Eat Our Words: A Lion, Trafalgar Square, AI Poetry and Wordsmithie

Es Devlin AI

It’s not every day that one can wander the streets of London and stumble upon a lion. Less likely still is the chance that the lion in question can generate poetry more or less on demand. And yet in early September that’s exactly what Londoners were treated to in Trafalgar Square.

Part of the London Design Festival, the four lions that flank Nelson’s Column, a key architectural feature of the Square, were joined by a fifth for several days. Created by designer Es Devlin, the lion was designed to generate a collective poem using machine learning technology. Passersby could feed the lion words via a Chromebook, but the lion was already programmed through a neural network to know 25 million words of 19th century poetry, inspired by the era during which the original lions were cast. The result? Lines of poetry that often read like artifacts from a bygone era, but containing words that are very much of the moment. A few funny examples:

My antidisestablishmentarianism shows with strength to the soul
The sea is still the day

and

A marijuana lifts the garden floor
While the red sea is strewn with blue between

In a larger sense, though, it showed us the power of AI in the creative industry.

Devlin was inspired by the passivity of the four lions that are traditionally at the base of the Column. Rumor has it that the lions, which are crouched very much like tame house cats, were supposed to look much more fierce, but Queen Victoria preferred a less shocking aesthetic. The fifth lion’s mouth was open, as if roaring. When fed with words, lines of poetry would appear in its mouth and, at night, on its body and on the Column itself. The project thus not only shows a supremely creative application of AI, but how humans can interact with it to very interesting results. And, of course, it gave the more amenable lions a fierce counterpart that could work wonders with words. (Not unlike our ‘Smithies here at the agency…)

The project was undertaken by Google Arts and Culture and The Space, a digital commissioning body which is dedicated to providing access to the arts through digital technologies.

We at Wordsmithie fed the lion in person as well as online. Our team fed the lion over 20 words, and received back several lines of poetry, which you can read below.

The seraphim and song of the dead man’s song
The sun and sun are still the paths of day

Our abolition streams were shed
Where are the paths the stars of song did stray

My diversity the glad and sweet desires
Of song and spruce and strife

Lavender through the sunny moon
The stream is fresh and fair


ABOUT Khaleelah Jones

Khaleelah Jones is a digital marketing consultant who has worked with tech startups, educational institutions and non-profits on acquisition and engagement strategy, implementation and KPI modeling. When she’s not working, she can be found reading, writing, pontificating history, yoga-ing and making up verbs.


Formula 1, Airbnb and the Power of Logos

the power of logos

It’s not every day that graphic design makes the front page, at least at least not as the topic for discussion.

Uber’s made the news again recently, with yet another new logo—their fourth in recent years. Dunkin’ Donuts just announced that they are dropping “Donuts” from their well-known logo. Even the Ad Council replaced its iconic logo; it’s the organization’s first significant branding update in 75 years.

But there are two reworked logos that continue to generate buzz, well after their introductions: those of Formula 1 and Airbnb.

Formula One logos

Formula 1, or F1, is the highest level of single-seat auto racing, and one of the most popular spectator sports on the planet. If you were to think “race car,” it’s a Formula 1 car that you’d most likely picture. F1 enjoys huge success in much of the world and has a particularly passionate following amongst its fans. And, when F1 decided to rebrand after twenty-three years, F1 fans got angry.

The release of the new F1 logo coincided with the departure of long-time (and controversial) chief executive Bernie Ecclestone, and was intended to usher in a new era for the brand. The logo was also introduced to render better across new media platforms than what F1 had been using. Specifically, the feathered red “motion” element of the previous F1 logo didn’t translate well when displayed digitally.

But the new logo wasn’t the old one that F1 fans had grown to love. Some of the criticisms of the new F1 logo are that it is “simple,” “amateurish,” “derivative,” and “lacks energy.” That it doesn’t “scream F1.” The logo’s creators have defended their work by saying that it projects a sense of “speed, attack, and control,” and that it “locks up” well with both the F1’s new custom typeface and its partner logos. The design community generally defended the new logo, although it recognized that the modernization came at the expense of some brand equity.

Airbnb logos

And, though its fans might lack the fervor of those of F1, Airbnb—the hugely popular online lodging marketplace, is a brand force as well. When its new logo was released, it received many of the same criticisms that F1’s did. That it’s “derivative, “boring,” and “basic.” Some claimed that it was copied from a book of logos published in 1988. Others pointed out that it appeared to be a dead ringer of an existing logo of a company called Automation Anywhere (that company’s since changed their mark). The new Airbnb logo quickly became the talk of online forums like Reddit, too, but for an entirely different reason. As one commenter put it, “[the new Airbnb logo] manages to abstract all of the private parts into one.”

But, original or not (and unlike with F1’s new logo), the popular consensus seems to be that Airbnb’s new logo is a huge improvement over the old, and more befitting of the company’s newfound stature. The graffiti-ish mark that Airbnb had used previously was reportedly created on a napkin in a matter of minutes by one of the company founders, and was never really seen by most as a serious attempt at branding.

So, what’s next, then, for these designs and for the companies they represent?

 

Graphic design in popular culture and in the mainstream press is something to be celebrated.

 

As of this writing, F1 is locked in a trademark battle with the 3M Corporation, the Minnesota manufacturer of Scotch tape and Post-it notes, who argues that the new F1 logo is too similar to that of its Futuro brand of “compression legwear products.” F1, however, continues to thrive under its new leadership and reportedly has no plans to change their logo.

Airbnb is still the darling of its industry, despite weathering regular controversy, and continues to be hugely successful; it saw record revenues of close to $2.6 billion dollars last year, from a staff of only 3100 employees.

Both F1 and Airbnb will almost certainly continue to find success for the foreseeable future, controversial logos or not. As will Uber, the Ad Council, and Dunkin (Donuts). One could argue that any publicity is good publicity, and that all the buzz surrounding their new logos has only helped the companies’ bottom lines. I’d argue that any discussion of graphic design in popular culture and in the mainstream press is something to be celebrated, particularly discussion as spirited as this: it proves the power of logos.


ABOUT Ryan Bahrke

One of Wordsmithie's senior designers, Ryan has more than 15 years of experience in creative direction and management, working with companies like Google, Quantcast, RSM, Navigant, Starbucks, and Ace Hotel. Ryan is the principal of Auslander Creative in Denver.


Genius vs. Everybody Else: How Better Content Works for the 99%

good content

I’m convinced there are two types of creators in this world: genius ones and everybody else. By my estimation, 99% of us fall into the latter category, myself very much included. As such, we must play by different rules.

You see, 1% genius talent (or creators) are so good and so talented at what they do, they can release only one or two remarkable things and reach millions of people. That’s what makes them genius. They’re so… breakthrough, if you will, that a limited release schedule cannot keep them grounded.

Laura Hillenbrand, one of my favorite non-fiction authors, is the perfect example of this. Seemingly out of nowhere, this writer from Virginia published her first book, Seabiscuit, in 2001. It’s incredibly well researched, beautifully told, and wholly inspiring. Two years later, it was made into an Academy Award-nominated movie.

In 2010, Hillenbrand released her second, arguably even better, book, Unbroken, which was also made into a major motion picture. Both books combined have sold over 13 million copies and enjoy a perfect 5-star rating on Amazon from tens of thousands of reader reviews. Aside from a few obscure magazine articles, that’s all Hillenbrand has produced to date.

She’s that good.

You and I aren’t, dear reader. If we want to reach the widest possible audience, we cannot release just one or two things like Hillenbrand or other genius talent. We must abide by different rules. The good news is the rules involve only two components that are easily explained with a single sentence. It is as follows:

 

Good content published regularly wins.

 

That’s it. To reach and engage your audience, you don’t need great or otherwise genius content. But you do need compelling, interesting, relevant, and timely content. That’s what I mean by good content.

And unlike genius creators, you must publish regularly. What’s regular? In my experience, it’s at least once or twice a week for moderate growth, several times weekly or even daily for hyper growth. Only then can you break through a very noisy market to stay top of mind in the battle for audience mindshare.

Other than that, there’s no secret sauce or special algorithms you must crack. ChuChu TV is a great example of this. Five years ago, the upstart YouTube channel had only a few thousand subscribers. Today, the channel enjoys more than 20 million views—that’s four times the number as “Sesame Street.”

ChuChu TV accomplished this by publishing good content (as deemed by toddlers) with regularity. No tricks, or keyword stuffing, or magic. Just good content published regularly.

Will you reach millions of people like Hillenbrand or ChuChu TV? Probably not. But that’s not the point. You can reach thousands and increase your chances of reaching millions, but only if you play by the rules. Only if you publish good content regularly. When that happens, you will correspondingly increase your repeat buys, first-time buys, subscriptions, comments, shares and views.

Don’t overthink it. When it comes to reaching wider audiences, speak their language with good content published regularly.


ABOUT Blake Snow

Blake Snow contributes to fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a seasoned writer-for-hire. He lives in Provo, Utah with his supportive family and loyal dog and is thrilled you read this far.


The Art of Suspense in Business Storytelling

storytelling

Stories. Suddenly, everyone is telling them. Chief marketing officers want to hire, not just writers, but storytellers. Multinational corporations now have chief storytelling officers. Nike. Virgin. Accenture, Microsoft, Google, SAP, and Salesforce, among others. The most popular TED talks are really just stories in disguise.

Everyone is jumping onto the bandwagon. Do a quick Google search and you’ll get plenty of listicles of “5 Essential Tips For Business Storytelling,” and “How To Tell A Great Business Story.” These articles trot out the usual platitudes:

-Yes, human brains are wired to hear, process, and remember stories

-Yes, if executives told stories rather than presenting their ubiquitous PPT decks, they’d engage audiences more fully

-Yes, authenticity is key to good storytelling

And so on. These platitudes are not untrue, they’re just not especially …helpful… when you’re trying to write a story.

Suspense is the heart of story

No one talks about the main ingredient of a true story. That ingredient is suspense.

 

Suspense is foundational. Without it, you don’t have a story. 

 

And you certainly don’t have an engaged audience.

The reason you need suspense is that you have to keep your audience wondering what will happen next. If you don’t, you lose them. Period.

I’ll let someone much wittier take over here. The English writer E.M. Forster gave a brilliant series of lectures on writing at Trinity College, Cambridge, back in 1927. He said that the need for suspense goes back to the very origins of humanity—and cautioned about the risk to storytellers who don’t wield the weapon of suspense skillfully:

“Neanderthal man listened to stories, if one may judge by the shape of his skull. The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping around the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or the wooly rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The writer droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him.”

Today’s business audiences are more likely to yawn and check their phones if suspense is missing from a story. But Forster’s basic premise about human behavior hasn’t changed for hundreds of thousands of years.

How to create suspense

And here I’ll save you $50,000 and two years earning your MFA in fiction-writing by telling you how to create suspense. How to make your listener hang onto every word you say or write.

First, let’s analyze suspense. What is its literary definition? Partial knowledge that something of dramatic significance is about to happen.

In other words, you tell your audience some things—but not others—about what’s going to happen in your story. You hint (there are many ways to do this) that you will reveal something important soon. You have them hanging onto your words to find out what that something is.

It’s important to note here that suspense is different from surprise. Surprise is when the boogey man jumps out of your closet. Suspense is when you’re alone in a quiet house and hear the floorboards creak downstairs. Partial knowledge.

Or, to put a business spin on it, suspense is the time leading up to a major product release, when you tease your audience by giving them tidbits about problems in development, feuds among your teams, seemingly insurmountable technical barriers, etc. You’re giving them partial knowledge and they know it is leading up to a dramatic event: the success (or failure) of the release. They are on edge, intensively interested in finding out what happens next.

See how much more interesting that is than simply saying, “It took us longer than we thought, but we finally got Widget 2.0 to market”?

Of course, there are variants and twists on suspense. If we are only motivated to continue reading (or listening) to stories because of suspense, why are articles (or books) about people or events about which we already know the ending still so satisfying (think of recent best-sellers Steve Jobs or The Big Short)?

Ah, good question class! But that’s the subject of a different blog. This is complicated terrain. But well worth exploring.


ABOUT Alice LaPlante

Alice LaPlante was a Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, and taught writing at Stanford for more than 20 years. She is the award-winning New York Times best-selling author of four novels, and wrote The Making of a Story, the best-selling textbook on writing published by W.W. Norton. Alice also is also a sought-after content writer, strategist, and story consultant for leading technology firms.


Become a Virtual Chat Champ

virtual chat

There are dozens and dozens of articles out there on how to optimize your next video conference call—yet most of the best practices, tricks and tips you’ll come across are focused on the technical aspects of the virtual chat (VC). But what about the chat itself? And by “chat” I mean YOUR voice and delivery style.

How can we showcase our best selves while on a (yes, still clunky) device? What tricks and tips help us shine across wifi? How can we do more to connect with our virtual audiences? Here are a few tips.

Mind your vocal quality

Our devices have a hard time picking up the high tones and the low tones of our speech, making it mission critical that you project your best voice, and that you do it as clearly as possible. This means slowing down your speaking rate, enunciating (without sounding like a pronunciation guide = tricky biz), talking directly into your device’s speaker, and probably speaking a bit louder than you normally would when addressing a group in person.

Pro Tip: Sit up tall and straight-backed on the front third of your chair, or stand up to help propel your voice forward. Your breathing controls your vocal quality and when you allow for greater airflow (i.e., not being hunched over on a couch), it will be easier to project.

Your voice is your tool for showcasing your team’s great ideas. Use that tool to punctuate, highlight, and underline key language and concepts you wish to emphasize. It’s not just the language you choose—your ideas need to be seen to be understood. Your voice should transmit the energy you wish to instill in your listeners, especially if you want them to act upon your recommendations.

Pro  Tip: Pauses are punctuation. Using pauses effectively can assist in underlining and emphasizing key points, and also provide your listeners time to absorb your main messages (while also giving you a chance to think about the next ideas you hope to share).

Pro Tip: When you smile while speaking, your vocal quality brightens, your pitch elevates just a bit, and your audience is more apt to pay attention because you sound (and are!) excited about your content.

Make personal connections

Every conversation is an opportunity to connect with your audience—even if there are 20 people on the VC. Refer to your colleagues on the call by name, and often. This practice drives attention. People will be more engaged if they are cued for a potential call-out, which they will be when you pepper your talk with “As Ximena mentioned earlier…” and “MaryWynn had a great idea about…” Including people in the body of your talk keeps them—and everyone else—more engaged.

Pro Tip: Making personal connections throughout a more structured talk (both on- and off-line) allows you to add a more conversational flair, which puts both you and your audience at ease and enables your main messages to resonate and stick.

Made for video: showcase your best self

Many of us turn off the camera when on a conference call—for all the obvious reasons—but this practice actually separates you from your audience and can lead to them checking out (beyond the mute button). To hold their attention while on a VC, look directly at the camera so it appears you’re looking directly at your audience. Avoid reading too much from notes, slides, or other visual support.

Pro Tip: When planning your talk, focus on using short, direct sentences. If you must use notes, try key-word outline format so you don’t get lost reading full text.

Remember that the VC is a conversation. You’re there to gain your audience’s attention and provide an engaging introduction to the discussion or Q&A period. And remember to stay immersed throughout that portion of the VC, too. It’s tricky business, but with practice (and, yes, you should practice presenting on video before a big call) you’ll feel more comfortable and less fidgety during the real deal.


ABOUT Eve Connell

Eve spends most billable hours writing, editing and helping professionals of all stripes with communication skills and leadership development. With degrees in French literature, philosophy, and linguistics, she also enjoys helping businesses and entrepreneurs develop their brands. Fancying herself a successful worm rancher, singer and flower arranger, Eve also lends her talent and expertise to several non-profit arts and educational organizations.