Charlie Brown’s Teacher Syndrome, Part 1: Boring bios

charliebrownIs your content so generic and jargon-filled that it becomes the written equivalent of that famous wah-wah-wah voice for your readers? (Need a reminder? This clip starring Peppermint Patty sums it up.)

In my work helping companies with the content for their websites, blogs and marketing materials, I see Charlie Brown's Teacher Syndrome often. This series aims to give you food for thought about creating a voice that people want to hear — colorful and, most importantly, distinctive. 

First up — bios, one of the most boring elements I see in marketing content.

Somewhere along the way, bios became a few paragraphs listing our current duties, progressing job titles, companies we’ve worked for and what degrees/training we have (resumes in paragraph form). Info on job history and past experience is important, of course, and should be included within reason, but there's much more you can say to set yourself apart.

Gray matter

I went to speak to a college class a few years ago and shared two sample bios to illustrate the difference between dry, run-of-the-mill business writing and good storytelling.

The first example is one I created based on a couple of bios I read on the websites of prominent companies; all of the names and identifying details have been changed. (

Stephanie Baker

Vice President of Marketing, Stellar Software

Stephanie Baker, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Stellar Software, is responsible for providing strategic direction for Stellar’s products, solutions and services and presenting the Stellar brand worldwide. Additionally, she oversees a number of operational units including Marketing and Product Management, Alliance Sales, Channel Marketing, Employee Wellness Services, Education, Human Resources, Professional Services, and Publications.

She is also a member of the Stellar Operating Team, which drives the company’s global business performance, and the Stellar Technology Team, which drives the company’s technology and solution roadmap.

Driving the company to be customer-focused, Baker helped lead the transformation of Stellar from a tools provider to the software solutions provider it is today. She has done so by building particular industry expertise into Stellar's product management and marketing teams, which research the market and partner with R&D to leverage customized solutions for many industries. She has overseen a dramatic increase in Stellar’s profile.

I come away from this knowing a lot about Stephanie's current job responsibilities and a little about her accomplishments in the job (see below), but nothing sticks with me.

Beyond the Charlie Brown's teacher effect, there are a few other drawbacks:

• Unnecessary/excessive capitalization.

• Sentences that are too long and hard to follow.

• Jargon, jargon and more jargon (so much leveraging and driving).

• Vagueness (“A dramatic increase in Stellar’s profile” — what does that mean?)


The second bio I shared with the class was based on a past assignment. I  interviewed a client and helped him write a profile he was asked to send in after being nominated for a business leadership award.  Again, the names/specifics have been changed for privacy, but the bio that came out of our conversation went a lot like this:

Michael Smith

Founder / Vice President, SuperSmartDesign

When he was growing up, Michael Smith was fascinated with taking complicated tasks and figuring out how to make them easier. These days, that problem-solving fascination is fueling a successful design career.

Michael began making his mark in San Francisco after driving across country in a restored VW bus with his pet gecko, Truman, very little money and no place to live. 

Fortunately, SuperSmartDesign, a promising start-up, was looking for people like Michael, and after joining the company, he quickly became design lead for several of its best-selling products.

In 2000, while he was working on a graduate degree, Michael co-founded Cool Widgets, a design firm. What began as a three-person operation is now one of the most highly respected firms in the Bay Area.

Michael’s ability to design and deliver engaging interactive experiences has brought him plum assignments for American Express, Electronic Arts, Boeing and Microsoft. Cool Widgets has just been honored as one of Startup Mania magazine’s 100 Best Companies, and Michael was named a Top Young Entrepreneur of 2012.

Talk to Michael about his education background, and he’ll tell you he was lousy at taking tests and had mediocre GPA’s but managed to pry open many doors with hustle and persistence – including the one to the prestigious, highly competitive Columbia School of Journalism.

Throw Michael’s innate talents and curiosity into the mix, and you have a skilled, passionate designer, entrepreneur, community leader and colleague.

I’m obviously biased, but I feel comfortable guaranteeing that you will remember more about Michael than you do about Stephanie.  And most importantly, I believe you'll come away from Michael’s bio with plenty of concrete information about his credentials, but also a strong sense of the kind of person you will be doing business with if you were to hire Michael’s firm.

You always have to consider your audience, and there may be situations where it might not be wise to have a bio as casual as this one. But even if you have to be a bit more buttoned-up than Michael in telling people about yourself, you can still tell a great story that will resonate far more than a list of job titles and degrees.

(originally posted on LinkedIn; image courtesy of

Work: A website is (re)born.

A few years back, clients at Produxs in Seattle turned that old saying about the cobbler's children having no shoes on its head. (Or feet?) Produxs, which later combined forces with Peak Systems to become UpTop, was a user experience (UX) design firm, which means they were experts in designing interactive experiences ... websites, apps, software and the like. But like many companies, they were busy working and making money, and the work they wanted to do on their own website sat on the back burner.

Screen shot 2013-02-07 at 4.33.42 PM

Screen shot 2013-02-07 at 4.34.10 PM
Another home page customer success story graphic

When I began working with Produxs as its writer/communicator-on-call, the team invited me to click through the site and offer up a new visitor's perspective (or in UX parlance, a new "user" perspective).

I made a list of observations of what I considered to be the good, the bad and the much-needed. Most of what I suggested had to do with words and content, as I'm no designer, but I did note any confusing or time-consuming navigation problems.

A few months later, Produxs unveiled a streamlined, inviting new home on the web, and I'm proud to have been involved in the word-smithing part of the project. When Produxs and Peak became UpTop, I also wrote the content for UpTop's new home on the web.

Below are a few screenshots from the Produxs website overhaul; just click to see the copy and design in greater detail.

Screen shot 2013-02-07 at 4.35.20 PM

Screen shot 2013-02-07 at 5.15.22 PM

Screen shot 2013-02-07 at 4.36.18 PM

For more examples, please visit my portfolio site; I'm also happy to send you additional links and examples that I'm unable to post here.

Saying it doesn't make it so: Back up your claims.

In my work as a marketing copywriter, I've gnashed my teeth many times over the challenge of creating compelling, credible copy based on vague claims that aren't backed up by specifics. I don't like writing copy that I wouldn't be convinced by. Claiming that your company, services or product are the best thing since sliced bread means nothing.

Screen shot 2013-03-19 at 10.59.01 AM

Says who?

I've seen a lot of companies throw around superlatives in their marketing materials.

"___ is the leader in X,Y, Z" is a common blurb I see on websites. How do you set out to prove a vague claim like that?

The "about" page for IBM says it is "the world's most forward-looking company." (I can think of a few other prominent companies that might take issue with that claim, but beyond that, it's an awkwardly worded superlative, which is unusual for IBM, which has done some really entertaining storytelling about analytics in the past.)

Descriptions like these are disingenuous and sloppy. There are, after all, no unbiased organizations out there evaluating companies and then handing out awards for the "Greatest" or "Most Forward-Thinking."

I glanced at the highest-level web pages on the Microsoft and Apple sites, and both companies appear to have overcome the temptation to call themselves the "most" or "greatest" anything, and instead do what I think makes sense and holds more sway: They focus on specifics about what they have to offer.

Get creative

It's not always easy to get hard numbers to quantify success. In an ideal world, you could go out to sales appointments armed with stats showing exactly how much (in dollars or percentages) you helped your last client improve their online sales – or whatever other goal you set out to reach.

In the absence of that sort of proof, what you can do is convince your current clients to vouch for your value. Testimonials matter –  as long as they're attributed to specific people, that is. (If you get a great quote, but your client then says, "But, hey, can you just say this is from 'a client'?" their value drops off exponentially.)

Go courting

At the beginning of a project, go ahead and mention how much you'd appreciate it if your client would be willing to tell the story of your mutual success once all is said and done.  Better yet, if your kind of work can be measured, ask at the get-go if they would be willing to share some hard before-and-after numbers that you can use in your marketing.

I've  worked for companies who were squeamish about asking clients to be quoted in marketing materials or in web content, and I understand that some clients may not want to go there for confidentiality or other reasons. Every situation is different, and you have to make a good judgment call.

But I think some companies are too timid about asking, losing great opportunities.

If you say it, prove it.

In short, resist the temptation to be "The Leader In ..." when you create your identify and sales pitches. Don't say anything you can't back up with client/customer testimonials, hard numbers or some other form of proof that you really are better than your competitors.

What word has ousted 'decisioning' from my Most Horrific Jargon #1 spot?

I have a long list of jargon-y words that make my skin crawl when I encounter them in my work, my Inbox or online, but I believe "decisioning," a word included in a work document a few years ago, may have been the most outrageous. Before deleting it, I did check the dictionary, smugly assuming there was no way it was a real word. It is (though it shouldn't be).

This morning, via Twitter, I was introduced to a new horror of a word that should not be a word (and I'm not even going to bother looking this one up). The headline and subhead read:

Don’t Gamify. Pleasurize.

Some gamification efforts may try too hard to win over workers with unreal motivators like points, badges, and leader boards. Just adding a little enjoyment to everyday tasks can go a long way toward improving productivity.

I don't think I need to tell you why this is terrible.

But I do have to point out how funny it is that someone would take the idea of playing games and makes it sound like a medical procedure.

Let's all commit to smiting (now there's a word I'd like to see used more often ... I just hope I spelled it right) all forms of this newcomer (gamify, gamification, gamifier) when it cross our paths.

postscript: Here's the link to the full story if you'd like to learn more about being gamified.


Placeholder Syndrome (aka: 'Nobody reads my website, anyway')

Anything you put out into the public domain should be worth someone's time and attention. I hear variations of this refrain a lot:

"My website is terrible, but you know, I get most of my business from word of mouth, so that really doesn't matter. Besides, I just don't have time to deal with updating/fixing it."

I call this Placeholder Syndrome.

If you're so overrun with business that you couldn't possibly handle any more ... congratulations! (And when can we have lunch and talk about how you did that?)

If not, you should yank out of circulation any outdated, hard-to-understand, hard-to-navigate, unappealing promotional websites, print pieces, LinkedIn company pages, etc.

Why would you want embarrassing, outdated materials that bear the name of your organization floating around in cyberspace?

It’s very likely that people who want to do business with you will plug your name into search engines. You want them to find results that make you look '2013,' not '1996.'

Better to spend the time and money to get something up-to-date and engaging out there, even if it’s very straightforward and short on bells and whistles.

Bottom line: If you hang out  your shingle in public, make sure every word, picture and function reflect well on you/your organization and serve a purpose.




Daniel Pink's perfect story hook for 'To Sell Is Human'

I went to see best-selling nonfiction author Daniel Pink talk about his new book, To Sell Is Human, Tuesday night at Quail Ridge Books, and while I'm only a chapter or so into it, I already like one choice he made: threading the story of Norman Hall, the very last Fuller Brush salesman, throughout the book.

And then, with the suddenness of an unexpected knock on the door, the Fuller brush man–the very embodiment of 20th-century selling–practically disappeared. ... Norman Hall, however, remains at it. In the mornings, he boards an early bus near his home in Rohnert Park, California, and rides ninety minutes to downtown San Francisco. He begins his rounds at about 9:30 AM and  walks 5 to 6 miles each day, up and down the sharply inclined streets of San Francisco. 

I took an instant liking to Norman Hall and his inexhaustible devotion to the Fuller Brush, and I can't wait to see how Pink weaves in his story.

That's a strong start, and makes me think I'll like his other books, too – and what author doesn't want that kind of reaction from his/her reader after only two chapters?


'... Maybe stories are just data with a soul.'

IMG_3361_4 In 25 years of writing for a wildly varied assortment of for-profit and non-profit organizations, I've seen the same battle over perception playing out over and over again. Nearly everywhere, I’ve encountered people who were convinced that if their story was told as a story, with anecdotes or examples and in a conversational style, it would instantly lose credibility.

Years apart, colleagues in two very different nonprofits expressed their deep-seated fear that an overhaul of their publication to a more magazine-like format would turn it into People. One mention of the word “magazine,” and all they could conjure up was a celebrity glossy. They were genuinely alarmed and not easily convinced.

These and other intelligent, highly educated colleagues over the years would hold tight to their academic or scientific or industry jargon, their way-down-in-the-weeds, eye-glazing detail and their “just-the-facts, ma’am” approach as credentials of a sort.

One academic protested that his work didn’t need examples or more approachable language and explanations because there were only a few people in the world who followed his area of specialty, and they didn’t care about that sort of thing.

If there has been a common thread in my career, it has been this uphill battle to convince people that taking something complex and making it colorful and engaging is a good thing … that everyone, no matter how brilliant or credentialed, likes to be entertained when they read.

I’ve seen stellar short- and long-form writing (from ad campaigns to magazine articles) numbed-down after too many people in too many meetings gave in to this kind of insecurity – to the notion that it is more important to impress than it is to engage.

It’s always heartening to see businesses and nonprofits where the truly creative stuff makes it out into the world, unfiltered by “the committee” – where the creatives are allowed to live up to their job description. (After all, it does seem like a colossal waste of money to hire people with skills you have no intention of using.)


I watched a TED talk by Brene Brown a few weeks after writing this, and I was struck by the story she told at the beginning. An event planner was struggling with how to describe Brown in promoting an upcoming speaking engagement.

She thought calling Brown a researcher would lead people to assume that her presentation would be boring, so she suggested calling her a “storyteller.” Brown recoiled at the description. “The academic, insecure part of me was like, ‘What?’”

But she came around to the idea. “Maybe,” she thought, “stories are just data with a soul.” She told the woman to bill her as a researcher-storyteller – at which point the event planner laughed and told Brown there was no such thing.

“… Stories are just data with a soul” is one of my favorite quotations.