4 Ways to Reboot and Adapt New Skills

Recently we discussed surviving rapid change in media technologies. There comes a point where we embrace the fear of change. We accept it as inevitable, and grow willing to adapt new methods and technologies. But how does one go about embracing new skills?

Going back to college for a second degree is not an easy choice, both from a time commitment and from a financial perspective. One could debate whether or not another college degree could prepare you for a new profession given how fast technology is changing everything.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a Masters degree in Communications, Culture and Technology from Georgetown. I still use the lessons learned, but my degree was from 2000. The long-term value was learning media dynamics, and how to think about the way people use communications tools.

Getting that degree was expensive, and it’s not something I can easily do again. So, in that vein when I need to learn new technical skills, I turn to alternative methods. Here are some ways I have embraced learning.

1) Experiential Learning

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Millennials (in general) have a great attitude about change. My friends Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter, co-authors of When Millennials Take Over, note that Millennials discard and adapt new technologies with the times. If one technology stops working, they move on to the next tool.

Learning by simply adapting a new method or tool can be extraordinarily difficult. Yet learning through experience can provide the deepest and most impactful knowledge. You know firsthand because you adapted by trial and error.

The challenge in this method is what I would call a sophomoric failure. A false confidence about how a technology or method works can carry you until a challenge arrives. There are often many tutorials online from people who have done the same thing, a virtual “YouTube University”, and sometimes these how-to articles and videos can help. But if the challenge is too stifling it could cost you a project or a job.

I would argue this is the challenge some social media experts face. They play with tools and talk about them, but cannot execute on projects based on their experience. A deficiency in the larger communications skill set is often the problem.

I self taught myself social media and learned several lessons along the way, including being more personal, reciprocation, etc. I became better with practice, but if I didn’t already possess other communications and marketing skills prior to my social start in 2006, I would have struggled a lot more.

2) Conferences and Seminars

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Seminars, one-day workshops, and conferences are a quick way to jolt your thinking. They help you think about challenges in a different way. These types of events usually offer a quick lesson(s), and some examples from a more experienced person(s).

The value of a seminar is a quick fix to stale thinking. It may be all you need. But make no bones about it, the impetus is still upon you to learn and excel after the event.

Further, it’s important to have a discerning eye at conferences. Not all events are created equally. At even the highest quality conferences, not all sessions are equal. To use the social media expert analogy again, you may be just getting more sophomoric knowledge from another sophomore. Look for real examples and experience to discern the value of the tips offered.

When I first sought outside experience in 2014 to break out of a stagnant period as a photographer, I paid for three workshops from KelbyOne, National Geographic, and Nikon. The lessons were valuable, and I still use them today.

3) Intensive Experiences

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A different method of learning is to take on an immersive experience. This basically puts you into a highly engaged full-time work simulation or learning environment. You are run through numerous exercises under the guidance of an experienced professional or instructor.

The effort is intense. It can blow your mind. But the new skills gained are invaluable and can really help you break out of a rut, and forge new ground. The trick is to continue using the skills in your regular work.

There are many examples of intensive workshop environments. Today’s coding academies are great examples. Language immersion seminars and schools are a more classic example.

The Santa Fe Photography Workshop I participated in over the summer was one such experience. I learned quite a lot, and have since used the tips Tony Corbell passed on in several situations, including the above photograph of my daughter Soleil.

4) Continuing Education

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Getting away for a week to several months may not be an option for many people. This is where traditional education and corporate training comes into play.

Learning through continuing education credits may not be as hip as a conference in a schwanky location or an immersion course, but it offers a proven way of learning new skills for work. The time commitment is much more reasonable (one or two evenings a week), and while homework isn’t necessarily fun, it offers a familiar routine for most.

Consider that many employers will compensate you for taking on a training program. It makes you more valuable to them. And continuing education and approved training courses are considered to be more acceptable and safe methods of learning.

When I worked at TMP Worldwide 15 years ago, I got moved into business development for a period of time (Yeah, I know, embarrassing, but I loved it!). At the time, my manager assessed my skills and suggested a Dale Carnegie sales training course. By the time two month-long class was over I had become the class SalesTalk champion, and I closed two multi-million dollar deals within the next year. Not too shabby.

These are just four ways I have learned new professional skills outside of the traditional college degree. What would you add for those looking to sharpen or reboot their skills?

Do You Believe in Mermaids?

This could be titled “4 Random Rants,” but the mermaid one was too good to pass on as the headline. Along the way we will also discuss stalking photographers, social media experts, and the Donald. Here we go.

1) Stalking Photographers

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I often use a tripod when taking landscapes and in studio. It makes for a better picture, reduces shake, and lessens the amount of time necessary to take a great capture. Whenever I am in a public place, busy or not, people inevitably walk by, see the camera on the tripod, and what do they do?

Well, most stare at me, and then look back and forth between what they are doing and me and my camera. If there are multiple folks, they’ll start discussing that there’s a photographer over there. Some of them will come up to me and ask, “What are you shooting?” That’s all fine.

Here’s where it gets bizarre. Some folks walk right up behind me and start looking over my shoulder to figure out what I am shooting. That bugs me out a bit.

Then there are the ones who suddenly think this a good opportunity to hack an Instagram shot. They whip out their smartphones and start shooting over my shoulders, from the side, and in the worst cases they just walk right in front of the tripod and take the shot (yes, it has happened multiple times). Now I am bugged out and annoyed.

Finally, there are the clowns who ask me if I need a model. Some will ask repeatedly, and even give me a card. The above shot of Philadelphia is one example where onlookers kept asking me to be in the shot. The photograph did OK, but it wasn’t worth asking for a hypothetical 15 minutes of fame.

2) Social Media Marketing Conversations Are Dead

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Last week I saw a thread started by a couple of prominent social media experts discussing other social media experts’ blogs, all of which debated whether or not social media marketing is dead. Right away, you should know how bad this was. My desire to throw my laptop against the wall and start screaming increased by the paragraph.

Here’s what’s dead: Conversations about social media marketing. Yes, the whole lot of them, all 762 million of them (many of mine included). It’s a new decade, but a very old and repetitive set of conversations. Build owned content, stop publishing, start talking, and by the way, here are 16 ways to grow your Twitter account with semi-fake followers. Better yet, just talk to other brands (or with other social media marketers) on your Twitter account to fake your engagement rate.

There are so many damn social media marketing conversations out there that they have blurred into white noise. It’s marketing bloggers talking to marketing bloggers… Or worse, marketing bloggers spamming each other with links on Twitter.

The social media marketing is dead discussion is the biggest navel gazing exercise of them all. It’s also the most meaningless one we could have, and the one CMOs care about least. Keep kicking that dead horse.

Come on, get real! Some marketers are just bad at what they do, and they always have been. The medium changes (hello, junk mailers and email spammers!), the problem stays the same. By the way, every profession has winners and losers.

3) Do You Believe in Mermaids?

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Image by Alexandra Moir

I bet you thought the Donald would be next, but no. We need to discuss the mermaid thing first.

A friend told me a story about a 20 something that works with him. This 20 something believes in mermaids because of an article she read on the Internet. She swears by it, and will not be dissuaded. This is a college educated person.

She might be my daughter’s next playmate. I am sure they could have a great conversation about Soleil’s favorite Disney Princess, Ariel.

My friends, this is the state of information thanks to the Internet. People cannot discern truth from fiction. Anyone with a publishing platform can be assertive in their boasts, and back them with faked images and links to other articles, more pictures and even some videos depicting similar fiction.

When you have an ignorant or ill-informed society, dangerous things can happen. At a minimum, the U.S. economy will shed higher earning jobs to better equipped workforces.

The ability to discern quality information remains the greatest challenge facing our children. We must question all sources, even the media as we have seen in recent years. Our educators need to instill the ability to qualify information or we will all be dealing with mermaid debates at work.

Anyone want to buy a unicorn?

4) Dear Huffington Post: Take the Donald Seriously

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Comic by Berkeley Breathed

I admit it, I laughed out loud when the Huffington Post announced that they would only cover the Donald Trump campaign in the entertainment section (full disclosure, I am a Huffington Post blogger). It was even funnier when Berkeley Breathed returned to lampoon the Donald again with Bloom County cartoons.

But in the case of the Huffington Post, the joke may be over. Why? The Donald is still leading the Republican field, no matter how many stupid things he says and how many attacks the rest of the presidential candidates launch at him. That’s not funny, and the story has surpassed any twisted reality show Hollywood could imagine.

There’s an obligation to report this campaign seriously rather than contribute to the circus. This guy might actually be the Republican candidate for the 2016 election. It’s not like he cares when the Kochs and other super rich Republicans try to take him out. He seems impervious to the usual slimy election shenanigans.

Beyond the obligation to take his campaign seriously, there is also the mermaid contingent.

Yes, these poor fools probably believe the Donald Trump campaign
IS
a reality TV show
.

After all, they read it in the entertainment section of a reputable news source. That’s the problem with the Internet these days.

How Does One Evolve Successfully?

The statement that we must evolve may seem obvious to many. Heads nod, people murmur their agreement, and they share their experiences.

Understanding what is coming next and how to evolve a skill set to meet that change both represent different problems. But to some the risks of failure, of looking like a fool used to far outweigh the rewards. Instead, people play it safe letting the young and the bold take the risks. So in my mind, successful evolution begins with an attitudinal shift, one that will become necessary for a majority of the workforce over the next few years.

The time of letting others innovate and then catching up when a trend becomes the norm is passing. A next generation of executives – millennials – are rising to the fore. Unlike Baby Boomers and to a lesser extent Gen Xers, millennials are less vested in tools and processes. Workers must embrace never-ending change.Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, authors of When Millennials Take Over for xPotomac (post running on Wednesday). They discussed how generally millennials will simply move to the next tool set if it works better. There is little attachment to prior best practices. If something offers a better way, millennials simply migrate.

This new attitude towards change will become increasingly prevalent in the workforce. To stay relevant people must embrace change. Otherwise the consequences include limited career paths and possible unemployment.

Change with New Media

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Changes come in a variety of forms, from workspace structure and layout to simple changes in media types. The latter is oft discussed because they affect so many people.

Here is a current example: xPotomac co-founders Shonali Burke and Patrick Ashamalla wanted to use Slack to help foster our dialogue and communications. For those of you who are not familiar with Slack, it is a next generation messaging service that does a better job of threading and storing conversations. Slack is generating impressive growth as more and more people use the service and share it with their friends.

I was reticent to use Slack given that I am already on Google Talk and Skype, but they gently nudged me. Sure enough, the conversations have been easier to access and maintain. It would be helpful to have Slack better integrated into other tools, but overall it is an improvement for workplace messaging. So on it goes. Adios Google Talks.

The only reason why I experimented was because both Shonali and Patrick touted the values of Slack. I listened. Here was a majority of the three vouching for the new.

Whenever I hear multiple sources tell me about a new method or tool, I force myself to set aside the old and begin experimenting. I have to lay aside prejudices. Experience has taught me that the new will always replace old, sooner or later. When I avoid the new, I miss new tools and become antiquated.

When Pinterest broke out, I scorned the social network. Today, it is one of the most powerful networks out there. As a result I had to play catch up, and learn about Pinterest. I possess enough knowledge about the network to guide clients, but I’ll never be a leader in the world of Pinners. The time of early adoption passed me by.

The Value of Short Term Memory

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One attitude I try to practice is maintaining a short-term memory. Specifically, I intentionally try not to get stuck on past best practices, tools and technologies. Things change so quickly it’s not worth hardlining an older approach. It’s best to stay in the moment.

This willingness to forget is very intentional for me. I basically have to force myself to set aside skepticism (I guess that disqualifies me as a millennial). It’s important to approach things with an open mind, and without the baggage of preconceived notions.

To be fair, not every new medium or technology is a winner for me. Some are just the shiny object du jour. Others just don’t fit into my business or personal life. What’s important is that I am willing to try them. And if they don’t work, then I must forget them just as easily as I would forget an old technology or method.

It was interesting to see Chris Brogan openly experiment with and eventually reject Periscope as a tool last week. He saw its value for others, but ultimately decided it didn’t work within his media mix. I get that, often finding video to be difficult to incorporate (at least with the budgets I have to work within).

Moving forward, will I usually turn away from video? Probably not. At some point, a new format will make it the right medium to communicate in, or budgets will increase to produce the kind of videos I believe in, or video will become easier for me to produce. It would be smart to lay aside past experiences and experiment yet again.

Yeah, But…

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Attitude is the first thing. But without the methods and means to adapt to change, it’s like having a bike with a flat tire. You still get nowhere.

How can someone evolve their skills successfully and not get caught off guard? Part of that is foreseeing change as it is happening or is about to happen, and the second part is rapid adoption of new skills.

There is more to come on this topic. Stay tuned.

The Evolution Revolution

It used to be that every seven years, you would need to adapt a new skillset and your career would evolve. For example, it became necessary to learn team management or email marketing or [fill in the blank]. Now in communications, you need a new skill set every year or at least a major evolution of an existing one.

We are in the evolution revolution, a constant state of change. Adapting to new media dynamics is a must for those that want to prosper. Or we can watch our skills rapidly decay into obselescence.

Technology is impacting many industries, particularly distribution and product types. You could say the same for just about any business that depends on online media to help conduct its business, from bookstores to the travel industry.

When I consider industries impacted the most, I can’t help but think about the music industry. Change has ravaged the music sector, from the death of album sales courtesy of iTunes to the transition of Clear Channel radio to iHeartRadio, a company that is heavily pushing its live music events for social media advertisers.

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In the case of communications, advancing media technologies are shaping our very well being. The above chart illustrates that the ability to embrace change is considered the most important skillset for any digital communicator.

This means we have to be ready to constantly innovate and adapt, no easy task.

The Medium Is Everything

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People debate whether or not Marshall McLuhan’s timeless theory the medium is the message is valid. Old school communicators hate it, but in reality they are being forced to evolve their messages dramatically to meet audience expectations in diverse media. In fact, the medium forces a complete change in approach.

Consider that those who approach social media with the exact same methods they used in traditional methods almost always fail. We could have all sorts of discussions — and unfortunately many social media experts do until the point of pain — about the nuances of engagement. But for the communicator? Social media changes everything, even media relations.

McLuhan would argue that we miss the subtle impacts media make in our existence. That is why we find ourselves having to catch up with change forced upon us.

When McLuhan espoused that theory more than 50 years ago, evolutions were subtler. Kennedy had just been shot, unfolding a national tragedy across television changing society and creating the question, Where were you when you found out.” That same drama unfolded for the Challenger accident and 9/11, too.

Today, we are likely to find out breaking news before it is officially reported across a diverse group of media, from Twitter and Instagram to email and radio. Further, while captivated, our minds will be distracted by something shortly thereafter on our phone or other personal device.

A Personal Evolution

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I like to tell people if I marketed using digital media the way I did in 2006, I would be out of business. Truth. First, I would primarily blog and comment on other blogs.

If you haven’t noticed, today there are more marketing blogs than there are rats in the DC sewer system. Every podunk agency and consultant on earth has a blog these days. What was once a rare and unique read is now pedestrian and boring.

Commenting drove engagement in those old days. Today, blog comments are few and far between with most of the conversation distributed across social networks and private groups.

Digital marketing has evolved to become social networking, and then content marketing, and then marketing automation, and now increasingly user experience-driven marketing. Content has moved from personality opinion blogs to visual media with video, photos and graphics driving engagement. Necessary skillsets have moved from basic HTML coding, SEO skills and writing to data analytics, creative visualization, and niche targeting.

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With these many dramatic changes impacting communications, the type of changes that would occur over decades (note the plural) in the prior century — I evolved. I had to, or else my career would sputter out.

Some of these changes were for the better, others were for the worse. Some made my business sing (two business books come to mind) while others were a bust or just a “me, too” addition (for example, our Google Analytics effort last year).

I moved from top ten PR Blogger to a social good advocate to a content marketer. My skills moved from blogging to book and white paper writing, to hybridized photographer/written content creator.

It would be easy to tell you that this is it, that I am comfortable, but in truth I am not. Just seeing how the agency business has changed so dramatically in the past couple of years is causing me to take an attitude of constant learning and an openness to change in every way.

I am also focusing on specialization. I have enrolled in two trainings that will take a total of eight work days in the next four weeks, all to strengthen my personal communications skill sets. There are more that I will need to take on if I want to stay on the edge.

Welcome to the evolution revolution. The great challenge for us as communicators is maintaining a constant state of learning. Only then can we transform and successfully meet the times over and over again.

The Unadulterated Pleasure of Going Dark

The weekend is coming and I can’t wait. After returning from Africa on Monday, re-entry has been difficult, due in part to jet lag, but also because I really enjoyed my time off the grid. Going dark for days on end was really an unadulterated pleasure.

There was no Internet in Kenya and Tanzania for hours, and in a couple of cases for days on end.
More than anything, it was a relief. I missed my friends and some of their wonkiness, but I did not miss the grind of the social media industry. The need to be present and engaged disappeared. So did having to create content to fuel the beast (I ran reruns).

I got used to not checking in, not seeing what was going on, and not getting caught into little eddies of first world problems.

While I don’t think atypical portrayals of African suffering are accurate nor appropriate for the purposes of this post, I witnessed a base level of living there. Most people just want to work hard or find work so they can get a solar panel and little bit of electricity in their lives. That way they can enjoy the evening hours with their family.

When you see life in countries like Kenya and Tanzania, the online world loses relevancy. I know the online propels my day-to-day business, but I gained an understanding of what matters from a different perspective. It became easier to let go for that twelve day period.

When we returned to the Wildlife Works office periodically, I did my business (mostly posting pics from the trip for Audi) and shared a little bit of Africa. Then it was back into this amazing, different and untethered world.

I could breathe again.

The Luxury of Going Dark

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Going off the grid is becoming a common experience for the digital citizen. Many view going off the grid as a welcome experience, a refreshing get-away.

Escaping the wired world is rarely practical. Beyond the technical difficulties, after a while you become a loner.

Instead, it seems that going off the grid is a fantasy and a luxury. Perhaps a more realistic view of digital darkness is to consider it a means of rest and relaxation from the always on world of smart devices, smartphones and tablets.

There are more and morevacation opportunities for those seeking an unplugged break. Conde Nast calls these vacations digital detoxes.

I can definitely relate. Returning to the United States also brought a return to our always on world. And it is intense.

Escape is a luxury that one needs to pay for, like enjoying a great steak. At the same time, that very same escape is difficult for those that make their living off of digital media. It’s a difficult scenario. You come to understand the relevancy (or lack there of) online media, and yet you cannot leave it behind. Not for long.

xPotomac Returns on June 12

My DC friends will be happy to know that Patrick Ashamalla, Shonali Burke and I have been very busy over the past few months. We can finally announce xPotomac 15 this June 12.

Our keynote this year is author Mark W. Schaefer, who just released The Content Code, which highlights how the marketing world has gone mad.  In his new book, Mark challenges communicators to break through information density by thinking about audiences in a new way

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This year’s xPotomac returns to the Georgetown University Campus, but will be held at the Healey Family Student Center, which includes an in-building parking garage. Special thanks to our event host and sponsor the Communications Culture and Technology programShana Glickfield, cofounder of the Beekeeper Group, will again emcee xPotomac.

The remaining three sessions and their speakers have been selected:

It’s a data driven world, but you still need creative free thinking to succeed. Senior Vice President for Social@Ogilvy Kathy Baird will discuss some lessons she learned at the Burning Man festival as they apply to digital communications.

Next up, Gannett’s Director of Social Media and Engagement Jodi Gersh and Assistant Managing Editor, Video for the Washington Business Journal Jen Nycz-Conner will discuss how digital media continues to impact the way news is developed and shared.

The first millennials are now 35 years old and taking over executive leadership positions. How does the new digital-savvy leadership impact workplace culture. DC-based authors Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant will discuss the concepts discussed in their new book, When Millennials Take Over.

After our lunch break, crisis communications expert and Commcore Consulting Founder Andy Gilman will join xPotomac cofounders Shonali Burke and Geoff Livingston for a digital crisis communications bootcamp.  Help resolve a digital crisis live! For those that don’t know Andy, he has counseled clients for 60 Minutes appearances, Congressional hearings, and most notably provided counsel to Johnson & Johnson during the Tylenol 1 crisis and the Government of Canada for the SARS Outbreak.

Register today for xPotomac 15 today! A version of this post also ran on the xPotomac site.