On retreat: lessons from fire and “Fuego”

retreat bonfireThey set a tall bonfire the last night of the retreat I attended this weekend. The wood must have been stacked three feet high Jenga-style, which left a ton of room for airflow. That fire burned. But just after they lit it, a small movement caught their attention. Attention turned to horror as they realized what was going on:

A frog had hopped into the firepit.

Kimmi, one of the retreat leaders, dove in to rescue it—a frantic 90 seconds that must have felt like an hour inside the sun. But she coaxed the creature away from the fire and the frog hopped off with a new name—Fuego—apparently none the worse for the experience.

I can’t help but think that Fuego’s journey mirrors the journey I found myself on this weekend. Spending three days with a dozen women all doing our best to be present and open to one another—that’s a marvelous experience. I highly recommend it to everyone.

Of course it wasn’t all sunshine and s’mores. (The aforementioned Kimmi leaned into the fire once more to toast the marshmallows for my very first s’more. And may I say, Yum!) No, we worked those three days. Each of us spent time contemplating the fire of our own truth. And if things got too hot, we trusted that someone would always be there to keep us safe.

Like Fuego, I willingly joined the experience; like Fuego I emerged unscathed. But not unchanged.

Retreat – it’s not about work

I’ve been in a very work-centric place for the last year or so. And I marketed my Story Safari Retreat from that space: “You’ll learn skills, you’ll do work.”
But that’s not what a retreat is about. You can work at home, after all. One thing you can’t do at home, often, is grow.
The main thing a retreat gives you is the courage to face the fire—whatever that fire represents to you—and a safe space in which to emerge transformed. And so I am transforming my Story Safari program into a program. You’ll learn skills, you’ll do work—you’ll even have some fun. Stay tuned for details on that.
And do look for retreats from me in the future featuring as much space for heart work as head work. Maybe even more. We’ll jump into the fire together (not literally—goodness, I’m an insurance man’s daughter!) and see how we all get transformed.
In the meantime, my friend the talented branding and design expert Veronica Wirth will be using my gorgeous 5-star venue on Cape Cod to lead a retreat in Soulful Branding. I have no doubt you’ll find her work transformative—for yourself and for your business.
She’s given me permission to offer you the program for half price—that’s less than $1K for two and a half days of transformation and some yummy meals as well. I’ll be there; maybe you should be, too.

How to build a fan base? Think like your audience

Last weekend, Major League Baseball rolled out a new feature: Players Weekend. The players wore different uniforms, with the most hideous socks imaginable, and instead of having their last names on the backs of the jerseys, they each had nicknames.

The ostensible purpose of this exercise was to attract more young fans to the game. As a side effect, it also gave the teams a fresh batch of merchandise to sell. Okay, they’re auctioning off the game-used jerseys for charity, but MLB will happily sell you a replica for anywhere from $30 to $200.

I’m not the only person baffled by this promotion. If you’re a fan of the last Mets pitching star still in the rotation, Jacob deGrom, will you really be more likely to beg your parents to buy his jersey when it has his nickname on it rather than “deGrom”? That nickname, by the way—prepare yourself—it’s Jake.

The Spanish-speaking players seemed to go for more interesting monikers. Infielder José Reyes went with “La Melaza,” which apparently means “sweetness.” One of our relief pitchers, who has a Puerto Rican grandparent, was “Quarterrican.” I’m amused by the wordplay, but would a kid care?

And the night games still started at 7pm—or even 8:00—and still dragged on for more than three hours, on average. You want to attract the next generation of fans? How about playing games while they’re still awake?

No, the nickname promotion seemed to focus more on increasing MLB’s profits rather than increasing its fan base.

What could they have done differently?

To build a fan base, start with empathy

People want to feel special. Actually, more than that, they want to feel like you think they’re special.

I suppose kids named Jake might feel special to know they share a nickname with a major league pitcher. But that’s a pretty limited universe. (And a pretty unsurprising nickname.)

What if instead of offering to sell young fans something, baseball actually gave them something instead?

build a fan base with empathy

I haven’t been a “young fan” since well before the current crop of players was born, but I felt pretty darn special yesterday when the Cincinnati Reds gave me a certificate to commemorate my first Reds game.

There I was in my Mets jersey and “2015 National League Champions” cap and they still gave this to me.

Now, imagine you’re actually a young baseball fan. Does this certificate go up on your bedroom wall? I think it does. And I can’t see when it comes down. Wouldn’t you always want to remember your very first major league game?

And once you’re a member of the club—I don’t mean the ball club, I mean the club of people who go to baseball games. In this case, people who go to Reds games. Once you’re a member of that club, don’t you want to stay in it?

Now it’s true, if you’re focused on the bottom line, there’s nothing in this for the Reds. They’re not making a buck on this transaction. In fact, they’re losing money—paying an employee (today it was sweet-as-pie Rita), to sit at the computer, offer her congratulations, personalize the certificates, and print them out for the fans.

But what return is the team getting on that investment?

Young fans who feel special will grow into older fans who feel special. Catch a fan young and you’ve likely got a lifelong fan. That’s a lot of chili dogs and beer (and Graeber’s ice cream—a revelation) and merch to sell.

Somebody in the MLB marketing department ought to visit a Reds game one of these days. If it’s their first time, the folks at Fan Accommodations will be happy to give them a commemorative certificate. For free. Rita would be far too polite to say it outright, but the baseball execs might get the message: building a fan base means building a community. It’s not about getting people to buy merch, it’s about them to buy into the experience.

Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Dorie Clark: How Writing a Book Can Score You a Job

Dorie Clark
Photo by Thitiwat Nookae

I’m thrilled to introduce you to today’s guest expert, Dorie Clark, a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of business best-sellers Reinventing You and Stand Out, and she offers readers a free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook. Take her up on the offer (after you read this post). — Elaine

How Writing a Book Can Score You a Job

by Dorie Clark

What’s the best way to land your dream job? It certainly isn’t sending in a resume and waiting to hear back. Instead, Miranda Aisling Hynes – whom I profile in my new book Stand Out – used “inbound marketing” to ensure her future employer was dying to talk to her.

She dreamed of a career in arts management. But it’s a crowded and competitive field. For her master’s thesis in community art, instead of writing an ivory tower treatise, she self-published a manifesto on creativity, Don’t Make Art, Just Make Something (published under her middle name, Miranda Aisling). She wanted it to inspire regular people, not just practicing artists or those inside academia. The term “art” is loaded, she’d come to believe; it signified something rarefied that most people couldn’t imagine aspiring to. “But everyone is creative,” she says. “Whether they use that creativity is a different issue, but it’s an innate human skill like curiosity, and your creativity can manifest itself in any number of ways . . . Most people do want to be creative; they just had it squashed out of them at some point.”

She gave a copy of her book to a friend who worked at a local arts center; he passed along the copy to his boss after he’d finished reading it. When Hynes later applied for a job at the organization, the director was extremely enthusiastic, praising it during her interview and again in front of the entire staff when she went in for the second round. “The book definitely opened the door,” she says. She got the job.

She recognizes that self-publishing probably won’t make her rich or famous. “I think you have to have realistic expectations about what you’re going to get out of it,” she says. “It’s an entrance [for other people] to my ideas. I haven’t really made a profit; I’ve pretty much broken even.” But the book landed her the job, and is bringing her closer to her long-term vision of opening a “community art hotel” that connects visitors with local artists. “The more stuff you create—a blog, websites, books—the more articulate you become about your passion and purpose,” she says. “And the more articulate you become, the more people flock to your message.”

It’s about creating a variety of touch points that can draw people in and keep them engaged. Someone discovering her website might order a copy of her book, sign up for her e-newsletter, and perhaps start attending the regular art and music gatherings she hosts. “Instead of building the arts center and hoping the community will come,” she says, “I’m building the community first and hoping they’ll help me make the arts center.”

Writing your own book might seem like an enormous challenge. But you don’t have to dive into your masterpiece right away. Start by listening and learning about the major issues in your field, as you begin to formulate your own point of view. Then, begin to share your thoughts via blogging and social media. Finally, as you’ve built up a following that’s interested in your perspective—and asking for more—you can expand those concepts into a book that encapsulates your philosophy and how you see the world. That will be your calling card to attract like-minded people to you and your ideas, and to help ensure that they spread.

If someone hasn’t worked with you before, hiring you can feel like a significant risk. If it doesn’t work out, they may have wasted months and tens of thousands of dollars. But when someone reads your book – or even just hears about it and recognizes the thought and expertise that went into creating it – it gives them a far deeper understanding of who you are and how you think. That provides an extra level of reassurance that makes it easier for them to say yes to you.

So ask yourself, if a book could serve as a calling card for you, what message would you want it to convey? What does the world need to hear? Set aside an hour on your calendar sometime this week to brainstorm – maybe during a walk over lunch, or as you relax in the evening. As Hynes’ story shows, self-publishing a book may seem an unlikely route to winning your dream job – but because it helps you stand out from the competition, it’s a powerful one.

Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me (Elaine!) for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Kleenex — achoo! — a story safari

I’m not going anywhere without a box of Kleenex this week. Spring cold? Bad allergies? Dunno. All I can say for certain is that I had work to do—serious work—and it’s not getting done. The good news is my brain doesn’t feel like it’s packed in cotton anymore. But I’m sleepy…so, so sleepy.

Still, there’s that writing streak to keep alive (day 394 when I’m done writing this on Wednesday). So I thought I’d explore the backstory of my new best friend.

Box of Kleenex
A box of Kleenex, photograph by Evan-Amos – Own work, Public Domain

Kleenex — a great idea, almost ignored

Every successful new product meets an unmet need. Introducing Kleenex in 1924, Kimberly-Clark aimed to give women an easier way to remove cold cream or makeup. Advertising focused on movie stars and Hollywood makeup artists, bringing some glamour to the lowly disposable tissue:

“the new secret of keeping a pretty skin as used by famous movie stars…”

Wikipedia tells us that a researcher at Kimberly-Clark suggested expanding the market by targeting people with colds and allergies. This would double the market size—men get colds, too—but the company rejected the idea.

Still, consumers told the company again and again that they used the product as a disposable handkerchief. Finally, after testing the concept in one market, 1930 Kimberly-Clark positioned Kleenex as a healthy alternative to handkerchiefs:

“Don’t Carry a Cold in Your Pocket”

And Kleenex—which I should mention, for the record, is a registered trademark of Kimberly-Clark Worldwide—was on its way to becoming a $3 billion-plus brand.

Reinventing the wheel, or the tissue

I’m surprised it took Kimberly-Clark six years to market the tissue to cold sufferers. Because it wasn’t a new application. One European who visited Japan in the 17th century—some 400 years before Kleenex—reported:

“They blow their noses in soft silky papers the size of a hand, which they never use twice, so that they throw them on the ground after usage, and they were delighted to see our people around them precipitate themselves to pick them up.”

“Delighted” to see people pick up used tissues? More like amused—laughing at rather than with the strange Europeans. The 17th century Japanese equivalent of SMDH.

How many other innovations have we missed—and perhaps continue to miss—because we’re unwilling to understand and adapt customs from other cultures?

That’s a subject that could spark a fascinating speech or op-ed. Another win for the Story Safari trophy wall.

And now, my Kleenex and I are going back to bed.

Writing is just the first part of the process. Revising—that’s the secret sauce that gives your writing zing. Join my free webinar on revising.

What the customer wants — inclusion (if the Super Bowl ads are right)

“Listen hard to your customers. (Then listen some more.)”

Translation: Find out what the customer wants. And give it to them.

That particular advice comes from Pat Fallon and Fred Senn’s book Juicing the Orange. I haven’t read the book, but I did read a review of it in The New York Times back in 2006, which is how their “seven steps for creativity” landed in my quotation file.

The other rules, for the record:

“1) Always start from scratch
2) ‘Demand a ruthlessly simple definition of the business problem’
3) Find a ‘proprietary emotion’ you can appeal to. ‘Marketers who favor reason over emotion,’ they write, ‘will find themselves quite literally forgotten.’
4) Think big. Don’t be limited by the budget or the initial challenge.
5) Take calculated risks.
6) Collaborate with others both inside and outside your company to solve the problem.”

All of these, except perhaps the last, resonate with me as a writer. Be original. Boil complex issues down to simple (but sophisticated) explanations. Appeal to the audience’s emotions. Hmm…how to translate “think big”: Write what you feel needs to be written. Don’t second-guess or censor yourself.


what the customer wants is inclusion

But in the aftermath of the Super Bowl, I’m most struck by the ideas of listening to your customers (the audience) and leveraging emotion to convey your message. The video game and movie commercials treated us to a violent, dystopian world—one commercial showed tanks exploding into everyday situations; Tienanmen Square in your very own living room! But the consumer products companies told a story of compassion and inclusion. I’ll take that world, thanks.

The customer wants inclusion

My favorite was Airbnb’s “We accept” ad.

This isn’t just a political statement—it’s also brand positioning for Airbnb, which has faced issues stemming from some of its hosts discriminating against guests. See this piece on the Twitter hashtag #Airbnbwhileblack and this one about a “straight-friendly” host evicting a gay couple.

It’s a challenge for Airbnb, one they seem to have tackled forthrightly. But as discrimination becomes more socially acceptable, they may find they need something stronger than a feel-good advertisement or even a nondiscrimination pledge in their user agreement:

“We believe that no matter who you are, where you are from, or where you travel, you should be able to belong in the Airbnb community. By joining this community, you commit to treat all fellow members of this community, regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, with respect, and without judgment or bias.”

This is decidedly not the United States the current Republican administration envisions. But it is not what the customer wants — or most citizens, for that matter. Here’s hoping the corporate vision wins this battle.

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The Elmer Fudd Rule

Are you thinking of distinguishing your firm by trademarking a new word?

It’s a tempting path – or should I say “iPath”?  But for every neologism that breaks through to become part of the collective consciousness, there are thousands of clunky, derivative attempts that fall far short of the mark.  If yours falls into the latter category, you’ll distinguish your firm alright, but for all the wrong reasons.

But if no one can talk you or your marketing folks out of the idea, then please for the love of language, follow one simple rule.  I call it the Elmer Fudd Rule.

You remember Elmer, he of the bald pate and the oversized hunting cap; he of the inability to pronounce the letter R – which was impossible to avoid, as his favorite quarry was the “wascally wabbit” Bugs Bunny.  While out hunting, Elmer would often turn to the camera and advise the viewers to “be vewwy, vewwy quiet.”

I know, I know – when you’re creating a new word you don’t want to be quiet about it.  You want to make as much noise as possible, to trumpet your firm’s creativity far and wide.  But if you can’t be quiet about it, to paraphrase Elmer, “be vewwy vewwy caweful” – um, careful.

Elmer’s adventures in hunting always ended up making him look like a fool. He knew how to dress like a hunter and arm himself like a hunter but (fortunately for Bugs Bunny) he didn’t know the first thing about being a hunter. Likewise, we all use words daily, but that doesn’t mean we’re qualified to make new ones.

Two of my pet peeves:

  • Shackling together two (or more!) words – the result is often clunky and not euphonious.
  • Slapping an “e” or an “i” on the beginning of a word – unless your company’s name is Apple, you have no claim to the “i” prefix.  And at this point, “e” is so last century

Elmer Fudd succeeded only in making his audience laugh. Unless that’s your goal, don’t try to create new words. Instead, concentrate on making the most of the ones we already have.