How to do Welfare

The latest mini-book in my “How to…” series is out! How to do Welfare explores the problems of government assistance, and how it fails to allocate resources in the best way. Then it justifies a solution to the whole welfare mess, with numbers that make the case. How to do Welfare is out in paperback and Kindle today, but you can download a free PDF here.

 

 

Making memories: being a photography volunteer

Chris is a PCC progressive calisthenics instructor

As part of my fitness interests, I filled in on photography for part of a recent London PCC. That’s “Progressive Calisthenics Certification“, the only instructor course in the world focussing on the bodyweight discipline inspired by Paul Wade’s Convict Conditioning. (A book that changed my white-collar life.) I’ve taken the course myself, and had a blast being behind the camera – and would like to think I added value for participants too.

If you’re interested in volunteering on photography at a fitness event – whether it’s the calm of yoga, the madness of CrossFit, or a bunch of Jason Bournes doing martial arts – some tips might help. Here are the basics.

Framing the subject

First, get equipped. Bring a pro camera if you can, or at least prosumer. All cameras are good these days – but the main thing you’re looking for is speed of the snap.

That means a camera that can take in light fast enough to freeze a scene with action in it, then resets quickly, so you can take the next one without a wait. Sequences of images – like a headstand that starts from the kick-up, continues with the hand balances, and ends with the fall into a crumpled heap – look great, but you can’t do them if your camera takes five seconds to cycle between snaps. Phone cameras (especially iPhone and Samsung) can work surprisingly well; they’re optimised for off-the-cuff snapshots.

Bring more than one camera, and spare batteries if you can. (I used three plus an iPhone, and emptied every battery.) Such a belt-and-braces approach lets you snap all day without worrying about juice, and amid all the blurred fails you will capture some unexpectedly great images.

Arrive early to test. All gyms have different levels of photofriendliness. Sheeny white walls look different to gritty corrugated iron; fluorescent lighting can wash out skin and make the uber-healthy look like The Walking Dead. And if the sun’s shining, a course that takes place partly or wholly outdoors carries a whole different set of challenges. Experiment early with camera settings and find a configuration that flatters your subjects.

Al Kavadlo demonstrating side lever

Al Kavadlo demonstrating side lever

Setting the scene

A few words on general approach. At a certification, you are not a war photographer, however many walking wounded surround you by day’s end. Like Hunter S Thompson, go gonzo, get involved. The best certifications are deeply social events; they’re emotional, tribal, joyous even. So be part of the team, and roar along with the crowd.

That means making eye contact, talking to people, leaping in to say yes when people want a snap. You are not “documenting” the event; you are “creating” what used to be called Kodak Moments, little memories. Smile a lot, learn as many names as you can, and make everyone aware you’re available for them. You can tell from their eyes when they’d like you to aim your camera. Do so; it’s what you’re there for.

On the flipside, some people are camera shy. So make the promise clear at the start of the day: if anyone is offended by a shot you’ve taken – delete it, the moment they ask. It’s no big deal. If someone thinks a shot is too embarrassing or unflattering to Share, the deciding vote is theirs, not yours. Always respect people’s privacy. Unless it’s the instructor, in which case take as many embarrassing shots as you can(!)

Never a truer word

Never a truer word

Don’t overcurate. Obviously, kill off blurs and misses. But don’t worry too much about leaving in some questionable quality. Maybe your shot of someone’s L-sit cut the participant’s head off, but maybe the framing also captured a smiling face elsewhere that’d make the ideal Profile Pic with a bit of cropping. Let your audience do the curating instead!

Last, make sure you know where to put them. (For some photos, that’ll be “where the sun don’t shine”, but not all.) The standard for certification courses tends to be a Facebook album. The Chief Instructor or a keen participant will either have set it up him/herself or know where it is.

Sort out permissions-to-post early in the day, and when the day’s done, post your pictures to the group as soon as possible. That means within hours, not days.

Tricks & tactics

Last, a few tips for making your album worth looking at.

The basic tactic is think people, not crowds. By day’s end you’ll have (too) many shots of the class as a whole, listening to an instructor’s brief: don’t worry about a shortage here. But the most memorable shots tend to be closeups, people pulling cool moves or interacting in pairs or trios. Shots featuring one person alone aren’t necessarily the best choice: half the visual fun of a front lever happens below the bar, on the faces of the people watching.

So get in there. Don’t hang on the sidelines. Walk right up to people, hang off the Swedish ladder, stand on the vaulting horse to get a more interesting shot. Try to make sure you get at least a few pics of each participant as principal subject, in a pose or move they’ll be proud of.

Obviously, don’t shove your lens in anyone’s face – particularly if they’re executing an HSPU – but make sure you don’t miss anyone out. Some people will be more awkward in the lens than others. Try to make sure everyone goes home knowing they’ll see themselves in the album a few times … and feeling good about it.

The caveat, of course, is maintain situational awareness. Up close and personal is where the best shots are, but you do not want to be in the way of someone coming out of a headstand hot. (Trust me on this.) Just be mindful of who’s in your vicinity – think of yourself as a guest in their space, not someone participants have to move aside for – and you’ll be fine.

There’s another reason to get up close and personal: it stops your autofocus wandering. If you’re on the sidelines zooming in on the woman doing a terrific floor lever, there’s no surer thing than someone else will be coming out of a handstand in front, and you’ll end up with a pin-perfect snap of a random leg instead, with Leverin’ Linda a blur in the background. So try not to use zoom, however user-friendly today’s cameras make it; use your body to do the zooming instead. (Hey, functional movement is the whole point of fitness, after all.)

Use interesting angles! Nothing’s worse than the same setpiece of the gym hall with the same crowd in it, repeated over and over. So look for unusual angles that capture the fun. Get below and behind the guy doing the pullup, so you can see the triceps straining. Tilt the camera so the back lever guy’s diagonal. Shoot the parallel bars from floor level. Use apparatus, climbing the scaffold so you can capture a scene from above.  Get down and party, frame a subject through a doorway, kneel and crouch and slide around. Who says you shouldn’t get a workout?

Snap first, think later. Participants are learning, not posing; if you wait one more second for that move to look better, the move will most likely be over. So never hesitate over the shutter button. And take more shots rather than fewer; using more space on your SD Card doesn’t cost you anything. As experienced photographic assist Michelle Steenhuis says, “There’s no going overboard when it comes to photos!”

Look for the “story shot”. That pic of someone topping out their first muscle-up is terrific. But adding to it is the pic a second later, when they’re high-fiving the planet with the Face That Says Whoohoo. iPhones even have a default of taking three shots, separated by a second, that string together into a fun animation. Take as many of these shots as you can.

Remember everyone loves bloopers! Most people don’t mind their fails being shared; everyone’s learning, after all. So treat the faceplant the same as the perfectly executed skin-the-cat. These photos can be a lot of fun. (Of course, if someone does ask for a Delete … do it, without protest.)

Finally, don’t fall in love with your own camera. Offer to use theirs! Everyone will have a phone they want to capture some of their moves on. Particularly at end-of-day, when everyone wants photos of themselves for their Instagrams. A surprising number of people are a bit shy about asking, so don’t wait – offer straightaway without being asked. It’s a great help in building those memories.

And remember to have fun, folks!

Doesn’t sound hard, does it? Volunteering on camera is easy and pays you back with a whole lotta love. (The smiles I saw on people’s faces when they learned their last day would have a photographer after all were worth the earth.)

If you believe in the subject being certified, practice it yourself, or even teach it, your act of volunteering might mean knowledge of that subject spreading to someone who’d never heard of it. Maybe that person will take up the activity. Maybe they’ll attend a course themselves. Maybe it’ll change their life. All because of a photo they saw of a friend having fun.

Which, when you think about it, is the whole point of volunteering. So volunteer. You’re about to make someone’s life a lot better.

Chris Worth is a London-based copywriter and trained progressive calisthenics and kettlebells instructor who recently published the workbook for effective freelancing 100 Days, 100 Grand, available at Amazon and in 30,000 bookstores worldwide. He knows business backwards, finance forwards, and technology inside out, with interests in adventure travel and extreme sports. If you need campaigns, copy, or content, contact him here. This article also appeared on Medium.

Champagne at the Shard

My alma mater WBS opened its London outpost at the Shard today, and I got in a quick chat with London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Boris Johnson opening WBS at the Shard

Don’t be fooled by his loveable buffoon image; Boris demonstrated he’s the smartest and best-educated politician in Britain today, ad-libbing a speech that combined Warwick’s connection to Shakespeare, its former lord’s role as kingmaker (referencing Henry IV Parts I-III), and the value of business education, to the City of London and its continued success attracting global investment. Long live Warwick!

Freelance consultant? Why you should take credit cards

Pay online by debit or credit card.Professional services like consulting and copywriting aren’t sectors you’d expect to accept credit cards; you can hardly imagine a sharp-suited ex-McKinsey guy or interim marketing director whipping out a card reader. Or can you?

I’ve recently started taking credit cards through my site Chris does Content, and it’s had a surprising effect. Not so much for longstanding clients on retainer (although they have the option) – but in the first month after setting up card payments I’ve had several clients buy single days of my creative consultancy by card.

Why? I’m guessing three things matter:

To escape the hassles of overseas PO’ing. With the vast majority of consulting-type tradespeople limiting their market to their own country or city, taking cards expands your market with little effort. (The clients who’ve taken it up so far are in France and Taiwan.) I’ve always had an international roster, but not everyone’s lucky enough to have a background and contacts in Europe and Asia; taking cards exposes you to that broader audience.

To enable faster response. If someone’s putting me on their credit card, I know they need stuff fast – and if schedule allows I can usually move them to the front of the queue. With basically zero argument to be had over payment cycles, a exchange of emails is all it takes to get things started; how’d you like 2,000 words of SEO’d up copy 24 hours after first contact? Can do.

To take advantage of extreme discounting. I’m currently offering a 25% discount for one-off projects paid for by card, and it seems to benefit both sides – the client gets a competitive price, I get paid in 3-5 days instead of the 60-90 day payment cycles many EU businesses work on.

If you’re on your journey towards being a six figure freelancer, it’s a useful addition to your payment options. Give it a go!

Dear bookshops: I’m sorry

I feel guilty whenever I visit a bookshop these days.

At first glance it’s not obvious why. I read three books a week, buy several more. And as an indie author I depend on people buying books for an increasing chunk of my income.

But in the last four years, precisely 0 of those purchases have been on paper.

On the lookout for solid marketing? Email Chris.I’m a Kindle fanatic and a minimalist; I’ve given away half a thousand print books over the last year or two and my shelfspace at home doesn’t even stretch to a metre. That combo is killer for any bookshop.

And I’m sorry.

From the bright detailing of the big chains to the musty corners of the independents that still dot Charing Cross Road, I enjoy them all. Browsing, visiting, wasting time. But unless there’s a coffee shop, I no longer have any reason to buy anything in them. I am driving them out of business.

But just as no teenager today can believe we used to carry around music machines that stored a single album, I simply can’t bring myself to buy the print edition of any book. Books take up too much space. How and why could I possibly justify purchasing a kilogram of dead tree, when a thin grey slate that weighs next to nothing can store two thousand of them?

Like I said, I’m sorry, bookshops.

But I’ll make you a promise or two. It’s not much, but it’ll help. Maybe.

  • I promise I won’t come in to paw the books before buying them on Kindle. That’s theft of resource, plain and simple. If I want to read the blurbs, I’ll do it at Amazon.
  • I promise I’ll buy a coffee. If there’s a tea stand out back, I’ll stick around and buy a beverage, maybe a croissant or something. Even if I’m not hungry. I owe you that much.
  • And I promise I’ll do anything short of outright charity to keep you around. When you run Writers’ Nights, I’ll support them. When I want to rent space, I’ll look at you first.

Let’s face it, your business model is bleeding out, and unless you’re a City Lights or a Shakespeare & Co you haven’t got long. But our streets are richer for having you in them. And I really, really want you to stay.

This head’s note to her pupils has gone viral. And it’s wrong.

That’s it, I’ve snapped. Could everyone raving about this head’s letter to her pupils PLEASE try and See The World As It Really Is?

Barrowford letter

Here’s why. The school has numerous advantages in educational terms. Its cachement is wealthier and more homogenous than average (easier to teach). And it has a large intake (resources per child go further). If any school should be at the top of its game, this one should.

Yet it’s rated merely “good” by Ofsted. (Which means “bad” in the nuanced argot of inspections.) Its exam results are BELOW AVERAGE.

Despite having every advantage in the book, this school is not succeeding.

Could that be the real reason its head sends letters like this… to deflect attention from what really matters?

Aside from being poorly written (packed with bad grammar and overlong paragraphs) the letter’s takeaway is that “education doesn’t matter much”. All you have to do is let it all hang out and be yourself. No suggestion you might be able to change yourself for the better. To take control of your own existence and be self-actualised. Where’s the ambition? The drive? The urge to succeed, the celebration of success? Nowhere.

“You’re perfect as you are” might be a nice thing to say to kids, but it’s poor prep for life.

See the World as it Really Is, people. This school sucks, and it’s because of the namby-pamby fuzzy-thinking liberal-leftie attitudes displayed by this so-called teacher.

 

Adding a second dimension: the Nolan Chart

500px-Nolan-chart.svgThe Nolan chart gives form to what happened in the EU elections… and why those you’d think of as right of centre, like me, aren’t happy with its swing rightwards.

Politics isn’t a single Left-Right axis; it’s a boston box, with both small-state and big-state variants of Left and Right. I’m a hardcore libertarian (NOT “liberal”), at the extreme top-right: favouring high personal freedom and high economic freedom. On the left side, the bottom left would be socialism and the top left traditional liberalism.

The UK’s big three parties each occupy one quadrant: Lib Dems top left, Cons in the top right, and Labour bottom left. As nominally centrist parties, each is in the approx centre of its quadrant, with Ed Miliband’s lot maybe slightly further southwest and David Cameron a bit further northeast.

UKIP (and the other far-right parties that won on Sunday) often call themselves libertarian, but are actually pretty low on personal freedoms. (As we’d find out if they exercised real power.) So all belong at the bottom right, many of them at the extreme southeast corner.

Seen in this context, Nigel Farage’s success is easy to understand: he simply saw the open marketspace and moved into it. Politics, like life, can often be understood by the dynamics of marketing.

This mailing to a cold list got 19% response. Here’s how I did it.

It might not look much. But this one-page letter to a cold list (part of my 100 Days, 100 Grand project) returned an incredible response rate… between ten and twenty times what a snail mail campaign usually delivers. (And hundreds of times what you’d expect from anything beginning with “e-“.)

One director called it “the best piece of direct mail [he’d] received since starting the agency“.

As an exercise in navel-gazing, here’s the text of the letter… with my notes on why I think it worked.

Chris's letter to a self-built database of inbound marketing agencies.

The letter itself. Note extreme mailmerge fields.

Opening para: making friends

Nobody writes proper letters any more, do they? The kind you open without a click. Scribble notes in the margins. And delete with a crumple. When you do get a proper letter, you notice it.

Ah, the kick-off. It breaks most of today’s rules: no upfront offer, no call-to-action. It’s a preamble.

But… it interests you, doesn’t it? A straightforward truth: you don’t get personal letters any more. A real person wrote this, thinks the reader. And I’m guessing most of them got past this para without aiming it into the circular file. Takeout: before establishing your offer, first establish you’re human.

Body copy: setting the scene

I noticed «COMPANY». Because you're sky-high in SEO for "«CUSTOMPARA1»". (As I am for "London copywriter".) I'm writing in the hope you'll notice me. Because your "«CUSTOMPARA2»" approach syncs with what I do: custom copy for content marketers.

This para’s where I swing in the big guns: extreme personalisation in the mailmerge fields. (With a parenthetical riff on my own SEO rank.)

«CUSTOMPARA1» is the search phrase I used to build my list: the first few pages of Google results are, by definition, hot prospects. While «CUSTOMPARA2» is the agency’s (they were all agencies) approach to its work lifted from its website. (It’s usually a punchy portmanteau term like attract-convert-repeat.) So we’ve established rapport: I know what they do, and I took some effort to find out.

Callout 1

Add chrisdoescontent.com to your list of freelancers...

Now here’s the first part of the offer, centred and highlighted as if with a yellow pen. It only took two paras to get here, and it jumps off the page – most importantly, it tells the reader what they’ve got to do. Something a surprising number of mailings forget.

The support act…

Why use me? Because I've done a lot of what you want. My stuff combines fresh ideas (I'm an indie novelist on the side) with experience gained at top-10 ad agencies (200+ campaigns and 1000+ articles across Asia and Europe.) All backstopped by research methods from a top-1% MBA that keep the insights solid. That's why clients use me for years and stay friends forever. More at chrisdoescontent.com/what.

Once your reader’s interested you need to give them a reason to stick around, so I added the backup. Hard numbers and facts are what work here; your readers are getting down to business, and the touchy-feeliness of the intro is over. (Well, almost.) Yes, I do what it says on the tin. Now questions are forming, it’s also time for a link.

… with backing dancers

While I haven't worked for clients on your roster, like «CUSTOMPARA3» or «CUSTOMPARA4», I have created campaigns and programmes for big names like «CUSTOMPARA5». I'm mostly B2B, in tech /media /telecoms, finance, healthcare, automotive and aerospace. Know-how that may be of use to you: hit the ground running and all that...

Into the mailmerge forest again. The data here took ages to extract. <<3>> and <<4>> are the names of actual clients on the prospect’s roster. There’s no fast way to build metadata like this; until The Semantic Web hits its stride (at least another decade) trawling through websites by hand is the only option.

And <<CUSTOMPARA5>> is a handpicked selection of my clients – clients which match as closely as possible the sectors the prospect operates in. I’m moving in closer with every sentence.

...but it's pricey, right? Nope. Try £450 for a 1,000wd+ research paper or consideration content, less for snacks and snippets elsewhere on the nurturing pathway. Or £225 for a 500wd listicle with metadata. And turnaround times that can drop to 24 hours if your deadline's hot.

It’s time for go in for the kill. Content marketing – the point of this mailing – is price-sensitive, and while I try not to compete on price, it’s a reality of this space. I simply worked out what I need to work up a killer article (half a day min) and priced it in.

You can lean on me for teasers, pages, posts, blogs... Buzzfeeds, featurettes, infographics, and newsletters... microsites and Case Studies and White Papers. The whole kit and caboodle, with metas, tags and links whomped up and ready to go. I've worked on platforms from WordPress to HubSpot to Uberflip to SlideShare, in formats as diverse as PPC, ePub, and XML. I'm also conversant with 12 CMSs, HTML5 and CSS. See chrisdoescontent.com/portfolio for the exhibit.

Notice I used a couple of buzzwords in the previous para – listicle, metadata – to show I’ve got a grip on social and content marketing? They were warmups.

In this most verbose paragraph in the letter, I list the applications and formats I think they work with, and will expect me to know. It’s filler, but solid filler.

Callout 2

...and get your first content marketing brief answered for FREE

Again highlighted, the second of the 2 callouts communicates my offer without anyone needing to read the body copy. (As any good piece of marketing should.)

Closing para and call-to-action

But there's one thing you don't get: hassle. Contact me with a brief; I'll write you a sample you can use at no cost. I'm on 07876 635340 or chris@chrisworth.com; current availability's about 9 days/mth. Let's talk.

It’s time to sign off. All the boxes are ticked here: offer front and centre, with a note that subtly communicates further proofs (I’m available, but not too available, ‘cos that’d mean I’m no good.) Hammered home with a homily.

Do I need to mention the letter was personally signed? My wrist’s still sore.

Footer block

PS. You can download a PDF of this letter from chrisdoescontent.com/?attachment_id=«xxxx». (All right, proper letters don't work for everything. Let me know if you went all TL;DR on me.)

Every sales letter needs a PS. This one adds a neat trick: I uploaded each individual letter (not the template) to my site, and the reader can download the exact letter he received by clicking a unique URL. I finish the way all sales letters should: with a chuckle that gets the reader’s head nodding.

How could it be improved?

envelopesBeing self-critical is a good trait for any copywriter, so here’s what I think I did wrong.

First, I should have put the offer in the postscript somehow. People still scan down to a PS before they get into the body copy. And using the too long; didn’t read euphemism was borderline; while agency bosses are web-savvy, they don’t always speak geek.

Second, the transition between the opening and second paras doesn’t quite hit the mark. I talk about letters being noticed, yet when “I notice them” it’s not because I got a letter. Small stuff, but it’s lapses like these that make tears in a piece of copy’s overall fabric.

Third, the backup in the middle. Lengthwise it works, but I’m divided as to its density. Too much jargon? Am I sounding clever rather than intelligent? On the edge.

But ultimately, this letter worked for me, so you be your own judge. And if you’d like me to do some content marketing for you – or just write you a sales letter or two – contact me here.

New Gabe Rayner short story, “Worked Out”, up at Amazon

workedout_thumbA short story featuring my business consultant action hero, Gabe Rayner, is up at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk for your Kindle.

In “Worked Out“, Rayner’s in the mood for some R&R after a conference in Miami. The miniskirted nymphet beckoning him over gives him some ideas, but they might not be what you’re expecting…

… and if you promise not to tell, the ebook’s also FREE as a download in .mobi (Kindle) or .epub (iBooks) format.

Hundred days, hundred grand: a fun work goal

Hey there, marketers! I’ve had an idea today, and I’d like one thousand of you to listen. Broader upside is that it delivers £10,000 to charity, but let’s get the self-indulgent stuff out first…

…since turning indie novelist I’ve led a dreamy life. A cycle of eat-sleep-create, true to myself and answerable to no-one. I’m a solitary type who spends a lot of time inside his own head, so the last year – teaching myself the principles of narrative fiction then writing my first stories – has been one of the most enjoyable.

Only problem: your income takes one hell of a whack.

00_2birds_100px700,000 books are published each year. But worldwide, I’d bet fewer than a thousand authors scratch a living wage from fiction. And perhaps only 200 earn more than a top-tier copywriter in a major market. (That’d be me.) Writing the commercial prose used in a single campaign typically earns its creator more than Britain’s median earner makes in a week… while 99% of books sell fewer than 100 copies, making the author less money than would fold. (Er, that’d be me, too.)

So it’s been a great year, but with the principles of fiction now baked into my brainpan, every thriller novel and sci-fi short from now on – and there’ll be many – just counts as practice. (I can’t call myself “good” until I’ve got a million words out.) I need a fresh goal to rebuild my cashflow. And since this is me here – the guy who combines touchy-feely words and hard-quant numbers – every goal needs numbers attached.

Starting 01 April, I’m aiming for 100 days to reach an annualised income of £100,000.

It sounds a lot. But in a market like my hometown, the thing about a six-figure income is how small it is. A hundred grand could be just three clients. But it takes work. This isn’t get-rich-quick, folks.

Here’s how I plan to do it. And how you could do it, too.

Looking for clear market space? Take a walk with Chris.Any sales exec knows selling is a numbers game. There’s a mountain of skill involved in closing a deal, but most of the time, the guy with the best sales figures is the guy who made the most calls. To get the small number of retainer clients it’ll take to rebuild my roster, I’m counting on approaching 1,000. And since I can’t count on my scintillating personality getting me over the hump (I am the world’s worst networker) this means a campaign.

I’m not talking about a bought-in list; strike rates for cold names are below 0.01%. I’m talking about 1,000 individuals with a marketing budget, each connected to me by someone I know who’s consented to be used as a reference. That’s the In that gets me in their Inbox. So where to start?

It means work. And the place to start is LinkedIn. That’s 434 connections, roughly half in my native UK, connecting me to most of the companies I want to approach. And there’ll be an individually worded letter to each one, in my own voice.

This is where the resource costs start. Even the cheapest content mill I write for pays 20p a word, and these letters top out around 500 words a throw. So that’s £100,000 of effort going in. Which dwarfs the cost of printing and posting, even given some won’t go out on a proper sheet of paper.

I’m counting on averaging ten letters a day. More on weekdays to take weekends off. And they’ll be personal letters. There are some common paragraphs, but there are three or four paras that aren’t replicable page to page. Stuff like:

  1. A para on who you are, and what you want to do for them (THEM.)
  2. A para on how you heard of them – your contact, their job ad, whatever.
  3. A para showing you understand their business or sector, with proof.
  4. The separate email to your contact, telling them what you’ve done. It’s only polite.

That’s four custom paras, of maybe six or seven in total. (Not much space for anything else save the sig.) And I need perhaps a 1% strike rate. That’s all.

To see why, let’s look at clients I’ve had in the past. One paying £1000/mth for a 3,000 word article for their website. One of which pays an occasional £1500 for a small research project. Two paying over £2,500/mth for a programme of activity around a monthly marketing campaign. Two others paying £1,750 each to have 3-5 days/month reserved for them.

And with my max day rate of £600 – top tier, but not over-the-top by London standards – it doesn’t take too many of those to hit an £8k/mth run rate.

(When I was an agency creative clients paid upwards of two thousand Euros, and that was a decade-plus ago. (One or two advertising celebs charge two grand today, but you could probably count them without taking your socks off.)

And to add punch, I’m making a commitment: if I get there, 10% of that income for one year will be donated to charity.

Works starts today. If you’d like to support me – or do it yourself! – share this post on Twitter, with the hashtag #100days100grand. Here’s my Tweet to retweet.

SFF: one F too many

If there’s one thing I really hate, it’s the way the fiction business conflates Science Fiction with Fantasy.

SFF is not a genre. Science Fiction is not Fantasy, okay? If Fantasy has a role, it’s as Sci-Fi’s less respectable cousin. A burger and shake for preteens before they graduate to something crunchy and interesting like a Dozois anthology. Sci-fi writers have worked for decades to be a genre that even has a less respectable cousin; that extra F hasn’t earned the right to be there.

I accept there’s an argument the other way. You could say a dwarf and an alien share conceptual DNA (now there’s an image to conjure with.) And when it comes to “magic”, Fantasy has its vanishing spells while Sci-fi has teleports and hyperdrive.

But I maintain that’s moot, because most SF at least tries to ground itself in natural law; the physics of a space/time warp, the excitement of photons in a death ray. In good SF, hyperdrive isn’t a get-out; it’s an integral part of the plot. It’s what allowed the human species to spread out over a thousand worlds without fragmenting into separate societies. Or, in other narratives, what caused it to fragment.

Sci-fi is rooted in realities. Even if that reality is a speculative extrapolation of engineering and physics. Much SF recognises the frailty and weakness of the human, and the greatness of applied learning that lifts us above our Earth and onto the surface of alien worlds.

By contrast, Fantasy’s characters draw heavily on cheat factors – lost kings and highborns, warrior tribes and evil overlords. They’re fairy tales, stories for children not adults, not worthy of respect the way a Bear novel or Dick short is when it explores the future of technology and returns a commentary on what it means to be human. (Of course, Star Wars was a fairy tale, but the point holds.) Sci-fi is self-aware, in a way Fantasy never seems to be.

Other worlds. The only one we've been to.Of course there’s a lot of bad SF out there, just as there’s a lot of bad Fantasy. (And bad romance. And thriller. And…) Because good sci-fi takes serious effort to write. You’ve got to create a believable storyworld that’s both complete in itself and consistent with the world we know, physical laws and evolution and cosmology. (Even at this early stage in the human adventure, we know a fair bit about physics.)

One of the few “good” Fantasy series – JRR Tolkein’s – is readable precisely because he grounded his monsters and magic in laws we feel hold true: the laws of living languages. The vast majority of Fantasy doesn’t feel the need, while almost every Science Fiction novel does. And Fantasy’s dragons and swordplay are a steaming pile of garbage as a result.

“SFF” is an abomination. Let’s drop that extra F, and leave Fantasy to the people who want to read about dwarves and buried treasure.

Twenty five years on from Rushdie we are too frightened to say we are scared

Excellent piece on the corrosive fear of consequences that’s infested every corner of a timid British media.

Nick Cohen: Writing from London

British publishing is now such a neurotic and hypocritical business there are stories it cannot cover. Nor should it try. When journalists, writers and artists can’t be honest with their audience, when they can’t even be honest with themselves, silence is preferable to the damage their double-standards bring.

Last month our media commemorated the imminent anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie by trying and failing to report the threats to the life of Maajid Nawaz, the chief executive of Quilliam Foundation. In a vindication of Kipling’s “once you have paid him the Dane-geld/you never get rid of the Dane” fanatics are after Nawaz not because he satirised the founding myths of Islam, as Rushdie did, or projected sexist verses from the Koran on to a naked woman’s body, as Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali did, but because – brace yourselves – he tweeted a picture of Jesus…

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Fitzgerald, Fagles, or Lattimore?

thucy-751915I’m a Kindle fanatic, but I go for quality rather than volume, and today I’m kicking off my selection of the Greek and Latin classics. Obviously the trio to start with is  Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey with Virgil’s later Aeneid – but which translation?

Well, the first decision is easy. These epic poems were chanted (long before they were written down) so the prose translations don’t do it for me: I want a sense of how the ancient languages worked. Despite being written in different languages five centuries apart, all three epics used dactylic hexameter. (DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh) – so I’d like a version that nails the odd drumbeat of those 20ish syllable lines. What’s more, Homer wrote the oral sagas down compactly; scholars say the Greek doesn’t waste a word.

So I’m looking for a verse translation that’s not florid or flowery. Three big names come up: Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Fagles, and Richmond Lattimore.

Richmond Lattimore was both a translator and poet and worked before post-modernism introduced interpretative translating to a broad audience. His Iliad and Odyssey are reportedly as pin-perfect as English can come to ancient Greek: syllable counts and line lengths are constant, as in the Greek.

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.

He’s also the only big name who hews to the same line count, a huge achievement: any line of Homer corresponds to the same line in Lattimore. For this attention to detail and structure, plus the way his spare English and beats reflect the chants of thirty centuries ago, he’d be my first choice. One issue with Lattimore: he never did an Aeneid.

Robert Fagles is the rock star of Homeric verse: there’s a grab-bag of modern coinings in his verse, and it’s all pretty good stuff. Apparently though he takes a few liberties with his translation; it’s far more a transliteration than Lattimore’s.

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bringing his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will sing for our time too.

His line lengths all cut the mustard, and the vowels make it more of a tone poem than Lattimore’s. Also, Fagles translated the Big Three, so a real contender.

Robert Fitzgerald takes a slightly different perspective: look at how different that “Sing in me… and through me tell the story” is in sense to Fagles and Lattimore. Fitzgerald also plays havoc with Greek meter to make his English work: this ain’t a poem for chanting.

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.
He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home.
But not by will nor valor could he save them,
for their own recklessness destroyed them all
children and fools, they killed and feasted on
the cattle of Lord Helios, the Sun,
and he who moves all day through heaven
took from their eyes the dawn of their return.
Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
tell us in our time, lift the great song again.

As such I’m not going for Fitzgerald’s work. So which: Lattimore or Fagles?

Well, Lattimore didn’t do an Aeneid, and neither writer, unforgivably, is available from a single imprint on Kindle. (Cover designs and consistent formatting shouldn’t make a difference, but do: I love seeing a nice grid of those Penguin Classics covers on my screen.)

But the precision-translation of Lattimore’s more to my taste, so he’ll be my choice for Homer’s epics. While I’m trying out Fagles’ Aeneid (having read his Iliad and Odyssey decades ago.) Of course, the sensible thing is to buy both.

Kahnemann’s Prospect Theory: a summary in one graphic

Human behaviour isn’t that hard to understand if you do the work. And my favourite theory of it involves Cognitive Biases: the core emotionally-led behaviours that drive the decisions we actually make, rather than the decisions that might be more rational.

Cognitive Biases are rooted in Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory, which was crucial to my MBA thesis some years back. (Nice of him to summarise his life’s work AFTER I’d ploughed through the academic literature.) Basically, it’s an add-on to Expected Utility Theory (where we take risks based on the outcome we expect) that draws in Cognitive Biases (the emotional factors that govern what we actually do.)

While the concepts aren’t hard, there are around a hundred Cognitive Biases recognised in human psychology, making it hard to summarise with any rigour. But there’s a great diagram in Thinking, Fast and Slow that brings its three key points together.

prospect-theory

First, note the y-axis, “Psychological value”. That takes account of the human factor Expected Utility doesn’t: £500 has different perceived value to a pauper and a millionaire, so setting this axis for your audience – the  “base rate” on which they make decisions – is key.

Second, note it’s S-shaped. If you’re winning, it takes a lot more wins to get the same flush of excitement you did on your first win. (Diminishing returns are what keep sensible adults at slot machines for hours at a time.) The perceived utility depends on how much utility you’ve got already.

Third, note it’s not symmetrical. This illustrates the biggest Cognitive Bias of all: Loss Aversion. (We tend to resist losing a lot more than we accept winning; it’s why investors ride their losing stocks down, while selling their winners while they’re still rising.) Loss Aversion is at the core of much human behaviour.

And that’s it. In tune with my theory that you only need one good book to understand 90% of any field, that’s all any marketer needs to know about Cognitive Biases and how useful they can be in understanding customers. If you’d like some of these principles applied to your own marketing, contact me.

A foray into fiction

00_2birds_100pxMy first bit of fiction, Two Birds, is now up at Amazon. It’s Kindle-only, but you don’t need a Kindle to read it – there are free reader apps for your phone, iThing, Mac or PC.

It’s a short novel featuring Gabe Rayner – the first business consultant action hero! If you’re minded to give Gabe a go, I’d be grateful for all comments, criticism, and (especially) reviews on my author’s page (I write under my pen name, Mark Charteris). Download the book from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. Thanks!

 

Enough of the dancing, already!

By creating a video of herself dancing around her office at 4am, this girl found a creative and innovative outlet for delivering her resignation letter.

NOT.

The video is overlong, moves too slow, and says nothing of significant importance worth the viewer’s time. But worst of all, it’s yet another example of the laziest trend in advertising: If in doubt, put some dancing in.

Dancing. From big-budget broadcast to web virals, it’s all many of today’s young creatives seem capable of. “Yeah, let’s put some dancing in this one too! We haven’t done dancing for about, oh, one, maybe even two campaigns!” Dear me, kids today. A true race to the bottom, without concern for the most important person of all – your audience. 

I would estimate the standard of creativity required to get a job in a decent ad agency these days is no more than a third of that required twenty years ago. Evidenced by the cooing of her video viewers about how “creative” this girl is.

Look, SHE JUST PLUGGED IN HER FUCKING IPOD AND JIGGED ABOUT FOR A FEW MINUTES. There is precisely ZERO creativity in this work. THIS. IS. NOT. CREATIVITY.

It’s not entirely their fault – agencies these days want content producers and graphics designers. People who execute with craft, but never develop the “ideas gene”. That set of skills that lets them examine a marketing strategy and crash concepts together until they snap into the perfect line and visual that deliver the perfect impression to your audience, rewarding consumers for their time.

The market for copywriters and art directors – people who combine their skills to deliver epic and original concepts – seems smaller these days. But this fucking asskissing cocksucking catch-all of JUST PUT SOME FUCKING DANCING IN AND CALL YOURSELF CREATIVE has got to stop. Kids, STOP. THE. MOTHERFUCKING. DANCING.

 

Simple solutions to complex problems: target the hardcore criminals

The USA’s “black budget” – the part of security spending outside scrutiny, including the NSA’s spy-on-everyone programmes – is now an incredible $59bn. All of it unaccountable with the figure rising each year. There’s a much better way to achieve national security – one that preserves civil liberties for the law-abiding while creating half a million jobs for no net increase in cost. The solution: focus on the actual criminal.

Let’s look at some UK figures first. In England & Wales, a hardcore of 5000 people commit around half of all crime. Raise the set to 100,000, and you’ve basically covered all crime except the odd parking ticket. Assuming the same dynamic applies to the USA, that’s 25,000 people on the Most Dangerous List and half a million on the Watch List.

(The USA locks up a lot of people for life who’d merely be cautioned in the UK, so the actual figures might be higher, but the principle holds.)

The simple solution to this complex problem: for $59bn you could pay over a million people a decent salary to watch one person each.

That’s it: all these new employees do is follow one specific lawbreaker around, day in day out, reporting on what they do and who they’re doing it with. Infringement of civil liberties? These people are known criminals; they’ve already demonstrated their lack of interest in civil society. And the upside – no need to listen in to everyone in the world’s emails and calls – is a far greater prize.

Imagine: the ancient legal principles dating back to the Magna Carta – the right to be free of unreasonable search or seizure, to not be detained without reasonable suspicion – actually coming back into force, regaining the rights we’ve all lost since 9/11.  Big win for the honest citizen.

The cost structure is appealing, too. Many of those 0.5m offenders will be low-risk and nonviolent. (There are plenty of people in jail across the USA because they got caught with a joint at 18 or slept with a girlfriend aged 17.) So watching them like a hawk wouldn’t even be a full-time posting: the odd phone call and app check-in would suffice.

This means the hardcore ones could then be assigned up to a dozen Watchers each: experienced professionals whose sole job it is to stick closer to the offender than their own shadow. There’s an excellent career path for a young Watcher. In your first years on the job, you get Mildred Who Once Took a Bong Hit Near a Window. With a bit of seniority, you get assigned to Fred Who Repeatedly Drives Uninsured. Five years in, you’re into Boris the Bag Snatcher and Mohammed The Hate Preacher. Stay in the job long enough, you might even get the worst of the worst, a tax-and-spend socialist or something. (OK, but you get my point.)

That’s my simple solution: target the people who actually do crime. Civil liberties get respected once again: the lawbreakers earn credits based on how long they’ve stayed on the straight and narrow, giving both watched and Watcher aligned incentives. The jail population shrinks by two-thirds overnight; over a million people return to society within strict limits. It also erases the artificial distinction between criminal and civil law – which in the USA and UK doesn’t really exist in practice anyway, with 1% of the population in jail and white-collar crimes being charged under Terrorism legislation.

We don’t need a secret security apparatus watching our every move, where everyone is a suspect and your thoughts are used against you. We just need to do the sane thing – watch the criminals.