Saturday, July 30, 2011

Don't never use the passive voice

Back in the 20th century writers loved wrecking the rules of grammar in the name of literary freedom. The poet e. e. cummings astounded readers by breaking one-two-three-four-five rules in a single sentence just like that. My friends in college declared that a preposition is not something to end a sentence with. The great satirist James Thurber told a meddling editor that, "When I split an infinitive, it is going to damn well stay split."

One prejudice that writers seemed loath to challenge is disdain for the passive voice. Good writing is assumed to rest on having strong, clear subjects act directly on well specified objects.

Ah but that passive voice... so maligned yet, as I know, so useful. This very morning I see a writer missing an opportunity for EDITORIAL IMMORTALITY due to a misguided circumvention of the passive. From the Wall Street Journal 7.30.11:
The only way out of this mess is to return to the growth policies that nurtured the boom of the 1980s. The circumstances aren't the same... But the principles are the same: Encourage businesses to expand, rather than government; let markets allocate capital, rather than politicians; liberate entrepreneurs by reining in the regulatory state.

Putting politics aside, I read this paragraph and was bothered by the stylistic choices. "let markets allocate capital, rather than politicians" is messy and inefficient. "Politicians" and "markets" should be paired in close counterpoint.

To recast the thing, I build a stronger sentence with the help of one passive construction... thus:

Encourage the expansion of businesses, not government; let capital be allocated by markets, not politicians; give more freedom to entrepreneurs, not regulators.

To me, such moments justify the new rule I will introduce to my fall writing class at NYU:


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Is Summer a Brand?

Summer is feminine. She calls out like a dangerous siren – “Come, you must have fun. It is time for you to have fun like when you were a little boy out of school. Why do you frown? This is no time to worry and pay bills. Take off your shirt.”

Summer toys with our senses. It is the season of troubling contrasts. The sun comes up cheeringly… and then turns the air into steaming dust. A swimming pool beckons in our dreams… but the real water collects on our brows and soaks our pants.

You tell yourself to be happy. “Don’t forget that brutal winter. Remember the cold wind biting your ears. Summer is wonderful… summer is… I'm slightly dizzy… summer is so… but remember the angry winter when you longed for a summer day…”

Summer nights are so alive – bugs sing… people shout and perfume the air with their bodies. Cities throb and stink and teem with half-naked humans while small towns exude the rich scent of wet bark and honeysuckle.

Summer whispers: “Take off that shirt. C’mon, do it here on the train platform.” While AT&T says: “Fine, but pay my bill first.”


Corporate image advertising - Take 2

Last September I raised eyebrows... okay, it was hackles and fists... by poking fun of corporate image advertising in the Economist. I criticized – okay, one person said I wrote "scathing bitchy" comments – ouch! – those vapid, full-page expressions of corporate vanity that appear in business publications. These image ads are expensive and inane.

I picked out an ad by the mining company Vale as example, pointing out how the ad followed the conventions of this hoary genre.

Well, I see in Bloomberg BusinessWeek a new version of the Vale ad and – yes, bitchiness eschewed – I think this one is better. The new picture is warmer and more engaging, the scribbled word "sustainability" has more topical relevance than the previous "future," the body text is not inane (I hope the other copywriter is doing well – dude, it wasn't personal!), and a strong headline replaces the block of white text on muddy background.

I still despise and decry corporate image ads, though investors and employees may enjoy seeing their logo displayed next to breezy articles on marketing jeans and exploiting wind power.

So: well done, Vale team. My petty sniping had nothing to do with your improvements in corporate-image-ad-2.0. But as long as you are competing for eyeballs against Deutschebank and Hitachi, you might as well put your best face forward.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Charles R. Morris comments on Borders

We are honored to have a guest comment emailed from Charles R. Morris – author of a dozen books including The Trillion Dollar Meltdown, The Tycoons, American Catholic, The Surgeons: Life and Death in a Top Heart Center, and The Cost of Good Intentions. Charlie – my friend for many years – astutely and forgivingly adds explanatory depth to my recent post on the collapse of Borders.

I thought your Borders post started strong, but faded.

Not your fault. You nailed the problem, but then imply that the solution was obvious and doable, and it’s not about selling ‘ideas.’ The truth is that it’s almost impossible to make a wrenching change in a successful business model, until it’s too late – for the reason that you don’t know how. Xerox still hasn’t done it, nor has Barnes & Noble. IBM did it twice, which is impressive and rare.

About twenty years ago B&N and Borders revolutionzed book selling by killing off the mom and pops, opening large well-lit stores, with plenty of room for, and encouragement for, browsing and lingering. I did a book tour in 1993 in California, and was stunned at these stores. The events were invariably well-planned. I could find my books easily, they kept print runs in stock far longer than the mom and pops because they had the space, etc etc. The NY literati mocked them for mass marketing and made fun of them in movies like 'You’ve got Mail’, but they were a boon for the publishing industry.

Then Amazon started to sell books without bookstores, and made a smash hit out of it, and was a leader with the Kindle. And then it was the erstwhile rebels who were scrambling to rediscover their raison d’etre, and not finding much.

Because Amazon was at heart a Seattle technology company, not a book store, the path to paperless ’books’ was a lot easier. When the business model changes to one that favors the upstart, the proper course for the old-model company is usually not to emulate the startup, but to give the money back to its stockholders and just quietly die.

Charlie: Thanks for this wise commentary.


Friday, July 22, 2011

Goodbye Borders – Brand in search of a purpose

I received a “fond farewell” email from Borders CEO Mike Edwards, who thanked me for my support and expressed the hope that Borders would “remain in the hearts of readers for years to come.”

Yes, in our hearts right alongside the Oldsmobile, Walkman and Nobody Beats the Wiz.

Why did Borders fail? Mr. Edwards cites external reasons – a rapidly changing book industry, the eReader revolution, and a turbulent economy. Surely the merciless competition from and Barnes & Noble (itself under pressure) were manifestations of these powerful forces.

Perhaps a clue to Borders’ failure lies in the CEO’s final message: He writes that Borders spent “40 years of igniting the love of reading in generations of customers.”

Edwards closes wistfully: “I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to lead Borders and play a role in the true and noble cause of expanding access to books and promoting the joy of reading.”

But wait. Was that what Borders did? Was “igniting the love of reading” the job of the brand? Did investors buy the stock to join “the true and noble cause of expanding access to books and promoting the joy of reading”?

To me, this sounds quaint and out of touch – like the mission of a municipal library circa 1960. Expanding access to books is low on my list of true and noble causes.

Perhaps Borders would still be in business – leading the eReader revolution and other changes instead of succumbing to them – if the company had shunned the cause of blanketing the world with books and found a more relevant and compelling reason for being.

If, for example, the brand had been about ideas instead of the physical books or useful information instead of reading, perhaps the Borders team would have been able to shape the future that amazon is now creating without them.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Met Life tagline

MetLife, with its cuddly Snoopy mascot, promises to give us "Guarantees for the IF in life"

I judged the campaign a little too cute for its own good – or for my good. But I never had a solid reason for dismissing it. I'm averse to word-play in taglines – "the if in life" – but that's being fussy.

Putting the MetLife line in historical context might help. Over the years, the company's slogans changed with the times.

1909 – The Light That Never Fails.
A religious feeling to this one... seems to imply affiliation with the Big Guy upstairs.

1922 – Not Best Because It's Biggest–But Biggest Because It's Best.
This silliness caused many to cancel their policies – after wiping the barf off.

1923 – Biggest in the World, More Assets, More Policyholders, Most Insurance in force.
Sounds like a barroom boast. More hot air!

1936 – Keep Healthy. Be Examined Regularly.
Not set to music, but think about it: if everyone would just keep healthy the life insurance companies would clean up.

1954 – Metropolitan service is as local as Main close as your phone.
What happened to "Biggest in the World"? Suddenly we're all neighborly.

1959 – The Light That Never Fails.
...and the tagline that never dies. Clearly "close as your phone" had no pull with the Big Guy.

1964 – More choose Metropolitan Life–millions more than any other company.
Back to reassuring hugeness. This line came from two committees, both made of PE majors.

1966 – Protecting 1 out of 5 people in the U.S. and Canada.
1 our of 5, eh. That's 20%. At this point the advertising team reported to Accounting.

1970 – We sell life insurance. But our business is life.
Great. Can I buy another life? Okay... not literally... "life" as in beer and hotdogs.

1973 – Metropolitan Life–where the future is now.
Books on Zen were popular. The past is present, Grasshopper.

1979 – Come to Metropolitan. Simplify your life.
The last year of Carter's presidency, which was just one complication after another.

1985 – Get Met. It Pays.
Now the tagline itself has been simplified. Coming in the next decade: "Work hard. Fly right."

2001 – One of the older hippies was up late and had a vision... met life... met life... that's it! MetLife I'm glad I met ya!.. no, that's not it... Have you Met my wife?... No... You Met your life!... no, hold on... Eventually he got there: "Have you met life today?"

And that brings us to the present.
2011 – Guarantees for the if in life.
Given what came before – More assets! A light that never fails! – I have to give this one grudging approval. It does convey the benefit of life insurance: as back-up in time of life's unpredictable quandaries.

Brandsinger – "Bran for your innards and song for your soul"... no, that's not right... hold it... I've got it... "Brand your singing er else..."... No... wait... just a sec...

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Adventures in mis-communication

The other day I bought a packaged sandwich for lunch in a New York shop. There were many varieties of sandwiches on hand, and the one I selected was terrific – with avocado, boiled eggs and an exotic sauce. Later in the day, after three long meetings and too much arm waving on my part, I returned to the same shop and – why not? – chose the same sandwich.

When I reached the counter, a smiling face greeted me – a dark-skinned man I had seen earlier in the day. I think he had an accent, perhaps West African. As I handed over my credit card, I held up the sandwich and said cheerfully: “I had this same sandwich before. It was great.”

The counter-man frowned. He was willing to serve me but apparently had no idea what I wanted.

“This one. I ate this one already." I said, waving the sandwich. “It was great.”

I took back the credit card while the man stared. His face had “What th-?” written all over it. As I turned away, I realized that, well, this is not literally the same sandwich I had eaten for lunch. I had actually eaten a different one before, made the same way. I peeled back the wrapping and muttered, “…it looked exactly like this sandwich.”

What was in my mind? I had wanted to commend the hard-working staff for making irresistible sandwiches. Perhaps I also felt self-conscious about returning to the same shop and eating the same food. What if this was the same guy who had served me earlier? I don’t want him thinking that I mindlessly chew on the same food over and over like a lab rat conditioned for pellets.

Let’s turn the scene around and look at it from the counter-man's standpoint. What is he thinking? The counter-man is paid by the hour. It’s been a long day. The coffee urn needs to be checked. But something strange is occurring. Right now, in his immediate range of vision – just to the left of the register – is a white man with thinning hair laughing and waving a sandwich that he claims to have already eaten. The man keeps saying, “This sandwich, I already ate this sandwich.”

The counter-man thinks: “I should try not to alarm this guy. I will swipe his card and give him the napkins. There. He is taking the napkins and walking away. But he seems unhappy. I hope he will not tell the boss. I should have helped him unwrap the sandwich and tried to lift the food to his lips.”

My point: We often do not understand the other guy. Perhaps we can never fully understand the other guy. But as professional communicators, we need to try and – with the recognition that we are likely to fail – try very hard to understand and communicate every time we interact with our fellow human beings.


Monday, July 4, 2011

DSK to America: "Thank you"

If – in the end – Dominique Strauss-Kahn is not charged with rape and other felonies, and if his cohorts stand him for the presidency of France, then he has a ready-made story-line of heroic personal redemption.

The all-too-obvious story-line would be that U.S. prosecutors treated him brutally, that the media held a bar-b-cue with himself as the roasting pig. He can scold America for barbaric treatment and thank his wife for standing by him. He can add that he respects the historic bond between France and the U.S. and that this ordeal will not color his ability to… blah blah blah…

That would be the obvious story line.

But here’s the opportunity for Strauss-Kahn. “THANK YOU AMERICA”

THANK YOU AMERICA for opening my eyes to my own attitude toward women and my previous demeaning treatment of them.

THANK YOU AMERICA for exposing the vulnerabilities of people in power – and their need to behave with scrupulous respect toward all citizens and toward social conventions.

THANK YOU AMERICA for giving me a tour through the nightmare of incarceration so that I can forever commit myself to the humane treatment of prisoners.

THANK YOU AMERICA for reminding me of my own humanity in the face of state power, thus reviving my personal humility and renewing my commitment to justice.

Such an approach would show depth, imagination and political vision – leading to rousing acclaim and admiration in the U.S. and worldwide.

But don’t bank on hearing this from Mr. Strauss-Kahn, since a) Brandsinger is too irreverent for influence in Paris and b) Strauss-Kahn is probably, just as portrayed in the American media, too arrogant.


Sunday, July 3, 2011

Michele Bachmann and John Quincy Adams

It is amusing – and richly ironic – that Michele Bachmann should mistakenly honor John Quincy Adams by including him among the Founding Fathers. After all, Bachmann herself ain’t no J. Q. Adams.

Rather than revere Adams, Michele Bachmann should invoke Adams’ rival and successor, Andrew Jackson. Bachmann – a fiery populist of our day – is much more a Jackson than an Adams.

Jackson – the champion of frontier populism who trounced John Quincy Adams in 1828 – was not a college graduate, hated banks, scoffed at pretense, welcomed confrontation and, of course, killed a man in a duel. His raucous inauguration party caused Washington socialites to cringe at the drunken, unlettered masses.

John Quincy Adams, on the other hand, was a proper establishment politician – Harvard-educated and articulate – who deplored the Jacksonian crowd. When Jackson was to be given an honorary degree by Harvard, Adams refused to attend Harvard’sdisgrace in conferring her highest literary honors on a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and could hardly spell his own name.”

Jackson supposedly replied that, “It is a damn poor mind which can't think of at least two ways to spell any word.” He would not give his speech in Latin, as was customary, since the only Latin words he knew were E pluribus unum, sine qua non, multum in parvo, quid pro quo, and ne plus ultra.

Throughout U.S. history, politicians from ordinary backgrounds – Lincoln, Sockless Jerry Simpson of the 1880s, Harry Truman and now Bachmann – have suffered ridicule from parties of privilege and power.

Bachmann – who worked her way through college, raised five children, and emerged from the unglamorous dust of school-board fights to win a seat in Congress – had little time to master the details of U.S. History. But she has mastered her understanding of her constituency and has Jackson-like self-confidence and grit.

Personally, I have had a great education and could thrash any candidate when it comes to sorting out the Adamses. I know, for example, that Sam Adams was a revolutionary firebrand of the 1770s… and that Sam Adams is also my favorite brand of beer.

On the other hand, I would not like to stand up to Michelle Bachmann in a debate, no matter how thin her knowledge of history… and though I can recall a couple of lines of Virgil in Latin, I could never have faced Andrew Jackson across 10 paces of stony ground with pistols raised.