A million miles in 288 pages; how to get unstuck by living better stories

We hear so much about “storytelling” these days, especially in the context of PR, communications and branding.
In Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, the essence of “story” is central.
Miller is trying to get to a new place on a personal level, but he’s stuck. His breakthrough happens when he attends a famous 36-hour seminar called “Story,” taught by Robert McKee.
He learns that story “is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”
While living better stories is the essence of character transformation, the conflict part is key. Without FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt), memorable stories don’t unfold and personal progress is stymied.
For the first third of the read, it felt like a book about Miller’s personal journey. But then something happens, and it unexpectedly transforms into a story about me – my journey. I suspect the same thing may happen to you.
Instead of allowing life to unfold upon us in a haphazard way, Miller helps us discover (unassumingly and humorously, through the lens of his own experiences) how we can grab hold of our lives by shaping memorable scenes. These pivotal, scary, sometimes risky self-created life events blast us through personal roadblocks and psychologically get us to the new outcomes we desperately seek.
Miller learns that while planning is important, the magic isn’t in passively pondering – but in doing. “We have to show it,” Miller says. “A character is what he does.”
Miller discovered that once you experience a memorable scene, you get hooked and want more.
“You’ll get a taste for one story and then want another, and then another, and the stories will build until you’re living a kind of epic of risk and reward, and the whole thing will be molding you into the actual character whose roles you’ve been playing. And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time.”
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years invites us to live better stories. The cool part is we learn how to do it without the typical “10-step” sort of dogma. It’s a beguiling combination that nudges itself within your soul.
Thanks, Chris Brogan, for turning me onto it.

An old Day and a new way add up to a future for the trade and news media

The Day (www.theday.com) circa 1881The trade and news media need new business models to survive in the Internet age. I’m not just talking about online editions of print publications. The media has to completely remake itself. The profit motive can’t support it anymore. News and trade publishers need to be more like Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports.

But can alternative business models like Consumer Union’s work on a larger scale? Two precedents, one historical and one recent, say yes.  

Back in 1939, Theodore Bodenwein, owner of The Day in New London, Conn.,gave the newspaper to the community by forming a non-profit trust to operate it. The Day isn’t insulated from free market forces, but its ownership model gives it a stronger hand for adapting to Internet Age media dynamics than media outlets chained to the company stock price.

The Texas Tribune, launched last week, is the 21st century successor to The Day. It’s a wholly online, independent publication that covers the freak show of Texas state government in serious detail. Nothing too cutting edge there until you look at the Tribune’s business model. It’s funded by donations, sponsorships, and other non-advertising sources. Its mission is to provide a check on government power the mainstream media used to, but can’t anymore, as ad revenues evaporate. The Day and The Texas Tribune show what can happen when publishers (apologies to Apple) “think different.” Consumer Reports for high tech, or airlines, or the auto industry, or clean technology, anyone?  

How Marc Gunther found a sustainable voice

Marc Gunther - Facebook photoMarc Gunther is one of the most respected thinkers, writers and speakers on business, the environment and corporate social responsibility.

Last year, Ethisphere ranked him # 39 out of 100 “influentials” in business ethics, ahead of Jim Koch, T. Boone Pickens, James Goodnight and Paul Newman. It’s a well-earned reputation. 

In a wide-brush conversation, I asked him about his early influences, career highlights and how he became enamored with business ethics and sustainability. 

Gunther grew up in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. “I was a child of the Sixties. My parents weren’t that politically involved, but our Rabbi was part of the civil rights movement; he had marched with Martin Luther King. That inspired me.

“I was an idealist, growing up during one of the most interesting times in history with JFK, Martin Luther King, RFK. Incredible social progress was being made, from the civil rights movement to the women’s movement. Vietnam and Watergate were happening. This had a big impact on me.”

Gunther graduated from Yale in 1973 with an English degree, but couldn’t find a job in journalism. His first gig was with a clean air activist group funded by Ralph Nader. “I inspected boilers in New York City, making sure pollution controls were being met, working with City enforcement groups. It was literally a dirty job.”  

Then he cracked journalism.

Over the next two decades, he climbed the newspaper ladder, starting with the Paterson (N.J.) News, then The Hartford Courant, The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and Washington Bureau of Knight Ridder. He covered many topics, but wrote most often about TV, media, politics and business. Gunther also interpreted the Internet in the nineties, writing stories like "What is cyberspace?" and "What is e-mail?”

When Fortune magazine hired him in 1996, he wrote even more about business. “I was beginning to wonder what had happened to my idealistic values. I had gotten off track.”

Around the time Gunther turned 50, he wrote a cover story for Fortune called “God and Business.”

“I interviewed people at the intersection of religion and corporate America. People like Jim Collins of "Built to Last" talked about business and values. I spoke with a Notre Dame priest who also taught MBAs. These people got me thinking about business in a fresh way. They were treating people well and believed business can – and should be - a force for good, for positive social change.”

The story became a turning point for him professionally and personally.

“Until then, I had a cliché view of business. The tension that existed between business and values got me thinking in a fresh way. Suddenly, I was no longer interested in writing about media companies, the entertainment industry, American Idol.”

Gunther began writing with “a sense of purpose.”

He wrote a cover story about the greening of Walmart and one about Jeff Immelt’s efforts to reshape the values of General Electric. “Those were two very interesting reputational turnarounds.”

He wrote a cover piece about Hank Paulson, as well as spirituality in the workplace. He authored stories about the business of carbon finance, the rise of corporate social responsibility, the zero-waste movement, genetically-modified rice, environmental activism, corporate governance, AIDS and gay rights in corporate America.

Last December, Gunther (and about 100 others) was let go by Fortune. He calls this experience “a hugely valuable event,” because it connected him with even greater numbers of interesting people and opportunities. Gunther likens it to an economic model called creative disruption “where things are destroyed and then new things spring up.”

The social media revolution is serving him well. His popular blog is proliferating. Gunther is on Facebook, YouTube and he’s started Tweeting (@MarcGunther).

His blog is being syndicated by two of the most influential online environmental voices, GreenBiz.com and The Energy Collective.

Proving "creative disruption" brings good karma to good people, Gunther not only still writes for Fortune, he authored the current cover story “Warren Buffett takes charge” about the Chinese company BYD. 

Gunther smiles and in his self-effacing style says, "This could be a first - a laid off reporter writing a cover story for the publication that let him go, four months after it happened."


Pulitzer Prize plugs in

Pulitzer prize plugs in - Mike McGrailAs a journalist, you know you’ve arrived when the Pulitzer Committee comes knocking. Online journalism has arrived. The Pulitzer Committee is now accepting submissions from online-only publications, ending print’s decades-old monopoly on America’s most prestigious journalism award. Welcome to the big leagues, Salon.com, et al. This puts you on the same level as the New York Times and Washington Post.
But does that mean anything to readers? Awards are mainly an industry’s way of patting itself on the back. They often have little bearing on how well or poorly a publication serves its readers. Still, I’m going to say yes, the Pulitzer decision does make a difference for readers. It’s a sign that the center of gravity in the newspaper and magazine journalism is shifting to a more balanced spot between print and online. Print journalism, as I wrote in an earlier post, is coughing up blood like a gaffed marlin. Nevertheless, society needs the content that print journalism produces to keep business and government honest. The Pulitzer Committee’s decision means that the lords and ladies of the newsprint are thinking of the content first – not whether people read it on a screen or on a dead tree. Check in here to read Editor & Publisher’s coverage of the decision, and here for New York Times coverage.

The great newspaper massacre of 2008

The great newspaper massacre of 2008 Mike McGrailThe newspaper industry’s head is dead, but the body doesn’t know it yet. I’m not talking about the slow, steady decline in circulation and the march of newspaper closings that started in the 1960s. In just the last few months, that lingering disease morphed into a full-on chainsaw massacre, complete with updated versions of Leatherface and Chop Top.
Consider recent events. The Rag Blog reported that The New York Times has a $400 million loan payment due in May 2009, and currently has only $46 million cash on hand. The Christian Science Monitor revealed in October that it will close its 100-year-old print edition in 2009. Two weeks ago, the Boston Globe cut back to four sections to reduce print costs. In October, New Jersey’s largest newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger, announced that it’s laying off half its newsroom staff. The Los Angeles Times and San Jose Mercury News staffs are both half of what they were as recently as 18 months ago. Thirteen newspapers in Connecticut, including two medium-sized dailies, are heading for shutdown because the indebted owner can’t find buyers for them. By the end of this year, the nation’s largest newspaper company, Gannett, will have cut 20 percent of its staff.
Most people don’t care that newspapers are in their death spiral. Those who don’t read get their news from broadcast, cable and radio. Those who do read have gone online to Web sites and blogs. The future belongs to electronic news delivery.
Just one thing. Broadcast, cable, radio and online? They get most of their leads and raw information from newspapers and the Associated Press, which is a cooperative that gets most of its news from its member newspapers. You don’t have to be a biologist to see the impending food chain breakdown here. The newer news mediums need newspapers, as does American society at large. We might not need them in their current form, but we need what they do.
Newspapers are the foundation of an informed society – its first witness. Newspapers are low tech on the front end (reporters only need a notebook and a 39-cent felt tip to cover a story) so they can commit reporters to stories that other media can’t. Newspaper reporters can sit through four-hour zoning board meetings to make sure the local Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t expand its parking lot onto a wetland. They can dig through decades of court records to reveal sexual abuse by clergymen across the country. By comparison, video crews can’t be idle for that long, and bloggers are usually one-person shops who can only cover a limited amount of stories at once.
Newspaper reporting, for all its oft-mentioned flaws, is the photosynthesis of the news ecosystem; it feeds everything above it. Broadcast and cable follow up newspaper articles with their own reports, bringing the news to a broader audience. Bloggers comment and contribute their own knowledge, correcting and expanding on stories that they would probably have missed if they hadn’t read it in a newspaper. The news ecosystem will not collapse without newspapers, but there’s no way it will uncover important new stories at the pace it does now. That’s not good for society. Fear of exposure is a powerful motivator for governments, businesses and individual to mind their manners. Newspapers have historically done most of the watching and scolding.
So after economic and cultural factors – the aforementioned Leatherface and Chop Top – are done hacking away at the print newspaper corpus with their Black & Deckers, what will take the print newspaper’s place? I vote for the online newspaper. Yeah, I know that the online editions of most papers contribute little to the revenue stream – for now. But newspapers that take risks and work aggressively to use their brand equity and news gathering ability to attract readers and advertisers to the Web will come out of the other end of today’s chainsaw abattoir playing the same role in the news industry as their print forbearers.
There are signs of newspapers making this shift. The Madison, Wis. Capital News shut down its print edition in April to focus on its online operations. Now the Times breaks news through the day like a radio station, but with the depth and detail of print. Here in Portsmouth, our local daily gives readers more content by supplementing its articles with video clips and online photo galleries. This is the kind of thinking that will save newspapers. If readers follow the content, advertisers will follow the readers and newspapers will once again have a viable business model. Society, in turn, will keep its biggest, toughest watch dog on duty, which is good news for all of us.

Is the news release dead?

A lot of high-tech marketers I work with wonder if the news release is dead. I say no, it’s not even dying.
As David Meerman Scott says, more and more customers are finding you by Googling, so you need your name all over the Web. News releases are great way to spread the word. But try to…
  1. Be relevant. Directly address the problems your prospects are trying to solve and use their language. 
  1. Deliver value. If you make security software, deliver useful content on how companies can secure their data. “News” is more about thought leadership than ever. 
  1. Offer multimedia. Include images, at least, and podcasts and videos if you have them. 
  1. Webify. Hyperlink appropriately, include buttons for bookmarking sites (e.g., Digg and del.ici.ous). Format your release for the Web, put key search terms in the metadata, and enable prospects to subscribe to your releases via RSS. 
  1. Speak plainly. We all pay lip service to this concept, but BS abounds. And while the news release is healthier than ever, BS is indeed dead. The blogosphere is in many ways a massive reaction to it. When we cut the crap hyperbole, we cut through the clutter. 

 Have you modified your releases for the Web 2.0 era? What are your results?

Best news release lede ever

Though a bit dated, this news release from outdoor gear retailer Backcountry.com contains the best lede (lead) ever written in the high tech industry. Worth reviewing again, as we gear up for a new year of the same old stilted, formulaic news announcements.   

The undying love affair for 'leader' and 'first'

Scan the headlines on Business Wire and PR Newswire for a few weeks and you’ll see hundreds of news releases that feature the words “the leading,” “first,” and “leader.”
This alignment with leadership and first occurs every day of every week of every month of every year in our industry. This isn’t a surprise to technology communicators. Many executives still love the sound of these words:
·         Breakthrough
·         World class
·         State-of-the-art
·         Pioneering
·         Best-of-breed
·         Killer app
·         Special sauce
·         Bleeding edge & cutting edge
·         Next generation
·         Major advance
·         Unparalleled
“First” seems to have been trivialized. While I can understand why companies desperately need to make it absolutely clear how they – and no one else!! – came up with the idea, does being first really matter to customers? Doesn’t the right idea gain traction only when the time and product are right?
The Apple Newton was one of the first PDAs, yet the Palm Pilot won that battle. Apollo was first with workstations, but Sun became the leader. The Diamond Rio was years and years ahead of the iPod. The first mobile phone was invented in 1947 but didn’t start selling commercially until 1983. Digital Equipment Corporation was decades ahead with its 64-bit computing chip.
In an article entitled “The Perils of Being First,” Jeremy black of Sambazon Inc. told The Wall Street Journal “the first guy on the beach usually becomes shot.”   
The notion of “leadership” has become, arguably, somewhat trivialized too.
Leadership claims are particularly ill-advised when self-anointed. Saying a company is “the leader” doesn’t make it the leader. The claim is frivolous. No wonder tech companies clamor for inclusion in brilliant marketing concepts like the Gartner “Magic Quadrant.”
Leadership claims are challenging because they’re so transitory. Today’s gorilla can become tomorrow’s scurrying monkey. Industry examples abound. AOL was on top but big portals like Yahoo and MSN took over. Dell lost market share to HP. Corel went the way of Adobe. Lots of Sun business went to IBM. Siebel lost its edge to Salesforce.com.
It’s doubtful the tech industry will ever lose its hunger for first and leader because it’s so fundamentally rooted in innovation. This always invites “breakthroughs” and “dramatic advancements.”
The best we can do as professional communicators is to urge senior management to emphasize how a product/service can help customers do what they want to do. As HBS’ Ted Leavitt said years ago in Marketing Myopia, “People don’t buy a quarter-inch drill. They buy a quarter-inch hole. You’ve got to study the hole, not the drill. The drill is just a solution for it.”

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