Who is Ann Patchett and Why Should Your Company Care?

Photo of a Borders store with closing sign on it

Are you doing enough to promote yourself? Doing enough to promote your company? Are you doing enough to promote your industry?

Hmm, did that last question get you?

If you’re thinking, “Why do I need to promote my industry?” then you might want to take a look around. Many professions and industries are endangered, for example:

  • Brick & mortar retail stores
  • Publishing houses
  • Newspapers and journalists
  • Supermarkets (in my area, I can name at least three large chains that have gone under or are in trouble)

If you think your industry is riding high right now, keep in mind the turnaround from uphill to downhill can be quite quick.

Follow the Leader

Believe it or not, I’m going to tell you to follow an author’s lead. Ann Patchett is the author who is a shining example of how to treat your fans and customers and, hence, preserve an industry.

Be the Change

Over the past several years, bookstores have been closing like mad. When big-house bookstore Borders went down, Ann Patchett had had enough. She wasn’t just sad about it like the rest of us. She decided to take matters into her own hands and started a bookstore of her own.

With business partner (and publishing veteran) Karen Hayes, Patchett opened Parnassus Books in Nashville, saying:

I think of this as my gift to the city: This is what I want to see in Nashville, and if I want to live in a city with a bookstore, then I’m willing to pay for it.

Putting her money where her mouth is—how refreshing. That’s what more of us need to do—take action. But we should probably start being more proactive about it than reactive.

Go the Extra Step

I was in Target the other day (cooling off from the 100-degree heat) and already had a book in my hand to purchase when I saw State of Wonder by Patchett. I had only read one book of hers (Run), but I knew from the very first pages of that novel that she was an excellent writer.

Reading the book jacket, I still was planning to buy the first book I picked up that day, but then I saw something that changed my mind. On the very first page of her trade paperback was a letter:

Dear Target Guest,

I think of Target as a place where a person can run in and pick up just about anything, and I’m glad to know that books are included on that list. Not every town has a bookstore anymore, and I think it’s great that Target takes an interest in providing and promoting books, especially in the places where people might not be able to easily find them otherwise…

Patchett goes on to say many more nice things, but you get the gist of it. She wrote a nice, personal letter to her reader, and she thanked Target in the process. And she ends with, “I hope you enjoy it.” (I did, by the way.)

As a reader, I feel almost like she was speaking to me, handing me the book herself. I don’t need any more reasons to love Target, but Patchett also does a great job promoting the retail giant and making us feel like there’s a fabulous collaboration taking place here.

What Will You Do?

Maybe if we all kept that big picture in mind and showed our appreciation more often, we’d have more industries and professions that continue to find ways to work together and grow.

If your profession is already in danger, think of ways you can change the profession or the environment to make it last. Think of other companies or industries you can join forces with for an innovative or just plain smart and profitable partnership.

And if your profession is not in danger (yet), do the same thing—think of ways to change and grow. Think of smart collaborations to pursue.

Technology changes fast. This world changes so quickly. Don’t wait for the change, be it! This is the only way to steer your own course.

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Book Review: Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance

Photo of Uncertainty bookUncertainty—we all have to deal with it in life and in business. And, as the book Uncertainty says, it “will freeze you in place if you let it…unless you know how to use it to your advantage.”

Author Jonathan Fields draws on research, science and his own personal experience to show us how to do just that—use uncertainty to your advantage.

Right away in this book, Fields introduces us to the three “psychic horsemen” of creation:

  1. Uncertainty
  2. Risk
  3. Exposure to criticism

How a person, especially a businessperson, handles these three things determines whether you and your business will be successful.

As Fields correctly states, “The more you’re able to tolerate ambiguity and lean into the unknown, the more likely you’ll be to dance with it long enough to come up with better solutions, ideas and creations.”

Giving Us Tools

Certainty anchors

“A certainty anchor is a practice or process that adds something known and reliable to your life when you may otherwise feel you’re spinning off in a million different directions.”

Rituals and routines are examples. Your certainty anchor might simply be following the same schedule every day—wake at a certain time, work at certain times, eat at certain times. Fields explains how to identify the rituals, routines or other anchors that might work for you.

Creativity hive

Handling judgment and constructive criticism is crucial to being able to get through the entire creation process—whether you’re creating a work of art, a new technology or a new business.

Building your own creativity hive—or finding one to join—is about being around people who who are similarly creating and who you can share the process with. This includes having mentors as well. Your “hive” can be online or in person. Startup incubators are a good example of the sort of hive Fields is talking about. He also mentions Scott Belsky’s Behance network.

Attentional training

When dealing with uncertainty, it’s very important that you have something that grounds you. Fields introduces readers to different types of attentional training—daily contemplation-driven practices that require a focused awareness.

Such practices include:

  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Biofeedback
  • Hypnosis and self-hypnosis

Active attentional training is participating in an activity that gets you “in the zone.” If you’ve been there, you know what I am (and he is) talking about. For me, I used to find this zone in an art studio. Once I started drawing and shaping and shading what I was drawing, hours could pass and I would barely notice time because I was so focused on what I was doing.

Rock climbing is another activity I find works. You’re so focused on your next hold or your next few holds, you’re not thinking about anything else but climbing. All the day’s cares fade away.

Fields uses the example of trail running. You have to stay so focused on the obstacles on the trail, that the rest of the world “ceases to exist.”

Relief: Peace of Mind or Loss of Anxiety?

Have you ever made a decision to walk away from something and felt good about it? Are you sure you made the right decision?

Fields brings up an important question: Is the euphoria you feel simply a relief from anxiety of dealing with building a business—dealing with uncertainty? Or is it a sign you’re at peace with your decision?

How do you know?

There’s a touching moment in the book (pages 155-157) in which Fields is talking to a client, Anne. Anne feels restful and “like a weight has been lifted” after deciding to shut down her business.

Fields asks her to visualize herself two years in the future, pretending that everything she wanted to have happen in her business has happened. He asks not only how it feels, but where in her body she is feeling the response. Then he asks, “Do you still want it?”

It’s a powerful moment. And it represents a snapshot of what this entire book is about. Sometimes we need a different perspective to know for sure in which direction to head. This book gives perspective and reminds us that uncertainty is a tool. It’s a necessity that means you are creating something new.

Uncertainty is not groundbreaking, but it is eye-opening. Reading it should make you more comfortable with uncertainty, and you’ll gain instruction on how to use it to your advantage.

The book is not “brilliant and subversive” as one reviewer says. But another back-of-the-book reviewer sums it up perfectly:

Let’s face it—the leap of faith required to follow a dream is usually accomplished by gut-wrenching, knee-quaking, soul-shaking fear. Jonathan Fields knows this—but instead of offering an empty pep talk, he delivers daily practices that can help you transform fear and uncertainty into confidence and creativity.

True. But don’t take our words for it, read the book for yourself and see what you think.

A Merger, a Merlis and a Melee: 4 Lessons Your Business Can Learn from Abington Hospital’s Mistakes

The fate and future of Abington Memorial Hospital suddenly is in doubt. After decades of building a reputation as the community hospital of choice in the Philadelphia suburbs, a decision made behind closed doors has torn that community apart.

Logo for Stop the Abington Hospital MergerDoctors aren’t happy. Patients aren’t happy. Donors aren’t happy.

What should the hospital do? And what lessons can businesses learn from Abington’s mistakes?

The Situation

Abington Hospital CEO Laurence Merlis agreed to a merger with Catholic hospital Holy Redeemer to form a new regional health system. The problem? He didn’t tell anyone, including his doctors.

One of the stipulations of the merger is that Abington must stop performing abortions. You’ll hear many people mention that, but don’t get caught up in that polarizing topic. The real issue is that a secular hospital now finds itself wondering what Catholic-imposed rules doctors and patients will have to follow. This includes abortion, fertility services, stem cell procedures, end-of-life decisions and more.

Lesson 1: Think of not just the benefits but the consequences your decision will create.  How will your customers, your employees and your community feel and react?

 

Transparency & Authenticity: Missing in Action

It’s funny how fast trust can fall away. Just last year, Merlis was highlighted in an article titled, “How Laurence Merlis Unifies Employees around His Vision for Abington Health.” The article stated:

Two of the most critical things a leader can do when formulating and promoting a vision is to listen and measure. It’s something that Merlis has made a top priority at Abington. He wants his leadership team to get input on the future direction of the organization from all involved stakeholders — the board of directors, physicians, medical staff, office staff and support staff. Then, once the vision and strategy are formed, he manages by what he can measure and communicates that data back to employees to facilitate an ongoing dialogue.

Sounds good, right? Seems like Merlis forgot his own rules. He said he wanted “to keep the entire work force engaged in the process and also empower employees to hold management accountable for their leadership decisions” adding “We share that in an effort to stay as transparent as possible.”

Oops! Where did that transparency go?

Doctors and the community are now trying to hold those leaders—Merlis—accountable for their decision, yet the hospital is very slow to respond.

Lesson 2: In Merlis’ own words: “You need to be sure that you are measuring yourself by what you said you would do.” Be authentic. Don’t claim to be transparent if you plan not to be.

Facebook Frenzy & a Wave of Bad Press

In this social age, delay in response is dooming. Leaders at Abington Hospital clearly dropped the ball. Did they, in arrogance, assume that people would acquiesce to their merger decision with no problems?

That would be idiotic. In a community with a good number of Jewish and non-Catholic families, many of whom have contributed to the hospital, it’s a major slap in the face to suddenly turn their hospital into a Catholic one.

I know, Merlis insists Abington will stay secular. But his actions say something different. And even his own doctors no longer trust him. One doctor, Dr. Philip Rosenfeld, who has been with the hospital for over 40 years hammered this point home, saying after all that’s transpired “I have no confidence in any statement of the Abington Hospital administration.”

Doctors stand in solidarity against the merger and so far:

Lesson 3: Respect your audience. Act quickly to at least acknowledge that the doctors and public have a valid response. Prove you are listening. Understand the problem you’ve created.

Stopping the Wave

So far, Abington Hospital’s response has been minimal and ineffective.

Meg McGoldrich, AMH VP for Administration, reached out to the Facebook page owner, Rita Poley, to see if an “accommodation” could be reached. Her proposal? To establish an off-site facility for abortions. Completely missing the point.

The danger of a subject like abortion is that people hear that word and choose sides, not paying attention to the other items at stake. This isn’t just about abortion.

The issue here is that a CEO who claimed he was committed to transparency and valued his employees’ opinions made a decision that greatly affects them without any consideration as to their opinion or how it would affect them. All this despite a year earlier claiming:

Our philosophy here is the staff are experts in how to get things done…We look to them for advice and recommendations on how to make things better when it comes to making ourselves a place for patients to receive care.

He also disregarded the community his hospital serves. Right now, people who want Catholic services go to Holy Redeemer Hospital. Others have a choice that is now, in a sense, being taken away. Now, women and doctors don’t trust (and don’t want) this new Catholic influence on their care.

Lesson 4: Know when to fold ‘em. Stop the merger for now. Listen to your audience and if you choose to go forward with the merger, incorporate the needs and concerns of your constituency.

Next Steps

After Merlis stops the merger, which is the only (sane) thing to do at this point, he will have to work very hard to rebuild trust. Because he’s waited so long to address the issue with the doctors, employees and community, I’m afraid the only step for Merlis to take is to resign—with no golden parachute to ease his fall.

Then Public Relations and Marketing will have to get into high gear working to undo the damage. My suggestion is to commit to transparency this time and make every next step obvious, public and in the best interest of the patients and the community.

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UPDATE: July 18. Abington and Holy Redeemer Hospitals announced they’ve called off the merger (short statement in the Philadelphia Inquirer).

Does This Dart Hit Its Target?

@Dodge promoted tweet announcing the new Dodge Dart

Good copywriting always catches my eye, so I decided to investigate Dodge’s promoted tweet today. “Build a car that will change everything” is a strong statement. Does this new car live up to the high expectations Dodge just set?

See for yourself. “Dodge Dart: How to Change Cars Forever” is the video that was linked to the tweet:

Gotta say, I like it. Let’s take a look and then let me know what you think.

Pacing

Excellent tone and pacing in this advertisement. It’s fast enough to keep your attention, but not monotone. The pauses set in, for example, around “sleep…okay, that’s enough sleep” are perfect.

Copywriting

The script is fantastic, especially for a car company. There’s not too much detail thrown at you. Humor is there, but not forced or overdone. “Start with a simple idea” it begins and it continues by executing these simple ideas very well. The right words work with the video for a pace that engages and builds expectation.

Images

Instead of a straight-through video, images shoot out at you in a fast-paced montage. Notice all the people working on the car are young–not 20-young, but young looking.

Worker man smashing laptop, concept didn't work, goes with script "hate it"

Each image leaves an impression, with some that really stand out. Like what happens when you rely on committees (per the script):

Cheap car flipping over

Target Audience

So, here’s the question–Does this Dart ad appeal to its target audience or not?

I think the answer is yes…for the most part. You can tell Dodge is going after a young, hip audience here. And to their credit, they don’t seem like a stodgy, old car company pretending they get Gen-Y likes, needs and personality.

Starting price just under $16,000 for what seems like a cool car, or cool enough anyway, is a great takeaway. It’s placed near the end so you’re more likely to remember it. Plus, they didn’t lead with price because they want you to like the car first. And I think the video does give the viewer a good impression of the car–good enough to go test drive even.

I’m not sure why they featured Tom Brady at the end as their “celebrity endorser.” The way they introduced him was cute and fitting with the vibe of the rest of their video, but does Tom Brady really appeal to Gen Y?

After viewing the Dodge Dart commercial for yourself, what do you think? Did Dodge hit the mark with this one?

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Note to fellow WordPressers: Make sure when you try and embed your YouTube video that you’re not logged into Google. The link you get will then be a secure link and the video won’t embed. Get the unsecure link and all will work fine. Thanks to Jackie at WP for her quick and helpful reply.

Forget Zombies, Writers Need to Worry About the Robot Apocolypse

Photo by Middlewick from Morgue File

What if I told you this article was written by a computer? Would you read it?

Chances are, if you read Forbes, the Tribune or other Internet media powers (who refuse to be identified), you have already read articles written solely by computers.

Technology sometimes crosses a line, a very bad line. As humans having something computers don’t—morals—we need to draw that line.

I understand looking for efficiencies in a workplace or even an industry. But writing is a very distinct human endeavor.

Humans observe, intuit, react with emotions, add sarcasm and humor, and these human traits make prose of all kinds worth reading and identifying with.

Can a computer duplicate this? Maybe so. But should it?

Steven Levy, writing for WIRED magazine, reports in “The Rise of the Robot Reporter” (print title) that:

  • Within 15 years, more than 90 percent of news articles will be written by computers.
  • In 20 years, there will be no area in which a computer doesn’t write stories.
  • In 5 years a computer-generated story will win the Pulitzer Prize.

These predictions come from Kristian Hammond, Chief Technology Officer and cofounder of Narrative Science, the seeming leader of this new writer-killing industry.

Hammond would disagree with me on that “writer-killing” crack. In fact, he tried to defend his company by saying, “Nobody has lost a single job because of us.”

Let’s assume for a second his assertion is true. For how long will it stay true?

Read Levy’s article. It’s quite fascinating, really. Right now, top publications use Narrative Science technology to produce articles on finance, sports, and more. More sports are being covered than ever before because of this technology—Little League games and women’s softball have benefited quite a bit.

When you read the article, you can see a real use for this sort of technology, especially in helping writers, scientists, marketers and others research and review data to help them with their work.

But what about authenticity? A word so often hailed as the hallmark of expert communication in the digital age.

Forbes.com does include a disclaimer about Narrative Science with all its computer-generated articles.

Narrative Science disclaimer from Forbes article

To me, including this disclaimer should be the rule—the law even. Otherwise, isn’t it fraud?

James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, comes to mind. He wrote and sold millions of copies of a very compelling story. Unfortunately for him, he called it a memoir, which means the story should’ve been true—at least as he recollected it.

Readers recoiled when they learned of Frey’s lie because they identified with the human emotion and struggle described in the book. They felt compassion and maybe even admiration toward Frey.

What happens when computers start writing more emotional stories? (Believe me, there will be an algorithm for that.) Isn’t presenting an emotional first-person account of an event or story fraud if it’s written by a computer?

Many questions need to be answered before we move forward with this technology. It’s about time we set a moral precedent and decide what we want for our future.

Narrative Science isn’t the only company out there doing this, but let’s remember Hammond trying to make us believe he’s not after people’s jobs. Now listen to CEO Stuart Frankel’s reaction when first looking at this technology himself:

Could this system create any kind of story, using any kind of data? Could it create stories good enough that people would pay to read them? The answers were positive enough to convince him that “there was a really big, exciting potential business here.”

Does that sound like a guy who’s concerned about writers losing their jobs—their livelihood?

Are you concerned? Should you be?