Recent work: Mohawk Maker Quarterly

Writers truly geek out when their work is published — even more so when their work is presented in glorious, beautifully designed fashion. I’m lucky. I get to work with creative people who turn my words into really cool printed pieces.

For more than a year, I’ve been collaborating with the insanely talented people at Hybrid Design in San Francisco on a covetable quarterly publication that celebrates creativity, artistry and the maker culture. Mohawk Paper produces the Mohawk Maker Quarterly for its audience of printers, creators and designers. Here’s a look at Issue No. 7, which carries a theme of Character:

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New work: Taste of the Holidays for Meijer.

I loved creating the copy for Meijer’s beautiful in-store holiday publication. Our goal was to create an approachable, engaging guide for holiday entertaining, cooking and gift-giving, with content designed to spark ideas — and, of course, to prompt sales of the featured products and ingredients. Mission accomplished!

Taste of Holiday coverTaste of Holiday spreadTaste of Holiday spread 2

Rethinking your elevator pitch.

Don’t you just hate talking about yourself?

Earlier this year, I had occasion to give a talk about my career and my work to a group of retirees as part of a senior-learning program sponsored by Miami University. I focused my talk on The Clara Project, a series of posts on my recipe blog, writes4food.com, inspired by a collection of 1930s recipes, which were previously owned by a woman named Clara Shenefelt, and which I discovered in an antique shop nearly 2 years ago. (As it happens, Clara lived at this retirement complex until she passed away earlier this month at age 98.)

I was unusually nervous and self-conscious about the talk. Giving this presentation felt like giving my “elevator pitch”—but, like, for nearly an hour.

But I learned something very important from this experience, something that I think is relevant to anyone who works in the creative field:

Whatever it is that you do for a living, if you speak of it with authentic enthusiasm, people will be interested in hearing about your work.

And that goes whether you’re pitching to a prospective client or meeting the friend of a friend at a party.

Aside from the few elderly gents who dozed during the presentation like they were in church, the audience seemed genuinely appreciative. They wanted to know what I write about, and how I do it. They loved the story of The Clara Project. And I found that expressing my genuine excitement made it so much easier to talk about my work.

image via creative commons license

You may have worked on your own “elevator speech”—that one-sentence pitch that describes what you do and for whom. It probably follows some kind of formula:

I do _____ for _____ who need _____.

And while the formula can help you structure and hone how you speak about your work, it has its limitations. It can sound a little stilted when you utter the words, like you’ve memorized a few lines of poetry. It can be a little jargon-y, which might play well in a business setting but might be out of place in a social interaction. And it can be a little restrictive.

Instead of memorizing a set pitch that you repeat over and over, try these tips when you’re talking about what you do:

Keep it flexible. The standard version of my pitch is: “I’m an independent journalist, copywriter and content developer, and I focus on food and wellness, creativity and design.” Recently, I spoke to a group of olive oil producers, and I introduced myself by saying, “I write about food for magazines and food brands.” When I spoke last month to a group of design-firm principals, I said, “I help creative agencies tell their stories.” Your pitch should flex depending on who you’re talking to.

Have a shorthand version for social settings. At a party, if I’m asked what I do, I simply say, “I’m a food writer.” Invariably, I’ll get a follow-up question: “Oh, so who do you write for?” When you’re in a social setting, can you come up with a short-and-sweet description of your work that prompts additional conversation?

Let your enthusiasm shine. Whether you write about food or you develop B2B websites, there’s something about the work you get really geeked about. Tap into that when you’re talking with someone new about your work.

How to See When You Look

There’s a difference between looking and seeing, between hearing and listening. Many of us (I raise my hand) are better at the former than at the latter. We look, but we don’t see. We hear, but we don’t listen.

Over many years of working with visual creatives — designers of all types — I came to admire their highly developed ability to see. Designers look at the world differently than I; they see things I miss.

Turns out, our particular expectations, experience and expertise shapes what we see when we look around us. It’s why a gardener can spot the wildflowers amid the vacant lot full of weeds. It’s why my design friends critique the typography of the menu when we go out to dinner.

Last weekend, I went hunting in the woods for morel mushrooms with an acquaintance. “They’re hard to find,” she said. “But once you spot one, you’ll see them all over the place.” (We never spotted one.) It’s pattern recognition; the same thing comes into play with my odd ability to find 4-leaf clovers.

Ever feel like you’re missing something when you go out for a walk, or when you’re on vacation? Me, too. Hoping to better develop my ability to pay attention — to really see — I picked up Alexandra Horowitz’s wonderful “On Looking.” I loved her book “Inside of a Dog” (a fascinating read if there’s a beloved canine friend in your life).

In “On Looking,” Horowitz takes walks with 11 “experts” — including illustrator Maira Kalman and type designer Paul Shaw, along with a blind person, an entomologist, a geologist and others. She also walks with her toddler son and her dog, insightful journeys, both.

Bombarded by visual stimuli, she writes, our brains over time develop the ability to filter out everything but what’s critical to our particular mission in the moment, be it finding edible roots or navigating an unfamiliar neighborhood. “Over time” is the key phrase — in infancy, we don’t have those filters.

“One perceptual constraint that I knowingly labor under is the constraint that we all create for ourselves: we summarize and generalize, stop looking at particulars and start taking in scenes at a glance — all in an effort to not be overwhelmed visually when we just need to make it through the day. The artist seems to retain something of the child’s visual strategy: how to look at the world before knowing (or without thinking about) the name or function of everything that catches the eye. An infant treats objects with an unprejudiced equivalence: the plastic truck is of no more intrinsic worth to the child than an empty box is, until the former is called a toy and the latter is called garbage. … To the child, as to the artist, everything is relevant; little is unseen.

“In childhood, all is new. With age, we see things as familiar. We have seen it all before. … Vacations are the adult exceptions. There, two things happen: we actually do see new paces and second, we bother to look. … Soon, though, we acclimate. Before we know it, we have become entirely accustomed to how that vacation spot looks. We have routines, we know the way — and we stop looking.

Want to start looking? I’d recommend “On Looking.” Followed by a slow, inquisitive, attentive walk around your neighborhood.

Worth Reading

In Mindfulness, a Method to Sharpen Focus and Open Minds—Advice on how to quiet your mind’s busy-ness and be aware of your world, by “intentionally paying attention to the present nonjudgmentally.”

Inside of a Dog—by Alexandra Horowitz. “Dogs don’t act on the world by handling objects or by eyeballing them, as people might, or by pointing and asking others to act on the object (as the timid might); instead, they bravely stride right up to a new, unknown object, stretch their magnificent snouts within millimeters of it, and take a nice deep sniff.”

 

Food for Thought: creating clarity in marketing

You remember “pink slime,” right? Earlier this year, this PR fiasco in the food industry revealed a huge communication challenge (or, let’s call it an opportunity) for both brands and consumers. And the lesson goes beyond the food industry.

(A refresher: pink slime was the moniker given to lean finely textured beef, a beef byproduct sanitized with ammonia that was added to ground beef products to reduce fat content.) At its core, the controversy centered on duplicity—the willing withholding of information about a product. What created such outrage is that people simply didn’t know that it was being added to the ground beef or prepared hamburgers that they were purchasing. Why? Because LFTB is pure beef, and USDA regulations did not require it to be labeled separately. Consumers felt duped, and they were outraged.

Grocery Carts lined up

photo by Polycart, used under Creative Commons attribution license

In so many niches, marketers throw around words so much that they become ubiquitous and ultimately, confusing. Like the term ‘natural’ (and the word ‘organic’ before it) it’s lost much of its meaning. The USDA defines ‘natural’ this way:

A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).

Brands often tag products ‘natural’ as a shorthand for ‘healthy,’ ‘safe’ or ‘quality.’ But those words don’t necessarily equate. Pink slime is natural. So is high-fructose corn syrup. So is yogurt loaded with sugar.

B2C brands that deliver highly technical products and services are also guilty of hiding behind complex language. Take this sentence as an example, from an IT provider in my city:

Using virtualization technologies, multiple server operating systems are encapsulated to run across a pool of highly available servers. This enhances average server utilization and availability.

Huh?

Talking over customers’ heads isn’t just disrespectful—it creates confusion that muddies the sell-buy relationship. And customer confusion is bad for branding.

Any brand in any market—whether product or service, big or small, global or local—is wise to learn a lesson from pink slime: Customers crave—and deserve—clarity. In any market where the common language has been corrupted or become jargon-y, brands that cut through the BS with clear, straightforward communication truly stand out. People embrace brands that don’t pull the wool over their eyes.

Look at the industries you serve: Are there opportunities for your brand or your clients to rise above simply through language? Can you decipher complex messages, decode jargon-filled descriptions of products or services? There’s opportunity—and, I’d argue, obligation—in clarity.

Worth Reading

The Proposed Nutrition Label:
Commissioned by The New York Times, Werner Design Werks of Minneapolis created a prototype for a new food label that accounts for nutrition, sustainability, processing and production.

FTC Issues Advice on Eco Labeling:
From nutritionist Marion Nestle, an update on new Federal Trade Commission guidelines for brands using words like ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable.’

Worth Eating

Better Than Store-Bought:
My Better Than Store-Bought recipe series teaches you how to create homemade—and excellent!—versions of common store-bought items. My homemade granola bar recipe rocks.