Balancing Your Media Diet

When I was a kid we had the food pyramid. It was designed to help people think about the right mix of foods for a healthy diet. The plate has replaced the pyramid but the idea is the same — you need to be mindful about what you put into your body in order to stay healthy.

The same thing is true for what you put into your head. The more varied the information you consume, the more connections you’ll be able to make between issues and ideas. The more diverse your information diet, the more likely you’ll be able to discover insights that can prompt new ideas and ways of solving problems.

Here’s one example. A few weeks ago, for reasons I can’t explain, I watchedNuclear 101: How Nuclear Bombs Work, Part 1, on YouTube. It was a lecture by Matthew Bunn, associate professor of public policy at Harvard. For years nuclear history has been an interest but the science is tough. Bunn made it very accessible.

He described the problem of achieving fission in a sub-critical mass. He explained that there are three solutions: add more material, reflect neutrons back in to the material, or compress the material. It made sense to me and it apparently lodged someplace in my head.

A few days later I was talking with a client. She was describing the challenge of more effectively using her global communication teams. Simply adding more money wasn’t the answer, she said. And then I remembered the lecture. Her teams, I said, were like the atoms in a sub-critical mass. Money was akin to neutrons. Adding more could help, but so would using consistent messages and materials (similar to reflection) and better coordination with the regions (similar to compression). It was an apt analogy and led to a more focused discussion on how to implement the approach.

With that example in mind, here is a way to think about media consumption in a way that can help broaden your mind when it comes to the events and issues of the day. In the world of MyPlate, there are five food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins and dairy. Applying this notion to media consumption, we could also think of five categories: foundation, expansion, practical, inspirational and indulgent.

Here’s what they mean:

  • Foundation is the basic information needed to put things into context. It’s the news, history, literature and anything else that provides a fundamental view of the world.
  • Expansion is information or ideas that you aren’t familiar with or don’t agree with. The news falls into this category, so can a lot of other things, such as vides (like the one mentioned above), topic-specific publications or partisan Web sites. Consuming this content can take discipline.
  • Practical is information that helps you do what needs to be done. Understanding a clients business or what a particular reporter is writing about are examples.
  • Inspirational is media that makes you feel good and gives you space to recharge and reflect. It can be music, art or anything else that works for you.
  • Indulgent is information that is more a guilty pleasure than anything else. For some it might be reality TV, for others talk radio, for me, it’s video games.

Too much of anything isn’t healthy so it’s important to come up with a mix that’s right for you. For most people it’s easy to spend time with practical and indulgent media. It’s easy to justify it — the practical stuff can help you get your job done and the indulgent stuff is a necessary respite if you’ve been over-taxing the old grey matter.

Media isn’t like food though. You can’t measure it consistently in terms of calories. Does a copy of US Magazine equal two episodes of Parks & Rec? Is binge watching Breaking Bad the same as plowing through three weeks worth of the Sunday Styles section? And what should you do about that stack of ten unread New Yorkers? It’s pretty hard to say.

The important thing is to mix things up. It’s easy to get into media ruts and fall back to familiar formats or content. It’s also easy to stick with popular media. This gives you plenty of fodder for water cooler conversations but if everyone is consuming the same content they’ll also likely come up with the same ideas and observations.

It’s also important to recognize that the right media mix will vary from person-to-person and over a lifetime. A middle schooler will have a far different media profile than a veterinarian, who will likely be consuming different content than an airline pilot. While different people need to engage with different media, it’s important that they don’t isolate themselves in their own media universe.

This has been a big concern when it comes to political media. There has been an assumption that many people only consumed media that supported their point of view. Thankfully, according to a recent story in the New York Times, that isn’t the case. According to the story, what people are actually observed consuming differs — and if far more diverse — from what they report consuming. This is a hopeful sign.

Achieving a healthy media mix isn’t something that should be left to chance. As a first step, why not begin tracking what you read, watch, listen to and play? Do it for a week and assess your media diet. Are you watching way more TV than you meant to? Have you whiled away untold hours playing FIFA 15? Be honest with yourself. Then push yourself the find more balance.

As a communications professional, not only will this give you a glimpse into the actual media you consume, but it will also help broaden that mix, which will expose you to new ideas, help you make new connections and allow you to deliver new insights to colleagues and clients.

Originally published at

Daily Dozen – Men and Women in the Media

One of the things I like about my work (my day job as a PR guy) is that I get to work with the media. There are plenty of journalists out there that might not say the reverse and that’s OK. I respect and value the work done by reporters, editors and producers – whether they are part of the media establishment or working independently. They’re the people who help us make sense of the world around us and that’s an incredibly valuable function – particularly in complex or contentious situations. Today’s set features 12 members of the media – some whom you may recognize and many whom you may not; in either case, I hope you’ll enjoy them and take time to think about the role they play.

Face - Chris O'Brien (@sjcobrien) speaking at #FoE5
Face - smiling woman
Face - man with beard and glasses speaking
Face - smiling woman with glasses and a pen behind her ear
Faces 866
Faces 593
Face - woman with glasses speaking

And the Winner for Best Transmedia Story Telling is . . .

I’ve been fortunate. For a few years I worked in Kendall Square and often found my way over to MIT for various events – mostly the MIT Communications Forum. In the course of these visits I got to hear Henry Jenkins discuss the idea of transmedia – that is various content types and channels being used to share elements of a narrative that strengthen and support the overall story. If you consume one channel you’ll get part of the picture but the more channels that are tapped into the richer the experience and the closer one is drawn to the core story.

Transmedia has started getting more attention recently. Steve Rubel did a post on it and the Producer’s Guilde of America has added Transmedia Producer as a new job title. But questions remain as to what exactly transmedia is an who’s doing it well.

There are lots of examples of transmedia – MIT did a forum on Heros that discussed its transmedia efforts. Most of the examples I’ve seen are of media or entertainment brands – but I don’t think any of them are really nailing it like the example I have in mind. My winner for best transmedia storytelling has been at it for longer than anyone, it’s reached more people than any one and it’s used more channels than anyone I can think of. The organization I have in mind is the Catholic Church.

Think about it. There is a core story line that is expressed in text. But from that text have emerged dozens of expressions in different media – and all of them have been designed (or at least intended) to expose part of the core story and to make it accessible to different audiences.

Let’s look at just a few examples:

Architecture – think of the cathedrals – with their design to inspire awe in visitors, the statuary intended to illustrate stories and introduce characters from the core narrative (and also from local lore).

Infographics – stained glass – which are obviously part of the cathedral – serve again to illustrate stories to what was often at the time of their creation a non-literate population.

Literature – there have been thousands of works that have used religious themes, topics, characters and events. In some cases these have supported the central narrative, in some cases they have merely used them as fodder for story-telling and in others they have been crafted in opposition to the church – but in all cases they provide and opening and exposure to the core story.

Technology – the fact that the first printed book in the West was the bible says something about the place of the narrative in the lives of those creating media. The church has – for better or worse – been willing to adopt (or demonize) media depending on how well (or poorly) it supports transmitting the core narrative.

Images – when it comes to visual content, biblical characters and stories have been some of the most represented in Western art. Some of these were actively encouraged while others were strictly user-generated. In either case images have long and successfully served to help spread and make the core narrative more accessible.

Drama – dramatic interpretations of biblical events have a long history – from Passion Plays to Christmas Pageants – these have been performed thousands of times all over the world.

Music – liturgical music and music with religious themes have been around for millennia and have ranged from psalms to operas to popular music.

Location-based Experiences – the number of shrines/churches and suggested pilgrimages have long provided an opportunity for ordinary landscapes to be cooped and used for religious purposes.

These are just a few examples of the channels that the Catholic Church has used (or which have been used by others) to convey and support and extend that core textual narrative. One could be exposed to any one of them and would have some sense of the larger story – but the more one is exposed to the deeper and more engaging that experience becomes. That is the idea and goal of transmedia storytelling.

Now a few caveats. First, I’m not exactly a Catholic. I was raised one but stopped counting myself a Catholic almost 30 years ago. Second, one might argue that any large religious institution could also be used to illustrate transmedia storytelling. I suppose that’s true.

For me what sets the Catholic Church apart is the fact that it has a centralized authority that oversees messaging. Few other faiths (or frankly organizations of any kind) can claim so long a history with so clear a lineage. This has resulted in an orthodoxy that has kept the story contained and focused for a very long time. This stability and longevity have allowed rules and understandings to emerge that have permitted the core narrative to be interpreted and transmitted in many ways without compromising the overall story.

This whole thing is something I’ve been thinking about casually for a while. It makes sense to me and I was pretty excited when I came up with the idea but I’d really like to hear other people’s thoughts. Does transmedia make sense to people at all? Does this example help illustrate the idea of transmedia? Are there other – better examples – that make more sense? I’m going to continue to give this thought but have to move on now to other things. Can’t wait to hear what others have to say.

Ability, Opportunity, Capability, Expression, Excellence

Last week I had a conversation about opportunity and excellence in creativity on Twitter and I’ve continued to think about the issue. The conversation started between Matt Searles and Larry Lawfer. Matt’s a media artist and Larry’s the president and founder of YouStorys – both are smart, creative and cool guys.

Matt’s basic argument boiled down to this

“Cheap tools will eventually lead to a new level of master-hood bad ass-dom.”

Beyond the fact that “master-hood bad ass-dom” might be one of the best terms ever I agree with Matt.

Larry’s was essentially this:

“Master-hood-bad-assdom? because of cheap tools? No, just like having a football does not make U Tom Brady”

I can’t really disagree with this point either – because simply owning a tool doesn’t make you adept at putting it to work.

The relationship between opportunity and excellence is worth thinking about though and here’s where I’m at for the moment. There are basically five elements to think about – ability, opportunity, capability, expression and excellence.

Ability is innate. Some people have an eye for images, others an ear for language, etc. It’s unlikely that the ability to imagine persistent moving visual representations of life has only existed for the last century – or that it has been concentrated in specific cities. If you look at production though it has largely been limited in terms of time and space. Does that mean people elsewhen or elsewhere haven’t had the ability to tell a persistent moving visual story? No, it means they haven’t had the opportunity.

Opportunity is not innate. Opportunity are the external factors that determine whether someone can tap their abilities. These can be historical (the tools or technology simply didn’t exist during a person’s lifetime), geographical (the tools or technology aren’t available in a person’s lifespace), economic (the tools or technology are beyond a persons means), educational (use of the tools or technology requires skills a person may not possess) or institutional (access to the tools or technology is closed, limited or controlled).

Imagine the number of people over the course of time whose abilities have been stymied because of lack of opportunity. Imagine the number of thoughts, ideas, abstractions and expressions that simply passed away because the people having them didn’t have access to the tools or technology to share them. Imagine how many unrealized talents exist right now because people don’t have the tools (or the drive to discover or create the tools) for expression.

Does giving everyone access to tools mean everyone is going to become a great creator? Of course not – but without opportunity no one can be sure. That requires some basic capabilities.

Capabilities are learned. Putting a camera in a person’s hands doesn’t make them a photographer. Watching people using a high-end digital SLR as a point-and-click camera drives me nuts. They’re not taking the time to explore their capabilities or the capabilities of their tool. Capabilities need to be learned and explored – but that takes time and effort. That relationship between time and effort is the “suck curve” – and it’s when many people realize that either a) they’re really not as good as they thought and drop things or b) they’re on the cusp of master-hood bad ass-dom and forge ahead to use their tools to really express their ideas.

Expression is the combination of technical capability with innate ability enabled by opportunity and mediated by tools. Technically excellent expression can still suck, but it sucks in a more proficient way. There are tons of examples of this (think boy bands, endless sequels, etc.). (This gets into another area – intent: is content being created or is it being produced – but that’ another story . . .) Expression is the process of exploring and extending capabilities – and of sharing content. Quality is determined by evaluating the expression.

Excellence is subjective. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. How we determine the quality of creative output is personal and doesn’t abide by a specific set of rules or norms. Like pornography, it’s something we recognize when we see it. This was an issue I had with Larry’s premise that “having a football does not make U Tom Brady.”

Just as there are endless arguments about the merits of players in sports – and room for disagreement (not that anyone can really argue that Tom Brady isn’t among the most awesome and exalted players ever to walk the earth) – so there can be arguments about what quality and excellence mean in creativity.

An ardent amateur can create content that is incredibly moving and valuable even without attaining “excellence.” By the same token, conventional “excellence” can result in totally dismal content.

At the end of the day, without opportunity there can be no excellence and everyone has abilities that can find creative expression. Given the opportunity to explore and experiment is more likely to lead to “master-hood bad ass-dom” then not having those opportunities. I am an advocate for cheap tools that fuel experimentation, expression and creativity.