Brand Journalism: write content that rocks with these story-telling fundamentals

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Engaging communities and accomplishing goals with first-rate story-telling is the essence of content marketing and brand journalism, two disciplines taking off with social media’s skyrocketing growth. Being able to speak directly to your audience by publishing content and forgoing the often large and costly effort involved in media relations or push marketing, is an incredible boon to organizations.  Done well it can massively boost companies’ fortunes by attracting new customers, increasing market share and, when executed with precision, building an audience of disciples not just followers.

River Pools, profiled in Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman’s Content Rules a top-notch content creation guide, provides an outstanding example of how superlative content marketing and spot-on story telling can kick a company’s engine into high gear. In a few years, its social media strategy propelled it into the top five per cent of all in-ground pool companies in the USA. Not bad for a single shop business in Virginia facing bankruptcy in 2009. River Pools is not alone in its success; other companies killing it with virtuoso story-telling include Cisco, Home Depot and Boeing.

Not everyone, however, is hitting it out of the ballpark. In fact, some are missing the ball entirely, wasting valuable resources developing stories that fail to connect with the target audience. Writing narratives that hook the reader and leave them wanting more is an easy enough goal to achieve, it just requires knowing and employing the key fundamentals to good storytelling. Here are the ones I keep top-of-mind when aiming for the bleachers:

  1. Know your target audience: Creating content that grabs your audiences’ attention with a herculean grip and doesn’t let go until the story is finished requires a solid understanding of your audience. Develop a true appreciation of the attributes that characterize and distinguish this key group. Knowing their needs, interests and concerns and, as Handley and Chapman say “what keeps them up at night” equips you to develop captivating customer-centric stories. Audience knowledge is also pivotal to developing a unique and relatable voice, my next tip.
  2. Develop a distinct and relatable voice: Voice is a concept just as essential to brand journalism and organizational storytelling as it is to good fiction. Be sure to write with a voice, or style, that reflects your brand’s identity and relates to your target audience. For example, if you’re aiming your arrow at university students avoid language that’s formal, staid or laden with business babble. Instead give your story vibrancy by peppering it with dynamic phrasing, words and colloquialisms they use.
  3. Inform, educate, inspire or entertain: High value content, or in other words content that benefits the target market in some way by informing, educating, inspiring or entertaining them is critical to creating a compelling narrative. Identify your target audience’s top issues and concerns and use those hot topics as the basis for a story. Leveraging your expertise to answer questions or solve problems is a sure-fire route to success and it positions you as a thought leader, an awesome tactic for developing a committed and loyal audience. Avoid self-promotion as the net effect typically is an audience that turns off and tunes out. Instead take a page out of Home Depot’s book; it avoids the hard sell by sharing its DIY knowledge in a strictly informational way and in the process moves a lot of product.
  4. Keep it real: “Authentic” and “factual” are critical components to developing credibility with your target audience. Avoid spin at all costs; it reeks with an odour easily identifiable by even the most naïve of audiences.  Not only will they disconnect from the story but your reputation as a great source of top notch information wafts away. Provide rich examples, speak from the heart and let people know you’re human.  Thoroughly review the context and wording to ensure it’s an honest and transparent representation of the situation.  When dealing with statistics be especially careful as small changes to wording can result in a big change when it comes to the meaning of the numbers.
  5. Polish it so it shines: Edit, proof-read and polish your story so that it’s as dynamic and sharp as it can possibly be. Typos, awkward phrasing or excess words distract the reader from the story and the message is lost in the verbiage. Keep it bright and as light as possible with ruthless editing that strengthens rather than diminishes impact or meaning.

Bottomline, if you’re not leveraging brand journalism to move your organization’s goals forward you’re missing out on a massive opportunity. Capitalize on it by underpinning your stories with these core principles and create content that is beneficial, relevant, authentic and relatable. If you do, you’ll hit it out of the ballpark every time.

Good luck!

 

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I know Renee, aging isn’t easy

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I’m with you Renee. This aging thing isn’t easy. Sags, wrinkles, spots, not to mention crowns (not the kind that come with a palace), glasses, facial hair. I’m not even going to mention night sweats or slowing metabolisms. It’s a tough transition for the gender that has contended with society’s overwhelming focus on our appearance, from childhood were we read fairytales and dressed as princesses to our teenage years where, in my era anyway, there were Miss Teen Canadas, Breck girls and Charlie’s Angels to today where we talk about yummy mommies and MILFs.

And when time’s inevitable march starts leaving its imprint, we’re faced with a proliferation of awesome and ageless examples of what 40, 50 and 60 “look” like.  It doesn’t matter that those examples aren’t real folks but are supermodels and celebrities who’s appearance is inextricably linked to their careers and who have, no doubt, worked tirelessly and spent boatloads cultivating their “agelessness,” we still fall victim to the images and as the bar goes up, our self-esteem plummets.

When I go out with my amazing gal pals who are funny, smart, educated and accomplished women, at some point, sandwiched between bright and lively discussions about real issues, we discuss “corrective” strategies for removing or minimizing the changes taking place to our faces. It’s a new topic for us, but it’s a raw reflection of the anxiety and discomfort we all feel about this natural evolution. Intellectually, I cringe at the conversation. As a mother of a daughter I want to run from it. How can I participate in a discussion that is perpetuating ideas and biases that will limit her and ultimately all of us? But swimming upstream, against such a colossal, culturally-powered current seems next to impossible.  I keep telling myself, we need to worry more about our legacy and less about how we look. Our contributions to the world will define us, not our appearance.  Yet, while the girl power side of me tries to resist the discussion, I fall into it as easily as a needle slides under the skin.

I recently saw Marisa Tomei in Love is Strange, and I was struck not just by her talent – her performance was first-rate – but also by how real she looked. She didn’t look 30. In fact, she kind of looked her age, which is 49. Her skin wasn’t plumped, taut or flawless. A glossy shell didn’t mask signs of a life lived for almost five decades.  As a woman, not only was it liberating and validating to see a female over 30 on the big screen looking her age but it was inspiring to see such an authentic yet awesome version of 49: stylish; fit and healthy; and at the top of her game professionally, fully in command of her well-honed craft.  Like I said, awesome.

As a woman and an actress, she is swimming upstream against that massive current and not only am I cheering her on but I want to thank her on behalf of the sisterhood for helping all of us to be more authentic.  My fingers are tightly crossed she doesn’t waver or falter but soldiers on.  I’ve never been a fan but I am now.  And I can’t help but think wouldn’t it be great if more women joined her ranks.

So to Renee, I’m with you sister and I don’t blame you for doing what you did.  Aging in this hyper-critical, youth-centric world is tough and must be next to impossible living in Hollywood.  I’m sure you did what you felt you needed to, to survive.  And you only did what a gazillion people before you have already done. Who knows, at some point my gal pal discussions may turn to action and I’ll undertake some corrective (God forbid) procedure. But for now I’m committed 150 per cent to going the route of Marisa Tomei and swimming against that soul-sucking current.   Frankly, it’s the only option we have.

Cheers to both women.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My totally awesome, super-great vacation from making dinner

matthewandcoreycooking20140921-00888Something truly awesome happened this past Sunday.  I didn’t make dinner.

As a stay at home mom who likes to cook (generally) I make the vast (i.e. 99.999999 per cent) majority of the meals.  But this past Sunday night was different because I didn’t shop, chop, mince, peel, stir, flip, bake, roast and/or braise. I didn’t lift a finger – or a carrot.   I literally did nothing.

In fact, I sat in a chair and read the paper. The Sunday New York Times actually, a rare and special indulgence that is to me like a belly rub to a puppy or a sprinkle covered cupcake to a four year old. Pure heaven.

And we didn’t use the phone to “make” it; we didn’t hit a local canteen or favourite bistro and we didn’t go hungry.

We had a truly yummy and healthy home cooked meal of hamburgers, caeser salad and steamed green beans in our own home.

Even better than the food was the fact that my 11-year-old son and my husband made it together, a father and son culinary creation that was a fun endeavor, perhaps even an adventure of sorts. They researched, planned, prepped and executed, with Matthew as the head chef or leader and Corey as the sous chef, and throughout the process they chatted, laughed and had fun. It was, as they readily admit, a first-rate opportunity to hang out and “do.” Together.

And what a “do” it was. They modified the original hamburger recipe, adding a special ingredient (Frank’s hot sauce), increased the amount of bacon in the salad (guyifying it as they said) and choose Kawartha Dairy’s Moose Tracks for dessert.  It was pure Matthew and Corey.  They totally owned it, adding their own signature to each dish.  Matthew loved making the hamburger patties.  Smushing, mushing and patting was apparently a pretty cool process. He wanted THICK burgers and so that’s how he made them.

It all went so well I’m now feeling it was an absolute stroke of genius, a flash of brilliance destined to bear multiple fruits that will benefit not just me but my family as well.   In fact, I call them – not to get too over the top with food references – the icings on the cake. Not only have I been feeling somewhat uninspired on the dinner front (after 13 years of leading the supper charge who wouldn’t!), I’ve also been keen to engage my kids in tasks that will equip them with essential life skills while instilling a feeling of capability and competency, two effects critical – as I understand it – to building resiliency in children that all important quality that helps ensure they will survive and thrive regardless of what comes their way. Making dinner, I think, will do just that.

And, another “icing,” is I’m hoping they may discover a new passion in cooking or at the very least gain a new perspective on food (which dare I even say it, might make them more open, even receptive to new cuisine they find on their plates as opposed to the head-shaking, fists clenching, face twisting response usually received.)

So, based on its epic success (I’m sorry I can’t hold back – it happens so rarely!), a new family tradition has been born: on Sunday nights dinner is made in tandem, a faites par deux, as one child joins with my ever supportive husband to make a culinary creation of their own. The child leads and makes all choices in terms of the menu, though they must stick to our one criteria, which is it must be a healthy and balanced meal. Multiple benefits are going to ensue, from the bonding to the learning to the new enthusiasm or perspective on food. It’s a win-win-win.

Oh and the final benefit, did I mention it? I don’t make dinner!

Woooooo-hoooooooo!

 

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With a cup of espresso in hand, I’ll be watching these five hot new TV shows

 

coffeetvconverterI don’t watch enough TV. Truly.  And I’m not trying to be all “I’m so culturally above it” and I’m not suggesting I have way (heavy emphasis) too much happening to bother with superfluous fluff like TV. In fact, I actually love superfluous fluff generally – with terrorists cutting off journalists’ heads, polar ice caps melting and some of the other disturbing events in the news, who doesn’t need a little vicarious fun or candy-like indulgence, every now and then.

Actually TV is right up my alley. Engaging stories; first-rate acting; and easily accessed with a flick of a button from your couch or using your laptop, it’s good, cheap entertainment. Perfect for us financially taxed parents trying to support three children (and a penchant for high-end fashion), while living in the city.  Stay-in, turn-on (the TV honey) and cha-ching, more money for those Italian leather boots I’m coveting. (My accounting, according to my husband, is “creative” and the reason why I shouldn’t be the family’s CFO. But I’m sure many of you account for your purchases the same way, right?).

And, not only am I missing out on a slew of great entertainment but my pop culture acumen – we all have our strengths –is, desperately, in peril.  I used to be a pop culture queen, epically in the know about loads of hip(pish) stuff including TV.  Much of it is still with me.  I know why Mary Richards got the giggles at Chuckle the Clown’s funeral; the moment when Fonzie first said Hey; where Mr. Carlson was when he confessed “As God is my witness I thought turkeys could fly;” and who shot JR in the shadowy corridor of his office with two bullets.   All are great TV moments from shows that were snapshots of the generation that bore them but guess what?  Most people don’t know who Mary Richards or Mr. Carlson are?  In fact, those references typically lead to blank stares from many parents in the yard (I mean school yard but I like calling it “the yard” because it sounds kind of prison-ish which is sometimes – very rarely, of course – how you feel when you’re there).  And even worse, some parents who get those references tell me I should keep them on the down-low i.e. my age is showing. But what can I do? My memory is void of today’s equivalents and sadly TMZ and People can’t fill the gap.

I’m in the dark because, primarily, I’m in the dark – literally – by nine. I can’t stay awake past my kids’ bed time.  Actually, I often fall asleep before my 13 year-old.  I know, “shush” right?  Confessions like these are bound to jeopardize my social quotient but, as Shakespeare (crap – a Shakespeare reference!) would say, s’truth.  Even with Damages, a thoroughly engrossing murder mystery with richly-constructed characters, a tightly woven plot, fabulous fashion (hello!), sharp acting and a setting I adore, New York City, I’d be doing my best Darth Vader impression (i.e loud, deep breathing with mouth open, head flung back, jaw slack) within the first 15 minutes.  Not a pretty picture for my poor husband…..though effective birth control for sure.

So, while I’ve surrendered to not being able to watch the ones I’ve missed out on, – the list is too big and runs a wide gamut – I’m determined to watch a few of this season’s expected-to-be-great-ones.  Here’s my relatively small list (I need to be realistic).  I’ve assembled it from a few key sources, first and foremost of which is the Globe and Mail’s John Doyle:

Honourable Woman:                        John Doyle from the Globe and Mail calls it an astute, tough-minded, thoroughly gripping political drama and, as if that wasn’t enough, a must-see. Hello! It starts on the CBC on September 29. Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Stephen Rea I’ve already put it in my calendar!

Red Band Society:     This is the one I’m hoping my 13 year old daughter and I can watch together. Set in a children’s hospital with a boy in a coma as the narrator, the show was described by Variety as a coming of age dramedy about a group of rule-bending kids and the adults who mentor them through adolescence’s inevitable ups and downs. John Doyle calls is a Glee-style teen drama, filled with verve and wit.   Sounds a little quirky but so are teens! It’s on Wednesdays on Fox and started September 17 – (the same night as my course – drat!!!)

The Affair:      I hope I have the strength to watch it – John Doyle calls it emotionally wrenching, which is not often what I’m looking for these days – but the acting is supposed to be first-rate, the story well-written and the way it’s told, through several different perspectives, is unusual. I’m IN.  It begins October 12 on the Movie Network.

How to get away with Murder:        Created by Shonda Rimes of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal fame, some are saying it’s a cookie cutter of her previous shows. That said, I’ve never watched her previous shows so it’s a new “cookie” to me. And I’m sure it’s going to be a light escape – some of those non-network shows are too intense for me – and I enjoyed the commencement speech she gave at Dartmouth. (I know what does that have to do with it. Nothing other than I’m now a fan of hers).  It can be found on ABC on Thursdays at 10 p.m.

Olive Kitteridge:        Here are its strengths in my mind: it’s a mini-series (my chances of watching it are better due to its brevity); the talented Frances McDormand stars in it; it takes place in small town Maine – who doesn’t love small town Maine; and its unique and intriguing concept of telling 13 inter-connected tales that take place over 25 years.  It begins November 2 on HBO Canada.

They sound awesome, don’t they? Wish me luck and think of me with my espresso and Red Bull (a true double double) while I watch some of season’s best from the comfort of my hard back chair (no comfy cushions, please). Sounds like fun, right?

Let’s hope so.

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Favourite home-made meals and baking, like this yummy banana chocolate chip loaf, provide more than just sustenance

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I just finished baking, for the fourth week in a row, my kids’ favourite banana chocolate chip loaf and as I pulled it out of the oven, I was reminded of a study released last week. It said moms (and dads I assume) are spending less time in the kitchen cooking because they’re plates are too full (J) and instead are opting to spend more time with their kids. The end result? Traditional, home-made food is becoming something of a lost art.

I get it. Life is crazy busy.  I was putting away laundry last night at 11 p.m. because I knew if I didn’t do it then it might not get done until, well, until the next time I do laundry.   I, like all of you I’m sure, have a to-do list longer than my size nine feet.  Today, it has 32 items on it with no less than nine labeled as A priorities i.e. need to be done today.   Done today? Maybe if I pull an all-nighter but since I often fall asleep putting the kids to bed, I’d say it’s not going to happen. Sigh. Carry-over again.

So why spend time making the banana chocolate chip loaf? The answer is simple: because my kids love it and when they walk in the door after school and smell the ooey-gooey aroma of melting chocolate and warm bananas, they’ll be thrilled. “Whether it’s a “yay” or a “thanks mom,” they’ll happily chirp their gratitude, and that little piece of home baked goodness will lift their spirits.

I still remember walking in the front door of my parent’s home and feeling a surge of joy when I smelt my favourite dinner, spaghetti, cooking or my mom’s apple cake (with hot caramel sauce!) baking. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that Diane Dewar was playing with Carrie Bunch after school or that Miss Berg told me I couldn’t wear my tap shoes in class anymore (true story), all that concern, floated away with the aroma of stewed tomatoes mingling with oregano and garlic.   And the funny thing is not only do I still remember the joy I felt, so does my mom. To this day she recounts how when she was making “sghetti,” as I called it, I’d shout my enthusiasm while bounding up the steps to the kitchen with a smile a mile wide.

I know. It’s just a loaf or it’s just a plate of spaghetti but there’s so much more to it than the actual nutrients or sustenance it provides. Those favourite meals or baked delights become part of our memories, a morsel of our history and can be as cherished as any other precious moment. I guess that’s why they call it comfort food.

And, you can’t help but wonder, if the joy derived isn’t as beneficial to us, our hearts and souls, as the super-foods we’re all so focused on.

So I’ll likely break-free of my list again next week to mash the bananas, crack the eggs, melt the butter, sift the flour and stir in the chocolate so my kids can have that little, made-with-love goodness that we call banana chocolate chip loaf.

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Develop your child’s math mind with these fun games and favourite apps

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Some people believe you have a math mind or you don’t.

Here’s a study that refutes that idea by suggesting your mind’s ability to do math can be improved simply by learning multiplication and addition to the point you know the answer i.e. you’re recalling, rather than calculating, the answer.

Hallelujah.  There’s hope for me yet.

Without getting too scientific, the study found knowing the answers to those simple equations frees up working memory which can then be used to process more complex math problems.  Also, and here’s the really interesting part, the study provides new evidence that learning those simple math fundamentals changes the brain’s hippocampal patterns or the connections, making them more stable.

Woops – I think I crossed the line into too scientific.

Bottomline, your kids ability to succeed in math will improve significantly through simple math drills.  If you’re like me, when I was a kid, math drills were part of life but these days, rout based math learning, in some school systems, seems to have gone the way of the do-do bird.  So, depending on where your children attend school, helping them learn those fundamentals may not only be helpful it may be essential.

The good news is supporting your kids transition from counting fingers to fact retrieval – and giving your kid a leg up – isn’t brain surgery; it just takes time. And if you make the process fun not only will your children not mind making the investment, they’ll do so happily.

My kids are pretty manic game players so I leverage that enthusiasm and use cards and dice to strengthen their math aptitude.   Not only are these recreational devices effective math tools but they’re also fun.  To ensure they’re fully engaged in the process I keep the “you’re doing math drills” on the down-low.  Why risk having them kick up a fuss? As my middle child once pointed out, math is a four-letter word. Indeed.

Our two favourite games are War, using two cards instead of one, and Concentration. When playing War we use the two cards to practice addition, multiplication or subtraction and it’s been very effective in helping my kids to learn the answers to those simple equations. With each round, the person with the two cards equaling the highest number wins the round. The person with the most cards at the end wins the game.

My kids have always loved playing Concentration, or the Memory game, which is great because – apparently – it helps develop visual memory, which is critical for learning math.   To play, turn over all the cards in the deck, spreading them out on any surface and take turns turning over two at a time in search of pairs. The person with the most pairs at the end wins.

If you have a tech kid, harness their love of gadgets and download some of the great math apps out there. Two popular apps for primary school kids are Jack and the Beanstalk, which is $2.99 and Sushimonster from Scholastic, which is free. Both are available through itunes. Three great apps for older kids, seven to 12, are: the arcade style game called Math Evolve, which can be purchased for $2 at mathevolve.com; the mission-based and multi award-winning Mathmateer, which is free and available through itunes; and Math Bingo where you make your own cartoon character (did you say make your own cartoon character?  Bingo is right), which is also free through itunes.

And, there are some great math websites out there, which may be less engaging but are definitely effective.  Now, when homework is still light, is a good time to get them on those sites, refreshing their math facts.  Ixl.com is our first choice and is recommended by the two schools my kids attend.  Another good site is mathisfun.com though after being on that site my middle son declared math is not fun. Oh well, it was worth a try.

Another quick recommendation, if you have a child who would benefit from extra support in math check out Jump Math workbooks.  Designed by mathematician and Torontonian John Mighton, who received the order of Canada along with a number of other prestigious awards, the books use the JUMP Math system which breaks down math concepts into smaller steps making grasping key principles easier.  John believes all kids have loads of math potential and his goal is to help them capitalize on it.

Hear, Hear!

 

 

 

 

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A must-see for parents, professionals and life enthusiasts, Angela Lee Duckworth’s Ted Talk discusses the key to success

Whether you’re guiding a child’s development or looking for more victories personally or professionally, Angela Lee Duckworth’s Ted Talk The key to success? Grit is a must-see. An informative and illuminating discussion of the pivotal requirement for triumphing in life, Angela contends success is determined not by IQ, EQ or physical attributes but by grit, that emotional fortitude that allows people, regardless of social, physical or intellectual gifts, to scale mountains.

In a time when talent seems to be considered life’s holy grail – parents seem to have a searing focus on gifts, – Angela’s talk is a refreshing articulation of the idea that pluck not only matters big time but in fact is the make or break factor.   And, in an almost reassuring way, she suggests an inverse relationship exists between grit and talent, meaning the fewer natural gifts you have, the more likely you’ll be equipped with that all-important mettle.

She also discusses the growth mindset, the idea that ability isn’t fixed and that it grows and evolves with use, an important concept benefiting children immensely by encouraging effort.  Studies show this simple but critical concept increases grades and productivity.

As an added benefit, Angela outlines briefly her career trajectory – she went from management consultant to teacher to psychologist – which in itself is an inspiring reminder of how we can all keep learning, growing and reinventing who we are.

Check it out and let me know what you think.  As a follow-up, watch her Ted Talk called Can perseverance be taught:

 

FYI: In case you’ve been living under a rock – or stuck in a kid, job or summer vortex (I’ve been there) – Ted.com is a great place to hang out.  Ted Talks, started in 1984 and with the tag line ideas worth spreading, provides stimulating and enriching discussion on important topics, from science to business to education to global issues.  Easily accessed through TED.com, TED Talks are 18 minute or shorter talks given by some of the world’s most inspired thinkers.  I think of it as chocolate for my brain and soul….though that may be because I love chocolate… and TED.

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