April 2009

Lorraine Howell

Ironically, often one of the toughest things for an uthor to do is talk about his or her book in a way that gets people interested in buying it or at least learning more about it.  This is especially true when it comes to dealing with the media.  Micro short audience attention spans mean that authors need to learn how to communicate about their book succinctly and with impact or risk being ignored.  One way to do this – for those who aren’t born with the gift – is to seek the services of an experienced media skills trainer.  Someone like Lorraine Howell

give-your-elevator-speech-a-liftLorraine started her company, Media Skills Training, in 1998 after 12 years as a television news and talk show producer in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She coaches top executives and professionals on how to be more effective when speaking to the media or making public presentations.  Lorraine is a specialist in message development, presentation skills, media interview skills, and crisis communications. I n October, 2008 she returned for the second year to coach the five finalists in the Forbes.com national Boost Your Business Contest in New York City.  Her book Give Your Elevator Speech a Lift! is a step-by-step guide through her process for creating a winning elevator speech. Lorraine’s method helps eliminate the verbal clutter when answering the question “What do you do?”

We had the opportunity recently to meet with Lorraine and discuss her approach to media skills training for authors.

FPP – How did you get started in media skills training?

LH – Leaving broadcasting coincided with a family decision to move back to Seattle. I had considered working at one of the stations in Seattle, had even interviewed with a couple. But I decided to strike out on my own. All of my TV experience had been in live interview format programs, so I knew a lot about preparing people for media interviews. It was a marketable skill for which people would be willing to pay.

FPP – What does media skills training entail with respect to authors and publishers, and what is typically the goal of the training?

LH – The goal of the training is to provide authors and publishers with the tips, tools, and strategies the need to talk about their books and ideas in broadcast, print, and web interviews. I put people through practical exercises so they get an experience of what a media interview is like. We also work on messaging, meaning how to communicate in a clear, concise and memorable way about their stories and ideas. Many writers have a tough time condensing their material into economical sound bites. I can help them do that.

FPP – One of the things you do is help someone deliver an effective elevator speech. What are the key things an elevator speech should accomplish and what are the signs that it is or isn’t working?

LH– A good elevator speech will engage a listener and compel him/her to ask more about it because they are intrigued, not because they are confused. You can tell if your elevator speech is working based on the reactions your are receiving from people. If they ask you for more, then it’s working. If they give you a blank stare or change the subject, then you know you have a little more work to do.

FPP – What are some ways you would recommend for an author to “safely” practice his or her elevator speech?

LH – I suggest people put together a personal focus group of friends or colleagues, and even good clients, who know what you are all about and try a few ideas out on them. I have developed a list of 10 questions that really help people hone in on key phrases and concepts that lead to an elevator speech. I also think trying it out at networking events for organizations where you are already a member. Try it on people you know and trust first.

FPP – What have you found are the most common problems or mistakes that authors make when talking about their books to the media or any audience?

LH – The most common problem most people make is giving to much detail. Authors know so much about their books, their characters, and their stories, and they want to tell everyone about everything. Authors need to consider the big picture…what’s are the big themes, big issues?

FPP – What sorts of techniques do you use to improve their effectiveness with the media?

LH – I put people on camera in simulated interview situations. I also have a framework for developing key messages. I also teach people how the media works and how they can have more impact on the outcome of media interviews. I basically try to take all the mystery and stress out of the experience.

FPP – How does the type of media he / she is talking to affect what an author should do?

LH – For TV you need to think about visuals, how can you make you topic more visually appealing. For radio, stories are key…you want to tell stories so that listeners feel drawn in while they listen. For print you want to have several different ways to say the same thing, because a reporter may not hear what you are saying the first time through. With electronic media you are being taped or your voice is being heard. In print, it’s different.

FPP – What are some tips you would recommend for authors who are naturally shy, but need to engage the media?

LH– I have some relaxtion/visualization exercises that I take people through to help with that. As a matter of fact, I’m going into a recording studio this week to tape some that will be available in a few months. I also teach people how to shift focus. Instead of working about themselves, keep your audienc in mind.

FPP – What is the best way for an author to handle tough or hostile questions from a member of the media?

LH – Prepare, Prepare, Prepare! If you have something controversial to say, you can probably anticipate what questions or reactions you will have coming at you. Have responses ready. Put a list together of all the tough questions that could come up or the ones you would prefer didn’t come up, and develop answers to those questions. If you don’t want to talk about something, don’t do the interview. Once you say yes to the interview, expect everything to come up. It’s all fair game.

FPP – Within a range, how much should an author budget for media skills training?

LH – It depends on their current skill level and how quickly they can integrate what they are learning. On the low side I would start around $3,000. for one or two sessions and head up from there. The top trainers in the industry can charge $10,000. – $15,000 per day.

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west-seattle-blog-front-pageThe last few years have been especially tough for newspapers in America.  Many papers which have been in business for more than a hundred years have been forced to close their doors for good; this includes one of my hometown daily newspapers, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  Many of these papers were simply not able to transition in a profitable way from print to online.  However, the news is not all grim.  The lines between bloggers and journalists are blurring and experiments are underway with online-from-the-start news venues – e.g. the Huffington Post – which are showing promise.  One example here in Seattle, is a neighborhood news blog, run by Tracy Record and her husband Patrick, called the West Seattle Blog.

Tracy Record

Tracy Record

Tracy Record has worked to hunt, gather, process, analyze, and share information in a multitude of media pretty much around the clock since age 17.  Most recently, she was assistant news director at KCPQ-TV in Seattle, a position she resigned in December 2007 to work full time on the West Seattle Blog.  Prior to that, Tracy spent 2 years with the Walt Disney Internet Group in roles including executive producer of ABCNEWS.com. That followed 8 years at KOMO-TV, Seattle’s ABC network affiliate, where she was its first-ever executive producer of new media.  Before that she had worked at a variety of TV stations, newspapers, and radio stations in California, Nevada, and Colorado, collecting 3 Emmy Awards along the way.  I recently had the opportunity to discuss the West Seattle Blog and the reasons for its success with Tracy.

FPP –  When did you start publishing the West Seattle Blog and what > motivated you to start it in the first place?

TR– December 2005. My husband (WSB co-publisher/business development director Patrick Sand) and I had lived here for almost 15 years by then, and I had some observations I wanted to share with somebody. I was really surprised to discover that while many people were writing blog-format websites IN West Seattle, nobody was writing in that format ABOUT West Seattle. I discovered the domain westseattleblog.com was available, and off I went.

FPP– How big is your audience now, and were you surprised by the growth of the blog?

TR– Through the first three months of 2009, we averaged 650,000 pageviews a month (per Google Analytics). You can slice and dice the guesstimate of the actual person count a million ways, but we currently boil it down to more than 7,000 homes/businesses a day. The growth of the site – we don’t call it “a blog” though that’s still in our name since that’s how people know us — is more heartening and humbling, than surprising … we moved to news/information/discussion because there was clearly a need for it.

FPP –  How would you characterize your readers?

TR– Majority over 30. And many more over 50 than the cliche’ view of online users would suggest. But more important than age or other demographic definition, a WSB-er is anyone who wants to know what’s happening right now in West Seattle – as well as what’s coming up later today, next week, next month – and who wants a chance to talk about it!

FPP – What sorts of things do you do to build your readership and what have you found to work best?

TR– Far and away, the most important thing we do is to just keep finding and reporting THE NEWS, with text, links, photos, videos, any means possible, relevant, and appropriate. And that involves listening to the community – through what they send us, what they tell us, what we see and hear. Some would-be site operators make the mistake of thinking that as long as they beat a promotional drum loudly enough, they will get and retain an audience. We are from the “if you build it, they will come” school. We do some marketing, though — in the physical space, we sponsor community events and we “table” at events/festivals, as well as doing a little bit of outdoor advertising; in the online space, we do AdWords, of course, and are embarking on some other strategic online advertising. Participating in social media has become increasingly important; we have a strong presence on Facebook and Twitter, with four-digit “followings” in both places, and we share content, observations, breaking news through both channels, while also receiving information there, and participating in discussions. One important but little-discussed aspect of being present for your community is to be hyper-accessible – e-mail, phone, in person, postal mail, whatever and whenever.

FPP – What sorts of coverage do you provide and how has it evolved over time?

TR– Breaking news (crime, crashes, fires, “why is there a helicopter over my neighborhood”) is huge – and we cover it 24/7. Another major area of coverage involves neighborhood issues – West Seattle has a lot of neighborhood associations and councils and we staff as many of their meetings as we can, as well as trying to stay in touch with their leaders in between meetings. Then there’s development, businesses, schools, politics. Really, there’s almost no topic we haven’t covered. The evolutionary trajectory is pretty simple – we did mostly opinion/observation for the first year, till a huge windstorm threw much of West Seattle into the dark in December 2006, and people started asking us for information that required original reporting — the storm had affected other areas of the region, too, so neighborhood-specific reporting was difficult to find, and no one was doing it on a timely basis here, so we jumped in, and from there, we continued to encounter many more stories that needed to be told, because no one else was covering them – or, they weren’t being covered in a timely manner.

FPP– In what respects is the West Seattle Blog like a traditional newspaper and it what respects is it different?

TR– What IS a traditional newspaper, really? Some have changed a lot, some have not. But I guess I’d point to three areas: 1. Timeliness – we run the site more like a broadcast property, which is natural because both of us worked primarily in broadcast (TV and radio). If it’s happening now, we’ll tell you about it now, even if our first report is a quick “we’re checking on the big fire call on Harbor Avenue,” with more and more added to it as we learn more, like the classic AP bulletin that started with one line and continued to grow. Secondly, the collaboration with our community is a HUGE difference: People send story tips, photos, videos, questions, suggestions, crime reports, so much more – and they participate in comment threads and forum discussions. We “mediate” the information-sharing, as professional journalists, but in the end, the site can be what one WSBer called “a block watch on steroids” – a place that you can use to share information with tens of thousands of neighbors. 2. Truly neighborhood-level news: Some of our reports involve matters that even a community newspaper would tend to consider “too small to pay attention to”
– and yet, for community members, these matters are huge. Think – a really bad pothole. Or a road sign that’s out of place. Or a lost pet (we have an entire lost/found pets page). 3. The aforementioned community participation. Newspapers have tended to function as “one-way media” with the exception of letters to the editor. In our format, the community involvement and comment is much more intertwined.

FPP– The West Seattle Blog currently accepts advertising. Have advertisers been enthusiastic and have you been able to support the operation of the blog with advertising?

TR– We are the first financially self-sustaining, online-only neighborhood-news operation in Seattle. Though we don’t discuss specific numbers, the revenue that we currently get from sponsorships constitutes the sole source of support for our household of three (no other jobs, no savings supplementation, THIS IS IT), while also covering all our business expenses, including paying freelance writers, photographers, and technical help. Regarding advertiser enthusiasm – sponsors tell us they get results, and that’s what matters. Since we have the largest “readership” of any news/information source specific to this area, online or offline, it’s the best place to be seen, and to have community members learn about your business.

FPP– You currently have a number of guest bloggers who contribute to the West Seattle Blog. How did you recruit / attract them, and how does the arrangement work?

TR– We don’t have “guest bloggers.” We do pay professional freelance writers for assigned, bylined articles. If you mean our “Blogs” section, that’s a compendium of RSS feeds from people who write blog-format websites based in West Seattle, and the links all go directly to their sites.

FPP– What advice would you give others thinking about starting a neighborhood news blog?

TR– Depends on whether they want to pursue a ‘blog’ or a ‘news operation.’ We are very serious — and taken seriously — about running this as the latter, which involves a major amount of serious news gathering, processing, reporting, and editing. But if you want to run a “news blog,” think about what you think your neighborhood needs, and how you expect to see that information turn up on the website you start. By no means should you start a site and say Hi! We started a site! Now we need people to write stuff for it! If you are not ready to write a LOT for your site as the primary founding contributor – maybe a little less with time as you find regular contributors, if you want to operate it that way – just don’t waste people’s time. Anyone can start a website; only those serious about operating it and providing content for it TFN should do so. And don’t announce a grandiose mission for what you’re going to do before you start doing it – JUST DO IT. We ran our site for two years before running advertising of any kind. These days, the pump is primed for online neighborhood news and if you do a really excellent job, you could probably have enough of an audience to start selling ads after three to six months, but don’t just hang up your shingle and say hi, I’m going to do news for you, buy some ads from me first, K? The worst side effect of trying to run things that way is that your would-be advertisers waste their hard-earned dollars without reaching much of an audience, and no matter how little you charge, that’s not doing you or them any favors.

FPP– What’s next for the West Seattle Blog?

TR– Working on site improvement and new features right now. Long overdue for a design upgrade since we’re still running on a 2-column WordPress theme that was almost the default when we started the site, but we want to be sure, when we launch a redesign, that it doesn’t “fix what wasn’t broken.”  Also, I’ve had an editor/writer job posted for a long time and hope to finally make that hire soon – it’s a really tough decision when you are bringing somebody officially into what’s been a family business – we’ve talked to some great people, though.

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Sheila Clover-EnglishBook Vid Lit

by Sheila Clover-English

Sheila Clover English, the CEO of Circle of Seven Productions, is a pioneer in book video production, marketing and distribution for authors and publishers.

There is much debate in the advertising and marketing world about the future of online video as an ad medium. More and more dollars are moving into online advertising; but the pace has slowed somewhat and television is still dominates ad spending.  Just as it took time for marketers to understand and establish a model for television advertising, it will take some time for them to fully “grok” the potential of online video.

Traditional media deals mostly with impressions; exposure of an audience to a message.  Mesuring the effectiveness of those messages in getting consumers to take action has always been difficult, time consuming and expensive.  Even the impression numbers themselves are only estimates based on statistical analysis. 

family-around-tvLet’s say you book television advertising in San Francisco.  The agency or media planner you’re working with tells you there are tens of thousands of people in the area who might see that ad.  Yet no one knows for sure how many people in San Francisco actually own television sets. No one knows how many people in San Francisco watch the channel your ad is running on at the exact time it runs. So, playing the odds, you book several ads over a length of time that you hope will catch the majority of those potential viewers. You feel good about it because those numbers are high and you did your best to expose your message to as many people as possible.  You hope you got good ROI. Maybe you did something to measure the ROI like having someone call a certain number, go to a URL or something similar.  In this world, potential = hope.

This is in stark contrast to the action based numbers that online metrics yield. Take online video actual viewership numbers dor example. For a given video, you can easily measure how many people watched it, how long they watched it, whether they shared it and how they shared it.   So why wouldn’t marketers immediately jump on the online video bandwagon?  Part of the answer is the newness of the medium and how to talk to audiences in this new space.  There is also a certain amount of fear that traditional marketers have with this new, highly measurable ad medium. 

  • Online video metrics don’t have the same aura of mystery as the Nielsen ratings.  No need for pricey third party intermediaries – you can run the numbers yourself.  You can skip past impressions and get right to exact measures of viewership and audience behavior. You know what people did with your ad. And this can be one of the fear factors for marketers used to the “blurriness” of traditional media metrics.  Your client or boss can immediately see the results of your campaign and hold you accountable for those results. 
  • Another fear that marketers have about online video is that your content is then put in the hands of others. You don’t control it. It could show up on a blog that talks about how terrible it is. You’re taking a chance when you release a video onto the internet. 
  • And finally there is the fear related to the transparency of video viewership. Because you can see those numbers on social sites, people can often extrapolate as to how the video is doing overall, or on those sites where you cannot see the view count.

nielsen-tv-internet-convergence-panelAnother important question whose answer will determine the future of ad spend is:  Are  television ads getting more “hits” than online video?  Some box-top television devices are starting to measure whether or not people are watching television ads. Once those numbers have been accumulated and dissected marketers will have a better sense of the true effectiveness of television advertising. With DVRs and TIVO, view on demand and online video it is hard to say how those numbers will turn out. 

Owners of television content are beginning to hedge their bets by migrating their programming online to immensely popular sites like Hulu.com.  The situation mirrors what happens with films.  Television broadcast is the primary venue and still largest source of revenue for producers and likely to remain so for some time.  The online video sites become a source of residual, continuing income after the fact.  As online video continues to climb in popularity and utilization, marketers will need to regularly reevaluate which is the primary venue for their ad dollars.

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super-crunchers-book-coverIn his book Super Crunchers: Why Thinking by Numbers is the New Way to be Smart, Ian Ayres outlined how statistical methodologies are challenging expertise and intuition in a multitude of fields including seemingly unlikely areas such as film making.   In the book, he discussed the approach used by a company called Epagogix to selecting movie scripts which would most likely produce a profit at the box office.  The firm developed a neural networkto based on the analysis of numerous successful and unsuccessful scripts.  The neural network tuned the weights of the various input factors to a point where, according to Epagogix executives, it could pick winners eight out of ten times.  By Hollywood standards – or any other entertainment industry for that matter – that is a phenomenal success rate.

Interview of Ian Ayres, author of Super Crunchers

The claims were both lauded and challenged in the popoular press, but venture capitalsts were sufficiently impressed to invest in the company and start using its methods in movie production.  Given the length of time it takes to produce films, it will be awhile before the methodology is able to show us the money – or not.

But the story raises an interesting question for publishers.  Could this approach be used to select books for publication – especially in the fiction arena?  The first reaction to such a proposition might be a dismissive, defiant NO – such a thing is impossible.  How could an algorithm, a mindless piece of software make a judgment about the merits of art and the reaction of its human consumers?  Actually, if we stop and think about it, this may not be such a stretch.

  • Track record – Publishers have a poor history of selecting books that will be profitable.  Estimates of profitability range from about 1 in 10 to 3 in 10.  This by itself is a clear indication that the human powered title selection process is deeply flawed (at least from a business perspective).  Perhaps an algorithm could do better or at least no worse.
  • Distractions, distractions – Much of human intuition is geared toward protecting ourselves from danger and figuring out the behavior of our fellow humans.  These serve us well as a species, but not so well when it comes to analyzing in a brutally objective manner those elements that make titles successful.  The reason a publisher takes on a title may have more to do with relationships than business considerations. 
  • Short memories– Any kind of statistical analysis starts with a meaningful collection of data.  The human memory is an amazing, but in many respects fallible tool.  It is hard to keep in mind thousands of samples of successful and unsuccessful books – we usually just remember the outliers on either end of the spectrum.  So we develop rules of thumb that may be biased to the outliers and perform poorly for the bulk of books published.
  • Useful judgments– What we’re really good at is figuring what are the right factors to take into consideration in the first place; not sifting through mounds of data to assign the weights to these factors.  Book publishers can build predictive models based on factors they judge to be the most important.  Then back test the models and see which factors really are significant.  Once the key success factors are identified, sample data sets can be fed into models like that developed by Epagogix to tune the weights for each factor and start making predictions.

Katherine Hepburn confronts the computer in Desk Set

Will publishers adopt such analytical methods in selecting their titles?  Maybe – but probably not.  As Ayres pointed out in his book, when Epagogix approached one major Hollywood studio about their algorithm and presented their evidence for its effectiveness, the firm was turned down cold.  When Dick Copaken, CEO of Epagogix, asked the studio executives why they wouldn’t use the tool even it picked 8 out of 10 winners, they replied that it would interfere with their long standing relationships with agents, agencies, actors, producers and directors.  “We wouldn’t be invited to the right parties.  Our wives would hate us.” 

Opportunity could be knocking for publishers who are weary of the pursuit of elusive best sellers, and need new thinking to survive in this dreary economy.   Perhaps the most counter intuitive idea we would have to swallow is that to find better art, we may to have sublimate part of our humanity.



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