Have I Become Obsolete? (and other fun)

Have you ever got a link in your email or WhatsApp and got the shock of your life? I did the other day.

A friend of mine linked me to an AI-powered natural language application to Talk To Transformer.

What's that you ask?

It's a machine that completes text for you based on a few lines of input.

Just like The Simpsons archvillain Mr. Burns ordering a thousand monkeys to write the best novel in history, this AI called GPT-2 works on kind of the same principle. It scours the internet as its source, completing sentences, paragraphs, and perhaps one day, entire books as it learns what you need it to say.

It predicts the next word one might have said, much like a predictive text application in your smartphone.

Despite the occasional "Sorry honey, running late for yogurt tonight", machine generated language is not new. Last year, Facebook's own AI developed its own internal language without user intervention.

Australia's very own ReporterMate, an AI-driven journalism program, spat out this article about political donations prior to the Federal Election for The Guardian. The Associated Press also uses AI to help assist reporters with articles.

So it's off to the trash heap for me! Well, not quite.

There may be a time when a machine will write better than I could ever hope to.

I don't think that time is now.

Humans using machines as tools or extensions of ourselves will become more complex and more useful. Perhaps language generators such as these will automate some tasks such as modifying legal boilerplate or updating business information.

I'm not running scared yet; but I am fascinated to see what lies ahead.

As for what Talk To Transformer came up with as an alternative to this post, see below.

talktotransformer.png

Why being someone’s “my” is the ultimate business referral

Imagine this scenario. You’re at the gym with your good friend, and you wince as you get up from a particularly gnarly stretch. Grabbing your back, your friend tells you, “You should see my chiropractor. She’s great.”

Of course, your friend hasn’t captured this hapless medical professional and stored her in the attic, just in case. But the language around who we trust with our business is that of ownership.

Owning our opinions, choices, and mistakes is an integral part of maturity. It is one reason “I” statements demonstrate that willingness to “own our shit.” 

Owning whom we place our sacred trust in is vital to our business experience.

Read more at Flying Solo.

Everybody's Doing It, Why Not You?

If you've stepped outside since October, it's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

What that actually means to you is as various as people in general. It could mean dragging plastic trees around the house; spending up big and forgetting it until your statement arrives; or you could be of a faith that only observes this bizarre ritual at a distance.

The language of Christmas - and likewise the language of anti-consumerist sentiments in opposition to it - are quite similar. They both try to persuade people into adopting a tradition that only dates back a couple of generations. Christmas as the gift-swapping, Turkey-engorged ritual we observe every 25th of December is as "made up" as Halloween; though detractors of the former will happily embrace the latter.

Many "traditions" are what we'd refer to today as "viral marketing campaigns"; the DeBeers diamond cartel insisting men save up at least 'three months salary' to buy their fiance an engagement ring with a diamond encrusted on top. That was dreamed up by the N.W. Ayer ad agency in the 1900s, to prop up what was once an abundant and intrinsically worthless gemstone.

We as humans (seem to) need ritual, repetition. It feels safe, and it feels predictable. If we arrived home after work each night and our keys worked one time in ten, we'd feel pretty out of sorts. Marketing and advertising around Christmas often depicts the familiar and cozy - even though a snow-driven Christmas is largely a product of the American imagination. Our drink containers, wrapping paper - even Christmas crackers - all show us images of Snowmen, candy canes, and hot cups of cocoa. All this in the middle of blazing summer, on a continent far removed from the frosted-over driveways of Europe or the United States.

Even as absurd as it sounds, this holiday has near universal support. Is that a good thing? Like most decisions we make in life, that's up to us and us alone. It's a weird one, when you think about it!

Why every soloist should journal

Dear Diary, I feel a bit nervous telling everyone about writing in you. What if they laugh at me? What if they think I’m being precious? Worst of all, what if they ignore me?!

Well, at least I got it out there. I tried my best. That’s all that matters.

Journalling is a time-honoured tradition. So many people that shaped the world jotted down their thoughts for the day, every day (or close enough to it.): Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Alexis de Toqueville, George S. Patton, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, George Lucas, Alfred Deakin, Teddy Roosevelt. That’s some great company, there. Research even tells us that outstanding leadership requires insight, and writing a journal can help achieve that.

That’s not to say journalling will spur you to instant success, of course. But it does give you pause to reflect, analyse, and process where you are and where you’d like to go.

Read the entire post on Flying Solo.

How To Make Your Writing Out Of This World

The iconic space station, Deep Space Nine.

The iconic space station, Deep Space Nine.

One of my favourite TV shows is Star Trek. My favourite spin-off is Deep Space Nine. My least favourite is Voyager. Let me tell you a story about both of these shows. (Be prepared for a journey through time and space until we land back on Planet Earth!)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was a bold effort in television at the time. (Not as bold as its rival Babylon 5, but that’s another story.) This was a science fiction show using their abundant technology to stay still. Star Trek was, and is, about exploring strange new worlds. Deep Space Nine was set on a space station. Things interacted with it, not the other way around.

Star Trek: Voyager put a twist on what had come before, however. The premise of “exploring strange new worlds” was still the pillar of the show. However, this time the crew of the titular USS Voyager finds themselves stranded in the Delta Quadrant, 70.000 light years from Earth. Even with the futuristic faster-than-light tech that Star Trek relies on for storytelling, this means a 75-year journey back.

During season two of their epic seven-season run, Deep Space Nine began serialising their stories. They introduced a chilling antagonist in the Dominion, bent on destroying the peaceful Federation and her allies. For a show that was set on a space station, their adventures and conflicts took place between people and tough moral situations. This was an age where binge watching and catch-ups weren’t an option (1993-1999). If you missed a week, you missed a vital part. The final season wrapped up narrative threads artfully set up in the preceding five seasons.

Voyager was the opposite. In comparison, Voyager was a cartoon. Anything that blew up the ship, imperilled the crew, or caused mischief in the Holodeck reset the next week. Voyager was indestructible, from a narrative point of view.

Deep Space Nine was created with no endgame in mind. Voyager had an endgame – get back to Earth. In fact, production staff titled the last episode Endgame. As predicted, they returned to Earth. They had to, right?

So what does this have to do with writing and communication?

Back To Earth - Communication with Purpose

Screenwriting is a form of communication – to directors, actors, prop masters, designers, costumers and so on. So is your writing – to managers, customers, distributors, suppliers, and so on.

Every piece of writing you set to create must have an endgame. There has to be a reason for it, and a set of outcomes you want to achieve. If you lose sight of that endgame, people will tell. It’s why fans pilloried Voyager at the time (and still do to this day.)

Some pieces of writing such as an annual report or a request for comment have an endgame baked into it. A request for comment is defined by its title - it’s asking for requests for comment! But the endgame is not enough. It has to reach out and touch someone. This is the basis for all types of writing. Sharing our wants, needs, and experience using the medium of words.

Connecting With Humanity - Communication with Passion

Once you’ve established an endgame, Deep Space Nine, unlike Voyager, had vulnerability. This vulnerability served a purpose. If your message has no heart, it is pushing uphill to connect with people. If you write without exposing yourself as a vulnerable individual with conflicts and feelings of your own, it falls flat.

Vulnerability is how we connect with readers - the Ancient Greeks called it “pathos”, a critical part of rhetoric, or the art of persuasion. You can connect with readers in a book, an essay, or even a simple email. Vulnerability expert, author, and TED sensation Dr. Brene Brown says vulnerability is the beginning of courage, and courage helps us belong in the world. She says:

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

Perennial business cliche (and he’s a cliche for 74.8 billion reasons) and Berkshire Hathaway founder Warren Buffett always has an endgame and a vulnerability. As he says himself:

“Whenever I sit down to write the annual report, I pretend I am writing it to one of my sisters. Though highly intelligent, they are not experts on accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions are reversed. To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must have a sincere desire to inform.”

When you reveal yourself as a real person through your writing, you make every instalment an unmissable piece of your story. It must have passion, and it must have purpose.

So in your writing, what will you be? Deep Space Nine, or Voyager?


Want copywriting that's out this world for your business?

Turning Phrases, Turning Heads - Seminar Part 1

Part 1 of my Bayside Business Network seminar, Turning Phrases, Turning Heads is now available on YouTube! I will make Parts 2 and 3 available to seminar attendees next month (October.)

The first part of the seminar covers bad writing, how to make bad writing good, and improving business relationships by looking at how you write and to whom.

I'm also conducting a pared-down workshop-style seminar at NAB Village on 14 November, 2016. Strictly limited spots! If you want to attend, sign up now!

Are You Too Far Away to Persuade?

First off, thanks to all who attended my BBN Seminar at Sandringham Yacht Club on Monday, 9 May. I very much appreciated it! One of the more resonant pieces from my talk was about distance and wordiness. Wordiness - adding too many words for the sake of adding words - creates more distance between yourself and your audience.

The thing about wordiness is this: it creates more flaming hoops to jump through for your reader. If your reader has to sit there, his or her eyes scanning the page waiting for crucial information to leap out at them, they will eventually give up. If people can’t understand the value of your product or service, it may as well have no value.

I had a client that was all into arts and crafts – her business was making custom greeting cards, candles, gifts, that sort of thing. She knew her website content wasn’t working, so I looked through it. Her writing seemed stilted and impenetrable. I didn’t understand what she was selling or why she was selling it. As part of my usual process, I conduct an interview with my clients to get information on the business. It allows me to get to know who they are as people, so I can better express their unique point of view. The person I talked to was such a departure from the “person” on the website, I was almost beside myself. Jamie, or Freckles as her friends call her, was colourful, bubbly, friendly and her website was grey, static, lifeless. It didn’t make sense!

Freckles didn’t play to Freckle’s strengths. Freckles made a craft corner in her bedroom into a hobby business, which is now her full time business. She had that playful, youthful energy about her, and it wasn’t anywhere on the website. That’s because her copy didn’t cut to the core of what Freckles was about – making custom candles and gifts for you is your gift to her. It didn’t come through because there were just too many wrong words on the page for people to get a sense of her.

A lot of writing is cutting. Stephen King said it best – writing (or any creative endeavour) is all about “murdering your darlings” – cutting the unneeded words, sentences, paragraphs. However, the process of writing as writing isn’t thought about as talking onto a page. That’s kind of what it is – we’re substituting our ears for our eyes. What we can't hear we see, and what we're told to see, we imagine. We want to lead our reader down a path toward understanding, familiarity and above all, trust.

It works with business, it works with dating, it works with any human interaction - if you're writing, just be yourself first! It closes your "credibility gap" from page to person.

What do you think? Does wordiness turn you off?

Here's my pitch and sizzle reel

Well, not quite. But the great friends at Bizividz recorded a great promo video for my upcoming seminar on Monday, 9 May at Sandringham Yacht Club. Click here to register!

To talk copywriting (accounting...website development and everything else) you're always welcome to come along to one of Bayside Business Network's networking nights at the beautiful Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Sandringham. It's on Wednesday, the 4th of May. Click here for more information!

The Pointy End Podcast now up!

A month or so ago, I was humbled to be a guest on Active Elements Radio The Pointy End podcast, hosted by Dr. Leslie Fisher. Dr. Fisher is a good friend and colleague of mine, and we've had many long conversations about a variety of topics during our meetings at the NAB Village. The Pointy End is his podcast series looking at "the pointy end" of what people in small business do, in probing and insightful detail. It's a relaxed but no less informative talk...I hope!

It was a great privilege to guest "star" on the podcast, which you can hear above. We talked about the "pointy end" of copywriting, its relation to journalism and media culture as a whole. About 40 minutes - let me know your thoughts in the comments!