Archive for ‘Art & Culture’

December 8th, 2011

World-Class Deficiency

Earlier this week, someone sent me the strategic planning survey for a small, culturally focused non-profit organization. It’s a scrappy little place: off the coasts and in a community with a long history of economic battering, and yet they have managed to be successful. This organization isn’t a client, but I know some of the people involved and understand their project goals, and so was flattered to have had my name given to their consultants and to be asked for feedback as they develop a new strategic plan.

Until I was stopped dead in my tracks quite early on by a question about what they can do “to achieve world-class excellence.” Hmmm. (1) Nothing. (2) Should “world-class excellence” even be the goal? What on earth does that mean?

It seems as though this term–“world-class,” or sometimes offered as “world class” without the hyphen–is on the rise (again), particularly in the non-profit world. In the last couple of weeks, it has come up in materials for more organizations than I care to count, all attempting to use it as the ne plus ultra of modifiers to signal “We are awesome!” All of them miss that mark.

There are three core problems with using the term “world-class.” First, if we take it at face value, then most organizations / cities / restaurants / experiences just are not that. That’s not snobbishness; rather, that’s clearly the point: to identify one’s group with the (very few) things in this world that are absolutely outstanding and exceptional. Objectively speaking most things do not rise to that level, and most cities and institutions will not become (rapidly, anyway, or based on the wording in a website or a press release) the must-see destination of the year or the century.

Does that suggest “world-class” is just an expression of an aspiration? Perhaps. But why is that the thing to which one wants to aspire? The second problem with the term is that because it’s what so many people say, it fails the test of how to sell or market something. Don Draper never would have stood for it, you can be sure of that; I can just imagine the “Mad Men” episode in which it might come up. He’d have thought it lazy, not to mention a threat to his business: if you can say the same thing about so many different things, with no meaningfully expressed point of differentiation, then why bother saying anything at all?

As a term, “world-class” offers nothing in the way of insight to the person one is trying to seduce: the average visitor is unlikely to decide to come based on whether you have (or have not) described yourself that way, and journalists probably don’t even see the phrase any more because it’s in such common use. If you want to sell your project or engage someone in thinking about your organization or community, find a description that is organic–something that reflects who and what you really are and where you’re actually headed. People–consumers and journalists alike–are more influenced by descriptions that feel genuine and that engage their imaginations, not by generic terms that can be used by anyone.

And that’s the third problem with the term “world-class,” the problem so deftly addressed in “The Incredibles“: if absolutely everyone is special, then no one is. Or rather, then the word “special” loses most of its meaning and value. It should be ok–more than ok, really; it should be acceptable, comfortable–to be “special” within the community that a particular organization is most concerned with engaging. It’s desirable to want to express that, to tell the world that your project or entity is worthy of support and is contributing value to its community. But that does not make it “world-class” by default.

Especially in the world of culture, it’s easy to find wonderful and charming projects that excel within a particular niche–such as a museum with a very specific kind of collection, or a small performing arts group with a focus on music from a specific period or style. Organizations that adopt the “world-class” mantle actually lose their specialness by embracing terminology that no one finds compelling and that, at the same time, wipes out the descriptive qualities that might help them appeal to both their core audiences and new ones, too. Being “world-class” is harder than simply saying it, and also less meaningful–to the worldly, anyway–than it may appear.

November 6th, 2011

Telling Stories, And Living Them

Fifteen years ago, a client called my bosses and asked to have me removed from their account. This was a big account for the firm financially, and one that was both demanding and challenging. It was difficult not to take it personally.

I was reminded of this “anniversary” recently when I read a short post on Seth Godin‘s blog, about a business relationship gone awry. This item was so short it’s easy to recount with a single quote: “When pressed, though, she couldn’t actually recall what the problem had been, or how much financial or project damage had been done. All she remembered was that she didn’t like him.”

Yes, well, that could apply to many situations—and probably many of us have been there.


There are all sorts of ways to describe what I do as a communications consultant to cultural institutions. My colleagues and I help clients evaluate and set goals; we develop strategies to meet their goals; and we work with them to develop messages and create platforms for them to speak about or otherwise demonstrate what they do, whether that is through written materials, public programs and events, or tools like social media. (There are other parts of the job, too; harder to describe, and I often put them under the umbrella of “consigliere-psychologist.”)

But when it comes right down to it, once you push past the business jargon around “communications,” the thing that we help clients do is simple: tell their stories. The audiences for these stories may be external—journalists, or potential visitors—or internal, to help one part of the organization understand the needs of another. Ultimately, that’s what communication is all about: getting your story across as best you can, and hoping someone else finds it compelling. It’s definitely the part of my job that is easiest to explain or witness externally.

And you’re thinking: well, that’s fine, but how does that relate to this thing about relationships and getting kicked off an account?

Simple: relationships are also about stories. Whether business or personal, they are the things that we tell ourselves (and others) about how we feel about particular people or groups. In Godin’s example, the woman was essentially replaying for herself a particular narrative—a very broad one, without much detail, that always led to the same conclusion. Once these stories are written, they are difficult to re-write.

Fifteen years ago, I knew something had gone wrong in my relationship with this client, I just didn’t know what. I found out five years later when, under different circumstances, I met someone from my former client who had the details: I had shown up to a meeting carrying a backpack. To them, that said something about me that had nothing to do with qualifications, and created a narrative they couldn’t get over.

It’s easy to laugh now—especially since these days backpacks are de rigeur for many New York business men. But it’s why I think Godin’s post epitomizes the challenges and, more importantly, the opportunities of (business) relationships. When relationships are good, projects are often even more successful: the internal narrative we build for ourselves subconsciously will be better, and the work that we do and the client does will also be better. You get engaged, committed; you want the best for your clients, not just because that’s what they pay for but because you have invested in the relationship with them. Success (and sometimes failure) nurtures these relationships, but good relationships are about more than just success.

It’s also increasingly clear that these different levels of understanding are reached slowly, and often through indirect means. There are lots of news stories about social media tools being (mis)used and causing problems in the workplace, but they can be just as beneficial in helping people learn about and understand each other. These tools help people write their own public narratives, and they may be funny or boring, shocking or banal—but you learn something either way.

Commitment counts, of course. So do simple things like understanding each other’s working processes and goals. In my business, it helps to be smart, a nimble thinker, and to have a good understanding of human psychology. But the longer I work in this field, the more I find that it is often the internalized stories we have about our relationships that are as critical as the working processes or the external outcomes. Those stories are what drive emotional responses around whether we trust people or feel they understand our goals. And that is hard to beat.

October 16th, 2011

Reading IS Fundamental

Last night, I sat next to my daughter in her room, she reading a Muppet book, and me reading Ashenden. Truth be told, I wasn’t getting a lot of reading done: every other minute, she asked me to help her make sense of a new word, so we would sound it out together, and then she would move on, and I would read another sentence until her next question. But at some point in this episode, much like Trixie, I realized something.

This was an extremely unusual scene.

The reading itself is not unusual. My daughter loves books and has from an early age; she’s the kind of kid who is quite likely to grow up to be a voracious reader. She has two shelves of books in her room, and another shelf of her own in the living room, and while she’s too young to articulate it this way, I think she takes pride in the books’ presence and what they offer: the opportunity to grab one and read it, no matter how familiar, and enjoy it all the same. I love books too, both the reading of them and the collecting of them, and have for as long as I can remember. I grew up surrounded by books, inherited libraries from people, and knew they were the one thing my father would always buy upon request. Books were and are essential to me. (The shift to the ebook is vexing, and very much a separate subject. But beyond the philosophical issues they raise is a simple, practical one: it feels not quite as authentic to catalog them when their very presence is so ethereal.)

So what was unusual about this scene? I realized that while I read constantly, I couldn’t remember the last time my daughter actually saw me reading a book, an actual book–and that saddened me quite a bit.

I am fairly sure she knows that I read books; our house is filled with them, and there’s a whole shelf and stack next to my side of the bed. She’s a smart girl, and my guess is that without ever thinking about it, she assumes I read those books just as she reads hers.

Yet that assumption isn’t the same thing is the literal, in-front-of-your-eyes knowledge of seeing your parents reading. It just can’t be. In an all-digital, iEverything age, the shared experiences of families takes a different form, and this whole thing gave me one more reason to feel slightly sad about its seeming inescapability. When I was young, I saw my parents reading all the time. Sure, they did other things too, but on a summer weekend afternoon, my dad was often inseparable from a book, or from one issue out of a stack of New Yorkers or New York Review of Books that he was trying to catch up on. I understood implicitly that this was an activity central to his life. I want my daughter to be able to say the same about me. Likewise, I want her to know the shared joy that comes from reading together–reading separate things, together, in the same place, whether it’s on a beach in summer or around a fireplace in winter, or just on a random evening at home.

With all these digital devices, her experience is different–as is mine, of course. I read, often, but holding my phone or my iPad I could just as easily be playing a game; there’s no book spine to give it away. Likewise, I spend time with these devices writing (as I am now, drafting on my iPad, editing on my laptop), and while she can discover these blogs when she’s older and look back with some understanding of what I might have been doing while typing away … I could just as easily have been sending a text message or an email or something else equally fleeting.

In theory, the fix for this should be easy: read more–more books, especially–around my daughter. This will likely be just as important for my younger son, who likes books but who could probably do with more evident modeling of the Life of a Reader. Talking more about books would help, too, to make evident the connection between their physical presence and our digestion of them. I love being a writer, and that’s an identity I would be happy to have my daughter understand–but as a writer, few things are as important as good readers. And as a reader, I want her to have the best shot I can provide at staying engaged with books for the rest of her life.

June 12th, 2011

2 Short, 1 Long

With the acquisition of my iPad has come an exploration of the world of ebooks and Kindle software. I had resisted previously–I do enough digital reading as it is, and I like the certainty and feel of printed words on bound pages–but in adding the large screen to the smaller one of my phone, my defenses against at least trying it out started to crumble. I can say now that I’m not sorry; at least, not entirely.

First I discovered Barry Eisler’s first short story “The Lost Coast,” featuring Daniel Larison, a wayward special ops agent from his most recent novel, “Inside Out.” Eisler has become even more famous recently for walking away from a big, traditional publishing deal in order to pursue the world of self-publishing aggressively. “The Lost Coast” was a good read, and Eisler clearly has a talent for story telling that works just as well in a short format.

Larison, on the run from his former bosses, is skulking around the quieter bits of California, keeping his own company as much as possible. In “Inside Out,” Eisler cast Larison is gay, an element one might not have imagined or predicted–but also one that he makes seem as natural and normal for a special ops agent as … well, as it probably is in real life. Here this is the twist on which the plot turns, and the story again marries Eisler’s traditional strengths of combat strategy and martial arts with his liberal politics. However, where “Inside Out” got preachy, “Lost Coast” just knuckles down, literally and figuratively. A couple bits were more gruesome than expected, but this story was so gripping that I wound up installing the Kindle app on my iPhone just so I could keep reading.

That led me to “Paris is a Bitch,” Eisler’s next short story, which picks up the tale of the half-Japanese / half-American assassin John Rain and his Mossad-agent girlfriend Delilah. Rain is the focus of an extended (and terrific) series by Eisler, and it is one of the author’s singular skills that he has made Rain a sympathetic figure: one cannot help but cheer him on, despite his deadly assignments. Here we find John Rain employing his traditionally well-tuned antennae to resist an attack, and deploying his own martial arts and combat strategies right on time. We also gain insight on aspects of Rain’s emotional side that Eisler has been slowly teasing out over the last couple of books. If slightly less visceral than “The Lost Coast,” it is nonetheless entertaining and a must-read for Rain fans.

Both ebooks include chapters from Eisler’s new novel-in-process, “The Detachment,” which will bring Rain and Larison together with a few other characters and, already from the first three chapters, it’s clear it will be a killer thriller, all puns intended. My only regret is about the ebook format: as digital short stories, I don’t have them available to put on my shelf next to the other Eisler novels. If that sounds like a small complaint in this context well, yes, it is. But as a collector of books, I like having more than a mere virtual possession of the things I read. Perhaps some day Eisler will release an actual book of his short stories.


Print isn’t the issue with the longer book I read on my iPad, Lee Goldberg’s entertaining story “The Man With The Iron On Badge.” For any fan of John D. MacDonald’s series of novels with Travis McGee, or any devout followers of 70s-era detective TV shows, this story (also available in print) is a must. But I will say that one character that came to mind repeatedly (though unreferenced by Goldberg) was Lawrence Block’s delightful Chip Harrison. Goldberg seems to be channeling a similar kind of late-adolescent delight in watching his detective-obsessed Harvey Mapes become a man. No matter what format you choose, this story is fun.