Might As Well Laugh

Elbert Hubbard is an American author who’s credited with this quote: “Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out of it alive.”

Given that none of us will survive this life, we might as well laugh as much as we can along the way.

That’s the idea behind my new humor blog called “j/k” (that’s digital shorthand for “just kidding”).

A lot of things happen to me that would really depress me if I didn’t laugh at them. I know this from experience because I’ve dealt with depression before. But as I’ve gotten older (I’m staring down 50 and trying hard not to blink), I’ve come to realize that looking for the funny in life isn’t just fun, but it also has likely extended my life by a few years.

Some of the things I’ll write at “j/k” are true. Some are partially true but embellished. Some are inspired by true events. Some are just utter and complete falsehoods. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what’s what, but I hope you won’t spend too much time on it. Instead, I hope my posts there lighten your load a bit.

I’ve already written about a visit to a really terrible winery and about the fact that my addiction to old TV sitcoms is beginning to affect my everyday conversations. I’ll also give you the Friday 5 — lists of useless information that you can’t live without. I invite my “Communication at Work” followers to check it out and let me know what you think. But don’t leave for long! I’ll still be here writing about communication in our work and personal lives.


4 Reasons Big Bird is Still Cool After All These Years

Who would have thought that the “Saturday Night Live” performer getting the most laughs this week would be Big Bird?

But there he was, all 8 feet of his yellow plumage, seated next to “Weekend Update” segment host Seth Myers, yawning because he was up way past his 7 p.m. bedtime and nearly stealing the show from guest host Daniel Craig.

Big Bird suddenly became the talk of the U.S. presidential campaign last week after Republican Mitt Romney suggested withholding federal support for public broadcasting. Romney promised he had nothing against Big Bird, but the damage was done. The next day, from Sesame Street’s Twitter account, Big Bird tweeted, “My bed time is usually 7:45, but I was really tired yesterday and fell asleep at 7! Did I miss anything last night?”

Big Bird was retweeted more than 12,800 times and has been the talk of social media and news programs ever since.

How is it that a puppet from a children’s show manages to remain so cool and so relevant — not with kids, but with grownups — after more than 40 years? The answers provide some good lessons for brands everywhere.

  1. Stay true to the brand. Big Bird doesn’t try to be something he’s not. He, like all the Muppets from “Sesame Street,” remain in character — and more important, true to their characters — no matter what situation they’re thrown into. It would have been tempting for Carroll Spinney, the main inside the bird, to knock off a few double entendres or attempt some “grown-up” humor, given the setting. Instead, he kept it clean: “I’m a bird! Tweeting is how we talk!”
  2. Know your audience. Big Bird’s appearance on “SNL” wasn’t geared to children, most of whom share a bedtime closer to his. He knew his audience was the parents of those kids, many of whom grew up watching him on “Sesame Street” themselves. He also knew his audience would never forgive him if he delivered a line not in keeping with his character.
  3. Don’t take yourself too seriously. The whole reason Big Bird’s appearance worked is because Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit production company behind “Sesame Street,” has a good sense of humor about itself and was willing to play along — as long as the brand’s integrity remained intact. That’s the sign of a strong brand.
  4. Remain relevant. “Sesame Street” has managed to do so after all these years, even with many of the same beloved characters. A child-like 8-foot bird that’s active on Twitter? Now, that’s hip.

Glamour for Grammarians

We writers are such dorks sometimes.

We fret over using just the right word and we agonize over proper grammar usage. We become obsessed with making sure the fruits of our labor are not only widely understood but universally adored.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a good sense of humor about what we do. Enter Mignon Fogarty, aka “Grammar Girl,” who has nearly made grammarians cool again (if they ever were cool to begin with). Through her books and her website, she brings the fun back to writing well.

While in the supermarket checkout recently, perusing the trashy mags with their screaming headlines and seductive images, she wondered what such a magazine for grammarians would look like. This is what she imagined:

Who said grammar wasn’t Glamour-ous?

Thanks to Ragan.com, which originally printed it.

Baby Steps

I’m not a runner, but lately I’ve been pretending to be one in preparation for a local event, the Corporate 4-Miler. I’ve reached the ability to run two miles without stopping, which doesn’t sound like a lot for people who run in 10ks and marathons, but which is a major accomplishment for me.

As one of my Facebook friends reminded me, we all cross the same finish line. I’m not looking to set any records. I’m looking for the free beer at the end.

Earlier this year, my boss asked me to put some thought around manager/leader communication in my company. We want managers/leaders to be better informed so they, in turn, can communicate more effectively with the people they lead. I excitedly mapped out a plan for reaching the desired end state in which managers/leaders are well trained as communicators, where they freely share information with their people and engage them in meaningful dialogue.

My boss reminded me that what she was really looking for was some incremental steps toward that goal that we could take immediately. Ahh. That makes the task a lot less daunting.

To help guide my thinking in manager/leader communications, I bought a book called The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. It’s written by a Harvard Business School professor and her husband, a developmental psychologist. They asked hundreds of employees in several organizations to keep diaries about what motivated them at work. One big finding was that while managers and leaders often believe recognition, incentives, clear goals and the like are the greatest motivating factors for employees, the thing that really gets people going is seeing incremental progress toward goals. People want to see the baby steps that get them where they want to be.

Of course, this suggests a significant communication role for managers/leaders. People want to understand the goals before them, they want to know where they fit in, and they want regular feedback on how they’re doing. They want this collaboration and communication with their bosses to be consistent and ongoing. Seeing incremental progress motivates people to be more engaged, productive and creative in their work.

Thunderstorms every day this week have kept me from being able to run outside. I had worked my way up to completing two miles, but not being able to see any progress this week has demotivated me. Kind of like a lack of communication from a boss. I’ll get back out there and pick up where I left off, but it’s going to be tough.


Pick-Up Lines for Communicators

As a public service – and for a little Friday fun – here is a list of pick-up lines and flirtatious phrases for communicators. If you’re offended by any of them, at least it means you get them:

  • I like your style. No, I mean your AP Style.
  • How ‘bout coming over here so I can kiss your ellipsis.
  • I want you. Period. Backspace. Exclamation point, exclamation point.
  • I’m free of all social diseases and dangling participles.
  • Baby, when I’m with you, I feel like just breaking free and throwing caution to the wind and living with reckless abandon and breaking all the rules, including the one about run-on sentences.
  • You make me want to pull out my red pen.
  • You must also be a writer because I’m reading you pretty clearly.
  • Do you want the edited version or the rough draft of what I’m thinking right now?
  • I’ve misplaced a modifier. How about you coming to my place and helping me look for it?
  • I’d like to both compliment you and complement you. Aren’t you impressed that I know the difference?
  • Let’s you and I get together for a game of Scrabble. I’m feeling like I might triple word score.
  • Think of me as your rough copy. With a little massaging, I could turn into a masterpiece.

Now, add yours to the list. You don’t have to admit to having used them before.

Birth of a Tumblr

Oh, to be 25 again. And rich. And the founder of one of the fastest-growing social media platforms in the world.

David Karp, the founder of Tumblr, arrived 10 minutes late to speak to a sizable audience of students and professors at VCU’s School of Mass Communications on April 2. Nobody seemed to care that he was late. Dressed in black skinny jeans, a plaid shirt and a gray hoodie, Karp looked more like one of my son’s friends than the leader of an Internet upstart. Actually, maybe this is what leaders of Internet upstarts do look like.

One student tweeted that Karp “looks like the long lost 5th Beatle.” (You can read more of the live-tweets in this Storify account of the event.)

But all similarities to either my son’s friends or to the Beatles ended there. The guy is brilliant. He started selling computers at 15, dropped out of school at 16, learned the ropes of web development here and in Japan (to which he escaped after a girl broke his heart), and caught the blogging bug in 2005. The problem was that he didn’t like the limitations and the “big, empty text box” of standard blogging platforms. So he created one of his own that emphasizes the sharing of multimedia — photos, videos and music.

Today, Tumblr has more than 50 million users who post 600 new items every second. There are creators and there are curators who share the creations with the broader audience — 9 out of 10 posts are shared items. Although unintentional, communities began to pop up across the platform and today Tumblrs of all ages can be found all over the world.

Two principles guided Tumblr’s creation and growth: let people share anything and customize everything. So simple, yet so effective.

The takeaway for me was that David Karp identified a need and found a creative way to meet it. And it made him a millionaire. It’s a formula that has worked millions, if not billions, of times over the years. It’s just that most of us don’t tap into such an enormous need with such a creative solution before the age of 20.

Faith Gives Hope for Communicating with Passion

This weekend I said goodbye to one of my two best friends. I shared some personal thoughts about Faith Eury with my Facebook friends — who she was, how we became friends, why I loved her and what she meant to me. As I’ve thought about her over the last few days, I realize there’s something I can say about her life that is relevant to communicators, so I want to share it here.

Faith was a communicator herself. That’s how we became friends — she worked for a client I served as a consultant 10 years ago. A friendship blossomed, then deepened because of some shared experiences including a history of anxiety attacks. I had been through them before and tried to offer encouragement that she could overcome them. Social anxiety is more common than many people know and attacks can be debilitating.

Faith was an effective communicator because she could cut through extraneous information and get to the essence of a message. She was that way as a person, too. There was no fluff with her. She cut to the chase.

On a spring morning nearly three years ago, I took Faith to the hospital because her primary care doctor told her she needed to go right away and she shouldn’t drive herself. I stayed with her through a long day of examinations and tests that resulted in a diagnosis nobody wants to hear. She had Hodgkin’s disease, a blood cancer that is survivable with chemotherapy. She endured the brutal treatments with courage and grace.

But she did more than just endure. While still in treatment, Faith organized a team to walk in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night event in Richmond, Va. Not only did she organize the “Faith’s Hope” team, but it raised the most money of any team in the walk. Over the next two years Faith would lead the team to raise more than $16,000 for blood cancer research. In addition, she helped coordinate events for the LLS and spoke to school groups and others about the importance of research to the fight against cancer. The LLS in Virginia honored her as its Volunteer of the Year in 2010.

All this from a woman who suffered from social anxiety.

Faith and her pal Henry

I’ve thought a lot about how Faith was able to pull it off. Where did she find the courage to overcome her fears and speak publicly about her Hodgkin’s disease? Why didn’t the prospect of getting up in front of total strangers paralyze her? Why did a woman who was intensely private open up her life to not only friends but people she did not know?

It’s because Faith was passionate about her topic. She lived it. She experienced it deeply. It was part of her. When she spoke or wrote about it, she was communicating from the deepest part of her soul.

We communicators can learn something from that. Yes, even in a business context, it’s possible to communicate with as much passion. In business we rarely communicate about life-and-death issues like cancer. But as we write speeches for executives, we can try to pull the passion out of them. As we interview people for a feature story on the company intranet, we can ask them questions that get at why they care about the subject, using real words instead of corporate-speak. We’re working with people, after all, who hopefully live life in a real way and experience things deeply. Sometimes I think we just don’t work hard enough to get to the essence of the message.

If a woman like Faith can cast aside her fear and talk honestly about something she cared about that affected her, why can’t we get our clients to cast aside theirs and talk honestly about things that affect them and their audiences?