Future of Context: Getting the Bigger Picture Online (SXSW Recap)

Jay Rosen, NYU
Matt Thompson, NPR
Tristan Harris, Apture founder and CEO
Staci D. Kramer (Moderator), ContentNext Media /paidContent


This was one of the most intriguing, thoughtful panels I’ve ever been to. NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen wrote about how they prepared for and ran the panel, and their work really paid off in a terrific presenatation:

Putting the story puzzle pieces togetherDefinition of Context: Something that precedes or comes right after what you’re talking about.

Thompson asked “How do we encounter news?”

Chances are that what you’re hearing about healthcare reform is episodic. It’s hard to keep track of. Constant, torrential.
We sell you quantity and newness of headlines – every time you go to NY Times home page, you expect to see new headlines that were updated just minutes ago.

We believe that over time, all these headlines will cohere into real knowledge. But evidence indicates this is actually debilitating. So we start gravitating to things we don’t really need an attention span for. So….

We need a larger framework and system to organize all these episodic bits. Create an intellectual framework and systemic information.

This is good for readers, but also for news producers. CONTEXT SELLS!! This American Life’s financial crisis reporting – “The Giant Pool of Money” has been enormously popular.


Rosen asked “What is the future of the timeless web?” Rosen: I’m a pragmatist. We advance when we have a really good problem.

“In order for news to be informative, people need to be informable,” Rosen said. We can’t receive updates to software that was never installed.

After listening to This American Life’s financial crisis series, Rosen “found myself following financial news with ease.” Read the rest of this entry »

How to Create a Viral Video (SXSW Recap)

I was a bit skeptical about this panel and really hoped it wouldn’t be some jaded, corporate strategry on manufacturing something that in reality is difficult to capture. Well, I had nothing to worry about.

YouTube’s Margaret Gould Stewart joined TED Talks Director of Film and Video Jason Wishnow and Damian Kulash, he of the OK Go and Treadmills viral video fame. The session was the perfect blend of informative and entertaining.

Some of the big points:

  • “Viral” doesn’t have to mean 10 million views. It’s people responding to a clip and feeling compelled to share it. The numbers may be different for everybody. Try your best to set a goal, and see what happens. TED hoped to get 40,000 views on their first video. Now their talks have been watched 230 million times!
  • Match the style to your content and purpose. TED Talks need high production values, mutltiple angles and close ups to help make the lectures come alive on camera. But the low-budget, single-camera approached was important for the first OK Go videos because that was unusual for a music video and made it clear the band made it themselves. It felt more personal and helped fans connect with them.
  • Most common traits of viral videos: Inspiration, surprise, a sense of wonder, clever and POSITIVE. “People don’t really like sharing negative stuff,” Stewart said.
  • Kulash says internet communities have a “permeable wall,” so this means you should involve your community by hosting shoot-offs, inviting or linking to parodies, holding contests, etc.
  • You don’t have to always create content–you can be a curator too, like Fail Blog.
  • Wishnow says there is no one way to reach your audience. You have to be “platform agnostic.” TED posts videos on their own site, YouTube, iTunes and many others.
  • Emededibility is key. On average, during the first 48 hours a video is posted on YouTube, half of its traffic is from people watching it on some other site. Bloggers want to keep people on their own site, so they’re most likely to share a video they can embed.
  • Your video’s title and meta-data are just as important as SEO on Google. Wishnow suggests adjusting your title for a video based on didfferent audiences and platforms.
  • Make something people want to watch multiple times. The average viewer watched Ok Go’s new “This Too Shall Pass – Rube Goldberg Machine version” video (below) 4-5 times.

The panel’s favorite viral videos:

Kulash said they had a team of 60 engineers working on this video for months. It took 65 takes, and they only got all the way through the sequence successfully 3 times.


I think this one definitely has the element of surprise. Read the rest of this entry »

Conducting Great Interviews (SXSW Recap)

Check the #greatinterviewsadvice hashtag on Twitter for more on this session.

University of Kansas Professor Nancy Baym led an interactive session about conducting great interviews, whether for broadcast, print or recruiting. Some of the points were pretty standard, but overall it was a helpful discussion. Some main points:

  • “What questions should I ask?” is not the first step in prepping for an interview.
  • You have to understand who you’re interviewing, but also what audience the interview is for.
  • Design questions with a story arc in mind.
  • If crowdsourcing questions (i.e. “What would you like me to ask They Might Be Giants”) – make sure your crowd matches the audience the interview is for. Don’t ask fanboys to give you questions for an interview that’s meant for a general audience.
  • Don’t call it an interview – say ‘I’d like to talk to you about ______” or “Let’s have a discussion.” Often less intimidating.
  • Dry questions elicit dry answers. “What do you love about your job?” will probably pull out more passion from someone than “What’s the best part of your job?”
  • Give people a chance to tell stories. Rather than ask “Are you a self-starter?” try “Tell me about a time when you had to build something from the ground up.”
  • If you’ve noticed someone often repeats themselves in interviews, pull out one nugget from one of those interviews and ask them to elaborate and expand on that point. This will help get new answers.
  • Instead of e-mail interviews, consider an online chat. Real time back and forth, and you’ve got a transcript of the interview built in.

I asked the crowd to share their favorite all-time interview questions and got some great responses: Read the rest of this entry »

Visual Note-Taking 101 (SXSW Recap)

“Make a damn mark–a blank page is always terrifying.” –Visual note-taker Austin Kleon

Visual Note-Taking 101 was the perfect follow-up to Dan Roam’s Why Words Won’t Work session. The session kicked off with free sketch books (pictured left) and tons of enthusiasm from panelists Kleon, Sunni Brown, Mike Rohde and Dave Gray. They each have impressive drawing portfolios, but Brown tried to demystify it for the drawing newbies in the audience.

“It’s actually not that sophisticated. It just looks like it is when you’re finished.”

Each panelist took a turn offering basic tips to get started taking visual notes:

  • Use bullets, frames and dividers to break up the page and organize information. (“Bullets are for guns AND sketch notes,” Kleon quipped.)
  • Tie your bullets to the theme of the talk. Taking notes on healthcare? Use little red crosses for your bullets.
  • Look at comic book pages for ideas on how to frame a page and call out dialogue.
  • Adding a shadow is a simple way to enhance your drawing and “make it look like you know what you’re doing.”
  • Take notes for yourself–don’t worry about what other people think.
  • Use font size, underlining, etc. to emphasize certain text and create information hierarchy within your notes.
  • You can “sketch” text, not just pictures. Make your words visual. Rohde is a master of this.
  • Slow down when you’re drawing. This helps you filter out the crap you don’t need to write down.
  • Practice! When you’re sitting at the bus stop or the airport, just start drawing the alphabet or straight parallel lines. One established artist the panel mentioned practices drawing the alphabet every day.
  • Develop your own key to call attention to portions of your notes. For example always use an asterisk to note that something is an action item.

My sketch from the session. Rohde explained how to draw text and Gray taught us how to draw people.


Kleon: How to Draw Faces
Gray: How to Draw a Stick Figure

#Viznotes tweets

Dan Roam: Why Words Won’t Work (SXSW Recap)

Roam says you have to talk about an idea and draw it in order to truly understand it.

Dan Roam’s SXSW Interactive talk on visual thinking was far and away a highlight of the conference for me. His book, “The Back of the Napkin,” has been on my reading list for awhile, and it just shot to the top after hearing him speak.

Roam’s central point: EVERYONE is a visual thinker. 75 percent of your brain is devoted to visual processing.

“We are going to save the world by drawing pictures,” Roam told the audience. He argues that drawing pictures can help us solve problems and give shape to new ideas.

What do leaders today do to clarify their ideas? They talk, talk, talk, talk. We’ve come to equate intelligence with our ability to speak. That’s a big mistake.

Standardized testing focuses on math, critical reading and writing. It ignores visual reasoning. But while our educational system may ignore visual thinking as soon as we leave kindergarten, some of the world’s greatest minds keep returning to it. Read the rest of this entry »

Hippies, Idealists and Do-Gooders: SXSW Interactive Wants to Save the World

At the 2009 SXSW Interactive conference, I think I heard the word “monetize” roughly 17 times a day. As in “That kitten is cute, but how can we monetize it? What’s the ROI on scratching its tummy?”

Good grief.

But in 2010, I didn’t hear the word even once. [And the people rejoiced.]

No, this year was all about helping the planet, deepening relationships, telling stories, finding your passion, solving problems and understanding each other. Your basic save-the-world stuff.

Just look at some of these panel titles:

  • How to Spark a Movement in the 21st Century
  • Games for Good
  • Haiti Crisis Camp: Techies Unite for Earthquake Relief
  • Don’t Stop Believin’: Singing our Way to Changing the World
  • RT: I’m Going to Kill Myself. Preventing Suicide Online
  • What Guys are Doing to Get More Girls in Tech!
  • How Nerds Can Foster Democracy in Local Government
  • Kicking Recession Ass With A Killer Company Culture
  • It’s Time to Save the World with Design Thinking

 Even the business sessions seemed to have a heart:

  • Millionaire or Artist? How About Both?
  • Unsexy and Profitable: Making $$ Without Hype
  • The Socially Conscious Geek: Makin’ Money While Doing Good
  • Shameless Self Promotion Without Looking Like an @#$%^&!

 I’m not sure what brought on this shift, but I love it. Read the rest of this entry »

5 Lessons from SXSW Interactive – 1 Year Later

Last year I attended SXSW Interactive for the first time, after being convinced that it’s for more than just web developers and startup gurus. And it was awesome. Exhausting for an introvert like me. But awesome.

Artist Austin Kleon's interpretation of the "Try Making Yourself More Interesting" panel, a standout from SXSW 2009. I'm looking forward to Austin's "Visual Notetaking 101" session this year.

One of the things that I value most is that my SXSW experience managed to hit some high, soaring, inspiration notes while also giving me practical insight and tips. After the conference I reported back to my team at McCombs on my 5 big takeaways. Normally I wouldn’t share year-old notes, but these still influence me and my work on a regular basis, so here goes:

1.) Web site: The Big Picture
Alan Taylor runs the Boston Globe’s “Big Picture” photography blog, and he gave one of my favorite presentations of the conference. It was surprisingly moving–he had the whole room in tears as he explained a photo series of cancer patients–and totally unexpected. For me, this was a quintessential SXSW moment: a passionate person sharing something he cares about and using technology and communication to connect people and move the world forward. And as a magazine and blog editor, it encouraged me to remember the power of great photography and that even business stories can be visually compelling.
2.) Celebrate our Success!
This was a small point made in a panel about agency-client relationships, but it really stuck with me. Too often we are already on to the next thing, and hardly take time to pat ourselves on the back, beyond perhaps a passing “Nice work!” e-mail. We need ritual and ceremony to celebrate the completion of major projects. I’m still working on this one, but I did convince our magazine team to get out of the building for a 30-minute Starbucks break after we published our first issue of a new online version.

3.) People respond to being part of something bigger than themselves
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s keynote was a memorable highlight and Zappos seems to be a model of how to do company culture right. He talked about how for most people, happiness is tied directly to a higher purpose. For that reason, Zappos aims to move employees from job to career to calling.

I’ve tried to keep this in mind as a higher ed staffer. I mean I know we’re dealing with tight budgets, no pay raises, layoffs and unlimited bureaucracy, but it’s not like we’re stuck selling appliances! We are serving instutions that provide enormous opportunity for people and set them on a new life path. We need to tap into that inspriational side of our jobs more often.

4.) Social media allows for accidental learning.
I heard this nugget during a student panel about social media in the classroom, and it has sort of become my guiding principle in how I think about higher education social media. I know our followers and fans don’t read every word we say, but if I can trickle into someone’s news stream and get them to click on a link where they all of a sudden find themselves reading about how to be a better manager or learning about a student’s study abroad trip, then that’s a success.

5.) Be amazed.
I forget who showed this fabulous clip of comedian Louis C.K. complaining to Conan O’Brien that everything is amazing but nobody is happy. Frustrated your cell phone is slow? “Give it a second – it’s going to space!” The in-flight internet is spotty? You had to sit on the runway for 40 minutes? “Oh really, what happened next? Did you partake in the miracle of flight?”

Those words have popped up in my head often when I get pouty about truly insignificant things.

I have no idea what gems await me this year at SXSW Interactive. I’m hoping to engage my creative side and get tips on visual thinking, engage my geek side and check in with some science panels and engage my it’s-good-for-your-job-and-don’t-limit-yourself-it’s-more-interesting-than-you-would-expect side by visiting some business sessions. But whatever I learn, I promise to share here!

Any fellow SXSW attendees out there? Do any of last year’s lessons still resonate with you now? What are you looking forward to this year?

P.S. – A huge thanks to Austin American-Statesman tech reporter Omar Gallaga for including me on his list of 20 people to follow during SXSW Interactive. I’m quite shocked to be included with such a sparkling group, but I will do my best to deliver the goods!

Obsessing Over Esquire’s Brilliant Roger Ebert Profile

Every once in awhile a piece of journalism just grabs hold of you, sinks its teeth in and takes over your soul. And I mean that in the best way possible.

I read Chris Jones’s Esquire magazine profile of Roger Ebert last week, and I still can’t shake it. It was moving, fascinating, funny and heartbreaking. One of those stories that’s impossible to get over.

Four years ago Ebert lost his lower jaw, along with his ability to speak, eat and drink, to cancer. Jones’s profile reveals Ebert’s ongoing recovery battles and thoughts on death and reminds us that Ebert is one hell of a writer.

A few highlights:

Stunning photography. Ok, this is not the work of the author, but Ethan Hill’s close-up portrait of Ebert’s cancer-ravaged face sets the tone for the entire story and tells us immediately that this Roger Ebert is a vastly changed man—at least physically.

An intimate and powerful sense of place. Jones places Ebert in his home, a critics’ screening room, his writing posture, a hospital bed, a neighborhood park, dinner out with his wife and an exhausting work party in downtown Chicago. Jones actually witnessed some of those scenes; the others he is just recreating. But each is filled with electric details and tells an important part of Ebert’s story. It’s also a testament to Jones’s talent as a reporter, not just a writer.

Poetic but grounded language. Jones’s writing is exquisite and artful, but he chooses words that serve the story, not to show off.

A worthy subject. No amount of reporting and wordsmithing can overcome a weak subject. This article is so powerful because Roger warrants our attention. He is an intriguing, talented, thoughtful figure who has experienced enormous tragedy. Jones had the insight to recognize a thoroughly compelling person and the talent to do his story justice.

For another master class on writing, read Ebert’s reaction to the story.

Discovered: Why I Love the Olympics (Video Edition!)

The 2010 Winter Olympics kick off this evening, and I am ready to soak in 2 weeks of sport, endurance, heartbreak, joy and Bob Costas. Let’s do this.

I’ve loved the Olympics for as long as I can remember. One of my all time favorite gifts was the U.S.A gymnastics leotard, ala Mary Lou Retton, that my mom gave me when I was a little girl. Complete with totally inauthentic ribbon wand. But you can bet I rocked that outfit.

When I was much older, but not much different, the 2004 Athens Olympics kept my mom and I company as we spent nearly 24 hours a day in the hospital with my dying grandma. It is no small wonder to be able to become enthralled and sustained by MSNBC’s coverage of men’s water polo at 2 a.m. in a hospital room.

And while I’m truly awestruck by an incredible athlete performing at the highest level–Michael Phelps, Kerri Strug, Apolo Ohno–my all-time favorite Olympics moment stars someone you’ve never heard of and who will never even come close to being on a Wheaties box.

Eric Moussambani, of Equitorial Guinea (what’s that?), was all set for his 100 m swim in the qualifying rounds of the 2000 Sydney Games, when the 2 other swimmers in his heat got disqualified by a false start. Small, alone and conspicuously lacking the fancy body suits favored by other competitors, Eric stepped up on the starting block to race against no one.

Neither the crowd nor the announcers really knew what to make of this awkward athlete. I remember the broadcasters pointed out that he didn’t have a proper pool to train in back home, so he swam in a river alongside alligators. What?? Anyway, at first the crowd sort of laughed and snickered, but as he pushed through, looking every moment like he was going to just stop and sink, they slowly realized the beauty and heart of the moment. When he finally (barely) finishes the race, every person is on their feet, cheering wildly at this monumental, moving display of mediocrity.*

I was right there with them, cheering him on at home, my eyes welling up with tears. For me, Eric embodies the gut-wrenching, do-or-die hard work and perserveance required, yes, at the Olympics, but in the hard-fought, messy scramble of life. And that’s why I love the Olympics.

*Wikipedia tells me Eric still managed to set a new personal best and national record with that performance. : )

Video of Eric’s swim. Pardon the foreign play-by-play – I couldn’t find an English version.

Discovered: Map of the U.S.A.

“Discovered” is a new series where I’ll share my favorite finds. Little treats that I find delightful, pretty, charming, creative. Sort of an amuse-bouche but without mysterious, pretentious meats.

Map of the U.S.A., by Hugh MacLeod

I love this, not so much because it accurately represents the qualities of the United States, but because it just reminds me of home. And I love my home. And I suspect many Texans have sort of felt this way about their surroundings at one point or another. Maybe just a little bit.

Hugh MacLeod, aka “gapingvoid,” is a cartoonist and wine guy who lives in Alpine, TX. See more of his cartoons here.


I write what I know (and love). Mostly higher education, writing and public relations.