used with care and in moderation,” and is best between individuals where trust has been established.

But, in our thin-skinned, easily-offended culture, is sarcasm endangered? In a delightful article on Slate entitled “Who Killed Sarcasm?”, Simon Doonan calls for the return of snide, old-fashioned sarcasm. He describes it as “one of the greatest achievements of mankind—or ‘unkind’ as I prefer to call it.” He even points out the importance of sarcasm to child rearing:

Sardonic irony is a critical to health child development as vitamins and tick-checks. Raising your brats on an exclusive diet of sincerity is a recipe for disaster. The current mania of relentless positivity and self-esteem building leaves me convinced that we are in real danger of turning out an entire generation of inspirational speakers.

Sarcasm, satire, wit. We need them. They’re good for us, increasing creativity, sharpening our thinking, helping us think on our feet. Go forth and be sarcastic!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Communication Breakdown

I like “Star Trek.” I don’t think I qualify as a “Trekkie” or a “Trekker.” The fact that I’m not sure what they are called these days is probably sufficient proof. But, I digress. I just watched an episode called “Darmok,” probably for the tenth time. The gist of the story: Captain Picard is thrown into a life-and-death situation with the captain of a starship of an alien race, the Tamarians. The handy-dandy universal translator can’t decipher their unusual language, because Dathon, the other captain - and all Tamarians -  speak only in metaphors. There is a critical breakdown in communication. Of course, this may raise the question of whether or not a race can communicate entirely in metaphors. But, for our purposes, let’s just look at the issue of a verbal communication failure.

Many of us have traveled to other countries. Some anticipate the language barrier by studying the foreign tongue. Some countries are much more accommodating to the language limitations of foreigners. But many of us have had the experience of not being able to communicate our most basic needs to another human being, usually after a long day of travel: Where is the bathroom? Where can I find a place to stay? I need a hospital!

What do we do in these situations? Most of us resort to sign language. But there can even be cultural differences there: nodding means “no” in Turkey, for example. Nonetheless, we seem to manage to get our message across. Most languages have nouns and verbs, and we point and gesture until we communicate some rudimentary message. But, it usually takes considerable time.

All of this made me think of the Tower of Babel, the fascinating story in the book of Genesis (Genesis 11:1-9). God saw how efficiently men could do evil when they all spoke the same language. So He decided to “confuse their language so they do not understand each other.” It worked. They stopped building a tower to the heavens and were scattered throughout the world.  At Pentecost (Acts 2), the reverse occurred: everyone was able to understand the good news that the apostles had to share – each in his own language - and there was unity. Communication is powerful. Language can divide or unify.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Protecting Your Personal Brand

I heard a very good panel discussion the other day. It was focused on crisis management for companies. What does a restaurant chain do when there’s an e-Coli outbreak at their restaurants? How does an oil company control the damage to their reputation when there is an oil spill? What about leaks of legal action by the FBI? The suggestions of the experts and the stories of good and bad examples were fascinating.

But, I got to thinking about personal reputation, personal brand. We all have one, whether we have cultivated it or not. It’s our character, our integrity. And it is invaluable. In this day of social media and instantaneous communication – especially of bad news! – we should probably consider protecting our individual brand just as much as Coca Cola or Target are protecting theirs. This is especially true when potential employers check us out online.

Let’s see if the recommendations of these business crisis experts can apply to our personal crises:
  • Preventing damage to your reputation is much easier and less costly than cleaning up after a disaster. Be careful what you share online or in emails. Depending on your exposure, some of those things could come back to haunt you. (This is something we Baby Boomers say to our kids all the time!) You can’t put the genie back into the bottle.
  • Plan ahead: consider the possible risks to your brand and do what you can to identify, mitigate, or even eliminate risks in advance.      Wise companies spend time and money listing risks (financial, reputation, compliance, strategic, etc.) and creating a plan to control and respond to things that could hurt them in these areas. Individuals don’t have the same list of risks, but we have one in common: reputation. What could happen to your reputation in your line of work, your personal life, your relationships? How can you head off a problem in one of these areas? What would you do if someone publicly accused you of cheating them or stole your identity? Would you be ready to respond?
  • Being proactive and acting on a crisis is always better than waiting or staying silent.
    Being able to respond, calmly and respectfully, to the crisis is important. And doing it quickly is essential. As I said, news really travels fast these days.
  • You can’t communicate your way out of a crisis.
    Of course, communicating is important. But having a plan for rectifying the problem is critical. Do you need to apologize? Meet with someone? Change your behavior and show that you have? We know from history that stonewalling and trying to cover up do not work.

So, it looks like the corporate crisis managers do have something to teach us about our individual brand. Consider what you might want to do to prepare.