The Perfect Holiday Gift from One Word Geek to Another

Lost in Translation- perfect holiday gift

Naturally, it’s a book.

It’s called “Lost in Translation” and no, it’s not about Bill Murray finding it a tough go in Tokyo.

The author Ella Frances Sanders captures words from various languages around the world that defy translation.

Yiddish contributes three words without even tapping the classic impossible-to-define “mensch.” My grandmother on my mom’s side who spoke Yiddish would say the closest description she could find in English was “someone who always seems to do the right thing” immediately followed by a “but that’s not quite it.”

On the other hand, “Lost in Translation” does give us a Yiddish word that I never heard my Grandma utter, “Trepverter” which loosely translates in English as:

“Frustratingly, you always think of the best line as you’re walking away. As usual, that sarcastic and biting — yet hilarious — comeback occurs to you only as you turn the corner, or have reached the bottom of the stairs. The word literally means “staircase words.”

The storytelling in the book is industrial grade. As both writer and illustrator, Frances Sanders harmonizes the words and visuals with understated wit.

Where else can you learn that Indonesian has a word that describes a joke that’s so darn bad — could be the content or the delivery or both — that it’s actually funny.

Jayus -storytelling

I believe I’ll get some use out of this one over the holiday break.

The book’s introduction dusts off the quote from Eckhart Tolle, “Words reduce reality to something the human mind can grasp, which isn’t very much.”

Frances Sanders doesn’t buy it:

“Words allow us to grasp and hold onto an extraordinary amount. Sure, all languages can be picked apart and reduced to just a few vowels or symbols or sounds, but the ability that language gives us is incredibly complex. There may be some small essential gaps in your mother tongue, but never fear; you can look to other languages to define what you’re feeling …”

I agree.

Which is what makes it such a great gift for the holiday season. The book can be found at Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

P.S. My brother and I had some fun with Yiddish growing up, inventing a word that never gained traction outside of our household — “Schmutz,” describing an individual who is equal parts “schmuck” and “putz.”



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Why Did the NY Times Pile on The New Republic?

NYT-Timeline-the New Republic

When The New York Times and Ravi Somaiya fired the first shot at The New Republic on Dec. 4,  I figured the paper couldn’t resist a “hell hath no fury like an editor wronged” story, and life would move on.

But the stories kept coming and coming.

And coming.

Seven articles on the turmoil at a niche publication with a readership of 42,000 (not a typo). If a mutiny took place at Modern Drunkard Magazine, which has a circulation of 55,000, it’s a non story. I thought the NYT was striving to be a national paper with mass appeal. Why devote so much energy to a story that only resonates with intelligentsia and high-brow journalists?

Before going further, as regular readers know I’m a fan of the NYT. A post scheduled for next week calls it the best daily newspaper in the country.

That’s what made the inordinate coverage on a C story stand out. Plus, the reporting strays from the NYT’s standards of fairness.

Not wanting to step on Margaret Sullivan’s toes at the NYT, I’ve anointed myself “PRombudsman” to take a closer look at the issue.

In short, The New Republic never had a chance. In the initial NYT salvo, we learn in the second graph about Guy Vidra’s behavior in a staff meeting:

“using a profanity, that he planned to break stuff — a Silicon Valley phrase that implies disruptive innovation. He petted his laptop and told those gathered how important computers were to him.”

I didn’t realize that cussing in business only happens in Silicon Valley. Apparently the NYT liked this choice anecdote because it’s repeated four days later in “Revolt at the  New New Republic.”

On the positive side, Somaiya should be commended for showing constraint and not mentioning that Vidra’s laptop “cooed” after the petting.

The Day 2 story, “New Republic Staff Rebels with Mass Resignations” (hardcopy) leads with:

“About a dozen staff members of The New Republic, and an even greater number of contributing editors, resigned Friday morning, angered by an abrupt change of editors and what they saw as a series of management missteps.”

“Contributing editors” is just a fancy phrase for freelancers and contractors. This type of talent is often transient with companies doing this to retain flexibility. They don’t belong in the same bucket as employees.

Here’s the reality. Twelve people out of a 54-person staff resigned. That’s not even a quarter of the company. I’m sorry, but such numbers do not constitute “mass resignations.”

It drives me nuts that the Dec. 6 “After Exodus” story — nothing like some “understated” biblical drama to spice up a headline — calls out “more than 50 editors and contributing editors have followed Mr. Foer and Mr. Wieseltier in resigning.” Twelve employees left the company.


Ravi Somaiya who handled the bulk of the reporting commented that “Covering the media can be a surreal job.”

I think Master Somaiya would be well-served to take a break from the media and study Business 101. Staff members disagree with management all the time. If the disagreement combusts, they leave and find new jobs. Such volatility is particularly pronounced in small companies.

So why did The New York Times pile on The New Republic with the vigor of 12-year-olds playing “Red Rover Red Rover”?

My guess —

The disgruntled staffers at The New Republic disdained the Silicon Valleyites. They chirped to their buddies at the NY Times, and when the publication’s editor and literary editor officially resigned, it was game on.

Again, I could have lived with one story or even two.

But 5,301 words on the topic strikes me as excessive.

Note I: Reid Hoffman (not related) wrote one of the more cogent pieces on the upheaval at The New Republic, “When Disruption Hits the Fan.”

Note II: If you’re interested in reading the chronology, it’s captured below:

Dec. 4 Shake-Up at the New Republic

Dec 5 Staff at the New Republic Follows Editor Out the Door

Dec 6 The Old Journalism and the New

Dec 6 After Exodus, the New Republic Cancels Its Next Issue

Dec 7 Revolt at the New Republic

Dec 8 The New Republic’s Rebellion

Dec 10 Meltdown at the New Republic and Rolling Stone



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Dueling “Dear Santa” Letters Provide A/B Testing on Storytelling

Consider yourself in a time machine that has whisked you back to high school English.

Remember your teacher hammering home the point that effective writing “shows” the reader as opposed to “tells” the reader.

Teacher  on visual storytelling

It’s the showing that underpins true storytelling.

The same holds true in business communications. Nobody wants to read — or believe — that XYZ Company is innovative or a pioneer or a leading provider of _______ (fill in the blank). Instead, the idea is to walk the reader through a narrative in which he or she concludes on his or her own that XYZ company is indeed innovative or a pioneer or a leader.

Companies struggle like hell with this concept. Whether the objective involves selling a prospect or wooing a job candidate, “telling” dominates business communications.

With Christmas in our sights, I decided to conduct A/B testing using the classic Santa letter. In case you find Johnny’s handwriting difficult to read, the typed text of each letter follows.

I encourage you to compare and contrast the two letters asking yourself which approach is more persuasive.

Johnny, The Teller

Santa Letter - visual storytelling

Dear Santa.

I know it’s a busy time so I’ll get right to the point.

I’ve been a nice kid this year.

Joey and Billy, my two best friends, even mention things to me like “That was a nice thing to do.”

I would say I’ve been super nice, but I don’t want to brag.

I’ve also worked really hard at not being naughty. I even got an award in class for most improvement at not being naughty. I put the certificate next to the fireplace so you can see it when you drop by.

Speaking of dropping by, you’re probably wondering what I want for Christmas.

Let’s make it an Xbox.



Johnny, The Shower

Santa Letter - visual storytelling lesson

Dear Santa,

I know you’ve got a lot on your plate. Please don’t worry about me.

When I reflect on the past year, the word that comes to mind is “enrichment.”

With my family struggling, what I earn from my paper route — yes, there are still a lot of people over 50 who read paper newspapers — goes toward paying our apartment rent.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say there are times I wish I could take some of that money and buy an Xbox and some beef jerky. But there’s no better feeling than seeing the look on my mom’s face when I sign over my monthly check.

Say hi to Rudolf and the gang.

Your friend,


It’s still early days in the testing, but I took these two letters to the Santa at Oakridge Mall in San Jose.

With no preconditioning, I asked him to read the letters and pick the one more likely to snag an Xbox for Christmas.

Within a millisecond of reading the letters, he pointed to Johnny, The Shower.

Again, I know this test isn’t exactly statistically sound.

Still, the early returns indicate that showing trumps telling when it comes to persuasive communications.

Of course, this doesn’t address the core issue.

It’s easier to brag.

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White House Cracks Techmeme Leaderboard

I don’t think Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, is going to be happy.

Rieder penned a viewpoint piece for USA Today last year that spanked the Obama administration for bypassing the media for its own channels of communications:

“The Obama administration is deep-freezing the news media because it can. It’s nothing new for administrations to try to control the narrative. But Obama is the first president to serve in the Age of Twitter. With extensive use of its website and its fluency on social media, the administration can get its message out on its own terms, bypassing the middlemen and women.”

Not only has the Obama administration proved adroit in taking its story directly to its target audience, but now we discover that landed on the Techmeme Leaderboard on Dec 2.  If you scroll down to the very end, you’ll find

Techmeme Leaderboard

“We’re number 100” might not have a winning ring to it, but it’s yet another victory for the President’s comms team and owned media in general.

Step back for a moment and consider that the Techmeme Leaderboard strives to capture the top 100 online sources when it comes to driving tech stories. This is a big deal because the Techmeme algorithm essentially offers a surrogate for thought leadership in the tech sector.

The White House was one of those top drivers of tech stories on Dec. 2, Dec. 4, Dec. 5 and Dec. 6 (actually inched up to the 98the slot on Dec. 4).

Techmeme Obama Article

Drilling down to the White House-created content, the press backgrounder reads like journalism starting with the absence of superlatives in the headline, “Strengthening Community Policy.”

And there’s zero hype in the narrative that calls out the investment in technology:

“The President also proposes a three-year $263 million investment package that will increase use of body-worn cameras, expand training for law enforcement agencies (LEAs), add more resources for police department reform, and multiply the number of cities where DOJ facilitates community and local LEA engagement. As part of this initiative, a new Body Worn Camera Partnership Program would provide a 50 percent match to States/localities who purchase body-worn cameras and requisite storage.”

Obama’s content guys get it.

While Techmeme’s founder Gabe Rivera was less sanguine about the White House achievement, maybe that’s because he already perceives the White House as a formidable “media property.”

Hoffman-Rivera Tweet 12-14

Regardless, whether you call it owned media, branded journalism or stuff from the White House, the approach is only increasing as embolden organizations “diversify” their communications.

No doubt we’ll see more stories like “The Invasion of Corporate News” from the Financial Times, which lambastes organizations taking matters into their own hands. In the case of the FT, this line says it all:

“The attraction of ‘owned media,’ by definition, is that brands neither have to pay a media outlet for it nor earn it by convincing a reporter that the story is worth covering.”

Publications like the FT believe it’s zero-sum game. Those dollars that otherwise have come their way are now earmarked for owned media.

They’re probably right, although I don’t think owned media has reduced the White House’s advertising budget.



The Best Business Storytelling Posts from 2014 (Part II)

I highlighted some of my top 2014 posts on Monday, ranging from interviewing my Mom on the PR profession to using the Budweiser Puppy Love video to illustrate how teasing out tension in a story requires bad stuff.

Here’s the rest of the list.

  • Why PR Should Lead the Charge for Organic Search: The experiment we conducted around the Toyota recall in 2010 to see if it was possible to land on page 1 of the SERP forever changed the trajectory of the Agency. Our knowledge in organic search and how we’re creating holistic campaigns to establish online presence comes together in the SlideShare deck, “The Blurring Line Between Digital Marketing and PR.”

  • Genius Storytelling from the American Chemical Society: How do you help the masses understand the importance of chemistry in our everyday lives? Very clever on the part of the ACS to explain the science —and specifically the chemical makeup of Sriracha sauce. I had no idea that a group of molecules called capsaicinoids sits inside red chilies. I ran this shard of knowledge by a colleague over a bowl of pho. He wasn’t impressed, but that shouldn’t take away from the brilliance of the ACS video.
  • While the media pummeled the poor guy for nerves of gel, I wondered who the Einstein was who determined that out of 200,000+ GM employees, Mr. Wilde should play to a national TV audience. The debacle was not his fault.
  • Finally, a Test to Guide the Actions and Storytelling Behind a News Release: With millions of dollars wasted writing news releases that no one will care about, I developed this test as a service to the PR industry. With this tool, you can roughly project the expected media coverage before making the investment in a given news release. I will likely recalibrate my model on annual basis to ensure I keep pace with the times.

Hoffman Agency Infographic- a “Test” To Guide the Actions and Storytelling Behind a News Release

<div align="center"><a href="…a-news-release/" title="Hoffman Agency Infographic- a Test To Guide the Actions and Storytelling Behind a News Release"><img src="" alt="Hoffman Agency Infographic- a Test To Guide the Actions and Storytelling Behind a News Release" width="467" height="1024" style="border:none;" /></a><br /><small>The Hoffman Agency is a public relations firm that emphasizes storytelling in <a href="">business communication</a></small>.</div>
  • What the Heck Is a Word Visual? As communicators increasingly spearhead owned media properties, they need to come up the curve in visual storytelling. The concept of word visuals, the packaging of clever words in a way that brings a visual dimension to communications without a premium on design, is one way to close the gap. This post gets into the three types of word visuals and the nitty gritty in creating them.

social media visual storytelling

If you think I left out a deserving post, who am I to argue?

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