Saturday, March 26, 2005

Writing and Technology: A Student Interview with Steven Streight

"Three KLCC airport (Malaysia) robots" - photo manipulation by S. Streight, original photo of single robot, by Messy Christian. Posted by Hello

A senior student at Arizona State University, majoring in Technical Communications, contacted me today via email.

He said that his assignment in a course was to contact a marketing professional.

He had read my article "Slogan Slogging" in the TC EServer data base, went to this blog, read my bio, and decided to contact me.

Here is the email survey and my responses...

Writing and Technology:
A Student Interview
with Steven Streight

In your direct marketing career, what kind of tasks did you/do you perform on a daily basis?

STEVEN STREIGHT: I began as an Account Representative at a pioneering direct marketing company, Ruppman Marketing Services, Peoria, Illinois, which was started by guys from IBM and Donnelly Yellow Pages.

The company was low profile, but all the big corporations (General Motors, Sony, State Farm Insurance, Caterpillar, Hitachi, Panasonic, Sears, Lennox, Department of Defense, etc.) used their services in yellow pages advertising, inbound telemarketing technical helpdesk customer service, data warehousing, direct mail campaigns, product literature distribution.

I had approached the company with a portfolio of short stories, reports, dummy ads, a ridiculous hodge podge of "writing samples" and was merely interested in learning what they did. The "exploratory interview" (as opposed to "employment interview").

They liked my zeal, my thinking, my personality, my shoes, whatever, and they offered me a job. I wasn't even finished with college. I never did finish. My career took off during my junior year at college.

Since then, too busy to complete university work, and no regrets. I create my own credentials through my work and prestigious clients.

Well, I found that I was okay with "schmoozing" clients at fancy restaurants, but not liking sports, and having bizarre interests (surreal French fiction, underground electronic music, avant garde films, science fiction), I was limited in potential as a "good old boy" account rep.

But--voila! (er, Eureka!)--I was best at writing and marketing strategy.

So I moved onto other firms in the field of advertising copywriter.

Today I'm a web usability analyst and blogologist, but the core of everything I do, and the cause of success, is super strong writing skills, coupled with intense fascination with psychology and marketing concepts.

As a direct marketing copywriter, I've promoted Crafts, Shooting Times, Rotor & Wing, Profitable Craft Merchandising magazine subscriptions, Troy-Bilt tillers, Doubleday (including their mystery and science fiction bookclubs), General Motors, Pepsi, American Express, Chemical Bank, Wall Street Transcript, dental supplies, Governor Cuomo's loaned executive program, Scholastic magazines, wood burning stoves, chamber music ensembles, greenhouses, and Pantone color selection products.

My responsibilities included:

* meeting with clients to understand what they want to achieve with the marketing, meeting again to show them alternative ideas (never present just one or two options, show several, but emphasize what you most believe in).

* talk to the engineers to discover facts about the products.

* research competitor products and their marketing campaigns, ads, commercials, direct mail, etc.

* focus group sessions with prospects or with customers.

* home visits to customers to gather testimonials and listen to complaints, suggestions, and questions.

* interacting with the art department, making "writer's rough" sketches of brochure or ad design, then workting with artists on the real design: they often considered the copy to be just another "graphic element", didn't even pay much attention to the words, even of headlines, just slapped it on the layout. This had to be remedied. But I loved working with artists and designers, as I also create digital art at my Art Test Explosion art gallery blog.

* sometimes even visiting the production shop to see how material is printed and packaged for distribution.

* studying books on direct marketing, advertising, technical writing, and whatever field my clients were in (gardening, magazine publishing, whatever).

* knowing enough about office politics to not fall into traps or play the game poorly (worst part of job, I was not too good at it, I didn't see how stupid or mediocre people could defeat me in gossip or other political ways).

* read great classic or modern literature, great--not trendy trash, to keep my overall writing level high (this was a requirement I imposed on myself).

* study great classic and modern art to stay sharp about design concepts (another self-imposed duty), plus works on the creative process, innovators, new ideas in various realms.

Although I was a direct marketing writer, a lot of it was highly technical, especially the Troy-Bilt tillers and other gardening machinery products of Garden Way Manufacturing Company.

Also, I wrote brochures for Caterpillar's usability testing lab and multimedia training programs.

So in these cases, I had to understand and use technical terminology, yet in a way that customers would understand and be able to see the clear benefits of the products or services being promoted.

Daily tasks were largely: talking to clients, doing research, writing, and interacting with art department.

Mostly writing, writing, writing. I loved it.

Daily tasks now are more: studying the top ranked blogs of all types, studying marketing blogs, learning web design and development, researching various topics to then write about them in my own blogs and in books I'm preparing for publishing, occasional writing of online articles for other online magazines or newsletters, meeting with clients, reading books on sales, marketing (Seth Godin and Al Ries especially), psychology, classic literature, art. Mostly the same as when I was a direct marketing writer, just new tech fields now, such as blogging and webs.

What kind of skills are involved? Software skills?
Writing skills?

STEVEN STREIGHT: As a copywriter and tech writer, I had to have typing skills and word processing expertise.

(Actually I began by writing copy with pen and handing it to a secretary to type up on an IBM Selectric, then a "memory typewriter", then I advanced to skipping the secretary and composing on my own Macintosh).

I had to have good interpersonal ("people") skills, good personality, get along with all types of moody, arrogant, lazy, workaholic, mediocre, genius, etc. people.

I had to have tremendous self-motivation and self-confidence, especially when presenting marketing strategy and copy to the creative staff and the clients.

I had to have some skill in understanding scientific, technical thinking, and in sales psychology.

I think a tech or marcom writer should excel in everything, or at least try, including poetry, novels, magazine articles, press releases, owner's guides, screenplays, radio and television commercials, technical manuals, catalogs, newsletters, personal journals, email, blogging, all forms of writing.

Some you'll do better at, and enjoy more, than others. But at least be familiar with the basics of all.

You make yourself more valuable. You don't want to say "I've never done that" when a boss asks if you can help out or if you can tackle some new aspect of the job, like for a new client.

Force yourself to master, as much as possible, all forms of writing.

I started as a poet and song lyricist as a teenager.

It was poetry (Rilke, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Auden, Bill Knott, Arthur Rimbaud, John Asbery, Kenneth Patchen, Kerouac, Sappho, Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Horace, all the modern poets and some ancient poets) that prepared me for technical and advertising writing.

Another big influence is Marcel Proust, though his writing style is almost the very opposite of effective advertising, email, web site, blog writing. I guess I enjoy reading Proust as a change of pace. Long-winded sentences that may fill an entire page, obsessively minute details of flowers and personalities, frequent use of analogy to amplify descriptions of characters.

Learn as many computer skills as you can. Know about web services, wireless networks, VOIP, online virtual musical instruments, podcasting, email marketing techniques, online community software, image file formats, JPEG optimizations, all the stuff coming down the pipeline into the working world and the art circles.

Did you work in a team environment? What are your
thoughts on teaming?

STEVEN STREIGHT: I'm an average team player, I admit. I'm not a star
team player. I have trouble keeping my thoughts to myself, though I try to be diplomatic and sensitive to others.

I have a strong "do it myself, to do it right" streak in me. I hate to hand over projects to others. Not that I'm vain or possessive, I just know a lot about art and design and marketing and sales, so I try to have some control or input in all aspects, even the paper and the ink that is used.

I'm a good teamplayer in the sense that I truly believe in helping the employer or client succeed.

I'm not a sandbagger who just wants to do the bare minimum and get a paycheck. And I enjoy working with other people, as long as they are high caliber professionals or at least willing to learn. Mediocre, immature, mind-gamers I can't stand and can't work with very well.

Get the book "How To Work for a Jerk" by Robert M. Hochheiser (Vintage, 1987). I think there is a recent title that's similar and it may be good also. But this book is filled with anecdotes and practical tips on dealing with difficult bosses and employees. One of the best business books I've ever read. Sheer genius.

Like: if your boss keeps complaining, unjustly, about your writing ability.

The author, Hochheiser, began teaching a course on technical writing at a local prestigious university.

Next time boss complained, "This ad is poorly written, and you better improve it. Your writing skills are not all that good.", he just said, "That's not what Columbia University thinks. They hired me to teach a class on technical writing for graduate students."

He pulled out a sheet of paper displaying the course description, with his name as the instructor. "Now, what specificially do you not like about that ad?"

The boss mumbled a few dumb, incoherent things and walked away, never to trouble him again on that matter.

What kind of computer software did you work with back in the early days of your career in direct marketing?

(This is not part of my assignment, just a personal
question. I have always had an almost perverse
interest in the early days of computers and graphic

STEVEN STREIGHT: From pen to IBM selectric to IBM "memory typewriter" to Apple Macintosh to IBM desktop computer.

I loved the Mac, hated the IBM. This was around 1983. The Mac had the mouse and clicking, whereas the IBM was all keyboard commands you had to memorize. I still avoid keyboard commands, though I could probably use them in composing email, for bold or other stuff.

I remember how in 1978, Ruppman Marketing Services in Peoria, IL used microfiche a little bit, and also had a "mainframe" that used big reels of tape and punchcards. That's when "floppy discs" were really floppy, flexible plastic discs.

They refered to their mainframe as "FRED" the frigging ridiculous electronic device.

An older VP used to complain that PCs will never be a revolution, because nobody can figure out what the heck to do with a home computer.

The story back in 1978 was you could use a home computer to organize your shopping lists, to inventory your groceries, to send out invitations to parties. Huh?

It turned out to be Communication (email, online shopping, financial transactions, and blogging) that was the killer app for home computers, plus file sharing (photos, music, films).

First: computer. Second: home/office work station computer. Third: internet. Fourth: web. Fifth: blogs.

Next (my best guess today): wearable computers, "glogs", bio/info/nano applications, the internet as a unified assembly of seamless web services, wireless wonders, embedded computers, computerized lifestyle and environment, influencing the external world via home and wearable computers (negative example: virtual hunting, where you kill a real deer in Colorado while operating a home PC in Taiwan).

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