Canoeing Tips: Partner Communication

When you’re on the water in a tandem canoe, the other person in the boat is the most important person in your world.

In fast water, you’re at their mercy and they are at yours. You both have distinct responsibilities (which vary depending if you’re in the front or the back of the boat) but if you aren’t coordinating your actions, you’re both going to get wet. Because of this, the relationship between you and your partner is a complicated one in which communication is vital.

Partnerships grow over time, as you each get better at anticipating the actions and responses of the other. At the highest and most zen-like level, an experienced pair will make it down a rapid with nary a word uttered between them. Those of us who aren’t at that level, however, develop a system of shorthand to coordinate our reactions while we’re under the intense pressure of making it through a rapid in one piece.

Because there isn’t always time to express full thoughts, each utterance between partners can have a variety of meanings depending on the situation and what’s gone before it. Fascinatingly, it doesn’t take long at all before even novice partners can understand each other’s intent in just a couple of syllables.

Let’s take a look at an example.

You’re in the back of the boat in the middle of a difficult class III rapid. Your partner has less experience than you do and seems a touch overwhelmed. The canoe has already hit a couple of tricky rocks which you were able to recover from. You see a submerged rock coming up on the right that could be trouble, but aren’t sure if your partner has seen it. You shout out “2 o’clock!” the rock’s location.

In this situation, “2 o’clock” could mean any one of the following:

1.  “I’m sure you’re already aware that there is a dangerous rock coming up on the right, but thought I’d shout out its location just in case. Better safe than sorry. I trust you to make the right decision about how to get us out of its path.”

2.  “Perhaps you could execute a cross-draw, or similar stroke, that would move us out of the way of this rock I’ve just identified to you. You’re doing your best and I’m sure you would have seen it in time, but I’m a bit paranoid. Thanks.”

3.  “Even if you don’t see it, trust me that there is a rock at 2 o’clock. Don’t think, just move your ass.”

4.  “Hey, look. It’s another goddam rock we’re going to run into. If I didn’t need your feeble contributions to get down the rest of this rapid I would beat you to death with the paddle I’m holding confident that not a jury in the world would convict me you worthless and blind sack of flesh.”

Part of the beauty of partner communication is that after your partner navigates you both flawlessly around the rock in question, your shout of “2 o’clock” retroactively means:

“I have complete and total faith in you and am only speaking to make myself feel better, such a master of the river you are.”

It won’t take long before both you and your partner excel in the art of on water communication. In short order you’ll be able to alert each other to danger using only your eyebrows and dismissive exhalations.

Good paddling!

Next time: Choosing where to poop

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Canoeing Tips: Partner Communication

With Marketing more Important than Ever, Can Companies Afford Marketing?

A Slate article about Microsoft’s new ad campaign linked back to a longer piece about that campaign’s creator, the ad world giant Crispin Porter & Bogusky. That article, from April 2007, mentions that Crispin demands nearly total message control over it’s clients (companies such as Burger King, Miller Brewing, and Volkswagen) and was increasingly taking an ownership stake in the companies with which it worked.

That last piece, the ownership stake, is a fascinating comment on the state of marketing and authenticity in the marketplace today, and portends trouble that may be ahead for companies like Crispin Porter & Bogusky.

First off, having an advertising/marketing company literally buy into a corporate enterprise seems to me pretty close to an admission that isn’t much inherent value to the products the company sells. If your company communications have to be so pitch perfect and well coordinated that you’re willing to cede huge swaths of authority over to a previously outside group then perhaps what you’re making simply isn’t that good.

Second, while it’s long been known that a positive recommendation from a trusted word of mouth source is far more powerful than any media buy can ever be, the ability of people to check in with their sources about products or services is getting easier and easier. In response, marketing companies like Crispin have tried to co-opt trusted sources through campaigns designed expressly to generate social network traffic (like the “Subservient Chicken” website they created for Burger King) or through rigging the game a bit by paying directly for positive word of mouth on twitter, blogs, yelp, and others. While these strategies might currently work, I suspect they’ll have the eventual effect of causing a person’s network of trusted sources to get more exclusive, leaving people even less susceptible to conventional image branding and skeptical of enthusiasm from sources they don’t have a track record with.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the future for communicating with customers will be based on excellent products/services and authenticity. (Cue, “if you can fake authenticity…” joke.) And authenticity may not always be compatible with companies that take selling themselves as a goal that’s on par with making things people can get excited about.

And by “authenticity” I don’t mean the canned, “we know you’re being marketed to all the time and are way too smart for our ruse, so we won’t even try to be slick with our pitch” anti-advertising aesthetic that’s been used by every company up to and including Nike, which hasn’t done a non-slick thing (excepting that sweatshop business) since the inventing of the waffle sole.

While branding that creates positive connection between a brand and its market will never go out of style, I wonder if the larger mission for smart marketing companies will be to teach their accounts how to intelligently speak for themselves, from their place of expertise, and to provide them with the metrics needed prove the positive effects of doing just that.

With Marketing more Important than Ever, Can Companies Afford Marketing?

Who’s Your Fullback?

One of my favorite football players is a guy who’s scored exactly 6 touchdowns in his career. He’s never rushed for more than 175 yards in a season, nor caught more than 31 passes. By every conventional statistic measuring offensive players, he’s a non-factor. And he’s been told by 6 different teams that his services are no longer required.

And yet, for nearly his entire career (and in a league where the average player lasts less than 4 years he’s lasted 16), an interesting thing happens to every team to joins. They start to win more.

The player is Lorenzo Neal, and he’s a fullback.

A fullback basically serves as the bodyguard for a more highly paid, more famous, running back. The fullback is allowed to carry the ball, but very few do. Most often, when a play calls for the running back to run through a certain gap between linemen, the fullback’s job is to get there first and knock the stuffing out of the defender in the best position to make a tackle.

When a fullback does his job correctly, the viewer at home will be treated to endless replays of the highly paid running back prancing untouched down the field while the announcers talk about his “breakaway speed.” In success a fullback is invisible.

In the case of Lorenzo Neal, for most of his career, each time he’d arrive to a new team, that team’s running back would suddenly get much better. The running back would, running untouched through the holes opened up by Mr. Neal, start appearing in Nike commercials, get a big new contract, appear on the cover of Madden. Then Mr. Neal would be released or traded and the running back would suddenly be normal again.

This all occurs to me because, having spent the last number of years as an book editor, for many of us in the background of the culture business, we are fullbacks.

If I did my job well on a given product, the end result would have my fingerprints on it, but not my name.

Each project was an opportunity for me to block for an author, and that could mean fighting to get the right kind of marketing support, convincing them that a particular change to the book’s structure might more effectively tell their story, or keeping them on track when it felt like forces were aligning against them.

If I block well and a project is a touchdown, the satisfaction in watching the author get to do a touchdown dance is immense. If the result is a first down, I’m excited to take another shot. And if it’s a tackle for a loss, I know I’ve overextended a metaphor.

Do you have a fullback? Are you one?

Who’s Your Fullback?

Is there a Benefit to Creating a Unique Terminology for your Community?

Is there an advantage to creating a unique terminology for your business or sphere?

If you were in a bar talking sports and your interlocutor called themselves a “clone,” would you know what they meant? What if they referred to a particular NFL quarterback as “Marmalard” or an NBA player as having a “spirit animal?”

If you didn’t know what they were talking about, how put out would you feel? If you did, how connected?

Creating a cosmology filled with specific characters and states of being carries with it the advantage of making engaged readers more connected with a community, while also raising the barrier to entry for new readers.

If your content is worth really engaging with, why not give your community the terms with which to define themselves as part of an enthusiastic group?

Is there a Benefit to Creating a Unique Terminology for your Community?

Canoeing Tips: So You’re in a Canoe that’s Flipping Over. Now What?

Capsizing a canoe while on a whitewater trip is a perfectly natural and common occurrence. In fact, many canoeists count capsizing as among the most memorable and ultimately fun experiences on a particular trip.* For the novice paddler though, flipping a fully loaded 2 person canoe over can be frightening. Fortunately, with just a couple of simple steps, dumping can be both safe and educational.

Most capsizing happens in relatively calm water, when the division of labor between the paddler in the bow and the one in the stern can be unclear, and when the mind is more prone to wander. The thought process in the moments leading up to a flip usually goes something like this:

“Wow, the way the sunlight is dappling through those trees is breathtaking. My goodness, the natural beauty of these surroundings just puts me right at ease. Hey, what kind of bird is– [completely unprintable string of expletives].”

There’s a pregnant half-second between when you gain the certainty that your boat is going to flip and when your face actually hits the water. In that sliver of time you, the paddler, have to do three things.

1. Assess your own safety – Take a last look at the river ahead. Figure out which bank to head to, if there are any dangerous rocks looming, and if there’s a craft directly behind you.

2. (if your safety is relatively assured) Secure your paddle – An upside down canoe is pretty easy to find and, if you haven’t completely failed in your knot tying, your gear should be still be in the boat and undamaged. A single paddle, however, can disappear into a river with alarming ease.  Recovering your boat but running out of paddles has the effect of turning the river into the world’s largest and least safe log flume ride.

3. Assign blame – Perhaps most important of all. Even you fail at steps 1 and 2, you’re still likely to survive, but if you don’t get ahead of the crisis-management by the time of the evening’s campfire, you’ll wish you hadn’t. While you and your boatmate may be a well-oiled machine on the water, after a capsize, all bets are off.

If you are in the stern (back), start thinking of things to say to the group like, “Gosh that rock came on us out of nowhere. Ed didn’t have a chance. I really blame myself. If only I’d been in the front of the boat…” or

“I mean, I know it’s the person in the front’s responsibility to watch out for submerged branches like that, but that one was really tricky…”

Next time: Partner communication!

  • Only people who have flipped think this. But, people who make it through a whole whitewater trip without capsizing even once are also the kind of people who are always going on about the “undertones of nutmeg” in the camp’s coffee, never shut up about the merits of a Denis Kucinich/Ron Paul candidacy, have an ineffable insufferability, and are not to be trusted.
Canoeing Tips: So You’re in a Canoe that’s Flipping Over. Now What?