Is January Too Early For Blossoms?



In the world of moleskines, the specimen Emily Chow held up was on the more sizeable and serious end of the spectrum. This was no dainty, pocket-sized edition of the iconic notebook. Emily’s moleskine meant business.

“I use these pages for writing down the things I’m dreaming about, hoping for, and planning to do,” she explained, before rotating the notebook to display its back half. “And I use the pages on this side to write down the things I’ve experienced, the things I’m grateful for. When I’ve filled so many pages on both sides that the two halves meet, I want them to reflect each other. I want the same stuff to be written on both sides. That is my commitment to myself.”

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February 6, 2015

Defining ‘Salvo’: Thoughts on Whole-Brained Communication, Marketing, Mindfulness and the Internet (Part Three)


[Read Part One of this post here.]

[Read Part Two of this post here.]

When I talk about mindfulness in whole-brained communication, the militaristic metaphor of the salvo becomes a little bit misleading. If I am launching artillery or well-chosen words to overwhelm or captivate a target, that only describes a one-way movement or action. Mindfulness, once again, is sensitivity to the conditions of the ‘present moment’. It is being receptive to information as it presents itself. And it moves back and forth between communicators, rather than just from Point A to Point B, from speaker to listener.  If we communicate only to make a point or compel a specific action, we are practicing entirely goal-oriented communication. If we do this as professional communicators or marketers, we are continuing a tradition of so-called ‘interruption marketing’, where our call to consumers is epitomized by that blaring television commercial that attempts to yank their attention away from Family Guy for a few irritating seconds.

And as every Seth-Godin-worshipping new-school marketer knows, interruption marketing just ain’t the way of the future. 

The greater goal of a long-term, stable, trusting clientele is better secured by communications that are mindful—that is to say, sensitive to the information our clients are willing to share with us—which simply results in our saying, sharing, or selling things our clients are more open to receiving.  This is, I believe, what is at the heart of the movement for a ‘new’ type of marketing communications that has at different times been labeled ‘content marketing’, ‘permission marketing’, or ‘inbound marketing’ (and probably a zillion other things as various ‘thought leaders’ attempt to make their mark by coining new terms). It’s not that marketers have not always been trying to listen as carefully as they can to their target markets in order to deliver effective communications and more desirable products and services. (Isn’t that the purpose of every focus group?)  What makes this style of marketing communications ‘new’ or revolutionary is our radically enhanced capacity to listen. It’s the fact that the Internet has taken away every excuse to remain sealed off from the experience of our customers.

Like any schlubby Millennial, I ingest scary amounts of Netflix. Aside from the fact that this service gives me access to high quality video streams without subjecting me to ads featuring fulsome butt implants, Netflix is dear to my heart because of one thing: customization. Netflix is like that friend who listens to every word you speak, and is able to recall details from the dumb stories you tell her over beers. She buys you the best birthday presents and takes you to the restaurants that you like. Netflix just gets you, man. Because this service remembers everything I’ve ever watched and allows me to rate as many of its selections as my carpal-tunnel-syndrome-afflicted mousing hand can manage, it is constantly becoming more savvy about what I really, really like. By the time it’s suggesting I might like to see a ‘Moody Period Piece Featuring a Gay Male Romance’, I’ve long since accepted the fact that Netflix knows me better than I know myself.

That, to me, is the Internet, in a nutshell. Netflix—and more specifically, my personal Netflix account—is but one node in a network that runs on feedback and interactivity, leading to more elaborately customized niches of user (or ‘consumer’, when there is a monetary exchange involved) experience. It’s the Holodeck I always dreamed about when I was watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my mom.

Now, I’m a person who thought Her was legitimately romantic, so the thought that Netflix can listen to me doesn’t strike me as particularly creepy. I accept that Google, YouTube, Facebook—all of these mega-nodes of interactivity—are listening carefully in order to customize my experience. Are there problems for humanity inherent to all of this rapid information technology development? Yup. But what else is new? Technology gives, technology takes away. That’s how it has always been. What’s interesting to me is the very human imperative at the heart of all of these technologies, algorithms, and processes: the drive to listen and learn.

So I define the ultimate ‘salvo’ communication experience, then, as a coordinated movement of complementary types of information (data and story) back and forth between speakers who are listeners, and listeners who are speakers. This type of communication is both goal-oriented (intended to secure particular outcomes) as well as mindful (sensitive to the conditions of the present). It is the type of communication that the Internet is facilitating to an incredibly rich and deep extent. And it is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

 [Author: Kristin van Vloten]

August 12, 2014

Defining ‘Salvo’: Thoughts on Whole-Brained Communication, Marketing, Mindfulness & the Internet (Part Two)


[Read Part One of this post here.]

[Read Part Three of this post here.]

Last week, when in a fit of orderliness I drew up the imaginary columns representing the contrasting yet complementary traits of whole-brained communication, I didn’t talk about the last two items on my list. So here, now, playing for Column A, is Goal-Orientation, and over to the right, representing Column B, we have Mindfulness. These two will now either wrassle each other to the death or together create beautiful music.

But first, I will define what I mean by these terms. Goal-orientation is the ability to articulate, and plan strategically for, measurable outcomes.

It tends to be associated with a future-oriented focus, and the tendency to evaluate and make distinctions (such as ‘success’ or ‘failure’).

Mindfulness is a sensitivity to the conditions of the ‘present moment’, like a weather vane that registers a change in the winds before anybody else feels the need to put on a sweater.

It tends to be associated with an attitude of adaptability and more fluid, less discriminatory thinking (ie. seeing everything as being ‘shades of grey’ rather than as ‘black and white’ or ‘good and bad’).

Admittedly, when we reach this latitude of the Whole-Brained World, the weather does get a little dicey. Here, the temperatures tend to swing to extremes before reaching a balmy equilibrium. And it’s true that it’s often easier to conceive of goal-orientation and mindfulness as being conflicting rather than complementary stances. But their harmonious coexistence is, I believe, at the heart of whole-brained communication, and the combustion of every salvo that really reaches its mark.

Because I work in marketing and communications, I will illustrate a constructive dynamic between goal-orientation and mindfulness within this context. Imagine I am selling widgets, just like that guy in the 1950s business textbook. I would like to sell a bunch of them. I’ve got a specific goal, in fact: x-amount of widgets will pay my mortgage and keep food on the table. So I market my widgets using all of my ingenuity, passionately declaring the benefits my widgets will provide to consumers. A certain number of people respond to my marketing by purchasing the widgets. It’s great. But because I have to keep paying this mortgage and feeding myself year after year, it’s in my best interest to have a stable clientele of buyers who are going to come to me for their widget needs again and again. So I make sure I talk to my clients about what they like and don’t like about my widgets. Based on what they tell me, I make modifications.  The next time I sell the widgets, I draw attention to the ways in which the modified model better meets the needs of my clients. I’ve taken care to ensure that the widgets are what clients really want, and that they won’t regret their choice to purchase mine, or hesitate to encourage other buyers to do the same.

This is the story of successful entrepreneurship, excerpted from Basic Business Boiled Down To Its Essence 101, One Zillionth Edition, right? But in this classic tale of widgets and consumers, the dynamics of goal-orientation and mindfulness are very much at play. It can be broken down like this:

1. Goal-Orientation: Company must sell X-amount of Widgets to Buyers.

2. Mindfulness: Company engages Buyers in a dialogue that results in the modification of future Widgets.

3. Synthesis of Goal-Orientation and Mindfulness: Both Company and Buyer have a proven, ongoing process for ensuring that their respective goals are compatible and complementary (ie. Company Goal: to secure a long-term, loyal customer base that will continue to buy x-amounts of widgets; and Buyer Goal: to purchase widgets that better meet their expressed needs from a trusted seller).

At no point did my Company abandon its original goal of selling widgets. But I realized that in order to ultimately meet my biggest goal (that of long-term financial sustainability), I needed to practice Mindfulness. I needed to understand the impact of my widgets on my customers’ lives. I needed to listen; to collect some of the rich information available to me via dialogue with my customers.  That sensitivity to the conditions of the present moment allowed me to adapt my strategy for achieving my goals, and even more than that—it allowed me to realize that my goals ultimately need to be compatible with the goals of my customers. I am increasingly aware that the goals I am most likely to meet are those that are supported or shared by many others.

(In part three, I will discuss the revolutionary impact of the Internet on marketing communications, and its implications for whole-brained communication.)

[Author: Kristin van Vloten]

August 7, 2014

‘Purposeful Storytelling’ And The Difference Between Manipulation and Persuasion


I use the term ‘purposeful storytelling’ now and then to describe a particular kind of writing I’ve done in my career. The bluntest—and clearest—way I could unpack this term is by explaining that purposeful stories are told in order to secure particular outcomes. Articulable goals are embedded like hearts inside of these stories, pumping life into them, propelling them to go forth and make contact. If I relay a vivid narrative about a person or a scenario that evokes a specific emotion in you, or inspires you to take a concrete action, then purposeful storytelling may have taken place.

If that sounds profoundly creepy to you, I understand.

Believe me. If you told me that this kind of thing sounds like nothing other than manipulation, I’d say it would be very easy for you to argue your point. However, manipulation, which omits and distorts the truth, can be differentiated from persuasion, which presents information transparently. Otherwise, we would have to label people like Martin Luther King and Gandhi as dire and incorrigible manipulators instead of the morally enlightened persuaders we remember them as.

I’ve met people who define manipulation as any communication that actively engages their emotions. It’s my observation that these same people often have strong beliefs about their own capacities to maintain a strictly ‘rational’ appraisal of ‘the facts’ at any given time. Oftentimes, this view is connected to a notion that palpably emotional people are impaired in their thinking, muddy in their valuations. If this is your belief, then anything that stirs strong feelings could be perceived as an obstruction to apprehending and interpreting reality correctly. Under this worldview, I can see how emotion-eliciting communication could be labeled as manipulation, as a deliberate attempt to disable an otherwise powerful mind.

A discussion of the falseness of the construct dividing ‘rational thought’ from ‘emotional processing’ is the subject of another post. Evidence to suggest that we human beings—yes, each one of us, and not just the ones who cry at the movies—are profoundly directed by so-called ‘irrational forces’ at all times, even when we are sure that we are making the coldest, most impartial calculations, is mounting up. Fascinating studies have approached this reality from so many different angles, and each is worth touching upon. But I won’t do so right now.

I will say that as I grow older, I grow more unashamedly emotional. The tears flow a little more freely; the laugh gets a little wilder. Strangely, I seem to be growing into a more confident, clear, and fact-oriented thinker at the same time. Somehow, these states of being do not seem to be mutually exclusive, at least not in my case.

So I don’t begrudge communications that elicit my good old irrational drives. I understand that these forces have been guiding my cognitions for as long as I’ve been alive. When I flip through the annual report of a charity or watch a documentary that forces me to perceive the suffering of another human being, I do not say that I am being manipulated simply because something strong stirs within me. I know that these stories are relaying rich information to me, delivering more of the facts that I need in order to conduct an analysis of my reality that is as big-picture-oriented as possible. Without access to this emotional information, my thinking would be really and truly impaired.

[Author: Kristin van Vloten]

July 10, 2014

Whole-Brained Communication: The Integration of Fact & Narrative


When I try to picture what perfect communication looks like, I always see a fully lit-up brain.

Although the image of a disembodied organ might be a tad graphic for some, I know what an illuminated brain feels like. Everybody does. It’s the feeling of not needing to work terribly hard in order to understand something. It’s the sensation of floating downstream on an inner tube in the summertime rather than hiking to the top of a mountain during a snowstorm. It’s the feeling of having a bedtime story read to you versus cramming all night for a statistics exam. It’s a flow, rather than a struggle.

I like to describe the kind of communications work I aspire to create

for clients as being whole-brained. When an article of communication—be it a piece of writing, a video clip, a comic strip, a speech, you name it—engages the entire brain, something deeply powerful yet effortless has occurred. Somebody is walking away from a communication experience with a vivid and deeply embedded feeling, idea, or inspiration.

Most people have at least a passing familiarity with the highly popular concept of right-brained versus left-brained thinking. For years, laypeople without extensive neuroanatomical training have understood that the left side of the brain controls thinking related to concrete facts, whereas the right brain is the domain of creative and intuitive functions. This concept, called lateralization of the brain, is still somewhat valid, but neuroscientists have discovered that there is much more integration between the hemispheres than was once assumed. Many cognitive tasks, from mathematical calculations to musical performances, have at one time have been associated with either the ‘left brain’ or the ‘right brain’, but the reality is that they call upon both hemispheres to work together equally. Indeed, the more we learn about the brain, the more we realize that the power of this mysterious organ resides it is wholeness, in how its incredibly numerous and distinct elements can work together symphonically and seamlessly. The brain is a fine symbol of unity in diversity.

That’s why communications that incorporate both ‘left hemispheric’ and ‘right hemispheric’ elements are compelling, instructive, and memorable. Matt Polsky and Claire Summer describe ideal business communications as combining ‘data’ with ‘story’, uniting the ‘brain’ with the ‘heart’. In their article ‘Storytelling and Data: Two Sides Are Better Than One’ for Sustainable Brands, they argue that

Stories help us answer the really hard, essential “why” questions that go unseen when numbers are king. Numbers and facts are still important, of course, as together with story they add specificity to a bigger purpose. For example, on its own, a terrifyingly high cholesterol number is a symbol of poor health. The story, however, is how this number inspires you to be healthy on your daughter’s wedding day. When you have both sides of the brain communicating — the rational, hard right side of facts and numbers, and the aspirational, creative left side of values and feelings, you get a richer whole that’s greater than story or numbers alone.

I strongly agree with Polsky and Summer.  Data is powerful because it is stable and objective.  It provides a foundation for solid understanding that doesn’t deviate or deteriorate as it is exchanged between communicators. But a story is what animates ‘the facts’, making them resonant, relevant, and memorable.  Story makes us care. A communications piece that integrates data and story mirrors the marvelous instrument that will be charged with interpreting it.  This approach turns on every light in the brain, allowing the mind to operate in its native wholeness. 

[Author: Kristin van Vloten]

July 4, 2014