I became a fan of Detroit by leaving

Sometimes you just have to take a break. I didn’t realize that until after I had taken that much-needed time away from defending my home town. I define my “home town” as Detroit, even though I grew up in Royal Oak, a suburb just north of Detroit, back in the 70s and 80s. Royal Oak was a ghost town with a few die-hard businesses like Frentz and Sons Hardware, Hagelstein’s Bakery, the Kite Shop and a lonely Baskin Robin’s 31 Flavors on the corner.

Political corruption and economic downturns had grown a huge helplessness in me.

“I can’t change anything.”

So, after years of thinking that way, we decided to leave, and “go where the jobs are.” Unfortunately, with strong automotive backgrounds, we naturally and subconsciously followed the automotive industry. From that view, the move didn’t work out so well, as the most recent downturn left no automotive town unscathed. Greenville, South Carolina, weathered that downturn well because it’s core business is not automotive. But, all that growth has basically contracted, leaving Greenville where it was a few years ago, which isn’t a bad place at all. But, for all of us “automotive people,” we’ve had to move on in one form or another. We spent two years in Greenville, and we learned a ton. Mostly, that we love Detroit.

We love Greenville, definitely.

The public schools are the best I’ve seen, handling the drain that poverty creates and accelerated programs in the same buildings gracefully. Greenville schools know how to recruit and retain excellent teachers, young and old. They’ve also mastered a way to bridge between “regular” public schools and charter schools with a “magnet” concept that overlays a specialization for a school that’s at risk for losing students to other schools-of-choice initiatives. For example, our local elementary school was also a magnet school with a fine/performing arts focus. Being an urban school, it was losing students in the 90s, and downtown Greenville was growing a strong performing arts center that partnered with the school to develop ways to integrate the arts into everyday lesson plans; the school district secured funding for a drama teacher and a dance teacher. Now, students compete for the magnet slots each year. The school still has a “residency area” it serves, like any other public school, so the number of new magnet slots offered is calculated after the residency requirements are met.

Downtown is a model for revitalization. They started with a 20-year plan, and executed. It didn’t go perfectly, but they kept at it. I won’t pretend to know what planners and the community went through to do so much of this work, because we were only there for two years. But, from what I understand, it took many people to transform what used to be what we’d call “downtown Pontiac” or “Flint” into a thriving community with a strong arts community and developing business community. The downtown park is spectacular. If you’ve read previous posts here, you’ve seen pictures of the Reedy River Falls, which run through downtown. The Liberty Bridge spans the river, and the park surrounding all this is a constant in downtown life. A local theater group stages summer Shakespeare performances for free.

Okay, so why do we still love Detroit? Because for how enamored we are with all the great things in Greenville, we realized that Detroit has them. It’s just more spread-out geographically. And, frankly, after taking a break from defending Detroit and the automotive industry, I’m ready to actually do something. It helps that I learned that no matter what the situation is, I can do something.

Stuff I did that I didn’t think I could do:

  • Invite neighbors over for Thanksgiving dinner.
  • Become a Library Clerk and help kids develop a love of reading.
  • Serve on (and chair!) a School Improvement Council.
  • Coach a LEGO robotics team.
  • Be a backstage wrangler of child actors.
  • Knit baby booties to be auctioned to support school funding.
  • Help promote a new chiropractic office by creating a place for local artists to display their work.
  • Help Cinderella do a quick change into a ball gown in under 30 seconds.
  • Lend a good word to support local businesses and products.

Now I know I love this city and I know I can do stuff. Normally I would want a plan. Tough. I didn’t have a plan for the things I did in Greenville. Heck, I don’t even really remember how I got involved in most of the things on that list. I knew I wanted my son to have a LEGO robotics team; one didn’t exist, so we created one. I think I had a moment of madness during the PTA meeting when I volunteered to chair the School Improvement Council. But, at least I was at the meeting, right? Maybe the geography made it easier for me to dive in. After all, we lived one mile outside of downtown. The elementary school was four blocks away. But this is the Motor City, right? Let’s use those motors! Insert all the motivational crap you hear every day, and put it to use. I don’t need to repeat it, right?

I’m not sure what changed for me, specifically, that moved me to start doing stuff.  For sure, the less excuses we have, the better. But, there were still obstacles in Greenville, too. Sometimes that fabulous school district drove me nuts by stonewalling the effort to get a Mandarin teacher into my son’s middle school. And do you know how long it took the city to figure out that they should put recycling bins downtown? Too long. And now there’s a fight over a Waffle House that’s being built in an area that doesn’t want it. Not to mention the people scoffing up the property surrounding the developing Kroc Center, driving up taxes for the people who haven’t sold their homes.

When you stay long enough in paradise, you realize it has flaws, too. And maybe that’s at the root of the lesson I had to learn. I can pine away for a more perfect city in which to live, but it’s not going to bring me that satisfaction I seek. So, Detroit, you’re stuck with me. Except, this time, I have some ideas and some motivation.


People who DO stuff

It started while pondering one of the questions Stephanie Tardy had to handle from the Time Detroit Project reporter. Stephanie was being interviewed before the Detroit Urban Craft Fair (DUCF), and one of the questions asked, “Are you part of this ‘Creative Class’ that is supposed to save Detroit?”

Stephanie shared that question with me before answering. We had a great discussion on how people can talk problems to death without actually doing something about it. Others simply get down to the doing. Crafters do. Sometimes crafters do things to make money. Sometimes they do things to express themselves. Sometimes no one but the crafter knows the motivation. But crafters can DO stuff.

Before I read Stephanie’s answer in the Time Detroit Project blog, I had a moment. Driving to work. Stopped by a school bus. The bus stop had only two people: a girl, and an adult, clad in work clothes. As the girl boarded the bus, he hugged her and turned around. It was Grandpa. Or, at least an old face with a white beard and hands that have done a ton of work. He does stuff. And he’s there to make sure that girl gets on the bus safely. Because people who do stuff make sure people are okay. And there’s something about such a strong stock of people.

Stephanie’s answer and this man at the bus stop collided in my head. The people I choose to respect are those that DO stuff. That personal truth had never been more clear for me than at that moment. The choices I’ve made and the people I admire are based on this truth, whether I’ve been consciously aware of it or not.

I can’t share with you a photo of the man at the bus stop, but you can read Stephanie’s answer to the “Creative Class” question here: http://detroit.blogs.time.com/2009/11/19/a-creative-look-at-detroit/

Falling or flowing?

Reedy River Falls on Easter Sunday

Reedy River Falls on Easter Sunday

Sure the water falls over the rocks, but it flows on. When you feel yourself falling, wait for the flowing.

Calling an end to Twitter’s Follow Friday madness

Silly String your mom!

Silly String your mom! It's just as effective.

Damien Basile
just wrote this great post on why Twitter’s Follow Friday (#followfriday) is completely anti-social. I totally agree. Please, go read his article. While I’ve been thinking that something about Follow Friday is off, I want to make sure he gets credit for spelling it out so succinctly.

So, we started chatting about why Follow Friday just isn’t the right approach. Doug Cone and I both felt like we participated because we knew people who were recommending us, and we appreciated that. They have the best in mind. Eric Miltsch elaborated on how to make #followfriday more effective.

Okay, I’m going to take it one step further. Before Follow Friday, I used to simply notice that two people were talking about similar stuff, or that one had the answer another for which another was looking. It doesn’t take much to craft a 140-character message that says, “Hey, @person1, you really need to meet @person2, because…”

Heck, Dr. Bernard Harris met Converge Magazine by my meager Twitter introduction, and now there’s an article in Converge Mag on Dr. Harris’s work bringing science workshops to middle schools. It works much better that way, because social media operates exactly the same way as any other social interaction.

Please stop shouting your advertisements at everyone, and simply wait for the right opportunity to make the introduction.

We learn by watching. Now lead the way!

Everyone needs a role model

Everyone needs a role model.

If you think you can come up with every great idea on your own, good luck. Sure, you’ll come up with a few, but eventually you’ll need to lean on someone. Make sure you find the right person who will help you clarify what you want to do and how to get there. Even if that person doesn’t know he’s doing it. (Chris had no idea how much impact he had on Garret during the SC Children’s Theatre’s production of Cinderella. Thanks, Chris.)

Memorial Day gratitude

Charleston memorial

Colonel William Moultrie's grave, Fort Moultrie, Charleston SC (2009)

Style guides aren’t just for logos

I can drive people crazy when they ask me to read over their copy. Detail oriented? You bet. I even went out on a limb and told people that, yes, punctuation matters in your blog posts. Most people assume that I’m just that way because I’m a perfectionist. Some days I’d accept that title, until you see my desk.

My bend for consistency has a minor point and a major point. On the minor side, junky punctuation or inconsistent capitalization is simply distracting to read, whether you’re conscious of it or not. How you punctuate a sentence dictates how it’s read.

The bigger view of consistency is intention. Those very punctuation marks can make the difference between a whisper and a scream; a non-chalant mention of a fact or a very dramatic stand on a soap box. You can craft a statement with drama in one case, but then bring it up again and it’s just a whisper if you’re not consistent. And there’s a difference between doing this as a device to create an emotion, but most likely the inconsistency is unintentional, and can have unexpected results.

Heck, this even goes beyond good spelling and punctuation. Preserve your tone so that you don’t sound like a punk one day and a Harvard snob the next. Okay, that’s a bit extreme, but you get the point. Diversity is great, but for most forms of communication, you want to maintain a similar tone and timbre throughout. I’ve mostly worked with communication “campaigns,” where sounding the same from message to message is critical, as in an advertising campaign. But this holds true for most communication. The idea of a style guide comes from the land of publishing, and it’s a very valid concept for business and blogging as well.

The most familiar style guide is the one I was taught in college: The Associated Press Style Guide, or AP Style Guide. There’s the more formal style guide for book publishing, the Chicago Manual of Style. News agencies usually have their own version of the AP Style Guide, or a completely custom version. For fun, I like to read the entries of The Economist Style Guide. I can’t explain it; you simply have to run over there and see for yourself. Danged funny and gets the point across quite well.

How does a style guide work in business communication? I have a couple great examples from corporate publishing. Both involve big companies that have “divisions,” and have evolved into what some call “silos.” Essentially, there are multiple brand managers, each responsible for how his or her own brand is expressed. Sure, there are inherent problems on an organizational level, but this creates an additional issue when the company as a whole wants to communicate something that applies to all brands.

For General Motors, the challenge was to communicate its sustainability plan for the entire company. Lots of smart people had already begun the mind meld and shared best practices on how to run manufacturing facilities efficiently, with very little waste. Unfortunately, they all talked about their efforts in many different ways. It made sense for facilities in Brazil to speak differently of waste than those facilities in the U.S. With some feedback from a non-profit organization that grades corporate sustainability reports, GM was able to spot ways to speak consistently throughout the report. While having diverse voices may seem like a good thing, the report was stronger when the diversity was communicated through the actions reported, rather than sounding like 50 people were talking all at once.

GM, with the help of a top-notch public relations firm, did a great job at establishing a set of guidelines for when to explain jargon in context, and when to relegate explanatory content to a call-out or end notes. The result was a report that impressed the unified front the company has adopted to reduce carbon emissions and waste in manufacturing facilities, but also appreciates how differences in economy, environment and social climate resulted in creative thinking to solve problems unique to each location. A style guide pulls common threads throughout multiple stories and creates a cohesive message, rather than a scattered set of stories.
Another company had the same challenge, different audience, but a much worse starting point. Given the same organizational structure, a lighting company realized that many of its products already were “green,” long before it was cool to be so. It sounded like a great idea to create a web site and brochures to present certain products from multiple brands, illustrating how these particular products reduce energy use. The agency charged with writing the materials spotted a problem right away, but couldn’t quite put their finger on what it was. At first glance, the differences in how products are detailed jumped out at me. Sure, it’s a minor consistency thing that can be fixed, but after some coaching, we all saw how the tone and style changed throughout the content. Sure, one brand of fixtures was targeted to industrial buildings, while another was targeted to hospitals and civil installations. Finding a common ground on sustainability footing helped shore up all the content.

Ideally, you’d start with a style guide. But, if you’ve found yourself with meandering content, try creating an abbreviated guide. Start with a goal for how you’d like to communicate. While a publishing style guide is much more rigorous than what I’m about to outline, start with something. A style guide grows as you more clearly define your… yes, style.

  • Set some standards for tone and voice. Use samples of what you like and don’t like, even if you don’t have words to describe yet.
  • Catalog language the company has already established into categories of “like” and “don’t like.” At Quicken Loans, they are passionate about not using the term, “department.” Instead, everyone is a “team.”
  • Take a stand on variations. Do you want to use “website,” “web site” or “Web site”? No one really cares, as long as you’re consistent.
  • Start with an existing guides, and consider adopting one, then customizing with your own specific entries. A wiki is a great place to do this. Simply reference the starting guide, then add entries on the wiki as you canonize them. Be sure everyone knows where to find the starting guide.
  • Document all industry-specific terms, and include definitions. Include exact spelling, capitalization, punctuation and word order. Be sure to document all trademarks and registration marks owned by your company.
  • Use your style guide to root out jargon. Establish ways to define jargon, and when to be “educational,” explaining terms that might be unfamiliar to your reader.

This may sound like an exercise in stating the obvious, but when you have large amounts of content, it will definitely help keep you on track. It is easier than you think to change tone, voice, usage and consistency as you write and edit copy. And don’t think that you should be the only person writing and editing! Everyone needs an editor, and establishing a guide will help an editor both focus on your goals and provide a great outside perspective on whether or not you’re really meeting them.