Write Better Content

Yesterday, I attended WordCamp Israel, 2014, a day of learning and discussions for WordPress users. As a long time WordPress blogger, and a former Hollywood script analyst, I thought it would be interesting to talk about something less technical than widgets, coding, or meta tags but to really delve into why story is so important and how an appreciation of it can make your content better, no matter why you are blogging:


I started off with a sad but very illuminating story. About four years ago, my best friend lay in her bed, dying. It was breast cancer. I had just returned from Israel. Julie – she said weakly – tell me about your trip. I thought it was horrible to talk about a vacation while someone was dying!

Please, Lynn said. She was not able to even open her eyes.

I told her about the Red Sea and how warm it was. I told her you could see the hills of the Saudi Kingdom from there. I described the hot, greasy schwarma and the tender, crumbling falafel.

I felt like Sherhezade – I had to keep talking.

I described Petra and the silence in the desert. And the way the old city in Jerusalem smells a little like smoke and oil and flowers.

One tear rolled down Lynn’s cheek. It’s so ancient, she said. That was the last thing she ever said to me and that was the moment in my life when I realized how important – how truly important story telling is.

Because it transports us. Even on our death beds.


Stories only happen to those who can tell them.

~ Paul Auster


Here is a truth: Good stories – good writing – good content – is immersive, compelling and entertaining. Every time. 

You already know this. Because this recognition and ability is hard-wired within you. Believe it. But many of us do not ourselves consume enough good content online (we skim, more on that later) or we assume that it’s easy to write good content and we may not try all that hard.  quote

I learned valuable lessons about mediocrity in my ten years in Hollywood – in an environment of extremely high stakes, where NO NOT GOOD ENOUGH is a daily mantra, I learned that NO is an invitation to better and that mediocrity will never, ever make you stand out from the crowd.

I learned that asking more and MORE of your story, of your idea or concept was a way to sharpen your skills:

 NO. Not good enough. What else happens? Why is this unique?

In Hollywood this might seem like a jaded attitude but really it’s just a reaction to too much material and too little time. And so often, unfortunately, what we think is unique and interesting – just isn’t. It’s a rough environment.

Writing online is a different environment and yet asks the same of a writer – why is this different – because today we are inundated with content and information masquerading as content.

There is an ocean of information online and its easy to get lost in the crowd. How is your blog better? 

Whether you blog for personal reasons or to sell a product or service, your content is just one more piece of information floating around.  Usually when we think of improving readership, we think of SEO, hashtags, sharing on multiple social media outlets efficiently. And this is true. It is important.

But content is king.

Here’s the thing: you don’t need to have a doctorate in English (or any other) Literature to get some fundamental truths of story. You just have to know how important good content is.

Remember – story telling is innate within us. The ancients knew how to tell stories and there’s never really been any improvement on the basic construct, whether in writing or in the oral tradition: odyssey

Beginning

Middle

End

Or – as I say – Beginning, middle, BLOODY POINT ALREADY!

We are accustomed to digesting stories in three acts – the set up, the complication and the resolution.

Today I went to the store. They were out of tahini. I found the tahini.

In and of itself – this three-part story is not entertaining. Stories have many moving parts. By changing one element we have a much more interesting story – one that begs for our attention:

Today I went to the store. They were out of bullets. I found the bullets.

Now you have my attention. You have aroused my curiosity. The fun thing about story telling is that it has so many moving parts. What point of view should you be writing in? First person? Third? What is the main point of your story? Where is this happening, what makes this unique? You have a world at your fingertips. Practice your “blogging voice” or persona until you get it right.

Imagine yourself at a dinner party. Hey everybody! You say. Hey! You’ll never believe what happened! And you get all eyes on you and you get this immediate reaction to your story. And by dint of the fact that you started telling a story, we know you want to entertain us.  Yes, some people are better story tellers than others but it’s both because they do it a lot and because they enjoy the feeling of entertaining others. There is a high and an immediate feedback.

However, when you blog, you write into the ether. You are greeted by silence. Which for many, is a relief. Many writers are shy. But – how do you know if your blog was successful? By the number of comments and shares? Yes, in part. By the number of followers and those who discuss the article? Definitely.  But there are some caveats. What makes readers share, comment on or otherwise interact with your blog?

There are a few things you should take into consideration. Chief among them is the fact that definitely attention spans are shorter. The internet has given everybody in the world a voice and there is a huge amount of content online. Ergo, writing not just good but great content is more important than ever.

Most people skim content. In the New York Times there is a great article by Karl Greenfeld, about Faking Cultural Literacy – which points to our modern tendency to glean as much information as possible as quickly and easily as possible. Further, we live in an age of “listicles” – Top ten ways to lose weight before summer! Top three things you need to know about sex!

So where does good story telling fit into the modern reading habits and attention span of those who would build our readership? How can bloggers adapt? 

Be PROVOCATIVE, speak TRUTH and be RELEVANT.

In other words:

Get my attention

Tell me the authentic truth

Make it matter in my life

Here are a few ways you can study up on better content writing:

Keep a diary of what content you read and why.

What do you notice about why you clicked on or read what you read? What grabbed you? Was it relevant to you in your life? Was it written with honesty and authenticity? Was it provocative and interesting – in either the title, the piece itself or ideally both? Did what you read leave you with something you didn’t know? Did it make you want to take action – even if that just means following the RSS feed?

Learn about great content by reading it. 

Curate your Facebook Feed. Follow those publications and writers that consistently write what grabs you. Read great content and study what makes it great.

Establish a clear vision for your blog.

Why do you blog? Whether for pleasure or for business you should be able to define and describe your blog in what amounts to a tagline: Great activities for eco-hikers! Or whatever that description needs to be. When you are clear about your blog, your blog will be clearer. What, exactly, can I expect from your blog in general? And how is it different from other content?

The worst sin you can commit as a writer is to be dull and obvious. Avoid this at all costs. Don’t give me anther stupid listicle of the top three ways I can polish my cutlery. And if you do write for a cutlery business, or a medical supplier? You can still try to find a way in to that blog post that is authentic, truthful, entertaining and relevant. You can find a way.

Remember:

Beginning. Middle. Blood Point Already.

Get my attention

Give me some truths; make me laugh or think or disagree with you.

Leave me with something that means something in MY life.

Now go out and blog and do it well! If you need some private lessons to improve your writing, please drop me a line. I am glad to help. If you fancy a social situation and live in Israel, come join the Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon and get those creative juices flowing.

 

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Housekeeping Weekend

Many of us in Israel take Shabbat off as a day to reset and rest. But do you ever take a day to reset, rest and do some online housekeeping? house

This article from Slate about how to clean up your Facebook feed is a quick read and it’s a fantastic idea.

If you use social media for work as well as personal uses, it makes sense to have a look at your “friends” and lists and do some tidying up. Your feed will be more informational and entertaining, you can post and share more easily and in a more targeted way and you’ll feel awesome because you did something you’ve wanted to do a million times but just didn’t take the time. Sit down for an hour, maybe two, and sort out your social media. social

Making the time to keep your online life in order is a key ingredient to being more efficient and less stressed as you work. There’s nothing good or cool about being a chaotic, stressed out mess. Get your sleep. Take a walk. Keep your life organized.

You’ll thank me later 🙂

Your Meeting Isn’t About YOU

“If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen.”

~ John Steinbeck

This great American author was talking about literature in this quote but really, this quote applies to just about all conversation. We pay special attention when what we are hearing concerns US in some way, right? bored

Have you ever endured having someone talk AT you rather than WITH you?

It’s exhausting. I hold that two of the most terrifying words in the world are:

…and THEN…

Oh no, you think to yourself… there’s more… does this person not get that they lost my attention?

Your pitch meeting is not all about YOU. It is about the person listening too, isn’t it? It’s about getting them as excited as you are about your story – be it a new horror script you’ve written or a new smart phone application you’ve invented. This is ultimately a sales meeting, no?

A pitch – or any meeting, really – is not a one-way street.

Your pitch is really a conversation between you and someone else. Yes, a conversation in which you are giving information but you are indeed speaking to another human being, so act like it. No taking a big breath and just speed talking your way through your presentation. Slow down.

There are two important things to think about:

Learn to speak in a way that never allows the listener to wander out of the conversation and keep pretending to hear anyway.

Learn how to recognize when you’ve lost someone’s attention and how to bring the person BACK to the present moment.

The best way to really illustrate this point, I think, is to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who is listening to a pitch or presentation that isn’t executed all that well. How does it feel to be bombarded with information, to be talked AT and not to? Of course you tune out a little bit. And think about this: if you are taking a meeting with someone pitching or presenting, this is probably something you do a lot. So it can get old.

There is a paradox if you are a listener in these situations. First, you get jaded, you hear “great” stories and ideas and pitches all the time. But usually they aren’t that great.

But – here comes the paradox – you also don’t want to be the person who said “no” to something that turned out to be great, now do you? That’s a straight path to losing your job. So you’re torn. You want to love this idea but you get meeting fatigue. And most people pitching do a pretty terrible job, whether their idea is great or not.

But you, the person pitching – this is a big chance, right?! It’s huge! It could launch your company, make your innovation come to life, start a writing career! So your job is to not only pitch what you’re pitching well – but to do so in a way that is memorable and engaging for the listener.listening

 

 

Tony Robbins on the Defining Factor in Your Success

This Ted talk is fantastic and I guarantee you will feel 200% more inspired after you watch it. Performance, change, and the way emotions impact your business life. Decision is the ultimate power. The defining factor is resourcefulness, something Israelis know a little something about.

דיבורים טד זה פנטסטי ואני מבטיח לך להרגיש 200% יותר השראה אחרי שאתה צופה בו. רגשות ביצועים, שינוי, ואת הדרך שישפיעו על החיים של העסק שלך. החלטה היא הכוח האולטימטיבי.הגורם המגדיר הוא תושייה, ישראלים משהו יודעים משהו קטן עליו.

Another Israeli Innovation: SMS as shopping list

lightbulb
Gil Avrahami was at the shopping mall, looking for a gift for his mother’s birthday. Entrusted with making sure he got the right gift, he was texting back and forth with is sister constantly. This one? This purse? That perfume? These shoes? What do you think?

You can imagine it’s already tough to get an Israeli – or ANY – man into a mall, much less be texting every few minutes about what color purse or type of perfume mom would like more.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

Then it came to Gil – wait – what if he could text several pictures and choices at once, and he and his sister could save a ton of time and just choose the right item, with the right price and be done with it?

Two years later, Gil is the co-founder and co-creator of Buzzzter, an sms application that raises the bar on Whatsapp, because it lets users post polls, pictures and lists in a single text. Planning a party? Easy. Need to figure out the right gift? Having trouble deciding which apartment is the better one? Enter – Buzzzter.

But it gets better – Gil had a surprise coming – the app, as it turns out, is wildly successful among retailers with inventory needs. buzzzter

A moment of frustration brought about a moment of inspiration and after a lot of hard work, challenges and commitment, Gil and his partner Shahar Zer unveiled Buzzzter. Who knows, maybe a billion dollar buy out is in their future too!

Closing the Gap in Israeli/American Business Meetings

If you’ve traveled at all, even a little, you know that people are different in different parts of the world. As an American living abroad, I have never felt more keenly aware of my Americanness.

Here’s the thing about Americans: we really, really, really like and enjoy being friendly and polite and casual. We like it. It’s important to us. We like to exchange pleasantries and make small talk. We take our time to get to the point. We think as we talk, we are sizing you up even during the small talk. We like to think on our feet as the situation evolves.

Here’s the thing about Israelis: we really, really, really like to get to the point and quickly. We don’t have a lot of time or patience to waste time. We can be friendly and make small talk after the business is done. To an Israeli, small talk about family, etc., means an actual connection is already there. Because some kind of a transaction happened first. Now we can be friends. But business first.

There is a saying about Israelis – they will run you over with their car, then back up and take you to the hospital. There is another saying about Israelis – once an Israeli is your friend? You have a friend for LIFE.

Americans, just like our sprawling landscape, are a bit more nomadic socially. Connections made can and do fade over time. Friends can sometimes come and go.

Both approaches can be explained by history, geography, social norms, etc. but the bottom line is that neither approach is right or wrong – but they can be misconstrued.

In Israel, I often hear Israelis say that they think Americans are “fake” or “hypocritical”. And I often hear Americans say that Israelis are “rude” or “pushy”.

Americans value casual friendliness and Israelis value directness. Even a moment to think about the vast geography and easier, less threatened life in America shows one how Americans come by their casual manner. A quick look at the geography, history and political issues in Israel shows one how getting things done quickly and efficiently FIRST serves Israelis better. You don’t have to be Margaret Meade to see how each culture is different.

But when you put an American and an Israeli together – especially in business – sparks can fly. And yet of course there are strong business connections between the US and Israel and both parties admire one another greatly.

If you are an Israeli and you are in a business situation with an American, you have to remember to slow down and let the small talk happen. We Americans really like those pleasantries. It’s what we do. We will also be very friendly and warm about your idea – even if we aren’t going to act on it. Because we really value being friendly and warm no matter what.

If you are an American in a business meeting with an Israeli, you may find yourself feeling a bit like the picture below – whoa – blown away. Because Israelis really value efficiency and directness. Which can make an American feel a bit uncomfortable. maxell

So how do you read each other in these situations? Both Americans and Israelis would do well to take one step toward one another and know ahead of time the different values. Israelis see friendly small talk as a genuine, if not intimate expression of real friendship. Americans see this as standard behavior but not an indication of any kind of commitment.

As an American-Israeli, I can see how American friendliness might be construed as insincerity – but it’s not. It’s something we like to do and we are being authentic. And I can see how Israeli directness can be seen as pushy and rude – but it’s not, it’s efficient and focused. Cultural relativism, friends, it’s important.

So – if you are in an Israeli in a business meeting with an American, trying very hard to read the American through the friendliness – how do you know whether they are in fact serious about you and your business? flag confused

You know they are serious when the friendliness falls away a little bit and becomes more direct, and when they actually take an action step right in the moment. When they set up another meeting, make a phone call or otherwise take and share information. The handshake and back clapping that comes with many of these meetings is no indication of seriousness but rather of business brotherliness.

Beyond that – how do you really know whether an excited, American, friendly, yes yes yes! is going to actually result in business? You don’t. Not until you on the receiving end of a solid action step in very short order – the next couple of days.

Don’t mistake, resent or misconstrue American friendliness. Take it at face value, enjoy it, be friendly back! But do not confuse this with serious business interest until or unless you have an actual move that backs that up.

When you leave the meeting with the American business person, go out with a big smile and the confidence you came in with and also let them know that you have several other meetings you are taking – because you do – and that you are continuing on with those meetings as scheduled. If this particular business person is seriously interested, he or she will jump to get to your first. It’s called applying a little bit of pressure – a standard business move. But the thing is, you ARE being perfectly sincere. You do have other meetings lined up.

So let’s recap:

ONE

Be your proud Israeli self, the person you are taking a meeting with knows you are Israeli, just slow down a bit and allow for more small talk than you normally would in Israel. Relax. This is one of many meetings. Believe me, what you have to offer is very valuable and Americans are aware of and interested in your Israeli efficiency and candor.

TWO

Reading social signals like smiling, small talk and a casual dress and manner is easy: take it only at face value.  Americans like to be friendly. It’s the way we are. In a way, and this sounds counter-intuitive – it’s not personal. (And ditto for you American business people; the Israeli directness – it’s not personal.)

THREE

None of this meeting meant anything at all unless you actually receive a phone call, email or some kind of follow up with concrete action steps outlined. Don’t be offended, it’s just business. A small bite on the fishing line doesn’t mean anything until you reel the fish in. Each meeting is a chance for you to sharpen your American social skills. It’s like falling in love – you’ll know it when it’s the real thing.

 

 

 

 

What Can Start Up Nation Teach Hollywood?

I have compared writers and creatives to entrepreneurs. We are visionaries, we are rebels, we want to see our ideas WORK.  We work in a sometimes seemingly hostile, risk averse environment and we have to be business savvy and yet also preserve that part of us that creates, whether we are creating stories or apps or new technology. persondesert

But our creation won’t see the light of day unless we get the money, the producers, the investors to make it real. And these are business people who are afraid of risks. So how do you create in that environment? How do you continue to not only feel hopeful and inspired but to surmount obstacles to your creativity like competition, scarce funds and constantly hearing the word “no” or “maybe”?

First of all the scarcity thing just isn’t true. There is more demand than ever for content, entertainment and for technology. We are living in a golden age for creatives. Even if it doesn’t seem like it sometimes.

I have written a lot about staying inspired about creating for the sheer pleasure of it. And I still absolutely stand by this line of thinking. If you aren’t having fun with your writing or your visionary idea, then something elemental and important is missing.

But how DO you navigate the inevitable disappointments and minefields of being a creative in a very competitive environment? Does Start Up Nation have anything to teach writers and creatives across the pond?

If you haven’t read Start Up Nation, you should. It the story of the “economic miracle” of Israel. A country surrounded by enemies, with no natural resources, but with more start ups per capita than much larger, more peaceful nations. How do we do it?

Start Up Nation

Start Up Nation

When the going gets tough – and it’s always tough – Israelis don’t take no for an answer. They just find another way.

Don’t take no for an answer. Your script didn’t take off? How’s your novel going? Stuck on that for awhile? How about that great blog you started last year, how’s the readership on that? Have you pitched an essay to an online publication you admire?

There are many trails up the mountain, but in time, they all reach the top.

~ Anya Seyton

Perhaps instead of waiting for the Hollywood system, which is risk averse and mysteriously, seemingly rigged, you make your own system and make an indie film or publish your own book or start your own blog.  Perhaps your amazing app, which didn’t take off so well, is actually going to take off hugely in another niche. It happens. 

Let “no” invigorate you. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you are creating and telling stories and adding to the human narrative with your vision – there IS someone who wants what you’ve got.

Writers and entrepreneurs have a lot to teach each other – a sort of symbiosis soup of creativity, flexibility and persistence. But Start Up Nation can teach writers something even more – don’t wait for conditions to be just right – MAKE the right conditions.

Do you need help with your script, novel or business presentation? In Israel, call Julie Gray at 052-748-0934 or click here to see my full site.