Getting the gig: Skills vs. style

Pay close attention to each contractor’s ad to figure what they want to know about first — skills or work style.

I bid for contract work on a regular basis, and recently started two new contracts.

The selection processes for the two gigs got me thinking about the way companies choose new people for their organizations. The process usually involves two filters, but the order in which they apply them is significant.

One filter selects for quantifiable skills and experience. How effective this filter will be is based on how well the organization has analyzed the work it wants to have done. Well-structured organizations with narrow job descriptions for contract work (“an experienced editor to edit the latest revision of this book” “an experienced outside sales person to fill this sales position while our regular employee is on National Guard duty”) have great success with this approach. But often this relatively rigid approach leaves organizations deaf to applicants whose strengths are wholistic rather than job-specific: energy, team building, leadership, loyalty, creativity, etc.

The second filter selects for the best stylistic fit with the organization. At its best, the “fit” filter gets the company a smooth transition, clear communication, and a satisfied employee or contractor  — one who’s likely to be with the organization for the long haul. But this filter often accounts for hires who “look like” the rest of the organization when it comes to gender, age, socio-economic background — and that can lead to self-congratulatory group-think and stagnation.

For one of the contract positions I sought, the company filtered applicants first by skill set and then interviewed a few of us to find out if we would be a stylistic fit. Company #2 filtered applicants for style, and then interviewed the compatible folks to see who had a decent skill set — and was really compatible.

The process told me quite a bit about each of the clients, and their priorities. (And I noticed that client #2 seemed to be having a lot more fun with the interview process.)

But it also reminded me that I need to pay close attention to each contractor’s ad to figure out what they want to know about first — skills or work style.

FTC determined to root out payola in the blogosphere

US Coins Collection Isolated on WhiteI confess: One of my largest clients manufacturers and sells safety equipment, and I’ve been known to blog (on my own blog) about the importance of having safety equipment in the workplace — without mentioning that I have an association with that company.

By the end of the summer, this sort of unethical behavior will place me squarely in the sights of the Federal Trade Commission. FTC guidelines regulating blogger endorsements are about to go into effect.

According to this story published yesterday by the Associated Press, people using the internet have no idea that the posts they read on blogs are anything less than objective, and that “Many bloggers have accepted perks such as free laptops, trips to Europe, $500 gift cards, or even thousands of dollars for a 200-word post.”

Thousands of dollars for a 200-word post? “Many” bloggers? (I checked the URL to see if I had somehow been redirected to The Onion. I had not.)

But wait! The AP article drivels on:

Savvy consumers often go online for independent consumer reviews of products and services, scouring through comments from everyday Joes and Janes to help them find a gem or shun a lemon.

(Would someone please turn off that loud alarm? I’m trying to write.)

Savvy consumers? No, savvy consumers are consulting Consumer Reports,, and the consumer comments posted on and Zappos. The people basing major purchasing decisions on a post from Joe-the-Blogger are not savvy consumers but nincompoops, and, to be blunt, they deserve what they get.

The reaction to the AP story from the blogosphere has included widespread incredulity, particularly from people who actually work in the intersection of blogging and marketing. I particularly liked this summary from James Joyner of Outside the Beltway.

To begin with, what company is going to pay a low-level blogger “thousands of dollars” for a product endorsement? And they will be paying a low-level blogger because top-level bloggers don’t accept payola. They don’t accept it, mind you, not because they are all honest but because the blogosphere is a place where unscrupulous behavior has a way of catching up with you. In spades. Imagine these scenarios:

1. Jane-the-Blogger recommends that people abandon their trusted backup software and switch to new Brand X backup software. People follow her advice, and Brand X Backup corrupts their  hard drives. They post angry descriptions of their experiences with Brand X on their own blogs (mentioning Jane’s blog), so that people Googling Jane’s blog find instead a lot of unflattering reports about it. And they post their experiences with Brand X on reputable tech sites, as well. In return for the amount Jane has received from Brand X’s payola department, she’s now forfeited her own blogging credibility, and lost traffic to her blog.

2. Company Z sends Joe-the-Blogger a fancy piece of technology to review and says “go ahead and keep it.” He does. He tries it, is unimpressed, and doesn’t blog about it. The company has achieved…what? I’ve represented clients who do PR campaigns to bloggers, and send out product samples, and they do not waste expensive products on shots in the dark.

While it seems simple for the FTC to require a blogger praising a product to disclose that they have received the product or service for free, or that they receive a percentage when they link to a sales page for the product, the situation gets far more complicated in practice. Try these scenarios:

1. I hear about an interesting new service, call the owner, and write a blog post about it, which generates a lot of buzz. The owner calls me a week later, thanks me, and provides me with some insider tips and connections for a story that I go on to write and sell to a publication for $1,000. Do I go back and amend the original post to reveal this?

2. I attend a conference (for which I pay full fee), and later write a blog post describing the conference and recommend that my readers attend that conference next year. However, I don’t mention in my post that I was a speaker at the conference, and that as a result of my speech I made some important business connections at the conference. Is it possible that the conference, by offering me the speaking opportunity, was in effect “bribing” me to write a positive story about their conference? Should I bring this up in the blog post?

My answer to these questions is, I’m afraid: Oh, good grief.

Full disclosure: Neither the FTC nor the Associated Press offered me any payola to review, respectively, their regulations or their coverage of this story. I endorse neither. They did provide a nice boost to my blog traffic after I was interviewed on KUOW-FM‘s The Conversation  yesterday about the new regs. However, I’m almost positive that boost was inadvertent.

Hand me the envelope

There’s one device in our home offices we’ve come to revile. Chances are it’s sitting under your desk, or in a closet where you can avoid thinking about it. You know what it is: The printer.

We love our laptops, our smart phones, and our little Flip video cameras, but there’s one device in our home offices we’ve come to revile. Chances are it’s sitting under your desk, or in a closet where you can avoid thinking about it. You know what it is: The printer.

Ah, but neglect it at your peril!

For when you need that printer, the ink cartridges will be dried up, the print heads clogged, the paper trays jammed, and the buttons and movable parts — their labels and directions embossed in off-white on off-white or printed in 5-point type — unreadable.

You won’t be able to remember if the the paper goes face up in tray one or face down in tray two, but never mind because wherever you load envelopes, when you hit Print, it’ll grab paper from the other tray instead of the one in which you placed the envelopes. Once it finds the envelopes, it will print on them in every orientation except the one you wanted. And — guaranteed — if you ask it to print your return address, the address will not be printed the .125 inches from the left edge of the envelope that your software specified. It will be mangled and cut off:

en Anderson
4 35th Avenue
ttle, WA  98107

I have three printers networked to my Macs and today, when I went to print one measly addressed evelope, not one of them worked adequately. And, as a result of the 20 minutes I spent trying to get one of them to give me even the faintest satisfaction, the most expensive of the printers (though not the one on which I spent $200 replacing ink cartridges that, while full, stopped functioning when I replaced the print heads) is now utterly jammed.

I ended up addressing the envelope by hand, which, of course, I should have done in the first place.

How to write a holiday letter (2008 Remix)

It’s that time of year again. If the sales and the Christmas tree lots weren’t already giving me hints, I’d know because StatCounter indicates a surge of hits to my 2006 post, Tips for Writing a Holiday Letter.

Here’s a quick tip from it:

#4. Talk briefly about why you’re writing the letter. “It’s wonderful to take a few minutes to reflect about the year and share some highlights with friends,” is the type of opening you’re looking for. Don’t apologize. If you feel compelled to open with something like “We hate to bore you all with another long, stilted holiday missive,” you shouldn’t be writing one.

Want more inspiration? Go for it!

Quick reads

Just as many social networkers enjoy the challenge of compressing their observations into a 140-word tweet, many writers have become intrigued with the power of a story told in just a few words. While flash fiction can be as short as a sentence, as a rule it tops out at 1,000 words.

This blog post, “A Flash of Inspiration,” provides a good guide to the flash fiction genre.

Twitter: Beware the long tail and what it’s attached to

There’s no question but that journalism has in recent decades shifted its focus from news (chosen for news value) to “infotainment” (chosen for entertainment value). And the journalism world made this questionable move awkwardly, trying to handle fast-paced, sexy content via a creaky, stiff medium.

Then along came websites, blogs, and other social media communications platforms to show them how it should be done. One of the beauties of social media is that the “infotainment” is being provided by extremely clever and articulate infotainers. (You know who you are, folks.)

Everyone wants to get in the game now, and the web abounds with articles and posts about “how to” do great social media writing. Not surprisingly, some of this online literature is aimed at journalists trying to catch up with and get onto the bandwagon. An excellent addition to this genre is “Twitter to journalists: Here’s how it’s done” posted on the site eat sleep publish. The post collects “tips for journalists using social media” that blogger Monica Guzman solicited from her online colleagues. The tips (Twittered, of course) were short and to the point.

I’m honored to have been one of the people whose advice appears in the collection. And now I want to “out” myself as the contributer who offered up the most hard-line, old-time, journalistic advice. I wrote:

“NEVER relax the traditional standards you used for verifying facts and getting both sides’ points of view!”

It was a bit embarrassing to see all the other Twitterers’ tips about savvy use of the latest social media sites when there I stood, effectively pounding my oh-so-sensible shoe on the digital desktop. (Yes, I know what era that reference comes from.)

But I want to stand by my stodgy comment, and expand on it a bit here. Particularly because I just spent some time arguing the other side this morning, urging a client with a business blog to cast off the stilted, detailed, boring language of press releases and adopt a reader-focused tone.

Blogging and Twittering are infotainment. As infotainment, they only need to present one side of the picture. Many great posts (and Tweets) are unabashed pieces of advocacy. These pieces are great because they’re full of new information (or bring together information in a new and provocative way).

However…you’ll notice that the bloggers and Twitterers who consistently write great stuff have a reputation for accuracy (because they’re verifying facts). And, if you get into a discussion with them via comments or email, you soon discover that they research not only the side of the issue they choose to present, but the other side as well. They know what they’re up against before they hit “Publish.”

By knowing both sides of the issue before you write, you not only occupy the moral high ground — you also prevent yourself from sounding like a horse’s ass. (And I don’t mean the political blog, which is rather wonderful.) In the world of Twitter, horses’ asses tend to lose followers; it can get very messy if you follow too closely behind a horse.

So, I stand by my advice for journalists aspiring to Twitterificness, and hope that the social media darlings who haven’t already figured it out will consider giving it a try as well — if just to keep their Manolo Blahniks and Skechers pristine.

Take control of your Mac, your WiFi — and your turkey

Take Control ebooks is giving away a copy of Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner with every technology title sold.

The sale is on from now through Thanksgiving Day — since it’s an ebook, you can download it at the last minute if you need to figure out how to make great gravy (or consult Appendix C: Last-Minute Thanksgiving). But it’s worth getting it a week or two in advance to take advantage of all of Joe Kissell’s great advice on planning Thanksgiving, from brining a turkey to making creamy mashed potatoes.

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