Friday, October 30, 2009

Horror story

With Halloween lurking, I believe it's fitting to share the scariest moment in my freelance career. Back in the Early Aughts, I'd been assigned to write a profile of professional golfer Tom Lehman for a now-defunct magazine called 85255 (the ZIP code of a tony North Scottsdale, Ariz., suburb). The interview would take place at Tom's house, and would be simultaneous with the photo shoot--never ideal because of the mayhem, but you take what you get.

The interviews with Tom and his wife went smoothly, and the photos, including a shot of the whole family jumping on their backyard trampoline, were perfect. Energized and excited, I hopped in my car to drive home, and started to play back the interview tape so I could brainstorm the story.

It was empty.

I turned the volume all the way up till it was hissing. Nothing. To my utter and complete horror, I saw that I hadn't flicked the switch back from using it in "phone in" mode from a prior telephone interview. The cassette hadn't recorded a single word.

Heart pounding, I pulled onto the shoulder of the desert road, and frantically scribbled chunks of remembered dialogue and anecdotes on my yellow legal pad while they were still fresh in my head. (Mercifully, I had jotted a few notes during the interview, though not nearly sufficient to write a 1,000-word story.) I sat there for an hour, racking my brain to try to recreate the past hour's conversations.

Amazingly, augmented with a brief call to Tom's wife the next day to clear up some timelines, my scrambled roadside effort was enough. (Had I not discovered my error till a few days later, it would not have been.) Evidence, I suppose, that God looks out for widows, orphans, drunks...and freelancers.

I no longer own that old-school microcassette recorder, though its lessons of doing a sound check and having hard-copy backup are scorched into my brain. My digital recorder, which I wrote about over the summer, offers the peace of mind of a visual level monitor. But until I've completely transcribed an interview, and backed it up in my Time Machine, I have to confess: This experience always haunts me, and always will.

Do you have your own horror story, about a nightmare client, evil assignment or deadly deadline? Enter it into the Freelance Writerville II Scary Freelancing Story Contest (registration required)--in addition to fame and fortune, you could win a $10 gift certificate to Amazon!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

SpecialtyBuzz profile is up

A quick thanks and hat tip to Jenn Escalona at The Life and Times of a Freelance Writer for featuring me as her SpecialtyBuzz Q&A of the week. In addition to interviews with various writing style and subject matter experts, Jenn's blog features lots of thought-provoking posts and links--definitely worth adding to your daily feed.

Punctuated equilibrium and freelancer evolution

In another life, equipped with better math skills, I would have been a scientist. Then again, it doesn't stop me from enjoying science any more than my marginal skating talents prevent me from rooting for the Boston Bruins.

One of the scientific theories that has always stuck in my head is punctuated equilibrium, popularized by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould in the early 1970s. At the risk of oversimplifying, the concept is that evolution occurs in bursts of rapid change and periods of stability rather than as small changes on a smooth curve.

You can probably see where I'm going here: Punctuated equilibrium is a pretty keen metaphor for our individual lives in general, and for our careers in particular.

Looking at the graph, you need to consider two types of punctuation event: 1) being acted upon by an outside force or 2) choosing to do something different. For me, examples of the former would include having a client go bankrupt or, more pleasantly, having my phone ring unexpectedly with a prospect for a multi-thousand-dollar project. Examples of the former include teaching myself html during the early days of the Web or doing a marketing blitz to announce a new service line.

On a deeper level, such events are inextricably tied--you make choices that subject you to outside forces, and outside forces require you to make choices. But I would argue that, unlike the dinosaurs who had no idea when a meteor was going to hit or a volcano was going to blow, as human beings we have the ability to read, react and adapt to our circumstances.

Over the next few days, consider where you are in the chart. Are you on a flat spot, cruising contentedly...but maybe a bit bored? Are you on a steep upramp, hanging on for dear life...but thrilled at the challenge? Like it or not, you're evolving.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tech talk - Mighty Mouse gets disappeared?

I'm a fan of Apple computers, but was 100% underwhelmed by the Mighty Mouse. The scroll ball was nifty when it was new, but there was no satisfactory way of cleaning it, and the Bluetooth interface was absolute crap. (I bought two of them before I said no mas and gave the Targus Wireless Mouse a shot.)

Evidently, I wasn't the only dissatisfied user--as of today, the Mighty Mouse appears to have been replaced with the Magic Mouse. "Look, Ma, no scroll ball!"

For the moment, I'm OK with the Targus and not in a hurry to drop $70 on the new MM. You'd never mistake the Targus for an Apple-designed product--it's awfully twitchy until you get used to it, and it's less customizable than I'd prefer. But rather than a ball, it has a glass lens on top of the mouse that allows you to scroll with tiny motions of your index finger, i.e., nothing to get dirty.

I suspect it will last until my dog drives her nose under my forearm and sends the thing flying across the room, which is one of her favorite tricks.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Free" advice from Wired's Chris Anderson

I don't commonly link to articles I've written, but I'm making an exception for "The Freeconomics of Speakonomics," which appears in the October issue of Speaker magazine. It's a feature about Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, from an interview we did shortly after his best-selling book Free came out.

My reason for posting is twofold:
  1. Chris responded to my interview request within two hours of being asked, and within another two hours, his assistant had provided a half dozen times for me to choose from. That kind of response time is incredibly unusual, and should be praised to the skies.
  2. Even though the story is targeted at professional speakers, there are some parallels and lessons for freelancers. As an entrepreneur, "free" is something that you can't ignore, but you can leverage to your advantage.
Whether you ultimately agree or disagree with Chris's conclusions, Free will challenge your assumptions about pricing and value. His blog, The Long Tail, is one of my regular reads for the same reason.

Friday, October 16, 2009

What is the sound of 10,000 motivational-guru heads exploding?

While editing an article, I needed to research the author's use of the old saying that the Chinese characters for "danger" and "opportunity" combine to form the ideogram "crisis." (I initially thought the writer had the equation mixed up.) As it turns out, this well-worn phrase, which John F. Kennedy popularized and serves as a key tenet for more than a few motivational speaker/self-help empires, is to Far Eastern wisdom as Panda Express is to Asian cuisine:

Lisa: Look on the bright side, Dad. Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for "crisis" as they do for "opportunity"?
Homer: Yes! Cris-atunity.

I won't tell you how I edited the article, but I'm curious to know what you'd do under the same circumstance. What's your responsibility to the writer of an article containing a little nugget of popular-but-false wisdom?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Danger sign: The third wheel

If you could invent a client Geiger counter, the sudden appearance of a third-party consultant would ring it like a freshly unearthed chunk of uranium.

It's only happened to me a few times, but I was reminded of the dangers a few weeks back in a first-meeting conference call. Everything was going swimmingly, until the client offhandedly mentioned that she had hired a marketing/branding expert to help hone her company image.


Our creative team gamely put together the folder and brochures on a rush schedule, but the die had been cast. The addition of another party--with a vote on our fate but with whom we had no contact or collaboration--created a process akin to doing microsurgery with mittens on. You just can't do it. We ended up getting paid for our time, but in the big picture, everyone's time was wasted. Ours. The consultant's. The client's. She would have been better off simply hiring the marketing/branding expert to provide the creative materials from the outset.

The moral of the story? The only time a third wheel makes sense is if you're building a tricycle.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Mommy-Blogging Bait

I'm not a mommy blogger and don't consume beauty products other than soap and toothpaste, but as a former denizen of the custom-publishing world, this story in Ad Age caught my eye... "P&G to Launch Custom Beauty Magazine Rouge in U.S.: Package Goods Giant Plans to Build Database by Relying on Mommy Bloggers to Spread the Word." The scale of the project is pretty astounding for a mailed piece:
Procter & Gamble Co. is enlisting help from mommy bloggers as it makes over its Canadian custom-published quarterly Rouge for a full-scale U.S. launch expected to reach 11 million households in both countries by next year....
...The appeal driving mentions of Rouge among bloggers is pretty simple: It's available at the internet's favorite price (free) and comes loaded with coupons, which happen to drive much of the routine chatter regarding package-goods brands in social media.

I do wonder if the mommy bloggers will get behind the cause without a quid pro quo; maybe the bad economy is what makes coupons an attractive ploy. Even without knowing the cost per unit, I'm inclined to think that P&G will eventually kill the physical magazine and focus on the web site after a few issues (i.e., once they've captured the names). Then again, a custom publication isn't at the mercy of the horrific ad sales environment, and with publications going out of business, it may be a buyer's market in the print biz.

Anyway, they got their links and couple of minutes of free press out of me, so I guess I'm an honorary mommy blogger after all...

"You don't have enough talent to win on talent alone"

Posting about Miracle last week got me to thinking about my single favorite Herb Brooks quote from the movie. "You think you can win on talent alone? Gentlemen, you don't have enough talent to win on talent alone"--as he runs them through interminable, brutal drills immediately after a distracted pre-Olympics effort against Norway.

The point obviously applies as well to business as it does to sports, maybe even more so, because sports is more meritocratic. It's generally easier to judge athletic performance in terms of scoring, defense, and times than it is to measure business outcomes at a personal level. In the corporate world, there are usually too many variables (unless you are a front-line salesperson), and that dynamic compounds for creatives, because we're usually several steps removed from the sale.

So, what lies in the abyss beyond pure talent? Here are two thoughts...

Measure what you can, when you can: Marketing master Denny Hatch always talks about how direct mail is the acid test of creative skills. It is nothing if brutally honest, because it proves whether something got read and provoked an action. Even if you're not working on a direct-response project, is there something about your project you can measure? Can you test Sample A against Sample B? Did you create a more-efficient process that saved a quantifiable amount of money? (For the love of all that's holy, no focus groups, please.)

Augment your talent with superior internal or external customer service: Let's face it, creative brains come preinstalled with a hypercritical streak; some of us just do a better job of hiding it. A crabby SOB like baseball pitcher Randy Johnson can get away with it because he throws 100 mph, and people indulge photographer Annie Leibovitz's tantrums because of her skill behind the lens. I don't have that option. Whether you're a solo act or in an agency or corporate creative department, you can set yourself apart by developing a reputation for being easy to work with in addition to being talented. Take criticism objectively. Be flexible and come up with alternatives pre-emptively. Chant "Serenity now" until you've chased away the demons.


Follow up: Some interesting background about Friday's video in this article, How 4-year-old boy mastered 'Miracle' speech in YouTube hit.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Your weekend pep talk

I'm on scads of deadlines today, so no time to talk shop. But a friend of mine posted this video that got me all pumped up, and I thought y'all might enjoy a little inspiration, too.

And if you don't recognize the speech, your penance is to rent "Miracle" this weekend.

Update: Behind the scenes...How 4-year-old boy mastered 'Miracle' speech in YouTube hit.

Miracle-Herb Brooks" Pre-Game Speech