Feed reader service Feedly has been OK for years. But recently it has got a lot better on the iPad. It's like a faster, less fussy Flipboard…
There’s a long, long list in my subconscious that I hardly dare look at: Things I Should Have Blogged.
The items comprise three types:
I may come back to the third and pot it out in the nursery of ideas here on this blog, with a media agency-proof fence around it to give it a fair chance of developing or not, but for now I’ve got a chance to right the first two examples in one post.
This week, I had a lovely conversation with John Willshire, who developed the Artefact Cards product, about how I have been working with them. You can listen to the whole thing here as John recorded it with a very snazzy microphone and iPad Mini set-up.
Artefact Cards are a really simple tool. Playing card size bits of card, white on one side and coloured on the other. You draw words and pictures on them with a Sharpie pen and them lay them out, re-arrange them and in this way organise thoughts and ideas.
As we talked, we got onto the subject of the liminal state in the creative thinking process (which for my money includes developing strategy). My friend Jim Byford introduced me to this immensely useful concept.
In the context of creative and strategic thinking, the liminal state is what you find yourself in just before you have a breakthrough, or just before you fully understand something, make it yours. For instance, if you can recall trying to learn your lines for a play, the liminal state is where you are just before the words settle and take up residence in your memory – and then you can start using them, adding your inflections and emotions, making them your own.
I’ve very often found the thinking at this point in the creative process intensely uncomfortable. Whether writing a book or a plan or a pitch – it’s a kind of temporary agony, a dark tunnel I pass through where I think you know nothing and will never have another good idea again, and then it passes and there’s the the idea I need, the answer that fits.
Knowing that this is something called a “liminal state”, it makes it easier to handle. In psychology / neuroscience, this is an example of “affect labelling“. If you can name the feeling you have, you can put yourself slightly outside it, understand what is happening to you and that it will pass.
The other thing that understanding the liminal state does is help you to stop trying to “jump to the answer”, as Jim put it to me. Because liminality feels uncomfortable, you want out – to end the feeling and go with the first idea, the obvious one, the easy one. The danger here is that your creative/strategic solution will be mundane, run-of-the-mill and doomed.
You have to go through the confusion, live with it for a little while, sit still while the ideas and thoughts, disconnected and jagged, whiz around your head.
Then they settle. Then you see it: what it is all about.
It’s simple, it was there all along… as Duncan Watts points out, it feels obvious once you it is something that you understand. You pitch it to yourself: it works. You pitch it to a colleague: they don’t hate it, maybe even like it. With each airing the idea gains coherence, legitimacy – becomes more eloquently and credibly articulated as you and others breathe belief into the thing.
Speaking with John Willshire about how I had been using his Artefact Cards, I realised that I like them because they are a good tool for helping that settling process, of working steadily through the seemingly nonsensical maze of thoughts, ideas and concepts and helping some kind of order emerge. Much like throwing down ideas on a white-board, scribbling out mind-maps or any other visual thinking method – but they feel slightly more agile – you can move ideas around, try them in different shapes more rapidly.
In the example I talk about, it’s not even that I reached the solution – the outline of an ebook in this case, but I was able to move on to that only after I had made sense of all of the ideas. Seen their shape laid out in this way. That’s something John says is a recurring theme in people’s use of the cards – seeing the “shape of ideas”.
Artefact Cards are another tool in the box for thinking, perfect sometimes for working through those liminal states. Worth a spin with the trial pack, I reckon.
I really liked the Logitech Ultrathin keyboard for the full size iPad (which I blogged about previously), so I thought that investing in the mini version would be a good idea, now that I am utterly devoted to my iPad Mini as a reading and note-taking device.
Image: The hands of a giant!
It takes a little getting used to, to say the least, as the keyboard is definitely more compact. At first, I felt like I had regressed several decades as a typist and needed to spend 70% of my time looking at the keys to make sure I was hitting the right ones. How useful this accessory is depends on how quickly one adapts to mini-typing…
Image: The ultrathin keyboard beside a full-size Apple Wireless keyboard.
However, for me, the switch-over progressed quickly, paragraph by paragraph, and the thing makes the iPad into the cutest little computing device I’ve seen since that late-90s Cambrian explosion of devices when Windows CE launched (my favourite was the tiny, laptop version of the HP Jornada series and apparently part of my gadget-loving soul is constantly seeking out a replacement for that lost writing machine. Because writing device was what it was, more than a decade before MacBook Airs and their ilk – a slim, light, long-battery life writing machine.
Image: A 1990s HP Jornada, the Windows CE device I still have a geeky soft spot for…
A Broadstuff post about the Summly acquisition by Yahoo! looks at the story as a test for how well Google works as a search engine vs. Twitter.
Now, Google works better than anything out there if you know what it is you want to find, but Twitter, Broadstuff asserts, is where you go to understand what’s really going on…
Read Google, and you’d barely know anything about Summly because the first 7 pages comprise of press regurgitation and it has utterly failed at telling you anything useful about it….
…But search Twitter, and you get a totally different story. Twitter, despite a reputation for being celebrity and inanity obsessed, is in fact – on the basis of my search anyway, far less so than Google. What is certain is that Twitter gave me a far fuller picture, within the first page I got, and, in this case anyway was the better search engine by far.
The whole media world optimises for Google, it goes on to say, which is making it less useful.
Here’s the video:
I spotted the video via Andrew Sleigh’s blog, who has some interesting things to say about using simple, short online films as a format.
This post is a little experiment – a personal review of the electronic tracks left my my reading – Diigo bookmarks, Kindle highlights and notes, tweets and maybe some posts (variously on Brilliant Noise and here)….
Back to work this week, and my reading switched from lots of books and a mix of topics about fiction to more business and marketing related topics. Here’s a selection of things that held my attention (and continue to do so)…
Reading’s online evolution: Flipboard 2.0: With Google Reader’s scheduled end, the new version of the hugely popular reading app Flipboard seems to take on even more significance. I’m taken with the idea of creating little “magazines” of content and being able to publish them. Really looking forward to playing with that some more…
Ecommerce – the next generation: A post from Jeff Jordan at venture capitalists Andreesen Horowitz gives a valuable summary of how “eccommerce 2.0” is taking shape, due to “a renaissance in innovation among e-commerce players”. Jordan talks us through some of the trends he sees and gives a load of links to examples.
Banned words – the good: My colleague Todd Jordan pointed me to the Washington Post Outlook’s list of things they should avoid in their copy. “Critics say” and “observers” are two I would like banned from all news organisations. I really enjoyed the brief explanations for why some words were banned, e.g. “Little-noticed (that just means the writer hadn’t noticed it)” and “Paradigm shift (in journalism, all paradigms are shifting)”.
Banned words – the bad?: Slightly uncomfortable to read about Google’s lobbying the Swedish Council of Langauge to have the word “ogooglebar” (translation: un-Googleable) removed from its list of new words. Shame – it’s a useful word, and removing it from a list somewhere is pointless, since it merely reflects that people are using that word in common language. A micro-gramme of weight added to the side of the argument that Google is becoming a corporate that throws its weight around in unattractive ways, perhaps? In other news, the killing of Google Reader seems to have created a lot of negativity toward the company among bloggers – I’m feeling pretty sulky about it myself.
Mullet media: I’m going through a phase of miled obsession with the strategy and the mechanics behind the attention black hole that is Buzzfeed. Reporting on its founder Jonah Perretti’s visit the to the UK, Press Gazette reminded me of its “mullet strategy”, named for the haircut that was “business at the front, party roudn the back”. If that nugget of strategy doesn’t stick in your memory, this slide from Perretti’s presentation couple of years ago will:
Big data – top book recommendation: I already mentioned on my blog this week, but I’ve been reading Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think. It’s a practical, nonsense-repellant work that is really helping me get my head around the idea of big data. I continue to recommend it highly…
Tells Lies for Fun and Profit: I’ve returned to Lawrence Block’s book again after mentioning it recently on this blog. It’s a great work about writing – helpful to the aspirant fiction author in me, but also just to the everyday writer that I am by trade. One line – typically Block – that I highlighted this time round appealed to my protestant cultural DNA:
Mencken defined Puritanism as the haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy, and I don’t think he’d mind our amending the definition to include the fear that someone somewhere may be doing what comes naturally.
Puritanism isn’t limited to religious sects – the same kill-joy spirit still finds its way into our culture in all sorts of ways. Fight it! Especially when you notice it in yourself…
Gaimanism: Lastly, fiction. Taking a break from my fiction diet of detective thrillers, I decided to try and understand what all the fuss about Neil Gaiman is for a second or third time – I’ve not managed to stick with it before. Gaiman’s amazingly popular and I really love what he has to say about writing, but I’ve had a blind spot about his books. So, I’ve settled into reading one of his novels, American Gods. It’s early days, but it’s pulling me into its weirdness nicely…
A note on affiliate links: I’m being more consistent about linking to Amazon using my affiliate links for books these days. Traffic to this blog is modest, but I thought I’d go on the record to let you know that any pennies I make from people clicking through them will just go on more books and I will generally tell you all about them here once I have read them…
Some posts I’ve put on the Brilliant Noise blog, I should really point to from here too…
Content-led marketing: Notes on the brilliant Jon Munro’s presentation at the Cool Content Cornwall conferences (a little of shiver of delight for admirers of the alliterative arts there). Jon borrowed the Integrated Earned Media model Brilliant Noise uses, made it content-specific and put paid media literally in its place.
More Brilliant Noise people: We’ve been joined in the past month or so by Uswitch content suupremo, Lauren Pope, music marketing maven Todd Jordan and iCrossing’s former Client Services Director, Richard Ablett – a good friend and former colleague who I’ve worked with on fun clients like Coca-Cola before.
There is a formidable team growing at the Brilliant Noise HQ, I’m telling you. Next week we’re being joined by genius-about-town Ross Breadmore. Looking forward to that a lot. But more on that in another blog post soon…
By the way, the image above is a brass name plate that our perfectionist printer pals at Generation Press made for us… highly recommend checking out GP’s work for the V&A, Rapha and others…
“Big data” as a term reminds me of “social media” a few years ago. It is in danger – through mis-use and over-use – of losing its currency before many people fully understand its significance. And it is very, very significant indeed.
One of the books I’m reading – at a rapid pace which is testament to its usefulness – is Big Data: A Revolution that will transform how we live, work and think, by The Economist’s data editor, Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, of the Oxford Internet Institute.
One of the problems with the term “big data” is that it is doing too many jobs. Cukier and Mayer-Schonberger offer us a provisional term for the revolution in data that we are living through:
There’s no good term to describe what’s taking place now, but one that helps frame the changes is datafication, a concept that we introduce in Chapter Five. It refers to taking information about all things under the sun—including ones we never used to think of as information at all, such as a person’s location, the vibrations of an engine, or the stress on a bridge—and transforming it into a data format to make it quantified.
Awkward as it is, “datafication” works for me as a description (possibly simply because it isn’t “big data”).
And the definition of big data? Try these:
There is no rigorous definition of big data. Initially the idea was that the volume of information had grown so large that the quantity being examined no longer fit into the memory that computers use for processing, so engineers needed to revamp the tools they used for analyzing it all. That is the origin of new processing technologies like Google’s MapReduce and its open-source equivalent, Hadoop, which came out of Yahoo. These let one manage far larger quantities of data than before, and the data—importantly—need not be placed in tidy rows or classic database tables. Other data-crunching technologies that dispense with the rigid hierarchies and homogeneity of yore are also on the horizon.
big data refers to things one can do at a large scale that cannot be done at a smaller one, to extract new insights or create new forms of value, in ways that change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments, and more.
Before you get too cynical, before your cortex starts rejecting any conversation, content or plan that includes “big data”, I urge you to read this book. It’s a great primer on the issues and opportunities that the era of big data presents us with.
It also quickly introduces some key concepts that are incredibly powerful – about the messiness of data, the switch from causes to correlation and other ideas. It has my brain fizzing in the same way that The Origin of Wealth and Linked did a few years ago about networks and complexity.
A little more about learning from experts…
One thing I have been reading a lot about recent is writing. I love reading authors insights about their work.
I’m a writer by trade and instinct: a commercial, non-fiction, corporate communicator, yes – but a writer still. I dream of writing art, of fiction – and I may get round to getting more of that done soon or I may not. Even if I don’t the truth is that the dream is a sweet one, and the pursuit of it makes me better at my day job.
A few years ago I took a screenwriting course. I didn’t produce a screenplay, nor did I even finish the course, but I still learned a great deal about writing by looking at it through the screenwriter’s eyes. Structure, function, discipline, how the shape of text on a page, the mix of dialogue and exposition can tell an experienced reader whether a document is worth reading, before they’ve even read a word. How a producer can tell how much it would cost and how it would run by weighing the sheaf of paper in their hand.
Writers always have interesting things to say about writing. Some writers more interesting than others (Laurence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit is my favourite right now, but more on that another time) and the ones that begin by admitting that it is different for everyone and their set of rules and practices may or may not work for you are usually the most useful of all.
One thing I have learned from listening to and spending time with experts is that a lot of expertise is not articulated explicitly. Their mental models, short-cuts (heuristics as Kahenman describes them) can be buried deep in their behaviours. They don’t necessarily talk about them or even realise they are happening. They are second nature, the outcome of thousands of hours tackling the same problems again and again.
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman uses chess Grandmasters as an example. Grandmasters look at a chess game and don’t see a series of moves that could be taken – they see patterns of play, shapes and model options for the players to win in a few moves. They have a kind of cognitive short-cut for each, sometimes a name for them – they don’t see a set of moves, they see a pattern that they have seen before.
Theysee the problem differently to non-experts as a result of their thousands of hours of practice. Myself, I would see a set of options for the next move and then struggle to hold those options in my mind (in my pre-frontal cortex, to be exact) and then try in turn to see implications for the responses and next moves from the player). The Grandmaster thinks X numbers of moves ahead because they have those series of moves stored in their memory as shapes – they may well have names for the different shapes.
Sometimes they are just a case of emphasis. Where the focus is when a task or challenge is undertaken, how a problem is framed.
Two examples, one from recent experience and one from recent reading, will help to explain what I mean.
Recently, I went on Kevin Meredith’s – aka Lomokev – Hot Shots photography course. It felt like live-action version of his book, which is also excellent and also called Hot Shots. An interesting experience, at once laid back and – in retrospect – intense, Hot Shots was two days of taking and talking about photography. This felt like, and was, an indulgence – but learning was happening thick and fast. It sometimes just takes a little while to realise what you have taken from an adventure like this.
Afterwards, I understood that Kevin thinks about taking a photograph differently to the way I do (or have done up until now). When I see a beautiful sunset, or a collection of interesting objects, or group of people that would make a nice composition I think something such as “Wow – I’d love to capture that in a picture!”
Kevin didn’t talk about capturing; he talked about things making a nice image – not just the subject: the choice of camera, the settings and the film, the angle and background, the direction that light is coming from, the way it might be cropped and improved after it is developed or downloaded. In his mind, he is thinking about the outcome he wants and then the process to get there.
The physical process of seeing, deciding to take a photograph and then processing it is the same in my old method and Kevin’s, the difference is in where we put the emphasis, the focus. How we frame the method, how we think and then act.
The other example of framing a process that I’ve been thinking about is more literal (and literary). It comes from Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (which I am reading slowly, as seems apt for the subject matter).
Francine makes the point that even more important than who is telling the story is who to whom the story is being told.
…I heard a writer say that what enabled him to write a novel from the point of view of a rather complicated middle-aged woman was by pretending that she was telling her story to a close male friend, and that he, the writer, was that friend.
This telling a story within a story is literally called “framing”, but it unblocks the writing process with a simple model, a question: who is the narrator talking to? Talking to a single person makes it easier than talking than imagined audience. All parts of questions about time and emphasis and pace aw resolved.
For me, writing framed stories not only answered all those troubling questions about the narrator’s audience, but also neatly integrated the answers into the narrative itself. I knew not only who was speaking, but who was being spoken to, where the speaker and the listener were, and when and why the event – that is, the telling of the story – was occurring.
The framing of a process, the question of where to put the emphasis, what the right question to be asked is, is something to uncover examples. It is also worth asking yourself, of the things you do well – what is the question you ask? Where do you put the emphasis. Those are likely to be the insights to compare and pass on to colleagues and people you are coaching or teaching a skill.