I’m only human

Americans are a quirky bunch. Our hearts bleed when we see others in crisis, especially when it’s on a larger scale, and we rush to help. Friends of neighbors have a house fire? No sweat. We rush to our attics and dig out all the outgrown clothes, extra blankets, and old pots and pans we can find. Walk past a Christmas tree filled with ornaments listed with needs for disadvantaged children? We grab two or three without blinking. Earthquake in Haiti? We’re there. Kids collect coins and take them to school, adults pitch in cash to their local churches, and teams of people assemble to go do something, anything.

Put an American in an airport, though, and he gets prickly. Don’t encroach on his space. Don’t get near him with your bag. If you’re standing on the moving walkway, press yourself flat on the right side so there’s no chance of bumping one of the walkers on the left. And horror of horrors, don’t touch him inadvertently when trying to use the shared armrest on an airplane; you won’t see a faster recoil.

The sad thing is that I often feel myself turning into one of those airport monsters, too. I want to move fast and get to my next point with supreme efficiency, to make sure I have adequate time to, er, wait. I wonder when I forgot to be human–and to accommodate the humanness of others. It’s okay to brush shoulders with people, really. And maybe the slow-moving person in front of me is doing all she can; do I really need to move so fast (tight connections excluded)?

It warmed my heart yesterday to see two late-middle aged women having breakfast in the F terminal in the Minneapolis airport. One of them interrupted their shared conversation to ask an elderly woman with a cane, who was leaving the counter with her arms full, if she needed help. That woman didn’t forget to be human. And even though I hadn’t seen the elderly woman myself, it made me feel guilty. I still have some humanness in my heart, and next time I’ll be the one asking.

On your best behavior

Last night I had to run a few errands, so I stopped at the pharmacy to refill a prescription and pick up a few odds and ends. I went inside to the prescription counter, which I found to be abuzz with activity. Two pharmacists and three techs rushed about, frenetically serving the drive-thru window, in-store customers, and telephone inquiries. I had obviously arrived at a peak service moment.

While I waited in line, I found myself absently watching the pharmacist at the drive-thru window, and something made me tune into what he was saying. In a huff, he shook his head and muttered–though not particularly quietly–“Pain in the a**.” Then he stalked off to fill the next prescription, shaking and rattling alphabetically filed bags of meds as if they were violating his space. Now nonplussed, I focused my attention elsewhere.

At the same time and in an odd juxtaposition, the tech serving the woman in line in front of me was bending over backward to help solve a problem. The woman insisted that a prescription had been called in (she heard the nurse do it herself), but the pharmacy had no record of it. The woman was emphatic, and when it became clear that the prescription really wasn’t there, her voice rose an octave and I could see the creeping tendrils of panic start to curl around her face. “But she had surgery. Now there’s no one at the doctor’s office and she has to have her meds. What should I doooo?”

The tech looked everywhere she could think for the prescription, checked the computer, and asked her colleagues. Nothing. Then her face brightened and she suggested that perhaps the doctor’s office called it into the competing pharmacy across the street. Then she did an amazing thing. Rather than sending the woman on her way to check for herself, the tech picked up the phone and called the other pharmacy. Sure enough, the meds were waiting there.

Although neither scenario seemed out of the ordinary, watching each unfold simultaneously really left a strong impression on me. I learned two lessons from this visit. First, you have the power to determine the outcome of almost any situation. Although the customers involved behaved similarly, each situation took a markedly different turn based on the attitude (and corresponding behavior) of the respective employees. Second, you never know who is watching. If I noticed, other customers probably did, too. It never hurts to be on your best behavior.

Studying masterpieces

I’m getting ready to go to a trade show. While I’m there, as I always do, I’ll spend a fair amount of time checking out the competition. Even though I tend to want to look for chinks in their armor and catalog all the “mistakes” I think they’re making, deep down I know that is completely the wrong approach.

I’ll learn a lot more by figuring out what they’re doing right.

Sure, I’ve caught myself (more than once) taking a point-my-finger-and-laugh attitude, asking my compatriots, Can you believe they’re doing THAT? But honestly, that really doesn’t get me anywhere. Sniffing out the missteps and failures like a personal injury attorney chasing an ambulance doesn’t give me any reason to improve my game. On the contrary, it allows me to slip into the complacency of the self-righteous and give myself more credit than I deserve.

Obviously, some customers choose goods and services other than those offered by my company. They do this because they believe the competition does something or communicates something better than my company. Focusing on what the competition does right helps me better understand that dynamic. That is, I can learn why some people choose them over us when I study what works. And then I can figure out how to do it better. I’ll know how and where to step up my game.

There’s a reason why people don’t study failed portraits; they study the masterpieces.

Random thoughts on Saturday

You can pick your life, or you can let your life pick you.

If you’re passionate about something, you’ll overcome your own prejudices in favor of the crusade.

You can believe in happy endings or you can vehemently eschew them, but in real life, there’s no formula for how things will turn out.

It’s possible to believe something is true while at the same time refuse to apply it to yourself. The corollary: you can have one set of standards for the world and another set for yourself.

Christmas is a lot of work.

Pancetta improves any dish.

Everyone can do something important.

The capacity for human beings to be collectively horrible or collectively wonderful to others never ceases to astonish me.

I want my kids to grow up with empathetic hearts and the will to do something about it.

Cooking is my way of creating. Kitchen therapy calms me.

Books are my trophies.

I learn so much from reading, even–or especially–fiction.

I can’t turn off my brain.

Black Friday

I hate Black Friday. Aside from my aversion to maniacal crowds and teeming masses of claustrophobic frenzy, here’s why: it’s just bad marketing.

Actually, I don’t see the marketing at all; what I see is simply a race to the bottom. In order to entice people into their stores–Pick me! Pick me!–retailers compete to offer the best deals (read: lowest prices) and the craziest shopping hours. Their argument for deep discounts is that once people come inside the store, they’ll buy other, more profitable, things too. Maybe so, but could we really just be robbing Peter to pay Paul? If people couldn’t shove their way through the doors at zero-dark-thirty, wouldn’t they just come another time? I mean, people still have lists to fill, regardless of what day they choose to shop, right?

Anyway, I digress. My theme is really the lack of creativity in the Black Friday marketing scheme. Every retailer follows the same path: low prices, long hours. Where’s the creative genius in that? It reminds me of Hollywood’s current cinematic output; I haven’t seen an original plot for years. Theaters are filled with sequels, remakes, books-made-into-movies, old-time comic heroes. Seriously, whatever happened to generating interest through new and different content?

Forget the gimmicks, I want to be drawn in because someone has something to offer that I can’t get anywhere else. Or presents it in a way that I find irresistible. Or with a level of service that I won’t forgo for a lower price anywhere.

A former boss and mentor taught me two things. First, there will always be someone with a lower price. Second, once you cut the price, it becomes nearly impossible to raise it back to its “normal” level. He also taught me that our products were worth something; they carried a lot of value. The key to success was being able to communicate why they were worth something in a way that made sense to our customers. Anyone can lower a price. Not everyone knows how to communicate, to market.

As a consumer, I definitely appreciate good bargains. I haven’t found one yet, though, that compels me to stay up all night, brave hordes of frenzied shoppers, and wait in long lines. My time and comfort are worth more than a few dollars off. Give me a reason–a real reason–and then I might venture out.

It just takes time

I’ve struggled a lot lately with how to effectively promote online content. This blog aside (except that I sometimes use it as an experimental proving ground for the work stuff), the online toolbox of resources for my industry just isn’t getting much attention. And as part of my 9-5 job, I can’t just put it out there and hope for the best. Time has proven that an if-you-write-it-they-will-come strategy is more effective in someone else’s field of dreams.

The way I see it, I have a couple of big hurdles to overcome. First, there’s just so much content out there that it’s hard for anyone–especially novice users of the medium–to get to the really good stuff. (I define really good stuff, by the way, as the information that is relevant. What’s good for me, for example, may not be good for you.) Second, my industry boasts a lot of so-called novice users; whether they’re slow adopters of electronic technology or they just don’t have time because they’re in the field all day, these guys don’t spend a lot of time on the computer. Don’t get me wrong, I know some really savvy users in this business, but most of these guys spend their time operating complicated drill rigs and keeping people in water, not surfing the internet.

It would be easy to just give up, but I can’t. The industry won’t always be this way, and I can already see shifts in the demographic of the audience, slowly but surely. Besides that, we’re putting out a lot of good stuff that can really help. I know it can help, because we’re answering questions people ask at trade shows, on our hotline, on customer visits. We’re not just making this stuff up.

So back to the issue at hand: how to get people to read. I think it comes down to these things which, when I think about them, really just represent sound marketing principles, regardless of whether the medium is electronic or traditional.

  1. Make it worthwhile. If the content doesn’t live up to the hype, people won’t come back.
  2. Put it someplace where the right people–your desired audience–will see it. Actually, put it in LOTS of places where your audience will see it.
  3. Get your own people to talk about it. This works best if they can use it as a resource of their own.
  4. Get your customers (and theirs) to talk about it. (To do this, you have to nail #1.)
  5. Keep at it. Sometimes it takes awhile.

Ultimately, if the content is good, the real issue is making sure people know that it exists and where to find it. Tell them, over and over. It usually takes several “hits” to make it stick. The hardest part is not giving up. When other people start talking about it, you’ll know you’re on your way.

Okay, self-directed pep talk over. I’ve got some promotion to do.

Bird is the word

It’s Thanksgiving today, my favorite holiday. It brings all of the best aspects of celebration–gatherings of family and friends, good food lovingly prepared, reflection on the present, reminiscence of times past, talking, laughter–without the pressure of gift-giving, commercialism, and who-can-outdo-whom expectations. I love everything about this day. I love the preparation, the anticipation, and even the tired cleaning up. I hope you’re spending this day with people you love; if you’re not, there’s always room at my table.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The good things

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m ready for this holiday break. Events and issues have been coming at me fast and furiously lately, and I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed. Even though many of them–but not all!–have been positive, I could use a breather to digest everything. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed.

Maybe it’s the approaching Thanksgiving holiday, but something reminded me of an exercise a friend recommended years ago. I found myself in a particularly low spot at the time, and she wanted to help me find my way out of the pit. She started with a simple plan: every night before I went to bed, I had to write down five things for which I was thankful. They could be big or small, but they had to be real. Even if all I could find was that I was thankful that the day was over, I needed to record it. I also had to promise to read back over the cumulative list each day.

I’ll admit, this sounds rather corny. I certainly didn’t see the value in the exercise when my friend presented it to me, but I grudgingly agreed to try. At first, this plan went as I expected. It felt contrived and I really couldn’t see the point. Gradually, though, something shifted and finding the good things became easier. Some days, my list included 7, 10, 13 items. More powerful than writing them down, though, was reading back over them the next day. I began to see the good things that punctuated my life. Even on the days when they were nothing more than tiny grace notes, actively and purposefully recognizing their existence had an effect on my general outlook.

Somewhere along the line, I stopped making my list. I made it through that particularly bad time, so the daily recording of good things didn’t seem as important. As I sit here today, I wonder why not. Though I’m in a much better place, I’m pretty sure this exercise could give me the daily breather I need without waiting for the next holiday vacation. Five minutes of positive reflection each day can’t hurt.

So, on the cusp of Thanksgiving, I’m going to reinstitute my daily list. The first installment is below, but I don’t plan to publish it regularly; I’m just hoping it will make you think about yours.

In no particular order:

  • My ten-year-old daughter makes me coffee every day and delivers it with genuine cheer.
  • The smell of a new book.
  • My son’s dry humor and quick wit.
  • The opportunity to write articles for a magazine. Seeing my name under the title would be reward enough, but I’m getting paid, too!
  • The thrill of making up clever rhymes and using them to banter back and forth with smart alec friends.
  • Long runs.
  • The brilliant color of sugar maples on crisp fall days.
  • The hive mind I share with my brother.
  • Cake and milk.
  • The thrill of knowing there really is such a thing as a long-lost uncle (and cousins, too!).
  • A friend (RK) who holds me steady.
  • A friend (SW) who makes me laugh.
  • A friend (MJ) who values my opinions.
  • A new friend (MC) whose company I enjoy.
  • Black licorice.

Funny–once I get started, sometimes it’s hard to stop.

Fingers, don’t fail me now

My brain works so much faster than any of my output mechanisms. I certainly can’t write as fast as I can generate ideas, and even though I’m a pretty fast typist, my fingers can’t keep pace with my thoughts. And–this may shock a few people–neither can my mouth most of the time. Thankfully, I can usually retain my ideas, observations, and arguments in my head long enough for my fingers (or mouth) to catch up.

Occasionally I forget, though, and it frustrates me to know that a really valid point or clever witticism has completely vaporized. I’ve talked to enough other people to know that this problem is not unique to me. Some people suffer from it more than others, but I’m fairly convinced that we’re all somewhere on the can’t-get-it-out-fast-enough spectrum.

My son has it bad. He is an extremely verbal kid who can easily build a detailed case orally. Though learning to type has help his conversion speed quite a bit, what he puts on paper doesn’t come close to what he knows.  Imagine the problems this can cause when writing essays and book reports for school. He has a good grasp of the information, but what he writes doesn’t reflect what he tells me. There are often gaping holes and fragmented logic sprinkled throughout his papers.

An educator introduced us to a clever trick. She suggested investing in a small digital recorder into which my son could speak his thoughts. He could then play back the recording, stopping and starting at his will to let his fingers catch up. Simple, yet brilliant.

When I stumble across tricks like this, you’d better believe I take notice. With so much of today’s communication in written form–email, web copy, even text messages–it has never been more important to be clear and effective.  We all need all the help we can get in order to be effective. And if it works for a seventh grader, it’ll work for anyone.

Let them eat cake

We’ve got some goofy traditions in my family, but the one that seems to roll the most eyes–and my favorite–is the one we affectionately call cake-and-milk. We put a piece of cake into a bowl, cover it with milk, and eat it with a spoon like cereal. This only applies to one type of cake, however: my mom’s black magic cake with caramel frosting. The best part is finding bits of frosting at the bottom of the bowl after the cake is gone. Mmmmm.

That cake represents more than dessert (or breakfast). Over the years, that cake has become a bond. It finds its way to most family gatherings. Its breakfast value is a family secret even the in-laws struggle to understand. It has been the subject of countless hijinks between my brother and me. (Telephone rings. Guess what I got. A cake. Mom likes me better; this proves it.) When black magic cake arrives on the scene, the bowls and spoons come out without a word. Everyone just knows.

The upcoming holidays–and the fact that I baked this weekend–prompted me to reflect about my family’s special cake. I’m constantly looking for connections to thread together and make sense out of life, and it occurred to me that not every important connection has to have some direct professional application. Recognizing connections and finding common ground in any situation make us better in every situation. This one may be intensely personal, but that doesn’t make it less valuable. In fact, I can’t think of a more important connection than family.

Now where are those bowls?