Friday, August 30, 2013

Improving Sports Coverage in Today's Global and Social World

The Cincinnati Bearcats have brought some of the fun back to sports coverage.
In a post last month, I suggested some questions that might make the dreaded post-game interviews a little more compelling. But there are bigger changes, that in our global world of social media, could take professional sports coverage to the next level. Here are three:

Native Tongue: The face of athletic competition in the U.S. has been changing for a while, with international athletes excelling in sports traditionally dominated by Americans. But instead of embracing the athletes' nationalities, we have asked them to be more like us. Why do pre- and post-game interviews have to be conducted in English? Foreign athletes and coaches can express themselves better in their native languages, and provide a better sense of their cultural identity to fans around the world. Interpreters can quickly translate questions and answers, and even know how to shorten athletes' responses if airtime is running out. Just look at the highly skilled interpreters used during and after boxing matches on HBO and Showtime, and check out this excellent article in The New York Times.  

Inside the Huddle: It's hard for athletes to describe what they were thinking during a sporting event. So why don't we cover more of the conversations they're having with their coaches and teammates in locker rooms, huddles, and meetings at the mound? I know. There's the fear of strategies and plays being given away to the other team; or worse, of the conversations actually being boring. But the reality is the opportunity far outweighs the risks. As the world of social media continues to grow, people are not just sitting on their coaches, yelling at the TV; they're joining fantasy leagues and  tweeting to the world what they think their teams must do to win. Wouldn't it be great if, with thirty seconds left in the game, we could always go into the huddle and listen to the coach explain the play to the team? Or, if during a tennis match, we could hear what the doubles players are saying to each other before each point? We already hear what the corner men tell boxers between each round. Getting that same access in other sports would make the coverage far more engaging.

Have Fun: Sporting events are entertainment. So why are athletes so serious all the time? Understandably, it's how they make a living and they need to be focused to excel. But now more than ever, that is not enough. Athletes need to be more like kids -- having fun, being honest, and not taking themselves too seriously. Whether it's Muhammad Ali, Allen Iverson, or Gael Monfils, it's those that are comfortable being themselves that create the most memorable moments. Instead of training athletes to offer cliched responses in interviews, teams need to encourage them to be more entertaining. It's not that hard; but it is so rare today that those interviews or performances that make the grade tend to go viral. And don't worry: athletes don't need to go as far as the Cincinnati Bearcats to have fun:)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why Are We So Upset With Miley Cyrus?

Billy Ray Cyrus and his daughter Miley.
Two days after MTV's Video Music Awards, the provocative performance of Miley Cyrus is still making headlines. I'm just wondering why.

She is not the first female singer to perform in a sexual manner; in fact, risque dancing is more the norm than the exception today. Salt N' Pepa, Madonna, and Britney Spears are just a few of the many artists who have used suggestive costumes and dancing in their musical performances. That's not even counting all of the men who push the boundaries in their work, often in even more explicit ways. If you need to see an example, watch singer Robin Thicke's video for "Blurred Lines." There is also an unrated version of his video you can find online.

So why has Miley been singled out? Do we think at the age of 20 she is too young to be performing like so many of her predecessors? Or was her dancing just too over the top for an event aimed at kids and teens? Both of these are fair points. But I think the biggest reason that we're expressing disgust at Miley is quite frankly ... because we can. The ubiquity of social media has provided everyone with a smartphone the opportunity to broadcast their opinions to the world. We live in an era where  the success of TV shows like "Fashion Police" depend on the quality of their insults, and where being snarky has become not only respected, but an art form. Gloating over other's misfortunes, or as you would say in German - schadenfreude - is not a new concept. But it is getting a whole new life and voice in our twerky world.     

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Toilet Paper Ads -- Brilliant or Full of ...?

To those who enjoy the bliss of the bathroom, an enjoyable read is just as important as a roll of bathroom tissue. And it is these two staples that seem to have inspired the creation of Star Toilet Paper: a startup that produces toilet paper with advertisements.

Since its founding in 2011, Star Toilet Paper has attracted a range of advertisers -- from restaurants to pet stores -- and received plenty of press (including a recent story in a New York Times blog). The toilet paper is free for merchants who use it in their bathrooms,  and the ads contain QR codes that customers can scan with their smartphones to receive digital coupons. But the company -- founded by brothers Jordan and Bryan Silverman -- hasn't generated much revenue over the past three years, according to The Times.

I suppose the reason is obvious: toilet paper is used to clean ourselves after going to the bathroom. No matter how clean a roll of toilet paper is, we associate it with its primary purpose. That's not to say that toilet paper ads don't spark conversation. At The Blue Note Grill in Durham, N.C., customers using the restrooms prefer the paper coupons over the the digital. “The toilet paper is a great gimmick for the restaurant,” the owner, Bill Whittington, told The Times. “On a busy night, we’ll see customers come out of the bathroom with a foot and a half of toilet paper, and everyone at the table will be looking at it."

The question is: what do they do with the toilet paper afterward? If they don't use it for a free dessert, I don't want to know. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Key Ingredients for a Great Corporate Bio

When you meet someone at a party, the first words you say are usually your name. And if you want to keep the conversation going, you talk a little about yourself: where you’re from, how you know the host(s), or what you do for a living. Should the process be any different when you visit a startup’s website?

To some degree, yes. After all, people visit a company’s website to find out more about its products or services, not its name. That process, though, should only take a few seconds. Immediately after, people will want to know who’s running the show.

There are many articles online about how to write a corporate bio, so I won’t bore you with them. I will just say that bios should be:
  • Short and achievement-based: Ideally a paragraph or two, and highlight specific achievements in your career that relate to your new company. For instance, if you’re creating a new social media site for donut shops, then you will want to talk about your visits to donut shops across the country, your popular blog about donuts, and your experience in small business and social media.
  • Relevant to your company: You don’t want to mention random information: that you love Star Trek, enjoy waterskiing, and have a wife, two daughters, and a dog (that is unless you are creating a social media site for families that eat donuts, in which case you’d want to talk about your family’s passion for donuts early in the bio). If you want everyone to know about your life outside of donuts – just include links to your social media profiles.
  • Feature a Current Photo: This is very important. You want people to know what you look like. It makes them feel connected to you and your company.
Want to learn more? Stay tuned for a future post where I will share some examples of outstanding donuts corporate bios. By the way, I like Boston Cream and Jelly without the powdered sugar.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Ashton Kutcher and My Grandparents: You Don't Need to Look Far to Find Inspiration

My grandparents will always be a source of inspiration.

Earlier this month, actor Ashton Kutcher delivered a powerful speech at the 2013 Teen Choice Awards. He spoke about the value of hard work, citing his early experiences washing dishes, working the deli counter, and sweeping a factory floor. He emphasized how important it is to be a caring and giving person, and how "the sexiest thing in the entire world is being really smart." And he said that no matter where he was in his life, he always felt fortunate to just have a job.

Kutcher's rags-to-riches remarks were thoughtful and well-intentioned, especially for an awards ceremony. But for some reason, they don’t resonate with me. I guess, as we say in communications: it’s not the message, it’s the messenger. It reminds me of a scene from the famous play and film Driving Miss Daisy, where the affluent and cranky Miss Daisy tells her new driver, Hoke, that she knows “the value of a penny.” “My brother Manny brought home a white cat one day and Papa said we couldn't keep it because we couldn't afford to feed it,” Miss Daisy says. "My sisters saved up money so I could go to school and be a teacher. We didn't have anything!” Hoke responds: “Yes, but look like you doin' all right now.”

The most inspirational stories come from those who have overcome challenges just to live like us. My late grandfather fought in World War II, sold ladies’ handbags, and cared for my grandmother as she suffered through multiple sclerosis for more than 30 years. After he died, I didn’t know how she would survive. But with the help of her wonderful and equally bossy aide, and with her undying spirit, this woman who had once taught the deaf was determined to remain a part of all of our lives. I still remember her traveling in a wheelchair to Israel for my youngest brother’s bar mitzvah. Seeing her board the plane in a narrow wheelchair, and sit through the 9 hour flight unable to stretch or go to the bathroom without great help -- I just couldn’t believe how strong she was.

Usually, in life, we don’t have to go far to find out what really matters. We just have to know where to look.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Beyond the Weather: How to Meet New People without Boring Them

Image courtesy of [photostock] /
When I was in elementary school, I didn't sit by the aisle on the school bus, flipping baseball cards and chatting with friends. I was by the window, looking at the the hundreds of suburban homes along the route, and dreaming of what it would be like to live in them. At synagogue on Saturday morning, I would stay inside to listen to the Rabbi's sermon, and in the afternoon I'd spend hours in debates with my father, playing devil's advocate. 

Needless to say, I was shy and lacked the skills needed to meet new people and make new friends. So when I saw Elizabeth Bernstein's column in today's Wall Street Journal about How to Become a Better Conversationalist, I was intrigued. In the column, Shyness Expert Bernardo J. Carducci outlines five steps for a successful conversation. I won't list them all, but they begin with commenting on something you and the person you're meeting are both experiencing. It could be something like "Boy, it is pouring out there! I don't know if we've seen rain this heavy since last summer", or "Hey, this is a beautiful restaurant we're hobnobbing in. What are you drinking?"

Once you're in the conversation, you should focus on asking questions, because most people like to talk about themselves and will be flattered by your interest. But don't overdo it. If all you ask too many questions, you may sound annoying or creepy. 

And what do you do at the end? Say you have to go to the bathroom, need a drink, or greet someone you know? I think most people know that conversations can't last forever. But however you end it, whether it was nice to meet you, here's my card, or I'll find you on Facebook, make sure that you do what you say. Following through is what separates the talkers from the doers.

As for me, I've gotten better over the years at introducing myself, in part because I needed to as a reporter at a daily newspaper after college. Some people even think I'm funny. But I still have plenty of room for improvement. So if you meet me at a social event, feel free to praise my shirt, or comment on the food. But whatever you do, don't talk about the weather.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Speak Softly and Post a Lot of Pics

In case you hadn't heard: text is out, photos are in. So in that spirit, I gathered and arranged the photos below to tell a story.
If you can't figure out what I was trying to say, you're not alone. Photos without any context are hard to understand. That's because, as Neicole Crepau of points out: "civilization thrived when humans moved from pictographs to the written word." The written word, she explains "enabled humans to convey the same information faster and in a much smaller space."

Once language developed, it revolutionized communication, allowing us to learn by reading words. And today, those who read novels have been shown to develop greater empathy and interpret social cues more quickly. In one study, people who read novels were better at reading people's emotions just by looking at photos of their eyes. Now while that study was comparing fiction and nonfiction readers, it still shows the tremendous benefits that the written word has had for understanding images. (For more on this research, check out this article by psychologist Keith Oatley).

So  to sum up: don't give up on text. It's gotten us quite far, and it's here to stay. And if you are wondering what I was trying to say in the images above, here it is: It's sad that the world of writing is dying, and a galaxy of photos is taking its place. (If you didn't get that, I completely understand. I have to work on my pictography:)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

When is a Crowd Too Big to Handle?

There are two aspects of crowdsourcing websites that are very appealing. To individuals, these sites provide the chance to share ideas and see the results, something we often don't get to experience in a world that's often unfair. For entrepreneurs, the crowds offer the opportunity to hire fewer employees, and create a customer base that feels a sense of ownership and personal pride in the company.  But is crowdsourcing always the right approach?

It shouldn't take a crowd to figure that out. Virtual crowds are great for market research and spreading the word about a new product or service, especially among the younger generation. But when they get too large, they are not always effective. Big teams can take longer to make decisions, whether they are made unanimously or by majority. And sometimes because of the size, the ideas of some of the smartest teammates are drowned out by the crowd, leading to bad results. The question of how the optimal team size has been studied by experts for quite some time, and of course, there are different opinions (check out this article from Knowledge@Wharton). But it's a question that we must continue to ask, as the crowdsourcing industry gets more crowded every day.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Big Idea? Or The Next Best Thing?

Image courtesy of [hinnamsaisuy]/
During an industry event I attended in June, I had the pleasure of meeting a successful entrepreneur who had some advice for those looking to start their own companies: pick a business that already makes money.

On the one hand, that makes sense. After all, startups aren't just about having fun and being the boss; they are businesses and need to make money to survive. But on the other hand, the most innovative companies are developing groundbreaking products or services through new and untested business models. No matter how strong the business plan or how reputable the investors, these entrepreneurs can only hope that enough people will be interested in what their companies offer.

The best approach to entrepreneurship is somewhere in the middle between trailblazing and the tried and true. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs today seem to be adopting only the latter approach -- taking successful companies and copying or building off them. Have you seen how many companies today offer cloud-computing solutions, e-commerce portals, and social communities for everyone from artists to physicians? I'm not sure how long a great idea lasts these days, or whether anyone remembers a name, but in the end a startup will only defeat its competition if it has the right marketing and communication plan. The questions that these entrepreneurs, copycats and pivot artists have to ask are all the same: Who are our potential customers? How should I reach them? And what makes our company better than the rest? The answers to these questions are not easy, but they are the key to making money, being a boss, and calling yourself a successful entrepreneur.

Friday, August 2, 2013

140 Characters: More? Or Less?

I was reading the news online yesterday and soon found myself checking out a new website for reading and writing: The site is being led by Ev Williams, one of the founders of Twitter, and is designed to take over where Twitter left off. "Medium is a new place on the Internet where people share ideas and stories that are longer than 140 characters and not just for friends," Williams writes on his site.

So as a blogger looking to to grow his readership, I joined and was quite impressed. The text is clear and easy to read. The ability to comment in the margins of articles allows for focused conversations about each post. And while not everyone is allowed to post yet, the ones that I checked out were good reads.

But there still is one feature that I found a bit odd: each post is labeled with the number of minutes it should take to read. Aside from the fact that everyone reads at a different pace, the timing of writing raised a basic question: if we're worried about how much time it will take to read, why not stick with Twitter?

As someone who worked as a newspaper reporter and has witnessed the demise of both print and long-form journalism, I always thought that people just don't read as much anymore. Skype, Twitter, text messaging, and mobile phones have all replaced writing letters and sending postcards. So are we moving back into the golden age of reading? Are people going to suddenly start checking out 20 minute articles and books, and discussing them with their friends? Or are photos and six-second videos going to become the way we keep in touch? I'm not sure what the answer is, but I do believe that as a society we will find a happy medium.