Spanning the globe for insights into human behavior and persuasion.



Sponsored Shouting Match

Reading the Deseret Morning News a few days ago, I came across a public argument facilitated by a newspaper--a sponsored shouting match, if you will.

Questar, the public natural gas utility in Utah, had the audacity to blame environmental groups for the high cost of harvesting the blue flame. They did it in their customer newsletter, no less. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) responded by either hammering out a news release or by calling their favorite reporter to complain. In either case, the reporter was only too happy to be the referee of this little tiff. (Get out your newsworthiness calculator... Proximity? Check. Timeliness? Check. Conflict? Double check.)

This is the stuff news audiences see all the time, all across the country: two competing interests taking sides and duking it out. Admittedly, SUWA pulled Questar into this shouting match, and the utility really had no choice but to shout back. And SUWA is probably thinking that using the news media is the only way that they can fight back against this big corporate bully who has a "captive audience" that sends out missives in their billing statements.

My point: this isn't great news, this isn't great PR, and the high cost of natural gas, a problem that disproportionately affects the poorest in our society, won't be solved by competing interests lobbing grenades at each other. PR is much easier if organizations do the right thing. If Questar's main problem is government regulation, why don't they work with environmental groups and regulators to develop solutions that everyone can live with? If SUWA's big concern is their small reach, why not broaden it by taking advantage of the low-cost-of-entry world of the social web? They did themselves no favors by calling out Questar.



Happy Birthday, Grandpa Seamons! If you were alive today, you'd be 125 years old. (Seriously, he was old when my Dad--his last child--was born, and my Dad's old now.)


If It Makes You Happy

I just found, thanks to, someone else who blogs about human behavior. Antonella Pavese's a psychologist by training who consults in web usability. Since I swore off Web design three years ago, web usability isn't high on my priority list, but I read a great post of hers this morning that dealt with persuasion .

Antonella used a Sheryl Crow lyric to deconstruct the reasons why we complain--women, in general, complain not because they want advice, but because they want to vent; men, on the other hand, generally don't complain because they don't want anyone to tell them what they should do about their problms. Same desires, different modus operandus. She also played off her affinity for yogurt and other "growing" foods to explain how we humans dismiss that which does not fit our worldview. Smart, engaging, thought provoking. Subscribed!



Many Voices?

This blog's very name comes from the notion that the blogosphere could become the online marketplace of ideas. But after reading Clay Shirky's deftly written primer on power laws, I'm not so sure.

What's a power law? If I understand it correctly, it's a law that explains why, when we have a greater number of choices, power gets more and more concentrated in the top few choices. The most fascinating thing about it to me is that there is no man behind the curtain pulling levers or pushing buttons to make this happen. It just happens because this is how the human race acts.

So is there really a marketplace of ideas? I think so, but it's not as egalitarian as I had thought or hoped.



How They Overcame

Thurl Bailey, former Utah Jazz player and one of the more recognizable African Americans in my fair (double-entendre intended) state, shared the story of how an old slave spiritual became the anthem and a rallying cry for the Civil Rights movement. This is a perfect example of the power of song to convey shared meaning and to motivate groups.

Thanks to the Rev. Martin Luther King, not only for what you did for your cause, but for how your cause changed our nation.

And, on a day like today, it's appropriate that I link to Melissa's post--she's my family's liberal conscience--reminding us to love people for who they are.



An Open Era for Public Relations

The guide I'm reading for my APR exam (published by my local PRSA chapter) has begun with PR's history and theory. That's cool with me; I'm fascinated by that kind of stuff--strange, I know. Two things I have read make me ponderous.

First, public relations as a practice essentially began in 1900, and there have been seven "eras" of PR, most of them marked by World Wars or economic upheaval. The latest era, called "the Information Society" (cue synth pop beat), has been the status quo for the past 40 years.

Second, one of the more widely accepted theories in communications is "systems theory." At the risk of being a bore, let me briefly explain.

In its essence, an organization is a system made up of interacting units within an environment, and it survives or dies based on how openly it interacts with its environment.

Organizational systems can be relatively open or relatively closed, says the theory. Open systems keep tabs on their environment and adapt and change based on feedback. Closed systems don't adapt and change, and that makes them vulnerable.

Practically, that's a nice theory, but I don't know that most organizations in the past 40 years have been open in terms of the way they've interacted with their publics. Sure, organizations adapt and change based on sales numbers or on legal issues, but, in all but the most forward-thinking companies, or those with a high public profile, I don't think public opinion has made much of a difference to corporate bigs.

But the world is changing.

The Internet has democratized information. It's giving everyone with a computer (or a mobile phone) a voice. It's empowering consumers to get news, entertainment, goods and services when they want it. It facilitates the sharing of personal experiences with a company, good or bad. It's making gatekeepers obsolete. It's causing people to expect and demand transparency. It's Cluetrain, baby.

Which brings me back to the point of eras. Could it be that we're entering the "Open Era" in public relations? I hope that we are, but I can't be so bold as to say with certainty that we are. I think big organizations and the PR professionals are who advise them still going to jealously guard their message and their information. But as more consumers find their voice and as more companies see the benefits of transparency, listening and adaptation, I'm hopeful that the practice of PR, not just the theory, will truly embody an open system.



PR Cred

I've been told that I'm more likely to achieve a goal if I tell someone about it. That's why I'm telling you about a goal I'd like to accomplish this year: getting accredited in public relations.

I mentioned my APR ambition to a friend today. He replied, "Why on Earth... ?" A few reasons: when I got my first PR job out of college, I asked my boss if any further education would help my career. His response was that he really saw no reason to get a graduate degree in communications.

"You don't get better at this stuff by studying it, you get better by doing it," he said. (Still, there's that little voice that's saying the longer I wait to get a Master's degree, the harder it will be.) But he also said that, in his experience, a professional designation that carried some weight was an APR.

That was almost nine years ago, which brings me to the second reason: I've been doing this for a while; it's time to see how I stack up with the rest of the PR world.

So, I'm going to blog about my APR effort periodically--hopefully my experience can help anyone who else who wants to give it a shot. And, if anyone who is accredited reads this, I'd appreciate any advice you can offer.


Make It Memorable

I don't know if the PhD's who study persuasion agree, but I believe the quest for persuasion starts with memorability. We can't convince someone to change their mind or their heart if something about our message doesn't stick in their brain.

I finally had the time to read Kathy Sierra's latest classic, A Crash Course in Learning Theory, that's causing a quite a stir--as of this afternoon 592 users had tagged the post. Lots of her advice applies to persuasion, because it applies to enhancing memorability.

Here's some of her tips for making a message memorable:

"Provide a meaningful benefit for each topic, in the form of 'why you should care about this' scenario." This is especially important in these days of decreasing attention.

"Use visuals." No big revelation here, but how many powerpoints do you see with gigantic blocks of text?

"Use redundancy to increase understanding and retention." Lather, rinse, repeat.

"Use conversational language." Kathy says that research suggests this to be a more effective writing style for memorability. Very cool.

"Use mistakes, failures, and counter-intuitive WTF?" aka, cognitive dissonance.

"Use the filmaker (and novelist) principle of SHOW-don't-TELL."

"Use 'chunking' to reduce cognitive overhead." Package information in easily remembered forms, then, like processed foods that are quickly broken down and absorbed, your brain can store the info in long-term memory.

"Use seduction, charm, mystery to build curiosity."

"Use a spiral model to keep users engaged." Think levels in a video game.

"Don't rob the learner of the opportunity to think!" Now, there's a novel concept in marketing.

"Use the 80/20 principle to reduce cognitive overload." Don't tell your audience everything, just the absolute essentials.

"Context matters."

"Emotion matters."

"Never underestimate the power of FUN to keep people engaged."

"Use stories." It's the oldest form of engagement.

"Use pacing and vary the parts of the brain you're exercising." Writers know that long sentences punctuated with short sentences keep interest much better than a paragraph full of long sentences or short sentences.

All these tips are backed up by Kathy's clear explanations, and she claims (though she doesn't elaborate), research. If you're into marketing or any other field that uses persuasion as a foundation, this one's a must read.



My Modest Change

I'm taking a clue from GTD hacker Merlin Mann and cancelling some of my RSS feeds. Well, to be honest, I'm not exactly cancelling them, just relegating them to a skim mode.

I asked myself why I read blogs. And my answer wasn't to learn more, but to be a better blogger. I want to know this medium really well, and to do so, I need to participate.

The only Stephen King book I've ever read is "Stephen King On Writing," and one piece of advice he gave to aspiring writers was to read good writing. Read them for enjoyment, AND to figure out what makes them good. (He also advised writers to write a lot, but I'm not going to give up my night job--Dad--so I can write more often.)

So I'm limiting everyday reading to the bloggers that I really like: Jarvis and McLeod for their wit and personality, Rubel for his incessant search for the new, the aforementioned Mann for his turn of phrase and Godin for his insight.

I've also subscribed to Johnnie Moore's blog, because I've always liked the quotes that others post from him, and Manolo's Shoe Blog, not because I love shoes but because his writing style is so unique.

I've relegated a few bloggers I've tried to keep up with to my secondary list because they're just too long form. Sorry, I'll skim you and save what looks interesting for later.



"I hate that he's so negative."

Slightly ironic statement, don't you think?


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