Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Trying to Write? 21 Tips for Inspiration

For a while, whenever I got stuck in my writing I'd stare at the empty page or screen, thinking it would help. After about 20 minutes, I inevitably realized that this was a complete waste of time, and that almost anything else was better--if we're talking practical--and not even divine--writing inspiration. With the crisp fall chill in the air, and NANoWriMo month quickly approaching, you may be itching to write, but still feeling stuck or that you don't know where to begin. Here are 20 tips that have worked for me over the years... give them a try and share in the Comments if any of them worked for you!

1. Read your inbox. Inevitably, reading blogposts, ebook ideas, and enewsletters from others always gives me ideas of my own.

2. Take a walk and observe, then write down your observations. Observing cloud formations may sound nerdy, but it works.

3. Look through your or someone else's old photos and create scenarios for those pictured.

4. Explore Pinterest and Instagram, including new boards by those in your circles. Pinning and favoriting them will not only give you an online boost, but will give you an organic archive of inspirational ideas.

5. Speaking of Pinterest, start your own board of inspirational ideas for writing, add to it whenever you see a new idea, and invite others to Pin. Refer to it when you're stuck.

6. Write about your last plane flight, taxi ride, phone call, wedding, funeral, argument, or reconciliation.

7. Allow yourself to be a bad writer for 5 minutes. Write what you consider a lousy sentence or paragraph, and then go about revising and fixing it. This might put you in the mood for more.

8. Reread or re-watch your favorite book, film, or tv show, and jot down why it's your favorite. If you're a blogger, this could be a blog post.

9. Take advantage of the season, holiday, or special occasion for ideas, such as birthdays, anniversaries, National Ice Cream Day, whatever. Use this as a jumping off point for reflections, humor, anecdotes, etc.

10. Cook a meal and describe everything you did.

11. Keep an ideas notebook handy, so whenever inspiration hits, you're ready. I also like to use my iPad notebook feature, so everything is searchable via email and an index.

12. Go to a museum. Everytime I visit a museum, I get ideas, whether it's from the names of paintings or sculptures, or funky items from the museum shop. Sometimes I think about the artists, and when and where they were when they were creating.

13. If you're procrastinating, write about everything you're doing that is not writing. Presto! Then you'll be writing.

14. Get physical. Try a hike, bike ride, or run to get your creative juices flowing. Many famous entrepreneurs have coined the phrase "walk and talk." Try it on your own, or with a friend.

15. Write about someone you love or hate.

16. Write about someone you just met yesterday, and someone you haven't seen in 10 years.

17. High school, college, summer camp, "firsts" of any kind, can be fertile ground for ideas.

18. Eavesdrop on a conversation and reconstruct that person's life based on what you heard.

19. Bloggers ( and their readers) tend to like lists like this one, but lists can work in any kind of writing, and fiction as well. What kind of lists do your characters keep? Passwords? Groceries? Party or dinner guests? Daily activities or rituals?

20. Get in touch with your inner "meme" or vernacular. Most of us have catch-phrases and thought snippets we say to ourselves, sometimes without even realizing it. Some of mine are: "Back Atcha!" "Shows to go ya," etc. These are a great way to access your writing voice, and find what's unique about it. I just read Tom Hanks' New Yorker story, "Alan Bean Plus Four," and it's a great example of this specific language and its relation to character.

21. Think Windows. Real ones. Airplane windows, car windows, train windows, kitchen windows. It's impossible to stare out the window and not see something worth writing about.

Now, over to you...what are your best tips for writing inspiration?

 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

10 Truths About Listening

 

1. You can't listen to someone when they're yelling at you.

2. You can't listen to someone when they're interrupting you.

3. Listening goes both ways--to want to listen you need to feel listened to.

4. Looking away from someone probably means you're not listening, but closing your eyes probable means you are.

5. I'm probably not going to want to listen to you if it looks like you're just waiting for me to stop talking.

6. Talk quickly and I listen less.

7. Talk slowly and I listen more.

8. If we walk while we talk, I'll probably listen more.

9. Criticism can be listened to if done in a kind tone.

10. Loving words can be listened to if they are genuine.

 

Monday, August 25, 2014

15 Common Nonprofit E-News Mistakes

E-newsletters, when done right, are one of the most powerful communications tools out there for reaching your target audience and growing your online visibility. And yet, one of the most challenging areas in nonprofit communications is the (sometimes dreaded) e-newsletter. Over the last 10 years, I've seen so many misunderstandings of how this communications tool should be used, that I've finally organized this "top 12" list of the most common errors. Check it out and see if you're making any of them. Not only could you be wasting your time using a communication that isn't optimized, but in the world if high tech and marketing automation, you could leave your audience thinking you're in The Dark Ages when it comes to e-news publishing.

1. Standard subject line without customization

Using a boring subject line like "September E-News" each month is not going to help your open rate. Try to be creative when deciding your subject line, by either finding a fresh way to describe your content, or naming your newsletter with something catchy that will arouse your readers' interest enough to click on the link.

2. One size fits all approach

Not all your organization's members are the same, and this is true of your readers as well. Some of them may have been donors or sponsors, while others volunteered or had internships. Others still are on your Board of Directors or staff. Segment your list so that the appropriate content is aligned with your audience.

3. No personalization in the salutation

Statistics show that personalization in enewsletters has a great impact not only on your audience being more likely to read through your enewsletter, but to a greater response to calls to action. I know when "Dear Carrie" appears in an enews, I'm going to pay more attention.

4. Sharing only your organization's news

Newsletters are a great place to share a variety of content, not just your own news and events. Why not share a variety of links on articles and resources about your industry?

5. Not linking to your blog

Many nonprofit publishers often forget about the symbiotic relationship between blogs and enewsletters. You can use your newsletter to grow your blog subscribers, and your blog to grow your enews list. Both have different purposes, depending on how you want to use them. Consider a recurring department in your enews called "From the Blog," so you remember to link to that content in each issue. Better yet, name your blog, so you're linking to something catchy.

6. Asking for money only once a year

Enewsletters are a great place for fundraising, and most nonprofit audiences expect a solicitation or quarterly appeal. If you rely on a one-time publication such as an annual report to accomplish all your online fundraising goals, you're going to be disappointed, since you haven't been nurturing your potential donors all year long. You should be educating your readers year round on what your fundraising goals are, and who your donations benefit. The more you integrate storytelling into your content, the more powerful and impactful your "ask" will be.

7. Not growing or purging your list

Lists need to be maintained in 2 key ways: list growth, by publicizing your enews whenever you can, and purging subscribers who consistently don't open your emails. By keeping your lists clean, you're insuring that you don't get flagged for SPAM, and you can show off better metrics. The better your open rate, the more confidence you can have that you're meeting your readers' needs.

8. Using Gmail or Outlook Instead of Dedicated Program

Programs like Constant Contact, Mail Chimp, Cooler Email, and Aweber, are specifically designed for e-news communications, providing templates, forwarding features, subscriber graphics, etc. Using a regular office email program is cheating yourself out of these features, as there is no automation, interactivity, or metrics. Not only that, but using email when you are sending to 50 or over recipients is considered SPAM.

9. Too few or too many images

Some publishers use no images at all, as a tactic for mobile optimization. Since the typical reader looks at images first, headlines second, and body copy last, this approach is basically taking a gamble, even on mobile. You want to have at least 2-3 small images to add visual interest. Conversely, you don't want numerous oversize images taking over your newsletter either --this is time consuming and unnecessary. One of the latest trends is to use responsive design, which adapts to whatever technology your reader is using.

10. Over or underpublishing

Some organizations think once a month is enough frequency, while others publish once a week, or even daily. Whatever works best for you is fine, but typically monthly is too infrequent, particularly if you're relying on your enews for event promotion, or deadline sensitive content. My observation, both as as reader and a publisher, is that bimonthly (once every two weeks) is about right.

11. Ignoring metrics and tracking

Too often, we press the publish key and forget that the behind-the-scenes tracking of our newsletters is one of the most important things about it. Make it part of your editorial calendar to review your open and click through rates about a week after you publish. What links did your readers click on the most? The least? If you see repeated patterns of low readership or click through rates, you should consider changing your contest, and the style you use to deliver it. Better yet, survey your audience to get their honest feedback on your enews.

12. Ignoring social marketing

Just publishing your newsletter and leaving it at that is only doing half the job. You should be sharing links to the entire enews throughout the week you publish it, using a different lead each time, and linking to your landing page for subscription sign ups. You can also repurpose enews stories into blog posts if they aren't already published there. Taking advantage of your blog post images on highly visual sites such as Pinterest (I have a blog Board on mine here) and Instagram, with a link to your blog, to add visibility. You can also highlight your social channels by linking to unique promotions or content there, such as e-books, giveaways, or specific campaigns, and encouraging Likes, Follows, etc. Just asking for the connection for the sake of doing so isn't as effective as highlighting the specific content you're publishing there. Starting November 5, Facebook will no longer allow Like-gates, so the pressure to produce even more interesting content there and on all your organizational platforms will be that much greater.

13. Not using an autoresponder

Taking advantage of your enewsletter program's autoresponder feature is a great way to enhance your brand, familiarize your audience with your offerings, and differentiate yourself from competitors. Some brands like to publish a mini e-course or "how to" in order to establish authority, and keep reader interest. Whatever you decide, be sure the content is relevant to your audience.

14. Not mixing it up

Publishing just text with images every issue is going to become monotonous after a while. Make an effort to include a variety of media links, such as videos, podcasts, photo galleries, etc., to keep readers interested.

15. Forgetting to cross promote

You should be cross promoting your enews sign-up on all your other online platforms, as well as in your print publications and at live events. Include the sign-up link on your e-mail signature, on your organization's flyers, in your videos, and on your business cards.

What tips can you share for e-news success? What did I leave out? Share in the Comments...

 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams and Finding our Everyman in Death

Celebrities seem larger then life...until they die. In life, they star in movies and tv shows and own fancy mansions. They earn our right to adore them by being masterful and creative and surprising, as Williams was in all his roles. The special ones, like Williams, felt like real people when you were with them, while still casting that aura of fame. Williams supported causes, and made sad people laugh, without their knowing he may have been sadder then they were.

Celebrities sign autographs and pose for photos, and at times thrill us with their humility. But they are still somehow always otherworldly...never quite attainable.

In death, particularly suicide, that's when the paradox emerges. While photos and video clips chronicling the arc of their fame glut newspapers and websites, it's the little details of their ordinary lives in their final moments that get us. Their Everyman.

All too often, they spent their last hours in their most vulnerable of circumstances, alone in hotel rooms, or in their houses or apartments, gorging on some horrific binge of abuse. An altered state that takes them to their final resting state. Corey Monteith, Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, and Heath Ledger, all come to mind. Suddenly, there is a change in perception. Celebrities can be alone and lonely, just like us. We understand now. Ironically, we can now envision them reading a book, or grabbing a cup of coffee, or even going to one of their own movies. If they were still alive, that is.

So with death, we are left to our imaginations. What they were thinking in their final hours? What led them to take their own lives? Did they want to be lost? Did they want to be found? What were they hiding? What about their families...did they not love them enough to stay alive? The news media frenetically reconstructs the celebrity's last day, hour, week. Social media is suddenly the harbinger of darker things, as we ponder that last tweet, Instagram, and Facebook post, looking for clues.

The only cliche I can think of when it comes to Robin Williams is the saddest one of all --he was a victim of his own success. Despite the cruel cycle of depression and substance abuse that haunted him, the work was what kept him going, and when it dwindled or didn't pan out, it got the better of him. But his successes may in the end have saved him from an even earlier suicide. We'll never know.

In the end, as far as Williams goes, for me he'll always be the beloved "Mork from Ork," a reference so everyday otherworldly as to be sublime.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

5 Reasons to Reconnect With Your Blog

 

I stopped blogging nearly a year ago. Not to be unoriginal, but let's just say I got busy. Or, we could say I started to explain blogging to other people, and social media, and integrated marketing, and the more I did this, the more I needed a break from my own online writing life -- kind of like being so full from tasting the dinner you're making that you just don't want any yourself.

All that was for the first six months or so. I was keenly aware that while I was reading The New Yorker, (an article ironically like this one, that highlights how powerful blogging can be), or the latest Ikea catalogue, or a women's magazine telling me to simplify my life, I could have been blogging. Or, while I was watching "Downton Abbey" and thinking social media (oh yes, I did write this), or shopping at Costco, or driving on 101 or 280 or 92, looking for oceans and farms and all those comforting greens and blues...I could have been blogging. While I was hanging upside down in yoga like a vaguely contented fruit bat in leggings, I could have been blogging. While I was emptying my inbox and reorganizing my closet and worrying about world events, I could have been chronicling all of it.

But I was secretly happy, because I had suddenly found more time, or given myself the gift of it. It felt a little illicit, like enjoying a snow day at home.

Then the next 6 months happened, and I no longer felt that I was gaining anything, but rather, I was losing something--something big. Life was happening all around me, and instead of recording my thoughts, and processing everything that way that writing invites you to, I let too many things slide, and I realized I'd let something important go. And I started to remember that saying: "If you don't take yourself seriously..." You know how it goes.

So for anyone who has momentarily or longer lost their blogging groove, here are 5 reasons to get it back:

1. As I just said, "if you don't take yourself seriously, no one else will," and that counts big time for writing. All the cliches kick in here. "Just Do It." "Writers Write."

2. Your blog should be your home. It may not always feel like it, but it is. It's where you find yourself and your people. It's where you hang your writing hat. It's where you get big integrity points for opening up and being yourself, even if it's not popular.

3. You have to "write" some wrongs. Like when you see the Next Food Network Star promote their online voting for the winner, with barely a social media connection on the landing page, you just have to say something. Or when you visit an awesome website, only to find that the testimonials are anonymous, leaving out the names of the people who've praised you. Wrong. Or, you see people tweeting and FB posting the same exact content at the same exact time....wrong again.

4. Your inner critic lives. You can't just let those book and film reviews swirl around in your head, when in your heart you've already written up 4 paragraphs of ingenious copy "Mad Men" style, just crying out to let your point of view known, even if only to yourself at first.

5. Because you're your own time capsule. You and what you write are a sign of the times, and the times will always change. You and what you link to are your keyword monoliths. A day after you publish a post, it may mean something different then what you intended. Fifty or 100 years later, your blog will be like a buried treasure.

And now, onward. I leave you with this, as it's time to organize more blogging ideas. I'm hungry, and it's time to get back into the kitchen, so to speak. Don't you think so?

 

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Is Facebook the New Long-Form Platform for Writers?

Elizabeth Gilbert attracts her Facebook community with a variety of  comic, poignant, and reflective posts that provide transparency and authenticity to her brand.

Among several interesting social media trends I noticed this summer was the apparent evolution of long-form posts on Facebook, particularly by writers and authors. While many "regular folks" and small businesses seem to have taken on this style of posting, two of my favorite authors stand out. Joyce Maynard and Elizabeth Gilbert are innovative in making Facebook more relevant and interesting to audiences, with longish posts (at leat 10-12 paragraphs) that succeed in reeling in the reader--at least this reader, along with many others given the response I'm seeing. Maynard posted with frequency and rich detail, about everything from her new novel, (the recently published "After Her,") to her new film based on her book, "Labor Day," to her wedding, to the way in which she feels connected to people, places, and things, hitting a nerve, I think, with many readers who long for such connections.
Elizabeth Gilbert also does an amazing juggling act in her Facebook posts, combining book promotion (her newest novel, "The Signature of All Things" comes out this fall), contrasting fun observations of the people next to her on planes, to often poignant vignettes and personal accounts of those "in between moments" in life. Today's post, themed "never waste your suffering," in which she remembers a friend, Jim Maclaren, twice hit by a car, who struggled with drugs and many life challenges, saw over 600 Likes and 250 comments.

Author Joyce Maynard is a master of storytelling, sharing dramatic aspects of her literary and personal life with her Facebook community, and not afraid to take quite a few paragraphs to do so.

Granted, successful authors know how to write, but this doesn't necessarily guarantee an audience, not to mention Likes, Comments, and Shares. These writers remind us that true social media is about getting that delicate balance right between self-promotion, "edutainment," and sharing. I'm also impressed with the way both these authors use photos to embellish their posts, sharing links from fans, screenshots of cover art, and unusual event photos that aren't your typical run of the mill head shots and handshakes. Gilbert in particular appears to enjoy crowdsourcing her book covers and providing a somewhat flashy "international" flair, proudly showing us "the British cover" here and "the Australian cover" there in her videos.

I haven't checked yet and don't know if these authors have their own blogs as well, but if they do, they are keeping them distinct and separate from Facebook. I do know if a writer captures my interest on Facebook, there's a good chance I'll buy the book--or in this case--see their films as well.

How about you? Who are your favorite Facebook long-form bloggers and writers? How do they capture your attention?