Monday, 28 March 2011

Sensory Overload in Doha – Reminded me to always use the five senses when writing.

During a recent trip to the fruit, vegetable, plant and animal souk in Doha, Qatar, the memory of a workshop I took with Jo Parfitt on adding SPICE to your writing came flooding back.  Readers don’t have the benefit of experiencing the situation in person, standing next to you, so it’s our responsibility as writers to put all the senses to work when bringing a reader along with us in our story (whether fiction, non-fiction, narrative, memoir or even business writing).

Come with me to Doha…
As we entered the first section of the sprawling warehouse, I was assaulted by foreign smells that at first made me wrinkle my nose and wave my hand over my face.  Then I reminded myself of the durian fruit I had eaten in Malaysia that smelled like poo and dirty socks but once past the olfactory sense, tasted sweet and had a smooth and silky texture.  So, I paused, closed my eyes, and inhaled deeply.  I realized that there wasn’t just one smell.  I took another deep breath and started to separate each one…oh my!  There was jasmine.  The aroma transported me back to my bedroom in Fort Lauderdale where there was a night blooming jasmine tree right outside our window.  Another whiff and I caught a scent of lavender, my favorite scent when enjoying a massage combined with aroma-therapy. 

I had lost sight of Pam and Bob in my reverie so I opened my eyes and continued walking and inhaling as I went, glancing down each aisle in search of my friends.  We were early so the vendors were just unloading their wares off the back of their dented, half-ton pick-up trucks.  The sound of the wooden crates scraping against the concrete floors of the warehouse was like nails on a chalkboard but I turned my attention back to my nose and focused on my scent-hunting mission.  Orange blossom!  Again, I was transported back to Florida, where oranges reign supreme.  I imagined myself in an orange orchard.  I followed my nose toward the scent and there was Bob negotiating with one of the vendors.  I asked what it was and, sure enough, it was a miniature orange tree in full bloom.

Could you imagine yourself right there with us?  Our next stop was the animal souk and the sights and smells weren’t quite as pleasant so I’ll let you conjure up your own senses on that one.  Suffice it to say, it was a fabulous afternoon and once I stilled my mind I was truly able to absorb my surroundings using, sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste. I now have a sticky note on the wall in front of my computer with those five simple words.  I don't jam my writing with all five each and every time...only the ones that add the right flavor.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Inspiration Abounds at Emirates Festival of Literature

Well, this is the weekend of the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature and I spent the day there yesterday with my friend, and fellow blogger, Katie Foster.  We were enthralled.  Both of us bought several books (just couldn’t help ourselves) and waited with great anticipation to meet author, Greg Mortenson face-to-face (of Three Cups of Tea fame) for his talk, “Moving Mountains.”  As we were standing in line waiting to enter the conference room where he would be speaking, we kept seeing people go to the front of the line with “Festival Friend” badges on. 

“I’m a Festival Friend,” Katie piped up.  Hmmm…how did we get one of those elusive bits of plastic?

“I’ll hold our place in line, you go check it out!” I offered magnanimously.

Five minutes later Katie came back, grinning from ear to ear, holding our “back stage passes.”  We headed to the front of the line, were ushered in like VIPs and grabbed our front row seats. 

The very humble, unassuming Greg Mortenson walked in to a jam-packed, standing room only meeting hall, smiling sheepishly, hand on heart, to thunderous applause.  He opened the session with a very powerful statement that silenced the room:  “There are 120 million children on our planet who are deprived of the right to an education.”

If you haven’t read Three Cups of Tea – One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time, I highly recommend it.  It’s Greg’s story…the story of a mountaineer who was hiking in the Karakoram mountains in Pakistan.  After his unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, he stumbled into a small village in the mountains, was nursed back to health and be-friended the village chief and made a promise – he would come back and build a school.  As you can imagine, I’m skipping big chunks of the story (you’ll have to read the book) but after he had seen the lack of resources and the burning desire the children had to learn, he knew what he had to do. 

When asking the parents what they wanted they told him, “We don’t want our babies to die and we want our children to go to school.”  The message that resonated with him was very simple:  “The ink of a scholar is more powerful than the blood of a martyr.” 

That was in 1993.  In 1996, the Korphe School (named for the village chief) was built in partnership with the community and Greg found his life’s purpose.  He co-founded the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and has since built 178 schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Three Cups of Tea covers the initial phase of setting up CAI and the hair-raising path he followed over the next 10 years surviving a kidnapping, gunfights, fatwas and more. 

Three of CAI’s staff joined Greg for his talk.  For Waqil Shakir Karimi, program director for Central, Southern and East Afghanistan, it was his first time outside of his country.  He was the inspiration behind the title of Mortenson’s second book, Stones into Schools  - Promoting Peace with Books, not Bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Greg recalled sitting with Waqil pondering the new school for Lalander.  Waqil pointed to the hills of the Hindu Kush mountains and said that each rock represented a soldier who had been killed by the Taliban.  He believed that each of the stones should be used to build the school in honor of their sacrifice.

Greg is an inspiration for me on several levels.  My passion is reading and writing both for pure enjoyment and as my profession.  I can’t imagine not being able to do both each and every day.  That’s why I’m a big supporter of literacy programs and also believe, as Greg does, that “the pen is more powerful than the bullet.”  I'm headed back to the Festival today for some more inspiration!

POSTSCRIPT . . . . Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea
I'm sure many of you may have seen the recent news reports which question the truth behind Greg Mortenson’s story of how he began his charity work in Afghanistan and Pakistan and concerns about how the Central Asian Institute (CIA) is managing its budget.   I am not taking down this blog post because this is a very complex issue and I'm just taking a step back to hear all sides before forming an opinion.  We all need to evaluate this for ourselves.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Book Review – Inbound Marketing - Get Found Using Google, Social Media and Blogs, by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah

This month’s review is another business book but this time, hones in on marketing online.   Inbound Marketing-Get Found Using Google, Social Media and Blogs by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., is an easy read and packed with practical information and tips on how to start and effectively manage your online inbound marketing efforts.  Initially, I felt it was for beginners but I opened my mind and found there were loads of nuggets even for the seasoned online marketer.  It’s so important to occasionally step back and remember why you started a blog to begin with.  Or, to realize that even if your LinkedIn profile is at 100% (as mine is) that’s just the beginning. 

Getting Found in Social Media
In the chapter “Getting Found in Social Media,” there’s a section on LinkedIn that focuses on setting up a group.  I follow tons of groups, get involved in the meatier discussions and start them myself but I never really thought of starting a group.  I will now!  The challenge will be to start a group for writers with a theme that doesn’t already exist.  I’m open to suggestions!  Another great option in LinkedIn that Brian and Dharmesh suggest you get active in is the LinkedIn Answers.  It’s a great way to position yourself as an expert.  That same issue came up during a blogging workshop I hosted recently with author Jo Parfitt.  It was a hot discussion.  And, it’s a great tool.  Just scan the questions being asked and if one relates to what you do and you have a good answer, weigh in. This chapter also talks about Facebook, Twitter, Digg, StumbleUpon and more.

Getting Found in Google
There’s a whole chapter on getting found on Google and I won’t go into detail here but, suffice it to say, they cover the topic from soup to nuts!  Key words, optimizing URLs, pay per click (PPC) advertising campaigns and the power of inbound links are a few areas they discuss.  There’s also a section on Black Hat SEO and what nefarious activities could get your site banned from Google.

The final chapters help you take the next step by looking at how you convert visitors to customers once you’re found and how to track your progress.  It ends with 26 “Tips from the Trenches for Startups.” Good stuff!  Even if you’ve been in business for a while it’s a good check list to see what you might still be missing.  Like any cycle, it’s an ongoing process, isn’t it?  

Note:  the authors of this book (if you don't already know) are the founders of HubSpot