6 Problems Facing the Los Angeles Theatre Community

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[DISCLAIMER: This post contains explicit language.]

TL;dr summary: It’s time for fair wages in LA’s 99-seat theatre community. 

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” – Richard Bach, American Novelist

MARCH 24, 2015 – There’s a schism happening in the Los Angeles theatre scene. Just Google “LA 99 seat plan” and you’ll be treated to more news and opinion than you care to read. I’m here to offer an outsider’s perspective. I don’t live in California, and I’m not a member of Actors’ Equity Association (the actors’ Union, also known as Equity, or AEA), but I am a lover and follower of theatre. I did get my undergraduate degree in theatre, and I have worked on both sides of the curtain over the years, though I would say that I think my years of DOING theatre are behind me. That said, I have many friends who are working professionals in the performing arts, some are members of AEA. On any controversial issue, sometimes the insider dialogue becomes a feedback loop, an echo chamber. I’m here to offer a different perspective than what I’ve read on this issue. I hope that it will add to the discussion.

The issue: AEA wants its members to be paid at least minimum wage when they work in AEA-sanctioned productions. Currently, when AEA members work in theaters with fewer than 99 seats, they are paid less than minimum wage, often a LOT less. In many cases, they work only for small daily stipends which could equate to less than $2 per hour for their work.

AEA members will soon vote on a proposal regarding the pay structure for actors who work in Los Angeles’ many 99-seat theatres. On March 25, Ballots will be sent to AEA members in good standing who live in Los Angeles County, and voting ends April 17. Then, the AEA governing council will act on the proposal sometime after April 21. The vote itself is advisory in nature: the council will factor in the results of the vote, in addition to other variables. The vote itself is not binding, but it will inform the outcome.

The vote concerns what’s known colloquially as “The 99-seat Plan,” which is essentially a waiver program allowing producers in theaters with fewer than 99 seats to pay their actors a stipend (a sub-minimum-wage rate) for their work. AEA has decided that this program is out of date, and a change in the structure is in order (Twitter is predictably abuzz…the pro-change folks are using the hashtag #Changefor99, while the folks who like the 99-seat plan as-is are using #ILove99). Enjoy reading the twittersphere’s take on the issue if you like.

This post is not about the mechanics (or the rhetoric) of either side of the debate. Lots of other folks are doing that. This is going to be more of a deconstruction of the state of theatre and the performing arts in general, and more specifically a commentary about how I’ve always felt that actors have been under the sheets (in some cases literally) with the exact people who wish to exploit their labor for far too long. This needs to stop. This 99-seat plan schism would be a good issue around which that relationship could/should have a big public breakup.

As I wrote in an earlier post which a lot of you read, “Theatre is a BUSINESS.” Don’t forget that. Like any business, it requires a workforce. If you’re an actor, you’re part of that workforce, just like every stagehand, stitcher, electrician, scenic carpenter, rigger, sound technician and usher. Without you, The Actor, there is no production. It’s a value equation in a sense: on the one hand theatre work has intrinsic value (a total warm fuzzy). On the other, it is essential labor (which feels like a cold prickly to some folks … “my work is not LABOR, unless you mean labor of LOVE.”)

This leads me to the first of the problems I see:

Problem #1: Actors tend to think of themselves first and foremost as artists, not as workers. Many actors like to believe that they alone are the unique and special person who will elevate the work to legendary status and thereby transcend all things. That’s a noble pursuit, and I don’t begrudge anyone for it. But don’t let it get in the way of you getting paid for the hard work that you do. Most actors will tell you (if they’re being honest) that these small theatres in LA are merely places where they hone their craft and stay fresh. LA is the place for film and TV, and therefore you do live theatre between film and TV gigs primarily to demonstrate that you’re still “castable,” that you’re still working, and to keep your skills sharp. Acting, for most, is a perishable skill. If you don’t use it, it begins to atrophy. Even the best actors in the world still work and study and endeavor to improve their skills. Many great film actors, if you press them hard enough, will tell you that they only do film in order to support their love for theatre. That’s because there’s nothing quite like the feel of a live performance – for both the performer and the audience. When you’re on stage, in front of an audience, it’s unlike anything else. It’s infectious. SOLUTION: Actors, sober up to the notion that you are a labor force first and foremost, and make your peace with this. Recognize that it actually gives you tremendous power.

Problem #2: Under the 99-seat plan, actors are volunteering themselves against their will and best interests. It’s one thing to consciously volunteer your time when it’s your own choice to do the project and you do so on your own terms: a pet project, a charitable cause, occasional work for a nonprofit, or helping out a friend. It’s quite another to be expected to work for free just so a for-profit business can stay in business. If a theatre owner has to use free labor to stay in business, perhaps that person is in the wrong business. Theatre is a business: you sell tickets, and people buy them. If you can’t manage to generate enough sales to support your business, it’s time to step back and re-assess your choices, rework your budget, adjust your pricing, or find a new line of work entirely. If you’re a producer who can’t seem to budget for success without needing free labor, maybe you’re not very good at business. Maybe you should go back to doing community theatre in Boise or Birmingham or Bethesda or wherever you came from before you settled on producing 99-seat theatre in Los Angeles. SOLUTION: Actors, you should only work for free on your own terms. Don’t work for free to advance someone else’s agenda, or to prop up their poorly-run business, or to fatten their wallet unless yours is also being fattened. Better yet, actors: produce your own work and get paid for it. Which leads me to…

Problem #3: A lack of empowerment among the actor community. A filmmaker named Alex Munoz said recently, “Green light your own project, don’t wait for others to do it.” Film is different, sure. But the sentiment is the same: Actors, you have the power. If a producer wants to profit from your labor without fair compensation, tell him politely to fuck off. We have always been able to produce our own stuff, and find an audience, and tell a story that moves people. For us to buy in to this notion that the producers hold all the cards and that we, as creative artists are privileged to work for them for no pay, just for the honor of “honing our craft” and “keeping theatre alive” then I got news for you, friends: The joke is on you. Again: “Argue for your limitations and surely they’re yours.” I say to the AEA membership, look at how your brethren in the stagehands union would respond to a free labor proposal. If you asked professional stagehands to work for free, they’d laugh and tell you to go fuck yourself. And yet, are not actors every bit as critical to a production? You can no more mount a production without stagehands than you can without actors. So why have actors agreed to work for free for all these years? SOLUTION: Seek out producers who are interested in fair wages. Figure out who they are, and tell people who they are. Support their shows with your ticket dollars. Audition for their shows. Create demand for the people who support fairness, and the unfair practitioners will have to follow, because the audiences will.

Problem #4: The misplaced, yet lingering fear that a failing economy is still wreaking havoc within the Los Angeles Theatre Community. Last time I checked, Los Angeles is in CALIFORNIA. The California economy is quite strong right now (impending water shortages notwithstanding) and it’s not easy for a producer to argue the widespread detriment of theatre in macroeconomic terms. So any arguments about “the economy is weak” are pretty much null and void right now for theatre in Los Angeles. But so many people love to argue for their limitations. So many excuses why “we can’t survive without free labor” happen in every industry. And this is nothing new. It’s called slavery (at worst) or exploitation (at best). And I don’t buy it. So many actors are arguing the producer’s point for them now. It’s staggering.

Furthermore, there’s the persistent mythology that A) making money in the arts is hard, and that B) the only true art is created in poverty. Yeah OK. You’re a “starving artist.” Keep telling yourselves it has to be that way. Again, argue for your limitations, and they’re yours to keep. You’re making it very easy on the producer when you argue his point for him. He’s not going to debate you if you argue that you want to be impoverished. He’ll take it. SOLUTION: Remind producers that California has a strong, vibrant and growing economy, and that they can find a way to afford to pay you a fair wage for your work.

Problem #5: The ILove99 side seem to be arguing this as if it’s a zero-sum game; as if a vote for fair wages will instantly put small theaters out of business. That’s the great thing about American Theatre. You can’t kill it. Nope. It won’t die. It’s like a fucking cockroach. You try to burn it, poison it, or step on it and it just scurries off and finds a new corner to inhabit. It’s fantastic that way. But let’s also remember, theatre (outside of NYC) has in fact already been considerably marginalized in recent years. Attendance is down nationwide over the last generation, absolutely. It’s hard to compete for mass audiences in the age of YouTube-enabled smartphones and the Xbox. But this is not a zero-sum game. Adding fair wages for actors back into the equation need not subtract from somewhere else in the production budget. New, business-savvy producers and artists will crop up who find ways to innovate, to attract paying audiences, because don’t forget: the whole reason we do theatre in the first place is because we all desperately want to make real human connections with each other. There is NOTHING like live performance. There is nothing like the shared experience of an audience. It’s a fundamental part of our humanity to watch someone act out a story for us. This will never die, despite what the technology futurists tell you. SOLUTION: Innovate! And believe in the power of live performance.

Problem #6: There’s an argument being put forward by the producers that “we only want what’s best for you.” This whole “we’re here for the actors” tone is on display in this article. Go ahead. Read it. You know what that tone is? It’s 20 pounds of bullshit in a 10-pound bag. It’s disingenuous. Once again, AEA’s membership has largely been duped into believing that the producers actually want what’s best for the workers. Nope. They want what’s best for their wallets. And that means exploiting cheap labor at every opportunity. Their attitude is “Oh yeah? You want to be paid more than this other actress who will work for free? Then OK fuck you. I’ll ‘hire’ her and pay her nothing. Because she’ll work for free, and free labor equals a future full of theatre opportunities for you.” SOLUTION: Don’t be fooled. Open your eyes. The producer who supports this plan as-is only wants maximum cash at minimum cost. Don’t ever forget that.

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So where do we go from here? As I was writing this post, I wrestled with this issue quite a bit. It’s complex, and it’s frustrating at times. And confusing rhetoric is flying all around. Especially troubling are the high number of prominent celebrities who have weighed in on the side of the producers. The playwright Neil LaBute, and a host of actors like Tim Robbins, Jason Alexander, French Stewart and Kirsten Vangsness all seem to believe that professional actors working for free is a good and noble thing and that it should continue. Many of them marched in Los Angeles over this past weekend to protest the change. I had a hard time wrapping my head around that, because A) people like Tim Robbins have come out in support of social causes in the past, and B) AEA has always stood on the side of the labor movement as a whole. Robbins even seems to be suggesting that actors actually WANT to work for free. I scratched my head at that one.

But on the positive side, People like Samuel L. Jackson will be voting “YES” on the proposal. So that’s a good thing. In a recent letter to the AEA membership, he wrote “… fair is fair. Other cities across the country have vibrant intimate theatre communities, while managing to pay actors. Surely LA has as many resources to be mined and cultivated like any other city, and its theatrical producers should be encouraged to do so.”

I agree with Mr. Jackson. If I were an LA-based AEA member, I’d vote YES on this proposal as well. Fair is fair. It’s time.

Thank you for reading.

Pick Two

“Fast, Cheap, Good: Pick Two.” Intersection_sign

A former colleague had a triangular graphic posted on the wall of his office, similar to the one here. At each corner of the Triangle was one of those three words: Fast, Cheap, and Good. I’ve never forgotten the valuable lesson. It’s true in my field as it is in any other. In the relentless pursuit of balancing the quality/economy/speed equation, we have to remember that one of those will always be secondary.

You CAN have something Fast and Cheap, but it isn’t going to be very Good. (Think McDonald’s. Or cheap Chinese-made toys. Or cheap, Chinese-made toys from McDonald’s.)

You CAN have something Fast and Good, but it isn’t going to be Cheap. (Think about the time you needed a plumber at midnight. In a snowstorm. On Saturday.)

And lastly, You CAN have something Cheap and Good, but it isn’t going to be Fast. (This one always reminds me of pro-bono graphic design and creative services… “I’ll get to it when I can.”)

If somehow you can manage to deliver all three of these simultaneously, you’ll be well on your way to changing the world.

 

Four Cheers for Reporters!

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The author (in white vest) being interviewed (by Kyle Jordan, professional journalist, with cameraman Stephen LeFranc) during the Deepwater Horizon spill, June 2010. Pensacola, FL.

If you read this blog, you know I’m a PR guy. And today, I am working with a new client. I’ll be providing a spokesperson media training session to three of the firm’s partners next week. I love doing media training for my clients. It’s a lovely marriage of my theatre background and my PR career. In a way, it’s analogous to directing a performance. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but there are similarities. More importantly, this process helps my clients become more effective spokespeople who understand how to help the reporters get what they need, which tends to result in better coverage for my clients and better stories for the journalists. Win-Win.

Anyway, part of the preparation process involves asking the trainees a few questions before the training day in order to gauge their experience, attitude and opinions about reporters. Armed with this knowledge, I am able to make better use of everyone’s time and customize the session to the needs of the individuals I’m training.

One of the questions is:

“What opinions do you have of journalists?”

As I was reviewing this client’s responses today, I asked myself, “How would I answer that?”

It’s quite simple and can be summed up in four points.

  1. I have genuinely liked more than 90 percent of the journalists I’ve worked with in the past 15+ years. They’re kind, curious, polite (but firm), hard-working and professional individuals. As for the other 10 percent: I’ll tell you about them over a beer sometime. They are the exception, not the rule.
  2. As a spokesperson and a PR representative, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to end an interview prematurely because of a combative, rude or unprofessional journalist (and I’ve done hundreds of interviews, with reporters from at least a dozen countries around the world).
  3. These journalists have my respect because they’re doing an incredibly demanding job, most of them for very little pay, under the kind of nonnegotiable daily deadlines that would make most of us cringe.
  4. Most reporters have a largely thankless job. But they do it anyway because they believe in telling the story.

In that spirit, I’d like to tip my hat to all the journalists out there who are bravely facing the world with their inquisitive minds, their sharp pencils and their steno pads. I’ve enjoyed working with you (well, 90 percent of you) over the years. And I thank you sincerely for the job that you do. You’re great!

Hats off to reporters! Won’t you please join me? Thank a journalist today!

The Change Agent is Brian Sibley. You can follow him on twitter: @bsibley

3 Steps to a Great Marketing Strategy

I love a good road trip.

I try to take one at least once a year if I can. Road trips are exciting. There’s nothing like it, really … the thrill of the open road, the sense of possibility, good music, the freedom to stop along the way and check out a roadside attraction, or just to look out the window and admire the scenery. I roll the windows down, open the sunroof and let ‘er rip. (It helps that my car is really fun to drive.)

Running a marketing program is a lot like a road trip. The only trouble is, many people neglect to properly consider one of the critical components of the trip – The Map.

A map shows you where you are (Point A) and where you’re going (Point B, a.k.a. “Your Goal”). You wouldn’t set off on a road trip without at least some idea of where you were going and which roads will take you there. [Well maybe you would, but I certainly wouldn’t.] If you don’t know where Point B is, how will you know when you’ve arrived?

Without a clear strategy, all the tactics in the world won’t get you to your destination. Without a destination, you’re just aimlessly driving.

This is one way I have explained the difference between strategy and tactics, which are two deceptively simple concepts that are frequently misunderstood. The tactics are everything I described at the beginning of this post: the car, the freedom, the music, the things you pack in the trunk, the fuel in the tank. The strategy is the road map.

You first need to know why you’re going to Point B from Point A. The map won’t show you that answer, but you need to know why you’re going, because it will help you make other important choices along the way. The “why” is your mission.

You look at the map to plan out these critical things, the three steps to your strategy:

  1. Where you are. It seems basic, but you’d be surprised how many organizations don’t really know where Point A is when it comes to marketing. Some don’t even know where Point A is when it comes to their overall business. If you ask them where they are, they’ll say, “I’m here!” as if it’s self-evident.
  2. Where you’re going. Again, a surprising number of organizations are seemingly just out for a drive with no particular destination … and they wonder why they’re not getting anywhere. They know a lot of things about their current status, like how much fuel is in the tank (the organization’s financing and resources), the engine temperature and what song is playing on the radio (employee productivity and morale), the outside temperature and weather (market research, web traffic, social media metrics), what other cars are in their immediate vicinity (competitors), maybe even their current heading and bearing (those nebulous performance “metrics” we all impulsively track). Many of these things are useful when traveling. But not one of them will actually help you get closer to Point B unless Point B has been clearly identified.
  3. The routes available to you. Generally there’s more than one way to get from Point A to Point B. There are usually several options: The shortest route. The fastest route. The scenic route. The route that avoids bad traffic jams. You can take any of these routes you choose, and each has benefits and drawbacks. But you need to choose one. It’s probably best to select an alternate route as well, in case a bridge is washed out along the way.

When was the last time you thought about your marketing in this way? The road map is how you find your strategy. Without a strategy for getting to your destination, you’ll probably wind up hopelessly lost, even though you might be having a great time in the process. Developing a strategy doesn’t have to be a chore. It doesn’t have to take months or cost millions (although it can), but it is something you must do.

I’ve enjoyed the many times I’ve been fortunate enough to work with clients who knew that they needed to look at the map first, before they got behind the wheel, and asked for my help planning their route. Still, too many times I’ve seen organizations say “I have an awesome car and a full tank of gas! I’m on my way!” and sped off, burning fuel and rubber. They left without answering a fundamental question: “Do you know where you’re going?”

Where are you going?

(The Change Agent is Brian Sibley, principal of Sibley Communications. Follow him on Twitter @bsibley)

Jargon – Symptoms and Home Treatment

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On a conference call last week with a potential client, I was again confronted with a disease that plagues businesspeople: Excessive Use of Industry Jargon. This is a serious disease that often goes unreported. It’s time to bring it out into the open and talk about it.

Because the majority of my professional experience has been spent practicing PR and marketing communications, I’ve seen many cases of this condition. But today what I wanted to address are some of the possible reasons why it continues to plague businesspeople. It’s an insidious condition that infects people without regard to age, gender, level of education, race, color, or creed. You may even carry this disease yourself without realizing it. That’s OK, the diagnosis and cures are both simple and can be done in the privacy of your own home. But first:

Who is prone: this disease is borne out of either insecurity, or a kind of boastful pride (the same kind that infects schoolyard bullies and information hoarders). The afflicted believe that if they hold esoteric knowledge and don’t share it, then they are members of an elite club. They have heard (but misinterpreted) the phrase “knowledge is power,” and misunderstood it to mean that “knowledge is power … when that knowledge is not shared with others.” If that were true, then teachers would be unquestioningly the most powerful people in the world, and none of you would have learned anything in school.

Jargon and buzzwords are words and phrases that appear within organizations and industries and are used to describe products, services and unique characteristics of that group. The key thing to remember is that they are a form of shorthand, and do not instantly make sense to people outside the group. Everyone is guilty of this. It may be the most prevalent disease in business. For example,

  • Journalists talk about “ledes” instead of introductory sentences
  • Hotel people talk about “rack rates” instead of standard prices 
  • Ad sales people talk about “avails” instead of available space
  • Graphic designers talk about “mock-ups” instead of prototype designs
  • Marketing people talk about “The Creative” instead of the art concept

  • Biologists talk about “macro-invertebrates” instead of insects 
  • Corporate trainers talk about “staff augmentation” instead of … well, I still have no idea what this means in plain language

You get the point. Your industry has its own terms just like these. 

It is important to note that there are times when use of jargon is totally appropriate. Feel free to use it at meetings of other employees in your group who know these phrases and their meanings. But don’t use it in public. Don’t use it on a sales call. You might think it makes you sound like an expert, but it really just confuses your audience.

The Symptoms: self-detection is difficult. But you may have noticed these signs in others… Use of buzzwords, industry terms and three-letter acronyms (“TLA’s”). Audience members seem confused, isolated and distant. Quizzical looks from others following your talk.

Home Treatment: first, learn to think like a teacher. Observe your audience. Look for nonverbal cues – a furrowed brow, a confused expression, total silence on the other end of the phone – because your audience may not be confident enough to ask for clarification of your buzzwords and jargon. Ask simple questions like, “do you understand what I mean when I said ‘Price Point’?” And then of course you need to define the term and confirm understanding. (by the way, “price point” is just a lengthy way to say “price” …)

With effective home treatment, the prognosis is good. Anyone can learn to use clear, plain language to get their point across. If you manage to correct this condition, others will find you more personable, more effective and more likable.

And who doesn’t want that?

(The Change Agent is Brian Sibley. Follow him on Twitter @bsibley)

9 Ways a Theatre Degree Trumps a Business Degree

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Some of you may know this about me, some may not. Despite having spent the last 15 years as a PR & communications professional, my college degree is in theatre. I have never in my life taken a marketing class, or a journalism class, or a business class. Yet, by most measures, I’m enjoying a successful career in business.  “So what?” you ask… read on.

I was having a conversation with my friend Sara this week. She’s an actress. Like most actresses, she also has a Day Job that she works to pay the bills between acting jobs. This is the reality for most working actors in LA, New York and the other major centers of the entertainment industry. She was pointing out to me that she viewed her theatre background as a weakness in her Day Job career field, and that it was holding her back. She asked for my advice.

My advice? There IS no weakness in having a theatre background. There is only strength. Here are just a few skills that a theatre degree gave me that have served me enormously well in business:

  1. You have advanced critical thinking and problem solving skills: taking a script and translating it into a finished production is a colossal exercise in critical thinking. You have to make tremendous inferences and intellectual leaps, and you have to have a keen eye for subtle clues. (believe it or not, this is a skill that very few people have as finely honed as the theatre people I know. That’s why I listed it #1).
  2. You’re calm in a crisis: You’ve been on stage when somebody dropped a line and you had to improvise to keep the show moving with a smile on your face, in front of everyone. Your mic died in the middle of a big solo musical number. You just sang louder and didn’t skip a beat.
  3. You understand deadlines and respect them: Opening Night is non-negotiable. Enough said.
  4. You have an eye on audience perception: You know what will sell tickets and what will not. This is a very transferrable skill, and lots of theatre people underestimate this, because they think of theatre as an ART, and not as a BUSINESS. I frequently say (even to MBA-types) that theatre was absolutely the best business education I could have gotten. While the business majors were buried in their books and discussing theory, we were actually SELLING a PRODUCT to the PUBLIC. Most business majors can get through undergrad (and some MBA programs, even) without ever selling anything. Theater departments are frequently the only academic departments on campus who actually sell anything to the public. Interesting, isn’t it?
  5. You’re courageous: If you can sing “Oklahoma!” in front of 1,200 people, you can do anything.
  6. You’re resourceful: You’ve probably produced “The Fantasticks” in a small town on a $900 budget. You know how to get a lot of value from minimal resources.
  7. You’re a team player: You know that there are truly no small roles, only small actors. The show would fail without everyone giving their best, and even a brilliant performance by a star can be undermined by a poor supporting cast. We work together in theatre and (mostly) leave our egos at the stage door. We truly collaborate.
  8. You’re versatile: You can probably sing, act, dance. But you can also run a sewing machine. And a table saw. And you’ve probably rewired a lighting fixture. You’ve done a sound check. You’re good with a paintbrush. You’re not afraid to get your hands dirty for the benefit of the show. In short, you know how to acquire new skills quickly.
  9. You’re flexible: you’ve worked with some directors who inspired you. Others left you flat, but you did the work anyway. Same goes with your fellow actors, designers and stagehands… some were amazing and supportive, others were horrible and demoralizing to work with (we won’t name names). You have worked with them all. And learned a little something from every one of them.

These are the top reasons I’ve found my theatre degree to be a great background for a business career. What are yours?

(The Change Agent is Brian Sibley. Follow him on Twitter @bsibley)

11 People to Unfollow on Twitter today

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Let the record show that I am about to write a Listicle*. The internet is rife with articles on “Who to Follow on Twitter” but I’ve seen scant evidence regarding the contrarian view. Since I generally prefer the contrarian view, I offer the following.

I did this exercise recently, and was sharing my process with Brendan Lewis, who shares in my love of all things snarky, especially when it involves Social Media. He encouraged me to write it up. So you can thank him if it seems helpful. (Note: If it’s not helpful, please direct all complaints to: Goldman Sachs, 200 West Street, New York City.)

Specifically, who should you unfollow? Unfollow these people, and enjoy a Twitter feed with substantially less narcissism, solipsism and self-promotion. Read on:

  1. Unfollow anyone who claims “guru” status of anything. Do I need to explain why? Same goes for “raconteur” and “diva” and some others. If you have to SAY that you’re a guru, odds are you are not. These words are pretentious when self-applied.
  2. Unfollow anyone who lists “running” in their profile. While I generally have nothing against athletes, people who call themselves “runners” bug the crap out of me. There are people who go for a run. There are people who run marathons. But people who identify as “Runners” tend to be self-important types who never played team sports or don’t realize that you CAN play team sports after high school. Crossfitters and triathletes, this means you, too.
  3. Unfollow anyone who unironically retweets Gary Vaynerchuk, Peter Shankman, or Brian Solis. If you MUST follow these guys yourself, do so only for comic value, because these guys actually believe that they are God’s Gift. In reality they exist largely in a feedback loop of their own creation. Same goes for Michael Brito, Jeremiah Owyang, David Armano, and Chris Pirillo.
  4. Unfollow people who use the phrase “content marketing” in their profile or in their tweets. They heard this buzzword recently and decided to catch the wave. This wave will have crested and crashed in six to 12 months. Something else will take its place. Simply “marketing” is OK.
  5. Unfollow anyone who is a self-proclaimed “thought leader” immediately. (For more information, see #1 above). As Bob Dylan said — at least apocryphally —  “Don’t follow leaders.”
  6. Unfollow most PR people. They’re easy to find: their agency name usually appears in their twitter profile (firm names like Edelman, Waggener Edstrom [a.k.a “WaggEd”], Shandwick, Burson, etc.) Most of these folks don’t do anything on twitter but parrot their clients’ messages anyway, and talk about their regimen for training for the upcoming Metro Half-Marathon and Wine Festival (see #2 above).
  7. Unfollow anyone who says on their twitter profile that they’re “gluten free,” or “paleo,” or ”vegan” … these folks are compelled to share their quotidian food choices globally. You don’t need to know, really. It isn’t that interesting.
  8. Unfollow anyone who uses more than two hashtags in their twitter profile. #youre #doing #it #wrong #jackwagon #stop #trying #to #draw #attention #to #yourself
  9. Unfollow anyone who lists their Myers-Briggs personality type in their profile. I can only assume that this is a carryover from online dating sites. What gives? If you’re an INFJ, shouldn’t you be reading a book with your cat anyway instead of managing your Twitter account? Get off the internet! It belongs to us ESTPs anyway!
  10. Unfollow people who claim to have written “bestselling books” that you have never heard of. Authors who have actually written bestselling books generally don’t need to claim authorship of same on their twitter profiles. Having written a book that’s #46 in Amazon’s category Business> Business & Investing> Management & Leadership> Management> Marketing> Digital & Interactive Marketing> Social Media> Does not qualify as a bestseller. For a list of Bestselling authors, see Publisher’s Weekly or The New York Times. J.K. Rowling is a bestselling author. So is John Grisham. So are Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg. Unfollow authors who aren’t in that category.
  11. Unfollow any remaining mommy bloggers. That thing was so 2008.

Once you’ve unfollowed these people (if there’s anyone left in your feed), you’ll find that it probably contains interesting things about the world you live in or the industry in which you work. It might even contain things of real intellectual value. When you unclutter your feed from the narcissists and self-promoters, you can follow things of genuine interest. Isn’t that what a tool like Twitter should be used for anyway?

(Disclaimer/Warning: Following the advice in this post may negatively impact your Klout score. But if you’ve read this far, it’s a safe bet you don’t care.)

And now, gentle reader, I eagerly await your vitriol.

*Listicle, n. – a portmanteau of “List” and “article” … get it?

For our daughters and sons

Saturday December 15, 2012

Dear Mr. President,

As I write this, my daughter is asleep in the next room. She’s in the second grade. Tomorrow we’re going to a performance of The Nutcracker. She has a new dress, hat and shoes that her grandma bought just for this occasion. She sleeps tonight in safety and security, anticipating the joy and wonder that tomorrow will bring. And I know that tomorrow when I wake her up, she will never have looked more beautiful to me, never more precious. Her eyes will never be more blue, because of what happened.

My heart breaks for those parents in Connecticut who will not wake their daughters and sons this morning. To borrow from Abraham Lincoln’s famous letter to Mrs. Bixby, how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile them from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. I cannot imagine their horror, for it is, most truly, unspeakable.

Many people have said today that, “today we must grieve, and tomorrow or the next day we can talk about what happened, and why.” While I can understand — and even appreciate — the reasoning behind this sentiment, I cannot, and I will not, agree that we must wait to have a national discussion about the growing epidemic of gun violence in the United States. And I urge you and the members of Congress to do the same. Please do not wait to have this debate. And please, Mr. President: be strong. Something has got to change. What we saw today is not what James Madison intended when he wrote the Bill of Rights. It cannot be.

What we need now is to get real. We need to put aside the rhetoric of the past, and we must focus on a new future, one that represents the reality of today, and honors the memories of those sons and daughters who died needlessly. This is the greatest country the world has ever seen. And yet, for some reason I cannot comprehend, and I cannot explain to my daughter, we are killing each other at a rate much higher than every other developed country in the world. How can we be at once so great and so murderous? It does not have to be this way. How can we, as a free people, accept this much murder as the price of living in a free country? I’ve tried to understand it, but I cannot.

You and I have many things in common, and I’m sure we’d enjoy each other’s company. I’d very much like to share a drink with you someday. I’m sure we’d tell each other stories about the daughters we both have, who we’d do anything for. And I hope when that day comes, we can share that drink in a nation that has found a way, has seen the imperative, to prevent these mass killings from happening.

Our daughters and our sons deserve nothing less.

Respectfully,

Brian Sibley (Bellingham, Washington)

Of Vacuum Cleaners and Obsolescence

What follows is the text of a letter I just wrote to the Kirby Company. Kirby makes vacuum cleaners. Really, really good vacuum cleaners. The Kirby I inherited from my grandmother a decade ago cost her more than I paid for my first car. Yet, I may very well hand it down to my daughter, it’s so well made.

Whither product quality?

“To Whom It May Concern:

“I was discussing the relative decline of product quality today with a friend. The subject of Kirby came up, as an example of a company that puts a very strong focus on product quality. I just wanted to pass along a personal story.

“My grandmother died 13 years ago at the ripe age of 86. She lived a good life. In that long life of hers, she owned exactly 2 vacuum cleaners, both of them Kirbys. I inherited the second one, which she bought 3 years before her death. The first one she received as a gift in the late 1930s.

“So that first Kirby lasted 50+ years. Because of her second vacuum’s heirloom status, I expect that I won’t need to buy another vacuum again until at least 2035.

“Thanks for making a truly great product! I wish more companies were as committed to quality as Kirby is, almost 100 years after its founding.

Sincerely,
Brian”

Most of our home appliances and the like today (especially computers and electronics) are built with planned obsolescence in mind. They’re only designed to last until the next version comes along. Think Swiffer, Microsoft Office 2000  and iPod 3G. Products have generations now. Today’s latest and greatest will be replaced sooner or later (usually sooner).

Certainly there have been many advancements in vacuum cleaner technology since Jim Kirby started making dirt separators in 1906. Yet Kirby continues to make a product that is built to last. They have improved their product regularly over the years, and the brand is one of the most respected in its industry. Why do so many companies make products that are built with their eventual demise in mind? Theoretically, one could repair a Kirby vacuum indefinitely. Certainly this would cost you far less over a lifetime than buying a new Hoover or Dyson at Costco every 5 years.

Dear reader, in your opinion, are there any other companies out there whose products are still built to last?

Five Things You Need to Know About Obama’s Public Health Insurance Option

The choice of a public health insurance plan is crucial to real health care reform. Here’s what you really need to know:

1. Choice, choice, choice. If the public health insurance option passes, Americans will be able to choose between their current insurance and a high-quality, government-run plan similar to Medicare. If you like your current care, you can keep it. If you don’t—or don’t have any—you can get the public insurance plan.

2. It will be high-quality coverage with a choice of doctors. Government-run plans have a track record of innovating to improve quality, because they’re not just focused on short-term profits. And if you choose the public plan, you’ll still get to choose your doctor and hospital.

3. We’ll all save a bunch of money. The public health insurance option won’t have to spend money on things like CEO bonuses, shareholder dividends, or excessive advertising, so it’ll cost a lot less. Plus, the private plans will have to lower their rates and provide better value to compete, so people who keep their current insurance will save, too.

4. It will always be there for you and your family. A for-profit insurer can close, move out of the area, or just kick you off their insurance rolls. The public health insurance option will always be available to provide you with the health security you need.

5. And it’s a key part of universal health care. No longer will sick people or folks in rural communities, or low-income Americans be forced to go without coverage. The public health insurance plan will be available and accessible to everyone. And for those struggling to make ends meet, the premiums will be subsidized by the government.

Sources:

1. “Words Designed to Kill Health Care Reform,” Huffington Post, May 7, 2009 http://bit.ly/Btp7O

2, 3, 4, 5, 6. “The Case for Public Plan Choice in National Health Reform,” Institute for America’s Future
http://bit.ly/UgrIP

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