Connecting ‘social’ and ‘media’

An Ossning Social

I recently had lunch with a client and a guru. 

The client has made a name for himself in PR with the introduction of the most successful business PR campaign of the past 30 years, Watson Competes on Jeopardy!.   All those appearances made by Watson on Today, GMA, CNN, etc.; that was my friend (and his team). The Nova special, the New York Times Magazine, the Andy Richter’s wife having an affair…  I think everyone would agree the whole thing wouldn’t have happened without him.

And the guru is a semi-retired Ad guy who happened to work in St. Louis for a while, helping to launch a little campaign called, ‘This Bud’s for You’.  After 35 years in advertising, of late as an acknowledged ‘pundit’, our friend contributes to AdWeek and AdAge, popping up on panels and on TV as well.  We met him at the antique place he and his wife run while shooting a Research video (Precision Agriculture) at the farm on that property, Sun Dial.

The best part is, neither are the kind of guys you think of when you think of Advertising and PR types. There’s no trace of MadMen here. There’s no pretense or entitlement.  One thing that does connect them both is music.  They both play guitar, one still dabbling, the other feeling he’s still got the chops.  We just scratched the surface of the musical connections, but the initial jamming has begun.

There’s also an appreciation for architecture.  Both are huge Saarinen fans, with the PR guy working in one of his greatest legacy buildings, Watson Labratories, and the other having a set of six Eames chairs for sale.

I’m psyched that the two have talked about getting together soon without me, so the Ad guy can sit in the library surrounded by ‘the most comfortable chairs ever made.’

We formed a little club that we determined should meet once a month as able.  One initiative is to jam on creative for pro-active development of viral videos for beverage company targets.  Stay tuned!

The Bay Area Media Consortium

Earlier that week, I flew out to San Francisco on a mission to strengthen and define Green Ink’s Bay Area consortium.   I had lunch with representatives of a San Rafael production agency who have agreed (in principle) to become one of the first Green Ink Affiliates.  As IBM acquired our new client, DemandTec, this agency’s client of five years, I recognized that a strong, long term relationship was being disrupted. It would have taken the local company years to become an approved IBM supplier. What would the client want?  They’d want that supplier if possible.  Well, why can’t we be that supplier?  Literally.  We have one new project already that will allow our two teams to work together.

And then, I met the DemandTec clients and introduced them to our long term Bay Area partner-resource. The goal is to bring the strengths of these two suppliers together with another local partner, a legacy Coremetrics supplier, to create a full-service capability to support corporate marketing communications – locally, but with global reach.

After the shoot, I had beers and wings with my videographer buddy and an IBM Research client with whom I worked this year on a well-received, high visibility video: Cognitive Computing.  We talked about doing more projects like this in the future, showcasing not only the Almaden lab more, but IBM’s labs globally.

And then I returned the rental and made the red eye back to JFK.  Nice day.

As the Green Ink global network is further defined and strengthened, affiliates and clients can take advantage of a globally distributed capability, one that is cloud-like in its flexibility and ease-of-access, but that allows for local points of entry.  Our resources have become empowered reps.

So how do you put something like that together and launch it to the world as a definition of the brand?  Stay tuned!

We’re developing the press release.  My Business Partner wanted to know where the ‘news’ is here.

How’s this:

Green Ink Announces Bay Area Consortium

as media Companies define new business models

to best support customer desire for ‘locally grown’. 

With this farm to fork in 50 miles movement, maybe it could go in the ‘restaurant’ section?  Flexible menu:  a la carte, prix fix, or buffet style?

So is that the ‘sizzle’ or might there be an acronym…?  Anyone like the idea of a ‘GIANT’ network?  or maybe GIGANTE?

Sandy’s visit continued

Yesterday afternoon, Ambiorix and I went out for a walk in the rain. He was wearing camouflage and had brought two paint ball masks for us.  I was surprised that the police who’d just yellow taped the pier area weren’t more concerned. I guess they know Ambi by now.

We had a great dry off at Captain’s Pizza, one of the only places open.  Ambi came up with a new pizza combo: feta, onions, olives and bacon. ‘Sandy’s Greek’.  We talked with a young submariner and a woman who’s boyfriend is at sea about ideas for a modern sitcom that would take place at the sub base – a cross between McHale’s Navy and Hogan’s Heros. If interested in the option on this, let me know.  Otherwise, I really can’t divulge details.

As the winds increased throughout the afternoon and evening, the condo – especially the corner room, began to rumble and shake as if there were an earthquake. With gusts at 66mph, wind bowed the glass in the windows. A small tree out front – planted less than two years ago – blew over. Otherwise, our neighborhood seems to have been spared tree damage. We lost power for less than a minute. The water level at low tide was at the highest high tide mark. The waves lapped at the edge of the Custom House Pier, the kiss becoming a light slap, but the surge never made it this far up The Thames.

“Blow winds and crack your cheeks!” 

I imagined next hurricane asking Jim Stidfel’s buddy to do his Leer on the stage that remains from a summer of great plays.

There was an empty green city trash barrel catching a breeze down the middle of bank in front of the firehouse, otherwise, not much activity on the streets beyond a few impervious gawkers. There was supposed to be a driving ban and people were encouraged to stay indoors, but the police didn’t seem to be stopping people.

The Mayor and his able aids were Facebooking quite a bit and it felt good to know there were people who knew what they were doing out there.

Bounty, a ship that just left New London last Thursday – sunk off Carolina Coast. Prayers to the crew and their families. 12 rescued, one dead and the Captain still missing.

Our friends in the condo next door wondered if we were hearing the same loud noises they were hearing. We went to their apartment and it sounded like there were giants bowling on the roof. We received word from someone in the complex across the street who was looking down on our place that the ‘roof was coming off’.  Well, just the rubber seal layer.  And air conditioning units were rolling around. What does one do in a circumstance like that?  Eat and drink!  We had a mini hall party.

Seeing that the water at high tide was not coming over the seawall or drowning the piers, I took the lead of the dog and cat and fell asleep, receiving the title of ‘party pooper’ as Tom and the hurricane partiers ventured out into the windy moonlight to check the seawall and play some cards.

This morning, we learned that New Jersey and NYC had some major problems. Subways still not going.  Friends without power and a ‘mess’ in Northern NJ.  So, we got off easy.

There’s traffic going over the Goldstar Bridge again. There are people climbing on our roof and an insurance claim has already been filed. I’d call it a minor disruption here. It could have been a lot worse.

So, how’d you fare?

Sandy visits New London

9:52AM. Greetings from the fourth floor!  As we reach high tide, Chef Gaspar just rode by on his 1950’s bicycle wearing bright blue sneakers, white pants, a sensible european trench coat and an equally sensible hat. Others are out braving the gusts of 30 knots or so and a few cars are drifting through. Police patrol the piers. The swinging railroad bridge is about three feet from being under water. There’s talk of closing the Goldstar Bridge; that’s 95, the main thoroughfare between New York and Boston, possibly shut down.  We told the staff to work from home as able. From our living room, Tom and I have a great view of sky, water and city, can see four American flags not quite horizontal showing winds from the east-northeast. I posit that when the next tide hits, we’ll be seeing the winds coming from the southeast, bringing the water up to past Irene levels. During that wee bit of a mighty storm just over a year ago, the seawall in front of our building held beautifully, even as water leapt in hungry claw-like ways over the bulkhead. OK. I know. That was kind of clumsy. I’ll try better next time. I haven’t heard that creak above the windows before. Tom says he heard it during Irene. Our friend patty has been to everyone’s door to make sure we’re all still staying. The high tide is just gently kissing the lip of the custom house pier. You might not want to sail a sunfish in this wind. No ferries running. Or elves for that matter. The building manager has told us in an email that the sliders should be ok up to 118mph. Shouldn’t be more than 80. Not too worried. Looking forward to a walk in a bit. I think we’ll be disappointed if the building does not become nearly fully surrounded by water at some point. Our cars are parked on a hill across the street. We have our mobile phones charged. The central command station for the city response is in the firehouse across the street and I can see four American flags flying. I hope everyone’s taking precautions to allow them to enjoy the beauty of this encounter.

Can a service mindset be taught?

This is kind of a ‘Service 101’ lecture, but I feel as if I’m talking to myself sometimes, reminding myself of what I believe… but, also, as we try to spread the brand globally, I think it’s good to have some form of reference in place. What should one expect from a Green Ink service representative?  It’s more like handbook content.  Or maybe it’s just a simple refresher course for you?  

If you don’t enjoy doing it, don’t do it.

Have you ever waited tables?  Ever been a desk clerk?  A receptionist? A masseuse? If not, you might not be a good prospect for being a service rep or producer for a production team.  It could mean you’ve avoided working with the public so far because you just don’t have a service mentality. No problem. You’ll find other things to do: count beans, assess the hunting grounds, create the decorations or something equally valuable other than delivering a service with a smile.

A person should be smiling if they want to – not because they have to. If you’re missing an inner joy for whatever reason, then I’d think a service job is not for you. It doesn’t mean people who don’t want to serve can’t be shiny, happy people, but a positive spirit is certainly a prerequisite to the service mindset.

It’s presumed you have to ‘like people’ to be a service provider. I’d disagree. I think you need to respect them. And that can’t be faked.  People especially know when you don’t respect them.  In business-to-business service, the customer – the one with the money and the need – must be served. That’s the respect I’m talking about. They are the boss. They’re the ones who call the shots. I’ve loved that this has become a saying I’ve seen a few times recently: the customer is the reason for our being in business.

My all time most inspiring service provider is a man from Barbados who welcomed us to our rental house as our caretaker:  “I just want to make you hoppy.”  And he meant it.

Reel service…

Video production itself is a ‘service’.  We’re not charging for a ‘video’ per se (a la NetFlix). We’re charging for the service of creating it; of developing a practical approach to production, a winning creative, a sensible schedule… each a step in a customized process designed to create 100% customer satisfaction. Each step in the process is a service.  

A Marketing professor from Tuck said something like, “You don’t need to be your client’s best friend. If you think they need a best friend, buy them a stuffed animal. Your job is to provide them with something that they value.”

If we’re doing it right, our customers will have that same sense of value one feels after having received a great meal from a top chef, an effective massage, or a successfully chartered fishing boat.  I like to think I’ve learned something about service from each of these and so many more services I’ve been fortunate to receive.

Sometimes, we’ve received a service and we don’t even realize til later that we’ve received it.  I think that’s probably when it’s done best.

It’s not about you.

Clients will often love to hear about your past successes and they want to know they’re in the hands of an expert, but don’t assume the client is looking to you for intelligence or entertainment. We’ve all seen sales people who feel the need to convince us of how worldly and smart they are and never once ask what we’re looking for. I know I’ve been that guy, but after 26 years, I’m still working on that one.

Our customers should know they are in the hands of experts who are ready to listen to and understand their desires, and to help them realize them. If they’re already working with you, they don’t need to be impressed by your background. They need to be impressed by your understanding of and support of their needs.

Some tips for better customer service…

Most of these are stolen from somewhere and anyone who knows me knows I don’t practice all of them all the time.  Especially this first one…

1. We’ve been given two ears and one mouth.  Use them in that proportion.

2. A smile and frown are equally infectuous.

3. Input should be acknowledged and clarified at the time of its receipt.

4. The client is not always ‘right’ (and sometimes they’re their own worst enemy), but they should always get what they’re willing to pay for.

5. It’s best to anticipate a client’s questions and provide as many answers as possible before they’re raised.

6. Anything you can do to show you are empathetic to a client’s pain/needs is helpful.

7. If something doesn’t go as expected, be honest and, most importantly, communicate early and often.  There’s nothing worse than a production problem that is compounded by ducking phone calls or trying to gloss over the truth.

8. Under-promise and over-deliver.

9. Put yourself in the client’s position.  What would you want?  Pretend it’s your money.  Pretend it’s your job on the line.

10. Look for areas of common interest with your client, but don’t fake it. You don’t need to pretend you love infants if you don’t.

11. Find out what is keeping your client up at night – what their biggest worry point is – and help them address that in a meaningful way.

So, that’s my blog for today.  Nothing fancy.  Nothing slick.  I hope some of it might be of some service to you.

Now please share your service tips or examples of service that’s inspired you.

 

Twenty years ago today…

The Green Ink brand was born on October 9, 1992.

At 8am 20 years ago, I put on my slippers and padded into my new home office, the front room of a one bedroom second floor apartment in East Norwalk, CT.  My Father had leant me a couple hundred dollars for a black and white printer.   I’d been told by family members that, if became destitute, I could stay with them.

I was psyched to have my own business cards, proud to have my name on my own company.  I’d developed the ‘quill’ logo with a local Norwalk designer and the cards, letterhead and envelopes were ready on Day 1.  I made the conscious decision to use my personal email address, HipsterG, as part of my new business identity.  Having my own business meant freedom to call myself who I wanted, to now wear cowboy boots, to grow a pony tail and a mustache. I was no longer having to represent somebody else – I was representing only myself and my business.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I was confident that, despite my lack of formal business education, I’d learned enough about running a media company in those previous six years to not have to work for somebody else anymore.

What I’d realized was that my vision of what an enterprise should be would never coincide with those of my employer.  As much as I appreciated the opportunity they’d given me, I didn’t want to become a junior equity partner in their firm – for a number of reasons, but most of which it wouldn’t have been mine.

My Father used to love to challenge me to think about starting my own business.  “Well, you know, a person usually doesn’t make a LOT of money working for somebody else,” and, “I’ve read that, chances are, if you haven’t started your own business by the age of thirty, you probably won’t.”

I’d turned 29 and I’d been feeling more and more like a trapped bourgeois pig.  I had an ample expense account and a yuppie lifestyle that I’d come to really value, but I knew I’d never be truly fulfilled if I continued the easy path of employment; of not having the responsibilities and therefore freedoms of being 100% accountable for my income.

I’d turned in my company car (a gold Porsche) the week before, bumming a ride to the Hartford train station from a set builder buddy. From that point through the next two years, I was able to use public transportation to cost-effectively travel, discovering that using the train system from East Norwalk was about one third the cost of maintaining a car.

Getting to an appointment that week with my new client at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights was neither quick nor easy, however.  A local train from East Norwalk to Stamford, then a local to Mamaroneck, then a bus over to White Plains train station, then a train up to Mount Kisco, then a cab over to the meeting.  A half hour meeting and a return trip.  A full day of travel.

I soon learned to relish the freedom that taking public transportation afforded me to work and think creatively.  I wrote a lot of songs during these train rides.  I remember the ad at the time ringing true: ‘Your train time is your own time’.

This was the pre-laptop era, but I was able to use notepads to write up drafts of briefs, proposals, and other writings for clients and prospects, actually writing with a pen before typing up my notes when I’d get home.

I’d hit the ground running with two big projects for my former employer already on my plate.  I’d sold them just before giving my resignation, being sure to add in two large buckets for Writer and Producer. These interactive multimedia modules had been the last of my campaign of helping to introduce a new wave of applications to business problems using IBM’s own multimedia development platform.  That platform was abandoned a year or two later as ‘interactive’ development became ‘internet’ development.

I do consider myself to be a pioneer in interactive multimedia application development.  Work I’d supported had been on display at the IBM Think Gallery at 590 Madison Avenue.  I was a panelist at a few conferences.  I remember being up in front of one crowd at the Javitz center telling people all about the ‘information superhighway’ I’d been reading about. Making media interactive was key, and now the delivery mechanism had been developed.  When video could now be played over the internet – and be made interactive – I knew I was in the right profession.

My former boss was grateful that I was leaving on civil terms, not threatening his client relationships, but, in fact, doing what I could to enhance them.  I went after client prospects who had told me that they wouldn’t hire a ‘production company’, but did hire ‘freelancers’ directly.  I’d been hiring freelancers for my company for years and was always a bit jealous of their freedom – and ability to charge what I considered large day rates.

A new, emerging business model allowed internal corporate video production teams to grow and expand according to the requirements – and budgets – of their internal constituents, without having to pay the redundant fees that can accompany layers of unneeded management at a ‘production company’.

I joined a whole crop of day-raters that surrounded internal operations at IBM TV (Stamford, CT), SNET Media Center (New Haven, CT), and Rite Aid TV (Camp Hill, PA), among others.  I found it easy to provide not only my own day rate services, but ultimately, more full service for each of these teams (for example, location videography, editing, graphics and animation), augmenting in-house services with not just writing-producing-directing skills, but whatever else might be required outside.

In each case, I did my best to help the managers of these departments think more like entrepreneurs, as “IBU’s” or Independent Business Units (vs. the money pits they were often perceived to be by the clients they were supposed to be serving).

Even before starting my own business, I’d heeded the advice of mentors who told me I should consider my job to be ‘my business’, to ‘own’ it.  And one very wise man introduced me to the idea of being ‘pro-active’; not just an order taker, but a recommender.  Though this path is one requiring a bit more tact (not wanting to appear overly solicitous or presumptuous), it’s one that has been fruitful for me and helped to differentiate my services from those of other ‘Producers’.

A key to this proactive selling approach is not only being able to suggest to our clients what kind of video they might make, what that creative approach might be, but also being able to know our client’s business well enough to make qualified suggestions on what and how media might best be applied to achieve their goals.  When done well, the client will make your idea their own.  Does it matter who really thought of it if it’s moving forward?

The clients I served were facing a new paradigm and a new challenge: no longer were in-house teams able to remain ‘order takers’; with budget tighteners like Lou Gerstner at the helm, these ‘corporate TV’ centers would have to behave like entrepreneurs – providing value-added agency-type support and treating internal requestors as ‘clients’.

I was fortunate to find an amazing client at IBM TV who welcomed my suggestions.  He knew that the writing was on the wall.  To fail to prove ones ‘value’ to the internal auditors on an ongoing basis (not just at yearly budget reviews) could and would invite closure.  Despite our success in creating a ‘revenue recovery’ center with the studio resources that had been contracted already (about $150K revenue per quarter), IBM TV was shut down in 1994 after the Wall Street Journal ran a story on the ‘cuts that still needed to be made’ by Gerstner.

IBM actually paid more to extricate itself from the contract than it would have cost to let the contract run it’s last two years out.  Perception is everything, and IBM wasn’t supposed to be in ‘the TV business’.   When they were, however, they were saving about fifty percent on production that would have otherwise been outsourced and there was a centralized, consistent approach to their video development.

Thankfully, Green Ink’s model allowed for scaling.  When IBM TV closed in late 1994, I was blessed with a huge winfall being transferred from IBM TV’s ‘internal’ account directly into Green Ink’s.  With IBM TV suddenly out of business, my client was delighted to not have to return the dollars to the requestors, and to be able to fulfill their promised video requirements.  So was I!

The freelancer had become a full fledged production company.

An Old Saybrook house that had formerly been a dentist’s office was now an affordable, more spacious home office environment, one that allowed me to bring in support as needed.

The one drawback of Old Saybrook was that it didn’t have a viable commuter train.  I was forced to give up the freedom of taking public transportation and I bought a used truck.  My life as a ‘road warrior’ continues today, though I’m able to take Amtrak to the city fairly quickly from New London.

I could go through a list of all the people who have been important to Green Ink over the years as resources and employees, but the problem with any list is that someone inevitably gets left off and feels slighted.  Let me say, however, that because of the creative collaboration with those early supporters, those I’ve worked with through the years, and those I consider now to be the core of a growing team, I’ve been able to help deliver quality programs to a long list of clients, 99 percent of whom I’ve truly enjoyed supporting.

I admit that I get a sense of real satisfaction to, sure, have a business that’s now grown to almost 20 people, but most importantly received the trust of a growing number of smart people to help them deliver their messages – to audiences whom I’ve enjoyed helping to educate.

Today, I’m lucky to have a full business partner with whom I proudly share the ever-evolving Green Ink brand; an associate partner who’s commitment to high-end creative development  has been instrumental to our growth; as well as several clients that I now consider as more ‘partners’ as well; people who seem to have as much joy in seeing Green Ink grow as we do.

Of course, none of this could have been possible without the love and support of my life partner who has given council, support and some real sweat to build the equity we now enjoy.

Thank you to all for the trust and continued confidence!

Here’s a list of the addresses Green Ink has had over the years:

An East Norwalk apartment, an Old Saybrook house, an Old Saybrook office, a North Stonington house, a Voluntown house, a Voluntown office, back to the Voluntown house, then 2 Union Plaza in New London and now, The Crocker house in New London.  Nine offices in 20 years; only as much office space as necessary to support the business our clients were looking for.  Our goal all along has been to keep our overhead to a minimum in order to pass on the savings to our clients.

Last week, our latest intern, a third year brainiac from Conn College, issued a press release which was picked up by our local paper.  She is now a PR person.  The Day – Green Ink celebrates 20th anniversary 

The same client who gave me that break at IBM TV 20 years ago commented on the article.  After IBM TV, he became our ‘angel’ for several years in subsequent positions, introducing Green Ink to many of the IBM teams we continue to serve today.  He and his wife moved to the town next door when he retired a few years ago. Maintaining that connection is one of the proudest achievements of my career.  The irony is that I used to deliver the newspaper he once edited in New Britain, CT.

In the next 20 years, I’m hoping to support my team in continuing to build the Green Ink brand through a more solidified network of national and global affiliates.  In business, there are no guarantees, but, if the past 20 years are any indicator, I’m seeing only great things ahead for all of us!

Traversing an Executive Interview

I admit it. I’m a little tired this week.  At close to fifty, I find that traveling the world and back and forth two hours or so to clients a few times a week to conduct interviews can be a bit taxing.  Plus, as we grow as a business, I can’t be everywhere.  I love conducting interviews – meeting new people who tell me things I don’t know already – but , as we continually strengthen our bench, I thought I’d try to encapsulate the training I’d like empowered Green Ink interviewers to have had.  Don’t get me wrong!  I’m not done traveling the world (at least I hope not), but I can’t keep this up forever!

But it sure has been fun to meet all the amazing minds I’ve been able to explore, to see all the places I’ve been able to see.  I’m lucky to have been entrusted to talk with some of the most influential people in corporate America – and around the world. 

There’s probably very little that I’ve actually developed new here, but I think I’ve been a pretty good sponge and absorbed some reliable tricks of the trade along the way.  I’d love to hear others’ tips that I’ve not included… these are from the perspective of a corporate ‘Producer-Director’.

Chip’s Interview Tips

I remember directing an on-camera executive delivery once with a person who was, even then, a very powerful woman.  Though I believe I’m respectful of people who have attained high rank or fame, I try not to let the situation intimidate me or make me nervous at all.  I felt particularly relaxed in her presence, and I said to someone on the crew, “Oh, she won’t mind doing it again if there’s a problem.” Well, she hadn’t in the past.

And she said, looking at me with a school teacher’s knowing smile, “Oh, she won’t, will she?”  I realized immediately that I had broken a cardinal rule of corporate culture:  I’d presumed. My critical error could have caused her, had she been any less gracious, to foster ill will against ‘that Director‘.

Thankfully, she didn’t say, “Don’t bring that crew back here again.”  But she very well could have.  It’s the little things that can cost a relationship.  Thankfully, she nailed it first take every time and has certainly continued to do so.

As they taught me in Boy Scouts (yes, I was a scout in the ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ era – before the ban’), be prepared.   I hadn’t had my ‘prep’ session.  A bit too relaxed, perhaps.

The Pre-Interview Prep

Start with empathy.  It’s important to understand the executive and their goals; to understand their mood and their comfort level.

Executives do not like to be told what to do any more than any of us like to be told what to do. They also like to know what’s coming. I’ve often heard, “OK, so what are we doing?”  It’s good to be pro-active here.

Be direct.  “First we’re hoping to put you into make up with Milania here, then we’ll ask you to come over to the hot seat where Paul will put a microphone on you, and then we’ll have two or three minutes of final adjustment to the lights, and I’ll give you some more prep then…”

Be attentive, but let the make-up artist do their magic.  A good make-up person will provide a calming, spa-like treatment.  ‘You are special.’  You might use this time to discuss final expectations with the exec’s coordinators (if you haven’t had the pre-interview conference calls you probably should have had).

Ideally, the make-up person will ask questions along the way: “Do you mind…?”, “Are you ok with a little powder…?” “Would it be ok if we…?”  Listen to your subject’s answers.  These are ways of finding out important things like whether a person is nervous or not, whether they’re feeling pampered or poked, whether they understand the mission at hand or have unanswered questions.  If they are still unsure, they’ll typically ask over their shoulder to their comms person or assistant, “So, did you bring those notes?”

Oh no!  Not the notes!   The notes are deadly!  You should keep your mouth shut.  Let them do whatever they want.  It’s their show.  But be prepared to work with the comms person to help make the person feel more comfortable winging it.  Ideally, someone will say, “You know this stuff.” or “If you do it just like you did at the conference, we’ll be great.”

My feeling is, if we’re just regurgitating notes, we might as well publish that as printed material or do a prompter read (which is a whole other blog).

Sometimes, it’s not always judicious to offer marketing advice at that moment and you help them to struggle through.  Other times, it’s all the encouragement the subject needs to take that journey into the unknown with you that will make for much better ‘television’.

If you wouldn’t mind having having a seat, Jim here can put a microphone on you…

You might assume a certain level of media savvy if they’re senior executives, however, if they’re newly appointed, it’s often the case that they’ve not been on camera much before, particularly not in front of a TV studio camera.

It’s important to have on hand an audio technician or camera person who is experienced in ‘wiring’ a person with a corded lavaliere microphone.  Confidence is key.  Combine that with humility and sensitivity.  It’s really a matter of being adult about it and getting through it efficiently.

Again, the audio tech should ask questions: “Can you help me run this up the back of your buttons from here to here?”  Or, “How would you feel about putting it right here, on the lapel of your sweater?”  With women especially, the mic person is often working in a highly sensitive area.  The more ‘clinical’ this sometimes invasive medical procedure can be performed, the better.  Women can tolerate a Dr.’s touch, but not a punk’s.  I’m very conscious of who’s mic-ing my execs.  Trust is key.  Thankfully, I’ve never had a complaint.

Be sure to water your executive!   Put an unopened bottle of water next to the chair and let them know its there.

The Drill

As your team is adjusting the lights, take the opportunity to give a short drill.  I like to deliver something along the lines of:

“This is going to be easy. We’re going to have a conversation that nobody will ever see or hear in its entirety, so there is really no way that you could possibly screw up (or mess up depending on whether you’re subject is from the Midwest or not).  Feel free to stop a sentence and start it over again at any point.  You and I will be having a conversation.  We’ll edit this to take out any uncomfortable pauses, but feel free to just let your mind go and speak as you would in a normal conversation with somebody you are just informing about this subject.

“I don’t want you to be self-conscious, but there are a couple things I would ask you to try to remember…”

“If you could try to avoid using words like ‘as I said’ or ‘like I said before’ or ‘again.’ We very likely won’t have heard what you’ve said before.  We’re going to be taking this conversation and shrinking it down to two or three minutes and we probably won’t have heard that frame of reference, so we’re going to ask that every statement that you make is a complete statement, and we’d like you to try to add some context, because they’ll never hear my questions, they’ll only hear your statements.  It might help, for example, if you used some of my question in your response. ‘What did you have for breakfast this morning?’ ‘For breakfast this morning I had…’  If there is any time that you want to stop recording, just let us know, otherwise we’ll just record continuously.”

“So Paul, do we have speed?”

“Speeding”

During the interview…

Recognize that how you ask the question will dictate how the subject responds.  People have a tendency to mimic the person they’re talking with.  So, avoid ums and ahs and you knows and likes if you don’t want those words to constantly show up in your transcript.  Avoid long, run on sentence questions if you want to avoid having run on responses.

Nod attentively, and keep as much eye contact as is comfortable for you both, but feel free to look down at your notes from time to time to help reenforce your thoughts.  In the case of a customer testimonial, I like to have the customer’s company web site open so I can ask questions that are more relevant.  “I see you’re into tire distribution.  Tell me about that.”

Don’t wait til the end of the response to know what the next question is.  Nothing prevents a ‘conversation’ from happening more than smiling attentively, rewarding them with a ‘that was great,’ and then pausing to look down at your notes for the next question.  “Let me see here… um….”  NO!   Please!   Keep it flowing.  Act interested.  Ideally, you will be sincerely engaged in the subject matter you’re discussing and have a real interest in discovering the unique story or perspective here.  If you’re feeling informed and surprised, then your final viewing audience will as well.

I try to make subjects feel like they’ve come into our living room, into our environment. This is our home that we’re sharing with you, and we want to you to be as comfortable as possible. Relax and we’ll go for a little journey together.

Analogies

I think it helps to compare what we do in interviewing people with other occupations. I was thinking that it’s like bringing somebody into the barber’s chair and being sure to always ask what they’re looking for before assuming anything; to make sure you have that understanding of what the haircut is going to look like before you embark upon the service.  This mindset can help you to help the subject create the story that they want to tell.  I’ve often said, “They’re the expert.  I just try not to get in the way.”

Some have suggested that it’s akin to a dentist chair where you let somebody know that this really might hurt.  If you see they’re nervous, empathize.  “I know this feels painful and you can’t wait to get it over with, but the good thing is, once the camera starts rolling, people usually can’t tell that you’re nervous – and it goes away.  It’ll never feel completely comfortable, but that can also be a good thing.  The good news is: it’ll be over in ten or fifteen minutes.”

Having been in the hot seat, once the camera starts rolling, it can feel to the person who’s ‘on the spot’ like an out of body experience.  Your job is to walk them over to the other side.

Time is Money

So the question is “How much time should we level set the executive interview subject for in terms of time?” We recommend staging interviews within an hour block if they’re back-to-back interviews at a conference or other type of event. Although this schedule can certainly be accelerated and people can be waiting in cue and we can make that a half hour. But this hour allows us to create a window of ability to change lighting, change background. Essentially what we’re looking at from the executive is 5 minutes of make-up, 5 minutes of microphone and chair prep, 15 minutes of conversation and 5 minutes taking of the microphone and taking off any make-up.  And, if the program calls for it, perhaps we can take 15 minutes after the interview to shoot some ‘day-in-the-life’ b-roll.

Devil’s Advocacy

When there’s time, after I’ve exhausted the questions I’ve worked out with the client beforehand (which I try to keep as simple as possible; leading questions; softballs), I ask the subject if they’d mind if we ‘shift gears a bit’ for a couple ‘devil’s advocate’ questions.  Usually, I get a fairly confident, ‘Bring it on’ kind of look.  And I do.

With as broad a smile as I can muster, I’ll pretend I’m a probing reporter, looking for something scandalous.  This is when I’ve found I receive the answers that are best if I’m the one creating the script.  These are the questions the MarComms people are often afraid to ask, but which the discerning viewer is dying to know…

“So, why would I want to buy your product.  Aren’t you just trying to sell me a lisence and then get me hooked on your ‘proprietary’ software?”  You can hear the comms folks gasping.  But the execs – so far – have loved these questions.  No one’s thrown me out on my ear – yet.

Other examples might be, “There are so many brands that are already so established. What makes you think you can beat out some of these competitors?” “You say they’re open standards, but they’re not really ‘open’, are they?’

I haven’t found an executive yet that doesn’t enjoy this type of challenging question and the opportunity to really drive home the passion behind the product or the brand.

These answers will usually have the ability to cut through the noise and answer the FAQ’s most don’t dare ask.

Off-Camera Approach

For the past 20 plus years, the defining ‘style’ for interview-based video, or ‘cinema verite’ has been for the interview subject to look just off camera, with the interviewer hugging the lens to create an ‘almost talking directly to us’ feel.  I’d expect this style to continue to be used and there are still videos that benefit from this style.  If this is the preferred approach, you’ll want to make sure the subject knows to, “Look at me, not the camera.  The camera’s not there.  Try to ignore everyone and everything else.  It’s just you and me having a conversation,” and I do a back and forth gesture between my eyes and theirs.  The first question of, “Can you tell me your name and spell if for me.” is a good first test of whether they’re heeding your advice.

Direct to Camera?  You betcha!

Ever since seeing Errol Morris‘ fantastic IBM documentary for Ogilvy, 100 by 100, I’ve come to love the credibility of a direct-to-camera approach.  Talk about not getting in the way.

But how can you help the subject to be comfortable in this environment, to not feel abandoned, like a deer in the headlights?

Errol Morris uses an innovative (albeit expensive and large footprint) two-camera, two teleprompter system that allows the interviewer’s head to appear in the subject’s prompter screen and vice versa.  In this way, the two can have a conversation as if in a video conference environment.  A less expensive and I think equally valid approach is for using only one prompter.  Though a second prompter helps, the interviewer doesn’t necessarily need to see the subject directly.

But corporate budgets do often allow for a prompter and, I’ve found we just don’t need one to achieve a comfortable look.  I’ve developed my own approach that I feel works well for the corporate world…

I give the subject my normal prep as if it’s ‘just you and me having a conversation’.   Except here, I tell them, “But let’s pretend you’re on the moon and you’re talking to me back in mission control.”

And then I duck under the camera; sitting cross-legged under the camera on the floor or just off to the side, bowing my head down so as not to distract the person, and then I point right into the lens.  “OK. So, I’m right in here.”   

And, it really shouldn’t, but it works!

The subjects relax and I’m right there with them, engaged in conversation…  I pretend I’m blind and sometimes I’ve found myself rocking back and forth in agreement.  It helps me to focus on their messaging and develop my thoughts for the next question.

This has been an especially effective approach in marketing programs and webcast roll-ins where we’re trying to really engage the viewer.  Executives seem to be fine with this, though some prefer a prompter or notes in front of them if they’re going direct-to-camera.

I asked a CEO of one of the top petroleum companies in the world if he minded doing an interview direct-to-camera vs. to off-camera, and he told me it really doesn’t matter to him as long as there is someone there that he can talk to.

So I’ll end this on that note.  Cause isn’t that what it’s all been about?  Finding interesting people to talk to?   In the case of the executive interview, it’s not about you having to be interesting.  It’s really about finding what’s interesting about the person you’re talking with – so other people can share in the insight.

Here’s to all the interviewers out there!  I think most would agree, we’re a lucky lot!

A Shanghai travelogue

This is a long story about a short journey.  90+ hours of total door-to-door travel time for 36 hours in Shanghai.  Worth it?  You betcha!

Our illustrious, uncomplaining Director of Photography, Paul Arias, joined me at Exit 24 off I-95 at 4AM on Tuesday morning.   We arrived JFK three hours early as planned and found the check-in at that hour easy.

Our flight to LAX seemed a bit shorter than usual.  There already seemed to be about half the flight with Chinese nationals.  I was disappointed that there was no meal on the flight as I’d not had anything so early at the airport.  This was the first cross-country flight I’d been on where no meal was served.  Headphones were for purchase only as well.  But who’s complaining?  I slept half the way.

We were able to have a healthy lunch at LAX, and the cross-Pacific China Air flight of about 13 hours allowed me to start in on Keith Richards’ wrenching biography, Life.  That mixed with intermittent sleep made the time pass, if not quickly, at least fairly easily.  And they fed us!   There were three servings – breakfast (with great fruit), a snack and dinner (a decent noodle dish).  Beautiful Asian flight attendants; very attentive especially with the water.

Crossing the date line, we found ourselves arriving Shanghai at 7PM on Wednesday.  The Shanghai airport is modern and cavernous; miles of huge halls; easy early morning immigration and no stopping at customs.  Our visas worked!

I was immediately impressed with the cleanliness of the airport, and the large signs in both English and Chinese.  There was a Burger King at the airport and many large, tasteful billboards for jewelry and other bourgeois consumables.  Visa, other Western companies proudly advertise.  This is not your Father’s communism.

Per a suggestion from our IBM client, we took the MagLev train from the airport to downtown.  This eight minute ride at 300kph gave us a chance to see the layout of the surrounding countryside, the smooth-running traffic system, the modern, egalitarian housing and a wide range of unobtrusive billboards.   Many neighborhood downtowns were enhanced with neon and other colorful lights.  Older establishments seemed re-invigorated with large, colorful signs.  Much of the signage is also in English – easy to read; clear, concise words, usually all-cap.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at the downtown station and easily found our way to the Taxi stand, we realized we did not have the hotel name or address printed in Chinese characters, and our cab driver did not speak or read any English.  So, we showed him a number to call and he was able to get directions from the hotel’s operator.

We passed a group banging on drums on a street corner and I surmised that these were nationalist protesters expressing their discontent at the recent inflammatory purchase by Japan of the disputed island in the East China Sea.

The Marriot Apartments offered modern, luxury accommodations with 270 degree views (21st floor) from a four room suite.

After a quick clean up and call to the loved ones, Paul and I ventured out for an ‘authentic’ meal.  With our hotel’s surroundings being one huge modern shopping paradise, we found that search a bit daunting, though getting there was fun, traversing the five lanes of intersecting avenues in wide pedestrian crossing zones.   The westerners stood out to me in dress, manners and height.  I noticed on the plane and here on the street that many Chinese have an odd sense of ‘personal space’.  There’s a different kind of flocking behavior going on.  Yes, some courtesy, but usually an ‘I was here first’, oblivious kind of attitude. Or was I the rude, oblivious one?

I said I’d eat anywhere but a chain or a food court.  But there, amidst the majestic lights and big screen video of, yes, ‘TIMES SQUARE’, we found ourselves eating at a large ‘Food Mall’.   The first floor consists of a huge variety of merchants selling all sorts of Chinese specialties from exotic, colorful candies and cakes to dried worms.   We agreed this would be a great place to come back to later for gifts.

We took the escalators up two flights, past the Starbucks and the McDonalds, til we came to the third floor with two Japanese restaurants and a few more traditional places.  At 9PM, many of the places were just closing, but one restaurant let us in as most of their staff ate their end-of-shift dinners and giggled quietly amongst themselves.  Our waitress didn’t understand English. We struggled with the menu, which had vague indications of ‘mutton’ or ‘shrimp’, but large pictures.   We ordered what we thought were chicken dishes.  Our wait staff brought tea and some small soup bowls with our chopsticks and a moist napkin in a paper packet.  We asked for rice, and one of the young staff quickly got up from his dinner to heat it up in the microwave for us.

The dinner was inexpensive.  I left a five yuan tip on the table and the smiling young waitress ran after me, waving it at me.  “No, no”, I gestured.  “That’s for you.”  I pointed at her, waving her off.  She was adamant.  I was to keep it.  I was told later that tips are not accepted because there is fear that authorities will consider the person to be receiving a bribe of some kind.

We took a bit different path to get back to the hotel, and found a well-lit, modern electronics store where we were able to buy a conversion plug after finally finding someone able to speak English.  There were neat, Apple Store -like displays of the latest and greatest consumer products.  Does anyone not like their Samsung Galaxy?  I want something just a little bigger or smaller than what’s out there now…

Sleep came easy, though I was up intermittently through the night, unable to let a work day go by in the states without feeding my habitual control-freak behavior.

Our breakfast buffet the next morning was truly world class.  I won’t turn this into a bad wedding video (where they show the food), but I did in fact feel compelled to capture it for all to see.   Forgive the indulgence, but I found it cool how they catered to a range of European tastes while incorporating local strengths:  lychees, large grapes, and other fruit.  I don’t think I’ve ever had better bacon.

I spoke briefly with a gentleman, originally from Vancouver, who was in Auto Parts and had been coming to Shanghai on business for years.  We agreed he was a lucky guy to get this breakfast every morning.

We found it interesting – and a bit ominous – that Leon Panetta was on Global CNN visiting Beijing where a bottle had been thrown by a protester at his car.  PressTV – Panetta warns of war in East China Sea

Because Sec. Panetta and other dignitaries were dressed in traditional suit and tie, Paul convinced me it would be best for me to wear a tie to the gig.  I’m glad I did.

It took a while, but the hotel taxi attendant was able to transcribe the address for the IBM location we were visiting.  The wide main avenue was full of traffic at 9am, turning the mile long drive into 20 minutes, but allowing for some ‘out-of-window’ b-roll.  The architecture of the large buildings is innovative and original; construction everywhere you look.

The security at the Hyatt-office building combo was seamless and we were soon at the HQ for IBM’s Global Growth Markets team.   Our local crew had already loaded in, and I was pleased to meet our crew-leader, Adam, a late 20 something guy from San Francisco who’d come to Shanghai four years ago with an ex – but stayed.  “Food is cheap and you can pretty much do anything you want here.”

He’d just come from Tokyo via Hong Kong, where his connecting flight had been delayed seven hours due to the East China Sea tensions.

We talked about our not being able to access FaceBook, or other ‘comments’ sections of blogs and local papers.   He called it ‘the great firewall of china’.   He mentioned that one could get a VPN – a virtual personal network – to enable access.

He and our charming local IBM hostess suggested:

The Bund – An historic colonial district

Huai Hai Lou – A long street known for shopping

Xu Jai Hui – Another historic district where Electronics could be found

We only made it to one of those, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be back in Shanghai sometime. IBM’s presence there continues to grow.

The shoot went well as we captured two executives talking about mobile computing and how countries like China and India are ‘leap frogging’ western adaptation of mobile without having had a ‘PC’ revolution.  You’ll have to tune into the webcast to learn more about all that.

After set-up, we had some time for Paul to go to street level to shoot some B-roll.

There was a language barrier with the rest of the Chinese crew, but they were each bringing a positive, can-do attitude.  We noticed a certain colonial-era condescension born of frustration from our SF friend when our lighting person seemed to think they’d left a key component back at the shop.  Phone calls back to the rental house and directions to have it delivered ASAP were all for naught as it was discovered that we did in fact have the part.   Having things go wrong like that was said to be the norm (snafu’s), but things always work out and get done.  Roads are paved overnight, like clockwork.  People are marshaled and big things happen quickly, but the lack of attention to details drives this Westerner nuts.

The make-up person used the more studio-normal ‘liquid pancake’ technique that works well under hotter lights. I prefer powder when able, but that’s best with a softer lighting environment.

Both of our on-camera IBM subjects delivered beautifully and we were able to wrap up by 1PM or so.  Again, our lack of Chinese proved a problem in letting taxi attendants and drivers know where to take us, but Paul had the ingenious idea of using the Chinese address on the back of the card key to get us back to the hotel.  We had a quick hotel lunch (somewhat bland Wonton Soup with too many Raman noodles for me) and naps.  I was able to take a sauna and steam, and wished I’d brought my suit for the large pool.

In a text, Adam suggested we might stop by the offices of our local production team to discuss the partnership relationship I’d mentioned I’d hoped to cultivate.  This time, I had a text from Adam of the Chinese characters to show the taxi driver.  He took us quickly under two tunnels, through various neighborhoods, to the ‘artsy’ district where, above a photography shop, the 29 person production company resides.  Comprised of expats from a wide range of countries, they represent videography, editing, animation and audio support that I’m expecting will form the basis of our Shanghai production capabilities.

One of the company’s principles, Thomas, spent a half hour with us discussing ways in which we can work with them to support opportunities from both US and China-based multi-nationals.   An impressive team.  Great for business long term, but it cut into our daylight b-roll time.

Thankfully, the area just behind their shop, Tianzifang, is a unique historic district where near-claustrophobic alleyways feature small, attractive shops and enticing bars and cafes.  Oh, to be here with my life partner to really shop.  I nearly made twenty different impulse buys – the prices were low, the hand made quality undeniable.  ‘NO PHOTOS’ posted (we were warned they’d take your camera away), but I and other tourists took a few quick shots anyway.  Completely unique and charming.

We took a cab during rush hour to The Bund District, taking video along the way, arriving at the pier area just after sunset.  I wish I’d been able to get a shot of that large statue of Mao.   The riverside boardwalk is the largest I’ve seen… like the one in Brooklynn times a hundred.  Huge.  Grand.  Someone had a brilliant vision and was able to apply millions of people’s talents to make that happen.

It had been suggested that we visit the rooftop of the Roosevelt Hotel for a great view.  The impressive Victorian stone building was beautifully appointed, and, though the dining room looked opulent and the food smelled great on the way up to the rooftop bar, the $15/each beers persuaded us to find another place for dinner.  There was a business conference (name tags are a sure giveaway) of mixed westerners, but the music was loud Miami beach out of an amazing Bose speaker system.  We took shots of the panoramic cityscape in front of us with the beautifully lit skyscrapers and funky blinking ships cruising between the barges on the wide river.

We agreed we were truly fortunate to be able to visit this place at this time in history; to see something that most can only dream about.  The 21st is truly China’s century.  One only need stand atop the Roosevelt hotel after dark to see that.

We strolled past the historic, stone-columned ‘Custom House’ as a few beautiful, very healthy looking young women discretely whispered, “Massage?”

We hoofed it hungrily through city streets and avoided a couple foul smelling places, opting to leave one establishment that looked full of locals on the ground floor, but, when they took us to our Westerner’s isolation on the second floor, it gave us too much time to realize the place wasn’t clean and the smell became stronger than the desire for authenticity.

Soon, we found just what we were looking for:  though too bright, this place offered the ‘real deal’, with pleasant, albeit inattentive service.  We were the only Caucasions and the four plasma TV’s played nationalistic salutes to the military and patriotism.  I enjoyed sharing this photo via MMS and email with Tom and our transcriptionist…

We ordered: (clockwise from upper left) hot n sour soup, eel paste, green beans with hot pepper and garlic, and kung pao chicken.  The soup tasted much like authentic Boston China Town, but a bit ‘earthier’.  The eel paste was somewhat odd at first, but grew on me. Even Paul didn’t think it was half bad with its chewy little eel morsels in a semi-sweet sauce.  We both loved the green beans, a simple mix of very fresh beans, garlic and red pepper, al dente.   The chicken was also similar to a real deal China Town place, simple tender cubes with peanuts with a not overly sweet sauce.  We could have used some white rice, bud didn’t know how to ask for it.  I couldn’t finish the large beer, so Paul finished it for me.

We went for a long stroll after dinner toward what looked on the map to be an interesting tourist area featuring the Shanghai Town God’s Temple.

Toy helicopters were being shot off and descending all around us.  Deals were being attempted even before we knew what they were selling.  “How much you pay?”  “Only hundred each.”  I did my best to ignore them, but Paul was too nice to a street salesman who followed us for at least a full city block and from whom Paul ultimately haggled (your supposed to) a price of 70 Yuan (about 10 dollars) for two sets of light-up roller skates for his kids.   I bought a funky flexible small camera tripod for about five dollars.

The lit traditional temple-like buildings provided a great shopping and people watching area (auto free) that allowed us to wander amongst thousands of happy, mostly Chinese tourists.  Colorful lighting displays augmented the plaza areas and the whole effect was one of an exotic, modern Asian street fair.   Everyone could get their favorite food or an affordable toy.  People considered this a special, happy place.

It never stopped seeming odd to me that each family consisted of only one child.  We saw a few European-looking dogs being walked on the streets, with a couple off-leash.  Generally clean streets.

We laughed as one bicycle cart – with two riders – was loaded to the sky with boxes like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

We made our way West toward the river where we thought we’d have a better chance at finding a taxi.  As we progressed, I notice there were more single men walking through this upscale neighborhood.   Was he just cruising me?

Then, as we approached a hotel where taxis seemed to be stopping, there was a block where two or three men approached us with, “Massage?”   One particularly aggressive hustler seemed very eager to help Paul find a taxi.   We were in fact having a bit of difficulty as two older drivers with poor eye sight were unable to read the small print on the back of the hotel key.  After ultimately finding a young, 20-20-enabled driver, I noticed the young poser now leaning provocatively against the light post, like a scene from Christopher Street circa 1979.   Paul was completely non-plussed.

Sleep came easily, although, comparing notes the next morning at our last luxurious breakfast, we found that neither of us had slept more than three or four hours at a time.  Paul had gotten up around four that morning and run through the city. I again had micro managed from a distance, trying not to let the distance be a delayed response to my clients.  Next time, I’ll have a base ops person identified, but this trip, all at home were already pretty busy.

The forty minute taxi to the airport cost less than $30US and, again, I was struck by the grandeur of the construction projects.   The hundred thousand unit condo cities being built on the outskirts of Shanghai, the long, tall streetlamp-lined, straight-as-can-be highway leading into the airport.  Master visions, master plans, masterfully executed.   Coming into Terminal Two, we noticed that there were in fact two huge mirror terminals connected by a grand hotel.  Check in and security were painless.

Changing planes in Tokyo, I was able to send some email (love Boingo Hot Spots) and try Unagi (eel) sushi locally.  Of course, best ever.  Not from a packet.

Toward the end of our 12 hour flight from Tokyo to DC, after watching a sampling of Weeds episodes I’d missed from not having Showtime, I tuned in to Smash, the Glee for adults.  I lucked into seeing Katherine McPhee’s amazing performance of Run.   I’d always loved the song, but her interpretation is magnificent.  Go ahead.  Click the link.  She’s lip syncing of course.  But even Keith Richard lip synced a few times.   

With this song as a backdrop, having finished a breakfast that gives credence to the claim that in-flight meals have in fact reached a new plateau (a spinach and cheese omelet with a hint of tomato sauce, not-so-soggy hash browns and a hot-dog sized Viennese sausage), I watched the three or four flight attendants assigned to my side of the plane work in concert together to clear the empty trays.  I try to avoid superlatives, but never before have I witnessed a more in-tune flight crew.   So often, travelers sit and wait for the overly tired servers pushing the cart back to clear their trashed trays, usually taking 15 to 20 minutes to finally let us get on with our self-destraction.  Not this team.  I could tell they didn’t want their guests to sit with their trays any longer than they’d like.  What an impression they made on me.

Perhaps it was a combination of the long journey with the song that gave soundtrack to their ballet, but seeing these attendants tending to us as if they actually enjoyed serving…  well, it opened the floodgates of my tears.  No lie.  I cried watching a United flight crew work well together.  Great coordinated service – like the first time you hear a beautifully written song interpreted well by a cohesive group of performers – can do that for me.  I can only hope our customers get a fraction of that sense when they watch our team working together.

On my final trip to the restroom, I was able to tell one of the crew that they’d made me cry.  I could tell she was touched and she promised to share the compliment with her fellow crew members.  “Yeah, this is a good team.  We’ve all pretty much worked together over the years.”  They were more mature than most crews, lead by a fifty something Latin gentleman; more ‘old school’ perhaps.  But, as I told her, I haven’t seen coordinated service like that since a high end Mexico City restaurant.

A quick and easy immigration-luggage transfer process in DC, before catching a small commuter jet back to JFK.  It was here I believe that I realized that, when you’re standing at baggage claim waiting for your bag, you become the bag.  “Here I am!”  Just like in golf.  “Yep.  That’s you over there”.  Are we in fact our luggage?  That’s a whole other blog.

Finally, a short, not so jet-lagged ride home to New London.  90 hours or so door to door.   Easy.

Who says business travel can’t be rewarding – even as an end to itself?   It separates the cry babies from the merely emotional; gives patience a new name; ensures you must be comfortable in your own skin, in your own assigned seat, occupying your own thoughts for hours on end, drifting in and out of meditation and sleep as you wish, with no place to go but home – or to places we once only read about or saw on TV.  Either direction, I enjoy the journey.

Special thanks to Paul for being such an easy travel companion; to Monica and Santiago for facilitating our visas; to Michelle for coordinating shoot logistics; and most of all to the love of my life, Tom, for arranging the perfect travel details.   Thank you all for making this one truly memorable excursion!

Chip’s Business Travel Tips

Well, I can’t say I invented them, but I can attest to their benefits.  This is your bonus for being good readers and so I’m rewarding you with these 30 nuggets of wisdom.  Perhaps leave a comment with your own tip.  These have not been put in chronological order – feel free to do that for me and send it back if you’d like – and I’ll repost it. I can do that.  It’s WordPress.

1. Find out beforehand if the flight will have a meal.  Don’t count on it.  Peanuts and pretzels do not a meal make. The to-go sandwiches near the gates have generally gotten better.  If you can find sushi, go for it!  It’ll make everyone jealous and you’ll feel mentally stronger for the flight.

2. Set your watch to the destination’s time zone as the plane is taking off.  Start thinking of yourself in that time zone.

3. If you have a window seat, keep the window closed after take-off to keep yourself in your upcoming time zone.  They’re making people keep the window down during long flights after lights have been dimmed now anyway.

4. Turn the air on and direct it to your face so you can get a bit more oxygen and lessen that stuffed-in-the-can-like-sardines feeling.  Think of it as your personal spa treatment.  And it’ll help quell any defacatory invasions to your olfactory zone.

5. Drink lots of water on long flights.  Pick up a bottle before getting on the plane or use the free drinking fountains at the gate.  I’ve never gotten sick from a drinking fountain.

6. Do your best to get an aisle seat, no matter how far back in the plane, so you can get up, walk around and stretch out at least every two to three hours.  If you don’t have an aisle seat, don’t hesitate to let the person next to you know you need to get out.  Don’t suffer for them.  When possible, go when others go.

7. I have a trick for unblocking my ears during decent where I block my nose and blow gently into my ears, but I would suggest doing it carefully as it might destroy your ear drums.  In fact, scratch that.  I didn’t say anything about that.

8. Keep shifting your butt in your seat. It’s easy for it to fall asleep without you knowing it.

9. Don’t be afraid to touch the elbow of the person next to you.  When in doubt, use the arm rest, but be willing to share.  Try not to just give it up to be nice.  I’ve never had an elbow war, but a couple times I have given up the arm rest if the person is obese.  The person is already miserable sitting in that seat – it’s the least you can do… but in the absence of obesity, it’s as much your arm rest as theirs.

10. See if your seat has the head rest that is flexible.  If you can bend it and rest an ear on one side, you’ll get less stiff neck syndrome.  If you do get a stiff neck, just gently roll and stretch it out.  You get more used to it the more you travel.  Learning to sleep sitting up is a rewarding accomplishment.

11. Suggest to the person next to you that they can feel free to tap your elbow if you start to embarrass yourself by snoring.

12. Bring a long book and don’t hesitate to turn on your overhead light.  They’ll deal with it.

13. For security, wear easily slip on – slip off shoes (like in Up in the Air) and (if you’re not wearing a sport jacket), put your wallet, mobile, watch, keys and anything else in your pocket into your carry on bag with your mobile on top, keeping your boarding pass in a secure pocket as you walk through security.  Yes, some airports no longer require you to have it, but you’ll know where it is when you get to the other side and can check your gate info.

14. I know I’m old fashioned, but I like to dress up a bit for the flight. If you’re a guy, consider wearing a sport jacket.  You can always take it off, but the extra pockets are more secure.  Flight attendants treat you with more respect and, it hasn’t happened for a while, but you’ll likely be the first one bumped up to first class if there’s an extra seat.  Well, a guy can hope.

15. Be sure to be registered for any points you can get.  I’m not as fastidious as I should be.  Thankfully, I have people who help me with that.  Perhaps find a person who has a vested interest in sharing your points with you.

16. Use GoogleMaps and Starred Places for as many places you know you’ll be going before leaving the States.  You never know how much coverage you’ll get in any new location until you get there.

17. Before going to another country, update your phone’s global roaming.  Zero and pound out of the VRU (Voice Response Unit – my first impulse is always zero pound) and talk to a live person.  You’ll sleep better the night before.

18. Don’t drink a lot of coffee or alcohol if you want to keep your equilibrium and avoid jet lag.

19. If you get nervous about flying, do the crossword puzzle in the inflight magazine.  Or look at the route maps and think positive thoughts of all those flights multiplied by a thousand airlines multiplied by 365 days in a year of flights traveling these routes successfully around the globe, and you’ll realize that it would be hubris to think that YOUR flight would be the one to have a major problem.  More people die from shoveling snow than plane crashes.

20. Think of the baby crying behind you as if it were your own and you were the poor parent trying to just make it through this one flight so she can see her grandma for the first time.  Or consider trying to channel the primal scream therapy.  And remember, you cried like a baby at one time in your life as well.  Don’t blame the parents.  They do their best.  If you have a solution, share it.  Otherwise, deal with it.

21. Be open to learning something unique from the person sitting next to you, but don’t impose yourself.   And don’t be afraid to show disinterest if you’re not sensing a connection.  If the conversation and mutual interest is there, you’ll know it.  Just remember, you’ll likely never see this person again, so it’s often a good chance to get an objective opinion on something that might have been weighing on your mind.  Don’t take it personally if they don’t want to talk.  And don’t feel obliged to do so.  I’ve met some of my best role models at 30,000 feet.

22. Never get into an unmetered cab.  Get a receipt from the cab driver unless it’s on a credit card.

23. I check one bag. Sure, you can compact yourself and carry it on in one unit, but I like to be unburdened in the long trek to the gate and in the restaurant before boarding.  It’s been a long time since a bag’s not made it, knock wood.

24. Consider putting the ‘do not disturb’ sign outside your room after you leave if staying more than one night so the room cleaner doesn’t come in.  You’ll feel less entitled and more at home.  Yes, you can use the same towel twice and hang it to dry.  Still give them the tip you would for multiple days because you’ve shed just as much skin as if they’d cleaned it daily.

25. Try to avoid room service.  It’s expensive, and stinks up and messes up the room.

26. Don’t beat yourself up for forgetting to leave a tip for housekeeping, but try to leave extra tip the next time.  Most people are chincy.   Tip!   Karma.

27. Find some way to enjoy local music whenever possible.  Try the local food. Think of the things you ‘can’t get at home’.

28. Don’t forget your bathing suit.  Sometimes you’ll have time for a swim.

29. Use an ATM machine to get cash when you get off the plane.  They’re safe and usually have the best exchange rates.  Avoid the change offices – bad exchange rates and high fees.

30. Try to create an itinerary that might allow for your travel to be interrupted.  You might have to sit on the runway too long and miss your connecting flight.   Weather delays.  Any number of things can and do happen.  Thankfully, delays are not the norm.  And sometimes they’ll throw you a cookie if they really mess up your plans.

Please feel free to send this link to anyone you know.