Gift return: Six ways to improve your holiday client gift giving this year

With Halloween behind us and the U.S. Thanksgiving just weeks away, the holidays are upon us. For business owners, this spells a marketing opportunity that many take for granted – particularly small business owners. This year, think outside of the gift box when choosing your client gifts, and potentially keep your brand in front of potential customers all year long.

Here are six tips to help you give gifts that won’t end up as next year’s White Elephant:

1. Avoid the gimmicks. I received some astoundingly bad client gifts when I worked for a major corporation, many of which wound up at White Elephant parties or Goodwill. These were often the “hot” gift for the holidays or an attempt to show a sense of humor. The worst violators: a Chia pet and a mounted, singing fish. Both were heavily advertised on TV and both were given in an ironic, isn’t this funny manner. Both also wound up at Goodwill. (I wasn’t going to inflict either on an unsuspecting coworker, even they were potentially funny White Elephant entries.)

 2. Avoid the gender stereotypes. I have had several clients and management chains that bought two separate types of gifts: one for men, the other for women. Example: one year males received a flashlight that opened up to reveal assorted screwdrivers, while women received a set of scented candles that reeked before they were even opened. Another year, men received a deluxe grilling set while women received… I honestly don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure you can find it at Goodwill. Another popular stereotype is the plant – specifically, the dreaded poinsettia. I have received these plants as my holiday gift (and one time in lieu of a holiday bonus!) countless times, and I’ve never once taken them home. Poinsettias are dangerous for animals, and with two house cats, they will never darken my house. Also, for some reason they always seem on the verge of death by the time they arrive at my desk, leaving lots of detritus that set off my allergies.

 3. Make it functional. Look around your car, your desk, even your purse – odds are you have a pen with the name of a service or store you patronized. While that store or service may not be at the top of your mind every day, the business owner is betting that you will be reminded the next time you do a crossword in pen or, perhaps, scribble a To Do list that contains the service she provides. That level of branding reinforcement is invaluable – but a pen is hardly a great holiday client gift. (Not the plastic ones, anyway.) We’re big fans of the branded bistro mug. They are larger than the average coffee cup, have a distinctive sensual shape and can be used on a daily basis. We’ve also given branded, reusable totes that can be kept in the car for regular trips to the grocery store. For added value, consider adding a personal note and a lovely edible treat that can be enjoyed right away!

You can find numerous vendors online that offer bistro mugs with your branding. Just remember to use BOTH sides of the mugs. As a lefty, I have looked at the blank side of a mug many, many times over the years. My mom, a fellow southpaw, once had the printing done on the opposite side, creating a “lefty” mug as a holiday gift for her client base that both amused and distinguished her company from other, similar gifts.

4. Quality counts. A gift that breaks after one trip through the dishwasher. Print that fades (or worse, smudges). Gifts that just smell “cheap.” These will not win clients or provide positive brand reinforcement. Find the best quality products within your budget.

 5. Unless you’re Oprah, don’t give “favorite” things. I once had a client present me with a lovely CD wallet and a collection of his 10 favorite CDs (all removed from their cases and inserted into the wallet). Each was personalized with a private story about why it was a favorite. One CD was included simply because it included the “first dance” song from his wedding reception! I kept the wallet (functional) and took the CDs to a Half-Price store. The music was not to my taste (I’m not a soft jazz fan) and I didn’t have the emotional connection to the music that he clearly felt. Worse, he asked me what I thought of the music a few months later during a meeting. I felt terrible, but also wanted to be honest with him. I admitted the music was not my taste, but thanked him again for the CD case. I got the “women’s gift,” a bright pink scarf, a few months later. I would have rather have gotten the men’s travel mug.

Finding the right client gift can be difficult, but by following these simple guidelines, your odds of success will go up. If all else fails, consider the client gift that anyone can appreciate:

6. Offer to make a donation in your client’s name to a charity. Choose 5 charities and allow your client to pick where to send the money, or if you happen to know someone is passionate about a cause (they do walk-a-thons, are on a board of directors, etc.) consider showing that you’ve been paying attention by proactively making a donation on their behalf.

Not only will you make an impression, you will truly be giving a gift that keeps on giving.

TMI, dude! Why asking for too much information is the wrong marketing move

I recently clicked through an offer to get a free Back to the Future game episode from Telltale Games. It’s a promotion designed to hook you in to purchasing the full series of games when they’re released. The site prompted me for my login, which I had created the last time they did one of these free episode deals, but this time something was different.

They wanted to know where I lived:

Telltale Games checkout page

Why do you need my address? What's my motivation to give it to you?

When I first signed up, they didn’t require this infomation. My account existed, yet the only details it had when I logged in this time were my name and e-mail address. That’s all they had required previously, and rightfully so. I had signed up for a free download, and they needed to notify me about my “purchase.”

But this time, I suspect, someone in marketing had urged them to collect mailing addresses in return for this freebie – which you could estimate is worth about $5 since the 5-episode pack is priced at $25. “We’re giving them a $5 game,” the argument goes, “the least they could do is share a little information.” I’m guessing, but I used to be involved in these sorts of conversations all of the time when I worked for a major software company.

On the surface, it makes sense. A fair trade of software value for valuable personal details, right?

Certainly, some customers will buy into this. They’ll pony up their mailing address and other contact details for a freebie with perceived value of $5 or more. But others will question why they need this information. They’re not sending a physical CD in the mail with the game on it. They’ll send me an e-mail notification when it’s time to download it. What are they going to do with the address? Direct marketing? Sell my information to a third-party? Either way, I don’t want it.

So some people – maybe the majority – will submit a fake address. 1234 Noneofyourdamnbusiness Lane, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., or perhaps a choice expletive or two.

And now you have a problem: data integrity. A significant part of your database has bad data in it. Supposing you did have a use for the mailing address that most customers would love – say, you decide to reward them with a free disc-based game or promotional (yet adorable) sticker set that everyone would love to find delivered to them free of charge via postal mail – you’d have to do a lot of scrubbing to only send to the addresses that appear to be valid. And, even then, expect a lot of returned mail!

There’s really no good reason to ask for a mailing address unless you need it right here and right now to fulfill a customer’s order.

To be fair, Telltale does sell t-shirts, posters and shotglasses – but I wasn’t ordering those. If I had, then the transaction flow should be modified to require my shipping address. And if I was buying something – even a downloadable game – with my credit card, I’d expect to be hit up for my billing address to validate my identity and complete the transaction. In those cases, the customer will supply these details readily and, most of the time, accurately because they understand the need for it and want to receive the product they ordered.

Any time you ask for information that’s NOT needed to fulfil a transaction, you’re asking for trouble. It may be a little extra work to build that logic into your shopping cart, but it’s worth it – both for the customer’s peace of mind about your company and the quality of the data you collect.

Do these people look like they want to help you? A customer support big phish story

You probably get loads of spam. And you probably have noticed that some of those mails try to trick you (phish) personal details, such as credit card numbers and personally identifiable details that could be used to scam you. And these phishers are getting smarter.

Once happy to prey only on newbies and the truly stupid, phishing mailers used to send poorly written, typo ridden messages that were easily sniffed out by Internet veterans. But not so much these days.

I got an e-mail recently that looked like it might have been legit. It claimed I had a Battle.net account which had its password recently changed. And if I didn’t initiate this change, I should contact Blizzard support to reclaim it.

Hello,

This is an automated notification regarding your Battle.net account. Some or all of your contact information was recently modified through the Account Management website.

*** If you made recent account changes, please disregard this automatic notification.

*** If you did NOT make any changes to your account, we recommend you log in to Account Management review your account settings.

If you cannot sign into Account Management using the link above, or if unauthorized changes continue to happen, please contact Blizzard Billing & Account Services for further assistance.

Billing & Account Services can be reached at 1-800-59-BLIZZARD (1-800-592-5499 Mon-Fri, 8AM-8PM Pacific Time) or at billing@blizzard.com.

Account security is solely the responsibility of the accountholder. Please be advised that in the event of a compromised account, Blizzard representatives will typically lock the account. In these cases the Account Administration team will require faxed receipt of ID materials before releasing the account for play.

Regards,

The Battle.net Support Team
Blizzard Entertainment
www.blizzard.com/support
Online Privacy Policy

These sorts of mails are commonly triggered for security reasons, so it gave me pause. Did I have a Battle.net account? It was entirely possible. Could someone have hacked it? Certainly. Did the mail come to the e-mail address I would have used when creating such an account? Yes, in fact, it did – an account that until now had been mostly free of spam. And those do appear to be legitimate phone and e-mail support options (they’re banking that you’ll choose the easy method and just click the link).

So I did the smart thing and visited Blizzard support. But I did NOT use any of the links in the e-mail I received. E-mail links are easily diverted to addresses that look remarkably legit but are really fronts for data thieves. No, I typed in a search and found the verified Blizzard support page, which looked like this:

Blizzard Support page

Do these folks make you feel warm inside? Maybe from the blood spilling from your entrails.

What do you think of this page? Does it look warm and inviting? Do the characters portrayed on it suggest that helpful support personnel are standing by, ready to help you through whatever problem you might be facing down?

No. The woman looks like she’s piercing your soul with her silvery eyes and considering whether you’d make a tasty snack for her pet serpent. The dude on the right looks like he’d be sneering at your Level 1 Dwarf except that he’s decided that you’re beneath his contempt and will roundly ignore you should you attempt to engage him in conversation.

Probably not what Blizzard was going for, unless their goal is to sacrifice customer service for reduced support volume.

Despite the icy virtual reception, I submitted my support request. I only asked whether I ever had an account with them attached to the e-mail address that received the notification mail. It took a follow-up to clear up the issue to my satisfaction. This is a common problem with support – they don’t actually read the message, they scan it for keywords and then cut and paste canned responses. Here’s what I got back:

Thank you for contacting Blizzard! My name is Charli and I am from Blizzard’s Account and Technical Services department. I have read through your e-mail and would be happy to assist you. We have recently seen an increase in phishing attempts which pose a real threat for account security. As a friendly reminder, many scams will ask you for your password, which is something Blizzard Entertainment will *NEVER* do.

You may wish to review the following links for more information on phishing emails:

     – Types of Account Thefts: http://us.battle.net/security/types.html

     – How to tell if the email you received is legitimate: http://us.blizzard.com/support/article/30828

     – Information concerning email scams, examples of phishing emails, and what to do in the event you have received a phishing email can be found on the Customer Service Forum here: http://forums.worldofwarcraft.com/thread.html?topicId=965511383

Add a Battle.net authenticator to the account and receive an exclusive Corehound pet! Information about this security device can be found here: http://us.blizzard.com/support/article/BLIZZARDAUTH.

If you feel you may have responded to a phishing email, and are unable to access the account, please contact Account & Technical Services. With proper verification our representatives may be able to assist you in recovering the account. Our contact information can be found at http://blizzard.com/support/article/cs.

Charli could be a guy or a girl, so I don’t know if it was the ice princess or that sneering dude who replied. To his or her credit, s/he did allude to the fact that it could be a phishing scam – but did not state what I actually wanted to know. A simple “The email address used to contact us is not and has never been registered to a Battle.net or World of Warcraft account” would have satisfied me. Which is what I eventually got, when I pressed for a more specific answer.

Since then, I have received several more “notifications” from the Society of Not Really Blizzard Phishers, including a notice of “Suspicious Activity – Account Locked” for my non-existent World of Warcraft account.

If there’s a silver lining here, apart from the fact that I avoided clicking what I can now see is a very suspicious link, is Blizzard’s concise white list messaging. I’ve written white list messages myself for various organizations in my roles as communications director and community manager, and this is a good one. Short, sweet and detailed:

Please be aware that if your email service or software utilizes restrictive junk or “spam” filters, you may not be able to receive important emails from our support department. This can often include critical account notices, password recovery, and billing confirmation. If such filters are in place, these messages may wind up in a junk folder, or even be deleted automatically.

To ensure you are able to receive support messages, please review the following options:

Do not use the “Spam”, “Junk”, or “Junk Mail” buttons to delete emails from Blizzard Entertainment. If this happens it may not only prevent you from getting important emails, but your mail service may start blocking ALL Blizzard Entertainment emails of any kind, for ALL its subscribers.

Check your “Junk Folder” or “Spam Folder” and make sure you do not see any official emails there. If you see any, be sure to mark them as “Not Junk” or “Not Spam” so that messages are not improperly filtered in the future.

Add our email addresses to your Address book or “Safe Sender” list:

  • support@blizzard.com
  • billing@blizzard.com
  • wowtech@blizzard.com
  • wowgm@blizzard.com
  • *@blizzard.com

Following these steps should ensure that you receive all the messages from Blizzard Entertainment. If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to let us know.

Now, if they could just convince us they really do want to have a dialog with their customers!

Do hoaxes and fear tactics have a place in social media?

We follow game communities and social media closely – it’s our area of greatest passion and expertise. So when GOG.com (aka Good Old Games) hinted that they were closing their virtual doors, we – along with many others we follow who have bought classic PC games from them – lamented the apparent loss.

GOG reaction

But it all started with this tweet, which at first glance seemed to be a random venting of frustration by a faceless social media plebe:

GOG tweet 1

But this tweet seemed much more calculated after the events of the next few days.

Two days later, the online storefront was gone – apparently shut down and replaced with a short message:

We have recently had to give serious thought to whether we could really keep GOG.com the way it is. We’ve debated on it for quite some time and, unfortunately, we’ve decided that GOG.com simply cannot remain in its current form. We’re very grateful for all support we’ve received from all of you in the past two years. Working on GOG.com was a great adventure for all of us and an unforgettable journey to the past, through the long and wonderful history of PC gaming. This doesn’t mean the idea behind GOG.com is gone forever. We’re closing down the service and putting this era behind us as new challenges await.

GOG.com kept tweeting:

GOG tweet 2

The news about the site remaining available for people to redownload their games was a tip off. Why would a company keep the site live for people to redownload past purchases if they had no new revenue coming in to pay the server bills?

That same day, rumors spread that the site shutdown was a hoax. And people were angry!

On September 20, the site message was updated:

First of all, we apologize everyone for the whole situation and closing GOG.com. We do understand the timing for taking down the site caused confusion and many users didn’t manage to download all their games. Unfortunately we had to close the service due to business and technical reasons. At the same time we guarantee that every user who bought any game on GOG.com will be able to download all their games with bonus materials, DRM-free and as many times as they need starting this Thursday. The official statement from GOG.com’s management concerning the ongoing events is planned on Wednesday.

The news was finally broken on Sept. 22 that the shutdown was a build up to the site launching out of beta. Anger still washed over the social media streams:

GOG reaction 2

GOGcom apologized, but some feared too little, too late:

GOG reaction 3

But the next day, it was business as usual – actually, more business than usual:

GOG traffic

GOG.com seems to have generated the buzz it wanted and even earned back some customers’ trust with the addition of two popular classic games and a large sale on “favorites.” Time will tell if the stunt hurts them or served its intended purpose.

But as a social media manager who aims to understand customer needs and perspectives and strives for transparency in communications, I have to wonder if hoaxes and stunts that anger customers are ever a good risk.

Here’s how I might have handled it:

    GOG.com is going down for maintenance. We’ll be shut for 5 days as we prepare to launch the new site with exciting new features!If you make a GOG purchase today, download it right away. If you don’t complete the DL you’ll have to wait til the site comes back on 9/23.

    Don’t worry, your GOG.com purchases are safe! You’ll still be able to redownload everything you’ve ever bought! Big announcements coming!

    Here are some new features you’ll enjoy when GOG.com comes back on 9/23: More news, community features, quick browse catalog and reminders! 

    Feel free to speculate on the game news. We can’t confirm yet, but watch our Twitter on 9/22! We think you RPG fans will be pleased.

    While the site is down, how about we give away a few copies of the mystery RPG. RT the following message for a chance to win!

    GOG.com is back up. You may see hiccups as we continue to add servers and manage 5 days of pent-up demand. Tell us what you think!

Building a better podcast: Pro tips to make your audio sparkle (not crackle)

Selecting audio in Audacity

Selecting audio in Audacity

If you’re thinking of starting a podcast, it’s a great idea to grow an audience around whatever topic you are passionate about and boost your public speaking skills at the same time. We posted an article last year on how to get started.

But perhaps you’ve been posting podcasts and can’t quite seem to get the level of professionalism you desire? A good podcast typically sounds like either an energetic conversation or a polished radio program, though this can be hard to pull off without some hard effort and audio-editing expertise.

We’ve recorded and edited 47 weekly episodes of the Busy Gamer Podcast (with more on the way!) and have continually worked to improve the production quality. If you listen to our first and then our more recent podcasts, there’s a world of difference. Benefit from the lessons we learned – often the hard way!

To script or not to script? Our podcasts are tightly scripted, in part to keep them short and tight (they are designed for busy gamers!) and because we want them to sound like professional radio segments such as you might hear on NPR. Some people work better unscripted, though you should at least have an outline to ensure you cover all of the topics you intended. Jacqui actually does really well unscripted (she excelled at Table Topics back in our Toastmasters days!), so she usually ad libs the What We’re Playing section while I write out what I want to say so I can get really detailed and reserve spots to add audio cues. Hers sounds more natural, but mine are often more polished – plus, I would ramble a bit more and forget important details if I tried to improvise. Both approaches have their pluses and minuses, so determine which works best for you – or develop a hybrid as we’ve done.

Outside audio. A podcast about videogames is pretty Spartan without sounds from the games themselves, yet it took us a few months to get comfortable enough with the format to add them. Plus, this added a level of complexity we weren’t ready for back when we first started. Depending on your sound source, there are different ways to cleanly capture outside audio. If the sound is on your computer, say from a YouTube video, you can use Audacity to record it directly. Be sure to shut down any other programs that might make noises first. You can also run a stereo plug from your computer, portable device such as an iPhone or stereo receiver to your podcast recorder (we recommend the Zoom H2, which is inexpensive and versatile). Use headphones or an external mini-jack speaker so you can hear what’s going into your recorder. Be sure to set the levels so the input is neither too quiet or hitting the top of the meters. And remember your settings, so you can be consistent! If you need cables for audio input, check Radio Shack – they have virtually any audio part you could want. Prep your audio cues ahead of time in a separate file so they’re easy to grab when you’re ready to incorporate them into the main podcast.

Capture room noise to cover your coughs. Every time you record, even if it’s in the same place every time, the room noise will be a little different. Lock up any pets so they don’t vie for your attention while you’re recording, turn off air conditioners, heaters and other noisy appliances and aim for a time when garbage collectors and airplanes won’t interrupt your flow. Move anything that makes noise if you brush against it away from the recording area. Use a windscreen (that piece of foam that probably came with your recorder) to minimize crackles and pops. Then record at least a few seconds of absolute silence (no breathing or sniffling) so you have something to cover up any loud breath sounds, coughs and other noises that may interrupt an otherwise seamless podcast. Use headphones when editing to ensure you can hear every detail, and then cut and paste a short silent section over any unwanted noises. I actually create a new room noise file each week from which I draw different sizes of silent spaces, and then I make a leveled room noise file for the final edit pass (more on leveling in a bit). Although sometimes I just grab a silent segment near where the problem is, especially if the audio quality has changed (like on those occasions when a plane gets recorded passing over us during a segment and we didn’t stop to wait it out).

Master Audacity (or whatever tool you use to edit your podcast). My tips here are for Audacity, which is both free and very powerful, but most audio editing tools will have the same or similar features. You may notice that your main podcast segment looks like a slightly bumpy line, making it hard to see what to select when editing. If so, zoom in to blow up the main audio stream so that you can spot the waves for each word and the silences between them. Create separate tracks for different audio sources so you can adjust the volume for each separately. Even though you’ll be leveling everything later, you do want to be able to hear things at roughly the same volume as you work so you can tell how it’s cutting together.

I’ve found I can quickly delete small mistakes (or long segments that are easy to identify) by selecting them in Audacity and just pressing Delete. (If it doesn’t work, make sure you’ve hit Stop. It won’t allow changes when you’re on Pause.) You can adjust your selection by moving your cursor to the start or end line until it turns into a finger, and then clicking on the line and dragging to move it. Give it a listen to ensure you have the right audio selected before taking an action. For bigger mistakes or more complex edits that require a lot of tinkering, you may want to use the Split New feature. For instance, you can select everything from a particular point in your podcast to the end, split it into a new track, find the point where you want to stop deleting and then select everything from that point to the start of the track and delete it. Confirm your edit works with a listen, and then cut and paste the tracks back together.

Work on longer, more complex segments in separate files, then combine them later. Save often! When introducing music or audio that doesn’t mesh with the rest of your podcast, use Fade In and/or Fade Out to smooth the transitions. Fade In/Fade Out can even sometimes fix minor editing mistakes! Don’t be afraid to experiment, you can always Undo!

Dual screens makes editing go faster. If you can afford two monitors (or a single monitor attached to a laptop), extend your desktop to make editing easier. You can open your sound cues and editing notes on one screen and edit the main podcast on the other.

Level and test drive. When you’re done, export your podcast as a WAV, run Levelator and then reopen it in Audacity. Listen through for any mistakes and places that need tightening or mild edits. Then export your final podcast as an MP3. If time permits, copy it to an MP3 player and give it a test drive with an audience – we listen in the car, since this is how we expect most of our listeners will enjoy it. You may find areas that can be improved.

This may seem like a lot of work, but it does get easier the more you do it. Set a manageable schedule for regular releases – at least every other week, so people don’t forget about your podcast between episodes. Don’t take on too much right away. Start small with just your voice and maybe some public domain musical bumpers from Mevio’s Music Alley – and build from there, adding improvements every episode or so.

Community manager and social media lessons from PAX Prime 2010

As a content creator/consultant who works in social media and is trying to get back into gaming community work, I attended two panels at Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) Prime 2010 with great interest. The lessons shared from these panels transcend the gaming industry, which is leading the charge in both of these spaces – but other industries are taking notice and starting to follow suit.

I found both of these discussions fascinating – true highlights of the show despite the general lack of gaming content (my passion!). Fortunately, I recorded both from the front row with generally good results (there was a fidgety person next to me at the second panel who makes a few stray sounds early on, but she finally settled down).

Please note there is explicit language in the second panel (NOT safe for work, at least not without headphones!). I don’t recall any cursing in the first panel.

Becoming a Community Manager (1:01:23)

Panelists:
Jay Frechette, EA/Visceral Games
Jennifer Kye, Gameloft
Sam Houston, formerly with Perfect World and GamerDNA
Arne Meyer, Naughty Dog Studios
Collin Moore, formerly with Irrational Games
James Stevenson, Insomniac Games
Allison Thresher, Harmonix

Twittering for the Man (59:36)

Panelists:
Dan Amrich, Activision
Jeff Green, formerly EA
Larry Hryb, Microsoft
Jeff Rubenstein, Sony
A.J. Glasser, GamePro magazine (moderator)

Did these panels offer you any lessons you can apply to your job, either inside or outside of the games industry? We’d love to hear what you think.

I’m not there: Five ways to check in when you’re checked out (for vacation)

Much has been written about the value of completely de-tethering yourself from the office during vacation: Look at something besides your computer screen. Recharge your (metaphorical) batteries. Reconnect with family. These are all valiant and important pursuits – but not always realistic in today’s world. As consultants, we fight a constant battle to balance our family business with our Family Business. That often means staying at least marginally plugged in, even on long weekends, during family visits and vacations. Here are five ways we stay in touch without losing touch with the most important people in our lives:

  1. Identify a time to check-in – and stick to it. Choose a time when you can devote 15 – 30 minutes to checking in with your business without disrupting your family time or down time. For example, if you’re the first one out of bed, get a cup of coffee and read/respond to the mail. If you plan to sleep in, consider setting aside 15 – 30 minutes after you have wrapped up your evening and the kids are in bed.
  2. Set expectations early… and often. Let coworkers, clients and other business contacts know your vacation dates well in advance. If you have a weekly check-in mail with a client or manager, add “On vacation the week of – to –” as a miscellaneous line-item. 1-2 weeks before your vacation, tell your client/coworkers verbally that you will be gone and not available by phone. Let them know that you will be checking working mail once daily, either in the morning or evening – and that you will not be available by phone.
  3. Don’t be too accessible. Let technology do the heavy lifting for you. If a business call does come in, resist the temptation to step away and answer it. Let it go to voice mail, and plan to check it as part of your daily work review. Stay out of work mail during the day as well. This is your vacation, and you do need to recharge. Also, there is nothing relaxing about an impromptu argument with an annoyed family member.
  4. Leave the files at home. If possible, leave your laptop – and definitely any actual folders or files – at home. This will help you resist the urge to do just a little work. Also, you can’t forget important documents at the hotel if you don’t have them. Whatever it is can wait.
  5. Make a commitment to yourself. It is easy to say you are going to relax and enjoy your vacation – but only you can truly do it. Make a commitment to yourself that you will not check email or jump when a client calls, and follow through with it. It may be tough the first day or so, but you and your family will appreciate it.

We take so little time for ourselves these days that it’s difficult to remember a time when we could truly relax. You don’t have to take the radical approach of locking every piece of technology in the hotel safe to force yourself to untether and reconnect with your family – you just have to make a commitment, form a plan and follow through. Practice over the holidays and a few long weekends, and by next summer, you’ll be ready to take on vacation with a whole new perspective.

Top 5 Ways to Improve Your PowerPoint Presentation

The words “PowerPoint” and “presentation” have become almost synonymous in the business world. The software is packed with mini-tools designed to grab the audience’s attention and drive home your message. Used correctly, these tools can be a powerful message enhancer. Go overboard, and it’s just a mess. Here are the top five ways to improve your PowerPoint presentation by doing less with more.

1. Don’t create eye charts. The goal of your presentation should not be to test your audience’s eyesight – yet that is a common issue in PowerPoint presentations. Five to six top-level bullet points, plus a header, is plenty for one slide. If you are including illustrations, think three to four bullets. Better to have multiple slides covering the same topic than to have a slide no one in the audience can read. Speaking of which…

2. Let the audience listen. Another common mistake is to use a script to build the slide. Your audience will naturally read whatever is on screen – which means they are not paying attention to you. Pull out the very high-level points you will be touching on for the slide, and leave the details in your script. You want the audience to focus on you, not your slides. 

3. Limit fancy transitions. We’ve all seen the fancy dissolves, flying sentences and spinning text functionality of PowerPoint. Animating the text is a fun way to break up the monotony of writing a presentation, and it can be effective – for the right audience. It can also slow your presentation down, throwing your slides out of sync with your speech. Worse, it distracts the audience. Use the regular slide transition for presentations unless you have something really big to reveal, preferably at the end of your presentation. 

4. Follow a set style guide. Major corporations typically have a style guide, including approved background(s), font style, point size and capitalization rules for presentations. Check with your admin or manager – odds are they will know if such a thing exists. If not, create one for yourself. You will need:

  • A neutral slide background. There are a number of standard professional backgrounds available in PowerPoint. If you have a group or corporate “style,” ask if you can hire (or borrow) a design resource to create a template for you.
  • A readable font. Choose a professional, readable font. Good starter fonts include Arial, Calibri, Verdana, and Times New Roman. (Note: this holds true whether you are creating a work presentation or one for the PTA. Papyrus is never a good choice for presentations.)
  • A set of point sizes. “Point” refers to how large your text appears. You should have a set point size for headers, another for top-level bullets, and a third for secondary bullets. They should be reasonably close in size. For example:
    • Header: 24 point Calibri
    • Top-level bullet: 20 point Calibri
    • Second-level bullet: 18 point Calibri

Keep your style guide close by as you create your PowerPoint. You’ll also need it when you’re done so you can…

5. Check your work – and check it again. Proper spelling, good grammar, a consistent flow and consistent style will lend a professional air to your presentation. Don’t assume you got everything right the first time – everyone makes mistakes, especially when developing long PowerPoint presentations. After you have finished your draft, set it aside for a few hours to clear your head. Then go back and review. Ideally, you should do a pass to review for each specific issue. Realistically, you will review once. So do so carefully, and if possible, ask a friend or colleague to take a look as well. A second pair of eyes is always helpful.

 Here’s what to watch for while you review:

  • Proper spelling: Spell Check will catch a lot, but not everything. Keep an eye out for words that are misspelled, AND words that are spelled correctly… but not the word you wanted use.
  • Good grammar: Same rule: use Grammar Check as a tool, but don’t rely on it.
  • Consistent flow: Don’t jump around topics – finish thoughts and move on. Also, ensure that any fact or comment you reference (“As you saw on a previous slide…) is paid off earlier. In other words, make sure it actually appeared on a previous slide.
  • Consistent style: This includes the point/font/template styles mentioned earlier, but also encompasses capitalization (initial caps or sentence caps?), bullet style (square, round, diamond, etc.), font color, and any other visual queue you will use in your presentation.

Follow these five simple rules and your presentation slides will keep the focus where it belongs during your next presentation: on you.

The strange appeal of Flipboard, a social media ‘magazine’ for iPad

Flipboard Contents 'page' - click to view gallery of Flipboard images

Flipboard Contents 'page' - click to view gallery of Flipboard images

The buzz surrounding Flipboard for iPad hit suddenly. One minute I’d never heard of it and then the next my Twitter timeline was drowning in posts about it. I downloaded it just in time… to be blocked by everyone else trying to get in! The next day, Flipboard’s creators announced an invite system where you’d be queue’d to get the OK to connect your Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Even without the social media integration, I immediately saw the appeal of Flipboard via the various news feeds it aggregates. It has the glossy look of a neatly arranged and typeset magazine, only populated on-the-fly with stories and images from the Internet. Flip through the virtual pages just like you would with a paper copy of Wired or Vanity Fair. Some excerpts are short and sweet, others lengthy with a link to the full article. Spontaneous photo essays abound! Tap an image to open a focused view of it, then tap it again and it fills the screen. (Alas, you can’t tap and hold to save favorite images to your local photo album.)

I did get my social media invite a few days later, and suddenly it became much more personal. People I follow everyday get featured pull quotes daily. Gamers I know show off recent play summaries in greater depth than I ever see when browsing my timeline. Articles that were simply shortened links are blown up and instantly readable. My friends’ photos become instant photo essays or one-off illustrations breaking up a sea of article text.

Flipboard turns your Facebook and Twitter into a glossy magazine - click to view gallery of Flipboard images

Flipboard turns your Facebook and Twitter feeds into a glossy magazine - click to view gallery of Flipboard images

As much as I love Flipboard, it’s more of the sort of thing a social media consultant like me uses to unwind after a long day slaving over Twitter timelines, @ replies and Facebook walls (seriously, we never unplug – just ask my wife!) than a tool to be used for everyday work.

Here are some areas I would like to see improved:

  1. The Contents page only has nine slots, two of which are locked for Facebook and Twitter. I would probably fill 20 if I could with additional Twitter lists and news feeds! Scrolling would probably break the magazine metaphor, but it’s not unheard of to have more than one contents page. How about up to three pages for a total of 27 possible categories?
  2. You’re never going to get a comprehensive view of a busy Twitter or Facebook feed with a magazine style client like this, but how about letting us choose which friends we want to see or drill down to view? I recently posted a photo album to Facebook myself but didn’t launch Flipboard for several hours, and by then it was buried under my friends’ posts. I would have loved to see it turned into a photo essay! Likewise, I would like to browse or select sets of Facebook friends for spontaneous views of their recent status updates. And add sites I like that aren’t on the Flipboard team’s radar, or at least suggest them to the team for future inclusion.
  3. Flipboard doesn’t cache content for offline use. Since I didn’t spring for the 3G iPad, this meant I couldn’t show off the app to a friend when I took it to a café that didn’t offer WiFi I could use. Fortunately, I had already snapped some screenshots of Flipboard including the photo essay it had made of her recent gallery of self-portraits. Likewise, I would like to save favorite pages to an offline gallery within Flipboard to browse them again later, much as I might revisit a magazine article or photo layout.

That said, these are minor quibbles with an iPad app that is both free and very good at what it does - presenting social media in an old familiar format but in an interactive manner you’d never get from a paper periodical. If you have an iPad, it deserves a slot on your Home screen.

Plaxo tapped Facebook to help me get linked in and invaded my personal space in the process

The number of social networking sites has exploded in the past few years, with truly social outlets such as Facebook learning to share MySpace with people who want to get LinkedIn on Plaxo. I constantly get invites from former colleagues, family and friends to join them online at one network or another. The latest social media network to snag me as a user is Plaxo… which I joined more than a year ago and promptly abandoned. I returned to Plaxo recently on the recommendation of a friend and made the conscious decision to invest my most valuable commodity – time – into building out my profile.

Whether by design or sheer luck, updating my profile was incredibly easy… because everything I needed was already in my completed LinkedIn profile. I was able to pull dates and copy/paste descriptions straight from LinkedIn, saving a tremendous amount of time. My profile was done in about one-third the time I had set aside for the project – time I used instead to fill in some holes I discovered on LinkedIn. I then transferred the information to Plaxo.

Join my network

Plaxo profile complete, it was time to find people. I took a cursory look at my recommendations (“People you might know”) but realized that until I had built at least a small network, I was unlikely to get many good hits. So I did something I swore never to do: I allowed Plaxo to pull information from another network.

Like most social networking sites, Plaxo offered a tempting shortcut to finding friends: tapping into an existing wellspring of information. In this case, my options were limited. There were the sites I don’t use (Yahoo!, Gmail and AOL) and the account I wouldn’t use (my personal Hotmail account). My attempt to follow LinkedIn’s directions were a miserable failure. There was one candidate for success, however: Facebook.

Double exposure

I studied the text carefully and confirmed that yes it would only bother people in my Facebook network who were already registered Plaxo users. I clicked the button to access my Facebook account, and noticed an immediate change in my Plaxo view: a photo appeared in my profile. Plaxo had co-opted my Facebook image – an Xbox Live avatar – for my professional profile. Panicked, I immediately went to update my photo… and found several photos of my child. In my Plaxo profile. That I had not uploaded to Plaxo.

Apparently, when I tied my Facebook account to Plaxo, it took the liberty of pulling my various friends-and-family-only photo folders and added them to the “Photos” tab of my profile. While there was nothing incriminating (keep your Facebook clean, folks), I don’t want strangers to have access to family photos – even if they are just my child drinking hot chocolate at Starbucks.

All images were in folders, just as they appeared in Facebook. Fortunately, Plaxo allowed me to delete entire folders, saving me a lot of time. If I had to delete each image individually, odds are the only thing I would have deleted was my Plaxo account itself.

After I finished cleaning out my personal photos and updating my profile pic, I reviewed ALL sections of my profile to ensure no other stray Facebook goodies had moved over. It appears contacts and photos were the extent of the damage.

Contact Us

Satisfied with my damage control, I moved on to the final section: Websites and Personal Info. Opening the Websites section results in an icon explosion – add your Facebook! Share your Amazon Wish List! Tell the world your twitter name! (Just one? I have two, but had to choose…). Not to mention Facebook, YouTube, Last.fm, MySpace, LiveJournal, Tumblr… and that’s just a very, very small fraction. If you’ve ever shared content online, odds are you can share it with your Plaxo network. (Or everyone. Or just Friends. Or just Family. It’s up to you.)

I chose a few resources, reviewed my restrictions and unleashed my profile on the world. All this took about an hour, during which time I received numerous mails in the background. I finally went to catch up and discovered I had four new Plaxo and two LinkedIn requests/friends.

Every single one was from Facebook.



© 2009-2017 Dave and Jacqui Kramer dba The Writer's Bloc. -- Copyright notice by Blog Copyright