Thursday, February 26, 2009

Improve your PowerPoint Presentations

A recent posting on Slide:ology, Duarte Design’s blog, provides some helpful, easy-to-implement tips for improving PowerPoint presentations: Lessons from TED: 5 Simple Tweaks

My post on Effective PowerPoint Presentations has additional suggestions.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More Houses Around the World

The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story, Julia Reed
Julia Reed is in love with New Orleans – the quirky people, the food, the laid-back lifestyle. She eventually marries and buys a house on St. Charles Street, and the book chronicles the trials and tribulations of renovations – which culminate in Hurricane Katrina.

The book provides a moving tribute to the people of New Orleans as they seek to re-establish their city and their homes after the hurricane. This is a must-read for anyone who has visited or wants to visit New Orleans.

Driving over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia, Chris Stewart
While Julia Reed is spending thousands of dollars having paint shipped from Farrow and Ball and buying Empire corner tubs and showers with three heads from the Waterworks catalogue, Chris Stewart is buying 37 sheep and constructing a bridge to a remote farmhouse in the Alpujarras mountain valley in southern Spain. Stewart relies on locals to teach him how to build a stone house, clean out the Roman water channels and harvest the olives. It’s hard to believe that such a remote, rural area still existed just a few years ago.

I particularly enjoyed this book because I will be spending three weeks in Andalucia in May. But I know I wouldn’t be prepared to live in such a rural area with so few modern conveniences. But then – there are no hurricanes in Andalucia.

See my earlier post for more books about Houses Around the World.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Rethinking the Questions

The following 20-minute video (from the O'Reilly Radar website) is an interview with Clay Shirky, who consults, teaches and writes on the social and economic effects of Internet technology. He raises a number of interesting points, two of which particularly caught my attention.

First of all, he says that publishers need to rethink the role of daily newspapers. Do people really want or need a daily newspaper when there is constantly-updated information available online?

Shirky says it’s important to rethink the questions and not simply to reproduce newspapers in a different format. He cites the example of the man who invented the steamboat. The successful model was not his first attempt – that had been an experiment to use steam to power the oars on a rowboat.

Shirky comments that digital technology has lowered the cost of failure. We can experiment more because the start-up costs are less. However, we have to be prepared to pull out fast if our experiments aren’t successful. The person who is learning and adapting the fastest will be the most successful.

Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations was published in 2008 and looks at the ways in which technology can support group action.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Refuse the Stereotypes

Saskatoon’s First Female Police Inspector
My sister in law has been promoted and is now the first woman Inspector in the Saskatoon Police Service. I am delighted – for so many reasons.

Shelley certainly merits the promotion. She’s brought intelligence, creativity, honesty and hard work to every position she’s held – from bicycle patrol to policy development to coordinating a conference for the International Association of Women Police.

But I’m also delighted to see that the Saskatoon Police Service is recognizing and rewarding officers like Shelley. And I’m delighted to know that women are breaking through the glass ceiling. When Shelley entered the police force, there were 10 women officers; now there are 90. That’s a significant increase.

Finally, I’m delighted that the media gave this story such a high profile. Because it’s a good news story, and the media has a tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive.

Negative Stereotypes
Our society has become so cynical. We think politicians are corrupt, City workers are lazy, and police officers can’t be trusted. Is that really true? And why are we focussing on the bad news stories rather than the good?

Over the past six months, I have interviewed a number of Saskatoon’s civic managers. It was an eye opener. These people truly care about being good role models for their staff and about making a positive difference in the lives of City residents.

These municipal employees are not paper shufflers whose only interest is in getting ahead personally. They are bringing intelligence and creativity to problem solving and devoting time and energy to creating a better community.

Positive Energy
Sure, some people are lazy and dishonest. But let’s focus our attention on those who aren’t. Think how much positive energy we can create by celebrating the good in our society and by believing that each of us can make a difference in our world.

Photo credit: Greg Pender, Saskatoon Star Phoenix

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Professional Website

Well - one more step forward in marketing myself as a freelance communications specialist!
I now have a website outlining my skills and experience. Please visit.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Marketing Your Product: Part I

I bought a terrarium for my budgies this week. Not a typical purchase. I was looking for a way to give my birds more room to move without letting them fly all around the apartment. My brother pointed out the flexible terrariums in the pet store – they’re like large mesh tents – and that seemed to fit the bill.

The pet store didn’t sell the size I needed, so I went online to try and find a source. The manufacturers of the product I’d seen in the pet store don’t sell online. Another company had a similar product, but they didn’t sell in Canada. By trial and error, I found Pets and Ponds, a Canadian company that does sell online, and their freight charges were very reasonable.

I was looking for a very specific product, and I was able to find it by searching online. I will probably never buy from that company again, but it doesn’t matter. They were there when I needed them, and they were prepared to deliver the product to my doorstep.

Thanks to the internet, companies can shift their focus from trying to reach people who aren’t aware of their product to providing the products that people are looking for.

The Personal Touch
I recently stumbled upon Camellia Sinensis, a Montreal company that sells loose-leaf tea. I enjoy trying out new teas, but what really impressed me about this site was their blog.

In a weekly posting, they describe their buying trips to India and Taiwan to purchase tea; they introduce some of the farmers who grow the tea; and they provide tips on the best way to prepare tea and describe the different varieties.

Through their blog, the store owners demonstrate their knowledge and provide a personal touch despite being online. I placed an order.

Personal Marketing
I am trying to take a similar approach in marketing myself as a freelance writer. I’m developing a website, but I’m also using my blog to write about communications topics such as resume writing, oral history or technical writing. Potential customers can get a feel for how I write and for how I approach a communications project. And perhaps I can attract customers, not only locally but nationally or internationally.

As Seth Godin says in his book, Meatball Sundae: Is your marketing out of sync?, “You can dream of the AOL strategy or the Oprah strategy or some other strategy that involves vast amounts of cash or vast amounts of attention. Far more realistic (and profitable) is to ignite your networks. To create a story that spreads from person to person, from blog to blog, that moves through a community and leaves an impact as it does.”

What is your Experience?
I’d be very interested in receiving feedback. Do you have some examples of successful marketing techniques? What would you recommend?

In my next post, I’ll provide some further examples of techniques that organizations can use to promote their products or services.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Corporate Storytelling

Once Upon a Time
I have been hired by several municipal organizations in the last year to document complex, innovative projects. The projects involved a large number of people from several departments or organizations at the political, managerial and operational levels. I was asked to interview the key stakeholders and to prepare a report that would serve as not only an archival record of their accomplishments but also a how-to guide for other organizations.

Taking a journalistic approach, I incorporated quotes and specific anecdotes into the reports. The reports integrate information from a wide range of people and convey not only facts but emotions. Storytelling techniques make the reports far more interesting and provide a much more adequate sense of what was involved in the project and why it matters.

Stories Teach and Inspire
Why do we enjoy listening to stories? Chip Heath (author of Made to Stick, as quoted in PresentationZen) says “What we yearn for is to listen to an intelligent and evocative – perhaps at times even provocative – human being who teaches us, or inspires us, or who stimulates us with knowledge plus meaning, context, and emotion in a way that is memorable. And that is where story comes in. Information plus emotion and visualization wrapped in unforgettable anecdotes are the stuff that stories are made of.”

Quotes and Interviews
I edit a monthly sales newsletter for Axon Development Corporation. The centrepiece of almost every issue is an interview with a satisfied customer. The customers explain, in their own words, how the product has saved their company money and how easy it is to use.

Listening to an actual customer, who is providing specific anecdotes, is far more compelling than simply listing the benefits of a product. For example: “So it’s probably saved the two of us at least 20 man hours per week each. It’s incredible. And I’m a carpal tunnel sufferer so it’s helped me there too because I don’t do hours and hours of repetitive data entry any more.” (Corina Roth, Tempo Transport Inc., Software News, June 2008)

Tell Me a Story
People like stories – from bedtime stories for toddlers to soap operas on television. But we tend to forget how powerful stories can be when we’re writing for business. That’s a mistake. Stories about your company's latest accomplishment or about a customer’s experience with your product are an extremely effective way to convey information.

(For further information, take a look at the electronic newsletter of the International Association of Business Communicators. They devote a whole issue to Storytelling.)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Wine - Expensive, but Does It Taste Good?

There is an aura and mystique surrounding wine. But it is also big business, contributing to the economy of many countries around the world. People have been growing grapes and making wine for thousands of years. In the past, it was grown on small plots, and different regions specialized in different types of grapes (pinot, gamay, etc.). The vineyard owners had a close connection with their land – the location, the climate and the weather. The drive to produce wine in large quantities for distribution around the world has brought changes.

The Battle for Wine and Love
In her book, The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, Alice Feiring expresses outrage that so many winemakers are now producing wines that all taste the same. Using chemicals and technology, they are manipulating the wine so that, regardless of its origin – its terroir – the wine is oaky, fruity and high in alcohol (properties much praised by wine critic Robert Parker). Feiring travels in France, Italy and Spain, ferreting out the winemakers who are continuing to use traditional methods of making wine. Some are organic, some are biodynamic – distinctive wines that reflect their terroir.
Feiring’s book reinforced my desire to eat locally-grown products and products from small producers living in harmony with the earth – asparagus sold by a local farmer at Saskatoon’s Farmer’s Market, bread from a small bakery where I have actually met the baker – and now wine made by a winemaker who respects the land and uses as few artificial products and procedures as possible.
A Fool and Forty Acres
One such winemaker is Geoff Heinricks, author of A Fool and Forty Acres: conjuring a vineyard three thousand miles from Burgundy. Heinricks moves his family to Prince Edward County, Ontario to start a vineyard of Pinot Noir grapes. Like generations of pioneers before him, he heaves rocks from the ground and carefully hand plants each vine. Prince Edward County is not traditional wine country so Heinricks is coping with cold winters on top of raccoons, voles and birds that start stealing the berries as soon as they are sweet. Heinricks’ love of the land, of its history, and of growing grapes is evident in every word he writes.

The poetry of Al Purdy, who also lived in Prince Edward County, opens every chapter of the book and complements Heinricks’ writing: “it’s as if a man stuck / both thumbs in the stony earth and pulled / it apart / to make room / enough between the trees / for a wife / and maybe some cows and / room for some / of the more easily kept illusions” (The Country North of Belleville).

The Billionaire’s Vinegar
In contrast, The Billionaire's Vinegar: the mystery of the world's most expensive bottle of wine by Benjamin Wallace is less about wine than it is about money: rich people who spend a fortune collecting more wine than they could possibly drink in several lifetimes; wine that is purchased to display, not to drink; wine that is two hundred years old and may no longer taste good. They hold wine tastings that last a full week in heritage castles, serving one wine after another from breakfast until late at night – one upmanship as each wine aficionado tries to outdo the others. And money breeds greed so there are fake wines – fake labels and corks, a new wine in an old bottle, and on and on.

All three books are well worth reading. For additional recommendations, have a look at my favourite books of 2008.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Capturing Screen Shots

As a freelance writer working from home, it’s important for me to be able to communicate effectively by email. A picture is often easier to understand than a verbal explanation so I really appreciate being able to use Jing to capture a screen shot.

One of my ongoing assignments is to write Help for an integrated trucking and accounting software package (Axon Development Corporation). I take a screen shot when I am writing documentation for a specific screen and need more information about how it works or if I receive an error message when I’m trying to update the software. I can send the image to Axon to show them exactly what I’m talking about.

Once you’ve captured the screen shot, Jing provides you with tools to add highlighting or arrows or a textbox. This has been very helpful when preparing screen shots for a presentation. I’ve also used screen shots as illustrations in Axon’s newsletter.

You can also use Jing to record a video of your actions.

Jing is a handy, effective tool – and it’s free.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Lambic Beer

I was given two bottles of Kriek Boon lambic beer for Christmas. I had no idea what it was – so I did some research.

Lambic beer has been brewed in Belgium for over 500 years. A mix of unmalted wheat and barley malt, it relies on wild fermentation, picking up yeast and bacteria from the air to convert the grains to alcohol. It’s a fruity beer as the hops are added as a preservative rather than to give the beer a bitter taste.

Kriek Boon is a fruit lambic. In this case, cherries were steeped in the beer, which then undergoes a secondary fermentation. The secondary fermentation uses up the sugar in the fruit so you’re left with a dry beer with a strong fruit flavour - reminiscent of cider but with an aftertaste of beer.

Not all lambic beers are made in the traditional way. Some add fruit syrup rather than steeping actual fruit that undergoes a secondary fermentation. Others are pasteurized or use prepared yeasts.

But the Boon beer is made using traditional methods and is extremely tasty. According to Cava Secreta which distributes it in Saskatoon, it has been aged for two years in oak vats and contains a minimum of 200 grams of real cherries per litre. It also relies on spontaneous fermentation. I highly recommend it.

Note: photo of beer label is from Corey and Nate’s Beer Labels.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Vancouver Pleasures

I have just spent a week in Vancouver with family. Walks by the ocean, good food and wine, birds and flowers, and history were highlights of my trip.

Ocean Views
Vancouver residents take advantage of the parks and walks by the ocean. You can follow the sea wall along English Bay and around Stanley Park – there are always joggers and people walking dogs. Or you can stroll along False Creek, meander through Granville Island and onwards to Jericho Beach. You can also take the ferry across False Creek or catch a Seabus to North Vancouver.

Out of the Rain
The Bloedel Conservatory is a wonderful place to visit on a grey, rainy day. Over 100 birds of various species fly freely within the dome, and there is a fragrant assortment of tropical plants and flowers. The Conservatory is located in Queen Elizabeth Park, the highest point in Vancouver, and offers panorama views of the downtown core, the harbour and the mountains of North Vancouver.

The Vancouver Aquarium is fascinating. There are fish of every size, shape and colour. The sea otters are a delight to watch as they float on their back and clean their fur. You can watch the dolphins leap through the air or admire Tiqa, the baby beluga.
I had the opportunity to watch a play at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage. The Stanley is one of Vancouver’s heritage buildings; it originally opened as a movie theatre in 1930. It is now the main stage for the Arts Club Theatre Company. The Constant Wife by Somerset Maugham was a delight – clever, funny dialogue and excellent acting.

Roedde House is a restored, middle-class home of the 1890s. The house was designed by Francis Rattenbury, who also designed the Provincial Legislature buildings in Victoria, for the Roedde family. Gustav and Matilda Roedde were German immigrants who owned a bookbinding and printing business in early Vancouver. There is an octagonal parlour/music room, a sewing room nestled behind the girls’ bedrooms, a windowed turret where the children slept in the summer, and a large pantry and kitchen.

Food and Wine
I ate extremely well. The Fish House in Stanley Park has an extensive weekend brunch menu and live jazz on Thursday evenings. The students at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts prepare and serve an excellent three-course meal in pleasant surroundings at the entrance to Granville Island. You can take the Granville Island Ferry to Nu restaurant. The circular restaurant is surrounded by windows overlooking False Creek and serves a wonderful truffle-flavoured mushroom risotto and a melt-in-the-mouth chocolate mousse. (All of these restaurants had good vegetarian options.)
You can get great vegetarian Indian food in cozy surroundings at the Annapurna restaurant on West Fourth. The Mumbai Masala restaurant in North Vancouver serves an excellent lunchtime meal with samples of six different dishes (either vegetarian or non-vegetarian) and naan bread. I have eaten at both these restaurants several times, and the food and service are consistently good.

For a quick breakfast or snack, you can’t beat the fresh baked goods at Terra Breads and the deli at Capers or the fresh fruit at Granville Island Market.

One of my favourite hotels is the Granville Island Hotel. You can watch kayaks, tugs and sailboats from your balcony and step out the door to browse in the market or the artists’ studios.
The Sylvia Hotel is a heritage building constructed in 1912, and its ivy-clad walls are a well-loved city landmark. There are great views of English Bay from the restaurant and many of the rooms. It’s an older hotel with fewer amenities and the walls are paper-thin, but you just can’t beat the location, and the price is very reasonable.