The Byrne Blog

John Byrne Communicating About Communications

30 days of quality content to deliver

Since I’ve now already given up on August (and summer), I might as well jump into September with both feet, right?  To do that, I’m going to attempt what I’ve previously thought impossible:  Generating good content for 30 days in a row.  Conveniently, that’s the same number of days as September!

I tripped over this concept a few days ago here.  It’s an intriguing idea (ok, maybe a little gimmicky), especially for someone who likes to think that on-demand writing isn’t necessarily going to be the best kind of writing.  Like this great braised short rib, intriguing and engaging writing takes some time to simmer before it’s ready.

Heck, though, if short bursts of exercise are actually better for your fitness, and “cleansing” is all the rage for dieters, I figure that “30 Days of Content” can basically accomplish both for me, but (hopefully) in a more metaphysical way.  Of course, I’ve already been warned that most people quit after a week and go back to their regular habits of blogging whenever they feel like it, which is to say probably not enough for it to qualify as blogging.  I still have a day job, too, and it’s coming along quite well, thanks for asking.

So, here I go — rather, here I went since this is Day No. 2, and already posted yesterday.

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A writer hoards words

My name is John Byrne, and I am a hoarder.  A hoarder of magazines.  And newspaper articles.  And random catalogs.  Even a few words and phrases.

I can’t help myself.  In my house and office, newspapers collect dust.  Magazines stack up waist high.  Catalogs sit unthumbed.  There is a pathology at work here, I’m sure.  But I don’t care.  I come across too many things interesting to me.  Being the eternal optimist that I am, I set things aside in the fervent hope that I will someday soon get back and read what I found to be soooo interesting.

Except I don’t, usually.  So many things to read and look at, so little time.  It drives my wife more than a little nuts.  She has made up a not-very-nice descriptor of my “piles” of unread reading materials, and I won’t repeat it here for the sake of the children.  (But it rhymes, appropriately so, with “fit.”)

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Make some noise to be creative

To borrow on an old saying:  Everyone talks about creativity, but no one does anything about it.  And let’s face it, being creative is a challenge in today’s world of never-ending, mostly pointless distractions.

I will leave to another upcoming blog post my numerous tips for sparking creativity, but I feel compelled to share at least one for now, and it’s a biggie:  Never try to create in silence.  You need some noise.  Not a lot of noise, though.  Definitely less than a rock concert, but more than a string quartet.  In fact, it shouldn’t probably be music at all, apparently (more on that in a minute).  You need to hear a buzz, preferably of people talking.  Think moderately busy coffee shop in the morning, actually.

In fact, that’s what the folks at Coffitivity are recreating with their nifty little app.  I stumbled across it a few days ago, and I’m in love with it.  They say its “morning murmur” of coffee shop sounds will boost your creativity.  Well, jury’s still out on that for me, but they do cite research to support their claim.  In a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Consumer Research (Univ. of Chicago Press), researchers concluded that “ambient noise, an incidental environmental cue, is an important antecedent of creative cognition. A moderate level of noise not only enhances creative production but also leads to greater adoption of innovative products.”

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Where is everybody?

Maybe a better title to this post would be, What Happened to August Vacation?

Full disclosure: this is a lament, not a rant.  Not nearly enough of those sometimes in the world of the social and the media.  But as I type this, I’m at a beach house on the Atlantic.  The weather is beautiful:  the sun is shining, it’s warm but with a cooling breeze, and the ocean is a cerulean that no artist has ever really been able to duplicate on canvas.

Then there’s this:  My wife just finished her fifth call of the day, so far.  Reading one of the dozens of emails she’s already gotten, she just muttered, “Why do people do stupid things?”  (Never a good sign.)  I have had a call already this morning, read and sent a batch of emails and will have another call in about a minute.  Worse, my teenage children have been working on summer assignments, from designing a set for a play, reading for AP English and cutting cards for the new policy debate year.  Tomorrow, two of them have to call in for a four-hour-long meeting they are missing in person, related to that aforementioned play.  I have at least another call tomorrow and probably should do that writing assignment I’ve been putting off for a couple of days.  My son’s debate team even this morning tweeted a picture showing at least a dozen kids working in a classroom already.  (Of course I favorited it.)  And did I mention that we are going to be here for another two days?  Now the phone’s ringing for my call…

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I am the type of person whose mind operates at a couple of different levels:  knee-jerk and long-haul.  Maybe that’s how everybody’s mind works, but you wouldn’t know it after spending just a couple of minutes plunging into any social medium.  It’s all knee-jerk, all the time.  Name the issue or event, it seems we are all instant experts, tenured critics or wise pundits when we turn to our Twitter stream, Facebook newsfeed or even LinkedIn updates.  The online sea of mourning and group therapy surrounding the death of Robin Williams a couple of days ago is only the latest example of this phenomenon.

Not surprisingly, it’s something others have noticed, and this particular quote from a New York Times article a few weeks ago has stuck with me since I read it:  “It’s never been so easy to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything.”  Take a few minutes to read the article; it’s worth your time (except do it only after you’re done reading this post, please).  Want proof?  Watch just one of Jimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News” videos he shows.  Jaw-droppingly astounding and sometimes absolutely hilarious.

My wife has often accused me of too much bluster and BS when I’m making some kind of assertion, whether on weather, politics or something else.  “You are full of it!” is a variant of similar accusations she makes.  They’re not entirely untrue.  I blame the combination of law school and journalism school.  Those of you who work a lot with lawyers recognize the type (or, more accurately, the stereotype).  My wife is usually the type of person who won’t make it seem like she is sure about something unless, as she puts it, “100 percent sure.”  We could both could benefit from adopting some of the other’s style, probably.

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Checking the Time

Lately, I am amazed how much of our lives are spent tracking and celebrating — and dreading and regretting — the mere passage of time.  It controls our lives in a way that nothing else does.

In my work life, lawyers and consultants mostly peg their value to the measure of time:  “My rate is $500 per hour” or “My day rate is $5,000.”  Certainly, in the legal profession in the past few years, there has been a significant push to drag lawyers kicking and screaming away from the billable hour and move toward some other “alternative fee” model, whether it’s value-based billing, task billing or something similar.

The irony is that no matter how “alternatively” the legal services are billed, no matter how much emphasis is placed on the quality and value of the service provided — and NOT the time it takes to do it — the lawyers are almost always still keeping track of their tasks by the amount of time they’re spending on doing things.  And you can bet that they’re being evaluated and held accountable, in large part, for the length of time they took to do something or other.  Probably that’s one of the reasons that rumors of the billable hour’s demise have been widely exaggerated.

In my home life, the devotion to tracking time is even more pronounced, and pernicious.  Of course, we note the obvious:  holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc.  We celebrate time passing as if it’s a judgment on our relative worth instead of a simple measurement.  Birthdays can make us feel old.  Anniversaries of any type, whether a first date, a wedding day, a last drink, a relative’s passing or whatever, can bring feelings of great joy or deep sadness, often tied to how much time has come and gone.

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Catch Those Typos!

Nobody’s perfect, right?

Tell that to the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.  This past weekend, the hallowed home to some of the world’s best media minds — and my alma mater — handed out some diplomas with a typo in the school’s name! It was a big boo-boo. A huge oopsie. A face-palm-combined-with-a-sad-sigh-and-slumped-shoulders kinda mistake.  If you haven’t seen the wall-to-wall coverage yet, complete with picture, start here.  It’s downright embarrassing.

Feeling that spellenfreude yet?  I’m sure plenty of folks are secretly, and not so secretly, chortling over their laptops at how the best journalism school in the country can’t seem to hire a decent copy editor for its diplomas.   Well, don’t get too smug.  I’m pretty sure that Thomas Jefferson was thinking about proofreading when he said that eternal vigilance was price of liberty.  Or something like that.  Anyhoo…

How do you avoid looking careless (at best) or idiotic (at worst) when you’re pumping out all that content in your daily life?  Doesn’t matter if it’s a witty rejoinder in a Facebook comment or a heartfelt post on your blog or the my-job-depends-on-this report to the CEO.  Typos hurt.  Sometimes they really hurt.  Here are five tips to search and destroy the dreaded typo:

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Suggestion Box

Dear Wasserstein & Co.:

In the wake of the news that you’ve bought back American Lawyer Media (after selling it off seven years ago) for a $200-million-plus discount, the reaction seems to be… a big yawn. No comments on the New York Times story as of this morning, a day after the story ran; not a lot of buzz even among legal marketers. Kind of a “hmpf” half-interested nod that you give on your way to checking your horoscope or the lottery numbers, it seems.

What’s up with that? As an amateur media buff who can’t get the ink out of his veins, I think this should be huge news, at least for those of us who care about the legal profession. I would posit that no other company has done more to change the face of large law firms in the past couple of decades than ALM, with its annual rankings of income and profits. They were doing metrics for lawyers long before lawyers even knew what metrics were.

So, this has to be an unbelievable opportunity to reinvigorate what has been to all eyes, a struggling media empire in the American legal profession, right? But aside from the standard gushing press release, everyone seems to be keeping quiet. Is it because they think this is a half-hearted attempt to finally put ALM into receivership? Perhaps just formalize the prescription for palliative care, while the good assets are quietly shopped around?

I don’t pretend to be an insider at ALM or know all that much about legal publishing in general. I’m just a member of the peanut gallery, a lowly legal marketer. However, I am ahuge fan of many of the folks at ALM, and of many of the company’s publications and products. That said, it seems like this is ALM’s last chance. Screw this up, and we will be playing the “remember when” game in a few short years. So, I thought I would — in the best tradition of our know-it-all legal profession — offer some unsolicited advice to the folks who’ve re-bought and will be re-running ALM:

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Work life balance choices

Trend alert: Work/Life Balance is Dead. Or maybe it’s going to be dead. Or maybe there’s no such thing. So, for all of you who were trying to achieve it, feel free to give up. See, wasn’t that easy? Apparently work is now so completely integrated into life, that life is now work.

Except that’s complete baloney. Work is work, and life is life. And don’t let some consultant or latter-day metaphysic tell you otherwise. Work is the yin to life’s yang. The cream in the coffee. The jelly in the doughnut. (Can you tell I wrote this before breakfast?)

The basic premise behind the obituary for work/life balance is that the new, basic ubiquity of work, thanks largely to our smartphones, constant wi-fi and other aspects of the digital revolution, now requires us to make choices or negotiate exchanges with work to actually have time to live. Well, duh. Many of us already thought that’s what the pursuit of work/life balance required.

Additionally, the very concept of work/life balance has been questioned and targeted as something akin to a passing fancy. Some have pointed out that humans only relatively recently even thought about having a work/life balance, with the rise of shift work in the 19th Century. Before then, it was early to bed, early to rise, work, work, work. Who had the time to think about what else they could be doing except working, right?

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Business man looking at modern icons and symbols

If you’ve been around a lot of lawyers for long enough, you know they can be pretty tough on themselves. Same goes for those folks who market lawyers and law firms. As legal marketers, I have found that we often are comparing ourselves and our marketing efforts with those of other professional service firms and big businesses, and coming up short.

As legal marketers, we struggle with how to get lawyers to connect better with their current clients to get more business, as well as how to help lawyers get new clients. As I’ve talked to marketers outside the legal profession over the years, I often get a whiff (and usually more) of condescension and sometiems even pity, aside from the usual confusion of “How in the world do you market lawyers?” The fact that other businesses, like consulting and accounting firms or technology companies, are so far ahead of law firms, so much more sophisticated when it comes to marketing and business development, is accepted as gospel truth.

It can be hard for legal marketers not to internalize this perceived second-class status and feel that we have a loooong way to go to catch up with our non-legal peers (not to mention that secret, nagging fear that we might never get there). This feeling is often confirmed when big firms hire Chief Marketing Officers and other executives who have never previously worked at a law firm. The message, intended or not, is that the “answer” to how to market lawyers better is somehow to be found outside of legal marketing.

Well, perhaps us legal marketers just need to get out more. It would seem that we’re not as far behind other industries or companies as we think.

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