Better Writing Lessons from NaNoWriMo

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you know that I spent a lot of November talking about NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and it has a very simple goal – write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days. Such a challenge written on paper may not seem like much but when you try to do it, you realize that it becomes a feat of writing at least 1,667 words a day. The standard blog post is about 350 – 600 words.

For four years, I have begun November by saying this is the year and I will complete this challenge and every year, it seems like something happens to derail my progress. This year, though, it’s different and I am proud to announce that I am a 2012 NaNoWriMo Winner.

Winning felt great and completing something that seemed like such a beast over the last few years was even more of an accomplishment. It honestly feels like I can do anything. I wanted to think about how I could translate that feeling into the creative energy I spend at work so that feeling of accomplishment will be in all of my work.

Outline. Before NaNo began, I had the idea, plot, and characters for my novel all lined out. I took each scene and moment step by step so that I didn’t get lost or forget the important points. I’d never done that before and I think that using outlines in blogging will help me to write more content that has a true outcome, instead of just mashing ideas together and hoping to end up with a great post.

It’s easier to get ahead than it is to fall behind. One of the things that always prevented me from completing NaNo was that I always seem to have family obligations in November. If you look at my progress chart below, I was 8,000 words ahead by day five which was a huge help for those days when I was out of town or during the holiday.

Turn off Your Inner Editor. Part of the goal of NaNoWriMo is to encourage writers to just write. In a lot of ways there is no rhyme or reason to the plot of a participant’s story. It’s about encouraging writers to turn off the need to “edit as they go” and instead just put the words down. You can always go back and correct the things that are wrong later.

Find Someone to Battle With. It was a big help to do “word wars” with a friend who was also trying to reach the 50,000 word goal and it was great to have someone that I could battle with. We would pick a time and then write as quickly as we could to see who could get the most words in a 20 or 30 minute period. Even if you battle with yourself you can set a timer to see how many words you can put down in a specific amount of time. On the next post, try to beat your personal best.

The best thing about completing something like this is feeling that pressure off. There really feels like there is nothing to stop me from taking on the world – okay, maybe not, but I did write 50,000 words in 30 days, and that’s a pretty amazing accomplishment.

What will you accomplish today?

Preparing for Communications Failures

Superstorm Sandy has come and gone but the effect of the storm on communication remains. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the FCC reported that 25% of the operating cell towers were damaged during the storm and the ability to make calls, send, and receive messages would be temporarily affected.

When you know there’s an event that could interrupt your ability to communicate with your friends and family, prepare in advance for what could be a long time without your cell phone.

Have at least $5.00 in quarters in your first aid / emergency kit. I know that a lot of people under the age of eighteen have probably never seen a payphone, nor would they fully grasp the idea of calling collect. Gather some quarters before the weather event so that if you do lose service you can find a payphone and make a call.

Notify who you can when you can. A friend of mine was in a hard hit area of New Jersey and it was touch and go to get a hold of her for the first week. She asked me to be responsible for updating our mutual friends, as she could get one text message out much easier than she could twenty. She would text me how she was, and I would use social networks to update our friends.

Update Social Networks via text message instead of using an application. In my hometown in Arkansas, the cell phone service is pretty spotty, and most of the time is spent on the Edge network. This makes things like updating my Facebook and Twitter difficult because it can take so long for the application to load. Most social networks have a way to update your status by sending a text message and it’s a great way to update your friends and family.

Find Your Local Red Cross. Before a disaster strikes, find your local Red Cross and see if you can find out where they will be setting up emergency stations in the event of a serious event. You can view a list of Red Cross centers by your zip code and then you’ll have a good idea of where to start if you need help. You can even check in to Safe & Well to list yourself as OK or check on friends and family.

It’s hard when you lose your cell phone because it’s the way we connect with the world. In the event of a disaster, you have to stay connected in any way you can. Sometimes, that means that old technology might be the most reliable.

Image credit to NOAA.

Transcription Services

Transcription services may be at an extra cost but there are unique benefits to using them that you might not think about. Usually, we think about transcriptions we think about them for medical purposes or legal documentations of conversations and while these are great uses of a transcription there are many more reasons that adding this service to your conferencing routine can benefit your business in a number of ways.

Here’s a couple of other ways that AccuConference customers are making transcriptions a part of their usual conference calls routine.

  1. Any conversation that is “on the record” should be transcribed so that there is no deviation from what was said. Recording your conference calls is one way to get extra posterity for conversations, but a transcription can be sent out to those who want to keep written documentation.
  2. For videos not only are you making the content within in the video able to be crawled by search engines, you’re also providing an easy way to mark sections for editing. If you’re reviewing a video and need to send a few more notes over to the editor, you can transcribe the text with a timestamp feature and highlight the times that require additional review. This makes it easier for the editor to go into your video and make quick changes. The process speeds up when the editor doesn’t have to go searching for phrases and gestures to remove.
  3. Under Regulation Fair Disclosure mandated by the SEC in 2000, requires that any information released to investors or analysis must be made public. The purpose of the regulation was to even the playing field between all kinds of stock holders and prevent the large investment companies from getting a “heads up” on information that could affect stock prices. Regulation FD requires broad dissemination to the public of stock information and is usually done by conference call playback or by a transcription.
  4. News stories are optimized for mobile devices when you include the transcription of the video together. I check my news applications constantly and I am more likely to “read” a story than to stop and watch the accompanying video on my phone. It will also make your news stories accessible to people who do not have the latest smartphone technology or have access to cool tablet computers.
  5. Did I mention that the content of your conference call suddenly becomes searchable? Imagine that you get an opportunity to host an incredible interview with someone and you upload it to your website and hope that people are able to find it. If you can post the text on your website somewhere your interview content can be returned as a result in Google search.

What useful things can you think of for having conversations transcribed?

James Spann on Social Media

For all the weather geeks out there, James Spann is a man that everyone turns to when it comes to all things related to Alabama weather.  Over a career that spans nearly 40 years, Spann has solidified himself as the model study for meteorologists. He’s an Emmy winner, the recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Award, and has been voted best meteorologist in the country numerous times by the Associated Press.

On top of all this, James Spann is a social media advocate. He is the most followed meteorologists on Twitter and Facebook and on the day of April 26, 2011 as tornadoes roared through Alabama, thousands of people were posting on his social media outlets to report damage and even ask for help. Even if you don’t know who James Spann is or you’re not a weather nerd like me, you’ll find the video below as interesting as I did.  At the Alabama Social Media Association conference earlier this year, James addressed the Alabama media about the use of social media in a weather situation.

  • "If you put others first, that’s when life gets good." As a meteorologist, James often has to field questions from those who do not know much about weather, how storms form, or how they track. Rather than ignore the “stupid question” James answers them because that’s what he is there for. When a question is posed to him it’s because someone respects and needs his answer, so he answers.
  • This is how the world communicates. We often wonder if automation is good or bad in social media and James has found that his determination is based on the expectations of his audience. In high stress situations where response is critical to life and person (like EF-4 tornadoes bearing down on metropolitan areas) automation doesn’t work. People can tell when a message is automated and the expectation on a network like Twitter is that the updates are "real-time". The opposite has proven true for Facebook as the network, at least in his business, is more about sharing the information than looking for up to date information.
  • Let’s be honest. James Spann is, in fact, James Spann and people are going to follow him, they are going to send him information, and he will have questions to answer and a huge network of people that will help him do good. We don’t all have that and our experience on Twitter or Facebook might be different, but no matter what, these are basic foundations to any successful social media plan.

I’ve shared the video because I find it to be an interesting commentary on social media from someone who is, technically, “not in it to make money.” Social media is simply a tool for James and the rest of the ABC 33/40 staff to provide weather updates and, as you’ll see, much more. The length is 45 minutes but the information is great and James is such a great communicator that he’s very easy to listen to.

Tell me what you think – do you feel that social media is a good platform for a meteorologist to embrace to warn the public? Is it a good place for someone in marketing or business development? James certainly feels like his updates and social media activities saved lives on the day of a historic tornado outbreak. Do you think it’s possible for Twitter, Facebook, and other social channels to make that much of an impact, or are James’ situations the exception to the rule?

That super sweet image of James telling you to obey the polygon is credit to his Google + account

How to Better Manage Your Mandatory Meetings

Can you believe it’s almost September? Where has this month gone? Here in Texas, we’re looking forward to getting rid of the heat and bringing in the best season ever - fall. As exciting as the fall season is, one thing that is also on the way is your beginning and end of the month responsibilities. It could be something as simple as updating spreadsheets or it’s time for your monthly conference calls again.

Consider a registration page for your weekly and monthly status meetings. Registration pages do a lot more than simply creating a link for signing up. If you’ve found that your weekly or monthly meetings have been a bit out of control from people not attending or unwanted participants, a registration page adds the security and tracking abilities for your mandatory meetings.

Check attendance for those calls that can’t be missed. When company policy changes, it often requires a company-wide sign off and understanding from the employees affected by the changes, and using a registration page is a great way to keep track of compliance. When someone registers for a call, the host will be able to keep track of registrants along the way and be able to go back and see who dialed into the conference, and who didn’t.

Send reminders to your participants. Human beings are naturally forgetful and when it comes to important can’t be missed meetings you can set up registration pages to automatically send participants reminders to attend these compliance calls. This way even if they forget to put a call reminder on their own calendar, our system will send them an email up to one hour before the start of the call to remind them to attend.

Manually approve or deny registrations. In our March newsletter, we talked to the author of the Modern Meeting Standard and one of the suggestions in the book is to make sure that you are only inviting the people who have to attend the meeting. If there is no need for the CEO / VP / Marketing Manager to be on the call, then they shouldn’t attend and with a manual process you can deny their participation. It will also help to make sure that only employees are able to attend your conference and keep press or competitors off conferences with sensitive information.

Conference code security options. When using a registration page to boost security and check attendance, our recommendation is that you set up the conferences codes to fall under what’s called “one code at a time” so that the conference codes cannot be handed out to others to use. The first person to call into the conference will be the one that can use the code. While it’s not a perfect system of being able to validate who the person is when they join, it will help the conference from having lots of unexpected guests dialing in on one conference code.

These are just some things that can be done to increase security and hold participants accountable when it comes to attending mandatory meetings.

Unwanted Conference Call Noise

Any type of noise on your conference call is a nuisance because it interrupts you and your customers trying to get business done. While conference call services do their best to try to design services that limit or remove static on your conference, there are some things that can cause conference feedback that you may not realize.

Check Your Equipment

Many times, feedback is caused by the phone or headset you might be using. Like a pair of headphones that are old and have lost connectivity in the wires, your phone cords and headset connections can do the same thing. If you hear feedback on your conference, start by listening to the conference on a handset and see if the feedback goes away. If it does, then you know that your headset should be replaced due to a short or some other problem in the equipment.

It Could Be Your Provider

Many of us don’t realize that the noise we hear on our phone line could be related to the company that provides your phone lines, like Qwest or AT&T. When your company is doing work on the phone lines or even having a technology issue miles away, those issues can affect the quality of your phone calls with or without being connected to a conference service.

While any phone service can have issues that may cause static on your line, we’ve found that one of the most common culprits of these issues is a VoIP service. We wrote a run down on some of the problems that you should consider when switching to VoIP and why it’s important to pick a VoIP provider that has a great reputation. If you’re using VoIP I would recommend that you go over and read that to ensure that you and your company have taken steps to choosing a VoIP provider with a lower instance of these occurrences.

Moderator Controls

If static is causing a problem in your conference call, use your live call screen feature to mute and unmute individual lines to see if the problem can be isolated. Don’t forget to test your own line just in case it’s your phone that is causing the noise. Once you identify the line you can keep it muted to prevent the noise from continuing to disrupt your conference call.

Bonus Tip:We recommend that if you will have more than five participants on a conference call that you go ahead and place the call into lecture mode to prevent static or background noises from interrupting your call.

Unwanted noises on a conference call are a nuisance and are incredibly frustrating when you’re trying to conduct business. If you’re in a situation where you can’t pause the conference to run through all of the troubleshooting steps, hop on chat with one of our operators (you can access it right from our website) and let us help you work through the problem.

NBC Olympics Coverage Inspires Thoughts on Customer Service

Image Credit to Dave Catchpole

On a fateful summer evening in 1996, my mom and I were cuddled up on the couch, eating popcorn, and alternating between crying and screaming in joy at the TV as the United States Women won Olympic team gold in gymnastics. For those of you who remember that moment, let us all close our eyes and remember the power of “You can do it, Kerri!” and the one-legged flamingo landing that was just epic. (For those of you too young to remember this moment, I’m so sorry – Go watch it on YouTube, immediately.)

Here we are in 2012 and the world has changed drastically. Technology has improved giving us the power to have news feeds and up to date information. There was a lot of talk on Twitter and other networks about the failures of NBC in providing the kind of Olympic coverage that people want. The general response from the folks at NBC has been (in paraphrase) “deal with it”. However, for the Olympic audience it’s not that simple and some lessons can be learned from this attitude.

It’s about giving your customers what they want and not what you think “matters”.

For the next two days, people who want to watch the events of the gymnastics finals will have to avoid the Internet in its totality, and for some, that’s a really difficult thing to do. While you can stream the coverage live on NBC websites, there are a couple of problems with that option – which are not limited to the fact that events are interrupted every three minutes with commercials.

When a customer contacts your company, you have to think about what you are doing for them and not just for yourself. Especially in the case like NBC, where they are the only people broadcasting the Olympic coverage, there seems to be an attitude of “we will show you what you want when you want it”. While NBC will probably win because they don’t have any competition, I don’t know how many of us will continue tuning into NBC when the Olympics are all said and done.

Create an experience.

Okay, picture this – there’s one event left in the team final and there’s a tenth of a point separating gold and silver. You know you have to go to sleep soon because it’s getting late, but you’ve got time to stay up and see who wins gold. Cut to Bob Costas announcing that they are going to switch over to swimming coverage and “will return to the gym shortly”.

You want a customer to feel involved and like the voice they have in your company matters. The parallel to draw here is that the folks over at NBC are you going to make you watch the events they think you should watch, when they think you should watch them. Could you imagine if we modeled our businesses like that and shaped customer service around the ideas that “we will do what we think you need”?

It’s really in NBC’s best interests.

Maybe it’s just the child in me who remembers the feeling and thrill of watching the Magnificent Seven in 1996, but I want to see it live. If I know the US isn’t going to win gold the likelihood that I just DVR or watch the highlights increases. I want to feel every nail biting second. It’s in NBC’s best interests to show me the most popular events when they air instead of a patch work of events that they scatter over six hours.

When it comes to customers, doing what you can to give them what they really want always holds a benefit to your company. While you can’t make every little change that a customer requests, you have to listen to them in a collective fashion. It could be something that is genuinely broken on your site. Recently, we realized that we had a lot of information on our site and that it could be a bit overwhelming for customers trying to find us, so we cut it down and streamlined it.

Other Networks Should Help

While NBC doesn’t need the help with broadcasting, it would be nice to see other news networks (local and nationally) try to quell the information that is no doubt going to infiltrate you. Yesterday, before NBC aired the swimming finals, our local station spoiled that a local swimmer set a world record and took gold in the 100M butterfly.

If they want to run the story, I’m ok with that, but at least don’t put the result in the headline where I’m completely spoiled if I even open the application. It’s a matter of balancing what the customer wants and what you want to give them.

For the next two days, I will do my best to avoid the entirety of the internet so that I can watch my finals in the evenings, even if it will be spread out over a matter of six hours. What do you think about the overall feeling around NBC’s coverage of the Olympics? Are we overreacting or is there something to be said for the lack of live coverage?

Two Responses That Kill Communication

No matter if you’re having a conversation with your best friend or an entire boardroom, sometimes, things are said that cause a complete halt in conversation. When the "awkward pause" is created there is usually a moment where no one is sure when it’s okay to start laughing or to move on from whatever caused the pause. Those kinds of interruptions in communication are usually easy enough to recover from but what happens when someone stalls communication?

What kinds of responses usually end all communication and how do you prepare yourself to keep those responses from making an appearance on your next conference call?

"Yes" or "No"

When a question is posed in what’s called a "closed question" the exchange of ideas can be killed with a single word. To keep communication open, adopt opened ended questions to pose to your co-workers and conference participants. Instead of "Is that report finished?" phrase your question in a way that "yes" or "no" would not be appropriate answers. In the sales world, these kinds of questions are imperative to building rapport and closing the deal.

Silence

Silence as a response in communication shows a lack of trust between the participants and the moderators. If you get a response of, well, nothing, it’s usually a couple of things. No one wants to answer, no one wants to be first, or no one knows who is supposed to speak. To combat silence, you can do a few things. Call on someone specifically that you know will have a good response or provide your participants with an alternate way to respond. Consider making the Q&A portion something you do through chat that way participants don’t have to "speak up". Many times, people are more embarrassed to talk on an audio conference than they would be to respond in writing.

In order to keep communication open you have to anticipate the kinds of responses that will be communication killers and do your best to prevent them from making their appearance, but that doesn’t mean they won’t, so you need to be prepared to response appropriately. What kinds of responses have you received that have killed communication?

Should I Switch to VoIP?

VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) is a popular phone service that is currently implemented across businesses and homes. In 2011, the revenue for VoIP services was up 16% to $58 billion, and the growth is expected to continue. While VoIP is a cost effective means of phone communications, it might not always be the best choice when it comes to making a change.

Am I On VoIP?

Popular communication services like Vonage and MagicJack are some of the most obvious providers of VoIP services, but the migration and acceptance of VoIP providers has occurred across the board. If you’ve signed up for phone services through your cable company, you can tell if you have VoIP by looking at your modem and identifying a phone line plugged in. If you use a dialing pad on your computer or must be connected to an Internet connection to make your call, you have a VoIP service.

What’s a Packet?

Think of a packet like a tweet. You have a limited amount of space (140 characters) to send at a time, so with a longer message, you have to send multiple tweets. In order to adequately communicate, all of the tweets must be received / read in order. A VoIP package is a small piece of your message that is broken out from your communications.

Why Do Packets Matter?

The proper delivery of these packets is essential to communicating with VoIP. When the packets aren’t delivered correctly you get interference on your call like voices that cut in and out, or sound like they are under water. Some VoIP providers do a practice called “redundancy” where they create duplicates of the same package to safeguard against lost pieces of the message.

Internet Speeds Matter

Because your phone call is broken down into these packages and travel across the Internet transmission lines when the transmission speed is slow or clogged by other transmissions it can affect the quality of your call. Imagine you have opened ten YouTube videos and they are all loading at the same time, each new video that you are trying to load slows the time of the first one. It’s the same thing when your phone calls are traveling across data lines. As you try to do more on the web while trying to make a call over VoIP, the lower the quality will be. When making a call using a VoIP provider, limit your internet activity to ensure that your line is dedicated to transmitting your call.

Is VoIP Bad?

The answer to this question is not a clear cut yes or no. The best way to answer is to say that it really depends on what kind of VoIP system you are using. The major names in the phone industry (AT&T, Qwest) typically provide pretty reliable services, where the “plug in to your computer” devices may cause more problems than the money worth in what you’re saving. We’ve provided an in depth break down of what constitutes Good VoIP and Bad VoIP.

So should you switch to VoIP? The honest answer is that it really depends on who you are choosing as your service provider and what kind of speed you have with the Internet.

Crisis Management Skills Learned in a Crisis

Have you ever hit anything on the interstate? Of course you have! Until last week, running over something in the highway was always one of those moments where you pray that it’s nothing awful and you hope that whatever it is won’t cause a major accident.

Last week, I got to know what it’s like to hit something that isn’t “nothing awful”. While traveling at 65MPH, I hit a gas can the size of a propane tank. To make a long story short, it flew out from under a concrete mixer along with some other debris that caught my eye. The gas can flew into the air and slammed back down into the world and I had two choices: hit it or swerve into traffic.

Boom! The tank lodges under my SUV and I have no choice but to stop in the middle of the interstate or risk a spark that could, considering the fact that it’s a gas can, cause a giant explosion. So there I am at rush hour, hazard lights blinking, on the phone with the emergency operators, telling them I can smell gas and staring into my rearview mirror as cars and 18-wheelers go whizzing around me at 70 MPH. I’m waiting on the police to respond when a man pulls up and stops in front of me, aiding in getting the can free and sending me on my way.

Now that I’ve had some time to breathe, cry, and think about my response, I realized a couple of very key points of crisis management.

Know How to Respond

Large businesses have a coding system to let employees know of an issue and have pre-planned responses. For example, a “code blue” in a hospital situation refers to a patient that needs immediate medical attention. Knowing how to respond to a crisis is vital to ensure that staff members know proper protocol to project the livelihood of themselves and the people around them. After coming to a stop on the highway, my brain just went into action – I put on my hazards, kept my seat belt on, called 911, knew where I was so that I could get help, and knowing what to do helped keep me calm.

Understand Some Things Are Out of Your Control

When it comes to managing a business in times of crises, there is only so much that you can do. There are some things that you won’t be able to prevent – media leaks, rumors, speculation, and those kinds of things. Combat these types of occurrences by limiting the number of people that know the true ins and outs of what is going on, at least until you can fully assess the situation.

Don’t Make Things a Bigger Crisis

When you sit down to lay out the response plan don’t make any knee-jerk reactions. These kinds of reactions can make things worse when they don’t need to be. The last thing you want to do in the middle of crisis situation is create a larger problem by responding in an inappropriate manner. Make sure the response plan is distributed to the people who know what to do with it. There may be a crisis where you have to choose between unattractive options and you don’t want that decision to make it worse. Sitting in my car and waiting for the police wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was better than trying to play Frogger across the interstate.

Nothing will prepare you for when a crisis actually comes up and I now believe it’s a little bit of planning and a lot of instinct. But it’s that plan that will have you ready to trust your instincts. What’s your crisis management plan? Do you have one?