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After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine

Originally, this column was supposed to be about Sonic Foundry's new multi-track recording and mixing application, Vegas Pro, 1.0.

Then Knight's Law kicked in.

First Sonic Foundry's PR folks waited more than a month before they sent me a review copy of Vegas Pro. That meant I was barely going to have enough time to put it through its paces before this column's deadline came around.

Then -- and I'm not sure exactly how it happened -- somehow I hurt my upper back. That put the kibosh on the Vegas Pro column, because I not only couldn't sit at the computer keyboard long enough to learn the application's complex, feature-rich interface, but I couldn't stand the strain of wearing a guitar or bass or playing a musical keyboard, either.

About a week ago -- despite my aching back -- I took a trip to Monterey to spend a day at O'Reilly & Associates' Open Source Conference. After the talk Douglas Ridgway and Alexandre Julliard gave about it, I came home planning to write about Wine -- the native Windows on Unix initiative.

Since Corel is basing its efforts to port its WordPerfect Office 2000 suite to Linux on Wine and has thrown a lot of its corporate resources at Wine development, it seemed like a natural complement to the feature story I was developing that compares the HTML- and XML-handling capabilities of Microsoft Office 2000 Premium Edition and WordPerfect Office 2000 Professional Version. But the physical stress of driving the collection of hairpin turns that's Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz Mountains worsened my back problem to the point that I had to give up that plan, too.

You see, I usually do a lot of research before writing about a particular technology. Typically, I'll start by tracking down how the techology arose -- what problem it solved, how that particular solution evolved and who was responsible for making it happen. I'll try to come to an understanding of how that preferred solution came to distinguish itself from any alternatives and generally marshall the resources I'll need to explain it to my readers. That means I have to spend a lot of hours with the keyboard and mouse, tracking down URLs, taking notes and building the store of information I'll use in the exposition. Then I often spend 10 hours or more actually writing the piece.

And, right at the deadline, I couldn't bring myself to do the research part, because, quite frankly, my back just hurt too darned much. What I needed was an alternate plan to my alternate plan -- and I needed it fast.

So I did the only thing I had time to do: I stole somebody else's idea.

Don't Do Me Like That

I start most days by reading the San Francisco Chronicle's Business section. Every two weeks, the Sunday Business section includes Rebecca Eisenberg's Net Skink column -- which I usually read, even though Eisenberg is a shameless Mac weenie and thus can't help but inherently be both biased against and largely ignorant of the Windows-centric end-user mainstream.

IMnsHO, that still puts her head-and-shoulders above the Chronicle's Business staff -- Henry Norr excepted -- when it comes to understanding the technology behind the stories they cover.

Last Sunday, (keeping in mind that I'm writing this column two months before you're reading it,) Net Skink began with a rant about clueless PR efforts and ended with 12 "hints" for PR folks. As I read over Eisenberg's list of things that flacks should and shouldn't do, I remember thinking, "Rebecca, you're being entirely too nice to these people -- and there sure is an awful lot of repetition in your list."

Like Eisenberg, I too get a ton of PR and marketing mail. Some of it is of interest to me and some of it isn't -- but I'll at least take a look at virtually any announcement, if it is concise, literate and presented in a manner that displays a modicum of clue. I round file any piece of mail that doesn't meet that modest and -- I think -- entirely reasonable minumum ante. And anyone who demonstrates stupidity sufficiently often gets awarded an entry in my delete-before-reading filter list.

That filter list is like a roach motel -- dimwits check in, but they don't check out. And, really, it's dead easy to avoid:

Don't ever, EVER send me unsolicited attachments -- particularly not Microsoft Word documents. I automatically assume such unwanted presents are virus-infected, ugly and most likely radioactive, too. They go into the bit-bucket, unread, and the sender gets a stern warning -- the first time. The second offense gets him (or her -- it's an equal-opportunity sin) filtered.

I don't much care for HTML-ized mail, either. If you have a Web page you think I might want to read or a formatted document or image you think I might care to download, just describe it -- briefly -- in your message and provide an URL that points to it. And, if you want me to actually READ your carefully-formatted document, make sure it isn't in a proprietary file format, such as Microsoft Word. Save it as an RTF file, instead. That'll preserve all the important formatting, it can still properly be displayed by practically any word processor on the market and IT CAN'T HARBOR A VIRUS.

That's important.

Keep your message short and to the point. As Polonius put it to King Claudius and Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, "Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief." And, for pity's sake, avoid larding your language with cliches. I'm a writer. I find the darned things actively offensive -- and so does every other writer I know.

In particular, don't ever tell me your client's product or service is "best of breed" -- because, in all likelihood, it's not. It's probably not even close. And your use of that ne-plus-ultra of hackneyed PR expressions tells me two things that you would really rather not ever reveal: first, that you have no imagination. None. Zip. Less than zero. And, second, that you have no respect for my intelligence. In fact, you think I'm a sap.

THAT will get you filtered on your first offense.

Likewise, don't use colloquialisms or turns of phrase that you don't actually understand. For instance, I got my skipper's license when I was sixteen years old, so don't tell me your client "has taken a different tact," because that tells me you're a bonehead who doesn't realize that the proper term is "tack" -- and that it refers to one leg of the zig-zag path you have to take when you sail into the wind.


It basically comes down to this: you're trying to convince me to spend some portion of my irreplaceable time and attention writing on your client's behalf. To make that happen, there's got to be something in it for me.

An "opportunity" to write about your client's no-doubt-wonderful product or service isn't enough. When you write about the Internet, as I do, you're never at a loss for subject matter. There's no way I'm going to make a career out of turning your press releases into my articles and columns.

You could try bribery. Many people do.

Although I prefer well-circulated, non-consecutively-numbered, large-denomination bills, most flacks send toys or coffee mugs or tee shirts, instead. I have stacks and stacks of 'em -- and yours will just go on the pile.

Offering fully-functional, shrink-wrapped copies of your client's software, or indefinite loans of his/her hardware works better. It's not guaranteed to get me to write about the product, but it definitely improves your chances. Lunch or dinner at a good restaurant also improves your standing -- and I'm a real pushover for first-class, all-expenses-paid travel to exotic locations.

But what works best is simple respect.

I'm a busy guy. Always. So don't waste my time. Don't waste my bandwidth, either. If you have nothing important to say, keep it to yourself. When you do have something to say, say it clearly and succinctly. Use proper grammar, check your spelling and give me credit for at least a smidgen of intelligence -- and, unless you're absolutely determined to get yourself filtered, try to resist the urge to bombard me with hype and/or bromides.

If you really want to be an effective advocate, read the stuff I write. Eventually, you'll form a pretty good picture of what interests me -- and what doesn't. And you just may learn a thing or two in the process.

Follow these guidelines and there's still no guarantee that I'll write about your client's product. I might be concentrating on other areas. I could be tied up with one of my clients' projects. Perhaps I've written about a similar product or service too recently to revisit the subject.

And -- with only the best of intentions -- I might decide not to write about your client's product because my back hurts too much.

Because, after all, "Life is what happens to you while you're making other plans."

(Copyright© 1999 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)