Is AI a threat to copywriters’ careers? Why conversational copy matters today, more than ever

I wrote in my mid-May newsletter how sometimes old-fashioned writing techniques can deepen our thinking (e.g. especially when we plot, plan and draft fiction). But I’ve also read with interest the other end of that scale, how copywriters (communications and marketing writers) can benefit from and also defend themselves from the developments of Artificial Intelligence (AI)—most obviously when it threatens to overtake our livelihoods.

For years now, technology gurus and computer science specialists (and not only conspiracy theorists) have warned of a feared “intelligence explosion,” since progress from human level AI to superhuman ability now can occur rapidly. Many readers will know that “OpenAI,” a company backed by Elon Musk, can mimic the way that humans write so well that it can be impossible to tell whether a news item is written by a computer or by a human writer. Due to the ethical problems that ensue from this, Musk and others have not released some of the company’s most sophisticated developments.

If a computer can write as well as we can,

where does that leave professional copywriters?

When I teach students at Saskatoon’s Praxis School of Entrepreneurship conversational, open-ended copywriting, I deliberately use it to replace the aggressive, direct marketing style of copy that once dominated the business writing world. Conversational copywriting does not assume that the reader is passive and easily manipulated into a “hard sell,” as direct response copywriting does. But a conversational method also resists easy replication by AI.

Conversational copywriting adapts many tools to its approach. Here are a few:
(1) It asks open-ended questions that hook readers to participate in the “discussion,” whether in a headline or an opening paragraph (or both)

(2) It uses at appropriate times one or more of our five senses to persuade the reader to read and follow the discussion (e.g. onomatopoeic words, like “sizzling steak,” that sound similar to their meaning will convince the reader to follow more than dull, unfigurative, non-sensory ones)

(3) Writers using a friendly, conversational style will use contractions (“Won’t you agree?”), some sentence fragments (“Want to join us?”) that are not possible by formulaic/templated copy, thereby allowing the writer’s personality to shine through

(4) Using stock photos or short videos (at no or low cost to the writer) can engage the reader even more personally and powerfully than conversational language and can definitely be used to intensify its force

(5) Good, conversational writing includes a call-to-action (CTA) that encourages the reader to respond or comment, once they have read it.

Computer scientists tell us that AI cannot easily master writing that requires our own initiative (e.g. to develop an original and specific theme or topic that followers will read and respond to), judgment (e.g. such as the ethics of various approaches to copywriting and the readers those approaches appeal to) and perspective (our informed opinions, interests or biases).

Specifically due to the writer’s initiative, judgment and perspective, the open-ended capacity of blogging is more complex and harder to mimic or reproduce than, say, the more formulaic structure of a media release (or similarly, case studies, white papers or other template-patterned copy).

When I think of AI, I can’t help but remember how it has been parodied over the years by comedians like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Michael J. Fox and others. That’s relevant because computer scientists tell us that our humanity, imperfections and conversational capacities (all hallmarks of comedy, in this case) are the most resistant to AI.

Showing our humanness in tone, content and style means that we’ll stay competitive longer. Consider, for instance, my colleague Daphne Gray-Grant who blogged this week (post #684) on how saying “no” to others’ requests can make yourself a better writer. In that post, she discusses the risk of being a “people pleaser” or what Bernard Brandchaft called “pathological accommodators” (agreeing to do much or all that others ask of you) can threaten one’s writing process and output, not to mention one’s health and well-being. Gray-Grant’s initiative, judgment and perspective have shaped every word in her posting; she needn’t watch nervously over her shoulder for the latest capabilities of AI.

So to my clients and students who do glance nervously around themselves in the world of AI, I suggest this: Use everyday, conversational language. Involve 

all of your senses. Write about your abilities and dis/differing abilities and whatever imperfections and vulnerabilities that shape what and how you think. Developing your own, original voice through these capacities will be far more persuasive than AI.

No one wants to tempt fate. And I certainly recommend reading about and using technology well and responsibly—no luddite arguments, here. But at least some computer scientists suggest that programming non-human superintelligence with the kinds of complex human values and emotions required by professional writing will be a technical feat not easily met—now or tomorrow.

And now it’s your turn: How do you engage or address the developments of AI for your creative work? Please share your responses; I’d be delighted to extend this conversation.

No place to charge one’s phone (or hang one’s hat)? On renoviction in Canada’s home rental market

Like many small business owners in SK, I appreciate having the opportunity to work from home. For nearly 10 years, I have benefited from writing and editing online and off, from a home office that was conveniently located close to downtown Saskatoon and its amenities.

But I recently relocated to avoid extremely noisy, light reducing building renovations in the highrise complex that I had called “home” for 10 years.


This week’s blog posting addresses the politically charged topic of “renoviction”— a disturbing trend in urban rental housing (chronicled by the CBC and other sources) where lower, or lower middle class, renters are forced to vacate rental property, by a landlord’s intrusive renovations. When tenants leave, they incur costly moving and relocating expenses, and forgo the reasonable cost of rent that had come with their original, long-term leases. Depending on the city where you reside, other reasonably priced, rental housing can be hard, if not impossible, to find.

Online articles from the CBC tell us that factors that keep vacancy rates low are rising interest rates, tougher rules to qualify for mortgages, housing prices that have cooled but are still high–all of which keep prospects from buying houses or condos. These people, plus new immigrants, students and low income seniors keep demand on the rental market steady, if not high. Although Saskatoon currently has high rental vacancy rates (14% in 2018), that has not always been the case. And the above factors (interest rates, mortgage rules, the costly housing market) have intensified in the downtown core and in the upscale new neighbourhoods of Saskatoon.

If tenants facing “renoviction” stay put (while significant, structural changes are being made to their dwellings), often little or no rental discount or incentive is provided for them. Meantime, their lives are disrupted by noise and other diminishing factors. Following potentially months or years of such disruptions, property management companies, often driven by greedy owners, drive up the cost of rent by $200 or $300+, per month, pushing many, lower income tenants to the edge of bankruptcy.

There are important exceptions, to be sure: Some local owners and landlords work hard to maintain the quality of the properties they own or manage and strive to treat their tenants fairly. These landlords live in our city and take their responsibilities to the community seriously.

But “renovictions” have been an acute problem in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, where credit counsellors have warned of a general increase and (notably since 2019 began) a recent surge of “renovictions” in the rental market. The problem has swept across Canada, with implications also for smaller centres with higher vacancy rates, like Saskatoon. Some of the problematic rental properties are managed long distance by owners and landlords who have no office or residence in our city or our province.

Desperate tenants in Vancouver and Toronto sometimes go to “payday” lenders with astronomical interest rates, to get installment loans to pay for such spikes in rent. Credit counsellors warn that such debt can be very difficult to resolve.

The plan to renovate buildings is a lawful excuse to evict, according to Canadian landlord-tenant law. In Ontario, where rental practices have been best publicized, landlords must demonstrate that significant renovations are being done and they must allow evicted tenants back into their buildings after the renovations, and at the same rate of rent, until a rental increase can be lawfully scheduled. This has not been my experience in Saskatoon.

But one tenants’ advocate in Toronto (and such advocacy groups are too few on the Prairies) has argued that once evicted, many renters are not financially able to move back in. CBC online tells us that landlords can schedule rent increases for a new lease at whatever the market demands. Furthermore, the landlord has no obligation to say how long the eviction will last, threatening the renters’ financial and personal planning and security. The rise in rent may not necessarily reflect tangible improvements to the ostensibly upgraded property.

If the newly renovated building becomes ready when the tenant has already started a new lease elsewhere, few such tenants can afford pay for two leases.
In both large and small cities in Canada, wages of tenants are not rising to reflect the increasing cost of the rental market, so that some tenants must give up jobs and flee the cities which earlier sustained their livelihoods.

“Renoviction” can force tenants to give up optimally located careers, relationships with friends, family and local resources (e.g. small businesses, not-for-profit organizations).

Paul Kolinski, a musician in Toronto’s College-Dovercourt neighbourhood for 10 years, told the CBC that while he was fighting “renoviction” in his building, he was expecting to “start over,” somewhere else. He wondered how far west he’d have to move, speculating “Hamilton,” or even “Winnipeg?”

But anecdotal evidence among friends and family indicates that tenants in Hamilton, Waterloo, Winnipeg, and smaller centres like Saskatoon are not immune to the crisis of “renoviction.”

However, while the condominium and housing market crises of the last 30 years have been widely discussed, “renovictions” in the Prairie rental market have not yet been widely discussed.

The City of Saskatoon continues to license apartment complexes (such as the one where I was based for 10 years) and to charge entrepreneurs for those licenses, when the properties involved may be under the siege of ”renoviction.” That does not help to support the small, home-based businesses that are the lifeblood of our local economy. (The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses tell us that 75% of most of our provinces’ economies are fueled by small businesses, many of which start as home-based ventures.)

The CBC reports that monthly rents in Canada rose by 6% in January, 2019, alone. Houses that tenants could once have rented as an alternative to high or low rise buildings, have often been converted to Airbnb (short-term) rentals, removing another option from the table.

While we have had a healthy vacancy rate of 14% in Saskatoon (2018; a supposed “renter’s market”) and the average rent increase expected in 2019 will be only 2%, reasonably priced and quality rental property can be hard to find, especially when located close to the city’s services and amenities.

Meantime, the vacancy rate for rental property in hubs like Toronto in 2017 was only 1.1% (the lowest in 16 years). And yet the population base of central Canada has historically allowed them to develop stronger advocacy groups in all sectors, including the housing market. Those groups are calling for government intervention, to prevent “renoviction” from emptying out Canada’s urban landscape.

Governments are slow to respond in Central Canada and even slower out West. But respond they must, since vulnerable seniors, students and renters with steep rent increases will be lobbying and voting for rent controls and more affordably priced housing.

Saskatoon might consider itself a “kinder, gentler” urban centre, a “university town” that is reputed to be kind to its students, seniors and new Canadians. But in or near the downtown and in new neighbourhoods currently under development, the pressure of “renoviction” is real. Overworked, stressed, managerial staff on-the-ground are left to cope with angry, complaint-ridden tenants, while distant wealthy property owners benefit.

And this is not aided by the significantly fewer number of advocates/advocacy organizations for lower/lower middle class and home-based business owners. For instance, Saskatoon’s “Rentalsman Office” (Office of Residential Tenancies) says nothing about “renoviction” on its website or online materials. And to the best of my knowledge, no other organization publishes policies for public support, on this issue.

While I found an alternative housing option with room for a home office, operated by a local property management company that has its roots in Saskatchewan, I don’t delude myself that the matter is resolved. Saskatoon may be touted as one of the cheaper Canadian cities to rent a condo, some of the apartment stream is another story. “Renoviction” is here, too. And I’m only too aware that side-stepping the city’s residential tenancy court, in the effort to avoid disruption to life, career and privacy, does nothing to curb the broader problem we face.

Change to government policy is needed and it’s needed now.

And now it’s your turn: Do you rent your home or run a rented, home-based business? Have you found that policies of “renoviction” undermine your life and work? Please write in; I’d be pleased to widen this discussion.

Where are you headed? And will you use a compass or a map?

       

On this week that follows Easter and as I prepare to move my office space, I nod to marketing extraordinaire Seth Godin on finding one’s way without seeking explicit directions. Godin cites Steven Pressfield’s “magical story” on how we need to use our own inner “compasses” and “not maps” to seek our way into the unknown.  Godin observes:

As entrepreneurs, “wouldn’t it be great if we always had a map? A set of step-by-step instructions on how to get from here to there, wherever we were and wherever wanted to go…”

Stories chart the discoveries of our compasses, since map-based, formulaic decision making carries no useful or creative purpose.

Entrepreneurial thinker, Steven Pressfield (a colleague of Godin and also referred to in my prior blog postings) shares the following remarkable story:

“A Ghurka rifleman escaped from a Japanese prison in south Burma and walked six hundred miles alone through the jungles to freedom. The journey took him five months, but he never asked the way and he never lost the way. For one thing he could not speak Burmese and for another he regarded all Burmese as traitors. He used a map and when he reached India he showed it to the Intelligence officers, who wanted to know all about his odyssey. Marked in pencil were all the turns he had taken, all the roads and trail forks he has passed, all the rivers he had crossed. It had served him well, that map. The Intelligence officers did not find it so useful. It was a street map of London.” 

Godin concludes this story by observing that “happy endings come from an understanding of the compass, not the presence of a useful map.” The Ghurka rifleman knew all about compass-driven journeying and never relied on a map. As Godin writes, “if you’ve got the wrong map, the right compass will get you home if you know how to use it.”

Compasses allow us to tell better stories–one form that they may take is storytelling, itself. And as Godin says, compasses are undergirded by a very powerful, motivating question: “Where are you headed?”  There cannot be any coherent story to tell (or work to ship) without a clear direction and purpose. 

And now it’s your turn: Where are you headed? And do you find yourself reaching for a map or a compass? Please weigh in. I’d be delighted to hear from you. 

 

When technology fails, do you fail with It?

In our contemporary culture’s race to apply the very latest in digital technology, I’m sometimes reminded that the “less is more” credo applies not only to the art of de-cluttering our living spaces (à la Marie Kondo), but also to the way we share our knowledge.

In recent months I’ve witnessed professional speakers endure a fair share of technology failures—a hard drive crash, failed connectivity with a Mac, a failing Android battery, and so on.

While the audiences were forgiving, many of us winced at the anxiety and shame of the presenters involved and thought they would have done well simply to deliver their talks from memory and/or from their notes (if they had any).

As the admissions director at Saskatoon’s Praxis School of Entrepreneurship, Elaine Mantyka, recently reminded me, we needn’t be luddites for thinking that we can give short, informative talks (e.g. 20 mins) without PowerPoint (PPT).

In fact, self-employed consultants can offer better “freebie” talks, designed to whet others’ appetites and thereby to introduce their services, if they sidestep all of the technology available. Speak vividly and with a core two to three points (and not more), and your audience will thank you for it! Long, text-ridden slides, flashy graphics and enhanced sound distract the listener and dilute the impression that the speaker wants to make.

West Coast writer Daphne Gray-Grant gives speeches in which she says she uses “no technology. Zip. Zilch. Nada,” which makes her ideas pop out. She says that she surprises some listeners that she is the “crazy lady who doesn’t use PPT.” She frees herself from carrying around a laptop, loaded with slides, worrying about the length of her extension cords, the risk of power failure and so on . . .

Low-tech (say, 15 to 20 minute) presentations provide opportunities to focus on the message and can engage the audience with highly relevant Q&As and even with pencil-and-paper, experiential exercises. The audience to such talks will likely be more alert than if they were sedated by run-of-the-mill, text-laden PPT slides that only dump data on the viewer.

(Insert YAWN!)

As someone who has given professional talks in academia and in business and who has written copy for professional speakers, I know that successful speaking engagements allow you to place your knowledge at the centre of your talk (e.g. the most successful TED Talks do this). Minimize your reliance on the crutch of technology and your audience will remember better what you’ve shared.

And that’ll be far better than if you raced through your 10 to 15 slides with competing insights and little, if any, coherence.

And now it’s your turn: When you last gave a professional speech, did you use PPT? And do you find PPT ineffective as a program for organizing your ideas? Please write in on my “contact” page; I’d be delighted to hear from you.

“We become what we pay attention to”: Sam Harris on meditation’s transformative power

Mindfulness and meditation practices have for some years received much public attention. Headspace.com and Calm.com are two among many websites and smartphone apps that have beckoned my attention in recent years. They tout the benefits of learning how to meditate, dangling an often unspoken proverbial carrot before those, like me, who stumble along, striving to achieve great outcomes.

You might be wondering what the purpose of meditation really is, and feel skeptical about the process that so many (including world leaders and Hollywood A-listers) endorse. Fed-Ex Canada CEO, Lisa Lisson, wrote in her recent memoir that it took a full year’s effort before she noticed the benefits of her meditation practice. Reading that admission alone felt defeating to me.

But then American neuroscientist, philosopher and (best-selling) writer, Sam Harris, started a course of meditation that he figuratively calls “Waking Up.” With it, he says he can transform the minds of both skeptics and fresh-faced beginners (www.wakingup.com).

After studying and practicing mindfulness over 30 years with many Tibetan, Indian, Burmese and other meditation teachers, Harris distances himself from those promoters who say that the practice is “good for you.” Yes, he says, it can cause structural changes to the brain, as well as functional changes that increase with the time you invest in it.

But he adds that is true about learning anything. Acquiring new knowledge will change your brain structure—both for good and bad. We can use meditation to reduce stress, halt neurodegeneration and improve our immune functioning. But meditation is not unique in bringing such benefits. Other healthy practices can do the same.

Socrates said that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In the examining of one’s life through meditation, one can (Harris says) “open doors you might not otherwise know exist.” That can’t generally be said of other healthy practices.

In his recording, “Don’t Meditate Because It’s Good for You,” Harris says that meditation is a profound life process, analogous in some ways to reading—“one of the most important skills our species ever acquired.” Meditation, like reading, has “sweeping implications” for human life, so that over time, “almost everything we care about depends on it.”

In reality, our daily working lives find ourselves “always meditating on something”— habits, worries, desires, obsessions, expectations, insights, prejudices and the like. He emphasizes: “We become what we pay attention to,” so that we are effectively changing our brains in each moment. Mindfulness is “the ability to notice this process with clarity and to then prioritize what you pay attention to.”

“Why not focus your attention on things important to you,” he asks, rather than on a host of “trivial things that clamour for it?”

Harris shares a “30 second slice of life” story that substantiates just how crucial meditation can be, to ourselves and to those with whom we live. It goes like this: A father reaches for his phone to check his email and, at the very same moment, his five year old daughter comes to him with a story she wants to share. In so many cases, the father will give priority to the dinging phone and rebuff the child so that she feels terrible.  Meditation offers unique freedom from such moments and such outcomes.

How?  Harris says that it allows you to feel the lure of that cell phone as a pattern of energy which you can choose to let go, directing your attention instead to your five year old daughter. Mindfulness allows you to “break the connection between the feeling and the behavioural link it seems to communicate.” In the moment, you can let go of the email, direct attention to the child in front of you, feel “aware” of her and of “the poignancy” that what she has to say may be the only story she tells you that day.

Meditation allows you to “ingrain” this moment, this new habit. When you become “fully present” to that loved or valued other person, you change your brain structure and also change theirs.

For most of us, there are “hundreds, even thousands, of moments like this one, throughout the day.” Harris calls them “choice points” that exist because of meditation, and describes them as “paths taken and not taken” for good reason that populate your day: “Without free [and freeing one’s] attention, there’s no place for good reasons to land.”

He suggests that mindfulness allows you to begin to notice “the lies you can no longer tell” about yourself, so that insights become “motivation” for better behaviour that will ultimately make you a better person. 

So don’t meditate “just because it’s good for you,” Harris implores. “It’s more important than that.” Mindfulness is for people who understand that it “should transform one’s view of the world” and yourself and others in it.

And now it’s your turn:

What are your motivations for undertaking meditation?

What does the truth that “we become what we pay attention to” prompt you to think or do? Can you think of even one “slice of life” recently, when you failed to be fully present to someone or something important? How can you start over, taking an opportunity to change your brain and that of another who matters?

Please write in, on my “contact” page. I’d be delighted to hear from you.