Doug Stern's blog about business writing and marketing strategy

Want to know a person, place or thing? Go and see.

June 21, 2014 By: Doug Stern Category: Communication, Customer satisfaction, Digital vs. analog, Technology

Thomas Jefferson used his hand telescope to monitor his world on and around his rural home, Monticello. This included construction progress at the University of Virginia, a couple of miles to the west. He used it the same way we use Web cams and other digital technology in lieu of genchi genbutsu -- the go and see tenet of Deming-esque management.

Sometimes, as the saying goes, seeing is believing.  And, so are touching, smelling, hearing and tasting.

You and I take in things differently when we use our senses.  Things we might not otherwise take in when we filter and become indirect.  When we’re first-hand, we’re more liable to pick up on the subtle, the nuanced, the energetic and so on.

The Japanese and others inspired by W. Edwards Deming call this genchi genbutsu.  Or, to go and see the source, to the place where value is added.

Case in point

I was reminded of this the other day when I saw a picture of Thomas Jefferson’s spyglass.

Mr. Jefferson was a technophile.  He loved gadgets.  His homestead is full of devices (many of his own invention) to make farming, writing, music, architecture, sitting, sleeping, cooking, dining and a bunch of other interests of his easier, more sharable and, well, better.

Despite his love for the high tech, TJ knew that there was no substitute for first-hand observation.  Provided he had the time, for example, he would make the journey to the University of Virginia under construction on the other side of Charlottesville, a couple of miles to his west.  He knew the importance, as Deming would later teach us, of gemba.

Life, however, didn’t always allow him to go and see for himself.  That’s when The Sage walked outside to where he could get a clear view to the west, put his spyglass to his eye and took a look.

True, if Jefferson had had satellite and computer and digital technology available to him, I’m sure he would have set up a Web cam or IM’ed the construction foreman.  It would be better than nothing.

Yet, if filtered technology were the only way he experienced the construction of the Rotunda and its surroundings, imagine how different it would be today.  I don’t believe he would have been pleased.  Neither would we.


So, get up.  Go see a client, where they work.  Take only a pen and paper (if that) with you.  Ask questions.  Listen carefully.  Afterward, write and send your client a personal note, on paper in your own hand.

Repeat often.

Tell me if you notice anything different.


Fahklumpt, famisched and farblondzhet

January 25, 2014 By: Doug Stern Category: Writing

I wrote this in December 2009 as a Facebook Note. Not exactly a business content topic. However, my young friend, Nick Clark, slipped on the ice the other day and reckoned it was some sort of portend. Just wait, Nick.

So, I went to a meeting this morning. A marketing meeting with some folks with whom I do business. Some from Indianapolis, most from Louisville.

Anyway, I show up downtown at 11 o’clock and quickly realize I can’t find Room 910. (“WTF, who forgot to put the numbers on the door!?!”) I call one of my people to ask for help.

“Oh, Doug, I’m so sorry. The meeting is NEXT Friday.”


“Well, not the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. While I got you on the phone and I’m here, tell me where’s the room. It skips from 909 to 911!”

“I’m not sure myself. The e-mail said to use the elevators off Muhammad Ali, not 4th Street. Maybe that helps.”

At that point, I’m firing on most cylinders and realize that I’m two blocks away on Broadway on the ninth floor of the wrong building.

That’s right. Wrong day. Wrong building.

At least I didn’t go to Indianapolis.


PS: Most men reach an age when they say, “I’ve become my father!” Today, I became my grandfather.


Being Right v. Being Happy — Part 2

December 21, 2013 By: Doug Stern Category: Communication, Customer satisfaction, Editing, Legal marketing, Marketing/biz dev, Writing

A lot of today's marketing content goes by the book...whether it makes sense or not. A recent damage-control message to Target's defrauded customers, for example, looks as though it was written by the company's lawyers. Nearly 1800 words of solid text, the e-mail blast illustrates the central thesis of Philip Howard's 1995 classic, The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America. Contrast it with the much shorter, more engaging follow-up message from the company.

This could be sub-titled, The Tale of Two E-mails.  Both messages were sent by Target to the 40 million customers who recently had their credit or debit cards hacked.

The first e-mail looks like it was written by Target’s legal department.  It’s one pretty much continuous block of text — 1785 words long — and covers all of the bases.

I can pretty much guarantee that virtually everyone who received it didn’t read it.  We probably didn’t even get through the 120 words that the average person reads on-line before they click somewhere else.  In fact,  most of us saw that big, long block of copy, thought This looks difficult, and hit Delete.

A couple days later, a second message from Target showed up in my Inbox. This one — 312 words long — was probably written by the marketing people.  Not only was it 82 percent shorter than the one from the lawyers, it broke up the text and engaged us by saying, We want you to know a few important things…followed by six bullet key points. Message #2 even appears to have come from a real person — Target’s CEO Gregg Steinhafel — complete with signature.

I’m not picking on Target’s general counsel or stockholders or anyone else who wants to manage the company’s exposure.  They’re hardly the exception, because the kind of writing in the first message is the norm.

Target Message #1 is what a lot of marketing copy looks like nowadays.  It tries to be everything to everyone (i.e., Right) and, in the process, is doomed to fall short.


Being Right v. Being Happy — Part 1

December 20, 2013 By: Doug Stern Category: Communication, Editing, Writing

Of all the stand-up comics I've known, one of THE most creative is Nicky Shane. Catch him if you're in Louisville, Ky., on the evening of Jan. 23, 2014. He'll be at the historic Clifton Center that night with "The Buzzard," filming his show for later broadcast.

Part of my job is to make what I write or edit more engaging to the reader.  This stands to reason, since it won’t matter how brilliant the message is if my content doesn’t grab and hold the reader’s attention.

Toward that end, I might lean into a style that’s less formal and more relaxed.  Not dumbed down.  Just more conversational.  Sometimes.

Which is why I admire inventiveness and word power when I see or hear it.  Stand-up comedians are off the charts for both.

There are lots of examples, but I’m thinking right now about Chris Rock.  Maybe you were watching HBO back in 2004 when he riffed on Roy Horn (of Siegfried & Roy), who had had a widely reported run-in with a circus tiger.   Catch the bit on YouTube, where Rock says,

…everybody’s mad at the tiger.  Talking about the tiger went crazy.  That tiger ain’t go crazy; that tiger went tiger!

You and I know exactly what Chris Rock meant.  Immediately.  And memorably.

Consider, alternately, the impact of That tiger did not go crazy; that tiger was merely acting according to its natural instincts.

Yeah, I realize that my readers are rarely sitting in a comedy club when they’re plowing through an attorney’s bio I wrote or edited for a client.  Neither are my readers as rigid, linear and compulsive as the standard marketing content suggests they are.

So, be mindful of what your reader needs and wants in order to be engaged.  And, if producing that means being “wrong,” then so be it.


Making the Elevator Speech Work

November 22, 2013 By: Doug Stern Category: Communication, Editing, Marketing/biz dev, Writing

Elevator speeches are the result of at least a couple of innate human urges. First, people have always been curious about one another. ("Are you friend or foe?!") The other is that we want to be seen ourselves. (Ego, duh.)

Scroll to the bottom of Mike O’Horo’s short, brilliant post about elevator speeches.  That’s where you’ll find Mike’s suggestion for how best to respond to the What do you do? question.

He says that when you’re looking for a way to get a conversation going, look for the So What.  Look for the personal problem you solve by doing what you, the problem that “…drives demand for your service among a specific segment of the market….”

Elsewhere, Mike calls this your DemandTrigger.

For example, I’m a writer. So what I do is write.

My elevator speech, therefore, might be “I’m a writer.”

When I say this, I’ve noticed that a lot of people tell me something about their own experience with writing.  Such as, “I hate writing,” or “I love writing,” or “I wish I had time to write” or “My sister is a writer” and so on.

In other words, they make it about themselves.  They personalize.  Of course.

So, I beat them to the punch.  When I use my DemandTrigger filter and make my elevator speech about the other person’s needs, it becomes, “I’m a time management resource.  I help busy people get writing projects off their to-do list.”

Well, I’ve reached my floor.


Creating Content With Your Client in Mind

November 11, 2013 By: Doug Stern Category: Communication, Customer satisfaction, Editing, Legal marketing, Writing

Few of us in law firm marketing want to touch them. The long lists of long descriptions of the services we offer. Because of their sheer number and length, we rarely touch them -- from our old sites to our new sites or anywhere else for that matter. Would it make more sense to offer our visitors content that they'll read -- maybe even eagerly -- that relates in interesting and engaging ways to what we do as lawyers and law firms?

Robert Algeri is trying on a great new idea.  He’s making the rounds in the law firm marketing sector suggesting a more engaging, manageable and client-oriented way to present services and industry content.

He’s suggesting that law firm marketers deploy long-form content from their firms — on-line and elsewhere — organized according to a highly strategic handful of emerging issues.  That we shift our focus, energies and resources away from the typically long lists of long descriptions of what we do, written with apparently little regard for how our sites’ visitors think or what they want.

One of Robert’s stops was last month in Boston.  He and I talked with members of the New England chapter of the Legal Marketing Association about creating content marketing that works.

He began by describing the obvious.  Robert reminded us that giving users 40 to 70 pages of practice group or industry service descriptions is unlikely to work the way it’s intended.  To put it mildly.

First, it’s unlikely that you’ll get anyone (maybe even me!) to create 40 to 70 pages, as Robert likes to put it, of “amazing content.”  The kind that will engage and hold a visitor’s attention.

Next, think about the logistical wringer through which we put ourselves when we embark on this path.  Think of the approval process and the involvement of practice group members and the tight rope we walk when we try to be so many things to so many people.

Then think about your visitors.  Your typically lazy, selfish and ruthless visitors, to paraphrase Jakob Nielsen.  The ones who see a long, long, long list of links to a bunch of legal practice areas that mean little to nothing to them.  The ones who very most likely take a pass on the whole thing rather than take the time to find their needle in your haystack.  (It’s called Cognitive Impenetrability.)

Instead, Robert proposes that we limit ourselves to a small number of topics (say, six) that are engaging by default.  He calls them emerging issues and defines them as…

  1. New
  2. Exciting
  3. Poorly understood

Think, for example, about surveillance and privacy rights.  Or, what can be done to fix/improve our schools.  You get the idea.

I’ll add a fourth filter.  Your emerging issues are strategic topics that capture what your lawyers and firms do.  Emerging issues that relate to at least some of the transactional or litigation-related services you offer.

Mind you, your emerging issues aren’t intended to showcase your bench or experience.  They’re meant to be read and to brand you as a leader.  As a bunch of smart, engaged people who are paying attention the world around them.

One more thing.  Adding an emerging issues tab on your site isn’t an either/or thing.  Consider adding one or two of three or more emerging issue pages over time as a way to get your toe wet and begin to transition your resources away from your lists of service and industry descriptions.

Check your web stats.  Your visitors already tend to ignore them.


If you can talk, you can write

October 18, 2013 By: Doug Stern Category: Editing, Writing

A great way to write readable copy is to read it out loud (or even dictate it). Here's a table read for the cast and writers from "Badlands," listening for whatever doesn't sound natural, so that it can get fixed.

I was with a friend yesterday after my presentation to the New England chapter of the Legal Marketing Association.

She wanted to talk about blogging.  More specifically, about the trouble she had making words happen — at least on paper.

As she talked, I asked her if she had any topics in mind for her first post.  I listened and asked a few more clarifying questions.

As we chatted, she pretty much “wrote” three or four really solid sentences that related to her topic.  Just by talking to me.  They were coherent and, more important, they sounded natural.

I told her that she had already done the two hardest parts of the writing process for me. She had:

  1. Picked a topic that interested her.  (Or, did it pick her?)
  2. Pulled the first pickle out of the jar.  My experience is that after I get going, the rest of the sentences come more easily.

As we kept talking, I kept listening.  Before long, I heard three or four more topics for possible posts.

When I told her, she thanked me and said that I made a lot of sense.  And, she said that I given her a shot of confidence.

The ear doesn’t lie.


Overheard Tonight

September 18, 2013 By: Doug Stern Category: Writing

Men’s locker room after swim practice.

Three 7 and 8-year-old boys, all members of the
Lakeside SeaHawks, including my son, Henry.

Boy #1

How come we’re the only ones taking showers?

Boy #2

My father makes me take a shower.

Boy #3

Taking showers is manly.

I love being a father.


All Things Being Equal

September 11, 2013 By: Doug Stern Category: Communication, Customer satisfaction, Writing

Most General Counsel say they want lawyers who a) solve their problems, b) make their lives easier and c) are nice to work with. Having an outside interest and sharing it speaks to this third need. It also sets you apart from all of the other beautiful flowers who assert the same things about their impeccable credentials and heartfelt intentions.

I’m convinced we all hire (and fire) because of attitude.   (Or, we at least want to.)  Southwest Airlines is a legend for doing this.

Not a bad model.

It’s a practice that one of my favorite local restaurants follows.   And, it offers a lesson for other businesses — including lawyers and law firms — on how to get and keep happy or happier customers.

Anyway, one of this restaurant’s senior managers is a buddy of mine, and we got to talking the other day about hobbies.  (He’s an avocational geologist and damn good cyclist.  I swim, read a lot, work crossword puzzles and do other nerdy things in my spare time.)

He told me that in the course of conducting thousands of interviews over 20-plus years, he has learned to ask candidates about their hobbies.  Without exception, he explained, people with hobbies make better employees.

Whether they’re front of the house or in the back, dishwasher or CIA-level chef, the ones with interests other than work are more creative, dependable, happier and easier to get along with.  And it doesn’t matter whether the person collects stamps, lifts weights or just loves to cook.

When I asked him about this correlation, he guessed that it had to do with their lifeview.  Having a hobby is a symptom of something positive.  These people weren’t the ones who merely punched a clock and went home.  They care about themselves, what they did for a living and for whom.

I  sometimes get a great big So What? when I’m working with lawyers on their bios and ask about hobbies.  They say that what they do outside of work isn’t interesting or relevant.  One client called it frivolous.  Others say they’re afraid to say that they’re Yankees fans for fear of alienating Red Sox fans.

Maybe.  I’m sure there are clients out there who have a narrow view of what they want out of their lawyer, their waitress or their life.

All things being equal, I’d rather work for someone who wants more.


“I would hope I had improved.”

September 02, 2013 By: Doug Stern Category: Writing

Blackacre is a late-18th-century farm about 15 miles east of Louisville. It was given by Emilie and Macauley Smith to the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission in the 1970s and has been operated since then as an environmental education resource under an agreement with the Jefferson County Public Schools.

On many mornings, I’d walk around the farm with Judge Smith and his beagles. He called me his mole, and we would talk about what was going on in the county courthouse that might have a bearing on Blackacre and its well-being.

He and I would end up in the old farm kitchen, joining David Wicks and Mrs. Smith around the ancient hearth. We’d all drink coffee, and I’d listen to the latest farm news. It was sublime.

Anyway, I was having lunch with my father a few years ago, when Mrs. Smith walked into the restaurant.
While Emilie Smith was then well into her nineties, she was making her way just fine, with the aid of a couple of canes.
She settled in, and I went over to pay my regards.  I had met her when I moved back to Louisville in 1983 to run Jefferson County’s historic preservation and archives department.  Even though I left that job, I kept in touch with Mrs. Smith over the years along with her husband, Judge Macauley Smith, and their old farm, Blackacre.
I greeted Mrs. Smith, asking if she remembered me.

“Of course I do,” she said.

I told her, “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen you, but you look great.  You haven’t changed a bit.”

Without missing a beat, Mrs. Smith replied, “I would hope I had improved.”

Emilie Strong Smith passed away Friday, April 22, 2011, age 102.  I’ll remember her for her vision, generosity, wonderful poise and great way with words.