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Citizen Cray


I scored my first post-collegiate job working in government communications for an affluent suburb of Columbus. It was a great job. While most of my friends were busy fetching coffee and frantically filing for eight hours a day, I was photographing parades, pinch hitting city council meetings and occasionally riding along with police officers. (Hel-lo uniforms!) Not a bad gig for a twenty-something.

Our department consisted of a small (but mighty) team of two. My boss and I were a dynamic duo. We managed everything from press releases to employee appreciation gigs, media requests to website management to citywide special events. We also took all the weird calls.

Let me explain what I mean by that. In a city of 30,000+ residents, we were the two people responsible for handling all the calls, issues and problems other departments couldn't -- or wouldn't. And no matter how bewildering, asinine or just-plain-insane, we had to do it with a smile.

If you've never worked in government, it's easy to dismiss this as no big deal. Like you, I assumed the worst thing I would face might be complaints about potholes or the timeliness of snow removal. Wrong. So wrong.

NBC's Parks & Rec came along at the tail end of my municipal government career, but I've been a loyal viewer since episode one. Their writers have captured the true depths of muni government insanity with such accuracy it regular blows my mind. My favorite scenes -- by far -- are the "citizen comments" moments in any given meeting episode.

I recently stumbled across a compilation of said comments, and pretty much want to fist bump whoever came up with these.

Everyone laughs, tickled by the craziness of the hyperbole. Those of us who have been through the muni government experience  laugh for a different reason: it's funny 'cause it's true. It's funny because it's not really exaggerated at all. It's funny because it's our daily reality.

My single regret of the time I spent government is that I didn't write down every "WTF" call and conversation I had over the years. Rarely did a day go by that someone didn't give me a reason to wonder is this real life? But a few of the classic hits have stuck with me.

Today I share them with you: 

Caller: Yes. I'd like to make a complaint. I was just driving down X Street and noticed that [new BBQ restaurant] smells too much like BBQ. What are you going to do about it?

Caller: I was just running through [park with pond] and there are geese everywhere. There's goose poop all over. It's getting stuck in the tread of my shoes. I noticed the fire station is next door. I thought you might have them spray the geese with the fire hose. Not enough to harm them, mind you. Just enough to warn them it's time to move on. 

(Note: According to the internet, water exits a firehose at roughly 30 to 80 mph. I'm not mathematician, but accordingly to my calculations if a train leaves Boston at 3:45 p.m. traveling at speeds of 30-80 mph, those geese are so dead.)

Caller: I'm appalled that the city is letting [upscale boutique] promote promiscuity by selling panties. There are mannequins in their front window wearing lacy undergarments. That's just indecent! 

(Note: To this day I still wonder about her logic. If people are buying underwear doesn't that mean they are wearing underwear? And really, isn't wearing underwear the exact opposite of indecent?)

Caller: What's the number to a paint store?

Caller: I'm finding feces on my lawn!! Someone is letting their dog defecate on my lawn!! I only have a small dog and this is large feces, so I know it's not my dog. I'd like the health department to DNA test the feces and tell me what breed of dog is defecating on my lawn. 

Caller: Where is the ice cream man!?!??
Me: Pardon?
Caller: I can hear him, but I can't see him. WHERE IS HE?
Me: Um, unfortunately we wouldn't have that information.
Caller: I know you know his route now tell me where he is!! He's not coming down our street and that's discrimination.
Me: Ma'am, I'm sorry, we only issue vendor licenses. We wouldn't have his route.
Caller: I'm calling [local news program] to report you for withholding public information.

Various callers: I need an officer sent to my house because:

  • There's a bat in my house.
  • There's a dragonfly in my house.
  • My toddler won't listen to me.

What the Heck Is a Ghost Writer?

ghost I got my marketing start in copywriting. Despite what Mad Men would have you believe, it's a role that requires a great deal of humility in addition to creative talent. (Think Peggy Olson in the early years.) There is very little room for recognition as a copywriter. Even in an agency, the majority of what you do remains cloaked in anonymity, with credit going to your client. As someone once pointed out, Nike's "Just Do It" is one of the most famous slogans in the world, and the only person that knows who came up with it is that guy's mother." (Actually, there is a story behind the slogan, but you get the point.)

What is a ghost writer? While most people are aware that agencies and freelancers are often the masterminds behind marketing strategies and advertising campaigns, what many people don't realize is that there are thousands of ghost writers flying under the radar as the public voices of CEOs, thought leaders and industry influencers. In its most simplified form, a ghostwriter is someone who writes books, articles, stories, reports or other texts that are officially credited to someone else. (Surprise! That social media guru you follow? That CEO whose witty post you saw in Fast Co.? Entirely possible someone else wrote their posts.)

Whoa, whoa, whoa. What!? Yep. It's true. But it's not as icky as you might think -- and I guarantee it's a heck of a lot more common than you could possibly imagine.

How does ghost writing work? Demian Farnworth compares ghost writing to being a hired assassin in The Brutally Honest Truth about Ghost Writing. I prefer to compare it to the lifecycle of a really good meal. The farmer puts in the time and energy to sow, grow and harvest food. It is then trucked off to a restaurant where the chef uses her special blend of culinary creativity, vision and artistry to turn raw ingredients into a menu-worthy symphony of deliciousness.

Ghost writing works in pretty much the same way. Business leaders are busy people. They've spent years of their lives sowing the seeds to grow their companies, and their minds are packed with knowledge, advice and insights. In some instances, they are self-professed "crappy writers" and simply want someone to make them sound as intelligent on paper are they are in person. (And who can blame them?) In almost every instance, taking a few hours out of their day to write an article is not a good use of their time, especially when they could simply hop on a call, answer a handful of questions and let someone else do the heavy lifting (or at least the lifting of the pen). And that's where a ghost writer comes in.

Is ghost writing ethical? One of the biggest questions surrounding ghost writing is whether it is "entirely ethical." Is it wrong for a CEO to outsource thinking and writing to a ghost writer, then get on stage at TEDx to present those thoughts and words as her own? Is it ethical for a social media guru to give advice on how to blog when his posts are created by a team of ghost writers? Does the simple exchange of money for services make this all okay?

I view my clients as people, not a means to a paycheck, and I don't work with anyone I wouldn't want to be friends with in my personal life. I'm of the opinion that there are different types of ghost writing -- and all are not created equal. For me, the true deciding factor is a matter of partnership. Should writers be selling their independent thoughts to the highest bidder? That feels a little weird to me. Using their skills to polish the thoughts and experiences of others, however, makes perfect sense. The crux of my role as a ghost writer is taking the raw knowledge and expertise a client has amassed in order to turn it into something smart, inspiring and shareable. By working together, I get to help send their ideas out into the world to educate and inspire the masses. And you can rest assured, I sleep well at night knowing I've saved my clients valuable time, energy and money.

Need a pen-for-hire? Let's talk.

On Writing Clear and Hard About What Hurts

As a writer, I love words. I believe in words. They open us up, shake out our souls, draw us together, and sometimes, pull us apart. They are the most fundamental brick of history, a timeless capsule, a message in a bottle we’ve been launching for the greater whole of human existence. I have always found it strange to self-identify as a “writer.” In my experience, when you tell people “I am a writer,” they look at you as though you’ve just announced you are leaving the priesthood to track narwhals for the remainder of your life.

It’s even more bizarre when it is the others who identify you as such.

“I’ve been doing this since first grade,” I want to tell them. “I won a handwriting contest in 6th grade. You won’t believe what I can do with a steamy bathroom mirror or a grocery list.” (But that would be a bit snotty, I realize.)

Sometimes I cannot tell whether I am the happiest girl to ever pick up a pen or if I rue the day ink was born. Nobody tells you what this world is really like. (Though I suppose I could have guessed had I paid more attention to the bottle-bottom wisdom of Hemingway and Bukowski in the latter parts of their lives.)

Writers live in a suspended state of voluntary solitude, surrounded but alone. We speak to everyone and no one. The feelings, the thoughts, the experiences are our own, but we forget ahead, flinging them into outer space and onto the page in the hopes of finding something marvelous waiting for us on the end of the line. We yell into the abyss to await the echo. We offer up the best parts of ourselves to strangers and acquaintances like yearbook signatures and casual Christmas cards.People come and go, taking a piece of us with them.

“Write hard and clear about what hurts,” Hemingway once said. Never one for the rules, I opted to write hard and clear about what I know. I wrote about the secret lives of neon lights, the smell of summer, the first person to add chili powder to chocolate ice cream. I wrote about country drives, bouquets of wooden spoons and a master plan to stop the weeping willows from weeping, never realizing that all the while I was writing the story of saudade.

I read your book today, cover to cover.

Maybe the road trip takers and fragile, fearless souls aren’t so different after all.


This post was originally shared on Medium 

Humanifesto 2.0 Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I really love a manifesto. Few things humanize a brand more than laying it all out there, opening the kimono and letting the world in on what you stand for and stand behind.

I recently stumbled across a page of quotes from author Stan Slap. (How’s that for an awesome name?) As I perused them, they started to read more like a brilliant manifesto than a bunch of individual quotes. I mashed them together. Take a peek…

Lead your own life first. The only thing in this world that will dependably happen from the top down is the digging of your grave. Work/life balance is not about escaping work. It’s about living exactly the way you want to when you’re at work.

I want to be in healthy relationships. I want a real connection with people I spend so much time with. Who creates trust and higher purpose amongst their people and gets unparalleled levels of support for common goals. Hard-core results come from igniting the massive power of emotional commitment. I want to know the work I do means something to somebody and helps make the world, if not a better place, not a worse one.

The high quality of a company’s customer experience rarely has anything to do with the high price of their product. The company may have captured their minds, their bodies and their pockets, but that doesn’t mean it’s captured their hearts. You don’t have to fear your own company being perceived as human. You want it. People don’t trust companies; they trust people.

Message Matters: Just Ask the Lightning Bug

lightning bug time lapse Last week I was watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.” One of the restaurant owners featured in this particular episode made a comment that struck a chord with me:

There’s a difference between saying “good evening” and “welcome.”

MESSAGE MATTERS. The words you choose to use mean something to the people you communicate with.

There’s a Mark Twain quote that I really love. As a writer, it has become something of a touch stone I carry with me for those restless, frustrating moments when a work is *so close,* but not quite there.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Find your lightning bug, writers. The just-right word is worth the wait.

12 Tidbits of Wisdom for Writers (via Ernest Hemingway)

hemingway Ernest Hemingway would have been 113 on Saturday. In honor of the grand (and oftentimes irreverent) thinker, writer and life enthusiast, I spent some time digging back through the litany of wisdom he left behind.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

“Write drunk; edit sober.”

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

“As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.”

“The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it.”

“In order to write about life first you must live it.”

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”

“Write hard and clear about what hurts. ”

CHIME IN: What’s your best piece of writing advice?

Defining Good Writing

writing hands Last week someone posed an interesting question: “What makes writing good?” The more I tried to answer, the more it felt like trying to describe the color yellow or explain infinity.

When you stumble across a piece of good writing, you just get it. You feel it before you know it. You’re compelled to save it, savor it, share it.

A good writer fades into the background of their own story. They don’t just tell you about a place, they transport you there. Good writers don’t just describe characters, they introduce you to strangers who ultimately become friends. Good writing makes you feel as though you have been somewhere, met someone and done something new. When you close the book, you walk away with a feeling that you better understand the world around you.

I’ll soon be heading to New Orleans for my first NOLA experience. While reading through some literary tidbits about New Orleans, I came across this brilliant piece written by journalist Chris Rose.

Dear America,

I suppose we should introduce ourselves. We’re South Louisiana.

We have arrived on your doorstep on short notice and we apologize for that, but we never were much for waiting around for invitations. We’re not much on formalities like that.

And we might be staying around your town for a while, enrolling in your schools and looking for jobs, so we wanted to tell you a few things about us. We know you didn’t ask for this and neither did we, so we’re just going to have to make the best of it.

First of all, we thank you. For your money, your water, your food, your prayers, your boats and buses and the men and women of your National Guards, fire departments, hospitals and everyone else who has come to our rescue. We’re a fiercely proud and independent people, and we don’t cotton much to outside interference, but we’re not ashamed to accept help when we need it. And right now, we need it. Just don’t get carried away. For instance, once we get around to fishing again, don’t try to tell us what kind of lures work best in your waters. We’re not going to listen. We’re stubborn that way.

You probably already know that we talk funny and listen to strange music and eat things you’d probably hire an exterminator to get out of your yard. We dance even if there’s no radio. We drink at funerals. We talk too much and laugh too loud and live too large and, frankly, we’re suspicious of others who don’t. But we’ll try not to judge you while we’re in your town. Everybody loves their home, we know that. But we love South Louisiana with a ferocity that borders on the pathological. Sometimes we bury our dead in LSU sweatshirts.

Often we don’t make sense. You may wonder why, for instance – if we could only carry one small bag of belongings with us on our journey to your state – why in God’s name did we bring a pair of shrimp boots? We can’t really explain that. It is what it is.

You’ve probably heard that many of us stayed behind. As bad as it is, many of us cannot fathom a life outside of our border, out in that place we call Elsewhere. The only way you could understand that is if you have been there, and so many of you have. So you realize that when you strip away all the craziness and bars and parades and music and architecture and all that hooey, really, the best thing about where we come from is us. We are what made this place a national treasure. We’re good people. And don’t be afraid to ask us how to pronounce our names. It happens all the time.

When you meet us now and you look into our eyes, you will see the saddest story ever told. Our hearts are broken into a thousand pieces. But don’t pity us. We’re gonna make it. We’re resilient. After all, we’ve been rooting for the Saints for 35 years. That’s got to count for something. OK, maybe something else you should know is that we make jokes at inappropriate times. But what the hell.

And one more thing: In our part of the country, we’re used to having visitors. It’s our way of life. So when all this is over and we move back home, we will repay to you the hospitality and generosity of spirit you offer to us in this season of our despair. That is our promise. That is our faith.

How do you define good writing? What work has recently inspired you?

Saying a lot in a little: Tag(line), you’re it!

Copywriters are not typically known for our brevity when it comes to words. Ask any designer, they’ll tell you. There is an epic battle between designers and writers waging on in agencies around the world. Designers: Can we chop the copy by half? Writers: Can we alter the design to include the copy?

As wonderful as wordiness can be in the right situation, there is an undeniable impact that comes along with being able to convey a grand message, passion or purpose in a few succinct words. The best spirit lines, mission statements and vision statements are proof of the point. If you’ve ever sat down to craft one of these streamlined beasts, you’ll understand.

Saying a lot in a little can be one of the greatest challenges a writer will ever face. When it’s bad, it’s really bad. It falls short and fails to capture the spirit of the message you want to convey. It can come off as lazy, misdirected, cliche and boring. But when you get it right, it’s golden. People pay attention. They remember you and your brand.

I recently discovered one such tagline in an unexpected place: a bag of manure. Or “Moo-nure,” rather. Moo-nure is an organic soil containing a not-so-secret ingredient: cow poo. When I lifted the bag into the back of my car, I noticed Moo-nure’s tagline: We Are Number 1 in the Number 2 Business. It made me laugh out loud.

When you know who you are as a brand, understand what you do and have a vision for what you want to become – you want to share that with the world. Finding those few, precious, perfect words may not always be easy, but when you do, you’ll know it. And others will remember it.

And now for a little exercise. A friend recently passed this link along to me.

One life. Six Words. What will yours be?

Getting FRESH(ly Pressed) with New Visitors

An editor at Wordpress just e-mailed to notify me that my post "Life, Death and a Dinner Table" was selected for Freshly Pressed. Pardon me while I repress the urge to jump out of my seat and scream, throw up and throw a parade all at the same time. I am honored. It's a geeky writer's dream come true. (And an item I can now cross off my bucket list and replace with something new.) Even more, it touches my heart that a post that is so near and dear to my heart was selected for this recognition. My grandmother (whose funeral is mentioned in the post) was a writer as well. In many ways, I believe it is just in my DNA. I know she would be so proud. So thank you, whoever is responsible for this.

As for those of you who have wandered here from Freshly Pressed page...Welcome! Hello! Please feel free to wander around, peek in the medicine cabinet and make yourself at home. But before you do that, we should get to know each other.

And there's only one way to do that.

Hi. I'm Amy. Who are you? 

ps: Now for something a little happier (and a whole lot sassier)! 

More Than a Feeling: Message Matters Message matters. That's no big surprise. But "They will never forget how you made them feel" may be truer than anyone realized when it comes to marketing.

Turns out, purely emotional marketing outperforms purely rational marketing by nearly double.

Yesterday I was hard at work re-painting my home office. When Pandora decided to play Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" (all you animal-lovers will understand) I had an immediate response. My emotional trigger was pulled. Within three seconds my thoughts went from "This color paint color is gorgeous!" to "Save the puppies! Help the kitties!" As I started reflecting on the types of things I have passed along and shared with friends over the past couple years, I realized nearly all were strongly emotional. (Last Christmas a Dyson vacuum drew tears!)

So what makes emotional marketing so effective? In this article, Susan Gunelius takes a closer look at 10 common emotional triggers...

  1. Fear: Fear is an emotion that can be used in a wide variety of marketing messages. Insurance companies often appeal to the emotion of fear with messages like "Don't get caught with too little insurance."
  2. Guilt: Consumers are easily affected by messages that trigger emotions of guilt. Nonprofit organizations use the guilt trigger effectively in copy such as "Don't let them suffer anymore."
  3. Trust: Trust is one of the hottest trends in marketing, and every company seems to be trying to jump on the trust bandwagon in their marketing messages. Financial companies are leading the way with messages like "no hidden fees."
  4. Value: Value is another hot trend in marketing, and many promotions appeal directly to the emotional trigger of getting a good deal. For example, promotional messages that say "If you find a better price for the same product, we'll match it" are effective in piquing feelings related to value.
  5. Belonging: Few people truly want to be alone. Human nature dictates that most people want to feel like they belong to a group, and customers often purchase products in an attempt to feel part of a specific group. Many companies effectively appeal to consumers' desires to belong, using copy like "You're part of the family."
  6. Competition: The old adage of keeping up with the Joneses is an adage for a reason. Many consumers are affected by a competitive desire to feel equal to or better than their peers. Copy like "Make them drool" is a great example of a message that elicits feelings of competition.
  7. Instant Gratification: We live in a world where people expect instant gratification in all aspects of their lives. Messages that cater to a sense of urgency are well-received by consumers who already desire instant gratification. Use words like now, today, in one hour or less, within 24 hours, and so on to appeal to the emotional trigger of instant gratification.
  8. Leadership: A lot of consumers want to lead the way in trying new products, and this audience responds strongly to marketing messages that appeal to their feelings related to leadership. Messages that make them feel like they're first or in control are powerful for this audience. Phrases such as "Be the first on your block" effectively appeal to the emotional trigger of leadership.
  9. Trend-setting: Many consumers want to feel cool or trendy, so appealing to those emotions in copywriting is fairly standard. Variations of "all the cool kids are doing it" are commonplace in copywriting and can be used to market a wide variety of products and services to an even wider audience. The famous Gatorade ad featuring Michael Jordan and the copy "Be like Mike" is a perfect example.
  10. Time: In the 21st century, people are busier than ever. As such, they desire more free time to pursue personal interests, spend time with family and friends, and so on. Marketing messages that appeal to that desire for more free time are extremely effective, such as "Cut the time it takes to vacuum your house in half."

And now for the fun part. I have compiled a mini-list of links to handful of commercials, companies, organizations and people doing emotional well. Their message is sticky. Pass-onable. It gets people feeling, which gets people talking - and doing.

The heart is the first feature of working minds. | Frank Lloyd Wright

YOUR TURN TO CHIME IN: Who do you think does emotional well? What (or should I say who) is tugging at your heart strings?